Finished Thomas Friedman’s "From Beirut to Jerusalem", "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair is up next

Regardless of all my TV watching, I still set aside half an hour every night for reading. I started From Beirut to Jerusalem back in March when traveling to Israel. I have all of Friedman’s books, but this one was different than those I had read before. While the things Friedman has to say are always very interesting, he starts to repeat himself after about one third of the book and make the same point over and over again. Consequently, I haven’t finished any of the other books, but always given up about halfway through.

Not so with From Beirut to Jerusalem. Literally from the first to the last page, I felt it gave a good deal of background information, for me to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into perspective. Seeing pictures from Hebron and other places where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side and still throw junk, paint or other nasty stuff at each other, has always made me wonder how people that are next-door neighbors can feel so much hatred for one another. Having read Friedman’s book, I still can’t fully comprehend their continued hatred for one another, but I now know a little better how this situation came about and how it got to this. It’s definitely worth reading, even though it was written back in the late 1980s and not all information may still be current. The underlying tribal instincts that drive both sides in this conflict seem to be unchanged though. Unfortunately.

On to the next book…

The next book on my reading list is The Jungle. I bought it a while back after reading a newspaper article about it being made required reading for the students of some high schools in the United States. These were schools in affluent neighborhoods where families have maids and other domestic employees. Students should read it and then discuss how it related to their own lives, in order to make them aware of the social inequalities that have persisted to this day. While I don’t have domestic employees (I prefer robots) and despite the fact that this book was sponsored by a socialist newspaper, I figured it could provide an interesting perspective.

So far, I am only on the seventh chapter, but already the book has made me think how the exploitation of workers back at the turn of the century relates to the current financial crisis. It may be a little far fetched, but I think the common theme in both cases is that of one group getting rich at the expense of another. In the book, it’s immigrants like Jurgis and his family who, optimistic and naive as they are, are forced to work under terrible conditions and are exploited left and right as the try to make a living. Today, it’s naive and trusting bank customers who some financial institutions (not all of them of course) exploit by selling them products that the originators knew were going to be worthless a few months later (see Goldman Sachs and the Paulson & Co hedge fund).

Of course, the methods are different, more humane one might say: instead of slave-labor-like working conditions that more often than not ended up killing people, this time people are merely cheated out of their money by being lied to about the risks of financial products (maybe to some extent, it’s partially their own fault, they could have been more careful). The end result, however, is the same: some small group is getting rich at the expense of another.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against complex financial products or capitalism in general. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to mankind. Also, I am a firm believer in personal responsibility. Still, I like Stephen Green’s take on the current crisis as presented in Good Value. in the interest of full disclosure: Stephen Green is the chairman of my corporate overlord and copies of his book have been distributed by management throughout the group; that’s how one ended up being my travel reading last fall.

I’m not a critic, so I’ll keep my comments brief, but I must say that the book is not what one would normally expect from a banking executive these days. I really like how Green provides an overview of not just the current crisis, but also several issues that have been there for a while but now seem more urgent than ever: global warming, poverty, ways developing countries (and developed ones, too) can evolve in a less carbon-intensive manner, and the personal consequences this has for every one of us.

The most important take-away for me, however, was his warning of what he calls compartmentalization: When one treats one’s personal and work lives as two very different things with different rules and moral standards applying to each. This way one ends up doing things in business one might never do in personal dealing, because “it’s just business”. I’ve always wondered how people who ruthlessly seek out their advantage in business apparently can just turn a switch and then be extremely nice and caring people in personal matters. I can only second Green’s argument that without this dangerous compartmentalization the world of business might be a more civil one. One were people have respect for their fellow man and exploitation as described above would not occur.

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