Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?

By Robert Kuttner

     Narrated by: Mike Chamberlain

Robert Kuttner (Author, journalist, professor of social policy at Brandeis University)

Robert Kuttner personalizes the history of capitalism as an historian and journalist, not an economist. This book is a tedious fact-filled tour of capitalist experimentation. Kuttner illustrates how government economic policy is like a roulette game. Government leaders spin the wheel. The ball drops on a numbered slot that is either black or red. A player chooses Kuttner’s fundamental point and the answer to the question “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” seems a matter of luck.

Choice for survival of global capitalism seems dependent on reducing the gap between billionaire/millionaire capitalists and the wage-earning public. However, what Kuttner’s rambling history shows is that there is no definitive answer. There are some clues but the balance between democratic freedom and equality of opportunity teeter on the metallic edge of a black and red slot of a roulette wheel. He asks the question whether America is going to become more like China or China more like America?

Kuttner offers some examples of economic policy in Scandinavian countries, Africa, the Baltics, Great Britain, France, Germany, Greece, China, and the European Union. Kuttner implies, if there is a common denominator for survival of global capitalism, it is government policy that benefits wage earners.

A rising tide (economic prosperity) must benefit more than a simple minority or small majority of citizens within a country.

Kuttner’s history shows achievements in democratic capitalism have been hit and miss with luck as much a factor of success as policy. Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes theories offer hints about what can be done to grow and sustain capitalist economic stability. What gets in the way of their theories is interpretation, policy, action, and results.

Kuttner offers many good and bad examples democratic capitalism’ interpretation. Denmark denies Ryan Air’s employment model in their country because it is unfair to employees of the Airline. Public benefit services like mail in the United States assure delivery of the mail in a timely manner, regardless of profitability.

Unions are formed in various countries to give wage earners a seat at the table in determining fair compensation and benefits in privately held companies.

On the other hand, privatizing prison management only reduces cost to the public by reducing pay and training of prison guards. The prisons are not better managed, but costs are less because quality of service and overhead is reduced while prisoners are poorly managed. Immigrant labor is farmed out by private companies to reduce corporate costs but at the expense of laborers that work for less than a livable wage. Private companies higher “independent contractors” like Uber drivers for which the company does not pay medical premiums or employment taxes. Corporate raiders buy faltering high cash-flow companies with borrowed money. These corporate raiders reduce wages of employees, drives formally marginally profitable companies into bankruptcy, and walk away with millions paid by loans used to buy the company in the first place.

Kuttner caps these negative global capital maneuvers by revealing how American corporate owners and leaders move manufacturing to foreign competitors because of cheaper labor. That movement benefits corporations at the expense of American manufacturing.

Kuttner explains corporate outsourcing unfairly diminishes American workers and decimates American manufacturing. He notes Germany chose to improve the quality of their manufactured products to remain viable manufacturing global competitors even though their workers are paid more than comparable American workers.

This is a frustrating book to use as evidence for the survival of global capitalism because there are many examples of government policies meant to do good that fail.

This history reinforces the analogy of the roulette wheel. Either red or black may be the best result one can expect but the consequence seems as much luck as foresight.

Hope lies in reducing the gap between haves and have-nots by insuring equality of opportunity through public education and job opportunities. This is not to suggest homelessness and poverty will disappear in democratic capitalist societies, but it becomes a manageable societal responsibility.

Having lived in different areas of the United States shows homelessness and poverty are presently out of control.

Today, in the United States, homelessness and poverty are not being well managed because public education and job opportunities are not being adequately addressed. As one of the richest countries in the world, American democratic capitalism can do better than just survive.

Education and employment are key to turning these crises into something that can be managed.

One cannot dismiss Kuttner’s observations as liberal ranting. Wage earner respect and treatment, whether in manufacturing, technology, or service industries, are the key to survival of world capitalist democracies. America can choose to become more like China and support authoritarian miscreants like Donald Trump or elect leaders that experiment with political ideas that have made America great.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Anatomy of Terror (From the death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State.)

By Ali Soufan

           Narrated by: Aaron Abano

Ali Soufan (Author, former American FBI agent, Lebanese heritage from a Sunni Muslim family.)

This is Soufan’s characterization of the western world’s effort to quell the beast of middle eastern terrorism.

Ali Soufan paints a dark picture of America’s middle east relationship in “Anatomy of Terror. He envisions a hydra, the mythical monster that grows two heads when one is cut off.

The terrorist event that sets the tone for Abano’s history is, of course, America’s 9/11/01 disaster.

Osama bin Laden’s plan for the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York is hatched by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (aka KSM).

Abano offers a brief history of KSM’s addition to al Qaida. In KSM’s early introduction to bin Laden, the dramatic idea of using an airplane hijacking to create a terrorist event is skeptically dismissed. As KSM’s reputation in al Qaida grows, the idea gains support of bin Laden. The impact of a singular terrorist event changes the world.

Abano tirelessly assembles so many facts about this Hydra’s growth that one becomes numbed by terrorist events and names. Only a CIA or FBI agent is likely to be interested in Abano’s research. However, a listener who perseveres realizes Abano is not just a problem bringer but one who has an idea of how terrorism can be defeated.

The complexity of the middle east’s terrorist origins, persistence, and ubiquity seem as incurable as world poverty and hunger.

Abano’s solution, as is true for any complex problem, begins with understanding. As difficult as it is, one must try to understand another’s reasons for carrying out a terrorist act. With understanding, one can constructively rather than destructively respond to a terrorist act. Murder for murder simply leads to further senseless murder.

Only with understanding can the causes for terrorism be either exposed as hypocrisy or dealt with as a reason, though not justification, for a murderous act.

The causes of terrorism must be exposed. Stories need to be told and re-told in ways that explain causes. These stories must come from nation-state leaders who have influence in their countries and reputations in other countries. Abano suggests these nation-state messengers can cultivate community leaders to spread the word, whether of God or mammon, to address the true and false reasons for terrorist acts.

Exposure of true and false causes offer hope for a solution that eliminates or, at least, ameliorates conflicting terrorist ideas, beliefs, and acts.

Abano argues money should be invested in schools and teachers who educate children in their own countries.

Through education in reading, writing, and arithmetic, children will grow to understand reason, truth, and falsity.

The expense of incarceration should be supplemented by rehabilitation with the objective of re-introducing the captured to society.  

To Abano, captured terrorists should not be demeaned, tortured, or executed.

A listener may feel Abano is being altruistic. In truth, he is altruistic but the path presently being followed is not working.

As the saying goes—an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

By putting oneself in the terrorist’s shoes, Abano implies one is taking a first step in attacking the fundamental causes of terrorism. Without understanding there is no solution.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


A Great Place to Have a War (America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA

By: Joshua Kurlantzick

           Narrated by: Tim Campbell

Joshua Kurlantzick (Author, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations)

“A Great Place to Have a War” reflects a turning point in the operations of the CIA in the 1950s. Joshua Kurlantzick’s story implies the CIA’ role became something more than originally intended.

The CIA is founded in 1947. Its primary duty was to collect, evaluate, and disseminate intelligence affecting national security.

Richard Helms (Former Director of the CIA from 1966-1973.)

The former director of the CIA, Richard Helms is quoted as saying Laos“… was a major operation for the Agency….It took manpower; it took specially qualified manpower; it was dangerous; it was difficult.” He contends the CIA did “a superb job”. Helms is referring to the CIA’s covert activity in Laos during the early days of the Vietnam war. Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, “A Great Place to Have a War” suggests Helm’s view of “a superb job” is a self-serving lie that is far from the truth.

The center of this story is about the Hmong people who live in Laos. One of the great leaders of the Hmong in the 1950s is Vang Pao.

He served as a military leader in Laos from 1940 to 1975. He became a Major general and is shown to be a great leader of the Hmong resistance to a communist takeover of Laos. The CIA aids Vang Pao in the creation of a “secret army” to resist North Vietnam’s incursion in Laos.

James William Lair (CIA Officer serving in Laos.)

William Lair aka Bill Lair, a paramilitary officer of the CIA is an Ambassador to Thailand and is moved to Laos to provide CIA support for Vang Pao’s effort to expel communist invaders from Laos.

Lair (to the right of the helmeted soldier) is a tool of the CIA to create a secret army of Hmong fighters to resist communist takeover of the country.

With the help of CIA covert paramilitary operatives like the infamous Tony Poe (aka Anthony Poshepny), the Hmong army is trained in military tactics.

Poe is infamous in that he instituted collection of Vietnamese ears to confirm kills of enemy combatants. He allegedly sent a bag of ears to his superior officers in the CIA. Poe is respected and feared by many Hmong soldiers for his training and brutal killings. Poe’s “take no prisoners” mentality is adopted by Hmong fighters.

The author offers a detailed history of CIA operatives that manage operational support of the Hmong in Laos.

The fundamental point made by Kurlantzick is that (after Laos) the CIA is no longer just a collector of intelligence but an active participant in American covert military actions in foreign countries.

What makes this story discomfiting is the belief that America’s creation of secret armies to change the course of events in foreign countries is an honorable act.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969 Communist leader of North Vietnam.)

The Hmong bravely served their country’s independence, but they fail to stop Ho Chi Minh’s army. Laos fell to the communists.

Adding to that failure, America turned its back on many Hmong defenders that were murdered by the communists after the defeat. As history shows, America repeats that ignominious evacuation of nationalist combatants in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Only Vang Pao, his immediate family and a few of his closest soldiers were evacuated.

Helms expressed pride about what the CIA accomplished in Laos. The author suggests Helms felt the CIA learned how to create a secret army in foreign territories that could accomplish American objectives. If that is true, one wonders how the murder of indigenous countrymen and failure to accomplish American objectives is something to be proud of.

In the last chapters of “A Great Place to Have a War”, the author recounts the lives of major players in the Laotian secret war. Vang Pao tells his fellow expatriates that he will return to Laos and take control of the government. Vang Pao offers positions in an imaginary Laotian government in return for money from Hmong that have settled in America.

Vang Pao was clearly a patriot in his years as a leader in Laos but in his American life, he becomes a con man that betrays his fellow countrymen. He acts like a gangster, a “Godfather”, by extorting contributions from Laotians that settled in America.

Vang Pao never intended to overthrow the Laotian government from his exile. He neither had the support or money needed to foment a new revolution. His objective seems simply to be able to maintain his lifestyle in the United States.

Bill Lair quits the CIA and becomes a cross country truck driver to make a living. He never advances in the CIA because he is not accepted by the changing leaders of the “Company”.

Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe)

The infamous Tony Poe receives a second star from the CIA. His skill as a trainer of secret army soldiers of other countries is considered a useful tool to the CIA (despite his craziness) according to the author.  Tony Poe retires and receives a pension from the CIA and dies in obscurity.

This is a disheartening story. Its credibility is supported by information from investigative reporters and illegally acquired information from informants like Edward Snowden. Kurlantzick notes Snowden found the secret CIA budget ballooned to be more than the State Department’s budget.

A CIA officer disputes this book in a formal rebuttal. The rebuttal is revealed in a December 2014 Senate hearing. One can look it up, but the rebuttal is less convincing than the book.

The lesson one may draw from this story is that America’s State Department needs to be recognized as more important than the CIA in improving international relations. The State Department needs to have Ambassadors that know the language of the countries they are assigned. Ambassadors should have an intimate understanding of their assigned country’s cultures.

The CIA is not a path for peace. Its role should be restricted to collection of data. The CIA should not interfere with other nation’s policies and politics. Its role should be to inform the American government of foreign government information not available from public media or normal diplomatic channels.

This is not to say the CIA is not an important organization. It should be adequately funded to gather intelligence information. Its role should not be to create secret armies, murder foreign nationals, or foment rebellion. Actions taken by the American government should only be taken with review by elected officials, particularly for any clandestine actions against foreign nationals or governments.

It should be clear that any foreign actions taken are the fault of elected officials, not secret organizations. All Americans are responsible for what their elected officials decide. Transparency of government policy and action is required in any country that professes belief in freedom.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Big Science (Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex)

By: Michael Hiltzik

Narrated by: Bob Saouer

Michael A. Hiltzik (Author, American Journalist.)

Interesting details are revealed about the discovery of fission and the advent of the nuclear age in Michael Hiltzik’s history of “Big Science”. Hiltzik shows “Big Science” is expensive and involves large teams of scientists led by people like Ernest Lawrence.

Ernest Lawrence (Scientist,1901-1958) Lawrence died at 57 years of age.

Lawrence was born and raised in Canton, South Dakota, a rural community of less than 3,000 residents.  Lawrence pioneered American nuclear science and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 for invention of the cyclotron.

Lawrence’s invention led to the creation of the atom bomb, and later the Large Hadron Collider.


Lawrence’s indefatigable energy, persuasiveness, personability, and equanimity gave him the ability to raise huge sums of money to assemble the largest group of physicists, engineers, and experimentalists of the twentieth century.

Lawrence touched the lives of M. Stanley Livingston, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, James Conant, Niels Bohr, Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Vannevar Bush, and many others.

Hiltzik notes Lawrence is much more than an experimental physicist. Picture shows early version of Lawrence’s early cyclotron.

Ernest’s ability to organize a team of scientists and engineers to create the first cyclotron coalesced with Lawrence’s personality.  The cyclotron paves the way to a more precise understanding of the atom. His ability to tap into the resources and ambitions of young scientists and engineers, to convince government agencies, and private donors to contribute money for experiment creates a framework for “Big Science”.

Lawrence’s early cyclotron experiments pave the way for splitting the atom which ultimately leads to atomic blasts at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Ernest’s younger brother, John Lawrence, became a physician. 

Ernest Lawrence worked on radioactivity with his brother as a treatment for cancer.

Impetus for the unimaginable expansion of “Big Science” is magnified by WWII.  Because of the atom bomb’s horrific consequence, the fame of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the infamous Edward Teller, become known to the world. Hiltzik explains the key role that Lawrence plays in getting Oppenheimer appointed as the science manager for the Manhattan Project (the project name for America’s rush to create the atom bomb).  Edward Teller is an early member of the team but is found to be a disruptive team player.  Teller is an outlying and brilliant theoretician with an acerbic personality, who breaks as often as he makes friendships with fellow physicists, including Ernest Lawrence.

Leslie Groves (1896-1970, General in charge of the Manhattan Project.)

The creation of the Manhattan Project required the appointment of a military supervisor.

An interesting note by Hiltzik is the relationship between General Leslie Groves and Lawrence. Lawrence, soon after meeting Groves, realizes who is in charge. Any roadblocks for funding or personnel disappear with the appointment of Groves. The two great managers complement each other and grow to respect each other’s roles in the Manhattan Project.

Hiltzik takes listeners into the aftermath of “Big Science” after the war.  Once Russia demonstrates their arrival in the nuclear bomb era, the danger of nuclear war and atomic bomb testing comes to the forefront of research. 

During the Eisenhower government years, a main concern is with the military/industrial complex and competition for nuclear superiority in the face of potential world cataclysm. 

Hiltzik addresses the dismantling of J. Oppenheimer’s reputation by Eisenhower’s appointment of Lewis Strauss as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Strauss creates a government investigation of Oppenheimer and his early political life.  Strauss comes off as an unfair judge of Oppenheimer’s contribution to America in Hiltzik’s telling of the investigation.  One is reminded this is in the beginning years of McCarthyism.

Oppenheimer briefly joined the communist party but left it early in his career. Despite Oppenheimer’s great contribution to the creation of the atom bomb, Strauss manages to tarnish the brilliant scientist’s reputation.  Ernest Lawrence did not come to Oppenheimer’s defense.  The two scientists had different political beliefs.  Hiltzik implies Lawrence’s mid-western upbringing conflicted with Oppenheimer’s cosmopolitan life.  Both scientists respected their roles as scientists but differed in their politics.  

Lewis Strauss (Former U.S. Secy. of Commerce & Chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission)

Hiltzik’s driving theme is the importance of “Big Science” and America’s waning support after WWII. Hiltzik’s primary example is America’s failure to lead in creating a super cyclotron like that which was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).  America participated in the cost but chose not to be the lead in its creation. 

Though many American physicists work at CERN, research at the Large Hadron is managed by 23 member states with each state having a vote.  Members make capital contributions and pay operating expenses while making all operational decisions.  America has no vote.  Japan, Russia, and America are observers (Russia was suspended on March 8, 2022).

Since WWII, one might argue America has played catch-up in “Big Science”.  Sputnik was a wake-up call that led to America’s moon mission which arguably is the last American push for “Big Science.

After listening to Hiltzik’s book, one may ask oneself–where is the Ernest Lawrence of the 21st century that is leading a team of young scientists in “Big Science”?  Ideas are out there but America’s investment seems destined to be limited by capitalist incentives, not “Big Science” experimentation.


           Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Empires of the Weak (The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the World)

By: J. C. Sharman

Narrated by: John Lee

Jason Sharman (Author, Professor of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge, PhD from University of Illinois.)

Professor J. C. Sharman offers an interesting interpretation of history.  He argues one country’s domination of another in “Empires of the Weak” is widely misrepresented by historians.

Sharman argues domination of other nation-states is incorrectly believed to be the result of technical and military superiority.  Sharman suggests force of arms and technology were only a part of their success.  Their failures often came from not understanding the cultures of the countries they tried to colonize. 

Sharman notes many historians argue early European nations had better weapons and superior military training than countries which they invaded and colonized.  

Sharman argues socio-cultural and economic interests were more determinate factors than either technical or military superiority.  He notes Aztec domination by Spain as an example.  He explains a minor military force manages to erase Aztec governance by co-opting indigenous discontented natives and rewarding those who would fight to destroy current leadership and support their colonizers and ultimate benefactors.

The resonating truth of Sharman’s observation in modern times is shown by America’s experience in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

Battles can be won but wars lost. Most battles were won with American technology and force of arms but, with the qualified exception of a negotiated compromise at the 38th parallel in Korea, America’s singular wars were lost.  France’s Indochina and Russia’s Afghanistan prove the same.

Vladmir Putin is on the verge of affirming Sharman’s argument.  Putin invades Ukraine with an experienced and well-equipped army, with superior weapons of mass destruction.  However, Russia is losing the war. 

Socio-cultural difference make domination by one country of another difficult, if not impossible.  Putin presumes Ukraine has a Russian culture when in fact it shows itself to be its own cultural nation.  Putin will fail because he ignores cultural difference and fails to co-opt discontented indigenous leaders.

One might wonder how Stalin managed to create the U.S.S.R. from disparate cultures and countries.  One suspects it is not entirely because of Stalinist repression.  Stalin eliminated leaders within Russia’s satellite countries while co-opting existing discontented natives. 

New indigenous leaders of these countries understood their citizens but were beholding to Stalin for having supported their ascension.  Putin may have been able to do the same with more patience and understanding of Ukrainian culture.  His misstep will have future consequence, both for himself, Russia, and the world.

The idea of their always being a clear cause for every effect is false. 

Precise “cause and effect” is proven untrue in quantum physics and seems equally untrue in world leadership.  Leadership success is always a matter of probability, but it must be probability based on cultural understanding.

Sharman’s limited analysis holds great promise for historians and leaders of the world.  Historians can offer more focus on socio-economic conditions of respective countries when determining causes of regime change. Leaders of acquisitive countries might think twice about military intervention or invasion. Leaders may become more selective in choosing ambassadors for other countries.

The threat of the future is that cultural understanding might be achieved in Orwell’s “1984” which implies China is an odds-on favorite as a world hegemon. 

This is a warning to Hong Kong and a threat to Taiwan.  Cultural understanding is a key to world peace.

A point made in this week’s “Economist” is that rising economic Hedgemons like China suggest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is nothing new because there are no universal rights. President Xi recounts the atrocities of the world that shows man’s inhumanity to man is based on perceived national self-interests, not universal rights.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


The Invention of Russia

By: Arkady Ostrovsky

Narrated by: Michael Page

Arkady Ostrovsky (Author, Russian-born, British journalist spent 15 years reporting for the Financial Times from Moscow.

Arkady Ostrovsky’s book offers a personal perspective on post-1917 Russian political history.  Of particular interest today is in how Vladimir Putin came to power and how he may become an author of his own destruction.

Some listeners may conclude Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will doom his future as Russia’s leader. Others will conclude Putin will survive this political mistake because of Russia’s political history. 

Putin’s ascension after Gorbachev/Yeltsin seems foretold by Russian history.  As noted in Mark Steinberg’s lectures on Russian governance–since the 16th century, popular leaders (whether Czars or revolutionaries) prudently balanced authority and freedom. 

Though Gorbachev and Yeltsin were quite different as Russian leaders, they led Russia with an emphasis on freedom. Both offered freedom without adequate economic support for Russian Citizens.  In contrast, Ostrovsky argues Putin emphasizes authority with a measure of economic support that improves Russian lives.

Yeltsin fails because his reforms were largely political with little improvement in economic security for most citizens. Yeltsin’s support base came from oligarch’s economic gain rather than from policies designed to improve Russian citizens’ lives.  The early years of Putin’s reign emphasize authority with the help of media to influence public perception.

Putin uses secret service personnel and media to detain and restrain public opposition to the government. 

Ostrovsky notes the Chechen uprising is brutally suppressed by Putin. Chechens opt for a level of peaceful coexistence as a part of greater Russia.

Russian government control of media coverage emphasizes Chechen brutality while lauding Russian soldiers’ success in abating Chechen independence.  Ostrovsky suggests the reality of Chechen brutality is real but Russian soldier’s success in abating brutality is exaggerated by government-controlled media. Ostrovsky reports many Russian’ innocents are murdered in the process of rescuing children and teachers from a school attacked by Chechen rebels.

In 2004–Besian school massacre in Russia.

Ostrovsky explains the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, personally endorses Putin as his successor.  Yeltsin is nearing the end of his life after a fifth heart attack.  He views Putin as the best hope of Russia to return to national prominence because of Putin’s relative youth and experience as a former KGB officer.  Putin has political experience as an aid to the former Mayor of Moscow.

However, Ostrovsky notes Yeltsin discounts the paranoia of Putin and how his experience as a KGB officer makes him suspicious of any activity over which he has no control. Ostrovsky suggests KGB training gives Putin the ability to hide behind a persona adopted to sooth the concerns of whomever he meets. That ability disguises Putin’s personal thoughts when dealing with controversial issues.

(The KGB is dismantled in 1991 but its apparatchiks remain in Putin’s government.)

The media during the Gorbachev/Yeltsin years grows as an independent oligarchic organization.  The two edges of power in media are telling convincing truths as easily as lies.  Yeltsin owes his electoral success to media according to Ostrovsky.  Yeltsin, before his last election as President, has a single digit approval rating from the Russian public.  With the help of a media oligarch and Yeltsin’s populist skill, he wins the election. On election day, Ostrovsky notes Yeltsin is nearly dead from a fifth heart attack.

Ostrovsky explains the growth of oligarchs begins with Gorbachev and gains momentum with Yeltsin.  The communist party leaders are losing their hold on governance, but they are well positioned to understand how things get done and can be controlled with acquired individual wealth.  Some of these former communist party leaders use their position to start personal companies with the financing of government money over which they have control.  They become behind-the-scenes movers and shakers for the Russian economy.  Their personal wealth grows, and the general economy begins to improve.

In the short term, these new barons of wealth improve the lives of many Russian citizens.  However, this unrestrained capitalist revolution begins to rot at its core.  Political power follows money.  Money supports political leaders that kowtow to oligarchic demand. An oligarch’s demand may or may not benefit the general public. 

When political leaders act in ways that support oligarchic demand, they improve their prospect for re-election.  In some cases, dynamic political leaders gain some independence based on their popular appeal.  Putin seems to have achieved some level of that power. With the help of popular appeal, public support can become a source of power to challenge oligarchic demand.  It seems Putin may have achieved both power bases, but invasion of Ukraine may change that support.

Robert Kagan finely reveals the fundamental mistake made by Putin in a May-June 2022 “Foreign Affairs” article. History reveals the mistakes of great nations like France, Great Britain, Germany and Japan in thinking they could become world hegemons by force.

Robert Kagan (A neoconservative Republican scholar and member of the Council on Foreign Relations of the Brookings Institute.)

Kagan notes America became a world force by virtue of economic growth which led to a choice by other nations to recognize American hegemony. Rather than capitalizing on the natural resources of Russia, Putin chooses to waste his country’s wealth on a war Russia will lose. It is a lesson one hopes China realizes in its pursuit of its sphere of influence. Sphere of influence is determined by economic growth, not military power.

Ostrovsky argues media is reality in Russia. World media is not the same as the Russian media that is tightly controlled by government leadership.  Further Ukraine invasion is not a Chechnian rebellion.  Chechnya is a small area within Russia–with an estimated 1.2 million people. Ukraine is an independent country of 44.3 million. 

Russian media might be controlled within Russia, but the world’s news will seep into Russian citizen’s knowledge, either by the internet or other means. 

Russia may be an invention as Ostrovsky suggests but all nation-states in the course of history are inventions.  History changes with information.  Dissemination of information is increasingly uncontrollable. 

In time of war, Nagasaki and Hiroshima show what uncontrolled fission can do in the event of a nuclear bomb. Fukushima shows what uncontrolled fission can do in time of peace.

Invading Ukraine may lead to loss of Putin’s power and influence in Russia.  The tragic consequence of Putin’s decision is the unnecessary death of many Ukrainians and Russians. The decision to invade Ukraine may lead to Putin’s dismissal, imprisonment, or execution. It has certainly changed his reputation in the world.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


A History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev

By: The Great Courses

Lecturer: Mark Steinberg

Mark Steinberg (History professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

It is timely to review Steinberg’s lecture series on the history of Russia because it offers perspective on Russian leadership.  Professor Steinberg reveals a dichotomy in Russian leadership that reaches back to the Czars. 

When Czarist Russia is replaced by Leninist communism, Russian citizens continue to demand centralized authority but with greater personal freedom, both of which are inherently in conflict.  There is no government in history that has achieved a perfect balance between authority and freedom.

Either centralized authority or freedom are compromised by human nature.

America’s answer is “checks and balances”.  Russia’s answer, with few exceptions, is to strengthen centralized authority at the expense of individual freedom. 

The natural human desire for money, power, and prestige demand balancing centralized authority with freedom. 

The most recent exception for more freedom within centralized authority is Gorbachev.  Gorbachev tries to keep the U.S.S.R. together by authoritatively demanding meritocratic government that focuses on improvement in Russian citizen’s freedom.  In contrast, Putin looks to define freedom only for those who get things done in accordance with government dictate.  The “things done” are meant to improve the economy and power of the nation.  Steinberg suggests Putin reduced corruption in his redefinition of freedom, but the rise of oligarchs diminishes his success. Neither leader finds the right balance between authority and freedom.

Steinberg recounts the leadership of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great that appear more like precursors to Gorbachev’s style of government.  All three demand a powerful centralized authority but they temper that demand with their desire to make Russian citizens’ lives better.  Though Putin is not addressed by Steinberg, as a leader, Putin seems more like Ivan the Terrible and Nicholas the First who looked at what was best for government leadership rather than what benefits the general population.

Steinberg exudes love for Russia in his profile of its past. He reinforces one’s belief that an intimate understanding of another countries culture is necessary for there to be any hope for success in diplomacy.

Putin is at a crossroad in Ukraine.  Professor Steinberg implies that a crossroad is not for one direction or another but a middle way that serves the best interests of all Russian citizens, not just those in leadership positions.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Notes on a Foreign Country (An American Abroad in a Post-American World)

By: Suzy Hansen

Narrated by Kirsten Potter

Suzy Hansen (Author, journalist.)

In her thirties, Suzy Hansen chooses to relocate to Turkey, in part because of a writing assignment but also as a life changing experience. 

Hansen’s view of the world is disappointing in that it represents a population cohort positioned to inherit America’s future.  Hansen reports facts with a journalist’s interpretation of other’s perception of American foreign policy without history’s context.  

To an older generation, Hansen’s facts denigrate the realpolitik of life in the presence of its time. 

In many respects, Hansen’s view of America’s moral failure is spot on, but no country is without sin.  Without intending to deny the ugly consequence of President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, or America’s intent to widen its sphere of influence, Hansen ignores some important facts.

America’s experience in WWII left little doubt to most Americans that the Japanese would fight to the end, even in defeat.  Over 41,000 Americans were killed and 145,000 injured in Pacific conflicts.  Japanese culture demanded fealty to an emperor to the point of suicide in the face of defeat.

As horrendous as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, it ended war with Japan in less than a week.  How many more would have died in a continuing battle? This does not diminish the horror of nuclear war, but its reality defied 20th century’s imagination.

After the war, Japan, Greece, and Turkey, let alone Europe, were in dire straits.  The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plans were created to rebuild much of what was destroyed in the war.  There is no question American capitalism profited by its investment in these countries.  However, no other country had the untapped wealth that capitalism created in America. What nation could take on reconstruction without American capitalist success?

America did take advantage of its wealth by imposing democratic ideals on foreign countries.  However, mistakes Hansen notes in her book are more a function of cultural ignorance and capitalist fervor than evil intent. 

Hansen fails to mention the power grab by Stalinist Russia as a major factor in creating an American counter force to Stalinist acquisitiveness. The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan created a shield against Stalinism.

Kennan’s Russian containment policy set the table for the eventual dismantling of the U.S.S.R.

America continues to make mistakes in other countries for many of the same capitalist reasons they did after the war.  America supports some of the most immoral autocrats of the world because they control their countries.  American support of despots is based on America’s perceived self-interest.  As with any foreign country’s foreign policy decisions, self-interest can be a mistake recognized only in history.  One must acknowledge “self-interest” pervades all human beings, let alone independent nations.

Only with more investment in understanding other cultures, in the way that George Kennan understood the U.S.S.R., can good foreign policies be formulated.

The reality is–many mistakes are based on cultural ignorance.

Hansen presumes America is in decline.  America is not in decline, but other countries are advancing, and America is becoming an equal, not a hegemon.  The lesson America must re-learn is the importance of sovereignty and culture difference.  There should be no more Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan invasions. This is not to argue isolationism which seems implied by Hansen’s stories.  America must use its financial strength to influence other nations to become better stewards of their citizens, whether through democratic ideals or their chosen form of governance.

America must stand on the side of sovereignty for all countries that choose their own identity.  When sovereignty is challenged, the world (not any singular nation) is challenged to respond.  America must lead by example, not by force, except in concert with all sovereign nations.  

Hansen ignores many facts to make her case for America’s failures.  It is difficult to listen to “Notes on a Foreign Country” because it only reports on mistakes, not America’s example as a free Republic.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Club (Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age)

By: Leo Damrosch

Narrated by Simon Vance

Leo Damrosch (American author and professor of Literature at Harvard)

“The Club” is more of a biography of James Boswell than “…the Friends Who Shaped an Age”. 

James Boswell (1740-1795, died at 54, Lawyer, diarist, biographer.).

Though many pages reflect on Samuel Johnson (best known for the “Dictionary of The English Language”), the primary source of information on Johnson, as well as “…the Friends…”, appears to come from Boswell’s diary and notes. 

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784, died at age 75, Author, poet, playwright, moralist, editor, and lexicographer.)

An irony of Damrosch’s story is that Boswell neither has the intellectual depth nor historical significance of Johnson or many of the “…Friends who shaped an Age”.  What Leo Damrosch explains is Boswell is a great mime for the opinions and voices of Johnson and Friends.  Damrosch suggests Boswell is the first biographer to capture natural dialog with detailed features of friends and acquaintances. 

In some ways, Boswell is like a court jester, eliciting laughter and opinion in a court of higher-ranking superiors.

Damrosch is not denigrating Boswell’s contribution to historical information but shows Boswell as a bon vivant, rather than an intellectual.  “The Club” is an association of writers, artists, and thinkers formed in a London tavern in the 1760s. Damrosch notes that the club is formed by Joshua Reynolds, a noted portrait artist.  In addition to Reynolds, the original members are Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, John Hawkins, Topham Beauclerk, Anthony Chamier, Bennet Langton, and Christopher Nugent.  To become a member of the club, one is elected by existing members.

Sir Joshua Reynold’s Club

Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith become members in the 1770s.  From an American perspective, the names of Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and Smith are the best known.  Many will recognize Reynolds for portrait paintings of famous people of that time.  Reynold’s portraits are in galleries today.  Damrosch notes the portraits represent the best of what a person looks like with creative enhancements of the subject’s best features.  Burke is famous for vilification of the French Revolution and his conservative views of government.  Gibbon is famous for his “…History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and Johnson for his dictionary.

Contrary to what Damrosch notes, it does not appear David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and producer, was in that club but had his own tavern club called the Garrick Club.  Garrick had been a pupil of Samuel Johnson.  Damrosch may have identified Garrick as a member of “The Club” because of his association with Johnson.

David Garrick (1717-1779, died age 62, English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer.)

Boswell is characterized by Damrosch as an excellent conversationalist because of an ability to listen and ask questions that have interest for those whom he questions.  However, at times, Damrosch notes Johnson becomes irritated with Boswell’s questions because of their vacuous value.  The example given is Boswell’s question to Johnson about why Apples are round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips.

Boswell’s question to Johnson-why are Apples round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips?

Damrosch shows Boswell comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family.  He is the eldest son, in line to receive the wealth of his family when his father dies.  Boswell moves to London to become an attorney but fails to learn his profession well enough to be financially or reputationally successful.  He meets Johnson whom he admires, and through association, Boswell manages to meet the movers and shakers of his day.  Boswell becomes a diarist that records his life and the lives of people he meets.  His writing makes him famous, largely because of his association with Samuel Johnson and his remarkable ability to reproduce the natural conversation of “…Friends Who Shaped an Age”.

Boswell, from Damrosch’s description, is a hedonist.  He lives for pleasure from conversation with luminaries, drinking to excess, and dalliance with women of the street and lovers whom he seduces. 

Boswell is characterized as a pursuer of women who have an interest in sexual encounters for pay or pleasure.  Boswell’s lifestyle leads to periodic treatment for crabs and other sexually transmitted diseases. 

Damrosch notes that Boswell marries but continues his profligate behavior.  Boswell professes love and remorse to his wife, who knows of his dalliances.  She bares his behavior and accepts his remorse. His wife dies of consumption with seeming disregard by Boswell’s self-absorption. 

Margaret Boswell (1738-1789. died at age 51.)

Boswell inherits his father’s wealth but squanders it and fails as a barrister.  Nearing the end of his life, he produces the best biography of Samuel Johnson ever written.  It becomes a best seller in his time and is still read by some today. Damrosch notes Boswell’s contribution to biography is in making his subjects human by including detailed descriptions of their appearance, and emotive qualities.

More detailed information about the lives of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith would have made “The Club” more interesting to this reviewer but any who have listened to other narratives by Simon Vance will be pleased by Damrosch’s story.  At the least, a struggling writer may be encouraged to keep a diary of life’s events to become a better author.


Audio-book Review
 By Chet Yarbrough


Gorbachev (His Life and Times)

By: William Taubman

Narrated by Henry Strozier

William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)

The length of William Taubman’s audiobook requires a Gorbachev II review.  The first review addresses Gorbachev’s personal life.  The second reflects on Gorbachev’s political life.  Gorbachev’s life is suffused with great accomplishment and tragic failure. 

Georgy Malenkov replaces Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953.  Malenkov is believed to be a reformist who plans to reduce military spending and Stalinist suppression.

However, within weeks, Malenkov is pushed aside by Nikita Khrushchev who takes supreme power within two years of Stalin’s death.  Surprisingly, Khrushchev becomes something of a reformist himself.

Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971, First Secy. of the Communist Party 1953-1964)


Stalin’s autocratic, paranoid leadership is semi-privately exposed by Khrushchev in a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.  Khruschev’s vilification of Stalinist suppression, imprisonment, and murder eventually become known to the world.

The overriding concern of Russian leaders is to maintain suzerainty over Baltic nations and satellite territories in the face of ethnic and economic diversity.  Taubman notes older Russian leaders tend toward autocratic dictate to maintain political control.  The younger and more politically astute lean toward confederation of adjacent soviet republics and East Berlin with the U.S.S.R. as an umbrella organization.  Gorbachev is in the “politically astute” group.

Mikhail Gorbachev rises to chairman of the Communist Party and eventual President of the U.S.S.R., with the expressed intent of democratizing the Baltics, Russia, and East Berlin into a democratic socialist block.  However, ethnic, and cultural differences, accompanied by general economic failure, defeat Gorbachev’s unionist objective.

There is no question of Gorbachev’s success in democratizing U.S.S.R.’ citizens. 

However, in that democratization, the drive for independence becomes paramount to the satellite countries.  German reunification, and the breakaway of Baltic nations from the U.S.S.R. is inevitable.  Freedom, based on ethnic and cultural identity, surmount all efforts by Gorbachev to reinstate U.S.S.R. suzerainty.  Only by force could the U.S.S.R. prevail over state and territorial independence.  Taubman notes force is not within Gorbachev’s nature as a leader.

Once socialist democracy is dangled before the electorate, the die is cast.  Gorbachev’s governance could not provide enough economic stability to justify confederation.  That is his tragic failure.

Gorbachev’s immense success is liberating millions of former U.S.S.R. citizens.  With liberation, former citizens of the U.S.S.R. return to govern as citizens of their own countries.  This at a time of Reagan’s conservative government in the United States, and European distrust of U.S.S.R. militarization.  Taubman shows Gorbachev becomes an international hero based on his personality and persuasive power.  He is greeted as the great liberator of the twentieth century even though his primary objective is to retain those countries seeking freedom within the U.S.S.R.

Gorbachev raised the bar for nuclear disarmament by cultivating American and European participation in the reduction of nuclear weapons. 

Taubman explains Gorbachev is a tragic hero because momentum-of-change is halted by a cult of personality, compounded by economic insecurity.  Gorbachev is replaced by acting President, Alexander Rutskoy, after the 1993 constitutional crises. Rutskoy is replaced by a second acting President, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Boris Yeltsin succeeds Chernomyrdin as President in an overlapping term.

The Russian economy falters in its transition from communism to democratic socialism.  Russian history of “rule-of-one” reasserts itself with the rise of an incompetent President (Boris Yeltsin) and an autocratic but effective leader, Vladimir Putin.  However, Putin’s autocratic effectiveness is in question with the invasion of Ukraine.

Taubman suggests and infers Gorbachev’s success, and world history in general, are two steps forward with one step backward. Based on historical precedent of “one-man-rule” (dating back to czarist Russia) Taubman’s inference seems spot-on. 

Gorbachev flipped a switch that released the power of democracy but failed to provide adequate economic infrastructure to assure U.S.S.R. survival.  Taubman optimistically infers economic infrastructure of eastern bloc countries will improve overtime, even with autocratic leadership by people like Vladimir Putin. 

The growth of democracy has always been messy, but it moves forward in the face of temporary setbacks.  Spheres of influence will always be in play.   It seems a matter of time for another Gorbachev to make two more steps forward with a repeat of the next leader’s “one-step-backward”.  It appears in 2022, Putin makes that “one-step-backward” with the invasion of Ukraine. Taubman reminds readers of America’s trial in the civil war. Slavery is abolished but institutional racism remains a work in progress. The risk is that the world destroys itself before freedom and economic security become real for all.