Sunday, April 27, 2008

Excerpt: The Path to Prosperity

Here's a 3-page excerpt from my book. The Economist this week had a special feature on Vietnam, and it reminded me of these pages in The Secret Peace. Take a look:

We frequently hear the discouraging news of the poverty that still exists for billions of people in the world today. But the reduction of the world’s extreme poverty is one of the most dramatic – and surprising – trends leading toward peace. There is a proven path out of poverty, and two examples illustrate it perfectly. Korea and Vietnam share the dubious distinction of being the sites of the United States’ worst wars since World War II. Though Korea and Vietnam are more than two thousand miles apart and have very different cultures, their recent histories are strikingly similar. After World War II, both countries remained occupied against their will. Then, around the same time, they each became embroiled in conflicts that were simultaneously civil wars and proxy battles between the United States and the Soviet Union. Korea and Vietnam each held communist forces in their northern halves supported intermittently by communist Russia or communist China. They each had southern forces supported by the United States and its allies, who were attempting to block the spread of communism. Both wars were waged as opposing sides vied for control of the country’s central parallel. Although both countries began their conflicts under very different circumstances, each ended a vast war—Korea in 1953 and Vietnam in 1975—with hundreds of thousands of casualties, an impoverished citizenry, and a devastated countryside.

Here their histories diverge. North Korea’s communist forces were unable to conquer the southern half of the country and were only able to maintain control of the northern half of the peninsula. North Korea became isolated, and for fifty years it carried out a countrywide experiment in pure communism and totalitarianism. Today North Korea faces economic collapse and widespread famine. Perhaps more than any other country, it is cut off from global civilization. Its people exist in a semifeudal society: hungry, destitute, and scared of being shipped off to labor camps for any dissent. Only top-level Communist Party bosses enjoy luxuries such as cars and foreign food. Every year many North Koreans risk death as they attempt to escape by crossing the heavily armed border. What little wealth their leader Kim Jong Il amasses gets diverted into outdated military forces and giant, solipsistic statues. If you look at the earth at night, North Korea remains dark next to the shining electric wealth of Japan, South Korea, China, and much of the rest of the globe. North Korea remains a pariah, and its desperate attempt to develop nuclear weapons reveals its weaknesses: it has no other power or influence in the world. It relies on energy from China and aid from South Korea. In terms of its economy, the health of its citizens, and its reputation in the world, North Korea is one of the most failed states in modern history.

In contrast to the situation in North Korea, North Vietnam’s communist forces seized control of the entire country. Vietnam united under communism, and the United States, having suffered a terrible loss, expected the worst. Vietnam seemed destined to follow in North Korea’s footsteps. True to form, Vietnam played the role of a strict communist state for a decade. But then something strange started happening. In the mid-1980s, facing potential famine, Vietnam had a change of heart. The government started enacting market reforms under a policy it called doi moi (renovation). It abandoned its attempt to collectivize its industry and agriculture, and it slowly began to allow free-market enterprise. It invited foreign firms into the country to open new factories and provide employment. Private ownership became acceptable. The changes didn’t translate into political freedom; they focused only on the economy. Nevertheless, the people of Vietnam saw their standard of living start to improve. Life expectancy went up, and infant mortality rates went down. The number of Vietnamese living in extreme poverty dropped from 50 percent in 1990 to a scant 10 percent in 2003. The United States restored trade relations with Vietnam in 1994, and in 2006 removed it from a blacklist of countries that suppressed religion. Today Vietnam is engaged with the world community, participating in international law and encouraging tourism, and with a relatively free press. To complete the metamorphosis, Vietnam’s leaders recently unveiled a plan to establish the country as a fully modern, industrial nation by 2020.

Totalitarian, isolationist North Korea is looking more every day like an anachronistic aberration. Meanwhile, different versions of Vietnam’s success story are playing out all over the world.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jeff Sachs speaks about Common Wealth

Jeff Sachs is a world-renowned economist, whose book The End of Poverty was a great source for the economics section of The Secret Peace. He was at Barnes & Noble the other day speaking about his new book, Common Wealth.

His theme is sustainable development, and meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals to alleviate extreme poverty in the world. I think he's a genius. And a great speaker.

The clip here is about the Iraq War. Ironically, this is one issue I'm not sure if I agree with him on, but it was the only video clip I was able to get before my camera ran out of space. I've thought we shouldn't pull out of Iraq ASAP because of the chaos it could leave the country in. However, Sachs's case is simply that being in Iraq is SO expensive that we'd get better bang for our buck using the money to help other countries alleviate poverty, or in developing more sustainable technologies. He makes a good case when you look at the numbers.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

McFly, metal detectors don't work over metal

I came across this bit of presidential trivia about the assassination of President Garfield, written by Richard Lederer:
  • After James Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, he spent 80 days on his deathbed while a team of doctors probed him with unwashed hands and unsanitary medical instruments. They tried to find the bullet with a metal detector invented by Alexander Graham Bell – but the device failed because Garfield was placed on a bed with metal springs, and no one thought to move him. To escape the Washington heat, Garfield was moved to a seaside cottage in New Jersey early in September. There he died on Sept. 19, 1881, succumbing to death by doctors.
So, no, we don't have hoverboards yet, but our technology's pretty amazing. For all our health care problems, if that story doesn’t make you appreciate how far we’ve come, I don’t know what will. That was less than 100 years before we were born. And remember, that’s illustrating the very best care of the time, since it was for the president! So, what do you think medical care will look like in 2081?

Friday, April 4, 2008

A blog devoted to Good News

Welcome to The Secret Peace, a blog devoted to a new book I’ve written but which is not yet published. The idea to write this book first popped into my brain years ago, when I realized that the overall negativity of news coverage has no exact correlation with the overall state of the world. On any given day, a trillion events happen to the world’s citizens, and the media can only pick a few to report on, so they give us the most sensational and shocking. It’s not unimportant for the media to show us big, negative events – these are news, and highlighting negative issues inspires a focus to change them.

But this means the mass media, especially television, presents a narrow perspective of the state of the world. Retreating from the media’s focus on negative details reveals large trends that are hard to discern but which come together to paint a vivid picture of our secret story. Newspaperman Ben Hecht said it best, “Trying to determine what is going on in the world is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of the clock.” Our short-term preoccupations often eclipse our long-term focus. But once you’ve pulled back to see the big picture and spotted some of the hidden trends, more jump out at you.

The clues point toward a grand secret: we, as a global culture, are moving in a discernible direction. And despite popular opinion, it’s a positive direction. World events are not random, and world peace is not just possible but probable. The world is in better shape than we think, but the inevitability of peace is only half the good news. The real secret is that for much of the world, peace is already here.

I’m not na├»ve, and I won’t deny the horrors that happen everywhere. But at any given minute, most people are just busy working towards better lives for themselves and their families. The bad news is real, but it already gets plenty of coverage, so we’re going to focus on the good stuff instead. I hope you stop by The Secret Peace regularly to get a nice refreshing break of good news in the middle of your day. The secret is too big and important to be missed.