Friday, February 18, 2011

Broke: a critical analysis (Chapter 1)

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"I have no idea what I'm doing with the economy...."
~~Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck Show, 11/26/10

This is part I of XXI of a detailed analysis of Glenn Beck's newest book, Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure, written with the help of Kevin Balfe. Keep in mind that it was published on 10/16/11, one month before Beck admitted complete ignorance "with the economy." Chapter 1 is entitled "Ancient History, Modern Lessons," and that misrepresents the overall subject of the first chapter which is how past empires can serve as a warning to our current status as the world's remaining superpower and hegemonic state.

Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure
Glenn Beck is broke?!?

That is an interesting cover. Is Glenn Beck broke? Everyone, who knows Beck, knows the $32 million answer to that question. Therefore, Beck is representing the United States in this picture. No one will ever win the argument that Glenn Beck is modest. Also before commenting on the substance of chapter 1, it is interesting to point out something written in the acknowledgments. Addressing people Beck got advice, support and research from, he adds, "I couldn't  have put this together without you--and any mistakes are, of course, all your fault." Of course. Think Beck is going to take responsibility for the contents of a book that he is the co-author of? If only we could all deflect criticism away from us so easily.

One is struck, first, by the unprofessional and untrained manner of the documentation used in Broke. Instead of having quotations and other information numbered and cited with and easy to find reference in the "Citations," page numbers only are listed with a number of references listed for that page. It makes the effort to check on Beck's claims particularly challenging and frustrating. Coincidence, purposeful or just lazy, Broke employs unprofessional scholarship.

Part I of Broke is a look back, supposedly Beck's forte as a supposed "historian." (Beck is not trained or educated in history, much less teaching history or anything else.) It is entitled "The Past is Prologue." Beck begins, then, by quoting George Santayana's famous line, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The question for this reviewer is how well does Beck and his many assistants "remember" history and retell it in a way that truly sheds light upon the predicament of the world's one remaining superpower that is now over $14 trillion in debt. Beck claims that $1 trillion is represented by piling $100 bills up 7 feet high over and over to cover the size of a football field.(1) In reality, stacking $100 bills in the area of a football field for the amount of $345.8 billion would stack them up 28.7 feet.(2) $1 trillion dollars would rise up 83 feet, a figure far more startling than Beck's inaccurate number. Count this error as the first found researching the claims of Beck's Broke. It is, of course, trivial; but, if Beck can't get the simple facts right, how can readers trust the remainder of Beck's many claims?

trustworthy author?

What makes the title of the chapter flawed is the review of Spain's empire in the 16th Century. That was not "ancient history," again a minor point. Far more interesting is the conclusion of the first section which covered ancient Rome. Beck claims, "a great civilization arises. The state encroaches on freedom and demands more power." So far Beck, or whomever wrote this bit, is correct. However, no explanation is given. For a civilization does not expand because its neighbors see the culture of the civilization and ask to be incorporated into the empire/civilization. Incorporation of an area into an empire always involves a course of war which requires a lot of weapons, logistics and a lot of demands for more power. Beck continues, "People take less responsibility for themselves and want more handouts from the government. Taxes go up to pay for handouts. The size of the government explodes." There was virtually no "welfare" in ancient Rome or pre-modern Spain. The drain on the Roman treasury and the need for greater taxes derive almost exclusively from security measures, both around the emperor (the  Praetorian guards), the building of roads and other infrastructure to support the troops and around the margins of the empire, usually in the form of attacks waged to expand or defend the empire/civilization.(3)

One issue that is passed over in Beck's review of former empires is that expansion of the "state's"  boundaries is always first and foremost, theft of land, of people's possessions and of the people themselves. In ancient empire building, woman were taken as sex slaves and men were often killed or enslaved themselves. This expansion, this theft of other's land, stuff and of people themselves is what 300 years of modern international law was evolving to render illegal and deposited into the trash can of history. Then, 9-11 happened, and "preventive war" put the United States solidly on the dark side of history again. The invasion of Iraq was an unjustified and illegal act of aggression,(4) but Glenn Beck couldn't mention this most appropriate comparison with empires past. That's because Beck's goal here is not peace, not a return to international law and not the containment of "empire." Despite Republican tax cuts being the reason that the U.S. deficit and debts are as large as they are; Glenn Beck wants to pin these financial problems on "progressives" and the safety net this country offers its most vulnerable citizens no matter what the facts of history actually are.

There are modern lessons to be drawn from the former massive empires and great states of the past, but Beck didn't spell out why the empires failed. As Paul Kennedy has pointed out, the great, hegemonic states from Spain on became victims of their own expansionary successes. As the area of control (empire or hegemonic control) grows, costs for weapons, manpower and supportive bureaucracy also grows. This leads to increased expenses, increased taxation and a loss of liberties for reasons of "national security." When the state reaches the point where it cannot afford its geographic reach, it's called "overstretch."(5) National security is always the greatest danger to our personal liberties than a state that offers a social security safety net for our vulnerable citizens, but Beck has yet to point this out. Perhaps this is because Beck is a neo-conservative in foreign affairs, and he has never distanced himself from his support for the neo-conservative, illegal, unjustifiable and imperial invasion and occupation of Iraq by President George Bush. To be fair, liberal critics of American power also refer to the United States as an empire, but that does not make Beck's "history lesson" any more accurate.(6) They are all analytically flawed; in our unipolar (one remaining superpower) world, the U.S. is at best a neo-empire. Most scholars versed in modern international relations discuss the hegemonic state, not an empire. In all fairness, this is mostly a semantic issue.

However, Beck had 5/6ths of his final, otherwise empty page of Chapter 1 to make a distinction between empires and the modern hegemonic state, but Beck either doesn't care about conveying accurate knowledge about our world and the role that the United States plays in it or he just doesn't know that much about state hegemony and how it works in a system of states differently than empires have in the past. Beck has another mission: attacking the social safety net that keeps many elderly and poor Americans in a home and off the streets begging for "charity" which Beck seems to believe is all the needy require. More on that as Beck addresses "the plan" in later chapters.

On a sidebar on page 11, Beck quotes Paul B. Farrell, columnist on behavior economics and author of The Millionaire Code: "Everything you learned, everything you believe and everything driving our political leaders is based on a misleading, outdated theory of history. The American Empire is at the edge of a dangerous precipice, at risk of a sudden, rapid collapse."(7) Reading the article that this quote came from, it's clear that the "outdated" theory of history where empires, hegemonic states and  civilizations decline in a protracted manner. Farrell's certain sounding claim that "everything" is based upon an "outdated theory of history" turns on the phrase "what if?" What if the collapse is sudden? The Russian empire collapsed in a rapid and unprecedented manner (peacefully). Could the United States suddenly become just another average power on the world stage? Farrell's answer is hardly certain: " If the peak of America's glory was the leadership handoff from Clinton to Bush...."(8) If. Beck points out, "he could be right." Or not, but a little fear-mongering certainly suits Beck's style of presentation. Farrell points to the response to this possibility: buy a farm, become self-sufficient and be heavily armed. In short, prepare for the collapse by becoming a survivalist.

Following on his fantasy that God has given Beck a plan for us to follow, Beck concludes chapter 1 by claiming that "unlike past empires, we've been given the ability to see into the past." Apparently, Great Britain had no historians! Leaving God out of his argument, Beck adds that "through technology, education, and history books we been handed a road map that can fend off human nature and lead toward enduring freedom. Now we just have to follow it." A road map that can fend off human nature. This is either the most incredible book ever written, or Beck is a con-man selling snake oil. A) no map can fend off human nature and B) isn't human nature inclined toward freedom? No informed reader will finish chapter 1 concluding that Beck has logical consistency going for him, but Beck doesn't write for informed consumers.

As indicated, Beck inadequately points out how much money the government owes: $14 trillion and growing rapidly. However, at the bottom of page 12 Beck asserts that "we can still choose individual achievement, limited government and low taxes...." How will the United States ever address, much less pay off, the $14 trillion debt with low taxes? Again, logical consistency is not a trait of Beck's. Sooner or later, taxes are going to have to increase and the size of government will have to be reduced. Limited government and low taxes made sense for a new, pre-industrial nation, but everything it took to become a great nation and hegemonic state required more than minimal, limited government (for better or often for worse with respect to personal liberties) and higher levels of taxation than in the times of the horse and buggy. Beck waxes nostalgic for a bygone era that has passed us by before we became a global, superpower. 

Another example of logical inconsistency shows up again on p. 12. He (or Balfe) wrote, "We must not be a flock of timid animals--we must be our own shepherd." How is that to be accomplished? By following Beck's/God's plan.  To paraphrase: Don't be a sheep: follow me. Beck clearly writes his propaganda for the generally uninformed, gullible and easily swayed. As we press forward into Broke, we will revisit the question: is Beck's/God's plan a way to sustain the hegemonic world security state by attacking the social safety net in order to pay for it? This question of guns vs. butter is as old as the Republic itself. It stands to be seen where God stands on this matter.

Next: Broke: a critical analysis (Chapter 2), Frugal: A Four-Letter Word. (It is? Maybe math is "misleading" too!)
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1) Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure, Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe, Mercury Radio Arts, New York, 2010, p. 4
4) Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, Noam Chomsky, Henry Hold and Co., New York, 2003, pp.28-36.
5) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy, Random House, New York, 1987.
7) Broke, p. 11.