21 Lessons for the 21st Century - Nov 2020
Democracy in Canada- Dec 2020
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (his third book)
The first two were Sapiens and Homo Deus.
The general impression of the group was that this one may have resulted from prompting by the publisher, with the result that it was somewhat fragmentary and loosely organized. The title might more properly have been “21 Questions for the 21st Century”, as it contained few solutions.
Although members may have felt the book contained sweeping generalizations, all agreed that it was thought-provoking. One area of concern not addressed in the book is that of overpopulation, with its many implications. The chapter addressing terrorism was well-written, as was that on education: critical thinking is going to be increasingly necessary as ever greater amounts of information accumulate. The notion that computers, artificial intelligence, and resulting algorithms will achieve dominance is overstated.
The concluding chapter on meditation received mixed reviews from the group. The disappearance of jobs caused by technology is well-addressed, and considered in another book mentioned by a member (A World Without Work, by Daniel Susskind).
Ratings for the book ranged from 4 to 9, with an average of 7.05.
Democracy in Canada, The Disintegration of Our Institutions by Donald J. Savoie
Comments by Tom Axworthy
I was asked for my comments at our December book club discussion on Donald Savoie's "Democracy in Canada", especially on the repeated references in the book to the rise of the PMO and the decline of Parliament and Cabinet.
I will make three points:
1) No system of government is perfect but Savoie's book is far too pessimistic for me. It reminded me of "Lament for a Nation" written in the mid 60s about the awful prospects for Canada that went on to have a thriving economy, Medicare, a Charter of Rights and much stronger provinces. Quebec was persuaded to stay in Confederation and a host of other achievements have routinely placed us among the top nations in the UN's human development index.
Our institutions may have problems but they can all be fixed, some of them quite easily. There may be other democracies that are disintegrating (just look to our southern neighbour) but not us.
2) On the rising power of the PMO (appointed officials) and the declining influence of elected MPs, I was in the Pearson Government as a very junior researcher/ speechwriter, when the role of the PMO/ PCO was augmented, and for very good reasons. Mr Pearson had very few staff and very little central planning. But he had a very strong Cabinet with people like Walter Gordon, Mitchell Sharp, Paul Hellyer and Judy Lamarsh. These Ministers and their public service officials essentially ran their own show and some major initiatives were not even costed nor did Cabinet as a whole have much influence on the policies favored by individual ministers. The system was creative but chaotic. To bring some balance to the process Pierre Trudeau (when he became PM in 1968) increased the number of personal advisers and the Cabinet Secretariat. Like any CEO, Trudeau wanted to know what was going on in the various departments of the Government and he wanted mechanisms to warn him of trouble in order to implement over arching government-wide priorities. However in the past generation the power of these unelected advisors has continued to grow, so that today there is the opposite imbalance.
Elected MPs now need to be strengthened and the power of the executive, especially the PMO, rolled back. But this is not too difficult, it does not require new laws or a constitutional amendment; it just needs some political will from the PM, the Speaker, and Parliament.
And a minority Parliament is a great place to start.
3) Quickly off the top of my head, I made the following suggestions which mostly involve the Speaker and Parliament and therefore not dependent on the good sense of the PM. In a minority Parliament you have lots of leeway to make changes:
- the Speaker should no longer accept speaking rotation lists from the Whips thereby reducing the power of the leader on time and issue management. Recognize MPs when they stand.
- Parliamentary committees should elect their own chairs and the TV cameras should be removed from committee hearings to reduce the grandstanding so evident in question period. Committee chairs should receive the same pay as ministers since their job is just as important.
- the Speaker should rule against the use of omnibus bills when the executive stuffs bills with unrelated items. This reduces Parliament's accountability function.
-Caucus meetings should be for the caucus alone and staff not allowed. Having the Leaders' advisors in the room reduces truth telling to the Leader.
- the Speaker should be much stricter on unparliamentry language and behavior since it reduces respect for the House.
- there should be a code of conduct for the unelected political advisers just as there is for the public service.
- the Canada Public Service School should have regular orientation sessions for newly elected MPs, their staffs, staffs of Ministers and the PMO. They should learn about accountability, conflicts of interest and ethics.
- our parties benefit from very generous public support for election expenses and tax credits for political giving. As a condition for receiving this money at least 10% should be mandated to go towards policy research work, since parties have a responsibility to prepare relevant platforms, but spend all their money on attack ads, polling, deep analytics, and social media.
Our problems can be fixed and our already strong democracy can be made even better.
The End of the Myth - Jan 2021
The End of The Myth by Greg Grandin
It was generally agreed that the author’s style is rather complex and represents an East Coast, centre-right viewpoint. The author presents an alternate view of US history in which he develops the thesis of a frontier mentality. This frontier approach, the author posits, has been the springboard for aggressive expansion, first westward, and then to other countries. One of the appeals of the frontier was freedom to expropriate, exploit, and expand without any hindrance. The problem of how to employ returning servicemen has been present throughout US history, and is reflected in the activities of various militias and paramilitary organizations, particularly with regard to the US border with Mexico. It is clear that the founding fathers of the US were developing a country for white people: the racism of today has roots extending to the time before the founding of the US. The Know-Nothing attitude seen in today’s Trump administration has similarly long roots, and includes the ‘less government and lower taxes’ concept. The handling of indigenous people has been ruthless, as for example at the hands of General Andrew Jackson. One reason for US resistance to social democracy is the belief that the country is already the land of the free, and such things are unnecessary. The concept of manifest destiny is flawed. Details of the North American Free Trade Association were of interest, particularly as they involve Mexico. This was clearly a thought-provoking book. Average score = 8.05, with a range from 6 to 10.
The Long Way Home by Louise Penney
It was generally agreed that this book, tenth in her series involving chief inspector Armand Gamache, is not up to the standard of the better books in the series. The rating for the book was 6.7. Those in the group who have read others by Penney gave reassurance to those doubtful about embarking on the series. References to events from other books were unhelpful to those reading this book as their first. Penney’s books do raise interest in art, both in terms of the creative process (for those with skill and those aspiring to skill) and in terms of specific artists (e.g. Clarence Gagnon) and places: it is possible to visit many of the locations she describes, such as Charlevoix and the mystical garden. Readers found little interest in the search for Peter Morrow, although his jealousy of his successful wife was well-described. The use of asbestos as a murder weapon was rather far-fetched. Penny gives good portrayals of her characters, their feelings, their creative impulses, and their appetites for excellent food. The liberal exchange of insults among the characters adds a delightful flavour to the stew, as does the interspersed poetry in the book. (‘Surprised by Joy’, inscribed on a park bench where Gamache reflects throughout the book, is a poem by William Wordsworth).
The Long Way Home - February 2021
V2, by Robert Harris
There was general agreement among the group that this is an engaging tale, filled with interesting detail on the technology of rockets. The unpredictability of the V2’s performance was not surprising, considering it was being developed as it was being deployed. The idea that launch sites could be so mobile was surprising. It was interesting that claims of accuracy from both ends were exaggerated: tiny errors in calculating trajectory could produce an error of km. Harris does an excellent job of creating the atmosphere through which lived those who sent and those who received the rockets. Wernher von Braun was present in the story more as a sketch than an actual portrait. There was good development of the fictional characters portrayed on both sides: it was interesting to observe measures and countermeasures as they were developed on both sides of the war. Rating of the book was 8.0.
V2 - March 2021
It was all a lie, by Stuart Stevens
There was general agreement that this was an interesting book, although somewhat repetitive and in need of editing. The large cast of players made the book hard to follow at times. The author creates the sense that party membership is akin to religious affiliation. A reference was made to Asimov’s novel, Foundation, in which psychohistory (using statistics, sociology, and history) was used to predict the future behaviour of the masses. Certainly, the behaviour of a large portion of the masses was predictable in 2020. From the book, one may conclude that the election of Trump, far from an aberration, was the culmination of policies stretching back several decades. The desperation of the white male electorate is becoming evident, as is the prominence of race in US politics. Whether the Republicans can broaden their appeal is an open question. In some ways, the book seemed unfinished, as it did not address the antidemocratic movements since the 2020 election. Reference was made to a book by John Boehner (On the House). Stevens has suggested elimination of the Electoral College, but this seems unlikely. Reference was also made to the Lincoln Project, formed by a group of former Republicans who laboured successfully against Trump’s re-election. The lack of a higher purpose for the Republican Party was evident in the book. Republicans are committed to the Norquist pledge (not to raise taxes), as well as to support the NRA, which has become the gatekeeper to presidential candidates. The book is a form of mea culpa from someone who was determined to win campaigns at all costs, regardless of going against individual principles. Another book, Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, was brought up in discussing efforts to control the White House. Analysis by the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institute forecasts the Republicans losing the Electoral College vote from 2024 to 2036. While it is easier to observe political errors in other countries, we must be mindful of these in our own. The numerical rating for the book: 6.7
It Was All A Lie - April 2021
Truth be Told - August 2021
War; How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan
Based as it is on a series of lectures, the book lacks the unifying theme of other books by the author. MacMillan has condensed a broad sweep of history into a comparatively short book. There is good detail regarding the state of returning soldiers and the effects of post-traumatic stress. Links between war and technological advances are well-developed. The conclusion of the book was unsatisfying in that it didn’t flow from a theme. The chapter on effects of war on women is comprehensive. Having various timelines in each chapter is disorienting.
The concept of mutually-assured destruction has dominated political discussion for the recent past, and needed further development. The male ego, the need to expand territory, and the unending conflict embedded with our fight or flight reflexes are among the major factors leading to war: it will always be with us. Expansion into cyberspace and outer space is a developing concern. The futility of many wars is reflected by the lack of lasting progress in their wake.
Rating of the book is 7.25.
Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden
This book was enjoyed by the group, as indicated by the score of 8.7. Many of the group found the book difficult to get into, but agreed that it was definitely worthwhile. The slow, confident development of the plot was masterful, and the transitions from past to present were not confusing. The contrast between numbers killed by groups versus numbers killed by individual snipers was remarkable. The author’s ability to maintain the perspective of each individual character was appreciated, along with the author’s excellent descriptive skills regarding the immediate day-to-day details of trench warfare and of indigenous traditions. The sniper career of the indigenous soldier, Pegahmagabow (Peggy to his fellow soldiers), was clearly an influence on Boyden’s characters Xavier and Elijah, who endured the cruelties of the residential school system and off-hand discrimination of fellow soldiers. The technical details of accurate rifle marksmanship were well done. Another indigenous soldier hero, Tommy Prince, served in WWII, and was badly treated following the war. The idea of the windigo and the windigo-killer was woven throughout the book. On balance, the issue of cultural appropriation which was leveled at Boyden was regarded as a complete non-issue.
Three Day Road - May 2021
Truth be Told by Beverley McLachlin
All agreed that this is a well-written autobiography, which reads smoothly. Reference was made to another book about Beverley McLachlin (Beverley McLachlin: The Legacy of a Supreme Court Chief Justice by Ian Greene and Peter McCormick), as well as to her first novel, Full Disclosure, written shortly after her retirement).
McLachlin has an outstanding history of scholastic and career achievement, which is recognized both nationally and internationally. Her account of growing up in a small town in Alberta is straightforward, as is her youthful enthusiasm about the library. Her personal life had its share of ups and downs, which she relates with grace, warmth and humor.
McLachlin has witnessed a tectonic shift in the participation of women in the legal system. The role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution Act (1982) was addressed in considerable detail, particularly as it intersects with law-making. The notwithstanding clause was discussed, with general agreement about its importance.
War: How Conflcit Shaped Us- July 2021
The Parade- September 2021
The Parade by Dave Eggers
Discussion of the book included the related features of parables, allegories, and fables. All agreed that this novella is very sparse on detail and character development, with an intense concentration on the end of the road to the North. The characters with generic names in a generic country damaged by a generic war are readily imagined anywhere in the world. The characters 4 and 9 resemble the Odd Couple, minus the humor. Nonetheless, 9, with his carefree attitude, eventually forced 4 to take some responsibility for his feckless partner. Some members found it an easy read, while others had to force themselves to finish it. The story does give some detail about life found along the road, as well as the unintended consequences of a single-minded attention to one goal. The value of providing outside help is shown to be doubtful at best.
Rating for the book: 6.3.
The deficit Myth - October 2021
The Deficit Myth, by Stephanie Kelton
A possible subtitle could be “How I learned to stop worrying and love the Deficit”. There was general agreement that the book’s viewpoint was US-centric, verging at times on a polemic approach. Although the group has had varying degrees of exposure to economics, the book was an easy read and thought-provoking. Many historical figures and events in economic were covered, including the effects of attempts at balancing budgets. Parallel events in Canada have shown the prolonged impact of (and slow recovery from) increased interest rates. There is some magical thinking in the book as well: actual methods for controlling inflation are not discussed, for instance. It was pretty easy to skim the latter pages of the book, because the author was banging on the same drum throughout. The interaction of politics (particularly those of Bernie Sanders) and economics is clearly presented. The spectre of politicians with little economic background making far-reaching economic decisions is concerning.
Rating of the book was 6.6.
Greenwood- November 2021
Greenwood, by Michael Christie
There was general agreement that the length of this book reflected the many decades and generations it covered. The reaching back in time was similar to some books by Edward Rutherfurd (e.g. Sarum). Each of the generations in the book is touched by the forest in some way, and the inter-relations among trees as well as people is brought to the fore. The writing is excellent and flowed well. Some found the movement back and forth in time to be disconcerting. The saga of a former prison inmate trying to spirit a milk-intolerant baby across the country in boxcars, while being relentlessly pursued by a railroad bull and an opium-soaked industrialist’s henchman sounds rather melodramatic, but actually reads believably. There was a feeling that the episodic nature of the book resembles a ‘made for Netflix’ type approach. Some members found there was too much characterization, while others didn’t. The trees do become part of the dramatis personae. The weaving into the plot of names of some prominent tycoons gave realism to the story. More detail regarding the apocalyptic ‘great withering’ would be of interest. The author’s pessimistic outlook with regard to the trees and environmental issues is understandable; themes of survival provide a degree of counterpoise.
The rating of the book ranged from 6 to 9.5, with an average of 7.7.