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[Draft] Dream to Rebuild! 12 September, 2014

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There are those who can afford airline tickets and laptops, and those who can’t. I’m talking about the 1% vs. the 99% — the global 1%, that is. The funny thing is, the global 1% includes just about everyone in the U.S. who’s protesting against our own national “1%.”

Concerned members of the global 1% think about the world’s problems in a radically different way from the 99%. Conscious one-percenters believe the whole problem is simple: Too Much Stuff. This is not new. The anti-stuff religion of the global 1% in America can be traced back through the environmentalism of Schumacher, transcendentalism of Thoreau, hypocritical anti-commercialism of the Puritans all the way back to the asceticism of medieval Christianity. In the Internet Era, it is represented by a YouTube video: Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff.”

The 99%, on the other hand, do not subscribe to the the anti-Stuff religion (or YouTube channel). They want more stuff. They want what we, the global 1%, already take for granted: laptops to access Internet; plane tickets to see the world; air conditioners for when it’s 115 degrees in the shade; heaters for winter; roofs for rain; and, at the very least, clean water, proper sanitation and antibiotics so their babies stop dying.

Though I’m a member of the global 1%, I side with the 99%. I want the 99% to get its stuff. I know it’s scandalous, but I want there to be MORE STUFF in the world. And that means more industry to make it, ships and railroads to ship it, and big giant stores to distribute it!

A formative experience for me was living in a village where mothers expected to lose half the children they gave birth to. The primary killer: creek water. Now, if you’re a member of the global 1%, you probably know how humanity got access to clean water in the first place: Matt Damon brought it. Right? Well no, the answer is actually a lot less…handsome?

What happened was, governments went around and built water systems. But before they did that, they had to build the industries and infrastructure to make that possible. And, yes, in most countries it was the government — simply because, just like in poor countries today, business did not see a profit in doing it.

To simplify: How did we get clean water? Factories. Steel mills. Railroads. Industry — big, giant industrial industry! To the global 1%, however, that all sounds icky.

Recently, a friend broke out in unrestrained laughter when I said the world needs more factories. To her, factories are right up there with land mines and child molesters on the list of things humanity has too many of. She said, “Convert the factories into some kind of community spaces — art spaces!” This is in fact the consensus attitude toward factories among my friends in the global 1%.

Yet almost everything she, you and I wear, eat, ride, fly, use and live in was made in factories. As she laughed at me, her face was illuminated by the glow of her top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, produced across hundreds of global factories. The lid of the MacBook was adorned with political stickers, produced in factories. The wine we were drinking too: made in factories. As were our wine glasses, chairs, table and the building that was suspending us several stories above the streets of the poor country where we were having the conversation.

The global 1% consumes ridiculously more stuff per capita than the global 99%. And it is true: if everyone consumed like the 1% using today’s technology, the planet would be toast. This leaves us two options:

1) The global 1% can scale its consumption back to the level of, say, a poor Bangladeshi farmer; or,

2) We can revamp the world’s means of production to make it clean and efficient enough so that everyone can have laptops, plane tickets, health care, food, drinking water and the rest, without trashing the planet and boiling the oceans.

Among the one-percetner preachers of the anti-stuff religion, I’ve yet to meet any willing to live like the 99%. Once, I sat next to the <i>Story of Stuff’s</i> Annie Leonard on a panel. In her video she throws away her iPod. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that she was carrying and iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro with her. (Maybe they were loaners — I didn’t have the nerve to ask.)

We, the global 1%, ain’t going back. Therefore, unless you’re some kind of fascist who believes in permanently blocking the rest of the world from getting the same stuff that you enjoy — then you will agree that it is time to get to work on Option #2: Remaking and expanding global industry from top to bottom.

Here’s some great news: every single rich country in the world — of which there are now dozens — has already radically remade its economy — most of them several times over. Thus, it has been proven the industrial makeovers are possible, even if the purpose in the past was usually not environmental (though here and there recently it has been), there’s no reason that can’t be the aim of future make-overs.

The U.S. completely rebuilt and expanded its industry for World War II. Western Europe, China and Japan did it right after WWII. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and several other countries did it even more recently. China and a few other countries are doing it right now. But this phenomenon goes way back — in the modern era all the way to Henry VII who arguably kick-started capitalism by ordering the creation of Britain’s textile industry to compete against Holland’s.

In other words, intentionally rebuilding your economy is normal. Countries do it all the time. Even America! It’s time to do it again.

The only problem is that over the past few generations, every thought that would make it possible to think about how to intentionally rebuild our economy has been hunted down and killed — by hunters like Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, F.A. Hayek, Margaret Thatcher, Frederik Mises, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman. The right wing of that group fight against intentional rebuilding with great care and concern, because they see that as their historic mission. The left of the group, however, will just laugh at you if you suggest rebuilding — a much more effective attack.

Even way back in the New Deal, most of these thoughts had already been killed off. Most of FDR’s kitchen cabinet was already against stuff and factories. They believed in building infrastructure (like electrification), but understood the cause of the Depression to be overproduction, and thus did not expect or work to see industry expand. It all became moot when WWII saved the American economy by forcing us to totally rebuild and massively expand industry.

Truth is, the neo-liberal genocide of economic ideas was just another turn of the wheel. Reasonable economic thoughts grow like weeds and must be mowed down every few generations.

Reasonable economic thinking is about to sprout again — simply because real wages in the U.S. have been consistently falling for 40 years. This has never happened before here. In the past, over a decade or two most poor people saw more of their neighbors getting swept up into prosperity than getting spit back out into poverty. For the past generation and a half, the reverse has been true.

We have come to the breaking point. But our ability to think our way to a solution is impaired thanks to the utterly devastating genocide of reasonable economic ideas by the neo-liberal revolution.

Tune in next time, and we’ll start resurrecting some of those lost ideas.

How a room of South African autoworkers 11 September, 2014

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How a room of South African autoworkers (not a professional choir) sings the national anthem.

PS: the national anthem is an old hymn. These guys were singing the old version, not the new official one that has the Afrikaner anthem mixed in.

Lord, bless Africa
May her horn rise high up
Hear Thou our prayers
And bless us.
Descend, O Spirit
Descend, O Holy Spirit

(And at the end, the group wrapped up with, “Power… To the people!” … and then started up another song.)

When your national chicken joint makes t 10 September, 2014

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When your national chicken joint makes this ad, the ruling party may be due for a challenge. http://www.zanews.co.za/zapped/2014/08/31/nandos-blue-light-brigade

Stadium events like these are the modern 10 September, 2014

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Stadium events like these are the modern counter part to town square organizing. This is where the cutting edge of organizing actually happens — totally off the radar of the intelligentsia of course. I went to the Glenn Beck events. I’ve gone to a bunch of Christian conferences that take place in huge stadiums. And now Oprah and Rob Bell! Together at last. http://www.oprahweekend.com/events

Wikipedia this is why I love you: I goog 17 June, 2014

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Wikipedia this is why I love you: I google “List of dystopian films” and I get one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_films

“Springfield is like Jamaica.” — Shaw 17 July, 2013

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“Springfield is like Jamaica.” — Shawn Matthews, Springfield MO

I want John Sayles to make the movie of 17 July, 2013

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I want John Sayles to make the movie of this story.

Big article live on Huffpo’s front page right now. 26 March, 2013

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Please go comment on it, Like it, tweet it or whatever you do!


Introduction (take two) 17 February, 2013

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(Or maybe this would work as an introduction? I got a lot of negative feedback on the one a few posts below.)

At the beginning of the 19th century, China was the largest, strongest, wealthiest country in the world, and had been for 2,000 years. At the end of that century, it was on its knees before Europe, begging for permission to pretend it was still something like a sovereign nation. Europe sucked wealth out, and pumped opium in, which it forced China to accept at gun point. Industrializing Russia and Japan pushed in from the north and east. Chinese government administration disintegrated. Floods, famine, disease and violence killed tens of millions. It was normal for cities to employ armies of early morning workers to clear away the dead left by the night. By the end of the century even that service became unreliable.

The imperialist industrial societies feasting upon China were an entirely new phenomenon in human history. They behaved according to a logic China could not decipher, they conquered with a limitless energy China could not fathom. For a thousand years, China had treated delegations from Europe like buzzing flies. But in the 19th century, industrial Europe’s demand for Chinese goods became unstoppable, as did its gunships. China still refused to trade goods. It didn’t need anything Europe made. It insisted on payment in silver. That one-way trade gave China a growing mountain of hard cash — just like it has today thanks to the exact same kind of one-way trade with the rest of the world, especially with the United States.

If China had retained its sovereignty, all that silver might have paid for a modernization program undertaken by an emergent reform movement. That is exactly how modern China has used its mountain of U.S. dollars. But Britain had a different plan for China, and the firepower to make it happen: It would Chinese tea, silk and other goods not with silver, but with addictive opium from its Indian possessions. China’s government forbade opium. So Britain fought and won a war to force China to accept it. That is how China fell.

How did most Chinese leaders and intellectuals react to the rise of the industrial imperialist countries? At the beginning of the century, they believed China had the best possible type of government. At the end of the century they believed the same thing. Looking back at them, you will be tempted to ask how they could remain so blind. What prevented them from seeing that the world had changed, that their ancient imperial government was not viable in the modern world, and that a better way had become available?

If you’re an American living in the early 21st century, chances are you can find the answers to those questions by examining your own thinking. For 300 years we were the most dynamic society on earth — which eventually made us the most wealthy and powerful nation on earth. Then, just like the defeated China I described above, we began shipping off our wealth and industry in exchange for a powerfully addictive drug.

In our case, that drug is cheap consumer goods from China and elsewhere. China did not force this upon us. Most of the products Americans buy from China are made or marketed by U.S. companies. Sixty years ago, we were the workshop of the world. In blind obedience to a kooky economic dogma, we intentionally stopped making things that China and other once-poor countries started to make more cheaply. For instance, when Korea and China were developing national steel industries from the ground up, American bankers bought the major U.S. steel companies to extract as much cash as possible with no intention of reinvesting one cent in modernization. The American revolution was partly fought to remove British ban on American industrialization. Now, we were doing it to ourselves.

Conservatives and progressives both agreed that deindustrialization was the way to go. Progressive Robert Reich, for example, favored replacing manufacturing with “symbolic analysis.” It turned out, however, that only a few “symbolic analyst” jobs paid better than the good old fashioned high-end manufacturing. Today, Korean steel workers earn almost what “overpaid” American steel workers used to — but Korea is reinvesting in its steel industry as a matter of national independence. Japan had a high-wage steel industry just like ours when the Korean and Chinese competition rose up. It continued to reinvest and today produces more steel than ever.

Japan and Korea are two of the most highly educated countries in the world. Why didn’t they throw out manufacturing in favor of “symbolic analysis” like we did? The answer is that both countries are an example of a new kind of society that is capable of making rational long-term decisions about their economies.

This book is not a call for us to make America into China. Through its ordeal of conquest, reform and revolution, ancient China did not become one of the countries that confronted it, it became modern China. Our beloved America, stuck in so many ways in the 19th century, is embarking on its own unique 21st century ordeal. It will not emerge as a copy of China or Japan. It will emerge as a modern America, founded on its own ancient traditions. Just China’s renewal was founded on Chinese traditions, such as authoritarian bureaucracy, America’s renewal will be based on Anglo-American traditions, such as the sanctity of personal liberty, private property, rule of law, entrepreneurship and immigration.

Today, though, our minds are just as closed and our vision just as narrow as the Chinese leaders who clung to the Qing Dynasty as English warships blasted their way up the Perl River. Because we are not being attacked from outside, but undermining ourselves from within, it may be even harder for us to change our thinking. But we must.

Recently I was driving on Missouri Route 60. To my left, a freight train pulled hundreds of shipping containers stacked two by two, every one displaying the mark of a Chinese shipping giant. To my right, a seemingly endless chain of payday loan offices advertised “first loan free” and “instant cash”. All of America has not yet hit rock bottom — just half of America. The respectable Chinese leaders of the 19th century waited until China passed over to warlords and revolutionaries before they rethought their assumptions. It’s hard to guess what America hitting rock bottom would look like, and who power would fall to if that happened. Let’s not find out. Who’s ready to start rethinking assumptions now?

1.2 The Great Mobilization 31 January, 2013

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A totally unimaginable quantity of United States steel — in the form of bombers and bombs, ships and submarines, tanks and trucks, all delivered and powered by United States oil — tipped the balance of World War II. How in just a few short years did U.S. industry flip from utter depression and disorganization into a brilliantly conducted symphony of production capable of such a feat? Hollywood never made a war movie about it. Most historians barely mention it. One recent account called the mobilization “effortless.” For the workers and managers involved, however, it was a grueling battle whose outcome was uncertain until almost the very end.

Left wingers tend to recount the mobilization as a story of government command and control. Right wingers paint a picture of a spontaneous response by free markets to the demands of war. Both sides have it wrong. To the exasperation of many New Dealers in the administration and the press, Roosevelt nationalized nothing and didn’t flinch from pouring billions of dollars into private hands. But he did recruit respected industrialists to organize production. The wisdom and character of their leadership put their central planner counter parts in Europe and the Soviet Union to shame — but there is no doubt that too were central planners, even if they did not have coercion as one of their tools. In fact, it was the lack of coercion that made war planning in the U.S. so much more effective than elsewhere.

Chief among Roosevelt’s economic organizers was was life-long Republican and star of American capitalism, William Knudsen. Knudsen was a working class Danish immigrant who began on the shop floor, started his own manufacturing business, revolutionized production at Ford Motor Company after Henry Ford bought his company, and finally moved to GM where he led Chevrolet to surpass Ford’s sales and forged the modern auto industry in the process.

In Knudsen’s day, Detroit was Silicon Valley. Auto and other new “high tech” industries were revolutionizing human life just as profoundly as computers, mobile phones and the Internet is today. Knudsen and his generation of engineers were analogous to top software developers of Silicon Valley who have repeatedly reinvented the way software is created in ways that make possible the breakneck pace of change and the mass distribution of new technologies. From the 1920’s through the 40’s, high-tech dreamers like Knudsen carried out a similar revolution by fundamentally reinventing mass production.

Mass production is the technique of breaking down skilled artisan craft work into many small steps able to be performed by relatively unskilled workers. The purpose originally was not primarily to reduce wages — in fact, wages for mass production workers were often higher than for their craft counterparts in the older industries. The purpose of mass production was to increase speed and quantity.

British Rolls Royce airplane engines were built along the old craft lines. So too in France where warplane production had been turned over to craft labor unions. Neither country therefore had any hope of suddenly producing the “clouds of airplanes” they were requesting from the United States. Same for battleships and transport ships. The problem was that the United States did not yet produce any airplanes or ships using the new mass production methods. Asking the U.S. shipbuilding industry to fill the seas with ships was sort of like asking the accounting industry to reinvent Google. It wasn’t going to happen.

The problem was as high stakes as could be. It was clear to all that if the U.S. was not politically and economically able to deliver the needed armaments, Germany would eventually take all Europe. The pressure was especially great in the beginning of the war when the Soviets still swore not to fight Germany.

The U.S. sitting out the war for so long ironically helped to win it. It gave Bill Knudson the time and the space to retool American industry for war production. He was intimately familiar with the meticulous preparation that went into merely producing a new model of car. Hundreds — or thousands — of suppliers needed to be lined up. Work had to be divvied up among them in a way that would actually work. Failures by many of them had to be expected. A whole new foundation of machine tools — the machines that make the machines — would need to be designed and built, each one of them also drawing on a network of suppliers. He had told Henry Ford it would take 18 months just to create a successor to the Model T (causing Ford to stick with the T). As a member of the “National Defense Advisory Commission” he had scarcely 18 months to create an entirely new national economy, and no formal power to make it happen.

Knudsen knew Midwestern and Northeastern manufacturers from his long experience building cars with them. He knew what they produced and where they produced it. A central tenant of classical liberalism — known today as conservatism or libertarianism — holds that economic planning must fail because planners can never have perfect information, judgment or motives. With his homeland and six living sisters trapped behind Nazi lines, Knudsen’s motivations were perfect. His information and judgment were not perfect, just incredibly good.

Knudsen worked tirelessly to set up a new economy sector by sector, factory by factory, but everything had to happen in parallel. He worked it out in long discussions and brief phone calls with owners of every kind of business. He knew their own plants by name and number. In some cases the owners invested their own money in expansion, in other cases Knudsen promised government loans that he didn’t at first have the formal authority to make — he made them anyways.

He and his team spotted, and predicted, bottlenecks in production and did whatever they could to eliminate them. For example, machine tools were an especially difficult problem. Before you could build a new kind of airplane, your factory, and all your suppliers’ factories, would need to acquire and configure appropriate machine tools — machine tools were the machines that built the machines. The machine tool industry was still dominated by very old firms in New England. The firms had not fully switched to mass production and Knudsen judged they would not be able to scale to the needs of the new economy. He contacted smaller manufacturers in the Midwest who followed more modern practices and convinced them to begin scaling up. One of them, betting on war, had already begun investing in expansion. Knudsen poured in loans and encouragement, and connected them with the network of manufacturers who would soon be their wartime customers.

Knudsen played the role of a true organizer, constantly meeting with an convening other industrialists, large and small, to get things moving. He constantly planned ahead of the goals Roosevelt or the Army were setting, knowing that they didn’t come close to what would be needed in the end. Eventually, Roosevelt would keep on adding zeros to his production targets past what even Knudsen had dreamed of.

As war neared it became easier to get business owners to participate, but as Roosevelt added more and more zeros to the end of production targets, the impossibility of the project appeared absurd at times. Toward the end of the first phase of Knudsen’s planning, he found himself large auditoriums filled with industrialists reading out lists of materials and parts that still needed to be produced. As hands went up, aids would take down their names and work out agreements, often just by handshake, before the night was over. The press criticized Knudsen for “auctioning off” the defense of the nation. But really, he was just getting it done.

Knudsen wasn’t the only leader of the war mobilization. There were several central figures, and the lineup changed over time. There were some rivalries and many conflicts, but progress never stalled. In just the first two years, all of the following industries had either been totally revolutionized or were well on their way, and all of them had been vastly expanded: steel, aluminum and every other kind of metal used in manufacturing, military and merchant ships, motor vehicles, airplanes, machine tools, small arms, ammunition, agriculture, mining, radio, and many others.

Henry Kaiser’s construction company — which had never built a ship before — built several huge ship yards where ships would be fully mass produced for the first time in history, mostly by workers who had never had anything to do with ships. Kaiser’s first ship model was the “Liberty Ship,” a very large cargo ship that would transport millions of tons of food, coal, oil, arms and troops to Europe. The first ships took a few months to finish — record time for such large vessels. Kaiser pushed his ship yards by fostering friendly competition among them. They raced to cut their times while always sharing their successful innovations with each other. Results were unimaginable. Each yard kept cutting the other’s record in half. Eventually, one of the yards completed a ship from start to finish in three days. Three days.

Aircraft posed an tougher challenge, with hundreds of different systems that all had to work perfectly, all tightly intertwined with each other, involving hundreds of thousands of precision parts. At times it appeared the planes would never get off the ground. New aircraft plants were raised all over the West. But eventually Detroit was recruited to convert auto factories to build airplane engines, and inevitably the planes themselves.

Even when the planes were finally flying, there was still trouble. Air crews were accustomed to ordering improvements to the planes as they discovered them. For example, sliding bomb bay doors were requested when German fighter pilots learned to wait for the sight of bomb bay doors flapping open — a sign that the bomber would have to slow down and hold course. Mass production made such changes nearly impossible: the factory was essentially a giant robot, with workers serving alongside machines and tools. The robot couldn’t adapt to new requests the way old-style teams of craft airplane makers could.

What to do? Here Bill Knudsen saved the day once again. Under heavy criticism from the press — at first for doing too much, and then for doing too little — Knudsen had been replaced by a more political appointment. Instead of complaining to the press, leaking stories of “what really happened,” or returning to Detroit in a huff, he told the president, “If you want me to stand sentinel at the door, that’s what I’ll do — I’ll do whatever you call upon me to do.” He was made a three star lieutenant general in the army, given a plane, and told to roam the country — and the world — finding and fixing jams and bottlenecks in production. His solution to the problem of modifying aircrafts was simple: keep production moving by leaving the designs alone, and modify the planes after they were done. Civilian airlines took on the job, training thousands of new airplane mechanics virtually overnight.

All through the economy, over and over, problems like that were quickly solved — problems that today would lead to endless delays and eventual failure. What made things different back then? The urgency of war? No. Leaders like Kaiser and Knudsen were behaving no different in preparation for war than they had for their entire careers. What pleased them in their work was constantly figuring out how to do things faster, bigger and better.

What made the war mobilization different was that they — the most dynamic and driven industrialists — were driving it. Many New Dealers had been deeply suspicious of them from the start, but Roosevelt wisely overrode their objections.

Do we have to wait for World War III to mobilize like that again? Today, our economy is treading water. In the 1930’s, it was drowning. If they were living in a different time, it was a time that was definitely more likely to produce the success they accomplished. Industrial leaders like Knudsen and Kairser were not unique to their time. We have plenty like them today.

Knudsen and Kaiser appeared as heroes on the covers of Time, Life and Newsweek, but were unknown before the war mobilization. Right now, thousands of equally driven and talented characters are working miracles in obscurity: the people who built out Google’s global server infrastructure, who reinvented database technology to allow Google to look up anything you might ask within a thousandth of a second, or who reinvented it all again to allow Facebook to stand up to the demands of the most data-intensive application ever run. Those folks have redesigned the very structure of your day-to-day life, and you’ve never heard their names.

The story of recent industrial breakthroughs doesn’t stop with famous and fashionable Internet companies. There are hundreds of unsung heroes behind the recent — and almost unnoticed — reinvention of the U.S. auto industry. Amazing leaders are making radical breakthroughs all over our economy. Many are immigrants, just like Knudsen, though these days they tend to come from Asia, not Europe.

Why, then, with all those industrial heroes, is the U.S. economy hobbling along at a the pace of a 17 year old dog while Asia, for example, is exploding? There’s an answer that probably most of you reading this are thinking of right now: It’s that Asia still has a ways to go, and we’ve basically arrived. That was the thinking that made Roosevelt refrain from directly building up our means of making a living in the Great Depression. He said, “We’ve already got all the capacity we need.” Meanwhile, half of America was staving, and even the wealthiest Americans were still living a material a life that would be considered slumming it by most middle class people today. He was just as distant from the half of America that was suffering as nearly all liberal, progressive and conservative politicians and writers are today. He was as out-of-ideas as our current elite is today.

Half of America today is living in a nightmare, or something close to it. Almost the whole other half is living a life unfit for human beings: sitting in a cubical 50 or 60 hours a week pushing paper instead of living their own lives and raising raising their own children. What we know from the past few thousand years is that humanity is not a zero-sum game. New tools and new patterns in social organization — such as rule of law, human rights and democracy — make new and better life possible. Though it is remote from the typical American consciousness, boring industrial and organizational changes of the past several decades have freed billions of people from fear of death by starvation, disease, flood and violence.

In America, the Great Mobilization lifted tens of millions out of misery. After the war, America’s amazing new economy powered prosperity here for two generations — for many Americans, but far from all. Moreover, almost from V-Day on, the dynamism of the war economy was not able to translate into peacetime. First came a very gradual slowing of growth, and then a decline in real wages. They’ve been falling for most Americans every since 1977.

Many upper middle class Americans today are just as far removed from the misery that consumes half their country as lords and ladies of the middle ages. Meanwhile, working class and poor Americans are stuck wondering what’s wrong with them that they’re so different from everyone on television and in the movies. This book is looking for those who can see through this haze and can summon the clarity and resolve to say it should be different.

What, then, is the equivalent of the World War II mobilization for peace time here at the beginning of the 21st century?


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