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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The author, Charles Hugh Smith, is a sympathetic character, in full control of the terms by which he leads his life. He makes his roots only somewhat obscure. He was born in the early `50s and hung around the Berkeley scene, drinking from the heady brew of 70s hippydom. Somewhere along the way he sobered up, became a successful freelance writer, and began to concern himself with matters of global and personal finance.

Smith is correct in claiming that his gift is in explaining complex systems and phenomena to the layman. His thesis is somewhat like this.

All life in the United States and the Western world has become more complicated over the course of history. The complex systems he describes include government, medicine, and banking.

A system is not a thinking entity. Moreover, almost every system is far too complex to be completely understood or modeled. Witness the incredible difficulty that climate scientists have in modeling climate change. Models are absolutely essential to understanding, but on the other hand they are always incomplete. The same can be said of the economic models used by hedge funds, corporate treasurers, and government entities.

One characteristic of all of the models is that understanding them requires a thorough knowledge of the field in question. In other words, a good understanding of how the banking system requires a depth of study that is beyond the capacity of most people. Even if one were to assume that all citizens were equally capable of grasping the concepts, the mere fact that some have other work to do as doctors were salesmen or in other professions would preclude their learning the banking business.

The upshot is that people who understand the complexity in any particular field have an advantage. As the government has become more and more deeply involved in every aspect of our lives, they are able to translate that advantage into law.

This leads to another of Smith's observations, that a healthy level of competition, the creative destruction described by Joseph Schumpeter, is essential. It is, however, being smothered. Squelching competition benefits the vested interests. The vested interests make sure that they have priority in providing input to the legislative process. The interests of the bankers, the insurance companies, the home mortgage companies, the education industry and the defense industry are well represented in Congress. The interests of the taxpayer are diffuse and poorly represented. The more complicated government becomes, the more involved it becomes in the above named fields, the less opportunity there is for creative destruction to get rid of inefficient processes. Quite the opposite, the inefficiencies compound themselves and the ordinary citizen pays for it.

Smith refers to modern work on self-deception, without naming the authors who include Tversky, Kahaneman, Trivers and Ariely, to describe the way in which the various actors in these systems rationalize their counterproductive activity. He would encourage the thinking citizen to examine the systems and share his conclusions that their dysfunctional and project the way out of the morass.

That is where I part company in some part with Smith. He is more optimistic about the human animal than I am. He believes that we have the intelligence and goodwill to perceive the problems, and that once the majority of us do, we can set about fixing them. My observation of the electorate does not lead me to this level of optimism. I am more in the doom and gloom camp of the authors of "Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects" and "Convergence of Catastrophes." I think that, in Smith's own words, the present system will have to "run to failure," in other words completely break down before we will be able to replace it. I live in Ukraine which has so far not managed after 20 years to replace their failed socialism and discard the false assumptions about human nature which undergird it. I cannot be optimistic that even in collapse the citizens of the United States will figure out which way to go. I refer readers to my review of "Convergence of Catastrophes" for a catalog of the false assumptions that will have to be swept aside in order to establish a firm foundation for something new.

Where Smith and the other authors would agree is that the something new would have to be more akin to the vision of the Founding Fathers than the modern welfare state. It would have to posit individual responsibility and acknowledge the differences in individual ability.

I conclude in giving this book five stars for the clarity with which Smith writes. I find his rather forced optimism to be reassuring. It is better than a "we are all doomed" message, and it asks the reader to examine the reasons why we may not be doomed. I hope you find them more convincing than I.

I add in June 2013 -
I have my own optimistic book to tout, Edward. It is about home schooling my son in Ukraine, a country so bad it is good. A millennium of bad governments, recently the Communists and oligarchs, has left a legacy of disbelief in government, self-reliance, spiritual faith, and the ethnic homogeneity that comes of having nothing to attract an illegal immigrant. It is a government that will leave you alone, especially in home schooling, with people who have a small-town concern - even intrusive at times - about the well being of their neighbors and children.

When the overextended Western states fail - excessive debt, impossible promises of health care and pensions, civil disorder resulting from unbounded diversity, failed education systems - Ukraine will look pretty good. It has low national debt ($1,700 per capita), an economy centered on basic needs such as agriculture, steel and coal, a smart and educated workforce, and a low tolerance for political correctness - they had enough lies under the Communists. It will be a good place to educate my family, and probably a good place for them to start a career in a couple of decades.
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on December 9, 2012
The acclaim for Charles Hugh Smith's new book comes some of the top social and financial commentators in America today: James Howard Kunstler, the Tyler Durdens of Zero Hedge, Chris Martenson, Adam Taggart and Michael J. Panzer - each of them reflecting my deep personal interest in the subject; simply, what is going on, how does it all tie together (if it does) and where is our current national track leading us? Charles Hugh Smith's book seamlessly weaves the issues of debt, crony capitalism, reserve currency, money velocity, centralization, monopolies, cartels, risk, central planning and many more issues together in one easy-to-understand narrative. And, believe me, it IS readable AND understandable. By the time you finish your first reading, you will have a much better understanding of where, as a citizen, you stand and where the country is going - and why. Better informed, you'll then know a lot better what you need to do, because, as it is obvious from reading this book, standing pat isn't going to be a survival mechanism.

This is not a doomsday prepper's handbook (though I think they definitely have their value) but it explains to us concerned individuals what lies behind the infommertials of the mainstream media, the partisan political statements and maneuvering and the lightweight financial commentators. WHY THINGS ARE FALLING APART AND WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT is the most empowering book I've read in years and, obviously, those I admire and trust to see the world as it is (Kunstler, Martenson, etc.) feel the same way. This is a must-buy and there's nothing else like it in print.
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on February 3, 2013
For one thing, it is a long title. I've been referring to this a "the book" in a series of blog posts thus far on this topic. Just suffice it to say that the book is mostly about why things are falling apart. The "what to do about it" is but one section out of six.

Most of the book is a hard read for me because I tend to want to remain optimistic about things as they are. The book's main message flies right into the face of that. According to this book, things are not going to stay as they are for much longer.

I began with the notion that I agreed that things are falling apart. The book confirms that and much more- which to my chagrin, is not necessarily what I really wanted to believe. What I wanted to believe, and still do, despite this book, is that we can work out our problems. The thing that is missing is the will to do so.

The book isn't really political, but there is some political stuff in it. Does it tend towards the right or towards the left? Actually, neither. However, those on the left may think the book is aimed directly at them. In a way, it is. That's because the dominant paradigm today is big government liberalism initiated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his New Deal. But it may be noted that a lot of so-called conservative Republicans tend to like their big government too, and are therefore wedded to this paradigm as well. The book also goes after capitalism, but does not extol socialism nor communism. To the contrary, it is critical of these systems as well.

The book's solutions tend in the Club of Rome, Limits to Growth genre. That won't work with the modern day real conservatives who believe in limited government and economic growth. I count myself as one of these, but not whole-heartedly so. I would tend to agree that growth for growth's sake isn't the way to go. But to eschew all growth and accept sharp limits is not my cup of tea either.

Yet, some of his ideas are plain old common sense, which I've heard is not held in high esteem amongst some on the left or the elite in general. I agree, they don't seem to have much common sense. The difference is that they are actually proud of that, which shows all the more how cock-eyed they are. This book hits them squarely in the groin, but it also hits everybody else squarely in the groin.

He gives short shrift to technological solutions. He seems to deny that these will prove to be helpful in the long run. I disagree. I think there are technologies that could help but are being blocked by the same self-interested elite that he is so often critical of in this book.

On the whole, it is an excellent read. It will challenge you to the maximum. If you are one of those people who sneer at common sense or believe in your ideology like it is a religion or something, you will not like this book. You may even hate it. But that may be the crux of the problem. People have to realize that there's a problem here, and denying it won't help us solve it.
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on August 16, 2013
As I often read the CHS’s contributions on ZeroHedge, I decided to buy this book hoping to further deepen my understanding of the many challenges this country is facing. However, I was a little bit disappointed with the book for the following reasons:
- To explain the complexity of the various issues, CHS tries to break them down in many short little essays which feel more like a collection of blog posts rather than a deeply interconnected set of concepts. Cohesive, professional editing would improve the readability of the book as it lacks those smooth transitions from one topic to the other which make the reading a more pleasant experience.
- CHS’s posts on ZH often include very informative charts, which need to be studied and understood. At time, that may be difficult or time consuming, but nonetheless those charts provide a wealth of visual information that is completely left out of the book.
- CHS often quotes studies, research and other factual information without ever providing references for further reading (or cross checking).

In short, while commendable, CHS’s work is a self-published book I would recommend to a novice or someone who’s approaching the subject for the first time. For the more initiated, other publications or web sites may provide a better (and free) source of information.
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on January 1, 2013
CHS is one of my favorite bloggers. He does a great job of describing his paradigm for shifting to a locally based sustainable economy. Because of his books I have started to learn basic home repais and other survival skills. If you have read his other books there isn't much new here.
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on January 27, 2013
Great start, great insight, but the solution was disappointing. I expected more details in light of personal actions. Investment options to maintain a reasonable standard of living going into the future would have been helpful.
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on June 3, 2014
Charles Hugh Smith gives a good and insightful summary of the larger problems of Western Civilization. I would recommend the book for this analysis alone. It is a summary I wish I could have read 10 or 15 years ago, if only because it could have helped me to know the extent of widespread corruption and creaming off of middle class wealth that is typical of almost every politician, and large business or banking executive.
The "What we can do about it" portion was a bit disappointing. It assumes that our current civilization can be preserved indefinitely in its same form, more or less, and perhaps just needs a bit of fixing. Maybe if we all voted more intelligently, boycotted products of large corporations, etc, things could be better.

That said, I am not sure anyone has a clear and concise summary of what could be done to repair the corruption and decay all around us. When this sort of thing happened to the Roman Empire, the resolution was a few centuries of Dark Ages, followed by a few more centuries of Middle Ages, liberally scattered through with wars and pestilences of various types.

Summary: A pretty good book about the troubles, not much insight into how to fix them. I would still recommend it.
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on April 28, 2014
As always, Charles tells us the facts in simple understandable terms. He helps put the various pieces in perspective, all tied together with a nice bow so that I have a better understanding. Recommend this book to anyone wondering why the way of the world today is not making sense and seems to be off track. His explanations are well described so that I can understand the concepts as he sees them . Charles has an amazing lock on the economics of the world and what makes it tick.
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on December 21, 2012
The book explains the situation we are in, and possible things we can do about it. The reasons on why we got to this state, and why what they are doing is not going to work. It's not about how we can avoid the inevitable collapse, like my favorite plot point in Terminator 3: "Judgement day is inevitable". The book is not about doom and gloom. No cannibals, zombies, biker gangs or blood thirsty minorities/immigrants, like in other books on collapse. But a more realistic slip to the so called 3rd world. The author explains the trends into what he calls the "end of work" and the forced movement from nanny-state to community based social nets among other things. Truly a worthwhile read.
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on November 24, 2012
Charles Hugh Smith remains under the radar to most -- their loss. Another insightful and useful addition with this effort.
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