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Book Review of: Over Here

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Review of Over Here, by Edward Humes (Hardcover, 2006)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

The GI Bill following World War II was one of the largest, and most expensive, pieces of social legislation in US history. Was that good or bad? Don't answer that question until you have read this book.

We have become accustomed to using the words "failure" and "government" together, and it seems the federal government goes to great lengths to ensure we keep doing that. We are all familiar with federal agencies, bureaus, and programs that epitomize incompetence, stupidity, corruption, and waste.

But not everything the federal government does is a failure. Talk to any veteran who is receiving healthcare from the Veterans Administration today, and you'll realize that, yes, the federal government can actually do some things right. But you would be hard-pressed to find a better example of something done right than the original GI Bill.

Humes interviewed WWII veterans who received various benefits from the GI Bill. Those veterans provided fascinating accounts of something the government actually got right. Humes wove these accounts into a larger narrative, so we can see what brought the GI Bill about. We can also understand and appreciate the profound changes it brought to America.

Humes' adroit authoring resulted in an informative book that is a pleasure to read. Though well-written, this book contains some errors.

Errors

The errors involve economics and mathematics, which aren't normally the bailiwick of someone with Humes' background as a journalist. Since he chose to write in these areas (errantly) anyhow, I have summarized  the errors here:

  • Humes mistakenly defines the taxes of Americans in terms of the published federal income tax rates. This narrow view grossly understates the typical American tax burden. It ignores the dozens of other taxing mechanisms. For example, there are 127 different taxes in the price of a single loaf of bread. Did you know that the tax on an airline ticket can be a third or more of its price? Taxes appear to be more abundant than hydrogen.

    Looking at only one form of taxation as being the form of taxation is intellectually disabling. This "blinders on" approach leads to false comparisons of the tax burdens among nations, allowing bad public policy to escape scrutiny. Citizens of the United States, a debtor nation, pay higher taxes than do citizens of other industrialized nations. You can calculate the extent of the damage by looking at how much the US  government spends. You just need to understand that money to pay for this spending comes out of taxpayers' hides (the pockets were emptied long ago) one way or another. Despite wishful thinking, money does not grow on trees.
     
  • Humes talks of the "massive tax cuts" that allegedly took place over the past few years. It's unfortunate that Humes parroted this political rhetoric. Those "tax cuts" are just another example of giving a little with the one hand and taking much with the other.

    In reality, we have suffered an enormous increase in our tax burden over the past decade. The bulk of this increase occurred in recent years. Government spending is been at record levels, and the money thus burned has to come from somewhere--that "somewhere" is, via one route or another, the citizen. When the citizen has to surrender money to the government, that is called "taxes." Ergo, taxes have gone up. Way up.
     
  • One way the government "taxes without taxing" is it borrows. But the borrowing is huge and it has a dramatic and negative effect on the capital markets. Due to the law of supply and demand (Economics 101), it hugely raises the cost of capital, which you pay for (dearly) in the prices of the products and services you buy. Look again at the one-third direct tax on the typical airline ticket and add in this indirect tax, and you start to get the picture of just how massive the tax load is for an American citizen. But it's only a start.
     
  • Another way the government "taxes without taxing" is it expands the money supply. This lowers the value of every dollar you have (if ever so briefly), but allows the government to pay its bills in dollars that have less value to the recipient. We call this form of taxation "inflation." How big is this tax? The $20 bill you put in your pocket in 1980 is worth less than $4 now.

    Imagine going to the store and being told that all prices are quadrupled just for you. Or imagine what it's like to have someone come into your home and steal 3 out of every 4 items you own. That's what the government does to you by putting more money in circulation. If not for inflation, that last airline ticket you bought would have cost less than one-fourth as much as it did. And that includes the huge portion of it that is simply a direct tax. Take all the taxes out, and that $400 airline ticket would run you about 36 bucks. In short, the actual price you pay is pretty much a rounding error compared to the tax component.
     
  • Humes says that President Bush inherited a budget surplus, but that is a meaningless and misleading bit of information. A budget surplus is easy to achieve--just do what President Clinton did and move expenditures off budget until you get the "budget surplus" you want. You can increase spending and produce a budget surplus simultaneously--the two actions do not share a dependency. As an example, consider people who have a gambling addition. They put the gambling "off budget" but wind up deep in debt anyhow. The federal government has a similar addiction to frivolous spending, with similar results.

Context

Fortunately, economics and mathematics are not core issues of the book. Humes shines when he presents what the GI Bill did, what it was, and what it accomplished. I especially appreciate the way he brings out the historical context. Too often, authors leave out the context and thus diminish the value of their work. It's better to understand and apply history than to repeat it. Humes' attention to context helps the reader truly understand.

Providing the historical context accurately is a formidable task. Doing so when covering the GI Bill is no small feat. Remember the periods over which this took place--the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, and on up to the present. These have been periods of great upheaval, socially and institutionally. As various factions have fought for dominance, they have generated propaganda and misinformation that nearly drown out the facts.

Humes did a great job of exposing the racial issues that influenced how the GI Bill was drafted, enacted, and executed. It may be hard for the younger reader to grasp just how obsessed people were with skin color during World War II and in the first three decades after it (or the centuries before it). Humes brought this out without being condescending on the one had, and without minimizing the ugliness on the other hand.

Legislators haggled fanatically over the GI Bill as the end of WWII approached, purportedly to better serve the national interests. But none of this haggling was due to concern over the federal budget or any other national concern, despite the rhetoric people were spewing at the time. The driving force was racial subjugation. The resulting mistreatment was often extreme.

Despite the way they had been mistreated at home, those people whose skin had the "wrong" color performed remarkably well in the war. But many people today still are not aware of, for example, the respect the German pilots had for the black aviators, whose planes had special markings. Humes' account of this is nicely told. The subject, of course, goes much deeper (in this book, as well as in other sources).

In preparation for this review, I interviewed people who lived in Germany during the war and who encountered American troops at its conclusion. One German family had lived in their basement while German soldiers lived upstairs, then later lived in their basement while American soldiers lived upstairs. A woman now in her 90s told me, "The black American soldiers distinguished themselves with excellent conduct. They were very polite and respectful. They were gentlemen, and they made me feel safe for the first time in a long time." All of the interviewees held similarly high opinions of the black GIs they had met.

But these "wrong color" Americans returned home to find themselves still disenfranchised and mistreated by their fellow citizens. They also found, as Humes revealed, their rights under the GI Bill greatly reduced or denied to them altogether. Humes ferreted out the facts to present the non-revisionist picture of exactly what went on, and who was behind it. Humes peeled back the layers of this particular onion so we could see the complex and often invisible machinations of people obsessed with abusing other people based on skin color.

And that's just touching on the racial issues. The astute reader can pick up at least a dozen other contextual "fibers" in the book. All of these form a framework that allows the story of the GI Bill to take shape and make sense. Humes did his homework, and it shows.

I could mention Humes' coverage of another victim class: women. But I will leave that for the reader of this review to explore in the book itself. The parallels to, and the differences from, the racial misdeeds are quite interesting.

Great Effects

A college education was available only to the elite class before World War II. But the GI Bill allowed millions of the Depression-era poor to obtain a college education after the war. Most of the children of these GIs grew up in single-family, mortgaged homes (the GI Bill is why we have suburbs, today) and also obtained college educations.

Humes delves into many areas to show us how the GI Bill changed the very culture and fabric of society. For example, most of the people who directly benefited from this government largesse in the 1940s and 1950s  would later hold to the worldview that less government is better government. Is that hypocrisy? To answer that question, Humes discusses it in context.

The teens who went to war in World War II had grown up with nothing. Then the government put them in the military, where they were constantly being told to what do and then sent off to miserable and dangerous war. After the war, they went to college or trade school at night, working long hours to have something to call their own. Then along came the government with taxes that ate away at earnings and regulations that ate away at freedom. So, it's logical that this demographic, in general, would not be disposed toward liking big government, big brother, or a nanny state. But this is also a generation very conscious of money, because they came through the Great Depression. Go back to the basic math we looked at earlier, and it makes sense that this generation objects to having their pockets picked so voraciously.

To see another example of the effect of the GI Bill, just look at the long lead the USA had in science and technology for the decades following the war. Humes explains how this came about, and what factors contributed to it (in addition to the GI Bill).

If you've visited Japan (or any of several other nations) recently, you've noticed the USA no longer leads the world in technology. In fact, it has fallen behind in many areas. A November 2006 article on cell phones, for example, revealed that the top nine models aren't even available in the USA. Many other areas of technology follow a similar "loss of lead" pattern.

For a clue as to where the USA fits overall (not just technology), consider one statistic: life expectancy. Americans are ranked somewhere between 40th place and 50th place among nations (the statistic varies by source and methodology). My opinion is this decline is due to such factors as the "normal" obsession with overeating (which has resulted in a obesity epidemic) and the stress of all the hours we work just to pay our outrageously high taxes. The latter may be the cause of the former.

GI Bill 2

Because the GI Bill was so transformational at the middle of the previous century, there's been speculation that something similar is needed now. It's unlikely this great experiment in socialism would be accepted today. Americans generally are suffering from statism fatigue, so yet another huge dose of it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back--no matter how beneficial it might be.

Even so, Humes puts forth some ideas on how GI Bill 2 might work. We'd have to suspend his contextual way of looking at things to find these ideas applicable to today's world.

Indeed, if we apply Hume's contextual observations of the post-war era to today, we can see that the kind of solution we need lies in the other direction. That is, it lies in rolling back our massive government rather than expanding it further. Yes, the GI Bill was a massive investment, rather than a welfare program or pork barrel "re-elect me" burning of tax dollars. But that was in a very different era, and the federal government of the time was far smaller than the unaffordable monstrosity that is dragging us down today.

We can clearly trace the cause of our decline to massive federal overspending (mostly on waste). Repeat after me, "Money does not grow on trees...." To afford GI Bill 2, we would need to drastically cut current federal overspending. We must do the same, if we are going to restore our crumbling infrastructure. We would need to fund the costs of those essentials before considering GI Bill 2.

From a political point of view, bringing federal spending down to a sensible or affordable level is impossible. That's because pork barrel spending is the means by which politicians earn their keep from those who put them in office. The more they waste, the more secure their jobs are. Imagine if you could keep your job, with an automatic pay raise each year, by robbing the homes of your company's shareholders. That's what members of Congress do to keep their jobs--they rob your home via higher taxes, direct or indirect.

There are only a few small groups begging legislators for some mercy toward the people who are fleeced to pay for the massive overspending. But there are hundreds of powerful lobbyists pressuring legislators to misallocate your money--and rewarding them for doing so.

From a practical point of view, reducing spending to a sensible and affordable level is easy because most of the spending isn't needed. The idea of "making tough choices" doesn't apply, because there are so many easy ones to make first.

Some sources say 99% of federal spending isn't needed, and other sources provide lower estimates. In any case, the amount of unneeded spending dwarfs the amount of spending that serves any legitimate purpose or does the average citizen any good.

The federal government is 185 times larger than it was a century ago, and the debt it has saddled us with is astronomical. Yet, our so-called representatives ignore such "low-hanging fruit" solutions as eliminating costly agencies that serve no legitimate purpose. Let's consider an example, next.

The United States spends more on its military than the next five nations combined, while the IRS has more employees than all of our military has soldiers and sailors combined. Yet, the IRS is just another, extremely expensive, layer of taxing that is redundant to other taxing bodies. This massive army that strikes terror into the heart of innocent citizens while consuming vast quantities of tax dollars to do so could be replaced by a single harmless employee who simply coordinates and tracks payments from the 50 states. We could do this easily, if we went back to apportionment.

Having an IRS is like turning on all of your stovetop burners to heat one small pan--just a senseless waste of resources (with the added catch you also pour boiling water on your foot). Nobody with any common sense would turn on all four burners just to heat one small pan. Similarly, common sense mandates to Congress and the Senate that they put an end to the IRS with all due haste. They could then put the billions of dollars saved to a worthwhile use.

The fact we still have an IRS shows how irresponsible the Congress and the Senate are. Trusting them with a GI Bill 2 is dicey, at best. But the issue is moot because the profligate spending has made any new spending unaffordable.

Senseless waste is institutionalized in dozens of federal agencies and programs, most of which we would not miss if they were simply eliminated. Cleaning up that mess would free up enormous financial capital that could be used in something worthwhile like a second GI Bill. The thought is tantalizing.

If you can disregard Humes' tax analysis and pseudo-economics, and if you can put his GI Bill 2 proposals in the proper context, you will enjoy this book and benefit from reading it. Understanding one of the major forces that shaped modern life can provide many lessons for us. Thanks to Humes, those lessons come with fascinating stories and some plain old good reading.

 

This page is the original source of this review, though you may also find it on Amazon or other sites.

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About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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