Todd Buchholz's book The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them is his argument for why wealthy nations fall. He examines economic, political and cultural realms that he believes contribute to the undoing of these prosperous countries. Buchholtz views birthrates, global trade, debt, work ethic and patriotism (or lack thereof) as the central fissures in the strength of a successful nation.
As much as I was looking forward to reading this book, I was ultimately disappointed. As much time and effort as Buchholz puts into detailing historic empires and their leaders, he fails to address many of the arguments that counter the foundation for his theory. In an effort to make economics a bit more entertaining, he provides metaphors and examples using current pop culture, but many if not most fall miserably short of actually supporting his arguments.
I was a bit apprehensive when early in the book, during his discussion of decreases in birthrates, he makes a comparison between numbers of children and numbers of pets:
"We have about 75.5 million children in the United States but 90 million cats, 75 million dogs, and 170 million freshwater fish. Together Petsmart and Petco sell $10 billion in pet goods. The largest children's retailer, the Children's Place, earns just $1.8 billion in revenues, pretty much equivalent to what Americans spend on snakes, turtles and lizards."
The impression that is created--and I believe intended--is "wow! Look how much more we spend on our pets than our children." Only he's comparing apples to basketballs. The last time you walked into a Petsmart or a Petco, what could you buy for an animal there? Food, treats, clothes, leashes/crates/etc, bedding, grooming, training, toys....this is, of course, an incomplete list and can cover a pet for its entire life. Children's Place sells clothing and maybe some minor accessories for a limited span of a child's existence. Children require far more time, money and resources to raise than any pet that's legal to own in the United States.
Now in the whole scheme of things, this comparison is pretty unimportant to the book, but the fact that something so banal is full of logic holes puts the reader on alert immediately.
Ultimately Buchholz's point is that the wealthy have fewer children than the poor:
"US families earning over $75,000 per year have fewer than fifty-five babies per thousand women. This is half the birthrate of families earning less than $10,000."
He does go on to say that children are "messy, loud, worrisome, and expensive." But a paragraph later says,
"Yet children have always been messy, loud, and expensive. In 1900 the average white woman in America was ringed by three or four whining, crying, and loving children...So what has changed to explain the declining preference for children? And why is it so widespread?"
The answer to that question could be a book in itself. And in the United States it's not going to change while college-educated, career-minded women are penalized for having children.
Buchholz then goes on to talk about historical cultures whose downfalls followed wealth and subsequent drops in birthrates. One example he uses highlights a culture that essentially farmed out their military because they didn't have enough citizens to serve in it. And the military was then susceptible to the highest bidder and turned on the country it was supposed to be defending. Legitimate concern. However, in the United States, the wealthy are the least likely to even serve in our military. So if the idea is for the wealthy to have more children, I'm not sure how this example fits into the scheme of his argument.
And the elephant in MY room while reading this section is lack of discussion about the limited resources of the planet. Even in our prosperous United States, we have areas that struggle with viable water sources. We don't want to become one of the nations on Earth that don't have room or food or water for the huge families they are having in order to have strong numbers to defeat their enemies. If we can't take care of our citizens, our enemies are a moot point. Then of course there's also the damage it does to other elements of the planet that we destroy in order to make room for the growing numbers. The planet's population is larger than it's ever been and it's not moving backward despite low birthrates in some countries. At one point, Buchholz seems to be mocking politicians who care about the environment, and he says,
"What a shame if an avalanche of our debt buries our grandchildren so deeply that they have to sell off national treasures to make ends meet."
Granted at this point he's talking about government debt, but this point so oversimplified the issue of the environment and never even touches global warming. It also neglects the point that if we don't do something to counteract things like our abysmal infrastructure and education system--both things that continue to erode because we're worried about this debt--debt isn't going to matter to our future generations because the country won't exist as it is now.
Now Buchholz does proceed and address the value in immigration, but his offered solutions for how to deal with the resistance to immigration fall very short and, quite honestly, left me with a bad taste in my mouth:
"But I would ask this question: if other advanced countries impose six months to an entire year of mandatory service on their own citizens, would it be so terrible to impose some slight inconvenience on immigrants who apply for citizenship, especially an inconvenience that would enhance their knowledge of the country they aspire to join?"
We already impose a test on these people that many natural citizens can't pass. But let's add to the expense of the process, requiring them to travel around the country and not be working so they can have their passports stamped at "historical landmarks, museums, and libraries." And I'm still not sure how that helps our xenophobic culture be more accepting of these people, who are already proving their dedication to the nation.
Buchholz says he would impose a similar requirement for any U.S. citizen who applies for a student loan through a federal program. Again, people in need of money are now put at further disadvantage in order to prove they are worthy. Never mind the towering debt that's burying these young folks already. No mention, however, of big businesses and the wealthy that take advantage of tax breaks and other government funds.
Sadly, I found myself going through the entire book this way. I typically mark up pages with excerpts I love and word choice or phrasing that moves me. In this reading I was marking every passage where I found logic issues or neglect of relevant information. And I'm not referring to one-off exceptions.
Buchholz refers to the average income of people in the United States. With our current income chasm, the "average" doesn't refer to a lot of households. He says, "The price system and the 'invisible hand' of the market coordinate all of this." No, they don't. That's why we have unions, regulations, child labor laws, etc. And when those regulations have been drawn back, we see that greed knocks the invisible hand right off the invisible wrist.
He refers to the laziness of teenagers and the fact that fewer have summer jobs. But there's no evidence he did any research as to why fewer have summer jobs. Is it possible they are volunteering? participating in various kinds of summer camps? taking care of younger siblings at home? And generations don't simply become lazy on their own. To point the finger at this generation and say they have a bad work ethic is to completely ignore the helicopter parent phenomenon and the role that plays in the child's development. He refers to them not being willing to relocate to a state with lower unemployment rates and not getting driving licenses. However, he neglects to address the costs that keep people from doing things like this. He talks about cars and their affordability. Sure if you come from a well-to-do family, money isn't as big an issue, but Buchholz has already pointed out that the well-to-do are having fewer children. The poor don't have money for additional cars, insurance, license fees, etc. And if you don't have a reliable source of transportation, could that possibly impact your ability to get or hold a job?
There is a section that directs attention to the Labor Participation Rate and Buchholz refers to it as the "proportion of adults who want to work." But he mentions nothing about the growing numbers of people who have taken themselves out of this arena because they've tried to find jobs and have been unsuccessful for so long that they've given up hope, that their time out of the workforce makes employers pass over them automatically. In a nation that puts up so many barriers for those coming out of prisons, a nation that has to petition employers to hire veterans coming back from war, a nation whose sky-rocketing cost of education puts it out of reach for a growing percentage of the population--people who desperately need new skills in order to be marketable, the term "want" is a huge over-generalization.
While there are legitimate concerns presented in The Price of Prosperity, and I'm glad I read it for a view point that doesn't necessarily align perfectly with my own, it reinforces for me the fact that we're neglecting vital realities that exist in our nation. For Buchholz to make the statement, "When rich nations begin to shatter, everyone has a comfy bed--but fewer people have a reason to get out of it," I know he's neglecting realities and his credibility is, therefore, destroyed. I believe in the United States. I'm not lining up to relinquish my citizenship. But I do not believe The Price of Prosperity holds the answers to the problems that plague us. For that, we'll have to look elsewhere.
The Price of Prosperity is available in hardcover from Harper (ISBN: 9780062405708). It is also available as an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 9781522690788) from Brilliance, narrated by Buchholz.
My review today is part of the TLC book tour for The Price of Prosperity. Check the schedule to see how other bloggers are responding to Todd Buchholz's solution to our country's prosperity problems.
Disclosure: I do some contractual work for one of the owners of TLC Blog Tours. My work with them does not obligate me to a specific kind of review. The reviews are still my own opinions and reflect only my thoughts on the novels. If you care to read more, you can find more information on my Disclosure page.