The Commanding Heights

I've had the benefit of having the past few weeks off. I got a lot of reading done and have been able to catch up on a ton of movies. (The Wrestler is not as good as people say it is, but Frost/Nixon and Milk were much better than I expected. I'm betting it's Frank Langella for Best Actor.)

One other thing I did was rewatch the six-hour PBS documentary "Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy" that aired back in 2002. I remember seeing it then and, while having a few key issues with it, liked it a lot. The series is based on a book by Daniel Yergin - who is best known for writing the terffic The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, that won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1992 - and Joseph Stanislaw, first published in 1998. It is available on DVD but also free on PBS's website.

I think the series is fascinating background for anyone trying to put what is happening to today's economy in larger context.

In short, the book and documentary attempt to trace the rise of free markets during the last century, as well as the process of globalization. The title comes from a speech by Vladimir Lenin, who used the phrase "commanding heights" to refer to the segments of the economy that largely control or support the others, such as oil, railroads, banking and steel.

The authors label the era prior to World World I as the "First Era of Globalization," when the push toward free markets, immigration and international trade expanded like no time before it in history. They then trace the massive public distrust of corporations and wealthy individuals that grew from the Great Depression and how socialism and Marxism continued to grow in popularity around the world and threatened the very existence of American-led capitalism.

The series spends a good deal of time on the work of economist John Maynard Keynes, who came to be widely accepted in Western economies in the middle of the last century and is central to the developed world's response to the current economic crisis.

Finally, the last half touches on how the political pendulum change of the 1980s ushered in a change of economic policy around the globe, most notably in the United Kingdom and the United States with the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and, later, the demise of the Soviet Union. An interesting bonus: they spend a good amount of time on the resurrection of Austrian School economist Friedrich von Hayek, who opposed government regulation other infringements on a pure free market, and the rise of Milton Friedman, who is most known today for discounting the using of inflationary monetary policies to set economic growth.

Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw clearly end with a warm and clear embrace for where capitalism stood at the close of the 20th century and missed some big nuances in the process in my opinion. To be fair, they do (lightly) suggest that globalization may not last unless more of the Third World soon sees more benefits from capitalism.

Trust me: it's worth a watch, or read, if you decide to pick up the book. If you do, we'd love to hear your take on what this all might say about our current situation.



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