The Rolling Stone political columnist William Greider is no stranger to feel-bad journalism: His 1992 book "Who Will Tell the People?" acidly sketched the sorry state of American democracy. But that earlier book, unlike Greider's new jeremiad about the international economy, was a plea for reform aimed at those who could act on it. "One World, Ready or Not" is an often thoughtful book that'll be read by a few politicos; too bad the heads of the world's multinational corporations are unlikely to touch it.
Greider's thesis in this (overly long) book is fairly simple: The world's industries, blindly following the mechanism of capitalism, are producing goods much faster than people can buy them. This chronic state of oversupply decimates profit margins and perpetuates a cutthroat price war. And the methods companies are using to beat their competition -- slashing costs by following cheap labor around the globe and using automation to shrink their work forces -- make the demand problem even worse. Fewer employees means a smaller market for everyone. In other words: Chinese prison laborers don't buy refrigerators, American autoworkers do. Until they're laid off.
The signs of coming financial ruin are everywhere, Greider writes, but it's unlikely much will change until there's a worldwide flameout -- one greater than the Great Depression. The streets will run with bond-traders' blood; innumerable fortunes will be lost; fascism may lift its ugly head, if we're particularly unlucky.
"One World, Ready or Not" is often compelling, but it's ultimately unsatisfying and a little irritating, an intellectualized update of "The Late, Great Planet Earth" for amateur economists. There are fuzzy snapshots of a brighter future near the book's end, but it's unlikely most readers will make it that far. Greider's not one to shrink from an unpleasant truth, and one suspects he takes an unseemly pleasure in being the bearer of bad news. There is a joy, and a peculiar honorableness, in pessimism. Still, when you have the flu, knowing the bug's Latin name doesn't make you feel any better.