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Book Review of: The Power of Half

One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back

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Review of The Power of Half The Power Of Half, by Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen (Hardcover, 2010)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

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

This is a well-written, interesting account of a project undertaken by an extremely wealthy family. If you are a typical American and want a glimpse into the world of the elite, here's a first-hand account. I think it's worth reading. Not only that, $1 from every sale is donated to the charity Rebuilding Together.

Further, the underlying concept of taking something you own and giving half of it away is practical and self-beneficial (I did not say self-serving, as that would be incorrect). Kevin Salwen goes into this concept in some detail a few times in the book. While the authors gave away half a mansion, they aren't saying everyone else should give away half their house. But giving away half of something could prove very worthwhile. This is explicitly addressed in the book.

Many people have clutter they manage, and it's a drain on them. Giving away half of that will help someone else while being liberating to the giver. Families that are growing apart due to consumerism could address that to come closer, and this is what the Salwens did. That was the real point of the book, though many critics missed that point entirely.

Interestingly, half the family wrote this book. Kevin is the father, Hannah is the teenage daughter. Hannah has a younger brother, and Mrs. Salwen is also in this story.

I think I would like this family if I met them. But I'd find little common ground with them in terms of worldview. That dissonance is the basis for my criticisms of this book. Overall, this book is still a worthwhile read despite its flaws.

It wasn't until the last chapter that I understood this book. As I was reading, I frequently had bouts of incredulity. This family hardly represents the average American, but the tone seems to imply that they believe they do. They are way better off than most Americans. Anyone who wishes to research median, mean, and average wealth stats can come up with "how much" better off. Maybe it's north of 90%.

I'm a pragmatist and I think quantitatively due to my training and education. To me, the story presented in this book didn't add up. Let's look at that story, in brief.

The family was growing apart from each other. They needed a common project to pull the family together, and a chance encounter led to a plan. The plan they came up with was to sell their mansion and give away half to charity. This sounds wonderful on the surface, but what do we really know about this? The authors leave out core facts.

For example, we don't know the basis they had in their mansion or what they paid for it. These facts are critical for getting a perspective on the "sacrifice" the authors kept talking about. If Bill Gates gives someone a million dollars, it's no sacrifice for him. But if the clerk at your local Walgreen's, making $8 an hour and working 30 hours a week (do the math) gives away $100 it's a huge sacrifice.

BTW, if you don't believe those numbers just ask a clerk at Walgreens. Or Google it. And did you know Wal-Mart pays so poorly they actually coach their employees on how to collect government assistance for the poor? Consider how many Walgreens and Wal-Marts are near you.

We do have other clues to help form the picture. The many expensive toys, the free time, the expensive vacations, etc., describe a life of wealth and privilege.

They had calculated their expected home sale profit during the housing bubble. This tells me they were essentially planning to cash out near the peak and (probably) give away an amount that was far above what they paid. Since the wife worked for a major consulting firm and the husband was a journalist and yet they somehow managed to leave out salient details, I didn't find Kevin's intended portrait of their sacrifice believable.

Kevin kept talking about the expected sale price, not the profit from the sale. And we don't know what that figure was. So, we really don't know if they planned to give away the windfall and keep the principal while moving to less expensive to run digs or what. What we read between the lines, however.....

As a reader, I would have felt manipulated if not for my realization the authors live in a world very different from that of most people in this country. Very different and many steps removed. This doesn't make them bad people, just people with a perspective few of us can relate to. I got the impression they felt everyone was either homeless or about as well-off as they are. No middle class.

Even with the loss they ultimately took on the sale of their mansion while still meeting their giveaway pledge, they are fabulously wealthy. Their downgrade to a 3,000 square foot mansion-lite is still an upgrade for most folks. When we learn of the loss, we also learn they made their first pledge payment by giving away the $80,000 they'd saved for their kids' college. Having an extra $8,000 isn't normal, much less $80,000.

Look up the savings rates for Americans, and they aren't very rosy. For many recent years, the median savings has actually been a negative value.

Unlike the Salwens, the typical American doesn't have enough wealth stored in his/her home to sell it and use the proceeds to buy a decent house in which to live--much less have money left over. If you leave out the home as an asset for this reason, the typical American is financially under water.

Most employed Americans work very long hours. I don't know what the exact stats are, but it is no stretch to say the typical wage earner puts in 1.5 jobs worth of hours a week. I know white collar people who work 70 hours week after week (on a 40 hour salary), or get canned if they refuse. The Salwens, by contrast, have ample time to engage in a variety of volunteer work, take expensive vacations, and play with a variety of expensive toys.

I'm not criticizing them for this, but merely pointing out their situation is highly atypical. I don't begrudge them their wealth, as it they earned it. However, they seem oblivious to the rarity of their economic success.

To many people, the Salwen story comes across as that of the insensitive privileged class "rubbing it in" to the working class. "Look, I've got so much time and money I can give away huge amounts of it and still be better off than you!" This is why there was so much vitriol when their story first went public. I think the vitriolic folks (who, according to the authors, were 1 out of 3) zeroed in on the cognitive dissonance and tuned out everything else.

To me, the story is that a very wealthy family felt their enormous home and the distractions made possible by their extensive material possessions were allowing too much diversion from being a family. So, they got rid of all kinds of stuff they didn't need and downsized to a smaller mansion-lite. The mansion-lite cost quite a bit less to heat, cool, clean, and maintain. Giving away half the proceeds from the sale of the larger mansion--was that tax motivated? I'm not trying to be a cynic, but I don't believe the authors tell the whole story here.

That's my take on the book. Read it with an understanding of the authors' perspective and you can clearly see these are good people trying to do good things (and succeeding). The fact they don't tell this story from an "everyman's view" is really a non-starter. If they were "everyman," they couldn't have told this story because they couldn't have had the mansions that were central to the project this story talks about.

This book consists of nine chapters and an epilogue spanning 242 pages of a small format hardcover book. It's thought-provoking if you dig into it past the authors' worldview. It could be life-changing in a positive way if you take apply those thoughts to your own circumstances.



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.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, 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 no 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 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. 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.

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