Power: Why We Want It and What to Do with It

Power: Why We Want It and What to Do with It

by Dennis Toombs


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This book explores human behavior in terms of power in all its manifestations across a wide spectrum. The author examines the subtle dynamics of power in interpersonal relationships as well as its overarching influence in large institutions such as governments, nations, and the financial centers of our global economy. By using this single conceptual lens, he demonstrates how abundant and diverse our power sources are, how to find and develop them to unleash our hidden potential, and how to help others accomplish the same.

What are the three (or four) greatest sources of individual power? How do we use power passively and aggressively in relationships? Why does power tend to corrupt? What influence does government have on the distribution of wealth? In what ways have globalization and technology changed our national economies, corporations, and governments? How can we promote the common good for ourselves and society?

These questions and more are illuminated through the author's insightful focus on power broadly defined. After reading this book, you'll never see yourself or the world again in quite the same way.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633881914
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 07/19/2016
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dennis Toombs, Ph.D., now retired, was professor of government for forty-two years at San Jacinto College in Houston, TX.

Read an Excerpt


Why We Want It and What to Do with It

By Dennis Toombs

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2016 Dennis Toombs
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-192-1




Human beings have not changed since prehistoric time. We have been involved in a continuous struggle for power over what there is to get, not only for material goods and services but also for respect, values, and control. This one lens — a struggle for power — explains all of human behavior, inside and outside of government. Its strength lies in its all-encompassing explanation, lengthy time span, and universality. All of us have numerous sources of power, many of which we are largely unaware of or don't use. Power reveals how abundant and diverse our power sources are, how to find and develop them, and how to become everything we are meant to be. Those of us who play politics frequently and best get more of what there is to get, working for pure good or evil, or more likely something between the two. Even if we avoid other people completely, we are in competition with nonhuman beings, our environment, and nature. Death is the only way to escape from the struggle for power — and even then, not entirely.

The approach taken here has an optimistic view of human nature, where good wins over evil. It focuses on the social, economic, and political goals that we have in common despite our differences over values, ideology, and public policy — like how to achieve equality of opportunity and political freedoms. A just society is one in which all of us have the fundamental economic and political rights necessary to reach our full potential. Economic rights are education, healthcare, housing, food, clothing, and an environment free of crime and debilitating pollution. Important political rights are freedom of expression and religion, the right to form organizations and vote, equal treatment before the law and courts, and due process.

Of the economic rights, the two that are most crucial for equality of opportunity are education and healthcare. Though cost-effective in the long run, they are also among the most expensive rights and are likely to be only partially available, if not missing entirely. From an economic standpoint, more education leads to better-paying jobs, paying more in taxes to benefit society, and less likelihood of needing public social services or committing crimes. Healthcare correlates highly with education and economics. Healthy babies can develop their brains more fully; healthy children can learn more effectively; and healthy adults can work, earn money, and pay taxes. Imagine the miraculous and revolutionary changes that would occur if everyone on the planet had a quality education and healthcare!

A worldwide consensus supports equality of opportunity and the economic and political rights necessary for achieving it. Our major differences are over process not substance, not whether we should have these rights but how. Meaningful progress toward getting them will probably have to come from the general public up, rather than from the top or government down, because of (1) the increasing concentration of political power and wealth in the hands of the few and (2) our declining trust in corporate and government leaders. We the mass public have power. If like-minded people come together, we have power far beyond our numbers in the total population. Economic security, education, and good health help us move up the socioeconomic ladder. Political rights give us the opportunity to influence the important decisions over our lives.

We pursue power all of the time for many reasons. First and foremost, we struggle to have the material goods and services necessary for survival — adequate food, housing, clothing, medical care, and education, and a safe environment. Once we have the basics, most people want to improve their standard of living, to acquire increasingly more material possessions. We compete for power to fulfill our emotional needs, to have the approval, admiration, and love of others as well as self-respect. Some of us seek to connect with the past, which we do by studying history or our family genealogy. Others pursue religion because of their desire to find God. Philosophically oriented people focus on learning about the reason for our existence or becoming enlightened. Politicians want power to have position, title, and authority.

The ongoing struggle for power for material goods, services, respect, values, and control is politics in the broadest sense of the word. Respect is an acknowledgment and appreciation from others of our power, something that almost all of us seem to need, from law-abiding citizens to criminals. Values unlike facts can't be scientifically established. They are beliefs about the good and bad, desirable and undesirable, right and wrong. Examples are strawberry is better than chocolate ice cream, only one God exists, and eighteen-year-olds should have the right to vote. As much as possible, we seek control over ourselves and then in varying degrees over other individuals, groups, organizations, and the governments under which we live — national, state, and local. We strive to control our total environment, which includes our ecological system and inanimate objects as well as other human beings. We focus especially on circumstances that threaten our safety or lives, such as serious illnesses, animal attacks, deadly weather conditions, automobile accidents, and crime.

If questioned, most people would probably say that the basic source of conflict is competition over scarce goods and services like money, land, food, oil, drinking water, tickets to a championship sporting event or a sold-out rock concert, or the love of a significant other. The reality is that conflicting values are often at the heart of this competition. Is today's global warming human-made or the beginning of the next normal interglacial warming period? Is healthcare a human right, or should it be available only for paying customers? Should the life of endangered species take priority over water rights? Should we preserve the rainforest at the expense of oil production? Would a national registration of firearms law lead ultimately to government confiscation of all guns? Should racial minorities and women be given preferences to make up for past discrimination? Should girls be given the same access to education as boys? Which organized religion, if any, provides a true pathway to God? Does God in the traditional sense exist? In the abortion debate, when does a human egg become a person with full legal and political rights — just before the sperm penetrates the egg; when the egg is fertilized; when the fetus is three, four, five, or six months old; or when the baby can survive on its own outside of the womb?

Sometimes science transforms values into facts. Even then, supporters on the losing side of empirical evidence may choose to reject the science. Despite Copernicus's finding in the sixteenth century that the earth circled the sun, many people and the Catholic Church continued to believe that the earth was the center of the universe. Epilepsy has long been considered by many a symptom of possession by the devil, evil spirits, or witchcraft. As recently as the twentieth century, people with epilepsy in some societies were thought to be contagious and were not allowed to marry or have children. In a startling congressional committee hearing in 1994, seven chief executive officers of America's largest tobacco companies testified that nicotine wasn't addictive. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, some people still don't believe that man landed on the moon or that global warming is a reality.

All of life is competition over who gets what, where, when, and how. Our struggle for power begins in the mother's womb and stays with us throughout life and perhaps surprisingly in death. The embryo struggles to survive, grow, and be born. As newborns, we want to sleep, eat, and excrete our wastes. Our desires quickly expand to include human touch, attention, and play. As infants, we use "carrots and sticks" like laughing, crying, temper tantrums, and good behavior to get our way. As adults, we continue to pass out rewards and sanctions to influence others and get them to do what they otherwise might not do. We try to control nature and the rest of our environment for our safety, personal comfort, and well-being. Even after death, the power struggle continues in the form of conflicts over funeral arrangements, probating wills, inheritances, and legacies.

Conflicts on an individual level are between parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife, girlfriend and boyfriend, employer and employee, minister and congregant, teacher and student, elected official and voter, financial investment advisor and client, sales person and shopper, funeral director and relative of the deceased. On a collective level, they involve mass public opinion, groups, private organizations, and governments. Whether we know it or not, we are all in the broadest sense of the word politicians, some of us more political than others. We might escape the struggle for power temporarily by becoming oblivious to our surroundings, unconscious, drug induced, or mentally ill. Yet upon regaining consciousness, forgoing drugs, or receiving psychological help, we find ourselves once again involved in a power struggle. Our death substantially but not wholly frees us from politics.


Imagine a continuum where at one end is total power and at the other end no power. In reality, these absolutes are hypotheticals since no one has complete power and even the weakest among us have some power. Before dealing with real-life power, let's assume briefly for the sake of discussion that you are all-powerful. You have complete control and anything you decide or want will be implemented promptly without opposition. Your sources of power are similar to those found in some science fiction stories or fantasies. You can make yourself, others, and objects invisible. You can read and control the minds of everyone, put a hex on them or bring about their quick demise. Would you want this much power and how would it play out? Don't be too quick to say yes.

With absolute power, your life would be in great danger. Once other people, private organizations, and governments became aware of your supernatural abilities, they would stop at nothing to acquire them — for good or evil. Even if you were divinely inspired and completely benevolent, you can't humanly know enough to make the best decisions in many if not most of the situations that you will encounter over a lifetime. Trying to become fully informed about a limited number of issues wouldn't solve this dilemma. Invariably you will have misleading, biased, inaccurate, or insufficient information on which to base your decisions. You will sometimes interpret sound advice badly or simply have a breakdown in communications. Even with superior knowledge, the best intentions, and flawless implementation, there will be unforeseen, unintended, and negative consequences, some of which no doubt will turn out to be the opposite of what you originally wanted.

In any case, sudden all-encompassing radical improvements that you might want to make for the world would be too disruptive to the status quo. Human beings as individuals and society as a whole can't handle or adjust well to too much change at one time. Clearly even if you had complete power and wanted to save the planet, it would be impossible unless you were God — ever-present, all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfect.

In the real world, however, talented people since the beginning of civilization have brought about revolutionary changes, although sometimes too much to absorb favorably in a short period of time. Increasingly sophisticated weapons of war have changed the balance of power over the centuries: bow and arrow, gun powder, guns, cannons, tanks, automatic assault rifles, biological and chemical weapons, and nuclear arms. Agricultural developments have increased our food supply and reduced starvation: farming methods, fertilizer, high-yielding food seeds, crop irrigation, and insecticides. Industrialization has increased the production of consumer goods and lowered their costs. Transportation breakthroughs have moved people and goods more efficiently: wheel, compass, boat, gyroscope, steam engine, train, automobile, bus, truck, and airplane. Advances in technology have revolutionized communications and made the world smaller: telegraph, telephone, radio, television, computer, and the Internet.

We have through medical discoveries successfully treated and sometimes eradicated diseases: germ theory, radiation, vaccines, penicillin, blood transfusions, antibiotics, and genetic engineering. Technological inventions have improved our daily lives: bifocal glasses, electricity, light bulbs, refrigeration, and air-conditioning. Social services have raised our standard of living: public schools, universal healthcare, unemployment compensation, and economic assistance for the aged and disabled. Educational accomplishments have increased our knowledge of the world: the alphabet, writing, the printing press, the scientific method, science, mathematics, history, and philosophy. We have taken measures to mitigate the effects of life-threatening weather events: floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Concepts of democracy have enhanced the quality of our lives: limits on the power of government, rule of law, due process, equality before the law, rights of the accused, freedom of speech and religion, and civil rights.

If we define power in terms of revolutionizing the world, most of us have not been and never will be important. Yet we all have sources of power no matter how limited. As individuals, we can make contributions that collectively enhance the lives of many people. Positive actions have the added benefit of helping us improve our own emotional health and sense of well-being. They range from major undertakings to small acts of kindness such as dropping a dollar in a Salvation Army kettle, helping someone on crutches, smiling at a stranger, and being a mentor or role model. Simply knowing about our sources of power by itself has value and beneficial consequences no matter how small they may be in the grand scheme of things. Collectively, if we use our sources wisely and for the good of humanity, we can transform society.


Power is defined here essentially as who gets what there is to get and influencing people to do something they otherwise might not do. Similar to capitalism, we offer our talents for sale in the marketplace and it tells us what works and doesn't, for example, intelligence, knowledge, beauty, charm, and experience. The marketplace is brutally honest in saying how much we are worth. If our goods and services are effective in attracting others, we use these sources of power to get more of what there is to get and to promote our values. If not, we may modify our sources to make them work better, abandon them entirely for other skills that we already possess, or try to develop new ones.

What are our three greatest sources of power? If we were limited to three, not necessarily in order of importance, one would be self-interest — not that of ourselves but the self-interest or needs of others. It is the glue that holds other sources of power together. Add genuine empathy and compassion to the mix and we have created an irresistible combination. Bestselling authors and popular television hosts like Deepak Chopra, Oprah Winfrey, and Dr. Phil have been successful in making us believe that they truly understand our needs and want to help us improve our lives. We get power to the degree that we can recognize and respond to the needs of others. Most of us don't do this very well. We are too preoccupied with our own self-interest and egos to understand, much less empathize with, the circumstances of others. We see the world from where we sit. Con artists, hucksters, and sociopaths are especially skilled at zeroing in on and manipulating our desires, fears, ignorance, and prejudice for their diabolical ends. An alternative approach is possible. It is to renounce the dark side and use our skills to help others, as well as ourselves, in a positive way.

The second greatest source of power is to think unconventionally, be creative, and change the rules of engagement. We are most likely to adopt this strategy when faced with a serious problem or crisis such as a divorce, loss of job, life-threatening illness, bankruptcy, or house foreclosure — when the pain of maintaining the status quo is much greater than the stress, unpredictability, and risk of change. If the crisis is a major political, economic, or social issue, we may be disinterested or afraid to act, especially if we feel powerless or overwhelmed by an adversary. Breaking with the commonly accepted standards of behavior under dire circumstances is usually an act of desperation. We believe there is no other way. As severe underdogs, we must adopt new and unorthodox strategies to have any chance of winning.


Excerpted from Power by Dennis Toombs. Copyright © 2016 Dennis Toombs. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 11

Chapter 1 Power 101 13

Struggle for Power 13

How Powerful Are You? 16

Our Three (Or Four) Greatest Sources of Power 18

Some Other Major Sources of Power 24

Summary 32

Chapter 2 Individual Power 33

Two Stages of Power 33

Passive and Aggressive Power 34

Long-Term and Short-Term Power 36

Guarding Our Greatest Sources of Power 38

Creativity 40

Survival 41

Death 43

Power Corrupts 45

Power Cuts Both Ways 45

Expression and Ideas 49

Emotions and Memories 55

Summary 58

Chapter 3 Group Power 59

Why We Rule 59

We Should and Must Generalize about People 60

Successful Groups Guaranteed 64

To Participate or Not 67

Causes and Effects of Freedom 69

Group Power: It's Not "What You Think 70

Power of Voting 75

Representation 78

Gender, Race, and Ethnicity 79

Nationality and Nationalism 82

Majority Rule and Minority Rights 85

Summary 87

Chapter 4 Government 89

Power of Government 89

The Pie-Who Gets What, Where, When, and How? 92

The Political System 95

Political System Diagram 95

Defining Democracy 100

Characteristics of a Democracy 101

Attempts at Government 108

Building Democracy 114

Authoritarian versus Democratic Subsystems 116

Criticisms of Democracy 119

Liberals versus Conservatives 122

Contradictions and Hypocrisy over Government's Size 123

Sugarcoat Politics to Make It Go Down 126

Enduring Issues Cutting across Time and Culture 128

The Abortion Debate, Ultimately a Clash in Values 129

Summary 130

Chapter 5 Economy 131

What Are Economics, Capitalism, and Socialism? 131

Market Capitalism versus Market Socialism 133

Which Economic System Is Superior? 136

Keys to Success 138

Food and Potable Water 139

Shelter, Utilities, and Clean Air 140

Clothing 140

Medical Care 141

Education 144

Jobs and Social Safety Nets 148

Collective Economic Power-Fall of the Middle Class 151

Globalism and the Economy 155

Summary 158

Chapter 6 Power From Within Yourself 159

Everything about Relationships in a Few Paragraphs 159

Civil and Uncivil Relationships 162

Components of Relationships, Civil or Uncivil 165

Power of Intimacy 166

Giving Up Power to Get Power 170

Relationships 170

Nature 173

Spirituality 174

You Are an Illusion 175

Summary 177

Chapter 7 Power Through Wisdom and Ethics 179

The American Dream 179

Power of Enlightenment 180

Giving Up the Ego 182

Using Power Wisely and Ethically 185

A Just Society 188

A Revolution in Human Imagination 192

A World without Conflict 221

Our Place in the Struggle for Power 223

Notes 227

Index 235

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