February 4, 2018

Review Corner

POINT OF ORDER: Review Corner is eight to ten books behind. The backlog, good procrastinators know, is yet another hurdle. I don't recall its ever happening before, but it is not likely coincidental that "War & Piece" is next. Surely the world waits with bated breath for my take on Mister Tolstoy (He's shockingly Hayekian -- I wonder if that is sufficiently covered...)

But I wanted to flip one to the top of the list. The author is blog-sister dagny's brother. I don't know that we've met in the corporeal world, by my blog-brother-in-law has crafted a rollicking tale and it is new enough that the cleaned-up-for-Amazon review might help.


Breathtaking, Kojiro thought as he watched the Kono horses thundering toward him. Beautiful animals, colorful riders, and naked steel; if they weren't coming to kill me, I would cheer.

A distant but personal connection gets Review Corner to put down the dull economics books and enjoy a little fiction. And I did enjoy The Rose and the Crane by Clint Dohmen. Quite a bit.

The Rose and the Crane clashes the 15th Century cultures on British Seamen, Venetian traders, and Samurai warriors. Those who crave action will enjoy Iliad-level gore in descriptive battle sequences.

Neno did not like to lose crewmen unless it was by his own hand. He was halfway around the world and had lost enough already. Sure, for the most part they were good-for-nothing, whoring drunkards, but then, so was Neno, and only he had the right to remove them from the ranks of the living.

To be clear, this is not some mixed-race "Dinner with Andre" with lengthy conversations about cultural differences. But in the life and death of battle and battle preparations, the differences are explored -- tersely and wittily - as alliances become friendship.
Based on the magnificent horse that the man sat astride and his stag - antler wakidate, Kojiro guessed that man was Lord Kono himself. "At least we do not fight cowards," Kojiro observed aloud to no one in particular.

Simon, standing nearby, heard the comment. "I would prefer to fight cowards."

"Invincibility lies in one's self," Kojiro responded calmly.

"Easy for you to say."

"I did not say it .Sun Tzu said it."

We follow the band from Japan through spice islands, back to Continental Europe for preparation, and ultimately to return to England to participate in the Wars of the Roses. Over time, the reader becomes of the characters, with all their foibles, and becomes quite invested in the outcome. The pacing is very good and the plot never lags.

It's way outside my typical fare, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Aldo sighed and looked out over the canal. "In all seriousness, though, I need more stories, and I have a feeling that a voyage with you will produce some. Besides, when I travel, I trade, and when I trade, I make money, so what is there to lose?"

Indeed. Five stars, without a doubt.

Posted by John Kranz at 1:14 PM | Comments (6)
But dagny thinks:

Thanks for the kind review JK. Clint owes you a beer or 3 if you put a review on Amazon too. If you have never met him in person, I will try to arrange it next time he comes to visit. I think you would get along. I also very much enjoyed reading his book.

Also you might like to know that Clint is quite a history scholar and the, "historical," part of his historical fiction is likely all very accurate.

Posted by: dagny at February 5, 2018 12:50 PM
But jk thinks:

I'd look forward to it -- the book is really very good.

I did post a review on Amazon. I don't the biz really well, but I think he needs bad (or meh) reviews. I was the 26th five-star (and people say Review Corner has grade inflation). It looks funny. He needs a couple postmodernist-deconstructionist excoriations for its lack of female warriors and a three because it doesn't have Jar-Jar Binks in it.

Posted by: jk at February 5, 2018 3:48 PM
But johngalt thinks:

How about: "It doesn't live up to its billing at all. Not one mention of botany or ornithology! It should have been called 'The Bloody Merry!'"

Posted by: johngalt at February 6, 2018 3:36 PM
But jk thinks:

That'd work! The 5.0 rating looks contrived.

Posted by: jk at February 6, 2018 4:11 PM
But dagny thinks:

Interesting that you note the lack of female warriors JK. I read the book rapidly, in my unable to put it down mode and enjoyed it immensely. Otherwise I wouldn't be pushing it on my friends. (I'm not so attached to my brother that I would recommend a bad book to my friends) And it was about a week later that I noticed the almost complete lack of female characters period. Even the unimaginatively named Kuro has more personality than the female characters. I do think that is somewhat of a shortcoming. I can't put a review that says so on Amazon though. Amazon has some weird software that detects family reviews and deletes them. Maybe Riza could do it? Clint tells me that one of the male characters was loosely modeled after yours truly, so that's kinda cool.

Posted by: dagny at February 20, 2018 1:38 PM
But jk thinks:

The lovely bride and I scoff at married couples who share a computer or email address. Our bow to the practice is a shared Amazon account.

Bezos thinks us a single eclectic or schizophrenic person, but our reviews are merged.

Posted by: jk at February 20, 2018 5:49 PM

December 31, 2017

Review Corner

Behavioral economics, as this flourishing movement is called, has in its own turn generated new policies and new critics. It purports to come closer to adding the human dimension to economic models, but as we will show, although it has made some advances, it does nothing of the kind. The human beings it imagines behave just as mechanically, only less efficiently (judged by the same criteria as traditional economists use). They are still abstract monads shaped by no particular culture. You still don't need stories to understand them. In short, they bear as much resemblance to real people as stick figures do to the heroines of George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy.
Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities is an ambitious book. Nortwestern University President Morton Schapiro and Slavic languages and literatures Prof. Gary Saul Morson bridge the divide between economics and humanities. What can economics learn from the humanities' depth and story-telling? What can the humanities pick up from economics' rigor? [Bojack Horseman fans will say "Let's find out!"]

The model for "Cents & Sensibility" is the dichotomy between Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentoments" and "Wealth of Nations." I'm more skeptical of the gulf between the two works than most, but it's a fair backdrop for the task at hand.

Human lives do not just unfold in a purely predictable fashion the way Mars orbits the sun . Contingency, idiosyncrasy, and choices -- all of which allow for alternatives \-- play an indispensable role. That is why, as the great novelists recognized, personhood and sociality demand biography and history. Novels are a distinct way of knowing; and the very shape of the stories they tell -- what sorts of events are represented as plausible, effective, or important -- conveys vital, if elusive, information.

Shapiro is not an economist in the libertarian, lassiez-faire mold. He represents the discipline well, but I would have enjoyed more push-back on the morality of individualism and freedom. He does get points for dropping St. Deirdre:
The third area -- ethics -- has attracted the attention of a number of interesting recent thinkers. We are particularly impressed with ideas long promoted by Deirdre McCloskey, who argues for an ethics based on the virtues, a way of thinking newly important among philosophers.

And a bit of Karl Popper and William Easterly lurking in the shadows. It is the "expert" pointy-headed economist dictating lives and behaviours which attract the authors' scorn.
For a proposition to be meaningful, let alone scientific, it must in principle allow for circumstances in which it could be tested and so proven false. But if it is true by definition, it can't be tested. Those who argue this way literally play fast and loose --- a phrase in which the word "fast" is used in its older sense of "close" or "tight," as in the expression "hold fast." When they want to make a prediction, they use a tight definition so they can make one prediction rather than another; but when the wolf is at the door, they switch to a loose one so they cannot be wrong. These objections did not convince the social scientists.

Not to pile on Shapiro, but here's where I'd like to see the Hayekian wing promoted, as it makes more room for the human nuances they seek in literature.
Plato represents the archetypal hedgehog, Aristotle the perfect fox . As Plato looked to the world of mathematics, Aristotle was fascinated by the amazing variety and complexity of biological organisms. Plato composed the first utopia, Aristotle surveyed existing constitutions and examined how they fared in practice. Dante, Leibniz, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Bentham, Einstein, and Skinner exemplify hedgehogism; for foxiness we turn to Montaigne, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Hume, Darwin, George Eliot, William ( and Henry ) James, and Wittgenstein. The hedgehogs sound like Leibniz: "God does nothing which is not orderly, and that it is not even possible to conceive of events which are not regular." 19 Wittgenstein speaks for the foxes: Don't say something must be the case but "look and see." 20

A few quibblles about a thoughtful and engaging book which I would heartily recommend. Four stars. For better or worse, it finally forced me to read "War & Peace." As I struggle to complete 2017 Review Corners, Tolstoy is next.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:11 PM | Comments (1)
But jk thinks:

Fred Smith @ FEE reviews this same book today.

Posted by: jk at January 3, 2018 4:10 PM

Review Corner

Justice William Brennan was absolutely correct when he remarked in 1986 that the Constitution belongs to "a world dead and dead gone." The day of Constitutionalism is over. Or, at least, old-fashioned, original intent Constitutionalism. Today is the day of the bureaucrat. The government administrator. The regulator. Today is your day,

You have important work to do. You will guide citizens as they live their lives. You will protect them from dangers seen and unseen. You will make sure they get the best deals for their dollars and that the products they buy are safe, sound, and environmentally friendly. And you'll make sure that no one's feelings are hurt when they walk into any business, even before they buy something.

The only bad thing I can say about Save the Swamp: Career Guidebook for Budding Bureaucrats by Thomas Krannawitter is that it was eclipsed by his live presentation to Liberty on the Rocks -- Flatirons last month. Dr. Krannawitter hopes to ridicule the Administrative State into submission. It's a tall task and I am deeply skeptical -- but I must admit it to be easier to get somebody to read "Save the Swamp" than Mises's "Liberalism."

Many of the things I hold dear have been eroded by the steady drip, drip, drip emanating from Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. Dr. K is as funny as either. And his "handbook for the budding bureaucrat" hits awfully close to home:

Here it becomes important that you never forget the calling that led you to a career in government. You should never forget that you do not trust citizens, mainly because they don't deserve to be trusted. You know citizens will hurt each other, steal from each other, and rip each other off any chance they get. And the most vulnerable among U.S are the poor, who tend to be the least educated (despite the bureaucrat-conceived, government-administered, and government-monitored, single-payer, universal education system now available to all Americans).

A chapter and keep insight is "Results Don't Matter." Once his budding students accept that, a happy career is ensured.

I fear the author might underestimate the institutional biases against him. Stewart got laughs by telling people what they wanted to hear and appealed to snobbery of thinking what was already accepted. But it is a well crafted, amusing read with much truth embedded between the laughs. I've no doubt every ThreeSourcer would dig it. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:32 AM | Comments (0)

August 13, 2017

Review Corner

To the degree that we have forgotten the fact that a school should be a tool -- a means to an end, not an end in itself -- Dewey is the culprit. For him, the school would become everything -- the literal center of the world, he said on occasion. In Dewey's dream, the school ceased to be an instrument supporting parents and became instead a substitute for parents.
I have a difficult task ahead. I'm going to write a less-than-glowing review about a very good book. A book I enjoyed reading, which contained many important ideas, and one which was written by perhaps my new favorite Senator: Ben Sasse (R - NE).

The problem with The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis---and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance is that it was upstaged by Sen. Sasse's "Conversations with Tyler [Cowen]." I implore you to make space for that. Watch the video instead of listening to the podcast because it is that thoughtful. Sasse is non-partisan and a bit academic (he was President of Midland University before that dark patch in his life of being elected to the US Senate).

The podcast gets you 90% of the good stuff in the book:

"Rather than a short transition period of personal uncertainty and discovery," Paula Fass observes in The End of American Childhood, adolescence was becoming "a prolonged sojourn of development spent among other youth." School was not only about in-classroom learning; it was also -- or even primarily -- a social hub." When a teenage majority spent the better part of their day in high school, they learned to look to one another and not adults for advice, information, and approval," observes cultural historian Grace Palladino .

What Sasse calls segregation by birth year, Glenn Reynolds called "warehousing" in his book The New School [Review Corner]. Both refer to the Lord of the Flies quality of spending all your time with, and seeking primarily the approval of other 3rd, 5th, 7th, 11th (whatever) graders. Sasse has a nice riff on bullying, wondering whether a 13-year old who spent a lot of time with little kids or grown-ups would be so disturbable by the opinion of 13 year olds.
Today, young people's lives are driven by one predominant fact: birth year. Instead of helping with the family business or apprenticing, teenagers are now hanging out, in person or online, with friends, most of whom are their same age and year in school. Correspondingly, senior citizens live out their years in nursing homes where they also interact mainly with their age peers. Retirees buy condominiums in age-segregated communities like Sun City, California, and Kings Point, Florida, where people under 55 are prohibited unless accompanied by an older adult.

I'm a sour. spur-grapes autodidact, but there's a good bit of Mike Rowe wistfulness as well:
Paul Goodman, an intellectual godfather of the New Left, spoke for a movement of doubters fifty years ago [...]

Goodman wrote: "When, at a meeting, I offer that perhaps we already have too much formal schooling and that, under present conditions, the more we get the less education we will get, the others look at me oddly." Discussion ignores the purposes for which schools might or might not be effective and proceeds immediately to questions of "how to get more money for schools" and "how to upgrade the schools." And the superstition persists that more money correlates to better outcomes despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he lamented.

The book is also not short on reflecting Sasse's quiet Nebraska charm:
(Incidentally, for those looking for reasons to mock Midwesterners for lacking creativity, it's worth noting that my grandfather was named Elmer; one of Elda's two brothers was Elmer; one of her sisters also married an Elmer; and a third sister married a Delmer. Family reunion pick-up sports were often the three big Elmers and a Delmer versus everyone else.)

Wow, jk, this is a vicious hit-job of a Review Corner. I only hope the Senator never sees such cruelty...

Sasse is a little-c conservative. Hey, some of my best friends are conservatives. I'll even let them in my home, though I scrub pretty thoroughly after they depart,

He avoids "Get Off my Lawn" well, though it is clear he takes editing pains to stay away. There is an underlying Calvinist message that supports his thesis well. None can doubt that our affluence and technology contribute substantively to weakness in young adults. Having many of your friends die of polio did focus the pre-Salk mind (an example from the book, but not one I am presenting charitably).

But we need to find strength and resolve and vocation in our modern, affluent society. He does not say we shouldn't, but he makes two assertions that bug me.

"What ordinary people once made, they now buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed." Our global systems of production have radically reduced the prices of almost everything, but they have also come at the cost of promoting a new mentality that everything is disposable.

This drives me mad from my lefty and righty friends. We are rich. We've made incomprehensible advances in production. The time of a fellow who is bright enough to repair a TV is much much much much much better directed elsewhere. This argument is a couple notches above wishing for we still had polio. (Which, again, he did not say.)

I am old enough to remember the TV repair guy. But our TV (in its handsome walnut console) was a big investment that several of our neighbors could not mange. Now all o' God's children gotta flat screen; and, anybody smart enough to repair it has a much better job than pulling out and testing dusty vacuum tubes. (They can repair guitar amps!)

My second gripe is "production - over - consumption;" Senator Cornhusker says:

Third, embrace limited consumption. "Luxury is the bane of republics." At some point we forgot the difference between needs and wants and decided that acquiring things could bring us happiness. It's not true. Gluttony is a danger we've forgotten to guard against . But even more basically, consumption alone cannot make us happy; meaningful production can.

I accept that something's being Calvinist does not make it wrong. This is a book about creating happy kids and productive adults worthy of republican self-rule. I pity people who "work for the weekend" almost as much as the Senator.

But I will not demonize consumption qua consumption. That's a sticky, conservative, Calvinist tar pit. Enjoy your affluence. Be grateful if you want. Help get it to others. But don't live a life of year-round Lent. And, never, ever, even once, forget your Adam Smith:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.

Well, now that I have so cruelly ravaged the poor author.... I repeat: watch the Tyler Cowen podcast. Buy the book. Read the book. You'll dig it; but it only gets three and a half stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:54 PM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

A good education should expose children to adults. (Isn't that what teachers are for, to impart the wisdom of other adults?) And it should expose them to more history and more perspective on their own places in it. This is where I find modern schools falling short.

As one who can repair televisions, and cars, and homes (and guitar amps) I do see both sides of the "repair or replace" argument. But the critical thing is to know more about how things work than how to take the steps to repair them. And by extension, to know more about how human civilization works so that you can be an informed citizen who directs his own government, not just a cubicle dweller who votes the way the hippest teevee personality suggests you do.

Posted by: johngalt at August 14, 2017 2:50 PM
But jk thinks:

The teacher perhaps keeps it from going completely "Lord of the Flies." But instructor interaction is limited and has a different dynamic.

I first heard this in Glenn Reynolds's "The New School." His daughter attends online classes which free up her time to intern at the local TV station. Reynolds points out that she is working with adults to complete tasks and achieve goals. That's a different relationship than teacher-student.

My sister pushed back on this as well. "You went to school," was her biting riposte. I went to smaller school, and I played games with neighborhood kids who were older and younger. And, in high school, I worked with adults. I think there's a tipping point with today's huge, institutional schools and a day filled with structured activities which are also segregated by age.

Yes, you were despoilt by the Heinlein quote on specialization. Fine for individuals, but harmful when extended to societies.

Posted by: jk at August 15, 2017 12:49 PM

July 16, 2017

Review Corner

During this same period of nine years, from my nineteenth to my twenty-eighth year, our life was one of being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving (2 Tim. 3: 13), in a variety of desires. -- St. Augustine, The Confessions.
Two thinkers I admire have implicitly done me a disservice.

Both Ayn Rand and Karl Popper divide philosophers into a type of red-team vs. blue-team. I'll let those who know Rand better than I correct me if I am wrong, but my Überhoss Popper divided his "Open Society and its Enemies" into a good guy volume and a bad guy volume. Both would start with Platonists vs. Aristotelians. Apollonians vs. Dionysians, then descend the historical ladder, placing Kant and Wittgenstein et al into buckets.

Along the way, one cleaves an interstice between St, Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas: "Aquinas baptized Aristotle" in Chesterton's pithy bon mot.

The Confessions is week eight in the Hillsdale Great Books 101 MOOC I am taking. I am taking longer than 12 weeks, but I am reading the entire work for each and not the provided selections.

It is right, fitting, and proper to categorize Augustine (the lecturer pronounces it og-GUS-tin, I've said og-gus-STEEN my whole life) as a Platonist. My shame is that I've avoided him. Pari-passu with grey hairs, I'm trying to expand my thought. Three consecutive lessons from the Bible and St. Augustine are both my penance and proof.

I refused sacrifice to daemons on my behalf; yet by adherence to that superstition I sacrificed myself to them. What is it to 'feed the winds' if not to feed the spirits, that is, by one's errors to become an object of delight and derision to them?

The Confessions is enjoyable for its antiquity (~397 AD) but also for its honesty and intellect. As a youth and young adult, the author is lost to earthly pleasures and, more seriously, the cultish philosophy of Manichaeism. I appreciate that he uses rational thought and good philosophy to escape the misguided beliefs of the Manichees.
Since I had done much reading in the philosophers and retained this in my memory, I compared some of their teachings with the lengthy fables of the Manichees. The philosophers' teachings seemed to be more probable than what the Manichees said. The philosophers 'were able to judge the world with understanding' even though 'they did not find its Lord' (Wisd. 13: 9).

Aquinas gets all the props for reconciling the Church with science, but Augustine is no Torquemada. The predictive powers of even the ancient cosmology guides him to question Manichean dogma.
Many years beforehand they have predicted eclipses of sun and moon, foretelling the day, the hour, and whether total or partial. And their calculation has not been wrong. It has turned out just as they predicted. They have put the rules which they discovered into books which are read to this day. On this basis prediction can be made of the year, the month of the year, the day of the month, the hour of the day, and what proportion of light will be eclipsed in the case of either sun or moon; and it happens exactly as predicted. People who have no understanding of these things are amazed and stupefied.

[On a side note, is it not amazing that this capacity existed for thousands of years without engendering an acceptance of a non-heliocentric universe?]
I compared these with the sayings of Mani who wrote much on these matters very copiously and foolishly. I did not notice any rational account of solstices and equinoxes or eclipses of luminaries nor anything resembling what I had learnt in the books of secular wisdom. Yet I was ordered to believe Mani. But he was not in agreement with the rational explanations which I had verified by calculation and had observed with my own eyes. His account was very different.

I have a confession of my own. The first ten of 13 books are autobiographical and relate his philosophical and spiritual journey. The last three espouse the spiritual truths he has attained after conversion. I found the last three unfulfilling and bordering on tiresome. The recent convert goes on at length about his transformation. Haven't we all invented an excuse to escape such a speech in our daily lives? That's cool Jim, hey I think I hear my wife calling...

But all in all, it is a focused look at an exceedingly bright mind of antiquity. I don't think I'll apportion stars, but I would recommend it.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:34 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

Ah yes, Augustine. Volume 18 of the Great Books of the Western World.

No I haven't read it, but you are contributing to a rekindling of my interest in that collection.

Posted by: johngalt at July 17, 2017 3:09 PM
But jk thinks:

$0.99 on Kindle!

Stars seem inappropriate, but I might do a cheesy ranking at the end. The Confessions will be in the bottom half.

Posted by: jk at July 17, 2017 3:26 PM

July 2, 2017

Review Corner

  But Aeneas
is driven by duty now. Strongly as he longs
to ease and allay her sorrow, speak to her,
turn away her anguish with reassurance, still,
moaning deeply, heart shattered by his great love,
in spite of all he obeys the gods' commands
and back he goes to his ships.
Virgil adds romance to the Homeric epic. I suggest that this cements The Aeneid as the foundation of Western literature. Even though Virgil draws heavily on Homer, The Aeneid, we are told, becomes true literature by its being written and not spoken. Fair point, but the Dido story at the beginning represents one plotline unimaginable in Homer.

All the good bloodthirsty and grizzly war scenes and all the Gods' interference seem equally at home in Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid. But the Aeneas-Dido story is only Virgil, only Latin, and its reverberations set Virgil's epic apart. We open with a great storm as some God has chosen to doink with the Trojan Fleet and scatter the last of her sons. But they land in Carthage and are welcomed. Queen Dido sends ships to rescue them and welcomes all as heroes with a great feast.

Dido importunes Aeneas to tell the story, no matter how painful, of the fall of Troy and their circuitous journey to Libyan shores. And the next staple of Western Literature is born: the expository section. In Book Two, we are all brought up to date on the last days of Troy, the fames wooden horse, and the trials of escaping the sack and trying to bring wife Andromache, father Anchises, and son Iulus.

Homer has characters tell stories so that plotlines are not completely linear, but Book Two has a Hollywood flashback quality -- the reader is brought current in a short time with a sizable amount of important information. I daresay Homer would have needed a couple hundred pages, or in his case, an extra performance evening to pull it off.

Dido and Aeneas become, just as surely, the Hollywood romance. Both have divine blood in their lines, Venus' son being naturally quite the looker. Aeneas and the lads need a home and Carthage needs men. The End. They all lived happily ever after, right?

Aeneas is fated to found what will be the Roman Empire. ("Bring his Gods to Latium, the source of the Latin people, the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome") and cannot be lazing about the beach in Carthage with some demigoddess bimbo, So he leaves in the dead of night. Buffy fans: this is the Riley Story, though thankfully the slayer just mopes a bit. Dido throws herself on the funeral pyre so that the Trojans can see it as they sail out.

All the while Aeneas, steeled tot a mid-sea passage,
held the fleet on course. well on their way now,
plowing the waves blown dark by a Northwind
as he glanced back at thewalls of Carthage
set aglow by the fires of tragic Dido's pyre.
What could light such a conflagration? mystery --
but the Trojans know the pains of a great love
defiled, and the lengths a woman driven mad can go,
and it leads their hearts down ways of grim foreboding.

When this tale is told, we get back to Homeric action: ten more books of hopeless deity interventions and guys chopping each other up with swords.

I'm not sure the academic world would accept my innovation. True, Odysseus loved Penelope, and there might be some love/loss in the Calypso tale, though I read that as more captivity than seduction. I am taken by Aeneas-Dido story because the rest of the story becomes optional. Ten more books of "blows on land and sea from the Gods above" could have been avoided had Aeneas said "no thanks, Mercury, tell old Zeussy-boy I am rather happy in Carthage."

No war with the Italians, no Rome -- but no Punic Wars. Nobody ever says it out load, but I think it carries under the rest of the epic. And makes it the foundation of Western literature, underpinning the next two books in the course: St. Augustine's "Confessions" and Dante's "Inferno."

And Buffy, Seasons Four & Five.

Again, get the Robert Fagles translation. It is like reading it for the first time. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2017

Review Corner

King though thou be,
I claim an equal right To make reply,
Here I call no man lord:
For I am not thy slave , but Loxias ',
Nor shall I stand on Creon's patronage;
And this I say, since thou hast dared revile
My blindness, that thou seest, yet dost not see
Thy evil plight , nor where thou liv'st, nor yet
With whom thou dwellest,
Know'st thou even this, -- Sophocles. Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King)
Review Corner, to overextend a metaphor, will be going a different direction for several weeks. I have signed up for Hillsdale's Great Books 101, Ancient to Medieval course. Hillsdale offers several non-credit free online courses. I enjoyed the Athens and Sparta and look forward to this one.

They offer free PDFs with selections from the reading assignments, but I intend to read all the books in their entirety. A great side benefit is that most of these are available in Kindle for $0.99 or $1.99. In fact, that is not a side benefit; I am purposefully trying to tweak my book expenditures. Leader Pelosi would call it "budget slashing."

The first two weeks were the Iliad [Review Corner] and the Odyssey [Review Corner], both of which have been recently reviewed after I learned of Robert Fagles's sumptuous translations. I just finished his Aeneid, which I will review next week (fear not, Virgil scores some stars).

Book three was Sophocles' Oedipus Rex which I had never read. Everyone knows the tale form the osmosis of culture, but more think of the psychological disorder. Sophocles tale has no illicit desire -- though I propose it to be the first documented case of road rage. The King is maltreated by a charioteer at the intersection of three roads. I guess "the bird" has not yet been invented, so he murders the whole lot of them.

"Oh by the way honey, how'd you say that your first husband died? Three roads, huh?"

Reading Homer, and to a great extent the secular Thucydides, the lover of Reason and self-direction is put off by the intercession of the gods and fate. In poor Oedipus, we see a life ruined through very little fault of his own (well, there is that one youthful indiscretion, but who of us hasn't got a little cheesed off at a motorist. And murdered the whole carful.)

Why should we fear, when chance rules everything,
And foresight of the future there is none;
'Tis best to live at random, as one can .

To avoid the prophesy, Oedipus has taken extraordinary measures. He has abandoned his homeland and benefits of primogeniture to ascertain that the prophesy is unfulfilled. Without DNA testing, you really could not ask more. Or could you?
OEDIP . What hindered you, when thus your sovereignty Had fallen low, from searching out the truth?
CREON . The Sphinx, with her dark riddle, bade us look At nearer facts, and leave the dim obscure .

Without mens rea, the revealed truth reduces the King to a blind exile, his wife driven to suicide and his children forever shunned as abominations.
Ah, race of mortal men,
How as a thing of naught I count ye, though ye live;
For who is there of men
That more of blessing knows
Than just a little while In a vain show to stand,
And, having stood, to fall?
With thee before mine eyes,
Thy destiny, e'en thine, Ill-fated Oedipus, I can count no man blest.

I guess that's why they call then Tragedies. I'm humbled to apportion stars to Sophocles, but it is an accessible and short read. And if you want more academic input than that offered in Review COrner, you amy watch the Hillsdale lecture free of charge.

Posted by John Kranz at 2:28 PM | Comments (0)

June 4, 2017

Review Corner

We can summarize this dichotomy by reversing Leo Tolstoy's formula about happy families in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: "all poorly justified areas of study are alike; each truly important area of study is important in its own way."
Today there is surely some study released that bacon will kill you or make you live forever. If it's a slow day for pork products, there will be one in the same genre for red wine. Geoffrey C. Kabat takes a deep dive into the statistics, fallacies, and undercurrents of medical scares in his superb Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks.

Economists are discovering that most studies are not reproducible. Climate studies are completely enmeshed in politics and ill will. Medical research is not a bad case for investigation. Its flaws are certainly transferrable. For this, Kabat provides a valuable look at science qua science.

In 1964 the biophysicist John R. Platt of the University of Chicago published a paper in the journal Science entitled "Strong Inference"--a paper that should be read by anyone with an interest in what distinguishes successful science. [...] Platt aligns himself with Francis Bacon, who emphasized the power of "proper rejections and exclusions," and Karl Popper, who posited that a useful hypothesis is one that can be falsified.

Citing Karl Popper is always good for an extra star in Review Corner.

Kabat and I agree on many of the general ills surrounding modern research: sensationalized press, catastrophic-based funding, and a refusal to accept the heterodox:

Unfortunately, the science is not always clear-cut, and the consensus on a particular question at any given moment may not be correct . Until the 1980s the consensus was that stress or eating spicy foods caused stomach ulcers. For roughly a decade , virologists believed that herpes simplex virus was the cause of cervical cancer. For more than three decades, the medical community believed that the use of hormone therapy by postmenopausal women protected against heart disease. The history of medical science is littered with long-held dogmas that, when confronted by better evidence, turned out to be wrong. We have to realize that appeals to the consensus are motivated by politics and have little to do with science. All it takes is for one or more scientists to come up with a better hypothesis and do the right experiment or make the right observation to overturn the reigning consensus.

Did I mention the book is not about climate change? At all? Just wanted to be clear.

The best of "Getting Risk Right" are the deep dives into specific issues. There are complete chapters on whether cell phones cause brain cancer, the extent of environmental degradation by hormonal, endocrine disrupters, HPV and cervical cancer.

The cell-phone section is the greatest refutation of "the precautionary principle" I have encountered. Wireless phones have saved millions of lives by allowing people to escape or avoid dangerous situations. They've pulled perhaps a billion out of poverty by bringing modernity to remote and impoverished locations. How close were we to squashing this because of one husband?

We have to remember that the whole question of cell phone use and brain cancer arose not because of some strong piece of clinical or epidemiologic evidence or because of a strong theoretical basis for positing that RF was likely to cause cancer. Rather, it arose as a result of a single, dramatic case, which appealed to a distraught husband's desire for an explanation of what caused his wife's fatal brain cancer.

His case was tragic, as is each brain cancer diagnosis. But I learned the only good thing about brain cancer, and that is its rarity. Deaths are I the low four digits, and have remained constant as cell phone use has exploded. Yet, even now I, it is not over. There are still Luddite activists and their ambitious lawyers who seize on a few small studies and the honest scientist's admission that we cannot rule out some level of risk.
The activists' modus operandi is made clear in their treatment of the question of the health effects of EMFs. Basically, they ignore the most powerful studies and the most comprehensive assessments, and in the isolated studies they point to they avoid making the crucial distinction between association and causation.

It's deep enough to be comprehensive, but would be accessible to anyone. I'd give it five stars and encourage you to read it. Plus, those who did read it had 40% less incidence of cancer!

Posted by John Kranz at 10:37 AM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2017

Review Corner

John Stuart Mill claimed that "the battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings." 7 Hegel, in the more expansive tones that one would expect of a German philosophe, declared that "the interest of the whole world's history hung trembling in the balance."
I'm just finishing up a free online course at Hillsdale College on Athens and Sparta -- which I highly recommend. Lectures alternate between Victor Davis Hanson and Paul Rahe. Readings are provided in PDFs from the authors books, as well as sections from Thucydides, Xenophon, and Herodotus. A brief excerpt was also included, in the first lecture, from Tom Holland's Persian Fire and I purchased the whole book.

Persian Fire begins centuries before Thucydides, tracing the rise of Persia, Sparta, and Athens, and culminating in the two repelled invasions: the battle at Marathon against Darius's forces, and the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis which repelled Xerxes.

The ascension of Persia, Holland admits, contains speculation. They were not given to documentation and historians as were ancient Greeks. There's an extant scaffolding of facts around large events, the author seeks to fill the lacunae with plausible speculation. I was reminded of Lisa Alther's Blood Feud on the Hatfields & McCoys. [Review Corner].

How far back? Encountering the mention of Nebuchadnezzar III, Assyrian Empire, Babylon, and Nineveh, I was struck with a sense of some historical continuity with biblical stories. The Persian Empire eventually grows out of empires and city-states and the detritus of regimes in the Old Testament.

It was not only priests and businessmen who were eager to collaborate with the Persian king. Babylon was also filled with the descendants of deportees, scattered throughout the suburbs. Few of these were willing to die in the cause of a Nebuchadnezzar. The cosmopolitanism of the great city, once the mark and buttress of its imperial might, now threatened it with anarchy.

Empire is assembled over generations, but it is more Firefly or Star Wars than the singular military approach more common to the west. Satrapies have an air of federalism: they keep their Gods and public feasts, and local customs are rarely disturbed There was always the danger of succession risk, and of course uprisings were nonzero. But a generous mixture of bribery, fear, and diplomacy conquered all of Asia and set its sights on using that capital and manpower to spread the worship of Ahura Mazda to Europe.
The priests of Marduk, confirmed in both their primacy and in their extensive property-holdings across Mesopotamia, were not the only natives to have collaborated enthusiastically with foreign rule. Big business had also flourished. Inflation, galloping out of control under Nabonidus, had been stabilized; trade routes, no longer blocked by Persian sanctions, had filled with caravans again. For merchants and financiers, the absorption of Mesopotamia into a world empire had opened up unprecedented opportunities. Sentimental notions of loyalty to the old regime could hardly be expected to stand in the way of profit.

While the Satrapies are not always converted at the sword, however, it is a powerful motivator for the Persian troops.
For there had been, in this otherwise obscure and unmemorable campaign, the hint of something fateful. Darius, testing the potential of his religion to its limits, had promoted a dramatic innovation. Contained within it were the seeds of some radical notions: that foreign foes might be crushed as infidels; that warriors might be promised paradise; that conquest in the name of a god might become a moral duty. Not that Darius, even as he ordered the invasion of Elam, had ever aimed to impose his religion at the point of a sword; such an idea was wholly alien to the spirit of the times. Nevertheless, a new age was dawning -- and Darius was its midwife.

When warned by the Ionians in Asia Minor not to push too hard lest they anger the Spartans, Cyrus asked "Who are the Spartans?"

Holland details the rise of Lacedaemon and Athenian power as well, but the stories are a little more familiar. Except the extremely NSFW Athenian creation myth which presages the rise of democracy. (I'm not typing it, you'll have to buy the book).

Naturally, just as they had always done, the Athenians required that subscriptions to the league be paid in full. Liberty, as they pointed out, did not come cheap. But many of the increasingly disgruntled allies began to mutter that Athenian -- sponsored freedom was proving a good deal more expensive than slavery to the King of Kings had ever been.

I'm getting an inkling of life as an Oakland/LA Raiders fan. Athens can be a difficult city-state to cheer for. There's a lot of lip service to democracy and liberty, but she fails to live up to her principles like the sleaziest back-bencher Congressperson.

And yet, I cheer when Athens bloodies her enemies. I tolerate massacres and a bit of corpse mutilation. Go Athens! In a heroic period of heroic empires, there is a distinct paucity of real heroes. One of the joys of reading Thucydides is his realization of this. The Athenian Admiral lacks a trace of jingoism. Professor Hanson, in one of the Q&A sessions discusses this. Athens is America against the Soviet Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.

No longer, under the constitution established by Lycurgus, were the Spartans to be counted as predators upon their own kind, the rich upon the poor, the Heraclids upon the farmers, but rather as hunters in a single deadly pack. Every citizen, be he aristocrat or peasant, was to be subsumed within its ranks. Henceforward, even "the very wealthy were to adopt a lifestyle that was as much as possible like that of the ordinary run of people." 15 Merciless and universal discipline was to teach every Spartan, from the moment of his birth, that conformity was all.

But the East vs. West in Persian Fire is even more difficult to accept objectively. Our history is poised to be wiped out, 2400 years before we get here. The superiority of force in the Persian side is unfathomable.
"And from where he sat, gazing out across the bay, he could take in the spectacle of his army and his navy in a single sweep . . . And when he saw the whole of the Hellespont covered with ships, and all the beaches and plains of Abydos filled with men, Xerxes counted himself truly blessed." -- Herodotus 7.44-5

It testifies to Holland's narrative capability, therefore, that the reader gets excited at the battle scenes. Even knowing how they end, even as I said celebrating grisly butchery. Not Homer, real life.

Fascinating book, five stars for certain. I enjoyed the Kindle version, but kept my Landmark Thucydides handy to look at printed maps. I might recommend a hard copy.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:56 AM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2017

Review Corner

[F]ormer United States solicitor general and associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Charles Fried has rightly said, "is the most libertarian and speech protective of any liberal democratic regime." As such, its consequences and implications are profound.

The exceptionalism of the United States in the protections it offers to freedom of expression does not mean that other democratic nations do not respect, honor, and generally seek to protect it; it does mean that American law does so more often, more intensely, and more controversially than is true elsewhere.

A foundational theme in my opposition to anarchy is my appreciation for Bill of Rights protections. We endure interminable nonsense from the EPA, FDA, and that third one -- what was it? At the end of the day, I posit that is worth it because of the rights protections in the Bill of Rights, and that the expectation of those across the huge geography of the 50 states is "pretty groovy."

I might morosely concede my An-Cap friends' complaint that the Constitution of limited government and enumerated powers is "so much parchment" in the way of rapacious executives like President Wilson and opportunistic legislators like Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson. But our Carolene Rights have enjoyed protections in the US unseen in other free nations. And, as a talker, if I have a favorite, it is probably the First Amendment. I celebrate our nation's devotion to protecting speech. It could be a bit better but it could be a whole lot worse.

Floyd Abrams, who has agued important speech cases in the Supreme Court, provides a deep and loving look at our speech rights in The Soul of the First Amendment: Why Freedom of Speech Matters. It is a short but powerful book on the history of the Amendment and jurisprudence surrounding it.

The smart kids sitting up front at ThreeSources already know the controversy surrounding inclusion of a Bill of Rights. Jefferson, in France, was appalled at its omission. Others were not on board:

Noah Webster, tongue deeply in cheek, suggested that if a list of inalienable rights were to be added to the Constitution, it should include a clause stating that "every body shall, in good weather, hunt on his own land, and catch fish in rivers that are public property . . . [ and ] that Congress shall never restrain any inhabitant of America from eating and drinking, at seasonable times, or prevent his lying on his left side, in a long winter's night."

Madison was won over, and the nation got its most enforceable protections against government.
Justice William O. Douglas, in 1973, stated that "the struggle for liberty has been a struggle against Government. The essential scheme of our Constitution and Bill of Rights was to take Government off the backs of people."

Speaking of Justice Douglas, Abrams points out the irony that the most liberal Justices grabbed the First Amendment to promote social justice in the late 20th Century. Yet, today the Right wing of the court asserts rights against hate speech codes and campaign finance restrictions.

But the pre-1950 courts and many otherwise laudable foreign governments allow unconscionable intrusion into communications by government.

In Poland, for example, an article of its criminal code makes criminal "offense to religious feelings" as well as "public calumny." In 2010, a singer was convicted of giving "intentional offense to religious feelings" for saying that she "believed more in dinosaurs than the Bible" because "it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes."

ThreeSourcers have also likely followed prosecutions in Canada and the UK against climate change deniers and opponents of Muslim immigration. I offer tepid pushback to the former and ebullient opposition to the latter, but I don't want to lock up anybody who writes an editorial against me.
Cambridge University Press had declined to publish a book prepared for it that accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of having extensive connections with gangster elements in his country. Cambridge declined to publish the book, stating that as a matter of "risk tolerance" it could not risk a libel suit. "We have no reason to doubt." it wrote the author, "the veracity of what you say," but the risk of litigation and in any event "the disruption and expense" of such a litigation "would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission." The book was not published in England. It was published in the United States, and no litigation followed.

A great reminder of its importance. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2017

Review Corner

Two strides took her to the door. She turned into the hallway and was gone . Some of the color and much of the life in the room followed her. The stones in the wall were once more merely stones, the books merely books. Even the fine tea lost some of its fragrance.
Full Disclosure: Michael C. Glaviano is a friend of mine. Yet the excellent reviews he has scored for his earlier works [Review Corner 1] | [Review Corner2] have been well earned. Thanks -- in large part -- to sweet prose like the introductory quote.

A Fragment of Nothing: The Place Between Worlds Part 2 picks up the story from his "The Locust Queen's Feast." The Locust Queen is dead, and young Reed has settled down in Soapstone, even proposing marriage to his girlfriend, Lena.

First, she wants to come see his world, so the band of four young heroes plan a transit to New Mexico. Red chilies and posolé await. But the smarter students up front have already surmised that the trip involves more excitement than the 25 bus across Albuquerque.

The interstices between chaos worlds and inner worlds are threatened, and the four young heroes have blossomed and become more proficient. Now travelling and learning on their own, their personal and professional development take interesting turns. And we meet some great new characters along the way.

Abbot Harold squinted into the distance. Beyond those jagged peaks, the borderlands merged into the Realms of Chaos. This world, like all others, touched the Great Hub. Even so, few of its denizens forgot the tenuous nature of Form and Substance. He'd lived a long time in this secluded valley. For most of that time, things had remained calm, predictable. Lately however... With a sigh of his own, the Abbot stretched and made ready for the day.

Glaviano holds a PhD in mathematical physics, and brings just enough of that into his prose and plotline to elevate the fantasy / multiverse genre. It's descriptive, surprising and incredibly well-paced. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:19 AM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2017

Review Corner

During the 1990s Gates wrote a syndicated newspaper column in which he answered questions from the public. When asked in 1996 about the saying, he replied: "I've said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that. No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time."
Hemingway Didn't Say That we'd never need more than 640K ram in a computer (well,, as far as we know...) and neither did Microsoft Chief Bill Gates.

Garson O'Toole debunks a pile of these misattributed or false quotations on his Quote Investigator website. But he has published a collection as Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. I got the Kindle version and enjoyed it very much.

O'Toole is a diligent researcher and the QI site is something of a Snopes for quotes. I think the comparison favors the less diligent Snopes.com better than QI, but you get the idea. Users can request research, but "QI maintains more than two thousand open files representing partial investigations many of which are ongoing. New requests arrive every day."

I'll be bookmarking the site, but the book is a pretty entertaining read. Whether you know the quote or not, the pedigrees are interesting. O'Toole goes back and traces similar thoughts, plus possible sources for ambiguity.

In conclusion , the quotation is from a character named Socrates who was a gas station attendant in a book published in the 1980s by Dan Millman. The quote is not from the renowned Greek philosopher .

Simple mistake -- it could happen to anybody. (The quote in question: "The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.")

The mangled quotes and missteps along the way are often as inspirational -- and frequently more amusing -- than the actual quote. A Charles Farrar Browne, writing under the pseudonym Artemus Ward, invented a fake letter writer called "O. Abe," and generated a false quote attributed to Abe Lincoln. Along the way, we get a glimpse of "Artemus Ward's" style:

This note satirized the pseudo - endorsements presented by charlatans selling ineffectual patent medicines :
Artemus Ward : Respected Sir -- My wife was afflicted with the pipsywipsy in the head for nearly eight years . The doctors all gave her up . But in a fortunate moment she went to one of your lectures , and commenced recovering very rapidly . She is now in perfect health . We like your lectures very much . Please send me a box of them . They are purely vegetable. Send me another five dollar bill and I'll write you another certificate twice as long as this. Yours, &c., Amos Pilkins

Mistaken identity is just one cause. But the backstory is always entertaining. And each ends with an informed conclusion as to who should claim proper attribution. "With great power comes great responsibility" Voltaire? Churchill? Spider-man?
Prominent world leaders such as Lord Melbourne, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt made similar statements in later years, prior to Spider-Man

I got a few wrong, and there were many I had not heard. One startled me. "If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail." Attributed to Mark Twain.

"Codswallop!" says I. That's Abraham Maslow -- and a favorite of mine (both Maslow and the quote). I read with sweaty palms afflicting the capacitance required for the Kindle's touch screen. Have I been propagating falsehood for decades?

Nope, this was one I got. O'Toole comes to attribute Maslow but finds a handful of interesting antecedents:

In conclusion, by 1962 Abraham Kaplan had formulated a version of the saying featuring a boy that expressed the central idea. However, Kaplan did not use the important word "nail." In 1963 Silvan S. Tomkins wrote a version with the word "nail," but it differed from popular modern instances. In 1966 Abraham Maslow wrote a version that is similar to popular expressions circulating today.

Pretty fun book you can go cover to cover, look for quotes that interest you, or just take a random flip through. Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2017

Review Corner

As month after month of the overseas deployment wore on, I used my previous failure as motivation to outwork, outhustle, and outperform everyone in the platoon. I sometimes fell short of being the best, but I never fell short of giving it my best. In time, I regained the respect of my men. Several years later I was selected to command a SEAL Team of my own. Eventually I would go on to command all the SEALs on the West Coast.
Admiral William H. McRaven has ten pieces of advice for you. You can add to the ten million views of his University of Texas Commencement address on YouTube. Or you can read -- in about the same amount of time -- the book it inspired: Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World.

The book is a best seller, and has generated a lot of buzz in a diverse range of media outlets. Each of his "lessons" opens with a challenging story from his SEAL training off Coronado in San Diego (I optimistically project that I would have made it about three minutes in SEAL training). Each lesson concludes with a real-word application of that knowledge, generally in combat or other serious moment.

The last "self-help" book I read was Dr. Wayne Dyer in 1977. And, no, I didn't help. This belongs, perhaps, in that genre, but if so it redeems it. The Admiral didn't receive any participation trophies and is not handing them out. Curiously, he is currently serving as Chancellor of the University of Texas System, providing one more bit of hope for the Lone Star State.

But McRaven's advice is real-world. It is applicable outside the military, but realistic and substantive enough for life-or-death leadership.

Over the course of the next three years, John Kelly and I became close friends. He was a remarkable officer, a strong husband to his wife, Karen, and a loving father to his daughter, Kate, and oldest son, Marine Major John Kelly. But more than that, without ever knowing it, John Kelly gave all those around him hope. Hope that in the very worst of times we could rise above the pain, the disappointment, and the agony and be strong. That we each had within us the ability to carry on and not only to survive but also to inspire others.

Hope is the most powerful force in the universe. With hope you can inspire nations to greatness. With hope you can raise up the downtrodden. With hope you can ease the pain of unbearable loss.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to make a difference. We will all find ourselves neck deep in mud someday. That is the time to sing loudly, to smile broadly, to lift up those around you.

No, I'm not providing the background for this quote. Buy and enjoy this short but powerful book. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:18 AM | Comments (0)

April 9, 2017

Review Corner

Then Tros, Alastor's son, crawled to Achilles' knees
and clutched them, hoping he'd spare him,
let Tros off alive, no cutting him down in blood,
he'd pity Tros, a man of his own age--the young fool,
he'd no idea, thinking Achilles could be swayed!
Here was a man not sweet at heart, not kind, no,
he was raging, wild--as Tros grasped his knees,
desperate, begging, Achilles slit open his liver,
the liver spurted loose, gushing with dark blood,
drenched his lap and the night swirled down his eyes
as his life breath slipped away.
This Achilles fellow is a difficult man to reason with. From the introductory stanza "Murderous, doomed, the cost of Achaea's countless losses." A very complex and frequently unheroic character.
You talk of food?
I have no taste for food what I really crave
is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!
Whole libraries have been filled with intelligent commentary on The Iliad. I presume no original insights. But I have a few suggestions for the modern reader. The first: read it; it's a bit of work, but it is enjoyable work and Homer "sings for our own time, too."*
So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments--the gods live free of sorrows.
There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus's halls
and hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,
he makes a man an outcast--brutal, ravenous hunger
drives him down the face of the shining earth,
stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men.
So with my father, Peleus. What glittering gifts
the gods rained down from the day that he was born!
Secondly, get the Robert Fagles translation. As mentioned in The Odyssey's Review Corner, Fagles's is worth the trade of Kindle® convenience and public domain economy. Like the re-mastered version of the Stones' "Exile on Main Street," it has a clarity and life to it that make you think you're hearing it for the first time. Bernard Knox's introductions are alone worth the upgrade. The Harvard Classicist offers many keen insights.
The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad, is force. Force as man's instrument, force as man's master, force before which human flesh shrinks back. The human soul, in this poem, is shown always in its relation to force: swept away, blinded by the force it thinks it can direct, bent under the pressure of the force to which it is subjected. Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, now belonged to the past, have seen the poem as a historic document; those who can see that force, today as in the past, is at the center of all human history, find in the Iliad its most beautiful, its purest mirror.
It is a grisly work. Brioze has a deleterious effect on many of the epic poem's characters. There are a lot of livers and bowels strewn out over the battlefield. Yet (and I am borrowing generously from Knox here) there is a curious symmetry to pastoral elements of ancient life: like a shepherd would shield the newborn spring lamb, so Bigfatticus, son of Obesseus did turn his horse and chariot to save his young companion before Hector's arrow extracted his bloody spleen onto the dusty earth....

In a war over a woman (Hector's brother Paris has brought fair Helen from Sparta to Ilium and war has raged for ten years), it seems our prickly hero misses almost half the fighting because he is chafed at Agamemnon for stealing his slave-girl, Briseis. So he and his men brood about the ships while the "long haired Achaeans" are routed. It seems many brave warriors' souls would not have been hurled to the House of Death had people gone to match.com or used the Tinder App.

His friends try to broker a deal. Agamemnon will swear he never did lie with her in the natural way that men and women do, and he offers a lengthy enumerated list of great gifts -- if Peleus's son will return to the fight. Achilles declines, in dactylic hexameter:

inveterate--armored in shamelessness! Dog that he is,
he'd never dare to look me straight in the eyes again.
No, I'll never set heads together with that man--
no planning in common, no taking common action.
He cheated me, did me damage, wrong! But never again,
he'll never rob me blind with his twisting words again!
Once is enough for him Die and be damned for all I care!
Zeus who rules the world has ripped his wits away.

His gifts, I loathe his gifts .. .
I wouldn't give you a splinter for that man!
Not if he gave me ten times as much, twenty times over, all
he possesses now, and all that could pour in from the world's end--
not all the wealth that's freighted into Orchomenos, even into Thebes,
Egyptian Thebes where the houses overflow with the greatest troves
of treasure,

His friend, Patroclus, gives in before Achilles, dons Achilles's armor and fights. When Hector kills him, Achilles finally has had enough, killing enough people to clog the river -- then fighting the river god when she complains. [Spoiler Alert:] He kills Hector and keeps his body around for a week because he delights in dragging it for a few laps around Patroclus's funeral pyre behind his chariot. It cheers him up a little.

The rest is a negotiation for the return of Hector's corpse and rapprochement between Achilles and Agamemnon.

I am not responsible for any bad grades if a student uses this Review Corner in lieu of CLiffs Notes or a full read through this masterpiece. Flippant comments and anachronisms aside, it is a blast to read. Fagles's prose sings.

But "sing for our time too."* The story and characters were well known to the Founders, to Locke, to Hobbes, to T.S. Eliot. And to Joss Whedon. Some lit-crit asserts that Buffy's three boyfriends are based on Odysseus (Spike), Aeneas (Riley), and Achilles (Angel). There is much to be mined there. Rereading all three after, I find much to support that.

Five stars (Homer has finally made it -- two five star Review Corners!) Read it and read the Fagles translation

* Yes, that quote is from The Odyssey -- work with me, people.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:12 AM | Comments (0)

April 2, 2017

Review Corner

Hitler had not originally wanted to host the games at all. Almost everything about the idea, in fact, had offended him. The year before, he had damned the games as the invention of "Jews and Freemasons." The very heart of the Olympic ideal -- that athletes of all nations and all races should commingle and compete on equal terms -- was antithetical to his National Socialist Party's core belief: that the Aryan people were manifestly superior to all others. And he was filled with revulsion by the notion that Jews, Negroes, and other vagabond races from around the world would come traipsing through Germany. But in the eight months since he had come to power in January, Hitler had begun to change his mind.
Blog friend SugarChuck recommended Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. And I have mentioned that his recommendations tend to be worth following up on. This was no exception.

What is it about? Well, it is about the boat. But you cannot know what "the boat" means without reading the entire book. So let us simplify: it is about the depression, and true love, and Hitler, and propaganda, and American geography, and athleticism, and the delicate balance between teamwork and the individual. Oh, and boat racing. Rowing.

Rowing makes me think of Bullwinkle cartoons and poncy Harvard lads out on the St. Charles. But collegiate rowing was the March Madness and BCS of its day in the 20's and 30's. Newspapers sent reporters to spy on practices and try to pry publishable quotes out of taciturn coaches.

He detected the strength of the gossamer threads of affection that sometimes grew between a pair of young men or among a boatload of them striving honestly to do their best . And he came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing -- a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy. It was a rare thing, a sacred thing

So, what's it about? Well, it is about a guy who joins the University of Washington rowing team. He is from difficult circumstances, having exactly one sweater to train in every day in the Seattle winter. He sees rowing as a ticket to a better life: not so much Olympic Gold, but the way successful jocks get a good job after graduation.
Each evening, Joe Rantz noted with mounting satisfaction, there were fewer boys making the climb. And he noted something else. The first to drop out had been the boys with impeccably creased trousers and freshly polished oxfords. At a time when images of successful oarsmen appeared on the covers of Life and the Saturday Evening Post, varsity crew had seemed to many of them to be a way to build up their social status, to become big men on campus . But they had not reckoned on the sport's extreme physical and psychological demands.

The group he joins, however, is rather special, and -- spoiler alert -- do win the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, sullying the brilliant Nazi filmmaking of Leni Riefenstahl. I knew Riefenstahl by name and who she was, but this book fleshes out her background and position in the party, replete with intrigue, internecine strife and reverse-sexual-harassment.
None of this should be any problem, Goebbels had calmly assured his audience of dumbstruck journalists that day: "I don't see why you should have the slightest difficulty in adjusting the trend of what you write to the interests of the State. It is possible that the Government may sometimes be mistaken -- as to individual measures -- but it is absurd to suggest that anything superior to the Government might take its place. What is the use, therefore, of editorial skepticism? It can only make people uneasy."

The book presents a deep look into 1930s America and pre-war Germany. Just as you know the outcome of most of the races, there is a poignancy to knowing the forthcoming start and finish of the war.

But, it's about boat racing.

But watching the varsity race drove the lesson home for Joe. To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn't necessarily enough just to give your all from start to finish. You had to master your opponent mentally. When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not -- that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most. Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.

It's about a guy who was kicked out of the house as a young teenager by his stepmother, while his father silently acquiesced. About this young man finding love and seeking rapprochement with his birth family. About getting by in the depression working 12 hour days jackhammering the face of a cliff.

And it's about boat racing.

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define . Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can't sustain it. It's called "swing." It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It's not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action -- each subtle turning of wrists -- must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that's what a good swing feels like.

A masterpiece. Five Stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:50 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:


Posted by: johngalt at April 2, 2017 3:46 PM
But johngalt thinks:


Posted by: johngalt at April 2, 2017 3:46 PM

March 19, 2017

Review Corner

I used to believe this as well. But now I don't. Empathy has its merits. It can be a great source of pleasure, involved in art and fiction and sports, and it can be a valuable aspect of intimate relationships. And it can sometimes spark us to do good. But on the whole, it's a poor moral guide. It grounds foolish judgments and often motivates indifference and cruelty. It can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions, it can corrode certain important relationships, such as between a doctor and a patient, and make us worse at being friends , parents, husbands, and wives. I am against empathy, and one of the goals of this book is to persuade you to be against empathy too.
Paul Bloom is not a fan of empathy. I hear ThreeSourcers across this great nation asking "What kind of right-wing, fascist, wing-nut claptrap is this?" Hahahaha, just kidding. The sound I hear is a thousand mouseclicks ordering Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. You will not be disappointed; it's a great book. But those expecting a hard edged, libertarian or Randian polemic will be surprised.

Before we get there, though, let's bask in the thesis. Empathy has her charms, but she's a poor guide to action.

Some scholars will go on to reassure us that the emotional nature of morality is a good thing. Morality is the sort of thing that one shouldn't think through. Many of our moral heroes, real and fictional, are not rational maximizers or ethical eggheads; they are people of heart. From Huckleberry Finn to Pip to Jack Bauer, from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., they are individuals of great feeling. Rationality gets you Hannibal Lecter and Lex Luther .
But I wrote the book you are holding because I believe our emotional nature has been oversold. We have gut feelings, but we also have the capacity to override them, to think through issues, including moral issues, and to come to conclusions that can surprise us. I think this is where the real action is. It's what makes us distinctively human, and it gives us the potential to be better to one another, to create a world with less suffering and more flourishing and happiness.

I think every conservative, every libertarian, and every objectivist will set the book down on occasion to burst into load cheering. Reason's ascendancy makes us -- not only pareto-equivalent wealthier but also better friends, parents, and philanthropists.
I've been focusing here on empathy in the Adam Smith sense, of feeling what others feel and, in particular, feeling their pain. I’ve argued -- and I'll expand on this throughout the rest of the book with more examples and a lot more data -- that this sort of empathy is biased and parochial; it focuses you on certain people at the expense of others; and it is innumerate, so it distorts our moral and policy decisions in ways that cause suffering instead of relieving it.

He gets ten points from both me and Russ Roberts (I heard about the book on an EconTalk podcast) for serial allusion to Adam Smith. Smith remarked 250 years ago that a close friend's difficulties or a minor medical procedure on ourselves outweigh major catastrophes across the world. Sorry, hippies, that's empathy at work. Because it is harder to "feel the pain" of a Chinese earthquake victim than a co-worker's sick child, is that a good vector to direct our compassion?
These are all serious cases. But why these and not others? It's surely not their significance in any objective sense. Paul Slovic discusses the immense focus on Natalee Holloway, an eighteen-year-old American student who went missing on vacation in Aruba and was believed to have been abducted and murdered. He points out that when Holloway went missing, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur.

One of the antecedents of "these cases" is the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. How many bad gun laws were passed in that tragedy's wake because moms and dads could "feel" the horror of that at their child's school. Reason did not get a seat in the boat.

I left breadcrumbs of doubt along this review. He does not take the road of reason to the same destinations some of us would. I can't let my Randian friends down easily. He is hostile to one whom I'd see as a philosophical ally.

For every Uncle Tom's Cabin there is a Birth of a Nation. For every Bleak House there is an Atlas Shrugged. For every Color Purple there is a Turner Diaries, that white supremacist novel Timothy McVeigh left in his truck on the way to bombing the Oklahoma building. Every single one of these fictions plays on its readers' empathy: not just high- minded writers like Dickens, who invite us to sympathize with Little Dorrit, but also writers of Westerns, who present poor helpless colonizers attacked by awful violent Native Americans ; Ayn Rand, whose resplendent "job-creators" are constantly being bothered by the pesky spongers who merely do the real work; and so on and so on.

If it's any consolation to the Randians 'round these parts, I don't think he gets Bleak House either. Little Dorrit, perhaps, but his earlier reference to Bleak House truly puzzled me.

Still, these are nits. He missed the point of Atlas Shrugged but managed to work it out on his own. It is an important work and its lack of right-wing-ism (a pointy-headed Yale Psychology Professor fer cryin' out loud!) might attract others. I sense that the Angus Deaton [Review Corner], James Tooley [Review Corner], William Easterly [Review Corner],and Poverty Inc. [Official Site] rethinking of the efficacy of charity is in the works. This could supplement it substantively.

Five Stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:38 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

How different really is "rational compassion" from "compassionate conservatism?" I don't have an answer to that, I'm hoping the Review Corner author does.

The idea that empathy or compassion could ever leave our legislation or jurisprudence is impossible to envision. Given that, I'll take compassion over empathy any day.

Posted by: johngalt at March 21, 2017 2:53 PM
But jk thinks:

Well, I'll defend "rational compassion." So that's a start.

Pointy-headed Yale man (with all due respect to Thurston J. Howell, III) does an important job here. "Empathy" has pretty well morphed into a synonym for "good" these days. He both corrals it into its specific meaning of experiencing another's feelings -- and documents why this may not really be good.

I ran out of space / reader attention for more examples, but one I should not have omitted was the psychopath. If you're really good at getting into others' heads, you might be a sweet angel, but you are just as likely to be a manipulator or con man.

Another great example is the doctor delivering a bad diagnosis or friend comforting one in a state of panic. In both cases, one of the participants should be calm and measured to provide stability.

He is writing to an audience for whom this is a brand new idea: "Huh? Empathy can be bad?" Reason, he is saying, provides ultimately greater compassion than empathy. I think that's defensible. "Compassionate Conservatism," sigh, is difficult to defend. I'm sure some high-powered focus group rated it highly once, but it never calmed anybody biased against conservatism nor failed to offend one biased towards it.

Posted by: jk at March 21, 2017 3:37 PM

March 12, 2017

Review Corner

Overall, as a nation, Americans are sufficiently happy that they don't even notice their starring role in the stultification of what has been and still remains the world's greatest nation.
I may have mentioned, once or twice, that I am a big fan of Tyler Cowen. His "Conversations with Tyler video podcasts are windows into a rational intellectualism with few equals. He is a prolific and prodigious blogger, covering the economic side of larger ideas at Marginal Revolution. I may have to call myself his #2 fan, now that I have read Ryan Holiday's "29 Lessons I learned from Tyler Cowen." (I agree with 28; I have not moved to Texas yet.)

That stated, I had serious reservations about his latest: The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. Cowen lets the data and reason lead to him to the truth. And some of those truths are difficult to accept and challenge our base beliefs. That is where I am with the great stagnation economists, among whom I would number Cowen.

I sometimes say that I am a happiness optimist but a revenue pessimist.

I'm an optimist in both, but some would say Professor Cowen was a bit smaterer than me.

We'll explore some differences, but I accept the central thesis 100% and bet all ThreeSourcers are in as well. Tyler, can you give us that thesis in a short excerpt?

The Reagan recovery seemed especially dramatic to those who had lived through the earlier periods, because all of a sudden, everything seemed to be coming together again. Economic recovery resumed, American power again seemed to dominate the world, it was "morning again in America," traditional patriotism returned to fashion, and global communism was to fall shortly thereafter. Collectively, as a nation, we used this newfound wealth and prestige to dig in, to protect ourselves against risk, and to build and cement a much safer and more static culture. So many features of the country became nicer, safer, and more peaceful, but as an unintended side effect, a lot of the barriers to advancement and innovation were raised.

Just as an individual shops for insurance when his or her income exceeds sustenance, Americans chose to use their affluence to featherbed. Zoning laws will keep the riff-raff out of our lovely Boulder neighborhood. Licensing and certification laws will impede pushy upstarts who threaten our profits. We can secure our security -- but it is at the cost of dynamism.
The clearest physical manifestation of these ongoing processes of segregation is NIMBY-- Not In My Backyard. Building new construction gets harder and harder in many of our most important cities, and the ratio of rents to median income in those locales has been rising steadily. American life is more segregated by income than ever before, and the new innovations we are creating are cementing rather than overturning this trend, which is backed most of all by city and county laws but also by our own desires for suitably nice living quarters and experiences.
One upshot of this current Zeitgeist of community-enforced social stasis is that our physical infrastructure won't get much better anytime soon. Every time a community turns down a new apartment complex or retail development, it limits America's economic dynamism by thwarting opportunities for those lower on the socioeconomic ladder.

Cowen's stagnation -- in this book -- is chosen complacency, and overregulation to maintain it. It is not that we have run out of productive ideas or picked all the low hanging fruit. We're not reaching, we're not moving, we're not staring up new enterprises in the numbers we used to. What's the cost? Substantitve:
Muddy Waters is one significant creator who made the move from the Delta up to Chicago, and it is from that geographic transition that electric blues, and eventually rock and roll, was born. The story of African American popular music in the twentieth century is above all a story of migration and creative adaptation to new environments. It was in the large, noisier nightclubs of Chicago that Muddy Waters plugged in his guitar and made it electric, so that his music could be heard above the drinking, arguing, and overall hubbub of the audience.
As late as the 1980s, when I was living in Germany, I recall bragging to my German friends that about a fifth of American households picked up and moved in a given year. At that time, America was living through an economic boom that saw high GDP growth and rapid job creation, while much of Europe was mired in persistent double-digit unemployment. Although my German friends already had the sense of America as a highly mobile country, they nonetheless found that statistic almost impossible to believe.

I don't quote pop country too frequently; I'm more comfortable with Muddy Waters. But Jo Dee Messina released "Heads Carolina, Tails California" in 1996. I don't know when I found it, but I have loved it for decades -- insisting it to be the most American Song there is. Its Wikipedia entry notes:
Deborah Evans Price, of Billboard magazine reviewed the song favorably, calling it a "rollicking country ode to flipping a coin and hitting the road in search of a better life "somewhere greener, somewhere warmer.'" She goes on to say that "passion and energy permeate Messina's strong vocal attacks on this infectious tune."

It is now 2017, Cowen doesn't mention this song, but it is clear from his data that this no longer describes America. The strong vocal attacks and infectious melody may still be "us." But we are no longer a mobile society, either in economics or geography. To Cowen, it's the same thing.
They noticed that within the United States, the dispersion of worker productivity across different cities has gone up. For instance, New York, San Francisco, and San Jose have become especially high-productivity cities, compared to, say, Brownsville, Texas; the size of these gaps has been growing over time. Those large gaps mean that the American economy could become much richer if more workers could be moved from the low-productivity cities to the high-productivity cities; that would increase income mobility too. The researchers estimate that "[ l] owering regulatory constraints in these [high-productivity] cities to the level of the median city would expand their work force and increase U.S. GDP by 9.5%." In a $ 17 trillion economy, that is indeed a huge effect-- you can think of it as an extra $ 1.7 trillion in upward income mobility.

Yes, we have residual wealth from the Reagan Revolution -- but Cowen suggests we still have residual ennui from the oil shocks of 1973 and President Carter's sweaters a few years later.
In that year the era of cheap energy ended and the American economy slowed, and more generally the culture moved away from the idea of immediate and rapid transportation. Mentally, Americans moved from a world of moon shots to waiting in line to buy gasoline.
Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and urged Americans to turn down the thermostat, representing a new era of lowered aspirations. In other words, the American response to economic adversity was to seek to restore comfort more than dynamism, and Americans pushed their culture in this direction all the more in the 1980s. President Reagan resurrected the rhetoric of dynamism, and Americans started to feel better again, but that was a time when dynamic economic growth was available only to a minority of Americans; in other words, it was the beginning of the age of income inequality.

Obama-era 1.8% percent growth may be a thing of the past (Cowen is not optimistic) but if this "New Normal" continues, it will take, by rule of 72, 40 years to double GDP. Cowen reminds that a doubling of GDP is a reinvention.

I have visited China many times over the past five years, for a different book project, and what I've observed there has made America's social stagnation increasingly clear to me. That was one reason why I came to write this book. Even with its recent economic troubles, China has a culture of ambition and dynamism and a pace of change that hearken back to a much earlier America. China, even though it is in the midst of some rather serious economic troubles, makes today's America seem staid and static. For all of its flaws, China is a country where every time you return, you find a different and mostly better version of what you had left the time before.

He returns to the same America. New fortunes are made, but to whom?

American rags-to-riches stories are much harder to find these days. You can certainly find riches-- look at someone like Mark Zuckerberg. But he hardly grew up in rags. Simply put, these days not many, if any, Americans are starting out their lives in the kind of poverty that [Alibaba founder] Jack Ma experienced as a kid. That sounds good, and indeed it is good, but it also means that wealthy, comfortable societies have less dynamism and churn,

I think that progressives are the kings and queens of this featherbedding complacency. Protecting union jobs over educating children, rent control, open-space, &c. Cowen doesn't call them out as I would. But their world cements inequality, not the libertarians'.

I'm running out pf space and user attention, so I will stop with this wonderful book under-described. I'll toss two quotes out of interest to ongoing internecine debate 'round these parts. One, increased immigration offers an infusion of dynamism:

What is the broader lesson here? It is not, I think, that migrants are stealing all of the upward movement away from Americans. If you look at America's earlier period of very high immigration, early in the twentieth century, domestic intergenerational mobility was probably high too, from what we can tell. Quick question: If your family has been in America for a few generations, and you are ambitious, are you really considering moving to a region of the country with very few immigrants? How about West Virginia or eastern Kentucky? Probably not.

My hope for escape remains increased future productivity and lower loss of life from autonomous vehicles. I fairness, I share a quote which speaks to both sides;
America's future is likely to bring a much greater use of driverless cars, which will be a major gain in terms of safety and convenience. But just think of the reorientation in terms of cultural and emotional significance: It will be the cars controlling us rather than vice versa. The driver of the American car used to drive an entire economy, but now the driver will be passive, and what will the culture become?

Heads Carolina -- oh it doesn't matter, we'll go where Google says...

Many disagreements, but it is for me to work them out. This is a superb book -- five stars, easy.

Whatever his fears for the future, Tocqueville's basic portrait of the United States was of a land perpetually in motion. Democracy in America details a nation in ferment, in the process of becoming, and full of energy and ambition. Tocqueville noted that Americans were far more restless than the English, and furthermore this restlessness came from a great awareness of what they always were lacking. In his view, "[Americans] never stop thinking of the good things they have not got. It is odd to watch with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue prosperity and how they are ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it."

Tails California. Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer...

Posted by John Kranz at 3:52 PM | Comments (0)

March 5, 2017

Review Corner

To be sure, a solitary human is an impressive problem-solver and engineer . But a race of Robinson Crusoes would not give an extraterrestrial observer all that much to remark on. What is truly arresting about our kind is better captured in the story of the Tower of Babel, in which humanity, speaking a single language, came so close to reaching heaven that God himself felt threatened.
I've become a huge fan of Steven Pinker. Yes, that's as controversial as thinking Derek Jeter is not too bad a ballplayer. But you know my disaffinity for pointy head professors; it took me a while. He got a glowing Review Corner for his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He is brilliant and charming in his episode of Conversations with Tyler. Smarterest guy on the planet? I'll offer no counterexample.

Becoming a fanboy, I had to dig into the Professor's magnum opus: The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (P.S.). It is an incredible piece of work.

The second trick behind the language instinct is captured in a phrase from Wilhelm Von Humboldt that presaged Chomsky: language "makes infinite use of finite media . " We know the difference between the forgettable Dog bites man and the newsworthy Man bites dog because of the order in which dog, man, and bites are combined.

This is a book of psychology, genetics and structure. Not only is it not about Who vs. Whom, Professor Pinker suggests dispensing with the distinction. He is more interested in universal grammar -- and suggests it comes to us via evolution and not through PlaySchool® "Babies first non-split-infinitive CDs."
In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life. The belief that Motherese is essential to language development is part of the same mentality that sends yuppies to "learning centers" to buy little mittens with bull's-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner.

The three-year old English speaker, Pinker points out, has an astonishing grasp of language and grammar. Show him an animal and tell him it is a "Wug." Then show him two, and he'll construct "two Wugs." Not that he is a huge fan of three-year-olds "(if children are general imitators, why don’t they imitate their parents’ habit of sitting quietly in airplanes?)" The same child will think that a glass of milk poured into a narrower glass suddenly has more because of the vertical level.

We are clearly given some innate language skills. Pinker extends them far beyond plurals. and shows them universal among different languages.

Grammar is a protocol that has to interconnect the ear, the mouth, and the mind, three very different kinds of machine. It cannot be tailored to any of them but must have an abstract logic of its own.

It's a scholarly work and contains some technical sections, but nothing inaccessible (contra another popular brilliant linguist whose name rhymes with Foam Mom's Ski). It's challenging for its depth, but Pinker is a clear, accessible -- and frequently amusing -- writer.
In the 1964 hit song "The Name Game " ("Noam Noam Bo - Boam , Bonana Fana Fo - Foam , Fee Fi Mo Moam , Noam"), Shirley Ellis could have saved several lines in the stanza explaining the rules if she had simply referred to onsets and rimes .

The publication date is 1994 and it is difficult to rate his prognostication skills concerning computers and language. He is rightfully pessimistic (remember your computer in 1995?) because the idea of teaching language and grammar to computers is perhaps insuperable. I participated in a start-up in the early 'oughts which tried to commercialize the then-best Natural Language Processing as part of a rudimentary AI suite. Twelve years after Pinker's book, it was far from solved.

Of course, our computers talk to us all the time. But they use big data and statistical analysis. Siri doesn't understand grammar, but she knows how three million people constructed a phrase. Pinker might lose a friendly wager to a time-traveler over Siri, but the method confirms his hypothesis rather than contradicting it.

Pedants will wince in places. He does claim that those (cough, cough) inclined to separate Who and Whom are hypocrites for not continuing the equivalent Ye and You. Grammatical rules emanating from schoolmarms and disapproving uncles instead of evolution tend not to convey additional information. The erudite syntax of a William F. Buckley, Jr. question on Firing Line claims no superiority over street slang.

The best definition comes from the linguist Max Weinreich: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

I'm not sure to whom he is referring, but I'll move on, having barely scratched the surface of a 572 page book by a polymath, intersecting language, genetics, psychology, art, physics and technology. I'll close with an anecdote that pleased me greatly.

He pretty effectively calls "Bullshit" (without being reduced to barnyard vulgarity) on the people who teach sign language to gorillas or "Don't believe everything you see on The Tonight Show." The studies are suspect, the data is not made available -- the better part of a chapter discredits these circus tricks. The students cataloging "speech" have every incentive to call scratching an itch speech. Actual deaf students brought in noted only ten percent as many words as the other students. But guess which results were published?

Recall that typical sentences from a two-year-old child are:
Look at that train Ursula brought and We going turn light on so you can’t see.

Typical sentences from a language - trained chimp are:
Nim eat Nim eat . Drink eat me Nim . Me gum me gum . Tickle me Nim play . Me eat me eat . Me banana you banana me you give . You me banana me banana you . Banana me me me eat . Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you .

I used the barnyard vulgarity because the section reminded me of an episode of Penn & Teller's show by the same name. They played an audio tape of a woman teaching a dolphin to speak. To help their viewers, when the woman said "One, two, three, four, five, six" they circled her name, Margaret Howe, on-screen. When the dolphin said "Ki, ki, ki ki, ack ack kikikikikikik eeey!" they circled "dolphin."

Pinker doesn't hate gorillas any more than he loves two year olds. It reinforces his point that we have an evolutionary, instinctive capacity for language. We don't rate people on their ability to pull trees out of the ground with their elephantine trunks; it makes no more sense to rate gorillas on grammar skills.

A great and serious book, well worth your time Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2017

Review Corner

Before Lyndon Johnson and the Appalachian Regional Commission brought new roads to southeastern Kentucky, the primary road from Jackson to Ohio was U.S. Route 23. So important was this road in the massive hillbilly migration that Dwight Yoakam penned a song about northerners who castigated Appalachian children for learning the wrong three R's: "Reading, Rightin', Rt. 23." Yoakam's song about his own move from southeastern Kentucky could have come from Mamaw's diary:
They thought readin', writin', Route 23 would take them to the good life that they had never seen; They didn't know that old highway would lead them to a world of misery
Mamaw and Papaw may have made it out of Kentucky, but they and their children learned the hard way that Route 23 didn't lead where they hoped.
Blog friend SugarChuck and I have different styles. I ebulliently wave books I like in the air and importune my unlucky acquaintances to read them. I developed a rating system after all, that goes from four to five stars. The well-read sc, in contrast, will quietly ask something like "Did you ever read Hillbilly Elegy?" I've learned that it's always enlightening to follow up on those quiet recommendations.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D .Vance is a moving and powerful book. Because a new President was inaugurated 22 days ago, I am going to ruin the review with trendy political analysis. But that is a shame, it is a bigger and more important book.

And yet. It does add a significant piece to the puzzle of the Donald Trump voter: some of the forgotten and desperate rust belt denizens who have been harmed by the foreign trade and economic dynamism which I champion. My podcast hero, Russ Roberts, has been putting a human face on these people for a while. Vance adds a personal history and a family tree.

I remember sitting in that busy courtroom , with half a dozen other families all around , and thinking they looked just like us . The moms and dads and grandparents didn't wear suits like the lawyers and judge . They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T - shirts . Their hair was a bit frizzy . And it was the first time I noticed "TV accents" -- the neutral accent that so many news anchors had . The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents . None of us did . The people who ran the courthouse were different from us . The people subjected to it were not .

Vance's grandfather leaves the atavistic poverty of Kentucky, driving up Route 23 to participate in a working class life in Middletown Ohio (the town so inconsequential and fabricated, Vance notes, it didn't have a real name -- but it was halfway between Cincinatti and Akron).
My grandfather loved the company and knew every make and model of car built from Armco steel . Even after most American car companies transitioned away from steel - bodied cars , Papaw would stop at used-car dealerships whenever he saw an old Ford or Chevy . "Armco made this steel ," he'd tell me It was one of the few times that he ever betrayed a sense of genuine pride .

But they brought bad habits. Vance is unstinting in his criticism, presenting a loving yet despondent look at the self-destructive habits of his people.
The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me : one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery , one where individual misconduct rippled across a family's and a community's life . When I asked Mamaw if God loved us , I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in . I needed reassurance of some deeper justice , some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos .

What fell most harshly upon me was the tribalism and violence. If one's Mother is insulted, one is empowered to hospitalize the offender with an electric saw. Any inquiring police or social worker will be told "it was an accident" and the saw-wielder will be held in high esteem.

I told my lovely bride after reading Chapter One that "we are not quite so far away from the Hatfields and McCoys as we might like to think." In Chapter Two I read the author, J. D. Vance's grandfather was a cousin to Jim Vance, who had an outsized role in starting and propagating the famous feud. The men he grew up admiring were 20th Century Hatfields.

We tend to overstate and to understate , to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves . This is why the folks of Appalachia reacted strongly to an honest look at some of its most impoverished people . It's why I worshipped the Blanton men , and it's why I spent the first eighteen years of my life pretending that everything in the world was a problem except me .

Just the marginal stability of a normal older sister and a loving grandparent are enough that the author escapes the turmoil of a drug-using mother, absent father and a parade of temporary stepdads.
I'm sure poor Matt kept asking himself how and when he'd hopped the express train to crazy town . It was just the three of us in that house , and it was clear to all that it wouldn't work out . It was only a matter of time . Matt was a nice guy , and as Lindsay and I joked , nice guys never survived their encounters with our family .

But the author joins the Marines. Serving in Iraq, he discovers unimaginable poverty beyond what he experienced. He uses the GI Bill to attend (the) Ohio State University -- then through Yale Law School, where he discovers equally unimaginable wealth.

Watching his escape, I think of Jason Riley's Stop Helping Us [Review Corner]. Riley escapes poverty, landing a gig at the nation's most respected newspaper to be ridiculed by his nine-year old niece for "talking white." The poverty experience of the African-American and Scots-Irish in this country have different roots. But Mark Twain would point out that they rhyme.

It's an inspiring story told with brutal honesty. Five Stars and an Editor's Choice Award.

Posted by John Kranz at 1:03 PM | Comments (1)
But jk thinks:

Coincidentally, I ran across this Ronald Bailey column in Reason shortly after finishing the book. Bailey references Hillbilly Elegy, shares some of his family's West Virginia background, and asks "Why don't they leave?"

[Spoiler alert:] they are enabled by public assistance. These are some poor people and very few would object to helping. But they could have a better life if they left. Hard choices.

Posted by: jk at February 13, 2017 12:56 PM

February 5, 2017

Review Corner

Republican or Democrat, government busybodies act like our nosy neighbor who, if she were as meddling as they are, would surely be told to mind her own business. Picture her peeking in your windows, wagging her finger with disapproval. Maybe she thinks you are feeding your children improperly, watching the wrong TV shows, or turning your thermostat up too high.
Laura Carno is a Colorado Liberty advocate. She is speaking at the next Liberty on the Rocks Flatirons event. Seeing that on the calendar I remembered that I had purchased her Government Ruins Nearly Everything: Reclaiming Social Issues from Uncivil Servants but allowed it to sit untouched on my Kindle. I forget how that transpired (I'm too much a cheapskate to do that frequently), but I wanted to read it before seeing her.

It's very good: an enjoyable and quick read. It is a bit of choir preaching for me, but she eloquently advocates for both sides of the political spectrum to stop using government for "their" issue while demanding freedom from the busybodies on the other side.

We don't hear anyone, Republican or Democrat, say that too much government is always a bad thing. Neither major party consistently says that government should stay out of our lives, regardless of the issue. But two-thirds of Americans still think the government is too big and too powerful. This is philosophical inconsistency of the highest order, when we imagine that government knows best, but only for issues we want to use its power of force to impose.

The first section details government overreach form toilet-water restrictions to trans-fats, and government's having a less-efficient incentive model to serve constituent needs as compared to private enterprise.
Countless headlines remind us of how human government employees are. So why do so many Americans approve of these people bossing the rest of us around? The majority of local, state and federal employees are fine, law-abiding people, just like any cross-section of America. But to make any further leap-- that they are better than those of us not in government at making decisions in our lives-- is wishful thinking.

Well done, but choir-preaching to ThreeSourcers. The second section is her proposal to adopt freedom-based solutions to four "firecracker" issues.
There are many things "wrong" with our country that people would like to see "fixed," but among them, four social issues generate the most fireworks: Abortion Guns Schools Same-sex marriage These attract massive political dollars and incite riotous political noise. Hundreds of millions of lobbying dollars have been spent to either restrict or enhance freedoms, to control outcomes or to create choice, or to urge the government to "fix" whatever the problem is. For such incendiary issues, is it better to leave a fix to the government, or to trust the citizens for answers?
On the topic of human life and its creation, everyone cares. And because of its profound moral implications, abortion is profoundly political. Those on the pro-life side legitimately believe they are saving unborn babies with their work. Those on the pro-choice side legitimately believe they are protecting vulnerable women from being trapped in untenable circumstances. Perhaps new definitions are in order.

Carno discusses each of these issues, suggesting non-governmental solutions for each. If each could be done in the private manner suggested, they are each good ideas. The cynic in me thinks that the extreme positions are too good to party politicians and fundraisers. Yet she shows extremists from Todd Akin to Mark Udall's being beaten at the polls by more moderate voices. And she documents millennials' trending toward more choice in each of these issues.

Many of the ideas are very good, and Carno's clear exposition of freedom is refreshing.

Adlai Stevenson defined free society as "a society where it is safe to be unpopular." When we all exercise our freedoms, some mutual unpopularity is assured. So be it. I'd rather be unpopular than bullied by bureaucrats.

Indeed. Four-point-five stars and plan to come meet the author a week from tomorrow.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:29 AM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2017

Review Corner

Since John Law and his Mississippi Bubble, individuals have been continually appearing with the same scheme in new disguise. The principle is very simple. You have only to find a way to multiply your creditors by the cube and pay them by the square, out of their own money. Then for a while you are Nabob. One fish cut up for bait brings three. Two of these cut up for bait bring eight, the cube of two. Four of these cut up for bait bring sixty-four, the cube of four. Sixteen of these for bait bring 4,096, and 256 of these, which is the square of sixteen, will bring 16,777,216, which is the cube of 256.

The fatal weakness of the scheme is that you cannot stop. When new creditors fail to present themselves faster than the old creditors demand to be paid off, the bubble bursts. Then you go to jail, like Ponzi, or commit suicide, like Ivar Kreuger.

One of my most respected and intellectually esteemed friends recommended Garet Garrett's The Bubble that Broke the World (LvMI). Published by the Mises Institute and Kindle priced at $2.99, I dropped everything.

The book is copyright 1931, 1932. And if I may practice criminal understatement, the author is not very keen on debt and leverage. And in the years before 1932, average Americans, not only governments and institutions were chasing yield. That yield-chase led them to take on riskier and riskier investments. Stop me if you've heard this.

The committee was hearing bankers on the question of establishing a national economic council and it was asking him what the bankers had done to restrain a wild use of American credit before the collapse. He said: "Speculation was in the air, and the speculators wanted to buy, buy, buy, and the bankers and brokers dealing in securities supplied that demand. . . . In other words, I do not think you would be justified in holding the bankers responsible for the wide speculative craze that worked through the country. I think they were trying to supply what the customers wanted. . . . I think the banker is like the grocer. He supplies what his customer wants."

The more perceptive of you are figuring out that I had some difficulties with this book. It, indeed, features brilliant prose and brilliant insights: I will get to the discussion of the Gold Standard.

But I am a huge fan of financial innovation and Garrett is a Luddite. His 1922 novel, The Driver has been called a precursor Atlas Shrugged and a likely source of the last name Galt. They used Gold in the Gulch and I suspect Objectivists (and the Austrians at the LvMI) are wary of money that is less "Aristotelian."

As they deposit your checks the sums are charged to your account, deducted from your credit on the books. No actual money is involved. If these last few passages have been difficult, take the fact lightly and without blame. Of all the discoveries and inventions by which we live and die this totally improbable helix of credit is the most cunning, the most liable, the least comprehended and, next to high explosives, the most dangerous.

I'll come out of the closet. I took out a mortgage to purchase a home. When I wished to pursue a startup opportunity which lacked cash flow, I refinanced that mortgage with a no-doc loan, chose an interest-only vehicle and fed my family on (egads!) debt! Like high explosives, debt can be quite useful.

Interesting in 2017, under the shadow of massive US debt to China to read such disgust at our being a creditor nation. Even if we build useless public works here in the good old USA, we shall have the tenements. (#MAGA?) A fair point that foreign loans are difficult to collateralize:

Lending of this character, to local people, the bank knowing all of them personally, is not only the safest kind of lending for the bank; it is the ideal use of credit. Unfortunately, the local demand for credit is not enough to absorb the bank’s whole lending power. From the savings of the community, always accumulating in the safe as cash deposits, the bank acquires a surplus lending power. Having satisfied its own customers with credit at the window marked "Discounts and Collections", what will the bank do with the surplus credit?

One would think that extra yield in foreign loans would compensate for the reduced safety.

Garrett's real concern is not a Fort Wayne plumber's getting burned in defaulted Chilean bonds. It is the postwar (WWI) international debt structure. All the European nations are rebuilding on American dollars. Britain has propped up the Pound, and Germany is clearly cracking under its Versailles obligations. Haircuts are coming and it seems likely that America will get shaved most deeply.

You could fill a library shelf with my lack of understanding of WWI. I truly don't get it. But my hero, Charles Gates Dawes is indirectly dissed as author of The Dawes Plan. This was the WWI version of the Marshall Plan, and it both saved many millions of lives and returned Europe to normalcy. Being a banker, Dawes structured aid as loans. Belgium was saved; did Germany default because of debt or onerous conditions of Versailles? (C.f. my general ignorance of WWI).

This is available free on the LvMI site. If you're too cheap to pony up $2.99 in inflated fiat currency, you may go here. In all seriousness, the four page section on the Gold Standard is well worth a read in full.

The value of gold is arbitrary; so is the length of a yardstick. But just as it is necessary to sell cloth by the yard or coal by the ton, so it is necessary to have some arbitrary unit of value in which to price the yard of cloth and the ton of coal. It would be ideal to have something of absolutely invariable value in which to price them. But there is no absolutely invariable thing in the world.
For this now is the modern function of gold-- to limit the amount of money and credit that may be wilfully, irresponsibly created and set free.

Great prose and keen insights. But I hold opposition to his central thesis, videlicet:
Third, the argument that prosperity is a product of credit, whereas from the beginning of economic thought it had been supposed that prosperity was from the increase and exchange of wealth, and credit was its product.

Prosperity rests heavily on financial innovation, part of which is credit. Get capital to its best uses and risk in the best hands to deal with it.

It grieves me to pan a recommendation from such a person. But the integrity of Review Corner is sacrosanct. Three Stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 2:48 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2017

Review Corner

Let the English be as powerful and skilful as they are represented, let them be possessed of as large an amount of capital, and have as great a command of the two great agents of production, iron and fuel, as they are supposed to have; all this simply means cheapness. And who gains by the cheapness of products? The man who buys them.
It was sheer coincidence (unless one believes in an economic Holy Spirit) that I was in the middle of Frédéric Bastiat's Economic Sophisms for Inauguration week. But the timeless timeliness is arresting.

Several Sophisms are discussed, but the main thesis of the book is protectionism and distortionary economic regulation.

If we should find in France a gold mine, it does not follow that it would be for our interest to work it. Nay, it is certain that the enterprise would be neglected if each ounce of gold absorbed more of our labour than an ounce of gold purchased abroad with cloth. In this case we should do better to find our mines in our workshops. And what is true of gold is true of iron.

I blather on about "The Law" but I confess I did not know this book existed until a couple of weeks ago. The site which recommended it included a comment claiming that Bastiat is overrated as an Economic Theorist. True, he did not substantially advance theory; most of his ideas can be traced to earlier thinkers.

But the ideas were obscure. And, as many of them can be counter-intuitive, it was important that they be dispersed and explained. Exposition is M. Bastiat's gift, and it gives his writings value today (well, metaphorically: Kendle versions are available for $0.99 and 1.99, and the text is on the EconLib site for free). His greatest stylistic device was the reductio ad absurdum. Suggesting that The Candlemakers' Guild propose to ban the Sun, or that trains require a discontinuous stop at every town to promote employment shows the flaws in more reasonable but similar restrictions.

"Sophisms" adds to this with the labor-supporting suggestion that all labor in France is to be done with only left hand. He details a fictional battle 20 years hence, when "Dexterities" suggest repeal:

We think that already we hear the free Dexterities, assembled in the Salle Montesquieu, holding this language:-- "Good people, you think yourselves richer because the use of one of your hands has been denied you; you take account only of the additional employment which that brings you. But consider also the high prices which result from it, and the forced diminution of consumption. That measure has not made capital more abundant, and capital is the fund from which wages are paid"
The streams which flow from that great reservoir are directed towards other channels; but their volume is not enlarged; and the ultimate effect, as far as the nation at large is concerned, is the loss of all that wealth which millions of right hands could produce, compared with what is now produced by an equal number of left hands."

Fortunately, Sire, an association has been formed in defence of left-hand labour, and the Sinistristes will have no difficulty in demolishing all these generalities, suppositions, abstractions, reveries, and utopias.

While the bulk of the book could be laid at the feet of President Trump for his penchant for protectionism, the Right vs. Left Hand debate reminds me of repealing Obamacare. Yes, some segment will be harmed by reintroducing some liberty,
It will be understood that I am speaking here of general effects, not of the temporary inconvenience which is always caused by the transition from a bad system to a good one. A momentary derangement accompanies necessarily all progress. This may be a reason for making the transition gently and gradually. It is no reason for putting a stop systematically to all progress, still less for misunderstanding it.

Shades of Russ Roberts, from whom I am learning to appreciate legitimate hardships for those truly displaced by trade.

Like "The Law," it is a joy from cover to cover. One is tempted to highlight every paragraph. Where to stop?

Is there a state apart from the people? is there a human foresight apart from humanity? Archimedes might repeat every day of his life, "With a fulcrum and lever I can move the world;" but he never did move it, for want of a fulcrum and lever. The lever of the state is the nation; and nothing can be more foolish than to found so many hopes upon the state, which is simply to take for granted the existence of collective science and foresight, after having set out with the assumption of individual imbecility and improvidence.

Cinq stars. Magnifique!

Posted by John Kranz at 12:08 PM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2017

Review Corner

Now, I don't have a view either way on where the price of gold is going next, but it's pretty clear that this tweet is absurd, and thinking about how money needs to be a good unit of account tells us why. If Rickards wants to buy a hamburger, or a suit, or a car, he'll find that the dollar hasn't been volatile at all: the prices of these things have changed slowly when measured in dollars. They have gyrated wildly when measured in ounces of gold-- which is why gold is not money, at least not at the moment. It may be a good investment or a bad investment, but that's a different question.
Tim Harford's Messy [Review Corner] continues to intrigue me. I've bored a dozen people with the Keith Jarret story, and recommended it to a few who actually bought and read it. I think of it pretty constantly and retroactively bestow an Editor's Choice Award. [Insert VP Biden Presidential Medal of Freedom joke here if so inclined - ed]

I clicked on a Kindle recommendation button to purchase his The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run--or Ruin--an Economy and enjoyed it if not quite as much as Messy.

In Strikes Back, Harford makes you, the reader, king of economic and fiscal policy, right in the first chapter. He then answers your questions and gives you guidance -- but it is always advice, your decisions are in the end your own.

If the introductory quote rubbed your Ron-Paul, gold-bug beliefs roughly, you're going to be challenged in the first section. He provides a gasp! defense of Keynesian Monetary Policy which sounds quite like all the arguments I have made on the topic, except cogently stated and perfectly spelled.

It is a splendidly succinct view of money and monetary policy. That alone makes the book truly worth the price and time. He provides the three functions of Money. Now, I happen to know the three functions of money from John Considine's Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics. [Review Corner], where the author answers the question "Could Milhous actually become money in the juvenile hall?"

One of these is a "unit of account." I recall Milhous faired pretty poorly on this. Bitcoin, and gold to Harford's thinking, do not fare better.

In a more recent example, Nico Colchester, a journalist at the Financial Times, pointed out that the Mars Bar was a fantastically stable unit of account-- a veritable ingot of milk, sugar and cocoa. Colchester showed that all sorts of prices had stayed stable over the decades, provided that the Mars Bar was used as the unit of account.

The style of advice/Q&A allows Harford to humorously use the economist's vice of always presenting "...on the other hand.." (President Truman quipped that he was looking for a one-handed economist.)
Let me recap, then. In Chapter 2, you told me it's sometimes a good idea to print money. In Chapter 3, you’ve told me it's never a good idea to print too much money. I’m sure you can guess my next question: How much money should I print?

We'll answer that in Chapter 4. But I’ll spoil the surprise now, if you like: the amount of money you should print is just enough.

Harford shares my fear of deflationary shocks. We both would prefer NGDP targeting, but can live under a Bernanke-esque, inflation targeting regime. (He'd up the target from 2 to 4%!) He presents a Classical Economics position that is more Austrian, but not with as much conviction.

The fun parts are his examples from mini-economies. A Washington D.C. group prints script for babysitting services. I watch your little monster and you give me two tokens; Henrietta watches my angels and I pass the script along to her. At first, it was a disaster, because all the participants hoarded script. This was fixed by literally frickken' printing money, making it a favorite story of NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman. But it worked.

Likewise, the cigarette-denominated affairs of a POW Camp in Germany are investigated. The prisoners actually exported some of their Red Cross rations to local restaurants and imported items from guards. (I think Adam Smith was on to something about our desire to trade..) But these microcosms provide real data on the effects of monetary policy.

The question we have to answer is whether more recessions are like babysitting co-op recessions or like POW camp recessions. When we try to understand the economy, should we start with the assumption that it functions smoothly, like the prison camp, but is buffeted by external shocks and hamstrung by policy errors? Or should our starting point be that the economy itself is, like the babysitting co-op, prone to malfunction -- and needs Bill Phillips-style tinkerers to keep it running nicely?

SIDE NOTE: In an adjacent browser window, I am arguing with a great lefty buddy who shared a hagiographic post on Henry Ford's high wages and working hours. That got me in a sharing mood:
let me tell you a story about Henry Ford-- the man who invented unemployment.

Invented unemployment? Don’t you mean factory production lines, or the Model T?

Those, too-- and OK, it's an exaggeration. But it has a kernel of truth. Here's the story. At the start of 1914, Henry Ford, the founder and majority owner of the Ford Motor Company, introduced a new minimum wage of five dollars a day-- more than twice the previous wage-- while reducing the day from nine hours to eight.

Swell. But missing from my friend's was that they rioted to get those jobs and got the fire hoses turned on them in the freezing Detroit winter. Sociologists deemed whether workers were wholesome enough. It's not really a fairy tale. But it was profitable, and we are probably all beneficiaries.

I'll give it 4.75 stars. It's a very good book and a fun, accessible way to grasp some sophisticated economic concepts.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:43 AM | Comments (0)

January 3, 2017

Review Corner 2016

Crow's Gambit, Michael Glaviano [Review Corner]

Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe, Greg Ip [Review Corner]

Hive Mind: How Your Nation's IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own, Garett Jones [Review Corner]

One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson [Review Corner]

The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling, Adam Kucharski [Review Corner]

Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World, Jayson Lusk [Review Corner]

Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People, Randy Barnett [Review Corner]

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander [Review Corner]

Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, Deirdre N. McCloskey [Review Corner]

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson [Review Corner]

The Broken Welcome Mat: America's UnAmerican Immigration Policy and How We Should Fix It, Helen Raleigh [Review Corner]

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, Jordan Ellenberg [Review Corner]

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly [Review Corner]

Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely [Review Corner]

Possession, A. S. Byatt [Review Corner]

Hayek On Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings, FA Hayek [Review Corner]

But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, Chuck Klosterman [Review Corner]

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins, J. E. Lendon [Review Corner]

Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything [Review Corner]

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford [Review Corner]

Thucydides Peloponnesian War, the Landmark Edition [Review Corner]

The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation [Review Corner]

Mortimer Adler smiles, This is far off my 2015 pace. But Adler tells us to "learn how to read slow" when needed. The last two each received several week's attention, not my usual blast through.

UPDATE: And again I come up far short of Blog Friend tg's list.

UPDATE II: Can't believe I forget Tim Harford's Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, that was a favorite. Speaking of, I borrowed TG's practice of highlighting mine. I tried to do a Top Five, but lacked the courage to make a final cut -- my top six are in bold face.

Posted by John Kranz at 4:30 PM | Comments (0)

January 1, 2017

Review Corner

Many friends have come to my side, some by reading, some by listening to me read, the work-in-progress, and responding with criticism or encouragement or a healthy blend of both. Most encouraging of all, none has asked me, "Why another Odyssey?" Each has understood, it seems, that if Homer was a performer, his translator might aim to be one as well; and no two performances of the same work--surely not of musical composition, so probably not of a work of language either--will ever be the same. The timbre and tempo of each will be distinct, let alone its deeper resonance, build and thrust. -- Robert Fagles
I end the year with a curious -- for me -- celebration: hooray for pointy head academics!

I had read both the Odyssey and Thucydides' Peloponnesian War before. As part bravado and part personal habit, I did not seek annotated editions or load up on commentary and criticism. I wanted to experience it cold. And, while there is some value to that, I must admit to my guided journeys' being far more fulfilling.

Russ Roberts mentioned the Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey in an EconTalk Podcast, and complimented its richness. I purchased a hardcopy on Amazon over inexpensive Kindle versions. (If Russ Roberts told you to jump off a cliff, jk...) And I am quite glad I did.

The translation is superb. Fagles has a poetic and dramatic gift for the material, but also an advantage over earlier translators in that he can include the many earthier bits without reliance on euphemism. It's not that he uses Penn & Teller language, but he tells many sections as they are.

  But lustrous Calypso shuddered at those words
and burst into a flight of indignation. "Hard-hearted
you are, you gods! You unrivaled lords of jealousy--
scandalized when goddesses sleep with mortals,
openly, even when one has made the man her husband.
So when Dawn with her rose-red fingers took Orion,
you gods in your everlasting ease were horrified
till chaste Artemis throned in gold attacked him,
out on Delos, shot him to death with gentle shafts.
And so when Demeter the graceful one with lovely braids
gave way to her passion and made love with lasion,
bedding down in a furrow plowed three times--
Zeus got wind of it soon enough, I'd say,
and blasted the man to death with flashing bolts."

I do not suspect that Pope would have had to clean that section too much, but seeking the maids who have and have not been whoring with Penelope's suitors gets a little more graphic.

In addition to the translation, the introduction by pointy-head Harvard Classics Professor Bernard Knox was truly enlightening, including several insights that would have escaped me. Everyone knows most of the stories in The Odyssey: most certainly the sirens. Odysseus puts wax in the ears of his comrades and lashes himself to the mast. (This tale makes an appearance in next week's Review Corner for Tim Harford's "The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run--or Ruin--an Economy.)"

I had always assumed the pull of the sirens was the quality of their voices or just general lasciviousness. Men have not been that difficult to bewitch in the last 3100 years. But Knox points out what they thruly promise:

We know all the pains that Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading field of Troy when the Gods willed it so--
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

He sailed from "seagirt Ithaca" twenty years ago, and the people will be used to peace. The siren song is understanding war and warriors. The Achaeans can stay on the island and tell war stories forever to people who will get it.
  So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air,
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free--
they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder,
Perimedes and Eurylochus springing up at once
to bind me faster with rope on chafing rope.

Homer, if he existed, and if he wrote, can rest easy knowing he has scored the coveted five star Review Corner. If you have managed to escape reading it, or plowed through it in high school, I highly recommend that you get the Fagles translation and rip through it again
Odysseus, the great teller of tales, launched out on his story:
"Alcinous, majesty, shining among your island people,
what a fine thing it is to listen to such a bard
as we have here--the man sings like a god.
The crown of life, I'd say. There's nothing better
than when deep joy holds sway throughout the realm
and banqueted up and down the palace sit in ranks,
enthralled to hear the bard, and before them atl, the tables
heaped with bread and meats, and drawing wine from a mixing bowl
the steward makes his rounds and keeps the winecups flowing.
This, to my mind, is the best that We can offer."

Posted by John Kranz at 12:02 PM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2016

Review Corner

[T]he Köln Concert album has sold 3.5 million copies. No other solo jazz album or solo piano album has matched that. When we see skilled performers succeeding in difficult circumstances, we habitually describe them as having triumphed over adversity, or despite the odds. But that's not always the right perspective. Jarrett didn't produce a good concert in trying times. He produced the performance of a lifetime, but the shortcomings of the piano actually helped him.
The opening story and central theme to Tim Harford's Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is jazz great Keith Jarret's 1975 concert in Cologne, Germany.

Vera Brandes was 17 years old at the time, and saw that Jarret was touring Germany but not Cologne. The enterprising young fraulein contacted his management company, found an available date, then convinced the Opera House to open for a late night concert. All impressive, but there was a massive failure: on performance day, only a broken down old practice piano was available. When Jarret and manager came to look at the facility, he said it was "unplayable" and the event would have to be cancelled.

Brandes scrambled to find another, even recruiting friends to roll a relative's grand through the streets. But the weather was bad, no movers were available. She had to deploy the most powerful weapon in her arsenal: a tearful 17 year old girl convinced Jarret to continue.

Jarret asked it to be recorded as a joke or demonstration of how badly things could go awry. Three-point-five million sales later, Harford told Russ Roberts that it was not just his favorite jazz piano album -- it was his favorite album of all time.

The substandard instrument forced Jarrett away from the tinny high notes and into the middle register. His left hand produced rumbling, repetitive bass riffs as a way of covering up the piano's lack of resonance. Both of these elements gave the performance an almost trancelike quality. That might have faded into wallpaper music, but Jarrett couldn't drop anchor in that comfortable musical harbor, because the piano simply wasn't loud enough. 4

Being jarred off the script -- either accidentally or purposefully -- fills the rest of the book.
The scripted speech misreads the energy of the room; the careful commander is disoriented by a more impetuous opponent; the writer is serendipitously inspired by a random distraction; the quantified targets create perverse incentives; the workers in the tidy office feel helpless and demotivated; a disruptive outsider aggravates the team but brings a fresh new insight.
And the pianist who says, "I'm sorry, Vera, that piano is simply unplayable," and drives off into the rainy Cologne night, leaving a seventeen-year-old girl sobbing on the curbside, never imagines that he has passed up the opportunity to make what would have been his most-loved piece of work.

Even good computer algorithms require a bit of randomness. You can't run all the chess moves or test every point in a massive dataset. The idea is to try a random leap, then a methodical evaluation of the landing point. Harford pushes us to embrace or even force the random element. Brian Eno forces musicians to play each others' instruments and uses a card deck to force different ideas on them. This does not always go over very well, but Eno has had an incredible career. His name is hiding somewhere in the liner notes of hundreds of significant works.

Music is the home for improvisation, but Harford takes it to battle with Rommel, business with Jeff Bezos, and architecture with MIT's fabled Building 20, where every discipline which lacked the clout to get dedicated space could move in and hack the infrastructure.

A university or corporate research center can and should create interdisciplinary spaces in which well-established teams seek common problems to work on. But the anarchy of Building 20 went way beyond what any official effort at cross-cultural collaboration is ever likely to tolerate. It would be a brave CEO who'd play host to model railway enthusiasts and homeless botanists.

When Building 20 was at last demolished in 1998, MIT held what could only be described as a wake.

Chapter four builds to a powerful crescendo, comparing the hard working and organized to the improvisational. Martin Luther King soared to prominence as the latter, working 75 hours to craft a sermon word-for-word and deliver it from memory. Yes, some improvisers are masking lack-of-preparation. And some carefully crafted works are masterful. But King had a very dull speech prepared to give in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He looked down on a particularly unmemorable line when the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled out "Tell em about the dream, Martin!"

The publication date is listed as October 4, 2016, yet it still includes a chapter with quite a bit on Donald Trump. Trump is lumped in with Rommel and Jeff Bezos for his audacity and ability to disrupt his enemy/competitor.

In contrast to Trump's agility, the presidential campaigns of rivals such as Jeb Bush could be encapsulated by a word the German High Command used in conversation with Rommel in 1941 to describe the leadership qualities of the British Army. The German word was schwerfällig-- ponderous. The historian David Fraser elaborates: "There was demonstrated, in British actions, rigidity of mind and reluctance to change positions as swiftly and readily as situations demanded . . . great fussiness and over-elaboration of detail in orders." 25
Much like Rommel, Bezos, and Trump, David Stirling followed a messy road in pursuit of victory. If the opportunity was there, he would seize it and figure out the details later. When he hit an obstacle, he would abandon his plan and start improvising a way around it. And he pursued speed and surprise. A coordinated, well-researched move might look good on paper, but it would be useless if it meant giving the enemy time to react.

Harford applies to it many more examples -- traffic, forestry, Route 128 vs. Silicon Valley, banking, VW emissions, and an economist's view of children's games.
Recent research has found a correlation between playing informal games as a child, and being creative as an adult; the opposite was true of the time spent playing formal, organized games. 36

Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, points out that in an informal game, everyone must be kept happy: if enough players stop wanting to play, the game will end. 37 That implies the need to compromise, to empathize, and to accommodate younger, weaker, and less skillful playmates; no such need arises in formal games, where those who are having a miserable time on the losing team are obliged to keep going until the final whistle blows.

Am I wasting my time sorting my email? Yes, but not as emphatically as you're expecting from the title.

I am too likely to start a project without sufficient planning. I work for a Department and Company that welcome this. I should be reading the swift counterpart to this book. But I think we all know the people that plan and outline and Gantt chart a project until it's not needed, superseded, or the company goes bankrupt. A bit of balance is well warranted, and Harford comes to the aid of the audacious and spontaneous. The other guys have their own defenders and, Harford would say, an unwarranted hold on our conscience.

Five stars! Superb!

Posted by John Kranz at 11:38 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

Finally got around to reading this excellent RC. I find it validating and empowering. Like I need either of those. ;)

Posted by: johngalt at December 22, 2016 2:33 PM

December 12, 2016

Thucydides, Book Eight: Pencils Down!

When the news was brought to Athens for a long while they disbelieved even the most respectable of the soldiers who had themselves escaped from the scene of action and clearly reported the matter, a destruction so complete not being thought credible. When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it, and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omenmongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily.[8.1]
The first surprise is that there is a Book Eight. Then Athenian military is thoroughly destroyed by the Syracuse campaign in Book Seven. Yet, she has allies, territory and money. Far fewer and less of each than at Pericles's funeral oration, but enough to rebuild some ships and throw a Hail Mary at the Hellespont, in the backyard of the Persian empire.
Nevertheless, with such means as they had, it was determined to resist to the last, and to provide timber and money, and to equip a fleet as they best could, to take steps to secure their confederates and above all Euboea, to reform things in the city upon a more economical footing, and to elect a board of elders to advise upon the state of affairs occasion should arise. [4] In short, as is the way of a democracy, in the panic of the moment they were ready to be as prudent as possible. [8.1]
With hopes for all out victory off the table, the next card to play is an alliance with "The King." Persia has been content to watch Sparta and Athens diminish each other and postpone any significant challenge from a united Hellenic power. Scholars have been rough on Thucydides for underplaying The King's influence. Like getting Dad involved to quiet an obstreperous brother, there is always a consideration that Persia could be brought into the conflict on one side or another. In the end, Persia does settle the conflict.

Yet The King's role is underplayed. Sparta and Athens allied to repel "The Mede" including the decisive battle at Thermopylae, then in Book Eight, a satrap named Tissaphernes negotiates with both sides rather duplicitously, biding his time to see the outcome of the naval battle at the Hellespont. The Athenian Polis is informed that no deal will be done with a messy and mercurial democracy. The survival plan is to install an oligarchy, instate Alcibiades as leader and form an alliance with Persia. The alternative is Spartan hegemony, which will not be cake and ice cream time for Athenians.

The People were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took counsel of their fears, and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way. [2] They accordingly voted that Pisander should sail with ten others and make the best arrangement that they could with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades. [8.53]

After the Ten Years War, the interrupted seven years peace, nd the ill-advised adventure in Sicily, the war rages on in Asia. Athenian colonies are emboldened to revolt or seek a better deal on the Lacedaemonian side. Sparta has the chance to deliver the killing blow in the Hellespont in a huge naval battle with substantive allied support on both sides. During the intrigue, Athens and Allies are victorious, defeating though not routing a massive Peloponnesian fleet.

they sent off a trireme to Athens with the news of their victory. [5] The arrival of this vessel with its unhoped-for good news, after the recent disasters of Euboea, and during the revolution at Athens, gave fresh courage to the Athenians, and caused them to believe that if they put their shoulders to the wheel their cause might yet prevail. [8.105]

Athens presses on, but Thucydides's history stops abruptly. It is not a knock at the door which stopped Coleridge, for it is obvious from previous passages that the good General knows the outcome. But the narrative ends in Book Eight, with six years of conflict remaining. Robert Strassler provides a brief Epilog
Victorious Sparta, after initially contemplating the total destruction of her defeated adversary, finally decided that Athens would be allowed to continue to exist as a city, but demanded the surrender of what remained of her fleet, the demolition of the walls of Piraeus and the Long Walls, and the granting of complete freedom to the former subject cities of what had been the Athenian Empire. Now supreme in Greece, Sparta thus reduced Athens to a state of isolation, weakness, and dependency which must have been dreadful indeed to the writer of Pericles' Funeral Oration.

It is good, sometimes, to not be a scholar. Thucydides tells us much about human nature. What is true for 2400 years, what was true before the Roman Empire, and what was true before the Industrial Revolution -- if it remains today, is true. The perils of democracy and the perils of anarchy are spelled out as well.
The polis, a uniquely Greek phenomenon, had developed and flowered in the particular circumstances of the eighth, seventh, and early sixth centuries when, as Thucydides noted (1.12-19), there were no great wars, powerful states, or large-scale enterprises in the Greek world. The key institutions of the polis-- an agrarian economy, many owners of small plots of land, rule by a restricted list of citizen voters, and hoplite warfare-- to which most Greeks remained deeply attached throughout the period-- were not seriously challenged by the outside world until the encroachments and invasions of Persia in the late sixth and early fifth centuries. Although the Greeks threw back the Persians in the first half of the fifth century, they did so through leagues and alliances that proved inimical to the total autonomy, and incompatible with the local focus, that were so central to the classical polis.

Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (Kindle Locations 13106-13112). Free Press. Kindle Edition. .

Posted by John Kranz at 12:27 PM | Comments (0)

December 4, 2016

Thucydides, Book Seven: Annihilation

For this was by far the greatest reverse that ever befell an Hellenic army. They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves: they had sailed out with prayer and paeans, and now started to go back with omens directly contrary; traveling by land instead of by sea, and trusting not in their fleet but in their hoplites. Nevertheless the greatness of the danger still impending made all this appear tolerable. [7.74]
Sicilian-American Louis Prima performed a novelty song called "There'll Be No Next Time" as a duet with his long-time Saxophonist Sam Butera. Sam tells the story of his escaping unpaid rent and "failure to support." When he mentions going to the airport, Louis says "Uh-oh," and admonishes him later: "You shouldn't have gone to the airport, Sam." Well, "You shouldn't have gone to Sicily, Alcibiades."

As mentioned in Book Six [Review Corner], the decision for the Sicilian/Syracusan was hard fought, but decided without full knowledge. Blog-friend (and my ticket to the esteemed roundtable) tg reminds that "History is written by the losers." While the style of Thucydides' history is contemporaneous, he frequently tips his hand that he knows the ending. His account terminates abruptly with several years left. But there are several clues in the extant text were clearly written after the war ended. He clearly puts his thumb on the scale in Book Six, in full knowledge of the events of Book Seven.

Had Alcibiades's optimistic estimations come to pass, the Syracuse campaign would be remembered for its courage and audacity. Instead, it parallels Sam Butera's fateful decision to "go to the airport."

Book Six closes with swift early victories by Athens's large and well-trained forces. Scared Syracusans are negotiating surrender terms when word comes of reinforcements from Sparta and Corinth. Athens's prowess prevails at the first sea battle, but a disastrous reverse loses hard won land territory, and important stores and base capacity at the fort of Plemmyrium.

Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium; even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; [7.24]

Nicias sends word to Athens. Knowing that the herald will have incentive to sanitize the message for his own safety and comfort, he takes the unusual step of writing the exact text to be delivered.
For I understand that they contemplate a combined attack upon our lines with their land forces and with their fleet by sea. [3] You must none of you be surprised that I say by sea also. They have discovered that the length of time we have now been in commission has rotted our ships and wasted our crews, and that with the completeness of our crews and the soundness of our ships the pristine efficiency of our navy has departed. [7.12]

Triremes are not battleships. They must be dried on shore and they offer little room or comfort for personnel. A large army at sea in triremes is even more besieged that a city under circumvallation. They get a chance to escape, but discard it for omens. The secular Thucydides relates:
All was at last ready, and they were on the point of sailing away when an eclipse of the moon, which was then at the full, took place. Most of the Athenians, deeply impressed by this occurrence, now urged the generals to wait; and Nicias, who was somewhat overaddicted to divination and practices of that kind, refused from that moment even to take the question of departure into consideration, until they had waited the thrice nine days prescribed by the soothsayers. [7.49]

Instead of escape, reinforcements arrive, and the Syracusan navy both learns from its mistakes and implements technological changes to her ships making them better suited to combat in the narrower spaces of the city's smaller harbors.

Nicias prepares his troops.

"Soldiers of the Athenians and of the allies, we have all an equal interest in the coming struggle, in which life and country are at stake for us quite as much as they can be for the enemy; since if our fleet wins the day, each can see his native city again, wherever that city may be. [2] You must not lose heart, or be like men without any experience, who fail in a first attempt, and ever afterwards fearfully expect a future as disastrous. [3] But let the Athenians among you who have already had experience of many wars, and the allies who have joined us in so many expeditions, remember the surprises of war, and with the hope that fortune will not be always against us [7.60]

Fortune remains rather unfriendly. If not the eclipse, being outnumbered and stranded far from home in a hostile environment. Nicias and Demosthenes are routed at sea and cornered in land against overwhelming force.
After this, Nicias and Demosthenes now thinking that enough had been done in the way of preparation, the departure of the army took place upon the second day after the sea fight. [2] It was a lamentable scene, not merely from the single circumstance that they were retreating after having lost all their ships, their great hopes gone, and themselves and their state in peril; but also in leaving the camp there were things most grievous for every eye and heart to contemplate. [3] The dead lay unburied, and each man as he recognized a friend among them shuddered with grief and horror; while the living whom they were leaving behind, wounded or sick, were to the living far more shocking than the dead, and more to be pitied than those who had perished. [7.74]

The Athenians know little mercy will be afforded on surrender and most elect to die in place. Nicias makes pains to surrender directly to the Spartan General Gyliippus to negotiate merciful treatment of his men, but this does not come to pass. Nicias and Demosthenes are executed (to Thucydides' distaste) and some seven thousand are thrown in a pit with the wounded, sick, and dead with no shelter, minimal water and food, no sanitation. Any that survived in eight months were sold as slaves.
This was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion, in Hellenic history; at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered. [6] They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army-- everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home. Such were the events in Sicily. [7.87]

"Shouldn't have gone to the airport, Sam."

Posted by John Kranz at 11:20 AM | Comments (0)

November 27, 2016

Thucydides, Book Six: Projecting Power

The same winter the Athenians resolved to sail again to Sicily, with a greater armament than that under Laches and Eurymedon, and, if possible, to conquer the island; most of them being ignorant of its size and of the number of its inhabitants, Hellenic and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians. [6.1]
"Do not think of elephants," goes an old saw. I see from a search it has spawned a couple of self-help, career guidance books. I thought it was just some form of toddler torture, but it seems the franchise has expanded. Likewise, the modern American reader is challenged to read the final few books of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War without thinking of Iraq.

Book Six presents the democratic arguments for and against War in Sicily. Those who have read ahead know it is a military disaster that ends the Athenian Empire.

I do not want to digress too much on my personal, unfinished journey of American involvement in the Middle East, but the short version for new readers is that I supported the actions fulsomely, through good times and bad. Yet William Easterly's "Tyranny of Experts" [Review Corner] provided a Hayekian objection which I cannot refute, and subsequent developments have not proven Easterly wrong.

This not a Freshman paper suggesting the end of America -- I'd have to proofread it better if it were -- but the parallels are difficult to ignore. It is difficult to project power. Our technological advancement has reduced half the world to the difficulty Nicias and Alcibiades faced waging war across the Ionian Sea. Yet the same difficulties of supply and logistics remain. More importantly, the Easterly-esque difficulties of understanding the region's scope, politics and culture are nearly insuperable.

Per the introductory quote, most of the Demos who would be voting for or against war did not know the location of Syracuse, the area of Sicily, or the disposition of cities on the island and southern coast of the Tyrrhenian mainland. Nicias, whom Thucydides admires, speaks first -- advising caution:

And yet the latter, if brought under might be kept under; while the Sicilians, even if conquered, are too far off and too numerous to be ruled without difficulty. Now it is folly to go against men who could not be kept under even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position from that which we occupied before the enterprise. [6.11]

You're thinking of elephants, aren't you?
The Hellenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power we went away again as soon as possible. [6.11]

Nicias closes with a swipe at the youthful who seek riches and glory without fully comprehending the potential downside.

The youthful, vainglorious Alcibiades takes umbrage at this attack on youth and vainglory. He addresses the crowd, warning of Syracuse's growing power (c.f. The Thucydides Trap) and dangers of a potential alliance with the Peloponnese. But his closing argument is "We will be greeted as liberators!"

The states in Sicily, therefore, from all that I can hear, will be found as I say, and I have not pointed out all our advantages, for we shall have the help of many barbarians, who from their hatred of the Syracusans will join us in attacking them; nor will the powers at home prove any hindrance, if you judge rightly.

Sensing that things are not going his way, Nicias elects to agree, but attempts to subliminally frighten the populace by enumerating the requirements. We'll need to bring grain and our own bakers and more ships that have ever been arrayed, and carpenters and machinists because we will be too far for repairs. But, rather than being subdued, Nicias's ruse backfires. Clearly, think the Athenians, this is going to be the greatest enterprise ever -- less a war and more of a moonshot. Carthage will fall next and we will rule the world.
The Athenians, however, far from having their enthusiasm for the voyage destroyed by the burdensomeness of the preparations, became more eager for it than ever; and just the contrary took place of what Nicias had thought, as it was held that he had given good advice, and that the expedition would be the safest in the world. [3] Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future.
With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding; up their hands against it, and so kept quiet. [6.24]

Was that an elephant?

The great fleet sails. Cities along the route come out just to see the historic array. "Alcibiades sailed to Syracuse -- and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt!" The Syracusans are brave and numerous but fall initially to Athens' superior technical skill and modern naval techniques. In a short time Athens holds commanding heights; Syracuse is defeated and demoralized and discussing terms of surrender. This Athenian adventure will be quick and successful.

Stop me if you've heard this, but things deteriorate from there.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

November 20, 2016

Thucydides, Book Five: Halftime

Indeed it so happened that directly after the battle of Amphipolis and the retreat of Ramphias from Thessaly, both sides ceased to prosecute the war and turned their attention to peace. Athens had suffered severely at Delium, and again shortly afterwards at Amphipolis, and had no longer that confidence in her strength which had made her before refuse to accept the offer of peace, in the belief of ultimate victory which her success at the moment had inspired; [5.14]
The "Ten Years War" is complete. J. E. Lendon's Song of Wrath [Review Corner] covers only this period. And Thucydides himself spends a small section defending his decision to consider the entire "three times nine years" period a single conflict, getting a dig in at the superstitious of his time:
So that the first ten years' war, the treacherous armistice that followed it, and the subsequent war will, calculating by the seasons, be found to make up the number of years which I have mentioned, with the difference of a few days, and to provide an instance of faith in oracles being for once justified by the event. [5.26]
But if the play-by-play, battle-by-battle coverage takes a small break in Book Five, there's some time for extended commentary (and highlights from other conflicts).
I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them. It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely. [6] I will accordingly now relate the differences that arose after the ten years' war, the breach of the treaty, and the hostilities that followed. [5.26]
Sparta and Athens indeed complete a truce, essentially establishing a "status quo ante" distribution of territory with a few small exceptions. But Hellas does not become Hundred Acre Wood, and they do not spend these years in idyllic pastoral repose. Both combatants drag their heels at completing requirements of the treaty. "Oh, we'll give them the hostages from Pylos someday..."

The peace is uneasy to begin with, and not all the allies are on board with the idea of armistice or with its terms. This gives Argos an opportunity to restore her empire by picking up affected city-states for a side alliance. The Argives can rival wounded Athens and Sparta with a few key allies.

The persons with whom they had communicated reported the proposal to their government and people, and the Argives passed the decree and chose twelve men to negotiate an alliance for any Hellenic state that wished it, except Athens and Sparta, neither of which should be able to join without referring the issue to the Argive people. [5.28]

Though this "peace" lasts seven years, it's more of a repositioning. One expects they're analyzing film, taping up ankles and listening to coaches' speechmaking. Commentator Thucydides gets to elaborate on "Fear, Honor and Interest," which is shorthand for his strategic realism.
In a dialog with Melians, the Athenians eschew the eloquent speeches and peans to liberty common in the other books, and a small delegation sits down to hear the stronger power dictate alliance terms to the weaker.
Athenians: "For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses-- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us-- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." [5.94]

The Melians trust in "the gods" and possible Spartan protection and turn the Athenians away. Spoiler Alert: they "suffer what they must."

Posted by John Kranz at 12:02 PM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2016

Thucydides, Book Four: Declare Victory and Move On

The Spartans accordingly invite you to make a treaty and to end the war, and offer peace and alliance and the most friendly and intimate relations in every way and on every occasion between us; and in return ask for the men on the island, thinking it better for both parties not to hold out to the end, hoping that some favorable accident will enable the men to force their way out, or of their being compelled to succumb under the pressure of blockade.

Indeed if great enmities are ever to be really settled, we think it will be, not by the system of revenge and military success, and by forcing an opponent to swear to a treaty to his disadvantage; but when the more fortunate combatant waives his privileges and, guided by gentler feelings, conquers his rival in generosity and accords peace on more moderate conditions than expected.

Okay Athens, you win!

It is the ninth year (out of 27) of the war of which Thucydides was the historian. We could tie this baby up at the top of Book Four. jk could devote more time to studying Nick Lucas's Guitar Method. Ain't gonna study war no more -- it is not healthy for children and other living things and...

The Athenians dramatic victory at Pylos stuns the Spartans. A bit of pluck and a bit of luck gives Cleon command of an island right in Sparta's backyard and many of her most prominent citizens are captured. All the things Lacedaemonians truly fear are held against them; this defeat could be the domino that starts a helot (slave) uprising.

and now took the unusual step of raising four hundred horse and a force of archers, and became more timid than ever in military matters, finding themselves involved in a maritime struggle, which their organization had never contemplated, and that against Athenians, with whom an enterprise unattempted was always looked upon as a success sacrificed.

Sparta sends Herold -- excuse me a herald1 -- with generous terms for peace, essentially Sparta offers Athens equality in rank. In J.E. Lendon's "Song of Wrath" [Review Corner], this is held to be the reason for war.

The existence of books five through eight is a spoiler alert. There is much speechmaking, but, having the upper hand, Athens decides to press for more generous terms. Hence books five, six, seven and eight. Just as Pylos breaks Spartan ambitions, Athens goes on to be routed at Delium2 and exposed weakness of her less-than-solid alliances in the Chalcidice.

The modern line is "Take 'Yes' for an answer" and I frequently complain about political groups' failures in this area. Most recently, I see the gay rights movement in America enact a national right to marry after Obergefell. Eight years ago, neither Senators Clinton nor Obama would dare suggest it in a Democratic primary. The groups that existed to lobby, however, were staffed by their own Cleons and kept the movement alive to found the National Cake Police. They should have put up a trophy and let the Christian Right recover their dead under truce.

Indeed, there seemed to be no danger in so doing; their mistake in their estimate of the Athenian power was as great as that power afterwards turned out to be, and their judgment was based more upon blind wishing than upon any sound prediction; for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire.

1 -- jokes like these and I still wonder why they won't approve any of my comments at the Roundtable.

2 -- I already was able to use this in a stunning piece of pedantry. Somebody asked if such-and-such was "the worst idea ever?" I replied "oh, I don't know. The Athenian attack on Delium was rather ill advised..."

Posted by John Kranz at 11:28 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

After vanquishing Hillary electorally, Rep. Chaffetz says the emailgate investigation must proceed, lest the denial of justice become an invitation to others. House majority leader Rep. Kevin "the investigations are politically motivated" McCarthy says, "We'll leave the matter to law enforcement and keep politics out of it."

Somewhere in there is the right answer - declare victory and use it to achieve the objectives you promised.

Posted by: johngalt at November 13, 2016 4:28 PM

November 6, 2016

Thucydidies Book Three: The Price of Human Life

"People who read Thucydides and Caesar on war, and Seneca and Ovid on love, are less inclined to construe passing fads as durable outlooks, to fall into the maelstrom of celebrity culture, to presume that the circumstances of their own life are worth a Web page." -- Mark Bauerlein quoted by Walter Williams
Why read Thucydides? The search results looking for the above quote are instructive. There is much on military strategy and "The Thucydides Trap" which is the subject of blog friend tg's superb Book II essay. I am riveted by what is timeless and what is modern. Pace Bauerlein, the good Athenian General/Historian will frequently lay down a riff that speaks clearly to today's events.
Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first.
Then in the next section, he will describe an impoverished and pre-Hobbesian world which I cannot recognize. Form 3.67:
The number of Plataeans thus massacred was not less than two hundred, with twenty-five Athenians who had shared in the siege. The women were taken as slaves. [3] The city the Thebans gave for about a year to some political emigrants from Megara, and to the surviving Plataeans of their own party to inhabit, and afterwards razed it to the ground from the very foundations, and built on to the precinct of Hera an inn two hundred feet square, with rooms all round above and below, making use for this purpose of the roofs and doors of the Plataeans : of the rest of the materials in the wall, the brass and the iron, they made couches which they dedicated to Hera, for whom they also built a stone chapel of a hundred feet square. The land they confiscated and let out on a ten-years' lease to Theban occupiers. [4] The adverse attitude of the Spartans in the whole Plataean affair was mainly adopted to please the Thebans, who were thought to be useful in the war at that moment raging. Such was the end of Plataea in the ninety-third year after she became the ally of Athens.
"Bloody Spartans!" This massacre is not attributable to the heat of battle or fog of war; it is preceded by speeches both for mercy and for retribution (well chronicled in Pauline Kaurin's Book III essay. In the end, the Spartans decide to ask each resident what they have done to help Sparta. Without a good answer, it is death. The Plateans' speech points out that this is not actually a fair question for residents of an Athenian controlled and long blockaded city. But justice is swift, harsh, and generally not very just in the Peloponnesian War.

The politics and military strategy are still of interest today. One must search for recognizable economic ideas, such as Pericles (2.37) some 2100 years before Adam Smith:

while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

The lack of enlightenment economics and values differentiate the tale from modern times. Hemmingway reminds that "Que puta es la Guerra" and there is no paucity of butchery today. But in a Steven Pinker, Better Angels world it is an aberration. "And the women were sold as slaves." closes many a section. The victors set up a trophy, the losers recover their dead under truce, and, oh yeah, the women were sold as slaves.

Much is timeless. The lack of value for life is not. This value does not come from our being so much nobler or better than those of Fifth Century BCE Hellas, but without productivity gains, people are truly interchangeable. And interchangeable is expendable. A great leader like Pericles has leverage and cannot be easily replaced. The same for a great General like the Spartan Brasidas. But the rower, the hoplite, the olive farmer were each just another warm body.

The nobility of the Enlightenment proceeds from the economic value of productive people under specialization and comparative advantage. Seeing its absence underscores the connection.

SIDE NOTE: Some interesting 2450-tear-old crowdsourcing: Plateans, planning escape, average multiple counts to assess the height of the wall to scale (3.19).

Ladders were made to match the height of the enemy's wall, which they measured by the layers of bricks, the side turned toward them not being thoroughly whitewashed. These were counted by many persons at once; and though some might miss the right calculation, most would hit upon it, particularly as they counted over and over again, and were no great way from the wall, but could see it easily enough for their purpose. [4] The length required for the ladders was thus obtained, being calculated from the breadth of the brick.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:35 AM | Comments (1)
But Jk thinks:

Donald Trump may be right -- the system is rigged!

Your hometown pedant has submitted a few comments on the official roundtable site. It is moderated and zero have been accepted for publication. There is a Facebook group I follow but to which I cannot post.

I am starting to know how the Plateans felt...

Posted by: Jk at November 6, 2016 10:42 PM

October 30, 2016

Thucydidies Book Two: Time vs. Metis

For these reasons the Peloponnesians fear our irrational audacity more than they would ever have done a more commensurate preparation.
Book Two of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War begins with high hopes -- hubris if I may borrow from Greek hybris. The Athenian coffers are full and her Navy staffed and equipped in fine form. Sparta is comfortable and confident in the role of Hellenic hedgemon and unparalleled in hoplite warfare on land.
And if both sides nourished the boldest hopes and put forth their utmost strength for the war, this was only natural. Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking; and on this particular occasion the Peloponnesus and Athens were both full of young men whose inexperience made them eager to take up arms, while the rest of Hellas stood straining with excitement at the conflict of its leading cities.
Spoiler alert: things don't go quite as well as either side predicts.

A herald is sent from Sparta with a final offer of settlement, but Pericles "having already carried a motion against admitting either herald or embassy from the Spartans after they had once marched out. The herald was accordingly sent away without an audience."

When he reached the frontier and was just going to be dismissed, he departed with these words: "This day will be the beginning of great misfortunes to the Hellenes."

Spoiler alert II: the herald was correct.

The first two books introduce three styles of battle which dominate the conflict. Sparta dominated hoplite, infantry warfare. Male children were raised by the state to be brave warriors. Plutarch (Mor. 241) says that mothers would tell sons leaving for battle to "return with your shield or on it." Athens, by comparison, ruled the seas in trireme warfare whose main object was to ram the brass prow broadside into the opponent's vessel. One can see why others underestimated the skill and seamanship required to excel at this.

The third was the siege of the city or "Circumvallation." Surround the city walls, keep food and supplies out and the people in, while laying to waste the agriculture outside the city. Though naval and infantry combat changed mightily in 2000 years, the siege would look pretty similar to the residents of Richmond toward the end of the American Civil War.

The siege of Plataea begins in Book Two (2.2, 2.71) and includes one of my favorite stories. I recommend a guest post in the Roundtable by A. E. Clark for a more detailed strategic look at the Plataean siege; I write for a general audience of cowards and non-combatants like myself.

J. E. Lendon's Song of Wrath [Review Corner] discusses the Greek Virtues of timé and metis. (I leave the accent mark on the é as an exercise to the reader, Lendon uses a solid line atop, I see many variations of the Internet.) Time is honor, worth, valor. I attribute it to the brave Lacedaemonian hoplite general who dies in his place without uttering a single sound.

In carnage conflict. time is indeed a prized virtue. But I am a fan of metis. or cunning. And we see metis in the actions of the Plataeans. The Spartans grow weary of waiting them out and begin constructing ramps up to the wall so they can get into the city and end the conflict. In a plot worthy of a Gilligan's Island episode, the Plataeans tunnel under the wall at night and remove earth from the bottom of the mound as fast as the Spartans are adding it on top.

Time versus metis recurs frequently through Thucydides. I defer to my strategic superiors on the Roundtable, but I suspect it continues through today.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:02 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2016

Thucydides, Book One: Pentecontaetia

For instance, it is evident that the country now called Hellas had in ancient times no settled population; on the contrary, migrations were of frequent occurrence, the several tribes readily abandoning their homes under the pressure of superior numbers. [2] Without commerce, without freedom of communication either by land or sea, cultivating no more of their territory than the necessities of life required, destitute of capital, never planting their land (for they could not tell when an invader might not come and take it all away, and when he did come they had no walls to stop him), thinking that the necessities of daily sustenance could be supplied at one place as well as another, they cared little about shifting their habitation, and consequently neither built large cities nor attained to any other form of greatness.
The Thucydides Roundtable begins tomorrow. I see from the ground rules that I am foresworn to not post before the official opening, so publishing will be deferred. There are some very serious and esteemed participants. Being just a humble commenter, I will be free to be me, and likely the only one making fart jokes.

The Roundtable participants are united in appreciation for military strategy. Certainly my weakest link but I hope to pick up some things over the next eight weeks. I'm, of course, more attuned to political philosophy. The American Founders and the European Thinkers I admire were all well versed in Thucydides and I enjoy sharing a bit of foundation. Lincoln cribbed the Gettysburg Address substantively from Pericles's Funeral Oration (2.35 2.46).

But my takeaway from Book One is its influence on Thomas Hobbes. Twenty two years before he wrote Leviathan and proclaimed the life of man in natural state to be "nasty, brutish, and short," Hobbes completed the first English translation of "Eight Books of the Peloponnesian Warre." There is a surfeit of nasty, brutish, and short in the life of your average Ancient Grecian and the introductory quote supports Hobbes's contention that there is no "Mine or Thine" in a natural state.

Book One, or the Pentecontaetia, describes the almost 50 years between the defeat of the Persians by a United Hellas with Sparta and Athens on the same team and the start of the Peloponnesian War.

All these actions of the Hellenes against each other and the barbarian occurred in the fifty years' interval between the retreat of Xerxes and the beginning of the present war. During this interval the Athenians succeeded in placing their empire on a firmer basis, and themselves advanced their own power to a very great height.

This quote -- and indeed the entirety of Book One -- supports the observations of J. E. Lendon's "Song of Wrath" [Review Corner] that Athens felt it had achieved equity with Sparta and no longer wanted to be treated as an inferior.

Looking forward to a great eight weeks! In addition to strategy, and history, and politics. Thucydides reminds us of timeless wisdom and the author is an engaging character:

So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand. -- Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides

Something we have not learned in 2400 years.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:05 AM | Comments (0)

October 9, 2016

Review Corner

The Arctic Ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot. Reports from fishermen, seal hunters and explorers . . . all point to a radical change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone. Great masses of ice have been replaced by moraines of earth and stones . . . while at many points well-known glaciers have entirely disappeared. Very few seals and no white fish are found in the eastern Arctic, while vast shoals of herring and smelts, which have never before ventured so far north, are being encountered in the old seal fishing grounds. -- Washington Post November 11, 1922:
I wasn't going to read Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger. You're welcome to scoff at this pious assertion but I try to avoid red meat stuff that I'm certain to agree with unless it promises new insight or information. And, as the book is obviously based on their regular contributions to the Cato blog, I had probably read most of it.

But I got the Kindle sample and could not stop when the sample did. It is a collection of their individual essays, reworked to be current and cohesive. And it is an entertaining read. You'll "one more" your way through it in short order.

Oddly for Review Corner,. I am going to lead with a critique. And that is that I suspect the authors not to be Lukewarmers. Like Bill Maher and libertarian, I don't get to judge who can use the term, yet one feels that they are skeptics-bordering-on-deniers who have found respectability in a crowd of ambiguity. Ronald Baily of Reason and Matt Ridley (all Hail Lord Ridley!) make it clear that there might well be serious ramifications to climate change down the road. One does not sense that Michaels and Knappenberger quite buy in:

One wonders how familiar the 240 authors of the 2013 draft National Climate Assessment are with Karl Popper's famous essay on the nature of science and its distinction from "pseudoscience." The essential difference is that science only explains some things and that its hypotheses forbid others, while a theory that is not refutable by any conceivable event (i.e., one that is universally and comprehensively explanatory) is pseudoscience. For Popper, science is characterized by risky predictions (such as gravitational lensing of light in relativity), while pseudoscience does not lend itself to such testing.
In the Assessment's 1,200 horror-studded pages, almost everything that happens in our complex world-- sex, birth, disease, death, hunger, and wars, to name a few-- is somehow made worse by pernicious emissions of carbon dioxide and the joggling of surface average temperature by a mere two degrees.

Acceptance of "lukewarming" sometimes seems bolted on. One does not have to plumb the depths of the opposition to hear that critique. Though, to be fair, it should by definition include diverse thought.

With that complaint out of the way, this is a jewel to read and have as a collection to popular arguments for drastic action. The authors are not totally keen on ethanol.

Multiplying all those percentages reveals that the United States is burning a bit more than 4 percent of total global main crop production in an attempt to mitigate a purportedly climate-driven loss of 3 percent in global crop production. Looked at that way, this policy is about as crazy as burning witches because of climate change and associated crop failures during the Little Ice Age.

I'll give it 4.5 stars and a hearty recommendation -- though more for the ThreeSourcer and less for your Sophomore niece at Berkeley.
It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. -- Thomas Jefferson

Lukewarmers continue to be dismayed by the absolute disregard for logic that pervades the global warming issue.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2016

Review Corner

Thucydides understood that a realist theory of international relations, a theory narrowly grounded in power, did not describe the world in which he lived. Thucydides had seen that states' histories were often more powerful drivers of their actions than was their power. He had seen prickly pride make states strive beyond their strength and exhaust themselves with little regard for its limits. He had seen that not only the power of a foe but the spirit, too, had to be conquered. He had seen that states and men often acted on the basis of wrath and revenge rather than sober calculation.-- J. E. Lendon Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins
The most pertinent and germane question I have yet heard on the study of the Peloponnesian War comes from my sister. I described my enthusiasm for my upcoming study group and reread of Thucydides' classic Peloponnesian War. She replied "Why would anyone read that?" (This from the person who taught me to read, as baby brother was chosen to play "pupil" in the school of her friends.)

I was drawn to it knowing that many of my heroes would have read it. There were likely few men ratifying the Constitution who would fail to recognize an allusion to Pericles' Funeral Oration. More modern readers are likely drawn by War games and Strategy (this encompasses the rest of the readers in my upcoming group). It's perhaps the earliest extant history of statecraft and tactics.

Part of Thucydides' purpose in writing was, after all, to arm his reader with useful know-how, in case some later student of great affairs found himself in a similar situation. Here, then, is what to do if surrounded by barbarians at the extremity of the world:

Form a square, give a good speech... Did I mention that strategy was really not my thing?

The non-strategic reader can become a bit nonplussed. There's a paucity of political philosophy. The Athenian Democracy is compared to the grim totalitarianism of Sparta and her grim allies. The Lacedaemonian contributions to modern language include spartan and laconic.

The Spartan authorities had expected their men to behave like Achilles, to choose a noble death. But Spartans had not brought up their sons to act like Achilles; they had brought them up to obey orders. Never does the strange contradiction at the heart of Spartan society show so clearly as here: Spartans were expected to live the Iliad, but an Iliad set in totalitarian Sparta.
Yet choosing whose cause to champion is more difficult than picking between the Fascists and Communists in the Spanish Civil War -- or even Trump and Clinton in 2016.
The kindly terms [Brasidas] had given at Amphipolis urged along this movement, as did the earnestness of his proclamations that he had come to free the Greeks from empire rather than simply to replace Athenian rule with Spartan. For he pledged to leave the constitutional arrangements of the rebels unchanged and to impose no garrisons or governors. After a seven-year pregnancy, Sparta seemed finally to have brought to birth a son who was in earnest about freeing the Greeks from Athens, the slogan under which Sparta had gone to war in 431 BC and that had brought Sparta such goodwill at war's beginning.

As I read it, it pretty well sucks to be under either system. This could be more economic than libertarian. These were modern humans with language, tools, art, and trade. But millennia separate them from the Industrial Revolution and Deirdre McCloskey's 'Great Fact.' Human life has little value. There is little opportunity cost to joining the Athenian Navy as a rower. Your farm will just be burned down by Peloponnesians anyway.

Lendon's book explains a lot. Covering only the first ten of the 37-year conflict, he fleshes out Thucydides' descriptions and chronologies, but he also provides modern context, describing the conflict as one of establishing rank. The epilogue even concludes Thucydides' "evolving" as described in the opening quote.

And, although the attractive characters in Thucydides (men like Pericles of Athens and Archidamus of Sparta) are usually not made to speak in the language of power but are, rather, allowed to speak in the language of conventional Greek ethics, Thucydides briefly has Pericles himself profess a mild, fatalistic realism. "Your empire," Pericles says to the Athenians, in the phrase that Thucydides deftly turns to poison in Cleon's mouth, "is, to speak somewhat plainly, like a tyranny. To take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe."

Lendon's theory is that the struggle was to establish rank -- first that of parity with Sparta after their alliance defeated Persia, but then after success in battle and statecraft, seeking Athenian superiority.
In an ideal Greek war, the total amount of honor in the system was conserved, and the winner of a hoplite battle gained the same amount of honor as the loser lost. But the Ten Years' War had not worked like that; much honor had been lost and little gained. In the eyes of the other Greeks, the same defeats that had reduced both Athens and Sparta to a mutual willingness to accept equality had also driven down the rank of both in comparison to that great, proud, well-rested power that had sat out the war: Argos.

I'm looking forward to a denser trip through Thucydides. "Song of Wrath" was an accessible and beautifully written super-commentary which could be enjoyed on its own.

Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

August 28, 2016

Review Corner

In other words, Aristotle believed that a dropped rock fell to the earth because rocks belonged on earth and wanted to be there.
Aristotle. What a dumb-ass.

In But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, Chuck Klosterman wonders what beliefs we hold that will engender opprobrium from whatever a blogger is in 2000 years. And he even speculates a bit on what a blogger will be in 2000 years.

The mere fact that I can imagine this scenario forces me to assume that it won't happen. It's a reasonable conclusion to draw from the facts that presently exist, but the future is a teenage crackhead who makes shit up as he goes along.

Klosterman is a music critic with an engaging wit and the capacity to consider unpopular thoughts. One of the first sections is on music. "How many composers of March music can you name?" asks the author. Unless you're a specialist or aficionado, It's exactly one: John Phillip Sousa. This was a popular genre a hundred or so years ago. Now we know it all under one name.

Pedants can name two or three of Shakespeare's contemporaries. Russ Roberts and I (Did I mention there is a great EconTalk podcast on this book?) can each name a bunch of jazz artists from the first half of the 20th Century, But most would give Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. So, Klosterman, wonders who will capture our age for music? For literature?

As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar--perhaps even identical. But it's entirely possible that one of these people will get dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the "hero's journey" is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.

This is where the book is great: the meta and context's effect on what we recall. Things will not be weighed on the same scale we use today. If rock is to be remembered as an entertainment vehicle, Elvis is a great choice. If the art and adolescent ennui define it, then it's Dylan. Culture, Beatles. I'm going for hair and ABBA myself.

But those who know Shakespeare, Frank Sinatra, Sousa, and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright are those who know the minimum.

To matter forever, you need to matter to those who don't care. And if that strikes you as sad, be sad.

He moves from art to science to politics. For science he interviews Brain Greene at Colombia University and Neil de Grasse Tyson, conceding the choice is "a little like writing about debatable ideas in pop music and interviewing only Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Knowles." Interestingly he gets two poles.
When I sat down in Greene's office and explained the premise of my book-- in essence, when I explained that I was interested in considering the likelihood that our most entrenched assumptions about the universe might be wrong-- he viewed the premise as playful. His unspoken reaction came across as "This is a fun, non-crazy hypothetical." Tyson's posture was different. His unspoken attitude was closer to "This is a problematic, silly supposition."

Hands up if you're surprised.

The sports section is great. I disagree with those who predict the demise of the NFL over concussions. This makes me the perfect, Tyson-esque patsy who cannot conceive of things' not following their current trajectory. I know a good friend of this blog who thinks it's a fait accompli. Klosterman thinks it will follow a boxing/MMA track and become a violent boutique sport beloved by those who cannot support wussification of encroaching modernity. (Those are my words, here are his:)

Conversely, football is experiencing a different type of crisis-- there is a sense that the game is being taken from fans, and mostly by snooty strangers who never liked the sport in the first place. It will come to be seen as the persecution of a culture. This makes football akin to the Confederate flag, or Christmas decorations in public spaces, or taxpayer-supported art depicting Jesus in a tank of urine-- something that becomes intractable precisely because so many people want to see it eliminated.

When we get to politics, things get -- in somebody's least favorite word -- "problematical." He has the Wilson-Roosevelt-Obama view that the antiquated Constitution will fall because it cannot change quickly enough to acclimate to a changing world.

Now, that is a fair and widely held critique. It could have been an interesting spot to discuss whether some philosophical ideas "all men are created equal" might indeed be immutable. He shows great fairness and humility discussing whether the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, or some lesser light will define our music.

Suddenly when predicting the fall of America, he sheds his humility.

I imagine America as a chapter in a book, centuries after the country has collapsed, encapsulated by the casual language we use when describing the foreboding failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588. And what I imagine is a description like this: The invention of a country is described. This country was based on a document, and the document was unassailable. The document could be altered, but alterations were so difficult that it happened only seventeen times in two hundred years (and one of those changes merely retracted a previous alteration). The document was less than five thousand words but applied unilaterally, even as the country dramatically increased its size and population and even though urban citizens in rarefied parts of the country had nothing in common with rural citizens living thousands of miles away.

I disagree, but concede validity. I am, however, subtracting fractional points for two items. One, he is painfully back-and-forth, but maybe I'm wrong throughout the book, excepting this. Two, he drops two snarky footnotes. This is a quasi-academic book and well referenced. But in this section, he has a line that suggests "the Second Amendment is outdated." Click the footnote and get "and it is!" two paragraphs later, there is some tommyrot about the 14th Amendment having been sold out when personhood was awarded to corporations with another footnote: "and it is!"

Hardee har har. I can hear the tittering in the faculty lounge, but it was a Magoffin, a show-the-penny, a what-have-you that seriously undercut the spirit, seriousness and premise of the book. I'd suggest that if there is one immutable facet of history it is the people's consistent need to defend themselves from their government.

A great and interesting book. Maybe others will be more forgiving of those flaws -- certainly many will accept or appreciate them. But 3.75 stars from me.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

August 21, 2016

Review Corner

Hayek set out to clarify the character of that "most valuable friendship" using Mill's words and those of Harriet Taylor Mill. Two points require emphasis. First, as noted above and as the essays below attest, the task of locating the letters, let alone the additional requirement of organizing the words to tell a coherent story, was simply unprecedented. Second, Hayek's deliberate tactic of letting Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill speak almost exclusively in their own words, was an extraordinary--perhaps unique--choice at the time, one that puts Hayek at the forefront of literary criticism, a field in which he has yet to receive due recognition.
Don't know about y'all, but when I think of romance, one name floats to the top: Friedrich August Hayek. Yet in his Hayek On Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings -- while ostensibly about Harriet Taylor's intellectual influence on John Stuart Mill -- the Austrian monetarist was, as editor Sandra J. Peart notes, not immune to the personal story.
Sometimes in the attempt to pin down influence, credit, and blame, the overwhelming power of the story becomes obscured. Despite his interest in the economic and social thought of Mill and Taylor, Hayek was apparently also deeply taken by the love story; certainly the collection here attests to how he deliberately conveyed the drama and heartbreak associated with the romances.
JS Mill is introduced to young Harriet Taylor at a social gathering. This mirrors A.S. Byatt's Possession [Review Corner]. While there is an ocean of differences in plot and character, it is quite easy to believe that this collection influenced if not inspired Byatt.

Young Miss Taylor is married to an older, wealthy merchant and the ensuing attachment between Mill & Taylor is not well accepted in Victorian society. Taylor is an intellectual powerhouse and is quickly drawn to Mill, whose infatuation lasts a lifetime. Mill read Classics in Greek and Latin at age six and remains a favorite of moderns who try to assess IQs of historical figures. It is quite defensible to claim Mill as "the smartest man who ever lived." In his Autobiography, he maudlinly ascribes all significant influence to Taylor. As if Einstein said "oh, all those ideas on Physics really belonged to my girlfriend.."

Hayek's charge is to evaluate this claim and -- being Hayek -- question the extent of her influence in Mill's dabbling in socialism.

As noted above, d'Eichthal continued to try to answer all criticism, informing Mill about Saint-Simonian views as well as the organization of the Saint-Simonians. Yet, whatever affection Mill felt towards d'Eichthal or attraction towards the Saint-Simonian program, we learn from Hayek that Mill stopped short of endorsing Saint-Simonianism wholesale or recommending Saint¬Simonian arrangements as a policy prescription. He did so on the grounds that such sectarianism was incompatible with individual liberty.

Hearts and confessions: I cherry picked that quote to help square my appreciation for Mill with the extent of his appreciation for Continental thought and Socialism. Can we blame this on Taylor? To some extent.

To the consternation of society, their relationship continues, though likely platonically, for several years. His effusive dedication to her in the first printing of Principles of Political Economy upset her husband and all their friends and was pulled from subsequent printings. Eventually John Taylor dies a grisly drawn-out death during which Harriet does not leave his side. Her dutiful nursing is both out of character and endearing. After his death, Mill and Taylor wed. Some say their marriage was as platonic as their friendship, but it was not as lengthy. Both died of consumption, Harriet Mill decades before her second husband.

As the introductory quote suggests, the story is entirely told through the correspondence. Hayek provides expository information and historical context, but no commentary or opinion. He is a superb research assistant, but his contribution is as a research assistant, not a Nobel Laureate Economist or thought leader.

It's an incredibly entertaining read. It costs $55 on Kindle; thankfully my niece the librarian found me a copy in a transfer from the University library at Auraria. I purport that I am the first to crack this particular volume. But perhaps they wore out the old copy and I was the first to open the replacement volume.

And yet, be wary of learning too much about your heroes. Mill is one of the root nodes on individual liberty and Taylor a foundation of women's rights. With that disclaimer out of the way, I must relate that neither are especially endearing. The volume is no doubt enlightening to the scholars who study each (again, reflecting "Possession"). But to one less acquainted with their biographical details, it is a more scholarly read.

It grieves me but I give my hero, Hayek, only 3.5 stars on this.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2016

Review Corner

And you know, and I know, do we not, dear children, that he must always choose this last, and the leaden casket, for wisdom in all tales tells us this, and the last sister is always the true choice, is she not? But let us have a moment's true sorrow for the silver blisses the Childe would have preferred, and the sunlit flowery earth which is my own secret preference, and then let us decorously follow as we must, as he takes up the soft hand of the third, as his fate and the will of his father decree, and says, half-musing, "I will come with you."
I lack the erudition to review Possession by A. S. Byatt. In proof, I offer: a) that I had to look up on Google® whether the poet Randolph Ash was fictitious, he is; and b) when I asked a knowledgeable friend whether he was familiar with "this guy, A. S. Byatt" he suggested she was a she, and she is.

I'm taking on 0-2. In lieu, I will briefly suggest how magical this book is and tell the story of how I found it, which might be more interesting to ThreeSourcers.

Byatt creates no fewer than four complete worlds and connects them with sufficient verisimilitude that they all seem completely real.Released in 1990, the story is set in the mid 1980s and concerns a handful of academics who study the poet Randolph Henry Ash, a famous but underserved 19th Century British poet. Our plucky protagonist, Roland, finds a couple affectionate letters in an old folio which suggest that the staid imagined homelife of the author might not be exactly as advertised. His wife Helen is sweet and "a suitable marriage partner" but lacks passion and romance one suspects a poet would require.

A little sleuthing suggest the co-paramour to be Christabel LaMotte, a lesser known author, but one gaining acclaim in the burgeoning fields of gender and women's studies. Did the cloistered lesbian have an affair which had escaped everyone's attention?

Roland consults scholars who specialize in LaMotte, and one who has devoted a lifetime to Helen Ash's rather plodding diary. He must play his cards close to the vest to protect his inchoate discovery and especially not alert the two big-name scholars in his field:one his boss and the other a boorish and well-funded American.

His face in the mirror was fine and precise, his silver hair most exquisitely and severely cut, his half-glasses gold-rimmed, his mouth pursed, but pursed in American, more generous than English pursing, ready for broader vowels and less mincing sounds.

This is just one world. Any author could do that, perhaps not too many with her grace or lushness. But as the mystery gains pace (and pace it has) , the world of the objects of study is reified. Ash and LaMotte are brought to life: poets in Victorian society,his wife, her lover, their friends who do or do not sense the depth of their attraction. We discover these lives as the academics do -- and through their eyes.

As the targets are authors, their work must be quoted. And Byatt generates opuses for each. Some entire chapters are Ash's haunting and beautiful poetry, or LaMotte's deep Fairy Tales. But the true unfolding, the true joy, and the lushest creation is the correspondence between the two. As more letters are founded, and other sources corroborated, the story unfolds and is in many ways paralleled by the academics. Byatt's multiple worlds all rhyme.

Who that judges does not know-- that Lear's agony-- and the Duke of Gloucester's pain-- are true-- tho' those men never lived-- or never lived so-- you will tell me that they lived indeed in some sort-- and that he-- W.S.-- sage sorcerer prophet-- brought them again to huge Life-- so much so that no Actor-- could do his part therein, but must leave it to the studium of you and me to flesh it out.

That, gentle readers, was a terrible review of a great book. Five Stars! Go buy it. One of only fiction works that have touched me after my 45th Birthday.

To compensate, I offer a great backstory. I learned of this book in this captivating episode of Conversations with Tyler [Cowen]. Cass Sunstein, whom I associated with Nudge and the Obama Administration's general paternalism, truly won me over with his charm and obviously scary intellectual depth.

He recommends this book, saying "buy it tomorrow if you've not read it" and I did. And he compares it to FA Hayek's book on the letters of JS Mill and Harriet Taylor, which I never knew existed. I am partially through that work and wonder if it is not the template for Byatt. Rhyming, again

Seriously, watch this. Yes it's over an hour, but half of it is about Star Wars:

Posted by John Kranz at 11:45 AM | Comments (3)
But johngalt thinks:

The whole thing is more than I can consume in my lunch break but I did reach the 14 minute mark and made a handful of notes. I will resume when I am able.

I sense we are going to disagree, he and I, on premises, but I will hold my tongue. Like Rand's appreciation for the work of Victor Hugo, I do find the discussion enjoyable.

Posted by: johngalt at August 1, 2016 2:39 PM
But jk thinks:

Nor have I come around on "Nudge." Sunstein calls it "Libertarian Paternalism" and Cowen chides that you "cannot put two unpopular words together and expect it will be liked."

But I'm softening on people. Knowing him only from his books and his paternalistic contribution to the Obama Administration, I had constructed a demon. He's actually a nice and very bright guy who likes Star Wars. I mean reaaaaaaly likes Star Wars -- like I like Buffy.

I should take this as a lesson.

Posted by: jk at August 1, 2016 3:19 PM
But jk thinks:

...and his book recommendations are AWESOME.

Posted by: jk at August 1, 2016 3:20 PM

July 10, 2016

Review Corner

Although a feeling of awe at the capability of humans is clearly justified, there is a large difference between a deep sense of admiration and the assumption that our reasoning abilities are perfect. In fact, this book is about human irrationality-- about our distance from perfection. I believe that recognizing where we depart from the ideal is an important part of the quest to truly understand ourselves, and one that promises many practical benefits. Understanding irrationality is important for our everyday actions and decisions, and for understanding how we design our environment and the choices it presents to us.
There's the book. Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. The good, the bad, and the ugly captured in one quote.

I forget how I ended up with this book. I bought the Kindle edition on the Fourth of July. It sounds up my street. And, while I would not dissuade anyone from reading it, brace yourself for an uncharacteristically harsh Review Corner (where four stars qualifies as a "pan.")

Have to do the good before the bad and the ugly. And I enjoyed the book. Ariely has a clever style, wit, and the information is truly interesting. Born in Israel, Ariely has had an impressive academic career and is currently "the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University." His years of research have been heavily devoted to conducting experiments. Each chapter includes descriptions of one or two experiments -- generally performed on university students at MIT, Harvard and Duke. And they are very interesting.

I've no doubt I'll be boring my companions with these experiments for years to come. This guy sold expensive truffles for a quarter and Hershey's Kisses for a penny and everyone bought the truffles. But when the Kisses were free and the Truffles 20 cents, everyone took the free one."

And since nothing had changed in relative terms, the response to the price reduction should have been exactly the same. A passing economist, twirling his cane and espousing conventional economic theory, in fact, would have said that since everything in the situation was the same, our customers should have chosen the truffles by the same margin of preference.*

Interesting, is it not? Many of them are surprising, all are enjoyable. I muffed the numbers as I will surely do telling this story at a later date.

Another "good" is a great riff on "social norms versus market norms." You don't pull out a wad of twenties to thank your Mother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner, and you don't expect a free cappuccino at Starbucks because you're a swell guy.

If companies want to benefit from the advantages of social norms, they need to do a better job of cultivating those norms. Medical benefits, and in particular comprehensive medical coverage, are among the best ways a company can express its side of the social exchange. But what are many companies doing? They are demanding high deductibles in their insurance plans, and at the same time are reducing the scope of benefits. Simply put, they are undermining the social contract between the company and the employees and replacing it with market norms.

We balance both these norms. After this chapter, a lawsuit was threatened against our HOA (it must be a day that ends with "y"). I proposed offering a compromise to the resident to try and preserve the "social norm" relationship.

Wow, this book is interesting and you've applied it to your daily life! Must be headed for five stars, eh? Umm, no. I has substantive philosophical flaws. Based on experiments with college students at prestigious institutions, generally on trivial matters like ten cents for each correct answer or dimes' worth of candy, Ariely wants to regulate society and discount the entire field of economics.

This is especially the case with society's essentials, such as health care, medicine, water, electricity, education, and other critical resources. If you accept the premise that market forces and free markets will not always regulate the market for the best, then you may find yourself among those who believe that the government (we hope a reasonable and thoughtful government) must play a larger role in regulating some market activities, even if this limits free enterprise. Yes, a free market based on supply, demand, and no friction would be the ideal if we were truly rational. Yet when we are not rational but irrational, policies should take this important factor into account.

They took the free candy! The truffles were a better deal! It's Obamacare for them!!!!

Yes, Doctor Ariely, people can act emotionally. And nobody said all decisions are great. A Facebook friend just got food poisoning from gas station sushi. Her normally sympathetic friends are all reproaching her: "gas station sushi? Really?"

Because college students in a state of extreme sexual arousal (by far the best experiment in the book! Wow, I should share salacious detail!) do not make the most intelligent decisions, surely he has proven that we all need nannies. (Or maybe French Maids in fishnet stockin-- let it go, jk!)

The author is certain that the passing economist "twirling his cane and espousing conventional economic theory" lacks his heightened understanding, but it is Ariely who misreads utility. When he was young, he took a web quiz to see "what kind of car to buy" as he gave up his beloved motorcycle. When the page suggested a Ford Focus, he rebelled and bought a roadster to better approximate the missing freedom of his bike. The only irrationality I see is assuming that some web page is truly the Oracle of Transportation.

How are we going to save enough money?

Europeans do a lot better-- they save an average of 20 percent. Japan’s rate is 25 percent. China's is 50 percent. So what's up with America? I suppose one answer is that Americans have succumbed to rampant consumerism. Go back to a home built before we had to have everything, for instance, and check out the size of the closets. Our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, was built in 1890. It has no closets whatsoever. Houses in the 1940s had closets barely big enough to stand in. The closet of the 1970s was a bit larger, perhaps deep enough for a fondue pot, a box of eight-track tapes, and a few disco dresses. But the closet of today is a different breed.

Yes, and that indoor plumbing, telephones, and televisions.

Ariely is a nice guy, and a reasonable man. I'd be happy to know my nieces and nephews were in one of his classes (take the truffle, Janice!) But he is a stock academic. "Rational" is agreeing with the faculty lounge and the NY Times. Everybody else, well they need some direction. So's they can be rational, too.

In society, no doubt, we would all be healthier if the health police arrived in a van and took procrastinators to the ministry of cholesterol control for blood tests. This may seem extreme, but think of the other dictates that society imposes on us for our own good. We may receive tickets for jaywalking, and for having our seat belts unsecured. No one thought 20 years ago that smoking would be banned in most public buildings across America, as well as in restaurants and bars, but today it is-- with a hefty fine incurred for lighting up. And now we have the movement against trans fats. Should people be deprived of heart-clogging french fries? Sometimes we strongly support regulations that restrain our self-destructive behaviors, and at other times we have equally strong feelings about our personal freedom.

With all due respect, Sir, I have strong feelings about my personal liberty all the time. Your work is fascinating, but you are mistaken to extrapolate the behaviour of privileged college students in inconsequential matters to dictate policy to the public at large.

Two stars for you. Add if you don't go away, I will taunt you another time.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:50 AM | Comments (0)

July 3, 2016

Review Corner

A good question may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

A good question is what humans are for.

Kevin Kelly is not afraid of AI. To be fair, Kevin Kelly is not afraid of much. The Review Corner Style Guide dictates that all reviews begin with a quote, but I was tempted to open with my own bon mot: Kevin Kelly makes Matt Ridley look like Parson Thomas Malthus.

In his The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, he concedes -- once and perfunctorily -- that there will be flaws and setbacks and problems with the new technology he embraces. But, contra Malthus (and quite a few moderns), he trusts humans to make it work out.

Nor does he claim to predict the future. But he does provide several rosy scenarios describing what could be in the 12 inevitable trends he describes are indeed inevitable. Adding intelligence to things will make them better. Kelly looks askance at people who sit around complaining that they missed the dot com boom. There is just as much low-hanging fruit today; for starters taxe X and add AI to it; repeat for multiple values of X.

All these miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-one-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit-- the equivalent of the dot-com names of 1984. Because here is the other thing the graybeards in 2050 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an innovator in 2016? It was a wide-open frontier!

ThreeSourcers, with their love of language and of technology, will enjoy the book -- and will also enjoy his foundational riff that nouns are becoming verbs. You car (that's a noun to you kids in the back) is being replaced by Uber and autonomous sharing, riding, transporting.
Upon this relentless change all the disruptions of modernity ride. I’ve waded through the myriad technological forces erupting into the present and I’ve sorted their change into 12 verbs, such as accessing, tracking, and sharing. To be more accurate, these are not just verbs, but present participles, the grammatical form that conveys continuous action. These forces are accelerating actions.

I am bravely (quixotically?) holding on to the noun of "music collection." It started with crates of 12" LPs, moved to CD's, then mp3s and now it mostly lives in the cloud. But it seems arcane to my Spotified nieces and nephews. My nephew's new album was just released. It wasn't real to his sisters and cousins until it was available on Spotify. (Dude -- I bought it. You get a dollar from me and fractions of pennies from your sisters.)

That is one of his verbs and I do not doubt for a moment that he is right. My enjoyment of music necessitates a more active and intimate role. Blog Brother Bryan once spoke of enjoying "having ownership in a book." I dig out an old album and feel the same. But we are anachronisms.

You get a better telephone every few months because a flow of new operating systems install themselves on your smartphone, adding new features and new benefits that in the past would have required new hardware. Then, when you do get new hardware, the service maintains the familiar operating system you had, flowing your personalization onto the new device. This total sequence of perpetual upgrades is continuous. It's a dream come true for our insatiable human appetite: rivers of uninterrupted betterment.

It is technological and spectacularist in nature (those are two compliments), but he is not at all immune to philosophy, to application and meaning.
People of the Book favor solutions by laws, while People of the Screen favor technology as a solution to all problems. Truth is, we are in transition, and the clash between the cultures of books and screens occurs within us as individuals as well. If you are an educated modern person, you are conflicted by these two modes.
Will we simply abandon this vast textual foundation that underlies our current civilization? The old way of reading— not this new way— had an essential hand in creating most of what we cherish about a modern society: literacy, rational thinking, science, fairness, rule of law. Where does that all go with screening? What happens to books?

Kelly was at Wired magazine for the first boom. It was becoming obvious that there were going to be 500 TV stations. What nobody could figure out was : who will create all this content? Instead there are millions of virtual stations and no shortage of content creation. For generations who supposedly stopped reading and writing, we are writing far more than previous generations. Facebook posts, blogging, fan fiction, Wikipedia entries, &c.
We live in a golden age now. The volume of creative work in the next decade will dwarf the volume of the last 50 years. More artists, authors, and musicians are working than ever before, and they are creating significantly more books, songs, films, documentaries, photographs, artworks, operas, and albums every year. Books have never been cheaper, and more available, than today. Ditto for music, movies, games, and every kind of creative content that can be digitally copied. The volume and variety of creative works available have skyrocketed. More and more of civilization's past works-- in all languages-- are no longer hidden in rare-book rooms or locked up in archives, but are available a click away no matter where you live.

Oh to be alive in that glorious year of 2016!

Five stars -- easily five.

Posted by John Kranz at 5:45 PM | Comments (0)

June 19, 2016

Review Corner

To them, the length of that hypotenuse had been revealed to be not a number at all. This caused a fuss. The Pythagoreans, you have to remember, were extremely weird. Their philosophy was a chunky stew of things we'd now call mathematics, things we'd now call religion, and things we'd now call mental illness. They believed that odd numbers were good and even numbers evil; that a planet identical to our own, the Antichthon, lay on the other side of the sun; and that it was wrong to eat beans, by some accounts because they were the repository of dead people's souls.
I shall not solicit their opinion in the Tau vs. Pi debate. The quote is from Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, recommended to me by a fellow named Bill Gates. Well, he did not text me, but I saw it was included on his Five Books to Read this Summer. And, it's a pop-math book: what could possibly go wrong?

I'm not sure about the title -- and, to be fair, Ellenberg takes a couple self-deprecating whacks at it. The whole book is a clarion call to use rigorous, structured mathematical thinking and reasoning in everyday problems. Many interesting historical math characters are trotted out, as are several fun facts. There is not enough math to chase anyone off; anyone could make it through. And yet there is enough depth to keep a geek immersed. That is the hardest part of a math/science book for public consumption, and he does better than most.

For example, there is a topological solution to picking every pair in a Powerball-style lottery that went over my head, but it did not despoil the interesting chapter on the MIT kids who would buy all pairs in the Massachusetts Lottery on certain conditions. (I just scared off three readers and sent three to buy it, but the book is completely accessible.)

The largest swath is devoted to debunking the misuse of statistics. If the TV news intones that a new study shows that watermelon cures dandruff or whatever, he offers good reasons for skepticism which has nothing to do with scientific or journalistic malfeasance.

You can do linear regression without thinking about whether the phenomenon you're modeling is actually close to linear. But you shouldn't. I said linear regression was like a screwdriver, and that's true; but in another sense, it's more like a table saw. If you use it without paying careful attention to what you're doing, the results can be gruesome.

It was once said of Colorado Governor Dick Lamm that if he encountered a baby born weighing seven pounds, and the little tyke grew to 14, Lamm would become upset that in the year 2040 the child will weigh a million tons! Ellenberg raps prestigious journals for the same thinking:
The Long Beach Press-Telegram went with the simple headline "We're Getting Fatter." The study's results resonated with the latest manifestation of the fevered, ever-shifting anxiety with which Americans have always contemplated our national moral status. Before I was born, boys grew long hair and thus we were bound to get whipped by the Communists. When I was a kid, we played arcade games too much, which left us doomed to be outcompeted by the industrious Japanese. Now we eat too much fast food, and we're all going to die weak and immobile, surrounded by empty chicken buckets, puddled into the couches from which we long ago became unable to hoist ourselves. The paper certified this anxiety as a fact proved by science.

Without using the term "common-core," he looks into different methods and teaching styles. A student of his that writes down a stupid answer "The Horse weighs -100 grams." with an annotation that the answer is stupid will get partial credit. One who provides only the stupid answer gets zero.
In fact, I'm not radical at all. Dissatisfying as it may be to partisans, I think we have to teach a mathematics that values precise answers but also intelligent approximation, that demands the ability to deploy existing algorithms fluently but also the horse sense to work things out on the fly, that mixes rigidity with a sense of play. If we don't, we're not really teaching mathematics at all.

On Review Corner even math books get graded on politics. I'd call him pretty middle of the road. For an academic, that is certainly a bruising right-wing neocon! He generally picks out Republicans to be the butt of a joke, but he always follows up with "Democrats do it too." Again, for an academic, I'm scoring that as "fair."
The Washington Post graded the Romney campaign's 92.3% figure as "true but false." That classification drew mockery by Romney supporters, but I think it's just right, and has something deep to say about the use of numbers in politics. There's no question about the accuracy of the number. You divide the net jobs lost by women by the net jobs lost, and you get 92.3%. But that makes the claim "true" only in a very weak sense.
But real-world questions aren't like word problems. A real-world problem is something like "Has the recession and its aftermath been especially bad for women in the workforce, and if so, to what extent is this the result of Obama administration policies?" Your calculator doesn't have a button for this.

And, one of my favorite, just how frequently improbable events happen in a nation of 300 million. People win the lottery all the time, get struck by lightening, bit by sharks, die of bee stings...
If a random Internet stranger who eliminated all North American grains from his food intake reports that he dropped fifteen pounds and his eczema went away, you shouldn't take that as powerful evidence in favor of the maize-free plan. Somebody's selling a book about that plan, and thousands of people bought that book and tried it, and the odds are very good that, by chance alone, one among them will experience some weight loss and clear skin the next week. And that's the guy who's going to log in as saygoodbye2corn452 and post his excited testimonial, while the people for whom the diet failed stay silent.

As the cleverer among you have inferred from the quotes, Ellenberg has a clever wit and a folksy attachment to Math. He decries those who leave the field when they see they're not the best, he provides lovable tales of odd mathematicians but underscores that they're outliers.

It's a pleasant and informative read. I do not mean to suggest that because it is easy it does not have much to offer even those with a good feel for statistics and probability. Even the chapter subheads are good "ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT'S ME, BAYESIAN INFERENCE"

Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:43 AM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2016

Review Corner

Both my siblings speak English, are college-educated, and are the most productive time in their lives. If they waited 12 years to become legal immigrants, after their applications were eventually al proved in 2028 or later, they would already have passed their prim The same visa bulletin shows that someone immigrating from Mexico has to wait 18 years to bring his siblings over, and for a Filipino, the wait is even longer -- 23 years.
I've had the pleasure of meeting Helen Raleigh a few times. She has spoken at Liberty on the Rocks -- Flatirons (LORT-F) and we have many friends in common. Her "Confucius Never Said" got five stars in Review Corner, and if you click through you can see video of her talk at LOTR-F.

"Confucius Never Said" is autobiographical and philosophical in that she loves and understands liberty and has seen the consequences of its deprivation. When I heard she had written a book on immigration, I was concerned. I had mis-heard or misconstrued some statements of hers and thought she was a restrictionist in the mold of a Michelle Malkin: "I endured the process and came legally, you can too!"

Instead, let me make a picture worth 1000 words (considering my typing, a very good bargain). I bought the paperback before the Kindle version came out. I cannot highlight in a real book, so I put in flags for later scanning. I use a blue one for quotes I enjoy and agree with . . . and I use Red for substantive disagreements or perceived flaws. Here's both the attractive cover, and visual representation of the proportions:


The Broken Welcome Mat: America's UnAmerican Immigration Policy and How We Should Fix It is a splendid piece of scholarship. Immigration's being a hot-button issue has resulted in many works which are based on the author's opinion and a few cherry-picked facts to support it. Raleigh starts with the founders' intent and documents significant legislation throughout the nation's history, describing both causes and effects.

Jefferson reminded Congress of the unique role America plays by asking, "Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?" While he advocated for America's role as the sanctuary for humanity, Jefferson didn't support open borders.
From the founding of our nation until 1875, America operated on an open-border policy. Other than a few requirements for citizenship (i.e. a residency minimum and a demonstration of moral character), there was no immigration law to decide who could or couldn't come to the U.S. and stay. Therefore, the U.S. didn't have an illegal immigration problem.

Things began to change in 1875. The Page Act was the first immigration law in U.S. history to restrict certain groups of people from entering the U.S., including: convicts, women "imported for the purposes of prostitution," and Chinese laborers.

Raleigh also catches a "Bootleggers & Baptists" alliance between organized labor and nativists, which I'd suggest extends to today:
But to the anti-Chinese immigrant crowd, especially the labor unions, the Page Act of 1875 didn't go far enough. The Knights of Labor led the cry: "The Chinese must go!" Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, claimed "the superior whites had to exclude the inferior Asiatics, by law, or if necessary by force of arms."112 The labor unions pushed the U.S. government to do more. Since the U.S. economy during the second half of the 19th century was dominated by manufacturers and railroads, organized laborers from these industries were powerful political forces that many politicians were only too happy to appease.

Arriving at the present, Raleigh takes a sober look at where we stand and attempts a pragmatic path forward. While it is not exactly the path I would choose, she addresses the things which I feel to be both true and important. It helps that she -- in the style of David Mamet [Review Corner]'s Rabbi -- demonstrates her appreciation for other sides in the debate:
Libertarians are for open borders, which is the only immigration policy they believe isn't in violation of individual rights and property rights. Here, they borrow the classical property right definition of John Locke, who famously said, "Every man has a property in his own person."273 Thus, they see individuals as having the freedom to travel, to take their bodies to wherever they desire. Libertarians do not see illegal immigration as a problem. On the contrary, they see laws restricting immigration by quota and punishing employers for hiring illegal immigrants as a problem.

She is equally generous with her restrictionist friends, but claims the middle ground for herself in the Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan school:
Their thinking is best represented by President Reagan, who said,
Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status. At the same time, in so doing, we must not encourage illegal immigration.274

She examines the immigration policies of other nations, and finds that a couple other members on the Anglosphere to be doing it a little better.
It is time for the U.S. to adopt a merit-based immigration system, similar to what Canada and Australia have. We shouldn't do away with family-based immigration and immigration on humanitarian need, but we should emphasize skill-based immigration by dedicating at least 50% of the annual immigration visa quota to skill-based immigrants (instead of the current 20%).

Her focus is on facilitating immigration of needed workers regulated by market demand and also attracting highly skilled workers. She speaks to augmented enforcement (funny I didn't highlight and scan those parts...) but I appreciate that she clearly ses the importance in fixing legal immigration as apart of slowing or stopping the other.

Importantly, she clearly demonstrates the flaw in the "get in line!" argument. For all intents and purposes, there is no line. There is a jumbled and mixed up lottery for certain workers, a short road for family reunification in some countries, but generational waits from others, different statuses for "asylum seekers" and "refugees" (did anyone inform Tom Petty?) And all these disparate parts are glued together by an inefficient and frequently corrupt bureaucracies in both the US and home country. What could possibly go wrong?

So . . . what got he dreaded red flag? (Even the greatest books usually get more than one.) I found this jewel as a point of disagreement:

Is E-Verify an effective tool to deter the hiring of illegal immigrants? We can look to Arizona for a successful case study. According to a Pew Research study, Arizona's illegal immigrant population grew almost fivefold between 1990 and 2005, to about 450,000. But the inflow began to reverse in 2008 after Arizona required that all employers, public or private, use the E-Verify system. Between 2007 and 2012, Arizona's population of illegal immigrants dropped by 40%. Based on Arizona's experience, I suggest our nation make E-Verify mandatory for all employers nationwide.

Or rights grounds, I must say no: de facto government permission required to get a job? She knows the dark side of government too well to suggest that's being a good idea. On consequentialist grounds, I must say no. Between 2007 and 2012 inflow reversed? Hmm, I am trying to think of some other event in that time frame which might have impacted immigration. Oh, yes, the Panic of '08 and the complete, total 100% crashing of the economy. That's it! Pardon the flippancy, but all Mexican immigration headed toward net zero -- some say negative -- in this time period. The Mexican economy improved, ours worsened. I am not ready to credit BigBrother.

But that is one itty bitty red flag. The book is a masterpiece! Five stars and a fulsome recommendation. It is even out in Kindle now. Go buy it!

Posted by John Kranz at 11:33 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

I am interested in the historical facts of American immigration law so I would love to read this book - in the scope of the timeframe which I have devoted to reading, which is to say, very little.

My offhand comments are,

"Democracy! Screwing up economic markets since 1875."

And, I'll challenge you on your E-Verify arguments. The economy did NOT "complete, total 100% crash." I realize that you exaggerate for effect, but the '08 Recession - caused largely by democratic government distortion of the housing market - was not that severe, nor even the likely cause for diminished economic activity. That ignominious award goes to the redistributory and regulatory administration of one President Barack Obama. The job creators saw a storm on the horizon and battened down the hatches.

Still, Raleigh's cause and effect conclusion about the state of Arizona could still hold up to scrutiny. Do we have any data on the 2007-2012 illegal immigrant population of Arizona's neighboring states without E-Verify?

Posted by: johngalt at June 13, 2016 7:05 PM

June 5, 2016

Review Corner

[Lady Ada Lovelace]'s ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times. Despite her mother's efforts, she remained her father's daughter, with a poetic sensibility that allowed her to view an equation as a brushstroke that painted an aspect of nature's physical splendor, just as she could visualize the "wine-dark sea" or a woman who "walks in beauty, like the night." But math's appeal went even deeper; it was spiritual. Math "constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world," she said
A new friend lent me a book. He mentioned that he had just finished The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. I had enjoyed his biography of Steve Jobs, though it somehow escaped a Review Corner. And it was free.

Isaacson goes from the specific case of Steve Jobs to the general case of who brought us computers, transistors, integrated circuits, networks, software, the Internet -- all the digital goodies we enjoy today. He starts with Charles Babbage and Ada and proceeds, for 560 pages, through many well known and innovators -- and quite a few I had never heard of.

Had they [used vacuum tubes rather than mechanical switches] right away, they would have gone down in history as the first inventors of a working modern computer: binary, electronic, and programmable. But [Konrad] Zuse, as well as the experts he consulted at the technical school, balked at the expense of building a device with close to two thousand vacuum tubes.

It is a well written and enjoyable book. Isaacson includes just enough anecdotal information to keep it personal, while advancing the story through the many innovations and innovators required to make Review Corner extant.
"You know, Bill," Allen warned him, "when you get to Harvard, there are going to be some people a lot better in math than you are." "No way," Gates replied. "There's no way!"
"Wait and see," said Allen

A recurring theme for Isaacson -- and great interest of mine -- is the intersection of technology and art. Ada Lovelace opens and closes the book as the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, with her ability to see computing 's encompassing more than spreadsheets.
Ada Lovelace would have been pleased. To the extent that we are permitted to surmise the thoughts of someone who's been dead for more than 150 years, we can imagine her writing a proud letter boasting about her intuition that calculating devices would someday become general-purpose computers, beautiful machines that can not only manipulate numbers but make music and process words and "combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety."

There's precious little politics. A throwaway line "That was back when state governments valued education and realized the economic and social value of making it affordable" gives away the author's media background, but I am tough. He defends government spending on R & D, and even bravely goes into the breach to defend vice President Al Gore's legitimate claims in promoting the Internet.

I, however, am going to impute some philosophy on top. I started this right before I finished Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality [Review Corner] and this is what it is all about. Ada is born in England in 1815 and the computing section of The Great Enrichment proceeds apace. At the risk of mixing reviews, I'm not asking "Is Isaacson right?" but "Is McCloskey right?" And I suggest it supports her.

Many of the players are Jewish or German, and while wartime R&D spending advances many projects, many of the brightest minds are shut out. McCloskey pictures the next Einstein or Steve Jobs stuck to some plow in Africa. What about those not allowed to compete at all. The world almost lost Andy Grove. Twice.

Grove, born Andras Grof in Budapest, did not come from a madrigal-singing Congregationalist background. He grew up Jewish in Central Europe as fascism was rising, learning brutal lessons about authority and power. When he was eight, the Nazis took over Hungary; his father was sent to a concentration camp, and Andras and his mother were forced to move into a special cramped apartment for Jews. When he went outside, he had to wear a yellow Star of David. One day when he got sick, his mother was able to convince a non-Jewish friend to bring some ingredients for soup, which led to the arrest of both his mother and the friend. After she was released, she and Andras assumed false identities while friends sheltered them. The family was reunited after the war, but then the communists took over. Grove decided, at age twenty, to flee across the border to Austria. As he wrote in his memoir, Swimming Across, "By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis' Final Solution, the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint."35 It wasn't like mowing lawns and singing in a small-town Iowa choir, and it did not instill genial mellowness.

Linus Torvalds was able to contribute -- outside of the capitalist mode -- but still requiring McCloskey's Bourgeois Deal:"
I also wanted feedback (okay, and praise). It didn't make sense to charge people who could potentially help improve my work. I suppose I would have approached it differently if I had not been raised in Finland, where anyone exhibiting the slightest sign of greediness is viewed with suspicion, if not envy And yes, I undoubtedly would have approached the whole no-money thing a lot differently if I had not been brought up under the influence of a diehard academic grandfather and a diehard communist father.

Likewise, I'd admit it supports McCloskey's (and Adam Smith's) tolerance of less-than perfect liberty. Advances come from all over the (bourgeois) world: from governments, garages, large outfits like Bell Labs. Isaacson has plenty of data to support government research funding. I still believe in optimising innovation, but there is no magic bullet that fosters or overly impedes human reaching.
This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors. In other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.

Four-point five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:00 AM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2016

Review Corner

In an almost vacant coffee shop in Moscow in 2013 a customer asked politely that the loud rock music, pleasant to the young staff but irritating to old folk, be turned down. The waitress was shocked that a customer would have an opinion. She indignantly refused. Thus was made evident the seventy years of changing the nature of man under socialism.
Ideas and style are highly regarded at Review Corner. Reading Deirdre N. McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World forced me to note that I undervalue scholarship. Professor McCloskey has finished her "Bourgeois" trilogy. (The second book alone scored two [Review] [Corners].)

She had originally planned for more books.

Over twenty years of imagining and ten years of writing, the projected scale of the series has varied from one to six volumes. In a bad moment I thought of calling a six-volume version a "sexology," achieving thereby large sales through fraud and a tasteless mix of Latin and Greek. The thought did not meet the test of bourgeois virtue. I settle here for a trilogy, and modest sales, and say at its end, laus Deo.

To squish it all in, the third book is "robust" to choose an adjective beloved of software developers and coffee drinkers. It is neither univiting nor turgid; McCloskey exhibits great wit and clear prose. But I am a goal-oriented reader. I'll fly by most footnotes with a perfunctory "I'll take your word for it." McCloskey, like Popper, puts important information (and great verve) into them. Beyond the length, you have to stop and read every footnote. I even highlighted a few.
20. David Landes 1969, 1965. This is a good place to acknowledge that I spent the first half of my historical career disagreeing with David on the role of the entrepreneur. I seem to be doomed to spend the second half agreeing with him. En partie seulement.

I have been sharing some of my favorite quotes with the Kindle Twitter feature and hope that some ThreeSourcers may have enjoyed one or two. There is no way to cover this book in a Review Corner. I'll share some personal and philisophical thoughts, and direct people to several better resources for encapsulation:

McCloskey looks to language, literature, art, anthropology, psychology, and economics to trace the change in attitudes toward the bourgeoisie and the idea of birthright equality. In Shakespeare's time and reflected in his work, the words "honor" and "honest" referred to a person of high birth, not his or her character.
In other words, the new liberty and dignity for commoners was a sociological event, not a psychological one, and originated in a changing conversation in the society, not at first in psychological self-monitoring by the individual. People in Holland and then England didn't suddenly start alertly attending to profit. They suddenly started admiring such alertness, and stopped calling it sinful greed. 17

ThreeSourcers know too well my appreciation for McCloskey, and it is only enhanced by this book. One can enjoy it as a cudgel (the 750-page hardcopy better than the Kindle version) for bashing the Left and the Luddite Right: Thomas Piketty is singled out for disapprobation several times. Go Deirdre! But - as mentioned in previous reviews she has opprobrium left over for some of my favorites. Several writers who have been given Five Stars on these pages have their theories questioned.

Niall Ferguson scored 4.75 stars and a direct comparison to McCloskey in a previous [Review Corner]. His "Killer Apps" and attention to institutions are immensely compelling. "Balderdash!" claims McCloskey (well, she doesn't use the B-word...) history is replete with societies with superb institutions, no Industrial Revolution, no Great Enrichment, no 9900% increase in consumption.

She has some kind words for Matt Ridley, but at the end of the day, his "ideas having sex" which won him five stars and the coveted Editor's Choice award in [Review Corner] she finds lacking. Great idea, Lord R, but why not in Song China or Timbuktu? You want property rights, it was said that a young girl could walk the breadth of Genghis Khan's kingdom with a handful of gold and not fear for her safety. Where is the Mongol Enlightenment?

Science? Private Property? Freedom?

The trilogy, in other words, argues against the prudence-only obsessions of the economists and of their enemies. Within economics it argues against the factually dubious assertion from the political right that technological betterment comes automatically from private property. 25 And it argues against the logically dubious assertion from the political left that the betterment comes automatically from artificially high wages. 26 Both are what the economists Friedrich Hayek and Vernon Smith, among others practicing a humanomics, call "constructivist," as against "ecological." 27

She calls herself a libertarian in the interviews linked above, and her ideas are friendly to liberty in many ways. But she has some inconvenient truths. She doesn't see much difference between the US, UK, Norway and Sweden. On her scale there isn't much difference, and the per-capita consumption is close. She recognizes the danger to prosperity in a USSR or Venezuelan attack on liberty, but like Adam Smith, she accepts a differential from "perfect liberty."
New Zealand, for example, is well governed. Italy is not. New Zealand has honest and efficient governmental institutions. Italy, strikingly, does not. In ease of doing business-- which is low when the government vigorously obstructs private dealings or when its officials demand bribes-- New Zealand ranked in 2010 and 2012 (among 183 or 185 countries) third from the top. Italy in 2010 ranked eightieth, slightly below Vietnam, and in 2012 seventy-third, slightly below the Kyrgyz Republic. In 2012, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, New Zealand was tied for first, the most honestly governed among 173 ranked countries. Italy was seventy-second. 8
Yet in real GDP per person New Zealand and Italy, in 2010, were nearly identical, at $ 88.20 and $ 86.80 a day, a little above Hans Rosling's Washing Line. One could argue that there is anyway an international correlation between income and governance. But the causation is in part the other way around-- rich people demand better governance, which is certainly the story of more honest governance in American cities, 1900 to the present.

Some of your favorite theories will be besmirched in this great book. The data and scholarship which support her premises are so significant, it is difficult to push back.

One thing I do appreciate is her belief in modernity and her fulsome opposition to any who would push us back. That, great scholarship, literary allusions to TS Eliot, Ghostbusters, and Monty Python. I'm in! There is much to appreciate in post-1800 development:

the fine quality of the inexpensive book you now hold, the ease of access to the Kindle edition if you were too cheap to buy the book, the contact lenses that allow you to read it, the computer on which you take admiring notes about it, the college sheepskin on the wall, the acquiring of which allows you to grasp the book's profundity, and even the better aluminum studs behind the wall, preventing the better wallboard painted with better paint and affixed with better cordless screwdrivers from caving in when you punch it out of sadly misled vexation at some of the more irritating factual claims in the book.

Five Stars and an Editor's Choice Award.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:44 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

...aluminum studs?

Kidding! That isn't the most important thing I take from this review. The power of ideas, is. They come in good and bad, of course, but the ultimate good idea according to McCloskey seems to be - rather than private property ownership - private self ownership. Free individuals, free to choose as it were, in a free world. That's a great idea.

And yet it is famously understood, that "Freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction." I take comfort in the greater population and faster communication of our time relative to the dark ages, that such extinction might be local and temporary. But fear of tyranny does still exist, even in the good ol' US of A.

To me, that is the real measure of "progress" - not the amount of wealth or the percentage of people enjoying it worldwide, but the amount of confidence in personal liberty and the percentage of people enjoying that worldwide.

Posted by: johngalt at May 23, 2016 3:48 PM
But jk thinks:

On Ideas good and bad: missing from my review is her preference for the term "trade tested betterment" to capitalism. You try to serve your fellow man with an idea or service -- and if that service is found to be of value you prosper, if not you try something else. The opportunity for failure eliminates the sclerosis in communism and answers "why wasn't there a Great Enrichment sooner?" People were smart in 1500 or 5000 BCE but only the chief's or emperor's ideas were good.

She enumerates the threats from the right and left and concedes the power of "the clerisy" to muck things up. On the plus side, she points out that every success creates its own interest group. All the people that make money driving Uber are incentivized to fight the taxi cartels' regulatory attempts.

So she's in optimist, a'la Matt Ridley. She mentions in one of the linked interviews "Of course I'm an optimist. You have to be an optimist to change genders."

Also missing is an idea it came up in a slightly different form on Econtalk today: the benfits of Capit -- I mean "trade tested betterment" have a long latency. We had DIckensian factories and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire before we saw most of the gains. That gave the Dickenses, Shaws, and Roosevelts a great foundation to oppose it.

Posted by: jk at May 23, 2016 4:16 PM

May 15, 2016

Review Corner

Within a few years after the drug war was declared, however, many legal scholars noted a sharp turn in the Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. By the close of the Supreme Court's 1990- 91 term, it had become clear that a major shift in the relationship between the citizens of this country and the police was under way. Justice Stevens noted the trend in a powerful dissent issued in California v. Acevedo, a case upholding the warrantless search of a bag locked in a motorist's trunk.
Review Corner stars have been devalued through inflation. Because I am too generous, yes, but also a severe case of selection bias -- I review the books I choose to buy and read. While I try to stay diverse and self-challenge, I don't fill my weekends with things I dislike. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander was selected for me. A friend of my brother agreed to read Randy Barnett's The Republican Constitution [Review Corner] in return for which I would suffer a book of his choosing. I have done this in the past. While I won't link to the results, previous thrust-selections have been weak. I struggled to be nice and found points of agreement with a magnifying glass.

Not so with The New Jim Crow -- this is an excellent book. I fundamentally agree with its premise, that the War on Drugs is disproportionately waged on and is devastating to minorities. I prepared myself, however, for turgid, pompous, quasi-academic prose, but this is superbly crafted and an interesting read.

As expressed by one Alabama planter: "We have the power to pass stringent police laws to govern the Negroes-- this is a blessing-- for they must be controlled in some way or white people cannot live among them." 12 While some of these codes were intended to establish systems of peonage resembling slavery, others foreshadowed Jim Crow laws by prohibiting, among other things, interracial seating in the first-class sections of railroad cars and by segregating schools.

The first five (of six) chapters reads just like Reason magazine. I wish the left better understood the overlap with libertarianism. The author decries that nobody is discussing the drug war and no-knock SWAT raids, asset forfeiture, the federal role in police militarization,and usurpation of Fourth Amendment rights. I wish she read Radley Balko's books and articles -- or ThreeSources. The eeevil Koch brothers pay for countless stories, books and exposés (sadly not on ThreeSources). Let's play "Which quote is Reason and which is Professor Alexander?"
Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980-- an increase of 1,100 percent. 2 Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began.

With only a few exceptions, the Supreme Court has seized every opportunity to facilitate the drug war, primarily by eviscerating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the police. The rollback has been so pronounced that some commentators charge that a virtual "drug exception" now exists to the Bill of Rights. Shortly before his death, Justice Thurgood Marshall felt compelled to remind his colleagues that there is, in fact, "no drug exception" written into the text of the Constitution.

Those were Professor Alexander, but you wouldn't have bet money She highlights small stories in major media outlets but never mentions extensive coverage in Reason, John Stossel's show, the old "The Independents" on Fox Business. Granted her point of widespread general knowledge is not disproven by a Reason cover (or 20), but I wonder if it did not fit or is not known.

Also at home in Reason is the abuse of prosecutorial authority, the lack of due process in a system that threatens large minimum sentencing terms to get pleas, and then the destruction of liberty of these newly minted felons.

The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.

Alexander is clear that she is discussing something far larger than the drug war -- and when we get to Chapter Six, there are important and substantive differences. Yet almost all of her examples are taken from the Drug War. She clearly sees a continuation of oppression consistent with her title, yet I read an indictment of the War on Drugs. Police powers were expanded, Constitutional protections reduced, and budgets exploded to wage domestic war.

I am less comfortable than Alexander to assert a racist mens rea. I see a clear "Bootleggers & Baptists" confederacy similar to the first prohibition, There are some bad players: drug cartels, private correctional facilities' seeing an opportunity to expand top-line revenue, and yes, some nonzero number of racists have a seat at the table perpetuating these policies. Alexandria mentions but underplays "The Baptists." There are extremely legitimate reasons to oppose drugs, though I find prohibition misguided. But both sides exist across racial boundaries.

As Vanessa Barker describes in The Politics of Imprisonment, black activists in Harlem, alarmed by rising crime rates, actively campaigned for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws as well as other harsh sentencing measures. Wittingly or unwittingly, they found themselves complicit in the emergence of a penal system unprecedented in world history.

I will address, in a separate post, the important relationship between this book and Randy Barnett's. I cannot put words in his mouth, but suspect that he -- like me -- would read chapters 1-5 and nod approvingly as she describes the history, and problems. The additional burden of being labeled a felon after a plea is an important addition to the corpora. A young and innocent Mom is bullied into a plea with threats of prison time and removal of her child. When she takes it, she has lost, in most states, her right to vote, serve on a jury, or own a gun. She then faces severe employment hurdles and loss of government benefits. Have a nice day --- the prosecutor is running for higher office.

Alexander's most compelling case for racism is the disparity in punishment for drunk-driving and crack: two media frenzies of the 1980s. Both saw stepped up enforcement and media hype. But drunk driving with a higher body count did not see 10 year minimum sentences. A DUI will ruin a middle class person's month but he or she will not likely lose a job, be disenfranchised, or see more than a few hours behind bars. Crack: yes, yes, and yes.

At the close of the decade, drunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year. By contrast, during the same time period, there were no prevalence statistics at all on crack, much less crack-related deaths. In fact, the number of deaths related to all illegal drugs combined was tiny compared to the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers.

In Chapter Six, we do part ways. Like many anarchist and conservative books, I can agree with a description of the problem more readily than the solution. Professor Alexander would like "more government, please." These racist, ill-accounted for and unstoppable cretins who are destroying our communities and ruining our lives should be helping with housing and job training, and assistance, and watching our toddlers.
To begin with, the argument implies that African Americans prefer harsh criminal justice policies to other forms of governmental intervention, such as job creation, economic development, educational reform, and restorative justice programs, as the long-term solution to problems associated with crime.

Freedom and a basic protection of rights to life, liberty and property are not a solution to Professor Alexander, and the Chapter Six I keep invoking is a direct refutation of all my suggestions in the previous five. She does not want a "colorblind" solution, but one that specifically recognizes the existence of racism and aims specifically at remedy. She interestingly rejects affirmative action and chides civil rights leaders who have fixated on preserving it over what she feels are more important issues.
For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves. For liberals, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to the dream of racial equality. The hope is that one day we will no longer see race because race will lose all of its significance. In this fantasy, eventually race will no longer be a factor in mortality rates, the spread of disease, educational or economic opportunity, or the distribution of wealth.

I plead guilty to the Conservative critique. Rights and freedom fix this, beginning with what Randy Barnett calls "the inalienable right to property in our own person." Recognizing this means no Drug War; recognizing a requirement for mens rea stops the incarceration of non-violent offenders and capricious enforcement; and respect for the Fourth and Fifth Amendments ends stop-and-frisk and reestablishes a right "to security in one's person."

Freedom, professor. Freedom fixes what you see to be broken.

I will do another long post on how Branett's "Republican Constitution" addresses this, but this book is worthy of its own review. Four stars and a solid recommendation

Posted by John Kranz at 9:55 AM | Comments (0)

May 1, 2016

Review Corner

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . Another overlooked line, but for our purposes, possibly the most important.
Randy E. Barnett has been treated pretty well in Review Corner. His "Structure of Liberty" [Review Corner] got five stars and an Editor's Choice Award. His "Conspiracy against Obamacare" [Review Corner] also garnered five stars.Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People shall not harm his average.

The Constitutional scholar delves into the Declaration for a foundation of rights, then examines the Constitutional structures intended to secure them. And because he is Barnett, he follows through with a book of SCOTUS case law documenting which cases and which justices upheld the "Republican" Constitution, and which enabled the "Democratic" or majoritarian vision.

In my Pre-Review Corner, I referenced PM Thatcher's throwing down a copy of Hayek's "Constitution of Liberty" and telling her staffers that "this is what we believe." (please oh please do not be apocryphal -- that's a good story.) I think ThreeSourcers would join me in saying "this is what we believe." Or perhaps, "Duh." What is notable about this work is his foundational construction of our Lockean rights, their position in the Declaration, imperfect protection in the original constitution, and their more complete protection after the Civil War Amendments.

"Consent of the governed" gets all the press -- especially from my anarcho-capitalist friends, but Barnett highlights a word I had missed: "Deriving their just powers."

Because those in government are merely a small subset of the people who serve as their servants or agents, the "just powers" of these servants must be limited to the purpose for which they are delegated. That purpose is not to reflect the people's will or desire-- which in practice means the will or desires of the majority-- but to secure the preexisting rights of We the People, each and every one of us.

I also met a couple of new historical heroes (and villains). Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase was a firebrand abolitionist lawyer who follows Taney and replaces his raw Jacksonian concept of liberty with Barnett's "Republican" vision. Associate Justice Samuel Chase brought the principles of the Declaration -- which he signed -- to the first Court.
Indeed the assumption that first come rights and then comes government was considered so obviously true as to be, in the words of the Declaration, "self-evident." As Justice Samuel Chase famously wrote in the 1798 case of Calder v. Bull, [t]here are certain vital principles in our free republican governments, which will determine and overrule an apparent and flagrant abuse of legislative power. . . . An act of the legislature (for I cannot call it a law), contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority.
Justice Chase began by providing examples of legislative acts that violate these "great first principles," such as a law "that punished a citizen for an innocent action," or "a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens," or "a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B." Such an "act of the legislature (for I cannot call it a law)" was beyond the legislative power, he said, because "[i]t is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it."

On the villain side, we get bete noir President Wilson, Justice Holmes, and Harvard law professor James Bradley Thayer. I knew Wilson preferred a Parliamentary system, but Barnett provides an additional amusing anecdote:
Wilson was not much enamored with the U.S. Constitution. From his teens he acquired a bizarre compulsion to rewrite the constitutions of whatever group or organization in which he became active. Whether the Eumeneans at Davidson College, the Princeton baseball club, or the Johns Hopkins Literary Society, he "would dig up and then rewrite its constitution, usually seizing on some neglected provision which, in an emergency, could be wielded to make the system more efficient, hierarchical, and subject to his own wishes. 71

Thayer introduces judicial deference in 1893, and Thayerism reaches its apogee in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. Why must Coloreds and Whites be separated? Because a majoroty wants it!
It is plain that Plessy v. Ferguson, decided three years after Thayer's article appeared in the Harvard Law Review, was the embodiment of this deferential approach. As Justice Brown wrote, "We cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable." 43

I expected Barnett -- certainly no Republican partisan -- to go to greater lengths to disavow his use of the term "Republican" with the party. He is clear that it is protection of rights versus majoritariansim.
At its core, this debate is about the meaning of the first three words of the Constitution: "We the People." Those who favor the Democratic Constitution view We the People as a group, as a body, as a collective entity. Those who favor the Republican Constitution view We the People as individuals. This choice of visions has enormous real-world consequences.

He also states plainly that most modern Republicans do not measure up or honor these principles. He closes with a call that one party should take up the cause of defending "The Republican Constitution" and that Republicans are an obvious choice. But he chooses teams differently than is common. Jefferson and Madison are Republicans against the Adams/Hamilton/Marshall Federalists. Van Buren, Calhoun, and Jackson are Democrats. My libertarian friends are sympathetic to the decentralization of the original Constitution (the United States as plural, as Ken Burns would say) and consider the centralization of the 14th Amendment as usurpation (Lord Acton called it the end of Liberty on Earth). I have a book of Chief Justice Taney's Constitutional enforcements against President Lincoln. I'm not a man for whom "That Tyrant Lincoln" rolls off the tongue, but Taney is the hero of that book.

Barnett holds no truck with any of that. Federal enforcement of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments are required to protect the Lockean rights of freed slaves. Thayerism eviscerated these protections in The Slaughterhouse Cases and Plessy, But -- for a guy whose last book was anarchist -- this is a story of a strong central government exerting powers when required to protect individuals' Lockean rights.

Indeed, the Declaration of Independence tells us, it is "to secure these rights" that "Governments are instituted among Men." What are the implications of adopting an individual rather than a collective conception of popular sovereignty?

Five Stars. I have talked my lefty biological brother and one of his friends into reading this. My brother is waiting for his Socialist library to procure the book; his friend is not quite as enamoured as I...

UPDATE: An earlier version conflated Justices Samuel Chase and Salmon P Chase. ThreeSources regrets the error. (And I have no idea if they are related...)

UPDATE II: No Not related, according to answers.com.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:35 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

Corporations may not be "people" and governments are certainly not "people" but for the love of the green, green hills of Earth, can't we agree that people are people?

An example that Justice Chase might not have envisioned for "a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens" is that collection of "legislative acts" which mandate what medical conditions must be covered by the health insurance contracts written in the several states.

And while I'm sympathetic that the Civil War amendments may have marked "the end of Liberty on Earth" I will abide by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments if we can somehow manage to repeal the thirty words of the illegitimate 16th, which violate the first principles of the social compact to their very core.

"...or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B." Such an "act of the legislature (for I cannot call it a law)" was beyond the legislative power, he said, because "[i]t is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it."

In [disputed] historical fact, the people have NOT done it, and yet our government, instituted among men, to secure basic rights, using JUST powers, continues on as though the people had done it.

A good book for keeping liberty lovers eyes on the prize - above reducing government and shifting power back to the states, we should first and foremost insist that "we the people" are individuals. We are not a singular "we."

Me. You. I.

Posted by: johngalt at May 2, 2016 2:50 PM

April 17, 2016

Review Corner

The perspectives on the Right sometimes stem from religious motives that elevate purity and the notion that we shouldn't try to play God-- the idea that we should eat food the way "God made it." The Left takes cues from the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and elevates nature as a pure state unadulterated by bigotry or profiteering. The result is a philosophy of romantic traditionalism that is implicitly opposed to technological progress in food and agriculture.
I've a keen interest in food. Firstly, as Penn Jillette says when told there are toxins in food, water, and air" "Toxins in food? Shit? We eat food. A lot of food."

Me too. But it is also an interesting nexus for topics which intrigue: government regulation and research, trade policy and immigration . . . I'm even belatedly learning to appreciate the culinary art behind it. Mostly, I remain enchanted by the real science and innovation of modern agriculture and its ability to feed more people better with fewer resources. Conversely, I reject the junk science which impedes it with ignorance.

Eggo -- I mean ergo -- Jayson Lusk's Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World was a treat. Lusk is "Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University," a frequent contributor to the WSJ, NYTimes, Forbes, and foxnews.com. I'd love a culinary polemic, but this is not one. Lusk covers many of the ways which technology has affected how we eat from Roman agriculture:

So important was manure to crop yields that the ancient Romans elevated excrement to deity status by paying homage to Stercutius, the god of manure. But there was never enough to go around.

To 3-D printing:
Lipson said that 3-D printing can, for perhaps the first time, combine cooking and information technology. After all, this is an age when our watches are continuously tracking our heart beat, blood pressure, and sleeping rhythms, and when we can order individualized DNA tests off the Internet. These data could be used to customize breakfast granola or even make pharmaceutically enhanced candy bars that contain the right dose of allergy or cholesterol medication.

[Side note -- if we ever need to rename the blog, stercutiusspeaks.com may be available...]

That said, the granolaed Boulderites will find much to dislike. Lusk is pro technology and unafraid to shoot down some deeply held beliefs. He accepts and shares concerns about humane conditions for livestock and food-producing animals. But the current, feel-good solutions are both unsustainable and not always "as advertised;"

The barns or aviaries are often chaotic, dusty, and smelly. Mortality rates for cage-free hens can be twice as high as those for hens in cages. So even though the hens have more amenities and freedom than in the battery-cage system, they die at a much higher rate. Some of that is a result of more fighting (the phrase "pecking order" is not some abstraction but a reality in hen houses). Higher death rates are also partially attributable to the different breeds of chickens typically used in cage-free systems, Rhode Island Reds, which lay brown eggs, whereas White Leghorns, which lay white eggs, are typically used in cage systems. But the higher mortality in the cage-free systems can also be partially attributed to conditions that are less sanitary. Air quality is particularly bad, as are particulate matter emissions. This is bad news for the birds, and many employees also don't like it. I've talked to large-scale egg farmers who have both cage and cage-free systems, and most prefer the cage. In addition, cage-free systems have higher carbon footprints and produce eggs that are 30 to 40 percent more expensive than eggs from cage systems.

If feel-good romantic agriculture ideas have a rough go, the sum total of the book is incredibly optimistic in a Matt Ridleyesque way. Modern farming techniques not only produce more food on less land, but GPS tractors, satellite observation, and big data information optimize the use of fertilizer, irrigation, and pest control.

Or, we could just farm in our backyards with a stick.

Our ancestors, at least as a species, could have carried on quite sustainably for a long time, but their sustainable life is not one I'd choose to be born into. The all-natural future is not the kind of future in which I want to live, and I think that is why I've been bothered by the word sustainability. The missing ingredient in sustainable thinking is the role of scientific and technological advancement. Sustainable doesn't have to mean stagnant. Rather, any future worth fighting for is one that is dynamic, innovative, and exciting, one in which there will be many other humans with bountiful opportunities to eat and work as their hearts desire.

Before ThreeSourcers construct a giant statue of Lusk and start a cargo cult, I must point out that he closes with a chapter on the efficacy of government spending on ag research (self serving much?) The Ag professor says that minimal projections suggest that $1 invest in, well Ag professors yields $32 in benefits.

I might question that, but I did not allow it to change my enjoyment of this book. In libertarian utopia, investment might be private (or at least all State), but on my list of destruction of liberty, R&D in general is low on the list. And one can easily make a shared benefit claim.

So, no stars deducted -- this is a five star book, heartily recommended. I have several more excellent quotes I could share on demand, But it's lunchtime.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:40 AM | Comments (2)
But jk thinks:

One more quote I had tucked in the #3src widget:

Technological advancement and industrialization have been great food equalizers--freeing peasants and serfs from the demands of the land and letting them eat like the royalty they once served.

Posted by: jk at April 17, 2016 11:55 AM
But johngalt thinks:


Posted by: johngalt at April 17, 2016 5:50 PM

April 3, 2016

Review Corner

Wagers have a long history of inspiring new areas of science and generating insights into luck and decision making. The methods have also permeated wider society, from technology to finance. If we can uncover the inner workings of modern betting strategies, we can find out how scientific approaches are continuing to challenge our notions of chance.
I am missing several key genes. One of them provides the allure of gambling. I just don't have it. I look at lotteries and casinos and am unimpressed by the probabilities; A friendly $10 wager on the Broncos is at least fair, but I do not enjoy the extra ten bucks won half as much as I dislike forking over the loss. Nor is it risk-aversion. I have a healthy risk appetite for investing, and I left the best paying job I ever had to pursue a start up. I lost my shirt yet still shrugged my bare shoulders.

And yet. And yet. The mathematician in me is spellbound. I remain intensely interested in this pastime I don't enjoy. Messed-up, huh?

Adam Kucharski's The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling is the perfect compromise. He looks at the use of technology to beat the system, from Hong Kong horse racing syndicates, to smartphone apps which measure the initial velocity of a roulette ball, to one that has intrigued me for some time: sports betting arbitrage, looking for riskless hedges of differing odds and spreads across different sites.

Game theory and the great mathematicians who have contributed are covered in depth

The story goes that [Game theory pioneer John] von Neumann had a particularly ambitious excuse for one of his collisions. "I was proceeding down the road,” he said. “The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at sixty miles per hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path."

Many of the researchers stop as soon as they publish a paper instead of chasing millions at the casino (perhaps I am eccentric and not weird), while some pursue it as a career. Either way, the use of reason and technology to outwit randomness is about as good a game as there is.
But [John] Nash wasn't the first person to take a mathematical hammer to the problem of competitive games. History has given that accolade to John von Neumann. Although later known for his time at Los Alamos and Princeton, in 1926 von Neumann was a young lecturer at the University of Berlin. In fact, he was the youngest in its history. Despite his prodigious academic record, however, there were still some things he wasn’t very good at. One of them was poker.

Ten million Captain Kirk fans wait with bated breath -- can IBM develop a poker player in league with Watson's Jeopardy skills or Deep Blue's chess? Spoiler Alert: it depends. But the treatment and serious investigation of bluffing and poker faces is riveting.
Until Chris Ferguson's triumphant performance in Las Vegas, no poker player had won more than $ 1 million in tournament prizes. But unlike many competitors, Ferguson’s extraordinary success did not rely solely on intuition or instinct. When he played in the World Series, he was using game theory. The year before he beat Cloutier, Ferguson had completed a doctorate in computer science at UCLA.

Stock exchanges and trading bots are equivalent -- in the book's thesis -- to beating a roulette wheel. And many of the best methods are somewhat surprising. Good bots are simple and fast, not complicated and smart -- automated trading is happening at nanoscale.
Some are going to even more extreme lengths. In 2011, US firm Hibernia Atlantic started work on a new $ 300 million transatlantic cable, which will allow data to cross the ocean faster than ever before. Unlike previous wires, it will be directly below the flight path from New York to London, the shortest possible route between the cities. It currently takes 65 milliseconds for messages to travel the Atlantic; the new cable aims to cut that down to 59.

Six milliseconds to exploit arbitrage opportunities and a few floating point instruction advantage is valuable enough to lay a new cable under the ocean.

A fascinating and tidy little book that delves into computation, probability, game theory and the stability of the ecosystems of betting and trading environments. Five stars, and I am confident you'll love this. In fact, I'll lay you a sawbuck at eight to five...

Posted by John Kranz at 1:33 PM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2016

Review Corner

The Spirit of St. Louis was based on an existing model, the Ryan M-2, but many adjustments were necessary to make a plane suitable for an ocean flight. The inordinately heavy fuel load meant Hall had to redesign the wing, fuselage, landing gear, and ailerons, all major jobs. Of necessity, much of what the Ryan workers did was based on improvisation and guesswork-- sometimes to a startling degree. Realizing they had no clear notion of how far it was from New York to Paris by the great circle route, they went to a public library and measured the distance on a globe with a piece of string. By such means was one of history's greatest planes built.
I remember the gasps in the theatre when, in the middle of Apollo 13, all the engineers whipped out their slide rules. And we all realized these guys went to the moon without calculators.

Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 takes us back to, shockingly enough, 1927. Quite a few things happened that summer which are still remembered today. Bryson weaves them into a narrative but starts with Charles Lindbergh and his solo flight across the Atlantic. "Lucky Lindy" (he hated the name and the song) was a skilled aviator -- a tremendously skilled aviator -- but lacked interpersonal skills and struggled badly in school.

Charles attended eleven different schools before graduating from high school, and he distinguished himself at each by his mediocrity. In the autumn of 1920, he entered the University of Wisconsin, hoping to become an engineer. Charles survived in large part by having his mother write his papers for him, but ultimately even that wasn’t enough. Halfway through his sophomore year he flunked out and abruptly announced his intention to become an aviator. From his parents' perspective, this was a mortifying ambition. Flying was poorly paid, wildly unsafe, and unreliable as a career -- and nowhere were those three unhappy qualities more evident than in the United States.

'Twenty Seven was also the year of the great flood, Babe Ruth's home run record and the race with Lou Gehrig, Sacco and Vanzetti's execution, Dempsey -Tunney's boxing match with the "long count," Al Capone's arrest, President Coolidge's surprise announcement to not seek another term, and Fed rate increases which Bryson credits with the '29 crash and recession.

Here we must pause. This is an interesting and well written book. My brother recommended it, but warned "(alas) dripping with liberal ooze. Well worth the slog." I pride myself that I read a lot with which I disagree. A hard core polemic from the left is somehow much easier than this. Bryson writes the whole book with the smug assumptions of today's Zinn/Schlesinger imbued academic. Harding was corrupt, Coolidge napped when he should have expanded the scope of government.

Sigh. Again all presented as "known fact;" everyone who has taken a college history course knows these. And they creep in pretty constantly. Bryson ties the different items together nicely, even with some incidental references just to keep the calendar square. He refers incessantly to Coolidge's Siuth Dakota vacation (where Mount Rushmore was dedicated). Every time something bad happens in this great nation in 1927, we are reminded that the President was in South Dakota -- on vacation!

Clearly, to Bryson, he would have stayed Sacco and Vanzetti's executions would it not would spoil his vacation. He cannot for a moment imagine that law enforcement and punishment were State matters to this federalist, strict Constitutionalist, and former Governor. It becomes exasperating. One wishes to ask the author: "have you read your own book?"

Sacco and Vanzetti were prosecuted under Wilson's Espionage and Sedition laws. Bryson describes the Palmer Raids without using name Woodrow Wilson.

Crazily, it became riskier to say disloyal things than to do them. A person who refused to obey the draft law could be imprisoned for one year, but a person who urged others to disobey the draft law could be imprisoned for twenty years. More than a thousand citizens were jailed under the terms of the Espionage Act in its first fifteen months. It was hard to know what could get you in trouble. A filmmaker named Robert Goldstein was imprisoned for showing the British in a bad light in a movie about the American War of Independence.

Now that's some energetic government! And, government lovers, how is that Prohibition-thingy working out?
Nothing, however, was stranger than that it became the avowed policy of the United States government to poison a random assortment of citizens in an attempt to keep the rest of them sober. Wilson Hickox was unusual only in that well-off people generally weren't the victims, since they were careful to get their booze from reliable suppliers. That was why people like Al Capone did so well out of Prohibition: they didn't kill their customers.

And, lacking an overly-energetic executive, had America "gone Somalia" and lapsed into libertarian dystopia? No. Unemployment and inflation were minimal, industry, innovation and culture (Jerome Kern's "Showboat" was released in 1927, and "The Jazz Singer" launched talking pictures) were booming like the capital markets. Without the shackles of government, America was blossoming into a world power, exemplified by Lindbergh.
For Americans, there was also the gratifying novelty of coming first at something. It is a little hard to imagine now, but Americans in the 1920s had grown up in a world in which most of the most important things happened in Europe. Now suddenly America was dominant in nearly every field-- in popular culture, finance and banking, military might, invention and technology. The center of gravity for the planet was moving to the other side of the world, and Charles Lindbergh's flight somehow became the culminating expression of that.

At the central bankers' meeting, which he describes as being a bit nefarious, the european bankers are in a position of despair and America is booming -- after six years of those non-Wilsonian layabouts!

Double sigh. But I will close in agreement with my brother. It is an interesting time and Bryson expertly brings it to life. If you can check in your love of liberty at the front cover, you'll be enthralled. Three-point-seven-five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:52 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

Fascinating review. It's amazing just how much today's academic believes that nothing can be done without government help, mandate or at least direction. And looking at America's history through that lens must place strenuous demands on the modern historians creative faculty, to ascertain how things managed to ever happen, with government's hands off.

Posted by: johngalt at March 21, 2016 3:14 PM

February 14, 2016

Review Corner

I contend that economic institutions-- property rights, legal systems, political regimes-- are often a collection of just the kinds of games for which higher average IQ pays off, games that are played day in and day out by judges, bureaucrats, politicians, and citizens. If I’m right, then countries whose citizens do well on standardized tests will tend to create more secure property rights, have judges who are more honest, and create political regimes in which the key players tend to find win-win solutions to problems rather than descending into a Hobbesian war of all against all.
I received a rather presonal recommendation for Garett Jones's Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own. I believe Jones is one of Brother Bryan's professors at GMU. And yet, I must confess that I almost did not complete it. The Kindle sample is rather stingy, and I was less than hooked when $14.99 was demanded.It stuck around on my suggestion list and I finally broke down.

It would have been a huge mistake to overlook this book.

I'm not sure the subtitle sells the book either. It explores the dynamics of collaboration and the role of human intellect in teams, companies, industry sectors, nations and classes of nations. Yes, Steve Jobs's creative spark might have been wasted had he been born among the Yanomami. But would we have iPhones and Macs if he had been a farm lad in East Jesus Arkansas? (Sorry to slander The Natural State, but you drew the live round in analogy roulette today.) Our departments and teams matter. Even, in an experiment at Google, whom we sit next to.

The joy of this book is that it begins with a celebration of human reason qua reason: abstract thought, pattern recognition, and the ability to imagine different futures based on present choices. This is the conceptualized IQ he is discussing. For the sake of brevity, I've omitted the copious disclaimers: scores are averages and he is not saying that somebody in country A is stupider than a peer from country B. IQ can be quease-inducing; trust me he does a good job of ascribing boundaries to not include overly sensitive assertions.

Paul Seabright makes this point in his excellent book, The Company of Strangers:
Nowhere else in nature do unrelated members of the same species-- genetic rivals incited by instinct and history to fight one another-- cooperate on projects of such complexity and requiring such a high degree of mutual trust as in the human species. 2

He then builds individual theory into group theory using the tools of economics: Game Theory, Comparative Advantage, Coase Theorem, and Division of Labor are all employed to investigate the dynamics of collaboration. Spoiler Alert: the more intelligent people, teams, and countries are better suited to take advantage of all of these powerful tools. A good team can lift an individual up; a bad team bring them down.

I can feel some heads nodding, and less patient readers yelling "Duh." But there is an elegance of assembly. Like deriving the Ideal Gas Equation from Newton's Laws, one appreciates the constructed theory and learns about the component parts. Bryan Caplan's colleague then delves into The Myth of the Rational Voter to see how this informs democracy.

People with higher test scores tend to hold more pro-market attitudes and are more likely to see their way through a mass of complicated, ambiguous facts to the core insight. But are they more likely to actually vote? Are they more likely to actually influence policy by showing up on election day? Or instead are they more likely to come to the insight of economist Gordon Tullock, who stopped voting once he learned that he was more likely to die in an accident on the way to the voting booth than he was to change the outcome of the election?

Jones then describes a fascinating distinction between "the O-Ring Economy" in which one mistake destroys the entire project and the "Foolproof Sector in which less-skilled workers are just about as useful as top-of-the-line staff." You can substitute ten average lawn care workers for six of the best, but you don't want to see three below-average brain surgeons washing up as you're wheeled in.

Jones builds each of these concepts on the previous and ends with a pretty startling and original defense of immigration: additional low skilled workers might lift marginal native workers out of the Foolproof into the O-Ring. I hate to end with an argument and understand that my phrasing lacks the underpinnings in "Hive Mind." But you would not expect me to omit it.

After a suddenly-getting-long career of working with and assembling teams (not to mention enjoying politics and immigration arguments with my blog brothers), I found the description of the team dynamic elegant and compelling. It works both for day-to-day understanding and as a foundation of larger comparisons between countries and regions.

Five stars and an Editor's Choice Award.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:09 AM | Comments (0)

February 7, 2016

Review Corner

The engineers and the ecologists in their different ways embody the best of civilization. We do not have to side with either, but we can take the best of both. Our goal should be to eliminate big disasters, not small ones, to accept a bit more risk and instability today in return for more reward and stability in the long run.
To over-synopsize Greg Ip's Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe is to do it a great disservice. And Review Corner can be roughly categorized as OversynopsisRus.

Even my hero, Russ Roberts, in an EconTalk Podcast presents the book as an enumeration of items for which safety features have had unintended consequences: people drive more aggressively while wearing seat belts and take more chances in a bicycle or hit a football opponent harder with a helmet on. Oh, and banking and bailouts and moral hazard and stuff..

In the 1800s, with better statistical tools, insurers began to differentiate risks, for example, requiring medical exams for life insurance. The term "moral hazard" first appears in the 1860s, in The Practice of Fire Underwriting, wherein it was defined as: "the danger proceeding from motives to destroy property by fire, or permit its destruction."

All that is interesting. But the book really takes off when you realize he is intermingling those and playing them off each other -- where are they the same and where are they different?
As Alan Greenspan was fond of saying, "The optimal failure rate in banking is not zero. If we did not permit risk-taking, and therefore the possibility of failure, the banking system would not be in a position to foster economic growth." Aviation regulators suffer no such ambivalence about the optimal number of plane crashes: it's zero.

It is a book about risk: how we approach it, the methods we use to mitigate it, proper cost-benefit analyses -- and where we fail.

The proper optimal plane crash is probably not zero. You are in hundreds of times greater danger choosing to drive, and the asymptotic pursuit of perfection makes plane travel more expensive and less convenient.

As [pediatrician and specialist in biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco Thomas] Newman later told me, "When someone tells a story like that, you want to be on their side. You want to help. These are actual human beings. The statistical ones who might waste their money on a plane ticket or end up driving? I'm never going to meet them." But he pressed ahead, and concluded that the cost per death prevented [by legislation requiring infants to travel in their own seat] was a staggering $ 1.3 billion. Is a child's life worth $ 1.3 billion? That's the wrong question. The life of any child is priceless. The right question is, If society is to devote $ 1.3 billion to saving lives, what is the most efficient way to do it?

All fascinating, but the major focus of the book is finance and capital markets. I can put it on the virtual Kindle shelf of all works which seek to characterize the financial crisis of 2008. Ip is non-polemical and quite pragmatic. He accepts the Fed's role as lender of last resort and would not lose a lot of sleep over philosophy if a bailout saved a lot of livelihoods and heartache.

But he says you have to have a fire now and then to make the forest work and prevent worse conflagrations down the line. Everybody knows that and only the stupidest cannot see the financial metaphor (it's in the bushes behind the Collateralized Debt Obligations). But he interviews actual personnel at Yellowstone: Do you have a fire this year? what of the people nearby? What if it escapes containment? Did you see Bambi for cryin' out loud?

Save Bear Sterns and let Lehman fail?

It's a great book because it looks at risk and response in many areas and ties them together very effectively. ThreeSourcers will be interested that Ip takes climate change concerns at face value. But then he asks why we don't pursue nuclear power when other forms a hundreds or thousands of times more dangerous.

These are important things to keep in mind when considering the lessons of the global financial crisis of 2008. In its wake, governments everywhere have vowed never to have another. But is it necessary that there never be another crisis? Is it possible that preventing another crisis will suppress so much risk taking that we end up poorer as a result? And should another crisis arrive, will our fear of moral hazard stop us from doing what we can to minimize the consequences?

Outstanding -- five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 3:36 PM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

All of the knowledge needed to make a world that is fully prosperous for all mankind is available to us today, and this is another example. Unfortunately, there are too many who still profit from the existence of poverty. They keep prosperity bottled up where it can't help others, and harm their own self-esteem.

Nice review. Thanks!

Posted by: johngalt at February 11, 2016 3:38 PM

January 31, 2016

Review Corner

A scientist by training, Michael C. Glaviano holds a PhD in mathematical physics from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. He carved out a career as a software engineer and has worked for startups, established companies, and research labs. Michael surfed the leading edge of the high tech wave until a sea change carried him into uncharted waters.

Crows' Gambit is his third novel. His previous novels, Edge Station and The Locust Queen's Feast, are available via most of the usual channels. He is currently working on A Fragment of Nothing, the long-awaited sequel to Locust Queen.

Review Corner again asks for your trust. Michael is a personal friend of mine from college and I have long admired his smarts and guitar chops. I reviewed Edge Station [Review Corner] last year and gave it high marks. Crows' Gambit is even better.

I may be sympathetic to friends, but I can be equally hard on fiction. I had just finished a popular Sci-Fi book which was made into a major motion picture and all. It was a Christmas gift so I'll spare it a bad review. But, while it was a good story, I was anxious for it to end so I could tuck into some entertaining 200 year old economics book or something.

Instead I hopped into Crows' Gambit and reconnected with what fiction could be. Crows' has exceptional pacing, endearing characters, and truly beautiful prose. As a personal bonus to me, one of the characters of this book is protagonist Phil Andrade's playlist. Phil is a jazz fan and he carefully and consciously selects the music for each of his scenes.

He should check his email and see if Jerry Talvert had come up with anything. Instead, he paced around the small living room. He wanted to hear some music, but what? He flipped open his laptop and glanced over the playlists. There it was: Kenny Burrell's album, Soul Call. He called up the title track, a blues featuring Burrell's guitar work over congas, bass, and a sparse piano. Phil closed his eyes and leaned back. The muscles in his neck and shoulders relaxed. He took a deep breath and felt a knot in his stomach let go. Phil imagined things getting better.

Spoiler alert, Phil, things get a little worse before they get better, but the music stays good and eventually contributes to the plotline.

Like his others, there is an endearing ensemble cast that lacks from a lot of fiction. Plus a few fun items interspersed:

He paged through ebooks he'd purchased and finally settled on a science fiction novel, a book called Edge Station by someone he'd never heard of.

Good story, good fun. Five review corner stars and a personal recommendation.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:56 AM | Comments (7)
But nanobrewer thinks:

so, was the book Martian or Interstellar?

Posted by: nanobrewer at January 31, 2016 9:16 PM
But jk thinks:

Thanks, nb. I have not tried it because my tastes are so odd err, I mean eclectic, that I suspected it might not be for me. Don't know if that is fair or not. But this is available on Kindle Unlimited (or a bruising $2.99 if not).

"Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card. He has a strong libertarian following and I hope not to offend anybody more than usual.

Posted by: jk at February 1, 2016 12:34 PM
But dagny thinks:

I am kinda an SF geek and I was a fan of Ender's Game actually both book and movie. Some of Cards other stuff is a little like swimming through molasses. BUT, JK not sure if you know this but Ender's Game was originally a short story. Guessing you would have preferred the short story version to the full length novel.

Posted by: dagny at February 1, 2016 12:56 PM
But jk thinks:

Thanks, I suspect you are right. And I might try the movie.

Of course, I was trying to say to Card "It's not you, it's me. I think we should start seeing other genres." But the parallel of my enjoying my friend's Indie book 100 times more than the blockbuster seemed germane.

Posted by: jk at February 1, 2016 1:08 PM
But jk thinks:

@dagny: "kinda?"

Posted by: jk at February 1, 2016 1:10 PM
But jk thinks:

Your being "kinda" an SF geek reminds me of Penn Jillette's being told Reason magazine "leans libertarian."

"Leans?" said Penn, "it done fell over!"

Posted by: jk at February 1, 2016 1:46 PM

January 18, 2016

Scheherazade ?

I only saw brief references to brother KA's kindle-book and now that I dug it up from my archives, I see the commentary that it was published?

If so, do tell! I can't find it, but I'm not the prime sort...

Posted by nanobrewer at 1:28 AM | Comments (1)
But Keith Arnold thinks:

Nano: it's still a work in progress (32 final-edited chapters out of 55!), so if there's a Kindle book out there already, I don't think it's mine... unless you've perfected a time machine -- and if you have, have I sold the movie rights yet?

Posted by: Keith Arnold at January 18, 2016 12:11 PM

January 5, 2016

What I Read in 2015

.. or "If TGreer Jumped Off a Cliff?"

Blog Friend tg captured some attention with his impressive 2015 reading list. Another of his friends has piled on and published his 2015 book list. Am I bashful?

What I Read in 2015

Matt Ridley The Evolution of Everything [Review Corner]

César Hidalgo Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies [Review Corner]

Charles Koch Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World's Most Successful Companies [Review Corner]

Angus Deaton The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality [Review Corner]

Mark Steyn A Disgrace to the Profession. [Review Corner]

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and Kenneth Cukier Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think [Review Corner]

Frank Wilczek A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design. [Review Corner]

Michael Huemer The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey [Review Corner]

FA Hayek Individualism and Economic Order [Review Corner]

Ronald Bailey The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century [Review Corner]

Arthur Brooks The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America [Review Corner]

Adam Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [Review Corner]

Russ Roberts The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance [Review Corner]

Don Boudreaux The Essential Hayek [Review Corner]

Pope Francis Laudato Si [Review Corner]

Thaddeus Russell A Renegade History of the United States [Part One]. [Review Corner]

Ed Meese With Reagan The Inside Story [Review Corner]

Charles Krauthammer Things That Matter [Review Corner]

Lawrence H. White The Clash of Economic Ideas [Review Corner]

Randall Munroe What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions [Review Corner]

Hans Hermann-Hoppe A Short History of Man: Progress and Decline [Review Corner]

Mary Elizabeth Berry Hideyoshi [Review Corner]

Michael Shermer The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom [Review Corner]

Jaime Joyce Moonshine: A Cultural History of America's Infamous Liquor. [Review Corner]

Robert Nozick Anarchy, State, and Utopia [Review Corner]

David Kopel Rules for State Legislators: Jerry Kopel's Guide [Review Corner]

Charles C.W. Cooke. His The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future [Review Corner]

Jay Cost A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption [Review Corner]

Randy T. Simmons Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure [Review Corner]

David Goetz Hell is being Republican in Virginia [Review Corner]

Peter H. Diamandis Laws as recounted in Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, [Review Corner]

Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [Review Corner]

John Allison The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure: Why the Future of Business Depends on the Return to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness [Review Corner]

Thomas Pynchon Inherent Vice [Review Corner]

Alex Epstein The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels [Review Corner]

Damon Root Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court [Review Corner]

Plus a lot of stupid books on Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Work.

Too heavy on politics! I expected pure history and science to get a better representation -- I guess I do have a resolution after all.

Posted by John Kranz at 4:41 PM | Comments (2)
But Terri thinks:

I'm tired just reading the list!

Posted by: Terri at January 5, 2016 7:09 PM
But jk thinks:

Pfft! Compared to tg's list, mine looks like the 3rd Grade summer list.

I did have a life-changing experience a few years ago. Nassim Taleb's "The Black Swan" included a pitch to put away the newspapers and magazines and to just read books. Looking back, that was some seriously good advice.

Posted by: jk at January 6, 2016 9:28 AM

January 3, 2016

Review Corner

The famed Kansas editor and Republican activist William Allen White once observed that Ohio Republican politics "combined the virtues of the serpent, the shark and the cooing dove." It was often fractured, rural versus urban, or between regions, sometimes over philosophical differences. The GOP front-runner for governor, Cincinnati judge Alphonso Taft, found himself with these problems as McKinley and other delegates arrived in Columbus on June 2 for their convention. Rural Republicans distrusted the big-city judge. Other delegates disliked his opposition to a court decision restoring Bible reading in public schools.
The English language lacks a word. I suspect there is a 19-syllable version in German or a two-syllable bon mot in French, but there is no English word to ridicule moderns who think that their times and events are uniquely interesting or unusual. Patricia Calhoun who publishes Denver's alternative weekly newspaper Westword, used her pundit position on Colorado Inside Out last night to assure viewers that Colorado is a "Purple State," but we will get there through being black and blue as 2016 shapes up to be a nasty campaign.

I don't mean to pile on her. We'll hear that 365 times this year. But they should read a little more history. And a surprisingly decent place to start would be Karl Rove (yes, that Karl Rove)'s The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters. Rove delivers a detailed look at state, national, and party politics from the election of President Hayes, on whose campaign McKinley started, through McKinley's victory in 1896 (did that last one require a spoiler alert?)

You want blood and bruises, Ms. Calhoun, this book has pistols drawn on the State Convention floor, fistfights to prevent a delegate's recognition, and more than a few uses of a state's party banner used to strike other delegates.

These state conventions saw bitter political combat (in the case of Texas, with pistols, knives, and broken furniture) and the raw exercise of power. Sometimes the majority prevailed, and, on occasion, control of the process and underhanded maneuvering gave a determined minority the day. In too many instances, competing slates of delegates emerged, each claiming to be the state's true representatives-- claims that would have to be settled in credentials fights at the national convention.

The bad news is that modern politics is beanbag. Back to Austin:
The hall exploded. The McKinley men stormed the stage, aiming to push Cuney aside and install Web Flanagan, the GOP's 1890 gubernatorial candidate, in his place. "One burley negro came plowing through the jam," an Associated Press reporter wrote, "pushing men in front of him as if they were so much chaff." Behind him was a determined, fast-moving, angry mob of five hundred McKinley men. Cuney expected the assault: his people were prepared to defend the podium and him. "The first negro to reach the stand made a lunge at Cuney's head with a fist," an eyewitness wrote, but little Bill Ellis, Cuney's longtime right-hand man, moved faster, pulling his revolver and shoving it in the assailant's face. "The two men eyed each other for ten seconds," then grappled and went down with "the howling crowd swaying around and about them." A large table on the stage collapsed under the combatants. Delegates grabbed broken pieces as weapons. Chairs and other tables were smashed over heads or against bodies. Fists, bludgeons, bottles, knives, and razors appeared. Other pistols were drawn, but luckily not used. The fight went on for twenty minutes before the city marshal and a squad of officers arrived and began indiscriminately clubbing delegates.

Perhaps Rove can sell the movie rights and Bruce Willis will be cast as Hanna.

One of my favorite characters from American History has a huge part. Charles G. Dawes is encharged with McKinley's Illinois campaign. Illinois is crucial, hotly contested, yet the Cook County bosses are eschewed in favor of a 26 year old. In a time of pure patronage and graft, Dawes brings structure and discipline to the campaign. There is no shortage of events, but the McKinley team outworks its rival Republicans and William Jennings Bryan's campaign if not Bryan himself.

I jokingly like to call myself "one of the nation's foremost authorities on Charles Gates Dawes." I make this claim because there is one book on him, it is out of print, and I have read it [Review Corner]. In all seriousness, Dawes is a fascinating character, and we get a deep peek into his younger days and politically formative years. The bad news is that Rove's story of the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago contravenes one of my favorite stories in history. Review Corner includes a very dramatic version of Dawes's hearing the "Cross of Gold" speech late at night, telegraphing the McKinley campaign that the dark horse candidate will surely be nominated and heading home. Great, Liberty Valence story -- Rove has the speech being delivered at midday. I don't know, I am tempted to write Rove and see if he wants to call "Shenanigans" on Dawes's biographer Bascom N. Timmons.

After the GOP nominating convention in Illinois (another spoiler alert missed):

After receiving the news of the Illinois victory, McKinley sat down to write Dawes. "I can not close the day without sending you a message of appreciation and congratulations," he told the young man in whom he had placed all his trust. "There is nothing in all of this long campaign so signal and significant as the triumph at Springfield. I cannot find words to express my admiration for your high qualities of leadership. You have won exceptional honor. You had long ago won my heart."

Rove had frequently said that he modeled the 2000 George W. Bush campaigns on that. Many thinking he played the part of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, rumored to be the brains behind the scenes driving the kind but simple candidate. For the record, Rove to great lengths to dispel that. His McKinley is bright and politically astute.

This is a substantive and well researched book. Knowing the author, no one will be surprised that it is about politics. McKinley's Civil War heroism is told to open the story, but more to set the stage of literal grace under fire to underlay future political skirmishes. Instead of what color grandma pained the barn, this book is full of political players, state conventions, national conventions, machine politics, and campaign strategy.

I'm running out of room and reader patience, but Rove delves deeply into the two key issues of the day: funding for PBS's Big Bird and "Binders full of women." No, wait, that was 2012. In 1896, McKinley wanted to speak only of protectionism. President Cleveland advocated frugal government, low inflation, and collecting just enough revenue to support a restrained government. Glad we drove that loser out of the Democratic Party! McKinley was a key advocate of protectionism: the Whig element in the GOP thought that American workers should be protected from competition by steep Tariffs. Wait a minute, which side am I on again?

McKinley wanted to talk about protectionism, Bryan wanted only to talk about Free Silver. Our 19th Century Sen. Bernie Sanders wanted to fight the powerful, moneyed Wall Street interests by allowing debtor Western and Southern Farmers to pay back those evil Eastern Bankers in deprecated Silver Dollars. McKinley did his best to straddle the issue and change topic to tariffs. Silver and Gold did not break along party lines. Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller (many many things in Colorado are named after the Senator, Territorial Governor and Arthur's Interior Secretary) spoke passionately at the convention and led a group of delegates off the convention floor to abandon the party.

Teller was weeping as he led his ragged detachment out, causing the Nation to later mock him, calling silver "the first raw metal that has ever been wept over."" Alerted by wire, Colorado governor Albert W. McIntyre ordered the state guard to fire a cannon salute to their senator, which one Centennial State delegate said "meant war."

Bryan was perhaps too good an orator and overplayed his hand, dividing America into lenders and debtors. McKinley pushed unity as the nation was finally moving beyond the Civil War. Taking a train to New York to collect contributions, Bryan gaffed that he was headed into "enemy territory." This angered supporters and laid the foundation of McKinley attacks. McKinley brought an ex-Confederate regiment to Canton for a dinner and march with an "ex-Union regiment." Even supporters were questioning Bryan's dogmatic division:
This so irritated the twenty-eight-year-old small-town newspaperman that he "stalked," he said,"as well as a fat man who toddles can stalk," to his office and wrote a broadside blasting the Populist views many Republicans believed animated Bryan's campaign. "What we are after is the money power," [William Allen] White wrote sarcastically. "Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffing out of the creditors, and tell the debtors who borrowed the money . . . that the contradiction of currency gives him a right to repudiate." White's editorial-- "What's the Matter With Kansas?"-- swept across the country as fast as the telegraph could carry it and was reprinted in hundreds of papers,

I'll risk the wrath of my Austrian friends and suggest that the brutal, four year recession of 1893 was at heart a deflationary shock and could have been helped by increasing the money supply. But the Free SIlver / 16 to 1 coinage proposed by the Populists was two bridges too far. Though I'm a free trader to the bottom of my dark soul, I like to ask liberty lovers if they would trade the 16th Amendment for some large tariffs for revenue. So I'll cheer McKinley's victory in '96 and the rematch in 1900. But I wish he had replaced VP Hobart with Charles G. Dawes instead of Theodore Roosevelt.

Rove's appreciation was his defeat of the machine politicians in the GOP:

NO FAN OF MCKINLEY in the past, the Chicago Tribune had to admit nonetheless, "The people have won at St. Louis." The Major's victory was "a hard blow to bossism" and a victory of the "rank and file of the party over its self-centered and presumptuous leaders," namely the Combine. McKinley's victory presaged a major change in future nomination battles in which the power of the bosses would be diminished and the power of voters and candidates elevated.

Five gold stars (or 80 silver at 16:1).

Posted by John Kranz at 10:31 AM | Comments (0)

December 6, 2015

Review Corner

Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organising, self-changing place. Patterns emerge, trends evolve. Skeins of geese form Vs in the sky without meaning to, termites build cathedrals without architects, bees make hexagonal honeycombs without instruction, brains take shape without brain-makers, learning can happen without teaching, political events are shaped by history rather than vice versa.
Matt Ridley has written a couple of my favorite books [Review Corner] [Review Corner]. Hearing that he had a new one, it was easy to drop everything. It's potential to affect the book I am working on and be included as "research" didn't hurt. I quickly purchased and read The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. Yet, I have stalled for three weeks in posting Review Corner. Well, the Broncos played the Patriots last week...

It's a sweeping and important book. In many ways it is a capstone For "Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters" and "The Rational Optimist:" our science, our innovation, and our prosperity are as much emergent phenomena as our eyes and opposable thumbs.

This truth continues to elude most intellectuals on the left as well as the right, who remain in effect "creationists". The obsession with which those on the right resist Charles Darwin's insight -- that the complexity of nature does not imply a designer -- matches the obsession with which those on the left resist Adam Smith's insight -- that the complexity of society does not imply a planner. In the pages that follow, I shall take on this creationism in all its forms.

Lord Ridley has a job to do, and "The Evolution of Everything" has a whiff of polemic that is missing from his other books. A lesser author might lose fractional stars for that, but Ridley is consistent and dispassionate, with everything included in a larger and important thesis. Ridley takes on the Darwin deniers and Smith deniers sequentially and with equal fervor.
The beauty of Darwin's explanation is that natural selection has far more power than any designer could ever call upon. It cannot know the future, but it has unrivalled access to information about the past. In the words of the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, natural selection surveys "the results of alternative designs operating in the real world, over millions of individuals, over thousands of generations, and weights alternatives by the statistical distribution of their consequences". That makes it omniscient about what has worked in the recent past. It can overlook spurious and local results and avoid guesswork, inference or models: it is based on the statistical results of the actual lives of creatures in the actual range of environments they encounter.

As he did in "Genome," Ridley adds to the corpus of evolution and understanding. Richard Dawkins has added much to the science of evolution and genetics. But he is like Michael Oakeshott, St. Thomas Aquinas, and to some extent my hero, Karl Popper, that you are frequently better off reading about him than reading him directly. David Deutsch and Matt Ridley explain Dawkins much better than Dawkins. Ridley brings his insights home with his (Ridley's) other work on genetics and economics.
Indeed, to borrow a phrase from a theorist of innovation, Richard Webb, Darwinism is the "special theory of evolution"; there's a general theory of evolution too, and it applies to much more than biology. It applies to society, money, technology, language, law, culture, music, violence, history, education, politics, God, morality. The general theory says that things do not stay the same; they change gradually but inexorably; they show "path dependence"; they show descent with modification; they show trial and error; they show selective persistence. And human beings none the less take credit for this process of endogenous change as if it was directed from above.

Chapter by chapter, Ridley looks at language, religion, culture, government, marriage and shows how all these items that seem pre-ordained are emergent. I'll challenge anyone nodding his or her head right now in agreement -- you will find at least one thing in this book with an evolutionary history that will surprise you. I am a T-Shirt wearing Hayekian and I found several.
Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced. Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development -- souls -- within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God's word as transmitted through the Koran. Luther said that your fate was in God's hands. Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called "Leviathan" -- the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience. Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies. Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.

I've a dozen more quotes that remain on the cutting room floor, damp with tears at their omission. It's a superb book. Five stars without question.

If you put a gun to my head (you Americans are so violent!) and made me pick one, I would have to choose "The Rational Optimist" as a slight favorite over this. But if I could cleverly grasp your weapon and turn it around against you, I would make you buy and read both -- and "Genome." They're spectacular.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:42 AM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2015

Review Corner

But as a species, we have also developed an amazing capacity to make information last. We have learned to accumulate information in objects, starting from the time we built our first stone axes to the invention of the latest computer. The creation of these solid objects requires flows of energy, but also our distributed capacity to compute.
César Hidalgo is not an economist. I don't speak academise, and his published bio eludes me. He is listed as "Director, Macro Connections, the MIT Media Lab. Associate Professor, MIT." I guess when the projectors don't work, they call Dr. Hidalgo. (That's a joke, I think.)

His Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies was a challenging read on many levels. Firstly, one must keep pace with some serious intellectual chops and the author's wide ranging knowledge. Hidalgo looks at human development with an understanding of traditional economic explanations -- but he does not accept them at face value. In doing so, he opens my mind to a lot of questions that had gone unasked. His non-traditional economics overlaps mine in many ways, expands it in some, but challenges it in others.

But it is not an economic book, per se. It is a book on information and information's assembling into more complex orders. Hidlago sees the information embedded into corporeal objects. I confess as a pro software developer and an amateur economist, I consider information more abstract, digitizable, and shareable. Yet it isn't all in the books or in the Internet. Skilled craftsmen have knowledge and skill, and also small jigs and template objects that embody dimensions and angles.

For instance, a book can tell us how to position our bodies for karate moves. But I would not recommend that you jump into the ring of an ultimate fighting event if your only fighting experience comes from reading some karate books. Knowhow, in particular, resides primarily in humans' nervous systems. It is the instinctive way in which the musician plays guitar, the fluidity with which the artist draws, and the dexterity with which the truck driver backs up an eighteen-wheeler. It is not in books.

Opening the review with differences in our economic beliefs, I do not mean that Hidalgo's are orthogonal to mine. He has more beautiful examples of comparative advantage and specialization than the most eloquent economists. In the previous quote,I think that he out-Hayeked Hayek on "The Knowledge Problem." It is not only distributed among multiple people's minds; it is also distributed in objects, tools, and skills.

Specialization, too, takes an extra dimension when this additional knowledge is considered

This is the combinatorial creativity that emerges from our species' ability to crystallize imagination. If Jimmy Page had to mine metals and build his own guitars, we would probably have not been able to enjoy "Stairway to Heaven." If Ernest Hemingway had to construct his own pens, manufacture paper, and invent the printing press, he probably would not have been able to write The Old Man and the Sea. By the same token, if I had to build my own laptop, you would not be reading this book. So the knowledge amplification powers of the economy are essential to liberate the creative capacities that allow our species to create new products-- which continue to augment us-- and endow us with new forms of artistic expression.
The physical embodiment of information is the blood of our society. Objects and messages connect us, allowing us to push the growth of information even further. For tens of thousands of years we have embodied information in solid objects, from arrows and spears to espresso machines and jetliners. More recently, we have learned to embody information in photons transmitted by our cellphones and wireless routers. Yet, what is most amazing about the information that we embody is not the physicality of the encasing but the mental genesis of the information that we encase. Humans do not simply deposit information in our environment, we crystallize imagination.

Crystallized imagination embedded into objects like toothpaste and guitars:
Guitars allow us to "sing" with our hands by combining knowledge of the Pythagorean scale with expertise about the right wood for building a guitar and how to shape it. If the guitar is electric, it will also embody knowledge of how the music's sound waves can be captured using a transducer, and how these sounds can be amplified for many of us to enjoy. All of these are capacities that are needed to make music, at least the kind of music that requires a loud electric guitar. Yet these do not need to be capacities of the musician. The musician accesses the practical uses of this knowledge through the guitar, and in doing so, he is augmented by being endowed with the capacity to sing with his hands.

Hidlago challenges not only my economic ideas, but a bit of my livelihood and the book I am working on for my employer. It has been asked before, but if you end up on the proverbial desert island, or a suddenly depopulated planet Earth, what are your chances to rebuild civilization and modernity -- even with a laptop and the entire internet on a very large thumb drive. "Let's, see, fabricating microprocessors..." You would need so many things, and tools, and skill sets. The well worn sci-fi story in which the time traveler is accepted as a genius for his amazing inventions just doesn't work. If I beam back to 1800 with blueprints for an iPhone, I'll be burned as a witch -- not hailed as Steve Jobs. (Just wondering... did Job's weigh the same as a duck?)

The economic downside to accepting Hidalgo is that he explains why you can't turn Lagos or Lubbock into the new Silicon Valley, though people never stop trying. Capital chases comparative advantage, not low wages -- Hidalgo points out there any many countries with far lower wage rates than China.

The book ends with large economies as examples of the most massive aggregation of "crystallized imagination." And the difficulty of solving economic disparity and inequalities. Hidlago does not champion redistribution, but he is less optimistic than most of my peeps that the introduction of property rights and good old Enlightenment Values will turn Togo into Denmark.

I am quite familiar with the general exploitation narrative, having spent the first twenty-four years of my life in the long strip of coast and mountains known as Chile. Chile has a long mining tradition or as I like to say, Chile is heavily involved in "atomic ranching." But this was not always the case. During the nineteenth century Chile's wealth came mostly from the export of saltpeter, a mineral used as a fertilizer and as an ingredient in gunpowder. Saltpeter made the Chilean economy boom. At the turn of the twentieth century Chile had an income per capita that was larger than that of Spain, Sweden, or Finland.

Until you crazy kids synthesized saltpeter and left his homeland wasting away. Until Milton Friedman, oh, and Copper.
The only connection between Chile and the history of electricity comes from the fact that the Atacama Desert is full of copper atoms, which, just like most Chileans, were utterly unaware of the electric dreams that powered the passion of Faraday and Tesla. As the inventions that made these atoms valuable were created, Chile retained the right to hold many of these atoms hostage. Now Chile can make a living out of them. This brings us back to the narrative of exploitation we described earlier. The idea of crystallized imagination should make it clear that Chile is the one exploiting the imagination of Faraday, Tesla, and others, since it was the inventors' imagination that endowed copper atoms with economic value.

Chile is exploiting the imagination of Tesla and Faraday that endowed Copper atoms with economic value. If that does not make you line up to buy this interesting and amazing book, I am not sure my five stars will -- but I'll award them anyway. It is a great book.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:11 AM | Comments (0)

November 8, 2015

Review Corner

I could never bear to see Koch stagnating. From very early on at the company, I've wanted to prevent that by creating the same conditions inside Koch that lead to long-term prosperity in society. Guided by the similarities between societies and organizations, I introduced basic economic concepts such as opportunity cost, subjective value, and comparative advantage.

These concepts were often taught in economics departments and business schools, but they were rarely applied in the schools themselves, or in most businesses.

I was up late last night thinking of clever "Koch Brothers Shill" jokes to introduce my review of Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World's Most Successful Companies. But I have lost my particular humor about that. One can disagree with Charles Koch as much as one wants, but the vilification is unwarranted and uniquely un-American. The Minority Leader insults him routinely on the floor of the US Senate. Not calling out Hitler, or Osama bin Laden, but a US businessman who has donated to the opposition. The media, Jon Stewart fanboys, and Citizens United haters all pile on. It is truly sad.

But this is a review. Koch acknowledges his opposition gracefully. "I receive a lot of mail (including death threats-- 153 of them in 2014 alone)."

The book is about applying the principles of a free market economy to corporate management.As John Allison [Review Corner] reified Ayn Rand's ideas to run BB&T, Koch is a devotee of Hayek, Schumpeter, Bastiat, Tocqueville, Adam Smith, Thomas Sowell, and has incorporated their ideas into Market-Based Management (MBM). The book is not a philosophical treatise so much as a how-to manual for applying MBM. A manager at a Koch company would need a well worn highlighted copy on her desk (troglodyte Midwesterner Koch uses feminine pronouns throughout the book, by the way). But any businessperson could learn a lot. And a lover of these economic philosophies can certainly enjoy seeing some application beyond politics and abstract thought.

We can't squander resources by having our valuable talent applying continuous improvement to something that will create $100,000 in value when they can make a more radical improvement that could create $10 million in value.

That's why we replaced Deming's continuous improvement with Schumpeter's creative destruction. Creative destruction was more fundamental and more substantive. Continuous improvement, while beneficial, could mean just making modest incremental improvements to something that is becoming obsolete.

Koch buys some pulp plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin (I'm not going to mention the Broncos 29-10 victory here, that would be uncalled for). The new owners are detailing MBM and Charles hears the workers saying "oh, another one." Since the firm's 1910 founding, they had seen a host of "vison/pholosophies/management patterns" The manufacturing firm I work for has, too. One COO was into "Kaizen," micro-continuous improvement practiced by Toyota. I suggested one project was a better choice for "Banzai!" than Kaizen, thinking it too broken to fix. I wish I had had Schumpeter for that meeting; I lost that argument.
Short-term profits, while necessary, are not sufficient for long-term business success. Each business must take to heart what Schumpeter called capitalism's essential role: driving "the perennial gale of creative destruction."2 To succeed in the long term, a business must innovate and improve at least as fast as its most effective competitor.

The elephant appears in the room again. Koch's companies make money, quite a bit, by utilizing extracted resources well: wood, petroleum, capital, and people are most profitable when used efficiently. Koch's John Zink Hamworthy Combustion subsidiary came up with effective means to capture flaring gases and convert it into fuel or feedstock. That saves CO2 emissions and prevents wasted hydrocarbons better than a stack of EPA regulations. Long-term value versus short term profit . . . you'd think you were listening to NYAG Eliot Spitzer.
Some see conservation and profit as being at odds with one another. But when understood through the lens of our Guiding Principles, it becomes clear that they are, in fact, in harmony. Creative destruction necessitates that we discover better ways not only to create value for customers, but to eliminate waste and minimize the use of resources in order to create superior long-term results.

Property rights appear in MBM as decision rights. The best place for authority on a particular item might be the boardroom (self-insuring to minimize moral hazard and cut costs across all Koch companies) or on the shop floor (bringing a machine down for unscheduled maintenance).
Understanding and applying this concept-- that the person with the comparative advantage to make that decision well (not necessarily the highest-ranking person) should be the decision maker-- leads to greater value creation. This is often a hard lesson to accept for people with highly specialized expertise who are used to being in charge.

Beyond Profit -- a word from which he does not hide, "Good Profit" is creating value, bad is rent-seeking -- MBM has been applied to safety and compliance with stunning results. Koch has bought plants that have 100 injuries a year with the workers just accepting that the occupation is dangerous. Proper application of decision rights have brought these down to single digits.

Review Corner readers will know that I like abstract theory. I'm deducting one star from an obvious five star book because if you are not applying these directly to a business, some of those sections can seem a little long. But, how can one give any less than four to a book where one chapter opens with both a quote from Hayek and from Monty Python.

But, although the future is unknowable, it is not unimaginable. As Ludwig von Mises put it: "The entrepreneurial idea that carries on and brings profit is precisely that idea which did not occur to the majority. It is not correct foresight as such that yields profits, but foresight better than that of the rest. The prize goes only to the dissenters, who do not let themselves be misled by the errors accepted by the multitude."

But, Mister Koch, if you're reading this, I might be induced to provide that fifth star . . . perhaps there is some accommodation . . .

Posted by John Kranz at 11:04 AM | Comments (1)
But nanobrewer thinks:
better choice ... "Banzai!" than Kaizen, thinking [the project] too broken to fix
Fascinating! A good leader to the fact that I've been turned down for a Quality job at Spectra Logic, that was surely heading down a 21st century road (data-driven quality process, QMS, etc...) on a frontage road down the Kaizen freeway.

Sooo, what sort of Hardware Engineer is JG?

Posted by: nanobrewer at November 12, 2015 4:34 PM

November 1, 2015

Review Corner

We do not know for sure why the gap opened up, but there are many good guesses. This was the British Enlightenment, summarized by the historian Roy Porter as a time when people stopped asking "How can I be saved?" -- a question that over the past century had brought little but mayhem, including a civil war -- and asked instead "How can I be happy?"
Angus Deaton won the Nobel Prize for economics this year. I figured the least I could do was to buy his book: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. I had heard his EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts but was still not certain what to expect.

The topic is my favorite: mankind's making the great escape from poverty and privation, in this case compared to the 1963 film in which Steve McQueen and company escape from Stalag Luft III. The first thing that separates Deaton from the Deirdre McCloskey David Deutsch school is his pointing out that all the prisoners [SPOILER ALERT] are eventually recaptured. Deaton is no pessimist, but the choice is telling. Our gains are not "locked in." Threats exist, yet:

I find the optimistic argument the more compelling: ever since people rebelled against authority in the Enlightenment, and set about using the force of reason to make their lives better, they have found a way to do so, and there is little doubt that they will continue to win victories against the forces of death. That said, it is too optimistic to think that life expectancy in the future will grow at the same rate as it did in the past; falling rates of infant and child mortality make life expectancy grow rapidly, and that source of growth is largely gone, at least in the rich countries.

Less optimist/pessimist, this is an amazingly non-ideological work. Deaton wants to measure things accurately , and follow the data where it goes.The book is a measurement masterpiece, looking at proxies for wealth and wellbeing across time and culture. Unlike last week's selection, Deaton is clear about the limitations and benefits of proxies: life-span, size, NGP are valid measurements, but never the entire story.
Unless we understand how the numbers are put together, and what they mean, we run the risk of seeing problems where there are none, of missing urgent and addressable needs, of being outraged by fantasies while overlooking real horrors, and of recommending policies that are fundamentally misconceived.

He accepts inequality qua inequality as bad, yet makes many ThreeSoruces-friendly arguments about general well being, Pareto efficiency and inequality's natural existence as wealth is created. He is brutally honest about the failures of international aid, channeling and quoting William Easterly, yet tallies the successes in fights against AIDS, promotion of sanitation, and advances in prenatal care. Again, he does not -- ever -- state an ideology, but one thinks him pretty utilitarian, modestly looking for efficacy and benefits.
For every four years of calendar time, the world's highest life expectancy increased by a year. Oeppen and Vaupel see no reason why this long-established rate of progress should not continue. Their diagram also marks the many previous estimates of the maximum possible life expectancy, each of which was swept away by actual events; many previous sages have forecast that the gains to life span will slow or stop, and they have all been wrong.

Deaton is less worried about those forced to drive a Camry instead of a Lexus, but rather the great disparity between poor and developed countries. Accepting that so much progress has been made raising people from sub $1.25/day wages, how can we bring up the last billion?
This division of the credit for increases in well-being between income and knowledge will occupy us throughout the book. I shall argue that it is knowledge that is the key, and that income-- although important both in and of itself and as a component of wellbeing, and often as a facilitator of other aspects of wellbeing-- is not the ultimate cause of wellbeing.

If I'm doing a poor job pigeonholing this book, it's because it is tough. You could hand this to any of your Facebook friends and it would come back with some sections highlighted. Your basic economics geek will like it best, he's ready to look at the small but incontrovertible effects of smoking, the statistical difference is saving children over adults.
Saving the lives of children has a bigger effect on life expectancy than saving the lives of the elderly. A newborn who might have died but does not has the chance to live many more years, which is not the case when a 70-year-old is pulled through a life-threatening crisis. This is also one of the reasons why the rate of increase in life expectancy has slowed down in recent years; mortality among children is now so low that progress can only really take place among older adults, among whom reductions in mortality rates have smaller effects on life expectancy.
A very interesting book, and a bit of a check on everyone's ideology. Huzzah for the Nobel committee (Economics still enjoys the best picks). I'll pile five stars on the accolades.

Posted by John Kranz at 5:46 PM | Comments (2)
But nanobrewer thinks:

Pareto efficiency! I love having the proper technical term up my sleeve - "zero-sum" game/scenario isn't so evocative that it can't be replaced.

Posted by: nanobrewer at November 2, 2015 10:59 AM
But jk thinks:

That's what we're here for!

Posted by: jk at November 2, 2015 12:25 PM

October 25, 2015

Review Corner

The IPCC has never had a hit like its Third Assessment Report. Their first two did the boring scientific thing and considered all the uncertainties, and the fourth and fifth were comparatively sotto voce after the headline-grabbing hockey stick. But the TAR is the IPCC's pop smash, the one that broke through to become the Big Climate boy-band's "Livin' La Vida Loca", a veritable "Candle In The Wind Turbine". Mann's temperature graph accomplished even more than the IPCC were looking for.
I mentioned in a Review Corner teaser that I had not intended to read Mark Steyn's A Disgrace to the Profession. I enjoy his wit and style, but a whole book beating up on a single climate scientist sounded a bit much. I grabbed the (generous) Kindle sample to kill some time and found it it to be quite "not put downable." Each of the 110 Chapters is only a couple of pages; the temptation to read just one more can last an entire afternoon.

Each of these brief chapters introduces a highly credentialed source -- Steyn admits he felt besieged by typing so many letters after people's names. Most are in the field of climate science, and most, if not quite 97%, accept and are quite concerned about anthropogenic climate change. There's a small smattering of "deniers," but the bulk are peers of Dr. Mann who feel that his work hampers the cause. Steyn simply collects these, sets up the story, and quotes them.

The total effect is totally damning -- I hope to never cheese Mr. Steyn off enough that he writes a book attacking me.

THE INTERGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change was born in 1988. It enjoyed the unlikely support of Mrs Thatcher, in defiance of her usual rule that, if you set up a bureaucracy to fix a problem, then you'll never be rid of the problem. And so the IPCC is not a general science body or a general climate-science body, but a bureaucracy whose only business is "climate change". The thing about saving the planet is that the planet's a complicated thing.

I suspect Steyn is down deep a denier, but the book was not written to dispute climate change completely. It was written to discredit Dr. Michael Mann's iconic "hockey stick graph" and his questionable behavior when his work was questioned.
Phil, I have just read the M& M stuff critcizing MBH. A lot of it seems valid to me. At the very least MBH is a very sloppy piece of work -- an opinion I have held for some time. Presumably what you have done with Keith is better? Or is it? I get asked about this a lot. Can you give me a brief heads up? Mike is too deep into this to be helpful. [Prof.] Tom [Wigley Former Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, and Senior Scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. IPCC contributing author.]

"Mike" is a newcomer to the field ("the ink still wet on his PhD") and attempts to turn over long held beliefs about the medieval warm period and little ice age. Both disappear in his graph to give the hockey stick its level shaft. Generally the onus is on the newcomer to discredit accepted theory, but Dr. Mann rides his celebrity and political support to a place where questioners are deniers.
Irving Caesar, lyricist of "Tea For Two" and "Swanee", had a legendary Broadway flop with a show called My Dear Public. The reviews were scathing, and singled Caesar out particularly, as he was the show's producer, lyricist, co-author and co-composer. The following morning he bumped into Oscar Hammerstein and said, "So they didn't like it. But why pick on me?" That's Mann's attitude to the 1999 hockey stick he co-authored: So it's misleading and over-simplified. But why pick on me?

It is refreshing to see 100 or so scientists care enough about integrity and science to push back. But it is an open question how much the concern goes away if the hockey stick graph received the public discrediting it deserves. Most of the sources remain all in (as am I), but the public was brought on board with the hockey stick: the IPCC (3rd), VP Gore's movie, and some credulous young people accept that as truth. Without it, much uncertainty is restored.

It occurs to me that anarchy books, like Randy Barnett';s Structure of Liberty [Review Corner] and Michael Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority [Review Corner] are the most powerful explanations of minarchist liberty. Even though I reject anarchy, their arguments against suffocating government are the most solid. I suggest that denier literature is also closer to my beliefs as a "lukewarmer." The bad science, the politicized science, has got to go before we can take serious appraisal of the risks and cost benefits.

Professor [Philip] Stott argues that ideologically-settled climate science is a form of "neo-colonialism" that will keep 1.6 billion people in the less developed world in lifelong poverty. Given what Big Climate is asking of us, there is a lot at stake.

Indeed there is. Five stars for Mr. Steyn. If you have a Kindle, at least get the sample.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

October 18, 2015

Review Corner

Today there is an implicit belief among technologists that big data traces its lineage to the silicon revolution. That simply is not so. Modern IT systems certainly make big data possible, but at its core the move to big data is a continuation of humankind's ancient quest to measure, record, and analyze the world.
Life is all about balance. I instituted a Review Corner hiatus to pursue a big project at work, yet here's a book I read for my project. I am truly livin' the dream.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and Kenneth Cukier's Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think is a worthy read for entertainment and general elucidation. it fits into my project and I believe I will open a chapter with one of its quotes.

It's actually more germane to my other work. If I may ruin by summarization -- and isn't that what "Review Corner" is about? -- it's about the switch from structured data and algorithms of understanding to purely statistical manipulation of this newly extant ocean of data. I worked for a startup for five years that looked to commercialize AI research. We were going to do Siri in limited domains, a dozen years ago.

The technologies we chose were real world modeling and natural language processing, and we partnered with leading implementers both in academia and the private sector. We ran out of Euros before we could be proven wrong, but we were wrong. To pick NLP, our partners -- and these were some bright folks -- were teaching grammar, syntax, and vocabulary to computers. I mean, how else are you going to do it?

Well, this little outfit named Google® came along. Google doesn't know its ass from an adverb, but with access to a billion sentences and millions of instances each day of users' use and preferences, it can guess the right word in any language. Likewise, real world modeling teaches the computer what a glass is: it has mass, it takes up space, it holds liquid when right side up, &c. Along comes Watson from IBM (another little start up...) and it does medicine and beats humans at Jeopardy without structure or understanding of anything.

Target stores discovered it could spot a pregnant customer by subtle changes in buying habits (unscented lotion -- I'll never buy it again or I'll pay cash). Dayton Corp even got into hot water by sending coupons to a teenager and angering Dad. Turns out, they were right if inappropriate. And could even the Walmart whizzes think of this one without looking?

In 2004 Walmart peered into its mammoth databases of past transactions: what item each customer bought and the total cost, what else was in the shopping basket, the time of day, even the weather. By doing so, the company noticed that prior to a hurricane, not only did sales of flashlights increase, but so did sales of Pop-Tarts, a sugary American breakfast snack. So as storms approached, Walmart stocked boxes of Pop-Tarts at the front of stores next to the hurricane supplies, to make life easier for customers dashing in and out-- and boosted its sales.

At the end the authors delve into privacy concerns and offer suggestions; this is the weakest part of the book (hint: rhymes with shore-shove-her--tent). But that's a small criticism against a book which is entertaining and applies directly to my work and industry.
The initial era of the computer revolution was computational, as the etymology of the word suggests. We used machines to do calculations that had taken a long time to do by previous methods: such as missile trajectory tables, censuses, and the weather. Only later came taking analog content and digitizing it. Hence when Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab published his landmark book in 1995 called Being Digital, one of his big themes was the shift from atoms to bits. We largely digitized text in the 1990s. More recently, as storage capacity, processing power, and bandwidth have increased, we’ve done it with other forms of content too, like images, video, and music.

Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:30 AM | Comments (3)
But johngalt thinks:

"The initial era of the computer revolution was computational..."

The present era is, then, observational? And Analytical?

This is good news, by the way. Your gang tried to create a sentient AI, but the AI that works today is the one that peeks over human shoulders and cheats to get the answers. At least, that's the conclusion I draw from this Review Corner.

Posted by: johngalt at October 19, 2015 11:37 AM
But nanobrewer thinks:

Let me hazard a guess: the current computer era is "relational"

@JK: what is NLP?

Posted by: nanobrewer at October 19, 2015 6:47 PM
But Jk thinks:

Natural Language Processing (NLP) -- edited for clarity, thanks.

Posted by: Jk at October 19, 2015 11:26 PM

October 11, 2015

Review Corner

Pythagoras also discovered, in the laws of stringed instruments, simple and surprising relationships between numbers and musical harmony. That discovery completes a trinity, Mind-Matter-Beauty, with Number as the linking thread. Heady stuff! It led Pythagoras to surmise that All Things Are Number. With these discoveries and speculations, our Question comes to life.
I can see a lot of ThreeSourcers' enjoying Frank Wilczek's A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design. If we start a book club, it would be a good assignment as everybody would enjoy it, but everyone would be offended by different parts.

Wilczek carefully avoids serious speculation on whether a supra-worldy intelligence underlies the cosmic design, but he ponders -- in depth -- whether the design is cohesive and possesses underlying beauty. He starts with Pythagoras and Platonic Solids and continues beyond Quantum Theory.

The Core Theory embodies beautiful ideas. The equations for atoms and light are, almost literally, the same equations that govern musical instruments and sound. A handful of elegant designs support Nature's exuberant construction, from simple building blocks, of the material world.

I think everyone should buy and begin this book, but warn that not everybody will finish it. There's no prerequisite knowledge, but as you get into the later chapters, you'll need either a basic background in Physics and Cosmology or immense patience layering unfamiliar concepts. Aficionados will find both new concepts and interesting connections to philosophy. The book also includes a "Terms of Art" section -- almost as long as the main book --with additional explanations and deeper considerations.

I'm less qualified to grade the philosophy, but the Nobel Laureate seems to have some serious chops there as well. Some people I know might object to his soft spot for the Platonic. He spends more time tethering beauty to Platonic mysticism than he does bringing quantum discontinuity into Aristotelian reality.

Why did Plato, in seeking ultimate truth, turn inward, away from the physical world? Part of the reason, no doubt, was that he loved his theories too much, and could not bring himself to contemplate their possible failure. That all-too-human attitude is still with us-- it is standard in politics, common in social sciences, and not unknown even in physics.

Yet he is an objective referee.
Mathematical astronomers responded to that challenge by putting the (hypothetical) circular paths of the planets into circular motion. That still didn't quite work, so they put the circles of motion of the circular paths of the planets into circular motion. . . . With enough of these cycles upon cycles, artfully arranged, it is possible to reproduce appearances. But in those complicated, manifestly artificial systems, the initial promise of purity and beauty was lost. One could have either beauty or truth, but not both at once.

Wilczek seeks both and has produced beautiful book. Nobody loves the Kindle more than Review Corner. But the friend who recommended this book recommended that I but the hardcover, both to access teh graphical content and to enjoy the large section of beautiful "Plates" where the author entwines classical art and modern physics. I, of course, ignored this directive but pass it along and underscore it.
Heinrich Hertz died in 1894, at the age of thirty-six. But before he died, he wrote this beautiful tribute to the Maxwell equations that gets to the heart of our Question
One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulae have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.

Five stars without question.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

October 7, 2015

O'Reilly's Killing Them

I will not use the phrase "killing it" because that has a powerfully positive connotation, and, as you'll see, this review isn't that positive.

I read Killing Lincoln after it arrived from my Mom's house. It's OK, it really is, but it suffers from two structural problems, neither of which are related to the bombastic persona for which the author is known. Full disclosure is that I don't much care for O'Reilly and never would have spent my own lucre on any of his books, but I figure this is worth noting for the abundance of his titles, and how there is some good, for some readers.

First, the good.
It does an excellent job of setting the historical atmosphere, much of which is probably unknown to the vast majority of our populace who nevertheless responds, when queried, that Lincoln is one of our finest presidents. The book describes without dwelling on the awful devastation and slowly churning demise of the attempt of the southern states to secede from the union; it fairly notes successful military and political leaders (and those who weren't). I also enjoyed the stories of generals, captains and majors leading the final campaign of the American Civil War (aka, the running down and finishing off of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia following their defeat at Petersburg) were friends, colleagues and/or family prior to the war. I loved the detail expended on Grant and Lee, their one meeting prior to Appomattox, and Grant's magnanimity towards Lee and his men.

The book also does an excellent job of relating how this president was not universally liked, even in the North, yet continued to walk about - even in just-conquered Richmond, VA - mostly without escort and how the White House was, as well-filmed in Spielberg's movie, a bit of a mad house with ordinary folks often wandering about.

So, the background is well set, and the detail on the conspiracy and actual killing of POTUS/16 is terrific. Booth gets, as befitting the story, top billing and thorough description for all his positive (charming, resourceful, strong leadership) and negative (tempestuousness, incontinence, massive hatred of Lincoln) attributes. It enjoyably switches - like modern movies - between Grant's large, and narrowly-won campaign to finish off the ANV (with marvelous detail), the minute movements and mood of Lincoln (with few odd extrapolations), and the feverish maneuvers of Booth and those whom he could draw upon, right down to where they went to quaff a few and which choices he had and would make for his final "exit, stage left."

The chase of Booth was well done, even noting the good and bad of "Lafayette C. Baker, a smart but shifty New York detective" (from the Amazon summary) who orchestrated the final capture. He relates without vectoring into the-conspiracy-within territory the curious actions and activities of the one high-cabinet member not targeted (odd, that) in the plot, War Secretary Stanton; and details in gruesome detail the assault on the elderly Secretary of State Seward.

Now, the bad.

1. It's clearly written for a "modern" audience, for which the assumption (sadly, probably quite accurate) is a short attention span and a thirst for salacious details. Chapters are short, sometimes only 2-3 pages, which I found off-putting, and the writing style quite simplistic. As such, it's solid reading for high school, but would hit somewhere between the belt and shins for TS'ers, IMO. Booth's affairs and conquests aren't deeply dwelt upon, and as his fiancee's contacts factor into the conspiracy, they were not merely thrown in for sex appeal.

2. The authors note in the forward that every historical fact was "meticulously researched and verified." So, while this is interesting and does add quite a bit of flavor (ex: only a few DC streets were even paved back then), it suffers a bit from what I call the overly-detailed syndrome, whereby deep details and the wide cast of characters begin to detract from the main narrative. The best example I have for this is the movie "The Tuskagee Airmen" which took an incredibly powerful story of grit, perseverance and bravery, as well as the admirable skills of a range of actors, and managed to mangle it all up into a disappointing damp kleenex-wad of new-age, touchy-feely dreck. Even the flying sequences sucked.... how can you mess up Mustangs vs. Messerschmidts? Still, for many the book's deep-detail and wide scope is probably a plus.

So, while it is billed as 'reading like a spy novel' I found it a fairly tepid, and slow-starting read which admittedly did have several moments that bordered on "thrilling." It is a solid historical effort which taught me more than a few things (who knew how many Booth had targeted? I didn't), and didn't waste a single word on new-age PC themes.

That all being said, a rating:

4 stars ... for high school students (tho' my daughters could handle it by middle school);
3.5 stars .... for family/friends of the low-information ilk who could use a dose of decent, gritty and non-PC history;
2.5 stars ... for me, my friends and other well-read freedom lovers.

Posted by nanobrewer at 12:13 PM | Comments (0)

August 16, 2015

Review Corner

To return to an earlier example: You have gone out for drinks with some colleagues and students, and one of the students has proposed that you pay for everybody's drinks. Over your protests, the other parties at the table vote to have you pay for the drinks. You tell them that you will not agree to do so. They then inform you that, if you do not pay, they intend to punish you by locking you in a room for some time and that they are prepared to take you by force. Apart from the fact that you need some new drinking partners, what can be said about this scenario?
That is a good taste of Michael Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. Heumer is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado (Go Buffs!) and was a recent speaker at Liberty on the Rocks -- Flatirons.

His speech covered some structural modifications to a constitution which he felt would limit transgressions better than we had seen. He presented some good and interesting ideas: require a supermajority to enact laws, replace the government agency supreme court with citizen jurors. Interesting, but Prof. Huemer was only play-acting the role of minarchist; his heart is in anarcho-capitalism.

Problems of Political Authority, true to its title, first questions consent of the governed. You did not sign the Constitution, nor did the indigenous peoples or Arizonans who woke up to be Americans one day. Without consent, Huemer makes a valid point that there is no intrinsic authority on which coercion is supported.

Where Randy Barnett [Review Corner] builds on natural rights, Huemer's foundation is obvious principles, like the opening quote -- and the book is filled with many such examples, making it accessible and enjoyable. If your neighbor cannot buy a gun and print a badge on his 3D printer and take on a governmental role, Huemer asks why we allow it from a State? In a nice riff, he describes the Colorado Capitol building:

The building is set on a hill so that visitors look up at the building as they approach and must climb a set of stairs to reach the door. The doors are much larger than a human being, and once inside, the visitor confronts vaulted ceilings three or four times higher than the typical human being. There are many buildings in Denver much larger than the capitol building but perhaps none that is so successful at making the visitor feel small. All of this emphasizes the power of the state and creates a disposition toward respectful submission on the part of the visitor.

I found the first section compelling and suggest that Huemer makes a perfect case for minarchy -- I'd say he gets full credit for discrediting John Rawls. As we will see, I'm not certain he effectively undercuts Robert Nozick, but who among us would disagree with the conclusion to part one?
No one has the right to coercively enforce counterproductive or useless policies nor to enforce policies aimed at goals of lesser import. The state may be entitled to collect taxes, to administer a system of police and courts to protect society from individual rights violators, and to provide military defense. In doing so, the state and its agents may take only the minimal funds and employ only the minimal coercion necessary. The state may not go on to coercively impose paternalistic or moralistic laws, policies motivated by rent seeking, or policies aimed at promoting unnecessary goods, such as support for the arts or a space program.

Well, except for Tang®

The following sections describe a society with private security and justice. and I don't think he differs wildly with Randy Barnett for his having chosen a different route. My HOA settled a multi-million construction defects lawsuit through arbitration -- and we hire private security to kick teenagers out of the pool on weekend nights. It's like I'm living in anarchist's utopia!

Why not build this out, allowing security and arbitration firms to flourish? The anarchists' best argument is why certain goods particularly do not benefit from the free market. My sister, who reliably votes Republican and makes a long drive frequently to hear speakers at Liberty on the Rocks (she was there to see Huemer) thinks the stores will sell bad meat in the USDA does not inspect. Roads are a famous enough libertarian argument to have become a tiresome cliché

Yet, I won't take the next step and trade our far-from-perfect justice system for Walmart* and Target. As a Constitutional Minarchist (my new label) I find the dream of a countrywide expectation of respect for my Bill-of-Rights rights worthy of all the valid concerns of empowering a state.

It is great to be forced to defend the right flank as it were. Working in Boulder, one must always remind coworkers that the world would not stop with a small reduction of government -- hell even Big Bird has moved to HBO! Philosophically defending the other side is a worthy exercise. I doubt it is to the level of a Barnett or Huemer, but I will give it a go:

"Justice is a good candidate for public good because true, absolute protection of individual rights is not popular. One can build roads where users will pay the tolls to go, release Nickelback CDs to adoring fans and in my world enforce the 9th and 10th Amendments absolutely.

"But the 1st through 8th amendments are not popular enough to be provided by the market. I look at the free speech cases like Snyder v. Phelps and I look at removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the General Lee in 'Dukes of Hazard.' I cannot imagine an empowered polity ever allowing the Westburo Baptist Chuch, or Illinois Nazis (man, I hate Illinois Nazis!) to have speech rights.

Go down the list. I do not trust Target or Starbucks or Disney to allow an absolute right to firearms. I don't trust the private or public security apparatuses to honor 4th Amendment protections without a layer on top to which one can appeal."

What about authority? That is harder to square. But real estate for societies/nations is a scarce resource. Maybe we'll build some Heinleinian colonies in space, but for now everyone enters this world saddled with the geography of their birthplace. That does not confer authority to garnish my wages to find "Cash for Clunkers," but you may fund the courts and a military that operates within Constitutional limits. And I am rather glad (as Huemer is not too blinkered to admit) that I won something of a governance lottery being born in Denver and not, say, Caracas.

On foreign policy, I have to trot out Deepak Lal. Huemer -- and he is not overly ambitious or too guilty of overstatement -- describes a safe rights-respecting society among democratic nation states, and a Ron Paul-esque devotion to defense and not imperialism. But I read it and think "that would work well as long as there were a United States." He gives the example of Costa Rica which dissolved its military in 1948. But if the US and UK are not extant to uphold Lal's Liberal International Economic Order, I envision a less prosperous world -- and that is the best case.

I'll close with one unsubstantive disagreement with Prof Huemer about Inauguration day. His version:

Immediately after the oath, the Chief Justice addresses the new president as "Mr. President". The oath is followed by a speech and a parade. What function does this ritual serve? On the surface, the function is to ensure that the new president will serve faithfully and preserve the Constitution. But this is a very weak method of attempting to ensure that outcome. If a president has it in mind to serve "unfaithfully" or to violate the Constitution, it is unlikely that his memory of having promised not to do so will be the force that stays him. The swearing-in ceremony is mostly for emotional effect. It is like a magic spell that confers power and authority on the new president so that, just as he completes the words of the oath, the person is converted into a president.

Mine: "The oath is historical and is dictated in the Constitution. The power is not in the Oath but there is much power in the spectacle of the peaceful transfer of power on January 20 every four years as dictated in the constitution to the winner of the electoral college."

For governance is a difficult endeavor. I agree with Huemer that our government should do far less of it. But instituting one among men, for the purpose of protecting out birthright liberty is a worthy one.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:26 AM | Comments (0)

August 9, 2015

Review Corner

To the accepted Christian tradition that man must be free to follow his conscience in moral matters if his actions are to be of any merit, the economists added the further argument that he should be free to make full use of his knowledge and skill, that he must be allowed to be guided by his concern for the particular things of which he knows and for which he cares, if he is to make as great a contribution to the common purposes of society as he is capable of making.
I gave deservedly high marks to Don Boudreaux's The Essential Hayek [Review Corner], but sometimes one must dive into Hayek. All but his most academic work is very accessible -- it's nothing you can't make it through. But there's a dryness to Hayek's prose even as his ideas grab you. Mises sings and Friedman pulls at the heart; Hayek interests.

Unkind words from a self-described Hayekian. All the same, the extra reading section of Ruiss Roberts's Invisible Heart [Review Corner] recommended his Individualism and Economic Order, which I had never encountered. "Oh Amazon, make this 1989 collection of his older essays magically appear on a small handheld device in my home! Thanks, Amazon!"

The twelve Chapters include essays, articles and speeches from across his career. but many are from the early days of the New Deal when consolidation, control, and Keynesianism were dominant. This lone academic, nevertheless, was correct.

What individualism teaches us is that society is greater than the individual only in so far as it is free. In so far as it is controlled or directed, it is limited to the powers of the individual minds which control or direct it. If the presumption of the modern mind, which will not respect anything that is not consciously controlled by individual reason, does not learn in time where to stop, we may, as Edmund Burke warned us, "be well assured that everything about us will dwindle by degrees, until at length our concerns are shrunk to the dimensions of our minds."

His preface points out that "the essays collected in this volume may at first appear to be concerned with a great variety of topics, I hope that the reader will soon discover that most of them treat of closely connected problems. While they range from discussions of moral philosophy to the methods of the social sciences and from problems of economic policy to pure economic theory, these questions are treated in most of the essays as different aspects of the same central issue." And with Hayek the central issue is the physical and moral limitations of top-down planning against free competition. Hayek applies it across many social and economic lines.

ThreeSourcers would find much to like about this book and little to question. Randians will like a swipe at Comte, Austrians will of course dig his monetary policy (he suggests pegging the currency to a basket of commodities: $1000 is some gold, some silver some wheat, some pork bellies, some tin). But all will appreciate his focus on competition and individualism.

Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions need not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

The Austrian School is so closely associated with monetary policy, but at its heart, it is the importance of time in decision making -- opening, expanding, or closing a business is always a bet on the future. And any arbitrariness in the currency, trade, or regulation is distortive.
Whether it is economical to run a machine hard and to neglect maintenance, whether to make major adjustments to a given change in demand or to carry on as well as possible with the existing organization-- in fact, almost every decision on how to produce-- now depends at least in part on the views held about the future. But, while the manager clearly must hold some views on these questions, he can hardly be held responsible for anticipating future changes correctly if these changes depend entirely on the decision of the authority.

He explains why central planning will not work just as his adopted nation takes it up. He decries corporatism and currency uncertainty, again, as the experiments begin. The planners were so certain that the economy was just a giant set of matrices to solve with a little linear algebra and perhaps some of those futuristic computin' machines. But Hayek puts "exist" in quotes when discussing knowledge. We all solve problems at work every day, creating knowledge on the fly -- you cannot collect something that exists only in scare quotes.

The funnest summer book? Not so much. But a great look at the beating heart of the free market economy we love so much. And an I-told-you-so to the New Dealers (probably why it was published in 1989). Five stars.

But what to the politicians are fixed limits of practicability imposed by public opinion must not be similar limits to us. Public opinion on these matters is the work of men like ourselves, the economists and political philosophers of the past few generations, who have created the political climate in which the politicians of our time must move. I do not find myself often agreeing with the late Lord Keynes, but he has never said a truer thing than when he wrote, on a subject on which his own experience has singularly qualified him to speak, that “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

August 2, 2015

Review Corner

In his 2013 book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, technologist Ramez Naam asks an intriguing question: "Would your life be better off if only half as many people had lived before you?" In this thought experiment, you don't get to pick which people are never born. Perhaps there would have been no Newton, Edison, or Pasteur, no Socrates, Shakespeare, or Jefferson. "Each additional idea is a gift to the future," Naam writes. "Each additional idea producer is a source of wealth for future generations." Fewer people mean fewer new ideas about how to improve humanity's lot.

Instead of disdaining fellow human beings as a cancer or a plague, as modern neo-Malthusians do, Naam rightly argues, "If we fix our economic system and invest in the human capital of the poor, then we should welcome every new person born as [a] source of betterment for our world and all of us on it."

Ronald Bailey is the Science Editor of the libertarian-leaning Reason Magazine, or as Penn Jillette says "leaning? it done fell over!" He adds an excellent work to the corpus of optimistic, anti-junk science, pro-liberty economic science books ("Aisle 12 sir, right between Astrology and Lawnmower Repair...") The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century carries the torch forward in a readable but data-heavy volume.
When I presented my book proposal [for his first book] to my editor, Thomas Dunne, at St. Martin's Press back in 1992, he actually told me: "Ron, we'll publish your book and we'll both make some money. But I want to tell you that if you'd brought me a book predicting the end of the world, I could have made you a rich man." Human beings do have a psychological bias toward believing bad news and discounting good news. But besides that, the sciences surrounding environmental issues have been politicized from top to bottom.

Bailey un-politicizes it. I cheer along to his total destruction of Malthusian environmental pessimism "Neo-Malthusians like the Ehrlichs, Pimentel, and Emmott cannot let go of the simple but clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction." I swoon to his defense of GMOs and nooculur power. I nod nervously at his acceptance of anthropogenic global warming
I have been reporting on climate change for a quarter of a century. I covered the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated. I have since reported from ten of the United Nations annual Climate Change conferences. The anecdote at the beginning of this chapter reveals that after years of reporting on the subject, attending scientific conferences, talking with scientists, and extensively reading the research literature, I have concluded that the balance of the evidence indicates that climate change could become a significant problem for humanity as the twenty-first century unfolds.

Bailey doesn't use the term "lukewarmer" and he is not as sanguine as Matt Ridley. I'd put him closer to the Bjorn Lomborg camp -- he thinks it is potentially serious, but he's not coming after your light bulbs. Or putting the UN in charge of the World Economy.

Unsurprisingly for a Reason dude, his inclination is toward liberty. He is more concerned than I, but equally confident that our future smarter, wealthier selves will be able to deal with it. He makes a devastatingly good point which I would turn on the VP Gores of the world:

In [Yale's William Nordhaus's economic] scenarios sketched out above, a 2 percent loss of income would mean that the $ 60,000 and $ 138,000 per capita income averages would fall to $ 58,800 and $ 135,240, respectively. Stern's more apocalyptic estimate would cut 2100 per capita incomes to $ 48,000 and $ 110,400, respectively. How much should people living now on incomes averaging $ 10,000 per year spend to make sure that people whose incomes will likely be 6 to 14 times higher aren't reduced by a couple of percentage points?

We don't ask peasant farmers in Namibia to "do without" so we can have nicer things (well Greepeace does, but we shouldn't...) Why do we ask the people of 2015 to do without to enrich the much wealthier inhabitants of 2100?

The only change Bailey proposes for present Earthers is to develop more nuclear power so that we may fuel economic growth without adding carbon to the atmosphere or additional acidification to the oceans.

I spent more time on the section that might be the least favorite of ThreeSourcers, but I would not chase anyone away. It's complementary to a lukewarmer and I'd suggest acceptable even to a knuckle-draggin' denier. The bulk of the book is an optimistic vision of a better world with freedom and technology, and a convincing case to not allow the luddites and fear-mongers to take it away.

What about the Brundtland report criterion? There is only one proven way to improve the lot of hundreds of millions of poor people, and that is democratic capitalism. It is in rich democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women's rights respected. Whatever slows down economic growth also slows down environmental improvement. By vastly increasing knowledge and pursuing technological progress, past generations met their needs and vastly increased the ability of our generation to meet our needs. We should do no less for future generations.

Top-down bureaucratization of the sort favored by many environmental activists moves societies back in the direction of natural states in which monopolies are secured and run by elites. Innovation would thus stall and the ability of people and societies to adapt rapidly to changing conditions, economic and ecological, via free markets and democratic politics would falter.

Five Stars.

UPDATE: If you like your Review Corner by video, Nick Gillespie interviews Bailey

UPDATE II : And a lengthy but enjoyable CATO roundtable.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:26 PM | Comments (0)

July 26, 2015

Review Corner

While we sometimes express ourselves poorly, ours is not a worldview that sees poor people as liabilities to be managed. Conservatives fundamentally view poor people as dormant assets to be enlivened. The poor are not a burden on society in need only of charity. They are an untapped source of strength and growth, so long as we have the optimism and confidence to help them as they build their lives. Charity is important, but what poor men and women really need is investment.
AEI Chief Arthur Brooks's The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America is a healthy dose of conservatism. If America lacks a big-C Conservative party, it is no fault of Brooks.

But first a digression: blog friend SC sent a link to Kristen Bell's Mary Poppins paean to an increased minimum wage. It looked familiar and I found this link. One year ago tomorrow we asked the age old question: how do we counter the collectivist left's visceral, intuitive appeal to emotion with a 90-minute disquisition on some economist who died 150 years ago?

Brooks has an answer. I don't know if it is the answer, but an answer. In Conservative Heart, he develops and presents it. We're the folks who actually care.

Here's what a truly uncompassionate worldview would look like: It would throw in the towel on people and whole communities. It would lazily presume that a certain segment of the population simply can’t make it, that they require an unending stream of unsatisfying government support to grind along at subsistence levels. A movement built on free enterprise, real hope, and earned success sees right through this lazy nihilism-- and rejects it.

He opens with a few chapters of redemption through work and trade. Truly tear-worthy tales of gang-bangers in New York City picking up trash and monstrously poor Indian (sub-continent, not Tonto) villagers sorting used plastic toothbrushes for recycling. Thaddeus Russell [Review Corner] speaks compellingly against it, but a little Calvinist appreciation for work has always animated me. Brooks wants to offer the dignity of work and achievement, giving all Americans the shot Dallas Davis found, entering into the (private, and revenue-generating) "Men in Blue" Doe Fund program after release from prison.
That winter, New York was hit by a huge snowstorm that paralyzed the city. While most were huddled in their homes, Dallas and his fellow Men in Blue ventured out into the frozen city. They swapped their brooms for shovels and started clearing the streets. Dallas could not believe how far he had come. "We were out there making paths for the elderly, for the children, for people to get to work. Here we were, people who had slept in the garbage, in train stations, under bridges-- those who society once thought couldn't accomplish anything. We were the ones bringing the city back to life."

Those big moments started piling up. He had always put on a macho facade, but as he held the first paycheck of his entire life in his hands, Dallas began to cry. The Doe Fund pays more than the minimum wage, but the amount on the check was not what moved Dallas to tears. It was what the check represented. "Someone really believed I could do something-- and that it was worth paying me to do it." That had never happened to him before.
Economics are just a small part of this, but the data are well worth looking at. Since its founding, the Doe Fund’s social enterprises have generated more than $ 750 million in revenue. That’s nearly a billion dollars in "dead capital" brought to life by a bunch of homeless men because one couple saw them as assets to empower and not liabilities to manage.

That's the free market view. A person as a resource. Capital. The soi disant compassionate?
One of my colleagues tells an instructive story. One afternoon, as he toiled at his PhD dissertation in a top university's poverty research center, an actual poor person walked in. He had seen the signs on the building and thought they could do something to help him. The expert researchers had no idea what to do. Their instinct was to call security.

It's powerful stuff. It's well written. It presents a very shareable, kind worldview. Brooks sees it as a platform free market folks could get behind and ride to electoral victory. And, to be fair, if Brooks ran the world, it would be a pretty good world and I'd be happy (AEI scholar Jonah Goldberg could be vice-dictator). But we cannot ignore the philosophical disparity between Brooks and the prevailing winds at ThreeSources.

He distances himself from "Compassionate Conservatism," but he does not hold up the crucifix to keep it contained in the corner. As a devout Catholic, he has one. He embraces the safety net and makes a strong case for limiting outside nonsense to ensure we can keep it solvent. He invokes some heroes in its defense:

Hayek and Reagan recognized the moral truth that a real social safety net is one of the great achievements of our free market system. Free enterprise has made America so prosperous that, as a society, we can afford to take care of our brothers and sisters who simply cannot take care of themselves-- and to provide temporary help to those who are down on their luck and need a hand up. Hayek and Reagan also easily distinguished between "some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing"-- a core safety net for the truly indigent-- and the sprawling, rent-seeking tangle that is today’s welfare state. This is why the right must champion a true, sustainable safety net while condemning an ever-expanding system for redistributing income more broadly and establishing greater state control over the economy.

Here we start to see problems. I hear Yaron Brook's Israeli accent as I read this. I like the safety net too. But once you accept it, how do you say no to "Obamaphones?" I entertain no illusions of rolling back the safety net to private concerns, so I spend little time even deciding if that's something I would truly support. But I'm not being outlandish and doctrinaire to suggest that Brooks is a little too accepting. He denies "Compassionate Conservatism" but I hear strains of President Bush's "When people are hurting, government has to step in to help."
Our nation has a great deal of need that goes unmet. This is only exacerbated by years of misguided policies and a materialistic culture. The social justice agenda outlined above can restart us on a path toward our best selves and toward our privilege to help the vulnerable.

Yes, did I mention he wants to coopt the term "Social Justice?" He might be right, but it fills me with dread.

It's a superb neocon manifesto. And I don't use the modifier as drippingly condescending as some others 'round these parts. If we had to all get behind one big idea to win, this one would not be bad. Not my first choice, but compared to Sec. Clinton's proposed changes to capital gains rates -- I like it a lot.

Philosophical questions for a dozen nights out with ThreeSourcers. But a superbly written and thoughtful book of ideas and tactics that would benefit any body on the right. Four and a half stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:03 AM | Comments (0)

July 19, 2015

Review Corner

Anybody see the movie The Jane Austen Book Club? It's pretty good and it has a Buffy alumnus in Marc Blucas (Riley). That's okay, nobody in The Adam Smith Book Club had seen it either -- yet I was amused in limning out a screenplay...

I don't want to out anybody, but the three handsome fellas pictured below met almost every week for six months to discuss another section of Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). The others had recently completed Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, I was late to the party.


I thank them both for their time and keen insights. As Blog Brother Bryan points out, Smith leaves an outline for 240 years of economic study. Future economists develop and detail specific concepts, but it is startling how frequently the general idea was written by Smith in the Eighteenth Century. One idea that is wholly attributed to Smith is Division of Labor.

In a tribe of hunters or shepherds, a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison, with his companions; and he finds at last that he can, in this manner, get more cattle and venison, than if he himself went to the field to catch them.

The good Scottish Professor comes incredibly close to usurping David Ricardo and capturing comparative advantage as well. But he has -- and opens the book with -- the wealth producing effects of trade and the importance of a larger economic sphere. Even though it was more difficult in his time:
There could be little or no commerce of any kind between the distant parts of the world. What goods could bear the expense of land-carriage between London and Calcutta? Or if there were any so precious as to be able to support this expense, with what safety could they be transported through the territories of so many barbarous nations?

(Deepak Lal, call your office!)

His most famous contribution is "the invisible hand," an ancestor of Hayekian spontaneous order. This actually appears in his first book "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," but this famous line has made Smith many political friends and enemies over the years:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.

Russ Roberts's "Invisible Heart" [Review Corner] uses this when Sam asks Laura whether she called ahead to order her bagel.
"Do you ever go to sleep worrying that the bakers of the city won't make enough bagels for tomorrow? Never! But why not? Some mornings, you only buy one. Some mornings a dozen. Some mornings you don't buy any. Some mornings you buy three dozen because you're throwing a brunch. Isn't it amazing that all over the city, tomorrow, there will be plenty of bagels? You and your fellow bagel lovers don't have to make reservations. You just show up and there they are. Isn't it wondrous?"

If Smith is beloved to economists, he is in even higher esteem held by lovers of liberty. He speaks of natural liberty, rails against crony capitalism, specifies the proper means of funding government (the Sovereign) and the proper purposes of the Sovereign. The purpose of the book is thought to lobby against mercantilism and trade restrictions. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1840.
The laws concerning corn may everywhere be compared to the laws concerning religion. The people feel themselves so much interested in what relates either to their subsistence in this life, or to their happiness in a life to come, that government must yield to their prejudices, and, in order to preserve the public tranquillity, establish that system which they approve of.

Deepak Lal considers this to be the beginning of explosive growth during Pax Britannica. This is 64 years after publication, but we understand the persistence of agricultural subsidies -- hell I hope we can kill the ethanol mandate before 2079; I'd call that a win. Restrictions to trade are always and everywhere to be viewed with suspicion:
But, perhaps, no country has ever yet arrived at this degree of opulence. China seems to have been long stationary, and had, probably, long ago acquired that full complement of riches which is consistent with the nature of its laws and institutions. But this complement may be much inferior to what, with other laws and institutions, the nature of its soil, climate, and situation, might admit of. A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce, and which admits the vessel of foreign nations into one or two of its ports only, cannot transact the same quantity of business which it might do with different laws and institutions.

I'll share another keen insight from the group: Smith has never travelled to China (or Indostan, or Santo Domingo); he does not have Google or even BBC documentaries. Yet, he has a keen knowledge of history, customs, and laws of many places and their application to economics. No meeting completed without a unanimous declaration of Smith's prescience and broad knowledge.
It is not more than fifty years ago, that some of the counties in the neighbourhood of London petitioned the parliament against the extension of the turnpike roads into the remoter counties. Those remoter counties, they pretended, from the cheapness of labour, would be able to sell their grass and corn cheaper in the London market than themselves, and would thereby reduce their rents, and ruin their cultivation. Their rents, however, have risen, and their cultivation has been improved since that time.

Always against the protectionists, always against that which limits or subsidizes trade, always against the protection of the powerful from competition. And yet, he is not doctrinaire or even remotely radical -- he took a position as a tax collector at a Customs House. His suggestions are deeply pragmatic, yet "natural liberty" keeps shining through.
If a nation could not prosper without the enjoyment of perfect liberty and perfect justice, there is not in the world a nation which could ever have prospered.

He also offers a pragmatic and wholly economic case against slavery. Though one senses the moral philosopher found the practice abhorrent, it is a waste of resources to incentivize men so poorly.
Slaves, however, are very seldom inventive; and all the most important improvements, either in machinery, or in the arrangement and distribution of work, which facilitate and abridge labour have been the discoveries of freemen. Should a slave propose any improvement of this kind, his master would be very apt to consider the proposal as the suggestion of laziness, and of a desire to save his own labour at the master's expense. The poor slave, instead of reward would probably meet with much abuse, perhaps with some punishment.

I finished the book on July 4. Smith is excited about the future of the Colonies in America.
Such has hitherto been the rapid progress of that country in wealth, population, and improvement, that in the course of little more than a century, perhaps, the produce of the American might exceed that of the British taxation.

Yet, he refers to "the present difficulties" a few times and ends with a message which perhaps better captures our Independence than glorious military conquest:
"If the project cannot be completed, it ought to be given up. If any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expense of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishment in time of peace;"

Scottish for "screw them."

It is a great book. People make sport of its length. And he goes into "digressions" sometimes which can be pretty turgid. But the prose is actually very readable and he is not without wit. I actually have read it twice. I took an online economics course which assigned a few sections, but I thought I would read the whole thing. I confess I did not get much out of the first run. Lacking a background in economic concepts, I grasped the liberty bits but failed to appreciate the contribution to economics -- or grasp a lot of his contributions.

The group was a huge benefit as well -- sharing favorite sections and quotes. but also being able to clarify some unfamiliar 18th Century language and concepts. Five stars of course. I'm not going on record giving WoN any less. Matt Ridley tells Russ Roberts in a podcast that he considers it a gift to the world on the order of Darwin's Origin of Species and the he "wanted to go back to every professor he's ever had and ask 'why didn't you tell me about this?'"

UPDATE: Lawrence Reed has a nice post on WoN today.

The ideas of Adam Smith exerted enormous influence before he died in 1790 and especially in the 19th century. America's Founders were greatly affected by his insights. The Wealth of Nations became required reading among men and women of ideas the world over.

A tribute to him more than any other individual, the world in 1900 was much freer and more prosperous than anyone imagined in 1776. The march of free trade and globalization in our own time is further testimony to the enduring legacy of Adam Smith. A think tank in Britain bears his name and seeks to make that legacy better known.

Ideas really do matter. They can change the world. Adam Smith proved that in spades, and we are all immeasurably better off because of the ideas he shattered and the ones he set in motion.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:39 AM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2015

Review Corner

"You're the only guy I know who can make misery sound inspiring."

"Capitalism involves struggle, but it has an invisible heart beating at its core that transforms people's lives. If you give it the chance. Look at the full picture and you get a very different perspective."

Russ Roberts got a nice, five star review last fall for his superb How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. Looking for his latest EconTalk with Matt Ridley, I see Bing® returns seven pages if you search russ roberts site:threesources.com. There were two, but I just recently discovered the older one in which he interviewed Ridley after the release of The Rational Optimist [Review Corner]. Listening (as everybody should) I heard Lord Ridley mention The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance . I snapped it up on Kindle.

Invisible Heart was released in 2002 (they had books back then?) and is more on the lines of his "The Price of Everything." Economic concepts are woven into a fictional story, where freedom lovers seek romance as they edify potential love interests (my tears are welling up as I type...) Both "Price" and "Heart" are very enjoyable reads -- with very good economic ideas.

Invisible Heart is set in a tony Washington DC prep school. Protagonist Sam Gordon teaches economics; Literature teacher, Laura Silver, comes from a lefty family of lawyers and consumer advocates. Does this thing have a chance? [No spoilers here...] Yet as she eavesdrops on his class she begins to be exposed to different concepts.

"One hundred years ago," he continued, "over forty percent of the American labor force was in farming. Now it's less than three percent. Imagine a heart-rending television show about the kids at the turn of the century being driven off the farm by technology that improved farm productivity. Do you think those kids and their children today are glad that we let that happen? Imagine how impoverished our lives would be today if we had decided to stop changes in farming out of 'compassion.'"

I am making it seem more heavy handed than it is -- there are some very surprising plot twists as they explore capitalism's benefits and shortcomings in the shadow of closing factories and televised congressional hearings of a greedy CEO. Yet, instead of insipid collectivism, the dialog has things ThreeSourcers might actually say.
"I thought you liked private charity, Sam." "I do. And I think it's lovely when wealthy people give their wealth away. There's nothing wrong with the concept of 'giving something.' It's the extra word 'back' that drives me nuts. It implies that the wealth was stolen, that it once belonged to the community and should be returned.

At the end of the book, there is an extra reading assignment for each chapter (Not Sure Jayne Ann Krentz does this) directing readers to Bastiat, Hayek, Adam Smith. I discovered a Hayek book I hadn't encountered.

Fun stuff. Five stars without question. To be honest, I would recommend the newer "The Price of Everything" above this one. But reading either, you'd soon want the other.

"That surprises me, Sam. Here we are [at the Jefferson Memorial] in the heart of government power, looking at its religious monuments. I thought you were the great skeptic of government power." "True. But I love America. It's still the place of possibility, the best place to dream of what might be. And that's because of a deeply held conviction many Americans have in the power of being left to one's own devices. The power of liberty to unleash the human spirit and let it soar."

Posted by John Kranz at 1:32 PM | Comments (8)
But jk thinks:

And to clarify my fuzzy prose and missing antecedents: This review is for Invisible Heart. The How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life review mentions surprise that there is no extant Review Corner for "The Price of Everything." ©2008. that may have preceded Review Corner but I have mentioned it a few times and it is very good.

Posted by: jk at July 13, 2015 9:36 AM
But johngalt thinks:

It took me a while to ascertain that you were quoting from a FICTIONAL work. But we certainly could have written what you attributed to us!

You have my permission as well, although I think the author attribution reads better with the single syllable name in the last position. ;)

Posted by: johngalt at July 14, 2015 2:53 PM
But Keith Arnold thinks:

Don't think of it as fictional; think of it as something from a few years in the future in an alterate timeline. There's at least one more collaboration as a follow-up volume: "Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Reagan, and Renard: Five Great Presidents" that will need to be published.

As for the name order... there's a certain cadence to what you say. Kander and Ebb, Rogers and Hart, you know. I will take that under advisement, or perhaps leave you two to thumb-wrestle for it...

Posted by: Keith Arnold at July 14, 2015 5:13 PM
But jk thinks:

The bio blurb on my next CD will read "He has been compared to Lorenz Hart." (I may not mention that it was for syllabic paucity.)

Posted by: jk at July 14, 2015 5:27 PM
But johngalt thinks:

What does he want from us JK? What's with the flattery festival? ;)

Would I be getting too far out in front of future history to say, "Make room for me on Mount Rushmore?"

Posted by: johngalt at July 14, 2015 5:39 PM
But jk thinks:

I've never been circumspect of flattery -- it's one of my endearing qualities.

Posted by: jk at July 14, 2015 5:59 PM

July 5, 2015

Review Corner

Market prices, as we'll see in the next section, guide each of us to act as if we know about-- and as if we care about-- the preferences and well-being of millions of strangers.
ThreeSourcers with a low utility for economics books are in luck today. Don Boudreaux's The Essential Hayek is free on Kindle today. I think I paid 0.99.

What is more, this is not some dusty 920 page tome that will demand a year of your life. Boudreaux takes ten important concepts from FA Hayek and presents them with very accessible commentary in ten short chapters. You can read it while you pretend to watch the big soccer game this evening.

Boudreaux is a favorite of mine (blog brother Bryan sent me a photo of his office door when visiting George Mason University) and he does a great job selecting topics and explaining Hayekian insights. Hayek contributes so substantively to liberty theory, but his style is not pithy and much of his work was targeted at academics. Yet so much of ingrained belief around here is presented forcefully by Hayek: the power of freedom in markets, the dangers of centralization and coercion, and the fundamental power of ideas:

Marx, of course, was a man of the political left. Stigler was a man of the political right. Yet according to both Marx and Stigler, ideas are determined; ideas do not determine. Marx and Stigler each was driven by the idea that nothing as intangible, as subjective, as unobservable, and as unquantifiable as mere ideas could play a significant role in driving a society.
If George Stigler were correct that government policies are driven only by special-interest groups-- and therefore that the ideas that people have about the "rightness" or "wrongness" of policies are irrelevant-- then governments wouldn't bother to portray farm subsidies and the creation of other special-interest-group privileges as being in the public interest. The very dishonesty and duplicity that is so common in the pronouncements of all governments, today and in the past, testify to the power of ideas.

There can be no doubt that ideas have consequences.

Boudreaux pulls off a nice analogy to refute the demand-side arguments of Keynes and Sec Robert Reich.
If you have all of the parts of, say, an automobile scattered randomly about a large room, the main reason you do not have a functioning car is not that you do not want, or that you fail to "demand," such a car. Instead, the chief reason you have no functioning car is that those parts aren't fitted together in ways that allow them all to operate smoothly.

What puts the car together? Prices. Yes some people will be hurt. But every price support, tariff, and top-down control mechanism delays the assembly of the functioning vehicle.
It is regrettable that the process of unwinding unsustainable investments takes time. But lasting economic health requires that such unwinding occurs. Unfortunately, during the time required to unwind the unsustainable investments there is indeed a great deal of economic suffering. And, understandably, there are many appeals to political authorities to ease the suffering. As we'll see in the next chapter, political authorities too often respond to these appeals with policies that only mask and worsen the problem.

It's easy to think that Hayek is telling the injured party to eat cake or hear "sucks to be you" in his Austrian accent. But reading the whole short book provides an appreciation for the equality and opportunity provided by free markets.
As Hayek himself understood, however, the case for freedom and free markets must continually be rejuvenated and made again and again and again. The project is never completed, as more recent political developments in Britain and the United States attest. Opposing ideas-- those of collectivism of one form or another-- are always being generated, refined, and spread. Failure by classical liberals and other defenders of a society based on free markets and strictly limited government to counter these collectivist ideas will guarantee the victory of collectivism.

Five stars. C'mon, it's not like you're going to miss many goals or anything.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:31 AM | Comments (2)
But Don Boudreaux thinks:

Thanks so much for this kind and excellent plug!

Posted by: Don Boudreaux at July 6, 2015 3:40 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Let's make that, "...will guarantee the [temporary] victory of collectivism." Until the unsustainable redistributive "investments" unwind and the concomitant great deal of economic suffering is endured.

So you (and Don) make a case for freedom and free markets but that's even more "cruel and heartless" than telling them to eat cake. You're telling them, "eat cake you've made yourself."

I'm sorry, but there's no getting around the idea that freedom requires a continual exercise of the "Hard America" principle - the tough love of a father who says, "No." Ask the ant about his experience with the grasshopper. Ask the Germans about their experience with the Greeks.

If you think "compassionate conservatism" means "you can have guns AND butter" you're doing it wrong.

Posted by: johngalt at July 7, 2015 3:07 PM

June 21, 2015


Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power.
Those without a background in Catholicism may not catch the gravity of that. Mary is highly revered in Catholic Doctrine and many -- especially "Old World" Catholics choose her for a personal relationship in prayer, sharing their sorrows with the Mother who understands loss. Rhetorically, Pope Francis is "launching nukes" with that statement: we with the air-conditioning are equivalent to those who crucified Jesus.

I read Laudato Si' [Kindle version] [HTML] cover to cover. It is short but grating on a person who has any belief in liberty or human achievement or individualism. I will endeavor to keep this respectful as I truly feel for church members who appreciate liberty. I mentioned the WSJ Editorial Board and know we've at least a couple who read these pages.

When Pope Francis made casual remarks about Marxism and when an early version of Laudato Si' was leaked, I was cautioned to not accept the "Mainstream Media" version. There was much nuance and they had an agenda. Having watched their treatment of Gov. Palin, I deferred judgment. But I found no mitigating text -- and several outrageous, completely over the top, contrary examples. This is 187 pages of 1970's Paul Ehrlich environmentalism seasoned with Marxist economics.

We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that "less is more". A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment.

That can be thought to be religious asceticism (of which Catholics are enthusiastic), but in the context of this document it is "observe limits," and "don't take too much."
In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth. Benedict XVI has said that "technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency".[135]

Preaching to the ThreeSources choir, I needn't rebut; our mad consumerism has lifted billions out of poverty -- the bulk of those remaining are precluded from engaging on trade by tyrannical government. But the Pope has the authority of . . . another Pope!

There is much commentary on the encyclical: most better than mine, very little not critical. But I wish to plant my flag here. There are 172 footnotes, giving the paper an academic feel. Francis is from the Jesuit order and their order produces the intellectual spine of the church. I learn from Facebook memes that Pope Francis has a Masters degree in Chemistry.

But it is all self referential. The footnotes refer to other Papal pronouncements or "PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE" or "BOLIVIAN BISHOPS' CONFERENCE," or "PARAGUAYAN BISHOPS' CONFERENCE" (African, Mexican, &c.) I read a couple of academic theology books last year and was struck by the same disappointment. They quoted religious sources, but included leftist academics to give it secular balance.

I don't expect the Pope or a Theology professor to quote Ayn Rand. But I'd love to feel that they have perhaps encountered Hayek or Mises or Milton Friedman. Hell, a John Locke or Mary Wollstonecraft reference would give me comfort. But, no, these people read others who think just like them. Several of the footnotes in Laudato Si' are to other works of Pope Francis. That would not be a flaw if the other references displayed wider thought.

I looked for a few quotes I could support -- not because I am so wonderfully fair, but that is my style of disagreement. All I can muster is that I see where is coming from on occasion, even if he is completely wrong. Let's stipulate the swellness of St. Francis and a true appreciation for the wonder of the world we inhabit. There is literally nothing in here that would help preserve it.

We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that "not one of them is forgotten before God" (Lk 12:6). How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?

You may, if you chose, read that as a suggestion to use more fossil fuel and less wind power, because the former is kinder to the Avian co-members of creation -- but I'd suggest you're being wildly optimistic.

The words I've heard from others: pessimistic, misanthropic sound harsh until you plow through a few pages. This has the joy and celebration of human advancement of President Carter's "malaise speech." In fact:

A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment.

One star. And the title? Look it up!
"If you paid for this epub you were wronged and should demand the return of your money. This is a document by the Holy Father Pope Francis belonging to the Catholic Church and intended for free, unlimited public consumption."


Posted by John Kranz at 9:24 AM | Comments (6)
But johngalt thinks:

I don't find laudito si (or the correctly spelled laudato si) anywhere on the page of Latin profanity. I did find this which cites the meaning "praise be to you."

I for one am pleased that you undertook this thoughtful, respectful, and sympathetic analysis of the complete text of what I call, the Communist Manifesto Encyclical. And what I find most notable about it is the remarkable similarity between your conclusion and mine. [First comment. Both comments, actually, come to think of it.]

Heh. The comment password du jour for today? Faith.

Posted by: johngalt at June 22, 2015 2:28 PM
But jk thinks:

*Ahem* You were supposed to look up "Perfututum" if needed.

I tried to be respectful and eclipsed Lawrence Reed's link to Max Borders's The New Paganism? "Who was the second-grader who wrote the Pope's encyclical on the environment? It's worse than worthless."

I know some knuckledraggers 'round these parts will watch FOX News Sunday on occasion. I am glad I read the entire piece so that I can call out Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Wuerl grossly mischaracterized the document, calling it a call to a conversation. The tone does not match that assessment in any way.

Posted by: jk at June 22, 2015 2:43 PM
But jk thinks:

You say Ladato, I say Laudito...

Corrected the spelling, thanks, though the curious postpended apostrophe is a mystery. I saw it on some very Catholic looking sites so I am keeping it. How many Romans????

Posted by: jk at June 22, 2015 2:50 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Oh, that. I didn't need to look it up. I already knew that it means "sweet-smelling authoritarian prose." ;)

Posted by: johngalt at June 22, 2015 3:01 PM
But jk thinks:

...and a quick reminder to the newbies: "f@ith" refers to the character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, played by the lovely Eliza Dushku.

You may interpret literature as you like, but ThreeSources.com passwords are strictly assigned to Buffy characters, guitar gear, and jazz musicians.

Posted by: jk at June 22, 2015 5:48 PM
But nanobrewer thinks:

church members who appreciate liberty.

Present! Though for the record I identify [heh; to cite a current meme] more as a "follower" who attends church.

I've never paid much attention to any church issuing that does anything but call those to heed the word; sounds like I'll feel nothing but boiling blood if I read this thing.... I've been forming an opinion of the Pontiff that he's either:

- completely addled; or
- in thrall to young firebrands

this activist form of Liberation Theology has long and apparently strong ties to the church, the titled movement started in latin america, IIRC.

As a believer (not in Catholic doctrines, tho' ours are mostly congruent) I'd say right back in his face: ".... render unto Ceaser..." (hmm, in Latin or Spanish?) and ask him to stick with stimulating our hearts, and to stay away from snatching at our purses! Perhaps a better rejoinder would be latin for "be careful what you wish for..."

It really seems to be a "Me, too!" moment, but I seem to recall thinking that about every pope except for JPII.

Posted by: nanobrewer at June 23, 2015 11:21 AM

June 14, 2015

Review Demicorner

In the summer of 1957, a Baptist preacher in the segregated South issued a series of fiery sermons denouncing the laziness, promiscuity, criminality, drunkenness, slovenliness, and ignorance of Negroes. He shouted from pulpits about the difference between doing a "real job" and doing "a Negro job." Instead of practicing the intelligent saving habits of white men, "Negroes too often buy what they want and beg for what they need." He suggested that blacks were "thinking about sex" every time they walked down the street. They were too violent. They didn’t bathe properly. And their music, which was invading homes all over America, "plunges men's minds into degrading and immoral depths."
The preacher's name, for those who have not guessed, was Martin Luther King, Jr. And here beginneth the conclusion of Review Corner for Russell, Thaddeus (2010-09-28). A Renegade History of the United States [Part One].

The second half (I don't want to frighten anyone away, the book is not that long) also pushes one to rethink both a factual, objective timeline of American history and commonly held foundational beliefs. Part 4 of the book, "Whose Side are you On?" opens with that quote and Russell continues his counterintuitive views of slavery and reconstruction to civil rights. Russell continues the WEB Dubois position that liberation not be assimilation into the Calvinist and puritan mainstream of American society.

The factual challenges are to the efficacy of non-violence. Russell says there was lots of violence, all well documented in the police blotters of Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma -- if they do not make into most of the documentaries. The Gospel of nonviolence "shaming" the culture into acceptance is all that makes the books. Russell suggests there was an extremely violent parallel movement. Rather than shame, America was offered a choice between King's nonviolent, bathed, hard-working vision and the -- I cannot use the term but the first word is "Bad" and the second starts with "N" -- both are capitalized and Russell suggests that the BNs deserve more credit for civil rights than they receive.

Indeed, after several days of rioting, white business and government leaders sat down with the civil rights leader and signed an agreement that allowed blacks full access to commercial and public spaces in the city and desegregated jobs in downtown stores. This was not integration, in that it did not compel African Americans to live with or like whites, but it did allow them to come and go where they liked and as they pleased. And it was won not by appealing to the conscience of whites, nor by seeking admission to the American family, but by making the price of segregation too high to pay.

I would pay money to see Russell debate Jason Riley. Riley is black (you can tell from the name, right?) and his "Please Stop Helping Us" [Review Corner] is the foundation of my Booker T. Washington - WEB Dubois bifurcation. Riley is unabashedly Washingtonian. As am I. Russell -- again I need stress he was no wild-eyed Calhoun disciple, he was a frequent guest on The Independents: affable, bright and liberty minded. Russell takes a Penn Jillette-ish position of championing the libertine. In the book's Introduction, he professes that it would be dystopian to have his "Renegades" run the world -- but he does not want to hand it over to the puritans.
Jack Kerouac made this desire to be black and free explicit in On the Road. When the novel's hero arrives in Denver, he heads to the black neighborhood. "I walked ... in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night." Like many white "race traitors," the Beats often reduced black culture to its most sensual aspects, but in doing so, they found a vehicle through which to escape the confines of whiteness and citizenship.

Race is so charged that I suggest the next chapter, "Gay Liberation, American Liberation," presents a better opportunity to objectively evaluate Russell's thesis. It's often been said in jest that "gay marriage" represents an odd objective for a community known for its rejection of confining, traditionalist institutions. Like the freed slaves, Russell asks if joining the mainstream is the best idea.
Today's movement for gay marriage-- a renewal of the homophile movement-- ended gay liberation, is helping to end straight liberation, and seeks to return all of us to the 1950s. Like the homophile movement, the gay marriage movement demands that, in order to gain acceptance as full citizens, its constituents adopt the cultural norms of the American citizen: productivity, selflessness, responsibility, sexual restraint, and the restraint of homosexual expression in particular. Proponents of same-sex marriage have justified their demand by presenting homosexual partners as devoted, self-sacrificing, and industrious adults.

And here, at last, after two lengthy review corners, will I make my stand against Russell. I have two classmates from high school in breathless anticipation of their upcoming marriage. He's marrying another guy and she another woman. I've been pro gay-marriage, but from an abstract, liberty-theory and rights perspective. Now I am watching the joy of four people doing something the State would not have allowed a few years ago.

Our mainstream American culture is not puritan -- ask Osama bin Laden. It has many flaws and its puritan elements. But Jason Riley is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributor to the Wall Street Journal. Did he trade the slavery of the plantation for having to get up and put a tie on every day? My gay friends are choosing something that has been the greatest blessing of my life -- are they rejecting the liberty of the drag queens punching cops at the Stonewall riots?

No. Thaddeus Russell and my hero, Penn Jillette, to whom I compared him are a little too tough on the straight white life. No. we don't dance too good and our friends sometimes do clap on the 1 & the 3, but we pursue the uniquely human achievement of rising above our sensual natures when the time is right.

Ergo, I remain unsold on the full Russell. But there is much truth in his history. It also includes some far less controversial elements with which I do agree 100%: juvenile delinquents' taking down the iron curtain, the benefits of consumerist culture over hippie communal living. &c.

Where we do not agree, I was challenged as reader and thinker. That's a lot of fun in puritan, white, rhythm-less America. Four-point-seven-five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:29 AM | Comments (0)

June 7, 2015

Review Demicorner

In 1583 the Puritan writer Philip Stubbes had this to say about dancing:
If you would have your son soft, womanish, unclean, smooth-mouth, affected to bawdry, scurrility, filthy rimes, and unseemly talking; briefly if you would have him, as it were, transnatured into a woman or worse, and inclined to all kinds of whoredom and abomination, set him to dancing school and to learn music, and then you shall not fail of your purpose. And if you would have your daughter riggish, bawdry and unclean, and a filthy speaker, and suchlike, bring her up in music and dancing and my life for yours, you have won the goal.
There is one lie that Review Corner will never tell. You'll not read a review of a book not completed without full disclosure. And, you were going to get a week off of Review Corner because I had not completed nuthin'.

But I am halfway through Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States and I realize that -- oh baby -- this one is going to take two.

Russell was a frequent guest on Fox Business Channel's Libertarian Hour of Decentralized Power "The Independents." An affable and bright fellow, I always meant to pick up his book but never got around to the task. He has a great review in Reason that reminded me. To be fair, his review of another's book might explain his book better than my review of it. But there is much for ThreeSourcers to digest in Renegade History.

The overarching concept is very well described in his review. As much as we credit the Founding Fathers with liberty, theirs was theoretical, structural, and needfully puritan. Much of the actual liberty we enjoy comes more from the libertine side and not the libertarian. He credits pirates for gay rights, prostitution for women's rights to property and self defense, gangsters for toppling prohibition, and wave after wave of immigrant for stretching the culture beyond the Victorian sensibilities we'd have inherited had leaders had their way.

A Renegade History goes deeper. It goes beneath what the new "social history" portrayed as the bottom. It tells the story of "bad" Americans-- drunkards, prostitutes, "shiftless" slaves and white slackers, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated beneath American society-- and shows how they shaped our world, created new pleasures, and expanded our freedoms. This is history from the gutter up.

Reason did a 40th Anniversary issue and examined the state of liberty and its trends. While government was obviously going to hell, they looked at attitudes and acceptance and the liberating forces of communication and affluence to give a mixed report card. I suspect Russell's buddies fall into that camp.
Historians hostile to popular culture-- who are far more numerous-- dismiss it as part of the "culture of consumption" that was forced on the masses by advertisers, who were labeled by one historian as "the captains of consciousness." Though billions of Americans have gained real pleasure, radically improved their lives, and determined the production of goods by what economists call "voting with one's feet," nearly all histories of consumerism are negative.

I do not want to put words into Russell's text and caution you about psychoanalyzing him from my synopsis. He says in the introduction that a world run by his renegades would be hell. But he is not very keen on the Puritan or Calvinist strains of traditional American values.
The pivotal events of the nineteenth century have been similarly whitewashed, especially (and ironically) in the telling of black history. Unfortunately, because the historians who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s were so eager to make the masses into heroes, they did not see that it was precisely the nonheroic and unseemly characteristics of ordinary folks that changed American culture for the better. Historians of slavery rarely acknowledge that slaves and their descendants were the vanguard in the struggle against Victorian repression.

Russell also explicitly states "I am not here to defend slavery." And then goes on for 100 pages defending slavery from a utilitarian and consequentialist perspective.

I think it speaks more to the limitations of consequentialism and utilitarianism than to the benefits of chattel slavery, but prepare to be challenged by Russell's original viewpoint. I will undercut it badly by synopsis, but cannot leave the Review Corner reader hanging. In brief -- and in my words -- we compare the slave's life to ours. I have a cup of coffee and a 20Mb Internet connection. The golfers are swearing on the 7th tee, but life is pretty good. Sure glad I am not being whipped and forced to pick cotton.

But but but, where Russell dare goeth is to compare that to free blacks, poor whites, urban factory workers -- the teeming mass of 19th Century America. Unconscionable to be lashed, but children were. Hard manual labor? White sharecroppers worked just as hard -- in fact the slave could feign illness and be relieved or escape to the woods to trade a couple days peace for a punishment on return. The guy feeding his family had not this option. Slave families were torn apart when one was sold. Devilish, but poor families split up all the time to seek opportunities on the frontier, park children who could not be fed with distant relatives and the like. But slaves were property -- so were wives.

I invite and hope you all will read this book before sending me or the author hate mail. I have a riff about "childhood freedom" and "grown-up freedom" that I use on my lefty friends. The ACA is "childhood freedom:" somebody is going to take care of me, while I prefer the "grown-up freedom" of making my life and mistakes. Russell describes a paternal caretaking that appealed to many and who did not want, or later regretted, leaving the plantation. Minstrelsy captured the longing on both sides.

Blackface minstrelsy is now often considered to be antiblack parody, and some of it certainly was, but scholars have recently begun to see the songs of Dan Emmett and many other performers in the genre as expressions of desire for the freedoms they saw in the culture of the slaves. "Just as the minstrel stage held out the possibility that whites could be 'black' for a while but nonetheless white," David Roediger, the leading historian of "whiteness," has written, "it offered the possibilities that, via blackface, preindustrial joys could survive amidst industrial discipline."

We have championed George Washington Carver over WEB DuBois on these pages. Russell is not so sure. Carter called for people to discard their sensual pleasures and climb on the Calvinist work team of industrial discipline.
Today, many on the conservative side of the political spectrum like to make the founders into champions of a free-market economy, while many on the left claim that they were simply the tools of the rising merchant class. Neither of these sides understands that the market economy has always been a friend of renegades and an enemy of moral guardians. When Americans lived on farms in isolated towns where they grew, made, and bartered for everything they used, they could not purchase beer at a saloon, sex from a prostitute, contraceptives and pornography from a corner shop, or flashy clothes from British importers.

Now you know why I am not done. There is entirely too much to think about in just the first section. The second section is a joy for a man who loves blues and jazz, but troubling for the fan of immigrant assimilation and neo-Calvinist work ethics. Our rhythm was stolen as the next quote attests. First the African slaves, then the Irish, the Jew, the Italian were each "whitened" to lay aside their sensual attachments.
In its formal definitions, America has always been a rhythmless nation. And "good" Americans have never been able to dance. Indeed, one of the first accomplishments of the original settlers from Europe was to stop themselves from dancing.

The Puritan pilgrims left England in large part because it was full of people who used their bodies for pleasure

There is a superb section in the Italian chapter about my hero, Louie Prima. Russell and I share one belief: I have always been surprised that one could listen to Prima's early recordings and credit anybody later with discovering rock and roll.
In the early 1950s, Prima joined with Sam Butera, another black Italian from New Orleans, and Butera's band the Witnesses, and began playing a harder, wilder version of his music. Music critic Art Fein wrote thirty years later, "The music they were playing, and that Prima sensed was vital and even visionary, then had no name. It's taken historians thirty years to pinpoint it for what it always was-- rock-and-roll."

The swarthy, barrel-chested Sicilian from New Orleans struggled to find work in New York because they thought he was black. As Italians assimilated, Prima faded and the "sophisticated" stable of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Vic Damone and Tony Bennett took over. Now I love those guys to death, but you can appreciate the rhythm that was lost as Italians became white.

Stars will be awarded next week (like American Pharoah, I suspect he might do pretty well...). I have some quibbles: he quotes John Adams to make all the Founders out to be puritans, he never addresses liberty qua liberty in his slavery discussions. But I have not been so entertained and challenged for a while. You can pick it up on Kindle today and be finished in time for next weeks Review Demicorner.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:46 PM | Comments (2)
But Keith Arnold thinks:

Puritan writer Philip Stubbes, meet Kevin Bacon in "Footloose."

Posted by: Keith Arnold at June 8, 2015 4:53 PM
But jk thinks:

Blog friend sc has a great picture he has posted on Facebook. It is the current cover photo of Blues411 and shows the marquee of "Our Lady of Memphis Bluesified Church." The text inside reads "IF YOU CLAP ON THE 1 & 3 YOU WILL BURN IN HELL."

I saw that picture I my mind while reading the second section.

Posted by: jk at June 8, 2015 5:17 PM

May 31, 2015

Review Corner

The conventional wisdom had no answer to such problems--except to promise more of the same. President Carter and other spokesmen for the status quo said, resignedly, that this was just the way it was. We had, it seemed, reached the era of "limits," running out of energy supplies and suffering "stagflation," with no alternative but to hunker down and bear it.

The outlook of Ronald Reagan and his team was dramatically different. In the President's view, the ills we suffered were the result of faulty policies by the federal government: runaway spending and taxation, excessive expansion of the money supply that fueled inflation, and intensive regulation of the economy which stifled investment and production.

America's blessing, it has been said, is that the right man always appears at the right time. This phrase gives too much credit to providence, predestination, and the importance of politics for my taste. On the other hand, Damn.

Ed Meese's With Reagan The Inside Story (thanks, nb!) was a pleasant reminder of "Morning in America." and Reagan's impressive accomplishments -- "transformative" in the words of our current Chief Executive.

Meese is hard core in his defense of President Reagan, and the book suffers slightly from the "inside staffer's view" that present a certain faction of the cabinet and staff as heroic and the others as slime mold. But it is not overdone. I chuckled a bit that there are two sections of photos. Reagan with world leaders, Reagan with congress, Reagan with celebrities ... Curiously, one Edwin Meese III happens to be in about every picture. Hey, I'd do the same; it's his book.

It is important as a palliative for false stories of "The Amiable Dunce," "the puppet of his staffers," &c. Meese conveys the importance of leadership built on foundational principles.

The secret of Reagan's success was not that he was a skillful speaker and performer on television. If that were the case, hundreds of actors and public speakers might do equally well in politics, but other than he, none has so far been elected president. No, the key to Reagan's success was that he communicated timeless truths about America--home truths about freedom, limited government, hard work, and opportunity--and that these truths guided him while he was in office.

Meese also puts his AG's view of Iran-Contra into print. While mistakes were made, he considers them more political than criminal. It reflects badly on the president, but was not explicitly proscribed.
The result, as the Tower Commission drily observed, "was a highly ambiguous legal environment." Contrary to the image of a single sweeping Boland amendment that once and forever barred all aid to the anticommunist resistance, what developed was a series of changing enactments that allowed some things, barred others, allowed some things that had been barred, barred something else that hadn't been, and so on. The administration, rather than flagrantly ignoring the law, was highly sensitive to the ambiguities and nuances of the situation and constructed its policy as best it could to fit them.

Meese is not the storyteller his boss was, but he got a chuckle out of me with "Officer, arrest that man! He's violating the Boland Amendment!" I still think it a black mark because of separation of powers arguments. But compared to what we have seen since, this is a cookie-theft.

Where I must part with Reagan and Meese is Law and Order. He accepts a lot of credit for a downturn in crime that I suspect was part of a long-term trend. I'm good with an orderly society but Meese claims some victories in the War on Drugs that I didn't see (I stopped using drugs during the Reagan years -- I call it "growing up.") This paragraph earned a red flag:

One of our most effective weapons against drug traffickers was to confiscate the assets of their criminal activity, such as expensive autos, yachts, businesses, and homes and convert the proceeds to the anti-drug effort. To make this technique even more effective, we shared the proceeds with cooperating local law enforcement agencies to enhance their drug-fighting activities. We also improved the cooperation of federal law enforcement agencies with their state and local counterparts.

Reason Magazine, line one! This book was released in 1992. I don't suspect he'd second guess the efficacy of asset forfeiture, but one has to ask where that fits in with a champion of limited government.

Still, it left one hoping that the escape from Obama's policies might be half as effective as the escape from Carter's. One thing on which I will never, ever part company with our fortieth was his opposition to Communism:

In addition to stressing the evils of communism, Reagan stressed its inherent weakness. In his view, the two were related, since in denying freedom the communists not only engaged in tyranny, they also crippled the creative potential of the human spirit. Reagan firmly believed that freedom was both morally and materially superior to communism, and constantly linked these themes in his speeches.

Great book, somehow more germane today than in 1992. Four stars!

Posted by John Kranz at 9:55 AM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2015

Review Corner

In essence, the rap on Churchill is that he was a 19th-century man parachuted into the 20th.

But is that not precisely to the point? It took a 19th-century man--traditional in habit, rational in thought, conservative in temper--to save the zoth century from itself. The story of the zoth century is a story of revolution wrought by thoroughly modern men: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and above all Lenin, who invented totalitarianism out of Marx's cryptic and inchoate communism (and thus earns his place as runner-up to Churchill for Person of the Century).

And it is the story of the modern intellectual, from Ezra Pound to Jean-Paul Sartre, seduced by these modern men of politics and, grotesquely, serving them.

I think I can say that Charles Krauthammer is my favorite conservative. I do enjoy my libertarian thinkers and -- as we will discuss -- tend to find their philosophy more compatible with mine. But to read Krauthammer's Things That Matter (thanks, nb!) is to enjoy a goodly bit of Chesterton, Burke, and Churchill today. His prose is magnificent, his erudition astounds, and his intellect ranges deeply into science, medicine, history and politics.

He can capture the poetry of baseball and even make a chess match interesting:

It was like watching the World Series with five Hall of Famers parsing every pitch and Cy Young correcting them. On Karpov's 23rd move the parsing got slightly crazy: If Kasparov does A, then Karpov must do B. If Kasparov then tries C and Karpov answers with D, look out: E, F and G follow. But if Kasparov does Z, then . . .

Some of these lines were harmony, variations on the main theme of the game. Some were jazz riffs, freestyle and whimsical. Some were just fanciful trills, exotic and occasionally atonal. They all went up on the board fast and furious, as patzers--plodding amateurs--like me struggled to follow the logic.

Then Karpov did the unexpected: He advanced a pawn, unbalancing the position and not a few grandmasters.

I have most recently moved explicitly out of being a self-identified conservative. The Libertarian jurisprudence of Damon Root [Review Corner] and Clark Neily [Review Corner] have captured my heart and given newfound appreciation for the Ninth Amendment. I think it fair to say Mr. Krauthammer does not join me there:
It is a temptation to be resisted. Issues of this magnitude should never be decided by nine robes. Affirmative action needs to be dealt with by the people in the legislatures and in referendums. I believe that the current dispensation is a travesty. But a very substantial portion of the population reads the Constitution--and the nation's needs--quite differently. Under these circumstances, the issue should not be settled by judicial fiat.

And, perhaps more tooth-grinding to the ThreeSourcer:
I have no problem in principle with gun control. Congress enacted (and I supported) an assault weapons ban in 1994. The problem was: It didn't work. (So concluded a University of Pennsylvania study com-missioned by the Justice Department.) The reason is simple. Unless you are prepared to confiscate all existing firearms, disarm the citizenry and repeal the Second Amendment, it's almost impossible to craft a law that will be effective.

Wrong answer, Charles! You can say that that is not a "Conservative" position so much as a "pointy-head-east-coast-elitist" one. But I retort that conservatism allows for utilitarian control of the individual and that a rights-based libertarianism would stop that second paragraph on nearly every clause.

All in all, however, it is a superb book and makes me far less apologetic for my former conservatism and the strains of its foreign policy that remain. I think any ThreeSourcer would dig it and -- as Brother nb did not relay excitement about its return -- it is up for grabs.

And it will do so not just by what it says and how well it says it but where it says it. The Hall of Remembrance has at each of its six corners a narrow vertical window. Through one you can see the Washington Monument, through another the Jefferson Memorial. The juxtaposition is not just redemptive. It is reassuring. The angels of democracy stand watch on this temple of evil. It is as if only in the heart of the world's most tolerant and most powerful democracy can.

Five stars for stuff like that.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:19 AM | Comments (1)
But nanobrewer thinks:

So glad to have others enjoy a book I so mightily did, and to have JK eloquently gush about Dr. K's brilliance.

Also, while happy to have livened JK's reading, I do want Things that Matter back! As a bonus to our TS brethren, I can announce the book is now out in paperback!

I also have to agree with JK, that on occasion Dr. Krauthammer's (I don't think I can ever again not use that honorific, after reading this) practicality does grate against the bulk of his work - and it's most apparent in his essays on gun control laws.

As a further endorsement, I'll add for TS'ers benefit that I usually do not care for the "collection of columns" books - I've tried and left unfinished several, usually wanting to find something else to read right in the middle (aka, where it's supposed to be getting good). I anticipate the same with any book by Jonah, but this one I just could not put down!

Posted by: nanobrewer at May 26, 2015 8:37 AM

May 17, 2015

Review Corner

The proper scope of government is of course a topic that has engaged political theorists for centuries. Political science and philosophy professors commonly ask their students to write papers pitting the views of Thomas Hobbes against those of John Locke, Alexander Hamilton against Thomas Jefferson, John Rawls against Robert Nozick. For economists' views it is natural to begin with Adam Smith.
Blog Brother Bryan is a great believer in subjective value and the importance of pricing in a free market. All the same, I fear he might hurl an alabaster bust of Adam Smith at me if I mention -- one more time -- that Lawrence H. White's The Clash of Economic Ideas set me back $28.00 on Kindle. I've paid close to 40 for a couple others, but White's earns a spot in the price pantheon.

It compares pretty favorably not only to other economics books, but to an actual economics course. In that light, it represents good value.

White is a GMU Economics professor, CATO senior fellow, and a prolific free banking advocate. Clash of Economics ideas is a more wide ranging comparison of economic ideas and their consequences.

Most notable is the format which the author compares to Quentin Tarantino -- it is not chronological but rather grouped by ideas. White will stop to give a half page bio and brief introduction to economists and ideas as they become important to the topic at hand. The result is a very readable, accessible and entertaining overview of the most important economic arguments, told with anecdotes, personalities, and theory combined. FA Hayek escapes to America, but is at first disappointed with the lack of theoretical foundation in economics at Columbia.

It was the year in which The Trend of Economics, intended to provide a program for the institutionalist school, had been brought out by Rexford Guy Tugwell. And one of the first things the visiting economist was urged to do was to go to the New School for Social Research to hear Thorstein Veblen mumble sarcastically and largely inaudibly to a group of admiring old ladies -- a curiously unsatisfying experience.

In one book, one can collect a seriously comprehensive collect of important ideas and historical economic discussions. ThreeSourcers would also enjoy the presentation as "clash." Not that you're an overly argumentative lot (cough, cough) but seeing the schools and thinkers categorized with political movements and practical application is clarifying.
The grounding of Bentham's doctrine stood in stark contrast to that of Locke's.63 In his book Anarchical Fallacies (1795), written in response to rights declarations issued during the French Revolution, Bentham famously declared that "Natural Rights is simple nonsense; natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense-- nonsense on stilts."64 Bentham endeavored to put the case for classical liberalism and laissez-faire on a more scientific foundation. But in his endeavor he provided the foundation on which later utilitarians like Mill, Marshall, Pigou, and the Fabians would build wider cases for government intervention.65 Utility-maximizing policies for Bentham included universal suffrage, free markets, and economy in government. Utility-maximizing policies for the Fabians included universal suffrage, socialism, and larger government.

The New Deal gets a lengthy look as our nation's embrace of top-down centralized planning. Growing up to witness the failed end of that and the cronies who perpetuate,it is easy to forget the idealism.
John Kenneth Galbraith reminisced that, returning to Harvard after studying under Keynes in England, "There was this breath of hope and optimism, and I came back from Cambridge to find a whole group of people here who had also read The General Theory."61 Hayek's and Robbins's contrasting policy recommendation, to let output and employment recover on their own as bankruptcies and layoffs released workers and machines to find more sustainable employments, was regarded by many as a counsel of despair.

Wrong and dangerous idealism. But idealism. This book is worth your time, and actually worth $28 on Kindle (there is some mechanism to lend certain books, holler if you'd like to pursue that.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:58 AM | Comments (4)
But nanobrewer thinks:

I'm stunned in a delightful way by the concept embodied in the phrase "subjective value."

It's what I learned early on while doing technical marketing for semiconductor companies: how ossified was the idea that price = (cost of goods)+(mfr time/materials)x(resonabable profit margin).

That's a catchy phrase, which sadly seems all so necessary these days...

The book sounds fascinating, but I don't know that I'm up for many, if any, new concepts at the present.

Posted by: nanobrewer at May 18, 2015 11:39 AM
But jk thinks:

I think the Subjective Theory of Value is the soul of free economics. Marx thought the value of an item to be the sum of its labor, concomitantly making your last operand replaceable by the State. Indeed the whole idea of a computable value makes markets superfluous.

Actually, the price of something is what somebody will pay. I <cartman_voice>"rack diciprine"</cartman_voice> to write a book, but I've always though all basic economic concepts could be taught using guitars. The normally docile "Friends of the Archtop Guitar" group on facebook has conflagrated into schismatic conflict that makes Iraq and the Levant look peaceful.

At issue: Gibson's introduction of a new pressed wood for its most expensive big body jazz guitars. This exacerbates a conflict between the "You're a complete moron if you pay Gibson's insane premium that its nameplate demands" and "You have a tin ear if you cannot appreciate their subtleties" camps. It's not pretty this week.

But I can find no better example than an $11,000 guitar when you can get a pretty nice Chinese one for 1/10 its price or an gorgeous artisanal luthier's for half.

The Adam Smith group (to which all ThreeSourcers are welcome -- we meet ever Friday afternoon over Coffee|Beer at The Brewing Market [on Dagny Way in Atlas Valley]) remarks how close our dear Professor gets to subjective theory of value without quite hitting it. That's okay, he "discovered" a dozen other important concepts.

Posted by: jk at May 18, 2015 12:26 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Proof that "the price of something is what somebody will pay" can be found in the "call before midnight tonight" tactic used by telemarketers. They understand that the pitched product's perceived value to customers will never be higher than it is during, and immediately after, the pitch. After sleeping on it the "price" or amount most customers are willing to pay for the item, has magically and mysteriously declined.

But the big picture historical overview you allude to is what interests me.

I'm a fan of integration of ideas and am very tempted by your offer. Perhaps when our gorram new house is finished.

Posted by: johngalt at May 18, 2015 2:50 PM
But jk thinks:

You would dig this.

Posted by: jk at May 18, 2015 3:01 PM

May 10, 2015

Review Corner

Well, if they each used a computer to take [the SAT] a million times each day, and continued this every day for five billion years-- until the Sun expanded to a red giant and the Earth was charred to a cinder-- the chance of any of them ever getting a perfect score on just the math section would be about 0.0001 percent.

This means that the odds of acing the SAT by guessing are worse than the odds of every living ex-President and every member of the main cast of Firefly all being independently struck by lightning . . . on the same day.

Firstly a shout out to my Facebook friends of all stripes who get so abused in this forum. Lacking an exciting new book to read, I put the call out and got some superb suggestions. My niece the librarian suggested What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. I took a peek and they had me at "From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd."

That would be Randall Munroe And -- like the comic strip -- he mixes science, snark, puerile humor and Firefly references. What's not to like for the median ThreeSourcer?

People ask unusual questions on his website and he answers them in this book. "What if you you started moving up at one foot per second, would you freeze or asphyxiate first?" "What if you tried to build a model of the Periodic chart out of the actual elements?" Things like that. I can't give you all the answers, but here's a taste:

The scholarly authorities on freezing to death seem to be, unsurprisingly, Canadians. The most widely used model for human survival in cold air was developed by Peter Tikuisis and John Frim for the Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine in Ontario.

You could stack the top two rows without much trouble.
The third row would burn you with fire.
The fourth row would kill you with toxic smoke.
The fifth row would do all that stuff PLUS give you a mild dose of radiation.
The sixth row would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust.
Do not build the seventh row.
There's no material safety data sheet for astatine. If there were, it would just be the word "NO" scrawled over and over in charred blood.

Munroe has the research and science chops to do a credible job across many disciplines. There were a couple of times I'd've liked to ask a question, but I never felt he was "winging it."

Duke Ellington famously said "music is the space between the notes." And much of the joy (sorry, but I must use the N-word here) to nerds are the small asides Roughly estimating volume, which is something of a sport around here, Munroe points out that that a cubic kilometer and a sphere one mile across are similar. Next time we do oil or K-Cup refuse, that could come in handy.

Many of those gems litter this marvelous book, and quite a few of the solutions are interesting. But the humor holds it together and makes it worthwhile:

But I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive. The cold of Titan is just an engineering problem. With the right refitting, and the right heat sources, a Cessna 172 could fly on Titan-- and so could we.
They say lightning never strikes in the same place twice. "They" are wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, it's a little surprising that this saying has survived; you'd think that people who believed it would have been gradually filtered out of the living population.

Major fun. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:50 AM | Comments (0)

May 3, 2015

Review Corner

However, the life of hunters and gatherers faced a fundamental and ultimately unanswerable challenge. Hunter-gatherer societies led essentially parasitic lives. That is, they did not add anything to the nature-given supply of goods. They only depleted the supply of goods. They did not produce (apart from a few tools) but only consumed. They did not grow and breed but had to wait for nature to regenerate and replenish. At best, what they accomplished was that they did not overhunt or overgather so that the natural regeneration process was not disturbed or even brought to an entire standstill. In any case, what this form of parasitism obviously involved, then, was the inescapable problem of population growth.
I have a Hans Hermann-Hoppe T-Shirt. Very cool. Silhouetted top-hat guy with the phrase "Privatize Everything" in all caps. That's the best bumper-sticker version of anarchy I can imagine. And my respect for Hoppe is nearly boundless; he is an original thinker and clear writer.

His A Short History of Man: Progress and Decline is a good book. The resource-constrained will appreciate its being available on Kindle for $3.99 and that you can read it in one sitting. Beyond that, it has some interesting things to say.

In the first part, Hoppe takes Deirdre McCloskey's "The Fact" straight on. What allowed a species -- after hundreds of thousands of years -- to move from a purely animal existence to mastery of its environment. I do love the term parasitic -- what a divine dysphemism for the crunchy-granola primitivism my Boulder friends think they want.

I collect suggestions on what enabled that and Hoppe comes through. As the species was pushed into less hospitable climes, survival required understanding patterns and seasons. Evolution kicked in, and at last homo sapiens smart enough to build and staff a DMV hit the planet.

In the northernmost regions, with long and deadly winters, provisions of food, clothing, shelter, and heating had to be made that would last through most of a year or beyond. Planning had to be in terms of years, instead of days or months. As well, in pursuit of seasonally and widely migrating animals, extensive territories had to be traversed, requiring exceptional skills of orientation and navigation. Only groups intelligent enough on average to generate exceptional leaders who possessed such superior intellectual skills and abilities were rewarded with success-- survival and procreation.
A certain threshold of average and exceptional intelligence had to be reached first for this to become possible, and it took time (until about 1800) to "breed" such a level of intelligence.

Interesting. I wonder that earlier false-start enlightenments in Italy and China contradict this. Evolution is messy business, perhaps not.

The next step is more difficult for me. Escaping Malthusian limits enables a State. For the Rothbardian Hoppe, that is not welcome news.

All this changes with the Industrial Revolution. For if productivity gains continuously outstrip population increases and allow for a steady increase in per capita incomes, then an exploitative institution such as the State can continuously grow without lowering per capita income and reducing the population number. The State then becomes a permanent drag on the economy and per capita incomes.

Yes, the present world is richer than people were in the Middle Ages and the following monarchical age. But that does not show that it is richer because of this development. As a matter of fact, as I will demonstrate indirectly in the following, the increase in social wealth and general standards of living that mankind has experienced during this time occurred in spite of this development, and the increase of wealth and living standards would have been far greater if the development in question had not taken place.

Three-fourths through, and I am still essentially bought in. Evolutionary intelligence underpinning the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution seems possible; certainly bad governments since have impeded development. But then, as all anarchists must, Hoppe takes the leap into utopianism -- starting with a fact I suggest to be demonstrably false:
Moreover, a new level and quality of violence was introduced into society. To be sure, violence had characterized the relationship between men from the beginning of history. But violence, aggression, is costly, and until the development of the institution of a State, an aggressor had to bear the full cost associated with aggression himself. Now, however, with a state-king in place, the costs of aggression could be externalized onto third parties (tax-payers and draftees) and accordingly aggression, or more specifically imperialism, i.e., attempts of aggressively, through war and conquest, enlarging one's territory and one's subject population, increased correspondingly.

Thucydides much?

I had to swallow hard at Steven Pinker's assertion [Review Corner] of the opposite: all this non-violence we enjoy is a gift of Leviathan. Where I wanted to push back, Pinker made substantive cases backed up with data. In the end, I remain a "minarchist" (Go Nozick!) and, as I question Hoppe on the Peloponnese, I'll ask Pinker to explain Communism.

No. Not sold on anarchy. But it's a very good book and at four stars for $3.99 represents an exceptional value.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:14 AM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2015

Review Corner

BY THE MIDDLE of the seventeenth century, war was a distant memory in Japan. The occasional vendetta, rarely involving as many as a hundred men, was the last reminder of the cataclysmic struggles of the era of warring states. Few military men knew how to fire a musket after 1650, armor served as a decoration of great halls, and samurai learned to wield their swords in gymnasia in pursuit of personal cultivation or recreation. While philosophers reconceived the warrior as a gentleman and moral exemplar to justify the privileges of a large, anachronistic military class, its members turned to government service, to scholarship, and sometimes to medicine to occupy themselves usefully. They wrote labored treatises on the Way of the Warrior and retold the tales of their ancestors, for the heroic feats of yesterday remained one source of the peacetime soldier's prestige. Yet reflections upon the ever more romanticized past were exercises in nostalgia. Within a generation of Hideyoshi's death, armed conflict had all but disappeared from his country.
A very good friend of this blog got me interested in the period of sengoku Japan and recommended Mary Elizabeth Berry's Hideyoshi, a 1982 biography of the sixteenth century ruler. It is quite a good read even if one must navigate this archaic format where the text is actually printed in ink on paper and bound into a book, slightly larger and much thicker than a Kindle®.

Hideyoshi appealed to me as something of a father of Federalism in Japan. The peace in the opening quote was gained in substantive part by Hideyoshi's dedication to Federalism. The daimyo (local chieftain) was given broad authority even as it was clear that he was subservient and expected to provide taxes, warriors, comely daughters, &c. to this new central authority.

Previous attempts to centralize authority hit a natural size limit. Hideyoshi's delegation of authority allowed him to unite Japan -- and dream of conquering Korea and China. His predecessor/mentor, Nobunaga, had the military chops but lacked the concept of hierarchical rule.

The forcible concentration of authority was just one direction in the politics of the warring-states era, however. There was another--toward independent local government--that had provided most of the vitality of the age. The steady usurpation of independent daimyo by Nobunaga's small band of vassals seemed to close off this direction, only to reveal its centrality to sixteenth-century life. If Nobunaga was a lord who "did not know the Way," his rebuff of the throne and his attacks upon shrines, temples, cities, and the shogunate were peripheral to his basic denial of domainal rule.

Peace and prosperity are swell things. Federalism is a liberty-friendly means of organizing government. Hideyoshi was of humble birth and below average physical appearance. This has all the elements of a heroic story -- get Disney on the line!

But, no, there is no Japanese John Locke in this story. Hideyoshi really assembled the first modern, bureaucratic administrative state in Japan. Taxes and surveys and paperwork were regularized. Hideyoshi and his friends did very well, rebuilding temples and places and government complexes in Kyoto, and conscripting men and material for two hopeless -- the author uses the term "vainglorious" attempts to overthrow Korea as a base to dominate China. That "the three countries (Japan, China and India) will know my name!" was sufficient reason to sacrifice hundreds of thousands on two occasions -- the second time, the great warrior did not even bother to go.

Hideyoshi probably achieved what he wanted from the second invasion of Korea. He displayed the firmness of his will, showed again that his army could challenge China, and took a gruesome toll in Korean casualties for the slight to his honor.

I have come to what little scholarship I possess late in life, and it has been driven by my interests. This is a fascinating and superbly written book. I recommend it highly. Jonathan Haidt would point out that I view everything on the liberty axis, and this is like Thucydides in that it is interesting from the point of history qua history and statecraft. But I wait until the author brings up in the Afterword the item I ask internally through the whole book; and it refers to a successor:

A characteristic of Tokugawa intellectual life, one which set it off definitively from the past, was extensive and sustained inquiry into an essenially new question: What is the proper role of government? To ask the question is not only to convey a dilemma but to assume that government's function is definable and therefore particular or limited. The question rejects the right of fiat. To begin to define the role of government, further, is to establish a standard against which performance can be measured, and therefore to imply the notion of accountability. To grapple with the notion of accountability is to raise the possibility that government can be judged for failure, and therefore be reformed or rejected. And to explore the possibility of rejection is to see government as a system made and potentially remade by men of new vision.

I am an undisputed fan of peace as underpinning prosperity, art, and culture. One can laud Hideyoshi's -- if repressive -- peace as a foundation of the question with came later.

I will post in a couple days a link to the paper that inspired this detour for me. I need not remind that I am no authority on Japan in any century. I write as a flâneur in sengoku Japan. The book is quite enjoyable (and, as I own a softcover, available for lend). I would not deduct stars for its lacking a place in liberty theory, let's call it four-and-a-quarter stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:47 AM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2015

Review Corner

Drawing inferences about the movement of animals from their tracks-- as hunter-gatherer trackers do-- has obvious survival advantages, and we have been able to apply those inferential skills to everything from driving to the store to flying rockets to the moon. Historian of science and professional animal tracker Louis Liebenberg has, in fact, argued that our ability to reason scientifically is a by-product of fundamental skills for tracking game animals that our ancestors developed.
There is much to like about Michael Shermer's The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Hell, the title alone ensared two of my blog brothers. It is worth almost the entire $16.99 on Kindle just for the suggestion to evaluate "free," "democratic," or "rule of law" nations not on a binary scale but a contiguous one.
In general, the data show that liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance and economic system. In particular, they found that democratic peace happens only when both members of a pair are democratic, but that trade works when either member of the pair has a market economy. 60 In other words, trade was even more important than democracy (although the latter is important for other reasons as well).
It is a great exegesis on the progress of society and science, it contains ThreeSources-friendly sections on law, trade, technology, and economics.
Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and the others thought of social governance as a problem to be solved rather than as power to be grabbed. They thought of democracy in the same way that they thought of science-- as a method, not an ideology. They argued, in essence, that no one knows how to govern a nation, so we have to set up a system that allows for experimentation. Try this. Try that. Check the results. Repeat. That is the very heart of science. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804, "No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth."
I come to praise Shermer, not pan him, but I am going to have to compare it unfavorably to two recent Review Corner targets.

The first is Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels [Review Corner] and not only because they are alphabetically adjacent when I sort my Kindle library by title. I withheld fractional stars from Epstein for being "too Objectivist" and I stand by that, because I think his book presents a compelling case without the philosophical underpinning specifically of "the standard of value as being human life."

Shermer is Editor of Skeptic Magazine and I was thinking this might be something of a big-O work, both from the recommendations I received and the relentless attacks on organized religion in the middle Part II: "The Moral Arc Applied." It is pretty rare that I skip material in a book, but each chapter in this section was "religion is responsible for everything bad, and you are mistaken about any good you feel it ever provided. Okay, got it, Champ, can we move on? I am nothing if not fair, I subscribe totally to the following example in concept and prose. But the extension to blaming slavery on the bible and discounting Christians' contributions to abolition wears thin. Quickly.

Why did they deserve an eternity of misery and submission? It was all for that one terrible sin, the first crime ever recorded in the history of humanity-- a thought crime, no less-- when that audacious autodidact Eve dared to educate herself by partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Worse, she inveigled the first man-- the unsuspecting Adam-- to join her in choosing knowledge over ignorance. For the appalling crime of hearkening unto the voice of his wife, Yahweh condemned Adam to toil in thorn- and thistle-infested fields, and further condemned him to death, to return to the dust whence he came.

And yet, proceeding on to nuclear disarmament, animal rights, and a few snotty comments about CEOs, Shermer is no Objectivist. Perhaps if we sent Shermer and Epstein off on a lengthy camping trip, we'd get two superior thinkers.

The second, and more obvious comparison is Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature [Review Corner]. Shermer quotes Pinker extensively and made no secret that his book is built on the idea of moral and scientific progress documented so well in Pinker's book. For me, that left the comparison always open and while I liked Shermer, I would tell anybody choosing one to read Pinker's (and save $7!)

The full Dawkins (never go Full Dawkins!) assault on religion is tolerable, especially to this atheist, but Mister Skeptic applies a far less critical gaze at social science. Part III relies on many "Psychological Studies:" oldies but goodies where people zap others with electricity, and many new ones, many based on fMRI technology -- of which I am a skeptic. The dog's brain lights up here when he sees a bone, the man's brain lights up here when you read him poetry -- this proves X. Interesting, but pacé climate models, I think they have come to be too trusting in their machines.

Tyler Cowan fans could read the first four chapters, then go watch the Stanley Cup playoffs and have a fantastic experience. It is a serious and noble effort and some of my negatives might be related to passages I found difficult, like animal rights and violent psychoses. But, occasionally the Review Corner hammer must be dropped. Two-point-seven-five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2015

Review Corner

He gives a brief history lesson that touches on government taxation, the Whiskey Rebellion, and South Carolina legislation that allowed Dark Corner to become one of six distilleries to open in the state since 2011. After that, he explains how whiskey is made. First, malt the grain[...]
I thought I'd leave politics, philosophy, and economics aside for a week and enjoy Jaime Joyce's Moonshine: A Cultural History of America's Infamous Liquor. Perhaps I should have considered that I heard about it on Reason.com, but the book had more to do with taxation and prohibition than distillation tips.

At 1:42 in the video: "A big part of the protest against the British is that the 'New Americans' thought they wouldn't have to deal with this kind of stuff anymore. Thus, the first threat to our inchoate sovereignty was the Whiskey Rebellion, which Washington -- almost personally -- had to vanquish.

Washington, Pennsylvania, a city near Pittsburgh, pays tribute to its role in the nation's liquor history a bit differently. First staged in 2010, the city's Whiskey Rebellion Festival commemorates, well, the Whiskey Rebellion, and for three days in July the city recalls those heady post-Revolution protests against Alexander Hamilton's unpopular whiskey tax.

<Jon Stewart Smug Face>At least the book didn't relate the trade's decline to monetary policy or anything -- Umm...</Jon Stewart Smug Face>
But there was another factor at play in moonshine's decline: inflation. By 1974, the cost of sugar had risen exponentially, to more than $ 40 per 100-pound sack, more than a tripling of price in the space of a year. At the time, a gallon of moonshine was selling for between $ 8 and $ 12. Why pay a higher price and risk the health consequences when you could buy a $ 2 pint of legal bourbon? The math, and the risk, just didn't make sense.

In the end Ms. Joyce weaves it into multiple aspects of modern life. The easrly NASCAR drivers -- like in the Jim Croce song -- learned their trade outrunning Treasury Men on the back roads. They dominated the trade for a generation.
["Junior"] Johnson retired from racing the following year. He was 35 years old, and in his 14 years with NASCAR, he'd won 50 out of 310 races. But for Johnson, racing on a track never held the same allure as racing revenuers on the open road. "I just got aggravated with it," he told Ed Hinton, of Sports Illustrated. "I'd go to a dern race somewhere and I'd done won it two or three times, and it wasn't any fun. You're just going back over and over." He transitioned into team ownership. When Johnson left motorsports in 1995, he'd helped 38 drivers take first place in 139 races.

President Ronald Reagan pardoned Johnson for his moonshining conviction, in 1986, the day after Christmas. In 1998, Sports Illustrated named Johnson the greatest driver that ever lived. Today, he makes his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, about 90 minutes south of the one he grew up in and the site of the track where he ran his first race.

Pigouvian taxation gets a bad rap in the book. The taxes became so onerous that the illegal trade prospered decades past the 21st Amendment (surviving all except the Burns Fed...) The high taxes and the prohibition just don't work.
It was moonshiners, not smugglers of legitimate alcohol from outside the country or diverters of industrial alcohol, who provided the bulk of illicit liquor during Prohibition. In the South, illegal production skyrocketed, as did prices. White whiskey, which once sold for $ 2 a gallon, tops, could now command $ 22. One had only to look at the statistics to understand the scope of the problem. Prior to Prohibition, in 1913, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue reported that federal agents had seized 2,375 stills. But by 1929, nearly a decade into what President Herbert Hoover called the nation's "Noble Experiment," it was reported that one state alone had confiscated "more than this number and the federal government half as many more."

President Hoover, one more obstruction of liberty for which #31 must answer.
But the Democratic Party had Prohibition in its sights. In his Presidential election bid against incumbent Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt made the cause a cornerstone of his campaign. After winning by a landslide, he made good on his promise. A mere 18 days after taking the oath of office, Roosevelt signed into law, on March 22, 1933, the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, modifying the Volstead Act to legalize the sale of beer and wine, and providing for the first time in 13 years a stream of income from alcohol sales that flowed not to criminal syndicates and small-time operators but to the federal government.

From the (hard-drinking) colonists to the hipster Brooklyn craft distillers, Joyce writes an interesting tale. Four Stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 3:53 PM | Comments (0)

April 5, 2015

Review Corner

Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsburg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Heffner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce, Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Raymond Lubitz, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Columbus, Freud, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Baron Rothschild, Ted Williams, Thomas Edison, H. L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison, Bobby Fischer, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, you, and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people? Imagine all of them living in any utopia you've ever seen described in detail. Try to describe the society which would be best for all of these persons to live in.
Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia has been on my "I should read that " list for a long time. Jonah Goldberg references Nozick frequently. When it appeared on a friend's group reading list, I decided to dive in. I even got to quote him last week in my Hatfield & McCoy post.

The book proves, in three parts (Anarchy, State & Utopia), that a minimal state is ideal. There you go! Saved you 367 pages! The correct answer is: "A Minimal State."

The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources; it treats us as persons having individual rights with the dignity this constitutes. Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, it allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.

The book presents my beliefs methodically and rigorously. Part I takes down anarchy, less based on its being undesirable, more that a private "protective association" would likely become a de facto state.
I treat seriously the anarchist claim that in the course of maintaining its monopoly on the use of force and protecting everyone within a territory, the state must violate individuals' rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. Against this claim, I argue that a state would arise from anarchy (as represented by Locke's state of nature) even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about,

Reading Randy Barnett's superb Structure of Liberty [Review Corner], the hardest thing for me to accept was giving up expectation of my Bill-of-Rights rights over a wide area. Expecting due process, Fourth Amendment protections and jury trials in any US State is a powerful feature. Crossing the line from Walmart Protective territory to Targetland, do I give up more than everyday low prices?
It might be claimed that our assumption that procedural rights exist makes our argument too easy. Does a person who did violate another's rights himself have a right that this fact be determined by a fair and reliable procedure? It is true that an unreliable procedure will too often find an innocent person guilty. But does applying such an unreliable procedure to a guilty person violate any right of his?

The book seems too full for 367 pages. It is a violation of all that is righteous and true to cover it in Review Corner. The previous pull quote was the summary of a lengthy logical proof and comprehensive discussion of a topic of considerable depth.

Well, if a State is good, surely an all-powerful State is super-duper awesome: right? Actually, Part II shows why this is not the case. The non-minimal state exists, in a view I share with Nozick, to provide a patterned distribution of society's benefits.

As John Locke writes Two Treatises in response to Milner, Anarchy, State and Utopia is a book-length response to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. I expect Rawls fans around here number about the same as those of the Oakland Raiders. Nozick contradicts Rawls forcefully -- but first he praises the work's seriousness and importance, attempts to eloquently state Rawls's key arguments, and then sends the reader to read Theory in its entirety (we'll think about it...)

Rawls correctly states that n persons working together will vastly out-produce the sum of each's singular production. We bristle at any contravention of property rights, but Rawls looks to spend this bounty to the advantage of the least advantaged. If that's the foundation of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's "but your factory used our roads" it is subtler and more truthful.

Nozick attacks instead the idea of patterned distribution. "To each according to his ____" is a pattern, whether it be need, height, intelligence, work effort, or whatever. Nozick dispute's the pattern is at all sustainable -- refuting Piketty more than Warren. Voluntary transfers will un-pattern the distribution over time.

Employers of factors of productions are not all dolts who don't know what they're doing, transferring holdings they value to others on an irrational and arbitrary basis. Indeed, Rawls' position on inequalities requires that separate contributions to joint products be isolable, to some extent at least. For Rawls goes out of his way to argue that inequalities are justified if they serve to raise the position of the worst-off group in the society, if without the inequalities the worst-off group would be even more worse off. These serviceable inequalities stem, at least in part, from the necessity to provide incentives to certain people to perform various activities or fill various roles that not everyone can do equally well.

Part III, where we started. Whose Utopia? How enforced? What rights to individuals to opt in or opt out?
We argued in Part I that the minimal state is morally legitimate; in Part II we argued that no more extensive state could be morally justified, that any more extensive state would (will) violate the rights of individuals. This morally favored state, the only morally legitimate state, the only morally tolerable one, we now see is the one that best realizes the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries.
Believing with Tocqueville that it is only by being free that people will come to develop and exercise the virtues, capacities, responsibilities, and judgments appropriate to free men, that being free encourages such development, and that current people are not close to being so sunken in corruption as possibly to constitute an extreme exception to this, the voluntary framework is the appropriate one to settle upon.

As a serious work of philosophy (I have left out the elaborate proofs) this might be enjoyed by other ThreeSourcers more than me. I confess that I prefer Nozick's conclusions but find Randy Barnett's prose construction preferable to the quasi-mathematical language of philosophical proof.

Yet to read a work this serious that underscores my more intuitive belief in "minarchy" is interesting and valuable. Four-point-five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 5:21 PM | Comments (4)
But johngalt thinks:

The utopia Hugh Hefner created and described seems to me the one that appeals to the largest number of these individuals, but I digress.

Anywhere in his 367 pages did Nozick answer the question: "Whose Utopia?" The obvious answer is, the modern Utopians - we (and they) call them "Progressives." Their vision is universal, by definition, because whomever disagrees is a bigot, and there is no room in Utopia for bigots.

Posted by: johngalt at April 6, 2015 3:13 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Excellent review. The book sounds excellent as well!

Posted by: johngalt at April 6, 2015 3:15 PM
But jk thinks:

Thanks. You would enjoy it.

Hef's Utopia would probably not wow Thomas Merton (I missed by not doing a Review Corner of "The Seven Storey Mountain" to link to). This starts a nice induction proof of the group P' including all the people on the list but Thomas Merton...

I dwelt least on Utopia because my projected readership is not composed of Utopians. I think his best defense is that the utopia is generally presented as a well patterned distribution of resources and that a patterned distribution is not stable. Another excerpt? Why the hell not?

It might appear obvious that if people feel inferior because they do poorly along some dimensions, then if these dimensions are downgraded in importance or if scores along them are equalized, people no longer will feel inferior. (" of course!") The very reason they have for feeling inferior is removed. But it may well be that other dimensions would replace the ones eliminated with the same effects (on different persons). If, after downgrading or equalizing one dimension, say wealth, the society comes generally to agree that some other dimension is most important, for example, aesthetic appreciativeness, aesthetic attractiveness, intelligence, athletic prowess, physical grace, degree of sympathy with other persons, quality of orgasm, then the phenomenon will repeat itself.8
Footnote 8: Compare L. P. Hartley's novel, Facial Justice; and Blum and Kalven, The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation, p. 74: "Every experience seems to confirm the dismal hypothesis that envy will find other, and possibly less attractive, places in which to take root." See also Helmut Schoeck, Envy, trans. M. Glenny and B. Ross (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972).

Nozick, Robert (2013-11-12). Anarchy, State, and Utopia (p. 348). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Posted by: jk at April 6, 2015 3:46 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Harrison Bergeron is on the line.

Posted by: johngalt at April 7, 2015 1:45 PM

March 23, 2015

Reason Does Review Corner

Follow-up on [Review Corner]:

Posted by John Kranz at 5:57 PM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

"The American character flits to and fro on the question of its role in the world." Fair cop. Why keep bloodying our knuckles on the chin of the world's bullies when all the other kids on the playground insist on judging US the "bad guy?" Suffer the whims of bullies for a while, kids.

Posted by: johngalt at March 23, 2015 6:56 PM

March 22, 2015

Review Corner

So the Tooley reforms legalized "fornication" (having sex outside of marriage ), while keeping adultery (sex with a married person) illegal; but there was no punishment for the latter. (Several decades later, the General Assembly repealed the adultery criminal law entirely.)

During debate in House Judiciary Committee on the change in 1971, I asked retired Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice O. Otto Moore, who was working with Tooley to promote the criminal law reforms, "Can you tell our committee the difference between adultery and fornication?" After a brief pause, Justice Moore responded: "Well, I have tried both and I was unable to tell any difference."

Denver University Law Prof and Independence Institute's Second Amendment HOSS, David Kopel, is much beloved 'round these parts. I posted video of his superb talk on NFIB v. Sibelius at one of the first LOTR-F sessions. He is sometimes the sole voice of reason on Channel 12's "Colorado Inside Out" and has done well before in Review Corner: both solo and group.

Rules for State Legislators: Jerry Kopel's Guide is Kopel compilation of his father (Gerald Kopel)'s columns he wrote for the Colorado State Legislature's internal newspaper. Kopel Peré "served 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives, between 1965 and 1993. As a Democrat, he was in the minority for nine of his eleven terms. His election record was eleven wins and two losses, including two victories over incumbents. Among the legislative offices he held were Assistant Minority Leader, and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee."

We have since instituted term limits, but Kopel's tenure allowed him to learn the ins and outs of an incredibly intricate process and to view a lot of State history up close.

The legislative turnover is enormous. After voting several thousand times in a session , I often forgot why I voted a particular way the previous year. Next session, try again and add a little more to what you already obtained. The bureaucracy (and private lobbyists) always outlast the legislature. The Chinese civil service outlasted Genghis Khan, even without term limits.

The bulk of the book is direct advice for new legislators, but it is of great interest to those who would seek to understand or perhaps influence the process. Even a reader with muted political interest could profit from suggestions on negation, compromise, and working across the aisle.
New members of the minority party will do worst of all. This is partly due to lack of experience, but also because seniors in the majority party show their new majority members how to kill bills by targeting new minority party members, similar to gray-haired wolves bringing small live animals back to the den for pups to practice killing.
Getting bills passed and into the statute books is always pleasant. But from one who was there from the mid-60’ s into the 90’ s, don’t let “bill loving” ruin an otherwise enjoyable opportunity to serve your constituents.

The last section of the book includes some very interesting background on Colorado's quest for statehood, earliest elections, and an enumeration of all Colorado Governors.
On the afternoon of March 3, 1905, John Waldron, counsel for James Peabody, the Republican candidate, made the following comment, recorded in the Legislative Journal, page 35: "My attention has just been called to the fact that owing either to gross carelessness or unbridled license of the reporter of one of the newspapers in this city, I have been reported in the paper, which has just been published, as denominating (the opposing speaker) as a 'liar .' I did not call him a 'liar.' I plainly said 'lawyer.' (Applause.)

Entertaining, Interesting, and -- if I may say -- a sweet book of a son compiling copious wisdom from his esteemed father. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:09 AM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2015

Review Corner

Can't we all get along?

At their very worst , libertarians can behave like Jacobins: disrespectful of tradition, convinced that logic-on-paper can answer all the important questions about the human experience, dismissive of history and cultural norms, possessed of a purifying instinct, and all too ready to pull down institutions that they fail to recognize are vital to the integrity of the society in which they wish to operate.

The primary weakness of conservatism is that, relying as it does on the Burkean presumption that society is the way it is for a reason, it can refuse too steadfastly to adapt to emerging social and economic realities and it is apt to transmute solutions that were the utilitarian product of a particular time into articles of high principle.

All hail Charles C.W. Cooke. His The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future is a Fusionist book -- from a National Review author no less -- at a time when we badly need a return to Fusionism.

Cooke is a bright and gifted writer, though one is occasionally slowed by reading sections in his posh Oxford accent. He is a good champion as he is willing to recriminate both sides. A self-proclaimed atheist and supporter of gay marriage, he can be stern on the establishment and populist/conservative wings of the Republican party:

Before the GOP will be trusted again as the natural party of government, it will have to rebuild-- and dramatically. During the Bush administration's turbulent eight years, the Republican Party steadily ruined its reputation, damaging the public conception of conservatism in the process. Republicans spent too much, subsidized too much , spied too much, and controlled too much. The party abandoned its core principle of federalism, undermined free trade, favored the interests of big businesses over genuinely free markets, used government power to push social issues too aggressively, and, ultimately, was somewhat co-opted by the Christian Right, which moved from being one part of the coalition to being the dominant one.

At the end of day, however, this little-l cannot help but feel his heart is on the conservative side. He has correctives for the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front, but he follows in the William Buckley and Frank Meyers mold with a Chestertonian/Burkean appreciation for tradition.
But unless you believe that human nature has radically changed in the last two and half centuries , this should alarm you. When progressives argue that the Constitution belongs to another era, they are effectively contending that mankind has evolved beyond error and greed, and that the precautions taken by America's careful revolutionaries are no longer necessary.

He shows his cards mostly in the sections on immigration, abortion, and the Supreme Court. My favorite description of Karl Popper was that he first improved his opponents' arguments so he could attack them at their strongest points. If Cooke fails in this superb book, it is in not attacking libertarian immigration arguments at their strongest points. On SCOTUS, he's going to align more with Justice Scalia and less with Justice Thomas, but it is a free country and he makes the argument well.
Think about it like this: If our judges are not making their decisions by closely examining the original intent of the law and applying it to the cases before them, then what are they doing? There are only two options. Either they are examining their own views and exporting them to the public at large, or they are attempting to divine the sentiment of the majority of the people. But if we are to have a Constitution that reflects the views of a majority, then why have one at all? We already have Congress to do that.

To recap, a gifted writer has written an enjoyable and informative book which supports my fundamental foundational cause: preserving and strengthening the libertarian-conservative alliance. And, I respond by attacking individual sections where I find he is "not libertarian enough." The enterprise is clearly fraught with peril (and that sentence will sound better if you read it in your best Charles C.W. Cooke voice).

Left unmentioned in Review Corner so far is his brilliant appreciation for America's founding documents and his superb defense of the founders' "warts." The chapter on guns alone is worth the cost of the whole book. He has a keen appreciation for the challenges both wings face from progressives and elites. But it is important that we succeed.

If the rising generation is full of committed collectivists, they have a funny way of showing it. For now, Millennials vote reliably for the champions of the New Deal. But in private they customize their lives and operate within bespoke networks of their own devising. This, ultimately, is a generation of nonconformists-- one that is more comfortable with Uber than with the taxi commission; with Airbnb than with Hilton; and with Facebook than with Healthcare.gov . In a better world, conservatives would be their natural allies, defending the integrity of private institutions against the homogenizing Leviathan and playing Silicon Valley to the Left’s DMV.

A great book. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:45 AM | Comments (1)
But Terri thinks:

I'm in! Thanks for the review His writing and thoughts are always a must read.

Posted by: Terri at March 16, 2015 9:34 AM

March 12, 2015

Review Corner Follwup

An interview with Jay Cost about A Republic No More [Review Corner].

Makes me want to go back and add stars...

Posted by John Kranz at 5:10 PM | Comments (0)

March 8, 2015

Review Corner

When his advisors pushed back on this scheme to finance Social Security, arguing that it was regressive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded, "I guess you're right about the economics, but these taxes were never a problem of economics . They are politics all the way through. We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect those pensions. . . . With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program."6 He was right; no damn politician ever has.
I am a laissez-fairin', public-choice theory studyin', anti-government, little-l libertarian. Reading Jay Cost's A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, I felt the naïve waif. Cost details and documents corruption from the American founding and the particular growth of corruption from the Jackson administration. I will contrast my philosophical vision with Cost later in the review, but as a comprehensive, serious historical work on an important topic, He hits it out of the park -- or, returns it for a touchdown!
How is it that one of the wealthiest, most powerful entertainment organizations in the world pays no taxes and squeezes broadcasters? The answer is simple: run the Hamiltonian ideal of nationalistic encouragement of socially useful businesses through our localistic, pluralistic system, and voilá! As far as the taxman is concerned, the NFL is no different than the Red Cross.
Some historical figures I admire (President Chester A Arthur) have dirty fingers exposed, and some periods of history I hold out as ideals are treated roughly. Cost clings passionately to the Gilded Age's reputation for corruption, where I might see excesses in a country's unregulated expansion.
This era has often been called a laissez-faire period of history. The phrase suggests a lack of governmental interference in the economy, but in fact the government was a major player in it, strongly supporting certain industries with favorable policies. After the southern Democrats bolted from Congress in 1861, northern Republicans were free to pursue whatever legislative program they liked . As most of them were former Whigs, it should come as no surprise that they instituted a version of Henry Clay's American System.
Perhaps I should watch "Blazing Saddles" again. I've been soft on Presidents Grant and Harding for their contributions to liberty, but Cost is rightfully indignant about the corruption. It's not just Crèdit Mobiler and Teapot Dome, there was an accepted level of fraud. I've been easy on both because, being pre Humphrey's Executor, I'm not certain they felt responsible for the entire Executive Branch. But that is a pretty weak defense. Cost is right to be more demanding, as I would be when Sen. Harry Reid (Graft - NV) appropriated $21.5 Million to build a bridge over the Colorado River, connecting Laughlin, Nevada, to Bullhead City, Arizona -- where he owns 160 Acres. His assistant explained:
As has been stated before, Senator Reid's support for the bridge has absolutely nothing to do with the property he owns and is based on the fact that the project is good for southern Nevada, and nothing else.84
Cost adds: "At least [Tammany Hall sachem George Washington] Plunkitt had the decency to admit that he was engaged in graft."

The brilliant backbone of the book is the First and Second National Banks. The first pitted Hamiltonian aspirations against Jeffersonian ideals and was, in Cost's estimation, good because of the stering stewardship of Hamilton and Albert Gallatin. The Second crumbles in the partisan and venal Nicholas Biddle's tenure and is squashed by Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet.

I did a bit of research on Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who delivered the death blow as Sec. Treasury, replacing Sec. William Duane who would not pull the government deposits. It is foolish to look back at a time in history and suggest that it lacked rancor and partisanship, but you can make a good case for the Bank War's being an important foundation of the divide still extant today. Cost draws a line from the Bank War to the corruption of Fannie and Freddie and the Panic of '08. Masterful!

With the Second Bank, Nicholas Biddle was not afraid to use the bounty generated in part from the federal subsidy to lobby important people like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Fannie and Freddie, as Franklin Raines put it, managed their political risk "with the same intensity" that they managed their economic risks.

Serious. Comprehensive. Exhaustively detained and documented. Republic No More is an important work in the field of public choice or as an argument against government encroachment in to the private sector. BUT . . .

But maddeningly for me, Cost refuses to go there. It's not his job -- and he says it straight up "The point here is not to criticize the principle of industrial regulation, to promote a laissez-faire view of political economy, or to argue against social welfare provisions like Social Security." The thesis is rather that the founders chose a structure optimized for limited government and that the structure could not handle the tasks hurled upon it. No argument here. He quotes President Wilson from his academic days discussing the Madisonian system
as "Newtonian." With the direct election of Senators, regulation of industry, and mandate to provide general welfare, the system lost its balance.

Again no argument. I'd refer Cost to Randy Simmons's "Beyond Politics" [Review Corner] (Cost's scholarship is well-founded, I would not be surprised if he had read it). What manner of system could pretend to handle Social Security, Medicare, a secondary market for mortgages, interstate highways, banking regulations -- and run armed forces on the side?

Here I think I have a solid critique. But Cost suggests that we have swallowed hard and done some bi-partisan reforms in the past, The 1986 Tax Reform is his current example. I remember President Reagan going to his death bed pointing out that he never saw the spending cuts promised. But Cost's favorite example is the Mugwumps. Post-reconstruction America was just as divided, says Cost, but anti-Blaine/anti-Grantism Republicans joined with good government Democrats like President Cleveland to clean up patronage. He ends with a plea for extremists on both sides to come together on areas where consensus exists. No Labels meets the Mugwumps -- sounds like a feature on Mystery Science theater.

It really became a pressing concern after the calamitous War of 1812, when the country learned the hard way that it simply did not have the infrastructure to win a war such as that. This was unacceptable for a young, restless nation eager to make a claim to world greatness. As James Monroe intones, "We cannot go back. The spirit of the nation forbids it." The problem , of course, was that the spirit of the Constitution, at least as understood by James Madison at the time of ratification, did forbid it.

On its terms this a fantastic and important book. The horrors of Medicare and continuing corruption are astounding. I feel churlish withholding points because his philosophy doesn't match mine. But after laying out a compelling case of government overreach -- to not suggest, say, umm, scaling back government, seems a serious flaw. Three-point-five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 4:13 PM | Comments (0)

March 5, 2015

An Economist in a Cowboy Hat

And it ain't even Merle Hazzard!

Here's a video of Randy T. Simmons, a follow up on Sunday's Review Corner.

Hat-tip: Brother Bryan on Facebook.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:25 PM | Comments (3)
But johngalt thinks:

From Randy's slide at the 3:20 mark: Markets and politics are a dichotomy. Each is a competing way of achieving goals - Markets are the arena of individual action; Politics is the arena of collective action.

This is a powerful concept we all should think about. It says, politics does not merely impede free trade, ostensibly for purposes of deriving operating revenue and for "smoothing the rough edges of capitalism" through regulations claiming to promote "fairness" and "honest dealing." Politics is actually in direct competition with free trade.

Another interesting thing Simmons said was that voting is irrational. I believe he even said rational people don't bother to vote. This chafed at first but prompted a new way of looking at the failures of the political parties. In particular, the Libertarians. They are wasting their time imploring us to vote for their candidates. Instead they should implore us to stop voting. Stop participating in the democratic process. Live as free men and work to undo the democratic welfare state, for it is the enemy of the Republic we seek so desperately to keep.

Tea Partiers, libertarians, lovers of liberty and other fellow enemies of statism need to find new ways to degrade, defeat and ultimately destroy the Administrative State in the District of Columbia, or ASDC. To plagiarize the latest Bill O'Reilly bumper sticker, ASDC is EVIL.

Posted by: johngalt at March 7, 2015 9:34 AM
But johngalt thinks:

My comment above isn't the first time we've discussed the evils of the American Administrative State. JK called it to our attention two summers ago, during the height of the NSA public surveillance scandal, in the form of an A. Barton Finkle post in Reason.

I'm still open to suggestions for a better acronym than ASDC by the way. ASUS? ASUSA?

Posted by: johngalt at March 9, 2015 12:22 PM
But jk thinks:

In the book, Simmons seems more nuanced on voting. He quotes Chapter and Verse in the book on Bryan Caplan, why it is likely illogical to vote; but in the video he seems strident and dismissive. Caplan never tells you not to vote (though many libertarians I know do), but he explains why those who do not are being rational.

Your Bureaucracy question is even better asked of Jay Cost in the more recent Review Corner. Wilson thought a "scientific" administrative class important because it would be less subject to patronage and concomitant corruption.

He backed off later in favor of a more energetic executive, but those who clamor for "more government, please" are fine with this. Who cares if the EPA is destroying rights -- you want the kiddies to breathe clean air don't you?

What to call them? Perhaps Michelle Rhee would lend us "The Blob:" her appellation for the Teachers Unions and associated bureaucracy.

Posted by: jk at March 9, 2015 12:54 PM

March 1, 2015

Review Corner

Their calculations are at odds with those of businessmen, their market counterparts . Whereas the latter asks how much people want something, the equivalent of asking what they are willing to pay, the politician asks how many people want something. [...] Legislating tax policy is a process of give and take, but those being taken from are seldom part of the conversation.
Public Choice Theory marries the consequentialist and rights-based argument for libertarianism. And Randy T. Simmons's Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure bakes the cake and puts the handsome couple on top.

Simmons uses just enough economics to ensure a factual underpinning. I don't think any interested reader would feel overwhelmed with theory and charts. Yet there is enough for a serious reader to see the projected and actual effects of previous policies. And it raises the work above polemics.

Despite the importance of individual preferences in democracies, a number of otherwise attractive political features have the unhappy facility of violating Paretian efficiency. The two most prominent involve redistribution of income. Redistributive gains dominate efficiency considerations in policy discussions, and democratic institutions encourage this redistributive propensity. In addition, democracy has an unfortunate but a distinct penchant for enacting inefficient proposals-- proposals that make some better off but at the expense of others or even worse, making everyone worse off in the long run.

Ruminations on Pareto efficiency always gets you invited back to the best cocktail parties. But for a non-strident, non-polemical book, Beyond Politics advocates for a vastly limited government. All the popular arguments for government interdiction for labor, safety, alleviation of poverty, and imposition of medical code standards are comprehensively dismantled. Society as a whole will be worse off and the solutions will be less innovative and less effective than those subject to the trial of market competition.
The great accomplishment of modern public choice has been to demonstrate the pernicious workings of the visible hand of politics. The same decision makers operating under market and political rules produce quite different results.
Judges force the redesign of everyday tools and airplanes. They decide if surgeons in operating rooms were acting appropriately or if CEOs ran their financial firms appropriately. They are the most powerful regulators in the American system. And with each new , groundbreaking decision a judge's status in the legal , media, and academic communities increases.

Simons does not come up with many public goods better provided by government. Protect property rights, adjudicate disagreements and let free exchange handle the rest. He quotes both Coase and Bryan Caplan extensively. You cannot compensate for thee failures by invoking democracy or popular consent -- the system has many misplaced incentives built into it.
In Latin "votum" or vote means "ardent wish." But obviously many American voters are not terribly ardent and are, in fact, highly frustrated, which explains why the right to vote is not regularly exploited by many citizens.

Accessible but serious: five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:31 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

Okay I'll bite - First Ayn Rand explained why a proper government only engages in the protection of individuals from other individuals. Now Utah's Randy Simmons concurs, saying that most "public goods" aren't good - that protecting property rights and adjudicating disagreements are the notable exceptions. So we must ask why then, does government continue doing things that are not in the best interest of the citizenry? Why do folks like us go along with the legal, though immoral, violation of so many of our freedoms?

Posted by: johngalt at March 7, 2015 9:17 AM

February 22, 2015

Review Corner

Near the end of his life, [John Singleton] Mosby was visited by a well-meaning clergyman who wanted to inquire about his spiritual future. Students of Mosby know that he rarely attended church even though he married Pauline Clarke, "a faithful Roman Catholic." Their conversation was overheard by Mosby's grandson, Beverly, who would one day become an attorney and Navy rear admiral. At one point, the clergyman asked, "Colonel, do you believe in hell?" Mosby, according to the story, simply replied, "Oh, yes. Hell is being a Republican in Virginia." It was a true and honest statement, spoken by a man whose moral compass always steered him toward Truth.
I spilled upon the author, David Goetz, touting his book in a Q & A on CSPAN on Sunday Night. (Yes, dweeby even for me.) It plays into a storyline for which I am ever the sucker: former enemies/opponents united for a common cause. David Boies and Ted Olsen coming together for gay rights always cheered me, and my favorite photo of all times is likely this one of Keith Plessy and Phoebe Furguson, grandchildren of the famed litigants.

Hell is being Republican in Virginia tells the tale of Ulysses S. Grant and John Singleton Mosby. Both men shared a warrior ethos and an officer's love of country. But they did not share the same side in the War Between the States. (heh -- I'll abjure the term "Civil War" but not quite join Brother Keith in referring to "The War of Northern Aggression").

After the war, Mosby petitioned President Grant for better treatment for the men in his company and provided a southern view of reconstruction. Grant complied and the two men who had spent years trying to kill the other become lifelong friends. Each was criticized for the friendship -- but Grant was President of the United States and the "victor'd" hero. Mosby lost it all for supporting Grant's reelection against Horace Greeley.

Mosby's name evoked a certain toxicity in the air. His law practice fell off by more than 80 percent, from $6,000 in 1871 to $1,100 in 1876. People who knew Mosby crossed the street to avoid having to speak to him; and his children were frequently harassed by other children. By the third week of November, he had moved his law office to Washington and shut up the house, taking the children to live with his mother. On court days, he returned to Warrenton by train, armed with a revolver in a holster on his hip.
He had commented that, during his first term, Grant had shown a certain benevolence toward the South; and now in 1872, he seemed the lesser of two evils. When questioned as to how he arrived at this conclusion, Mosby replied that the South had been fighting Greeley for forty years, while Grant had tormented it for only four.

Mosby had correctly identified General Grant's hand in the final terms.
At a later point in the debate, Mosby remarked that he supported Grant because of his terms to Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865: "Surely no conqueror ever bore himself more magnanimously to a vanquished foe than did Grant when he returned his sword to Lee and bade him go in peace, Mosby observed. "The covenant made that day has been sacredly kept . . . (Grant) was no Achilles to drag the body of his enemy around the walls of the conquered city."

When things get impossible for Mosby in the States, Grant gets him an ambassadorship to Hong Kong. Mosby brings some rare honor to the Asian foreign service.
The opium monopoly was openly sold by the governor of Hong Kong from time to time and the "Opium Farm," as it was known, had recently been outbid by a rival. Rather than abandon their business, they simply moved their boilers from Hong Kong to Macao, a Portuguese colony to the west, and continued producing opium. Bailey had been charging $10,000 a year to sign the opium invoices, and Mosby was offered the same. Instead, he signed for the required $2.50.

The book is told in anecdotes and incidents. Most of the chapters are just a few pages, but the integral of the stories is a solid understanding of two American Heroes. There are appendices with more traditional biographies. The main part of the book is well worth having on a Kindle to read when you have a few minutes. Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:19 AM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2015

Review Corner

27. The world's most precious resource is the persistent and passionate human mind.
Number 27 of Peter [H. Diamandis]'s Laws as recounted in Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, which Diamandis coauthored with Steven Kotler.

I enjoyed the same Authors' "Abundance" [Review Corner] a few years ago. I pre-ordered this and eagerly awaited its release. This Review Corner was going to mention the difficulty in a sophomore work. While Bold is good, I was going to suggest that a reader would probably be better with the first book.

I'll stick by that. But I looked up the old review and was surprised how qualified it was. Abundance, remembered so fondly, received four stars (pretty much "panned" on the jk scale) and I closed with "I would still recommend it -- just have some pain killing medication available."

Ow. Medication? I don't remember saying that. But I did and both books share the same gifts and the same flaws. The gifts include an unabashed embrace of modernity. Diamandis has started a company to mine asteroids. He sees exponential Moore's Law style power curves in many applications. As such, it is a great book to share with your favorite neo-Malthusian: "Hey, we run outta stuff, we'll just go mine it from asteroids!"

It is a great positive vision and one that is powered with reason and human capacity. Much to love.

What helps [Google panjandrum Larry] Page imagine the impossible is a fervent belief in rational optimism. 38 The term, borrowed from author Matt Ridley, refers to the exact kind of optimism we advocated for in Abundance. It does not mean pie-in-the-sky daydreaming. It means rather a sober review of the facts, which include the fact that technology is accelerating exponentially and transforming scarcity into abundance, that the tools of tomorrow are giving us ever-increasing problem-solving leverage, that the world--based on dozens of metrics (see the Abundance appendix)-- is also getting exponentially better, and finally, as a result, that small teams are now more empowered to solve grand challenges than ever before. And it's these reasons that make rational optimism such an important strategy for thinking at scale.

Ridley, check. Optimism, check. Human potential, check. He includes micro-biographies of several of our time's great visionaries with very inspirational methods for motivation and behavior. Just as a self help book, it gets three stars.
As Burt Rutan, winner of the Ansari XPRIZE, once taught me: "The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea."
At Facebook , there is a sign hanging in the main stairwell that reads: "Move fast, break things." This kind of attitude is critical. If you're not incentivizing risk, you're denying access to flow-- which is the only way to keep pace in a breakneck world.

One of the great visionaries -- of course -- is wunderkind Elon Musk. On this hill I will plan my critical flag. Diamandis's progress is Muskian progress. "Let's change the world with 'lectric cars!" Never mind the WSJ Editorial this week that wondered about building what Musk purports will be a $700 Bllion company someday on subsidies and cheap government loans.

Diamandis spends a decade fighting bureaucrats to offer his sub-orbital space flights; then he has a new fight to offer one to a famous passenger.

I decided that the world's foremost expert on gravity deserved the opportunity to experience zero gravity, so I offered professor Stephen Hawking a parabolic flight. He accepted, and we issued a press release. This is when our friends at the FAA-- whose unofficial motto is clearly "we're not happy until you're not happy"-- reminded us that our operating license permitted us to fly only "able-bodied" passengers, and Hawking, being totally paralyzed and wheelchair bound, did not qualify.

Spoiler alert: Hawking gets his ride. But government intrusion does not get another mention in this shiny new world we are going to create. My review from 2012 stands. So buy the family size bottle of pain-killers and read both Abundance (four stars) and Bold (three-point-five).

Posted by John Kranz at 10:08 AM | Comments (0)

February 8, 2015

Review Corner

What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.
I had always considered Steven Pinker to be a pointy-head Harvard Professor, but his Wikipedia entry says "He is a Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind." Remarkably devoid of phrenology.

But his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a masterful work. He collects, analyzes, and communicates voluminous amounts of data from wide-ranging sources and varying disciplines to assemble a comprehensive look at violence from cavemen to 21st Century city dwellers. It does the whole concept of scholarship proud.

The graph stunned almost everyone who saw it (including me-- as I mentioned in the preface, it was the seed that grew into this book). The discovery confounds every stereotype about the idyllic past and the degenerate present. When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.

It ranges broadly through history, anthropology, economics, genetics, and philosophy -- but there is always a foundation of supporting data. The first and longest portion on the book is dedicated to convincing the skeptical that the world you see on CNN every night (every night you're stuck in a n airport anyway) is less violent than the pastoral settings of indigenous peoples or pre-industrial country life. He describes an illustration from "the 15th -century German manuscript The Medieval Housebook, a depiction of daily life as seen through the eyes of a knight."
In the detail shown in figure 3-5, a peasant disembowels a horse as a pig sniffs his exposed buttocks. In a nearby cave a man and a woman sit in the stocks. Above them a man is being led to the gallows, where a corpse is already hanging, and next to it is a man who has been broken on the wheel, his shattered body pecked by a crow. The wheel and gibbet are not the focal point of the drawing, but a part of the landscape, like the trees and hills.

Ah, the good old days. And this was a huge step up from the hunter-gather societies. The city of Boulder is thick with those who wish we could return to those peaceful days when indigenous Americans roamed an unspoiled land to hunt buffalo and worship mother Gaia. Trouble is they had 100x the murder rate. In some pre-historical societies studied a member had a 50-50 chance of meeting death at the hands of another human as from natural causes -- all before discoveries in hygiene and medicine reduced natural causes.
The same kind of long division has deflated the peaceful reputation of the !Kung, the subject of a book called The Harmless People, and of the Central Arctic Inuit (Eskimos), who inspired a book called Never in Anger. 72 Not only do these harmless, nonviolent, anger-free people murder each other at rates far greater than Americans or Europeans do, but the murder rate among the !Kung went down by a third after their territory had been brought under the control of the Botswana government, as the Leviathan theory would predict. 73

In the concluding chapters, Pinker offers several reasons for the downward slope of the violence curve. I think most ThreeSourcers would agree with most of the reasons; enlightenment values score highly.

The largest reduction comes from Hobbs's Leviathan and is bad news for our Anarchist friends. The Sheriff and courts clean up Dodge. Murder rates fall by magnitudes, but not without cost.

When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats.

The book is not political. Prof. Pinker takes a couple gratuitous swipes at President Bush, but I assume that is in his contract at Harvard.

Pinker does not spike the football, but one could easily use this as a celebration of Progressivism. The greatest gains have been made in Western Europe. The U.S. South (and West) were slower to drop and still lag behind. The sphere of protection and empathy was expanded from tribe to race to all races to homosexuals to animals. Are we all heading to Denmark and just at different locations on the path?

The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance.

That is a difficult consideration for me but I want to repeat that that is not an explicit thesis. Halfway through, I read a Denver Post article on coyote-killing competition. You don't have to be on the PETA board to be discomfited by that. Is there an optimal level of civilization (and homicide?) Most accept liberty's requiring trade-offs in safety. Perhaps that is part.

More appreciated 'round these parts, the second act of the Civilizing and Pacifying process was what the economist Samuel Ricard called "Gentle Commerce."

You have an incentive, moreover, to anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy. 38 A good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be.

Pinker is a Psychologist, and the last chapters evaluate his theories experimentally. Many of the studies make very interesting reading: student/paid guinea pigs who were told to skip a meal given two radishes and having to sit in front of a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and try solve unsolvable puzzles. Sadism has just moved from the fields to the Ivory Tower.

The data in the final chapter comes mostly from studies like these and fMRI scans. I found it interesting but am skeptical of both processes. There's a bit of Jonathan Haidt style, more real world data (and Pinker quotes Haidt extensively). But my skepticism led me to find that a weak finish to a strong -- and important book.

Five stars -- its small flaws are overwhelmed by its important contributions.

UPDATE: Pinker has the lead story on Cato Letters. Hat-tip Facebook friend Brad.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:17 AM | Comments (11)
But johngalt thinks:

I'm willing to take that trade too, but I posit it is a false dichotomy. Restore urbanites' freedom to armed self-defense and then let's see how many murders there are.

Posted by: johngalt at February 10, 2015 4:21 PM
But jk thinks:

I'm in. And End the Drug War. But I still suspect we don't get to the Western Europe 1/100,000.

Posted by: jk at February 11, 2015 10:37 AM
But dagny thinks:

"An armed society is a polite society." R.A.H.

Posted by: dagny at February 11, 2015 12:15 PM
But johngalt thinks:

4.7/100000 today. Not too bad. Others not reaching the magical standard of western Europe:

Canada 1.6
Finland 1.6
Belgium 1.6
Norway 2.2
Cuba 4.2

We could strive to be at least as non-homicidal as the communist dictatorship of Cuba I suppose. The global average in 2012 was 6.2/100000.

And the most homicidal places on Earth? Honduras at 90.4 and Venezuela at 53.7/100000. Central America has 4 of the bottom 6.

Posted by: johngalt at February 11, 2015 2:54 PM
But jk thinks:

3.1 for the Centennial State. I thought the difference was greater. Thought those crazy Republicans in Texas were in double digits, nut your link has them about 5.

Screw it, that's close enough to Europe.

Posted by: jk at February 11, 2015 7:36 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Texas was 5.9 in 2000, but down to 4.4 in 2012. I'd like to see a breakdown within the state data. Where are the "hot spots" I wonder? Houston? Dallas?

Side note: In a taped address to open the Grammys President Obama claimed that "nearly one in five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape." That must depend on your definition of "attempted rape" because the FBI data on "forcible rape" is much lower:

California - 20.6/100,000 (0.0206%, or 1 in 4854)
Texas - 29.6/100,000 (0.0296%, or 1 in 3378)
Colorado - 40.7/100,000 (0.0407%, or 1 in 2457)

(Shame on you, Colorado.)

Posted by: johngalt at February 12, 2015 11:52 AM

January 25, 2015

Review Corner

To be dishonest is to be disconnected from reality, which is a very unhealthy place to be.
I promised some kinder words for Objectivism. Cato CEO and BB&T Hoss John Allison is on the Yaron Brook level of describing the ideas of Ayn Rand. And in the follow-up to his impressive "The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure: Why Pure Capitalism is the World Economy's Only Hope" [Review Corner], He shares the principles -- heavily derived from Rand -- that he used to build a large and profitable bank that navigated the stormy seas of the Panic of '08 without even a quarterly loss.

The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure: Why the Future of Business Depends on the Return to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness can sit on the shelf with all the pop business management books, but it adds quite a bit to the formula: wait for it . . . a philosophy and moral foundation. I have enjoyed many books in this genre, recently Bob Lutz's [Review Corner], but the implicit message is always "be a greater person ---be like me;" Allison gives a template that can be adapted to any organization or used by an individual for personal improvement.

Many people view integrity as some form of duty. Integrity is not a duty. It is a means to improve the probability of being successful and happy. The concept is to develop your principles outside the "heat of battle" and then to consistently apply those principles in the heat of battle because you know that living these principles improves the probability of being successful and happy. Therefore, it is important to not view integrity as a duty or some kind of ill-defined obligation. This perception encourages you to "cheat" on the very principles that are fundamental to your success and happiness.


Because there is a proper method for judging individuals and because individuals must be evaluated as individuals (because they are individuals), collectivism and all its ugly variations should be rejected. Collectivists judge individuals by their membership in groups. Since all the individuals in the group are different and therefore should be judged differently, collectivists have a 100 percent error rate.

My management days are well behind me but I enjoy business books and think we all our own managers and leaders in all but the most non-autonomous organizations. Allison's "core values" are valuable at any level.
We have now reviewed the 10 core values used at BB& T and my personal values: reality, reason, independent thinking, productivity, honesty, integrity, justice, pride, self-esteem, and teamwork. Upon reflection, one can see that not only are these values not contradictory but that they are integrated. Failure to execute on one value will make it impossible for you to execute on another value.

I deducted 0.5 stars last week to Alex Epstein for inserting philosophy where I felt in extraneous. It's central -- primary -- to Allison's book (though both are excellent proponents). Allison gets five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:45 AM | Comments (0)

January 24, 2015

"A Truly Persuasive Work"

The previous post dealing with the "compatibility" of capitalism and Catholicism prompted dagny in a comment, and me in my thoughts, to consider the morality of capitalism.

Those thoughts included a recent review corner entry where it was suggested that a flourishing humanity progressing toward ever more prosperity and justice can be achieved by convincing people it is, a) a good thing and, b) achievable through free trade, i.e. capitalism. (More specifically, through the unfettered use of "fossil" fuel energy sources.) And that, c) presenting a moral basis for the primacy of humanity is "a new vulnerability to defend, not reinforcement."

I believed I had found an author who gave a moral basis for humanity to dominate nature in this Michael Shermer book whose "exploration of science and morality ... demonstrates how the scientific way of thinking has made people, and society as a whole, more moral" and did so without resting his case upon a foundation of Objectivism. It appeared that his justification was rooted in widely accepted principles of science and morality, and not a new vulnerability. The book is 439 pages and I've not read it but this reviewer was left wanting.

The reader is constantly reminded that it is Shermer who is driving this bus, authoring this heavy tome. When he fails to wrangle with hard issues, there is nothing the reader can do about it beyond reading on and hoping for something better in a later chapter. But that something better never came for me. I was not satisfied with the author’s overbroad reach, his irrelevant details, his glossing over the toughest issues, his very human but unfortunate tendency not to see the fallacies in his own reasoning and the failure of his own assertion of the facts. The book seemed not so much scientific and rational to me as opinionated. Perhaps the author has been too successful for too long and has become complacent. But I did not see in him a consistent ability to question his own thinking and hone his argument in order to achieve a truly persuasive work.

This illustrates my point that people long for a moral basis to justify their beliefs, and ultimately their actions. (No great leap of insight there, for this is the chief factor in the historic success of man's many theistic traditions.) Failure to justify the moral basis for human flourishing will, eventually and always, crumble in the face of some unchallenged moral basis to the contrary.

Posted by JohnGalt at 11:35 AM | Comments (3)
But Jk thinks:

You can rat on me. The author was in Denver last night, and I could not be persuaded to enter the big city on Friday night.

I read the Kindle sample thus morning both of "The Moral Arc" and Steven Pinkers Better Angels of Our Nature upon which it is built.Both are very good and I struggle to decide which to complete. Both provide generous samples (both are generous books, Pinker's weighs in at 851 pages, Shermers 550).

Shermer seems borderline Objectivist to except that he extends -- I hope you're sitting down -- the sphere of protections to all sentient beings. Reading the first couple chapters it does not seem unmoored from principles.

And, just counting stars, there were many many more complimentary reviews.

Posted by: Jk at January 24, 2015 5:01 PM
But jk thinks:

Incentives matter. Shermer's is ($16.99/560) = 0.03/page. Pinker is ($10.99/832) = $0.013. That Harvard value that everyone speaks of....

The trouble with both -- and where I might push back on your reviewer -- is that both are writing to somebody who watches CNN every night and says "no way things are less violent! Planes are disappearing into the ocean!" Both are speaking to incredulous audiences and carefully piecing together documentation. I accept the premise wholeheartedly and am ready to move along.

I have to ask if Mister Three Stars is truly missing a foundational moral premise or if he just does not accept that we've left behind barbarism at an alarming rate.

(Srsly -- everyone with a Kindle should get the sample of Pinker's at least. He academically lays out the premise he plans to prove with anecdotes about the violence in Virgil, The Bible, Shakespeare, Grimm Brothers, &c. It's a powerful read and you get a nice hunk of the book for nothin'.)

Posted by: jk at January 24, 2015 5:54 PM
But johngalt thinks:

I agree with you on the "hey, it's way more violent than it used to be" mythology. The population is many times larger, and we require cable news to find violence in our culture most of the time. (True, none of us live in Chicago.)

Posted by: johngalt at January 25, 2015 2:59 AM

January 18, 2015

Review Corner

All the way up to Topanga, the radio cranked out a Super Surfin' Marathon, all commercial -free-- which seemed peculiar until Doc realized that nobody who would sit through this music-teacher's nightmare of doubled-up blues lines, moronic one-chord "tunes," and desperate vocal effects could possibly belong to any consumer demographic known to the ad business.
With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, this week's review corner is more about whether I can go home again than literary merit. If you've stumbled on the review by search engine, you might wish to try one on the next page.

Thomas Pynchon remains my favorite novelist but there is an element of inertia. I don't read many novels anymore, and our ability to be touched declines with age. The idea of making a movie out of a Pynchon book seemed laughable (though I'd try an arty three hour Sundance-bait version of "Mason & Dixon" if somebody knows where we can obtain financing). Yet, a good friend and more-serious-Pynchon-addict-than-me emailed me in December. He said they've made a movie of Inherent Vice. Let's go.

Turns out the movie didn't come out until January 9, but I started seeing commercials. It had Joachim Phoenix in it and an ad budget. Wow. That gave me time to score the book on Kindle and, unlike typical Pynchon fare, it is an easy read. You had better set a month or three aside to tackle Gravity's Rainbow or V. I generally steer newbies toward Mason & Dixon. It's complex enough to see the man's genius without the screaming inaccessibility of his earlier works. It's a very good book.

I reviewed "Bleeding Edge" in November 2013, and I see the review is interchangeable with this one. (Actually, Bleeding Edge would have made a good movie.) Ah well, give me a few stars for consistency.

I would not chase anybody away from Inherent Vice. It's a fun story, and the prose sparkles. Our hero, Larry "Doc" Sportello is a low rent PI in Los Angeles. Doc is more stoner and surfer than tough guy, more baked than hard boiled as it were.

There was an ancient superstition at the beach, something like the surfer belief that burning your board will bring awesome waves, and it went like this-- take a Zig-Zag paper and write on it your dearest wish, and then use it to roll a joint of the best dope you can find, and smoke it all up, and your wish would be granted. Attention and concentration were also said to be important, but most of the dopers Doc knew tended to ignore that part.

Pynchon teases the hippies like a friend makes fun of his sister. He'll expose foibles but you'd better not as he is clearly still on their side. I'm sure that makes for a good movie but this reader is more ready to move on.
By this point in California history, enough hippie metaphysics had oozed in among surfing folk that even the regulars here at Wavos, some of them, seeing where this was headed, began to shift their feet and look around for other things to do.

I'm going to hand out 3.5 stars, and unless my friend calls me back I suspect I'll wait for the movie to be released on Amazon (it got a "meh" review form Kurt Loder at Reason).

Posted by John Kranz at 9:44 AM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2015

Reason Does Review Corner

Ronald Bailey provides an interesting and valuable review of Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels [Review Corner].

As my world revolves around me, I was of course interested in whether Bailey shared my concerns. While he did not use the locution "too much Objectivism," I'm going to claim we're on the same side.

There is another problem with Epstein's book, one more substantial than the possibility that he has unduly pessimistic about nuclear's political prospects. Is the energy and climate debate really an argument about morality, pitting those whose standard is a flourishing humanity against those whose standard is a burgeoning natural world?

Like me, he is very fond of the book's great points and serious foundation.

Posted by John Kranz at 2:22 PM | Comments (8)
But johngalt thinks:

I'm so obtuse sometimes.


Posted by: johngalt at January 17, 2015 9:28 AM
But jk thinks:

Fair question. And take comfort knowing next week's Review Corner of the explicitly Objectivist The Leadership Cure by John Allison will do quite well.

Epstein sees it as supporting his position -- also fair -- but I see it as a new argument "whoa, wait. You mean even if global warming kills all the polar bears you're cool?" Without it, his arguments are bulletproof and objectively (see what I did there?) verifiable. Bringing in the standard of value is a new vulnerability to defend, not reinforcement.

Posted by: jk at January 18, 2015 9:42 AM
But johngalt thinks:

Okay, I just read your rebuttal comment over on the Review Corner. I do see where you are going with this. It is not as clear cut as I or Epstein have portrayed it.

The problem with removing the "new argument" of the moral primacy of humanity above the rest of the natural world is that it removes the answer to "why" human prosperity is more important than protecting every species from extinction. If nobody asks you that question, you're good - your argument is bulletproof. But someone will.

You imagine that a lefty or moderate friend might take away that, "Species extinction is fine as long as Man comes out okay." But this is a false choice. Can you name the species that was wiped out or even threatened as a direct result of human existence?

By drawing tendentious connections, the new left has convinced folks that this is true. Our job is to pull the leg out from under that argument. At present, it consists of "a consensus of people smarter than you states unequivocally that using our most economical energy sources will eventually wipe out several species, and worse." People who ask "how" or "why" are never given an answer, but instead are called "deniers." At the same time, nobody ever asks, "Who prevented species extinction before man?" Or, "How can man prevent species extinction without massive expenditures of labor or capital?"

Let me ask this: Are you comfortable with Epstein's moral position? Or do you believe that human prosperity necessitates the sacrifice of the rest of the natural world?

As you ponder those questions, consider two of many excellent quotes from the excellent 'Return of the Primative: The Anti-Industrial Revolution' by Ayn Rand:

City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that the ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific, technological problem - not a political one - and it can be solved only by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death. (Page 282)

If, after the failure of such accusations as "Capitalism leads you to the poorhouse" and "Capitalism leads you to war," the New Left is left with nothing better than: "Capitalism defiles the beauty of your countryside," one may justifiably conclude that, as an intellectual power, the collectivist movement is through. (Page 170)

Posted by: johngalt at January 18, 2015 10:39 AM
But jk thinks:

Like Andrew Luck, I wish to congratulate you: "that was a good hit!" Your positions are sound. Let me start in the middle and work out.

I'm not at all certain I am comfortable with Epstein's position. So often -- and the way I framed this -- I agree but think the Objectivist position a tougher "sell." This one is a tough sell to me. Let me spin up the Tendentious Machine™: "Can we disallow dog fighting?" Some humans like it; they can breed or buy their own dogs; I don't have to watch it. I am rather fine proscribing it, though that is technically sacrificing human needs to nature.

I concede to having never considered that big ugly homo sapiens did not extinctify a lot of species with our rapacious growth. I suspect you're right that it is far fewer, but I suspect is non-zero. Not as in "we wiped 'em all out," but surely there were occasions where a small remaining number met their final demise at the hand of development.

I guess I'll argue that protecting the snail-darter is not worth leaving half a state with no electricity without arguing that it bears no consideration. And with that, I'll say I've said my peace. The beauty of Epstein's book is its cost-benefit analysis: how much do we want to sacrifice to protect a small fish? To say that is a priori zero because "we come first" seems as weak an argument as it is infinite because "we cannot harm nature."

Posted by: jk at January 19, 2015 9:56 AM
But johngalt thinks:

You answered my question, and I am pleased. You still rely on anecdote, however, that human development "surely" wiped out more than one specie. If that were true there should be claims, evidence and proof. Because: internet. For that I think we're all guilty of believing what we're led to believe.

Let me leave a little more food for thought on your final point. The problem is not in the analysis, or the sacrifice, or the protection - it is in the replacement of "I" with "we." (And this relates directly to the second of the two quotes above: "as an intellectual power, the collectivist movement is through."

Posted by: johngalt at January 19, 2015 11:13 AM
But jk thinks:

I hope I am not out of place sharing a Facebook IM, but I thought you'd enjoy some support:

Obviously I [Brother Bryan] never got around to responding to your review of Epstein's book, but I just popped over to 3Sources and saw that [Brother Johngalt] said exactly what I was going to. So I suppose there is no need now.

I replied: "doing jobs Americans won't do..."

Posted by: jk at January 19, 2015 1:31 PM

January 11, 2015

Review Corner

Imagine if we had followed the advice of some of our leading advisers then, many of whom are some of our leading advisers now, to severely restrict the energy source that billions of people used to lift themselves out of poverty in the last thirty years? We would have caused billions of premature deaths--deaths that were prevented by our increasing use of fossil fuels.

What happens if today's predictions and prescriptions are just as wrong? That would mean billions of premature deaths over the next thirty years and beyond. And the loss of a potentially amazing future.

Review Corner, it has ben noted, is frequently too generous with stars. Today's stinginess for a great book will seem cruel by comparison

I had elected not to read Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. I read a great review in the Objective Standard, and the topic was certainly of interest, but it was clear that Epstein grounded the book on Objectivist principles and I had trepidation.

A recommendation from both Blog Brother Bryan and a mutual LOTR-F friend pulled me back in the fold. "Is it 'too Objectivist?'" I asked Bryan. He replied "How can something be 'too Objectivist?'"

I succumbed to peer pressure, picked it up on Kindle, and enjoyed it immensely. It is a powerful, well documented, and comprehensive book. It sounds some common themes we've discussed on ThreeSources, but adds great depth, clarity, and corroborating data.

This is a microcosm of the central idea of this book-- that more energy means more ability to improve our lives; less energy means less ability-- more helplessness, more suffering, and more death. Of course, this book is focused on fossil fuel energy-- but only, as you'll see, because I believe that it is the most essential technology for producing energy for 7 billion people to improve their lives, at least over the next several decades. If there was a better form of energy and it was under attack in a way that wildly exaggerated its negatives and undervalued its positives, I'd be writing the moral case for that form of energy.

Epstein shows that all the negative externalities for fossil fuels are highlighted if not wildly exaggerated, but all the bird-slicing, rare-earth mining, habitat-destructing side effects of renewables are conveniently ignored. Likewise, the safety, reliability, and portability of oil, gas, and coal are rarely compared to against their suggested replacements.
Why do our thought leaders never talk about this part of the fossil fuel- energy equation, which we can call the energy effect? It's all around us. While in Minnesota over New Year's 2014 visiting some dear friends (they would have to be dear for me to brave that weather ), I realized, upon walking from my car to the bed-and-breakfast about forty feet away, that I couldn't find my key. I was in the natural climate. As I searched for my key at -10 degrees Fahrenheit, my fingers getting very cold very fast, it occurred to me that, were I stuck outside, I could easily die within the hour.

That's "natural" for you. Natural farming cannot feed us, natural climate will kill us. No amount of human flourishing is possible without expending significant amounts of energy. Therefore, it is natural to bring in the primacy of survival and importance of human adaptation.
I hold human life as the standard of value, and you can see that in my earlier arguments: I think that our fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives, and I think that the cuts proposed by the environmentalists of the 1970s were wrong because of all the death and suffering they would have inflicted on human beings.

I risk lapsing into a familiar internecine argument here. But I think the case is compelling -- devastating -- without "human life as the standard of value."
Not everyone holds human life as their standard of value, and people often argue that things are right or wrong for reasons other than the ways they benefit or harm human beings. For example, many religious people think that it is wrong to eat certain foods or to engage in certain sexual acts, not because there is any evidence that these foods or acts are unhealthy or otherwise harmful to human beings but simply because they believe God forbids them. Their standard of value is not human life but (what they take to be) God’s will.

Oh buddy! I think you just turned down a side road there. Can we get back on the highway? I charged the Leaf overnight, but I still have range anxiety...
You might wonder how holding human life as your standard of value applies to preserving nature. It applies simply: preserve nature when doing so will benefit human life (such as a beautiful park to enjoy) and develop it when it will benefit human life. By contrast, if nonimpact , not human life, is the standard, the moral thing to do is always leave nature alone.

Again, well trod arguments, but: I see where Epstein is coming from. I don't object to his including a human life as your standard of value (HLAYSOV); it does not scare me off his thesis. But it impedes my sharing his book and propagating his arguments. If I lend this to somebody (well, if I had lefty or moderate friends who'd actually read a book and I lent it...) I imagine they'd take away that "species extinction is fine as long as Man comes out okay."

That argument is neither completely unfair nor completely false. But but but -- that's not the argument I want to have. I want to talk about billions of people killed if we listen to the Paul Erlichs of the world. I want to talk about bringing billions out of poverty and privation. I want to talk about the clinic in Nambia where babies die because the generator only runs four hours a day. Instead, we'll discuss HLATSOV.

So, it's a five star book if you could rip the Objectivism out. As it stands it's 4.5.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:12 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

I set this review aside for later, since it was so long. I still haven't read it all, but let me at least point out one thing:

"I want to talk about billions of people killed if we listen to the Paul Erlichs of the world."

"I want to talk about bringing billions [of people] out of poverty and privation."

"I want to talk about the clinic in Nambia where [human] babies die because the generator only runs four hours a day."

So really, you want to talk about the primacy of human life without first establishing that human life is your standard of value. That's fine by the way, just don't be surprised when all of your interlocutor's objections take the form of "who died and made humans the boss?"

Posted by: johngalt at January 16, 2015 4:14 PM
But jk thinks:

I just assumed that you agreed with every word.

Yes, the Saganists will not be moved. We wicked humans are a cancerous blight on a perfect world, blah, blah, blah. But I contend that they are beyond reach.

A moderate environmentalist would find much food for thought in this book; the things which matter to him or her are frequently better in the prosperous society with high energy use. Looking to capture that person at the philosophical margin, I worry about the equally strident example I provided of species extinction. My new invention improves human life but wipes out many species. We do not really need all those for human flourishing per se, but their protection is worthwhile.

Posted by: jk at January 16, 2015 6:24 PM

January 7, 2015

Book "threatens to tear the very fabric of civilized life"

And it gets five stars and an Editor's Choice Award!

It seems not everyone enjoyed "Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court" as much as Review Corner. The Washington Monthly's legal pundit Michael O'Donnell says:

"Like most libertarians, Root cares more about principle than orthodoxy; hence his book is no partisan screed. Yet he is representative of libertarians in another way as well. His positions sound reasonable until you begin thinking through their implications, at which point you realize just how radical they are."

From there it devolves into "threatens to tear the very fabric of civilized life" and "no more sunsets: just toxins and smog." Those wacky, toxin loving libertarians...

Posted by John Kranz at 11:06 AM | Comments (2)
But nanobrewer thinks:

It's an uncontrolled literary singularity! (Sorry, couldn't resist).

Posted by: nanobrewer at January 8, 2015 11:23 AM
But johngalt thinks:

For my part, I wondered how a mere Shepherd could be so powerful. And a fictional one at that!

Posted by: johngalt at January 8, 2015 3:04 PM

January 4, 2015

Review Corner

The story of his first paying job would appear frequently in Frederick Douglass's writings and speeches over the years, and with good reason. At the center of his lifelong struggle for liberty and equality stood the principle of self-ownership, a concept that necessarily included both the freedom to compete in the economic marketplace and the right to enjoy the fruits of those labors. Slavery, as Douglass understood all too well, obliterated such things, robbing its victims not only of the products of their toil, but of their control over their own bodies. Earning that "first free dollar" was therefore a milestone in his life. As he described the event in My Bondage and My Freedom, the second of his three autobiographies, "I was now my own master--a tremendous fact."
So Damon Root's Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court begins to weave a fundamental theory of rights into a comprehensive but accessible treatment of liberty based jurisprudence.

The long war referenced in the title is between a libertarian view of the judicial branch's purpose in protecting our rights from majoritarianism. Rather than the straight libertarian vs. progressive split, however, Root shows that the Conservatives are in league with the Progressives under the mantle of "judicial restraint." Much as I admire Judge Robert Bork and Justice Antonin Scalia, both are committed to the idea that the court is not there to protect us from ourselves in a democracy.

Justice Thomas and a litany of 19th Century legends like Justice Stephen Field and Justice Rufus Peckham, conversely, see no problem with "activism" if that activism protects our liberty.

It curiously chronicles an intellectual journey I have made over the last decade, moving from Robert Bork's view of Lochner v. New York to David Bernsteins's [Review Corner] and from Justice Scalia's unenumerated rights [Review Corner] to Clark Neily's [Review Corner]. Clearly, I could have saved myself a lot of time had I just waited for "Overruled." That would have left me leisure hours to watch "American Idol" and that show where you get kicked off the island.

But enough about me. The split traces back to The Slaughter House Cases, challenging a foul, racist perversion of property rights in Louisiana which disallowed independent butchers from enjoying the ownership of self and self-production that Frederick Douglass enjoyed. The law was challenged under the shiny-new 14th Amendment: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." Against Justice Stephen Field's objection and brilliant dissent, the Court ruled that -- not to put too fine a point on it -- "Any State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States whenever they feel like it."

In essence, the Progressives had declared war on the Fourteenth Amendment. And their brazen assault did not go unnoticed. Among the sharpest critics of their approach was the journalist H. L. Mencken, who took aim at Progressive legal thinking while reviewing a book-length collection of Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes's dissenting opinions. "Over and over again, in these opinions," Mencken observed, Holmes "advocated giving the legislature full head-room, and over and over again he pro-tested against using the Fourteenth Amendment to upset novel and oppressive laws, aimed frankly at helpless minorities." That's not responsible judging, Mencken argued, it's a gross dereliction of basic judicial duty. "If this is Liberalism," he declared, "then all I can say is that Liberalism is not what it was when I was young."

I remember tension when McDonald v Chicago was argued. Justice Thomas wanted to revisit Slaughterhouse and reinstate the P & I clause. Justice Scalia caustically belittled that theory in oral argument, signaling that he was not onboard the freedom train this week. (Thomas's concurrence is lonely but brilliant.)

Even where Root trods on ground known to ThreeSourcers, there is enough extra detail from anecdotes in oral argument or commentary to make the book profoundly interesting and readable. And where it is new, it sparkles: most notably the thread from Justice Holmes, who lost all his idealism in courageous and unimaginably grisly combat.

The Civil War had a profound impact on the young man who would later become one of America's most famous and influential jurists, and it was not a pretty one. As it does for many young soldiers, the experience of combat obliterated Holmes's youthful idealism. "I am not the same man," he informed his parents in May 1864. But the disillusion went far deeper than that. As the historian Louis Menand memorably put it, "The war did more than make him lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs." Gone forever was the young abolitionist who left Harvard two months before graduation in order to enlist on behalf of a grand cause. In his place was a man who scorned all mention of lofty principle. "I don't talk much of rights," Holmes would declare, "as I see no meaning in the rights of man except what the crowd will fight for."

I'll wait if you want to read that again. A leading light in American Jurisprudence comes out of the shoulder-deep pile of bodies at Sharpsburg as a badly wounded Captain who believes "might makes right."

Holmes's theory of deference provides wins in the progressive era, finally flips the court to allow New Deal legislation in Laughlin Steel v US and ThreeSourcers' fave Wickard v. Filburn. Then it reappears in Bork's treatment of Lochner, Conservative critiques of Griswold v. Connecticut (including a previous release of me), Scalia on Raich, and ultimately Chief Justice Roberts's saving construction in NFIB v. Sibelius.

I'll pass out five stars and the first "Editor's Choice" book award of 2015. I do have a hardcopy thanks to Reason Foundation's fundraising machine -- holler if you'd like to take this superb book for a spin.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

October 26, 2014

Review Corner Hiatus

Review Corner will be going dark for a few weeks. ThreeSources apologizes for any inconvenience, but reminds readers that "Two and a Half Men" will be returning to TV, so they are not entirely out of intellectual stimulation.

I'm going to tackle four books at once. Charles Murray recently posted what Prof. Greg Mankiw called A great and balanced essay on Ayn Rand which was well received on these pages. The same Murray wrote The Curmudgeon's Guide for Getting Ahead [Review Corner] which recommended that agnostic and atheist study some religious materials and try to come to terms with adult and intellectual religious concepts.

I've publicly opined that my eleven years of Catholic education included very little intellectual rigor. Two friends studied with Jesuits, who are known to be more demanding that way than the diocesan priests and laity I encountered. I took the liberty of asking one of these friends for a book (I think I distinctly said "a" as in "one" but I do not have access to the tape) to catch up a little. He asked two friends, added one of his own, and showed up with three books comprising 1400 pages. No pit'churs. No "for Dummies" concatenated to any of the titles.

Then, in what I consider to be a completely secular coincidence, a fourth book found its way onto the pile. My sister, cleaning out her late husband's bookshelf found a book my father's Aunt Mattie had inscribed to him on his birthday in 1949. I had never heard of it, but The Seven Storey Mountain was a surprise hit of that year. I started it the day after Dad's birthday (He'd have been 101) and have been surprised to hear it referenced in two of the other three books. (This is probably the liberty equivalent of "There's this fellow called Hayek..." But I was unaware.)

I am not certain what the plan is. I've now read a couple chapters of each -- and they are all quite good in their own way. I may continue to cycle through them. I know ThreeSourcers will suggest that it is just like one's first day in prison: that I should grab the 800 page, 17-lb. monster with the microscopic type and "kick its ass" first. I'll take that under advisement... It calls for Mortimer Adler's "syntopical reading" of digesting multiple books on the same topic without perhaps a sequential read through all the sources.


But, whatever happens, I am going to be busy. I may post some quotes along the way (I am furiously flagging both things I like and things with which I seriously disagree.) In "The Seven Story Mountain. Thomas Merton ends up in a Trappist Monastery. If that happens to me, I hope they have good WiFi.

Posted by John Kranz at 6:10 PM | Comments (3)
But johngalt thinks:

And an excellent brewing program, no doubt.

I had independently decided to "study some religious materials and try to come to terms with adult and intellectual religious concepts" so I will share here the title I have selected. It was actually recommended by my father, from whom I willingly borrowed it. 'The Pagan Christ' is, as has been summarized to me, the story of the authoritarian highjacking of the Christian religion by the Romans. Before that it was a more personal and individualistic belief system. Now you can see why my interest was piqued.

While the author has been called names by some displeased reviewers and has had his scholarship questioned, I thought I should read it and form my own opinions. Can I read 200 pages in the time it takes jk to read 1400? Probably not, but I'll give it the ol' college try.

Posted by: johngalt at October 27, 2014 2:29 PM
But jk thinks:

Bloody Romans. What have they ever done for us?

Posted by: jk at October 27, 2014 3:36 PM
But johngalt thinks:

"Always look on the briiiight, side of life!"

Posted by: johngalt at October 27, 2014 7:20 PM

October 19, 2014

Review Corner

Smith helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and my iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul, and why people can think monstrous thoughts but rarely act upon them. He helped me understand why people adore politicians and how morality is built into the fabric of the world.
Not bad for an 18th Century bureaucrat.

Russ Roberts has been treated well on these pages. His The Price of Everything somehow escaped Review Corner, but in searching I found several recommendations to buy it -- once to buy two copies. His latest is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.

While everyone thinks of Adam Smith as the author of Wealth of Nations, Roberts plumbs the depths of his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I actually read Wealth of Nations. My first economics course assigned several sections and I just read the whole thing. His prose is indeed a bit dense for the modern reader but I enjoyed it. I went back recently to read Theory of Moral Sentiments and stopped a third of the way through. I don't know if I have lost my appreciation for turgid or whether the subject was less interesting, but I quit. I'm not proud of it but, like Spike, I'm man enough to admit it.

Roberts's book on the book (P.J. O'Rourke did a pretty good one on Wealth of Nations), conversely, enraptured me. Why didn't I get this out of it? Some authors are better read about than read. Even my hero Karl Popper falls into this class: Richard Dawkins, Michael Oakeshott -- perhaps I'll just put Smith on this list. Yet I would love to connect with ToMS as Roberts did.

Wealth of Nations is about economics; Theory of Moral Sentiments is about personal choices and structuring your life for optimal satisfaction. That's the conventional wisdom and Roberts does a great job comparing and contrasting the two works. But he asks first whether they are different as they appear. He tries to explain the heart of economics to casual contacts who think he can grace them with a hot stock pick:

Alas, I am not an accountant or a stockbroker, I explain. But one very useful thing I've learned from economics is to be skeptical of advice from stockbrokers about the latest stock that's sure to skyrocket. Saving you from losses isn’t as exciting as promising you millions, but it's still pretty valuable.

But the real point is that economics is about something more important than money. Economics helps you understand that money isn’t the only thing that matters in life. Economics teaches you that making a choice means giving up something. And economics can help you appreciate complexity and how seemingly unrelated actions and people can become entangled .

Smith's suggestions for complexities and actions and personal choices are not about optimizing capital. Smith's suggestion to which Roberts keeps returning is the twelve words "Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely." To be worthy of esteem, to be admired and admirable. Roberts then mines some superb advice on achieving this

Knowing Roberts from his Café Hayek work and The Price of Everything, he is a great champion of liberty and free markets and limited government and I suspect the Infield Fly Rule. Channeling Smith's temperance and prudence, this is not a strident or pugnacious book. One can almost hear Smith telling me and my Facebook friends to tone it down a bit. The developer of the invisible hand is dubious about excesses of ambition, the great sage of free trade (who ended his career employed as a tariff collector) cautions about excesses in desiring and acquiring the latest gadgets, conveniences and contrivances. The new watch you covet, he cautions, is not likely to make you more punctual.

There are a few shots across the bow -- from Smith and Roberts that will fall harshly on certain ears 'around these parts. Sorry Randians:

This seems to confirm a commonly held view that Smith sees the world as driven by selfishness. Smith is often caricatured as a Scottish forerunner of Ayn Rand, who in addition to Atlas Shrugged wrote a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness. Smith spends a lot of time in The Theory of Moral Sentiments talking about various virtues. Selfishness does not make the cut.

And Prosperitarians:
My point is that the best case Smith can make for material prosperity and commercial life within the pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is pretty thin. He is saying that we have within us great drive and ambition, which serves us poorly as individuals but ultimately has led us out of caves and into the sunlight of civilization. It's a compliment, I suppose, but it's pretty backhanded.
Smith couldn't imagine a twenty-first-century machine -- a robot on an assembly line , or an electric razor. But his insights into technology are surprisingly prescient. He understood the human desire to make life easier, better, faster. And he also understood the seductive appeal of machines, and that ear pickers and nail clippers may not always deliver on their promise of excitement and novelty. But we want them anyway, and we look for ways to make them more effective and more elegant.

Roberts points out that the wealthy of his day were noblemen and assorted leeches. Perhaps a McCloskeyesque bourgeoisie would have been more pleasing to his temperament. But I would not bet the proce of a new iEarPicker S6 on it. Smith is the anti-firebrand, though his name comes up frequently in fiery arguments. A longer look shows that he offers wisdom and sagacity -- some better ways to "be lovely."

Smith in his book and with his life is telling us how to live. Seek wisdom and virtue. Behave as if an impartial spectator is watching you. Use the idea of an impartial spectator to step outside yourself and see yourself as others see you. Use that vision to know yourself. Avoid the seductions of money and fame, for they will never satisfy.

This is a superb and charming book. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:38 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

"See yourself as others see you." Know yourself, seek wisdom and virtue, avoid false virtues. This is truly selfishness, is it not?

The "selfishness" that "does not make the cut" is a package deal comprised of other, shall we say, attributes, that are commonly viewed as benefitting the self but, in fact, are harmful. But your closing quote is quite an elegant description of how to make oneself a priority for one's thoughts and actions.

Posted by: johngalt at October 20, 2014 2:15 PM

October 12, 2014

Review Corner

It is customary that Review Corner, reviewing a work of fiction, considers both style and underlying philosophy. Is it good art? Does it speak to the values we cherish 'round these parts?

It is also customary that those distinct considerations might be blurred in general rankings. Today's will be distinct. I heartily recommend Steinbeck, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut and a host of authors who create great art but whose philosophical values are orthogonal to mine.

I use the word "orthogonal" a lot to describe contrary views. I did not totally understand it until I took MIT's free MOOC Linear Algebra course. But I stole that phrase, years before, from the author in today's Review Corner. Michael Glaviano is an off-the-charts brilliant Physicist, an incredible guitar player, a gifted author, and I am proud to call him a friend. He was finishing his PhD when I stumbled into New Mexico Tech as a freshman, making him quite a bit mentor.

We went many moons without contact, and when I did find him, he told me he had written a novel, The Locust Queen's Feast which I enjoyed immensely. It is a great story and I was not too surprised at its elegant prose, knowing the intelligence and artistic breadth of the author.

But his latest, Edge Station, blew me away.

Edge Station is a great work of science fiction. It adjusts reality enough to explore complex interpersonal concepts, but the characters are realistic and engaging. The AI systems, starships, and medical augmentations described may not match our daily experience, but the people navigating life in the trans-galactic corporation are instantly recognizable.

It's a great story with rich, descriptive prose -- but I was most attracted to the pacing of the novel. Though cerebral in parts, it moves with a summer-blockbuster pace and tightness. Try to not read "one more chapter" before you set it down to pursue quotidian tasks -- it's impossible. I am an old grouch who is reading less fiction these days and very little of this genre, but I was instantly hooked.

As soon as you finish the last page, you wonder "when does the movie come out?" It begs for a screenplay because it already has an ensemble-cast feel with several endearing and interesting characters. The pages move more with intrigue than shoot-'em-up action, but there is a lot going on, much to be resolved.

It's a fun and interesting read which I gladly give five stars.

The last four paragraphs comprise my Amazon review. Five stars well earned for artistic merit. No slack for friendship. I think all ThreeSourcers would enjoy it (and you can snag a Kindle copy for $2.99). But . . . my buddy is from California and has an academic beckground -- poor guy cannot help it! It's rather Firefly-ish in that the "Edge Station" is on the boundary of explored space and slightly outside the reach of -- not a governmental entity like the Alliance -- but a mean old corporation (sigh). The ending might be a little unfulfilling to some who hold humanity at Randian esteem levels.

But it's a rockin' good story. On that, I am not lyin'.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:01 AM | Comments (0)

October 5, 2014

Review Corner

Yet in the long run absolutism did not prevail. Out of one corner of Europe, in the British Isles, an alternative emerged, constitutional monarchy with limits on government, guaranteed rights, relatively benign religious toleration, and free market global capitalism. After the Glorious Revolution the merchant class as well as the nobility successful cabined in the power of king and prince. The nobility did not totally dominate the life of society, and merchants and entrepreneurs were left free to trade and innovate.
Amazon informs me that I purchased Michael Barone's Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers on July 9, 2007. While that predated Review Corner, I did post a recommendation. I praise Barone as a public intellectual and praise his lack of partisanship. In seven years, I fear the Fox news vs. everybody else may have hardened his edges, but his gifted smarts have not dissipated.

I pulled The First Revolution (Hardcover) off the shelf because I am patching plentiful lacunae in my 17th Century European history. One of these years, I will review Rev. Samuel Rutherford's "Lex Rex," the Kindle version having been released in 1644. Rutherford references biblical stories and 17th Century British politics and latin and season one of American Idol which leaves me lost. I remembered Barone's book and, while the bulk of it happens long after #LexRex, it grounded me somewhat. I thought I'd do the 17th Century right and reread Locke's Two Treatises, Barone and Rutherford. Locke is not a central character in The Glorious Revolution, but he makes several appearances.

Shaftesbury is a problem: he was a supporter of habeas corpus and of religious toleration for many, yet he was an unscrupulous prosecutor of baseless charges against others. He was also the patron of John Locke, whom he met when Locke was studying medicine at Oxford and who advised him to have surgery for an abscess, which saved his life.47 Locke lived in Shaftesbury's London household from 1667;48 he wrote a constitution for the Carolina colony of which Shaftesbury was a proprietor, and was closely involved in all of Shaftesbury's political dealings.

While I enjoyed Barone's book twice now, I'll stand by my seven year old concern that liberty is an afterthought or unintended consequence of expelling an -- egads -- Popish King! I guess you take your liberty where you get it, but fans of the American Revolution, like fans of Star Wars, will find they prefer the original to the prequel.
The 1689 Bill of Rights was from our point of view a limited and grudging document: nothing about freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press. It did not prohibit the king from appointing judges or removing them at pleasure, as Charles II and James II had done; but the Act of Succession of 1701 did prohibit monarchs after 1714 from doing so, and William and Anne never did.25 Yet as an affirmative statement of individual rights, however limited, the Bill of Rights broke new ground, ground that would be extended in the New World.

Opposition to Catholicism is central to Rutherford and drove King James II's opponents far more than liberty. I know it purely from history books, President Kennedy was elected shortly after I was born. Blog friend SC reminded me of the strong Klan presence in Denver and problems his parents had. You don't have to go back to Rutherford, but growing up when and where I did, I honestly never encountered it.

Personal anecdotes aside, the Glorious Revolution is a good advertisement for a country's not establishing a national religion. Jeepers, having your King head the church is a recipe for bad things. As the Glorious Revolution feared Hobbesian anarchy in the shadow of the Civil War, clearly the American colonists were not to get tangled up in that.

If the foundation of liberty is not apparent, much of modern politics is. Prince William of Orange [Spoiler Alert: he becomes King William] is a master of pamphlet production and The Netherlands boasts the most numerous and productive printing presses.

The most persuasive mass medium of the day was the pamphlet, and the Dutch were the masters of the pamphlet. They had the freest press in Europe, and the most printing presses, capable of printing in English, French, Czech, Hebrew, and Armenian, as well as Dutch; the most type foundries and paper factories; and, as a small and prosperous nation, they had a fine appreciation of the power of ideas to shape men's acts.
"[Wle have the Coffee-House Tables continually spread with the noisome Excrements of diseased and laxative Scribblers."76 In response the government began printing publications of its own.77

Colorado TV viewers are pretty familiar with "noisome Excrements of diseased and laxative Scribblers" these days. As well as campaign literature, the basis of political parties as we know them can be traced to that period.
Shaftesbury's determination and Charles's stubbornness combined to produce the first political parties in English history, the Whigs and the Tories.84 Both names were insults. Whig was a Scottish term used for horse thieves and applied to Presbyterians. Tory was an Irish term used for outlaws and applied to Catholics.85 Whigs tended to favor toleration of Dissenters as well as the exclusion of James from the throne; Tories strongly favored the primacy of the Church of England and advocated passive obedience to the king.

Did I say take your liberty where you can get it? The combined fears of anarchy, popery, and France made a strengthened Parliament an attractive option. Accepting a monarch from outside direct succession was made palatable with some division of powers.

BUT THE REVOLUTIONARY settlement did endure. It changed England from a nation in which representative government was threatened to one where it was ingrained, from a nation in which liberties were based on tradition to one where they were based in part on positive law, from a nation where the place of religion was a matter of continued political dispute and even armed struggle to one where it became settled in a way that generally respected individual choice, from a nation that mostly kept apart from the wars of continental Europe to one that saw its duty as maintaining a balance of power there and around the world. These were momentous changes -- momentous not just for England and Britain, but for the American colonies and later the United States and the entire world. It was the English and British example of representative government that inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States of America and was copied, with minor variations, in British colonies, many of which have become major nations -- Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India. This improbable revolution did much to shape the world in which we live today.

Excellent book, five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:01 AM | Comments (0)

September 28, 2014

Review Corner

My great-grandfather was born in 1900 in a village called Qiu, which is located in Shandong Province on the east coast of China. Shandong Province is renowned for two seemingly contradictory things: philosophy and banditry.
Not to us, Ms. Raleigh, not to us. I always felt for Ayn Rand (because that's the kind of selfless guy I am). Collectivism destroyed her productive family in Russia. She immigrates to America, then has to watch Rex Tugwell and the New Dealers bring the same economics here.

In Confucius Never Said, Helen Raleigh stays in China until college, witnessing liberalization but experiencing the unconscionable and barely imaginable limitations of Communism. Her family was prosperous until Mao brought that special brand of fairness.

My grandfather was eager to help because he was tired of decades of war, violence, and uncertainty. He craved a peaceful life. Like most people in China, he didn't know what communism stood for, but he figured that he would give his support if the communists delivered the peace and prosperity they promised. He didn't realize that would be the last time he saw his boat.

Raleigh's father and grandfather have a front row seat for the redistribution she is witnessing today. Their close-knit community is ripped apart when her family, though popular, is cast as villainous oppressors.
Initially, some poor farmers were hesitant to identify their neighbors as rich. However, the work team brainwashed the poor farmers into believing that disproportionate property ownership was the main cause of social injustice and that landowners were evil class enemies and exploiters of the poor. With a certain amount of coercion, some poor farmers turned their old grievances or frustrations into hatred for their well -to-do neighbors . Since my great-grandfather owned land, he was classified as a landlord even though he wasn't the richest man in the village.

Once identified as "rich," life becomes unbearably hard for the family, and Raleigh chronicles the difficulties. We know the horrors of the famine (though many Chinese do not), but one is struck by the small things. There are a few train trips to seek education, better opportunities, and finally the author's chance to study in America. We complain about travel, but there is a "papers, please" mentality that makes every stop suspenseful. Communism will starve you if you stay put and administer the death of a thousand cuts if you seek life elsewhere.

The book is outstanding as a close up look at Communism and intriguing biography of the woman who escapes it. The best of Raleigh's book, however, is Raleigh's interest in philosophy and the power of ideas. The title refers to "All men are created equal." Confucius never said that. Confucianism accepts the caste system and a hierarchical society that was overturned in The Enlightenment.

A good friend of mine, Bryan, likes to say "Ideas matter ." Knowing what makes America great also helps explain why civilizations like China, despite their thousands of years' of history, fell so behind in the last two hundred years.

The ideas a society is built upon matter a great deal . For 2000 years, Chinese people followed the moral principles and social orders established by Confucian teaching. Confucius believed that people live their lives within parameters preset by fate. Men should be compassionate towards one another, but there is very little a man can do to change his fate. Peace and harmony in society can only be achieved when every man performs his own social responsibility within the preset social orders. Confucius believed people should obey and respect their rulers just as they obey and respect their fathers, while a ruler should love and care for his subjects as if they were his children. Confucius said many good things, but he never said "All men are created equal," because he believed some men were born to be rulers and some men were born to be subjects.

And yes, that happens to be Brother Bryan quoted. Also quoted are Hayek, Milton Friedman, and William Easterly. In a couple decades here, she has absorbed the philosophical foundations of liberty and prosperity. In "Confucius Never Said" she shares those with us.

Five stars.

UPDATE: Helen Raleigh's talk at LOTR-F"

Posted by John Kranz at 10:13 AM | Comments (7)
But jk thinks:

Umm, yeah, we went through this a little.

I am aware of your discomfort with that phrase. While I will not admit to using it just to make you angry, I do not share you aversion.

I am plodding, turbo-Porsche in the mud speed through Rev Samuel Rutherford's "Lex Rex." It scored a spot in Brother Keith's Top Ten and he called The Rev, a precursor ad foundation to John Locke.

Tough sledding for me (and it's biblical foundation might do you physical harm), but Locke, Rutherford and Jefferson all address "is one man born to be the slave of another." I don't hear Harrison Bergeron in the phrase, I hear birthright liberty. "Qua Liberty" if you will allow.

Posted by: jk at September 29, 2014 7:34 PM
But jk thinks:

Raleigh is a friend of some friends, and a fan of Ms. Rand. We could quite possibly get further clarification from the author.

Posted by: jk at September 29, 2014 7:43 PM
But T. Greer thinks:

Nah, Confucius is fine with the idea that everybody is created equal. Both Confucius and the eventual Confucian tradition that developed around his purported teachings were completely comfortable with the idea that a no one could become a someone---indeed, they hated hereditary nobility. They were meritocrats from the start, believing that gentlemen were defined by their virtue, righteousness,filial piety and ritual propriety, not their birth or station. The Confucian examination system--which hypothetically allowed a peasant to reach the heights of power if he was virtuous and smart enough--is a good example of this.

On the other hand, China had no conception of 'inalienable rights' until Western ideas and works entered the country in the 1800s.

Posted by: T. Greer at September 30, 2014 1:38 AM
But johngalt thinks:

Would TG agree that "all men are created equal" was the ideological weapon to fight the aristocratic caste system and, once that dragon was slain, individual unalienable rights heralded the true renaissance? I see them as distinct, but complementary, stages of liberty.

This is not criticism of Raleigh's message as much as sharpening it to a finer point.

Posted by: johngalt at September 30, 2014 11:26 AM
But jk thinks:

I don't know that the author's thesis is under scrutiny (though it does not align with tg's assertion). The thing at risk is my expansion. And, to be fair, if you scroll toward the end of the video (47:35), I ask a direct question and she demurs.

Posted by: jk at September 30, 2014 1:14 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Demurred on the Confucius connection perhaps, but not on the idea that "all men are created equal" is the foundational principle of the United States. She later explains that it guides the relationship between the people and their government, which got me thinking about another local activist, Laura Carno, and her "I Am Created Equal" advocacy. She joins Raleigh in saying, "that free people doing what they want with their own property is the foundation of our country and our culture."

So I will cop to philosophic pedantry, as the "created equal" message is more visceral to more folks than "individual unalienable rights." (Wait, wait... in, duh, video, what was that again?)

Posted by: johngalt at October 1, 2014 2:54 PM

September 21, 2014

Review Corner

In addition, public consumption took place in illegal taverns knows as "speakeasies," and frequenting these places of businesses became a trendy activity during Prohibition , even for women, who formerly were less likely to frequent saloons. In this way, the law had the truly perverse effect of helping cause a rise in alcohol consumption by women, the very group that had been a major driving force in getting the Eighteenth Amendment ratified in the first place.
It will not come as a stunning shock to ThreeSourcers that government programs create unintended consequences. Or, in the vernacular, "I'll wait while you put your shocked face on."

Yet I'll still recommend Aftermath: The Unintended Consequences of Public Policies by Thomas E. Hall. Its factual underpinnings are valuable when one encounters a voter less enlightened than ThreeSourcers and its depth and clarity will entertain those who already accept its premise.

Instead of a laundry list of bad policy, Hall takes four issues in depth: Income tax /16th Amendment, cigarette taxes, alcohol prohibition, and the minimum wage. Each gets a historical legislative perspective -- who was for it, who against, how and by what margins it passed. Beyond the "Baptists and Bootleggers" coalitions, there are frequently unexpected advocates.

The data in Table 4.2 also help explain why increases in the minimum wage were supported by many northern politicians and business organizations, but generally opposed by southerners. Companies operating in high-wage cities compete with firms located in low-wage cities. For example, suppose that in 1955, a company operating in the South paid unskilled workers $ 0.75 per hour, while a company in the North that produced the same product paid its unskilled workers $ 1.00 per hour. The northern company could pay its workers more because they were more productive because of a higher level of mechanization. An increase in the federal minimum wage from $ 0.75 to $ 1.00 would have no impact on the wage paid to unskilled workers employed by the northern company, but it would cause a $ 0.25 increase in the wage paid by the firm operating in the South.
During the 1950s, labor unions became strong advocates of federal price-support programs that maintain farm prices above equilibrium levels. U.S. labor leaders believed that keeping food prices artificially high would provide an incentive for farmers to continue farming instead of moving to cities where they would compete with existing workers and push down wages.

Many of the unintended consequences of course are desirable for government. Hall paints a picture of a government that was truly surprised at how much revenue could be raised from progressive taxation. A gift that never stopped taking.
The personal income tax instituted in 1913 was originally designed to shift the burden from the working class to the upper class by taxing the top U.S. income earners and using those funds to make the federal government less dependent on customs duties and excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco. The income tax accomplished its goal, but it also created the major unintended consequence of allowing the creation of our modern big-government welfare state by generating a flood of revenue for vote-seeking politicians to spend.

I did not know that prohibition featured a medicinal exemption (I know, I should get out more). Just as many states allowed "medicinal marijuana" and Colorado still waives the 20% excise tax to prescription holders, the government kept huge warehouses of top notch spirits throughout prohibition, with a complex schedule of rates for various uses. Some saw an opportunity.
When Prohibition went into effect, Remus was earning his living as a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago, and he soon found himself defending bootleggers being prosecuted for violating the Volstead Act. Remus realized that the profits in the illegal alcohol business were larger than what he was earning as a lawyer, so he began to consider changing to a more lucrative career.
His business employed 3,000 people, operated in eight states, handled about 3 million gallons of booze, and grossed somewhere between $ 60 million and $ 75 million, from which he paid around $ 20 million in bribes to a large number of police and U.S. Treasury agents (Lindsay 1974). These activities earned him the title King of the Bootleggers.

All this product was from government warehouse -- not bathtubs or private stills.
One of his better-known transactions (because it resulted in a criminal trial) involved spending $ 125,000 to purchase 891 barrels of whiskey at the Jack Daniel's distillery in Missouri, which works out to about $ 3.30 per gallon. He sold the whiskey for $ 25-$ 30 per gallon (Asbury 1950, 221). Over the course of his criminal career, Remus is estimated to have amassed a personal fortune of $ 20 million.

Prohibition, of course, lives on though alcohol is exempted. The other segments are alive and well in their original form: government that spends $1.17 for each new dollar raised in taxes, huge disparities in cigarette taxes as nannies attempt prohibition through excessive taxation fund smuggling operations (the 9/11 hijackers had fake New York cigarette stamps). And, the minimum wage debate rages on in the 2014 midterms and on my Facebook feed. Many could learn from this book.

Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:40 AM | Comments (0)

September 14, 2014

Review Corner

The sanctuary had looked good two hours ago, from the other end of Denver. It had looked like sweet respite wrapped up in what the doctor ordered. Here, up close and personal, from the corner of Colfax and oblivion, it didn't seem like such a sure bet.
That one hits home. Our band had a house gig on Colfax and Oblivion and my apartment was nearby. Sarah Hoyt is a Coloradan, but even more familiarly, she is a fixture in the liberty movement, blogging community, and social media. I believe our own blog brother Keith is her Facebook friend.

And yet, Mr. nonfiction guy had not read any of her work. A couple months ago, Instapundit highlighted a chance to get Wings for 99 cents on Kindle (I paid full price -- now her mother can get that operation...) I finally got to it a few weeks ago and I was enthralled.

The short story is underrated to begin with, but Hoyt's imagination takes it to new heights. You never know if you'll be in ancient Carthage (Carthago Delenda Est), or on another planet, or if characters will end up being robots or gods or humans or vampires or one of her fans' favorites Nnnnnuuuuuunnnnnnns in Ssspaaaaacccceee! The unifying theme is that they are damn good stories and the prose is brilliant.

What if Marlowe weren't the one who wrote Marlowe's plays? What if they were the work of some noblewoman, some female scholar that Marlowe kept in his room, writing plays for Marlowe's credit and profit?

The other great opportunity for a book of short stories is that one of them might touch you very deeply. And so it is with the title cut as it were, Wings. MS had reduced my faculties to play guitar and completely taken my ability to climb onstage with one. My lovely bride lost much art and music with her stroke. Yet I play on the world's smallest stage and she has adapted some crafts and learned new ones. Wings speaks to the indomitable inner spirit of art.
In the darkness it was hard to tell, nor did I care. I, Kimon, was in no state to help the dying or bury the dead. I, Kimon, was but a man walking in the land of the living by mistake, an animated corpse that moved still, that moved, invariably, towards his certain end.

I suspect all the Heinlein fans 'round these parts would enjoy her work. I enjoyed Wings greatly -- five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:17 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2014

Atlas Shrugged Part III - From the other side

And then there is the predictable movie critic review, included in fairness and objectivity, and to illustrate that, yes, the movie has flaws. But then, not every movie has the production values of 'Gone With the Wind' or "Titanic.'

From two scenes about the ultimate destiny of Dagny's sister-in-law, which seem to have been awkwardly shoehorned into the movie after the fact, to a love scene in L.A.'s Union Station destined to enter the Bad Movie Sex Scene Hall of Fame, “ASIII” feels like the most scattershot entry in the trilogy, despite a relative rally toward competence with the second movie.

Ayn Rand's books remain in print and, for better or worse, continue to shape minds and win converts. For all the lasting impact of her literature, it's difficult to imagine anyone not already on board with her ideas being swayed by these singularly awful screen adaptations.

Not just awful. SINGULARLY awful. As in, "The worst movies of all time" awful. This gratuitous ending, to me, betrays a feeling that as much as the reviewer tried to besmirch the creative product of other's efforts with the smug "anyone could have done better than this" attitude of one who has never attempted to do anything himself, he still needed to take one last parting shot.

Thus ends my review of his review.

Posted by JohnGalt at 1:09 PM | Comments (0)

September 7, 2014

Review Corner

For a long while Madison's perspective seemed to prevail. In 1796, for example, a relief bill for victims of a Savannah fire was soundly defeated. Virginia's William B. Giles stated bluntly that members of Congress "should not attend to what... generosity and humanity required, but what the Constitution and their duty required."6
In Helvering, the Court rejected James Madison's advice. He had argued that the General Welfare Clause was not a grant of added power to Congress but simply a convenient shorthand for all the powers enumerated in Article I, section 8, of the Constitution--which were designed, individually and collectively, to "provide for the common Defence and general Welfare."
In a perfect world, Robert Levy and William Mellor would not need to write The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom. In a just world, the publishers at Cato would have them revise the 2009 work every five years. Perhaps like the S&P 500 moving new cases in. Not that I would replace any they've chosen, but it would be great to hear their take on the Roberts Court. I am such a target audience for this, I was rather surprised to find that it was not dedicated personally to me.

David Kopel has a great riff. When he is "pinned down" by an interviewer asking "is Social Security constitutional?" or such, the DU Law Professor and all around HOSS says that there are two constitutions: one as he would read it were it just ratified in which it would not be constitutional, but one accounting for 200+ years of stare decisis and our current acceptance of government power. By the second, Social Security is clearly constitutional.

As one who regrets the bifurcation, this book does a superb job of documenting how we got from Madison's "I cannot lay my finger on that part of the Constitution..." to NFIB v Sibelius. The authors take twelve cases, the dirty dozen, and for each lay out the story behind it, the legal and constitutional principles involved, the Justices on either side, key points of majority opinions, concurrences, and dissents -- and the ramifications of precedent. In the cases I knew, I learned additional details, and there several I did not know.

One also gets a better feel for many Justices. Chief Charles Evans Hughes was something of a hero of mine because he resigned his Associate seat on the court to run against President Wilson's reelection in 1916. A few thousand votes' changing in California could have saved our country one of the worst terms and some of the greatest stretches of the Constitution. Yet as a Justice, he consistently appears on the wrong side. In Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell, the right of contract was under assault by the Minnesota Mortgage Moratorium Law in 1933. Debt forgiveness was growing in popularity in a New Deal world.

The resultant moral and legal dilemma had been crystallized pithily by Marcus Tullius Cicero nearly two thousand years earlier. What is the meaning, Cicero had asked, of an "abolition of debts, except that you buy a farm with my money; that you have the farm, and I have not my money?"

Hughes (so hard to watch a hero fall) thought it okay to have state legislatures rewrite contracts, because there was an emergency -- and besides, they were just corporations.
The Court had little sympathy for Home Building. As chief justice Hughes explained: "Official reports" showed that lenders "are predominantly corporations, such as insurance companies, banks, and investment and mortgage companies. [They] are not seeking homes or the opportunity to engage in farming. Their chief concern is the reasonable protection of their investment security."21 There you have it, a new hierarchy of rights based on class and found nowhere in the Constitution: Corporate shareholders and employees are second-class citizens whose rights can be sacrificed to protect homeowners and farmers.

Chrysler bondholders, anybody? We can take their preferred position in liquidation -- which they have paid a premium for -- and instead give the Unions first redemption. It is, after all, an emergency.
"Emergency does not create power," Hughes conceded, but "emergency may furnish the occasion for the exercise of power. Although an emergency may not call into life a power which has never lived, nevertheless emergency may afford a reason for the exertion of a living power already enjoyed."

[Justice George] Sutherland dismissed that notion as mumbo-jumbo: I can only interpret what is said on that subject as meaning that, while an emergency does not diminish a restriction upon [government] power, it furnishes an occasion for diminishing it, and this, it seems to me, is merely to say the same thing by the use of another set of words, with the effect of affirming that which has just been denied.

Way back then, of course, it was totally different than today. Why, Congress delegated authority on complex and technical issues to bureaucrats in the Executive Branch (I know, you're shocked!)
Of course, even if our senators and representatives are unqualified or too busy to handle the job assigned to them by the Constitution, the answer cannot be to pretend that parts of the Constitution do not exist.

Yet in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc., that is basically what the Supreme Court did.6 For all practical purposes the Court removed the nondelegation doctrine from the Constitution. That doctrine, which holds that Congress may not freely delegate its legislative powers, traces its roots to John Locke, the distinguished political philosopher whose writings were influential in crafting both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In 1690, Locke stated that "[t]he legislative cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands; for it being but a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot pass it over to others"; the legislative power is "to make laws, and not to make legislators."

Each of these cases is germane today -- most more so after President Obama and his signature legislation.

We look for the ideal structure of government at ThreeSources. Randy Barnett makes compelling case that interest and power will erode any structural protection of individual rights. Jefferson's "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground" holds true. And yet, but not for these 12 decisions, the Judicial Branch could have preserved Constitutional liberty. In spite of bozos in Congress and rapacious presidents, and progressive nannyism and fiat currency. We could have survived all that with Justices who understood and subscribed to the Constitution's protections.

After reading [a modern Commerce Clause decision], you wonder why anyone would make the mistake of calling it the Commerce Clause instead of the "Hey, you-can-do-whatever-you-feel-like Clause?" --Alex Kozinski, "Introduction to Volume Nineteen," Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 19 (1995):

Awesome! Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

August 31, 2014

Review Corner

Muddy used to say that there were two kinds of players: those who are born to it, and those you can "build with a hammer and nails." I’m sure Muddy was the first kind, and though I may have a little talent and much desire, I’m the second kind. I am indebted to the carpenter.
Muddy is, of course, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), and the author is his long-time guitarist, Bob Margolin. Margolin picks and writes. He has a degree in Public Relations from Boston University about which he says "now a 41-year-old virgin because it’s never screwed anyone." He wrote regular columns in blues magazines and dabbled in "blues fiction" creating characters and situations around players who died too soon, imagining their being alive today.

In Steady Rollin', he assembles these columns and stories into an eBook with updates where needed and a conversational, bloggy banter to tie them together. "I'm just sharing my thoughts on my musical experiences in a conversational, friendly way."

The in-depth look at Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins is worth the price of admission ($6.99 on Kindle as I type). I've read a bit on Muddy but did not know much about Pinetop. Margolin contrasts the two with Muddy's being the serious, punctual, professional bandleader and Pinetop's taking life as it comes. He shows up to the gig on time, but he doesn't sweat it.

Margolin credits this for Perkins's longevity. Muddy, Pinetop, (and my Dad) were all born in 1913. Pinetop lived to be 97 and Muddy only 70. Muddy really takes Bob Margolin under his wing and teaches him Chicago Blues -- sometimes quite sternly "That note made my dick hurt, don't ever play it like that again."

The band somewhat famously breaks up and Margolin goes on to other things. I don't think he lives like Mick Jagger, but every blues guitarist knows him well. He's on Facebook and is a regular guy. Just a regular guy who has played with all my heroes. A regular guy who was in The Last Waltz that I watched 50 times when I was 17. A guy I saw tour with Muddy when I was 18.

Margolin and I share a love of dogs, and he shares a great story of when Hubert Sumlin came to his house.

But our porch jam was a revelation for my "faithful" dogs. As soon as they heard Hubert play, they knelt at his feet, as attentive to the exquisite nuances in his picking as a gaggle of Blues guitar worshippers, but with sharper hearing. They raised their eyebrows and told me coldly to let Hubert take all the solos. They cocked their heads and asked why I don’t sound as good as Hubert. They looked down their noses at me and told me pointedly that they’d never love me like they love him. Now whenever he sees me, Hubert asks, "How are my dogs?"

The book is full of good stories and deep affection for Muddy, Pinetop, Hubert, BB King. In a grimy, grisly industry, Margolin finds and shares the love of some very good people.
His 97-years-long life was a blessing for his music and his sweet personality as well as a miracle of improbable survival. Pinetop smoked since 1922 and ate at McDonald's every day. He hung out in Blues bars every night. He drank until he was eighty-five. If he sat in with a band at Antone's in Austin on a Monday night, he gave the same show that he might be paid $10,000 for, headlining a festival in Europe the next weekend. He looked great in what he called his "Daniel Boone pimp" sharp clothes, flirted boldly with five generations of women, and was quick to make a silly or clever pun or laugh at himself.

I used the word bloggy because the book is unedited, it is available in eBook only, and the presentation can be a little rough. If that scares you away, so be it. If not, belly up and I think you'll dig it. Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:13 AM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2014

Review Corner

While our enterprise lay all in theory, we had pleased ourselves with delectable visions of the spiritualization of labor. It was to be our form of prayer and ceremonial of worship. Each stroke of the hoe was to uncover some aromatic root of wisdom, heretofore hidden from the sun. Pausing in the field, to let the wind exhale the moisture from our foreheads, we were to look upward, and catch glimpses into the far-off soul of truth. In this point of view, matters did not turn out quite so well as we anticipated.
On a tip from Nick Gillespie, of all folks, I purchased Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance. Though a free one was available, I plunked down 99 cents for the Illustrated edition. That's just how I roll. It's rather like a night out on the town with Jay-Z.

Gillespie reviews the 1852 novel for Barron's and blogs about it on Reason:

If you're looking for a summer beach read, this is one worth checking out; it's funny, sexy, and sad. And if you're a progressive or neo-con reformer, put down down your slide rule or whatever instrument you're using to create the parameters of your nouveau Great Society and pick this up immediately.

Our protagonist joins a socialist commune in 19th Century New England, and telegraphs immediately that things are not going to end well. I cannot get past Rupert's phalanx of a pay wall to read the full review, but the exceprts imply that the work is a bit autobiographical and that Hawthorne, like protagonist Miles Coverdale, did sign up for a back to nature community to escape writers' block.

Whether it is based on fact or not, Hawthorne makes its outlandish characters extremely real. And -- as Gillespie asserts -- spins a great yarn that is funny and engaging. It is one of those "one more chapter before I put it down" books that will destroy your productivity until complete. It is not very long, so that is a temporary flaw.

Each of the main characters has a good deal of mystery that is slowly revealed over the course of the book. The two served straight up from the start are the narrator-protagonist and Mr. Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth, like Mrs. Jellyby from Dickens's Bleak House, is consumed by philanthropy to the ruin of people and things nearer.

But by and by you missed the tenderness of yesterday, and grew drearily conscious that Hollingsworth had a closer friend than ever you could be; and this friend was the cold, spectral monster which he had himself conjured up, and on which he was wasting all the warmth of his heart, and of which, at last,--as these men of a mighty purpose so invariably do,—he had grown to be the bond-slave. It was his philanthropic theory.

Hollingsworth is friendly and helpful, but he is involved in the Blithedale commune more to recruit members, raise funds, and scout locations for his planned home to reform criminals.
On this foundation he purposed to devote himself and a few disciples to the reform and mental culture of our criminal brethren. His visionary edifice was Hollingsworth's one castle in the air; it was the material type in which his philanthropic dream strove to embody itself; and he made the scheme more definite, and caught hold of it the more strongly, and kept his clutch the more pertinaciously, by rendering it visible to the bodily eye. I have seen him, a hundred times, with a pencil and sheet of paper, sketching the facade, the side-view, or the rear of the structure, or planning the internal arrangements, as lovingly as another man might plan those of the projected home where he meant to be happy with his wife and children.

In recent persiflage on these hallowed pages, I reflected on the surfeit of fictional works that celebrate philanthropy. Bleak House and The Blithedale Romance stand out for presenting philanthropy non-heroically. Mrs. Jellyby fails to bathe her children or attend a daughter's wedding for her singular devotion to the poor in Africa. She is a minor enough character to be presented comically. Hollingsworth is the second male lead here and is much more complex. But he struggles to connect with love, friendship, and purpose for an idea that is as abstract as Africa is to Mrs. Jellyby.

The sweet joy of labor, the simplicity of returning to the earth and the old ways and the fairness of communal living all take serious blows in Mister Hawthorne's able hands.

The truth was, the hot-house warmth of a town residence, and the luxurious life in which I indulged myself, had taken much of the pith out of my physical system; and the wintry blast of the preceding day, together with the general chill of our airy old farmhouse, had got fairly into my heart and the marrow of my bones. In this predicament, I seriously wished--selfish as it may appear--that the reformation of society had been postponed about half a century, or, at all events, to such a date as should have put my intermeddling with it entirely out of the question.
And, first of all, we had divorced ourselves from pride, and were striving to supply its place with familiar love. We meant to lessen the laboring man's great burden of toil, by performing our due share of it at the cost of our own thews and sinews. We sought our profit by mutual aid, instead of wresting it by the strong hand from an enemy, or filching it craftily from those less shrewd than ourselves (if, indeed, there were any such in New England), or winning it by selfish competition with a neighbor; in one or another of which fashions every son of woman both perpetrates and suffers his share of the common evil, whether he chooses it or no.

So there is no spoiler alert required that they did not establish a munificent arcadia and live there happily ever after. But the mysterious Zenobia and young Priscilla delight the reader with Coverdale's quest to discern their backgrounds. Who are they? Will they become entangled with either Coverdale or Hollingsworth? Will Blithedale survive? I'll leave each of these delights to the reader.

Four stars. Even if you buy the expensive Illustrated version, that is less than 0.25/star. Pretty damned good value.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:12 AM | Comments (0)

August 17, 2014

Review Corner

This is an idea that goes right back to Aristode, who said that the 'concept' of a chicken is implicit in an egg, or that an acorn was literally 'informed' by the plan of an oak tree. When Aristode's dim perception of information theory, buried under generations of chemistry and physics, re-emerged amid the discoveries of modern genetics, Max Delbruck joked that the Greek sage should be given a posthumous Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA.
Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" received five stars and among the first Editor's Choice Award. [Review Corner]. When a friend of a friend on Facebook listed his Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters as being a formative book, I rushed to pick it up on Kindle.

I had recently finished Dennis Bray's Wetware [Review Corner], so I was as up on genetics and cell biology as any time in my life (my tastes run towards Physics and Math, but one cannot help being intrigued). Ridley's takes the genome past genetics and actually does limn a history of life by reading changes in genes and comparing them across species and geography.

If the human genome can tell us things about what happened in the primeval soup, how much more can it tell us about what else happened during the succeeding four million millennia . It is a record of our history written in the code for a working machine.
I was born just five years after the moment when, and just two hundred miles from the place where, two members of my own species discovered the structure of DNA and hence uncovered the greatest, simplest and most surprising secret in the universe .

Mock my zeal if you wish; consider me a ridiculous materialist for investing such enthusiasm in an acronym. But follow me on a journey back to the very origin of life, and I hope I can convince you of the immense fascination of the word.

Well, yeah, Matt. Sign me up. To expand the concepts from genetics to other, superseding concepts, Ridley deftly explains evolution, politics, science, and even economics.
The habit acquired through the sexual division of labour had spread to other aspects of life. We had become compulsively good at sharing things, which had the new benefit of allowing each individual to specialise. It was this division of labour among specialists, unique to our species, that was the key to our ecological success, because it allowed the growth of technology. Today we live in societies that express the division of labour in ever more inventive and global ways.

Pardon the British spellings, but it recalls an interesting section where genetic similarity was compared to language which allowed the comparison of human migration with people bringing their language with them against the flow of ideas and languages among people who stayed put. That's as good an example as I can come up with to show how Ridley expands the genome beyond genetics

Not that there is not plenty of genetics. He ridicules books that "blame" genes for disease. He lists several genetic ailments but reiterates IN ALL CAPS AT ONE POINT that genes are not there to cause diseases anymore than the transmission in your car is there just to malfunction and cause an expensive repair. There is a chapter for each chromosome (with a small twist) and an example sequence to launch a discussion on History (Chromosome 3), Self-interest (Chromosome 8), Sex Memory, Death, Politics, Immortality, Eugenics, Free Will...

From The Rational Optimist, one can expect that when the subject matter drifts into the philosophical/political realm, the ThreeSourcer will not be left behind.

Indeed , the definition of the perfect meritocracy, ironically, is a society in which people's achievements depend on their genes because their environments are equal.
To think otherwise, to believe in innate human behaviour, is to fall into the trap of determinism, and to condemn individual people to a heartless fate written in their genes before they were born. No matter that the social sciences set about reinventing much more alarming forms of determinism to take the place of the genetic form: the parental determinism of Freud; the socio-economic determinism of Marx; the political determinism of Lenin; the peer-pressure cultural determinism of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead; the stimulus- response determinism of John Watson and B. F . Skinner; the linguistic determinism of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. In one of the great diversions of all time, for nearly a century social scientists managed to persuade thinkers of many kinds that biological causality was determinism while environmental causality preserved free will; and that animals had instincts, but human beings did not.

It is a wondrous work. He completed it before the Genome Project but was aware that its completion was immanent. In a later revision, he updates this. But nothing in the sequencing alters or contradicts anything Ridley has written, it just underscores the wonder and paves the way for a bright future.
For we, this lucky generation, will be the first to read the book that is the genome. Being able to read the genome will tell us more about our origins, our evolution, our nature and our minds than all the efforts of science to date. It will revolutionise anthropology, psychology, medicine, palaeontology and virtually every other science .

Five stars and a fulsome recommendation.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:09 AM | Comments (2)
But dagny thinks:

Oh Man!! I've got to find time for this! JK says, "my tastes run towards Physics and Math, but one cannot help being intrigued." I, on the other hand, can manage physics and math as necessary but biology was always what fascinated me.

P.S. It is one chapter per chromosome pair. Humans actually have 46 chromosomes.

Posted by: dagny at August 18, 2014 12:02 PM
But jk thinks:

I think you'd dig it. (The twist is that the first last Chapter is Chapter 22.)

Posted by: jk at August 18, 2014 1:36 PM

August 10, 2014

Review Corner

What you are doing as an enzyme is analogous to what a transistor in an electronic circuit does (or a vacuum tube in one of Grey Walter's tortoises). The electrical current through the device can be thought of as the pipeline conversion by the enzyme. The controlling voltage, typically applied to the base terminal of the transistor, is like the small molecule that binds to the enzyme and regulates its activity. Small fluctuations in the concentration of B control the rate of A' production. And the quantitative relationship between the two need not be simple. Depending on the details of protein structure, the chemical output of the enzyme may be a highly amplified version of its input, as it often is for a transistor.
Dennis Bray has an entire book to provide nuance in Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell. I have bad typing skills and a distracted readership. Please set your "infer" dial on one or two. Bray is careful to ensure that readers are not taking leaps with his suggestions.

But you see what I did there? I made an analogy of the human brain to a computer. Bray is not suggesting amoebic sentience, but his rich portrayal of cell structure and processes shows these tiny life units to be far more complex than we imagine. Even more interestingly, the tasks they need to perform for survival require what is at least analogous to memory and cognition.

Now I can give bacterial memory a molecular explanation. Bacteria store a running record of the attractants they encounter. This tells them whether things are better or worse: whether the quantity of food molecules in their vicinity is higher or lower than it was a few seconds ago. It's a pragmatic strategy: if conditions are improving, continue swimming; if not, tumble and try another direction.

I may have mentioned that biology was not my strong suit in school. Bray describes the chemical processes in detail -- the book seems accessible yet comprehensive. He provides sufficient detail on what is going on, then draws his analogies and asks deeper questions. Bray's mechanical analogies to cells is bold and unexpected -- but when it comes to the inevitable mind-computer comparison he backs off.
A neuronal synapse reveals most clearly the distinction between living and nonliving computers. Since it carries information from one nerve cell to another, you might be tempted to represent it as a single transistor in a printed circuit-as a single bit of information. But this would be to miss the point. Far from performing in a rigid, stereotypical, predictable fashion, synapses are richly, almost infinitely, variable in their input-output relationships.

My start-up was attempting to commercialize cutting-edge AI research -- basically trying to provide a limited-domain "Siri" ten years earlier. Moore's Law or Cole's Law notwithstanding, computers look pretty simplistic compared to biology.
It is impossible, I think, for us to envision the richness and diversity of cell chemistry. The level of detail is atomic in dimensions but astronomical in variety. Every structure inside a cell is covered with a mosaic of chemical groups, positioned and maintained by the mechanisms just mentioned. Every protein molecule is subtly different, carrying not only the imprint of history, shaped by evolution over millennia, but also an echo of recent events.
The processes I've collected in this book under the term wetware include most of the chemical reactions inside cells. They include the transformations of small molecules familiar in energy metabolism and the synthetic reactions used to make large molecules; the modifications in structure of proteins by addition of phosphate and methyl groups; the assembly of proteins into large complexes; the turning on and off of genes; the transport of ions and small molecules across membranes; the generation of mechanical force and directed motion.

Wetware is informative and thought-provoking. By sheer accident, I moved from it to Matt Ridley's Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Both are accessible, but I was glad to have the primer in proteins and cell chemistry from Wetware.

Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:48 AM | Comments (0)

August 3, 2014

Review Corner

We have reached another key moment in this book. Today's emphasis on material development --focusing on "what must we do to end global poverty?" while neglecting the unequal rights for blacks and whites and the unequal rights in the West and the Rest--goes back to this moment and other similar moments in the history of the development idea. Development at moments like this accepted the bargain of the autocrat. The autocrats and their expert advisers asked us to give up our concerns about rights in return for a promise by autocrats to alleviate poverty faster than free societies would.
William Easterly's "The White Man's Burden" received a glowing, five star Review Corner a couple weeks ago. To set forward The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, I will need to bestow a well-deserved Editor's Choice award.

Similar to Taleb's Antifragility and Black Swan, the newer book is a more general case that includes the earlier work. White Man's Burden describes the benefits of Hayekian, bottom up ("searchers" to Easterly) development solutions versus top-down ("planners.") Tyranny of Experts continues the Hayek and adds some Adam Smith to suggest that The West grew prosperous by respecting individual property rights, but that its development plans to lift up The Rest never include rights. Easterly asks about "the debate that never happened," citing prominent experts who respected rights, the many who did not, and why -- without debate or examination -- the authoritarian plans were accepted.

This section of the book (Chapters Three through Five) seeks to understand why and how the illiberal version of development had already defeated the liberal version by January 20, 1949. Our journey will take us from the early years in China to crucial years during and immediately after World War II in West Africa to the final triumph of official development in Colombia in 1948 through 1951.

From my fanboy prose and serial allusions to Hayek and Smith, you'd be forgiven for inferring Easterly as a champion of free markets. He saves plenty of criticism for benevolent autocrats who seek to impose markets. These top down planners of bottom-up solutions can be just as insensitive to rights and to the target people's history. It can be just another "blank slate" solution to recreate a society in the air-conditioned offices of a think-tank. At the same time, ThreeSourcers will find little to disagree with; the elevation of rights over markets does not fall harshly on 3src ears.

The entire work is well crafted, tying different times, places, and plans to a common theme of a blank-slate creation of society, and showing that the different motives of racism, national interest, and misplaced benevolence result in the same, rights-depriving, patronizing, authoritarian control. Development plans use the passive voice exclusively. "Standards will be raised," "production will be coordinated" &c. This allows them to omit the state as controller and enforcer.

[Dr. T.D.] Fong's development plan would appeal to the authoritarian Chiang Kai-shek. "Rationalization" of an industry sounds apolitical. Choosing conscious direction over spontaneous solutions does not say who is doing the conscious directing. Yet in practice, there was only one possibility --the national state-- which would need a lot of power to achieve comprehensive economic control. This sounded like a great approach to an aspiring autocrat like Chiang.
Fong in his new position again highlighted the "need for centralized, coordinated economic planning and control." His models for development in the late 1930s were "Germany and Soviet Russia," which "have attempted industrialization in a new manner which China . . . may simulate with profit." At the time, Fong could not have fully anticipated the awful realities we now know characterized his two models.
Gunnar Myrdal in 1955 cited a 1953 ECAFE Survey written by Fong in support of Myrdal's position that "the state will almost inevitably have to take the initiative." Fong had won the argument for authoritarian development on China. He never commented on how Mao's even more extreme authoritarianism had exiled Fong from his home country.

Got to break some eggs to make Egg Foo Yung, I suppose...
Authoritarian nationalism contributed to two world wars, which left it discredited in the rich countries. Yet authoritarian nationalism got a new lease on life from development in the poor countries. The rich countries' emphasis on the nation as the sole object of development efforts, born out of their own foreign policy needs as discussed in Part Two, coincided with national authorities' efforts to make national identity trump all other identities.

If White Man's Burden is a great intro to Hayek (and it is), Tyranny of Experts is as good an introduction to Adam Smith, the invisible hand, and the advantages of specialization
Suppose Roger Federer was too busy assembling his own iPad to play tennis, Beyoncé was too busy playing tennis for her own family to sing and dance, while Steve Jobs was too busy singing and dancing for his friends to make iPads. I think we are all grateful these three could instead specialize in their best area, what is usually called their "comparative advantage."

Easterly describes the invisible hand as a huge network of problem solvers which all free people can access. The founder of Hyundai was born on a small Korean farm with poor soil and poor irrigation. He found problem solvers who grew food for his family and he solved others' problems by using his exceptional mechanical skills to repair their automobiles.
Suppose I walked out of a building into a pouring rain and realized I had no umbrella, I then asked a stranger to give me his umbrella, which he quickly agreed to give me. Could this really happen? Surely the stranger would likely not agree: he is more likely to be surprised and offended at my bizarre behavior. Yet this did happen to me in downtown New York, and a stranger did give me his umbrella. The only additional details necessary to make it comprehensible is that I gave the stranger $5, and he was a street merchant. The market enlists a vast array of strangers in solving our individual problems.
Let's see how often these basic principles of economics are neglected in development today, starting with the idea beloved by Bill Gates, Jim Yong Kim, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: setting goals and then finding evidence-based ways to reach them.

Economics, Development and History. Yet, Easterly always returns to the foundation of rights. Deidre McClosky -- call your office:
But the population story is of no help in explaining why the Western edge of Eurasia would pull ahead beginning in the late eighteenth century and leave the Eastern edge far behind. Why did the West invent the steam engine and railroad, and not the East? We need something else. That something else is already on the table: the Western idea of the individual that emerged from the Enlightenment. That miraculous year 1776 is again the key symbol: Jefferson declares all men equal, Adam Smith declares all men free to choose, and James Watt installs his first steam engine. There are two key mechanisms by which the new Western idea of the individual helped innovation: the challenge to authority and the private return to innovation.

There is a virally popular video on Facebook these days which shows an African cocoa farmer tasting chocolate for the first time. This brings to mind a superb story of African farmers' discovering value and comparative advantage in growing cocoa -- not because of, but in spite of top-down autocracy.
Even after local farmers had introduced cocoa into the Gold Coast (Ghana), the British almost succeeded in killing it. The colonial government had an incentive to make the Gold Coast pay off for the colonizers. They thought cocoa should be grown on "modern" plantations on a large scale. They could not believe that primitive local farmers had already found the most efficient farm size. After six different attempts at plantations failed, with large losses for the colonial budget, colonial officials finally gave up. What the Akwapim knew, and the British did not, was that small holders could mix cocoa with food crops, making small plots preferable.

Another great device of the book is its historic look at Greene Street. A single block in what is now the SoHo section of Manhattan is traced from colonial times to the present. Farmland to sweatshops to bordello row to factories to skid row to art district to gentrified urban lofts. All the changes are Hayekian -- it miraculously escapes Robert Moses Development Aid -- I mean Urban renewal -- which would have precluded its modern successes.
Urban planning in the United States marked the last manifestation of the most enthusiastic New Dealers' wish to see experts plan the US economy. It also exemplified faith in technocrats who were appointed public officials, like Robert Moses in New York, with few checks on their power. The US Housing Act of 1949 endorsing "slum clearance" would give a technocrat like Moses the power to tear down whole neighborhoods and replace them with public housing. But the technocrat Moses would face some fierce democrats on Greene Street.

The 1946 plan recommended all of what is now SoHo for "clearance and redevelopment." In a phrase that sounds familiar from development, the plan said "the depreciation is so widespread that improvement cannot take place except by concerted action." The planners suggested coercion, using eminent domain "to prevent obstruction through holdouts."

But the lovingly documented changes on Greene and the economic and cultural forces which drove them are fascinating. I'd call it the best real-world example of spontaneous order. [Spoiler Alert:] The factories that escaped Moses' bulldozers were perfect for the art studios of Pollock, Warhol and contemporaries who needed to create and display exceptionally large paintings and sculptures. A loft the size of le condo d"amour on Greene Street sells for ~$2.5 million today.
The problem with technocrats is not only that they make the wrong predictions. Their even bigger problem is their confidence in their own predictions. In a seemingly unrelated event in 1947, the artist Jackson Pollock painted Cathedral. It was one of the first works in what would be a successful New York-based art movement called Abstract Expressionism. For the Greene Street block, what was important about Pollock's painting was not its content but its measurements: six feet by three feet. Large canvasses of this kind were common in the new movement, and both the artists and galleries had trouble displaying them in Manhattan's cramped spaces.

I weep to not share additional quotes (I might dribble them out this week as QOTDs) but we must all get to other things. This is a magnificent book. I happily bequeath five stars and an Editor's Choice Award upon it. Run, do not walk to Amazon to buy it.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:32 AM | Comments (1)
But T. Greer thinks:

The Ivory Coast coca story is an interesting one.

Posted by: T. Greer at August 3, 2014 5:32 PM

July 27, 2014

Review Corner

[Milton] Friedman titled his column "Steady as You Go," giving due credit to [George] Shultz, and explained that Nixon had begun to reverse the harmful interventionist policy of the Johnson administration, which Friedman called "fine-tuning with a sledge hammer!" He was looking forward to a more stable and prosperous decade. But that decade didn't come to pass, because Nixon soon gave up on "steady as you go" for political reasons before it could yield positive results.
In practice , the wage and price controls brought interventionism beyond what anyone could have imagined when they thought about the idea in principle . To administer the freeze, government bureaucrats had to consider the intricate details of production and product definition. At a meeting on August 17, 1971, in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House, Nixon’s advisers were debating such things as whether chicken broilers were a raw agricultural product and thereby exempt from the price freeze, or a processed product and thereby subject to the freeze.
Yes, I think Madison mentioned in Federalist #10 something about an energetic executive's classifying goods for price controls. Or maybe that was #69, I get them mixed up.

John Taylor believes in predictable and consistent rules for both fiscal and monetary policy. his eponymous rule could replace the Fed with a twenty year old HP Calculator and we'd all be better off. In First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America's Prosperity, Taylor correlates periods of predictable principled policy with economic growth and dynamism. He also shows how the interventionism of the 1930s, 1970s and present relate to extended periods of negative or slow growth.

As these principles developed over the years, we can see periods when careful attention was paid to them and alternating periods when they were neglected. And we can draw clear conclusions from this history: When policymakers stuck to the principles, economic performance was good. When they ignored or compromised on the principles, economic performance deteriorated.

The 30s have been better plowed of late and Taylor gives props to Amity Shlaes's The Forgotten Man [Review Corner]. Taylor looks at it more econometrically. Taylor gives equal treatment to the 70s, in which we saw interventionist fiscal policy and mad monetary policy after President Nixon pulled us out of Bretton Woods. George Shultz, Milton Friedman, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford retrospectively seemed an unlikely group to unleash a bold era of interventionism, but we know how the story ends. As it happens, I was there in a powder blue leisure suit.
There went the principles. The 1975 decision represented a compromise in which some principles were sacrificed in exchange for others, such as holding down the growth of spending as Greenspan recommended in his memo. Despite his own misgivings about such interventions, Greenspan compromised, thinking that no bill (or a worse bill) would be more harmful to the economy than the bill with the rebate. Moreover, with both the House and the Senate controlled by the opposition party, the veto would likely be overridden anyway.

Then President Carter rode in to save the day, and ... no, wait ...
It's difficult to recall now the seriousness of the U.S. economic slump by the end of the 1970s. Economic growth was weakening, unemployment was rising, and the dollar was sinking. Confidence in U.S. economic leadership was plunging at home and abroad. Sound familiar? But then the winds of economic freedom started blowing again, starting with very strong gusts at the start of the incoming Reagan administration. No more short-term actions and interventions. Temporary was out. Permanent was in. Reagan proposed and the Congress passed long-term reforms such as the tax rate reductions, which reduced income tax rates by 25 percent across the board.

Out with temporary, in with permanent. While we have many improvements over the 1970s -- beyond the leisure suit -- in predictability and consistency, it is much worse. "Temporary" tax cuts, fiscal cliff legislation, and phased tax expenditures seem part of every piece of legislation lately.
After being largely out of use and out of favor for over two decades , Keynesian activism arose from the dead in the 2000s. It started in the George W. Bush administration and reached unprecedented heights in the Barack Obama administration. In retrospect, it started with a whimper rather than a bang when a temporary stimulus was added, as part of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, to the permanent reduction in personal income tax rates that President Bush proposed during the 2000 campaign.

Monetary policy has also become interventionist. He relates a great story in which Ben Bernanke published a paper using the Taylor Rule ["the Fed should set the interest rate equal to 1 ½ times the inflation rate, plus ½ times the percentage amount by which the GDP differs from its long-run growth path, plus 1"]. Taylor thought things would be okay until he got a call from Milton Friedman: "John, this is exactly what I mean. In this paper you see a policymaker with an activist bent making use of your curve to justify that activism." Again, we know how the story ends.
The annual meeting of the world's financial leaders in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, each August illustrates how radically things had changed since Volcker wrestled monetary policy back from the brink in the early 1980s. I attended the first monetary policy symposium in August 1982 and was there for the thirtieth meeting in August 2011. The Tetons were still there, but virtually everything else was different. Volcker attended the meeting in 1982; Bernanke, in 2011.

Taylor is no fan of Dodd-Frank or the PPACA. "While the Dodd-Frank bill neglects many of the principles of economic freedom, the 2010 health care law recklessly ignores and violates them all." The heart of Taylorism is rules: rule by law not by men -- monetary policy by function and not be discretion.
Government regulation should rely more on the rule of law and less on the rule of men. Any plan to restore American prosperity must remove the regulatory drag on the economy and the crony capitalism and regulatory capture that magnify it. Consistent with principles of economic freedom and proposals in the two previous chapters, which would roll back recent excesses in fiscal and monetary policy, the 2010 financial legislation and the 2010 health care legislation should be scaled back or amended and replaced with legislation based on market incentives and the rule of law, not on the discretion of government bureaucracies.

Much needs doing, but Taylor remains optimistic that a return to principles will return us to prosperity. I think he does well to examine long periods of prosperity and stagnation. Too many political economists try to relate a recession in a congressional or presidential term; there is too much latency and too many exogenous events to make sense. But Taylor looks at extended periods of prosperity under sound principles in the 80s and 90s against extended problems in the 30's, 70s and the present malaise.

It's a great book that any ThreeSourcer would enjoy -- enough detail to present a substantive argument, but not enough to bog down the reader and cloud the message. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:46 AM | Comments (0)

July 20, 2014

Review Corner

A rare early dissenter was the Hungarian-British economist Peter Bauer, who four decades ago presciently predicted the failure of planning "development" through foreign aid. The fallacy is to assume that because I have studied and lived in a society that somehow wound up with prosperity and peace, I know enough to plan for other societies to have prosperity and peace. As my friend April once said, this is like thinking the racehorses can be put in charge of building the racetracks.
William Easterly won a well-deserved Hayek Book Award from the Manhattan Institute for The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The title and excerpt above set the book up pretty well. We're constantly told "twelve cents' malaria vaccine can save a child's life;" Easterly has the temerity to point out that -- after $2.4 Trillion of foreign aid -- they still have not provided that 0.12 dose. There clearly going to need Three Trillion!

The other giveaway to the book's content is the Hayek Prize. It's all planners and plans and ten year development strategies. Again, Bullwinkle? That trick never works. Seriously, none of the wealthy countries got that way because of a development plan; they got there through individual rights, incremental improvement, and Hayekian spontaneous order. All of these are impeded by the benevolence of the Gates Foundation, Oxfam, Save the Children, UK's DFID, USAID, and the UN.

The title of course alludes to Kipling. And the subtext of this book is that all the aid workers and donors (and Live 8 viewers) are aghast to share a species with the likes of Kipling and Macaulay with their patronizing and blatantly racist Colonialism.

Cameroonian lawyer and journalist Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme protested in a July 2005 New York Times Op-Ed column about the Live 8 concert organizers that "they still believe us to be like children that they must save," with "their willingness to propose solutions on our behalf."

The common and oft-repeated theme from Kipling's buddies in India in the 1890's to The Rockefeller Foundation in China in the 1930's to The Gates Foundation in Africa in the '00's is "The Blank Slate." What's a few hundred or thousand years of history, local culture and tribal influence? We're going to teach these coolies what works. And yet, time after time it does not.

The author is not a right winger or radical libertarian, though he accepts the superiority of Hayek's bottom-up versus experts' top-down solutions. But like James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree [Review Corner] he starts out as an idealist young man out to save the world. In Easterly's case it is multi-generational.

The bungalow has only one bedroom; the rest of us make do with sofas or chairs pushed together. We are skittish after sighting a few insects and even bats in the bungalow. We go to sleep anyway, to the rhythms of drums in nearby villages and surf on the nearby coast. My father is a biology professor at the University College of Cape Coast, Ghana, part of the American program to lend knowledge to the development of Africa. We are a family of five from Bowling Green, Ohio. We are white people and we have come to save you. I am twelve years old.

Nor has he abandoned hope for aid or helping -- just the methods generally employed and the mistakes frequently made.
The quest for helping the poor gets more complex the more you study it, but please don’t give up! There is hope once you give up the Planner’s ambition of universally imposing a free market from the top down. I point out in this chapter some of the universal problems with markets for poor countries, but the solutions are as varied as the countries and their complex histories.

When I was shopping for this book in the Kindle Store, I was not certain whether this one or his new "Tyranny of Experts" was the Hayek Prize winner. I got the sample for both and both looked good. After finishing this, I immediately bought "Tyranny of Experts" and am halfway through it. It develops similar themes and is also quite good. Forgive me if I conflate points and anecdotes between the two. Both whack the top down aid agencies pretty severely. Both criticize bad governments in the target countries and the ill-effects of aid to prop them up and fund them.
It may be true that poor-country governments are bad, and it may be just as true that Western attempts to change them have been fruitless. Continuing my subliminal quest for the most politically unappealing truths, this chapter considers what to do if both statements are true.
The Achilles' heel is that any government that is powerful enough to protect citizens against predators is also powerful enough to be a predator itself. There is an old Latin saying that goes, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"--which translates freely as "Why would you trust a government official any more than you would a shoplifting serial killer?"
Today's system of foreign aid coddles (and probably worsens) bad governments. The long-standing dictator in Cameroon, Paul Biya, gets 41 percent of his government revenue from foreign aid. Under current proposals to sharply increase aid to Africa, that figure would increase to 55 percent.84

And yet, like Colorado Schools the solution is always more money.

His newer book better develops the similarity with "Nation Building." I can't laugh at the follies of Bono and Bill and Melinda without accepting that much of the Neoconservative agenda I supported last decade was built on the same faulty premise -- there wasn't a lot of Hayek in the Afghan and Iraqi rebuilding efforts.

If it were not for the U.S. Army trying to promote economic development, it would seem presumptuous for me as an economist to comment on military interventions. Yet even without recent rhetoric, military intervention is too perfect an example of what this book argues you should not do--have the West operate on other societies with virtually no feedback or accountability.

IMF and USAID money to bad guys was a weapon and blunt foreign policy instrument through The Cold War and now the War on Terror.
In one of the most bizarre episodes of the cold war, the Reagan administration sponsored an organization called Democratic International, which brought together the Contras in Nicaragua, UNITA in Angola, the Islamic mujahedin in Afghanistan, and anti-government rebels in Cambodia.36
Reagan said of the Democratic International in 1988: "there is something in our spirit and history that makes us say these are our own battles and that those who resist are our brothers and sisters." Savimbi was to democracy what Paris Hilton is to chastity.

Whether the invader is the US Army or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the occupied are pawns. Easterly returns to the theme of "Searchers" who solve a specific problem in an entrepreneurial manner, versus the "Planners" who come in with a blank slate and ideas to remake the whole society.
The sad part is the poor have had so little power to hold agencies accountable that the aid agencies have not had enough incentive to find out what works and what the poor actually want. The most important suggestion is to search for small improvements, then brutally scrutinize and test whether the poor got what they wanted and were better off, and then repeat the process.

Five stars. Like my excursion, I am hard pressed to recommend one book over the other. They are both very good. [UPDATE: Buy The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor But be warned: you may want to go back and read this one....]

Posted by John Kranz at 9:46 AM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2014

Review Corner

With the exception of Medicaid, subsidies flowing to the unemployed and to financially distressed households in the forms of consumer loan forgiveness and government transfers almost tripled after 2007. A minority of that increase is due to an increase in the number of people who would have been eligible for subsidies under prerecession rules, and a majority is the result of more than a dozen changes in benefit rules made possible by several new federal and state government statutes.
THE NEXT STEP is to trace out the possible consequences of the safety net expansions for the major macroeconomic variables--including GDP, consumption, investment, and labor hours. Chapter Five simultaneously estimates dynamic safety net impacts on all four variables using the neoclassical growth model, which embeds the reservation wage and labor productivity schedules from Chapter Two into a dynamic economic model with capital accumulation.
Want a book list? Manhattan Institute has a Hayek Book Award and past recipients include some of my favorite books. So I purchased this year's winner (and a couple other recent ones you'll be hearing about shortly).

Casey Mulligan might be freedom's Thomas Piketty (without the dirigisme and factual errors). The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy is a serious work. Mulligan isolates economic data to attribute exact causation. Those who enjoy the joke "I was told there would be no math" will utter the phrase sub-rosa at least a few times between the covers of this. I would not advise buying this one in Kindle -- it is $24 on Kindle, lay out the $35 for the hardback. It is dense with formulae and tables; a proper reading would include a desk, scratch paper and the hardcover.

Reading just the text is satisfactory -- it's rather like going to the beach and not getting wet. Your reviewer stayed quite dry but enjoyed the sun and gathered a few important points.

One of the unremarked tragedies of 9/11 was that President Bush's domestic agenda of destroying "tollbooths to the middle class" was discarded to pursue the War on Terror. And sadly, to leave a legacy of additional tollbooths.

Mulligan enumerates the aid dispensed during the recession and sums the marginal tax rate created. Want to get a job? Swell. You do know you'll give up unemployment insurance. Of course. You'll also not qualify for Medicaid, and probably lose SNAP (The Program Formerly Known As food stamps) and TANF (TPFKA welfare). Of course! You're getting off the dole and good for you! Oh, that mortgage refinance deal. Well, you're going to have to drop out of that.

And. You'll have to pay taxes to pay for those programs for everybody not so motivated. The resulting marginal rate is well over 100% for most recipients. The miracle and savior of humanity is that people do work for less than they could make watching Judge Judy. Or, as Mulligan would say:

I leave it to Chetty et al. (2011) to survey and synthesize the micro-econometric evidence and properly adapt it for aggregate analysis. They conclude that the Frisch elasticity of aggregate hours is particularly pertinent for aggregate business cycle analysis and that "Micro estimates imply a Frisch elasticity of aggregate hours of 0.78" (2011, 3) and "it would be reasonable to calibrate representative agent macro models to match a Frisch elasticity of aggregate hours of 0.75" (recall that my slope parameter η can be interpreted as the Frisch elasticity of aggregate hours). 12

Just kidding (not really kidding, that was an actual quote) but Mulligan concludes:
This chapter completes a significant part of the book's affirmative case that the 2008–09 recession and lack of labor market recovery has a lot to do with labor supply distortions. I conclude that at least half, and probably more, of the change in aggregate hours between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009 would not have occurred if safety net program rules had been constant. The expanding social safety net may well be the largest single factor reducing labor during the 2008– 09 recession.

I think most ThreeSources instinctively believe Mulligan. He presents a serious and quantitative proof for the qualitative belief. Other important points that can be grasped without computing the Frisch elasticity coefficient include the relation to marginal tax rates: giving up the cheap refi because you get a raise is a high marginal tax rate.

Another non-intuitive argument is the sum of these programs. Each can be defended as compassion by Robert Reich on Kudlow, but the sum of myriad legislation is a huge expansion of the safety net. Mulligan leans libertarian, but he would prefer a single transparent and quantifiable benefit to the alphabet soup model we have, in which nobody really knows what benefits are available and what they cost. These new programs sit atop a foundation of aid that is not easily measured by itself:

Admittedly, the principle of comparative advantage says that the aggregate losses from a subsidy that reduces labor per adult by, say, 6 percent are significantly less than 6 percent of the nation’s labor income because, among other things, the subsidy primarily changes behavior for the 6 percent of the workforce with the least comparative advantage . On the other hand, we must recognize that the safety net expansion's deadweight loss (that is, the amount that losers from the safety net expansion, such as taxpayers , lose in excess of what the "winners" gain) also depends on the magnitude of preexisting labor market distortions, such as the preexisting safety net, income taxes, payroll taxes , sales taxes, and distortions created by imperfect competition in product or labor markets (Galí, Gertler and Lopez-Salido 2007). Appendix 4.3 estimates the deadweight loss in fiscal year 2010 to be almost $ 200 billion, minus any insurance benefits of the expansion.

When Review Corner calls a book serious or important, you can read that as "challenging." There are several good reviews, synopses, and interviews with Mulligan. If you want some technical, quantitative economics and do not mind getting your hands dirty, this is a great book. As a Pop Economics or political book, I cannot recommend it to a casual reader. But that does not mean it is unimportant:
The purpose of this chapter is to carefully examine the economically substantive differences between the stimulus approaches and mine, and to indicate how to judge and quantify those differences with the help of empirical analysis. The next chapter presents results of three tests of the slack market assumption, which, surprisingly, has not yet been the subject of much empirical testing.

Hooray for Mulligan for that empirical testing.
For one, the evidence found here and in prior labor market studies helps dispel the notion, embodied in many Keynesian models, that the safety net is a free lunch, that it can help the poor and vulnerable without preventing many people from working.

Three and a half stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:11 PM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

Being "challenging" or, for whatever other reason, not read, has not stopped the left from trumpeting Pinketty [Freudian spelling error left in place.] May I suggest #EconomicMulligan ? Let's make Casey Mulligan a household name too.

As for your amazement over "the miracle and savior of humanity is that people do work for less than they could make watching Judge Judy" I suggest, "Dagny Taggart, call your office."

Posted by: johngalt at July 14, 2014 12:21 PM

July 6, 2014

Review Corner

In April 1865, one hundred years before [President Lyndon] Johnson addressed Howard University graduates, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at a Boston gathering of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on a similar theme . "Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, 'What should we do with the Negro?'" said Douglass. "I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us!
Another Review Corner trilogy looms. Having finished "Great Minds of the 20th Century: Chesterton, Popper, and Orwell," another accidental triumvirate has landed on Kindle. Don't worry. this is not a trend -- I rarely find myself +2 on reading versus Review Corners; this is a six week aberration at best.

But the next three, near and dear to ThreeSourcers, concern redistribution. Next week, Casey Mulligan's The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy shows -- in grueling technical detail -- how the sum of all these benefit programs is equivalent to a huge marginal tax rate increase which both exacerbated the panic and impeded the recovery. After that, cornerites can look forward to John Taylor's First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America's Prosperity where he of "Taylor Rule" fame shows that our nation's deviations from principles of economic liberty have given rise to inflation, recession and unemployment.

But I'll review in the order read and the most devastating attack on the redistribution might be Jason Riley's assertion that it hurts those intends to help.

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed is a well constructed data-driven look at the failure of the #WarOnPoverty. But it is also a deeply personal book. Regular viewers of the Journal Editorial Report on FOX may have noticed that Riley is himself, African American (shh, don't tell Naomi...) Riley looks deep into culture for problems in black communities and accuses government policies -- specifically those championed by black "leaders" -- of enabling and exacerbating illegitimacy, education failures, and crime.

An interesting and original subordinate point is the tension between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois sought political power to right the wrongs of oppression and Washington sought economic power. Modern leaders chose political power, which is surely defensible after slavery and Jim Crow, but Riley suggests that they should not have abandoned Washington. He highlights minority groups in America that have little or no political power yet do extraordinarily well. Asians, Italians, Scandinavians acquired economic power first, then they entered the political realm. African Americans and Irish turned first to politics and were both poorly served.

Between 1940 and 1960-- that is, before the major civil rights victories, and at a time when black political power was nearly nonexistent-- the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent. Yet between 1972 and 2011-- that is, after major civil rights gains, as well as the implementation of Great Society programs-- it barely declined, from 32 percent to 28 percent, and remained three times the white rate, which is about what it was in 1972.
Whatever else the election of Barack Obama represented-- some have called it redemption, others have called it the triumph of style over substance-- it was the ultimate victory for people who believe that black political gains are of utmost importance to black progress in America. C. T. Vivian, a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr., told Obama biographer David Remnick that "Martin Luther King was our prophet--in biblical terms, the prophet of our age. The politician of our age, who comes along to follow that prophet, is Barack Obama.

It would be bad enough if politics were a diversion, but the political class undermines the economic interests of the people.
For years, black political leaders in New York City aligned themselves with labor unions to block the construction of a Walmart in a low-income community with persistently high unemployment. According to a Marist poll taken in 2011, 69 percent of blacks in New York would welcome a Walmart in their neighborhood. Yet these black leaders put the interests of Big Labor, which doesn’t like the retailer's stance toward unions, ahead of the interests of struggling black people who could use the jobs and low-priced goods.

I mentioned the personal part, which I found the most disheartening. I knew some Jason Rileys in my lily-white catholic schooling. Riley's parents whisked him off to what they saw as better neighborhoods. Friends who were just as smart and whose parents were in the same class made the choice to stay. It may be anecdotal that Riley achieved what he did and that his friends succumbed to crime, dependence, and illegitimacy. But it is hard to read the book and think so,
I very much enjoyed school. I was outgoing , athletic, made friends easily. But it wasn’t just the social life that attracted me. I also liked learning. I liked books. I was curious about the world. I wanted to be smart, not because I associated it with being white but because I associated it with my father. Dad was smart, and I wanted to be like Dad.[...] The reality was that if you were a bookish black kid who placed shared sensibilities above shared skin color, you probably had a lot of white friends.
The kind of ribbing that I experienced as a child would follow me into adulthood, where my older sister's children would take to deriding my diction. "Why you talk white, Uncle Jason?" my niece, all of nine years old at the time, once asked me during a visit. Turning to her friend, she continued, "Don't my uncle sound white? Why he trying to sound so smart?" They shared a chuckle at my expense, and I was reminded of how early these self-defeating attitudes take hold.

I don't care how many members of Congress share your pigmentation, you're not going to prosper if you think like that. The triumph of rap culture over education and the sorry state of union public education are well covered. He quotes Bill Cosby as saying "What the hell good is Brown v. Board of Education if nobody wants it?"
The AFT and its larger sister organization, the National Education Association, have some 4.5 million dues-paying members and thousands of state and local affiliates. And it is on behalf of these members that unions fight to keep open the most violent and poorest-performing schools; block efforts to send the best teachers to the neediest students; insist that teachers be laid off based on seniority instead of performance; oppose teacher evaluation systems and merit pay structures that could ferret out bad teachers; back tenure rules that offer instructors lifetime sinecures after only a few years on the job; and make it nearly impossible to fire the system's worst actors, from teachers who are chronically absent or incompetent to those who have criminal records. None of these positions make sense if your goal is to improve public education and help children learn. But they make perfect sense if the job security of adults is your main objective.

Riley (And Cosby, and Thomas Sowell) face a politically powerful and well funded machine that exists for its institutional interest -- not those for whom it purports to advocate.
The left's sentimental support has turned underprivileged blacks into playthings for liberal intellectuals and politicians who care more about clearing their conscience or winning votes than advocating behaviors and attitudes that have allowed other groups to get ahead. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement of King has become an industry that does little more than monetize white guilt. King and his contemporaries demanded black self-improvement despite the abundant and overt racism of his day. King’s successors, living in an era when public policy bends over backward to accommodate blacks, nevertheless insist that blacks cannot be held responsible for their plight so long as someone somewhere in white America is still using the n-word.

I hope Review Corner cheered you up today. Actually the book is not nearly as depressing as this review. But the underlying and unavoidable truths are. Four stars (and no, he would not have received five if he were white...)

Posted by John Kranz at 10:03 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

Awesome. The barrier to solving this problem is indeed high. Who is going to tell 9 year old girls they are wrong? At the same time, changing government policy to encourage rather than discourage 2-parent households would not only be a huge improvement, I daresay it is imperative.

Posted by: johngalt at July 6, 2014 11:46 AM

June 29, 2014

Review Corner

A generation of students has gone to school on the banal truth that all literature is "constructed," and learned to scoff at the notion that words on the page might express something essentially authentic about the writer. The usefulness of this insight runs up against its limits when you pick up Orwell's essays. Open these books anywhere and you encounter the same voice. Orwell always sounds like Orwell: readier to fight than most writers, toughened but also deepened by hard, largely self -inflicted experience, able to zero in on what's essential about a poem or a politician or a memory, unsurprised without being cynical, principled without being priggish, direct and yet slightly reserved.
Yup. That is Keith Gessen introducing a superb collection of Orwell essays in All Art Is Propaganda. The essays are literary criticism from the 1940s and, while each is striking in depth and style, the collection shows Orwell developing his philosophy and his voice.

The book is the essays. Gessen gives the world a gift in their collection, and provides a well crafted introduction. He snuck in one biographical detail I did not know:

It's interesting that Orwell didn’t go to college. He went to Eton, the most prestigious of the English boarding schools, but he loafed around there and, afterward, went off to Burma as a police officer. College is where you sometimes get loaded up with fancy terms whose meaning you’re not quite sure of. Orwell was an intellectual and a highbrow who thought Joyce, Eliot, and Lawrence were the greatest writers of his age, but he never uses fancy terms.

He does not use "fancy terms," but he has an intellect that is deep and broad. He sounds just as professorial to me as Eliot. When he discusses Dickens, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare he wraps his understandings around a deep familiarity. He has directed me to back to each (although, for the moment I find myself on Tolstoy's side that "King Lear" is wanting). For a dropout, ex-Burmese policeman, and Spanish Civil War vet, let's say he was pretty well read.

The first essay is on Charles Dickens. ThreeSourcers, if you do not want to commit to reading the entire thing, please accept my assurance that ponying up the $9.99 on Kindle and reading just the Dickens essay is worthwhile.

Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you come to think of it.

When Chesterton wrote his introductions to the Everyman Edition of Dickens's works, it seemed quite natural to him to credit Dickens with his own highly individual brand of medievalism, and more recently a Marxist writer, Mr. T. A. Jackson, has made spirited efforts to turn Dickens into a bloodthirsty revolutionary. The Marxist claims him as "almost" a Marxist, the Catholic claims him as "almost" a Catholic, and both claim him as a champion of the proletariat (or "the poor," as Chesterton would have put it).
It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy , still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle's "as good is from evil ." Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a "change of heart"--that, essentially, is what he is always saying.
There are whole worlds which he either knows nothing about or does not wish to mention. Except in a rather roundabout way, one cannot learn very much from Dickens. And to say this is to think almost immediately of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. Why is it that Tolstoy's grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens's-- why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself ? It is not that he is more gifted , or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens's are already finished and perfect.

If we've a modern Orwell, I suggest it might be Penn Jillette. Both are driven by foundational honesty which supersedes their beliefs in a way I cannot muster. I can explain away President Bush's push for Faith Based Initiatives or Speaker Hastert's hardball tactics passing Medicare Part D. Orwell takes sides but questions them better than most. Perhaps Hemmingway in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" also questions the purity of the cause -- but Hemmingway comes off cynical and Orwell comes off completely honest.
Technically, by the standards of the time when it was made, Chapaiev is a first-rate film, but mentally, in spite of the unfamiliar Russian background, it is not so very remote from Hollywood.
The film is in fact a fairly ordinary one, except that its tendency is "left." In a Hollywood film of the Russian Civil War the Whites would probably be angels and the Reds demons. In the Russian version the Reds are angels and the Whites demons. That also is a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

As literary critic, Orwell could be devastating; my extensive excerpts from the Dickens essay make him sound like a fanboy compared to the entire piece. But, what many lack -- even my hero, Eliot, sometimes -- is a joyful appreciation.
Unfortunately I cannot quote; unprintable words occur almost everywhere. But get hold of [Henry Miller's] Tropic of Cancer, get hold of Black Spring and read especially the first hundred pages. They give you an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e., without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word. The adjective has come back, after its ten years' exile. It is a flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat cautious statements and snackbar dialects that are now in fashion.

The man who says "all art Is propaganda" does not shy away from political observations. Over the writings, one sees his transformation from socialist to social democrat (half a step, right?)
But there is something rather curious in being Whitman in the nineteen-thirties. It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at this moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass. For what he is saying , after all , is "I accept," and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that , he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism.

I have acres more highlighted quotes, but as the late, great trombonist Alan Frederickson used to yell from the bandstand "You're not here to enjoy yourself! You're here to get well!"

This completes three review corners about great intellects of the 20th Century. Chesterton, Popper, and Orwell each exist to have their powerful ideas coopted, just as Orwell complained about Dickens's. Orwell saw truth, Popper saw reason, Chesterton saw beauty. Each is a part of me.

But none were of my philosophy. Reading Hayek, or Mises, or Bastiat, or even Ayn Rand, I think that person was one "of us." I must come to terms with Chesterton/Popper/Orwell. Orwell was a socialist, Chesterton a Catholic who would clearly side with Pope Francis before Michael Novak, and the Popper page shared this two days after my review.

The sight of hopeless men, women, and children on the city streets, suffering hunger and cold, touched him deeply and left indelible impressions on his memory. Eliminating poverty would be the major goal of his future proposed reforms, and he would see disappearance of poverty from much of the Western Hemisphere as one of humanity's greatest achievements. The libertarian's lesser concern for poverty, and their willingness to trust the market to relieve it, he would regard as mistaken, if not callous. -- Malachi Haim Hacohen, "Karl Popper – The Formative Years – 1902-1945"

All these men wrote under the shadow of Nazism, Depression, and the Spanish Civil War. Freedom was in retreat. I posit that they could not envision liberty's triumph, forcing each to seek compromises to preserve liberty's ember. But that is of course unbridled arrogance on the order of "If alive today, surely Jesus would be a Bronco Fan." Ludwig von Mises saw all the horror up close and personal yet still predicted liberty's triumph. We're told Willie Nelson's heroes have always been cowboys, perhaps all mine are Democratic Socialists.

Reviewing the reviewer, this is as good as it gets. Buy this book and open it to a random page. Five Stars.

When you return to these essays, the mystery evaporates. You would probably not be able to write this way now, even if you learned the craft: The voice would seem put -on, after Orwell; it would seem deliberately "hard-boiled." But there is nothing put-on about it here, and it seems to speak, despite the specificity of the issues discussed, directly to the present. In Orwell’s clear, strong voice we hear a warning. Because we, too, live in a time when truth is disappearing from the world, and doing so in just the way Orwell worried it would: through language.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:14 AM | Comments (1)
But T. Greer thinks:

Orwell is every liberal's favorite conservative and every conservative's favorite liberal.

Posted by: T. Greer at July 2, 2014 9:52 AM

June 22, 2014

Review Corner

What Popper aims to do, and at his best does do, is to seek out and attack an opponent's case at its strongest. Indeed, before attacking it he tries to strengthen it still further. He sees if any of its weaknesses can be removed and any of its formulations improved on, gives it the benefit of every doubt, passes over any obvious loopholes; and then, having got it into the best-argued form he can, attacks it at its most powerful and appealing. This method, the most intellectually serious possible, is thrilling
I mentioned Popper once in front of an Oxford-edumacated economics friend of mine. He said that Dr. P was spoken of in hushed tones because "his was the only intellect that John Maynard Keynes feared in debate."

To place my intellect on this particular scale, well I subscribe to the Karl Popper Facebook Page and recommend it highly. Popper is eminently readable, but his prose is the antithesis of Twitter. Single paragraphs span multiple pages. Not turgid, but could you give us mortals a chance to come up for air now and then? For this reason, I'll admit that I enjoy reading about Popper more than I enjoy reading Popper.

I had seen him and read some quotes, but I "discovered" Popper as Popperian epistemology was one of the four threads in David Deutsch's Fabric of Reality. Deutsch explains Popper better than Popper and explains Richard Dawkins way better than Richard Dawkins. But Deutsch takes only a slice of the man's work and there is quite a bit more to be had.

The Popper FB Page recommended Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper by Bryan Magee as the definitive introduction. First released in 1973 and last updated in 1985, the short book is not available on Kindle. And, why do I need an Introduction? I've read both volumes of Open Society and its Enemies. And the footnotes. And the footnotes of the footnotes.

The friend who turned me onto Deutsch and I have traded Popper books. They are not easy to find and he had a leg up living in the UK for a few years. We have a running disagreement that he likes "the science stuff" and I like "the philosophy stuff." The best thing about Philosophy and the Real World is that it unifies these concepts better than the Dude's rug. It was not just science that was advanced by reason and intellectual criticism. To Popper it was thought. And, being a good Aristotelian, science and philosophy were not distinct. Popper codifies the scientific method -- then applies it to Philosophy.

Related to this is another, much slighter obstacle between Popper and possible readers. He believes that philosophy is a necessary activity because we, all of us, take a great number of things for granted, and many of these assumptions are of a philosophical character; we act on them in private life, in politics, in our work, and in every other sphere of our lives--but while some of these assumptions are no doubt true, it is likely that more are false and some are harmful. So the critical examination of our presuppositions--which is a philosophical activity--is morally as well as intellectually important. This view is of philosophy as something lived and important for all of us, not an academic activity or a specialism, and certainly not as consisting primarily in the study of the writings of professional philosophers. Nevertheless it does mean that most of Popper's work consists of the critical examination of theories, and in consequence there is a great deal of discussion of 'isms', and a great many allusions to thinkers of the past, especially in the first works he wrote in English when he was still under the influence of the German academic tradition.

Popper codifies the scientific method, then builds a philosophy on it . . . all in a days work. But then he applies intellectual rigor to Marx, Engels, and the political descendants of Kant and Hegel and puts a political philosophy on top.
Popper's paradoxes, which he calls 'the paradox of sovereignty'. If, say, power is put in the hands of the wisest man, he may from the depths of his wisdom adjudge: 'Not I but the morally good should be the ruler'. If the morally good has power he may say, being saintly: 'It is wrong for me to impose my will on others. Not I but the majority should rule'. The majority, having power, may say: 'We want a strong man to impose order and tell us what to do'. A second objection is that the question: 'Where should sovereignty lie?' rests on the assumption that ultimate power must be somewhere, which is not the case. In most societies there are different and to some extent conflicting power centres, not one of which can get everything its own way. In some societies power is quite widely diffused. The question 'Yes, but where does it ultimately lie?' eliminates before it is raised the possibility of control over rulers, when this is the most important of all things to establish. The vital question is not 'Who should rule?' but 'How can we minimize misrule--both the likelihood of its occurring and, when it does occur, its consequences?'

After presenting two well reasoned volumes on the individual empowerment, freedom from totalitarianism and the most vicious debunking of Marxism you will ever encounter, Popper suggests -- in a less wealthy period than today -- that it is unconscionable to allow poverty in a wealthy society. He joins Chesterton (last week) and Orwell (next week) in championing the kind of Social Democrat, mixed economy that ThreeSourcers exist to oppose.

It remains a frustrating obstacle to my desire to coopt all there of these preternatural intelligences to service of my beliefs. But we have a hundred years of history on them and America's ascension to superpowerdom on classic liberal concepts. I'd think all of them could be moved at least into the Reagan camp of freedom with a safety net for the truly needy.

Philosophy in the Real World is a great introduction to Popper, whether an introduction is required or not. Five Stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:07 AM | Comments (2)
But T. Greer thinks:

This is a good review.

Nicholas Nassim Talen speaks well of Popper as well. One of the few philosophers the guy actually likes.

Posted by: T. Greer at June 22, 2014 10:31 PM
But jk thinks:

Thanks for the kind words. I'm a huge Taleb fab as well.

Although he's a modern example of someone who assembles a brilliant foundation but I'm not certain puts the correct over-arching worldview atop.

Posted by: jk at June 23, 2014 10:59 AM

June 15, 2014

Review Corner

Gilbert Keith.

Someday, you'll win a trivia contest with "What is G.K. Chesterton's full name?" If you are on Jeopardy, be sure to phrase the answer as a question.

I reviewed Gilbert Keith's What's Wrong with the World last May. He is difficult to read on Kindle because one wants to underline every other line of his magnificent prose.

Some time ago I wrote a little book of this type and shape on St. Francis of Assisi; and some time after (I know not when or how, as the song says, and certainly not why) I promised to write a book of the same size, or the same smallness on St. Thomas Aquinas. The promise was Franciscan only in its rashness ; and the parallel was very far from being Thomistic in its logic. You can make a sketch of St. Francis: you could only make a plan of St. Thomas, like the plan of a labyrinthine city.

I'm not a man of envy. Payton Manning's new little bungalow in Cherry Hills is a fine structure; his rival Tom Brady's wife is extremely attractive, blog friend sugarchuck has some cool guitars. I'm fine with that. Mazel tov! But two good friends took some of their Catholic education at the firm hand of the Jesuits: one in high school, one in grad school. And I am green that the entire, substantive, intellectual aspect of Catholicism was never shared with me. Eleven years of parochial school theology got me a succession of deconstructionist, feel good hooey.

The Charles Murray book reviewed last April suggested that its young reader cough, cough engage in serious religious thought and study. Randy Barnett's masterful Structure of Liberty [Review Corner] used natural law and St. Thomas Aquinas as a foundation. So, I ponied up $1.99 for a Kindle version of Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas (illustrated and annotated).

He opens with a lengthy (well, not too lengthy -- it is a very short book) comparison of St. Francis because, again, he had written a similar book on St. Francis. But as an introduction, it is helpful to compare something new to something known.

Perhaps it would sound too paradoxical to say that these two saints saved us from Spirituality; a dreadful doom. Perhaps it may be misunderstood if I say that St. Francis, for all his love of animals, saved us from being Buddhists; and that St. Thomas, for all his love of Greek philosophy , saved us from being Platonists.

It would be rich of your review corner author to compare himself to any saint, but I was certainly drawn to Aquinas. Chesterton says that he "baptized Aristotle," bringing him into a church completely in the clutches of Platonic spirituality and mysticism. I have blasted the current pontiff, once or twice, for his irrational economics. I hope nobody missed Kevin Williamson's superb essay pushing back against an Honduran Cardinal's anti-Capitalism. Dare I mention Michael Novak?

Aquinas stands for reason and in the middle ages says that there is no conflict between religion and science. Both seek the same truth.

He practically said that if they could really prove their practical discoveries, the traditional interpretation of Scripture must give way before those discoveries. He could hardly, as the common phrase goes, say fairer than that. If the matter had been left to him, and men like him, there never would have been any quarrel between Science and Religion.

Aquinas takes on the Platonists of his own church as well as the encroachment of Islam, and "The Manichees." But his crusades are fought with reason and philosophy.
For the Augustinians derived only from Augustine, and Augustine derived partly from Plato, and Plato was right, but not quite right. It is a mathematical fact that if a line be not perfectly directed towards a point , it will actually go further away from it as it comes nearer to it. After a thousand years of extension, the miscalculation of Platonism had come very near to Manicheanism.
Hence, we may say broadly of the Moslem philosophers, that those who became good philosophers became bad Moslems. It is not altogether unnatural that many bishops and doctors feared that the Thomists might become good philosophers and bad Christians. But there were also many, of the strict school of Plato and Augustine, who stoutly denied that they were even good philosophers. Between those rather incongruous passions, the love of Plato and the fear of Mahomet, there was a moment when the prospects of any Aristotelian culture in Christendom looked very dark indeed. Anathema after anathema was thundered from high places; and under the shadow of the persecution, as so often happens, it seemed for a moment that barely one or two figures stood alone in the storm-swept area. They were both in the black and white of the Dominicans; for Albertus and Aquinas stood firm.

Aquinas was high-borne and chose the life of a friar. He was accepted into society, lectured at Colleges but was not subsumed by anything but thought and philosophy. Chesterton says "But he had all the unconscious contempt which the really intelligent have for an intelligentsia."
There may be many who do not understand the nature even of this sort of abstraction. But then, unfortunately, there are many who do not understand the nature of any sort of argument. Indeed, I think there are fewer people now alive who understand argument than there were twenty or thirty years ago; and St . Thomas might have preferred the society of the atheists of the early nineteenth century to that of the blank sceptics of the early twentieth.

But, to a 13th century friar, "A is A."
Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs.
According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will , it is a vision because it is not a dream.

And yet, the book ends a little sourly. This long-review-of-a-short-book is the first of three: today GK Chesterton, next week Karl Popper, then George Orwell. I posit that each of these three brilliant sons of liberty made economic and political errors because of the dark times in which they lived. Liberalism was in its death throes to each and each tried to posit a world with liberty in a post-Liberal universe. My man Mises saw the eventual victory of Liberalism, but Chesterton, Popper, and Orwell saw the need to make the best of a crueler world post Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.

I can forgive the Middle Ages Friar for not cheering on free market economics. He predated Menger, Bastiat, Adam Smith, and Ludwig von Mises -- and his cable package did not include CNBC, so he never saw Kudlow. But Chesterton, sadly, piles on:

He foresaw from the first the peril of that mere reliance on trade and exchange, which was beginning about his time; and which has culminated in a universal commercial collapse in our time. He did not merely assert that Usury is unnatural, though in saying that he only followed Aristotle and obvious common sense, which was never contradicted by anybody until the time of the commercialists, who have involved us in the collapse. The modern world began by Bentham writing the Defence of Usury, and it has ended after a hundred years in even the vulgar newspaper opinion finding Finance indefensible. But St. Thomas struck much deeper than that. He even mentioned the truth, ignored during the long idolatry of trade, that things which men produce only to sell are likely to be worse in quality than the things they produce in order to consume.

Something of our difficulty about the fine shades of Latin will be felt when we come to his statement that there is always a certain inhonestas about trade. For inhonestas does not exactly mean dishonesty. It means approximately "something unworthy," or, more nearly perhaps, "something not quite handsome." And he was right; for trade, in the modern sense, does mean selling something for a little more than it is worth, nor would the nineteenth century economists have denied it.

Usury -- and "less than handsome" goods for trade. I weep. But at the end of my triumvirate review, I intend to bring Chesterton, Popper, Orwell, and maybe Aquinas to 2014. I will ask them to use their preternatural intellects to update the economic side of their philosophies.

Chesterton's book? Five starts, of course!

Posted by John Kranz at 11:18 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:
Between those rather incongruous passions, the love of Plato and the fear of Mahomet, there was a moment when the prospects of any Aristotelian culture in Christendom looked very dark indeed.

History repeats, does it not?

GKC's myopia on trade was a fairly simple one: He ignores the reality that, while a thing is itself, it can have different value to different folk. The object is invariable - its value is not. (How much more would you pay for a bottle opener before your beer is opened than after?) And that example doesn't even account for the difference between bottle or can aficionados. Or sots and teetotalers. Or Blutarsky and Flounder.

Posted by: johngalt at June 17, 2014 5:51 PM

June 8, 2014

Review Corner

We call our species homo sapiens--wise man--but we are, in fact, homo faber, man the creator. We have changed the face of this planet with our tools and structures, and we will continue doing so. Assuring future prosperity requires that we continue exploring the atom and exploring deep space.
This describes Karl Popper's "World 3" (coming soon to a Review Corner near you) but it captures Robert Bryce's anti-Malthusian Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.

Moore's Law applies to and is well-accepted in the microprocessor sector. A newer faster smaller cheaper computer is almost as predictable as a user's story of the older, bigger, slower, and more expensive equipment he or she began using. (Having a brother who worked on mainframes, I have learned not to get into one-upsmanship in that area...)

But Bryce expands it to all fields of human endeavor: Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper energy, agriculture, transportation, music -- everything where innovation is allowed, and sometimes, even where it isn't.

The trend toward Smaller Faster is not dependent on a single country, company , or technology. Nor is it dependent on ideology. Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper has flourished despite Marxism, Communism, Socialism, Confucianism, and authoritarian dictatorships. It might even survive the Republicans and the Democrats.

Leo Fender gets a shout out for empowering the individual in music with the tools to be heard in the theatre, and then the same technology's allowing The Beatles to be heard around the world on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The vacuum tube allowed musicians to be heard as individuals, and in doing so liberated millions of people. Lee De Forest, the Alabama-born inventor who perfected the vacuum tube, would eventually win more than three hundred patents. But none of his other inventions would ever be as important as the vacuum tube.

The book is great for a modernist like me. I'd put it beside Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist [Review Corner] or David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity [Review Corner]. Those are sacred texts to a technocrat like me, but what Bryce may do better is to directly take on and negate the neo-Malthusians, who -- if I may borrow from Popper again -- would "take us back to the caves."
Collapse anxiety pervades the rhetoric of many of the world's most prominent environmentalists as well as some of the biggest environmental groups. They abhor modern energy sources as despoilers of earth's beauty and natural order and cling to the idea that we humans have inappropriately sought to subdue nature for our own shortsighted, materialistic, and short-term benefit. In their view, we humans have sinned so much against Mother Earth that even the weather has turned against us.
The facts are simply indisputable: never have so many lived so well, or so free. Yet despite this astounding progress, there remains an entrenched and powerful interest group that believes we humans are doing too much, that we must reduce our consumption of everything, return to our agrarian past and employ what one prominent catastrophist calls "a new civilizational paradigm." Following such a path would be disastrous.
McKibben and his fellow travelers believe that salvation lies in pursuing low density in both energy production and food production. But the precise opposite is true. Density is green. It's only by increasing the density of our energy and food production that we will be able to meet the demands of our growing population. And yet, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and many other groups want to pave the world with low-density wind turbines.

ThreeSourcers will also enjoy the quantitative nature of the book advances are measured and compared to what they replaced and back to what was used in antiquity.
The original Model T was equipped with a 2.9 liter engine that produced 22 horsepower (about 16,400 watts) and weighed about 300 pounds (136 kg). The result: gravimetric power density of nearly 121 watts per kilogram. That power density was 73 times that of a horse, 12 times that of the Boulton & Watt design and about six times that of the engine Corliss had introduced in Philadelphia three decades earlier.

The energy section will warm the hearts of ThreeSourcers, if read on Kindle, at 0.44°C/µW -- energy density, near and dear to all.
That Obama and Kennedy, both of whom went to Harvard, claim that a super-high-energy density substance that can be deployed for innumerable purposes, from pumping well water in Kenya to emergency generation of electricity in Lower Manhattan, is somehow bad or even yet, tyrannical, is nonsense on stilts. Rather than talk about the tyranny of oil, the two Harvard grads might as well complain about the tyranny of physics-- or better yet, the tyranny of density.

Detailed Appendices describe the units used and data sources for the quantitative sections. For all its factual content, the book is an easy and enjoyable read. Five Stars, easy.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)

June 1, 2014

Review Corner

John Considine is an economist . You might remember him from articles such as "The Simpsons: Public Choice in the Tradition of Swift and Orwell" and "Yes Minister : Invaluable Material for Teaching the Public Choice for Bureaucracy" or from teaching economics to students at University College Cork, Ireland.
Even the endnotes are fun in Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics.

Joshua Hall, Associate Professor of Economics at West Virginia University, likes to use Simpsons and Springfield references in his lectures. He mentioned the title to Professor and HOSSess Deirdre McClosky who said "that should be a book." I don't know if Hall has a low utility for work or a keen sense of Comparative Advantage, but he elected to solicit essays from other instructors rather than write the book himself.

He collected 16, covering "The Economic Way of Thinking," "Money, Markets, and Government," and "Applied Microeconomics." Each appreciates The Simpsons and the result is a very enjoyable read.

The invisible hand, as well as the four-fingered invisible "yellow" hands of the Simpsons, applies to more than what people usually consider to be the narrow scope of economic activity.
Unfortunately for Homer, he won't be creating new money any time soon. For that matter , he won't be multiplying existing money either. Homer finds himself in the same situation as Bart in "I Don't Wanna Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." That episode begins with Bart writing over and over again on the chalkboard that he is not an FDIC-insured bank. D'oh!

Economics is one area where one is not too surprised to find 16 academics who are sympathetic to liberty and distrustful of government and central planning. Where the discussion wends its way into politics. most ThreeSourcers would be sympathetic to the arguments.
If we start with the assumption that government is run by socially benevolent and well-informed central planners, then we would be rather indifferent between Pigouvian taxation , regulation, and the assignment of property rights as policy alternatives to correcting externalities. In reality, politicians and bureaucrats are every bit as self- interested as the rest of us human beings, and our judicial system might handle certain industries even more poorly than regulators. This requires us to consider the case-specific practical difficulties of implementing policies. On The Simpsons, "Mr. Spitz Goes to Washington" provides one such case study of the difficulties involved.
For over a half a century government failure scholars believed that there was a bias in favor of government intervention as a solution to market failure. The Simpsons addresses this bias-- even if the show is possibly biased in the other direction. Even if we do not accept the perspective of The Simpsons on government, there is no getting away from the way in which it invites us to consider the alternative to any proposed government intervention in the economy.

I am pretty familiar with this genre, as I read similar compendia of literary criticism or philosophy discussions around Buffy and Angel; I read those by the schooner. Like this, some submissions are better than others. Andrew T. Young of West Virginia University has one of the longer and better articles on money. Building on the line in the "Trilogy of Error," where Milhouse pleades, "I can’t go to juvey! They use guys like me as currency!" Young asks "Could Milhouse actually become money in the juvenile hall?" with a serious discussion of the functions of money and whether our bespeckled friend meets those requirements.

I've enjoyed The Simpsons over the years. I would not call myself a die hard fan, but when I come across it, I always laugh -- and I appreciate Groening's ability to scratch pretty deep with an animated comedy.

In general, the fascinating part about the members of the Springfield community is that, despite being fictional characters created for entertainment purposes, their biases correspond quite well to those observed by behavioral economists in real people. Lisa even notes in the first episode of the show that Homer has the same frailties as all human beings, and this theme is certainly exemplified throughout the show, perhaps even to a larger degree than the writers realized.

Informative and enjoyable -- four stars easy.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:59 AM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2014

Review Corner

But, as we have seen in Chapters 13 and 14 , some libertarians offer ways to confine the coercive power needed for individual sovereignty to its only proper function of protecting individual sovereignty. Having observed the continued decline of respect for the limits on state and federal power contained in the U.S. Constitution, some libertarians favor a more radical alternative. They would see law enforcement and adjudication be handled competitively rather than by monopolistic government agencies. They favor a polycentric legal order in which consumer choice and competition would provide a better check on the abuse of the powers of law enforcement.
Randy Barnett is a HOSS of the highest order, and a go-to guy on the Supreme Court and Constitutional issues concerning liberty [Review Corner, A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case]. He argued Raich in front of the Supreme Court.

His The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law is an ambitious book that would be enjoyed by all ThreeSourcers. He begins with a philosophical look at natural rights as the foundation of his structure.

If adherence to natural rights is indeed essential for the maintenance of social life, as natural rights theorists maintain and as I shall try to explain in the balance of this book, then laws are obligatory only if they are consistent with natural rights. By this account, a command may be a "law" in the descriptive sense that it is issued by a recognized law-maker, but it is only law in the normative sense of a command that binds in conscience on the citizenry if it does not violate the background rights of persons. Thus, for human laws to be obligatory, they should not violate natural rights.

This review may run long, but I hope you have time for a great quote from St. Thomas Aquinas?
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of which are not perfect in virtue. Therefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain, and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained ; thus human law prohibits murder, theft and the like.

The next layer is economics: chiefly Hayek's knowledge problem and Mises's Praxeology.
Prices are by far the most neglected form of knowledge we have. Although some economic literature stresses the importance of prices, the knowledge-disseminating function of prices is largely unknown-- or, if known , then widely ignored-- in political and legal theory.

In Barnett's view of liberty (and mine) individuals have bounded-domain jurisdiction over property. And consensual transfer, based on prices, best reflects local knowledge of property's value and the best use of the resource.
In light of the analysis presented in Chapter 3 , the rights of several property and freedom of contract can be seen as enabling us to deal with the problem of knowledge in society. By delegating discretion to make choices concerning the uses of resources, several property rights enable persons and associations to act on the basis of their personal and local knowledge. The right of freedom to contract enables persons to exchange their several property rights on the basis of their knowledge that other rights would better serve their purposes;

Nothing earth-shattering just yet, but a majestic, rights-based explanation and defense of liberty which most ThreeSourcers would recognize. I posit that it has a consistency, clarity and comprehensive scope to rival Ayn Rand, with some hooks that are more familiar and accessible to me. I'm hoping one or more of our devotees of Ms. Rand takes on the task of comparison, It's one of the few works that demand it.

The next piece of the structure is Law, which was my only expectation seeing Barnett's name on the cover. Having established these rights and the best means to transfer them, how do we defend them form those with Interest and Power to suborn them.

When liberties are naked, a person may be free to do as he wishes, but others are similarly free to interfere with his actions. As Hillel Steiner has observed: "Like other naked things, unvested liberties are exposed to the numbing effects of cold fronts: in the case of liberties, to the obstructive impact of others' exercise of their powers and liberties." Liberty (capital L) requires the protection of liberties (small l), but given that the world is one of subjective scarcity, not all liberties or freedom can be protected, however nice that would be.

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men." Barnett, the Constitutional Hoss, asks how this can be done, and how respect for rights and the rule of law can survive the conflicts of Interest and Power. To my sadness, the Constitutional scholar does not choose the Constitution. The author of "Restoring the Lost Constitution" seeks a liberal order that will not someday succumb to 16th, 17th Amendments and decisions like The Slaughterhouse Cases, WIckard, Raich, and Kelo.

I have already weakened the first section by over-synopsis. I'll save you and the author a summary of his prospective solution: the "Structure of Liberty" he proposes. I'll tease that it is built on private property, criminal and civil law based on restitution and not retribution, and distributed ("polycentric") enforcement and adjudication.

This book makes clear that "liberty" for a libertarian, then, is not the Hobbesian freedom to do whatever you will. Instead , it is the Lockean freedom to do whatever you will with what is yours. There is simply no libertarianism without jurisdictional limits on one's freedom of action; the concept of property defines these limits and is what differentiates liberty from license.

Am I one of those "some libertarians" in the opening quote? I still consider myself more in line with a preceding paragraph: a guy who wishes we were still honoring the original limitations imposed by the Constitution.
In short, these libertarians favor something very much like, if not identical to, the original meaning of the Constitution of the United States-- the whole Constitution, including those parts that protect the unenumerated "rights ... retained by the people" and "the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." In this, however, they are today opposed to their left by "progressives" who wish to achieve their vision of social justice at the national level by "interpreting" federal power broadly enough to address any problem they deem to be "national" in scope-- which is to say every problem.

But this is the first truly compelling suggestion for privatized justice that I have encountered. I like Rothbard some -- and I like Hoppe a lot, but I read them and appreciate their arguments without accepting their underlying beliefs.

This is not "oh, we'll just let private business do it and it will be swell!" This is thoughtful and carefully assembled. Not an afternoon-by-the-pool read, but readable and comprehensible. The high density of ideas dictates serious contemplation.

I give it five stars and the coveted Review Corner Editor's Choice Award. Masterful.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:08 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

Superb. I do aspire to your challenge, not merely to compare to Rand but to learn more about a rights-based Liberty-securing government that purports superiority to the one we were given by the Framers. Without revealing any spoilers, I wonder if Review Corner may divulge whether Barnett solves, in whole or in part, the social justice, egalitarian socialist, Progressive "interpretation" problem?

And in connection with the "rights of nature" topic (not to be confused with natural rights) I can only imagine the wonder of Thomas Aquinas hearing, some centuries after writing that the law rightly forbids "only the more grievous vices," that serious consideration is given a law that would accord inalienable rights to "all Natural Beings" including humans, plants, animals and algae. Is the act of a man destroying the ecosystem of and "Being" we call mold, moss or pond scum, particularly when present on land that he owns, even remotely a "vice?" Not to mention a grievous one.

I sorta hope Boulder implements this, and sends jackbooted thugs to enforce it. I relish the image of Boulder yuppies waving Gadsden flags.

Posted by: johngalt at May 25, 2014 12:41 PM
But jk thinks:

I am less worried about spoilers than trivialization by "over-synopsification." To draw the Rand parallel again, I don't wish to be the guy who says "I read this great book that says we'll all be great if we stop helping the poor!"

With that caveat, I honor all requests on stage, let me try to flesh it out a bit -- but please accept that I am not doing his justice justice.

It is a world of far more private ownership. We fight to give some of the 70% of Nevada back to Nevada Barnett sees all but universal private ownership. The parks, the streets, the airport are all in private hands. And those owners can enforce their property rights by excluding whomever they wish. People aren't in jail unless they working to pay restitution, but most people live in the sphere of private property and there are fewer threats in Disneyland than Central Park (my comparison, not his).

As all justice is restitution-based, victimless crimes are no more. Will progressives trade private ownership and market control for the liberation of millions from incarceration? I dunno, but they do not have the "monocentric" legal order that they can coopt and enforce their will on others. On their bright side, nor can Rick Santorum do that to them.

Private property (he calls it "several property," borrowing the term from Mises but explaining in the afterword to the second edition that he would use the less specific but more recognizable term "private property" if he had it to do over) is the foundation and the first tenet:

The right of several property specifies a right to acquire , possess, use, and dispose of scarce physical resources--including their own bodies. Resources may be used in any way that does not physically interfere with other persons' use and enjoyment of their resources. While most property rights are freely alienable, the right to one's person is inalienable.

Barnett, Randy E. (2014-01-30). The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law (p. 83). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Right to contract and right to not contract follow. There is not a lot of room for Progressives to take over. But of course, they can set up their own courts and enforcement and anybody who wishes to use them may. (As their ideas are so much better than ours, as Jon Stewart inveighs five nights per week, surely that's a good deal.)

Getting into some funky stuff without laying the intellectual foundation Barnett does - please remember the caveat.

I'll share one great idea that I missed in the review that I have not really seen: Rights as Necessary Evil.

Therefore, far from being unmitigated goods, rights are a necessary evil. Because each right legitimates violence, the fewer we can manage with the better. I have contended here that the background rights of several property, freedom of contract , first possession, and restitution are rights that we cannot do without if we are to address the problems of knowledge, interest, and power, problems we must address somehow. We should strive to limit the number and types of background rights that are legally enforced by violent means to those which handle pervasive social problems that cannot be handled any other way.

Your "right to healthcare" inspires a SWAT team of healthcare cops to prevent doctors' taking too much vacation, too long a lunch, or retiring early.

Posted by: jk at May 25, 2014 2:00 PM

May 18, 2014

Review Corner

Michael sighed happily He loved the story and was never tired of hearing it. " "And it's all quite true, isn’t it?" he said, just as he always did. "No," said Mary Poppins, who always said "No.""Yes," said Jane, who always knew everything...

Travers, P. L. (1997-09-15). Mary Poppins (Odyssey Classics) (p. 112). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

This is a special, catch-up segue Review Corner. I saw the trailer for Saving Mr. Banks at the theatre, I'm guessing while waiting to see "Atlas Shrugged Part 2." I told myself and my lovely bride that I wanted to see that.

And I did. It just took me six months or so. I am guessing everybody else on this blog saw it last Christmas and that this Review Corner is like the college student who has come home and "discovered" philosophy.

It's a fair cop, guv'nor, but I was enthralled. We rented it (on the new Kindle FireTV -- five stars!) and the terms included three days for four of five dollars. The lovely bride and I watched it three times. It is a great story very well told. It includes a loving portrayal of a hero of mine, Mister Walt Disney, and it is much about a favorite topic: the business of art.

Fitting that I found it in a preview to Atlas Shrugged, because there is a great bit of The Fountainhead in it. "Missus" Travers is Howard Roark, but Disney is no Toohey. Disney is an artist himself, but of a different stripe -- and the unfolding saga is a tale of property rights in conflict. Like the battle between the Hatfields and McCoys [Review Corner], what remains is told by one side. The only business that Disney can seem to portray positively is The Walt Disney Corporation -- and the victor was able to write the history.

I don't hide from commercialization and had no trouble choosing Walt's side (Tom Hanks, America and booze over stuffy Brits and tea -- even with Emma Thompson -- is an easy choice). But it occurred to me that I was unusually uniformed: I had never read any Mary Poppins books and I saw the movie when very little (I was four or five when it came out). My sister played the record (a lot) and I remember thinking "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was foolish. Ever the pedant, that wasn't a real word. Harrumph!

So I bought the first Mary Poppins ($3.74 on Kindle) and was yet again enthralled. The stories are magical and wondrous. The lovely bride has bought the subsequent books and a biography of Traverse that she recommends.

After finishing the book, we rented the Disney Classic. It's great in a lot of ways, but damned if Mrs. Traverse was not right. Watching it after seeing "Saving Mr. Banks" and reading "Mary Poppins" many of the joyful little tunes and flourishes are daggers to the heart of the author's vision. Again, I love Disney, but had she read The Fountainhead, I think there might have been explosions in Southern California.

A great preponderance of ThreeSourcers have daughters and this is likely old news. But if you have not read the original Mary Poppins books, you are missing something. Five Stars indeed -- and five for Disney's movie -- no, not that one -- "Saving Mr. Banks."

All round her flew the birds, circling and leaping and swooping and rising. Mary Poppins always called them "sparrers," because, she said conceitedly, all birds were alike to her. But Jane and Michael knew that they were not sparrows, but doves and pigeons. There were fussy and chatty grey doves like Grandmothers; and brown, rough-voiced pigeons like Uncles; and greeny, cackling, no-I've-no-money-today pigeons like Fathers. And the silly, anxious, soft blue doves were like Mothers. That's what Jane and Michael thought, anyway.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:17 AM | Comments (0)

May 4, 2014

Review Corner

Despite what we so often hear about being a tool for self-rule, [Democracy] is more often a mechanism to impose a way of life on others. Americans love to wear those "I voted" stickers on their coats . What are they telling us? That if enough of them agree they can lord it over the rest of us. We celebrate democracy even as it slowly corrodes our foundational ideals.
Greetings, and welcome to a special "All Hail Harsanyi" edition of Review Corner.I first encountered David Harsanyi when I read his superb "Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children." Still one of the great titles of all time. He wrote on liberty for The Denver Post, which is like being the options & derivatives editor for Mother Jones. Then he took his pragmatic libertarianism to Reason, from where he has been extensively followed and quoted at ThreeSources.

His latest was undoubtedly written to be provocative; The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy would raise eyebrows outside of ThreeSources. Whaaa? Does he hate Apple Pie and Baseball too?

ThreeSourcers will enjoy his serious case against encroaching majoritarianism as well as his witty and pointed style.

Most people actually value anti-democratic aspects of government, yet they recoil from the principle behind them. It was the early-twentieth-century progressives, the precursors of today's leftists, who were responsible for the Seventeenth Amendment. It is no mere coincidence that an exponential growth of federal spending followed the adoption of that amendment. And the Founders believed that state governments were better equipped than the national government to understand and deal with the desires of their citizens.

A blog founded on Sharanskyism has t accept his stunning rebuke of the value of spreading Democracy:
Egypt simply isn't prepared to deal with open elections because many of the participants will use elections to consolidate theocracy or tyranny. Little seems to have changed in that country since ten biblical plagues failed to win pharaoh's respect for minority rights. A recent Pew poll finds that 54 percent of Egyptians believe that women and men should be segregated in the workplace, 82 percent believe that adulterers should be stoned, 84 percent believe that apostates from Islam should face the death penalty, and 77 percent believe thieves should be flogged or have their hands cut off . An environment like that makes Chicago politics look like a garden party.

In a favorite passage he extolls the value of gridlock, but suggests we're not doing it right:
Since the election of Barack Obama, the Democrats, supposedly powerless to face America's "big challenges," had passed a nearly trillion -dollar stimulus, a restructuring of the entire healthcare system, far-reaching immigration legislation that would create tens of millions of new citizens, and a tangled overhaul of financial regulation. The president had also appointed two fervently liberal Supreme Court justices with no meaningful opposition. It is a record of political accomplishment unequaled since the Johnson administration. Republicans must be the most inept obstructionists of all time.

Far cop, guv. But the worst violations of liberty on that litany were accomplished with a Democratic supermajority. And here is where I must present the book's tragic flaw and throw a "Libertario Delenda Est" flag.

The "Conclusion" chapter suggests not voting. It begins with an honest appraisal of voting drives, vote-rocking, shaming, and all efforts to persuade the uninformed to share their ignorance with the nation at large. He smacks down suggestions for mandatory voting (a horrid idea, but something of a strawman in the US, I'd hope). All good all good, I'm in.

But then he asks the person who has made it through the other 13 chapters not to vote. Holy Cow, that's the person I do want counted. Yet the author counsels: stay home or discard your vote on a fringe candidate.

Constitutional freedoms survived for well over a hundred years. I don't know that they can be reclaimed at the ballot box or not, but the other choices are unpleasant to say the least. The NRA has bucked the trend. As mentioned in the book, the USA did not melt all it's firearms after Newtown to make a statue of Mayor Bloomberg. A correct and effective demonstration of the importance of liberty and its consequential effects is worth a try.

Harrumph. Damnëd libertoids! But it is a great book that all ThreeSourcers would dig. Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:37 AM | Comments (5)
But johngalt thinks:

This Review Corner and the preceding 'Theft of Growth' are good partners. One does not achieve freedom from a democratic system by ignoring it. Instead, one gets "all the obstacles" that Leviathan can dream up. Does HRH Harsanyi actually come out and SAY he is advocating for armed revolt? The producer class versus the voter class? Or does he just whistle past that graveyard?

Posted by: johngalt at May 5, 2014 3:21 PM
But jk thinks:

With all respect, I'm going to go with "whistle:"

Then again, I didn't lose much sleep over it. Even if I were inclined to vote, I would rarely find a candidate worthy of support. This isn't because I hold the ballot sacred. Quite the opposite. When voting for president, I may vote for the lesser evil, but generally I throw my support behind some quixotic third-party candidate as a futile gesture of protest. I waste my vote on purpose. And any votes I happen to take on local elections matter even less. I've lived nearly my entire adult life in iron-clad liberal districts that offer almost no competition past the primary stages of an election. And there's nothing wrong with people clustering into ideologically congenial locales. We have the space. We used to have the federalism. Do Americans want to live with like-minded neighbors and vote for officials who represent the worldviews of those communities ? God bless them. But they don't have the right to force others to live as they do.

Or else, they'll face a strongly worded denunciation.... ???

Again, the book has great value in defining the problem and providing cogent arguments to coax people from "Rock the Vote" to where most ThreeSourcers live. I'm not going to burn my Kindle because he fails to provide a solution. But I did find the conclusion less than compelling.

Posted by: jk at May 5, 2014 4:14 PM
But T. Greer thinks:

What kind of government system does he advocate, by chance?

Posted by: T. Greer at May 6, 2014 2:42 AM
But jk thinks:

I'd say he favors semi-aristocratic tempered democratic governments such as pre-17th amendment America or Britain's peculiar (to us) bicameralism.

His point is to not fetishize Democracy. We use it as a synonym for all that is good; we propagate the untruth that "Democracies do not go to war with each other." And, unfortunately, we ruin a perfectly good government in America by making it more democratic. How long will the electoral college last?

Maybe I am wishcasting my own beliefs onto an author I revere, but I always say what separates me from friends on the right and left is accepting that government is hard. Not likely to find a brighter group than America's founders. Their long, laborious work has been generally undone in 200 years. He offers no magic bullets moving forward, but educating people on the perils of majoritarianism is pretty good for $14.

Posted by: jk at May 6, 2014 10:33 AM
But johngalt thinks:

I will say there's something of a Going Galt theme to just refusing to vote, but until one can take his earnings and his prosperity out of the confiscation zone it's not really going to work. At least not until there are hundreds more Cliven Bundy-type standoffs.

But if I criticize it is only because HRH Harsanyi went too far in his writing - a mistake I often make as well. If he had stopped with "Democracy bad, not good" I would have no quarrel. One should not expect a prescription for the ideal government in a single book. (Unless it was written by Ayn Rand.)

Posted by: johngalt at May 6, 2014 4:06 PM

April 27, 2014

Review Corner

I could work for a Curmudgeon. I do not think I am actually one myself, though I do have some curmudgeonly qualities. All the same, I did enjoy Charles Murray's The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life Being betwixt the curmudgeon and the go getter, I can sit back and enjoy his life's suggestions as a spectator (though there is probably some good advise about not using "betwixt...") I mentioned that today's Review Corner would address income inequality. Let's fire the big guns.
Here's the secret you should remember whenever you hear someone lamenting how tough it is to get ahead in the postindustrial global economy: Few people work nearly as hard as they could. The few who do have it made.
I'm not one to write off the millennials as slackers; I know too many of tem that are hard-working and ambitious. But they have been a ill-served by many of their teachers and parents. Not everybody gets a trophy when you leave school. Those who are prepared to look for the field in which they can compete and toil to get the trophy will thrive even in the Obama economy An improving, dynamic and growing economy will always provide greater opportunity for the talented, intelligent and hard-working. That will distance them from those who lack those traits. Instead of government solutions, the career tips in Murray's book would go a lot further (not farther, Charles, I'm in) to keep up. The book provides a reality check, plus some great practical advice. Your pedantic blog brother could not keep up with his writing and grammar. He provides a page of "know the difference between these words." I hope he is grading on a (Bell) Curve because they were difficult -- and I'm giving myself full credit for further/farther. Here's a random tasting:
attain/ obtain celibate/ chaste
avocation/ vocationceremonial/ ceremonious
conflicted/ conflicting luxuriant/ luxurious
convince/ persuade majority/ plurality
credible/ credulous nauseous/ nauseated
crescendo/ climax obdurate/ stubborn
critique/ criticizeoblige/ obligate
degrade / denigrate obsolescent/ obsolete
derisory/ derisive occupy/ preoccupy
differ/ vary oppress/ repress
diplomatic/ tactfuloral/ verbal
dispose/ dispose of peruse/ skim
dissemble/ lie perverse/ perverted
dogma/ doctrine practicable/ practical
duress/ stress precipitate/ precipitous
empathy/ sympathy emulate/ imitate
endemic/ epidemic presently/ currently
Which one do you use for "give up in abject humiliation," Charles? The target is a young person just starting in the workplace. As it is AEI, writing is emphasized. The entire project started out as a web reference for new hires and interns to check for writing and style questions -- he added the body-piercing bits to fill it out to book length. Curmudgeons are key players in meritocracy and one suspects Murray may be the "Devil Wears Prada" of AEI:
Furthermore, you should keep in mind that the people who are most likely to recognize superior performance are successful curmudgeons. Suppose you are stuck with a job as an administrative assistant and want to break out into a managerial career track. If that's your ambition, you don't want to be assigned to a friendly, sympathetic boss who forgives his assistant's mistakes. You want to be assigned to a successful curmudgeon, the more demanding the better. He is more likely to have a gimlet eye for mistakes --and by the same token is more likely to notice when they don't occur. Being successful himself, he is likely to be in love with excellent performance and to be impressed when he detects it.
The part of the book that is career advice I figured out most on my own, and am too late for the rest. But there is a considerable emphasis on happiness or a life well lived.
You don't need to be an Aristotelian to be good. For two millennia, the world's other most influential ethical system was Confucianism. The central virtue in Confucianism is ren, the summation of all subsidiary virtues. Ren translates as humaneness or benevolence, but the Confucian conception of ren is richer than either word conveys. Ren incorporates the idea of reciprocity (a form of the Golden Rule), which overlaps with Aristotle's concept of justice. Ren incorporates courage. Confucianism is emphatic about the need for temperance.
As long as it does not apply to coffee, I could try me some temperance. You get the idea. It's an engaging and interesting book of practical advice.
In any case, I'm not discouraging you from going for the big bucks and the spotlight. I wish you luck. But suppose you arrive at age forty and you enjoy your work, have found your soul mate, and are raising a couple of terrific kids, but must recognize that you will probably never become either rich or famous. At that point, it's important to supplement your youthful ambition with mature understanding. That's where the clichés come in-- the ones about money not buying happiness and fame being empty.
And a last one, I may not be too old for. Murray channels somebody else I know:
Taking religion seriously means homework. If you're waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you're kidding yourself. Taking one of the great religions seriously, getting inside its rich body of thought, doesn't happen by sitting on beaches, watching sunsets, and waiting for enlightenment. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree. Even dabbling at the edges has demonstrated the truth of that statement to me for Judaism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I assume it's true of Islam and Hinduism as well. In the case of Christianity, with which I'm most familiar, the church has produced profound religious thinkers for two thousand years. You don't have to go back to Thomas Aquinas (though that wouldn't be a bad idea). Just the last century has produced excellent and accessible work. But whomever you read, Christianity considered seriously bears little resemblance to your Sunday school lessons. You've got to grapple with the real thing.
Sounds like work. I'll give the book four fulsome (or does he mean emphatic?) stars and a hearty recommendation.

UPDATE: Murray is interviewed by Marry Kissel at OpinionJournal. The second section is about this book.
Posted by John Kranz at 11:47 AM | Comments (2)
But dagny thinks:

affect/ effect

Posted by: dagny at April 29, 2014 12:40 PM
But jk thinks:

Gets its own page:

Confusing affect with effect. Do you immediately know the differences in what the following four sentences mean?

-- Her action affected the decision.
-- Her action effected the decision.
-- She told me she loved me without effect.
-- She told me she loved me without affect.

If the answer is no, you have some work to do. The rule of thumb is that for the great majority of times you want to use these words, effect is the noun and affect (to have an effect on) is the verb. Only rarely will you have occasion to use effect as a verb or affect as a noun, but you need to know the different meanings of effect and affect lest you blot your copybook.

Murray, Charles (2014-04-08). The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life (pp. 61-62). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Posted by: jk at April 29, 2014 1:38 PM

April 20, 2014

Review Corner

Things at Thasos thus turned out just the contrary to what the oligarchical conspirators at Athens expected; and the same in my opinion was the case in many of the other dependencies; as the cities no sooner got a moderate government and liberty of action, than they went on to absolute freedom without being at all seduced by the show of reform offered by the Athenians.
Thus spake Thucydides in the nineteenth year of the war in which Thucydides was the historian. The first person acknowledgment is unusual from the Athenian General and author of The Peloponnesian War.

Much scholarship has been devoted to Thucydides; while I rarely lack self-esteem, it is not my intention to add to it. I will tell instead of what happens when a regular Joe--er John lands in its pages and how it speaks to politics today, for it is a deeply political book.

"This we cannot have unless we have a more moderate form of government, and put the offices into fewer hands, and so gain the King's confidence, and forthwith restore Alcibiades, who is the only man living that can bring this about. The safety of the state, not the form of its government, is for the moment the most pressing question, as we can always change afterwards whatever we do not like."

The people were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took counsel of their fears , and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way. They accordingly voted that Pisander should sail with ten others and make the best arrangement that they could with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades.

It seems Democracies struggled long before ObamaCare, but the primary takeaway for me is the brutality of life. As Hemmingway would offer two thousand years later "Que Puta es la Guerra" but to your basic Fifth Century BC hoplite, Thomas Hobbes's subjects' life would seen neither nasty, brutish nor short.

This underscores to your humble reviewer the impracticality of anarcho-capitalism. Pass around the Deepak Lal books, lads; your plunder-free libertarian utopia will be invaded by a neighboring power or undermined by your grandchildren's love of bread and circuses. The Founders were well versed in the Classics, and that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men" must have been obvious. Scores of independent city states are less than pawns in the struggle between Sparta and Athens.

But enough of that -- let's talk about me. I applaud blog friend tg for his suggestion of The Landmark Edition. True to Professor Adler, I eschewed its explanations, maps, and the perspicuity of its commentary for a naked run through the Richard Crawley translation completed in 1874. Then, less true to Adler, I turned immediately to the Landmark Edition to fill the substantial lacunae in my comprehension.

I was not cut out for a scholar. I think we can say it aloud. But a few weeks were very enjoyable. The text is eminently readable. Even if you lose track of where you are, when it is, and who is whom, it is full of keen insights. And the plot moves along by way of 141 orations. (Real) scholars question his sources of these exact quoted orations in pre-Google Greece, but they are a masterful literary device to relate the beliefs and goals of different factions.

The great blunder of Athens was the invasion of Sicily. They pulled defeat from the jaws of victory by overextending into a different theatre. Young commanders desiring glory speak to an easy campaign where they will be greeted as liberators. Nicias thinks this foolhardy. But to avoid sounding cowardly or unpatriotic delivers a speech instead reciting the great requirements for success. Instead of dissuading the assembled, they become enraptured in glory. Yes, you're right Nicias -- we should raise a huge army and navy and fill ships with food and supplies. This is going to be awesome!

[Spoiler Alert] The entrenched Syracusians dismantle the navy which has outdistanced supply lines and no Sicilian towns are keen on joining an outside alliance and providing harbor. When news reaches home that this massive force has been crushed, culpability is assessed, democracy-style:

When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it, and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily.

For 20+ years of strategy, bravado, tactics, skullduggery and politics. It is finally settled (post Thucydides) more by Persian capital -- after they enjoyed their two largest rivals beating the crap out of each other. There might be a lesson in there as well, if you're looking.

No sir, I am no scholar, but both Virgil's Works and The Peloponnesian War were enjoyable and add to inner pedantry (the word "laconic" comes from the inhabitants of Laconia who were spartan in speech and Spartan in politics. The names of the musical modes "Ionian," "Dorian," "Phrygian," &c. all come from areas in the book. "Eponymous" refers to the one archon after whom the assembly was named (think "The Roberts Court.")

It seems untoward to award stars. It is a treasure.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:41 AM | Comments (6)
But dagny thinks:

The idea that jk, "was not cut out for a scholar," is laughable. If jk's review corners don't qualify as scholarly, then you better send me back to kindergarten for Green Eggs and Ham.

Posted by: dagny at April 21, 2014 11:54 AM
But jk thinks:

I thank my blog sister for her kind words. And though I am by no means above posting a self-deprecating comment in an attempt to fish for compliments, that was not my intent this time.

I enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and do take pride in the reading I have done since Nassim Taleb challenged me, in "The Black Swan," to read more books and consume less news and political magazines.

I thought Mortimer Adler's call might be the same; he calls me out almost by name: the-guy-who-thinks-he's-so-smart-because-he-reads-a-lot-but-it's-neitehr-deep-not-important-enough...

But the scholar enjoys digging a little deeper into the data -- let's look up that word in the original Greek and see if he meant to say "sad" or "forlorn..."

Fuhgettaboutit! I'd rather read something else. I appreciate rigor and mastery and salute the scholarship of VDH and the other Hosses who contribute commentary to the Landmark Edition. Folks who look up the Greek so I don't have to.

I don't play guitar as well as Joe Pass but I feel I am attempting the same things. My six weeks' fumbling through classics is not similarly comparable to VDH's life work.

We are privileged to have some real scholars around here. I think of two to whom I'd be very uncomfortable comparing myself. One is too aw shucks to be named, but for another, I invite you to compare a typical "Review Corner" to a random one by blog friend tgreer who claims -- far less convincingly -- that "He is not a scholar."

Posted by: jk at April 21, 2014 1:01 PM
But johngalt thinks:

And now back to the subject at hand - human political economy.

I was never much impressed by anarcho-capitalism as the optimum of human social order. It's analogous to a middle-school without a paddle-wielding assistant principal. Even if I get to have whatever weapons I want and nobody gets to make a claim on my property, it still promises to be nasty, brutish and, for some, short.

A constitutional republic enshrining individual liberty and properly restraining democratic impulses remains the ideal. But a prerequisite will always be, in addition to ever growing prosperity with each generation, ever growing education.

Today's generation is taught a fraction of what my public school curriculum entailed in the seventies, and I was awestruck to learn that my father's coursework included Latin, once again, in public school. Heck, he may even have studied Virgil and Thucydides. I'll leave aside whether the dumbing down is intentional or an unintended consequence of do-gooderism. Either way, American citizens are learning less and being told they know more. Unless things change, this can't end well.

Posted by: johngalt at April 21, 2014 2:22 PM
But jk thinks:

Well, I'll turn the Internet Segue Machine™ up to 11 and suggest this is a substantive portion of income inequality.

I don't think the dumbing down is more nefarious than the Unions wanting to protect inferior teachers and the warm-hearted if soft-headed desire to eschew rigor so that everybody gets a trophy.

But it is unmistakable -- my elder brothers attended the same schools I did but received far more rigorous education. (I call mine "post-deconstruction Catholic schooling.") My favorite education anecdote is from David McCullough's biography of John Adams. John Quincy Adams (#6) at 15 knew his Thucydides quite well as he had read it in Greek and Vigil in Latin. In addition, he spoke French and Russian fluently. He wrote Dad (#2), presumably in his native English, to tell of his disappointment at his not being accepted into Harvard. How many are graduated from Harvard today with that level of erudition?

As scholarship of any sort becomes more optional, that sets up a chasm between those who graduate today with good grades and those who force themselves to acquire those skills their contemporaries don't know they're missing.

All of which places into next Sunday's Review Corner: Charles Murray's The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

Now you have something to look forward to.

Posted by: jk at April 21, 2014 3:39 PM
But jk thinks:

I hear via email that I have just sold a copy of Mr. Murray's latest.

I didn't say it was going to be a good review...

Posted by: jk at April 21, 2014 6:14 PM
But T. Greer thinks:

Incidentally, Hobbes was the first guy to ever translate Thucydides into English. His dim political views reflected this, I am sure.

I do try and go for that scholarly thing every once and a while. But I insist on using the Landmark edition regardless of how smart I think I am. It is too helpful to do without.

Good review.

Posted by: T. Greer at April 22, 2014 5:48 AM

March 30, 2014


Like Bono, who as he ages seems to salute the machinery of capitalism that made him wealthy. In mixed company no less. But his social conscience couldn’t be better established if he were Bishop Tutu doing an anti-fracking interpretive dance. With Tina Fey. On an Indian reservation.
I was quite ill last weekend. In my weakened state, I could not really dive into The Peloponnesian War. I had just seen Greg Gutfeld on "The Independents" and his new book, Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on You, looked interesting. So, I left the siege of Pylos (they're not really going anywhere...) for the hipsters' siege on all that is good and true.

I never have occasion to watch Gutfeld shows, their being early and late, but when he is a guest I do enjoy his humor. The book reflects this; if you can traverse its covers without LOL-ing several times, you are a humorless scold who is unlikely to be reading "Review Corner."

I bother, because we're now watching a false morality replacing a real one. I'm not a religious person. I’m half atheist , half agnostic (and all sexy). Meaning, in the daytime , I don't believe in God . But at night, alone with my thoughts, facing that gaping, terrifying maw without a rail to hold on to, I drift toward something less certain than nothing . Especially in a contract year.

And the book makes a valid and important point. We elected the cool guy to be president last couple (or dozen) times, we pay attention to Hollywood several standard deviations above its mean IQ, the faux rebellion of academia holds sway -- life is high school, claims Gutfeld, and we're letting the cool kids run things to our peril.
For cool to exist, it must ignore all the boring stuff that made cool possible. We forget all the hard work that made our leisure time possible. We forget that our ability to go places, buy things, and listen to cool stuff is predicated on a population’s ability to produce, to create , and to sell cool stuff. To gain that ability takes years of studying and hours spent not doing ecstasy at clubs or sucking on bongs in a basement, but alone, thinking, building, and working. Sometimes its boring, sometimes fruitless.
If you didn’t understand how far superior it was to mountain-bike in really expensive clothes and munch on organic buckwheat flapjacks with artisanal pomegranate syrup instead of scrambled eggs, then you weren't one of us. And that’s the essence of organic cool , really: exclusion. The organic health movement really is about excluding you and saying, "I am better than you because I care." And can afford to care. The cool are united by their hidden bank accounts and the rhythmic regularity of their colons.

Between the depths of philosophy and the mindless shallowness of politics, I think it easy to overlook both the power of "cool" and its record for steering humanity off course. There's a lengthy section on the Boston Bomber's Rolling Stone cover: a Che for our time, the soft brown eyes that placed a bomb next to an eight year old.

For his love of death-metal and comfort with explicit language, the Fox News libertarian (I think I am correct with that characterization but will accept advice) is surprisingly (or not) conservative. There's little of Penn Jillette's libertine-libertarianism. His list of "Free Radicals" in the last chapter includes a fine homage to Penn, but also to Governor Mike Huckabee. He sees the social conservative lifestyle as the antidote to government dependency. I'm not criticizing or completely disagreeing, just remarking. I am taking substantive blows from libertarian Facebook friends of late for being insufficiently purist and too conservative. They might want to stay away.

But its a great time reading, laugh out loud funny book. If it is not new territory it is a new spin. I think any ThreeSourcer would dig it, Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:21 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

Wow, what a really COOL review! Seriously, I'm a Gutfeld fan and am now even more inclined to read his new title.

This notion of "cool" as a perverting motivation upon our culture is reinforced by a line I read in a story on the Colorado Obamacare Exchange today:

"We still have lots of people who are uninsured. We know that," [Connect for Health Colorado executive director Patty] Fontneau said. "We'll reach them over time - through cultural influence, through peer pressure and, ultimately, though penalties."
Posted by: johngalt at April 1, 2014 3:40 PM
But jk thinks:

Just reading it because all the cool kids are . . .

Posted by: jk at April 1, 2014 3:53 PM

March 16, 2014

Classics Corner

"Let neither winds o'erset, nor waves intomb The floating forests of the sacred pine; But let it be their safety to be mine." Then thus replied her awful son, who rolls The radiant stars, and heav'n and earth controls: "How dare you, mother, endless date demand For vessels molded by a mortal hand? What then is fate? Shall bold Aeneas ride, Of safety certain, on th' uncertain tide?"

Virgil (2013-04-22). Works of Virgil (Kindle Locations 7467-7474). The Perfect Library. Kindle Edition.

Well, I am glad somebody noticed. I will finish the Aeneid after I finish up here. But Book X (they hadn't invented chapters back then, or Arabic Numerals) disturbed me a bit. Mortimer Adler did challenge me to read more difficult books, but I cruised through books I - IX pretty well. The names are difficult and I suggest a modern translation with the characters named Bob, Joe and Steve would help a modern reader who struggles to remember Lagus, Anchises, and Anchemolus.

Book X moves back and forth between the Gods' Polytheistic Committee Roundtable meeting and the mortals' massacring each other on the Latian fields below. Not knowing all the names, I spent much of the section in Purgatory. I'll be suspected of Penn Jillette or Richard Dawkins -ism, but all the earthly valors seem to be for naught as the gods tilt the table capriciously. The entire navy is penned in by a brilliant tactical martial stroke. But some god who feels kinship with the lumber turns the ships into nymphs so they can swim to safety.

Man, don't you just hate it when that happens?

It's a ripping good yarn, and Mister Virgil can expect some stars in spite of my quibble. There's love and yeaning, lots of blood and gore, and -- nobody tell George Takei but:

Then wretched Cydon had receiv'd his doom, Who courted Clytius in his beardless bloom, And sought with lust obscene polluted joys: The Trojan sword had curd his love of boys,

Huh? What was that again?

Posted by John Kranz at 12:11 PM | Comments (1)
But T. Greer thinks:

I am always rather amazed with folks who can translate works like the Iliad and the Aeneid into rhyming verse. Translating both meter and meaning is very, very hard.

Posted by: T. Greer at March 20, 2014 3:22 PM

February 23, 2014

Review Corner

Thucydides? Virgil? What great masterful work have you mastered, jk? Well.... I still plan to read capital-G Great books, but a friend recommended something that sounded little-g great. And it was.

M. Night Shyamalan, enjoying considerable box office success, tries his hand at philanthropy, directing his wealth at education in his hometown of Philadelphia. He's a Hollywood guy so he writes some checks and schedules some fancy dinners. Y'know, philanthropy.

As they shook our hands politely and left, Bhavna looked at me and saw I was shaken. I was looking to be inspired. These children needed saving, but our money wasn't going to do the trick. The system had beaten them badly enough that no amount of money could undo the scars.

I applaud his noticing that outcomes are important. Too many celebrities, and most all legislators, total up the checks and take a victory lap. Shyamalan saw on the first outing that more was needed, and resolved to try and fix the problem, not just finance it. He starts a foundation and hires a researcher to "follow the data" and take a cold hard look at what works and what does not.

I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap is the story of his considerable involvement with experts of all backgrounds and ideologies, plus time visiting schools that are performing. Shyamalan is a storyteller, and the book is crafted like one of his screenplays. The "five keys" are withheld to where I won't provide them as a spoiler "I see the five keys, Mister Willis . . ."

The book is no less serious than The New School [Review Corner] or The Beautiful Tree [Review Corner], but it is told with a screenwriter's deft touch. He travels to Palo Alto, meets the great education professor Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The professor's thoughts are recorded, but so is the author's menu choice. He asks the waiter whether he should have the cheeseburger or the Stanford Club:

I do this to every waiter or waitress. I make them complicit in my bad choices. My wife finds this habit completely annoying. The professor was amused by my culinary vacillations. I settled on the club and said no to the fries reluctantly. I had told the professor about the health tenet model on the walk over, so he gave me the fist of solidarity for not choosing the fries. I dove right in with the questions. I asked him about classroom size.

Shyamalan has a doctor friend who suggests that there are five keys to good health: get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, avoid stress, drink coffee (I may have forgotten #5...) But that if one is out of whack, the others do not do that much good. He takes this insight for himself and finds five keys to education reform. When one of these is missing in a middle or upper class student, the lifestyle ameliorates. But at risk or disadvantaged students stuck with a bad teacher suffer.
Children from affluent, educated families get just as many ineffective teachers as everyone else. They just don't pay for it. Kids from poor families do.

One of the keys is more time in school, and their research suggests that the bulk of the achievement gap between races and classes happens over summer vacations. In school they remain close, but Missy and Brad summer with library and museum visits while their peers lose ground. (Curiously, both lose math, he suggests that home algebra sessions are not big in most any culture).

I applaud his objective, data-driven solutions. He quickly rejects canards like class size in opposition to "everybody knows" solutions. He is bone-crunchingly non-ideological. He mentions that he is of Hollywood and has imbued progressive politics but is not driven by them. So, ten points.

But I have to remove one and a half (points, he'll still do well in stars) because he does not follow through. He correctly shows that charter schools, statistically compared en masse to conventional schooling, show small effect. Fair cop, guv, but the same statistical ambiguity for pre-K maddeningly gets a hall pass. Well, the effect is not pronounced but we should anyway... Huh? What about the rest of the book?

And, while he turns off his ideology, I cannot (Ahem, I call mine principles). While he adds a lot to the debate, in the end he trusts the same outfit that got us where we are to implement his five keys. Four out of five are clearly at odds with the teachers' unions objectives. Charter schools are soft pedaled, but I suggest that no other structure would enable any of them.

Then -- and I am not selling the book to ThreeSourcers, am I? -- he closes with a call for more federal control of curricula and spending. Yeah, these same guys who created the planet's most dysfunctional institution will fix it when I give them the plan.

So, M Night Shayalaman provides a shocking ending. Unlike "The Sixth Sense," I didn't dig it.
But this book is a serious contribution to the education debate. His willingness to go where data leads gives credibility to those many places where we do agree. And it is entertaining and charming. Four-point-five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:13 AM | Comments (4)
But johngalt thinks:

Always be suspicious when someone denies or defends without prompting:

He mentions that he is of Hollywood and has imbued progressive politics but is not driven by them.

Just because he says he is not driven by them does not mean he is not driven by them. It only means he knows either, he should not be driven by them or, it damages his credibility to admit he's a Progressive.

It does seem he is so committed to the status quo that the only solutions he can consider are evolutionary, not revolutionary. The foxes must be left in charge of the hen house because, well, just because.

Posted by: johngalt at February 24, 2014 6:46 PM
But jk thinks:

Not leaping to his defense, but my rereading of this review finds it wanting and I am compelled to at least clarify. I agree with 90% of what he says and, of course, spend the bulk of my review arguing with the other ten.

He is pretty courageous, say, in the smaller classroom debate. Neither data nor history support it. And he is certainly not a shovel-money-at-it guy. Had he a simpler, Matt Damon outlook, I would be far less disappointed.

He wants them to change their stripes, and he supplies some very non-union-friendly changes: fire more teachers, get principals more active at leading and coaching, longer days and more of them. None of these is going to win over the union teachers in my family.

Yet, at the end. you are correct that he trusts the same folks to fix it. He spent time with Michelle Rhee and speaks well of her. He must have heard of "the blob:" the immovable confluence of union and bureaucracy: uncharacteristically naive.

Posted by: jk at February 24, 2014 7:24 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Yes but agreement is so boring! LOL

Props on expecting kids to learn when there are others in the room. The changes you named - they would improve things at the DMV too, non? I was there this morning. 9:30 am. Took #54 from the friendly ticket dispenser as I watched the big red numbers click from 29 to 30. Sat down, sent a text message, went across the hall and phoned a friend to arrange a lunch appointment, came back to hear "thirty-three?"

The problem here is there is no competition. They get the same number of customers no matter how slow or rude they are. (And the same compensation.) I've only thought of one way to motivate them - I plan to return 30 minutes before quitting time. I'm transferring a title and renewing plates for FOUR other vehicles. Hey, they brought this upon themselves.

Posted by: johngalt at February 25, 2014 12:48 PM
But johngalt thinks:

Arrived at 4:15. 15 customers ahead of me. Left with my renewal tags 45 minutes later... 1 minute before closin' time.

Dagny suggested a scientific study of DMV service speed by time of day. Thinking about it now, I'd rather keep it a secret. (Except for sharing it with the few thousand readers of Three Sources dot com.)

Posted by: johngalt at February 26, 2014 12:40 PM

February 16, 2014

Review Corner

Too often, there are things we have to read that are not really worth spending a lot of time reading; if we cannot read them quickly, it will be a terrible waste of time. It is true enough that many people read some things too slowly, and that they ought to read them faster. But many people also read some things too fast, and they ought to read those things more slowly.
Serious words from Mortimer J. Adler. Blog brother Bryan recommended How to Read a Book. While I had ne'er heard of it, it was a big deal both in 1940, and in 1970 when it was extensively revised and re-released. I recall that "speedreading" was a big deal. The opening quote is directed at that craze, but hit me a bit where I live

In Black Swan, Nicholas Nassim Taleb redirected my reading from magazines and blogs toward books. After several years, I appreciate that. Adler comes along and calls me to read some better and more challenging books -- and to take the time to completely digest them.

The title is a bit provocative: have I been doing it wrong? Do I need to start with Dick & Jane and read everything correctly? I would self-confidently assert that I probably have picked up 80-90% of what he says on my own, learning to read in the mean streets and dark alleys of literature and exposition as it were. But there are a few good easy tips, and a few very difficult suggestions. Easy stuff first.

When I read a novel, I like to know as little as possible. I don't read the blurbs or reviews unless I am on the fence whether I want to buy or read it. A book I know I want I will start, tabula rasa, at page one. But for an expository work, or perhaps a more serious novel, Adler suggests a comprehensive look at the table of contents. "It is astonishing how many people never even glance at a book’s table of contents unless they wish to look something up in it. In fact, many authors spend a considerable amount of time in creating the table of contents, and it is sad to think their efforts are often wasted." Ergo, rule three of analytical reading:


The reason for this rule should be obvious. If a work of art were absolutely simple, it would, of course, have no parts. But that is never the case. None of the sensible, physical things man knows is simple in this absolute way, nor is any human production. They are all complex unities. You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is many, not a many that consists of a lot of separate things, but an organized many. If the parts were not organically related, the whole that they composed would not be one.

Again I've chosen this particular rule because it is something I never do. Many of his suggestions codify tasks I intrinsically perform, but could be more structured: "coming to terms" with an author, discerning the questions he asks, and finding whether he answers them adequately. Yeah, I do that. Right?

Curiously, Review Corners -- though terse for a distracted readership and a lazy writer -- have forced me to adopt some of the methods of categorizing, coming to terms, analyzing and criticizing. Who knew? I thank a kind readership for its part.

The highest level of reading, "syntopical reading" is what I'd call by the less glamorous name "research," viz., aligning the terms, structures, and information from multiple sources on the same topic. I do wish I had read this before I did my chronological tour of presidential biographies. My goals matched his, but his methods would have been more effective. I might have read more books but not all the way through. And a written, structured relationship of the different viewpoints I encountered, with additional research for clarification would have left me with a deeper understanding.

But the real takeaway for me is to seek more challenge. I have long enjoyed complex books; I like complexity in general. And yet, my recent lists have not reflected this. I plan to return to the more challenging works and try out Adler's techniques. One more slog through Gravity's Rainbow is in order, and a second run at Shin Tung Yau's Inner Space [Pre-Review Corner]. Plus I vow to trade in some current events and polemical works in exchange for more great works.

Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level.

Wish me luck. I've started the Aenid (John Dryden's 1917 Translation) and Thucydides's The History of the Peloponnesian War." I would not advise readers to hold their breath for Review Corners next week. But:
The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not continue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. By the time most people are thirty years old, their bodies are as good as they will ever be; in fact, many persons' bodies have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. The mind does not stop growing at any particular age; only when the brain itself loses its vigor, in senescence, does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding.

Both of my selections are from Appendix A, subtitled, "books you should feel very stupid because you have not read."

I'll give the book five stars. Adler is such a hoss. I remember as a lad that he was all over TV: a true "public intellectual." Another sad sign of what have we lost going from Johnny Carson to Jon Stewart and as Brother Keith has mentioned from Rod Serling to whatever. I still hold that there has been a lot of quality programming. But I cannot think of a modern equivalent to Mortimer Adler.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:28 AM | Comments (2)
But dagny thinks:

Does it count as reading something good for me if I just read jk's review corners since they are often over my head?

Posted by: dagny at February 17, 2014 6:24 PM
But T. Greer thinks:

I also like Mortimer Adler.

Funny you mention Thucydided 'cuz one of my most recent posts is built around one of his more famous' phrases. I was reading an essay about what kind of role he thought 'honor' should play in great power politics just today.

Unlike a lot of the old classics, Thucydides still shapes the way people talk and think about war today. An entire academic branch of international relations says he was the first to articulate their theories. Strategic and war studies folks reference him left and right.

I strongly recommend the Landmark Edition. Even if you have already started reading it, is worth it to go get the Landmark edition to use its maps and chronology for reference.

Posted by: T. Greer at February 21, 2014 1:31 AM

February 2, 2014

Review Corner

Next to the second coming of Christ and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, the end of capitalism may be the most predicted and expected event of humankind.
If the Prospertarians have their own economist, I nominate Brian Wesbury. He's a smart guy, frequent Kudlow guest, and author of many insightful editorials.

In a recent Kudlow appearance, they mentioned he was the author of It's Not as Bad as You Think. Why Capitalism will Trump Fear and the Economy Will Thrive. I dutifully ordered it on Kindle; it sounded right up my street.

While I enjoyed it right out if the shoot, it soon became obvious that he had written it a few years ago. I thought perhaps it had taken some time to be released, but now I see Amazon lists a publication date of November 3, 2009. Caveat Emptor.

All the same, it was well worth a read. Wesbury predicts economic growth and a triumph of Capitalism in 2K9 and I daresay if you had followed his lead and loaded up on equities, life would be pretty good today. His predictions have, en masse, come true. More importantly, his optimism and his point about the durability of Capitalism hold. I did not look up the date until I had finished. There were some tells. The Healthcare law was a discussion and uncertainty and not a fact.

Yet it is still an uncertainty, non? And, while the "permabears" have a warm spot on CNBC every time the DJIA goes down, Wesbury's point -- a Prospertarian point is that trade will find a way through most nonsense we can use to impede it.

In a July 9, 2009, column, Nouriel Roubini wrote, ". . . the outlook for the U.S. and global economy remains extremely weak ahead. The recent rally in global equities, commodities and credit may soon fizzle out. . . ." For reference, Roubini had predicted a recession would follow Hurricane Katrina, too. He has been bearish for a very long time.

This is half bug and half feature. It is not completely millenarian to wish that the signals from bad policy were more obvious.
Nonetheless, capitalism has brought so much good over such a long period of time that people have begun to take it for granted. They have forgotten that capitalism is the end and the means. The fruits of capitalism are so overwhelmingly delicious that we forget that the best part of the system is that it provides personal dignity. It allows men and women to find their most productive place in the world, while it lifts living standards to new heights. Nonetheless, many "conservative" columnists have joined with many politicians to make an argument that this crisis is so severe that the government must intervene. Even if we don't like what government is doing, it must be done.

Which brings me to a third reason to enjoy a topical current events book from when Kyle Orton and Chris Simms were fighting for the Broncos' starting QB position. I've read a bucketful of "post-mortem" books on the Panic of '08, with many different policy prescriptions. Wesbury's adds insight with some immediacy because he is not looking that far back. Wesbury lays the blame at Mark-to-Mark accounting and considers all the government badinage that followed as, not only unnecessary, but also as failed attempts to compensate for the bad accounting rules.
Private capital did not trust banks that owned significant amounts of toxic assets, not because actual losses from those securities would lead to bankruptcy, but because accounting rules threatened to destroy capital, and possibly the banks themselves, as long as the markets were illiquid. Private capital went on strike. And when that happened, the money dried up. No one will ever know what would have happened if the government had changed mark-to-market accounting earlier, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, and Wachovia may not have failed.

We discussed that on these pages in 2008. And Wesbury says "I will go to my grave believing that if the government had just done the right thing--suspend mark-to-market accounting and avoid interfering in the system--the United States could have avoided a recession in 2008. But because the government did not do this, and decided that it must interfere in the financial system, the recession became inevitable."
After many false starts, the FASB was finally forced to alter fair value accounting rules in 2009. The congressional hearing that changed everything took place on March 12, 2009, but was announced about a week before. This, as it turns out, coincides perfectly with the bottom of the stock market decline. On March 9, 2009 with the Dow at 6,547 and the S&P 500 trading at 667, the rally started.

Another Wesbury nugget is not to fight the Fed and I'm certain he would credit hyperliquidity with a piece of the move from 6,547 to 17,000. But you could have bought your Dow ETF based on 10,000 the day Wesbury's book was released. Had you followed Noriel Roubini's advice?

The book contains timeless truths about capitalism and supply-side economics, plus some valuable insights to the Panic of '08. All and all, a good Prosperitarian Primer. Five stars (and those are five 2009 stars, before the ravages of review corner inflation...)


Posted by John Kranz at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2014

Review Corner Tease...

The engine check light is on and the HOA newsletter which I edit is past due. Quick, somebody call a Waaaahmbulance!

I'm fine, but you're going to have to wait a week to find out how totally awesome Brian Wesbury's It's Not As Bad As You Think Why Capitalism Trumps Fear and the Economy Will Thrive is. Unless you do the right thing and order it right now.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:44 AM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2014

Review Corner

As a history "newbie," I don't claim the rich depth of knowledge I find in those who read it all their lives and paid attention in Mister King's 3rd Period class. I've tried to catch up, but have a serious lacuna: WWI.

I know the grisly depictions. I even have my great uncle's scrapbook. Uncle Willis was a decorated hero and had PTSD before PTSD was cool. I've watched "Blackadder Goes Forth" for insights, but still do not grasp the "why?" or the "what was it all about?"

I spilled upon Paul Ham's 1913: The Eve of War, on Kindle and when I went to buy, I had the option of borrowing it thanks to Amazon Prime. (It's a short "Single" and available for a whopping $0.99 to non-Prime members.)

I enjoyed the book. It is both well researched and well written. Ham attempts to reject hindsight and really look at the mood of the future antagonists, both the leaders and citizenry. The pre-war distribution of power and borders sound archaic today; it was the end of the Peace of Westphalia regimes (not known for a lot of peace). The modern super states known today came out of the postwar carving.

I highlighted several great passages to share with ThreeSourcers, but I see that my frugality cost me the feature of having those available on my other devices. So all you get is a spoiler alert: Ham's work underscores a needlessness and futility. A few crazies in mid-level government draw up war plans, others catch wind and plan preemptive engagements. Soon war in "inevitable."

Enough think it will be short and beneficial (wrong and wrong). Young Eton lads will prove their mettle and come home as heroes -- you think I've fallen back to Hugh Laurie's character in Blackadder, but that is in the book as well. Though Britain did not lose the complete generation like many on the Continent, her casualties were disproportionately from the officer corps and she lost a generation of leaders.

I'd recommend this highly, though more for a "buff" that wants to see other viewpoints and try on some other ideas. I need a more comprehensive piece to catch up. But I'll not hold Ham responsible for my lack of depth and happily award four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:53 AM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2014

Review Corner

The incident as abstracted in The Raven is much prettified. Were I to begin it today, I would write it as a report rather than a romance; for though I have spent most of my life reading and much of my life writing fiction, I do not know whether the costs of such entertainments may not be too dear.

Perhaps these fictions are, as the more stringently religious suggest, the tool of the Devil. For they do, indeed, cloud the senses, which is, after all, their purpose; and we may understand the phrase to mean "inducing a euphoria in the enjoyment of unreality." We speak of novels as a "distraction"-- that is, as a salutary lack of occupation. Perhaps the cost of this euphoria is an enervation of the power to discriminate.

Penn Jillette relates the story that he hated magic as a kid.

He abhorred the idea of deception as lying. A mentor told him that the artistry was to use the lie to tell a deeper truth. Umm, jk, where were you going with this? It seems that Mister Nonfiction guy has been touched by a work of fiction.

David Mamet got a glowing review for his nonfiction, The Secret Knowledge. When I saw this superb interview, about his "conversion" to conservatism documented in Secret Knowledge, I purchased the e-book-only Three War Stories that he mentioned as his latest work. It sat on my Kindle for several weeks as I enjoyed recent review corner selections.

The prose from the famed, award-winning writer -- you'll not be surprised to hear -- is excellent. He has a perfect pitch for not only dialogue but narrative. Each of the three novellas is from a different war and from a different perspective. But the stories are well told and the language lush. (My new Kindle Paperwhite has a feature I have long desired -- each word you look up in the dictionary is added to your word list that you can go back and review. My list quintupled reading Mamet.)

For years I had fantasized a return to the Islands. The constellations of the Southern Heavens, to one raised in the North, are a lesson in reversion. In the observation of this new sky, one may become anew like the child, or the Primitive-- touched with gratitude and awe. "Yes, that is the Cross; and Musca and Centaurus will always hold their positions relative to it, and one may steer by them."

These new Stars are a second language, which, when mastered, gives one, if not "a second soul," then some insight, perhaps, into the nature of the first. In a natural state we live to learn.

I rediscovered Mamet through politics. His newfound philosophy is on display as he takes a whack at politicians, or underscores man's right to live and defend his life. Yet I cannot say, even for me, that this is the draw of this work. It is about the stories. Nice that the grace notes please my ear for a change, contra , say , Stephen King. But I am fascinated that the great "steak knives" speech from "Glengarry Glen Ross" seems to be quoted as approbationally from the right and the left. This was written by Mamet in his "liberal days." Does it matter?

The second story is recounted by one who fought both in the Civil War "to broaden the definition of those who were created equal" and then in the Plains War "to narrow it." The short novella contains many ideas that I'd be unlikely to encounter in a history book. "The late Rebellion, in fact, may be understood, inter alia, as a continuation of the strife between those lands settled by the English, the American North, and by the Celts, our South."

The question of slavery becomes here, secondary. Few in the South owned slaves, and fewer among its warriors. For the Celts, who were the greatest portion of the Rebel Army, were of the Mountains, where slavery was impracticable. And their parents or grandparents had in many cases themselves been slaves, or virtual slaves, to the English rule.[ 4] I believe the war may not only be seen, but be primarily seen-- from the battlefield-- as a conflict between Briton and Celt, here played out as part of the endless strife between the Mountains and the Plain, between the country and the town, the sown and the wild[...]

How could it be otherwise? The British North-- the Protestant North, if I may-- was dedicated to thrift, which thrift produced that surplus of capital sufficient for invention, experimentation, and mechanization; thus, for Victory.

I have a dozen more highlights -- have you the time? This is a beautiful and thoughtful work that any ThreeSourcer would enjoy. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:08 AM | Comments (0)

January 9, 2014

Real Book Software: Awful, Awful, Awful!

I bought a product so startlingly bad I need to post a review, both for catharsis and to perhaps prevent another from buying it. I did find a forum where people have been complaining about this for a few years. Spread the word.

I saw a banner ad for Real Book Software. The Real Book is a popular and famous book of charts for Jazz songs. It is a play on the term "Fake Books" which provide rudimentary enough chords to let you "fake it." The Real Book had meatier arrangements and actual transcriptions of solos. It is pretty interesting story [Wikipedia].

The Real Book Software was a good idea: put the book on tour computer, allow search and sort of the charts by genre, composer, title, performer, yadda yadda. They even package mp3s of the tunes so you can listen, and -- big draw for me -- versions of each in Band-in-the-box, a popular software I use to print charts but it also plays the songs for you to play along.

The ads and docs looked funky; that should have been a warning. But it fit into a new educational direction of mine and I was intrigued enough to PayPal $127 (Oww!) Wish I had searched online before paying. If you find this, I strongly advise you to steer clear.

The worst thing about Real Book Software:
The piracy protection -- moving beyond the ironic for somebody selling a compilation of likely pirated material -- is so unforgiving that it will not run on my computer without freshly installing it each time. I got a key from their support that allows me to reinstall beyond the 14 day period.

Second worst thing about Real Book Software:
Support is not very sympathetic. I was good natured and asked them to swap it for one of their products without the protection mechanism. "No, buddy, we have your money and you don't. That is how software works. Maybe you should buy a new computer that it will run on." I do software for a living and that is not really how it works.

A very bad thing about Real Book Software:
When it is installed and licensed, it works. But the GUI is very cheesy and the workflow is uninviting. You can sort, listen and view/print the charts (well, I can until I turn my computer off) but it doesn't feel like much value is added.

They were denigrated in the Band-in-a-Box forum, but I enjoy the band-in-the-box files. Those are just sitting in a directory. They don't connect or index to the program at all -- of course, this is good for me because the program does not work. Saved me some typing -- I'm not pleased that I paid $127 for it but it's keeping me from finding and burning down the dingy studio apartment where this business is surely headquartered.

Please feel free to link and share. I see from the forum that they have been defrauding naive players like me for a few years. Knowledge might be power.

Posted by John Kranz at 4:37 PM | Comments (2)
But johedoe thinks:

Yep, me too, I got ripped by this dude... worked a little bit and his overcomplicated protection mechanism made it unusable in no time. Scum software.

Posted by: johedoe at February 1, 2016 5:05 PM
But Dennis thinks:

I agree that installing and the anti-piracy stuff is way too complicated. I also think the software seems quite amateuristic. Everytime you want to install a plugin it first gives you an error of somekind, then you click OK and then you can direct (manually) the program to the needed path. Very annoying. The idea is great, the execution is very poor.

That being said I do like the amount of songs in there. It's like you have a huge collection of jazzmuziek at one mouseclick. I do think it's a great resource. However, some of the audio doesn't work either...


Posted by: Dennis at April 29, 2016 7:01 PM

January 5, 2014

Review Corner

Heh. A blogger known for his brevity produces a substantive view of both K-12 and higher education -- in 103 pages.

I had read [and] [reviewed] both of his Broadside books. Between that and reading Instapundit, many of the ideas in The New School are familiar. But I would still highly recommend buying a copy for yourself and one to pass around to parents you know and any open minded teachers.

Reynolds is an expert on the topic as he is Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, married to PhD Psychologist Dr. Helen Smith. Yet the perspective of New School is much more about his role as a consumer of education for their daughter and for the bloggers' desire to assemble elements into social and political patterns. The joy of the book is its academic cred without the academics' diffidence (or turgid prose...)

I don't think I need post a spoiler alert that there are problems in education. But it is a huge, complicated, interconnected system with the distortions of more than a hundred years of government involvement. It is easy to choose one failed facet (for me it is Teachers' Unions) to hang all the deficiencies upon. New School broadens the concerns and adds significant new concepts.

Reynolds's Instapundit writings cherish modernity, and the "New" part of the "The New School" is to rescue 21st Century students from a 19th Century Prussian model which was imported to train good 20th Century factory workers.

On his return, [Horace] Mann extolled the Prussian model in his seventh annual report. This met with some resistance, as "critics accused him of wanting to establish a 'Prussian-style tyranny' in the schools, arguing that the Prussian model was based on a presumption that the government was wiser than the citizenry, while in America the presumption was the reverse. There was considerable basis for this complaint. Prussian theorists regarded public education, and higher education as well, as an institution of 'police' and a way of making students 'useful as future tools,'" — but Mann's idea ultimately caught on for the most part. Mann wanted to remake society, and he wanted to start with children. In his turn of phrase, "men are cast-iron, but children are wax." Just as the Prussian model had as much to do with political and social ordering as with teaching and learning, so it was with Mann's Americanized Prussian model.

Reynolds helpfully points out the Mann's children were homeschooled. But sitting still, forming orderly lines, and moving with bells prepared students for factory work. How much of that transfers to your job?

Another key insight is the comparison to a financial bubble. Consumers are so certain of a return that they use easy credit to pay ever escalating prices without carefully assessing the future value of the asset. Sound like anything? A story you heard? Bueller?

The escalating prices are never spent on instruction. Climbing walls, fancy dining halls take a bite, but the real culprit is administration which is more likely to impede instruction with paperwork and regulation. As the crown jewel California University system faces severe cuts, it seems "diversity" is untouchable:

University of California system slashes programs and raises tuition, it has created a new systemwide "vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion." This is on top of the already enormous University of California diversity machine, which, as Heather Mac Donald notes, "includes the Chancellor's Diversity Office, the associate vice chancellor for faculty equity, the assistant vice chancellor for diversity, the faculty equity advisors, the graduate diversity coordinators, the staff diversity liaison, the undergraduate student diversity liaison, the graduate student diversity liaison, the chief diversity officer, the director of development for diversity initiatives, the Office of Academic Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the Committee on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Issues, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Campus Council on Climate, Culture and Inclusion, the Diversity Council, and the directors of the Cross-Cultural Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center, and the Women's Center."

Not that my personal bête-noir comes out well:
For a long time, the providers of education at all levels have enjoyed a sort of guildlike monopoly. And as economist John Hicks notes, as quoted earlier, "The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life." Alas, the lives of education providers are likely to be less quiet and comfortable than they have been. When education was in the hands of guilds made up of educators, as it has largely been for over a century, educators unsurprisingly took advantage of their control to arrange things to their liking. That will change significantly in the years to come.

Neither higher education nor K-12 schooling will remain in the hands of the guilds in the future, though we can expect a significant rear-guard action on their part. But the vulnerability they face is that it will become easier and easier for people to avoid the guilds entirely thanks to the new alternatives that technology (and other changes -- but mostly technology) has made possible.

Here's hoping! The New School is full of hope without discarding a serious look at difficult issues. Five Stars.

UPDATE: Good interview of Reynolds by Ed Driscoll.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:08 AM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2013

Review Corner

All the issues are simply the battles of the day in a much larger struggle. What is ultimately at stake is the same question that precipitated the American Revolution: whether the American people are the sovereigns in their own country or whether they should be ruled from above, for their own good, according to the supposedly benevolent commands of the elitist rulers of a top-down, European-style society.
Searching the magical Kindle Store for last week's selection, I saw that David Kopel had a Broadsides book out: The Truth About Gun Control.

Around these parts, he has been associated with Health Care because of his Constitutional opposition to ObamaCare. He spoke at LOTR--Flatirons on NFIB v. Sebelius and played important roles as documented last week. But Kopel is best known for his scholarship on guns and gun rights.

And "Truth" is the principled and well reasoned stance one would expect from Kopel. He ties gun rights to both history and philosophy, always drawing a bigger and more vivid picture than the shorter-sighted confiscators.

The right and duty of self-defense applied to a householder protecting her children and to militiamen protecting their communities from foreign enemies or from tyranny. Self-defense was a seamless web; the difference between self-defense against a criminal invader in the home, against a gang of highway robbers, or against a criminal tyrant with his standing army was only one of scale. The tyrant's gang was just bigger than the other ones.
Second Amendment guarantees that all persons can possess arms, no person in the United States, therefore, can be a slave. "The right of a man 'to keep and bear arms,' is a right palpably inconsistent with the idea of his being a slave," [Lysander] Spooner wrote.

Kopel is a regular panelist on "Colorado Inside Out" Friday night on PBS Channel 12 right before Independence Institute colleague's Jon Caldera's "Devil's Advocate." The panelists -- respectful but never on the same page as Kopel -- bow to his superior knowledge of history. Last week Eric Soderman said "I'd expect David to know the Louisiana Governor 100 years ago," when Kopel alone on the panel came up with Kathleen Blanco as the governor during Katrina.

The ties to history are the magic of this work. There is a bit on stats and crime. But the historical use of guns against British occupation, genocide, and Jim Crow is well documented --as are the historical roots of the NRA

National alcohol prohibition, enacted in 1920, spurred national violence, which resulted in the conservative Eastern business establishment -- along with some religious pacifists -- demanding handgun prohibition. In their view, the solution to the failure of alcohol prohibition was more prohibition.

The handgun-prohibition campaign of the 1920s drew the National Rifle Association into the political arena, where it has remained ever since.The NRA had been founded by Union Army officers in 1871 to promote citizen marksmanship and civic virtue. Among its early presidents were Ulysses S. Grant (former president of the United States) and (“ the hero of Gettysburg” and the 1880 Democratic presidential nominee).

In the 1920s, as today, the NRA’s main political strength was its ability to mobilize its ever growing membership to contact government officials and express opposition to constricting the rights of law-abiding citizens.

[If you read nothing else today, follow that link and read about Winfield Scott Hancock.]

Kopel slices the gun rights crowd from their opposition more precisely than most. It is not so cleanly left-right:

The great Democratic Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey embodied liberalism's optimistic faith in the federal government and the federal Constitution. He believed that "one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. ... The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible."

You can rightly say that HHH was an "old liberal" or "old Democrat" and that that species is extinct. But I'm always troubled by my eastern-elitist peeps like Larry Kudlow or the WSJ Ed Page staff, NR, Weekly Standard, &c. who don't really get it. They should read Kopel:
While some nations consider law to be the vehicle of the state, the American tradition views the law as the servant of the people. As a federal district court put it, "the people, not the government, possess the sovereignty" (Mandel v. Mitchell, 1971).

Four stars -- five if it were longer...

Posted by John Kranz at 11:31 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2013

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been...

Reliving -- and relitigating -- the PPACAo2010 could be tedious and disappointing. Spoiler Alert: it passes and Chief Justice Roberts applies "a saving construction" to uphold its constitutionality under the taxing power.

Despite the disappointing ending (you might wait for the Disney movie to rewrite it), the intellectual voyage of the constitutional challenges, seen through the keen minds of Volkh Conspiracy (VC) bloggers is a fascinating read. The conspirators have assembled it into a very good book: A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case by Randy Barnett, Jonathan Adler, Jonathan H.; David Bernstein, Orin Kerr, David Kopel, and Ilya Somin.

It is targeted at a "guy like me." I am very interested in Constitutional law, theory, and philosophy but have no special training or deep knowledge. I suspect most ThreeSourcers, be they guys or not, fall into or near that camp. The book is detailed and substantive, you don't feel you're getting a watered down version. But any bright and interested person can get it (for a couple of weekend afternoons, I could click the Kindle on and pretend to be much smarter than I really am).

In addition to theory, you also come away with some inside information about how these challenges progress, a rough feel for timelines, and insiders' perspectives on what is important and what is not. This goes beyond the civics-book explanation of judicial review as Robert Caro's Master of the Senate goes beyond the stock description of Article I.

Supreme Court advocates know what academics sometimes seem to forget: you simply cannot "mandate" a justice go where he or she does not want to go with a clever argument. All you can do is present your strongest case in the most compelling way. Mike, Greg, and Paul did that during oral argument in which the pressure could not have been more intense. I was supremely grateful it was them and not me who had to bear up under the strain of oral argument. Along with Karen Harned, director of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center, win or lose, I believe we fielded the "A Team" on behalf of the majority of the American people who objected to the Affordable Care Act and believed it to be unconstitutional.

Perhaps the best part of the book -- from a blog lover's perspective -- is VC's contributions to the debate. As bloggers once busted Dan Rather and reached above the monopoly of three-network journalism, bloggers [asterisk] reached above the Ivy League Professoriate, all of whom thought that only right wing goofballs would see any Constitutional problems with Obamacare.
Twenty years ago, the virtual consensus among law professors at elite schools very well may have been the end of serious debate in the academic world. The venues for law professors getting their ideas out on controversial issues of the day were few and dominated by law professors at the top schools: the mainstream media, either through op-eds or interviews with reporters, both heavily skewed toward famous professors at places like Harvard and Yale; publications at the top law reviews, which are not reviewed blindly and therefore heavily favor the already renowned; and presentations at elite law schools, to which the overwhelming majority of invitees are professors at peer institutions.

[Asterisk] These folks are not bloggers in the "pajamas" sense. These are law professors who have argued before the Supreme Court (Barnett was the attorney for Angel Raich) and file amicus briefs for big league think tanks. But there is a telling section in David Bernstien's summation.
In 2011, a law professor at Yale, defending Obamacare from constitutional challenge, claimed that only one "constitutional scholar that I know at a top 20 law school" thinks that Obamacare is "constitutionally problematic." A year later, just before oral argument in NFIB, the same professor stated that only one law professor at a top ten law school agreed that the Obamacare was unconstitutional.

The professor's math was almost certainly somewhat off, but he was right that the overwhelming majority of constitutional law scholars at elite law schools thought that the constitutional challenge to Obamacare was not just wrong, but obviously so. But there is a reason for this. The faculties at elite law schools have been able to define what was "mainstream" in constitutional law simply by who they hired to join them. And Yale, to take just one example, has not hired a conservative or libertarian professor to teach constitutional law in my lifetime.

So these poor professors, laboring away at top 14-17 law schools, yet believing in Constitutional limits to government power, were able to present, refine, share, and disseminate their ideas at blog speed. And many of these ideas start showing up in SCOTUS oral arguments and opinions.
Perhaps one contribution of our brief, and the case, to constitutional law is renewed attention to the full opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland rather than the expurgated versions in many law school textbooks. In Randy Barnett's Constitutional Law text, students can see John Marshall working his way through doctrine of principals and incidents, as he elucidates that Necessary and Proper Clause is for inferior, less "worthy" powers-- and not for a "great, substantive and independent power." Roberts's application of this long-standing rule took some of the pro-mandate professoriate by surprise, and the professors who were not surprised were dismayed.

The power of ideas and the power of new media take the challenge from then-Speaker Pelosi's "are you serious?" through a sweeping midterm election, to a nail-biting decision that, while it didn't give ThreeSourcers everything they wanted . . .
While our failure to prevent the egregious Affordable Care Act from taking effect remains a bitter pill, this should not be allowed to detract from what we accomplished legally. We prevailed in preserving and even strengthening the enumerated powers scheme of Article I, Section 8 as a protection of individual liberty. From a constitutional perspective, this is what we were fighting so hard to achieve.

But, but, but taxing power!
For those who may still not see the difference between the legal theories we defeated and that which was adopted by Chief Justice John Roberts, imagine that all the federal drug laws were enforced by the nonpunitive tax he allowed rather than as Commerce Clause regulations, which is how the prohibitions of the Controlled Substances Act are now justified. Under Chief Justice Roberts's tax power theory, the government would have to open the jails and release tens of thousands of prisoners. And any of you reading this could legally smoke marijuana under federal law, provided you were willing to pay a small noncoercive federal tax on this activity. Such is the difference between the Commerce Clause power Congress claimed justified the Affordable Care Act, and the new limited tax power the chief justice allowed it to exercise. That is a big difference.

Losing 5-4 on the mandate -- even with the de-fanging -- has also caused us to lose sight of the 7-2 win against coerced Medicaid expansion. These and the fear, uncertainty and doubt placed in thinking citizens' minds make this exercise heroic and successful.

The Colorado Avalanche lost a hockey game in LA yesterday. The Kings were up 2-0 late in the second period. The Kings are a great team; they are tough at home; they are a defensive powerhouse who rarely give up two goals in a game. They were the Harvard professors of hockey yesterday afternoon. The Avs came back, tied (gives them one point in the standings) and took the game through overtime to a shootout. Sadly for me they lost, but the announcers at the end all agreed this was a win. I agree.

Five stars. Duh.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:17 AM | Comments (0)

December 15, 2013

Review Corner

I've enjoyed the TV show "Sleepy Hollow" and recommend it without hesitation. I could not recall whether I had the classic by Washington Irving. Perhaps I read it in my youth or, just as likely, I merely absorbed a few details.

Ninety-nine cents, however, scores the Kindle book plus a couple of interesting criticisms: George Woodberry's in 1903 and Leon Vincent's in 1906. According to those august scholars, Irving was not only the first American man of letters, but the cornerstone of American fiction as entertainment. Let the Old World have their Sartres, Tolstoys and Hugos -- the road to Pirates of the Caribbean movies seems to start at Irving. Here's Woodberry:

BUT a broad difference is marked by the contrast of "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"; the absence of the moral element is felt in the latter; and a grosser habit of life, creature comfort, a harmless but unspiritual superstition, a human warmth, a social comradery, are prominent in Irving's lucubrations, and these are traits of the community ripened and sweetened in him.

Ah, yes, Hawthorne. That was pretty serious. "Sleepy Hollow" is a (very) short bit of PG-13 fun. The language is clear with just enough archaic terms to provide flavor.
From the moment Ichabod laid his eyes upon these regions of delight, the peace of his mind was at an end, and his only study was how to gain the affections of the peerless daughter of Van Tassel. In this enterprise, however, he had more real difficulties than generally fell to the lot of a knight-errant of yore, who seldom had any thing but giants, enchanters, fiery dragons, and such like easily-conquered adversaries, to contend with; and had to make his way merely through gates of iron and brass, and walls of adamant, to the castle keep, where the lady of his heart was confined; all which he achieved as easily as a man would carve his way to the centre of a Christmas pie; and then the lady gave him her hand as a matter of course. Ichabod, on the contrary, had to win his way to the heart of a country coquette, beset with a labyrinth of whims and caprices, which were forever presenting new difficulties and impediments; and he had to encounter a host of fearful adversaries of real flesh and blood, the numerous rustic admirers, who beset every portal to her heart; keeping a watchful and angry eye upon each other, but ready to fly out in the common

Watchers of the FOX series will find some tasty homages to the book; the peerless daughter of Van Tassel is named Katrina. There are witches and Hessians and of course a headless horsemen. Beyond this there is no relation to the show -- except the establishment of an American literary tradition of casual entertainment and expansive storytelling.
He who wins a thousand common hearts is therefore entitled to some renown; but he who keeps undisputed sway over the heart of a coquette, is indeed a hero.

Four stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:15 AM | Comments (0)

December 8, 2013


Then, about fifteen years into my law practice, I noticed a shift in the federal courts. More and more of my clients (physicians, bankers, academics, scientists, investors, newspaper reporters, accountants, artists, and photographers) were being investigated and prosecuted for conduct that neither they nor I instinctively viewed as criminal. As I prepared to defend against the charges, I could not rid myself of the unsettling notion that the federal criminal laws were becoming vaguer and harder to understand with the passage of time.

Silverglate, Harvey (2011-06-07). Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (Kindle Locations 539-543). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

This book caused a bit of a stir when it came out a couple of years ago. I was interested but distracted and did not get around to buying it until a few weeks ago.

I thought from the title that it was about abstruse regulations like the poor guy John Stossel featured who went to jail -- in the US -- for importing lobster in plastic packages (as he had done for years and as Honduran law permits). Such stories are sad and anger me, but one hopes that they are as rare as ObamaCare success stories and can be similarly discounted.

Three Felonies a Day is darker and more serious. Silverglate documents prosecutorial overreach. Endemic overreach. Federal prosecutors can, Alice in Wonderland style, pick a person and put them away. Some of the cases documented have been discussed around here: Martha Stewart gets exonerated though the author will not join me in rehabilitating Sam Waxsal. Michael Milken, I think we all (we ThreeSourcers, kimosabe) accept got a raw deal.

Silverglate also goes to bat for the Enron folks. We as a nation had to have heads on a platter after that debacle -- and a host of bad, pointless legislation. But contra the 5th and 14th, people's liberty was taken without due process.

I posted a very entertaining video of Silverglate last week. As I mentioned, almost all of the villains in the book are Republicans. Hizzoner Rudy Giuliani -- whom I have praised at length on these pages -- established himself as a tough on crime, mob-busting, prosecutor. But like most, he relied some tools that are not conducive to the idea of free people. Patriot Act and terrorism prosecutions in the Bush Administration are put in harsh light.

We just saw the shakedown of Jamie Dimon and Chase. It is now in a corporation's best interest to just shovel money at the DOJ whenever they ask. The Feds have this great tool of "you're not going to win" and they can destroy (cf. Arthur Andersen) a company any time they'd like. So the corporations capitulate because it is in their best interest. But this leaves individuals with the implication of guilt and often without the corporation's resources to mount a vigorous defense. Those who fight and win tend to end up ruined.

The emptiness of the prosecutors' dramatic allegations was later hinted at when a judge dismissed the murder charges and lowered bail after a 21-day preliminary hearing. Four more years passed before the remaining felony charges were dismissed, and it was not until May 2004 that a jury acquitted Dr. Fisher of the remaining misdemeanor charges. By then, the damage had been done. Besides spending five months in jail, the financial burden of fighting for his reputation drained the 50-year-old Harvard alum's assets. After the acquittal, he had no choice but to live with his elderly parents. Not only are doctors vulnerable to the threat of such prosecutions, but, just as important, chronic pain sufferers cannot obtain relief.

I avoid the fever swamps of conspiracy theories and over-the-top accusations of impending fascism in favor of the self-interest of misguided people and bad ideas. But it is hard to stay upbeat after reading "Three Felonies a Day." The maw of government is there and it is invincible. I don't think it likely that they'll come after a humble blogger/software developer [Wait a miute, there's a knock at the door...]

No, seriously, this continues because it is something most can avoid. But I naively hold to the idea of a nation of laws. When you do not trust the current administration, it is frightful to imagine that they have these tools at their disposal. It can be directed at political enemies, eeevil bankers and anybody else not in the public's top ten this week, physicians (the section on pain medication is heartbreaking), pharmaceutical companies, &c.

Dark reading and I dare anybody to contradict it. I traded some email with a blog friend in the middle and he reminded me of Gibson guitar's Fish & Game SWAT team raid. Land of the free, huh?

The book is great, I am sorry I waited two years -- five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:02 AM | Comments (4)
But Keith Arnold thinks:

"... But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security..."

Posted by: Keith Arnold at December 9, 2013 12:16 PM
But jk thinks:

I hear you, Brother. I'm quite the fan of marginal fixes and working within the system, but this is a complete abdication of rule of law replaced by rule of men. That's harder to fix.

A new Congress might tinker with the Cap-Gains tax, but how do you fix this? I suppose a sea change on the Supreme Court might rein these lads in, but as Clark Neily III points out in Terms of Engagement, they are "on the government's side" as well. Perhaps President Rand Paul appoints Ted Cruz as AG and these practices are extirpated? Fairy Dust? Unicorn DAs?

Posted by: jk at December 9, 2013 12:36 PM
But Keith Arnold thinks:

In the 18th Century BC, Hammurabi had a pretty good idea: all laws should be on public display, and written simply enough that the town drunk could understand them and know what was required of him. Good times, good times. We've drifted a little bit from that notion, it seems.

I guess those were days when you didn't have to pass a law to find out what was in it. If someone runs for office and says he'll go back to that, he'll get my vote.

Posted by: Keith Arnold at December 9, 2013 1:03 PM
But johngalt thinks:


Perverted Law Causes Conflict

As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose — that it may violate property instead of protecting it — then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue is to know the answer.

Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States [in 1850]. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person's liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United States, there are two issues — and only two — that have always endangered the public peace.

Slavery and Tariffs Are Plunder

What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs. These are the only two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of the United States, law has assumed the character of a plunderer.

Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.

It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime — a sorrowful inheritance from the Old World — should be the only issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union. It is indeed impossible to imagine, at the very heart of a society, a more astounding fact than this: The law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if this fact brings terrible consequences to the United States — where the proper purpose of the law has been perverted only in the instances of slavery and tariffs — what must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of the law is a principle; a system?

Posted by: johngalt at December 10, 2013 2:44 AM

December 1, 2013

Review Corner

Hmm. Now that I have possibly facilitated the enrollment of a human being in Medicare, what better time to review Avik Roy's How Medicaid Fails the Poor?

We should make one thing clear: while Medicaid costs too much, its principal problem is that it doesn't make Medicaid patients healthier. It's not wrong to spend a large sum of money on health care for the poor. It is wrong to waste large sums of money on health care for the poor. There are so many market-based alternatives to Medicaid, alternatives that would offer uninsured, low-income Americans the opportunity to see the doctor of their choice and gain access to high-quality, private-sector health care.
That's the dirty secret of Medicaid. You might have heard the rumor that uninsured people are clogging emergency rooms because the law allows them to get free care there. But the unreported story is that it is Medicaid patients who clog the emergency rooms because they can't persuade regular doctors to see them.

Roy (people in Montreal and Denver struggle to pronounce it like Mr. Rogers's first name and not Evelyn Waugh's last -- to compound it, the author's first name is pronounced OH-vick) highlights studies that show Medicaid patients' outcomes statistically below those of the uninsured. While it would be easy to think that anomalistic, Roy details several good reasons why this could be.

The book opens with the heartbreaking story of Deamonte Driver, a seventh grader in Maryland who died of a toothache. His indigent mother was unable to find a dentist to accepted a new Medicaid patient, and over time -- government programs excel at eating time -- the infection spread to his brain. Much as I rail against government, I hesitate to pin this single tragedy on them. But we are -- courtesy of ObamaCare and my facilitatorship -- adding to the Medicaid rolls without addressing the physician shortage on the other side.

Medicaid was a statistically significant predictor of death three years after transplantation, even after controlling for other clinical factors. Overall, Medicaid patients faced a 29 percent greater risk of death. You'd think that Medicaid’s poor health outcomes would be a scandal on the left. You'd be wrong. After all, Obamacare puts 17 million more Americans into the Medicaid program.

The difference between insurance and care matters not to the left. The difference between a card and a doctor seem to elude them as well. An Oregon program to expand membership held a lottery where the lucky winners could enroll under relaxed qualifications.
Finally, on May 1, 2013 -- 10 months late -- the New England Journal of Medicine published the second-year findings. Did Medicaid save lives? No. It "generated no significant improvement in measured physical health outcomes," including death, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. What's almost as striking as this nonresult is how few Oregonians felt the need to sign up for this allegedly lifesaving program. The authors report that of the 35,169 individuals who "won" the lottery to enroll in Medicaid, only 60 percent actually bothered to fill out the application. In the end, only half of those who applied ended up enrolling.

But, what about the security of coverage?
Nonetheless, Medicaid's cheerleaders seized on this qualified bit of good news. "This is an astounding finding ... a huge improvement in mental health," said economist Gruber. To which conservative blogger Ben Domenech responded, "I wonder whether we'd be better off replacing the [Medicaid] expansion with a program that hands out $ 500 in cold hard cash and a free puppy."

Roy suggests a replacement, not with the puppy, but with a catastrophic plan and a voucher for concierge medicine. We could provide the poor with coverage chosen by many well-off Americans (well, until ObamaCare makes it illegal) for the same amount, and get more predictable and controlled spending rates as well.

This is a "Broadside" (very short book by Encounter Books). Five bucks on your Kindle and an hour before Kickoff. Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:49 AM | Comments (1)
But T. Greer thinks:

I like his plan.

I would think it is a good model for getting rid of most all ss type benefits.

Posted by: T. Greer at December 2, 2013 6:11 PM

November 24, 2013

Editor's Choice Award

I am four years late to the party. If everyone else has already read The Beautiful Tree, just giggle at my late indulgence. But I cannot remember a book I enjoyed more.

I will be buying a few copies and recommending it until I become tiresome. While the book is not political or economic per se, it encapsulates and exemplifies much of what I believe. My buddy, Brad, at Liberty on the Rocks -- Flatirons always encourages liberty folk to appeal to the heart as well as the brain. This masterpiece does both.

Author James Tooley gets "first class BSc honours in Logic and Mathematics from the University of Sussex" and goes to teach math in Zimbabwe. His hope of, repeat after me, making a difference to the rural poor is shunted as the prize is kept for the children of government and NGOs in the city. A trip into the slums reveals a vibrant marketplace for private education. Big, beautiful, well equipped, western buildings staffed by accredited teachers are routinely eschewed for village schools in crumbling slums. By parents who, in absolute privation, devote money to pay private tuition instead of utilizing free government schools.

He devotes his life to finding out that this is true and then proving it to arrogant government officials and snot-nosed charity organizers from DfID, Oxfam, Save the Children, &c.

Curiously-- at least to me-- this was not a conclusion reached by any of the development experts. The Oxfam Education Report was typical. Let me repeat: it was quite explicit that private schools for the poor were emerging in huge numbers and that these schools were more accountable to parents than government schools for the poor. Notwithstanding any of this, its position was that "there is no alternative" but blanket public provision to reach education for all.

Universal, free, education for all! What kind of sick bastard would oppose that? I am told that Judaism holds the giver responsible not just for intention but also for outcome of charity. The outcome of "free, universal education for all" is startlingly -- even grading on the NGO efficacy curve -- poor. It seems that there are incentives in the private schools to please paying parents and fire non-performing teachers.
"We don't have that power in the government schools." He told me the story of a public school principal whom they found last year sleeping at school at 9: 00 a.m. on a classroom bench; he was drunk and no other teachers were present. "Eventually, we managed to get him transferred. That's all. There was nothing else we could do." It's always the same story, he says, "If teachers or principals are caught in child abuse or alcoholism, then all we can do is transfer them elsewhere. And then they continue with their abuse."

This story is repeated again and again. They visit the local government school and the children are playing in the yard. Very few of the teachers bother to show up and many of those that do do other work. It's the incentive model of the DMV plus the rampant corruption of post-Colonial government graft. Yet, Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, the UN, and all the big-name global philanthropic NGOs will not admit that there is another game in town.
He told me that DfID didn't put much into education, just $80 million or so over the past five years, all of which had gone to the government for improving primary schools-- much of that was for improving their buildings. (I saw it as I traveled around later, plush new government primary school buildings proudly sporting the DfID logo. There were also European Union logos and logos for various other European government aid agencies.) But he was openly dismayed at the lack of accountability for how the DfID funds were spent.
The day after the conference, I met him at noon, and he took me from the plush DfID offices, in one of DfID's chauffeur-driven, brand-new air-conditioned Toyota four-by-fours, to lunch at the Ivy, a tony air-conditioned café, frequented mainly by Europeans-- possibly aid workers and the like. One could almost imagine oneself not in West Africa at all. He had a brie-and-tomato sandwich; I had chicken and rice. The odd thing about meeting government aid representatives in countries like Ghana is that they're not at all afraid to criticize the waste and inefficiency of their host government. Indeed, it seems that nothing is more important to share with you. But then as soon as you press them on the alternatives, like a greater role for private education, it's as if all they've said is irrelevant. There is no alternative, they repeat, to what the government is doing. It only has to be done better, with more aid. Don, it appears, was no exception.

The problem with private education to all these people is profit. A school cannot be "pro-poor" if a proprietor seeks profit. But a bunch of corrupt Ministry of Education officials driving to five-star lunches with aid workers in limousines is fine. The few that admit that these schools exist then suggest that the answer is to regulate them -- give the corrupt government officials the power to close them down! That'll help.

I think ThreeSourcers are beginning to see what I like (I've highlighted probably 100 quotes). It is about education, incentives, and actually helping through -- mirabile dictu -- prvate enterprise. The author is not some crazed libertarian but a chattering class brit IMF worker who took the time to discover reality. The same situation existed in India, Nigeria, and rural China. At each place he was greeted with a laughable "no, there are no private schools for poor people." Everyone knows the schools for the poor come from Save the Children and Oxfam and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DfID and other wealthy white people writing checks to government bureaucrats.

In the closing sections Tooley explains the title and makes the greatest pattern comparison of all time. Gandhi accused the British of damaging the soil and killing "The Beautiful Tree" because they destroyed the indigenous institutions in favor of transplanted western replacements that were less appropriate and effective. Eighty years later, check writing Brits repeat the performance: demanding schools that look like theirs whether they will educate the poor or not. I am amused to no end that the funders who would be offended most by the charge of "Colonialist" are the ones most fiercely pressing ahead.

What I see this means now is that, when Gandhi said that he wished to return to the status quo ante, he was saying he wanted to return to a system of private schools for the poor, funded in the main by fees and a little philanthropy. Not only has my journey into Indian history provided unexpected evidence of private education for the poor in India before the British took over, it has also provided me with an even more unexpected ally.
Development experts today, academics, aid agency officials, and the pop stars and actors who encourage them are modern-day Macaulays. They are well intentioned, as was Macaulay. They believe in the fundamental importance of education, as did Macaulay. But they believe that the poor need their help educationally, and can't be trusted to do anything on their own, as did Macaulay.

It is a masterpiece of heart and mind that promotes everything I believe (well, there's nothing about the crime of the AL's Designated Hitter...) so softly and subtly as to be almost by accident. It has returned to the news in the wake of Malala, the brave young woman shot by the Taliban for going to school. I saw it referenced in this Cato article and bought it. Better late than never.

Five Stars and the Editor's Choice Award.

Posted by John Kranz at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2013

The Review Corner that didn't Bark

It is no secret that the average Review Corner score is likely well above four stars. Am I just another pawn of "Big Book," getting checks from Shuster's sons to inflate scores? Why don't I write rebarbative reviews to show off my classic wit? Or am I so cheap that I only buy books I like?

Well, I am cheap enough that I rarely take the Tyler Cowan option. Cowan rails poignantly against our desire to "finish" a book or movie we don't like. Time is your most valued asset -- Cowan thinks we should walk out of theaters and leave books unread. I rarely do that. I watch bad movies to see what happens and I read bad books to see if they get better.

But I doubt that I'll return to The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life

The Why Axis is meant to follow Steven Levitt's popular "Freakonomics:" using hard data to answer softer questions on behavior, preference, and social science outcomes. I enjoyed Freakonomics. While I had some concerns, it was a net gain for the corpus. Levitt is an advisor in some capacity to "The Why Axis" but not an author.

Let's enjoy a sample of The Why Axis's prose:

[Businessman-turned-superintendent of Chicago Heights District 170, Tom] Amadio is a passionate, straight-talking guy with good business instincts. He may be the only school superintendent in the country who, in a previous life, was a stock trader making a good living. Unlike stereotypical Wall Street traders, though, Amadio cares deeply about the plight of the underprivileged.

Houston? We may have a problem... Freakonomics leaned left in an academic proclivity, but it had other virtues. This book starts out proving faculty lounge pieties. It seems that gender really is a social construct. Because there is a matriarchal tribe somewhere in which females exhibit risk traits associated with males in the West.

The team does quite a bit of research around this and presents hard data from experiments they have devised -- my paraphrase sells them short. Yet, at the end of world travels and exhaustive studies, and loads of money shelled out to do game theory on people, there seems to be quite a leap. And -- surprise of all surprises in this most surprising of worlds -- hard data supports the faculty lounge belief! Are you as shocked as I am?

They moved on to explain racism, and I moved along to two other books on my Kindle that are a lot more serious in tone and structure.

I thought of writing (this very nasty) review yesterday and thought it unfair. If I do not finish a book, I will not review it.

Then, I saw this on Facebook: "Nature vs. Nurture: New study shows we knew morality as babies." There's a juicy altruism angle that could be fun.

Is it correct to say that Mike's actions were "moral"? Where does morality come from? Are human beings born with an innate moral sense, something like a conscience that helps us tell right from wrong? Or are we born as blank slates and learn morality as we make our way through life from infancy to childhood and beyond? If morality is innate, are we born good and corrupted by society, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought? Or are we born as brutes and civilized by culture, as "Darwin's bulldog" T.H. Huxley thought?

Well, click on through to the Atlantic and "a new study" has solved that oft concerned question. This brought up "Why Axis." We're going to get a grant and busy 100 grad students to prove something we think. In the hard sciences, I'd say that's how it is done. I think the softer sciences should show a little more humility. Over the years, they have earned it.

Posted by John Kranz at 12:50 PM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

"It [morality] does not deny self-interest, yet curbs its pursuit so as to promote a cooperative society."

"It would be absurd to speak of these instincts [the origins of morality] as having been developed from selfishness."

Taking selfishness as the equivalent of self-interest, as do I, reveals some difficulty in squaring these two statements.

Why must morality not deny selfishness if selfishness has no part in the origin of morality?

I find both statements lacking. The latter actually came first, from Charles Darwin. Selfish aims can clearly be shown as causes for sympathy, affection, and helping others. The former statement, by primatologist Frans de Waal, still has not quite learned that selfishness and morality are not opposites. He has, though, at least learned that selfishness is undeniable. This we may call progress.

Posted by: johngalt at November 18, 2013 2:51 PM

November 10, 2013

Review Corner

The idea of the countermajoritarian difficulty rests on the premise that laws enacted by legislatures reflect the will of electoral majorities, which in turn relies on the assumption that the latter possess sufficient political knowledge to control what their representatives do. Yet most of the vast literature on this subject ignores the relevance of political ignorance.

Somin, Ilya (2013-10-02). Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (p. 156). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

I recommend Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter so frequently, it is something of a verbal tic. ThreeSourcers have plenty of philosophical or pragmatic concerns with plebiscitary democracy, but I think any thinking person could look at the intelligence level of modern campaigns and not wonder "is this any way to run a railroad -- or our lives?"

I don't know the geography or organizational structure of George Mason University. But Law Professor Ilya Somin has built on his Economics colleague's important work. Where Caplan is forced to conclude with "sucks to be us," Somin integrates it into a thoughtful critique of over-expansive government. Still sucks to be us, but there are several new ideas along the way.

Starting with a look at the irrationality of being an informed voter, Somin visits many of Caplan's ideas. Factoring the likelihood or your vote being decisive, devoting time to understanding the candidates and issue of the day is idiotic from a self-interest perspective. "Well, the final vote came down to me, and I just wasn't sure if ObamaCare was going to be good or not, but the President promised..."

Somin also has a healthy dose of data showing just how disconnected the "average" voter is. Some of his tables are a little better than Jay Leno's "Man on the Street" interviews. But not by much.

So. Considering that voters do not know what's up and have no rational reason to learn, Somin asks, what is the best structure of government? I referred to this in a comment last week, but one particularly interesting section was a look at different democratic theories and their demands on their respective polities:

To demonstrate this point, we must compare the actual level of political knowledge to that demanded by four prominent theories of representation. In ascending order of their knowledge requirements, the four are retrospective voting, Burkean trusteeship, representation of popular preferences on specific issues, and deliberative democracy. All four theories require substantial levels of political knowledge in the electorate to ensure majoritarian control of the legislative process.

Somin has no magic bullets for fixing voter ignorance and he takes the time to shoot down some popular suggestions. The American culture will not accept diminution of the franchise and it is difficult to imagine that the level of knowledge can be brought up to an acceptable level.

The real solution Somin offers is Federalism. Before I pack up my family to move to Detroit, I might do a little research; my "foot-voting" is 100% decisive.

THE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES of constitutional federalism have been debated for centuries. We have also had centuries of debate over the extent to which there should be constitutional constraints on the scope of government power more generally. But one major possible advantage of decentralization and limited government has often been ignored in the debate so far: its potential for reducing the costs of widespread political ignorance.
The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting suggest that decentralized federalism can increase both citizen welfare and democratic accountability relative to policymaking in a centralized unitary state.

It is a good argument for limited government and a great book -- five stars, no question. If there is a flaw to ThreeSourcers, it would be the soft-pedaling of coherent philosophy:
The second salient aspect of ignorance is that most voters lack an "ideological" view of politics capable of integrating multiple issues into a single analytical framework derived from a few basic principles; ordinary voters rarely exhibit the kind of ideological consistency in issue stances that are evident in surveys of political elites.

I think most folks 'round these parts recognize themselves in that group. I need study an issue only long enough to fit it into a measure of its Constitutional principles and individual liberty. And if I am wrong, I will get knocked around around here. If I ever get the opportunity to enjoy a beer with Professor Somin, I'd ask him more about that. I do not present it as a flaw in the book because I do not expect more voters to develop a coherent philosophy than learn the issues in depth. It's a statistically meaningless difference.

UPDATE: CATO Video Forum on the book.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:12 AM | Comments (0)

November 3, 2013

How About a Little Fiction, Scarecrow?

And who, really, is so fancy-schmancy they can't appreciate "Volare," arguably among the greatest pop tunes ever written? Young man dreams he's flying in the sky, above it all, defying gravity and time, like having midlife early, in the second verse he wakes up, back on earth, first thing he sees is the big blue eyes of the woman he loves. And that will turn out to be sky enough for him. All men should grow up so gracefully.
I don't know that I have grown up or grown gracefully. But the novels of Thomas Pynchon have been the signposts along the way. His impenetrable "Gravity's Rainbow" remains my favorite novel of all time. And, as he chunks them out only a little better than once a decade, you can remember the span just as well from the Pynchon release as the hair style, fashion or dance moves.

Non-fiction guy missed the last two (Jeeburz, your favorite only writes nine books and you miss two? Some fanboy.). But I enjoyed the latest, Bleeding Edge. Many of his tend to be challenging. Bleeding Edge is downright accessible for Pynchon. I don't know that I'd pass a graduate level Lit test on it, but you won't get the swimming lost feeling that creeps up in Gravity's or V.

The reason to read Pynchon is to experience the inside of his preternatural intellect. He is quite the polymath. Whatever oases of knowledge you have on specific topics, he'll seem informed when he discusses them and you have to assume he sounds just as credible to the expert on ancient French literature, the NY sewer system, plastics, banana farming or the Zulu wars. Bleeding Edge discusses computers and the hacker community right at the burst of the dotcom bubble through 9/11. Unsurprisingly, he nails it.

The other reason is plain old style. A good friend of this blog once complimented an author (not Pynchon) with the line "he makes words dance." So does Pynchon:

Aah, God help us, how sleazy is it, and how has it come to this? a rented palace, a denial of the passage of time, a mogul on the black-diamond slopes of the IT sector thinks he's a rock star. It isn’t so much that Maxine can't be fooled, it's more that she hates to be, and when she finds anybody trying too hard to fool her, she reaches for her revolver.
The shot enters a dirt road lined with shacks and trailers, and approaches what at first seems like a roadhouse because every window is pouring light, people are wandering around in and out of the place, sounds of jollification and a music track including Motor City psychobilly Elvis Hitler, at the moment singing the Green Acres theme to the tune of "Purple Haze" and providing Maxine an unmeasured moment of nostalgia so unlikely that she begins to feel targeted personally.

I would not call it his best work. If one wants to start Pynchon, I'd suggest "Mason & Dixon" to those who don't like pain or "Gravity's Rainbow" to those who do. But it is enjoyable and smart. Four Stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2013

Review Corner

The Framers believed that the most effective way to protect liberty was not to create a list of specific rights that the government could not infringe, but instead to create a finite list of powers that the government could exercise. We call these "enumerated powers," and the ones delegated to the federal government are specifically set forth in the Constitution, mostly in Article I, Section 8. The Framers' intent to maximize the amount of space for liberty while minimizing the space for government is unmistakable. Put yourself in a shark cage and you have only a few inches of room to swim around. Put the shark in the cage and the rest of the ocean is yours.
That's from the beginning of Clark M. Neily III's Terms of Engagement: How Our Courts Should Enforce the Constitution's Promise of Limited Government. I like the shark cage metaphor on many levels. And the book opens up as a good choir sermon, highlighting the Supreme Court cases we talk about on ThreeSources

If that were all the book did, it would be well worth the 11 bucks. Neily is an Institute for Justice lawyer and he lucidly covers the history of important decisions concerning liberty and draws the line all the way to the cases that IJ takes on.

That brings us to the granddaddy of all economic liberty cases, Lochner v. New York. If unbridled government were a vampire, Lochner would be sunlight, holy water, a crucifix, and garlic all rolled into one. Little wonder it is scorned by the establishment and taught to law students as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time. And for people with great faith in the political process--those who believe that government rarely acts for improper purposes like suppressing competition for the benefit of entrenched interests--Lochner may well be anathema. But those of us who see government differently tend to see Lochner differently as well. We admire its candor.

A few chapters in, my nodding head bumped against a two-by-four of an idea I have long opposed. And I have had to rethink my position of the Ninth Amendment, unenumerated rights, and even [duh duh duuuuuuh!] Griswold v Connecticut.

The only way out of the pro-government bias of the Judiciary is to keep the cage tightly around the shark. If that prevents majoritarian legislation -- well that is not a bug, it's a feature. And I take one more step away from Judge Bork.

Throughout history, including the history of this country, political majorities have embraced profoundly immoral policies, from slavery and eugenics to the racial apartheid of Jim Crow. Accordingly, even in those "wide areas of life" not specifically addressed by the Constitution--which include everything from getting married and having a family to putting food on your table and how to spend your free time--the Supreme Court nevertheless requires that there be a rational relationship between the regulation and a legitimate governmental purpose. The problem, as discussed in Chapter 3, is how much wiggle room the courts find in the word "rational." So much, it turns out, that the constitutionality of a given law often depends on the government's willingness to misrepresent its true ends in court.

In addition to the challenge, it also cleared up something that I have struggled to understand. The Constitution is so clear that you need no legal training nor abstruse theoretical instruction to understand it. That is, until you get to Amendment 14 and the idea of (selective) Incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Suddenly six dimensional Calibi-Yau geometry seems pedestrian.

Neily presents it as a failed workaround to proper resect for the Privileges and Immunities Clause. Had P&I not been eviscerated in The Slaughter House Cases, we would have an understandable and defendable protection for our rights. Without that (and Neily compares it to epicycles' place in non-Copernican astronomy) we have several convoluted mechanisms to enable courts to protect our 14th amendment rights . . . when they feel like it.

A great book. Five stars.

UPDATE: With a little different style than "Review Corner," Nick Sebilla at Buzzfeed presents 9 Unbelievable Facts You Didn't Know About Federal Courts

Posted by John Kranz at 12:02 PM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2013

Review Corner

Introspection can be overdone, 'tis true. Navel gazers can be tiresome. But a little self discovery now and then is powerful.

The little company I work for, well known by a few ThreeSourcers, is now a mid-size company; we hit $101Million in top line last year. With that comes great opportunity albeit with more bureaucracy than I like, and the unfortunate swap of joie de vivre for politics. All worth it for success.

Creeping up at the edges is the mission statement, vision committee and obligatorily perky full-time trainer to explore you and your team's leadership style. As grisly as it sounds, I participated with enthusiasm because the department I work for could do with some clarity. I faced some disconnects around my not being in leadership or management anymore as my health issues suggest a different level of contribution.

Coincidentally I think, I picked up a psychology book of sorts: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Cain sees an "it takes all kinds to make a world" world, but her studies take her to Tony Robbins seminars, Harvard Business School, and many examples of a society that overvalues extroversion.

Contrary to the Harvard Business School model of vocal leadership, the ranks of effective CEOs turn out to be filled with introverts, including Charles Schwab; Bill Gates; Brenda Barnes, CEO of Sara Lee; and James Copeland, former CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Tony [Robbins] seems to have anticipated such questions. "But I'm not an extrovert, you say!" he told us at the start of the seminar. "So? You don't have to be an extrovert to feel alive!" True enough. But it seems, according to Tony, that you'd better act like one if you don't want to flub the sales call and watch your family die like pigs in hell.

Cain opens with the story of Rosa Parks, whose quiet strength predicated her heroics in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks could never have filled Martin Luther King's shoes but nor could he hers.

Cain is not out to convert Tony Robbins to quiet contemplation, but she defends workers and children who practice it. Of particular interest to ThreeSourcers might be her destruction of the contemporary business and education focus on collective participation versus individual discovery.

The cooperative approach has politically progressive roots-- the theory is that students take ownership of their education when they learn from one another-- but according to elementary school teachers I interviewed at public and private schools in New York, Michigan, and Georgia, it also trains kids to express themselves in the team culture of corporate America.
"It's an elitism based on something other than merit. Today the world of business works in groups, so now the kids do it in school," a third-grade teacher in Decatur, Georgia, explained. "Cooperative learning enables skills in working as teams-- skills that are in dire demand in the workplace," writes the educational consultant Bruce Williams.

She champions Steve Wozinak and the great inventors, engineers and artists who looked inside for their discoveries. And she hilariously takes down the popular "brainstorming" culture with studies that show more and better ideas from individuals.

Don't get too excited, she's not a closet Randian. One whole chapter is devoted to a certain brilliant, introverted Vice President who -- gosh darn it -- has tried to warn us about the coming catastrophe of climate change. But the extroverts in Congress cannot see the importance of a small crack in a glacier thousands of miles away and . . . (no, the Kindle version does not include a barf bag, you must furnish your own for this section).

But it is a serious book and an interesting read. I even contacted our perky trainer and ponied up $20 to take the Briggs-Meyers personality test. According to which, I am an introvert (this may surprise ThreeSourcers less than those who interact with me corporally; I happen to be a VERY LOUD introvert). Yet I agree with the score.

Four-point-five stars. Interesting enough for five, but I cannot let the VP Gore section pass without subtraction.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:37 AM | Comments (1)
But johngalt thinks:

Nice story. Of particular interest to me is how, in my experience, those of the individual discovery clan can coexist, albeit superficially, with the collective participatation crowd but the latter, particularly when in a management role, often have distrustful feelings toward the former. Perhaps this is because the introvert is passive agressive or, more typically, because he can succeed at his job without the collective and, most importantly, without the manager.

The most successful managers can get the most out of both types of subordinate. To do so they must have good communication skills and a healthy self-image of their own, such as not to be threatened by the knowledge of the introvert, whether used in a hostile manner or not.

Hey, there's some lint in here.

Posted by: johngalt at October 14, 2013 2:48 PM

October 6, 2013

Review Corner

Some guys like mysteries, some thrillers, some tend towards erotica and pornography. Me, I have a problem. I enjoy reading about "The Panic of Oh-Eight."

It may not have the verve of porn, but this is a significant -- nay, huge, event in our lives. It ushered in a toleration for dirigisme in the financial sector, swept in our century's Roosevelts (Senator Elizabeth Warren, line one...) I read last week that our best and brightest students are now not choosing Wall Street careers. Even ThreeSourcers might find it hard to engender lachrymal secretions on that news, but financial innovation has been a huge gift to modernity, prosperity and property rights.

Insert obligatory Santayana quote here as almost everyone -- right and left -- are willing to settle for simplistic explanations and, concomitantly, simplistic and dangerous remedies. So I enjoy books like Arnold Kling's Not What They Had in Mind: A History of Policies that Produced the Financial Crisis of 2008 too much. Better than meth.

Kling finds roots of the crisis in the regulations that "fixed" the S&L crisis. What awaits us after a decade of Dodd-Frank?

However, much of what is now called “shadow banking” emerged in response to capital regulations. The consequent fragility of the financial system reflected above all the risk allocation created by the structured transactions and the leverage at individual institutions, rather than new relationships between institutions of different types. If we could conduct an alternate history with capital regulations that did not favor securitization and off-balance-sheet entities, then the shadow banking system would not have been an issue, and no crisis would have occurred.

Conversely, consider an alternate history where institutions had to maintain a strict, Glass-Steagall separation of commercial from investment banking, yet continued to operate under capital regulations that blessed securitization, off-balance-sheet financing, and other complex transactions. In that case, I believe that the crisis would have unfolded pretty much as it did.

Some generally right-leaning and liberty appreciating economists have questioned Bliley-Leach, which undid Glass-Steagall, but I am firmly in Kling's camp. It seems allegorical to gun control that we're going to indiscriminately tamp down innovation and participation in capital markets because the effects are sometimes deleterious, rather than nurture the good and impede the bad.

Another divergence from others I've read is that Kling questions mortgage securitization in toto:

The phenomenon of mortgage securitization is still viewed as beneficial, with a need to curb its excesses. However, I would question the rationale for securitization. Given that the government created and supported mortgage securitization, without government support or the distortion of capital regulations perhaps the market would choose a different, safer method of mortgage finance. Perhaps old-fashioned "originate-to-hold" mortgages would make a comeback if the regulatory playing field were level.

Put me down as a yes for level playing field; regulations forcing securitization over servicing should go. But I don't see securitization qua securitization as bad. It is a tool to get risk in the hands of those that can best accept it, and without the ratings issues, GSE backing, and the biases Kling opposes, I still think them a valuable tool. I'll concede a point:
However, credit risk is unlike interest-rate risk or currency risk in that it is highly asymmetric. Currencies and interest rates move up or down with approximately equal probability. Taking a position on currencies or interest rates is a bit like betting on a coin flip. In contrast, mortgages and corporate bonds default with a very low probability, but the severity of loss is high. The seller of credit default swaps is positioned like a property insurance company with a lot of exposure along the Gulf Coast. Most of the time, the seller just collects premium income. However, if a severe hurricane strikes, the losses could be very large.

This gives them a Taleb, Black Swan, Mandelbrotian risk profile -- but we let craftsmen take the guard of the blade sometimes. I think more instruments to shape the risk curve, with proper disclosure and capitalization are better than fewer. (Hey, that could be an ATT commercial: "Hey kids, what's better? More instruments to shape the risk curve with proper disclosure and capitalization or fewer?")

I'm a big Kling fan (he does pretty well on these pages) and none will be surprised that I enjoyed the book. It was released in 2009 but I somehow missed one of my favorite author's writing on my favorite topic. If you've got the '08 jones half as much as I do, you'll dig it as well. I think all ThreeSourcers will agree on unintended consequences:

Given this contrast between hindsight and the real-time perspective, the government needs to display some humility in promising to prevent future financial crises. The history of past regulatory mistakes suggests that we will not come up with a foolproof system going forward. In fact, there is a risk of creating a financial system even more dependent on centralized regulation, which could leave it at least as vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:41 AM | Comments (0)

September 29, 2013

Review Corner

As hinted, today's Review Corner may be equal parts self-analysis and review. For openers, I didn't even read the assignment. Brother Bryan recommended Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea by C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook. Sounds easy enough.

I went shopping on the Kindle and found The Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism (Cato Unbound). The actual book is not -- alas and alak -- available on Kindle. And the CATO book is 99 cents. It opens with Thompson's synopsis. No doubt it lacks some nuance and the supporting text sounds quite interesting. But one gets the idea:

The neoconservative vision of a good America is one in which ordinary people work hard, read the Bible, go to church, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, practice homespun virtues, sacrifice themselves to the "common good," obey the commands of the government, fight wars, and die for the state.
The neoconservatives are the advocates of a new managerial state--a state controlled and regulated by a mandarin class of conservative virtucrats who think the American people are incapable of governing themselves without the help of the neocons' special, a priori wisdom. They are the conservative version of FDR's brain trust: they want to regulate virtually all areas of human thought and action.

(We'll put you down as a "no" then...)
The author and the three essayists selected to comment share an appreciation for Lockeian liberty. It's a bit ThreeSources-esque to watch them quibble over finer points in various levels of grouchiness.
polis. This term fuses together the notions of society and state. So, when Aristotle claims the human beings are political and cannot live without the polis, he is more plausibly understood as noting the social character of human beings and not that humans are naturally creatures of the state. Thus, as Fred D. Miller has noted, Aristotle's claim that the aim of the polis is to achieve the virtuous and happy life is correct in one sense and not in another:

Talk of the common good of the political community can be understood in both senses of polis, but insofar as one is concerned with explaining the aim of the state (or the political/legal order) in terms of the common good of the community, there is a sense in which classical liberalism can too speak of the common good. This good is not some determinate end that can be used to direct human conduct, but it can be understood as context-setting.Interestingly, this sense of the common good for the political community was noted by Ayn Rand: It is only with abstract principles that a social system may properly be concerned. A social system cannot force a particular good on a man nor can it force him to seek the good: it can only maintain conditions of existence which leave him free to seek it. A government cannot live a man's life, it can only protect his freedom. It cannot prescribe concretes, it cannot tell a man how to work, what to produce, what to buy, what to say, what to write, what values to seek, what form of happiness to pursue—it can only uphold the principle of his right to make such choices . . . . It is in this sense that "the common good". . . lies not in what men do when they are free, but in the fact that they are free.

In the end none of the essayists are ready to accept the assertion that the Straussian roots of neoconservatism make it as dangerous as other -isms in opposition to individual liberty.

I find much to agree with in Thompson's critique. President George W. Bush (who gets surprisingly little mention) wanted to use the tools of government to advance "conservative" ideals. Nobody ever mistook him for a libertarian. There is immense antipathy directed at Senator John McCain of late, from the Tea Party and these pages. I celebrate ten years of cracking on the man whose signature issue was removing our first amendment right of free speech in the name of campaign finance reform. The day after he debated Senator Barack Obama on "the economy," The Boulder Refugee and I wept that "one of these guys is going to be president next year."

But I am not amping up my dismay. Senator McCain is the same guy. I don't regret my vote for him in 2008. Nor am I going to regret my two votes for President Bush or, gasp!, my support for the Iraq War. It did not turn out as I had hoped and I will accept serious commentary that it was a mistake, yet I will stand by my thoughts at the time with the information I had.

Like Taranto eloquently said, however, I will let it inform my future decisions. I have no taste for Syria. I'm glad that President Bush did not succeed more with "Faith Based Initiatives" and wish he might have lost on "No Child Left Behind." We need to reclaim the GOP toward liberty roots.

And yet, Mr. Thompson, many of the voices of liberty and actual achievements in recent years have come from those driven by either neoconservatism or national greatness conservatism. I don't find myself pining for the swellness of a Gore or Kerry Administration and I cannot reject the intellectual contributions of William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, et al.

The CATO Unbound is a great read: four stars (that's less than 0.25/star -- great value!) And I may break down and buy the actual book someday.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2013

Review Corner

Something short today. At least one blog brother has some underwater property and we have one more day of predicted rain plus the mountain floods hitting the plains in earnest (Earnest is about 20 miles south of the county line...)

Niall Ferguson already has two entries in Review Corner: The Great Degeneration and Civilization. Both scored highly (averaging 4.875 stars including revisions).

Always Right is a Kindle Single ($0.99 -- ThreeSources takes care of its readers in the Obama economy). In this short but serious work, Ferguson, rightfully gives props to PM Margaret Thatcher, her governing philosophy, and its results.

While President Reagan's reputation has been reformed on this side of the pond (lefties can get verklempt over dead Republicans), I suggest that the even more stark success of PM Thatcher has received less recognition in Old Blighty. My previous line of work had me cavorting with members of the "Chattering Class" and they were positively gobsmacked that I thought highly of The Iron Lady. It is just accepted by all thinking people that she was an idiot. Ferguson details the incredible turnaround:

For the British stock market, the Eighties were comfortably the best decade of the twentieth century. Naive economists look at the wrong indicators when trying to assess the Thatcher achievement. They fail to see what the project to restore British capitalism should be measured by capitalist, not socialist standards.

Ferguson was a punk in more ways than one during her tenure but he saw where the revolution was heading and got on board. Glad he is around to document her achievements.

American Republicans do come off as silly waiting, Beckett-Style, for "the next Reagan." But reading this and Sagebrush Rebel [Review Corner] one is reminded that ideas need a champion.

Historians of my generation were taught to despise the "great man theory of history". The Reformation had not been the work of Luther, Calvin or Henry VIII, but of great social forces -- the rising gentry, I seem to remember. The English Civil War was not Oliver Cromwell's triumph but the defeat of a declining aristocracy. The reductio ad absurdum of this approach was the erudite German professor who set out to write a history of the Third Reich without mentioning Hitler.

Would Governor Romney had benefitted more from better ideas or from a better capacity for explaining them and dealing with the Candy Crawleys along the way? We all love ideas here, but it is fantastic to read about Reagan and Thatcher and their capacity to advance their ideas. And this is a great piece of it. Five Stars (bringing Ferguson asymptotically toward five).

Bonus: shortly after finishing the book, I ran across ThreeSources's favorite Yaron Brook answering "How did someone like Margaret Thatcher get elected?"

Posted by John Kranz at 10:54 AM | Comments (0)

September 8, 2013

Review Corner

Ahh, epistemology. There are so few things that we know with absolute conviction. The Moon orbits the Earth, VP J. Danforth Quayle was stoopid. Global Warming is real, man-made and catastrophic. Warren Gamaliel Harding was a terrible president. James Watt was a crazy man who wanted to pave the West.

Wait -- that last one might not actually be true. In Sagebrush Rebel, William Perry Pendley takes on the task of defending President Reagan's environmental policy and concomitantly rehabilitating the reputation of Interior Secretary James Watt. Those Augean Stables were a light dusting job in comparison.

Younger readers may not appreciate the enmity directed at Watt. Even being a Reagan guy I bought in. I left a copy of Atlas Shrugged out once at blog friend Sugarchuck's house. His New Dealer father read it in one sitting (still impresses me) and greeted me with "Who wrote this? James Watt's Mother?" The popular bumper sticker of the time showed the Colorado license plate mountains -- but leveled flat with a bulldozer and "James Watt's America" or some such caption.

Pendley tells the story that was never told. Watt understood exactly what Reagan wanted and was tough enough to take the heat for it. Coming out of the Carter years, where environmentalists had tied up energy production and economic development, America lacked the economic footing to defeat Communism.

Stop me if you've heard this, but by opening energy production, the entire economy was, ahem, fueled. And that was the same economy that crumbled the Soviet Union with a few harsh glares. No energy and none of the other Reagan initiatives worked. Cut taxes. swell. Negotiate firmly, nice. But the world knows what strength lies behind an American leader. Thanks to Watt's carrying out the shared vision, the strength was undeniable.

If ThreeSourcers are all picturing President Obama right now instead of President Carter, that's easily forgiven. Pendley brings the context around to today at the end of several chapters -- and ties it up in a bow toward the end:

In 2013, America's situation is similar to that of 1980--an economy in distress, vast natural resources locked up with no plans to put them to use, and a regulatory regime that inhibits the development of resources and the creation of jobs. What lessons can we take from President Reagan's policies and the responses to them?

But, jk, my Facebook friends intone gravely, "at what cost to the environment?" And "Would you like to play Candy Crush?"

None. And no.

Reagan and his Interior Department acted like grown-ups in that they made choices. Many many square miles were set aside for wilderness. The National Parks were upgraded for use. But the Feds own 1/3 of the nation's land mass and it is not all pristine wilderness. Reagan rejected the idea that man is not part of nature or ecology. Carter's folks -- and I fear Obama's -- do not sort, strategize, and allot. They see every acre of Federal land as something to be regulated and removed from economic use. That not only damages an energy hungry economy, but also reduces the efficacy of the actual lands that should be protected.

Reagan adhered to what one social scientist called the "human exemptionalism paradigm," according to which "human technological ingenuity can continue infinitely to improve the human situation." Carter, the Earth Day organizers, and the environmental groups embraced a neo-Malthusian "ecological paradigm," which posits environmental limits on economic growth.

Pendley doesn't say it, but I'd suggest that defeating Soviet Communism was probably the best thing that's happened to the environment in modern times. Look at the state of stewardship in Romania in the documentary Mine Your Own Business.

The other thing that makes it so relevant to today is the successful battle against bureaucracy and elite opinion. From its onset, the Interior Department was so squishily defined as to promise runaway scope and bureaucracy.

Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina had opposed creation of the Department of the Interior, fearing, "Everything upon the face of God's earth will go into the Home Department." He was prophetic. Soon the department was called the "Great Miscellany," "[a] slop bucket for executive fragments," and a "hydra-headed monster," or, more kindly, "Mother of Departments," for the tendency of agencies it adopted as orphans to become grown-up, stand-alone agencies,

Score one for the Gentleman from South Carolina. But Watt's courage and Reagan's righteousness prevailed if but for a short time. There's a lesson

There are, in fact, many lessons in "Sagebrush Rebel." As we discuss urban vs. rural, Democrat vs. Republican, Libertoid vs, Randian &c., Pendley details the very real War against the West. The title comes from the Californian's willingness to choose sides with the West. Democratic Western governors are pitted against Carter's policies, and most -- some more begrudgingly than others -- end up conceding agreement with the 'R' in the White House.

Environmental extremists had another reason for their rage toward Ronald Reagan; he was an unabashed Sagebrush Rebel who pledged to put an end to Carter's War on the West. He had made common cause with Westerners who were fed up with an arrogant environmental movement that was entrenched in positions of power in San Francisco, New York, and especially in Washington, where the federal bureaucracy was filled with environmental activists.

Side note: my growing nostalgia for the free-trading, cost-cutting, President Clinton is truncated by his enthusiastic escalation of the W on the W.

ThreeSourcers will love everything about this book: dedication to ideas, and the success of that dedication. Good fights, good choices, good victories. And a very good book: five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:53 AM | Comments (2)
But johngalt thinks:

Cool review. I'll add my own anecdotal recollection of the Watt era. I was "informed" that Watt disregarded any protection of any natural resources because, "when Christ returns to take all of the believers to heaven there will no longer be any use for planet Earth." I think it was a high school classmate who parroted this nugget of propaganda and yes, I took her to be completely serious. So much so I actually believed he had said it.

Also related to domestic oil production, I heard KT McFarland explain how we could flood the world petroleum market and drive the price of oil down, effectively starving Iran of petrodollars so critical to fueling their nuclear ambitions. We supposedly can't "drill our way to prosperity" but can we "drill our way to peace?" Isn't it worth a try?

All we are SAAAY-ing,
Is give oil a chaaaance.

Posted by: johngalt at September 9, 2013 3:04 PM
But jk thinks:


The line you reference is documented in the book. It was actually said by an interviewer, attributed to Watt mistakenly, and followed him around his entire career.

What, were they going to assess and rebut his ideas?

Posted by: jk at September 9, 2013 4:47 PM

September 1, 2013

Review Corner

It's a floor wax! It's a Review Corner! No -- it's a social conservative rant from jk! I don't know that today's Review Corner will bring back the luster to your laminate, but it is all of the others.

I've read Nick Schulz for a long time in several different forums. And like me, he is not one to push a social agenda or tell private individuals how to behave.

I come to this project as someone who writes primarily about economics and not primarily about social and cultural issues, but I also have found it impossible to write about economic topics without reference to some dramatic social shifts.

And so, more in sorrow than anger, does the liberty loving economist leap into Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure.
This book will advance a few related arguments. First, the collapse of the intact family is one of the most significant economic facts of our time. The discussion of the family is often tied up in culture war politics-- debates about feminism, gay marriage, birth control, abortion, and the like. Those are important and interesting topics. But because the debate about family structure is so thoroughly tied up in the culture war, those who think of themselves as primarily interested in economic topics-- business media, corporate leaders, Treasury and Commerce secretaries, macroeconomists, and so on-- often avoid this subject.

Right with you, Nick. I am one of those of whom you speak: preferring to stay silent rather than firing first shots in culture wars. But you read this book, or Charles Murray or Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and you realize that the topic cannot be ignored.

In an ideal world with only private charity, the topic could be ignored. But in the meantime, I believe there is plenty of time for a tortured segue. The conservo-libertario-sphere went to Defcon Five last week over Allison Benedikt's "You're a bad person." ThreeSources participated enthusiastically. Reading Home Ec right after, it struck me that -- not even for linkbait -- would anyone dare dish disapprobation on the behaviors that actually cause poverty. Schulz doesn't and I do not intend to.

McLanahan and Sandefur are careful researchers and point out that "growing up with a single parent is just one of many factors that put children at risk of failure." But there is little doubt that the economic problems created by single motherhood are sizable.

We all, Schulz discloses, know innumerable examples of great success from poor situations and no smaller number of ne'er do wells from great situations. But there is this thing called statistics.
My own research and writings in recent years have primarily focused on technology and entrepreneur-led growth. Like many people who think about the economy, I considered the debates over family structure a cultural issue distinct from economic issues. But over time this bifurcated view became untenable.

I found it became impossible to speak intelligently about, say, income inequality without discussing changing family structure (as well as technology and trade). It became difficult to discuss depressed wages for low-skilled workers without also bringing out-of-wedlock birth rates among lower-class white Americans into the picture. It was challenging to talk about entrepreneur-led growth and not include the rates of entrepreneurial risk-taking among those raised in intact families and those who were not.

Nor is Schulz the only right-wing crazy to address this:
For example, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who has spent years investigating the lives and material conditions of poor people around the world, writes, “Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).” 58

You know the end from here. The poverty rates among those who finish high school, get a job, and wait to have kids is miniscule. Shultz asks if that's such a high bar. Not an MBA, not getting a cartoon published in The New Yorker, not a platinum album.
At the start of this book I argued that when Americans talk about economic problems today-- poverty, income inequality, wealth disparities, unemployment, and the like-- they rarely bring the enormous changes in family structure over a half century into the discussion. They are far more likely to focus on things like trade and globalization, tax policy, deregulation, immigration, "Wall Street greed," and more.

ThreeSourcers know the story, but I still recommend you buy ($1 on Kindle!) and read (one afternoon sitting) this. He goes deeper than you're expecting by examining the effects on human capital and the foundations for entrepreneurship. That he is not Dana Carvey's Church Lady but rather a reluctant economic warrior makes it all the more potent.

Five stars.

Posted by John Kranz at 10:36 AM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2013

Review Corner

If you want to sell a book to jk, there is no better line than "Everything you know about x is wrong." I'm a sucker for that if x is of any interest. In this case, x = the Scopes trial. Click "purchase."

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson was written for people (like me) who know about the Scopes trial from watching Spencer Tracy in "Inherit the Wind." The mishandling of the trial's legacy gets an entire chapter at the end, but the play was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee to combat McCartyism. Mister Brady is a caricature of William Jennings Bryan, and the origins of the trial are completely rewritten to portray the nefarious backwards forces that so frightened the authors. ("Tailgunner Joe" has spawned a lot of Hollywood agitprop, that's a big subject for another day.)

Not that "Summer" or Mr. Larson debunk the central point: Clarence Darrow, the nation's premier litigator and William Jennings Bryan, its premier orator, descend on a small town in Tennessee.

Darrow had gone to tiny Dayton, Tennessee, for precisely this purpose, with Bryan as his target. Bryan had come to defend the power of local majorities to enact a law--his law--to ban teaching about human evolution in public schools. Two hundred reporters had followed to record the epic encounter. They billed it as "the trial of the century" before it even began. No one cared about the defendant, John Scopes, who had volunteered to test the nation's first antievolution statute. The aged warriors had sparred at a distance for over a week without delivering any decisive blows. Now they went head to head, when Bryan vainly accepted Darrow's challenge to testify to his faith on the witness stand as a Bible expert.

The movie shows the youthful Scopes wrestled from his classroom. Actually, it was an ACLU test case and they actively recruited a defendant. He was treated fairly well except in the appeal when they started the trial not noticing that the defendant was not present. Bryan had worked with the legislature on the law but suggested there be no penalty. He even offered to pay Scopes's $100 fine.

It was about ideas to Bryan and Darrow. For that I will always respect the Nebraska populist. His politics was left wing, his social policy was authoritarian, his monetary policy was inflationary. My philosophy is completely orthogonal to the man Larson calls "The Commoner." But his lifelong friendship with VP Charles Dawes put him in high esteem. In this book, I completely disagree with Bryan but cannot escape his honesty and integrity.

I have a bad habit of liking my intellectual opponents in history. Researching a project, I came to like Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney and thought that Justice Curtis, who dissented in Dred Scott, and bravely resigned, was something of a prig. Likewise, Clarence Darrow is the white knight of reason and enlightenment in this tale, but I'd rather quaff a lemonade with Bryan that a cold beer with Darrow.

Choose sides however you wish, but the brain trust in this trial is impressive. Two of Wilson's Secretaries of State participate on different sides, Bryan won the Democratic nomination three times (nit: Larson says "subsequent;" it was not: 1896, 1900 and 1908). Charles Evans Hughes, 1916 GOP nominee and future Secretary of State, was consulted and was in line to take over for Darrow if it went to the US Supreme Court.

It was a show to some. The city fathers of Dayton thought it would put their small berg on the map while urbane Tennesseans deplored the association fundamentalism. But to many -- certainly Bryan, Darrow, and the ALCU -- it was a war of ideas.

By 1925, the warfare model of science and religion had become ingrained into the received wisdom of many secular Americans. Clarence Darrow imbibed it as a child in Kinsman, Ohio, where his fiercely anticlerical father eagerly read Draper, Huxley, and Darwin, and made sure that his son did too. As a Chicago lawyer and politician in the 1890s, Darrow quoted Draper and White in his public addresses and denounced Christianity as a "slave religion" that "sought to strangle heresy by building fires around heretics."

Bryan resigned his position as SecState in opposition to WWI. Popular books at the time drew a line to evolution as a keystone of German/Prussian philosophy. I'm a close descendant of Charles Darwin and quite convinced that his theory holds up well. But one can see Bryan taking this crusade up in the wake of the war.

And that's why this book gets five stars. It provides a factual narrative of events (contra Inherit the Wind) and it provides a nuanced look at the dramatis personae.

Posted by John Kranz at 9:56 AM | Comments (3)
But dagny thinks:

@ JK,

I'm a little confused, what is the factual narrative that differs from the movie? Just that Scopes volunteered to be a test case? That is one of my favorite movies BTW.

Posted by: dagny at August 26, 2013 12:03 PM
But jk thinks:

Mine too. I have not seen it in forever, but it made quite an impression on me as a young man.

Much of it might be a matter of degree, though the playwrights open instructions by asserting that the record is not factual in time, setting, or facts. It is a trial and facts matter. I doubt you'd enjoy Gov. Huckabee and Sen. Santorum making an "edutainment" film about Roe v. Wade.

I don't know that you're going to applaud the cleaned-up, actual William Jennings Bryan, but he was portrayed cartoonishly. Bryan was at heart always a populist and he was fighting for the majority of a community that was paying the bills for the school and Mister Scopes's salary to exercise control over the curricula.

This all precedes (perhaps paves) the incorporation of the 14th Amendment in the Warren Court which has been a mixed bag for the liberty lover. While Darrow perhaps saw it in the "Inherit the Wind" Science and reason versus religion terms, Bryan fought for majority rule and local control of schools.

Again, I don't see you or me switching sides, but the Bryan who implored the legislators not to enact a penalty and offered to pay Scopes's fine presents a different picture than the brownshirts' ripping the guy out of the classroom so that "Mr. Brady" could heap some hell-fire preachin' on him.

(Do you also like Paul Newman in "The Verdict?")

Posted by: jk at August 26, 2013 12:35 PM
But jk thinks:

And: Bryan's failure to handle Darrow was accentuated. He did allow for a non-literal interpretation of creation days, which enflamed many of his supporters.

Bryan (really the Orator Ezra Klein thinks Obama is) had closing arguments prepared. He agreed to take the stand believing that Darrow would have his way in cross-examination, but that Bryan would make his point in closing arguments. Darrow suggested a guilty plea after destroying Bryan on the stand, precluding his arguments. They were later published, but the world lost a chance at a second Cross of Gold speech.

Posted by: jk at August 26, 2013 12:49 PM

August 18, 2013

Review Corner

Father gestured agreement. "It's a bitter joke, but you're right," he said. "I suppose a species that all got along perfectly with each other would never make it to the stars, because they'd never argue enough to make their ideas work. And a species that thought everything through first wouldn't get there because they'd never get around to it. So the galaxy will eventually be ruled by impetuous bickerers."
It's Fiction Day at Review Corner. A book by Buzz Aldrin was too tempting. While Encounter with Tiber by Aldrin and John Barnes was not as thrilling as a 100-year-old Economics book, I enjoyed it and would recommend.

I'll spoil the first great laugh: the protagonist is known as "the second person born on Mars" as if Aldrin has some connection somehow. The first part of the novel is set on the Moon, and it is wondrous to read the descriptions of the light, the dust, and the gravity and realize that the author is not making this up or relating the story of somebody he interviewed.

Another recurring theme is the galactic and interspecies existence of politicians and bureaucrats. One senses Aldrin might have met one or two of these in his career. The following happens -- if you'll pardon my saying -- a long time ago and far, far away:

The image of Fereg on the screen smiled and said, "I have examined budgets and plans exhaustively for the last half-year, and what I have found is that we have considerable room for the improvement of life here on Nisu, for this generation. I call this the Planetary Improvement Program, and what I propose is …" It was a long list. Public parks, beaches free to everyone, two extra eightdays of paid vacation each year, retirement two years early for most people, a complete reequipping of the Imperial Guard with m