February 23, 2014
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.
February 16, 2014
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:
SET FORTH THE MAJOR PARTS OF THE BOOK, AND SHOW HOW THESE ARE ORGANIZED INTO A WHOLE, BY BEING ORDERED TO ONE ANOTHER AND TO THE UNITY OF THE WHOLE.
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.
February 2, 2014
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...)
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.
January 19, 2014
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.
January 12, 2014
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.
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."
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[...]
I have a dozen more highlights -- have you the time? This is a beautiful and thoughtful work that any ThreeSourcer would enjoy. Five stars.
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:
Second worst thing about Real Book Software:
A very bad thing about Real Book Software:
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.
January 5, 2014
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.
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.
December 29, 2013
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.
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.
[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...
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.
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.
December 15, 2013
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.
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.
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.
December 1, 2013
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
November 10, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
October 27, 2013
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
October 13, 2013
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.
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.
October 6, 2013
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.
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.
September 29, 2013
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.
(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:
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.
September 15, 2013
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...)
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?"
September 8, 2013
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.
September 1, 2013
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.
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.
August 25, 2013
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.
August 18, 2013
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 more modern aircraft and ships, two new legions of Imperial Guard to be raised in Shulath ...
The money was to come out of the space program, of course. Allegorically to Aldrin and literally to the characters hearing that speech, it is a biological imperative to spread the species to other planets.
The story is interesting and the book is well structured. I am not familiar with John Barnes, but suspect that his experience might have brought much of this plotline integrity. Whatever its provenance, it is a good yarn, with much to say and I'm happy to bestow 4.5 stars.
End review begin rant -- er political discussion. I find myself fixated on "the inter-generational compact" and it figures heavily in this book. I read of the hundreds of workers giving their lives to build the Panama Canal or the Brooklyn Bridge (OMG if he recommends David McCullough's "Brave Companions" one more time, I swear I'll scream...) Or I think of "The Boys of Point Du Hoc" or the Marines at Iwo Jima. They all gave more than they should have or needed to, so things would be better for future generations.
If I can be forgiven a Rachel Maddow moment, the Hoover Dam might be an environmental Armageddon, but it was a foundation of generations of prosperity and innovation. Now we can't frack, we can't force a retired teacher to buy the store brand ice-cream. And we cannot allow capitalism's "animal spirits" to fuel the innovation that will make our grandchildren wealthy.
August 11, 2013
An unusual book for today's Review Corner: Carrol D. Kilgore's Restoring the Constitution: Why? Is it possible? How?
The title and topic will appeal to all ThreeSourcers. And I have no doubt that all would enjoy the book. Amazon Prime® members can borrow it free on Kindle. The Kindle edition lacks polish: no table of contents and it shows as being written by "Louis Brandeis." I'm guessing that Brandeis was not the author's favorite Justice.
Kilgore presents several interesting Supreme Court cases in which he feels the majority failed to correctly interpret the Constitution. His writing is clear but its opinionated nature, combined with odd formatting made me curious about the author and the book's provenance. A brief Internet search shows an obituary for Kilgore in March, 2013. Amazon tells:
Carrol D. Kilgore was 86 years at the time of publication of this book, which was written early in his retirement after 59 years' law practice. This included 5 years as Assistant U. S. Attorney (2 years as First Assistant U. S. Attorney) in Nashville during the Kennedy Administration. Received a number of commendations from official sources for prosecutions during that time, then went into private law practice as a member of a respected law firm in Nashville. Graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 1950. In 1977, Kilgore published "Judicial Tyranny, An Inquiry into the Integrity of the Federal Judiciary" (Thomas Nelson Publishing), of which the U. S. Supreme Court Historical Society opined that the book was accurate, but the author biased. To this, the author always replies that his bias is his insistence that every judge should honor his oath to support the Constitution in all his decisions
Whether it's its "library book" status or the unusual ebook aspects, I cannot bring in pull quotes.
I was not surprised to read of Kilgore's experience and legal chops; it was obvious that he knew what he was talking about. His explanations were clear to the "interested layman" that was his target, but deep enough to demonstrate his knowledge and provide substantive examples of the problems he saw.
It is easy to become exasperated after a decision like NFIB v Sibelius or Kelo v New London, but I still see SCOTUS as the best defender of our rights. No, that is not the way it is supposed to be. No, it is not reliable enough. BUT: we could never have seen a legislative or executive equivalent of Heller, McDonald or even Citizens' United. I hate to have all my freedom eggs in a basket watched over by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagen, Kennedy, and Ginsberg but it is the best we have got.
The book could have used a bit more polish, but I will give a gentleman's de mortuis nil nisi bonum four stars. Especially if you have Prime® and a Kindle, I'd heartily recommend it.
August 4, 2013
Congress passed an act granting 10 million acres of public land to be used on behalf of the mentally ill. President Franklin Pierce vetoed the act, noting that while he sympathized with the cause of aiding the mentally ill, I can not find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States. To do so would, in my judgment, be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive of the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.Number fourteen had a good grasp of the Constitution and his job defending it. Sadly -- and of zero surprise to ThreeSourcers -- most of the participants in Steven Hayward's The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama: not so much.
A few weeks ago, I deducted a star from Charles Johnson's excellent "Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America's Most Underrated President" for partisanship and inclusion of material that spoke too much of the year it was released instead of the years covered. That Review Corner foreordained possible hypocrisy as I am kinder to Hayward.
Johnson was adding to the Scholarship of President Coolidge and I found barbs about the current President or Congress out of bounds. The "Politically Incorrect Guide..." with the "p I g" graphic over every chapter head advertises itself as what it is: a brief vignette of each Chief Executive and the author's rating.
I enjoy Presidential Biographies but tire quickly of the "Schlesinger Industrial Complex." Every academic historian thinks the exact same things. One cannot avoid or ignore the corpora; the scholarship is important. At the same time, one must recalibrate from time to time against the community's belief in executive power and activist government. There are a bunch of anti-Schlesingers, but Hayward's book is a great place to start.
Hayward ranks the Presidents on their following their Constitutional roles. Overstepping and arrogating gains you stars in Schlesingerworld, but Hayward likes a Chief Magistrate (Gene Healy, call your office!). He delivers an important point early: modern Presdents talk too much!
The Strong, Silent Type "Madison took the country into war, the British burned down his house, and he still didn’t give a speech." --George Will
President Obama, and to be fair all of his predecessors that anybody alive remembers, will opine at length about local crime stories, policy, legislation, the infield fly rule...
It is a quick read and a very fun book full of great quotes and illustrative anecdotes, with each section ending with the author's Constitutional grade. It contains a great mix of amusing and more serious illustrations.
Wilson wrote, "Leadership does not always wear the harness of compromise. . . . Resistance is left to the minority, and such as will not be convinced are crushed." This sounds awfully close to what liberals today, such as Paul Krugman, decry as "eliminationist rhetoric." (It turns out that this passage in Wilson’s essay is taken almost verbatim from Hegel's Philosophy of History, where Hegel celebrates the leader "so mighty in form" that he will "crush to pieces many an object in his path.") Throughout "Leaders of Men" and other writings, Wilson envisions the modern president as a leader who not only sees the future, but sees it as his duty to force the pace toward that future. The president should use his "persuasion and conviction--the control of other minds by a strange personal influence and power."
I'll quibble with a few of his grades -- but it is his book. Harding and Coolidge get a great and welcome rehabilitation from the Schlesinger school, for their upholding Constitutional separation of powers and behavior in office.
Harding's good constitutional judgment can be seen in his four appointments to the Supreme Court: William Howard Taft (the former president), George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, and Edward T. Sanford. John Dean says, "By any historical criteria, Harding's selections to the U.S. Supreme Court were quite strong." While Taft is the best known of Harding's appointments, Sutherland was arguably the best, as he was a stalwart champion of the Founders' constitutional philosophy and defender of individual economic rights against arbitrary government regulation.
Liberal historians have reviled and belittled Calvin Coolidge even more than Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover, chiefly because Coolidge is a more formidable figure who presents the most serious challenge to the pretentions of Progressivism. Coolidge was the anti-Wilson in every way--except that he was just as interested as Wilson in theoretical questions about the applicability of the Constitution to modern America. To Harding's reverence for our Founding documents and restrained conduct in the presidential office, Coolidge added a principled and intellectually sophisticated defense of constitutional government against the Progressives' attack on it.
Eisenhower gets points for his view on executive power -- keeping a Congressional majority of his own party in check. But the General is rightly savaged for his Supreme Court picks.
FDR and LBJ get about the treatment you'd expect.
Between FDR's radical Progressive views about the principles of the American founding, his court packing scheme, and his left-leaning Supreme Court appointments, it is a shame that he can’t be awarded a constitutional grade lower than F. His counterproductive economic policies and hyper-partisanship are just extra credit.
I'd have been mirabile dictu! a bit kinder to President Clinton and a bit harsher on President Bush #43. But it is his book. Good clean fun. Laugh a lot, learn a bunch. Four and a quarter stars.
July 28, 2013
A leader is a person who can create change and bring about a new state that, in his or her conviction, is superior.It's time for a change of pace 'round these parts and Review Corner has your next summer read: Bob Lutz's Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership.
Lutz is a regular guest on Larry Kudlow's show. He is a garrulous, opinionated "car guy" who can field questions on politics, free markets, business and finance with equal aplomb. When I saw that he was hawking a book, I grabbed the iPad and bought it as he was speaking.
Lutz tiptoes into politics on occasion, but the book is about leadership, with most of the examples coming from his business career (though a High School teacher and Marine Corps Drill Sargent get the first two chapters). He has worked for some Icons and some Idiots in his long tenure in the automotive industry, as well as Barons and Bureaucrats -- and one of the first impressions is his ability to learn from all of them. It is neither a kiss and tell nor settling of scores book. It honestly assesses different styles, qualities and foci of leaders (and a rating system in the Afterword).
After the fact, [CFO of Ford of Europe, Harold A. "Red"] Poling had his "analysis," but it was never again discussed. What was evident to me then, like so many times in my career before and since, was that, once again, the bean counter religion, of which Red Poling was the high priest, living as it does in a world of spreadsheets and budget "timing," hopelessly removed from the unquantifiable reactions of the real world, had cost the company millions of dollars in profit.
Lee Iacocca appears in the book, and a male my age cannot avoid comparisons. I devoured Iacocca's book when it came out and became one of his millions of young executive fanboys. While still respecting the mustang developer and Chrysler Chief, I am tempted to call Lutz a "thinking man's Iococca." I'd hire either one to run my car company, but there is a lot more nuance and strategic thought to Bob Lutz. My favorite section is his first day working for Iacocca, who assures that "Those potato cars (Taurus and Sable) are gonna bomb."
"We put a couple in a product clinic against our own upcoming Dodge Dynasty and Chrysler Fifth Avenue (elongated versions of the K-car, equally boxy, with "Greek temple" grilles, stand-up hood ornaments, padded vinyl roofs, and every dated styling cliché' that was driving American buyers to imports), and we killed 'em. Our average score was 7.5 on a 10-point scale. Theirs was a 5.0. It's gonna be the flop of the century. I hope you didn't have anything to do with it."
Lutz had just left Ford and knew that the 5.0 average was the arithmetic mean of those who hated the new look and gave it a one or two and those who loved it and gave eights and nines. Lutz didn't want to make cars that were people's "second choice" and that's what the K cars were, taking $3000 or more in incentives to move them off the lot.
When he dabbles in politics it will be to the favor of ThreeSourcers, but I'd pick up this book to get away a little. This is a book about cars and people and business and leadership. Five Stars.
July 21, 2013
I owe these and the other scholars acknowledged in the notes a deep intellectual debt. However, they would be the first to agree that much more attention has been paid to the question of why poor nations stay poor, as opposed to the question of why rich nations revert to poverty, a somewhat less common phenomenon. My concern here is not with economic development but rather with the opposite process of institutional degeneration. My over-arching question is: what exactly has gone wrong in the Western world in our time?The promised polemical review of Steven Hayward's "Politically Incorrect Guide to the President's" is postponed. ThreeSources apologizes for the inconvenience. But catching up with reviews, I have a more serious book that did not get a Review Corner.
Niall Ferguson's The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die hits most all of the ThreeSources sweet spots; had it a Buffy reference, it would be perfect.
I discovered Ferguson because an Amazon reviewer responded to my Deirdre McCloskey review with the suggestion that I read his "Civilization" [Review Corner]. That scored Ferguson 4.75 stars (I'm tough but I'm fair) and he is back for more with "The Great Degeneration."
As "Civilization" discussed the innovations and institutions that built a prosperous society, "Degeneration" concerns itself with the injuries to those which produce stagnation and decay. Adam Smith noted China as a "stationary state."
In Smith's day, of course, it was China that had been "long stationary": a once "opulent" country that had simply ceased to grow. Smith blamed China's defective "laws and institutions" -- including its bureaucracy -- for the stasis. More free trade, more encouragement for small business, less bureaucracy and less crony capitalism: these were Smith's prescriptions to cure Chinese stasis. He was a witness to what such reforms were doing in the late eighteenth century to galvanize the economy of the British Isles and its American colonies.
As Insty might say, glad that could never happen to us!
To demonstrate that Western institutions have indeed degenerated, I am going to have to open up some long-sealed black boxes. The first is the one labelled 'democracy'. The second is labelled 'capitalism'. The third is 'the rule of law'. And the fourth is 'civil society'. Together, they are the key components of our civilization.
As Heinlein noted, it is not guaranteed that a wealthy country stay prosperous, For all the great books that highlight the causes of prosperity -- and Review Corner readers will know that is a favorite genre of mine -- Ferguson finds the other side underserved.
A large section is devoted to debt, which Ferguson sees a symptom and signpost of degeneration. More than the absolute albeit serious problem, he sees a breakdown in the contract between the generations.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke wrote that the real social contract is not Jean-Jacques Rousseau's contract between the sovereign and the people or 'general will', but the 'partnership' between the generations. In his words:
It is my hope that the "green-eyeshades" branch of the GOP positions the debt in this manner -- this is far more compelling than accounting and China-bashing.
Regulation gets the same treatment
Why is it now a hundred times more expensive to bring a new medicine to market than it was sixty years ago -- a phenomenon Juan Enriquez has called 'Moore's Law* in reverse'? Why would the Food and Drug Administration probably prohibit the sale of table salt if it were put forward as a new pharmacological product (it is after all toxic in large doses)? Why, to give another suggestive example, did it take an American journalist sixty-five days to get official permission (including, after a wait of up to five weeks, a Food Protection Certificate) to open a lemonade stand in New York City? This is the kind of debilitating red tape that development economists often blame for poverty in Africa or Latin America.
Were the author American, he'd certainly end with some bold policy suggestions and point to an awaiting new millennia of awesomeness. But the Brits gave us "One Foot in the Grave," and Ferguson, while not moping about it, is pointing out what is so. He ends with a disapprobational look at President Obama's "You Didn't Build That."
This surely is the authentic voice of the stationary state: the chief mandarin, addressing distant subjects in the provinces. It is not that the implied interdependence of the private sector and the state is wrong. It is the overstatement of the case that is disquieting, as if it took government to build every small business or, indeed, to 'create the middle class'. Also striking is the conspicuous absence from the speech of any future project comparable with those cited from the past.
The Second Inaugural gets no better treatment:
[T]he appropriate yardstick for an effective government was 'whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified'. By contrast, 'without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control'. The words 'debt' and 'deficit' were not mentioned. The dangers of excessive regulation and litigation were ignored. And civil society scarcely featured at all, as if the hallowed phrase 'we the people' is now synonymous with 'the government'. It is bad enough to see state capitalism touted as an economic model by the Chinese Communist Party. But to hear it deployed by the President of the United States as a rhetorical trope nearly devoid of practical content makes this writer, for one, pine for the glad, confident morning of 1989 -- when it really seemed the West had won, and a great regeneration had begun.
Ferguson's style and wit make it less depressing than this review corner suggests. Four-point-seven-five stars, and an update to Civilization giving it the full five.
July 14, 2013
I'll need to defend myself from hypocrisy next week. For next week I will be more generous to a more polemical work. Yet this week, I will subtract stars for the author's including opinions. What gives?
Charles Johnson's Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America's Most Underrated President is a great and important book. It is a superb addition to the Harding-Coolidge rehabilitation corpus.
And yet too few are heeding Coolidge's words. Pro-New Deal historians promulgated a myth that continues today of Coolidge as taciturn and passive. Coolidge's recent defenders seem to be swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum, attempting to replace the myth with a Coolidge cult of their own. Led by, among others, talk-show host Glenn Beck; Amity Shlaes of the George W. Bush Foundation; Gene Healy, a fellow at the Cato Institute; and Larry Kudlow, a Reaganite turned CNBC host, well-meaning fans of Coolidge claim him as the "last liberal president" and thus as the antidote to the near-imperial presidency that we suffer today.
Johnson's look at Coolidge is rooted in Coolidge's appreciation for the Declaration of Independence. Johnson considers Lincoln and Coolidge the two presidents who took their principles from the Declaration.
Coolidge, then, had rechristened the Declaration's central premise -- that men institute government to protect their rights against both tyranny and mob rule -- to illuminate the politics of his day, much as Lincoln had understood the Declaration as a Rosetta stone to his own.
Why Coolidge Matters is not a biography. The biographical information it contains supports the author's looks into our 30th President's foundational philosophy. His response to the Boston Police strike was his political springboard, yes -- but to Johnson, it was his separation from the Progressive wing of the Republican party: the founding event that created Coolidge as the Anti-Wilson.
Coolidge's entire collection of speeches in the Foundations volume, especially because it begins with Wilson's death and ends with the sesquicentennial address on the Declaration, may be seen as a thinly veiled rebuttal to the theory and politics of Progressivism. The question perhaps implicit in the collection is this: Now that Wilson has passed from the scene, what ought to replace him?
I was chastised -- perhaps deservedly -- for a negative four star review of America 3.0 last week. I will over-compensate with a too-positive four for Johnson.
Johnson interrupts with little asides about how Coolidge's approach was better than President Obama's or the current Republicans in Congress. I don't know that I disagreed with a one, but it like an actor in a movie mugging for the camera with an aside; it takes you out of the space.
I think it also cheapens the final product. In eight years, all the data in this book will be valid, and readers can compare Coolidge to President Rand Paul or President Oprah. His asides turn a great book into a blog post.
Still great. Four stars. If you're reading one Coolidge book, make it his autobiography. Two, certainly Amity Shlaes's "Coolidge" [Review Corner] Three -- and you oughta read three, I'd pick up "Why Coolidge Matters."
July 7, 2013
I shall not entrust Misters James Bennett and Michael Lotus to craft a set list. Every successful musician knows that you open strong and give the people a "slam bang finish" as Bing Crosby says in "White Christmas." Then, you can hide a lot of marginal crap in the middle. It has to be done and it works.
America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century-Why America's Greatest Days Are Yet to Come opens poorly and I am not certain about the ending. This hides a great deal of exceptional content in the middle. The book came über-highly recommended by blog friend tg. I grabbed the Kindle sample and was über-ünderwhelmed. After ascertaining that we were talking about the same book, and that I should proceed, I provided Jeff Bezos with his pound of flesh and continued.
The opening section -- comprising the sample -- is a utopian vision of the authors' America 3.0. America 1.0 is the expanding agrarian Constitutional Republic from its founding until the Progressive era.
The words of the Declaration were subversive. They set a flag in the ground beyond where America was at the time. But the flag of freedom for "all men" was visible on the horizon, and it served as an inspiration in America and around the world. Jefferson's assertions were like a bit of rogue code left in our national software by its first programmer. It went viral and ultimately transformed the entire system.
America 2.0 is the industrialized. post-progressive nation we enjoy today, with its unsustainable debt and centralized institutions. America 3.0 is after we accept and implement the authors' suggestions. Like any good utopian manifesto, things are swell. People are affluent and underarm odor is non-existent. I have to confess it is a bit out of character for me to so denigrate an optimistic future vision of America -- and one that prospers on principles with which I basically agree. Yet, The Jetson's had flying cars.
I'm glad I was prodded to proceed. True to tg's enthusiastic review, it mines history to provide some original and well researched perspectives of the American character. The Absolute Nuclear Family (ANF), which the authors trace back to Germanic peoples, comes to Britain through the Saxons, and takes root in America which has the resources to feed and fuel it.
In the ANF, heritance is undefined and optional, children leave to start their own families and pursue their own careers. It is so normal to me that I am taken aback when I hear of other arrangements outside fiction, history or anthropology. Yet, though not unique, it is unusual and practiced to a highly individual extent here.
Societies based on extended families discourage people from being enterprising because any success you achieve personally necessarily "belongs" to your extended family. As a result, the trade-off for security in other societies has been stagnation. In contrast, if a nuclear family is successful, there is no extended family that can claim a right to the wealth it has generated. People may help out their relatives out of love or kindness or loyalty, but they do not have a legal or even social obligation to do so.
A dynamic society of quick innovation and capital formation required this mutability.
People in the Northeast were on average more literate than they were in the South. For these reasons the Northeast had the prerequisites for industrialization well in place as the nineteenth century got rolling. Perhaps the least visible of these preconditions, however, was the Absolute Nuclear Family (ANF) system, which allowed and expected children to support themselves and form their own families and to be free to move to another city or state if they desired.
Then came the Progressives. The authors and I agree on the transformative nature of their reign. But they hold, like many of my mixed-economy friends, that unfettered capitalism was breaking down and that it was somewhere between inevitable and desirable that large institutions and more centralized governments should take over and boot America 2.0
The first of these waves came in 1913, with the passage of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, authorizing, respectively, the federal income tax, and mandating the direct election of senators. In that year, also, the Federal Reserve Bank system was created, providing for the nation's first peacetime governmental paper money system, and insulating it from the direct influence of Congress. Collectively, these changes amounted to a substantial revision of the constitutional order. Had we been France, we would have called it a new Republic and given it a number. Although America 2.0 began, socially and economically, before the Civil War, 1913 marked the first real turn toward a state run fundamentally from Washington rather than from the state capitals.
Many of the 3.0 recommendations are right up my street as well: converting the military to a defense of the "commons" (Deepak Lal call your office, Professor Lal...) Keep the shipping lanes and communications infrastructure open without standing armies in Europe and Asia. Decentralization is a theme that resonates. Including -- what have we here? North Colorado?
Another tool that is overdue for use is the division of large or conflicted states into several smaller states. This state-level secession is not to be confused with secession of a state from the United States. Any such division of existing states would not be unilateral, but it would be negotiated. It is perfectly constitutional and has been done twice in US history, the first time in 1820 when the state of Massachusetts divided peacefully into present-day Massachusetts and Maine. The second time was hotly contested, in 1863, when West Virginians formed a separate state and gained admission as such into the Union when Virginia seceded. As these precedents demonstrate, dividing an existing state into two or more states is a remedy that can be pursued without any constitutional amendment, by state legislative action, although new states would require the approval of Congress before admission.
I have not provided much documentation for my negative comments. And to be fair, I would recommend this book. My complaints are two:
The authors take a very institutional and non-economic view of the changes in America. Yes, we grew in people and land mass. But, the American per capita GDP routinely doubled, compounding into changes of opportunity and lifestyle that exceed the changes in policy or institutions. Projecting into the future requires even more reliance on economics. I'd compare it to David Deutsch's Beginning of Infinity and speculate that economic changes will outpace and be more important than institutional ones.
Secondly, why not go back to 1.0? I look at the same events, very closely matching the authors, and see "great, free, prosperous nation grows, is ruined by Progressive-collectivism, almost recovers in Harding-Coolidge era with reapplication of liberty, then ruined by progressive-collectivism again..." Why do we need 3.0 when the principles of 1.0 were so successful -- and so well matched to an American character and family structure?
As tg suggests, it is an interesting and well-crafted book. I'll give it four stars and a fulsome recommendation.
June 30, 2013
One argument for feminism was that we were wasting the potential of half of humanity. We're no better off if we just waste the other half.That's from Helen Smith's Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream - and Why It Matters . Readers of Instapundit and of Dr. Helen will be familiar with the thesis of this book. She sees lower participation of young men in education, marriage and the workforce as evidence that they are "going Galt:" that subtle -- and not so subtle -- biases against men have given them a rational interest in avoiding institutions that are hostile.
Most men are not acting irresponsibly because they are immature or because they want to harm women; they are acting rationally in response to the lack of incentives today's society offers them to be responsible fathers, husbands and providers. In addition, many are going on strike, either consciously or unconsciously, because they do not want to be harmed by the myriad of laws, attitudes and backlash against them for the simple crime of happening to be male in the twenty-first century.She draws the comparison to Atlas Shrugged (don't worry, it's much shorter), so I will keep with it. I cannot point out a single item in the entire book and say "no, she is wrong." Yet, I find myself strangely not on board. "Men on Strike" does not match my personal life experience. I worked in a male-dominated industry and missed, by advantage of birth year, the worst of what Smith lays out.
She and her husband are steeped in academia, which I posit is the worst offender. I would share this book with a young man and I would consider counseling him to avoid a traditional campus education if he were at all ambivalent about his goals. In my day, college was a pretty good place for a moderately ambitious young person to "find himself or herself." You might change your major or meet a soulmate or transfer, but you would be racking up credit hours. Now between Dr. Helen's book and Glenn's Higher Education Bubble [Review Corner], I don't think that is still true. You're instead racking up debt and potential rights abuses.
On these hollowed pages we champion the right of risk-taking provided the risks are known. This book is eye-opening for risks. I was surprised by some of the paternity cases judged against men who were not the father, or were tricked, or in one case were essentially assaulted. That is grim reading and calls for action.
I was aware -- probably thanks to her blogging -- about the lack of due process afforded young men on campus if accused of harassment or even sexual assault. It is deeply disturbing that one's Fifth Amendment rights are discarded casually (like First and Second, but I digress...). Likewise, I agree that the alimony and custody procedures are anachronistic and in need of reform.
I do split off when the discussion turns to depictions in media. When Pizza Hut jokes about "Dad can't cook -- it's Pizza Night!" it really isn't Selma for me. I think men are ridiculed because they're the last group you're allowed to tease. No, that's not fair. But I'd rather see us lighten up about women, Jews, Blacks, gay Armenians and Mormon pole dancers rather that get more uptight about white dudes. Just me.
While it does not match my life and while I would still counsel a young man toward marriage (Yes, there are a million bad stories, but it's winning the lottery when it works), I cannot ignore or discount the dangers she exposes:
As one of my insightful readers, David, said, "the issue of marginal men is something that should be looked at from the point of view of innovation and advancement being replaced by a stalled nation. A stalled nation has its men in idle. Highly active men in a town of 50,000 can do remarkable things--that's all the Renaissance was. What can a small town do when the street corner is littered with men and feral dogs? Risk aversion does not a 'Start-up Nation' make."
Though-provoking and a great read (and probably a good buy for one's nephews...) Four stars.
June 23, 2013
Hat-tip Blog friend SC. Today's selection was spotted on his shelf: The Rational Optimist (P.S.) by Matt Ridley.
Yet, I am a big fan of his work, and it fits eerily perfectly in my Deutsch-McCloskey-Lal-Hubbard examination of economic history and our specie’s elevation from privation. It's truly a wonder I missed this -- it was published in 2010.
Ridley doesn't contradict the others. He does recognize more activity at the left tail. Most works of this ilk start the wonder at The Enlightenment, or Industrial Revolution, or some Capitalizable Date. Ridley looks a bit further back at incremental if not explosive growth and innovation leading up, such that the Industrial Revolution becomes more an inflection point than a launching pad.
And what launched this incredible ride from living as animals to living like people? Ideas having sex. (I do remember reading reviews or compilations of this -- that's a memorable phrase). Unique to man is not ideas so much as sharing them. An asexual creature can evolve, but the mutation and selection process is exponentially accelerated by sex. So too does innovation happen when I see your hay baler and think how I could make a metronome along the same lines.
Neanderthals had all of these: huge brains, probably complex languages, lots of technology. But they never burst out of their niche. It is my contention that in looking inside our heads, we would be looking in the wrong place to explain this extraordinary capacity for change in the species. It was not something that happened within a brain. It was some thing that happened between brains. It was a collective phenomenon.
If I were to give my Facebook friends one book to explain me -- well it wouldn't really matter because they wouldn't read it -- but this book would be a great choice. Like Deutsch, Ridley is a big fan of affluence and modernity. He looks at a pastoral hamlet setting of 1800 in much the same way I would. There's a warm fire in the hearth, Father is reading from the Bible and the children pour water from an earthenware jug as Mother prepares dinner
Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow's milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.
And a happy Earth Day to you too, Mister Ridley! He nods to Deirdre McCloskey, but seeks to flip causation: perhaps wealth comes first:
Contrary to the cartoon, it was commerce that freed people from narrow materialism, that gave them the chance to be different. Much as the intelligentsia continued to despise the suburbs, it was there that tolerance and community and voluntary organisation and peace between the classes flourished; it was there that the refugees from cramped tenements and tedious farms became rights-conscious consumers -- and parents of hippies. For it was in the suburbs that the young, seizing their economic independence, did something other than meekly follow father and mother’s advice. By the late 1950s, teenagers were earning as much as whole families had in the early 1940s. It was this prosperity that made Presley, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Brando and Dean resonate. It was the mass affluence of the 1960s (and the trust funds it generated) that made possible the dream of free-love communes. Just as material progress subverts the economic order, so it also subverts the social order -- ask Osama bin Laden, the ultimate spoilt rich kid.
Though optimistic about the prospects for reason and continued growth, he worries about threats to reason from climate change, GMO food opponents, and locavores. He demolishes each bit of nonsense expertly, with a long chapter on agriculture. Continuing the genius of Norman Borlaug with today's tools will allow us to feed the whole world well -- and return a hunk of today's farmland to wilderness. You and Ridley would think the hippies would like that, but if they don't kill it with organic food, locavorism, and opposition to GMO crops, a wondrous world awaits.
Borlaug’s genes, sexually recombined with Haber's ammonium and Rudolf Diesel's internal combustion engine, have rearranged sufficient atoms not only to ensure that Malthus was wrong for at least another half-century, but that tigers and toucans can still exist in the wild.
And do not worry, brother jg, Ridley is on board with "brown energy:"
Fossil fuels cannot explain the start of the industrial revolution. But they do explain why it did not end. Once fossil fuels joined in, economic growth truly took off, and became almost infinitely capable of bursting through the Malthusian ceiling and raising living standards. Only then did growth become, in a word, sustainable.
Ridley does fear "The wrong kind of chiefs, priests and thieves could yet snuff out future prosperity on earth." As do I. But without "a globalised retreat from reason," things don't look too bad:
The more you prosper, the more you can prosper. The more you invent, the more inventions become possible. How can this be possible? The world of things -- of pecans or power stations -- is indeed often subject to diminishing returns. But the world of ideas is not. The more knowledge you generate, the more you can generate. And the engine that is driving prosperity in the modern world is the accelerating generation of useful knowledge.
Five Stars and an Editor's Choice Award.
June 22, 2013
Five Stars and Two Snaps!
Be troth, ne'er have I gone to th' cinema with more rais-ed hopes! Yet verily twas I, and indeed the lovely bride, bewitched by the Bard's tale as by Mister Whedon spoken.
It was awesome! Shakespeare and Whedon really are a great match. This film is predominantly funny, but has dark characters and intensely dramatic sections: like Buffy in blank verse.
Five stars. Don't wait for the video -- get thee to thy local art cinema!
June 16, 2013
Historians have a tendency to declare some theories determinist just because they are overtly quantitative, a common and wrong-headed complaint Paul Kennedy faced as well. To be sure, our approach is quantitative, recommending a new metric of great power, but the rhyme of history that we observe, a parade of decline, should not be seen as the inevitable destiny of America. Although the ominous pattern of Great Power imbalance follows from institutional decline, it must also be said that many, many times in history empires and nations did reform their institutions.That's Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane in Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America. Kane and Hubbard define a new quantitative metric of economic power, then apply it retroactively to historical and modern economic powers: Rome, China, Ottoman Empire, Spain, Japan, Britain, Europe, California and the United States.
Though I enjoyed the book mightily, I'm not certain that the metric succeeds. Both are serious wonks and the book does not lack for data and analysis. The measurement is introduced early and with great fanfare as a foundation. It seems the authors wander off and lose interest in favor of qualitative comparisons and policy discussion. Still a great book -- just interesting that they abandon their stated purpose.
The book certainly succeeds on many fronts. First as historical economics, which I seem to be reading much of late. Hubbard and Kane hold contrarian views. The great freshman history lesson where great powers rise, then overextend, and inevitably decline which we have heard from a hundred know-it-all-college hippies and -- admit it -- have probably said ourselves, comes into question.
I enjoyed the book in the scope of Deirdre McCloskey, Niall Ferguson, Deepak Lal, David Deutsch, et at (and Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist currently on Kindle). What causes, facilitates, perpetuates and terminates economic growth and innovation? The authors hold a Lal-ian view of power and a Fergusonian appreciation for institutions:
The technological achievements of Rome are sometimes overlooked. To be sure, there was no Age of Enlightenment akin to the seventeenth century. Concrete may seem to be Rome's only major invention, but that is if we limit our definition of inventions to hardware. The software of Roman society-- its professional army, federalist governance, property rights-- actually matter more for economic growth. And one should not ignore the impact of concrete! It enabled commercial growth in two major ways. First, concrete made possible increasingly dense urban areas with taller buildings, better sanitation, and water from the aqueducts. Second, intercity trade was enhanced with stronger roads, while underwater concrete enabled better ports for sea trade.
As we attempt to migrate the George W Bush Presidency from the political to the historical, we do see in his former OMB Director an appreciation for global economic stability (Professor Lal, call your office!), allowing that it is built on hegemonic power:
The Mongol power of the khans, notably Genghis Khan, reinforces the idea that military power rests on an economic foundation. Genghis "all but invented globalization," as the Economist claims. He freed his lands from internal tariffs, with the express goal of establishing a trade corridor from Korea to Syria. Moreover, the Mongols ensured public safety for traders and commoners alike. According to Jack Weatherford, a leading biographer: "It was said that during this time a virgin could cross the length of the Mongol Empire with a pot of gold on her head and never be molested."
Not only are these powers not undermined by "overreach," the authors hold that most of them declined when they turned inward to recover from institutional stress. Rot from the inside, and use isolationism to try and recover (Smoot-Hawley anybody?)
More fundamentally, we disagree with [Paul] Kennedy’s core conclusion that America's military expenditures come at the expense of economic vitality. This conclusion, the overstretch hypothesis, assumes a zero-sum pie of resources that a nation distributes between investment and protection.
I come to the end of my typing and readers' attention without capturing the breadth of this superb work. I've focused on some subtopics of interest to ThreeSourcers. But the great thing about this work is its sizable scope of analyzing many ancient and modern economies, and its conclusion of policy recommendations for modern America. Looking back, there are larger and more sophisticated comparisons to Rome than bread and circuses and Hadrian's Wall through Britain. Rome also tried currency debasement, the Ottoman Empire turned its back on innovation, the Ming Dynasty eschewed trade.
MEET THE NEW PRAETORIANS Economically, the implacable fiscal crisis of California may resemble modern Greece, but politically the parallel is thousands of years older. The Roman army usurped control over imperial succession in the third century A.D. "An emperor would be chosen by a gang and would rule only so long as he pleased the assassins," explained historian Charles Van Doren. The Roman Senate had no control. The emperor himself had no control. All power during Rome's political crisis was in the hands of a self-serving Praetorian Guard. Could interest groups in Sacramento be a temporary Praetorian Guard?
Great stuff! Five stars!
June 9, 2013
Scientists know the first exoplanet discovered in 1995 as "51 Pegasi b," but the madding crowd insists upon sticking with Greek mythology, and informally they have named it for the ancient slayer of monsters Bellerophon. One exoplanet I am particularly interested in is formally known as HD 209458b. But the online hoi polloi have already dubbed it Osiris. The world of exoplanets, like a lot of the sky, just won’t hold still for proper scientists, anymore than any Wild West’s frontier town waited for the Chamber of Commerce.That is a genuine random page quote from Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character by Jack Hitt. And it introduces the thesis as well as I could. Or, "I could of named those exoplanets if it weren't for you meddling kids!"
I have to compare this to Glenn Reynolds's "Army of Davids" [Review Corner], James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds [Mentioned in a peculiar context] and Craig Anderson's The Long Tail [Review Corner]. The trend of greater contribution from the less credentialed is in all four. Hitt ties it to an American character, documented by Tocqueville, and tracing its roots to the iconic American amateur, Ben Franklin.
When Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart-- both of whom pose as "serious newsmen"--first appeared on cable news, it was widely understood by the traditional media to be mere comedy. But fairly soon there appeared articles worried that these "fake anchors" were more than phony blowhards. People were actually getting their news from them. The comedy was working on several levels. The real anchors on television fretted about what this all "meant," and the actual blowhards on cable, like Bill O’Reilly, got angry and called them all stoners and subversives. The line from the improvisations of Ben Franklin to the comedy of Stephen Colbert is as American as pie.
That's a substantive insight but it also exposes the flaw in this interesting work. Hitt has no compunction against letting you know his personal thoughts. And, neither do I, but were I to attempt a book of this seriousness, I would shut it off or hire a good editor to quietly expunge. He -- anachronistically, the book was released in 2012 -- takes several potshots at President George W. Bush. If I am reading The New Republic in 2008, I would not bat an eyelash. But I put the book down and ascertained that it was recently released. I thought it was newer than last summer, but still....
Even where I agree. He describes a fascinating conflict between professorial anthropologists and weekend warriors. It is well written and supports the book's thesis. Then he graces you with a dozen pages on what he thinks. Well, this is real interesting and all, Jack, but could you share with us some of your personal views on life?
It detracts from a superb book. If it were crummy, I would be more forgiving. But the Benjamin Franklin frame is genius: the book opens with John Adams and Franklin as archetypes of the correct and credentialed versus the effective yet intemperate.
Between the two of them were twin impulses, one more improvisational and experimental, the other more tradition-bound and knowing. There is no fixed American meta-narrative, but there is this ebb and flow between Adamsian veneration of piety and Franklinian love of improvisation, between Calvinist certainty and Deist doubt, between head and heart, virtuocracy and meritocracy, good character and cunning action, between security and freedom, between professionalism and amateurism.
Good stuff, no? Then, several modern amateur groups are highlighted: DIY gene-splicers, astronomers, birders: colorful characters involved in serious discussions. Franklin comes back at the end for a poetic finish that made me weep: the likely apocryphal nature of the key and the kite:
He did it by invoking an image that is at once playful and profound, practically the logo of the amateur's childish spirit, of liberty, of leisure-- the emblem of the lightness of being, where creativity thrives. It can be American, not out of nationalist pride, but because this sense emerged at our founding and is the inheritance of anyone born or driven to come here. While we might list the great liberties-- speech, assembly, due process, trial by jury-- the one that goes unstated, almost presumed, is the revolutionary decision to abandon one's past and one's self, as well as one’s culture, tradition, and history. To walk away from everything that one is-- whether it's fleeing a repressive nation for this new place or simply out the back door for the garage-- that is real freedom.
Miltonian heights, sullied by a few Olbermanian lows. Four stars.
June 2, 2013
I enjoy most of what you see reviewed here. Dreary and turgid though some of it may be, it is interesting.
I'll confess, however, that I had a stack of "homework." Three books I really did not look forward to reading. And I do mean stack: While I prefer Kindle books, these were corporeal incarnations of guilt. First was "The Blueprint" reviewed last week. That wasn't bad at all.
Second was Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. That was the one I really wanted to avoid. And it is awesome! I have decried the Progressives' lack of a canon. This is a beautiful and well thought out book. Let's hit the plusses:
Alinsky on the always-interesting topic of "Self Interest:"
Self-interest, like power, wears the black shroud of negativism and suspicion. To many the synonym for self-interest is selfishness. The word is associated with a repugnant conglomeration of vices such as narrowness, self-seeking, and self-centeredness, everything that is opposite to the virtues of altruism and selflessness. This common definition is contrary, of course, to our everyday experiences, as well as to the observations of all great students of politics and life. The myth of altruism as a motivating factor in our behavior could arise and survive only in a society bundled in the sterile gauze of New England puritanism and Protestant morality and tied together with the ribbons of Madison Avenue public relations. It is one of the classic American fairy tales.
I hear my Randian pals parsing words to contradict (they parse very loudly), but compare this to a screed from a Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, or E. J. Dionne. And that honesty is a consistent and compelling theme.
I will turn to Rand, however, for the BIG minus. Rand tells rational men in honest disagreement to "check their premises." And Alinsky has built his beautiful prosaic edifice on a weak philosophical foundation: zero sum economics.
But let us go deeper into the psyche of this Goliath. The Haves possess and in turn are possessed by power. Obsessed with the fear of losing power, their every move is dictated by the idea of keeping it. The way of life of the Haves is to keep what they have and wherever possible to shore up their defenses.
I have always held that if you really believe this -- and I know many who do -- Progressivism, wealth redistribution -- hell, even Communism -- is legitimate. Kurt Vonnegut's "God Bless You, Mister Rosewater" espouses this. Everyone is born in some proximity to the money river, and the whole morality play is how to pass it around form those fortunate "Haves" near the river to the "Have-Nots" further inland. (This is my überlefty brother's favorite Vonnegut book and my least).
If this is not your first trip to ThreeSources, you'll know I fulsomely disagree. Wealth is created; its distribution is far less interesting than its growth and its totality. Or as President Bush put it so eloquently: "make the pie higher!"
Once you are imbued with this bad idea, however, Alinskyism makes perfect sense. If Mom has three candy bars and three kids, egalitarianism has a place. Alinsky is clever -- and far more moral than a Bill Ayers -- in getting Mom to do things fairly:
TACTICS MEANS doing what you can with what you have. Tactics are those consciously deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them. In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give. Here our concern is with the tactic of taking; how the Have-Nots can take power away from the Haves.
A beautiful and fundamentally wrong book. But it should be read by everyone. Four stars.
May 26, 2013
This book's procurement comes with a funny story. And a funny story must always be told.
I have enjoyed meeting many new liberty lovers at Brother Bryan's Liberty On The Rocks -- Flatirons (LOTR-F), but none more than Russ. A garrulous and impassioned liberty lover, Russ would distribute copies of Bastiat's The Law before the meetings. I'm embarrassed to say my own lovely bride had not read it until she got one of those. (Learning about Bastiat on the street!)
The night Jon Caldera spoke, he interrupted. "Don't give away 'The Law!'" thundered my favorite speaker at my favorite listener. "People need to read "The Blueprint', or Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals!'" It was brutal but effective. Russ has now added both to his travelling library. I bought one of each at the last meeting and will review them on successive Sundays.
The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care) makes much sense after hearing Caldera speak at LOTR-F. The Blueprint describes how "the other guys" built infrastructure. While the GOP runs a campaign and then retreats to the Country Club after they lose, a powerful and wealthy group of Democratic donors fund continuing enterprises. And these groups have very successfully flipped Red Colorado to deep blue.
I think we all remember 2004 as "what the hell just happened?" The GOP did very nationally but crumbled in Colorado. This book describes exactly what happened.
Governor Owens, who now had to spend his final two years in office dealing with a hostile legislature, saw it differently. "They bought the state. We ought to treat this the way we treat naming rights to football stadiums--let's just put Pat Stryker's and Tim Gill's names on the gold dome of the Colorado state Capitol, because that's what happened." While many factors played a part, Owens pointed to one in particular. "Before campaign finance reform was passed, people tried to use money to influence an individual legislator here or there. Nowadays, big donors just buy them by the dozen."
Is Colorado sui generis? Caldera himself is quoted in the book saying that the state is big enough to be important, yet small enough to be bought (my words not his*). The same players are expanding this to other states. They will not have surprise on their side, and some other media markets will be more costly to saturate. But they are very smart and very well-funded. And Republicans are ... well ... hang on a minute ... I had something....
The ThreeSources staple of tactics vs. philosophy is subject to examination. In short, do you hand out "The Law" or "Rules for Radicals?"
Discussion of issues that might divide the group was strictly verboten. "All the participants checked their political agendas at the door," said Polis later. "There was never any policy discussed. There were never any issues discussed. This was simply a group of people who believed that all of our issues, and regardless of what they were, what our differences were, would be better represented in a Democratic majority.
At the same time, what drove these people together? A very backward GOP dominated statehouse that was determined to push its social agenda. NARAL and Tim Gill and Jared Polis had a common enemy. A more libertarian GOP would not have been nearly as successful in uniting them.
Trimpa knew that equality for gays and lesbians would begin at the state legislature. "Ted understood that there needed to be changes in the legislature to move a more progressive agenda," said Lynne Mason of the Colorado Education Association. That meant electing Democrats and defeating Republicans.
The GOP -- I dearly hope -- will always fight public sector unions. Perhaps if they read more philosophy, they might not facilitate such a phalanx against them.
It's well worth the read -- I'll go 3.5 stars. I am quite convinced its ideas are valuable but not convinced they are a blueprint for the forces of goodness and light.
*UPDATE: The full Caldera quote:
The beauty of Colorado is that it's big enough to be important but small enough that just a few people can radically change the political landscape. It's the best bang for the buck in American politics.
May 19, 2013
Housekeeping task: First, here is your definition of friendship:
Last week's Review Corner was G.K. Chesterton's "What's Wrong with the World," a bit of indulgent but intelligent retrospective from a 70-year-old academic. This week's is curiously similar: Deepak Lal's Poverty and Progress: Realities and Myths about Global Poverty
At the start of my seventh decade, as I look back over the past 50 years, during which I have studied, engaged in various debates, and traveled in the Third World, I am amazed at the transformations that have lifted billions out of poverty. One of the saddening experiences in writing this book, and of reading what younger scholars have written during the last 20 years, is the realization that many of them have little sense of this amazing achievement or its causes.
Despite some sadness in that excerpt, Lal's book could be called "What's Right with the World." Professor Lal is quite pleased with economic liberalism's record of lifting people out of poverty. He did his early work in India, which has expanded its economy by judicious application of freedom and property rights (though still too bureaucratic for its true potential). China opened up and hundreds of millions of people escaped $1/day poverty. Now, Lal is optimistic about Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
As in Asia, the answer to Africa's economic problems must lie in beginning to set its citizens free of the shackles of the state. Africa has for too long been used by western ideologues as a laboratory for their latest dirigiste ideas. They have made Africa’s problems worse. The best thing the world can do for Africa is to keep its goods and capital markets open and let the continent’s entrepreneurial multitudes make their own future, beginning by learning how to hold their predatory rulers to account and ensuring that the state becomes a civil, not an enterprise, association.
So...what is Lal's "magic bullet" that propelled us from privation? For Deirdre McClosky, it is "Bourgeois Dignity," for my progressive friends it is good vibes and labor unions. To what does Professor Lal attribute this miracle?
I hope brother jg is seated securely. Lal talks about "Promethean Growth" as cultures discover the limitless energy of fossil fuels as opposed to wood, peat and dung. He is an economic historian and suggests England superseded the Dutch because the lowlands ran out of Peat and Britain had plentiful coal.
The biggest lacuna in this theory of the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy is its failure to account for the ending of the energy constraint posed by fixed land, with the increasing substitution of land-based organic energy by the unlimited mineral energy provided by fossil fuels (Wrigley 1988).
Chapter Ten punctures the research on global warming and expresses concern that, just as we are poised to bring the last groups out of poverty, promethean growth is threatened.
This use of an unbounded energy source, accompanying the slowly rolling Industrial Revolution, allowed the ascent from structural poverty, which had scarred humankind for millennia. To put a limit on the use of fossil fuels without adequate economically viable alternatives is to condemn the Third World to perpetual structural poverty.
Not to say that Lal does not appreciate bourgeois dignity nor the individualism and freedom that animates ThreeSourcers.
By contrast, the alternative technocratic approach to poverty alleviation is necessarily infected with egalitarianism because of its lineage. At its most elaborate, it is based on some Bergson-Samuelson-type social welfare function, laid down by Platonic Guardians. 8 Given the underlying assumption of diminishing marginal utility, any normative utility weighting of the incomes of different persons or households leads naturally to some form of egalitarianism. But this smuggling in of an ethical norm, which is by no means universally accepted, leads to a form of “mathematical politics.” Poverty alleviation becomes just one component of the general problem of maximizing social welfare,
Why did England have an Industrial Revolution and China did not? All ThreeSourcers had better sit for this. It's a McClosky-esque turn from individualism and science
This cultural divergence, as I argued in Unintended Consequences and which was summarized in Part 1, was due in part to the family revolution of Gregory the Great in the sixth century in the West. This gave rise to the individualism that led to the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, but also to the rise of nuclear families and the creation of statist safety nets for the poor, replacing the communal ones provided in the past and which continued in the other Eurasian civilizations-- including China. It was not the welfare states, which were a necessary consequence of its newfound individualism, that led to the rise of the West, but the sheer escape from tradition in art and science that individualism promoted.
I put my Kindle down and shook in this section because of my decades working in Boulder, Colorado where most people just assume the superiority of Eastern philosophy, medicine, science, thought, religeon, art, and cuisine. I am totally down appreciating Thai, Himalayan, Chinese, and Vietnamese food.
But -- and I am clearly putting words in Lal's mouth here -- the codswallop of eastern spirituality over science denied this great, wealthy and brilliant culture their renaissance. Lal mentions that they did not have a Shakespeare -- I suggest they needed a Martin Luther.
I have picked a few items of interest to folks 'round these parts more than I have covered this magisterial work. It is five stars and highly recommended.
May 12, 2013
I'm going to infer from 11 substantive comments to last week's Review Corner that the topic of political language is still of interest and that Arnold Kling's division of American polity into Conservatives, Progressives, and Libertarians has been accepted on some level. Because I wish to marry this to another tenured ThreeSources discussion: canons. (One n -- looking up the plural I see I have been discussing aircraft armament. Oops. my bad).
Homonyms aside, I have frequently complained that the Progressives have a substandard canon. I hold that, but in the spirit of fairness must admit that my beloved Libertarian canon is inferior to the Conservatives. Mises, Hayek, Bastiat, Wollstonecraft, Locke and Rand excite me and I hold their ideas in great esteem.
But I spent last week with GK Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World. And I have to admit that Chesterton and Edmund Burke lay a timeless foundation for Conservatism (blog friend Sugarchuck would throw in C.S. Lewis; probably JRR Tolkien and Jonah Goldberg deserve slots in the pantheon).
Chesterton gets five stars for clarity and five for sparkling prose. I highlight quotes for reader's corners and it is difficult to stop and leave any lines un-highlighted. Sugarchuck compares his humor to Monty Python:
Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf.
Gilbert Keith uses his gifts in support of conservatism. Jonah Goldberg loves to quote his line "Tradition is the Democracy of the dead." I'm a modernist and a libertarian, but the argument that we discard the proven is compelling.
Our modern prophetic idealism is narrow because it has undergone a persistent process of elimination. We must ask for new things because we are not allowed to ask for old things. The whole position is based on this idea that we have got all the good that can be got out of the ideas of the past.
I think the natural affinity between Kling's L's and C's is a common belief in property rights. GK is eloquent, as usual:
The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist; because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colors be admires; but he can paint his own house with what color he chooses, and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist; because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.
TGreer's comment on last week' Review Corner segues into this week's. I, too, came to little-l libertarianism through conservatism. For me it was Bill Buckley and National Review (and I still subscribe to Frank Meyers's Fusionism). Buckley subscribed to Milton Friedman's libertarian ideas on economics, school choice and drug legalization.
But Buckley and Chesterton "stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'" For Chesterton, that includes a large portion of the book devoted to Women's suffrage which a modern finds difficult to read. Chesterton is agin it, not because women are not good enough to vote. But because they are too good
Many voteless women regard a vote as unwomanly. Nobody says that most voteless men regarded a vote as unmanly. Nobody says that any voteless men regarded it as unmanly. Not in the stillest hamlet or the most stagnant fen could you find a yokel or a tramp who thought he lost his sexual dignity by being part of a political mob. If he did not care about a vote it was solely because he did not know about a vote; he did not understand the word any better than Bimetallism. His opposition, if it existed, was merely negative. His indifference to a vote was really indifference. But the female sentiment against the franchise, whatever its size, is positive. It is not negative; it is by no means indifferent.
Some things, sir, are not worth conserving.
But it is an awesome read and it is available on Kindle for $0.00. At five stars, that is an undefined value.
Click "Continue Reading" for more quotes.
Men have votes, so women must soon have votes; poor children are taught by force, so they must soon be fed by force; the police shut public houses by twelve o'clock, so soon they must shut them by eleven o'clock; children stop at school till they are fourteen, so soon they will stop till they are forty. No gleam of reason, no momentary return to first principles, no abstract asking of any obvious question, can interrupt this mad and monotonous gallop of mere progress by precedent. It is a good way to prevent real revolution. By this logic of events, the Radical gets as much into a rut as the Conservative. We meet one hoary old lunatic who says his grandfather told him to stand by one stile. We meet another hoary old lunatic who says his grandfather told him only to walk along one lane.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What's Wrong with the World (pp. 241-242). . Kindle Edition.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What's Wrong with the World (pp. 281-282). . Kindle Edition.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What's Wrong with the World (p. 271). . Kindle Edition.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What's Wrong with the World (pp. 246-247). . Kindle Edition.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What's Wrong with the World (p. 228). . Kindle Edition.
May 8, 2013
Review Corner (Bumped to propagate comments)
I gave away the premise of Arnold Kling's The Three Languages of Politics in a Pre-review corner. Kling takes on one of my favorite philosophical questions, videlicet, "How can my Facebook friends be such incredible Gooberheads?"
Perhaps they are and perhaps they are not. Kling suggests that each polity speaks its own language; that Conservatives, Progressives, and Libertarians not only judge policy on different axes as Jonathan Haidt suggests, but that each communicates in a different political language.
Progressives believe in human betterment. They see nearly unlimited potential for humans to improve materially and, more important, morally.
To bring it home, I am always surprised how frequently people just do not recognize liberty and coercion. Good old Republican-voting family members support smoking bans and are receptive to helmet laws, nannyist food directives and the like. When I describe the issue as property rights, they look at me blankly, as if -- wait for it -- I am speaking a different language. Touché, Kling.
Kling and I fit quite well into the L's:
Libertarians also look at government as the ultimate source of the problem. Libertarian economics is closely aligned with the Austrian tradition, and Austrian economists view central banks as the Dennis the Menace of capital markets, distorting interest rates and causing bubbles.
It is impossible not to compare it to Haidt's superb The Righteous Mind. Kling references it and includes an appendix describing it. Where Haidt starts with data and infers some interesting political observations, Kling takes the "why can't we all get along" question head on, using Haidt and other behavioral books to assemble his thesis. I cannot imagine anybody not reading both.
Kling's is brief and direct -- I give it five stars.
Addendum: Blog friend TGreer, commenting on the pre-review corner, applies the scale to politicians (Specifically ones which he knows will torque me...) Kling applies his to journalists and pundits, which is certainly cleaner. Taking FDR's entire 17 terms as New Dealer, War President, and party leader, I would find it hard to shoehorn him into one of Kling's boxes, even though the two Presidents Roosevelt are the archetype of Progressivism. I don't know whether that is a failing of Kling's micro-taxonomy or the lack of purity in actual legislative politics.
UPDATE: John Stossel (High Prince of the "L's") posts this quote to Facebook today:
Liberty is not a means to a political end. It is itself the highest political end. -- Lord Acton
April 30, 2013
Pre Review Corner
Don't wait for Sunday! Snap up: Kling, Arnold The Three Languages of Politics Kindle Edition. It's $1.99 on Kindle. It's short (short enough you could read it on a tablet or desktop with the Kindle app), and it will get five stars this weekend if I get Wi-Fi at my undisclosed location.
Kling distills Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" and some other behavioral psychology texts to provide three languages as practiced by three sections of the American polity:
The first dominant heuristic is the one I associate with progressives (henceforth Ps). Ps, who are likely to respond X to the basic question, are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of oppressors and oppressed.
That sets it up, but it's a better read than "the third dominant heuristic" implies.
April 29, 2013
John LeCarre Meets Ron Paul
We have oft, on these very pages, jested about the turgidness of monetary policy. It truly is fundamental to Liberty but boy howdy...
In Battle of Bretton Woods, Benn Steil tells the remarkable story of the 44-nation postwar economic conference known for its location in the remote New Hampshire town.
I have always used "Bretton Woods" as synonymous with a gold standard, as in "Nixon took us out of Bretton Woods." In truth -- as gold bugs have screamed at me for years -- it was a managed convertibility, what Larry Kudlow would call a gold peg, but with rates dictated by fiat. Steil relates a story I had also heard from Amity Shlaes
From his bed each morning, Roosevelt would, after briefly conferring with his advisers, set a daily target for bumping up the gold price, not always through scientific methods. One day, November 3, the president suggested that gold should go up twenty-one cents. "It's a lucky number," he explained, chuckling, "because its three times seven." "If anybody ever knew how we really set the gold price through a combination of lucky numbers, etc.," observed Morgenthau, "I think they would be frightened."
Before we get into that snoozefest discussion, the remarkable parts are the participants, and the purposeful move to use the conference output to make the US and the US Dollar the global hegemon. Britain was financially ruined by the war -- she had zero hope without Lend-Lease. Heavily indebted to the US from Lend-Lease, Britain had no power at Bretton Woods to push its agenda; no one did, the US held all the good cards.
All Britain had was a formidable representative in John Maynard Keynes: the economics wunderkind who was rewriting the science, the first and last economic celebrity, and a formidable debate partner. Keynes learned his craft sparring with the likes of Karl Popper, American bureaucrats were intellectual cannon fodder.
But in the United States corner was one of the oddest characters you will encounter in history: Henry Dexter White. White had no title at all until late in his tenure, but he had the vision of the dollar replacing gold as the world currency and he had a plan to make it happen. Oh, and he was a Soviet Spy.
Keynes, not yet Lord K, was not too impressed with his interlocutor:
"He has not the faintest conception how to behave or observe the rules of civilised intercourse," Keynes groused. Arrogant and bullying, White was also nerve-ridden and insecure. Being wholly dependent on his ability to keep his boss, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, an FDR confidant with limited smarts, continually rearmed with actionable policies, he was always acutely conscious of his tenuous status in Washington.
Keynes was Keynes:
Like another great mind of his time, Albert Einstein, Keynes had a preternatural ability to see relationships between complex phenomena entirely differently than generations of experts before him. Though mathematics was the primary analytical tool for both physics and economics, neither Einstein nor Keynes was exceptionally gifted in, nor fascinated by, higher mathematics. They had an utterly rare gift of intellectual intuition; both thought through problems which obsessed them using the vehicle of analogy, like riding on a light beam (which sparked Einstein's theory of special relativity) or living in an economy that produces and consumes only bananas (through which Keynes "proved" that thrift was deadly).
Excuse me, jk, did you say White was a soviet spy? Why yes, he worked with Whittaker Chambers before Chambers was traded for two third-round draft picks. And Chambers claims that he was second only to Alger Hiss in the damage done over his tenure. Yet -- at the conference -- he pursued US interests unfailingly. Though he thought that Communism was the wave of the future and that the US and USSR were destined to be the great postwar allies, there is no suggestion that he weakened the US position. White was out to best Keynes and Britain -- and did so.
Monetary policy types will dig the importance given by this book. WWII is attributed to bad policy, and the whole point of Bretton Woods -- planned long before Allied victory was certain, opening weeks after D-Day -- was to prevent currency nationalism that would precipitate additional conflict. That was how it was sold to Congress and the American people.
Most surprising to me was the enmity between the US and Britain. PM Churchill and FDR may have had a special relationship, but it was not passed to Misters Atlee nor Truman, nor Congress, nor Americans wary of Monarchy and Imperialism. We had them "where short hairs grow" and there were few people that wanted to let them off easy. If they were destroyed by the terms concluding Lend-Lease, who cares?
What was that spy thing again, jk? That sounded interesting.
White performed superbly at his HUAC hearing, He waved the flag and stated his love of Apple Pie and Motherhood, and turned the tables on unprepared examiners to draw applause. A young Senator from California thought that he could get him on perjury, for disavowing Whittaker Chambers. But each time While would answer that "he could not recall" his contact. The publication of the Verona papers in the late 1990s corroborate all of Chambers's charges.
And that young Senator Nixon went on to become President -- and pull our nation out of the Bretton Woods agreement...
A great and interesting story. Alas, it reads more like Ron Paul than the Spy Story at times, but it's a good yarn all the same. Four stars.
April 14, 2013
I'm slacking on you yet again. This week's "book" is a white paper. You can download "50 Vetoes: How States Can Stop the Obama Health Care Law" from Cato, or you can get it all pretty and packaged up for Kindle® from Amazon for $3.49. Spendthrift that I am, I dropped the $3,49 like it was nothin' and enjoyed it on the couch.
A few pages in and one asks "I wonder if this ObamaCare® was really a good idea?" Cannon enumerates the flaws and consequences -- intended and unintended -- of what he dutifully calls PPACA. Because the law diverted some control to the states to get the famous 60 votes, and because the Feds are woefully behind and outclassed in its implementation, Cannon says that the States have a real opportunity to upend the law -- and that they should.
Collectively, states have the power to block that spending and to reduce federal deficits by $ 1.7 trillion by refusing to implement Exchanges and the Medicaid expansion. So far, 34 states, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population, have refused to establish an Exchange, while 16 have refused to implement the Medicaid expansion. Those states have reduced federal deficits by hundreds of billions of dollars.
Cannon destroys the concept that the state exchanges are actually autonomous examples of Federalism:
The Act thus empowers the secretary to require state-funded Exchanges to operate exactly as she would operate a federal Exchange. One example is the Act's "navigator" program, in which groups that help consumers select an insurance plan-- a role traditionally performed by insurance agents and brokers-- receive funding from Exchanges. Some states have enacted laws requiring navigators to obtain a license. Yet the secretary has prohibited states from requiring navigators to be licensed agents or brokers, or to carry insurance typically carried by agents and brokers. She has also prohibited navigators from receiving any compensation from health plans either inside or outside an Exchange. If the secretary later decides to prohibit insurance agents and brokers from serving as navigators, or likewise to require state-funded Exchanges to exclude certain health plans, state-funded Exchanges will have to obey. What the secretary declares bound in Washington shall be bound in the states; what she declares loosed in Washington shall be loosed in the states.
Even states expecting to proceed with creating exchanges find that the Feds have no plan, no documentation -- not even a Web site.
"We have gotten little bits of information here and there about how the federal exchange might operate," said Linda J. Sheppard, a senior official at the Kansas Insurance Department. "I was on a panel at Rockhurst University here, and I was asked, 'Where is the Web site for the federal exchange?' I chuckled. There really isn’t any federal exchange Web site."
I know. The ThreeSources community is shocked at government opacity, arrogance, and incompetence. Most of the arguments will be familiar to ThreeSourcers: "The Act's 'community rating' price controls force insurers to sell coverage to the sick far below cost, and to the healthy far above cost. In that environment, an insurer that provides the highest-quality care to the sick will attract all the sickest patients, and will quickly go bankrupt, as healthy people avoid that carrier's higher premiums. In this way, the Act's community-rating price controls literally punish health plans that provide the most attractive coverage to the sick."
But the enumeration, collection, and strict documentation of the arguments is well worth your three-fifty. I do not suppose there is much chance in the newly Communist People's Republic of Colorado -- but there are real opportunities to avoid and perhaps repeal this wicked law.
A critical mass of states could force Congress to repeal the law. To some, it is unimaginable that Congress and President Obama would do so-- just as it was once unimaginable that 34 states would refuse to establish Exchanges, or that 16 states would refuse to expand Medicaid, or that congressional Republicans and President Obama would join together to repeal the CLASS Act. The PPACA is weaker, and the path to repeal is clearer, than it has ever been.
Four stars. Dry but informative and short.
April 7, 2013
TIME Magazine's Executive Editor Nancy Gibbs and Washington Bureau Chief Michael Duffy trace the surprising, complicated story of "the world's most exclusive fraternity."That's from the Amazon "Book of the Month (April 2012)" review of The President's Club. And that's all the Review Corner you probably need. It's a very conventional, TIME Magazine look at an interesting topic: the interplay between ex-presidents with each other and current occupants of the office.
It's full of fun facts and juicy tidbits:
He had reason to be especially grateful: thanks to Truman's personal intervention, the IRS judged Eisenhower to be a nonprofessional writer and so taxed his income from his war memoir Crusade in Europe at the 25 percent capital gains rate rather than the 75 percent income tax rate, which among other things meant that Mamie Eisenhower got her first mink coat. Eisenhower sent Truman a signed copy, the first volume he gave anyone outside the family.
My recently deceased brother-in-law recommended this book last year; I read the Kindle sample and elected not to pull the trigger. I saw it on sale a couple weeks ago and gave it another chance.
I wouldn't tell anybody not to read it, but I will be unusually miserly with the stars. Among the juicy tidbits is a paucity of serious thought or anything outside conventional, Schlesingerian-academic-journalistic thought. It's like, well, reading TIME Magazine. On Bush Peré:
The first two years of the first Bush's presidency had delivered solid bipartisan achievements at home: a new clean air measure, a historic civil rights act for disabled Americans, and a landmark deficit reduction deal. But each was anathema to the party's right wing. Which meant the younger Bush would need to take a harder line on economic and social issues while signaling to uncertain independent voters that he wasn't a hopeless ideologue. Hence the mantle of the "compassionate conservative."
Historic civil rights act for the trial bar, maybe... Clinton's Impeachment:
But Ford's proposal seemed almost Edwardian in its quaintness. The notion that the House Republican leadership, a mostly male group led by Newt Gingrich that had developed a seething dislike of Clinton, would somehow limit its yearlong probe was unimaginable.
Yup, conventional wisdom about the modern presidents. Nothing about anybody before Hoover. I suppose those bewhiskered (and predominantly male) guys were not very interesting. Worth one trip through, but I doubt it will excite any ThreeSourcer: two stars.
March 31, 2013
It's enjoyable to read the "it" book and be hip and up to date. Especially when one's fashion hails from the Clinton Years and musical tastes from Hoover's. But I found my inner Nassim Taleb and dusted off a moldy old book that was discarded from the Austin Peay State College Library in Clarkesville Tennessee. This contrarian is convinced that he may be one of the foremost experts on Vice President Charles G. Dawes.
There is, near as I can tell, one book on the General: "Portrait of an American" by Bascom N. Timmons, ©1953 Henry Holt & Company. And I've read it. I'm sure a little internet searching would disabuse me of my expert status quickly, but it is my dream, let me live it.(I will follow up with some of his writings.)
I was drawn to Dawes because he is a published composer; the haunting melody to the 50's hit "It's All in the Game" is his "Melody in A Major" from 1912 and I have a vintage piece of sheet music with his name. His Wikipedia page fed my interest:
After the war, the U.S. Senate held hearings on overcharges by military suppliers. During heated testimony, Dawes burst out, "Hell and Maria, we weren't trying to keep a set of books over there, we were trying to win a war!" He was later known as "Hell and Maria Dawes" (although he always insisted the expression was "Helen Maria").
This was a style Dawes used with great efficacy (and one I'd confess I'd like to cultivate): a generally reserved decorum punctuated by short and sharp blasts of well-directed anger:
And the Earl of Crawford, Chancellor of the University of Manchester, conferred the LLD degree on Dawes with the words:
(I'm cultivating the kindest of hearts and most loving of dispositions parts...)
After completing Amity Shleas's 5 star biography of President Coolidge, I wanted to learn a little more about his VP and scored the book used from Amazon for $7.98. As it happens, he did not participate much in the Coolidge Administration. Coolidge invited him, offering the courtesy Harding had extended him. But Dawes felt it was a bad precedent and Constitutionally dubious as the VP was more a Legislative Branch position. I recall our current VP laughing that off in a debate with Governor Palin.
He might not have been a big cog in the Coolidge Administration, but he is an amazing man with an amazing career and lifetime achievements. He personally met 15 Presidents; assembled and ran the Allied procurements for WWI attaining the rank of General; was ambassador to Britain after the war; built the largest bank outside of New York; made Sen. Robert Lafollette’s list of 100 robber barons; instituted huge philanthropy efforts -- oh, and was Vice President. And published a song.
The entire Dawes family shows up in American History like Forrest Gump. William Dawes rode with Paul Revere -- we know of one and not the other because Mr. Longfellow found one name more mellifluous. General Rufus Dawes was a Civil War hero and had tickets to see "Our American Cousin" at the Ford Theatre with President Lincoln. Dawes's mom was ill or else they would have been there.
Dawes goes west as a young man and meets William Jennings Bryan in Lincoln, Nebraska before Lincoln is served by rail. The two become fast and lifetime friends at a debating club. By 1896, Dawes has moved to Chicago and is heading the Illinois campaign to elect William McKinley. He tells everybody that Bryan will be the Democratic nominee "if he makes it to the podium at the convention." A paper in Lincoln is among the unbelieving:
"Just three people believe the boy orator of the Platte, who speaks in platte-te-tudes, has a chance for the Democratic nomination. They are: Bryan himself; his wife; and Dawes, a Republican."
The nominating speeches go late and it is not certain whether Bryan will speak. He takes the stage late and gives the "Cross of Gold" speech. Dawes telegraphs campaign HQ that Bryan will be the nominee and leaves the hall. All the large states withhold votes on the first five ballots. Then Bryan is nominated and quickly gets the nod.
He's there when JP Morgan rescues the banks in the Panic of 1907. New York says they'll keep the Knickerbocker Trust afloat if Dawes will run it. They telegraph that he can write his own ticket. Dawes demurs. The Man of the West will stay West.
Even in law school, he is in contact with future Presidents:
"I received the engrossed bill for the erection of the new building, and signed it as President of the Senate. Less than fifteen minutes later, Chief Justice Taft telephoned, asking whether I had signed the bill. He was anxious to have President Coolidge approve it today. This I arranged within an hour, to his considerable satisfaction. I have always felt grateful to Taft for, in 1886, he marked the papers of our graduating class in Cincinnati Law School, and passed nearly the whole class, including myself. He does not know it, but that was one reason why he got such quick service today. The friendship with the Chief Justice, which I have enjoyed during these last four years, has been one of the pleasant things of my service here. He is beloved by all."
Politically, Dawes joined Theodore Roosevelt's reform camp early, but like Taft and Coolidge, saw its flaws and veered away to a more lasseiz faire approach. TR begins coming after his friends:
Back in Chicago, Dawes told Armour and P. A. Valentine about the White House conversation.
The Bureau of the Budget was formed under President Harding at Dawes's request to cut spending:
"On the first onslaught, the Navy dropped out on a hundred¬million-dollar reduction I had put down for them. Admiral Coontz (Chief of Naval Operations) is a tough old buck. I had to accept his statement as far as the present is concerned.
The bureau brought spending down under Harding and Coolidge but was disbanded by FDR (surprise).
A great book about a most interesting American. Five stars. As I have a real live hardcopy, it is available to any ThreeSourcer who would like to read it -- I'll even pay shipping.
March 17, 2013
In 2001, my wife, Shawnna, and I moved to Arizona. I love nearly everything about my adopted state, but the one thing that troubles me greatly is Arizona’s widespread hostility toward Mexican immigration, not just illegal but legal as well. Among many Arizona conservatives, opposition to immigration dwarfs all other political issues, even in the face of economic recession. The vehemence on this issue initially puzzled me, given that Arizona still is the land of Barry Goldwater and largely reflects his libertarian, live-and-let-live philosophy.
Governor Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick provide a solid blueprint for moving forward in Immigration Wars. I don't agree with every word of it, and I'm rather certain it would not be any ThreeSourcer's idea of perfection. It is a contentious debate, and apart from the bitter clingers on both extremes, I think the authors understand it is about compromise and understand it is about moving forward. While imperfect, if Congress were to pass it exactly as written, there is nothing in this book that I could not live with.
The best part is its two foundational premises:
We believe comprehensive reform should be constructed upon two core, essential values: first, that immigration is essential to our nation, and second, that immigration policy must be governed by the rule of law. Those who expound only one of those values to the exclusion of the other do violence to both, because the two values are inseparable.
Many of our circular, circuitous, and cicumlocutious immigration debates have danced around this, because I was unable to state my premises so clearly.
The authors are as pro-immigration as I am and the book celebrates many reasons for increasing and legalizing/normalizing additional immigration. The talk shows and political reviews have focused on their solution to current undocumented aliens. Those who came here as adults are offered a pathway to permanent legal status but not a head start toward citizenship. This is not the plan I'd write, but I can sign on if this is un-am-nasty enough for a plurality.
This is the most contentious issue, and the position of a prominent Republican is newsworthy. Some of the more subtle points are more interesting. Bush and Bolick call for refocusing preferences on skills and economic need in favor of "family reunification."
Reuniting someone with their long lost third cousin twice removed is sweet. But it sets up a chain migration that can grow without bounds. Plus, it is biased toward less productive new citizens. Spouses and children can follow an immigrant but no further. We're sending home doctors and entrepreneurs and physics geniuses to bring more grandmothers in. Sweet, but not in our best economic interests.
One hopes that this might get resolved. We cherish rule of law, yet look the other way for startling abuses to people and equal enforcement.
It is in no one's interest for illegal immigrants and their families to live in the shadows. We need everyone to participate in the mainstream economy, to pay taxes, to participate openly in their communities, to be willing to report crimes-- that is to say, to be accountable, responsible members of society. That cannot occur when people fear they will be arrested if their immigration status is known.
It is an enjoyable and quick read touching economics, education and politics. If the debate were moved forward in this direction, that would be a huge net positive.
UPDATE: That other fella named Bush has a very good guest editorial in the WSJ today.
March 11, 2013
Due to the bone-crunching blizzard this weekend, I regret that Sunday's Review Corner was not completed. (Out-of-staters, that's a joke -- the teevee news people prepared us for Snowmageddon all week and we got six inches and immediate heat to melt it).
In lieu of my completing, y'know, actual work, I offer the author c/o Prager University:
And some quotes:
Our ignorance of Coolidge hurts more than our understanding of the presidency; it diminishes our understanding of his era, and our past. The education in rhetoric, religion, classics, and geometry Coolidge received at his quirky independent school, Black River Academy, and at Amherst College reminds us how our schools have changed since then. Coolidge and the poet Robert Frost never knew much about each other; Coolidge was a Republican, Frost a Grover Cleveland Democrat. But the lives of the pair crossed in odd ways, including at Coolidge's college, Amherst. And Frost's themes-- independence, responsibility, character, property rights -- also preoccupied Coolidge.
It is hard for modern students of economics to know what to make of a government that treated economic weakness by raising interest rates 300 basis points, cutting tax rates, and halving the federal government, so much at odds is that prescription with the antidotes to recession our own experts tend to recommend. It is harder still for modern economists to concede that that recipe, the policy recipe for the early 1920s advocated by Coolidge and Harding, yielded growth on a scale to which we can aspire today.
Of particular interest to ThreeSourcers, however, will be Coolidge (and Harding's) fight to reclaim the party from TR and the Progressive wing -- enough to split Sen. Lafollette into a third party run in 1924.
But Roosevelt did not stay decorous long. By temperament Roosevelt was neither judge nor solicitor but prosecutor. In fact, he treated the White House as a prosecutor's office. In McKinley's time the Sherman Antitrust Act had not been used aggressively; Roosevelt, however, found it a useful tool. Roosevelt moved against the Northern Securities Company and J. P. Morgan aggressively, asking for the great company's dissolution. Astonished, J. P. Morgan asked TR if his other companies would be assailed. "Not unless we find out," said Roosevelt, "that they have done something we regard as wrong."
I knew the facts and personal anecdotes. Where Shlaes truly breaks a new intellectual trail is in identifying the break of the Boston Police strike not only as the event that launched the plainspoken Yankee Governor onto a national stage, but the event which separated him -- permanently -- from Progressivism.
Still, Coolidge felt certain of one thing. The progressives could not be met. Conciliation would not work. As he made his rounds in the now quiet city, he went over the police strike and kept coming to the same conclusion. This time, there was no middle ground.
A-freaking-men. Five Stars!
February 17, 2013
Editor's Choice Award
I'm perhaps too generous with stars in Review Corner. I'm pretty respectful of an Author's work, and -- contra Tyler Cowen -- by the time I invest the time and money in a book, I'm fairly certain I'll be interested. The problem is that I am left without tools to highlight that exceptional, once-a-year, mind-blowing book. My inner math guy will not allow six on a scale of five.
But this is a blog, and you can just make **** up as it pleases. Ergo and further pursuant to, I institute the "Editor's Choice Award" and if any of my blog brothers wish to award one, we'll move the apostrophe.
I retroactively award it to David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity." We discussed it last year, but I am in a thread on the JC-JK Book Club on it. And it is a reminder of the kind of book that gets something beyond five crummy little ThreeSources Review Corner stars.
The second recipient is the topic of today's Review Corner: Nassim Nicholas Taleb's: Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Both are mind blowing books by brilliant, off-the-charts-long-tail-genius authors. Curiously, Taleb contradicts many things I believe; Deutsch much fewer. I mention that only because my ThreeSources reviews are more political and philosophical than literary. To most I would not bring it up
To steep in the intelligence of either is a great gift. Taleb worked as a "quant:" the highest, brainiac job on Wall Street. He worked just long enough to earn what he calls his "f*** you money," enabling him to pursue life and knowledge on his own terms. He is a polyglot and a polymath. His books will quote philosophy, physics, business, medicine, ancient history, and the derivation of Aramaic words -- all before breakfast. I enjoyed Black Swan, but this is his Magnum Opus. It is divided into seven books, and he says "Black Swan" should rightfully be the eighth book in "Antifragile."
If you don't wish to commit $15.99 and some serious brain cycles to the book, I'd search the Internet for interviews and reviews where he author defines Antifragility. My description will be too short and incomplete:
Fragility, like the author's favorite tea cup, is the exposure to great harm from volatility. When asked for the antonym of fragile, most will choose "robust." The stone, unlike the tea cup, can be dropped on the floor or shaken in shipment. Taleb claims that we have no term for the actual antonym of fragile, so he provides the neologism "Antifragile." Antifragile things don't just weather volatility, they are strengthened by it. The first example is human bones. Six months of weightlessness in space or an extended hospital stay greatly reduces bone strength which requires stressors. Indeed the entire body profits from random stressors of exercise, fasting, &c.
Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions (dubbed "Soviet-Harvard delusions" in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems. This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.
Did I mention that Taleb is rudely dismissive of those he considers beneath him? This includes most people, but happily for the ThreeSourcer, academics and mainstream journalists top the list. Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman get some serious whacks. Alan Greenspan -- it's all good fun until he turns his sights on Hayek and Ronald Reagan (neither get it as bad as the others, but I am warning the ThreeSourcer...)
Academics, oh my:
A nail displaces another nail, with astonishing variety. But academics (particularly in social science) seem to distrust each other; they live in petty obsessions, envy, and icy-cold hatreds, with small snubs developing into grudges, fossilized over time in the loneliness of the transaction with a computer screen and the immutability of their environment. Not to mention a level of envy I have almost never seen in business.... My experience is that money and transactions purify relations; ideas and abstract matters like "recognition" and "credit" warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry. I grew to find people greedy for credentials nauseating, repulsive, and untrustworthy.
He's not very keen on Economists and big company CEOs.
Likewise, Gerd Gigerenzer reports a more serious violation on the part of Harry Markowitz, who started a method called "portfolio selection" and received the same iatrogenic Swedish Riskbank prize (called "Nobel" in economics) for it, like other fragilistas such as Fragilista Merton and Fragilista Stiglitz. I spent part of my adult life calling it charlatanism, as it has no validity outside of academic endorsements and causes blowups (as explained in the Appendix). Well, Doctor Professor Fragilista Markowitz does not use his method for his own portfolio; he has recourse to more sophisticated (and simpler to implement) cabdrivers' methodologies, closer to the one Mandelbrot and I have proposed.
If one judges a man by his enemies, Nassim Nicholas Taleb would be a ThreeSources hero and we would hold feasts in his honor with fireworks and martinis. Philosophically, it is hard to pin Taleb down. Some of his points should draw some amens from the ThreeSources choir:
The great benefit of the Enlightenment has been to bring the individual to the fore, with his rights, his freedom, his independence, his "pursuit of happiness" (whatever that "happiness" means), and, most of all, his privacy. In spite of its denial of antifragility, the Enlightenment and the political systems that emerged from it freed us (somewhat) from the domination of society, the tribe, and the family that had prevailed throughout history.
He's a great reader of philosophy. Of all the folks I read, I think only Popper (and Taleb is a Popper fan) has a close-to-equivalent grasp of straight-up philosophy. Taleb probably has an advantage in depth of Eastern, Islamic scholars. Taleb is an Eastern Orthodox Christian from Lebanon (Levant to him) he has a foot in the east and one in the west as it were, and he assembles his knowledge and philosophy from both.
He quotes approbationally from philosophers I have dressed in silver and black and put on the Raiders' sidelines: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and of course Plato. I can't help but feel his nuance is a higher order. He doesn't go to Hagel or Kant, the ThreeSourcer is safe from that. But he is no Randian.
Perhaps the idea behind capitalism is an inverse-iatrogenic effect, the unintended-but-not-so-unintended consequences: the system facilitates the conversion of selfish aims (or, to be correct, not necessarily benevolent ones) at the individual level into beneficial results for the collective.
And while he is not anti-modernity, he is skeptical -- here we separate him from Deutsch. He would gladly trade the "addition" via positiva of all Pharmaceuticals ever invented for the "subtraction" via negativa of smoking. He drinks coffee (mmm, coffee), chamomile tea and wine -- nothing that has not been around 1000 years. He doesn't approve of eReaders, he listens to baroque classical music. All of these seem rather charming to his character but I have no plans to join him.
You can certainly criticize medicine and Big Pharma for producing solutions with worse side effects than the disease. No doubt we've all had a chuckle at the narrated fine print in the commercials. But I (and Deutsch) see it as trial and error (a most antifragile process) on the way to better medicine and medication. Patients should consider his points, but I'm not going to shutter Roche and Merck.
Quibbles. Picayune philosophical quibbles with the brilliant work of a brilliant author. Five Stars and the coveted ThreeSources "Editor's Choice Award" to this magnificent book.
February 3, 2013
John Mackey's Conscious Capitalism is a free-range chicken sandwich, on a whole grain roll with mustard, tofu and arugula. With a side of quinoa salad. Some good stuff, but it just does not work.
Libertarians of all typographical cases are celebrating the book's release for its full-throated, fulsome defense of free market capitalism. And they are right.
In the long arc of history, no human creation has had a greater positive impact on more people more rapidly than free-enterprise capitalism. It is unquestionably the greatest system for innovation and social cooperation that has ever existed.
Mackey quotes Hayek, and Deidre McClosky. He knows and lives his Adam Smith. I dance at the idea that a huge hunk of patchouli stained college-know-it-all hippies will be exposed, for the first time, to the fundamental moral case for freedom and property rights. Veritably goose pimply.
And yet Mackey will not be walking away with as many stars as you're expecting. My Randian brothers and sisters have explained the problems with believing the right thing for the wrong reason, and I have struggled with that. I seek "Mutual Forbearance" like President Van Buren. I look to build political coalitions around common beliefs and have watched the liberty-minded bifurcate themselves into oblivion. Conscious Capitalism is Exhibit A for the defense.
If the book is 33% defense of Capitalism, it is undermined by the next 33%. This is "Conscious" Capitalism. And like President George W. Bush's "Compassionate" Conservatism, the modifier negates the noun.
Capitalism is swell, says Mackey, but we need to get past it to a squishy loving and caring capitalism that is not measured so much on profit as saving the world and being really groovy. Most readers would say that is unfair, but I got off to a bad start as the book's foreword by Medtronic's Bill George takes a swipe at a hero of mine:
I first discovered John Mackey's philosophies when I read his 2005 debate with Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman about the way capitalism works. Shortly before Friedman's death, Mackey challenged his view that the only responsibility of business is to its shareholders, which financial markets have translated into its short-term stock price. [Italics in original]
Mackey would hang his hat on the italics and accuse me of reading in things he did not write. And he'd probably point out that I am overweight from eating too much animal fats. But I'm with Friedman -- and bacon. Capital is a scarce resource -- are we going to allocate it based on value or social conscience? I fear I am being too harsh and welcome correction -- every ThreeSourcer should buy and read this book.
If 33% is defense of capitalism and 33% is exposition of his "conscious," new-and-improved capitalism, the remaining third is a business management book, a'la Pete Drucker or Steven Covey. Mackey has been wildly successful. He has generated incredible wealth and value and built one of the world's most respected brands. His business acumen is well worth sharing.
Does it square the circle? There is a great business case to be made for treating stakeholders well; there is no better leadership than instilling a higher purpose in your team; and all these things add shareholder value, which Friedman would appreciate. Mackey is gracious with approbation for other leaders of innovative companies: Costco, Southwest Airlines, &c. who have also created amazing shareholder value with the concepts espoused.
Yet at the end of the day, I see Conscious Capitalism as an out. Well, me missed our quarter, but the new Thursday all-day Yoga sessions are really going to help us connect with our feelings.
A couple of years ago, we saw a billboard for CareerBuilder.com at a bus shelter in New York City. The sign read, "If your company cared, it would be in the caring business." This is a sad but largely true statement; too many companies do not care and are not designed to care about anything other than their own prosperity.
Huh? What? With heavy heart, I apportion only 2.5 stars.
UPDATE: I'm being defensive before anybody even offers criticism, but I suggest John Allison performed the same task with philosophical purity. His [Unadjectived] Capitalism is no less empowering than Mackey's CC: workers are happy and management practices integrity. Yet Allison recognizes that capital is a scarce resource and proper allocation requires conventional scorekeeping.
January 29, 2013
ThreeSources Book Club
The object of last week's Review Corner was not available on Kindle. So I have an actual, corporeal paperback edition to give away. I know I only gave it three stars but the price is right -- holler if you'd like it.
January 27, 2013
In last week's Review Corner, I confessed that my lack of knowledge about the events, places, and people in Ancient Rome reduced my ability to appreciate Gibbon's work.
From Rome, I set the WayBack Machine™ to antebellum America. Blog friend TGreer surfaced on Facebook and recommended Harry L. Watson's Liberty and Power. Contra Rome, I know the stories in here chapter and verse -- enough that I found the exposition sections a little dry. Interesting that Watson accepts "The Corrupt Bargain" between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay as factual. The biographers of Adams, Clay and Jackson that I've read tend to think it more of a tin ear for politics well exploited.
If we're to travel well worn roads, what new insights can the author bring? There is one Watson does extremely well and one he does poorly.
The assembly and rise of the Democrat and Whig parties -- indeed the acceptance of a two-party system of governance is covered very well. I will recommend this book to a lot of big-L Libertarian and "No Labels" types. I'm frequently told that a new third party is going to come along and fix everything. "It happens all the time" I am told. Well, it happened three times, in a smaller nation under extreme exigencies.
I always credited Van Buren's vision and wizardry with the creation of a national Democratic Party. Watson shows the importance of Jackson's cult of personality. He perhaps soft pedals the Little Magician's use of spoils and patronage, but an accurate assessment surely requires both.
The foundation of the Whigs and the integration and recruitment of multiple small factions is especially interesting: probably my favorite part of the book. Not having voluminous exit-polling data from the 1836 and 1840 elections, he looks at the counties of Western New York that were growing after completion of the Erie Canal (damned, Whiggish internal improvements!), the factions they attracted and their voting patterns in different years.
Into what crucible can we throw this heterogeneous mass of old national republicans, and revolting Jackson men; Masons and anti-Masons; Abolitionists and pro-Slavery men; Bank men and anti-Bank men with all the lesser fragments that have been, from time to time, thrown off from the great political wheel in its violent revolutions, so as to melt them down into one mass of pure Whigs of undoubted good metal -- Millard Fillmore
Less well done was the book's premise. The title and colophon address the balance of liberty and power. It is often and well discussed but Watson is a history professor at the University of North Carolina. If one loves history one must read academics or chose from a very small pool of material. But the good professor cannot grasp liberty were it to bite him in his professorial ass.
There is a great discussion of the bank war and the nullification crisis. Watson tries to present all sides. No doubt he has forgotten more about the historical than I have known. But he cannot accept that the BUS might be (nay, is sir!) philosophically wrong. The viewpoint of capitalists, agrarians, craftsmen, workers and politicians from both sides are meticulously examined. But in a book that looks to examine liberty and power, the little-l libertarian side of monetary policy is not even considered. The same can be said for internal improvements, arrogation of power to the executive, and to some extent federalism.
A very good book, but I would give it three stars and suggest that most would prefer John Meacham's American Lion or David Heidler's Henry Clay: the Essential American.
January 20, 2013
Linquo (I quit)
The victory over the senate was easy and inglorious. Every eye and every passion were directed to the supreme magistrate, who possessed the arms and treasure of the state; whilst the senate, neither elected by the people, nor guarded by military force, nor animated by public spirit, rested its declining authority on the frail and crumbling basis of ancient opinion. The fine theory of a republic insensibly vanished, and made way for the more natural and substantial feelings of monarchy.It's easy to draw parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire. Easier still to be concerned with that which brought down the last great world hegemon. Without discounting them entirely, I fear they are overblown. But I am getting ahead of the review corner.
I finished Volume I of Edward Gibbon's (2011-10-14). History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, It is very interesting, but I think I will find my inner Tyler Cowan and move on to some other material before tackling Vol. II.
I was concerned that it would be too dry. You know those 18th Century guys can go on sometimes. Rather, any difficulty is that he is too conversational and assumes too much background knowledge of the reader. Gibbon's 18th Century readers knew the emperors and key historical events. This allowed the author to comment and draw broad themes. Imagine somebody in 2325 figuring out the Clinton Impeachment from Hitchens's "No One Left to Lie To;" one could...
I enjoy old history books for the meta layer of how people at the time of authorship viewed the events. Carl Swisher's 1935 biography of Chief Justice Taney is pretty short of opprobrium for the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. To read a contemporary of the Founders exegete on millennia old events is a great mental exercise. Kind of like playing video games at a Rave on Ecstasy.
The takeaway after one-sixth, however, is the Hobbesian cheapness of life. Tens of thousands are slain in battles. The whole Senate is poisoned (or was that a dream I had?). The Imperial purple is pretty much a death sentence. I wonder if a lot of the didn't go to battle for personal safety. There is the occasional 40 years of relative peace and safety if the dice come up two benevolent and sturdy monarchs in a row. But these patches seem awfully rare -- and include absolute slavery, a pervasive but not absolute caste system, foreign adventurism. Most every history book elicits an "I'm glad I didn't live then" out of me. But Ancient Rome: especially no thanks.
I chose to infer parallels between the Roman Empire and the USA more as universal truths than comparison of democracies. The franchise was so limited and temporal that I find it difficult to assess Rome as self-rule. Capricious monarchies controlled lives and fortunes more like the EPA than any system we would call "democratic." The near provinces enjoyed the services of government without paying their fair share. They financed services the old fashioned way: plundering neighboring lands.
The conquest of Macedonia, as we have already observed, had delivered the Roman people from the weight of personal taxes. Though they had experienced every form of despotism, they had now enjoyed that exemption near five hundred years;
Still, there are eternal truths. The first example of supply-side economics?
Constantine visited the city of Autun, and generously remitted the arrears of tribute, reducing at the same time the proportion of their assessment from twenty-five to eighteen thousand heads, subject to the real and personal capitation.40 Yet even this indulgence affords the most unquestionable proof of the public misery. This tax was so extremely oppressive, either in itself or in the mode of collecting it, that whilst the revenue was increased by extortion, it was diminished by despair: a considerable part of the territory of Autun was left uncultivated; and great numbers of the provincials rather chose to live as exiles and outlaws, than to support the weight of civil society.
Roots of the IRS?
About that time the avarice of Galerius, or perhaps the exigencies of the state, had induced him to make a very strict and rigorous inquisition into the property of his subjects, for the purpose of a general taxation, both on their lands and on their persons. A very minute survey appears to have been taken of their real estates; and wherever there was the slightest suspicion of concealment, torture was very freely employed to obtain a sincere declaration of their personal wealth.
Interesting and good clean fun. I think my time would be better served with a more modern, chronological, structured history of the period. Between Gibbon's loose style, and my ignorance about the people and places mentioned, this reads like a science fiction novel Illyricum/Alderon? Some place.
But I spent 2.99 and have five volumes left! Three-point-five stars.
January 13, 2013
I love Penn Jillette. He is funny, appreciative of liberty, and celebrates the rational.
I have mentioned that his evangelism gets on my nerves. He can be the Governor Huckabee for Atheism, but I try to respect others' beliefs. Like Hitchens, I buy all but his most devout writings. Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!: More Magical Tales from the Author of God, No! was on the edge, but I was due a Penn book so I picked it up.
The book is a collection of short essays and stories. It starts with "the title cut" including a very funny riff on the severity of Christmas Carols. I had family over for Christmas right after finishing this book, and there were quite a few choruses everyone was laughing at. So here is the thesis to the book:
The word "holiday" comes from "holy day" and holy means "exalted and worthy of complete devotion.” By that definition, all days are holy. Life is holy. Atheists have joy every day of the year, every holy day. We have the wonder and glory of life. We have joy in the world before the lord is come. We're not going for the promise of life after death; we're celebrating life before death.
That's the thesis, but it quickly devolves into autobiographical sketches, philosophical musings, and general libertine madness. One of the items Jonathan Haidt uses to test psychological reaction to unexpected depravity appears in this book as a humorous anecdote. I'll not share that particular tale here. But there is much good fun to be had:
My girlfriend could now convince me to put on jeans and a shirt, so we decided to have a Thanksgiving celebration at our house. We invited a creepy elderly sideshow sword swallower, a lighting designer, Teller, a guy who had just quit dealing angel dust in Fresno and was hanging out with us to help him stay clean, and a geologist. It's always important to have a geologist around so that if you end up in space, there's someone to die first. At least that's what happens on Star Trek.
He explores what art is and his belief in Magic as "using lies to tell the truth."
I couldn't have put myself in the same category. I aimed for poet and hit Vegas headliner. Billy West, the greatest voice guy in the world (he's Futurama, Ren & Stimpy and the best M&M-- red), once said there was just one showbiz and we were all in it. Teller says art is anything we do after the chores are done.
A wee bit of politics sneaks in:
The real corporate EPCOT follows the libertarian ideal of making money. Goddamn, they are good at that. Losing on Dancing with the Stars got me VIP treatment at all the Disney properties "forever," which turned out to be about a year. We took our children over to California and down to Florida and we were treated great. I did worry a little that my children would be spoiled by not waiting in lines, but then ObamaCare was passed and I know they'll get to wait in lines when they're sick and that'll build some real character.
If you're getting the idea of a grab bag, you've got it. But they are unified by the Jillette's humor, and incredible underlying honesty. They're great stories, they're funny stories -- from a true believer.
January 6, 2013
When I went to purchase Justice Scalia's "Reading Law" [Review Corner] I accidentally purchased another book by the same authors: Scalia and Garner's Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges. It might have been wishful thinking, as "Making Your Case" was $15 and "Reading Law" was $40. In the end, Nino got $55. Damned one percenters.
Making Your Case is targeted at lawyers -- and I do not even play one on TV. But I do like to argue (Do Not! Yes I do!) and I would like to communicate my positions more clearly. And a bit of time in a mind so expansive as Justice Scalia's is not time wasted.
You need to give the court a reason you should win that the judge could explain in a sentence or two to a nonlawyer friend.
I love internecine debate, and the authors split over a few items. Bryan Garner (O tempora, O mores!) suggests that you can even use contractions in you brief:
In some sentences, are not contractions all but obligatory? Do you not think?
Formality bespeaks dignity. I guarantee that if you use contractions in your written submissions, some judges--including many who are not offended by the use of contractions in the New Yorker, Time, Vogue, the Rolling Stone, Field and Stream, and other publications not addressed to black-robed judges engaged in the exercise of their august governmental powers--will take it as an affront to the dignity of the court.
An interesting look at a career I never considered. From what I gather between the virtual covers of this book, that was pretty wise on my part. Yet, I admit it has fascinated me later in life. This book gives a good glimpse and much advice that is valuable outside of law. Five accidental stars.
December 30, 2012
I had the good fortune to share the evening with 2.5 Heinlein scholars on Friday night. That is an excellent method to prepare for a Review Corner -- I'll try to keep that up whenever possible: convene a small panel. I got some interesting historical perspectives, plus the empirically provable observation that "I am weird."
I was also reminded that I was not the target demographic. The martial tone and the action sequences were better tuned to younger folk, who would then encounter the more serious ideas in the book.
This very personal relationship, "value," has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him . . . and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts "the best things in life are free." Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted . . . and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.
I enjoyed it but yearned to return to my boring old non-fiction as I have lost much of my taste for fiction and novels. Ergo, I do not intend to pen the world's 3,463rd literary review of Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers. I suspect ThreeSourcers would better enjoy a discussion of its central premise.
We have had enough guesses; I'll state the obvious: Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.
I'll let the Rand-Heinlein Axis squirm on that pivot for a moment, but I think most know that citizenship needed to be earned by national service. Our protagonist impulsively casts aside a cushy fast track through Harvard and family wealth to fight in the Mobile Infantry so he can vote. (And, of course, to pick up chicks.)
Blog Brother EY suggested that this was the only solution to democracies' devolving into voting themselves bread and circuses from the Federal Largesse. I too am tortured by this problem -- especially so after November 7, 2012. It is a perfectly valid hypothetical and would probably provide a government better than most. I'd be more comfortable placing my trust in America's veterans than the polity at large. Even though my friend JC would vote but not me, I could be persuaded.
But I am going to dissent from this solution on two counts.
One. It is hypothetical. I am a big fan of the United States Constitution. It started with some flaws that we fixed; and it had some original genius that we broke. But in between, it created a continental nation, and a global economic and military power. I make the same complaint that I do of the Rothbard - Rockwell - Lysander Spooner libertarian wing. Your ideas are interesting, but I am wary to compare the text on clean white sheets of paper (or Kindle eInk) to messy, real world empiricism. That, and well-tailored Che T-shirts, are what make Marxists look good.
Two. The two greatest things in American government -- and I will suggest they are one -- are civilian control of the military and our peaceful procession of power. Tears of joy at every inauguration: even when I disagree, I am happy that the people can choose to get it good and hard (Thanks, Mister Mencken!)
Reading Gibbon's little book on Rome, I was struck by the tumult of keeping the military in line. In all the contretemps and intrigue, the path to a career as Emperor seems to consist of knocking off the present officeholder and then getting the support of the armed forces.
The command of these favored and formidable troops soon became the first office of the empire. As the government degenerated into military despotism, the Praetorian Praefect, who in his origin had been a simple captain of the guards, was placed not only at the head of the army, but of the finances, and even of the law. In every department of administration, he represented the person, and exercised the authority, of the emperor.
Witness Gens. Wesley Clark and Colin Powell and (seven?) generals who have ascended to the Presidency. It is a political profession. A branch of most governments. Do we want to introduce a closer integration between the military and government?
I'm less worried about taste for adventurism and conquest. Rep. Ron Paul's candidacies remind that that appetite may be suppressed among those who have tasted it. I think that over time the lines would blur between military and government. And that losing that sharp interstice might introduce new problems to politics which we have been fortunate to avoid.
December 28, 2012
I'll post a review of Starship Troopers this Sunday. No doubt it will benefit from association with Heinleinian Blog Brothers and Sisters at this evening's bash.
I recently started Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (only 5.994 books to go!) and was struck by this as a sort of Anti-SsT concept. In Rome you had to be a citizen to be a soldier:
In the purer ages of the commonwealth, the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest as well as duty to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade. 30 The legions themselves, even at the time when they were recruited in the most distant provinces, were supposed to consist of Roman citizens.
December 27, 2012
Review Corner Follow-Up
Dinosaurs were cold-blooded. Increased K-12 spending and lower pupil/teacher ratios boost public school student outcomes. Most of the DNA in the human genome is junk. Saccharin causes cancer and a high fiber diet prevents it. Stars cannot be bigger than 150 solar masses.
December 23, 2012
I want to start a fight right before Christmas on The Jc-Jk Book Club. I promised a review by Sunday of Don Fabun's "The Dynamics of Change." My pal jc will soon counter with his thoughts on ThreeSources' fave David Deutsch's "Beginning of Infinity."
Much more than our previous book exchange, I enjoyed this one. It's a big coffee-table book full of great photographs, illustrations, and quotes.
Curiously, it is very similar to the Deutsch book (without the "pitchers"). Fabun, in 1965, tries to look ahead to the mystical far off 1980's and picture what the world will be like. Not George Jetson and Rosie, he is surprisingly prescient about several things. He nails the iPod if not quite the iPhone:
That's it--over there on the bureau where you left it last night--your electronic alter-ego. It is no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, yet It has stored in it everything you have ever experienced. Ask it a question, and if it doesn't have the answer, it will plug into some system that does; a Federal central information service, a state service, a municipal one.GPS, Google® cars:
This will be done by guidance systems in the vehicle. There will be television surveillance of every mile of highway so that a dispatcher can anticipate problems and correct them before congestion builds up, or take remedial action after an accident has occurred.
Like Deutsch, Fabun is optimistic about the future and sees a large role for technology. He even imagines Norman Borlaug but is unwilling to commit to the vision:
What more is needed as evidence that the serpent has transfixed at with his stare? Says The New York Times, July 12, 1965, The report by a government task force) observes that 10,000 persons die every day from malnutrition and starvation and that with food production declining and population increasing ... the world would be hard put to feed itself by 1980. The report estimates that about 70 per cent of the children in less developed countries are undernourished or malnourished.... About 50 per cent of all children up to 6 years old and about 30 per cent of the age group from 7 to 14 are labeled as 'seriously malnourished.' It is reported that about half the children in less developed countries including the Latin America countries, never reach their sixth birthday."
Great news Don: Borlaug was found, unprecedented growth did happen, and except in the most corrupt countries and those least respective of property rights, Latin America is doing pretty well.
Whereupon I diverge with Fabun. He reads the best and brightest of his day and is certain that their brainpower can be harnessed to create the brave new world. Yet history has shown that central planning produces "Brave New World." Spontaneous order, freedom, and crowdsourced innovation, on the other hand, produce unimaginable wealth.
Both Deutsch and Fabun see an unbounded sphere for man. Fabun sees an iPod and the Internet in 1965; Deutsch sees us mining asteroids and spreading through the galaxies in 2011. Deutsch is an Oxford professor and I doubt very much he shares many of my political views. I'm guessing he's a chattering class Guardian reader.
But he does not look to the faculty lounge for the future, rather to enlightenment values: Popperian epistemology and the scientific method (If you dig "Infinity," I highly highly highly recommend his "The Fabric of Reality.") These require freedom, trial and error, not central planning.
This being our second "book swap," I'd point this out as a unifying theme. Both your suggestions suggested that we get in line and follow our wise leaders -- both of mine say get the hell out of the way and let human beings create.
But I'll give this one four stars.
[Comment right here, or join the rough and tumble on Facebbok: The Jc-Jk Book Club]
December 16, 2012
How about a little epistemology, scarecrow? I must admit, it is probably my favorite field. I prize the scientific method as the pinnacle of reason and foundation of our wealth and comfort. David Deutsch elevates it to one thread of four in his "Fabric of Reality;" Karl Popper moves so naturally between it and philosophy as to annoy a good friend of mine who wants "just the science stuff."
If you dig it too -- and you know you do -- you will dig The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman. My interest was piqued by a WSJ review which highlighted the degradation of facts, how many are proven wrong. The best example is probably a transcription error in the iron content of spinach. One newspaper prints that it has 35 and not 3.5mg of iron per 100 grams -- and the legend of Popeye is born!
That is the hook, but the book is more nuanced and more interesting than that. Like the title suggests, he puts actual numbers around the statistical shift in knowledge: how quickly new information is added, how quickly erroneous information is corrected or discarded in certain fields. Both hard and soft science are studied.
Technology can even affect economic facts. Computer chips, in addition to becoming more powerful, have gone from prohibitively expensive to disposable. Similarly, while aluminum used to be the most valuable metal on Earth, it plummeted in price due to technological advances that allowed it to be extracted cheaply. We now wrap our leftovers in it.
ThreeSourcers will enjoy a long-delayed correction from the New York Times. On January 13, 1920, the New York Times ridiculed the ideas of Robert H. Goddard:
Goddard, a physicist and pioneer in the field of rocketry, was at the time sponsored by the Smithsonian. Nonetheless, the Gray Lady argued in an editorial that thinking that any sort of rocket could ever work in the vacuum of space is essentially foolishness and a blatant disregard for a high school understanding of physics. The editors even went into reasonable detail in order to debunk Goddard. Luckily, the Times was willing to print a correction. The only hitch: They printed it the day after Apollo 11's launch in 1969. Three days before humans first walked on the moon, they recanted their editorial with this bit of understatement: Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
Maybe they'll get around to Walter Duranty and the Ukraine Famine someday...
But this is five stars for certain. Just enough math, non-political but serious to deflect the bad arguments of junk science, and an entertaining read.
December 9, 2012
And now for something completely different. After three Randian books, I read -- at the suggestion of a good friend of this blog -- Francis Collins's The Language of God. Collins attempts to sell belief to scientists and science to believers. Before we begin, it is worth noting that he is something of a Hoss. From his Amazon page:
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., helped to discover the genetic misspellings that cause cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington's disease, and a rare form of premature aging called progeria. A pioneer gene hunter, he led the Human Genome Project from 1993 until 2008. For his revolutionary contributions to genetic research, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, and the National Medal of Science in 2009.
The book is very well written and I enjoyed it. As I confessed to my recommender, in 11 years of Catholic school education, I received exactly one semester of intellectually rigorous theology. He and another good friend did hard time with the Jesuits. I wish I had encountered more. The most enlightening spiritual parts of his book may be the C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine quotes. I've read a little Lewis and Zero Augz.
What the book did really well is sell science to the believer. Most of the text is devoted to providing a theological context to evolution and the big bang. Collins is no friend of Creationism, Intelligent Design, or Young Earthers (Senator Rubio, line one...) I confess that most people I know accept every word of his. It matches what I was taught in Catholic schools. I never saw science as the enemy to belief.
I found it less convincing in the converse: selling belief to the scientist. To Collins belief is self-reinforcing and the arguments sound circular. I don't know that this is bad -- that's what faith is right? Once it is demonstrable, it ceases to be faith -- no salvation for "Rock, Hard." He certainly provides a framework for the scientist to accept belief, but I didn't find the Tolkien-finally-breaks-down-Lewis argument.
I was troubled by the denial of human qua human greatness. I argue this on Facebook with my atheist buddies. Bushels of Carl Sagan quotes about how we are the hair on a bacteria of a flea of the dog that is the universe -- and why do we think we're so damn special? A lefty buddy asks me to prove that we are the only animal with free will. I suggest "deferred production" and he comes up with the example of a slime mold that leaves some bacteria to grow. Yes, JC, I admit it: us and slime mold, we're the great creatures endowed with free will and reason.
Collins does score by pointing out that:
By any estimation, the biological complexity of human beings considerably exceeds that of a roundworm, with its total of 959 cells, even though the gene count is similar for both. And certainly no other organism has sequenced its own genome!
Yet he later provides a long C.S. Lewis quote that ends :
But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods.... They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, "This is our business, not yours." But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives. We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence.
My belief was always more defined by "render unto Caesar..." we are completely free to operate in the material, mammon sphere if we behave well. We're adjectives now?
I am not comfortable telling a guy like Collins, or my many believing friends of liberty not to believe. The Richard Dawkinses and even sadly the Christopher Hitchenses and Penn Jilletts can be as tiresome to me as TV preachers. Many people accept democratic capitalism under a rubric of love-thy-neighbor, I choose a render-under-Caesar appreciation of reason and consistent philosophy.
Very interesting read -- four stars.
November 18, 2012
I enjoyed Gene Healy's "Cult of the Presidency." No doubt my references to it have become tedious over these last four years. But in all the right-left, conservative-libertarian, platonic-aristotelian discussion, I think it underappreciated how many of our freedom issues stem from the removal of Constitutional balance-of-power. If we did not think our presidents the leader of the free world and our dad, they would be far more limited in the rumpus they could cause.
Healy nails this in "Cult." It is an important look at the arrogation of power to the executive and is bipartisan in his disapprobation. The book details a litany of transgressors as we lost the idea of a constitutional magistrate a long time ago, but the book spends most pages thumping one President George W. Bush. I read it after Obama had been elected and laughed under my breath: "Oh. Gene, Gene...buddy you have no idea how much worse things are going to get."
Wishes do come true and the author has released an e-book update to cover the first Obama Administration. False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency
Over the last few years, when people asked me if I planned to write another book, I'd demur, joking that I could just update The Cult of the Presidency every four to eight years with details on whatever fresh hell the next president visits on the country. The joke was on me, it seems. When it comes to presidential cults, Barack Obama turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving-- an irresistible opportunity to put Cult's themes in front of a new set of readers.
It remains celebrity and Congressional pusillanimity that gives our President such power -- not parchment.
"In a republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates," Madison wrote in Federalist 51, and he actually worried about whether the president would have sufficient power to resist congressional encroachment.
I had hoped that waving the specter of the eeevil George Bush, that I might be able to bring some of my lefty friends into the fold on this. In 2017, maybe I can.
Four stars (just 'cause much of the meat is all in first book) but it is great -- and a deal at $3.49.
November 11, 2012
The Cato Institute is in good hands.
I read John Allison's The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure: Why Pure Capitalism is the World Economy's Only Hope shortly after finishing Yaron Brook's "Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government." They are, curiously, the same book.
Allison saw the drama unfold from his point of view as head of BB&T Bank. Allison's take is a lot more detailed and technical than Brook's (while far less technical than Edward Conard's Unintended Consequences), but the two Rand acolytes are in synch philosophically and economically.
Allison was John Galt in Don Luskin's "I Am John Galt," and he describes how her principles guided the management team of BB&T, keeping them out of trouble even though real estate was a huge portion of their business and their geographic areas were among the worst hit. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished in government. BB&T was forced to take TARP funds it did not need, and Allison "went Galt" shortly after:
Unfortunately, BB& T's highly decentralized decision structure has largely been destroyed by the recent regulatory attack. This is true irony in that while BB& T's structure radically outperformed the industry, we have been forced to replicate the credit decision structure of Citigroup, Wachovia, Bank of America, and others, which fundamentally failed. However, a centralized structure gives the regulators a greater sense of control.
Both Brook and Allison use the Bernie Madoff example to separate self-destruction from rational self-interest.
In my role as CEO of a large public company, I have had the opportunity to meet many financially successful people. I have never met anyone who was both financially successful and happy who achieved this result primarily by taking advantage of other people. I have met a few people who were financially successful who, I believe, achieved this result based on some level of deceit. These are the unhappiest people I have ever met.
Unlike Conard (and like Brook), Allison sees little or no role for government regulators. Bad banks gotta fail and people have to select good banks and allow reputation and yield to manage the risk.
Many independents and moderates who are skeptical of big government believe that we do need many regulations. They fail to recognize the incredible march of the regulatory state. They also do not understand that, as public choice theory has proven, government bureaucrats are often motivated by destructive incentives. In my career, since 1971, I cannot think of a single additional regulation placed on the financial services industry that did not reduce the efficiency of the industry and lower the country's overall standard of living. The only success stories have been deregulations (such as interstate branching).
Lots of excerpts in this review, and trust me, there were a criminal number of great ones that did not make the cut. I'll give this book five stars and the heartiest of recommendations. I'll close with this bone to the Randians, from footnote #3:
I also thought about titling the book How the Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (1783) Caused the Financial Crisis, but that was too obscure for most people, although it was more accurate, since Kant was the major philosophical opponent of reason who put an end to the Enlightenment century (1700s) that indelibly shaped the founding of the United States.
November 4, 2012
Man, am I ever behind in writing Review Corners. I finished the selection for the Jc-Jk Book Club. but want to give my interlocutor seem time to catch up. The selection foisted upon me was short and he delivered a copy (what service!) Much to say later, but it was actually enjoyable.
I have a few finished books to review, but think it is time to address Yaron Brooks's Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government.
I'll start, and we can attempt virtual book club in the comments. But I will start at the end:
Stop letting the enemies of capitalism claim the moral high ground. There is nothing noble about altruism, nothing inspiring about the initiation of force, nothing moral about Big Government, nothing compassionate about sacrificing the individual to the collective. Don't be afraid to dismiss those ideas as vicious, unjust attacks on the pursuit of happiness, and self-confidently assert that there is no value higher than the individual's pursuit of his own well-being.
That remains the most difficult of Rand's ideas to accept. I do not disagree with a word of it. But I am drawn to the economic arguments and the pragmatic political possibilities. Brook in person (really, watch the video if you were not there) and in this book is affable and forthright. And I confess that I am finally seeing the wisdom of attacking the problem at a deeper level even if it is difficult.
Brook's clarity and humor bring principles to life.
It's crucial, here, that the use of force be physical. There is no such thing as forcing someone via emotional or intellectual means. If your loser brother-in-law guilts you into paying his bills, he didn't make you pay his bills. If Amazon runs a really great commercial for the Kindle Fire, Jeff Bezos didn't make you buy one -- he persuaded you. If peer pressure leads you to jump off a bridge, you still had the power to heed your mother's advice.[...]
The worst victims of this injustice are the ambitious poor. By sapping immense amounts of capital from productive individuals, the entitlement state cuts down on the number of businesses that get launched, the number of jobs that get created, the amount of economic progress that takes place, the amount of economic opportunity that is available. Although the wealthy can get by in an entitlement state, at least for a while, those wishing to climb out of poverty often cannot.
I attempted to make an argument, a week before seeing Dr. Brook, against the altruism that celebrates Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's giving money away more than the massive good done by their earning it. I failed and perhaps could not do much better after the book to separate benevolence -- which is good -- from altruism. Modern people use the terms interchangeably, not thinking of Comte but of kind neighbors. Being against kind neighbors is a tough sell.
At the same time, ceding the moral ground cannot continue.
Individual liberty means that if you develop a scientific theory that holds that the earth revolves around the sun, no pope can silence you. If you want to follow your dream of becoming an electrician, no bureaucrat can demand that you first get a government license. If you and your doctor judge that an experimental new drug is the best shot you have at saving your life, you don't have to consult some FDA official. If you want to revolutionize transportation, you don't have to explain yourself to Rex Tugwell.
I am coming around...
October 14, 2012
It Is So On!
I have to issue some personal props to my pal, JC. Most of the Colorado contingent knows him personally, and other ThreeSourcers may remember some heterodoxical comments. My friend is a man of the left and a Malthusian who sees much of what I call progress as questionable because of environmental impact.
But this guy engages with me on Facebook and drove across town on a Friday afternoon to surprise/meet me at the 3:55 showing of Atlas Shrugged Part II.
Most notably, out of dozens of attempts, he remains the only one to take me up on one of my "I'll read any book you suggest if you'll read X" offers. We discussed round one a bit on these pages. He surprised me by showing up to the movie, and he himself suggested another "book challenge." I accepted, of course, and he ran to the car to get a treasured copy of Don Fabun's "The Dynamics of Change." After a brief discussion, I countered with David Deutsch's "Beginning of Infinity" discussed 'round these parts
We briefly discussed "virtual book club" and I have made an attempt here. As JC is a Facebook guy (Doyen of the infamous FB nemeses), I started a Facebook Page: The JC-JK Book Club. A couple ThreeSourcers have "liked" it -- as have a bunch of lefty pals. Should be a wang dang doodle if anybody else cares to pile in.
October 7, 2012
The word of the day is "relitigate." As in: "It is too soon to relitigate the events and policies of the Bush Administration."
But one is forced to, in conquering Condoleezza Rice's No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Rip those wounds open, relive the good times and bad.
The next morning I went down to the gym to exercise and found myself in the company of Tony Blair, with whom the President was to meet that morning. "Well, George has stirred it up a bit," he said with characteristic British understatement. The President came in a few minutes later and talked about the speech, explaining why he'd made it and that he had intended it as a clear indication of his dedication to Middle East peace.
Yes, George stirred it up a bit. Rice is unflinchingly loyal to President Bush, Secretary Colin Powell, and to her team at State and the NSC. VP Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld, conversely, get hung out to dry on occasion -- but not in the long knives style of many DC memoirs. She is respectful and considerate of their positions while she unabashedly advocates hers.
Rice mixes the personal with the historical. The book proceeds chronologically. Not quite President Carter's White House Diary, but she hews pretty close to the timeline. I don't know about the mix of personal. I'll confess that sometimes the book seems a little too long. And yet, many of the anecdotes are satisfying:
The spring of 2002 gave me one of the best imaginable reasons to practice. One day in March, my assistant Liz Lineberry had come in to say that Yo-Yo Ma was on the phone and wanted to speak to me. "You mean the cellist?" I asked. "I think so," she answered. It was indeed the greatest living cellist of our time, and he had a proposition for me. He was receiving the National Medal of the Arts on April 22 and wondered if perhaps we could play something together at the ceremony. We'd met at Stanford several years earlier, when he'd given a concert there. At the time his "Let's play together sometime" comment had seemed to be just a polite throwaway line. But now here he was, asking me, the failed piano major, to play with him.
Other great personal glimpses relate to her achievement from her beginnings as "a poor black girl from Birmingham." The book begins with the '99 campaign, but she and Alma Powell reflect on their shared background in Buckingham Palace before retiring for the night.
One cannot help but compare her story to Michelle Obama's "first time I was proud of my Country" comment. I accept that the left has a different cannon for patriotism. Yet, one hears Rice celebrating the possible while others distain the challenge. She is moving as she describes becoming the 65th replacement for Thomas Jefferson.
With the President and my Aunts Gee and Mattie and Uncle Alto looking on, my friend and Watergate neighbor Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read the oath of office. As I repeated it, I took in every word:
Too soon to relitigate, but it is an engaging story of a woman I admire very much and a candid look at the inner workings of the Executive Branch. Four stars.
September 23, 2012
There's more to life than politics and dusty old economic texts. Why there's culture and art and architecture and Minneapolis geography and the music of our youth and the understated excitement of sexual attraction.
Who better to serve as a spirit guide for these than James Lileks?
Leaf through this blog or my predecessor blog, and my appreciation for Lileks will be on full display. He is a clever, provocative and funny writer. His political stuff carries more force because of its rarity. In addition, he seems to be the renaissance man of the commercial Internet: always experimenting, always something new commercially or design or just outrageous content like the story woven around the matchbooks.
I set aside my non-fiction for his new novel Graveyard Special. In Lileksian Internet pioneering style, I think it is Kindle Only. It is light enough that it would be a fun and comfortable read on a PC or tablet's Kindle reader for all you luddites that have the books with the paper and the cover-thingies.
Whatever your method, read this masterpiece. It is vintage Lileks: a bit noir-y but with a great deal more humor. I was the annoying guy at the coffee shop last week LOL-ing with my Kindle. But Lileks lines come one after another:
Joe was depressed. But we'll get to that. You can't tell the story of Dinkytown in the End Times without dealing with Joe's epic, all-consuming, life-smothering depression. It probably showed up on weather radar as a small black dot.
And politics is never missing, even if it is not central to the storyline:
The new cook was sitting in A-6, his right foot jackhammering up and down, smoking a cigarette, reading the Worker's World. He had a T-shirt that announced his solidarity with the latest batch of communists in Central America. Vic was the name. Dick's brother. He seemed friendly enough, but every so often I'd see him flick his eyes over the restaurant, and he'd get that "some day this will all belong to the people" look, and I had the suspicion that his people weren't, you know, people as the term is generally understood.
It's Lileks. It's 3.99 on Kindle. It's five stars. What are you doing still reading me?
September 16, 2012
If I had a time machine, I would go back a couple months and try reading Niall Ferguson's Civilization first, then Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity. Just an experiment, I'm not saying one order is better than another. But it is interesting to compare, as both try to explain the same thing.
Ferguson starts man's leap out of the primordial economic ooze a couple centuries sooner than McCloskey, and while his version of events does not contradict McCloskey, he cites six "killer apps" that allowed the West to outpace "The Rest." Ferguson provides the Cliff Notes to his book at the beginning and at the end:
Why did the West dominate the Rest and not vice versa? I have argued that it was because the West developed six killer applications that the Rest lacked. These were:
That's the whole book. Saved you $16.99 I did! I would highly recommend the entire work, however. Ferguson, like McCloskey, is a serious student of history, pulling out amazing and illustrative anecdotes from Ancient China or the Ottoman Empire like I quote Buffy. It's an enjoyable and substantive book.
His examples fascinate. His explanation of "#6 Work" goes beyond Calvinism to tie Christianity fundamentally to freedom. That could keep ThreeSourcers up until the wee hours separating the finer points
Protestantism, [Max Weber] argued, "has the effect of liberating the acquisition of wealth from the inhibitions of traditionalist ethics; it breaks the fetters on the striving for gain not only by legalizing it, but . . . by seeing it as directly willed by God".
He joins Reason in highlighting Western Culture's contributions to bringing down Soviet Communism. This old Reagan/Thatcher guy rejects efforts to undermine their accomplishments (and Pope JPII), but rock and roll and blue jeans cannot be forgotten, either.
So why not just let Czechoslovakian students have all the jeans and rock 'n' roll they wanted? The answer is that the consumer society posed a lethal threat to the Soviet system itself. It was market-based. It responded to signals from consumers themselves -- their preference for jeans over flannel trousers, or for Mick Jagger over Burt Bacharach. And it devoted an increasing share of resources to satisfying those preferences. This the Soviet system simply could not do. The Party knew what everyone needed -- brown polyester suits -- and placed its orders with the state-owned factories accordingly.
Ferguson is not the freedom lover that McCloskey is. He's a British Telegraph reader who talks about "The Texas Terror" in the introduction and is quite concerned that we lose Civilization to global warming in the conclusion. In-between, he is eminently fair and allows the data to lead him to conclusions that ThreeSourcers would applaud.
In the end, his conclusions seem compatible with McCloskey's, though you can see areas where her bourgeois dignity idea would underscore or better explain his ideas.
Also interesting to read East v West in the shadow of the
And, in the shadow of the riots, one cannot argue with his fears for "Civilization's future:
Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.
Four point seven five stars. If you read just one, read McCloskey's. But read them both.
September 9, 2012
We could have sent Steve Forbes to the White House, y'know. I look back on American History and look for inflection points which would have changed the country unrecognizably. My only actual serious effort to write a book was to flip the decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford.
Normally, a good counterfactual requires that something was close and almost happened and I confess we did not stay up late on a November Tuesday to see Mr. Forbes lose a squeaker. But he ran a serious campaign with a seriousness and honesty that caused Bernie Goldberg to see the rampant perfidy in his own profession of journalism.
A flat tax imposed 16 years ago would have changed the world. And listening to his wise words in Freedom Manifesto: Why Free Markets Are Moral and Big Government Isn't we still might.
Freedom enabled people unleash their energies, sharpen their skills, pursue their dreams-- and reap the rewards. The combination of latitude and necessity spurs people to develop their abilities and increase their knowledge. It develops what the philosophers call "autonomy," the capacity to be your own person, to think independently and act responsibly in a free society. Nicholas Capaldi of the National Center for Business Ethics at Loyola University calls autonomy "our greatest ultimate and objective good."
I don't think any ThreeSourcer will be too surprised by the beginning, middle or end. It's choir preaching 'round these parts -- but it is good choir preaching.
He marries the consequentialist case to the rights case for capitalism well enough that someday all ThreeSourcers might live as brothers and sisters.
To paraphrase Mises, people may refer to a successful pasta manufacturer as "the spaghetti king." But this king did not build his empire through wars and conquest, but by selling pasta people like. What Marxists totally miss, Mises writes, is that "the rich" in free markets do not get their power by impoverishing wage earners -- but by producing goods that improve their standard of living.
Or how about a response to SEIU President Andrew Stern's concern that parent's "cannot see where the jobs of the future are"
Responding to Stern's complaint in the Times, George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux asks, "when could Americans of any generation foresee future jobs?" Did the telegram-deliverer in 1950 foresee his child designing software for cell phones? Did the local pharmacist in 1960 foresee his daughter's job as a biomedical engineer?
Forbes makes a consequentialist case for capitalism on the environment, wealth distribution, innovation and personal freedom. Four stars -- only four as little will be new to ThreeSourcers, but it is a great a powerful read.
September 4, 2012
Okay, One More...
But drive safely and don't forget to tip your waitresses and bartender!
My blog brother has successfully cajoled me into sharing a few more quotes from Deirdre N. McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. This makes this the third post in the review One and two here. To catch the new visitor up:
It initiates a humanistic science of the economy, "humanomics" as the economist Barton Smith calls it. Speech, not material changes in foreign trade or domestic investment, caused proximally the nonlinearities, or (expressed in more conventional theorizing) the leaping out of the production possibility curve, the imaginings of possible lives.
I'm predisposed to join jg's critique that it is a product of many factors and that I am willing to accept her devotion to a rhetorical acceptance of bourgeois values if she'll concede the importance of liberty and energy and trade.
McCloskey does appreciate the value of other factors, but she is a data-driven economist and shows that these are fractional improvements from which we gained magnitude gains. She spends much time on energy, in her case the availability of coal in Britain in the 17th Century. Again, that is swell, sez McCloskey, but others could have bought and shipped coal or developed more wood or whaling -- energy is an input and it is great that it is cheap. But if it is expensive it shaves off percentages, it does not stop growth. Mister Rockefeller's energy revolution is 150 years and a continent away. The colonies experience mad growth with water power.
She pours through literature, looking for heroic bourgeois characters. Think "Merchant of Venice;" traders are outcasts, minority people a little too canny for their own good. McCloskey and I do share some heroes:
In 1913 Willa Cather without the antibourgeois sarcasm which her fellow members of the American clerisy were beginning to develop, has her heroine, Swedish-American Alexandra Bergson, exclaim, "There's Fuller [the real estate man] again! I wish that man would take me for a [business] partner. He's feathering his nest! If only poor people [such as Alexandra's unenterprising brothers] could learn a little from rich people!"
We still have Babbitt and Disney movies to fight though.
Or at any rate so enlightened Europeans and the new bourgeois liberals claimed, contrary to the zero-sum notions that had governed the world up to then, in which every win to Europe was supposed to have arisen from a comparable loss to the rest. It lives on, I repeat, in recent talk about "competitiveness." "Win minus lose equals zero. Profit is evil." No, said the enlightened liberals like Mill, not usually-not if the social accounting is win-win-win-win-win-lose.
September 2, 2012
Some intellectuals, though, look with suspicion on the Bourgeois Era, calling it "globalization," which they think they detest, along with McDonald's and the bourgeoisie and capitalism. The suspicion has been expressed since 1848 in repeated assaults by the clerisy on the bourgeoisie, commonly their fathers, each new assault presented as a courageous speaking of truth to power, a daring new insight, though expressed in identical form from Flaubert and G. B. Shaw to Sinclair Lewis and David Mamet.Conversely, the Bourgeois Era to the author of those words, Deirdre N. McCloskey, represents the move from $3/day privation to modern abundance and personal freedom.
Her Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World is a challenging book -- and it is only book two of a planned six. I hope both McCloskey and my pal Robert A. Caro are eating well and taking care of themselves.
Challenging because McCloskey is a Chicago School Economics Professor of tremendous intellect and reading. Clearly the book was written for much smarterer people than me. It is not turgid prose by any means, it is an entertaining read. It is thick with ideas and precise documentation. (Also like Caro -- you have to stop and let your brain catch up with the author's sometimes.)
[John Stuart] Mill was too good a classical economist, in other words, to recognize a phenomenon inconsistent with classical economics. That the national income per head might triple in the century after 1871 in the teeth of rising population is not a classical possibility, and he would have seen the factor of sixteen in Britain from the eighteenth century down to the present as science fiction.
And challenging because it contradicts my deepest beliefs. Contradicts is too strong a word because, as a Chicagoan, she is a devout believer in liberty and free markets and property rights and the importance of trade. No ThreeSourcer would pull out a single sentence and say "that is wrong." But her claim is that all those great things existed elsewhere and did not produce an enlightenment or a 16-fold increase in consumption.
Until the view suddenly changed in academic circles in Spain and in commercial and some political circles in Holland and then in Britain and then (in all circles) in the United States, dignity and liberty for the bourgeoisie was viewed as an outrageous absurdity. Of course the bourgeoisie was contemptible, in Confucianism the fourth and lowest of the social classes, or in Christianity the rich man of the gospels who can scarcely enter heaven. Of course the market needed to be regulated in the interest of the rich-or at least in the interest of the continued rule of the rich by way of giving a little to some selected and favored and relatively well-off poor people (unskilled automobile workers earning $30 an hour, high-school-graduate administrators in Cook County (now "Stroger") Hospital earning $1oo,ooo a year, members of local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union earning more than what Wal-Mart employees are eagerly willing to work for). Of course people should be arrayed in a great chain of being from God to slave, and kept in their place, except by special royal favor or state examination or party membership
Nor have I ever highlighted so many sections. I painfully culled it down to the few presented here. I'd love to share ten times as many, but I know ThreeSourcers will be holding big rallies to celebrate trade unions this weekend. You'll just have to buy it. Five Stars.
Parting thought: "So, do I 'believe it?'" It is consistent. It explains much. It cannot be effectively contradicted. In the end, like the Panic of '08, one is forced to weight the importance of different factors. Am I prepared to reduce my votes for liberty, free trade, and a codified scientific epistemology? No. But I will and suggest others should value more highly the acceptance of bourgeois dignity. And, who knows, maybe by book four or five she'll have me.
August 26, 2012
2016 Movie - Food for Thought
I watched the Dinesh D'Souza film 2016-Obama's America yesterday with family and friends. My brother and father were the driving force and dad thought it so important we all see it that he paid for all of us. Having been cautioned by JK's distaste for D'Souza's conspiratism I was eager to see and hear for myself what evidence Dinesh presents, and what hypothesis he has formed.
As a starting point I read this critical review by Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan. His instinct is to dismiss it as a rehash of prior Obama hatred, but some of his dissmissals ring hollow.
As readers of the Forbes article know, the central thesis of "2016" is that Obama's worldview -- his "compass," as D'Souza calls it -- was largely shaped by the anti-colonialist, anti-white and anti-Christian politics of Obama's supposedly radical Kenyan father. Never mind that Obama, growing up, spent precious little time with the man, who for most of his son's early life was estranged from Obama's mother. D'Souza trots out a professional psychologist to speculate on how the senior Obama's absence reinforced his influence, rather than weakened it.
What is glossed over here is how he makes it sound plausible. That explanation is omitted and replaced with a cautionary "almost" to convince readers they need not bother to evaluate the plausability on their own. D'Souza explains that Obama's worldview was constructed not in the image of his absentee father, rather in the idealized image of him portrayed by his mother. Ann Dunham, an almost completely overlooked component of Barack's formative years, was as anti-American, or at least anti-capitalist and anti-"colonialist" as they come. So says D'Souza. He supports this claim with multiple facts. He concludes that diminishing America's influence in the world, in effect punishing America for its colonial heritage, is fully consistent with many of the previously inexplicable acts of President Obama: To repair America's "plunder" of foreign resources he gave billions of American taxpayer's dollars to Brazil and others to build up those nations' oil industries; to push back present-day colonialism he has sided with Argentina over Great Britain in the Falklands conflict; his mideast policy arguably reflects a prejudice against western influence in favor of native rule, whatever that may happen to become. Actions as seemingly unimportant as returning a bust of Winston Churchill and presenting gag gifts to the Queen of England also betray a lifelong hatred for that country, the once great colonial power which had colonized and "exploited" his father's native land - Kenya.
In the film D'Souza also shows how then candidate Obama diverted attention from these beliefs and tendencies by suggesting his goal was a racial reconciliation within America. When longtime mentor Reverend Jeremiah Wright's anti-Americanism threatened to derail his campaign, Barack gave a nationally televised speech on race relations and distanced himself from the anti-colonialist values. And when other formative influences were called into question his campaign skillfully portrayed them as good-ol American leftists rather than the world socialists they would likely call themselves. When the President lectures America about the unfairness of the "one percenters" Americans think of wealthy corporate titans standing unapologetically on the shoulders of the working or "middle" class. But to a world socialist, EVERY American is a one-percenter, right down to the homeless shelter or overpass dweller who may freely beg for change and sleep opon the paved streets of American cities, free from scourges like disease, garbage dumps and open sewage running through the streets of a typical third-world village, always with ready access to medical treatment-on-demand in the shiny hospitals of the most prosperous nation on earth.
My opinion of the validity of D'Souza's original conclusions is buttressed by Elizabeth Reynolds' 'D'Souza's "Rage" a Middling Psychoanalysis' in The Dartmouth Review. After labeling Dinesh as an "ultra-conservative member of the Dartmouth Class of 1983" and praising Obama's book 'Dreams From My Father' she presents a fair, perhaps more fair than she intended, interpretation of the facts in D'Souza's book. Her conclusion:
Perhaps D'Souza's anti-colonial theory does help explain, as the Weekly Standard put it, Obama's omnipotence at home and impotence abroad. It is a matter of the reader's opinion. Regardless, D'Souza brings something new to the table with his latest book. It seems clear to me that D'Souza has done his research, with his extensive history of colonial Africa and insightful background information on Obama's early life. His concept of investigating the impact of Barack Obama's father had potential, but I'm afraid that D'Souza's conclusion, that Obama is trying to essentially destroy America, ultimately takes it too far.
Ironically, it is Reynolds who takes it too far for "essentially destroying America" is not D'Souza's claimed goal for Barack Obama. He merely wants to diminish our nation, not destroy it. The call to action at the end of the film? Every American must decide for himself if America should be diminished - and vote accordingly.
August 19, 2012
Pre Review Corner
My fabulous and unprecedented streak of weekly Review Corners comes to a close today. I will be taking a bit more time with Deirdre McClosky's Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. ThreeSources apologizes for the convenience.
I am intrigued enough to take the opportunity for a two parter. As this is book two in a planned series of six, the idea of two Review Corners is not completely out of whack. I'll begin with a partisan rant.
McClosky opens with The Fact (her caps) and it strikes me that The Fact is the most important philosophical, political, and economic question in the history of the world. I plan to make it a sine qua non of engaging with me that a prospective interlocutor accepts The Fact to some level and has some thoughts on an explanation. Not that arguing with me is such a privilege, but my Facebook friends who will not rise to this level will get Likes on their cute kitty pictures but no engagement on politics.
The Fact is the undisputable hockey stick. Not global temperatures, but rather global median income. For x years (anthropology is not my field but x is large) man skittered about the surface like other animals, then formed larger social groups, communities and cities. And yet typical consumption was in the neighborhood of 1-3 dollars per day equivalent to modern income. There are small bubbles in Ancient China, Rome or 12th Century North Italy, but they don't continue, spread or increase. Homo Sapiens return to Hobbesian privation.
It has been this way for all of history, and for that matter all of prehistory. With her $3 a day the average denizen of the earth got a few pound of potatoes, a little milk, an occasional scrap of meat. A wool shawl. A year or two of elementary education, if lucky and if she lived in a society with literacy. She had a 50-50 chance at birth of dying before she was thirty years old. Perhaps she was a cheerful sort, and was "happy" with illiteracy, disease, superstition, periodic starvation, and lack of prospects. After all, she had her family and faith and community, which interfered with every choice she made. But at any rate she was desperately poor, and narrowly limited in human scope.
Then in Northwestern Europe in the late 18th/early 19th Century, this figure begins to grow until the present day Norway where it is $137. Not even accounting for Google or jet travel or anything we enjoy that was not available at any price, we use sixteen times the food, clothing, lighting and housing of our ancestors 50-200 years ago (depending where you live).
This is astonishingly interesting! How did this happen? Deepak Lal divides the hockey stick into two blades and credits Ricardian economics.
McClosky -- are you sitting down -- says these are all great things but that you cannot make the numbers work or show that these factors did not exist in places and times where it did not take off. No, the answer is philosophy and rhetoric. We climbed out of the $3/day ooze when we accepted bourgeois values and valued enterprise.
Once buying low and selling high was seen as beneficial and the trader was viewed as an upstanding member of the community -- sez McClosky -- the world changed, and we began to accrue wealth. Bourgeois Dignity.
I am only a quarter in, and this is the second of a planned six books, but I am hooked. She writes for the academic and must spend a lot of time laying a meticulous foundation for things which are obvious to ThreeSourcers. Yes, we're richer, yes it is better to be rich than poor, yes human freedom plays an important role. Yet these parts are solid and enjoyably comprehensive.
You can score this one and beat me to the end -- I doubt you'll be disappointed. I will of course withhold my rating until I have completed the assignment.
August 12, 2012
First, the elephant in the room. Scalia and Garner's Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts was $40 -- on Kindle! "Does the Eighth Amendment no longer hold, Nino?" If anybody wants I have an old, first-gen Kindle I could put it on and lend. Ow!
I cannot pass on any book by a sitting Supreme Court Justice at any price, and I cannot complain about this one; it was informative and entertaining. Like David Deutsch, Nassim Taleb, or Thomas Pynchon, it is great to get an invitation into a mind of that caliber.
Scalia's acerbic wit is on display throughout.
In a curious and lengthy passage, Judge Richard A. Posner has likened a judge who follows the unintelligibility canon to a platoon commander who, on receiving a garbled message, does nothing and presumably allows his troops to be slaughtered.
One more word than "Jesus wept." But Ow!
More importantly, he promotes his judicial philosophy of originalism versus both the purposivist, living Constitution crowd and strict textualists. The book is presented as 70 common law cannons which are frequently used in judging cases. Each gets a description and most get an example case or two and the authors' opinion of whether it was applied wisely in the particular instance.
One could hardly imagine a more sweeping negation of the possibility of laws that accurately represent the judgment of the people, laws whose content is predictable, and judges who subjugate their personal views to the rule of law. "A government of men, not of laws" summarizes this cynical view, which invites judges to do whatever they like, since they cannot do otherwise--the doctrine of predestination applied to judicial decisions.
It's jurisprudential philosophy -- but in a very technical wrapper. Actual cases, many outside of or predating the United States, and difficult cases provide an appreciation for complexity that your typical pundit-class commenter may not completely grasp.
Contrary to the praise heaped on the Shakespearean character Portia for holding that Shylock could take his pound of flesh but not spill a drop of blood ("O upright judge! . . . O learned judge!"), it was a terrible opinion. She should have invoked the principle that contracts to maim are void as contrary to public policy. Her supposedly brilliant rationale ignored the well-acknowledged predicate-act canon.
Most importantly, I enjoy the authors' respect for Constitutional principles, most notably separation of powers and the job of legislative bodies in drafting the text. Scalia may be the béte noir of the left, but he is extremely respectful of other Justices, judges, and circuits. He has no compunction in attacking their opinions, but reading this book (or Bryers's or Stevens's or O'Connor's) one is struck by a higher level of respect and congeniality than we artisans ascribe to the Court.
A great read and a deeper look than I was expecting. Four stars.
August 5, 2012
I hope ThreeSourcers appreciate how unseriously I take "Review Corner." When moved by a book, it is great to share it with both of my dedicated readers. But all in all, I took the name from Bullwinkle's "Poetry Corner" and take it about as seriously.
Authors work the social media and blogs, and it has been a great joy to get little thank you notes on good reviews and even a kindly defense on one that was less than five stars.
I happily picked up Brad Hennenfent's Anthem Against Obama when Dr. Hennenfent commented on one of Brother Ellis's posts. I traded a couple emails with the author and hope to preserve an alliance.
The book is a great read. I think every ThreeSourcer will dig it. He has repurposed Ayn Rand's "Anthem" to a modern dystopian post-Obama world. And it is done brilliantly. Hennenfent captures the timeless ideas of freedom and individualism and brings them to life.
We had never heard of these mountains, nor seen them marked on any map. They had never been mentioned in the Home of the Students. The world was much larger than they had taught us.
Long time Review Corner readers hear a "but" coming and here it is. The author mentions in an introduction that he might revise the book after the 2012 election. While the jabs at President Obama are enjoyable for a partisan like me, I think they present two problems.
First, they detract from the timelessness that Rand and Hennenfent capture. There are philosophical enemies to liberty everywhere and every when. Of course, that's the books concept and premise. "Did you think there were too many monkeys in Jane Goodall's book, jk? Huh?" Yet I found those to be fun but less satisfying than the rest.
Second, the level of Dystopianism that the story requires attributed to the current administration is a strawman argument. I'm sympathetic, but I imagine one on my Facebook friends picking this up -- or I imagine a book that has Mitt Romney forcing society into coerced Mormonism with all the Starbucks closed down. I'm not what most people would call a big fan of our 44th President, but the line from his bad policies and philosophy to this is tenuous (not non-existent to be fair, but tenuous).
Humorous to the dedicated opposition and enjoyable. But I found it turned a good and serious philosophy book into a "red meat for partisans" polemic. I think I might prefer the revision.
All said, you still have to buy and read this quality work: four stars.
July 29, 2012
The Necessary and Proper Clause has been widely misunderstood. Some have called it the "elastic clause," and suggested that it granted Congress vast authority that Congress otherwise would not have. But leading Federalists, including Madison and Hamilton, asserted the contrary. Even John Marshall, the Ratifier who as Chief Justice was accused of taking an overly-broad view of the Necessary and Proper Clause, specifically affirmed that it was a mere statement of what the rule would have been if the Clause had been simply omitted.Robert G. Natelson filed amicus curiae briefs on ObamaCare with Dr. Dave Kopel, who spoke on NFIB v Sibelius at Liberty on the Rocks. (If you have not watched the videos Ari Armstrong took, you are missing something.)
He is also the author of The Original Constitution, an all night house party for Constitutional Originalists. Natelson goes through the Constitution, clause by clause, and clarifies it based on the law books of the time in addition to secondary papers like Madison's notes, ratification documents and The Federalist Papers.
It was an entertaining read (you know who you are, it might not displace Harry Potter), and I look forward to hanging on to it for reference. It is a superb way to go "one step deeper" than just the original text. Natelson is a lover of liberty and brilliant legal scholar -- he is not imputing his beliefs on the text but rather expanding understanding based on originalist knowledge.
The Founders would have seen permanent federal land ownership for unenumerated purposes as subversive of the constitutional scheme. This was partly because the government was to enjoy only enumerated powers and partly because extensive federal land ownership would render many people dependent on the government.
July 22, 2012
Thomas Wolfe, Call your Office!
This Review Corner might become a midlife crisis -- thou art forewarned.
Insty linked to the Kindle Deal of the Day or whatever and I picked up Kurt Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House" for $2.99. My first apartment (below) was littered with Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks. I had read each a dozen times, but they were out and I would pick them up and reread them. "Sirens of Titan" was on the coffee table and I must have read it 20 times. "Welcome to the Monkey House," however, was in the car.
I continued to read Vonnegut -- if less obsessively -- as long as he wrote. Even though I came to abhor his philosophy, his percussive, poignant, and amusing writing style always made it worthwhile. He deteriorated as a writer pari-passu with my growing impatience with his ideas. The cruel joke was that his paean to Socialism, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," is an unappreciated flop while the damning scorch of "Harrison Bergeron" lives on.
I had reread Bergeron many times recently, but the rest of the stories in Monkey House were dim memories. I laughed out loud, the man was brilliant. But his dystopian themes and überhip irony grate on me. I could not really get into them. I don't know if have outgrown childish things or lost my youthful sense of whimsy.
About that apartment. I don't want to overplay my brush at fame, but I got on Google to look at my old 'hood that is on the news 24 x 7. It was closer than I thought.
Thomas Wolfe reminds "You can't ever go home again." True that -- and not just because it has been evacuated.
July 15, 2012
Or, Why didn't we nominate this Bain guy?
Edward W. Conard is, I believe, the current Managing Director of Bain (you know how hard it is to figure out when those guys come and go!) but for our purposes, the author of a magisterial book on the "Panic of '08," which Conard refers to as "the Financial Crisis" (caps his).
Unintended Consequences, Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong. is a very serious look at the banking system, political economics, and policy. He pulls no punches and he goes into the weeds when he must to explain complex financial instruments.
Anybody who remains interested in the Po08 needs learn about MBSs, CDSs, SIVs and the like. I considered myself -- not a financial whiz -- but self-congratulatory that I understood what these were and why they were used. Conard's book took me to a brand new level. On a good day, I could now explain whey the mezzanine tranches of subprime mortgage backed securities were as deserving of AAA status as a 20% down home mortgage. But I'd still suggest you pick it up from Conard.
More interesting to the average ThreeSourcer is his philosophy. I would compare him to Larry Kudlow: he is an outstanding proponent of free markets and their benefits, yet he is in no way "all-in" on freedom when it conflicts with asset prices. He sees roles for government that many ThreeSourcers will not appreciate, yet his cogent appeals to liberty make his heterodoxies difficult to dismiss [If we had editors at ThreeSourcers, that last sentence would have a big red line through it...]
Speaking of Heterodoxy, he opens early with a numbingly-counterintuitive chapter to get things flowing. Conard credits Roe v. Wade as the source to American freedom vis-à-vis Europe. Fusionism writ large, the alliance of anti-abortion social conservatives and free-market folk saved the country from the general human disposition toward wealth redistribution. US and European GDP growth tracks closely through the 1960s, splits near Roe, and diverges from there.
By the random dint of history, the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade brought pro-investment voters to power in the United States. This faction, representing about 35 percent of the electorate, combined with enough of the now-mobilized social conservatives-- principally the Christian Right, who vote Republican and represent 15 percent of the electorate-- seized the majority and permanently shifted the political economic center to the right. Without a similar legal ruling in Europe and Japan, a similar shift in political power never occurred.
He is brilliant on trade and immigration. I don't think he is up late worrying that the Chinese are sewing our Olympic Uniforms. He asks "if offshore workers were to offer their labor to US consumption for free -- how much would we want?" All of it, right? As much as we could get. Well, seventy-five cents an hour is essentially free. Let us have Americans do something more wealth-producing and have others stitch up our homoerotic, paramilitary athletic uniforms.
In addition to talented workers thinking about how to improve future outcomes, there are other forms of overlooked investment. Immigration has freed many talented workers from household tasks and increased their availability for more productive activities-- namely, work.
This is a hefty and serious book, which I do no favors by summarizing in a blog post, but he does see a role for government as lender of last resort. FDIC prevented bank runs for 75 years. If institutions keep sufficient liquid reserves to prevent runs, there will not be sufficient risk capital and growth will be slowed. Much has been written as to why Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers received different treatment. Conard would have had the Fed and Treasury save both. And backstop AIG.
The crisis was an old fashioned bank run -- only the investment vehicles were changed. As only government can provide enough warm fuzzies to depositors to prevent withdrawls, it makes sense to have them backstop these 75-year storms so that the economy can grow at full strength in-between. He has some innovative ideas to address concerns of moral hazard.
Of greatest appeal 'round these parts is his appreciation for the morality of freedom. I wish that "that other Bain guy" could explain so well the benefits of risk taking and capital accumulation:
Who captures the value from the tractor? Not the farmer who competes with other farmers for unskilled tractor-driving wages; his return comes largely from avoiding the cost of not investing. Not the tractor manufacturers who compete fiercely with one another on price. Not the landowners-- tractors make it easier to plow more difficult land-- and not investors, such as banks, that compete with one another to supply the capital at perhaps a 7 percent return. The consumer captured almost all of the value through lower food prices.
Long review corner, sorry. And I have still not captured much from this fascinating book. Five Stars.
July 8, 2012
First. Apologies. In discussing Randal O'Toole, I had been dutifully looking up his last name to ascertain spelling -- all the while adding an extra l to his first. I hope some of the Colorado ThreeSourcers were able to catch O'Toole on Jon Caldera's "Devil's Advocate." He is a fascinating man and a serious mental hoss.
I'm on my fourth book which purports to explain the financial crisis I like to call "The Panic of Oh-eight." If you add the inane Matt Damon documentary, that's five different viewpoints. O'Toole's (the third book) is perhaps the most unusual and counterintuitive. Yet his knowledge of history, supporting statistics and anecdotal evidence force you to take it seriously.
Being a CATO guy, O'Toole is not a big fan of the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, fiat currency, or Countrywide cronyism. And yet, he shows that the housing bubble did not devastate Houston, which had all of those, but did affect Vancouver which had none. The real problem, detailed comprehensively in American Nightmare, is zoning, growth restrictions, and urban planning that seeks to enforce the leftist utopia of dense urban housing and public transit.
In Houston, if you want a house, you can buy a plot, get a permit, build a house and move in within 120 days. Texas does not give counties the right to zone or restrict residential housing. Supply and demand are therefore matched and prices are non-volatile: when more housing is needed, they build it. What a concept, eh? In Boulder, you bid up the price of an existing home or start a decadal permit process.
Slow-growth advocates say, "Only the wealthy can move to our city." Smart-growth advocates say, "Less-wealthy people can move into our city as long as they are willing to live in one of the high-density enclaves we have prepared for them."
Houston is his favorite example but not an anomaly. Raleigh, Atlanta, and a host of other cities without onerous growth restrictions escaped the housing bubble. In his interview, Jon Caldera suggests homes are affordable in Houston "because nobody wants to move there." Turns out, Houston is the fastest growing metropolitan area and is adding another Boulder to its ranks every year. Yet $90,000 buys you a large three-bedroom house.
It's difficult to summarize this argument and not sound like a fruitcake. You've got to read the book or watch O'Toole (sadly, I don't think Caldera's show is posted online; if I find it I will link). He has a serious grasp of historical trends in housing and property ownership and a firm statistical/economic footing for his theory. Five stars.
July 1, 2012
With my company's fiscal year end and rollout of a new ERP system on adjacent days, hopes for a Sunday Review Corner were fading fast. Randall O'Toole's "American Nightmare" is superb but not really a page turner. And the RMA automation section for which I am responsible is not going that well...
How fortuitous, then, that Professor Glenn Reynolds's The Higher Education Bubble is finally out on Kindle®. I teased him a bit over email that -- of all people -- his electronic version should not have been two weeks after hardcopies were shipping. Among its many virtues, it's a quick read. ($4.99 on Kindle and the stats say 56 pages).
Regular readers of Instapundit will not be bedazzled by new concepts. But he very clearly lays out what I agree to be an important new trend. And it's short enough you might be able to get a teacher to read it (now that was just mean!) I'd pair it up with Change.edu (free borrow for Prime members) to really see some of the flaws.
He opens with Herb Stein's superb dictum of "Anything that can't go on forever won't." Then he makes a compelling case that while the utility of a liberal arts education has fallen, its cost has soared. I remain pleased that my nieces and nephews in college today have chosen less expensive institutions and generally less debt. (That said, I'll package up a NBS [Niece Backed Securities] bond and offer it to ThreeSourcers at about .03 on the dollar if anybody is in -- but I digress). Most are following the recommendations of completing the first years at community college. Even our budding MD completed her undergrad downtown.
I'm less sanguine than the Professor that government bailouts are not going to be the answer. In the fever-pitch-shadow of the Tea Parties, all of our legislators fell all over themselves to make a 3.1% college loan a new American Right; they fought only over how to fund it.
A great, quick, read. A bargain at $4.99. A Karmic indulgence for all the free use of Instapundit all these years. Four stars.
June 24, 2012
I still have one chapter remaining of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. But Sunday Morning Review Corners are becoming habit.
It is an enjoyable yarn, well written, and there are several nice grace notes for somebody who follows the antebellum period closely. I guess it is a big deal now with a movie from the author's screenplay.
And that is my concern. It is to history what Jon Stewart is to current events. It -- and he -- are sort of right and basically well informed. Yet both are forced to trade the nuance of the facts for the yarn, the laugh, the story.
The War Between the States presents a rich depth of study in economics and liberty. Seth Grahame-Smith, like most high-school history teachers and Apu's Citizenship Test is forced to enforce the The-Civil-War-was-all-about-slavery meme. A new generation will use this book as a springboard to learn history (Yaay!). But they will start on a too prevalent misconception (Booo!)
DISCLAIMER: I am not ready to join the sympathizers. The existence of slavery was abhorrent enough to override -- and spoil for centuries if not all of time -- the high ideals of liberty and local governance embodied in the Confederacy. I'm not lining up with Lord Acton, but feel we must take a more nuanced view of this defining period of history.
That said, the book is fun. Four stars.
June 10, 2012
How is anybody going to learn any history if it is written by historians? That's not a quip attempt, I am serious.
First a whole mess of stars to Kevin Costner for the History Channel's miniseries on the Hatfields & McCoys. It was well done. Costner brought money and star power and some big ticket crew to a cable special. If you missed it, I strongly recommend your trying to catch it.
I knew nothing of the story except that they feuded. While I enjoyed the miniseries, I wanted to read a bit more and see what they got right and what they missed. A little Kindle® shopping led me to Blood Feud by Lisa Alther: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance
And for 11 chapters, murder & vengeance is what you get. Seriously, the descriptions of people and events throughout the feud are superb. While Costner's folks did a good job, a book is better suited to expressing ambiguity. Nobody knows what happened, and a researcher like Alther is faced with a McCoy book, a Hatfield book, oral histories and salacious journalism. Alther is humble but succeeds in a fair portrayal seeking outside references and corroboration.
I enjoyed the first 11 chapters and was ready to start dishing out the stars. The feud was complete and the loose ends were tied. Were this a miniseries the theme music would be swelling right about now -- and yet
And yet four full chapters and an epilogue remain. In this final third, Alther puts on her full professor hat and offers page after page of conventional academic nonsense.
I'm a big boy. I love history. And I am used to writers not sharing my liberty philosophy. I can roll my eyes at snarky asides and conventional wisdom. But it was as if the author went out for a cigarette and some evil grad student snuck in a hundred pages and sent the manuscript.
I highlighted a few lines from the last section. Why did they fight? She has a few interesting suggestions: genetic, economic, political, philosophical -- but the bulk is devoted to her theory of "daddy issues"
On the McCoy side, Perry Cline lost his father at age nine, leaving him vulnerable to the machinations of Devil Anse Hatfield. Frank Phillips never met his father, who was killed in the Civil War, and he spent much of his time trying to live up to his father's reputation for bravery. Harmon McCoy's sons lost him to murder when they were very young. Ranel and Harmon McCoy's father, Daniel, failed in his traditional responsibilities by giving them no land when they started families of their own. Ranel McCoy failed his own sons similarly. Daniel left a legacy of shiftlessness, and Ranel of litigiousness.
Mmmkay. Then again, it could have been. No, you tell them:
If only the feudists had spent as much money and effort on acquiring contraception (which was, in fact, available in other regions of the United States at this time) as they did on acquiring guns, ammunition, and moonshine, a different scenario might have evolved. With fewer children, their farms could have remained intact instead of being constantly subdivided into ever-smaller plots. Those angry young hillbullies would have had secure livelihoods and perhaps wouldn't have felt such a compulsion to charge around the countryside on horseback, expressing their fury by creating such terror and misery for others.
But the real feud was the Appalachians against the wicked Corporations
Once again, while audiences gasped in horror at the outrageous behavior of the fictional feudists, they admired their ruthless aggression. As one writer puts it, "Those forces, which were shaping a new American business and political elite -- and hence American mass culture . . . found the idea of man's 'wolf-law' nature a useful indulgence, a justification for annihilating one's rivals
I left out the section on how great President Wilson was. I can email that if you'd like.
A sad and sour ending to an otherwise great book. Four-and-a-half stars for Introduction - Chapter 11; minus 2.5 for Chapter 12 - Epilogue. Two stars. But if you have Tyler Cowen's discipline and can put it down when she goes off, I'd recommend it highly!
June 2, 2012
I have another data point, if not a direct answer to Brother jg's superb post on "Underdogma."
[Author Michael] Prell's premise is that our country's electoral preference for collectivist policies stems not from ignorance, but from a healthy American proclivity to root for the underdog.
On my brother-in-law's recommendation, I just read Winston Groom's Patriotic Fire which details Andrew Jackson and Jean Laffite and the battle of New Orleans. Underdogs indeed.
I'll reach back to a pre-blog Review Corner. One of my favorites and a book that launched my interest in history is What If? A collection of counterfactual essays well, I'll let the subtitle say it: "The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been." This 12 year old book is cheaper in paperback than Kindle but it moved me because the continuation of our American Experiment is so improbable. It starts (working from memory) with Washington and the Battle of Brooklyn. Without an unusual fog to hide the General's audacious retreat, American Independence would have been a footnote in British textbooks.
Thirty years in, we find ourselves back at war with the world's foremost military and, much as I dig James Madison, things ain't going well. Then a curmudgeonly Anglophobe General leads a small band of untrained and ill-equipped militia and a band of pirates to defend a near-undefendable city. [Spoiler alert -- the US wins!]
Staggeringly improbable! A great read. Four stars.
May 28, 2012
I had posted James Pethokoukis's Road to Freedom QOTD a few weeks ago. Many of the AEI bloggers have piled on since, and there are quite a few quotes from Arthur C. Brooks's book available on the AEI Blogsite.
And yet, I would advise you to take The Road to Freedom for a spin. It's very good, and its topic is near and dear to the hearts of ThreeSourcers: how can we make the most effective case for free markets and free enterprise?
As President of AEI, Arthur Brooks's opinion is interesting by default. As it happens, I think it will have a lot of appeal to ThreeSourcers, even though he is ready to concede a lot more to the state than most of us. Yet, the demand for a moral and not economic case will attract some ThreeSources enthusiasm. So what if growth is a little slower, if it is more "fair?" Brooks points out that a 1% d2GDP/dt2 means that in 72 years our descendants will have half the wealth they would without the loss. That the poor and the marginalized are the ones who truly benefit from growth and wealth creation.
A great read. At the end of the day I don't think either I or dagny or jg can claim Brooks to be "on our side" in the Elevator Talk wars (he does use the phrase "elevator talk"), but it is good data.
Four stars, as I have been too generous of late -- and that most ThreeSourcers will not encounter many new ideas. But what is there is well said, well documented -- and well worth a read.
May 27, 2012
This hung on my office door for a long time:
He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.
Attributed -- erroneously it seems -- to Ralph Waldo Emerson. A friend and I used to joke that "a perfect poem" was a rather high bar; neither of us though young at the time seemed on track to complete any of the markers to Emersonain success. He later got into Orchids; maybe he will make the botanical cut.
The poem was in an ad for a Boulder Bank, and the reason it scored the prized location was that it also had President Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby I am shocked to learn that its authenticity is now debated. Even before the Internet: lies, lies, lies!
That was a long side track, but the phrase "perfect poem" has haunted me to this day. Who leaves behind something of perfection? Especially in art, it seems heretical.
And yet, I am going to credit Robert A. Caro with a perfect piece of scholarship for his four-volumes-and-counting exhaustive exegesis on President Lyndon Johnson. Caro is the greatest biographer of all time. While I quip that "it's too bad he wasted his skills on LBJ," that is neither fair nor accurate. Our Thirty-Sixth provides both a complex personality and an opportunity to examine our Republic's legislative and electoral system in intricate detail.
I think anybody is completely mad for not reading all four, and hope Caro's health holds out to complete the series. But I do recommend Volume III: Master of the Senate" to one who balks at the idea of all ("Master" alone is 1400 pages). These books show an insider's view of elections and legislation that nobody is naive enough not to suspect, yet nobody would be calculating enough to fabricate. I think you learn more about how government really works from Master of the Senate than 100 Civics textbooks. The warts and all view has even me rethinking the benefits of self government.
Caro also ranges around (again, he has the page count -- no idea how big this one is but it has occupied your humble blog brother for almost three weeks). The introduction sections on President Kennedy are as instructive as complete books. While the books are lengthy and dense with facts, they are not a bit turgid nor long winded. Masterful.
For a guy who has spent so much of his life on one individual -- I have always wanted to run into Caro at a cocktail party or Walmart* or somewhere so I could ask "Do you like him? At all?" Caro's writings have done much to engender a personal antipathy for Johnson that I do not feel for any other President, whether I like their policies or not. TR and Wilson destroyed this once free nation, but seemed interesting, real guys, who were devoted and patriotic.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson of the first three volumes -- and the author hints of the fifth -- is an unprincipled slave to ambition. All his personal failings happen to be those which most disturb me. He is brutal to subordinates, obsequious to superiors, and completely ruthless without an agenda to hang it on. All his crimes are committed for the betterment of LBJ.
For seven weeks in this book, his subject gets a chance to shine. The transition from November 22 in Dallas to his State of the Union gets deservedly high marks. His initial legislative agenda, where the master again finds the strategy and tactics to complete the JFK agenda and start his own has to be applauded for brilliance whether you agree with it or not. Like watching Marty Broduer beat my Rangers, you have to provide props where props be due.
Lastly, Caro grades on a curve because he does support the agenda without reservation. Those opposed to it are racists upholding progress demanded by the majority. No doubt true, but Caro surprised me by never giving the slightest nod to property or states' rights, or even questioning the efficacy or current fiscal condition of these vaunted programs.
That sounds like a huge negative to ThreeSourcers, but it is not. We're big boys and girls and we know academic dispositions. At the end of the day, nobody else on the whole planet could have passed JFK's tax cut, which set up decades of prosperity. Or the Civil Rights bill which suborned property rights but elevated human dignity.
A lot to think about. A lot to learn. A lot to enjoy. Five stars without question.
May 6, 2012
I went to bed the night of April 30 sweating bullets.
I had a 5AM ride to the airport arranged and I had pre-ordered two Kindle books scheduled for release on May 1. Surely the good folks at Amazon would hook me up the night before or right at midnight and I would have something to read on the plane.
Right? Yes they did. And I enjoyed -- thoroughly -- Jonah Goldberg's Tyranny of Clichés on the way out.
It is hard for me to be objective with Jonah. He is such a favorite, I don't know if I could not like one of his books. We actually have a few areas of disagreement. But I so appreciate his method, writing chops and analytical skills that I consider him a real go-to guy. This book is no exception.
The premise -- and this book is far more partisan than Liberal Fascism -- is that the left cheats in the war of ideas by passing off platitudes and bromides as thought and argument. The Tyranny Blog on NR has more background on the book and several examples:
One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter
Goldberg is funny and, as mentioned, far more pointed than in his previous book, but I appreciate the scholarly research to back it up. He quotes Michael Oakeshott
You truly take to heart Oakeshott's lovely epigram, "The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny."
And then runs right into a pop culture reference:
But this is not really fair. The French Enlightenment was a lot like the Star Wars franchise: It started great; it just evolved into disaster over time, as the characters became more and more unbelievable. Montesquieu, after all, influenced the Founding Fathers as much as anyone, and was the author of the whole idea of the separation of powers.
Switching back and forth as easily as I switch from Sumatra to Columbian coffee:
"[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement," insisted Jane Addams in 1902, "and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many." Walter Rauschenbusch, the leading proselytizer of the progressive social gospel movement, declared, "New forms of association must be created.... Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life." Elsewhere, Rauschenbusch put it more simply: "Individualism means tyranny."
I don't know that your average ThreeSourcer will change positions of discover a lot of new ideas in this book. But I guarantee everyone who takes it up will be entertained, learn a lot of new foundational material, and likely have a few myths punctured (let us say I have a couple of research projects after completing it).
Five Stars! It's Jonah fer cryin' out loud!
BTW: The second preordered book is Robert A Caro's The Passage of Power. Volume IV in his masterpiece biography of President Johnson. Mister Kindle says I am 13% in (Volume III was 1400 pages, I am not sure what I am into here) and it is incredible. The section on President Kennedy is better than any books I have read on Kennedy. I have no problem claiming Caro to be the best biographer of all time, this seems to keep on or above the trend line.
UPDATE: Good Tyranny of Cliches review in the New York Post
April 30, 2012
Philip K. Dick
April 22, 2012
I missed it. It's all my fault. I read today that "John Stossel rivets enthusiastic Denver crowd while promoting 'No They Can't!'"
I canceled a couple meetings and made plans to go down to Denver Wednesday for a book signing at the Tattered Cover in LoDo. I was taken very ill that morning (mostly all better now) and did not make it after all.
While I did not get riveted, I ordered a couple of signed copies: one for a great friend and one for the lovely bride. Yet, in a further display of bad husbandship, I read it first and then leant it to our niece.
Like Joe (and Blake) Kernen's book, I don't know that most ThreeSourcers will learn a lot of new things or have positions swayed by "No They Can't!" But my niece is an interesting data point. She is an Obama true believer but she loves John Stossel. I can't wait to hear what she thinks (I had not even finished the last chapter but did not want to miss this opportunity). Of all the public personages in the world, Stossel probably represents my views more closely than any other. I cannot think of one issue on which we are far apart.
I also like his style. He concedes that our problems have bipartisan roots yet does not enjoy bashing the parties in the style of a Matt Welch, David Boaz, or Nick Gillespie. He makes his point, answers questions, rebuts thoughts misconstrued -- but then leaves it to his interlocutor to form opinions.
And while I love to plow through Hayek and Mises (for once, I am not being pedantic -- I really do) Stossel's books assemble the most important concepts in an accessible, fun -- dare I say riveting -- package. Assuming that the last chapter does not call for the nationalization of the oil companies, I give it a provisional five stars.
Thanks to Brother Keith for recommending Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. It was interesting. My head is just not in the fiction space, so I am going to eschew a review. It was thoughtful and interesting. I was not prepared for the darkness and dystopia, but will not critique the author for the reader's failings.
"My Name is John Galt"
That was D.B. Sweeney speaking. Sweeney is cast in the pivotal role of the next installment of the Atlas Shrugged movie series, Atlas Shrugged: Part II - Either-Or
Sweeney is new to the franchise, partly because the John Galt character had a minor role in the first film and partly because the producers have chosen to recast the entire movie! There has been much consternation about this on the movie's discussion boards but I'm looking forward to it. My sense is that the first movie wasn't as well acted as it could have been. The leading roles of Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden were played by Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler who, while attractive, didn't seem to have their hearts in their roles. They are replaced by Samantha Mathis and Jason Beghe.
Mathis is a better fit in the role, being born in 1970 instead of 1984, and starring in major motion pictures like Broken Arrow, where she played the fetching park ranger who tracked down John Travolta and his nuclear missle.
And Beghe's name may not be familiar but viewers will recognize him from Judging Amy, G.I. Jane, Thelma and Louise, Castle, and dozens more TV series' where he had supporting roles.
Perhaps the only recognizable name in the cast is Esai Morales who replaces Jsu Garcia as Francisco. Garcia gave, I thought, the best performance of the heroic characters in Part I but Morales is still an upgrade. A consistent theme of the new cast is more experience and more maturity. It can't help but show up as a more compelling movie than the brave and fearless but out-of-its-league production of Part I.
And finally, who is D.B. Sweeney? New York-born in 1961, he set his sights on a pro baseball career. When a motorcycle accident scuttled that he pursued acting. His filmography is heavy on television roles and he had starring and supporting film roles as well, including Eight Men Out, No Man's Land and The Cutting Edge. [The last of these has special meaning to me and dagny. As washed out hockey player Doug Dorsey, Sweeney takes up figure skating with Olympian Kate Moseley and when they first meet, on the ice, Sweeney's effort to impress the young lady is dashed when he catches the ice with the toepick of his figure skate (non-existent on hockey skates) and face plants on the ice. I did the exact same thing on my first date with dagny.] Sweeney has the right build for the role of John Galt, and a natural smirking swagger that both fits the role and can lend it warmth and likeability.
I, for one, am really looking forward to the premier of Atlas Shrugged: Part II in October.
April 15, 2012
Only fun books today.
Two-ninety-nine on Kindle® -- you cannot go wrong. Novitiate-Brother Bryan turned me on to this and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Like Tom Woods, it is great to encounter those who would are "a little farther out there" than I am. I find myself always doing Block's job (you mean speculators aren't bad?) without his wit or knowledge.
It is a great and provocative read -- and a great reference when you are asked to defend someone who is not a Disney hero but is not harming anybody. I also enjoy the history of a book. Reading Mises or Wollstonecraft or Locke, you become immersed in their time period and must contextualize their ideas in it. Block writes in the 1970's and I almost dusted off my leisure suit and put "Some Girls" on. He decries that NYC Taxi medallions are an astronomical $30,000 (an investment to rival 1958 Les Paul guitars) and one of the cartoons that graces the text uses the n-word.
Did I mention he goes too far? He credits the drug pusher for keeping prices low, accepts pimps as economic middlemen, pushing any violence and coercion to a side issue. I dunno, Walter, I need to think about some of those. But that is all I ask those who are just as shocked at my defense of others. Four stars.
Joe Kernen cohosts CNBC's Squawk Box; Blake is his daughter. The two of them did a book tour appearance on Kudlow that is in the adorable hall-of-fame. Dad does most of the talking, but Blake takes on a bit of self-education to grow beyond her teachers' and pop culture's simplistic views on economics. I don't know that any ThreeSourcer will learn something from this. But it could be subtitled everything we believe made accessible to a fourth grader. Nice. Four stars.
Lastly, my lovely bride turned me on to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay long ago. I had forgotten the exact phrasing of her famous verse:
My candle burns at both ends;
I looked it up and became re-captured by her other work. Renascence and Other Poems is $0.00 on Kindle; several others are free or low single digits. What a voice, what a total HOSS (Merle Rubin noted: "She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism"), what a nice change from economics and politics. Five stars.
April 12, 2012
Post ad hoc Review Corner
One of the reasons Jonathan Haidt's (five stars) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion has caused such a stir on the right has been Haidt's data showing -- mirabile non dictu -- that Conservatives understand Liberals (conventional American usage of these terms) much better than Liberals understand Conservatives,
I chuckled and thought of my Facebook friends reading that the lefties asserted that conservatives would not object to someone harming a defenseless animal (Puppy-kicking-NASCAR-Retard-bastards!). Haidt presents it in the context of his six-dimensional morality scale and it is quite convincing. Haidt's admission of a lifetime in the liberal wing with no real exposure to right wing ideas provides additional verisimilitude.
Andrew Biggs has a brief review of that section and some additional speculation.
But Haidt's research went one step further, asking self-indentified conservatives to answer those questionnaires as if they were liberals and for liberals to do the opposite. What Haidt found is that conservatives understand liberals' moral values better than liberals understand where conservatives are coming from. Worse yet, liberals don't know what they don’t know; they don’t understand how limited their knowledge of conservative values is. If anyone is close-minded here its not conservatives.
I must confess that this book has really stuck with me. I not only enjoyed it but I think of its precepts frequently -- in work relationships, Facebook arguments, &c.
April 1, 2012
Finishing the book and considering -- it would have been germane any year of the Republic. They fought over the Commerce Clause at the Convention in Philadelphia, and clever Congress people tried to use the General Welfare Clause and the text of the preamble to expand government power before the ink was dry.
The underline for me -- and I think my draw to Madison -- is how hard drafting a Constitution is. We argue self-assuredly about the wonder of the Tenth Amendment and the evils of the 17th. It's wondrous to think that with no scattered history and trial, that this magnificent document was assembled, sold, and ratified. Nobody at the birth thought it was perfect -- it was law-sausage and contained deep compromises to each signer.
No doubt the founders would yell "what are you doing!" at us for much of what we tolerate, but I think there would be some pride in the devotion to its principles.
That's me talking, not the book. But it is a great read with some new viewpoints. Four stars.
March 28, 2012
March 18, 2012
Right for the Wrong Reasons
An odd Review Corner for an odd book today.
"Abundance: the future is better than you think" by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler was an emotional read. I often wanted to applaud their enthusiastic optimism for innovative, technological, reason-based solutions to current Earthly woes. My most loquacious Facebook interlocutor has forbade me from ever using Karl Popper's "back to the caves" on him again. Perhaps I did go to the well too often. But he and his cohorts see less technology as the solution to technology's negative externalities. I see more. Domesticating the horse was a big step up but London dung disposal (a good punk band name) was considered an insuperable problem, as was North American deforestation to power railroads.
I come from the Virginia Postrel camp that innovation will solve pollution, energy scarcity, ocean acidification and any deleterious effects of global warming -- if the foundational principles of freedom, property rights, and rule of law are honored. I think I am safe in saying that fellow Popperian David Deutsch agrees with me and Postrel. I want to welcome the Abundance authors to our club.
They think these problems can and will be solved, but they are naive to the effects of politics. This is not an original critique. Professor Glenn Reynolds made similar statements in his Washington Examiner review of the same book. Reason piles on. (Follow that last link for a good video interview with Diamandes.)
And, here, the emotion changes. The book has an inspiring chapter on education by teacherless peers with access to computers
This led Mitra to an ever-expanding series of experiments about what else kids could learn on their own. One of the more ambitious of these was conducted in the small village of Kalikkuppam in southern India. This time Mitra decided to see if a bunch of impoverished Tamil-speaking, twelve-year-olds could learn to use the Internet, which they'd never seen before; to teach themselves biotechnology, a subject they'd heard of; in English, a language none of them spoke. "All I did was tell them that there was some very difficult information on this computer, they probably wouldn't understand any of it, and I’ll be back to test them on it in a few months."
They did quite well (should I have said "spoiler alert?"); then better with a teenaged coach who did not understand biotechnology but provided encouragement; then better still with some volunteer "Grannies" from the UK available via Skype®
I wept a bit at the power of this. But it was back to anger at the section's conclusion:
Soon we're going to be able to create gamed-based learning that is so deep, immersive, and totally addictive that we're going to look back on the hundred-year hegemony of the industrial model and wonder why it ever hung around for so long.
Umm, excuse me...I don't think we'll wonder "why it held around so long." I think we'll wonder how we ever overcame an over-empowered public sector Teachers' Union aggressively promoting the fiduciary interests of its dues paying members.
The union does not merit a mention. Objections to GMO crops are dismissed as silly, but not enumerated as the threat to progress that they are. African farmers cannot use GMO seed to increase yields and still sell to EU countries. Maybe technology cures that somehow -- but quite possibly it does not.
And so on and so on though energy, health care, food, water, &c. Things are going to be swell -- with which I agree -- but the swellness is going to come from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and NGOs under the auspices of the UN, more than free people with property rights.
I undersell the authors a bit. They do mention entrepreneurs in mobile phone adoption, and do suggest that "the bottom billion" of our planet's poorest be considered as an exciting market opportunity. But the call is for more philanthropy, not more freedom.
I would still recommend it -- just have some pain killing medication available. Four stars.
February 26, 2012
I recently ordered, partially at JK's urging, a high-powered spotlight and David Deutsch's 'The Beginning of Infinity.' The "spotlight" is a piece of crap. The book, however, is a gem. Its premise involves one of those foundational ideas that affects, well, everything.
At this writing I've read only the recommended chapter 17. It contrasts two distinct worldviews: In one the survival of mankind is assured by living within the natural limits imposed by one's environment; in the other man's fate is secured by manipulation of that environment. But this isn't all. Those in the first camp say the manipulators are all wrong. In their unnatural, untested solutions and innovations they unwittingly create consequences. One such consequence is resource depletion, which the naturists claim they avoid by minimizing their numbers and moderating their consumption. This strategy is superior, they claim, to relying upon innovation after innovation to provide a healthy lifestyle for ever greater numbers of humans.
Before reading this and for as long as I can remember I have believed that we, mankind as it were, would always find a solution to any problem we may encounter. It was barely ever anything more than a curiosity. Now Deutsch has explained to me that this is why enviros, naturists and other advocates of primativism in its many forms believe the way they do - an inherent mistrust of human ingenuity.
I'm still plumbing the depths of how these ideas integrate with Rand and Heinlein, but they do. Quite thoroughly, in fact.
February 12, 2012
First. I am innocent. I did not actually hijack my blog brother's post with a pre-review of David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World." It happens that I was correct in including Deutsch, and this book, in the epistemological pantheon of Robert A Heinlein and Ayn Rand.
Second. Drop everything and buy this book. If the $17.10 (Hardcover) or $14.99 (Kindle) is a hardship for you, it would be an honor and privilege to buy this book for you. If you could not possibly spare the time for its 496 pages, read Chapter 17 and decide if you want to make time for the rest.
Third. I'm going to go with five stars. I'd hate to pick a favorite between his "The Fabric of Reality" and TBoI but I am guessing most ThreeSourcers would prefer TBoI. The non-physics contingent will find it more accessible. Aside one chapter on quantum theory, the new book concentrates more on Popperian epistemology -- two of the four theories from which "The Fabric of Reality" was woven. It also includes nods to the others: computational theory and evolution. Make that two nods to evolution.
I shook while reading the second to last chapter (the famed 17). The intrinsic optimism of the primacy of reason and the very real dangers of choosing a static society made me want to walk around with hardcopies as PM Thatcher did with Hayek and say -- as the post I "hijacked--" This is what I believe!
There are some good excerpts in the pre-review. I marked a gob more of them but will instead ask you to trust me just once and buy this incredible book.
December 28, 2011
I have put this particular Review Corner off because I wished to do a serious post. Yet, Professor Reynolds serves up a sweet segue today, linking to How the Government Has Caused America's Obesity Problem.
The book, of course, is the oft Reynolds recommended Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. And the surprise is that it is really not a diet book. In fact, I was forced to pony up another thirteen bucks for an actual diet book to follow Taubes's precepts.
Good Calories, Bad Calories is an epistemology book. He examines data from more than a century of dietary research. At the risk over over-synopsizing 500 pages, he suggests that the accepted wisdom is built on unproven concepts and weak data, while dispositive results are thoughtlessly discarded. The fundamental bedrock principle of "eat fewer calories and exercise more" to lose weight is (my words) a bunch of hooey.
We've broached the idea of bad government programs on these pages, and I like to reference "The Four Food Groups" and "The Food Pyramid" when my interlocutor suggests government involvement in our private lives to be a good thing. But Taubes documents the medical community's misfeasance and government's malfeasance in propagating these bad ideas. Of course, it continues to this day in FLOTUS's "MyPlate.gov" which I understand is being quietly withdrawn.
Epistemologically (a great MadLibs® adverb), I cannot help but draw a parallel to climate change. You start a logical assertion: "more CO2 in the atmosphere will retain more heat" or "calories ingested must be less than calories expended." Both statements are demonstrably true -- and yet, both operate in the context of a sophisticated, un-modelable, incomprehensibly complex and chaotic system. Neither the Earth nor your body is designed for ceteris paribus. The Earth can raise clouds and you can moderate your metabolism or digestion.
Yet the science is very much settled in both fields. The core principles are never truly proven but are accepted. Then a body of work investigates ancillary principles with scientific rigor. It's as if we accept that the moon is made of cheese, then commission elaborate measurement of cheese viscosity and density to complete our understanding.
Before the hate mail comes: of course both could be correct. Global warming might be real and low-fat diets and exercise plans might be effective weight loss in some group of people. But both should be evaluated by scientists who exhibit a bit of skepticism.
Five stars for what it is. He has a follow up, "Why We Get Fat," which is shorter and has more practical advice. But the comprehensiveness and serious of Good Calories, Bad Calories is a great read.
[Personal note: I lost 70 pounds and never felt better when I was on Atkins several years ago. I convinced myself that it would be difficult now but have reconsidered. Cliché though it may be, the new year will bring my triumphant return. I will start "induction" Jan 3, so that I might enjoy beer for the NHL Winter Classic on the 2nd.]
October 23, 2011
The Economist called it a "resoundingly silly" caricature of economic liberalism and "a sad little book" that is simplistically dogmatic and displays "cocksure superficiality" in an abusive tone. The review suggested that the book would receive "low marks if presented by a second-year undergraduate to his tutor," and that "the case for freedom ... is ill served" by such a book. It accused von Mises of attacking straw men and having contempt for the facts of human nature, comparing him in that respect to Marxists. Conservative commentator, and former Communist Whittaker Chambers published a similarly negative review in the National Review, stating that Mises's thesis that anti-capitalist sentiment was rooted in "envy" epitomized "know-nothing conservatism" at its "know-nothingest."Huh. I give it five stars.
The other two, I am guessing, were penned in 1956, when "The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality" came out. (BTW Mister Chambers: next year a book is gonna come out that you're reallly reallly not going to like.) With 55 years of hindsight, I suggest Ludwig von Mises's not so sad little book looks pretty fresh and describes Hollywood, the ivory tower, and #occupywallstreet as well as anything released this century.
It is a peculiar book from Mises. The technical, philosophical, economic,. epistemological content one expects is contained in this book -- yet it is wrapped in an accessible candy shell. I suspect Mises purposefully wanted to reach a larger audience, and I will agree with The Economist that is gets rather polemical in spots. But it is a question we still ask. Having the fun of meeting blog friend gd for coffee with a bevy of ThreeSourcers, it came up. My sister has asked. Everybody I know who loves liberty has asked once: "Why the bleedin' heck is liberty such a tough sell?"
It's not that you're fighting Marx and Roseau. You're fighting Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Stephen King, and every Disney flick ever made. The guys who meet personal needs, who make your life better are villains. Why for? How come?
If you want to chance disagreeing with one of Britain's best magazines and our nation's foremost opponent of Communism. I recommend this book. I do not agree it is sad, but it is very short, completely non-technical, and amazingly prescient. Mises.org offers an eBook for $5, or a complete text or PDF version is available free.
September 7, 2011
Hugh Laurie's "Let Them Talk" is out this week -- available on the distinctly non-evil Amazon MP3.
Laurie is best known as TV's (Randian) Dr. House, although I felt the end of the last season discarded all of his Randian cred.
But that isn't important now. Occasionally on House, and much more frequently on BBC shows like "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" and "Jeeves & Wooster," Laurie tickles the ivories with a great penchant for American Jazz & Blues. "Let them Talk" is a collection of New Orleans blues. I'm halfway through and must report I am diggin' it the most.
The Wall Street Journal offers a positive review:
"I wore a suit and a tie everyday as a sign of respect for the music," Mr. Laurie said. "When Irma [Thomas] arrived I was even more on my best behavior. She couldn't have been more gracious.
I'm enjoying it a lot. I'll go five stars.
August 29, 2011
99 cents of debased fiat currency
I do love e-readers. I won't bore you again with the reasons.
Yesterday, I hit my Kindle's "suggestion for you" and it hooked this brother up with a collection of Bastiat essays with a foreword by FA Hayek: The Economics of Freedom: What Your Professors Won't Tell You, Selected Works of Frederic Bastiat, for the princely sum of 0.99. The ones I had seen are worth reading again, and there are quite a few I had not seen (unseen?) or forgotten. In "Credit," our favorite 19th Century French philosopher/economist predicts and debunks Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
This much being granted, what good can credit institutions do? They can make it easier for borrowers and lenders to find one another and reach an understanding. But what they cannot do is to increase instantaneously the total number of objects borrowed and lent.
Bastiat describes two farmers, James & John, both of whom would like to borrow the only plow in France.
John, with his honesty, his property, and his good name, offers guarantees. One believes in him; he has credit. James does not inspire confidence or at any rate seems less reliable. Naturally, Peter lends his plow to John. But now, under socialist inspiration, the state intervenes and says to Peter: "Lend your plow to James. We will guarantee you reimbursement, and this guarantee is worth more than John's, for he is the only one responsible for himself, and we, though it is true we have nothing, dispose of the wealth of all the taxpayers; if necessary, we will pay back the principal and the interest with their money."
Is it just me, or is this story sounding somehow familiar?
In a given country and at a given time, there is only a certain sum of available capital, and it is all placed somewhere. By guaranteeing insolvent debtors, the state can certainly increase the number of borrowers, raise the rate of interest (all at the expense of the taxpayer), but it cannot increase the number of lenders and the total value of the loans.
If the President has a Kindle, I would happily cough up 99 cents to buy this for him. There are quite a few good lessons in it.
August 14, 2011
<bullwinkle voice>Welcome, Poetry Lovers...</bullwinkle voice>
First up is a proper review corner for Thomas Woods's 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask. Brother nb linked to Woods a few weeks ago and we discussed his appearance on Stossel.
I ended up grabbing his book and I am certain that any ThreeSourcer would dig it mightily. Woods strips away the PC version of American History, trashing shibboleths like the environmentalism of indigenous peoples, FDR's economic chops, radicalism of nullification and states rights, the importance of unions and progressive legislation to improve working conditions, &c.
I guess my favorite thing about it is that I was challenged from the wingnut side. Woods goes A LOT farther than I would on some of his answers. To give an example I must offer a painfully uncontextual paraphrase: Against the Federalization that accompanied the Civil War, the destruction of States Rights and creation of a modern nation state are presented as culpable for the 20th Century wars. Slavery was not only not the cause of what Brother Keith calls "The War of Northern Aggression," it seems to be too low on the list to bear inclusion, based on Lincoln's lack of dedication to emancipation and multiple Northern examples of racism and acceptance.
Yet, these are perfect examples of the value of the book. Woods presents a "book of questions." While I might quibble with some answers, the author is dead-on that these questions are not -- cannot -- be asked in a history class today. I thought of the Simpsons episode: Apu is getting his citizenship, and taking a test. The official asks the cause of the Civil War. Our favorite accented Slushee® purveyor launches into a nuanced disquisition of the place of tariffs in an agrarian economy versus the industrialized North -- the tester interrupts and says "Just say 'Slavery!'"
Four stars fer sure.
Next, a premature, advance review corner, for what I'm guessing is a future five star. I was not going to read David Mamet's The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture also discussed on these pages. It's a polemic, thoughts me, I'd rather read history or economics or something.
A "Kindle Sample" changed my tune -- I am enthralled at his eloquence, devotion to reason, and the scope of his reading. I'm going to tease the choir with the introduction to Chapter 8, The Red Sea:
There is another possible interpretation of the parting of the sea by Moses.
I'd say it is purdy good...
[Mamet, David (2011-06-02). The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (Kindle Locations 735-744). Sentinel. Kindle Edition.]
July 24, 2011
It's unusual to hate the ending of a non-fiction, history book. It is rarely a surprise "Huh? The South Lost?" And if you enjoy a book and its thesis for 14 chapters, the denouement is usually like the last day of the Tour de France: a pleasant ride without substantive changes.
But "Reckless Endangerment" broke the mold. Not enough to ruin the experience or force me to retract its recommendation, mind you, but certainly enough to lose one star and leave me with a queasy feeling for days after.
For fourteen chapters, Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner carefully construct a trenchant case against government's complicity in the housing bubble. The Community Reinvestment Act and the implied government "put" against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are deftly told with names, dates and facts. The crony capitalism of Angelo Mozilo at Countrywide, the capture of regulators and of Congressional oversight are all documented in excruciating and maddening detail.
As I was warned, the authors mention but do not highlight loose money. Fed Chair Greenspan gets whacks for ineffective regulation, but not much for quarters of negative real interest rates. The repeal of Glass-Stiegel, which I consider a leftist bogeyman, gets a whole chapter while monetary policy gets mentions -- disappointing, but acceptable, it is their book.
But after they have layered and interconnected this airtight case, they graft a Chapter 15 onto the end that says "yeah, but it was really all about Wall Street Greed." "Squeeze me? Baking Powder?"
Maybe I read too much into it or am a tool for Goldman Sachs, but I thought this non-sequitor, afterthought compromised much of this excellent book. Unlike 1-14, Chapter 15 had little documentation and context. It was cribbed from the Matt Damon movie and contained all the hoary chestnuts like Goldman's shorting the securities it was selling. I know that offended Senator Levin. But the authors are more sophisticated and one expects them to understand that a trade has two sides, and that GS is a rather large entity. Were its traders bound to support the paper other divisions were creating, congressional hearings would be warranted.
In the end, though, the famed first fourteen are well worth the price and time. I give it four stars and a hearty recommendation.
July 20, 2011
Don Luskin's Promo Video
Did I link this?
The book is great!
July 18, 2011
Guest Review Corner
Blog friend JC puts this in the comments, but I want to promote it to a post:
FINALLY FINISHED Virginia Postrel's book: The Future and its Enemies!
First, I would like to begin with apologies. The book challenge was started back in Feb? March? My friend jk quickly procured and read my challenge to him: Making Peace with the Planet by Barry Commoner. jk must be a speed reader. He finished far ahead of expectations and quickly posted his review. Me, on the other hand, dragged my feet, ordered the book to be delivered by bicycle messenger and read by candle-light to reduce the fossil fuel impact this book challenge would have on our frail planet! ;-)
The Future and its Enemies was the toughest book I have ever read. When I read, I read slowly to ensure I grasp the full intent, content and supporting comprehension of the author. My biggest problem with this book is how frequently Postrel shifted from lucid clarity in her reflections on the status of society to sheer and utter ignorance about the topic she assumed to know so well. These radical shifts between reality and fantasy made my head reel every time I picked it up. I frequently went back to re-read the previous section to ensure I understood what she was writing so eloquently before she drifted off into ignorant assumptions about practices and policies that have no basis in reality. Again, it was a tough read.
Postrel's book should have been titled "The Dynamist Manefesto (and how to label and mock anyone who appears not to be a dynamist") She writes the book in support of her beliefs and positions posted at www.dynamist.com. Maybe the book should have been titled "Supporting the Dynamist Manifesto" - I don't know... the title and content were in conflict from my perspective but, then again, I would never claim to be 100% dynamist (or any other [insert term here]) based on Postre's judgmental assumptions.
Although the book made me wonder how a person could come to adopt the wildly ridiculous ideals presented in this book, I found a significant amount of useful material for reflecting on past and current technologies, industries and political policies. Case in point:
(quoting from p. 205) "It isn't terribly appealing to argue, for instance, that you want everyone else to be worse off so that your company can charge high prices, run inefficiently, and not worry about coming up with new and better products. Far better to invoke reactionary ideals of loyalty and stability, to suggest that turbulence is evil and competition suspect - or to offer technocratic promises of predictability and order against the messiness of experimentation. If you can also suggest that uncontrolled "technology" is plowing over "people", so much the better. The people inventing and using new technology don't count much in stasist calculations - and, chances are, they haven't yet gotten organized into an interest group."
Her statement is spot-on with regards to the battle between conflicting industries and/or political parties (fossil fuels vs. wind, solar and geo-thermal). Individual stasists in the FF camp are fighting hard to hold on to their old, inefficient and outdated product and the internal combustion engines that they feed. Ignorance, arrogance and greed seem to rule the day while rational thinking has taken a back seat to rhetoric.
My last point is regarding how Postrel believes that non-dynamists are working hard to destroy/slow/ruin the world we live in. She speaks as though technocrats, stasists, reactionaries and other â€śnon-dynamistsâ€ť are a growing population. I am not sure how she arrived at this conclusion but I challenge her to prove that human evolution is driven by epi-genetic proclivities that eventually eliminate dynamists from the human family. Fact is, the human family has always included reactionaries, stasists, technocrats and every other mindset we can imagine. We (humanity) would not have arrived at our current place in history if it were not for all of those conflicting views and philosophies. We need each one of these types of people in society to maintain a dynamic balance in our evolutionary growth and development. The world is much better off with our conflicting views than it would be if there was no conflict and/or no growth.
"Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving." - John Dewey
July 17, 2011
The stupidest line in the English language has got to be "I'm so behind in my reading." "Show me a person who is not behind in his reading," retorts me, "and I'll show you somebody with nothing to read." That rare -- as in never -- event caught me yesterday. I had finished everything on my Kindle. I went to the Kindle store for suggestions. They had several SharePoint books (that's work, ugh) and quite a few tatting books (I share an account with the lovely bride, something I recommend highly for his-and-hers kindlers).
And, Reckless Endangerment, which got the nod -- and $12.99 of my hard-earned fiat currency.
Today Rex Murphy has an extended review in the National Post.
First, a note about Reckless Endangerment's authors. They are, respectively, Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prizewinning New York Times business reporter, and Joshua Rosner, a financial analyst -solidly competent and authoritative both. Reckless Endangerment does not come, in other words, out of the wild territory of hyper-partisanship or the backwaters of conspiracism.
I read several good reviews about this book when it came out, but I thought I would pass as I already agree with what I understand its conclusions to be. It seems to match pretty closely with my view of the Panic of '08 causes (though they have been accused of soft-pedaling monetary policy).
But what I am gonna do? Read SharePoint books on Sunday? I am just a couple of short chapters in, but I think it will be worth it. I have this vague notion that the Community Reinvestment Act forced banks to offer loans to subprime borrowers and include it on my list of government intrusion. But the second chapter really nails it down, from its passing in 1977 to a Boston Fed paper in 1992 that suggested broad racial imbalance in lending, to the ambitious strike of James Johnson at Fannie, to the substantive facts disproving the '92 paper.
All my friends believe greedy Wall Street guys and George Bush caused the problem to drive up Halliburton shares and get rid of Saddam Hussein -- I don't know, it gets murky sometimes. This appears it might be to the panic what Lawrence Wright's "The Leaning Tower" was to Islamic terrorism: a non-ideological and serious look at fundamental causes.
July 16, 2011
A quick review corner for David Heidler's Henry Clay: the essential American: this is a very well written book. It is interesting and informative, and the topic is truly one of the greatest of American statesmen. One encounters Clay as the rival when reading about William Henry Harrison or Zachary Taylor and the nemesis in any book about Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, or John Tyler. It is fascinating to look at the same issues from Clay's vantage.
Heider (and his wife I believe) bring this colorful character to life through decades of monumental American history. He is interesting as the five-time-almost-President, but he is essential as the third of the Clay-Webster-Calhoun triumvirate.
The best thing about Clay in the end is that he, Calhoun and Webster remain our dream of Republicanism: brilliant men of passion, principle, and patriotism. <yoda voice>Not this stuff</yoda voice>: of Dodd and Grassley. Even in disagreement, it is easy to respect these men. The likes of, I fear, we may never see again. And Clay was the star of even that elevated company.
Superb. Four stars.
July 2, 2011
How 'bout a movie for a change?
I just sent "Departures" back to Netflix -- what a great film (it is definitely a film and not a movie, trust me). IMDB gives the plot as
A newly unemployed cellist takes a job preparing the dead for funerals.
The movie, er film, is in Japanese with Engrish subtitles. You're picturing a lengthy, tedious art film, c'mon admit it. Art it may be; tedious it is not.
I think ThreeSourcers would dig it -- not that there's a Reaganite message about cap gains taxes -- but for a serious and beautiful look at work and art, individualism, and human dignity. A small, ensemble cast is endearing. The cinematography is superb, showing a Japan that is not Disney, Clavell, or dystopian.
Sweet, well paced and unusual -- Five stars.
July 1, 2011
I finished "The Jacket" and Matt Welch's Declaration of Independents last night. It is a remarkably uplifting book.
It is funny, thoughtful and well written. None of that surprises me because of the authors. But the book starts by laying out a serious and ambitious agenda:
The Declaration of Independents is a call to wave away the clouds of obfuscating political malarkey, to call things (in [Vaclav] Havel's phrasing) "by their proper names," identify governance for what it is, expose how it sells itself, and inject into the political sphere the same forces of innovation, individualization, and autonomy that are bettering the way we live in every other sense.
They accomplish all this without nattering the way Libertarians sometimes do. It remains very upbeat, in spite of chapters like "We are so out of money!" There's a kind of Reaganite optimism about it, not that they have many kind words for our 40th. but they do have a true belief that free people will overcome the challenges of over-weaning government.
Funny, upbeat, informative, thoughtful. I will offer any of my leftist friends to read anything of their choosing if they'll pour through this one. It should be easy as Speaker Boehner and President George W Bush get as many or more whacks than anybody else.
Five stars. Greg Gutfield says "It's better than 'War & Peace' and 'Everybody Poops' combined."
June 19, 2011
To get a break from history and politics, I always enjoy a good pop-science-cosmology book. A good friend of mine and I trade recommendations, plus the Wall Street Journal has been reviewing a lot of them lately. I liked Stephen Hawking's newest, The Grand Design, and the best of the recent breed is Martin Bojowald's Once Before Time.
But I'll put Lawrence Krauss's Quantum Man well up there. Like Mr. Speaker, the author is gifted with an entertaining personality to document. Richard Feynman breaks the scientist stereotype nicely: he plays bongos at a strip club, moves to Brazil to support his research and carnal needs, and makes indelible impressions on his colleagues for his potent personality and an intelligence recognized even by the top strata as superior.
The author is a physicist who met Feynman but was not close. Krauss feeds a good dose of theoretical physics. It's not full strength or I would never have survived, but I would not recommend this to one with a casual interest. I laughed out loud a few times when the author or subject was attempting humor, but also once in Chapter Seven when Krauss drops a couple of sentences to explain what an integral is. "Dude. The folks who don't know what an integral is gave up in Chapter Two."
There's a devilish balance with all of these books, how far to dumb them down, and I think this one gets it about right. Four stars.
As this is
Early on, they split the well known lines of hydrogen spectrum into secondary and tertiary frequencies which comport to quantum effects. The third line is off its predicted value by 1/10,000,000. Nobody calls the UN or any of the country's ex-Vice-Presidents. The theory is scrapped until it or the experiment to test it can be repaired. Real science. Scientists argue and take sides, sometimes for petty reasons, sometimes for actual insights. Yet nobody is thrown out as a "photon-denier."
It's stunning to read these three and try to give any credence to the tomfoolery that is "climate science."
June 9, 2011
Brian Doherty Tries Review Corner
I bet I reviewed his "Radicals for Capitalism."
On the other hand, the Ron Paul of Liberty Defined seems in many ways designed to antagonize the standard right wing while emphasizing areas of affinity with the progressive left. This is not some centrist "liberaltarian" project of selling liberty to pundits and intellectuals of the Democratic mainstream. Ever the rebel, Ron Paul sounds more like a "left-libertarian," reaching out to the far reaches of the progressive left and the downtrodden to challenge concentrations of statist power.
So, it wasn't just me...
June 6, 2011
He Does't Even Award Stars.
An obscure law professor in Tennessee tries to climb aboard the Review Corner bandwagon. He presents an erudite view of David Bernstein's "Rehabilitating Lochner," but one misses the stars and toilet humor available elsewhere on the Internet.
Keep an eye on this young feller anyway.
I'm in danger of damaging the franchise.
Anybody who gives three superlative reviews in a string of four books is obviously:
But I can't help it, it's five stars for James Grant's "Mr. Speaker!"
I bought this after reading a WSJ review. I consider myself at least a minor league history buff and had not heard of (or much about) Thomas Brackett Reed. Reed was Speaker of the House in the 51st, 53rd and 54th Congresses.(Yawn!) But he transformed the House in the same way that Lyndon Johnson transformed the Senate 50 years later.
Today, it is said that a majority in the House "can pass a ham sandwich;" hard to imagine that the House of the Gilded Age was a model of obstructionism. Members of the minority party could sit at their desks and be silent for roll call, leaving the body without a quorum. Dilatory motions could tie up the house for days. Even bills with overwhelming bipartisan majority support would stew through multiple congresses because of the value in delaying the next piece of legislation.
I hear the ThreeSources choir muttering in the back. "Congress doing nothing sounds pretty good, n'ect ce pas?" "Why is Leader Johnson a villain and Speaker Reed a hero?" and "Are there any more Cheetos®?"
The party labels are reversed. Grover Cleveland Democrats and his compatriots in Congress, notably Southern House Democrats are happy to let whiz-bang Republican big government ideas stew. They would like to *ahem* lower taxes.
I give Reed a pass for three reasons. One: the House was not just dilatory, it was truly dysfunctional; it's Constitutional business could not be performed. Two: I personally like the idea of a "people's house" being the democratic and responsive section of government. Let the Senate and other branches be the cooling saucers. And, three, in a heart-rending Coda, private citizen Reed returns to the first district of Maine and is saluted by President Roosevelt. The author suggests Reed's concern that his efficacy was now in the employ of McKinleyesque taxation, Progressive encroachment on liberty, and TR's bellicosity. (Reed left the Speakership and Republican Party politics over these, most notably the Spanish-American War.)
The author is a financial writer and the discussion of monetary policy -- truly the issue of the day in Reed's time -- is clear and comprehensive.
Lastly, Speaker Reed's wit keeps the pages flying by. There are a few collections of Thomas B Reed Quotes online, but you have to hear dozens to get the full flavor of the man. I'll leave you with way too few:
One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation.
UPDATE: The author interviewed on NRP (7:42).
May 28, 2011
Drop Everything and Buy This Book
Last time I recommended a book before completing it, it did not end well. Yet, I have a lot more confidence here.
I saw Don Luskin on Kudlow and decided to put down some things I was reading and dive into I Am John Galt which Luskin co-authored with Andrew Greta.
The Introduction is a comprehensive and succinct view of Rand's philosophy. I make the daring prediction that it will generally please every ThreeSourcer. They do not cover a prodigious and productive career in 20 pages, but it is an awesome view from 20,000 feet
It is followed by nine chapters, each about a modern historical figure, paired with the fictional Rand character he represents. Steve Jobs as Howard Roark, Paul Krugman as Ellsworth Toohey...
When I write the real Review Corner I will suggest that Luskin is perhaps too close to Krugman and should have allowed his co-author to pen that one, but that will shave off a small fraction of a star at worst. I post this early so that you can all drop what you are doing and buy this book.
May 1, 2011
'Atlas Shrugged Part 1' - Only the Beginning
I enjoyed the very fair Pollywood review of 'Atlas Shrugged Part 1' by two relatively pro-Rand film writers, Lionel Chetwynd and Roger Simon that JK linked for us. They had some very good points and I fully expect the producers to follow as much of their advice as possible in future efforts. This first production clearly had some handicaps that led to its shortcomings, many of which will not apply to the sequels, e.g. the looming expiration of contratual rights, inexperience of the independent production company, and perhaps most importantly... working with the most tedious and least compelling portion of the novel, i.e. the first third. As a first-time reader I wasn't hooked by the story until the tunnel scene, which won't transpire until Part 2.
If the Aglialoro-Kaslow Atlas Shrugged franchise produces better products with its promised sequels than was the original it will not be the first such situation in motion picture history. I'm thinking of the progression in production value, if not necessarily the story line, of the Australian 'Road Warrior' series. The film by that name was far more entertaining and compelling than the predecessor 'Mad Max.' And it's a well-known fact of life that improving on an existing product is a shorter bridge than must be crossed when blazing an original trail.
'Atlas Shrugged Part 1' also suffered from an almost maniacal focus on keeping a quick pace. This led to many stilted scenes where a bit more dialogue would have fleshed out the scene considerably. For example, the "old wounds" in the relationship between Francisco and Dagny are only hinted at in their solitary scene together alone. Rand wrote a richer storyline than was presented to viewers of this film and allowing it to "balloon" to a full two-hours wouldn't have hurt its flow one bit.
But I must disagree with Mr. Chetwynd over his characterization of Rand's novels as mere "ciphers" for her philosophy, having no "depth of character" and lacking the undescribed qualities that would have resulted from "a reflective, creative work." I did find the character portrayals in the film to be rather two-dimensional but I attribute this to the aforementioned limitations and not to the source material to which the producers "slavishly" adhered. I would have liked to see more of the warmth and vulnerability of the literary Dagny in the movie character - an extended scene with Francisco could have provided this. In contrast with Messrs. Chetwynd and Simon, Robert Tracinski observed:
But Ayn Rand started out her career--in the 1920s through the 1940s--as a Hollywood screenwriter, working for such legends as Cecil B. DeMille and Hal Wallis. She wrote her novels in a very cinematic style, with stark visuals, sharp exchanges of dialogue, and peaks of high drama. She gave a director everything he could ask for to keep the audience in their seats: visually beautiful settings from the skyline of New York City to the mountains of Colorado, large-scale action scenes set on railroad lines and in steel mills, big ideas expressed in sharp-witted exchanges of dialogue--and, of course, passionate love scenes with handsome leading men and beautiful leading ladies.
I applaud the passion and dedication which drove Aglialoro, Kaslow, and the entire The Strike production company to complete this much anticipated movie that so many have tried and failed at previously. I am encouraged by their reaction to the predictable reception these Hollywood outsiders were given for their faithful adaptation of Rand's paramount though controversial work. I look forward to bigger and better products to follow, on both the big screen in Parts 2 and 3 and in special DVD releases such as director's cuts and a possible miniseries. These film adaptations can only add to the inspiration and defense of liberty offered by the most influential book ever written save the Bible.
April 21, 2011
Online Education Rocks!
This time, in history and literature.
First JK brought us the Khan Academy for math and science.
My contribution in kind is Shmoop University.
No one will be surprised that I found these guys by searching for something relevant to Atlas Shrugged.
In the brief time I've spent perusing the voluminous content they offer on this controversial and revolutionary novel I have been greatly impressed. The treatment is honest, accurate and thorough. I hope to use it to help explain some of the book's themes to others. (And to refer to other literary titles and, when time permits, move on to history topics.)
March 20, 2011
Review Corner, Deux
The Review Corner you've ALL been waiting for! I wonder what jk thought of "Making Peace with the Planet" by Barry Commoner? Well...
For those who missed the story, I made a bargain with an intelligent yet überprogressive friend. He will be feasting on the superb "Future and Its Enemies" by Virginia Postrel. In return, I would read a book of his choosing and landed MPWTP.
I was initially disappointed and concerned. Yet the quality of writing, and occasional heterodoxies made it an interesting read. In the spirit of sharing ideas, I would like to start with the book's good points. The writing, as I mentioned, is well done, but most of the plusses are what the book is not:
In spite of all the great things that the book is not, the problem becomes what the book is. The first edition was released in 1975. He has revised it a few times between then and 1992 and I must assume that he stands by all that is left in the most recent edition. But it is full of references to high compression engines and leaded gasoline, CFCs, PCBs, acid rain. These are intermingled with global warming concerns even though they were supposed to cause global cooling at the time.
I guess that's fair enough, but he takes a snapshot at the nadir of world environmental stewardship. I was around in '75. We were gonna die from killer bees and the ozone hole and global cooling, and smog, and leisure suits, and acid rain, and fallout from atmospheric atomic bomb tests. Contra Postrel, he makes no allowance for innovation or improvement. We have made huge improvements in almost every problem he describes. But it's always 1975 in Commoner land.
Most seriously, though, and most contra Postrel, he provides an authoritarian, top-down, static solution. The book ends with a bold plan to commit $500 Billion a year (in 1992 dollars, one presumes) for "at least ten years" to enact all of his fixes. The only mentions of freedom in the book reference it as an obstacle to doing what needs to be done. A sort of hopeless American nostalgia for capitalism.
Commoner ran for President in 1980. His candidacy for President on the Citizens Party ticket won 233,052 votes (0.27% of the total). * Yet, he feels empowered to spend more than $5 Trillion on his plan. Electric trains, retirement of third-world debt, government purchases of non-economic items like electric cars [check!] and photovoltaic cells, that will allow the providers to scale up production to make their products affordable.
You may guess that I won't be recommending the book for its Economics. For my last point, I will quote Ludwig von Mises instead of Postrel. He refers several times to the "capitalist flaw" that the producers dictate to the consumer. LvM makes that the central point in his superb "Socialism." The flaw under public ownership of the means of production is that the producers dictate what is produced. Under capital ownership, the consumers dictate and capital forces the producers to supply what will provide the best return.
Two and a half stars. You'll recognize many ideas from friends and relatives, and it is assembled pretty well.
Review Corner, Un
NED bless Netflix. Not being a big movies guy, there are a lot of great ones that I have missed.
"The Dish" (2000, IMDB) showed up in a red envelope yesterday and I was enthralled. If you missed it, or have not seen it in awhile, put this on your queue.
NASA needs a radio telescope dish in the Southern Hemisphere to communicate with Apollo 11. The best choice for receiving TV signals is in Parks Australia. This brings the town to notoriety and the small town mayor to political attention.
The characters are interesting and well played, but I recommend it to ThreeSourcers for celebrating the Apollonian side of the Moon landing. I was nine at the time and, just like the mayor's son, I could rattle off specs and decipher all the acronyms. But I remember, and did not really share, my father's sense of awe. It was all on schedule for me. I knew the missions and this one was planned for '69. This film connected me with the awe of completing that mission with that technology. Five stars.
March 8, 2011
John Ranelagh writes of Margaret Thatcher's remark at a key Conservative Party meeting in the late 1970's, "Another colleague had also prepared a paper arguing that the middle way was the pragmatic path for the Conservative party to take .. Before he had finished speaking to his paper, the new Party Leader [Margaret Thatcher] reached into her briefcase and took out a book. It was Friedrich von Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty. Interrupting [the speaker], she held the book up for all of us to see. 'This', she said sternly, 'is what we believe', and banged Hayek down on the table."
CoL probably remains my foundational book as well, but it's been joined by a couple in 2011. With my Presidents project completed, I have caught up of a few things I always wanted to read: important books by favorite authors. The first was Ludwig von Mises's "Socialism" with its brilliant economic defense of liberalism.
But I thought of the Thatcher quote upon finishing Virginia Postrel's "The Future and its Enemies." Something tells me I am going to be buying a bunch of copies of this (holler if you want on the list). Without delving directly into too much economics or politics, Postrel makes an astonishing case for freedom. I could throw this book down at any of my Facebook friends and say "this is what I believe."
Yup, I could do that with Hayek or Mises, but they'd never make it. This book is very accessible. It's an easy read, yet it captures the philosophy that underlies much of the politics and economics I hold so dearly. What you really need from Smith's division of labor, Ricardo's comparative advantage, Hayek's spontaneous order or Schumpeter's gales of creative destruction is lovingly nestled, without a dry or dismal paragraph in the whole book. (I can't quite say that about Wealth of Nations or Constitution of Liberty...)
January 6, 2011
Here Comes John Galt
To the big screen.
Many of my trepidations about making this story into a movie have been salved by this interview with executive producer and financier (read: owner) of the film, John Aglialoro.
Ranked by Forbes Small Business as the 10th richest executive of any small publicly-traded company (revenues under $200 million) in 2007, Aglialoro is one of those rare corporate executives who fully "gets" the philosophical message in Atlas Shrugged.
So the storyline should be safe. The scope of this movie is Part I of the book, which readers can review key points from by reading those entitled entries in Three Sources' "Atlas Shrugged QOTD" archive.
And the casting appears excellent as well. In my mind's eye I can envision Ms. Schilling walking through an abandoned factory, or consoling her poor, misguided young sister-in-law. And the movie's Hank Reardon, played by Grant Bowler, seems a perfect fit. I can easily see him telling Tinky Holloway that his game is up.
But we'll have to wait for the second sequel for that scene. I've heard that the intentions for Parts II and III of the book are to be separate sequels, each following about a year after it's predecessor.
Judging by some of the scene photos the setting of the movie will be decidedly modern. Apparently it will be set in our time, not in that of the book's writing. This is as it should be. The uninitiated youth will be more captivated than with a more faithful portrayal of the book. And, more importantly, we are closer to the events of the story becoming reality today than at any time in history.
January 5, 2011
Review Corner (Bumped)
Usually, when the chattering classes send up a big cinematic celebration of the decade between Jack Kerouac's and KC & the Sunshine Band's, I run for the hills. Surely, they will celebrate the Dionysian and not Apollonian vision of The Sixties. When the producer is Richard "blow up kids who don't believe in global warming" Curtis, a bit of trepidation is warranted.
Yet, no, if you have missed the little British indie comedy Pirate Radio, run -- do not walk -- to your Netflix queue.
Sadly, the comedic genius we enjoyed from British television seems diluted at the very best. Brother jg's atheist friend, Ricky Gervais, delivered a very original character in "The Office," but most of what I have seen of late have been hampered by political correctness (Robin Hood) or just a race to the bottom versus America (Couples, &c.) And yet, British film has stepped up to take up the slack with great little indie films like "Kinky Boots," "Blow Dry," and now "Pirate Radio."
UPDATE: Another viewing stirs up more commentary...
1) ERRATA: It is certainly not an "indie flick." Richard Curtis is a big time producer and the film is not starved for budget: aerial shots, stars, special effects -- it's not "Star Wars III," but it's not "Return of the Secaucus Seven." To its credit, however, the film feels indie. It is fresh, non-formulaic, and relies on writing and storyline.
2) It does earn its R rating. The free love sixties are viewed up close and personal. Yet not a minute seems prurient. What happens happens and all the costs and benefits are there to see.
3) Best of all, the film seems very neutral. The lifestyle is laid out, as are the fashion trappings: equal parts silly, pompous and cool. Curtis -- who wants to tell you what light bulb to use and where to vacation -- remarkably does not tell you what to think. It's like the Buffy episode "Normal Again," the creators keep their thumb off the scale.
4) The part that is not fair is the attack on government. This is a sea-steading movie and the antagonists are a joyless bureaucrat who is happy to rip joy away from 25 million of his countrymen just to display control and nannyism -- and his assistant, who is actually named "Twatt."
5) What a soundtrack. I worshipped 60's music as a lad, turned away as an adult, then got into the jazz snob thing. But these tunes, if you'll pardon the pun, rock. Beyond the Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding stuff I knew I'd like, they pull up a bunch of great songs. "Judy in Disguise" was an oldie when I was a kid, but it sounds fresh in the movie (and I have been singing it for a couple days...)
I need a favorite movie. My bank asks me that every few months and I have to reset my account. I just don't have a favorite movie. This one might be it...
January 4, 2011
I've Been Bested
I may have to quit "Review Corner." I can clearly not compete.
Blog friend LisaM embeds a three part review of Star Wars III. I confess I only made it through one part. It's as long as the movie. But, as lm points out, it's quite a bit better.
December 6, 2010
End of a Journey
Close to President Obama's inauguration, I took some advice from Nicholas Nasim Taleb. In "The Black Swan," he suggests that people should read more books and less news. I knew the next few years of news would not be to my liking, so I allowed all my political magazine subscriptions to expire (I destroyed a rainforest with renewal offers).
I thought that I would read a book about each US President: 43 books and give myself a bright gold star. Finish up by the end of 2009. I had a plan and started with Joseph J Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington. (Five Stars!)
But the best plans have some flexibility and I quickly discovered both that I really enjoyed it and that I clearly needed to read more than one for each chief executive. So the one year plan was out the window. But this dropout actually connected with a multi-year intellectual exercise.
Last night I finished Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father. I'll give President O three stars for an interesting read and I'll recommend it to ThreeSourcers. You can see where he comes from. It disturbingly sets up his distrust of business as compared to his complete trust of government.
It belies campaign claims of a "post racial" America. He looks for his place among his family, the Luo tribe, and people of African descent. I know, I know. "I wouldn't understand" but...I don't understand.
November 22, 2010
I think all ThreeSourcers will enjoy President Bush's Decision Points.
No doubt we differ in our opinion of 43 (who also liked to refer to presidents by ordinal), but Decision Points offers Bush's own view on many of the issues we have beat up on these very pages. You want to hate him for TARP or Medicare Part D, it is certainly your prerogative. I found I could go along with about any of his explanations -- you've heard me make most of them -- but I cannot join him on "when people hurt, government must act." He never questions that. He's essentially a market guy, but lacks Reagan's (and our) skepticism of government. For all of Senator McCain's blather, George W. Bush is the modern day's Theodore Roosevelt. And I do not mean that in the nicest way.
But after two years of his successor, it is hard not to feel nostalgia for his decency, probity, and patriotism. Without saying the present occupant of 1600 Penn lacks these, a few hundred pages of President Bush (and Laura's which I read right before) refreshes because he wears his love of country, freedom and our nation's military on his sleeve.
A mixed bag indeed. Of the 14 chapters, the one I found most difficult to accept was the penultimate on "The Financial Crisis." "Wall Street had a party and we all got the hangover" not only lacks nuance, but also connection to reality. He spins around and expresses cogent thoughts on Fannie and Freddie and comes close to questioning whether Federal largesse should subsidize minority home ownership, but he won't say a word against Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and one is left -- at the very end of the book -- with the thought that he doesn't get it.
I quibble, and you will too. But it is a fun, interesting, and informative read. ThreeSourcers will know the policy but will enjoy the anecdotes. Four solid stars -- plus a quarter for pissing off Jacques Chirac again. One last time.
UPDATE: Shelfari invites users to create "Ridiculously Simplified Synopses." Someone submits:
"Red State: Texas hero arrives in Washington making brilliant decisions that save the world from terrorism."
November 5, 2010
V, Guy Fawkes and the TEA Party
I don't remember what precipitated the choice but I decided to make "V" my halloween costume this year. I watched the movie again and found it much more pleasing than on initial viewing (during the second term of the "atavistic, homophobic, warmongering" President George W. Bush.) Obviously I wasn't so defensive about possible hidden meanings this time around.
I reviewed past reviews and commentary on these pages and was reminded that we all instantly recognized that labeling V as a "terrorist" was false. (He never attacked innocent civilians, only the guilty accomplices of a totalitarian state.) While searching the web for character quotes I found this leftist review which, despite it's anti-conservative bias and failure to grasp the "terrorism" distinction, recognizes the liberty and freedom message of the film.
One of the most progressive aspects of the film is its attempt to inject optimism about political change in a world that is despairing. "Every time I have seen the world change, it was for the worse", Evey tells V, echoing the reality of an entire generation in the First World. V sets out to prove to Evey that "governments should be afraid of their people", and, despite the terrorist trappings, the film's fundamental message is that responsibility for political change lies with the mass of people, not institutions or politicians or stars.
Then why do leftists so despise the TEA Party movement, which seeks to restrict government and champion liberty via popular activism?
September 19, 2010
ThreeSourcers may breathe a sigh of relief. This will be the final post discussing Robert A Caro's Master of the Senate.
At the Big Texan Steakhouse in Amarillo, TX, there was (is I guess) a 72 oz. steak that is yours for free if you eat it in one hour. I never tried this particular challenge. But I felt, at the conclusion of this book like I had just finished the steak. It was really good but I have been reading it for what seems like a Senate term and was glad to see the last page.
Despite all my whining, I am going to give it five stars and a hearty recommendation. I never learned as much between starting and finishing a book in my life. There are 1400 pages and I dare you to read one and not learn something.
He begins with a historical view of the Senate and the framers' intent in adding this antidemocratic house to the legislative branch. He charts the institution's course through the antebellum years of Calhoun, Webster and Clay. He lambastes the postbellum years as the Executive Branch gains strength. He gives serious consideration to both sides of the 17th Amendment. Then he charts how LBJ harnessed diffuse powers of the body to further his on ambition and lust for power.
The crowning achievement is a step by step walk through the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. LBJ wants the presidency and knows his only hope at being more than a sectional, Southern candidate, is to pass "a Nigra bill." For seven months, he pieces together one coalition after another, compromise, dealmaking and parliamentary chicanery. We all know this stuff goes on, but the detail and determination is stunning.
Y'all are better scholars than I and will not get bogged down in its thickness and density as I did. But there is not one of you that will not like it.
September 5, 2010
Still slogging through Robert A Caro's "Master of the Senate." This becomes the longest I have ever spent with a single book and the end is barely in sight. While I am enjoying it, a good friend of this blog gave me a much appreciated diversion.
I would read a couple loooooong chapters of MOTS and click the Kindle over to read a few short breezy chapters of "Racing." After a decade-long run of reading mostly nonfiction, this is the first fiction book that has really grabbed me. We've got enough dog and motorsports lovers around here that I think it'd be a hit.
Beautiful. Five stars. Now back to LBJ...
August 20, 2010
Review Corner Done Right!
Oh man, I have been bested:
For the record, 1554 is probably my favorite. But even without that, one has to appreciate what the New Belgium Brewing Blog called his "unpretentious style."
August 7, 2010
First, a quick Review Corner. Haavaad Professor Jeffrey Miron's Libertarianism from A to Z would be enjoyed by any ThreeSourcer. As the title suggest, it is a dictionary of libertarian thought on various topics. Available for Kindle, I read a few every time I'm in the doc's office or finish another book. Five star stuff.
He introduces a pair of terms that make me think of my blog brethren: consequentialist vs. philosophical libertarianism. Miron espouses consequentialist thought because he suggests it is more suitable to explanation and evangelism. At the risk of reopening the biggest 3src war of all time, I've always been fond of pointing out freedom's successes. A'la Friedman: look at Hong Kong and Maoist China. Same people, climate, and geography -- but the free state is wealthy, while her resource-rich neighbor across the bay is poor.
The consequentialist does not have to disagree with the rights-based approach but chooses concrete practical examples. I don't expect everyone will change their beliefs (although he does teach at Harvard!) but it is a clear and respectful differentiation and I think the terms might do us well 'round here.
July 29, 2010
Thanks to Instapunit and Reason.tv:
July 19, 2010
No Brad Pitt...
July 18, 2010
My Life in Ruins
We're going to share a post between "Review Corner" and "Quote of the Day" to reduce our Carbon Footprint.
I watched My Life in Ruins with Nia Vardalos and Richard Dreyfuss last night. If, like me, you have a high tolerance for chick flicks (or unlike me you perhaps are actually a chick). I'd recommend it. It had an honest feel about it that is usually missing from the Romantic Comedy genre. Dreyfuss may be king of the moonbats, but he is a superb actor and really knocks this one out of the park.
There is one great line that all ThreeSourcers might appreciate. Georgia (Vardalos) is an American who moved to Greece for an academic position. When it fell through, she took a job as tour guide, guiding tourists through ruins with professorial disquisitions when they would rather be at the beach or souvenir stands. Hilarity ensues, yadda yadda.
Early on, she is complaining about the general clutter, disorganization and lack of repair in a culture that prefers comfort to achievement (even before the sovereign debt crisis). She enumerates Grecians' contributions to politics, philosophy, science, astronomy, mathematics and art until: "until they invented 'the nap.'" That captures Europe (The South especially) so perfectly. They gave us so much until they invented the nap.
Four stars with a warning that if you can't stand the genre this one will not win you over. ("Elizabethtown" might).
June 22, 2010
In Hollywood, the director is always considered to be the ultimate author of a movie. The director is always right, and the bigger the director, the less likely anyone will shoot down their crazy whims. So what happens, Martell asks, when the director is wrong? If Universal/Imagine had taken Robin Hood away from Scott when it started to go off the rails and had handed it to a younger, cheaper director -- one interested in actually making the script that Imagine had bought -- then it could have been delivered on schedule, wouldn't have cost a reported $200 million-plus, and might have actually been good.
This might not come as a welcome thought for fans of Loxley and the gang, but it was about half-way through the film that I realized that the 'origin' of Robin really isn't all that interesting. When it comes down to it, the tale of Robin Hood doesn't really get exciting until he's Robin Hood -- you know, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor. But in Hood, so much time is devoted to creating a supposedly 'realistic' setting around the myth that you kind of wish they would just get to the good part.
Yep, that explains why so many of these reviewers thought it was boring and too long and terrible - He never did get around to "robbing from the rich, giving to the poor." Instead, he protected the weak from the strong. (Dang, what a LOOOOOOZERRRR.)
June 3, 2010
I'm giving Robin Hood five stars just on David Boaz's review:
Robin tells the king the people want a charter to guarantee that every man be “safe from eviction without cause or prison without charge” and free “to work, eat, and live merry as he may on the sweat of his own brow.” The evil King John’s man Godfrey promises to “have merchants and landowners fill your coffers or their coffins….Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm.” And Robin Hood tells the king, in the spirit of Braveheart’s William Wallace, “What we ask for is liberty, by law.”
It seems all the lefty film critics are in full panty-wad mode over this "rousing love letter to the Tea Party movement."
April 24, 2010
I think ThreeSourcers would enjoy 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country by James Chace. It's an interesting mix of politics and philosophy, covering three Presidents and an important labor leader.
Chace does a good job. Of course, he is a historian so he doesn't appreciate anything that ThreeSourcers do. He's very dismissive of President Taft, who played golf instead of working 24 x 7 to remove our freedoms like Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson.
But I've inured to that. Think happy thoughts for me as I begin John Milton Cooper's new bio of Woodrow Wilson.
What Chace does superbly is to contrast Wilson's and TR's Progressivism, and -- as we've discussed -- contextualizing it and tying it to FDR's. I'll give it Four and a half stars for its readable and comprehensive look at a sizeable span of American history as many paths converge on this intriguing election. (Spoiler alert: Wilson wins!)
February 22, 2010
December 31, 2009
Avatar: Reincarnating the Same Old Story
With a teenage son facinated by mythical creatures and scifi, the movie "Avatar" (starring Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver) was a holiday must-see for The Refugee Clan. Although the 3-D special effects were at times vivid, the movie itself was nothing more than yet-another-attack-on-the-military-and-capitalism.
The Refugee would normally post a "plot spoiler" warning at this point, but there really is no plot to spoil. Avatar is the revenge of the American Indian, Custer's Last Stand and "Dances with Wolves" all wrapped into one. In the movie, the US military-industrial complex (which are indistinquishable as entities) has colonized a remote planet for the purposes of mining "unattainium," which sells for $20 million per kilo on planet Earth. The indigenous peoples, who happen to have braided hair, ride winged horse-like steeds, shoot bows and arrows, have shamans and speak a language that sounds remarkably like Lakota, coincidentally reside over the largest deposit of unattainium on the planet. The "company" wants the military, a bunch of ex-Marine mercenaries, to move the people from their sacred, ancestral homeland at any cost. The blood-thirsty ex-Marine commander is only too happy to do so, especially if he can kill them all with "shock and awe." He is completely unconcerned about women and children being in the way. How the movie progresses is not worth relating. Suffice it to say that the evil capitalists are vanquished from the planet forever and the local people become one with the environment.
Avatar, as work of art, is bereft of value because it adds nothing to the discourse. It is, frankly, left-wing propaganda packaged to appeal to a young audience. While not denying nor condoning the sometimes horrific treatment suffered by Indians at the hands of the US government (e.g., the Sand Creek Massacre), The Refugee labels this movie as a loser. It is just another ad hominem attack on the US, our military, our history and capitalism-as-greed. Balance and perspective are irrelevant to the producers. The similes are cheesy (i.e., "unattainium), the story plotless and the characters completely predictable. That the producers would intentionally propagandize to young minds in this way is deplorable. The Refugee is unhappy to have patronized this endeavor to contribute to the profit that the producers so apparently abhor. Perhaps his experience can serve as a warning to others.
December 21, 2009
We don't do a lot of Entertainment News 'round here, but the death of Brittany Murphy suggests that I complete a Review Corner.
Ramen Girl is a fun little Indie flick. And if you are saying "Brittany Who?" it is a nice performance.
A fun 4-star rental (available on the Netflix instant queue). I don't think we'll follow a celeb death too closely, but RIP Ms. Murphy.
September 25, 2009
Gitmo And Review Corner
We're saving database entries by doubling up -- there's a recession thingy you know!
Jennifer Rubin -- let me steal Insty's words -- rubs it in that the Administration has suddenly learned that closing Guantanamo Bay is a wee bit harder than giving a speech.
It was Obama who made closing Guantanamo the cornerstone of his national-security agenda. It was he who, with great fanfare, announced the decision to close the facility before all the data had been gathered. It was he who again and again derided his predecessor’s administration and the arguments against shuttering Guantanamo (it was only a “false” choice between our values and security, he lectured us). It was Obama who couldn’t resist the urge to debate the former vice president–and then lost the confidence of the American people. And indeed, just this week, he was preening at the UN:
You'll want to read the whole thing; there's more abuse where that comes from.
And you'll also want to put "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" on your Netflix queue if, like me, you missed it. I watched it last night and laughed aloud through much of it. If you have not seen any (how many are there?) I would start with H&K Go to White Castle, but this one was almost as good.
I don't need to warn you that this is not intellectual entertainment, nor is it family friendly (well, The Manson Family...) Call it a guilty pleasure, but I find these films fresh and funny. The "bad boy" films that grew out of 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up leave me cold. Harold & Kumar are no cleaner and no more moral -- but they are a lot funnier.
I tensed up when the bumbling President Bush character came on. But in the situation, he comes off pretty well. Totally stupid, but up to speed with the morality we expect from other key figures. He even gets several good lines in.
Four stars, if your tastes go that way at all.
June 17, 2009
I'm going to reach back to the long ago and far away year of 2001. If you need a rental and maybe missed this like I did, you are in for a treat.
Blow Dry, with Alan Rickman and Natasha Richardson comes from that British indie comedy community that brought Full Monty (they call this "Full Monty with Hair") and my favorite, "Kinky Boots." Like Kinky Boots it concerns the inflow of London culture into a small rural town. This time, Keighley, as it is selected to host the annual British Hairdressing Championship.
It is laugh out loud funny but punctuated with some very poignant serious moments. It is available on the Netflix Instant Queue. Five Stars.
May 30, 2009
First: Netflix vs. Blockbuster by Mail. Netflix has the coolest Internet, instant viewing service. If you have a TiVo or an XBox or buy a dedicated player for $99 you can watch any of their digital downloads at any time if you have a current subscription. Very very cool and sufficient to lure me away from Blockbuster's Blue to Netflix Red. But, I have to confess that Blockbuster -- true to nomenclature -- does a better job getting you the hot new movies when they come out.
I was the last guy in the nation to see "Slumdog Millionaire." By the time I got it, I had heard so much approbation I was let down. It's a good film but it did not hold up to the hype. Good story and all, but none of the characters were complex and the cinematography was rather conventional, though the Ballywood touches were entertaining (three stars).
By comparison, I watched "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" last night and was enthralled. A great Fitzgerald story, a superb performance by Brad Pitt -- but, most notably, a masterpiece in filming. We go from the end of WWI to Hurricane Katrina and the richness of each era is captured in the lighting and style. There are great grace notes of little homages to films of each era; I trust those who know and follow movies more than me would have caught many more.
I haven't given five stars in a while, but I will here. I plan to watch it one more time before I send it back, If you missed it, check it out,
March 21, 2009
I cannot vouch for historical accuracy of this film. Several items seemed to contravene my understanding of events or basic beliefs about the personnel involved.
Disclaimers aside, "Cadillac Records," based on the the true story of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess is a lot of fun. Narrated by Cedric the Entertainer -- who makes an awesome Willie Dixon -- the movie tells the tale of Len who goes all in to create the studio and label. He plays pretty fast and loose with the rules but creates a viable enterprise and makes stars out of a young Muddy Waters and younger Little Walter. Chess does payola without apology and takes all the money coming in, capriciously providing Cadillacs and houses in lieu on any real accounting or belief in what ThreeSourcers might call property rights.
That was accepted as basic exploitation when I grew up, but the Len Chess character makes a pretty good defense of himself as providing positive impact. Howlin' Wolf, who was always known as an astute businessman, hurls a few bon mots at his less sophisticated colleagues. "I own this truck, it don't own me," he tells Muddy and his Cadillac. Later on, Muddy asks Chess for money for Little Walter's funeral and Wolf throws in a big pile of bills saying "I don't need no daddy."
The last half of the movie is lifted by the superb performance of Mos Def as Chuck Berry -- and the show is stolen by Beyonce Knowles's Etta James.
Great music, great fun. If you want history read a history book -- I give it four stars. I should confess that I am not a scholar of the period and that my misgivings do not constitute proof of inaccuracy. There were just a few parts that lacked verisimilitude.
February 15, 2009
Crying for a Long Tail
Joss Whedon/Eliza Dushkus's new show Dollhouse has had a few of what Robert Johnson called "Stones in my Passway." The week it was announced, the writer's strike hit.
Worse, from those who know more than me, the show got scheduled on -- shield the kiddies' eyes here -- Friday night! Galley Slave Jonathan V. Last announced the Friday Night schedule as conclusive proof that the show was dead before beginning. The idea is that Sarah Connor goes to Friday for one last ultra-geek season before dying and that Dollhouse is strangled in the cradle.
I don't know how this works and I am tempted to accept my Buffy-sire's judgement. What struck me as sad is that the Whedon blog site spends the next day discussing ratings and things you can do to promote the show. A few posts down, it is noted that Dollhouse premiers five years after the news that Angel was canceled (also Friday the 13th).
I read a piece last week that suggested one or more of the broadcast networks will likely go to cable in the next few years, trading the certainty of the subscription model for the revenue opportunity for a big hit. Blow your gales through this model, Mr. Schumpeter -- it is broke! The viewers are in save-our-show mode the day it's out, viewership is down, revenues are down. There has got to be a better way to run a railroad. I still imagine a subscription for a network or small group of networks and wonder that Whedon fans wouldn't just pony up $49 for a season of his newest show, licensed to watch new episodes live and owning a digital copy at the end like Amazon Unbox.
Since nobody else is talking about the actual show, how 'bout it? Did anybody see it? I think the show has potential and I am anxious to see where it goes. There was a lot to take in in one episode.
On the down side, I was less pleased with the latest Sarah Connor Chronicles. I have been warming up to this show over the last season or so and if last night represents the start of a super-scifi-geeked-out denouement, color me unconvinced. Good SciFi enables an astonishing pretext to view un-astonishing human behavior (Cameron and the tortoise was magical). Attempting the special effects of the Terminator movie grabs me a lot less.
Joint promos with Summer Glau and Eliza Dushku were worth the price of admission. Whedon geeks were treated to a great reunion of Buffy and Angel characters that even extends into the previous show (don't forget Glau was the ballerina in "Waiting in the Wings" before she was in Firefly). I haven't liked anything since Angel and I find myself getting hooked on a few current programs. I watched three Seasons of "Heroes" in two months just in time for the new episodes; "Eureka" is good but I will have to buy it now if comes back on; and cautions optimism on Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles and Dollhouse.
UPDATE: I'm going to back off my Terminator Criticism. I watched it again and found much to like. Ms. Weaver's extendo-knives® didn't do it for me, but the plotline took some well defined turns.
January 11, 2009
I won't have to give up the family-friendly animated genre after all. The pungent distaste remaining from my watching Pixar's WALL-E was wiped clean by 20th Century Fox's "Horton Hears a Who."
We've discussed the number of times you have to check your philosophy at the door to enjoy a major studio blockbuster movie these days. That is not required with "Horton." Perhaps it's the spirit of Ted Geisel shining through, or the Hollywood Censors were off the week this script was vetted, but I found the movie underscored my beliefs rather than contradicted them.
There is an awesome "tyranny of the majority" scene in which the pusillanimous city council asks the people whether they want the celebration to continue or follow the mayor's suggestion to prepare for potential calamity. "Bread and Circuses" win.
Meanwhile, in the other world, Horton sticks by his beliefs against a busybody, un-elected nanny-stater. Stand up and cheer!
Jonah Goldberg makes fun of Andrew Sullivan for "watching South Park for the politics" and I am not implying that the rest of the movie is not entertaining. The animation sparkles, and the voice talents of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell convey their large personalities into their characters. I don't know how many kids got the Dr. Kissinger reference, but I laughed out loud at many such grace notes.
Four and a half stars. Where I turned WALL-E off, we watched this one twice.
January 9, 2009
Izzit a rant or a Review Corner? I type, you decide.
I love animation and have a soft spot for children's films. I have a Disney shelf of DVDs that looks much like the parents' of a couple toddlers -- except mine are not covered with peanut butter "Honey! You got brie and bojolais on 'Mulan' again!" The Pixar flicks have dazzled me. I have to put 'Toy Story' on top because of Joss Whedon, but I have liked them all well enough. 'Cars' was a triumph of computer animation and they have walked a nice line of making the plotlines and dialog kid-friendly yet entertaining for (soi disant) grownups.
Yes, Disney films all have a bias against business and commerce (except 'Meet the Robinsons.') I have considered that the price of admission and can usually dismiss it with a few eye rolls. But I finally got 'WALL-E' from Netflix and excitedly clicked it on last night. Maybe somebody can tell me how it ends because I turned it off in disgust 52 minutes in.
I hate to pan a movie I did not watch all the way through but my wife changed it over to Martin Scorsese's blues-concert documentary "Lightning in a Bottle" (3.5 stars and did I marry the right person or what?)
WALL-E, the trash compacting robot has been left on earth because we ruined the Earth with too much trash -- if only we had followed King County's lead for mandatory recycling! What is left of earth's population is travelling on a spaceship waiting for plant life to be rediscovered. They live in hovercraft-barcaloungers surrounded with servant robots, ubiquitous TV screens and (better cover the children's ears) all kinds of shopping and malls, all brought to you by B-L, the Big-and-Large Corporation whose CEO has a Presidential Seal. With no gravity and no work required, they have all become morbidly obese. The sum total is a dystopia of radical Malthusianism that would be discarded as too ludicrous if offered in a serious vehicle. But for indoctrinating the kiddies against the evils of innovation and commerce it's fine.
If you did not guess, zero freakin' stars. Sorry this review is too late to perhaps save some readers. It has been out long enough, I am likely the last one disappointed with it. There is a really nice acoustic sequence with Buddy Guy -- oh wait, that's in the other movie.
January 3, 2009
Hooked on Chrome
The browser wars seem so 1990's, I just haven't been interested in playing. In any case, my work has me effectively chained to Internet Explorer. I'm used to it and roll my eyes when associates whine for Mozilla 22.214.171.124 support. I came up in the UNIX world and am used to people's having particular tastes in tech.
Not sure what prompted me to try the Google® only-slightly-evil Chrome browser this morning. But holy-crimin'-Eddy, this thing is fast. I've been trying to objectively compare my new 7Mb dedicated pipe to my old shared 8Mb. Faster, slower, can I tell? Then I switch to Chrome and it is like being plugged directly into the server. It imported all my IE bookmarks, preferences and even passwords. As I type this, I even get spell-check right in the text box.
Sweet. Here's a link in case I am not the last guy who has tried it.
November 24, 2008
Keith wants to talk about '24.' [fourth comment] Sounds good to me!
His cynical take away from the long awaited return of agent "torture when necessary" Jack Bauer was that the plight of child soldiers in the develping world was intended to be the next cause celebre in the Hollywood activism community. Being the staid, fatalistic, heartless conservative that I am, I simply viewed the child soldier issue as a sympathetic plot device for foundational purposes to the story: Now that Jack (and CTU) have saved the nation and untold thousands of her citizens from death by terrorist acts, the panty wetters in our midst are free to question their tactics. "How many people did you torture Mister Bauer?" I look forward to a vigorous defense of such methods in defense of liberty and can only hope (there's that word again) not to be disappointed.
A positive sign was the repeated scenes involving the Frenchman who drove the U.N. supply truck. Feckless at every opportunity, when the brown stuff started hitting the fan and he sanctimoniously recited, "The U.N. remains neutral in this matter" Jack told him, "Why don't you go hide in the shelter with the other children."[3:37]
Jack's back, that's for sure. But so is (the supposedly killed) Tony Almeida! And they find a way to include Chloe as well.
I'll have to grudgingly concede Keith may be on to something though... the Coalition to stop the use of child soldiers, including the "red hand" campaign, is linked prominently from the official 24 website.
November 20, 2008
Quote of the Day
Babel, for which [Guillermo] Arriaga wrote the screenplay, was shown on the afternoon of October 31. I had not seen it previously, and almost walked out. It is truly an awful film, although it has a few intriguing sequences. Any one of the overlapping plots might have made an interesting movie by itself -- except for the story of the deaf, nymphomaniac, Japanese high-school coed --but this is one example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. -- Rick Sincere at the Virginia Film Festival
November 3, 2008
Popperian Review Corner
How uncool to admit that you just got around to reading last year's "it" book, but I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "Black Swan" last weekend. It is an important book, a very enjoyable read, and a glimpse into a powerful, powerful intellect. It's as if Thomas Pynchon wrote non-fiction. Anybody who has not read it should -- and if you read it before the Black-Swannish market turmoil, you'd probably dig another round of it, post-panic.
The WSJ (news pages) reports that his hedge fund did -- well let us say a little better than the S&P -- during the recent swings:
Separate funds in Universa's so-called Black Swan Protection Protocol were up by a range of 65% to 115% in October, according to a person close to the fund. "We're discovering the fragility of the financial system," said Mr. Taleb, who says he expects market volatility to continue as more hedge funds run into trouble.
Looking for black swans, the fund keeps 90% in cash and buys gobs of puts that are far enough outside the expectations of the market to be cheap. Then when boomtimes go boom, they clean up.
I may do a longer review corner on the book but it will be hard to top the cold hard appreciation of the fund. We both appreciate Karl Popper, who would have applauded the predictive power of his theories. I have not quite reconciled my philosophy with Taleb's. I agree with his premises. I enjoy the trashing he metes out to economists, the Nobel prize committee, and conventional wisdom. I applaud his use of many of my heroes: Hayek, Popper, Poincare (and Yogi Berra). And nobody can deny his fundamental assertions after the stock market October we’ve just completed.
Yet like an H-bomb that seems a valuable invention -- but that you hope doesn't get into the wrong hands -- I worry that your average PoMo Sociology professor will use Taleb's arguments against the ideas of merit and evolutionary selection of better ideas that I hold so dearly. Taleb takes several digressions but never addresses those topics head on.
It may be too late to buy the fund, but buy the book ($10 on Kindle®).
October 20, 2008
Review Corner? On Monday? Yes, you have to buy this book today.
One hundred and one years ago this week, The Panic of 1907 was in full bloom. Robert Bruner and Sean Carr provide an entertaining and enlightening look inside the background heroics of J. Pierpont Morgan as he tried to keep the whole world from crashing. The book opens with a Mark Twain quote that "history does not repeat. But it rhymes."
I don't know what it is about October. I was doing PR for an Investment Banking Firm in 1987 and will never forget the ashen faces of my clients when the nation lost 25% of its wealth on one day. In October 1907, a "perfect storm" was cresting and "Pierpont" was determined to limit its destruction.
The book is entertaining and germane. I cannot say that I agree with its conclusions, and I cannot help but believe that the authors were trying a little too hard to make it match today (it was released August 31, maybe these guys should be managing my extensive -- yeah right -- portfolio).
But it is a great opportunity to look at the Panic of 2008 form a different perspective. And it is a great read. Four stars.
August 3, 2008
This Bud's For Me!
Mark the date: August 2, 2008. The day my beer snob license was revoked.
I went in to try a new place in my new home town yesterday (Old Town Erie has been a treasure trove of cool places to eat). I asked the waitress "what do you have on tap that's dark?" and she set me up with Bare Knuckle. I had never heard of it, but it was a creamy, grainy, nicety hopped stout.
"Who makes this?" inquires I. She has to return to the bar for an answer.
"Budweiser," replies she. At which point I am sure this woman is yanking my chain (These new town folk'll believe anything!) but a little Internet search backs her up. The good folks at Anheuser-Busch have been making this since 2004. It's a much lighter stout than Guinness -- earning howls of real beer snob derision at ratebeer.com. But it has its charms. I'll give it four stars, providing you don't follow their recipe for an "Irish American" and mix it 50-50 with Bud.
July 5, 2008
I have to play catch up from before the move, so I will do what Larry Kudlow calls a "lightning round:"
Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg. I wanted to read this and I read some good reviews. But in the end this book was better than I thought it would be. Goldberg checks his trademark humor at the door, and writes a very serious and important book. He tries bravely to keep it from being a polemic and he is mostly successful. Yet his topic makes it hard to escape. If you haven't read it or much about it, Goldberg aims to:
I, like other reviewers, sell it a little short by synopsizing. It's a better, more serious, and more informative book than you are expecting. Four stars and change.
Economic Facts and Fallacies, by Thomas Sowell. Holy cow, Sowell is prolific, and I'm gonna agree with everything he says anyway, why give up $17.16?
Well, it's only 15.44 on Kindle® (both of these books were read on Kindle) and Sowell is a deity. You will certainly think of something in a different way (one for me was to consider the different median ages for different ethnic groups. When you consider African-American income statistics against the US population at large, consider that the median black age is five years younger (30) than all (35), with age having a huge factor on income). Even when you say you've heard the story before, Sowell is so lucid and his arguments are so tight, you will be far better prepared to yell at your in-laws at the next family function. Completely non-technical, very accessible, very well done. 3.75 (it would be higher if there were more new material).
Tin Man (DVD). I guess this aired as a miniseries on Sci-Fi Channel. I wanted to rent it from Redbox (it came out on DVD last March), missed it, and ended up accidentally buying it from Redbox (long story, but they sell older DVD's for $7, I had a credit and took a flyer). Merciful Zeus, this is a great film! This is another look at Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. This one is more modern, a little darker, and a lot more Baum-ier than Judy Garland's with those great Harold Arlen songs.
Don't get your panties in a bunch if you love the original. This is not a remake. It's another look and that is all I'll say. And it is full of little devotions and homages to the 1939 film (the address of the farmhouse is "39"). It is told in three "editions." each of which is film length, so I realize you're making a substantive time commitment. But this is a gem. It is well shot, well acted, a ripping plot-line -- and the breadcrumbs of those little homages keep you alert every minute.
I'm thinking five stars. I can't think of anything not to like -- It's Buffy meets Dorothy!
May 16, 2008
Uninteresting backstory: I have been a proud DishNetwork customer for several years -- cleaning out the crawl space unearthed a receiver from each EchoStar generation. I have been extremely pleased, but the new place faces Due North and so we're going to have to "start seeing other people." After careful consideration, I selected the lowest rent cable package and added a TiVo. The TiVo will better approximate the PVR I am used to, and going to a cheaper package will free up some funds to buy programming from Amazon Unbox.
The real review: Being an Unbox shopper now, I followed a "People who bought Xxxx, also bought Yyyy" link and listened to some samples of Sophie Milman's "Make Someone Happy." I bought the CD based on a couple of great tunes.
The first time through, I thought that this is a little too Easy-Listening for me. Let the record show I am a ballad man with a high tolerance. After a few runs through, however, I have really fallen for her voice and phrasing. Yesterday, I searched for more information about her, and now find myself completely smitten. She is 25 years old. She was born in Russia, raised in Israel, and now lives in Canada -- singing American Jazz. Let's hear it for globalization! I also did not know -- honest -- that she is preternaturally attractive.
UPDATE: Here's a video from her first CD:
Posted by John Kranz at 6:09 PM
March 29, 2008
I am late to the party, I know. I have heard a lot of good things about "The Kite Runner," both the book and the movie. Miraculously, I had not heard much about the plot or thesis. It was about Afghanistan, and a lot of my lefty friends liked it. Trepidation rules.
It was released on DVD this week and I rented it last night. This is a five star movie. I look forward to quizzing my friends about it. It comports neatly to my worldview which is orthogonal to theirs. I frequently am forced to set my politics aside to enjoy a film for its graphic achievements, but this one is both well crafted and well thought.
It's not a plot line that would suffer from "spoilers." Yet, on the off chance that I am not the last one on the planet to see this, rent it right away and just watch it unfold.
Like the man said, five stars.
Posted by John Kranz at 11:12 AM
December 30, 2007
A couple of good books.
Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi: the title says it all.
Harsanyi collects a diverse crew. They cover a wide political spectrum, but each wants to impede your freedom. From the "No Running!" sign on the kids' playground, to trans-fat bans, he gives a consistent voice for freedom and personal responsibility. I don't think much of the information will be new to ThreeSourcers, although I was interested in the "scope creep" of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and new, zero-tolerance laws that criminalize driving with any measurable blood alcohol content.
One senses Haranyi is preaching to the choir. Still it is amusing, well paced, and chock full of outrageous examples. I give it four stars.
New Monetarism by David Roche and Bob McKee.
I purchased this based on a WSJ Editorial Roche wrote a few weeks ago. It made a lot of sense to me and I wanted to read more. ThreeSources friend Perry Eidlebus pronounced it "a steaming pile of bull." I'd like to buy Perry, and perhaps the Everyday Economist, a copy for a late Christmas present. As proof of disinflation, the book was $10.50 when I bought it, but it is now available for $9.61. It is a small, 80 page paperback -- about as long as an article in City Journal.
But he speaks to something I have long believed and argued on this blog. The existence of "disinflation" and the creation of money supra-central-banks. The diagram on the front speaks to a continuing argument 'round these parts. The bottom of the "liquidity pyramid" is money created by central banks, the next level shows the multiplier of fractional reserve banking, then money created by securitized debt, and lastly the multiplier of derivatives. Though a quick read, it is well documented.
Roche and McKee give voice (and documentation) to the Kudlow-Laffer school, but the authors do not share their sunny optimism. Their concepts of disinflation and their expanded view of liquidity comport, but Roche and McKee expect a cataclysmic bubble burst because so much of this liquidity is based on risk appetite, and that a small correction could bring the entire structure down.
I hate to take all their cheery predictions without the bad, but I think that they discount the fundamental point of derivatives, namely, getting risk into the hands of those that can best accept it. Roche and McKee advise (and let me be clear, this book is positioned more toward investment advice than economics) you to go long volatility. I wonder if they are ignoring the effect of instruments that would allow you to do so.
Interesting. Quick read, Three-and-a-half. Email me an address if you want me send you a copy.
Posted by John Kranz at 12:07 PM
Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism
I have not bought it, so what is it doing in Review Corner?
One of the Kos kids wants to Googlebomb the book, guiding searchers to negative reviews. To prove I can be just as childish, I offer links to this corner post, this PowerLine review, and this Instapundit post. So there, Kossaks!
I will likely buy the book and do a real Review Corner, maybe if my new Amazon Kindle® ever ships. ('Twas a very Merry Christmas for me!)
Posted by John Kranz at 11:42 AM
December 17, 2007
Review Corner -- Last Minute Gift Idea
I make no secret of my appreciation for James Lileks. I think I have bought all of his books, and have given many as gifts -- some of the biggest gift hits.
NO! I finally picked it up yesterday to flip through a few pages. I read it cover to cover and laughed out loud through most of it. It is even better than TGORF. I ordered it for a gift today and recommend it highly as a gift or personal purchase. I cannot imagine anyone who would not enjoy it (it's probably too PG-13 for the very young or delicate). Five starts -- it's Lileks.
Posted by John Kranz at 3:38 PM
November 3, 2007
Review Corner: One for Walt
Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozinak both claimed Walt Disney as a personal hero. This led me to a biography that I enjoyed (I've forgotten the title and none on Amazon ring a bell). He's a fascinating figure and, while he's rarely held up for political beliefs, he was an unabashed spokesman for innovation and modernity. He was an optimist who saw a bright future for America based on innovation and technology.
I've always wondered if he spins in his grave when the studio that bears his name portrays business and corporations in such a hostile manner. You can always bet on the businessman being the villain in a Disney movie. Usually some plucky kids have to save the community from some corporate type who's only after profit.
Of course, I can't project feelings onto another man, living or dead. Perhaps W.D. would look at the box office receipts and smile broadly. Either way, I would venture that he'd give his best grin to "Meet the Robinsons." This very fun film overtly portrays the Disney vision. In a trip to the future, the campy "Tomorrowland" is called "Todayland," and the final frame salutes his vision and philosohy
Mostly, modernity is actually celebrated in the plot. Inventions are good. Profiting from an innovation (gasp!) is good. A stolen idea results in dystopia. They didn't ever recite "The Kudlow Creed" but it had everything else.
Clever, Pixar animation, without the PC sops that one is usually forced to encounter in any movie these days. I give it four stars.
Posted by John Kranz at 1:14 PM
October 20, 2007
Short: Clarence Thomas's My Grandfather's Son: five stars.
Slightly longer: This book is, firstly, a distinctly American biography. Justice Thomas comes into the world with zero advantages and rises to great heights on his own intellect, integrity, and work ethic. Thomas's journey is America's. If we had an editor around here, such clichés would be stricken, but in this instance that would be a mistake.
A side interest of mine is how closely removed we are from a Willa Cather existence: both of my grandmothers were born into it, and at the end of the 20th Century two Justices sat on the Supreme Court who had grown up without indoor plumbing. Thomas's youth is about as hard as can be imagined without actual chattel slavery.
It is also a political tale. Thomas leaves the Catholic church and avoids the Republican party over tacit acceptance of racism and segregation. He and his family later look on in horror as the party of JFK becomes the bigots at his "high tech lynching." Thomas is consistently hurt by the people and polity who are there to help him, and when he speaks out, he's cast aside by white liberals for being uppity.
It is also a tale of incredible strength and courage. Hats off to this great man for his forbearance and strength. I read Bork's "Tempting of America" last year. One realizes that we are chasing out any decent people from government service. No wonder only he crazies seem to be left -- how many decent people would or could put up with this?
It's no secret that I'm a fan of Thomas. He's far and away my favorite justice (Nino blew it on Raich) but this book would appeal to anybody. Five stars -- easy!
Posted by John Kranz at 6:56 PM
October 6, 2007
That Scottish Play
It has been a while since I have had a solid rental recommendation for Review Corner but this one is worth the wait.
IMDB dates Macbeth as 2006, but it has just come to Redbox last week. The website synopsis reads:
The Melbourne underworld, present time.
The look is contemporary: hot cars, cell phones and automatic weapons. There are steamy sex scenes, cocaine use, puking, and a body count that would put Stephen Seagal to shame. Yet the dialog is all blank verse. I am not a scholar but I think I caught a couple deviances from the original.
All and all, I think the bard would approve. jk gives a solid four stars.
Posted by John Kranz at 1:57 PM
September 8, 2007
I find Chris Rock extremely funny. His language is coarse, but that is his act and I can handle a few swear words without getting the vapors. His stand up comedy is funny, and he has played some great comedic roles. His depiction of Rufus, the thirteenth apostle in "Dogma" is one of the great performances of our time.
Seeing Mister Rock in a movie with Gina Torres of Firefly and Angel, I spent an extra three bucks to get it on pay per view and save a trip to my beloved Redbox. Rock stars and directs (directorial debut?) "I Think I Love My Wife."
I think I was really disappointed.
Rock plays an Investment Banker. While he pulls off the role, it seems a waste to have him playing a straight man in a comedy. More problematic is the film’s pacing and writing. It's an SNL skit but it does not have enough content to fill a two hour movie. I stopped halfway through to watch baseball and I was pretty happy to see it end.
Philosophically, I found it disturbing. It's not brimming with politics or economics, but sub rosa there are a few irksome undercurrents about race relations, with nods to the importance of "authenticity" for African Americans. Keep it real, bro, whatever. You can't enjoy the fruits of your labor, that would be wrong.
The basic premise is anti marriage: that after a few years, all the romance and passion dries away, and staying in a marriage faithfully is a chore that a grown up has to do. A duty to put your kids and spouse above your needs. That's a better message than "whatever floats your boat," but I can't buy it. I just celebrated my 24th Anniversary and I am lucky to know many happy, committed couples. I don't see this hairshirt mentality as the norm.
A yawner. A cringer. I can name one funny scene in two hours. A waste of talent. One star.
Posted by John Kranz at 10:45 AM
September 6, 2007
I let the GOP debate sit on the hard disk last night and went out to see some live music.
Hot Club Nouveau played at Nissi's and it was an incredible night. Four very young guys playing music in the style of Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappelli. I would call it the most difficult and demanding music that one could attempt. And these guys played it credibly, and then added some "Nouveau" parts on top.
It gives one hope for the Republic and the future. Colorado folk: these guys are based out of Fort Collins, see them if you have a chance.
Posted by John Kranz at 10:51 AM
August 25, 2007
They talk about movie plots as "formulaic;" here's the formula.
Young, idealistic member of X, where X is an element of a disadvantaged racial group in the United States encounters disadvantaged youth and winds up sharing his love of Y, where Y is an element of a popular activity but is NOT an element of activities considered popular for members of racial group X. Youths show great promise in activity Y after initial skepticism and demonstrate level of competency Z. Z is contiguous over a wide domain of X and Y.
I tease but confess that I almost always like these films. One worth watching was "Pride," newly released on DVD. X=African-American, Y=swimming, and I can't give you Z because I don’t do spoilers.
Three and three-quarters stars. If you like these films.
Posted by John Kranz at 12:32 PM
August 13, 2007
I've made no secret of my appreciation for Christopher Hitchens. "Hitch" has shown great courage, breaking with his fellow, Trotskyite travelers twice. Once to hold President Clinton accountable in the superb "No One Left to Lie To." Then, to support the war against Islamofascism, seeing the terrorists' goals as an assault against all that the left claims to hold dear. Even when he's not agreeing with me, he is an honest interlocutor for the left.
And yet. I just read his treatment of Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man." This is in the Books That Changed the World series, which I call Cliff's notes for grownups. P. J. O'Rourke's treatment of "Wealth of Nations was pretty good, but the overviews tend to be a little light for a book that you that truly interests you.
Hitchens's book on Paine is 158 pages. Amazon lists dimensions as 8.2 x 5.3 x 1 inches. You could hollow out a copy of the new Harry Potter and smuggle a dozen of these. He subtitles it "An Autobiography." He is far more concerned with the feud between Edmund Burke and Paine than in exegeting "Rights of Man." Fair Enough.
Paine was a complex figure. Most appreciate has fiery rhetoric in Common Sense, and the verve and fire he inculcated into the American Revolution. He was a champion of liberty, opposing monarchy, slavery, and religious oppression.
But he was completely hoodwinked by the Jacobins and could never see the French Revolution clearly. Hitchens doesn't sweep any of his flaws or failings under the rug, but he is willing to let a lot of them slide. I suspect that he wrote this simultaneously with "God is Not Great" and became enamored with a Paine-Hitchens congruence on religion. Plus the left does keep a soft spot for 1789.
In the end, Burke was right. Paine and Hitchens can legitimately criticize monarchy, but the Glorious Revolution that gave Britain its hybrid parliamentary monarchy has been a better friend to liberty than has France.
It's a quick read, Amazon will hook you up for $13.57, and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it. But I was not convinced. Three-point-seven-five stars.
Posted by John Kranz at 11:47 AM
August 5, 2007
We don't have a lot of "Public Intellectuals" these days. Academics have poisoned their own reputations with lack of scholarship and partisan sniping, few artists have stepped up to the plate. Politicians and pundits have been too partisan.
I would suggest, however, that Michael Barone carries the torch into this century. Barone is conservative and passionate in ideas, yet few would call him partisan. Even Newsweek's Eleanor Clift is deferential to him on "The McLaughlin Group." I treated myself to a purchase of his Almanac of American Politics in 2004. It comes with a subscription to a web version. I will never be without it again.
I really enjoyed two of his other books and recommend, highly, both. "The New Americans" was written before the great immigration contretemps, yet provides sagacious counsel about immigration and assimilation. His "Hard America, Soft America" should be read by every American as a prerequisite to making any political comment. It lays out the importance of a free market, competitive Hard America and also gives thoughtful voice to the need for a Soft America. It is an evenhanded and thoughtful work.
I just finished Barone's "Our First Revolution." I can heartily recommend this one as well.
Looking back 90 years before the American Revolution, Barone sees the seeds of the American Revolution in "The Glorious Revolution" which unseated the Stuarts, set up Britain -- almost accidentally -- as an archetype of representative government, cemented her as a defender of personal liberty, and created a military and financial power.
Of course, England had the Magna Carte, and natural law. Yet Britons had no rights which could not be waived by a monarch or suspended by Parliament. "Parliament was an event, not an institution," says Barone. Kings ruled for a dozen years, only calling a Parliament when they needed money. After the Glorious Revolution, Parliament has met every year since 1689.
One also sees the beginnings of party politics as the Whigs and the Tories are born (both are pejorative). Mostly one sees the roots of the bill of rights. As Parliament crafts a weaker version, the ideas took root in the American colonists who wanted, as Barone points out, the liberty they thought they had secured themselves as British subjects.
I found the first half to be a little work. If you don't know the players and the history leading up to it, there are a lot of data to juggle. If you don't have Barone's memory, you'll need to bookmark the family tree, maps, and footnotes.
I was also hoping for a Lockean demand for rights and liberties (Locke is in it) and moderately disappointed that it was just a typical, European, dynastic conflict and religious war. You don't find the purity of the American Declaration of Independence, At the same time, you get a clear picture of why they eschewed "an established religion," why the right to bear arms was enshrined and, with my apologies to the Jacksonians and Taneyites, why Alexander Hamilton sought a national bank.
Barone's a gem. When you get acclimated to the cast, the book moves like a rocket: informative and entertaining. I give it four-and-a-half stars.
Posted by John Kranz at 5:22 PM
July 28, 2007
I gave it away in a previous post, but I'd highly encourage everybody to buy and read Amity Shlaes's The Forgotten Man.
I don't suspect that we have a lot of "New Dealers" in ThreeSources Land who idolize FDR's economic policies. We fight every day against the New Deal legacy. To look at the US under President Coolidge, where the book begins, is to see a completely different national attitude toward freedom, property rights, and the right to contract.
I recommend this book for two reasons. It has a powerful narrative that few nonfiction books can claim. Even though you generally know the ending of each section, the book is a real page turner. The characters are lit brightly through deed and anecdote. I'm no expert on the period by any means, yet I came away with a clear feel for Presidents Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt, as well as losing candidates Alf Landon and (the book's hero) Wendell Willkie. Andrew Mellon, Justice Brandies, Harold Ickes the elder, Rex Tugwell, Samuel Insull, Father Devine, Huey Long, Father Coughlin. It has a large and bright cast that comes to life.
Exciting, yes, but the story was all too real. The other thing I enjoyed was Shlaes's detailing the extent of FDR's collectivist instincts. Call me naive but I was shocked. FDR wanted state control of everything and had the Supreme Court not clipped his wings, we'd be living in a country where Senator Clinton's polity would be considered laissez faire. It is truly astonishing.
Shlaes wears her heart on her sleeve. Heroes and villains are as clear in "The Forgotten Man" as in an Ayn Rand novel. You’ve read Shlaes in the Wall Street Journal; to her and me the collectivists are villans. She doesn't impute bad motives but she shows it as a battle of individualists vs. collectivists -- and she details how FDR's policies made the depression worse and longer. It was WWII that brought the country out, and one component was that President Roosevelt needed to ameliorate his methods and political battles to create a united front to win the war.
We all celebrate FDR's war leadership, and the book ends before Pearl Harbor. His first two terms are scrutinized as are the events leading up to them.
The Publisher's Weekly review says "It's also a thoughtful, even-tempered corrective to too often unbalanced celebrations of FDR and his administration's pathbreaking policies" Me, I give it five stars.
UPDATE: I got a nice thank you from Ms. Shlaes. I'm glad I did not call her a grouch.
June 16, 2007
Two films new to DVD.
Norbit, starring Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy... Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness have made the most memorable of these films. Murphy plays almost every character, from the eponymous dweeby orphan male lead to his obese and unpleasant wife, and to the Chinese racist who runs the orphanage.
Murphy has the talent to pull this off and the film is generally amusing. But do not expect hidden bits of nuance and intelligence. It's all slapstick, juvenile fair -- done pretty well, mind you, but there is nothing more. I'll give it two and a half stars.
Breach, on the other hand, exceeded expectations. It is a tight, structured telling of the Robert Hanssen story, with the protagonist being the new agent in training who is assigned to keep an eye on him in his last months before retirement. It is well paced and suspenseful.
I don't know the historical details and I will not vouch for its accuracy, Much is made of Hanssen's devout Catholicism and you can sense underlying Hollywood giddiness to have a villain who goes to daily mass. Is life good or what?
Nonetheless, they have so much time and get to pick the stories they want to tell. This is told well, acted well, and answers Silence Dogood's question of "Whatever happened to Caroline Dhavernas?" Three and three quarter stars.
March 30, 2007
Review Corner Red Alert
Don't. Don't. Don't purchase or rent "Happy Feet." Resist the allure of adorable, dancing animated penguins.
I found this to be the most offensive movie I have ever seen. Watching nature shows and kids' cartoons, one frequently is hit with an unmistakable subtext that people are bad and that we should extinct ourselves or move back to caves. In this movie, it is not subtext, it is the actual plot.
When you're not offended, you will be bored to tears. Dancing penguins are cute for a few minutes, then the film jumps among dull, disjointed, and offensive -- with a little abject terror thrown in to make it inappropriate for toddlers who would otherwise be the only demographic intellectually unoffended.
A half a star, and I am being kind.
March 14, 2007
Guest Review Corner - '300'
Three Sources reliable reader and reluctant commenter "Macho Chick" (college-aged daugther of commenter Macho Duck) saw the '300' movie last weekend and raved about it. Dagny suggested she write a review for the blog. Here, other than minor punctuation and formatting, is her original work:
Hi Three Sources! I’ve been an avid reader and have been meaning to add my two cents for some time. I found something I thought should be cleared up right away before the movie critics, in all their infinite knowledge, give anyone the wrong impression.
I went to the midnight showing of 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, this past weekend, and thought I was going to be REALLY sorry about it in the morning, but as it turns out I was pleasantly surprised.
“In 480 [A.D.], an enormous force of more than a quarter-million Persians under their King Xerxes invaded Greece, both to enslave the free city-states, and to avenge the Persian defeat a decade earlier at Marathon. The huge force of ships and soldiers proved unstoppable on its way west and southward until it reached the narrow pass at Thermopylae (“The Warm Gates”) in northern Greece. There a collection of 7,000 Greeks had blocked the way. They hoped to stop Xerxes’ horde outright — or at least allow enough time for their fellow countrymen to their rear to mobilize a sufficient defense of the homeland.” (Victor Davis Hanson) (Thanks for the resources j.g.)
Many of the critics focused on the awesome fight scenes and cool computer generated graphics, and failed to point out the much more significant philosophical aspect. While the movie was very well put together and the actors talented, there was a very objective, American message. In the movie, without giving too much away, the hero, King Leonidas is conflicted about whether to go to war and protect his people from slavery or listen to the UN… oops I mean politicians… oops I mean Gods, and do the always successful 'sitting around to see what the Gods decide.' Great plan! His wife asks him not to do what he thinks the Gods would want, what the political committees think wise, or what tradition has demanded, but to do what a FREE MAN should do. What a concept.
“300 preserves the spirit of the Thermopylae story. The Spartans, quoting lines known from Herodotus and themes from the lyric poets, profess unswerving loyalty to a free Greece. They will never kow-tow to the Persians, preferring to die on their feet than live on their knees. If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy, free men in superior fashion dying for their liberty, their enslaved enemies being whipped to enslave others.” (Hanson)
I have to disagree with the critics, (shock) and say I don’t think the movie is reduced in anyway. Not only does it address freedom versus tyranny, but what it really means to be free. The Persian leader tries to negotiate with Leonidas and his men, “Cruel Leonidas demanded that you stand. I require only that you kneel.” Is this freedom? Is the United States without free trade and freedom of religion, to name a few, free?
MC includes two links:
January 20, 2007
I had been snowbound for a few weeks and had limited film selection. But I rented two very good movies last night.
INVINCIBLE. I cannot believe that none of the Keystone State contingent of ThreeSources has brought this up. It's a dramatization of the football career of Vince Papale, who attends an open tryout for the 1976 Philadelphia Eagles and ends up making the team. It's all-Disney, all-heart, but it has a surprising darkness that you don't expect from this genre.
I would put it in "The Reynolds File" for its close up look at life in America during the Ford years. I don't mean that as a swipe against our late 38th President. It is just obvious that the country was poorer then, with the added insult of those polyester jackets. The music is 70's rock, which sounds better in the film than I remember it in high school.
It's a good film, kind of a pro version of "Rudy" and the Eagles fight song is sung. jk gives it 3 -1/2 stars.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I rented this film by the title, and the graphic where the stiletto heel has a devil's fork. I expected (feared?) something of a chick flick but it is not -- or at least it is a lot more. Oddly enough, my wife did not care for this and I liked it a lot.
I am a slob with a distant (very distant if you've seen me dress) fascination with fashion. It's an art form I definitely do not get. But after reading Virginia Postrel, and watching a couple episodes of "Queer Eye" (I'm losing my audience here, I can feel it) I remain intrigued that increased attention to appearance could boost one's self image and confidence and create a vicious circle of improvement. Not that I have ever tried it myself...
Our protagonist, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is not immersed in this world either, but she stumbles out of J-school into a top fashion magazine as assistant to the demanding and difficult celebrity editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Her slobby friends tell her "You used to laugh at these people and now you're becoming one." The tension of friends, ambition, growing, success, and truth to self kept me hooked in this well paced film.
A very different movie about a different topic, but well paced, well written, and well shot. Ms. Hathaway is attractive and endearing. Three-and-a-half stars.
December 30, 2006
Albums of the Year
Only two days to pick the ThreeSources Album of the Year. Get your nominations in.
ThreeSources friend SugarChuck sends his picks:
I will add a few to that list that make a trend:
I know we all agree on music, religion and politics around here. Anybody else see one we've missed?
Happy New Year.
December 2, 2006
Force Be With Y'all
I think AlexC has started something.
I watched Star Wars IV last night. I bought a box set of IV,V,VI some time ago but I am not sure I watched them all. Unlike AlexC, I am going to watch them in the order they came out. I'll have to rent I,II,III or break down and buy them.
Thie first came out when I was in high school and I was very impressed at how well it holds up. The story is very good. The effects seem a bit dated but I feared they would have that hokey, trying-too-hard look about them and they don't. What does seem dated is because they set the standard and created so much of the genre. Criticizing the jump to hyperspace is like calling Chuck Berry's guitar playing "dated."
Tonight is "The Empire Strikes Back" which was always my favorite. Blog like Yoda will I tomorrow. Out of order putting words.
November 18, 2006
I have to call attention to a series of book. Stars must be given to the "Eminent Lives" series of biography from Harper Collins.
At ~200 pages, with no footnotes or bibliography, these books probably send serious historical scholars screaming for the exits (though should really serious historians be running around screaming?) Yet I think they provide a great opportunity to catch up on a historical figure. I may or may not have read a full length treatment of President Ulysses S. Grant, but Michael Korda's was great. I'm certain I would have passed on 550 pages about Ludwig von Beethoven but I enjoyed the Edmund Morris book. I might look a little more deeply at both of these.
Also offered by the series is a little analysis and opinion. Jefferson's Presidency is by far my favorite period in American history. I wouldn't call myself a scholar, but I've read many books about the time, the man, and his contemporaries. Christopher Hitchens's take on our third president was an interesting addition to the field and if you're looking for one in the series, start there.
I just finished "Democracy's Guide," Joseph Epstein's take on Alexis de Tocqueville. I've been enthralled by "Democracy in America" but didn't know anything about the author's life. Epstein does a great job capturing Tocqueville's life, thought, and current relevance. Epstein and Tocqueville remind us of the important differences between the French Revolution and America's Independence (Tocqueville considers "revolutionary spirit" pejorative and claims America's separation from Britain was not the class struggle associated with the R-word).
Epstein closely examines Toqueville's faith. Though he left the Church philosophically in his teens, he uses religion to great effect in "Democracy In America" and Epstein riffs that he could not come to terms later in life to turn back, declare himself atheist, or even declare himself agnostic. Epstein discusses the controversy of whether he made a deathbed conversion.
This is an example of the freedom of the series. The authors provide a general biography but each is free to explore his or her own specific interests. jk gives four stars to the books on Washington, Jefferson, Grant, Beethoven, and Tocqueville. My wife the Psych major wants the Freud book. I have to confess I don't know who the hell Caravaggio is, but for twenty bucks and an afternoon's effort, I could be a scholar.
Posted by John Kranz at 12:34 PM
November 11, 2006
The hurly-burly of politics has kept Review Corner from completing the Arts segment of ThreeSources (Uh-oh, he's talking about himself in the third person now...)
But Friday is still movie night, and I still attempt to appreciate Hollywood through an Interferon-induced haze. I'll do the lightning round to catch up:
NACHO LIBRE - iSi! This film has the quirky deracinated feel of "Napoleon Dynamite," but has a plotline that keeps you plugged in. I heard rave reviews for Napoleon; I liked it okay but didn't see what all the fuss was about. Nacho was a lot of fun. I also think it owes a bit to my favorite episode of Angel: "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco." Perhaps they are just tied by the common subject of Mexican wrestling, but it helped drag me along for the ride. Cuatro Estrellas.
THE BREAKUP -- Review corner is not a connoisseur of Romantic Comedy but this one missed. I'm neither a connoisseur of leading men, but I found this to be incongruous casting. If you've seen the Vonage commercial where the computer nerd is dumping the hot chick in the red convertible, this is the feature-length version. Overweight, dumpy, unsophisticated, poorly dressed loser Gary (Vince Vaughn) will not do anything to save a relationship with Brooke (played by Jennifer Aniston!) I thought that unrealistic until my wife informs that the actors dated in real life, much to the same end. Chick -flick perhaps but Review Corner's wife was similarly unimpressed. Two stars for some clever supporting roles (rent the DVD, the alternate ending is the best five minutes of the film).
MONSTER HOUSE -- They can't all be Joss Whedon, but I have come to expect animated kids movies to have more grown-up themes interwoven. This has nothing for anybody over twelve. One point five for good technical animation. Cars was rented last night but will be watched later -- I'm hoping for much better.
POSEIDON -- Stick with Ernest Borgnine and Carol Lynley...Two stars for effects
GOAL! -- Clever and inspirational. Young Mexican illegal immigrant (Tancredo alert!) is discovered in LA for his soccer skills and gets a shot at English Premier play with Newcastle United. Four stars easy
UPDATE: CARS -- That's what I mean, there's great dialog for older viewers. I don't know that it is Pixar's best story but the animation is incredible and the story line is pretty fun. I'd've altered parts of the ending for political reasons, but it's Disney and it, sadly, captures the zeitgeist. I'll go four stars.
October 29, 2006
I mentioned this documentary when I ordered it on October 6. John Fund called filmmaker Phelim McAleer the "Anti-Michael Moore." He uses the documentary as polemic format (though I hope not the mendacity) of The Great Scruffy One From Flint to champion -- instead of destroy -- the cause of modernity and freedom.
McAleer becomes involved with the controversy around a new gold mine in Rosia Montana, Romania. A Canadian firm wants to replace the run down, polluting Communist-era mine with a modern one, develop housing and infrastructure, and provide jobs to the blighted, dying community.
Phelim McAleer meets George Lucian, a young Romanian who wants to see the new mine so that he can get employment. Lucian, who has never strayed from his village, agrees to follow McAleer to Madagascar to see another poor village whose inhabitants, like Rosia Montana's, overwhelmingly want a new modern mining project to proceed. McAleer leaves Lucian in the sunshine when he goes to Chile, where a remote village also looks forward to a new mine.
Sadly, McAleer also introduces us to a cadre of pompous gasbag environmentalists who are doing all they can to stop these projects. McAleer juxtaposes the speech of big city, wealthy. modern environmentalists with the exigencies of the places they describe. Francoise Heidebroek describes Rosia Montana as a delicate paradise which should support itself with agriculture and tourism. Lucian gives a different tour. There is some mountain beauty, yes, but the people live in ramshackle huts with no modern conveniences. Most have no indoor plumbing and use outhouses in the -20C winter cold.
Ms. Heidebroek and like minded NGO staff in Madagascar, Argentina, and London feel no compunction denying Lucian, and huge swaths of the world's poor, the opportunity to have jobs, cars, heat and plumbing.
McAleer gets pro modernity views from other journalists and from Professor Deepak Lal (whose excellent book "Reviving the Invisible Hand" recently got a favorable review). They conclude that the environmentalist NGOs are now the enemies of the world's poor. McAleer has a guest editorial in The Rocky Mountain News on that topic. The idea (to which I once subscribed) that environmentalists are earnest and misguided but harmless is laid low.
A DVD is available on his website for $12.99. Buy one for yourself and at least one for a gift. Silence bristles when I discuss the anti-modernity agenda of the environmentalist movement. This is admittedly a small slice of a large movement but it shows a subtext that can be extrapolated to most all of the environmental NGOs and many of their supporters.
Posted by John Kranz at 10:21 AM
October 13, 2006
I'm a uniter, not a divider. I got a CD that might appeal to several ThreeSources music constituencies.
Morrison has produced credible albums in Rock, Blues, and Jazz genres. Pay the Devil has the Irish soulster performing classic American country music and some originals that sound entirely appropriate between Hank Williams and Clarence Williams.
You can count the guys who can really play in all these genres on one hand -- if you're Django Reinhardt! (Ray Charles, and Morrison as I see it).
Five stars! If you don't like country, buy it anyway, this might reel you in.
UPDATE: Long-tail alert: this CD was an "Amazon Recommends," it's not likely that jazz boy would have tripped over it otherwise.
UUPDATE II: Sugarchuck suggests a few additional members to my pantheon. Norah Jones is an omission. Norah, Ray, and Van. Folks who are not country fans should have two: Play the Devil and Norah Jones in The Little Willies. We're still arguing about the other ones. He suggests Cassandra Wilson and the preternaturally talented regional hit, Mollie O'Brien. I thought of Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown but I am feeling discriminating.
September 17, 2006
My reading Ryan Sager’s 'The Elephant in the Room:" is the ultimate internecine experience. I agree with almost everything that he says, yet I do not agree with any of his conclusions.
First, the props. The book is very well written. It’s a page-turner; it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s insightful. And there are very few things in it that either a libertarian or traditional social conservative can disagree with. [Nor would Sager ever begin a sentence with a conjunction and end it with a preposition, yecch.]
He starts with a nice history of the Conservative movement and its leading lights. Buckley’s separating the wheat of conservatives from the chaff of the John Birchers, Whittaker Chamber’s bold stance against Alger Hiss (and later Ayn Rand), early opposition to the New Deal all get a play. Goldwater’s 1964 certain defeat and its importance in electing the “out of work actor” who spoke at his nomination some 16 years later.
Frank Meyer’s fusionism, however, is the central theme of the book. Can “the marriage” of libertarians and traditionalists that Meyer consecrated be saved? To Sager, the union has not borne fruit for either group in many years. Evangelicals are courted for election cycles and are not represented in legislation – much like the Democratic Party treats African-Americans.
Yet Sager, like me, is in the libertarian wing and his concern is the party’s abandonment of small government principles. These held the fractious elements together but have been turned upside down by the current Congressional leadership
What’s not true? What’s not to like?
He starts to lose me when he tears into President Bush, compassionate conservatism, and the ownership society. He starts with No Child Left Behind and impugns the President’s motives. I agree that Bush got rolled like the DC rookie he was by the Machiavellian Senator Kennedy (I think the Prince was younger than Ted). I’ll grant, furthermore, that Compassionate Conservatism, or as Fred Barnes calls it “Big Government Conservatism,” is fraught with peril and I am skeptical. I much prefer a Reaganesque aversion to government.
Yet Sager is too harsh. He wants to chase all the impure conservatives out of the party. That’s swell but then you’ll have what we call in my country a mi-nor-i-ty party.
I think all ThreeSourcers should read this book. I think that Senator Ted Stevens and Rep. Jerry Lewis should read this book. If the Democrats were smart, they’d read and heed it. There is a serious electoral faction up for grabs, namely Rocky Mountain libertarian GOP voters like me, but I cannot see their making inroads without chasing out some of their long established constituencies.
A fascinating book, completely germane to ThreeSources. Well written. Three stars easy.
Posted by John Kranz at 12:31 PM
September 9, 2006
One year ago, these pages were abuzz with anticipation of Joss Whedon's "Serenity." Sadly, it has not, as I hoped, started a "browncoat revolution" promising more sequels, a return of the TV show, and action figures in McDonalds Happy Meals. That's the vicissitudes of the market and I am a believer in markets.
It interests me that have seen few of the actors in other vehicles. Adam Baldwin had a short run in a Tim Minear TV show called "The Inside," Jewel Staite was the ex-wife in Minear's excellent "Wonderfalls. Apart from that, you don't see them unless, like me, you watch Angel and Buffy. Nathan Fillion lives on as the misogynist evil preacher Caleb, Gina Torres the demon-deity Jasmine, Adam Baldwin as Marcus Hamilton, the suave, un-jaynelike liaison to the senior partners of Wolfram & Hart. Aside from other Minear and Whedon shows, where are these people?
[Trivia break -- anybody catch Summer Glau (River Tam) as the ballerina in "Waiting in the Wings?" (Angel 3:13) I missed that until this latest run through.]
Last night I watched the engrossing "Kinky Boots." I had no idea what it would be from the plot synopsis; “a man turns to a drag queen for help saving the family shoe business.” I expected a campy, silly film and it really isn't. It is more poignant than heavy, but it is not silly. Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) inherits the family shoe business as the fourth "Mr. Price." Charlie is trying to escape the shoe business and flee to London when #3's untimely demise puts him back in Northampton, in a foreman’s frock.
Schumpeterian gales have hit the traditional company hard and sales of top craftsmanship men's oxfords are not able to keep the company viable. The chance encounter with a drag queen provides the idea for a niche market: fetish boots capable of bearing the weight of the men who wear them.
That guy in the dress look kind of familiar? Why, it's Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was in Serenity as the superb villain known only as "The Operative." Kinky Boots is a different role but he is quite good in both. Ejiofor uses his singing background to create the onscreen presence of "Lola," whose "breasts are as supple as the day I bought them." It's funny and entertaining without being campy, as Lola and the crew in Northampton come to terms with each other.
Excellent, jk gives it four stars.
September 2, 2006
Not much review fodder of late. I enjoyed Spike Lee's "Inside Man" but it cannot be discussed with revealing spoilers. A lot of drivel that I won't waste time panning as I knew what it was when I hit the touchscreen at Redbox. Two good DVDs last night, though.
First was a Starbucks(r) movie, "Akeelah And The Bee." If you spend any time inside any Starbucks (moi?) you've seen promotions for this, including vocabulary/spelling words that have caused me to retract any claims of pedantry. I rented the DVD and it is well worth it. A poor fourth grader from Crenshaw Middle School in South Central Los Angeles takes coaching from a UCLA Prof on sabbatical and parleys her natural talent into a trip to a national spelling bee.
There are a million chances for sophistry and a strong message against racism and poverty, yet this movie lets them all go by. The viewer can draw any conclusions, but they refreshingly fail to spell it out for you. It's nice to see a celebration of learning for learning's sake. jk gives it four stars.
In comparison, the glaring errors in "Take The Lead" show up like something that really shows up on something else. More poverty, potential racism, and ineffective schools in Los Angeles. More channeling of art and thought to escape meaninglessness. Yet "Take The Lead" was far less fulfilling.
Antonio Banderas (my wife did not complain when I grabbed one of his movies) plays Pierre Dulaine, a factual character who founded a program to teach ballroom dancing in inner-city schools. Like the Bee, this film shows kids truly growing to embrace a bigger world that they find through the art of dance. It's well done, well acted, and well worth a look.
The movie focuses much on the tension between the hip-hop music and dance that the children embrace naturally and the more classical, ballroom forms taught by Dulaine. I was disappointed, however, that there was not a nod toward the youths' accepting the traditional forms and the music that supports them. Dulaine and the tight-ass rich white people are all coerced to enjoy the hip hop style and athleticism, but we never see the youth admit "that Nat King Cole stuff is pretty 'fly.'" The multiculturalists demand that the target style is completely and uncritically appreciated, yet the arrangement is not reciprocal.
You'd almost think they made these movies for young people and not me, huh? Still good, 2.75 stars.
Posted by John Kranz at 4:32 PM
August 13, 2006
Public service time: Do not rent or purchase “C.S.A.”
I had my concerns but I love counterfactuals. I consider them a lively way to learn history's consequences as well as facts. I highly recommend the What If? books. They give insightful and intelligent commentary on how different the world could look with a small change of historical facts.
Last week's review corner included British actor Stephen Fry, who has also written some very good books. One, Making History, is a counterfactual of sorts where a young Physicist uses time travel to prevent Adolf Hitler's birth. This book, like What If, has some nuance. Actions have reactions and the removal of one figure does not supersede the unfairness at Versailles or economic forces of post-Weimar Germany.
"C.S.A" displays exactly zero nuance. Like good counterfactuals, it exploits a tipping point. Washington almost lost a huge percentage of Continental forces at Brooklyn. If not for fog and quick thinking, the war could have been lost early. Fry's setup is a little more far-fetched, but his is a novel. The Confederacy was close to bringing in Europe on her side, and in this mock-British-documentary, that is exactly what happened. Grant surrendered to Lee. Lincoln flees to Canada (using the Underground Railway) and dies in relative obscurity. So far, so good...
Most of the film is then devoted to the idea of a modern slave-owning and drawl-speaking continental power. Chattel slavery of Africans was so good, it was spread to include Asians on the west coast, and a caste system in Latin America. The Ken Burns style look at the War is interrupted by commercials for "The Shackle" to keep your property in line, "Black Sambo" racing oil, and a sequence of minstrel spots for restaurants and foodstuffs.
There is a great line in "The Simpsons." Apu is applying for U.S. Citizenship. During an oral history exam, he is asked " What was the cause of the Civil War?" He responds, "Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--" He is interrupted: "Wait, wait... just say slavery" and he confirms: "Slavery it is, sir."
I wouldn't call myself a Southern sympathizer. Most of my kin dressed in Gray and I am very glad they lost. Slavery outweighed any beneficent aspects of their cause. Yet I am aggravated when people cannot see any other factors. It's lazy thought.
And lazy thought carries on for two hours here. One star. Skip it.
Posted by John Kranz at 11:54 AM
August 5, 2006
R for Review Corner
Warner Brothers made a movie for ThreeSourcers. They created a testament to the power of ideas, the danger of collectivism, the importance for retaining a Sharansky free society instead of a fear society. They lined up superb acting, great writing and incomparable cinematography The movie would be called V For Vendetta.
Then, the politically-correct multiculturalism police got hold of the script. "Are you Different-reality-enabled?" they asked the studio. "This contravenes everything we stand for." A last minute deal allowed them to make their choice of three script changes. Production continued.
The movie suffers from the last minute changes but remains a great film. The changes are so obvious and transparent that they can be easily ignored. Let's cover these flaws first:
1) Make the evil leader conservative and Christian! or "I wish I was in a land Orwell-sotten, Irony there ain't forgotten..."
2) Gay characters risk their life to keep a copy of the Koran.
3) The ultimate villain will, of course, have controlling interest in a pharmaceutical company.
Plus a few gratuitous swipes at "the former United States" and its problems, but who's counting?
Educated viewers who realize that the bad guys are collectivist socialists, that the serious contraband is anti-government artwork, and that the over-controlling state remains the real enemy, can make the translation in their heads real time, and enjoy one of the great movies of this year (or most others).
The look, the dialogue, the pace and the acting of this film are perfect in every way. Portman is lovely and credible without being glamorous. Several individual performances could be highlighted. I'm not a comic book guy and I had no prior knowledge of the characters or plot (I know a bit about Guy Fawkes!) I saw the movie because of the tag line "People should not be afraid of the Government. Government should be afraid of the people." On that sentiment it did not disappoint.
The film was released in DVD last Tuesday. If you have not seen it drop the mouse and go rent it. 4.5 Stars.
UPDATE: A commenter points out that the ideological flaws are more serious than I allow; I will back my rating down to four stars.
July 8, 2006
This week I had a Chilean Merlot. I'm not a Merlot drinker, but if you get a good, earthy one from the Southern Hemisphere, they can be pretty good -- wait, I was going to review movies; I know next to nothing about wine. Of course, I know less about movies. Somehow ignorance disqualifies on one but not the other. Funny.
I was probably the only guy who was disappointed with "Proof" because it didn't have enough math in it. I bet their focus groups didn't track that.
If you can get over the fact that it is not really about Mathematics, it is a good movie. Good acting from Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. Jack Gyllenaal does a great job and his character goes the full two hours without kissing any guys, which is always a relief. The narrative is good, the plotline is interesting.
Perhaps I'm fatigued with Hollywood's exploration of "the links between genius and madness" (from the Proof website). Amadeus, A Beautiful Mind, et al -- nobody wants to celebrate intellectual achievement when they can explore personality flaws. Oversensitive? Perhaps. But where are the movies about American geniuses who were regular folk, like Walt Whitman, or -- oh never mind.
Three and a half stars, but don't expect to learn any math. Maybe someday they’ll dramatize John Derbyshire’s Prime Obsession. Then I can sell my autographed copy on eBay.
Posted by John Kranz at 1:08 PM
July 2, 2006
As proprietor of the dogsforbush.com site (though AlexC, JohnGalt and I are all represented), I don't have to push my bona fides as a dog lover. So I grabbed Disney's "Eight Below" about the Antarctic sled dog team requiring rescue.
Move over, Bambi and Dumbo, Disney has a new film to mentally scar another generation of youngsters. I weathered Bambi's mother's death alright as a youngster and have been able to see Dumbo leave his mom in the cage without having to be on Oprah or anything. Eight Below is very sad for a long time. I confess I wanted it to end through much of it "Okay, heartwarming rescue time, watching these dogs' hardships is getting to me..." This may be too much for little kids even if they're over 40. jk gives it two and a half stars.
Next was "Annapolis." The part of Louis Gossett, Jr. is played this time by Tyrese Gibson. The movie is good but we've seen it before: scrappy kid barely makes it into officer training. Tough sergeant is tough because he has to be. Scrappy kid is gonna quit the academy...
Since I had seen this plot (Where's Debra Winger?) I focused on the Zeitgeist. That's a pretentious term even for me, but TNR was discussing the Superman Z-geist, so I felt entitled. We spend two hours in the Naval Academy and encounter no patriotism whatsoever. There is a joke in one scene:
"Why are you here?"
I paraphrase but the only mention of patriotism is to disavow it as a motive. While I don't remember Richard Gere delivering a lot of speeches on American exceptionalism, it seemed to be missing here.
For all my complaints, It's not a bad two hours; jk gives it two-point-five.
June 24, 2006
See I can too like an action picture! (punctuate that sentence)
When I think of "action pictures" I group them into two, pejorative types. First is the insane premise. Watching "Speed," or "Red Eye," or "Firewall" I cannot suspend disbelief that far; there's insufficient foundation for the plot. The other type is the exploding buildings movies like Tom Cruise's "War of the Worlds." All special effects, no plot.
Yet I can name a pile of movies with strong action that I enjoyed. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy ranks among my favorite movies ever. His "King Kong" was good if not quite up to LOTR standards. "Pulp Fiction," "48 Hours" -- even the "Blues Brothers" movies had car chases.
Last night I watched "16 Blocks" with Bruce Willis and Mos Def. It has a quorum of shooting and a manic bus blast through New York City. It also has a strong plot line, great acting, and a gritty urban noir feel even though it all happens in morning daylight.
Action pic, buddy pic, redemption -- this film has a lot of heart. jk gives it four-and-a-half.
Posted by John Kranz at 10:03 AM