I have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the "not rich" are making lessI have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the "not rich" are making less than they used to, relative to the wealthy. In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
There is a divide growing in America, argues Charles Murray in his book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010" but it isn't necessarily just over money. In fact, the divide may be greater because it is cultural, not just economic.
Displaying a dizzying array of statistics, studies, and research, Murray shows an America that is watching the rise of what seems, to me, to be a new ruling class, a group of elites that are well educated ("overeducated elitist snobs"), well connected, and with a set of values and interests different from much of modern America. The self-segregation is not malicious, but, largely a result of people being attracted to others like them. As a result, their children grow up with a different set of values, more educated, and in turn marry people like them, further segregating themselves.
It works both ways, though, and Murray sets up as a comparison a hypothetical city on the upper ("Belmont") and on the lower ("Fishtown") ends of the spectrum to compare them. In his analysis, people in Belmont are better educated, less likely to get divorced (if at all), more involved in their community, work longer hours, are more honest, and are more religious. On the other hand, vital statistics in all of these areas for Fishmont show a gradual falling off over the last fifty years.
Why is this problematic? One reason is that it has resulted in a culture for the upper class that is completely out of touch with most of America. They watch different movies, participate in different social activities, drink different beers, and read different books. Their interests are not the same, and yet they are a select group that sets policy and opinion, controls wealth and power, for America.
Another problem is that the degradation of values in lower class America over the last fifty years is leading to a collapse of "American civic life," something exceptional about America. At this juncture in the book, Murray, a confessed libertarian, recaps the roots and history of American civic culture and its uniqueness in the world. Neighborliness, vibrant civic engagement in solving local problems, voluntary associations, and so on. All hallmarks of America up to as recently as the 1960s, the members of lower and upper classes shared through these civic association a culture together that connected them and their values.
Further, although the elite retain some values, they have failed to lead. The elite class is as "dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdictated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards." Instead, its most successful members take advantage of the perks of position without regards to the "unseemliness" of that behavior, showing something of a new "gilded age."
Prognosis? "If the case I have just made for a hollow elite is completely correct, all is lost," says Murray on page 294. The lower class is only barely able to care for itself by 2020, while the upper classes enter yet another generation separate from main stream America and further out of touch with the "real world." Insightfully, then, Murray says that "new laws and regulations steadily accrete, and America's governing regime is soon indistinguishable from that of an advanced European welfare state. The American project is dead."
Is all lost? Murray says that for things to turn around, America must see four predictions borne out: America must watch what happens in Europe (and if the turmoil of the last few months is any indication, this prediction is bearing out), science must undermine the moral underpinnings of the welfare state, it will become increasingly obvious that there is a simple, affordable way to replace the entire apparatus of the welfare state, and Americans' allegiance to the American project must be far greater that Murray's argument has acknowledged.
Could these be born out? Time will tell. In the meantime, it's a powerful argument for a retrospection of the great problems of our times and our country. ...more
With Mia Love: The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star, a biography of Mia Love by Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matt Canham, with Robert GWith Mia Love: The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star, a biography of Mia Love by Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matt Canham, with Robert Gehrke and Thomas Burr, readers are fortunate to find a glimpse into the history and biography of Utah’s newest Representative to Congress, the first black, Republican woman to be elected to the United States House of Representatives. The book (which you can find at mialovebook.com or at the Amazon link below) is not authorized by Mia Love or her campaign.
Americans should be so lucky as to have such books about every member of Congress. With an incumbency reelection rate above 80%–and often much higher even—for over a half a century, it’s rare that new members join Congress. It’s even more rare that voters have any opportunity to learn the behind-the-scenes backstory before they even take office.
Over the last three years, first Utah and then America has watched the meteoric rise of Mia Love from relative obscurity to the brightest new light in the Republican constellation of stars after the midterm elections of 2014. With any new politician comes a narrative, a story that brings them to office and becomes their brand. With Mia Love — The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star voters get to go beyond the carefully crafted and controlled messages to learn who Love is, where she came from, and, well, how she got here. The authors neither pull their punches nor swing them. Their intent seems to be to tell a story, present the facts, and let readers form a picture on their own.
The research seems thorough and the narrative doesn’t seem to depart far from what’s already been reported in the press and by Love campaign during the 2012 and 2014 races. However, what the book adds is details about her childhood, conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also called the Mormons or LDS Church), courtship with Jason Love, and some of the backstage drama preceding her speeches at the 2012 Utah Republican Party Convention and the 2012 Republican National Convention.
The reporting is great, even if it does come off as a really long news piece at times. The authors stick to what they know best, and the writing at times feels like an extended article that might appear on any given day in the Salt Lake Tribune. In many respects this choice of how to tell the story lends it a greater air of credibility. It’s hard to fault the book as biased, slanted, or otherwise critical of Love. Rather, the authors appear to take pains to keep the writing anesthetized of comment, critique, and color. It’s not a bad way to go and it leaves all of the drama to Mia Love’s story itself.
Because there is drama here.
The upshot of a drier writing style is that Mia Love’s story stands on its own. There’s plenty in her sometimes unlikely trail to Congress give it Hollywood scale proportions and plot twists (and I’m waiting every day to hear that she has optioned the rights to the story off). It’s hard not to see echoes of Erin Brockovich at points, or Robert Redford’s Bill McKay at others. Mia’s story stands on its own, and the authors’ style stays out of the way.
The authors are careful to consider areas and provide helpful description of subjects in which the reader may not be well-informed. For example, Canham and Co. take pains to explain aspects of the LDS Church to outsiders who may not be familiar with the often insular faith that Mia shares with former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The result is explanations that are concise, but helpful and fair. As a Mormon myself, it can be difficult to watch others describe my faith, but Canham, Gehrke and Burr deserve props for their treatment of the LDS faith.
When Mia Love gets past early biography–youth, college, conversion, and courtship–and finally arrives at the politics of Love’s runs for Congress, the narrative occasionally puts a fine point on how small Utah’s political community really is. If everyone on Earth is just six degrees of separation apart, then degree of separation in Utah politics is smaller still – no more than one or two degrees, perhaps. It’s no wonder that interference from Washington, D.C. consultants puts such a bad taste in Utahns mouth—we all know each other, and it rubs when someone who doesn’t know Utah shows up and tries to dictate how campaigns should be run. In Mia’s rise, it becomes clear that she did great when she stuck with local talent, winning the 2012 Utah Republican Convention with Casey Voeks and the 2014 General Election with Dave Hansen, but struggled when she spent time listening to consultants who parachuted in for the 2012 general election.
After filling out Love’s biography, political history, and election story, the authors spend a few pages laying out the geography that Representative-elect Love will face when she reaches Washington. For me, though, reading to know the history of Utah’s newest Representative, her past was more interesting than predictions about her future. Only time will tell whether Love is a flash in the pan or continues to rise as a leader in Washington and Utah.
Mia Love: The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star is an interesting read, a must read, even, and not only for political junkies like myself, but for anyone curious about Love’s story as a fulfillment of the American dream and promise.
With any luck, this won’t be the last book that Canham, Gehrke and Burr write, but will be just the first to expand on the stories and biographies of Utah’s elected officials. Writing this book is a good thing for the public, and well in line with their roles as journalists. That said, I can’t help but wonder why they haven’t done this yet for other Utah politicians. Take, for example, Speaker Becky Lockhart. As Utah’s first female Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, she was arguably the most powerful woman in the state during her term, and I know we haven’t seen the last of her, yet. Or another might cover former Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff, two conservative politicians who once enjoyed a high level of popularity in their own right, only to be brought down by hubris and corruption.
Few are as well-positioned to write these stories as this trio of authors, and Utah, and the country, could only be served by the effort. ...more
I've long followed Connor Boyack's career. A libertarian and out of the box thinker, Boyack has never been afraid to defend his conclusions, and he doI've long followed Connor Boyack's career. A libertarian and out of the box thinker, Boyack has never been afraid to defend his conclusions, and he does so with articulation and passion.
His latest literary foray is no exception.
In Feardom: How Politicians Exploit Your Emotions and What You Can Do to Stop Them, Boyack fervently argues for greater individual responsibility in the face of growing and often deceptive government communication and behavior. The argument is timely. Trust in government, whether it is Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, or even police, is at a record low.
Nor is the government alone, says Boyack, finding that the press occasionally take common cause with the government. As headlines fill with threats from ISIS and Ebola in the weeks before the election in October 2014, then quietly take a backseat to other news after, it's hard not to support his point. The press seems to be either complicit, as manipulated as average person, or unaware.
While I don't agree with all of the examples that Boyack cites--his examples stemming from Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War are especially jarring when weighed against the result of ending slavery in America--I am sympathetic to his message. At the heart of the book is a message of increased individual responsibility, urging the reader to take control of their life, to become aware and informed beyond short media sound bites, and to be willing to live with risk in order to maximize liberty. I doubt this is a message that anyone of any political stripe with an interest in a more civic minded population would argue with. Better informed people make better decisions, elect better representatives, and create stronger communities.
To that point, then, Feardom is a thought provoking call to arms. Not of guns or of violence, but to self-activation and participation in communities and our country.
There are those that will note that fear does at time have a very useful function, warning us about danger and encouraging us to take action to remediate or avoid the harm. I agree with them, but I think that Boyack--an Latter-day Saint Christian--would note that knowledge and faith triumph over fear and allow individuals to stride forward confident in spite of risk. In that sense, I would expand Boyack's thesis and message beyond just a polemic against the political machinations to anyone that attempts to use fear as a tool. Hackers recently shut down the release of a motion picture by threatening, probably in futility, terrorism. Special interest groups email blast their followers with threats of government action if they don't send money soon.
Yes, sometimes it is fear of the government itself that is levied against us just as the government and politicians weld fear to take us to war, raise taxes, or expand governments reach. In short, we ought to be wary of anyone--politician, journalist, or citizen activist--who oversimplifies an issue with an aim to provoking us to action for fear of a result.
In the end, I agree with Boyack's message, even if I don't necessarily find the evidence he portrays as robust or fully persuasive. Remember that even Winston Churchill was for a decade portrayed as a fear-monger by Neville Chamberlain, even as Adolf Hitler rearmed Germany with an eye to conquer the world. Fear has a place, but it needs to be answered with information. Churchill knew what most of England did not, receiving and reading reports on Germany's radical changes that were not available to most Britains or even much of Parliament. In the early 21st century, we have access to information in a way that should allow us to form our own opinions without resort to cable news spin doctors.
According to the "authoritative" Urban Dictionary, feardom is "the state of having freedom, but being afraid of expressing it." Connor Boyack's new book, may not spell it out quite that way, but it's a sentiment that I am sure he would agree with, and I believe that he would argue that only in the willingness to exercise that freedom in the face of potential repercussion can Americans fully enjoy, and expand, the liberties once guaranteed to them by virtue of their citizenship....more
The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over the last five hundred years, a record unmatched in world history and at odds with its population and geography relative to other countries and civilizations, due to six "killer apps" that have provided an advantage on the international stage. Further, it may be the West's loss of those same "apps" that is leading to decline now.
Ferguson pegs the rise of the West to dominance at about the same time as the discovery of the Americas, and so, having just finished a look at that chapter of history in "1491" and "1493", I decided to take a closer look at Ferguson's argument. What was the secret of the West? And could we really be headed towards decline or collapse?
Where many histories today focus on the specific "modules" of history, drilling down to look closely at specific persons or events (think Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" on Abraham Lincoln's political management or Horowitz's "Midnight Rising" on the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry), Ferguson takes another tact by looking at the broad strokes of history to find themes, the grand "narratives" of history, as he calls them. Where other historians dig into the details, Ferguson wants to look at the big picture. As he explains in the preface:
"Watching my three children grow up, I had the uneasy feeling that they were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations. Watching the financial crisis [of the late 2000s] unfold, I realized that they were far from alone, for it seemed as if only a handful of people in the banks and treasuries of the Western world had more than the sketchiest information about the last Depression. For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose."
With that flippant, matter of fact, almost "devil-may-care" attitude then, Ferguson determines to take the reader through a grand narrative of the last five hundred years, identifying six "killer apps" that Western civilization adopted to rise to a dominance unmatched in breadth and duration in human history. It is this broad overview, as told in Ferguson's urgent and quick-witted voice, that makes the extended argument so interesting and in an age of multicultural relativism, refreshing. Welding his argument--not just about the cause of Western civilization's success, but also that "the historian can commune with the dead by imaginatively reconstructing their experiences" to inform and predict the future--Ferguson spins together the documents, events, and personalities to form a narrative, a story, about why the West succeeded in the face of larger, richer, and, at the onset, more wealthy civilizations.
The "tools" to which he attributes the rise of the West are likened to "apps," downloadable software that augment computers and mobile devices. By looking at the narrative, Ferguson finds the roots of the West's success, as well as why, perhaps, the West as begun to decline while other civilizations advance. Not specific to the West, but, like the real world apps in the metaphor, the values can be "downloaded" by any culture for similar results, and in the closing Ferguson addresses the adaptation by non-Western cultures that have done, and are doing, just that with success.
The "apps" Ferguson finds, while not necessarily surprising, are informative: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption and the birth of the "consumer society" (“without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable”) and Max Weber's Protestant “work ethic”. While the narrative is anything but chronological, Ferguson's grasp of history and the sweeping strokes with which he paints the narrative provide fascinating reading. One cannot sense, however, that Ferguson, almost anything but apologetic, is on the verge of glorying in the success of the British Empire during its hey-day as a colonial power, noting with statistical explanation the improvements brought to the world through Western influence, whether it be in medicine, literacy, and education. Or blue jeans, for in the end, one side effect of rise of the West is not diversity, but conformity as cultures imitate and emulate Western styles, habits, and philosophy.
Ironically to this writer, who sees such deep and lasting value in the political institutions of the West, Ferguson notes that one area where the West has not been uniformly imitated is the political.
"Only in the realm of political institutions does there remain significant global diversity, with a wide range of governments around the world resisting the idea of the rule of law, with its protection of individual rights, as the foundation for meaningful representative government."
In other words, we'll take your blue jeans, your medicine, even your work ethic, but you can keep the Bill of Rights and representative government, they say. Indeed, it is that imitation of the West that has brought China from the depths of the Cultural Revolution to heights today when its economy can weather the financial crisis without more than a hiccup.
After Ferguson's narrative through the six "apps", then, we reach the essential question suggested by any study of the West's rise: is the West now in decline? And if so, is it too late to reverse?
Perhaps not. Although China's rise seems ominous, and indeed, Ferguson cites China's relative nonchalance towards doing business with the dictators and warlords of the world business "it's just business" as evidence that China is more concerned about rising than its popularity, China still faces problems that could arrest its progress, especially from social unrest, political pressure from its growing and unrepresented middle-class, or friction with its neighbors in Asia.
Noting that a "retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush" (Afghanistan) seems to proceed the fall of any empire--be it Alexander's, British, Russian, or most recently American--Ferguson is unwilling to give up on the West, yet. No, the things that set the West apart are no longer distinct, but nor has the entire package of "apps" been embraced.
"The Chinese have got capitalism. The Iranians have got science. The Russians have got democracy. The Africans are (slowly) getting modern medicine. And the Turks have got the consumer society. But what this means is that Western modes of operation are not in decline but are flourishing nearly everywhere, with only a few remaining pockets of resistance. A growing number of Resterners [Ferguson's name for non-Westerners] are sleeping, showering, dressing, working, playing, eating, drinking and travelling like Westerners. Moreover, as we have seen, Western civilization is more than just one thing; it is a package. It is about political pluralism (multiple states and multiple authorities) as well as capitalism; it is about the freedom of thought as well as the scientific method; it is about the rule of law and property rights as well as democracy. Even today, the West still has more of these institutional advantages than the Rest. The Chinese do not have political competition. The Iranians do not have freedom of conscience. They get to vote in Russia, but the rule of law there is a sham. In none of these countries is there a free press. These differences may explain why, for example, all three countries lag behind Western countries in qualitative indices that measure‘national innovative development’ and ‘national innovation capacity’."
True, the West is not without its faults, he says, but our downfall will come from within, not from external pressure. It's the loss of the "killer apps" by our culture that will, in the long and short run, lead to our continued decline. Don't mistake the adoption, however, by others as the reason for the decline of the West. Rather, it is the West's abandonment of the values that brought them prominence that is leading to the decline. Here, again, Ferguson picks up the theme in his preface--we must learn from history. If we are to maintain the great values that gave the West its rise, we must study and learn the great works--the documents--that teach those values.* Add up all the values, and, like any follower of Churchill, it adds up to courage and action.
"Today, as then [1938 and the German Nazi threat to Western civilization], the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it."
If you're interested in a brief version of Ferguson's views on the six "apps" that he discusses in the book, check out his speech at TED.
* Ferguson's recommended "standard works" for Western civilization are:
The King James Bible Isaac Newton's Principa John Locke's Two Treatises of Government Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species William Shakespeare's plays Selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill Also, if he could select only one of the above, it would be Shakespeare's collected works. Related articles
With a page count a bit lower than Civilization, The Great Degeneration is based on his 2012 "Reith Lectures" on the BBC and walks through four institutions that Ferguson sees as crucial to the prosperity of the modern state. Faced with growing symptoms of decline, such as slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior, Ferguson believes that our institutional degeneration may be the major cause.
Ferguson opens by first addressing other arguments about why wealthy countries have declined. China and India's impressive economic growth, in contrast to relative stagnation in western democracies, is not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the West, but is also a result of actual decline in real terms in western countries of certain institutions, especially in the decline of political, economic, legal and social institutions.
The west's success, relative to "the rest," over the last few centuries has been in large part due to four institutions: democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society.
Democracy has deteriorated not so much due to access, but rather due to the breakdown of the social contract between generations, says Ferguson. For this, he cites the expensive benefits that older generations have voted themselves to be left to the next generation to pay for, noting that Edmund Burke, in his Reflections On The Revolution In France saw the generations as an important part of the social contract. By taking on astronomical amounts of debt, we have put future generations on the hook for our expensive lifestyles.
When it comes to capitalism, Ferguson is not so much anti-regulation as he is anti-bad regulation. There is not such thing as a market without some kind of regulation, he says, but the regulation must makes sense and malefactors must be made to pay. On the contrary, in the recent recession, Wall Street came out ahead, despite risky behavior and dangerous bets, while average Americans bailed them out with giant debt producing stimulus packages.
Where once the rule of law protected contracts and property rights, tort law has slowed down the legal system, raised the costs of doing business, increased the costs of products, and failed to produce a corresponding benefit, stifling innovation and creativity.
It is when Ferguson reaches civil society that I am most intrigued. He quotes from both Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray, both landmark works on the dramatic decrease in voluntary associations over the last century. Where as at one point both wealthy and poor attended the same churches, participated in the same organizations (think Lions Club or Rotary or even Boy Scouts), and lived in the same neighborhoods, recent decades have seen lower and lower membership and participation in these voluntary associations that have brought people together for a common purpose. Instead, government has replaced these voluntary associations in many cases as the source of resort and not often with improved results. We may have more "Friends" on Facebook, but the relationships there are no more substantial than the effort to click "Like." The result is less civic-mindedness and less civic-participation.
And no, showing up to vote does not reflect civic participation. Voter turnout is merely a symptom of increased, or decreased, civic engagement.
Since I listened to the book over the course of several days commute and while doing a bit of home improvement, I found the shorter analysis and references to other works useful and was unsurprised to hear, as Ferguson closed up the book, that it was based on a series of lectures. While The Great Degeneration is a fascinating, if bite-sized, look at the problems assailing western civilization, it proceeds along lines that are more prescriptive than proscriptive. As a gateway, however, it is a starting point, and on that score, I recommend it as a place to begin your examination of the future of our democracy. ...more
Ward Connerly is a crusader, but a crusader who has picked the a battle that matters.
A black man born in the south but raised in the West, Connerly beWard Connerly is a crusader, but a crusader who has picked the a battle that matters.
A black man born in the south but raised in the West, Connerly becomes a unique figure in the fight for equal rights against racial preferences. Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences, part autobiography and part political memoir, is his telling of the events leading up to and surrounding that fight. It is a quick and accessible read, and Connerly proves to be an able storyteller, quick to turn a phrase and propound his opinion with anecdotes and colorful observations in the moment. Of the many of observations that intersperse Connerly's narrative, he often seems intent on using them to demonstrate the hypocrisy and duplicity of his opponents, especially as it regards race and preferential treatment.
Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences is a quick and accessible read. Connerly proves to be an able storyteller, quick to turn a phrase and propound his opinion with anecdotes and colorful observations in the moment. Of the many of observations that intersperses Connerly’s narrative, he often seems intent on using them to demonstrate the hypocrisy and duplicity of his opponents, especially as it regards race and preferential treatment.
To be clear, I doubt that Creating Equal will persuade you to change your ideological biases, unless, perhaps, you are either one of those rare individuals that sits on the fence or a part of the legion of the majority that tends to be uninformed on the racial preferences. For myself, I opened the book predisposed to support the American creed of equality before the law and found in Connerly's words support and reason for that belief. Connerly's logic is simple and easy to follow: while Affirmative Action was intended to correct racial injustice in American political institutions, the unintended consequence was to insert preferences against certain racial groups (for example, those of Hispanic or Asian origin) in favor of less qualified individuals who happen to belong to particular racial groups. Further, by institutionalizing such preferences in, for example, the higher education system of states like California, we are not only supporting inequality for all Americans, but racially discriminating against many. It's almost an afterthought for Connerly that such preferences tend to hurt those very racial groups that they favor more than they help.
Not surprisingly, given that Connerly is black himself and took a leading role in leading the fight to remove racial preferences, first from the California Board of Regents and later in state by state initiatives, some of the most vociferous critiques against equality came from blacks who viewed Connerly as a traitor. Connerly seemed to take relish reciting anecdotes about racial slurs twisted against him by other black. The irony never escapes him.
Connerly's mission is one born of logic and reasoning, and he never hesitates to point out that even when equality lost the fight in a state (as in Florida, which he called a death "by a thousand cuts,"), voters don't hesitate to support him when the plain language is put before them. His targets for critiques aren't limited to Democrats or racial preferences' supporters--both George and Jeb Bush (as well as Karl Rove) receive their share of his ire for their unwillingness to man up for equality in their states when the politics of their future did not support it.
Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences is short, written with Connerly's flare for the dramatic, and should be a valuable addition in the history of American political thought. What it lacks in-depth, statistics, and balance it more than makes up with a narrative that persuasively describes why all Americans should care about equality. America was founded on the idea that all men and women should be treated equal before the law. If there are failings among certain groups--especially due to race--the changes need to be made where effects can be felt: in our public schools. Setting quotas that consider race, however, does not and will not assist in bringing more disadvantaged individuals out of poverty. Rather, it just prevents Americans as a whole from experiencing equal opportunity....more
Several people have asked me about the Bob Woodwardkerfuffle.
(I know. The irony. Congressional leaders and the President spend two years negotiating hSeveral people have asked me about the Bob Woodward kerfuffle.
(I know. The irony. Congressional leaders and the President spend two years negotiating how to deal with the debt, can't agree on a solution, resolve to on a 2% across the board cut called "sequestration" that almost no one understands--or represents accurately if they do--and people want to talk about a 'he said/she said' moment in American politics. Let's be honest--it's a lot closer to the school yard politics than the intricate and complex workings of the federal budget).
I just finished reading Woodward's The Price of Politics, a history of this specific issue and how we got to this point. With that in mind, here are my two-bits.
The long and short of it is this: when President Obama couldn't get Congressional Republicans in 2011 to agree to raise the debt limit and enact a tax hike to cover the increased debt, his staff--specifically Jack Lew and Rob Nabors--went to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and suggested sequester as a triggering mechanism. If a deal was not worked out by a certain date (March 1, 2013), then automatic cuts would happen. Reid liked the idea so much that he bent over in his chair and put his head between his legs like he was going to vomit. Seriously. (If my sarcasm it isn't picking up, know that Reid was not a fan...)
No one thought it would fail. It was so bad that the other side will have to compromise, everyone thought. Neither Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and the President in the White House--assumed that no one would let sequestration happen. Because the cuts were disproportionately high on defense spending, Democrats thought that Republicans would never let sequestration happen. And Republicans thought that there was no way that the President would allow such broad, across-the-board cuts happen, either.
They we're all of them deceived, if just by their own hubris.
So who is right? Woodward? Or the White House?
The simple answer is that, in a sense, both are right.
First, Woodward is correct that it was a White House, and by extension the President's, idea to propose sequestration as a trigger if no agreement was reached.
Second, if we look only at the unknowable intentions of the President instead of what he actually did, then he is also correct--he never really intended sequester to happen without some kind of agreement on the budget. In other words, he looked at the consequences of sequester, thought that it would be so bad on the Republicans that Republicans would rather agree to tax hikes than sequester, and said--"Let's do it.
If it's easier to visualize, here's how the Republican spin machine puts it...not entirely inaccurately.
If reading The Price of Politics it doesn't disabuse you of any trust you have in our elected officials ability to compromise, I don't know what will.
The Price of Politicsinexhaustibly details the negotiations over the summer of 2011 leading up to the debt crisis in early August of that year. They began long before we heard about them in the press--months in advance, in fact--and included more than a few meetings between Vice President Biden, Rep. Eric Cantor, White House staff, Senators Kyl, Reid, Baucus, and McConnell, House Minority Leader Pelosi, and, at the center of it, President Obama and Speaker Boehner.
Most of them end up looking inexperienced and unskilled in negotiation especially the President, his staff, and, to some extent, Speaker Boehner. And why? Because both sides fail to listen to the other and throughout remain entrenched in partisan dogmas that prevent them from finding compromise. Crucial negotiations and conversations repeatedly took place over the phone or after media leaks, with offers from each side repeatedly ignoring what the other had told them was an unfeasible option for them. Republicans would not settle for a bargain that did not rein in entitlement spending and Democrats would not agree to cuts to Medicare or Medicaid. Democrats would not do a deal that didn't include tax hikes and the end of the Bush tax cuts, but Republicans were unwilling to allow any new tax revenues except through tax reform.
Neither side would shift to a middle ground.
Early in the book, Woodward talks about the philosophy of the first White House Chief of Staff under President Obama, Rahm Emanuel. "F&#@ them! We have the votes." With it, Democrats shoved healthcare reform through Congress rough shod and in spite of public opinion opposing it. When Republicans took back the House, the Obama White House never really learned how to compromise, but merely seemed to think that compromise meant talking with their opponents about what the White House insisted they do. No surprise, then, that Republicans could never really find a common ground with the White House. As Republicans often complained after being given yet another proposal that ignored their needs, "How are you, the White House, supposed to know what's good for Republicans?"
Surprisingly, one of the few people who came across as the most flexible and able to make a deal was Vice President Biden. A character I have often thought of as a blowhard, gaff-prone Democratic operative often proved to be the person who could work with Republicans to find a feasible solution. Woodward often referred to him as a "McConnell whisperer" because of his relationship with the Senate Minority Leader and his ability to negotiate.
In the end though, as Woodward puts it, never has so much effort been made for so little result. The President won in being able to put off any more negotiation until after his reelection, and we ended up with a status quo result. Federal spending and revenues were left at the same place as before and on March 1--today--automatic across the board cuts amounting to 2% of the budget will go into effect at 11:59 PM.
What are our elected officials doing about it? Jetting across the country wasting valuable time telling the American people that it's the other sides' fault. No wonder no one trusts politicians....more
I can't recall who exactly recommended this to me when I first picked this up back in 2010 or 2011, but I do recall the cautionary note that they tookI can't recall who exactly recommended this to me when I first picked this up back in 2010 or 2011, but I do recall the cautionary note that they took as they described it and the author's conclusions. The global recession had begun four years earlier, since which time I had just barely been able to sell a house (seriously--I closed the sale of the house the same week that Bear Sterns ceased to be), had graduated from law school at perhaps the worst time for new attorneys to be entering the work force, and had managed to find a good, but not great paying, job at a local company. Financially speaking, the future seemed bleak, and I was not sanguine about my prospects for future income. Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Global Financial Meltdown seemed like a warning voice against future economic calamity, so I picked it up and gave it a read.
Unfortunately, I was, largely, disappointed. Falling into that category of financial reading that seems to best be described as "fear mongering," I found it full of doom and gloom, threatening prognostications, and warnings about the future. I suspect that authors David and Robert Wiedemer, and Cindy Spitzer have made better money of the sale, and subsequent editions of, the book than most readers have from the advice they give.
This isn't to say that there may not be substance to their arguments. Looking at a succession of financial bubbles, including both the dotcom bubble and the more recent housing bubble, they posit that the bubbles have led the Federal Reserve to engage in reckless market manipulation that is going to result in 50% unemployment, a 90% stock market crash, and 100% annual inflation, starting in 2012.
Their advice? Sell your home, cash out your stocks, and convert your assets into gold and inflation pegged securities.
That's a stark transition, and from a set of authors who are perhaps inflating their own expertise in economic prophesy a bit further than their resumes merit.
Meanwhile, we find ourselves in 2014, the economy on the mend, and the catastrophic events predicted by Aftershock as yet unrealized. I suppose that there is still time, and I don't want to give the impression that everything is smelling of roses, but perhaps the take away is that the success of Aftershock is more about marketing for its authors than about economic prediction relevant to readers. ...more
I just finished "Obama's Wars" by Bob Woodward. I don't know that I feel ready to review a book by Woodward, but I do have some thoughts after readingI just finished "Obama's Wars" by Bob Woodward. I don't know that I feel ready to review a book by Woodward, but I do have some thoughts after reading it.
First of all, the book seems more about the bureaucratic push and shove between the White House, the State Department, the CIA and the Department of Defense about how to deal with Afghanistan. The Obama Administration had come into office with promises to draw down in Iraq and focus on Afghanistan. The question was to what degree: how many troops? How long would they need to be there? And what exactly would be the mission?
The process to determine those answers was meticulous and thorough. That said, Woodward does not tell the story in a light that is favorable to the military. The military--McCrystal, Petraeus, Mullen, and others--appears to constantly push civilian leadership's efforts to limit the mission in Afghanistan, seeking more troops, an expanded mission, a longer mission. Petraeus wanted to implement a surge similar to "the Surge" that saved Iraq, and McCrystal conducted in an in-depth review on how to make Afghanistan secure, but couldn't control his mouth or his staff.
Vice President Biden has no problem giving his opinion. No shocker, I suppose. He would start out with "Let me take two minutes..." then go on for over twenty-five minutes. At one point, he even cornered President Obama on the portico to the White House just before the President announced his decision to insert 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, just to give one more opinion. Yeah. He's just that sure of himself.
President Obama himself appears extremely careful and thorough in his decision-making, carefully seeking the opinions of all parties, including his counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further, his carefully crafted orders were meticulous and detailed. Within the Obama White House, relationships and personality are more than important--they're crucial. Individuals close to the President, especially from the campaign, were better at getting their ideas moved forward. No surprise there, I suppose; it's not who you know, but who knows you.
Pakistan is the real villain in the conflict, not the Taliban alone, even if Woodward does not necessarily intend to point the finger. With Osama's death at the hands of Seal Team Six last week, not far from a Pakistani military installation, it seems clear that we have trusted Pakistan too much.
If slightly biased towards the Administration and heavily focused on how the decision to send the 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was made, perhaps to the neglect of other aspects of the war, Woodward's book is detailed, appears well researched, and is an interesting look into how the Obama Administration has conducted the war in Afghanistan. ...more
Few novels I have read recently have made me stop and think, reexamine my world, quite the same way that Cory Doctorow's Little Brother does. AlthoughFew novels I have read recently have made me stop and think, reexamine my world, quite the same way that Cory Doctorow's Little Brother does. Although published five years back when the politics of the Bush Administration and the post-9/11 expansion of government surveillance were still fresh in our minds, I found the novel fresh and relevant.
One part thriller and two parts geek, Little Brother opens on a group of high school kids who play hooky from school to participate in a treasure hunt. They are caught up in the aftermath of a massive terrorist attack that kills thousands, literally caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, and end up in a secret prison as suspects.
Also, did I mention that they happen to be more technically inclined than the average student?
Released, they fight back, using hacks and technical resources I didn't know existed, but that Doctorow clearly explains and uses. As an added bonus, Doctorow explains in an addendum where he gets his technical material and what resources a reader could use to replicate what he describes in the book.
It's a fascinating story, for geeks and nongeeks, and the message is still fresh today: how much privacy should we expect, and to what extent are we willing to give up privacy and freedom for security?
The sequel to Little Brother is Homeland and is out now. ...more
I’ve long had a fascination with the characters and politics of ancient Rome, whether it be the Republican Period or the Imperial Period that followedI’ve long had a fascination with the characters and politics of ancient Rome, whether it be the Republican Period or the Imperial Period that followed the fall of the Republic. However, the most fascinating time for me, perhaps because of the vivid and larger-than-life characters in the cast, the gruesome violence of its politics, and the sheer scale of the stage (from the tip of Spain west to the far shores of the Black Sea east, from the shores of Britain north to the deserts of Africa and the Nile south), is the period as the Republic began to falter and fail and the Roman Empire began to ascend. Perhaps this period has gained even more currency with me recently because so much of our own politics in many ways echoes the arguments and politics of the Roman Republic. As I have listened, and occasionally participated in, debates and discussions about the role of government, I have heard arguments not unlike those that once were made in the Forum by senators of Rome. How much power should government have, what government should, and shouldn’t, do for the people, whether we should engage in wars far across the ocean, whether we should be nation building, what should we do with the many millions of people immigrating across our borders, who should be an American, and so on, and so on. Long before the modern American Republic encountered these issues, the Roman people—under the Republic—debated these issues from in the Forum of Rome. With these thoughts in mind, as well as a love for gritty and real bare knuckle politics of ancient Rome, I picked up Tom Holland’s book. Told in a narrative style with vibrant language, the story reads with novel like ease and speed. But for footnotes and awareness of the history being accounted from other sources, I might have wondered at the fictional like quality to it. All the great names of Roman history are present. Julius Caesar and his legions. Marcus Cicero, the oratorical giant. Pompey the Great, hero and megalomaniac. Cleopatra, seducer, queen and Pharaoh-goddess. And, of course, my favorite, Cato, the Spartan like idealist and champion of Republican principles, falling upon his sword rather than surrender to dictatorship as Caesar’s army marches on Utica. I usually confine my gym reading to “fun stuff,” like novels and other brain candy. However, I found that Holland’s history was sufficiently enjoyable that I had difficulty picking up other books for the duration of the read, including at the gym. For those who complain that history is boring, a list of “one thing after another,” Holland’s Rubicon may be for them. For in it, they may find that ‘yes,’ history does seem to repeat itself, but no, it is not just one thing after another, nor is it boring. Roman history, especially in Holland’s telling, is as vibrant, alive, and violent as the Italian operas that their descendants would write over fifteen hundred years later. Rubicon is, ultimately, a tragic tale marked by violence, civil war, conquest and the fall of the world’s longest standing republic. As the turmoil begins to end, we see Octavian rise as the second Caesar, but really as the first emperor, of Rome. His long life and mostly peaceful reign were a marked difference from the tumultuous years of the Republics fall, and they gave rise to a different period in Rome’s, and the West’s, history. It would be more than seventeen hundred years before another republic with Rome’s staying power was established. As the only constant in history is change, as I closed the book, I could not help but wonder how long our republic will last. I don’t mean to speak doom and gloom by saying so, only to point out that human nature is tends to bring about repetition of history, including the failures of democracies and republics alike. How long can ours last? Even if it is only at mid-point or, to be optimistic, a relative beginning, what duration can it have? And will the causes of Rome’s fall also cause ours to fall? ...more
As the former comptroller general of the United States, David Walker knows a little about the fiscal workings of the modern federal government. For fiAs the former comptroller general of the United States, David Walker knows a little about the fiscal workings of the modern federal government. For fifteen years, he served under both Republican and Democratic presidents from Reagan to Clinton to the Bushes), and had a unique opportunity to call into question the decisions that have lead to our current fiscal woes.And he doesn’t hold back. As he argues in the first few pages of his book “Comeback America,” we are a great country, but we are putting ourselves in a difficult position:
We live in a great and resilient nation. For all of our problems, the United States remains a global superpower and a beacon of liberty for people around the world. We have much to be proud of and thankful for. But I am here to tell you that if we don’t find a way to get spending under control, we will put our nation’s economy and international standing at risk and bequeath to our children a world of severely diminished opportunities.
It’s not too late. But we had better act soon.
After opening the book with describing our current fiscal problems–looking at the America of 2030 if we continue our current trajectory, examining principles from our history, and spelling out the challenges that President Obama faced, and faces, as he came into office–Walker then lays out his recommendations in each major area of federal spending in the succeeding chapters.
Walker skips right over earmarks and discretionary spending, which account for only a very small percentage of our federal budget, and goes right to the heart of the problem: entitlements, insufficient tax revenues, spending deficits, Defense Department ineffeciences, and systemic problems. Each gets a chapter that provides context, history, and recommendations.
Beyond its easy accessibility, perhaps the most important reason you should read this book is the lack of partisan taint. His approach, and recommendations, are nonpartisan, pragmatic, and worthy of consideration. He approaches the problems with one consideration–what is right for America and Americans?
A simplistic summary of his ideas, which I aim to address in greater depth in a later post, is that he calls for not only the reform of entitlements, review and oversight of inefficiencies in several–large–areas of government, and the reform of the tax code, but also for changes in our very elective processes and to the constitution. It isn’t enough to just change policies–we also need to change the systemic problems with how we got here and make it difficult to get here again.
In the end, Walker makes a compelling case for, in his words, not a “small government or a big government[,]” but an effective government–one that is fiscally responsible, focuses on the future, and looks out for the collective best interest of America and Americans rather than the narrow agendas of various special interests.
As one friend of mine has been known to observe–both parties are glad to spend, as long as it on the program that benefits its constituency. The right will spend on national security, and the left will spend on social programs. Both are spending, just not on the same thing. Indeed, fiscal responsibility is a claim that neither elected Democrats nor Republicans can claim–at least not with any measure of integrity.
Despite the current difficulties, exacerbated by the pop of the housing bubble and the subsequent recession, America can “comeback.” David Walker’s book, already over a year and a half old, is full of great ideas and suggestions to see that that happens. I recommend you pick up a copy and read it soon. You might find yourself asking different questions of your elected representatives than their position on immigration.
As I noted earlier, look for a later post on Walker’s specific policy recommendations....more
A brilliant industrialist named Justin Cord awakes from a 300-year cryonic suspension into a world that has accepted an extreme form of market capitalism. It's a world in which humans themselves have become incorporated and most people no longer own a majority of themselves.
Justin Cord is now the last free man in the human race - owned by no one and owning no one.
It’s a premise that Ayn Rand would love and a character that she might have created; a world recovered from the excesses and failures of government she predicted in Atlas Shrugged, at the apex of human achievement due to the capitalist system she loved and trumpeted in her egoist philosophy. And that civilization is at a turning point, due to the extreme nature of this future society’s form of capitalism: individual capitalism.
Justin Cord wakes from a cryogenic sleep to a world where each individual is incorporated at birth, their shares traded on the open market. Using the capital raised through sale of shares, individuals finance their education, business ventures, homes and investments. Corporations—real companies, not just individuals incorporated—are more powerful than governments, produce and regulate their own currency, and control the lives of the individuals in whom they own stock.
And that’s the rub for Cord. For while he is and was an avid defender of capitalism in the 21st century, incorporation of the individual strikes him as a form of slavery. Despite the unprecedented wealth and technological progress it has created, Cord can’t help but see injustice in the system of ownership of others. As he pushes back, fighting against the giant corporations that want to own a piece of him, he begins to reveal cracks and fissures that will lead to systemic change and revolution.
Ostensibly science fiction, The Unincorporated Man makes deft use of futuristic technologies. We see a world of “haves,” who own luxurious homes constantly and fluidly reshaping to the whims of their owners, and “have-nots” who live in “fixed” dwellings of wood and steel and who are lucky to own a small percentage of themselves. Virtual reality has not only been developed to an apex as good and better than reality, with some horrifying results. Artificial intelligence is an integral and essential part of daily life, as is physical mutation by biological manipulation. Death is all but conquered, and even taxes are merely a portion of a person’s share that is allotted to the government at birth. It is, without a doubt, an amazing world.
Without a doubt, in taking principles of market capitalism to their extreme, combined with the most fantastic of futuristic technology, the Kollin brothers have hit upon an idea that is mind-popping in scope. I consider myself to be both very politically active and an ardent fan of the free-market system, but the Kollins kept me guessing, questioning, and reconsidering my assumptions and conclusions about democracy, capitalism, technology, and power. It is a libertarian world they want, and they never shy from promoting that world.
Indeed, if there are any critiques of The Unincorporated Man, it is the message in the novel, not even slightly transparent. The Kollins clearly consider the modern state of government with contempt, especially the “giving something for nothing” that modern government, in the Kollins’ eyes, seems intent to do. Their argument is that of the libertarian: by providing more freedom, more choice, and more capital, they argue, we can create more wealth, not just for the upper echelons of society, but for everyone. When people have incentives to create, they do. When given something for nothing, they do not create. When too much power is accrued to one person or entity, liberty is restricted and destroyed.
This is reinforced when the near utopian society of the far future, rather than continuing on to further glory, begins to fracture under the hubris and weight of unscrupulous and corrupted corporate bureaucrats faced with, as the premise states, one man “owned by no one and owning no one.”
The plot itself wobbles under the clear eyed idealism in the Kollins message. Nothing bad ever seems to happen to Cord. He always comes out on top, losing nothing in the process. Despite being the protagonist, the problems and obstacles that the Kollins set up for him feel almost contrived. As Cord overcomes each, I began to feel like he was like Midas, that everything he touched would turn to gold. He is, as the saying goes, lucky in love and life, and nothing in the story seems to slow that feeling. As a result, the novel occasionally seems to lack the tension that builds and creates tension in the plot and characters.
In spite of the heavy handed message and lack of serious plot tension, the creativity and speculation with which the Kollins create their world gives the novel wings. It’s a world that is alive, vibrant, interesting, and, as science fiction is supposed to be, thought provoking and, occasionally, mind blowing. Most importantly, I enjoyed reading it, and I enjoyed talking about it. I recommend it without reservation.
Time for a segment of "A moment in obscure history." This time, we're looking at the constitutional dispute that resulted in the American Revolution.
STime for a segment of "A moment in obscure history." This time, we're looking at the constitutional dispute that resulted in the American Revolution.
Since sometime in 2009, the Tea Party movement has lead a revival of interest in the US Constitution. Senator Mike Lee summed up why the increased interest of late during the release of his new book, "The Freedom Agenda: Why a Balanced Budget Amendment is Necessary to Restore Constitutional Government": many of our problems today stem from when the "federal government started ignoring those Constitutional boundaries about what Congress is supposed to be doing."
Suddenly, propelled by Glenn Beck, books like The 5000 Year Leap , a right-wing conservative's guide to the making of the federal constitution, "leaped" to the Amazon best seller list (it's now listed at 2,615 overall and the top 100 under "Politics"). While it provides only a simple, somewhat white-washed, and superficial vision of the US Constitution, no amount of increased attention in our federal constitution is too little.
"Where does the Constitution," goes the rallying cry, "give the President and Congress the authority for the laws they are passing?"
Neither the revival, however, nor questioning the constitutionality of the federal laws, is unique in history. In fact, it was a dispute over the constitutionality of a central government's actions that lead to another major event in our country's history: the American Revolution.
"The fruit of half a century of research and reflection, Greene's masterly book restores legal pluralism and constitutional controversy to their proper place among the causes, course, and consequences of the American Revolution." - David Armitage, Harvard University In his short, and dense, review of the century and a half leading up to the American Revolution, "The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution," Jack P. Greene postulates and examines that evidence that the American revolution did not erupt purely as a simple dispute over "taxation without representation," but rather that such rallying cries emerged after decades of disagreement on who justly had the right to legislate for the American colonies
"Whether the king-in-Parliament, the ultimate source of statute law in Great Britain, could legislate for British colonies overseas was the ostensible question in dispute, but many other related and even deeper legal issues involving the nature of the constitution of the empire and the location of sovereignty within the empire emerged from and were thoroughly canvassed during the debate."
(From Constitutional Origins, p. 1)
It was only after the conflicting opinions of metropolitan Britain and that of the colonists failed to be reconciled that open warfare broke out in 1775, and it was why the decision to broach the topic of and ultimately pursue independence from Great Britain was so cautiously and tentatively pursued. The colonists considered themselves British subjects, citizens, not vassals and secession was not a choice they relished.
They saw themselves as part and partial of the British Empire. Indeed, as one Virginia lawyer at the time phrased it, they might be "subordinate to the Authority of Parliament," but only "in Degree" and "not absolutely so." (p.78). As free men and
"As free-born Britons, the colonists assumed, they could not be subjected to any but what Bland referred to as "a constitutional Subordination" to the parent state."
(From Constitutional Origins p. 78)
The nature of this "constitutional Subordination" was such that the colonists readily accepted the authority of Parliament in certain areas, but balked at the idea of taxation, seeing it as beyond Parliament's authority. "Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that the colonists' strong initial impulse was to exclude Parliament from all jurisdiction over the domestic affairs of the colonies." (p.79) Like our modern idea of the federal government, the states concern themselves with their domestic activities while the federal government's most basic responsibility is national security.
Interestingly, from a historical perspective, we start to see the first signs of federalism in the disputes between the colonies and the home country.
"[s]o long as Parliament confined its regulations to "restrictions on navigation, commerce, or other external regulations," they reasoned, the '"legislatures of the colonies" would be "left entire"and "the internal government, powers of taxing for its support, and exemption from being taxed without consent, and [all] other immunities which legally belong[ed] to the subjects of each colony agreeable to their own particular constitutions" would thereby, according to the "general principles of the British constitution," remain "secure and untouched.""
Sound familiar? If you hear the foreshadowing of the federalism that would be later inscribed into the US Constitution, there's a reason. It was rooted in the relationship between Great Britain and its far-flung colonies.
If, during the last couple years, you've found yourself at all more interested in the federal constitution and the limitations it places on the federal government, I urge you to look at the role constitutions, and constitutional disputes, played in leading to our own American constitution.
It's a great read, if a bit scholarly, and evidence that whether a law is constitutional is not a new question, but actually may be at the very root of the American experiment and its origins in the American revolution. The American revolution was not, nor is it today, an obscure moment in history, but rooted in obscure legal disputes between the colonies and mother country, long predating the Stamp Acts and the Boston Massacre. It began as a constitutional dispute between the central government in London and the British colonies in America.
Understanding why the colonist went to war, how they got there, and the legal battles that preceded the battlefields can be useful in understanding why the Founders drafted what they did--into the Declaration of Independence and into the federal constitution--and what those words mean to us now, even in the midst of our own constitutional disputes.
Pick up The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution by Jack P. Greene from Cambridge University Press, 2011.
(h/t Patrick Charles, who introduced the book to me)...more
The great thing about reading Edmund Morris is two-fold: he presents extremely thorough research with a enjoyable reading style that makes one feel liThe great thing about reading Edmund Morris is two-fold: he presents extremely thorough research with a enjoyable reading style that makes one feel like they are reading fiction. As a friend put it, it’s like reading a novel, not a biography. It doesn’t hurt that Theodore Roosevelt lived a life that makes easy picking for any biographer. The first in Edmund Morris’ three part biography of the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt lived a life full to the brim. Born sickly, he had overcome physical ailments and “built courage by ‘sheer dint of practicing fearlessness.’” Indeed, his life reads in a crescendo that leaves other men wanting: Published author at 18, of “The Naval War of 1812,” a classic that would go on to find a place in the textbooks for both US and British naval academies. Married at 22, father and widower at 25, husband again at 28. Acclaimed historian and New York Assemblyman at 25. North Dakota ranchman at 26 Candidate for New York City Mayor at 27 Civil Service Commissioner of the United States at 30 Police Commissioner of New York City at 36 Assistant Secretary of the Navy at 38 (and author of the plan that defeated the Spanish in Manila under Admiral Dewey) Colonel of the First U.S. Cavalry, the “Rough Riders” and a war hero at 39 (yes, he left a near cabinet level position to ride in the cavalry) Governor of New York two weeks short of his 40th birthday Vice President at 42… And that’s just in the first book. Making his living as a working writer, Roosevelt read over 20,000 books and writing fifteen of his own, not to mention speaking French and German, developing and maintaining relationships with numerous leaders in fields scientific, intellectual, and philosophical. His mind was a steel trap and his life steam engine, gaining speed and momentum. He was a man who was a lifelong learner, knew no bounds to his interests or abilities, and never stopped trying to reach further. Although born to priviledge, Theodore took nothing for granted, and he took every advantage he could to work, read, exercise, challenge himself, and expand his reach. It’s an example that inspires me, and it’s one we could all use. In a day where people talk a lot and actually do less, Roosevelt reminds us of the power of action, of doing, and that it is those who do that make a difference. If you’re looking for a readable biography of one of our most colorful presidents, before he was president, pick up Edmund Morris’ “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”...more
I'll be honest: I only read this up until the chapter when Cheney starts his account of 9/11 and its aftermath. At that point, I decided that his mostI'll be honest: I only read this up until the chapter when Cheney starts his account of 9/11 and its aftermath. At that point, I decided that his most recent history--relating to September 11, 2001 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--was sufficiently loaded that it would be difficult to read without some extratextual reading...fact checking, as it were. Too often I've seen Dick Cheney compared to Darth Vader (or worse), and while I do not agree, even a bit, I would have a hard time taking his perspective on the events in the post-9/11 world without a grain of salt. Ergo, I'll postpone judgment until I can read more on inner history of the time (which, admittedly, I've been living through...).
So I stopped reading there.
Now, to rewind, a bit, and to look at the rest of the memoir for what it is: a memoir. Dick Cheney's lived a life most would count as remarkable, especially for a guy who started out as a college dropout from Wyoming (granted, that college was Yale, but who's keeping track?). Eventually earning a Ph.D. in political science, he ended up in Washington advising congressmen and Presidents, including Donald Rumsfeld and Gerald Ford. Over the course of a career that began during the Nixon Administration, Cheney served the country variously as White House chief-of-staff, Congressman, Secretary of Defense, and finally Vice President (and perhaps the most powerful man to hold that office, yet).
Yet, for all his years in government service, the memoir provides astonishingly little detail, seemingly only giving a burnish his reputation, such as he would like it to appear. Don't get me wrong; in many respects, I like Dick Cheney. However, as a look back at a very long and distinguished career, it is short thrift, skimming through decades of dramatic changes in American government and politics. While it was interesting to hear about his time and the events in which he had participated, as well as some of the insider politics of the campaigns and party conventions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cheney sacrifices detail for brevity. It keeps the story moving, and so the "In My Time" is readable. However, it left me feeling like I had read the Cliff's Notes version, not the full memoir.
That said, and I return to my first caveat: I've not finished the book's final chapters, yet, and I would surmise that this last section on 9/11's aftermath will prove to be the interesting and volatile. Cheney's legacy will, in the end, be determined by the outcome of what has been called by some the "long war" against Islamic terrorism and its attacks on the United States. That, however, remains to be seen, and may not even be clear for decades to come. ...more
To read the first in Edmund Morris' biographical series on Theodore Roosevelt ("The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt"), one might be left with the feeling tTo read the first in Edmund Morris' biographical series on Theodore Roosevelt ("The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt"), one might be left with the feeling that it was inevitable that Teddy someday become President. Individuals from his German tutor while he studied abroad to those who came into contact with him while he fought policy corruption in New York City, not to mention the men who served with him in the Spanish-American War.
With "Theodore Rex," though, we see a man who is thrust into the Presidency without the opportunity to prepare mentally, as others had through the fire and course of a national campaign.
And yet, after a first term as Governor of New York, it became apparent that those who controlled New York's political machine would not allow Roosevelt another reform minded term. His name bandied around as a candidate for Vice President, Roosevelt was flattered, but convinced that he would be useless, bored, and stagnate. To Roosevelt, a man who above all was in perpetual motion, becoming Vice-President would doom him to irrellivence and uselessness. Unlike today, when Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have exercised greater responsibility and power than any Vice President in memory, the Office of the Vice President at the turn of the 19th century wasn't "worth a bucket of spit," at least to Roosevelt. It took wounded pride to change his mind--hearing that Senator Mark Hanna and President William McKinley did not want him on the ticket, he let supporters know he that he would serve if the Convention selected him.
Little did he know how short his term as Vice President would be. In the ides of September, President McKinley was shot by an assassin and Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States.
That's almost before the book even gets started.
Morris' writing is, as in the first book in the series, novel-like. Theodore strides through his world like a giant, negotiating peace between the Japanese and Russians, supporting the secession of Panama in order to obtain a shorter path for the Panama, building and sending the Great White Fleet, ending a miners strike involving a quarter of a million workers, appointing three Supreme Court Justices, including the great dissenter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and hosting Booker T. Washington, the first time a black had been invited to dinner with a President at the White House.. Perhaps the only difference between this and the first book is that in feeling. Where the first tells was the life of an ambitious adventurer, "Theodore Rex" is the story of a man under constant scrutiny, on whom the stakes are significantly increased. At times I couldn't help but wonder if it was also the change in the type of documents that Morris is able to rely upon, utilizing more official and government documents than in "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt."
Ultimately, "Theodore Rex" is a fascinating look at one of America's most ambitious, most popular, and most effective Presidents. Coming to power at at time when American power and wealth was growing and as yet unfathomed, Roosevelt took every advantage given to him to expand American power and influence. Morris' "Theodore Rex" is entertaining, education, and compelling, especially for a Presidential biography. ...more
Ron Suskind's a good writer, but he's also in love with Barack Obama. Well, maybe not in love, but he's certainly not an objective or dispassionate obRon Suskind's a good writer, but he's also in love with Barack Obama. Well, maybe not in love, but he's certainly not an objective or dispassionate observer. Even while he's observing that Obama may not have been ready for the Presidency, he's lavishing praise on the politician.
I read as long as I could, but after a third of the book fawning over Obama without really examining what was going on, I started to tire. Barack Obama is no villain as he's been portrayed by many, but neither is he a semi-deity or Olympian hero. Further, much of the material that Suskind covers is not new, having been reported in other sources. If you've read nothing else about the last few years, it's not a bad way to become familiar with some of the major players, and it's not horrible writing. But if you're looking for in-depth analysis and reporting, there are better books out there. "Too big to fail" is a good place to start.
I may come back to it later, but right now, it feels repetitive. Meanwhile, life's too short to read books that duplicate what you've already read. I'm moving on to a new book tonight. ...more
I recently read the short brochure “A Free-Market Monetary System,” a compilation of Friedrich A. Hayak’s 1974 Nobel Prize speech “A Pretense of KnowlI recently read the short brochure “A Free-Market Monetary System,” a compilation of Friedrich A. Hayak’s 1974 Nobel Prize speech “A Pretense of Knowledge” and a short essay on proposing a free-market monetary system (hence, the name, see?). Both are short, and neither waste any time proposing radical changes to what was then, and indeed what is still, the status quo in monetary and economic policy. Both the essay and the speech are worth reading.
In “A Free Market Monetary System,” Hayek warns that as long as central banks are in control of the money supply, we can expect to see the economic highs and lows that we have come to expect, better known as “bubbles” and “recessions.” Both are part of the market corrections that result when markets try to correct for artificial highs created by monetary policy in the control of a central bank. Hayek’s recommendation? Let private enterprises issue their own money for circulation.
I am more convinced than ever that if we ever again are going to have decent money, it will not come from government: it will be issued by private enterprise, because providing the public with good money which ic can trust and use can not only be an extremely profitable business; it imposes on the issuer a discipline to which the government has never been and cannot be subject.
Get it? Rather than “Dollars,” we would buy, and spend, money that might be called something else. Nike “Swooshes,” perhaps, or American Express “credits.” The point is that business does not have a monopoly on money the way that government–i.e. central banks–does and therefore has a greater incentive to protect the integrity of that money from inflation and against other currencies by good policies. If it doesn’t, people won’t use it and it’s value will drop. (Can you hear the invisible hand clapping?)
“It is a business which competing enterprise can maintain only if it gives the public as good a money as anybody else,” said Hayek. Meanwhile, central banks have no such limits or restraints. Just ask Ben Bernanke.
Could it work? Would the government ever give up its control of the money supply?
Ha! Good one. Have you ever known the government to willingly give up any power?
For an interesting look at how an economy where private enterprise issues its own money, check out the speculative novel “The Unincorporated Man” by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin. _______________________
The second part of the brochure is the text of ”A Pretense of Knowledge.” Hayek’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974 (he shared the prize with Gunnar Myrdal for their work in “the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena”) was a thunderhead of a critique of policies recommended by economists and implemented by governments that had, in his words, “made a mess of things.” He attributed the failure of economists to guide public policy more successfully to a “propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences[...]” That attempt, he said, “in our field may lead to outright error.” Economics is not an exact science, and the application of “habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed” lead to a “‘scientistic’ attitude” that the unknowable is knowable.
Economies involve an “organized complexity” that is too deep for economic researchers to obtain. Speaking of wages and prices as an example, Hayek argues that “the determination of [prices and wages] will enter the effects of particular information possessed by every one of the participants in the market process–a sum of facts which in their totality cannot be known to the scientific observer, or to any other single brain.” What he is saying is that while my wife at the grocery store may know enough to decide whether one can of salsa is better priced than another–based on a list of criteria only she knows, including flavor, cost relative to other salsas, cost relative to other stores and whether it is worth driving to those other stores to get the salsa, as well as how much my daughters are fussing in the shopping cart to hurry, whether we need salsa at all, and so on–the observer, the economist or market researcher or whoever is watching, can never know all that goes into her mind.
"It is indeed the source of the superiority of the market order, and the reason why, when it is not suppressed by the powers of government, it regularly displaces other types of order, that in the resulting allocation of resources more of the knowledge of particular facts will be utilized which exists only dispersed among uncounted persons, than any one person can possess."
Only the market–the composite of my wife, and the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of shoppers out there can determine what the market value–the price–of the salsa should be.
This is why governments mess things up when they try to intervene. Whether it is propping up failing auto companies (go google “GM volt january 2012 sales” to find out that the company bailed out by Washington, D.C. sold a measly 603 Volts last month) or promoting and subsidizing “green” energy companies (for this only, google “Solyndra scandal” where even the New York Times admits that the government took risks that the market would not take. I wonder why the market wouldn’t risk it?), when government tries to pick winners better than the market, it inevitably fails or produces less success than the a free market.
This isn’t to say that economics is entirely unable to offer predictive power. Quite the contrary. It just can’t do so with the same ability as the “hard sciences,” such as physics, or chemistry.
Often all that we shall be able to predict will be some abstract characteristic of the pattern that will appear–relations between kinds of elements about which individually we know very little.[...] The danger of which i want to warn is precisely the belief that in order to have a claim to be accepted as scientific it is necessary to achieve more. This way lies charlatanism and worse. To act on the belief that that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.
Neither the Members of Congress making laws, the President and his Executive Branch (proposing, executing, and, also, making laws), nor judges in their black robes know enough to out think the decisions of millions or billions of people that make up a market.
"But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority. Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims."
We may not always understand why the market chooses what it does, but in large part the market chooses, through spontaneity, that which helps man get what he wants.
In other words, Hayeks’ message to economists and policy makers is simple: get out of the way and let the market choose. It’s much smarter than you are....more
If he's too liberal for Yale, then...well, you know. Probably too liberal for me, too, right?
Or maybe not. If just to understand why the leaders of the Occupy Movement believe what they do, it might be worth the effort to read what he has written.
I heard about Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years from, of all places, a science fiction blog review (and my apologies for not remembering which one). The review described how sordid and strange certain cultures were in how they dealt with debt. It intrigued me: cultures on our own planet as foreign and strange as something that might appear in Star Trek or some other fictionally created world.
The descriptions don't disappoint. But the strange trading rituals and bizarre debt arrangements between tribes, families, and individuals of the Australian outback, the African savanna, or the American forests that Graeber describes in his look at the last 5,000 years are just prelude. As the language of debt conflates sin, morality and finance, we come to Graeber's central question:
What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?
It's a fascinating question, and it's hard to not sympathize with the quandary that Graeber sees in the language that we have developed to talk about debt, our capital systems, and markets. Even so, Graeber's conclusions make straw men out of the theories underlying the modern market economy, starting with Adam Smith, dismissing them with only short thrift.
This isn't to say that Graeber doesn't see a place for markets. It is capitalism, as means for power and form of slavery, that Graeber despises. "It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor." For example, the conquest of the Americas is integrally connected to mass slavery, in the forms of African slavery and debt peonage. Chinese contract laborers built the North American railroad system, while "coolies" from India built South African silver mines. Peasants of Russia and Poland were free landholders through the middle ages, only becoming serfs at the dawn of capitalism.
And so on. The choice between state and market is wrong, he says, and it's domination of political ideology over the last centuries has "made it difficult to argue about anything else."
Capitalism requires constant consumption and destruction, Graeber argues, and for that reason has always been created by warfare and conquest, rather than as a replacement for barter as we have generally accepted (see Adam Smith). With less and less to consume, humanity is reaching its social and ecological limits.
Graeber's conclusions are, to say the least, a rewriting of history as we've been taught, to say nothing of how we view markets and capital.
I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren't hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they're probably improving the world more than we acknowledge."
It's a rosy look at people who need not work to produce because they are free from debt, and in that sense, completely free. It sounds great...but it's rosy, and ignores human nature's desires to create and work.
Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a monster of a book, difficult even, though always fascinating. While I do not agree with the extremities to which his conclusions take him, there is something to be said for the corruption created when capital and political power are conflated. Crony capitalism is a distortion of the free market, just as political interference in the market is a distortion.
At the very least, Debt measures up as an interesting anthropological history of cultures as disparate from my western world as Vulcans or Klingons are from us. More importantly, and more to the point why I recommend you read Debt, unlike cultures created for science fiction, they are real, and that in itself is worth the read....more