Tag Archives: nonfiction

The Wave

I read a book a few years ago called The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey and I liked it a lot. Actually, I may have listened to it. I don’t do audiobooks that often any more – not sure why. I think it’s because I’ve become addicted (dork alert) to a few tech podcasts which occupy about all of my time on the treadmill, so I don’t have time for audiobooks.

Casey is a former competitive swimmer and writes a lot about the ocean. This book is specifically about big ocean waves. I’ve been to the North Shore of Oahu during January and it’s mesmerizing to sit on the beach and watch a pack of surfers trying to catch some of the best waves on the face of the earth. That day inspired me to buy a few surf movies, like Step into Liquid and Riding Giants. Great stuff. And yes, secretly I harbor dreams of taking surfing lessons some day. We’ll see about that. I wouldn’t say I’m consumed by big waves or anything, although I’m highly interested, so I bought The Wave.

Casey takes you through ocean waves from the perspective of three groups; boat people, scientists, and big wave surfers. Most of the book, I’d say two thirds, focuses on the surfer people. A big wave surfer is usually defined as someone who seeks out waves that cannot be ridden by just paddling into them because they’re moving too fast. To catch the waves, they have to be towed in on something like a jet ski, thus the often used name tow surfers.

The grandaddy of all tow surfers, and a main character in this book, is Laird Hamilton. Casey moved to Hawaii for at least a few years and spent a lot of time with Hamilton and his crew of surf buddies on Maui, which boasts one of the grandest big waves of all – Pe’ahi, or Jaws (just off the north central coast). Here is how Casey described her first encounter with Jaws:

The result is sixty-, seventy-, and eighty-foot waves, so beautifully shaped and symmetrical that they might have come from Poseidon’s modeling agency. The white feathering as the wave begins to crest, the spectrum of blues from rich lapis to pale turquoise, the roundness of its barrel, the billowing fields of whitewater when it comes crashing down—when you envision the cartoon-perfect giant wave, the gorgeous snarling beast of Japanese landscape paintings, what you are seeing is Jaws.

That’s Casey. It’s reminiscent of her descriptions of the sharks in The Devils Teeth. Her book puts you there for all of the big waves on the earth. I knew most of their names already because I’ve paid occasional attention since my trip to Hawaii in the early 2000s. There are only a handful or so of these big waves. Casey’s descriptions are well done, here is how she describes the others in the world:

Teahupoo (Tahiti):

I heard it before I saw it, the exploding curtain of glass that hammered onto the reef, the lip of a thirty-foot barrel hitting the earth like a liquid apocalypse. From a visual standpoint, Teahupoo was a looker. Rich lapis, deep emerald, pale aquamarine—its waters were the color of jewels, and its heavy white crest glittered in the sun. But even though the wave was gorgeous, it had the personality of a buzz saw. As Teahupoo reared up it drained the water from the reef, turning the impact zone—a lagoon that was mercilessly shallow to begin with—into a barely covered expanse of sharp coral, spiky sea urchins, and volcanic rock. This happened in seconds, in an area maybe three hundred feet long. I stared. I had never seen a wave behave like this one. “Yeah, it’s different,” Miller said, seeing my stunned expression. “Kind of like a shotgun unloading.”

Mavericks (Half Moon Bay, CA):

If, as the surfers claimed, every big wave has a distinct personality, Mavericks was an assassin. While other waves glimmer in the tropical sun, Mavericks seethes above a black chasm. Perched just north of Monterey Bay’s abyssal canyons, it’s surface is as impenetrable as one-way glass. The Aleutian swells thunder three thousand miles across the North Pacific, barging past the continental shelf until their progress is rudely halted by a thick rock ledge that juts offshore about a mile from Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay’s harbor. When it hits this shallower depth, the wave energy rears up, shrieking and screaming, forming the clawed hand that is Mavericks.

Todos Santos (Mexico):

By this point I had seen plenty of waves in the fifty foot range, and though they were truly impressive, until now I hadn’t felt the kind of awe that this wave inspired. Because, I now knew, when a wave grows beyond sixty feet tall, it does something different. As the wave stood up to its full towering height it hung there, poised on the brink, and instead of immediately beginning to break, the lip plunging over the face and expelling the energy, it advanced as a vertical wall. It was the ocean’s ultimate threat, and so the ocean let it hang out and show off and strut for an extra few beats, its crest feathered with white spray and its face booby-trapped with boils, bumps, and turbulent eddies. And as the wave hung in the sky, suspended between beauty and fury, those seconds stretched like elastic, like a terrible void into which all things could be swallowed up forever.

You can see how these adrenaline junkies get off on this stuff. Casey is an adrenaline junky herself and gets dragged along by Hamilton on a few big wave endeavors. She spends a lot of time just relating conversations told amongst the group of guys who hang with Hamilton in Maui. You’re there. It’s cool.

These big wave people have a lot of stuff in common with mountain climbers. Both endeavors are dangerous outdoor pursuits where the participants are at the mercy of nature. But at least with mountains you know they aren’t going anywhere. There is consistency as to time and place. Heck, if you’re climbing Everest, your only option is to head up there every year around May and June. But with big waves, you just don’t know when they’re going to happen. You have to monitor the global weather or stand on the shore at Pe’ahi and wait…and wait. Then when something big appears to be coming, you scramble to catch it. It’s a strange dynamic that makes for a lot of drama.

But the whole book is not about bronzed surfer dudes, there is a more scientific chunk. Casey’s intellectual conversations about freak waves of the earth with scientists and boaters comprises about another third of the book (time measurement is purely gut instinct). Recently, there seems to be a higher rate of these freakishly large waves and Casey is looking for some sort of explanation. She doesn’t come right out say that scientists blame it all on climate change, but I do sense that she feels the bulk of the scientific community attribute much of it to climate change. That’s not really the point though.

The point is that we are powerless when the oceans rear their ugly head in the form of a giant wave and not many other natural disasters can be as destructive. Casey captures this well.

The Black Swan

I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine from high school liked this book. That’s the only research I did before I bought it. This friend of mine is smart, damn smart. I’m not, which is a problem because the concepts behind The Black Swan are complicated. In fact, this is probably the most intellectually challenging book I’ve read in at least five years. I’ll try, through this note, to make sense of the concepts so I can apply them to my business and personal life.

This book advocates a method of thought that most people don’t engage in. It debunks Nobel Prize winners (like Myron Scholes), famous philosophers (like Plato), and bestselling authors (like Malcolm Gladwell). In fact, Taleb throws some highly conventional scientific and mathematical theories (like the Gaussian Bell Curve) under the proverbial bus. He then stomps on them and calls their mothers a bad name.

Taleb is an interesting and funny man, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He does not write in a linear manner, rather, he ruminates on pages. My small brain found an endless supply of knowledge nuggets but I continuously struggled with fitting it all together. That’s what this time is for. I’m reading through my Kindle notes trying to make sense of the monster and using, for the first time, Scrivener for the writing activity. I’m serious about this because I don’t want to have to do a whole re-reading to make sense of this beast.

So what is this Black Swan? Taleb outlines three traits of a Black Swan.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (Kindle ref. 375)

Taleb is interested, I think, in Black Swans for a few reasons. First of all, he’s a scholarly type and he just likes thinking about this stuff. Second, he has an ego and certainly takes great satisfaction in trying to prove other scholarly types wrong. Finally, I think he cares about the state of this world and desires to promote some change to make the world, in his view, a better place.

So what is, if any, this change he’s trying to promote? This quote from Taleb should give you some indication:

The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly large deviations: Why do we, scientists or nonscientists, hotshots or regular Joes, tend to see the pennies instead of the dollars? (Kindle ref. 397)

This blindness could lead not only to bad decisions, but to tragedy. To start remediating this blindness we must recognize the particular “state” we’re in with respect to randomness. Are we in Mediocristan or are we in Extremistan? These are Taleb’s proxies for certain states of the world that we must be able to recognize when we start down this road of analyzing Black swans.

In Mediocristan, you can use standard decision making techniques and apply some of the statistics you learned in college to survive and thrive. There are no Black Swans in Mediocristan. It’s a simple world, described by Taleb as such:

I can state the supreme law of Mediocristan as follows: When your sample is large, no single instance will significantly change the aggregate or the total. The largest observation will remain impressive, but eventually insignificant, to the sum. (Kindle ref. 1203)

Extremistan is a much different place.

In Extremistan, inequalities are such that one single observation can disproportionately impact the aggregate, or the total. (Kindle ref. 1223)

For the most part, Extremistan more closely approximates the world we live in today. It is the place where Black Swans happen. It is a world of stock market crashes, bank failures, and 9/11. If you don’t recognize when the situation calls for you to view things as if you’re in Extremistan, then you’re ripe for making bad decisions and giving inadequate explanations for all aspects of life, love, economics, and politics; you’re ripe for falling prey to the Black Swan.

However, it’s within our power to change our method of thought so we don’t imperil ourselves to Black Swans. Or better yet, so we can take advantage of Black Swans. To do so, in general, Taleb feels we must gain some erudition.

Let me insist that erudition is important to me. It signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others. Above all, an erudite can be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and such dissatisfaction is a wonderful shield against Platonicity, the simplifications of the five-minute manager, or the philistinism of the overspecialized scholar. Indeed, scholarship without erudition can lead to disaster (Kindle ref. 1507)

This erudition is necessary in ceding that the human mind makes some thought errors that could cause “Black Swan blindness.” Taleb embarks on a lengthy chapter on each of five thought errors.

  1. We focus on preselected segments of the seen and generalize from it to the unseen: the error of confirmation.
  2. We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patters: the narrative fallacy.
  3. We behave as if the Black Swan does not exist: human nature is not programmed for Black Swans.
  4. What we see is not necessarily all that is there. History hides Black Swans from us and gives us a mistaken idea about the odds of these events: this is the distortion of silent evidence.
  5. We “tunnel”: that is, we focus on a a few well-defined sources of uncertainty, on too specific a list of Black Swans (at the expense of others that do not easily come to mind). (Kindel ref. 1531)

When he gets through describing these, we’re half way through the book, kind of (there’s a postscript that’s pretty long, but pretty rich). So far, Taleb has shown us the pitfalls in our understanding of the world. He now endeavors to explain just how poorly we humans are at predicting. Taleb is fixated on prediction because, as he says, “Prediction, not narration, is the real test of our understanding of the world.”

Our understanding of the world is what’s at stake folks. Taleb is trying to help us figure out “what’s going on” around here. But we are intrinsically horrible at predicting, so what do we do? Taleb seems to be saying that corporate profits and book sales and blockbuster inventions are mostly lucky, so are we to just sit around and hope that we have more good luck than bad luck?

Well, Taleb’s reason for loving America may provide some insight:

In fact, the reason I felt immediately at home in America is precisely because American culture encourages the process of failure, unlike the cultures of Europe and Asia where failure is met with stigma and embarrassment. America’s specialty is to take these small risks for the rest of the world, which explains this country’s disproportionate share in innovations. (Kindle ref. 4499)

This culture allowed him to get rich using a “barbell strategy” or, as he puts it, “to be as hyperconservative and hyperaggressive as you can be instead of being mildly aggressive or conservative.” (Kindle loc. 4515) He advocates, for instance (as an alternative to medium risk investments), socking away 85-90% of your money in T-bills (extremely safe, for money you’re not willing to lose) and putting the rest in extremely speculative bets – taking some small speculative risks that result in more failures than successes, but exposing you to the potential for one or more huge payoffs (I’m paraphrasing from chapter 13, not sure how much is a direct quote).

He runs through implementation of this “barbell strategy” with 5 key recommendations. They’re great reading, but I won’t list them here. Buy the book! I’ve reread them multiple times and still think I’m going to have study them to understand how to implement them. He sums it up like this:

All these recommendations have one point in common: asymmetry. Put yourself in situations where favorable consequences are much larger than unfavorable ones.

Indeed, the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that.

Wow, we still have a large, complicated, but optional portion of the book to go. It’s evident that I’m going to have to do a second reading. Taleb starts digging deeply into methods to turn Black Swans into Gray Swans, the pitfalls of the Gaussian Bell Curve (which he calls GIF, Great Intellectual Fraud), and some heavy philosophy. It’s confusing and I should have stopped and rehashed things before I moved on. He states in the intro to this section that it can be skipped. And even if you press on, he forewarns you periodically about parts that can be skipped. He clearly cares about his readers.

I really liked Taleb’s tone, his humor, and his delivery. The guy is a genius and he wants nothing more than to sit around the rest of his life and think about Black Swans. He said early on that he wants to be “a flâneur, a professional meditator.” It would be a beautiful thing to have such a luxury.

And I loved his parting shot:

I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuff, or a rude reception. Recall my discussion in Chapter 8 on the difficulty in seeing the true odds of the events that run your own life. We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.

Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don’t be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth-remember that you are a Black Swan. And thank you for reading my book. (Kindle loc. 6192)

You are most welcome NNT, and I hope to be diving back in occasionally.

Where Men Win Glory

Krakauer is always a good read. I loved Into Thin Air and really loved Into the Wild. I passed on Under the Banner of Heaven and Eiger Dreams, but I should probably backtrack on those decisions. I liked this book so much that I’ve decided to try and read every word Krakauer has ever written.

You know the story I think. Pat Tillman was an all-star for the Arizona Cardinals who was on track to bask in NFL riches for years to come. But he cut short his career at around age 26 to join the Army, motivated by some sense of duty after witnessing the events of 9/11. He then gets killed in active duty about half way through his three year tour. He gets a hero’s burial, but while his death is being mourned the military is actively trying to figure out how to keep secret the fact that he died from friendly fire in hopes that they can mitigate the horrible publicity that they know will come when the truth is released. It’s sad, really sad.

The book really grabs you just before half way into it. I was reading along about Tillman’s football career in 2001 and all of a sudden he joins the Army in 2002. In the expanse of a few chapters the book transitions from talking about his life as an Arizona Cardinal to his time in boot camp. It’s an especially emotional few chapters because there are extensive passages from his own journal. He expresses sorrow and longing for the first few months of training, then great joy and satisfaction when his wife and best friend come for a 30 hour visit. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching I tell you.

It would be gut-wrenching and emotional reading about any new member of our armed forces who was missing their family and concerned about what was to come. But stories about those not-so-famous young people who join the military never get published. I wonder how representative Tillman’s experience was and how the average enlisted person feels about this story.

This Tillman story is a special case for a few reasons. First, he was famous before he went in thereby resulting in much publicity and a desire to tell the story. Second, he wrote a lot of it down. He liked to keep a journal so there is a fair amount of first person material to describe the events and his feelings towards them. And finally, his brother was by his side almost the whole time to corroborate the story. These things don’t make it any more painful for Tillman’s family than it would be for any family who loses a loved one to war (especially if there’s a cover-up), but it does provide momentum to tell the story.

Besides the sympathy that you feel for the Tillman family, there is an equal and opposite feeling of anger toward the people who tried to cover this up. It felt like a grave injustice was done to the Tillman family, and it was perpetrated by just about every level of the Army and reached into the highest levels of the Bush administration. That is, if Krakauer is being completely truthful with us and telling the story in an unbiased manner. But in the absence of a book telling the Army’s or the Bush Administration’s side of the story, I’m probably going with Krakauer’s version. I should do some research on that.

Regardless, I’m taking a somewhat philosophical point from this book. Let me see if I can make sense of my thoughts. Here goes: there are only a few people in the world that will do right by you; your spouse, your family, and your closest friends. I’m talking five, ten, maybe twenty people depending on the size of your family. The other few billion people on earth don’t give a damn about you. In fact, a large chunk of those other few billion people either want to harm you or will relish any harm done to you. What makes this story so inspirational is that Pat Tillman tried to buck this.

He did right by a much larger portion of humanity than did right by him. He had a soft sport for the under served, was loyal to a fault, and was immune to greed. I think his theory was that if you just do right by the people that do right by you, you aren’t really making the world a better place, you’re only breaking even. So he treated groups like the Arizona Cardinals, the Army, and the United States of America as a few groups that he did right by. And the saddest fact of this whole story is that those groups did not reciprocate. Instead, they cheapened his work product, spread his brains all over a mountain in Afghanistan, and perpetrated lies and half-truths about his death for years. WTF? It’s a sad commentary on humanity.

Pat Tillman passed up a $9.6 million contract to stay with the Cardinals at the league minimum ($512,000) because he was loyal to the team who took a chance on him. They kept him at the league minimum and he didn’t care; he wasn’t greedy. He was famous when he went into the Army but asked for no favors. He wouldn’t even entertain the thought of participating in any Army marketing schemes involving him because he didn’t want the appearance of favoritism. He was a guy who did the right thing. But this did not prevent the guys in his own battalion from concealing the truth from his family. Guys he worked with every day, fellow military men who went to war next to him, didn’t step up and do the right thing. Tillman’s small circle of family and close friends did the right thing. They went to bat for him to find the truth after he died.

If Tillman had survived and a member of his battalion was killed by friendly fire, I’m betting Tillman would have stood up and told the truth. But hindsight is 20/20 right? Who knows. You can’t deny that the nature of Tillman was that he did right by people outside of his small circle of family and friends.

I hope I have the fortitude to expand my “circle of right,” but I fear I’ve failed in this endeavor. I’ve failed to do the right thing for much more of humanity than will do the right thing for me. I’ve failed to stand up for strangers, acquaintances, and groups I disagree with. I’ve failed to be first in line to help regardless of my connection to the people or the problem. Pat Tillman raised the bar in this regard. He was wired differently man.

So where does that leave me? What should I, as an American, be doing to help my country? What should I, as a human being, be doing to help humanity? Pat Tillman asked a similar question and arrived at the idea of serving in the military. He looked at his life and saw how meaningless pro football was and decided to pursue something more meaningful. So what is my moral obligation to finding some higher level of meaning? Is it something as straightforward as just helping people who have less than me? That seems to set the bar pretty low.

Helping people who have less than me seems like it should just get me in the door, but not even in the same door that Tillman got to take. This idea of finding meaning permeated the very fiber of Tillman’s being. Every decision he made had a higher purpose. I’m not saying they were always the right decisions. He certainly hurt loved ones with his decisions. In one sense, his selfishness in pursuit of his own quest for meaning hurt those he loved most. But his intent was noble, so does that make it alright? His wife seems to have come to terms with it.

Anyway, I think the dude was cool. Here are some of Krakauer’s insights into Tillman that I found interesting:

He enjoyed almost everything about getting drunk, in fact: the sound of the Guinness going blub-blub-blub into the glass; the shedding of cares; the heightened sense of interpersonal connection; the swelling euphoria; the way it caused the music to bore a hole through one’s skull; the giddy, fleeting glimpse it seemed to provide into the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. When Pat was lit, recalls Alex, “he’d throw his head back, his eyes would turn into these little slits, and he’d let loose with this booming laugh.

And this:

Although imbibing was certainly one of Tillman’s great pleasures, his favorite beverage wasn’t alcoholic. It was coffee, which ran through his life like the Ganges runs through India, lending commonality to disparate experiences and far-flung points of the compass. And although Pat delighted in the rituals associated with coffee—grinding the beans, mashing down the plunger on a French press, perusing the menu at espresso stands—the coffee itself was really just a lubricant, a catalyst, a means to a particular end, which was stimulating conversation.

And this about journaling stuff:

Explaining his reasons for journaling (something he had never done during previous football seasons), he added, “1) This is a pivotal year for me and by taking the time to put down my thoughts I might just help myself. 2) I think in the future it will be a good thing to have, both to learn from and laugh at. 3) After keeping my journal in Europe, I learned to enjoy it. I realize it’s no good but it’s still fun to put your thoughts together. … Practice starts tomorrow.”

And about reading:

Although Pat spoke self-deprecatingly about his intelligence, and claimed that his academic success in college came from hard work rather than brainpower, his intellectual curiosity was boundless, and he was a compulsive reader who never went anywhere without a book.

This sounds like the kind of guy I want to hang out with. Krakauer certainly feels the same way about Tillman and then some. I wondered at times if Krakauer was truly unbiased during this book. Krakauer does have an axe to grind with our foreign policy regarding Afghanistan. Beware that there is a lot of hardcore political stuff on Afghanistan and how American foreign policy has been botched there.

Great story. It’s the book that sparked the most emotion in me so far this year. Maybe the best book thus far. I’ll start thinking about that.

Called Out of Darkness

For some reason, this book grabbed me. I’ve never read any Anne Rice nor seen an Anne Rice movie, and I’m completely unfamiliar with her biography. But the idea of a Catholic leaving the church for an extended period of time then finding her way back to the church late in life seemed interesting. Also, if you recall, one of my goals this year was to do more exploration into my faith (or lack thereof).

So here we are, exploring Catholicism. I can confidently say that my exploration will pale in comparison to Rice’s exploration, which she pursued doggedly beginning in 1998 when she came back to the church after being an atheist for most of her adult life.

Rice was born in 1941 in New Orleans and raised Catholic. Some time in her early college years (around 1960) she quit believing in God. She remained an atheist for the next 38 years until 1998 after moving back to New Orleans and reconnecting with the Catholic church. Today, at nearly 70, she remains a devout Catholic and has devoted her life to Christian literature.

It’s fascinating stuff man. Check out her website and her Facebook page, it’s interesting reading. She’s really active on Facebook and posts daily. She also does a bunch of Amazon reviews. The woman has a lot of stuff going on.

Let me give some highlights. In grade school and high school, Catholicism was the only world she knew. Here is how she put it:

An extremely important aspect of all my schooling was this: we lived and breathed our religion and our religion was interesting, and vast, and immensely satisfying, and we had an unshakable sense of the “goodness” of Catholic education, and we were also aware of something else. There was no better all-around education to be had in other schools. (Kindle loc. 934-936)

However, after only a short time in college, this wonderment with religion just stopped. I mean it just stopped, for 38 years. She walks through the transformation in detail, here are her thoughts after starting college:

I was around students who knew much more of contemporary literature than I did, and who discussed subjects I’d never thought to discuss. They were hungry for learning, and there was no barrier to their learning. And they were good and wholesome people. My faith began to crack apart. All around me I saw not only interesting people, but essentially good people, people with ethics, direction, goals, values—and these people weren’t Catholic. (Kindle loc. 1563-1567)

This prompts her to sort through things. She starts to question her faith and even seeks counseling from a local Catholic priest near her college in Texas. The actual day that she walked away from Catholicism occurs in a conversation with this priest while she is sorting through all of these questions. The priest says to her:

“Oh well, if you were brought up like that, Anne, you’ll never be happy outside the Catholic Church. You’ll find nothing but misery outside the Catholic Church. For a Catholic like you, there is no life outside the Catholic Church.” He meant well when he said this. He was speaking, I think, from his experience with people. The year was probably 1960. I was eighteen going on nineteen, and, well, it was understandable what he said. But when he said it, something in me revolted. I didn’t argue with him. But I was no longer a Catholic when I left the room. (Kindle loc. 1586-91)

So this event kicked off 38 years of atheism. Be sure, Rice did not go into this lightly and she wrestled with things until she was exhausted. The church was different in 1960 and I can certainly understand how an independent, rebellious young woman would question her church. Plus, her high school sweetheart was not even remotely religious.

Stan Rice, whom I married in 1961, was one of the most conscientious people I’d ever met. He was positively driven by conscience and thought in terms of harsh absolutes. His life was devoted to poetry and, later, to painting; art for him had replaced any religion that he ever had. He scoffed at the idea of a personal God, and scoffed at all religion in general. He did more than scoff. He felt it was stupid, vain, false, and possibly he thought it was evil. I’m not sure on that. (Kindle loc. 1668-71)

Stan Rice died of cancer in 2002.

Her 38 years of atheism are not the focus of this book. She talks about them some, but mostly to tie them into the exit from and re-entry into Catholicism.

I can’t recall why she moved back to New Orleans in the 1990s. But upon her return she was in an atmosphere with family and friends who were mostly Catholics. She notices this:

To my amazement, these churchgoing people completely embraced Stan and Christopher and me. They didn’t question my disconnection from Catholicism. They said nothing about the transgressive books I’d written. They simply welcomed us into their homes and into their arms.
This was as shocking as it was wonderful. The Catholics of my time had been bound to shun people who left the faith. Indeed one reason I stayed clear of all Catholics for three decades was that I expected to be rejected and shunned. (Kindle loc. 1996-2000)

So her belief in atheism starts to wain:

AS I’VE EXPLAINED EARLIER, my faith in atheism was cracking. I went through the motions of being a conscientious atheist, trying to live without religion, but in my heart of hearts, I was losing faith in the “nothingness,” losing faith in “the absurd.” Understand, we were living contentedly in New Orleans, among secular and Catholic friends and family. There was no pressure from anyone to do anything about this issue, this matter of faith. (Kindle loc. 2240-2244)

Then, one day in 1998, she goes back to church.

I remember vaguely that I was sitting at my desk in a dreadfully cluttered office, hemmed in on all sides by rows and stacks of books, and that I had little sense of anything but the desire to surrender to that overwhelming love. I knew that the German church of my childhood, St. Mary’s Assumption, was perhaps six blocks away from where I was sitting. And perhaps I remembered my mother’s words of decades ago. “He is on that altar. Get up and go.” I know now when I think of those moments in 1998, I hear her voice. I see her dimly, rousing us, telling us to get up and get dressed and “go to Mass.” What confounded me and silenced me in 1998 was that I believed that what she’d said so many years ago was precisely the truth. He was in that church. He was on that altar. And I wanted to go to Him, and the impelling emotion was love. (Kindle loc. 2363-70)

She still had a lot of work to do on the path back and she goes through this for the last third of the book, which I found most interesting. She enthusiastically throws herself back into studying her religion and engages in some serious Bible study.

What struck me most is how improbable it was that this woman would embrace Catholicism again. She just came off almost four decades of atheism living amongst academics and artists. The church is not very accepting of her gay son Christopher (at one point she asks, “How was I to become a card-carrying member of a church that condemned my gay son?” loc.2415). She married a man who never believed in God. And she strongly believes in secular humanist values. But the last third of the book explains it well, it’s very genuine and heartfelt and I understand better now.

So here she is, a Catholic. And she is committed to loving others and finding God in all people. Here is how she puts it:

I am a baby Christian when it comes to loving. I am just learning. So far were my daily thoughts from loving people that I have a lifelong vocation now before me in learning how to find Christ in every single person whom I meet. Again and again, I fail because of temper and pride. I fail because it is so easy to judge someone else rather than love that person. And I fail because I cannot execute the simplest operations—answering an angry e-mail, for instance—in pure love. (Kindle loc. 2912-2915)

Wow. That’s raising the bar. That’s something to shoot for.

There’s more in this book. These are just some excerpts that I found interesting. Anybody exploring their faith or digging into Christianity should grab this book. It has a lot more than just the Catholic perspective.

Maximum City

Mehta grew up in Mumbai but he left after his formative years for the US (New York City, mostly, for 20 years). This book documents a homecoming of sorts. He brings his wife and two young kids back to Mumbai to live for a few years and documents his personal experiences. It’s deeper though than a personal story; he picks a few (semi) famous people and describes their lives in an effort to give the reader a better description of what Mumbai is really like.

Let me first throw out a caveat: I have not dug into the veracity of any of this stuff. Mehta spends time with murderers, gang leaders, strippers, cops, rich people, poor people, friends, foes; you name it. Many of whom he does not paint in a very positive light. In many cases he disguised his intentions. In many cases he was very up front. In all cases, he had access. Some of it is pretty unbelievable. But I’m assuming it was vetted properly because the book was up for a Pulitzer in 2005. Call me crazy.

It’s clear that Mehta has many, many wonderful memories of growing up in Mumbai. Those memories of a kid in the 1970’s give way to the perspective of a guy in his late thirties around the turn of the millennium. Who better to give you a feeling for the place? Mehta shows his Indian home great love, but it’s often tough love, so he doesn’t sugar-coat anything. I loved the book and it makes me want to find a similar style of book for Chicago.

It’s basically a book full of stories about people in Mumbai. He starts out with the story of his move back. He then moves on to a large section on Hindu and Muslim gangs, the police force trying to keep them in check, and the culture of corruption in Mumbai. He lightens things up and transitions to entertainment, discussing local food, strip clubs/dance bars, and Bollywood. He returns to his personal story and recounts his high school class reunion. Then he gives us the point of view of someone from a rural area coming to the big city to pursue their dreams followed by an account of a whole family becoming Jain monks. Finally, he finishes up with some more personal reflection.

They are all great stories. Early on I was riveted by the stories of the 1992-93 riots told to Mehta by people who were there. He even got to meet Bal Thackeray; Mehta has this thought upon shaking the man’s hand:

Then I shake the hand of the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in. (pg 97)

That’s what I mean by access and it also highlights the emotional attachment Mehta has to his subject matter.

The Hindu and Muslim strife in Mumbai seems palpable, at least the way Mehta describes it, exacerbated by overcrowding, poverty, and general corruption. Talk about overcrowding:

The Greater Bombay region has an annual deficit of 45,000 houses a year. … Thus these 45,000 households every year add to the ranks of the slums. … The slum population doubles every decade. (pg 117)

Then a little further along:

Prahlad Kakkar, an ad filmmaker, has made a film called Bumbay, a film about shitting in the metropolis. … “Half the population doesn’t have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside. That’s five million people…” (pg 127)

And about the gangs:

The gangs flourish because they form a parallel justice system in a country with the world’s largest backlog of court cases. Indicative of this judicial paralysis is the fact that as of 2003, a decade after the Bombay blasts, the trial of the plotters is still dragging on. (pg 144)

But it’s not all bad:

Bombay is still a city where I can travel pretty much anywhere at all hours of the day or night. Muggings are virtually unknown. Women aren’t molested like they are in Delhi. …

Bombay’s menace is not street crime. It’s bigger and more organized than that. (pg 145)

I guess you have to take the good with the bad. I think they just get used to it because they don’t have any choice.

The judge/population ratio in the United States is 107 judges per million people; in India it is 13 judges per million. Forty percent of the judgeships in the Bombay High Court are vacant; each judge has over three thousand cases pending. (pg 176)

So you do what you gotta do, according to Mehta:

You have to break the law to survive. I break the law often and casually. I dislike giving bribes, I dislike buying movie tickets in the black. But since the legal option is so ridiculously arduous – in getting a driver’s license, in buying a movie ticket – I take the easy way out. (pg 177)

Despite this, his heart is clearly in India. About half way through he talks about getting things figured out.

The kids stop getting sick all the time, and when they do we don’t worry so much. All the kids in Bombay are sick much of the time. It is the bad air, the bad water, the bad food – and the country still has 1 billion people. One billion thin, often sickly, but alive people, some of them magnificently alive. (pg 255)

I love that passage.

Shortly after this passage he dives into a few hundred pages on the club scene and forges and friendship with a bar dancer (not really a stripper). Here is how he starts things off:

I started going to beer bars because I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure out why men would want to spend colossal amounts of money there. On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn’t have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street. (pg 269)

Hmm. Interesting. He’s still just a journalist though and stays detached, he says about his new friend:

… I haven’t told her about my wife and children. I remember that Monalisa is still under the protection of the don’s grandson. She is of the shadow world; I keep my family insulated from such people. Hit men, dancing girls, rioters: As far as they are concerned, I live alone in the apartment in Elco, which is actually my office. If there is a problem later, if they decide to take a violent dislike to me or what I write about them, it is only me they can hurt. (pg 295)

Then he starts talking Bollywood, a term that they hate in India.

India is one of the few territories in which Hollywood has been unable to make more than a dent; Hollywood films make up barely 5 percent of the country’s market. (pg 349)

I tell ya, it’s a different movie-going experience:

An Indian cinema hall is never the chamber of mass unconsciousness it is in the West. For one thing, you can never tell anyone to shut up. Everyone talks at will, often keeping up a running dialogue with the characters. If a god appears onscreen, people might throw coins or prostrate themselves in the aisles. Babies howl; during a song, a quarter of the audience might get up and procure refreshment in the lobby. Complex dialogue doesn’t work, because most of the time the audience doesn’t hear it. … (pg 366)

Fascinating, huh?

This book gives me a new perspective on the city. You really do need to adjust and pay more attention to your fellow man. We’re all packed into these confined spaces together so let’s just make the best of it. That’s what they’ve figured out in India. That’s why they thrive everywhere, because they can adapt:

Bombay is a fast-paced, even hectic city, but it is not, in the end, a competitive city.

Anyone who has a “reservation” on an Indian train is familiar with this word: Adjust. You might be sitting there on your seat, the prescribed three people along it, and a fourth and a fifth person will loom over you and say, “Psst…Adjust.” You move over. You adjust. (pg 491)

What a lesson, a great lesson for all of us. Most people in Bombay live in one room. According to Mehta, that’s the same room for “sleeping, cooking, eating.” You just make due. You make due not only for the people you love, by letting your extended family stay for months in your smallish place, but for your fellow man on the bus or train.

There’s a vibrancy in the city that I think Mehta sometimes doesn’t feel in the US. It’s like you have to try so hard to retain your individuality within the hugeness of at all, that you become an expert at being an individual.

The battle is Man against the Metropolis, which is only the infinite extension of Man and the demon against which he must constantly strive to establish himself or be annihilated. A city is an agglomeration of individual dreams, a mass dream of the crowd. In order for the dream life of a city to stay vital, each individual dream has to stay vital. (pg 539)

I’m inspired by Mehta, by India, and by the people of Mumbai. This book is a lot deeper than the soundbites I’ve chosen above. Mehta doesn’t gloss over stories or just give informed summaries, he throws his heart and soul at it and let’s it rip. I think I have to see Slumdog Millionaire now.

Create Your Own Economy

This book grabbed me when I read the synopsis, but I can’t remember where I saw it. I usually remember stuff like that. Oh well. This little article from Fast Company sums up some of this guy’s views. It’s interesting to me, this idea of the web actually adding value to our lives and to the economy in some form.

I’m a big fan of the web. I have an above average level of involvement in it, but I don’t feel that it’s an unhealthy level of involvement. Some of my most active involvement with the web is via this book blog and with my Flickr account. This blog really enhances my enjoyment of reading, for sure. And organizing all of my 6,700 photos (and counting) on Flickr enhances and will continue to enhance all of the memories captured by the pictures I’ve taken. What I’m doing, according to Cowen, is organizing all of the stories of my life. This mental ordering is not that weird (I’m comforted).

I’m really just doing it for my own sake. Not many people read this blog and not that many people ever check out my golf pix and such on my Flickr account. It may seem strange to a lot of people, this need to organize things into lists, with tags, and often with commentary on the whats and wherefores of each experience. I’m just compelled to do it. I can’t really give much more of an explanation than that, but Cowen has helped me sort things out.

It’s kind of a rambling book if you ask me. At least that’s how I felt as I read it. And I’ve been putting off writing about it because I’m struggling to piece it all together. Of course, I could just be dumb, but I’m finding it difficult to encapsulate it in a few sentences. Here it goes.

Early on, Cowen says this:

Today culture is not just about buying and selling straightforward commodities such as books or compact discs. Each day more fun, more enjoyment, more social connection, and indeed more contemplation is produced on Facebook, blogs, YouTube, iPods, eBay, Flickr, Wikipedia, and Amazon.com—among other services—than had been imagined twenty or even ten years ago. No matter what the medium, much of the actual value today comes from readers, viewers, students, and consumers, as an “add-on” to what they are sent by corporations. More and more, “production”—that word my fellow economists have been working over for generations—has become interior to the human mind rather than set on a factory floor. Even when a major media corporation produces the pixels, viewers and listeners use their mental ordering to create the meaning and the interpretations, and that is where most of the value lies.

This really speaks to me. I think about my consumption of books. I read fewer books than I could if I didn’t document them in such a detailed manner, but I enjoy them on a much deeper level because I do so. I’ve made reading richer and more fulfilling for me, and more economical in a certain sense (I don’t have to buy as many books). Or as Cowen says:

You have enhanced the meaning and the importance of the small cultural bits at your disposal and thus you want to grab more of them and organize more of them, and you are willing to work hard at that task, even if it means you sometimes feel harried.

Yeah, that’s right. Now some may differ that all of this reading or playing golf (another thing I like to sort, list and categorize) is worthy of being called “cultural bits.” How much culture is there in playing the local muni course or reading “Q” is for Quarry? To you, maybe not much. You may think I should be studying Nighthawks at the Art Institute or spending the day on a Frank Lloyd Wright tour. Well, okay. But, those aren’t for everybody. Can’t simple, everyday pursuits be deemed cultural, even if they don’t line up with your definition? Or as Cowen puts it:

In short, our contemporary culture has become more like marriage in the sense that we are trading in some peak experiences for a better daily state of mind. Culture has in some ways become uglier because that is how the self-assembly of small bits looks to the outside observer. But when it comes to the interior dimension, contemporary culture has become happier and more satisfying. And, ultimately, it has become nobler as well and more appreciative of the big-picture virtues of human life.

Interesting that he compares it to marriage, and I think he’s married. I’m not sure about the analogy, but this idea of being involved daily in simple cultural pursuits versus occasionally pursuing a peak experience may make the world travelers and art historians cringe. But it’s highly relevant in this day and age and represents how many people consume cultural pursuits right now.

Anyway, as the book goes on he develops these ideas by exploring the advanced mental ordering and cognitive skills of people with autism. He lauds their abilities as infovores and highlights how we can learn from them. I found this example interesting:

I have noticed that self-aware autistics are especially likely to be cosmopolitans in their thinking. That is, they tend to attach weaker moral importance to the boundaries of the nation state than do most other people.

Much of this cosmopolitan tendency is rooted in experience rather than cognition. Most autistics have lots of experience with being the “out group” when it comes to “in vs. out” confrontations or social settings. That makes them naturally suspicious of political persecutions, extreme forms of patriotism, and groupthink.

That’s a pretty cool way to look at things, and one of many ideas Cowen has to help us better our lives by borrowing from autistics. Autistics are expert at “ordering knowledge in preferred areas and perceiving small bits of information in perceived areas.” You can see how these skills could be valuable today as we are confronted with a huge amount of information at our fingertips. Figuring out how to situate ourselves so we are comfortable with what and how much we are consuming can be easier if we are game for experimenting with some of Cowen’s ideas.

Overall, for me, Cowen’s most important point is that we should increase our respect for neurodiversity. He says:

In the meantime, awareness of human neurodiversity helps us see the diversity of beauty in modern society, even if we cannot perceive all of those beauties. As cultural production becomes more diverse, more and more art forms will be directed at pleasing people with unusual neurologies. More and more of the aesthetic beauty of the world will be hidden to most observers, or at least those who don’t invest in learning. The aesthetic lushness of the world will be increasingly distributed into baroque nooks and crannies, in a manner that would honor a Borges short story.

I’m continually amazed at the range of human skills, talents, attitudes, etc… I’ll never be able to figure out what makes certain people tick, which is alright. I liked this book so I think I’ll subscribe to a blog he contributes to regularly, Marginal Revolution, just to see what else this dude has to say.

More Than Just Race

When it was announced that Obama would receive an honorary degree and give the graduation speech at Notre Dame, some heated discourse ensued. I was asked early on by someone, “Why is your university so racist?” I was a little taken aback by this question. The backlash from the Catholic Church did not surprise me and I was ready to defend my university against the accusation that we were no longer a Catholic university. But the accusation that my university was racist made me mad, which was frustrating because I didn’t have any defense readily available besides anecdotal evidence from my experiences there.

I guess I could have rooted around in admission stats and looked at minority representation on the board, but stats may not make any difference to many asking the question. It got me thinking, what would constitute a racist university?

Early on in this book, Wilson describes racism as such:

At its core, racism is an ideology of racial domination with two key features: (1) beliefs that one race is either biologically or culturally inferior to another and (2) the use of such beliefs to rationalize or prescribe the way that the “inferior” race should be treated in this society, as well as to explain its social position as a group and its collective accomplishments.

That’s quite a hurdle put up by Wilson. To be a racist, it’s not enough to just think that one race is inferior to another, but you have to take the next step and act on that belief by either taking some action to exclude that “inferior” race from some aspect of society or use that belief to explain the “inferior” race’s position in society.

I don’t feel that Notre Dame complies with any part of this definition. It’s not a racist university and I hold out as examples Father Hesburgh standing hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King and Father Jenkins defying much negative sentiment to confer an honorary degree on Obama.

I’m not going to drag this out much more because I think it will water down Wilson’s point. Wilson probably would agree that Notre Dame is not a racist university, but I think his bigger point starts out with the point that there are certain “structural forces” that don’t reflect any explicit racial bias but continue to contribute to racial inequality. He says these subtle, structural forces need to be considered, along with explicit racism and certain cultural factors, when explaining racial inequality. Here is how Wilson starts to frame it:

Conservatives tend to emphasize cultural factors, while liberals pay more attention to structural conditions, with most of the attention devoted to racialist structural factors such as discrimination and segregation. I hope in this discussion, however, to encourage the development of a framework for understanding the formation and maintenance of racial inequality and racial group outcomes that integrates cultural factors with two types of structural forces: those that directly reflect explicit racial bias and those that do not.

And a little further on, he expands on this to set the table for his main point, which links structural issues and cultural issues to explain racial inequality today:

If social scientists are to effectively and comprehensively explain the experiences and social outcomes of inner-city residents to the larger public, they must consider not only how explicit racial structural forces directly contribute to inequality and concentrated poverty, but also how political actions and impersonal economic forces indirectly affect life in the inner city. Also important are the effects of national racial beliefs and cultural constraints that have emerged from years of racial isolation and chronic economic subordination.

This gets heavier as Wilson digs into the social science of it, but it never gets too scientific so I never lost focus. At times it reads like a dissertation rather than a book, but this is a good thing because it’s complicated stuff, so Wilson’s structured format, previews, and reviews  are helpful to keep it all straight. I hope I can do Wilson’s views justice; I apologize in advance for errors, omissions, and gross summarizing.

To reiterate, he says that racial inequality and the discussion thereof should focus on three things in varying degrees:

  1. Explicit/direct structural forces (exclusionary laws, racial profiling, segregation, discriminatory practices)
  2. Political/economic/impersonal structural forces (declining federal support for inner cities, globalization, transportation trends, shifts to the service economy, elimination of low-skilled labor in certain industries)
  3. Cultural forces (as Wilson puts it, “shared outlooks and modes of behavior”)

Wilson explores these further by devoting a chapter to three specific areas where the debate about racial inequality is the hottest: “changes in the inner-city ghetto, the predicament of low-skilled black males, and the weakening of the black family.” He looks at each through the lens of all three forces and sites countless studies and papers, all with the goal of giving us a new framework to think about racial inequality.

What did I learn? What was most enlightening?

Well, I have a new appreciation for how racially segregated Chicago was, how it continues today, and how it will probably continue for a long time. Take for instance this item about how something as innocuous as an expressway can have long and lasting effects on racial inequality:

In any case, the freeways had a devastating impact on the neighborhoods of black Americans. These developments not only spurred relocation from the cities to the suburbs among better-off residents, but the freeways themselves “created barriers between the sections of the cities, walling off poor and minority neighborhoods from central business districts.”(4) For instance, a number of studies revealed how Richard J. Daley, the former mayor of Chicago, used the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to route expressways through impoverished African American neighborhoods, resulting in even greater segregation and isolation. (5) A lasting legacy of that policy is the fourteen-lane Dan Ryan Expressway, which created a barrier between black and white neighborhoods. (6)

Stuff like this can’t be undone. They are undoing “the projects” (high-rise buildings clustered together to house lower income families) here in Chicago, which are another legacy of the first Mayor Daley, but the structural effects of them won’t be rectified for a long time.

Also, I have a new appreciation for Obama’s view on race. Wilson references Obama’s March 18, 2008 race speech with great reverence. Obama is clear in that speech about how important it is to keep addressing structural forces with investment, enforcement, and education. But Wilson especially likes the speech because of Obama’s melding of structural and cultural factors, Wilson says:

… Obama did not restrict his speech to addressing structural inequities; he also focused on problematic cultural and behavioral responses to these inequities, including a cycle of violence among black men and a “legacy of defeat” that has been passed on to future generations. And he urged those in the African American community to take full responsibility for their lives by demanding more from their fathers, and by spending more time with their children “reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

It’s this all-encompassing frame that Wilson likes. We can’t fix one aspect of the problem and expect everything to be alright. We have to fix it all and we all have to pitch in.

And finally, this book ties in nicely with my recent exploration of politics, of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in this country, and the political issues wrapped up in this growing disparity. I think I need to take a break from these heavy topics.

My stint  started with The Given Day, was supplemented by Conscience of a Liberal, vetted and tested a little by Liberty and Tyranny, and even put in a different light by Netherland. Now I need to step away from the books and just think because so many problems, solutions, and differing views are running through my head that I can’t get them organized. Many aspects of liberal vs conservative, Democrat vs Republican, construct vs interpretation, and Statist vs Federalist are all wrapped in the issue of income equality. My mostly quantitative, linear brain is having trouble assimilating.

So friends, when I start postulating out loud, just know that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just trying to figure it all out.

Well, where does this leave me on the question of whether my university is racist or not, whether it’s losing its Catholic identity or not, or whether it even matters? I really don’t care, actually. When religion is introduced into politics, you can’t reach any common ground and probably can’t even sway the opinions of moderates. Some laypeople in the Catholic Church feel that if a one were to prepare a list of issues to be considered when deciding who to vote for, preserving life in the womb should be more important than achieving racial (and income) equality. Others in the church feel differently. I figure that at least half of Catholics rank at least one issue higher than preserving life in the womb (I think around 53% of Catholics voted for Obama).

The argument will go on for friggin’ ever. One thing is for sure, we all need to pay attention.

Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto

I said after finishing The Conscience of a Liberal, if you recall, that I’m committed to getting the other side of the story. So that brought me to this book by Mark Levin – radio personality, lawyer, and politician. I figured that Levin’s manifesto would be comparable to Krugman’s conscience, just from another standpoint. And it was. To say it was diametrically opposed, as you would guess, is not an overstatement.

But the purpose of this is not to compare and contrast. I’ll do a little, but I think I’ll save most of that for a separate post. This is just to run down what Levin’s book is about, kind of like I did with Krugman. I’m just trying to represent Levin’s views in an unbiased manner, which is what I think I did with Krugman. You tell me, do you detect bias?

Levin thinks that the idea of equality from a Statist’s (that is his term for a Modern Liberal) view is fundamentally wrong; that it imposes tyranny on the individual and is a Utopian myth that can never be achieved. He uses the New Deal as an example of poor federal regulation that “breached the Constitution’s firewalls” and started our society’s decline into a tyrannical state that “rejects the Founders’ idea of the dignity of the individual.” Here’s a snippet from Chapter 1:

In the midst stands the individual, who was a predominate focus of the Founders. When living freely and pursuing his own legitimate interests, the individual displays qualities that are antithetical to the Statist’s—initiative, self-reliance, and independence. As the Statist is building a culture of conformity and dependency, where the ideal citizen takes on dronelike qualities in service to the state, the individual must be drained of uniqueness and self-worth, and deterred from independent thought or behavior. This is achieved through varying methods of economic punishment and political suppression.

In chapters one and two he tears down the New Deal and lays out his case that the Statists, assisted by the international community, academia, and Hollywood, are promoting ideals that are bad for America. He goes into detail in the next eight chapters; devoting each chapter to a broad area of concern. I’ll go through those eight chapters in a little detail.

Faith and Founding

Levin sounds like a religious man, but I’m not sure which religion. He says this:

… It is Natural Law, divined by God and discoverable by reason, that prescribes the inalienability of the most fundamental and eternal human rights—rights that are not conferred on man by man and, therefore, cannot legitimately be denied to man by man.

He feels that the Statist does not hold this same view. That the Statist’s view that we will sink into a theocracy is unfounded. He feels that the Statist’s desire to make laws that prohibit prayer in public shools or eliminate religious displays on municipal buildings are a form of tyranny. He feels that the courts promote this tyranny. He says:

The American courts sit today as supreme secular councils, which, like Islam’s supreme religious councils, dictate all manner of approved behavior respecting religion. …

God-given rights are part of the “founding justification” for this country and Levin, it appears, will resist the Statist’s desire to pull God out of public schools and government.

The Constitution

Levin does not believe that the Constitution is a “living and breathing” document and feels that Roosevelt mangled the Constitution when he created the New Deal. The rights resulting from the New Deal are some of Levin’s favorite targets and he feels that the federal intervention on health care, farm reform, labor laws, unemployment, education, etc… were unconstitutional. Referring to these “rights” he says:

… These are not rights. They are the Statist’s false promises of utopianism, which the Statist uses to justify all trespasses on the individual’s private property.

Federalism

The 10th Amendment says:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Levin discusses just how important this is for our country and how Statists have subsequently torn it down to the detriment of society. The largest detriment being this massive “administrative state” put in place that he feels is a huge burden to this country.

He uses the rest of the chapter to explain why federalism was NOT responsible for slavery and how the civil rights acts of the 60’s and their reliance on the Fourteenth Amendment are examples of the federal government overstepping their bounds. This quote about what the “modern conservative” feels sums up his point:

For example, he accepts today, as certain Conservatives may not have yesterday, that the civil rights acts of the 1960s, while excessive in their application in some respects (such as imposing overly broad speech and behavior codes on universities, secular goals on religious institutions, and a wide range of employment and housing restrictions, which ultimately embrace an authoritarian approach that threatens civil liberties), were the proper exercise of federal statutory authority under the Fourteenth Amendment to address intransigent state racism against African-Americans.

The Free Market

Levin believes in the free market; it “promotes self-worth, self-sufficiency, shared values, and honest dealings, which enhance the individual, the family, and the community.” He believes that most of our taxes are a form of tyranny, that they destroy the free market, and that government should be allowed to tax only to gain enough revenue to “to fund those activities that the Constitution authorizes and no others.” Anything above this is tyranny, which Levin equates to government stealing from its constituents:

The Statist seeks to impose on individuals a governmental and economic structure that is contrary to human nature. He attempts to control the individual by subverting his spirit and punishing his natural impulses. For example, the parent teaches the child that stealing is wrong. Faith also teaches it is immoral: “Thou shalt not steal.” Laws, in turn, make it a crime to steal. One can only imagine the complete breakdown of the civil society that would result if stealing were an acceptable practice. For the Statist, however, thievery by government is a virtue in that it is said to be compelled for the “public good” or in the “public interest.”

We already knows that he feels that the New Deal was unconstitutional. He also feels that New Deal style of governmental regulation extended the Great Depression and that the current stimulus supplied by our government will delay our recovery from this current economic situation.

The reason stimulus plans of this sort do not work is a fundamental reality of governance: The government does not add value to the economy. It removes value from the economy by imposing taxes on one citizen and providing cash to another. Or it borrows money that would otherwise be used by investors and redistributes it elsewhere. Or it prints more money and threatens the value of the dollar. Nothing is stimulated. Spending power is not increased. Moreover, politicians and bureaucrats are substituting their uninformed, largely political decisions for those of the marketplace. Their past miscalculations demonstrate that they do not and cannot possess the information, knowledge, means, and discipline to manage the economy. Of course, the best way to stimulate the economy would be for the federal government to slash capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, and individual income tax rates, thereby increasing liquidity available to individuals and businesses to make decisions about their own economic circumstances.

This is a good lead-in to his views on the state of public aid.

The Welfare State

Levin views Social Security as a complete sham and feels almost the same about Medicare and Medicaid. This should about sum it up:

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are built on a family of frauds—the fraudulent concealment of material facts, the fraudulent representation of material facts, and the fraudulent conversion of one’s money for another’s use. They are a complex mix of taxes, benefits, obligations, and rights from which no individual can make much sense and about which the government sows disinformation and confusion. The “working poor” subsidize “the wealthy,” “the wealthy” subsidize “the working poor,” “the middle class” subsidizes itself as well as “the working poor” and “the wealthy,” and future generations are left paying off the crushing debt created by all of it, since the government spends far more than it raises.

Levin brings up the New Deal again and refers to one of its major components, Social Security, as “one of the earliest and most tangible breaks from American economic and constitutional traditions.” In total, especially after reading Krugman’s book, it appears that one of Levin’s goals is to tear down Krugman’s reverance for the New Deal. But that’s about it for the New Deal. We still have the environment, immigration, and foreign policy to cover.

Enviro-Statism

Levin disagrees that global warming or any sort of environmental crisis is upon us; he debunks much of the science behind it and cites science to the contrary. So if there isn’t a problem, he asserts that the laws addressing the problem are/will be completely unnecessary and represent another attack on liberty:

But the coming invasion of the home and workplace, the restriction on individual liberty, independence, and mobility, and the deconstruction of America’s economic system and impoverishing of the citizenry are justified in the name of a long and growing roster of preposterous assertions that must be listed to be believed.

As you can guess, he goes on to list them.

Immigration

Levin feels that the Statist agenda regarding immigration is not in the best interest of preserving our society; that it is self-serving to keep the Statist in power:

The Statist tolerates the illegal alien’s violations of working, wage, and environmental standards, because the alien’s babies born in America are, under the current interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, treated as United States citizens. And under the Hart-Celler Act, upon turning twenty-one years of age, the child can sponsor additional family members for citizenship. From the Statist’s perspective, the pool of future administrative state constituents and sympathetic voters is potentially bottomless.

A powerful immigrant society in general rubs Levin the wrong way.

For more than two centuries, individuals with diverse backgrounds have come together to form a national “melting pot” and harmonious society sustained by allegiance to the country and its founding principles. But today’s open-ended mass migration, coupled with the destructive influences of biculturalism, multiculturalism, bilingualism, multilingualism, dual citizenship, and affirmative action, have combined to form the building blocks of a different kind of society—where aliens are taught to hold tightly to their former cultures and languages, balkanization grows, antagonism and conflict are aroused, and victimhood is claimed at perceived slights. If a nation does not show and teach respect for its own identity, principles, and institutions, that corrosive attitude is conveyed to the rest of the world, including newly arriving aliens. And if this is unchecked, the nation will ultimately cease to exist.

I guess to say that it rubs him the wrong way may be an understatement.

Foreign Policy

This is the last issue and I’m running out of steam (plus I’m trying to keep this the same length as Consience of a Liberal). Levin promotes that view that foreign policy decisions should be measured using one benchmark:

The Conservative does not seek rigid adherence to any specific course of action: neutrality or alliance, preemptive war or defensive posture, nation building or limited military strike. The benchmark, again, is whether any specific path will serve the nation’s best interests.

He punches a lot of holes in Obama’s foreign policy. Like this:

How is banning waterboarding—which Barack Obama did among his first acts as president—morally defensible when a few minutes of simulated drowning applied against the operational leader of 9/11 reportedly saved an untold number of innocent American lives?

Read the book to get his support for this assertion. In general, Levin feels that global citizenry should not be our goal because the powerful countries who aren’t global citizens will end up with the upper hand.

America’s adversaries and enemies do not consider themselves global citizens. Nor are they constrained by international sensibilities and arrangements. A resurgent Russia, an aggressive China, communist movements growing in Latin America, rogue regimes in North Korea and Iran, Islamic terrorism, to name a few, all reject the Statist’s Utopia as a weakness to be exploited. They are not motivated by world opinion but by their own desires. They seek strategic—economic and military—advantage.

So that gets us through the major issues that Levin vets. These appear to be the major issues that any American needs to vet as they decide on where they stand. I’ve just spent a big chunk of May and June sorting through both ends of the spectrum so I should be able to lay out a decent strategy for the next election. When I say ends, I mean extremes. Both Levin and Krugman espouse extremes. Certainly the answer for me is somewhere in between. I will lay out that strategy in a separate post (some day).

The Conscience of a Liberal

How opportune that I’m reading this book right on the heels of The Given Day. Early on Krugman mentions the Palmer Raids, which were an integral part of the The Given Day. Lehane used them to highlight a point in America’s history where tensions between the political establishment and those disenfranchised in society reached a fever pitch. Krugman uses them to highlight a similar point, which we’ll get to.

The timeliness of reading these two books back-to-back was dumb luck. I had just finished The Given Day (and Breaking the Slump) about a day earlier so I was between books. I had my Kindle in my hands  and I heard my phone vibrate. Ah, a text message from a friend. He says something like “just finished Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman, great book.” So I ordered it up on the spot. Sweetness.

You may not care a bit about how I came about this book, and I don’t blame you. Hey, I’m sorry. This is stuff I want to record though for my own sake, so thanks for listening. I also want it to be known that to get both sides of the story, I will read Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, which as of today is the top seller in the Kindle Store’s category entitled “Politics & Current Events.” It just feels like something I should do. Reading two sides of the story back-to-back should put me in the best frame of mind to compare and contrast.

Okay, enough of the intro stuff. Let’s get down to what Krugman is talking about. He builds a case that this country is in a bad place, just about as bad as it was in the period leading up to the Great Depression, because of the high level of income inequality that exists. This, he says, is not unrelated to the high level of partisanship that also exists in our country. They feed off each other and to rectify the situation, a return to liberal ideals, like those embodied by the New Deal, is imperative.

In the first chapter he sets the table with this statement:

There have, then, been two great arcs in modern American history—an economic arc from high inequality to relative equality and back again, and a political arc from extreme polarization to bipartisanship and back again. These two arcs move in parallel: The golden age of economic equality roughly corresponded to the golden age of political bipartisanship.

This golden age he talks about is the period after the Great Depression until about the late 1960s; a period that had great economic growth, a thriving middle class, and relative agreement on most economic and political issues across both parties. But then the 70s came along:

Over the course of the 1970s, radicals of the right determined to roll back the achievements of the New Deal took over the Republican Party, opening a partisan gap with the Democrats, who became the true conservatives, defenders of the long-standing institutions of equality. The empowerment of the hard right emboldened business to launch an all-out attack on the union movement, drastically reducing workers’ bargaining power; freed business executives from the political and social constraints that had previously placed limits on runaway executive paychecks; sharply reduced tax rates on high incomes; and in a variety of other ways promoted rising inequality.

So now that this rising inequality has finally met it’s backlash in the form a near-sweep by the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term elections, what is the new liberal majority to do? Krugman tells the reader that answers are forthcoming, but we have to have a quick history refresher on modern America. Thus ends a rather rich chapter 1. It’s important to note that Krugman wrote this book in 2007 and correctly predicted that we would have a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress in 2009.

Krugman spends the next eight chapters talking about the economic and political climate from Reconstruction to George W. Bush’s second term. He has terms for them:

The Long Gilded Age (1870 to 1829)

The run-up to the Great Depression looks a fair amount like the last few years before this current economic crisis. There were divisive economic and political differences even worse than today’s. Krugman says in Chapter 2:

In short, during the Long Gilded Age—as in today’s America—cultural and racial divisions among those with shared common economic interests prevented the emergence of an effective political challenge to extreme economic inequality. The difference between then and now was that the divisions of the Long Gilded Age were significantly more extreme than they are today. At the same time there were fewer people, even among political leaders, with the vision to see beyond them. This, in turn, brings us to another feature of the Long Gilded Age: the intellectual dominance of conservative, antigovernment ideology.

There was not a foothold to be gained by unions and the post WWI red scare “had the incidental effect of discrediting or intimidating ordinary liberals.” This is where the Palmer Raids mentioned in the first paragraph are brought up by Krugman. He (like Lehane) paints a picture of society where the few in power make decisions detrimental to the economic health of the country.

The Great Depression (1929 to around 1940-some debate)

You know the story. Bad, really bad.

The Great Compression (after the Great Depression to roughly 1973-the end of the postwar boom)

Krugman calls it such because the gap between rich and poor shrunk to unheard of lows. And not coincidentally, the difference in beliefs between Democrats and Republicans was virtually indiscernible. It was a happy time of growth, but characterized by the blight of racism, which Krugman thinks proved to be part of the undoing. Here are Krugman’s exact words:

America in the 1950s was a middle-class society, to a far greater extent than it had been in the 1920s—or than it is today. Social injustice remained pervasive: Segregation still ruled in the South, and both overt racism and overt discrimination against women were the norm throughout the country. Yet ordinary workers and their families had good reason to feel that they were sharing in the nation’s prosperity as never before. And, on the other side, the rich were a lot less rich than they had been a generation earlier.

Wow, sounds alright huh. Taxes were through the roof on the rich, listen to this:

But with the coming of the New Deal, the rich started to face taxes that were not only vastly higher than those of the twenties, but high by today’s standards. The top income tax rate (currently only 35 percent) rose to 63 percent during the first Roosevelt administration, and 79 percent in the second. By the mid-fifties, as the United States faced the expenses of the Cold War, it had risen to 91 percent.

But people were still happy. Union participation skyrocketed, government spending was massive, and the South was voting democrat. Can you believe that? And government corruption was virtually nonexistent:

In retrospect it’s startling just how clean the New Deal’s record was. FDR presided over a huge expansion of federal spending, including highly discretionary spending by the Works Progress Administration. Yet the popular image of public relief, widely regarded as corrupt before the New Deal, actually improved markedly.

The New Deal’s probity wasn’t an accident. New Deal officials made almost a fetish out of policing their programs against potential corruption. In particular FDR created a powerful “division of progress investigation” to investigate complaints of malfeasance in the WPA.

As things go however, it came to an end. The undoing being the 1960’s. Despite continued economic growth through 1973, the political views of the country began to diverge in the early 60’s.

The Great Divergence (1973 to about 2006, the Dems victory in the mid-term elections)

This period is described by Krugman as basically the undoing of the New Deal. Unions shrunk and tax rates plummeted, and in turn the gap between the haves and have-nots increased markedly. He brings up the interesting analogy of “Bill Gates walking into a bar”:

As it turns out, Bill Gates walking into a bar is a pretty good metaphor for what has actually happened in the United States over the past generation: Average income has risen substantially, but that’s mainly because a few people have gotten much, much richer. Median income, depending on which definition you use, has either risen modestly or actually declined.

The middle class has stagnated. He goes on:

A rough estimate is that about half of the wage income of this superelite comes from the earnings of top executives—not just CEOs but those a few ranks below—at major companies. Much of the rest of the wage income of the top 0.01 percent appears to represent the incomes of sports and entertainment celebrities. So a large part of the overall increase in inequality is, in a direct sense, the result of a change in the way society pays its allegedly best and brightest. They were always paid well, but now they’re paid incredibly well.

So the rich got richer because the barriers to it happening in society were torn down. Ronald Reagan came along and put the nail in the income equality coffin by beating unions to a pulp and decreasing taxes, among other things. Additionally, technological change allowed the best and brightest to separate themselves from the rest of society. Krugman summarizes:

As I explained in chapter 1, I began working on this book with that view, which goes something like this: Money buys influence, and as the richest few percent of Americans have grown richer thanks to unequalizing forces like technical change, they have become rich enough to buy themselves a party. In this view, the rise of movement conservatism is a by-product of rising inequality.

He implicates movement conservatism even more than what I’ve quoted thus far. He includes racism as one of the many forces driving movement conservatism and he also seems to say that Republicans have lied and cheated their way to the top. And the American people have let it happen, for various reasons, until they made the stand in the 2006 mid-term elections.

What’s next?

So here we are, a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic Congress, and, according to Krugman, an economy in ruin brought about by the same forces that resulted in the Great Depression. What does Krugman think they should do?

Liberals need to “seize the opportunity” and basically roll back the roll-back, as I understand it. Remember, he referred to the Great Divergence as a reversal of the New Deal. Well, he wants to reverse that reversal and institute measures akin to the New Deal. The most important of which, he says, is universal health care. He spends a detailed chapter on this issue and starts it out with this:

So how does the U.S. health care system, with its unique reliance on private insurance, stack up against the systems of other advanced countries? Table 7 tells the story. It shows how much different countries spend per person on health care, and compares that spending with average life expectancy, the simplest measure of how well the health care system is functioning. The United States spends almost twice as much on health care per person as Canada, France, and Germany, almost two and a half times as much as Britain—yet our life expectancy is at the bottom of the pack.

He refutes the traditional Republican view that we have the best health care in the world, tears down Bill Clinton’s attempt to institute universal health care, and provides data on the why’s and how’s it would work, including a plan that comes at zero incremental cost. I don’t understand all of it, but it comes through savings in administrative costs and a realignment of incentives by converting to a single payer system. He rounds it out with this:

The principal reason to reform American health care is simply that it would improve the quality of life for most Americans. Under our current system tens of millions lack adequate health care, millions more have had their lives destroyed by the financial burden of medical costs, and many more who haven’t yet gone without insurance or been bankrupted by health costs live in fear that they may be next. And it’s all unnecessary: Every other wealthy country has universal coverage. Reducing the risks Americans face would be worth it even if it had a substantial cost—but in this case there would be no cost at all. Universal health care would be cheaper and better than our current fragmented system.

Then, once this is done, they can move on to addressing other areas of inequality, by increasing taxes and revitalizing unions. Sounds liberal to me.

He spends the last few moments talking about being a progressive. I’m not sure I completely understand this. He seems to feel that the progressive route is the only route to getting the liberal agenda passed. That most liberals look back and progressives look forward. That, I need to look into. It’s an interesting book and I’m ready to jump on the bandwagon, but I’m going to get the other side first.

Manhunt

The subtitle is The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, and that describes it very well. There is a little background early on, but for the most part this book starts the morning of April 14, 1865 and ends with Booth’s capture and death 12 days later.  It contains the kind of detail you don’t get in history class. The minutia that Swanson dives into probably wouldn’t serve a history major well, but it’s truly fascinating and does a great job of transporting you to the time and place of one of this country’s most harrowing moments.

What I never realized was how perfectly Booth executed his portion of plan. He entered the box during the play and took one shot and killed the President. He was able to jump out of the box onto the stage and proclaim his assassination with gun and dagger raised. After that he scooted out the back and was miles outside of D.C. before anyone could start the chase. Pretty unbelievable when you consider it.

You learn how meticulously he planned this thing; how he traveled to Montreal, Quebec to meet fellow Southern sympathizers, how he scoured the countryside to plan his escape route, and how he situated his fellow conspirators for maximum effect. The amount of hatred and guile within Boothe was pretty chilling. And had he not basically broken his leg, he may have been able to make it to the Deep South and escape. But as it went, he ended up locked in a tobacco barn in Northern Virginia surrounded by 25 Union cavalrymen. In the end he was gunned down by an especially eccentric cavalry member named Boston Corbett.

His plan was much grander than just the assassination of Lincoln. Booth organized co-conspirators to kill Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson on the same night. Both of those other attacks failed; the former because of gallant efforts by bodyguards and family members and the latter because of the cowardice of the perpetrator.

This isn’t the type of history book you read to understand Lincoln. And you don’t read it to gain some insight the people and policies that were integral to changing the course of this country. But it does help you understand just how divided this country was. Just how mainstream it was at the time to have outright hatred for the President and how many people were available  to hide Booth from Union soldiers.

Most every one was caught and brought to justice. His main four co-conspirators were hanged in Washington a few months after Booth’s death.

Andrew Johnson ended up being a poor successor to Lincoln and he was succeeded by Grant, who wasn’t much of an upgrade. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War who was integral in the manhunt, was fired by Johnson and died an early death. William Seward recovered but his family was never the same and his wife and daughter died shortly thereafter. I’m not sure which of these players were in the “team of rivals” that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wrote about, but I’ll eventually read her book.

This was a fine book.