Assassination Vacation

This is yet another book I discovered via Nick Hornby and his fine book-about-books entitled Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. At the end of that post, back in March of 2006, I mentioned that I wanted to read Assassination Vacation. It’s amazing that a book I read five years ago is still influencing my reading life. It was brought to mind recently because I saw Sarah Vowell on Letterman and I thought she was hilarious. I finally complied with my proclamation from five years ago and bought Assassination Vacation for the Kindle.

This is part history book, part political commentary, and part travel book. Additionally, it’s all funny. Her writing is just as hilarious as the Letterman interview. Her humor is not for everyone, it’s often dark, negative, and sarcastic. She’s kind of like a mean Bill Bryson. I love it though, in fact, I think it’s brilliant.

Vowell, for some reason, is obsessed with presidential assassinations. She likes to visit assassination sites and view memorabilia from the horrific events. She’s especially excited if there’s a plaque commemorating something related to the assassination. Here is a passage illustrating the giddiness she often feels when she encounters an assassination-related site, in this case it’s a visit to the site of Mary Surratt’s boarding house:

Mary Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse, where John Wilkes Booth gathered his co-conspirators to plot Lincoln’s death, is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok & Roll. I place an order for broccoli and bubble tea, then squint at an historic marker in front of the restaurant quoting Andrew Johnson that this was “the nest in which the egg was hatched.”

If you can’t tell, she’s especially excited by Abraham Lincoln, her favorite president. She’s a staunch defender of persecuted peoples and critical of our country’s treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, which could have something to do with why she reveres Lincoln so. She pulls no punches and you can feel her anger when she talks about those who have wronged others in the name of race, including family members. For example, she discusses the grandfather paradox while relating the story of the grandson of Dr. Mudd as he tries to clear his grandfather’s name, and then contrasts this to her feelings towards her great-great-grandfather:

What I like about the grandfather paradox is that it treats time travel not as some lofty exercise in cultural tourism – looking over Melville’s shoulder as he wrote Moby-Dick – but as a petty excuse to bicker with and gun down one’s own relatives. I just so happen to have a grandfather who deserved it, my great-great-grandfather, John Vowell. The reason why I would set the wayback machine for the sole purpose of rubbing him out is this: In the 1860s, the teenage John Vowell joined up with pro-slavery guerrilla warrior William Clarke Quantrill, who has been called the “most hated man in the Civil War,” which is saying something.

Sarah, you had me at “rubbing him out,” you wacky woman.

Mostly, this book is a hodgepodge of facts, figures, and commentary related to the first three presidential assassinations:

  1. Lincoln (April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth)
  2. Garfield (July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau)
  3. McKinley (September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz)

She’s focused on these three, I think, because they’re linked by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who “was in close proximity” to all three assassinations. Robert Todd Lincoln gets a fair amount of space in this book as do a whole host of other characters. Vowell creatively brings in a bunch of tangential characters and weaves them into this milieu of political commentary and travelogue. Well done.

Yes, she has a political take that not all are going to agree with, especially Republicans and who think we’ve always been on the right track with our foreign policy. If you’re of this ilk, you may find Vowell full of hard edges. She wrote this book during the Iraq war and says:

When I told a friend I was writing about the McKinley administration, he turned up his nose and asked, “Why the hell would anyone want to read about that?” “Oh, I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe because we seem to be reliving it?”

Even so, she shows her sentimental side often, like this passage about Garfield’s pessimism and his love for books:

As for me, coming across that downbeat commencement speech was the first time I really liked Garfield. It’s hard to have strong feelings about him. Before, I didn’t mind him, and of course I sympathized with his bum luck of a death. But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen. In his diary he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on “Heroin.”

Or she’ll speak lovingly of her nephew Owen, who accompanies her on many legs of the assassination vacation:

I have not been particularly shocked by how much I love Owen, but I am continually pleasantly surprised by how much I like him. He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

I also liked the Chicago tie-ins; inevitable, you would think, because of Lincoln, but they’re a little more subtle than you would expect. For instance, she manages to throw in Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright:

Secondly, with a building as iconic as the Lincoln Memorial, it’s such a given, seems so inevitable, I cannot imagine the Mall without it. Moreover, it’s so universally revered it’s hard to believe there were ever protests against the way it looked. But when Daniel Burnham, Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French, and their fellow commissioners chose Henry Bacon’s Greek temple design for the Lincoln Memorial in 1913, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, led by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, threw a fit.

I’ll mention it again, this was a nice combo of humor and history and a great book. It will enlighten and entertain, and run you through a series of differing emotions. What more could you ask of a good book?


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Audacity of Hope

I’ve been dreading this book. Loaned to me by a friend, it sat on my bookshelf for months. Each glimpse of it brought feelings of inadequacy. Inadequacy that results when something potentially educational or informative sits on my bookshelf while I continue reading works of fiction or books about sports. Fiction=escape. Sports=leisure. Politics=work.

Then I started it, like in April of 2007. I made it half way through then I got really board. It sat, half-finished, for more than a year. I picked it up again after the election. In the end, I’m looking for direction. I waffle on all of the major issues facing this country and I disagree with the extremists on both sides. This book is basically Obama’s take on the breadth of issues that I want to be conversant in, so it’s a start. A start on the practice of understanding where I stand on the issues facing this country.

Obama organizes this beast into nine chapters. I’ve listed them below with Obama’s titles in bold print and my take on the what I think the key points of each chapter are or what the subheadings for each chapter should be (he doesn’t have subchapters, except for the occasional line-skip). I didn’t have time to add my take on everything.

(1) Republicans and Democrats

Yes, we are different. But not that much different.

No matter how wrongheaded I might consider their policies to be – and no matter how much I might insist that they be held accountable for the results of such policies – I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them the values that I share.

Oh, you had me at hello. But wait:

But our democracy might work a bit better if we recognized that all of us possess values that are worthy of respect: if liberals at least acknowledged that the recreational hunter feels the same way about his gun as they feel about their library books, and if conservatives recognized that most women feel as protective of their right to reproductive freedom as evangelicals do of their right to worship.

This is important stuff folks (look past that fact that you and I know hunters who read books). If he can “reach across the aisle” and if he can convince us to listen and work together, we are going to resolve things more efficiently.

(2) Values

Obama says he is not an ideologue.

Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.

He brings this point up when talking about a Republican’s efforts to squash a school breakfast bill for five-year-olds because it would “crush their spirit of self-reliance.” He goes a little further and says:

I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society.

I’m in agreement. Who wouldn’t be? But I listen when people tell me stories about government handouts that get wasted. I listen, because it makes me mad. Heck, increase my taxes if it goes to programs that help people who want to be helped. When Obama was a community organizer, he was on the ground and could insure that tax dollars for his area went to the right place. I know some people who run a local neighborhood organization and if I could channel my tax dollars to them to use for their projects, I’d pay even more taxes. Why? Because they efficiently help people and they care. How can Obama insure the same level efficiency from Pennsylvania Avenue? I don’t have the answers.

(3) Our Constitution

Okay, this gets theoretical. I’m listening to John Adams right now and struggling with things that Obama talks about. I’m a quant guy and getting my head around this constructionist versus contextual reading of the Constitution is difficult. In the end, Obama chooses the interpretive route:

Ultimately, though, I have to side with Justice Breyer’s view of the Constitution – that it is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.

This is a can of worms and I can only pretend to support why I’m on Obama’s side. Maybe it’s because the Constitution was written when slavery was commonplace. John Adams fought hard against slavery but couldn’t get any verbiage to decry it written into the Declaration of Independence (and I think he was in France when the Constitution was written). Things change man, they change.

(4) Politics

Hopefully Obama is as brutally honest with us now that he is running the show as when he was writing this book. He explains about how he transitioned from being a guy hesitant to call donors for contributions to someone who actually enjoyed it. I say this is honest because it doesn’t seem like he needs to admit this. But he does:

Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising, I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population – that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.

And a few paragraphs later:

The problems of ordinary people, the voices of the Rust Belt town or the dwindling heartland, become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought.

I just hope he stays in touch with these feelings.

So now, he spends the rest of the book getting down and dirty with the issues. He takes them one-by-one, just clipping down through issues and giving his take.

(5) Opportunity

  • Education
  • Science
  • Energy
  • Globalization and Free Trade
  • Social Security
  • Minimum Wage
  • Health Care
  • Taxes

(6) Faith

  • Abortion
  • Same-sex Marriage
  • Separation of Church and State
  • Prayer in Schools

(7) Race

  • Enforcement of Nondiscrimination Laws
  • Deteriorating Condition of the Inner City Poor
  • Immigration and Undocumented Workers

(8) The World Beyond Our Borders

  • Isolationism
  • Defense Spending
  • Defense Strategy
  • Military Action and the U.N. Security Council
  • Imposition of Democracy
  • Providing Development Assistance

(9) Family

  • Day Care
  • Flexible Work Schedules

He talks about a lot of stuff and lays out his take on all of these things over the course of the pages. I just don’t have time to deal with all of this right now. I want to go down the list and figure out where he stands, mostly because I want to hold him to it. Heck, I end up agreeing with him for the most part. But I have stuff to do. I’m going to have to get this book when I get a Kindle so I can make notes and refer back to it. Yeah, that’s it.


Of Paradise and Power

This is more like a long political essay rather than a book. The title is kind of innocuous; it’s the subtitle that grabbed me, AMERICA AND EUROPE IN THE NEW WORLD ORDER. I’m going to start near the end of the book with a few quotes from Kagan that I think sum up the main point:

A great philosophical schism has opened within the West, and instead of mutual indifference, mutual antagonism threatens to debilitate both sides of the transatlantic community. Coming at a time when new dangers and crises are proliferating rapidly, this schism could have serious consequences. For Europe and the United States to decouple strategically has been bad enough. But what if the schism over “world order” infects the rest of what we’ve known as the liberal West? Will the West still be the West? (pg 107)

… America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy.

Americans will find that they cannot ignore this problem. … (pg 108)

This interests me. I have a strange self-consciousness about the perception of America by other citizens of the globe and I’m trying to make sense of it. Is the perception by the world community that we are too quick to use force and defy international order a fair perception? Does this perception detract from our legitimacy (often-used word by Kagan) as a world power such that it makes it more difficult to gain cooperation from other countries to resolve global problems? Most of all, are we a bad friend to Europe, our long-time ally? Or is Europe a bad friend to us?

I want help understanding this and I want it now! Okay?

Enter 158 pages of foreign policy analysis by Robert Kagan, a Washington Post writer and a Senior Associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This book starts by summarizing the differences between Europe and America. Try this on for size:

Europeans insist they approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication. They try to influence others through subtlety and indirection. They are more tolerant of failure, more patient when solutions don’t come quickly. They generally favor peaceful responses to problems, preferring negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion to coercion. They are quicker to appeal to international law, international conventions, and international opinion to adjudicate disputes. They try to use commercial and economic ties to bind nations together. They often emphasize process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance. (pg 5)

Kagan agrees that this is generalizing, but I don’t think he feels it’s an over-generalization. A few paragraphs later he says, “When it comes to the use of force, most mainstream American Democrats have more in common with Republicans than with Europeans.”

Alright, it’s a generalization, but not far from reality. So Americans and Europeans are different. But why? Is one smarter than the other? What about their geography? One is a collection of many mid-sized nations situated close to each other and two oceans protect the other; could that have something to do with it? Or do each region’s historical conflicts have something to do with it? One has been devastated by multiple world wars on their own soil in the last 100 years, the other didn’t have their borders breached by a foreign enemy for most of that time until the horrific events of 9/11.

Could be, but Kagan breaks it down into even simpler terms.

A man armed only with a knife may decide that a bear prowling the forest is a tolerable danger, inasmuch as the alternative – hunting the bear armed only with a knife – is actually riskier than lying low and hoping the bear never attacks. The same man armed with a rifle, however, will likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable risk. Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn’t have to?

This perfectly normal human psychology has driven a wedge between the United States and Europe. (pg 31)

But is this really “perfectly normal human psychology?” I’m left of Kagan and my first inclination is to answer no, it’s not perfectly normal. But am I giving in to hindsight? Am I just not being truthful with myself? Of course, I need to gain some insight into this.

Nonetheless, there is a huge gap in power and it has resulted in America and Europe wanting to resolve world problems in different ways. For two such large and influential regions to disagree so vehemently just isn’t good for the world. Kagan expands further on this disagreement – why it persists and actually continues to worsen. He gets philosophical and invokes Kant and Hobbes often. It persists, he seems to say, because Europe has no incentive to build any significant military power because they are living in paradise – they have achieved peace on their continent without having to resort to violence because America continues to be the protector of the West. So why change? But America builds guns undeterred, and even views the European method of problem solving as a constraint and doesn’t trust them even when they offer military support:

Even after September 11, when the Europeans offered their very limited military capabilities in the fight in Afghanistan, the United States resisted, fearing that European cooperation was a ruse to tie America down. (pg 102)

So what do we do? Can we ever get on the same page? Kagan offers this up.

…If the United States could move past the anxiety engendered by this inaccurate sense of constraint, it could begin to show more understanding for the sensibilities of others, a little more of the generosity of spirit that characterized American foreign policy during the Cold War. It could pay its respects to multilateralism and the rule of law, and try to build some international political capital for those moments when multilateralism is impossible and unilateral action unavoidable. It could, in short, take more care to show what the founders called a “decent respect for the opinion of mankind.” This was always the wisest policy. And there is certain benefit in it for the United States: Winning the material and moral support of friends and allies, especially in Europe, is unquestionably preferable to acting along in the face of European anxiety and hostility. (pg 102)

But if America is to give in this little bit, Europe must also carry the burden of rethinking their stance. He gets into that. At this point, Kagan still has the 50 plus pages of a new afterward to go subtitled American Power and the Crisis of Legitimacy. I gotta tell you, it was interesting reading, but it’s wearing me out writing about it. In the end, Kagan offers up this warning to Europe:

In their passion for international legal order, they may lose sight of the other liberal principles that have made postmodern Europe what it is today. Europeans thus may succeed in debilitating the United States, but since they have no intention of supplementing American power with their own, the net result will be a diminution of the total amount of power that the liberal democratic world can bring to bear in its defense-and in defense of liberalism itself. (pg 158)

That’s complicated, at least to me. I’m going to get this post up there then reread it later this year, near election time, to see if I can make more sense of this book.