While the little one made 2012 a light blogging year, I tried to keep up with my book list as a consolation. Past book reports are here: 2011; 2010; and 2009.
1. The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch. This book by education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch received much attention after publication in 2010. Ravitch gives a startling account of the turbulent experimentation our leaders inflicted on the American public education system in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving modern reformers no “control group,” no intelligible way of measuring new methods or systems. As a result, many recent reforms deemed “successful” might actually have been the result of unnoticed changes in local demographics or other cultural factors. Thomas Sowell makes the case in Inside American Education that even per pupil spending, class sizes, and other education talking points may be red herrings at best. Aside from cultural issues that are difficult to identify, let alone address, one of the few things we can actually do is scrutinize education schools and the credentialing system. In a paper delivered to a group of educators at Princeton in 1994, Professor Donald Simanek observed that
Most teachers have learned ‘methods and skills’ of teaching, but don’t have a solid understanding of the subject they teach. So they end up ‘teaching’ trivia, misinformation, and intellectual garbage, but doing it with ‘professional’ polish. Most do not display love of learning, nor the ability to do intense intellectual activity of any kind. Lacking these qualities they cannot possibly inspire and nourish these qualities in their students.
Ravitch provides a grim treatment of all the current options—with national standards receiving the brunt—but offers little in the way of alternatives. She rejects lottery systems because they tend to limit opportunities to good students from good families who care about education enough to participate in the lotteries. But she does not explain how any school system could possibly help children whose parents don’t even care enough about their education to try. Ravitch rejects school choice for the same reason: it fails to help students whose parents don’t avail themselves of the choices. Indeed, every problem could be reduced to this basic problem, and Ravitch does not make a persuasive case that it can be overcome with “curriculum and instruction.”
2. Ten Universal Principles, by Fr. Robert Spitzer. Robert Nozick once mused whether one could construct an argument so powerful that it “left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence.” Fr. Spitzer relates one such argument:
Every once in a while a student will try to say, “How do you know that the principle of noncontradiction is correct?” And I simply give him Aristotle’s response in book 4 (chapters 3 and 4) of the Metaphysics. In that work, Aristotle toys with people who are uncertain about the principle of noncontradiction, by pushing them to silence and the status of a vegetable, because every claim they make would have to be meaningless. He reasons that if contradictory claims are just as valid as noncontradictory claims, then all words and all claims are meaningless.
The ten building-block principles Fr. Spitzer examines are: (1) The Principle of Complete Explanation (“The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data”); (2) The Principle of Noncontradiction (“Valid opinions or theories have no internal contradictions”); (3) The Principle of Objective Evidence (“Nonarbitrary opinions or theories are based upon publicly verifiable evidence”); (4) The Principle of Nonmaleficence (“Avoid unnecessary harms; if a harm is unavoidable, minimize it”); (5) The Principle of Consistent Ends and Means (“The end does not justify the means”); (6) The Principle of Full Human Potential (“Every human being (or group of human beings) deserves to be valued according to the full level of human development, not according to the level of development currently achieved”); (7) The Principle of Natural Rights (“All human beings possess in themselves (by virtue of their existence alone) the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property ownership; no government gives these rights, and no government can take them away”); (8) The Principle of the Fundamentality of Rights (“The more fundamental right is the one which is necessary for the possibility of the other; where there is a conflict, we should resolve in favor of the more fundamental right”); (9) The Principle of Limits to Freedom (“One person’s (or group’s) freedoms cannot impose undue burdens upon other persons (or groups)”); (10) The Principle of Beneficence (“Aim at optimal contribution to others and society. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).
3. The Devil’s Delusion, by David Berlinski. One can perhaps understand a thoughtful agnosticism; but what explains the fervor of the New Atheists? Why insist, in Tom Bethell’s words, as “an article of our secular faith that there is nothing exceptional about human life”? Why ought we “take the side of side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs,” as geneticist Richard Lewontin prescribes, “in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, and in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories”? As Berlinski puts it, “Why should any discerning man or woman take the side of science, or anything else, under these circumstances? It is because, Lewontin explains, ‘we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” But “[i]f one is obliged to accept absurdities for fear of a Divine Foot,” Berlinski replies, “imagine what prodigies of effort would be required were the rest of the Divine Torso found wedged at the door and with some justifiable irritation demanding to be let in?”
4. The Homevoter Hypothesis, by William Fischel. Prof. Fischel’s most famous example of the estrangement of “homevoters” and local governments is the California Supreme Court’s decision prohibiting the direct funding of schools by local property taxes, leading to the Tax Revolt of the late 1970s that enacted Proposition 13.
5. Ameritopia, by Mark Levin. About a third of it is comprised of other works, many of which I’d already read, along with some commentary, much of which I felt I’d already heard.
6. The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, by Larry Arnn. A Churchill biographer, professor of government, and president of Hillsdale College, Arnn is a thoughtful and charming writer with the ability to infect his reader with reverence for the founding documents.
7. The World America Made, by Robert Kagan. See my review here.
8. The Rise of the States, by Jon Teaford. During the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney said “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Though perhaps overbroadly stated, that’s a well-established tenet of modern conservatism. Both Professors Teaford and Fischel submit demonstrate that, in fact, state and local governments are professional, competent, innovative, and responsive to their constituents’ needs. The states also did much of the heavy lifting in experimenting with different forms of taxation; after much trial and error, Wisconsin was the first state to come onto the idea of requiring employers to report their employees’ income. But much of the state’s inventiveness and responsiveness are impaired by centralization of power at the federal level and the redirection of state and local dollars through Washington. Rail projects have largely been failures since the 1960s, and if forced to spend their own dollars, state and local governments likely wouldn’t. Yet when taxes are laundered through a central national government and sent back to the states with strings for such projects, accountability is reduced and these pet projects, complete with ribbon-cutting ceremonies, can proceed like in the good old days.
9. Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics, by Bill Boyarsky. After his service during World War II (as a sailor stuck in Alaska), Unruh, the son of an illiterate sharecropper, availed himself of the G.I. Bill and became a major player in 1960s California politics, presiding over the Assembly during a period of legislative professionalization in which California became a model of state governance. Among his achievements, Unruh passed the Unruh Civil Rights Act, being painfully aware of his own inauspicious birth status. Unfortunately, power also fed Unruh’s addition to sex, and though a radical prostatectomy might have saved him, “he dreaded that it would leave him impotent, taking him out of a game that was very important to him, the game of sex, played over and over again, with many, many women.” He died of prostate cancer in 1987.
10. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson. A book widely mischaracterized as a treatment of the homogeneity of ad men in the 1950s, Wilson’s protagonist is not concerned about conformity as much as navigating a brave new world of opportunities and personal integrity. Presented with a job prospect assisting with a campaign for mental health, Tom Rath responds, “I’ve always been interested in mental health!” In fact, after his traumatic war experiences, Tom is not much interested in anything, and suffers between his cynicism and his obligation to provide for his family. The film of the same name starring Gregory Peck is nearly as good as the book.
11. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. The chilling story of the German people’s descent by degrees into apathy and tacit assent to the Third Reich, and the Church’s role by abdicating its function in political society: As Bonhoeffer put it, the church plays a vital role for the state through its obligation to “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.”
Bonhoeffer then famously enumerated “three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state.” The first, already mentioned, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy—to help the state be the state as God has ordained. The second way—and here he took a bold leap—was “to aid the victims of state action.” He said that the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society.” And before that sentence was over, he took another leap, far bolder than the first—in fact, some ministers walked out—by declaring that the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” Everyone knew that Bonhoeffer was talking about the Jews, including Jews who were not baptized Christians. Bonhoeffer then quoted Galatians: “Do good to all men.” To say that it is unequivocally the responsibility of the Christian church to help all Jews was dramatic, even revolutionary. But Bonhoeffer wasn’t through yet.
The third way the church can act toward the state, he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” The translation is awkward, but he meant that a stick must be jammed into the spokes of the wheel to stop the vehicle. It is sometimes not enough to help those crushed by the evil actions of a state; at some point the church must directly take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating evil. This, he said, is permitted only when the church sees its very existence threatened by the state, and when the state ceases to be the state as defined by God.
12. Seeing Like a State, by James C. Scott. Liberty appeared relatively late in history because the precondition of a state is a legible society—a population arranged in ways that make possible such basic state functions as taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Systems of property rights, standardization of weights and measures (in one part of Malaysia, it is typical to estimate the distance to the next town in terms of rice-cookings), paternal last names, and so on can all be explained by the state’s need to make society legible. Scott argues that this need for legibility, added to a capacity for large-scale social engineering, a high-modernist ideology that supplies the desire and determination for such engineering, and an effete, supine populace characterize “the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering” in human history. Liberal democracy serves as a countervail by its respect for private activity, economic activity (to prevent the stifling of unknown processes and innovations), and, most importantly, accountable representative institutions. It takes a conscious act of self-denial on the part of statesmen to respect the freedom of individuals, and not merely impose order on the people.
13. The Road to Freedom, by Arthur Brooks. Questions about the size of government and the reach of regulations into economic life and rates of taxation fundamentally are questions not about money but morality. In example after example, Brooks underscores that the good life has little to with wealth and everything to do with earned success. Entrepreneurs themselves earn 19% less than government managers and even work longer hours. Yet they’re happier people, Brooks reports. In fact, income qua income plays virtually no role in happiness. Between 1972 and 2004, average American income increased by 50%, from $25,000 to $38,000 in 2004 dollars. Yet the percentage of Americans claiming to be very happy stayed virtually unchanged at 31%. A 2001 Ohio State University survey found that people who did not feel responsible for their success spent about 25% more time feeling sad than those who felt they were responsible for their success.
One of the reasons Americans tend to be happier people is that, among developed Western nations, Americans are among the least likely to believe that success is arbitrary. Americans are twice as likely as the French and three times as likely as Italians and Spaniards to say that success comes from hard work rather than luck. The singer Bono observed that the Irish “look down on” success: “In America, you look up at . . . the mansion on the hill and say, ‘One day . . . that could be me.’ In Ireland, they look up at the mansion on the hill and go, ‘One day I’m gonna get that bastard.’”
The serious moral issue, Brooks points out, is not the unequal distribution of money in the United States, but the unequal distribution of free enterprise in the world. The places in the world where poverty is in retreat are the places where property rights are protected and trade and markets are allowed to flourish. Conversely, the places where people still subsist on less than $1 per day, places like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lack a functional free enterprise system and strong property rights, labor under oppressive bureaucracies, and lack investment capital.
Redistribution, on the other hand, rests on shaky moral ground. The injunction to care for the poor, under the major religions represented in the U.S., is individual in nature. The payment of taxes in the normal course is not typically regarded as fulfilling one’s moral duty to the sick or poor. As even several members of the “one percent” pointed out, taxation is not charity.
14. Still the Best Hope, by Dennis Prager. In his newest polemic, Prager explains what he calls the “American Trinity,” consisting of values expressed on our currency: “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum.” It’s a fun read with a lots of biting observations and amusing excerpts of interviews and stories from his experience as a radio host. My favorite story:
[A]s a radio talk show host, I was shown a video of people reacting to radio talk shows. Organized by a firm that specializes in analyzing such shows, the members of the listening panel were carefully chosen to represent all major listening groups within American society. I quickly noticed something odd, however. There were no blacks among the selected listeners. I asked why. And the response was stunning.
Blacks had always been included in these listener test groups, I was told, but not anymore. This was not because the firm was uninterested in black listeners; on the contrary, blacks compose a significant segment of the radio audience. They were not invited because the company had discovered that almost no whites would publicly differ with the opinions of the blacks on the panel. Once a black listener spoke, whites stopped saying what they thought, if what they thought differed from what a black had said.
15. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. This might be my favorite read of the year, and almost everyone I know was subjected to my rendition of one or more of Gladwell’s fascinating observations. If you’re having a baby, you heard me recount how it’s better to be born early in the year because the kid will be a few months older and thus accumulate more confidence and attention of teachers and coaches. If the conversation turned to technology, you heard me explain why Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and other tech moguls were, talented, yes, but largely just in the right place at the right time—all born within a few years of each other and each coming of age at exactly the time personal computing emerged. And just because it’s my favorite account in the book, you heard how high-power-differential cultures like Korea’s produce lousy airline pilots and that it requires an egalitarian spirit to tell the pilot “hey, dumdum, it’s too foggy to land the plane without the instruments.”
16. Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, by Edward Feser. Aquinas is always relevant, and Feser is a contemporary authority. I’m looking forward to reading his takedown of the New Atheists in The Last Superstition.
17. The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elisabeth Badinter. Though a mother of three, Badinter bewails the undue pressure women still feel to have children and offers advice and admonitions from what one hoped was a bygone strain of feminism. Writing to the daughters of boomers who “had scores to settle with their feminist mothers,” who “were quick to answer the siren call of the natural,” and who “think that the position of wife and mother was as good as any other,” Badinter warns that “pregnancy signals the end of pleasure, freedom, and the carefree life of non-mothers…. The final image of the guillotine could not be more eloquent.” Bandinter insists that having children is not instinctual, not based in natural urges or any form of teleology. It derives instead from “emotional and societal factors,” and childless women “are spared nothing—not the sighing from their parents (whom they deny the joy of grandchildren), not the incomprehension of their friends (who want everyone to do the same thing they’ve done), and not the disapproval of society and the state, both of which are by definition pro-birth and have countless little ways of punishing you for not doing your duty.” Badinter warns that the virtues of motherhood are overstated and that most mothers regret having had children. She urges that, if you do have children, at least avoid breast-feeding, pushed by “the ayatollahs of breast-feeding,” which conditions women for subservience by turning them into “a walking meal” or a “giant pacifier.”
To her credit, Badinter cites the most damning criticism against her, offered by Austrian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in his letter declining the offer to supply a preface to Badinter’s earlier book, Mother Love:
I’ve spent my whole life working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them … . Which demonstrates that there is no maternal instinct— of course there isn’t, otherwise there wouldn’t have been so many of them needing my services— and that there are many, many mothers who reject their children … . This [book] will only serve to free these women from their feelings of guilt, the only restraint that means some children are saved from destruction, suicide, anorexia, etc. I don’t want to give my name to suppressing the last buttress that protects a lot of unhappy children from destruction.
18. Up from the Projects, by Walter Williams. The autobiography of an inspiring American. Nearly two years ago now, I began writing an ambitious piece exploring the extent to which the Baby Boomer generation could be blamed for some of our more vexing political and social problems. I was stymied because of the homogeneity of that generation. A better example than Williams could scarcely be found. Citing to his ability to get work experience—and earn money—before minimum wage and child labor laws foreclosed those opportunities to today’s youth, Williams recounts that it was finally a group (today, they would be a union) of seamstresses who got him fired from his hat-making job. “They found out what I was using the sewing machines after they went home and on Sundays, and they didn’t like the competition.” He also credits his mother’s tough love for keeping him out of trouble, noting that “Parents nowadays, unlike their parents, don’t have as much will or stomach to allow their children to suffer the consequences of irresponsible behavior.”
Contrary to Prager’s account of whites giving a wide berth to black prerogative, Williams recounts how his university professors were not afraid to challenge his conceptions about the world. When Williams explained that he held a view contrary to his wife who presumed people were friends until they proved otherwise, his UCLA professor explained that he failed to account for a third alternative: “that people don’t give a damn about you one way or another.”
19. The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz. Some thoughts on Stiglitz’s book are included in my brief submission to the inequality symposium.
20. The Market Revolution in America, by John Lauritz Larson. As early as the founding, community-based economies were losing their primacy as regional economies and then a national economy assumed the spotlight. Americans began their centuries-long struggle to balance enormous prosperity and wild volatility presented by industrialization supercharged by finance. By 1783, says Larson, a national economy eager to surge awaited transportation improvements, the establishment of a currency, the mobilization of capital, and the reactivation of trading connections that only a muscular national government could quickly and effectively provide. “Without the new Constitution,” Larson writes, “the institutional integration that followed in the next three decades might have been postponed or prevented altogether.”
For these reasons, Alexander Hamilton advocated policies early on favoring commercial interests, creditors, contracts, and funding of the national debt as forming the core of economic development. Still, nothing could prepare Madisonians for the erosion of capital’s moral underpinnings worked by the great confidence game that was the Bank of the United States. Yet even after Republicans killed the bank in 1811, President Madison himself signed the legislation chartering the Second Bank in 1816 in the wake of the financial crisis that followed the War of 1812 and local bank runs of 1814. Though not without its fits and starts, the American economy, supercharged by the government’s role in stabilizing the currency and freeing up credit, hummed along. At the same time, however, the very infrastructure that made wealth and opportunity more abundant and accessible also undermined the essential morality of the free market. “Pre-modern social and economic values celebrated static, traditional relations,” Larson writes. The traditional networks of face-to-face transactions and community exchange characterized by kinship, friendship, and familiarity were quickly receding in favor of complex and impersonal commercial networks.
I’ll have more to say about Larson and Zingales (below) in an upcoming piece.
21. The Brief Against Obama, by Hugh Hewitt. Spilled milk at this point.
22. Hostile Takeover: Resisting Government’s Stranglehold on America, by Matt Kibbe. Like Lessig’s, Schweizer’s, and Zingales’s recent books, Kibbe makes the case against crony capitalism. This, Kibbe suggests, is the answer to the question: Why is the Tea Party vilified despite its stated objective of eradicating crony capitalism and even establishing an Office of Congressional Ethics to that end?
23. First Things, by Hadley Arkes. Prof’s Arkes’ opus; a magnificent apologia of the natural law.
24. Falling Up the Stairs, by James Lileks. A humorist in the vein of the great P.G. Wodehouse. I couldn’t tell what era this comedy-suspense takes place, but given the protagonist’s frequent reliance on pay phones, I had to conclude somewhere in the 1980s.
25. Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths, by Hadley Arkes. Prof. Arkes traces the natural law tradition through the history of western jurisprudence, which has always assumed that “neither the law nor its practitioners would be witless.” A 15th century Italian law decreed “that whoever drew blood in the streets should be punished with the utmost severity.” Despite the letter of the law, Blackstone later observed, it clearly did not “extend to the surgeon, who opened the vein of a person that fell down in the street with a fit.” Likewise, an 1825 federal law made it an offense to “knowingly and willfully obstruct or retard the passage of the mail, or of any driver or carrier, or of any horse or carriage carrying the same.” Yet, writing for the Supreme Court in the 1868 decision in United States v. Kirby, Justice Field held that a sheriff who knowingly and willfully arrested a mail carrier charged with murder was not liable under the literal effect of the statute since people of ordinary sense could ordinarily make distinctions between interferences that were “justified” or “unjustified.”
The natural law, for Prof. Arkes, are those premises that must be accepted as preconditions of a rule of law, such as “We do not hold people responsible for acts they were powerless to affect.” Rules of basic statutory construction—guiding judges how the understand the positive law—are not themselves positive law. And thus the rule under Federalist No. 78 that a later-enacted statute takes precedent over earlier statutes is based in common sense and reason—in the natural law. As Hamilton remarked, they were “not derived from any positive law, but from the nature and reason of the thing.” So preposterous was the idea that the Constitution should be understood as a positive law document that, during the debate over the Bill of Rights, Theodore Sedgwick of Connecticut scoffed, “Why don’t you specify my right to get up in the morning, my right to walk down the street, my right to wear a hat?” The Constitution, after all, while defining the process by which positive law may be promulgated, cannot itself spring from positive law. As Locke said, it had to find its origins in that understanding “antecedent to all positive laws,” and that authority was “depending wholly on the people,” through their natural right to be governed only with their consent.
With such principles in mind does Prof. Arkes trace Justice Marshall’s elegant reasoning in Fletcher v. Peck that an implied constitutional prohibition against the impairment of contracts, notwithstanding the express prohibition contained in the Contracts Clause, may be deduced as a presupposition of the Ex Post Facto Clause. In a concurring opinion, Justice Johnson underscored the vigor of natural law reasoning, remarking that “the reason and nature of things” would “impose laws even on the deity.”
But where Marshall and Johnson might have used the natural law to bind the hands of the Almighty Himself, by the mid-20th century it was powerless even to condemn the architects of the concentration camps. Justice Robert Jackson acted as prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials. As a jurist having dismissed the natural law as an empty doctrine, Jackson could find no basis for his prosecution, as no positive law then existed. Rather than reverse his position on the natural law, Jackson based his prosecution on the Kellogg-Briand Pact of the 1920s, which bound its signatories to refrain from “aggressive” war. Yet from a purely positivistic standpoint, the Allies’ campaign at Normandy was likewise “aggressive.” Without invoking discussions of whether certain military actions were “justified” or “justified,” whether they were directed toward “just” or “unjust” ends—without invoking the natural law—no prosecution could be made.
All this just in chapter one. Prof. Arkes deserves a wide readership. I’ll close with his quote from the opening of chapter two:
A dear friend, who has done premier work in the neural sciences and several books on philosophical psychology, remarked that he wanted, as the epitaph on his gravestone, “He died without a theory.” A former colleague of mine remarked that I had a “theory” of natural law. But I can join my friend in saying that I, too, have no “theory.” To say that someone has a “theory” of natural law is to suggest that an observer, looking on, can see played out before him people seized with “theories” – that he may stand there, in a wholesome detachment, seeing theories of various sorts whizzing past. From that vantage point we are encouraged to make judgments about the theories, or fragments of theories, that are plausible or implausible, right or wrong, true or false. I said then: Just tell me the ground on which you are making those judgments about the theories that are plausible or implausible, true or false, and you would have been led back to the ground of what I understand as the natural law.
26. America-Lite: How Imperial America Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats), by David Gelernter. Yale professor David Gelernter’s polemic attacks the left wing intellectual culture wrought from two modern historical events: the Great Reform of elite American colleges, changing them from society colleges into intellectuals’ colleges, and the rise of Imperial Academia. If the content of these terms is somewhat amorphous, it is enough to reflect on the explosion of the number of colleges, universities, faculty, and administration in recent history, the transition from teaching to research, and shift leftward particularly with the New Deal. Intellectuals are “theory makers.” Facts are to be accounted for or replaced with theories. Yet intellectuals are extremely reluctant to yield their theories even in the face of inconvenient facts. Gelernter offers as an example the forced busing between the 1960s and 1980s. Although it did no good, intellectuals countered parents’ resistance with charges of racism. Even when a 1978 RAND study concluded racism was not the reason—instead, parents preferred their children to attend school nearby—intellectuals were reluctant to accept its findings. The “scatter-site public housing” of the late 1960s is another example, “in which stable ethnic communities were bombed with multi-megaton low-income housing projects. Those projects tend to destroy the value of other houses in the neighborhood—that is a fact; the world happens to work that way—and many middle-class people put their life savings in their homes. The projects tend to increase street crime: another mere fact, of no significance to the new establishment.”
Intellectuals are fundamentally inert, yet they overwhelmingly promote progressive policies. This explains why so many major progressive policies fail yet are never ended.
27. Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, by John C. Goodman. Goodman defines “health policy orthodoxy” as a commitment to two principles: (1) The really important health issue for poor people is access to care, and (2) to ensure access, waiting for care is always better than paying for care. According to Goodman, many people involved in health policy “are more concerned with whether people are insured than whether they get healthcare.” In other words, if you have to ration scarce medical resources somehow, rationing by waiting is always better than rationing by price. The commitment to this view, according to Goodman, explains why many advocates of the ACA are willing to overlook the doctor shortage the reforms fail to address. If the dollar price of health care can be reduced, a resulting increase in the time price is unimportant, and perhaps even laudable, since the time price will be distributed more evenly, which is appropriate if health care is a public good. It doesn’t seem to matter that we pay twice—once in time, once in money—for healthcare. Indeed, the increased time price caused by the ACA is so unimportant to adherents of the orthodox view that MIT professor Jonathan Gruber wrote a paper on Massachusetts health reform with no mention that the wait to see a new doctor in Boston is more than two months. One man’s feature is another man’s bug. Our problems in health care politics, like in the rest of politics, remain epistemological.
28. The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. The enthralling account of the formation of al-Quaeda, the rise of bin Laden, and how American intelligence began to close in on them—ultimately, too late.
29. The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas P.M. Barnett. Preventing global unrest, military coups, and generally keeping world democracy trending upwards depends on facilitating smooth integration of the “gap” nations into the “functioning core,” argues military strategist Thomas Barnett. The middle east is such a quagmire because it has such poor “soil” for democracy, and yet such a wealth of strategic oil reserves, that it both has trouble forming and maintaining stable democracies and threatens world security through oil supply. That’s certainly not to say U.S. policy in the middle east has been always right. It hasn’t. But adopting a policy of “no middle east policy,” i.e., isolationism, is simply not an option.
30. I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles Kesler. This is an important book that I intend to review soon. For now, here is a summary of Kesler’s setup: Kesler traces the path of “liberalism’s” 180 degree turn from a philosophy of freedom to a philosophy of power. Modern liberalism lacks any working definition—a desirable characteristic that imposes no discernible limits to those in power. Eric Alterman, a professor of English and journalism who likes to write books defending liberalism, declares, “liberalism arose as a matter of pure pragmatism with next to no theory in the first place and was led by a politician [FDR] who prided himself on his willingness to try almost anything. . . .” Pragmatism disclaimed ultimate truths, abstract theories, and final ends in favor of a method that seeks and finds truth in “what works.” Kesler writes that “to be a Pragmatist was already to incline against some of the main ideas of American constitutionalism.”
Kesler argues that modern liberalism came about in three waves: the first wave coming with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson; the second with FDR, who cynically adopted the label and suggested “conservatism” to his opponents; and the third with the resurgence of big government in the 1960s. Modern liberalism is a frayed admixture of evolutionary rights doctrine, state-directed social and economic policy, a philosophy of history oriented around the inevitability of rational progress, and a faith in political leaders. Obama inherited that frayed liberalism.
31. California: A History, by Kevin Starr. A terrific brief history of the Golden State by a preeminent California historian.
32. Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism, by Walter Williams. A collection of Williams’s op-eds and essays.
33. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray. This important book received much attention when it was published in January 2012. Murray argues that a variety of social and cultural forces since JFK’s assassination in 1963. Murray argues that four characteristics have always been central to American life: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. He makes the case that America has declined in each of these areas. Cognitively gifted Americans traditionally struggled to fit in with the rest of American life. No longer. Today, Murray argues, we no longer feel sorry for the exceptionally able student who has no one to talk to; instead, “we need to worry about what happens when exceptionally able students hang out only with one another.” Students at elite schools are drawn overwhelmingly from the upper-middle class. A large number of these come from what Murray calls the “SuperZips”—where Americans are more likely to be married, in their first marriage, employed, work longer hours, and be white or Asian. Although whites are increasingly losing their majority status—about one in ten counties has a majority of minorities—the SuperZips have been insulated from this demographic change.
The insular nature of this new elite poses problems for America’s social fabric. As cultural elites wall themselves off in the SuperZips, the rest of America, left to its own devices, has decreased its civic participation since 1960s. Social and economic norms have crumbled as well: The divorce rate exploded in the late 1960s, and from 1970-74, 24% of first marriages among Americans with college degrees ended in divorce within 10 years. Two decades later, that figure dropped to 17%. During the same period, Americans without college degrees divorced more often at a rate of 34-36%. The bankruptcy rate increased from 1986-2005, reaching over seven times the rate of 1978. Church membership has declined. Disability claims increased since 1960 out of pace with actual physical disability rates, suggesting widespread fraud. The infamous “Sunshine Club” on the Jersey Shore during the 1970s epitomized the idle, secular, uneducated, single male culture. Murray offers anecdotes of unmarried males living with their girlfriends and their children, living life on the sofa and tagging along to the grocery store with their heads buried in portable gaming devices. By the 1980s, men with college degrees decrease their leisure time to work more hours; but men with high school degrees found ways to increase hours devoted to leisure.
Planners have not found adequate substitutes for the values traditionally instilled by stable families. If we cannot find ways to restore those traditional aspects of American society, Murray argues, we may have no reason to believe our most troubling problems will get any better.
34. The Triumph of Conservatism, by Gabriel Kolko. My brief review of this important book can be found here. I also intend to include a treatment of it in a forthcoming piece.
35. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin. My first Lincoln biography, I chose Goodwin’s in anticipation of seeing the new film based on it. It is quite good, although I expected to find a much lengthier treatment of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
36. Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman. This classic work is as relevant today as when it was published in 1962, though its principles are not especially better received today than they were then. The battle for hearts gives us failed, prodigal policies of the Bush administration, and the battle for minds falls on deaf ears. The enterprise of freedom does, at times, seem bleak.
37. Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. And then, a gleam of hope. Written four years ago, each of its prescriptions for the GOP is still entirely accurate. Would if they were heeded by leadership, we may win an election before I am an old man.
38. A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, Luigi Zingales. I will have much to say on this in a forthcoming piece. Zingales is a passionate advocate of free markets, and a passionate opponent of crony capitalism. He even hints at gaps in accountability of corporate boards to shareholders. This is UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge area of expertise, and I would be anxious to know how he comes down on that issue.
39. Graveyard Special, by James Lileks. Another humorous whodunit. Lileks seems partial to the 80s—lots of amusing political and cultural references from the era.
40. The Constitution of Liberty, by F.A. Hayek. A masterpiece. But Blaise was right—the postscript “Why I Am Not a Conservative” is not on par with the analytical rigor of the principal work.
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