The Case Against Education

Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

[Amazon Link]

This is one of those rare non-fiction books with a thesis in which I am in 100% agreement.

For author Bryan Caplan, the education system is an emperor with no clothes. And not only is the emperor merely naked, he's downright ugly, with disfiguring diseases. Also stupid and misguided. He should have no claims on your allegiance.

Education-system apologists point to an obvious fact: people with "more education" wind up with better results in society. Specifically, they make more money. Caplan notes that's so, but disputes the assumed underlying reason for that success. Education does increase one's "human capital", sure, but that's only a part of the story, and a relatively small part at that. A much bigger reason for success is that obtaining a degree is a "signal" to employers of three things: that the degree holder (1) has a certain amount of necessary intelligence; (2) has employment-compatible work habits; (3) exhibits a certain degree of conformity; they followed instructions in school without making much of a fuss, so it's a safe bet they won't rock the boat on the job, either.

Fine, but it gets worse. While it's likely that increased education levels are a good deal for the student, people tend to jump to the "obvious" conclusion that they're good for society as a whole as well.

First off, Caplan points out this is the "fallacy of composition". You can get a better view if you stand up at a concert; but if everyone does that, nobody gets a better view. So it is with education: when employers start looking at a Bachelor's degree to get a job as (say) a cab driver, that's a zero-sum game: the non-degree cab drivers get crowded out.

Not only is the argument fallacious, it's also quantitatively wrong. Caplan works the stats to discover the "social return" to education, and discovers a surprising result: even under generous assumptions, it's negative. In the US, the trillion-or-so dollars fed annually into the gaping maw of education system is worse than wasted. We'd get better results from putting that money toward cancer research, veteran health care, space travel, or even (shocking notion) letting taxpayers keep it and spend it on things they want.

Caplan writes from inside the system; he's an econ prof at George Mason, and, before that, he's had the requisite lifetime experience as a diligent student. He's a whistleblower, and casts a realistic eye over what he's seen: most students are bored, and going through the motions; most teachers are boring and also going through the motions; most "required" courses are required for no good reason, with most of the material soon forgotten, with (mostly) no ill effects.

Caplan tells the story with a moderate amount of cheeky humor. He realizes that (almost certainly) not enough people will buy his thesis to make a difference in policies. But that doesn't mean he isn't completely correct. As near as I can tell, he is. Read the book to see if he doesn't convince you.


[Amazon Link]

Should I binge-watch all six seasons of Justified one more time? Yeah, probably not. Instead, I put the Raylan Givens-containing books of Elmore Leonard on my cybernetic to-be-read pile; this is the first.

Summary: Florida bookie Harry Arno has a pretty good, albeit illegal, life. But (bad news) in order to get the goods on his boss, "Jimmy Cap", the Feds have started a rumor that Harry is skimming off Jimmy's cut of the profits. (He is, he readily admits, but not more than anyone else does.)

Enter Raylan. He and Harry have a history: Harry escaped his clutches once before, when Raylan trusted him a tad too much while going for ice cream. So … Harry immediately does it again, fleeing to Italy under Raylan's nose.

Which raises Raylan's hackles, so he's off to Italy, on his own time to track Harry down. Because Jimmy Cap's minions are after Harry as well, and they're just looking to do him in.

There are an assortment of supporting characters, all richly developed. Leonard was a master of "show, don't tell", so we get to know everyone through their conversations (often loopy) and their actions (sometimes surprising).

For a fan of the TV series, it's fun to recognize the bits and pieces of the book that got transmogrified. A book showdown scene in Italy between Raylan and some mafiosos moved to the Mexican border on TV, with different mafiosos and slightly different results. Tommy Bucks, who was in Season One, Episode One, Scene One of the TV show, appears here too as a Givens antagonist. Without spoilers, the outcome is similar, but the circumstances differ significantly.

The Cartel

[Amazon Link]

A sequel to Winslow's 2005 book The Power of the Dog which I read back in 2007, and enjoyed. In the sense that a novel containing tons of unremitting violence and betrayal can be enjoyable.

It's more of the same here. As we begin, the villain in the previous book, drug kingpin Adán Barrera, is in an American prison. Where the diligent DEA agent (and his onetime friend) Art Keller placed him at the end of The Power of the Dog. But the decades-long path of the previous book was fatal to Art ever leading a normal life; he's now doing beekeeping in a remote monastery in the desert.

But Barrera finds an out: by betraying some of his former allies in Mexico, he wangles a deal that gets him transferred to a Mexican prison. Whose keepers turn out (as Barrera knows) to be so corruptible that it's more like a luxury hotel which you are technically not allowed to leave. But re-establishing your pre-eminence as drug lord? Hey, no problem. And he eventually "escapes" anyway.

Which, in turn, brings Keller out of the monastery, and back into the game.

The book covers about eight years of the cat-and-mouse game between Barrera and Keller. With the cats and mice equipped with plenty of weaponry. There's lots of violence, some sex, and surprisingly little drugs. A lot of supporting characters to keep straight, especially on the bad-guy side; you might want to take notes.

Winslow has long been a must-read author for me. You can read this book as mindless escapism if you want. However, the underlying theme is clear: the American "war on drugs" is a massive failure; while the US gets the drugs, what Mexico gets in return is violence, corruption, and lawlessness. In a sobering dedication Winslow lists the Mexican journalists "murdered or 'disappeared'" during the writing of the book. It is a very long list.

If you want a true-fact version, I suggest Jay Nordlinger's recent article Reporting under the Gun. If anything, the danger to journalists has gotten far worse since Winslow wrote this book.

Who I Am

[Amazon Link]

Another book in my quest to understand the roots of creative genius. And also another failure at that quest. It's probably time to give up on this idea of seeking insights from celebrity memoirs. (Previous tries: Jimmy Webb; Bruce Springsteen; Donald Fagen; Eric Clapton; Tina Fey; Steve Martin; Bob Dylan.)

Pete Townshend's book is longer and probably more literate than most. It's full of introspection, but the takeaways are not that insightful.

But does it hit all the major themes of rock-god autobiographies?

Drugs? Check. A lot of cognac, but also cocaine, pot, prescription drugs, heroin, LSD, …

Sex? Check. Mostly fumbling, some unconsummated, mostly at the expense of long-suffering wife Karen. Surprising: Theresa Russell!

Psychological problems? Oh heck yes.

Weird religious beliefs? Have you ever heard of Meher Baba? Pete is is most devoted disciple. Did that keep him out of trouble? No. But maybe he'd have been in even worse shape without.

Some random observations:

  • He's admitted to the Daltrey/Entwistle band on page 46. His memory of the "audition" is Roger asking "Can you play E? Can you play B? Can you play 'Man of Mystery' by the Shadows? "Hava Nagila"? OK, then. See you for practice at Harry's."

    From such inauspicious beginnings…

  • Keith Moon gets into the band on page 67, replacing the "too old" Doug Sandom. Hey, Sandom may have been old and boring, but you know what? Unlike Moon, he's still alive.

  • It's funny how Townshend's musings about his music differ from my fanboy impressions. I liked the Who OK, but when Who's Next came out in 1971, I thought it was a masterpiece. Still do, in fact. Turned me into a lifelong fan. Mr. Townshend seems to view it as a thrown-together hackwork to appease contractual obligations after the collapse of his ambitious Lifehouse project.

  • On page 377, he refers to song he's written "for my friend, Harvey Weinstein." Wince. Wonder if he'd like to have that one back.

  • On page 107, he recalls in 1966 listening to "the Beach Boys' stereo masterpiece, Pet Sounds". I like Pet Sounds too, but it wasn't released in a stereo mix until 1997.

  • As an example of the book's introspection without insight: on pages 438-9, he mentions going to a couple sessions of couples counselling with long-suffering wife Karen. Upshot? "The first session was all right, but the second was less successful." Pete, could you have made that anecdote any less interesting? If you're not going to go into specifics, why are you telling us this at all?

Anyway, I'm glad Pete didn't die before he got old.

Enlightenment Now

The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

[Amazon Link]

As I'm sure I've mentioned before: I'll read anything that comes of Steven Pinker's keyboard. Fanboy here. Despite the fact that I am now ElderlyOnAFixedIncome, I sprang for the dead-trees hardcover at Amazon.

This book consists of two main themes: first, it's sort of a sequel to Pinker's 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I reported on here). The positive worldwide trends he reported in that book continue: our Collective Statistics continue to improve, we're living longer, healthier, wealthier, safer, smarter lives, increasingly free of violence, pollution, and despotic governance. What's not to like?

The second theme, which I think he hits more strongly here than he did in Better Angels, is when he describes the likely causes and possible future of such progress. Basically, he sees our Enlightened history as a long process of shucking off the chains of tribalism and superstition. And our future progress depends on continuing that trend, and embracing an (explicitly atheistic) humanism. And, oh yeah, he despises Donald Trump. And Republicans, generally.

Pinker is a very good science writer, one of the best popularizers. But when he wanders outside of his professional fields of psychology, linguistics, and cognition, he can seem more than a little glib. When he gets into the philosophical/political/economic realm—as he does here, to I think a greater extent than in previous books—he manages to appear both strident and simplistic. (For example, he rails against "populism", but it becomes clear that he's using that term to mean "political positions I don't like". Fine, I don't like most of 'em either, but your terminology is non-standard, Steve.)

To be fair, I think Pinker can be an equal-opportunity offender: he has zero patience with left-wing PC Progressivism when it serves the forces of irrationality, intolerance, ignorance, and global pessimism. As a result he's been smeared by (some) leftists. So good on him for that.

But he seems to have his own faith. He's a big believer in "problem solving". As if the divisive issues confronting us were simply more advanced versions of the end-of-chapter exercises in math textbooks. Hey, just plug the numbers into the formulas, and they'll tell us technocrats what to do, and we'll just make that happen! There are no trade-offs.

While he gives lip service to "the freedom of people to screw up their own lives" (p. 344), it's unclear what that implies. He never seems to come to grips with it. Frustrating to those of us with libertarian sensibilities.

Added later that same day: Tyler Cowen calls this review ("Why Steven Pinker is Wrong") "one of the very best". I think we're in agreement: read Pinker, but don't take his philosophical/historic musings as gospel (heh).

Last Modified 2018-03-03 5:46 PM EST

No Middle Name

The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories

[Amazon Link]

Bottom line (up here at the top): Reacher stories are pretty good, too. Not better, not worse, just different. Lee Child gets to play around, experiment a bit. When he's having fun, the reader does too. There's no doubt about that. It's a collection of twelve stories, four of which I'd already read, either as Kindle singles or as paperback extras. But I had fun re-reading them.

Random notes:

  • In one 43-page story, Reacher doesn't even show up until eight pages from the end.

  • As always, ultra-Dickensian coincidence plays a major role in the yarns where Reacher is out of the Army, just wandering around the world. He always somehow seems to fall into the middle of some skulduggery, conspiracy, or mystery. (Just one exception, and it's kind of sweet. I'll let you find it.)

  • A couple of stories involve Young Reacher, one as a thirteen-year-old with his Marine family in Okinawa, one as a sixteen-year-old in New York. Even back then, recognizably Reacher.

  • In one story, there are major characters named Aaron, Bush, Cook, and Delaney. In another: Alice, Briony, Christine, and Darwen. Reacher remarks on the latter coincidence. I don't mind this sort of thing that much, but it took me out of the stories a bit, wondering why Lee Child did that.

  • Reacher beats the crap out of one or more deserving characters in many of the stories. And displays his super-Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction in many too. I didn't keep careful track of how many of each, though, sorry.

Bone Deep

[Amazon Link]

I made it up to number 21 in Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford series. I'm ready to call it quits. Nothing personal, Mr. White. It's not you, it's me. Or maybe it's you. I got the feeling too many times while reading this that you were under Contractual Obligation to produce 360 pages.

It's not as if the editors at Putnam care much. At one point, a character says that a conversation contained "Not enough to activate my censors".

Anyway, in this one, Doc is looped into a hunt for stolen Indian artifacts. Which takes him to an abandoned phosphate mine in Central Florida. Which has a lot of other stuff going on: the remnants of Ice Age beasts and civilizations, a possible Conquistador's sword, and … a big old elephant. The owner of the phosphate mine has a large, dysfunctional family. And an elephant. There's a one-handed brain-damaged homicidal biker. Doc has (yet another) rocky romantic relationship with a charismatic lady. And a lot of other poorly-described characters.

I could be lazy. Reading my favorite authors is like moving down a well-paved highway; there may be unexpected turns, sure, but the view is interesting, and I never get lost. Reading Mr. White's last few books is more like navigating a back road filled with potholes, full of dead ends and unimpressive sights.

Hey, Idiot!

Chronicles of Human Stupidity

[Amazon Link]

This is a stupid book about stupidity. I can't remember why I have it. Did I buy it? That would have been stupid. Maybe a Christmas gift from long ago? That would make more sense; it has the air of something strategically re-gifted.

But I wouldn't—couldn't—shuffle this awful book off to someone else. Pun Salad Manor is where re-gifting chains finally end.

It's 249 pages. Allegedly a "humor" book, but I can honestly say I didn't laugh once. The author, Leland Gregory, has a Facebook page, in which he describes himself as "The Official Chronicler of Human Stupidity".

Which means: he scours the media for oddball stories, cuts and pastes, adds occasional snarky comments, and when he gets to a certain number, Voila, another book crapped out.

I suppose it's a living. At least he's not a politician.

Example, an item titled "Tic-Tac-Don't":

A nine-year-old student from Weems Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia, was suspended under the schools zero-tolerance policy on drugs. The boy had been caught giving his friends a Certs breath mint. The school policy not only bans real drugs but also "look-alikes" that a reasonable person would believe is a controlled substance. Defending his son's reputation, the boy's father said, "He's not a breath-mint addict or anything like that." Not yet, but who knows where something like this might lead?

Thigh-slapper? No. (But here, if you're interested, is the Washington Post story on which the item is apparently based.)

249 pages of this sort of thing is the very definition of tedious reading.

Anyway: I own it, I put it on the to-be-read pile, and eventually it came up. And now I'm using it to inflate my book-reading numbers. Does that make me stupid? Probably.

Last Modified 2018-02-19 6:33 AM EST


[Amazon Link]

You loved The Martian, right? Both the movie and the book? Me too. So I asked for, and received, Andy Weir's new book, Artemis, for Christmas, and … well, I guess I'm surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but still.

What I expected, and got: science fiction so hard you can see the rivets. A wise-cracking ingenious protagonist who goes from crisis to crisis, coming up with improvised solutions necessary for survival in dire situations. (And, spoiler alert for those who can't see the cover image: it's set on the Moon.)

What I didn't really expect, from an author whose previous hero was the straight-shooting all-American scientist/astronaut Mark Watney: a female protagonist, born in Saudi Arabia, … who's kind of a minor-league lunar criminal. And while The Martian was a survival tale, Artemis is pretty much a noir crime thriller.

The narrator/protagonist is Jasmine Bashara, and her primary criminal activity is smuggling illicit items and substances to the misbehaving residents of Artemis, the (so far) only lunar community, set 40 kilometers south of the Apollo 11 landing site on the Sea of Tranquility. (The layout, operation, and economics of the town are all precisely described, of course. Down to the last rivet.)

Jasmine's poor, struggling to be upwardly mobile. But it's tough. And she makes it tougher by some of her, um, choices. (In one amusing bit she suggests what might have been an alternate book title: Attack of the Moon Woman Who Made Bad Life Decisions.) Her motivations and self-imposed morality are made clearer as the book trundles on. When a billionaire offers her the opportunity to make a Big Score by sabotaging a major bit of lunar industry, she's in. And then her problems are just beginning.

Bottom line: it's a very good page turner, Andy Weir shows that he's not a one-trick pony.

Yes, a movie is in the works. Where can I buy my ticket?

Inheritors of the Earth

How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction

[Amazon Link]

Recommended by Ronald Bailey in Reason's 2017 Gift Guide, and received from Boston College by the crack Interlibrary Loan team at the University Near Here.

The author, Chris D. Thomas, is a professor of conservation biology at the University of York over there in the United Kingdom. His thesis is refreshingly contrarian: the planet is not (or at least need not be) hurtling toward human-caused ecological doom. Yes, there are problems, but too many self-styled environmentalists have a static way-things-should-be vision based less in science than in sentiment.

Overall, his story views the past and likely future effects of humanity on the biological landscape. Our history is (of course) carnage-filled: ancient humans, the non-gathering hunting components anyway, exterminated a lot of large-mammal species worldwide in a relative eyeblink.

Extinctions are regrettable, of course, and should be (in our modern age) prevented when and where feasible. But they're also natural; implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) failing to view humans as part of nature is an ongoing misperception. Thomas points out that extinctions nearly always happen in a dynamic that increases overall biodiversity, making the resulting system more robust and resilient.

Thomas, therefore, is not to be found on the bandwagon against "invasive species". (You want an example of an invasive species, bunkie? Unless you live in a small region of East Africa, go to the bathroom and look in the mirror.) The invasive-species doomsayers have a static vision of "the way things should be", when actual nature is amazingly dynamic.

Thomas strikes me as the kind of guy you could plop down in the middle of a New Hampshire forest, and he would start rattling off the dozens of species present, where they came from, when they arrived, what's likely in store for them over the coming decades and centuries. He has an engaging and accessible style ("for a Brit"), not averse to being genuinely funny in spots.