The American Dream Is Not Dead

(But Populism Could Kill It)

[Amazon Link]

This short book by (168 print pages, including end matter) was published in late February. It's by economist Michael R. Strain, who works for the American Enterprise Institute. I got the Kindle version for a mere $7.49, link at right. It's a quick read, very accessible.

Consumer note: some of the book's graphs rely on color. If your primary Kindle reading device is monochrome…

Strain's thesis is simple, set out right there in the title; he sets out to debunk the various doomsayers on left and right who claim that the American Dream is … well, if not dead, then seriously unwell. We're simply not doing that badly. Strain is no Pollyanna, setting out various challenges that the US is not meeting well. But he trots out some pretty convincing statistics showing that typical workers have been enjoying modest income gains over the past thirty years or so. He uses the "personal consumption expenditures" price index to account for inflation, as opposed to the more popular Consumer Price Index, arguably a more accurate choice.

Strain also looks at mobility, very relevant to the dream. He looks briefly at "relative" mobility—e.g., how likely is it that a kid growing up in a bottom-income-quintile family will move into a higher quintile? But he makes a good point about relative mobility as judged by income quintiles or some other N percent fraction of the income spectrum: when somebody moves up, someone else has to move down.

So he prefers absolute mobility, and the results are pretty cheery there. Most American men (about 59%) earn more than their fathers did at the same age. And about 80% of sons from the bottom 20% of income out-earn their fathers.

The numbers could be better. But we won't make them better (Strain goes on to argue) by various populist nostrums proposed by left and right: protectionism, industrial policy, punitive taxes on the successful.

Strain's book does something interesting by including rebuttals: one from the left (E. J. Dionne) and one from the right (Henry Olson). And then a final response to these critics—author's privilege—from Strain.

Even though it's a short book, I've left some stuff unmentioned here. It's very accessible and (to my mind) convincing.

The Second Life of Nick Mason

[Amazon Link]

This book really has some big guns writing laudatory blurbs: Harlen Coben (front cover), Steven King, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Don Winslow (back cover). Makes you wonder what the author, Steve Hamilton, has on those guys.

But never mind that. Mr. Hamilton takes a break here from his series character Alex McKnight, and tells the story of (surprise) Nick Mason. As the book opens, Nick's getting out of the high-security United States Penitentiary Terre Haute, where he was serving a long sentence. Which has been overturned. Yay, right?

Wrong. Because the release was arranged by a powerful Chicago crime boss, Darius Cole, who sees Nick as sort of a ninja he can groom to be a warrior for his continued dominance over the city's organized crime scene. All Nick really wants to do is reconnect with his ex-wife and daughter, live some sort of straight life. But Darius demands loyalty and obedience, which involves Nick perpetrating some more crimes. And trying not to get caught or killed.

It's a convoluted tale of criminals and dirty cops. A page-turner, no question. But the whole sub-genre of "guy gets out of jail only to get involved in a lot of violent mayhem" is pretty well-travelled. (Remember Jim Thompson's The Getaway? 1959.)

If I had a further quibble, it would be overuse of the f-word, which seems to be Mr. Hamilton's way of indicating that his dialog and the characters' inner monologues are gritty and realistic.

Broken Harbor

[Amazon Link]

This is the fourth entry in Tana French's "Dublin Murder Squad" series. The protagonist narrator here is Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, a supporting character in the previous book, Faithful Place.

Mick makes it clear from the get-go that he's nobody's sweetheart. He's all about the job, corralling the perps, being the best detective on the squad. He's got no patience for fools, and he thinks just about everyone is a fool. For a new and horrific case, he takes on a new partner, Richie. Not because he'd like to show the youngster the ropes and act as a benevolent mentor; instead, he thinks that the youngster will be easier to browbeat into doing things Mick's way.

But the case really is horrifying. "Broken Harbor" is the old name for a new real estate development on Ireland's east coast, and it's only partially finished because the developers have gone bust. But one of the finished houses has been the scene of a gruesome attack, leaving a dead husband, two dead kids, and a wife in intensive care. And there's some really weird shit at the crime scene, involving a lot of baby monitors, holes punched in the walls, an open attic hatch with wire mesh over the opening.

As the case develops, it turns out Mick (unfortunately) has Broken Harbor history that shook his own family, and threatens his ability to deal with the present situation. As has been the case with the previous books in the series, the story is not just about solving the case, but also the psychic damage that the solution wreaks on the participants.

Invisible Man

[Amazon Link]

By Ralph Ellison, not H. G. Wells. One of those books you are Supposed To Read. No question, it's powerful and (arguably) timely, despite being published nearly 70 years ago. I got a cheap Kindle version, link on the right as usual. But (consumer note) it had a bunch of minor typographic glitches, so you may want to spring for something more reliable, perhaps this spiffy Modern Library edititon.

Did I mention timely? I had never used Kindle's highlighting feature before, but here's a couple sentences I found speaking to America's relationship with President Bone Spurs:

Whether we liked him or not, he was never out of our minds. That was a secret of leadership.

Sounds sarcastic, but is it, really?

The unnamed African-American narrator takes us on his life's journey from high school, into an college, into the world of work in New York City, then becoming a "community organizer" in Harlem, finally moving into self-exile from American society. (Oops, spoilers, sorry.) His path is marked with all sorts of incidents: bizarre, absurd, many nightmarish. And (very few) hilarious. He continually makes "seemed like a good idea at the time" choices that come back to bite him in the ass. It doesn't help that he's continually exploited and betrayed by his co-workers, superiors, and friends. He abandons the few actually-decent people he meets along the way.

Note for my fellow right-wingers: Among the exploiters is a thinly-disguised Communist Party, looking to use him as a puppet to engage Harlem into its revolutionary cause.

Ellison's prose is dense and flowery. I think I've seen it described as "Faulkneresque" but it's been a long time since I read Faulkner, so I couldn't tell you.

10% Less Democracy

Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less

[Amazon Link]

I got this book via UNH Interlibrary Loan, up from Southern New Hampshire University's Shapiro Library. It's by Garett Jones, econ prof at George Mason and the Mercatus Center. He undertakes a brave task, taking on the sacred cow of "democracy"—is it really the best way to run things?

Well, of course it is. Except when it's not. Jones says: let's back off and really examine real-world results of democratic procedures. And comes to the reasonable conclusion that we'd be better off with slightly less of them. As the title says, about 10% less.

Some of the data is telling. Independent central banks, insulated from "democratic" political pressures, seem to deliver better economic results for their countries. Independent judicial branches reach better decisions than more politicized ones. Bondholders—nobody elected them—can act as important sanity checks on governments' fiscal policies. Plenty of other examples and sensible observations.

This could be all dry and abstract, but Jones isn't afraid to drop some wit into his discussion. For example, in his discussion of "unanimity rule" (as opposed to "majority rule"): "If 90% of the people at the party want to order so-called pineapple pizza badly enough, and if the party can only order one kind of pizza, then even under unanimity rule, those 90% will probably be able to buy off the wise minority who are rightly skeptical of this pineapple-bread monstrosity." Heh.

A late chapter is particularly relevant to the current "democratic socialist" argument that we should be more like Denmark. Jones compares Denmark with (roughly equal in population) Singapore. Singapore's per capita income is about 80% higher than Denmark's. Singapore's life expectancy is 2.5 years longer than Denmark's. And: "Since 1960, Denmark has grown about four times richer per person, but over the same period, Singapore has grown about twenty-three times richer per person."

And Singapore is not particularly "democratic": Jones estimates that it has "50% less democracy". Yet, it flourishes. We don't need to, and probably shouldn't, go "Full Singapore". But it would be a good thing if we were at least wondering if it wouldn't be a decent idea to move in that direction.

Humble Pi

When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World

[Amazon Link]

Picked up on impulse from Portsmouth Public Library. It's good!

The author, Matt Parker, is a British stand-up comedian who also happens to know his math (or, since he's British, "maths") pretty well. His book is (therefore) genuinely funny in spots. Fun feature: the pages are numbered backward, starting at 311, going down to zero.

And then rolling over to 4,294,967,295 (which computer geeks will recognize as 232 - 1) for the end matter. Ha!

So I had to jigger a different version of my Reading Schedule Generator to handle this; it normally sanity-checks its input for things like an end-pagenumber greater than a start-pagenumber. (But it worked once I ripped the checks out.)

The subtitle says the book describes what happens "when math goes wrong", but that's misleading. It's never the math going wrong, it's people trying (and failing) to use math.

An example Parker cites from 2013:

Yes, this is the same stupid mistake that was made a few weeks back by MSNBC anchor Brian Williams and New York Times Editorial Board member Mara Gay:

There's nothing new under the sun, as they say.

Parker doesn't stop at simple division. He wanders into probability, combinatorics, geometry, etc. Lots of computer programming topics, too: rounding errors, cryptography, random number generation, etc. As I said, it's funny in parts, but the upshots of "math going wrong" can be monetary losses, security breaches, structures swaying and falling, planes crashing, rockets blowing up. And, of course, people dying. So it's not all funny.


Last Modified 2020-03-15 6:35 PM EDT

Heaven, My Home

[Amazon Link]

Although this book was on the WSJ's list of The Best Mystery Books of 2019, I didn't care for it that much. Anyway, I'm at the halfway point on that list: five down, five to go.

A major part of the problem: it's the second book of the "Highway 59 series" by Attica Locke. This doesn't have to be a problem, but in this case it is: a major part of the book is a continuation of the plot of (I assume) the previous book.

By the way, not that it matters, but the little Iowa town in which I spent my early years was on US Highway 59 too. This didn't assist me in enjoying the book.

The politics is pretty strident, too. Ms. Locke is political, despises Trump, and much of the plot here revolves around various manifestations of his malignant influence, giving cover to various flavors of white supremacist ideology. That's pretty tedious.

Anyway, the book is set in east Texas, near the Louisiana border. The part that's not carried over from the first book involves a missing 9-year-old white kid who's been abducted from treacherous Caddo Lake. He's the son of an Aryan Brotherhood moron in jail for killing an African American; suspicion falls on the black guy who claims to have been the last to have seen the kid alive.

The protagonist is Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, who's got his problems hanging over him from the first book. And nobody really wants him snooping around this case either. And he's not particularly sympathetic: a drinking problem, a very dysfunctional family, an infatuation with a lady not his wife (again, from the first book), suspicions that his wife may have been unfaithful with his old (white) college buddy who's now in the FBI. And said Fed looking to make a name for himself by pinning the (presumed) murder of the missing white kid as a hate crime committed by the previously mentioned black guy.

Lots of characters, difficult to keep straight, including cartoonish rich white people up to no good by screwing over the oppressed.

Ah, well. As I said, five down, five to go.

A Trick of Light

[Amazon Link]

Well, I was seduced into getting this book by a Reason podcast interview with co-author Kat Rosenfield. Her collaborator: Stan Lee. Yes, that one. Before he died.

Kat seemed like a nice person, said some sensible things about cancel culture.

So I spent an Interlibrary Loan pick at the University Near Here, the it wended its way down from Bangor Public Library, and…

Well, it wasn't my cup of tea. I commit to reading library books all the way through, but instead of the "what comes next" elicited by even potboiler fiction, my recurring thoughts here were:

"Egads, this is stupid."

"Please make it stop."

"Why did they think this would be a good idea?"

It originally came out solely as an audiobook. Maybe it works better in that medium. But, a page at random (265): "The Inventor has warned him of what's to come: a global takeover that would bring the world as he knows it to an end, ushering in a new era like something out of a nightmare. A horde of networked humans marching through the streets, demanding cooperation — and forcing it one the ones who refuse."

Yeesh.

But, hey, you might like it.

Dark Sacred Night

[Amazon Link]

Another page-turner from Michael Connelly. I'm trying to figure out why I like his books so much. His style is pedestrian, dialogue is pretty wooden. In his favor, his stories firmly hold my interest, and the police-procedural details are hyper-realistic. At least as far as I know.

This is billed as a "Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch" novel. We met Renée a couple books back (The Late Show). Here, she's working the night shift, doing her usual brilliant detective thing at the LAPD's Hollywood Division. When she notices a stranger pawing through some old case files. Meet Harry, Renée.

Bosch is not supposed to be doing that. But he's working a plot thread from the previous book (Two Kinds Of Truth) where he met a painkiller-addicted woman despondent over the murder of her daughter years ago. Harry pledged to investigate.

Renée wants in. And so they both set out to investigate this very cold case. Do they succeed in bringing the perpetrator to justice? Spoiler: yes, eventually.

The Contact Paradox

Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

[Amazon Link]

I picked this book up on impulse from the Portsmouth Public Library. A decent read, sometimes mind-blowing, marred somewhat by the author's politics.

The concept is pretty simple: we're here, we're (somewhat) intelligent, there's nothing to say we're particularly special in the universe, therefore it's easy to conclude there's almost certainly other intelligent life out there. OK, not on Mars or Venus (sorry, 1940s SF fans). But on other stars' planets. So let's use the tools at our disposal to look for it.

Fine. Some people go a lot further than that: the language they use betrays their fervent hope/belief that there must be ETIs Out There. Is that a proper scientific mindset? I don't think so.

The author, Keith Cooper, starts at an unexpected place with a chapter on "altruism." Which turns out to be kind of a shorthand. If we assume ETIs, can we also assume the ETI's motivations and attitudes toward (say) us would be benevolent, and willing to share? Intelligence aside, is whatever evolutionary path they followed likely to have resulted in a psychology that would be similar to ours?

And (for that matter) let's not put intelligence aside. Say that some alien evolutionary process produces living beings capable of complex responses to the environment. Would that result in an "intelligence" we'd even recognize, let alone communicate with?

Well, you get the idea: evaluating the likelihood of ETI involves looking hard at "how we got here". This takes Cooper down some unexpected paths, for example, plate tectonics. Which (many believe) caused upwellings of trace elements into the oceans, driving the proliferation of species.

How rare are planets with plate tectonics? We don't know.

And then there's the Moon: it's huge. Because it's huge, it stabilizes Earth's axial tilt, which gives us a relatively stable climate, giving species precious time to adapt and thrive. And yet, it was (probably) caused by a freak collision between Earth and some Mars-sized early planet.

How likely is that to happen elsewhere? We don't know that either.

Then there's the possibility that "intelligent" species have a finite lifetime. That would explain why they're not obviously knocking on our door: they're dead. Cooper goes into (you might find this depressing) detail about various ways our species could bite the dust, either by suicide (climate change, nukes, aieee!) or natural catastrophe (e.g., asteroids, nearby supernovae or gamma ray bursts).

These musings are only a small part of the book. Cooper delves into the details of the history and current status of searches for ETIs. Radio? (What frequencies, Kenneth?) Maybe the ETIs are using lasers? Masers? Infrared? Neutrinos? Maybe we should be looking for Dyson (RIP) Spheres?

And another issue: should we be proactively sending out signals to other systems, hoping for a response? This is surprisingly controversial. My old college classmate David Brin is mentioned here about being pretty freaked out about efforts in that area. Who exactly should bear responsibility for "talking" to ETIs? How should "we" decide the content of such messages? Do we hold a democratic vote? I say: just let Brin decide.


Last Modified 2020-03-02 8:41 AM EDT