Alienated America

Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse

[Amazon Link]

By coincidence, I found myself concurrently reading two books about dysfunctional America. The other one, The Inclusive Economy, focused on poverty, and I didn't care for it much. This one, however, by Tim Carney, exceeded my expectations. When I get around to composing a "top 10" nonfiction list, this will definitely be on it.

Carney's goal is daunting, to explain various symptoms of social dysfunction among some areas of America. There are increased "deaths of despair" caused by drugs, suicide, and alcohol. People report feelings of loneliness, depression, and free-floating anger. People perceive that the "American Dream" is deader than the dodo. And we alreadly know about the murderous wackos.

Arguably worse: Donald Trump got elected by tapping into all this angst.

So what's going on? Carney convincingly ties things to the breakdown of healthy communities. Much is due to the decline of church attendance. (For example, those Trump voters? They report being "religious" at a higher than average rate. But their church attendance is actually lower than average. Hm.)

Yes, economic dislocation, in terms of good old "creative destruction" has its part. When a factory shutters, a significant fraction of "good decent" people move away, leaving behind a population without good prospects. But its more than that. (Carney visits a North Dakota fracking boom town, which is pretty dysfunctional on its own terms.)

Carney does a fantastic job of slicing and dicing demographic data, exit polling, and plain old shoe-leather reporting on communities that work and communities that don't. He doesn't have any grand top-down solutions, and explains why he doesn't. "Solutions" are something that have to be bottom-up; the best thing he can recommend is that governments stop some of the trends we're on: restore religious liberty, stop discouraging private charity, decentralize, deregulate.

You know, the kind of things that no major politician is advocating.

Personal note: one of Carney's Bad Example locations is Pottawattamie County, Iowa. Where I lived for the first ten years of my life. Guess it was a good idea for Mom and Dad to move us out back in 1961. The big city in the county is Council Bluffs, across the Missouri from Omaha. I guess it's where Omahans go to sin these days. And the current nickname for the place is "Counciltucky". Ouch.

The Inclusive Economy

How to Bring Wealth to America's Poor

[Amazon Link]

I regret to say that this book (obtained via Interlibrary Loan by the University Near Here from Wesleyan University) goes in the "Wish I'd Liked It Better" category. I had high hopes, as it emanates from the Cato Institute. I've noticed the author, Michael D. Tanner, writing a lot of good stuff in the past. But…

That's not to say it's bad, it's merely "not awful", could have been better. Poverty is not a burning issue in America, causing pols to me more vocal about what they'll do for (or, more likely, to) you. Still, if you walk around with open eyes, it's hard bot to be concerned.

What causes American poverty? Guess what? It's complicated. Tanner discusses (some of) the usual culprits: racism, sexism, changing social attitudes, economic dislocation, etc. And his proposed reforms are conveniently listed:

  1. Reform the criminal justice system, end the war on drugs.
  2. Reform education system and stop the slide of the U.S. in education outcomes.
  3. Bring down the cost of housing.
  4. Make it easier for the poor to bank, save, borrow and invest–and start businesses.
  5. Increase economic growth and make it more inclusive.

All worthy endeavours, and the sub-reforms (e.g., reform of regulations, occupational licensing, zoning, etc.) are congenial to liberty-minded folks who are also compassionate toward the less well-off.

So what was not so good about the book?

  • You'd think that Charles Murray would have made a more frequent appearance in a libertarian-oriented book about poverty. But as far as Tanner seems to be concerned, Murray's contribution started and ended with 1984's Losing Ground. But The Bell Curve (1994) described a significant correlation between intelligence and poverty. And Coming Apart (2012) went into more detail on "assortive mating"; to the extent that IQ is heritable, the haves and the have-nots tend to procreate with each other, and the correlation propagates into the likely future.

    But it's not just (specifically) Murray, the issue of intelligence is, as near as I can tell, entirely absent from Tanner's book. OK, so maybe Tanner thinks it's unimportant. But (still) we're owed at least a cursory dismissal of why he thinks it's unimportant.

  • Also largely absent is Thomas Sowell. His insight that statistical disparities between groups need not, and often are not the result of invidious discrimination goes unmentioned. And Tanner usually assumes the worst, especially in his discussion of criminal justice. (Yes, African-Americans are jailed out of proportion to their presence in the popultion. But they also commit more crime,)

  • Similarly, the issue of immigration is (as near as I can tell) MIA in Tanner's book. Specifically, low-skilled immigration. Tanner is eloquent on the damage that minimum wage laws do to the poor: they literally make it illegal to hire someone whose value to the employer might not make economic sense.

    So, what about an increased supply of low-skill labor? What does that do to the poor job-seeker?

    Again, Tanner might not find this important. But (again) not mentioning it at all is difficult to excuse.

  • Finally, a quibble: in a mostly-good discussion of the need to provide financial/banking services to the poor, Tanner includes this bit of evidence:

    For instance, according to the Federal Reserve, 46 percent of adults say they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

    It's not that simple, and (guess what) I found a more nuanced discussion on the Cato blog (because this was also a talking point of presidential ex-candidate John Hickenlooper): Is it True that 40% of Americans Can't Handle a $400 Emergency Expense? Asked and answered by Alan Reynolds:

    The question was about how people would choose to pay a $400 “emergency expense” — not whether or not they could pay it out of savings (or checking) if they wanted to.  Respondents were also free to choose more than one way of paying the extra $400 (“please selects [sic] all that apply”), so the answers add up [to] 143% rather than 100%.  Even if 100% said they could pay an extra $400 with cash, there could still be more than 40% who would choose a different method.

    It turns out that 86% would pay cash or charge it and then pay off the bill at the next statement (many consumers autopay credit card bills from checking accounts). Some (11%) said they might borrow some or all of it from a friend or family member, but that probably means a spouse or parent in most cases (respondents included full-time students).

    I.e., Tanner either should have reported this more carefully, or left it out. This sloppiness says that there may be problems in some of those other footnotes and citations as well.

Bottom line: not awful. Could have, and should have, been much better.

A Dangerous Man

[Amazon Link]

The new Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novel from Robert Crais. Mr. Crais is on my short "buy" list for novelists.

Young Isabel is a bank teller, but (thanks to the opening scene) we know that she comes from a family with a deep dark secret. Unfortunately, this means that she's a target of bad guys: a couple of minions grab her on her way out of the bank, shove her into their car, and drive off!

Terrible, right? Unfortunately for the minions, Isabel is a teller at Joe Pike's bank. And Joe's a witness to the abduction. So the abductors are subdued in short order (in gratifying Joe Pike fashion), and Isabel is rescued.

But (as it turns out) it doesn't end there. Because Isabel has no idea why she was kidnapped. And she remains in peril, because those guys were just minions. So Joe, and his partner, the World's Greatest Detective, Elvis Cole, must uncover the secrets in Isabel's past, and protect her from future violence.

That last bit is a bit difficult, because Isabel isn't that smart about following Pike's advice about avoiding peril.

Series writers invariably go into "maintenance" mode, and this book is an example of that. Cliffhangers are neither resolved nor introduced. The protagonists' characters do not develop. It's pretty much a generic outing for Joe and Elvis. But enjoyable nonetheless.

I do have a gripelet: like Jack Reacher, Elvis and Joe seem to attract trouble like a black hole attracts matter; the whole plot here hangs on the mere coincidence of Joe being in the right place at the right time. Maybe they inhabit an alternate universe where evil plots are developing all around, just stand around for a bit, keep your eyes open, and one will happen right in front of you!

The Smallest Minority

Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics

[Amazon Link]

Pun Salad value-added: the Cyrillic footnote on page 60, систематическая, translates to "systematic". You're welcome.

If you're used to Kevin D. Williamson's writings at National Review and (occasionally) elsewhere, the first thing you'll notice is that, wow, this book has a lot of profanity. That's OK with me. I do watch Tarantino movies now and then. But unexpected from (specifically) KDW and (generally) the kind of "serious" non-fiction books I usually read.

KDW, semi-famously, was hired away from National Review by the Atlantic magazine. His ostensible gig was to do the kind of reporting he was occasionally known for at NR: a tour of White Working-Class Dysfunctional America, land of alienation, opiates, poverty, and pro-Trump voters.

But after a few days, KDW was fired. The proximate cause being the outrage his almost-coworkers expressed that an opinion writer for a conservative magazine actually had conservative opinions. Specifically, KDW refused to bow to sentimentality about anti-abortion laws; they should target both the (ex-)mother and the doctor. Otherwise, you're not treating the (ex-)mother as a responsible individual with free will.

But the genesis of the book (KDW says) was actually considerably before that, as he observed the public shaming of convenient individuals in social media. Typical example: Justine Sacco, who tweeted out an unfortunate, unfunny "joke" about AIDS as she was going to South Africa, and returned to America to find herself fired, a victim of the Twitter mob. Many examples since then, of course.

KDW is unsparing in his contempt for such mobs and their constituents, comparing them to poo-flinging monkeys. (And when they're not poo-flinging, they're masturbating.) But he takes the discussion in unexpected directions. Although, unlike the profanity, I probably should expected some of those unexpected directions: excursions into literature, sociology, economics, and more.

KDW's insights deserve to be described fully and evaluated carefully. If you expect that from me, ha, sorry. But let me give you a few cheap examples from the index: following the entry for Moby-Dick is … Mojo Burrito. Just before Dante Alighieri is Daniels, Stormy. Between Jefferson and Jesus? Jeong, Sarah. (Who managed to survive an attack of a social media mob.)

So: not what I expected, but still good. I remain a KDW fan, at the highest level, the one with the label: "If he says something I disagree with, I'm probably wrong."

The Mark of the Assassin

[Amazon Link]

So back in 2017 I read The Unlikely Spy, a World War II thriller by Daniel Silva. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but was reluctant to commit to reading Silva's oeuvre. (Because once I start down that road, it's hard to stop.)

But I picked this, his second novel, at Portsmouth Public Library. See how it goes. Written in 1998, it's a globe-hopping tale of violence and intrigue, but mainly violence. The hero, Michael Osbourne, is a CIA employee whose career as a covert agent was terminated when a KGB assassin (we learn his code name is "October") brutally murders his girlfriend, implying his cover is seriously blown.

Years later, Michael's married and works as a staid analyst. But another murder comes to light bearing October's trademark (three bullets in the face), accompanied by a jetliner shot down by a Sidewinder fired from the waters off Long Island. So he's drawn back to the game, and finds himself finding out way too much about a nefarious plot involving … well, that would be telling. Let's just leave it at "nefarious".

Silva's a successful writer, but I didn't like the book much. Way too much unlikely dialogue, high amounts of coincidence, pointless descriptions. It's written from a tedious liberal perspective (no spoilers). And the ending is unsatisfying (slight spoiler) sequel-bait.

So I don't know if I'll continue with Silva. There are other books in the library.

Why Free Will Is Real

[Amazon Link]

If you've been paying attention to my reading history (and, don't worry, there's not the slightest reason why you should), one recurring topic is the controversy over whether "free will" exists. This latest book—you may have inferred from the title—is pro-existence. The author, Christian List, is professor of political science and philosophy at the London School of Economics.

With the typical philosopher's care, he dissects "free will" into three components:

  1. People are "intentional agents", whose intentions support actions;

  2. In relevant cases, people face multiple alternative actions, and each is a genuine possibility;

  3. And the resulting action is the result of appropriate mental states, reflecting the actual intention of the agent.

Anti-free willers object to at least one of these components. Respectively:

  1. There's no room in neurophysiology (let alone in the underlying physics) for "intention"—it's just atoms and their electrons flying around synapses, firing off hormone releases and causing muscle proteins to contract. I oversimplify, but no amount of further detail will get to "intention".

  2. The universe is essentially deterministic. You might think you have alternate choices, but that's an illusion; only one action will actually happen, governed by the biochemical processes described above.

    (But what about quantum uncertainty? Well, yeah: some of the dice-throwing wackiness described by the inherently probabalistic Copenhagen interpretation of nanoscopic processes might get manifested in macroscopic outcomes. But that coin-flipping doesn't put you in control.)

  3. The last objection is subtle: "you" might think "you" are in control of your actions, but in fact your consciousness is merely a helpless observer along for the ride. The famous "Libet experiments" are invoked: the ones that allegedly show that your body has already made its "decision" to do something milliseconds before you "think" you're deciding yourself.

List discusses each objection, hoping to refute each one. And to my mind, he's successful. He argues that "free will" is an emergent property of our complex nervous systems interacting with the rest of our body. It is no less "real" than (say) life itself, or consciousness. His argument is language-heavy, and (frankly) difficult for a dilettante like me to grok in fullness, but I think I got the high points.

But (for me) the knock-down argument for free will is one adapted from Caltech physicist Sean Carroll: tomorrow morning when you want to get dressed, go stand in front of your closet and try saying: "Well, I'll just stand here and let the atoms in my body do whatever they were deterministically going to do anyway." Wait as long as you need to before you're convinced that that the atoms in your body aren't gonna get that clothes-picking job done for you. Or go to work in your jammies. Your call.

The Coddling of the American Mind

How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

[Amazon Link]

Another book that some UNH faculty member is sitting on ("checked out, due date 04/25/2020"). Prof, it doesn't take that long to read!

So, I'm happy that I got a Portsmouth Public Library card.

The authors, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, start off by revealing the three Great Untruths:

  • "What doesn't kill you makes you weaker."
  • "Always trust your feelings."
  • "Life is a battle between good people and evil people."

Hey, you don't have to convince me. Those statements look like garbage to me too. But Greg and Jon make a solid case that those untruths have been promulgated in American society, and (to the extent they've been successfully promulgated) have been the source of much mischief and misery, especially on American college campuses, but also slopping over into the larger polity.

The book exudes an aura of sweet reasonableness; the authors go out of their way to understand the social trends they're criticizing, and bend over backwards to give them points for earnestness. Especially their chapter on "social justice"; it would have been very tempting to rhetorically nuke the concept, like some conservatives/libertarians have ably done. But they try, somewhat successfully, to extract a small baby before throwing out the bathwater. People aren't wrong to observe that some groups deserve a better shake.

Greg and Jon wind up with recommendations for reform, mostly in schools. They are cautiously optimistic. Maybe they're right about that: at least at the University Near Here, the stridency seemed much turned down in the previous academic year: no snitfits over Cinco de Mayo or Halloween costumes, no hate crimes, no videos of sorority girls singing rap songs. Fingers crossed.

The Day After Tomorrow

[Amazon Link]

So another book down on my rereading-Heinlein project. And only 27 left to go!

This 1941 short novel was originally titled Sixth Column, and you can buy it from Amazon under that title. (I just reread the original, beat-up, 50¢ Signet paperback I got back in the 1960s.) The premise is that the USA has been taken over (very easily) by the "Pan-Asians". The only remnant is a super-secret "Citadel" in the mountains, a research lab in charge of developing weaponry at the cutting edge of physics.

And they've succeeded. Just a little too late to be of any help in deterring the Pan-Asian invasion. There's only six of them left, too. Because testing their latest gadget killed nearly everyone else in the facility.

So the survivors face a problem: even though they have this nifty new discovery (and it has a lot of other uses besides indiscriminately killing people), it's pretty clear that there's no obvious strategy that will get the country back. Sheer numbers of the ruthless Pan-Asian hordes preclude any straightforward attack.

Unless… hey: the Pan-Asians are pretty tolerant of one thing only: the religion of the conquered masses. So the good guys come up with a fake religion, meant to disguise recruitment and deployment of their forces and weaponry across the country. (There are some omens of Stranger in a Strange Land in the discussion of religion design.)

Complicating things: the chief scientist at the Citadel is, well, the worst kind of scientist. A constant thorn in the others' sides, and (at the climax, spoiler, sorry) a genuine threat.

I was kind of kidding when I said the nifty new discovery killed people indiscriminately. In fact, it can be set to discriminate. Specifically, it's a death ray that can be tuned to only kill a certain race? Now, there's a thorny ethical problem! It's arguable that Heinlein dealt with this in as enlightened a manner as possible, given the era in which it was written. But I don't see this book being assigned to readers in your local schools and colleges without a major fuss.

Last Modified 2019-07-29 4:56 PM EDT


The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

[Amazon Link]

The author, Nicholas A. Christakis, made kind of a splash back in the dextrosphere back in 2015. He and his wife, Erika, both taught at Yale. Erika made the mistake of criticizing, in writing, a memo cautioning about "culturally insensitive" Halloween costumes. She was (of course) pilloried, and when he defended her, he got the same treatment.

I wonder if I would have checked out this book if not for that? Don't know for sure, but its theme is in line with the other nonfiction stuff I enjoy reading. Generally speaking, it concerns the nature/nurture debate, and how much of humanity's social nature is due to our underlying genetics.

Quite a bit, says Professor Christakis. He says that even the wide diversity of human cultures over millennia adheres to certain universal traits, which he dubs the "social suite", conveniently summarized at the start:

  1. The capacity to have and recognize individual identity
  2. Love for partners and offspring
  3. Friendship
  4. Social networks (even before Facebook)
  5. Cooperation
  6. Preference for one's own group (that is, "in-group bias")
  7. Mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism)
  8. Social learning and teaching
To demonstrate this, the book meanders through a lot of history, sociology, biology, and anthropology. Going some unexpected places too, for example, the history of shipwrecked sailors finding themselves isolated from their familiar civilizations; what kind of societies do they build. How about kibbutzim, or other attempts to build small utopias based on lofty ideals?

And how did wolves turn into domesticated dogs in a relative evolutionary eyeblink?

So, very interesting. If this is the sort of thing in which you're interested.

The Likeness

[Amazon Link]

The second book in Tana French's series about the homicide detectives in Dublin. (Ireland, not New Hampshire.) This one concentrates on the female half of the investigatory duo on book number one, Cassie Maddox. The psychic toll she endured in that book was bad enough, but now she's back for more!

And hold on, because this sounds like the least likely premise for a mystery. It's well above average on the Contrive-O-Meter. Before she worked on the murder squad, Cassie worked undercover. Her final undercover persona was "Lexie Madison", terminated when "Lexie" got stabbed by a strung out dealer.

Then came her stint with the Murder Squad. Which was unpleasant enough to get her to retreat to the Domestic Violence department, also unpleasant but boring, (fortunately) not challenging her sanity.

But she's called out to a murder scene anyway, because the victim looks just like her. And (worse) the victim has appropriated Lexie's identity.

So (naturally) the obvious investigational strategy is implemented: "Lexie's" death is covered up; Cassie assumes Lexie's identity once more; and ingratiates herself into Lexie's (weird and dysfunctional) milieu, four friends, graduate students in English at Trinity College. Who all live in a ancient mansion bequeathed to one of them.

So it's kind of gothic and suspenseful. And how likely is it that Cassie won't eventually be found out as a fake? Given that the dead girl was also a fake? Hm.

French is a good enough writer to keep things at least seemingly plausible. Also maintains the general theme that police work can have deleterious effects on your psychological health.

Last Modified 2019-07-26 3:35 PM EDT