The Aristocracy of Talent

How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

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This book was one of the nominees for this year's Hayek Book Prize. My small project to read all the nominated books has been a mixed bag so far (see here, here, here, and here) but this is a pretty good contender. The good folks at the Interlibrary Loan department at the University Near Here wangled a copy from Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut.

The author, Adrian Wooldridge, is a Brit, and worked for The Economist for a long time. He writes very accessibly for the layman, with quite a bit of wit. One downside of that is the language. I'm pretty sure he expects the reader to know what a "swot" is. (American translation, I think, is "nerd".) And (apparently) in Britain there are "grammar schools" which differ from "public schools". (Grammar schools are what we'd consider to be "prep schools", I think.)

It's a very interesting history of how the concept of meritocracy rise and fell over the centuries, in a lot of different countries and cultures. It had its roots in Plato: that whole philosopher-king thing. But for millennia the default assumption was that your social position was determined by the simple fact of being born to your parents: nobles begat nobles, farmers begat farmers, and you were pretty much stuck in that role for life.

As society complexified, the flaws in that scheme began to show. (To everyone: "The Emperor's New Clothes" had centuries-old roots, after all.) Gradually the liberals and left-wingers of the day started pushing the idea that jobs with power should be held by people of better intellectual talents and abilities. (But not completely. You might have noticed whose funeral just happened.)

Meritocracy has had a rough time of it lately. And not without good reasons; the folks at the tippy-top of the pyramid can get out of touch with The Rest Of Us, start working for their own benefit instead of society at large. Nebraska's Senator Roman Hruska said it best: "[The mediocre] are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?" There are critics of even trying to measure intellectual talent, most notably via the IQ test. Wooldridge is dismissive: "This argument is an exercise in anachronistic sermonizing rather than serious historical understanding, which at its best is an exercise in grasping the intricacies of context rather than projecting our own prejudices backwards."

But anyway, in a neat flip-flop, although old leftists were enthusiastic about meritocracy, modern leftists bemoan it.

Nobody wants a mediocre brain surgeon, though.

The book is not without its flaws. A Herbert Spencer quote, "The superior shall have the good of his superiority; and the inferior the evil of his inferiority", is shorn of context to imply he's referring to those inherent qualities and talents. I think (after looking at the original text) that he's referring to superior/inferior conduct, and arguing against "communistic distribution" of wealth.

Near the end of the book, Woolridge cheers Kamala Harris's ascent to the Vice-Presidency, and says it wouldn't have been possible "without the meritocratic idea." Overlooking the facts that (a) Kamala's widely perceived as lacking in intellect, (b) was picked for veep primarily due to her race and sex, and (c) got her start not through merit, but by becoming the mistress of a married politician.

Charles Murray has had a lot of interesting stuff to say about this. Woolridge only mentions The Bell Curve, and (I think) misinterprets the thrust of that 1994 book. Nothing's said about the work Murray's done since then.

But, overall, a very worthwhile and interesting book.

Live and Let Die

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By coincidence, I read this short book concurrently with the (very long) novel Gone With the Wind. My copy of Live and Let Die has (according to Amazon's "Look Inside the Book" function) three occurrences of that N-word, including the original title of Chapter Five. Both books make heavy use of their black characters' dialect. ("Don' ack mad at me, honey. Ah was fixin tuh treat yuh tonight. Take yuh tuh Smalls Par'dise, mebbe. See dem high-yallers shakin' 'n truckin,")

Yeah. That sort of thing would not fly today, I'm pretty sure. Live and Let Die is from 1954, GWtW from 1936. Times change. That said:

Bond is tasked with tracking down Communist agent (and master criminal) "Mr. Big", who's financing Soviet spying activities in America with gold smuggled in from the Caribbean. Mr. Big is big in Harlem, and he keeps his criminal empire in line via voodoo and the extra-sensory perceptive powers of "Solitaire", a beautiful maiden Mr. Big keeps as his slave.

Bond teams up with CIA agent Felix Leiter to investigate. This works out not at all well for Felix. (The book's details on that were repurposed for a different Bond movie.) Bond survives a series of encounters with Big and his gang, but it's a near thing. (It doesn't help that Big really seems to have Bond outsmarted and outgunned nearly all the way through the book.) There is a slam-bang final encounter. Which, spoiler alert, Bond survives.

The Judge's List

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Like another recently-read book, Michael Connelly's The Dark Hours, this book made the WSJ's Best Mysteries of 2021 list. It's by John Grisham. I remember reading his first best-seller, The Firm, back in the early 1990s. He's written well over thirty books since then, but I was never motivated enough to read them, and I probably wouldn't have read this, if not for that recommendation

I was disappointed.

Lacy Stoltz is an investigator working for Florida's "Board on Judicial Conduct", an agency tasked with checking out allegations of wrongdoing by the state's judges. Usually that involves undisclosed conflicts of interest, bribery, that sort of thing. It's a neglected and disrespected department, everyone's morale is low. But an unusual call is routed to Lacy: it's from a mysterious anonymous caller, claiming that a judge is actually a mastermind serial killer, bumping off people on his "list": those who did him dirty in years previous. His hallmark is strangulation with a nylon cord, tied post-mortem with an unusual double clove hitch.

Lucy is reluctant; that's way out of the Board's usual ambit. Why doesn't the anonymous caller just go to the cops? Or maybe an ambitious true-crime reporter? Well, that's a good idea, and the answer isn't really that convincing.

I kept waiting for the didn't-see-that-coming shocking plot twist. I have a spoiler about that: there is nothing to spoil. No twists, no turns. Not even a mystery, really.

Wait a minute! Is that a loose end I see, one that Lacy will tug on to reveal … Nope, sorry.

The dialog is flat, the characters are not that interesting, it's very repetitious, the plot is full of unanswered "why didn't they just…" points. There are suspenseful moments of action, resolved by dumb luck and coincidence.

And it's way too long; I assume Grisham was writing to meet a page-count contract.

Recessional

The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch

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A book of essays by David Mamet, prizewinning playwright, screenwriter, director. Many of the essays originally appeared in the back pages of National Review, which means I've read them before, perhaps magazine-edited for space and (maybe) language. No matter.

The essays are short, insightful, and seemingly rambling at times. (Or maybe Mamet was just following a trail I missed. That's not unlikely.) Full of allusions, praise and pans for people famous and obscure. Very funny in spots.

As someone who cares about language and the meaning of words, Mamet can be quick and devastating when eviscerating foolish language. Here's something to keep in mind when the Sanders/Warren Democrats talk about "stakeholder capitalism":

Over the last decade "shareholder" has been replaced by "stakeholder.' I will remind my readers that a stakeholder is an onlooker to a gambling event.

The contenders in the wager trust the stakeholder to hold their respective bets (the stakes) and at the contest's conclusion to award them to the winner.

The stakeholder is one who, by definition, can have neither interest nor profit in the outcome.

I believe no further comment is required.

On a once-favored bookstore's website denouncing "systemic racism":

Now, I don't know what systemic racism is, but neither does anyone else. but neither does anyone else. Like social justice, any communicable meaning is destroyed by the adjective. Both terms are indictments of human evil; its perpetrators are easily identifiable: they are those who request a definition.

And an observation about biz-speak, on a par with woke-speak:

Employees are now referred to as human resources. The folks described are the same, but the difference is semantic, which is to say, in the way they are considered, and, so, treated. What does one do with employees? One pays them. What does one do with resources? One exploits them.

And then there's his fantasy of, when asked for his pronouns, answering that they are "His Majesty/Your Majesty".

One unfortunate false note: Mamet entertains the theory that Dorothy Kilgallen ("columnist, journalist, and television game show panelist") was murdered because she was about to reveal discoveries she made investigating the JFK assassination. (As Mamet puts it, she died "from an overdose of 'You got too close.'")

That's a well-known offshoot of that genre. I won't debate it, but… come on.


Last Modified 2022-09-22 6:43 AM EDT

The Dark Hours

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Another fine outing from Mr. Connelly; for some reason I can't put my finger on, I find him eminently readable. I e-picked this Kindle version from Amazon on its release day back in November of last year; took a while before my book-picking algorithm gave me the OK to read it. (Just in time before Connelly's next book comes out!)

Even though I would have read this book anyway, I should point out that it also made the WSJ's Best Mysteries of 2021 list. So it's not just me.

Connelly's female cop, Renée Ballard, takes center stage here, with a major supporting role played by the semi-retired Harry Bosch. It opens on New Year's Eve 2020, and the LAPD is at a low point, reeling from defund-the-police calls in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Many cops are phoning it in, including Ballard's partner, Lisa Moore. They are trying to track down the "Midnight Men", a two-man team of rapists preying on single females. But as the book opens, Ballard and Moore are sheltering under a freeway overpass, the safest place to be when the fusillade of bullets fired off into the air at midnight comes raining back down on the innocent and the guilty, cop and civilian.

But tonight, a bad guy has used the midnight gunfire to disguise a homicide, shooting an ex-gang member in the head at close range. Powder burns on the victim's scalp tell the sharp-eyed Ballard that it was murder. So that makes two major cases she takes it upon herself to solve. She has to fight against apparently hopeless odds: not only against the criminals who have done a pretty good job covering their tracks, but also the internal politics of the LAPD. Doesn't help that Ballard has a crusading chip on her shoulder, showing little respect for department protocol or her colleagues' lassitude. (She's much like Bosch there.) But (good news) she finds some companionship with a Fire Department EMT; which comes in handy when later in the book… well, I don't want to spoil that.


Last Modified 2022-09-10 4:50 PM EDT

Heretics of Dune

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Consumer note: I actually own the 1984 hardcover (picked off a remainder shelf for $4.98), but its ISBN doesn't give me an accurate cover image. So clicking on the cover will take you to the Kindle page at Amazon.

Continuing my "reread/read Frank Herbert's Dune series" project. This is number five out of six, previous entries here, here, here, and here. My enjoyment is monotonically decreasing, volume by volume. I won't repeat my observations from previous books, but the negative ones apply here to an even greater extent.

I can't help but think of 1980s Frank Herbert, cursing himself for signing a contract requiring him to deliver a 480-page Dune book.

This book is set 1500 years after the events of the previous book, which ended with the demise of Leto II, Paul Atreides' son, who self-transformed into a monstrous human/sandworm hybrid. In between, there's been massive famine, followed by an even more massive migration of humanity into unknown reaches of the galaxy. And now people are returning to known space from that "Scattering", and not all of them are nice.

Most of the action takes place on Arrakis (now called "Rakis" for some reason) and the old home planet of the Harkonnens, Giedi Prime (now called "Gemmu" for some reason). A returning character (of sorts) is a Duncan Idaho ghola, the latest in a long series of Tleilaxu reincarnations of an Atreides fighter who didn't make it through the first book. Another interesting character is Sheeana, who is able to control the Rakis sandworms. The manipulative Bene Gesserit have designs on both the ghola and Sheeana. There are Fish Speakers and Face Dancers. (Or is that Fish Dancers and Face Speakers?) There's a lot of intrigue, violence, and (I think) a noticeable uptick in sex. (Because of the breeding.)

There's also a lot of people talking, in the usual pretentious way, interspersed with inner monologizing. Italics and exclamation points! They are rife.

Sigh. One more to go.

The Lincoln Highway

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I came late to the party here. I was stunned by Amor Towles' previous book, A Gentleman in Moscow. So I resolved to read this as soon as it became available at the Portsmouth Public Library.

Reader, the book was published in October of last year. The library owns ten copies (three large print). And only now was I able to snag a copy off the shelf.

Unsurprising. Because it's a wonderful book. (See the Amazon page for all the well-deserved praise.)

The book starts with teenaged Emmett being brought back home to Morgen, Nebraska after a 15-month stint at a work farm in Salina, Kansas. He was there for involuntary manslaughter: an unfortunate mostly-accident when a hot-tempered punch caused a bully to hit his head on a tent spike.

Emmett has been released early on compassionate grounds: his father, a failed farmer, has died. And he's left Emmett and his young brother Billy with a foreclosed-upon farm, their only remaining asset being a Studebaker gathering dust in the barn, and a tidy sum in cash hidden from the bankers. Emmett and Billy resolve to make a fresh start in California, following the titular highway, as their mother did years back when she abandoned them.

But things are complicated when two of Emmett's acquaintances from the work farm show up, having sneaked into the trunk bringing Emmett back to Nebraska. There's Wooley, a tender but error-prone soul who got dumped into the work farm by his well-to-do New York family. And Duchess, a smart, funny, charismatic kid, burdened by a desire for score-settling and an advanced notion of situational ethics. (Mainly expressed by his answers to the questions: "How do I work this situation to my advantage?" and "How am I going to get out of this situation?" That works out for him, until it doesn't.)

It takes about a hundred pages for any of them to get out of Nebraska. And a surprisingly small amount of time is spent on the Lincoln Highway. The foursome's escapade develops in completely unexpected ways. There's a large supporting cast of expertly-drawn characters. Their situations are full of humor and (alas) pathos.

Enough said. If you need my recommendation: just read it; you won't be sorry.

The Rise of the New Puritans

Fighting Back Against Progressives' War on Fun

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Portsmouth is somewhat of a bastion of progressivism in New Hampshire, and that's reflected in its library. The staff took the liberty of producing an "Anti-Racism Zine" last year, enthusiastically weighing in on the Robin DiAngelo/Ibram X. Kendi/Angela Y. Davis side of a contentious public issue.

Fortunately, however, they do a decent job of keeping their shelves ideologically neutral. And when I submitted a suggestion for the purchase of this Noah Rothman book, they agreed, and even put it on hold for me when it came in. Now, I'm under no illusion that casual browsers in months hence will pick up the book, read it out of curiosity, and, bingo, Portsmouth Bernie Sanders voters en masse turn into National Review conservatives. I'm just happy to have it there, in case.

The author is the Associate Editor of Commentary, and I've mentioned him favorably over the years (here, here, here, here) I thought his 2019 book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, was flawed but basically OK. This one is very good.

Of course, Mencken's famous definition of Puritanism is deployed early on: "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Zing!

But, somewhat surprisingly, Rothman does not use "Puritan" as a simple epithet. (Something I didn't know: the term was originally conceived as an epithet.) That would have been pretty easy to do: simply pick and choose from the hundreds of tales of censorship, deplatformings, deinvitations, cancellations, firings; arrange them into themes, and voilà, you got a book. Instead, he looks back at the historical heyday of Puritanism, mostly in America, and if you (like me) were only paying fleeting attention during your history classes, you'll learn a lot.

Rothman shows how the "new" Puritans unconsciously echo the attitudes and actions of those bygone figures, and how that plays out in many areas, with tactics we've all noticed: theological-style indoctrination, denunciation and persecution of apostates, censorship of literature and art, humorlessness, and (above all) earnestness. (As P. J. O'Rourke observed: "Earnestness is stupidity sent to college". The Puritans, it should be noted, founded Harvard.)

Rothman laces his trenchant narrative with a dry wit: he notes that, in decline, the Massachusetts Puritans referred to the increase in civil litigation to resolve disputes as "creeping 'Rhode Islandism'". And comments: "Even today, the very concept is enough to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who doesn't live in Rhode Island."

And, it should be noted, Rothman goes out of his way to demonstrate that, in both historical and modern versions, Puritanism isn't an unalloyed bad. Historically, for example, they were famed for the "Puritan work ethic". Hey, I'm a fan. And in the current age, the new Puritans really did, for example, improve things in the workplace for women and minorities. (Not without going overboard in many cases, of course, but still.)

What about "fighting back", as promised in Rothman's subtitle? To a certain extent, the old Puritans carried the seeds of their own eventual irrelevance. (One of their last gasps, however: the witch trials.) Rothman recommends mockery; and clarifying "where culture ends and politics begins".

The Power of Creative Destruction

Economic Upheaval and the Wealth of Nations

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This book was one of the nominees for the 2022 Hayek Book Prize, so I thought I'd give it an Interlibrary Loan try. It came up I-95 from UMass Dartmouth, and… well, it's one of those "wish I'd liked it better" books.

It purports to be an economic policy guidebook about the future of capitalism. It adopts Schumpeter's terminology of "creative destruction", the displacement of old technologies and employment by innovation. That can (and does) lead to greater overall prosperity for the participants; it arguably is tough on the businesses and people who were making a decent living until those dang new-fangled ways of doing things caused all the upheaval.

The authors argue for a highly-regulated capitalism to deal with problems like climate change, inequality, and unforeseen catastrophes (like Covid). They highly recommend a strong safety net for innovation-displaced workers (dubbed "flexicurity" after the Danish policies they really like).

So, basically, an argument for Elizabeth Warren-style stakeholder capitalism. I'm pretty sure she wouldn't find much to disagree with here. I, on the other hand, am surprised about the Hayek Book Prize nomination. (Hayek does show up, but not until page 294 or so, where his insights into governance are discussed.)

Some random thoughts:

A back cover blurb from Joel Mokyr compliments the book's "accessible prose". Which is nice, and sort of accurate: there are no particularly advanced concepts here. (Unless you consider graphs to be advanced. Lots of those.) But accessible prose can also be pretty boring, and that's the case here. The authors make Hayek look like Lee Child in comparison. (I wonder if the original French version was livelier and the translator squeezed all that out?)

I was puzzled by notable absences. An early chapter discusses economic "takeoffs": the causes of phenomenal increases in general prosperity around the world. Missing entirely from that discussion: Deirdre McCloskey. Maybe the authors disagree with McCloskey's explanation of what she calls the "Great Enrichment". Fine, but let's have that discussion instead of ignoring her theories. Equally ignored is the less-capitalist economist Mariana Mazzucato, who's written well-known takes on entrepreneurship and innovation. Basically, it seems the authors are reluctant to deal with counter-narratives.

The concept of "path dependence" is central to a lot of the book's argument. Understandably; when people are wedded to an inferior technology it can slow or prevent better ones from being adopted. Unfortunately, their Exhibit A for path dependence (they deem it a "glaring example") is a hoary one: the QWERTY keyboard saddling us with inefficient typing when the Dvorak layout is obviously superior. I find a Reason article from 1996(!) by Stan J. Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis to offer a serious and plausible rebuttal to that myth: Typing Errors. (They also discuss why the myth is so seductive to free-market haters.)

The authors take as a given that "inequality" is bad. The (to my mind sensible) view is that it's OK if it drives overall prosperity. Poverty is the actual problem, and the superior way to deal with that is…?

The authors have a yen for statist interventions. As far as USA stuff goes: they like DARPA, and that's a pretty plausible example. But they ignore (say) the Export-Import Bank and other corrupt boondoggles wasting taxpayer money on the politically well-connected.

The authors are also full-fledged climate hysterics. More nuanced views of the Lomborg/Koonin stripes are, yup, ignored. But "climate change" is yet another excuse for them to recommend (yup) increased government spending on R&D, mandates, subsidies, regulations, etc.


Last Modified 2022-08-27 7:27 AM EDT

Between Planets

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Pictured at your right is the edition I actually own, the Scribner paperback, containing the original illustrations by Clifford Geary. One used copy is on sale at Amazon for $21.75 as I type. The book cover price was $1.45 back in 1962.

I wish I had grabbed all those Geary-illustrated Heinlein juveniles when I had the chance. Sigh. This is how they were meant to be read.

Young Don Harvey is pretty happy at the New Mexico boarding school where he's been stashed by his parents. But he gets an urgent demand from them to skedaddle back home to Mars, and that's just the beginning of his troubles. The Earth-based "Federation" controlling the solar system has grown increasingly tyrannical, and things are about to boil over. And it turns out, in addition to simply wanting to see their boy again, Don's parents have set him up as a courier, transporting a very important MacGuffin. Which the authorities will stop at nothing, including murder, to intercept. ("Gee, thanks, Mom and Dad!") Don's simple trip to Mars becomes a dangerous odyssey, filled with colorful characters and perilous situations against the backdrop of interplanetary war.

This 1951 book is a little clunkier than later entries in Heinlein's juvenile oeuvre. I remember loving it when I read it about (gulp!) sixty years ago, this time slightly less. It's surprisingly violent for a kids' book. Adult goings-on aren't spelled out, but are strongly hinted at. Heinlein's unique combination of sorta-libertarianism and militarism are much in evidence.