Tag Archives: Will

It All Comes Back To The Bush

Andrew Sullivan rounds up here, here and here

Jennifer Rubin:

The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about how it can convert its occasional rhetorical flourishes into concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive “Muslim Outreach,” he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom.

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient. Shouldn’t we all be in favor the freedom agenda? Criticized at the time as too Pollyannaish and too ambitious, Bush’s second inaugural address is worth reading again in full. This section is particularly apt:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty–though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Adam Serwer:

Rubin doesn’t even attempt to prove causation — eight years ago, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and last week there was an uprising in Tunisia. Ergo Bush deserves the credit. This is deeply paternalistic — in Rubin’s version of history, the Tunisians who faced down the security forces of an autocratic regime are practically bit players in their own political upheaval.

The point is not to make an actual argument, but to inject a political narrative that will retroactively vindicate the decision to go to war in Iraq, as though the American people would ever forget that the Bush administration justified that decision by manufacturing an imminent danger in the form of WMD that were never found.

“Democracy in the Muslim World” was not the primary reason given for invading Iraq, and even as a retroactive justification it remains weak. As Matt Duss pointed out last year, the RAND Corporation did a study concluding that “Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.” But as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so Rubin presses on:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Perhaps the most bizarre of Republican foreign policy instincts is the belief that the President of the United States can force the foreign policy outcomes he desires through sheer force of will. This is what Matthew Yglesias has dubbed the “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.”

Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor:

One question in Ms. Rubin’s column does have a clear answer however. “How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?” she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: “Little to nothing.”

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin’s piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word “democracy” had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, “That’s democracy,” a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. “No thanks.”

The Obama Administration’s policies towards the Arab world, largely focused on counterterrorism cooperation and avoiding pushing hard for political reform in autocracies like Egypt, are in fact an almost straight continuation of President Bush’s approach, particularly in his second term. It’s true that Bush made a ringing call for freedom in the Middle East a centerpiece of his inaugural address, but soon came up against the hard reality that close regional allies like Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia weren’t much interested in tolerating challenges to their rule.

After the Muslim Brotherhood tripled its share in Egypt’s parliament in one of the fairest (but still fraud marred) Egyptian elections in decades and the Islamist group Hamas swept free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006, the US took a big step back from Arab democracy promotion. That’s a situation that persists today.

More Rubin:

While those in Tunisia tell me there is no specific sign of an Islamist presence yet, it remains a real concern for those pressing for a secularized, democratic government.

One final note: while Muslim autocrats in the region have reason to worry, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations makes a convincing case that regimes do not face the same threat of instability. In Jordan and Morocco, for example, the kings in those countries enjoy a “perceived legitimacy.”

Nevertheless, George W. Bush must be pleased to see the debate breakout over the best route to Middle East democracy. It was only a few years that the liberal elite assured us that Muslim self-rule was a fantasy.

Daniel Larison:

I don’t know about “the liberal elite,” but people opposed to the Bush administration’s illegal war in Iraq and ruinous “freedom agenda” actually argued that it would be extremely difficult to construct Western-style liberal democracies in countries that had no political tradition of representative or constitutional government. This is true. It is extremely difficult, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort and resources devoted to it, and it remains a foolish thing for the U.S. to pursue as a major foreign policy goal. What we also said was that it was outrageous and wrong to invade another country, trample on its sovereignty, wreck its infrastructure, and impoverish its people. What was even worse was to claim that we had liberated it, when we were actually handing it over to the tender mercies of sectarian militias and establishing what turned out to be a repressive government that often resorts to police-state tactics. In 2003, Muslim self-rule was already a reality in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The fantasy was the idea that the U.S. could forcibly topple an authoritarian government and readily install a functioning liberal democratic government in Iraq, and that this would then lead to regional transformation. Except for the first part, none of this happened. So far, the Tunisians seem to be managing much better on their own than Iraq did under the tutelage of U.S. occupiers.

Greg Scoblete:

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country’s revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it’s not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge “what we expect” makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we’re talking about.

If, however, we don’t actually know what’s best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

More Rubin:

Now a final note: The left blogosphere seems to have wigged out over the suggestion that George W. Bush and the successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq has anything to do with all this. For starters, it is amusing to see that those voices, fresh from the smear on conservatives regarding the Arizona shooting, are now all about “causation.” But more seriously, had democracy failed in Iraq, had the country descended into chaos, and had Iraqis laboring for a secular, democratic Muslim country been killed and exiled, do we imagine this would have been good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere? Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong. And the notion that democratization and rebellion against despotic regimes do not spread regionally after a successful experiment is belied by history (e.g. Central America, Eastern Europe).

Larison responds:

Well, the country did descend into chaos, Iraqis laboring for a secular country were killed and exiled*, and that wasn’t good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere. These also happen to be the effects of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, which involved invading and devastating a country for bogus national security reasons and then trying to dress up the entire debacle as an experiment in democratization. The outward forms of democracy didn’t entirely fail in Iraq, but what those forms did was politicize ethnic and sectarian divisions and fuel years of inter-communal violence. Looking at the chaos unleashed by what war supporters kept insisting on calling “democracy,” nations throughout the region associated “democracy” with foreign occupation, civil strife, and constant violence. For that matter, there has been no “successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq.” There is an elected government with increasingly authoritarian and illiberal habits governed by sectarians pretending to be secular nationalists.

Rubin continues:

Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong.

No, Bush’s critics understood, usually better than his supporters, that Iran had some measure of constitutional and representative government before the Pahlavis, and Turkey has been gradually developing as a democratic republic since WWII. Opponents of the disastrous war and the “freedom agenda” said that democratic and representative government was alien to almost all Arab countries. Lebanon was and remains the exception. That was true. Maliki’s semi-dictatorship in Baghdad does little to change that assessment. Bush based his conviction that the U.S. should install democratic government in a predominantly Arab country on the general lack of such governments in Arab countries, which democratists concluded was a principal source of jihadism. To the extent that Bush and his allies were serious in wanting to democratize Arab countries, they were taking for granted that democratic government was alien to these countries, which is why the U.S. had to introduce it directly through active promotion. What Bush and his allies also said was that democratic government was part of a “single model of human progress,” and that therefore every society should be governed this way, and furthermore that every society was capable of governing itself this way. That was the far-fetched claim that most of Bush’s critics couldn’t accept, because it is nothing more than an ideological conviction.

Will at The League:

The analytical gymnastics Jennifer Rubin is forced to perform here to defend the invasion of Iraq are pretty impressive. If the Tunisian revolution spurs reform in neighboring countries, her line of reasoning goes, Iraq’s quasi-democratic political process must be having a similar effect in the region. I know little about the Middle East and less about Tunisia, but let me suggest one important distinction: If the “Jasmine Revolution” inspires emulation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it will have something to do with the fact that Tunisia’s political upheaval was a genuinely organic, popular movement that isn’t perceived as the result of outside meddling. Whatever the merits of Iraq’s new government, it will never enjoy that type of currency in the region, which is why overblown claims about the positive regional consequences of our invasion remain so unpersuasive.

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Filed under Africa, Foreign Affairs, Iraq

Bloggers Contemplate A Door That Revolves

James Fallows:

Last night, on the “Virtually Speaking” discussion about the media with Jay Rosen of NYU, we talked about the phenomenon of things that everyone in the press corp “knows” but that don’t make their way into news stories or broadcasts. One such category involves things that everyone suspects but can’t quite prove — for instance, how involved Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were in the Valerie Plame case. Or, to make it bipartisan, about Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior over the years. But another category, which I think is even more important, involves things that everyone “knows” but has stopped noticing. This is very similar to what is called “Village” behavior in the big time media.

An item in this second category has just come up: the decision of Peter Orszag, until recently the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Barack Obama, to join Citibank in a senior position. Exactly how much it will pay is not clear, but informed guesses are several million dollars per year. Citibank, of course, was one of the institutions most notably dependent on federal help to survive in these past two years.

Objectively this is both damaging and shocking.

– Damaging, in that it epitomizes and personalizes a criticism both left and right have had of the Obama Administration’s “bailout” policy: that it’s been too protective of the financial system’s high-flying leaders, and too reluctant to hold any person or institution accountable. Of course there’s a strong counter argument to be made, in the spirit of Obama’s recent defense of his tax-cut compromise. (Roughly: that it would have been more satisfying to let Citi and others fail, but the results would have been much more damaging to the economy as a whole.) But it’s a harder argument to make when one of your senior officials has moved straight to the (very generous) Citi payroll. Any competent Republican ad-maker is already collecting clips of Orszag for use in the next campaign.

– Shocking, in the structural rather than personal corruption that it illustrates. I believe Orszag (whom I do not know at all) to be a faultlessly honest man, by the letter of the law. I am sorry for his judgment in taking this job,* but I am implying nothing whatsoever “unethical” in a technical sense. But in the grander scheme, his move illustrates something that is just wrong. The idea that someone would help plan, advocate, and carry out an economic policy that played such a crucial role in the survival of a financial institution — and then, less than two years after his Administration took office, would take a job that (a) exemplifies the growing disparities the Administration says it’s trying to correct and (b) unavoidably will call on knowledge and contacts Orszag developed while in recent public service — this says something bad about what is taken for granted in American public life.

More Fallows:

I made a mistake several days ago when lamenting Peter Orszag’s decision to take a senior job with Citibank, reportedly for several million dollars per year, so soon after leaving a senior Obama Administration post. Over the past two-plus years, Obama (and GW Bush) policies played a crucial role in saving Citi — and in not holding its executives (or other senior financial-world figures) accountable for polices that brought on the world financial crisis or reining in top-end pay as profitability has returned. Now a senior member of the Obama team — Orszag was budget director — was going straight to one of those top-end jobs, even as his former colleagues in the administration have their hands full fighting the social, economic, and political effects of the crisis on “ordinary” Americans who can’t find jobs or are losing their homes.

My mistake was not in pointing out this problem, nor in identifying it as the kind of thing that is notable precisely because no one even stops to remark on it any more. It was in the sentence that said, “Objectively this is both damaging and shocking.” That’s the difference between one-draft web postings and many-times-edited print articles. What I meant was, “Politically this is damaging and should be shocking.” Because the real point is that official Washington should notice this instance of structural corruption — but won’t.

If you’re wondering just how taken for granted such arrangements are in today’s Washington/ Versailles, here’s a data point. The Washington Post, still aspiring to be official journal of politics, has not published a single story about Orszag’s new job. Here is what its search function shows just now:

“Please try another search” indeed. How about “things that are depressing”? To their credit, the Post’s Ezra Klein and Ed O’Keefe each had one-line links on their sites, pointing to (respectively) the NYT “Dealbook” and Reuters stories on Orszag. (And those links come up if you search the Post’s site for “Orszag Citigroup.” Otherwise there appears to have been no “news” coverage by the Post. Klein also had this follow-up link to an item called “Our Peter Orszag Problem” on the Economist’s site.) The gap between the things the Post considers “scandals,” and a development like this, so taken for granted as not to merit mention, says too much about our politics.

More Fallows

Will Wilkinson at DiA at The Economist:

Mr Fallows hits the nail on the head, but what this structural injustice means, politically and ideologically, remains unclear. In my opinion, the seeming inevitability of Orszag-like migrations points to a potentially fatal tension within the progressive strand of liberal thought. Progressives laudably seek to oppose injustice by deploying government power as a countervailing force against the imagined opressive and exploitative tendencies of market institutions. Yet it seems that time and again market institutions find ways to use the government’s regulatory and insurer-of-last-resort functions as countervailing forces against their competitors and, in the end, against the very public these functions were meant to protect.

We are constantly exploited by the tools meant to foil our exploitation. For a progressive to acknowledge as much is tantamount to abandoning progressivism. So it’s no surprise that progressives would rather worry over trivialities such as campaign finance reform than dwell on the paradoxes of political power. But it really isn’t the Citizens United decision that’s about to make Peter Orszag a minor Midas. It’s the vast power of a handful of Washington players, with whom Mr Orszag has become relatively intimate, to make or destroy great fortunes more or less at whim. Well-connected wonks can get rich on Wall Street only because Washington power is now so unconstrained. Washington is so unconstrained in no small part because progressives and New Dealers and Keynesians and neo-cons and neo-liberals for various good and bad reasons wanted it that way. So, what is to be done? Summon a self-bottling genie-bottling genie?

The classically liberal answer is to make government less powerful. The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation. But public self-protection through market-state divorce can work only if libertarians are right that unfettered markets are not by nature unstable, that they do not lead to opressive concentrations of power, that we would do better without a central bank, and so on. Most of us don’t believe that. Until more of us do, we’re not going far in that direction. And maybe that’s just as well. Maybe it’s true that markets hum along smoothly only with relatively active government intervention and it’s also true that relatively active government intervention is eventually inevitably co-opted, exacerbating rather than mitigating capitalism’s injustices. Perhaps the best we can hope ever to achieve is a fleeting state of grace when fundamentally unstable forces are temporarily held in balance by an evanescent combination of complementary cultural currents. This is increasingly my fear: that there is no principled alternative to muddling through; that every ideologue’s op-ed is wrong, except the ones serendipitously right. But muddle we must.

So what is to be done about the structural injustice spotlighted by Peter Orszag’s passage through the revolving golden door? How exactly do we tweak the unjust structure? If the system is rigged, how exactly do we unrig it? In which direction can we muddle without making matters worse?

Ezra Klein:

But reading the coverage, I’ve been struck by a few things.

1. I’m not nearly so sure it’s about the money as other people seem to be. Orszag is fairly wealthy already (my understanding is he sold off an economic consulting firm when he became director of the Congressional Budget Office), and his lifetime of public service positions does not suggest a man particularly motivated by income. Rather, I think people are underestimating the lure of the job itself.

Orszag has gone as high as he’s likely to go in government, and he’s 41 years old. The guy isn’t done, but there’s not much more for him in Washington. So what is left for him?

Well, he could do academia or a think tank. But that’s a pretty sedate, low-stress existence compared with the tempo he’s kept up over the past few decades. Let’s say he doesn’t want to move into a wiseman or advisory role. New York Times columnist didn’t seem like a bad gig to me, but then, I’ve chosen to devote my life to similar pursuits. I’m not really sure why anyone would want to be a university president. You sometimes hear people say that he should’ve sat around and been fairly rich and respected, but I imagine that gets boring after the first decade or so.

Citigroup is a really big, really powerful institution. Orszag’s position in it is the sort of position that could one day lead to being president of Citigroup. If you’re him, and you’re trying to figure out an interesting and high-impact way to spend the next 40 years, I can see why it’s appealing. But it’s the power and the job and the opportunity, more than the money, that make it appealing.

2. The problem is less why Orszag wanted to go to Citigroup than why Citigroup wanted to hire Orszag. In Citigroup, you’re dealing with a bank that’s simply much more reliant than other banks are on connections with the American government, and other governments. Bank of America has similar needs, and so too do a couple of others, but it’s a short list.

Whether Orszag was a smart hire on these grounds is hard to say. It’s difficult to overstate how much bad will has developed between Orszag and the White House he used to serve. Some of that comes from perceived disloyalty in Orszag’s public statements — like his first New York Times column, which called for a short-term extension of all the tax cuts when the White House was arguing for the permanent extension of most of the cuts and the expiration of the cuts for the rich — but this move, which many in the administration consider politically problematic and personally distasteful, added considerably to the anger.

What Citigroup gets in Orszag is a brilliant policy mind and a deep understanding of government, not to mention a thick rolodex that certainly still has some friendly names on it. The reasons those things are valuable to Citigroup make most of us uncomfortable, and that goes double after the government bailed Citigroup out during the financial crisis. I highly doubt that the meetings between Orszag and Citigroup left him with the impression that he was getting hired to help with governmental affairs. His portfolio, in fact, is explicitly international. But I don’t know anyone who believes that it will stay that way.

Brad DeLong:

Look: Peter Orszag believes–as do I–that the most basic principles of good governance mandate that the American government have a long-term plan in place to match its long-term projected expenditures with its long-term projected revenues. Peter Orszag believes–as do I–that requiring that every policy initiative be paid-for in the long-term so that it does not increase the projected debt, say, ten years out into the future is the minimum low bar that policy should be able to clear.

Barack Obama has not taken Peter Orszag’s advice: he has not proposed only initiatives that are paid-for in the long-term. He has not pledged to veto bills that raise the projected debt ten years hence.

Peter Orszag is no longer in the government.

Does he now have a duty to tell those who read his New York Times columns the same things that he told Obama when he was in government?

Or does he have a duty to tell lies to his readers about what he thinks good policy is in order to advance the interests of an administration that he is no longer part of?

I would say he has the first duty.

Matthew Yglesias:

As I understand it, the concern is that the the job itself is a bribe. In a super-crass version of this, Firm A says to Regulator Z “you won’t be in this job forever, but if you make a lot of decisions favorable to Firm A then we’ll hire you after you quit.” In a more realistic version what happens is that Regulator Z observes that many of his predecessors have gone on to lucrative careers in Industry A and that they probably couldn’t have had if they’d pissed off all the Industry A CEOs. This biases his decision-making in a problematic way.

Sometimes I think this problem is more apparent than real. Any conceivable set of decisions that the FCC makes is going to be favorable to some set of large corporations. So being in the pocket of “big business” as such isn’t a big problem. But sometimes the problem is very real. The entire financial reform debate, for example, has featured a lot of ideas that put the interests of the financial sector as such at stake. Many observers, including Ezra Klein, have posited that shrinking the size of the financial sector overall should be a goal of reform. Obviously, though, people with an ambition to go get jobs in the financial sector are unlikely to espouse such goals.

Will at The League:

Peter Orszag’s new job at Citigroup is one of those under-discussed stories that makes me glad I read blogs. It also makes me depressed because I’m struggling to envision a plausible solution to the problems of regulatory capture and the revolving door between government and the financial services industry. You can imagine better policies arising in a lot of areas – farm subsidies, for example – if we magically removed certain political constraints, but even if you were given free reign to remake the United States’ political system, the problem of regulating an incredibly complicated financial sector would still be pretty tough to figure out.

If you’ll permit me to simplify things for the sake of brevity, the standard progressive view of the financial sector is that we need more and better regulators. This is complicated by the fact that regulation – particularly regulation that involves opaque financial practices – is complex and therefore vulnerable to companies gaming the system. Former high-level Administration officials accepting jobs at financial institutions that were just bailed out basically exemplifies these concerns.

The libertarian/conservative rejoinder is that less regulation equals less opportunities for politically-connected firms to hijack the system. As a safeguard against future financial meltdowns, I find this unsatisfying for a number of reasons: First, attempts to describe the roots of the financial crisis solely through the lens of government intervention sound pretty silly. And second, if the regulatory and administrative superstructure of government is fatally compromised by insiders and corporate lobbyists, are we sure we  can successfully deconstruct that system from within? I think this is part of what liberals are getting at when they suggest the conservative movement is basically a front group for rich people and big business: sure, you might make election year noises about limited government, but genuinely populist conservative impulses take a backseat to corporate interests in a political and regulatory environment dominated by insiders. In other words, the Tea Party will never beat Goldman Sachs at its own game.

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Filed under Political Figures

The Washington Monthly Goes To College

Daniel DeVise at WaPo:

Washington Monthly, a magazine with unusually robust higher education coverage, today released its own attempt at a ranking of colleges and universities.

The magazine is a relatively new entrant to the rankings field, which has become very crowded in recent years.

The trick is to offer something different than U.S. News & World Report, whose rankings stress reputation, graduation rates, test scores and other measures that produce a fairly predictable list of well-endowed and prestigious universities. At its genesis in the 1980s, a simple formula that yielded a ranking with Harvard, Princeton and Yale at the top made all the sense in the world, a gratifying affirmation of common wisdom. Three decades later, the approach is a magnet for criticism: the rankings are seen by some as telling college customers something they already know.

Washington Monthly rates and ranks colleges “based on their contribution to the public good,” and in three categories: “Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).”

(Whether those criteria ought to be the basis for choosing a college is a topic for another day.)

The ranking yields unusual results. Public universities fare well, because of their strength in research and fairly high marks for serving low-income students. Three University of California campuses, in San Diego (!), Berkeley and Los Angeles, rank 1-2-3 among national universities by the WaMo formula. Harvard ranks ninth, Yale 33rd.

The College of William and Mary ranks a very respectable 10th on that list, partly because of its second-in-the-nation ranking for producing Peace Corps volunteers. (Who knew?) Georgetown ranks 19th.

David Moltz at Inside Higher Ed:

The Washington Monthly has yet again irked some educators, as it did three years ago, by ranking what it calls “America’s Best Community Colleges” using openly available student engagement survey data.

Using benchmarking data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and four-year federal graduation rates in an equation of its own making, the magazine attempts to rank the top 50 community colleges in the country in its latest issue. Though the periodical’s editors say they only hope to highlight “what works and what doesn’t” at these institutions by ranking them, CCSSE officials have denounced the use of their data in this way and argue it may do more harm than good.

Community colleges are often underrecognized,” said Kevin Carey, author of the magazine’s community college rankings and policy director at Washington-based think tank Education Sector. “But there’s been a lot of attention paid to them, thanks to the president’s recent effort [with the American Graduation Initiative]. Since he supports investing and improving community colleges, we felt like it was a good time to ask, ‘What do good community colleges look like?’ If we’re going to spend a lot of money, let’s see what reflects best practices out there.”

Carey admitted that such a ranking of community colleges would not be possible without data from CCSSE, a survey run by the University of Texas at Austin that goes out to students at around 650 two-year institutions and uses the results to judge the colleges on broad categories such as “active and collaborative learning,” “student effort,” “academic challenge,” “student-faculty interaction” and “support for learners.” Though every participating college’s survey data are made public, institutional officials are encouraged to compare their benchmark scores only to national averages and those of large peer groups, such as institutions of similar size or in a similar geographic area.

Despite warnings from CCSSE officials that its data sets were never meant to be used to generate college rankings, Carey defended the decisions to do so and to have CCSSE data count for 85 percent of a college’s ranking.

“We always equate admissions selectivity with quality,” Carey said. “Well, all community colleges have the same admissions policy, but they aren’t always as good as one another. Part of this was to find a way to talk about excellence in the sector. We’re publicizing information about best practices. We’re talking about it here, and this is an interesting and long-overdue conversation that we need to have at the federal level.”

David Leonhardt at NYT:

The college guide is part of Washington Monthly’s continuing effort to build better college rankings. The biggest flaw with the famous U.S. News & World Report ranking is that it largely rewards colleges that enroll highly qualified (and, typically, affluent) students, regardless of how much those students learn while on campus. Washington Monthly instead tries reward those colleges that do a good job educating students.

The methodology is far from perfect, because the data needed to build a really good ranking doesn’t exist. But I find Washington Monthly’s approach more interesting than virtually any other ranking out there. It relies in significant part on a comparison between a college’s actual graduation rate and the graduation rate that would be predicted by the students’ economic backgrounds. The No. 1 university this year is the University of California, San Diego, and the No. 1 liberal arts college is Morehouse, in Georgia.

The magazine has also identified the 200 colleges with the worst record of graduating students. Mr. Glastris writes:

These colleges make up 15 percent of the total and disproportionately serve working-class and minority students. They are akin to the 15 percent of high schools Barack Obama and other would-be reformers have dubbed “dropout factories” for having scandalously low graduation rates — on average about 50 percent. But the average graduation rate at the 200 “college dropout factories” is 26 percent. America’s worst colleges, in other words, are twice as bad as its worst high schools.

This is an appalling waste of human talent. The students who go to these colleges are, by and large, strivers. They are the ones who made it out of the bad high schools. When they then try to improve their lives by seeking a college degree, they are steered — via relative tuition costs and geographic convenience — toward precisely those institutions where they are most likely to fail. Lest you think the fault lies not with the colleges but with the students’ lack of academic preparedness, consider this: enroll those same students in different colleges and their chances of graduating double or even triple.

One of the highest dropout rates in the nation belongs to Chicago State University, as Ben Miller and Phuong Ly explain in one article.

Ben Miller and Phuong Ly at The Washington Monthly:

It was money—or the lack of it—that determined where Nestor Curiel chose to go to college. The third of six children in an immigrant Mexican family, Nestor grew up in Blue Island, a gritty working-class suburb near Chicago’s South Side. His father worked, and still works, two jobs—machine operator and restaurant dishwasher—and his mother makes and sells crocheted gifts. Nestor, a polite twenty-one-year-old with black-rimmed glasses, graduated from Eisenhower High School with a 3.6 GPA and dreams of becoming an engineer. (As a child he was inspired by Discovery Channel documentaries about engineering marvels, and he also enjoyed helping his dad repair automobiles on weekends.) He particularly wanted to help his parents pay off the mortgage on their weathered gray house, which is two doors down from a corner store with a large “WE ACCEPT WIC” sign in the window.

Nestor was an above-average high school student who generally made the honors list, and he was diligent in his non-school hours as well, holding down a part-time job as a busboy and line cook at the restaurant where his father worked. His ACT score was 18, equivalent to about 870 on the SAT, which wasn’t high enough to gain him admission to a selective college. (This was typical for his school—41 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black—where only 31 percent of kids meet or exceed standards on state tests, versus 76 percent for the state.) And, apart from a career fair, Eisenhower High School didn’t provide much in the way of college guidance. One time, a guest speaker had urged students to expand their horizons and apply to schools out of state, but Nestor worried about going somewhere unfamiliar. Also, if he could live at home, he would save money.

Ultimately, Nestor wound up narrowing his choices down to two nearby schools: Purdue University Calumet and Chicago State University. Each seemed to have advantages and disadvantages, but Chicago State offered one extra perk: $1,000 in scholarship money if Nestor enrolled in its pre-engineering program. That sealed the deal. The stipend, combined with federal and state grants and a private scholarship from Chicago’s George M. Pullman Educational Foundation, meant that Nestor could get a college education with most of his expenses paid.

With its tree-lined campus and gleaming new steel and glass convocation center, Chicago State certainly looked impressive. But within his first month there, Nestor wanted to leave. Advisers in the engineering department seemed clueless about guiding him to the right courses, insisting that if he wanted to take programming he first needed to enroll in a computer class that showed students how to turn on a monitor and operate a mouse. (Nestor required no such training.) The library boasted a robot that retrieved books, but Nestor would have preferred that it simply stay open past eight p.m., since class sometimes ended at nine p.m. or later, leaving him without a useful place to study or do research before going home. Trash littered the classrooms and grounds, and during class many of the students would simply carry on conversations among themselves and ignore the instructors—or even talk back to them. Nestor was appalled. “It was like high school, but I was paying for it,” he says.

Several students he knew dropped out, but Nestor stayed. “I wasn’t going to give them my money and let them kick me out,” he says. For the next two years, Nestor encountered a ceaseless array of impediments to getting through school. When he wanted to get a tutor, his advisers couldn’t offer any advice about who might be available. When he visited the financial aid office to clear up what seemed like a simple clerical error depriving him of a state grant, the office told him—untruthfully, as it turned out—that getting such grant money would disqualify him from getting any scholarship money from the Pullman Foundation. (By the time the situation was straightened out, the first semester of his sophomore year was nearly over, and the financial office gave Nestor only $780 of what was supposed to be a $1,200 grant, telling him that it couldn’t give him money for a semester that was ending. “It kind of felt like they were stealing from me,” he says.) Only with the help of two dedicated instructors—Shuming Zheng, an engineering professor, and Thomas Kuhn, a physics lecturer—was Nestor able to finish his pre-engineering credits as planned. Fortunately, this allowed him to transfer to a superior school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a $5,000 scholarship.


Nestor’s experience of educational incompetence at the college level isn’t just a Chicago phenomenon. Nationwide, low-income minority students are disproportionately steered toward colleges not where they’re most likely to succeed, but where they’re most likely to fail.

School reformers, including President Obama, often talk about high school “dropout factories.” These are the roughly 2,000 public high schools, about 15 percent of the total, with the nation’s highest dropout rates. The average student at these schools has about a fifty-fifty chance of graduating, according to the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. But the term “dropout factory” is also applicable to colleges. The Washington Monthly and Education Sector, an independent think tank, looked at the 15 percent of colleges and universities with the worst graduation records—about 200 schools in all—and found that the graduation rate at these schools is 26 percent. (See the table at left for a listing of the fifty colleges and universities with the worst graduation rates.) America’s “college dropout factories,” in other words, are twice as bad at graduating their students as the worst high schools are at graduating theirs.

Nearly everyone considers it scandalous when poor kids are shunted into lousy high schools with low graduation rates, and we have no problem naming and shaming those schools. Bad primary and secondary schools are frequently the subject of front-page newspaper investigations and the backdrop for speeches by reformist mayors and school district chiefs. But bad colleges are spared such scrutiny. This indifference is inexcusable now that a postsecondary credential has become virtually indispensable to anyone hoping to lead a middle-class life. If we want better outcomes in higher education, we need to hold dropout factories like Chicago State accountable in the same way the Obama administration proposes to hold underperforming high schools accountable: transform them—or shut them down.

When one examines the schools on the list of college dropout factories—the worst being Southern University at New Orleans, with a 5 percent graduation rate—one thing that stands out is their diversity. Geographically, they are all over the map. From New York to Florida to Alaska—few regions of the United States are spared a local dropout factory. Some, like Chicago State, the University of the District of Columbia, and Houston’s Texas Southern University, are located in big cities; others, like Sul Ross State University and Heritage University, are in small towns and rural areas. Nor is there a bias toward public or private institutions: it’s split fairly evenly, although the public colleges, which are generally bigger, tend to account for greater numbers of dropouts. Some are heavily weighted toward certain minority groups—historically black colleges, for instance, and tribal colleges. Others, like Idaho State, are 80 percent white and do just as poorly. Some of the schools are religious—like Jarvis Christian College, with a 90 percent attrition rate. Most are just seemingly ordinary schools that mostly fly beneath the radar of the national press.

But there are also similarities. As a percentage of their student bodies, these college dropout factories enroll twice as many part-time students, nearly twice as many from low-income families, and around 50 percent more blacks and Hispanics than the average American college or university. They mainly serve local communities, admit most of their applicants, and have much less money than colleges that are higher in prestige. Most upper-middle-class parents would never send their kids to these schools—nor have they generally even heard of them. Not surprisingly, the worst of the dropout factories are allowed to roll along in dysfunction, year after year.

Ben Miller at The Quick and The Ed:

In an article for the Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide, my co-author, Phuong Ly, and I show how legions of low-income and minority students find themselves steered precisely toward the colleges where they’re most likely to fail–these higher education dropout factories. These schools are enormous wastes of human talent, a fact that’s even sadder when you consider that they are most often the low-income students who beat the odds to graduate from lousy high schools.

It’s easy to shift some of the blame for this problem to the students. But that would be a mistake–data show that similarly talented individuals who go elsewhere have a much better chance of succeeding. An institution with a graduation rate of 13 percent, 19 percent, 25 percent, is doing a service to no one and it’s time to seriously think about reforming or even maybe shutting down some of these dropout factories.

To read more about Nestor, see the names of the 50 worst dropout factories, and learn more about what can be done to stop places like Chicago State, go ahead and read the whole thing.

Daniel Luzer at The Washington Monthly:

Welcome to today’s increasingly elite higher education system, where lavish campuses, high tuition, and huge undergraduate debt loads have become the norm. In dogged competition for affluent, high-scoring students, today’s second-tier colleges aim to achieve higher prestige by aping the superficial characteristics of America’s traditionally elite schools. Indeed, there are few alternatives for ambitious administrators. “If you want to rise, you try to do the things that make you look like Harvard,” says David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s hard to take a different path.”

To be sure, there was more to GW’s transformation than just a tuition hike and a campus makeover. The administration also engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign, smartly selling GW’s location in the heart of the nation’s capital as a precious asset. (A full-page advertisement in Foreign Affairs features a map of downtown Washington with GW highlighted. Also lit up are the IMF, the World Bank, the White House, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve Bank, the State Department, and the Kennedy Center. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” it says.)


Many GW students come from families that can’t afford high tuition. As a result, students borrow—a lot. The average borrower leaves Foggy Bottom with $31,299 worth of debt, among the highest levels in the country. That’s thousands more than the average at nearby Georgetown. Some students, like Greg Godfrey, graduate owing $100,000 or more. The son of a Cleveland single mother, Godfrey spent years living hand to mouth after graduating with a business degree in 2006, and still owes more than $75,000. “You just don’t know what you’re doing when you sign up for this stuff,” Godfrey says.

Nor is it clear that Godfrey and his fellow students got a great long-term investment in return. According to People Capital, an organization that tracks earning potential, a typical GW student (political science major, with average GW SAT scores and a 3.0 college GPA) would have almost exactly the same career earning potential if he attended significantly lower-debt schools like the University of Virginia or the University of Maryland.

If GW puts many of its students in a financially precarious situation, it’s worth noting that the school itself shares much the same plight. Like a recent graduate with a crushing loan, GW operates on the fiscal equivalent of paycheck to paycheck, covering nearly 80 percent of annual expenses from tuition revenue—much higher than the 40 percent average among private national research universities. The university generates little revenue from its endowment, and prospects of improving the situation are bleak: only 11 percent of alumni donate, compared to the average among similar universities in the 50 percent range.

Godfrey, for one, doesn’t plan to donate to his alma mater anytime soon. While he’s now making a decent salary—he recently obtained a job at World Wrestling Entertainment working on digital media products—he still pays some $700 a month to service the loans he accumulated studying at GW. “I mean, maybe if I made like $3 million a year I’d give something to GW,” Godfrey jokes.

Meanwhile, despite the high tuition, GW’s assault on the upper reaches of higher education status has stalled: the university made it all the way to fifty-first place on the U.S. News list in 2004, just short of tier one, but has fallen back a few spots since. GW seems to have found the upper limits of arriviste institution building in higher education. Other striving campuses, including Boston University, Drexel, and Northeastern, have ended up in similar circumstances. The wrappings have become fancier than ever, but the product inside tastes pretty much the same.

The GW institutional model—embracing high tuition, excessive construction projects, and massive undergraduate debt—has become the dominant one in higher education, and every university president seems to want to be Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. American University, for instance, another second-tier school just four and a half miles from GW, does exactly the same things GW does, only more so. The average borrower leaves American about $41,000 in debt. Some 84 percent of American’s operating budget is funded by undergraduate tuition. A whole host of second-tier national universities operate in the same manner: they spend on the things that U.S. News measures, and they pay for them with practices that U.S. News doesn’t care about, like student loans.

Will at The League:

I think there are two things at work here. As the authors note, it’s extremely difficult for rising high school seniors to make fine grain distinctions between elite universities. Fancy buildings and impressive-looking architecture are undoubtedly useful tools for wooing would-be undergrads.

But I also think that this is a consequence of students viewing college as something to be experienced rather than the more traditional, achievement-oriented process. Commentators who take on the “college as a life experience” approach to higher education tend to complain about partying, sports culture, and Greek life. And fair enough – none of these activities are really integral to the core educational mission of colleges and universities. But the highbrow equivalent of tailgating and keg stands is going to a college that prizes impressive facilities and mindless credentialism over academics, which is exactly the demographic GW  seems to be after. Would GW’s prestige-driven strategy work without a pool of students (and parents) eager to attend an institution whose core appeal consists of networking opportunities and squash (“A GW athletic director explained to the Washington Post that the whole point of the GW squash program was to attract students who wanted to attend an Ivy League college and couldn’t get in.”)? I think not, which is why the problems of higher education are more deeply-rooted than a few cynical administrators.

Reihan Salam:

Now, Luzer is doing middle-class parents a service by puncturing some of the pretensions that surround a university like GW. Yet given the growth in the number of upper-middle-class households, it’s hardly surprising that we’d see positional competition in this space. Of course a handful of enterprising schools would try to increase their prestige and engage in high-priced empire-building.

What’s more depressing, as Luzer notes, are the heavy debt loads taken on by students from middle and working class households:

Many GW students come from families that can’t afford high tuition. As a result, students borrow—a lot. The average borrower leaves Foggy Bottom with $31,299 worth of debt, among the highest levels in the country. That’s thousands more than the average at nearby Georgetown. Some students, like Greg Godfrey, graduate owing $100,000 or more. The son of a Cleveland single mother, Godfrey spent years living hand to mouth after graduating with a business degree in 2006, and still owes more than $75,000. “You just don’t know what you’re doing when you sign up for this stuff,” Godfrey says.

I still wonder if we should fret about the GWs of the world. After acknowledging that the quality of a GW education might one day catch up to the school’s ambitions, Luzer follows with the most biting line of the piece:

But it seems just as likely that GW could turn out to be one more overleveraged artifact of our gilded age.

Ouch. And the conclusion also packs a punch:

But above all, GW seems vulnerable to a potential change in the way we thinkabout higher education. What if we actually started measuring how much students learn at their colleges and universities? How would that change the competition among institutions? Would the schools with the blue-chip price tags and high average debt loads fall from the top ranks? Would it spell an end to the era in which a forbidding set of entrance standards and a few stone facades are enough to tell us that a school is doing a great job? Let’s hope so. It would be great if moreuniversities competed to be excellent. What we have now is schools that spend a lot of money—students’ money, taxpayers’ money—merely to look that way.

The future Luzer outlines is obviously appealing. The thought that kept crossing my mind while reading the piece was that our tax dollars massively subsidize Trachtenberg’s empire-building, and that doesn’t seem like a very sound way to distribute what is essentially a large public investment.

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“Are You Ready For Some Futbol?!?”

TNR’s world cup blog

Jonathan Last:

It’s happening again.

The most puzzling part of anti-American soccer obsession is that it’s not like Americans don’t like the game of soccer. We all play it at the youth level and–for the most part–have a good time. It’s just that we graduate up to other sports and don’t have much of an appetite for soccer played at the elite level.

And what’s wrong with that? Our interest level in soccer is the mirror image of our interest level in football, which, comparatively few people play at the youth level, but which has great popularity at the professional level.

But the thing is, you never hear football–or baseball, or ultimate frisbee, or tennis, or cycling, or hockey, or curling–or any other kind of fans railing against people who don’t share their passion as if there’s something morally and politically wrong with them. Why is it that soccer fans care so much about what American’s don’t care about?

We’ll never know.

Will at The League:

But despite the thoroughly artificial media blitz surrounding the World Cup and the obnoxious social signaling that goes into American soccer fandom, I’m really looking forward to the tournament. So I thought I’d take a stab at explaining how soccer differs from American sports and why I find its distinctiveness so enjoyable.

Lumping team sports together is a chancy business, but I think there is one important commonality between football, baseball and, to a lesser extent, basketball that distinguishes them from soccer. All three American sports are characterized by short, action-packed intervals followed or preceded by pauses – an inbounds pass that leads to an easy dunk; a pitch that results in a strike that ends an inning; an end-zone reception immediately following a thirty second pause. This is not to say there aren’t fluid sequences in American sports – witness fast-break basketball or baseball’s hallowed triple play. But American teams usually see action in short, frenetic bursts instead of the slower build-up of a good soccer match.

To an outsider, the notion that a two hour football game only consists of 11 minutes of televised action must seem absurd. At its best, however, the pauses accentuate tension and allow for more elaborate plays, more back-and-forth adjustments between the teams’ respective coaches, and a level of athletic execution that would be impossible in a less controlled, faster-paced environment. For the most part, this is a trade-off I can accept. To take another example from American sports, good pitching duels include plenty of pregnant pauses. I don’t think this detracts from the action so much as it heightens the tension of athletic competition.

Soccer has fewer pauses, fewer substitutions, and no timeouts. As a consequence, the manager (coach) has very little opportunity to pause or direct in-game play. Soccer also tends to be more spontaneous, more dynamic, and less scripted. While physical contact or bad execution will sometimes slow the game down to an unbearable pace, the rules of soccer allow for a level of fluidity that would be impossible in an American context (transition-oriented basketball is the only exception I can think of, but that’s  still broken up by frequent timeouts, inbound passes, and the tempo of the opposing team). The build-up to the first Dutch goal in the 1974 World Cup final is a classic example of soccer’s distinctive style – despite a slow start, the Dutch control the ball for over a minute before Johan Cruyf streaks through the defense to draw a penalty kick.

Maybe the contrast between the short, frenetic play of American athletes and the fluid build-up of a European soccer match offers some insight into our respective cultural psyches. But I suspect a more fluid style of play already appeals to American sports audiences. Fast-paced, transition-oriented basketball was the calling card of Magic Johnson and the Showtime-era Lakers. A quarterback-directed hurry-up offense is often the most exciting part of a football match. So if you like fast-paced team competition, give soccer a try. But if the World Cup isn’t your thing, I won’t hold it against you.

Daniel Gross at Slate:

Being a soccer fan at World Cup time in America is a little like being Jewish in December in a small town in the Midwest. You sense that something big is going on around you, but you’re not really a part of it. And the thing you’re celebrating and enjoying is either ignored or misunderstood by your friends, peers, and neighbors. It can be a lonely time. But the World Cup is much bigger than Christmas. After all, only a couple of billion people in the world celebrate Christmas; the World Cup is likely to garner the attention of a much larger audience. Yet in the world’s largest and most important sports competition, the American team, and the American audience, is a marginal, bit player. And for those of us who love the game of soccer and the World Cup, and for the few of us who followed the ups and downs of Landon Donovan’s career, these next couple weeks are likely to be bittersweet.


Oh, sure, you can find other enthusiasts. A few Slate colleagues pass around YouTube links to the latest sick goal. Urban hipsters are obliged to show some interest in the game, the same way they do in CSAs, and facial hair (for men) and yoga (for women). On the Internet, there’s the high-brow crew over at the New Republic, (which features an ad for a book from Cornell University press on Spartak Moscow), the fine blogs No Short Corners and Yanks Abroad, and a rising volume of press coverage. But there’s nothing like the volume and sophistication of stuff our frères at Slate.fr are doing. If you want to follow the game, wince with every missed shot, and question coach Bob Bradley’s personnel choices, you’ll have to venture into the fever swamps of BigSoccer.com. There you will find some people who live and die with status updates of defender Oguchi Onyewu’s knee. But they’re only avatars.

Following the U.S. national team in the World Cup is a somewhat solitary endeavor in part because the scheduling doesn’t lend itself to social or family watching. Unlike the Olympics, the World Cup is not scheduled or televised according to U.S. preferences—the last time the quadrennial tournament was staged in the Western hemisphere was 1994. To watch the United States’ opening game in the 2002 World Cup, I had to go to the Irish pub across from my New York apartment at 4 a.m. This year the schedule is only slightly better: this Saturday against England at 2:30 p.m. ET, Friday, June 18, against Slovenia at 10 a.m. ET, then Wednesday, June 23, at 10 a.m. ET, against Algeria. Yes, pubs and sports bars will be showing the games. But how many people will leave work, or take the day off, or skip the Little League game or pool party, to sit indoors and watch a soccer match? My guess is that when the U.S. plays England, the bars in New York and Los Angeles will be like Condé Nast in the 1990s—overrun with Brits.

I won’t be there. On Saturday afternoon, I’ll be at a family gathering, one at which I’m confident nobody will be checking scores or talking about the potentially epic matchup with England. I’ll have to tape it and watch it later, most likely alone. At least I’m confident none of my close friends or family members will call, e-mail, or text me with scores or updates, and that I can safely listen to the radio without the result intruding. On the other hand, I might have to shut off my Twitter feed. I follow a few foreigners.

Matthew Philbin at Newsbusters:

Time magazine is leading the “Ole’s” for soccer this year, putting the World Cup on its cover and dedicating 10 articles to the sport in its June 14 issue.

One of those articles proclaimed in the headline, “Yes, Soccer Is America’s Game.” Author Bill Saporito argued that “soccer has become a big and growing sport.”

“What’s changed is that this sport and this World Cup matter to Americans,” Saporito asserted. “These fans have already made the transition from soccer pioneers to soccer-literate and are gradually heading down the road to soccer-passionate.”

Soccer is even in the White House, Saporito pointed out. President George W. Bush was a former co-owner of a baseball team. And although President Obama played basketball, his daughters play little league soccer, and current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs played soccer in high school and college.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on June 3, host Joe Scarborough noted the importance of the World Cup to other countries, but explained that Americans just don’t understand “what a huge sport this is.” Still, he said hopefully, “It is a growing sport in America as well, isn’t it?”

Growing, but not “huge” by any standard. The final game of the 2006 World Cup drew 16.9 million viewers in the United States. While that number may seem respectable, it pales in comparison with the 106 million viewers that tuned in to watch the 2010 Super Bowl. The final 2009 World Series game drew 22.3 million viewers, and 48.1 million tuned in to watch Duke beat Butler in the 2010 NCAA men’s college basketball championship.

A look at game attendance figures is instructive, as well. According to Major League Soccer’s MLS Daily, as of June 7, 2010, the highest drawing pro soccer team, the Seattle Sounders, averaged 36,146 attendees over seven home games. Conversely, the Seattle Mariners baseball team has averaged 25,314 over 32 home games.

The Mariners are dead last in the American League West division, and 24th in the league in batting average, 30th in home runs, 27th in RBIs and 25th in number of hits. In short, they’re horrible. With a record of 4-5-3, the Sounders aren’t very good either, but they play in a very liberal city, are currently benefiting from World Cup year interest in their sport, and they play a schedule that allows far fewer opportunities for fans to attend.

Another number is Hollywood box office. John Horn of The Los Angeles Times contemplated on June 6 about Hollywood’s lack of a mainstream movie about soccer. In “Why is There No Great Hollywood Soccer Movie?” Horn pointed out that each sport has its own hit movie except soccer.

Robert Costa at The Corner:

When it comes to soccer, I’ll quote Churchill: America, it seems, still has “sublime disinterestedness.”

Michael Agovino at The Atlantic:

During this World Cup, I know there will be kids like me from the Bronx—a soccer wasteland in 1980s; a wasteland period, to some—watching this strange new game and devouring it. Where is Valladolid? Vigo? Bilbao? Cameroon? El Salvador? Algeria? Why does Algeria wear green, Italy blue? Why is it Glasgow Celtic and not the Celtics? Where’s this team Flamengo? Or Corinthians? Why is that skinny man with the beard named Socrates?

They’ll be some curious 14-year-old or 12-year-old or 10-year-old (kids seem so much smarter these days) and maybe they’ll start by bugging their parents for a Kaizer Chiefs jersey. Then, better still, they’ll get the atlas off the shelf, or more likely online, and trace their finger on the computer screen and look for Polokwane and Bloemfontein and Tshwane. Maybe it will take them to the photography of David Goldblatt or to the music of Abdullah Ibrahim (no room for him at the concert last night I suppose), or of the late Lion of Soweto himself, Mahlathini. (Don’t laugh, my first encounter with Joan Miro and Antoni Tapies were from 1982 World Cup posters.) Maybe they’ll learn that the “word,” long ago, was “Johannesburg!”

And they’ll ask questions—why is this stadium named for Peter Mokaba, that one for Moses Mabhida, and who is Nelson Mandela? And they’ll learn and they’ll be obsessed for life.

And that makes me do one thing: smile. Now, may the games begin.

UPDATE: Dave Zirin at NPR

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner

James Fallows

UPDATE #2: Daniel Drezner

UPDATE #3: Stefan Fatsis at Slate

Jonathan Chait at TNR

UPDATE #4: Marc Thiessen at Enterprise Blog

Matt Yglesias on Thiessen

UPDATE $5: Bryan Curtis and Eve Fairbanks at Bloggingheads


Filed under Sports

Pearl Harbor, Pom-Poms, And Popcorn

Jim Manzi at The Corner:

Jonah notes Ross Douthat’s very interesting post, in which Ross had this to say:

Conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.

I thought some about this over the past few days, and took this as a direct challenge.

Here goes.

I started to read Mark Levin’s massive bestseller Liberty and Tyranny a number of months ago as debate swirled around it. I wasn’t expecting a PhD thesis (and in fact had hoped to write a post supporting the book as a well-reasoned case for certain principles that upset academics just because it didn’t employ a bunch of pseudo-intellectual tropes). But when I waded into the first couple of chapters, I found that — while I had a lot of sympathy for many of its basic points — it seemed to all but ignore the most obvious counter-arguments that could be raised to any of its assertions. This sounds to me like a pretty good plain English meaning of epistemic closure. The problem with this, of course, is that unwillingness to confront the strongest evidence or arguments contrary to our own beliefs normally means we fail to learn quickly, and therefore persist in correctable error.

I’m not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I’ve spent some time studying — global warming — in order to see how it treated a controversy in which I’m at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail.

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times — not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.


But what evidence does Levin present for any of this amazing incompetence or conspiracy beyond that already cited? None. He simply moves on to criticisms of proposed solutions. This is wingnuttery.There are many reasons to write a book. One view is that a book is just another consumer product, and if people want to buy jalapeno-and-oyster flavored ice cream, then companies will sell it to them. If the point of Liberty and Tyranny was to sell a lot of copies, it was obviously an excellent book. Further, despite what intellectuals will often claim, most people (including me) don’t really want their assumptions challenged most of the time (e.g., the most intense readers of automobile ads are people who have just bought the advertised car, because they want to validate their already-made decision). I get that people often want comfort food when they read. Fair enough. But if you’re someone who read this book in order to help you form an honest opinion about global warming, then you were suckered. Liberty and Tyranny does not present a reasoned overview of the global warming debate; it doesn’t even present a reasoned argument for a specific point of view, other than that of willful ignorance. This section of the book is an almost perfect example of epistemic closure.

Andy McCarthy at The Corner:

There will be more to say about this, and I imagine I won’t be the only one to discuss it when time allows. But for now I would just observe that Jim Manzi’s post on Mark Levin’s widely acclaimed book is beneath him. No one minds a good debate, but Jim’s gratuitously nasty tone — “awful,” “Trilateral Commission,” “wingnuttery,” etc. — is just breathtaking. I’ve read a number of Jim’s articles and posts over the years, including more than a few involving exchanges with other writers. He has always struck me as a model of civility, especially in his disagreements with the Left. Why pick Mark for the Pearl Harbor treatment?

Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner:

I love debate, as people here know, but to treat Mark Levin as a mere “entertainer” who was just looking for a bestseller is to not know Mark Levin or have taken his book seriously. Besides being entertaining, he’s been a laborer on policy, legal, and political battles that have made substantive differences in the battle to preserve liberty from tyranny. There is heart and soul and years of experience in his book — and a heck of a lot more than cut-and-paste Google searching (!). He’s heard a lot worse and can handle his own battles, but as one who has followed Mark’s career, I found Jim’s tone deeply disappointing. Especially at a time when Liberty actually is endangered and Mark Levin is not to blame.

Via Sullivan, Anonymous Liberal:

First, notice that neither Lopez nor McCarthy bother to address any of Manzi’s substantive points. They’re simply taking issue with the fact that he dared to use strong terms in critiquing the work of a member in good standing of the conservative media. McCarthy’s call for “civility” is particularly rich given that McCarthy himself has made a career out of posting totally off-the-wall and unhinged rants against his favorite left of center targets. The reference to Levin’s “widely-acclaimed book” is also unintentionally hilarious. The only acclamation the book received, of course, was from other members of the epistemically-closed community that Manzi’s describing, people who simply accept whatever a clown like Levin says at face value.

Lopez’ response is even more telling. In short, she says that Levin is defending the world against Tyranny and that’s all that matters. At a time when Freedom itself hangs in the balance, it makes no sense to go after one of the good guys. This kind of tribalism epitomizes everything that is wrong with the right wing approach to politics. First, it’s totally crazy. The notion that somehow the current political debate involves a pitched battle between Good and Evil, between Freedom and Tyranny, is something that only someone deeply ensconced in Bubble World could casually work into a paragraph-long post. Second, the clear implication is that the ends justify the rhetorical means, that it doesn’t matter whether an argument is truthful or empirically supportable as long as it has the end result of helping your team “win.” Lopez’ defense of Levin is not that he’s right, but that he’s “making a difference.”

I commend Manzi for his unexpected candor, but I’m not sure he truly realizes what he’s up against. Like Truman Burbank discovered when he started pointing out the various flaws in his artificial world, no one around him cared. They were all invested in the success of the Show. Manzi’s colleagues at The Corner have a similarly vested in interest in the perpetuation of conservative Bubble World. Facts don’t matter. Winning does.

Daniel Larison:

The other day, Ross called for other conservatives to be more critical of Republican politicians and conservative “entertainers,” and Jim Manzi made the mistake of taking up this challenge and applying intellectual rigor and honesty to a prominent conservative radio host’s book on a subject he understands fairly well. The inevitable circling-of-the-wagons that has followed illustrates perfectly the problem Manzi was trying to address in Levin’s work. Not only do Manzi’s colleagues automatically defend Levin’s sub-par arguments, but they regard it as horribly bad form to dare criticize those arguments with the vehemence that their poor quality would seem to merit. Small wonder that there are so few “magazines and conservative columnists…willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.”

One need only quickly read Levin’s chapter “On Self-Preservation” to find that the sloppiness Manzi skewers so effectively is not limited to the discussion of climate change. In the early part of the chapter, Levin begins by misrepresenting the content of Washington’s Farewell Address:

The address makes clear he did so not because neutrality was an end in itself, but because he feared that taking sides could split the country apart. (p.177)

This is a good example of a deeply misleading half-truth. Washington was concerned about passionate attachments to other countries partly because of the domestic political effects, but he also explicitly argued that the American interest dictated that we remain free of foreign political attachments for many other reasons:

Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

And again:

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible [bold mine-DL]. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

Why, indeed? In other words, President Washington made it quite clear that neutrality provided many goods that Americans would be foolish and unwise to throw away for the sake of taking sides in foreign conflicts in which we had no real stake. Levin badly misinterprets and distorts the meaning of the Farewell Address because Washington’s genuine support for neutrality as the obvious policy that takes advantage of our unique geographical position is deeply at odds with the aggressive interventionism he lauds later in the chapter. Central to Levin’s vision is the maintenance of American superpower status, when this is impossible without the permanent alliances that Washington specifically rejected.

John Cole:

Someone failed to do their audience analysis before trying to argue with, well, facts and data and actual arguments. Manzi should understand by now that all the Corner expects from their contributors are pom poms and the occasional starbursts. And no, you sick bastards, not those pom poms

Will at The League:

There you have it, folks. No arguments, no substantive responses to the original post, nothing more than assurances that Levin’s heart is in the right place and a reminder that we’d best train our fire elsewhere. Maybe I’m over-generalizing from a sample that is too small and too skewed, but the knee-jerk quality of National Review’s response to a challenging and level-headed post on global warming seems pretty damning to me.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I love debate, as all of you here know, but when someone picks on Mark Levin – the most gentlemanly scholar and scholarly gentleman I have ever known, a veritable light in a sea of darkness, the very man whose conservative courage has liberals running for the coasts and whose work has inspired countless millions to the conservative cause – whose calm soothing radio voice has lulled billions of wailing infants to sleep while driving in the car with their parents – well…well…


It just won’t stand. It won’t stand I say. It will not stand. It might sit or even recline a bit, but it will not freaking stand.

Furthermore, that a man who has a popular radio show and writes pop-conservative bestsellers could be called an “entertainer” is frankly beyond the pale. And not just any pale. Not taupe or off-white. No – it is beyond The Pale. Ivory white. Crest white. Porcelain. Nay, paler than porcelain. Yes, we are entering Michael Jackson territory here. That pale.

I mean, true, Levin is a big boy and he can handle his own battles but really I think he needs us to handle those battles too. It wouldn’t be a pile-on otherwise. I mean, you don’t write at The Corner if you plan on criticizing other conservatives – at least not if those conservatives hate David Frum but still support the Iraq War.

It really is just breathtaking that anyone at The Corner would resort to name-calling or would use such frankly disturbing words as “awful” or – and this might not be safe for work – “wingnuttery”.

I know. Pretty scary stuff. (Bomb Iran!)

He said – in reference to Levin’s opus – the word “wingnuttery” and let me just say that I’m floored. And offended. My preconceived notions about the way the world works have been perhaps irrevocably shaken. That anyone at this fine blog would use words like that to describe a conservative is just – I don’t know. Awful. It’s not nice. It really isn’t. It’s like Pearl Harbor. Or no – no – no it’s like Hiroshima.

I mean, it’s not as though Manzi was attacking a filthy socialist fascist wimpy anti-American atheist liberal or anything. It’s not like he was claiming our president was trying to undermine freedom or was born in Kenya – you know, basic sensible conservative stuff. He was attacking one of his own. And not just one of his own, but Mark Levin. The guy who wrote the best book since Liberal Fascism, hands down.

I don’t know what ‘epistemic closure’ is but I do know Mark Levin, and you sir – you are no Mark Levin. You aren’t even fit to read his book let alone criticize it as some sort of vacuous propagandistic piece of poorly researched garbage.


Sane Conservative Person Jim Manzi of the National Review, out of nowhere, has gone and stone cold eviscerated the dickens out of his colleague Mark Levin’s stupid bestseller book of lies. “It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times — not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.” We think he has been holding this one back for some time. Uh oh, Andy McCarthy is first to spittle back! POPCORN

Let me suggest an alternative theory — namely, that the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker. There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating these entertainers, admiring their success, and enjoying the way they skewer people and causes you dislike. But to insist that they’re also worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right, worthy of keynote speeches at CPAC and admiring reviews in highbrow journals, is to make a category error that does no favors to the larger causes that you and they support. It sets up contrasts that redound to the benefit of your opponents (Rush Limbaugh versus Barack Obama, or Glenn Beck versus Obama, are both binaries that favor liberalism), and invites a level of scrutiny that the entertainers’ work simply can’t support. Both politically and intellectually, American conservatism would be better off if Levin’s fans responded to Manzi’s post, not by objecting that he didn’t take “Liberty and Tyranny” seriously enough (he did take Levin’s arguments seriously, and that’s precisely why his criticisms were so scathing), but by saying “relax, it’s only entertainment.”

hogan at Redstate:

Look – reasonable people can disagree about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. And I would, prior to yesterday, have said I was glad a guy like Manzi was out there trying to sift through some of the nonsense out there on global warming to put it all in context, even if I thought him a little squishy for my taste. But, I am sorry there Jim, no matter how much research you’ve done or no matter the extent to which I might even agree with you at times, while you are sitting in your little circle with a bunch of other self-indulgent asses that no one else in the world gives a rip about putting out posts like yesterday’s nonsense, Mark is out on the front lines inspiring a generation of Americans to fight back against statism.

Mark recognizes that when you are at war, while it is important to get facts right (and I think Mark did a darned fine job sourcing his book, giving you the chance to criticize it), it is also important to inspire the troops and to do so by distilling the realities of the fight into useful information. I frankly don’t know if every statistic in Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative was correct or not. Nor do I know if every statistic or number in Reagan’s A Time For Choosing speech in 1964 was correct. I DON’T CARE. I know the facts were in the ballpark, and more importantly, the principles were timeless and correct. I have read Mark’s book, and I know a little about the topics in question – and it’s a good book, with good citations and a lot of good facts.

The entire global warming debate is one of hysteria and deserves the mocking it gets from Mark. It’s filled with lies and scare-mongering, resulting in less freedom, higher taxes, more expensive energy, a worse economy and a lower standard of living for tens or even hundreds of millions of people – for absolutely no good reason. Those who want to make nice on this topic – be it Newt Gingrich sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi, be it Lindsey Graham yet again saddling up with democrats to pass a misguided and disastrous cap-and-trade bill, or be it “intellectuals” trying to appear reasonable on the subject – are setting conservatives up for failure cloaked in compromise.

Come 2014, I will continue to use the stockpile of incandescent bulbs I plan to amass in the coming 4 years – and will gladly pay the electric bill so I can have the light I prefer to have. Forgive me for wanting the freedom to have a frigging light bulb of my choosing. I will continue to drive a gas-guzzling Jeep Wrangler if I have to hand-build an engine to replace it, because I freaking like to drive it. I will continue to flush my toilet however many times it takes to get the job done – and I will continue to take a long hot shower.

More McCarthy

Mark Levin responds at The Corner:

I don’t know Jim Manzi, but given his out-of-nowhere rant, you’d think I ran over his dog or something. Feel free to read my book, and the chapter Manzi distorts and cherry-picks, yourself. You don’t need Manzi to interpret it. He’s no true expert on the subject, nor is he logical or coherent in his post. Indeed, he’s a very, very angry advocate of open and well-reasoned debate!

His style of argument here reminds me of that of Andrew Sullivan, for whom Manzi has the highest regard. Which makes me wonder: Since Manzi has appointed himself the umpire around here, will he call out Sullivan for his continuing obsession with Trig Palin in equally harsh terms? Call it the lunacy it is, or even call it “wingnuttery”? At the very least, Manzi is guilty of “epistemic one-sidededness.”

Here are the facts: There is an enormous amount of fraud and politics involved in global-warming science, some of which I mention in the chapter, much of which I didn’t have room to, and none of which Manzi acknowledges. But the research and evidence are available and extensive. I touch on it as best one can in a book that is not focused exclusively on the subject.

I would also encourage you to look at the petition Manzi disparages, having, I’m sure, carefully reviewed the qualifications of each and every expert listed, as he dismisses the entire lot of them. He mentions that 20,000 of the signatories don’t have doctorates. But more than 9,000 do.

Even so, that alone is not the standard. Reading his post, one would think they’re all a bunch of kooks and frauds. He knows this because Scientific American did the hard work of taking a small sample of the group and contacting them. Now, how scientific is that? Global-warming bloggers have unfairly attacked this petition relentlessly. Manzi simply repeats the mantra. He even refers to the phony names on the list, which he hopes will degrade the effort, without realizing that global-warming zealots are responsible for inserting them. How embarrassing.

Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene:

Obviously I may have missed some responses elsewhere, but suffice it to say that thus far — and it is yet early, so we may see better responses today — the reaction to Mr. Manzi’s post suggest that Julian Sanchez was right, and ought to persuade Jonah Goldberg that there is indeed an epistemic closure problem on the right, regardless of whether or not the same things exist on the left.

In the aftermath of a serious, substantive post that offers specific criticisms of Mr. Levin’s writing on climate change, Mr. Manzi has been called impolite, a tool of the Obama Administration, a financial opportunist, a “True Believer,” a blathering intellectual, and a self-indulgent ass. It is glaringly evident that no one has even attempted to refute his arguments — and since the folks at National Review know Jim Manzi, his honorableness, and where he stands on climate change, it cannot escape their attention that his critics occupy a closed information loop that has misled them about the truth.

Erick Erickson at Redstate:

Now Mark does not need me or anyone else to defend him from the cocktail conservative brigade of the Trig Palin School of Investigative Journalism, but we all should. He did fine work in his book and it is disappointing to see National Review allow such a hit on their site — particularly when so many who post there have in the past had to get someone to sign off on their posts.

It makes you wonder who was asleep at the switch or, if there was no one asleep at the switch, who let it happen.

In any event, I don’t need to defend Mark though I choose to. But Mark has defended himself whereby defending himself means gutting, dicing, and mincing up this Manzi guy.

Manzi responds at The American Scene:

Kathryn / Andy / Mr. Levin,

I accept that it is fair to characterize my tone in the “Epistemic Closure” post as scathing. I apologize (sincerely) if this was offensive to you. All I can say about it is that I was calling a spade a spade as I see it.

Mr. Levin,

Thank you for the reply. I’m happy to give you the last word, and simply invite readers to review both posts and draw whatever conclusions they feel are appropriate.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

Well, I stayed out of the whole brouhaha at first because I had a crazy-busy day. Then, as the argument around here played itself out, it seemed less and less necessary.

Still, since I wrote quite a bit about this “epistemic closure” business, and since Jim’s initial post cited me by name, and since some readers won’t rest until I say something, I guess I’ll say something.

I was a bit miffed at Jim for the way he used what I increasingly believe to be a pretty silly argument about conservative epistemic closure closed-mindedness to break with his well-earned reputation for civility and decorum — and in the Corner no less. If he wanted to argue with Mark about global warming, I don’t see why he needed Ross Douthat’s “challenge” to do so.

Moreover, I remain mystified how he can make this myopic and tendentious case for maintaining a “tactical alliance” with Andrew Sullivan — on the grounds that Sullivan (once?) opposed socialized medicine — but be so enthusiastic for ripping into Mark Levin and a book that came out a year and a half ago. If tactical alliances in the name of beating back bad  policies are the order of the day, Mark Levin is a far more valuable ally in that cause than the Atlantic’s gynecological sleuth.

Regardless, Jim’s apologized for seeming intemperate and I see no reason not to take his apology at face value. Lord knows, I’ve let fly around here far more often than he has. It happens. And in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think Jim’s post warranted the all-hands-on deck response from some of my colleagues.

Mark Levin’s a big boy who is certainly not afraid to dish it out. And I think it is perfectly fair to point out that sometimes he dishes it out quite harshly himself, and then hits his victims over the head with the dish and the frying pan, and then dunks the victim’s head in the lobster tank. I don’t blame him for being shocked at the tone and tenor of an attack coming from such a friendly and collegial quarter. But here’s the important thing: at the end of the day he responded with substance, and that’s as it should be.

Andrew Sullivan:

Oh, please. I still oppose socialized medicine – and the healthcare reform was not socialized medicine. I favor reforming the bill to expand its free market potential, but do not believe it was right to oppose the entire bill rather than engage and reform it. And there is no “tactical alliance.” There is an intellectual overlap. That’s all. Manzi persuaded me, for example, to oppose cap and trade and to be more skeptical even of a carbon tax. Because he offered reasoned arguments based on solid evidence.

David Frum at FrumForm:

The episode reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a year ago, shortly after I published my piece on Rush Limbaugh in Newsweek. I won’t embarrass my friend by mentioning his name, but if I did, you’d certainly recognize it.

My friend: “You aren’t really mad at Rush Limbaugh you know.”

Me: “I’m not? I thought I was.”

My friend: “You’re not even mad at Fox News. You want to win elections, you know that the troops have to be mobilized, somebody has to get them fired up, and you don’t fire them up with Milton Friedman and James Q. Wilson. You are mad at the conservative intellectual elites. They’re the ones who are supposed to uphold intellectual standards, to sift actual facts from what you call ‘pretend information’. Rush Limbaugh isn’t any worse than he was 20 years ago. But 20 years ago, conservatism offered something more than Rush Limbaugh. Since then, the conservative elite has collapsed. Blame them, not talk radio.”

What happened to Manzi is a perfect illustration of this elite collapse.

Reading through the comments in the Corner, there’s no mistaking who’s in charge, who’s subservient. Two Corner contributors complained about Manzi’s “tone.” Levin is the most vituperative radio host this side of Mike Savage – but imagine anyone at The Corner complaining about Levin’s tone!

Conservatism has always had both elite and popular wings, and in the past they worked together productively. Fred Schwarz drew tens of thousands to his Christian Anti-Communist Crusade in the early 1960s, at the same time as Milton Friedman was publishing Capitalism and Freedom; F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty; and Edward Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Nobody however demanded that Milton Friedman hail Schwarz’s pamphlets as serious contributions to conservative thought, in the way that the Cornerites demand that Manzi kiss Levin’s ring.

It’s different now, to conservatism’s present shame and future detriment.

Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

UPDATE: Andy McCarthy

Manzi at TAS

More Goldberg

More Douthat

More Larison

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Filed under Books, Conservative Movement, New Media

Fido’s Bark Sounds Suspiciously Like “Activist Judges!”

Heather Horn at The Atlantic:

Robert Stevens of Virginia made videos about pit bull fights. He was prosecuted under a law banning depictions of animal cruelty–“a 1999 law intended,” in the words of the Associated Press, “to limit Internet sales of so-called crush videos, which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by showing women crushing to death small animals with their bare feet or high-heeled shoes.”

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down that law, ruling that in its “overbreadth” the law violated the First Amendment right to free speech.  Of course, the Supreme Court isn’t declaring animal cruelty legal–there are still plenty of state laws banning such cruelty. But the effective re-legalization of animal-cruelty videos is sure to upset animal rights groups. So what was the court thinking? Here’s a summary of the developments, in which all but one of the justices decided this law went too far.

  • Why This Law in Particular Is Unconstitutional Determining which categories of speech can and can’t be banned, argues Chief Justice Roberts for the court, should not be a matter of cost-benefit analysis: “The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs.” The court decided child pornography was exempt from First Amendment protection only because, in that case, “the market for child pornography was ‘intrinsically related’ to the underlying abuse.” Though one might argue that the market for crush videos is similarly related to the underlying abuse, this law forbids far more than crush videos.

However “growing” and “lucrative” the markets for crush videos and dogfighting depictions might be … they are dwarfed by the market for other depictions, such as hunting magazines and videos, that we have determined to be within the scope of [the law in question]. We therefore need not and do not decide whether a statute limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty would be constitutional. We hold only that [this law] is not so limited but is instead substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment.

  • That’s Ridiculous This ruling, writes Justice Alito in dissent, “has the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos and is thus likely to spur a resumption of their production.” The case under discussion is about dogfighting, and the courts should be deciding “whether the videos that respondent sold are constitutionally protected.” But even if the courts do feel the need to rule on the question of the law’s “overbreadth,” he still doesn’t think this law “bans a substantial quantity of protected speech.”


While the Court conceded that Congress had passed the law to try to stop interstate trafficking in so-called “crush videos,” showing the actual killing of cats, dogs and other small animals by stomping or other intensely cruel methods, it said the resulting law itself reached far more than that kind of portrayal.  Limiting the law’s reach to those depictions, the opinion said, would require the Court to give “an unrealistically broad reading” to the exceptions Congress wrote into the law.

As written, the Court said, the law “creates a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth.”  Noting that the government had given assurances that it would enforce the law only against commercial portrayals of “extreme cruelty,” the Chief Justice wrote that the Court would not uphold an unconstitutional law “merely because the government promises to use it responsibly.”

The Justice Department had defended the law by arguing that portrayals of animal cruelty, as a group, simply had no protection at all under the First Amendment, in the same way that obscenity, libel and fraud are unprotected.  The Court rejected that argument, saying that the 1999 law regulates expression of the basis of its content, its message. That makes the law invalid under the First Amendment, the Court said, unless the government can overcome that presumption.

Roberts wrote: “The Government proposes that a claim of categorical exclusion should be considered under a simple balancing test: ‘Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.”  Calling that “a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage” and a “highly manipulable balancing test,” the Chief Justice said the test was “startling and dangerous.  The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative costs and benefits.  The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs.  Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it.”

Recalling its precedent putting child pornography outside the First Amendment, the opinion said that the Court had done so because the depictions of such pornography was necessarily linked to actual abuse of children in the production of such materials.  That approach, and other cases discussing what the First Amendment does not protect, the Court added, “cannot be taken as establishing a freewheeling authority to declare new categories of speech outside the scope of the First Amendment.”  While there may be some categories of speech not yet identified that could be placed outside the First Amendment, “there is no evidence that ‘depictions of animal cruelty’ is among them,” the Court said.

The Court then went on to analyze the 1999 law under traditional First Amendment principles, and found it went too far.  The law makes it a crime, with up to five years in prison, to make, seell or possess a “depiction of animal cruelty,” if any of those acts is done for commercial gain.  It defines “animal cruelty” depiction as one in which a living animal “is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed,” provided that the action violates a federal or state law.  The law says that it does not apply to depictions if they have “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.”

American Constitution Society

Ed Morrissey:

The problem, as QandO’s Bruce McQuain also notes, is that the act of filming is neither violent nor criminal.  The actual violent act should result in prosecution for those who committed it, including the videographer if he was part of a conspiracy to commit illegal and inhumane acts against animals.  The videotape would make a crucial and strong piece of evidence for trial.  However, criminalizing the acts of videotaping and publishing puts other kinds of publication at risk — for instance, videos of legal hunting, among other things, or even publication of cruel acts as a means of exposing and stopping them.

However, that’s an argument that also cuts both ways.  Laws against child pornography specifically target the act of photography and publication.  The laws do not specify that a separate act of molestation or rape occur for prosecution — and most people would agree that it shouldn’t require such a basis.  Just the act of possession can result in long jail times and a lifelong identification as a sex offender.  Using the logic of this decision, wouldn’t it tend to undermine the basis for those laws as well?

Of course, the government didn’t help its case by failing to prosecute anyone under the intended purpose of the law, the purveying of “crush videos.”  The law has been in existence for eleven years, apparently resulting in no trials at all.  One has to wonder why Congress bothered to pass the law at all instead of just leaving the jurisdiction to the local and state authorities for cruelty to animals, except that it was obviously an attempt by Congress to create an artificial crisis just to look responsive to it.

Ann Althouse:

Good. This doesn’t — of course — mean that you can’t punish acts of cruelty to animals.

Balk at The Awl:

Crush videos—films in which attractive women smush small animals under their heels—are once again legal after the Supreme Court struck down a law preventing the depiction of animal cruelty. (Animal cruelty itself is still illegal in many places.) The Court, in a 8-1 decision, found the law to be an overly broad restriction that violates the First Amendment.

UPDATE: Stanley Fish at NYT

Will at The League

1 Comment

Filed under Animal Rights, Supreme Court, The Constitution

All Slippery Slopes Lead To Robert Young

Glen Whitman at Cato Unbound:

For as far back as memory reaches, people have been telling other people what’s good for them — and manipulating or forcing them to do it. But in recent years, a novel form of paternalism has emerged on the policy stage. Unlike the “old paternalism,” which sought to make people conform to religious or moralistic notions of goodness, the “new paternalism” seeks to make people better off by their own standards.

New paternalism has gone by many names, including “soft paternalism,” “libertarian paternalism,” and “asymmetric paternalism.” Whatever the name, it arose from the burgeoning field of behavioral economics, which studies the myriad ways in which real humans — unlike the agents who populate most economic models — deviate from pure rationality. Real people suffer from a variety of cognitive biases and errors, including lack of self-control, excessive optimism, status quo bias, susceptibility to framing of decisions, and so forth. To the extent such imperfections cause people to make choices inconsistent with their own best interests, paternalistic interventions promise to help them do better.

What sort of interventions? To the casual reader, the new paternalism might seem to have little to do with government at all. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s Nudge and Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, for instance, often read more like advice manuals than policy manifestos.

But if you dig deeper, you’ll find a wide-ranging policy agenda at work. In seminal journal articles by Sunstein & Thaler, Camerer et al., O’Donoghue and Rabin, and others, you’ll find a panoply of policy proposals from mild to downright intrusive. The story begins with the seemingly innocuous proposal to enroll all employees in savings plans automatically (with the ability to opt out). Then it progresses to new default rules in contracts, such as a presumption of “for cause” rather than “at will” employment, again with an opt-out. And then? Default rules that can be waived only through a cumbersome legal procedure. Then default rules with some options ruled out entirely — such as maximum hours that cannot be waived for less than time-and-a-half pay. Then cooling-off periods for high-cost purchases. Then sin taxes for fatty or sodium-rich foods. Then outright bans on ingredients like trans fats.

Not every new paternalist supports every one of these policies, and they don’t advocate them all with the same confidence. But they’re all on the list, and all justified by an appeal to behavioral economics.

The Claim to Moderation vs. The Slippery Slope

New paternalists often present their position as striking a reasonable middle ground between rigid anti-paternalism on the one hand and intrusive “hard” paternalism on the other. But as the list of policies above suggests, this claim to moderation is difficult to sustain.

My claim (along with my frequent coauthor, Mario Rizzo) is that the new paternalism carries a serious risk of expansion. Following its policy recommendations places us on a slippery slope from soft paternalism to hard. This would be true even if policymakers — including legislators, judges, bureaucrats, and voters — were completely rational. But the danger is especially great if policymakers exhibit the same cognitive biases attributed to the people they’re trying to help.

The slippery slope is not, of course, the only argument against new paternalism. The slippery slope is not intended as a solo knock-out argument against any and all new-paternalist policies. In some cases, their benefits might be high enough to justify their costs. The key point is that the slippery slope risk must be counted among the relevant costs.

Unfortunately, the very manner in which the new paternalism paradigm has been advanced makes it likely that risk will be ignored.

Jason Kuznicki at Cato:

One often-cited example takes place in the cafeteria: Put fruit and healthy snacks up front, and people will be more likely to choose them. Put the chocolate cake first, and that’s what they pick instead. Paternalism, the argument runs, lies on a continuum, and some forms of it are really quite harmless. It’s not (or not only) a boot stamping on a human face forever. It’s also the nice lady at the cafeteria, who helps you pick out healthy food. Healthy food is what you really wanted anyway. So what could be wrong with that?

Whitman, however, turns the argument around a bit: Legislators, too, suffer from bias. What if paternalistic legislation proves sort of like that chocolate cake? By placing it up front, and by making it look appealing, legislators may choose it too often, and they may neglect the healthier — but to them less appealing — choice of freedom. What if a little paternalism now turns into a lot of paternalism later? And where are our “real” preferences, anyway? Whitman offers arguments for why a slippery slope may very well exist here, and examples of how the theory of soft paternalism has developed teeth in practice.

Katherine Mangu-Ward at Reason:

Small case study: Sodas in schools. Kids are fat. Bans loom. Soda companies—which generally prefer to fight to the death—collaborate to remove full-sugar sodas entirely from schools. Is this what a victory for non-coercive nudging looks like?

Will Wilkinson:

Call it “soft paternalism,” “assymmetric paternalism,” “libertarian paternalism” or whatever With Cass Sunstein as Obama’s regulatory czar, we all may be feeling the gentle nudge of the new paternalism soon enough. Whitman puts us on guard, arguing that the logic of the new paternalism sets us on a slippery slope toward plain old-fashioned not-so-gentle paternalism.

Eugene Volokh

Julian Sanchez:

I’ve been relatively open to at least some of the ideas circulating under those banners—at least as libertarians go—but Glen’s arguments certainly provide ample reason for severe skepticism.  Certainly, I share his concern that initiatives that begin as “soft” paternalism, in the form of default rules meant to steer people away from ill-considered decisions, may “harden” if people continue to make what regulators perceive as the “wrong” choices.  In particular, I think there’s an unjustified tendency to  privilege temporally later preferences—so that if someone in ill-health regrets their youthful excesses, we treat this as reflecting the “real” preference. But if we think people overvalue the short term pleasures of fatty food, drink, or tobacco, and undervalue the long-term costs, surely it’s equally possible that those costs will loom large when the bill comes due, and cause people to discount too heavily all the enjoyment they got while running up the tab.

Especially important, I think, is Glen’s argument about framing effects: Soft paternalism may currently seem like a middle-ground between a relatively more laissez-faire approach and “hard” paternalism that forecloses options rather than merely establishing defaults.  Yet, as Glen points out, once “soft paternalist” policies are implemented, the debate may shift to position some more aggressive intervention as the new reasonable middle ground.

Yet it’s this very sort of logic that has made me at least somewhat interested in the potential of libertarian paternalist arguments. My (perhaps vain) hope is that this reframing effect can be exploited in the other direction, to make reform in the direction of greater freedom more appealing, provided libertarian paternalists are primarily deployed in spheres that are already heavily regulated.  So, for instance, it seems that most Americans consider straightforward legalization of gambling or prostitution or drugs too extreme a position—though at least with regard to marijuana, the public opinion trend seems to be moving steadily in a more libertarian direction. But a proposal to combine legalization with some mechanism for permitting “problem users” to limit their own access—supposing the obvious privacy problems presented by such mechanisms could be worked out—might conceivably be presented as a reasonable compromise, recasting the status quo prohibitionist policies as the new “extreme.”  At the very least, I’d be interested to see some polling that examines how people’s responses change when a “soft paternalist” alternative is added alongside prohibition and legalization.

More Kuznicki at The League:

Among non-libertarians, there’s a strong tendency to collapse all the different types of costs together. You’re unfree if you have a family you feel obliged to support. You’re unfree if you live far from civilization. You’re unfree if you get cancer. You’re unfree if your personal tastes are expensive. You’re unfree — I infer — if you’re thrown in a prison camp. Just another type of cost to pay. Something seems way off here to me.

That’s because political unfreedom is different. Political unfreedom isn’t the result of bad luck, or your moral code, or your freely made but unwise choices. Other humans did it to you, and those other humans could stop doing it if they wanted. Whitman’s argument above is that we should think carefully about which people get to impose costs, and how, and to what end — even though other costs exist, even though the world remains full of dysfunctional markets, bad personal choices, and brute facts of nature.

Now, these cost-imposers may act with a smile on their face, or they may be brutal about it. They may have a representative government to validate their acts, or not. But political and non-political costs should never be confused. Political freedom is the freedom from arbitrary interference on the part of other people. We find it striking, and worrisome, when we see political theorists who aren’t so careful about the distinction. (For more on this idea, see Tom Palmer, writing in last month’s Cato Unbound.)

Now, the obvious rejoinder is that our decisions are continually subject to the arbitrary interference from other people. And this is quite true, even apart from the trivial example that we are all constrained equally from killing each other, in a clever little constraint-on-constraint. Other constraints abound.


This is what libertarians always seem to get wrong—it isn’t paternalism (or, at least, it isn’t the “bad” kind of paternalism) when the state is protecting me from direct harm caused by someone else’s actions. I can claim a direct harm from inhaling second-hand smoke: emphysema and lung cancer. I can’t make a similar claim about somebody else’s lack of a savings plan.

I’d expect better from a guy at Cato, because I’m counting on them to help get pot, gambling and prostitution legalized everywhere

UPDATE: Will at The League

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Remembrance Of Books Past

Tyler Cowen is asked “which have influenced your view of the world:”

The books are in no intended order, although the list came out in a broadly chronological stream:

1. Plato, Dialogues.  I read these very early in life and they taught me about trying to think philosophically and also about meta-rationality.

2. The Incredible Bread Machine, by Susan Love Brown, et.al.  This was the first book I ever read on economics and it got me excited about the topic.

3. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand.  This got me excited about the idea that production is what matters and that producers must have the freedom and incentives to operate.

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order.  The market as a discovery procedure and why socialist calculation will not succeed.  (By the way, I’ll toss a chiding tsk-tsk the way of Wolfers and Thoma.)

5. John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Keynes is one of the greatest thinkers of economics and there are new ideas on virtually every page.

6. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography.  This got me thinking about how one’s ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime.  Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.

7. Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object.  This is actually a book about how to arrive at a deeper understanding than the one you already have, although I suspect few people read it that way.

8. Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit.  This convinced me that a strictly individualistic approach to ethics will not in general succeed and introduced me to new ways of reasoning and new ways to plumb for depth.

9. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae.  I don’t think the ideas in this book have influenced me very much, but reading it was, for whatever reason, the impetus to start writing about the economics of culture and also to give a broader focus to what I write.  Alex, by the way, was the one who recommended it to me.

10. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.  This is still the best book on interiority.

I’d also like to mention the two books by Fischer Black, although a) I cannot easily elevate one over the other, and b) I capped the list at ten.  La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims also deserves honorary mention, on self-deception and related issues.  Plus there is Shakespeare — also for thinking with depth — although I cannot point to a single book above the others.  Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon comes to mind as well.

I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists.

Peter Suderman at The American Scene:

I’m not sure if the books below are truly the absolute most influential in my life, but they’re certainly the ones that immediately stick out in my mind as having stuck with me over time.

Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury: I’ve always been a little perplexed by the book’s reputation as a defense of free speech. It is, of course, but that’s not its most important point by far. Instead, it’s a novel about mental debilitation and loss of empathy induced by media overload — in particular, overload on shallow, visual, electronic media. It’s also a novel about the love of stories, and the way written stories in particular can provide humans with meaning, purpose, and escape; by the book’s end, the hero joins an outcast community in which individuals devote themselves not only to learning works of literature, but to immersing themselves in them, fusing their identities with these works and, in a sense, becoming them. For reasons that should be obvious, I’ve long found this wonderful and tremendously appealing.

Videohound’s Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics: Before the Internet, and thus before easy access to IMDB and the rest of the digital cinemaverse, cinephiles had to rely on incomplete reference books in order to familiarize themselves with back catalog films. For years, I poured over Videohounds’ cult film guide almost daily, and its sensibility — a quirky mix of giddy, passionate, erudite, snarky, and critical — helped shape my appreciation of and attitude toward pulp ever since.

The Caves of Steel — Isaac Asimov: As an eight year old first reading the book, I loved Asimov’s cleverly constructed murder mystery story, and as an already-devoted sci-fi geek (Star Trek was a staple in my household), I loved the intricate future world Asimov designed even more. But what stuck with me most was the slightly detached, slightly cranky, cerebral-but-not-stuck-up quality of both the detective protagonist, Elijah Baley, and the storytelling itself. As with most of Asimov’s characters (and, as I understand, Asimov himself), Baley was a hyper self-aware invert somewhat vexed by people and social situations, but who solved problems by thinking them through as thoroughly as possible and accepting whatever results, often imperfect, came of this method. Perhaps to my detriment, I related to this quite a bit and found it a useful model for understanding human relations.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Frank Miller: I got my first copy of this at nine or ten years old, and I literally read and reread it until it fell apart (for a while I held it together with duct tape, but eventually I lost so many pages that it was no longer worth saving). Miller’s fusion of gruff noir sentiment and comic book action helped define the way I think about pop art and genre storytelling; sure, it’s low culture — frequently crude and base — but it’s executed with such verve that it somehow makes it into the upper middlebrow (or near enough) anyway.

Ender’s Game — Orson Scott Card: Speaking of hyper-cerebral! Scott Card’s later books descend into a near-parody of the Asimovian worldview, with protagonists who presume (and act upon) an absurdly concrete and knowable understanding of human behavior. But while you can find hints of this in Ender’s Game, it works anyway, in large part because of the young age of its heroes. These days, I prefer the first two sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, both of which are more mature in their outlook. But the original is the one I’ve read most often, and the one I think of most.

The Catcher in the Rye — J.D. Salinger: Yes, another novel about a social outcast who spends too much time in his head. But it’s a classic for a reason, and an enduring portrait of adolescent questioning.

American Pastoral — Philip Roth: Probably the finest work of prose in the bunch, and arguably also the most mature, it’s one of those novels that’s both impressive and gripping — not only do you admire it, but you can’t stop flipping pages as you do.

Mike Schramm:

He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him, but it seemed like an interesting idea, and I needed something to write tonight. Note that these books are some of the influential books in my life, not the most influential or the best books I’ve ever read. Like Tyler, this is top-of-my-head stuff, not a definitive list.

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This book (and the subsequent “trilogy” of five books — I haven’t read “And Another Thing” yet, so I’m not sure if I consider it canon or not) defined my humor, my geekiness, my wit, my insight into our species and what a silly, messed-up set of creatures we are.

2. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I bought an edition of this called “The Essential Dracula” back when I was a kid, and it got me into literary analysis long before I ever minored in English in college. Here was a pulp story about a supernatural villian told in an interesting way, but when I read the analysis on it, I realized it was actually a commentary on class and wealth, on Victorian sensibility and sex, and the proper modern balanced up against the great old evil myths of history.

3. The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. Batman was my favorite long before I read this book, but this series taught me about how you can deconstruct a legend, take it over, and place it in your own time. I remember reading that Miller wanted to write this because he was worried — Batman, to him, was always an old man figure, and Miller was rapidly approaching the age at which he imagined Batman had always been. So in this book, Miller pushes the clock back, and turns Batman into a guy who will always be the old grumpy bastard. Not to mention the Joker’s death scene — just a perfect ending to that mythical relationship.

4. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry. I found this book later than the other books on this list so far, but it’s one of my favorite books, and it’s the first book that really convinced me that I could sit down and write a novel. Not only is it a cracking good and funny read, but it was written by Barry while he was working at HP — in short, he was like me, a guy stuck in a tech job and trying to write fiction in the evenings about the geeky stuff he knew. I still haven’t come up with a premise or a book this good, but I am still working on it.

5. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. My high school teacher told us that this was the best novel ever written, and though I didn’t believe her at first, I reread it a few years later, and eventually came around to her point of view. It’s not my favorite novel at all, but yes, in terms of voice and story and themes, it could well be the best novel ever written.

6. In the Hall of the Dragon King, Stephen R. Lawhead. There’s nothing really special about this book — it’s straight fantasy, with a kid who starts out humbly but eventually has to save the world with all of his magical buddies. But this was the first fantasy book I ever read, and so it was my introduction to the genre that I keep finding myself coming back to again and again. Nowadays, fantasy is super popular, and there are all sorts of subgenres and different takes, and it’s much more of a commodity. But this book hearkens back to when it all started for me: a little pudgy kid who was pretty unpopular who found all sorts of magical worlds and wonder in the pages of a book.

7. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. As if you didn’t already know I was a nerd — it’s cliche to like this book at this point. But still, this was my introduction to cyberpunk. Nowadays, I think that The Diamond Age is a very much superior book, and I think Neuromancer should be much more respected for its influence and role in the creation of the genre. But Snow Crash was the first one I read that really vibed with me — Neuromancer was always a little too intellectual when you compared it to Hiro Protagonist’s pizza delivery adventures.

8. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. If you want to talk lifetime, this might not register quite yet, as it’s only in the past year or so that this book has influenced me. Still, if you want to talk quality over quantity, this book is more or less responsible for all the thinking I’ve done in the past year about what I’m eating and how I’m dealing with food in general. There are quite a few factors that have influenced my changes in lifestyle over the past 16 months or so, but this book is a big one of them.

9. Gamma World, 4th edition by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet. I’ll come clean: my introduction to roleplaying games wasn’t through D&D. I never actually played D&D much as a kid — I was in that weird spot where the few friends I had were too cool to concern themselves with video games or D&D dice. But I did buy this book somewhere and I poured over it for hours, reading up on character creation and various weapons and how to design settings for players this postapocalyptic world. I only remember playing this once with my brother, and he didn’t have any interest in it at all (partly because I didn’t really understand it myself, but mostly because he didn’t really care), but I was so darn fascinated by the idea of it.

10. The Holy Bible. Let’s be honest here — I would almost argue that anyone who says they weren’t influenced by this one is lying. But even if you want to claim that this book isn’t a part of your life, I’ll admit that it’s been a big part of mine. I don’t mean to evangelize — personally, I have no real idea what exactly I believe right now, and that doesn’t give me any position to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t believe. I figure, as long as you’re not hurting yourself or someone else, more power to you. But from “In the beginning” to “Amen,” I would argue that there isn’t a part of anyone’s life this book hasn’t influenced in some way. You can talk about quotes, you can talk about story (almost all of our stories involve some sort of messianic figure, and who’s the most messianic figure you know?), you can talk about laws and politics and gender relations and wars, and you name it, this book’s had a hand in it. And even if you want to get personal, I went to a Lutheran school — I know all the stories of Jacob and Esau (oh hi Lost) and Isaiah and Solomon and David and Jesus and Peter and Paul and so on. Like it or not, if you want to list influential books, I’m putting this one on there.

Arnold Kling:

1. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest. My take-away from that book might be described as “The Exclusive Country Club Theory.” He makes foreign policy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the United States sound as if it was the province of an exclusive country club of people with a certain temperament and background. Wall Street lawyers, mostly. I have to say that I have carried this model with me for a long time. To this day, I view the relationship among Treasury, the Fed, the New York Fed, and large financial institutions in Exclusive Country Club terms. These people vet one another, agree with one another, and support one another. They do not question whether their interests coincide with those of the rest of the country–they just assume that the country depends on their institutions and their class leadership.

2. George Goodman, aka ‘Adam Smith,’ The Money Game and Supermoney. He was the Michael Lewis of his time–a great storyteller who also understood the substance of finance. I think his books still read well, although I could understand it if others find the stories themselves too dated. These books sparked my interest in finance theory and in the temptation to both believe and refuse to believe in efficient markets.

3. Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Information Rules. Again, you may find that the examples seem old, but no better book has been written on the economic issues of the information-driven economy. Among other things, this book convinced me that Price Discrimination Explains Everything.

4. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines. At first, I did not buy it. However, I have mostly come around. It is now possible to evaluate his predictions for 2009 (made around 1997). He did score with this one (p. 190):

Computers routinely include wireless technology to plug into the ever-present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network, and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.

However, for the most part, his predictions are far too aggressive. He was about right on hardware capability, somewhat optimistic on software capability (he thought that functions like language translation would be pretty much mastered by now), clearly too optimistic on the emergence of applications (he predicted computer-controlled cars on main highways by now) and ludicrously optimistic about the speed at which education and health care will be transformed by technology.5. Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man. Folks on the left scorn this book, and it is not without its flaws. But ultimately, I think the left hates Shlaes not for what she gets wrong but what she gets right. What she gets right pokes huge holes in the high school book narrative of the Depression (Herbert Hoover sat back and did nothing, Roosevelt saved the economy). My takeaway from this book is the importance of the battle over historical narrative. We see that today in the determination of the left to blame the financial crisis entirely on “free-market ideology,” even though that narrative is not such a good fit for the facts.

6. George Gilder, Microcosm. This was his history of the microprocessor. My guess is that it will not read well today, but at the time his emphasis on the relative unimportance of the materials in computers (he refers to silicon as “sand”) stimulated me to focus on intangibles in the modern economy.

7. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed. This book got me started thinking about the origins of the differences between the left and the right. I do not think anyone has fully satisfactory answers, but it is a fascinating question.

8. Amar Bhide, The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses. He breaks down the business ecosystem into two dimensions–degree of capital intensity and degree of ambiguity, and he gets remarkable mileage out of the resulting matrix.

9. Bill James, The Baseball Abstact, 1987. Others can be equally analytical about baseball. What is striking about Bill James is how well he wrote–when he cared. If only Amar Bhide wrote this well…

10. Ernest Graham, The Wind in the Willows. The character of Toad is brilliantly drawn and offers great insights.

11. Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age and Snow Crash. How I came to understand nanotechnology and competitive government, respectively.

1. Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. For me it all started with Sowell. In hindsight what intrigued me about the book was not the economics, but Sowell’s ability to use human reason to understand the world, but in a concrete way. Call it empirical philosophy.
2. Moral Theory by David Oderberg. A defense of natural rights morality against Peter Singer and other utilitarians, but this also inspired by interest in philosophy.
3. The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash. The first work of sociobiology that I’d ever read and it opened my eyes. Interestingly enough, it also removed the last glimmer of the belief that Judeo-Christian sexual morality was an obselete relic of the past. It is about creating peace in the war between the sexes more than avoiding out of wedlock childbirths.
4. Civil Rights by Thomas Sowell. I still think this is Sowell’s best book. Takes a birds eye view of culture and cultural values and shows why it matters.
5. Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. I used to be an atheist and began my walk with God with a very shaky and weak faith. This strengthened me.
6. Microeconomics by Samuel Bowles. Let me slough off my neoclassical chains and learn some real economics, and made me appreciate the need for social norms and cultural models of “life strategies”.
7. Luxury Fever by Robert Frank. A lot of this book was fluff, but the crucial insight of people in an arms race with each other for relative rank (social status) reoriented my thinking about incentives and taxes. I now realize that it brought me to the economic center.
8. Choice Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Allingham. Opened up the world of political philosophy.
9. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. I knew a lot of the material already but the section on children and behavioral genetics opened my eyes. Culture > family.
10. Herbert Gintis’ Amazon Book Reviews. Ok, I’m cheating a bit. If I wanted to conform to the challenge then I could put his book The Bounds of Reason, but after reading all of his book reviews a couple times I’d already been acquainted with the major points he’d made. Opened my eyes to really good work in the social sciences.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I have thought about this some, and come to the decision that the books I read as a child were by far the most influential – far more influential than anything I read later as a college student or the ones I read nowadays.  So here’s a list, from memory, of the most influential books I read as a child.

The Lord of the Rings – This one is the obvious choice for a fantasy reader, I suppose.  I read it in fourth grade for the first time and loved it, and have read it several times since. It is still the definitive work of epic fantasy, I believe.  The only downside is that so many people attempted to imitate Tolkien when they should have been writing their own ideas.

The Prydain Chronicles – Lloyd Alexander was never as well known as Tolkien, but his Prydian books were wonderful young adult fantasy novels steeped in Welsh myth.  So while some of the characters mirrored those in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the stories themselves were unique and interesting and lively.  I read these ones countless times.

The Dark is Rising Sequence – This series taps into the old Welsh and British mythology fairly heavily, mixing the modern world and Merlin and time travel together in an epic clash between good and evil.  One of many books I read and loved that transports us from the mundane world into one much darker and more fierce.

A Wrinkle in Time – This was one of those books that really stopped me in my tracks. Free will, conformity, and the seduction of evil are all present here.

The Giver – Another glimpse into totalitarianism and conformity and the dangers of ‘sameness’ and ignorance of history.  Less fantastical than my typical childhood read, but sort of shocking also.

The Bridge to Terabithia – They made a movie about this book recently.  Please don’t watch it.  Sometimes movies can enrich the book experience, but not when they are mangled by over-Disneyfication. Terabithia helped me understand tragedy and loss better.

The Castle in the Attic – To be honest, I can barely remember this book, but like Narnia it helped transport me into another world – something I did a lot of as a kid.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This was a good, funny, cynical take on the King Arther stories.  Very helpful to round out all that heroism and chivalry with some good, honest, witty realism.

Narnia – Like the Lord of the Rings, these books are simply staples of young adult fantasy.

King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table – I have read so many King Arthur books at this point I can barely keep track of them.  This was one of the first.

I Am the Cheese – This was far more dystopian a tale than I typically read as a child, and still sort of haunting whenever I think about it.

Some honorable mentions:

Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Wind in the Willows, The Last Unicorn, the Redwall books, the books of Roald Dahl and many others…

Matthew Yglesias:

So my list in no order:

— 1. Derick Parfit, Reasons and Persons: This is my alternative to a theological system or religious belief, the set of preposterous-to-those-who-don’t-believe-it-yet ideas that underlies how I think about morality, who we are, and what it all means.— 2. Friedrich Nietszche, On the Genealogy of Morals: I first picked up Nietszche because his image has a kind of appeal to smart, pretentious, angry, lonely teenage boys. But this is a really important book! The fact that Caplan “ultimately didn’t learn much of substance” from Nietszche except the value of being arrogant strikes me as telling.

— 3. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained: The precise content of Dennett’s ideas about human consciousness isn’t important to me, but the practical methods at work are. I’m drawn to Wittgeinstein’s thing about how you need to “show the fly the way out of the flybottle” rather than “solve” these timeless dilemmas, but I find Wittgeinstein almost impossible to read and didn’t understand what he was saying at all when I tried. Dennett I think gave me an example of the shewing.

— 4. William McNeil, Plagues & Peoples: This had a kind of revelatory quality to me, the idea that everything you thought was important about history was actually kind of trivial and the real determinants of human destiny are something else entirely. Guns, Germs, and Steel is arguably the better book in this genre, but I only ever read it because I’d read P&P first so I’m giving McNeil the nod.

— 5. Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: For two reasons. One is that I used to be the kind of jerk who thought education was being ruined by PC demands to represent more women and minority writers. Then I wound up randomly assigned freshman year to a class that was all about women and minority writers. And damnit, if some of the books weren’t really good! Turns out I didn’t have it all figured out when I was 18. This was my favorite of the bunch, and from it I acquired my love of pastiche. If you like “Miley Cyrus and American Exceptionalism” you have Kingston to thank.

— 6. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground: The very beginning from “I am a sick man” to “I will talk about myself” is the greatest stretch of prose in human history. Dostoevsky is also an illustration of the power of great writing to convey radically unsound or even totally nonsensical ideas. And at the end of the day, coming to grasp the difference between the true, the right, and the beautiful is hugely important. Many if not most of the most compelling artistic visions are espousing somewhat crazy ideas, and sober thinking about big issues is boring.

— 7. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: This books is ultimately why I stopped trying to get good grades and go to grad school. Most people, of course, don’t suffer from the “might want to be a professional philosopher when I grow up” problem and don’t necessarily need to be un-bewitched about the nature of the enterprise. But Rorty more generally is the summation of a whole series of thinkers on the Hume-Wittgeinst-Quine-Sellars trajectory who teach a deflationary way of approaching problems.

— 8. Susan Moller Okin, Justcie, Gender, and the Family: I think that to a lot of heterosexual left-of-center men, distinctively feminist ideas can easily seem to be either trivial or else censorious and annoying. I know some men who say their thinking about this was changed when they had a daughter, which makes sense. For me, though, it was Okin that showed that there were intellectually important claims here and that the feminist revolution is likely to continue to challenge the status quo in important ways for years to come.

— 9. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: I feel like this book is too new and non-classic and I read it too recently for it to deserve a place on this list. But I’m constantly hearing or reading things that remind me of it, and wanting to tediously explain Clark’s whole thesis to people. It’s certainly not convincing in all respects, but I think it’s the model of how to frame a big question and attack it.

— 10. Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: I actually find Structure a bit obscurantist in certain respects that encourages misreadings. Certainly it’s an important classic, but I think I think I would have found it totally unconvincing had I not read Kuhn’s earlier and more accessible book first (and thanks to Michael Rescorla for structuring the tutorial that way). Suffice it to say that the story you think you know about how a diligent empiricist looked at the stars and debunked religious superstition about planetary orbits is totally wrong.

Tyler Cowen has a list of bloggers who have participated

Conor Friedersdorf

Jason Kuznicki at The League:

Following the meme, here are the ten books that changed my life the most.

  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This book de-Catholicized me, or at least it began the process. It set me on the path to libertarianism, after I’d read Atlas Shrugged. It offered a sense of life, and a lifelong obsession. I still live here a lot of the time.
  • The Once and Future King by T. H. White. The most insightful book about government ever written for young people. It taught me that government is a nasty business, even at its best. I have never since been able to see government as noble in the way that I think most people do.
  • Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. Sparked another lifelong interest — the French Revolution, which was also a nasty business, but an instructive one. After years of reading in French history, I have all kinds of complaints with this book, but it’s still a great read.
  • Candide by Voltaire. I pick this one out of Voltaire’s many short stories both because it’s one of the longer ones — plausibly, it really is a book — and also because it’s familiar. Voltaire’s style, his absurdism, and his sense of justice have always appealed to me.
  • The Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace. Published in 1981. Obscure but fascinating; its influence would be hard for me to overstate. Every year on New Year’s Day I revisit this book to see what various people got right and wrong about the future, which I’ve been lucky enough to live to see. Patterns have emerged over time, and these patterns have deeply influenced how I think about society.Lesson one: psychics are never worth your time. The most accurate forecaster in the book is F. M. Esfandiary, by a landslide (yes, that guy). He got many things wrong, but it’s clear that he was in another league from all the rest.The biggest mistake made by nearly all forecasters (though not so much by Esfandiary) is to think that the future would be controlled by a central agency or authority. No one imagined how decentralized we would be in 2010. We were blindsided by a mostly libertarian, decentralizing technological revolution. This is a tremendously good thing. Most predictors were pessimists, and they were mostly wrong.
  • Island by Aldous Huxley. It’s hard to read or understand this book without Brave New World, but Island is a positive statement of Huxley’s beliefs, not a negative one, so what he really thinks comes across more clearly. It’s also the only utopian society in fiction that I’d ever really want to live in. The others either leave me cold or make me want to run away as fast as I can. I’d have some problems with Huxley’s utopia, but I think I could live in it.
  • Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Sort of a stand-in for all of his other works. Didn’t dare cite The Order of Things because that one’s so hard to understand that I’m not sure whether it’s had an influence on me. Whenever I try self-consciously to “be” a libertarian in my writing, I often end up sounding like Foucault.
  • Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan. Andrew would do better to blog less and to write more in print. He’s an extraordinary prose stylist, and maybe among the best of all time, when he slows down. When he blogs, he’s repetitive and formulaic. I learned to write by reading Virtually Normal. It was also the first book I ever read about gay politics, and it seemed just so clear, so right, and so wise.
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. This is the closest I’ve ever read to a convincing theory of everything. The book is too modestly titled, however, because while Darwin is certainly the key to the story, we also get Diderot, Hume, Leibniz, Popper, Gould, Penrose, and a host of others. It’s an intellectual tour de force, and especially remarkable for its linkage of biological evolution to a theory of mind.
  • Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World by Jack Goldstone. This book nearly destroyed my faith in non-quantitative historical methods. I take it as a reminder that while philosophy may be a tyrant, she is a tyrant with short, pudgy little arms.

Ezra Klein:

I’ve written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Tom Geoghegan’s “Which Side Are You On?,” Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes” and maybe a handful of others.

But I always feel like a fraud.

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking — particularly in my current thinking — than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that’s consistently present in my approach to new issues.

Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don’t) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. That was cemented, of course, by reporting deeply on health-care reform, which is an opportunity that TAP gave me but that few other outlets would’ve been even mildly interested in letting me pursue. I consider reading the blogger Demosthenes use the word “props” in relation to politics as something near to an epiphany; it was the first time I realized that I could speak about Washington in a language I recognized.

Kieran Healy:

1. Clive James, Visions Before Midnight or The Crystal Bucket. His TV criticism. I think I read one or other these when I was twelve or thirteen, having bought them on holidays somewhere. Not exactly Leavis or Empson, I know. But it taught me a lot about how to write, encouraged me to pretend I knew about the literary stuff James habitually referred to in passing, and I’m pretty sure helped make me an insufferable teenaged shit.

2. Steven Vogel, Life’s Devices. Another random bookshop discovery. This is a book about biomechanics but also, and more importantly, a terrific introduction to what is means to do science. A lot of it went past me when I read it first, but it was still irresistible in part because (as I remember) it’s written with this quiet wit right the way through. Chock full of trivia that isn’t really trivia. Strangely enough, I think Vogel still teaches here at Duke. I should thank him personally for writing such a great book.

3. Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter. Another book by a biologist. (Are you seeing my imagined career path here?) Another classic book on the practice of science. Heinrich follows ravens around in Vermont, trying to figure out why the hell they would share carrion they find. I’d recommend this book to anyone.

4. Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior. So clever, so unassuming, so it made me want to be an economist. Then I took some economics and it wasn’t much like Schelling at all.

5. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. I think this book made me want to do sociology. Bluntly creative. Briskly suggestive. Deeply frustrating.

6. David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany. I don’t know a damn thing about medieval German history, but I had to read this book very, slowly, carefully and repeatedly as part of a Sociology of Community course as a third year undergraduate. I learned a tremendous amount in the process. The cases are fascinating: a girl branded as a witch, a man who refused to say his prayers, the ritual burial of a bull at a crossroads. The analysis is subtle: Sabean is excellent on the fine grain of relations between the State and the peasantry, and how religion and cultural meaning generally express these relations. But for me it was the first academic monograph I really grasped and, in the process, came to understand how hard it must be to write a book that good.

7. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. I had to read chunks of it as a postgrad in Ireland, and as my reaction was one of constant irritation at Bourdieu’s writing style coupled with the feeling that he was getting at something important. I reread the first few chapters recently and was struck by how direct (and properly documented) its engagement with the literature was in comparison with much of the rest of his work, so I guess professional socialization has had its effect on me. But I was also surprised that it was as compelling as I remembered.

8. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve. This came out the year before I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. The book and the ensuing controversy around it taught me a lot about American academia, the wider world of the chattering classes in the U.S., the institutional structure that supported them, and the American public sphere generally. It wasn’t a pleasant lesson. As a piece of social science the book was terribly executed and written in transparently bad faith; the social sciences in general and sociology in particular botched their response; the pressure of media narratives flattened people into parodies of themselves; and many people who I’d thought might have known better turned out to have a healthy appetite for eugenic tripe, as long as it was presented more in sorrow than in anger.

9. William S. Cleveland, Visualizing Data. “This book presents a set of graphical methods for displaying data”. Does it ever. Tufte gets the Presidential Commissions and the high media profile, and deserves all that, but Cleveland shows you how it’s done in practice and wrote the software that lets you code it yourself. For me it opened up the world of serious thinking on data and model visualization for quantitative data.

10. Richard Titmuss, The Gift Relationship. Reading this wasn’t a transformative experience in some existential sense, but it obviously left a mark seeing as I ended up writing a dissertation and a book that revisited its main questions.

Will Wilkinson:

1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer. This book made me realize that it is possible to play with words and ideas. I can’t even remember much of the story now.  (Is it Milo?) What I remember is the revelation that it is possible to get a thrill from manipulating ideas and the words that express them.

2. Dune by Frank Herbert. The Dune books connected with me deeply as a teenager. They appealed, I think, to the sense that people have profound untapped powers that discipline can draw out; e.g., Mentats, Bene Gesserit. Also, it appealed to the fantasy that I might have special awesome hidden powers, like Paul Atreides, and that they might just sort of come to me, as a gift of fate, without the hassle of all that discipline. I think this book is why I was slightly crushed when I turned 18 and realized that not only was I not a prodigy, but I wasn’t amazingly good at anything. I sometimes still chant the  Litany against Fear when I’m especially nervous or panicking about something.

3. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller/The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’m cheating on this one, since these came out about the same time and had a similar effect on me, and I don’t know which one to pick. Superhero comics can give a kid a pretty comprehensive mythology, a well of types and tropes and quests to draw from in the effort to make sense of the world. Miller and Moore/Gibbons convinced me at a vulnerable, self-conscious age that superhero mythology was not necessarily kid’s stuff, and that even superhero comics could be real art. So I planned to become a comics auteur, like Frank Miller.

4. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. This book ordered and amplified my awe at the natural world. The fact that I could more or less understand it made me feel confident about being smart.

4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read this at nineteen while working at the Joseph Smith Historic Center in Nauvoo, IL for the summer. I was just getting a strong sense of myself as a person apart from my family and hometown friends. I’d been excited by Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic convention and was toying with voting for him. Then I read Atlas Shrugged. I began reading the libertarian canon and I voted for Andre Marrou that Fall. I started paying more attention to my philosophy classes than my art classes. Ayn Rand is why I almost became an academic philosopher, why I became a libertarian, and why I work at Cato. She also all-but destroyed my interest in making art, since I could not at the time I was under her influence square her ideology of art with my own creative impulses.  I still suffer from this.

5. The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. This is the first intellectual book I ever reviewed in print. I gave it a mixed review in the Northern Iowan. (I think I had some misgivings about some of the race and IQ stuff, but I understood that it was not a book about race.) A sociology professor either sent me an email or wrote a letter to the editor (I don’t remember which!) condemning me for not condemning the book for being racist. This was my first taste of the excitement and frustration of participating in public intellectual life. I was  impressed with Murray’s fortitude and grace in the face of what seemed to me to be outrageously unfair, truly scurrilous attacks. And it helped me understand the difference between trying hard to honestly think through tough social problems because you care and mouthing comfortable pieties in an effort to get credit for caring.

6. The Geneology of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche. Morality has a history and its value is open to question. Our deepest intellectual commitments reflect deeper psychological needs. If this book (or Nietzsche generally) doesn’t make you wonder why you really believe what you do, then you are a clod. If I am hungry for the buzz of illumination, I go back to Nietzsche.

7. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. The best class I had as an undergraduate was a grad seminar on the Nicomachean Ethics taught by a Straussean. This is one of the best books ever written (or best set of lectures compiled) by one of the best minds ever. The paper I wrote for this seminar on what it means to have a stable disposition to action sparked my interest in moral psychology.

8. Law, Legislation, and Liberty by F.A. Hayek. Rand made me a libertarian. Hayek made me a liberal. I don’t know how much of what I believe comes from Hayek, but it’s a lot.

9. Tractatus Logic0-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Still dominates how I think about modality and the bounds of what may sensibly be said. There is no book more like great architecture.

10. Universals: An Opinionated Introduction by David M. Armstrong. Initiated my love of metaphysics and Australian realism, though Armstrong never did argue me out of nominalism.

11. In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen. This book angered my inner Randian, but delighted my native sensibility. When I got home from my first IHS seminar, Tyler Cowen lecture in mind, free Tyler Cowen book in hand, I went straight to my computer to begin writing a furious denunciation, which I never finished. But I’m still curious about folk art and foreign cuisines and have since repeated Tyler-like arguments to so many people so many times that I forget what I ever thought was wrong with them.

12. Morals by Agreement by David Gauthier. This book was the key that unlocked the contractarian treasure chest for me. Made me understand at a much deeper level the point of moral constraints on self-interested behavior, and why they would be impossible if we were well described by stripped-down models of instrumental rationality.

13. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. I dug into this book with the intention of saying what was really, really wrong with it. Instead, I ended up feeling like I understood political philosophy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

So I guess I’ll throw out my ten books. But just to be ignorant, I’m going to list eight

1.) Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston–I always hated the exhibitionism of Native Son. I felt like Richard Wright was basically using black people as a prop to make a point to white people. Their Eyes, on the other hand, struck me as the best aspects of the Afrocentric idea, and certainly that part of it which I carry with me today–the notion of writing, and thus existing, on your own terms.
2.) The Orgins Of The Urban Crisis, Thomas Sugrue–A brilliant corrective to the whole “Negroes and Coleman Young ruined Detroit” myth. Sugrue debunks Detroit’s golden age by depicting the city’s deep-seated institutional racism, and illustrates the complexities of white flight, and effectively argues that the exodus began almost two decades before the 67 riots.
3.) When And Where I Enter, Paula Giddings–This is just masterful and colorful history of black women in America. It was the first place I really learned about Ida B. Wells, feminist, militant, and later Garveyite, packing a pistol while investigating lynchings. Beautiful book, and in no small measure the reason for my son’s very existence.
4.) Battle Cry Of Freedom, James MacPherson–They need to make people read MacPherson’s history of the Civil War in order to vote in this country. I don’t think I’ve read an 800plus page book that moved so smoothly. This is the greatest work of history I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.
5.) The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche–Heh. I spent much of college trying to ape this book. Once I realized I would never write anything as beautiful as “The Return,” I gave up poetry.
6.) Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow–I think about this book almost once every day. Books like Ragtime really define, for me, how writers should deal with inserting the politics into books. Doctorow’s pinko-commie leanings definitely shine through, but the book is so damn beautifully written that you almost don’t notice. On another note, this book–weirdly enough–was actually a guide for me when I went to write my memoir.
7.) Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson–Much like Sugrue’s book, Jackson’s history of American suburbs is just a superb take-down of much of the mythology surrounding the fall of the American city in the 70s and 80s. I think Jackson’s greatest contribution is how he outlines the distorting effects of red-lining on black people, and on cities themselves. I’m waiting for someone to write an entire history of housing segregation, covering red-lining, restrictive covenants, the whole gamut. This is the closest that I’ve seen to that.
8.) Drown, Junot Diaz–Much like Their Eyes, Drown was a book that really convinced me that that your voice, the one native to your neighborhood, was OK. There’s a story in there called “No Face,” about a kid whose face is so mangled that he wears a mask. But, a’la M.F. Doom, No Face  has super-powers (or imagines himself having super-powers) that allow him to avoid the neighborhood bullies. I can’t recall the line, but at the end of the story, the boy comes home to his little brother who says something like, “Where have you been all day?” And the boy just says to him, “I’ve been fighting evil.”

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard

Ross Douthat

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner

Will at The League

Ned Resnikoff

UPDATE #2: Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy

UPDATE #3: Austin Bramwell at TAC keeps score

UPDATE #4: Tim F.

UPDATE #5: Matthew Schmitz at The League

UPDATE #6: Mark Thompson at The League

UPDATE #7: Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative


Filed under Books

There’s A Blond Wondering Around Georgetown

Phillip Blond in Prospect Magazine:

We live in a time of crisis. In such times humans retreat to safety, and build bulwarks against the future. The financial emergency is having this effect on Britain’s governing class. Labour has withdrawn to the safety of the sheltering state, and the comforts of its first income tax rise since the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the Conservatives appear to be proposing a repeat of Thatcherite austerity in the face of economic catastrophe. But this crisis is more than an ordinary recession. It represents a disintegration of the idea of the “market state” and makes obsolete the political consensus of the last 30 years. A fresh analysis of the ruling ideological orthodoxy is required. Certainly, this new thinking isn’t going to come from the left. New Labour is intellectually dead, while Gordon Brown promises an indebted return to a now-defunct status quo. But, in truth, Brown’s reconversion from post-socialist free marketeer to state interventionist is only plausible because the Conservatives have failed to develop an alternative political economy that explains the crisis, and charts a different future free of the now bankrupt orthodoxies. Until this is achieved, Brown’s claim that the Conservatives are the “do nothing” party has real traction, and makes the result of the next election far from assured.

On a deeper level, the present moment is a challenge to conservatism itself. The Conservatives are still viewed as the party of the free market, an idea that has collapsed into monopoly finance, big business and deregulated global capitalism. Tory social thinking has genuinely evolved, but the party’s economic thinking is still poised between repetition and renewal. As late as August 2008 David Cameron said: “I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer,” and that “radical social reform is what this country needs right now.” He is right about society, but against the backdrop of collapsing markets and without a macro-economic alternative, Thatcherite economics has been wrongfooted by events.

Thankfully, conservatism is a rich and varied tradition, and re-examinating its history can provide the answers Cameron needs. These ideas are grounded in a conservatism with deeper roots than 1979, and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism—or red Toryism. This is more radical than anything emerging from today’s left and should be the way forward for the right. The opportunity to restore a radical, and progressive, Toryism must not be lost to the economic downturn.

To date, neither political party has offered a plausible analysis of the origins of the meltdown. Brown denies all responsibility while George Osborne and Cameron hold him wholly and uniquely culpable. Given that no reasonable person can think either position is tenable, both parties have surrendered the intellectual high ground. But the financial crash does provide an opportunity to think through a renewed “one nation” conservatism. Cameron says that Disraeli is his favourite Tory. Disraeli attempted to ameliorate a society destroyed by the rampant industrialisation of 19th-century capitalism, whereas Cameron’s chief target (until now, at least) has been a 20th-century creation: a disempowering, dysfunctional state. Nineteenth-century Tories criticised liberal capitalism, while 20th-century conservatives condemned the illiberal consequences of statism. But 21st-century Tories, especially against the backdrop of the current crisis, must inveigh against both in favour of the very thing that suffers most at the hands of the unrestrained market and the unlimited state: society itself. And conservatism, so imagined, could reject the politics of class—of “our people”—and the interests of the already wealthy in favour of a national politics that serves the needs of all.

It was Edmund Burke who famously spoke of conservative radicalism being founded on the little platoons of family and civic association. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” This is the true spirit of Cameroonian conservatism and, taken seriously, it represents a break with the monopoly logic of the market state. But to recognise this innovation for what it is we have to contrast the potential of Cameron’s civic communitarian conservatism with what it aims to transcend: the corrupt and rotten postwar settlement of British politics.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

“Red Tory” Philip Blond is giving a talk this evening at Georgetown University, hosted by the invaluable Tocqueville Forum. Well worth attending if you’re in the D.C. area. And tomorrow Tocqueville is hosting two panel discussions on Blond’s ideas, the first featuring Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, and yours truly, the second with John Millbank, Andrew Abela, and Charles Mathewes. Details are here.

Blond’s Red Toryism is not welfare statism — he’s for breaking up and devolving much of the British welfare system, and he prefers a morality-infused market to further government regulation. But how would that work? His talk will give some ideas. (As does his upcoming book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it.)

Patrick Deneen in WaPo:

Contemporary party arrangements have tended to understand one or the other outcome of this settlement as the root of contemporary problems. For conservatives in the Thatcher/Reagan mold, the State threatens the liberty and independence of the individual (particularly the economic freedom of autonomous individual actors in free markets, itself premised upon the atomized and individualistic liberal anthropology of Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith). Liberals have seen the market as the threat, and have argued on behalf of the need for a centralized State to trim its excesses. What Blond perceives – echoing the discerning analysis of Distributist thinkers such as Chesterton or Hillaire Belloc in his penetrating work The Servile State or Robert Nisbet in his classic work The Quest for Community, or even the more recent work of the agrarian writer Wendell Berry – is that the centralized modern State and the concentrations of wealth and power deriving from modern “free” markets are mutually reinforcing entities.

What both of these entities mutually seek to eviscerate are the “mediating” institutions of society, those allegiances to more “partial” associations that stand in the path of the simultaneous realization of the atomized individual and the centralized State. Partial associations – whether in the form of more local forms of governance, civic associations, strong bonds of community, religious devotions, and family – are simultaneous obstructions to both radical individualism and encompassing State power. They are the traditional bulwarks against both aspects of the liberal settlement, and as such, have been mutually the object of attack by both the State and the Market. “Conservatives” and “Liberals” alike have (with different emphases) contributed mutually to the destruction of the “Associational State.”

The recent economic crisis – fueled simultaneously by the depredations of radical free agents in the market (buying and selling abstractions of financial instruments that at some point had some actual relationship to homes, that most basic building block of human associational life) and the State system that ended up supporting this economic and social arrangement – lifted the veil on this deeper symbiosis. The crisis exposed the fact that what had been sold to the American and British public for some 50 years – that one had to choose between the State and the Market – was in fact a grand illusion, and that the Left hand was as intent in making the citizenry the subjects of the Servile State as surely as the Right hand was. While inchoate in its anger and inadequately schooled in the causes of the modern crisis, the tea party movement – in its anger toward both parties – reflects this growing understanding that the purported political alternatives of our time represent no real choice at all.

Blond arrives in the U.S. to lecture at Georgetown University on Thursday evening, March 18, and to participate in panel discussions with various journalists and academics on the afternoon of Friday, March 19 (among the participants are the “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank). From D.C., Blond will travel to Philadelphia, where he will lecture on Monday, March 22 at Villanova University. For more information on all of these events, see this announcement.

Rod Dreher:

Greetings from Georgetown, where we heard tonight the English public intellectual Philip Blond introduce Red Toryism to an American audience. Blond is an engaging speaker and and real optimist about the possibility of positive political change (at dinner tonight after the speech, it was encouraging for a pessimist like me to hear him speak so vigorously about how world-changing ideas can start small). He’s just received a huge launch in this country, courtesy of David Brooks’ Friday column.

That David Brooks column (obviously, in NYT):

But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.

He grew up in working-class Liverpool. “I lived in the city when it was being eviscerated,” he told The New Statesman. “It was a beautiful city, one of the few in Britain to have a genuinely indigenous culture. And that whole way of life was destroyed.” Industry died. Political power was centralized in London.

Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.

In a much-discussed essay in Prospect magazine in February 2009, Blond wrote, “Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry.” In a separate essay, he added, “The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures.”

David Blackburn at The Spectator:

Blond’s premise is unanswerable – the twin revolutions of left (prescriptive rights) and right (free market liberalism) have, perversely, centralised power. Everything is highly contestable.

First, Blond has an advanced case of David Miliband Syndrome: he expresses himself exclusively with meaningless abstractions:

In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity…We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability and reciprocity.’

Markets are Blond’s schtick. From what I can gather he’s agin ‘em. He fixates on what he perceives as the ‘unprecedented reduction of market diversity and plurality’. The Luddites would object to the idea this is ‘unprecedented’, and the prosperity of all that followed them undermines the assertion that a ‘reduction of diversity’ entrenches poverty. But Blond is unperturbed. He argues that local shops should be protected from larger competitors through co-ops, mutualism and state intervention when necessary.

It’s deeply conflicted thinking. Consumers are at their most powerful in a genuinely competitive and well policed market. Blond’s ideas don’t address competition; they simply replace corporatism with mutualism. Rooted in an Enid Blyton historical fantasy of cottage industries, Blond would manipulate and skew markets. He’s attracted reams of criticism. Iain Martin’s and Alex Massie’s critiques are essential reading. Perhaps Blond’s sojourn in the States reflects his growing isolation in conservative circles.

Alex Massie’s critique, from November 2009:

I think Blond is bemoaning a certain homogenisation of urban life and, sure, there’s something to that. But the fact remains that, for instance, it can never have been cheaper (in terms of a percentage of average wages) to feed your family and you’ve never had as great a choice of provisions with which to do so. I bet Blond disapproves of supermarkets (fair enough) but poor people like supermarkets. And they’re not stupid to like Tesco or Aldi or whatever.

Similarly, the horrors of the modern economy have brought us to a situation in which the average person spends much less time at work each year than did their grand-parents or great-grandparents. I think it’s about 800 fewer hours per annum in Britain. This too does not seem a negligable gain.

For that matter, one financial crisis, no matter how serious, does not prove the “failure” of markets. Apart from anything else, they’ve not been tried* for decades in areas as trivial as secondary education (except for the rich) and health (ditto).

Sometimes, if I understand him correctly (not as simple a task as it ought to be), it seems as if Blond wants to take us back to the 1930s – at home and at work. I think he’d like everyone to live in small towns or, preferably, villages too. Now there was much that was good about the 1930s but time, and society, moves on and it’s futile to suppose that the clock can be wound back. Equally, for all that progress or, if your prefer, time, causes some valuable things to be lost, it also brings valuable improvements. In the end, Blond comes across, perhaps unwittingly, as a nostalgist. And, I’d hazard, it’s but one hop from nostalgia to full-blown reactionary status.

Because, of course, even when the state was smaller, that hardly meant an absence of coercion (especially, one might note, for women). Social mores can be just as stifling as the state even if they also have overwhelming local support and play a significant, even important, role in fostering social cohesion. Look at the Western Isles for instance, or pockets of Bradford today. Which is also why it’s important that there be a means of escape and that the individual, no matter how much Blond dislikes such folk, be, to use a think tank word, “empowered”.

That doesn’t mean that more mutalisation, an emphasis on local and voluntary associations and trying to expand and widen opportunity are bad things. They’re not. But whether Red Toryism is more than a few good (and less than earth-shattering) ideas buried benath a mass of bewildering and sometimes contradictory assumptions is something that, for now, remains a matter of some confusion.  Certainly, it’s apparent belief that you can have everything and it’s apparent belief that trade-offs are extinct suggests that more work needs to be done. Time will, I guess, tell.

*Yes, yes, yes. Just like “true” Communism, “proper” or “authentic” libertarianism can never fail because it will never be tried…

Zach Dundas:

I’m way too much of a Big Government nerd to go all the way with Red Toryism, or any kind of Toryism at all—I’m in the middle of two books, one about Teddy Roosevelt’s brilliant national-forests land grab, one about the Great Society, and between them, I’m geeking out so hard on the benevolent state that I might end up with pin-ups of Gifford Pinchot and Lyndon Johnson in my locker. And, anyway, until my theoretical Middle Earth Liberation Front arises, there’s no electoral outlet for the radical decentralism that Blond articulates.

On the other hand, I like a nice cup of tea or a pint of real ale, and can’t help but feel some sympathy for a tradition which, in a broader manifestation, produced “If Pooh Were President.” I think it would be awesome if the American right would drop the crazy act and go after Wal-Mart or something Red Tory-ish. Get down with your bad selves, boys. (Q: Have there been any Tory females since Thatcher? Reply confidentially.)

Will at The League:

Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so. When talking about the importance of political subsidiarity, for example, Blond spoke of “giving democracy back to the streets,” which sounds more like a Students for a Democratic Society slogan than a concrete political program. “Driving capital to the periphery” and decentralizing our financial system sound great in theory, but I’m still left to wonder how economic subsidiarity works in practice. One important caveat: I’m new to Blond and was late to the lecture, so my first impressions may not do justice to the Red Tories’ program.

Blond’s philosophy also seems better suited to cultural renewal than, say, political or economic reform. His most compelling examples of Red Toryism in action – A Birmingham neighborhood taking back the streets from pimps and drug dealers; the persistence of Northern Italy’s artisan economy – struck me as the result of cultural factors that aren’t easily replicated or recreated through state action. When we do transmogrify a cultural agenda into a political one, the results are sometimes messier than anticipated, which may have been what Ross Douthat was getting at when he asked Blond about the parallels between his philosophy and Bush’s compassionate conservatism at the end of the presentation.

One last observation: Blond spoke movingly of the plight of poor and working class citizens stuck in low-wage service jobs with no prospects for social mobility. His economic vision stresses the importance of creating stakeholders – skilled artisans, small businesspeople, and so on –  who feel more invested in their communities. This reminded me of the American experience after World War II, when millions of returning GIs received free college educations and federally-backed homeownership loans helped create the American middle class. But while these programs were largeky  successful, they’re not exactly models of decentralized governance. Is Blond willing to compromise or moderate his small government sympathies to create new economic stakeholders? I ask because state efforts to create or impart social capital – from public schools to the Federal Housing Administration to Bush’s compassionate conservatism – are rarely characterized by decentralization or subsidiarity.

Exit question: Is liberal society, as Blond suggests, fundamentally dependent on older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions? Does radical individualism undermine these institutions? I know Blond isn’t the first to make this argument, but his prognosis was both unusually grim and surprisingly persuasive. I’d be curious to hear what the League’s commenters and contributors have to say on the subject.

UPDATE: Chris Dierkes at The League

E.D. Kain at The League

Rod Dreher

UPDATE #2: Jason Kuznicki at The League

Patrick Deenen at Front Porch Republic

More Kain at The League

UPDATE #3: Shawn Summers at FrumForum

UPDATE #4: Daniel McCarthy at TAC

E.D. Kain at The League

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #5: Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic

Daniel Larison

More Kain

Ross Douthat

UPDATE #6: Deenen at Cato


Filed under Go Meta, UK

Forrest Gump Crashes With Wolves: An Oscar Post

Dana Stevens and Troy Patterson talking Oscars at Slate

Will, Freddie and Sonny Bunch do a podcast at The League

Alyssa Rosenberg and Latoya Peterson at Bloggingheads

Mark Harris at New York Magazine:

But despite often justifiable skepticism about the process, Oscar nominations—one of which, of course, went to Bridges—can’t be bought. Not exactly, anyway. There is a reason why they call the run-up period to the Academy Awards the “Oscar campaign.” It is, to use a familiar analogy, like an election, with an electorate of 5,777 people (the size of McKenzie County, North Dakota), unwilling to be influenced by anything but their own opinions, yet still, perhaps, more swayable than they’d like to admit. There is no war room, per se, but there are early front-runners that fade, grassroots insurgencies, even primaries. Ultimately, most of the nominees emerge from a combination of good planning, good movies, and good luck: Crazy Heart’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, had the smarts first to acquire the film in July, and then, when it sensed an opening in this year’s Best Actor field, to accelerate its release from the spring of 2010 to December. The gambit was shrewd; writer-director Scott Cooper’s small-scale debut, in which Bridges plays a country singer seeking redemption, opened to strong reviews just as some of Bridges’s potential competitors (Nine’s Daniel Day-Lewis and The Lovely Bones’ Mark Wahlberg) were cratering with critics.

That Bridges gives a beautifully lived-in, eminently praiseworthy performance in Crazy Heart wasn’t just important; it was crucial. But it’s also not enough. And that’s where an Oscar campaign comes in. No effort or expense can make any of the Academy’s members vote for an actor, director, or screenplay they don’t like. But what a smart Oscar campaign (like a successful political campaign) can do is to make someone or something part of a larger story, and Crazy Heart had a good one to tell: Bridges, a well-liked frequent nominee who just turned 60, has never won an Oscar. In other words, it’s his turn.

A good Oscar narrative makes voters feel that, by writing a name on a ballot, they’re completing a satisfying plotline. Only a few of these stories are effective, and every campaign season, movies scramble to own them. The best are reused year after year: for example, The Little Movie That Could, the tale of a low-budget indie, a David among studio Goliaths, that often appeals to voters who hate Hollywood’s bigger-is-better aesthetic. Searchlight (which, as an arm of 20th Century Fox, hardly qualifies as an underdog) has worked this for years—first with Little Miss Sunshine, then Juno, then last year’s Slumdog Millionaire. This year, however, that story line was grabbed early by Lionsgate for Lee Daniels’s Precious, which also claimed an appealing narrative for acting contenders, The Cinderella Story, thanks to its first-time star, Gabourey Sidibe.

It’s no accident that all the movies that lead this year’s newly expanded ten-film Best Picture race have seized other, equally useful Oscar-season story lines. There’s always a tussle over The Movie That Speaks to This Moment: Last year, Milk had it from the day Proposition 8 passed in California, and this year, Jason Reitman’s layoff-era tragicomedy Up in the Air edged out both The Hurt Locker (Look! Finally, an Iraq War movie that works!) and Avatar (Look! It’s antiwar and pro-environment!) for that label. Each of those movies also boasts an Oscar narrative: Kathryn Bigelow could be the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar, giving The Hurt Locker The Chance to Make History, while Avatar gets to be The Big Gamble That Paid Off as well as, of course, The Popular Favorite.

But enough with the cahiers du cinéma. Who’s going to win Best Picture? Among Oscar touts, the consensus is that it’ll be one of the two top nomination-garnerers, with “Avatar” the heavy favorite. Brandon Gray, at boxofficemojo.com, writes that “good box office has historically been key to winning Best Picture, which usually goes to the movie with the first or second highest gross among the nominees: that would favor ‘Avatar’ over ‘The Hurt Locker.’ ” Given that the latter’s gross is the second lowest among the ten nominees, amounting to less than one per cent of the former’s, you can say that again.

Even so, there is a distinct possibility of an upset. To understand why requires drilling down into the mechanics of voting systems. It’ll only hurt for a minute. From 1946 until last year, the voting worked the way Americans are most familiar with. Five pictures were nominated. If you were a member of the Academy, you put an “X” next to the name of your favorite. The picture with the most votes won. Nice and simple, though it did mean that a movie could win even if a solid majority of the eligible voters—in theory, as many as seventy-nine per cent of them—didn’t like it. Those legendary PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants don’t release the totals, but this or something like it has to have happened in the past, probably many times.

This year, the Best Picture list was expanded, partly to make sure that at least a couple of blockbusters would be on it. (The biggest grosser of 2008, “The Dark Knight,” was one of the better Batman adventures, but it didn’t make the cut.) To forestall a victory for some cinematic George Wallace or Ross Perot, the Academy switched to a different system. Members—there are around fifty-eight hundred of them—are being asked to rank their choices from one to ten. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting’s over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters’ second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there’s still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters’ second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty per cent.

This scheme, known as preference voting or instant-runoff voting, doesn’t necessarily get you the movie (or the candidate) with the most committed supporters, but it does get you a winner that a majority can at least countenance. It favors consensus. Now here’s why it may also favor “The Hurt Locker.” A lot of people like “Avatar,” obviously, but a lot don’t—too cold, too formulaic, too computerized, too derivative. (Remember “Dances with Wolves”? “Jurassic Park”? Everything by Hayao Miyazaki?) “Avatar” is polarizing. So is James Cameron. He may have fattened the bank accounts of a sizable bloc of Academy members—some three thousand people drew “Avatar” paychecks—but that doesn’t mean that they all long to recrown him king of the world. (As he has admitted, his people skills aren’t the best.) These factors could push “Avatar” toward the bottom of many a ranked-choice ballot.

I’m rooting for a Hurt Locker win as much as anyone this side of Jeremy Renner. I hated Avatar from top to bottom, beginning to end. If it wins, the industry will only have ratified Cameron’s cynical conceit that dialogue, spontaneity, individual performances, narrative ingenuity, and pretty much every other cinematic virtue may be sacrificed without cost on the altar of CGI thaumaturgy. But I still find this particular upset—if it can be called that now—hard to envision. (I am on board with the conventional wisdom, though, that Best Director is Bigelow’s to lose.)

Avatar fed a lot of mouths in Hollywood this winter, and it was the prohibitive favorite for a good long while. Cameron, moreover, has been viewed as a game-changing cinematic visionary ever since his billion-dollar Oscar boat Titanic. (For a sense of how Hollywood kowtows to him, take a look at this Vulture piece revealing that the Academy abruptly disinvited Sacha Baron Cohen from presenting at the weekend’s ceremony out of fear that his planned Avatar sketch with Ben Stiller might offend the famously thin-skinned director.) The Hurt Locker, by contrast, was seen by almost no one (its $12.7 million domestic gross was less than one-fiftieth of Avatar’s) and, until its recent run, was barely on the radar as a serious contender to win. (Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air was initially perceived as the strongest challenger to Avatar’s award-season hegemony.)

Still more relevant to this year’s race, though, may be the fact that, like many large, hidebound institutions, the Academy is often a step behind, fighting yesterday’s war today. Had it had the courage to give Brokeback Mountain the nod over Crash in 2005, to cite one example, it might not have felt the need to advertise its enlightenment by crowning Milk’s Sean Penn in 2008 over the feel-good, comeback, sure-to-give-an-awesome-speech, and overwhelmingly deserving Mickey Rourke of The Wrestler. The problem for The Hurt Locker—and any other non-billion-dollar earner this year—is that much as the Academy was criticized after Brokeback for being afraid to reward a “gay” film, following last year’s awards it was chastised for being biased against commercially successful films. Indeed, the Academy took the complaint so much to heart that it tossed aside 65 years of practice and expanded the Best Picture field to ten specifically to ensure that some crowd-pleasers made the cut. Alas, the evidence for the whole the-Academy-hates-blockbusters complaint derived entirely from 2008, when critically acclaimed megahits Wall-E and The Dark Knight were passed over for more modest, high-minded fare. And, as theories based on small sample sizes so often are, the claim was, on its face, completely ludicrous.

Ross Douthat:

It’s true that the consensus-based voting scheme also gives more hope to dark horses like “Inglourious Basterds” and “Up in the Air,” but “Basterds” is probably as polarizing as “Avatar” in its way, and “Up in the Air” has been suffering from a (largely undeserved) backlash for months now. Whereas “Hurt Locker” doesn’t seem to have any real enemies at all — apart from accuracy-minded veteran’s groups, at least, and they don’t get a vote.So I’m picking Kathryn Bigelow’s war movie to win it, and so should you. As for what should win — well, if I had a vote to cast right now, I’d give it to “Inglourious Basterds” instead. It’s a weird choice, I’ll grant you, and I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow. But for now, there it is …

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink:

I’m late with these because I’ve been incredibly busy. You can check out an in-depth discussion of the Oscars over at The League between Will, Freddie and I if you’d like. But right now I’m going to give you my head/heart Oscar picks for the major categories.

Best Picture

Head says: The Hurt Locker. It’s basically a toss-up between Avatar and The Hurt Locker — as recently as last week I was saying Avatar would win – but the momentum has all gone toward Kathryn Bigelow’s war picture in the last few weeks. I think it’ll pull off the David vs. Goliath upset.

Heart says: A Serious Man. I think it’s the best picture that the Coens have made since The Big Lebowski. Perfectly pitched black humor; a metaphysical sensibility that works just right; spot-on performances from every single cast member. Like I said: Their best work since The Big Lebowski, easy.

Best Director:

Head says: Kathryn Bigelow will become the first woman to win the best directing Oscar…

Heart says: …and she’ll deserve it. Just a virtuoso performance from the director of Point Break. The slowly mounting tension, the spinning cameras, the feel of dirt and grit and grime. When I talked to her last year, she said that during the set-pieces she’d have several different camera crews — entire crews, not just cameramen — working simultaneously so she could put together shots from the same chaotic setting. Just brilliant work on her end.

Best Actor:

Head says: Jeff Bridges. I thought the work was a little cliched, but the Academy loves the actor and it’s something of a lifetime achievement award.

Heart says: George Clooney. I guess. I wasn’t terribly in love with any of the performances. Jeremy Renner’s pretty good as well. I would have gone with Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man if he had been nominated. A masterfully understated turn.

Best Actress:

Head says: Sandra Bullock. Again, kind of a lifetime achievement award.

Heart says: Carey Mulligan. Loved her in An Education, which was probably a little overrated. Still, she was excellent in it.

Best Supporting Actor and Actress:

Head and Heart both say: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) and Mo’Nique (Precious) both will win and deserve to.

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