June 27, 2017

An authoritative look at technology’s potential

technology’s potential

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever

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“Not long ago, I was very pessimistic about the future. . . Today, I talk about this being the greatest period in history, when we will solve the grand challenges of humanity and enter an era of enlightenment and exploration such as we saw in my favorite TV series, Star Trek.” Thus begins The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future, by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever.

An authoritative look at technology’s potential

In this fascinating and authoritative look at the potential of technology, both positive and negative, Wadhwa demonstrates intimate knowledge of the latest developments in such diverse fields as biomedicine, robotics, education, the Internet of Things, and prosthetics. Unlike the unreservedly optimistic scenarios presented by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, Wadhwa paints an almost symmetrical portrait of technology’s future, extolling its promise but vividly describing its potential to harm us. (I previously reviewed Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Diamandis.) Ray Kurzweil famously speaks about the exponential rate at which technology advances. Wadhwa bases his argument on the same formula but reaches different conclusions. “You will see that there is no black and white,” he writes; “the same technologies that can be used for good can be used for evil in a continuum limited only by the choices we make jointly.”

It’s a cliché to remark on the speed of technological change, but the reality is nonetheless staggering. As Wadhwa notes, “the amount of information buzzing over the Internet is doubling roughly every 1.25 years. . . We are now creating more information content in a single day that we created in decades or even centuries in the pre-digital era.” He adds, “the iPhone 11 or 12 will have greater computing power than our brains do.”

Three questions to ask about any new technology

The Driver in the Driverless Car is organized around three broad questions, which Wadhwa poses in connection with each of the technologies he discusses: “1. Does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally? 2. What are the risks and the rewards? 3. Does the technology more strongly promote autonomy or dependence?” He is merciless in responding to these questions. Only two of the many technologies treated in this book emerge with unreservedly positive reviews: driverless cars and trucks, and solar power. Everything else comes up short, from the biomedical miracles emerging from laboratories on a daily basis to the Internet of Things. In a great many cases, the new technologies render us susceptible to identity theft or worse. For example, Wadhwa fears the loss of privacy that will come from having all our appliances connected to the Internet and to each other: “I am not looking forward to having my bathroom scale tell my refrigerator not to order any more cheesecake.”

A sometimes fantastic vision of the future

Disputing Wadhwa’s sometimes fantastic vision of technology’s future may be a fool’s errand. However, it’s difficult not to remain skeptical about some of his predictions. For example, he envisions 200-mile-per-hour driverless cars guided by a web of sensors on the roadways. Despite the miniscule cost of individual sensors, it’s hard to see where the money might come from to implement such a system. Can you imagine how much it might cost to embed sensors along a 200-mile stretch of highway, much less the full 381 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Similarly, the author envisions a sea change in our transportation system within the foreseeable future, with driverless electric cars available on command everywhere, private vehicles and stop lights eliminated, and parking lots a thing of the past. Perhaps, eventually, all this might come to pass. But is it realistic to expect that politicians will resist the screaming complaints from auto manufacturers, oil companies, service station and parking lot owners, and individual citizens by the millions?

Wadhwa emphasizes throughout The Driver in the Driverless Car that only grassroots citizen pressure can force politicians to enact the legislation necessary to permit the widespread use of some of these technologies. For instance, FDA approval may be necessary for the acceptance of many of the biomedical innovations Wadhwa describes. And state governments everywhere will be required to allow driverless vehicles to travel on their roads, a prospect that does not seem imminent. The future Wadhwa envisions may eventually come to pass. But we would be naive to expect no bumps, twists, and turns along the way.

About the authors

Vivek Wadwa has an extraordinary resumé. An Indian-born American futurist, he lives in Silicon Valley and researches technology developments there. Wadhwa holds distinguished positions at Carnegie Mellon and Duke and is a globally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the world’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. Wadhwa calls his co-author, Alex Salkever, V.P of Marketing Communications at Mozilla, his “writing guru.” The two also co-authored The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, which the Economist named a Book of the Year in 2012.


June 20, 2017

A very funny book about words, grammar, and dictionaries

grammarWord by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

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When you think of dictionaries, chances are good the ones that would come to mind are the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and the Oxford English Dictionary (as well as whatever comes up online). Did I get that right? Certainly, those are the two most commonly consulted by educated American readers. If you’re a curious sort, you might wonder how all the words and definitions find their way into the pages of those dictionaries. Well, wonder no more! The lexicographer Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster, Inc., has written Word by Word, a delightfully profane and often hilarious account of how she and her colleagues work to update their dictionaries, not just the Collegiate but the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged as well (the successor to the old Webster’s Third New International Dictionary).

Stamper is passionate about her work. “The more I learned,” she writes, ” the more I fell in love with this wild, vibrant whore of a language.” Her book abounds with charming examples of the intensity she and other Merriam-Webster editors bring to their jobs. And no wonder: it’s clearly hard work.

Unless you’re already familiar with the ways and means of lexicography, you’ll be amazed at the extraordinary pains the Merriam-Webster staff sometimes takes simply to define a single word. “By the time a word is put in print either on the page or online, it’s generally been seen by a minimum of ten editors.” Stamper describes the process, step by step, in language so lively you’ll never think about the world of dictionaries as stuffy ever again. “What appears to be a straightforward word ends up being a linguistic fun house of doors that open into air and staircases that lead nowhere,” she writes. For example, at one point Stamper’s job was to revise the definition of “take.” That seemingly simple word, it turns out, means twenty different things. Sorting through all the citations set aside to illustrate those different definitions was a Herculean task. It required “a month of nonstop editorial work.” But when Stamper bragged (or complained) to a table-full of editors at a dinner about the length of time she’d invested in a single word, a lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary was amused: “‘I revised “run,” he said quietly, then smiled. ‘It took me nine months.'” Stamper explains: “Of course it [took nine months]. In the OED, “run” has over six hundred separate senses [definitions] . . .”

And yet language, especially English, changes far more quickly than lexicographers could ever possibly keep up, Stamper explains. “A dictionary is out of date the minute that it’s done.”

In an extended discussion of English grammar, Stamper will disabuse you of any lingering notion that ours is a tidy and rational language. With example after example, she demonstrates the sheer illogic of the rules of grammar. “[W]here do these rules come from, if not from actual use?” she asks. “Most of them are the personal peeves, codified into law, of dead white men of yore . . . Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.” (The italics are Stamper’s.)

Throughout her book, Stamper is free with profanity. For example, she drops the “f-bomb” 17 times. At one point she explains that the profanity is to make her come across as cooler than she is.

There are plenty of surprises in Word by Word. “As you go through the written record, you’ll find that Shakespeare used double negatives and Jane Austen used ‘ain’t.’ You’ll find that new and disputed coinages have come in and have not taken away from the language as it was used, but added to it; that words previously considered horrendous or ugly—words like ‘can’t’—are now unremarkable.”

June 13, 2017

13 good recent books about American foreign policy

good recent booksIn recent years I’ve read and reviewed 13 nonfiction books published in the 21st Century about aspects of American foreign policy. I’m listing them here, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title is linked to my longer review.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass

Though little known outside the realm of specialists, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger collaborated with the Pakistani government in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh. Their complicity in that genocidal event has finally come to light in Gary J. Bass’ outstanding work of modern history, The Blood Telegram. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, makes effective use of newly opened secret archives and other primary sources as well as interviews with many of the surviving players in the drama.

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

Racist attitudes were so prevalent and unchallenged in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century that the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the founder of anthropology in the country—could observe, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” In hindsight, then, it should be no surprise that such celebrated figures as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would speak openly about America’s “destiny” to dominate Asia and the Pacific, imposing the benefits of Aryan civilization on the “Pacific niggers” (their term for Filipinos) and “Chinks.” This is the persistent theme of best-selling author James Bradley’s portrayal of Roosevelt and Taft in The Imperial Cruise.

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, by James Bradley

James Bradley argues in The China Mirage that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to U.S. involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary. While his argument may be overextended, the book is filled with fascinating accounts of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the China Lobby, the rise of the Soong family to power in China, the origins of the oil embargo that triggered Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Chinese Revolution.

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

When it comes to Iran, the purveyors of news have done an especially poor job of keeping us informed. As David Crist makes clear in this illuminating report on the three decades of conflict, tension, miscalculation, and profound misunderstanding that have characterized our two countries’ relationship, we have indeed engaged in what can only be described as war for several extended periods. And when I say war, I mean soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots shooting at one another, laying mines, launching missiles at ships and ground facilities, and generally forcing one or both of the two governments to decide between escalation and retreat. The book is full of surprises.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Though the U.S., Great Britain, and France all withheld support for the Spanish Republic, three other leading powers of the day plunged into the conflict with enthusiasm: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini regarded the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict to follow. Their lavish support for Generalissimo Franco in the form of airplanes, tanks, rifles, artillery, and some 100,000 soldiers and airmen was decisive (80,000 from Italy, 19,000 from Germany, in addition to 20,000 from Portugal). Only the USSR faced off against the Nazis and Fascists, supplying weapons and ammunition, and its support was a mixed blessing: Stalin sold Spain ancient weapons at inflated prices. He also dispatched hardline political commissars to weed out anyone who didn’t rigidly follow the Party line, and their ruthless behavior was surely a factor in the defeat of the Republic. Some 2,500 American volunteers and a passel of American reporters (including many famous names) waded into the midst of this maelstrom. Adam Hochschild does a brilliant job bringing the era and the people of the time back to life.

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

Award-winning journalist Stephen Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up in opposition to each other before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House. Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th Century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Kinzer makes abundantly clear that this was not the case.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

In the years 1933-41, a passion for isolationism and growing anti-Semitism gripped the American psyche, keeping President Roosevelt from speaking out against the growth of Nazism and the ever-tightening vise of oppression and violence directed at Germany’s tiny Jewish minority (about one percent of the population). In the Garden of Beasts, a finely-crafted and exhaustively researched little book, casts a considerable amount of light on the reasons underlying this shameful episode in American history. It’s the story of Professor William Dodd and his family, beginning in the year 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him Ambassador to Germany. In an admirably restrained manner, Erik Larson portrays their initial sympathy and support for the Nazi regime, turning gradually to revulsion and leading eventually to Dodd’s becoming one of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the United States.

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry

It seems exceedingly unlikely that President James K. Polk would come to many minds as an example of the most important men who have served in the office. Yet a very strong case could be made that Polk’s single four-year term (1845-49) was, indeed, among the most consequential times in U.S. history—and that Polk himself was the prime mover. Robert W. Merry powerfully advances that argument in A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. It was Polk who transformed the United States into a continental power. Earlier presidents—Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), James Monroe (acquisition of Florida), Andrew Johnson (purchase of Alaska), and William McKinley (Gadsden Purchase)—indeed added considerable swaths of territory to the nation. But James K. Polk added all the rest, including nearly all the Southwest and all the Northwest of today’s United States. He led the country into a brutal, lopsided war with Mexico and negotiated with England over the northwest boundary of the U.S.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, by John Pomfret

Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s. Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of Pomfret’s analysis. Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. This is a fascinating book about a topic that few Americans understand clearly.

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

Call it selective memory: we tend to forget that the survival of our democratic system was by no means assured on March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president. With the country paralyzed by twenty-five percent unemployment, shuttered factories, insolvent banks, and rapidly falling prices for farm commodities and consumer goods alike, both Communism on the Left and fascism on the Right were rapidly gaining adherents. It was far from clear that a catastrophic clash of the extremes could be prevented. Contemporary events in Europe suggested that even the best-educated and most sophisticated societies could all too easily turn dangerously radical: barely more than a month earlier, Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany. In The Money Makers, historian Eric Rauchway reviews the economic policies that FDR deployed to rescue the nation from a similar fate, steering the country on a moderate course through the years of the Depression and the world war that followed.

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

One of democracy’s most remarkable characteristics is the sheer volume of closely guarded information that can be reported and published without resulting in jail time or torture for the authors. Counterstrike, a remarkable bit of longitudinal reporting by two veterans of the New York Times, brings to light a host of insights and behind-the-scene details about America’s decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators. The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counterterrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War.

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse

The sheer scope of the Vietnam War was far greater than that of the U.S. military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 10 times as many Americans died in Vietnam than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Even more significantly, some 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that conflict, according to the best available estimate, while Iraqi and Afghan casualties are measured in hundreds of thousands. In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse exposes the grim reality of the U.S. role in that war: the infamous My Lai Massacre was merely one of thousands of incidents in which American troops indiscriminately killed Vietnamese civilians.

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, by Jay Winik

Hitler and the SS became truly frenzied about exterminating the Jews of Europe only in the final stages of the war, when it was obvious to anyone (except perhaps Hitler himself) that Nazi Germany had lost. In 1944, Jay Winik brings to light how the U.S. State Department, many of whose officials were overtly anti-Semitic, took deliberate steps to sabotage any action by FDR’s White House to save at least some of the Jews. Winik recounts this story in excruciating detail: “the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews,” he writes. “The fear seemed to be, not that the Jews would be marched to their deaths, but that they would be sent to the Allied nations.” The Department has the blood of more than a million people staining its already sad record of amorality.

Historical background

From the earliest days of the republic, the United States has been deeply engaged with other countries, despite George Washington’s famous admonition in his Farewell Address not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.” (Contrary to accepted opinion, he didn’t use the term foreign entanglements.) France intervened in the American Revolution—in fact, our country might well not have gained its independence otherwise. During the presidencies of Washington and John Adams, New England merchantmen carried on a lively trade with China. When Jefferson was in office, he sent the U.S. Navy and a detachment of Marines to battle the Barbary Pirates. In 1812-14, during the administration of James Madison, the U.S. was at war with Great Britain—again. Later that decade, under the presidency of James Monroe, American troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson seized key settlements in Florida, forcing Spain to cede the territory to the U.S. Throughout the 19th Century, the U.S. Army and American settlers collaborated in a continuing campaign to annex the territory of more than 600 Indian nations. In mid-century, when James K. Polk lived in the White House, the U.S. grabbed more than 500,000 square miles of territory from Mexico. The trade in cotton with Great Britain made many Southerners rich and provided them with a “justification” to enslave African-Americans by the millions. During the latter half of the 19th Century, foreign investment in American railroads, the bonds of state governments, and manufacturing played a central role in financing the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The country was “the world’s largest recipient of foreign capital,” and thus the world’s greatest debtor nation. Then William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the age of American imperialism—and the country has never since stopped entangling itself in foreign affairs, despite recurring bouts of isolationism.



June 6, 2017

Al Franken’s memoir is revealing, insightful—and funny

al franken's memoirAl Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

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If you’re expecting nonstop laughs from Al Franken’s memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, you’ll be disappointed. Naturally, the book is laced with Franken’s signature humor. He rarely passes up an opportunity to go for a laugh. That even begins with the tongue-in-cheek title. But what comes through most strongly in this book is the man’s intelligence. If you’ve had the opportunity to talk to Al Franken, hear him speak about government policy or politics, or witness him in action on C-SPAN, you know what I’m talking about.

Learning how not to be funny

As Franken explains in his Foreword, this book is “the story of a midwestern Jewish boy of humble roots (the first in his family to own a pasta maker) who, after a thirty-five-year career in comedy, moved back home to challenge an incumbent senator. . . It’s the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” Franken might have added that he also learned to keep his volcanic temper in check (at least most of the time).

Although it’s clear that Franken had a lifetime interest in politics, his entry into the arena was inspired by an extraordinary role model, Senator Paul Wellstone, who held the same seat in the U.S. Senate from 1991 until his tragic death in 2002. Like everyone else among Paul’s legion of supporters, Franken was shattered by the senator’s untimely death in a small plane that crashed in a snowstorm in northern Minnesota. (His wife, daughter, and two cherished long-time staff members died as well.)

The longest vote recount ever?

After a savage election campaign in which his integrity was repeatedly impugned and lines in jokes he’d told as a comedian were pulled out of context again and again to make him look evil, Franken eked out a victory in one of the closest elections in the history of the U.S. Senate. Republicans dragged out the recount process for eight months to keep Franken from providing Democrats with the 60th vote in the Senate that would enable them to prevent a filibuster. Franken wasn’t able to take his seat until nearly six months after the beginning of his term on January 3, 2009. Eight months might not represent the record for the longest vote recount ever, but if not it’s surely in the running.

Al Franken’s memoir: 35 years in comedy, 8 years in national office

Following what came naturally to him, Franken began a life in comedy in high school when he teamed up with Tom Davis. The Franken and Davis act went professional soon afterward and carried them both—as a writing team—into the inaugural year of Saturday Night Live. Franken spent 15 years with the show, and his account of that experience is prominent in his memoir. But the book is largely about Franken’s 2008 election campaign, the excruciating recount that followed, and his years in the Senate. Unlike so many other politicians who write autobiographies, Franken dwells at length on the role of his staff in feeding him with ideas and teaching him how not to be funny. This, despite the solemn advice he received from his colleagues in the senate never to credit his staff.

Befriending the enemy

Al Franken became even more famous than Saturday Night Live had made him when he became embroiled in a long-running feud with the recently-defrocked Fox News star Bill O’Reilly. Although many Republican senators express views as outrageous and unfounded as Reilly, Franken took a different approach when he got to the senate: he went out of his way to befriend his political enemies. To judge from what he writes in his memoir, Franken may have more good friends on the other side of the aisle than he does among his fellow Democrats. Franken’s friends include some of the most hard-line Right-Wingers in the senate. By all accounts, politics aside, he is respected by his colleagues—with one notable exception. As Franken makes clear, Texas senator Ted Cruz doesn’t respect anyone, Democrat or Republican. “[H]ere’s the thing you have to understand about Ted Cruz. I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” It’s easy to understand why after reading the anecdotes Franken recounts. “Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with.” That helps explain why Republicans didn’t flock to Cruz when he became the last man standing as an alternative to Donald Trump. Apparently, they hated Trump less.

An insider’s perspective on the issues

At times Franken departs from autobiography to explain his positions on leading issues that face the country. He’s well worth listening to. The best example of his thinking about national policy is healthcare. In a chapter entitled “Health Care: Now What?” he explains the logic behind universal healthcare—and the illogic that the Republican Party brings to the issue. Crediting a veteran journalist who has produced documentaries for PBS’ documentary show, Frontline, Franken explains that the U.S. doesn’t have a healthcare system. It has “a number of health systems. If you were in Medicare or Medicaid, you were in the Canadian system: single-payer. If you were in the military or the VA, you were in the British system: socialized medicine. If you got your insurance through your employer, as most Americans did, you were in the German system. But if you didn’t have any health insurance, you were in the Cambodian system, where one illness or injury could literally ruin or even end your life.” This is the reality on which the Affordable Care Act is grounded, as Franken explains. Given that the Act was based on a plan produced by the Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts under a Republican governor, “Obamacare” is a conservative solution to the problem. And it’s only a partial solution at that. All of which is why, as I write, Democrats across the country are increasingly turning to Medicare for All as the only real solution to America’s healthcare crisis. Franken explains, however, that the deal the country got in Obamacare was the best that could be had at the time, given Republican intransigence and the conservative inclinations of some Democratic senators.

Al Franken and me

In fairness, I must disclose that I’m a big fan of Al Franken’s, and I have been for a very long time. I can’t claim to “know” him, but I did interact with him on a few occasions early in his political career. Presumably because my fundraising agency had worked for Paul Wellstone, Franken hired us to conduct the direct mail campaign for the Political Action Committee he founded in 2006, the Midwest Values PAC. He was a client of my company for five years. On a couple of occasions, I even wrote fundraising letters that went out over his signature. Largely because Franken was so well known and admired, we raised a great deal of money for him.

For another perspective on Al Franken’s memoir, take a look at a review by Eric Lach in The New Yorker (June 2, 2017).

June 2, 2017

The astonishing story of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood star and inventor

Hedy LamarrOn “Science Friday” (June 2, 2017), which I heard on my local NPR station, KQED, host Ira Flatow interviewed author Richard Rhodes and Diane Kruger about Hedy Lamarr. Rhodes wrote the book reviewed here. Kruger will star in a film and TV mini-series based on Lamarr’s life. Because of the increased interest in that amazing woman, I’m re-posting my review of the book.  

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes

@@@ (3 out of 5)

A quarter-century ago Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for a masterful history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and he has received numerous plaudits in the years since, both for nonfiction and fiction. But I don’t see any prizes in his future for this half-hearted little effort.

There’s nothing lacking in the material. It’s relatively well-known that Hedy Lamarr, a stunning film superstar of MGM’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s, invented a secret weapon for the United States during World War II. However, the story—her extraordinary background, her flamboyant collaborator, and the the U.S. Navy’s ham-fisted response to their invention—was largely lost in obscurity and official secrecy until Richard Rhodes took it upon himself to write it up. I turned to the book with great anticipation—and was hugely disappointed.

The story is astonishing even in outline.

A famously beautiful young Austrian woman named Hedwig Kiesler, daughter of a successful Viennese banker, found her incipient stage and film career interrupted when she married one of the richest men in Austria, a munitions manufacturer who happily participated in rearming Nazi Germany and supporting the most extreme of his country’s anti-Semitic Right-Wing politicians. (Hedy—she used the short form of her first name even then—was Jewish, though she hid that fact throughout her life, and her children learned about it only once she died.)

Before she escaped from her first marriage, Hedy silently sat in on dinners and informal gatherings organized by her husband and attended by high-ranking Nazi generals and admirals. With an amazingly retentive memory, she fled with detailed knowledge of the Nazis’ most advanced weaponry—without her husband suspecting a thing, because to him she herself was just an object.

Soon after fleeing Vienna disguised as one of her maids in 1937, the year of the Anschluss with Germany, Hedy was recruited to MGM by Louis B. Mayer. Once in Hollywood, renamed Hedy Lamarr and dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” by Mayer (though others had previously tagged her with the phrase), she quickly became a major star. Although none of her films were especially memorable, they were successes at the box office and kept her in the limelight for many years.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to nearly everyone who knew her in Hollywood, Hedy continued her life-long passion for inventing in her spare time. Once war had broken out in Europe, she devised a concept for a naval super-weapon—a torpedo guided by wireless radio, unlike the wired torpedoes then in widespread use. Together with her collaborator, George Antheil, an avante-garde composer whose concerts had sometimes caused riots in Paris and New York, Hedy offered the weapon to the U.S. government late in 1940.

Hedy had dropped out of high school to play a part on the Vienna stage, and she was neither a reader nor an intellectual of any stripe. However, she was clearly brilliant. The profound innovation she devised (with practical help from Antheil) was a system to make it impossible for enemies to jam the radio transmissions from the ship to the torpedo. This innovation, first called frequency hopping and much later spread spectrum, “enabled the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the majority of cordless phones now sold in the US, and myriad other lesser-known niche products. The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses spread spectrum. So does the U.S. military’s $41 billion MILSATCOM satellite communications network. Wireless local area networks (wLANS) use spread spectrum, as do wireless cash registers, bar-code readers, restaurant menu pads, and home control systems.” Rhodes goes on for line after line, citing a plethora of additional applications of this seminal technology. In short, Hedy’s was one of those rarest of inventions that opened up vast new landscapes of possibility for engineers for many decades to come.

So, given the obvious appeal of the weapon she and Antheil had devised, one might think that the U.S. Navy, offered the patent in 1944 after seemingly endless vetting by a series of government scientists and engineers, would immediately put it into production. But no—the Navy classified the file top secret and stuck it in a filing cabinet. It was only discovered nearly 20 years later when an engineer working on a military contract chased down a rumor about Hedy’s invention, turned up the file, and began putting it to practical use.

A more nimble writer than Rhodes might have turned this story into a blockbuster. But sadly Rhodes devoted more space to the ups and downs of George Antheil’s career than to Hedy’s, and he goes on for page after tedious page about the mechanics of the wireless system, making the invention itself the principal character. Years ago, Tracy Kidder managed that beautifully in Soul of a New Machine. Perhaps as yet more information comes to light about this remarkable tale, Kidder or someone of comparable talent will do justice to one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century.

If you enjoy reading biography, consider checking out my post 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

May 30, 2017

What Trump voters believe: a Berkeley sociologist goes to the source

Trump votersStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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In her ninth book, UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild confronts her alarm “at the increasingly hostile split in our nation between two political camps.” Strangers in Their Own Land, a Finalist for the National Book Award, reflects five years of Hochschild’s field research in Louisiana. “[A]s a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right—that is, in the emotion that underlines politics. To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their ‘deep story,’ a narrative as felt.”

Interviews with Tea Party advocates

Bypassing what she terms the “empathy wall” that gets in the way of understanding other people, Hochschild sought out members of the Tea Party at meetings of the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana, at campaign events for Republican candidates, and in private gatherings. Over the course of five years, she “accumulated 4,690 pages of transcripts based on interviews with a core of forty Tea Party advocates and twenty others from various walks of life,” returning to the region again and again. Several of her interviewees became friends.

Red states vs. blue states

Hochschild set out to understand “The Great Paradox” that underlies the right-left split, inspired by Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? “Across the country,” she writes, “red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birthweight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states.” Yet the politicians supported by voters in red states consistently vote against policies and programs that successfully address many of these issues in blue states. And they seek to slash the “very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states—in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent—” that comes from federal funds. And, she notes, “Virtually every Tea Party advocate I interviewed for this book has personally benefited from a major government program or has close family who have.” Nonetheless, Governor Bobby Jindal offered $1.6 billion in incentives to attract more industry while firing 30,000 state employees, cutting funds by 44 percent for the state’s 28 public colleges and universities, lowering corporate as well as individual taxes, and rejecting Medicaid funds available under the Affordable Care Act. “Only after public outcry did the governor restore some funds to public education—and cut public health and environmental protection instead.”

The keyhole issue: environmental pollution

To focus her research, Hochschild shaped her interviews around the “keyhole issue” of environmental pollution that looms so large in Southwestern Louisiana, a region that is home to some 300,000 people (approximately three-quarters of them white and most of the rest African-American). There, enormous factories supply oil, natural gas, plastics, and other industrial products to consumers throughout the nation—and produce prodigious quantities of toxic byproducts, much of which has leached into the soil or poisoned the water. There have been numerous reports of cancer from contaminated water and, even more commonly, among the workforce at the region’s factories who have worked for years without adequate protection. The region’s once-prosperous fishing industry has been virtually eliminated. And, over the years, gargantuan sinkholes have appeared, most recently a 37-acre sinkhole at Bayou Corne that swallowed whole trees and forced 350 local residents to evacuate. Yet Hochschild found only one of her interviewees was willing to talk freely about the issue of pollution, an environmental activist who, unaccountably, is also a Tea Party member and (probably) a Trump voter. “Everyone I talked to wanted a clean environment. But in Louisiana, the Great Paradox was staring me in the face—great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.”

The deep story of the Right

Hochschild’s research led her to a greater appreciation for her interviewees as people and to a better understanding of their worldview. Influenced by Fox News, industry, state government, church, and the regular media, “[p]eople on the right seemed to be strongly moved by three concerns—taxes, faith, and honor.” The “deep story” she crafted provides a window onto this mindset. She calls it “Waiting in Line.” The line leads up to the crest of a hill. On the other side is the American Dream. Though they’re patient and never complain, the “white, older, Christian, and predominantly male” people in the middle of the line notice that others are cutting into the line ahead of them: blacks benefiting from affirmative action, women who take “men’s jobs,” immigrants, refugees, “overpaid” public sector workers who are mostly women and minorities, “the brown pelican”—and President Obama! “But it’s people like you who have made this country great.” There’s a lot more to this deep story, but that’s the gist of it: “you are a stranger in your own land.” And Hochschild reports that practically all her interviewees claimed it fairly represented how they felt.

How Trump voters feel

“His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life,” Hochschild writes about a Trump rally. “Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated . . . As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land . . . Trump was the identity politics candidate for white men.”

Are Trump voters ignorant?

Woven throughout the story of Hochschild’s interviews is a running account of the damage done by Right-Wing policies. She does note that media on the Right—Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and others—have helped to sway public opinion against what others have called the “liberal consensus.” Yet when Hochschild uses the word “ignorance,” it’s almost always in the context of identifying Northern and liberal stereotypes of Southern whites. There’s no recognition in evidence that much of what Tea Party supporters believe is, indeed, based on ignorance: for example, denying the reality of climate change, believing that the economy got worse under Obama, insisting that a huge percentage of those who receive federal assistance are cheating, and in many cases holding fast to the “birther” fallacy. It’s no wonder we can’t all get along!

You might also be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

May 23, 2017

The case that helped put the FBI on the map

FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

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When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, an estimated 50 million people lived in the Hemisphere. Somewhere between seven and 18 million of them inhabited North America. By 1890, the population of indigenous people in the United States had been reduced to 248,000. Countless millions had died, primarily as the result of epidemic disease carried by European, and later American, settlers. By the 20th Century, hundreds of native communities eked out a minimal existence in and near the reservations where they had been forced to move.

“The wealthiest people per capita in the world”

In most respects, the Osage Nation was typical of the more than 600 North American Indian “tribes.” Once numbering tens or hundreds of thousands, the Osage were masters of a vast territory spanning what are now the states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Recurrent smallpox epidemics and waves of settlers dramatically reduced their numbers and forced them from the first reservation they were allocated in Kansas early in the 19th Century. Following a treaty in 1870, the survivors were forced to move into a new reservation in north-central Oklahoma that is their current home. They purchased the land, deliberately selecting an arid, hilly area unsuitable for farming in hopes that white men wouldn’t take it away from them.

In 1907, a brilliant chief negotiated an agreement with the U.S. government allowing the Osage to retain all mineral rights, even if the land itself were sold. Soon afterward, oil was discovered there. The reservation sat on “some of the largest oil deposits in the United States.” By the 1920s, some three thousand Osage—a third of the number 70 years earlier—had become fabulously wealthy. “In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million [in royalties], the equivalent today of more than $400 million. The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.”

Corruption, sponsored by the federal government

Killers of the Flower Moon by New Yorker staff writer David Grann reveals the consequences of this new wealth. Many Osage spent their money ostentatiously, attracting thieves, con men, and profiteers to the reservation; some white men married Osage women in what seemed an obvious ploy to gain control of their wealth. In 1921, a new federal law was passed requiring “any Osage of half or more Indian ancestry to be appointed a guardian until proving ‘competency.’ Minors with less than half Osage ancestry were required to have guardians appointed, even if their parents were living.” Prominent local white men such as lawyers, bankers, businessmen, and ranchers were appointed as guardians. The scene was set for corruption. “One government study estimated that before 1925 guardians had pilfered at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards.” But even that massive thievery didn’t satisfy the local powers-that-be.

Two dozen murders in four years, none of them solved

In 1921, two Osage unrelated to each other were found murdered, and more than 20 others followed by 1925. Investigations by the local sheriff were bungled badly. “Virtually no evidence had been preserved from the various crime scenes.” Private eyes brought in to investigate failed to discover the killers. A local lawyer obtained documentary evidence pointing to at least one of the murderers, but both he and the man who had given him the documents were themselves murdered; the documents disappeared.

Enter the FBI

Pleas from the Osage council to Washington for federal intervention finally bore fruit in 1925. The Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) under its newly appointed director, J. Edgar Hoover, dispatched a team of investigators headed by a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, who proved to be a perfect choice. Incorruptible, dogged, and knowledgeable about the new “scientific” methods of policing, White uncovered a conspiracy led by a “domineering cattleman” named William K. Hale, who was known locally as the “King of the Osage Hills.” Hale and two nephews, both of them married to Osage women, were clearly responsible for at least four murders. White put them on trial—and encountered a “litany of dead witnesses,” crooked doctors and undertakers, witness tampering, manufactured evidence, and a local jury’s reluctance to convict a white man of murdering an Indian. Only in a second trial the following year did he succeed in gaining a conviction for Hale, one of his nephews, and an accomplice.

More murders than ever revealed

In researching the “Osage Reign of Terror” eight decades later, Grann came across claims again and again that the 24 murders that brought in the FBI only hinted at the scope of the killing. Through exhaustive digging in archival records, he turned up evidence that the murders had begun at least three years before 1921 and lasted for six years after 1925. “Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds.” Grann ends this deeply engrossing and troubling book quoting Cain after he killed Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”

Killers of the Flower Moon is David Grann’s second book. The first, a New York Times bestseller, was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a fascinating book I reviewed here




May 9, 2017

Is philanthropy good for America?

philanthropyThe Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan

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Few Americans appreciate the extraordinary scope and depth of philanthropy in our country. In 2015, the most recent year for which reliable estimates are available, Americans contributed a total of $373 billion to what is loosely called “charity.” That amounts to 2% of the nation’s GDP of just under $18 trillion that year—a proportion that has remained steady for at least seven decades.

Where does all the money come from?

Although most people imagine that the lion’s share of this money comes from charitable foundations and corporations, the reality is different. Combined, institutional sources accounted for just 21%. Living individual donors kicked in 71%, or nearly $265 billion. 90% of US households contribute on an annual basis; their total contributions average about $1,500 per household. In other words, the six, seven, and eight-figure gifts that are associated with philanthropy in the popular imagination represent only a fraction of the country’s total giving. That slice of the charitable pie is the subject of David Callahan’s heavily researched new book, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. Callahan goes out of his way to note that contributions by mega-donors “constitute less than a quarter of all annual charitable giving.”

Who are the mega-donors?

Callahan’s focus is a tiny fraction of 1% of the American population, mostly the increasing number of philanthropists among the nation’s more than 500 billionaires. His thesis is straightforward: “we face a future in which private donors—who are accountable to no one—may often wield more influence than elected public officials, who (in theory, at least, anyway) are accountable to all of us. This power shift is one of the biggest stories of our time.” However, Callahan’s study deals only with living individual major donors and, in some cases, the foundations they’ve established as vehicles for their giving. By “major donors,” he refers principally to gifts of eight or nine figures (tens or hundreds of millions of dollars). Callahan perceives a big risk in that the power that accrues to these mega-donors “will further push ordinary Americans to the margins of civic life in an unequal era when so many people already feel shoved aside by elites and the wealthy.” Pointing to the tens of trillions of dollars that will change hands from Baby Boomers to their descendants in the coming years, Callahan writes, “For all the philanthropy we’ve seen in recent years, it’s nothing compared to what lies ahead.”

Many of the men and women Callahan profiles in detail have earned their money in either high-tech or finance. These fields account for most of the new wave of philanthropists that has emerged in the last two decades. And there is no reason to believe that either Silicon Valley or Wall Street will suddenly stop producing prodigious wealth in the years ahead.

The mega-donors profiled by Callahan lack diversity to a surprising degree. Not only are they “almost entirely white,” a disproportionate number of the givers are Jewish, practically no Latino names appeared, and I didn’t encounter a single Chinese or Indian name in the book.

Are mega-donors all “conservative?”

The author cites a few statistics about economic inequality in passing, but The Givers is no left-wing screed against what Theodore Roosevelt termed “malefactors of great wealth.” Callahan’s treatment of the billionaires and multimillionaires whose giving he cites in his book is even-handed. Though I’m sure critics on the Right will object to his thesis, they will discover it’s difficult to find fault with his many detailed descriptions of the mega-donors and their philanthropic practices. He is careful to balance every account of attempts by Right-Wing donors such as the Koch Brothers to sway public policy or change the terms of debate with similar efforts by George Soros and other liberals. However, what Callahan makes clear is that libertarians and so-called conservatives have lavished far more money, and far more effectively, on their pet causes and institutions than have those who oppose them on the Left—and they’ve been doing it for many decades longer. It also becomes clear in The Givers that not all mega-donors can be pigeonholed as either liberal or conservative—in fact, a great many of them straddle the ideological divide, to judge from the pattern of their giving.

Will mega-donors run out of money?

Callahan makes abundantly clear what any large donor would be likely to say: it’s difficult to give away large sums of money. “Take Bill Gates and Warren Buffett,” he notes. Despite the billions of dollars both men have funneled into philanthropic projects, “both have gotten much richer over the past decade. Buffett added $25 billion to his fortune between 2005 and 2015. Gates added even more, pushing his net worth to nearly $80 billion. [It’s closer to $90 billion now.] And these fortunes may rise even further” as their shares in Microsoft and Berkshire-Hathaway continue to rise in value and their other investments yield additional returns. Gates and Buffett are by no means alone: “Larry Ellison added $40 billion to his wealth between 2005 and 2015, Jeff Bezos added $42 billion,” and so forth. In fact, nearly every one of the billionaires Callahan profiles in The Givers has grown richer even while giving away staggering sums of money.

Bill and Melinda Gates have stipulated that their foundation is to give away all its assets in the 20 years following their deaths. But how could anyone possibly distribute with any pretense of judiciousness in just 20 years the estimated minimum of $150 billion the Gates Foundation will then be worth? (That figure includes the Foundation’s $39 billion, Gates’ $87 billion, and the $30 billion pledged by Warren Buffett.) Ask anyone who works in the field of philanthropy: it is not reasonable to expect that any foundation staff, no matter how gifted and efficient, could give away that much money in so short a time. The Foundation now grants just $4 billion annually. Perhaps they’ll decide to buy a small country or two.

Is philanthropy good for America?

Callahan emphasizes the efforts by many ultra-wealthy donors to influence public policy directly through political contributions and to sway public opinion through lavish support of think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute on the Right and the Center for American Progress and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on the Left. Both George Soros and the Koch Brothers are well known to be among these donors, but there are dozens of others who contribute enormous sums in similar ways, some of them well known, others who fly under the radar. Although Callahan scrupulously notes the efforts on both sides of the political divide, he writes that “there’s no denying that wealthy donors are far more likely to align themselves with think tanks that side with corporations and Wall Street in policy fights.” The difference in impact is clear: Heritage, Cato, and AEI dwarf nearly all their liberal counterparts, and they’ve been in business decades longer than the leading progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, which was established only in 2003.

Many of the donors profiled in The Givers have concentrated their contributions in specific areas. In education, many millions of dollars have gone to support charter schools—and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is credited with the adoption of the Common Core, almost single-handedly. In health care, progressive donors played a large role in bringing about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), while their counterparts on the Right are bankrolling the effort to repeal it. Callahan cites numerous examples of donors whose intervention into the realm of public policy has been decisive. And other donors have imposed their views on the curriculum at colleges and universities to which they’ve given large gifts.

Is all this good? Callahan wonders whether it is (as do I). While it’s difficult to dispute that there is value in philanthropic contributions to the public welfare, “philanthropy now acts as a driver of the growing divide in America in who gets heard in the public square—along with who sets the agenda—both nationally and locally. Giving by the wealthy is amplifying their voice at the expense of ordinary citizens, complementing other tools of upper-class dominance.”

What is to be done?

In an Epilogue, Callahan offers several recommendations to fix the flaws in America’s philanthropic environment:

  • “Given the politicization of nonprofits over the past half century, it’s time to rethink which groups really should qualify for tax-exempt status.” Callahan opts for drawing a sharper distinction between tax-exempt 501(c)(3) and non-tax-exempt 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which would obviously entail reclassifying some that are now exempt from taxes into the latter category. Perhaps those that meddle in politics should be paying taxes.
  • “Private foundations already pay a 2 percent federal excise tax on their annual investment income that generates more than $500 million a year in revenue. The tax is supposed to cover the costs of IRS oversight of charities,” but it’s been spent elsewhere since the 1990s. The money should be rededicated to serve the purpose it was intended to serve.
  • Callahan also advocates the establishment of “a new U.S. federal office of charitable affairs” which he foresees as a vehicle “to analyze the benefits of charitable giving as well as the sector’s performance.” (Fat chance with a Republican Congress, no?)
  • “There is a strong case that foundation boards should, as a norm, include outsiders—as opposed to just being composed of family members or other insiders.” To that I say, Amen.
  • Callahan observes, as others have been noting since the 1970s, that “[t]oo many charitable dollars go to elite institutions that mainly cater to the affluent; too few go to alleviating poverty or fighting injustice,” all of which is indisputably true. But Callahan doesn’t see any easy way to remedy this situation.
  • In the final analysis, Callahan sees the lack of government resources as a major source of the danger posed by the continuing growth in the influence of the ultra-wealthy through philanthropy. Donors are supplanting government. “One path forward,” he writes, “is reducing tax breaks for mortgages, health insurance, and retirement savings that mainly benefit the affluent.” In the current political environment, this one is just about as likely to be implemented as that new office of charitable affairs.

David Callahan has performed a valuable service by spotlighting the often-hidden role of a small number of extremely wealthy individuals who are using philanthropy to gain more and more say over the destiny of American society.

About the author

David Callahan founded and edits the online magazine Inside Philanthropy in 2013. He had previously co-founded the liberal New York think tank, Demos. The Givers is his ninth book.

May 2, 2017

Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election

2016 electionShattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

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How did Hillary Clinton lose an election she was so widely expected to win? How did Donald Trump win that election despite abundant evidence that he was unprepared and ill-suited to hold the office? Two journalists, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, attempt to answer those questions in Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. In writing the book, they brought unique advantages to the task: they began reporting on the Clinton campaign late in 2014, nearly two years before the election and many months before Clinton’s announcement she was running; and they were afforded an insider’s perspective by permitting the more than 100 people they interviewed to speak “on background,” to ensure (since their comments could not be publicly attributed to them).

Trouble surfaced early. “Clintonworld sources started telling us in 2015 that Hillary was still struggling to articulate her motivation for seeking the presidency.” Clinton never managed to solve this problem. Allen and Parnes make clear that the candidate’s failure to explain why she wanted to be president is one of the root causes for her defeat. The authors assert that “this was a winnable race for Hillary. Her own missteps—from setting up a controversial private e-mail server and giving speeches to Goldman Sachs to failing to convince voters that she was with them and turning her eyes away from working-class whites—gave Donald Trump the opportunity he needed to win.”

Hillary Clinton herself feels differently. She attributes the loss to “the FBI (Comey), [Russian intelligence], and the KKK (the support Trump got from white nationalists).” However, a small “number of her close friends and high-level advisers holds that Hillary bears the blame for her defeat. This case rests on the theory that Hillary’s actions before the campaign . . . hamstrung her own chances so badly that she couldn’t recover.” And then there was her failing to prove that “she had a vision for the country rather than visions of power.”

To my mind, there’s truth in all these analyses. Clinton did ask for trouble with that e-mail server and those speeches on Wall Street. She did most certainly fail to understand, much less address, the concerns of world-class white people, and the staff and friends she surrounded herself with were unable to help her do so. (“‘I don’t understand what’s happening with the country. I can’t get my arms around it,’ Hillary confided.”) Yet it’s also clear that Russian attempts to steer the election to Trump and the clearly partisan intervention of FBI Director James Comey were among the proximate causes of her defeat.

Of all these factors, it’s my distinct impression that Comey’s public comments may have played an outsize role in turning sentiment against Clinton. He twice went public with inappropriate announcements about the investigation into her e-mail server—without ever revealing that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign about possible collusion with the Russians. And the second of those announcements came on Oct. 28, less than two weeks before the election, when early voting was already underway in many states. And I’m not alone in believing this: on FiveThirtyEight, his popular blog, Nate Silver wrote two days before the election that on Oct. 28 “Clinton had an 81 percent chance of winning the election according to our polls-only forecast. Today, her chances are 65 percent according to the same forecast.” Silver still predicted that Clinton would win, but the drop in support he reported was striking.

However, I’m not at all sure that historians writing about this election decades from now will view any of these factors as instrumental in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The seeds were sown beginning in the early 1970s, when the major corporations in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined the wealthy conservative activists who were funding Right-Wing think tanks in a concerted effort to undermine the liberal consensus that had dominated American politics since the days of FDR. In the nearly five decades that followed, those forces gained control of the Supreme Court, upended the progressive tax structure that had been in place for half a century, virtually destroyed the labor movement, captured the attention of tens of millions of Americans with heavily biased news coverage and commentary through Fox News and Right-Wing talk radio, enabled corporate money to swamp Congress with platoons of lobbyists and flood into the political process, captured most of the nation’s governorships and state legislatures, and facilitated the rise of the Tea Party while turning a blind eye to the rise of the racist white nationalist “alt-right.” It was this constellation of forces that began their assault on Hillary Clinton as soon as she took up residence in the White House as First Lady in 1993.

All the while these developments were unfolding, the Democratic Party made its own important contribution to what eventually became Hillary Clinton’s problem. No sooner had George McGovern lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon than the Party began drawing the wagons into an ever-tightening circle that excluded the hundreds of thousands of liberal activists who had supported McGovern. Within a decade, the Party had turned to corporate America for the increasingly massive amounts of money needed to win elections. The Democrats’ turn to the Right culminated in the presidency of Bill Clinton. No Republican could have succeeded in enacting so many neoliberal policies as Bill Clinton did—on trade, criminal justice, welfare, deregulation, and loosening the constraints on Wall Street. In effect, a “New Democrat” enacted much of the Republican agenda. The result was to accelerate the country’s loss of manufacturing jobs, incarcerate millions of people (predominantly people of color), aggravate the homeless problem, cause suffering among millions thrown off welfare, and set the stage for the Great Recession a decade later by enabling the Big Banks to gamble with their customers’ money.

In the final analysis, I believe, this combination of historical forces explains why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. It’s why she entered the race with two out of every five Americans viewing her negatively, and why the Democratic Party and its neoliberal agenda had ceased to be relevant to millions of working-class Americans. Had the Party catered to its base rather than to Wall Street (beginning in the 1970s) and had Clinton’s disapproval ratings been more in line with those of most other Democratic politicians, she would have walked away with the race—Donald Trump, the Russians, and James Comey notwithstanding.

However, in Shattered, Allen and Parnes focus on the trees, not the forest. The book is a look inside the Clinton campaign that anyone interested in electoral politics will find fascinating. Historians, perhaps not so much.

Enjoy reading about politics? Check out 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

April 18, 2017

Noam Chomsky on the concentration of wealth and its consequences

concentration of wealthRequiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power by Noam Chomsky

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For decades, economic scholars have commented on the dangers inherent in the growing concentration of wealth in Western society. Though misleadingly referred to as “income inequality” in the new media, this critically important topic actively entered public debate in 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and others added to the debate in the years that followed. Then, Senator Bernie Sanders flogged the issue at every opportunity in his presidential race in 2016, giving the issue further prominence. If there’s anyone alive and alert in America today who isn’t aware that the concentration of wealth is a growing problem for our society, I’d be surprised.

Few contemporary American observers have a clearer-headed understanding of the issue and its causes than Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, born in 1928, is widely regarded as the father of modern linguistics and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He’s also well known—some might say notorious—as an activist and social commentator. He has written dozens of books on the technical aspects of his academic work, and even more on politics. But his latest, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, is not a book he wrote.

Instead, the book was distilled from a 2015 film of the same name, a documentary patched together using interviews filmed over four years with Chomsky. Unlike the books he has written, most of which are slow going and many (the texts on linguistics, impenetrable), Requiem consists entirely of transcriptions from the spoken word. The style is conversational and uses only a bare minimum of jargon. It’s a quick read, and an enlightening one.

As Chomsky notes, “Power has become so concentrated that not only are the banks ‘too big to fail,’ but as one economist put it, they are also ‘too big to jail.'” Given our experience over the past decade, it would be difficult to argue with that. And anyone who closely follows events in American society today would say the same about this observation by Chomsky: “the rich and powerful, they don’t want a capitalist system. They want to be able to run to the ‘nanny state’ as soon as they’re in trouble, and get bailed out by the taxpayer.” If the American people fully understood how much tax money is funneled to corporations as subsidies, and how much the tax code has been distorted to favor them and their shareholders, they would storm Washington DC by the millions.

In Requiem, Chomsky presents ten “principles” that together explain how the massive concentration of wealth in America today has come about. (His analysis applies to other wealthy countries as well, but it fits the U.S. best.) His argument is best summed up as what he calls a vicious circle: “Concentration of wealth yields concentration of power, particularly so as the cost of elections skyrockets, which forces the political parties even more deeply into the pockets of major corporations.”

The 10 principles underlying this reality, as Chomsky sees them, are:

  1. Reduce Democracy
  2. Shape Ideology
  3. Redesign the Economy
  4. Shift the Burden
  5. Attack Solidarity
  6. Run the Regulators
  7. Engineer Elections
  8. Keep the Rabble in Line
  9. Manufacture Consent
  10. Marginalize the Population

I’ve never seen a more comprehensive or economical explanation of how wealth has come to be so concentrated in so few hands in the U.S. today. Most of these principles are self-evident at a glance. Only two may require explanation. Chomsky uses the word “solidarity” as a synonym for empathy, caring for others, or “concern for your fellow man,” to cite another archaic expression. His Principle #8, “Keep the Rabble in Line,” refers to the coordinated 45-year effort by Big Business and Right-Wing ideologues to destroy the labor movement.

The editors of Requiem—Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott—have interspersed short passages from other sources among the 10 Principles. The sources range over the centuries: from Aristotle and James Madison to Harry Truman and Martin Luther King Jr. These short excerpts from classic documents, speeches, press reports, and social commentaries add depth to the book’s presentation and enhance understanding of Chomsky’s message.

Chomsky’s views have often been regarded as extreme. Certainly, he is vilified by commentators and scholars on the Right. But if you read Requiem for the American Dream, I think you’ll find his reading of history is accurate, his logic is sound, and his view of America today is—sadly—right on target.