October 2010

2010 10 25
What goes around

Posted by in: Economics, U.S. politics

I had occasion recently to reread bits and pieces of the book that turned me into a lefty. There is really no good reason why this should have been the book, but it was on the right used bookstore shelf at the right time.

The book is Frances Fox Piven & Richard Cloward’s The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences. I did not really know the name then, but glancing now at the Acknowledgments I see the authors thank, in 1982, a one Paul Wellstone for his comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

In the opening pages of their book, Piven and Cloward address the claim that it was concerns over inflation in 1980 that induced voters to toss out Carter and replace him with Reagan. They cite a Walter Dean Burnham (who?) to explain why that explanation won’t fly:

In both relative and absolute terms, the defections from Carter “were concentrated among those for whom unemployment was the most important problem. Among those selecting inflation, Reagan won by 67 percent, up only two points from Ford’s 65 percent showing in 1976.” By contrast, “among those worried about unemployment, the decline in Carter’s support was fully nineteen percentage points, from 75 percent in 1976 to 56 percent in 1980.”

We are seeing a similar defection away from Democrats now, and for the same primary reason. There is no need to cite the evidence in favor of huge Democratic losses next week. But here is recent polling data showing that concern over the economy and, more specifically, jobs decisively dwarfs concern about the budget deficit and/or national debt. And yet talk of the deficit and “ballooning debt” is all I seem to hear from the MSM and from the GOP candidates here in Wisconsin. Absolutely no one–not even Russ Feingold–is making the point that if we had a smaller deficit, unemployment would be much, much higher.

Of course, the GOP today will be just as eager to address these concerns once they regain (partial) power as Reagan was once he took office. And there is still little reason to rule out a double-dip recession, which would mirror the early Reagan years. Perhaps the only ray of hope is that despite those early trials for Reagan, he was reelected in 1984. Then again, at least Reagan could in 1984 ask the electorate with a straight face if they were better off than they were in 1979.

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2010 10 16
Recently read

Posted by in: Books

Arthur Conan Doyle. A Study in Scarlet
This was the first Sherlock Holmes mystery to be published and the second I’ve read, after The Hound of the Baskervilles. Although not as good as The Hound of the Baskervilles, this was still very entertaining, and I think I’ll keep going.

Like many fans of the mysteries, I find myself delighting in Holmes’ intuitive leaps. Doyle’s presentation of these leaps, as filtered through Watson’s incredulous resistance, is extremely rhetorically effective. When Watson finally relents and accepts some chain of reasoning of Holmes’s as inevitable, it’s easy to feel that we should too. But if you stop and think about it, Holmes’s entire philosophy and approach is built on a totally loopy idea of induction.

P.G. Wodehouse. The Inimitable Jeeves

Of the eight or so books by Wodehouse I’ve read, this is among the very best. In fact, it gives The Code of the Woosters a run for its money.

If you like Wodehouse, read this hilarious book immediately. If you haven’t read Wodehouse, either this book or The Code of the Woosters is a good place to start. Wodehouse was best known for his the Jeeves and Wooster stories, featuring the hapless, dim-witted Bertie Wooster, always getting himself into trouble, and Jeeves, his brilliant butler, who always figures some way out of the mess. It’s mindless fun, but Wodehouse can turn a hell of a sentence and there is always satisfaction in getting to see one of his convoluted plots sort itself out, just as you knew it would, at the very last minute.

P.G. Wodehouse. Much Obliged, Jeeves

Also deliciously silly fun.

A.B. Bosworth. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great

An excellent scholarly account of Alexander’s career, along with a number of peripheral subjects. Bosworth’s is a scholarly and not a popular account, in the sense not just that he wrestles with other scholars from time to time, but that his account of what happened is usually embedded in careful discussions of the source texts. This is exactly the way I like my history; others might find it tedious. The peripheral subjects alluded to above include, e.g,. the finer points of satrapal administration in Alexander’s Persian territories. YMMV, as the saying goes.

Cory Doctorow. Little Brother

A novel about a 17 year old hacker who is arbitrarily detained in a round-up after a terrorist attack in San Francisco, and who decides to fight back against the authorities using all his hacker-fu. At times it seems a bit like Doctorow is trying to jam every thing in the world that he finds cool into the narrative—mainly through the mouthpiece of his seriously precocious protagonist. The good news for me was that there’s a significant overlap between what I find cool and what Doctorow does: programming, cryptography, civil liberties, etc. The book, while not high literature, is also just a satisfying, well-paced read. I sort of wish I could go back in time and give a copy to my 17 year old self.

Cory Doctorow. Content

Little Brother has the distinction of being the first book I’ve ever read on a phone (while commuting on the subway). I downloaded it for free, along with a few other books whose copyright had expired, setting them into the public domain. Doctorow releases all his books under a Creative Commons license, which permits people to download and redistribute his work without paying him a royalty fee. Content, which I also downloaded and read on my phone for free, is a book of essays by Doctorow explaining, among other things, how he manages to pay the rent as a professional writer who lets people read his writing for free. The answer is, in part, just that it costs him nothing to let people download his books, that it often results in free publicity (e.g., blog posts) and buzz, and that many people who could download his books for free end up buying physical copies too (from which he does make money).

But Content is about more than how Doctorow makes a living. It’s about legal restrictions on content, like copyright, DRM (digital rights management, the technology that is supposed to stop you from giving the mp3 you bought on itunes to your friend), and the technologies, policies and trade-offs relevant to these legal restrictions. Although marred a bit by repetition, this is a good, thought-provoking collection. I especially enjoyed re-reading Doctorow’s talk, collected here, but long available free on his site, at Microsoft about DRM technology.

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