Some more recent reads — March 1, 2018

Some more recent reads

  • Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

    Central thesis is that when people at the time spoke of the 1950s, and when we think about it today, we envision a level of consensus that wasn’t there. Or maybe the consensus was there, but lurking underneath were forces that would soon tear the country apart. We imagine consensus taking the shape of Dwight D. Eisenhower, everyone’s favorite avuncular picture of 1950s America. Just outside the frame were those who thought Truman and Ike had sold us out and “lost us China”; they thought Truman’s recalling General MacArthur was an act of treason. The conservative movement was brewing. William F. Buckley’s National Review was forming. The Birchers and the rest of the crazies were just starting to froth.

    In all of this, Perlstein makes Goldwater out to be a reluctant—really, shockingly reluctant—avatar of the movement; he’s an emergent property of it, rather than a moving force within it. We think of Goldwater today as a lunatic, if we think of him at all; we think of the Daisy ad, of the “Goldwater Rule” which tells professional psychiatrists that they are not allowed to diagnose public figures from afar, and of the trouncing Goldwater experienced at LBJ’s hands in 1964, and that’s that. Perlstein’s Goldwater is much more interesting. He’s less a person than a whirlpool spinning faster and faster, drawing in all the flotsam of the conservative movement as activists discover that they’re not alone. He’s a symbol of a movement. As the race for the Republican nomination in 1964 heats up, all the Ike-style conservatives—Nelson Rockefeller; Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.; William W. Scranton—get knocked out as conservatives realize that what they want is a true right-winger, leaving a reluctant Goldwater on top.

    Then Goldwater, of course, is roundly defeated. And that’s it for the conservative movement, right? The final few sentences of the book are just devastating. Just outside the margins of the book are Richard Nixon, preparing once more to reenter the political scene, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. And Perlstein hits us with this:

    Arthur Schlesinger put it most succinctly of all in volume 4 of his magisterial History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968: “The election results of 1964,” he reflected, “seemed to demonstrate Thomas Dewey’s prediction about what would happen if the parties were realigned on an ideological basis: ‘The Democrats would win every election and the Republicans would lose every election.’ ”

    At that there seemed to be nothing more to say. It was time to close the book.

    Perlstein’s later books, Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, map out the conservative movement through the rest of the 20th century. I’ve read the former but not the latter. The Nixon book is basically sympathetic to conservatives in the 1960s: they’re watching their cities burn, and they really hate the hippies, and here comes a presidential candidate who pours on the gasoline. At times the Nixon book gets a little too gleeful in its jabs at the hippies; it’s not that Perlstein himself feels any vitriol towards them, it’s just that he seems to believe their voices have been systematically minimized by a press that wants to impose a certain narrative on the ’50s and ’60s. The ’50s were the decade of boring American consensus, and the ’60s were the decade when “everyone” supported the expansion of civil rights to African-Americans. Perlstein helpfully muddies the waters in these books. And he’s a first-rate storyteller.

  • Jennifer A. Doudna, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution

    Central thesis: CRISPR, within a shockingly short period of time, has made gene editing possible, and has in fact made it possible to edit the germ line of the species. Within not very long at all, we’ll be able to dictate the future course of human evolution, and we need to think very hard about what we’ll do with that power.

    The bulk of the book is given over to a detailed scientific explanation of how the CRISPR method, which the author pioneered, works. I wish I could tell you that I understand the underlying biology well enough that I could answer questions beyond those immediately addressed in the book, but I don’t. This isn’t Doudna’s fault: she needs to start with the central dogma of molecular biology and work her way from there to technologies that didn’t exist until just a few years ago, and onward into (only mildly) speculative sections about where this technology is headed in the near term. She can’t be expected to teach any of this material in much depth. Nonetheless, she deserves kudos for trying.

    She clearly believes that the possible upsides of this technology demand that it be given a fair hearing, and not be rejected out of hand in the same way that, say, GMOs have been. Indeed, I left her book wondering if opposition to GMOs is fundamentally irrational. I’ve had a hard time arguing the anti-GMO case for a while: how does it differ, really, from ordinary artificial selection (that is, breeding species and culling the offspring that don’t match the traits you’re looking for)? The answer is actually not that hard, though: there comes a point when a technology allows species to change so fast that it’s not merely a difference of degree from the technologies that preceded it, but a difference of kind. Raising cows to adulthood, checking their mass, keeping the more-muscular ones, and killing the scrawny ones takes time. Editing their genes to remove whatever makes them scrawny takes less time. Using CRISPR speeds up gene editing by orders of magnitude. Eventually there comes a point when society demands that a technology be slowed down, lest it have effects that we’re unable to control. This is not unreasonable.

    At the same time, one of the arguments in favor of CRISPR gene editing is that it’s more precise and narrowly tailored than existing methods. Diseases that result from a change in a single gene can be fixed by editing that single gene. The analogy I think of here is to vaccination: anti-vaccine people often complain that the vaccine load on their children is too high for their developing immune systems to handle, to which doctors respond that the number of proteins in modern vaccines is lower than the number when our parents were kids. The drugs have gotten better, so the immunological load is lower. (See this World Health Organization page for a related argument.) The same may be true of CRISPR: maybe it’s actually a safe technology. I trust Doudna on this, but again I need to understand the biology better before I feel confident asserting my own opinion here.

    Occasionally Doudna wanders into topics that make me uneasy, because she could be read as ignoring broader systems:

    Another example of livestock gene editing comes from a Minnesota company called Recombinetics, which achieved the remarkable feat of genetically modifying cows to prevent them from growing horns. The company’s goal was to obviate the cruel but widespread practice of cattle dehorning, a common procedure in the U.S. and European dairy industries. Horns make handling confined animals dangerous for farm workers and can also pose a risk to the cows themselves. Food producers typically remove horns at a young age by burning off horn buds with a heated iron, causing tissue damage and a significant amount of stress and pain for the traumatized calves. In the United States alone, well over thirteen million calves are dehorned every year.

    At one level, I couldn’t object to this: if we could prevent 13 million cows from being cruelly dehorned every year, then why not? On the other hand … doesn’t something just feel uncomfortable to you about this? The ability to use gene editing to turn cows into more-perfect vessels for conversion into beef feels uncomfortable to me. I don’t have a particularly good argument for why genetic de-horning wouldn’t be a strict improvement over the world as it is, but all arguments like this made me uneasy.

    On the other hand, her basic argument for using CRISPR to solve human diseases is simply that we would be irresponsible if we didn’t try. Over the next decade or so, it seems inevitable that we’ll identify more and more diseases whose origin is a change in one or a few genes, and we now have the technology to fix those genes immediately. If we could end the agony of Tay-Sachs, or the slow deterioration of Parkinson’s disease, we arguably must and undoubtedly will try to do so.

    This makes me think that I’d like to read a book cowritten by Doudna and, say, an ecologist and an ethicist, because she hasn’t really established her bona fides as an honest broker for ideas outside of molecular biology. When she writes, for instance, of the Jurassic Park concept, that “de-extinct species could badly disrupt ecosystems they’re released into,” the reader has to wonder why de-extinct species are so much different in this regard than genetically modified non-extinct species. The idea of genetically modifying mosquitoes bearing malaria, for instance, so that their offspring are infertile makes me uncomfortable. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the unintended consequences of a significant change to a species at the bottom of the food chain? (Makes me wonder why conservative economists, who are the first to argue the evils of unintended consequences in public policy, aren’t manning the ramparts about this kind of widespread biological change.)

    It’s hard not to make a quick jump from Doudna’s book to the realm of science fiction. The next step is to make changes to the germ line, so that changes to an existing organism’s genes are passed on to its offspring. After that, use CRISPR and related technologies to make multi-gene changes. Soon enough, identify genes that can be flipped to improve human intelligence. More speculatively, and further along in time, you can imagine a combination of genes and embryology such that the offspring is better able to manipulate his or her own germ line. So now, not only is the offspring the beneficiary of genetic changes, but the offspring can accelerate genetic changes as time goes on. The sci-fi ending of this would a biological analogue of the Singularity—only this is runaway biological improvement, rather than runaway technological improvement. Someone must have written this.

    CRISPR does feel like a really big deal. Doudna’s book is a good place for a general reader to start, and I intend to chase down some of the references to see if I can make head or tail of them.

  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

    Central thesis: nations become possible only when a shared language becomes possible—a language which defines us and them as separate entities. When Latin was a shared language across many countries, Latin could not define nations. Then came the vernaculars:

    elevation of these vernaculars to the status of languages-of-power, where, in one sense, they were competitors with Latin (French in Paris, [Early] English in London), made its own contribution to the decline of the imagined community of Christendom.

    When the Spanish language bound both metropolitan Spain and its foreign territories, those within the empire could define themselves as Spaniards even if they weren’t in the mother country. The Spanish government’s unwillingness, then, to allow its subjects abroad to be “true” Spaniards—to serve, for instance, in the Spanish government—hastened the formation of, say, a Filipino identity. The existence of the common language, then, defines a nation, and then the needs of a colonizer define “real” and “fake” members of that nation.

    The final piece that starts the formation of a nation is the newspaper. The newspaper joins us all in space: suddenly we can envision an entire nation of people reading the same news at the same time, and we can conceive of “the Spanish nation” or “the Filipino nation”. Anderson says that the very concept of a people who could be conceived as a whole, spread across a geographic area, is just not in evidence in literature up to the modern era; it took the newspaper for us even to conceive of a nation existing across space at a given moment in time. I find this notion fascinating. A lot of the rest of his writing is academic and leaden and leaves me bored; sometimes, though, as in this newspaper example, it’s genuinely interesting.

    The newspaper can also create unity out of vernaculars where there previously had been none. In many ways, “France”, “Germany”, and “England” are fictitious concepts, hewn—sometimes violently—out of mutually non-comprehending sub-nations. Think of the English subjugation of the Irish and the forcible destruction of their language. Think of the “langue d’Oc” in southern France and the “langues d’oïl” in the north. Think of the Bavarians in Southern Germany and the Prussians up north, fused only by Bismarck’s genius and a war against the French. The newspaper is another source of unity for a nation: as Anderson puts it, “Speakers of the huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper.”

    Indeed, often written languages (most importantly in the form of newspapers) were some of the only things binding people across a vast geographic expanse: a factory-owner in Lille and a factory-owner in Lyon “had no necessary reason to know of one another’s existence; they did not typically marry each other’s daughters or inherit each other’s property. But they did come to visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print-language.”

    Over time, we come to define the nation by its language, even though what makes England England is not English: George I didn’t speak English (he was brought over from Germany, which is not a small part of Thomas Paine’s critique), nor did William the Conqueror. The entire English system of inherited power descends from a non-English conquering thief, yet most of the nation surely identifies itself as people who speak English by definition. The community first imagines itself into existence via the written word, then invents a fictional history for itself, whereby it has been English back into the unknown mists of time.

    The ideas in Imagined Communities are interesting and, as I write them out, seem to me worth reading. The presentation is academic, however, and not in a good way. I’d recommend reading Gellner instead, if you must choose just one.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., The Radical King

    I had loved everything I’d ever read or heard by King, but I was not prepared for the greatness of this book. Please, just go read it.

  • Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution

    Why did no one tell me that de Tocqueville is this good? This book ends before the start of the French Revolution, and deliberately so: Tocqueville wants to argue that all the seeds which we believe were planted during the Revolution were actually planted by the ancien régime. The centralization in Paris came about during the reigns spanning from Louis XIV to Louis XVI. The expansion of economic liberty to the peasantry, while it didn’t live up to Adam Smith’s standards, was certainly light years ahead of the rest of Europe (“Nearly all the soldiers in the armies of Maria Theresa and Frederick were absolute serfs”). Indeed, the growing freedom of the countryside was a precondition for the eventual Revolution: as Tocqueville puts it, “Had the peasantry not been landholders, they would have paid no attention to many of the burdens laid by the feudal system on real estate.” That is, freedom begets a demand for more freedom.

    Meanwhile, the French government centralized power in Paris, such that the intendants in the provinces were aware of their powerlessness. Having centralized power so much, the government became an island in a sea of enemies.

    So what we were left with, on the eve of the Revolution, was property rights against a backdrop of feudalism, plus a centralized tyranny. Peasants can go a couple directions, says Tocqueville:

    When the rural parish of the Middle Ages was removed beyond the reach of the feudal system and left uncontrolled, it became the New England township. When it was cut loose from the seignior, but crushed in the close grasp of the state in France, it became what remains to be described.

    And of course, famously, pre-Revolutionary France was a thicket of taxes and exemptions from taxes. According to Tocqueville, this was another way in which the central government left itself with no friends: everyone was his own isolated parasite, interested in preserving his own caste’s needs without paying attention to anyone else’s. By the time the pre-Revolutionary society ended, there was virtually no society worth the name left to preserve. And in large part this resulted from a French royal plan to divide and conquer:

    all the errors, all the fatal prejudices which I have sketched, owed either their origin, or their continuance, or their development to the exertions made by most of our kings to create distinctions of classes in order to govern more absolutely.

    Here again Edmund Burke appears, only to be knocked down a moment later. It’s worth quoting at some length, just because the writing is so beautiful and so modern:

    “What!” cried Burke, in one of his eloquent pamphlets, “one can not find a man that can answer for the smallest district; not a man who can answer for his neighbor. People are arrested in their houses for royalism, for moderation, or any thing else, and no one ever resists.” Burke had no idea of the state in which the monarchy he so deeply regretted had left us. The old government had deprived the French of the power and the desire to help each other. When the Revolution broke out, there were not ten men in the greater part of France who were in the habit of acting in concert, in a regular manner, and providing for their own defense; every thing was left to the central power. And so, when that power made way for an irresponsible sovereign assembly, and exchanged itaformer mildness for ferocity, there was nothing to check or delay it for an instant. The same cause which had overthrown the monarchy had rendered every thing possible after its fall.

  • Jeffrey Rosen, Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet

    This is the sort of Brandeis hagiography you’d write for a high-school civics class. I do not endorse.

  • William A. Birdthistle, Empire of the Fund: The Way We Save Now

    This documents plainly that we, all of us, are terrible at picking stocks. It breaks down, methodically, piece by piece, how the various relationships within a given mutual fund are formed, how conflicts can enter into those relationships, how each piece is regulated, and how the regulators can be (perhaps are) captured.

    I find the book’s conclusions, though, confusing, and at variance with what I took to be the book’s main thrust. What I took away from the middle 80-90% of the book was that there are many ways for small-time investors to be screwed by mutual-fund companies; that 401(k) plan administrators introduce another place where screwing can happen; and that the SEC hasn’t always been on the side of the little guy. The usual places of respite that a million and one investment guides have given are

    1. always buy index funds
    2. use the lowest-fee funds you can find
    3. when you’re young, fill your 401(k) with equities; as you age, fill it with bonds.
    4. target-date funds help a lot here.

    Birdthistle’s book goes through those systematically, and points out that there are still lots of places where the little guy can get screwed, even if he follows each of them. So it surprises me to reach the end of the book and not see the conclusion that maybe people’s retirement savings shouldn’t be privately managed at all. Why is Social Security not the obvious answer? Three related points:

    First, Birdthistle is sanguine about the prospects for the Thrift Savings Plan, managed by BlackRock, but it’s hard for me to understand why; the rest of his book, up to that point, isn’t meant (by my reading) to build anyone’s faith that a private mutual-fund company will unfailingly work in its customers’ best interests.

    Second, I’m surprised that Social Security didn’t come up more often in the book—particularly since, according to the GAO, “About half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings (such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA)” and since, according to the SSA,

    Social Security was the major source of income (providing at least 50% of total income) for 47.8% of aged beneficiary couples and 70.7% of aged nonmarried beneficiaries. It was 90% or more of income for 20.7% of aged beneficiary couples and 42.6% of aged nonmarried beneficiaries.

    Maybe Empire of the Fund was meant to help out only those aspiring retirees who already have significant assets in 401(k)s. If so, fair enough, but it seems to me that it aspires to more. It seems to want to improve the lot of all retirees, which is why it endorses changes in SEC transparency rules, and endorses a “driver’s license” for those who opt not to use the default 401(k) options that their employers provide.

    But maybe Social Security is just out of scope for this book. If so, again, fair enough. It just surprises me. If what most of us should have is an inflation-protected low-fee annuity with some benefits for our surviving spouses, then Social Security already provides that. Its absence from Empire of the Fund is a little glaring.

    I need to emphasize that I really liked Birdthistle’s diagnosis of the problems with existing mutual funds and 401(k)s. Those problems, though, remind me of an acquaintance’s old quip that “capitalism picks its nose like this” (illustrated by reaching one’s right hand around the back of one’s head to pick one’s left nostril). Having just gone through a really enlightening exercise about the flaws in mutual-fund regulation, Empire of the Fund seems to say, “We should be picking our noses like this instead” (illustrated by reaching one’s hand up between one’s leg and bending down one’s head to effect the picking). Why not pick our noses directly?

  • John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform

    Central thesis: for all the focus on private prisons, overly punitive drug laws, and nonviolent Federal crimes, most prisoners are in state prison for violent crimes. Hence actually solving the problem of mass incarceration in any meaningful way will involve making some hard choices. It won’t be a matter of just letting unobjectionable nonviolent offenders out of jail, and it won’t be a matter of just shutting down private prisons and shifting those inmates back to public prisons. We will actually need to make the argument to the public that some violent inmates need to be released, which means we need to make the argument that releasing them is better than keeping them in prison, that there are better ways to keep the public safe than by putting violent criminals behind bars, etc. These are hard arguments to make. And for whatever reason, criminal justice in the United States feels like a ratchet: no one ever won an election, it seems, by demanding greater leniency toward violent criminals. (To read: some work on why the U.S. has this ratchet but Europe seemingly doesn’t. Maybe this paper?)

    This whole argument stands, of course, against Michelle Alexander’s book. Pfaff’s argument seems quite rigorous to me, and less visibly grinding an axe than Alexander’s. But I’d be curious to read Alexander’s retort, if she has one. She and Pfaff both want to dramatically reduce the number of people in prison, and address the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on the African-American community (worth your time: Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress). They just differ on methods … actually, maybe they don’t even disagree on that. Again, Alexander has an axe to grind, and certainly Pfaff wouldn’t disagree that freeing nonviolent drug offenders would be a good thing. Alexander’s work is more explicitly political, in the sense that freeing nonviolent drug offenders feels like an easier lift. Maybe we start with Alexander’s “quick fixes”, then move on to Pfaff’s harder solutions.

    And while we’re at it, let’s never disenfranchise prisoners. As Alexander rightly points out, the formerly incarcerated face huge challenges even after they leave prison. Getting a job is hard enough for them; let’s not also deprive them of the right to participate in a democratic society.

  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

    Better, even, than advertised. Do go read it. (And maybe watch the show? I dunno; I’ve not seen it.)

  • George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (reread)

    I read this either just before or soon after traveling to Catalonia, having previously read it at least a decade ago. It stands up to repeated reading. Orwell documents the Spanish Civil War from the ground level, when the entire spectrum of the left, from liberals to socialists to Communists, fought against incipient fascism. I felt particularly moved by Orwell’s feelings after leaving the front and returning to a proper cup of tea in London. I can’t imagine that feeling of rootlessness.