Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Parks

I had occasion to go to a city park yesterday evening with my daughter. It wasn't very late, just the hour or two before sunset. An unusual time for me to go, typically I take her in the early afternoon before lunch and this was the latest I'd had her out.

I was struck by what a difference it makes in the composition of people, their activities, and the atmosphere between daytime and evening.

First it was a much more diverse crowd ethnically, economically, and in age. Many more tattoos visible, more people speaking spanish (very few in day time), more parent couples rather then individuals. Also many more young adults using the park for sports and recreation, in daytime it's pretty exclusively the domain of parents (or au pairs) with kids, and the homeless.

The biggest difference was atmosphere- much more energetic and fun. People were relaxed and eager to talk with each other, eager to improvise and blow off steam. The daytime crowd in contrast is reserved, the parents intently monitoring their children's activity.

I think the fundamental driver was that the evening crowd was people coming out after work rather then housewives (or husbands) killing time. The evening crowd was playing, very conscious of not being under the restrictions that govern work whereas the daytime crowd for the most part was AT work, taking care of their kids.

An unexpected experience.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reading Now: Intervention!

One of the passages that struck me most in Nixon Agonistes was Wills critique of the American obsession with elections, the belief that elections can create something rather then being a mere side effect of existing conditions (free people create elections, not the other way around). And Wilson was the archetype of American naivete, blundering into his own obscure Vietnam south of the Rio Grande. Wanting to know more I pulled the subtly titled Intervention! from the local stacks.

This looks to be a quick read, broadly surveying the cast and principle actions around the entry of American troops into Mexico during the 1910's.

Things to look for:
- Bad judgement by Wilson
- Reaction of Mexicans to foreign troop presence
- Conflict scorecard- what exactly were the Mexicans hashing out?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Nixon Book

I'm almost done with Nixon Agonistes. It's too complex for me to summarize in a review, look here for a good one. I will say that it provided a lot of context about an era I tended to ignore, under the assumption that most people in the 60's were either stupid or confused. Too much confusion, people were trying to build sand castles underwater. What I didn't know was how interesting it all is, how much of what we take for granted now was born in that era. Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Anthony Kennedy

I've listened to about half of a Cato discussion with Helen Knowles about Anthony Kennedy's judicial philosophy, interesting enough to flag her book for future reading.

POW: Mia Bay and Pamela Newkirk

The National Constitution Center put up an interesting discussion between journalism professor Pamela Newkirk and historian Mia Bay, on the life and historical memory of Ida B Wells. I think it worth promoting because
1) I consider myself relatively well versed in American history and I didn't know who she was.
2) Her story is the story of Jim Crow, of the rollback of the rights gained after the civil war. This is an era that doesn't get a lot of play in the narrative of American history, it goes against type. The general narrative is the story of progress- rights gained, biases and bigotries outgrown, of freedom gained. The years after Reconstruction saw the reverse- rights lost, terror imposed, freedom lost. It's not surprising people don't like to dwell on it, but they should at least be aware of it.

The biography Mia Bay references is here.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

POW: Georgi Derluguian

I found an outstanding lecture from 2004 by Georgi Derluguian, given at the U of C. He discusses Chechnya and the origins of the conflict there. There are a lot of ideas here on how the physical realities of living in a mountain range affect society (multiple languages, isolation) as well as specific details (didn't convert to Islam until late 17th century, the population was built by people fleeing the great invasions crossing the plains to the north, one of the early Chechen leaders was the former Soviet chief of the Air Force responsible for the bombing campaigns in Afghanistan). There is also an idea that the whole region of the Soviet Union went through a reversion, a demodernization process. "Look at the hats!"

Here is his book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

POW: Simon Schama

Carnegie has put up an excellent discussion with Simon Schama related to his new book, The America Future: A History. Schama's conversation is a work of art unto itself.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Next: 1968

I've started reading Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills. I'd seen a reference to it somewhere as one of the best works on Nixon but could never find it in libraries. A few weeks ago I found it at the Goodwill Store in SE Portland, they have an excellent book section for those in the area.

It also has some relevance to the Bacevich work, in that one of the catalysts for militarism in America is the counter-reaction to the cultural changes of the 60's. The sections I've read so far cover 1968, and it's eye-opening to someone who wouldn't exist for a few years. Wills describes an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and paranoia dominating society. Violence- be it racial, political, and everything else- was a constant expectation and it was frequently met (much more frequently then today's boogieman, terrorism). At first glance I'd say it's inaccurate to see Bacevich's militarists as countering the spirit of the 60's, their seige mentality seems more like a continuation of it. Everyone was afraid or angry about something, conflict was the norm. Some people moved on, others stayed in their bunkers. The latter are today's militarists.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book Review: The New American Militarism

I finished reading The New American Militarism on the plane yesterday, great book and heartily recommended. Bacevich describes himself as a conservative critic of the Iraq invasion, which he sees as resulting from the institutionalization of militarism within American society. The book pointedly avoids blaming Bush or administration officials, instead looking at a series of broad cultural dynamics, both civilian and military. These include briefly,
  • Conservative christians, who adopted a seige mentality in the wake of the cultural changes in the 60's.
  • The idolization of the military in the 80's and 90's, in a generational reaction against perceived injustices in the 70's.
  • The development of smart weapons and the broader seperation of military and civilian society, which made "clean" war seem like a possibility.
This resolves a problem I had with an earlier work, American Empire. There he argued for a fundamental continuity between the Clinton and Bush administrations, which I didn't buy. The discussion here implies a continuity of circumstance more then in the actions and initiatives of the presidents, and Bacevich states explicitly in the preface that
What is most striking about the most powerful man in the world is not the power that he wields. It is how constrained he and his lieutenants are by forces that lie beyond their grasp and perhaps their understanding. Rather then bending history to their will, presidents and those around them are much more likely to dance to history's tune.
Bacevich at the end offers a surprising reinterpretation of the last 30 years, where he adopts the neocon lingo of World War IV with a twist: instead of radical Islam waging war against a sleepy Western world he sees America fighting for political dominance of the broader Middle East, in a continuation of the western tradition going back to Alexander the Great. This idea is offered as a sketch, and I'd like to see him use another book to flesh it out.

This is good stuff with continuing relevance, particularly for those confused by why so little has changed under Obama.

UPDATE: I added this to the book review site with an addendum here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Notes: Greenspan's Bubbles

I read Bill Fleckenstein's GREENSPAN'S BUBBLES: THE AGE OF IGNORANCE AT THE FEDERAL RESERVE. I started reading Fleck about 10 years ago, back then he had a pretty good column that just ripped the dot-com stocks and bubble. Greenspan was a constant villain, always acting to save the bubble from itself. This book is Fleck's revenge.

As analysis it's lacking, most of the book is diatribe and assertion. To it's credit the book contains numerous quotes from the FOMC meetings back in the day, they give some insight into why Greenspan was so ineffectual.

First he subscribed to a species of market fundamentalism, a belief that the masses could never be wrong (or at least not second guessed) even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A bubble then could never be diagnosed in the present, it could only be seen in the past after the market turned and it deflated. This belief by itself wouldn't have hurt Greenspan that much, in effect it says the Fed should ignore the stock market. Unfortunately Greenspan extended this logic by assuming that if the market is always right, and people want to be happy, then the market should always be happy. If it's not, ie if there are significant declines across indices it implies an externality and Greenspan saw it as his duty to counteract it. In short, he completely misunderstood or ignored the necessity of creative destruction, that creating losers is as critical a market function as creating winners.

I'd recommend the book for those nostalgic for the dot-com days.


I haven't posted anything in the last few months because of time constraints. I also started using Facebook for posting, I'm not sure I'm as satisfied with the results. Point being, I expect to post here more often.