Between Two (Or More) Minds

A book with an accountant as a real hero and a reference to Sitting on the Dock of the Bay has a real chance at being the first eleven on our scale of zero to ten.  There are, as you are surely wondering, seven tens so far out of 110 books on our book spreadsheet that we starting keeping a few years ago.

Jim Geraghty’s new book, Between Two Scorpions: A Dangerous Clique Novel (BTS) is a tough review for us.  Thrillers, meaning save the world or at least the USA, are not our favorite genre although we read a few.  The ensemble cast is a challenge.  And we loved Jim’s earlier book, The Weed Agency.  We finished it before we started the spreadsheet so it doesn’t have a rating.  We loved parts of BTS but there were a few meh parts as well.  Another way to describe our reaction to BTS is that it didn’t register on the envy meter.  Alan Furst, VDH, and Herman Melville, to name a few, make us envious because we couldn’t even imagine doing what they do.  We think, and we are almost surely overconfident, that we could write something like BTS.

Let’s start with what Jim does well in BTS.  Well, there are lots of good parts so let’s limit ourselves to three categories.  First, there are lots of pop connections and inside jokes.  There is Sitting on the Dock of the Bay (cited above) from our generation, then some things we vaguely remember, and some stuff we are not sure if it is made up.  Our favorite inside joke is the National Reconnaissance Organization.  Alec says, “NRO is the best.”  Alec is right.

Our second positive is even more fun, this time with God.  On page 290: “Brigitte Bardot posed in a bikini [in Cyprus], and if ever there was compelling evidence of God’s love for man and for his desire for his creations to be happy, it was the sight of Bardot [yes, you deserve some pictures] in a bikini.” A few pages before, 278-9, Alec has a great conversation with God. Jim has a light touch with God but at the same time he is bringing up the notion that God might be taking sides in human events.  We find it really intriguing.

Our third positive is that Jim has a great eye for organizational evaluation.  The Clique (Raquel, Alec, Katrina, Dee, and Ward) can be effective because it is small and agile.  The Clique is also problematic because its agility means that there isn’t much oversight.  Do we really want American citizens on American soil killed by unauthorized missile launches?  Jim does a great job of reminding us that there are real difficulties fighting the War on Terror.

Well, if it is so good then why did it only get an eight of ten?  Part of the reason is that we grade on a tough scale.  Eight is a good grade.  Another reason is that we don’t read much crap so it is a tough comparison.  What Jim and BTS needs is another gift.

Sidebar One: We were disappointed not to learn more about Alec’s accounting background.  We may not have many fellow travelers in our desire to know more about his accounting history.  End Sidebar One.

There are many choices for additional gifts but two obvious ones are painting the scene and patience related to tension.  It could be painting the scene but that isn’t our first preference although we love when Alan Furst (cited above) does it.  We have a hard time remembering if cerulean is a shade of blue or the chop sticks they used on Red Dwarf so painting the scene isn’t our first choice.

Sidebar Two: We looked it up and we were wildly wrong about one of those word choices.  End Sidebar Two.

We like that Jim is a matter-of-fact story teller.  He could, however, ratchet up the tension by sometimes showing a little patience.  It is not that Jim never goes into detail on some arcane point or wanders off when somebody is in danger but he could do it more often.

We recommend Between Two Scorpions.  It is a really good book but it is not a great book but it is a fun and interesting read.  You should buy BTS so Jim can write his great book.  It is in him.



Great Expectations Met

No we are not talking about Dickens’ book.  We are talking about Victor Davis Hanson’s (VDH) recent book, The Second World Wars: How The Global Conflict Was Fought And Won (TSWW).  It is, as Amazon says, a definitive account of World War II by America’s preeminent military historian.

Being VDH is like being Tom Brady.  When Tom is merely good it is a vast disappointment.  We are concerned that Tom is past his peak but VDH is not.  TSWW weaves over two thousand years of military history into a rich tapestry that gives the reader real perspective on WWII.  VDH gives us detail in the right measure, conclusions when called for, and a few personal glimpses about WWI and other military matters.  He makes over 700 pages of text (on our pad) fly by.  Total pages are 896.  He also has an interesting, perhaps unique, organization that allows him to emphasize and reemphasize matters like the economics of war being against the Axis.  There is no way they can win the long war where production matters.

Speaking of economics we have a minor complaint.  On page 624 he he gives a great example of the increased productivity that doomed the Axis. The man-hours for the US to build a B-17 bomber, in production since 1937, were 54,800 in 1942 but 18,600 two years later.  This is a critical story that labor productivity is improving by leaps and bounds for the Allies even after five years of production.  It is not happening for the Axis, in part, because they are relying on slave labor rather than the market.  Our small complaint is the seeming surprise from VDH that between 1941 and ’44 US labor earrings had increased 50 percent.  Increased productivity leads to increased earnings by labor.  You can see that our complaint is minor.  VDH had given us great specific research to make a critical point.  We just wish he had emphasized that the market, in this case the labor market, worked again.

We have said before that great writers make us envious.  VDH does that on a regular basis.  As an example we pick page 571:

That Churchill, a conservative imperialist, flattered and miraculously won over Roosevelt, an anti-imperialist and progressive, and Stalin, a genocidal totalitarian, is often underappreciated.

Wow!  What a sentence.  We realized after reading that sentence that we pretty much knew everything in that sentence but to explain the relation of the commanders of the Allies in 25 words or less is amazing.  Even the fact that our word processor wants to make the last word into two doesn’t change our awe.  You will find lots more awesome insights in TSWW. It is a ten.  Read it now.


How Does Alan Furst Do It?

We try not to harp on the same thing in the same way.  It is hard to do.  We could write on the situation in Venezuela every day.  Speaking of socialism, we saw what looks to be a fun new book.  Switching books, a too brief summary would say that Alan Furst writes the same book every time: Continental Europe just before and sometimes into WWII, somebody always goes to Brasserie Heininger, socialism (both nationalist and Communist) are revealed for what they are, and characters recur.    His site shows 14 books; Wikipedia list four other novels.  We have just finished our tenth, Mission To Paris where Fredric Stahl, our hero, goes to the Brasserie, meets Count Yanos Polanyi and stands at Jean Casson’s office door.  It is wonderful.

So how does Alan do it? How can he make the double digit versions of the same topic perhaps the best of the lot?  We think there are three reasons why Alan is consistently excellent and often exceptional.  First, he has interesting characters and they are often, unlike current fad, folks you like.  Fredric is an appealing hero who is surrounded by interest characters including the aforementioned Count and the Russian movie star/spy Orlova.  We hope we see her again.

Second, he shines a light on different parts of Europe and different parts of the spy game.  In Mission To Paris we see Paris, Berlin, Hungry, and several other countries briefly.  To put it in today’s argot, we see the social media battle as the Germans encourage pacifism in the rest of Europe while preparing for war.  The Germans invite Fredric to a film festival in Berlin.  They have folks that hold parties in Paris.  They try and stop Fredric’s film in Hungry.  And, of course, Alan reminds in the us in the epilogue that they invade and conquer France not long after the book ends.

Third, Alan has great patience as a writer and demands a bit of the reader.  He is patient in developing love affairs and characters.  We get a drop of Orlova and then another drop.  Finally we get some full doses.  We really want to have an Orlova book.

You can start Alan with Mission To Paris.  It is a really great read.  We are on to Midnight In Europe.



C.J. Box: The Bitterroots

C.J. Box’s new book, The Bitterroots has just come out.  We highly recommend it as one of his best.  It is one of his best because it gives you an interesting mystery with lots of unexpected twists and turns, interesting characters and scenery, and something to think about.  Because of the intricate plot we have some thoughts on the book without giving away much.  Don’t worry if you haven’t read the previous Cassie books as C.J. fills you in on everything you need to know.  If you want to do them in order here is a list C.J. books by lead characters.  There are three other Cassie books.

There are lots of interesting plot twists as Cassie Dewell, now a private investigator, gets roped into investigating Blake Kleinsasser’s alleged rape of his niece Franny.  Cassie wants to help the good folks and punish the bad folks and it seems obvious that Blake belongs to the latter group.  She will be reminded of the difficulty of sorting those groups out.  When you find out that Blake’s two brothers are named John Wayne and Rand you know that we have some symbolism going on.

Sidebar: What about Blake and Kleinsasser?  Is he the visionary William Blake? What is little (Klein) about the family?  Google Translate had no conversion for “kleinsasser” or “sasser” and our college German didn’t help.  End Sidebar.

John Wayne is far from the rugged individual of his namesake and Rand is the opposite of the rational approach from his namesake.  Dad, Horst II, can’t be happy and C.J. has a really interesting scene as Horst meets his final adversary.  And there are the forest fires that obscured things during the book and seem to still be burning at the end.  Does that mean there is a sequel?

Then there are the three generations of Kleinsasser women, Marion, Cheyenne, and Franny.  The interactions between Cassie and those three are some of C.J.’s best work. Will there be second bout for just the ladies?  We hope so.  Enjoy this one first.


College Drop Outs

Don’t try this at home!  MWG is going to review a book review.  We have been busy with non-fiction this summer and we are not sure if we can fit another in.  The book in question is The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp.  The review is at NRO: Fixing The College-Dropout Problem by James P. Sutton.

First thing we are going to do is change the terminology.  If you want to find out about the issue you want to search for retention.  Other than perhaps the custodians, everyone at the university is worried about retention.  The University of Wisconsin System has a web page for progress and completion as part of the accountability dashboard for the UW System.

We have two problems with the review.  One is the conclusion which manages to have two problems in one paragraph.  We’ve put each of them in bold:

Kirp has written an important book, highlighting an underreported problem. He’s lifted up the kind of institutions and leaders we need more of: those who leave behind the prestige contests of American meritocracy and quietly work for the common good.

Retention is the most heavily reported underreported problem in some time.  We can’t think of a Yogi Berra or Groucho Marx quote but we are sure there is one for this situation.  For state institutions, the governor, legislators, university board, university administrators, and faculty all are aware of retention.

We haven’t read the book yet but the second bold item doesn’t make any sense.  We don’t want meritocracy?  Or is American meritocracy different from regular meritocracy?  How do we know what the common good is if it isn’t meritocracy?  Can we ever determine what is the common good?  And, if so, how do we determine it with regards to retention?

The common good ties into the second problem.  What is the optimal retention rate?  Often folks seem to imply it should be 100%.  We don’t think so and think that retention is much like income inequality.  Almost everyone agrees that the Gini coefficient should not be zero or one but it is hard to agree on a correct solution.

As department chair we have been involved in these discussions about grading from both perspectives.  First, Faculty X flunked 60 percent of the students.  Second, Faculty Z gave no grades below B.  Both outcomes are worrisome and difficult.  The Faculty Z scenario resonates with many faculty members because they worry that all the concern with retention will lead to even more grade inflation.

We do know that better students are more likely to be retained.  You can go to to site we mentioned above on UW retention and try to guess admission standards by retention.  You will be pretty close.

Retention rates are like beer: at some point more is not better.

Sidebar: We can do a better job than our undergraduate program where they “motivated” us by saying, “Look at the person on your right and the person on your left.  One of the three of you will not be here for graduation.”  End Sidebar.

We need to be concerned about retention rates being too high where they devalue the diploma or too low where we waste resources. We need to consider retention in terms of admission standards. Retention rates were low when we taught at open admissions school.  One notable student there was a plumber.  He was an excellent student but he couldn’t hope to make as much, at least starting out, as an accountant.  We asked why he was in school and he said, “I was starting to think like a plumber.”

Everyone should be worried about retention of conservatives but perhaps only conservatives will worry about it.  The problem for conservatives is particularly acute because most retention problems come early.  Thus, it is a concern for conservative students that students usually spend their first two years in the dorms and studying what we called General Education.  Both the dorms and Gen Ed are hotbeds of progressive thought.  Perhaps Kirp has a chapter on it but we doubt it.

The real question is can retention be increased while maintaining standards?  Given all the emphasis on retention in the past decades we would be shocked if there was much room for improvement while maintaining standards.  Still the market produces many miracles so we can hope.



One Intersection And One Not

We just finished Kevin D. Williamson’s The Smallest Minority and as we were finishing that up we heard about Clemens Tonnies, the chairman of the Bundesliga soccer team Schalke who was attacked by the social media mobs that Kevin is writing about.  Let’s start with Kevin.

We really enjoyed The Smallest Minority.  Kevin creates some amazing comparisons.  It is hard (probably impossible) to find as literary a political book where Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare are crucial to understanding the text.  It is in turn nasty (Minos was a Cretan, Matthew Yglasias is a cretin), hilarious, insightful and crazy.  Sometimes it is all of those at once.  It is easy to guess who is the mad dog of Mad Dogs and Englishmen.  Be sure to real all the footnotes.  Twice.

Sidebar One: We rarely comment on why folks do things.  Rather we are more interested in what they do.  We are convinced that this book is the real Kevin.  We understand that it is easy to get fooled and that is why we rarely comment on why.  We often wonder why folks behave like they do on TV and radio.  Kevin is really enjoying the conflict about social media.  End Sidebar One.

The backstory is that Kevin was hired by The Atlantic and shortly thereafter fired because of a social media storm.  The book is Kevin’s generalization of the problems with social media.  Kevin is correct when he says we need discourse, a real discussion, to discuss our pressing problems.  Social media gives us anti-discourse.  We get slogans and attacks to stop discussion.  People do it because it works.

The book was a joy to read.  The literary bent, character assassination, and asides are great fun.  The Smallest Minority just didn’t resonate with us.  We didn’t buy the Shakespeare analysis but that wasn’t it.  Twitter, Facebook and other social media just isn’t that important to us. There is a lack of an intersection been MWG and Kevin’s book.  We don’t follow the recommendations to improve the MWG penetration following by tweeting and pictures.  We really appreciate our followers but we blog for our own benefit and so we don’t fill up Facebook (our only social media) with political stuff.  We are not sure social media is that important to the wider world.  Kevin didn’t do much to convince us on that account.

Then came Clemens and Schalke that made more of a connection or intersection for us.  These events didn’t completely change our mind but they did make us reconsider.  Here is  a summary of what happened:

Many fans had been calling on the 63-year-old [Clemens] Tönnies to resign over the comments he made on Aug. 1, when he told a public meeting in Paderborn that tax increases to fight climate change were wrong and claimed it was better to finance 20 power plants a year in Africa.

“Then the Africans would stop cutting down trees, and they would stop making babies when it gets dark,” Tönnies said in comments first reported by the Neue Westfälische local newspaper.

Tönnies, Schalke chairman since 2001, apologized for his comments

Of course, Clemens has stepped on at least three third rails of social media.  First, he fought climate change recommendations.  Second, he talked about Africa and (gasp) Africans.  Third, he apologized to try and sate the mob.  They cannot be sated.

OK, he is not exactly right.  What Africa needs is capitalism and Germany could use a little more.  Here is part of a story on Tanzania:

The real cause of that reduction is pretty straightforward: economic freedom. Tanzania has gradually dismantled the socialist or “ujamaa” economic policies enacted by the dictator Julius Nyerere, since he stepped down in 1985. Nyerere was widely praised by leftist intellectuals in developed countries for his sincere belief in socialism, relatively low level of corruption, and not intentionally slaughtering his own people like so many other dictators.

Dang. We got rid of the tab before we made the link and now we can’t find it.  To get back to Clemens, we agree with him that tax increases to fight climate change don’t make sense in Germany or elsewhere.  We also agree with him that economic improvement in Africa would be a good thing and it will require carbon emissions.

Sidebar Two: We have argued that a revenue neutral carbon tax that eliminates the gas tax is a good idea.  It is not a tax increase.  Sidebar Two.

Africa could use more and better power.  Our first priority would be economic structure rather than actual structures but Clemens has a reasonable idea.   Reducing the cutting down of trees is probably a good idea a way for Clemens to try to connect with the climate change folks.  It is not unreasonable to argue for more trees.  He spoke of the number of African babies.  So what are the fertility rates in African countries?  Glad you asked:

The vast majority of the countries in the world with the highest fertility rates are in Africa, with Nigertopping the list at 7.153 children per woman, followed by Somalia at 6.123 children per woman. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Chad follow at 5.963, 5.922 and 5.797 children per woman, respectively.

So the top five countries in term of fertility are all African.  Germany, on the other hand, has a fertility rate of 1.586.  We are not convinced that overpopulation is a problem but the climate change folks often suggest it is.  Clemens is using their rhetoric against them.  They should respond rather than call him names but, as Kevin points out, a name calling ochlocracy is effective in silencing people these days.

The Clemens story has not made fighting the ochlocracy a front-burner item for us yet. We could be trending in that direction.


The Conservative Sensibility

Earlier we discussed how George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility and how it reminded us of our realizing that we had something like that.  Of course it took us quite awhile to figure it out while George has always known.

We think that everyone should read it.  The world would be a much more pleasant place if Kevin D. Williamson’s ochlocracy (what) was reading George rather than battling on Twitter and other forms of social media.  Our sensibility prevents us from forcing everyone to read it and even misleading you about the joys of the book.  It is Mr. Will’s Opus.  Matthew Continetti at NRO gives a brief history of George in his NRO review of Sensibility.  The difference is that the movie is more fun and less work because you get to enjoy the creation of classical music while the book is all intellectual work.  Sensibility is 538 pages of philosophical argument before the acknowledgments, endnotes and index.  And there is little or no red meat to get the juices flowing.  Kevin has more on one page than George has in his book.

Sidebar One: Of course we have no way of measuring red meat.  But you know which book will have the phrase “All-Lesbian World Bowling Champion.”  End Sidebar One.

Reading George is going to be a challenge for everyone and, perhaps, beyond the skills of many.  We hope everyone would make the effort.  It is a challenge because George makes the arguments for both sides and shows us that picking conservatism is a closely run thing.  It is a challenge because philosophy always requires a leap here or there.  It is a challenge because George identifies conservative sensibility but he doesn’t define conservative other than we should be sure to include atheists.  These are quibbles but there are quibbles to be made.

We would like to focus our comments on judicial review and atheists as conservatives.  George says that the purpose of American conservatism is to preserve the American founding as reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We were always confused about judicial activism.  We always thought that when judges “made” a law it was bad because they were unelected.  We were confused as to why eliminating an unconstitutional law was judicial activism.  George helps us understand that our sensibility was on track but it is more subtle because the Declaration of independence is one of the founding documents and, although the documents and human nature don’t change some attitudes do.  You do want to read the whole thing but you might want to read Chapter Four, Judicial Supervision Of Democracy more than once.

Like George we are a conservative atheist.  He describes himself as a low-voltage atheist.  We are close to George here but we like the simple term atheist for ourselves as opposed to anti-theist for the folks that oppose theists and theism.  We are not sure that anti-theists can fit in the conservatism tent but we really enjoyed George’s explanation of why atheists need to be part of conservatism.  As George puts it:

The argument of this chapter [number 9] is that not only can conservatives be throughly secular, but that a secular understanding of cosmology and of humanity’s place in the cosmos accords with a distinctively conservative sensibility.

Later on he distills it down to religion is helpful and important but not essential to conservatism.  We agree.  You might not.

Read The Conservative Sensibility.  It is worth the challenge.