How Much is the U.S. Worth?

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

All the land in the US is worth $23 Trillion:

That’s William Larson’s estimate for the value of the 1.89 billion acres of land that accounts for the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia. The dollar figure — equal to about 1.4 times last year’s gross domestic product – represents only the value of the land, and not buildings, roads or other improvements, and excludes bodies of water.

He also determined values for every state. California is worth the most at $3.9 trillion and Vermont is worth the least at a paltry $44 billion. On a per acre basis, New Jersey has the most valuable land at $196[,41o] an acre and Wyoming the least, $1[,557] an acre.


His estimates reflect the land’s value in 2009. Therefore it shows a post-recession figure (he says country’s value fell 24% from 2006 to 2009) and doesn’t account for the changes in value due to the shale-gas activity in the Midwest and elsewhere.

Some key findings:

  • The federal government owns 24% of all land, worth a collective $1.8 trillion. (That’s 8% of the country’s total value, or around 10% of the total outstanding federal debt.)
  • Just 5.8% of U.S. land is developed, but that land accounts for 50.7% of the total value.
  • Almost half, 47%, of U.S. land is used for agriculture.

A typical state is just 7 percent developed, with a land value of just $10[,000] per acre. D.C., on the other hand, is 87 percent developed, with a land value just over $1,000[,000] per acre.

Ray Wolters’ The Long Crusade

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Ray Wolters has written an excellent and fascinating book about education, John Derbyshire says — and he’s flattered to be included among the dramatis personae:

In his final section, Wolters covers “Contrarian views of school reform.” He gives a chapter to Diane Ravitch, who argues an interesting combination of Kozol-style social reform with Hirsch’s Core Knowledge instruction.

He then ventures into taboo territory with a chapter on race realists. The intractability of the race gaps, and the fact that they remain constant even when overall achievement rises, strongly suggests that they have a biological origin.

The names here will be familiar to readers of Murray and Herrnstein, James Watson, Bruce Lahn, Jason Richwine, and … me.

Wolters describes my address to the Black Law Students Association at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, in a panel discussion of the question: “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?”

Derbyshire began his remarks by stating that he thought the question before the panel was based on a false premise. He did not think racial disparities in education could be eliminated … According to Derbyshire, these disparities were “facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets.”

He also gives a fair, even-handed account of my roughing-up by the Thought Police in 2012, and the discussion that followed.

The last contrarian Wolters presents, in the final chapter of The Long Crusade, is our own Happy Warrior Bob Weissberg.

Bob’s 2010 book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools was a fresh breeze in the cobwebbed halls of education theory.

Elite Anti-Elitists

Monday, April 20th, 2015

A modern textbook tries to “sell” students on physics as a source of “new technologies for leisure” and tries to humanize physicists as regular people, but, Matthew B. Crawford laments, it makes no effort to resuscitate the ideal of ancient science, learning for its own sake:

The pose of anti-elitism seems to be a cover for something far more disturbing, something that is perhaps typical of elite anti-elitists. The author writes, “Sometimes the results of the work of physicists are of interest only to other physicists. Other times, their work leads to devices…. that change everyone’s life.” Are these the only two possibilities? Physicists on their mountaintop, speaking only to one another, and the rest of us in the plains, waiting for them to descend bearing magical devices? Nothing in-between? Aren’t there intelligent, curious people who are not professional physicists, but who have the patience and desire to learn? I believe it is this dichotomization of humanity into two ideal types, professional scientists and ignorant consumers, that is responsible for this book’s cynicism. The author doesn’t seem to think his readers are really capable of being educated. This is the worst sort of elitism. Paradoxically, we have here the worst of both worlds: an anti-elitist rhetoric that discredits the higher human possibilities, the very possibilities by which the author orients his own life as a scientist, together with a more substantive elitism that views students from so far above that it can’t be bothered to cultivate in them those same human possibilities.

The author’s cynicism is ultimately rooted in a common confusion, a false conflict between democracy and elitism, one that forgets the ways in which these two human ideals actually depend on one another. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy,” made possible by the liberation of talents that comes with equality of opportunity. He suggests that democracy not only makes such a natural aristocracy possible, it is also peculiarly in need of cultivated human beings who can exert a leavening effect on society, giving our common freedom the character of liberty rather than license. That distinction seems to turn on the objects toward which freedom is directed. It is a distinction that allows us to speak of liberal pursuits, such as music, science, literature, mathematics, and so forth. If liberal democracy requires a critical mass of liberally educated citizens, it would seem to require a regime of education guided not only by the love of equality but also by the love of thinking. Happily, such a love is requited by those beautiful things that unveil themselves before a powerful and disciplined mind working at full song. Here is a logic that reconciles the private good of the student with public felicity. It is the logic of liberal education, classically understood.

A great teacher once said that precisely because we are friends of liberal democracy, we are not permitted to be its flatterers. With its confused anti-elitism, this book flatters the lowest elements of the democratic spirit. This is unfortunate because it is precisely the democratic spirit that, at its best, provides the most fertile home for the spirit of scientific inquiry. Glencoe Physics takes a very dim view of the educability of students, never venturing to lead them beyond the narrow concerns of comfort and entertainment. This is not so much meeting the students on their own terms as capitulating to the terms offered to students by mass commercial culture. Cowed by the times, our author lacks political courage on behalf of thinking, something that is incumbent on all teachers.


Monday, April 20th, 2015

The ecclesia (or ekklesia) was the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens during its Golden Age:

It was the popular assembly, open to all male citizens with 2 years of military service. In 594 BC, Solon allowed all Athenian citizens to participate, regardless of class, even the thetes.

The assembly was responsible for declaring war, military strategy and electing the strategoi and other officials. It was responsible for nominating and electing magistrates, thus indirectly electing the members of the Areopagus. It had the final say on legislation and the right to call magistrates to account after their year of office.

In the 5th century BC its members numbered about 43,000 people. It would have been difficult, however, for non-wealthy people outside of the urban center of Athens to attend until payments for attendance were introduced in the late 5th century.

It originally met once every month, but later it met three or four times per month. The agenda for the ekklesia was established by the Boule, the popular council. Votes were taken by a show of hands.

PDFs that nobody reads

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

What if someone had already figured out the answers to the world’s most pressing policy problems, but those solutions were buried deep in a PDF, somewhere nobody will ever read them?

According to a recent report by the World Bank, that scenario is not so far-fetched. The bank is one of those high-minded organizations — Washington is full of them — that release hundreds, maybe thousands, of reports a year on policy issues big and small. Many of these reports are long and highly technical, and just about all of them get released to the world as a PDF report posted to the organization’s Web site.

The World Bank recently decided to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading these things? They dug into their Web site traffic data and came to the following conclusions: Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.


As The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold reported this week, federal agencies spend thousands of dollars and employee-hours each year producing Congressionally-mandated reports that nobody reads. And let’s not even get started on the situation in academia, where the country’s best and brightest compete for the honor of seeing their life’s work locked away behind some publisher’s paywall.

Not every policy report is going to be a game-changer, of course. But the sheer numbers dictate that there are probably a lot of really, really good ideas out there that never see the light of day.

Marijuana Taxes

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

Colorado’s marijuana tax collections are not as high as expected:

In February 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office projected Colorado would take in $118 million in taxes on recreational marijuana in its first full year after legalization. With seven months of revenue data in, his office has cut that projection and believes it will collect just $69 million through the end of the fiscal year in June, a miss of 42 percent.

That figure is consequential in two ways. First, it’s a wide miss. Second, compared with Colorado’s all-funds budget of $27 billion, neither $69 million nor $118 million is a large number.

There are lessons for other states:

Because of low public support for marijuana prohibition, many jurisdictions have intentionally lax enforcement around illegal marijuana markets. This often shows up as a wink-wink culture around medical access. (See, for example, “Medical Kush Doctor” signs that once adorned storefronts in Venice, Calif.) After legalization, that culture of lax enforcement can be a barrier to tax collection.

Another lesson is that marijuana taxes should be “specific excise” taxes per unit of intoxicant. In most states, cigarettes are taxed by the pack and alcohol by the liter. Marijuana could similarly be taxed by the gram (either of plant or of T.H.C.), which would protect states from revenue declines if pretax prices fall.

Taxes on intoxicants are meant to offset the negative social effects of intoxicant use; the size of those effects should not be expected to vary with market price.

But even if Colorado got all this right, improved revenues would not be among the most important effects that marijuana legalization has on the state.

“Tax revenue is nice to have, but in most states is not going to be enough to change the budget picture significantly,” Mr. Kleiman says. “The stakes in reducing criminal activity and incarceration and protecting public health are way higher than the stakes in generating revenue.”

The Rule

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

The spirit of our age takes a dim view of rules governing everyday life and a dimmer view of living communally, but these were cornerstones of St. Benedict‘s way of life:

We’ve come to see ourselves as, each one of us, needing to invent our own unique way of life, governed by our instincts and what we most feel like doing in the moment. As for the idea of community, though it might cross our minds every now and then (especially when we contrast how fun it was at college and how rather arduous and lonely it might be now), nothing in modern capitalism enables us to imagine how we’d ever manage to make the group, rather than the ‘I’, the center of things. Everything from domestic appliances to mortgages to romantic love enforces the idea of the lone or couple-based unit. We’re influenced by an ideology of personal freedom, where pursuing private ends is seen as the only path to happiness — though the results do not necessarily match the hopes. The joys of being part of a gang are simply not on the radar.

These attitudes, which we take for granted today, contrast so strongly with an idea which flourished for very long periods in many parts of the world and continue to have much to teach us about our real longings: monasticism. Monasticism puts forward the bold thesis that people can actually lead the most fruitful, productive and happy lives when they get together into controlled, organised groups of friends, have some clear rules and direct themselves towards a few big ambitions. Even if you’re not planning on setting up a secular version of a monastery any time soon (though we believe — as you’ll see — that this would be no bad idea), monasticism deserves to be studied for the lessons it yields about the limits to modern individualism.

One of the earliest and most influential figures in the history monasticism — in its Christian, Western guise — was a Roman nobleman living at the end of the 5th century, by the name of Benedict. In his twenties, Benedict studied Philosophy in Rome. For a time, he shared the dissipation, wastefulness and lack of genuine ambition of his wealthy fellow students until he suddenly became weary and ashamed and went off to the mountains in search of a better way of living. Other people soon joined him and he naturally found his way to starting a few small communities. From there, it was a natural step to write an instruction manual for his followers, with a simple and emphatic title: The Rule.

His rules include instructions on:

He recommended that one should consume modest but nutritious meals only twice a day. (An occasional glass of wine was allowed.) He thought that everyone should sit together at long tables, but he was also aware of how much idle banter there can be at meals, so he advised that diners should generally listen to someone reading from an important and interesting book while they made their way through lemon chicken with courgettes and beans.

He knew all about distraction: how easy it is to want to keep checking up on the latest developments, how addictive the gossip of the city can be… That’s why his communities tended to be set up in remote locations, often close to mountains, and his buildings featured heavy walls, quiet courtyards and beautifully serene living quarters.

Hair and Clothing
Fashion was, in Benedict’s time, as in ours, a huge source of interest, expense and attention. Benedict was himself a handsome man, but he was keen to put a limit on how much he or anyone else would think about what they had to wear every day. That’s why he recommended that everyone in his community wear the same clothes: plain and useful, not too expensive and easy to wash.

If you are going to be concentrating quite a lot on ideas and intellectual activities, Benedict knew it could be really helpful also to do some physical activity everyday; something repetitive and soothing might be ideal, like sweeping the floor or weeding a row of lettuces.

Early Nights
Get used to winding down systematically, focusing your thoughts and arranging your mind for the next day (a lot of good thinking happens when we’re asleep).

Art and Architecture
He understood that we were likely to take our cue about how to be inside ourselves by looking around at the moods emanating from the walls around us. That’s why Benedictine monasteries have long employed the best architects and artists, from Palladio and Veronese to John Pawson in our own times. If you’re going to live together, it makes sense to create a home that is as uplifting and as calming as can be.

Benedict established his first monastery at Monte Cassino — the same monastery that Walter Miller helped bomb during World War II before going on to write A Canticle for Leibowitz.

The Problem with Textbooks

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Matthew B. Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head) examines the problem with textbooks:

One can learn a great deal by surveying the physics textbooks now in widespread use, as I recently did as part of a project directed by the Environmental Literacy Council. Begin with some superficial impressions: On nearly every page one finds boxes, insets, three-dimensional marginalia in four colors, and all manner of gratuitous graphics. It is difficult to discern any rank order to the different kinds of information presented. Since physics depends on coherent argument, this manner of presentation is clearly ill-suited to the books’ purpose.

Naïvely, I initially thought the formatting of the books might be intended to suit the cognitive peculiarities of today’s students. I recently taught a course (not physics, but Latin) in a suburban public high school. I was shocked to discover that relatively few students at this “Blue Ribbon National School of Excellence” (so says the Department of Education) seemed capable of real concentration. My impression was confirmed by veteran teachers who speak of a dramatic change in students over the last fifteen years. The culprits they name are familiar enough: the near-complete demise of reading, coincident with the rise of video games and the Web. The ability to follow a monological narrative or argument from beginning to end seems to have been diminished, along with the habit and taste for reading. So surely the textbooks are adapting to this sad fact in a principled way, out of necessity, guided by the latest findings of cognitive science? Not so, it turns out — as becomes all too apparent when one learns how textbooks get produced.

Not surprisingly, the textbooks offered by publishers are products of market demand. Like any market, the market for textbooks does not exist in a political vacuum. In the U.S. there is no omnipotent ministry of education that sets standards for curriculum; the states set their own standards. There are a number of well-meaning, semi-official organizations that try to bring good sense to bear on the chaos. For example, in 1993 the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued its “Benchmarks for Science Literacy,” and in 1996 the National Research Council issued its “National Science Education Standards.” But these efforts have had little real effect. The movement toward states setting their own standards received a sort of federal blessing with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, which linked federal funding for schools to states’ efforts to set content standards and assess academic performance.

The problem is not so much federalism itself as the way most states actually operate. Each jurisdiction sets out standards in excruciating detail, including long lists of topics to be covered. These lists are given to the publishers as “bid specs.” Publishers can maximize the likelihood that a book will be widely adopted by including everything in the bid specs of the ten or fifteen biggest markets. It is no surprise, then, that textbooks often run as much as 900 pages long. The reason this simplistic business strategy is successful, and the reason publishers’ salesmen push for allocating an ever greater share of a book’s development costs to graphics, has to do with the way textbooks are adopted.

The members of a state’s textbook adoption committee are often appointed so as to obtain geographical and political representation (they come from different congressional districts), not because of any expertise in the subject matter. In most states it is a one-time appointment, and a form of political patronage. Members generally have other jobs. In a typical scenario, they come away from their first meeting with a couple of documents from the state’s Curriculum Task Force to help them: a list of several hundred “behavioral objectives” to be accomplished by the state’s schooling in general, and another list of perhaps a hundred topic items specific to the subject. The coverage of these topics is to be checked off on a form, ranked on a scale of one to five for each textbook and the mass of materials that go with the book: teachers’ editions, consumable workbooks, wall charts, ready-made transparencies and exams, demonstration materials, lab manuals, and all manner of classroom pizzazz. Committee members had better have a spare bedroom available. As one close observer put it, “Back in their homes, committee members leaf through the mass of materials aimlessly, not sure of what to look for. Some members alight on pages they don’t understand. Some of them conclude that things must have changed quite a bit since they were young, and others conclude that they are too tired to tackle the task and go to bed.”

Even for a diligent committee member, the best that can be accomplished under such a system is merely to ascertain the presence of requisite topics, not the clarity or depth with which they are presented. The reality is that nobody involved in the selection process is actually reading the books, so from a publisher’s perspective, the important thing is that every conceivable topic be mentioned and, just as important, listed in the index for quick reference. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that the average U.S. science middle school textbook covers 50 to 65 topics, while texts in Japan include only five to 15 topics and German textbooks cover an average of seven topics. The superficial treatment of dozens of topics comes at the expense of students’ conceptual understanding.

In the end, the question whether students can get any pleasure or meaning out of the text is never really brought to bear on this process. And the superficial nature of the selection process dictates a coffee-table approach by the publishers, leading them to produce a lavish physical product that is heavy on impressive-looking graphical clutter. “Thus the de facto national curriculum is a thin stream of staccato prose winding through an excessive number of pictures, boxes and charts,” as Harriet Tyson-Bernstein puts it in A Conspiracy of Good Intentions. Teachers, of course, needn’t follow such texts slavishly, and in fact those teachers who have real mastery of their subject typically depart from the text and conduct their own classroom investigations. But textbooks are relied upon quite heavily by less-experienced and less-knowledgeable teachers. More generally, research conducted as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicates that textbooks have a major impact on teachers’ decisions about how to present their subject material. In a survey of 16,000 science teachers conducted by Education Market Research in 2001, over 80 percent of science teachers reported using a traditional science textbook.

In many middle school texts, questions at the end of each chapter require students to do no more than repeat some definition verbatim from the text. Students generally have deeply held prior beliefs about natural phenomena, often wrong, and they can easily answer such textbook questions without recognizing the inconsistency between their understanding and the text they are memorizing. The result is that students work their way through the material without being changed by it, and often without really seeing the point of the questions asked or the answers given.

Moynihan’s Mistake and the Left’s Shame

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the four-term senator from New York who died in 2003, was, Fred Siegel suggests, both a political and intellectual giant:

What brought Nixon and Moynihan together was a tectonic shift of the political plates. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 thanks to the backlash against the riots that had ripped through America’s cities. What made Moynihan a Democrat of extraordinary insight, willing to serve a Republican president, were his reactions to those riots — and to the excesses and wrong turns of American liberalism.

Today, 50 years after its issuance, some liberals “bravely” acknowledge that 1965’s so-called Moynihan Report, in which the future senator warned about the dire future consequences of the collapse of the black family, was a fire bell in the night. But at the time, and for decades to come, Moynihan was branded as a racist by civil rights leaders, black activists, and run-of-the-mill liberals. “One began to sense,” Moynihan wrote, that “a price was to be paid even for such a mild dissent from conventional liberalism.”

His capacity for irony notwithstanding, Moynihan came close to a nervous breakdown and “emerged changed” from the experience. He came to feel “that American liberalism had created its own version of a politique du pire (i.e., the worse the better)… in which evidence had been displaced by ideology.” His fear that the empirically oriented liberalism of his youth was under assault from racial and cultural nihilists intensified after the 1967 riots that burned through Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit, where 43 died. “The summer of 1967,” Moynihan wrote at the time, “came in the aftermath of one of the most extraordinary periods of liberal legislation, liberal electoral victories and the liberal dominance of the media… that we have ever experienced. The period was, moreover, accompanied by the greatest economic expansion in human history. And to top it all, some of the worst violence occurred in Detroit, a city with one of the most liberal and successful administrations in the nation; a city in which the social and economic position of the Negro was generally agreed to be far and away the best in the nation.”

In the wake of the riots, a candid Moynihan, notes Hess, addressed the liberal stalwarts of Americans for Democratic Action, an organization created as an anti-Communist counterpoint to the philo-Soviet liberals of the 1940s. “The violence abroad and the violence at home” was “especially embarrassing for American liberals,” Moynihan told his ADA listeners, “because it is largely they who have been in office and presided over the onset of the war in Vietnam and the violence in American cities… [which] must be judged our doing.” But the liberal media and establishment didn’t see it that way, shifting the blame on to the shoulders of Richard Nixon and the blue-collar voters who supported him. Fearing that America was headed toward a crack-up, Moynihan told his fellow ADA liberals that they needed to look, at least temporarily, to an alliance with conservatives to head off the breakdown.

Inside the Nixon White House, Moynihan, says Hess, proved “to be an amazingly agile bureaucratic player,” and he charmed the president with his fount of anecdotes and insights. “Pat saw that Nixon, who had experienced extreme poverty in his youth, was open to a sweeping measure that could do away with the vast ‘service’ apparatus of the poverty industry that had been created by the Great Society,” Hess writes. “Tory men and liberal measures” could shake up Washington, Moynihan told the president. He translated that approach into the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), which would have provided a guaranteed income to families in poverty. But FAP, despite Nixon’s support, was defeated not by the predictable right-wing critics like Arthur Burns, the thoughtful but dour chair of the Council of Economic Advisors who thought it too costly, but by intemperate liberals, who insisted on even more spending.

Napoleon stooped to conquer

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

In the US today, Napoleon is an obscure figure, Walter Russell Mead laments:

To the extent he is remembered, it is for two great blunders and his fall: Louisiana, Russia and Waterloo are the words most prominently associated with his career in the minds of those few American undergraduates today who know anything specific about him at all.

Ignorance of and indifference to Napoleon is one of the chief differences between educated Americans and educated Europeans. On this side of the Atlantic he doesn’t have much of a legacy; though as Stanley Kowalski points out in Streetcar Named Desire, Louisiana still uses the Napoleonic Code as the basis of its law, the other 49 states don’t. In Europe he is the father of the modern legal system that still underlies the laws and procedures of the European Union and the man who abolished feudalism in Germany. It was Napoleon who laid out the model of church-state relations that still governs the European approach to this issue — and Napoleon whose emancipation of the Jews solved one set of problems and created another. His vision of a united Europe able to resist Anglo-Saxon influence still resonates; his effort to reconcile the powerful state of European absolutism with democratic legitimacy in a post-revolutionary age remains an influential political idea. Americans didn’t embrace Napoleon like the French; the battle against him that became a national epic in Britain and Russia leaves us cold; his unintentional role in the birth of German nationalism and in Hegel’s proclamation of the end of history do not engage much attention over here.

In teaching Napoleon to young grand strategists, I find that the first thing I have to do is to open their eyes to Napoleon’s enormous historical importance and continuing impact on our world today; the second is to help them grasp the sheer greatness and audacity of the man. They have to feel his accomplishment: how a poor young man from Corsica, who didn’t speak French well, wasn’t particularly handsome or witty or charming, who had no connections with the powerful and the rich made himself master first of France and then of half the world. That Napoleon was a great commander when given armies to lead is one thing; that he got himself into a position to command armies at all may be the more remarkable accomplishment of his career.

The most important thing about the young Napoleon, Mead says, is the intensity of his ambition:

Most bright and ambitious Americans start out in life more like Napoleon than like Pericles; they are born and grow up far from the centers of power. They can’t rely on their parents’ money or rolodexes to boost them into contention for political power. Like Napoleon, they have to work their way in.

As students start to see the young Napoleon in this way, they begin to consider the parallels between his situation and ambitions and their own. Do students want power, influence and wealth enough to work and scheme for them? If so, how should they start? What ethical considerations, if any, should inform or limit their quest? What does success look like and how is it assessed?

Napoleon had extraordinary political and personal as well as military gifts. His genius was not limited to the ability to read a battlefield and take the right action at the right time. He had a gift for reading people, for knowing what each one most desperately wanted and needed. He then had the ambition and singleness of purpose to decide which people mattered to him, and then to give them what they wanted. Napoleon betrayed almost everyone in the end, and one can retrace his progress through life by tracking discarded friendships and betrayed collaborators much as the Grand Army’s retreat through Russia was marked by abandoned wagons, loot and artillery pieces. Nevertheless before you can betray someone you have to win them over and Napoleon was willing and able to do whatever it took. One doesn’t want to end like Napoleon, but one could do much worse than begin as he did.

As Napoleon rose, he had to judge how to keep people loyal to him. This again required an exquisite sensitivity to what others want. One man can be yours for money, another seeks dignity and honor, a third power, and someone else wants the freedom and the resources to undertake an interesting and exacting task. In Napoleon’s day, when women could only play politics indirectly, taking (or no doubt in some cases pretending to take) women seriously on intellectual matters and working through political discussions with them to give them a sense of ‘being in the game’ could take a man very far with some women. Napoleon played this game for all it was worth.

I’m trying to encourage my grand strategy students to hone their people reading and people pleasing skills. This is not, as Johnson said of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, to teach them ‘the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore’. George Washington worked very hard to ingratiate himself with powerful women and men around him; so did Alexander Hamilton. A great man and a scoundrel will need many of the same skills; I would hope my students would be as good at reading people as an accomplished scam artist, but then use those powers for good.

Napoleon stooped to conquer; it’s a skill many of us could use.

Power fascinates and disorients the academy today:

Throughout the millennia teachers have assumed that getting and keeping power was one of the chief reasons that students came to their classes. The rhetorical instructors of ancient Greece and Rome were teaching students the skills that would enable them to persuade: either to persuade jurors to acquit or convict, or to persuade voters to support a given course of action or a particular candidate.

Today we focus on introducing them to various lines of academic inquiry and on giving them ‘job skills’ that will help them earn a good living. Both of these are perfectly good things to study, but how many professors would start a class off by saying that the goal of the class is to teach students to acquire, hold and use power in society at large?

More classes should start in exactly that way. An education, among other things, should help you become adept at the power game. Few things are as deeply human as the drive for power, and ambition remains one of the great drivers of any society. Getting away from that reality and providing courses that aren’t grounded in helping young people achieve the fame, glory and power that it is natural for them to seek is getting away from an essential and vital part of the educational process.

Paid to be a Narcissistic Blowhard

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Oliver Burkeman captures David Brooks perfectly, Charles Murray says:

Flawlessly. In the Guardian! Inexplicable.

From that Guardian piece:

David Brooks is aware there’s some irony in the subject matter of his latest book, which is a hymn to humility, and the importance of acknowledging how little we can ever truly know. As a twice-weekly opinion columnist for the New York Times, and a fixture on US television and radio, he is, in his own words, “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am”; he is also one of the few conservatives whose views Barack Obama often solicits. Best known to British audiences for his books Bobos in Paradise and The Social Animal, Brooks says he considered calling the new one Humility, with the title in tiny letters and “David Brooks” in huge block capitals. In the event, he called it The Road to Character, which seems unlikely to mollify the army of bloggers who appear to find him insufferably pompous – “the biggest windbag in the western hemisphere”, to quote Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi. (New York magazine once described Brooks’s role in American life as “public intellectual/punching-bag”.) This is a pity, because it’s a powerful, haunting book that works its way beneath your skin. And the motive for writing it, far from being a pompous desire to sermonise, was at least partly due to a personal crisis: Brooks’s realisation that his own life of well-paid worldly success, plus regular meetings with the president, was missing something essential inside.

Deliver Us From Distraction

Monday, April 13th, 2015

I’ve been meaning to read Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. Now he has a new book out, The World Beyond Your Head, about becoming an individual in an age of distraction:

The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. “Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value,” Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that “silence is now offered as a luxury good.”

That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.” And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. “Distractibility,” Crawford tells us, “might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.”

We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us.

The Men who Uncovered Assyria

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Daniel Silas Adamson tells the story of the men who uncovered Assyria:

In 612BC, Nineveh was sacked in a rebellion led by the Babylonians. They left the world’s richest city in ruins, its palaces smouldering, its people dead or deported into slavery. Dust settled over the shattered library of the dead King Ashurbanipal, and over his carefully transcribed copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Two-and-a-half millennia later, in the winter of 1853, the poem was lifted out of the dirt by a man called Hormuzd Rassam.

Rassam had grown up in Mosul, just across the river. At a time when the imperial powers saw the locals as little more than spade handlers and donkey boys, he had been appointed by the British Museum to lead the most important archaeological excavation of the age. He was, by some distance, the first archaeologist born and raised in the Middle East.

Rassam’s family were Chaldean Christians, descendants of the ancient Assyrians who had converted to Christianity in the Fourth Century and had remained ethnically distinct from the Arab and Kurdish populations of Iraq. This is the same community that has, in the past year, been forced by Islamic State to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed. Most of Mosul’s Assyrian Christians now have fled east into the autonomous region of Kurdistan or north, across the border, into Turkey.

When Rassam was growing up, Mosul was a peaceful place. The city was part of the slowly dying Ottoman Empire, a provincial backwater that offered few prospects for a young man of energy and talent. But in 1845, when Rassam was 19 years old, he met someone who changed the trajectory of his life – Austen Henry Layard.

Layard was an adventurer who had arrived in the Middle East on horseback at the end of the 1830s, armed with plenty of cash and a pair of revolvers. By the time he got to Mosul he had already seen the temples of Petra and Baalbek, as well as the living cities of Damascus and Aleppo. But it was the unexcavated ruins of Iraq that really captured Layard’s imagination.

“A deep mystery hangs over Assyria, Babylonia, and Chaldea. With these names are linked great nations and great cities… the plains to which the Jew and the Gentile alike look as the cradle of their race,” he wrote.

“As the sun went down, I saw for the first time the great conical mound of Nimrud rising against the clear evening sky. It was on the opposite side of the river and not very distant, and the impression that it made upon me was one never to be forgotten… my thought ran constantly upon the possibility of thoroughly exploring with the spade those great ruins.”

After years of negotiation with the Ottoman authorities, Layard finally sank a spade into the mound at Nimrud, 20 miles south of Mosul, in the summer of 1845. This is the site that, according to Iraqi officials, IS began bulldozing earlier this month.


Why crime fiction is leftwing and thrillers are rightwing

Friday, April 10th, 2015

Val McDermid discusses why crime fiction is leftwing and thrillers are rightwing:

As my compatriot Ian Rankin pointed out, the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world — immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote.

The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Of course, these positions don’t usually hit the reader over the head like a party political broadcast. If it is not subtle, all you succeed in doing is turning off readers in their droves. Our views generally slip into our work precisely because they are our views, because they inform our perspective and because they’re how we interpret the world, not because we have any desire to convert our readership to our perspective.

Except, of course, that sometimes we do.

The History of a Congo Road Built Using German Aid Money

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

This history of a Congo road built using German aid money is quite depressing:

A part of it gets built and then the aid workers go elsewhere. Soon the first potholes form and the jungle begins to gnaw away at the shoulders of the road. Ultimately, it will disappear completely.

Welthungerhilfe is now building a section of road heading south from Lubutu and has committed to maintaining this new, flawless red-earthen highway until 2016. But what happens after that? Dörken hesitates. “Honestly, I wouldn’t dare to venture a guess.”

Originally, he and his colleagues had set up a system to maintain the road. They established “road committees” in the villages which then installed barriers to collect tolls. Revenues were to go toward maintenance work. The system worked well, Dörken says, but then the Congolese government in 2006 revoked Welthungerhilfe’s mandate for maintaining the road. Since then, tolls have continued to be collected, but the money is no longer reinvested in the road and it is slowly disintegrating as a result.

Isn’t that frustrating? “Yes, of course!” says Dörken, losing his ironic distance for an instant. Then, once again under control, he summarizes the entire problem with development aid in a single sentence: “We are waiting for the state to begin fulfilling its duties.”