Entries from February 2009

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

My column for this weekend’s National Post discusses the two most important books on US politics I read this year, Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State and Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort.

Good news: If you haven’t already read any of the half-dozen books published about John McCain in 2008 Ñ or the many more published about Hillary Clinton Ñ or the Palin books Ñ or the Bill Richardson book Ñ then you are in the clear! Game over, time saved.

But there are some books of enduring value that emerged from the 2008 political year, and two of them in particular are must-reading for anyone anywhere who wants to understand the inner workings of American politics.

The first is Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. The book’s title and cover art may pay homage to Dr. Seuss. The author, however, is a doctor of a very different kind, one of America’s leading statisticians, Andrew Gelman of Columbia University.

In a lively and accessible way, Gelman sifts through data from the 2004 election to understand how the rich and the poor vote in America.

At first glance, American voting seems topsy-turvy. Super-wealthy communities like Beverly Hills, Aspen, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan vote Democratic. Meanwhile, Appalachia and Alaska are becoming ever more Republican. Republicans accuse the Democrats of “elitism.” Liberals wonder “what’s the matter with Kansas” and suspect low-income voters are either gullible or racist.

Gelman deconstructs the paradox. He argues that low-income voters understand their class interests very well. Americans who earn less than $30,000 vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Poor whites are less Democratic than poor blacks and Latinos; poor Texans are less Democratic than poor New Yorkers; but these are just details. If only the poor voted, the Democrats would win every state in the Union.

Where things get complicated is with more affluent voters, the richest one-third of Americans. In the red states, they vote overwhelmingly Republican. But not in the blue states. In places like California and Connecticut, these upper-income voters swing Democratic: not as Democratic as the poorest one-third, but Democratic enough to solidify a Democratic majority.

Why? Gelman delivers a surprising answer. Most of us have the notion that issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration divide a more liberal, more permissive elite from a more traditionalist voting base: Bob Reiner vs Joe the Plumber. Not so, says Gelman, and he has numbers to prove it. Downmarket voters are bread-and-butter voters. It is upper America that is divided on social issues: a more permissive, more liberal elite in the Northeast and California Ñ a more religious, more conservative elite in the South and Midwest. It’s not Hollywood vs. Wassila. It’s Hollywood vs the wealthy suburbs of Dallas and Houston and Atlanta.

That division is the preoccupying theme of Bill Bishop’s Big Sort. Bishop begins with a startling fact:
In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by less than 2.5% of the popular vote. Yet almost half the American population lived in a county that voted for one candidate or the other by a margin of 20 points or better. This trend toward “landslide counties” is new: In 1976, only one-fifth of Americans lived in a county that went for Ford or Carter by a margin of 20 points or more.

What’s changed? In an increasingly mobile country, Americans are able to “sort” themselves by lifestyle Ñ and increasingly, ideology is a component of lifestyle.

As people choose to live with others like themselves, they fall victim to a well-known phenomenon of group psychology: the tendency of like-minded groups to move to extremes more radical than any individual member would have gone on his or her own.

In other words, as Americans sort themselves out, they also become more divided from each other. Fewer than one out of four Americans report having regular conversations with people who disagree with their own political views. To choose a town becomes to choose a side. As local communities polarize, they elect representatives who are more partisan. Co-operation becomes more difficult, politics becomes more zero-sum.

As Americans become more isolated from each other, they increasingly treat reality itself as a political choice. In the 1990s, Republicans were much more likely to describe the economy negatively than were Democrats. After 2000, partisans switched sides, with Republicans more optimistic.

Bishop, himself a liberal Democrat, concludes his book with a surprising paean to the virtues of political apathy. “Having a good number of people who didn’t care much about politics was just as vital to democratic government as having the voting booths filled …. Indifferent citizens leavened the system, gave it suppleness, just what the partisan personality lacked. Apathy gave politicians room to maneuver, compromise, make deals, smother grease on the gears of representative democracy … Nothing could be more destructive than a society filled with knowledgeable, active and opinionated [citizens].”

On the other hand, democracy always needs at least some knowledgeable citizens Ñ and those who read these two brilliant, unexpected, and challenging books will register high on the list.

The Riddle of the Sands

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

The Riddle of the Sands is often described as the first spy novel in English. It certainly gives Kim a run for hte money. And much more than Kim [see my review here] it does seem to have gathered in one place the essential elements of the genre. (The elements are bolded below.)

Our protagonist, Carruthers, is that indispensable English character, the gentlemanly amateur. A foppish society man, he is one day surprised to receive an invitation from an old university acquaintance to join a yachting trip. He and the acquaintance had never been close, but in his vanity, Carruthers supposes that the old acquaintance must have admired Carruthers more than Carruthers ever knew. And since Carruthers is bored in his Foreign Office job, and since his own vacation plans have collapsed, he accepts.

Carruthers quickly discovers however that he has been tricked into a much more dangerous adventure than he realized. His university friend, Arthur Davies, is no luxury yachtsman. As socially awkward as Carruthers is dandyish, Davies is a brilliant sailor who has stumbled upon a sinister secret while coasting along the sandbars of the North Sea. He has summoned Carruthers not for the charm of his company, but because Carruthers for all his foolishness has an intellectual skill to complement Davies’ own derring-do: fluency in the German language and political contacts back home.

So off the two men go on a sailing adventure that will thrill even those who cannot tell a lufftail from a jibsheer. We are led into an exotic and highly technical world by an author who deploys “a mass of verifiable detail, which gave authenticity to the story.”

Together, Carruthers and Davies stumble upon a deadly threat to the security of their country. Davies gets the girl. Carruthers grows into a better man. And Childers leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the exposure of the “riddle” will suffice to defeat the threat.

I won’t disclose the secret here, in case anyone wants to try this still impressively readable novel for himself or herself, other than to note that it will seem implausible – even ridiculous – to those of us who have the benefit of a hundred years of military hindsight. That said, not only did this book jolt the British military and naval establishments – but it also according to no less a witness than Winston Churchilll prodded them to recast their plans in ways that proved as useful and right as if every prophecy in the novel had been exactly correct.

As exciting as this novel is, it pales beside the life of its author: born into Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy, Childers become a seaman as skilled as his hero Arthur Davies. He fought for Britain in the Boer War, returned home to smuggle arms to Irish rebels against Britain, then joined the Navy, serving as one of the first naval flyers and then as an intelligence officer. After the War, he joined Sinn Fein and the uprising against British rule. Secretary-General of the Irish delegation at the negotiations for Irish independence, Childers ultimately sided with the militants who rejected the agreement establishing Irish statehood. A rebel against the new Irish Free State, he was caught and executed by firing squad. But even that is not the end of the story: His son and namesake was elected president of the Irish Republic in 1973.

I didn’t know any of this biography when I started The Riddle of the Sands. Plunging into it after I had done, I wondered: really, why does anybody need to read spy fiction, when there are true stories like this?

The Big Sort

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

My column for this weekend’s National Post discusses the two most important books on US politics I read this year, Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State and Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort.

Good news: If you havenÕt already read any of the half-dozen books published about John McCain in 2008 Ñ or the many more published about Hillary Clinton Ñ or the Palin books Ñ or the Bill Richardson book Ñ then you are in the clear! Game over, time saved.

But there are some books of enduring value that emerged from the 2008 political year, and two of them in particular are must-reading for anyone anywhere who wants to understand the inner workings of American politics.

The first is Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. The bookÕs title and cover art may pay homage to Dr. Seuss. The author, however, is a doctor of a very different kind, one of AmericaÕs leading statisticians, Andrew Gelman of Columbia University.

In a lively and accessible way, Gelman sifts through data from the 2004 election to understand how the rich and the poor vote in America.

At first glance, American voting seems topsy-turvy. Super-wealthy communities like Beverly Hills, Aspen, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan vote Democratic. Meanwhile, Appalachia and Alaska are becoming ever more Republican. Republicans accuse the Democrats of Òelitism.Ó Liberals wonder ÒwhatÕs the matter with KansasÓ and suspect low-income voters are either gullible or racist.

Gelman deconstructs the paradox. He argues that low-income voters understand their class interests very well. Americans who earn less than $30,000 vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Poor whites are less Democratic than poor blacks and Latinos; poor Texans are less Democratic than poor New Yorkers; but these are just details. If only the poor voted, the Democrats would win every state in the Union.

Where things get complicated is with more affluent voters, the richest one-third of Americans. In the red states, they vote overwhelmingly Republican. But not in the blue states. In places like California and Connecticut, these upper-income voters swing Democratic: not as Democratic as the poorest one-third, but Democratic enough to solidify a Democratic majority.

Why? Gelman delivers a surprising answer. Most of us have the notion that issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration divide a more liberal, more permissive elite from a more traditionalist voting base: Bob Reiner vs Joe the Plumber. Not so, says Gelman, and he has numbers to prove it. Downmarket voters are bread-and-butter voters. It is upper America that is divided on social issues: a more permissive, more liberal elite in the Northeast and California Ñ a more religious, more conservative elite in the South and Midwest. ItÕs not Hollywood vs. Wassila. ItÕs Hollywood vs the wealthy suburbs of Dallas and Houston and Atlanta.

That division is the preoccupying theme of Bill BishopÕs Big Sort. Bishop begins with a startling fact:
In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by less than 2.5% of the popular vote. Yet almost half the American population lived in a county that voted for one candidate or the other by a margin of 20 points or better. This trend toward Òlandslide countiesÓ is new: In 1976, only one-fifth of Americans lived in a county that went for Ford or Carter by a margin of 20 points or more.

WhatÕs changed? In an increasingly mobile country, Americans are able to ÒsortÓ themselves by lifestyle Ñ and increasingly, ideology is a component of lifestyle.

As people choose to live with others like themselves, they fall victim to a well-known phenomenon of group psychology: the tendency of like-minded groups to move to extremes more radical than any individual member would have gone on his or her own.

In other words, as Americans sort themselves out, they also become more divided from each other. Fewer than one out of four Americans report having regular conversations with people who disagree with their own political views. To choose a town becomes to choose a side. As local communities polarize, they elect representatives who are more partisan. Co-operation becomes more difficult, politics becomes more zero-sum.

As Americans become more isolated from each other, they increasingly treat reality itself as a political choice. In the 1990s, Republicans were much more likely to describe the economy negatively than were Democrats. After 2000, partisans switched sides, with Republicans more optimistic.

Bishop, himself a liberal Democrat, concludes his book with a surprising paean to the virtues of political apathy. ÒHaving a good number of people who didnÕt care much about politics was just as vital to democratic government as having the voting booths filled É. Indifferent citizens leavened the system, gave it suppleness, just what the partisan personality lacked. Apathy gave politicians room to maneuver, compromise, make deals, smother grease on the gears of representative democracy É Nothing could be more destructive than a society filled with knowledgeable, active and opinionated [citizens].Ó

On the other hand, democracy always needs at least some knowledgeable citizens Ñ and those who read these two brilliant, unexpected, and challenging books will register high on the list.

Kim

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim has ranked high on the list of forbidden books for more than half a century. Edward Said’s judgment – “a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel” – actually tilts toward the generous side.

You can certainly see why the novel has attracted detractors. The rightness of British rule in India is taken absolutely for granted. While the white men in the novel are remote figures, each in his own way is astute, self-mastering, and absolutely admirable. (Except of course for the Church of England clergymen, always detested by Kipling.) The non-villainous Indian characters accept British rule as just, and indeed repeatedly state that justice is the sahibs’ paramount virtue. One of the novel’s most appealing characters is a Bengali intelligence officer who is represented as both passionately loyal to British rule and also absurd and comic. Again except for the clergy, no Englishman is ever represented as comic.

The indictment writes itself. And yet having emerged from the odd adventure world of Kim, I have to say the indictments strike me as both wrong and beside the point. The central figure in Kim is Kim himself, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, growing up in the streets of Lahore, speaking Indian languages, wearing Indian clothes, focusing all his affections on two non-English surrogate fathers, first the Afghan Muslim horse dealer Mahbub Ali, then a Tibetan Buddhist monk whom he serves as a disciple.

If the British are admirable, only the Indians are realized. The British demand service from Kim; the Indians offer him life and love. And Kim, passing easily from one world to another, switching effortlessly from one language to another, preferring Indian food, clothes and customs to British, represents a curiously subversive vision of the ideal to which India’s rulers should aspire.

Only the most freakish circumstances could produce somebody like Kim, yet only somebody like Kim can make a success of the imperial project in India. And of course the very duality that makes Kim an effective servitor of British rule makes him very doubtful that he wishes to serve. He fulminates against the “sahibs,” repeatedly denies that he is a “sahib,” and invests much greater faith in the Buddhist Way than in any doctrine or belief the British have to offer.

Kim is a story written for boys that probably no boy will ever read again: the novel’s political and religious references are just too obscure – and no school will ever risk offending against Political Correctness by placing Kim on the curriculum to elucidate those obscurities. And yet one of Kim‘s great themes, biculturality, has if anything become even more interesting and more important over time. This very year, the United States may elect as president a man who has his roots in the very different cultures of East Africa and meritocratic America. Barack Obama’s own youthful autobiography offers an extended meditation on the themes of Kim. Obama’s Dreams From My Father leaves the reader uncertain whether even this highly intelligent and sensitive man, writing from diret personal experience has reached any better resolution of the problems of duality than Rudyard Kipling could devise.

All that while he felt, though he could not put it into words, that his soul was out of gear with its surroundings – a cog-wheel unconnected with any machinery, just like the idle cog-wheel of a cheap Beheea sugar-crusher laid by in a corner. The breezes fanned over him, the parrots shrieked at him, the noises of the populated house behind – squabbles, orders, and reproofs – hit on dead ears.

‘I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?’ His soul repeated it again and again.

In his great essay on Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell observed:

Kipling … is generally talking about things that are of urgent interest. It does not matter, from this point of view, that thinking and decent people generally find themselves on the other side of the fence from him.

Orwell’s certitude about what thinking and decent people feel, or ought to feel, is not the most convincing or attractive aspect of his work. But Orwell does put his finger on something important and true about Kipling. Kim is a story as iconic The Hobbit or Harry Potter or Star Wars. A mysterious boy is set on a quest with an other-worldly but supremely wise guide. First, however, the boy must be schooled, first in a conventional school to master conventional schools, then in a school of uncanny secrets. The boy insists on embarking on the quest before his teachers think him ready. He travels to remote and exotic lands (the Himalayas as it happens) and achieves his mission – nearly dying in the process, but surviving to emerge as a transformed man.

That’s a theme of almost universal reach. In Kipling’s hands, however, a story that inspired other narrators to invent alternative universes or magical boarding schools leads instead to some of the most topical issues of his century and others: the struggle of great powers, the ethics of espionage, and relations between and among the races and religions of mankind.

That’s a lot for a boy’s adventure story to address … which is why even the fiercest critics of Kipling’s imperialist politics have had to relent and acclaim Kim. Said is not wrong, in some ways Kim is embarrassing, or at least the contemporary post-imperial reader is sometimes embarrassed by it. But Said got the emphasis backwards: the embarrassment is the minor key; the richness and the fascination, the major – and the book’s themes of self-discovery, biculturality and divided loyalty, eternal.

Fathers and Sons

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

Some weeks ago, I read an article in a newspaper that contained this striking sentence:

For the first time in history, teenagers can say to their parents, “You’re, like, so lame,” and deep down, the parents may wonder whether their kids are right ….

The author of that sentence can surely never have read Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

Fathers and Sons is one of those books that is admired as much for its prophetic as for its literary qualities. The shadow of 1917 hangs heavy over the book. One character, a young doctor named Basarov, expresss the radical rejection of all convention and morality – and the brutal indifference to human life and happiness – that would soon submerge all Russia. Basarov’s eventual fate – a pointless and easily avoidable accidental death – likewise foreshadows the horror ahead. Fathers and Sons was published a half century before the October revolution, in 1862. That half century of prevision has caused Russian critics to dub Basarov, “the first Bolshevik.”

I first read Fathers and Sons as a college student. I had been working my way through Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The personality of Turgenev loomed large in their lives. Dostoyevsky in particular was bitterly jealous of his Turgenev’s wealth and affable personality, and launched a series of literary attacks upon him. Yet all acknowledged him as the first and pathfinding voice of the great age of the Russian novel. So I turned to his masterwork with eagerness … only to be shocked and bored.

Where was the epic clash of generations promised by the title? The story opens with a long dreary carriage ride through the flatlands of southern Russia. Two young men are returning home from their studies in Petersburg. One is the Basarov mentioned above. The other is a younger and less intelligent fellow-student, Kirsanov, who hero worships Basarov and mimics his ideas. They are met by Kirsanov’s doting father, a landowner of the provinces, who welcomes Basarov as his son’s guest.

They return to the Kirsanov estate, and potter about for some weeks of minor incidents. There are some short passages of argument between the two young radicals and the elder Kirsanov and his brother. Then the two young men go off to a nearby town ….

And that’s where I left off back in 1980 or whenever it was. There seemed no plot or point to the thing. This was the novel that had Russians arguing with each other for the next half century?

To appreciate the book, I needed a better understanding than I then possessed of the way in which 19th century Russians read and received literature.

Imagine this:

You are one of a tiny minority of educated people in a vast rural society that stretches over unimaginable distances, most of them unserviced even by railway. You are aware that your society is brutal and backward, and desperately in need of reform. Yet you are also aware that you know almost nothing about the desires, beliefs and daily habits of the subordinated 90% of the population. They are separated from you by a gulf radically different from that which separates the upper and lower classes of western Europe: They live on the land, in self-governing villages suspicious of all outsiders, subject to their own mysterious rules, customs and beliefs, restricting communication with outsiders to the absolute minimum.

You want to understand more. But you live in a repressive police state, and discussion is strictly policed. Yet there are areas of liberty. Discussion of literature and the arts enjoys more lattitude than discussion of politics and public policy. Well-born and well-connected personages enjoy more latitude than the poor and obscure.

That special latitude for the well-born is premised on another important fact about the society in which you live: It is deeply aristocratic and class-bound, and absolutely takes for granted that some human beings matter more than others. Indeed, it has trouble recognizing that the privileged few share anything but the most basic humanity with the unprivileged many. The few are always in the foreground of consciousness of their fellows; the many are grouped together in undifferentiated masses in the background.

These facts and habits of mind are the mental background against which the great Russian novels of society emerge. Almost the only way that elite Russians could think about their society was by seizing on artistic inventions of characters, generalizing those characters as types, and then using those types as tools to think with about the world around them.

A Basarov to them was not just a character in a novel. He was a representation of a certain tendency in society that elite Russians saw taking form around them – and that could be conceived and depicted in almost no other way than through the medium of narrative fiction.

Which is why this listlessly under-plotted book could have hit its readers like a bomb. Or rather, like a flare, illuminating what would otherwise have been shapeless in the dark.

Basarov is a threat of what might be – whose dark clarity contrasts painfully with the pitiful earnest fumbling uselessness of the elders of the Kirsanov family, the novel’s “fathers”: two brothers, cultured and liberal, who have freed their serfs and seek to live in Russia as if they were English gentleman farmers, collecting rents, playing the cello, dressing for dinner. Basarov ridicules the absurdity of this way of life, and indeed it does seem to be heading to disaster. The freed serfs cheat, steal, and destroy. The brothers’ patrimony threatens to dwindle away. Their culture seems doomed to be extinguished by the encroaching ignorance around them.

But it’s not as if Basarov has anything to offer. His nihilism is an absurdity too, ultimately exposed as such when he falls in love – and discovers he has no way even to think about the relations between men and women that is not coldly sexual. This way of thinking obviously cannot lead to much happiness. He is rebuffed; his only hope of happiness lost.

He dies stupidly, in a way that Turgenev’s readers would have been likely to describe as “typically Russian.” Basarov dissects a body infected with typhus and nicks himself. The local doctor’s office has no antibacterial agents, and he himself did not bother to bring any along before setting down to carve. He catches the disease he sought to analyze.

It’s a story to prey on the imagination – and has preyed on Russia’s for a century and a half, with abundant and powerful reason.

Kept in the Dark

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

Kept in the Dark is one of Anthony Trollope’s very last novels, and surely one of his very worst. Written in wincingly melodramatic – and insanely repetitive -  style, Kept in the Dark is too boring even to be silly.

Cecilia Holt is the pretty only daughter of  a prosperous provincial widow (Trollope characteristically precisely numbers the family fortune at 20,000 pounds – enough to keep a house and garden and leisurely annual trips to Europe). 

She is wooed by a visiting baronet, related to the Dean of the local cathedral, Sir Francis Geraldine. Sir Francis is a very bad baronet and also a very stupid one: as soon as he has engaged himself to Cecilia, he immediately begins to neglect her and make various cutting remarks about the bondage of marriage.

After a few weeks of this, Cecilia breaks off the engagement. Sir Frances is so outraged by this treatment that he promptly tells all his relatives that he broke the engagement off with her. It is hard to believe that even in 1882 the rapid end of an engagement in which (so far as we know) the courting couple never even kissed could have caused much scandal, but Trollope insists that it would, and to escape the shame, Cecilia and her mother head to Europe.

There they meet George Western, a moderately wealthy country gentleman of starchy morality. Western is traveling – guess why? – to overcome the pain of his broken engagement! His fiancee jilted him to marry the wealthy cousin of Sir Francis. Small world.

George tells Cecilia the whole story. For reasons that never make any sense however many times Trollope repeats them, Cecilia cannot bring herself to follow. They are married, set up house in Western’s charming country cottage where Cecilia can wrestle with her agonizing guilt. Just as she has nearly made up her mind to come clean, who should show up in her drawing room but Sir Francis himself. He has a country place just 2 miles down the road. As I said: small world.

Cecilia rebuffs him, Sir Francis writes a letter to George REVEALING ALL, and George (never a very appealing personality to begin with) is enraged. He leaves the house, departs for Europe, and sends a lawyer to negotiate a separation, gallantly offering Cecilia 7/8 of his income if she needs it.

Cecilia responds just as a Victorian wife should, with self-blaming grief and unremitting devotion to her furious husband. She refuses his money – she only wants him back! She returns to mother … this is where the novel begins to seem really, really long … and discovers she is pregnant. After extending the separation as long as humanly possible, Trollope at last achieves a reconciliation with a Victorian love scene that is as about as easy to swallow as a tablespoon of Nutrasweet.

Sir Francis and various other minor villains are suitably punished and all ends happily ever after.

The whole thing reminds me of one of those “I Love Lucy” episodes where Lucy forgets to make a deposit to the Christmas Club and then spends the next 24 minutes scheming to hide the catastrophe from Ricky. 

And yet awful as the book is, it periodically shows flashes of something better, some potential that Trollope could have explored had he been less bored, less eager for money, less ill, less whatever his excuse might have been for publishing this unworthy book:

Trollope does show little gleams of understanding that there is something seriously wrong with the system of gender relations that could produce this plot. People should not get irrevocably married after a sum total of 5 or 6 hours of social pleasantries in a drawing room. Western’s idea of the role of the wife – who as he says exists only to cool and calm his existence – is bound to produce misery, and Cecilia’s idea – that fathomless self-abnegation will surely produce some useful guilt in her lord and master – is if possible even worse. At one point, one of the minor characters describes marriage as a relationship in which women begin as men’s toys and end as their slaves. Good line! Too bad there was no Victorian editor to tell Trollope to develop that thought – and then cut 3/4 of the remainder.

The Spies of Warsaw

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

There’s not much to say about Alan Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw. It is not the author’s best work, and even contains a rare solecism: one of the characters is described as having served as “ambassador to Singapore,” obviously an impossibility in 1937. Still, for those who love Furst’s novels, it’s always good to have another – and this story of a French diplomatic attache working on espionage operations against the Germans in prewar Poland more than does the job.

Nudge

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

Cass Sunstein’s and Richard Thaler’s Nudge has deservedly won praise as one of the most important public policy books of the year.

Nudge builds on insights from the new school of behavioral economics, of which Richard Thaler is a leading light. Thaler and others in the school have conducted a series of vivid and often very amusing psychological experiments that show that even highly economically sophisticated people will behave in certain predictably irrational ways.

In one experiment, Thaler brought to class two boxes of equally priced University of Chicago trinkets: coffee mugs and pens, if I remember right. (I gave away my copy of the book to a colleague who wanted to read it, so I’m relying on memory here.)

In round 1 of the experiment Thaler gave students the mugs as a souvenir. Then he sent testers to invite those students to swap their mugs for pens. Almost all refused.

Then in round 2, he reversed the swap: He gave another group of students the pens, and then sent out testers with mugs. Again, no deal.

If one item were invisibly superior to the other, you would expect to see the same preference show itself whether the guinea pigs were “buying” or “selling” mugs or pens. Instead, the students clung to the item they were originally given, whatever it was.

This predictable irrationality has real-world consequences. We save too little for the future, eat too much, fail to wear seatbelts, and otherwise act in foolish, self-destructive ways.

So Sunstein & Thaler propose that public policy should apply a gentle “nudge” – not to compel anyone to do anything, but to encourage people to make decisions that will make people better off. Sunstein and Thaler stress that they are not mandarins who wish to impose their own preferences on others. They are not trying to turn football fans into opera buffs (or vice versa). The nudge would only encourage people to do things that they themselves would want to do if undistracted by human error.

The best and clearest example of the policy they have in mind comes from the area of pensions.

Many American companies offer to match dollar for dollar everything their employees put into a 401(k) retirement plan up to a certain level. The rational thing to do when offered free money is to take it. But these schemes typically require employees to do something to accept. The human instinct for procrastination kicks in, and the employees never bother, often with calamitous consequences for their retirement plans.

But what if the 401(k) plan assumed the employee was opted in unless the employee said otherwise, rather than assuming the employee was opted out? The human instinct for procrastination would then work to the good, not to the bad.

That seems like an uncontroversially good idea, as do their proposals for a “save more tomorrow” plan, by which future pay raises are automatically diverted to savings before employees can spend them.

Indeed, Nudge bristles with useful ideas, all offered in a cheerful, engaging style guaranteed to win the attention even of people whose stomachs sink at the phrase, “public policy book.”

But the book also raises some troubling unintended questions and poses some odd nonsequitors.

Nudge is not subtitled: “Helpful suggestions for improving the design of pension plans.” It is subtitled: “Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.”

In the concept of a gentle nudge, as opposed to an overbearing hand of command, the authors plainly seem to think that they have found a new theoretic role for the state, a new future for modern liberalism.

Are they right? Let’s apply a practical test:

Nudge ends with a grab bag of suggestions that seem to have been left over after the rest of the book was assembled. One of them is a suggestion that marriage be entirely privatized, that the state cease to have any role in marriage beyond certifying contracts negotiated by the parties themselves. This idea has floated around libertarian circles for years. Whatever its merits, though, it seems the very opposite of the “nudge” philosophy.Considerable social science evidence confirms that married couples are (to borrow Nudge’s subtitle) healthier, wealthier, and happier than singles or unmarried couples. Given the insights into human psychology collected in Nudge – how people procrastinate, how they prefer the status quo to change, how they are paralyzed into passivity when confronted with too many choices – you’d suppose that the authors would urge governments to “nudge” couples into choosing marriage.

But no. Why not?

I’d venture this guess: The dividing line between a gentle and permissible “nudge” and an over-emphatic “shove” is not nearly so clear as the author’s easy style would lead us to believe. In areas where the authors greatly value autonomy, ie in sexuality and marriage, even the gentlest guidance seems intolerably pressing. In areas where they value autonomy somewhat less, they tolerate a firmer hand.

That’s not a criticism! It makes perfect sense … providing one shares the authors’ priorities.

I was in New York City recently [not so recently as of time of this posting!], stopped into a Starbucks, and noticed that the various baked goods on offer had their calorie counts advertised beneath their price. That’s a new mandate by the city, and it seems to me a very reasonable one. No “fat tax,” no zoning bans on junk food in certain neighborhoods (as Los Angeles has recently and surely unconstitutionally attempted) – just a factual announcement that the carrot muffin is not as healthy as you might wish it were.

A nudge, right? No coercion, just a gentle reminder. Yet Reason contributor Jacob Sullum complains

What about the consumer’s right not to know? The same research that supporters of menu mandates like to cite indicates that most consumers prefer to avoid calorie counts, enjoying their food in blissful ignorance. There’s a difference between informing people and nagging them.

It’s not impossible to imagine that there may exist people for whom eating is as vital to self-government and personal autonomy as sexuality is to the authors of Nudge. The authors of Nudge may not take this desire to remain uninformed very seriously. (I find it difficult myself.) But it’s hard to explain exactly why not. Which warnings are too trivial to be taken seriously – and which warnings meet an emerging need – will always be a rather arbitrary judgment call.

The authors of Nudge offer this principle for nudging: we should nudge when we can make people better off by their own lights without compromising any important liberty. The list of important liberties as compiled by Jacob Sullum may look very different from the list favored by the authors of Nudge.Their neutral principle, like so many neutral principles, turns out not to be so neutral after all. It seems there’s no removing the politics from political theory.

A Breed of Heroes

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

A Breed of Heroes is a war novel, but of a very unusual kind. It is set in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the Troubles. The protagonist, Charles Thoroughgood, is an over-educated Oxford graduate who joined the military in search of comradeship and connection with other human beings. Commissioned a lieutenant, he finds himself cast into a situation of paralyzing boredom, pointless cruelties, and fathomless hatred. When he recognizes a (Catholic) child injured by playing with a pipebomb abandoned by the IRA, the mother tells him that she would rather see her child bleed to death than rescued by the Army. 

There are few heroics in this book – except for the heroism required to endure a commanding officer who regards gravy as a crime against humanity, or commissary officers who reject as willful extravagance requests for new socks to replace those stained beyond recovery in operations in the sewers.

The novel climaxes in a great comic setpiece.

A huge cache of arms are discovered during an unauthorized surreptitious search of a monastery. The chief monk threatens the officer in charge: We will publicly denounce this violation of the sanctity of Church property. The officer suavely parries: Of course it is unthinkable that any of the monks might be implicated in terrorism, but conditions being as they are, we fear that not all sections of the northern Irish community will be as understanding – indeed, many might regard the Catholic Church as having authorized the terrorism. 

 The elaborate negotiation by which the monk and the officer agree on a lie that preserves the bogus innocence of all  parties is a moment of literary genius.

The author of the book, writing under the name Alan Judd, is a former soldier and diplomant with extensive experience of some of Britain’s most daunting security challenges. He has followed this first novel, published in 1993, with a clutch more, and I look forward to reading all of them. 

Far From the Madding Crowd

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd takes its title from a stanza of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

Hardy’s novel is a scorching reply to the soothing conceit that rustic villagers lead cool, noiseless passionless lives.

Gabriel Oak is a rising young farmer of about 27. Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful young woman not yet 20, the penniless niece of one of Oak’s neighbors. Bathsheba is intelligent and refined, but also heedless and even reckless. She saves Gabriel’s life from carbon monoxide poisoning, when he falls asleep before his cottage fire. Gabriel falls in love; Bathsheba refuses his proposal and moves away to the home of another relative.

An almost comical disaster abruptly ruins Gabriel’s fortunes: a poorly trained sheepdog chases his entire flock off a cliff. Bathsheba meanwhile has become rich, at least by village standards: Her relative dies and leaves her the management of his thriving farm.

Gabriel’s wanderings unknowingly lead him to Bathsheba’s new home. He arrives upon a scene of burning corn ricks. He heroically charges in and saves the crop – another of the heavily symbolic fires and floods on which the plot will turn. Bathsheba hires him as a hand. Gabriel quickly becomes indispensable to the success of the farm. Bathsheba shamelessly exploits Gabriel’s devotion to her, but she no way returns it. The social gap has opened too wide, and decent and capable as he is, he is also more than a little dull.

The only man duller than Gabriel is Bathsheba’s near neighbor, the wealthiest farmer in the vicinity, a worthy bachelor of 40. Out of boredom, Bathsheba sends him an anonymous flirtatious valentine. The neighbor quickly discerns the source, takes the valentine absolutely seriously, and falls into an obsessive passion. Bathsheva refuses him too.

Having rejected two good men, Bathsheba now encounters a third almost worthless one. The illegitimate son of a nobleman, educated for the law, young Francis Troy has thrown over all his prospects in life to enlist in the army. But he is handsome and charming. Sergeant Troy seduces Bathsheba with a display of expert swordsmanship, slicing the air an inch away from her skin, reducing her to a state of panting, fainting arousal described more graphically than anything I know in 19th century literature. (Those who like to skip ahead to the good parts, can click here.)

Troy has already seduced and made pregnant one of Bathsheba’s servant girls. He briefly considered doing the right thing by the girl, for whom he cares as much as he can care for anyone. But Bathsheba is richer and more beautiful and (it has to be said) the servant girl is annoyingly pathetic and witless. Troy wastes his new opportunities in the same destructive way he wrecked those offered by his father. He tempts all the farm hands into a drunken debauch on the day after the harvest is brought in – leaving it to Gabriel single-handedly to rescue the crop again, this time from a torrential rain.

But when the girl and her child die almost literally on the doorstep of Troy’s new home, he explodes at Bathsheba, tells her he never loved her, and spends desperately needed money entrusted to him to build a lavish marble headstone that links his name with the dead girl’s. Troy then vanishes, presumed drowned in the nearby waters of the English Channel.

Humiliated and heartbroken, Bathsheba allows her obsessed neighbor to bully her into a promise of marriage. On the day the engagement is to be announced, Troy shows up again. The infatuated farmer kills him, then tries to kill himself.

Through all these disasters, Gabriel has had to assume more and more responsibility, ultimately the management of both Basheva’s farm and her suitor’s. A rising man again, he nurses Bathsheba back to calm. He does not however renew his own suit – until Bathsheba, with one last show of initiative, prompts him. They marry, the first of the novel’s love affairs to be carried on in calmly and deliberately. Gray’s vision of happiness obtained by sheltering oneself against passion has after all been vindicated.

So that’s the story.

Some observations

1) Hardy has a bad reputation among modern readers for his lengthy descriptions of rural life. This complaint is not always just: the Mayor of Casterbridge is a compact and perfect tragedy without a single unnecessary phrase. Far From the Madding Crowd does probably have more to say about sheep rearing and corn tending than most readers will want to read. I happen to find these passages very interesting, but here’s a possible consolation for those who do not:

Regular readers of NRO’s Corner have probably been exposed to the debates about group differences in IQ that fascinate our John Derbyshire. Hardy offers an illuminating sidewise perspective on this discussion. His intimate descriptions of the conversations of Bathsheba’s farm laborers take us into a cramped and stunted mental world. These laborers regard a city 12 miles away as practically another universe, its customs as hopelessly alien. They have no concept of time, and will waste hours on an important day in idle talk, getting morosely drunk. They waste money and invite injuries by omitting obvious elementary precautions. They have trouble expressing even the simplest ideas or relating even the most basic narrative of events. One shudders to think how they would score on any test. Their descendents today manage to run a highly successful advanced industrial democracy. Yet the transition required – what? – perhaps five or six generations of education, nutritional improvements, and other adaptations to the demands of modern life.

2) For no good reason, I happened to read Far From the Madding Crowd in very close proximity to Anthony Trollope’s Kept in the Dark. Although the one book is a great work of art and the other is anything but, and although Hardy is able to acknowledge the existence of female sexual desire and Trollope cannot, they do agree in at least one important way in their depiction of the relations between men and women 150 years ago: How little the sexes knew of one another!

Proposals of marriage after six weeks of chaperoned drawing room courtesies – mad passions formed on the basis of a glance and a note – it’s astounding that misery was not absolutely universal. Or maybe it was. Maybe this is why older folks in these old books always look with wry amusement on the younger folks hopes of love.

Only at the end of the novel does Hardy offer a better alternative, in the form of the ending he predicts for Gabriel and Bathsheba. It’s a new kind of marriage, one that rests on more knowledge beforehand – and more equality afterward.

They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship Ñ CAMARADERIE Ñ usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death Ñ that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

On the other hand, one does meet quite a number of happy older married couples in old novels books. It all reminds me of an observation once offered in class by a teacher of mine, Conrad Russell. Russell was a specialist in British 17th century history. At that time, marriages between propertied families were nearly always arranged. Russell observed on the basis of his large reading of archived family letters that about one-third of these marriages were happy, about one-third unhappy, and about one-third somewhere in between. “As far as I can tell,” he wryly commented, “that’s about the same ratio that obtains today .”

Still, I wonder. The spectacular mutual ignorance of the two halves of humanity is the source of much of our comedy – and not a small portion of the human tragedy. If the way we live now has mitigated that mutual ignorance even a little, and I think it has, then perhaps after all we have made some progress over the past century and a half.