Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Knight's Reading List X: October 2007

I finished a short list of books in October of last year. I also started six books in October, which I finished reading in November. Along with other records I have, that indicates that the following list represents only a fraction of what I was reading in October of 2007, but an important fraction, for all that. The first two books, two very different approaches to wars which have been imagined very differently, are both excellent. One is a work of literary criticism which reveals quite a bit about a war and its effects; the other is a work of history that explores the literary, as well as the political effects, of a brutal war.


Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. 2006. xvi + 462 pages, including Notes and Index. This past summer my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II on PBS. One of the old veterans who provided commentary, with particular emphasis on the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, was Paul Fussell, who had been a brand-new lieutenant in 1944. When he isn’t fighting wars, Fussell is a literary sort, a professor and the author of a number of books. This is a very, very good work of literary criticism, exploring the literary traditions of World War I. Fussell examines such major writers as Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, looks at the break with earlier literary forms and expressions which marked the period after 1916, and notes the differences between the much franker, more open literature of World War II. He even spends a chapter or so on the homosexual imagery of World War I’s prose and poetry. This is a work about literature and thought, which is itself a thoughtful work of literature. Read 1-28 October 2007.

Alistair Horne. A Savage War of Peace. 2007. xxvii + 484 pages, including Index. Thirty years ago I spent eighteen months in Algiers. I was focussed on my immediate job at the American Embassy, and spent much of my tourist time exploring Roman ruins. (Legion III Augustae was stationed in the area for several hundred years; the Romans had a grasp of the long-term nature of military commitments.) I heard this and that about the war of the Algerian revolution, and I was there for the 25th anniversary celebrations in November 1979. But I didn’t really know much about the war – I was, after all, 11 when Charles de Gaulle returned to power, and the war entered its final phases.

Alistair Horne is a terrific author, specializing in French history, and with a taste for the violent side of politics. A Savage War of Peace, with its savagely ironic title, is a very good read. It is also a very good source for those wondering what’s been going on in Iraq these past five and one-half years. A while back President Bush asked Mr. Horne to the White House, looking for insights into insurgent warfare in Muslim countries. It might have been better if he had thought to do that before ordering the invasion of Iraq. Read 2-30 October 2007.

Paul H. Lange, M.D. Prostate Cancer for Dummies. 2003. xxii + 356 pages, including Index. October 10, 2007, I received a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the disease, undergone treatment, including radiation and hormone therapy, and am doing very well now, thank you. This was the first, and in some ways the best, of the books I read while informing myself about a disease which affects one male American in six. Read 16-30 October 2007.


Margaret Frazer. The Bastard’s Tale. 2003. 309 pages. One of a series of medieval mystery novels. Our detective is a prior century’s Miss Marple: a nun named Dame Frevisse. Read 1-10 October 2007.

David Drake. Lord of the Isles. 1997. 625 pages. This is the first of a nine-book fantasy series written by a friend of mine from North Carolina. I like them, and I’ve found them worth re-reading. In fact, I’m listening to the book-on-tape version as I prepare this little report. This was, perhaps, the third time I’d read the book. Read 5-22 October 2007.

The Limits of False Prosperity

When economists and economic historians come to write about the crash of 2008, I hope that they take a longer view. This wasn't just a "housing bubble," or a " bubble," or a "credit crunch." At some point, probably back in the Reagan administration, the government, corporations, and individuals all decided to "put it on the never-never." (That's an old British expression for installment payment plans, under which one could have a desirable something now, and cost of it would be stretched into the "never-never.") I could even trace it to a single tacit agreement between a national leader and the people of this country.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan promised to increase military spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget. Let me digress for a moment into the world of project management. A popular theory of project management holds that there are three conditioning factors for a project: time, money, and quality. A project manager can increase quality by spending more time or more money, or can cut the budget by decreasing quality, but you can't improve quality, use less time, and spend less money. Similarly, I think that everyone knew that it was impossible, barring some sort of miracle, to increase spending, decrease revenue, and decrease the budget deficit. But a majority of Americans, myself included, voted for Mr. Reagan, by that action tacitly agreeing to base government programs on make-believe, rather than reality.

Parenthetically, I might say that there was an escape clause here, and it lay in the ambiguity between "cutting taxes" and "lowering revenue." According to economic theories attributed to Joel Laffer, a decrease in the tax rate could lead to an increase in tax collections, because of the removal of incentives to evade taxes, and because of the stimulus to economic activity provided by the tax rate cut. My personal problem with Laffer curves is that they were based upon the experience of the early 1960s, when maximum tax rates were decreased from 91 per cent to 70 per cent. The incentive to evade, and the disincentive to invest, at 91 per cent may have been enough to increase revenue in an otherwise favorable economic climate. But there was little or no evidence about what would happen when maximum tax rates were already in the 40 per cent range.

It has become a commonplace that incomes (in real terms, i.e., adjusted for inflation) have been pretty much flat since the early 1970s, and that such income growth as has occurred has been at the upper levels. On the other hand, productivity has been rising, which would have supported substantial wage increases. If workers, who were also consumers, could not purchase goods in some proportion to their increase production, an oversupply, with the inevitable deflation, would have occurred. Moreover, because the profits of corporations were not being distributed to the workers, money was accumulating in their accounts. What to do, what to do?

I want to make clear that I do not believe that there was some master plan at work here. I think the set of rules and incentives established in the early 1980s, along with an aversion to deferring gratification, led to the following results, which reinforced one another in various ways.

First, money was shipped overseas, for investment in foreign plants. That removed the threat of inflation due to excessive money circulating in the system.

Second, cheap products were imported from overseas. That removed the threat of cost-push inflation, by ensuring that there was always a cheap alternative.

Third, because more production was happening overseas, manufacturing jobs declined in number in the United States. And that took care of wage-driven inflation.

Fourth, a lot of jobs appeared in services. Some of these were very low-wage food service jobs, but some were commissioned sales jobs in the financial sector.

Fifth, noting that demand might not be keeping up with supply, which would lead to deflation (mustn't have deflation!), the authorities loosened all of the rules on borrowing.

In other words, because people's wages didn't go up with their productivity, they couldn't buy a lot of stuff that other people needed to sell, because so many people - mortgage brokers, stockbrokers, real estate salespeople - were commissioned. Therefore, it was in everyone's (apparent) interest to make it easy for people to borrow the money, so that they could buy houses, and cars, and appliances, and stuff. So, individuals stopped saving, and increased their borrowing. When savings occurred in spite of them, as when the values of their houses rose, they borrowed against that increased equity.

But corporations were also borrowing. I might note that one reason for this is that equity financing, which corporations pay for with dividends, lacks tax advantages over debt financing, which corporations pay for with (tax-deductible) interest. Corporations borrowed huge sums to buy other corporations, assuming their debt.

And, after a brief period in the 1990s, caused more by the inability of the branches of the government to agree on tax and spending policy, than by their agreement on a sensible approach to these things, the government has been borrowing. Not only are their constituents averse to taxes, they actually seem to believe that higher taxes are unnecessary! So President Bush cut taxes for the wealthy, and many not-so-wealthy, and then didn't rescind those cuts when he became involved in expensive overseas combat operations.

So, that's the real core of the crisis. No one, and I mean no one, has been willing to accept the spending discipline required to, in a phrase that falls quaintly on the ear, "live within their means."

I read an article in the Washington Post (National Weekly Edition) issue of October 6, which gave me a perfect example. A woman bought a townhouse in Dale City, Virginia, for $75,000 in 1993. After a number of actions, including refinancing the house for $208,000 with a reverse-amortization loan, she defaulted on the mortgage. The house reverted to Fannie Mae. They couldn't sell it at $149,000. They are now trying to sell it for $69,900. In other words, that house is worth today just about the same amount it was worth in 1993. It's always been worth $70-75,000. It has never been worth more. It, and a lot of other things, were made to appear worth more than they were, because unlimited credit led to massive inflation, which wasn't counted as such. Nobody wanted to say that the prosperity was false, or that the emperor had no clothes.

Knight's Reading List IX: September 2007

After the August 2007 reading list, you won’t be surprised to find another four Harry Potter novels on the September 2007 list. Two other novels – one good, one really bad – round out the fiction group. In non-fiction we have one computer techie book, one investment guide, one work on the Supreme Court of the United States, and one polemic on politics, religion and oil. A mixed bag, indeed, which won’t surprise those of you who know me.


Maria Langer. Quicken 2007: The Official Guide. 2007. xxvii + 484 pages, including Index. If you use Quicken, the personal finances software from Intuit, this guide could be useful for you. It has major sections on Quicken functionality for cash flow, investing, managing property and debt, financial planning and tax management. It is, of course, more of a reference than a work to be read for pleasure, or even for general information. Read 21 August-7 September 2007.

Kevin Phillips. American Theocracy. 2006. xvi + 462 pages, including Notes and Index. Kevin Phillips became famous – famous in political junkie circles, anyway – back in the 1960s, when he published The Emerging Republican Majority. In that book, he accurately predicted some of the major trends in the partisan politics of the next forty years. The South became Republican territory, the Sun Belt became the core of conservative country, and the Republicans benefited from the racial and social tensions which riddled American society. Forty years later, Phillips’s youthful enthusiasm had turned to horror: His Republican majority had given rise to George W. Bush, the religious right, and an unholy alliance between the petroleum sector and foreign oil powers. Phillips seems to feel that, because he predicted the success of the Southern Strategy, he is somehow responsible for its results. So, he has turned to writing polemics attacking the political nexus of the Bushes, the evangelicals, and the oil producers. American Dynasty (which I have not read) preceded American Theocracy. American Theocracy is heavy reading, because Phillips is no prose stylist. But it is chockful of material to feed any conspiracy theorist’s hunger for tales of the evildoers behind it all. You can fill the breaks in reading American Theocracy watching Fahrenheit 911, Jesus Camp, or Crude Awakening. Read 29 July-16 September 2007.

Charles B. Carlson. The Smart Investor’s Survival Guide. 2002. xxiii + 325 pages. I wish I had read this one earlier, but I don't know that any individual's investment decisions could have affected the impact of the recent financial crisis. There have been bigger forces at work in the credit markets, in particular - and this does relate back to Kevin Phillips and his work - the set of policies designed to allow people to improve their standards of living, without increasing the incomes which ought to have been required to support those standards. At this point, "smart investor" sounds like an oxymoron. Read 3-26 September 2007.

Earl M. Maltz. The Chief Justiceship of Warren Burger, 1969-1986. 2000. xvi + 307 pages, including Appendix, Bibliography, Index of Cases, and Subject Index. This is a volume in a series from the University of South Carolina Press, Chief Justiceships of the United States Supreme Court. At the time this book was published, volumes had been published on Melville W. Fuller, John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth, John Marshall, Stone and Vinson, and Edward Douglass White. Read 17-29 September 2007.


J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 2000. 734 pages. I suppose that one can sum up the difference between a literary novel and a genre novel written for young people in this fact: I read Goblet in eight days and Deathly Hallows in three, while it took me seven weeks to get through The Stone the Builder Refused. Read 26 August-2 September 2007.

J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. 2003. 870 pages. Read 2-8 September 2007.

J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. 2005. 652 pages. Read 8-10 September 2007.

J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 2007. 759 pages. Read 10-12 September 2007.

Elizabeth Peters. The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits. 1971. 247 pages. Elizabeth Peters, a cat fancier from Maryland, has become a prolific author of mystery novels, who is perhaps best known for her Amelia Peabody series set in late 19th- and early 20th-century Egypt. This was an early book, and it shows. Peters’ acceptance of a sort of Reefer Madness attitude toward drug use rings of Puritan disapproval. And that’s only one of the bad points in this improbable adventure set in Mexico. Read 17-19 September 2007.

Madison Smartt Bell. The Stone the Builder Refused. 2004. xvii + 747 pages. This is the third work in a trilogy on the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint Louverture. Bell does an amazing job of weaving French, Creole, and various African expression through the dialogue. His characterizations of both fictional and historical persons have depth and texture. Bell has a very solid grasp of the political realities of the relations between Haiti, Santo Domingo, France, and the United States. The title is taken from a Biblical citation, a Psalm quoted several times in the New Testament. Read 10 August-27 September 2007.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Republican Depression

I've been visiting a few Web sites on the Republican side of the fence. While there's a lot of energy on blogs like The Daily Kos, many conservatives are writing articles with titles like: "Six Things McCain Should Do to Salvage His Campaign," "There May Still Be Hope for McCain," "Oh, God! It's Going to Be a Disaster!" Well, not that last one. Here's an example by the well known and prolific Victor Davis Hanson, who frequently contributes to Commentary.

Hanson is saying that the supposed "nastiness" of McCain's campaign is merely an excuse for former supporters, or potential supporters, or people who might be expected to be supporters, to distance themselves from a losing cause. Maybe he's right, but I think there's more to it than that.

McCain likes it best when he's talking about national security. He's not an expert on economic matters, despite years on the Senate Commerce Committee, and he's not comfortable talking about the economy. Even so, he has economic advisers, he has speechwriters, he knows people who do know about the economy: So why hasn't he been able to articulate some kind of compelling, large-scale plan for dealing with the economy? I think that there are a couple of possible answers.

1) McCain is so ignorant of economic matters, and so uncomfortable discussing them, that he and his advisers are afraid to have him try to articulate a complex plan in public. I don't think this is really it, because he does know how to use a Tele-Prompter, but maybe it is. In which case, I'd really worry about how President McCain would deal with issues outside his comfort zone.

2) All of the plans his advisers have come up with would anger some constituent group. This is a possibility. You will have noted that both he and Senator Obama have dodged questions about what programs they'd have to cut, which promises they'd have to break, and which groups would have to suffer, because of the cost of the economic rescue plan. It's also obvious that some of McCain's supporters are really unhappy about "socialism," and here's McCain himself proposing that the government become the biggest mortgage banker in the country.

In any event, I think, pace Hanson, that some people are genuinely turned off by the negative tone of the McCain campaign. (They don't like negatives from Obama, either, but he's ahead, so he's doing less of that.) Moreover, it demonstrates a paucity of ideas relevant to popular concerns. That is, if McCain had a really good answer on the economy, he'd be pushing it instead of going negative. That he and Governor Palin are spending so much time attacking Senator Obama and his positions, serves as a marker that they don't have good proposals of their own.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Constitution and Personhood

One of the claims that appears to be important to the anti-abortion position is that embryos have rights. It may then be presumed that when the rights of the embryo are in conflict with the rights of the putative mother, some balanced resolution must be reached. Since abortion ends the existence of the embryo and, hence, any ability of the embryo to exercise any rights, it would seem that any reasonable balance precludes abortion entirely. In fact, some exponents argue that the rights of a pregnant woman can be quite significantly limited, in order to ensure that she carries her pregancy to term. If, however, embryos lack rights, then no such balance need be struck, and the regulation of abortion can proceed on other grounds.

The rights of citizens and residents of the United States are specified, or at the least adumbrated, in the Constitution of the United States and a number of the amendments thereto. I have attached the entire text of the Fifth Amendment, and the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, as containing passages relevant to the instant controversy. One of the notable points is that, while some of the rights or privileges alluded to in the Fourteenth Amendment belong to citizens of the United States, while the equal protection of the laws is extended to all persons “within its jurisdiction.”

In other essays, I have argued that an embryo is not, on the face of it, a human being, and that the two conditions are mutually exclusive. That is, a human being isn’t a human being until it has been born, while an embryo ceases to be an embryo when it is born. If find that the language of the Fourteenth Amendment suggests that the same position is held by the Constitution. The amendment states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The plain meaning of this statement is that one is neither a citizen nor a person until after one has been born. Since all of the rights granted by the Constitution accrue to persons, and some only to citizens, it is obvious that there are no rights under the Constitution accruing to an embryo.

I think a simple illustration will make this clear. A citizen is a person “born or naturalized in the United States.” This principle, which is known as the jus soli, the “law of the soil,” means that the fundamental criterion for American citizen is birth in this country. It is well known that a pregnant Mexican citizen may enter the United States, have the baby in California or New Mexico, and thus gain a claim to U.S. citizenship for the child. But birth is a critical element in this scenario. A German citizen woman may come to the United States, become pregnant here, spend eight months of her pregnancy in the United States, and lose any claim to U.S. citizenship for the child by giving birth in Germany. In other words, no claim to citizenship is accrued during time spent as an embryo in the United States.

The critical Constitutional dividing line between person and non-person, eligibility for citizenship and lack of eligibility, is the actual birth. Thus, prior to birth, an embryo has no Constitutional rights, although, immediately upon being born alive within our boundaries, a baby acquires certain rights.
Due Process in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments

Article [V]

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Article XIV

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Knight's Reading List VIII: August 2007

I finished reading eight books during August 2007. Three were works of fiction, and five were non-fiction. Of the latter, one was about the origins of the Islamic religion, while another was about the origins of some of America’s constitutional protections. One was occasioned by my trip that summer to the Pacific Northwest, another by my interest in investment strategies, and the last by seeing that one of my favorite journalists had written a book on a particular battle in the war in Iraq.


3 August: Tor Andrae. Mohammed: The Man and His Faith. Translated by Theophil Menzel. 1955. 194 pages, including Index. I began reading this one on July 22, 2007. This is an old book, translated into English in 1955, years after it was first published. (Mohammed, Sein Leben und Sein Glaube, Goettingen, 1932. It is still an interesting introduction to the founder of Islam, and to the way in which information about Mohammed has come down to us. The discussions of Islamic doctrine are spare – I might say mere outlines - but very clear.

7 August: Leonard W. Levy. Origins of the Bill of Rights. 1999. xii + 306 pages, including Appendix, Bibliography, and Index. I read this one between July 21 and August 7, 2007. Since I read this book, I ran across a reference to Levy at the end of Gore Vidal’s novel Burr (1973). Levy has written many books, and many of those are on aspects of constitutional law. This is a very different book to Akhil Reed Amar’s The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction, (1998), which I read some years ago, and, to be frank, I found some of Levy’s accounts hard to accept. But he covers the ground, and tries to provide an understanding of how these critical amendments came about, and why they were felt to be necessary.

9 August: David D. Alt and Donald W. Hyndman. Roadside Geology of Washington. 1994. xii + 288 pages, including Glossary, Suggested Reading, and Index. I started this book on 29 July 2007. I love the Roadside Geology books. In some cases, including this one, a new edition is badly needed. Still, the ability to look at the surrounding scenery from a roadside viewpoint, and find an explanation of how it came to look as it does, is priceless. I found one fact of some personal interest: The part of Washington State in which I grew up, the extreme northeast corner, contains the only remaining accessible rocks from the original North American continent. Anything else left of that ancient continent is buried under thousands of feet of volcanic rock, and all the rest of the state has been formed by subcontinents being pulled by subsidence trenches into the embrace of the land.

20 August: James J. Cramer. Jim Cramer’s Real Money. 2005. ix + 300 pages, including Index. I read this book between 11 and 20 August, 2007. I’ve been seeing Jim Cramer on television a lot, lately. Real Money might help more in these difficult times through the influence of its attitude, than by any specific piece of advice. At least it might give you the illusion of understanding what’s happening.

29 August: Martha, Raddatz. The Long Road Home. 2007. 310 pages. I read this book between August 21 and August 29, 2007. I reviewed this book at length last year, and I’ll let that description stand. Martha Raddatz is often seen on Washington Week in Review, and she has made a dozen or more trips to Iraq since 2003.


16 August: J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. 1997. 312 pages. I began reading on 13 August 2007.

21 August: J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 1999. vi + 342 pages. I started this book on August 18, 2007.

24 August: J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. 1999. 435 pages. I began reading on 21 August, as soon as I finished the previous book.

I like the Harry Potter series. When the last of the books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in the summer of 2007, I bought a copy for my wife. It was the first of the books I had bought in hardcover; we had the first six volumes in paperback. So, while I was waiting for her to finish Deathly Hallows, I re-read all six of the earlier stories. It is interesting to watch Rowling bring her characters along to increasing maturity, as well as increasing knowledge, and how some of the elements in the earlier books are brought back in the later ones. Events or actions that had a certain significance to the young characters in one of the first books are appreciated differently by the more mature characters later in the series.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Basis for the Surge

The reading list for July 2007 that I just posted reminded me of a lot of the material I was reading from June-August of last year, much of it about Iraq. The war wasn't going well then, either on the ground in Iraq or back home in the United States. The war seemed to be going badly in ways that raised questions about the military and political leadership of the U.S. The titles of the bestselling books about the war indicated the state of mind in Washington and New York - and possibly in Baghdad. State of Denial, by Bob Woodward, calls up the image of a president and an administration out of touch with the problems on the ground, and trying not to admit that there are any problems in need of new solutions. Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks, with its image of an [empty] flask, evokes a situation in which an enormous amount of blood and treasure has resulted in nothing. And Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City is, in some ways, even worse, because it portrays the people on the ground, the ones closest to the situation, hermetically sealed into a space capsule where they never see an Iraqi.

Bad stuff. Lots of bad stuff was happening.

And then the surge happened.

Senator McCain likes to say that he pushed for the surge, he supported the surge, and that the surge was a new strategy for the Iraq war. As far as I can tell, that is true to the extent that McCain supported additional troops for Iraq. That was, in strategic terms, extremely risky. One of the basic principles of military strategy is don't reinforce defeat! Don't, in other words, throw good money after bad. It also might have seemed to violate another strategic axiom: Don't put your forces into battle piecemeal! I don't know how much the Senator from Arizona contributed to the real novelty of the surge, which was, as a friend of mine phrased it today, indigenous participation. The whole point of the surge was to put something into the empty slogan that U.S. troops would stand down as Iraqi troops stood up.

The problem before the surge was that the people who might have wanted to oppose the insurgencies (and there were several of them) didn't dare, and the Iraqi security forces, to the extent they weren't part of the problem, weren't able to make that potential opposition feel safe. The surge put enough U.S. troops on the ground to make some Iraqis feel that the insurgents might not be the winning side. Some of the Sunnis turned on Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Some of the Sunnis allied themselves with the U.S. forces. Some of the Shiites started pushing back on the Mahdi Army and other militias. And those changes elicited from the Iraqi people other changes in the same direction.

In short, the surge set in motion a virtuous circle, a spiral moving and expanding in the right direction. If you want to see where the circle was going before the summer of 2007, read any of the books I mention in "Knight's Reading List VII: July 2007."

Knight's Reading List VII: July 2007

Knight’s Reading List VII: July 2007

Now that I’ve posted a reading list – see “Knight’s Reading List VI: June 2007” posted October 6, 2008 – I keep thinking how long ago I read those books. I feel the need to bring things closer to the present, to my present concerns and what I’ve been reading lately. In part, I think this may be helpful to those who read my other contributions to this blog, by letting them know more about my sources and inspirations.

In July 2007 I finished seven books. One of them had been “in the works” for a couple of years. Several were books about Al-Qaeda and the war in Iraq that I read while traveling in the Pacific Northwest. One was a mediocre historical novel set in Byzantium. This was, perhaps, an odd mix.

1 July: Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald Frame. 1958. xxiii + 883 pages, including Index. I began reading this book in 2004 or early 2005, and started up again in July 2005. It took me an incredibly long time to read Montaigne, particularly as I enjoyed the essays greatly while reading them. The very richness of the essays was part of the problem I had; the classical allusions alone in some of the essays would give me material for reflection for days. Montaigne sends one scurrying off to Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Plutarch’s Lives, just to find out the meaning of some intriguing passage. There is in these essays a model for the would-be essayist, as well as reflections upon many affairs of interest. The man was his work, and the work is the man, and many will find Montaigne a good companion.

4 July: H. N. Turtletaub, Justinian. 1998. 511 pages. I began reading on 12 May 2008. I had read a number of books by Harry Turtledove, who writes alternate universe science fiction. He is workmanlike, but he is, if anything, too prolific. He spreads himself and his subject matter a bit thin at times. This historical novel was readable. Compared to Gore Vidal, however, Turtletaub is crude and amateurish at his task.

7 July: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower. 2006. 470 pages. I began reading it on 7 June 2008. This is a sinister book. It starts with Said Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist who visited the United States back in the 1950s, and went back to Cairo determined to reject the materialist ways of the West. It picks up with the Egyptian Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and it comes, eventually, to Osama bin Laden himself. Part biography, part the history of a political movement, The Looming Tower doesn’t really explain why bin Laden became the head of Al Qaeda, or how it works, but it provides a lot of interesting insights into the revolutionary as capitalist manqué. I found that my concept of how the U.S. and the West could deal with the challenge of Islam challenged by the complex implications of Wright’s description of this multi-faceted movement.

13 July: Thomas Ricks, Fiasco. 2006. xiv + 482 pages, including Notes, Acknowledgements and Index. I began this one on 2 July 2007. As you can tell, Fiasco was a pretty fast read. Ricks is a reporter for the Washington Post, and he got to meet a lot of people, both in Washington and in Iraq. This is almost as high-level as Bob Woodward’s book, and gives one the same sense that a lot of the people charged with setting Iraq policy either didn’t know what they were doing, are were so encumbered by ideological blinders that they couldn’t bring themselves to do what needed to be done. I have the feeling that instant history of this sort will be supplanted, one day, by more thoughtful histories, which may, however, lose a lot of the atmosphere.

15 July: Bob Woodward, State of Denial. 2006. xiv + 560 pages, including Sources and Index. I began reading this on 4 July 2007. This is the third of Woodward’s books on the post 911 military actions of the U.S. Government. I intentionally read the first two – Bush at War and Plan of Attack before tackling State of Denial. My main reason for that choice was that I read in many reviews, favorable and unfavorable, from the right and from the left, that Woodward in this book “turned on” George W. Bush. (I finished Bush at War in October 2006, and Plan of Attack in November, so it took me a while to execute my program.) I don’t think Woodward changed at all. A lot of comments in the earlier books sounded like compliments as long as everything was going well; once the war turned sour, the same kinds of comments seemed uncomplimentary. Woodward’s technique is much like Ricks’, or any good reporter: He talks to a lot of people, records what they say, and then collates all of these interviews into a picture. That picture becomes grimmer and grimmer in the course of State of Denial, but I don’t think that Woodward was cooking the books. Like a good camera, he was presenting what he saw, and what he saw no longer made the White House look good.

19 July: Deborah J. Bennett, Logic Made Easy. 2004. 256 pages, including Notes, References and Index. I began this book on 4 July 2007. I’ve read quite a few books on logic, some more academic than others. I’m not sure where Deborah J. Bennett goes wrong, but this is less engaging than the ultimate dry logic book, W. V. Quine’s Elementary Logic. I don’t recommend this one. Not at all. Nope.

24 July: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. 2006. 320 pages. I started reading this on 10 July 2007. This is most enjoyable of the several Iraq books I read during this period. The “emerald city” of the title is a play on the “Green Zone” in Baghdad, and the resemblance to Oz is not accidental. An American outpost in a Muslim country where pork chops, bacon, ham, and hot dogs were served in huge quantities by the Muslim kitchen staff, the Green Zone had very little connection to the real world, and most of the people there treated it entirely as a way station en route to their next assignment in the States. Chandrasekaran, who, like Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, lived outside the Green Zone, tries to focus on the contrast between what was happening in the real Iraq, and the perceptions inside the hothouse atmosphere of the Pentagon’s Middle Eastern branch.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Knight's Reading List VI: June 2007

I haven't posted one of these in a while. I think it's about time to remind people that one of my primary activities is, and always has been, reading. I read a lot, I read widely, and some of what I read is pretty ephemeral - mystery novels, fantasies, and so on. But even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes, and I sometimes come up with a good book.

In June 2007 I finished only six books, but a couple of them were extraordinarily good.

2 June: Stanley Portny, Project Management for Dummies. 2007. xviii + 366 pages. Begun on 4 May 2007. I like the "for Dummies" books, and doggone it! this was a pretty good one.

4 June: Nicholas Falletta, The Paradoxicon. 1983. xx + 230 pages. Begun on 2 June 2007. Interested in logic? Interested in strange, mind-twisting paradoxes? Interested in how paradoxes helped to develop the theory of logical thinking? Then this is a terrific book for you. It's a collection of paradoxes, with solutions when they are soluble. Of course it includes the riddle of "Who shaves the barber?", a paradox that changed modern thought. This is a lot of fun.

9 June: Gore Vidal, Lincoln. 1984. 657 pages. Begun on 12 May 2007. I read this book at the same time as the next one. They're both about Abraham Lincoln. They're both solidly based in good historical research. They were in some ways complementary, as when I used the maps in Kearns Goodwin's book to retrace the movements of Vidal's characters. But Vidal uses the power of fiction to fill in the gaps in the historical record, and leaves us a fascinating portrait of a great man, surrounded by rivals and enemies, and eventually brought down by them. They killed Lincoln, but they couldn't defeat him.

15 June: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals. 2005. xix + 916 pages. Begun 20 May 2007. This history is a welcome addition to the enormous volume of Lincolniana and Civil War histories. Goodwin's focus, like Vidal's, is on the personalities and interests of the men in Lincoln's cabinet, and the women who loved them. This book has some excellent illustrations, but Goodwin's descriptions of these personalities penetrate behind the paralytic photographs of the day.

23 June: John McPhee, Uncommon Carriers. 248 pages. Begun 18 June 2007. I note that I got through the 248 pages of McPhee's Uncommon Carriers in just six days. This is a collection of seven essays about transportation workers, and the systems within which they work. McPhee rides with a long-haul trucker, travels up the Illinois River on a tugboat pushing a raft of barges, and retraces Henry David Thoreau's canoe trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers. McPhee is a terrific essayist. Gay Talese, in his introduction to a volume of The Best American Essays, mentions that McPhee came up as one of the "new journalists." I've read several of McPhee's books, including Annals of the Former World and The Founding Fish, and his technique is always the same: he finds someone who works in a field, and lives with that person, drawing out the individual life, the career it represents, and the subject matter upon which that career depends. Always worth reading, often surprising, sometimes touching.

30 June: Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent. 1989. 314 pages. Begun 20 June 2007. Bill Bryson spent twenty years living and working in England. Then he came back to the United States, and started to relearn his native land. In this book Bryson describes his travels from Iowa around the United States, visiting and sometimes revisiting various quarters of the country. He stays away from the coasts, preferring to travel the inland roads, through the small towns and rural areas of the country. This book invites comparison with William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, written fifteen or twenty years earlier.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mighty Oaks from Tiny Acorns Grow

In a previous essay, I discussed how everyone knows that chickens and eggs are different, even though eggs may develop into chickens. When we confuse the potential to become something with being that thing itself, this is called the “genetic fallacy.” Another example should clearly illustrate the workings of this fallacy.

As everyone knows, acorns are the fruit of oak trees. Even the scrub oak we have in the canyons around Colorado Springs produce acorns, though they’re small acorns, coming as they do from trees so small they really count as brush. An acorn will, under the right circumstances - given a nice patch of soil, sufficient water and sunlight, and if not disturbed by greedy squirrels or other rodents - grow into an oak tree. Now, a lot of them don’t grow up to be full-grown, because they compete for space and nutrients, or because droughts happen, or maybe because deer eat the little seedlings. And that illustrates one aspect of the genetic fallacy: one reason that the potential to develop into something is not the same as being that thing is that the development is not inevitable.

We can also talk about how we value things differently, even though one has the potential to turn into the other. If your neighbor has a stand of oak trees, 60 or 80 feet high, and with nice, thick foliage, that adds a lot of value to his lot. If you go over and cut one of those trees and take the wood home to your fireplace, you’re going to be guilty of theft or, at least, a civil tort. (In California, I recall hearing, there are triple damages for killing someone’s trees.) On the other hand, if you go walking down his sidewalk in the fall, when it’s strewn with acorns, you can step on those acorns and destroy them without fear of any negative consequences (unless you slip and fall): acorns are not valuable.

One way to put it is that an oak tree (or its owner) has a right against wanton destruction. And that means that other people have an obligation not to destroy the oak tree. Acorns have no rights, and people aren’t obliged to respect them. I suppose you might say that trees, like people, grow into their rights. And there’s nothing strange about asserting that a fetus doesn’t get all the rights of a living human being, just because it has the potential to turn into one. A living child doesn’t have all the rights of an adult human being, even though it, too, has the potential to become one.

This is the genetic fallacy at work. In the area of abortion, when someone asserts that a conceptus, an embryo, a fetus, is a “human being,” there is some equivocation going on. Certainly, a fertilized human egg may have the potential to develop into a human being. It is not, however, a human being at the moment of conception, and it doesn’t have the rights we expect a human being to have.

The Chicken and the Egg

There is an ancient riddle about which came first, the chicken or the egg. This riddle has become proverbial as a marker for situations in which it is impossible to state with certainty which of two events caused the other. “It’s a chicken and egg situation,” they say. But this is not about that riddle. For the purposes of this brief essay, the egg comes first. The egg comes before the chicken, because it is the egg which must develop into the chicken.

I don’t eat fried chicken much any more: too much cholesterol. It’s really too bad that I have to watch my diet that way, because I grew up on my mother’s fried chicken, and it was really good. I remember loving fried chicken when my mother would cook it up for Sunday dinner. I would have been surprised - no, I would have been shocked - if I had sat down to the table, expecting a platter of golden-brown fried chicken, and been handed a bowl of scrambled eggs instead. I think most of you would have been disappointed, and even if you like scrambled eggs better than chicken, you surely know the difference.

We all know the difference between a chicken and an egg. They look different, they act differently, and they certainly taste different when they’re cooked. And yet, according to some people, there’s no difference between a chicken and an egg. They’ll tell you that an egg has all the DNA of a chicken, and that an egg, once fertilized, will certainly become a chicken. And isn’t that the same thing? Well, no. If Wendy’s handed out fried-egg sandwiches to people who ordered their Crispy Chicken sandwiches, they’d have a riot on their hands.

There was an essay in the Sunday Gazette here in Colorado Springs stating that very thing, but using people instead of chickens as an example. There’s a ballot measure here to recognize embryos as legal persons as soon as conception occurs, and we’ll have to vote on that November 4. One of the arguments used in favor of the initiative is that embryos are people, because they have all the DNA of a human being, so they should count as human beings themselves.

Now, as soon as you think about chickens and eggs, and realize that a fetus is the equivalent of an egg for a mammal, you’ll realize that embryos and fetuses aren’t people. They’re potential people, and, under the right circumstances, in about nine months, they’ll turn into real, independent people. But there’s nothing certain about it. Just as many eggs end up as omelettes, instead of turning into frying chickens, about half of all concepti spontaneously abort. All that DNA is necessary to make a human being, but it isn’t sufficient. There’s a lot more to being a human being than just having the right set of chromosomes.