Mike Kueber's Blog

August 29, 2013

Sunday Book Review #105 – Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 4:18 am
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Thomas Sowell is notorious in some circles because he is a black conservative academic.  Conversely, he is a hero in conservative circles because of his Horatio Alger story – i.e., grow up in Harlem, drop out of high school, serve in Marines during Korean War, earn degrees from Harvard (B.A.), Columbia (M.A.) and Chicago (Ph.D.), become a professor at various universities, columnist, and write more than 30 books.

Sowell’s latest book is titled Intellectuals and Race.  Sowell begins the book by observing that intellectuals during the past century shifted from believing that blacks in America failed to achieve success because they were genetically inferior to now believing that they failed because of white discrimination.  The main thesis of the book is that both beliefs were adopted by intellectuals without applying academic rigor to question or challenge the belief.  If academic rigor were applied, according to Sowell, it would reveal that all groups – racial, ethnic, nationality, or otherwise – have varying levels of success based on their skills, experience, and general capabilities and it is unreasonable to believe that all the current differences are due to discrimination.  In fact, Sowell believes that the effect of discrimination is dramatically overstated by intellectuals, and he points to Asian achievement in America as proof that minorities can succeed.  But minority success must be earned by assimilating and acquiring new skills, experience, and general capabilities, not by remaining tied to their heritage while insisting on their proportionate share of America’s bounty.

A book that I recently reviewed, What Went Wrong, criticized Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand – two people I admire – for giving academic/intellectual cover to the greedy economic theories of Reagan and Bush.  Coincidentally, Sowell is the Milton Friedman Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and I appreciate the academic/intellectual cover that he provides to me for the beliefs that I share with him.

August 27, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #80 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Jack Reacher

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:30 pm
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I haven’t watched many movies lately, partly because I’ve been preoccupied and partly because there aren’t a lot of new ones that have caught my attention.  But today I had some free time and two Netflix DVDs sitting on my end table, so I gave them a gander – The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Jack Reacher.

Both movies came out in 2012 and couldn’t be more different.

The Perks was much better received by critics and audiences, with a Rotten Tomato rating of 85% from critics and 90% from audiences.  By contrast, Reacher received mediocre scores from critics (61%) and audiences (68%).  The Perks is a coming-of-age movie with a no-name cast, while Reacher is a Tom Cruise thriller.  Not surprisingly, the no-name, much-loved movie grossed less than $20 million domestically and about $15 million internationally while Cruise in a mediocre movie brought in $80 million domestically and $135 million internationally.

In an amazing coincidence, both movies were filmed in Pittsburg and even more coincidentally, they both highlighted a tunnel leading into downtown.  My son Jimmy attends a college about 40 miles from Pittsburg, and he’s previously mentioned how much he enjoyed taking that tunnel into downtown, so the next time I’m in the area, I will make it a point to experience it.

How did I rate the movies – Reacher gets two and a half stars because, although there’s nothing very special about it, it did keep my interest throughout.  The Perks is a bit better at three stars, but coming-of-age for high schoolers is too young for my taste.

August 10, 2013

Sunday Book Review #104 – What Went Wrong? by George Tyler and Giving Kids a Fair Chance by James Heckman

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Education — Mike Kueber @ 12:52 pm
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What Went Wrong is subtitled, “How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class… and What Other Countries Got Right.”  According to author George Tyler, America has been going to hell in a hand basket ever since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, with only a momentary respite while Bill Clinton was in office.  If that viewpoint suggests that Tyler is partisan, that would be correct – i.e., he has worked in government for Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Lloyd Bentsen, and President Clinton.

According to Tyler, the other countries that have got it right are Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  These countries, at least according to the metrics that Tyler presents, have outperformed America since 1980.  The metrics that Tyler relies on are focused on the economic success of the middle class, something he calls family prosperity.  Although the American economy as a whole has outperformed these other economies, most of the progress in America has inured to the benefit of the 1%, which is where Tyler believes it will stay because the trickle-down concept is imaginary.

Tyler is convinced that Ronald Reagan, with his program of Reaganomics, is fully responsible for America’s dire situation.  He also places a lot of blame on two of my economic heroes – Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand – for providing intellectual cover for Reagan to implement Reaganomics, which Tyler describes as follows:

  • A culture of selfishness instead of a culture of responsibility
  • Government is invariably dangerous
  • Regulatory capture instead of wariness of corporate influence
  • Shareholder capitalism instead of stakeholder capitalism
  • Weak corporate governance instead of co-determination
  • Tax-cut cultists
  • Deficits don’t matter
  • Illusory prosperity instead of genuine wealth creation
  • Rising income disparity
  • Reducing opportunity
  • Economic mythmaking

One of Tyler’s big criticisms of the American economy and its shareholder capitalism is its excessive focus on short-term results, which contrasts with the long-term focus of stakeholder capitalism.  He also complains that the objective of any economy has to be, not the amount of wealth that it creates, but rather the amount of wealth that is widely dispersed to everyone throughout the economy.  I agree heartily with both of those positions, and Tyler does us a service in emphasizing them.  And his proposals, such as better corporate governance, resistance to regulatory capture, and improved fiscal responsibility, can move America in a better direction.

But, despite his protestations of ambivalence about the European welfare state, I get the sense that Tyler would be quite comfortable with that, and that causes me to be skeptical of broadly adopting his thesis.

After reading the voluminous, dystopian What Went Wrong (467 scholarly pages), I shifted to something more manageable and upbeat.  Giving Kids a Fair Chance by James Heckman is a short, optimistic book (only 132 small pages, with many of the pages blank).  The book has three sections:

  1. Giving Kids a Fair Chance.  Like Tyler in the What Went Wrong book, Heckman provides his analysis of the growing inequality in America, and suffice to say he doesn’t blame it on greedy corporations.  Rather he blames it on bad parenting.  To solve the problem of bad parenting, Heckman suggests that there needs to be early-childhood intervention by public and private entities.
  2. Forum.  Ten experts provide their opinion of Heckman’s diagnosis and prescription.
  3. Aiding the Life Cycle.  Heckman responds to the critics.

The lead sentence in this book is, “The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today.”  From there, Heckman goes on to show how the quality of parenting affects the future success of children.  Parents with income and education generally produce children with better cognitive and social skills that often translate into a successful life.  (Heckman is careful to point out, however, that there is a correlation between income/education and good parenting, but not necessarily a causal relationship.)  And the final building block for Heckman is his studied conclusion that early intervention (pre-K) with children who are not receiving good parenting is much more effective and efficient than later efforts.

Most of the experts agreed with Heckman’s diagnosis and prescription, but quibbled over its narrow scope.  Some argued that there is a lot more “rotten in Denmark” than bad parenting or that the fix has to go beyond intervening with the parents.  Others, such as Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame, argued that Heckman cherry-picked favorable small studies regarding pre-K interventions and ignored larger unfavorable studies (e.g., the infamous Head Start study of 2012).

Heckman responded to the critics by baldly asserting that Murray misrepresented the studies and that unsuccessful interventions did not disprove alternative successful interventions.  He also chided some for being cultural relativists who were not really interested in solving the problem.

Because socio-economic mobility has become stunted in America, and because I accept Heckman’s thesis that the parenting gap is a principal cause of the absence of mobility, I think Heckman’s public-policy recommendations for early intervention by public and private groups makes a lot of sense.

Incidentally, Heckman also points out that cognitive skills are generally formed by age 11 while social skills are malleable until the mid-20s, and this fact needs to affect the type of intervention attempted).








A childfree life

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 1:33 am
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Time magazine last week did an article on the growing trend toward living the childless life, or what it prefers to call the childfree life.  This week, while patting its back for bringing national attention to the issue, the magazine mentioned an op-ed column in the LA Times that was written in response to the Time magazine article.  According to Time magazine, the LA Times piece by Meghan Daum said, “Parenting is a momentous job that should be undertaken only by those who really want it.  And for whatever reason, I just never have….  The children we never had would thank us.  And so should you.”

Daum’s first statement about doing something momentous only if you “really want it” was bad enough, but her second statement about her unborn children thanking her rendered me almost apoplectic.  Knowing how the media sometimes takes things out of context, I decided to give Daum a chance to better explain herself by reading the entire column, which certainly places her in a more reasonable light.

In the column, Daum describes some of the common criticisms of her ilk:

  • “… not having kids is a function of narcissism, materialism and, it goes without saying, selfishness. There’s frequent talk of wanting to sleep late, take exotic vacations at the spur of the moment, and dote on ‘fur babies’ (that would be pets) who don’t talk back. Pronouncements like ‘My reason for not having kids is that Porsche sitting in my driveway’ and ‘I can’t even take care of myself!’ are typical refrains.  This kind of talk always makes me cringe (ditto for the overpopulation lectures).”

Ultimately, Daum’s argument comes down to – “I cringe because knowing yourself well enough to realize you’re not up for parenthood is the definition of taking care of yourself. Moreover, it’s the definition of being a moral, ethical human being.”

Call me cynical, but I think Daum is rationalizing.  Someone with the discipline to become a great writer surely has what it takes to become a good parent.  Yes, some people are naturally great parents, but the vast majority of people can be good parents.  Unlike Daum, I think these unborn kids deserve the opportunity to experience what we have been given.

Furthermore, from a purely private perspective, Daum should consider that virtually all parents, regardless of whether they were natural-born parents or parents because of societal pressure, will declare with unabashed certainty that parenting was the most satisfying experience of their lives.

August 4, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #79 – Orange is the New Black and Everybody’s All-American

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 7:27 pm
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Orange is the New Black is the latest series (13 episodes) to be presented by Netflix.  Although it has received outstanding reviews, I was tardy checking it out because I loved the recently-viewed, syndicated Felicity series (1998-2002) so much that I decided to watch all 84 of its episodes a second time.  When I finally got around to watching Orange, I was unable to get excited by it.  The leading characters are lame and the supporting cast of characters are eccentric.  And the setting – women in prison – doesn’t interest me.  By contrast, I was fascinated recently by a book about men in prison – Law Man.  After four episodes of Orange, I called it quits.

Because I so much enjoyed watching the TV show Friday Night Lights (FNL) about young men and their glory days, a friend suggested that I would certainly enjoy the 1988 movie, Everybody’s All-American.  He was right.

While FNL was about a high school football hero in west Texas, Everybody’s All-American was about a college football hero (Dennis Quaid as “the Grey Ghost” Gavin Grey) in Louisiana who went on to a successful pro career before finally having to face the real world.  Gavin seems like a level-headed guy who didn’t take his athletic success too seriously, but gradually his inability to do anything productive starts eating at him, especially when his adoring public continues to insist that he play the role of football All-American.

Grey’s journey into the real world is both helped and hurt by his wife Jessica Lange.  It is helped because Jessica is a loving, considerate, hard-working wife; it is hurt because Jessica is a homecoming queen who had married into athletic royalty.

The third important person in this drama is Gavin’s young nephew played by Timothy Hutton.  Initially, he is a wide-eyed observer, but gradually he becomes important to Lange as someone she can talk to.  Imagine the contrast between Everybody’s All-American and a sensitive kid who eventually gets a doctorate and becomes a college professor.

The Rotten Tomato scores were a complete surprise – 30% by the critics and 46% by the audience.  I loved the movie, especially the ending, which was much more upbeat the Frank Deford’s novel upon which it was based.  The movie works because all three of the principal characters are endearing and sympathetic, especially Gavin.  I give it three and a half stars out of four.


Sunday Book Review #103 – Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:53 pm
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Although I have generally found subtitles to be revealing, the subtitle of this book – “Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV” – is a bit hyperbole.  In his Acknowledgments sections, the author Brian Stelter, a NY Times media reporter, talks about his initial idea to write a book about television news and then being channeled by agents and publishers into writing about the morning news.  Stelter may feel like the morning news, especially with the demise of Ann Curry last year, is dramatic stuff for a book, or even a movie, but I found the story to be relatively mundane and pedestrian.  Personalities in ratings-dependent jobs will operate under a lot of stress, but nowhere near that of athletes.  When someone like Curry doesn’t deliver good ratings, she will be replaced, but don’t expect us to cry for her like NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof did:

  • The way it was handled by NBC was unforgivable.  They humiliated her; they treated her in a way that I thought was utterly insulting.”

I suspect most normal people would not be insulted by being removed from the Today anchor desk at $4 million a year with her contract ending shortly and being given a new five-year contract as a roving anchor for $5 million a year.  Insult me like that anytime you want.