Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age

Too often we seek big, dramatic and comprehensive change when the far more common and effective way to make change in a democratic system is through a grinding and collaborative approach.

One way that’s the case is because making real change requires three stages (the politics, the policy and implementing the practice) but we commonly forget that third step. All told, incrementalism gets a bad rap. Nearly all lasting change has happened gradually, not boldly. The world is complex, no coalition is ideologically cohesive and those implementing change are flawed.

That’s the case made in the 2023 book “Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age,” written by two longtime advocates in criminal justice reform, Aubrey Fox and Greg Berman. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Ron Desantis: Courage to be Free

What can a campaign book say that a candidate can’t on a campaign trail?

I read them when I want to hear from a serious candidate with whom I am not especially aligned. Daily campaign reporting follows minor crisis. I like to understand how these candidates want to be packaged.

That’s why I read Florida governor Ron Desantis’s new book Courage to be Free. It isn’t especially well-written (no ghost writer?), and there’s plenty of trite talking points (lots of Fauci bashing). But there are a few worthwhile criticisms.

Below I share my notes for future reference (and plenty of questions he leaves unaswered).

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Where are the 5+ million prime age men missing from the workforce?

A small segment of men out earn everyone else, but that’s not the dominant story of the American economy of the last 50 years: Men are falling out of the economy.

Overall: Higher rates of education, a sprawling prison population and antisocial-like behavior (despair) seem to account for at least five million missing prime-age men from the workforce.

% of Prime Age Men Without Work

The unemployment rate as an indicator entirely misses the crisis of labor-force participation among prime age men — because waves of men aren’t even trying to get formal work anymore. It’s ignored for many reasons, one of which may be that it doesn’t fit a progressive priorities, so it’s largely been voiced by conservatives — with a few exceptions. This is not happening in any other rich country save for Italy; This needs to be an issue of national and bipartisan interest.

That’s the main theme of Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, a book by demographer Nicholas Eberstadt. The book was first published in 2016, though I read an updated pandemic version published in 2022 amid dramatic economic shifts.

I’ve backed into this sort of trend-reporting when I covered how tenure rates have changed over time, and I’ve come across Eberstadt’s work elsewhere. I took his new pandemic release asa reason to read his full work. It’s urgent and nuanced and interesting and important.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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The End of The World is Just The Beginning: Peter Zeihan

The American-led global system has led to remarkable peace and prosperity — and it is ending.

After World War II, unwilling or unable to maintain a truly global empire of old, the Americans built up Allies, not colonies — which would have been the historic norm. This worked, allowing a truly low cost and safe international trading regime which was subsidized by the US Navy. Supply anywhere could meet demand anywhere — a truly impossible utopian dream. This made sense for the US until the end of the Cold War, and it was continued in the 1990s unipolar world but it isn’t necessary. The threat of a rising China, which is aging rapidly and is heavily reliant on the American led global system too, is overblown. Globalization is over, and it’s time to understand what’s next.

That’s the bulk of geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan, colorful, crisp and chilling book of realpolitik from last year: The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (He has cool maps and visuals here). Zeihan’s speciality is in geopolitics and demography but he writes with clarity and humor while still retaining a sense of authority. He has his critics but I appreciated his voice. I’ve enjoyed his lectures online.

He’s all about “Geography of Success,” how much where you live determines your outcomes. His view of “deglobization” means the end of large-scale farming and return of widespread famine, he argues, but he bets that North America will do well in the coming decades. Central to this premise is US disinterest. Rather than active US involvement that many found “distasteful,” we’ll move to US disinterest that many around the world will find “terrifying,” he argues.

“Recent decades have been the best time in human history, and we are never going back.”

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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935 Lies: what journalism learned from the War in Iraq

The Bush administration made 935 lies to extend the specious connection between the attacks of Sept. 11 and the American invasion of Iraq. So says longtime investigative journalist and journalism champion Charles Lewis in his reporting and 2014 book entitled “935 Lies.”

Lewis uses the book to champion the importance of investigative journalism, the role of journalists more generally and an engaged citizenry. Lewis is part of a class of journalists whose careers spanned the golden age of American journalism, when the business models worked and audience reach was an essential monopoly. That has all changed, yet his perspective is still welcome. The book is drier than I expected, but the mix professional memoir and treatise on journalism was full of insight.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Thomas Piketty’s Time for Socialism

Inequality is endemic to any capitalistic system. Unchecked over time, wealth will accrue to a set of financial winners. One of government’s chief responsibilities is to balance fairness with efficiency. Redistribution is thorny but it is a necessary component of the system.

The rich world debate on wealth and income inequality has been largely powered by Thomas Piketty, a leftist French economist that rose to global prominence with his surprise 2014 global bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He gave rise to the 1% vs. 99% framing. Since, he’s argued for more aggressive governmental intervention.

That case includes Time for Socialism, a collection published last year of his columns from 2016-2021. The collection read more like day-old bagels than I expected; It felt very much like an effort to capture the attention of Piketty’s .Still, there were points I found compelling. I’ve shared my notes from the collection below.

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Woke Inc

Coca-Cola is one of the largest and best known consumer products companies in the world. Many of its products contribute to the rich world’s obesity epidemic. Rather than confront that very real harm, company leaders have instead found a convenient distraction in pledges and policies around social issues.

That’s one example that biotech executive turned Republican Presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy puts forward in his 2021 book Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.

Today’s obsessive use of “woke” by American conservatives to dismiss any progressive policy or perspective is silly and lazy. (Even authors I follow closely have done so). I reluctantly got the book expecting another shallow rendering of partisan talking books. This isnt that. In truth, I think the “Woke Inc” title may be limiting, even if it has proven effective in selling books.

Vivek has something to contribute to the conversation. I’ve written about the perils of today’s shareholder capitalism, but Vivek offers a nuance I hadn’t seen before: Big companies are using progressive talking points to distract from challenges they are better suited to address.

As he puts it: “If you claim to owe the public everything, you will in fact owe it nothing.”

Like all of the books I read, I’m not endorsing any other author’s policy stances. I did appreciate the book, whether or not I agreed with much of the author’s conclusions. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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The Authoritarian Moment: notes from Ben Shapiro’s 2021 book

Ben Shapiro is combative and media savvy enough that he has quickly become one of the country’s best known stewards of conservatism’s future.

The conservative commentator and Daily Wire founder has staked out some considerably right-wing opinions and built a reputation for college-campus debates, in which he and progressive 20-somethings spar for social media attention. In July 2021, he published The Authoritarian Moment, his argument against the popular narrative that conservatives represent the greatest risk of authoritarianism. The greater risk is from the left, he says.

I read generously, but Shapiro just does not come across like a good-faith actor.

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Divided We Fall

Americans choose party affiliation over national identity at our own peril.

That negative polarization keeps us from uniting and using one of our country’s best designs: federalism, which could allow for disparate state-by-state experiments. So argued David French, the conservative political commentator in his fall 2020 book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.

French, a pro life conservative Christian lawyer and Iraq War veteran, has wedged himself in a debate about the future of the Republican Party, and so American life. “We are in a cold civil war,” he writes.

One cause? Tolerance: conservatives hate it and liberals misunderstand it, he writes. Or as he says Scott Alexander argues: Tolerance is misused by liberals to mean liking marginalized groups, but tolerance means tolerating something so tolerance is about tolerating out groups, not opinions you already agree with. French, who formerly lived in Center City Philadelphia while leading a free speech nonprofit, has annoyed many corners of American public life, but I appreciated his book and perspective. It’s worth reading. Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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Intellectuals and Society

If “social justice” is the work to ensure our human-made systems operate with greater fairness, then “cosmic justice” is the understanding that the universe results in countless unexpected obstacles to that goal.

At times these forces operate in competition, and to better understand the world, one must appreciate them both. That’s among the themes of Intellectuals & Society, a dense 2010 book written by conservative economist Thomas Sowell. The book is centrally a criticism of “intellectuals,” whom Sowell describes as those “dealers in ideas” who have never implemented any. By and large, he directs his ire on left-leaning academics, authors and commentators.

Sowell’s writing and speaking are frequently distributed on social media via the Hoover Institution and other right-leaning political efforts, so I was curious to dig deeper into his work. Harvard educated and associated with the conservative University of Chicago economics department (an acolyte of Milton Friedman), Sowell is himself is one of the more prominent conservative intellectuals.

The book has a few opinions that might be considered unsavory, and others that twist facts as much as he criticizes his political opponents of doing. For example, he rightly celebrates the good of a free market, but he seems unwilling to admit of any market failures — like, industry consolidation that eventually results in limited choice, or the concentration of inherited wealth that saps productivity.

But Sowell is serious and rigorous, so I follow him for his perspective. Like, John Stuart Mill wrote of those whose politics differ from your own, “know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

In particular, I appreciate two bits of criticism he lobs at the left. For one, years back I heard his challenge that progressives spend a lot of time working to redistribute wealth without pausing much to consider how that wealth is created in the first place. In my reporting, I’ve found that to be largely (if not entirely) true. Second, in this book in particular he introduces a framework between the “tragic vision” of the world, in which the world will always be messy, and the “vision of the anointed,” in which the world can be cleaned up. Sowell, who clearly identifies with the tragic vision, criticizes intellectuals as falling victim to the vision of anointed — forever trotting out some neat and clean idea to organize the world without ever caring much about how it works in practice.

I disagree with Sowell on lots of topics. But he is someone who challenges me in important ways. I respect him, so I would recommend his books, including this long and dense tome. Below I share my notes from the book for my future reference.

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