Sunday, July 23, 2017

Kill 'Em and Leave by James McBride

Hardcover, 256 pgs Pub April 5th 2016 by Spiegel & Grau (first published February 2nd 2016) ISBN13: 9780812993509

It looks like McBride did his interviews for this book about music phenom James Brown in 2012, long before this book was published in 2016. In the Foreword McBride crankily reveals he was being taken to the cleaners in a divorce settlement and he needed to write this book—any book—to bring in a little money.

Any flaws this book contains then become perfectly understandable, and McBride keeps up that level of honesty and casual explanation all the way through. This is no stilted celebrity biography covering well-trod ground. This is down home and personal, gentle conversations with the men (they were mostly men) and women who knew most about James Brown and his life.

At the end of his story, McBride highlights the 62-year-old grandmother journalist Sue Summer who, writing for the financially strapped Newberry Observer in South Carolina, has kept in the public eye the disgraceful carnage made of James Brown’s $100 million estate. Brown’s will stipulated the bulk of his estate should go to educate poor children in Georgia and South Carolina, the states where he grew up, but within days of his death on Christmas Day in 2006, his family had arrayed a bevy of lawyers to contest the will citing ‘undue influence.’

That ‘influence’ would have been the South Carolina lawyer David Cannon who had been hired by Brown to extricate him from IRS charges of underpayments. Cannon and Buddy Dallas, a Georgia lawyer, were white men who had never worked for a black boss before. They brought Brown back from destitution when his act suffered the toll performers experience when they age, and when the IRS realized they’d been robbed. They set up what they’d thought was an unbreakable trust serving poor children and then suffered personal attacks and rake-backs as the trust was contested.

James Brown played a role in McBride’s youth—in every young black man’s youth, is McBride’s contention—being a role model and human divinity of soul. His concerts and records made a difference in how the world turned. The 1960’s-70’s were the height of his popularity, but he made a mark that lasted to his death, and McBride argues, will long after. “Kill ‘em and leave,” Brown exhorted the younger men he mentored. Don’t hang around after a concert for folks to pick your carcass clean. Make ‘em wait.

McBride spins his story out slowly, the way he collected it, through innumerable interviews with band members and managers, friends, and family. He is conversational and not cruel when he tells us the plain facts of James Brown’s lonely upbringing, early incarceration, exceptional singing talent, and enormous drive. Brown never wanted to be hungry or lonely or dependent ever again, especially to the white man, who he feared.

There was a moment near the end of McBride’s story about Brown that widened out for me into a real down-home truth we all learn eventually: “there’s talent everywhere.”
“I remember having lunch years ago with a legendary record executive in L.A., bending his ear about a great unsigned singer I knew. The guy listened, nodded, yawned, reached for his triple-decker sandwich, and took a bite. ‘Great singers,’ he said between chews, ‘are a dime a dozen.’”
That’s right. That’s right for every field. If they don’t have ‘em, they’ll make ‘em. But more importantly, and listen to this: those executives—they aren’t so special either. They do a job, but somehow we’ve allowed them to capture an unnatural percentage of the take. They have nothing without the talent and the rest of the organization, but you wouldn’t know it talking to them. But there is a truth in that it takes more than talent to be a great star, if that is where you are aiming. It takes more determination than talent.

Brown had determination. He wanted to present his best side to the world, so no one would have cause to put him down. After shows he would sit through 3 hours of treatment under the hair dryer to get his pompadour back in shape…and then he would leave without seeing the fans waiting for him. Kill ‘em and leave.

I loved the way McBride told this story, mixing a little of himself in there. He’d gone to Columbia Journalism School in 1980, so was undoubtedly aware that the reporter should scrupulously keep himself out of the story. But his ease with the scene and his knowledge of the backstory, his understanding of the silences between questions and his sense of the real meaning of James Brown gave us the mystery of the man and a deep sense of his place in pantheon of black culture. I loved hearing the familiar names, Rev Al Sharpton and Michael Jackson among them, and seeing how they fit in this picture.

It’s a comfortable, unstrained telling of a difficult life built on success. Race is everywhere in this book, though it is rarely mentioned. The fact of America’s race situation both made James Brown who he was as a performer, but it constrained him as a human being. McBride gives us that, shows us how that was. A book by McBride is cause for celebration, no matter that the editing was a little off, or he repeated sections. This is a story you won’t want to miss.

It was fine to look back at James Brown at his peak, singing "It's a Man's World" in Paris in 1967. And McBride mentions the legendary 1964 TAMI concert in Santa Monica , a warm-up slot for a Rolling Stones performance that Mick Jagger forever after regretted because James Brown & The Famous Flames burned the place down, making the Stones look like a high school band. Below find a link to the full concert that night:

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Easternization: Asia's Rise and America's Decline by Gideon Rachman

Hardcover, 320 pages (Orig pub Bodley Head, London August 2016) Pub April 4th 2017 by Other Press (NY) ISBN13: 9781590518519; due out in paperback by Vintage Sept 2017 Literary Awards: Orwell Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017)

Easternization turns out to be one very interesting book. I doubt Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for London’s Financial Times, expected Donald Trump to win the American presidential election in November 2016, but he doesn’t miss a beat. This book, published at the end of 2016/beginning of 2017 adds a Preface which addresses the expected focus and personality of a Trump presidency and addresses Trump’s impact on American influence in the world. Rachman looks at the world through a reducing glass and illustrates how much of what has happened and will happen over the near term in world relations has been “baked in.”

There are various measures used to illustrate China’s rising strength, but Rachman believes the balance has already shifted east. American and European military influence is definitely contracting as China increases its spending and the centrality of the needs of its billion people in Asia is drawing other economies into its orbit, creating spheres of influence. However, the population in China, as a result of the one-child policy, is aging. China will be dealing with this legacy well into the next thirty years when it is expected India will become the world’s largest economy. India’s population in 2015 was 65 percent under the age of thirty.

For the most part, countries in Southeast Asia have been unable to resist the temptation of China’s development aid and trade. One exception has been Vietnam. Encroachments from the sea by China testing coastal boundaries has so alarmed Vietnam that they apparently asked the United States if they wanted to establish a base at their old wartime location in Cam Ranh Bay.
"For the Vietnamese…the offer made perfect sense. In its thousands of years of history, Vietnam has found only one war against the United States—but seventeen against the Chinese."
China decided in the 1990s that it would pivot to Africa, and since has become Africa’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade exceeding $200 billion in 2010. Apparently India, watching China make great gains in Africa, stepped up its own investment there, where it is historically positioned to be at home. Africa, like India, has a large proportion of its population under the age of thirty, and some development specialists suggest that the Indian Ocean will become the next growth center of trade and development, when the Pacific Rim economies and growth has slowed.

China recently began purchasing Russia’s gas reserves in a win-win for both countries, though Rachman believes the Russians suffered a very difficult negotiation. Many Chinese have been moving northward, legally and illegally, to set up business distribution networks in the less populated regions of eastern Russia. China watchers wonder if China will eventually move to take the east back from a too-large-to-govern Russia. There are also signs of cooperation, if not alliance: On July 4, 2017 Russia and China together signed an agreement to sanction North Korea after their successful ballistic missile launch, and to warn the U.S. and South Korea of the provocativeness of joint exercises. The closeness of any relationship between these two goliaths is a new feature American and the Europeans have not had to consider for many years.

Latin and South America, both in America’s backyard, in the new millennium suddenly discovered it had options, and in 2011 Brazil’s largest trading partner was…China…who imported twice as much soy, sugar, meat, iron, and copper as did the United States. Japan, watching China, stepped up its aid and investment as well, creating life-giving competition in Mexico and Colombia. The formerly ignored BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) may become a economic fulcrum to edge any power discrepancies into the Asian sphere.

One aspect of Obama’s pivot to Asia was intended to engage and contain China’s influence in Southeast Asia, though the pivot started to come undone almost as soon as it began. Events in the Middle East and his own intransigent government effectively kept Obama from erecting anything on the pillars of doctrine he might want to call his own. What we noticed instead was a gradual drawing away from involvement or intervention in the Middle East except in where others are willing to come in with us or in cases and places where surgical strikes might achieve an outcome without loss of life or treasure.

The West is still struggling to adapt to low growth and unemployment as a result of China’s low cost production, but Europe and America are still the desired destination of the world’s migrant peoples, make no mistake. China is able to make great investment of human resources into Africa’s infrastructure development because their own level of development is not so distant from what they find in Africa. The technologies used in both align.

Rachman makes clear that the West still holds the institutional advantage: many of the key institutions that allow smooth communication, banking, and trade were created by and situated in the West. Sanctions are suffocatingly effective on excluded countries, cutting them off from many life-giving international exchanges. Until changes are made to the centrality of these internationally-recognized bodies, and challenges are on the horizon, the West is still central to the aspirations of the world.

There is a huge amount of fascinating discussion and no-fat detail in this worthwhile read and Rachman has gotten a good deal of attention: check out the WSJ review, those of you with subscriptions, as well as the following links NPR interviewed Rachman, The Atlantic’s Uri Freidman interviewed Rachman, and the NYT published in April an article by Rachman about his premise. This is a marvelously readable ‘catch-up’ volume for those of us who took our eyes off the ball occasionally in the past ten years, but those who have been watching with undivided attention will be grateful for his overview and his discussion of where it is leading us. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader by Matthew Qvortrup

Hardcover, 376 pages Pub July 12th 2016 by The Overlook Press (first pub June 7th 2016) ISBN13: 9781468313161

Angela Merkel is a terrific politician. Even those who don't agree with her policies admit to her skill in making space for her own ideas. But we could say that about Donald Trump, too. What makes Merkel an extraordinary, groundbreaking leader is what is in her personality that is opposite to Donald Trump: Merkel isn't in it for the glamour, fame, or money. Ten years ago, she claimed she had no intention of staying on as Chancellor beyond two terms. She is currently running for her fourth term at the end of this year. Why?

Merkel’s desire to stay on as Chancellor of Germany has something to do with legacy and with current danger. Anyone can see the threats in the national and international environment. When one spends many years leading an electorate and shaping a worldview that strengthens one’s country vis-a-vis outside threats to stability, one wants to leave it in safe hands. Qvortrup doesn’t tell us, at the end, whether or not Merkel, unlike Hillary, has groomed a successor who can take over her role should she decamp. Merkel is still young enough to see Germany through another term but then a successor should emerge.

Germany in the late 20th and early 21st Century was as tumultuous as any other nation, resembling the child's game of Chutes & Ladders. Political parties fought for ascendency at the time of the fall of the wall, and Merkel, through luck and instinct, rose within a year to a place in national politics. People liked her. She was unthreatening to higher ups and she was willing to do anything in an organization. She used every opportunity; even handing out leaflets gave her access to voters. She honed her instinct for what was needed, learned what voters wanted and would accept, and was courageous in accepting opportunity and responsibility. Later some would question: Merkiavelli?

Merkel was, and is still, resolutely forward-looking, unlike the kind of national figures in Russia, where Putin wants a return to Tsarist times and America, where Trumps seeks a return to early 20th Century oligarchies. When former Chancellor Helmut Kohl lamented that ‘She is destroying my Europe,’ Merkel responded, “Your Europe, dear Helmut, no longer exists.’ Finally, someone who gets it.

What I find most intriguing about Merkel is her political expediency. Qvortrup makes the point that in politics one doesn’t make ‘friends’ like one does in other fields, but Angela made friends easily compared with her colleagues. She was a little frumpy, clever, kind, generous, unthreatening, and…a brilliant political statistician. During her tenure as Chancellor, she had several cabinet-level ministers, party leaders, and government heads resign in disgrace. She shuffled the deck, calculated odds, sacrificed some appointments, and very shrewdly chose replacements who could strengthen her party's ascendency. She could work with anyone, her listening demeanor polite and cordial. Qvortrup is particularly good on the details here. Merkel’s office was never implicated in any of the scandals, and she never defended those who came under attack. It is said she urged more transparency. Her careful composure under pressure will become a trademark.

Merkel could not afford the distraction of making a scene over news that broke late in 2013 that the United States was monitoring her private telephone. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. She needed American support to counter the Russian encroachment into European sphere. Qvortrup says Merkel “always considered Obama a lightweight,” which runs counter to impressions the American press has broadcast that the two got along famously. She apparently idolized Reagan, I wonder whether for his politics or for his famous charm and political skill at changing the frame of any discussion. Qvortrup also says Merkel was not enthusiastic but not overly alarmed at having to deal with Putin, who was a known quantity to her. This again is counter to previous analyses I have seen. Merkel is able to confound watchers in this way.

Handling the sanctions regime against Russia at the time of the Ukraine invasion and the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 took nerves of steel. Putin was desperate and threatening, but all Europe was suffering under the sanctions, particularly France. Qvortrup goes through this and the Greek financial crisis in detail. Merkel manages, in the summer of 2015, to get Greece to agree to allow the EU to control the money earned from privatization of Greek assets, barring 12.5% for the Greeks to decide how to use. The solution required throwing her Finance Minister under the bus. Qvortrup compares the period to a Greek tragedy with an unanticipated solution, or deux ex machina. This magic trick, pulling the rabbit out of the hat as it were, will need to be unpacked in greater detail in future examinations of this period.

I watched most of Merkel’s first two terms with half-an-eye, but when the Syrian war crescendoed into a full-blown refugee crisis, I turned my gaze full-on Europe. Merkel’s strength of character and leadership skills took my breath away. She'd found an issue more important than her own career and she did not back down. This woman, this frumpy pant-suited attention-sink, did more to embody Christian values than any other European leader while serving the needs of her country and leading Europe by forging an alliance among nations.
“Germany under Merkel became a social liberal state based on ecumenical values.”
Merkel was not an ideologue, but pragmatic. Having lived under communism, she took what was best from it and left the rest. Brexit must have been a terrible disappointment to her idea of a united Europe, and the election of a right-wing nationalist in America threatens Germany’s economic stability and security. Merkel’s expected retirement no longer seems a foregone conclusion. The current threats will require unique responses. Mütter Merkel’s calm and compromise may require a change of pattern. Do Germans think she can do it? Can anyone do it if she cannot?

Qvortrup is admiring of Merkel, as has been every other journalist who has written a biography that I have seen. He is not sycophantic: he tells us when Merkel was perceived as Machiavellian and other criticisms. But to date I still do not have a good sense of why her approval ratings fell, reportedly below 50% in 2015, and what the objections are in Germany to her leadership beyond fear over the influx of refugees. A situation like the refugee crisis needs the whole nation pulling together to make it work. Germany could be a model for those of us who will need to do the same. Migrants and refugees--I doubt I'm breaking news to most of you--is going to be a constant for all of us living in temperate zones in the future. Best we think ahead.

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

Paperback, First Edition, 144 pages Pub September 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing ISBN13: 9781931498715

This slim handbook subtitled “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives” was originally published in 2004. It is slightly more than one hundred pages that recaps the large ideas Lakoff had written about in his role as cognitive scientist, in a book called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, first published in 1996 by the University of Chicago Press. Moral Politics is on it's third edition (ISBN-13: 978-0226411293), published in time for the 2016 election. Last year Lakoff also published an essay on his website called "Understanding Trump" subtitled "How Trump Uses Your Brain Against You." Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972.

While I read this book published shortly before the 2004 election, I am astonished Lakoff’s brilliant insights are not better utilized by the Democratic Party. Bernie took the lessons to heart and started pounding out a new single-note message so that we couldn’t miss it, but why was he out there alone? Why didn’t the entire liberal left start with reframing—we had a handbook after all—and completely change the way business was done?

One could argue that Hillary did use Lakoff’s cognitive science approach by allowing the ‘Stronger Together’ message to express her values. I vaguely recall hearing also “This is not who we are,” when Trump said or did something particularly egregious. I was paying attention, but it seems to me Hillary’s team could have been A LOT more explicit about the ideas in Lakoff’s book, reframing arguments and changing the discussion. She just couldn't manage to relinquish control and involve us.

Bernie just had one message and he said it loudly and often, and even if we didn’t know what he would do in different situations that arose in foreign affairs, we knew his basic playbook: Man is basically good. Citizens working together unleash the creative potential in the population. Who wants to be rich when people are starving next door? We have some big problems but we’ll get there together.

This book is a series of conclusions and so reading it is a little like mainlining information if you’ve never seen it before. It may take reading it a couple times before the information sticks in your head, and before you are able to apply the techniques he shares with us. Many of these ideas probably seem familiar if you have been thinking about what happened in the last election. I hadn't been able to articulate my own thoughts but the instant I saw what Lakoff wrote about conservatives and the ‘strict father’ way of looking at the world, it sounded so right (see Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land).

One thing Lakoff points out is that when conservatives start using Orwellian language—language that is the opposite of what they mean—they are weak. And just as they are vulnerable on their position on environment and global warming, they are weak on the ‘healthcare’ bill. We should take these issues and run with them, turning every argument into a referendum on what they are not doing to solve these problems. We own the moral arguments here. They have nothing. Be smart. Be smarter. The far right has appropriated the word “freedom” if you can imagine.

The far right uses “freedom” to mean “freedom from coercion from others,” which at first blush sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want that? But then they go on to express the need to "save capitalism from democracy," so that laws won’t constrain their money-making and power consolidation. They object to paying taxes in excess of the amounts one would voluntarily contribute. Why should one pay taxes for schools if one does not have children oneself, is one common argument. They are being coerced to pay for social welfare.

Conservatives are also very big on ‘tort reform,’ or putting limits on awards in lawsuits (like for exploding products, leaking barges, or environmental catastrophe). “If parties who are harmed cannot sue immoral or negligent corporations or professionals for significant sums, the companies are free to harm the public in unlimited ways in the course of making money.”

Liberals look at freedom in a different way: freedom to express one’s creativity, to pursue one’s interests; or freedom from anxiety, from hunger, exploitation, environmental degradation. To achieve these freedoms, we need groups of people working together, doing what they do best.

Last night I briefly watched Charlie Rose interview the president of Princeton University, Christopher L. Eisgruber. He confirmed something I'd noticed but wasn’t sure was a blip or a real, observable phenomenon. Eisgruber said that the students at Princeton gave him enormous hope for the future. They are engaged, and their values are right side up. I only hope they continue to exhibit those values at the ballot box in the years to come, and perhaps even help other people understand the ‘strict father’ (I can’t help but think of a spanking father and all that connotes) model is an unsatisfactory way for adults to engage with their world.

Read this book. It’s important. It’s short.

Tavis Smiley interviews George Lakoff (about 23 min):

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Burma Chronicles & Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub April 1st 2009 by Jonathan Cape (first pub 2007) Orig Title Chroniques birmanes ISBN13: 9780224087711

Delisle manages to capture for us what a non-working foreigner not proficient in the local languages would perceive during his/her time in Rangoon. The heat. I'd always wondered about it. Delisle said his level of tolerance improved over the year he stayed there, so that he could stand up to 90degF before turning on the air conditioner, while when he'd arrived, 80degF was his limit.

Delisle's wife works as a physician for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International as a physician, and this time we learn a little about how the process of country-siting is chosen, what kind of conditions employees endure as condition of their employment, and a little about the different roles sister organizations have within the same country. One can actually use this as a window into the work of the organization as well as into the country.

All of Delisle's graphic memoirs are interesting. This one made me laugh when he showed a picture of a pen and ink drawn made during 'the wet,' or the rainy season. The lines were all running and blurred, as though it had been dunked in a barrel of water or as if one had spilled water onto it. The rest of the year is 'the hot.' What else is striking is at that time (2006-07), permits were required for foreigners to travel around the country, due to a great deal of internal unrest.

Some of the physicians are stationed at remote outposts, and even though the organization is permitted to operate, getting permission to travel to and from those outposts is difficult and can be dangerous. But here the usefulness of having an artist making the trip is apparent. We envision the enormous ancient teak house in Mudan that is rented by MSF, and the local translation of a British village complete with fenced front gardens. You will remember Orwell was stationed in Burma between the world wars.

Anyway, Delisle is not a political writer, nor a journalist, but he adds a heck of a lot to our understanding nonetheless. I'm now officially a big fan.


Hardcover, 184 pages Pub September 1st 2005 by Drawn and Quarterly (first pub October 2003) Orig Title Pyongyang ISBN13: 9781896597898 Literary Awards Urhunden Prize for Foreign Album (2014)

Delisle's Pyongyang experience is a little different from his other books because in the case of North Korea, Delisle is here to work on animation studies for a film. Apparently most major animation studios find animation devilishly expensive to produce in the home country and so go to lower-wage countries to do the in-between frames in a storyline so that the work is smooth and not herky-jerky.

Foreigners are asked to come for short periods of time to keep an eye on the project and get the work done on time and with the proper standards. While he was there, Delisle came across a not-insignificant number of people living in Pyongyang or passing through, on their way to remote outposts for different reasons. I'd always wondered about that, but wasn't sure if it actually happened. Must be pretty grim work, considering Delisle's experience ensconced in a big, empty, cold & impersonal hotel in the city...surely as comfortable a place as can be found.

Anyway, one gets a very good sense of what his days were like, what the city looked like, how fun was to be had, if it was to be had at all, but very little of the inner lives of residents, which is to be expected. Delisle's work again adds to the richness of our understanding of the world.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Dry by Jane Harper

Hardcover, 320 pages Pub January 10th 2017 by Flatiron Books (first published May 31st 2016) Orig Title The Dry ISBN13: 9781250105608

This debut novel won the 2015 Victoria Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Can you imagine the fantastic possibility of that? Harper explains in an interview with Bookpage that she began writing the novel as part of a 12-week online novel writing class. It must be like getting blast out of a rocketship.

Americans have no doubt heard of the bushland fires Victoria state has experienced in the recent past. Weather patterns that leave huge portions of the Australian countryside water-starved can kill communities even before fire removes all signs of human habitation. People therefore rely on one another and suffer together when some members of the community experience hardship.

This fiction takes place in a country town experiencing drought conditions. Families as well as government-provided services and facilities are experiencing enormous stress. Author Harper brings Aaron Falk, a former resident, now a federal agent responsible for financial crimes in Melbourne, back to the bush to attend the funeral of a once-friend. His presence reminds townspeople of the reason he left so abruptly twenty years previously.

Two stories, one a long-unsolved cold case, are worked in this novel. The more recent crime is a spectacular triple murder-suicide of a family, sparing only an infant. The presumed killer is thought to be the father of the family unit, who died of a gunshot wound. Experienced crime readers will find small inconsistencies in what the characters reveal which can give clues to outcome.

I listened to the Macmillan Audio production of this mystery, very successfully read by Stephen Shanahan. Shanahan’s accent was very Australian but perfectly understandable, reminding readers that the setting is significantly different from an American experience. He managed to convey a wide range of emotions by both sexes without straying from a straightforward script. Good job all round.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves

Hardcover, 240 pages Pub June 13th 2017 by Brookings Institution Press ISBN13: 9780815729129

At first Reeves’ argument, that the upper middle class should voluntarily give up their advantaged place in society, sounds virtuous if a little unlikely. But gradually, listening to his arguments in this slim book of charts, graphs, and statistics, we remember what we don’t like about America: how our segregated neighborhoods bear little resemblance to what we see on the news every night. We sense a dislocation so strong we know it could come back to bite us, or more importantly, our children. Using beneficial social and tax structures to advantage our children and perpetuate class division may ultimately work to their detriment, and is certainly skewing the competitiveness of a large proportion of our working class, and therefore our nation as a whole.

First, Reeves posits that real advancement for most people in our society is predicated on access to knowledge and information, i.e., “knowledge is power.” Right away we realize that access to information has never been equally distributed in this country, and that many of us have considered attainment of an IV-league education for ourselves and our children the highest goal. Virtuous in itself, one could say. But, Reeves points out, who is actually able to attend the IV-league is skewed by a few factors which can ultimately taint the achievement: access is unequal and not as competitive as touted. One reason is inequality in preparing for admission, and another is legacy admissions for relatives of graduates.

Reeves suggests we protest legacy admissions until they are denounced publicly as discriminatory like they were in a strongly class-based society like Britain in the middle of the last century. Inherited admissions clearly work for the benefit of the landed class alone, and are therefore something which perpetuates inequality. For greater equality of opportunity, one has to look at lower schools, and who has access to the best schools.

The best schools often go along with the best neighborhoods, the most nourishing family environments, opportunities for exposure to both nature and culture, music, art, etc.…and these are circumscribed, Reeves tells us, by zoning restrictions disallowing multi-family dwellings, low(er)-income high(er)-rises in desirable suburbs.

I had a harder time reconciling this argument of his. In the United States, despite laws forbidding discrimination in real estate, there was demonstrable race-based discrimination in real estate throughout the twentieth century. Races were segregated beyond what would occur naturally—that is, races seeking to live with others of their culture. The idea is to allow access to desirable suburbs with good schools, nature, etc. If we stop discrimination on the basis of race, that will take care of some of the problem. Then, if we can add low(er)-income high(er)-rise buildings without changing the essential benefit of desirable suburbs (leafy, green, quiet, beautiful), I’m all for it. Let’s do it everywhere.

For those that cannot escape poor schools in the inner-city, Reeves suggests we offer our best teachers the hardest jobs: teaching in low-income neighborhoods downtown. These excellent teachers would be offered the best salaries. I have no objection to this, but I fear it will not produce the outpouring of talent that Reeves is anticipating. Teaching is a profession, and we have learned anything about professions, it is that money is not always the strongest motivator. At the margins, a certain amount of money can induce some individuals to take on difficult jobs, but the inducements must quickly become exponential after a certain level of difficulty, saying nothing about the kinds of returns one would be expected to produce annually. But big challenges can be an inducement and the money will help make sense of it. It’s absolutely worth trying. Let’s do it everywhere.

Among other things that would flatten the playing field is to eliminate our most beloved tax breaks which, Reeves explains, are in effect subsidies for the wealthiest among us: College savings 529 tax havens, and the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners. Eliminating these two loopholes would add hundred of billions to government coffers, while disadvantaging those in the upper 20% income bracket very little indeed while flattening the playing field for the rest of us.

Lastly, Reeves suggests that internships during college are often distributed not on merit, but on the basis of class, familiarity, or favored status. Since jobs to which many of us aspire are often awarded on the basis of experience, internships, which deliver a certain level of confidence to applicants, can be extremely useful in bridging the gap from childhood to adulthood within the target job area. While favored distribution of internships seemed somewhat trivial to me and other critics Reeves mentions, he counters with “If it is trivial, you won’t mind then if we eliminate/outlaw it.” So be it. All “merit” all the time, if we can be reasonably expected to perfect that little measure.

It is not going to surprise me when liberals discover status and wealth do not necessarily translate into greater life satisfaction or happiness and therefore decide to voluntarily give up certain advantages that perpetuate their inherently unequal class ranking for the greater benefit of the society in which they live. It is conservatives in the ranks of the well-to-do that may hold back progress. According to Nancy MacLean’s new book called Democracy in Chains, which paid some attention to the basis of far right conservative thinking, the wealthy feel they deserve their wealth, even if it is inherited, or even if it is made on the backs of exploited labor. It may be more difficult to get past this barrier to change.

On the basis of the statistics Reeves shares about the stickiness of class status among the top 20% of income earners, he writes persuasively about different individual things we can do to alleviate huge class disparities in opportunity. Reeves addresses the experience of J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy) explicitly in the book, and indirectly in the first of the short video links given below. It is difficult and uncomfortable to move up the ladder but people with exceptional skills are not going to be discriminated against: “The labor market is not a snob.”

Below, please find two very short videos in which Reeves simply and easily explains the concepts in his book.

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