The Daily Book Beat

As a sometimes book reviewer for the Dallas Morning News and American Way magazine, I get sent books. Lots of books.

 I get books that I asked to see and many more that I didn’t ask to see. I get books that I care about, books that I can’t imagine anyone caring about,  books that lie far, far beyond the boundaries of even my fairly omnivorous taste.

 They arrive in twos and threes and somedays sixes, to be added to the stacks of the books that came in December and November, books that I cannot promise to read or even skim, but there they are.

Sometimes they arrive in strange and ironic groupings. Yesterday’s mail, for example, brought two tomes. The first  was titled The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up. According to the back jacket, the book “uses serious science to reveal the remarkable power of humor and fun in business.”

The next book was called The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.

I put the two books side by side on my desk and looked at the covers. It was hard to lighten up about a $3,000, 000,000, 000 war.

Perhaps today I’ll get a book called Chuckling Through Disaster or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Fallujah.


Kennedy to Obama: the Triumph of Hope

It’s been said several times in the past few days that the JFK legacy has now been passed on to Barack Obama,  thanks to Ted and Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of him.

We’ll see how that laying on of hands plays out with voters, but here’s a subtext that should make Obama-doubters uncomfortable.  The fact that the JFK mystique still exists almost 50 (!) years after his passing reveals something deep in the psychology of many Americans. It is a  force that could well propel Obama to the White House.

Consider this: How many times have you read or heard people say that Kennedy was one of the greatest presidents we’ve had? How many times have you seen him credited with reviving idealism, inspiring young people,  filling voters with a sense of confidence and, yes, hope? How many times have you seen the “Ask not. . . ” line quoted as emblematic of Kennedy’s appeal?

For me, thousands of times. Literally. And yet, if you go back and look at JFK’s actual election and tenure, it’s clear that what we remember and love about him, and  seem to want resurrected in the form of Obama, has almost nothing to do with actual achievements as president.

Kennedy, recall, barely won in a squeaker over Richard Nixon–a few thousand votes here and there, and there never would have been a Camelot. It’s entirely possible that had JFK lived and run for a second term,  he might have been defeated in 1964,  assuming the Republicans would have  put up a more centrist figure than Barry Goldwater.

Achievements?  Once you’ve mentioned the Peace Corps, some reach-out to Latin America, a test-ban treaty,  providing the rhetorical spark for the Apollo program,  and standing firm in the Cuban Missile Crisis, that’s about it. I’m not saying this is nothing, and,  yes, he might have done much more had he completed his term and been re-elected. But this short list doesn’t begin to explain why people so distant from him care about, much less love, Kennedy today.

And that is my point about him and about Obama. People love Kennedy far out of proportion to his deeds because he had a unique capacity to project hope, and he had the youthful energy to make that hope seem achievable.  So, so far, does Obama. And if he strikes that JFK-esque chord with enough voters, they will elect him regardless of his slender resume.

But there is one big difference between JFK and Obama, one we all pray will remain: Kennedy was killed, cut off before his time, and instantly transformed into a tabula rasa on which we can all write all the might-have-beens we choose.  He remains frozen in the moment of youthful vigor (though much of that vigor, we later learned, was itself a carefully maintained facade).

 As Michael Kazin wrote:  “In some ways the national mourning that followed that trauma has not ended, but is recalled with each event, happy or sad, in the ongoing saga of the Kennedy family. There he is, our JFK, looking back at us from book jackets, movie posters, and Web sites: the upswept hair, the decisive gesture, the buoyant grin.  He will always be glancing toward a future that never arrives. The old dreams live again, if only in words and pictures.” 

 And so it was the other day when Ted Kennedy “passed the torch,” as so many put it. Some asked what the Kennedy imprimatur  still means at this point;  some asked how  grand symbolic gestures will solve the large problems that daunt us.  But in the end, it may not be possible for voters to  get youthful hope and energy in the same package with solid experience. If it comes down to that choice, we’ll find out how many voters really want to see Camelot restored.

If You Don’t Eat the Skin, You Cannot Win

As the political scene constantly trembles on the edge of self-parody. . .

 Nobody who remembers Walter Mondale’s “Where’s the Beef?” riposte to Gary Hart can be surprised by any campaign silliness, but still. . . as you read this, try to decide if it’s a real news story or something concocted by the online satiremongers at The Onion:  (Answer below.)

 Mitt Romney took a stop off the trail Saturday, and shared a meal with his traveling press corps. The food? Colonel Sanders’ fried chicken, and biscuits. Romney, known for his healthy eating habits, however, pulled off the skin. For some Southerners, a culinary faux pas.

 Today, FNC asked Huckabee, how he as a Southerner, and someone who is also known for his healthy diet (Huckabee famously lost 110 pounds) eats the calorically-colossal, but Southern gastronomic mainstay.

“Going thru the weight loss program I try to eat it more broiled, and baked but I can tell you this: any Southerner knows that if you’re not gonna eat the skin, don’t bother with calling it fried chicken, ”Huckabee said through a smile.”  And that’s good, I’m glad to hear that he did that because that means I’m going to win Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma- all these great Southern states that understand that the best part of fried chicken, is the skin.”

Answer: real news story.  Maybe you could tell by how badly it’s written.

It’s the Real Economy, Stupid

 Interesting piece in yesterday’s  NY Times asks why  presidential candidates who want to show their concern for the economy and honor working people  pose with factory workers rather than with ballet troupes.

Huh? The article goes on to show that, statistically, the symbolic U. S. worker is no longer a Joe Lunchbucket working graveyards at Huskins Aircraft:

 After all, the U.S. now has more choreographers (16,340) than metal-casters (14,880), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More people make their livings shuffling and dealing cards in casinos (82,960) than running lathes (65,840), and there are almost three times as many security guards (1,004,130) as machinists (385,690). Whereas 30 percent of Americans worked in manufacturing in 1950, fewer than 15 percent do now. The economy as politicians present it is a folkloric thing.

What’s happened, the article explains here,  is that the long-promised (and, by some, long-feared) transformation of America from a manufacturing economy into a services economy has happened. It’s over, and that’s why, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, those auto-making jobs in Michigan really aren’t coming back anytime soon, if ever. Some of the results of this Great Retooling are good, some are bad, and some we just haven’t figured out yet.

Want to Lose Weight? Maybe PETA Can Help

If posts so far in January are any indication, we’ll spend some of the year  ping-ponging between the always-intriguing topic of personal change and the various recipes for change cooked up by the presidential candidates.  And as I’ve noted here, I’m increasingly convinced that personal change and societal change may be much more closely linked than we generally think.

I just did a magazine interview with Dan Ariely, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of behavioral economics at MIT. He has a new book called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

 Behavioral economics challenges the traditional, Adam Smithian model of standard economics, which views people as thoroughly rational bean-counters who reliably  compute the value of all the options we face and make the best decision to advance our interests. As Ariely notes, generations of economists have used this model of human psychology to reach conclusions about the effects of pricing, taxation, health-care policies and more.

Behavioral economics teaches that  pursuit of our reasonable goals is constantly sidetracked by irrational behaviors, those “hidden forces” of his title. We’re not only irrational, but predictably irrational–our irrationality happens the same way, again and again. Caught up in the hustle of everyday experience, we may not even notice that we’re subverting ourselves yet again.

One lesson I took from the book brought me back to a discussion I had with friend and fellow blogger The Fab Sage a few years ago. It was probably around the New Year, when we typically engage in weeks of e-mail discussion of New Year’s resolutions, sketching out all the things we’d like to do better or not do at all once the calendar rolls over. (This is usually followed by weeks of recriminations when the hoped-for changes don’t materialize.)  

He was talking about the failure of knowledge and “will power” alone to produce change, and I popped up with something like this:

“What if you sent me $500 along with a list of the organizations or public figures you cannot stand–lobbyists, pressure groups, noxious celebrities? Then you set up your renewal plan for the year. Would you like to be running a 15-minute mile by March 1? Okay. Start your training. Give me a series of weekly goals. And if you don’t make those weekly goals, I’m sending $100 a week  to an organization you believe is ruining America.  Want to lose 10 pounds by April 15? Start munching the lettuce, or get ready to send your hard-earned cash to your enemies.”

 Setting up a penalty system like this would get us out of a very familiar, irrational trap that constantly snares us. Suppose we want to lose 10 pounds. Of course we know that gooey snacks should be the first thing to go. But we’re at a restaurant, and they bring the dessert tray, and geeeeeeee…..look at that creme brule! Why couldn’t the diet start next week?

Look at what we’ve done to ourselves.  We’ve set  up a choice between the certainty of  instant pleasure delivered by a great dessert vs. the distant and almost theoretical pain of a burgeoning waistline. Raise this glass of wine or pastry to your lips and you will experience, right now, a reward. Oh, sure, waaaayyyy down the road you may knock off a few brain cells, or gain a couple of pounds, but that’s nothing compared to the instant gratification of the treat you’re having now. And now almost always wins, because now is now, while “then”. . . well, “then” may never happen, right?

If we were thoroughly rational creatures, of course, we’d just focus on the distant goal of losing the ten pounds, do the pros and cons, and realize that the gooey sweet thing does not fit the program. But we’re not throughly rational in those “hot states” of temptation and desire.  So we need to even up the scales by creating more punishments for not doing what we know, in our rational minds, we should do. 

Every diet book ever written could be tossed in the garbage if we had a powerful set of fast-acting disincentives,   because all such books have the same premise: Give up this great sensation now, and weeks or months down the road, something good will happen. But, as all cheating dieters know,  if you do gobble the fattening goodies, nothing bad will happen right now.

 So. Is there a politician, company or  interest group you simply cannot imagine supporting? The ACLU? Focus on the Family? The National Rifle Association? PETA? Greenpeace? Fox News? R. J. Reynolds?

Set up a deal with a spouse, friend or coworker. Write out the checks. Then get started on that diet, exercise plan or other grand scheme. I bet this time it works.

Obama, Clinton and All the King’s Men

In connection with the Hillary Non-Likeability Factor discussed here recently, it seems pretty clear that her campaign may have given up trying to make voters like her more and decided instead  to put its chips on tearing Obama down.

 It’s a rational if depressing and desperate tactic that’s used in many campaigns. The attacking candidate says in effect, “OK, I may be scum, but if you think my opponent’s a choir boy, take a look at the real story of O.”

In the Clinton-Obama slugfest, the strategy has two intended and related effects:

1.) Since many of O’s  supporters are new and relatively innocent about just how the sausage is made in the political arena, they see him as something utterly different from Those Bad Old Candidates. They don’t exactly know how he’d make things better, but they know he’d at least bring some new ideas.  The Clinton barrage is intended to sow enough doubts about him to at least depress their enthusiasm and maybe cause many of them to stay home on Election Day.

 2) Related to that, the Clintons hope that by yanking Obama down from his New Man of Hope pedestal, they can force the two candidates onto roughly equal ground: Okay, neither one is virtuous or unstained, and since they’re both deeply flawed, I may as well go with the one who’s had all the experience instead of somebody who’d have to have a long learning curve. In other words, the devil we know.

In his new role as Her Attack Dog, Bulldog Bill is following the cynical wisdom of Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, a novel any Southern politician would know well.  In one of the novel’s most famous scenes,  Stark orders  his henchman Jack Burden to dig up damaging dirt on the upright Judge Irwin, one of Stark’s staunchest political enemies.

“You find something,” the boss said.

“But what if there isn’t anything to find?” I asked.

“There is always something. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passes from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

There is always something. And even if there’s not, your enemies will make it up. The  Clintons learned that lesson a long time ago, and now they’re teaching it to the fresh-faced newcomer.

This Week’s Political Punster Award

It[s often been said, and with good reason, that the pun is the lowest form of humor (you know, there’s got to be a pun on that, too*). But politics can get pretty low as well,  so perhaps the two deserve each other. 

 Anyway, this week’s Best or Worst Political Pun Award goes to Tim Egan of the New York Times, who summed up Rudy Guiliani’s all-but-certain flop in the Florida primary this way:

Goodbye Rudy, Tuesday

Is that so bad it’s good, or what? Special points to anyone who can identify the song being pun-ished here.


 *Okay, got it: Reporter comes to Yuma, Arizona looking for a colorful old geologist who publishes the Precambrian Upstart Newsletter, which locals call The Pun for short. He thinks he has the right address but spends hours driving around the city in vain. Finally, he stops at a barber shop to get some help.

“Did you go all the way down the valley to the last farm that’s inside the city limits?” asks the barber.

“Uh, no,” says the reporter. “I didn’t go that far down.”

“Well, that’s why you missed it,  son. The Pun is the lowest farm of Yuma.”