Category Archives: books

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge


Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

In my final year of law school, Nudge was the book that was under every policy wonk’s arm. It’s not surprising that the khaki’ed masses of Du Pont circle wanted to read the first popular book explaining the policy implications of the findings of behavioral economics.

In Nudge, Richard Thaler and the dean of dork, Cass Sunstein, define behavioral economics, and then go on to use the lessons garnered from the scholarly literature in the field to propose certain approaches to big time policy questions, like health care, education, and the environment. Behavior economics, as all good wonks know, is a subfield of economics which uses behavioral psychology findings and argues that, despite what econometricians may want to suppose, we are not purely rational actors. Instead, our economic decisions are often based on impressions, crowd psychology and precognitive feelings. If policy makers have an understanding of how these non-rational factors work in effecting our decisions, then the policy makers can create incentives to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.

At the time of its release, this was, to many of us, very exciting, and slightly dangerous, stuff. There is a whiff of the totalitarian in using behavioral psychology to nudge people toward certain decisions, isn’t there? Sunstein and Thaler are very conscious of this and insist that their proposals are to “nudge” people towards certain choices, not force them there. But when is an economic nudge actually an ultimatum? There is no bright line between a nudge and a demand. We must walk carefully when creating government incentives for certain behaviors, economically punishing people for making unpopular lifestyle choices is something that makes me very nervous, but encouraging behavior that leads to a healthier population is something I am all about supporting.

Perhaps there is a middle ground of a “nudge” that we can find, but perhaps we should think twice about whether they are a good idea at all. Three years of the Obama administration and its obsession with the lessons of behavioral economics, there have been few victories on this front. Part of the health care reform act is based in behavioral economic ideas. As that program begins to roll out perhaps we will have more of a sense of whether or not these ideas are feasible or if the realm of human desire, and how to use it to create certain results, is still unknowable.


Amazon: Tops in Racist Fiction (?)

Do you remember a few months back when Amazon pulled a Kindle book called The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct? If not, refresh your memory here.

That was not the only time Amazon played content cop with the titles it sells: it’s also yanked incest and rape fiction, although the diligent fan of both can still find plenty of titles for sale.

This isn’t really a problem. Amazon is a private company, and can decide to sell what it wants, whether via traditional hard copies, the Kindle store, or its CreateSpace print-on-demand service. But when you start deciding that some books aren’t fit for public consumption, you open yourself to questions about why some books get the axe and others don’t.

In an interesting post on its Hatewatch blog, the Southern Poverty Law Center  asks why (inarguably objectionable) titles like the pedophilia guide get yanked, but novels like White Apocalypse, self-published through CreateSpace, are still sold on Amazon. Haven’t heard of White Apocalypse? Here’s the SPLC’s description:

White Apocalypse is centered on the “Solutrean Hypothesis,” a theory that has almost zero support among anthropologists but bravely insists that whites from Europe managed to cross the North Atlantic to North America 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, thus becoming the real “Native Americans.” … The book’s hero is a white man on a mission to give the hypothesis a fair hearing – but in order to do so, he must vanquish his “evil, anti-western” opponents at the Atlanta-based “Center for Diversity and Multiculturalism” —  an organization that bears a striking resemblance to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. It even includes characters clearly based on Mark Potok, the director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, and Heidi Beirich, its director of research. The book contains a graphic description of the Potok character’s assassination at the hands of the hero.

Sounds like quite the page-turner! There are, of course, dozens and dozens of noxious racist titles for sale on Amazon, from old standbys like The Turner Diaries and Mein Kampf to lesser known books like the demented race war fantasy novels of prolific author Harold Covington. So why are pedophiles barred from peddling their screeds, but not the night garden of anti-Semites, esoteric Hitlerists, and would-be ethnic cleansers highlighted by the SPLC post?

This is no call for Amazon to pull those books from sale. I don’t really care what the literary-minded neofascist is using to stock his bunker this spring, and I don’t think books do more damage than other forms of media. But the SPLC raises an interesting point that should give pause to other companies that aim to draw a line in the dirt: if you’re willing to start down that road, be prepared to explain why you decide to halt.

(V. Charm)

Remaindered: Books that don’t belong

Another in an occasional series about books that disorient, perplex, or cause us to question our decision-making abilities. Today, we look at poorly produced literature for police on what to do when battling satanists.

At least it tells you when Imbolc is

Ritualistic Crime Scene Investigation, by Dawn Perlmutter. The Institute for the Research of Symbolic & Ritual Violence, LLC (Pennsylvania, 2007).

The professional literature intended for law enforcement audiences is a subject of enduring fascination for me. Police departments around the country contain small libraries of books on how to pass sergeants’ exams, community outreach strategies, Spanish for police officers, and field guides to gang graffiti. Like college chemistry textbooks and fetish porn, though, these books are intended for small, specialist audiences, and therefore carry hefty price tags, largely keeping them away from the general public.

The volume under consideration is intended as a guide for police officers confronting crimes committed by members of little-understood religious and cultural groups, ranging from followers of Santeria to teenage satanists. This kind of thing is actually very helpful in theory: a police officer responding to a call who finds a yard full of people in white standing around a goat whose throat is about to be cut might not understand that they are carrying out  ceremonies explicitly included under the First Amendment’s protection of religious practice. As more people emigrate to the U.S. from countries where belief in magic and witchcraft are robust, this will become a larger issue: I have Google alerts that tell me animal mutilations and spell-castings are a daily affair in much of the country.

That said, I hate to think of any police officers investigating crimes with this handbook as a guide. Little more than a pamphlet, it has context-free sections on various religious groups that are notable for being devoid of things police officers might want to know: who practices Palo Mayombe? How many of them are there? Where do they live?

This reads like a high school report grudgingly padded out with arbitrarily-selected information designed to meet a page count. Full 15 of its 54 pages are lists of symbols supposedly common in ritualistic crime, but it’s hard to imagine how often most cops will encounter “the inverted cross of Satanic justice,” let alone the “Cimaruta.”

It’s rounded out by some truly grisly crime scene photos, along with a tip sheet on how to conduct an occult-related investigation. The latter is promising in theory, until you read such tips as “Document all evidence as soon as it is received,” and “Execute search warrants as soon as needed, but not short of probable cause.” This is a little like saying your top secret strategy for winning the Super Bowl is to have some players carry the ball and others catch passes until one of them gets to the end zone.

A corrections officer of my acquaintance who’s shown me his personally-compiled book of gang tattoos has pointed me in the direction of what he says is a much better occult crime investigation guide, but it’s $75 (there’s that textbook pricing strategy for you). I’m thinking about it, but in the meantime, if I ever start a teenage death metal band, this guide at least provides a wealth of potential logos.

(V. Charm)

I’m a reader

My lovely wife (for full disclosure she is an editor on this site) gave me a Kindle for my birthday last August.  I thought long and hard about getting one and finally I decided to get one for a few reasons.

1.  It is difficult to read a large hardcover book while rocking an infant to sleep in a chair.  The kindle is usable with only one hand and very light.

2.  It is difficult to read a large hardcover book (or even a moderate  soft cover book) at the gym as the little shelves on the cardio machines are designed for magazines not books.

3.  As someone who is in more than one book at a time it would be nice to be able to access multiple books with ease.

After the soft-sell my wife got me the 3G version of the Kindle.  I must say that all three reasons have been fulfilled and I am enjoying the experience. 

Unexpected benefits.

1.  Access to books immediately while in my underwear at 11:00pm.  If I hear of something cool, I can look it up and buy it right then.

2.  It is kind of sexy in a nerdy kind of way.

3.  People’s reaction.  I am not sure if this is a benefit or not but I am surprised how many people (most of whom I know) will walk up to me and tell me that they disapprove of “those things” because they love books too much.  That they will never get one and that I am a bad person for owning one.


I too love books, but I love reading more.   E-Readers aren’t going to replace books any time soon.  They will however change the way I read some things.  They are great for cheesy fiction (my first purchase was James O’Neal’s The Double Human which was by far the best possible first book I could have purchased because unbeknownst to me I was a minor character in it).  It is also great for giant tomes.  I am currently reading What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe, an 800 page history of America from 1815-1848. 

My wife also discovered that it is great if you are doing research because you can search a book (or your entire library) for a word or phrase.  It makes it easy to find something when you are writing your grad paper (as she was doing at the time). 

Is it the end all be all of reading?  No.  Is it going to replace books.  No.  Does it have the wonderful smell of an old book found in a used book store?  No.  Will I keep it and continue to use it?  You bet. 

I love reading, not just books.


Before Bob Avakian was a punchline

Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, by Max Elbaum. Verso: London, 2006.

Today, when the U.S. left consists of little more than Barbara Ehrenreich, a couple of blogs, and an anarchist burrito stand or two, it’s hard to imagine a time when the left was so vast and powerful that it could accommodate a vital and influential revolutionary fringe. Nowadays, this description applies to the right, with its Birchers and seasteaders aiming their doctrines toward the power centers of the Republican Party and its various para-organizations. But in the 1970s, it was the left that dominated American politics from Congress to the street corner.

A mostly forgotten chapter of this history is the New Communist Movement, veterans of 1960s radical politics who were inspired by national liberation movements in the Third World, antiracism struggles in the U.S. and, above all, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China. While the stories of “moderate radicals” like the early SNCC and SDS movements have been well chronicled, and the accounts of the Weatherman tendency have proliferated all out of proportion with that group’s actual importance, the New Communist Movement is overlooked, even though at its height in the early 1970s it had thousands of adherents and could claim influence in protest politics and some trade unions.

The New Communists – organized into groups like the October League and the Revolutionary Union – were firmly convinced that the West was on the brink of large-scale revolution, and that Marxism-Leninism was the only philosophy capable of providing guidance for people looking to shape the future. It’s to Elbaum’s credit that he establishes this as a plausible belief in the context of the times rather than the ludicrous fantasy it seems today. The upheavals conveniently labeled “the Sixties” didn’t end on Dec. 31, 1969, and in the early years of the subsequent decade there were larger protests than ever over the invasion of Cambodia and the massacre at Kent State. In 1970, there were more strikes involving more workers than in any other year since 1946, and mutinies in the military were so common that in the month of May that year, an average of 500 GIs deserted. Henry Kissinger himself said “The very fabric of government was falling apart.” And, of course, the president of the United States himself resigned from office in disgrace in 1974.

In that context, the idea that Leninism showed the way forward was, if not self-evident, at least arguable. And while the New Communists were always a minority within a minority, their energy and idealism helped them win broader influence within the left. But a movement so yoked to the lunatic example of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was always in danger of shaking to pieces, which is what happened as the decade wore on.

Elbaum is a sympathetic observer, and attributes a great deal of the movement’s stagnation and failure to systemic changes in the U.S. economy and political system during the 1970s. The postwar economic boom finally ended in 1973, followed by the large-scale deindustrialization that gutted the labor movement. The oil shock and bitter recession of 1974-1975 sapped worker militancy, while fights over school busing in the North destroyed cross-cultural agreement between blacks and whites over the best way to attack racism. Finally, the right spent the decade organizing, making an early comeback with Jimmy Carter in 1976 before the full-blown Reaganist tidal wave four years later.

All of this is true, and yet it’s hard to escape the impression that the New Communist Movement was doomed from the beginning because of its internal flaws. Most of all, the movement was yoked to Mao’s China, which damaged it in two ways: first, by inculcating a Cultural Revolution-style obsession with ideological purity, and second, by forcing the constituents to constantly revise political positions based on whatever Beijing decided was expedient. The most significant example of the latter problem was the revolution in the Portuguese colony of Angola, which eventually helped topple the fascist government in Portugal itself. Most of the worldwide left, including the Soviet Union, were on the side of the MPLA rebels. But China, to counter its Soviet rival, joined with the United States, apartheid South Africa, and Portugal in first opposing the liberation movement and then supporting the fascist UNITA group. The New Communist Movement bitterly split, and never really recovered.

The examples of how ideological purism damaged the movement are still with us in the form of one of the last remnants of New Communism: the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by Revolutionary Union principle Bob Avakian, who has turned it into a tiny, quasi-religious sect that venerates him as a Maoist prophet. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read RCP literature or engage an RCP cadre in conversation can attest to the deadening intellectual effects of embracing the correct line above all.

This is a good book, but a dry one. The personalities who shaped the movement must have been rich and dynamic, but Elbaum spends very little time with them. He is more interested in ideas than people, which sometimes turns the book into a rehashing of decades-old quarrels over historical events that now seem to have less relevance to political life than the average game of Dungeons & Dragons. But as the only general-interest history of a significant part of American political history, it’s a major accomplishment.

(V. Charm)

Remaindered: Books that don’t belong

Another installment in an occasional series about books in our libraries that embarrass, confuse or upset us. Today: the particular humor of our friends the police.

Cop Jokes, Lou Savelli and Stuart Moss (Looseleaf Law Publication, Flushing NY, 2007).

Perfect stocking-stuffer for your partner

Absolutely packed with jokes about defense attorneys

Lots of vocational groups have their own oral folklore, and jokes are a big part of that. The more close-knit a group, the more prominent this oral folklore usually is, and if the vocation happens to be a dangerous one, the need for humor to alleviate the daily risks becomes greater. Coal miners, sailors, and soldiers all have their own in-group jokes, and it’s no surprise to learn that police officers boast a similar body of humorous folk speech.

What makes this book fascinating is that it’s insider material produced for insiders: Savelli and Moss are ex-cops, and Savelli has authored numerous other guides designed to be sold to police stations. His guides to gangs and graffiti are both on my shelf; I wouldn’t be able to keep straight which sets use five-pointed stars and which use six-pointed stars without them.

“Cop Jokes” is something of a departure, as it’s a compendium of witty remarks that Savelli and Moss tell us are commonplace in the world of law enforcement. If that’s true, the police humor repertoire includes a disturbing and anomalous number of “blonde jokes,” and a somewhat less anomalous number of drunken Irishman jokes. There are also lots and lots of jokes about the perfidy and moral putrefaction of defense attorneys, and plenty that make light-hearted sport of the rollicking subject of police brutality.

Among the many suggestions for “New Miranda Rights” are these: “1. You have the right to an ass-kicking. 2. You have the right to have a priest and/or an EMT present at the time of the ass-kicking. 3. If you don’t have a priest, one will be appointed free of charge, to read you your last prayer.”

Elsewhere, the authors ask, “How many cops does it take to throw a man down the stairs? None. The guy fell.”

Ha! Oh, my sides. Because, you see, violence. There’s a lot of humor there.

The book is actually a valuable peek inside the mentality of (some) police officers, with rich material for folklorists interested in how law enforcement identifies outgroups (drunks, lawyers, “perpetrators,” and, inexplicably, blonde women), how it reinforces community norms, and even how it views its own internal hierarchy (there are a lot of rookie jokes). In fact, the book is a lot more interesting for this anthropological aspect than for the jokes themselves, which are not all that funny. Like most in-group jokes, they serve primarily as a way to shore up bonds formed by sharing a common identity: if you belong, you get the jokes. If not, you find yourself grimacing at the lame gags in the “Top 10 Signs Your Partner Needs a Vacation.”

(V. Charm)

Review: The Secret Temple: Masons, Mysteries and the Founding of America

The Secret Temple: Masons, Mysteries and the Founding of America by Peter Levenda (Continuum Books, 2009)

A good introductory text to a subject is hard to find and with the subject of Freemasonry it is even more difficult. Freemasons take oaths to never divulge the secrets of the Society and (perhaps as a result of this silence) they are often the target of outsiders who lay everything at the feet of Masons from demonic heresy, global conspiracies and in some cases, control over natural disasters. Those who understand don’t talk, and those who don’t understand seem to talk too much.

Peter Levenda enters into this space with The Secret Temple, a relatively concise book of about 200 pages. The first section of The Secret Temple gives a generally overview and history of Freemasonry and tends to be more a social history or a history of ideas. Rather than a narrative built on personalities and individuals, Levenda delves into ideas such as sacred geometry, sacred architecture and theories of ritual. The second section primarily gives a history of the Lodge’s connection to early America and its founding, and it is also where the book gets the most interesting. Levenda delves into mysticism in early America, the relatively unknown histories of not only Masons, but Rosicrucians, alchemists and mystics in the colonies and early republic. He then explores in detail the connections between Mormonism and Masonry, both in the history of Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints and the practice of the Mormon faith. The book concludes with a look at Yale’s Skull & Bones society and the Propaganda Due lodge in Italy, a covert lodge that in the late 70s and early 80s was soaking in a vast amount of crime and intrigue and was referred to as a shadow government.

What critics of Levenda are quick to attackt is his tendency to wander into his own interests and research; he seems to take us by the hand and leads us to his own filing cabinets/curiosity cabinets of political conspiracies, cults and secret societies. This is why I personally love his books, and in The Secret Temple his tenancies as a researcher and writer serve the work well. We get completely unexpected answers to the questions we came to the book with. Instead of going on a fool’s errand to chase the Masons back to Solomon’s Temple, we examine the idea of a temple itself and how that has steered Masonic buildings, symbolism and thought. Instead of worn fantasies and conspiracies of a group of Masons coming together to write the Declaration of Independence, we peer into another world of that time when respectable ministers and university presidents were also alchemists and Rosicrucians. Instead of hysterical speculations about Masons controlling the world*, we gave the more frightening and real Skull & Bones and P2 Lodge to ponder.

Between the subject matter and Levenda’s writing style, The Secret Temple makes a worthwhile read for someone looking for a good, smart primer on Freemasonry or wants a deeper understanding of America’s hidden religious traditions.

*True story: While doing research last year I had a conversation with the archivist at a small Freemasonic library in eastern Iowa. He told me that the day after the Indonesian tsunami he fielded a phone call from an angry man who asked them “why the hell they did that.”

-The Filled Slip