Posted in Quick Hits on January 13th, 2016 by Ed

I haven't done this in ages – it must be years, and I'm too embarrassed and lazy to look – but here are a couple of interesting books I've gotten through lately. Non-fiction, obviously. Nobody knows what kind of fiction anybody else will like.

1. Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat (Anastacia Marx De Salcedo). Hold on, hold on. It's not about the military. It's essentially a history of processed food, the technologies of which have been driven almost entirely by war and the needs (and funding) of armies. Granola bars, canned protein, preservatives, dehydrated food, freeze drying, chocolate bars…they all came about largely due to efforts to solve the logistical problems of feeding large numbers of men with high calorie needs in a variety of locations and climates. All of the "military" food technology transitions seamlessly to the consumer market. The Army wanted bread that wouldn't go stale for months on end and it got it; now it's virtually impossible to find bread that doesn't have a bizarrely long shelf life. The author is kind of annoying in more than a few passages, obviously too eager to mine the thesaurus (Anyone who uses the word "leitmotif" in a sentence describing granola bars is trying too hard to let us know she went to, let's say Columbia) and the anecdotes about herself and her family add little, but overall it's a great read. The chapters on the Edible Bars of Matter revolution and the technology behind extended food freshness are worth it.

2. 1946: The Making of the Modern World (Victor Sebesteyn). Having previously read his 1989, it made sense to see his take on the other of the two pivotal and defining years of the 20th Century. America is drowning in World War II content – books, movies, games, etc. – but they all end with V-J Day. Yet what happened in the immediate aftermath is the really interesting stuff, not who shot who at the Battle of Somesuch. The author was born behind the Iron Curtain and, for my tastes, fills both 1989 and 1946 with way too many "Communism is bad, kids" reminders (We get it, we've seen the highlight reels of the tomahawk dunks of free market capitalism's victory, Victor) but is a thorough and very straightforward writer. Of particular interest was the considerable attention he pays to the issue of mass rape (and, less sinister, the frenzy of consensual fornication that coincided with it) in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Japan and Germany. Few authors, and fewer male authors, bother to include that among the admittedly lengthy list of horrors of the war. Attention is also devoted to areas beyond Europe in quantity, with thorough chapters on the partition of India, the establishment of Israel, the Chinese civil war, post-war Japan, and other non-Western subjects. You'll understand a lot more about the world as it looks today by the time you finish this.

If you're looking for books, those are books.


Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2016 by Ed

The Supreme Court is almost certainly about to gut public employee unions, including teachers' unions. Briefly, state laws currently can compel some people to pay union dues if they benefit from the collective bargaining done by the union on behalf of all employees. Otherwise any rational person would realize that the dominant strategy is that of all Free Riders: contribute nothing, hope the contributors succeed, and then enjoy the benefits. Since a teachers' union bargains on behalf of all teachers and not just union members, the seemingly sound logic goes, all should contribute.

The complicating factor is that unions, like corporations, non-profit groups, and many other entities, donate money in elections and are active in other aspects of the political process. It was only a matter of time until someone interested in becoming a right-wing martyr filed the right lawsuit. He/she can go on tour with Kim Davis. Think of the ticket sales.

Literally the first thing I cover when teaching Intro to American Government is the concept of a collective action problem. It's the backbone of the course, and it comes up repeatedly. The textbook explanation is that rational individuals have the incentive to free ride. What I don't cover but believe to be an important part of the resistance to collective action is that people (read: conservatives) wildly overestimate what they are capable of achieving on their own. Why should we have single-payer healthcare, I will be able to pay for my own healthcare. Why donate to an environmental group, if the water is gross I'll just move. And who needs a teachers' union, I'm awesome and I'll either negotiate a sweet deal all by myself or I'll just get a higher paying job at another school. Believe me, there is not a single social, economic, or political problem you can present to 19 year olds as a hypothetical that they are not 100% confident that they will solve on their own initiative, most likely incorporating the use of Bootstraps. It's understandable at that age. Unfortunately a lot of people never seem to grow out of it.

In an entirely different course we read Anthem, selected because it is the shortest and thus least painful Ayn Rand piece and because it is one of the finest works of comedy ever penned. How can you do anything but adore a story that ends with a man drafting an ode to individualism in a house someone else built and that he broke into. Anyway, the real money scene is where the protagonist heads out into the forest and, in the space of a few hours before dinnertime, he makes a bow and arrows and shoots plenty of birds out of the sky to feed himself. He also gets a few by throwing rocks at them. This is a minor detail in the story but, in my view, is a great litmus test of a fundamental personality characteristic. The kind of person who thinks, "Yeah that seems plausible" believes that some people, namely themselves, are simply Great and therefore can solve any and every problem on their own through the force of their own Greatness. The other kind of person looks at a man running off into the woods with no supplies, food, clothing, or tools of any kind and thinks, "Well he's gonna be dead in about a week."

When someone shrinks from collective action it might be based on a rational belief that the group will succeed regardless and the benefits will be available for everyone to enjoy. It also might be the result of decades of bombardment with Rugged Individualist homilies and the belief that there simply is no problem that one cannot solve with their own (no doubt inestimable) talents. The latter goes one of two ways. For some people, a life of social privilege and unearned wealth reinforce the belief that one is Great and needs no one else. For the rest life has some real big surprises in store.