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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Posted by nliakos on May 28, 2018

by Ari Berman (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015)

Despite all the recent GOP squealing about imagined, unproven voter fraud, I guess I thought the problem of voter suppression was mostly solved by the Voting Rights Act back in 1965. Wrong. This carefully documented history of the VRA showed me how the GOP, having lost the battle to legally deprive African-Americans of their right to vote with absurd literacy tests and poll taxes, set immediately to finding other, more creative ways to suppress the minority vote. During the Reagan and G. W. Bush administrations, they received a lot of support from the Executive Branch in their fight for inequality; and Reagan was able to tilt the Supreme Court so far to the right with his conservative appointments that it became more of an adversary than an ally (and still is!).

My state, Maryland, generally makes it easy to register and vote. Marylanders can register to vote at MVA offices and in schools. They can vote early, absentee, or on Election Day, as they choose. Even if their legitimacy as voters is questioned, they can cast provisional ballots, which are counted after being validated. But residents of many other states (in particular, states of the former Confederacy) are not so lucky. For them, ground gained in the late 20th century is being lost in the 21st.

After describing how President Johnson managed to get the VRA passed in 1965, Berman walks his reader through the various reauthorizations of the Act (1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006) and the landmark Supreme Court decisions which either strengthened or weakened the law:

  • Allen v. State Board of Elections (1969) – this challenge to election laws in parts of Mississippi and Virginia raised the question of whether Section 5 of the VRA might be used to prevent states from setting district boundaries in such a way that African Americans never constituted a majority, effectively barring them from winning elective office, since whites in the south did not vote for persons of color–in other words, rendering racial gerrymandering illegal.
  • White v. Regester (1973) – This decision found that at-large elections discriminated against black candidates, who were more likely to be elected when they ran in smaller districts where they constituted a majority (aka minority-majority districts).
  • City of Mobile v. Bolden (1979) – This decision essentially reversed White v. Regester, reflecting the more conservative makeup of the Supreme Court.
  • Thornburgh v. Gingles (1986) –  prevented minority vote dilution by racial gerrymandering.
  • Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008) – allowed states to restrict voting in response to the “threat” (as opposed to the actual existence) of voter fraud
  • Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 (NAMUDNO) v. Holder (2009) – did not actually change the VRA but encouraged further challenges
  • Shelby County v. Holder (2013) – This shameful decision essentially gutted Section 5 of the VRA by invalidating Section 4 (I did not understand well how one thing led to the other), thus removing the teeth from the law; states/counties with a history of vote suppression no longer have to have all changes to their election laws pre-approved by the Justice Department. By making it impossible to prevent abuse, this decision has undone much of the progress made possible by the VRA. As a direct result of this decision, voter turnout in 2014 plummeted; the number of voters turned away at the polls for failure to comply with some obscure procedure (or because the lines were too long) skyrocketed; and the GOP increased its stranglehold on state governments. Shame!

Berman explains the crucial importance of Section 5, which forced sixteen states (or counties within those states), mostly in the former Confederacy, to have any changes to their election laws “precleared” or pre-approved by the Department of Justice, giving the federal government the ability to block so-called second-generation voting restrictions which these states liked to use “to subvert the power of the growing minority vote”. Southerners hated being singled out for preclearance, even though relatively few abuses occurred elsewhere in the country. (Presumably, requiring preclearance in all fifty states would be prohibitively expensive, but it might have shut them up.)

Other concepts discussed in the book include voting rights versus states’ rights (to control their own elections); and simple ballot access vs. the right to be represented by someone like you. (The original VRA focused on access; subsequent reauthorizations added prevention of voter dilution, or representation.) Ballot access can be suppressed with tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes, which were outlawed in the original VRA; in addition, measures that increase voter access, such as opportunities to vote early or by mail, adequate equipment and staff at the polls, sufficient hours of open polls, convenient locations of polls, use of provisional ballots, same-day registration, and no need for special identification which voters are unlikely to have, can be manipulated or gotten rid of (in areas where there are many minority voters), thus effectively suppressing the minority vote. Representation is mainly a result of racial gerrymandering.

The cast of characters includes the good guys (such as John Lewis, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Lani Guinier, Nicholas Katzenbach, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, James Sensenbrenner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a lot of poor, black, and elderly voters) and the bad guys (such as Strom Thurmond, John Roberts, Brad Reynolds, Abigail Thernstrom, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, William Rehnquist, Richard Nixon, Hans von Spakovsky, and Brad Schlozman).

I was appalled at the tactics employed by many Republican politicians and others to deprive minority voters of their most precious right in our democracy. I wonder, how did they justify these actions to themselves? Or maybe they truly believe in white supremacy.

During the Reagan administrations, the people appointed to run the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (Schlozman, von Spakovsky) were precisely the people who did not wish all Americans to have equal civil rights. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse! I was reminded of the EPA under the leadership of EPA-hater Scott Pruitt, who has turned the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Destruction Agency. In both cases, many career civil servants working in those agencies, who believed in the mission of those agencies, resigned or were reassigned. Ugh.

Berman ends on a hopeful note–young activists inspired to fight on by past activism. But we shouldn’t have to fight this battle anymore. It was supposed to have been fought and won in 1965. I am thoroughly ashamed of my country.



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Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation’s Capital

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2018

by Christopher Buckley (Crown Journeys 2003)

Even 15 years later, this little gem will appeal to both visitors to and residents of Washington, D.C.  In a series of four walks, Buckley (who worked for Vice President Bush in the 1980s) regales the reader with fascinating (and often funny) details of the history and background of the various sites, memorials, monuments, government buildings, and more.

Walk One covers Union Station, the Capitol, the Grant Memorial, the National Gallery, and the major Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. Of course, it would take you weeks to really see what’s in all those museums (plus the ones that have been added since the publication of the book, like the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery (Asian art) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So if you were really making the walks, you might want to break this one down into about ten walks. But as someone who has lived in and near DC for many years, I was happy just reading about places I have already visited. Something new I learned: Alexander “Boss” Shepherd was appointed by President Grant to govern D.C. in the 1870s, and it is Shepherd who filled in the stinking open sewer that was Tiber Creek and installed new (covered) water and sewer systems, who paved and lit the streets, and who built parks and planted 60,000 trees, among other achievements. I wonder if Shepherd St. N.W. was named for him. He deserved something grander, if so.

Walk Two: the major memorials and monuments on the west end of the Mall, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Interesting factoid no. 1: The Washington Monument was supposed to have been built on a north-south line running from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial, but the ground there would not have supported it, so the site had to be moved slightly south and east. (I wonder how they figured this out, exactly.) Interesting factoid no. 2: Prominent Washington women had chained themselves to some of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin to prevent their being cut down to accommodate the Jefferson Memorial, so Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had tea and coffee delivered to the women  so that they would have to pee, and when they left to pee, the trees were cut down. (Sounds suspect to me: not because tea and coffee don’t make people need to pee, but all at the same time? And they didn’t think to take turns, leaving somebody there guarding the trees?)

Walk Three: the area around the White House, including Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot. Interesting factoid: Daniel Sickles, a congressman from New York, who lived next to Decatur House on Lafayette Square, killed his wife’s lover, pled (or pleaded, which I understand is more correct) temporary insanity (the first time the insanity defense was used) and was acquitted, and later lost his leg at Gettysburg; it was put on display at the Army Medical Museum, where he used to go and visit it.

Walk Four: Arlington National Cemetery. I learned a lot that I didn’t know, like the re-interment of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of the capital city, who died in poverty and disgrace (after being fired for his “bad attitude”, apparently) and was initially buried in Bladensburg, Maryland. Interesting factoid: Clinton’s Ambassador to Switzerland had to be dug up and re-interred elsewhere when it was discovered that he had not, in fact, been a veteran, as he had claimed. And Joe Louis, the boxer, wasn’t eligible for burial at Arlington either, but Reagan made an exception for him, and so he is there.


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Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2018

by Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press 2017)

Constitutional law scholar Cass R. Sunstein has written a book about impeachment for everyone who is feeling the need to understand this process a little better as we head into 2018 after the tumultuous first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Sunstein never mentions Trump by name, but it is very clear that he is thinking of him.

The book begins with a brief history of impeachment first in English and then in American jurisprudence. Sunstein summarizes the discussions among the framers of the Constitution concerning impeachment (which is front and center in Article 1, Section 2) and trial (Section 3) and then moves to the debate by those who ratified the Constitution in the different states, because those debates (unlike those of the framers) were public and thus representative of what citizens knew about impeachment.  He spends a lot of time examining the concepts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” and what those might be. He presents actual cases of impeachment (of presidents and judges), in particular the most recent cases of Nixon (never actually impeached because he resigned and was then pardoned before he could be indicted) and Clinton (whose impeachment was purely political) and then, in Chapter 7, “Twenty-One Cases,” he presents hypothetical cases of impeachment: first, two sets of “easy cases”, in which impeachment is obviously called for (first set of nine), or obviously not called for (second set of five). The final set of six consists of “harder cases” where the path is not clear, and reasonable people could disagree. In each case, Sunstein explains why the case is obvious or not. I found this chapter very enlightening.

The first easy case (“impeachable”), interestingly, seems very obviously to be based on Donald Trump’s behavior with Russia: A president has admiration and sympathy for a foreign nation that wishes to do harm to the United States. While in office, he reveals classified information to leaders of that nation, with the clear intention of strengthening it and of weakening his own country. The president can be impeached. He may have committed treason. . . . The only thing is that we cannot be sure of Trump’s intention when he shared highly classified information with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in May 2016. His “admiration and sympathy for” Vladimir Putin was well known; but it is not clear whether he actually understands that Russia “wishes to do harm to the United States”, so his intent is unknowable (or so it would seem to me). (This is like trying to prove corrupt intent in a case of obstruction of justice. Not easy to do.)

There is also a chapter on the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the removal of the president from office, temporarily (as when he becomes too ill to do his job, perhaps during a hospitalization and surgery) or permanently, in the case of permanent disability, either physical or mental. The president can temporarily transfer his power to his Vice President; or if the President is incapacitated, his cabinet can transfer the power. Sunstein shows how the 25th amendment differs from impeachment in terms of when it would be applied.

Chapter 9 is a quick-and-dirty guide: “What Every American Should Know”. Some of the information here repeats that which has already been said, but in a more concise form. He also includes information that he has not already presented, such as Can federal courts–or the Supreme Court–stop an unconstitutional impeachment? (No) Must representatives impeach a president who has committed an impeachable offense, and must senators convict him? (Yes?) Can a president be sued for official acts? (No) Can s/he be sued for reasons other than official acts? (Yes) And so on.

It is not impossible that we will witness the impeachment and trial of Donald J. Trump during the next three years. While it is not likely that this will happen as long as the GOP retains control of the Congress, that situation could change; midterm elections are coming up in just over ten months, with the victors beginning their terms at the beginning of 2019. So it is a useful exercise to review the impeachment process, and Sunstein’s guide is a good place to start.

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The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2017

by William Easterly (Basic Books 2013)

This is a book about development economics, the branch of economics that deals with guiding poor countries out of poverty, and about how its practitioners have consistently trampled (or allowed autocratic leaders to trample) on the political and economic rights of the people in those countries, while throwing money and “expertise” at those same autocrats and dictators. Not only that, but these “technocrats” and the governments and organizations (such as the World Bank and the United Nations) that sponsor them have not led a single country out of poverty and into the elite club to which belong the world’s “developed” nations.

In Part One, “The Debate That Never Happened”, Easterly begins with a comparison of economists Friederich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal, who shared the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974. Myrdal espoused the version of development economics that still exists today and which Easterly criticizes here, while Hayek held the opposite views, setting them out in his book The Road to Serfdom (1944). Hayek was never given the opportunity to argue for his point of view; instead, he was ignored by the development economics community and then forgotten. You have probably never heard of him. I hadn’t. Not an accident!

Hayek and Myrdal disagreed about three basic things, around which Easterly has organized his book:

  1. The Blank Slate vs. Learning from History
  2. The Well-Being of Nations vs. the Well-Being of Individuals
  3. Conscious Design of National Economies vs. Spontaneous Solutions to Economic Problems

In Part Two, “Why the Debate Never Happened: The Real History of the Development Idea”, Easterly uses China, Africa, and Colombia to illustrate how the concept of helping nations to “develop” economically got its start during an era of empires, colonialism, exploitation, and unmitigated racism. Development was conceived as a way to continue the status quo, to benefit the imperialists. Even though the “Western” nations’ economic power had come about in an unplanned way, these nations’ “experts” prescribed “technical” solutions and scientifically planned economies for the poor nations, and they were happy to support the authoritarian rulers who promised to work with them, and to overlook the unpleasant fact that these rulers caused more suffering than they alleviated. Development economics presumes the leadership of a “benevolent autocrat” who institutes “technocratic solutions” to improve the conditions of the people, but in truth, once given absolute power, autocrats were never and are still not benevolent. In China, Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek alienated the population they claimed to lead. In Africa, Great Britain wanted to justify its own exploitative empire; Kwame Nkrumah was the first home-grown autocrat to lead a former colony (Ghana) there. In Colombia, where the first survey mission of the young World Bank was begun in 1948, Laureano Gomez presided over an 8-year reign of terror known as La Violencia without losing World Bank support.

In Part Three, “The Blank Slate Versus Learning from History”, Easterly writes of the importance of understanding a country’s culture and history when trying to end poverty. He compares “collectivist values” (trust only members of your own group; it’s okay to cheat outsiders; hierarchical; the state’s role is to force the individual to behave) with “individual values” (written laws and contracts make it easier to trust people outside of your group; equal rights under the law; free cities and states). Easterly disposes of the benevolent autocrat idea, saying “Neither Europeans nor non-Europeans can be trusted with unconstrained power against the rights of individuals.”  Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi, the geographically unlucky Aja people of West Africa, how under-development was the logical outcome of slavery in Colombia, and the success of the people of one block on Greene Street in the free city of New York are the extended examples Easterly uses to bolster his claim that countries with the rule of law and economic and political freedom outperform economically countries under totalitarian or authoritarian rule.

In Part Four, “Nations Versus Individuals”, Easterly examines the role of migration in the world. He ponders the question of why we think it is okay for people in rich countries to go wherever they have the best chance to earn and live well, while at the same time accusing the citizens of poor countries of selling out their countries if they migrate to find better opportunities. He shows how migration can actually alleviate poverty (such as in the case of Haiti), and how migrants contribute to global development because of the increase in their earning power. The examples he uses are interesting: the Mourides, a group of Senegalese small-businesspeople who help each other to flourish in many different parts of the world through an astute use of micro-finance and mutual support, and the Fujianese, who form the majority of “overseas Chinese” who have been the drivers of the economic powerhouses of countries like Malaysia and Singapore. These success stories are disregarded by development economists, who have no way to look at (or advise) economic life that crosses national boundaries.

Easterly uses Chapter 10, “How Much Do Nations Matter?”, to explain that the way we measure growth through Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is extremely unreliable (which reminded me of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, which said essentially the same thing), so we shouldn’t take it so seriously: “We assume national growth performance is measured with precision–a precision that does not exist and that is sometimes based on numbers that do not exist.” He states that no one can prove that anything the experts recommend has ever caused economic growth or lifted a nation out of poverty (except perhaps temporarily), but that the one thing that is a good predictor of growth is geography: what region a nation is part of seems to matter a lot, and economies rise and fall together with others in their region (e.g., the “Asian Tigers'” boom and the “Lost Decade” of Latin America).

The last part, “Conscious Design Versus Spontaneous Solutions,” begins with a defense of Adam Smith’s ideas. Smith is thought by many today to have espoused the idea of pure laissez-faire in economics–a totally free marketplace in which companies can do whatever they wish to succeed. In fact, says Easterly, Smith deplored greedy business owners and decried monopolies; his concept of a free market was a way to protect consumers against unscrupulous merchants. When individual consumers choose freely, they naturally choose to buy from the best and most efficient producers, and/or for the best price. Easterly writes, “Freedom to choose is a powerful engine in rewarding the world’s best problem-solvers in each area, while getting rid of the inept problem-solvers.” Not knowing much about economics, I don’t know if Easterly is correct in his assessment of Adam Smith, but his argument makes sense.

Chapter 12, “Technology: How to Succeed Without Knowing How” considers how new technologies (both invention and imitation of new inventions) drive growth. Different from a good, which can be consumed by one consumer, an invention or idea can be exploited by many (“nonrival” in economists’ terms). It can fuel economic growth, population, and standard of living in a “bottom-up” way. We can see that wherever there are more people, we also find more technological innovation. Isolated groups of people, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, still carried or dragged their burdens when all of Eurasia had wheeled vehicles. But innovation requires the right of an individual to think for herself, or to question authority. Then, for a new idea to spread, people need to be free to move to different places, taking their technology (or their ideas) with them (technological transfer, or diffusion).  New technologies cannot be predicted; they always surprise us. Examples include cars and cell phones. To succeed without knowing how, people help to solve each other’s problems, but for this to happen, knowledge must be decentralized.

In Chapter 13, “Leaders: How We Are Seduced by Benevolent Autocrats”, Easterly examines the human tendency to attribute effects to a single person, even when there is no evidence for this attribution. He considers autocrats such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and the last several autocratic leaders of South Korea, who presided over stunning economic growth, and concludes that the growth occurred despite, not because of, these leaders. Korea is an economic powerhouse not because it was ruled by dictators; “The idea that autocracy was necessary for progress in Korea was contradicted by its own later experience,” after the advent of democracy. Sustained economic growth requires lucky circumstances in addition to skills and technologies. People look for heroes of economic development because we have a psychological bias toward individual power, but the data do not back this up. Easterly writes, “The data show little evidence that leaders matter for growth rates.” And if this is true, there is no justification for supporting autocratic leaders in the name of economic development.

In this book, William Easterly makes a powerful case for political and economic freedoms for everyone around the globe. Is anyone listening?

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Nanjing Requiem

Posted by nliakos on November 18, 2017

by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2011)

The publication of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997) put the brutal Japanese occupation of China’s “Southern Capital” on my radar. I don’t believe I knew about it prior to that time. Reading the reviews of the book, I was appalled at the cruelty of the atrocities described. I couldn’t bring myself to read the book itself. But the events of 1937 and after stayed in my mind, like the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, as something I ought to educate myself about. When I saw Ha Jin’s novel about these events on the library shelf last week, I decided I would try a fictional account as a way to learn more. Fiction can be more difficult to digest than factual prose, since it puts the reader into the mind(s) of the characters as they struggle to survive against seemingly impossible odds, so I was cautious as I began to read the story of Minnie Vautrin, principal of Jinling (Ginling) College, and her heroic fight to protect the thousands of women and children who took refuge on the college campus in 1937, narrated by the (presumably) fictional Anling Gao. But I was not swept up in the story of men and women fighting against insurmountable odds. I felt like I did when I read the reviews of Iris Chang’s book: appalled, but not personally involved.

The novel reads like a diary. (Indeed, Ha Jin used diaries kept at the time as some of his sources.) Horrific events, like murder and rape, are relayed in the same dry tone as what everyone had for dinner. It’s terrible, but you don’t want to cry. Anling’s voice is cool and calm, whether she is describing the campus ponds polluted with dead bodies or meeting her half-Japanese grandson for the first and only time. The reader has to infer her pain; Jin does none of this work for you.

I also noted Jin’s odd use of American and English idioms, which also seemed awkward to me in Waiting and War Trash, two other Jin novels which I have read. The idioms often don’t seem to fit into the context he uses them in. I suppose he is trying to convey the use of colloquial Chinese expressions in at least some cases, but the expressions just don’t seem natural in his prose. They seem more like the tortured sentences my students used to write when told to use an idiom in a sentence–or when they tried to pack as many idioms into one sentence as possible, as in this instance from page 276: If they got on my nerves, I didn’t hesitate to give them a piece of my mind to let off some steam. I knew they would bad-mouth me behind my back, . . . . There is nothing actually wrong about these sentences, but for some reason, they seem more like a language learning exercise than natural prose. They stand out in a way that seems awkward. That said, Ha Jin is on a short list of major authors writing in a second language (others that come to mind being Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov), and I have enormous respect for his ability to do it at all.

In conclusion, I guess I am going to have to read The Rape of Nanking after all.

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America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2017

by Steven Brill (Random House 2015)

Did you think I had given up books because I had not posted in a while? Actually, I was slogging through this 455-page look at the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare–how it came into being, the fight to pass the bill, the disastrous launch, and all the pros and cons. It wasn’t an easy read by any means, but I came away with a better understanding of some basic truths.

First, America got off on the wrong foot with healthcare  in the 1940s, when the National War Labor Board’s ruling that benefits (including health insurance) were not subject to wage controls encouraged employers to offer workers health insurance, letting the government off the hook for either insuring or providing healthcare to its citizens. The fact that health benefits were not taxed exacerbated the effect of this ruling, which “would forever change the course of healthcare in the United States.”

Second, the ACA became law only because people made a lot of compromises that included giving up some of the most crucial aspects of the original plan, like including a public option. Some of these sacrificed items constituted broken promises to people, companies and industries that gave their support to reform.

Third, random events like Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s vacation, which ostensibly cost her the election (for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat), jeopardized the passage of the bill and necessitated still more compromises to appease reluctant Members of Congress and induce them to vote for it. Much of what transpired was due to pure chance.

Fourth, the ACA was designed to expand coverage to the uninsured, not to improve coverage for the majority who already had it. The framers of the ACA made a conscious decision not to tackle the obscene cost of healthcare in the United States compared with other developed countries. Their bill purported only to solve the problem of the millions of Americans who had no health insurance; it did not address the related problem of soaring costs. In this (increasing coverage) it has been fairly successful, but because costs continue to skyrocket, premiums are bound to reflect that. Provisions within the ACA ensured that billions of dollars in new business would accrue to the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical devices industry. Meanwhile, doctors and insurance companies (yes! because they, like the patients, have to pay the bills) were squeezed.

Fifth, the disastrous launch of the ACA, following years of delay writing the regulations needed to implement the law, could have been averted if the administration had managed the website build better, by making one person responsible for its success, by hiring more competent professionals to build it, and by thoroughly testing it prior to the actual launch (duh)–as the state of Kentucky did with its kynect exchange, which worked as expected because the extensive testing had uncovered the glitches before the launch, leaving time to fix them. As it was, when a group of Silicon Valley stars was brought in to rescue the federal exchange, they had to correct almost every detail of the website. It was embarrassing to read about how incompetent everyone else was.

In the final chapter, Brill proposes a way to fix the mess we are in by encouraging giant hospital chains to become insurers (or giant insurers to buy hospital chains). He points out that what at first glance seems like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse would actually work better because doctors and hospitals would be motivated to keep patients healthy, and not to over-treat them or order needless expensive tests. In fact, this was exactly why I loved Kaiser Permanente so much when I was a member. I trusted them to do the right thing because it was in their interest to do the right thing. This was especially true when I was pregnant, at a time when C-sections were becoming almost routine. I didn’t want a C-section, and I felt confident that my Kaiser doctor wouldn’t advise me to have one unless there was really no good alternative. Kaiser didn’t have its own hospital in the Washington, D.C. region (as it does in northern California, and as  does the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center [UPMC], which insures its own patients–this was the example Brill provides of how his suggestion might play out), but as everyone probably knows, Kaiser doctors and nurse practitioners provide the vast majority of care that its members receive outside of a true hospital setting, in Kaiser centers around the region.

I think Brill’s view of the ACA is pretty balanced. He describes the good, the bad, and the ugly (and there is a lot of bad and ugly) objectively and fairly. The reader who makes it through to the end will come away with a much better understanding of how we got into this mess in the first place and why the ACA has met with such resistance. It’s a pretty depressing read, but it’s an important topic that we should all understand better.

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Posted by nliakos on August 11, 2017

by Margot Lee Shetterly (HarperCollins 2016, in various editions)

Like many others, I suppose, I was inspired to read this story of the women of color who worked for NASA , formerly NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), as human computers, beginning during World War II and continuing though the era of space flight until NASA’s mission and budget were curtailed by shifting priorities  and goals in the 1970s.  The film of the same name, which also dates from 2016, focused on the stories of three of these women: Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. The book also follows these women (although their close camaraderie may have been an invention of the film’s director), but it provides details about many others as well: Dorothy Hoover, Christine Darden, and others too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, no photographs were included, leading me to try to imagine the women as the actors who portrayed them in the film. Photographs surely exist (If I remember correctly, some were shown at the end of the film.) and would have been helpful in keeping the many characters straight in my mind.

But the book is so much more than the stories of the women of West Computing, the segregated pool where most of them began their careers as human calculators. It is also a history of NACA/NASA, a history of the Civil Rights Movement, and to some extent a history of the women’s rights movement. Shetterly also weaves in events from general American history to help us situate the events in the book in time.

The book helped me to learn about the extensive black middle class–the doctors, teachers, and other professionals who earned college and graduate degrees but who were shut out of professional careers around the country because of their race. They took the jobs that were available to them, staffing the nation’s segregated black colleges with some of the finest minds of the 20th century. Reading about this in an era when historically black colleges are struggling to survive, I am reminded of the double-edged sword of inclusion that has dealt a death blow to our women’s colleges, too. Plenty of leadership opportunities and other paths to academic and professional excellence were available to students of color in historically black colleges and to women in historically female ones. When they found themselves in integrated or co-ed settings, however, forced to compete with white males for those same opportunities, women sometimes found themselves taking a back seat to the men,  while black students sometimes found themselves criticized as trying to act white if they prioritized studying over sports or social life (which can happen to white students too, but that is another story.).  Once the rock stars of black academia (such as William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, the brilliant math professor who mentored Katherine Johnson when she was in college)  began to be wooed by traditionally white institutions, the black colleges could not compete, and they suffered a brain drain that impacted the quality of the instruction they could offer, making them less attractive to students of any color. Integration: a good thing, but with some negative consequences too. (Think also: the now-defunct Negro baseball league.)

I liked the book (though it was not as satisfying as the film, being about real life and historical facts and not designed to keep a reader on the edge of her seat), but I found some of the writing kind of overdone and pretentious.

Agonizingly typed and retyped on my Samsung tablet.  This keyboard drives me bonkers! I think I might be able to fix some of its problems in settings, but am not sure how. I type a word (say, ‘not’) and it auto-corrects to some non-existent word (e.g., ”nother”). Or it inserts spaces or letters willy-nilly, sentences into gobbledy-gook. Example in the previous sentence: I wrote “turning sentences…”. Why did it make up some crazy email address???

One thing I really miss about home is my laptop. Can’t wait to return to normal typing!

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The Soul of the First Amendment

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

By Floyd Abrams (Yale University Press, 2017)

The complete text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But Floyd Abrams focuses his little book on the second part only–“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” This, to Abrams, is the “soul” of the amendment.

Reading the book definitely helped me to understand what the first amendment does and does not do. It concerns what the government, specifically the Congress,  can and cannot do. It does not prevent private companies or citizens from repressing speech.

Abrams gives the reader some history–which framer advocated for what, and why. Some of them did not think it was necessary to explicitly prevent the government from infringing on free speech. Others disagreed. In the end, the reference to free speech and a free press were included; they might just as easily have been left out, and we would be a different country today. Yet for the first couple of hundred years of the republic, nobody paid much attention to the amendment, and freedom of expression was routinely curtailed and censored. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that case law began to develop based on the rights set down in this amendment. I had no idea that that was so, and I think probably few people do. (N.B., The history part was pretty dense and tough going for me; it isn’t written in legalese, but it’s challenging.)

Then there is a lengthy comparison of how freedom of expression and a free press are viewed by Americans and according to American law, as opposed to how they are viewed in Europe and in other democratic societies (very different). In other societies, other rights may take precedence over free speech, such as Europe’s right to be forgotten, which allows people to request that articles written about them be suppressed if they are no longer relevant, whatever that means, and the control over hate speech. It’s instructive to consider what happens when two or more essential human rights are in conflict with each other.

He nearly lost me in the final chapter, which deals with the infamous Citizens United decision, the one that opened the door to treating corporations as people who have the right to express themselves politically by donating enormous sums of money to political causes and candidates. Liberals such as I am have a kind of knee-jerk negative reaction to this Supreme Court decision, but Abrams argues the case that prevailed (he was actually one of the attorneys who argued it before the Supreme Court), and I admit that at times he was very convincing. It’s useful to consider the arguments on both sides.

(Painfully typed on my tablet in Karpenisi,  Evrytania, Greece)

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All the Light We Cannot See

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2017

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014)

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. I practically inhaled it over several days. I was completely caught up in the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, the gifted German boy, set before, during, and after the Second World War. All of the characters, including Marie-Laure’s father and her great-uncle Etienne, who suffered from extreme anxiety or agoraphobia; Madame Manec, who worked for Etienne and cared for Marie-Laure as long as she could; Werner’s sister Jutta, who always knew what was right; Frau Elena, the kind and courageous director of the orphanage where Werner and Jutta grew up; Frank Volkheimer, the giant boy-man from the Hitler Youth School who served with Werner; even Von Rumpel, the German officer desperately seeking the legendary diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which he believes will save him from the cancer that has riddled his body–all of them are memorable and believable.

The chapters, arranged in fourteen sections, are extremely short, some as short as a page, few longer than three. They alternate among the characters, primarily Marie-Laure and Werner, but some of the others as well, from time to time. The time frame lurches back and forth: August 7, 1944; 1934;  November 1939; August 8, 1944; June 1940; back to August 8, 1944; and so on, ending in 1974 and then 2014 as we learn what happened to these characters whom we have bonded with. With Werner and Marie-Laure, we suffer through the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo. Sometimes you have to destroy something to liberate it.

Through it all, the cursed diamond holds the story of all these diverse characters, times, and places together, like a character in and of itself. A terrific read!


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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on June 2, 2017

by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books 2014)

This is the companion book to the PBS/BBC collaborative series of the same name. I missed that back in 2014, but I’m inspired to watch it now, because the book was really interesting. It shows, for example, how the discovery of the special properties of silicon dioxide led to the invention of window glass, eyeglasses, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, fiberglass, even the World Wide Web. Johnson writes that when we snap a selfie and upload it to the Internet, we usually don’t think of “the way glass supports this entire network: we take pictures with glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.”

And that’s just Chapter 1! In addition to Glass, Johnson has chapters dedicated to Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light.  In each chapter, he follows the development of concepts and technologies related to the theme. He explains how most new technologies are invented by several people working at similar times (“in clusters of simultaneous discovery”), and that inventions are developed on the backs of previous ones.  He discusses the concept of the adjacent possible, a kind of discovery zone of possibilities that is normally present when an innovation is being incubated; without it, the innovation would be unthinkable. And he connects the dots to show us how each innovation clears the way for further innovations, like how solving the problems of waste disposal and clean water made possible the existence of mega-cities (which are not necessarily a good thing, but that’s another issue).

In the final chapter, “The Time Travelers”, Johnson introduces us to some exceptions to the ideas of simultaneous inventions and the adjacent possible: Charles Babbage, who essentially invented the computer in the 19th century, and his younger friend Ada Lovelace, who saw in Babbage’s invention the possibility of its uses beyond mathematics. Johnson writes in awe, “To have this imaginative leap in the middle of the nineteenth century is almost beyond comprehension. It was hard enough to wrap one’s mind around the idea of programmable computers–almost all of Babbage’s contemporaries failed to grasp what he had invented–but somehow, Ada was able to take the concept one step further, to the idea that this machine might also conjure up language and art. That one footnote opened up a conceptual space that would eventually be occupied by so much of early twenty-first-century culture: Google queries, electronic music, iTunes, hypertext. The computer would not just be an unusually flexible calculator; it would be an expressive, representational, even aesthetic machine.” Then he points out that when the time was finally ripe for this to actually happen, no one would remember either Babbage’s Analytical Engine or Lovelace’s vision of how it might be used, and they had to be re-invented by others.

A fascinating book for both science and history buffs! I am looking forward to watching the series.

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