Category Archives: book reviews

After America by Mark Steyn

This is a book review for Mark Steyn’s bestselling book After America. Like other book reviews I’ve done here, I’m sort of going to jump around here and there throughout the text, insert my own thoughts where I feel it makes sense, and the like.

I’ll start with some general stuff. Steyn presents one fairly-coherent argument throughout the book, although he jumps here and there weaving thousands of news items together, a rather interesting approach. Steyn’s writing style is quite light, and laugh-out-loud humourous at points, although you may not find it as funny at places where you disagree with Steyn. In America Alone, I found Steyn’s anti-Muslim bias to be a bit annoying. While it is present in After America, it’s not the focus of the book, so I didn’t find that to be a problem for me. Democrats are also a prime target of Steyn, so left-leaning people may want to skip the first part of the book as well as other bits.

The basic premise of the book is this: In his book America Alone, Steyn indicated that all of the industrialized nations, save the United States, were in for a big collapse. Now, however, it seems America has signed on to join the club.

The introduction of the book starts off pretty simply. If something can’t go on forever, it’s going to have to come to a stop sooner or later. Pretty obvious, right? Well, apparently not to those in Washington, because the current unsustainable level of Federal spending is one of those things that is going to have to come to a stop. If you’re spending $4 trillion a year while only bringing in $2 billion a year, either it will eventually become pretty obvious that you have no intention of ever paying the debts off, and China and everyone else who lends the United States money will cut the U.S. off, or the debt will become so enormous that it will bring the country down. Sooner or later, one way or another, the excessive Federal spending will come to a stop. But, the United States hasn’t always had to borrow the way it does now; will we be able to go back to the way thing were? Well, that’s sort of the other problem. Steyn opines that the United States doesn’t quite have what it takes anymore.

It should be no surprise that Steyn believes that government bureaucracy is unhealthy for society as a whole, and he illustrates it with many examples in the book, which would be hilarious if they weren’t true. Meanwhile, as government gets larger and larger, the amount of productive stuff that it seems to do gets smaller and smaller. The book mentions a few examples. In the 1930s, the United States federal government let a contract to build the Hoover Dam. It took only five years to construct, and the project provided jobs during the Depression, created a major tourist attraction, and provides over a billion watts of renewable energy, thus significantly helping the settlement of the area. Has the United States done anything comparable lately? Or take the decade prior to 1969, when America’s space program went from basically nothing to landing a man on the moon. Now we can’t even put a man into space; we’re dependent on Kazakhstan to send them out there. The book cites a quote that claims that Obama has asked NASA to make one of its primary goals to reach out to Muslim nations so that they feel good about their contributions to science. Since Kazakhstan’s population is mostly Muslim, this might be a good strategy to ensure that they don’t cut the United States off, but one can’t help feeling that something’s gone wrong. The book doesn’t do this, but we could perhaps compare the 1940s, in which the United States Army, with some help, managed to defeat both Germany and Japan in the space of only four years, with more recent happenings, in which it took them nearly 10 years to hunt down a single man, and where they’ve created even bigger messes in Iraq and Afghanistan than the messes they were trying to fix in the first place. Why is this all happening?

The book details a few reasons. The first is that, as government grows, it starts spending a lot of time preventing people from doing reasonable things. The book details several examples of county public health units prohibiting things like kids’ lemonade stands, people selling homemade pies at bake sales, and a hardware store providing free coffee and doughnuts to its customers. These sorts of silly rules prevent a lot of positive things; for example, a kid running a lemonade stand has the opportunity to learn about initiative, entrepreneurship, the value of money, and a lot of things that they aren’t going to learn in school. It seems, though, that local public health units would rather have kids sit in front of the TV and increase their risk for developing diabetes and heart disease, so that they can justify an increase in their budget to fight those problems. How disingenious of them.

That’s one of the other things about government, though: It has a tendency to reward failure. You’re a car company that makes cars only marginally better than Yugos and goes bankrupt? Payout! You’re a bank that blows your investors’ money on bad investments? Payout! You’re an individual who can’t hack it in the world of work? Payout! (Kind of reminds me of Flo in those Progressive auto insurance commercials. Maybe she could get a job in government). In turn, rewarding failure ends up discouraging success. Imagine that you could wave a magic wand and completely eliminate a societal problem that the government spends a lot of resources on, such as the War on Drugs or the War on Cancer or the War on Terror or even something important that isn’t really a war, like violent crime or unemployment or whatever. What would happen? Well, it would mean mass unemployment, mostly among government employees or those whose jobs are a result of government funding. So, the people in the government whom we trust to solve our problems have a vested interest in ensuring that they don’t get solved.

Fortunately, there is a sure-fire formula for failure. It’s to cram a whole bunch of conflicting goals into any project that is undertaken. Looking back again at the Hoover Dam and World War II and the Apollo program, they all had a pretty clear focus. Would the Apollo program have met its goals if it were required to provide a venue for scientific research and the rocket ships had to be made from parts built in impoverished areas of the United States and had to be wheelchair-accessible and barrier-free and the crews had to represent all of the genders, races, and cultures of America? Would the Hoover Dam have been built two years ahead of schedule if, in order to stimulate the economy in Connecticut, they had to use concrete from Connecticut (which would probably take forever to get there and have hardened before it could be poured), and if they had to ensure there were no impact to any ecosystems in the river? Would World War II have been won as quickly if the Army’s top priority was workplace diversity? Probably not. However, once you get enough levels of government with enough departments with conflicting priorities, it’s almost inevitable that projects will wind up like that.

With government making it difficult for people to succeed and rewarding them for failing, it isn’t a surprise that this sort of mediocrity is spreading to the private sector. As I’m writing this paragraph, I’m on a bus that’s passing by a century-old office building in my town. They’re busy restoring the historic façade of the building. Well, maybe “busy” isn’t the correct word for this, because they’ve spent three years on the project and it appears to only be half done. This despite the fact that the façade wasn’t in that bad shape to begin with. Interestingly enough, the entire building only took two years to build 100 years ago. Why is it taking so much longer to do a much smaller task? The book provides a lot of more prominent examples too.

But, no matter what the evidence of decadence, Steyn feels that it can all trace back to individuals (or at least that’s my reading of the book). Sure, the U.S. federal government may be spending twice as much as it brings in, but it was the citizens that elected it. The county health unit may be making weird rules, but people meekly follow those rules. Policies may prohibit police officers from saving drowning people, but it’s individuals that choose to follow those policies.

In the introduction, Steyn quotes an interesting blog post by Bruce Charlton that asserts that human capability had peaked around 1965–75 and has been going downwards ever since. Steyn also commonly uses an example of a time traveller from 1890 who travels to 1950 and finds that everything has changed. Moving forward another 60 years, the time traveller might not be able to find the same degree of changes. Sure, the TV screens are flatter and in colour and whatnot, but the sort of revolutionary changes between 1890 and 1950 aren’t there. Personally, as someone who spends most of their time using a technology that wasn’t available in 1950, I would disagree with that statement, but let’s assume that it’s true for the rest of the review. Steyn illustrates a lot of examples of this downhill trend throughout the book, and even manages to find an interesting analogy from a socialist-leaning work of fiction. In one chapter Steyn compares, and not entirely favourably, modern humanity with the Eloi of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, a childlike, uncurious, undisciplined, decadent race. Steyn provides lots of examples of this decadence in the book. The basic idea is that, like the Eloi, modern Americans have sort of gone soft.

So why has this happened? The book explores several possible reasons. One reason is, as government gets bigger, the citizen gets worse. Americans donate more per person to charity than those of nations with larger governments, whose citizens spend more time worrying about what’s in it for them. Steyn paints a portrait of Greek civil service that makes me want to move to Greece and become a civil servant. The typical Greek civil servant works 24/7: 24 hours a week, 7 months a year. And don’t forget early retirement, which can come even earlier if you perform a hazardous profession like, say, cutting hair. Sure, Greece is an excellent example of a civil service gone soft, but this sort of thing can be found in America as well. However, it’s kind of hard to stop the gravy train. If you try, well, the results aren’t pretty. I’m reminded of the quote in Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love: “In a mature society, ‘civil servant’ is semantically equal to ‘civil master.’”

Bigger government also results in more micromanagement of every aspect of people’s lives. Even though Americans live in a democracy, their lives are controlled and micromanaged to a greater degree than any despot who lived at least a few hundred years ago could have dreamed of. Obviously, this makes it a little more difficult to operate anywhere near your full potential.

Steyn also laments the education of the citizenry, both formally and informally. It appears that Americans are no longer educated on what it means to be an American; the school system cranks out graduates that can’t read or write; in college, feel-good courses have replaced courses that teach actual knowledge; many Americans seem unable to make sound judgements about, well, almost anything.

Steyn also sees the country being populated with Peter Pans. Sure, males may not have wanted to grow up in previous generations either, but marriage and children forced them to. Nowadays, there’s no pressure nowadays to do either. Government has a hand in here too; while there have always been idle youth in Great Britain, previously this was reserved for scions of the rich, not necessarily anyone. With the government rewarding failure and discouraging success, it makes it perfectly acceptable to “fail”.

When you sum it up, it adds up to big potential problems. Fortunately, Steyn is also willing to provide suggested solutions.

Steyn presents a very compelling argument, but the anecdote-based nature of the argument suggests that more formal investigation could be necessary. Is this generation really all that bad? There is a history of every generation seeing the worst in the succeeding generation, and possibly this is just more of the same. I wonder whether history is biased in preserving the better examples of past generations, which of course will compare favourably to the modern average.  As well, Steyn doesn’t give a lot of weight to some significant recent advances, such as the proliferation of computers (as I previously mentioned).  Sure, the fact that we have computers hasn’t made all of our problems go away, but perhaps more credit is due here?  There are various other little points of Steyn’s that I would disagree with, but I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible for any one person to agree with absolutely everything argued in a book of that size. All in all, a very interesting book.

Book review: In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos, part 2

So last week (actually, it’s getting closer to two weeks ago now) I wrote the first half of a book review of the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. I concluded by asking whether punishing criminals for the sake of punishment was the best that we could do as a society. I’ll look into answering this question now.

As a society, we don’t really spend a lot of time actually thinking about free will. Do we have free will? Are we completely responsible for our choices, or are our decisions caused by other factors, or is it a combination of the two? The concept of free will has never been scientifically explained. If you accept that scientific assumption that everything is caused, it would follow that your thoughts are caused by something, possibly something external, possibly other thoughts, possibly the way your brain is put together, possibly some combination of all those. If you were able to follow all of the causal chains back far enough, you would end up with a set of causes all of which are external to you. Therefore, your thoughts are caused by external factors and there is no such thing as free will. (I have seen arguments that suggest that suggest that quantum effects in the brain produce stuff like consciousness and free will. I feel that these are based on a poor understanding of quantum mechanics. Quantum fluctuations produce random behaviour, not rational, conscious behaviour). So, if rational thought would suggest that we don’t have free will, why do we continue to implicitly assume that we do?

In the essay “Free Will, Determinism, and Self-Control” in The Philosophical Legacy of Behaviorism, Bruce Waller suggests that one reason is so that we can hold others morally responsible for their actions; they deserve the punishment that they get. I’ll look at a non-criminal example from the essay, that of a woman who doesn’t leave her abusive husband. A psychologist might see her refusal to leave as being a learned behaviour (“learned helplessness”), which she learned in childhood as a result of inescapable suffering. We can’t blame someone for having a traumatic childhood, so how can we blame them in this scenario? Yet we often do blame the victim, seeing the woman as being “weak” and so deserving to continue living a miserable existence. This also serves as an handy excuse to avoid trying to understand the victim and the causes of her behaviour better, which in turn makes it easier to avoid helping her and to ignore any role we, either individually or as a member of society, might have in her predicament.

One can look at criminal behaviour in the same way. The antisocial tendencies that cause criminal behaviour can often be traced to a defective upbringing (in some cases, defective genes may also play a role), which is something that the criminal couldn’t control. So why do we insist that we should lock the criminal up and throw away the key?

This belief probably comes from our caveman heritage. We are hard-wired to be outraged when someone does something wrong and satisfied when that wrong is punished. Back when humans were “cavemen”, this was probably a trait that helped us to survive. A readable summary of this can be found in the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner.

In the days of hunting and gathering, when someone did something that hurt the tribe or its members, there wasn’t any good way of trying to rehabilitate him, nor was there any good way of segregating him from the rest of the tribe if he didn’t want to be segregated. The only way of hoping to achieve these aims was to punish the person. Perhaps for serious infractions the perpetrator would be killed, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t commit any more crimes. Other punishments for less serious infractions might in some cases discourage future antisocial behaviour (they might not in other cases, but there isn’t any better alternative). One could also hope that the punishment would serve as a deterrent for the other members of the tribe. Nowadays, one would hope that we could put systems in place that would allow us to do better than cavemen.

Furthermore, claiming that people are “responsible” for their criminal behaviour allows us to ignore any role that we might have in creating this behaviour, so that we don’t have to think about how we, either individually or collectively, might be responsible for creating criminals, perhaps through our toleration of poverty and other social ills, unwillingness to help those in need, lack of moral standards, lack of support for incompetent parents, indifference or even cruelty toward those that we meet each day, lack of respect for the law in our own day-to-day behaviour, etc.

I think that, if we want to advance as a species, we need to leave these caveman notions behind. Hard as it will be, we need to suppress our instinct calling for wrongdoers to be punished. Instead of dragging criminals down, we need to make people’s lives better. This can be done by working to prevent crime in the first place, to rehabilitate the criminal, and to replace punishment by restitution—having the criminal try to fix what he broke as far as possible. “Don’t get mad, get even”.

So, I feel that Moskos’ premise in In Defence of Flogging, while not without merit, is flawed. Instead of finding different ways to punish criminals, we should look at removing punishment from the criminal justice system, without neglecting deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution. Corporal punishment doesn’t accomplish any of the last four aims, so it doesn’t have a part in my view of the corrections system of the future.

In order to serve the purposes of incapacitation and/or deterrence, prison sentences may still be required in some cases. However, there still is the problem of 2.3 million people currently in prison in the United States. Reducing sentences only to what is required to deter or incapacitate, while substituting activities aimed at rehabilitation and restitution for the rest of the sentence may help. Perhaps a technological solution could help as well. We already have various monitoring devices often worn by those under house arrest and/or probation. We might want to look into smarter devices that play a more active role in restricting the actions of the wearer. Perhaps a device could be created that causes physical pain when the wearer is doing something they shouldn’t. Perhaps a device could be created that physically restricts the wearer in various ways in various situations in order to force compliance with terms of sentencing. Perhaps even some sort of chip could be implanted in someone’s brain (kind of like Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that would prevent them from doing various off-limits activities. The big question is: Will people think of these devices as immoral, either because they torture wearers or invade their brains, or would it be seen as a humane alternative to prison sentences? I don’t know. This is something that’s worthwhile to start talking about, though.

Hopefully these measures will save money. Some of the savings should be earmarked for crime prevention, but in a smart way. Too often we try to prevent crimes in ways that don’t really prevent crime. Much the “war on drugs” involves arresting drug dealers, but as soon as the authorities do that, someone else sets up shop and we’re back to square one again. It would be much more effective to put money toward treatment programmes for addicts and make it very easy for addicts to get treatment. This would likely prevent a lot of thefts, prostitution, and other crimes that addicts commit to get money. We could undertake similar “smart” approaches with other crimes.

With luck, a combination of all these approaches would both significantly reduce crime and increase national productivity.

Book review: In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos

I recently read the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. I found it to be a rather interesting book that presented some interesting ideas. So, I decided to write a book review about it. It started to turn a bit long, so I turned it into a two-parter. The first part (this part) is more a review of what’s in the book. The second part is more infused with some of my own ideas, where I look at some of the assumptions that the book makes.

For starters, it’s a quite attractively packaged book. It’s fairly short; it could be read fairly easily in an afternoon if you’re up to it. It’s also well-written and the author gets his point across pretty well.

The author starts off through a description of the prison situation in the United States, where imprisonment is quite a popular punishment for crime. So popular, in fact, that there are now 2.3 million people currently in prison. That is an incredible amount of human potential that is being wasted right now. When you add to that the enormous human and financial resources required to guard the prisoners, house them, feed them, and so on, this imprisonment can be seen to be a significant drain on society.

Why are these people all there? Putting people in prison for committing crimes (or meting out other penalties for crimes) serves several purposes. The problem is that incarceration often doesn’t serve these purposes too well.

One purpose of incarceration is as a deterrent. The idea is that knowing that you’re going to sit in jail a long time for killing someone will deter you from doing so. Face it, if the penalty for murder were, say, five minutes in jail, there would be a lot more murders, because it would turn murder into an inexpensive solution for various problems. Obviously, increasing sentences from “short” to “long” will deter people who are thinking in terms of costs and benefits, but a more relevant question is whether increasing sentences from “long” to “very long” deters crime, and the available evidence suggests that it doesn’t have much, if any, effect. People have been experimenting with all kinds of penalties for crimes for years, and they’ve always found that some people will continue to break the law regardless. Why? Most people who commit crimes are either caught up in the moment and aren’t thinking about jail, or they’re planning to cover their tracks so well that they believe they will never get caught. I would think that the thought of five years behind bars would deter me, and probably everyone else thinking rationally about it, from committing virtually any crime (with the possible exception of crimes like drug trafficking or fraud, where you get to live the high life until you get caught), but the fact that people still commit crimes would suggest that people aren’t thinking rationally when they commit them.

Another purpose is incapacitation, the prevention of further crimes by segregating dangerous criminals from society. And let’s face it, locking people up is a good way of preventing them from committing crimes, at least until you release them. The only issue here is that some criminals are at no risk of reoffending. Take, for example, Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years in prison for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Why does he need to be incarcerated for so long? He won’t be committing any more crimes; no-one’s going to trust him with their money anymore. Or take the mother or father who killed their children. The entire pool of their potential victims is (sadly) now empty, so they are no longer a threat. Should these be treated in the same manner as people who are a legitimate risk to society?

A third purpose is rehabilitation. This, supposedly, is the actual purpose of prison, turning the prisoners into better citizens. But let’s face it, a prison environment has got to be the worst place to rehabilitate someone (and the book puts a lot of effort into describing the many problems with the prison environment); prisoners are constantly exposed to the worst of criminals daily and will no doubt pick up everyone else’s bad habits before too long.

A fourth purpose is restitution—making it up to the victims. It doesn’t seem to me that incarceration is a good way of serving this purpose. While prisoners might help the state by making licence plates or picking up garbage on the side of the highway, it seems unlikely that these services will ever come close to meeting the bill that the state pays to incarcerate the criminal.

This brings me to the final purpose, one that is at the heart of the book. This purpose is punishment. The idea here is that humans have this idea hardwired into them that, if someone does something wrong, that they need to be punished for it. Never mind whether punishing people actually helps anyone at all or not. So, if we’re locking people up for incredible periods of time, and it doesn’t serve any of the purposes listed above, it must mean that we’re doing it to punish them. And incarceration does work pretty well as punishment (Moskos does go to great lengths to describe thefor most offenders many punishing features of prison).

However, as previously mentioned above, incarceration is a pretty expensive method of doing so. Moskos suggests that criminals could be given the option to exchange the long-term mental torture of imprisonment for the short-term physical torture of flogging. It would probably be a lot kinder to people than leaving them behind bars for ages, and it would save a lot of money and other resources. And it would satisfy people’s desire that criminals be punished. What could be better? It’s important to emphasise that Moskos suggests giving criminals the option of being flogged, so if they think flogging is cruel and unusual, they can serve more traditional punishments.

Is this the best that we can do as a society? I’ll have more to write about this next week.