Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Author Interview: Ronald D. Lankford on 'Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights'

The idea for Virginia author Ronald D. Lankford's 2013 book, Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs, was sparked by his childhood memories.

“I grew up listening to Christmas songs in the 1960s – 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' Gene Autry, the Lennon Sisters,” he told me during an interview at this year's Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. “Christmas music was always there, so it was an important family ritual.”

The book looks mostly at holiday songs written since the 1930s, when the first secular, commercial Christmas tunes appeared, written by Tin Pan Alley composers and lyricists and distributed through the still new medium of phonograph recordings. Citing music industry historians, the author places 1934 as the year that saw the launch of the first modern Christmas standards, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” (the latter of which never mentions Christmas).

Referencing Irving Berlin's “White Christmas,” recorded by Bing Crosby, and Mel Tormé and Robert Wells' “The Christmas Song,” recorded by Nat “King” Cole, Lankford writes that this kind of holiday song, “performed by a well-known singer, pressed on a 78rpm record, and sold on the mass market, would create a new category of popular music.”

Although Americans celebrate several holidays every year, from New Year's Day to Independence Day to Thanksgiving, only Christmas has a wide range of music associated with it.

One reason for that, Lankford surmises, “is that Christmas seems to last longer than most holidays. Every year we have four or five weeks after Thanksgiving” when Christmas is celebrated, not just one day on December 25.

Another reason, he added, is “that it probably just holds a bigger place in our hearts than other holidays. A lot of people that are religious love it for religious reasons and a lot of [people who] aren't involved in religious aspects of Christmas also love it.”

For his research, Lankford acknowledged that his sources included Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas and Jody Rosen's book-length study on the origins and influence of “White Christmas,” but he also relied on Penne Restad's 1995 book, Christmas in America: A History. These and other sources emphasized nostalgia as a theme of Christmas music and other holiday traditions.

“Mostly what I was looking at was source material in the United States. If you want to understand the songs coming out in the '40s and '50s, you need to see how Christmas was sort of invented in the 19th century by the American middle class. Over and over again we come back to family, home. Dickens was very popular in the United States in the 1840s,” he pointed out, “so I wanted to go back and be grounded in these sources.”

He writes that “the first theme to emerge in the modern Christmas song was nostalgia.” He notes that recordings like “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” (already mentioned), as well as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (from Meet Me in St. Louis) and “I'll Be Home for Christmas” – all from the early 1940s – were songs that “connected with listeners by offering wistful images of the American past.

Ronald D. Lankford
Starting in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1970s, however, novelty songs (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” for instance) began to push nostalgia to the side, and songs “focusing on the holiday blues and hard times” started to get radio play.

The counterintuitive holiday popularity of mournful songs like “Blue Christmas” and “Pretty Paper,” he told me, really took off in the 1960s, when “everything changes.”

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, mere weeks before Christmas, he said.

Then, the next year, The Beatles arrived in America and “music changes quite a bit. Then we start having a variety of revolutions in the street and so the mood of the country changes.”

At the same time, he said, “what we think of as family begins to change. We tend to think of family as being a mother at home, father at work, and two children – or people used to think that [but] that started to change in the Sixties and, I think, it was a little disorienting.”

As a consequence, Lankford noted, “most of our classic songs end by 1963. [In] the Sixties and the Seventies, what we have instead are a lot of cartoons basically aimed at children,” such as Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Many popular singers, even rock stars, record at least one Christmas album during the course of their careers, yet creating a hit holiday song is elusive even for artists normally at the top of the charts.

“It's a really difficult trick to pull,” Lankford explained.

“In one way, most Christmas songs are traditional, so you're going back again to family and home, and so people don't want anything really 'out there.' Weird Al's Christmas songs,” for example, “have not become classics.”

On the other hand, he said, “if you want to be a classic, you need something that people will play year after year, so it has to have something distinctive enough that it's going to stand out from every other song.”

Those, he said, “are the two qualities they would have to have” – simultaneously conservative and distinctive – “to get played five weeks a year and not wear themselves out.”

The most unexpected thing Lankford found in his research was that Elvis Presley's first Christmas recordings met resistance and negative criticism.

“I was surprised,” he said, at “how controversial Elvis Presley's Christmas album and [his] Christmas music was in 1957.”

Today, he explained, it seems like Presley is an American icon: “baseball, apple pie, and Elvis.”

Yet in the late 1950s, “when he was touring, he was very controversial and his album was very controversial.”

Lankford recounted a “wonderful story” told to him by a dentist in his hometown of Appomattox.

The dentist's mother was an Elvis fan who "went downtown to buy the Christmas album when it came out. She brought it home, took it out of its sleeve, started to play it, and she didn't get finished with one cut when she said, 'This is the worst thing I have ever heard in my life.' She put it back in its sleeve, took it back to the drug store, and asked for her money back.”

It's easy to see why that controversy of 57 years ago seems puzzling today. This time of year, the tracks on Elvis Presley's Christmas album are played over and over on the radio. Reissued several times, that LP has sold more than 23 million copies and is now considered the best-selling Christmas album in recording industry history.

In addition to his most recent book, Ronald D. Lankford is the author of Women Singer-Songwriters in Rock: A Populist Rebellion in the 1990s (2009) and Folk Music USA: The Changing Voice of Protest (2005). He also edited Should the Voting Age Be Lowered? (2007).

Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs, by Ronald D. Lankford.  University Press of Florida, October 2013. Hardcover, 264 pp., $21.95.  Kindle edition, $10.49.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Author Interview: Economist Adam Smith Describes How 'Bootleggers & Baptists' Cooperate

Just over three decades ago, economist Bruce Yandle, then working for the Federal Trade Commission, published an article in the journal Regulation headlined “Bootleggers & Baptists: The Education of a Regulatory Economist,” which noted how groups presumably at odds with each other often collaborate, wittingly or unwittingly.

In 1999, in another piece for Regulation (PDF), Yandle described more fully the phenomenon after an additional 16 years of observation:

“Durable social regulation,” he said, “evolves when it is demanded by both of two distinctly different groups.” Those groups are the “Baptists,” a shorthand term for those who make a moral or ethical case for legislation or regulations, and the “bootleggers,” a term that applies to economic interests who benefit financially from legislation or regulations. (A synonym for “bootlegger” might be “rent-seeker.”)

“'Baptists' point to the moral high ground and give vital and vocal endorsement of laudable public benefits promised by a desired regulation,” wrote Yandle, while “'Bootleggers' are much less visible but no less vital. Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists … are simply in it for the money.”

What Yandle did was to apply public-choice economic theory to regulatory politics and, in the process, create a colorful concept that has been cited thousands of times since 1983 in attempts to explain how government makes rules.

Fast-forward to 2014, when Yandle, now a retired dean at Clemson University, has collaborated with his grandson, economist Adam Smith of Johnson & Wales University. Their new book is called Bootleggers & Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics. The two authors spoke about it at a forum hosted by the Cato Institute in Washington on October 9, 2014.

'Aligned interests'
After the forum, I asked co-author Adam Smith a few questions about the book and his research.

Adam Smith speaks at the Cato Institute
Smith explained that the term “bootleggers and Baptists” originated during alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, when “you had bootleggers and Baptists with aligned interests” even if they did not realize it.

Baptists, he explained, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because they saw drinking as morally detrimental. Bootleggers, too, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because Prohibition raised the price of illegal liquor and fed more profits to the bootleggers.

“It was a boon to the bootleggers,” Smith explained, “and the Baptists were kind of oblivious to that situation.”

Broadening the concept to include other kinds of regulations, Smith said, “what we see today in our modern political economy [are] many, many manifestations of the same kinds of strange bedfellows.”

More and more, he said, “we're seeing that those bedfellows are recognizing one another and coming together to form even more powerful would-be bootlegger/Baptist coalitions.”

There is also a relationship between “bootleggers and Baptists” and “crony capitalism,” when government grants preferential treatment to certain, well-connected businesses.

Smith said that, in the book “we call it 'bootlegger/Baptist' capitalism instead of crony capitalism.”

He added that “what I hope the book shows is that cronyism is more than just a bootlegger. That's the only thing that's usually recognized: There's just some special interest group.”

Yet, he explained, “a special interest group cannot move forward without moral cover, or at least can't get much out of the political domain without the Baptist” providing a beneficent reason for legislation, “and so we have to call attention the bad work Baptists are doing in creating opportunities for cronyism.”

Avenues for research
Both Smith and Yandle acknowledge that their book, while expanding upon the original thesis Yandle put forth in 1983, opens up new opportunities for further research by other economists and social scientists.

“There's obviously a lot of empirical work to be done,” Smith explained.

He pointed to “all these social regulations that people aren't looking at in terms of econometric work in the same way that they are [looking at] economic regulations, because we just don't think of it that way. We don't think of environmental policies and health-and-safety standards as giving money to anybody.”

Instead, he said, people “think of those as in the public interest. In other words, the Baptists have succeeded in convincing us of that fact but that's just not true. There are a lot of groups that benefit from that legislation and we need to put them under the microscope. We have to put those regulations under the microscope in the same way that we do economic regulations.”

Smith added that “this is a useful framework for recognizing groups” that may have self-serving (but hidden) economic interests in promoting new regulations.

“Never count a good bootlegger down,” he quipped. “A lot of times when we can't see the bootlegger, it doesn't mean they're not there. Seeing the Baptists can call attention to the fact that maybe there's a bootlegger standing in the shadows” during a debate about imposing new rules or restrictions on human action.

Bootleggers & Baptists, by Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle, was published by the Cato Institute on September 7, 2014.

(This interview appeared, in slightly different form, on Examiner.com on October 14, 2014.)

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Jimmy Fallon's New 'Do Not Read' List

Once again, The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has sent viewers scurrying to Amazon.com to track down the odd and repulsive books he has added to his end-of-summer "Do Not Read" list.

In the episode that aired September 11, 2014, Fallon showed his audience six books, each of which leads one to ejaculate, "WTF?"

First on Fallon's list was The Complete Book of Exercise Walking, by Gary D. Yanker. The book has a 2013 publication date, but the edition that Jimmy Fallon showed on air seemed much older, perhaps dating to the 1970s.

Fallon introduced his second non-recommendation by saying it would be of special interest to the guys in the audience. It was The Joy of Uncircumcising by Jim Bigelow, Ph.D. Fallon joked that the book used to be longer but the end was cut off. It's intriguing that this book is in its second edition -- though even that is 20 years old, with a 1994 publication date.

Third on Fallon's list was the 25-year old Natural History of Vacant Lots, by Matthew F. Vessel and Herbert H. Wong. Amazon's summary notes: "Vacant lots aren't really vacant: a surprising number of plants and animals live in the left-over spaces in our cities. In this fascinating guide, authors Vessel and Wong provide a broad introduction to the unique ecosystems that can survive in the urban environment."

Fallon drew attention to the unappetizing cover photo on his fourth choice, a cookbook called Snacks & Sandwiches and attributed to by Time-Life Books Editors and photographer Aldo Tutino. Whatever it is on the cover, it does not seem to be either a snack or a sandwich.

Finally, with a book whose title is a punchline all by itself, Jimmy Fallon chose a 2007 volume aimed at readers "preschool and up," Let's Explore Uranus by Helen Orme and David Orme. (Could it be a follow-up to Everybody Poops?)

Jimmy Fallon's "Do Not Read" List is a regular feature on The Tonight Show on NBC-TV. Check out the July 9, 2014, edition here.
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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Jimmy Fallon's 'Do Not Read' List of Strange Summer Books - July 9, 2014

Every once in a while, The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon presents his audience with books that he does not recommend.  In fact, he calls it the "Tonight Show 'Do Not Read'" list.

Fallon showcased several odd books in the episode that aired on the evening of July 9, noting that during the summer, people are looking for "hot beaches, hot bods, and hot books."

The books Fallon found were not hot; instead, they were:
-- A "how-to" book for children, Playing with Puppets, by Lis Paludan (1974), which Fallon described as "definitely not creepy at all."

-- A reference book, List of Persons Whose Names Have Been Changed in Massachusetts:  1780-1883 (published in 2012).  Out of 420 pages, he found two people to highlight --Nellie E. Freeman, who changed her name to Nellie Booby, and Louisa Andrews, who changed her name in 1879 to Lotta Hardon.

-- Another "how-to" book, this one about adultery:  How to Cheat and Not Get Caught, by Elizabeth Sylvince (2007).

-- A memoir, Granny's Old Hands:  What Has She Been Doing With Them?  Granny's Coming Out of the Closet, by Celestine Starks (2006).

-- A 1976 cookbook called Entertaining With Insects, Or: The Original Guide to Insect Cookery by Ronald L. Taylor, Barbara J. Carter and John Gregory Tweed, which includes recipes for Cricket Ramaki, Tillamook Tarts, Salted Garlic Mealworms, Cricket Crisps, and Sauteed Bacon-Pepper Bees.

-- The last book on Fallon's list was a history book, Bald Knobbers:  Vigilantes on the Ozarks Frontier, by Mary Hartmann and Elmo Ingenthron (1988).  I'm sure the term "bald knobbers" meant something different in 19th century Arkansas than it would today in, for instance, the adult cinema industry.
For another snippet from Jimmy Fallon's list of forbidden books, check out this post from May 2014.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Author Interview: Craig Shirley on 'December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World'

Memorial Day weekend seems an appropriate time to revisit Craig Shirley's 2011 book, December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World.

Shirley spoke about his book at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville earlier this year. After his presentation, I asked the author about the genesis of the book and what he learned while researching the history of the early days of World War II in the United States.

Craig Shirley
The idea for writing the book came from his family, he said.

When he was growing up in upstate New York, around the dining room table he heard “the stories about all the things that were going on with the Victory Gardens and the oleo[margarine] and the fake coffee and food shortages and all the sacrifices the American civilians made” during the war.

Moreover, he explained, his uncle had enlisted and, “was shot down and killed in the Pacific.”

Shirley's family had a tradition of military service going back to the American Revolution.

Two of his ancestors fought at Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill in Boston. Another ancestor “was with Washington all the way from 1775 to 1783. He was at Valley Forge, he contracted small pox there and lost an eye.”

That same great-grandfather fought at Monmouth, Boston, and Trenton. “He was in a number of battles under Washington's command. He was just a militiaman, one of the regular army from Connecticut. I don't think he achieved any rank.”

While his family members served in the military, Shirley said, “I wanted to do something from the standpoint of the civilians and how they were affected by the events of December 7.”

Deep and broad research
To research the material that ended up in the book, Shirley explained he “cast as wide a net as possible. We went to all the Roosevelt materials and uncovered documents that hadn't been reported on previously. We went through [Secretary of War] Henry Stimson's papers at Yale, we went through [Secretary of State] Cordell Hull's papers.”

Shirley and his research team also explored “Eleanor Roosevelt's papers and diaries, all the White House documents we could get our hands on, all the War Department” documents that were available.

“On top of all that,” he said, he looked at memos, diaries, and “thousands and thousands of newspaper articles” as well as “shortwave dispatches because at the time, CBS and NBC both had shortwave commercial broadcast stations and so the transcripts of those shortwave broadcasts” are archived.

Newspapers were a particularly rich source of information.

“There were some reporters and columnists who were just terrific and I like to use their material. It's interesting that there probably wasn't a newspaper reporter in 1941 who wasn't an excellent writer. They were all very good writers.”

In 1941, there were about 2,000 daily newspapers across the country, Shirley explained, compared to about 500 today. New York City had nearly 20 daily newspapers, he said, “including ethnic papers, [like] Polish papers. Washington, I think, had seven daily newspapers at the time.”

'Great man theory'
What surprised Shirley in the course of his research was “coming to the conclusion that Franklin Roosevelt was a better man than I thought he was. I am a political conservative, but I am also a historian and I have to look at things objectively.”

The New Deal, he asserted, “in terms from the standpoint of turning the economy around, was a failure [but] it did help the morale of the American people, there's no doubt about that.”

There is also no doubt, he added that, “without Winston Churchill [and] without Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler and the empire of Japan would have ruled the known world.

Churchill and Roosevelt, he concluded, “really are part of what Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, postulated as the great man theory of history, and these truly were great men.”

An earlier version of this interview appeared on Examiner.com, and see my comments on December 1941 on Where Are the Copy Editors?.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Odd Books: Alaska, Huge Ships, and DADT?

On The Tonight Show last night, host Jimmy Fallon did a comedy bit involving books with odd titles or subjects.

One of the books he featured was John B. Thompson's Alaska as It Used to Was, which was chosen, no doubt, for its grammatically-challenged title.

Out of curiosity, I looked up Alaska as It Used to Was on Amazon.com. Nothing stood out until I scrolled down to "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed." That caught my eye because there were only two items listed, neither of which seems to have any connection to Alaska as It Used to Was, nor to each other.


The two books are How to Avoid Huge Ships by John W. Trimmer and Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement by Stephen Snyder-Hill.

Big boats?  Gay soldiers?  Alaska's past?  Two of these things are not like the others.

In the comments section below, I will entertain suggestions about what the relationship among these three books might be.  There must be some connection, but it escapes me.

Cross-posted from Rick Sincere News & Thoughts.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Author Interview: Dale Carpenter on 'Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas'

Speaking at a book forum sponsored by the Cato Institute on March 16, 2012, Washington Post editorial writer (and former Supreme Court reporter) Charles Lane said the “true importance” of the 2003 high court decision in Lawrence v. Texas “is as a cultural milestone” and that it reflected how the country’s “zeitgeist had radically shifted since 1986,” the year of Bowers v. Hardwick, a decision that upheld Georgia’s sodomy law and which was overturned by Lawrence 17 years later.

Lane was responding to comments by University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter, who was presenting his new book, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas. For his own part, Carpenter compared the Lawrence decision, in its effect on the lives of gay and lesbian Americans, to Brown v. Board of Education and its effect on African-Americans and race relations.

After his presentation, Carpenter talked to me about his book, what he learned in his research, and the larger impact of the Supreme Court’s decision now and in the future.

Carpenter, who teaches courses in constitutional law and sexual orientation and the law, began writing Flagrant Conduct more than eight years ago. Its first form was an article for the Michigan Law Review (which he describes as “a microcosm of this book”) that ended up in the hands of a senior editor at W.W. Norton and Company, who suggested he turn the article into a book and eventually published it.

Dale Carpenter
Writing the book required “quite a bit of legwork and research,” including dozens of interviews with people involved with the case, from the officers who arrested John Lawrence (whose name is in the case title) and Tyron Garner to law clerks and prosecuting attorneys, gay-rights activists in Texas, and, finally, Lawrence himself, who granted Carpenter his only interview about the case and its circumstances, just six months before he died.

Their meeting, Carpenter said, “was emotional.”

U.S. Navy veteran Lawrence, he explained, “never got a trial. He never got to talk about his side. He never got to tell his story and” talking to Carpenter “was his chance finally to tell his story when he knew he was in poor health and would not live long.”

No sex, please

The most startling finding from Carpenter’s research was that, contrary to the long-assumed facts of the case, Lawrence and Garner were not having sex when they were arrested on September 17, 1998 – a date, Carpenter pointed out, that Americans mark as Constitution Day.

Though they were not having sex, Carpenter said, “the police nevertheless arrested them and hauled them off to jail.”

That arrest set off a chain of events that eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy with a strong dissent by Justice Anton Scalia and another, extremely brief dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, who pronounced the law “silly” and said if he were a legislator, he would vote to repeal it.

That Lawrence and Garner were not engaged in a sex act – and thus violating the Texas “Homosexual Conduct Law” – “was not widely known anywhere” and that information was first revealed by Carpenter in his 2004 Michigan Law Review article but, he noted modestly, “it is becoming more widely known now because of the book.”

The law that Lawrence was arrested under enabled police officials – in this particular case, the Harris County sheriff’s department – “to use their authority in an abusive and arbitrary way,” and, by overturning the Texas sodomy law and other, similar laws on the books in other states, the Supreme Court limited that form of police misconduct.

“The larger impact” of the Lawrence ruling, Carpenter explained, “ was getting rid of a precedent that wreaked havoc in the lives of gay men and lesbians in every area of life from family law to the military to relationship recognition, denying them their children, housing, employment, and everything else that we expect” as American citizens.

“The other legacy of this case,” he added, “may be yet to come in the form of more formal recognition of same-sex relationships and protection for families headed by same-sex couples. “

That, he concluded, “we’ll have to see.”

Adapted from an earlier article on Examiner.com.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

Author Interview: James Robinson on 'Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty'

One year ago today, in his first speaking engagement at George Mason University, Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson paid a compliment to the school by noting its “distinct intellectual atmosphere.”

Robinson appeared at the Arlington campus of GMU at the invitation of the Mercatus Center to discuss his 2012 book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, which he co-wrote with MIT's Daron Acemoglu.

In his lecture, Robinson explained how his and Acemoglu's empirical research had led to a predictive theory about how nations develop economically and politically. All countries, he said, can be plotted on a matrix using the categories “inclusive” (politics and economics) and “extractive” (politics and economics).

Success or failure for nations depends on whether they have inclusive or extractive institutions, Robinson said, and these institutions have their origins deep in history – although circumstances can change through the adoption and adaptations of new, better institutions.

As an example of this kind of change, Robinson noted that 200 years before the Industrial Revolution, England was an economic backwater on the edge of Europe. Elizabeth I's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was unexpected and unpredictable, yet by 1788, Great Britain was Europe's most formidable economic power and the world's leading colonizer. This was the result of institutional change in law and society.

After signing books for fans and admirers, Robinson clarified and expanded some of his remarks in an interview with me. (It turns out we were both students at the London School of Economics at about the same time.)

He explained that although the Spanish and English colonies in the Americas both began with the same model, the English experience at Jamestown, Virginia, set North America down a more economically prosperous path than the colonies in South America trod.

The circumstances in Virginia and, for instance, Buenos Aires, “were very different,” Robinson said.

“Because there were very few indigenous people [who were] organized in a very different way in Virginia as compared to, say, the central valley of Mexico, a very different type of society emerged.” This society was “based on creating incentives and opportunities for European [settlers] rather than exploiting indigenous people,” which was the case in Latin America.

Mysterious development?

Asked whether there is a difference in the questions of “why nations fail” and “why nations succeed,” Robinson replied that “they're two sides of the same coin.”

James Robinson
The reason his book has the title it does is that he and his co-author “don't think of economic development as being mysterious.”

Instead, he said, “to us, the puzzling thing is, why on earth don't poor countries that ought to be able to generate huge amounts of wealth and improve the living standards of their people” do so by investing in education, adopting technologies, and securing property rights?

“Why don't they do it?,” he repeated. “We've always found failure more puzzling. Why is it people don't take advantages of these huge opportunities?” This question is particularly salient when countries have abundant mineral resources, climates and soils conducive to agriculture, and convenient locations for trade and industry -- yet still fail to develop economically.

Many commentators on economic development – Thomas Sowell, for instance – focus on cultural values as the basis for success or failure. Robinson and Acemoglu take a different approach by emphasizing institutions.

Their approach, Robinson said, came about “mostly because of the empirical work we've done, all the scientific research. We've always found measures of institutions to have much more predictive power than different measures of culture.”

He conceded that “there's a problem of language here. When I talk about institutions, I don't just mean things written down, like the U.S. Constitution.”

He gave the example of the limit of two presidential terms, which was established as “a social norm that lasted for 150 years” by George Washington, before Franklin Roosevelt parted with the tradition and, eventually, the Constitution was amended to make the tradition statutory.

Nobel laureate economist Douglass North, he pointed out, “talks about informal institutions, social norms, and I think that's enormously important. It's not just about written-down laws. Social norms and informal institutions are quite similar to what a lot of people talk about when they talk about culture.”

When Robinson and Acemoglu talk about culture, however, “it's not about values or normative beliefs or normative principles or religious principles. We don't find that to be important; we don't think it's important” in terms of predictive value for economic success or failure.

Why Nations Fail is published in hardback by Crown Business and in paperback by Profile Books Ltd.

Adapted from an earlier article on Examiner.com.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Author Interview: Kurt Loder on 'The Good, the Bad and the Godawful: 21st Century Movie Reviews'

Kurt Loder
Just over two years ago, longtime MTV news anchor Kurt Loder published a book-length collection of film criticism entitled The Good, the Bad and the Godawful: 21st-Century Movie Reviews (St. Martin's Griffin, 2011).

Shortly after it was released, I interviewed Loder at a book party hosted by Reason magazine in Washington. We only had a short time available for our conversation, so I challenged the author to describe his book in 30 seconds or less -- basically, give the elevator pitch.

In reply, Loder said the book is "a collection of more than 200 movie reviews that I’ve done for MTV.com and Reason.com (my current employer) over the last seven years."

There are, he said, "a lot of the usual blockbusters and stuff but there are a lot of movies that people may have missed, like Exit Through the Gift Shop and The Fall."

While there are "so many good movies that come out," he said, "if [audiences] don’t make it the first week, they disappear. So there are a lot of them in there, [but] there are a lot of movies that are really dreadful,” as well.

The book, he added, “covers a lot of movies that you may have forgotten or never seen.”

His hope is that the reader might find “a lot of movies in there that [he] might be inspired to go see.”

Loder said that he has “always loved movies” and that one of the earliest motion pictures he remembers seeing was The Thing, when he was six years old, in 1951. His love of the movies is what motivates him to write about them.

He writes his reviews, he explained, from the perspective of a fan.

“I’m not a film critic,” he pointed out.

“I think 'film critics' are like Pauline Kael and David Thomson and people like that who spent their entire lives in dark rooms. I haven’t done that.”

Still, he said, “I try to keep up. I see a lot of movies but I have a disorganized knowledge.”

When writing about movies, Loder explained, he decides whether he likes a film or not and then he tries to be entertaining in his review.

Asked if popular culture has a significant impact on politics or vice versa, Loder paused before answering.

“Politics has an impact on all of us -- a malign one, quite often.”

While he found the question interesting, he said, he did not know how popular culture had an impact on politics.

Loder then suggested that, “when you see people in Congress playing games on their laptops" while they are in session, then "that’s sort of an impact.”

Although – or perhaps because – he “loves movies,” Loder demurred when asked to name his favorite film.

“Ah, there’s no such thing!” he exclaimed.

He did, however, name the “best movie” he saw in 2011, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which stars Brad Pitt.

“It’s a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant movie. It’s really, really good. Everybody should go see it.”

Loder mentioned two other recent films before the interview came to a close: Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, featuring Charlize Theron, “which was really good,” and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman, which he “didn’t like very much.”

However, he said, “there have actually been a lot of good movies at the end of the year, as there always are.”

Adapted from an earlier article on Examiner.com.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Virginia Festival of the Book 2014 - First Amendment & Free Speech

At the 2014 Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, there was a panel discussion about freedom of speech sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and moderated by the center's director, Josh Wheeler. The panelists were authors Floyd Abrams and Ronald K.L. Collins, who talked about free speech and the First Amendment, and how protecting freedom of speech sometimes comes in conflict with other values of a liberal society.

Attorney Floyd Abrams is a partner with the law firm of Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and the author of a recent book, Friend of the Court: On the Front Lines with the First Amendment.

Ron Collins teaches law at the University of Washington and is the author of a book about Abrams, Nuanced Absolutism: Floyd Abrams & the First Amendment.

Here is video of the full discussion, recorded in the Charlottesville City Council Chambers on March 22, 2014:
To read my interview with Abrams conducted immediately after the panel discussion, visit Examiner.com. To hear the full audio interview with Abrams and another interview with Josh Wheeler about the Virginia Festival of the Book event as well as the annual Muzzle Awards, visit Bearing Drift's March 29 podcast on "The Score."

For more posts about the Virginia Festival of the Book, look here.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Virginia Festival of the Book 2014 - Stephen Jimenez

During a Virginia Festival of the Book panel on March 20 called "Shifting Identities" at the Jefferson Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez discussed his 2013 book, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard.

In the book, Jimenez explores alternative explanations for the 1998 beating and murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, which at the time was thought to be an unprovoked gay bashing and hate crime.

Shepard's murderers were convicted of second degree murder but not a hate crime. Jimenez looks into a seedy underworld connection between Shepard and one of his killers, Aaron McKinney. According to Jimenez, both Shepard and McKinney were involved in the crystal meth trade in Colorado and Wyoming.

Here is video of Jimenez's presentation and his answers to questions posed by audience members:

My post-panel interview with Jimenez can be read on Examiner.com.

The other participants in the "Shifting Identities" panel at the Central JMRL were Laura Krughoff, who read from her 2013 novel, My Brother's Name, and Ariel Gore, who discussed her memoir, The End of Eve, which was published just days earlier in March 2014.

To see previous posts about the Virginia Festival of the Book, look here.

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Virginia Festival of the Book 2014 - World War II

One of the panels at the 2014 Virginia Festival of the Book was called "World War II: Little Known Stories." It took place on March 20 in the Charlottesville City Council Chambers.

Moderated by Art Beltrone, author of Vietnam Graffiti, the panel featured two authors -- Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp, who wrote Discourse and Defiance under Nazi Occupation, which is about the German occupation of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands; and Craig Shirley, who wrote December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World.

Largely for reasons of time, this video focuses on Craig Shirley's presentation and his responses to questions from the audience.

For a quirky take on Shirley's book, December 1941, check out this post from 2011.

Previous posts about the Virginia Festival of the Book in earlier years can be seen here.

UPDATE:  C-SPAN2 recorded the entire panel discussion and will air the video on BookTV on Saturday, May 3, at 2:35 p.m. (ET) and Sunday, May 4, at 1:05 a.m.

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