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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