Thursday, March 31, 2011

Man of Steel

I recently finished Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman; it was a 12 volume comic book run that is now collected into two trade paperbacks.

Superman is very awkward as a superhero.  On the one hand, his boyish, all-American charm is great, the Clark Kent disguise is amusing, and his superpowers are, well, rather powerful.  And it’s that last one that’s the problem; he is way too powerful.  Without a limitation, there isn’t much drama.  So, along come kryptonite, which renders him utterly powerless.  With no kryptonite around, he is indestructible; with kryptonite around, Elmer Fudd could beat him.  So, how do you write a comic book about him?  Who’s he going to fight?

As a result, I’ve never been all that interested in Superman comics; as a Superhero, I like the idea of him, but it’s hard to get excited about him.  Similarly, all the Superman movies are pretty lame.  (I know it is heretical in some circles to say that Christopher Reeve’s original Superman movie was bad, but really, have you watched since you were a kid?—it is painfully bad.  And the franchise which started bad got progressively worse.)  The only Superman portrayal I really enjoyed was Alan Moore’s great two issue story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” which, set in a future in which Superman has vanished, asked what happened.  All-Star Superman tries to capture the same feeling as Moore’s story.

The idea behind the All-Star series is that it doesn’t have to fit into the DC Universe continuity—so the author is free to start and end anywhere.  That gives a bit of freedom to Morrison, and he uses it in an interesting way.  What is one enemy that Superman could fight in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion?  How about his own mortality?  The basic story: Lex Luthor comes up with an evil (obviously) plan—if Superman has to fly into the sun to save some people, he’ll get exposed to so much of the quality of the sun which gives him his superpowers that his body will overdose on the sun and he will die.  The plan works.  Superman finds out he has suddenly become mortal.  So, he sets out to perform 12 heroic deeds before the end.  The best part about the story not being tied to the DC universe is that it is possible that Superman can actually die here.  (Superheroes can’t die in the real fake DC universe because there is a need for more comic books, so you have to have a fake fake universe if you want even the possibility of death.  Such is the reality of the comic world.  (One Christmas, my family gave me The Marvel Encyclopedia; my father-in-law, upon seeing it, commented, “Hmmm.  An Encyclopedia about things that aren’t real?”  My father-in-law probably won’t be reading All-Star Superman anytime soon.  (Fortunately I read non-comic books too, so that he doesn’t think I read only absurd things.)))

Does All-Star Superman work?  A little.  It’s OK.  Part of the problem may be Morrison; the only other thing of his I have read is Arkham Asylum (a Batman story) which is pretty good.  But both of his books I have read have a very jerky, episodic feel.  He jumps over parts of the story and then you have to fill in what just happened; it isn’t hard to fill in the blanks, but the stories don’t feel like they develop; instead, they simply lurch forward.  (It’s sort of like watching Frankenstein’s monster walk.)  Some of the parts of All-Star Superman are clever and well done, but other parts are tired.

The Bizarro World section runs on way too long; there is a really interesting character in it, so the episode is actually good, but too much Bizarro talk gets old.  (By the way, in one of my lectures not too long ago, I mentioned Bizarro world, and met with a sea of blank faces, I asked if anyone knew about Bizarro world.  Nobody did.  Not a single student knew about it.  Sigh—kids don’t read enough comic books these days. (And, incidentally, Bizarro world is discussed in an episode of Seinfeld—doesn’t anyone watch Seinfeld anymore?))

What do we learn from this story (All-Star Superman, not the Seinfeld episode)?  It’s an extended reflection of our own mortality.  Superman, suddenly faced with mortality, has to decide how he wants to live the rest of his life.  We, constantly faced with our own mortality, don’t think about it all that much.  Superman has a year to accomplish his 12 tasks.  He picks an odd set of tasks.  Suppose you had the rest of your life to accomplish 12 things—what 12 things would you pick?  Seriously, try to make a list of the 12 Labors of You.  It’s an odd Thought Experiment.  And why do we rarely ask ourselves that question?

One other interesting Superman note:  I can't remember where I read it, but recently I saw someone note that Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, is unique.  Every other superhero’s alter-ego is the real person.  Bruce Wayne is the real person, then he puts on a mask and becomes Batman.  Peter Parker is the real person and becomes Spider-Man (note correct spelling of "Spider-Man").  But Superman is the real person and the mask he puts on is Clark Kent.  I wish I remember where I read that tidbit.  I know I read it recently, but I cannot remember reading anything recently which would have had an observation of that nature in it. Come to think of it, it was probably in Wired magazine—they always have geeky observations like that.

The obvious Music Video.  I love the song; but hate the original music video (it’s terribly lame), so this one gets some good video to go with the song.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Civilization and Its Discontents

Last night at the dinner table, young Clara (age 11—how old does she have to be to stop being Young Clara?) was at her Ancient Philosopher best.  Twice, out of the blue, she left the family stunned at her wit and wisdom.  And, thus, as a service to the rest of Humanity, I offer the following for your edification.

1) “Pronouns are the basis of civilization.”

2) “There is a lot of injustice in this family I have learned over my lifetime.”

The first came at the height of a discussion over whether Emma was exhibiting a confusion about the pronoun (my argument) or the antecedent (Lily’s argument) in failing to understand a remark made by Janet.  The debate ended when we all stared with jaws agape at Clara’s remark.

The second came when one of the other offspring was vociferously complaining that something or other wasn’t fair.  It was also a conversation stopper.

Clara is a Deep One.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

If We Were a Rich Town

I used to wonder why government was so dysfunctional.  Over the last two years, I figured out a large part of the reason.

But, to back up.  In the Old Days, I happily ignored town politics.  I live in Granby, a town with a population of 6000.  It’s an old farming town.  Our house is an old farmhouse.  In other words, the town in which I live is absolutely nothing like the California suburbs in which I grew up.  I knew there were all sorts of political discussions in my new home town, but I didn’t really care.  As George Will once noted, one of the many amazing things about America is that one is free to ignore politics—after all, the issues in small-town American politics are hardly the stuff of Great Moral and Political clashes.  Janet used to tell me I should be involved in Town Politics.  I am not sure why she used to tell me this: on the one hand, as she rightfully noted, I am an economist and I do know a lot about government finance, but on the other hand, Janet always thinks I am wrong about everything (“a prophet is without honor in his own hometown” and all that). 

About two years ago, Janet won out.  I joined the Finance Committee in town.  That is the committee in charge of putting together the town budget and offering advice to the town on financial matters.  All in all, it is a committee right up my alley.  I figured it would be pleasant enough—I could offer advice if anyone cared, and life would go on.

Nobody wants my advice as it turns out.  That’s fine; I am a college professor after all, so I am well used to talking and having nobody pay any attention.  But, I have learned something along the way.  Our little town of Granby has an utterly absurd manner of deciding how to spend tax revenue.  There are constant demands to spend more on this or that item, and few people feel the need to actually justify why money should be spent on this or that item.  The problem is fundamental and runs deep in the town.  The problem is, as it turns out, is not actually a difference of opinion about how to spend money, nor is it an ideological clash, nor is it anything else I would have thought.  Instead, the fundamental problem with government, at least the small-town variant, is (drum roll, please):

People don’t understand budget constraints.

Seriously, and surprisingly, the simple idea that a town like Granby has a fixed amount of money it can spend and thus if it spends more in one area, it necessarily has to spend less elsewhere is an idea that I have realized people really and truly cannot comprehend.  And if you can’t comprehend the idea of a fixed maximum spending amount, then you can’t comprehend the idea of trade-offs.  We have for example a member of the Board of Selectmen who argues 1) spending more on school buildings in the top priority in town so we should spend tens of millions more on that, 2) fixing up town hall is the top priority in town so we should spend a few million more on that, and 3) we should really spend a million on our top priority of building a new library.  Now, what interests me here is that there is no way our small town can raise that sort of revenue, so it is literally impossible to spend that much—and yet everything is the top priority.  Then I found out last night that this same member of the Board of Selectmen is proposing 1) hiring another full time government employee (a “planner” at $60K per year—don’t ask me what a “planner” is; I have no idea) and 2) hiring some high school graduate to “put stuff on the web page” (because, as you know, putting something on an a web page is really, really hard, so we need to hire someone to do it rather than, you know, learning how to do it yourself.  (I am thinking that I should probably hire someone to put my ruminations on web for me since this is apparently harder than I thought.)And, as you would suspect, the list of new things on which to spend money doesn’t end there.

In the last two years, I have run into people exactly like this in town on a regular basis.  I was quite shocked at first, but I have become used to the idea that many of the people with whom I am talking do not understand the idea that there is not unlimited amounts of money to be spent and thus the town needs to make choices about how to spend what funds it does have.  Why is this idea so hard to understand?  (And don’t get me started on how long it took to convince people in town that the Town was not going to be able to borrow large sums of money at a 0% interest rate no matter how much we might like it if someone would lend us money without charging interest.)

I suspect the reason people don’t understand budget constraints is because they have subconsciously absorbed the lesson of the rhetoric surrounding federal government spending.  The United States can borrow a lot at very low interest rates, so the federal government can spend more on everything.  But State and especially local governments aren’t like that—and I am beginning to realize that the distinction here is not widely understood. 

And since economists like to name things, I hereby dub this the Tevye Syndrome of Local Government.

So, anyway, I have another year in my term on the Finance Committee, offering advice to nobody in particular.  I have no idea if I would accept another term on the Finance Committee.  I don’t have any illusion that my presence on this committee is having any effect whatsoever, but it’s amusing in its own way.  But, then again, I am easily amused. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Measly One-Horse Institution

As noted earlier, I am spending a ridiculous amount of time reading books about the financial crisis this semester.  And, it didn’t take me long to realize that reviewing them one by one would get pretty tedious.  So, herewith is a Trio of Reviews.

The general review: All three of these books are pretty good, but they have very different audiences.  It is also will worth noting that these books are still part of the preliminary studies of what happened in 2007-2008; it will be a few more years before we start getting anything remotely resembling definitive studies. 

1. Michael Lewis, The Big Short
Michael Lewis is an Institution.  His first book, Liar’s Poker was all about a curious episode in the 1980s when these guys at Solomon Brothers starting putting together these interesting little assets called mortgage backed securities.  Fast forward 20 years and those same securities are in the middle of the financial crisis of 2007-08.  So, it was inevitable that Lewis would write a book, and it was also inevitable that it would be an attempt to be The Book.  It isn’t.  Fortunately, Lewis has a few things going for him. 1) He writes really well; 2) He has a good sense of humor; 3) He understands financial markets; 4) He writes for normal people.  The end result—it’s a pretty good book.  If you only want to read one book about the financial crisis and (importantly) if you don’t really care about what exactly went on but you just want to have a rough idea what went on, then this is the book for you.  I suspect you’ll enjoy it.  Lewis has a great eye for digging up curiously bizarre people and telling their story in an amusing way.  Lewis also skipped trying to write a book about the people at the heart of the crisis (lots of people will write that book); instead, he looks at a few truly odd individuals who made a fortune in 2008 because they guessed that things would go bad a little bit sooner than everyone else realized things would go bad.  The book does portray the financial crisis as Inevitable;  it’s not obvious to me how inevitable it really was—clearly some individual markets and assets were going to go bad, but there isn’t an obvious reason why the failure of a few assets would bring down Wall Street and then the US economy.  In other words, not surprisingly, there is more to this story than the slice presented by Lewis.  That isn’t a problem with Lewis’ book at all, though; at present, it is impossible to write the complete story.  What do we learn from Lewis’ book?  We learn a lot about the complicated nature of the securities at the heart of the crisis.  I knew before I read Lewis that these securities were really hard to figure out, but I learned they are even harder to figure out than I thought.  As it turns out, the guys who did guess that something was wrong also didn’t understand the assets—they just guessed that if they couldn’t understand them, then maybe the assets weren’t particularly solid assets.  The best stories in the book are about how these guys gradually learned that their own personal ignorance was no less than the collective ignorance of the participants in the market as a whole.

2. Lawrence Kotlikoff, Jimmy Stewart is Dead
You know those people in 2008 who screamed non-stop about how everyone on Wall Street was corrupt, evil, stupid and greedy?  Those people annoyed me because they didn’t actually understand the nature of the industry about which they were outraged.  Kotlikoff's book is thus a bit of a surprise.  It has all the Moral Outrage of the Screamers, but Kotlikoff is actually a very good economist and the book is solid economics.   (Kotlikoff, by the way, is a co-author of the single best book on the looming Social Security Crisis (The Coming Generational Storm).  Apparently, Kotlikoff really wants to be the bearded guy on a corner holding a sign saying “The End is Near.”)  The first half of this book is thus perfect for anyone who wants his outrage to be informed.  The second half of the book is Kotlikoff's argument for “limited purpose banking” which is just a variant on the old idea of a 100% reserve bank.  The banks in the limited purpose banking world are perfectly safe, there is no need for deposit insurance, and there won’t be a meltdown of the banking system.  In my younger years, I really liked the 100% reserve bank idea.  But, over time, I realized it wouldn’t work, and for reasons which also afflict Kotlikoff's version.  Suppose you make a perfectly safe bank.  The money supply is then safe.  Everything looks great.  But, along comes a thing that looks like a bank, but isn’t really a bank.  This new not-a-bank-thing offers an account that looks artificially close to a checking account, but isn’t exactly a checking account.  But the new not-a-checking-account-at-a-bank-thing is riskier and not insured.  It also pays a higher interest rate than an old-fashioned safe checking account at a bank does.  People move their funds from the bank to the non-bank.  The money supply is now at non-banks.  And, lo and behold, we are back where we started.  I never could solve this problem, so I lost my enthusiasm for 100% reserve banking.  When I started Kotlikoff’s book, I was hoping to rediscover my earlier love, but, alas, she still has the same flaws she had when she was younger.

And a depressing by-the-way:  I asked my class if anyone knew who Jimmy Stewart was.  None of my students did.  (Before anyone asks, here is the relevant clip.)  (Best movie ever (and it’s not a contest).)

3. Gary Gorton, Slapped by the Invisible Hand
This is The Book about the financial crisis…if you are a Geek.  Gorton wrote the single best paper on the gory details of the financial crisis, and the book has that paper, plus a later paper with even more gory details, plus an introduction and conclusion (and an earlier paper) to make that pair of papers with gory details look like a Book instead of just a Couple of Papers Put Between Hard Covers.  The details are fascinating for those who like that sort of thing.  Surprisingly, and I am seriously surprised, I have heard from several students that they loved this book.  My students are bigger Geeks than I thought.  I loved it too, but that is a surprise to nobody.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thrilla Nearby Scylla

1.  Imagine if a President of the United States starting bombing a Middle Eastern country which provided oil to the world and the sole excuse for the bombings was that we thought the leader of said country was a really bad person.  Then imagine if that same President signed an extension of the Patriot Act just a few weeks ago allowing all sorts of wiretapping and so on.  And imagine if that same President held people at Guantanamo Bay without trial, or indeed without charging them with a crime, with only a vague promise of a trial in a military tribunal at some point in the future.  The Anti-War Left surely would protest such a President, right?  Now imagine said President had campaigned on a promise not to do all those really, really mean things.  I have a slogan for the Anti-War Left—Obama Lied; People Died.  Catchy, huh?  So, where exactly are those protesters?

2.  Meanwhile Clara is planning to spend 30 hours this weekend not eating anything as part of the 30 Hour Famine (organized by World Vision).  This is all part of a big fundraiser, which centers, for surely some mystical reason, on the number 30—fast for 30 hours and raise money from sponsors (using the slogan—$30 can feed a child for a month (30 days)).  Emma and Lily both did this when they were younger too.  It’s a nice idea.  But, there is a really interesting difference between Emma, Lily and Clara in this respect—Clara hates the idea of asking people to give her money for doing this.  So far, she has not asked a single person to support her—she hasn't even asked her grandparents, let alone others.  Nonetheless, she will still go without food for 30 hours this weekend.  She’s a good kid.

3.  Speaking of Clara, while driving her to school this morning (side note—I don’t usually drive her to school; today's journey was the result of the combination of the MCAS tests and the fact that Emma likes to sleep (the fuller version is really boring, so trust me, you don’t care)), I mentioned to her the new novel I was planning to write.  She told me it was really dumb.  I told her that everyone would like my novel more than they liked Harry Potter.  She scoffed.  I told her that her friends would be impressed that her dad was a better novelist than J.K. Rowling.  She said they wouldn’t know who J.K. Rowling was (apparently Clara is not terribly impressed with the literacy rate of her peers). One thing about Clara—she is never impressed with her father’s brilliant ideas.

4.  And what about this novel, you ask?  Well, let me tell you.  At the start of the car ride I only had the title of the novel, but on the way to school I did write a sentence for the novel—since Clara wasn’t impressed with the title, I thought she would be impressed with a sentence—but, she wasn’t. The Title? 
The Lone Zombie and the Quest for the Bone of Trom
Now who wouldn’t want to read that book?  And consider this—The Lone Zombie is a renegade zombie, probably with superpowers (I haven’t worked that part out yet).  And this book just part one of a multi-volume series (probably 7 books—just like Harry Potter)—I am not sure what future volumes will be entitled.  And the sentence I carefully crafted?
“But that means I will have to go around in a circle, which will cause my heart to explode and I will die!”
I have not yet worked out how that sentence will fit into the plot because I have not yet worked out the plot.

5. The previous paragraph was written solely so that I can tell Clara tonight that I have begun work on my novel and have already published an excerpt of it.

6. The idea of the Lone Zombie was hatched in my tutorial yesterday; we were talking about zombies.  I asked why there was this fascination with zombies and was told it had something to do with there being massive numbers of them.  (Oh, and tearing apart flesh and so on.)  So, I asked if it was possible to have a story about a single zombie; the students laughed at the very idea.  So, that made me realize the Lone Zombie Idea has some serious potential.

7. Zombies came up when someone mentioned Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I haven’t read it.  And I don’t intend to read it.  But, I was told that it is really good.  I still don’t plan to read it.

8. A Zombie music video?  Easy choice.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to Write a Term Paper

The combination of thinking about how to write a book review and the stack of papers I am about to receive from one of my classes today has prompted the following dissertation on how to write a term paper or any other type of paper.

But, first, the grouse:  students are not taught how to write papers anymore.  It is really obvious that few students in high school or college are taught the basics of the proper construction of a paper.  It is really depressing, because it really isn’t all that hard to write a competent paper.  Writing a great paper is hard work, but to write a great paper, one must first know how to write a competent paper.  And for reasons explained below, it is easy to teach someone how to write a competent paper; writing a competent paper is simply following a set of rules.  If everyone graduating from high school could write a competent paper, then students could learn to write great papers.  But, high school teachers, and truth be told, most college professors, forget that it is impossible to write a great paper without knowing how to write a competent paper. 

A competent paper meets a few rather simple requirements: 1) there are no serious grammatical or structural problems; 2) the argument is solid throughout; and 3) the paper is focused and makes its argument.  In other words, a competent paper has a point, and makes its point in a structured fashion following all the rules of grammar.  Each paragraph has a structure to it, and the sentences in each paragraph belong there.  The paragraphs have a natural flow.  The reader never feels lost in the paper and at no point does the reader ask, “What is this doing here?”  To write a competent paper is then merely the exercise of developing a structure before writing and rewriting the paper to make sure that all the parts fit.  The biggest problem with most papers which are turned in as schoolwork is that they are the first draft of something which was written without any structure in mind—they are, in other words, more or less a stream of consciousness.  A good competent paper will generally be at least the third or fourth draft, but even the fourth draft generally requires some work.  (This blog post for example took four drafts, and the Reader (don’t laugh—let’s pretend someone is reading this) will easily notice multiple ways the prose could be improved). 

Grading a paper for its competence is really not all that complicated, but it is time consuming.  The teacher needs to note all the failures of grammar, structure and logic.  Those sorts of problems can easily be fixed by a student who actually cared to write a competent paper.  That is the tragedy—since few teachers care about enforcing rules of minimum competency, students habitually turn in lazily written papers.

Once someone has mastered the ability to write a competent paper, then and only then can someone master the art of writing a great paper.  A great paper is first competent and then second has something interesting to say.  It makes a novel argument or an old argument in a novel way.  It demonstrates literary style.  It is pleasant to read and thought-provoking.

This presents a problem; while anyone with an ear for the English language can teach someone else how to write a competent paper, there is no formula for writing a great paper.  In order to write a great paper, the writer (not the teacher) needs to do a lot of work reading and thinking about the subject.  The writer (not the teacher) needs to play with ideas and try out arguments.  The writer needs to attempt writing arguments to see how they work, and then abandon the failed attempts.  The writer needs to be bold and thoughtful.

Students are taught to pretend they can write great papers without ever learning a) how to write a competent paper or b) that they really need to do a lot of work before they have any hope of saying something interesting.  Students are taught to avoid being boring writers, but they have no idea what good writing is like because they have not read enough Shakespeare or Milton or the King James Bible.  If one’s exposure to prose is the Blogosphere and Facebook and Twitter and textbooks, then there is no possible way to learn how to write well.

So, if you want to write a good term paper, first master the art of writing a competent term paper, then read volumes of the Greatest Writers Ever, then read and think long and hard about the subject matter about which you intend to write, and then, and only then, will it be possible to write a great term paper.  That will take a long time, you say?  Uh, yeah.  Why does anyone imagine writing well is an easy skill to master?  Why does anyone imagine that it is possible to write a great paper the night before it is due?

Monday, March 21, 2011

How to Review a Book

The ruminations, or perhaps more properly speaking the grousing, below was prompted by a book review.  It was not a good book review; indeed, it was a really lousy book review.  And it was the poor quality of the review itself that caused me to start wondering why some people just don’t seem to understand the idea of the book review.

The book:  Scorpions by Noah Feldman.  I reviewed this book a few months back here on this blog, and so let me hasten to say that the blog review is not an example of a good book review—for one thing, the blog format is too informal for a proper book review.  But, the general direction of that blog review is the right general direction.  And therein lies the tale.

The review which prompted my grumbling:  Joseph Tartakovsky’s review in National Review.

Now, let me also note at the outset; I liked Scorpions.  A lot.  Tartakovsky did not.  That isn’t a problem at all; I often learn much about a book from a reviewer who has a different opinion than I do.  The problem is that Tartakovsky didn’t really review the book at all.  Indeed, if the first time I had heard of this book had been Tartakovsky’s review, then I would have completely dismissed the book as puerile drivel, never picked it up, and thereby missed out on reading a rather interesting book.  That is a problem; a good review should not make someone want to skip a book which would make one think.

Where did Tartakovsky go wrong?  Many, many places, and the discussion of them is illustrative of the problem with a great many book reviews.  The book is a discussion of how four of FDRs Supreme Court nominees had a long-lasting effect on the Court.  Feldman introduces each of these people with a biographical chapter, which helps set the scene for what comes after.  Tartakovsky devotes nearly a quarter of the space in his review to four one-paragraph summaries of these background biographies.  Now in a 528 page book, the background biographies are not intrusive.  But is a short book review?  It’s odd.  And the reason it is odd is that the book review does not need these biographical sketches; the reader learns nothing about the book, the argument of the book or an evaluation of that argument by reading four paragraphs of background material.  So, why did Tartakovsky include all these biographical details?  Hard to say. I suspect it is because it is easy to write such material; you don’t have to think about a book as much if you spend a quarter of your allotted space on superficial detail.

Then when you turn to the review itself, Tartakovsky makes another elementary error.  He complains that Feldman elevates the role of these Justices too much in the book.  Tartakovsky argues that other people also had important roles to play.  You think?  We have here a book which seeks to explore the importance of four people; Tartakovsky complains that this elevates the role of these four people.  In other words, the complaint here is that the author didn’t write a different book.  Of course a book about four people elevates the role of those four people; that is the thesis of the book after all.  One can argue that Feldman was wrong, that these four men were not really all that important, but to do so requires more than simply saying there are other people in the world.

Then Tartakovsky goes on to complain that Feldman “undermines” his tale that there was a clash of legal theories on the court by looking at the psychological and political motivations of the justices.  That, again, was the whole point of the book.  

And then, finally, Tartakovsky complains that the book isn't written with enough literary flair.

So by the end of the review, what have we learned about the book or the argument of the book?  Almost nothing.  What have we learned about the merits of the argument underlying the book.  Nothing again.  If we put Tartakovsky on a stage with Feldman, would we learn anything from Tartakovsky’s interaction with Feldman’s book?  Not at all.

Now the point here is not to elevate Tartakovsky to the role of a particularly bad book reviewer.  He isn’t.  I read reviews exactly like this all the time.  And they annoy me.  National Review is particularly prone to sloppy book reviews—the books tend to be reviewed on the basis of how closely they hew to the conservative line.  So, Scorpions was doomed in a National Review book review because it is, after all, about FDR Justices, we know FDR was bad, Feldman doesn’t seem to think everything FDR did was bad, ergo this book must be bad.  (Remind me again why I subscribe to National Review.) 

So, how do you write a proper book review?  Oddly, it isn't really all that complicated.  The review is an essay.  It should read like an essay.  The book is the subject of the essay.  The reader should be told exactly enough about the book to evaluate the argument of the book and no more than that.  The author should evaluate the central argument of the book.  Interesting asides either from the book or from the author’s reading of the book can be added for flavor, but not if they detract from the evaluation itself.  By the end of the review, a reader should a) know what the book argued, b) know whether the book is worth reading, and c) have learned something about the idea being discussed in the book.  Following that advice, even a bad book can prompt a good book review. 

So, why don’t we see more good book reviews?  I suspect there are two parts to the problem. First, there really aren’t enough people who are capable of writing excellent book reviews.  Writing an excellent review is hard; it means reading a book well (which few people know how to do), thinking about it seriously (which takes time), and in the end having something interesting to say about the book (which cannot be guaranteed when one starts reading book).  The second problem is time; book reviews are often commissioned in a hurry. A good book review takes time.  But, the whole point of a book review is to review books which were recently published.  So, not enough good reviewers coupled with not enough time leads to lots of sloppy book reviews.  Which is too bad, because I really enjoy good book reviews.