The Biggest Brain Wins

I SAW MONEYBALL AND ENJOYED IT. Though I don’t follow sports, I’ve nevertheless seen most sports movies because sports are a metaphor for courage in the face of life’s challenges. The sports movie formula is simple: an underdog beats the odds and emerges as a champion. The consistent success of sports films lies in the fact that life doesn’t usually follow this formula, though we wish it would.

In real life, the underdog is usually less talented and driven than his opponent. And if his opponent is the New York Yankees, he also has less money, and this matters. Most sports movies gloss over the fact that our hero’s opponent gets the big bucks because he’s more talented and driven, and the money he gets only widens the gap between them: he has better training, better equipment and facilities, and thus will likely crush our upstart hero.

Sports films usually end with the gladiators meeting on the field of battle, usually with the hero upsetting the order and besting his opponent. But not Moneyball, and that’s risky. In Tin Cup, Kevin Costner blows the U.S. Open in a spectacular orgy of self-destruction so over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh. That’s good, because Tin Cup is a comedy and it is fiction.

Moneyball is neither. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, former pro baseball player who now GMs the Oakland A’s. Though he was a player, he is filled with regret about the road not taken, in his case a college education, maturity, perhaps of soul as well as athletic ability, and the unrealized promise of a more complete life.

This is especially poignant for Beane because he exhibits something we don’t often see in sports movies: book smarts. Sports movie heroes are always hard-working, talented, and driven. But often—think Rocky here—they are somewhat dim, because when it comes to battling Goliath, a certain amount of dumb on David’s part is essential.

But Billy Beane is not dumb; he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. He discovers that baseball statistics truly do add up to something: a numbingly complex calculus that can accurately predict performance on the diamond. And when Beane and his Yale economics-trained assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) crunch the stats, they discover that baseball pays too much for the wrong abilities. Hitting home runs is not as important as the ability to regularly get on base. Troubled, imperfect players, not sleek superstars, offer the best ROI, and Beane and Brand set out to build a winning team with the talent a limited budget can buy them.

Unlike most sports movies, where the action is on the field, the drama in this movie largely takes place in the windowless offices beneath the bleachers. It sees athletes as commodities that are sold when they do not pay off. So when three superstar free-agents are lured away from the team by the highest bidders, Beane and Brand rebuild with injured, flawed, inexpensive talent and, after a rocky start, manage a 20-game winning streak (one of the longest in baseball history), and win their division.

Oh, and then they squander an 11-run lead to lose to the Minnesota Twins in the league playoffs.

But they made it to the finals with a per player cost only a third of that spent by the Yankees, and at the end of the film Billy is offered an immense sum to bring his management style to the Red Sox.

Here, the film falls back into formula. Billy Beane was never an insider, even though he made it to the Show. He failed there, as he’s failed in his marriage, and, as the final card in the film tells us, he is still failing to build a World Series championship team in Oakland. But Beane’s story is not about championships, it’s about changing baseball, which many insiders believe is already perfect. But strikes, prima donna millionaire superstars, and declining attendance tell the true story: baseball is dying and money may be killing it.

What I liked most about the film was not the inevitable match-up at the end where the hero does/does not succeed. Winning is actually irrelevant to a post-modern sports film anyway; it’s about the journey, so we’re not surprised when the A’s lose to the Twins. What surprises us is that Billy Beane had a vision, kept at it, did the awful, grinding, numbers-crunching work, found a thread, pulled on it, and built a winning team without the most important tool of modern sports: money.

The lack of money in baseball is like Rocky without his southpaw switch, without which he could not have beaten Apollo Creed. And yet Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics competed without a southpaw switch, won a championship, and Boston took note.

But even the title is misleading. This movie is not about money or lack of it in pro sports. It’s about playing your game, not your opponent’s game—playing the cards you’re dealt. In that regard, Billy Beane is a champion because of his response when the Sox asked him to do in Boston what he had done in Oakland, which would mean moving three thousand miles from his daughter.

But Billy Beane is smart, so you know how the movie ends.

Why They Hate Sarah Palin: Do the Math

ONLY ONCE BEFORE have I seen this level of hatred of a political figure, and that was Richard Nixon, who at least was hated because of something he had done. Sarah Palin is hated for what she is.

And who is Sarah Palin? There are many theories: she’s a rube, she’s uneducated, she’s stupid, et cetera. But as I’ve watched the parade of wild-eyed, spittle-spewing Leftists denouncing her over the last three years, I’ve become convinced these are incomplete reasons. Certainly, her clumsy vernacular and home-spun, folksy approach grate on eastern establishment (both Dem and Rep) sensibilities. But our most successful president was also accused of all these things, yet he won his reelection bid in 1984 by the biggest landslide in American history.

What, then? Like most things, the correct answer is usually the simplest. Though the charges that she’s an unlearned, moronic hick are indeed simple reasons, if there are even simpler reasons, Occam’s Razor requires that we investigate them.

Unfortunately, this involves math, and the Left hates actual numbers, which get in the way of their precious and inarguable feelings. But life is not always an essay question where you can fudge the answer; most often it is unforgivingly arithmetic, requiring binary answers: right or wrong, good or bad, truth or lies.

There are about 300 million Americans, about half of which are female. Of these 150 million women, roughly half would describe themselves as Democrats. Of these 75 million Democrat women, probably one half are of child-bearing age. That leaves us with 37 million Democrat women of child-bearing age.

In the almost forty years since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, there have been over 50 million abortions in America, 95% of which were elective (i.e., used as birth control). Of the women who have had abortions, almost half have had at least two.

These staggering numbers result in a simple statistic: 35 million Democrat women of child-bearing age, 35 million abortions if each of those women had just one abortion, well over 50 million abortions if each Democrat woman of child-bearing age had two abortions.

But surely not every Democrat woman has had an abortion. Republican women also have them. But most abortions are had by Democrat women for two reasons: (1) abortion-on-demand is an integral part of the Democrat party platform and we naturally identify with those who agree with our choices; and (2) blacks vote 95% of the time for Democrat candidates, and half of those black voters are women.

Recent CDC statistics reveal that the abortion rate in 2007 was 16 per 1,000 women nationwide. White women had the lowest abortion rates (8.5 abortions per 1,000 women). In contrast, black women had the highest abortion rates (32 abortions per 1,000 women). Thus it appears that most abortions, quite simply, come on the Democrat side of the aisle.

Therefore, the reason the Democrats (and especially Democrat women) hate Sarah Palin is much simpler than her offensive “Mama Grizzly” persona: huge numbers of these women have had at least one abortion and feel guilty about it. (Remember, less than 5% of abortions are due to the health of the mother, rape, or fetal abnormalities.)

And speaking of fetal abnormalities, here we have the most direct answer to our question: Sarah Palin, when informed by her doctors that the child she was carrying was suffering from Down Syndrome, said she would carry the child to term because he was a “gift from God.”

That’s why the Left (and especially Leftist women) hates Sarah Palin. In the moment of truth, when decency and love and honor and courage were required of them, many of them chose to kill their unborn children, whereas Sarah Palin chose life.

Occam’s Razor states that the simplest answer is the most likely one. And there is nothing simpler than guilt and shame.

This is why I don’t care about Sarah Palin’s diction, her education, and her legendary, disqualifying “stupidity.” What I care about is the content of her character. When faced with one of the hardest choices any woman ever has to make, she chose life and sacrificed her own future to spend what will likely be a lifetime caring for her damaged son, Trig. And she did it with tears of joy because doing what is right is more important to Sarah Palin than doing what is easy. That means she is a grown-up who knows how to make hard decisions. And making hard decisions—based on time-honored values such as the sanctity of all innocent life—is what a real leader does.

Or maybe they just hate her because she’s hot.

Hollywood Shrugs but the Audience Doesn't

HERE'S WHAT YOU'LL HEAR: critics hate Atlas Shrugged, Part 1; that it’s amateur hour, with wooden acting, unknown, weak actors unable to handle the stilted dialogue, an incomprehensible story, made on a thread of a shoestring budget.

Here are the facts: Atlas Shrugged is one of the most successful books of all time. More than fifty years after its initial release, it is always in the top ten on Amazon. The executive producer tried for almost twenty years to make the film in Hollywood, but no one would finance it. After he made it with his own money, no one would distribute it. So, instead of the 3800 screens the animation film Rio fills, Atlas Shrugged had to settle for just 300. Yet this last weekend, it equaled the per-seat income of the other hit films. And though just 5% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes like the film, a whopping 85% of the audience does.

So what gives? I thought Hollywood was all about profit, not politics. If there was money to be made in bringing this book to film, why didn’t they jump at it? There may be several reasons, not all of which are damning to the L.A. Lefties.

Atlas Shrugged is an incredibly difficult book to adapt to screen. It’s over 1200 pages of long speeches on economics and government, not exactly the Bourne Identity. Many people have tried to adapt the book and have gotten waylaid by reverence for the source material. Instead of mining a good story out of it, they stayed true to the unwieldy plot. (This may have been a requirement by Rand’s estate.) But the movie is so true to the book that even the bad dialogue remains. The most obvious change should have been to update a key plot point—Rearden Metal, a new alloy that can support trains moving at 200 miles an hour—into mag-lev technology that doesn’t require rails at all. Or use it in aircraft or automotive construction. Whatever. But trains? Obama thinks high-speed rail is the future. Isn’t that reason enough to abandon it as the basis for a key point in the movie?

Another reason: Hollywood has a long history of hating corporate execs, and all the protagonists in the film are corporate execs. According to Hollywood, only union organizers, beleaguered government workers, and renegade journalists are heroic, and those types are relegated to the antagonist class in Atlas Shrugged. Even though Hollywood is such a corporate, union busting town that most films are shot in right-to-work locales now (try to find a depiction of New York that wasn’t shot in Toronto in the last twenty years), Hollywood still has this fictionalized account of itself that Atlas Shrugged exposes.

Another reason: Hollywood has reason to think audiences are brain-dead morons. Adam Sandler has been the most consistent money-maker in Hollywood for twenty years—which really only proves that we like movies and though we’d rather see a great movie, we’ll watch trash if that’s all there is. (Take that, American movie-goers; you go to these movies, after all, don’t you?)

Atlas Shrugged is a serious movie about serious (and timely) issues: the government picking winners and losers, bureaucrats making it impossible to build or run a business, hate-the-wealthy class warfare, a plummeting economy. No pratfalls, penis jokes, or bare breasts—how could the producers imagine that this movie would excite audiences? And yet it is, because we’re starving for films—no matter their production values—that say something important. The programmers at Turner Classic Movies know this: fifty, sixty, and seventy year old movies are still popular because they were made in an era when Hollywood still shared the values of the audience. But those times are long gone, destroyed with the anti-heroes of the 70s, the nihilism of the 80s, and the stupidity of the 90s until the present. (Hangover 2 is coming soon!)

No, Atlas Shrugged is not a great movie; it may not even be a very good one. The critics’ carping about production values, acting, and the screenplay are all valid. But while not being a great movie, Atlas Shrugged is a good movie about great ideas. Great as in important. I think you will be surprised at how many young people will absolutely love the movie and then tackle the book. I’ve no doubt that John Galt’s seventy page diatribe in the book will be severely truncated in the final film installment, perhaps losing most of its power, but if the movie serves to encourage people to read the book, and they have the discipline to wade through it, by the time they reach Galt’s radio rant, they will be, as I was, spellbound by his passion and irrefutable logic. And it very well may change their lives, as it did mine when I first read it thirty years ago.

Not a bad accomplishment for a movie.

eWriter Hocking Scores . . . Against Us

IT'S BECOMING INCREASINGLY OBVIOUS that wannabe authors can find success by self-publishing their works as e-books. There is perhaps no better example of that than 26-year-old Amanda Hocking, a writer of paranormal romances and thrillers. In 2009, Hocking wrote five 300-page novels targeted at the young adult market. In early 2010, she wrote three more -- one every two to four weeks.

Working from a $250 a month home that was all she could afford to rent, she fueled her writing with Red Bull, Sweet Tarts and cold cans of ravioli and SpaghettiOs. She wrote for twelve hours a day, every day, using the rest of her waking time to chase agents and publishers. She failed to find anyone interested in her work. By April 2010, Hocking had completed eight novels but still had no agent or publisher. She had accumulated "Hundreds. Maybe thousands," of rejections by that time, she said. "All my other friends had either gone to school or they had decent jobs or they were getting married or they were doing something. And I was still just sending off query letters."

Up to this point, she had only published stories on her blog. Now she decided to publish the novels via Amazon’s Kindle store, adding one more title along the line for a total of nine e-books. "I sold 50 books the first month,” she says. It picked up over the summer, then really took off in November (2010)." In February 2011, sales for Hocking, as evidenced by online proprietary accounts, were: Amazon (via its e-book portal, the Kindle): 227,515 units for all nine of her works, including about 60,000 for her best-selling novel Switched. Barnes & Noble (the Nook): 55,135 units. CreateSpace, an online "print on demand" service: 2,948 units.

That’s a total of 285,598 sales for the three platforms in February 2011 alone. Hocking says that total is about 100,000 copies shy of the real sales. That’s because the figures don’t include sales via Apple’s iBook, Kobo (Borders) and Sony’s eReader -- or sales of three other e-books she is selling in a different format through Barnes & Noble.

Hocking is almost certainly now the world's best-selling e-book author. She says that failing to get published by the conventional route worked to her advantage. "It allowed me to put a lot of books on the market quickly, so if people liked them, they could immediately buy another." Her best-selling Switched, the first novel in a trilogy, has already sold nearly a million copies. "I didn't expect it to be anything like this. I was hoping for around ten percent of where I am now," she said.

Hocking is now making millions self-publishing through Kindle and other platforms. Much of her success is based on volume sales. She sells her work for only $0.99 to $2.99 a pop. That means lower revenue, but she has literally no overhead. She just has to forfeit Amazon’s thirty percent cut and keeps the remaining seventy percent on $2.99 sales for herself. Earnings so far: Somewhere between $1.4 million and just shy of $2 million, she says, most of it in the last four months.

In mid-March, the book she believes to be her best, Switched, was the fifth-best-selling book on Kindle, behind mainstream authors John Locke, Lisa Gardner and Laura Hillenbrand. She had seven titles on the USA Today 150 best-sellers list, including Switched, at No. 28 after peaking at No. 16.

And the money doesn’t stop there. In late March, major publishing houses bid for the rights to four more novels by Hocking. Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins all dropped out as the price rose beyond $2 million for the English rights. St. Martin's Press eventually won out and is set to publish her four-book “Watersong” series, with the first book to be released in the fall of 2012. The publishing company, part of Macmillan, has not disclosed how much it paid for the rights. Further, Media Rights Capital, a prominent film financier and production company, has snapped up the rights to the Trylle Trilogy series by Hocking. The company plans to make three novels into two movies, and Terri Tatchell, a co-writer of the hit science-fiction film “District 9,” is already at work on the screenplays.

The three novels -- Switched, Torn and Ascend -- follow an emotionally damaged high school girl, Wendy Everly, who realizes that she may not be human. With the help of a boy, Finn Holmes, she discovers the mysterious world of Trylle, which is populated by beautiful trolls. Media Rights Capital did not disclose terms. The next step is to line up a distributor, which should not be difficult given the company’s close ties to studios like Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures.

Is Hocking now an outspoken advocate for self-publishing e-books? Heck no. She strongly defends the traditional publishing model. While her success was remarkable, it was exhausting. Hocking posted a defense of her pursuit of traditional publishers on her blog. "I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend forty hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation," she writes on the blog. She also cites book availability, increased quality of editing and career stability as factors in her decision. Nonetheless, the prolific writer who has written nineteen books so far promises her fans she hasn't abandoned self-publishing. "I have a few titles lined up this year yet to put out via the self-publishing. And I'll have more in the future."

(sourced from Southern Review of Books)

For my part, I will say just three things:

1) Obviously, ePublishing can work, if you can find a market. The volume sales model clearly works.

2) Hocking is fortunate to have found an audience, which must have something to do with the "young adult" label, which I eschew, because it usually means books in fact aimed at adults but written to a child's level. This is sad, because there is so much great literature out there for adults, but no one reads it anymore. Every adult woman I know read the Harry Potter series (with her kids, so she said), but few of these women have read Poe, who wrote adult thrillers; thrillers that still thrill, if you have the vocabulary and life experience to relate to him. If you don't, you will tell me Stephanie Meyer is a great writer, and that is incorrect and sad, in my view.

3) So, combining the above points: unless you're writing the kind of stories that can be fueled by Pop Tarts and Red Bull (sugar-high caloric brain bombs), and not well-thought-out, well-researched, and powerfully evocative books that cannot be regurgitated in two weeks, you will probably reach for the ePublishing brass ring in vain.

I don't intend to try. I intend, for good or bad, to write books for adults with adult ideas and, yes, even adult language (i.e., polysyllabic words). When I was a kid, as soon as I could read well, I wanted to read grown-up books. Now, it seems adults are retreating en masse from adult writing, which they often (rightly) identify as pornographic. But there are still adult-level books out that are not lascivious, and such books are infinitely more satisfying than YA books, just as the art of Carl Bloch is infinitely more satisfying than that of Andy Warhol. But such art must be sought out and savored, not read or listened to on CD in tandem with millions of others who want the fifth-grade level storytelling of Meyer and Rowling. Great art is often found in distant lands and you have to sacrifice to go there and find it. Bloch's masterworks are esconced in out-of-the-way churches in Sweden and Denmark. Warhol's is found on tee shirts.

You will decide which is inherently more valuable. Unfortunately, right now, you are deciding, at ninety-nine cents a pop, that "beautiful trolls" are great art and you're making books like Switched into bestsellers and blockbuster movies.

Walt Would Die

IN 2006, ABC/DISNEY SURPRISED THE WORLD by announcing a miniseries called The Path to 9/11 to be broadcast on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, based on several books, including, prominently, the 9/11 Commission Report. Opposition began immediately.

The project was maligned by the mainstream media and pressure was brought to bear because the miniseries took a hard look at the lack of response between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attacks. Remember, those years included the Khobar Towers, the U.S.S. Cole, and the African embassy bombings—and that’s just the attacks on American interests. During that time, all over the world, the jihadists were blowing things up, and Bill Clinton was asleep at the switch.

The miniseries, condensing the voluminous matter coming out of the 9/11 Commission, and including other authoritative sources, promised to be a bombshell in itself. But the series almost didn’t broadcast. Bill Clinton himself demanded changes to the completed film and a number of politicians—none of whom had seen the film, mind you—attacked it. And ABC caved, deleting entire scenes, truncating others, and running a disclaimer. The series, designed to run every year on September 11th, ran just once. It never aired again and was never released on DVD.

Blocking the Path to 9/11: An Anatomy of a Smear details what happened in the aftermath of this debacle. The miniseries itself was billed as a docudrama, indicating that certain liberties were taken with presentation. In Blocking, it is clear from interviews with the participants that they were just trying to tell the truth about the lead-up to 9/11, to “connect the dots” as so many accused the Bush administration of failing to do. Unfortunately for the Left, there were only a few new dots to connect during Bush’s few months in office, but a whole mess of them were ignored during Bill Clinton’s tenure.

A growing sense of horror builds as you watch Blocking. The main writer, Iranian-born American Cyrus Nowrasteh, has a formidable pedigree in the film business, as does director David Cunningham. But nevertheless, they soon became marked men for their temerity in trying to tell us what happened prior to the attacks.

Blocking the Path details how craven Disney was in bowing to pressure from the politicians they helped elect. Several scenes are shown with the excised material intact. The one that stands out most is a moment when the Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan have Osama bin Laden in their sights, the target painted with lasers, and American fighters above, their thumbs poised to fire missiles, awaiting a kill order that never comes. The national security team, including heads of the FBI and CIA and the president’s own national security advisor, all agree that bin Laden must go, but no one has the courage to give the order. And Bill Clinton? He’s upstairs in the White House residence and won’t come down to take the phone call and make a decision. For two hours they wait and he never arrives. Finally, the operation is cancelled. As the leader of the rebels leaves, he says to the CIA operative, “Are there any men left in America?”

The gainsayers of this episode say things didn’t happen exactly that way. Nowrasteh responds that maybe that is true, but they had thirteen such opportunities to kill bin Laden, and for the purposes of the film, they collapsed them into one. All the elements in the edited scene were factual.

That’s thirteen chances to avoid 9/11, folks. Thirteen. Talk about an unlucky number.

And that’s really the crux of the so far successful attempts to derail The Path to 9/11. Though millions of people saw the two-night series broadcast, they didn’t see the version that was approved by the phalanx of ABC/Disney lawyers and researchers prior to the filming. But when pressure against the film began to be felt, ABC/Disney caved for no other reason than to spare the person most responsible for 9/11—William Jefferson Clinton.

Blocking the Path leaves the viewer stunned. Every fact need not be unassailable for you to realize that those charged with protecting us failed miserably and are still trying to cover up their malfeasance with help from the very people who are supposed to defend free speech.

As stated, The Path to 9/11 is still unavailable on DVD. Imagine spending $40 million and not wanting to recoup your investment. When a group of investors at a Disney shareholder meeting challenged the company to either release the film or sell it to someone who would, the CEO responded that he knew of no one interested in buying it. The investors immediately made an offer, which Disney refused.

Mickey Mouse is indeed a rat.

Note: You can sign a petition to encourage ABC/Disney to make The Path to 9/11 available at

He who controls the media controls history.

Stubborn Things

THOMAS SOWELL'S REMARKABLE BOOK Economic Facts and Fallacies is even more remarkable for its brevity. In just over two hundred pages, he tackles and deconstructs fallacies infecting our cities, our relationships, the academy, business, race relations, and the Third World.

John Adams said famously, “Facts are stubborn things.” The Austin Lounge Lizards sang, “Life is hard, but life is hardest when you’re dumb.” Both are true and one of the most difficult things in life is keeping an open mind for facts that contradict received knowledge—our vision of the world which we hold close because it’s simply easier to believe what we already know is true than to investigate contradictory claims. After all, we’re not stupid; we know certain things are true, right?

Well . . . that depends. Here are a few fallacies and the facts that contradict them. How you receive these facts is something to ponder:

Urban Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Affordable housing requires government intervention.

Fact: It is precisely government intervention in housing which has made housing unaffordable. A hundred years ago people spent a smaller percentage of their income on housing than today. With increasing restrictions on building, due to zoning and environmental regulations, housing prices skyrocketed. “Open space” and “smart growth” policies restrict building and send prices upward. Houston has no zoning laws or like restrictions; a typical middle-class home on a quarter-acre lot that costs $152,000 in Houston costs more than $1 million in San Francisco. As recently as 2001, home prices in Tampa, FL were not much different than Houston, but after restrictive building laws began to take effect, housing prices doubled. And these rates hold true even when adjusted for inflation.

Male-Female Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: The fact that women earn less money than men is proof of discrimination. Where such disparities have lessened, it is because of government intervention.

Fact: While many white collar jobs may be performed equally well by women as men, most jobs are still dependent upon physical strength (construction) and the willingness of the person to engage in dangerous behavior (phone linemen). While men are 54% of the labor force, they are 92% of job-related deaths. In addition, women are often out of the job market for years at a time, bearing and raising children. When they return, their skills are rusty and outmoded. In the sciences, these same years are the peak years of achievement, and thus fewer women are notable scientists because most opt for motherhood instead. The proportion of women engaged in the professions was higher a hundred years ago than it was fifty years ago—long before anti-discrimination laws or the rise of the feminist movement. The reason is that the median age for marriage for women was higher a hundred years ago, thus more women were in the workforce during the formative years prior to their forties. Indeed, most women who staffed women’s colleges during this earlier era were not married at all; they opted out of family life. Finally, the likelihood of future interruptions because of a woman’s prospective role as a mother can make placing her in a senior position more of a risk to the employer than placing a man of similar ability in that same position. Only the never-married women and men are in comparable circumstances, and here women have had comparable or higher incomes than men, years before there were laws or government policies against sex discrimination.

Academic Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Attendance at a big-name college or university is essential for reaching the top.

Fact: The four institutions with the highest percentage of their undergrads going on to receive Ph.D.s are all small colleges with less than 2000 undergrads each. And of the chief executive officers of the 50 largest American corporations, only four had Ivy League degrees and just over half graduated from state colleges, city colleges, or community colleges. The fact that graduates of Harvard receive prestigious jobs and salaries may be traced more to their wealthy family connections than the education they receive, as well as their income from the earnings of inherited assets.

Income Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: American household income has stagnated, rising just 6% between 1969 and 1996.

Fact: Household size has diminished; average real income per person in the U.S. rose by 51% over that very same period. Studies of what people actually consume—their standard of living—show substantial increases over the years. Alarming statistics about the plight of the poor never take into account the government and charitable resources available to them; indeed, the poor’s actual income from work accounts for only 22% of the actual economic resources at their disposal. As for stagnation, by 2001 most people defined as poor had possessions once considered part of a middle class lifestyle. Three-quarters had air-conditioning, which only a third of all Americans had in 1971. 97% had color television, which less than half of all Americans had in 1971. 73% owned a microwave, which less than 1% of Americans owned in 1971, and 98% of the “poor” had either a VCR or a DVD player, which no one had in 1971. In addition, 72% of the “poor” had a car or truck. Yet the rhetoric of the “haves” and the “have nots” continues, even in a society where it might be more accurate to refer to the “haves” and the “have lots.” In fine, the problem is not a stagnation of the national economy, but particular economic and social problems of particular groups of people.

Racial Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Governmentally-enforced civil rights laws have reduced racism in America.

Fact: The percentage of black families with incomes below the poverty line fell most sharply between 1940 and 1960, going from 87% to 47% over that span, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and well before the 1970s, when “affirmative action” evolved into numerical quotas. While the downward trend in poverty continued, the pace of that decline did not accelerate after these legal landmarks, but in fact slackened. There was a similar historical trend as regards the rise of blacks into professional, managerial, and other high-level occupations. In short, affirmative action has produced little or no effect on the relative sizes of black and white incomes. The median black household income was 60.9% of the median white household income in 1970—and never rose above that, or as high as that, throughout the decade of the 1970s. As of 1980, median black household income was 57.6 of median white household income.

Fallacy: The current fatherless families so prevalent among contemporary blacks are a “legacy of slavery,” where families were not recognized.

Fact: Most black children were raised in two-parent homes, even under slavery, and for generations thereafter. Freed blacks married, and marriage rates among blacks were slightly higher than among whites in the early twentieth century. Blacks also had slightly higher rates of labor force participation than whites in every census from 1890 to 1950. While 31% of black children were born to unmarried women in the early 1930s, that proportion rose to 77% by the early 1990s. If unwed childbirth was a “legacy of slavery,” why was it so much less common among blacks who were two generations closer to the era of slavery? Oh, and by the way, from 1994 on into the twenty-first century, the poverty rate among black husband-wife families was below 10%. Turns out that “the man” most important to blacks is the man his wife calls her husband.

Third World Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Western nation’s imperialism is responsible for poverty in the Third World.

Fact: There are some prosperous countries whose conquests have been minor or non-existent, and countries mired in poverty that were never conquered. Why are those parts of the Third World least touched by contact with prosperous the most destitute of all? Blame is easier to understand than causation, more emotionally satisfying, and more politically convenient. There are many factors that must be considered: geography (mountainous countries persistently lag behind countries with extensive river valleys), isolation (the indigenous people of the Canary Islands were Caucasians living at a stone-age level when the Spaniards discovered them in the fifteenth century), climate (water is not only life-sustaining, but trade-sustaining; most advanced civilizations arose on navigable waterways), history (in the long view, all nations were Third World nations at some point), law and order (property rights, courts of law, uncorrupt officials—all culturally-dependent—create an environment of prosperity; even Rome’s bloody oppression of conquered lands resulted in a higher standard of living because these elements were a by-product of Roman dominance), population (there must be enough people to congregate in cities, where standards of living always increase; over-population is hardly ever the problem, as there are no examples of countries that had a higher standard of living when their population was half of what it is today), culture (Argentina was mired in poverty before German and Italian immigrants brought cattle-ranching and wheat-production to the country), and foreign aid (living standards were lower in sub-Saharan Africa decades after the departure of the colonial rulers, despite both nationalization of industries and foreign aid).

I’ve merely touched upon Dr. Sowell’s brilliant book, just one of the scores of clear-thinking economic tomes he’s written over the years. Yes, life is hard, but I intend to make my own life less difficult by basing it on facts, not fallacies.

The Freedom to Be Unfree

IT SEEMS CLEAR THAT THE UNREST in a dozen Middle East countries does not bode well for the West. When the images of demonstrators first started appearing in the media, I wanted to believe that the people marching in the streets in Cairo, Tripoli, and Bahrain were marching for political freedom. After all, they all lived under cruel, repressive regimes. Some governments had military rule (Egypt), others maintained power by bribery (Saudi Arabia), and others by sheer anti-Americanism (Libya). Did not all these autocrats deserve to be overthrown?

Perhaps. Having traveled in the Middle East, I have seen first-hand the culture there and, suffice it to say, it is more elementary school than graduate school. Though the union protestors in Madison screamed like spoiled children, violence did not break out, even when anti-protestor-protestors met them face-to-face. In America, for the time being, it appears we still can have confrontations without gunfire.

But in these repressive Middle East regimes, it takes incredible courage to face down soldiers who have no qualms about shooting you. The people in these countries must really want freedom, right?

Yes, but freedom to do what? That’s the important question.

Commentator Mark Steyn mentioned that he’d seen a series of photos of female graduates of Cairo University, taken between 1950 and 2009. In the earliest photo, the women wore poodle skirts and tight sweaters to their graduation exercises, just like their counterparts in America. In the 70s, they likewise sported jeans and peasant blouses. But in the 1990s, there were no bare arms and legs, and by 2009, all the women wore hijabs covering their hair and heads. That fashion detail alone indicated to Steyn that the Arab world is growing ever more religious. His comment made me look for women in the demonstrations. I saw very few and those I did see were completely covered.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a key instigator of the demonstrations in Libya and Egypt, states explicitly that it will work within existing political systems for as long as practicable, but violence is always an option. (You’ll recall that the Brotherhood was a fertile petrie dish for the men who planned 9/11.) That same Brotherhood will have a powerful position in the new government of Egypt, so say all political commentators.

I was dismayed at Obama’s response to the demonstrations. Remember he completely ignored the “Green Revolution” (a true quest for freedom) in Iran in 2009, but quickly decided that Mubarak must go, dismissing our thirty year relationship with Mubarak, who has honored the treaty with Israel made by his predecessor Anwar Sadat and kept the Suez Canal open and functioning for all that time. Mubarak was a tyrannical despot, but I’m reminded of what FDR said in the 1930s when he was chided for supporting the dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza: “Sure, he’s a son of a bitch,” said Roosevelt. “But he’s our son of a bitch,” which is a restatement of the famous Arab proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

We live in a dangerous world. We have no friends; we have temporary allies. To see the world in any other way is foolhardy. And yet when a true enemy of the United States, the madman Muammar Ghadaffi, is challenged by his countrymen, Obama takes almost two weeks to take sides. Ghadaffi was behind the murder of Americans on Pan Am flight 103, which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland. It seems you can almost set your compass by Obama’s response to any crisis: whatever he does or says is the exact opposite of what should be done and said.

I believe Arabs throughout the world want more freedom, but the freedom they desire is apparently the freedom to live under a theocracy which will institute sharia law, with beheadings for marital infidelities and terror against the West in order to comply with the Koran’s mandate to convert, subjugate, or murder unbelievers. In short, it is reasonable to believe that Iran is the sort of country most of the people in the streets from Algeria to Pakistan desire, and that cannot be good for Western interests.

But as usual, Obama lives in a make-believe world where all people want American-style freedom. Sadly, his world is not the real world, where you and I live.

Imagine a single Muslim caliphate stretching from Morocco to Pakistan. Now imagine it with nuclear weapons and tell me you wouldn’t prefer Mubarak and even Ghadaffi still in power.

Superman's Nemesis Has Tenure

Waiting for Superman is a heart-breaking and anger-inciting documentary about American public schools. Heart-breaking because of the injustice this system is inflicting upon innocent children and anger-inducing because the perpetrators of this outrage are its self-styled saviors.

The film follows five children, each of whom wants to attend a private charter school that is vastly superior to their local public school. The problem is that there are up to twenty times more applicants than there are open desks.

The decline of American public schools since the 1970s is irrefutable; American children score a fraction of what their non-American counterparts score in reading and math. And even with the No Child Left Behind Act, a nationwide average of less than thirty percent reach the Act’s academic standards.

Billions of dollars have been spent to improve education, but studies reveal an achievement flat line, no matter how much money is spent or how small classes are.

Who is to blame?

The documentary focuses upon those who have achieved success in educating children and those who oppose them. Yes, there are those who oppose education reform, and shockingly, it is the teacher’s unions. The old canard that teachers are overworked and underpaid is graphically exposed as a lie, and contrasted with charter schools like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy, which graduates and sends over ninety percent of its students to college.

Yes, you read right: ninety percent.

Canada’s school, with its uniforms, extended hours, mandatory and intensive parent involvement, and results-based teacher pay, is the model for success, but the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the two largest teachers’ unions, vigorously oppose charter schools like his.

In addition, tenure, which takes college professors years to acquire, is granted almost immediately to elementary and secondary teachers across the country, making them nearly impossible to fire for incompetence. This results in New York’s famous “Rubber Room,” where six hundred teachers under suspension are warehoused for years pending outcome of their cases, all the while receiving full pay for literally doing nothing all day.

In 2008, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools (the seventh in ten years) presented the unions with a choice: they could either retain tenure and receive a small pay increase (to $80,000 per year) or forego tenure and receive merit pay, which could result in an annual income over $140,000. The unions refused to even allow their members to vote on the proposal.

But teachers are not entirely to blame. A student is not a tabula rasa; they are the beneficiaries or victims of their environments, and their situations both in life and school are a direct result of their social and economic status. Three of the five children in the film are apparently without fathers, supported by single mothers in low-paying jobs who are unable to move elsewhere to provide better educational opportunities for their kids. The charter school lotteries are a salvation long shot.

While I agree with the filmmakers’ that teachers unions are a prime reason students are not being taught, I would add that parents are just as important, if not more so. When I was in elementary school in the early 60s, my teachers were dedicated and competent. But my parents were also an integral part of the equation. My father worked hard to support a family of nine. My mother, freed from income production, was able to act as our teacher as well, and I remember her relentlessly drilling me using vocabulary, spelling and math flashcards. When 8:30 P.M. rolled around, it was bedtime. I would complain that I wasn’t tired, but my frazzled mother would say, “But I am,” and tuck me in. “If you can’t sleep, read,” she would say.

That single fact alone may explain why I’m an author today.

In short, I had good schools growing up, but I also had excellent parents, and, most importantly, a father who worked to free my mother to fulfill her important crucial role as a teacher. Waiting for Superman makes the solid case that schools could be just as good today if the excessive power of the teachers’ unions were scaled back. I would add that a two-parent household is the other indispensable requirement for a child’s education, and that the power to retain fathers in the home lies squarely in the possession of women.

I’ll make that case in my next post.

Wikipedia World

AS A NOVELIST, RESEARCH IS A NECESSARY—and for me, delightful—part of the job. In order to create (or re-create) a convincing time and place, I need to know what I’m talking about. When I wrote about ancient Judea in The Welcoming Door, I traveled to Israel. When virology became the basis of my book Lightland, I finally got a chemistry education. The Wise Man Returns required that I understand ancient Egyptian religion, and I relished the chance to delve deeply into the subject. The result was, to my mind, a fuller, more dynamic story.

When I write, it is my intent to draw the reader into the story with just the right amount of detail. I always have binders of information that don’t make it into the book because inclusion would result in a narrative speed bump. If the hero is being chased and finds momentary refuge at Abu Simbel, I can’t stop and pontificate on the temple’s history. (Unless I’m James Michener, who isn’t always successful in this gambit.)

This deep digging and conservative parsing out of information subtly lets the reader know that he will get everything he needs for a fulfilling and enjoyable ride. Indeed, Samuel Johnson said, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” That’s sounds about right to me.

But that’s not the world we’re living in. Now, things are backwards. From television to books to movies to politics, I see a recurrent thing. As opposed to deep understanding and a light sprinkling of gleaned facts, I see shallow understanding and unbridled passion, and that passion often masks a profound ignorance of the subject.

Economic theory is one case in point. Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics sets forth irrefutable economic truths, but every day I hear someone make an assertion that goes entirely against them. Atheists make the most stunning statements about what believers believe. Politicians regularly reveal an ignorance about human nature so complete that one wonders what planet they live on.

I blame the schools. When I was in junior high, teachers were still teaching, but by the time I was in high school in the early 70s, the bottom had dropped out, at least in California. Instead of reading classics, my sophomore English teacher had us dissect the popular song “American Pie.” We wasted a substantial amount of time learning about the death of the Big Bopper when we should have been reading The Iliad.

College was little better, at least in my liberal arts department. I had a communications class in which the professor spent weeks propounding his pet theory: “If there is no listener, there is no communication,” a tautology that even at the time struck me as axiomatic.

It wasn’t until I got to law school that I learned how to learn a subject. Our study carrels were located among the library stacks, and the old dusty, tan Pacific Reporters were at our fingertips. Legal research is all about precedent—what someone else said about a principle—and citations must be accurate and on point. You can’t shmooze the judge, who has a copy of the case you’re citing in his library.

But electrons conspired against all this. Reducing the libraries of the world into bits and bytes and the invention of key word searching means the seeker need no longer dig his way down to pay dirt. Comprehending the entire branch of anthropology that is ancient Egypt need not be a precursor for someone wanting to know what the “Twelve Hours of the Night” means. Now, you can Google the phrase and get millions of documents that use the term.

The drawback, however, is that there is no hierarchy of merit in the search results. The use might be found in a fringe essay or a scholarly work. And as an acolyte, you won’t know the difference, and your research may skirt Champollion, Carter, and Budge and be based on a high school paper by Stevie from Oak Park, IL. Sure, you may learn some interesting details, but these will collapse under the weight of all that you do not know, which will likely be the real significance of Osiris’s nightly journey.

Welcome to Wikipedia World.

Now, if Wikipedia were the Encyclopedia Britannica, that would be one thing, but it’s not. The Britannica is written, compiled, and edited by professional historians. Wikipedia is written, compiled, and edited by Stevie.

But, you say, historians are biased and cannot be trusted. Perhaps so. Having lived through the Vietnam era, I know first hand how that war has been distorted by historians. But I cannot imagine that Stevie will do any better. Indeed, he will surely do much worse, because his ideas come directly from the very same historians, but are then twisted even more according to Stevie’s own ignorance, and then re-injected into the datastream on Wikipedia, to be edited and argued over by people with no more understanding or education than Stevie himself. And you, as the reader, may never know the difference.

So why doesn’t Wikipedia hire real historians? Because they cost money and Wikipedia would have to be a pay site, like Britannica. And, as any Gen Xer will tell you, “Hey, man, information should be free!”

Funny, education costs money. Books cost money. Cars, food, and clothes cost money. But information, man, should be free. (I think those kids are mixing up information with music. Man.)

Now, on occasion, I use Wikipedia as a resource. It complements my reading, the paid internet research sites I subscribe to, my email exchanges and chat room discussions, and my regular visits to the library. But to rely solely upon one source for information—as it appears the talking heads of our culture do regularly—is to reveal a profound laziness and ignorance to the world.

But does it matter? If everyone says the world is flat, does that not make it so?

Here there be dragons.