Monthly Archives: April 2010

Book: “The Fifth Floor,” by Michael Harvey

“The Fifth Floor,” the second book starring private investigator Michael Kelly by author Michael Harvey, is a winner, just like Harvey’s previous “The Chicago Way.” Both are part of the Black Lizard imprint from Vintage Books.

The title refers to the floor of the Chicago city building which houses the mayor’s office. The plot starts with a spousal abuse case, and morphs into a murder mystery, and then a historical mystery going back to the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. Plenty of city political intrigue.

Plus a Barack Obama kind of character–a young charismatic black named Mitchell Kincaid who comes out of nowhere to run for mayor. But the incumbent mayor would get nasty, in true Chicago fashion, before giving up his job. One character, about Kincaid’s chances, says, “Please. Barak Obama is one thing. He was only running for president. Kincaid wants to be mayor.”

Harvey keeps things moving. There are no wasted, gratuitous scenes. Every scene, and every character, matters to the plot. He keeps several little subplots going, all inter-related, and wraps up every single one of them.

Harvey also plays fair, avoiding the tendency (like Chandler and others) to let the protagonist unravel the mystery in a nice speech at the end, using clues not previously available to the reader. I always hate that; it’s one of my pet peeves. Harvey actually lapsed into that a little bit, during the last 100 pages, but he extracted himself from it and I don’t hold it against him.

“The Fifth Floor” is the 98th book of the Black Lizard imprint that I’ve read. I’ve already decided that Henning Mankell’s “The Pyramid,” just released in the US last fall (it showed up under the Christmas tree–thanks, Pam) will be the 100th. But right now, I need to go pick out Number 99.

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Butler Crashes into my Consciousness

Until a couple years ago, I didn’t even realize Butler University was in Indiana. I knew it was somewhere in the East, but didn’t know where. Boston? Nashville? It was like Drexel, Murray State, Siena, Xavier, Robert Morris, and Radford. I had no idea where it was located, and no reason to care.

Now, suddenly, I have another Indiana college for which I’m obligated to root. But don’t we Hoosiers have enough already? We’ve got IU, Purdue, Notre Dame, Indiana State, and Ball State, plus a slew of small Christian colleges. That’s plenty to cheer for. But now I have to add Butler. And it’s really not a choice, since they did so well. Butler now joins IU and ISU as teams that made it to the NCAA Championship game. In Indiana, that’s a big deal.

But look at Michigan. They’ve got 10 million people, Indiana has 6.5 million. But when you think of colleges, only two come to mind–Michigan University, and Michigan State. Everyone in Michigan can be divided into two groups–MU fans and MSU fans. That makes it easy. Someday, those two groups will engage in a bloody civil war. It’s inevitable.

Or think of Arizona, which has a slightly larger population than Indiana. They’ve got Arizona State and the University of Arizona. That’s about it. Throw in Northern Arizona University if you want. Still easy to keep track of. Of course, there’s the ubiquitous University of Phoenix, but it doesn’t really count in my book, because it mostly exists in cyberspace.

But, I’ll squeeze Butler into my fanosphere. They earned it.

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Checks and Balances: Beyond Mere Elections

Paul_Collier_The_Bottom_Billion_sm.jpgIn his book “The Bottom Billion,” about the world’s poorest countries (which I reviewed earlier), Paul Collier writes:

“Elections determine who is in power, but they do not determine how power is used.”

In our quest to spread democracy, we tend to place way too much emphasis on elections. Democracy involves a whole system of governance. Third World countries have learned how to hold elections, putting on a show for the world, without really instituting democracy.

Collier says studies show that in countries that successfully turned around, democracy and political rights were not important factors–a result he finds “extremely disappointing.” But results are results.

What’s really needed, he writes, is political checks and balances.

Without systemic checks and balances, tyrants can rule behind the facade of elections, cloaking themselves in an illusion of legitimacy. Like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (RIP), or that idiot in Iran. Or maybe Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan? Collier says our enthusiasm for elections needs to be joined with enthusiasm for political restraints.

The US (and most western countries) have separate branches of government which provide checks and balances. But a legislature or judicial system can be co-opted by a totalitarian ruler.  Collier cites a free media as the best form of checks and balances. Freedom of the press, which has characterized the US since our founding, is a key indicator of health. As much as we gripe about the media’s excesses and biases, it’s a crucial part of who we are. When you see a country where the media is free to criticize the government, it’s usually a sign of democratic health.

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How Should Society Deal with Released Convicts?

In San Diego, people are rightfully outraged over a convicted sex offender who killed two young women. In 2005, he had been released from prison after serving five years for beating and imprisoning a 13-year-old girl. After three more years on parole, he was basically living free. We hear these stories all the time.

Whenever cases like this arise, people understandably ask how such a person could go free in society, and there are cries for perpetual monitoring or imprisonment. I totally understand the outrage, whether it applies to sex offenders or murderers or other violent criminals.

But I got to thinking–how many thousands upon thousands of people who have committed such crimes and served their time–for sex offenses and violence–are living free and will NOT repeat their crimes? I know a few people who served their time and have not been repeat offenders. They are back in society, living freely and productively.

When someone commits a sex crime, do we want to imprison him for the rest of his life, or perpetually monitor him electronically? We could. But it would overload an already-burdened system.

Is this guy in San Diego an exception, or the norm? I’m asking, because I don’t know. The stats show that sexual predators tend to remain sexual predators, and repeat offenders deserve little mercy. But there’s only so much we can do (like sex offender registries) after a person has served his time. And a great many convicted criminals do change their lives.

I’m not advocating anything. I’m just wondering out loud. Criminal justice isn’t my area of specialty, so a high lack of knowledge accompanies my musings. What should be my attitude, and society’s attitude? Do we really want to come down hard on everyone, because of the potential repeat offenders? What’s the right approach?

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Book: “The War Within,” by Bob Woodward

war-within.jpg“The War Within” is Bob Woodward’s fourth book about the inner workings of the Bush administration during wartime. He was granted a tremendous amount of access, including frequent conversations with George Bush. Bush must have deemed the previous books to be fair, since he kept the door wide open.

Woodward’s books are a first draft of history. Right now, the only histories of the Iraq war come from reporters. Down the road, historians will get involved, writing a different kind of book with a broader sweep and time’s illuminating perspective. But they will rely heavily on the basic reporting done by Woodward, Thomas Ricks, and others. If you don’t want to wait 10-15 years for such a book, read Bob Woodward.

“The War Within” is a chronological account of numerous meetings, conversations, speeches, and anything else related to the war–a huge amount of trenchwork reporting by one of the best. A lot of it seems mundane. But it’s all part of the story, all glimpses of history. You see how policy, strategy, and thinking gradually evolved; how ideas arose, and many of them fell by the wayside; and the interplay of personalities and their impact on decisions. It humanizes what happened behind government’s closed doors.

Woodward’s third book, “State of Denial,” ended with the war going badly–a bloody insurgency, the country headed toward civil war, Sunnis and Shiites slaughtering each other, and way too many American soldiers coming home in body bags. Sort of like where Thomas Ricks’s “Fiasco” ended.

As “The War Within” begins, everyone knows things are going badly. We’re losing, and nobody knows what to do. There is no strategy, hadn’t been one since the invasion, and much of the book details the search for one. We see different entities embark on studies to chart a new course–the Iraq Study Committee, the Pentagon, Condi Rice’s office, and more. It’s depressing to realize that for three years plus, we foundered aimlessly, despite all the optimistic public assurances.

We eavesdrop on countless meetings, and listen to conversations involving the President, Rumsfield, Condi Rice, Stephen Hadley, numerous military leaders, and others. (Though the presidential campaign is in full swing, Barack Obama makes only cameo appearances.) Some persons (like Rumsfield) emerge looking badly, but there are no villains–just people with different opinions and perspectives, all desperately wanting us to succeed in Iraq.

Overall, George Bush looks pretty good. He’s decisive, he pulls in information from various sources, he trusts his generals, and he shows what I felt was good wisdom in many situations. He doesn’t seem very engaged intellectually with anything involving nuance, but the war has his attention. His legendary pride in making decisions from his “gut” is disconcerting (something Woodward skewers in the final few pages). Bush constantly talks about “winning,” but can’t define what it means to win. He keeps asking for, and publicizing, Vietnam-era stats–body counts, raids, persons detained, etc.–which others know are meaningless in an insurgency; he never gets beyond that mentality. But overall, my view of Bush improved.

An influential, domineering figure is retired general Jack Keane, a straight talker. In separate meetings, he reams out Rumsfield, Peter Pace (Joint Chiefs chairman), and General George Casey (Iraq theatre commander), telling them exactly where their leadership is lacking. He outlines what needs to be done (counter-insurgency strategies), and who should lead it (David Petraus).

The idea of a surge in troops arises–a “gamble,” as it is repeatedly described (thus the title of Thomas Ricks’s book, “The Gamble”). The surge is discussed for about a year (and Obama was criticized for taking 2 months to develop a new strategy for Afghanistan?). But though they agree that more troops need to be sent, they don”t know what those troops will do. The two principle generals in charge of the war, Casey and John Abizaid (head of the regional Central Command), don’t request or want additional troops. In fact, both want to reduce troops. Abizaid’s view is that the only way to win was to get out.

There’s a surreal meeting between Casey and Abizaid where they say, “It looks like the President is going to send us thousands of additional troops. We need to decide what to do with them.” Casey, in particular, considers it backtracking–that the additional troops will take back jobs they’d been turning over to Iraqis.

A continuing complaint, voiced by many, is that we never had enough troops in Iraq to do the job. And yet, the surge is strongly opposed by various military entities, who argue that our total military is stretched way too thin, and that surge troops will remove our “strategic reserve,” the troops available to respond to another crisis should one arise. There is constant criticism that our troops are over-extended with lengthy tours.

Condi Rice also opposes the surge, repeatedly asking, “What will their mission be?” And nobody really has an answer. She fears that we’ll send an extra 30,000 troops, who will do the same things already being done, and with the same results.

However, the real difference is not so much the additional troops as the change in leadership–David Petraus–and the pursuit of an actual strategy. By the summer of 2008, violence is down substantially.

After Petraus takes over, a variety of problems arise politically. The Democrats seize control of the House, and Nancy Pelosi injects her ignorant self into the fray, insisting that we begin withdrawing troops right away. Plus, Petraus’s military higher-ups prove unsupportive. Bush and Cheney step in big-time to undergird Petraus. Good for them.

It’s a fascinating book. Woodward always gets information nobody else has. Now I’ll need to go back and read his other books, not to mention his first book about the Obama presidency due this fall.

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England’s Road to Healthcare

I previously wrote about Atul Gawande’s article in the New Yorker, which told about the path various countries have taken to reach national healthcare (that was actually only the beginning part of a lengthy article). The most fascinating case is England, which Gawande describes as the world’s most socialized system. England’s story is unique, and in no way applies to the United States. And that’s part of the point–no two countries start at the same place.

It all began when England declared war on Germany in 1939. In preparing for air attacks, British leaders relocated 3.5 million people to the countryside. They had to ensure that those people were taken care of–food, lodging, schooling…and medical care.

The government also began upgrading and expanding local hospitals, getting ready for the influx of large numbers of wounded civilians and soldiers. No way could private hospitals handle it on their own.

During the war, the government basically had to assume the costs for civilian and military casualties. The 1940 Battle of Britain destroyed large numbers of private hospitals and clinics. Private hospitals were overloaded with non-paying casualties. It was obviously an extraordinary situation.

World War 2 destroyed England’s existing system, but the British government, through good planning, managed to maintain a good level of healthcare throughout the war (considering that it was a WAR). Interestingly, the new system ended up being better than the old. The population’s health improved, and infant and adult mortality rates declined. Even dental care improved.

The wartime medical service began demobilizing in 1944, but citizens didn’t want it to end. Neither did private hospitals, which now relied on government payments. So the government began looking at a permanent national system–which was already pretty much in place. National healthcare was officially instituted in 1948 with barely a whimper of protest.

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Utah Wants Its Land Back

Interesting case out of Utah. The federal government owns 60% of Utah. The state is going to court, declaring imminent domain to get back some of the land, including a coal-rich plateau; they intend to sell coal rights to fund education. It’s probably a hopeless battle, but I’m cheering them on. Because, why does the federal government need to own 60% of Utah?

Or, for that matter:

  • 85% of Nevada
  • 70% of Alaska
  • 53% of Oregon
  • 50% of Idaho
  • 48% of Arizona
  • 45% of California
  • 42% of Wyoming and New Mexico

Meanwhile, the feds own less than 1% of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.

I know that big chunks of Arizona are actually Indian reservations, and that comes under the “federal” heading, which skews it. I imagine the same is true of many of these other western states. Then there are military bases, testing grounds, national parks, and areas leased for forestry and mining. But still, there’s a states’ rights issue here, with land and local economies in need of development.

So…Go Utah!

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