Monday, October 17, 2016

Power Broker

Robert Moses never held political office, and he never had a lot of money. He was a career bureaucrat without many of the trappings of power, with a reputation around New York City for being a selfless civil servant. Few knew he was the power behind the throne for almost 40 years. He didn’t serve at the pleasure of the Mayor; The Mayor served at his. He was above the law, and there was nothing the people could do to remove him. Not even FDR, who tried to orchestrate a coup against Moses at the height of the Great Depression, could unseat him. The whole point of a democracy is to prevent situations like that from happening. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro tells the story of how it did.

Moses was a builder. He built every major bridge in the city, as well as most of the highways that carve it up, and his name is plastered on dams, thoroughfares and parks across the state. Building massive public works is usually a collaborative process, involving balancing the competing interests of millions of people. Moses made it a dictatorship. The way NYC is laid out today is a direct reflection of his vision, and that vision shaped countless other cities around the world. Generations of architects and city planners learned at his feet, and his highways became the model for the interstate highway system. He came of age in the era of the automobile, and he is as responsible as anyone for the way it came to define the country.

The book delves into his projects, and the way they impacted the lives of millions, but at its heart is a more intimate story. A young man has a dream of making the world a better place. He goes out into the world and discovers that powerful people are standing in the way of his dream, and that his idealism is no match for their power. After trying and failing to fight the system, he becomes tempted by the idea of power, and of using power for his own ends. Once acquired, the power becomes an end to itself, and he slowly becomes the very thing he vowed to destroy. The corruption of Robert Moses is straight out of Lord of the Rings, and JRR Tolkien couldn’t have written it better.

The reason Caro can tell the story so well is because of how well he understands it. Caro is an obsessive researcher who leaves no stone unturned, literally in the case of the first highways that Moses built, and he talked to anyone and everyone who was even remotely connected to Moses. The fruit of that diligence is a book that clocks in at more than 1,100 pages. It’s a difficult read, but it’s not an intimidating one. Caro is the rare author who is a great reporter and and a great writer. The first draft was well over 3,000 pages, and what remains tells the story relatively concisely. It’s biography the way it should be done. One man’s life becomes a window into the world, making the past come alive and illustrating all that has changed in the time since, and all that has stayed the same.

People were flocking to New York City by the millions in the 1910’s and 1920’s, and there was nowhere to put them all. The land was filling up rapidly. What Moses understood was all these people needed somewhere to go, and something to do. His dream was to open up the great beaches of Long Island, and he refused to back down from the wealthy barons who controlled all of the great real estate. Part of his enduring popularity was the way he broke the backs of the 1% in the fight, using every trick in the book (including many he wrote himself) to get his parks, and the highways to those parks, built.

That fight taught him lessons he would use for the rest of his career. Manipulate the press. Control the money. Start building and dare people to stop you. Moses was a master of legislative maneuvering. He understood the law better than the people writing it, and he knew how to insert clauses no one would notice until it was too late. His personal fiefdoms were the public authorities, the temporary corporations created to manage tolls until a project had been paid off. He issued bonds on the revenues they generated, getting banks to front the money and then paying them off over time, and then issued bonds on those bonds, so that he could service them indefinitely without ever handing control back to the state. With hundreds of millions under his control, Moses vacuumed up all the best talent in the city, and he crushed anyone who tried to stand in his way. Moses was the only game in town, so if you wanted to build anything, you had to go through him.

The problem with giving one man that much power is that no one, no matter how smart and no matter how visionary, can see past their own experiences. Moses was shaped by growing up in the 1920’s, when cars were more luxury than necessity. He didn’t understand traffic patterns, and his only solution to congestion was to build more highways. Moses never learned that highways are like the Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come. Highways through cities don’t ease congestion. They make it worse. They are a fundamentally inefficient way of moving large groups of people from Point A to Point B. Moses had a keen grasp on the importance of time in his life, but his highways consigned untold millions to wasting huge portions of theirs in traffic.

Moses was a man defined by his contradictions. He was the architect of the highway system, yet he never learned how to drive a car. He devoted his life to improving the lives of millions, but he didn’t even really like people. He built monument upon monument in his desire for immortality, and he is mostly remembered for a book written about him. The Power Broker was published in 1974, and it’s still being sold in stores more than 40 years later. The pen really is mightier than the sword, or in this case, the bulldozer and the jackhammer.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Jesus The King

The story of Jesus Christ is so interesting many think it couldn’t be real, that the gospels are a collection of myths that never happened, and that he is a personification rather than a person who lived, died (and possibly) rose again. The question is when (and where) these myths could have started. Was Paul a real person? Was Peter? How far back does the story go? We know there were Christians throughout the Near East by the end of the first century. Who were they praying to? Could they conjure a person out of thin air whose life occurred within historical memory? And why would anyone believe them if they did?

The likeliest explanation is the simplest. Jesus was a man who preached a few years in ancient Israel before being executed by the Roman authorities. The contemporary critics of Christianity disputed his resurrection, not his existence. We know his followers grew from a few dozen at the time of his death to a movement spreading throughout the Roman Empire within a generation. We know they eventually conquered the empire from the inside out, with Christianity becoming the most influential religion in world history. Jesus is the most famous person who ever lived, and there’s no way to tell the story of humanity without talking about an itinerant preacher from Bethlehem who died without a penny to his name. We are, after all, living in the year 2016 AD.

How was he able to change the world? The gospels, collected from eye witness testimony and used for nearly two millennia, are the best place to learn. The problem is he was was preaching to a very different society in a very different world than our own, and it’s easy to come away from them with nothing more than a vague sense of the need to treat others kindly. “Jesus the King” is Timothy Keller’s attempt to bridge the gap, a reader’s guide to the Gospel of Mark that gives the societal context to what is happening. Keller is one of the most popular authors in evangelical America, and this book is a good example of why. It features simple and powerful writing, accessible to believers and non-believers alike. If you want to know what it means to be a Christian, “Jesus the King” is a good a place to start.

Keller divides the book (and Mark’s gospel) into two sections - “The King” and “The Cross”. The first half is who Jesus is, the second is explaining why he has to die. Everyone knows the basics of the story - Jesus is the son of God who died as a substitution for our sins. What gets missed is the connection between two. In a market economy, things are valued by the price someone will pay for them. If the price of our salvation was the death of God, how much must each of us be worth? Christianity starts with basing your self-worth not on what you have done, but on what God has done for you.

Everyone is searching for an identity, for something to justify our existence and some way to put our stamp on the world. Humans have been searching for immortality since the beginning of time. We all want to do something with our lives, and we all look to something to make us feel better about ourselves. Who am I as a person? And why am I important? The answer to those questions controls us. That’s at the core of identity, and the struggle for identity is at the core of the human condition. 

For some, it’s their career. They get identity from their professional lives, and what they do defines who they are. Others are driven by money. The more money they have, the more they feel like they matter. Sex is a big one, and the desire to be validated is what drives the hook-up culture, as much, if not more, than hedonism. Many feel worthwhile when other people are investing in their lives, and they look to family, friends and romantic relationships for meaning. Fame is that same principle on a bigger level. It doesn’t matter what you are famous for, as long as people are talking about you. 

In a narcissistic society, what we think of ourselves is determined by what others think of us. The root of anxiety in the modern world is the difference between who we are and who we portray ourselves to be. Social media exists to erase the distinction between our image and our identity. If a tree falls in the forest and no one can hear it, did it make a sound? What if you do something and don’t share it? Do we do anything for its own sake or so that other people can see we are doing it?

What no one can answer is what happens when you get what you are searching for. How much career success do any of us need? How much money? What number of likes will make us content? Or do those things only leave us wanting more? Keller talks about the hedonic treadmill, and how people return to their previous levels of happiness after a dramatic life change. Winning the lottery leaves most people worse off than when they started. Famous people are some of the most miserable in the world.

People often turn to religion when they realize how empty a life dedicated to the pursuit of selfish goals becomes. They try to become a better person, rather than a more important one. Many religious people end up defining themselves by their good deeds and the purity of their beliefs, and any ideology can become a religion if people base their worldview on it. Liberalism is a religion. Conservatism is too. They can't fail. They can only be failed. The problem is that mindset leads to the true believers feeling like they are part of the elect. The world divides into Us and Them, and their identity comes from being more righteous than everyone else.

True freedom comes from basing your identity on a gift you received, not what you did to earn it. When that happens, the things you do, and those that happen to you, don’t have the power to change who you are. When you don't need the approval of others, they can't control you. If your self-worth doesn’t come from your career, losing a job isn’t a life-shattering event. If money doesn’t define you, then not having any doesn’t make you a failure. The biggest reason people can’t pick themselves up from setbacks is because they lose the source of their identity in the process. Our generation was raised on the importance of self-esteem, but self-confidence is a lot less resilient than confidence in something bigger than yourself.

The key is basing your identity on something you can’t lose. Your life is built on a foundation. The only question is what that foundation is going to be.
Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.  
- Matthew 7:24

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

True And Only Heaven

If there’s a common theme in the news this year, from Brexit to Donald Trump, it’s that these things shouldn’t be happening in 2016. It’s what Obama means when he says that we are on the right side of history, or that a country is acting in 19th century fashion. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. There may be people standing athwart history yelling stop, but their cause is ultimately a losing one. In “The True And Only Heaven”, Christopher Lasch isn’t just yelling stop. He’s saying there’s nothing to stand athwart, and all that movement is nothing more than an illusion. Lasch wrote the book in 1991, but it explains more about our political climate than just about anything written today.

He sees Democrats and Republicans, and more broadly progressives and conservatives, as two sides of the same coin. They are all fruit from the same tree of classical liberalism, and the book traces its intellectual history from the Enlightenment to the present day. Lasch is more concerned with the history of ideas than the history of people, highlighting philosophers and thinkers rather than politicians and generals, telling a vastly different story than the ones found in history books. He assumes a level of familiarity with writers, from Carlyle to Sorel, that most schools no longer teach, so the book doubles as a graduate level course in political philosophy. He has a way of breaking down complicated subject matter and teasing out its implications to clarify even the most obscure points.

For Lasch, our problems start with the breakdown of moral authority, and the fundamental degradation of work in modern society. He speaks for the people “who could no longer hope for some honorable line of work that would make the best use of their abilities, provide them with satisfaction that comes with the exercise of responsibility, and bring them some measure of financial security and public appreciation. Success was no longer to be had on such terms. The ‘best and brightest’ were those who knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules.” Long before the crash of the internet and housing bubbles, Lasch was harping on the unequal distribution of income and the lack of middle-class jobs. 

The only solutions our political process has been able to devise are redistributing income, rolling back governmental regulations and pointing at Netflix and shrugging. These issues go way beyond politics, delving into the fundamental nature of our economy and the structure of our society. But is ‘let them eat iPhones’ a sustainable strategy? In other words, what happens after Trump? Is he the last gasp of a dying culture, or a harbinger of what is to come? Should we just accept that middle class jobs are not coming back? What happens to our society if more education is not a panacea, only trapping an entire generation in student loan debt they can never pay back, creating another bubble? Is history really destined to go in only one direction?

That view of history has roots in Christian thought, which sees history as the story of God interacting with the world and progressing to a final judgment. Americans still view history as a powerful force moving towards a final outcome, but we have removed God from the equation. Instead of a story about man accepting his place in the universe and moving towards harmony with his creator, history becomes the story of man transcending limits through technological and cultural innovation. Even if there is no return to Eden at the end of the rainbow, things will keep getting better. All we have to do is look around.

Lasch asks us to look around more closely. He touches on Henry George’s cyclical view of history, which says 1) the accumulation of wealth leads to inequality so that 2) advanced civilizations have an increasingly idle ruling class that 3) becomes top-heavy and collapses under its own weight and therefore 4) the history of civilization is one of advance and decline. Now compare that with the idea that technological progress in the wake of the Industrial Revolution has lead us to a post-scarcity society where we will be able to divvy up abundance and live in harmony now that we are at the End of History thanks to the triumph of Western liberal democracy.

His ultimate argument is that classical liberalism isn’t sustainable because it ignores the reality of limits and underestimates the power of particularism. Movements like communism fail because they assume an international solidarity of workers when people are inherently loyal to family, place and tribe. Modern cosmopolitans think they have transcended tribalism when they are really part of the most powerful tribe of them all. There will always be an “in” group and there will always be an “out” group, and any ideology based on the idea that we can transcend our differences is ultimately doomed to failure because it doesn’t grapple with the reality of the human condition.

“The True And Only Heaven” is a challenging read because it’s hard to relate to someone who rejects the Enlightenment. In the same way that it would be difficult to explain water to a fish, we are so steeped in the assumptions of classical liberalism we can scarcely imagine a world without it. It’s probably how devout Catholics felt when Martin Luther pegged his complaints to the door of a chapel. Questioning the way things are done is an inherently unpopular business, so it’s no surprise Lasch slipped out of the popular consciousness since his death in 1994. Things have gotten crazier since, but Lasch is saying it’s all a matter of perspective. Maybe the world hasn’t gone mad. Maybe our society always was.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Red Rising

There’s a reason Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” is one of the more popular science fiction books in recent memory. The first in a trilogy, “Red Rising” is a fantastic read that balances world building, character development and tight plotting. It takes a little while to get going, but it’s hard to put down once it does. The plot changes direction four to five times over the course of the book - just when you start to think you know where Brown is going, he throws a curveball that alters your perspective of the story. There’s more than enough here for an excellent TV show. This could be the next “Game of Thrones”.

The story is told through the eyes of Darrow, a headstrong young miner who works in the caverns of Mars, where he and his family are tasked with terraforming the planet to make it suitable for human colonization. They exist in a society with a rigid caste structure straight out of ancient India. Darrow’s people are the Low Reds, who have the unglamourous and supremely dangerous task of “hell diving”. There are Pinks, Browns, Greens, Blues, all under the brutal subjugation of the Golds, the 1% who rule over everything with an iron fist.

“Red Rising” takes place in a frightening transhumanist future, where the elites have genetically modified themselves to exalt themselves over the rest of society, while altering everyone else to fill preordained roles - sex slaves, miners, police, bureaucrats - that cater to their every whim. Imagine how unbearable Wall Street bankers would be if they actually were more intelligent, more attractive and more athletic than the rest of us. It’s the logic of Darwinism taken to its inevitable conclusion - modification, separation and eventually differentiation. The Golds and the Reds are still both human, but the gap between them is much wider than the ones that exist in our society.

Darrow discovers that reality first hand when tragedy changes the trajectory of his life, and he is forced to leave his placid world as a family man behind when his wife is publicly executed for defying the authorities and questioning her place in society. In the aftermath, he eventually links up with a shadowy group of revolutionaries called the Sons of Ares, who view him as a weapon they can aim at the Golds. They fake his death so that he is symbolically killed, buried and born again to become an instrument of vengeance. There’s more than a whiff of Jesus Christ in his story.

He undergoes extensive rounds of genetic and behavioral modification so that he can go undercover at the Institute, the academy where young Golds train to become the Peerless Scarred, the 1% of the 1%. The Institute is where the heart of Red Rising takes place. It’s Lord of the Flies on steroids, as Darrow and his classmates scheme and fight against each other to win the game and earn favor from the powers that be. The point of the game is isn’t immediately clear to them, and there are enough twists and turns over the course of book to leave even the most attentive reader unsure of what’s going to happen next.

In the process, Darrow has to figure out how to be a leader and how much of his identity he can discard or keep in order to infiltrate the corridors of power. Brown sprinkles a lot of interesting notions about leadership throughout the book, and that’s where it differs from most thrillers you can read in a few sittings and never think about again. It works on a deeper level because it creates three dimensional characters and uses them to comment on the human condition. Any good piece of art contains some implicit critique on the society it comes from and “Red Rising” is no exception.

I went to the same high school as Brown, and there is so much of St. Mark’s in The Institute that it isn’t funny. Both places are designed to pit the children of the elite against each other and educate them on the ways of the world in order to prepare them for leadership roles at the very top of society. No one was getting killed at St. Mark’s, but the competition was just as intense. There are only so many spots in the Institute, so many leadership roles in one House, so many spots at Harvard, so many internships at Goldman Sachs. The competition within the 1% to be the 1% of the 1% creates a facsimile of meritocracy that colors the way the elites view society at large.

The biggest thing is that there’s no ethos beyond kill or be killed. Just as in the book, the elite of our society have long since abandoned religion and any sense of noblesse oblige beyond Darwinism. You get to the 1% by being more connected than the 99%, but you get to the 1% of the 1% by being more ruthless. Human beings compare themselves against their peers, and the elites of our society are ruthlessly pitted against each other early in life in order to create sociopaths who believe in nothing bigger than themselves and their own egos. In the end, it doesn’t matter who winds up on top because the system is designed in a way so that the person at the top has to sell their soul to get there.

At the end of “Red Rising”, Darrow is given a choice to stand firm in his principles or to compromise his morals in order to get ahead and advance in the system. To return to the Christ analogy, it’s reminiscent of his final temptation by the devil, when Satan takes Jesus to a cliff and shows him the whole world, telling Jesus that he can rule it all if he agrees to worship him. Brown is telling the story of what happens if Jesus said yes.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

In her book SPQR: The History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard sets out a daunting task. She’s trying to cover 700+ years in a little over 600 pages, which doesn’t leave much room for exploring details or taking a breath as she races through some of the foundational pieces of Western Civilization - the founding of Rome, the wars with Carthage, the end of the Republic, the five good Emperors - at a breakneck pace. The books ends right where Edward Gibbon starts The History of the Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire, with the imperial decision to extend citizenship to everyone in the Empire in 212.

The good news is that Beard is an engaging writer with a clear mastery of the subject matter. After a lifetime studying the history of Rome, she’s comfortable summarizing vast periods of history without missing any of the essentials necessary to follow along. What makes SPQR interesting is that Beard has a skeptic’s eye for much of the conventional narrative surrounding Rome. How much do we really know about its founding? How much can we really discern about the intentions of its most famous characters? How much can we ever really know about a society that existed thousands of years ago?

The discussion surrounding something with the importance of the history of Rome is an ever-changing process, partly because archaeologists are constantly uncovering new information and partly because the way we view the present impacts how we discuss the past. What makes getting answers particularly challenging is that the Romans themselves didn’t always have them either. By the end of the Republic, the actual founding of the city near the year 700 BC was so shrouded in myth that no one could give a better answer than the tales of Romulus and Remus and Virgil’s Aeneid.

Most histories of Rome contain stories of the twins who were suckled by a wolf, the raping of the Sabines and the reign of the first seven Kings, who purportedly ruled for around 150 or so years near the very beginning of the city’s history. For Beard, none of it seems all that plausible. In her telling, those types of stories are placeholders, meant to represent greater and underlying truths about the city’s history, whether it’s how it intermingled with its neighbors or how it learned to fear monarchical rule.

I like to look at history like a microscope. The more you focus on any one particular series of events, the more you lose focus on the wider historical context surrounding it and vice versa. When you are looking at a 700+ year view of history, more than twice as long as the history of the US, you have to take a very broad view. Even the greatest historical characters lose some of their personality and dynamism from that perspective. You can’t really tell the story of Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar or Nero when you are giving them 10-15 pages as part of the broader story of Rome. They all had parts to play, but in the end they were all just parts.

Caesar is the perfect example. He’s the man who conquered Gaul, who crossed the Rubicon and who ended the Republic before being famously assassinated on the steps of the Senate. While he’s obviously a fascinating character, he’s also a transitional figure who took advantage of the decline of parliamentary norms and the increasing inability of the Senate to govern the vast series of lands that it had accumulated for itself. Whether or not Pompey defeated Caesar, then, didn’t really matter. If Caesar had been defeated, Pompey (a rather tyrannical figure in his own right) would have been King. It had to happen - it was only a matter of who was going to fill that role.

No matter how great a tactician Hannibal was, the famed Carthaginian general couldn’t change the underlying demographics of the Punic Wars or Rome’s more stable political structure. In other words, Rome was always going to rule the Mediterranean. From there, once it gained that power, it was always going to lose its Republic. It’s a fatalistic view of history - we are all pawns in stories that we can’t fully comprehend, doomed as a society (or at the very least foretold) to play out the roles handed down to us by forces greater than ourselves.

Maybe it’s 20/20 hindsight or maybe it isn’t. Either way, it certainly is a different way of viewing history than the one we were taught growing up. Americans tend to view history as the story of Great Men, whether it’s Washington winning the Revolution, Lincoln winning the Civil War or Churchill winning WW2. We are constantly told that the upcoming election is the most important election ever because we are determining who will be President. This man or woman will have their finger on the nuclear button and their leadership will determine whether or not the US will rise or fall.

From a broader perspective, though, it’s hard to look at Rome and not wonder what lessons it has in store for America. Like Rome, America was founded by a small group of upstarts and then gradually grew to conquer an entire continent. Like Rome, a distrust of monarchy was an essential part of America’s DNA. Like Rome, America takes great pride in its democracy and the values that it stands for. Like Rome, America has grown into a colossus that stands astride the world. As the comedian Eddie Griffin put it, when did we go from the United States of America to the United Empire of Earth?

History can have a funny way of repeating itself. One of the central themes of Beard’s book is the topic of identity and immigration and how far to extend the promise (and the privileges) of citizenship in the most powerful nation the world has ever known. Are Americans, like Romans, global citizens? Is there even such a thing as American (or Roman) nationality? Or is it more an idea and a series of beliefs about the world that everyone can aspire to? What would happen to Rome if everyone in Italy became a citizen? If everyone in Greece? What would happen to America if the same thing happened in Mexico? Central and South America? What is lost and what is gained in the process? It’s the same question now as it ever was.

If it didn’t matter to history whether or not Caesar or Pompey won the Roman civil war, how could it possibly matter whether or not Trump or Hillary win the Presidency? When someone writes the history of the US in the year 4000, what will get mentioned and what will have been forgotten? Our society is constantly worrying about the judgment of history when the reality is that the judgment of history changes all the time. I won’t be around to read the History of the Ancient United States, but my guess is that it will end up hitting a lot of the same themes as SPQR. Some things never really change because there’s only so much any of us (no matter who we are) can do to change them.