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Published: Wed, 17 Jan 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2018 02:14:01 -0500


Everyone You Love Did Drugs

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 12:45:00 -0500

It turns out that a lot of accomplished, well-respected historical figures did drugs. From Winston Churchill taking amphetamines to Thomas Edison lacing his wine with cocaine, not everyone who uses narcotics is a hopeless basket case living in a dumpster. While some drug users spiral into addiction and crime, others go on to become president. It's time to debunk the age old stereotypes of the back alley dangerous dealer or the lazy stoner when, according to the National Survey on Drug Use, roughly half of all Americans have tried an illegal drug. In the latest "Mostly Weekly" host Andrew Heaton breaks down the cartoonish Drug Warrior portrayal of drugs by showing some of the beloved historical figures who used them, including: Thomas Jefferson Getrude Stein Carl Sagan Cary Grant The Beatles Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton, with headwriter Sarah Rose Siskind. Script by Sarah Rose Siskind with writing assistance from Andrew Heaton and Brian Sack. Edited by Austin Bragg and Siskind. Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg. Theme Song: Frozen by Surfer Blood. Song: "Burnt to a Crisp or Bloody as Hell" by TeknoAX Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.[...]

The Massive Higher-Ed Scam You've Never Heard About: Podcast

Tue, 26 Dec 2017 16:10:00 -0500

Historian and entrepreneur Thaddeus Russell has a bone to pick with American higher education. It's not simply that maverick opinions that stray from a liberal-progressive orthodoxy get squashed in classroom discussions and tenure decisions. Russell says the federal Department of Education effectively manages an accreditation system that controls the number and character of elite institutions by insisting that "serious" colleges and universities have dorms, dining halls, and a whole host of things completely unrelated to higher learning. As the founder and proprietor of the online Renegade University, the fight is both personal and practical for Russell, whose 2010 book, A Renegade History of the United States, offers up one of the most original and provocative readings of the American experience. "People who operate on the fringes of society," says Russell, "who have operated against social norms...have opened spaces that were later occupied by the mainstream and established things that we now take for granted." In his telling, it's not august statesmen and high-minded citizens but the pushers, prostitutes, and outliers who have enabled the radical lifestyle, cultural, and political freedoms we take for granted. In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Russell, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, talks about discovering the Austrian School of economics only long after he left the academy, why actual Marxists hate postmodernism and why libertarians should love it, the insidious nature of America's Protestant work ethic, and how the Democrats are reviving the Cold War. Audio production by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="300" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: This is the Reason podcast. I'm your host, Nick Gillespie. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Today, we're talking with Thaddeus Russell. He's an academic, really kind of a post-academic, who runs an outfit called the Renegade University. We're going to talk about academia. We're going to talk about post-modernism, and we're going to talk about Donald Trump and the larger canvas of American politics. Thad, thanks for talking. Thaddeus Russell: Always a pleasure, Nick. Gillespie: Yeah, you know we have known each other for a few years here. When I first encountered you, it was shortly after the publication of your Renegade History of the United States, which is a kind of brilliant counter to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. Just, as a tee off, one of the funny things is when I got the book from the publisher, I was like, 'Oh, this sounds like a shitty knockoff of Howard Zinn', and I was about to throw it out. And instead, I started reading the first chapter, and a couple hours later, I was part-way through, and I was like, 'We've got to talk to this guy. We've got to interview him. We've got to work with him.' Why don't you talk a bit about the Renegade History of the United States and how it's reaction kind of encapsulates one of the issues that you have with higher education, which seems to be an unwillingness to actually engage with heterodox ideas? Russell: Yeah, so, Reason magazine and were the only mainstream media outlets that paid any attention to Renegade History, and academia has completely ignored it. It has not been reviewed in the academic journals, The American Historical Association's journals have not reviewed it. I've seen no mention of it in any academic journals.[...]

GW Students Organize to Fight Oppression By Oppressing Reading Choices

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 13:15:00 -0500

The Internationalist Students' Front, a new organization at George Washington University, seeks to "oppose nationalism across the world and contest popular narratives about U.S. foreign policy." To achieve these lofty goals, the group also wants to ban books. The Students' Front is calling for the banning of two books from the school's Gelman Library. One of them is "The Alleged 'Nanking Massacre': Japan's Rebuttal to China's Forged Claims," an obviously propagandistic book written by members of Japan's far-right. The student group intends to circulate a petition on campus to have it removed or labeled propaganda. Members of the organization did not respond to requests for comment on the group, its goals, or its choice of books. They have not yet disclosed the title or the author of the second book they want removed from Gelman. Given that 86 percent of the Amazon reviews of the book are one-star ratings, it seems the vast majority of Americans already see the book for what it is: a wholly unsubstantiated, and overall quite ludicrous account of a historical event, akin to Holocaust denial in the West. The Nanking Massacre has been widely documented. Japanese forces captured the Chinese city of Nanjing (or Nanking) and, in six weeks beginning in December of 1937, killed anywhere between 40,000 to 300,000 people in a rampage of rape and pillage. Estimates are still contested. Some have accused the Chinese government of inflating the numbers. Others deny the massacre happened. It's unlikely George Washington students accept the book as factual or allow such obvious propaganda to distort their understanding of the Nanking Massacre. The fact that the massacre has been denied is an interesting and important aspect of study for those interested in the history of relations between China and Japan. As George Washington Law faculty member and legal commentator Jonathan Turley writes, " an academic institution, our faculty and students research such views as part of their studies and discussion. Sometimes we buy books to gain perspective of fringe or discredited views. The denial itself is a legitimate matter of study for some academics." Even requiring the book to be labeled as propaganda is a bad idea—the floodgates of what constitutes "propaganda" versus what constitutes a reliable interpretation of the truth could easily be opened. The Students' Front seems like your traditional left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist student organization. The club's Facebook page laments the anniversary of Fidel Castro's death, saying, "as internationalists, we must commemorate his fight against oppression in Cuba, and his contributions to anti-imperialism and international struggles against oppression." Fighting oppression around the globe is certainly a worthy cause. In attempting to ban certain books from the library, is the group really overthrowing oppression, or attempting to advance only their preferred ideologies and causes? GW's student newspaper, The Hatchet, reports that "the organization will host teach-ins about the consequences of fascism and advocate internationalism, a political ideology similar to socialism that believes all people should unite to advance common interests." There's an obvious flaw in their logic. Calling for book-banning is ridiculous. When students concerned with ending global oppression fail to see how censorship can contribute to the very oppression they're fighting against, it's a sorry state of affairs. There's a certain irony when students crack down on the free exchange of ideas in the process of attempting to promulgate particularly radical ones—ones that could also be in danger of being suppressed one day. Free speech is valuable for many reasons, but especially because there's no guarantee that the most odious ideas will be removed from the public discourse—we can never be certain who will be targeted, or which ideas will be banished. American foreign policy goes wrong in myriad ways, as any libertarian can tell you. We need more [...]

The Original Rock 'n' Roll Guitar God Was Actually a Goddess

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:50:00 -0500

Rock 'n' roll was born and baptized in a smoky nightclub somewhere, but the baby was conceived in a church. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard were all raised Pentecostal, and their sounds were shaped by the raucous gospel music they grew up with. And Chuck Berry cribbed his duckwalk from a gospel singer called Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose guitar style helped lay the groundwork for rock.

Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week, alongside such worthies as Nina Simone and the Cars. If you find yourself doubting that this honor should be bestowed on a woman who was already in her forties when "Jailhouse Rock" hit the charts, watch this old clip from the NBC show TV Gospel Time, originally broadcast in 1962. For about a minute and 20 seconds, it may seem like an ordinary gospel performance. And then Sister Tharpe starts soloing:

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A century ago, the early Pentecostals' multiracial revivals and ecstatic forms of worship sparked a moral panic. In the 1950s, rock 'n' roll provoked a similar reaction. Watching Tharpe play, you may start to see the outlines of more than one hidden continuity.

Just about all the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll—Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash—were Rosetta Tharpe fans. Gayle Wald's Tharpe bio Shout, Sister, Shout! quotes Jerry Lee Lewis falling over with praise for the woman: "I mean, she's singing religious music, but she is singing rock 'n' roll. She's...shakin', man....She jumps it. She's hitting that guitar, playing that guitar and she is singing. I said, 'Whoooo.' Sister Rosetta Tharpe." They say the Devil has all the best tunes, but he had to learn them somewhere.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Brickbat: Russian Purge

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Russia has deported Polish historian Henryk Glebocki. The Federal Security Service detained him and removed him from the country a day after he gave a lecture on the fate of Polish citizens during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.

Churchill's Antidote to Political Rage

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 12:00:00 -0500

"I've never in my adult life," observes David French, a writer for National Review, "seen so many people so angry about things they cannot control." The current hour is one of "defining people by their mistakes," he says, and "hating our ideological enemies." This is not new information. Many others across the ideological spectrum have uttered the same lament. But the laments have not diminished the volume of rage. To some degree the rage is understandable. People have plenty to be angry about. But much of the animosity seems out of all proportion. It is one thing to despise and vilify a foreign tyrant who tortures innocent children. It is something else again to despise and vilify someone who didn't vote for the same political candidate you did. You have to take politics extremely seriously for that. But as serious as politics might seem today, it cannot be more serious than it was in Britain in 1940—when the wrong political choices could threaten the nation's very existence. Two years before, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler's Germany. Chamberlain returned to England boasting that he had achieved "peace for our time." A year later Hitler invaded Poland, and Chamberlain's name became synonymous with "appeasement"—which ever since has carried the stench of timorous naiveté. Munich itself has become both an argument by way of analogy and a cliché: Running a Google search about the Obama administration's "Iran deal" and "Munich," for instance, returns thousands upon thousands of results. This version of history is hard on Chamberlain and omits certain complexities. As Alex Massie reminded readers in The Spectator a few years ago, after the Polish invasion "Chamberlain actually declared war on Germany, rather than vice versa." Massie also cites the views of Winston Churchill on Munich: "Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems," Churchill wrote later, "who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right. "On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances, they may be right." Nobody had more reason to gloat "I told you so" over Chamberlain's miscalculation at Munich than Churchill, who had been warning about the German menace far longer than most people had cared to listen. And yet when Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill delivered a eulogy at once clear-eyed and generous: "In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history," Churchill began. "In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values... "It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, [...]

Statist Just-So Stories

Sun, 26 Nov 2017 06:00:00 -0500

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James C. Scott, Yale University Press, 336 pages, $26 For more than 40 years, James Scott has written about those who resist being incorporated into political-economic systems. Initially focused on Southeast Asia, he later expanded his field of vision to large-scale bureaucratic institutions around the world. He has consistently emphasized the ways that such structures try to transform the populations they govern into well-behaved, easily supervisable units—laborers, taxpayers, soldiers—but also the ways those populations work around and subvert the aimed-for transformations. In a provocative new book, Against the Grain, Scott now challenges us to rethink legends about the state and its origins. Populations ruled by states tell stories about their emergence into civilization, stories that cast the non-state peoples around them as primitives and barbarians. These stories are familiar from the era of European imperialism and from early modern philosophers like Locke and Rousseau, but they're common to state-governed populations around the world and throughout history. Scott calls them into deep doubt. His early work focused on agriculture, including colonial regimes' forcible transformation of peasant communities into plantation workers. Where Marxists looked at the absence of revolution and charged farmworkers with false consciousness, Scott argued that they understood their interests fully well and fought back as best they could, using "the weapons of the weak" and "the arts of resistance," from foot dragging to sabotage to mockery. In Seeing Like a State (1998) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), Scott shifted his attention to political institutions. States seek to make their populations "legible," he argued: countable, mappable, surveyable, and thus easily taxable and conscriptable. People seek to protect themselves from all that, sometimes by escaping into anarchic regions where the projection of state power is impractical. In his emphasis on institutional surveillance, Scott overlapped with the French social theorist Michel Foucault. But in his insistence that states' efforts could never entirely succeed because too much social knowledge is local and tacit, he shared more with F.A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. And with his attention to the resistance of governed populations, he stood out from any of those. As he puts it in his newest book, "the first and most prudent assumption about historical actors is that, given their resources and what they know, they are acting reasonably to secure their immediate interests." While Foucault sometimes seems to see no human agency anywhere, Scott sees it everywhere. Against the Grain applies all these ideas to the study of the origins of the state in the Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization." This is a shorter, more accessible text, not based on Scott's own original research. He is not an archeologist or ancient historian; indeed, he was inspired to write the book when he learned that he subscribed to a narrative about the era that specialists regarded as out of date. In that narrative, crop and animal domestication allowed our ancestors to abandon their difficult search for food, to settle down in one place, and to benefit from the productive bounty of fixed-field agriculture. As settlements grew into cities, political rule emerged and further facilitated farming, especially through public irrigation projects. It turns out that settlement, statehood, and farming were separated by thousands of years in ancient Mesopotamia. Scott sets out to interpret this evidence, in ways that radically undermine traditional stories about the state's function. He argues that even partly settled populations that were able to cultivate crops still generally avoided the fixed-field, full-time farming of a small number of grains and animals, preferring the range of foo[...]

Prosthetic Limbs Make Great Weapons: A History

Fri, 24 Nov 2017 12:30:00 -0500

On March 25, 1899, a curious article in the Neihart Herald declared that "it has recently been decided by an English court that artificial limbs are weapons when used advantageously in a fight." It wasn't the first time the press had noted that prosthetic limbs could be wielded during altercations. The Belfast Telegraph of April 17, 1873, mentions that a prisoner "used his wooden leg as a weapon. " A vivid article in an 1893 edition of the Illustrated Police News describes how one Patrick Murphy attacked a constable with his wooden leg, "in the use of which he was most proficient." In the August 22, 1895, Pierre Weekly Free Press, we learn that one Harry Crawford "accidentally ran into...a cripple" while driving. In revenge, the victim attacked Crawford "using his wooden leg as a weapon and inflicting injuries that the doctors say will cost Crawford his life." If they weren't used as weapons themselves, hollow appendages could contain lethal contraband. In 1904, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette discussed the case of a man shot to death in Spain. When police apprehended a nearby beggar, "no weapon could be found upon him." But it eventually emerged that the killer had stashed a firearm within one of his wooden legs. Legs were not the only artificial limbs used as weapons. On October 28, 1871, The Kentish Independent reported that one William Benson, whose hand had been replaced with an iron hook, attacked someone with such force that his victim's face had been "bound up" as a result. An 1885 edition of the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser announced a "Savage Attack with a Wooden Arm." And in Charleston, West Virginia, a 1914 report describes a fight involving both a prosthetic leg and a glass eye. A prankster had used horsehair and glue to give the impression that a man's wooden leg had grown hair. His target, named Alexander James, did not see the humor and attacked the culprit with the leg. The joker responded by throwing his glass eye at the assailant. A theme runs through such accounts: the idea that by transforming an artificial limb from a tool of medicine to a tool of violence, the attackers have shown themselves to be evil. "Tis well under certain circumstances to have a wooden leg," the Cardiff Times declared in 1893, "but tis tyrannous to use it as a cudgel." Limb attacks also appear in several notable works of 19th century fiction, where again they are often associated with villainy. In Prosthetic Body Parts in Literature and Culture, 1832 to 1908, University of Leeds research fellow Ryan Sweet notes that Moby Dick's Captain Boomer "is adorned with a prosthetic device that is specially designed to act as a weapon." Sweet also highlights a Sherlock Holmes story in which a character beats a "prison guard to death using his wooden leg" before the limb bogs him down in the mud. (This is another familiar narrative, in which a villain's artificial limb gives him a temporary combat advantage but ultimately defeats him.) Wooden legs do appear to have been brutally effective weapons. More sophisticated replacements were being developed, but as the University of Georgia historian Stephen Mihm notes, these initially "failed to respond reliably and predictably to the movement and weight of the body." It seems that the simple wooden leg's uncomplicated nature made it suitable both for movement and as a weapon. World War I, which disabled thousands of soldiers, would transform artificial limbs, however. On November 17, 1922, The Lichfield Mercury declared the "End of Wooden Legs," reporting that every soldier who had lost a leg in the war could have his wooden limb replaced for free with a lightweight metal prosthetic. This change in technology didn't stop artificial limbs from being used as weapons, nor did it end the tendency in popular culture to associate such tools with knaves. Several James Bond antagonists atte[...]

Sex and Communism

Fri, 24 Nov 2017 05:00:00 -0500

Max Eastman: A Life, by Christoph Irmscher, Yale University Press, 434 pages, $40 "It doesn't cheapen the aims of this biography or the ambitions of its subject," writes Christoph Irmscher, "to describe what follows as a story largely about sex and communism." What follows is the life of Max Eastman—poet, nudist, women's suffragist, war resister, socialist editor, and finally a self-described "libertarian conservative." William F. Buckley Jr. found his atheism unpalatable. But to a teenage Carly Simon, Eastman—by then in his 80s—was "the most beautiful man she had ever met." She was far from the only woman to feel that way. Eastman's star burned bright for more than half of the 20th century, as he wrote his way to fame, traveled the world, translated Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, and ended up as one of the red faith's foremost apostates. What kind of background produces a character like Max Eastman? One that begins with parents who were both Christian ministers. Max was born in Canandaigua, New York, in 1883. His mother, Annis, was ordained in 1889, but had for years already been assisting her husband, Rev. Samuel Eastman, with his sermons. Annis was emotionally close to her children, and they were close to one another. In the case of Max and his sister Crystal, two years older than him, they might have been too close. Crystal would be the adolescent Max's ideal woman; her letters home to him from college are full of flirtatious teasing. "Max's previous biographer has suggested that Max and Crystal had an incestuous relationship," Irmscher notes. He doesn't leap to that conclusion himself, saying the mix of religious passion, motherly doting, and sibling affection that swirled around Eastman defies easy interpretation. In any event, Eastman seems not to have had much specifically sexual confidence or experience until after he graduated from Williams College. Appropriately enough, his first step toward becoming a public intellectual was made possible by one of his sister's boyfriends, who happened to teach at Columbia University. He got Max a job as a teaching assistant in the philosophy and psychology department, where Max fell into John Dewey's orbit. Crystal also drew her brother into progressive politics; soon he was a leading speaker in the Men's League for Women's Suffrage. The Columbia connection—Eastman was sometimes erroneously identified in the press as a professor—and his success as a speaker eased his path to becoming a noted writer too, and not just on suffrage. He published as a poet as well. And in 1913, he was offered the editorship of a small socialist magazine, The Masses, which under Max would become, as Irmscher puts it, "the only artsy socialist magazine the United States had ever had." Max's plan was "to make The Masses a popular Socialist magazine—a magazine of pictures and lively writing" rather than a vehicle for dogma. The magazine made Max an outspoken champion of left-wing causes, including labor and, most fatefully, opposition to World War I. Max's editorial criticisms of the war earned the magazine harassment from Woodrow Wilson's government, which ultimately forced The Masses to close. In its place, Max and Crystal launched a new magazine, the Liberator. As the conflict drew to a close, it endorsed the war aims "outlined by the Russian people and expounded by President Wilson." Max and several former colleagues from The Masses were put on trial for having attempted to "unlawfully and willfully obstruct the recruiting and enlistment service of the United States." Two hung juries saved Max from a prison sentence. Max's love life at this point was a contrast with the intense familial emotional engagement of his youth. He had married the feminist activist and poet Ida Rauh in 1911 and had a son with her. But he neglected both. At first he didn't even tel[...]

The Secret Meaning of Thanksgiving Dinner

Thu, 23 Nov 2017 13:00:00 -0500

Did you ever wonder why we eat turkey, of all things, on Thanksgiving? After all, the Pilgrims didn't. They were more into duck, goose, and shellfish. Last year, when the Reason Podcast (subscribe!) was just getting started, I interviewed Rachel Laudan, best known for the incredible book Cuisine and Empire, a fascinating history of how food and cooking have not simply shaped world events but been at the very center of them. Laudan, a visiting scholar at the University of Texas, explained that America's national meal, which only really became a thing hundreds of years after the Pilgrims suffered through their early winters, has always functioned as a way of rebuking haughty elites from England and Europe. Laudan is a real firecracker in conversation—when I asked the world-traveling cosmopolitan if there was any food she wouldn't eat, she didn't miss a beat before saying anything organic. Listen below or here for her compelling, libertarian case against supposedly sustainable farming. It's a great conversation about food, cuisine, etiquette, and so much more. Bring her figuratively to your table—she's the ultimate dinner guest! Here's the original writeup: When Thanksgiving became a national holiday back in 1863, it was a repudiation of the French aristocracy, says food historian Rachel Laudan. Europe's haute cuisine, contemporaries believed, "ruined the individual, the household, and the nation." Thus, this "simple meal...became a national celebration embracing all citizens," Laudan wrote in a 2013 Boston Globeessay. Contemporary novelist and cookbook author Sarah Josepha Hale designed the standard Thanksgiving meal as an affirmation of our (small 'r') republican virtues. Turkey was cheap to procure, pumpkin pie was easy to make, and cranberry sauce was a simple take on the fancy toppings typical in a French court. The meaning of Thanksgiving has changed over the years—thanks in part to Julia Child's successful effort to democratize French cuisine—but even today, "nobody suggests adding truffles to your turkey," Laudan says. Nick Gillespie interviewed Laudan about the meaning of Thanksgiving, why she is not a fan of "organic" food, and other aspects of culinary history, drawing on her fascinating 2013 book, Cuisine & Empire. Click below to listen to that conversation—or subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> The Reason Podcast is currently killing it at iTunes, where we ranked as the 160th most-popular News & Politics podcast. Take a listen to our latest episodes—an exclusive interview with FCC head Ajit Pai, who explains why repealing Net Neutrality rules is a big win for free expression and the future of the Internet; a raucous tour of the news with Katherine Mangu-Ward, Peter Suderman, Matt Welch, and me; Shikha Dalmia explaining how crackdowns on illegal immigrants snag innocent American citizens; and a debate between Mangu-Ward and me and the editors of the hard-left Jacobin mag—and subscribe if you like what you hear![...]

How Grocery Stores Got Good

Thu, 23 Nov 2017 06:00:00 -0500

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, by Michael Ruhlman, Abrams Press, 307 pages, $28 Of all the stories in the busy news cycle of 2017, the one with the most meaningful long-run effects may be Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods. What this marriage means for the future of the food industry remains to be seen, but the combination of Amazon's reach and delivery skills with Whole Foods' high-quality products opens many possibilities. In Grocery, his look at the central role the grocery store has played in American life, food writer Michael Ruhlman more or less predicted the coming together of Amazon and Whole Foods. In 1988, he notes, Walmart opened its first Supercenter, enabling it to extend its skill in distribution and cost cutting to the grocery business. That same year, Whole Foods opened its first store outside of Texas, starting the process of becoming a national chain and establishing a new sort of shopping experience. "The next sea change in food retailing," Ruhlman wrote, prior to the purchase being announced, "may come from another master of distribution, Amazon." Ruhlman made his name writing about great chefs and cooking, but here he takes on the social and economic changes in the grocery business over the last century. He does so through a study of Heinen's, a mid-sized regional chain based in his hometown of Cleveland. Ruhlman uses the company's history and practices as a window on the role the grocery store has played in American culture. As recently as the 1970s, grocery stores tended to be smaller, had far less variety and quality of food, and weren't always as clean as they are now. Such changes are among the most powerful evidence we have that nearly all Americans today surpass the living standards enjoyed by even very wealthy people a generation or two ago. Growing up in an upper-middle-class Detroit suburb in the '70s, I knew nothing of avocados, kiwi fruit, or basmati rice. The closest a grocery store had to a "ready to eat" dinner was some frozen pizza that barely deserved the name, not the variety of hot, fresh food-to-go found at a typical supermarket today. When we consider what's now available at food palaces like Whole Foods or Fresh Market, or even just at Kroger, their 1970s counterparts seem closer to the Soviet experience than the modern American one. This is part of a longer trend. At the dawn of the 20th century, Ruhlman notes, the average grocery store carried about 200 products. By 1975, it had about 9,000. The number now approaches 50,000. The grocery store of my youth had 5 or 10 chip options; today, chips command an entire aisle. Walk past the dairy cases and consider the varieties of milk, cheese, and eggs, then ask someone in his 50s what his dairy options used to look like. And these new choices are available and affordable even to relatively poor Americans. Food takes up a substantially smaller portion of the average family's budget than it did in the past. The changes don't stop there. At the turn of the 20th century, most people purchased their food from a specialty store. You got your meat from the butcher, your dry goods from the general store, your dairy from someone else. Perhaps your vegetables were homegrown. The idea of a broader "grocery store," let alone a "supermarket," was still decades away. The key early player in this evolution was A&P—the Walmart of the early 20th century in terms of its size, its buying power, and its influence on its competition. A&P's innovations in inventory and management let it dramatically reduce grocery costs for a large group of consumers, much as Walmart has done; it too was vilified for outcompeting mom-and-pop stores in the process. The emergence of a true supermarket—an establishment carrying a wide range of perishable and nonperishable food under [...]

Who Really Held the First Thanksgiving in the United States?

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 12:00:00 -0500

Thanksgiving is a great American tradition. As is disputing the holiday's origins. National mythos portrays the first Thanksgiving as taking place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in celebration of a bountiful harvest. buys into the myth when it refers to "the original 1621 harvest meal"—although it also acknowledges that "for some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States." As a possible contender for the first Thanksgiving on the U.S. mainland, the website cites a 1565 meal of thanks hosted by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé in Florida. It likewise notes an event that took place "on December 4, 1619, when 38 British settlers reached a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia's James River" and "read a proclamation designating the date as 'a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.' " The latter event has given rise to a long-running complaint that Virginia does not get the credit it deserves for kicking off the national holiday. Two years ago retired newspaper executive Graham Woodlief related the origin story (which included an ancestor of his) in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "It all began in the spring of 1618 after four gentlemen had been given a grant, by England's King James I, of 8,000 acres of beautiful land in Virginia on the James River. The four gentlemen were John Throckmorton, George Thorpe, John Smythe, and Richard Berkeley. They formed the Berkeley Company and needed someone to lead the expedition to the New World. "The group chose John Woodlief (and) made him a captain and the first governor of the new colony of Berkeley Hundred. Woodlief prepared for the trip and leased the good ship Margaret... "On Dec. 4, 1619, the ship arrived at its destination, Berkeley Hundred, and the men rowed ashore. Clifford Dowdey wrote in his book 'The Great Plantation': 'The men placed their personal luggage on the hard ground, gazed at the woods enclosing them and listened in complete silence. Then at a command from Captain Woodlief, the men kneeled and said a prayer of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for their safe voyage.' "They did this in accordance with the proclamation they received from the Berkeley Company in England, instructing them, upon arrival, to give thanks and to do so annually and perpetually. The first English Thanksgiving in America had just occurred." Other colonists held feasts of thanksgiving from time to time, Woodlief notes, "but they were spontaneous and one-time events." Thanksgiving at Berkeley took place every year—until 1622, that is, when the Powhatan Indians attacked the settlement and killed 347 of its inhabitants. This put a bit of a damper on things, and the settlement was abandoned. "For three centuries," Washingtonian magazine notes, "Virginia's first Thanksgiving was lost to history." That allowed the Johnny-come-lately crowd up in Plymouth to get their hooks into the national psyche and convince Americans they actually came up with the idea. Not everyone fell for it, though. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued a Thanksgiving proclamation that began, "Over three centuries ago in Plymouth, on Massachusetts Bay, the Pilgrims established the custom of gathering together each year to express their gratitude to God." Kennedy was a Yankee, and didn't know any better. But John Wicker Jr., a former state legislator from Richmond, did—and he took umbrage. He fired off a telegram (like a tweet, only slower) to the White House expressing said umbrage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote back confessing error: "You are quite right and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff... I can assure you the error will not be repeated in the [...]

Thankful for Property Rights on Thanksgiving Day

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 00:15:00 -0500

Ready for Thanksgiving? Before you eat that turkey, I hope you think about why America has turkeys for you to eat. Most people don't know. Everyone's heard about that first Thanksgiving feast—Pilgrims and Indians sharing the harvest. We like the drawings of it we saw in schoolbooks—shared bounty. Fewer people know that before that first feast, the Pilgrims nearly starved. They almost starved because they acted the way some Bernie Sanders fans want people to act. They farmed collectively. But communal farming creates what economists call "the tragedy of the commons." Think about what happens if a bunch of ranchers hold land in common. Everyone brings cattle to graze. While that sounds nice, it also means every rancher has an incentive to bring lots of cattle to the pasture. They bring cow after cow until the pasture is overgrazed -- destroyed. For this week's YouTube video, I repeated an experiment economics teachers sometimes do to demonstrate the tragedy of the commons. I assembled a group of people, put coins on the floor in front of them and said, "I'll give you a dollar for each coin you pick up. But if you leave them down there for a minute, I'll give you two bucks per coin, and then three bucks. Each minute the coins increase in value by a dollar." If the group waited, they'd make more money. Did they wait? No. As soon as I said "Go!" everyone frantically grabbed for coins. No one wanted to wait because someone else would have gotten the money. Collective action makes people more greedy and short-sighted, not less. Then I changed the rules of the game. I divided the floor into segments, so each person had his or her own property. Then we played the game again. This time there was no coin-grabbing frenzy. Now patient people anticipated the future. "I want to reap the most benefit," said one. "[On the previous test] I wanted it now, whereas this is going up, and it's mine." Exactly. When you own property, you want to preserve it, to allow it to keep producing good things. That beneficial pattern disappears under collectivism, even if the collectivists are nice people. The Pilgrims started out sharing their land. When crops were ready to harvest, they behaved like the people in my experiment. Some Pilgrims sneaked out at night and grabbed extra food. Some picked corn before it was fully ready. The result? "By the spring," Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in his diary, "our food stores were used up and people grew weak and thin. Some swelled with hunger." Adding to the problem, when people share the results of your work, some don't work hard. The chance to take advantage of others' joint labor is too tempting. Teenage Pilgrims were especially likely to steal the commune's crops. Had the Pilgrims continued communal farming, this Thursday might be known as "Starvation Day" instead of Thanksgiving. Fortunately, the Pilgrims were led not by Bernie Sanders fans or other commons-loving socialists, but by Bradford, who wrote that he "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could... that they might not still thus languish in misery... After much debate [I] assigned each family a parcel of land... This had very good success, because it made every hand industrious." There's nothing like private ownership to make "every hand industrious." The Pilgrims never returned to shared planting. Owning plots of land allowed them to prosper and have feasts like the ones we'll have Thursday. Private property became the foundation for building the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, a place where people have individual rights instead of group plans forced on everyone. When an entire economy is based on collectivism, like the Soviet Union was, it eventually collapses from ineffici[...]

Brickbat: Aid and Comfort

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) A South Korean court has fined Park Yu-ha, a professor at Sejong University, $8,900 for defaming comfort women, those women who worked at Japanese military brothels during World War II. In her book The Comfort Women of the Empire, Park suggested that some of the women may have willingly prostituted themselves and were not forced into sexual slavery and that some may have even formed emotional bonds with Japanese soldiers.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Turns 50

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:23:00 -0500

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the law that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I've been writing about the CPB for two of its five decades; here's a sampling of those stories: • "With Friends Like These" (July 24, 1997): A paper I wrote for Cato on the ways the CPB has made independent, listener-funded, volunteer-driven community radio stations blander and less accountable to their communities. This is out of date in all sorts of ways, but the history I discuss is still relevant. And there may be some broader lessons in my explanation of a cycle built into the CPB's subsidies: The limited amount of money the state has to offer requires it to discriminate on some rational basis—if the CPB dispensed funds to every small community station in America, it would have to divide its budget so finely that no station would receive enough money to justify the corporation's existence. So the CPB strives to direct its money to the stations with the most powerful signals and the largest measured audiences and shies away from financing more than one outlet in a single market. But the CPB requirements encourage stations to grow and adopt "professional" values, putting further pressure on the CPB's budget and forcing it to further restrict the flow of money, refueling the cycle yet again. If the CPB's budget is expanding anyway—as it did during the Carter years, for example—the cycle might be slowed and the problem concealed. If the budget is contracting, as it is today, the problem only gets worse. Under any circumstances, the professionalization and expansion cycle is built into the federal subsidies; it cannot be eliminated by minor reforms or by putting a friendlier group of bureaucrats in charge. • "It Didn't Begin with Sesame Street" (October 1997): I review Ralph Engelman's book Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Among other things, the article discusses the birth of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it also looks at the handful of public TV stations that existed before the CPB, when some social engineers at the Ford Foundation argued that "educational television" (as it was then known) could be a force for social uplift, "an instrument for the development of community leaders," even "a form of psychotherapy." • "Independent Airwaves" (March 2001): I interview a man with a plan to "restructure public broadcasting as an independent public trust." His group was split between people who wanted a completely independent institution and people who just wanted to rearrange how the government gives broadcasters money. • Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (2001): The CPB isn't the only topic I cover in this book, but it's a significant part of it. • "The Way to Sesame Street" (November 2009): For Sesame Street's 40th birthday, I looked at the complicated social legacy of a show that "reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming." We had to make some cuts to the piece to fit it into a two-page spread; I posted some of the outtakes, including the tale of the time an executive mistook Jim Henson for a member of the Weather Underground, on my personal blog. • "Radio Theater" (February 2011): Republicans have repeatedly threatened to defund the CPB. Not only do these standoffs always end with the institution still standing, but in the long run its budget keeps growing. This article takes a tour through the history of those fights, arguing that the real point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcaster[...]