Ten Books that Changed My Life

Someone posted this prompt on Facebook: what are the ten books that changed your life? Most people just listed ten books, but as I thought about it for a while, I decided that each might benefit from a brief explanation. Anyway, here’s my list:

1.   The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer.

Before I read this book in my junior year in high school I thought that history was boring and meaningless. This book first cured the boring part. It was the first history that I’d read that read like a novel. It was (after the first 100 pages or so) fast paced and full of action. It was also not meaningless, perhaps because a number of my uncles had served in the War. Before reading this book I couldn’t stand history, after reading it I couldn’t get enough of history. I even got a master’s degree in history because of it.

2.   Crime and Human Nature, by James Q. Wilson & Richard Hernstein.

Are people basically good or basically bad? That’s really the wrong question. The right question is: how do people really behave? What do statistics about crime and human behavior tell us about human nature? According to this book, about one third of all young men will commit a crime when they are young, but only about 5 to 10 percent of all males are criminals – susceptible to long term nefarious and illegal behavior – and about 1 to 2 percent of all women (and for women a large percentage of crimes are committed at the behest of men). This means that most people are good most of the time, but it does mean that a few people are really bad. This should influence how we deal with other people, and approach crime control, and has many other public policy implications. But for me this insight changed how I thought about humanity.

3.   Carnage and Culture, by Victor Davis Hanson

Why does Western Society dominate the world? According to Jarred Diamond, in his book Guns Germs and Steel, it is a bit of a fluke. But according to Hanson, who wrote this book in response to Diamond’s book, the reason is because of the Greek tradition (that dominates the Western world) of rational thought, free inquiry, and democracy. It is not because of Guns, Germs, or Steel. It is not a fluke. It was because the West had developed the ability to think honestly about problems and find the best solution. So the West was able to exploit gunpowder (which had been invented in China for entertainment purposes, i.e. fireworks), and exploit printing (which had been invented in China for decorative purposes) to transmit knowledge. The West was able to exploit Guns and Steel. This concept had a significant impact on my views about world history, culture, and political philosophy.

4.   The Autobiography of Maxim Gorki.

This book combines the pathos of Dickens with the joyous boyhood adventures of Mark Twain, but a dash of clear eyed realism from a master Russian realist. I discovered Gorki from Bukowski (see below), and loved his short stories. When you read them, or this autobiography, you will understand why the Russians rebelled, and perhaps get a glimpse of how it descended first in to utter chaos and then into extreme repression.

5.   Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, by Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski blew my mind. I didn’t know you could say those things in print, and in funny and entertaining poetry to boot. Bukowski also introduced me to Gorki in his autobiographical novel “Ham on Rye.”

6.   American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 – 1964, by William Manchester.

Manchester is a brilliant writer, and in this book he had a stake in the game. He felt that General MacArthur saved his life. General Douglas MacArthur was a fascinating guy and lived an amazing life during an epic time in history, so this book covers a lot of ground. I learned about the War in the Pacific (during WWII) from this book. I also learned what it means to chose your battles. MacArthur won in the Pacific by only fighting on those islands that he absolutely needed, and simply ignored the rest. Manchester was a Marine scout in the war and knew that he and probably hundreds of thousands of fellow soldiers (American and Japanese) would have died had MacArthur followed the advice of some and fought on every island.

7.   The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon.

I read a lot of fiction. I might not be obvious from this list, but I do. Somehow in the early 1980’s the more high-brow literary fiction became overly internal, maudlin, and uninteresting and difficult to read. (My sister blames Ray Carver.) This was one of the first modern works of literary fiction that read like an old time action adventure story. It reintroduced my to contemporary literary fiction and showed me what it could do. That said, I still love Graham Green and Thomas Hardy.

8.   Liberating the Gospels, by John Shelby Spong.

To truly understand Christianity you have to understand the Bible, and to understand the Bible you have to understand when, why, and how it was written. Once you understand that, its difficult to believe in ideas like literalism, infallibility, and divinity. Once you understand the development of the Bible, and the development of Christianity, you can see through the fallacies of the views of fundamentalist Christians.

9.   The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, by Timothy Ferris.

Modern political liberalism developed contemporaneously with the scientific revolution. They actually developed hand in hand, with ideas from one feeding ideas in the other. The same ideas of reason, rationality, deduction and free inquiry that drove new ideas in science also drove new ideas in political philosophy. These changes and discoveries also drove the economy. History shows that open, rational thought (i.e. liberalism) leads to scientific advances, democratic government, and a growing economy. (There are shades of Hanson’s Carnage and Culture within,)

10.   Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

This is my favorite novel. I felt that I had to include at least one novel simply because I liked it. And it had to be either Dickens or Hemingway, since those are my favorite writers, and for some reason (see Gorki above) I have a fondness for coming of age stories, so that left Hemingway out (his coming of age stories are all short, and collected as the Nick Adams stories). David Copperfield is a close second, and few literary characters are more memorable that Uriah Heep, but overall I like this best.

What Rhymes with Coblenz?

People have a hard time pronouncing my last name. The o is long, sort of like co-pay or co-pilot.

There are some stupid political attach ads in the Kentucky Senate race asking “what rhymes with Grimes?’ and “what rhymes with Mitch?”

OK. So what rhymes with Coblenz? The only thing I could come up with that rhymes with Mike Coblenz is Micky Dolenz.

Campaign Head shot

Mike Coblenz

Micky Dolenz

Micky Dolenz

A Thousand Laws

A Thousand Laws

It is a standard talking point of supporters of gun rights when they oppose new gun laws: there are already thousands of gun laws on the books. Why not enforce those? NRA Executive Vice President, and chief spokesman, Wayne LaPierre said “we need to enforce the thousands of gun laws that are currently on the books” in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 30, 2013.

The implication of this statement is that all of the gun laws on the books deal with public safety. But is this really true? Not really. Let me give you an example. Kentucky, like most states, has a variety of hunting seasons. For example there is a short “muzzleloader” deer season, in which hunters using old-fashioned muzzle loading weapons are allowed to hunt. There is a law that governs this season, so this is a gun law. But is it a gun law that implicates public safety? And does the possible non-enforcement of this law harm the general public, or just deer hunters (and of course deer). There is also a season for modern weapons, and according to Kentucky law this cannot be a weapon that fires more than one round per pull of the trigger. (301 KAR 2:172. Subsections (10) & (11). )

Kentucky Revised Statute Chapter 150 deals with the management of fish and wildlife in Kentucky, and this chapter contains numerous statutes that deal with weapons and firearms. There is a provision that allows conservation officers to carry weapons, there is a provision that prevents the discharge of a weapon across a public roadway, and by a person under the influence of alcohol. Clearly some of these provisions deal with public safety issues, but others deal more specifically with hunting management issues.  

Clearly there are many gun laws that do deal directly with public safety, such as gun free zone laws, and criminal penalty enhancement laws that increase the criminal penalty for the use of a weapon during the commission of a crime. But just as clearly there are many “gun laws” that have no direct bearing on public safety.

The next time an opponent of gun laws says that there are already thousands of gun laws that are not enforced I would challenge them to provide a comprehensive list of those laws, explain which ones have a direct bearing on public safety and which don’t, and quantify when and how they are enforced or not enforced. Until they do, these statements are little more than hot air.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

If there’s one thing America is about, its freedom. Many politicians use “freedom” as a mantra, a word repeated so much that it has nearly lost all meaning. Everyone agrees that nothing is more important than freedom, but what does that really mean? When is a person free?

A rough definition is that we are free when there are no external constraints limiting our ability to do as we please. In this regard, and in a very real sense, the freest person is the homeless guy living under a bridge. No job, no family, no home, no responsibilities, no ties that bind, free to do whatever he chooses, free to be whoever he wants.

But when we think of that homeless guy, when we see him pan-handling at an intersection or pushing a shopping cart full of his worldly possessions, do we envy his freedom? Or do we pity him?

No one is more free than a person without a job, without a family, without a home.

The person without a job never has to worry about a boss telling him what to do, doesn’t have to be at work at a certain time, doesn’t have his days and hours predetermined for him. When the man with no job wakes in the morning, the day is his and his alone.

If freedom is the lack of external constraint, then the person without a job is freer—far freer—than the person with a job.

But a job is not merely a burden, a job gives us a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that we are contributing to society. It also provides us with the money—the wherewithal—to do things. The man with no job may, in theory, be able to go anywhere and do anything, but without money his ability to do those things is seriously limited. He is free in theory, but lacks freedom in reality.  

The person without a family is unconstrained by familial responsibilities, his evenings unburdened by family meals, his weekends free of family visits and the drama that often entails. The man without a family is never hectored or henpecked, he has no reason to stay, and no one stopping him from going.

If freedom is the lack of bonds, then the man with no family is the freest man of all. 

But a family is not just a constraint, it is a source of comfort and connection and solace. Most of us gladly trade a bit of our freedom for that connection. And most of us imagine ourselves adrift without those familial connections.

The person without a home does not have to worry about rent or mortgage, he is unconcerned with taxes, upkeep, or maintenance. His weekends are never filled with lawns to mow, leaves to rake, snow to shovel.

But we define ourselves, to some degree, by where we live, by our neighborhood. A home is often more, much more, than a place to live, it is our stake in society.

The reality is that we don’t envy the homeless guy living under a bridge, we pity him. Few people seeing the homeless comment on their freedom. In fact, those who are the most likely to talk about freedom—conservative politicians and pundits—are also the most likely to denigrate the homeless. Words like “bum” or “moocher” flow easily from their lips.

  The reality is that we judge people by their stake in society. We judge people by their willingness to trade their freedom for responsibilities and social connections. We praise people for a job well done, we congratulate them on their successful children, in some neighborhoods we even give them awards for their well-manicured lawns.

Responsibility, not freedom, is the foundation of society. We praise freedom in the abstract, but when push comes to shove, what we value most is a willingness to give up some of that individual freedom for benefit of society.   

Even FOX agrees: the stock market does better under Democrats

I was doing some research on GDP growth per administration and I came across the following news report from Fox Business News. I’m not sure if it made it onto FOX Television or not. My guess is not, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, the headline (which is also the link) says it all:


History Shows Stocks, GDP Outperform Under Democrats

Income Inequality and Economic Growth

Turns out that excess income inequality can hamper growth. That, at least, is the claim of a recent book from the Brookings Institute. Here is an Opinion piece by one of the authors in Reuters. Income Inequality. 

This is a topic that deserves much more discussion, and I’ll get to it soon, I promise.

I think the idea is that when fewer consumers have fewer dollars, because more is accumulated at the top, there is lower economic demand. That seems obvious, but will require more analysis.

River Traffic and Global Warming

According to recent news stories, the Mississippi River is at record low levels, and this has the potential to stop the movement of shipping on the river. This will have a major impact on the transportation of bulk goods, which are shipped up and down the river. The reason the river is so low? Lack of rainfall, obviously, but this lack of rain fall is the product of changing weather patterns. And changing weather patters are the result of global warming. So we can add the cost of shipping to the ledger of global warming.

Here’s the Time Magazine Story: Mississippi River Near Record Low.

The Beginning of the End of Trickle-Down Economics

Economists long ago gave up on the idea of Trickle down economics, or the idea that you cut taxes on the rich to spur economic growth, and this growth at the top will trickle down to the bottom. Even many Republicans have turned on the idea, including David Stockman, who was President Reagan’s budget director. But now one prominent Republican elected official – Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana – has publicly disagreed with the theory.

Here’s the story from Business Week.

This is certainly a good thing for sanity in public policy, though it might be a bad thing in electoral politics. Only time will tell.

The Beginning of the End of Trickle-Down Economics

Economists long ago gave up on the idea of Trickle down economics, or the idea that you cut taxes on the rich to spur economic growth, and this growth at the top will trickle down to the bottom. Even many Republicans have turned on the idea, including David Stockman, who was President Reagan’s budget director. But now one prominent Republican elected official – Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana – has publicly disagreed with the theory.

Here’s the story from Business Week.

This is certainly a good thing for sanity in public policy, though it might be a bad thing in electoral politics. Only time will tell.