Briefly noted: “Honor Thy Father,” “After the Ivory Tower Falls,” and “2034”

* Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese: The takeaway may still be “the mafia is bad and so is crime.” Rising in the mafia is hard for many reasons, one being that a criminal needs only to screw up once to be convicted, while the police and prosecutors can screw up many times and still in some sense come out ahead. Honor Thy Father was published in 1971, and it covers an even earlier era; by 1971, a sense of elegy and things passing or being better in the old days already pervades the mafia story. The Sopranos comes out in 1999 and hits the same themes. Maybe all mafia stories have to concern a mythic past: few are set in whenever the mafia’s heyday—perhaps the 19th Century—may have been. The mafia reality is too tawdry for anything but the good days to have been in the past.

There’s much talk about inheritance—”among the inheritors [of the old-world, Italian mafia and mafia practices] were such men as Frank Labruzzo and Bill Bonanno, who now, in the mid-1960s, in an age of space and rockets, were fighting in a feudal war.” “A feudal war,” but with pistols and other firearms: the future may have been there, but it wasn’t evenly distributed. One day, will people be fighting feudal wars in space? Little about engineering or engineers appears in Honor Thy Father: the most important work of the 1930 to 1970 period was happening in California, at Intel and similar companies, though this wasn’t universally recognized at the time—which may make us: where is the most-important, least-recognized work happening today?

Other descriptions in Honor Thy Father remind us of cultural and other chanage; Bonanno “conveyed to his children his disapproval of tattletales. If they saw their brothers, sisters, or cousins doing something wrong, he had said, it was improper for them to go talebearing to adults, adding that nobody had respect for a stool pigeon, not even those who gained by such information.” Many modern institutions are obsessed with “talebearing” and encourage stool-pigeoning (if you’ll forgive the verbing of nouns). Many of the crimes aren’t crimes: the numbers racket is now the lotto (“If the lawmakers would legitimize numbers betting it would hurt business because it would deprive customers of that satisfactory sense of having beaten the system”), and loan sharking has been subsumed by the payday loan industry. Prostitution is still formally illegal but has moved online, where it’s sufficiently out of sight and to be out of mind.

Monotony, boredom, loneliness: these words recur. Whatever glamor one might infer in the mob life, it’s absent in Bonanno’s life, apart I guess from the glamor of high stakes: most of us aren’t shot if we do our jobs poorly, which is good for quality of life but bad for dramatic tension. Most of us can recover from most mistakes, and a “cutthroat industry” is a metaphor.

* After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It by Will Bunch: If there’s a message to After the Ivory Tower Falls, it’s “conditions change.” What makes sense in one set of conditions, won’t in another: college made sense for most people between 1945 and the 1990s. By the 2000s, growing costs started to change the appeal to the marginal student; Bunch’s tone may also stem from him being a journalist, a field that’s shed about half of its jobs since 2000, and declining fields feel very different from growing ones. I know, because I’ve foolishly pursued work in some declining fields, while other friends work for tech companies.

Much of the “everyone must go to college” mantra comes from slight of hand: college graduates earn more than non-graduates; that means college caused the earnings jump. Stated so bluntly, anyone familiar with how correlation is not causation sees the problem: trying to get everyone to go to college winds up weakening the value of the college-degree signal, and, at the same time, most schools are strongly incentivized by the student-loan program to get as many students in their doors as possible. Prices rise, but schools that sell low-value degrees have no feedback mechanism discouraging them from that behavior—a key point in Paying for the Party (which isn’t cited).

Baumol’s Cost Disease isn’t cited by Bunch either, or Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which identifies Baumol’s Cost Disease as a main cause of rising costs. So what do we get? A lot of mood affiliation. In Bunch’s telling, nonprofit colleges bear surprisingly little responsibility for their own predatory behavior. Consider this example: “When faith in the American way of college began to wane after years of runaway tuition, Wall Street smelled blood in the water.” Okay, we have a metaphor around “faith” in the first part of the sentence, but then we have a metaphor around a shark attack in the second? Why would waning “faith” lead to the smell of “blood in the water?” The confusing imagery is part of After the Ivory Tower Falls‘ general confusion; it tends to conflate things that should be separate and separate things that should be conflated. The book speaks to the race for entering exclusionary schools, and yet there’s almost nothing about the most expensive cost for the vast majority of households—housing itself. Without looking at the rising cost of housing over the last 50 years, the rising sense of precarity and competitiveness doesn’t make sense. The cost of living feels higher than it used to be because it is higher than it used to be; Bunch’s grandmother could move to California at a time when exclusionary zoning hadn’t made California unaffordable to most people. We used to have abundance; now we have legally-mandated scarcity, and perhaps that should change. The champions of “diversity” in highly exclusionary schools and enclaves are so unintentionally comedic because of how vigorously they speak about diversity while supporting policies that cause and ensure the exact opposite, while never noticing the contradiction. One form of comedy is saying one thing while doing another.

We see data like “Nearly 40 percent of full-time undergraduates who enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year accumulated some debt but did not have a degree after six years, said Mark Huelsman, the director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.” While schools like Purdue hold down costs and increase value, many others don’t. College is a huge financial and life danger, in a way that it wasn’t in the middle of the 20th Century, but Bunch doesn’t want to foreground the way colleges have contributed.

Some students do really well: those who major in technical subjects like computer science or engineering, especially at state schools with relatively low tuition. Many others don’t; even in expensive, exclusionary schools, it’s not obvious that the payoff is worthwhile, compared to less-expensive schools, particularly for non-geniuses; if you’re doing math 55 at Harvard, great. If you’re doing sociology, is it great? Those graduates will probably be fine, albeit at high tuition costs.

More could be said, but why bother? There is a better book in After the Ivory Tower Falls, but mood affiliation and too little data stops it from appearing.

* 2034: A Novel of the Next World War: Not terribly well written; on the first page, for example, we follow captain Sarah Hunt, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 21: “On a recent sleepless night, she had studied her logbooks and totaled up all the days she had spent traversing the deep ocean, out of sight of land. It added up to nearly nine years. Her memory darted back and forth across those long years, to her watch-standing days as an ensign…” “[O]ut of sight of land” should be removed—”the deep ocean” implies it—and “those long years” should be removed too, since they’re also implied. Expect more of the same, though the plot is interesting: events in the South China Sea and Strait of Hormuz lead to war between the U.S. and China. Spoilers ahead, but the plot deals with the Chinese magically being able to blind U.S. electronic warfare systems—no plausible mechanism for this capability is proposed, unless I missed it, which is possible—and then the U.S. has to resort to older aircraft and systems that aren’t so electronic. This romantic anachronism is like dreaming of a cavalry charge succeeding in World War I. India is the eventual kingmaker; the word “victor” can’t really apply to anyone in a large war, though if there is one, it’s India. As with Tom Clancy novels, the book celebrates diversity in that anyone on the U.S. side can contribute to fighting the CCP.

2034 would make a promising movie—all those visuals of flight decks and missiles—but China now controls Hollywood, so the book will remain the book, unless Peter Thiel wants to fund it. He’s probably not a Story’s Story reader, although you never know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: