Which Country’s National Anthem Ends by Questioning Its Citizens’ Bravery and Freedom?

(p. 9) Mark Clague knows everything about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” . . . .

. . .

The lyrics were composed by the lawyer, politician and amateur poet Francis Scott Key while held prisoner by the British in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812.

. . .

Clague even creates a detailed military map of the engagement to demonstrate how “perilous” that fight really was. The first verse, the only one now sung, ends, as every child knows, with a question:

“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

In the complete version, Key details his relief at finally seeing the flag, and rejoices in the promise of future victories. But those three verses are rarely sung, and leaving the question unanswered might be the secret to the song’s hold on the American public. It is not an anthem that, like “La Marseillaise,” calls for our enemy’s “impure blood to water our fields.” Rather, it’s a song for a country that is still in the fight, for its existence and its ideals, and it offers an invitation to any and all — the “you” of the first line — . . .

. . .

. . ., Clague has no patience for anyone who demands . . . reverence from others, . . . . But he reveres the anthem itself, and he makes the strongest case for the song in his detailed analysis of what he calls its most successful modern rendition, Whitney Houston’s performance at the 1991 Super Bowl.

Houston’s version, though, is transformed by artistry and personality and musical genius. She has changed the time signature to 4/4, and imbues the melody with the ornamentation of jazz, blues and, most important, gospel. By the time she gets that highest “FREEEE” she not only reaches but goes above it, expressing ownership of the word and the gesture. While the lyrics may remain as written, the meaning of a crucial word in the first line — “you” — has been wrenched from past to present to be addressed, at last, to all of us.

So: Does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and home of the brave? Not yet, perhaps. But listening to a descendant of the enslaved claiming the song of a slaver, you want to believe it someday might.

For the full review, see:

Peter Sagal. “High Notes.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 3, 2022): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 22, 2022, and has the title “Our Flag Was Still There.”)

The book under review is:

Clague, Mark. O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of “the Star-Spangled Banner”. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.

The “Perceptually Divergent” Are Open to How Species Differ in Their Sensory Trade-Offs

(p. C1) That I found myself surprised at so many moments while reading “An Immense World,” Ed Yong’s new book about animal senses, speaks to his exceptional gifts as a storyteller — . . .

. . .

(p. C4) Yong’s book is funny and elegantly written, mercifully restrained when it comes to jargon, though he does introduce a helpful German word that he uses throughout: Umwelt. It means “environment,” but a little more than a century ago the Baltic German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll used it to refer more specifically to that sensory bubble — an animal’s perceptual world.

. . .

The human Umwelt will necessarily shape how we apprehend other Umwelten. “An Immense World” inevitably refers to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s foundational essay on this struggle, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

But some humans might be more open-minded than others. A number of the sensory biologists Yong meets are perceptually divergent, seeing color differently or having difficulty remembering familiar faces: “Perhaps people who experience the world in ways that are considered atypical,” he writes, “have an intuitive feeling for the limits of typicality.”

When it comes to sight, there’s a trade-off between sensitivity and resolution; humans tend to have extraordinary visual acuity during the day but have a much harder time seeing at night, while animals with better night vision don’t register the crisp images at a distance that we do. “Senses always come at a cost,” Yong writes. “No animal can sense everything well.” The world inundates us with stimuli. Registering some of it is taxing enough; fully processing the continuous deluge of it would be overwhelming.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “An Enthralling Tour Of Nonhuman Reality.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 22, 2022, and has the title “‘An Immense World’ Is a Thrilling Tour of Nonhuman Perception.”)

The book under review is:

Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

Key Healthcare Issue Is Not How to Divvy Up a Fixed Pie, But How to Grow the Pie Through New Cures

(p. A23) . . . in the second phase of my illness, once I knew roughly what was wrong with me and the problem was how to treat it, I very quickly entered a world where the official medical consensus had little to offer me. It was only outside that consensus, among Lyme disease doctors whose approach to treatment lacked any C.D.C. or F.D.A. imprimatur, that I found real help and real hope.

And this experience made me more libertarian in various ways, more skeptical not just of our own medical bureaucracy, but of any centralized approach to health care policy and medical treatment.

This was true even though the help I found was often expensive and it generally wasn’t covered by insurance; like many patients with chronic Lyme, I had to pay in cash. But if I couldn’t trust the C.D.C. to recognize the effectiveness of these treatments, why would I trust a more socialized system to cover them? After all, in socialized systems cost control often depends on some centralized authority — like Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence or the controversial, stillborn Independent Payment Advisory Board envisioned by Obamacare — setting rules or guidelines for the system as a whole. And if you’re seeking a treatment that official expertise does not endorse, I wouldn’t expect such an authority to be particularly flexible and open-minded about paying for it.

Quite the reverse, in fact, given the trade-off that often shows up in health policy, where more free-market systems yield more inequalities but also more experiments, while more socialist systems tend to achieve their egalitarian advantages at some cost to innovation. Thus many European countries have cheaper prescription drugs than we do, but at a meaningful cost to drug development. Americans spend obscene, unnecessary-seeming amounts of money on our system; America also produces an outsize share of medical innovations.

And if being mysteriously sick made me more appreciative of the value of an equalizing floor of health-insurance coverage, it also made me aware of the incredible value of those breakthroughs and discoveries, the importance of having incentives that lead researchers down unexpected paths, even the value of the unusual personality types that become doctors in the first place. (Are American doctors overpaid relative to their developed-world peers? Maybe. Am I glad that American medicine is remunerative enough to attract weird Type A egomaniacs who like to buck consensus? Definitely.)

Whatever everyday health insurance coverage is worth to the sick person, a cure for a heretofore-incurable disease is worth more. The cancer patient has more to gain from a single drug that sends the disease into remission than a single-payer plan that covers a hundred drugs that don’t.

. . .

. . ., the weakness of the liberal focus on equalizing cost and coverage is the implicit sense that medical care is a fixed pie in need of careful divvying, rather than a zone where vast benefits await outside the realm of what’s already available.

. . .

. . . once you’ve become part of the American pattern of trying anything, absolutely anything in order to feel better — and found that spirit essential to your own recovery — the idea of medical cost control as a primary policy goal inevitably loses some of its allure, and the American way of medical spending looks a little more defensible. To just try things without counting the cost can absolutely run to excess. But sometimes what seems like waste on the technocrat’s ledger is the lifeline that a desperate patient needs.

For the full commentary, see:

Ross Douthat. “Being Sick Changed My Views on Health Care.” The New York Times (Thursday, January 20, 2022): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 19, 2022, and has the title “How Being Sick Changed My Health Care Views.”)

The commentary quoted above is related to the author’s book:

Douthat, Ross. The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery. New York: Convergent Books, 2021.

Mamet Was Opened to Friedman, Hayek, and Sowell by a Guy Who “Wasn’t Strident or Arrogant”

I often wonder what sort of person, making what sort of argument, is most able to convince those who start out disagreeing. My mentors Ben Rogge and Deirdre McCloskey exemplify the attitude that impressed David Mamet in the passage quoted below. (On the other hand, Murray Rothbard, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand convinced a lot of people, and each of them could sometimes be strident. I wonder still.)

(p. A11) . . . I received a galley copy of the playwright David Mamet’s “Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of Free Lunch,” published Tuesday. The book is a collection of essays written over the past two years on an array of cultural and political topics: pandemic zealotry, Donald Trump, terrorism, California’s punitive tax code, Christianity and Judaism, Broadway and the movies. The essays are by turns witty, insightful, affecting and cryptic. What struck me most about the book, though, was how superbly out of place its author must be in the eminent environs of his chosen industry.

. . .

Mr. Mamet announced a turn to the political right in a 2008 essay for the Village Voice, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’ ” but he was a black sheep long before then. His 1992 play “Oleanna,” for instance, features a male academic whose life and career are ruined by a calculating female student’s spurious accusation of sexual harassment.

Was there a moment when he decided to break ranks altogether? “I met a guy at my synagogue here maybe 20 years ago,” he says. “He was talking about Milton Friedman and [Friedrich] Hayek and Thomas Sowell. It didn’t make any sense to me, but I was impressed by his attitude. He wasn’t strident or arrogant. It was that guy’s attitude that impressed me.”

The man lent Mr. Mamet some books by these authors. “I said to him, ‘Good, I’ll read them. But,’ I said, ‘when my friends come over, I’ll have to hide them.’ He said: ‘I don’t.’ And that changed my life. What was I saying? Did I really think I had to hide books from my friends? How sick was I? It was a Road to Damascus moment.”

. . .

Woke signaling, blind compliance with public-health authoritarianism, deference to theater critics and tyrannical city officials—Mr. Mamet doesn’t play along. I’m reminded of the line spoken by Richard Roma, the aggressive and highly successful real-estate salesman in “Glengarry Glen Ross” played by Al Pacino in the 1992 film adaptation. “I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion,” Roma says. “If everyone thinks one thing, then I say bet the other way.”

For the full interview, see:

Barton Swaim, interviewer. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; A Defiant Scribe in the Age of Conformity.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 9, 2022): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 8, 2022, and has the title “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Opinion: David Mamet Is a Defiant Scribe in the Age of Conformity.”)

Mamet’s recent book, mentioned in the interview above, is:

Mamet, David. Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch. New York: Broadside Books, 2022.

Art Diamond Discusses “Policy Hurdles in the Fight Against Aging” on Caleb Brown’s Cato Daily Podcast

Caleb Brown, of the Cato Institute, posted an interview with me yesterday (May 27, 2022) on his “Cato Daily Podcast.” The topic, “Policy Hurdles in the Fight against Aging,” is related to a chapter in my book-in-progress on medical entrepreneurship that is to be entitled Less Costs, More Cures: Unbinding Medical Entrepreneurs.

Hong Kong’s “Unofficials” Begged Britain to Bargain Better with Beijing’s Communists

(p. C4) In the 1980s and 1990s, the political scientist Steve Tsang conducted dozens of interviews with industrialists, bankers and lawyers appointed as unofficial members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council or Executive Council. Known as the “Unofficials,” they were advisers to the British government. The British Official Secrets Act prevented them from speaking about the negotiations during their lifetimes, but the interviews restore a vital, often anguished Hong Kong voice to the historical record.

. . .

The Joint Declaration provided for Hong Kong to be handed back to China in 1997 with its capitalist system intact and a Chinese pledge that its way of life should continue for 50 years. Hong Kong was to hold elections for its Legislative Council and chief executive, but there was no clear timeline for democracy or mechanism to ensure Chinese compliance. “If we cannot devise the right political system, then Hong Kong may not survive,” Chung warned, telling the British that “the Chinese concept of an agreement was worthless.”

Thatcher’s response to them, in January 1984, was frosty: “The Chinese could walk into Hong Kong at present but had not done so. We had to negotiate with the cards that we possessed.” . . .

In June, Chung traveled to Beijing with two other Unofficials to express their concerns directly to Deng Xiaoping: that in the future Hong Kong might be governed from Beijing instead of being administered by Hong Kongers; that Chinese officials might not accept Hong Kong’s lifestyle; and that China’s future leaders might follow “extreme left policies.”

. . .

Would it have made any difference if more attention had been paid to the Unofficials? In 2019, as protests roiled the city, I put this question to Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten. “I think it might have done, actually,” he said. He recalled that British policy in the 1980s “was driven by officials with only the most vestigial, shadowy input from ministers. The Cradocks and others, they didn’t listen to people in Hong Kong. They knew what Hong Kong required, and what Hong Kong, they thought, required was whatever would be acceptable with China for a quiet life.”

The dominant narrative in the British press in the run-up to the handover in 1997 was one of an honorable retreat. The Unofficials tell a different story: One of political expediency that set in motion the foreseeable—and foreseen—unraveling of one of the world’s greatest cities.

For the full essay, see:

Louisa Lim. “The Unofficial Story of the Handover of Hong Kong.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 23, 2022): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date April 22, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay is adapted from Lim’s book:

Lim, Louisa. Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong. New York: Riverhead Books, 2022.

Warren Harding Fostered Economic Growth by Reducing Government

(p. A15) Poor Warren G. Harding, burdened with the distinction of being America’s pre-eminent presidential bottom-dweller. In surveys on White House performance, Harding invariably ranks dead last, with almost no prospect that he will ever climb the rankings as others have done—Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, or Ulysses S. Grant.

Historians have variously described Harding as “a prime example of incompetence, sloth, and feeble good nature,” “the most inept president” of his century, “lazy,” “a black mark in American history” and “quite the bumbler.” Is this an accurate appraisal? Ryan S. Walters answers with a defiant no. In “The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding,” the author even indulges in a few flights of outrage at what he considers the “rumors, lies, smears, and innuendo” that have been “used to wreck” Harding’s reputation.

. . .

When Harding became president in 1921, the nation was struggling through one of its greatest crisis periods, beset by soaring inflation followed by debilitating deflation, bloody racial and labor strife, ominous episodes of domestic terrorism, and the fallout from Woodrow Wilson’s harsh wartime assaults on civil liberties. Harding’s first priority was the economy—the gross national product was down 17%, stock values were cut nearly in half, unemployment was at 12% and farmers were devastated by plunging prices. Harding reduced government spending, slashed individual taxes (the marginal rate had reached a high of 77%), increased tariff rates, and shrank the size and intrusiveness of the federal government.

All this flouted the progressivism that had dominated American politics since Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency of 1901-09. But Harding’s efforts worked, setting in motion a decade of economic expansion unequaled in American history. The economy grew at an average of 7% a year between 1922 and 1927, and the nation’s wealth soared to $103 billion in 1929 from $70 billion in 1921.

. . .

Harding was a man of little intellectual sophistication, with a gentle nature, hardly any pretense and almost no guile—in other words, the kind of man who is often underestimated and easily ridiculed. But he harbored serious convictions and a degree of common sense that served him well.

For the full review, see:

Robert W. Merry. “BOOKSHELF; A President Revisited.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 4, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 3, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Jazz Age President’ Review: Correcting the Record.”)

The book under review is:

Walters, Ryan S. The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Washington, D.C.: Regnery History, 2022.

Stewart Brand Read Rand and Koestler, and Inspired Steve Jobs

At the end of Steve Jobs’s famous commencement address at Stanford, he quoted Stewart Brand’s famous advice at the end of his Last Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

(p. A15) When I first met Stewart Brand at an upscale ideas festival, I expected to engage with an aging beatnik or hippie, the tree-hugging, whale-saving environmentalist I associated with the “Whole Earth Catalog”—that ’60s-era collectanea of books, resources, tools, technologies and assorted products that became the bible of a techno-utopia DIY movement focused on self-sufficiency, education and ecology. But I found Mr. Brand more like Elon Musk than Timothy Leary, and was astonished to witness him make the best argument I’d ever heard for including nuclear power in plans to replace fossil fuels.

. . .

Although many contemporaries dropped acid for the pure experience, Mr. Brand said he took LSD (and other psychedelics) because he hoped they would accentuate his appreciation of beauty, especially that found in the photographic skills he was developing. For him psychedelics were a tool of creativity: “When you design a tool,” he wrote in 1971, “the best you can do is fashion a prototype and hand it over to the local evolutionary system: ‘Here, try this.’ ”

His model was Arthur Koestler’s “bisociation,” the blending of unrelated concepts into something new. Mr. Brand’s ability to discern unlikely complements, along with the organizational skills he’d honed in the military, helped bring numerous projects to fruition: His imagination had him bounce from one to the next; his pragmatic propensities put them into effect. Decades after the “Whole Earth Catalog” project, for example, Mr. Brand published “Whole Earth Discipline,” which proposed integrating nuclear power, geoengineering, genetic engineering, wildlife restoration, species protection and other environmental technologies aimed at creating a sustainable future for life on Earth. He’s a solutions guy, not a New Age guru—his ability to convene like-minded innovators has resulted in the WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), the Global Business Network for futurists and business leaders, the Long Now Foundation, and Revive & Restore, a project to bring back extinct species like passenger pigeons and woolly mammoths.

As for Mr. Brand’s politics, he’s off the spectrum, mostly identifying as a small-l libertarian (he read Ayn Rand at Stanford), committed to bottom-up democracy, with an aversion to orthodoxy of any sort, which means he must adapt when the marginal becomes the mainstream, as in his shift from environmentalism to conservationism, from organic foods to GMOs, and from anti- to pro-nuclear power.

For the full review, see:

Michael Shermer’. “BOOKSHELF; A Man In Whole.” The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, March 29, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 28, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Whole Earth’ Review: A Man in Whole.”)

The book under review is:

Markoff, John. Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

John List Shows Limitations of Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)

(p. A15) John List’s “The Voltage Effect” is marketed as a generic business title on how and whether to scale up an idea or product. Mr. List, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, explores why some ideas attain “voltage” and catch fire while others die out. This angle suggests that it will be another book about how to turn that great invention in your garage into the next Hewlett-Packard. But Mr. List is far too thoughtful to write something gimmicky or simple.

. . .

“The Voltage Effect” is a fine business book, though in many ways it works better as a meditation on the shortcomings of our increasingly data-driven world. The business community and academia have been taken over by data science. Mr. List seemingly argues that good and helpful data analysis may not scale well. It takes tremendous skill and talent to distinguish a scalable idea from one that is doomed to flop when you are working with a limited set of data and have an incentive to overhype your results. Data is the new currency; companies are presumed to have an unfair advantage if they have access to more of it. What gets less attention is the shortage of people who know how to make sense of statistical experiments and generalize them to a larger population.

The fields of business, policy and economics have all become enthralled with Randomized Control Trials. These are statistical experiments in which researchers take two populations: a “treatment” group that may be given cash or some other incentive and a “control” group that is not given anything. Researchers then observe any difference in outcomes from the experiment to make policy recommendations. RCTs can be a useful tool. But taking Mr. List’s lessons to heart, you see how limited they are.

Even the best-designed experiment may not give you insights that scale. For example, studies have found that it is more effective to give people cash in Kenya than to distribute aid through arcane development programs. The mantra in the development community has become “just give people money.” But just because cash is better than aid in Kenya, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a Universal Basic Income will work well in California.

For the full review, see:

Allison Schrager. “BOOKSHELF; Do We Have a Winner?” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, March 28, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 27, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Voltage Effect’ Review: Do We Have a Winner?”)

The book under review is:

List, John A. The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale. New York: Currency, 2022.

Gary Becker Foresaw a Cure for Obesity that Daniel Kahneman Wrote Was “Implausible”

I have found much of value in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. But the following passage is not included in what I value.

A famous example of the Chicago approach is titled A Theory of Rational Addiction; it explains how a rational agent with a strong preference for intense and immediate gratification may make the rational decision to accept future addiction as a consequence. I once heard Gary Becker, one of the authors of that article, who is also a Nobel laureate of the Chicago school, argue in a lighter vein, but not entirely as a joke, that we should consider the possibility of explaining the so-called obesity epidemic by people’s belief that a cure for diabetes will soon become available. He was making a valuable point: when we observe people acting in ways that seem odd, we should first examine the possibility that they have a good reason to do what they do. Psychological interpretations should only be invoked when the reasons become implausible—which Becker’s explanation of obesity probably is.

Source: Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 412.

Gary Becker is vindicated again:

(p. A16) An experimental drug has enabled people with obesity or who are overweight to lose about 22.5 percent of their body weight, about 52 pounds on average, in a large trial, the drug’s maker announced on Thursday.

The company, Eli Lilly, has not yet submitted the data for publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal or presented them in a public setting. But the claims nonetheless amazed medical experts.

“Wow (and a double Wow!)” Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, chief executive of Verve Therapeutics, a company focusing on heart disease drugs, wrote in a tweet. Drugs like Eli Lilly’s, he added, are “truly going to revolutionize the treatment of obesity!!!”

Dr. Kathiresan has no ties to Eli Lilly or to the drug.

. . .

The Eli Lilly study lasted 72 weeks and involved 2,539 participants. Many qualified as obese, while others were overweight but also had such risk factors as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease or obstructive sleep apnea.

They were divided into four groups. All received diet counseling to reduce their calorie intake by about 500 a day.

One group was randomly assigned to take a placebo, while the other three received doses of tirzepatide ranging from 5 milligrams to 15 milligrams. Patients injected themselves with the drug once a week.

. . .

The medications are among a new class of drugs called incretins, which are naturally occurring hormones that slow stomach emptying, regulate insulin and decrease appetite. The side effects include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But most patients tolerate or are not bothered by these effects.

For the full story, see:

Gina Kolata. “Experimental Obesity Drug Produces 20% Weight Loss.” The New York Times (Friday, April 29, 2022): A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 1, 2022, and has the title “Patients Taking Experimental Obesity Drug Lost More Than 50 Pounds, Maker Claims.” Where there is a slight difference in wording between the online and the print versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Kahneman’s book is:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.