I’ll Be Short: Essentials for a Decent Working Society by Robert B. Reich.
Former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich first gained notice in the 1980s as a champion of “neoliberalism.” The term was never clear. Neoliberals generally took the same stands as paleoliberals and mesoliberals, except that they uttered words such as “high-tech.” Their distinguishing trait was a grating smugness, which helped sink the presidential hopes of their leading political figure, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
Republicans have held the Boston statehouse ever since Dukakis left, and now Reich is seeking the Democratic nomination to reclaim it for his party. I’ll Be Short is a campaign manifesto of sorts, a cut-and-paste from other writings. The title refers both to the book’s brevity and the author’s diminutive stature—and is just about the only light note in a heavy-handed statement of party dogma.
Corporations rule the government, he says. “After burying Washington in campaign contributions, Enron got exactly what it wanted.” No, what Enron most wanted was ratification of the Kyoto Accords, which would have enabled it to profit from emissions trading. But never mind: mentioning the Great Corporate Satan gives him an opening to lay out the old agenda of more workplace regulation.
In his eagerness to become a commander in the class war, Reich leaves logic behind. On the book’s first page, he notes ominously that most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes. On the second page, he blames income-tax cuts for the coming crunch in social security, forgetting that the system relies entirely on payroll taxes.
Although Reich is running for governor, he spends most of the book on national issues outside state jurisdiction. The exception is education policy. His diagnosis—”not nearly enough money”—is as false as it is trite. Real spending per pupil has gone way up in recent years. The problem lies with teacher unions that stifle reforms, but Reich fears to take them on.
Cliché follows cliché. He attacks “trickle-down economics” and the “Ozzie and Harriet” stereotype of family values. He even damns “three-martini lunches,” not realizing that they died with Dean Martin.
Reich is a nimble thinker capable of much better work. Here, alas, he produces a diatribe that is not only short but slight.
—John J. Pitney Jr., Claremont McKenna College
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Every Handgun Is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns by Josh Sugarmann.
Josh Sugarmann, founder of the anti-gun Violence Policy Center, argues that handguns cannot be anything other than a force for evil, and that nothing less than a nationwide ban will undo that evil. Hardly a new argument, but the appearance of John Lott’s hugely popular More Guns, Less Crime a few years ago made the restatement of the anti-gun case urgently necessary. On its face, the argument is absurd, ignoring the fact that 99 percent of handguns will never be used for a criminal act, and that many will be used to deter crime. And the case against handguns gets weaker by the moment: Michael Bellesiles, whom Sugarmann cites as an authority, whose book, Arming America, stands exposed as a fraud, and the Second Amendment is increasingly understood to invoke an individual rather than collective right. Accidental deaths and injuries from handguns continue to drop. U.S. cities with handgun bans in effect (Chicago and D.C.) vie annually for the title of murder capital. Anti-handgun lawsuits are being thrown out, and 44 states have now passed right-to-carry laws. Those states aren’t experiencing a rise in handgun crime, but England—where handguns were banned in 1997—is seeing a spectacular increase. So buy this book. Then take it to the nearest range and put it out of its misery.
—Daniel C. Palm, Azusa Pacific University
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Keeping the Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism by Martha Derthick.
Students of American politics wanting to refresh or deepen their understanding of our form of federalism—what James Madison called our “compound republic”—can turn to Martha Derthick’s Keeping the Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism. Derthick, Julia Cooper Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and former Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution, is a prolific author. The 11 essays in this volume touch on and summarize many of the arguments she has made at much greater length in her many books.
“American federalism,” she writes, “is a very large elephant indeed, and it is hard for a lone observer to grasp the properties of the whole beast. One needs to be abreast of constitutional doctrines; of legislative, judicial, and administrative practices over the whole range of governmental activities…and more. To understand the condition of federalism, one needs to comprehend the functioning of the whole polity.” In this splendid volume, Derthick continually demonstrates this level of comprehension. In clear, powerful prose, she examines the founding generation’s understanding of federalism; the way in which “national programs, institutions, and techniques of influence [especially federal grants-in-aid] came together to enlarge national power at state and local governments’ expense;” and the consequences of the public’s “sharp devalu[ation]” of “federalism as a constitutional principle.”
A clear theme running through her essays is the profound impact that past U.S. Supreme Courts have had on altering the original federal design and concentrating power in the federal government through their decisions on reapportionment, criminal procedure, the establishment clause, and incorporation. She notes that, by contrast, the Rehnquist Court has become the great defender of federalism. She welcomes its federalism decisions, because they have “encouraged Americans to contemplate the subject.” By so doing, she hopes they will renew their commitment to “a form of government that divides and disperses official power, with the goal of making it representative and grounding its exercise in practicality as opposed to a political rhetoric that is all too often the demagogic style of mass democracy.”
—Ralph A. Rossum, Claremont McKenna College