Category Archives: Books

Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington – The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South

Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington – The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South

Disclosure: Balko was briefly a colleague about 15 years ago.

Mississippi is likely a bit of an outlier regarding its dysfunctional criminal justice system. But the vividness of its stories Balko and Carrington tell here applies nationwide. The differences from other states are in degree, not in kind. Two of the main themes explored in this book are braggadocio and incompetence, and they go together very closely in this book.

Hayne the medical examiner and West the bite-mark analyst both exude confidence and are quick to puff up their already-inflated credentials. But sloppiness, poor standards, ethical violations, personal enrichment schemes, and general incompetence mar their work and have put numerous innocent people in jail–some on death row. Often in error but never in doubt, Hayne and West repeatedly double down on their mistakes, rather than admit to them when caught. They even tampered with evidence. Hayne, on video, once created bite marks on a dead child’s body that eventually put an innocent man in jail for murder. Imagine doing that to another person and having that on your conscience–or being the person wrongly jailed for murdering a child while the real killer still ran free.

Their eventual fall from grace was a long time coming. The delay was due to a number of factors, from lingering racism to institutional inertia and public indifference. Many of the injustices Hayne and West committed will never be put right, and they are far from the only ones at fault. Systemic problems are what make such actions possible. Reforms that don’t target these larger systemic problems will not have lasting benefits.

If there is a silver lining, Balko and Carrington are at least able to tell the stories of some people whose stories have better, if still unhappy, endings, such as Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, who are now free. Carrington’s group, the Innocence Project, is devoted to making more such stories come true.

Balko and Carrington also give a fascinating tour of the history of forensics and criminal investigation, and ably explain which techniques are junk science and which are useful. They also give the historical context for why Mississippi’s criminal justice system is in such bad shape. Racism is still very much alive, and cultural change is just as important for criminal justice reform as any suite of policy or personnel changes. Sadly, the process will likely take generations more.

Fortunately, Balko and Carrington are doing as much as anyone to help right those wrongs, in Mississippi and across the country. They could use some company. Hopefully this book will gain them some.

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James M. Cain – The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain – The Postman Always Rings Twice

This short 1934 book helped give birth to the modern detective noir genre. Much popular literature of the period was on the vanilla side; this one was downright scandalous, with murder, adultery, and drunken car crashes looming large in the plot. Think of this book as a predecessor to today’s hard-boiled, Elmore Leonard-style stories. While not entirely to my taste, the sleazy story does have its low-brow appeal, to which I am not immune.

Arthur Conan Doyle ­- The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle ­- The Complete Sherlock Holmes

The audio version, narrated by Stephen Fry, is a delight. I enjoyed the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC series a few years ago, and Fry’s radio programs on Victorian culture sparked an interest in reading some primary source material. Though lengthy—four novels and countless short stories—this collection made driving, exercising, and doing chores go by much more quickly. I also followed along on the Kindle edition, which is free.

Herbert Simon on the REINS Act

Most regulations are issued by the executive branch, not Congress. This limits their accountability to elected officials. Bills such as the REINS Act seek to address this by requiring Congress to vote on major new agency regulations (see my 2016 paper on REINS). One objection to REINS is that it would require an additional 40 to 50 congressional votes per year; Congress often has too much on its plate as it is. Herbert A. Simon foresaw that objection several decades ago on p. 65 of the 4th edition (1997) of 1947’s Administrative Behavior (emphasis in original):

Second, the fact that pressure of legislative work forbids the review of more than a few administrative decisions does not destroy the usefulness of sanctions that permit the legislative body to hold the administrator answerable for any of his decisions.

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Those two cities being London and Paris. Their differences in character were put in stark contrast by the French Revolution; cool London and hot France could not be more different. Dickens’ characters find themselves in the middle of all kinds of duality. Not just Revolution and ancien regime, but rich and poor, young and old, and past and future all come into play. Dickens, while occasionally sappy, conventional, and a little too PG-rated to give a truly vivid picture of the times, still manages to convey good insight about the value of keeping a level head during turbulent times, even as his characters tend to be studies of contrast rather than nuance.

Richard Thaler – Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Richard Thaler – Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Part Thaler’s career autobiography, and part biography of the field of behavioral economics. Thaler is coauthor of Nudge with Cass Sunstein, and won the 2017 economics Nobel. He is also an excellent popular writer, which the profession could use more of. His tone is friendly and conversational, he uses frequent humor, and he explains concepts in an engaging way, while also giving plenty of attention to the sometimes quirky personalities behind those ideas.

While I do recommend this book, behavioral economics is not nearly as radical or subversive as Thaler sells it to be. Nor do his normative conclusions entirely hold up. Adam Smith himself rejected the Homo economicus model, and Frank Knight’s 1921 landmark Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit is essentially a sustained debunking of the standard model that runs for 375 pages. Hayek and Keynes, for all their disagreements, were united in having little use for the perfect competition model. Hayek’s spontaneous order is about flexibility, adaptation, and imperfect knowledge –all of which the perfect competition model denies. Keynes’ phrase “animal spirits” perfectly captures an important factor in economic life, and is similarly incompatible with perfect competition.

Thaler also clearly takes umbrage at the most common criticism of his nudging proposals. It runs as follows:

  1. People are not fully rational.
  2. People designing nudges are people.
  3. Nudgers are not fully rational.
  4. Therefore nor are their nudges.

Thaler does not substantively address this criticism, but he does flash some temper. It clearly strikes a nerve. He also reacts precisely as he accuses his opponents of doing to his arguments—dismissing it with a “wave of the invisible hand,” as he terms it. This refusal to engage a major criticism is the book’s biggest flaw.

Economists and policymakers would do well to listen to Thaler and other behavioral economists’ insights on psychology and human behavior. They should also keep in mind that nudgers are just as fallible as the people they hope to nudge. A large top-down error is hard to undo; millions of smaller bottom-up errors by individuals tend to cancel out by dint of their large number. Even the largest on-the-ground individual error is positively benign compared to what a politician or an agency error could impose on millions of individuals.

In short: Thaler’s work is valuable for the is, but likely more harmful than helpful when it gets to the ought phase. His ideas are very much worth engaging, and this book delivers them superbly.

James S.A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book 1)

James S. A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book 1)

The Expanse is a science fiction show I recently discovered and rather enjoy. People began colonizing the solar system a few centuries before the series begins. Earth is under a global UN government and prosperous, if corrupt. Mars declared its independence some time ago. It was not peaceful, and tension lingers. Out in the, ahem, expanse of the asteroid belt and beyond is where this book takes place.

People have colonized asteroids, several moons around Jupiter and Saturn, and built several major space stations. Roughly 100 million people live in the Belt, but is small and backwards compared to Earth’s 30 billion population. Resources such as air and water are precious, and despite incredible solar system-wide wi-fi, the Belt isn’t as prosperous as the inner planets. Life is hard and dangerous, and a lot of decent people are also kind of sketchy; they have to be. Life expectancy for Belters is just 68, compared to 123 on Earth. native-born Belters are noticeably taller and skinnier than Inners due to growing up in lower gravity, marking them apart physically as well as culturally. They have been in space long enough to develop their own distinct patois, which is one of several nice touches that describe their growing cultural distance from Earth.

The Belters do not have an independent nation, but there is an IRA-style independence movement, the Outer Planet Alliance, or OPA. It is decentralized, uncoordinated, often violent, doesn’t necessarily have a clear leader, and is prone to factions and infighting. Inner planet governments have various interests and presences throughout the Belt. Sometimes they treat Belters well, and sometimes they don’t. Same with numerous mining companies, security contractors, and other businesses.

The protagonists are a plucky four-person ship crew who have origins from across the system, plus a hard-boiled Belter ex-detective from Ceres Station. They have different personality types and different philosophies, and while they are mostly good they also have their flaws. Through no fault of their own, they find themselves right in the middle of these tricky geopolitical dynamics. They try to stop a brewing system-wide three-way war while dealing with a number of other potentially lethal plot developments.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is enough of a fan that when the SyFy channel declined to renew The Expanse for a fourth season, he brought the show over to Amazon’s Prime streaming service. I enjoyed watching the first three seasons recently, and saw that the books on which it is based were on sale. The show is not a shot-for-shot remake of the books, though some parts did read like a retread. On the plus side, books have fewer space, time, and special effects budget constraints than television, so the characters and the fictional universe are developed more fully than in the show. The science parts of the science fiction are not this series’ drawing card, but they are more thoroughly explained and are apparently quite accurate, at least by speculative fiction standards.

I enjoyed it enough that I will continue with the book series, and will carve out some time for the tv show’s new season when that comes out later this year. Highly recommended if you’re into that sort of thing.