" /> Walter Olson: July 2007 Archives

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July 9, 2007


My biography is here.

Links concerning my books are here.

My main websites are Overlawyered and Point of Law.

You can browse many of my pre-2000 writings here, and my Reason magazine writings here.

The Manhattan Institute, at which I'm a senior fellow, is here.

My page on traditional music and dance in the northern suburbs of NYC is here.

You can email me at info - [at] - walterolson - [dot] - com.

July 7, 2007

Review, James Surowiecki, "The Wisdom of Crowds"

[Review of The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few And How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki (Doubleday, 297 pp.) Originally appeared in the New York Post, July 11, 2004.]

* * *

Can't recall how the National Security Adviser spells her first name? Try a Google spell-check. "Condoleezza" appears on 308,000 web pages, "Condoleeza" on 76,000, and "Condolleeza" on only 261. Sure enough, the first of the three spellings, by far the winner in page "votes", is the correct one.

Given the right task to solve, aggregate amateur opinion sometimes proves more reliable than the expert kind. In 1906 the scientist Francis Galton observed that when rural English fairgoers were invited to buy a ticket and guess how much flesh an ox would yield when slaughtered, with the best guesses winning prizes, the crowd's average guess was more accurate than that of even the most knowledgeable individual farmer. Similarly, students asked to guess the number of jelly beans in a glass jar often come remarkably close to the correct number when their guesses are averaged. Writes James Surowiecki: "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them".

For a moment you might fear Surowiecki is going to take this little insight and start hammering away with it, One Big Theory style, until he winds up convincing himself that voters as a group choose unerringly between candidates, that a poem's popularity is a sure sign of its literary merit, that employees' time is better spent in committee meetings than in mastering their individual jobs, and so forth. Not to worry: this is a much better book than that. In fact, the author almost at once begins to explore the exceptions and limits to his initial generalization -- the many ways in which the world usually falls short of providing the "right circumstances" for crowd rationality. By the end, you see why crowds got their reputation for being messy, unpredictable and easily misled in the first place.

So much the worse for the book's somewhat grand title. But so much the better for the reader, since it gives Surowiecki, whose writings on business are a reason to read The New Yorker, free rein to roam among a wide variety of topics of his choosing. For instance: why "yes-men" are so harmful in committee deliberations (it has to do with their tendency to turn an initial error into a "cascade"); why it's so hard to beat the stock market or the sports betting line; why a key to the success of Linux is precisely that it's much less decentralized and "open" than it looks; why the silly "sweeps" system continues to dominate TV ratings; why juries, political factions or artistic coteries that start out with similar leanings can talk each other into more extreme positions than any of them took originally; why the scientists with the most original contributions to make are also those who collaborate most; what game theory can tell us about Fed interest-rate decisions; and much more. Surowiecki is quite good at explaining these topics, and they're nearly all worth learning about.

The Wisdom of Crowds is selling briskly at the stores. In this case, the crowd knows what it's doing.

July 6, 2007

Review, Brett Fromson, "Hitting the Jackpot"

[Review of Hitting the Jackpot: The Inside Story of the Richest Indian Tribe in History by Brett D. Fromson (Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp.). Originally appeared in the New York Post, May 16, 2004]

Betting on the Pequots

Indian gambling will probably arrive in the Catskills soon, waved in by state budgeters eager for revenue. Let's hope we've learned some lessons from Connecticut's decade-plus experience with Pocahontas-as-croupier, a story told in devastating fashion by Brett Fromson in Hitting the Jackpot.

The modern story of the Mashantucket Pequots and their Foxwoods casino is by now familiar. After drifting in life, a restless New Englander realizes his Indian heritage might entitle him to housing and other benefits.

Falling in with shrewd lawyers, he realizes that much more is at stake if he and his relatives can succeed in simulating the existence of a functioning tribe. They first outwit Hartford's half-asleep politicos and then maneuver a bill through Congress to secure federal recognition as a tribe without the usual scrutiny.

They proceed to erect the world's largest casino in the woods and the resulting geyser of cash, sprayed judiciously in various directions, buys them many highly placed friends, with enough left to make tribe members very rich indeed. Some of the money winds up going to classes to teach them how to become Indians, since no Pequot traditions survive as to language, crafts, belief or much of anything else.

Veteran financial reporter Fromson documents the series of sharp dealings and bald impostures that carried the day. "Never underestimate the ignorance of your opponents," proclaims the tribe's chief adviser, attorney Tom Tureen. "People are real stupid sometimes." Ideology also played a key role.

Progressive Nutmeg-state lawmakers promoted assertions of Indian identity. Federal judges leaned over to help the presumed underdogs. Liberal local congressman Rep. Sam Gejdenson avidly backed the tribe.

As for the tribe's lawyers, who'd emerged from the legal services movement, these oh-so-idealistic attorneys found themselves gradually turning into well-paid casino promoters.

And the lucky Pequots? Few stories are sadder than what happens to the typical sweepstakes winner. Unused to riches, tribal members splurged on BMWs and foreign travel, some borrowing heavily against future income to do so. The tribal government, which made Tyco look Trappist, was soon spending $200,000 per member on services, aside from the casino payroll and large direct cash payments to members. Then the flow of incoming money began to slow.

The tribe eventually shoved aside the founding Haywards from the helm of (as Fromson puts it) "the tribe they had invented." Millionaires or no, the reservation suffers from much crime and domestic abuse.

Fast-paced and well-written, this book has been assailed in some quarters as "anti-Indian," which hardly seems fair, since the folks Fromson is writing about are about as authentically Indian as Camilla Parker Bowles.

July 5, 2007

Review, Ken Foskett, "Clarence Thomas"

[Review of Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas by Ken Foskett (Morrow, 339 pp.). Originally appeared in the New York Post, Dec. 19, 2004]

Thomas' Trials and Triumph

So much for comity between the different branches of government. Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" two weeks ago, new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid coolly insulted Justice Clarence Thomas, calling the 56-year-old African-American jurist "an embarrassment to the Supreme Court" whose "opinions are poorly written."

Who knew Reid, a hitherto little-known Nevada Democrat whose major backers have been casinos and trial lawyers, took such an interest in judges' writing skills?

For years, Thomas has served as a punching bag for lazy commentators. In the 1991 fight over his nomination, liberal interest groups portrayed him as a lecherous incompetent. When he was confirmed anyway, they began banging away on his supposed overdependence on his colleague Antonin Scalia.

Among those who follow the court's work closely, most of these themes are at best passé. Over 13 years, Thomas has laid out a body of conservative-to-libertarian judicial thinking clearly distinct from Scalia's. And many court-watchers who disagree passionately with the content of Thomas' views acknowledge that there's nothing subpar about his written opinions.

Which still leaves the question of character, explored at length in Ken Foskett's new biography, "Judging Thomas."

By now the outlines of Thomas' remarkable life story are well-known: his poor upbringing in Savannah, raised by a super-strict grandfather who drilled him in hard work and obedience; his radical phase at Holy Cross, where he affected Army fatigues "and a black beret festooned with black power buttons"; his arrival at a Yale Law School then supremely confident of its mission to use the law to remake American society; his rejection of that mission and emergence as a conservative strongly opposed to counting by race as a form of governance, and at length his recruitment (via John Danforth's Missouri attorney general office) by a Bush 41 administration that kept tapping him for jobs very different from those for which he would have volunteered, culminating in a seat on the nation's highest court.

At every stage, there were lacerating snubs: from lighter-skinned blacks and snooty boarding-school students amused by his uneducated accent, from the civil-rights establishment, from People for the American Way mudslingers and New Yorker editors.

Where the criticism struck him as fair, Thomas had the strength to take it to heart: Thus, the toughie Yale Law property expert who gave him his worst grade became his favorite professor. After the confirmation ordeal, on the other hand, Thomas spent a couple of years recovering from embitterment, and even now Foskett describes him as "tightly wound," though warmly regarded by his staff.

An investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Foskett writes in a relaxed and readable style, and though a few expressions suggest that he does not necessarily agree with Thomas' jurisprudence, the resulting portrait is generally a favorable one.

Thomas' own memoirs are supposedly in the works. In the meantime, this book dramatically depicts the power of will over circumstance.

July 4, 2007

Review, Andrew Sullivan, "The Conservative Soul"

[Originally ran in the New York Post Nov. 5, 2006. Review of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back by Andrew Sullivan (HarperCollins, 294 pp.)

IF you went looking for some one to write a systematic or impartial account of the conflicts that are pushing America's conservative movement toward breakup, just about the last author you'd pick for the job would be Andrew Sullivan.

The British-born commentator's new book, like all his work, is engaged, quirky and personal, the view of a gifted outsider who can't go for long without circling back to gay issues. Yet "The Conservative Soul" will still resonate as one of the year's key political books, a free-associating literary polemic that well complements "The Elephant in the Room," the recent book by New York Post contributor Ryan Sager.

The "conservatism I grew up with," notes Sullivan, stood for "lower taxes, less government spending, freer trade, freer markets, individual liberty, personal responsibility and a strong anti-communist foreign policy." Defining figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spoke regularly of human freedom as the great aim of political life. "It has long been a fundamental conviction of the Republican Party," declared the 1980 GOP platform, "that government should foster in our society a climate of maximum individual liberty and freedom of choice."

Somehow from there we arrived at the presidency of George W. Bush, whose pronouncement on the state's proper role - "When someone hurts, government has got to move" - owes more to LBJ than to Barry Goldwater.

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum brusquely waves aside "this whole idea of personal autonomy," this "idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do." Ex-Democrats of the McGovern-Dukakis era once popularized the line "I didn't leave the party, the party left me"; if the Santorums prosper, plenty of old-line Republicans will be ready to sing the same refrain.

Sullivan's prime target is a GOP (to quote George Will) "increasingly defined by the ascendancy of the religious right." Twenty-five years ago, mainstream publications on the Right didn't regularly use the word "secular" to sum up the positions they oppose, as do the National Review and Weekly Standard today.

Back then, conservative editors might have held at arms' length an elected official who described his goal in office as being to implement the divine will. Now they vie to promote the national ambitions of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who - in an astounding Rolling Stone profile cited by Sullivan - boasted of having but a single "constituent," as he pointed his finger skyward.

Much of Sullivan's point-scoring against personages on the Christian Right is forceful and well-taken, but you do wish he'd draw distinctions. He lumps truly radical figures with the merely hidebound as "theoconservatives" and, provocatively, deems "Christianism" an emergent counterpart of today's radical Islamism, if a "much milder" one.

Is it really useful to discard a century of accepted terminology so as to tag traditionalists in his own church, Roman Catholicism, as "fundamentalist"?

No, it's not.

In this respect, Sullivan's popular blog shows an advantage over the book format. When Sullivan says something unfair online, he gets and prints a barrage of reader response, and often revises his views. This book will go unrevised by ongoing customer reaction, but would have profited by it.

That aside, it helps open a crucial and timely debate.