March 23rd, 2010

Can't-Think-Two-Moves-Ahead Fool of the Day: Paul Carr

Executive summary: Michael Lewis' new book, _The Big Short_, about a handful of people who saw the housing crash/financial crisis coming AND figured out a way to profit from it, is out in hardback but not available on the kindle. Some Amazon reviewers have been one-starring it for this reason alone, in an effort to pressure the publisher, Norton. Mr. Carr has a Simple Solution that he has a hard time coming up with a downside on:

"It’s hard, in fact, to think of a downside to restricting reviews to actual purchasers of a particular title."

It's not completely clear to me what Mr. Carr has in mind. Surely he wouldn't be requiring that the only people allowed to review the book on Amazon be people who _actually bought it on Amazon_? Oh, wait! That _DOES_ seem to be what he has in mind. So if you got it as a gift, borrowed a friend's copy, or checked it out from the library, you aren't allowed to review it any more? Because Amazon _would like_ to lose all this free data?

I can think of several downsides. The first being the annoyance I would feel if I had to have bought it on Amazon to review it. The second being the much bigger negative impact on the quality and amount of reviews on Amazon by restricting it to Amazon purchasers only.

I find it utterly bizarre that Carr and others think we can't sort through the reviews quickly and notice, gosh, they hate it because they can't get it on the kindle. I can notice that. In fact, I already had. I also hadn't bought it, because I didn't want it sitting around in hardcover, so I'm waiting for it to show up at the library, or come out on the kindle. Probably by then, the heavy rotation of Mr. Lewis on every program I watch and listen to will be over and he will have slipped right out of my head. This would be good, because every time I try to read something by Mr. Lewis, I am disappointed.

_The Unfinished Revolution_, Kathleen Gerson (kindle)

Subtitled: How a New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America

I was reading this several weeks ago and then didn't pick the kindle up for a while. B. was out sick today, so while I was following A. around and playing with plastic items and keeping her from toppling off the playset in the dining room, I grabbed the kindle to try to remember what I was reading before taxes and a (wonderful) houseguest so thoroughly distracted me.

Gerson took the middle road between ethnography and multiple-choice questionnaire: she and a couple grad students did in depth interviews with a bunch of young people around the age of 25. Thus they had all grown up in a world in which divorce and mothers working were quite common. Gerson's work is rooted in Stephanie Coontz', so it is unsurprising that Gerson would conclude that static categories for families lacked explanatory power in terms of how the grown-up offspring would feel about their childhood and whether the family's economic trajectory was positive or negative.

What did that mean? Well, it means that Gerson found a bunch of people who grew up with a father who worked and a mother who stayed home wound up very unhappy with the results and vowed not to reproduce that. She also found a few who liked that and had that as a goal. She found a bunch of people whose parents broke up and may or may not have then started new relationships, and some of the offspring liked that and some didn't. She found parents who abandoned the family, and sometimes that was good and sometimes that was bad. She found breadwinner dads who were unable to keep up and when mom stepped up, the family really did well -- and sometimes mom got stuck doing everything and the kids were really wary of getting stuck in a similar situation as adults.

Kind of a duh thing, but the details do need to be worked through.

Gerson's focus was quite tightly on gender flexibility leading to success and gender inflexibility creating fragility and often leading to a downward economic path. Her examples do a reasonable job of supporting this analysis.

Gerson does a lovely bit of analysis showing that young men and women share an ideology of work-life balance in which all parents have fulfilling work that earns money and all parents are involved in childcare -- but when that ideal encounters reality, women are very emphatic about not wanting to become dependent and men are very emphatic about not having to sacrifice a time-demanding career to family needs. The result is that the fallback position is a neotraditional one for men -- and a very different arrangement for women.

And that is what makes the book worth reading. It is _incredibly_ valuable to have data showing that there is vast agreement between men and women on the importance of family AND of fulfilling work. It is even more valuable to realize that the sociopolitical environment (and its conspicuous lack of support for this set of ideals) is driving the conflict. Gerson correctly -- but vaguely -- points to the need for political, collective solutions to this problem. Individual solutions will continue to be inadequate, and drive family conflict.

Wonky, and likely to annoy people who find reading social science stuff annoying. But it is well done and an important work.