But For the Grace of . . . .

Daniel Ellsberg is famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The papers, classified documents that showed that the US government was aware that the Vietnam War was not going well, redefined the public debate about the conflict and led to the prosecution of Ellsberg. He escaped conviction – the government broke many laws in its attempt to silence him – and he left government work to devote his life to political activism.

It was no accident that Ellsberg, a trusted civilian defense analyst in the 1960s, had access to sensitive material. He was a Marine who attended Harvard for his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. Ellsberg’s dissertation on decision theory raised issues that are still being studied to this day. His work for the RAND Corporation was very well-received. A smart and knowledgeable scholar, Ellsberg’s professional life developed at the intersection of ideas and defense policy.

Ellsberg recently wrote The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. A non-fiction autobiographical account of his work as a nuclear war strategist in the early part of his career, the book explains much of the thinking – or non-thinking – surrounding the development and potential deployment of the US nuclear arsenal. It is a book about organizational decision-making, politics and strategy. It is a sobering read. The Doomsday Machine is not the most up-to-date or comprehensive work about contemporary nuclear arms. It lacks current data, the big picture about how things have and have not changed over the past few decades, and efforts and stabilization. It does bring a personal touch to the madness, though, and make a compelling case for attention. With the recent nuclear false alarm in Hawaii on our screens and in our minds, coupled with the latest plans for loosening the potential use of nuclear weapons, the warnings in The Doomsday Machine seem all the more relevant.

Some of the key points Ellsberg hammers home:

  • There is no one nuclear “button.” In fact, the decision to use nuclear weapons is decentralized and at the discretion of military officials far down the organizational tree.
  • Much US nuclear strategy is based on the assumption that the US would strike first.
  • Much US nuclear strategy assumed that a nuclear conflict could only occur with the USSR and China – never just one of these countries. This was a problem for decades.
  • As US nuclear planning became more sophisticated, anticipated casualties – which numbered in the hundreds of millions – grew to reflect the true consequences of a nuclear war.
  • When Ellsberg first saw Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic satire, Dr. Strangelove, he considered it as accurate as a documentary.

Ellsberg’s proposals for a saner, slightly more safe future involve taking apart the doomsday machine (his term for this decentralized nuclear arsenal) include getting rid of the land based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), stop planning for strikes that target other country’s leaders (with no leader, there can be no surrender or de-escalation), and then promise never to use nuclear weapons. He notes that many times US presidents reference the potential use of nuclear weapons.

It is a scary problem to consider. We have more than enough nuclear weapons to make human life an impossibility and seemingly poor controls regarding their potential use. Ellsberg’s analysis of the Cuban Missile crisis highlights just how lucky we have been in avoiding nuclear conflict. Deterrence is poorly considered and something that needs a rethink. In fact, the broad question of nuclear strategy demands attention. Ellsberg’s book is a well-written and cogent warning about the state of the nuclear arsenal: who controls it, who thinks about it, and how it developed.

David Potash

Facing Addiction – Full On

Charming and deceptive. Honest to a fault and blind to large truths. Lovely and awful. Cat Marnell is a super smart recovering addict who lives these contradictions.

Marnell recently came out with a memoir, How to Murder Your Life. She’s held a number of positions in the beauty/women’s media – with Glamour, Vice, Nylon, xoJane, and Lucky. She’s written about herself – her drug use, career, love life, sex life, family, obsessions and self-harm with humor and honesty. She embodies intelligence and self-destructiveness. The story of her longer journey, captured in this book, is fascinating and terrible to behold. Making it more than bearable is Marnell’s wit, humor and a candor that makes one wince. You want to look away, you want to shake her, and you keep reading.

Marnell’s narrative voice is both agent and witness to success and catastrophe. She knows how to pull it together and she knows how to flame out – and she does both with regularity. The painful repetition of her screw ups can make for less interesting reading. However, it underscores the difficulty of stopping  addictive behaviors. Addicts don’t stop being addicted; it is part of their identity. As much as you may wish for clarity and happiness, there is no complete resolution in any next chapter of Marnell’s book. She lives a life of more highs and more lows.

Marnell’s childhood was marked by wealth, strife, and unhappiness. From an early age, prescriptions and non-prescription drugs were a part of her everyday life. Health care professionals, including her father, a psychiatrist, made sure that she was medicated and re-medicated to deal the stresses of growing up, attention deficit disorder, and teen angst. She moved from a college internship into full-time employment in the New York City media world. Work gave her a sense of importance and agency that was missing from the rest of her life. You can feel the triumph in her voice when she describes those early career advances. But from her teens until now, in her mid-30s, she’s struggled with her addictions, career, relationships, and gaining control of her life. At many times she self-sabotaged to the point of murdering her life.

And yet – and the yet is important here – Marnell’s immediacy gives a real sense of what it is like to live as an addict and to have hope. My experience is limited. I have known two friends who have lived with serious drug addiction. For both, it fractured their identity, scrambling sense of self and direction. It is more than a conflict between healthy and unhealthy impulses. Addiction reshaped identity through action, adding a lens of meaning that fundamentally altered their person-hood. That splintered self, aligning actions with impulse, is woven through How to Murder Your Life.

Marnell might sell many copies of this book for the scandals, and the drama. Stick with it, though, and you’ll gain an understanding of the powerful ways that addiction harms. I really wish Cat Marell well. She’s a very talented woman who is lucky to be alive. She’s also fortunate to have the facilities to write such fresh and engaging prose. I do not believe that all of her really wants to murder her life. She’s around to talk about it and she cares. She is clear and direct about behaviors to avoid, particularly for women.

I am optimistic that her honesty strips the appeal from what an Instagram-follower might believe is a glamorous lifestyle. Her story is cautionary. Life can be challenging enough.

David Potash

Changing My Movies

I love a good movie. Not films – movies. Movies are about entertainment. No friend ever says “You have to go see this movie.” That’s not the case for films. Seeing a film is freighted with expectations of art, philosophy and meaning. When I’m looking for that, I reach for a book.

But of late I’m finding it harder to enjoy movies. My mind wanders. I’m increasingly aware of genre, expectations, and arc. Why do the plots of so many movies resolve around violence? I know that conflict is essential to drama, but movies’ fixation on one kind of conflict – violence – has become tiresome. It is not escapism. We have more than exposure to violence every day.

I don’t understand why action and suspense so often relies on explosions and guns. Or why a movie’s final conflicts must have even larger explosions and bigger armories. Guns, more guns, and even more guns are not the only way to solve problems or bring a conclusion to a movie. Violence in a movie is not necessarily satisfying, suspenseful, or entertaining. It is lazy, to my way of thinking, and it perpetuates a ton of lazy thinking about violence. It’s so common today and movie makers seem unable to break out the rut. Movies weren’t always like this.

No longer do I get a cathartic thrill when the villain meets a particularly grisly end in a movie. My adrenaline doesn’t pump. It’s boring and unimaginative. We know what’s going to happen.

My movie dissociation could be because of the many shootings that fill our papers and screens. The violence in the news and in our neighborhoods is more than numbing; it’s scary and sad. The change may be me – age and it’s possible that I could be seeing the wrong movies. Whatever the cause, it is definitely affected my movie going. I am too aware of the movie habit of solving any and all conflicts with a bigger boom. There’s no suspense in that.

I’m going to hold out for better. Older movies that rely on character, dialogue, and imaginative plotting could do it. Resolution through cleverer means.

Or I might go see a film.

David Potash

Opioids – America’s Killer

An epidemic of opioids, opiates, prescription drugs and illegal narcotics, is killing record numbers of Americans. This isn’t news – it is a massive public health problem that has been getting worse for several years. The statistics are staggering. A New York Times article highlights that overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Nearly 100 Americans die every day from these drugs, prescribed or purchased illegally. It is having a disastrous effect on hundreds of thousands of families, communities across the country, and our economy.

We are getting a better sense of the how of why of this crisis. I count myself among those who did not comprehend its scope or causes. I knew that drug addiction was a continuing issue. But I had little sense to the pervasiveness and devastation stemming from opioid addictions and heroin use. A host of new reports and government actions has informed and awakened broad attention across the country. Even with the attention experts predict that numbers of deaths will continue to rise for the next few years.

Several factors have led this disastrous state of affairs. Pain management became a focus within healthcare, and cost concerns have led to more and more “pill” solutions to chronic pain. The economics of healthcare, in other words, propelled certain kinds of prescriptions and certain kinds of business to profit from these changes. An increase in cheap heroin – coupled with new drug selling techniques – provided more fuel, as did a host of new synthetic opioids. Knowing the root causes is important if we are to effect long-term, meaningful change. We need to address this as a nation and in our communities: opiates are ending and ruining lives.

One of the best accounts of how this crisis came to pass is Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Quinones is a journalist who has researched in the US and Mexico. Familiar with both cultures, he brings an on-the-ground feel to his reporting as well as a love of story-telling. He is a relentless journalist and a captivating writer. Dreamland won a well-deserved National Book Critics Award and is on many “best book of 2015” lists.

Quinones weaves together many narratives to make sense of this complicated epidemic. His perspective is through the eyes and words of people connected to the issue: doctors, addicts, parents, children, dealers, community leaders, and police. One thread is about how middle, rust belt America became the ground zero for black tar heroin. “Dreamland” was a swimming pool in Youngstown, Ohio. Long-ago it was a place of joy, family leisure, and a representational shared good among the town’s many residents. Gone for many years, its memory hovers as a far away time when life was better and more optimistic. Changes in the economy and culture, marked by job loss, fewer prospects, and the proliferation of prescription painkillers, highlight the Youngstown of the 2000s.

Quinones explains how our more recent world set the stage for increased drug use. The massive increase in the how and why of prescription pain-killers – in particular Oxycontin – is another thread. He takes us to medical conferences, doctor’s offices, and the pain clinics that sprung up in middle America. The development, marketing and distribution of heroin from the “Xalisco Boys” of Mexico. These young men, born in poverty in a small Mexican town, sought a better life. Often relatives or neighbors, many came to the United States to take part in the lucrative drug trade. Organized into small cells, they first sold heroin in the smaller towns and cities away from the established organized drug trade. The Xalisco Boys model was different. They only carried small amounts of the narcotics, never used the drugs, and were drilled into customer (addict) service. They had a growing market, an increased number of Americans who had an opioid addiction.

The American communities’ responses to the crisis forms another narration. Many parents never admitted that their sons or daughters were addicted. Deaths from a drug overdose was rarely reported and not often studied. Only when the numbers began to add up did families, communities, and public health officials begin understand the scope and massive spread of the problem. The journey of analysis and comprehension is another thread, as is the work of police in figuring out what was happening to their towns and cities. Fighting this spread of heroin called for different kinds of policing and prosecution.

Dreamland offers much to digest. It is wonderfully written but it is hard to read: so much sorrow, so much sadness, and so many tragedies. We learn who is profiting and who has avoided responsibility for the crisis, but the aim here is not blame. Quinones does not moralize. He explains with sympathy and patience. The better understanding he gives us is a window into the powerful forces that reshape lives. He also writes about compassion, cooperation and the many ways that people have worked to fight addiction and this crisis. Dreamland is also about everyday heroes who save lives and give us hope.

We need more books like Dreamland.

David Potash


My apartment opens to a busy Chicago Avenue. At night, the street is loud with hipsters, tourists, buskers and custom car stereos. Young men and women Whoo and Whoop and the bars clink with bottles and glasses. Sounds are continuous, a constant roar punctuated by thumps and yells, with engines rumblings and street musicians jamming.

Mornings are different. Sound is episodic. Single cars and trucks, conversations, the barking of a dog. I hear people, not crowds.

The bike lane is full. More and more people are cycling downtown to their jobs. Some take their bicycle commute seriously, kitted with panniers, reflective tape and extra mirrors. Others are more spontaneous. They pass by in a steady stream.

A difficult intersection is up the street, a hundred feet or so from my door. When halted by a red light, the they start together as a mass, a morning peloton.

I like to linger – not watching but listening. I want to hear shifting, the sounds of gears changing. The sound of a well-tuned bicycle is extremely satisfying: silent with perhaps the quietest of hums, depending upon pavement, save for the changing of gears.

A gear change announces itself with a small but purposeful rattle. It is a hiccup, a deep breath before starting something strenuous, a machine readying itself before picking up a piece of work. The pause is brief, less than a second. And then, with a decisive click, the gear engages.


David Potash

Another Look at the Data

Steve Lohr, a journalist for the New York Times, knows how to explain. He has written about technology for decades and his book, written with Joel Brinkley, on the federal antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft is outstanding. Lohr is not a “gee-whiz” technology enthusiast. He is also not a Luddite, crying for the return to a simpler, earlier age. Instead, he brings solid technical knowledge to the table and explains how technological change and innovation impacts business, society, and culture.

Data-ism: The Revolution Transforming Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else is Lohr’s account of the rise of data science and analytics. He started the project in 2012, finished it three years later – and I would expect that the field has changed since. Change in technology, and especially this kind of work with its endless applications, is constant. I would still recommend Lohr’s book. It mixes theoretical and real-word information, painting a picture of how things are being transformed as well as the thinking and rules that will lead to more change. It is accessible, memorable, and very interesting.

A host of different technologies contribute to “big data,” Lohr explains. The amount of data from various points is increasing exponentially. New and better systems are making better sense out of it – especially on the artificial intelligence front. The book wisely focuses on people leading in their fields. Lohr has written a narrative, not an abstract. He profiles Jeffrey Hammerbacher, whose journey from Harvard to Facebook to Mt. Sinai hospital and entrepreneur captures the many possibilities of data science. From the business side, Lohr gives a quick history of how developments in data analytics changed IBM from within. He visits McKesson, a company in Memphis that is responsible for a third of the pharmaceutical products in the United States. Sensors, analytics, and smart computing – along with help from IBM – have radically changed its operations. From hotels to vineyards to hospitals (the work of Dr. Timothy Buchman, who heads Emory University Hospital’s critical care unit, is very instructive), smarter and better use of data is leading to small changes and big reworks of organizational structure, processes and decision-making.

Concerns are woven through the book. Lohr asks hard questions about context, about how data is used, and about privacy – and its erosion. His curiosity leads him to businesses, government officials, scientists and business leaders. He has worries about discrimination and the potential loss of agency of any one individual. People are much more than a collection of data points. Technology is not waiting for us to sort out the rules. The future, Lohr opines, will increasingly be shaped by those who have access to more and better data and the ability to analyze and act on it.

David Potash

Financialization’s Bamboozle

Could it possibly be true that the emperor of finance has no clothes? John Kay, one of the most important and influential economists of the past forty years, argues that the world’s financial sector needs a major rethink. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the rise of the finance industry has probably done more harm than good.

Kay is no radical Marxist. He is a professor of economics, a consultant, and a public intellectual. He believes in markets and the value of finance. But as he explains in Other People’s Money: the Real Business of Finance, the real aim of the colossal finance industry is to aid the people who work in the colossal finance industry. What we have now, he claims, is a sector with tremendous wealth that operates untethered from its original and central four functions: payments (wages, salaries, buying goods); matching lenders with borrowers; management of personal finances; and management of risks for individuals and businesses. Instead, Kay argues, we have confusion, complication, deception and a system of fictions being swapped with fictions for the benefit of the few.

It is a damning and troubling book.

Kay covers the historical rise of finance. He is British and his perspective is shaped by the empire and Britain’s long history in risk management. Finance today, he makes clear, is less and less about raising capital or making matches.

The books not aimed at the uninformed or those unfamiliar with our current financial sector. Kay packs every page or two with an aside, an insight, and a criticism. It is well-written but slow going simply because there is so much to it. It highlighted to me the inadequacy of just staying on top of the business and financial news. Reading the Economist and newspapers regularly gives a solid account of the action. Missing is an understanding of the how and why of the financial industry. Kay offers that and a clear message about the dangers of unchecked financial activity.

Kay proposes a series of reforms. One wonders, though, if they will fall on deaf ears. Those in the industry are far too focused on amassing more wealth. Those outside of the industry lack the technical skills to push through the necessary changes. It most likely will require another financial crisis – and Kay makes it most clear that without reforms crisis is due – in order to put the house of finance in order.

David Potash

Borders and Education

Global Migration, Diversity, and Civic Education: Improving Policy and Practice is a fascinating collection of essays in the National Academy of Education and Teacher’s College, Columbia University’s work on multicultural education. The focus is on multicultural education in the United States and Israel. The essays look at a range of practices, problems, and policies.

The foundation of this work takes for granted that we live in a time of unprecedented migration, free and forced. Nation-states have obligations and needs to address mobile populations of children. The authors look at education, socialization, and issues of integration from a variety of perspectives. The volume provides an overview of current scholarship and interest. It is inherently interdisciplinary work that is informed from different perspectives. Essays look at national issues and what happens at the school level. There are essays on religion, language teaching and acquisition, teacher education, and civic education. What emerges is an overview of a highly dynamic and contested field – in policy, practice, and theory.

If you were to enroll in graduate seminar on nation-building and education in the 21st century, this would be a required text. Considering the rapidly changing political environment, I think that it is a course that many of us will have to think about taking.

David Potash

Unwinding and Dos Passos

Does anyone read John Dos Passos today? Way back when I was an English major in the early 1980s, I studied him along with many of the other major American authors from the first half of the twentieth century. His novels after World War I – and before World War II – were political. The U.S.A. trilogy was an attempt to capture the scope of America, good and bad, with a message for liberal/socialist values. Dos Passos wanted greater economic justice, and to elevate the hopes, dignity and needs of the “common man.”

It is very good literature. The short takes, narrative devices, and splintered perspectives of the three U.S.A. novels create a modernist masterpiece. It is not nonfiction, but there’s a truth to it that makes for good conversation and scholarship.

The U.S.A. trilogy figured prominently in the creation of journalist George Packer’s award-winning book, The Unwinding. Published in 2013, it is collection of carefully crafted biographical sketches. Some are short while others are long-form journalism. Taken collectively, they paint a picture of an America economy and culture abandoning its fundamental tenets of decency, hard work, and individual values. There many struggles in The Unwinding, a litany of failed dreams and broken promises. There are few heroes, many victims, and a few who came out on top financially. There is little holding the center of the narrative together.

I picked up the book to see if it could provide more insight into today’s political crisis and conflicts. Unfortunately, it did not offer much new. The stories are variations on a theme that we have read again and again. The book does, however, offer a framework of justification. It gives voice to frustration, restlessness and rootlessness, and people whose lives are disrupted by an indifferent economy. Traditional anchors are in short supply.

The challenge with the book is that Packer does not offer much by explanation. He does not suggest or propose. He describes – and does so ably, as one might expect from a New Yorker writer. But read as a work of nonfiction, more is needed here.  We do not need description of the missing center. We are rich in accounts of our failings and our decline. Instead, we need to better understand what has left us, why it no longer resonates, and whether or not we can do anything meaningful to re-establish some core values. Dos Passos, from the vantage point of the novelist, is clear about his values. Like him or not, he is clearly making an argument.

If we are to look backward, I expect more substance. If we are to look forward, I require data and arguments. The Unwinding, even with its lyrical observations, did not provide enough of either. Despite the book’s broad scope and close observations, it is an opportunity not fully realized.

David Potash

Immigration Dreamers

Eileen Truax’s Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight For Their American Dream is a journalist’s account of life for undocumented people in the age of the Dream Act (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Truax hails from Mexico and lives in the US. She is well-versed in the small and large challenges of living in two different countries with different cultures. Her aim in this book is to give human faces and stories to the young men and women affected directly by DACA. She humanizes, explains and contextualizes the stories of those who are struggling in challenging times.

dreamersConsciously avoiding statistics and policy analysis (and there are places in the text that call out for further explication), Truax gives ten narrative histories. She writes about young men and women, their homes, their families and their friends. Their communities are described as are their clothing and appearance. Sympathy and understanding drives the text. Truax wants us to see these people as people who are as “American” as any neighbor, classmate, co-worker or colleague.

It is an effective strategy to generate emotions and sympathy. There is much to like about these young men and women. The anchor of the stories are those who are open about their lack of documentation. These courageous souls have decided to make their cause public and be active to seek seeking legislative and executive support. Truax helps us to understand just how terrifying this must feel. The book’s cover says “Undocumented Unafraid” – but these people are afraid, and with good cause.

Emotions and sympathy can aid in understanding policy consequences but they are not necessarily the best way to create solutions or to craft better policy. Immigration is notoriously complicated to reform.  Politics, history, economics, national security, and race are woven throughout any discussion of policy. Not acknowledging the harder complicating forces does little to advance the discussion. There were ample places in the histories, too, where Truax could have provided anchors to the stories and given the reader themes and direction. The role of education, for example, or how the experience was both empowering and demeaning. Much more could have been done with the material.

Truax’s book gives voice to those that may not be comfortable coming forward. It is here that I think her contribution is most effective. Policy and laws have real impacts on real lives. The consequences of ill-considered policy can be devastating. To earn and maintain our trust, our government and our laws must be fair, equitable and just. Humanizing our immigration policy and practice, as Truax does in this volume, helps to set a high bar for meaningful reform. One hopes that it is not just a dream.

David Potash