The coming elections and you. The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

From a LibraryThing interview with Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab

The most effective way of turning a non-voter into a voter—several times more effective than any other technique that’s ever been measured—is to send a citizen a copy of her vote history, the record of elections in which she cast a ballot, and her neighbors’ vote histories. Then tell her that everyone will get an updated set after the coming election. Behavioral psychologists call this “social pressure,” the idea that people adjust their behavior to conform with what they think are others’ expectations. In 2006, a few researchers ran a field experiment and found that sending such mail had a massive impact on turnout—but they also got death threats from people who accused them of blackmail.

This is an instance where the knowledge was shared, and, in fact, the study was published in a political science journal. (It’s proven to be one of the discipline’s ballsier experiments to date.) But political campaigns and parties have been wary of using it for fear of being labeled bullies by voters. Over the following years, political operatives and academics found ways to soften the language, while still exerting subtle social pressure and impacting voter turnout—and these results are likely to hit millions of mailboxes before Election Day.

I had thoughts about election analytics back in 2007, but I thought Google would be a more visible player. Here is my old post with two rather wrong predictions.

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Sushi Economy; his next project is a book on gay marriage, titled The Engagement.

Dark summer reading

I was not blown away by the book I read this summer. I need to plan better next time.

I ended up mostly engaged by crime fiction, even if it’s a genre I am not an expert in. The most satisfying read was The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi, an intricately constructed novel with some truly haunting moments. I also enjoyed two novels by Glenn Cooper, Secret of the Seventh Son (aka Library of the Dead) and Book of Souls. Secret of the Seventh Son starts out as a serial killer novel, but then branches out into something else, on a metaphysically bizarre premise that is further pursued in the second book of the trilogy (the third one, The Librarians, is forthcoming; you can see from the titles alone why I would dig this sort of stuff). The author is quite an interesting character: he majored in archaeology in college, then went to medical school specializing in infectious diseases, then became a pharmaceutical CEO. And now he writes metaphysically bizarre books.

I read two surf crime novels by Don Winslow, but they did not have the epic scope of what I think is his masterpiece, Power of the Dog, which I recommend you read right away if you haven’t yet.

Last summer, I was enthralled by Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Many people don’t read King because they think he writes in the horror genre. Even when he does, there is so much more to it; I’ve always loved his ear for the spoken language (if you are a foreign student of American English, you can hardly do better than read Stephen King for practicing your idioms). 11/22/63 is a novel about time travel – a topic very few writers have tackled successfully – transporting us in the United States of the late ’50s and early ’60s, revived in painstaking detail, to follow a protagonist who sets himself the task of undoing the Kennedy assassination. It is a marvel, and it is what I missed this summer, when there was no new big Stephen King novel, and nothing else as juicy as this.

The extraordinarily important nugget you missed in Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece about gender equality and careers

Talk about work-life balance: it is only today, several days after its publication, that I’ve had the time to read Anne Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the July 2012 issue of The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (which, as of today, has been recommended on Facebook approximately 178,000 times), as well as her first response to the storm of comments that flooded in as soon as readers saw it, “The ‘Having It All’ Debate Convinced Me To Stop Saying ‘Having It All'”. (Suggested alternative tags: #StumblingTowardParity,‬ #PushingForBetter,‬ #StillWorkingOnIt,‬ #GuysThisIsYourProblemToo,‬ #DemandingMoreForMoreOfUs,‬ #Feminism).

What an extraordinary woman! What a privilege to have had such role models as Hillary Clinton. And what courage in rocking a boat that many of our predecessors couldn’t rock, and many younger women – as she points out – seem to be giving up on rocking.

And here’s what’s been missing from the debate: the full implications of this paragraph in Slaughter’s essay (emphasis added).

The best hope for improving the lot of all women […] is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

The issue is: how do we get to parity at the top in politics, in business, and in judicial ranks? Well, the standard American answer is: you vote for women and elect them, for elected posts; you promote a meritocracy in business; You change the culture in the workplace; you ask women to keep spinning their wheels, in the meantime, until they get traction.

And that’s why it doesn’t work. Many talented women decline to seek political office, or “leave before they leave” (in Sheryl Sandberg’s words) in the corporate world, because they feel that, even if they gain that extra ounce of power, the odds will be even more ruthlessly stacked against them. The rate of progress is just too slow. Or negative. Take a couple of data points:

  • In 1998, Catalyst projected in their their Census of Women Board Directors that, at the then-current rate of change, it would take 66 years, until 2064, for women to reach parity with men in the ranks of Fortune 500 boards.
  • In 2007, Catalyst projected that, at the then-current rate of change, it would take 73 years for women to reach parity with men in the ranks of Fortune 500 boards.

I believe that, in publishing more recent editions of the study, they’ve quit publishing any such extrapolations. For good reason, it seems.

When all else has failed, why have we kept trying the same recipes? Even Slaughter’s recommendations – no matter how lucid her analysis – see to me to fall short. Changing the culture of “face time”; redefining the arc of a successful career; rediscovering the pursuit of happiness; using technology and creativity; enlisting men – all are worthwhile efforts, and I praise her for spelling them out once again. But they’re not enough. We need to change the rules.

Let’s mandate gender parity in the candidate pool for elections. Let’s start linking campaign finance ceilings to the number of women a party gets elected: the more you achieve gender parity in the posts you win, the more funds you can raise. And let’s not forget – let’s mandate gender equality in corporate boards: how else do you think the Norwegians got to 40%? Similar measures have been passed, although at a much slower pace, to promote women’s board membership in Spain and Italy. EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, after a consultation on the topic, is said to be planning to introduce a draft directive this October mandating at least a 40% board participation by each gender.

Slaughter’s essay shows the need for a bold stand, but refrains from taking it. It is time for us, in America and elsewhere, to acknowledge that we need to put in place the right rules. As in the variously-attributed quote, insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Let’s try something different: the worst that can happen is that it will be a different sort of mistake. And it’s well worth trying: if we succeed, we will have created a better world for our daughters.

Obamacare and the Supreme Court

That the health insurance mandate – something that works from Switzerland to Massachusetts – should rely on Constiturional provisions about interstate commerce seems to me as contorted as the fact that abortion – something that happens whether you allow it or not – hinges on a woman’s right to privacy.

Yet, stranger things have happened under the U.S. Constitution. I do hope the health care law is upheld.

The Hunger Games, from dystopian novel to Hollywood movie

I have a friend who is seriously into the fantasy book genre, and I usually take her book recommendations with a pinch of salt. But I am seriously into what I call the end-of-civilization genre, and critics refer to as the “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” novel. So, when my friend recommended the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins – supposedly, a “young adult” work, no matter how bleak -, I read it and enjoyed it as shamelessly as Harry Potter fans have enjoyed the J. K. Rowling series.

I learned today that the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy is now a movie. And the actress in the lead role, Jennifer Lawrence, comes with serious credentials as teenage heroine from the gritty, dark Winter’s Bone, which led her to an Academy Award nomination for Best leading actress (who won that year? Oh yeah. Natalie Portman won), and which you should watch by all means if you haven’t yet. District 12 is, after all, a fictional version of the Ozarks. Enjoy.

Five American Writers

I have been asked to make a list of five books I recommend for a full immersion into the best of American writing from the ’80s to today.

It is not, of course, an easy task.

To cram more books into the list, I have picked five, but also provided notes on what else you might like if you liked that book (and no, there is no collaborative filtering algorithm here – I just went through the titles I had tagged with “American fiction” on LibraryThing, and made some hard and very personal choices). So, here’s my take. What’s yours?

  1. Philip Roth, American Pastoral. Swede Levov and his troubled daughter are among the most unforgettable characters of our time.
    If you like this, you may also like: Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater; Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin (see also here and here); Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex. I don’t know what all these books have in common, except a sense of the family as the place where mistakes are made and people’s lives go wrong.
  2. Joyce Carol Oates, What I Lived For. This is not Oates’s best-known book, but her portrait of Corky Corcoran struck me – when I read the book, years ago – with her ability to get inside a man’s head (hey, I’m a woman, so I know I might well be wrong).
    What I Lived For takes place in the kind of upstate New York town that is past its prime and not yet willing to admit it. If you like this, you may also like two novels about even more downtrodden places: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (a small town in Maine); American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (rural Pennsylvania).
  3. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I loved this novel for its inventiveness, scope and ease at tying all sorts of things together from the Prague Rabbi’s Golem to comic-book superheroes.
    If you like this, you may also like other sprawling novels of unforeseen outcomes, such as John Irving’s deservedly popular The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Or, if you’d like to go for more of an intellectual stretch, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the definitive novel about addiction in America.
  4. Paul Auster, Leviathan. I’ve picked one of his early novels, but I could equally have picked The Music of Chance, In the Country of Last Things, or Moon Palace. And if you like them, you will also like The Red Notebook. Auster is, in a way, his own planet – love him or hate him.
  5. David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Yes, this last item is the non-fiction corner, and in the last 25 years nobody packed more brilliance into American non-fiction than DFW. See also here, here and here (DFW could employ rhetorical devices of the highest order and at the same time leave you thinking he was speaking from an inner source of simple truth).
    If you like this, you will also like Consider the Lobster, another set of collected essays by David Foster Wallace; Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, an iconic look at Wall Street in the ’80s; and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which reads like a horror story, except that it happened.

What are your five books? Remember, it’s just a list. You can pick anything by Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or Jeffery Deaver and I won’t think less of you. In fact, genre fiction has its own rewards – but that’s a topic for another post.

The roots of the subprime mortgage crisis, and everything that followed. From a David Foster Wallace article

One reads David Foster Wallace‘s long-form journalism collected in Consider the Lobster slowly and with care, knowing there won’t be any more of his pieces for Harper’s, The New York Observer, Premiere and so on. (Incidentally, Gourmet, the magazine that commissioned the title story, has recently ceased to exist, too.) One of these pieces, appearing in this collection in its full uncut glory, got a brief revival in the 2008 elections: it is “Up, Simba”, where DFW got to cover on behalf of Rolling Stone none other than John McCain on the campaign trail in the 2000 Republican primary, which McCain lost to George W. Bush after a non-inconsiderable amount of “negative advertising”.

“Host”, the piece that closes the collection, profiles for the Atlantic Monthly a conservative radio talk show host named John Ziegler working at KFI in Los Angeles, and it is insightful and probing and sad. I just wanted to notice one little thing, and point it out to you. When the host is off the air, the writer’s ear does not tune out to the mindless chatter of the advertising segments. The writer keeps listening. And (this is 2004) he observes that there is quite a bit more of a certain type of radio advertising than there used to be.

As of spring ’04, though, the most frequent and concussive spots on KFI are for mortgage and home-refi companies. In just a few slumped, glazed hours of listening, a member of this station’s audience can hear both canned and live-read ads for Green Light Financial, HMS Capital, Home Field Financial, Benchmark Lending. Over and over. Pacific Home Financial, Lenox National Lending, U.S. Mortgage Capital, Crestline Funding, Home Savings Mortgage, Advantix Lending, Reverse mortgages, negative amortization, adjustable rates, APR, FICO… where did all these firms come from? What were these guys doing five years ago? Why is KFI’s audience seen as so especially ripe and ready for refi? Betterloans.com, lendingtree.com, Union Bank of California, bethebroker.net, on and on and on.

I don’t want to attribute any prescience to DFW’s words. While he might be read as implying that nothing good would come of it, this may very well be just our interpretation as readers in 2010, with the privilege of what we know today. As a writer, he merely observed and reported. May we observe the world around us with the same open-mindedness and insight.