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The most important unanswered question about Thom Hartmann
on August 30, 2009
I gave three stars mainly to avoid uniform rating of Thom's book - although under other circumstances I'd rate it higher. Amazon's brilliant innovation of introducing reader ratings reveals the widespread U.S. phenomenon that readers cluster into polarized politics that I'll talk about more a little later. So liberal authors like Thom get blessed by lots of 5's and so do the conservative authors. This doesn't mean the reviewers aren't perceptive - but they may leave out relevant issues.
Thom Hartmann made his early reputation through books on ADD/ADHD whose link to creativity and wide range of interests reaches flaming proportions in his case. Another typical attribute of ADDs is underachieving and difficulty in completing tasks. But Hartmann has written 19 books and manages a frenetic regular lifestyle as a radio personality with fantastic organizational efficiency. I know, because early in his more politically-focused career I spoke to him during his show and had small correspondence. So the most important question - which jealous ADDs all over the country would probably like to know is - HOW DOES HE DO IT???
Turning to the political, I moved from my former career as a research scientist to public policy since retirement. I recently released a book with Springer (THE CONFLICT OVER ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION IN THE UNITED STATES), 321 p., March 23, 2009. Though the book is written for a wider public, the same as Thom's, it has a stuffy title and is associated with an academic book publisher, has many references and other attributes of "textbooks". For this reason its unconventional, "cross all the boundaries" contents, offering very different perspectives from Thom's, will have difficulties getting beyond university libraries and scholars. I thought personal approaches and special marketing might get it out of the strictly academic groove but I'm probably wrong. It's trapped in a phenomenon that I document in my book, and which I link to many of the U.S.'s ills. Thom is not responsible for the below problem, but because of it probably won't see either these comments or my book.
U.S. society is fragmented into groups that don't communicate outside their spheres of interest. Some are well known, like Democrats and Republicans and other partisan groupings, Gays and pro-family Christian groups, music and popular entertainment enthusiasts in different genres, etc. U.S. universities as an entity form a large and important group, as do disciplinary units within academia - that also communicate little with each other. These academic interest areas produce vast quantities of publications - because peer-reviewed publications and "productivity" form the main credentials for appointment, promotion and tenure in the university. You publish or perish.
As a consequence, for example, the keywords "environmental policy" yield over 2 million articles and books in Google Scholar search engine. Not web sites, but "hard" scholarly articles and books! But credentialed social scientists themselves confirm that the formal literature is essentially ignored for practical policymaking. Most of the academic literature is too narrow and absorbed with theoretical questions to be useful even if decisionmakers wanted to extract value from it. And where would they start? The result in the U.S. is a vast brain drain. A significant fraction of our most gifted scientific and conceptual talent is essentially buried behind ivory tower walls, communicating largely among peers. Scandinavians have not followed this pattern, which is one of the reasons why Thom's favored Denmark is doing better than we are.
Thom's new book falls into the category of "Trade books" which include widely-distributed books including bestsellers. His book is indubitably brilliant and will probably sell more copies than 99% of scholarly books - no matter what their quality. But his book will not or only rarely be used in the university (among other things, most of his data isn't documented), and also will probably make little difference in influencing the body politic even if it contains good prescriptions. The reason for this prediction is group isolation and related practical factors. All of our leadership groups have preferred sources of information. And the flood of information is so great in all areas that people with serious tasks like the Republican and Democratic action committees, Congressional leaders and committee staff, partisan think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress, environmental organizations, business associations, labor unions, etc have little time for discretionary reading.
I disagree with the widespread current opinion that objectivity is impossible. It's just difficult, troublesome, and currently unpopular. We do get balanced statements on specific areas like weather and the factual history of politicians in the news, etc. but in the bigger and controversial issues it requires sacrifice to deliberately pursue background of perspectives that a person dislikes or have little official standing. Walter Cronkite was widely trusted in part because he kept his own convictions under wraps in the interest of balance until after his retirement. But commentators who attempted to follow such policies now might be considered "clinical" or "weird".
Now let me say that Thom obviously goes out of his way to receive feedback, and have interviews with people he disagrees with. He invites communications through chat lines and forums. He's among the good guys and more power to him.