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Kevin Currie-Knight RSS Feed (Springfield, Illinois)
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School Choice and the Question of Accountability: The Milwaukee Experience
School Choice and the Question of Accountability: The Milwaukee Experience
Price: $14.30

4.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive and Balanced Review of Milwaukee Voucher System!, April 21, 2014
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This is a very comprehensive review of Milwaukee's (then) decade-old voucher system from all angles: how is it funded, does money follow the students, does competition make private and public schools better, what is the 'shopping for schools' experience like? What the authors find is that the "market logic" that many hoped would be put to work in Milwaukee - competition making all schools better, parents putting economic pressure on schools to improve - does not generally hold. But here is where the reviewer below is wrong: the authors conclude that this is not because voucher systems can't deliver, but that the Milwaukee program is structured in a way where 'market forces' can't really work as they should.

The authors do a really thorough job doing a chapter-by-chapter review of different aspects of the voucher program. First, they look at whether there is evidence that parents can put meaningful economic pressure on failing schools. They find that they can't; simply put, schools that accept vouchers accept too few of them for the voucher money to make much difference, and that there are enough other parents willing to find space in that school for schools to really be penalized for bad performance. The parents who DO seem to have more purchasing power are those who pay tuition without vouchers (because there are generally more of them than voucher parents.)

Next, the authors interview teachers in public schools to find out if public schools feel any real pressure to change owing to parents' choice to utilize vouchers. Not surprisingly, they find that the public schools feel little pressure because of the private schools; the funding structure essentially ensures that public schools' funding remains stable regardless of how many parents use vouchers.

Does money really follow the child? Not really, again, because there are so few voucher seats at any one school that the number of parents exiting any school is more than matched by parents who want to enter (and remember, there are new parents shopping for spots every year). So, while money does follow the student in a strict sense, schools can be relatively assured that since demand radically outstrips supply, they can rely on a steady stream of money regardless of what individual students do.

Last, is it relatively easy for parents to shop around? No. The authors conducted an experiment where researchers acted as voucher parents and went to different schools, taking notes of their experience. Schools, it seemed, made it fairly difficult to get information. When we shop for cars, dealers can't wait to give us info, and there are even websites where we can comparison shop on various vectors. Not so with voucher schools. One must make visits to separate schools, and ask specifically for specific information - not the easiest thing for busy or not-terribly-educated parents.

Last, the authors give some recommendations, but their recommendations are largely based on survey data given to Milwaukee (and Cleveland, another voucher city) residents. Questions like whether voucher schools should be compelled to make certain data freely available, and who should be charged with collecting it and enforcing the rule. My complaint here is the the authors don't so much make recommendations of their own based on their research, but want to refrain from being normative. But normative is exactly what they should be. It is a shame to get to the end of such a good study and not hear the AUTHORS' conclusions. I will let you read the book to hear the recommendations the authors come up with. (For my part, one that seemed obvious but was never addressed was (a) that the voucher programs need to be bigger, as the only way parents can exercise financial pressure is for demand not to radically outstrip supply via artificial laws mandating that it does. (b) the authors mention a strange feature of the voucher plan whereby all parents receive the same amount, and if a school's operating costs come in under the voucher amount, they must give any surplus back to the state. The authors note, correctly, that this leaves NO incentive (like exists in most markets) for schools to run more efficiently and compete on price. This rule needs to go, in my opinion.)

Anyway, this book is a fascinating read by two very balanced scholars. This book adds to the school choice debates by providing some really thorough data and insights about the benefits and shortcomings of the nation's longest-running voucher program.


The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government, and Social Enterprises Are Teaming Up to Solve Society's Toughest Problems
The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government, and Social Enterprises Are Teaming Up to Solve Society's Toughest Problems
by William D. Eggers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.94
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3.0 out of 5 stars Toward Inventive, Decentralized Solutions to Real Problems!, April 7, 2014
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Governments are not the only ones (or often the best ones) to solve social problems. In these pages, there is (well, at least anecdotal) proof. What business writers Eggers and MacMillan call "The Solution Revolution" is essentially a movement whereby nonprofits and for-profits are finding creative and sustainable ways to solve some of the world's most pressing social problems, from Recyclebank's methods of getting more people to recycle, to Rideshare and Zipcar's aid in solving congestion caused by motor transportation, to several companies' successful attempts to offer good, low cost, education to Africa's poor.

I will warn right now that this book is both somewhat unstructured and more of a rapid-fire profile of socially-conscious enterprises than an instructional book on "the solution revolution." The book is...er... organized around the "six principal features" of the "solution revolution: wavemakers (the players), disruptive technologies (they use to create innovation), business models that scale, impact currencies (currencies other than money, like social impact or reputation, used to motivate innovation), public value exchanges (innovative marketplaces), and solution ecosystems (that allow collaborators and competitors to converge on pressing social problems). But the execution is not there. Basically each chapter introduces the particular principal feature, talks about a few organizations and how they illustrate that feature, and then meander onto other organizations that may or may not illustrate that feature... all with VERY little explanation of how they leveraged that feature to create good results.

With that, my big criticism of the book, aside, we can talk about the good aspects. In relaying the stories of successful businesses and organizations succeeding at alleviating some of the world's pressing problems, Eggers and MacMillan permit and enable readers to imagine yet untapped possibilities. From companies who are offering low cost education to the world's poor (or just those in the "developed" world who can't afford higher ed's high price tag!) to companies finding ways to decrease government response time to natural disasters, the enterprising reader comes away with a heightened sense of optimism. These guys sure are good at telling the stories!

But, alas, this book is more inspirational (and in that sense, one could justly accuse a bit of Polyanna-ism) than instructive... unless one reads between the line and gleans the instruction solely from the book's examples. The book's sole "instructional" chapter - "How to Create Your Own Solution Revolution" - does little more than tells potential entrepreneurs to think "outside the box" and governments to be creative with how they tackle problems (think competitions for private solutions and crowdsourcing).

Be all this as it may, as long as you are reading this less as a how-to and more as an inspirational tale of how innovation can change lives, I highly recommend it.


How to Make Money Selling Drugs [HD]
How to Make Money Selling Drugs [HD]
DVD
Price: $4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Stern Social Commentary Masquerading as a Career Guide!, March 31, 2014
How to Make Money Selling Drugs is ostensibly a "career guide" for those who want to learn how to make money in the drug trade. Whether for lack of other meaningful options or just a desire to "get rich without really working," this film, featuring interviews from some successful drug dealers, law enforcement and others, is designed to look like a way to explain to outsiders how to get into the business.

But as the film goes on, you get the real message of social commentary: the reason the drug war is so lucrative is because that, far from decreasing the demand for drugs, the drug war increases demand and creates a system where everyone can strike it rich. Dealers benefit from drugs being kept illegal because they are more lucrative that way; police officers and police departments can make money both through confiscation of drug dealers' property but generous federal aid based on number of drug convictions; prisons can get rich over the boom to their business created by drug prohibition (which as we've said, does nothing to stop demand), etc.

This film was truly outstanding, though much of its message (and even some of the same interviewees) are reflected in an equally outstanding critique of the drug war, "The House I Live In." How to Make Money gains the edge, I think, because of its creativity of approach. Both films are must see's, though.


Colgate Total Advanced Pro-Shield Mouthwash, Wintermint Rush, 16.9 Fluid Ounce
Colgate Total Advanced Pro-Shield Mouthwash, Wintermint Rush, 16.9 Fluid Ounce
Offered by Quality 1 HBA
Price: $9.85
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3.0 out of 5 stars A Very Strong Minty Mouthwash (Not Typical for Most Alcohol-Free Moutwashs)., March 21, 2014
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It is hard to get excited about mouthwash, but for me, it is especially hard to get excited about alcohol-free mouthwash. I tend to prefer antiseptic to antibacterial mouthwash (this one being the latter), but I was asked to try it.

Part of the reason I am skeptical of non-alcoholic mouthwashs, frankly, is that the taste on many of them just isn't very strong. I want a strong mint, and most non-alcohiolic mouthwash I've tried is rather wimpy. This Colgate Total Advanced Pro-Shield Wintermint, though, is surprisingly bold in flavor. I could feel the mint in my mouth for about an hour after I used it (something I usually only get from Listerine or Act antiseptic mouthwash).

As far as really cleaning my teeth, I'm afraid I am going to stick with the alcohol-infused antiseptic mouthwash, mostly because my problem is not bad breath, but wanting to prevent gingivitis and the like. But if you want a good antibacterial (to head off bad breath and kill bacteria without drying your mouth out with alcohol, I would recommend the Colgate, particularly if you like a bold flavor!


One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
by Mitch Horowitz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.45
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3.0 out of 5 stars From Phinneas Quimby to The Secret!, March 21, 2014
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Before reading One Simple Idea, I had no real idea about the long and deep history of the positive thought movement. This is a very readable book (informative, but not scholarly in tone) about a chain of thinkers devoted to the idea that thoughts can have a material effect on the brain. Familiar with Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People? Rhonda Byrne's Oprah-fueled success The Secret? Here are the origins.

Really, it starts with a New England "spiritual teacher" named Phinneas Quimby, who was convinced that thoughts can help heal physical (and of course mental) disease. Once he began seeing patients and developing a following, it didn't take long for others to expand on or come to the same thoughts, particularly those like Mary Baker Eddy and the Christian Science movement (about whom the author recounts a very public controversy about how much intellectual debt she and the movement owed to Quimby. Followers of Christian Science sometimes left, establishing their own variation on the positive thinking movement, and within several decades, a movement was born. Prentice Mulford, Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, Benny Hinn? They were all figures arising from this history (and the author profiles the thought and lives of all of these).

But the book is not just as historical profile of a movement, but a reflection on how the movement has affected larger culture. One chapter ruminates on how the positive thinking movement made a deep influence on Stokely Carmichael and the "black power" movement. Another chapter discusses the positive thinking elements of the Reagan revolution and presidency (and its influence on politics at large during the tumultuous 80's.)

The last chapter - "But Does It work?" - is more of a philosophical rumination on whether these ideas are any good. The author (who has a personal connection with the positive thinking movement) is skeptical of some of the ethics of a movement that, in effect, places blame on people for their individual failures or lack of success (because if thinking it achieves it, a lack of achieving it means you just didn't want hard enough). For my tastes, one thing missing from this book was a bit of the history of skepticism toward the movement; occasionally, characters are introduced who are skeptics, but not very often. I think more of this would have offered a bit more of a counter-narrative to fit with the overall narrative. Also, probably because many of the characters espoused very similar beliefs and had very similar career paths (a boom for a few years and then a sharp fall-out in popularity), the book did get a bit repetitive.

All in all, though, this book gave me a lot of info into the history of the positive thinking movement that I just didn't know. It introduced an intriguing cast of characters and did so in a very readable and relatable way.


In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an era of Testing and Standardization
In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an era of Testing and Standardization
Price: $11.49

4.0 out of 5 stars In Defense of Trusting Communities Via Small Schools!, March 20, 2014
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Deborah Meier is one thoughtful educator. I first encountered this book in graduate school (in a class on Education Leadership) and, to my surprise, ended up coming back to it again and again. At first, I wasn't terribly blown away by Meier's arguments and the nuances in them, but the book did grow on me.

Meier's concern is that the "stakeholders" (my word, not hers) in schools do not trust and form relationships with each other enough. Students don't come to know and trust teachers, teachers and parents don't come to know and trust the other, and teachers often do not come to know and seek feedback from other teachers. Meier's suggestion (and I agree) is that this is largely because we quite often seek large solutions to problems: learning standards that apply uniformly state-wide, power centralized into higher and higher up political channels, and creating more standardized approaches.

Maybe what is needed is actually a bit of flexibility and a return of schools to (what social theorist Kirpatrick Sale argues) a "human scale." For teachers to attend and respond to parents (rather than seeing them as just one more nuisance and thing to worry about), maybe schools need to be of a smaller size that allows families and teachers to be a bit more flexible. For students to trust teachers, maybe teachers need a bit more authority to make decisions so that students can see their teacher as someone other than a rule-follower that has no real discretion or authority. (It is hard and maybe superfluous to trust who you know doesn't have authority to make decisions.)

Utopian? Well, Meier deals with some of those objections. If we create small schools that have discretion and authority over their own budgets and methods, doesn't the success of any school depend on the people? Well, yes, but a small school approach is probably more likely to attract good people and bring out the good work in people than a system where everything is mapped out by the state and teachers just follow orders. (Don't we all do better work when we have a bit of discretion on how to do it?) What about accountability? Meier's answer: accountability is as or more effective when it is down to the consumer than up to state bureaucrats. Et cetera.

Alongside all this, Meier goes into explanations of how small schools can and may be better able to deal with sensitive issues of race, class, and ethnic differences among students and "stakeholders," as well as one of the best non-technical discussions of why standardized tests don't quite measure what we think they do. (Long and short: norm-referenced tests are kind of circular and convoluted in the way they design and select questions for the test, and criterion-referenced tests leave open very thorny questions of how we decide what emphasis to put on what knowledge and "what every fourth grader should know." And either way, the tests are almost unavoidably designed with cultural bias and questions that could lead legitimately to more than one feasible answer.)

There are a few things I wish Meier would have addressed. First, Meier doesn't address the seemingly obvious concern many would have that small schools that all do things a bit differently may have a difficult time with the idea of equality. (Doesn't it sort of mean that we return to days where the schooling I can get is dependent on where I live?) Second, given Meier's love of decentralization (a love I share) and her allowance for some sort of school choice, she doesn't really address much about why she thinks school choice should be confined to public schools and warns against "privatization"? (She says something about this in a very brief final chapter, but it needs more unpacking, especially given governments' seeming penchant for centralizing school systems over time.) And there are a few others.

But this is a book I would certainly recommend to educational leaders and scholars, largely because Meier is so good at articulating her concerns and her vision for how we could design school systems differently.


Phil Spector
Phil Spector
DVD
Price: $14.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Look at The People v. Phil Spector...Through the Defense's Eyes!, March 20, 2014
I have always been a huge David Mamet fan but, to be honest, his films of the last several years have left a bit to be desired. (The dialogue and scripts were too choppy; the plots, a bit weak.) Here, though, we have a Mamet film that really has Mamet doing what he does best - creating really good, forward-moving dialogue around a really intriguing plot.

The plot centers around the first murder trial of Phil Spector, seen through the eyes of Spector's defense team. This intriguing angle is largely responsible for the film's uniqueness. Helen Mirren does a fantastic job as the lead defense lawyer who, at first, does not want to take the case, but gradually sympathizes with Spector and fears that without a good defense, a jury might convict him for his eccentricities alone. She and her defense team are determined not to see that happen, so they develop a defense not only based on (their interpretation of) the facts, but allowing the jury to learn about the human side of Spector. The question up until the very end of the film: put the unpredictable Phil Spector (played by an impeccable Al Pacino) on the stand?

I found the film quite riveting. Mamet creates a forceful forward motion with his rapid-fire dialogue punctuated by emotion-filled monologues (usually by Spector). The plot is both an interesting who-dunnit as well as a psychological exploration of Spector. All in all, a really good film that (at least to me) finds Mamet recapturing some of that "Glengary Glenn Ross" magic.


Government's End
Government's End
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Book About Side-Effects!, March 19, 2014
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This review is from: Government's End (Kindle Edition)
With Government's End, Jonathan Rauch gives a good introduction to the world of public choice economics. In other words, it is a book about what happens when government programs create inducements for "special interest" groups to lobby. In other words, when governments get in the business of wealth transfers (via tarrifs, subsidies, tax breaks, etc), it is only rational for various groups - industry representatives, consumer groups, policy groups - to start lobbying in order that some of those transfers go their way.

But let's get something straight: Rauch is NOT doing the typical "let's complain about those special interests" thing, or a political rant targeting some special interests (but not others) as destroying America. Rauch is actually quite neutral in this book. So, first, the term "special interest" is, for Rauch, a misnomer, because any group who has any interest at all in getting any policy enacted (or maintained) constitutes an interest that is likely to lobby. Second, these interests are not (generally) lobbying to subvert the will of the American people, but often are simply fighting for causes they believe are worthy and acting quite rationally (seeing as other groups are lobbying, it would be foolish to be the group that doesn't). What we have, in econ-speak, is a tragedy of the commons, where it is in everyone's interest to do what they can to get resources funneled their way, but when everyone does that, it risks creating a net loss (more money spent lobbying overall than benefits won as a result of lobbying overall).

While this book was written in the mid-1990's, the examples Rauch uses of public choice economics in action are quite good. From the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administration's failed attempts to challenge "special interests" enough to fulfill promises to change government, to many a stubbornly persistent government policies protecting everything from agricultural subsidies to taxicab licenses and wool manufacture. And while the book is easily read by non-economists, Rauch introduces several key economic concepts from the public choice literature like how "concentrated benefits and dispersed costs" often lead to policies remaining in place even when they cause a net loss to society, and "churning" whereby government programs often give to group a while taking from group by while also taking from group b to give to group a.

It is worth stressing again that this is not meant to be a partisan book. Rauch goes out of his way to point out that special interest groups (and good-spirited attempts to transcend "special interest politics") come both from the left and the right. In fact, particularly since the book is NOT partisan, it is hard to read it without amplifying one's pessimism because, as Rauch describes it, the "tragedy of the commons" problem (they lobby, so others lobby, increasing the inducement of still others to lobby) seems pretty unsolvable. Just stop the wealth transfer programs that lead to lobbying? Too late for that. Enact strict campaign finance or anti-lobbying laws? Good luck getting a system where everyone seems to benefit from lobbying to do that. Just elect more strong-willed and honest representatives? Good representatives + system dependent on lobbying = good representatives realizing that the only way to do good is to accept lobbying.

Anyway, this is a really good book for those wanting to understand not why our system doesn't work, but how our system works. (Whether it does or doesn't work depends on where you sit.) As Rauch writes, this is a book about side-effects, how a result no one seemed to plan arose and keeps growing because of incentives built into our system of government.


Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change
Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change
Price: $16.49

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4.0 out of 5 stars Ideas + Institutions + Incentives = Public Policy!, February 17, 2014
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Okay, well maybe it is not quite THAT simple, but here's the story. Madmen (those who have original ideas, whether in or outside of academia) think up some new idea - deregulating the airlines, earned income tax credit, whatever. Intellectuals (the dealers in second-hand ideas, usually in academia) figure out which ideas are good by writing and debating with each other. And then the academic scribblers (those who take ideas and apply them to concrete policy problems) finally take the ideas from intellectuals and apply them to policy.

Well, sort of. Really, the main concern in this book is to go beyond standard public finance and public choice theory. A 'public finance' approach tells us that policy is made by benevolent and altruistic public servants in order to correct for market failures. But that doesn't explain how - as often happens - policy often gets made (and stuck) that is clearly not in the public interest and not something the public seems excited about. So, public choice theory comes in to tell us that it is often the case that our public servants are self-interested, and often pass legislation because it will advance their careers, their livelihoods, etc. (I want x to pass, but can't do it without your support, and you want y to pass. So, I will help you pass y and you help me pass x, and stuff like that.) But wait.... that doesn't tell us why sometimes, bad policy DOES get removed, even at the seeming expense of the public figures and special interests who now have vested interest in the policy's existence. (The examples used toward the end of this book are the auctioning of radio frequencies on the market, deregulation of airlines, and welfare reform in the Clinton era.)

So, now comes our authors' theory: public choice has it right much of the time, but we also have to account for how ideas effect what policy proposals get traction and which don't. The theory is that "madmen" (in academia or out; we might call them 'rogues') come up with new ideas. From there, "intellectuals" in academia and out debate the ideas and keep some of them alive in the process. Finally, the "academic scribblers" are those who are in the world of policy, and put the rubber to the road by taking the ideas intellectuals have been researching and talking about, and applying them - when appropriate - to pressing problems of the day. The process can take many years from the original idea to the policy problem that catches the right person's attention (who knows just what academic idea to apply). But when it works, it works.

The first third of the book is spent discussing the traditional public finance and public choice views and why both of them have limited explanatory power (though the latter gets higher marks than the former). Next, the authors outline their theory of madmen, intellectuals, and scribblers. Last, the authors demonstrate by going over the three examples above. (So, for the radio auctioning, the madman who came up with the idea in 1956 was economist Ronald Coase, who modified the idea of a graduate student). After thirty eight years of intellectuals tossing the idea around, the FCC finally took the idea seriously and implemented it. Why the inefficient political distribution of radio frequencies hung around for so long was the stuff of public choice theory. Why it was repealed is the stuff of madmen, intellectuals, and academic scribblers.)

One thing I am not sure about with this book: while the authors' theory adds a potential new explanatory layer onto public choice theory, now it seems we must explain WHY certain ideas become powerful enough to overturn entrenched interests and why others don't. The authors suggest that there is simply a confluence of factors: the problem becomes so pressing and the policy so visibly bad that certain ideas (which might have laid dormant otherwise) now seem like a good idea and gain political traction. Okay, but there are many glaringly bad policies and proposals to fix those polices where entrenched interests ultimately do prove to great to overturn. So, should we now figure out what makes some situations more susceptible to innovation and others not?

That being said, I enjoyed the book. I teach education policy at the college level, and while this book is not specifically geared to my field, I think there may a useful framework for explaining why education reform occasionally happens and doesn't happen when we think it should, Very readable, and highly interesting.


Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970
Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970
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4.0 out of 5 stars Probing Intellectual History of the New Left and the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change!, February 17, 2014
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Intellectuals in Action is a history of the New Left movement like no other. Rather than a blow-by-blow, Mattson examines the evolution of ideas that moved the New Left by exploring the lives and writings of several intellectuals in the movement - one per chapter. (Sociologist C. Wright Mills, social critic Paul Goodman, historian William Appleman Williams, philosopher Arnold Kauffman, and the journalist academics behind Studies on the Left and New University magazines.)

What is Kauffman trying to find out? What is he doing with this history that other histories don't do? First, he is paying careful attention to how the New Left expanded on and drifted away from the Old Left, and particularly how each author handled the tension between liberalism (wanting to keep what is good in the liberal tradition) and progressivism (wanting to expand beyond the liberalism that left them frustrated). Second, he examines how each intellectual saw the role of intellectuals - themselves included - in the New Left; how much, for instance, should intellectuals be neutral scholars and how much should their scholarship be motivated by, or even be, activism?

I found this book extremely interesting. Particularly, I enjoyed the author's very neutral but passionate portrayal of all the intellectuals involved here. For instance, while the author clearly admires all the figures he writes about, he is quick to point out some of their blind spots and tensions in their work, such as some of the uneasy tensions between the appeal to traditional American liberal values and appeal to progressive radicalism. Other times, the author takes some figures to task for doing more pessimistic complaining about what the New Left saw as liberalism's increasing corporate style, and offering very few policy recommendations beyond telling the world to "decentralize."

I have always wanted to understand the New Left's intellectual core a bit more; while my own libertarian view is not quite matched with the New Left, it shares many commonalities, so my goal has been to find out where those similarities and differences are. What do New Leftists tend to mean - in terms of specific policy - by "decentralization," "participatory demoracacy," and the like? What kind of society were they envisioning that equally rejected laissez-faire capitalism, planned socialism, and (seemingly) the "War on Poverty" corporate welfare state? Mattson's book helped me get some of those answers, give me some new authors and ideas to play with, and leave me with new questions.

A very great read about the New Left that goes beyond the typical blow-by-blow.


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