Risky Business

Do fear and safety go hand in hand?

Consider air travel. An estimated one in 15 Americans has a crippling fear of flying, and a quarter of the U.S. population reports being nervous about flight.

Of course, aviation is just about the safest mode of travel in the world. The average American is 1,330 times as likely to die in a car wreck as in a plane crash. But all the statistics in the world can’t dislodge the deep anxieties many feel about flight. In Greg Ip’s widely covered new book, Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe, the Wall Street Journal economics columnist explores why that sense of risk heightens the safety of air travel. Continue reading “Risky Business”

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Imperial Might vs. Widow’s Mite

In A.D. 313, just one short decade after a massive, bloody persecution of Christians, the Emperor Constantine granted religious toleration to the small Christian churches in the Roman Empire. Flash forward two centuries. In 476, the Emperor was deposed at Ravenna, effectively ending the Roman Empire in the West. On the former date, the empire was vast and Christianity was marginal; by the latter, the empire was fractured, and Christianity had become the dominant religious and social movement in the Mediterranean world.

How?

In his magisterial new study of this era, acclaimed classical historian Peter Brown attributes this transformation to the evolution of wealth and, in particular, philanthropy in Christian churches. Continue reading “Imperial Might vs. Widow’s Mite”

Banana Sam

The banana tycoon Samuel Zemurray is an attractive and difficult subject for biography. Attractive, because his life is a biographer’s playground: He ran the United Fruit Company for two decades, from 1933 to 1954, was an irrepressible meddler in world affairs, and came to be numbered among the American South’s most notable philanthropists. Difficult, because there are few clear accounts of Zemurray’s adventures, as he meticulously cultivated his privacy, as Rich Cohen writes in The Fish That Ate the Whale. And yet in this, the first full-length biography of Zemurray, Cohen builds a remarkable story from a life half lived in the shadows.

Schmuel Zmurri was born in 1877 in Bessarabia, modern-day Moldova, and emigrated to the United States at age 14. In 1893, he visited Mobile, Alabama, where the teenager spied his first opportunity in the banana trade. Continue reading “Banana Sam”

Eye of the Needle

Jesus of Nazareth didn’t make it easy on his rich followers.

One devout young man, satisfied that he led a worthy life, was told to sell all he had and give it to the poor. He went away sad, for he was very rich.

In a parable, a rich man built massive barns to store his bumper crops and went to bed happy in his wealth, only to die that very night. “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God,” concluded Jesus.

Continue reading “Eye of the Needle”

Should We Privatize Airports?

In 1977, as a group of policymakers attempted to apply economic theory to the regulation of airlines, future American Airlines (AA) chairman Robert Crandall was not happy. Then an executive at AA, Crandall claimed that the economists’ ideas would ruin the airline industry. Things came to a head when he confronted a Senate lawyer prior to a hearing, reportedly shouting: “You f—king academic eggheads! You don’t know s—t. You can’t deregulate this industry. You’re going to wreck it. You don’t know a g——n thing!”

Thirty years after a bipartisan coalition passed the Airline Deregulation Act (in October 1978), the subject is still hotly debated. Continue reading “Should We Privatize Airports?”

Chasing the American Dream with $25

How’s this for a crazy idea: a guy moves to a randomly selected city with $25 and plans to have a place to live, a car, and $2,500 in the bank—all within one year. Adam Shepard performed this exact feat and then wrote a book about it, titled Scratch Beginnings. According to Shepard, his experience proves that the American dream can come true.

In college, Shepard read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which argues that only government intervention can rescue the working poor from what Ehrenreich portrays as a desperate plight. Shepard doubted her thesis and wanted to test it. So after graduating, he went to Charleston, South Carolina, with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, $25, and a made-up tale of woe. He spent the first two months in a homeless shelter while he worked as a day laborer. He later found a permanent position with a moving company, which gave him a stable income. This allowed Shepard to buy a (very) used pickup truck, rent and furnish an apartment with a coworker, and start saving.

Continue reading “Chasing the American Dream with $25”

Up, Up, and Away

The National Air and Space Museum seems to occupy a precarious position on the Mall in Washington. Not that it is in any danger of disappearing, but it seems to have less of an intellectual pedigree than its neighbors. Art, science, history, anthropology, and–whoa! cool planes and spacecraft! The Smithsonian’s 19 museums have over 21 million visits every year, and a quarter of them go to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s a favorite for families on vacation and school groups on field trips, and is always much more crowded than the sedate galleries nearby. But its new permanent exhibition illustrates that beautiful aircraft and a popular presentation can go hand-in-hand with intellectual rigor.

“America by Air,” which opened in November, records the story of commercial air travel in the United States, from the earliest postal pilots to the new planes just now entering the market. Continue reading “Up, Up, and Away”

Edit Thyself: A Maxim for the New Media

There are today more than 100 million blogs; 175,000 are begun each day, and 1.6 million posts are added daily. There are thousands of magazines of all varieties. Almost 300,000 books were published in 2006; self-publishing has harnessed cheap printing technology to take off in recent years. People are increasingly producing their own journalism, literature, and entertainment for themselves, their friends, and random virtual passersby. More and more people are writing today for the public than ever before. And therefore, more and more people need editors than ever before.

Fortunately for all the bloggers out there, veteran editor Susan Bell has written a fine new book, The Artful Edit, to help writers learn to “self-edit”­—not bypassing traditional editors altogether, but improving their writing through dispassionate revision. Continue reading “Edit Thyself: A Maxim for the New Media”

Friendly Fire

After the Republicans’ “thumpin’,” as President Bush described it, in the 2006 midterm elections, the recent host of books offering a scathing conservative critique of the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled 107th, 108th, and 109th Congresses look prescient.

It’s getting hard to keep the titles straight: In 2003 and 2004, left-wing critics offered Worse than Watergate, American Dynasty, The Price of Loyalty, Losing America, and The Politics of Truth. Beginning with Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, by former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett, conservatives and libertarians are catching up, venting their pent-up frustration with the Bush White House and the Republican leadership in Congress in book form. Continue reading “Friendly Fire”