Recommended Readings From Michael Barone

A few books and articles we should all brush up on.

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Some interesting reading materials on various subjects:

Transportation. Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive Twenty-first Century by Sam Staley and Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation. As Barack Obama urges Congress to pass a stimulus package that will presumably give us public works projects, Staley and Moore put forth some good ideas of how to improve our transportation system and prevent the rising congestion that seems inevitable if we continue to do what we have done. Adding more lanes to highways won't do it, they argue. Nor will the light-rail projects that are so beloved of many liberals (and some conservatives); they may be mildly useful in some places and (I would add) could perhaps be considered worth the money as urban amenities, but they're pretty marginal.

Staley and Moore's perspective is worldwide: They're knowledgeable about the latest transportation projects in countries as far-flung as France, China, and Australia. They're market-oriented. They look with favor on plans to charge varying tolls for highway use. They argue that projects should not be designed by one firm and built by another; they should be designed, built, and operated by the same firm and then ultimately be turned over to the public sector. Having the same firm involved long term reduces failures of communication between designer and builder and gives the firm an incentive to do work within budget and with lasting quality. 

What was most new to me was their call for "3-D projects." Not just widening existing freeways or adding more lanes but building tunnels and overhead highways. Evidently, the French are building major tunnels in and around Paris, and the Chinese are building vast tunnels around Shanghai. These have avoided, they say, the huge overruns of the similar Big Dig project in Boston that were due to lack of coordination between designers and builders and poor incentives. I certainly have to agree that the Big Dig is far superior to what it replaced in downtown Boston, and tunnels do less damage to urban landscapes than open-air freeways (like the eastern end of I-66 in Washington, which forms the gaping hole between the Kennedy Center and the rest of the city).

Military strategy. An article by Gen. H. R. McMaster on Vietnam and Iraq argues that our leaders in both conflicts approached the war with "a fixation on American technological superiority and an associated neglect of the human, psychological, and political dimensions of war [that] doomed one effort and very nearly the other." In both cases, McMaster argues, the strategists around Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush clung to an assumption that the enemy would be deterred by the display of American power—remember "shock and awe." He writes—and this is new to me—that war games played out in the Pentagon in 1964 accurately predicted the course of the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968; the players assigned the parts of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refused to be intimidated by displays of American power and dug in for the long term. This was not appreciated by Johnson's top advisers. "For these men—McNamara, William Bundy, John McNaughton, and the 'whiz kids' who surrounded them—human relations were best viewed through the lenses of rational choice economics and systems analysis." He then argues that "the strategic concept for future war that emerged in the 1990s bears a striking resemblance to an earlier and repudiated approach to the use of force. In its essentials, this concept resurrects a set of theories tested and found wanting four decades ago." But this reliance on rapid decisive operations proved wanting in Iraq. McMaster is known for his work as a colonel in Tal Afar in 2006 and as one of Gen. David Petraeus's leaders in the surge operations; the promotions board headed by Petraeus recommended McMaster's promotion to general. For him, war is politics by other means: "Because counterinsurgency, for one, is fundamentally a political problem, the operational framework that connects tactics to strategy ought to be a political scheme that directs and integrates an entire array of initiatives, actions, and programs in the areas of security, political transition, security-sector reform, reconstruction, economic development, governmental capacity development, diplomacy, and the rule of law."

As they say, the enemy gets a vote. We tend to err when we assume that others will behave as we would do. And for all our brilliant technological advances, war is still hard work on the ground if the enemy wants to make it that.

Education. Jay Mathews has been writing about education for the Washington Post for 27 years, and his book, Work Hard. Be Nice. How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, is just out, with a publication date of January 20. The subject is KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, which now has more than 50 charter schools operating around the country. KIPP takes entering fifth graders from the poorest demographic who are far behind grade level in reading and math and turns out eighth graders who are well ahead of grade level in both. I've visited a couple of KIPP schools, in Washington and San Francisco, and have written a bit about them. I'm a big, big fan. So is Jay Mathews. But he, unlike me, knows a lot about schools and just about everything about KIPP. He's a great writer, and you'll find it hard to put the book down. And I agree with Abigail Thernstrom's blurb: "KIPP is the most important educational story in America today."

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  • Corrected on 01/13/09: An earlier version of this blog's headline was incorrect and has been changed.