Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Remembering Bobby Kennedy's Death 50 Years Later

Barbara Perry RFK Robert Kennedy
Barbara Perry
Last Saturday's episode of The Score on Bearing Drift featured an interview with Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.  I spoke to Dr. Perry about the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York) as he was campaigning in California for his party's presidential nomination.

Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan on June 5 (although, as Dr. Perry acknowledges but dismisses in our interview, there is some dispute over whether Sirhan's gun killed RFK or if there was a second gunman) and died on June 6, 1968.  Coincidentally, California Governor Ronald Reagan, who also sought his party's presidential nomination that year, although briefly, died on June 5, 2004, and June 6 is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II.

My interview with Barbara Perry can be heard at about the 26-minute mark of The Score for June 2, 2018, on Bearing Drift.  Here's an excerpt from the program notes for that episode.

This coming week, on June 6, Americans will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, who was gunned down during a tumultuous year that also saw the murder of Martin Luther King Junior, riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and a turning point in public opposition to the war in Vietnam. I spoke by telephone to presidential scholar Barbara Perry of the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia about the significance of Kennedy’s death fifty years ago. (The Score also featured Dr. Perry a few weeks ago, when she talked about the late Barbara Bush and the role of First Ladies.) Those of you old enough to remember RFK's funeral will no doubt still recall the haunting version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung at St. Patrick's Cathedral by the pop star and Kennedy family friend, Andy Williams. It's not on the podcast but seemed appropriate to embed here.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Guest Post: Question Authority - How Mad Magazine's ethos still matters

Michael J. Socolow, University of Maine

Mad Magazine is still hanging on. In April, it launched a reboot, jokingly calling it its “first issue.”

But in terms of cultural resonance and mass popularity, it’s largely lost its clout.

At its apex in the early 1970s, Mad’s circulation surpassed 2 million. As of 2017, it was 140,000.

As strange as it sounds, I believe the “usual gang of idiots” that produced Mad was performing a vital public service, teaching American adolescents that they shouldn’t believe everything they read in their textbooks or saw on TV.

Mad Magazine comedy humor parody satire

The magazine taught its readers to never swallow what they’re served.
Nick Lehr/The Conversation via Jasperdo, CC BY-NC-ND

Mad preached subversion and unadulterated truth-telling when so-called objective journalism remained deferential to authority. While newscasters regularly parroted questionable government claims, Mad was calling politicians liars when they lied. Long before responsible organs of public opinion like The New York Times and the CBS Evening News discovered it, Mad told its readers all about the credibility gap. The periodical’s skeptical approach to advertisers and authority figures helped raise a less credulous and more critical generation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today’s media environment differs considerably from the era in which Mad flourished. But it could be argued that consumers are dealing with many of the same issues, from devious advertising to mendacious propaganda.

While Mad’s satiric legacy endures, the question of whether its educational ethos - - its implicit media literacy efforts – remains part of our youth culture is less clear.

A merry-go-round of media panics

In my research on media, broadcasting and advertising history, I’ve noted the cyclical nature of media panics and media reform movements throughout American history.

The pattern goes something like this: A new medium gains popularity. Chagrined politicians and outraged citizens demand new restraints, claiming that opportunists are too easily able to exploit its persuasive power and dupe consumers, rendering their critical faculties useless. But the outrage is overblown. Eventually, audience members become more savvy and educated, rendering such criticism quaint and anachronistic.

During the penny press era of the 1830s, periodicals often fabricated sensational stories like the “Great Moon Hoax” to sell more copies. For a while, it worked, until accurate reporting became more valuable to readers.

Great Moon Hoax New York Sun

During the ‘Great Moon Hoax,’ the New York Sun claimed to have discovered a colony of creatures on the moon.
Wikimedia Commons

When radios became more prevalent in the 1930s, Orson Welles perpetrated a similar extraterrestrial hoax with his infamous “War of the Worlds” program. This broadcast didn’t actually cause widespread fear of an alien invasion among listeners, as some have claimed. But it did spark a national conversation about radio’s power and audience gullibility.

Aside from the penny newspapers and radio, we’ve witnessed moral panics about dime novels, muckraking magazines, telephones, comic books, television, the VCR, and now the internet. Just as Congress went after Orson Welles, we see Mark Zuckerberg testifying about Facebook’s facilitation of Russian bots.

Holding up a mirror to our gullibility

But there’s another theme in the country’s media history that’s often overlooked. In response to each new medium’s persuasive power, a healthy popular response ridiculing the rubes falling for the spectacle has arisen.

For example, in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain gave us the duke and the dauphin, two con artists traveling from town to town exploiting ignorance with ridiculous theatrical performances and fabricated tall tales.

They were proto-purveyors of fake news, and Twain, the former journalist, knew all about selling buncombe. His classic short story “Journalism in Tennessee” excoriates crackpot editors and the ridiculous fiction often published as fact in American newspapers.

Then there’s the great P.T. Barnum, who ripped people off in marvelously inventive ways.

“This way to the egress,” read a series of signs inside his famous museum. Ignorant customers, assuming the egress was some sort of exotic animal, soon found themselves passing through the exit door and locked out.

They might have felt ripped off, but, in fact, Barnum had done them a great – and intended – service. His museum made its customers more wary of hyperbole. It employed humor and irony to teach skepticism. Like Twain, Barnum held up a funhouse mirror to America’s emerging mass culture in order to make people reflect on the excesses of commercial communication.

‘Think for yourself. Question authority’

Mad Magazine embodies this same spirit. Begun originally as a horror comic, the periodical evolved into a satirical humor outlet that skewered Madison Avenue, hypocritical politicians and mindless consumption.

Teaching its adolescent readers that governments lie – and only suckers fall for hucksters – Mad implicitly and explicitly subverted the sunny optimism of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. Its writers and artists poked fun at everyone and everything that claimed a monopoly on truth and virtue.

“The editorial mission statement has always been the same: ‘Everyone is lying to you, including magazines. Think for yourself. Question authority,’” according to longtime editor John Ficarra.

That was a subversive message, especially in an era when the profusion of advertising and Cold War propaganda infected everything in American culture. At a time when American television only relayed three networks and consolidation limited alternative media options, Mad’s message stood out.

Just as intellectuals Daniel Boorstin, Marshall McLuhan and Guy Debord were starting to level critiques against this media environment, Mad was doing the same – but in a way that was widely accessible, proudly idiotic and surprisingly sophisticated.

For example, the implicit existentialism hidden beneath the chaos in every “Spy v. Spy” panel spoke directly to the insanity of Cold War brinksmanship. Conceived and drawn by Cuban exile Antonio Proh√≠as, “Spy v. Spy” featured two spies who, like the United States and the Soviet Union, both observed the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Each spy was pledged to no one ideology, but rather the complete obliteration of the other – and every plan ultimately backfired in their arms race to nowhere.

Mad Magazine question authority parody satire humor comedy

Mad skewered those who mindlessly supported the people who controlled the levers of power.
Jasperdo, CC BY-NC-SA

The cartoon highlighted the irrationality of mindless hatred and senseless violence. In an essay on the plight of the Vietnam War soldier, literary critic Paul Fussell once wrote that U.S. soldiers were “condemned to sadistic lunacy” by the monotony of violence without end. So too the “Spy v. Spy” guys.

As the credibility gap widened from the Johnson to Nixon administrations, the logic of Mad‘s Cold War critique became more relevant. Circulation soared. Sociologist Todd Gitlin – who had been a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s – credited Mad with serving an important educational function for his generation.

“In junior high and high school,” he wrote, “I devoured it.”

A step backward?

And yet that healthy skepticism seems to have evaporated in the ensuing decades. Both the run-up to the Iraq War and the acquiescence to the carnival-like coverage of our first reality TV star president seem to be evidence of a widespread failure of media literacy.

We’re still grappling with how to deal with the internet and the way it facilitates information overload, filter bubbles, propaganda and, yes, fake news.

But history has shown that while we can be stupid and credulous, we can also learn to identify irony, recognize hypocrisy and laugh at ourselves. And we’ll learn far more about employing our critical faculties when we’re disarmed by humor than when we’re lectured at by pedants. A direct thread skewering the gullibility of media consumers can be traced from Barnum to Twain to Mad to “South Park” to The Onion.

While Mad’s legacy lives on, today’s media environment is more polarized and diffuse. It also tends to be far more cynical and nihilistic. Mad humorously taught kids that adults hid truths from them, not that in a world of fake news, the very notion of truth was meaningless. Paradox informed the Mad ethos; at its best, Mad could be biting and gentle, humorous and tragic, and ruthless and endearing – all at the same time.

The ConversationThat’s the sensibility we’ve lost. And it’s why we need an outlet like Mad more than ever.

Michael J. Socolow, Associate Professor, Communication and Journalism, University of Maine

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

From the Archives - A Rare Treat for Theatergoers: 'Lady in the Dark' (1998)

This review appeared in The Metro Herald in May 1998, twenty years ago this month.

A Rare Treat for Theatergoers: Lady in the Dark
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Idiosyncrasy saves us from boredom and blandness. In a world of popular culture driven by focus groups, polls, and plagiarism, it's no wonder that television and the theatre seem infected by a sameness virus. Luckily, individual human choices are able to transcend this groupthink. And the American Century Theater (TACT) in Arlington shows us how the idiosyncratic choices of a few individuals can slash through the morass of predictability and yawns we have grown to expect from so many cultural institutions.

theatre two gunston middle school American Century Theater Arlington
Last season's Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed, for instance, was a triumph of physicality and illusion. The show had to be extended several times -- yet it was a play that hardly anyone had ever heard about before the TACT production.

Artistic director Jack Marshall has done it again with Lady in the Dark. Except, in this case, TACT is presenting a play that almost all literate theatergoers have heard about, but hardly anyone under the age of 80 has seen.

Lady in the Dark, with a libretto by Moss Hart, music by Kurt Weill, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, frequently appears on lists of the "greatest American musicals." Yet it is not part of the basic musical theatre repertoire. Some plays become classics because of repetition -- what community theatre company has not already performed Guys and Dolls or The Fantasticks three or four times? Some become classics because of a special cult status. Anyone Can Whistle achieved this when it closed after nine performances, but its producers were canny enough to record an original cast album.

Lady in the Dark cast albumLady in the Dark is of a different breed. It closed after less then a year when leading lady Gertrude Lawrence left the show. It had no original cast album (the concept had not yet emerged in 1941). According to research by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, fewer than 20 productions of Lady in the Dark have been mounted since 1942. This production by the American Century Theater is the first since 1965. Its reputation grew through the Hot Stove League of musical theater aficionados. It's discussed with the same distant admiration as baseball fans banter about a one-season pitching phenomenon of the 1930s. Textbooks explore it at length. Anthologies include it. But no one has seen it.

Except for three songs in the second act -- "Tchaichowsky," "The Saga of Jenny," and "My Ship" -- hardly a soul has heard any of the score. Yet Lady in the Dark is legendary. Why?

In January 1941, Lady in the Dark set records for expenditure. The production cost a then-unimaginable $150,000. (At the time, top ticket prices for Broadway plays were $4.40.) It had four interlocking turntables, extravagant sets and costumes, and a cast of 50 that included Danny Kaye, Victor Mature, MacDonald Carey, and Natalie Schafer (later Mrs. Thurston Howell on Gilligan's Island). Weill scored the show for a full symphony orchestra.

Theater lore has it that later producers found the show entirely too daunting. Jack Marshall, however, is dauntless.

It is said that theatre requires nothing more than actors, a performing space, and lighting. Everything else is gravy -- bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors. TACT proves that it is possible to mount a complicated, literate musical play without the special effects that so frightened other producers. In the small black-box theatre at Gunston Arts Center, set designer Hal Crawford and lighting designer David Walden have created a workable space that does all that is necessary to convey what Hart and his colleagues intended.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Lady in the Dark is basically a non-musical play with extended musical sequences. The musical sequences -- little one-act operas -- exist only in the dreams of troubled magazine editor Liza Elliott (Maureen Kerrigan). The non-musical scenes are played out in the drab offices of Elliott and her psychoanalyst, Dr. Brooks (Bernard Engel). Significantly, these scenes are played at the most distant edges of the stage, as far from the audience as possible. This allows the musical scenes to take up the fullest extent of the performing space, literally blossoming before our eyes with the colorful costumes of designer Edu. Bernardino.

Liza, a driven career woman, has suddenly begun to have panic attacks and fits of depression. For these, she seeks the help of Dr. Brooks. In what may be the play's most unsatisfactory facet, she resolves her problems in barely a week. Within that week, however, we are able to observe the inner workings of Liza's mind -- the "lady" in the "dark."

Lady in the Dark cast album Gertrude LawrenceGiven the structure of the play, with dream sequences being as disjointed as dreams are, the commercial temptation for Weill and Gershwin would have been to write a collection of potential hit songs -- something in the revue tradition of the Ziegfeld Follies or Garrick Gaieties. Instead, they wrote integrated, operatic playlets in which discrete songs are difficult to discern at all. Ironically, the play itself does not nearly approach the full integration that Rodgers and Hammerstein achieved with Oklahoma! two years later, setting the standard for American musical theatre for the next quarter century.

The play does, however, give opportunities for both dramatic and musical virtuoso performances. Standout Jason Gilbert is manic as photographer Russell Paxton. Buzz Mauro is pleasingly sleazy as advertising director, Charley Johnson, a perfect foil for "boss lady" Liza. Timothy Hayes Lynch is appropriately, WASPishly staid as Liza's longtime live-in lover, Kendall Nesbitt. In a small but important role as high-school student Ben Butler, Kerry DeMatteis is sweetly but unintentionally inconsiderate (and well-cast for age -- DeMatteis seems not to have aged a day since his Washington area debut in a Georgetown University production of Gemini almost 14 years ago). Somewhat off the mark, however, is Tom Manger as Randy Curtis, who simply fails to come across convincingly as a Hollywood matinee idol.

Aside from Liza, the female roles in Lady in the Dark are underwritten, but Mary McGowan is a finely-tuned Maggie Grant, Liza's right hand, and Brenda Wesner gets a few comic turns as Allison DuBois.

There is a reason, unfortunately, to feel sorry for all these talented cast members. They will now put Lady in the Dark on their resumes -- but no one will believe them. No one, that is, except for those who hear about the American Century Theater's bold decision to mount a play that scares off richer and more powerful producers.

Lady in the Dark has been extended through May 30 at the Gunston Arts Center, Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with 2:30 matinees on May 16, 17, and 23. Tickets are $20 and $17 (students/seniors). For information and reservations, call 703-553-8782.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Rundown of Recent Podcasts on 'The Score'

The Score Bearing Drift Rick Sincere podcast radio
As announced here on March 17, I have become host and producer of The Score, a podcast on Bearing Drift, Virginia's leading political web site for conservative and libertarian writers. In addition to appearing on Bearing Drift, The Score is also broadcast over-the-air on WINC-AM and FM in Winchester, Virginia, and is available as a podcast on the Red State Talk Radio Network.

Since that time, I have assembled, edited, and posted eight episodes of The Score, with a wide array of interviews and features.

The first episode ("The Score: Student Debt and Social Security, LPVA Senate Hopeful, and African Progress") appeared March 17 and featured interviews with Elliott Harding, Matt Waters, and Marian Tupy.

My second episode ("The Score: Focus on the First Amendment") had interviews with former ACLU executive director Nadine Strossen, author of HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship (published May 1 by Oxford University Press); John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute; and William Hitchcock of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, who talked about his new book, The Age of Eisenhower.  A bonus feature was an interview about hemp farming with author Doug Fine.

Big Chicken Maryn McKennaThe following week drew on interviews with authors I met at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville ("The Score: Senate Hopefuls, True Crime, Big Chicken, and Dead Center"). It also featured interviews with U.S. Senate candidates Corey Stewart and Nick Freitas. The authors included Bill Sizemore, Radley Balko, Maryn McKenna, and Jason Altmire. Added bonus: Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding.

The next episode continued with author interviews from the Virginia Festival of the Book ("The Score: Pentagon Science, Richard Nixon, Social Activists, and Nicotine Regulation"), including Sharon Weinberger, Roben Farzad, and John Farrell. I also introduced a feature called "From the Archives" with Ken Hughes of the Miller Center and talked to Jamie Kirchick of the Brookings Institution and Phil Kerpen of American Commitment.

Seven days later, more author interviews ("The Score: Campus Censors, Grassroots Activism, Chappaquiddick, and More") with Keith Whittington, Emily Dufton, Joe Tone, and Jamie Kirchick, in a return appearance, plus a new weekly film review segment with Tim Hulsey, who took a look at the Ted Kennedy biopic Chappaquiddick. We also remembered the late David Rothbard of CFACT in our "From the Archives" retrospective.

Two weeks ago ("The Score: Barbara Bush, Tom Garrett, and Sgt. Stubby"), we spoke to Barbara Perry of the Miller Center about the late First Lady Barbara Bush, had a lengthy two-part interview with Congressman Tom Garrett (R-VA5), and pulled an interview with GMU Professor Colin Dueck "From the Archives." Tim Hulsey reviewed Sgt. Stubby, an animated film about a military dog in World War I.

Little Pink House eminent domain KeloLast week's show ("The Score: Madieu Williams, Tim Kaine, Pink House, General Assembly") included an interview with former NFL player and union representative Madieu Williams; a joint interview with David Toscano, minority leader in the House of Delegates, and state Senator Creigh Deeds; excerpts from an interview with Senegal's ambassador to the United States, Babacar Diagne; and an excerpt from a speech at UVA by Senator Tim Kaine; and Tim Hulsey's reviews of Little Pink House and I Can Only Imagine.  The "From the Archives" segment featured author Evan Thomas.

This week's episode (posted just a few hours ago) has interviews with U.S. Senate candidates E.W. Jackson and Nick Freitas; Delegate Rob Bell; and Will Lyster of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.  Tim Hulsey reviews Avengers: Infinity War and we look back at the 2012 U.S. Senate campaign with E.W. Jackson in "From the Archives."

I'll post these rundowns periodically and -- I hope -- more frequently in the months to come.

Guest Post - Kentucky Derby: the mint julep has always been about staying cool

Jeffrey Miller, Colorado State University

The Kentucky Derby is about more than horses and hats. It’s also where one of the South’s favorite cocktails – the mint julep – takes center stage.

Since the 1930s, the drink – a mix of mint, syrup, bourbon, water and crushed ice – has been the traditional cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. At this year’s Derby, organizers plan to serve around 120,000 mint juleps, which will require 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.

Like gin and Jägermeister, the julep started as a medicine. Since medieval times, mint had been prescribed for stomach ailments; it soothes the lining of the digestive tract and stimulates the production of bile, an essential digestive fluid. Though some say the drink was invented by slaves working the cotton fields outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the version of the julep we know today probably originated in Persia, where people mixed syrup with mint or rose water.

The mint julep has been a Southern tradition since at least the early 19th century. The first mention of the drink in the U.S. comes from Englishman John Davis’ book “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States: 1798-1802.” In it Davis describes the julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it” consumed by Virginians as a morning eye-opener.

Early recipes for juleps used various kinds of liquor. Brandy and cognac were popular bases in Europe, as was gin. But as juleps became more closely associated with the Kentucky Derby, bourbon – America’s native whiskey – became the alcoholic mixer of choice.

Juleps are traditionally served in silver cups. The most likely reason is that the metal cups “frost up” from the ice. In the oppressive heat of the pre-air-conditioned South, gripping a cool cup made the drink that much more refreshing.

Kentucky Derby mint julep bourbon

The cup is almost as important as the drink.
Jami430, CC BY-SA

In the 19th-century South, silver julep cups were a popular gift for baby christenings, weddings and graduations, and many middle-class Southern households probably had a set of julep cups.

In a 1908 edition of Fuel Magazine, a Lexington, Kentucky, native named Samuel Judson Roberts explained the importance of the cup.

“Take a silver cup – always a silver cup. Fill it with ice pulverized to the fineness of snow.” Once the drink is mixed, “shake the cup slowly until a coating of a thick white frost forms on the outside. Trim with mint and hand to an appreciative gentleman.”

The ConversationToday you don’t have to be a gentleman to enjoy the drink. But as you cheer on your favorite horse, you can enjoy it all the same.

Jeffrey Miller, Associate Professor and Program Coordinator, Hospitality Management, Colorado State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, May 04, 2018

From the Archives: James Robinson discusses 'why nations fail' at George Mason University

James Robinson discusses 'why nations fail' at George Mason University
May 4, 2013 7:37 PM MST

In his first speaking engagement at George Mason University on the evening of May 2, Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson paid a compliment to the school by noting its “distinct intellectual atmosphere.”

Why Nations Fail Robinson Acemoglu GMU economics history
Robinson appeared at the Arlington campus of GMU at the invitation of the Mercatus Center to discuss his recent book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, which he co-wrote with MIT's Daron Acemoglu.

In his lecture, Robinson explained how his and Acemoglu's empirical research had led to a predictive theory about how nations develop economically and politically. All countries, he said, can be plotted on a matrix using the categories “inclusive” (politics and economics) and “extractive” (politics and economics).

Success or failure for nations depends on whether they have inclusive or extractive institutions, Robinson said, and these institutions have their origins deep in history – although circumstances can change through the adoption and adaptations of new, better institutions.

England and Virginia

As an example of this kind of change, Robinson noted that 200 years before the Industrial Revolution, England was an economic backwater on the edge of Europe. Elizabeth I's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was unexpected and unpredictable, yet by 1788, Great Britain was Europe's most formidable economic power and the world's leading colonizer. This was the result of institutional change in law and society.

After signing books for fans and admirers, Robinson clarified and expanded some of his remarks in an interview with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner.

He explained that although the Spanish and English colonies in the Americas both began with the same model, the English experience at Jamestown, Virginia, set North America down a more economically prosperous path than the colonies in South America trod.

The circumstances in Virginia and, for instance, Buenos Aires, “were very different,” Robinson said.

“Because there were very few indigenous people [who were] organized in a very different way in Virginia as compared to, say, the central valley of Mexico, a very different type of society emerged.” This society was “based on creating incentives and opportunities for European [settlers] rather than exploiting indigenous people,” which was the case in Latin America.

Mysterious development?

Asked whether there is a difference in the questions of “why nations fail” and “why nations succeed,” Robinson replied that “they're two sides of the same coin.”

The reason his book has the title it does is that he and his co-author “don't think of economic development as being mysterious.”

Instead, he said, “to us, the puzzling thing is, why on earth don't poor countries that ought to be able to generate huge amounts of wealth and improve the living standards of their people” do so by investing in education, adopting technologies, and securing property rights?

“Why don't they do it?,” he repeated. “We've always found failure more puzzling. Why is it people don't take advantages of these huge opportunities?” This question is particularly salient when countries have abundant mineral resources, climates and soils conducive to agriculture, and convenient locations for trade and industry -- yet still fail to develop economically.

Cultural predictors

Many commentators on economic development – Thomas Sowell, for instance – focus on cultural values as the basis for success or failure. Robinson and Acemoglu take a different approach by emphasizing institutions.

Their approach, Robinson said, came about “mostly because of the empirical work we've done, all the scientific research. We've always found measures of institutions to have much more predictive power than different measures of culture.”

He conceded that “there's a problem of language here. When I talk about institutions, I don't just mean things written down, like the U.S. Constitution.”

He gave the example of the limit of two presidential terms, which was established as “a social norm that lasted for 150 years” by George Washington, before Franklin Roosevelt parted with the tradition and, eventually, the Constitution was amended to make the tradition statutory.

Nobel laureate economist Douglass North, he pointed out, “talks about informal institutions, social norms, and I think that's enormously important. It's not just about written-down laws. Social norms and informal institutions are quite similar to what a lot of people talk about when they talk about culture.”

When Robinson and Acemoglu talk about culture, however, “it's not about values or normative beliefs or normative principles or religious principles. We don't find that to be important; we don't think it's important” in terms of predictive value for economic success or failure.

Why Nations Fail is published in hardback by Crown Business and in paperback by Profile Books Ltd.

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on Examiner.com on May 4, 2013. The Examiner.com publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to Examiner.com since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.