Streamers (parachutes that won't open) was a Broadway play, then a television drama, and now Robert Altman has made it into a film. Set entirely in an army boot camp in Virginia, it still has the trappings of the original stage play. Whether as theater or as film, it is a drama of raw power and concentrated emotion. It is set in the time of the Vietnam war but is not at all about war; it is about the conflicting emotions of men, until recently strangers to one another, who are thrown together in close proximity. Fear of death, fear of homosexual impulses, fear of confrontation with each other and their own deepest feelings, combine to produce an excruciatingly intense drama.
The performances, by a cast of unknowns, are superb. Best of all perhaps is that of George Dzunda as the Vietnam-weary officer. When he appeared in The Deer Hunter, for a few crucial moments the fate of the entire film was in his hands: at the end of the film, tears streaming down his face after the funeral, he prepared breakfast for the grief-stricken survivors and, as if to deflect their attention, started to hum "God Bless America," whereupon others took up the tune until everyone joined in. It was a tremendous chance to take, the chances being that coming where it did it would sound false and ruin the climax of the film, but thanks to his performance the end of the film was brilliant. He enacts a similar scene toward the end of Streamers, an unusually difficult and delicate thing to bring off, but he does it with extraordinary ability.
The film, however, is so harrowing that it could hardly be called entertainment, and it will certainly not suit everyone's taste.
Never Cry Wolf
Wolves are still perceived as the enemies of man, as vicious predators. The literature is full of myths about attacks on man by wolves—Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Saki's famous story about wolves' attacks, and so on. One result of man's tragic misperception of wolves is that they have been almost wiped out on the American mainland.
Actually, wolves are among the most highly evolved species in the world. Their complex system of signals, their manner of dividing up territories, their code of etiquette in the training of their young, and their relations with other animals, all marvels of complexity and utility, have been the subject of numerous documentaries, notably Wolves and Wolf-Men.
Now from Disney Productions comes a full-length film, Never Cry Wolf, filmed over a year's span of time in the wilds of Alaska. It illustrates another facet of the life of wolves, amidst the most stunning Arctic scenery. A man is sent to Alaska to test the theory that the wolf is responsible for the depletion of caribou herds. As things turn out, it is man and not the wolf who is responsible for the slaughter of the caribou—the wolf lives largely on small rodents. But between the landing in the Alaskan wilderness and the final proof of the truth about wolves, there is a remarkable series of incidents, with a fascinating narrative, a serious purpose, and a pervasive sense of humor, all of which make the film richly informative and fascinating to watch. For anyone who cares about animals or about scenic beauty, this is one of the most rewarding films of this or any other year.
Compared to most contemporary films about the problems of youth, Rumble Fish is profound and disturbing. It concerns the problem of growing up in a city (Tulsa), with no parents worthy of the name, no money, nothing to do, wondering how to spend each day that comes along. It is a saga of alienated youth, which makes most youth-oriented films superficial and fatuous by comparison.
From another point of view, however, a person could well say that the characters largely deserve their fate. People have come out of the slums before and made their lives succeed; these show no motivation at all in that direction—neither the main character (Mat Dillon) nor his ex-motorcycle champion brother (Mickey Rourke).
With whichever attitude one comes to the film, it seems clear that for director Francis Ford Coppola the art (some would say artiness) is more important than the story. Mists constantly swirl about the scene; the streets are always wet, the sunsets are always lucidly dramatic. But then, the film is not an attempt at cinematic realism. It is a vision, presumably of life as seen from a specific point of view, in which the physical universe is imbued with the tortuous conflicts of the characters, much as the rocks appear agonized and tormented in El Greco's painting "Christ in Gethsemane." To criticize the film for not abiding by the standard of realism is to miss entirely what Coppola was trying to do.
But not everyone who sees what he was trying to do will like it. There is not much by way of overt incident in the film; it is highly atmospheric, and this is something one must absorb through one's pores slowly and gradually. Those interested only in what happens next should accordingly skip this one.
Beyond the Limit
Beyond the Limit is a film adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The Honorary Consul. It is a fairly accurate rendition of the bare bones of the novel (except for the fortunate omission of the physician's mother). But some of the sharp lines of the novel have been lost, owing to the familiar tendency among screen writers, who already know the plot well, to assume that the viewer who hasn't read the book is equally familiar with it. So incidents in the book that contain rapier-sharp thrusts tend to be blunted in the film. Moreover, the agonizing sense of moral ambiguity that pervades Greene's work is largely lost in the film: the idealistic young physician sleeps with his friend the consul's wife; the antigovernment Paraguayan guerrillas have deceived the doctor into serving them by lying to him about his father's fate; the doctor thinks his first duty is to save lives, no matter whose, and thus remains apolitical but is forced by the situation in Argentina to take sides, a moral decision for which he pays heavily; and so on.
Michael Caine as the consul and Richard Gere as the doctor give their best to their roles. But if some of the moral dilemmas had been fleshed out more clearly, the film would have been an eminently worthy one instead of merely adequate.
John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California and is the editor of the Monist.
Secrets of the Heart
There is a theater of, if you will, the weird sisters or the weird family. George S. Kaufman had a knack for it, and now and again somebody comes along with a sense of the fineness of that line separating the weird sisters from the dipsy-doodle sisters, the strange but engaging family from the deliberately nutsy family. You may find an evening's entertainment by the latter a kind of exercise in tolerance, but you'll likely find it a strain. With the cleverly written and engagingly acted weird sisters, however, you'll have a ball.
You will, to be specific, have a ball with the three MaGrath sisters in Beth Henley's wonderful Crimes of the Heart. It is currently on national tour after copping a Pulitzer in 1981 and enjoying a lengthy and profitable run in New York City.
We meet the sisters first in the form of Lenny (Caryn West), who is a spinster now suffering through the very day of her 30th birthday. Lenny lives with and tends Old Granddaddy MaGrath, who raised her and her sisters after their daddy absconded and their mother hanged herself, along with an old yellow cat.
Lenny keeps a neat house in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and frets. She has raised fretting to the finest of arts: she is neither a southern incarnation of the yenta as gentile (she doesn't oppress others, she just agonizes more than her share), nor does she stand much chance of liberation. She is strongly rumored to have had a man once—one man, one episode—but something happened, and he's no longer around.
Crimes of the Heart portends many deep dark secrets. Most turn out to be medium grey, but they are secrets of the heart just the same. They are secrets in the modern South, not Southern Gothic secrets, however much some reviewers want to shove Henley's play into a niche it doesn't fit. This is a piece that resists neat pigeon-holing, as the three MaGrath sisters resist easy analysis.
The sisters have a cousin, Chick, who is a paragon of overweight rectitude, recalling how she almost missed getting into the ladies' social club because of Meg (Kathy Danzer), who, to hear Chick tell it, was the Scarlet Woman before Hester Prynne. It seems Meg was a mite quicker into the world of the liberated woman than most of the proper young ladies of Hazelhurst, and of late she has been flopping, albeit gutsily, as a nightclub singer in California. But Meg's on her way home to help baby sister Babe (Cyd Quilling), who has just been let out of jail. Babe has spent the night in the local keep because she shot her husband in the stomach—aimed for his heart but missed—since, as she puts it, she didn't like the way he looked.
Well, now, there's more to everybody's story than first appears. Meg's old beau is back and married to a northern woman—"Poor Doc," says Meg; "his children are half Yankee!"—and Meg still has a yen for him. As for Babe, she has grown sufficiently bored with her husband that she has taken up with a local teenager, who happens, oh my, to be of a decidedly duskier hue than is considered acceptable in Hazelhurst, Mississippi.
Beth Henley has given three sisters the secrets of about five and hung upon their attractive but slight shoulders more baggage than this fine though not great play can truly bear. Crimes of the Heart can hardly be put to the trimming process now, its Pulitzer hovering above it and its lengthy run in New York presaging its success on tour; but the play simply cries out for simplifying. The cast, those mentioned and Dawn Dadiwick as Chick, Tom Stechschulte as Doc, and David Allison Carpenter as the eager young lawyer who would like very much to save Babe from prison and earn her gratitude in every which way, carry the play to success despite the top-heaviness of its plot. Here is ensemble acting at its rare best, a textbook example of the power of well-directed performances to whisk away many of the problems embedded in a play's script.
Crimes is more than a well-crafted comedy of modern manners and timeless virtues conflicting and coalescing. It's an exceptionally thoughtful exploration of the nature of sibling connection. These are three young women who need and very genuinely love each other but who drag resentments along with them into their basically warm and supportive sisterhood.
It is, moreover, a shrewd examination of the equation of duty and self-interest. Lenny has taken on her felt obligations as something of a cross between a hairshirt and a housedress; she's ground down by it all, by her subservience to the needs of Old Granddaddy, but she's also grown comfy and safe in that role. After all, Lenny can send a suitor packing, saying to herself that he wouldn't want her because she has a shrunken ovary, though in time she learns that he loathes kids anyhow. But Lenny's balancing act with what she feels she must do and what she half suspects she would like to do is no more delicate and no more of a trap for her than is Meg's for her and Babe's for her.
Each of the sisters has come only some of the way toward freedom—meet the audience, ladies—and each has only half realized the fact. Meg thinks that she's washed up because her singing career is going nowhere; but what she thinks has done her in—her willfulness—has probably been her salvation, and what she thinks she has left behind—her smalltown conventional roots—has tagged along and held her down.
Babe? Well, see Babe in action, and you'll know.
Crimes of the Heart is wiser than most plays and kinder by a country mile. It's a gentle nod to the weird sisters in us all, and it skirts quite nicely the dipsy-doodle sisters we all fear to become. It's a swell play for all but congenital grouches, and infants, and it's going the rounds now to brighten the winter stage.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy reviews the arts for Boston radio station WRKO-AM and is film critic for the Tab group of newspapers. He is host of a nightly talk program on WRKO, writes regularly for the Boston Herald, and syndicates a thrice-weekly newspaper column.
Copyright © 1984 by David Brudnoy
Scientific Pathbreaker, Feminine Trailblazer
A Feeling for the Organism, by Evelyn Fox Keller, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1983, 235 pp., $17.95.
During high school in the early decades of this century, a young woman, in taking stock of her inclination for "doing the kinds of things"—like studying for a career—"that girls were not supposed to do," pondered how she could handle her "difference." Says that woman now,
I found that handling it in a way that other people would not appreciate, because it was not the standard conduct, might cause me great pain, but I would take the consequences. I would take the consequences for the sake of an activity that I knew would give me great pleasure. And I would do that regardless of the pain—not flaunting it, but as a decision that it was the only way I could keep my sanity, to follow that kind of regime. And I followed it straight through high school, and through college, through the graduate period, and subsequently. It was constant. Whatever the consequences, I had to go in that direction.
These resonant words might well have been spoken by one of the heroines of Ayn Rand's individualist novels. In fact, however, they were spoken by Barbara McClintock, one of the world's great geneticists. Her life—an uncommonly determined, purposeful, and accomplished life—is chronicled in Evelyn Fox Keller's book, A Feeling for the Organism, written and published before McClintock won the 1983 Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries in the field of genetics that underlie much current research in genetic engineering and disease control. The science of genetics must seem rather esoteric to people who are not schooled in it, so the significance of McClintock's work may not be clear. She made her major contributions to cytogenetics in the years before World War II, when scientists were still working out the relation between the phenomena that were observable by means of genetic crosses and the behavior of the microscopically observable cellular bodies called chromosomes. Suffice it to say that McClintock's brilliant contributions at this time were seminal in establishing the chromosomal theory of inheritance. These include the first demonstration that genetic recombination is correlated to a physical exchange between chromosomes ("crossing over"), the discovery of ring chromosomes, the identification of the nucleolar organizer, and the elucidation of the cytology of the important experimental organism Neurospora.
She won a worldwide reputation but still found it difficult to obtain a university position, a circumstance not entirely unrelated to the fact that she was the first woman to seek to pursue a full-time career in genetic research. Still, she eventually secured a position at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island's North Shore, where she remains to this day. And there she carried out the research that she regards as the most important of her career, namely her discovery in the late 1940s and early '50s of movable controlling elements that govern the turning on and off of genes in the corn plant. The significance of this pathbreaking discovery was largely overlooked at the time in the lemming-like rush of the profession to embrace the new glamour discipline of molecular biology, a rush given irresistible impetus by the working out of the structure of DNA in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick.
Only in the early '60s did one part of McClintock's newer work—her finding that the functioning of the genes that code for proteins can be switched on and off by genetic factors outside of the coding sequences—receive external validation in the Nobel prize–winning work of Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob with bacteria. And only in the '70s was another portion of McClintock's later work—her finding that these controlling elements can move around from place to place on the chromosomes—confirmed by the discovery of "insertion elements" in bacteria and of related phenomena in yeast and higher cells. These phenomena are currently under intense investigation for the promise they hold in understanding the coordinated growth and differentiation of tissues in living organisms and, in particular, in understanding that defect in coordinated growth known as cancer.
For those interested in learning painlessly about the history of genetic research in this century (which equals 20th-century physics in intellectual brilliance), this book is superb. For feminists, the book is to be recommended, too, as the well-told tale of yet another woman who pioneered in a man's world. And for individualists and supporters of free enterprise, the book provides a valuable illustration of the importance of a social order with many "niches" and diverse sources of funding, so that mavericks can survive even when the herds of the profession are moving elsewhere. For this reason, the ever-increasing centralization of research support in the biological sciences (currently, virtually all money for fundamental biological research comes from the federal government), with its inevitable tendency only to support work that is conventionally understandable, is much to be regretted. Only in a world where the sources of support are multiple, independent, and various can the true entrepreneurs of the intellect, like Barbara McClintock, flourish.
William Havender is a biologist and a freelance writer.
Present History, by Theodore Draper, New York: Random House, 1983, 426 pp., $19.95.
Nuclear war, the Western alliance, Vietnam, Henry Kissinger's diplomacy, and the Arab-Israeli wars—these are Theodore Draper's subjects in Present History, a collection of articles written during the last 10 years by this writer and scholar of things political and historical. His aim, he says, is "to analyze present-day events historically [and] with convincing documentation and reasoned judgment."
Draper does not suffer fools, or even mistakes of the brightest, gladly. His acid pen is at its best in burning away the deadwood that erring commentators have heaped around his subjects. His own solutions, however, are flawed by his disregard or ignorance of essential facts and his failure to use historical patterns as a guide for present policy.
The virtue and the defect become equally evident in the articles on the related problems of nuclear war and the Western alliance. George F. Kennan's advocacy of parallel declarations by the United States and the Soviet Union promising to refrain from first use of nuclear weapons, Draper spears with a single sentence: "The awful truth is that [such declarations] have no reliability at all." And if, as (Fate of the Earth) Jonathan Schell proposes, "we have to 'reinvent the world' to control nuclear weapons, the chance of saving the human race must be somewhere near the vanishing point." To negotiations and treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union—praised as the best hope for nuclear peace by the Catholic bishops, the media, and the peace fronts—Draper also gives short shrift. Altogether, he blows a refreshingly cool breeze through the mass of hot air beclouding the subject.
What a letdown, then, when Draper urges "minimal deterrence," as suggested by Lord Solly Zuckerman. If, as Draper asserts, deterrence is our only means of averting the calamity of nuclear war, why not deter to the maximum extent possible? Where survival is at stake, monetary cost should become unimportant. And as the author apparently does not know, nuclear weapons are the cheapest segment of our military establishment. We spend only one-eighth of our defense budget to deter nuclear war; seven-eighths goes to prepare to fight conventional wars in faraway places.
Having properly ridiculed the notion that treaties are reliable, Draper proposes to halt the arms race by prohibiting research and development through a test-ban treaty. The Soviets could easily pursue secret research and development and then deploy the weapons either without tests or with tests on the eve of deployment. The awful fact, as Draper would say, is that we would have "to re-invent the world" to stop the advance in science and technology.
We shouldn't want to; it is precisely science and technology, with to-be-expected leaps, that offer the best chance of escaping from dependence on deterrence. Deterrence counts on the absence of accidents and the presence of rational conduct in a world where human error and irrational conduct have occurred regularly. To see that beneficence is not a reliable means of preventing nuclear war, it is not necessary to point to Leninist ideology and its exaltation of violence; the blood-stained pages of history bear witness enough. Real hope lies not in beneficence but in humankind's history of tremendous material betterment.
The geometric progress in science and technology makes probable the discovery of an effective active defense against nuclear weapons if the necessary resources and effort are devoted to the task. Impossible? Again, history teaches that conventional wisdom has derided as impossible many great inventions, including the airplane on the eve of its first flight in 1903. For the nation that put a man on the moon, active defense against nuclear weapons is feasible. Meanwhile, civil defense (whose only mention by Draper is: "a vast and wasteful program of 'civil defense'") would save millions of American lives if nuclear war should come in spite of our every effort to prevent it.
After arguing the improbability that any Soviet-American nuclear exchange could be kept limited, a position with which I agree, Draper falls into the common snare of suggesting an increase in NATO's conventional forces as a remedy for our nuclear danger. Aside from the fact that Soviet doctrine asserts the necessity of the combined use of nuclear and conventional weapons from the outset of war, the Soviets would be fatuous to start a conventional war in Europe without a first strike against the United States, because of the great value the first blow confers and because of the fear that if they didn't strike first, we would. Nor would they be so foolish as to rely on a no-first-strike declaration by the US government.
Dwelling at length on the changed circumstances that have made NATO obsolete, and saying that French President Charles de Gaulle "knew what he was talking about," Draper characterizes the North American alliance as a "misalliance" and stresses the divergent interests pulling the United States and Europe apart. The appropriate resolution of this situation, which Draper never offers, is a phased American withdrawal and cancellation of the treaty pursuant to its terms, after giving Europe the nuclear knowledge to create its own effective nuclear deterrent. A major reason why the nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over the United States is the American military presence in Europe.
Draper devotes some 55,000 words to the Arab-Israeli wars; they are interesting and useful but devoid of a constructive remedy. I wish I knew one. The wry humor of Golda Meir illuminates some of the difficulties. To her dismay, as she said, she found that for her socialist friends in Europe, Arab oil was redder than Israeli blood. And when told the Israeli situation was desperate, she shrugged and smiled: "When hasn't it been?" For the United States, the applicable maxim may be: If you can't fix it, leave it alone.
Under various rubrics and with some detours, the rest of the book discusses the faults of containment. In mercilessly excoriating the mistakes of American statesmen about Vietnam, Draper finds the clue: "A good general assesses his own strengths as objectively as that of the enemy; he does not go into battle without taking into account what his own forces are capable of accomplishing and, in the particular case of the American people, what they are willing to fight for and at what cost."
Instead of pursuing this basic theme, however, Draper gets lost in demonstrating the many mistakes made by American statesmen. His view of the Cold War suffers from his failure to comprehend Lenin's blueprint for the protracted global triumph of communism with subversion as the preferred tool. This is the essential starting point of any plan to defeat Lenin's heirs. Where the cold warriors went wrong was in their assumption that we must contain at every point and ultimately by American military force. Sensibly, the American people do not want to spill American blood all over the globe fighting Soviet surrogates. To ask them to do so is, as Draper says, a grave misreading of the intangibles that are as much a part of the situation as the number of weapons on each side.
"The Soviet bloc and Soviet security system are not immune…from being reversed from within as well as from without." In this passage, Draper grasped the key; but instead of turning it, he let it slip from his hand. The substitute for containment is counterattack by another tool: subversion. The United States can point Lenin's preferred tool of subversion against Communist regimes without sending a single American soldier overseas. The long history of subversion, especially with Lenin's adaptation, weaves a pattern on which an American plan can be based. The United States can and should give the internal subversion of dissidents against Communist governments a helping push by truthful propaganda and openly announced aid in money and, when propitious, arms. Such foreign-aid-for-freedom would keep the Communist masters busy in their own backyards, with a consequent diversion from other pastures. In the end, such a course of action might well bring an overthrow at the center of the trouble, in the Soviet Union: another giant step to prevent nuclear war.
Draper's book lacks fairness. In gibing at "the domino theory," for example, he might have had the good grace to note that some of the dominoes have fallen. In addition, to a book of some 240,000 words dealing with present history, the publisher should have provided an index.
Despite my criticisms, Draper's sprightly prose is good reading, and there are nuggets of information scattered throughout the book. While his solutions seem wanting in wisdom, I ruefully acknowledge that my own are not espoused by any political party or by the foreign-policy establishment.
Laurence Beilenson, a lawyer, has for many years devoted himself to research and writing. His books include Survival and Peace in the Nuclear Age and The Treaty Trap.
Unlearned Lesson of the Politics of Education
Eugenia Froedge Toma
The Troubled Crusade, by Diane Ravitch, New York: Basic Books, 1983, 384 pp., $19.95.
I initially assumed from its title that The Troubled Crusade was just another book by an educator lamenting a lack of sufficient funds for public education. However, I was pleasantly surprised.
Diane Ravitch has written a book that examines the history of thought in public education in the United States since World War II. In doing this, she attempts to demonstrate that the public schools have served as the battleground for struggles fought in society as a whole. Whether it be concern about communist infiltrators in the '50s, the racial problems and rebellion against authoritarian figures in the '60s, or the move toward equal opportunity and affirmative action in more recent times, the public schools have served as a locus for resolving the ills of society. In documenting these events and examining their effects on the public schools, The Troubled Crusade is excellent. It will serve as a significant source book for those interested in the post-World War II changes in public education.
Most of The Troubled Crusade is largely factual. The author discusses the various movements in public education with very little of her own judgment coming into play. While this method of presentation has the advantage of lending the book a scientific tone, it also leaves the reader with a slight sense of disappointment, as there is virtually no analysis of the effects of these various movements. Ravitch attempts to remedy this in the final chapter when she discusses the new politics of education.
This last chapter is perhaps the best and most important of the book. Up to this point, she has examined the growth of the federal government as an educational policymaker and financier but has done so by pointing out specific events and describing the environment that culminated in federal actions. Some of these events included the initiation of federal impact aid to compensate local school districts for providing education to students living on federal lands that are not taxable by the local governments; the funding of scientific programs following the launching of the Russian Sputnik; the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Acts in 1965 as part of the Johnson administration's efforts to eliminate poverty; and finally, the numerous activities of the years since then, such as bilingual education and programs for the handicapped.
Not until the final chapter does Ravitch point to the implications of these program changes. She argues that the increased federal funding and federal regulations have come at the expense of loss of authority on the part of individual schools and thus the parents and children of those schools.
To illustrate this loss of authority at the local level, she points to some revealing figures. The number of pages of federal legislation affecting education increased from 80 in 1964 to 360 in 1976. The actual number of federal regulations increased from 92 in 1965 to nearly 1,000 in 1977. The trend in federal court decisions affecting education was quite similar. There were 112 decisions between 1946 and 1956, 729 from 1956 to 1966, and then over 1,200 in the next four years. According to Ravitch, a major reason for this increased federal role after the mid-60s was the passage of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which empowered federal officials to withdraw funds from any program violating antidiscrimination laws and regulations. The ambiguity associated with defining violations served as the stepping stone for the entrance of the federal government both legislatively and judicially.
In reading The Troubled Crusade one is struck by the public's dissatisfaction with the public schools over the preceding four decades as well as today. At least since World War II, the cry by the public has been for a return to the "good old days." But on reflecting upon the events described here, one might conclude that those good old days in our system of public education have never existed. Ravitch makes a valid and extremely important point that the public's dissatisfaction has increased with the increasing shift of control to the state and federal governments. But even in the '40s educators in the public school system managed to bring about changes in the curriculum that parents disapproved.
The major weakness of this book is Ravitch's failure fully to develop this point and its implications. At the end of the book, she still has hope for the future of the public education system. She does not point out (and perhaps does not grasp) that the system's ability to perform is inherently poor. As long as the control of schooling is vested in the political arena, the ability to satisfy the consumers of education remains limited. To remain in office, politicians must make decisions that generate the greatest political support. Although voters as a whole may be interested in and concerned about public education, it is the educators who have the greater incentive to lobby on behalf of their particular interests. Consequently, the politicians find it in their own interest to respond to the educators rather than to the general consumer of education.
This weakness of democratic decision-making exists whether control rests in the local level or the state or federal level. As Ravitch correctly points out, however, its pernicious effects are diminished when control is local. The costs to an individual voter, or consumer of education, of expressing his dissatisfaction with decisions concerning public education are less when the size of the political group is smaller. In other words, the actions of a single individual are more likely to affect the outcome in voting on a smaller scale. For this reason, educators will have less power over political decisions made at the local level than when those decisions are made at the state and federal levels.
A final and crucial step in analyzing the problems of public schools is skipped completely by Ravitch: she does not question whether education should even be provided publicly. The advantages afforded by the private market in satisfying individual preferences for education are never mentioned. While it may be argued that a discussion of privatizing education lay beyond the scope of this book, it certainly deserves mention in any attempt to examine the troubles confronting the institution of education.
I closed this book with the feeling that Ravitch had almost gotten to the source of the problem. A final chapter on private alternatives would have made it complete.
Eugenia Froedge Toma is a professor in the Department of Economics at California State University, Northridge.
Altered Consciousness About Drugs
The Heroin Solution, by Arnold S. Trebach, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982, 331 pp., $9.95.
The Hardest Drug: Heroin and Public Policy, by John Kaplan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 247pp., $20.00.
In 1972, in his influential book The Natural Mind, physician Andrew Weil offered a new way of looking at drugs and drug use. "The use of drugs to alter consciousness is nothing new," he wrote. "It has been a feature of human life in all places on the earth and in all ages of history." The ubiquity of drug use suggested to Weil that there is nothing particularly aberrant about it and no reason automatically to castigate drug users as sinners, criminals, deviants, or mentally and physically ill. For Weil, it appeared that the pursuit of an altered state of consciousness is a natural development. Framed in this context, the bliss of the meditator and the pothead were almost indistinguishable.
In the decade since The Natural Mind was published, the "new way" of looking at drugs does not seem to have taken hold. Misinformation and hysteria surround what passes for a drug debate in this country. That is why Arnold S. Trebach's The Heroin Solution (recently published in paperback) and John Kaplan's The Hardest Drug can only fill the heart of the serious student of drug policy with encouragement. Together these two books advance the scholarship of what has become the hardest drug for American society to come to grips with.
Trebach's tack is to rehabilitate the much-tarnished reputation of heroin. When first marketed in the 1890s, it was proclaimed a wonder drug. Later, with the passage of the Harrison Act of 1914, the "demonization" of heroin began, and eventually the drug was made medically and legally verboten. Doctors dispensing it and heroin users were carted off to jail, and the drug was driven into the underground, where it has remained to this day—feared and misunderstood.
Trebach's attempt to "exorcise the devil in heroin" is a rousing success. He documents how heroin has remained in the legal pharmacopoeia of doctors in foreign countries, most notably the United Kingdom. In that country doctors can prescribe heroin to habitual users (addicts) or to those suffering intractable pain. Trebach advocates the disengagement of lawmakers from what he argues is medical turf, although he does not advocate a complete repeal of drug laws.
Like Trebach, Kaplan is out to deflate a few heroin myths. In his exhaustive study we find that heroin withdrawal is rarely more painful than a case of the flu, that heroin use alone causes no organ damage, that it takes more than one taste of heroin to be "hooked" (often, it requires two weeks of thrice-daily doses to reach the plateau at which withdrawal symptoms occur if heroin use is ended). We also learn that most "addicts" mature out of heroin in their middle to late 30s. Kaplan agrees with Trebach that "our heroin problems would probably be fewer today had we begun some kind of opiate maintenance [like the British] at the time we passed the Harrison Act." But Kaplan fears to tread where even the cautious Trebach boldly marches. "Turning back the clock and starting from that point a second time is obviously impossible, so we must consider the costs and benefits of heroin maintenance in today's world."
This retreat to cost and benefit analysis negates the power of the opening chapters of The Hardest Drug. Kaplan points to a number of reasons, such as crime, why heroin use should be curbed—but the link between crime and heroin is stronger in the minds of social scientists than it is on the street. He warns that one of the "costs" of free availability of heroin is a possible increase in its use—but since he has discounted the physical harm of heroin use, what "cost" can he be talking about? He fears a drop in social productivity—but if an individual chooses to experience heroin rather than a 40-hour workweek, whose business is that but his own?
Kaplan's survey of the social "costs" of heroin conveniently ignores the costs of heroin prohibition. As he acknowledges, enforcement of drug laws cannot eliminate drug use; it can only drive up the price of drugs. As those prices rise, users don't always lay off the stuff. In the case of heroin and, to a lesser degree, cocaine, higher drug prices encourage users to find ways to get more "bang per buck" out of their drug. This has resulted in the use of the needle and syringe for intravenous injection, which is physically dangerous. In markets in which heroin is not so dear—Vietnam in the late '60s and early '70s, Iran before the shah "banned" opium, or Hong Kong before a similar drug crackdown there—most users safely sniffed or smoked their opiates without doing any physical harm to themselves. Similarly, the high price of cocaine has led many users away from the relatively safe administration of cocaine through the nose, to the physically debilitating use of needles and free-base smoking. One could predict that if the authorities were as successful at banning alcohol as they are at banning heroin, most alcoholics would take their precious drug via a needle, too.
Another "cost" of heroin prohibition is the dangerous drug experimentation it precipitates. Like any other consumers, heroin users are willing to explore the use of substitutes when their product of choice vanishes. Heroin users have plundered the pharmacopoeia and performed wild experiments on their own bodies—sometimes with deadly results. In recent years, methadone diverted from methadone maintenance clinics has been at the root of as many drug deaths as heroin use. Heroin users have discovered that the prescription drug Talwin can be combined with the antihistamine Pyribenzamine to satisfy their habit. The trouble is, scores of people have dropped dead on it. Another mixture, called "loads," is made by combining the sleeping pill Dorieden and codeine. Making the rounds as budget heroin, it too kills people. "Bathtub chemists" have gone to the literature and found the formulas for other heroin-like drugs. A group of drugs based on the well-known pain-killer fentanyl has been unleashed by clandestine chemists on the West Coast. A hundred times more potent than heroin, fentanyl has killed over 20 people by pure pharmacological overdose—something that rarely happens with heroin.
It's unfortunate that Kaplan is not ready to concede that heroin prohibition produces monumental costs such as these for individuals and society. Rather than cope with a drug that we are just beginning to understand, Kaplan would unwittingly have us battling ever more unpredictable "brews."
The publication of these two books—from academic presses, no less—marks a giant leap in heroin scholarship. Whatever relevant information on heroin is available in the hostile contemporary environment, it is collected here. These works by Kaplan and Trebach signify that the major points raised by Andrew Weil in 1972 are finally making it into the policy mainstream. Neither book delivers the alarmist and anecdotal testimony we have grown accustomed to hearing since the declaration of "war on drugs." Neither book damns drug users as "sick" or "criminal" or "sinful." That in itself is a great accomplishment. Weil's ideas regarding how people naturally experiment with consciousness have been adapted by both Kaplan and Trebach. Furthermore, both authors have integrated into their books Weil's tenet that the expectation, environment, and previous experience of users is as important as the substance being consumed.
When limited to the drug itself, both books shine. Trebach argues successfully for rehabilitating heroin as a potentially good medicine. While he avoids the subject of total drug-law repeal, he has favorably approached that position in interviews. Kaplan, alas, is too busy madly performing "cost-benefit" arithmetic to consider his own evidence. He has penned the most comprehensive interdisciplinary study of heroin yet written—the bibliography alone is worth the price. It's a shame that he does not recognize that living in a free society cannot be without costs and that the only valid balancing of costs and benefits is that done by individuals, not aspiring social engineers like himself.
Jack Shafer is managing editor of Inquiry magazine.
Avarice, Not Altruism
Walter E. Williams
Economics of Income Redistribution, by Gordon Tullock, Hingham, Mass.: Kluwer-Nijhoff, 1983, 187 pp., $28.00.
The difficult domestic problem for the United States is to somehow reduce the growth of government spending. The major growth sector of government spending at every level is the class of expenditures officially classified as transfer payments, or what has become known as income redistribution. Coping with some aspect of poverty—inadequate health care, housing, nutrition, etc.—is the usual justification for these payments.
Gordon Tullock's new book, Economics of Income Redistribution, sheds some new light on transfer payments. He concludes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, altruism may not fully explain our current level of transfers. His primary reason for suspicion is the fact that in the budget year of 1981, enough transfer money was spent so a family of four in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution could have received $48,000 that year. Or, if we wanted to make the "safety net" larger, the bottom 20 percent could have received $24,000 for a family of four. Now we all know that poor people are not getting all that transfer money. So naturally we ask, who is getting all that money?
According to Tullock, "The bulk of the transfer goes to the politically influential and well-organized." The primary motivation behind income redistribution is simply that people want other people's money, and government provides the mechanism. Economics of Income Redistribution gives the reader a good rule of thumb to tell whether a program is designed to help poor people or somebody else. "This rule of thumb," according to Tullock, "is that if there is a means test," the program is designed to help the poor (that is, if people with income higher than the official poverty line are ineligible for the program). If the program has no means test, then it is not designed to help the poor even though it may do so to some extent.
It is significant, therefore, that such large income-transfer programs as medicare, social security, and education do not have a means test. And this is evidence, argues Tullock, of the desire of some people to get other people's money. According to Tullock, some people oppose the means test because the poor may be insulted. A more important reason is that the middle class will not vote for taxpayer-supported medical care, old age pensions, etc., if the benefits go only to the poor. But if the middle class view themselves as beneficiaries, they will vote larger amounts of money. Thus the push for expansion and universalization of transfer programs.
Then there is perverse income redistribution—the kind where lower-income people make transfers to higher-income people. Tax support of higher education falls into this category, which Tullock labels "regressive transfers." In higher education, for example, the average taxpayer subsidizes the education of people whose lifetime income is likely to be well above the average. As a condition of admission, colleges often require combined SAT scores of 900 plus (the national average is 893), and the student must be in the top 25 percent of his high school class. These requirements effectively weed out most of the poor. But, as Tullock points out, "The taxes that support this apparatus are general taxes which fall across the income structure." Of course, higher-income people pay more taxes, but the number of higher-income children in public-supported higher education is more peaked than the distribution of taxes.
There is another often-ignored class of transfers that Tullock discusses. These are transfers that appear in the form of economic regulatory activities such as zoning changes, tariffs and quotas, transportation regulations, and farm subsidies. In these transfer schemes, both the motivation and pattern conform to that found in income-transfer programs. That is, the beneficial effects are biased toward the more well-to-do. And the more well-to-do are motivated by the desire to have more, at others' expense.
Tullock has made a fine contribution to our understanding of income redistribution. However, in his admirable frankness about the motivation for income redistribution, he forgot a minor thought or two that I think could have fit nicely into the discussion.
The first is a debunking of the term income redistribution itself, which in my opinion contributes immensely to the demogoguery and confusion over the sources of income. "Income redistribution" suggests that out there is a distributor of dollars—a dollar dealer. The reason that some people have fewer dollars than other people do is that the "dealer" is unfair—a sexist, a racist, or a multinationalist; whatever. Thus, to promote justice and equity, according to this view, there must be a redealing of the dollars, an income redistribution. Those with more money must relinquish their ill-gotten gains for the sake of equity.
In fact, however, most income results from productive efforts by individuals singly or in combination with others as partners or corporations. Different individuals wind up with different incomes in part reflecting differences in abilities and differences in consumer tastes. I earn less than Moses Malone because of private, independent decisions made by millions of people about whom they wish to watch play basketball. People who argue for income redistribution wish forcibly to cancel all those decisions.
Also, Tullock overlooked one motivation for transfers—the important make-me-whole motivation. For example, a man who pays $40,000 a year in taxes may ask, "What am I getting out of government that somebody who pays $1,000 doesn't get?" He may conclude that nothing adds up to the $39,000 difference. He may then call for special transfers and government services to justify his taxes, to make him whole. The classical economist Frederic Bastiat characterized this activity as the contagion of legalized plunder.
Neither one of these minor suggestions or criticisms detracts from the strengths and insights of Tullock's book. I strongly recommend it as an excellent addition to one's domestic-policy bookshelf.
Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and the author of The State Against Blacks.
Safety by Supply and Demand
David R. Henderson
Risk by Choice: Regulating Health and Safety in the Workplace, by W. Kip Viscusi, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983, 200 pp., $18.50.
True or false? Companies make workplaces safe because if they don't, they could be fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
True or false? American workers are generally ignorant of hazardous conditions at their work sites.
True or false? Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in response to an increase in hazards in America's workplaces in the 1960s.
If you answered "true" to any of these, then read this review. Better yet, read W. Kip Viscusi's excellent book, Risk by Choice.
An economist at Duke University, Viscusi was a regulatory reformer with President Carter's Council on Wage and Price Stability. He is a leading expert on regulation of workplace health and safety. His book, based on his academic work, is written for a wide audience.
Viscusi argues that there is a market for safety. Workers are paid to take risks; and the greater the risk, the higher the pay. An employer who makes his workplace safer can reduce the wages he pays. This wage reduction, which measures how much his employees value the reduction in risk, gives the employer an incentive to increase safety. He will increase safety if this incentive exceeds the cost of doing so.
But if the risk reduction costs the employer more in labor and capital than it saves him in reduced wages, he will not do so. Furthermore, points out Viscusi, if the government forces the employer to increase safety, then workers won't value the additional safety by as much as it cost the employer to produce it.
Is Viscusi's concept of a market for safety realistic? Do riskier jobs pay more? Are workers informed enough about the riskiness of their jobs relative to other jobs to make the market work? Yes, argues Viscusi.
By correlating wages with injury rates, Viscusi shows that the riskier the job, the higher the pay, other things being equal. He estimates the total "risk premium" paid to all US private-sector workers in 1979 at $69 billion, an average of $925 per worker. This average, of course, understates the amount paid to workers in the riskiest jobs. A worker who risks a 1-in-1000 chance of being killed receives annually thousands of dollars in risk premiums alone.
Viscusi notes that the $69 billion paid in risk premiums to US workers in 1979 provides a strong incentive for employers to make workplaces safe. Of course, because employers choose to pay this amount rather than totally eliminate risk, the cost of greater safety must be even more than $69 billion. But, says Viscusi, the striking fact is that this $69 billion is 3,000 times the total penalties levied by OSHA in 1979. It is the extra wages that workers demand to endure unsafe conditions, not OSHA, that makes workplaces safe.
Furthermore, that workers receive risk premiums means at least some of them are informed. Viscusi also presents evidence that the greater the risk of injury in an industry, the higher the proportion of workers in that industry who see their job as dangerous.
Viscusi reports other evidence that the market for safety works. In a table on fatal accident trends since 1930, he shows that as US per capita income has risen, accidental death rates have fallen. Between 1940 and 1980, for instance, the accidental death rate per 100,000 workers fell by 66 percent. One would predict that as workers became wealthier, they would demand more safety. The figures show that added safety has indeed been supplied.
Viscusi also points out that a reported increase in workplace hazards in the 1960s, used to justify the Occupational Safety and Health Act, was nothing more than a statistical artifact. The injury frequency rate for manufacturing industries compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics increased 2.4 percent annually between 1958 and 1970, but the BLS statistics do not distinguish between minor and major accidents. Viscusi presents more meaningful risk measures that all show a decline throughout the pre-OSHA period.
While skeptical of government regulation of workplace health and safety, Viscusi doesn't want to abolish OSHA. Instead, he proposes that the agency shift its focus from regulating workplaces to informing workers. At first blush, this seems reasonable, because Viscusi argues persuasively that information about workplace safety is a public good that is underprovided in a free market. But the public good problem doesn't vanish when the government gets into the information business. Viscusi still needs to show what incentives would get a government bureaucracy to provide the appropriate quantity of valuable safety information to workers. And this he fails to do.
On a less substantive matter, Viscusi at times asserts conclusions from his academic articles without explaining them. For instance, he argues that if workers are not perfectly informed about job risks, employers tend to use new technologies that are not well understood. I don't see why, and Viscusi doesn't show why. Instead, he refers readers to a highly mathematical academic article. But such are minor imperfections in a book full of valuable information and insights.
David Henderson is a senior staff economist with the Council of Economic Advisers. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of his employer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Arts & Letters".