The Conversation


In November, James Bennet interviewed Michael Bloomberg. They spoke about the role of government, highlighting such topics as the New York City mayor’s regulation of soda sizes and metzitzah b’peh, an ancient Jewish circumcision practice.

I liked Mayor Bloomberg more after reading James Bennet’s interview, but I still find him annoying. “People aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest,” Hizzoner says. Implication: it’s the government’s job to figure it out for them—and induce them to behave correctly.

But should “right behavior” be the aim of government? Or should the aim be, as Aristotle argued, to govern so as to produce a wise citizenry—citizens who are good at identifying their own real interest. Since “the science is not perfect,” why not let Jews figure out for themselves whether the custom of metzitzah b’peh is harmful or not? Maybe parents should decide for themselves how much sweet soda their kids should consume.

Bloomberg seems to think of the citizens of New York as his subjects, over whom he reigns as a kindly philosopher king, guiding them on the right path—a path they are incapable of figuring out for themselves. Let him think more about two things: why people are so incapable, if indeed they are; and whether his own judgment might be fallible.

John Staddon
Durham, N.C.

Maybe “Mike Bloomberg knows what’s good for [me],” but whether I do what is good for me or what brings me pleasure should not be up to him. It should be up to me.

Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Providence, R.I.

Michael Bloomberg is an interesting thinker, but he’s got to be kidding when he says that even a government initiative that hits a dead end makes a contribution, “because we know we don’t have to go down that path again.” In the business world or sports or any other competitive realm, this would be true, but government just isn’t that way. How are those sugar and mohair subsidies doing? When’s the last time any government agency or program was canceled? How about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

People are risk-averse precisely because they know that enacting government programs is mostly a one-way street and even the losers live on forever.

Jim Hemenway
San Ramon, Calif.

Bloomberg says of his foundation: “We work on obesity, we work on smoking, we work on guns, we work on traffic deaths.” It is one thing to use your own foundation to advance certain causes, but it is quite another to abuse your power as mayor to advance your foundation’s causes through the power of your office. Bloomberg has treated NYC as his personal property and has done nothing to advance the one cause he first ran on, which was turning around the NYC education system. Maybe because that is not in the interest of his foundation.

Hokma comment

Governmental leaders should lead from the front and not focus on polls, Bloomberg says, because “the people” are not good at describing what is in their best interest. I find that odd, considering he also says that on day one, the president should do what he or she said would be done, just because that’s what people want. I don’t disagree with either of those political assessments (and I generally like Bloomberg), but it is hard to tell what the mayor’s concept of the role of elected officials should be in a democratic republic.

Andrew D comment

Sodas? Metzitzah b’peh? Really? When that great big elephant of Wall Street is sitting right there in your own living room?

jsheerin comment

Brave Thinkers on Facebook

“I’m so proud of my friend and former classmate Gina Raimondo. She is showing great leadership in tough times—I hope she eventually becomes the Governor of her state.”


Thomas E. Ricks’s November article about the culture of mediocrity within the U.S. Army’s leadership rank prompted many readers, including current and former members of the military, to write in. Online, readers debated the merits of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and whom to blame for those missions: generals and other officers, or the Bush White House.

“General Failure” really hit home. I was a company commander in Vietnam and saw inept leadership of higher-ranking officers all the time. I thought that this was just a temporary phase and would pass. Obviously the cover-your-ass culture still exists in the Army.

In my case, I saw one fantastic battalion commander sent home because his 12-month tour ended; he was replaced by an incompetent drunk who was there to get his ticket punched. Who suffered? Every officer, noncommissioned officer, and enlisted man in that battalion. Leadership from the general’s level could have turned around the war in Vietnam, but unfortunately William Westmoreland was inept also. I hope our Army can solve this problem, because our soldiers deserve better, and so do our citizens.

Al Conetto
Walla Walla, Wash.

Thomas Ricks overlooked something important. Sadly, nobody becomes a general (or equivalent) in the military until they have served for many years. Most colonels are 50 by the time they get promoted. Many younger officers have experience and drive; as a group, they adapt well. Older officers are more cautious, members of the “cover your ass and do not make waves” category. They know how to manipulate the good-old-boy game. The service should be, but is not, a strict meritocracy. In effect, it follows union-style rules of seniority and time in grade. From second lieutenant to first lieutenant to captain is automatic. Some lousy officers have made it past captain to become major by being on court-martial or combat duty when they are promoted. The rules are not negotiable.

The Army has an unofficial but long-standing policy: it takes care of its own. Generals are cautious about reprimanding or firing other generals. In Officer Candidate School, we learned—rather, it was drilled into us—to “cooperate and graduate.” Yet at a certain point in the future, that maxim will cost us in lives and damage. That is why we need the ideas promulgated by Thomas E. Ricks: produce or you are history; hire slow but fire fast.

B. J. Khalifah
Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.

No improvement will be made in the quality of military leadership until two changes occur: first, a dramatic reduction in the size of the commissioned-officer corps, and second, a requirement that all commissioned officers be hand-selected from within the preexisting enlisted ranks. The reduction in the size of the officer corps will make an officer position less of a bureaucratic post and more of a position of ultimate responsibility, as it should be. Selecting from within the ranks will take the asinine system of today, which prizes academic perseverance, bureaucratic politicking, and personal ambition (oft extremely misplaced), and transform it into a system of selection that promotes rationality, creativity, and interpersonal skills—the actual skills required of a commissioned officer. Get rid of ROTC. Get rid of West Point. The current obsolete system, based on the aristocratic principle that a college degree equates to leadership ability, is keeping the Army, at least, from being the most effective it could be and needs to be.

Gregory Jacomet
National Guard Captain
Stockport, Ohio

To be fair to the generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, they advanced through the ranks largely in peacetime, with an outlook that did not seriously anticipate counterinsurgency operations. They were therefore never really schooled in them. How do you build operational and strategic excellence into your officer corps in peacetime? Almost no officers were advanced based on an evaluation of tactical or strategic ability—primarily because those evaluating them had no experience themselves to draw on. The problem is somewhat solved for now, but our current crop of seasoned officers will eventually leave the service or retire. In their wake will come a new generation with no real-world frame of reference. They will have only the schooling they are given, and will further their careers according to whatever standards have been established.

Tom @ The Rolltop Manifesto comment

Military leaders are trained to destroy things and kill people. It’s always been that way. Holding these leaders responsible for nation-building, peace-keeping, prison management, and civilian policing is simply wrong.

Barton H. Boyer III
San Diego, Calif.

I cannot understand why the competence of war fighters is questioned when they are sent to fight by an incompetent president who was aided by a somnolent Congress focused only on retribution for an attack that came from somewhere else.

G. B. Perlstein Jr.
Champaign, Ill.

The point Ricks makes is that a general’s job shouldn’t just be how to clear caves—the question of “What war am I trying to win?” needs to be the prerogative, and the liability, of the generalship as much as of the political class.

mattrss comment


In his November review of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards, Benjamin Schwarz lamented that America’s most vibrant music has become a relic (“The End of Jazz”), prompting a flurry of arguments that jazz is in fact alive and well.

“Jazz, like the [Great American] Songbook, is a relic—and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Gioia wishes for it, an ‘expansive and adaptive repertoire.’ ”

That’s not a thoughtful, well-researched conclusion—it’s just an insult. Schwarz is saying to working jazz composers that they are feeble and not up to the task of creating living music. His argument insults the contemporary musicians who play older tunes: no matter how good they are at their craft, he suggests, they can’t breathe new life into the great old standards. It insults the very songbook he’s attempting to praise: the songs are still performed, improvised on, and recorded—not to mention beloved throughout the world—but the merciless steamroller of time has obliterated them, relegated them to history’s dustbin. So they didn’t endure? Huh. They must not have been that great after all.

Michael J. West
Excerpt from a Washington City Paper blog post

Thanks so much for mostly ignoring jazz for decades, then writing a long article declaring that it is a relic. It’s telling that Benjamin Schwarz did not deem it necessary to name even one jazz musician younger than 50. The omission suits his thesis nicely, but it ignores the fact that jazz has not been wholly or even mostly dependent on Great American Songbook standards since the 1960s. Beginning with Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, the music has become a wondrous, many-faceted garden of original compositional and group approaches. Its relative lack of commercial success in the America of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry says more about the music business and the stripping of music-education programs than it does about jazz itself.

Tony Alexander
Miami, Fla.

During a typical week, I receive at least 100 jazz CDs in my mailbox. I have space to run reviews of about 30 per month in DownBeat, which means that I can provide coverage to less than 10 percent of what arrives. The output is considerable for a genre that Schwarz believes is sounding its death knell (and I’m not even including download-only titles).

So it’s mystifying that Schwarz refuses to even consider many contemporary jazz artists who are creating vibrant music. The pianist Jason Moran has dreamed up new performance ideas from Fats Waller’s compositions (which negates the canard that today’s jazz musicians ignore the Songbook). The bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding is filling large concert halls. The vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz has already made his instrument sound different than any of his predecessors probably imagined. Other musicians, like the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the saxophonist Marcus Strickland, are also original rising voices who are not listening to Schwarz’s elegy for their budding careers.

The vapid claim that jazz is “a relic” has been made all too often—when I started digging into the archives of my magazine, I saw that such statements have been uttered since the 1930s. These refrains have become relics themselves.

Aaron Cohen
Reviews Editor, DownBeat
Chicago, Ill.
Benjamin Schwarz replies:
Michael J. West read my piece with great hostility, but little care. I began by highlighting Ted Gioia’s comment that jazz no longer has an expansive repertoire. Then, drawing on the arguments and analysis of several renowned jazz critics and musicians, I appraised the ways in which so many great jazz musicians—Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins among them—constructed their own compositions on the chord structures of the entries in the Great American Songbook.
From that evidence, I argued that the Songbook and jazz evolved symbiotically and, most important, that the Songbook was the source linking jazz to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment. I continued by saying that because the conditions that helped develop and enrich jazz and that further linked it to those main currents—an audience of musically sophisticated adults, and a popular, urbane musical and lyrical wellspring from which jazz musicians could draw to create a new repertoire—have disappeared, then jazz is, alas, a relic.
That is not to say that there are not jazz musicians—increasingly isolated in university jazz-studies programs—who are doing great work. But because that work is (again) deracinated from the main currents of popular culture, it isn’t culturally vital. The fault is with the culture, not with jazz. I therefore completely agree with the last sentence of Tony Alexander’s letter. But I cannot muster his enthusiasm for post-Monk jazz, and he has overlooked Monk’s own indebtedness to Gershwin.
As for Aaron Cohen’s list of good, bad, and indifferent musicians, I wonder: How many readers of this magazine listen to them? The answer speaks to the ancillary role jazz plays in our willfully infantile culture, and hence to its status as a relic.


In the November issue, three co-authors—an expert in genetics and microbiology, another in global security and law enforcement, and a journalist—laid out the national-security threat posed by rapidly advancing synthetic biology (“Hacking the President’s DNA,” Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman, and Steven Kotler).

I am disappointed that The Atlantic would publish an article so filled with speculation. Starting a nonfiction article with a fear-laden scenario that has no basis in reality amounts to cheap tricks and inhibits people from having an intelligent conversation about the matter at hand. As seen with reporting on cyber threats, which have actually been documented (unlike the topic of this article), sensationalism does nothing to actually help the situation.

Becky Rae Watson
Columbia, Md.

This article leapfrogs from one scary scenario to another without providing any connecting tendrils, instead hoping that the reader just ignores these chasms. To give just one example: “Several viruses are already known to spark cancers. New ones could eventually be designed to infect the brain with, for instance, synthetic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or Alzheimer’s.” Well, just how difficult is it to produce “synthetic schizophrenia”? I’m a molecular biologist by training, and I have no idea. What’s conveniently omitted is that our current knowledge of how schizophrenia naturally arises is murky at best, with perhaps hundreds of genes being involved, not to mention environmental influences. Most of the article unfortunately focuses on what could possibly happen, while ignoring whether the statistical likelihood of said events is even probable. Trends in technologies such as gene sequencing—which certainly has progressed in leaps and bounds—are mentioned in the same article with gene targeting, as if this separate technology is just as advanced. It’s not. It’s extremely hard to do mammalian gene targeting. And that is for just one site in the genome, which is not enough to distinguish between individuals. It’s the difference between using telescopes to pinpoint exactly where the planet Jupiter is located and using advanced propulsion to get there—two very different things.

If you’re not familiar with all the inherent limitations of these disparate technologies, and the limitations being conveniently glossed over or not even mentioned in the article, you may be tempted to think that all of these parts are close to coming together to form some sort of dark singularity on the horizon. My fear instead is that the president or members of Congress will read this article and as a result devote an inordinate amount of resources to curbing threats whose chances of occurrence are statistically nil, rather than more-likely threats, such as rogue nations and groups intent on enhancing known pathogens for use in a “poor man’s nuke.” These are realistic threats. Targeting the president with a custom-fitted retrovirus is not.

Oliver Medvedik comment

I thoroughly enjoyed this clear, informative discussion of the societal challenges posed by synthetic biology. No doubt, some knowledgeable readers may be concerned about discussions of technological possibilities that do not yet exist, and may in some cases never exist. I, however, am most appreciative of articles that flag social and ethical challenges that we need to plan for, rather than articles that only react once some harmful event has already occurred.

Wendell Wallach
Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics
Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies
New Haven, Conn.
Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman, and Steven Kotler reply:
The aim of our article was to be provocative and to draw attention to the fact that genomic technologies are developing faster than most people, including many scientists, appreciate. Moreover, as biological systems become increasingly programmable (the chief goal of the fast-emerging field of synthetic biology), we foresee the well-documented dynamics observed in the cyber domain appearing in biotechnology. The reality is that (a) synthetic viruses were demonstrated more than a decade ago with synthetic polio, a virus known to be able to infect nerves and cause paralysis and other complications; (b) viruses have a wide range of biological effects in humans, some acute and some pernicious; and (c) viruses are relatively easy to engineer. The limits of synthetic biology are being pushed further out each year, and costs are falling exponentially, so we believe it is appropriate and necessary to speculate on possible futures, recognizing that errors in design or judgment will be made and that at least a few developers will be malicious. Better to discuss the risk scenarios and act with intention today than to reflexively clamp down on the technology when the (inevitable) hack comes to light tomorrow. We hope that by raising awareness and seeding discussion, we stimulate interest and investment in these technologies, including those that facilitate real-time monitoring of infectious agents, natural or engineered.

The Liveliest Conversations

The Atlantic’s e-mail inbox bulged with reader commentary in 2012, as did’s comments section. Here are last year’s most-responded-to articles:

1. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, July/August

2. “Fear of a Black President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, September

3. “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy,” by Kathleen McAuliffe, March

4. Tie: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” by Stephen Marche, May, and “The Weaker Sex,” by Sandra Tsing Loh, October

5. “The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control),” by Jeffrey Goldberg, December

Since the January/February issue went to press, "The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)" has moved from fifth place to fourth place. The March Conversation will highlight responses to this article.

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