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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Dim Sum With Mark Kleiman

Hillel Aron |
October 12, 2009 | 3:42 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter
picturename
Mark Kleiman is trying to look like a nice guy, although he doesn't always make it.
(photo by Hillel Aron)

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Mark Kleiman, Professor of Public Policy at UCLA, blogger at The Reality Based Community, and author of the new book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment. He's of average height, slightly overweight, with bad posture and a soft white Fiddler on the Roof beard that he often strokes as he talks. We met at a Dim Sum place in West LA, near his house. I pleaded ignorance on the Dim Sum front and let him order for both of us.
 
"We should get some baked Bao," he said.
"Ok, what's that?" I asked.
"It's sort of a Chinese hamburger."
"Say no more."
"It's BBQ pork inside slightly sweet bun."
"You had me at hamburger."
"I have a long-standing ambition to set up a fast-food restaurant, that serves nothing but Cha Sui Bao. I've even got a name for the place, The Bao House."
 
Kleiman takes long pauses in between thoughts, and when he does speak it's in a gush of words, like a teletype machine, or a Gatling gun, full of high-brow references to ancient literature, philosophy, and economics (in college, he triple-majored in political science, philosophy, and economics). During our lunch, he made reference to Thucydides, Machiavelli, Michel Foucault, marginal cost pricing models, and something called "the Pareto Optimum."
 
He comes off as kind and gentle, although he's prone, as many bloggers are, to savagely attacking people he doesn't like, and cursing like a sailor. He frowns a lot, and I couldn't decide if Kleiman had a chip on his shoulder, or if he just takes things very, very seriously.
 

•••

 
Kleiman's new book is based on few basic premises. One: crime is too high. Even though it's half of what it was 15 years ago, it's still twice what it was in the 1950's. Two: punishment is also too harsh. One out of 100 adults are behind bars. One out of 15 African-American adults are. Prison life itself is hideously cruel. There are a number of reasons to want to change this, not least of all being that it just isn't efficient.
 
"I don't deny that incarceration can have benefits," he said to me. "The puzzle is that punishment for burglary increased by a factor of six. The take for a burglary didn't change. Burglary went down by a factor of two. The puzzle is why we have any crime at all given how ferociously punitive we now are."
 
The answer to the puzzle is what Kleiman calls imperfect rationality. "Criminals know they're gonna go to jail, they just don't think they're gonna go to jail this time."
 
His book offers myriad policy proposals: replacing random and severe punishments for "swiftness and certainty," reforming the probation system along the lines of what Judge Steven Alm has done in Hawaii, raising the alcohol tax, and sending nurses to the homes of pregnant teenagers to coach them on motherhood. Some of the proposals, like meeting with local drug dealers, sound straight out of HBO's The Wire, which Kleiman has never seen, despite having grown up in Baltimore. (He finally just bought a 50-inch television set, after having not owned a TV since 1976). In a recent blog post Mickey Kaus called Kleiman's ideas "something like Pinpoint Liberalism, in which a consensus forms for at least going after what looks like low-hanging fruit."
 
In fact, Kleiman's book has drawn plaudits from bloggers on all (ok, most) sides of the ideological spectrum, like unabashed lefty Ezra Klein, libertarian Tyler Cowen, moderate Republican Reihan Salam, and wild cards Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan.
 
Nevertheless, it's unclear how big a splash the book will make. Of all the hot-button issues now (health care, cap and trade, war), crime just isn't one of them. The book's initial pressing was only 1,500, which Kleiman considered "appallingly low." But then again, his book was never supposed to be The Tipping Point.
 
"This book isn't optimized for that. That deterrence dynamics chapter is gonna lose some readers."
 
While Kleiman wouldn't mind his book going to the best-seller list, his target audience is one man: Barack Obama. His primary goal is affecting policy.
            
"Have you had any bites yet?" I ask.
"I'm now in fairly active communication with a couple places in the administration," he says, lowering his voice. "I've had contact with the justice department, contact with the executive office... I shouldn't talk about it..."
 

•••

I was curious to hear more about the nexus between Academia and blogging. Kleiman, it seemed to me, was part of a clique of academic bloggers, and I wondered what impact this was having.
 
"Not much yet," he said, "But you can see it coming. The term academic blogger is ambiguous. There's Tyler Cowen, who blogs about his academic work. And then there's Brad DeLong, who blogs abut his academic work and how much he hates the Washington post."
"And then there's Glenn Reynolds," I interjected, "who just blogs about politics, and not his academic work."
"If any," he replied.
 
Glenn Reynolds is a Law Professor at the University of Texas and blogs under the name Instapundit. One of the most popular political blogs, Instapundit ranks 33 on Technorati's top 100 blogs list. Reynolds actually played a role in getting Kleiman started on blogging. Kleiman had sent a few e-mails to Eugene Volokh, the right-of-center blogger at  the The Volokh Conspiracy. Volokh found the e-mails insightful and posted some of them. Reynolds linked to a few of those posts.
 
"And Volokh said, you've obviously got the talent for this. You're drawing Instapundit links before you even have a blog, you should have a blog."
 
His first post, in 2002, argued that a war against Iraq would not be a preemptive war, that Iraq had done plenty to deserve it. He now regrets his support for the war.
 
"Then Glenn Reynolds discovered that I wasn't a reactionary and stopped linking to me."
 
Actually, Reynolds has continued to link to Kleiman's blog. He did so as early as a few weeks ago, linking to a RBC post on heroin treatment. In fact, Kleiman himself e-mailed Reynolds the link. After Reynolds linked to it, Kleiman e-mailed back, "My hit-counter is spinning.  Much appreciated."
 
After Kleiman brought up Reynolds, there was a long pause. I could see him weighing the pros and cons of going where he was about to go.
 
"He's really bad fucking human being."
"Really?" I asked, trying to hide how shocked I was.
"Yeah."
"I had no idea. Just like... morally?"
"Yeah. He's... he's stupid. He's intellectually dishonest. And as stupid as I think he is I don't think he's as stupid as he makes out to be. And so he has this habit of just linking to something, you know, with sort of a sentence. And the sentence either completely misrepresents the thing he's linking to... or he's linking to self-evident bullshit... He's an instance of the corruption of blogging."
 
Another pause. I thought was he finished, but he was just reloading.
 
"And actually, I think he's in a sufficiently fourth-rate place so that his colleagues think his blogging is good for them. And what the fuck else is going on at the University of Tennessee law school that anyone else ever heard of? If I were on the tenure committee of [Tennesee's] law school, I would say, 'This stuff is intellectually disgraceful. We should not have our name associated with this nonsense.' This is not merely because I dislike him ideologically, although I do. I know people I dislike just as much on my side of the fence. He's just not honest. And not serious."
 
Another pause. I waited it out.
 
"Also, what I really dislike about Glenn is his pretense that he's not being partisan- 'Oh, well, I really wish the democrats were more centrist and then I'd vote for them.' And then he doesn't vote for Harold Ford for chrissake? You know, Reynolds and Greenwald are really a pair."
 
I e-mailed Reynolds for a comment. He wrote back:
 
Well, he seems like an even angrier guy in person than he does on his blog.  On the partisan side, I'll note that the PorkBusters campaign that I pushed spent more time attacking Republicans than Democrats - in particular, Trent Lott, who said he was "damned tired" of Porkbusters.  And I was singled out by Rush Limbaugh for attacks by name over several days in 2006 because I said that the Republicans deserved to lose.  But whatever.

 

•••

 
In 1974 Kleiman worked as a Legislative Assistant to Les Aspin, an anti-war Congressman from Wisconsin.
 
"What I learned from Les was that a Congressman is a private enterprise operated for private benefit."
 
At one point, Aspin assigned him to work on a problem in Wisconsin involving rail service. Kleiman observed that the best way to solve the problem was to make a compromise.
 
"We gotta do it in a way that we don't get much credit for it," Kleiman explained to Aspin.
Aspin looked at Kleiman. "I don't think you understand," he said. "We don't have time in this office for pro-bono work."
 
Kleiman left the job after only 11 months for a job at Polaroid as the Special Assistant to CEO Edwin Land, the brilliant scientist who co-founded the company but had recently been pushed aside as COO. Kleiman compares Land to King Lear.
 
"Land had abdicated his king but insisted on keeping his train of 100 knights, and the children were resentful. And the people that were still loyal to him were gonna get destroyed."
 
Kleiman knew nothing about the business, but he took a look at the financial backing and the marketing strategy and god knows what else, and saw that the company was in big trouble. Video was just coming out, as were computers. The seeds of Polaroid's demise were being sown. He tried to institute some changes in certain areas, like the marketing department and the copying department. (Back then, if you wanted a copy of your Polaroid, you could send it in to the company, and for a fee, they would Xerox it for you.) His ideas fell on deaf ears.
 
"I failed. It's guilt I still carry around... I loved Land, I really did."
 
Kleiman left Polaroid after a year and a half to go work for the mayor of Boston, the beginning of more than 6 years of government service before he entered Academia for good. Land resigned in 1980 and died 11 years later. Polaroid, crippled by the onset of one-hour photo and digital photography, hung on until 2001.
 
"One of Schelling's principles is that when you see an organization acting recklessly, you should not assume that it's full of reckless people. It may be so full of cowards that no one dares to say to everybody else, you can't get away with this. This will end in tears."
 

•••

 
We split the bill down the middle and opened our fortune cookies. Kleiman's fortune read: "You will find hidden treasures where least expected."
 
"For a culture that has 5000 years of literature," he said, "it's stunning that the fortune cookie companies can't write better than this."
 
Before we leave, I take Kleiman's picture.
 
"By the way, there's a great picture of me on the Zocolo site. Best picture I've ever taken."
"What was so good about it?"
"I'm smiling. I look like a nice guy. I rarely look like a nice guy in pictures."

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