Category Archives: Articles

Steve Jobs, Silicon Valley, and “The Creation Myth”

Last week, I wrote a short Weekly Standard blog post on Steve Jobs — or, more specifically, on Silicon Valley and the role of community in fostering innovation.  I talk about Silicon Valley and tech, although the same can be said about New York and finance, Hollywood and cinema, Detroit and autos, Houston and oil, etc.  I’m probably being too facile, but it seems to me that an industry cannot become truly great unless it finds a home in a single community, to intensify competition and collaboration, and to attract money, minds, and mettle.

After writing the post, it occurred to me that I should have mentioned, or at least linked, Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent essay, “The Creation Myth,” which the New Yorker published back in May.  Focusing on the story of the Xerox PARC (i.e., Palo Alto Research Center), which created technologies that companies such as Apple later commercialized with great success — the mouse, the graphical user interface, the laser printer — Gladwell reminds us of what can happen when we put creators and commercializers, intellectual capital and financial capital, in close proximity:

The reason Xerox invented the laser printer, in other words, is that it invented the personal computer. Without the big idea, it would never have seen the value of the small idea. If you consider innovation to be efficient and ideas precious, that is a tragedy: you give the crown jewels away to Steve Jobs, and all you’re left with is a printer. But in the real, messy world of creativity, giving away the thing you don’t really understand for the thing that you do is an inevitable tradeoff.

“When you have a bunch of smart people with a broad enough charter, you will always get something good out of it,” Nathan Myhrvold, formerly a senior executive at Microsoft, argues. “It’s one of the best investments you could possibly make—but only if you chose to value it in terms of successes. If you chose to evaluate it in terms of how many times you failed, or times you could have succeeded and didn’t, then you are bound to be unhappy. Innovation is an unruly thing. There will be some ideas that don’t get caught in your cup. But that’s not what the game is about. The game is what you catch, not what you spill.

“In the nineteen-nineties, Myhrvold created a research laboratory at Microsoft modelled in part on what Xerox had done in Palo Alto in the nineteen-seventies, because he considered PARC a triumph, not a failure. “Xerox did research outside their business model, and when you do that you should not be surprised that you have a hard time dealing with it—any more than if some bright guy at Pfizer wrote a word processor. Good luck to Pfizer getting into the word-processing business. Meanwhile, the thing that they invented that was similar to their own business—a really big machine that spit paper —they made a lot of money on it.” And so they did. Gary Starkweather’s laser printer made billions for Xerox. It paid for every other single project at Xerox PARC, many times over.

By the way, regarding my Standard post:  It was later republished by NPR, which is nice, except I have no idea why NPR grafted some incomplete text on to the front of it.

Justice Stevens’s Memoir

Justice John Paul Stevens retired from the Supreme Court last year, after 34 years on the bench.  More than any other Justice except perhaps Clarence Thomas, he deserves a biography, if not outright cinematic treatment.  He has lived a fascinating life.

He was born in 1920 to a wealthy Chicago family.  Attending the ’32 World Series at Wrigley Field, young Stevens witnessed Babe Ruth’s legendary “called shot.”  But Stevens’ idyllic childhood ended abruptly when the family fell into a scandal of corruption: his grandfather promptly suffered a stroke, his uncle committed suicide, and his father was convicted of embezzlement.  At one point in the criminal saga, armed men invaded and ransacked the Stevens’ home, holding twelve-year-old John and his family hostage.

His father’s conviction ultimately was reversed, and Stevens went on to great academic and professional success.  After college he served in World War II as a Navy cryptologist; his work enabled American aviators to shoot down the Japanese admiral who planned the Pearl Harbor attack.  After the war and high marks at Northwestern’s law school, he clerked for Justice Wiley Rutledge, and then embarked on a successful career as a Chicago lawyer and law professor.

Stevens was thrust into the public arena by—ironically enough—another corruption scandal, this one implicating the Illinois Supreme Court.  He served as special counsel, and his investigation resulted in the resignation of two Illinois justices.  Soon Nixon appointed him to the federal court of appeals, before Ford appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1975.

When he first joined the Court, Stevens was generally expected to be at least moderately conservative.  But much to conservative chagrin and liberal delight, Stevens promptly began to establish himself as a firm proponent of conventional liberalism.  He eventually rose to the peak of liberal constitutional jurisprudence—“the Chief Justice of the Liberal Supreme Court,” as President Clinton’s Solicitor General told the New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin.

From start to finish, it is a captivating — almost cinematic — story.  Unfortunately, that story plays only a small role in Stevens’s new “memoir,” Five Chiefs.

I reviewed that book for today’s issue of the Wall Street Journal.  I had high hopes for the book — again, Justice Stevens has lived a singular life, and from my distant vantage point he strikes me as a wonderful person — but ultimately the book is marked by some very frustrating accounts of important Supreme Court cases.  Which I describe in my review.

Michele Bachmann Is Open To Suggestions

At this weekend’s South Carolina debate, as in the previous Iowa debate, Michele Bachmann said that the Constitution prohibits States from imposing Obamacare-style individual health insurance mandates.

But, she admitted this time, she didn’t know what part of the Constitution does this.

So I wrote about it for the Standard‘s blog, my latest post on the Tea Party’s fascinating (to me) intramural debate over the Constitution, federalism, and liberty.

The Tea Party, Progressives, and the Constitution

A couple weeks ago, The Weekly Standard published my essay on a split among Tea Party members on fundamental constitutional questions.  As I tried to explain there, the Tea Party combines two very different views of the U.S. Constitution:

One contingent of the party is focused on liberty against both federal and state regulation, and see the Constitution as a tool for beating back regulation at all levels of government.  Michele Bachmann endorses this view: in her opinion, both Obamacare and state health care mandates (like “Romneycare”) are unconstitutional.

The other contingent believes that the Constitution protects federalism, or states’ rights, and thus limits the federal government but gives the states free rein to regulate (or not) to their hearts’ content.  Rick Perry and Mitt Romney — both former governors, and thus unsurprisingly supportive of state autonomy — endorse this view.  To them, Obamacare at the federal level is unconstitutional, but the Constitution does nothing to stop states from imposing similar mandates themselves.

The Perry-Romney view — federalism first! — certainly is consistent with mainstream conservative legal thought, which has focused on the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and the Tenth Amendment as bedrocks of federalism, and which has declined (in the aftermath of the Warren Court’s excesses) to wield the federal Constitution as a sword against state regulation.

But Perry’s and Romney’s embrace of this view leads them to invoke the very same themes that the left-leaning Progressive movement invoked a century ago: the states as “laboratories,” the need for federal courts to leave states alone, and so on.  Given the conservative movement’s general disdain for the Progressive Era, this is a truly ironic scene.

My new post for the Standard‘s web site reiterates this theme, with respect to Perry’s latest constitutional controversy.  He is taking heat from some pundits for endorsing a constitutional amendment that would give Congress a veto over Supreme Court decisions.  Contrary to some of his detractors (and supporters), this proposal is not inherently right-wing — as demonstrated by the fact that this was a core plank in the Progressive Party’s 1912 platform.

Addendum:  Someone reached this post by googling, “is Perry a progressive?”  The answer is — obviously — no.  In a similar vein, the constitutional reform he’s proposing isn’t inherently “liberal,” Jonathan Chait’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding.  Perry’s urging a structural constitutional reform that is neither inherently conservative nor inherently liberal/progressive.  Like most structural constitutional reforms, it can be a means to both conservative and liberal/progressive ends.

Department of Corrections

One friend has pointed out — with merciful tact — that my Alito article includes one unfortunate misstatement of Bickel’s record.  Describing Bickel’s 1972 essay in Commentary, which was later adapted for republication in The Morality of Consent, I said:

… Bickel criticized the Supreme Court’s eager grant of broad constitutional protections to the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers and other incitements and acts of disobedience, as well as obscenity, because they involved speech or publication.

Whoops.  Bickel’s essay didn’t criticize the Court’s holding in the Pentagon Papers Case — in fact, Bickel famously was the New York Times’s lawyer in that case!  In his subsequent essay, Bickel agreed (obviously) with the Pentagon Papers result; his criticism was, instead, directed at First Amendment absolutism generally (including, by name, Justices Douglas and Black).

In originally drawing up that part of the article, I had meant to make that much more limited point that Bickel criticized free-speech absolutism.  But actually writing that paragraph, I apparently took momentary leave of my senses, and put Bickel on the wrong side of the case that was perhaps his finest hour.  I’m disappointed that I didn’t catch that mistake before submitting the piece.


George Will on Bickel

OK, just one more “last” footnote to the Alito article:

In describing Yale’s Alexander Bickel, I quoted George Will, who in 1974 called Bickel “the keenest public philosopher of our time.”

Those looking for the full context of Will’s remark can find it in Will’s 1978 collection, The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Sobering Thoughts.  There, Will republished his obituary, “Alexander Bickel, Public Philosopher,” which was originally published on December 26, 1974 — in his then-nascent syndicated column or from his original perch at National Review, I presume.

(Many thanks to A.K. for digging that original quote out for me.  It has been used in a few places, including the back cover of Bickel’s posthumous The Morality of Consent, but never with full attribution.)

Footnote to a Footnote:  After initially posting this, the same friend who pulled the article out of Will’s book tracked down the article’s original publication and headline: “The Roots of Watergate,” The Washington Post, Dec. 27, 1974.

The difference in dates may owe to when Will submitted the column for syndication, versus when it ultimately was printed in the Post.  But I share A.K.’s assessment: “Either way, the title that he gave the piece in the book is much, much better than the stupid original title it ran under in the Post.”

One Last Alito Footnote

While I’ll clearing out my “Alito Trivia” file, let me add one more anecdote that did not make it into my article, but which may be of some historical amusement.

Last fall — just one week after hearing argument in Snyder v. Phelps, actually — Justice Alito delivered the Manhattan Institute’s annual “Wriston Lecture.”  The subject: “Let Judges Be Judges.”  In the process of offering his theory of what a judge should do — or, more specifically, what a judge should not do — Justice Alito makes passing reference to an unnamed colleague from his days on the Third Circuit:

Some years ago, a former colleague of mine on the court of appeals, who is one of the smartest judges I have ever known, participated in a panel discussion at our mutual alma mater at a class reunion at Yale Law School. … During this panel discussion at Yale, my former colleague was asked about judicial independence. And this is what he said:

This is going to shock everybody, but I have to tell you something. I am very good at reading wills and telling you whether the trust provisions violate the rule against perpetuities. I am very good at reading charges to the jury to make sure that the judge charged correctly on proximate cause and whatever else may be. I am very good at reading affidavits to see if there is probable cause for a search warrant.

I am not so good at running institutions. I am not so good at changing things in society. If you are going to talk about judges who want to take over institutions and make far-ranging changes in our society, they are no more entitled to be free of criticism and attacks than is the president of the United States. So if you are going to act like judges and you are going to make decisions like judges, you are entitled to judicial independence.

If judges do not act like judges, their independence will be threatened.

I quote these comments because of the seemingly mundane phrase, “if you are going to act like judges.” My former colleague, with his background as a practitioner who handled the sort of matters that have provided the everyday fare of our courts for generations, assumed that this phrase, “if you are going to act like judges,” would be easily understood by his audience. What should judges do? Well, of course, they should act like judges.

That’s quite a nice story.  But who was the unnamed judge, “one of the smartest judges” that Justice Alito has “ever known?”

Well, it’s Judge Morton Greenberg, a still active (but “senior”) judge on the Third Circuit.  We know this because a transcript of that Yale alumni event discussion was published by the Fordham Urban Law Journal.

Justice Alito, “The Burkean Justice”

The Weekly Standard‘s new cover story is my latest essay: “The Burkean Justice,” a review of Justice Alito’s separate opinions in three recent First Amendment cases.

In my essay, I argue that these three opinions reflect the influence of Alexander Bickel, the late Yale professor whose writings attracted young Alito to study at the Yale Law School, as well as Justice Alito’s father’s experience implementing the Warren Court’s redistricting opinions in New Jersey.