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by William H. Benson

May 17, 2012

     Two new books are being published this season.

     The first is Robert Caro’s fourth biography on Lyndon Baines Johnson, and is entitled The Passage of Power. In it Caro covers Johnson’s life between 1958 and 1964, primarily the years when LBJ was   Vice-President during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. For LBJ, those were his most difficult years, drifting along in the shadow of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, doing little and saying even less. Caro ends the book with Kennedy’s assassination and when Johnson is taking the oath of office.

     Former President Bill Clinton wrote the book’s review that appeared in the May 6th issue of The New York Times Book Review. Clinton said, “Caro paints a vivid picture of LBJ’s misery. We can feel Johnson’s ambition ebb, and believe with him that his political life was over, as he was shut out of meetings, unwelcome on Air Force One, mistrusted and despised by Robert Kennedy.”

     Caro has devoted the past four decades to writing what will ultimately be five volumes in the series: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The first installment came out in 1982, the second in 1990, the third in 2002, and now the fourth in 2012. Caro is 76 years old and running out of time. Hopefully, he can complete the series’ fifth and final volume, in which he will focus upon Johnson’s Presidency.

     Caro’s wife completes much of his research. With pen and white notepad, he writes the first draft, and the second draft he types on a Smith Corona Electra typewriter. He refuses to use a computer. He wears a suit and tie to his office on the 22nd floor of an office building in New York City, near 58th and Broadway, close to Central Park’s south and west corner. The New York Times says that “Robert Caro is a Dinosaur.” A reporter at the Times asked Caro’s publisher, “Are the books profitable?” He hesitated and then answered, “They will be, because there is nothing like them.”

     Edward Conard wrote the second book being published this season. He entitled it Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy is Wrong. Conard is a businessmen, a Harvard Business School graduate, one of the 1%, super rich, and in his book he makes a strong argument for a ferocious form of capitalism, for taking enormous risks, and for adequately rewarding those who do take those risks and succeed. He is brash, arrogant, and outspoken.

     Conard finds fault with the accountants and lawyers, those he says “who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential.” But he especially disparages those whom he calls “the art-history majors.” At a diner close to his office in New York City, at 57th and Madison Avenue, near Central Park’s south and east corner, Conard points out “three young people with plaid shirts and floppy hair” and asks a reporter, “What are they doing, sitting here, having a coffee at 2:30? I’m sure those guys are college-educated.”

     Conard says that “the only way to persuade these ‘art-history majors’ to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs. When I look around, I see a world of unrealized opportunities for improvements, an abundance of talented people able to take the risks necessary to make improvements, but a shortage of people willing to take those risks.”

     Because Conard is all about calculating risk, the reporter states the obvious. “The world Conard describes too often feels grim and soulless, one in which art and romance and the nonrenumerative satisfactions of a simpler life are invisible.”

     Two books: the first is a biography written by a political historian, and the second is a book on economics. It would not take too long, no more than twenty minutes, to walk the distance from Robert Caro’s office to Edward Conard’s and yet they are as far apart intellectually as the North and South Poles. If they met, the two men would barely communicate, such disparate worlds do they inhabit.

     Graduation season is nearing. Some high school graduates will want to invest in themselves and go on to college. The university is a risk. It is competitive; grades count. It may involve assuming a load of debt. It is a struggle trying to balance housing, food, friends, classes, textbooks, and study time. One is expected to develop work habits like those of Robert Caro and yet survive in an environment in which no more than a handful in every class get the A’s, much like Edward Conard’s harsh world.

     Frank Bruni, a New York Times reporter, stated the situation. “Because of levitating costs, college these days is a luxury item, one with newly uncertain returns.” He cautions students to select those majors with job potential—computer science, business, nursing, and teaching—and steer wide of those without—philosophy, anthropology, zoology, art history, and the humanities. The world of jobs and employers can be very cruel to those who choose unwisely their major when first they enroll.


     Yet, I say take the risk. Go to college. Let no one stop you. There you will find your own way to survive and even thrive. The Passage of Power and Unintended Consequences. You will find both at the college you choose and the subject you study.