1. Chris Christie Is Nobody
Spoiler: I’m going to poleaxe Chris Christie in a minute. But first, I want to acknowledge that he presents a genuine moral dilemma.
If you believe that there is a proto-authoritarian movement in America,
And you believe that opposing this authoritarian is the overriding political issue of the day,
Then you have to create off-ramps for people to break with this proto-authoritarian movement, no matter how unsavory they may be,
And you must be willing to welcome anyone into the pro-democracy camp—regardless of their previous dabblings with the authoritarian bloc.
Welcoming people who previously collaborated with the authoritarians can be a hard pill to swallow. How hard depends on your own moral compass. Maybe you’re perfectly willing to welcome Person A into the pro-democracy fold, but Person B rankles you. It’s a sliding scale.
Yet the fact that it’s a sliding scale underscores this basic truth: If you care about democracy, then you should welcome any convert to the cause—no matter how belated; no matter what they did to enable the rise of the authoritarian movement in the first place.
With all of that said, I want to share with you the news that Chris Christie sold 2,289 copies of his new book last week and if anyone deserves this kind of public humiliation, it’s him.
How big of a failure is is 2,289 copies? Here’s Eric Boehlert:
How Christie was able to sell so few books after lining up so much national media attention during his marketing roll-out — “This Week” and “The View,” “Fox & Friends,” along with Fox News, Fox Business, the Daily Show, HBO twice, and CNBC — represents an extraordinary disconnect.
Just to walk through the economics of this for you: Christie’s book was published by Simon & Schuster. I haven’t seen any reporting on the advance they gave him, but for the sake of argument, let’s call it $50k.1 Then there’s the PR costs—a minimum of $10k. Making the books—PP&B—runs about $3 a unit. And depending on how many copies the publisher printed, they’re then going to have to spend money converting the unsold hardcovers to paperbacks. And then they’ll eventually have to pay to pulp the unsold paperbacks.
So all told, Simon & Schuster spent at least $70k in order to sell $58k worth of books—of which they, the publisher, only take home about 50 percent. (The other half goes to Amazon.) And the likely true cost to Simon & Schuster is probably closer to 10x that number, since we’re being so conservative with our guesses.
So this thing is a disaster.
But it’s worth noting that it’s only a disaster for the publisher. Chris Christie gets to keep his advance. Chris Christie was able to leverage this nothing-burger book to get on TV and promote himself.
For Chris Christie, personally, the book was a roaring success.
It’s someone else who got left with the bag.
That’s a pretty good synecdoche for the entire Chris Christie Experience.
The big fella never pays for his mistakes. He never admits that he was wrong. It’s always someone else’s screwup. Someone else who gets stuck with the check.
And that’s why, despite all of those nice sentiments at the top, I’m not sure we really should welcome Christie into the pro-democracy fold. Some reasons:
There’s no repentance from Christie, no admission of the part he played in getting America to this place.
There’s no acknowledgment from Christie that the side he’s leaving is playing with an authoritarianism unique in the American experience.
Instead, Christie frames his break with Trump as trying to put the Republican party in a better position to win future elections. His pivot is not from pro-Trump to anti-Trump, but to anti-anti-Trump.
There is no reason to believe that Christie is sincere in this halfway-break he’s making. Even his current “better position to win” schtick may well be expedient—just another gambit to put himself over.
It seems certain that if Trump called Christie tomorrow and offered him the 2024 VP slot, Christie would do it in a New Jersey minute.
So yes, the pro-democracy movement needs every ally it can get, no matter how unsavory. But I’m not convinced that Chris Christie is an ally.
And in any case, as his 2,289 books show, how useful would he be if he was really on the side of the angels?
Chris Christie has no constituency. He is a media creation with no real-world support.
Which would be fine, if he was willing to stand up and speak the truth.
But he isn’t. Instead he spins and dances and tries to frame facts and history in ways that make him the hero and preserve maximum viability for his future.
Which would be fine—okay, not “fine,” but dealable—if he was a dependable guy who’d been on the right side from the start.
But he isn’t. And he wasn’t.
People are public figures for one of three reasons: The position they hold. The constituency which supports them. Or the ideas they champion.
Chris Christie is a man with no position, no audience, and nothing to say. He is nothing more than an inconsequential phony.
If TV bookers ever figure this out and stop gifting him air time, he’ll disappear altogether.
And no one will notice.
2. Note from an Engineer
Last week we talked about complex systems and how (and why) they fail. One of the reasons they fail is that in attempting to eliminate one failure point, we create new failure points.
This prompted an email from an engineer with a perfectly apt illustration of the dilemma:
Much of the history of engineering is "use a new technology to improve some product, then redesign the product to account for heretofore unknown problems with that technology"
Take for example the Liberty Ships that we built in World War 2. Prior shipbuilding techniques were to rivet ships together, but the Liberty Ships are welded. Welding is faster, stronger, uses 1/7th less steel, makes the ships sail faster, and requires less training for the shipyard employees. Perfect!
But sometimes, the welded ships would crack in half for no reason, occasionally pierside on a calm night.
The US Maritime Commission changed the follow-on Victory ships to include crack-stopping features, but it wasn't until after the war that the science of Fracture Mechanics was developed.
Once ships were totally welded, a crack could propagate beyond the plate it started in, and go through the whole ship; so crack arrester features were developed. The steel alloys in use changed drastically as well, as previously-overlooked contaminants were found to reduce notch toughness.
A similar thing happened a hundred years before with the study of metal fatigue (actually a subset of Fracture Mechanics) when trains that had been in service for months or years would suffer from "the wheels just fell off. They were on yesterday, they were on last month. Today they fell off."
In the case of metal fatigue, sharp corners in parts can lead to the start of small cracks, which grow over time until they fracture. Fatigue only became an issue with train wheels because they were made of steel, and subject to high tensile stresses.
Prior to the use of steel, cast iron was the material of choice. Cast iron has almost no tensile strength, but because it contains so many metallurgical defects that reduce its nominal fatigue strength, it is totally insensitive to geometry like sharp corners.
So basically any chance we get to improve something, we inadvertently create more failure modes to defend against.
Yup. That’s our world.
An old n+1 essay on listening to books:
I used to avoid talking about audio books. In general if you are 28 years old and in graduate school and you listen to audio books then the worst thing about the whole practice is admitting it to your graduate-school peers. Every time a book comes up in conversation, your dude friends will ask “Did you listen to that on audio book?,” and then they will laugh. Less dude-like people, people less invested in making fun of you, will just cock their heads to the side and ask you why you do it. As if liking books were not enough! As if it weren’t the best thing in the world to have someone read to you! As if you had something better to do! I thought about starting this essay by insisting that I listen to audio books for work, so that I could not be mistaken for that other kind of person, that kind of person who listens audio books because it brings her some kind of unsophisticated pleasure. I am not, I wanted you to know, your Aunt Paula. My kitchen is not decorated with rooster towel racks and rooster potholders and rooster trim. I am a very serious person.
It isn’t just my graduate-school friends. Some authors still disdain audio books, too, although the extra income is hard to turn down. (Audio book sales account for somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the total book publishing market, and authors stand to make real money from them.) And then for every anti-audio book novelist there are several anti-audio book critics. The essayist Sven Birkerts claims that all good reading involves self-mediation, effort, “collaboration” between the reader and the book, whereas audio books “determine” everything—“pace, timbre, inflection”—for the “captive listener.” The blogger and critic Scott Esposito is less careful to mask his snobbery: “Don’t go pretending like you’re some kind of big-time reader because you consumed the complete works of Balzac via mp3. No, you’re some guy who listened to an iPod while cooking dinner.” And when a New York Times reporter asked Harold Bloom a couple of years ago what he thought of audio books, the great Yale humanist told her that “deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear.” It requires, he continued, the use of “that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” This sounds to me somewhat peculiar, but a lot of people basically agree with it. They believe that whatever part of you is “open to wisdom” is a part that can be activated only through the eyes.
Unless, of course, you are blind. In which case everything is obviously completely totally different.
The real number is probably multiples of that. But whatever.