The End of Big by Nicco MeleIf Thomas Friedman's thesis in his 2005 The World Is Flat is that globalization has led to a flatter playing field, then TThe End of Big by Nicco MeleIf Thomas Friedman's thesis in his 2005 The World Is Flat is that globalization has led to a flatter playing field, then The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath tells author Nicco Mele's vision that the ultimate tool of that equalization is the internet.
In truth, it's not a hard argument to make.
An young tech geek when the Howard Dean for President campaign hired him to help with their online fundraising, Mele learned first hand how the internet could allow the little guy to compete with establishment forces, or what he calls the "big" of politics. Using broad strokes, as he calls it in the first chapter, Mele describes a world where, increasingly, the little guy can, by virtue of the internet, take on what is big, whether it be in politics, business, the news media, entertainment, education, government.
Its a fascinating picture. Whether he is citing use of online social media networks in the Arab spring or the rise (and fall) of illicit arms and drugs trade through the Silk Road, touting local communities outsourcing of government functions to minimize costs or sharing anecdotes about online retailers cutting out the middle man and creating their own business, or explaining the rise of bloggers and new media to compete with and disrupt traditional print and broadcast news companies, Mele provides a broad and interesting view of the the world that the internet has made possible.
As interesting as that picture is, however, it does lead to one shortcoming of the book, which, to be clear, Mele owns and anticipates early on. Because he paints in broad strokes, covering so many large areas in general and with anecdotes rather than hard data, the book is perhaps more appropriate to the internet novice than the seasoned or even semi-experienced who have used the internet for more than a simple Google search or Facebook update. It's a great entry overview, but lacks any specifics or guidance for how to reach the kind of success he trumpets.
If you're new to the internet or perhaps looking to understand an area outside of your current usage, The End of Big is perhaps an interesting, and quick, overview that is worth a read. As a user's guide, however, it is perhaps more useful as tales of successes than a course in attaining the skills to join the brave new world. ...more
With a page count a bit lower than Civilization, The Great Degeneration is based on his 2012 "Reith Lectures" on the BBC and walks through four institutions that Ferguson sees as crucial to the prosperity of the modern state. Faced with growing symptoms of decline, such as slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior, Ferguson believes that our institutional degeneration may be the major cause.
Ferguson opens by first addressing other arguments about why wealthy countries have declined. China and India's impressive economic growth, in contrast to relative stagnation in western democracies, is not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the West, but is also a result of actual decline in real terms in western countries of certain institutions, especially in the decline of political, economic, legal and social institutions.
The west's success, relative to "the rest," over the last few centuries has been in large part due to four institutions: democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society.
Democracy has deteriorated not so much due to access, but rather due to the breakdown of the social contract between generations, says Ferguson. For this, he cites the expensive benefits that older generations have voted themselves to be left to the next generation to pay for, noting that Edmund Burke, in his Reflections On The Revolution In France saw the generations as an important part of the social contract. By taking on astronomical amounts of debt, we have put future generations on the hook for our expensive lifestyles.
When it comes to capitalism, Ferguson is not so much anti-regulation as he is anti-bad regulation. There is not such thing as a market without some kind of regulation, he says, but the regulation must makes sense and malefactors must be made to pay. On the contrary, in the recent recession, Wall Street came out ahead, despite risky behavior and dangerous bets, while average Americans bailed them out with giant debt producing stimulus packages.
Where once the rule of law protected contracts and property rights, tort law has slowed down the legal system, raised the costs of doing business, increased the costs of products, and failed to produce a corresponding benefit, stifling innovation and creativity.
It is when Ferguson reaches civil society that I am most intrigued. He quotes from both Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray, both landmark works on the dramatic decrease in voluntary associations over the last century. Where as at one point both wealthy and poor attended the same churches, participated in the same organizations (think Lions Club or Rotary or even Boy Scouts), and lived in the same neighborhoods, recent decades have seen lower and lower membership and participation in these voluntary associations that have brought people together for a common purpose. Instead, government has replaced these voluntary associations in many cases as the source of resort and not often with improved results. We may have more "Friends" on Facebook, but the relationships there are no more substantial than the effort to click "Like." The result is less civic-mindedness and less civic-participation.
And no, showing up to vote does not reflect civic participation. Voter turnout is merely a symptom of increased, or decreased, civic engagement.
Since I listened to the book over the course of several days commute and while doing a bit of home improvement, I found the shorter analysis and references to other works useful and was unsurprised to hear, as Ferguson closed up the book, that it was based on a series of lectures. While The Great Degeneration is a fascinating, if bite-sized, look at the problems assailing western civilization, it proceeds along lines that are more prescriptive than proscriptive. As a gateway, however, it is a starting point, and on that score, I recommend it as a place to begin your examination of the future of our democracy. ...more
It took me a long time to begin to like Jon Meacham's portrait of Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. As I finished it, however, IIt took me a long time to begin to like Jon Meacham's portrait of Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. As I finished it, however, I found myself a reluctant admirer, appreciative of Meacham's style and of the biography, not to mention of the man.
Meacham is the author of two previous books on American presidents, winning the Pulitzer prize for his look at Andrew Jackson American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. With The Art of Power he delves into the life of one of the most beloved of founding fathers. As he notes in the closing pages of the epilogue, Jefferson has been evoked by more recent American presidents and political figures on both sides of the spectrum, proving to be "an inspiration for radically different understandings of government and culture." This seems to me, and Meacham endorses the idea, to be due to Jefferson's versatility in his lifetime. Rather than a idealogue bound to one philosophy, Jefferson was a pragmatic politician, and while he believed in the principles of freedom he espoused in the words he penned in the declaration, the means he chose to approach and uphold those principles changed depending on his position.
As they say, where you stand depends on where you sit and examples from Jefferson's life are plentiful.
As a member of the opposition party and vice president during the Adams Administration, Jefferson vigorously opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts as a blot on the liberty and freedom promised by the Bill of Rights. And yet, as President, he did not fully wipe out the effects of those First Amendment inhibiting laws. He allowed those punished under the law to be set free, but did not immediately return the fines that had been levied from them.
During this same time as vice president, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolution (James Madison wrote the Virginia resolution of the same time) in which he argued, through the proxy of the Kentucky legislature, that the Alien and Sedition were unconstitutional and that the states held the right, and the duty, to declare any acts of Congress that were not authorized by the constitution unconstitutional. It was a divisive argument from the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, says Meacham, coming from the "voice of the man who believed secession fatal to America instead of the man who wrote about the primacy of states' rights."
Later, as president, Jefferson--the man who had trumpeted the rights of states over the act of the national legislature--acted with executive authority outside of the bounds then available to him, sending military expeditions against the Barbary states and accomplishing the Louisiana Purchase, all without Congressional approval.
[...]Jefferson was to Washington and Adams what Dwight Eisenhower was to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman: a president who reformed but essentially ratified an existing course of government.
Jefferson wasn't so interested in doggedly following the rules and norms of his ideology as he was in, for lack of a better way to put it, finding what worked and finding a way to do it. For man whose life was a study in contrasts (or hypocrisy, depending on your view), pragmatism was necessary. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, yet his earliest memory was of a slave handing him down on pillow to ride in a carriage and he never freed the slaves that he owned, even in death. He trumpeted states' rights, but expanded the scope of the federal government when the opportunity was his. He loved his family dearly, but had no qualms pursuing the married woman of another man and possibly destroying hers.
Indeed, this comes to the thesis of Meacham's book, less a biography than a portrait: "Jefferson hungered for greatness," and he welded power--usually through written word--to obtain it. A benevolent welder of what power he held, Jefferson's overriding description is that of a Renaissance man with boundless interests and whose overriding concern was the "fate of democratic republicanism in America," for to his end he worried about the return of monarchical government, an influence that Meacham found as influential on Jefferson's thinking as the Cold War was on American Presidents from Truman to George H.W. Bush.
The short-comings of Meacham's biography are few, and he does not seem interested in hiding them. Setting out to restore Jefferson's image, somewhat tarnished in recent years by revelations of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings and acclaimed biographies of Jefferson's rivals (Hamilton, Adams, and Washington, especially) in recent years, Meacham writes with more than a little hero worship, arguing that while there have been many great presidents, none would be as interesting to spend time with as Jefferson, whose career touched on far wider a range than did his contemporary political rivals, or even of other politicians since. Indeed, he is persuasive, and it's a fascinating picture that is difficult to dismiss. Yes, Jefferson is a slave owner, a pragmatic politician, and an occasional philanderer. But he is also a man who at his heart believed in the justice and goodness of man and who to his last day would welcome the friendship of any man who would accept his hand in fellowship.
Several people have asked me about the Bob Woodwardkerfuffle.
(I know. The irony. Congressional leaders and the President spend two years negotiating hSeveral people have asked me about the Bob Woodward kerfuffle.
(I know. The irony. Congressional leaders and the President spend two years negotiating how to deal with the debt, can't agree on a solution, resolve to on a 2% across the board cut called "sequestration" that almost no one understands--or represents accurately if they do--and people want to talk about a 'he said/she said' moment in American politics. Let's be honest--it's a lot closer to the school yard politics than the intricate and complex workings of the federal budget).
I just finished reading Woodward's The Price of Politics, a history of this specific issue and how we got to this point. With that in mind, here are my two-bits.
The long and short of it is this: when President Obama couldn't get Congressional Republicans in 2011 to agree to raise the debt limit and enact a tax hike to cover the increased debt, his staff--specifically Jack Lew and Rob Nabors--went to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and suggested sequester as a triggering mechanism. If a deal was not worked out by a certain date (March 1, 2013), then automatic cuts would happen. Reid liked the idea so much that he bent over in his chair and put his head between his legs like he was going to vomit. Seriously. (If my sarcasm it isn't picking up, know that Reid was not a fan...)
No one thought it would fail. It was so bad that the other side will have to compromise, everyone thought. Neither Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and the President in the White House--assumed that no one would let sequestration happen. Because the cuts were disproportionately high on defense spending, Democrats thought that Republicans would never let sequestration happen. And Republicans thought that there was no way that the President would allow such broad, across-the-board cuts happen, either.
They we're all of them deceived, if just by their own hubris.
So who is right? Woodward? Or the White House?
The simple answer is that, in a sense, both are right.
First, Woodward is correct that it was a White House, and by extension the President's, idea to propose sequestration as a trigger if no agreement was reached.
Second, if we look only at the unknowable intentions of the President instead of what he actually did, then he is also correct--he never really intended sequester to happen without some kind of agreement on the budget. In other words, he looked at the consequences of sequester, thought that it would be so bad on the Republicans that Republicans would rather agree to tax hikes than sequester, and said--"Let's do it.
If it's easier to visualize, here's how the Republican spin machine puts it...not entirely inaccurately.
If reading The Price of Politics it doesn't disabuse you of any trust you have in our elected officials ability to compromise, I don't know what will.
The Price of Politicsinexhaustibly details the negotiations over the summer of 2011 leading up to the debt crisis in early August of that year. They began long before we heard about them in the press--months in advance, in fact--and included more than a few meetings between Vice President Biden, Rep. Eric Cantor, White House staff, Senators Kyl, Reid, Baucus, and McConnell, House Minority Leader Pelosi, and, at the center of it, President Obama and Speaker Boehner.
Most of them end up looking inexperienced and unskilled in negotiation especially the President, his staff, and, to some extent, Speaker Boehner. And why? Because both sides fail to listen to the other and throughout remain entrenched in partisan dogmas that prevent them from finding compromise. Crucial negotiations and conversations repeatedly took place over the phone or after media leaks, with offers from each side repeatedly ignoring what the other had told them was an unfeasible option for them. Republicans would not settle for a bargain that did not rein in entitlement spending and Democrats would not agree to cuts to Medicare or Medicaid. Democrats would not do a deal that didn't include tax hikes and the end of the Bush tax cuts, but Republicans were unwilling to allow any new tax revenues except through tax reform.
Neither side would shift to a middle ground.
Early in the book, Woodward talks about the philosophy of the first White House Chief of Staff under President Obama, Rahm Emanuel. "F&#@ them! We have the votes." With it, Democrats shoved healthcare reform through Congress rough shod and in spite of public opinion opposing it. When Republicans took back the House, the Obama White House never really learned how to compromise, but merely seemed to think that compromise meant talking with their opponents about what the White House insisted they do. No surprise, then, that Republicans could never really find a common ground with the White House. As Republicans often complained after being given yet another proposal that ignored their needs, "How are you, the White House, supposed to know what's good for Republicans?"
Surprisingly, one of the few people who came across as the most flexible and able to make a deal was Vice President Biden. A character I have often thought of as a blowhard, gaff-prone Democratic operative often proved to be the person who could work with Republicans to find a feasible solution. Woodward often referred to him as a "McConnell whisperer" because of his relationship with the Senate Minority Leader and his ability to negotiate.
In the end though, as Woodward puts it, never has so much effort been made for so little result. The President won in being able to put off any more negotiation until after his reelection, and we ended up with a status quo result. Federal spending and revenues were left at the same place as before and on March 1--today--automatic across the board cuts amounting to 2% of the budget will go into effect at 11:59 PM.
What are our elected officials doing about it? Jetting across the country wasting valuable time telling the American people that it's the other sides' fault. No wonder no one trusts politicians....more
Ward Connerly is a crusader, but a crusader who has picked the a battle that matters.
A black man born in the south but raised in the West, Connerly beWard Connerly is a crusader, but a crusader who has picked the a battle that matters.
A black man born in the south but raised in the West, Connerly becomes a unique figure in the fight for equal rights against racial preferences. Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences, part autobiography and part political memoir, is his telling of the events leading up to and surrounding that fight. It is a quick and accessible read, and Connerly proves to be an able storyteller, quick to turn a phrase and propound his opinion with anecdotes and colorful observations in the moment. Of the many of observations that intersperse Connerly's narrative, he often seems intent on using them to demonstrate the hypocrisy and duplicity of his opponents, especially as it regards race and preferential treatment.
Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences is a quick and accessible read. Connerly proves to be an able storyteller, quick to turn a phrase and propound his opinion with anecdotes and colorful observations in the moment. Of the many of observations that intersperses Connerly’s narrative, he often seems intent on using them to demonstrate the hypocrisy and duplicity of his opponents, especially as it regards race and preferential treatment.
To be clear, I doubt that Creating Equal will persuade you to change your ideological biases, unless, perhaps, you are either one of those rare individuals that sits on the fence or a part of the legion of the majority that tends to be uninformed on the racial preferences. For myself, I opened the book predisposed to support the American creed of equality before the law and found in Connerly's words support and reason for that belief. Connerly's logic is simple and easy to follow: while Affirmative Action was intended to correct racial injustice in American political institutions, the unintended consequence was to insert preferences against certain racial groups (for example, those of Hispanic or Asian origin) in favor of less qualified individuals who happen to belong to particular racial groups. Further, by institutionalizing such preferences in, for example, the higher education system of states like California, we are not only supporting inequality for all Americans, but racially discriminating against many. It's almost an afterthought for Connerly that such preferences tend to hurt those very racial groups that they favor more than they help.
Not surprisingly, given that Connerly is black himself and took a leading role in leading the fight to remove racial preferences, first from the California Board of Regents and later in state by state initiatives, some of the most vociferous critiques against equality came from blacks who viewed Connerly as a traitor. Connerly seemed to take relish reciting anecdotes about racial slurs twisted against him by other black. The irony never escapes him.
Connerly's mission is one born of logic and reasoning, and he never hesitates to point out that even when equality lost the fight in a state (as in Florida, which he called a death "by a thousand cuts,"), voters don't hesitate to support him when the plain language is put before them. His targets for critiques aren't limited to Democrats or racial preferences' supporters--both George and Jeb Bush (as well as Karl Rove) receive their share of his ire for their unwillingness to man up for equality in their states when the politics of their future did not support it.
Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences is short, written with Connerly's flare for the dramatic, and should be a valuable addition in the history of American political thought. What it lacks in-depth, statistics, and balance it more than makes up with a narrative that persuasively describes why all Americans should care about equality. America was founded on the idea that all men and women should be treated equal before the law. If there are failings among certain groups--especially due to race--the changes need to be made where effects can be felt: in our public schools. Setting quotas that consider race, however, does not and will not assist in bringing more disadvantaged individuals out of poverty. Rather, it just prevents Americans as a whole from experiencing equal opportunity....more
I wish I had read this in the early years after 9/11. While the characters in Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" are not superficially the same as theI wish I had read this in the early years after 9/11. While the characters in Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" are not superficially the same as the characters that would figure into the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent events, the themes are eerily similar.
As a piece of literature, though the book is an almost surreal set of disjointed pieces. Each chapter is a different view, through a different set of eyes, and only by looking at them all in turn does the mystery unfold. Methodically, Conrad unfolds each participants thoughts in slow motion, and while he demonstrates a command of the English language that is enviable, as well as a vocabulary that would be substantial for a native speaker and even more so for a sailor whose native tongue was Polish, the slow pace demands a serious reader's attention and patience. You get a full picture in the reading, but you look at every details that unfolds.
And yet, plodding as the pace is, there are surprises. After pages of slow, deliberate character development, a sudden jolt of action with shift the plot, especially as the personal consequences of the underlying act of terror begins to turn the characters in on each other. In this regard, one sees echoes of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" or even Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" in the inescapable maelstrom that drags down all who are touched by violent men and violent actions.
Is it heavy, then? Undeniably. Worth the effort? Without question, it is an interesting and fascinating read, and Conrad's prescience, decades before the onset of the terrorism's "golden age," is itself an argument for reading "The Secret Agent."
Just don't pick it up expecting James Bond. He's not here....more
The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over the last five hundred years, a record unmatched in world history and at odds with its population and geography relative to other countries and civilizations, due to six "killer apps" that have provided an advantage on the international stage. Further, it may be the West's loss of those same "apps" that is leading to decline now.
Ferguson pegs the rise of the West to dominance at about the same time as the discovery of the Americas, and so, having just finished a look at that chapter of history in "1491" and "1493", I decided to take a closer look at Ferguson's argument. What was the secret of the West? And could we really be headed towards decline or collapse?
Where many histories today focus on the specific "modules" of history, drilling down to look closely at specific persons or events (think Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" on Abraham Lincoln's political management or Horowitz's "Midnight Rising" on the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry), Ferguson takes another tact by looking at the broad strokes of history to find themes, the grand "narratives" of history, as he calls them. Where other historians dig into the details, Ferguson wants to look at the big picture. As he explains in the preface:
"Watching my three children grow up, I had the uneasy feeling that they were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations. Watching the financial crisis [of the late 2000s] unfold, I realized that they were far from alone, for it seemed as if only a handful of people in the banks and treasuries of the Western world had more than the sketchiest information about the last Depression. For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose."
With that flippant, matter of fact, almost "devil-may-care" attitude then, Ferguson determines to take the reader through a grand narrative of the last five hundred years, identifying six "killer apps" that Western civilization adopted to rise to a dominance unmatched in breadth and duration in human history. It is this broad overview, as told in Ferguson's urgent and quick-witted voice, that makes the extended argument so interesting and in an age of multicultural relativism, refreshing. Welding his argument--not just about the cause of Western civilization's success, but also that "the historian can commune with the dead by imaginatively reconstructing their experiences" to inform and predict the future--Ferguson spins together the documents, events, and personalities to form a narrative, a story, about why the West succeeded in the face of larger, richer, and, at the onset, more wealthy civilizations.
The "tools" to which he attributes the rise of the West are likened to "apps," downloadable software that augment computers and mobile devices. By looking at the narrative, Ferguson finds the roots of the West's success, as well as why, perhaps, the West as begun to decline while other civilizations advance. Not specific to the West, but, like the real world apps in the metaphor, the values can be "downloaded" by any culture for similar results, and in the closing Ferguson addresses the adaptation by non-Western cultures that have done, and are doing, just that with success.
The "apps" Ferguson finds, while not necessarily surprising, are informative: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption and the birth of the "consumer society" (“without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable”) and Max Weber's Protestant “work ethic”. While the narrative is anything but chronological, Ferguson's grasp of history and the sweeping strokes with which he paints the narrative provide fascinating reading. One cannot sense, however, that Ferguson, almost anything but apologetic, is on the verge of glorying in the success of the British Empire during its hey-day as a colonial power, noting with statistical explanation the improvements brought to the world through Western influence, whether it be in medicine, literacy, and education. Or blue jeans, for in the end, one side effect of rise of the West is not diversity, but conformity as cultures imitate and emulate Western styles, habits, and philosophy.
Ironically to this writer, who sees such deep and lasting value in the political institutions of the West, Ferguson notes that one area where the West has not been uniformly imitated is the political.
"Only in the realm of political institutions does there remain significant global diversity, with a wide range of governments around the world resisting the idea of the rule of law, with its protection of individual rights, as the foundation for meaningful representative government."
In other words, we'll take your blue jeans, your medicine, even your work ethic, but you can keep the Bill of Rights and representative government, they say. Indeed, it is that imitation of the West that has brought China from the depths of the Cultural Revolution to heights today when its economy can weather the financial crisis without more than a hiccup.
After Ferguson's narrative through the six "apps", then, we reach the essential question suggested by any study of the West's rise: is the West now in decline? And if so, is it too late to reverse?
Perhaps not. Although China's rise seems ominous, and indeed, Ferguson cites China's relative nonchalance towards doing business with the dictators and warlords of the world business "it's just business" as evidence that China is more concerned about rising than its popularity, China still faces problems that could arrest its progress, especially from social unrest, political pressure from its growing and unrepresented middle-class, or friction with its neighbors in Asia.
Noting that a "retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush" (Afghanistan) seems to proceed the fall of any empire--be it Alexander's, British, Russian, or most recently American--Ferguson is unwilling to give up on the West, yet. No, the things that set the West apart are no longer distinct, but nor has the entire package of "apps" been embraced.
"The Chinese have got capitalism. The Iranians have got science. The Russians have got democracy. The Africans are (slowly) getting modern medicine. And the Turks have got the consumer society. But what this means is that Western modes of operation are not in decline but are flourishing nearly everywhere, with only a few remaining pockets of resistance. A growing number of Resterners [Ferguson's name for non-Westerners] are sleeping, showering, dressing, working, playing, eating, drinking and travelling like Westerners. Moreover, as we have seen, Western civilization is more than just one thing; it is a package. It is about political pluralism (multiple states and multiple authorities) as well as capitalism; it is about the freedom of thought as well as the scientific method; it is about the rule of law and property rights as well as democracy. Even today, the West still has more of these institutional advantages than the Rest. The Chinese do not have political competition. The Iranians do not have freedom of conscience. They get to vote in Russia, but the rule of law there is a sham. In none of these countries is there a free press. These differences may explain why, for example, all three countries lag behind Western countries in qualitative indices that measure‘national innovative development’ and ‘national innovation capacity’."
True, the West is not without its faults, he says, but our downfall will come from within, not from external pressure. It's the loss of the "killer apps" by our culture that will, in the long and short run, lead to our continued decline. Don't mistake the adoption, however, by others as the reason for the decline of the West. Rather, it is the West's abandonment of the values that brought them prominence that is leading to the decline. Here, again, Ferguson picks up the theme in his preface--we must learn from history. If we are to maintain the great values that gave the West its rise, we must study and learn the great works--the documents--that teach those values.* Add up all the values, and, like any follower of Churchill, it adds up to courage and action.
"Today, as then [1938 and the German Nazi threat to Western civilization], the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it."
If you're interested in a brief version of Ferguson's views on the six "apps" that he discusses in the book, check out his speech at TED.
* Ferguson's recommended "standard works" for Western civilization are:
The King James Bible Isaac Newton's Principa John Locke's Two Treatises of Government Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species William Shakespeare's plays Selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill Also, if he could select only one of the above, it would be Shakespeare's collected works. Related articles
I have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the "not rich" are making lessI have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the "not rich" are making less than they used to, relative to the wealthy. In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
There is a divide growing in America, argues Charles Murray in his book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010" but it isn't necessarily just over money. In fact, the divide may be greater because it is cultural, not just economic.
Displaying a dizzying array of statistics, studies, and research, Murray shows an America that is watching the rise of what seems, to me, to be a new ruling class, a group of elites that are well educated ("overeducated elitist snobs"), well connected, and with a set of values and interests different from much of modern America. The self-segregation is not malicious, but, largely a result of people being attracted to others like them. As a result, their children grow up with a different set of values, more educated, and in turn marry people like them, further segregating themselves.
It works both ways, though, and Murray sets up as a comparison a hypothetical city on the upper ("Belmont") and on the lower ("Fishtown") ends of the spectrum to compare them. In his analysis, people in Belmont are better educated, less likely to get divorced (if at all), more involved in their community, work longer hours, are more honest, and are more religious. On the other hand, vital statistics in all of these areas for Fishmont show a gradual falling off over the last fifty years.
Why is this problematic? One reason is that it has resulted in a culture for the upper class that is completely out of touch with most of America. They watch different movies, participate in different social activities, drink different beers, and read different books. Their interests are not the same, and yet they are a select group that sets policy and opinion, controls wealth and power, for America.
Another problem is that the degradation of values in lower class America over the last fifty years is leading to a collapse of "American civic life," something exceptional about America. At this juncture in the book, Murray, a confessed libertarian, recaps the roots and history of American civic culture and its uniqueness in the world. Neighborliness, vibrant civic engagement in solving local problems, voluntary associations, and so on. All hallmarks of America up to as recently as the 1960s, the members of lower and upper classes shared through these civic association a culture together that connected them and their values.
Further, although the elite retain some values, they have failed to lead. The elite class is as "dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdictated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards." Instead, its most successful members take advantage of the perks of position without regards to the "unseemliness" of that behavior, showing something of a new "gilded age."
Prognosis? "If the case I have just made for a hollow elite is completely correct, all is lost," says Murray on page 294. The lower class is only barely able to care for itself by 2020, while the upper classes enter yet another generation separate from main stream America and further out of touch with the "real world." Insightfully, then, Murray says that "new laws and regulations steadily accrete, and America's governing regime is soon indistinguishable from that of an advanced European welfare state. The American project is dead."
Is all lost? Murray says that for things to turn around, America must see four predictions borne out: America must watch what happens in Europe (and if the turmoil of the last few months is any indication, this prediction is bearing out), science must undermine the moral underpinnings of the welfare state, it will become increasingly obvious that there is a simple, affordable way to replace the entire apparatus of the welfare state, and Americans' allegiance to the American project must be far greater that Murray's argument has acknowledged.
Could these be born out? Time will tell. In the meantime, it's a powerful argument for a retrospection of the great problems of our times and our country. ...more
I recently read the short brochure “A Free-Market Monetary System,” a compilation of Friedrich A. Hayak’s 1974 Nobel Prize speech “A Pretense of KnowlI recently read the short brochure “A Free-Market Monetary System,” a compilation of Friedrich A. Hayak’s 1974 Nobel Prize speech “A Pretense of Knowledge” and a short essay on proposing a free-market monetary system (hence, the name, see?). Both are short, and neither waste any time proposing radical changes to what was then, and indeed what is still, the status quo in monetary and economic policy. Both the essay and the speech are worth reading.
In “A Free Market Monetary System,” Hayek warns that as long as central banks are in control of the money supply, we can expect to see the economic highs and lows that we have come to expect, better known as “bubbles” and “recessions.” Both are part of the market corrections that result when markets try to correct for artificial highs created by monetary policy in the control of a central bank. Hayek’s recommendation? Let private enterprises issue their own money for circulation.
I am more convinced than ever that if we ever again are going to have decent money, it will not come from government: it will be issued by private enterprise, because providing the public with good money which ic can trust and use can not only be an extremely profitable business; it imposes on the issuer a discipline to which the government has never been and cannot be subject.
Get it? Rather than “Dollars,” we would buy, and spend, money that might be called something else. Nike “Swooshes,” perhaps, or American Express “credits.” The point is that business does not have a monopoly on money the way that government–i.e. central banks–does and therefore has a greater incentive to protect the integrity of that money from inflation and against other currencies by good policies. If it doesn’t, people won’t use it and it’s value will drop. (Can you hear the invisible hand clapping?)
“It is a business which competing enterprise can maintain only if it gives the public as good a money as anybody else,” said Hayek. Meanwhile, central banks have no such limits or restraints. Just ask Ben Bernanke.
Could it work? Would the government ever give up its control of the money supply?
Ha! Good one. Have you ever known the government to willingly give up any power?
For an interesting look at how an economy where private enterprise issues its own money, check out the speculative novel “The Unincorporated Man” by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin. _______________________
The second part of the brochure is the text of ”A Pretense of Knowledge.” Hayek’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974 (he shared the prize with Gunnar Myrdal for their work in “the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena”) was a thunderhead of a critique of policies recommended by economists and implemented by governments that had, in his words, “made a mess of things.” He attributed the failure of economists to guide public policy more successfully to a “propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences[...]” That attempt, he said, “in our field may lead to outright error.” Economics is not an exact science, and the application of “habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed” lead to a “‘scientistic’ attitude” that the unknowable is knowable.
Economies involve an “organized complexity” that is too deep for economic researchers to obtain. Speaking of wages and prices as an example, Hayek argues that “the determination of [prices and wages] will enter the effects of particular information possessed by every one of the participants in the market process–a sum of facts which in their totality cannot be known to the scientific observer, or to any other single brain.” What he is saying is that while my wife at the grocery store may know enough to decide whether one can of salsa is better priced than another–based on a list of criteria only she knows, including flavor, cost relative to other salsas, cost relative to other stores and whether it is worth driving to those other stores to get the salsa, as well as how much my daughters are fussing in the shopping cart to hurry, whether we need salsa at all, and so on–the observer, the economist or market researcher or whoever is watching, can never know all that goes into her mind.
"It is indeed the source of the superiority of the market order, and the reason why, when it is not suppressed by the powers of government, it regularly displaces other types of order, that in the resulting allocation of resources more of the knowledge of particular facts will be utilized which exists only dispersed among uncounted persons, than any one person can possess."
Only the market–the composite of my wife, and the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of shoppers out there can determine what the market value–the price–of the salsa should be.
This is why governments mess things up when they try to intervene. Whether it is propping up failing auto companies (go google “GM volt january 2012 sales” to find out that the company bailed out by Washington, D.C. sold a measly 603 Volts last month) or promoting and subsidizing “green” energy companies (for this only, google “Solyndra scandal” where even the New York Times admits that the government took risks that the market would not take. I wonder why the market wouldn’t risk it?), when government tries to pick winners better than the market, it inevitably fails or produces less success than the a free market.
This isn’t to say that economics is entirely unable to offer predictive power. Quite the contrary. It just can’t do so with the same ability as the “hard sciences,” such as physics, or chemistry.
Often all that we shall be able to predict will be some abstract characteristic of the pattern that will appear–relations between kinds of elements about which individually we know very little.[...] The danger of which i want to warn is precisely the belief that in order to have a claim to be accepted as scientific it is necessary to achieve more. This way lies charlatanism and worse. To act on the belief that that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.
Neither the Members of Congress making laws, the President and his Executive Branch (proposing, executing, and, also, making laws), nor judges in their black robes know enough to out think the decisions of millions or billions of people that make up a market.
"But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority. Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims."
We may not always understand why the market chooses what it does, but in large part the market chooses, through spontaneity, that which helps man get what he wants.
In other words, Hayeks’ message to economists and policy makers is simple: get out of the way and let the market choose. It’s much smarter than you are....more
"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." But what happened next?
More than just the discovery of the new world that we call the Americas, Christopher"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." But what happened next?
More than just the discovery of the new world that we call the Americas, Christopher Columbus set off globalization of ecology, trade, biology, and nationality beyond anything that preceded it, argues Charles Mann in "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created." The discovery of America did more than just uncover lands previously unseen or mapped by Europeans. It set adrift the then current order of the entire world, changed civilizations from the Iberian Peninsula at the edge of Europe to the Ming Dynasty in Asia.
And the changes continue, today, over five hundred years later.
Mann's exploration of the world changed by Columbus' discovery began in "1491: New Revelations of the America's before Columbus," a look at what the Americas were like before the 1492 discovery. In this new book, Mann steps off from the discovery to look at the effects.
Mann follows the trail of silver mined by the Spanish from Peruvian mountains as it travels across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, adding so much silver to the world market that it result in high levels of inflation in Spain and to the opening of trade with silver-starved Ming China (and indeed, may have also contributed to the Ming's fall, too). In fact, more Peruvian silver may have been sent to China than to Spain. Silver would travel to Manila where it was traded for porcelain and silk bound for Spain and Europe. So great was the trade that the English privateer cum knight Sir Francis Drake would make his reputation marauding, mostly without success, Spanish silver caravans en route to the coast of South America for shipment to China and Spain.
In addition to silver, 1493 tells the story of other products that found their introduction the world after Columbus' discovery. Potatoes may have ended the perennial famines that plagued Europe (and contributed to the great potato famine in Ireland) and became a staple, along with manioc, across Europe and China. Rubber became so valuable that it defied usual economic laws of supply and demand as the price rose even when supply increased. Tobacco and sugar cane together brought plantation slavery to the Americas, as well as millions of Africans. Modern day cultures continue to bear the echoes of the assimilation of cultures and traditions amalgamated in the soup of escaped slaves, native American tribes, and Europeans.
If Mann deserves any criticism, it is that the story is just too large, too vast, and too complicated. The reach and the effects of the homogenocene--the period of mixing of insects, germs, plants, and every other biology through man's action over the last 500 years--are perhaps too great for one book. Indeed, one associate complained to me that Mann just goes on and on about each aspect. "I get it already..." In his effort to be thorough, Mann cannot perhaps be sufficiently thorough to cover impact of the mixing of the Old and New Worlds.
Despite the scope of his effort, Mann succeeds in a fascinating tale that deserves a place among histories of the world. As Niall Ferguson might argue, too few histories look at the broad paths of history and ask "why" while too many look at the small pieces and tell what. Mann looks at the why, and he looks at a why that impacts us all. For that reason, I recommend it as important reading for the interested historian in all of us. Our world is not moved only by kings, presidents and generals, but also by the bugs, goods, trade, and cultures that mix as a result of our actions. Our ecology matters, if in ways we might not suspect or guess. After five hundred years, the effects are still felt and still changing. What might we find out tomorrow?
I'll be the first to admit that my interests in the historical have generally been Eurocentric, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. Recently, thI'll be the first to admit that my interests in the historical have generally been Eurocentric, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. Recently, though, I found reason to pick up Charles C. Mann's "1491," and I have had a hard time putting it down since.
The children's nursery rhyme reminds us that "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Just this last week we've celebrated Thanksgiving and the mythologized first meal shared by "Pilgrims" and Native Americans in the early years of Captain John Smith's Plymouth Colony in the 1620s. But what came before Europeans in the "New World" of North and South America? What was already here when they arrived? Was there much more than a few human sacrificing Aztecs (in South and Central America) and nomadic tribes in North America?
Quite the contrary, says Mann. Rather, he says, the land was full of people, developed into complex cultures and polities. For example, and he expands on many, the Maya controlled an empire that was larger than any in the old world, both in size and population. The Mexica (pronounced Meh-shi-ka) had a literary culture full of metaphor and simile, and a rhetorical tradition that enabled them to meet Franciscan friars sent to convert them on equal ground. In North America, as far as the shores of New England, the coast was full hundreds of thousands of Native Americans--the nations of the Micmac, Passamoquoddy, Abenaki, Mahican, and the Massachusett, among others.
Indeed, there were so many people in both North and South America that Mann wonders if settlement by European colonists would have been possible but for the effects of disease on the native population. So devastating were diseases such as small pox, influenza, and non-sexually transmitted hepatitis that civilizations such as the Maya may have been destroyed before Europeans even landed on the shores of South America. Similarly, the nations of New England, which had filled the land and had traded with early French and English merchants during the 16th century, almost disappeared over a period as short as two to five years.
Why was disease so devastating? While not the central focus of the book, or even the examination of "what was here before 1492," Mann explains how the relatively limited genetic stock of Native Americans presented insufficient diversity for the native populations to survive the diseases that had been active in Europe and Africa for thousands of years. Native Americans were in no way inferior--they just came from fewer people and thus had less genetic diversity, had never faced diseases as the Europeans (and their pigs) carried and therefore fewer of them survived the introduction of the diseases to the American peoples. The result was that within a few years, entire nations and their cultures all but vanished from the Earth...leaving the appearance of a empty land with only a few roving tribes. Indeed, says Mann, the reason those tribes were roving may be because they had been cut down from populations levels necessary to support a stable and stationary settlement.
Among some of the other interesting tales and studies that Mann shares in his book is the story of Tisquantum, who we know as Squanto. His name, which he may have given himself, meant something along the lines of "wrath of God," and Mann suggests that when he appeared in the Plymouth Colony, his intentions may not have been as benign as have been told to us in elementary school pageants. Born an original New Englander, he was kidnapped by Europeans as a souvenir and taken to Spain. Eventually, he ended up in England in the home of a rich merchant, again as an oddity to show to visitors. Learning English, he eventually convinced the merchant to send him back to America. However, in the time between his kidnapping and return, hepatitis ran rampant through his and the other nations living in what is not modern-day Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, wiping out his people and others. He returned to an empty land and was captured by a rival nation, who later used him and his ability to speak English to liaison with the Plymouth Colony. He, in return, may have tried to use the colonists as leverage to take over the rival nation.
1491 is a fascinating book, and a fascinating piece of history, covering a period of history that we may have spent less time examining than is merited given the size and scope of the civilizations that preceded European colonization of the Americas. Containing cities that dwarfed Rome in its greatest day and Paris and London at the time, the Americas in 1491 were, by Mann's telling, a busy, populated and colorful place, and it deserves a place in our histories and archives alongside those of the other great civilizations of history.
It's a rare day that I'm willing to give a full five out of five stars to a book. It's rarer still that I'll give the five stars, and then put it backIt's a rare day that I'm willing to give a full five out of five stars to a book. It's rarer still that I'll give the five stars, and then put it back on my bed-stand for continual reference in my future reading.
It's just that kind of a book, and every bibliophile should read it. In "How to Read Literature like a Professor," Thomas Foster has given us a delightful little romp through literature, producing a guide to the themes, symbolism, ironies, allusions, and plots that reoccur through-out almost all of the fiction we read. Whether it's Charles Dickens or Charles Schulz or even Tom Clancy, Foster's collection of essays are each a fun and enjoyable guide to what you've been reading, and what you will read, when you pick up a work of fiction.
For example: in chapter 10, "It's more than just rain or snow," we read that "weather is never just weather. It's never just rain." Rather, Foster says, instead of providing just a setting, a backdrop to the story, weather in fiction is rooted in our fears and hopes. In addition to appearing as a feature character in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic biblical tale of the great flood, it makes notable and significant sightings in mythologies from all over the world, often, if not always, appearing and appealing to our fear of drowning. "Rain," Foster says, "prompts ancestral memories of the most profound sort. So water in great volume speaks to us at a very basic level of being.
So rain--and floods--signifies drowning? Kind of, but it doesn't stop there. Citing D.H. Lawrence's "The Virgin and the Gypsy" (1930), which I've not read yet, Foster sees it as a "big eraser that destroys but also allows a brand-new start."
Kind of like baptism? Yeah. If you're part of that Christian tradition, this is what baptism is: death of the old, imperfect, and flawed man, and rebirth of a new man. And such is the role that this element--rain and floods--plays in literature. Well, most of the time. Fog can represent a lack of clarity, sunshine hope and clarity. In short, weather is rarely just setting.
That's rain and weather. Each chapter is a written with a quick and light wit that allows a reader, whatever his level of experience with literature, to follow along, see the theme, enjoy the examples, and find a taste for the point. Other chapter titles include the following:
• "When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare..." • "…Or the Bible" • "It's All Political" • "Marked for Greatness" • "Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion" and, of course, • "Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampire." (Stephanie Meyer ought to pick that one up to understand why people who love literature hate Twilight).
Weighing in at just under three hundred pages, "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" doesn't require deep commitment, deep concentration, or deep literature reading. My brain-candy of choice usually falls in the science-fiction or fantasy categories, and yet, I've started to find the themes and allusions and ironies that I saw in classics like "Howards End" and "Bleak House" appearing there, too. Whatever you read, it applies the symbolism that Foster walks through. As a result, my experience, whatever I'm reading, has been more enjoyable since I started it. It's that moment of sudden realization when the whole theme of Steven Erikson "Book of the Fallen" subplot (and there are a lot of them) is an allusion, or imitation, to Spartacus (I think). Or that the journey (all journeys are quests) across the water is a journey of transformation, where the fallen man chooses to start a new life, emerging from the water, as it were, reborn.
It's fun. A lot of fun. Even just reading the book itself is fun. To boot, at the end Foster provides a list of all the books he refers to throughout his essays to allow you, the reader, to pick them up and read further. And what could be more fun about reading than delving into great fiction?
Pick it up, start reading, and enhance your general reading experience. If you're going to read fiction, and you should, you might as well get the most out of it. ...more
I'm always on the look out for new books to read (but what I really need is more time). Suggestions from friends, mentors, reviewers, blogs, and referI'm always on the look out for new books to read (but what I really need is more time). Suggestions from friends, mentors, reviewers, blogs, and references in other books send me off on an endless cycle: hear about a book, find it on Amazon (or the library), purchase (or check out) said book, bring it home, put it on my bed-stand with great anticipation, read ten pages to a reference of another book, and...repeat. The result is a two-stack, five books per stack, "pile up" next to my bed that has resulted in a reading bottle neck. And, believe me you, it's a bottleneck that affords me more enjoyable hours than I've ever passed in traffic.
That's all really just a long way of saying that in reading Charles Hill's "Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order" I constantly found myself adding new books to some real or imagined book list that I may, or may not, ever get a chance to read. Every chapter of Grand Strategies was full of new books that sounded interesting and fascinating. Some--like Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Salmon Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," or Thucydides's "The Peloponnesian War"--I had read and could quickly relate. Others--Xenophon's "The Persian Expedition" or Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"--were new, at least to me. Worse, especially for my book list, Hill manages to craft his dialogue about each in such a way as to bestow meaning and insight beyond a cursory reading of the text.
For example, though I've often heard it referenced and cited as powerful piece of poetry, never had I seen John Milton's "Paradise Lost" as a commentary on war and the modern polity. And yet, perhaps it is.
"But far beyond the politics of the day 'Paradise Lost' is Milton's comprehensive commentary on modern warfare, revolution, founding a polity; on strategy, leadership, intelligence, individual choice under conditions of modern statecraft; and on the justification of God's ways to men."
Suddenly, the war in heaven, through Milton's eyes, becomes a proxy for competing views of the world worked out during the Oliver Cromwell English Civil War.
In Hill's eye, fiction is more than just a story. In literature, we see the great ideas and forces that move history worked out, argued, and recorded. The "international world of states and their modern system is a literary realm," he argues. "[I]t is where the greatest issues of the human condition are played out." Nothing may come closer to a thesis for his opus. He continues:
"A sacral nature must infuse world order if it is to be legitimate. that order is not to be identified with a particular social system, but to legitimate, the system must hint at the underlying divinely founded order. The modern Westphalian system was conceived when such was the case, but with the Enlightenment's addition of secularism, science, reason, and democracy, the system increasingly spurned , then forgot, its legitimizing sources of authority.[...] Revolutionary ideology radicalized secularism, science and reason into the task of erasing original sin, o perfecting humanity--all requiring terror to create "the New Man." Modern efforts to create a sovereignty potent enough to fill the void produced the statist monstrosities of Stalin and Hitler. America became an empire but never gained the understanding to go with it. China is now on its own misguided course."
Thought provoking, insightful, and, of course, full of literature to read when you finish it (including a bibliography of primary and secondary sources that will keep you busy for several years), and reread, Hill's "Grand Strategies" is a worthy addition to your bed-stand stack. Just make sure you put it on top....more
Time for a segment of "A moment in obscure history." This time, we're looking at the constitutional dispute that resulted in the American Revolution.
STime for a segment of "A moment in obscure history." This time, we're looking at the constitutional dispute that resulted in the American Revolution.
Since sometime in 2009, the Tea Party movement has lead a revival of interest in the US Constitution. Senator Mike Lee summed up why the increased interest of late during the release of his new book, "The Freedom Agenda: Why a Balanced Budget Amendment is Necessary to Restore Constitutional Government": many of our problems today stem from when the "federal government started ignoring those Constitutional boundaries about what Congress is supposed to be doing."
Suddenly, propelled by Glenn Beck, books like The 5000 Year Leap , a right-wing conservative's guide to the making of the federal constitution, "leaped" to the Amazon best seller list (it's now listed at 2,615 overall and the top 100 under "Politics"). While it provides only a simple, somewhat white-washed, and superficial vision of the US Constitution, no amount of increased attention in our federal constitution is too little.
"Where does the Constitution," goes the rallying cry, "give the President and Congress the authority for the laws they are passing?"
Neither the revival, however, nor questioning the constitutionality of the federal laws, is unique in history. In fact, it was a dispute over the constitutionality of a central government's actions that lead to another major event in our country's history: the American Revolution.
"The fruit of half a century of research and reflection, Greene's masterly book restores legal pluralism and constitutional controversy to their proper place among the causes, course, and consequences of the American Revolution." - David Armitage, Harvard University In his short, and dense, review of the century and a half leading up to the American Revolution, "The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution," Jack P. Greene postulates and examines that evidence that the American revolution did not erupt purely as a simple dispute over "taxation without representation," but rather that such rallying cries emerged after decades of disagreement on who justly had the right to legislate for the American colonies
"Whether the king-in-Parliament, the ultimate source of statute law in Great Britain, could legislate for British colonies overseas was the ostensible question in dispute, but many other related and even deeper legal issues involving the nature of the constitution of the empire and the location of sovereignty within the empire emerged from and were thoroughly canvassed during the debate."
(From Constitutional Origins, p. 1)
It was only after the conflicting opinions of metropolitan Britain and that of the colonists failed to be reconciled that open warfare broke out in 1775, and it was why the decision to broach the topic of and ultimately pursue independence from Great Britain was so cautiously and tentatively pursued. The colonists considered themselves British subjects, citizens, not vassals and secession was not a choice they relished.
They saw themselves as part and partial of the British Empire. Indeed, as one Virginia lawyer at the time phrased it, they might be "subordinate to the Authority of Parliament," but only "in Degree" and "not absolutely so." (p.78). As free men and
"As free-born Britons, the colonists assumed, they could not be subjected to any but what Bland referred to as "a constitutional Subordination" to the parent state."
(From Constitutional Origins p. 78)
The nature of this "constitutional Subordination" was such that the colonists readily accepted the authority of Parliament in certain areas, but balked at the idea of taxation, seeing it as beyond Parliament's authority. "Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that the colonists' strong initial impulse was to exclude Parliament from all jurisdiction over the domestic affairs of the colonies." (p.79) Like our modern idea of the federal government, the states concern themselves with their domestic activities while the federal government's most basic responsibility is national security.
Interestingly, from a historical perspective, we start to see the first signs of federalism in the disputes between the colonies and the home country.
"[s]o long as Parliament confined its regulations to "restrictions on navigation, commerce, or other external regulations," they reasoned, the '"legislatures of the colonies" would be "left entire"and "the internal government, powers of taxing for its support, and exemption from being taxed without consent, and [all] other immunities which legally belong[ed] to the subjects of each colony agreeable to their own particular constitutions" would thereby, according to the "general principles of the British constitution," remain "secure and untouched.""
Sound familiar? If you hear the foreshadowing of the federalism that would be later inscribed into the US Constitution, there's a reason. It was rooted in the relationship between Great Britain and its far-flung colonies.
If, during the last couple years, you've found yourself at all more interested in the federal constitution and the limitations it places on the federal government, I urge you to look at the role constitutions, and constitutional disputes, played in leading to our own American constitution.
It's a great read, if a bit scholarly, and evidence that whether a law is constitutional is not a new question, but actually may be at the very root of the American experiment and its origins in the American revolution. The American revolution was not, nor is it today, an obscure moment in history, but rooted in obscure legal disputes between the colonies and mother country, long predating the Stamp Acts and the Boston Massacre. It began as a constitutional dispute between the central government in London and the British colonies in America.
Understanding why the colonist went to war, how they got there, and the legal battles that preceded the battlefields can be useful in understanding why the Founders drafted what they did--into the Declaration of Independence and into the federal constitution--and what those words mean to us now, even in the midst of our own constitutional disputes.
Pick up The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution by Jack P. Greene from Cambridge University Press, 2011.
(h/t Patrick Charles, who introduced the book to me)...more
Michael Lewis can tell a story like no other. Anyone who can take the financial crisis of the last few years, find a story in it that centers around sMichael Lewis can tell a story like no other. Anyone who can take the financial crisis of the last few years, find a story in it that centers around subprime mortgages and shorting the market (if you understand what that means and how to do it, you're more than a step ahead of me and about anyone else I've mentioned it to over the last couple weeks), and then make it interesting to the lay reader deserves to be read.
In many ways (if not all ways), the stock market is a giant enigma to me, which brings to mind how Winston Churchill once described Russia: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." If there is a key to the enigma, with that riddle wrapped in a mystery inside it, that is the stock market, perhaps the key is found in the self-interest of the individuals participating in the market. Not just the stock and bond traders that made up the named characters of "The Big Short," but even the home buyers and owners that took out second, third, and fourth mortgages, bought two, three, and four "investment" properties, the loan originators who sought them out and offered no interest loans, and the banks that sliced up the loans to fill tranches (there's another cryptic word for you) for trading as bonds to and between the financial houses on Wall Street.
In other words, as Gordon Gecko might say: greed. Greed of bonds traders, floor traders, home buyers, loan originators, strawberry pickers, and house cleaners. Greed by just about everyone involved, from the top all the way down to the bottom.
Lewis, known for his writing in "The Blind Side" and in "Money Ball," with "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" returns to his original stomping ground covered in "Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street." Finding the few who saw the crash coming, he pulls together a narrative about those who anticipated the crash and saw it coming. While so many were getting rich off trading subprime mortgage based bonds, a few individuals realized that the underlying assets to the housing bubble were not stable and predicted that as interest rates on adjustable rate mortgages became due, defaults would sky-rocket and the bonds' values would crash.
And then they bet against it, cashing in lucratively when the predicted defaults began.
What makes the story fascinating, of course, is the attention to the often colorful and more than slightly eccentric personalities that comprised the handful of individuals in the story. The stock market is difficult to understand for a simple reason--its workings are data driven and few pay the price to understand the numbers and analysis behind the market. In contrast, those who did, and those who got lucky, were often driven by a narrow-minded focus the data. From an neurologist turned hedge fund manager diagnosed with Aspergers in the midst of the story to a couple of young college grads who all but lucked into it, to a loud mouthed malcontent who made a habit of sticking it to the big wigs on Wall Street who lost investors money to the crisis, the "The Big Short" is replete with Lewis's deft story telling.
Whether you are interested in finance or just looking for a great story, "The Big Short" is worth the time to read. I listened to it in the car, and often found myself sitting in the driveway waiting for the end of a section. More, it introduced me to concepts and interests that I'm exploring further in other books. Read in conjunction with "Too Big to Fail," which I read last year, it provides an up close look at what was going on and why our economy is dragging through the longest recession in a generation.
One last observation: one aspect that this book noted that continues to shock me no matter how many times I hear it over the last four years is how people with little or no credit history or ability managed to get so much financing. From immigrant strawberry pickers in California with $750,000 mortgages to house cleaners in Brooklyn with four and five town homes, obtuse financial incentives to originators and investors alike distorted the market in ways that were dangerous to all of us. While I look forward to other financial histories for other perspectives, Lewis seems to make clear that it wasn't so much the free market that failed, but the financial incentives that were built into it. In the end, the old adages "if it's too good to be true, it probably is" and "there's no such thing as a free lunch" seem even more relevant today than ever. Be careful when the snake oil salesman comes calling. He may not have your best interests at heart, and he may not even know it himself. ...more