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17 September, 2014

‘Sailing to Byzantium’: Robert Pinsky at the Harvard Coop 9/16/14

By Peter Kinder


Los Angeles, CA:  Getty Center 11/23/09

Los Angeles, CA: Getty Center 11/23/09

          Driving US Route 7 down the central Valley of Vermont, past the steeply rising road to Ripton, I think of Robert Frost when I see the tired monuments – houses, barns, churches, stores –  to rural lives at the turn of the 20th century.

          Four hours later, I sit on the third floor of a bookstore whose windows overlook the Harvard Square subway entrance listening to Robert Pinsky read Frost’s ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’ (1920).

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.


A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case


One aged man – one man – can’t keep a house
A farm, a countryside, or if he can
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

It was not until I typed those last three lines of Frost’s I realised they applied equally to Robert Pinsky.

           Here stood a man who sounded, looked, moved like someone two-thirds his 74 years.  Neither cell phone jingles (mine, of course), nor the browsers in the philosophy and religion sections broke his concentration on the twenty people in front of him.

          He invited questions.  From an aged Harvard Square character to an early middle-aged stand-up comedian, came long questions, challenges.  What relevance had old poems to the hip-hop and rap writers of today?

          He had answers, of course.  The lessons lie in the music poems inspire within us, in how that poets cause that sound.  He pointed to his Favorite Poems Project where ordinary people read the poems that most moved them in, I saw this morning, extraordinary videos.  But mainly he let poems from his book, Singing School:  Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry (2013) by Frost, Williams, Yeats and others make his case.

           Especially Yeats.  As he read ‘A Woman Young and Old’ with its strange allusive dragon and ‘miraculous strange bird’, my eyes turned the tightly packed shelves of Foucault, Derrida and the host of high critics who made reading seem like an endless swamp, a perpetual humorless slog.  And then Pinsky asked if anyone knew the New Jersey alphabet….

           ‘Singing School’, Pinsky told us, came from Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’When Pinsky was making his transition from jazz musician (he still plays), he kept the poem pinned above his desk.  He marveled at it then and now.

           He looked for it in Singing School.  He was surprised to find he’d omitted it.  So, he recited it, haltingly, sometimes struggling to recall a line.  As much as I savour the memory of Pinsky’s flawless readings on Slate, it is this imperfect, deeply felt aria that is a part of him that I will treasure.

          ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ begins with the unforgettable sentence:  ‘That is no country for old men.’  The second and third verses are:

 An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

 O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire,
perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

           Poems are monuments of a soul’s magnificence.  They are what makes Pinsky’s inner music.  And mine.

           The joy he shared was that of a sage ‘standing in God’s holy fire’.  His is a country for old men and young.

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Category: Art, Music, Robert Frost, Robert Pinsky, Writing

12 September, 2014

‘A Friedman Doctrine – The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits’: 44 Years Later

By Peter Kinder


Royalton, VT:  Odd Fellows Hall  7/17/13

Royalton, VT: Odd Fellows Hall 7/17/13

          September 13 marks the 44th anniversary of the publication of University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman’s article, ‘A Friedman Doctrine – The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits’.[1]  Few newspaper essays have had greater effect.

           The redefinition of  corporate law since 2010 by the Supreme Court – in Citizens United v. FEC, McCutcheon v. FEC and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. – owes much to the Nobel laureate.

           So argues a forthcoming article on Citizens United by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr. [2], (of which more another day).  It sent me back to Friedman’s ‘Doctrine’.

Doctrine’s Context

           War and race dominated the talk of the September when Friedman’s Doctrine appeared.

           In August 1970, 400 military were killed in action in Vietnam.  Universities started classes later in 1970 than they do now.  By Sept. 13, some had reopened, having shut during the campus strikes following the US expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia in early May.  Many predicted more unrest.

           Of the War, ‘A Friedman Doctrine’ does not hint.  Of race, there’s a suggestion.  Even in Lawrence, Kansas, in the spring and summer of 1970, buildings burned, crowds rioted, men died.

           Prof. Friedman did acknowledge the nascent environmental and consumer rights movements, anti-poverty campaigns and employment.  And, he was quite concerned about ‘social responsibility’ – and socially responsible investing which had suddenly appeared in 1969-70.

[B]usinessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned “merely” with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers.[3]

 Defining ‘Responsibility’

           For such businessmen (there were few businesswomen, and the women’s movement isn’t noted), Friedman had only contempt.  ‘[T]hey are – or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously – preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.’

           The ‘S’ word and its variants in 1970 had even more pejorative connotations than it does today, because Soviet socialism was very much alive.

What does it mean to say that “business” has responsibilities?  Only people can have responsibilities.  A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but “business” as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense. [4]

Elegant phrasing that.  But he’s setting up the most important point for him: business as a category of human activity can’t have ‘responsibilities’.  Only individuals can.

           Hence, says Friedman, a corporate executive’s

responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their [the corporation’s owners’] desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.[5]

 Two thousand words later, Friedman concludes, apparently repeating the point but actually sharply limiting an executive’s scope of action:

 …in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it [“social responsibility”] a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”[6]

 The Line of Responsibility

          To arrive at the simplicity of this assertion, Friedman bases it on another, the seed of what’s now called ‘shareholder primacy’.

In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business.  He has direct responsibility to his employers….

In either case [a for-profit or not-for-profit], the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them.[7]

          This ‘key point’ had never been true in any Anglo-American jurisdiction since the modern corporation first appeared in 1600 – until March 25, 2014, when Hobby Lobby may have adopted it.  (More on this in another post.)

          In a business law course, an undergraduate learns that a corporate executive is an employee of the ‘artificial person’, not of its owners.  S/he has ‘direct responsibility’ to the corporation.  Its owners’ elected representatives – the board – hold the executive accountable.  So Prof. Friedman misleads when he says:

The whole justification for permitting the corporate executive to be selected by the stockholders is that the executive is an agent serving the interests of his principal. [8]

 Corporate executives have never been agents of their employer’s stockholders.  Ever.

           Friedman also fails to note, the corporate executive serves an artificial person, having the privileges its creator – society acting through government – gives it.   Why should society expect less responsibility from an artificial person than a breathing one?  Especially in exchange for perpetual life, the protections of ‘the business judgment rule and limited liability….

 The Engine of Hypothesis

          ‘A Friedman Doctrine’ doesn’t alert its readers to the falsity of its key point – the corporate executive’s direct responsibility to the owners of the business.  Why?  Here’s the Nobel Laureate (in 1953) on economic methodology:

Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality….   A hypothesis is important if it “explains” much by little … if it abstracts the common and crucial elements from the mass of complex and detailed circumstances … and permits valid predictions on the basis of them alone.  To be important, therefore, a hypothesis must be descriptively false in its assumptions.[9]

Hence, the falsity of the assumptions of ‘A Friedman Doctrine’.  Still, that does not excuse the professor from alerting his readers to their untruth.

           The economist’s explanation of behavior may be future not past.  For as Friedman wrote economic modeling is ‘an “engine” to analyze [the world], not a photographic reproduction of it.’[10]  In Friedman’s and lesser hands, it is in Edinburgh professor Donald MacKenzie’s rephrasing, ‘An Engine, not a Camera’.[11]

           Just as James Monroe and John Quincy Adams did in the Monroe Doctrine, Milton Friedman asserted the reality he wanted to create.  And did.

 Executives’ Social Responsibility

           In Friedman’s construct, it’s all about individual humans.  As quoted earlier, the Friedman Doctrine asserts:

 A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but “business” as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense.[12]

 Taken literally and precisely as he states it, he’s right about ‘business’ while being wrong logically, ethically and legally that an artificial person can’t have social responsibilities. 

          But if ‘business’ lacks such responsibilities:

What does it mean to say that the corporate executive has a “social responsibility” in his capacity as businessman?  …[It] must mean that he is to act in some way that is not in the interest of his employers.  For example, …that he is to make expenditures on reducing pollution beyond the amount that is in the best interests of the corporation or that is required by law in order to contribute to the social objective of improving the environment.[13]

 So, as to the businessman who’s a corporate executive:

In each of these cases, the corporate executive would be spending someone else’s money for a general social interest.  Insofar as his actions in accord with his “social responsibility” reduce returns to stockholders, he is spending their money.  Insofar as his actions raise the price to customers, he is spending the customers’ money.  Insofar as his actions lower the wages of some employees, he is spending their money.[14]

           Perhaps nothing in ‘A Friedman Doctrine’ is as breathtaking, as destructive, as the hypothesis this rests on:

The political principle that underlies the market mechanism is unanimity.  In an ideal free market resting on private property, no individual can coerce any other, all cooperation is voluntary, all parties to such cooperation benefit or they need not participate.  There are no values, no “social” responsibilities in any sense other than the shared values and responsibilities of individuals.  Society is a collection of individuals and of the various groups they voluntarily form.[15]

 Forty-one years later, the sorely-missed Tony Judt gave the success of Friedman’s ‘unanimity’ idea its due:

It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher – who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society.  There are individual men and women, and there are families” – made a point of never traveling by train.  If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them.  It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage.[16

 Social Responsibility is Theft

           But ‘A Friedman Doctrine’ had another context.  Shareholder activism and modern socially responsible investing had just been born.

I have, for simplicity, concentrated on the special case of the corporate executive....   But precisely the same argument applies to the newer phenomenon of calling upon stockholders to require corporations to exercise social responsibility (the recent G.M. crusade for example).  In most of these cases, what is in effect involved is some stockholders trying to get other stockholders (or customers or employees) to contribute against their will to "social" causes favored by the activists.  Insofar as they succeed, they are again imposing taxes and spending the proceeds.[17]

           In sum, this ‘Friedman Doctrine’ is that  ‘social responsibility’ – any corporate action to do good without an ulterior aim to maximise profits –  whether imposed by shareholders or by managers is theft.

 The Doctrine’s Continuing Importance

           Those who’ve made socially responsible investing their career have dealt with the effects of the Friedman Doctrine every day.  But it’s had a society-wide effect, too.

           Much of the intellectual structure of the ‘Law and Economics’ school rests on Friedman’s hypotheses.  Through judges (and professors) like Richard A. Posner and Frank H. Easterbrook of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, it has dominated the courts – and law schools – since the Reagan-Bush years.

           If Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine (another Law and Economics acolyte) is right, this strain of conservatism has run head on into another advanced by the Supreme Court in Citizens United.

          In another article I’ll look at the consequences of this collision.



           1.  Milton Friedman, ‘A Friedman Doctrine – The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits’, New York Times Magazine, Sept. 13, 1970, p. SM17 (hereafter ‘Doctrine’) as reprinted at

           2.  Leo E. Strine, Jr. & Nicholas Walter, ‘Conservative Collision Course?: The Tension Between Conservative Corporate Law Theory and Citizens United, 100 Cornell L.R. ___ (2015), Harvard John M. Olin Discussion Paper Series No. 788, John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics & Business, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA.

           3.  Friedman, ‘Doctrine’, op. cit.

           4.  Id.

          5.  Id.

           6.  Id.

           7.  Id.

           8.  Id.

           9.  Milton Friedman, “The Methodology of Positive Economics” (1953), as quoted in Donald MacKenzie, An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets [2006] (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 9-10.  MacKenzie’s is a brilliant book, albeit not for those afraid of some slogging.  His occasional articles in the London Review of Books aren’t to be missed.

           10.  Id., p. 10.

           11.  Id.

           12.  Friedman, ‘Doctrine’, op. cit.

          13.  Id.

           14.  Id.

           15.  Id.

           16.   Tony Judt, “Bring Back the Rails!”, New York Review of Books, January 13, 2011, pp. 34, 35.

           17.  Friedman, ‘Doctrine’, op. cit.

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Category: Business, Community & Society, Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporations, Donald MacKenzie, Economics, Ethics & Morality, Law - Civil, Milton Friedman, Modern Life, Responsible Investing, Richard A. Posner, Sixties History, Social Change, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), Tony Judt, Vietnam War

4 September, 2014

Guest Post: Tom Welsh on the Passing of Shipbuilding on the Clyde

By Peter Kinder

Newport, RI:  Fishing Pier  8/19/12

Newport, RI: Fishing Pier 8/19/12

          Proprietor’s Note: It’s fitting that the first guest post on The Bell should be by my old friend, Dr. Thomas Welsh.

           When I asked how I should describe him, he replied, ‘It would be enough to say I was a friend who wandered around the world hearing other  persons’ tales and sometimes helping them to compose the next paragraph.  Some folks labeled this listening, “International Development”.’

           Well, not really enough.

           Tom’s listening took place, starting in the early 60s, from Uganda to Quebec to the ‘stans to Papua New Guinea to Jamaica….  Though now living in Lincolnshire, he was born and raised in Greenock on the Clydeside.  From my first hearing of the great Archie Fisher’s ‘Shipyard Apprentice’ (listen to it here!), I’ve associated it with Tom and his family.  Here are its first three stanzas:

I was born in the shadow of a Fairfield’s crane
And the blast of a freighter’s horn
Was the very first sound that reached my ears
On the morning that I was born
As I lay and listened to the shipyard sounds
Coming out of the unknown
I was lulled to sleep by a mother tongue
That was to be my own

Before I grew to one year old
I heard a siren scream
And a city watched in the blacked-out night
A wandering searchlight’s beam
And then one day I awoke and rose
To my first day of peace
But I learned that the battle to stay alive
Was never going to cease

And I’ve sat and listened to my father tell
Of the days that he once knew
When you either sweated for a measly wage
Or you joined the Parish queue
And as times grew harder day by day
Along the riverside
I’ve often heard my mother say
It was tears that made the Clyde

           And now, here’s Tom.


           On Friday 15 August 2014, the last yard on the lower Clydeside closed, bringing to an end 400 years of shipbuilding.

           Shipbuilding’s decline took place in my lifetime.  From Port Glasgow to Ardrossan, major shipyards and numerous boatbuilders employed the majority of the workforce.  In  seventy years, the acid of finance capitalism and global plutocracy has dissolved the accumulated skill, knowledge, experience and values of generations of shipbuilders.

           The yard owners accelerated the decline because they would rather dominate than learn.  So, too, the unions that confronted each other in job demarcation strikes, like the starving folk who crowd the door ways of relief helicopters.  And absent governments ignored both.

           What is it that so swiftly dissolved and dispersed the Clydeside shipbuilding culture with its meaning and values?  I doubt it was just economics and the advent of the global plutocracy, for there is a deeper malaise, a more profound solvent.

           The decline reflected the entire culture’s loss of the capacity to pay attention and to learn.  The result:  a failure to absorb, adapt and innovate around the emergent possibilities confronting them.  They neither read nor heard the warnings.  They did not apply common sense.

           In Bias, Liberation, and Cosmopolis (1953), the Jesuit thinker, Bernard J. F. Lonergan, wrote:

          Each step in the process of technological and economic development is an occasion on which minds differ, new insights have to be communicated, enthusiasm has to be roused, and a common decision must be reached.

           Beyond the common sense of the labourer, the technician, the entrepreneur, there is the political specialization of common sense.  Its task is to provide the catalyst that brings men of common sense together.

            It has to discern when to push for full performance and when to compromise, when delay is wisdom and when it spells disaster, when widespread consent must be awaited and when action must be taken in spite of opposition.

           It has to be able to command attention and to win confidence, to set forth concretely the essentials of a case, to make its own decisions and secure the agreement of others, to initiate and carry through some section of that seriation of social responses meeting social challenges.

           The political specialisation of common sense has long fled the shores of the UK, replaced by a stultifying belief in the market especially the financial market.  This faith seems shared by all from the wealthiest down to the holder of the meanest credit card.  We are now deep in an era of blind faith of a sort never before experienced in the West.


           Writing of the shipyard sadness, I see I’ve woven together history and eight decades of autobiography.  When do your life and the longer reach of history start to become as strands of a single rope?  Which strand is which when you talk the tales?

           I suspect how the rope was spun makes me different from my brother: different joys and angers, just the spinning strands that each attached to.   Like spinners on a trout line we caught different fish and essayed our own tall tales that now might be history when recounted.

          My line dipped in many seas and rivers, met many other fine folks on the current, all spinning their tale without know that it was also history they were making!

           We all were blessed with the authority to be the authors of our own tale while sharing in the life of the community – history and biography is the record of our life as an active citizen in the community.

           When we fail to be authors in our community biography and history go their separate ways leaving us without either memory or imagination, we might not even have today.  Maybe that is why shipyards disappear.  Neighbours become consumers and competitors and all goodness and badness is just some where along the measure of efficiency.

           I insist on my authority to be an active citizen and might pass on a wee bracelet to my great grandchild, so that she will know that she is the greatest tale that I helped spin, and that she will delve and spin.

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Category: Business, Community & Society, Economics, Ethics & Morality, Industrial Policy, Modern Life, Scotland, Social Change, Work

30 August, 2014


By Peter Kinder


Saratoga Springs, NY:  Jockey after finishing well out of the money.  8/20/14

Saratoga Springs, NY: Jockey after finishing well out of the money. 8/20/14

           ‘Don’t ever worry ’bout nothin’, ’cause there ain’t nothing gonna be alright no how.  You can count on that.’  So an expert on nothing going right, Hank Williams, closed his shows in 1952.[1]

           August 2014 has proven that true for the technology I rely on.  Hardware, software….  That’s why I’ve not posted in some time.

           For much of the month, every time I touched a program or device, I entered the ‘Twilight Zone’ – or more precisely, ‘A Plumbing We Will Go’.  Never have I identified more with Moe Howard.

           I am very grateful to all who offered help, consolation and crying towels.


           1.  Hank Williams, ‘The Lost Concerts’ (TimeLife, 2012) track 9, concert recorded May 4, 1952, Capital Theater, Niagra Falls, NY.

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Category: Country & Western Music, Hank Williams, Modern Life

6 August, 2014

‘Flash Boys’: Reading Non-Fiction in 2014

By Peter Kinder


St. Paul, MN:  Midway Stadium.  Signpost to American Association baseball stadiums. 7/18/14.

St. Paul, MN: Midway Stadium. Signpost to American Association baseball stadiums. 7/18/14.

           As I read Flash Boys (Norton, 2014), I find myself asking, ‘Can I trust Michael Lewis?  Is he a reliable reporter?’  Uncomfortable questions, those, when posed of someone whose writing, starting with Liars Poker (1989), I’ve admired.

           Two-thirds through Flash Boys I’d hazard a ‘yes’.  But with unforced errors, he and his publisher give me reasons to hesitate about this exposé of ‘high frequency trading’ (HFT) and the transformation of America’s equity markets into ‘dark pools’.

           Author and publisher omit or slight the means – mostly mechanical, but some creative – that confer at least an appearance of credibility on a work of non-fiction.  In Flash Boys, among the absent or virtually absent are clear titles, a bibliography, an index, sourcing (foot/endnotes), and acknowledgements of others’ contributions to the author’s work.

           Maybe this looks like inside baseball – Moneyball (2003) – stuff.  It’s not in any case, but it’s especially not when a writer of Lewis’s standing tells a story as seemingly explosive as this one.


           Start with the title.  Flash Boys.  What’s it mean?  To whom does it refer?

           In the UK and its former colonies whose English separated later than American, ‘flash boys’ would refer to vulgar, ostentatious men.  In Australia, Melburnians refer to ‘flash Sydney’.  Often the adjective’s context imputes dishonesty.

           Nothing in the text hints Michael Lewis had this meaning in mind.  Or did he?  HFT, after all, is called ‘flash trading’.  He certainly views it as dishonest, if it isn’t criminal.  But its nature is precisely opposite from ostentation.  It lies concealed.  Its practitioners avoid hedge-fund-manager visibility.


           In a book that elaborately defines arcane financial phrases, ‘flash boys’ isn’t explained.  On this, you’ll have to take my word unless you read it.

           For Flash Boys has no index.

          One should always be suspicious of books without indexes or with half-assed ones, like Whitey Bulger by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy which indexes place names.  With Flash Boys, only your annotations will allow you to cross reference the 274 pages of text.

           Lewis and W.W. Norton have given us, beaconless, a dark pool of prose about dark pools for securities.


           Flash Boys went to the top of my reading list after I read John Lanchester’s London Review of Books essay, ‘Scalpers Inc.’ (June 5, 2014).

           His enthusiastic review not illogically uses ‘flash boys’ to refer to flash traders.  But Lewis’s publisher, W.W. Norton, uses it very differently on its author website:

Flash Boys is about a small group of Wall Street guys [PDK: yech!] who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders and that, post-financial crisis, the markets have become not more free but less, and more controlled by the big Wall Street banks. Working at different firms, they come to this realization separately; but after they discover one another, the flash boys band together and set out to reform the financial markets. This they do by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading – source of the most intractable problems – will have no advantage whatsoever.

           If the title is counter-intuitive and John Lanchester isn’t clear to whom it refers, there’s something wrong here.  In ‘Money Talks’ in the August 4 New Yorker, Lanchester argues:

The language of money is a powerful tool, and it is also a tool of power. Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the way the world works today—in particular, we are signing off on the prospect of an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, a world in which everything about your life is determined by the accident of who your parents are.

Financial writers who baffle even their peers as to who they’re inveighing against abuse their power.


           In keeping with the title’s confusion, there’s Lewis’s epigraph:  ‘A man got to have a code –Omar Little’. Lewis doesn’t bound ‘Omar Little’ with quotation marks to signal he’s a character in a TV series, The Wire, that ended in 2008, six years before Flash Boys’ pub date.  Nor does Lewis make anything of the quotation later – as far as I’ve read.

          A memorable character, Omar was, during The Wire’s five year run, but how many now recall him as the shotgun-wielding predator on the drug trade, a killer driven by his appalling yet appealing moral code?  Everyone in Flash Boys has code and some a code.  As with Omar Little’s, it’s all in how the computer code or the moral code is applied.


           In his long, telling review of Flash Boys for Slate (April 7, 2014), Felix Salmon makes a similar point about Lewis’s epigraph.  Salmon also derides, impliedly, the book’s American subtitle, ‘A Wall Street Revolt’.  For it’s difficult to see a ‘revolt’ in Lewis’s villains apparently legal gaming of the system or in his heroes counterattack.  Who is either group revolting against?

           Even more mystifying is Flash Boys UK subtitle: ‘Cracking the Money Code’.  Now it’s clear the book is not about an ‘Omar Little’-type code.  But ‘Money Code’?  That’s very hard to aline with the story in Flash Boys, and makes it hard to suppose Lewis didn’t mean ‘flash’ in its Anglo-Australian sense.

           So, Lewis and W.W. Norton present us with an ambiguous, maybe baffling, title and subtitles.  The chapter titles, which should give readers a running outline of the argument, are similarly opaque.


           In the New York Times for August 5, Alexandra Alter surveyed the criticism of Rick Perlstein’s new volume on American conservative politics, ‘Reagan Book Sets off Debate’.  Among the criticisms – some serious, some not – she reports:

The debate about Mr. Perlstein’s book also calls into question the growing practice of shifting endnotes out of print books and onto the web.  In what Mr. Perlstein calls “a publishing innovation,” readers of “The Invisible Bridge” are directed to a trove of digital citations on Mr. Perlstein’s website.

 He and his publisher [Vintage] said they moved the endnotes online not just to save money – the notes would have made the hardcover edition unwieldy and expensive at 1,000-plus pages – but also to make his research more transparent by providing links to the books, newspaper clippings and news reports that Mr. Perlstein drew on. “I want to expand this idea of history as a collective enterprise,” he said. “My notion is that people will read this book with their iPhones open.”

 A thoroughly bad idea, this.  Footnotes/endnotes are supposed to tell the reader quickly what the author has relied upon and let him/her judge its sufficiency.

           Even with your iPhone at the ready, you can’t use Flash Boys’s notes since there aren’t any either in the book or on Lewis’s Norton website.  He footnotes just two general references to books in its first 184 pages.    Nor does Lewis offer a bibliography of sources.  So, again, checking Lewis’s work is difficult, nearly impossible.

           Take the story of Sergey Aleynikov to which Lewis devotes a chapter (pp. 128-150).  He quotes Aleynikov repeatedly, but he doesn’t hint at the sources for the quotations.  He leaves ambiguous whether he ever spoke with Aleynikov.  The acknowledgments don’t include one to Aleynikov, but do recognise that ‘Jaime Lalinde helped me, invaluably, in researching the case of Serge Aleynikov.’


           And last but not least important, Lewis’s acknowledgements.  These take up a page and a half at Flash Boys end.

           The first paragraph is, largely, a complaint about the difficulty of getting people inside financial institutions to talk on the record.  The lengthy paragraph concludes:

At the same time, the people who work in these firms have grown more cynical about them, and more willing to reveal their inner workings, so long as their name is not attached to these revelations.  As a result, I am unable to thank many of the people inside banks and high-frequency trading firms and stock exchanges who spoke openly about them…. (p. 274)

 So, he acknowledges no one among his industry (or, for that matter, any other) sources.  No one.  Nobody outside the off-the-record sources offered help worth noting?  Really?

           When I look at non-fiction in a bookstore, I always check the acknowledgements.  To a very high degree, extensive recognitions indicate better books.  (Hat tips in the text, as in Peter Brown’s marvelous Through the Eye of a Needle (2012), have an even higher correlation.)

           But acknowledgements are not just a marker of authorial generosity and humility.  They are another vector for checking the author’s work.


           In sum, on my indicia of credibility, here’s Flash Boys:

           -Acknowledgements: slim

           -Bibliography: none

           -Index: none

           -Sourcing (footnote/endnotes): next to none

           -Title clarity: very poor

Yes, all save the first and the last cost publishers in a time of terrible finances and declining readership.  But at what cost to their readers?  Their authors?  The world of ideas?   It is possible for a writer to tell a story so persuasively that it clears even these self-created hurdles.  At this point in my reading of Flash Boys, Lewis is not close.


H/T:  David Nichols for putting Flash Boys into my hand.

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Category: Banking, Business, Community & Society, Ethics & Morality, Finance & Financial Services, Modern Life, Writing

12 July, 2014

Random Notes: Re-segregation; IDA & NSA; and Disinvestment

By Peter Kinder

Manchester, VT:  'You don't need to be a weatherman....'  7/10/14

Manchester, VT: ‘You don’t need to be a weatherman….’ 7/10/14

          On second reading, ‘Segregation Now…’ by Nikole Hannah-Jones which appeared in the May Atlantic hits like Katrina and leaves in its wake – stripped of self-congratulatory, MLK-day delusions – the reality of race in America.

           The social engineering that has gone into segregating and, now, re-segregating our public schools is most impressive.  We think of the vast superstructure of Jim Crow developed over the 90 years following the Civil War as disappearing in the generation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  But, it never vanished, and now it is resurging.  Says Hannah-Jones:

Few communities seem able to summon the political will to continue integration efforts. And the Obama administration, while saying integration is important, offers almost no incentives that would entice school districts to increase it. Instead, [Meredith Richards of the University of Pennsylvania Institute of Education Sciences] says, districts have typically gerrymandered “to segregate, particularly whites from blacks,” and that gerrymandering is “getting worse over time” as federal oversight diminishes. According to an analysis by ProPublica, the number of apartheid schools nationwide has mushroomed from 2,762 in 1988—the peak of school integration—to 6,727 in 2011.

           Leave aside that the Supreme Court based its holding in Brown v. Board of Education on studies proving separate could never be equal.  Nor has any study since then contradicted that.  Now re-segregation has added class to its witches’ brew:

High-poverty, segregated black and Latino schools account for the majority of the roughly 1,400 high schools nationwide labeled “dropout factories” – meaning fewer than 60 percent of the students graduate.  School officials often blame poor performance on the poverty these kids grow up in. But most studies conclude that it’s the concentration of poor students in the same school that hurts them the most.  Low-income students placed in middle-income schools show marked academic progress.

           We know what racial segregation does to rising generations of minority students.  We know what economic segregation does to impoverished students.  So, public education is bound to fail, as are the layers of governance and government dependent on these dishonest foundations.

           For ideological reasons (to be most kind), we have wilfully disengaged what we know works.  It’s just like the rejection of Keynesian pump-priming to remedy America’s chronic unemployment in favor of austerity.

           And the results are the same:  disinvestment in our people where logic and experience demand investment.


           I’ve long said that had I known what I know now, I’d have been a lot less ‘responsible’ during my student days – 1964-73.  William J. Broad’s story in the July 8 New York Times on multi-billionaire James Simons made me repeat this refrain.

           On the unusually tranquil Princeton campus, the Institute for Defense Analyses (caveat: faintly bizarre Wikipedia article) was located at the periphery of its expanses of suburban green now covered with buildings and awful art.  The woefully few radicals targeted IDA for reasons I don’t recall – a good gage of my tuning them out.  The only time the university administration, I believe, called on outside police between Fall 1964 and Summer 1970 was for a demonstration at IDA.

           Here’s the relevant excerpt from Broad’s generous profile of the entrepreneur and philanthropist James Simons:

Returning east, he taught math at M.I.T., then Harvard. In 1964, he was recruited into the shadowy world of government spying. At Princeton, while ostensibly part of the academic elite, he worked for the Institute for Defense Analyses, its Princeton arm a furtive contractor for the N.S.A.


 At Princeton, Dr. Simons’s cryptography strides helped the N.S.A. break codes and track potential military threats….

           Not for the last time, I’m sure, may I say to the radical few of the Princeton of my time, ‘You were right.  I was worse than wrong.’


           What has been the point of the brutal austerity the Republicans and the large corporations have put the country through since 2008?

           Esther Kaplan’s ‘Losing Sparta’ in the summer edition of VQR, looks at the human remains from offshoring and downsizing.  That the victims are deep in rabid red Tennessee might inspire schadenfreude (which I’ve written about) were their stories not so heartbreaking.

          That this fine journalist can’t identify a business reason for Phillips moving their fluorescent operation to Mexico says much about the gratuitous pain inflicted by profitable corporations on workers who once earned $15 per hour with benefits.

           ‘When will they ever learn?’  leads the refrain of that Pete Seeger song we all mouthed in the 60s.  As you watch the fumbling in Washington around the extension of the Highway Trust Fund and the potential loss of jobs equal to Boston’s population, keep this passage in mind from Robert O. Paxton’s provocative essay, ‘Vichy Lives – In a Way’ in the April 25, 2013 New York Review of Books:

The contraction of the French economy in the 1930s is sometimes attributed to the Third Republic’s weak executive, deadlocked parliament, and ideological divisions. The essential reason (one too often ignored by historians as well as by the public) was the economic policy of deflationary budget-cutting with which French leaders confronted the Great Depression until 1936. Even then, when the Popular Front government of Léon Blum proposed to take a different economic tack, it was prevented by divisions within its tenuous majority from embarking seriously upon needed public expenditures. The final decade of the Third Republic was therefore a period of extensive disinvestment.

           The examples of the Third Republic and of the Restoration of Charles II (which I wrote about last week) teach us that disinvestment has national costs –  unimaginable, inconceivable while the process guts the country.  The catastrophes represented in history as ‘the fall of France’ and ‘the raid on the Medway’ look all too predictable in hindsight.

           Like the unanimous Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, based on experience and predictive social science, it’s time to exercise foresight.

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Category: American Character, Business, Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporations, Depression (1930s), Economics, Ethics & Morality, Fifties History, France, Future, History Lessons - Economic, Industrial Policy, John Maynard Keynes, Law - Civil, Nazi Era, Peace & War, Recession (2008), Restoration, Social Change, Transnational Corporations, UK History, US Politics, WWII

5 July, 2014

Grace Note: Andrew Marvell

By Peter Kinder


Nassau, Bahamas:  Family at New Year's Day Junkanoo  1/1/14

Nassau, Bahamas: Family at New Year’s Day Junkanoo 1/1/14

          Of all the poems I met in my Grade 11 English Lit survey, Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (ca. 1652) stuck most firmly in my mind.  Of course, it fit a teenager’s amorous anxieties –  its title and the hopeful references to losing one’s virginity.

           I didn’t recall, if I’d realised at the time, its diamond-hard brilliance of language.

           For a post on Thursday, ‘Remember the Medway’, I read Marvell’s satire ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’ (1667).  As I noted there, 300+ years after the deaths of the skewered and 350 after the disastrous Raid on the Medway Marvell pictures, it’s hard to understand without a thorough guide.  But the language is remarkable.

           That sent me to ‘His Coy Mistress’.  If since age 16 I’d read anything of it but snippets, I’d forgotten.  What a surprise!

           It is as bold as I recalled, its objective very clear.  Now, though, what Marvell harkens is not youthful urges but Walter Houston’s ‘September Song’ in Kurt Weil & Maxwell Anderson’s Knickerbocker Holiday.

           Marvell’s language and style, however, make the poem justly immortal.  Start with the simplicity of his language.  The first four lines hold one two-syllable word.  Nine lines pass before a three-syllable word arrives, the first of four in 46 lines.

           The short words give his message urgency, pungency.  The poem feels spoken rather than written:

…I would
Love you ten years before the flood

 The images are as direct as the words that build them.

           But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Even in his hurrying, Marvell can’t resist a bit of humor:

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

          The short words and simple images speed the reader through the poet’s plea.  Not until one reads it slowly does Marvell’s art begin to show, as you’ll find for yourself below.  Enjoy!


To His Coy Mistress


Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
          But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity, And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
          Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

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Category: Literature, Love, Poetry

4 July, 2014

Calvin Coolidge: A Man of (Small ‘R’) Republican Virtue

By Peter Kinder


Peru, VT:  Stump Speech  9/25/10

Peru, VT: Stump Speech 9/25/10

           Born on the 4th of July, 1872, Calvin Coolidge served as President from 1923 until 1929.  He was a New Englander of stern integrity.  His political skills, though, were substantial, rising in 17 years from the Northampton, Massachusetts, city council in 1906 to the presidency.

           He had the great good fortune to face no major crises, domestic or international.  So, he was never tested for greatness.  But he had trials, such as cleaning up the Teapot Dome Scandal President Harding’s death left him with.

           Like Lincoln and Kennedy, he suffered the death of a child while serving as President.  Just after he was nominated in 1924, his son and namesake died of blood poisoning.  His fascinating Autobiography hints at the anguish he suffered.

           Coolidge was the subject of a marvelous, if imperfect, biography with the telling title, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (1938).  Written by his friend and political ally, the great journalist William Allen White, it remains an indispensable book on America from Prairie Populism to the New Deal.

           White represented all that was good in the mid-western Republicans – steady, reliable, honest – from the time of William McKinley through Franklin Roosevelt.  He had a strong kinship to this upright New England conservative, albeit one of far fewer public words.

           They shared the rigors of a small town upbringing and learnt its virtues which they applied throughout their public lives.  Men of their times and places, they are hardly remembered today outside of the places they called home.

           In an odd way, that’s fitting.  They were men in the mold of the Roman republicans who left their farms to serve their state and returned, quietly, to them when the need passed.  In Calvin Coolidge, nobility was hard learned, hard earned and lightly worn.  To him, it was the institution and the polity that were important, not himself.

           Next July 4th, visit the Coolidge birthplace and historical site in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, and share in the simple remembrance that marks Calvin Coolidge’s service. You won’t forget it.  And, you will be reminded of an American original, a man who served his country well.


           I’ve written on various aspects of Calvin Coolidge’s life.  You’ll find the list of my posts on him here.

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Category: American Character, Calvin Coolidge, Ethics & Morality, Massachusetts, Progressive Era, US History, US Politics, Vermont

3 July, 2014

Remember the Medway: A Lesson in Governing for Independence Day

By Peter Kinder


E. Dorset, VT:  Pygmy goats deep in new browse 6/30/14

E. Dorset, VT: Pygmy goats deep in new browse 6/30/14

          When listening to the Declaration of Independence tomorrow, it’s well to recall how much of today’s American politics – and fiscal frolics – have English precedents.  Our break with Britain was none too clean.  One of those precedents, the Raid on the Medway in June 1667, suggests the very high costs that can accompany wilful refusals to govern.


          The renewal of the transportation bill languishes in Congress.  Republicans won’t move the bill until they can find money to strip from other vital programs to pay for road and rail improvements almost everyone believes are necessary.

           Held hostage are hundreds of thousands of jobs that could go by summer’s end.  ‘It would be like Congress threatening to lay off the entire population of Denver, or Seattle or Boston’, said President Obama on July 1.

           In a country as devoted to ‘business’ as ours, one would think all would understand you only make money by investing it – and yourself.  You don’t make money by cutting.  You can save by cutting, but depending on what you slice, the costs of savings may outweigh their benefits.

           Congress’s job then isn’t ‘spending’; it’s investing.


           Fiscal frolics over ‘spending’ only become evident in a crisis, such as the Raid on the Medway – the worst, the most ignominious defeat the British Navy has ever suffered.  For Americans, substitute ‘Pearl Harbor’ for ‘the Medway’, and you’ve got the concept.

           In this and future posts, I’ll look at the Raid and its aftermath through the eyes of Samuel Pepys and Andrew Marvell.  (For a comprehensive overview, the Wikipedia entry is quite good.)  There’s much to be learnt.

           From at least the reign of James I (1603-25), the current foolhardiness in the UK and the US fits into a dismal cycle in Anglo-American history.  A party blocks national investments in infrastructure or defense, etc.  Necessity or disaster removes the obstacle.  Memories fade or ideologies blind.  And, the cycle begins again.


          Born in 1633, Samuel Pepys, the son of a tailor with connections, had known nothing but this struggle during his life which at the time of the Raid spanned the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and the Restoration.

           The diary Pepys kept from 1660 to 1669 is one of the most important historical documents in our tradition.  Not only does it record in detail a life as lived, it describes at first hand a decade of immense importance in Anglo-American history.

           Under Charles II, Pepys had risen to be the Clerk of the Acts for the Navy Board, the navy’s chief administrator.  As such, he ran the Navy yards on the Thames and the Medway rivers.  That included fitting out and provisioning ships and paying sailors.

           At the time of the Medway raid in June 1667, the English had been at war with the Dutch (Second Anglo-Dutch War) for two years.  Nonetheless, the Navy Board was starved for funds.  They weren’t alone.  On March 12, 1667, Pepys noted in his Diary:

This day a poor seaman, almost starved for want of food, lay in our yard a-dying.  I sent him half-a-crown – and we ordered his ticket [the Navy’s IOU for his wages] to be paid.[1]

Pepys records sailors harassing himself and members of the Navy board for payment of their tickets.  He was frustrated and appalled.         

          When the poet, parliamentarian and diplomat Andrew Marvell died in 1681, he left a poem dated ‘4 September 1667, London’ entitled ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’.[2]  It describes the Medway disaster and – very vividly – those who caused it.  Of the blocking party:

The seamen’s clamour to three ends they use:
To cheat their pay, feign want, the House accuse.

           On June 4, Pepys noted in his Diary:

This noon Captain Perriman brings us word how the Happy Returns … ordered to take the Portugall Embassador to Holland (and the Embassador I think on board), refuse to go till paid; and by their example, two or three more ships are in a mutiny – which is a sad consideration while so many of the enemy’s ships are at this day triumphing….[3]

 In a few days, it would prove more than sad.


           To understand the catastrophe about to unfold, you must go back in Pepys’s Diary to March 6, two days after the starving sailor appeared in the Navy Board courtyard.

           On that day ‘the Duke of York [the Lord High Admiral] did acquaint us (and the King did the like also, afterward coming in) with his resolution of altering the manner of the war this year….’[4]  The strategy dictated largely by lack of funds relied on squadrons of warships rather than a battle fleet.  The capital ships would stay in port.

           Marvell sets the scene:

Meantime through all the yards their orders run
To lay the ships up, cease the keels begun.
The timber rots, and useless axe doth rust,
Th’ unpracticed saw lies buried in its dust,
The busy hammer sleeps, the ropes untwine,
The stores and wages all are mine and thine.
Along the coast and harbours they make care
That money lack, nor forts be in repair.

 ‘The stores and wages all are mine and thine’ – not ours – speaks as clearly to today as to 1667.


          On June 8, Pepys learns ‘the Duch are come with a fleet of 80 sail to Harwich….’[5]  On the 10th, the news became much worse.  The Dutch had entered the Thames.

          Pepys took to a boat toward the Thames boatyards at Deptford to ‘set men at work; but Lord, to see how backwardly things move…; notwithstanding that by the enemy’s being now come up as high as almost the Hope….’[6]

           Pepys sees the situation for what it is:

           Yet partly ourselfs, being used to be idle and in despair, and partly people, that have been used to be deceived by us as to money, won’t believe us; and we know not, though we [finally] have it, how … to promise it; and our wants such, and men [avoiding work], that it is an admirable thing to consider how much the King suffers, and how necessary it is in a State to keep the King’s service always in a good posture and credit.[7]

           A story this week in The Fiscal Times (an important austerity-oriented platform) begins:  ‘Top managers at federal agencies are bailing out of their senior-level jobs at an increasingly rapid rate, amid pay freezes and budget cuts – while the government struggles to recruit new workers to fill those presumably valued positions.’  Observation suggests the problem spans the breadth of the civil service.

           Another lesson not learnt.


           Pepys returned to London after midnight.  On the 11th, he applied himself to appropriating ‘fireships’, boats that would be set alight and let drift to impede the Dutch progress up the Thames.  He found people preparing to flee, and ‘the beating-up of drums this night for the train-bands’ [militia] to mobilise.

           It began to occur to the government that the Dutch move on the Thames might be a feint, that their true target might be the dockyard at Chatham on the Medway.[8]

           On the 12th, Pepys and those around him began to panic.  The Dutch had reached Chatham.  Pepys now was in fear of the Dutch taking London, of disorders amongst the London mob, and not least of the King’s wrath at the debacle.  He plotted with his wife and father on how to escape with some gold.  ‘…[And] with that resolution went to bed – full of fear and fright; hardly slept all night’[9]

           The next day, the 13th, the scope of the disaster at Chatham became clear.  The Dutch had taken the Navy’s flagship, the Royal Charles and burnt the capital ships Royal James, Oake and London – all penned in the narrow river as the government had decided in March.

           In London, though no invasion force had landed, panic spread.  A run on bankers ensued in which Pepys participated.  He packed his father, wife and £1300 in gold – a very considerable sum – into a coach bound for the country.  He made a new will.[10]

I have also made a girdle, by which with some trouble I do carry about me 300[£] in gold … in case I should be surprized; for I think in any nation but ours, people that appear … so faulty as we would have our throats cut.[11]

A fair assessment.


           On the 14th, a messenger from Chatham reports to Pepys the ‘worst consequence is that he himself (I think he said) did hear many Englishmen on board the Dutch ships … cry and say, “We did heretofore fight for tickets; now we fight for Dollers!”’[12]  To the same effect, Andrew Marvell:

Our seamen, whom no danger’s shape could fright,
Unpaid, refuse to mount our ships for spite,
Or to their fellows swim on board the Dutch,
Which show the tempting metal in their clutch.

           Seamen presented themselves to Pepys at the Navy Office demanding their tickets be paid or they would not fight.  ‘I was forced to try what I could do to get them paid.’[13]  In the streets, ‘…the wifes have cried publicly, “This comes of your not paying our husbands….”’[14]

           So, too, in the shipyards.

But most strange, the backwardness and disorder of all people, especially the King’s people in pay, to do any work…, all crying for money.  And it was so at Chatham, that this night comes an order … to stop the pay of the wages of that Yard … not above three of 1100 in pay there did attend to do any work there.[15]

Thus closed the opening days of the Raid on the Medway.


           Perhaps this couldn’t happen here and now.  But are Americans willing to gamble on that – with civil servants furloughed without pay and their benefits cut, soldiers home from the wars with no services, and workers from construction to education unsure of their futures?

           Not me. 


           1.  Robert Latham & William Matthews, eds, The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1667 vol. VIII [1971] (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 109 (March 12, 1667).  Note that all Pepys’ dates are old style (Julian), then 10 days earlier than the continental (Gregorian) style which was not adopted in the UK and its colonies until 1752.

           2.  I owe learning about Marvell to the wonderful footnotes Latham & Mathews added to their edition of Pepys.  The title, ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’, refers to two poems praising English naval successes against the Dutch in 1665-66.  It was these, not Marvell’s, that Pepys read on July 1, 1667, as Latham & Matthews note (p. 313n.2).  (Marvell’s wasn’t published until after his death in 1681.)  Marvell’s is certainly satiric which means it demands contemporary context for understanding.  Had I not read Pepys fairly closely, I would have found baffling far more than I did of this exceptionally long – 7800 words – poem.  An interesting slide presentation on the poem from the University of Warwick is helpful here.  (Regrettably, it is not attributed.)

           3.  Pepys, op. cit., p. 251 (June 4, 1667).

           4.  Id., p. 97 (March 6, 1667).

           5.  Id., p. 254 (June 8, 1667).

           6.  Id., pp. 256-57 (June 10, 1667).

           7.  Id., p. 257.

           8.  Id., pp. 257-58 (June 11, 1667).

           9.  Id., pp. 260-62 (June 12, 1667).

           10.  Id., pp. 262-66 (June 13, 1667).

           11.  Id., p. 264.

           12.  Id., p. 267 (June 14, 1667).

           13.  Id.

           14.  Id., p. 268.

           15.  Id., p. 271.

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Category: American Character, Community & Society, History Lessons - Military, Imperialism & Empire, London, Peace & War, Restoration, Samuel Pepys, UK, UK History, US Politics, Work

22 June, 2014

Global Warming: Food Supplies & Avoiding the ‘Urban Graveyard Effect’

By Peter Kinder


Minneapolis, MN:  Grain Elevators along Mississippi River  3/4/12

Minneapolis, MN: Grain Elevators along Mississippi River 3/4/12

          History – human experience catalogued – tells us how people react to climate stress and how sovereigns cope – or don’t – with the societal problems it spawns.

          In most instances, sovereigns didn’t know what was happening to their lands.  As at the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 17th century, if they acted, it was in ignorance – and usually ill-advised .

          In the 21st century, we have near-certainty as to what’s happening:  Global Warming, whether human-caused or secular or both.  Unlike our ancestors, we can predict, based on history, how people and societies will react.

           In the New York Times for June 22, Bush II Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson wrote of Global Warming:

I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain.  We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.

 Something less than perfect it may be, but our knowledge – scientific and historical – makes the imperative to act moral.  We must save our fellow passengers


           The Little Ice Age contributed in significant part the ‘General Crisis’ of the 17th century.  Around the northern hemisphere, Japanese, Chinese, Ottoman, German, Spanish, British and American documents record human responses to environmental stress and institutional failures to meet existential challenges.[1]

           Millions had their lives cut short.  Tens – if not hundreds – of millions suffered from war, plague, famine, pestilence, rapine….

           Reviewing Geoffrey Parker’s vitally important Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (2013), it is easy to cast blame at staggeringly stupid, even sociopathic rulers across the northern hemisphere, such as England’s Charles I and Spain’s Philip IV.  Neither Ottoman nor Qing emperors had hedged their risks of famine or disruption.

           Parker has produced a casebook on what can happen when civil authorities take no positive actions.  If post-Warming histories are written, few will be able to argue, ‘We didn’t know.’  The US military will not be one.


           In 2003 as American forces sallied into Iraq, the Department of Defense evidently[2] received a report it had commissioned, ‘An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario & Its Implications for United States National Security’.  According to the Observer (UK) for Feb. 22, 2004, its authors were ‘Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.’[3]

           ‘Our intent,’ Schwartz & Randall wrote, ‘is to dramatize the impact climate change could have on society if we are unprepared for it.’[4]  Neither when the report was leaked nor now do their hypotheses seem overstated.

           Abrupt climate change is likely to stretch carrying capacity well beyond its already precarious limits….  As abrupt climate change lowers the world’s carrying capacity aggressive wars are likely to be fought over food, water, and energy.  Deaths from war as well as starvation and disease will decrease population size, which overtime, will re-balance with carrying capacity.[5]

           A couple of paragraphs later, they summarize Constant Battles:  Why We Fight (2003) by Steven A. LeBlanc, a Harvard archaeologist, with Katherine E. Register:[6]  ‘Humans fight when they outstrip the carrying capacity of their natural environment.  Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid.’[7]

           Parker doesn’t so limit his lesson from drawn from the 17th century.  For faced with hunger, modern humans do many things besides raid.  Many, many terrible things.


           Schwartz & Randall conclude their paper with seven recommendations.  Three are relevant here:

 4) Identify no-regrets strategies.  No-regrets strategies should be identified and implemented to ensure reliable access to food supply and water, and to ensure national security.

 5) Rehearse Adaptive strategies.  Adaptive response teams should be established to address and prepare for inevitable climate driven events such as massive migration, disease and epidemics, and food and water supply shortages.

 6) Explore local implications.  The first-order effects of climate change are local.  While we can anticipate changes in pest prevalence and severity and changes in agricultural productivity, one has to look at very specific locations and conditions to know which pests are of concern, which crops and regions are vulnerable, and how severe impacts will be.  Such studies should be undertaken, particularly in strategically important food producing regions.[8]

 Sound, vital recommendations all.  So far as I know, no government at any level anywhere has implemented any of them.


           Nothing like Schwartz and Randall’s recommendations surfaced in the 17th century, at least in Parker’s recounting.

           But they did in about the 19th century BCE.  And as I reviewed Parker’s description of ‘the urban graveyard effect’, I thought of a 4000-year-old story.  First, Parker:

…the Little Ice Age forced many farmers on marginal lands to flee to the towns with their families in the hope of finding work or at least bread.  Most of them met with bitter disappointment, in part because their flight helped to fuel unsustainable urban expansion.[9]

Unsustainable and unprecedented the cities’ growth was, though war and climate just accelerated the long-term trend:  by every measure of general well-being, mid-17th century cities were death traps.[10]

           Parker quotes a foresighted magistrate outside Shanghai:

           Our county does not produce rice, but relies for its food upon other areas.  When the summer wehat is reaching ripeness and the autumn crops are already rising, the boats of the merchants that come loaded with rice from an unbroken line…. [But] if by chance there were to be an outbreak of hostilities … such that the city gates did not open for ten days, and the hungry people raised their voices in clamour, how could there fail to be riot and disorder?[11]

 In 1641-42, ‘global cooling destroyed the rice harvest throughout South China.  Perhaps 500,000 people starved to death and public order collapsed.’[12]


           Some months ago, I wrote about Joseph & Pharaoh: A Lesson in a Time of Climate Change.  I won’t repeat here the story of Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph’s interpretation and his ascendence to viceroy.  Rather, I want to focus on what he did with the power Pharaoh delegated to him.

           Joseph had offered Pharaoh a way through the coming shift from wet westerlies to dry easterlies.  Its particularity is significant.

 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.

 And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn [wheat] under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.

 And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.[13]

           It’s easy to put Joseph’s plan into a modern, somewhat anachronistic formulation:  He’s suggesting an administrative agency with authority to bank 20 percent of the wheat crop for seven years.  That means constructing granaries, filling them and then maintaining them.  In sum, a huge, highly visible undertaking at considerable cost (including, one must assume, a rising price for corn to consumers) with no payoff for seven years.

          That’s smart, but what’s genius is ‘…and let them keep food in the cities.’[14]

           Start with visibility; there’s no question in the public’s mind where the grain’s going.  The granaries show the sovereign cares about his people.  They pre-empt the all-too-human reaction to crisis:  scapegoating.  Hungry people find people to blame.  Very hungry people can topple sovereigns.[15]

           Joseph’s plan worked:

 And the seven years of dearth began to come…: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.

And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.

And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians….[16]

Note that Joseph ‘sold’ the wheat; he didn’t give it away.  That signals to me the plan had kept Egypt’s economy alive.  Pharaoh’s investment in risk mitigation, thus, earned a return, as well as guaranteeing public well-being.

           And soon, hungry herders from neighboring lands moved toward Egypt, among them, Joseph’s family….


           Old Testament heroes, one can argue, have a knack for spotting the main chance and taking it.  However, this part of Joseph’s story is very different from, say, David’s.  Unlike Goliath, the threat of famine was a long way off – however you interpret ‘seven years’.  Similarly, its duration.

           Managing the risk was a long-term project requiring delegation, construction and communication.  As Genesis presents the story, Joseph did what was self-evidently right.  But one can imagine the significant political ‘sell’ it demanded and the complex organisation implementation required.

           The most peculiar attribute of Joseph’s story is its lack of a God-dictated imperative.  Interpreted in the age of Global Warming where the risks and benefits of action are as distant, the force driving Pharaoh – don’t forget: none of this happens without his power and support – was in Adam Smith’s phrase his moral sentiments, his empathy for his people.  In short:  his duty.

           Hank Paulson concludes in Sunday’s Times:

           Climate change is the challenge of our time. Each of us must recognize that the risks are personal. We’ve seen and felt the costs of underestimating the financial bubble. Let’s not ignore the climate bubble.

           No, let’s not.  For the knowledge we have imposes a duty to act.  It is the moral obligation of our time, of our children’s future.



           1.  See generally Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2013).

           2.  Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall, ‘An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario & Its Implications for United States National Security’ (October 2003).  The copies available on the web don’t indicate the report’s sponsorship on its title page, nor are the named authors given bios, nor is their organisation named.  On 5/20/14 I accessed the document at:  On 6/19/14, the link no longer worked.  (The GBN site appears to have been taken down.)  The report is still available at the link on the title.  The almost complete absence in ‘Abrupt Climate Change’ of cited sources, footnotes, etc. and its summary tone suggest to me that it is a version of a considerably longer document.  As such, one must ask, why was the summary prepared and released four months after it was delivered?  The articles linked in fn. 3, below, suggest partial but unsatisfactory answers.  H/T: Daniel Glick who pointed me toward this important report and the forgotten controversy around it.

           3.  As reprinted at:  The articles reprinted here reminded me of the thunder storm of publicity this report got at the time.  But like a summer shower, it was quickly forgotten in the 2004 presidential campaign and the continuing news from Iraq.

           4.  Schwartz & Randall, op. cit., p. 7.

           5.  Id., p. 15.

           6.  Id., pp. 16-17.  Curiously, in this one of very few sourcings, Schwartz & Randall miscite the book as ‘Carrying Capacity’ and fail to note the co-author.  Another sign, I believe, of the report’s origins.  Parker doesn’t list LeBlanc in his bibliography, nor is ‘carrying capacity’ indexed.

           7.  Id., p. 16.

           8.  Id., p. 22.

           9.  Parker, op. cit., p. 58.

           10.  Id., pp. 58-65.

           11.  Id., pp. 64-65.

           12.  Id., p. 65.

           13.  Genesis 41: 33-36.

           14.  Genesis 41: 35.

           15.  E.g., Parker, op. cit., p. 108.

           16.  Genesis 41: 54-56.

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Category: Agriculture, Ancient History, Climate Change, Community & Society, English Civil War, Environment, Ethics & Morality, Geoffrey Parker, Modern Life, Peace & War, Social Change, UK History, US Politics