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30 August, 2014

Technology

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.

Note

           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. 

 Notes

           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.

   

 Notes

           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:  http://www.gbn.com/ArticleDisplayServlet.srv?aid=26231  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:   http://www.sonoma.edu/users/s/swijtink/teaching/philosophy_200/pentagon_worst_case_study.html.  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

21 June, 2014

Midsummer’s Night, A Fairy Ring & Kipling

By Peter Kinder

Wells, VT:  Writer in Fairy Ring  5/26/14

Wells, VT: Writer in Fairy Ring 5/26/14

One wet evening, a few weeks ago, I found a fairy ring. In this case, it was marked by ferns that had grown in a lush Vermont hill pasture. A picture accompanies this post. And, no, I can’t explain the haze around my head. It’s not in any others in the series.

Since childhood, I’ve looked for fairy rings. My mother had read to my brothers and me Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), a book that has stayed in my soul, my imagination ever since. I’ll not try to explain why.

But courtesy of Project Gutenberg, I do want to share the opening paragraphs of a book that opened a child’s imagination to his surroundings and how they came to be as they are.

***

The children were at the Theatre, acting to Three Cows as much as they could remember of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their father had made them a small play out of the big Shakespeare one, and they had rehearsed it with him and with their mother till they could say it by heart. They began where Nick Bottom the weaver comes out of the bushes with a donkey’s head on his shoulder, and finds Titania, Queen of the Fairies, asleep. Then they skipped to the part where Bottom asks three little fairies to scratch his head and bring him honey, and they ended where he falls asleep in Titania’s arms. Dan was Puck and Nick Bottom, as well as all three Fairies. He wore a pointy-eared cloth cap for Puck, and a paper donkey’s head out of a Christmas cracker—but it tore if you were not careful—for Bottom. Una was Titania, with a wreath of columbines and a foxglove wand.

The Theatre lay in a meadow called the Long Slip. A little mill-stream, carrying water to a mill two or three fields away, bent round one corner of it, and in the middle of the bend lay a large old fairy Ring of darkened grass, which was their stage. The mill-stream banks, overgrown with willow, hazel, and guelder rose made convenient places to wait in till your turn came; and a grown-up who had seen it said that Shakespeare himself could not have imagined a more suitable setting for his play. They were not, of course, allowed to act on Midsummer Night itself, but they went down after tea on Midsummer Eve, when the shadows were growing, and they took their supper—hard-boiled eggs, Bath Oliver biscuits, and salt in an envelope—with them. Three Cows had been milked and were grazing steadily with a tearing noise that one could hear all down the meadow; and the noise of the mill at work sounded like bare feet running on hard ground. A cuckoo sat on a gatepost singing his broken June tune, ‘cuckoo-cuk,’ while a busy kingfisher crossed from the mill-stream to the brook which ran on the other side of the meadow. Everything else was a sort of thick, sleepy stillness smelling of meadow-sweet and dry grass.

Their play went beautifully. Dan remembered all his parts—Puck, Bottom, and the three Fairies—and Una never forgot a word of Titania—not even the difficult piece where she tells the Fairies how to feed Bottom with ‘apricocks, ripe figs, and dewberries,’ and all the lines end in ‘ies.’ They were both so pleased that they acted it three times over from beginning to end before they sat down in the unthistly centre of the Ring to eat eggs and Bath Olivers. This was when they heard a whistle among the alders on the bank, and they jumped.

The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face. He shaded his forehead as though he were watching Quince, Snout, Bottom, and the others rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, and, in a voice as deep as Three Cows asking to be milked, he began:

‘What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here,
So near the cradle of our fairy Queen?’

He stopped, hollowed one hand round his ear, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, went on:

‘What a play toward? I’ll be auditor,
An actor too, perhaps, if I see cause.’

The children looked and gasped. The small thing—he was no taller than Dan’s shoulder—stepped quietly into the Ring.

‘I’m rather out of practice,’ said he; ‘but that’s the way my part ought to be played.’[1]

***

And so began my search for a fairy ring.

Notes

1. Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1906), pp. 5-7.

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Category: Children, Families, History, Literature, Rudyard Kipling, UK, Writing

12 June, 2014

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’: A Lesson on History and Global Warming

By Peter Kinder

 

Kent, CT:  Kent School Bell Tower & Grave Yard  6/7/14

Kent, CT: Kent School Bell Tower & Grave Yard 6/7/14

          Last weekend, I went to my 50th boarding school reunion.  It was an altogether wonderful and wonder-filled three days.

           But I had something on my mind, something I couldn’t shake, haven’t let go.

***

           In my first days at Kent School, like most incoming students, I was terrified – not wrongly.  I found refuge in the library stacks.

           In my hiding place, I saw a new book whose title seemed strange: A Canticle for Leibowitz.  After a few days of The Book of Common Prayer (1928), I knew what a canticle was.  And, I knew there weren’t any for Leibowitz.

           I pulled this strange, magnificent book from the shelf.  Despite my desperate academic situation, I spent every spare minute reading it over the next three days.  That was in mid-September 1960.  It is the only book I didn’t read aloud to my sons when small that I’ve reread more than twice.  I’ve lost count how many times I’ve laughed, cried and mourned over it.

***

          I was born 14 months after a ‘Little Boy’ flattened Hiroshima, killing in the end 135,000.

           One sunny morning – a rarity in the smog-filled Ohio Valley – with my mother and two younger brothers I listened to CBS Radio describe the immensity of a hydrogen bomb test.  I was not yet five.

           In the Valley, we didn’t do the under the school desk, hands over the head drill.  I’m certain – wrongly? – administrators thought it pointless.  No one in the Valley would survive.  Our aluminum factories, power plants, steel mills and coal mines meant the first wave of Soviet missiles would head for us.

           In the background of my uneventful childhood played the certainty the bombs would find us. But what would happen if some survived?

           In the stacks that first week at Kent I found a suggestion in A Canticle for Leibowitz that has haunted me.

***

          One afternoon in 3781, Dom Zerchi of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz snaps off a telescreen which had been reporting the imminence of war – nuclear war.

           Listen, are we helpless?  Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?  Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?  Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk, ground to dust and plowed with salt.  Spain, France, Britain, America–burned into the oblivion of the centuries.  And again and again and again.[1]

 No, says Leibowitz’s author, Walter M. Miller, Jr., there will be an end.

           Eighteen hundred years before, the ‘Flame Deluge’ produced a world recognisable to anyone with passing familiarity of the history of the depopulated lands of the western Roman Empire after the barbarian apocalypse.  But with profound differences.

           For one thing, the Flame Deluge leaves irradiated wastes and mutants.  The survivors proclaim ‘a great Simplification’, ‘a holocaust of those who wrought this thing, together with their hirelings and their wise men….’[2]  The Simpletons put to the fire the literate and what they might read.  The world careens into ignorance.

           One literate, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, takes refuge with Cistercian monks.  After a futile search for his wife, he returns to the order, becomes a priest and founds an brotherhood of ‘bookleggers’ to secure for the future some fruits of learning and literacy.  The future saint was martyred.

           Miller makes the encounters of Leibowitz’s heirs with 20th century knowledge – the rediscovery of the electric light, an elderly abbot’s interactions with a computer – laugh out loud funny.

           Like monks in scriptorums of the monasteries that mushroomed across western Europe in the thousand years after Rome, those of the Order of Leibowitz lovingly copied and illuminated papers they didn’t understand.  For a decade and a half, Brother Francis, who discovered relics of Leibowitz the scientist and the remains of his wife outside the door of a fallout shelter, spends his free hours copying onto vellum and illuminating a wiring diagram the scientist had initialed.

           I remember Miller’s wit and humor and find more on each rereading.  But it is not what makes A Canticle for Leibowitz relevant today despite its origins in the 55 bombing missions its author flew in Italy and the Balkans[3] and its first audience haunted by the prospect of nuclear war.  It speaks to my apocalyptic visions of global warming.

***

From the place of ground zero,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
          O Lord, deliver us.

 From the curse of the fallout,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
          O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua [From eternal death],
Domine, libera nos [O Lord, deliver us].
[4]

           In the gloom of the dark age following the Flame Deluge, the runaway slave Brother Francis repeats these versicles to himself as he hesitates outside the fallout shelter he’s found.  He could not know what the elements were whose names he chanted.

           It does not take much to adapt ancient litanies to Global Warming’s post-apocalyptic world.  But as I heard from the Presbyterians who shaped my childhood, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’  I never thought to ask, to what?  For what?  Miller did.

When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.[5]

 ***

           I thought of Walter Miller’s bleak vision a week ago.  I had just come home from a CERES fundraiser where I’d heard Jeremy Grantham, the renown money manager and co-founder of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo (GMO) LLC.  Think Bill McKibben with PowerPoint and a soft English accent.  His was a sober yet somehow inspiring talk.

           I checked, as I do every evening,  the day’s links on NakedCapitalism.com.  They led to Rowan Jacobsen’s ‘Something Is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast – and It’s Killing All the Baby Puffins’, a superb piece of reporting which Mother Jones published.  This long, harrowing article concludes the culprit is a rise of two degrees in the water temperature in the frigid Gulf of Maine which is killing off the small fish puffin parents feed their chicks.

           I thought of Miller’s final paragraphs, describing the seacoast just after the light from the second Flame Deluge fades:

           The breakers beat monotonously at the shores, casting up driftwood.  An abandoned seaplane floated beyond the breakers.  After a while the breakers caught the seaplane and threw it on the shore with the driftwood.  It tilted and fractured a wing.  There were shrimp carousing in the breakers, and the whiting that fed on the shrimp, and the shark that munched the whiting and found them admirable in the sportive brutality of the sea.

           A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash.  The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers.  The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood.  Then they washed up the whiting.  The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents.  He was very hungry that season.[6]

           Even the renewal of friendships 50 years old, the soft and sunny warmth of early June, the green glories of the countryside along old US 7 from northwest Connecticut to southern Vermont could not lift the pall from my mind.

           Can’t we who are given so much education, knowledge and discernment put them to saving ourselves and our children?

  

Notes

           1.  Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959] (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), p. 266-67 (hereafter ‘Bantam’).

          2.  Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959] (New York: EOS Books, 2006), p. 62 (hereafter ‘EOS’).

           3.  The linked article cites no sources for its biographical information.

           4.  Miller, op. cit., EOS, p. 18.  That someone took the time to catalogue and translate all Miller’s Latin quotations speaks tellingly of the book’s power today when so much of the Catholicism he represented is a dim memory.

           5.  Miller, op. cit., Bantam, p. 288.

           6.  Miller, op. cit., EOS, p. 334.  You can’t write two paragraphs better than those!

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Category: Climate Change, Community & Society, Eastern Ohio, Education, Environment, Ethics & Morality, Fifties History, Future, History, Literature, Modern Life, New England, Peace & War, Religion, Roman Empire, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Social Change

4 June, 2014

Global Warming Campaigners: What They Can Learn from the Tobacco War

By Peter Kinder

 

Wheeling, W.Va.:  Mail Pouch Chewing /Tobacco Factory 8/5/12

Wheeling, W.Va.: Mail Pouch Chewing /Tobacco Factory 8/5/12

          Coal and tobacco:  Do today’s global warming campaigners have something to learn from the tobacco wars?  A lot, I think.

           Yesterday’s New York Times headline feed featured ‘In Debate Over Coal, Lessons From ’90s Tobacco Fight’ by Jonathan Weisman.  Two paragraphs caught my eye:

           But the public may not be ready to take up arms against climate change the way it was open to battling cigarettes, said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist who recalled polling that he commissioned on the climate issue in 2000 as a senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain of Arizona.  At the time, he said, around 80 percent of respondents thought global warming could be sufficiently dealt with through recycling.

           “In the end, smoking became unacceptable.  That was not a legal statement.  It was a social statement, and consensus was broad and has held for a long time,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “Maybe you get there on carbon emissions, but right now, this is an issue for the elites.” [Hyperlink omitted.]

 Holtz-Eakin has a point, though maybe not the one he intended.

 ***

           ‘The vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit’, John Nance Garner is supposed to have said.  A tobacco-chewing Texan, Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president knew what a spittoon was for.

           So did Ohio Senators whose chamber aisles in the mid-1960s were lined with brightly polished – and well-used – cuspidors.

           My beloved friend and political mentor, Belmont County Auditor Tom McCourt looked very different on the hustings where he didn’t chew.  In the office, the spittoon behind his desk got constant use, often for effect during conversations.

           On his 1960 baseball card Bill Mazeroski, the local boy who played second base for the Pirates from 1956 to 1972 has a large chaw in his left cheek.  It so increased in size over the years that I fantasized he stopped a sharp ground ball with his belly….   The future Hall of Famer, however, appears to be chawless as he heads for home after hitting the walk-off home run against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 Series.

           But from childhood onwards, no woman I knew – most of whom smoked at least a pack a day – thought chewing anything but ‘a disgusting habit’.  We college kids who worked summers and vacations on mill floors tried chewing.  No one kept at it.

           Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco was a local product and its barn ads common across the Appalachians.  (I wrote about them here.)  Originally, it was made of waste from rolling Wheeling Stogies.  That cigar of choice of mule skinners, drovers and carters was another tobacco product usually tried only once.

           So at the lower end of the tobacco-product spectrum, a class divide did exist.  And, the virtual disappearance of chewing tobacco and stogies – well ahead of cigarettes – was ‘a social statement’, ‘an issue for the elites.’

***

           My introduction to coal regulation in the early 1970s came in smoke filled offices and hearing rooms.  We cigarette smokers were dealing with the strip mining processes’s baleful consequences, not those of coal-burning.   So, the irony of doing it in conditions like the Donora smog didn’t strike us.

           No question, ‘elites’ led the fight to restrain surface mining, for land reclamation.  For the most part, they didn’t come from Appalachia, at least originally.  Their great breakthrough came when local hunters and fishers, having lost the land and waters they’d used for generations, joined the cause.

           Surface mining reclamation was an anomaly in the history of environmental regulation.  The technique and its spread were relatively new phenomena after World War II.  Most – though by no means all – believed it could be ‘done right’.  A tiny minority was fighting ‘coal’.  The 1977 Federal Surface Mining Act was the last sweeping environmental triumph.

           The Reagan-Bush I & II environmental counter-revolution drew strength from its anti-elitism.  The industries reliant on coal and coal-fired power plants could be stripped at leisure by other ‘elites’ – the maximisers of shareholder value – whilst workers and their communities focused on the green meanies.

 ***

           It takes a long time, if ever, for an elite armed with ideas to win the field.  Well after the Surgeon General’s Report appeared in 1964, I saw doctors whose office ashtrays overflowed with the butts of the cigarettes they chain smoked.

           It was two generations before, as Holz-Eakin put it, ‘In the end, smoking became unacceptable.  That was not a legal statement.  It was a social statement….’

           That’s the great lesson of tobacco for Global Warming.

            After years of battle with Big Tobacco on many fronts, the end – if such it was – came with legal settlements in the tens of billions, health warnings on tobacco products and protections of the air non-smokers breathed.

           The anti-tobacco elite had become a majority, if not a supermajority.

           The economic consequences for states like Virginia and North Carolina were severe but not catastrophic.  They lost agricultural, manufacturing and management jobs.

           Shareholders undoubtedly lost some prospective earnings, though they’ve done pretty well over the years.  The executives, who’d fought by fair means and foul since World War II, disclosure of tobacco’s risks and regulation received neither fines nor imprisonment.  Neither shareholders nor executives had to disgorge any of their decades of profits.

           By salary and position, Big Tobacco’s people remain an elite, albeit one made up of pariahs.  No more do romantic leads on screen smoke, but the villains routinely do.  ‘Casablanca’ (1942) could not be made today.  The cigarette was that essential to Humphrey Bogart’s character.

 ***

          Even in Coal Country, ‘global warming’ is for most a fact.  That battle, we’ve won.  The major tool in the war on tobacco, product liability litigation, isn’t available as a result of ‘tort reform’ and Supreme Court interpretations of class action and environmental statutes.  Those changes came as a direct response to the tobacco wars, a reprisal one might argue of one elite on

           Let’s return to Jonathan Weisman in yesterday’s Times:

           John Banzhaf, a law professor…, said opponents of climate change have much to learn from the long struggle against tobacco.  In that fight, legal action was aimed not only at beating the tobacco companies in court.  It was intended to force the release of internal documents that showed the companies had known of the health effects of their product, had hidden it, and had financed efforts to muddy the public’s understanding.

           Anti-tobacco forces did not simply aim to raise the cost of tobacco. They targeted the industry’s tools of promotion: advertising, lobbying and its think tank, the Tobacco Institute. Legal action was meant to alleviate the broad societal cost of smoking – higher Medicaid costs, more intensive use of the health care system and thus higher taxes. By demonstrating how everyone was hurt, tobacco opponents tried to engage the public.

           Perhaps most important, they sought to undercut the economic argument that kept tobacco-state lawmakers firmly on the industry’s side, said Rick Boucher, a former Democratic congressman who represented Virginia tobacco growers and its coal mines. The bulk of tobacco settlement funds in Virginia went to economic development programs to help move farmers to other livelihoods and to bolster the tobacco regions’ infrastructures, including broadband deployment and water and sewer system construction….

           “The idea of buying off people, as repugnant as that sounds to some, makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Banzhaf said. “Why pay off the coal companies? It’s simply analysis. Here is the cost if we don’t. Here is the cost if we do.”  [Hyperlinks omitted.]

           In this struggle, Weisman neglects to note the key supporting role of social investors.  They sought divestment of tobacco stocks from institutional portfolios – something in which even Harvard joined – and volleyed with Big Tobacco on shareholder resolutions on things such as marketing to minors.  For more than 30 years.

           Shareholders have played and are playing a similar role on coal and Global Warming.

 ***

           As with tobacco, the ultimate enemy on Global Warming is us:  the tolerant, the self-interested, the lazy, the addicted.

           We had to change.  We did.  That’s the lesson from tobacco.

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