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23 January, 2014

Grace Note: ‘The Midnight Special’ at 60

By Peter Kinder


Chicago:  Jack Brickhouse, Baseball Hall of Fame Announcer 5/20/13

Chicago: Jack Brickhouse, Baseball Hall of Fame Announcer 5/20/13

          ‘Folk Music & Farce; Show Tunes & Satire; Madness & Escape’:  That’s ‘The Midnight Special’ which has run on WFMT in Chicago for 60 years this month.

           Happy anniversary to the show, to its three generations of presenters and staffers, and especially to Chicago’s Fine Arts station, WFMT, for keeping this wonderful program on the air.

           You can catch a two hour national version on various stations.  But, I highly recommend the three-hour Chicago edition which streams live on WFMT from 9 to midnight on Saturdays and I record using

           Rich Warren, its host for 30 years, is just plain good company.  He’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable about what he plays, whether from the ‘50s or the day’s mail.  But he never talks too much.

           The Chicago version feels more like what Vin Scelsa calls ‘old-time, free-form FM radio’ which isn’t old (arriving with sex and drugs in the late ‘60s) and at its best (Scelsa’s ‘Idiot’s Delight’ was and is) bespoke the free-form of high art – in short, not at all.  But we know – and treasure – to what Scelsa alludes and Warren embodies.

           The Chicago program highlights local artists, many of whom I didn’t know – but should – and artists appearing in ChicagoLand.  It’s more intimate than the syndicated show which has its own charms.

           ‘The Midnight Special’ was first produced by Mike Nichols, the Mike Nichols who quickly left for Elaine May, New York and Hollywood.  So, farce, satire and madness came at its beginning.  The comedy is well-chosen from more than 60 years of British and American recordings.  Yes, Bill Cosby’s ‘Noah’ is still side-splitting.  So are Lou & Peter Berryman on ‘Mr. & Mrs. Noah’.

          But it’s the folk music and, often, the show tunes that have made me a devoted listener for 10 years.

           One should expect someone who’s been programming folk music for 40+ years to have discerning taste.  Warren surpasses that expectation.  He can put together sets as well as anyone I’ve listened to.  He never rambles between sets.   And, he’s not afraid to program what others won’t, such as the brilliant fourteen-minute title cut from Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest’ (2012)

           What’s not to be expected is his enthusiasm for new or unjustly obscure artists.  Lucy Ward (a remarkable young English singer), Krista Detor (‘flat out brilliant’ understated one reviewer of this Bloomington poet and performer), and Laura Veirs (a powerful writer now in Oregon) are among my discoveries, thanks to ‘Midnight Special’.

           So thanks, Rich.  Thanks, WFMT.  ‘Long may you run!’

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Category: Chicago, Folk & Acoustic Music, Humor, Illinois, Music, Poetry, Radio Generally

19 January, 2014

Time to Derail Fast-Tracked Trade Treaties

By Peter Kinder


Cambridge, MA:  Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Lodge Mausoleum  5/7/12

Cambridge, MA: Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Lodge Mausoleum 5/7/12

          Treat trade treaty texts like Rorschachs and you’ll discern Black Helicopters.  But instead of Blue Helmets, they’re filled with pin-striped Armanis.


           This morning, the Boston Globe editorial board urged Congress to fast track the Trans-Pacific and European Union trade treaties.  But the board doesn’t actually say that.  Instead it backs ‘the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014 [to] clarify the process…’

           And what does the Globe say the process is?  ‘…The White House would retain authority to negotiate trade treaties, and Congress would promise a timely up-or-down vote.’

           Even Obama-phobes haven’t suggested taking away that authority.  It’s the timely vote bit that’s utterly misleading.  The Constitution suggests acting on treaties are among the most important tasks assigned Congress.  A simple majority of Congress can declare war.  Two-thirds of the Senate must vote to ratify a treaty.

           By this time, anyone possessed of a sense of smell knows ‘bipartisan’ signals a rendering plant in print.  The bill – it hasn’t passed, so it isn’t an Act – sets a single Congressional trade priority: ratifying (or not) whatever the President puts in front of them.

           Put differently, it commits the Senate not to amend what the President proposes.

           These treaties affect American life in profound ways that are, I reckon, countless.  Even on paper, they are complex.  They confer rights on corporations that, if assigned to the UN, would have militias rising across the inter-mountain West.

           And, the Senate is supposed to treat the treaties as if they were sub-Cabinet nominees?  Up or down?  Ok, I exaggerate – slightly.

           At the end of this post is a very toned down letter I launched at the Globe this noon.


          Instead of venting, I should be at a tour of Mt. Auburn Cemetery just now.

           No doubt, it would pass the Lodge family mausoleum where rest the remains of US Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA).  This Sen. Lodge (his son was also a Senator) is remembered for defeating, in 1919, ratification of the Treaty of Versailles which would have committed the United States to the League of Nations.

           The Senate’s process on Versailles, if not necessarily its result, is what should happen with the trade treaties.


          In looking at the trade tribunals that adjudicate corporate rights under the post-NAFTA free-trade agreements, I saw something I’ll note but which requires much more research.

           It appears that the rights accorded corporations to challenge regulations rest on an implied contract assuring, say, an American corporation mining zinc in Peru to avoid complying with regulations on lead pollution that Peru imposed after the company began its operations.

          The language used to describe corporate rights sounds to my ears similar to that of US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in The Dartmouth College case – from which sprang many of our thorny problems with corporate immortality and governance.

           The treaty language seems to harken back to the contract clause jurisprudence of the early to mid-1800s.  If so, it is not a revival to be anticipated with anything but dread, if you believe the social legislation of the past 80 years is worthwhile.

           I am just paranoid enough about the Roberts Court’s ‘back to the future’ decisions, like Citizens United to be very disturbed by what I’ve read today.

           But, as I said, I have a lot more research to do.  In the meantime, watch your back!


           Here is my letter to the Globe:

 Re: ‘Pacific, EU trade deals need up-or-down votes’, Boston Globe, Jan. 19, 2014


           ‘Logrolling’ is a means by which legislators compress enough goodies into one bill that, despite the odors from various sections, it receives little debate and few amendments before the ‘up-or-down votes’ the Globe editorial board seeks for the ‘Pacific, EU trade deals’ (Jan. 19).

           ‘Fast tracking’ commits legislators to a similar process on trade treaties but without any input on their substance.

           Fast-tracked trade treaties adopted over the past 40 years have altered US life, from road safety to product labeling to environmental regulation to jobs – all with less debate than the current farm bill. 

           They confer substantive rights on corporations against governments which are enforced by tribunals from which the public and press are excluded.  From their anonymous judgments, there is no appeal.  We can have no idea the extent to which corporations have used those rights to affect government regulation.

           Fast-tracked trade treaties don’t invite, as the Globe suggests, ‘members of Congress [to] vote their conscience on the merits’.  Unlike a migratory bird protection treaty or an arms control pact, their merits aren’t clear.  The pressure from the interests to ratify has proven irresistible.

           Because treaties supersede domestic legislation – both current and future – the Constitution (Art. 2 §2 cl. 2) says ‘[The President] shall have Power, by and with Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur….’  It only takes three fifths to break a filibuster.

           This implies a process of solemn deliberation and thoughtful improvements fast tracking denies.  For the first time in 40 years, the Senate should commit itself to do its duty on the two trade treaties.

Yours faithfully,

Peter D. Kinder

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Category: Business, Community & Society, Corporations, Domestic Corporations (US), Economics, Free Trade, Future, Law - Civil, Social Change, Transnational Corporations, US Politics, WWI

16 January, 2014

Stupid Choices: Networks & Spoking Customers

By Peter Kinder


Nassau, Bahamas:  Common Moorhen, 1/6/14

Nassau, Bahamas: Common Moorhen, 1/6/14

          Trawling the news feeds, I often find two articles in the same publication that, without referring to each other, tie together a much larger story than either tells.

           The New York Times for Jan. 7 has two such articles: Joe Nocera, ‘Will Digital Networks Ruin Us’ and Jad Mouawad, ‘Bone-Chilling Cold a Crippling Blow to Air Travel’.  For no industry is more networked – in a number of senses – than air transport, a fact bad weather reveals.

           Nocera rates Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? (2013) ‘[the] most important book I read in 2013′.   It ‘puts forth a kind of universal theory that ties [NSA leaks, persistently high unemployment and ‘the erosion of privacy’] together’ with much else which falls into the category of networked systems.

Network Paradigms

           Today’s predominant model for analysing problems – business, social, clandestine – is the network.  It is to the post-1980s what the assembly line was to the industrial era of, say, 1910-80.

           The magnitude of this change is so profound, so deeply accepted, we can’t imagine how we thought before.

           I recall the first time I heard it described.  On a winter morning in 1972 an administrator in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources explained to me the ‘ecological paradigm’.  Here was a means of analysing and understanding environmental remediation, on which I’d been writing regulations, that insisted on multiple connections and interdependencies across disciplines.  I was staggered by its implications.

           So, it was something less of a shock to read four years later Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism & Material Life, 1400-1800 (1975).  Braudel introduced me to the Annales School of historical thought which applied the same integrative, holistic principle to history and the social sciences.

           The applied network concept Nocera discusses derives from these intellectual reconceptions.  Thus, it has deep origins, ones that lurk in our now innate understanding of it.

Networks Applied

          This wisdom’s application has not always had happy results.  Says Nocera:

Over time, the same network efficiencies that had given them [large companies] their great advantages would become the instrument of their failures….  In the case of Wal-Mart, its adoption of technology to manage its supply chain at first reaped great benefits, but over time it cost competitors and suppliers hundreds of thousands of jobs, thus “gradually impoverishing its own customer base,” as Lanier put it to me.

           Employment cost shifting is an essential part of this class of rapacious network management.  From health insurance to pensions, profitable companies like MacDonald’s and, most recently, Boeing, have moved these costs to the public by eliminating benefits and/or keeping wages at less than it costs employees to live while employed or after retirement, driving them to Medicaid and food stamps.

           Largely carried out in the names of ‘competitiveness’ or of making employees responsible for their futures, these rationales sound much like the arguments against health and safety and wage and hour regulations by the corporations of 100 years ago.

 ‘The Stupid Choice’

           Nocera continues:

           There are two more components to Lanier’s thesis. The first is that the digital economy has done as much as any single thing to hollow out the middle class. When I asked him about the effect of globalization, he said that globalization was “just one form of network efficiency”…. [Parens eliminated.]

 It comes as no surprise that Bloomberg reported on Jan. 9 Congressional leaders have reached agreement on a bill limiting review of the latest trade treaties:

Supporters of fast-track authority including a coalition of about 160 groups, led by organizations including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Manufacturers.  The coalition — whose members include Boeing Co. (BA), MetLife Inc. (MET), Pfizer Inc. (PFE) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) — has ramped up lobbying efforts in recent months.

           According to Nocera, it is not just the familiar names that propel networks’ ill effects.

           …Lanier’s final big point:  that the value of these new companies comes from us.  “Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars just because those 13 employees are extraordinary,” he writes.  “Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it.”  He adds, “…This has the net effect of centralizing wealth and limiting overall economic growth.”  Thus, in Lanier’s view, is income inequality also partly a consequence of the digital economy.

           And Nocera’s ‘wow!’ finish:

           “If Google and Facebook were smart,” [Lanier] said, “they would want to enrich their own customers.”  So far, he adds, Silicon Valley has made “the stupid choice” – to grow their businesses at the expense of their own customers.

           Lanier’s message is that it can’t last.  And it won’t.

           Maybe Lanier will be right.  But, I don’t think he can be in anything other than the very long term.  Beggaring customers and employees will be far too profitable for the foreseeable future.

 Airlines to Stranded:  Find Your Own Way

           US airlines are another – maybe the ultimate – example of Lanier’s ‘stupid choice’ networks.

           I have reason to focus on airlines as networks.  The polar vortex and, allegedly, new regulations requiring more rest for flight crews (for which JetBlue seems to have been unique in its lack of preparation) stranded me in the Bahamas.  (I know. You feel really sorry for me….)

           For me it was just an inconvenience.  Other JetBlue passengers are stuck with hotel bills and living expenses they can’t afford in places where they have no alternative means out.

           According to Katie Johnson, ‘JetBlue Resumes Service at Logan’ on the Boston Globe’s

Over a six-day period starting Thursday [Jan. 2], JetBlue was responsible for 1,800 of 20,000 cancellations industry-wide, Rob Maruster, the airline’s chief operating officer, said during a conference call.

 JetBlue was fully operational by Tuesday afternoon [Jan. 7], but some stranded passengers will be unable to get flights out until next week.  The delays … are partly due to flights that were 90 percent full during the holidays….

“When you have this level of an event over this many days and particularly when customers may be canceled one, two, and three times, often they just give up and find their own way,” Maruster said.

Costs to Customers

           Let’s go to the chalk.  Assume all JetBlue’s cancelled flights were on its 100-seat Embraer (Brazilian for ‘cat carrier‘) 190.

    1800 cancelled flights Jan. 2-7
x 90 passengers per flight
162,000 customers inconvenienced

JetBlue only flies two types of plane.  Since the 150-seat Airbus 320 makes up a significant part of JetBlue’s fleet, 162,000 is a conservative estimate.  JetBlue was in 2012 the seventh largest North American carrier, carrying about 15 % of the passengers the largest, Delta, flew.

           JetBlue is the only carrier in its class that’s non-union.  The company maintains an anti-union website,  It appears to be the only carrier that blamed the pilot rest regulations – adopted after crew fatigue led to a crash causing 49 deaths – for its cancellations.

 Airline Networks

           Why are these casualties assignable to the airlines’ networking?  Jad Mouawad in ‘Bone-Chilling Cold a Crippling Blow to Air Travel’ notes:

Widespread cancellations are increasingly common in the airline industry, which relies on the hub-and-spoke model of connecting flights. Airlines also now operate on a much tighter schedule, leaving them with little slack, and have few spare planes to rebook passengers.

 It is worth the effort to understand how airlines network, but here I haven’t the space.  But, according to,

A Hub and Spoke network is a route network where an airline will not only plan on transporting passengers between two points, but also to connect passengers between two distant cities via its hub.

 The airline gains efficiency by concentrating passengers in hub airports and redistributing them to spoke locations.  Spokes make for predictable loads and better matching of demand with capacity.

 Getting Spoked

           The hub-and-spoke system is also a means of shifting risk to customers, particularly of lengthy waits for seats when flights are cancelled. 

           In ideal circumstances, the passenger contributes the extra time it takes to fly, say, United from Boston to Chicago, race from a main concourse to the regional concourse (never less than a 10-minute walk or jog or sprint), await a commuter flight to Madison and then fly to Madison.

           But every connecting flight, in my experience, doubles the chances for delay (more customer time contributions) or worse and of lost baggage for which most airlines extract fees with no guarantee of their arrival with the passenger (yet another contribution).

           When a polar vortex or a hurricane creates a backlog of ticketed passengers, airlines find them hard to absorb, as JetBlue’s COO makes clear.  Apart from Cape Air – my favorite airline – I have never seen an airline roll out what Greyhound used to call ‘extra sections’ to accommodate the stranded.  Never.

           In line in US Immigration in the Bahamas, a woman spoke of finally getting to Ft. Lauderdale – after four days – but via JFK.  On the JFK-BOS leg, a woman behind me was on her way to Ft. Myers via Logan.

           Factor in the fees the airlines have taken to extracting for food, headsets, blankets, baggage, etc., and they don’t look all that different from WalMart.  And with similar unintended consequences.

           I have a phrase for the joys of commercial flying:  ‘getting spoked’.

Prevent Perversion!

          Leaps in understanding, like networks, spring from the spirit of their times.

          The theory of evolution we associate with Charles Darwin had many fathers.  It had many interpreters, such as William Graham Sumner, who quickly adapted it into Social Darwinism – a justification for disparities in wealth, opportunity and quality of life that fit the laissez faire political economy of the late 19th century.

          In short, with great understanding comes great perversion.

          We must expect it.  We must deal with it through legislation and social constructs.  And, most importantly, we must vocally strenuously resist its seductive appeal.

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Category: Airlines, Business, Climate Change, Community & Society, Cross-Cultural Exchange, Domestic Corporations (US), Economics, Environment, Free Trade, Future, Modern Life, Recession (2008), Sustainability, Transportation, Work

31 December, 2013

Dag Hammarskjöld: The Road Not Taken

By Peter Kinder


Nassau, Bahamas:  Boxing Day Junkanoo dancer putting on costume 12/26/13

Nassau, Bahamas: Boxing Day Junkanoo dancer putting on costume 12/26/13

          Robert Frost, the poet of my youth, wrote when my grandfathers were young men:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Considering the lives of two men whose paths my generation could have followed, John F. Kennedy’s or Dag Hammarskjöld’s, we took the one more traveled.  ‘And that has made all the difference.’


           Think of ‘idealism’ and ‘the Sixties’, and President John F. Kennedy comes to mind.  In our mythology, national hope ended on November 22, 1963.

           For all we know about Pres. Kennedy’s roles as a Cold-Warrior, in restraining the Civil Rights movement, and as a sybarite and an undiscriminating satyr, his words and his image still inspire.

           Another leader, assassinated (probably) 26 months before Pres. Kennedy, offered my generation an alternative model for its vaunted idealism.  Dag Hammarskjöld (pron: ‘hammer-shoald’), the second Secretary General of the United Nations, though, is forgotten by all but Cold War historians and a few mystics.

           A superb essay by Michael Ignatieff, ‘The Faith of a Hero’ (New York Review of Books, Nov. 7, 2013), presents this alternative hero for my time, the model not adopted.  (It is behind a paywall but is well-worth the investment.)


           Apart from good looks, an unfailing sense of style, eloquence and a drive to accomplish, Dag Hammarskjöld had little in common with John Kennedy.

           Watching again not long ago Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957), the hero, a knight (Max van Sydow) traversing Sweden during the Black Death whilst keeping a move ahead of Death with whom he’s playing a game of Chess he will lose) I thought of Hammarskjöld.  His seemed a death foretold.

            Hammarskjöld was felled in Zambia on Sept. 18, 1961, as his DC-6 took off from Ndola on a mission to negotiate an end to the Katanga rebellion in the Congo.

           A visionary and mystic, he was – surprisingly, given these traits – a leader who could work with powerful personalities like Ralph Bunche, Sir Brian Urquhart and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

           He had superb instincts for situations in which the UN could intervene successfully.  He and his subordinates created, on the fly, the UN’s peacekeeping role to give the parties a way out of the 1956 Suez crisis.

           He was intensely criticised for his equally great skill in judging when the UN could not succeed, as it would not have in restraining the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian and Polish rebellions.


          A child’s perception of Hammarskjöld as an austere man of great inner strength was confirmed in adolescence with the posthumous publication of Markings, his spiritual diaryAn example:

The light died in the low clouds.  Falling snow drank in the dusk.  Shrouded in silence, the branches wrapped me in their peace.  When the boundaries were erased, once again the wonder:  that I exist.

           Hammarskjöld began his tenure at the UN in 1953, the height of the McCarthy Era in the US and a time when a UK court could condemn Alan Turing to chemical castration for homosexual acts.  So, the sexuality of this ‘lonely man, not a self-sufficient one’, as his friend W. H. Auden described him, was in question.  Hence the continuing fascination with this allusive passage from Markings:

You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds.


           Michael Ignatieff’s essay on Hammarskjöld immediately follows in the Nov. 7 NYRB the interview with US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on which I wrote yesterday.  Breyer urged undergraduates to use their course selection to expand their emotional and cultural horizons with literature, history and foreign languages.

           Prof. Ignatieff begins his essay with a description of Hammarskjöld’s body as it was found at Ndola.  Here is his second paragraph:

Searchers also retrieved his briefcase.  Inside were a copy of the New Testament, a German edition of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, a novel by the French writer Jean Giono, and copies of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou in German and English.  Folded into his wallet were some copies of American newspaper cartoons mocking him, together with a scrap of paper with the first verses of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. [Links added.]

 I can’t imagine a better statement of what Justice Breyer meant.

           Indeed, I felt a thrill when I read this list:  one of my favorite poets, the magnificent novelist (blessed with wonderful English translations) and the haunting theologian.

          But, love it as I do, the 1956 Rockabilly hit, ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’?  Here are its first verses:

Well, be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby love
My baby love, my baby love

 Well, she’s the girl in the red blue jeans
She’s the queen of all the teens
She’s the one that I know
She’s the one that loves me so

I have no idea….  And, maybe that’s Justice Breyer’s point.


          According to Prof. Ignatieff, ‘Hammarskjöld liked quoting Buber…: “The only reply to distrust is candor.”’ It is a haunting aphorism, one I’d expect from Buber.  But, not quoted by a politician.

           We know the road we took has led to deep distrust of government, others, ourselves.  Where might the road not taken have led?


N.B.:  Prof. Ignatieff was reviewing Roger Lipsey’s Hammarskjöld: A Life (Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2013).  All of its reviews I’ve seen have been as enthusiastic Ignatieff’s.

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Category: American Character, Community & Society, Cross-Cultural Exchange, Ethics & Morality, Fifties History, Future, History, Imperialism & Empire, Ingmar Bergman, Movies, Peace & War, Politics, Religion, Robert Frost, Sixties History, Social Change, US Politics, Writing

30 December, 2013

Justice Breyer Advises Undergrads on Preparing for Law – and Business

By Peter Kinder


Columbus, Ohio:  McKinley Memorial from State House steps 3/16/12

Columbus, Ohio: McKinley Memorial from State House steps 3/16/12

          US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has offered students considering law as a career some excellent advice which I would extend it to undergrads thinking of business courses.

           In an interview published in the New York Review of Books for Nov. 7, 2013, Ioanna Kohler asked Justice Breyer:

 …[A] student asked you what major you would recommend he select in order to become a lawyer.  …[Y]ou suggested that he choose “whatever major you want, as long as it has nothing to do with the law.”  You, in fact, studied philosophy at Stanford and Oxford before studying the law at Harvard.  How can the humanities or foreign languages be an asset for a jurist?

           Justice Breyer responded:

           …I’ve always thought that it was not particularly useful to study law as an undergrad.  We are only allowed to live one life:  it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it.  In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live.  Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world.  Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.

           The French language gave me an entrée into another culture.  It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought.  Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect.  People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other.  So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do.  Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures.  And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.

          Breyer has stated our case – his and mine – more positively (and far more eloquently) than I do.

           For me the question came up most often in terms of undergraduate business courses.  Students shouldn’t take courses, I’d insist, that shut off options.  I’ve observed that ‘pre-professional courses’, like undergraduate finance, lock students into a track they’ll find it hard to exit as their careers evolve.

           Wait until law school or business school to pick up courses on the trade.

           Also, students lack, in their late teens and early twenties, both the experience and the exposure to history, politics and the like to put undergraduate business and law courses into a meaningful context, much less synthesise them.

          So, I’m with Justice Breyer.

           The NYRB interview, ‘On Reading Proust’, was originally ‘published in La Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris as part of a special issue entitled “Proust vu d’Amérique.”’  The interview was conducted in French.  It’s worth reading in its entirety.

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Category: Business, Cross-Cultural Exchange, Education, History, Judges & Legal Scholars, Law - Civil, Law - Criminal, Literature, Work, Writing

25 December, 2013

Two for Christmas: ‘The Great Beauty’ & ‘Nebraska’

By Peter Kinder


Franconia, MN:  Franconia Sculpture Park 5/7/11

Franconia, MN: Franconia Sculpture Park 5/7/11

          Two movies you mustn’t miss this Christmas: ‘The Great Beauty’ (‘La Grande Bellezza’) and ‘Nebraska’.

           Superficially the two have much in common.  Both take men late in life on present-day journeys through their pasts.  Both protagonists can wound those closest to them.  Both films are extraordinary visual experiences.  And both mix a lot of humor with pathos before ending happily.

           But how different they are!


           Numerous reviewers have compared ‘The Great Beauty’ favorably to Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960).  Not wrongly.

           Both view life in the uppermost regions of Roman society.  But Fellini’s savagery in attacking characters of no redeeming social importance, the decay he depicts surrounding his human detritus, is absent from Paolo Sorrentino’s affectionate, amused view of the same landscape in late spring 53 years later.

           Take the aged rent-a-royals, hired to impress American publishers at a posh dinner.

           They’re introduced, reading companionably in their very middle class sitting room.  The phone rings.  The Count quickly negotiates a price for the engagement, like the Drain Doctor, and returns to his wife.  At the party, they perform their roles – half fey, half nobly aloof but always gracious.

           They return home to a palace in which they live as guests. Instead of joining her husband in bed, the Comtessa walks into a gallery holding the relics of the nursery in which she grew up in the 1930s.  The note on her cradle recalls how her idyllic childhood ended with her father’s bankruptcy.  Her expression of sorrow – undiminished by seven decades – almost overwhelms the viewer.

           Very different from Fellini, that.  No mockery, no cruelty.

           Sorrentino’s most surreal affectation is ‘The Great Beauty’s’ lack of decay, dirt and debris that mar even my affectionate memories of Rome.  Apart from the Coliseum, of which the large terrace of the protagonist’s penthouse offers an unobstructed view, and the great imperial aqueduct along which he walks, everything is well-maintained, clean, ordered, gleaming in the Roman spring.

           As if to reinforce his settings, Sorrentino’s music soundtrack is pitch perfect and, in all save party scenes, gorgeous.

           It is the protagonist’s interior life that’s decaying and filled with debris, like a jigsaw puzzle in a summer house grimy from use and missing the odd piece.

           Jep Gambardella (the great Toni Servillo), whom we meet at his 65th birthday party, is a journalist and bon vivant – a Tom Wolfe with the elegance and ability to wear clothes in a manner only the Italians have mastered.  Like the scenes Jep populates, he is a construction of great beauty.

           When 26 Jep rode to Rome on a successful, still highly regarded novel.  He vowed to rise to the top, which he did at the cost of his serious writing.  A love lost before Rome, seen in flashbacks, left him achingly alone, as he remains.

           His existential dread leads him to solicit an invitation to a party whose guest of honor is a Cardinal reputed to be the Vatican’s top exorcist.  Whatever his talents with demons, the old bore can only gossip and talk about recipes.  Later at an outdoor wedding reception, the Cardinal takes his leave in a black limo.  Before the car starts he leans toward the back seat’s open window and blesses Jep in a way that would terrify any demon.

           ‘The Great Beauty’ has no wow finish.  Jep’s life will go on much as it has.

           Jep has gained some insights, some contentment with the life he’s chosen.  He’s seen the life his lost love lived and realised how empty it would have been for him.  He has friends, loyal ones.  And, he has discovered the possibility of love.  For all the alienation of modern life, for all of life’s existential aloneness, he has learnt his is the great beauty.

           Time will tell if ‘The Great Beauty’ is as I suspect, one of the greats.  For wit, insight and great beauty, it will be hard to match.


          In Alexander Payne‘s ‘Nebraska’, all is ruin and emptiness.  In an eerily crisp black and white shot largely through a fish-eye lens, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his younger son, David (Will Forte), progress through landscapes and interiors of different types of wreck and barrenness from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska.

           When the movie opens, Woody walks along a ramp off a busy four lane highway where a kind deputy sheriff picks him up and returns him home – a run down frame house on an undistinguished street.

           Woody has received a notice he won a sweepstakes, like Publishers Clearing House’s, and is convinced he’s won $1 million.  He can’t drive any more, and he lacks the cash to get from Billings to Lincoln where his notice originated.  But nothing will stop him from walking there.

           His wife, Kate (the wonderful June Squibb), has had enough of his craziness and drinking, and insists to her son, David, that Woody belongs in a home.  Self-absorbed, taciturn, Dern says little beyond he’s going.

           David, a 40+ sound system salesman in a big-box store, has just lost his loser girlfriend, his plants are dying, and he’s got nothing going.  So, he offers to take his father to Lincoln in his aged Subaru.  Off they go into the November wastes of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.

           At this point Paul Simon’sI am a Rock’ came to mind:

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island

           At David’s insistence, they detour to Mt. Rushmore.  Woody takes one look at the monument and is ready to shove off.  It looks unfinished, he says.  Now it’s clear ‘Nebraska’ isn’t the story of an aged drunk with senile dementia.

           The story is not one of self-discovery.  Woody knows all he needs and wants to know about himself.  No one else has anything like a full picture of Woody, except David at the movie’s end.

           Will Forte’s malleable, inquiring David perfectly contrasts with Bruce Dern’s zipped up Woody.  David’s questions produce hilariously candid, if sometimes brutal, answers to why, for instance, he had children.

           David and Woody spend a weekend at Woody’s brother’s in the town where they grew up.  A hilarious mix of small town life and pungent recollections ensues, mixed with set pieces such as a dozen family males seated watching a football game silently.

           Questions David puts to the local newspaper editor, a widow, Peg (Angela McEwan) reveal sides of Woody David never suspected.  And, she suggests an alternative path Woody might have taken.  McEwan gives a beautiful performance.

           Again, Paul Simon echoed:

Don’t talk of love,
But I’ve heard the words before;
It’s sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

           Like MeEwan, the supporting cast are unfamiliar professionals or amateurs, and they are – without exception – brilliant.  Check out the Stories page on the ‘Nebraska’ website for the pictures and bios of several.   They deserve the credit they get.  One familiar face does a fine turn:  Stacy Keach, a small town bully grown old.

           And the music!  Mark Orton, formerly of ‘Tin Hat’, has composed and performed with his fellow band mates a mesmerizing score that like the movie itself slowly captures you.  It’s only as the ‘Nebraska’ concludes that you realise how much Orton has contributed.

           The movie’s ending is a real Thanksgiving present.  A moment of revelation makes sense of all Woody’s craziness.  It’s no exaggeration to say only Bruce Dern could have pulled it off.

           Alexander Payne gives us Thoreau’s journey of men:  ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country….’  But Woody and David who will return to that life have a moment of exhilaration for which the audience need not suspend its disbelief in order to cheer.

           Alexander Payne has made movies with compelling moments (‘About Schmidt’, ‘Election’) and some with none.  Nothing in them or his last movie, ‘The Descendents’, hinted he had ‘Nebraska’ in him.  That he did makes this a very happy holiday.

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Category: Agriculture, American Character, Communities, Community & Society, Contemporary Films, Interstate Highways, Midwest, Modern Life, Movies, Music, Photography, Places - Europe, Writing

15 December, 2013

Reconciliation & Economics: How the Civil War Still Affects Us

By Peter Kinder


Wheeling, W.Va.:  Suspension Bridge (1849) across  Ohio River's main channel.  The slave market was one block from WWVA  sign.  3/13/12

Wheeling, W.Va.: Suspension Bridge (1849) across Ohio River’s main channel.  The slave market was one block from WWVA sign on right. 3/13/12

          The death of Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5 brought reflections on the reconciliations he advanced in South Africa and on continents far away from Robben Island.

           Without taking away anything from the transformations Mandela achieved, for their own well-being, Americans must ask:

 -Will the century-long trauma of Apartheid take at least as long to heal truly?

 -If so, what are Apartheid’s long-term effects, and how long is ‘long-term’?

 -What does experience tell us about reconciliations of peoples who’ve suffered great hurts through war or genocide?

           For America, the Civil War was our greatest trauma.  On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, as I wrote a couple of years ago.  The Civil War, I’ve speculated, reverberated for 100 years in the lives of the men who fought it and their children.  And still the differences between the new Solid South and the rest of the country put America at some distance from reconciliation.

          Yesterday I read an interesting academic study that confirms my hunch. 


          ‘Within U.S. Trade, and the Long Shadow of the American Secession’ is by two scholars at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, Gabriel Felbermayr and Jasmin Groschl[1] asks:

But does the long defunct border between the [Confederacy] and the Union still affect economic relations between U.S. states that belonged to different alliances today?  Is the former border still relevant, still divisive, for economic transactions?[2]

 Their analysis indicates, yes.


           Contemporary state-level data show the ‘North-South divide’ quite clearly, both economically and culturally.[3]  Felbermayr & Groschl’s discovery of a ‘Secession effect’ is not surprising, though its dimensions are:

[W]e find a robust, statistically significant, and economically meaningful trade-inhibiting effect of the former border.  …[On] average, the historical border reduces trade … by about 13% to 14%.  In comparison, the Canada–U.S. border restricts trade by 155% to 165% [citations omitted].  …[The] former border between East and West Germany restricts trade by about 26% to 30% in 2004.[4]

 Hence, ‘…historical events have shaped cultural determinants of trade which still matter today.’[5] 

 Our results show that the United States is not a single market, even 150 years after the Civil War. The historical conflict still is divisive today.[6]

 As they later say, ‘…the former border reflects a cultural divide.’[7]


           Cultural divides, Felbermayr & Groschl insist, cannot be wished away:

This is an important lesson for the European integration process, which is more complex [than the post-Civil War reconciliation] due to the lack of a common language, a common legal/judicial system, common regulatory framework, and—most important in our context—the fact that the last huge conflict is not 150 but only 67 years away.[8]

 As for the US:

From a welfare perspective, …it could be that the Secession has had lasting effects on trade costs.  By shaping the distribution of (railway) infrastructure or business networks (production clusters), and more generally, by affecting bilateral trust, South–North trade frictions are still higher than intra-group frictions.  …[It] signals a long-lasting welfare loss due to the Secession.[9]

          Later, Felbermayr & Groschl note: ‘One may conjecture that the Secession has continuing negative effects on the level of trust between market participants.’[10]  Still later,

…one cannot conclude that the Secession has caused the observed border effect in [contemporary] trade data.  Including historical variables that relate to the deep reasons for the Civil War goes some way in dealing with reverse causation.[11]


           ‘Reverse causation … means that the effect has preceded the cause.’  So here, the Secession Effect would have preceded Secession, as it did.

           Why lies in the origins of the lack of trust between cross-Secession border market participants.  The first sentence of Article I section 2.3 of the US Constitution (1787) makes them plain:

[Members of the House of] Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States…, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons.

           In a fascinating article, Albany Law School Professor Paul Finkelman explains the ‘Three-Fifths Clause: Why Its Taint Persists’.  The clause was the price slave holders extracted for agreeing to the new Constitution.

           At once the ‘Three-fifths clause’ enshrined racial inequality and gave the South disproportionate power.  Slaves had no say in the new government, but they counted in determining who did have a say.  The number of Representatives of the almost entirely free populations in the North were balanced out by the inflated number in the South.

           Add to that another great Constitutional compromise, on the equal representation of states in the Senate, and the South’s control over the national political process was nearly complete.  Hence, the signposts marking the highway to civil war:  the Compromise of 1820, the declaration of war on Mexico, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act….

           The forty-year struggle over whether to admit more slave states was not just about the legislative branch.  Since the number of electors each state has in the Electoral College depends on its number of Representatives, the South dominated the Presidency from Jefferson until Lincoln.


           Leaving aside the moral issue of slavery (which Prof. Finkelman does not), the lack of trust created by the Constitution’s structural imbalance of power must have produced the Secession Border Effect long before South Carolinians began bombarding Ft. Sumter 152 years ago.

          Through the end of their war to preserve the right to enslave, the South spoke in terms of its ‘peculiar institution’.  The term is apt and accurate.

           The South’s ‘peculiar institution’ wasn’t merely one man’s right to own other humans.  It was a complex, opaque culture with rules and standards which Northeners could not accept when they could understand them.

           For instance, a Southerner slandered by a social inferior could attack him and even kill him.  So on May 22, 1856, two South Carolina Representatives found US Senator Charles Sumner at work at his desk on the Senate floor.  After saying two sentences to Sumner, Preston Brooks struck Sumner’s head with a cane and kept beating him until he was all but dead.  Brooks accomplice, Laurence Keitt, held off rescuers with his pistol.[12]

           Brooks became a hero across the South.  In the North, the poet and journalist

William Cullen Bryant of the New York Evening Post, asked, “Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters?…  Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?”[13]


           ‘It is no wonder’, Prof. Finkelman writes, ‘that the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison considered the Constitution “a covenant with death, and an agreement in Hell.”’  Garrison used those words at an anti-slavery rally on July 4, 1854, just before he put a match to a copy of the Constitution.  As it burnt, he ‘cried out: “So perish all compromises with tyranny!”

           Felbermayr & Groschl’s Secession Effect has a history as long as our Constitution’s, at the least.  The struggles between the Confederate states and the Union states that have continued since Appomattox have hardly wiped away the distrust of the Antebellum years.  It is only remarkable the effect is a small as it is.

           How Americans might realise the vision of Nelson Mandela, I don’t know.  It is so comfortable to persist in the pursuit of power, of dominance, and in the delusion of racial superiority.



          H/T:  Andrew O’Connell, an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group and the author of Stats and Curiosities from Harvard Business Review, contributes to the invaluable HBR Blog Network where he called my attention to this important article.

           1.    Their article appears in the Western Economic Association International’s refereed journal, Economic Inquiry, for January 2014.  The authors’ first language evidently is not English.  Though they write quite serviceably, they make some incorrect word choices, as in ‘contemporaneous’ for ‘contemporary’, ‘Confederation’ for ‘Confederacy’.  In quotations, I have left their choices in place except where it affects their point.  (Here, I make the ritual lament about the disappearance of editors.)  I must also note that I lack the training to understand their statistical analysis which comprises half the paper.  I have dealt only with their prose.

           2.  Gabriel Felbermayr & Jasmin Groschl, ‘Within U.S. Trade, and the Long Shadow of the American Secession’, 52 Economic Inquiry 382 (2014) § I.  As this paper is 22 pages long in the journal and is not paginated on the web, for ease of checking sources, I will refer to its sections in these notes.

           3.  Id.

          4.  Id.  See also § III.A.

          5.  Id.

           6.  Id.

           7.  Id., § III.D.

           8.  Id., § I.

           9.  Id.

           10.  Id., § III.D.

           11.  Id., § V.B.

           12.  David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner [1960], vol. I (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1996), pp. 288ff.  This is one of the great American biographies.  The Wikipedia entry, ‘Charles Sumner’, is quite good.

           13. Wikipedia entry, ‘Charles Sumner’, quoting William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856, (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 359.

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Category: American Character, American Civil War, Community & Society, Economics, Ethics & Morality, History Lessons - Economic, slavery, Social Change, South Carolina, The South, Transportation, US History

1 December, 2013

Cassandra on Civil Liberties in the Age of Terrorist Scares

By Peter Kinder


Chicago, IL:  Lake Michigan 5/18/13

Chicago, IL: Lake Michigan 5/18/13

          A civil liberties lawyers is a Cassandra.  Unlike Chicken Little, though, the Trojan prophet’s sky did fall.

           Harvey Silverglate, has served in this role for almost half a century.  The title of his latest book, Three Felonies a Day:  How the Feds Target the Innocent asserts that the Department of Justice has refined the ancient prosecutorial rationale, ‘If we hang ‘em all, we’ll get the guilty.’

           For ‘guilt’ in any sense understandable by an ordinary person – or even a lawyer – has little to do with today’s signature prosecutions.

           In a Nov. 27 Boston Globe op-ed, ‘Terrorisim ruling assaults civil liberties’, Silverglate and his paralegal, Juliana DeVries, describe why pharmacology student Tarek Mehanna, an American living in Sudbury, Mass., will exist for the next 17 years in a Supermax prison with the likes of Whitey Bulger.

           In 2009, at age 27, Mehanna was charged with providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. Here is essentially what he did:  He translated publicly available Arabic texts, including some Al Qaeda materials, into English. He e-mailed friends, downloaded videos, and posted documents online, at times indicating his support for the organization. He bought a round trip ticket to Yemen and traveled there in 2004 on what he characterized as a scholar’s journey.

           Prosecutors argued Mehanna flew to Yemen to find and join a terrorist training camp in order to fight against the United States on behalf of the Iraqis. Mehanna’s attorneys argued that the government targeted him as retaliation for his refusal to become an FBI informant (an offer Mehanna’s former friends and cohorts, turned into prosecution witnesses, found too enticing to decline and who indulged prosecutors with stories of Mehanna’s harsh rhetoric, although no terrorist actions). Regardless of whether Mehanna intended to enroll in a terrorist camp, he failed to find any such facility and returned home to Massachusetts.

           Mehanna wasn’t accused of abetting, much less committing, terrorist acts.  So what violated law earned him 23-hours-a-day for 17 years in a cell the size of a closet?  Silverglate & DeVries continue:

The courts did so by broadly interpreting a recent Supreme Court decision that allows federal prosecutors to bring charges for a wide range of expressive activities that supposedly constitute “material support” to terrorists.

           [T]he Supreme Court … made the Mehanna verdict possible with its 2010 opinion in Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder. The Humanitarian Law Project (HLP), a human rights and peace group, wanted to teach techniques of peaceful dispute resolution to the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey and northern Iraq, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla group in Sri Lanka. The State Department has identified both as terrorist organizations.

           The high court ruled that it would constitute criminal material support for any person to use any skill in coordination with any group designated “terrorist” by the government. Thus, a lawyer could be criminally prosecuted for filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting such a group.

           Hence the witting co-operation of the Federal Courts in facilitating the contemporary version of the ‘Red Scares’ of the 1890s-1910s made Mehanna’s trial a show.  The jury got instructions that made the verdict inevitable.

           The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed.  Writing for the court was Judge Bruce M. Selya, a Reagan appointee, who in 2008 Chief Justice Roberts appointed Chief Judge of United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review on which he’d served since 2005.  That court’s defense of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment has not been notable.

           Remember: Mehanna didn’t do anything.  Nonetheless, Judge Selya’s opinion begins:

           Terrorism is the modern-day equivalent of the bubonic plague: it is an existential threat.  Predictably, then, the government’s efforts to combat terrorism through the enforcement of the criminal laws will be fierce.  Sometimes, those efforts require a court to patrol the fine line between vital national security concerns and forbidden encroachments on constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and association. This is such a case.

          ‘Material support’ cases aren’t limited to Massachusetts Federal courts.  Jeanne Theoharis reported in The Nation for Nov. 25, 2013, on Fahad Hashmi who spent three years in pre-trial solitary confinement and, after pleading guilty, three more (of fifteen imposed) in the ‘Supermax’ in Florence, Colorado.

Fahad had been charged with providing material support for terrorism after he let a friend use his cellphone and stay in his London apartment with luggage containing raincoats, ponchos and socks that the friend later took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.

           A Cassandra of the Red Scares a hundred years ago, Clarence Darrow, wrote in The Story of My Life (1932):

Men have built faith from hopes. They have struggled and fought in despair. They have frantically clung to life because of the will to live. The best that we can do is to be kindly and helpful toward our friends and fellow passengers who are clinging to the same speck of dirt while we are drifting side by side to our common doom.[1]

 Reading about Mehanna and Hashmi, I find it difficult to be any more optimistic than Darrow in his last years.

           It is to Harvey Silverglate’s credit that he soldiers on in our behalf.



           1.  Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life [1996] (Scribner’s, 1932), p. 423.

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Category: Clarence Darrow, Community & Society, Crime - Organized & Not, Future, US Criminal Law, US Department of Justice, US Politics, War on Terror

25 November, 2013

Gauging the Great Recession’s Effects on Households and Charity

By Peter Kinder


Pownal, VT:  Abandoned Barn 11/25/13

Pownal, VT: Abandoned Barn 11/25/13

          Sometimes numbers just don’t make the impact they should when first encountered.  I reread some this morning that snap an unforgettable shot of the Great Recession and its aftermath.


           Last March, the Boston Foundation published an interesting paper, The Transfer of Wealth in Greater Boston:  The Toll of the Recession and Prospects for the Future which was based on research by John J. Havens and Paul G. Schervish of The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College.

           The paper focused on the prospects for charitable giving through 2061, when the last Baby Boomers reach age 100.  One of the oldest and largest community foundations in the US, the Boston Foundation commissioned the study to identify how and in what amounts money will come to philanthropies over the long term.

           As a preface, the report describes the Great Recession’s effects in Greater Boston on ‘household net worth … the market value of all assets owned by members of a household minus all debt.’[1]  These are the numbers that disturbed me:

Ninety-one percent of households in Greater Boston saw their net worth decline between 2007 and 2009. The hardest hit were the 41 percent of households with a net worth of less than $100,000 (including those with zero or negative net worth), according to calculations based on data from the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These almost 700,000 households had $14.2 billion in aggregate wealth in 2007, but it plummeted more than 76 percent to just $3.3 billion by 2009. These families were heavily leveraged, and while the value of their assets plunged, their debt did not.  As a result, Boston area households with zero or negative net worth swelled by 48 percent— from 165,236 in 2007 to 244,043 in 2010. Nationally, the number grew from 12.1 million to 17.1 million, or 41 percent….[2]

 For six hours, I haven’t been able to get those numbers out of my head.

           Yes, the numbers would be more real had the households with zero or negative net worth in 2007 been treated separately.  Nonetheless, the effects on those striving upwards can only be described as catastrophic.

           And, they will rebound less buoyantly, more painfully than the stock market has.  ‘These families were heavily leveraged, and while the value of their assets plunged, their debt did not.’


           Of course, households with net worth of less than $100,000 weren’t alone in their losses.

[The] 14 percent of Greater Boston households worth $1 million or more (238,887 households) lost only about 15.9 percent of their wealth from 2007-09. However, the average loss per household for this group was substantial at $689,000, and in the aggregate, these millionaire households lost more than $164 billion. Indeed, the number of millionaire households fell 24 percent from 238,887 in 2007 to 182,064 in 2009, to recover 10 percent to 200,896 in 2010.[3]

 Again, one might quibble with the choice of an average loss rather than a median, given the unlimited upper range of the over $1m households.  That range makes the stated loss almost unmeaningful.

           Still, the rapid recovery in the numbers of over $1m households is meaningful.  So were the disparate effects of the distribution of pain by age.

Wealth distribution in the Greater Boston area is weighted toward older households. This is partly because these families have had more years in which to build wealth, but also because young people were particularly hard hit by the Great Recession. In 2009, for example, the average wealth per household fell 45 percent among households headed by people 30 or younger compared to a decline of 14 percent in families headed by someone 80 or older. The more than 500,000 households headed by people under 40 often have significant debt in the form of car loans, student loans, and/or home mortgages.[4]


           For philanthropies – the potential recipients of up to 40 percent of wealth to be transferred between generations — the demographics and statistics are not so grim, though not as giddy as they were before 2007.  The Boston Foundation projects potential charitable giving from Greater Boston households to range from $178.8 billion and $240.4 billion between 2007 and 2026.[5]

As impressive as these numbers sound, they would have been 11 to 15 percent higher … in the short term [through 2026] … if the Great Recession had not occurred.[6]


           What should those numbers mean to us?

           First, they suggest in the starkest manner the impact of the Great Recession.  And, considering how long it takes for households under $100,000 to rebuild wealth in the best of circumstances, the Recession’s effects will be felt for a long time.

           Second, organised philanthropies in Greater Boston should be directing giving toward rebuilding the health and wealth of the under $100,000 households.  Not in 80 years has it been so critical for charities and donors alike to focus on the local multiplier effect potential of their grants.

           When Boston’s greatest charity, Harvard University with a $30.6 billion endowment[7], launches a $6.5 billion fundraiser but says nothing in its objectives about the local economy and its employees, something is very wrong.  That’s what these numbers say.           



N.B.: The author is a member of the boards of some charities, including the Vermont Community Foundation.  However, the views expressed here are his and must not be taken as those of any institution whom he serves.

           1.  Boston Foundation, The Transfer of Wealth in Greater Boston:  The Toll of the Recession and Prospects for the Future (March 2013) based on research by John J. Havens and Paul G. Schervish of The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, p. 7.  H/T: Beth Healy, ‘Boston’s rich expected to donate large sums’, Boston Globe, Mar. 5, 2013, p. B5.  Print headline read: ‘Donations to charity expected to grow’.

          2.  Id.  All dollar figures are stated in constant 2007 dollars.

          3.  Id.

           4.  Id., p. 8.

           5.  Id., p. 9.  The difference depends largely on the rate of growth in GDP which the report acknowledges to be the single biggest driver in the growth of charitable giving.

           6.  Id., p. 6.

           7.  Endowments are useful as gauges of relative worth amongst large institutions.  However when dealing with large educational institutions, they bear no demonstrated relationship with actual net worth (for which in most instances data don’t exist and when they do, aren’t necessarily comparable).  For instance, the value of Harvard’s intellectual property rights – from patents to logos – or its real property holdings show up in the ‘endowment’.

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Category: Boston, Mass., Community & Society, Education, Ethics & Morality, Families, Financial Crisis (2007-09), Future, Harvard University, Massachusetts, Modern Life, Recession (2008), Social Change

22 November, 2013

Woodrow Wilson’s Tragedy: Thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Death

By Peter Kinder


Somerville, MA:  Somerville High School  11/20/13

Somerville, MA: Somerville High School 11/20/13

           I started this post on Wednesday, a brilliant late fall day just as Nov. 22, 1963, was in southern New England.  Like everyone else alive that day, I recall precisely when at school I heard the news, what I did for the next hours.

           The tragedy we understood immediately.  Or, we thought we did.

           We didn’t foresee how it could be magnified by conspiracy theories, fervently advanced and logical to the tiniest detail.  Nor did we understand how the murder in Dallas would begin our evolution into a national security state with leaders cocooned and cosseted, their constituents penned and filmed.  Even in Brookline, the most liberal city in Massachusetts, cameras track every move in Coolidge Corner.


          Another progressive democrat suffered a tragedy that had long-lasting, perhaps ever-lasting effects on the country.  It was of a very different kind from that took away the embattled adonis, John F. Kennedy, or the successful architect of America’s first imperial wars, William McKinley.

          It came to mind as I mined Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen Twenties (1931)[1], among the very best popular histories ever written, for a quotation from Warren Harding for my last post.  I found myself, instead, engrossed in Woodrow Wilson’s desperate effort to gain approval for the League of Nations.

          Then, distracted by an email, I saw Politico’s summary of Bobby Baker’s oral history project in which he evens some scores in games long over, if not forgotten.

          Baker was Lyndon Johnson’s political Mr. Fixit in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Few were the grandees who lacked vices to which Baker didn’t cater or pander.  President Kennedy, for instance, received White House visits from a gorgeous German who was, shortly thereafter, deported on suspicions of spying for the East Germans.

          The more I look at presidents Wilson and Kennedy, the less I find to admire in them.  It does not diminish or cheapen their tragedies nor does it mitigate their consequences.

           Awful things happen to nasty people with terrible consequences for their countries, as they did to King Lear….


           Wilson’s debacle was less Shakespearian than Jamesian.  Like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Woodrow Wilson went to Europe – the first president to leave the country whilst in office – naively confident that his intelligence and the virtue of his views.

          In January 1918, nine months after the US entered World War I and fourteen months after narrowly winning re-election because ‘He Kept Us Out of War’, Wilson had announced his goals for a just peace into The Fourteen Points (devised with advice from 150 American boffins).

          Now in December 1918, a month after the Armistice ended fighting, he’d embarked for the Paris peace conference to make certain it not only ended World War I but produced a lasting peace.


          Wilson’s near total failure in Paris John Maynard Keynes described unforgettably in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920).

The first glance at the President suggested … that he had not much even of that culture of the world which marks M. Clemenceau and Mr. Balfour…. But more serious than this, he was not only insensitive to his surroundings in the external sense, he was not sensitive to his environment at all.[2]

The Old World was tough in wickedness anyhow; the Old World’s heart of stone might blunt the sharpest blade of the bravest knight-errant. But this blind and deaf Don Quixote was entering a cavern where the swift and glittering blade was in the hands of the adversary.[3]

It was commonly believed at the commencement of the Paris Conference that the President had thought out, with the aid of a large body of advisers, a comprehensive scheme not only for the League of Nations, but for the embodiment of the Fourteen Points in an actual Treaty of Peace. But in fact the President had thought out nothing….  He had no plan, no scheme, no constructive idea whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House.[4]

Thus day after day and week after week he allowed himself to be closeted, unsupported, unadvised, and alone, with men much sharper than himself, in situations of supreme difficulty, where he needed for success every description of resource, fertility, and knowledge. He allowed himself to be drugged by their atmosphere, to discuss on the basis of their plans and of their data, and to be led along their paths.[5]

           After seven grinding, soul-destroying months, Wilson returned to Washington in June 1919, the Versailles Peace Treaty in hand, to find he lacked the votes in the Senate to ratify it.

          With this long prologue, I turn the story of Wilson’s tragedy over to Frederick Lewis Allen and Only Yesterday.  Many have repeated it, but none as tellingly and hauntingly as Allen. 


          Wilson had not discerned that the Armistice had changed everything:

The tide of events, had Wilson but known it, was turning against him. Human nature, the world over, was beginning to show a new side, as it has shown it at the end of every war in history. The compulsion for unity was gone, and division was taking its place. The compulsion for idealism was gone, and realism was in the ascendant.[6]

          Bested in Paris, Wilson faced an awful choice:

          Could he come home to the Senate and the American people and say, in effect: “This Treaty is a pretty bad one in some respects.  …[But] under the circumstances this is about the best we could do and I think the League will make up for the rest”? He could not; he had committed himself to each and every clause….  The drift of events had caught him in a predicament from which there seemed to be but one outlet of escape.  He must go home and vow … that every vital decision had been based on the Fourteen Points, that Clemenceau and Orlando and Lloyd George and the rest had been animated by an overpowering love for humanity, and that the salvation of the world depended on the complete acceptance of the Treaty as the charter of a new and idyllic world order.

          That is what he did; and because the things he said about the Treaty were not true, and he must have known–sometimes, at least–that they were not, the story of Woodrow Wilson from this point on is sheer tragedy. He fell into the pit which is dug for every idealist. Having failed to embody his ideal in fact, he distorted the fact….  He said that if the United States did not come to the aid of mankind by endorsing all that had been done at Paris, the heart of the world would be broken. But the only heart which was broken was his own.[7]


          By late summer 1919, Wilson had recognised the futility of pressing the Senate for ratification.  Though he was exhausted and ill, ‘Woodrow Wilson decided to play his last desperate card. He would go to the people.  He would win them to his cause….’[8]

And so, despite all that those about him could say, he left Washington on September 3rd to undergo the even greater strain of a speaking trip–the preparation and delivery of one or even two speeches a day in huge sweltering auditoriums (and without amplifiers to ease the strain on his voice); the automobile processions through city after city (during which he had to stand up in his car and continuously wave his hat to the crowds); the swarms of reporters, the hand-shaking, the glare of publicity, and the restless sleep of one who travels night in and night out on a swaying train.

Again and again on that long trip of his, Woodrow Wilson painted the picture of the Treaty and the League that lived in his own mind, a picture which bore fainter and fainter resemblance to the reality….  He represented America, and indeed every other country, as thrilling to a new ideal….  Every one of those forty speeches was different from every other, and each was perfectly ordered, beautifully phrased, and thrilling with passion….  Yet each pictured a dream world and a dream Treaty, and instinctively the country knew it. (Perhaps, indeed, there were moments of terrible sanity when, as the President lay sleepless in his private car, he himself knew how far from the truth he had departed.) The expected surge of public opinion toward Wilson’s cause failed to materialize….  On September 24th, the first test vote [in the Senate] went against the President 43 to 40.

On the night of the next day Wilson came to the end of his strength….  After his long speech at Pueblo on the evening of September 25th he could not sleep at all. The train was stopped and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson took a walk together on a country road. When he returned to the train he was feverish….  The next morning when he tried to get up he could hardly stand. The train hurried on toward Washington and all future speaking engagements were canceled. Back to the White House the sick man went. A few days later a cerebral thrombosis partially paralyzed his left side. Another act of the tragedy had come to an end. He had given all he had to the cause, and it had not been enough.[9]


          Worse was yet to come, both for the country and its president.

For weeks Woodrow Wilson lay seriously ill, sometimes unable even to sign documents….  He could not sit up in a chair for over a month, or venture out for a ride in the White House automobile for five months.  During all the rest of his term–which lasted until March 4, 1921, seventeen months after his breakdown–he remained … a sick man lying in bed or sitting in an invalid’s chair, his left side and left leg and left arm partially paralyzed….  He saw almost nobody, transacted only the most imperative business of his office.  The only way of communicating with him was by letter, and as during most of this time all letters must pass through the hands of … the circle of attendants upon the invalid, and few were answered, there was often no way of knowing who was responsible for a failure to answer them or to act in accordance with the suggestions embodied in them.  Sometimes, in fact, it was suspected that it was Mrs. Wilson who was responsible for many a White House decision–that the country was in effect being governed by a regency.[10]


          How different might the country have been had he really ‘kept us out of war’, had he put the peace conference in the hands of experienced diplomats, had he stayed home and managed expectations and politics, not even a genius of the counter-factual could imagine.

          As I wrote the other day, no administration marked more tumultuous times than Woodrow Wilson’s second (1917-21).  Besides World War I and the Versailles Treaty ratification battle, there were:  Prohibition’s start; the influenza pandemic; the Red Scare and dragnet; women voting in federal elections for the first time; a severe post-war recession….  Yet of its 48 months, Wilson was absent or incapacitated for 24.

          Stifled in the vacuum of the president’s deceit, delusion and despair, Wilson’s second term ended the Progressive Era.  This tragic twining of Isabel Archer and King Lear faded away as the country roared in its normalcy.  Few missed him.



          1.  Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday [1931] as reproduced in Only Yesterday & Since Yesterday (New York:  Bonanza Books, 1986).  This is a photo reproduction of the original volume.  The unpaginated text is available at Project Gutenberg Australia.  I am reproducing Allen because he is such a good writer and he makes the story so affecting.  For a superb, very readable, scholarly treatment of Wilson, get my friend, John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

          2. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace [1919] in The End of Laissez-Faire & The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), p. 86.

          3.  Id. p. 83.

          4.  Id., pp. 87-88

          5.  Id., p. 90.

          6.  Allen, op. cit., p. 25.

          7.  Id., pp. 27-28.  Links added.

          8.  Id., p. 32.

          9.  Id., pp. 32-34.

          10.  Id., pp. 34-35.

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Category: American Character, Community & Society, Cross-Cultural Exchange, Ethics & Morality, John Maynard Keynes, Kennedys, Peace & War, Progressive Era, Sixties History, US Politics, WWI