The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: September 2020 Page 1 of 4

“FDR” by Jean Edward Smith

I picked this book up years ago. This week I finally read it, intending it as a palate cleanser for modern politics in general and Trump in particular.

I’ve read a few books on FDR (the best short one is “That Man” by Robert Jackson (who knew FDR well.))

This one’s thick, but middling length considering how much one could write about FDR.

 The book reads a little dry, but has information I haven’t found in other biographies, or perhaps just a different emphasis. Smith seems very concerned with how FDR became who he was, and how he actually operated, both before the and during the presidency.

More than that, he actually spends a fair bit of time sketching out his parents, grandparents and family in general. His first two names “Franklin Delano,” for example, are actually from his maternal family, the Delanos, not from the Roosevelts. Moreover, it was a break in Roosevelt tradition to name FDR that, which is one of your first hints that Sara Roosevelt, his mother, was a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, while there are a lot of people whom FDR wouldn’t have been president without, Sara’s the most important of the lot, and not just because she was his most important financial backer through much of his life.

Sara’s father, Warren Delano, earned two fortunes in his life, both in China. After he earned his first fortune he returned to America, invested heavily, then lost it all in one of the routine panics of the late 19th century. So he went back to China in his 50s and earned a second fortune selling opium,which he admitted was wrong, but felt was no worse than selling booze. Later in life, FDR was to say that one reason he refused to have good relations with Japan was because of this history; his family felt kindly towards the Chinese and wanted the best for them.

Sara raised FDR with almost absolute approval. He was a mama’s boy, thru and thru, though he spent a lot of time with his father (about 30 years older than his mother) learning the approved skills of the gentleman farmer of his period, and, perhaps most importantly, learning to sail. His father died when he was young, and he was devastated as his father had been his primary play companion, in effect.

As a teen he went to the Groton private school, run by one of those stern progressive clergymen that are so important to the first 250 years of American history. He fit in perfectly, had no problems at all (never a sure thing in boarding school, as I can attest), but as he was short as a teenager, did not do well at the sort of sports which Groton pushed so hard. (A real man, in 19th and early 20th century terms was absolutely an athlete, and Groton particularly liked American football.)

Groton taught noblesse oblige and progressive ideals: one was here on Earth to care for one’s fellow men and women and FDR himself said that Groton set him on the path that lead to him being the sort of President he was: one who tried to look after the American people. Groton’s headmaster, Endicott Peabody swore in FDR in when he became President.

After Groton it was off to Harvard. FDR, like those of his class at the time, lived off campus. He was an indifferent student, but worked assiduously at the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, which he was elected to run in his final year. Smith notes that he avoided all theoretical classes like philosophy and that thru his life had a very practical mind, unsuited to categorical and theoretical thought.

After Harvard FDR bummed around. Oh he worked as a lawyer for a time, went to Europe, and so on (he had been to Europe with his mother in his childhood) and so on, but he seems to have taken none of it seriously. As early as 1907 he had decided to go into politics and had even sketched out to friends at his law firm how he would do it: first get elected to New York’s congress, then become New York’s Governor (New York having the most delegates back then), then the Presidency.

This is exactly how he wound up doing it.

He married Eleanor. The relationship was close at first (though, as usual with Victorian upper class women, Eleanor came to marriage with no idea about either sex or how to raise children), but in its later years the marriage became a functional one only. This was primarily FDR’s fault, when in DC working as assistant naval secretary under Woodrow Wilson, he had an affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford. The Roosevelt marriage at that time was sexless (after six children, Eleanor didn’t want to have more, and FDR had wanted six kids, so that seems to have been the goal) and Lucy was, by all accounts, a very open and lovely young women and far closer to FDR in temperament than Eleanor (FDR’s kids loved her.)

Eleanor found out when FDR returned from Europe sick and had to be carried off his liner. Emptying his trunk at home she found the love letters between Lucy and FDR, and there was a confrontation. FDR’s mother, Sara, said she would cut FDR off if he divorced, and Lucy went away, but biographers seem sure that the love between the two was real.

FDR and Eleanor did not really reconcile. From that point on they supported each other, but were not very affectionate. In the White House Smith reports that Eleanor was only seen with FDR when she wanted something from him for one of her various projects (all good work supporting people who needed that support.) She did her duty as wife, including running the White House (and hired a terrible cook based on loyalty, not skill), but they never pretended to be close after the Lucy affair.

Eleanor would have a big tea party every day, with her progressive friends, while FDR would have cocktails (which he mixed) with his friends in the evening. Eleanor didn’t approve and never joined in (she probably wasn’t invited).

So the marriage, while loving at first, didn’t stay that way, but the partnership did, though it was often troubled.

FDR was a talented politician from the start. He first won office taking on a Republican in a Republican rural district the Democrats hadn’t won in ages by renting a car and criss-crossing the district talking to everyone he could find. Even then people noted that he could talk to anyone: could make almost everyone like him, perhaps because he genuinely enjoyed talking to them.

FDR had, throughout his life, a sort of imperturbable belief in himself. A calmness and sureness. He wasn’t scared of failure (and he did fail sometimes), but felt sure he would eventually succeed. He was utterly calm in crisis, even when someone tried to kill him just before his presidency, and he was able to pass much of that confidence to others.

More than that, it was a warm cheerful confidence. Fundamentally calm and optimistic, FDR would imbue those around him with this confidence. As a result of this, and a great deal of personal loyalty, over the years FDR created a circle of friends who also worked for or with him. He brought them into his family, and some of theme even often lived with him for years, like Louis Howe, his primary political operative.

This isn’t to say FDR was a Saint. He could make cruel jokes about people he didn’t like (General Marshall, of the Marshall plan swore to never laugh at one of these cruel jokes), he drank a great deal and his youth he was definitely a prig, who, while he theoretically believed in helping those poorer than him had no real understanding of them.

He opposed Democratic “Bossism” and Tammany Hall in the early years. Indeed he opposed them when first elected and his opposition was his first leap to fame, but in so doing he ignored things like terrible worker conditions and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Frances Perkins, who was to later become his Labor Secretary, and a very loyal member of his “family” at first despised him because of this.

And it is this which makes Smith’s book interesting to me, more than anything else. Smith spends a lot of time on what made FDR who he was: the man and president who pursued policies meant to help so many.

First there was his mother giving him such self confidence thru her absolute regard and constant attention to him. Then there was Groton. But even so, young adult FDR, though personally charming is rather an ass, politically (also anti-Irish, very common at the time in his class.)

This starts changing mostly after his New York Congressional career. FDR gets an appointment to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy (there is only one at the time, so it’s a very important position, or would be if the navy was important, which it wasn’t before WWI.)

Louie Howe, his political operative goes with him. Louie had actually entirely run FDR’s second New York campaign, because FDR was sick. FDR did essentially nothing and Louie won it for him by sending out early targeted letters to the district, doing things like promising farmers that he’d be in charge of agriculture and standardize apple barrel sizes. Louie knew exactly what each constituency wanted, and he was never a yes man, but told FDR exactly what he thought.

So, back in DC as Navy Secretary, one of the things that Howe insists on is that FDR deal with labor problems himself. When the  unions complain about something, FDR goes to where the problem is, and talks to the people who are upset directly, bypassing everyone in between. FDR, who as we know, just loves talking to people, gets to know the workers and the union bosses and his period at the navy has almost no labor strife.

More importantly, he learns to know and understand a class of workers he would, essentially, have never had anything to do with before.

He also learns how to deal with people in the opposite direction: Congressmen and the other members of Wilson’s administration. Again, after some initial missteps, he becomes extremely savvy. He understands what they want, and he gives it to them. He becomes an expert at the crony politics of the time. If a Senator wants something from the Navy, and he can reasonably be given it, he gets it (this was normal for the time.) He talks to them, and comes to appreciate their concerns and the pressures they are under. He knows what they want and need.

This, as you’d expect, becomes especially important when he’s President, where he’s usually able to get his way thru careful schmoozing.

The thing is FDR loves this sort of politics. He’s not just good at it, it’s fun to him.

But more than that, FDR seems develop a genuine sympathy for almost everyone he meets. He feels for the workers, he feels for the Senators, he likes them. It’s genuine. They feel that in return.

And this is part of the secret of his success: FDR likes people, likes talking to them, cares about them. They have his sympathy.

So the Navy teaches FDR about how DC works and about the lives and cares of workers and unions.

After WWI FDR runs for vice-president in 1920, and loses, which he had expected, but this gives him and Howe experience nationally and allows them to meet important Democratic politicians all around the country (not easy in an America before commercial airlines.)

He makes up with Tammany hall and drops his anti-bossism. The fact is that Murphy, the leader of Tammany Hall, has beaten him multiple times, and without Tammany support, he isn’t going to be President.

We’ll fast forward a bit, but the next really important bit is when he gets polio. FDR had been incredibly robust, with amazing amounts of energy, and very attractive, something both men and women mention repeatedly.

Then he spends months in bed running a fever, his legs not responding, unable to care for himself at all.  It takes years to regain even a limited ability to walk, and to the end of his life, FDR cannot walk and look normal without someone by his side, because he has lost control of his hips. While can maneuver by himself, to do so without someone else as an anchor means a very awkward, hip-swaying movement, politically impossible.

Most biographers put Franklin’s maturation into FDR at this point: his change from essentially selfish to someone who cares for others, especially those who are afflicted in some way. Smith thinks the affair with Lucy was also a turning point, that it gave him depth he had not had before, but she, like others, feels polio was important.

FDR’s never been helpless for long periods before (a few illnesses). He’s never had to rely entirely on other people to do everything. He himself, later, when asked why he is so patient and unruffled said that when you’re a cripple and you ask for a glass of orange juice and someone brings you milk, you drink it.

On top of this, recovery is incredibly painful. The physical therapy hurts, and most patients can’t take it more than a few days a week, but FDR does it every day.

He becomes convinced that hot springs help and sets up a spa called “Warm Springs” in Georgia for those with polio. They charge, but if patients can’t afford to pay, they are helped anyway. At first there is money from donors to pay for the moneyless, but when that runs out FDR has all such bills sent directly to him. Most of his fortune is spent on Warm Springs, and while it’s helpful to him, if it was just about him, none of this is necessary.

FDR sets up a car with manual controls while in Georgia and takes to driving around the state, and, you guessed it, talking to everyone he meets. He becomes so beloved that he wins Georgia every time when President, with margins like 16:1.

Meanwhile, Louis Howe keeps FDR’s presidential dreams alive, and FDR keeps his finger on the pulse of national and New York politics.

He goes back to New York and wins election as New York governor. When the Great Depression hits, FDR is the first governor to take it seriously and start mobilizing widespread relief. He has massive coat-tails and is able to turn New York’s congress Democratic.

This, you’ll note, is all according to the plan set out to friends in 1907: win a seat in New York’s Congress then become governor, then the presidency.

I won’t go into a great deal of detail on the Presidency and that campaign (perhaps another post, if people like this one), but there are a few things I want to note.

First: FDR changes the Democratic party from the party of business to a progressive party. People like Al Smith are mightily offended by this.

Second: FDR is progressive but not radical. The most hard-core progressives don’t like him. (For example, he could have nationalized the banks and chose not to.)

Third: FDR reaches out to Republicans (remember, back then they are the more progressive party), but freezes dead his internal Democratic enemies like Smith. They get nothing from him, often not even a nod. Once the party is his, he is ruthless in keeping it that way. On the other hand, Senators who work with him from across the aisle and are loyal are protected from Democratic challenges to the best of his ability.

Fourth: FDR’s governing philosophy is to try something to fix a problem, and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, try something else. By framing things this way, and by doing it, he gets intense amounts of support and room to operate. A program can fail, and it doesn’t hurt him much at all.

Fifth: FDR uses radio to cut past the gatekeepers. Every week he talks to ordinary Americans on the radio (his fireside chats) and honestly describes the situation, what he’s doing, and why. He speaks simply, but he doesn’t oversimplify. He does not talk down. This also leads to overwhelming support.

At any rate, “FDR” has indeed been a palate cleanser for me. To my mind, though he wasn’t perfect (who is?) FDR was the greatest president in America’s history (only Lincoln competes, but I give it to FDR.) And it’s really interesting how Franklin becomes FDR: the personality, the character, with all its flaws.

Another nice thing about this biography is how Gray makes time for all of the people around FDR, giving them mini bios. Eleanor receives a lot of copy, perhaps half as much as FDR, which is a great deal but there are bios of his secretaries like Missy LeHand (actually incredibly important as the gatekeeper), the main political operatives and even long time bodyguards and so on.

This gives one a feeling for the time, albeit for the privileged part of the time (and FDR was definitely born with a silver spoon in his mouth.)

If you’re interested in FDR, in the time, or in how America changed its politics in another time of crisis, this is a good book.

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Open Thread

Use this for off topic comments.

“Behave” By Robert Sapolsky

For much of last year my daily routine included sipping a drink and reading a book at a coffee shop in a big box bookstore.

I went thru a lot of books that way. A few standout, and Behave was the foremost among those.

When you’ve read a lot of books, you rarely read much that is new to you, but Behave told me things I didn’t know. Some were because when I learned biology and neuroscience, a lot wasn’t known. Some I’ve caught since then (brain cells do keep growing in adulthood, which the neuroscience of my childhood said was the not the case), but some I didn’t.

Behave is a genuinely comprehensive book. Too many books these days amount to magazine articles padded with another seventy thousand words, but Behave actually requires its length, so I’m going to pull out four piece of knowledge to share, but encourage you to read the book. (I have it on my “read again” list.)

The first is about the prefrontal cortex, and there’s a good chance that you know the prefrontal cortex is the part of the cerebral cortex (the outer skin of the brain which evolved last) we use to override decisions from the lizard and monkey parts of the brains.

The problem with cerebral cortex is general is that it’s slow: the lizard and mammalian parts operate faster. For the prefrontal cortex to override a decision made by the parts of the brain that are closer, as it were to the metal (run! fight! fuck!) you need to slow down. If you act instantly, it isn’t a judgment call, it’s your reflexes and conditioning working. That might be good, it might wind you up in a fight you can’t win or having sex with someone you’re going to hate after you spend two years with them.

The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish growing until you’re 25 or so, which is reflected in automobile actuarial tables, as it happens: younger than 25, more accidents. This doesn’t mean those younger than twenty-five have no self control, no ability override the older parts of the brain, instead younger brains use other regions, such as the ventral striatum to help the under-developed prefrontal cortex.

Still adolescent and childhood impulsiveness and difficulty with self-control is entirely real and based on brain development. It’s not that they (we) don’t want more control, especially more emotional regulation, they just don’t have it.

Anyway, if you want more control, slow down. Also, fairly standard Vipassana and Shamatha meditation will give you more control over time. A couple teachers I know have sped up their perceptions so much that they can decide whether or not react to a flinch reflex.

The first “holy shit” moment in the book, for me, was about testosterone. We have been propagandized to view testosterone as related to violence.


Oh, it can be. But what testosterone appears to actually be related to is status seeking. If violence and bullying is what a society rewards with status, then yup, testosterone is about violence.

But if hugging and caring for people will get you more status, suddenly high-T individuals are the biggest huggers and carers around.

Rather changes the question of what society types are viable, doesn’t it? Makes nonsense of the idea that society has to be nasty because people (high status men) are nasty.

And here’s the thing, in hunter-gatherer bands (note the word bands), the high status individuals are caring, wise and slow to anger. The high status caring men also spread their genes around plenty.

Then there was the simple revelation about Oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, which is supposed to make both men and women more caring and nurturing. (Insert picture of man cradling baby if this was a magazine.)

It does. It does!

Er, but there’s a thorn on this rose. What it actually does is increase tribal behaviour. You act better towards members of your tribe, your people and worse towards others, because it reduces your empathy to outsiders. Oxytocin, one imagines, along with baby hugging, probably has a role in genocides and not that the groups and people who commit violence to outsiders tend to have strong internal cohesion. (This clearly isn’t the only factor, but it is interesting and suggests that ideas involving increasing our Oxytocin won’t work to solve our larger problems.)

Finally, something which younger readers probably know: the effects of many genes are turned on and off by the environment.

This sure isn’t what I was taught in biology. Back then it was “genes are one thing, the environment is another.”

What’s even more lovely, if like me you had to sit thru hours of listening to Lamarck being castigated as a fool for saying that developed characteristics could be passed on to offspring “hahahaha, what a fool, and those Soviets are obviously ideological cretins for believing it, hahahaha!” — well, it turns out that genes being turned on and off can be passed on. And yeah, genes involved in building muscle are among that group, so Arnold Schwarznegger’s kids, if they lift, probably put on muscle easier than you do.

As Sapolsky notes, the question “nurture or nature?” in light of this, is very close to nonsense. The answer is “both”. For a lot of things you need both the genes and the environment. Saprorsky hammers relentlessly on this, one example is a genetic predisposition to less sensitive mothering that occurs only if the mother herself had an adverse childhood; another increases violence only when drunk.

On top of all that, the effects of most genetic determinants of behavior were small, even when activated by the environment.

These four points are only a small part of what Saporsky offers. There may be a more comprehensive, up to date book (if you think so, drop it in the comments), but this one is extraordinary. It’s not a fast read, it’s packed with information, and I think it really will require a re-read to digest properly, but I can recommend it whole-heartedly if the question “why do we behave how we do?” interests you at all.

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 27, 2020

by Tony Wikrent

Slouching toward denouement

Capitulation Will Not Halt Trump’s Coup
David Sirota, September 24, 2020

An important review of political events last week. Yoy may not agree with Sirota’s interpretation, but his analyses has proven correct repeatedly. Remember that Sirota accurately outlined the future course of American politics in his 2008 book, The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington.

After Democrats spent the weekend signaling surrender on the Supreme Court vacancy and suggesting they have no appetite to fight over the judiciary or threaten to expand the court, Trump on Wednesday declared that he may not agree to a peaceful transfer of power, and he openly admitted that he is trying to rush through a judicial nominee so that the court can give him a second term. He suggested that he will “get rid of the ballots” and “there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”

….Amid this onslaught, Democrats are behaving as if you can stop a coup merely by telling people to vote in an election where their ballots might get thrown out.  But the lesson here is the converse: Democrats’ culture of learned helplessness is no match for authoritarianism.

If opposition party [Democratic Party] lawmakers don’t stop imagining a return to normalcy and brunch — and if millions of Democratic voters don’t start immediately demanding that their party’s leaders begin fighting to stop Trump’s court pick right now — then whatever is left of American democracy is probably finished….

The Crescendo Of The GOP’s War On Democracy
What we see in this sequence of events is the simultaneous and horrifying culmination of the different kinds of “by any means necessary” pathologies that define each party. On the Republican side, this pathology is a relentless amoral quest for power that originally led the party into the realm of voter suppression and that now has resulted in a GOP president openly working to end democracy.

There is no pretense. There is no deception. This is a right-out-in-the-open attempt to destroy the system that lets voters choose their governmental leaders — and that initiative is happening not only in Washington, but in the states.

“According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority,” The Atlantic reported yesterday….

The Democrats’ Learned Helplessness
This pathology has been long in the making. For years now, Democratic politicians have come to know that a generation of liberals raised on The West Wing and MSNBC roundtables has been inculcated to not merely tolerate selling out — but to laud it as an act of political savvy. If abandoning, say, pledges to support unions and helping the GOP grind workers into the dust theoretically helps a Democrat outmaneuver a Republican in a swing-state election, the Democratic voter is led to believe that this move must be Good, Smart and worthy of applause. Respect for institutions, bipartisanship and manners is more important than outcomes.

Ironically, this capitulation-lauding mindset that prioritizes winning hasn’t actually won much — it has corresponded with some of the largest Democratic electoral losses in modern history, allowing the rise of the Republican fascism that now threatens to destroy our country.

David Sirota, September 20, 2020

‘Everyone sees the train wreck coming’: Trump reveals his November endgame
[Politico, via Naked Capitalism 9-25-20]

Steve Bannon Says War Begins on Nov. 3rd – a podcast with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson
Paul Jay, September 21, 2020 [ podcast]

Steve Bannon says only in-person voting should be counted on Nov. 3rd, and there will be a “war” to “stop Biden from stealing” the election. Larry Wilkerson says Trump’s forces are creating conditions for violence in the streets if he is defeated. AOC calls on people to get organized to defeat Trump as part of a larger battle.

Op-Ed: Democrats have a secret weapon to thwart a rapid Ginsburg replacement. They should use it  Erwin Chemerinsky [via Naked Capitalism 9-20-20]
Chemerinsky is touted as the most prolific and most cited liberal scholar of the Constitution.

Open Thread

Feel free to use the comments to discuss topic unrelated to recent posts.

Delusion Regarding the Fall of Neoliberalism and Globalization

So, the article below was published December 8th, 2015.

The pull quote is:

Neo-liberalism is nearing the end of its cycle. It will kill a lot of people dying, but its death is now ordained and can only be slowed by fanatical levels of police state repression in a few countries. And its death convulsions and the birth pangs of the new system will create a new age of war and revolution which will kill far more.

This is now as close to inevitable as human affairs, endlessly complicated and subject to unexpected shocks, can be.

Nothing has changed, the process has simply continued. Notice the repression going on in the US right now. Since I wrote it, the UK left the EU, there was massive resistance to Macron in France, and so on. We have massive fires all over the world: Australia, California, South Africa the Amazon and more. Wealth continues to concentrate at the top, etc, etc…

These convulsions take time. Slap the start of the actual fall as 2020, with the UK’s Brexit, and we’ve got 12 to 20 years to go. This one’s going to be bad, really, bad, simply because of climate change and our vast over-exploitation of limited resources. There’s going to be a lot of real hunger and lack of water, and so on.

The next age is undetermined, but one possibility is a centrifugal period. It is hard to imagine a future in which, India, for example, survives as a unified nation. For that matter, I’m not sure I’d put my money on China holding together over the middle run: 50/50 it’s fallen into warlordism by 2050 to 60.

The simple way to make your guesses is ask if a country can feed itself with domestic production AFTER the effects of climate change. If it can’t even feed itself now (or only barely); or if it is going to have serious water issues (water, obviously affects agriculture, so it’s not really two things), then the smart money is that it’s going to break up or lose effective control of various hinterlands.

And if you’ve got resources a more powerful nation on your border wants, well, that could go very badly for you. (My fellow Canadians, who seem clueless about how violent Americans are, should take note here.)

On the upside, this will be a very interesting period to be alive, if you can stay that way.

Natalie Nougayrède writes in the Guardian about The Front National’s victory in France:

Marine Le Pen has no solution for France’s problems, her economic programme is all about retreating from the outside world and Europe. Her social vision is of a mythical, homogeneous France that never existed. What she has to sell is an illusion. It’s only because so little else is on offer that people are buying.

This analysis is, there is no kinder way to put it, delusional.

And Nougayrède should know it, because she writes:

The impact of globalisation marked the end of what the French demographer Jean Fourastié coined Les Trente Glorieuses (The Glorious Thirty), the 1945-1975 period when France was modernising and increasing its international influence. There is much twisted nostalgia in the rise of the National Front.

Nougayrède blames this on the oil shocks, which the entire West failed to handle (note that Japan, far more vulnerable to the oil shock, DID handle it. Their later failure had other causes). She notes that France’s elites have not, since 1975, been able to turn things around, something I have noted as well.

But she is wrong about a retreat from globalization being delusional. The simple fact is that in France and almost every other country (including, by the way, most African countries), growth was better before globalization, and the proceeds of that growth were distributed to their populations much more evenly.

This is a fact, and you can only argue against it by invoking China (which used classic mercantalist policies, and was not meaningfully party to the 1945-1975 consensus economy.)

There will always be trade. There will always be global movement in goods, capital, and ideas, but more is not always better.  In fact, one can easily argue that more is rarely better.

As for “Europe,” the fact is that increased integration has not been to the benefit of most Western Europeans. That assertion is, again, extraordinarily hard to argue against and is especially true of the creation of the Euro.

Nougayrède wants France’s leaders to fix things, and not to fail, but she is very nearly as delusional as them. She admits that their failure has led to the rise of Front National, but cannot admit that their policies have failed, economically, along the lines that Marie Le Pen says they have.

Just because someone is a near-Fascist does not mean they are wrong about everything. I have no tolerance for LePen’s brand of Imperialism and cultural supremacy, but she, like Trump, is telling a lot of truths to a lot of people who feel like their country has been on the wrong track for a long time. (In the U.S., white, working class male salaries peaked in 1968. No matter how much you scream about white privilege, you are a fool if you expect white males to gravitate towards anyone who doesn’t at least pay lip service to reversing that.)

As an economic project, the EU is a failure for many of its members, including France. There are exceptions (Germany, Poland, etc.) but the losers cannot be expected to just sit there and take the beating forever. The “beating” has been exacerbated by Europe’s deliberate imposition of austerity. It is not just that Europe’s elites have failed to create a good economy, it is that they have deliberately made the economy worse for the majority of residents in many of its countries.

Until we can honestly evaluate the failures of neo-liberalism, and gut globalist cant which claims more trade and capital flows are always a good thing (and, even if they aren’t, are “inevitable”) we cannot fix the economy.

France, like about half of the EU, should leave the Euro. It should re-impose tariffs on a wide variety of goods and produce them in their own countries. Yes, they would cost more, but wages would be higher. It should also move radically to non-oil-based energy (as is true of, well, almost everyone).

These basic policies are not difficult. Corbyn is not wrong to say “make the necessary adjustments so it will work today, and go back to post-war policies.”  It failed,  yes, but it was the last economy which spread money evenly through the economy.  Make sure it’s not sexist and racist, update it for new energy technology, and try it. It may not be the best solution (I’d like some fairly radical changes), but it’s certainly not crazy, given that it did give France those 30 great years.

The failure to deal with the oil price shock doomed the post-war world, yes. But it is 40 years later and we have technology and knowledge they did not have.

Until the developed world’s sanctioned intellectuals (as opposed to pariahs like myself and my ilk) and their masters come to grip with these facts, the population will continue to turn elsewhere. They may turn to sane and reasonable people like Corbyn, or they may turn to people like LePen and Trump, but people will not put up with “it’s going to get worse for the forseeable future” forever.

We can have reasonable policies, which will make the world better for everyone (even if that means there will be a lot less billionaires–the Corbyn solution), or we can have the rise of fascists and their left-wing equivalents.

The room in the mushy middle for those who aren’t willing to do something radical to fix the economy and other problems is narrowing. It will continue to narrow.

Our current elites will not adjust, so the question is: Who will we get? Corbyn and FDR? Mussolini, LePen, Trump?

Neo-liberalism is nearing the end of its cycle. It will kill a lot of people dying, but its death is now ordained and can only be slowed by fanatical levels of police state repression in a few countries. And its death convulsions and the birth pangs of the new system will create a new age of war and revolution which will kill far more.

This is now as close to inevitable as human affairs, endlessly complicated and subject to unexpected shocks, can be.

If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Aspirational Versus Servant Leaders

In my post on the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I criticized her for not resigning while Obama was President, when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. A few people were mightily offended, as I had anticipated. She was a great person, and it was too soon, and so on. One person told me that every professional woman he knew was crying.

I don’t have that reverence, and neither do many others. I think it’s worth teasing out why. The best short explanation is this one.

The death of RBG has again revealed a class-based split between those who see political figures as aspirational heroes or people who make decisions that have cataclysmic consequences in their lives.

I don’t view leaders, and RBG, since she made decisions which impacted the entire country, was one, as people to emulate. Many people do. This is similar to how many professional women identify with Hillary and felt her defeats as a personal rebuke. To me, Hillary is an incompetent evil fool. She voted for Iraq, convinced Obama to invade Libya, ballsed up universal health care when her husband trusted her with it, lost two elections where she was the favorite and her only significant accomplishment, being Senator from New York is because she rode her husband’s coat-tails.

A monster and an incompetent.

RBG was better (though not as great as the hagiography), but the reason people were so upset at criticism of her is that they identified with her. They saw her as someone who they admired and wanted to be. An “aspirational model.”

What I see, however, is that right now before she died there was a 5/4 majority for reproductive rights, and when Trump appoints his fundamental Christian judge, Roe’s on the table. All Ginsburg had to do was retire when she got sick (and was old already.) She didn’t, and now something she worked hard for all her life and that is important to millions of women, may well be lost.

This may be a result of bad judgment on her part, it may be selfishness (she seems to have loved the job and thought she was indispensable), but either way she failed the people she served.

And that’s the core thing. To me leaders are servants: they are there to serve the people, to make decisions for their betterment. Every leader has a constituency, RBG sure did, and letting them down is betrayal of their duty.

It’s nice that Ginsburg had such a great career, and was an aspirational model, but that’s nothing compared to the question of how much good and evil she did as a very important person. No one denies she did a lot of good (and a fair bit of evil, ask a native American what they think of her), but it’s also true that she let people down when she failed to make sure she was replaced by someone who would uphold abortion rights and so on.

This is a widespread problem. I remember a friend practically crying about Obama winning the primary in 2008, because she had marched for civil rights, and his victory was the culmination, to her, of both her and her cohort’s (boomers) history. That he failed African Americans terribly, did almost nothing to improve their situation, was forgivable, because he was a symbol.

I don’t view leaders thru this lens. I’ve seen good men and good women leaders, and bad men and bad women leaders. Thatcher was the first great neoliberal leader: woman. Reagan the second: male. Up where I live in Ontario we had a very bad (neoliberal) lesbian, who won the leadership of her party over a man who spent his entire life working at a food bank, helping the poor. It’s nice that lesbians got to see one of them as Premier, and watch her fuck things up and make the rich, richer, but I’d have liked the guy who cared about the poor, myself, since your sexual preferences make you neither a good nor bad leader.

Leaders are servants. We give them rights so they can do things for us. They make decisions which determine whether people live or die and whether they live happy healthy lives or miserable sick lives.

Identifying with them as role-models of success is, to me, ludicrous.

Choose your leaders because you trust them to serve you and demand that they do so. When they fail, don’t say “oh, it doesn’t matter because they were such a model of success or they did some other good things.”

They serve you. They hurt or help people on a mass scale.

That’s what matters.

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Bill Bodri’s “Culture, Country, City, Company, Person, Purpose, Passion, World”

If I were going to advise someone to buy just one book about how societies and economies run, this would be the one.

This isn’t because it has unique or new ideas, rather the opposite. It is the most concise collection of theories about how the world, economies, cities and much more work that I have ever read. Bodri has put together, in one place, what you’d have to read literally dozens of books to learn otherwise.

This doesn’t mean everything is “correct”, though more is than not, and it doesn’t mean I endorse everything (including his commentary), but it’s all in one place.

Let’s take the society chapter as an example.

Bodri starts with Ibn Khaldun’s theory of Asabiya. Khaldun noted that desert tribes would sweep in, conquer, and 4 generations later, they’d lose power to another bunch of desert nomads. His primary principle was Asabiya, a feeling of unity and shared purpose. Tribes lived on the edge and had to cooperate, so they had high Asabiya, but when they conquered a sedentary people and suddenly had access to luxury, they would lose their unity and willingness to sacrifice for each other, along with their toughness; form factions and eventually lose the unity that allowed them to conquer and rule (think Mongols for a very high profile example.) Then a tribe with high Asabiya would sweep in and conquer them.

Bodri then moves to Gaetana Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto. The insight here is simple enough: there is always a ruling class and the ruled, and ruling class, because they can easily coordinate are more powerful than the ruled, in most cases, because of this coordination. Societies break down in this model when the ruling classes start using their power to despoil the masses, the masses, losing their economic security become a mob, and try to force redistribution (bread and circuses) and the real economic base of the society decays, while the Asabiya (though neither uses the term) of the society and the elites collapses.

Next comes Glubb Pasha’s theory of empires. He noted that empires tended to last about 250 years or 10 generations, and went thru a sequence of seven stages. Being a Brit he felt Empire was good, but his argument was that each people had its distinctive excellence: they rose, spread it around and fell, then someone else did the same.

His seven stages are:

  1. The Age of Outburst or Pioneers
  2. The Age of Conquest
  3. The Age of Commerce
  4. The Age of Affluence
  5. The Age of Intellect
  6. The Age of Decadence
  7. The Age of Decline and Collapse

A lot of this is fairly obvious, but the Age of Intellect is the “age of skeptics” as it were: it’s when intellectuals pick apart the founding myths. Think Socrates and the Sophists, for example, or German intellectuals like Nietzche.

The next theory is the “Mandate of Heaven” theory of Ancient China: each dynasty starts with a strong virtuous leader (virtue in this case doesn’t mean non-violent, obviously) and a people who have an ethic of mutual aid and community spirit. When the dynasty (which really means much more than just the Emperor and his relatives) starts over-taxing, not keeping up infrastructure, don’t protect the people and so on, the dynasty loses “the mandate of Heaven” and soon falls.

It’s clear that this is essentially the same as Mosca and Pareto’s emphasis on elites despoiling citizens and thus destroying both their own and the larger society’s Asabiya.

Bordri then goes on to use these theories to look at the rise and fall of Spain and to analyze the longevity of Chinese society.

The next chapter is on countries: the preconditions for their rise and fall, what weaker powers do and so forth. Bodri then moves on to cycles: generationa theories, Kondratieff innovation cycles and so on, and down to companies all the way to individuals.

I think I should talk about how Bodri uses the word capitalism, which seems to combine free trade and entrepreneurship. What is important is not capitalism per se (the ownership of the means of production by a few), it is that the more the mass of people are allowed to be free and prosperous and not despoiled by the elites; the more they can choose what economic activities to engage in (this includes what we now call entrepreneurship), the more prosperous the nation tends to be. This creates domestic production that is widespread and not narrow in nature.

But freedom to do what people want isn’t an absolute rule: more freedom isn’t always better. England’s rise comes from saying “no, you can’t sell raw wool overseas.” It is that decision which creates the first real industry in England but it’s not what wool producers want, since they can get more from overseas buyers: their freedom of exchange IS infringed.

Bodri understand this when  he goes on to talk about how real development works (it’s almost always protectionist if you’re larger than a city state), but elides that when he pushes free trade, which is almost always what countries do when they are hegemonic and which, over time, leads to them shipping their productive capacity overseas, and is thus, actually, part of the cycle of decline. Vigorous empires on the rise tend toward mercantalism.

Bodri also usually uses the word socialism as a way of saying that the population is no longer capable of taking care of itself tends to try and vote itself bread and circuses, and thus socialism is always a bad thing, but  taking care of each other is something he praises at various points. The socialism Bodri despises is something that occurs when the elites have despoiled the masses, and the masses have thus lost their virtue.

Bodri’s smart and wide read, and his commentary is worth reading, but the book is most useful for his summaries of theories: sometimes very practical theories like how to trade world markets and so on.

Again, if you were to want to read only one book about how the world works, this is the one I would suggest. It isn’t a book by a genius about one or a few great ideas, it’s a book by someone who is well read about dozens of great ideas, and will serve as an excellent foundation for your own thinking and further reading.

The value of this book  is that it exposes you to so much. If you disagree or agree with some theories, what is useful is to think about WHY and to compare theories to each other: which predicts what, well, when?

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Page 1 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén