" /> I write: December 2008
Curmudgeonalia
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December 31, 2008

Liar’s Poker

Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street
Michael Lewis – ISBN – uncertain: use only title and author and you will find it
(no longer in print, but thousands are available, used, on line, for as little as $3)

I owned it years ago but never read it; gave it away when I moved to Florida, and forgot about it. Recent events caused me to order a copy. Published in 1989, you will find it not only a fulsome, but a frightening read today--prescient as well. “Spot on” when undertaking to understand what has happened to Wall Street and to Investment Banks. I recommend it!

The author was employed for several years by Salomon Brothers in both New York and London. In his introduction he indicates that as a graduate of Princeton and the London School of Economics he was sought out by Salomon, went thru their training program and became a bond trader; an endeavor he knew absolutely nothing about, was never very good at, but still managed to earn a six figure income despite his inadequacies.

“Economic theory which is, after all, what economics students were supposed to know) serves almost no function in an investment bank.” Bankers simply use the degree to vet applicants for “general intelligence.” It showed!

He discusses why the Federal Reserve was greatly responsible for the Savings and Loan failure in the 80’s, as well as the present calamity. The present one has been in abirthing since the S&L collapse. He explains things in a fashion understandable to most readers, and he’s easy to read. For instance:
• “Why”, he asks, “did investment banking pay so many people with so little experience so much money? Answer: When attached to a telephone, they could produce even more money.
• How could they produce money without experience? Answer: Producing in an investment bank was less a matter of skill and more a matter of intangibles—flair, persistence and luck.”

The reader is, or at least ought to be, appalled by the cavalier approach to investment: the lies told, the absence of conscience in recommending to clients “issues” which management wanted sold, without concern for the buyer . . . only the commissions to the company. Virtually all of the salesmen worked exclusively for the money, and spent little time learning about their products. Sales techniques were all that mattered to them. What is exposed is abysmal, to say the least.

Midway thru he gets into a discussion of Michael Milken, junk bonds, and the origins of the mortgage disaster which now haunts us, and is almost singularly responsible for the Trillion Dollar Meltdown we are amidst. (That book, by Charles Morris, is also a great read.) Lewis explains in quite simple terms the evolution (up to 1989) of the marketing of mortgage portfolios as if they really were bonds. Prior to the S&L collapse mortgage loans had been local and well managed. Offered opportunity, Wall Street created new avenues of finance which were disingenuous and begged numerous intermediaries to lie, cheat and steal . . . for which we are now paying.

I won’t go into the details since I want to emphasize that in his memoir Lewis exposes the chicanery of these masters of manipulative investing, solely for their own profit. With rare exception they are all moral cretins. While he is dealing expressly with his own employer—Salomon Bros.—he includes the rest of the players, indicting them all for similar, reprehensible behavior which was at least negligent and at worst approached criminality.

While junk bonds originally made sense, and were singularly responsible for much of the financing of the information age and the Reagan economic boom. Milken understood that the market for finance was outmoded, even archaic, and devised a totally new means of raising capital: bonds, not loans. Thus he introduced a wholly new kind of finance. But eventually there were so many offerings, and so much money chasing them for their promised high yields, that greed overtook both sellers and buyers and “real junk” was sold to the unsuspecting, the naïve and the greedy—by people who knew it. Wall Street made outrageous profits thru misrepresentation.

Arbitrage, was a euphemism “for what we did with other people’s money.” It meant “trading risklessly for profit.” Riskless, that was, to the sellers, not to buyers. The banks would orchestrate an offering, make it look good, sell bonds out the whazoo, collect their commissions—often in the millions—and vamoose. The whole point of the activity was to sell to a public unable to assess the risk; dependent on the offering and rating agencies for advice, which was disingenuous and wholly directed at their profits.

He sagely observes that “when an investment banker starts talking about principles, he is usually defending his interests.” And later adds a note to members of all governments: “be wary of Wall Streeters threatening crashes. They are tempted to do this whenever you encroach on their turf. But they can’t cause a crash any more than they can prevent one.”

He also confirms a suspicion I have had for years, that “Most of the time when markets move, no one has any idea why. A man who can tell a goods story can make a good living as a broker. It was the job of people like me to make up reasons, to spin a plausible yarn. And it’s amazing what people will believe.”

He was fortunate to become good friends with several truly talented men who gave him (and his clients) good advice, but quit early--leaving his “surest way to becoming a millionaire”--because he could not endure the stench of the activities.

His father’s generation (mine!), he summarizes, “grew up with certain beliefs. One of those beliefs is that the amount of money one earns is a rough guide to one’s contribution to the welfare and prosperity of our society. . . . [I was close to, and learned from my father] . . . It took watching his son being paid 225 grand at the age of twenty-seven, after two years on the job, to shake his faith in money. He has only recently recovered from the shock.”

“I haven’t!” When you sit at the center of the most absurd money game ever, and benefit out of all proportion to your value to society, when myriad other equally undeserving people are raking it in faster than they can count, something happens to your money belief. . . . Or at least ought to. They take their funny money seriously and it becomes their “guiding light.” It is tempting to believe that they will get their comeuppance eventually, but they don’t. They just get richer and die fatter and happier.

He couldn’t do it, so he quit and wrote this riveting, expository memoir. Read and reflect upon the immorality of what has been begotten. It really is worth it to understand that capitalism works only when the capitalists are grounded in morality, honesty and fairness. It has been lost, and we’d best get together and organize a search party.

And while reflecting, read my quote dated Dec. 26th, 2008: The pope was right.

You might also want to link to this:
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/JL25Dj02.html

(you'll have to copy and paste) This man is absolutely brilliant, and I recommend you consult his primary site often:
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/others/spengler.html

Posted by respeto at 2:45 PM

December 28, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer – ISBN – 9780385340991

Books do not . . . simply cannot . . . get any more enjoyable than this. Unhappily, it ends too soon. It’s not that one cannot put it down, but one wishes not to have to. It is a joy to read.

It is based in Guernsey after WW II, a British channel isle occupied by the Germans for five years during that war--the only English territory to be so scourged. The protagonist, an author, has decided to write of the islanders’ experience, which is explored fully and rewards the reader with a wonderful recitation. The characters are carefully wrought; interesting, complex and delightful people, except for a nosy misanthrope or two.

The format is unusual—not to say peculiar--being entirely composed of letters between the corresponding characters. It takes only a dozen pages to get the hang of reading what at first seems clumsy, but Shaffer is so deft that a rhythm is soon established. The author exhibits wit and a wry sense of humor in developing the personalities, while reporting on the dreary hardships and desolation of the occupation. Real people are developed letter by letter. “Writing in all those different voices was a blast . . . like playing 20 different roles, each with his or her own voltage and excitement.”

The story begins with a few community members who formed a social group with the premise of reading and reporting on literature, and sharing food. Since all foodstuffs were in short supply one of the snacks provided was Potato Peel Pie, composed of a crust of potato peels (absent butter and flour), filled with mashed potatoes and flavored with beet juice (absent spices, herbs and sugar)--hence the name of the society .

They managed to endure the deprivation, formed many new friendships, reinforced older ones, and many of the expanding group of participants became involved in reading for the first time in their lives, which added immensely to their shared experiences, not to mention a greatly enhanced awareness of the world of literature.

The plot is honey-combed with side and back stories, expressed thru the many letters and voices. The tale is complex but well explored, and the end, while not really surprising is . . . well, surprising.

Sadly, this was the only book written by this elderly author; she died before its publication. She did have the satisfaction of knowing it was scheduled for printing, and in the experienced hands of her niece and co-author, Annie Barrows who saw it to completion.

Read it. You will not be disappointed.


Posted by respeto at 12:49 PM

December 24, 2008

Boomsday

Christopher Buckley – ISBN – 9780446697972

As usual Buckley’s plot is zany and contorted, with more curves than a slalom course. But, also as usual, he is entertaining and savagely funny. This time he skewers politicians—justly deserved—with the primary plot involving the need to correct the bankrupting deficiencies of the Social Security system.

The principal protagonist is a smart, beautiful young woman who, after an early life of academic excellence is accepted into an Ivy League school, only to find that her father has raided her college fund “for business.” She is compelled to join the Army so that she can eventually get her education.

The other is a filthy rich “trust baby,” Ivy educated, and a cosmopolitan senator who has bought his seat, which he uses to attract attention and broads, with the ultimate goal of becoming president. To this end he manipulates every situation offered.

On a visit to “the troops” in the Middle-East, while hitting on the afore mentioned soldier, he manages to drive them into a mine-field where he totals a humvee he is not supposed to be driving, injures his companion and loses his leg in the explosion. She is “invited to resign” rather than face court martial, while the senator becomes a hero because of his sacrifice; this he plays to advantage.

He uses his influence to get her a job with a lobbyist, and she becomes an advocate for many things, principal amongst them the dissolution—or at least the alteration--of Social Security. Along the way she gives up further education as she begins an affair with him. So wends the tale, thru lobbying, politics, intrigue, skullduggery, manipulation, sabotage and the extramarital affair.

The only caveat I offer regarding this particular novel is that he seems unable to end the tome cleanly and interestingly as he usually does. In the final lines he simply “wraps it up” with an explanation of what happens to everyone. Not as satisfying as his usual fare, but funny nonetheless.

Posted by respeto at 2:50 PM

December 22, 2008

English History

Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable
Lacey Baldwin Smith – ISBN 9780897335478

A most apt title is this. It is, indeed, brief, irreverent and pleasurable. Its author clearly has a command of English history, else she could not summarize so readably and well. She canters through history with thumbnails of events, personages and periods with explanations sufficient to her intent. She disposes of minor—and not a few major—people and happenings in a paragraph or two. Nowhere does she dwell inordinately on anything. She is so skilled and concise, and so much fun to read that one overlooks what has to be missing in the sheer enjoyment of what is not. And she’s witty.

For instance, she initiates her brief discussion of the period from 410 to 1066 by observing that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons eventually “learned to tolerate, not exterminate, one another . . . [and though not certain they were a nation] they still liked to insult each other.” And James II is described as stodgy, stubborn and stupid; even his brother thought that James’s mistresses were so ugly and stultifying that they must have been assigned “by his priest for penance.”

She opines that the treasured American picture of God-fearing pilgrims “in black plug hats,” grimly determined to found a Puritan paradise is “not exactly true. . . . God’s people were clothed in the height of Stuart fashion” and came seeking profit as well as the welfare of their souls. Settlements were extremely expensive. For instance, Jamestown cost 100,000 pounds sterling in the first fifteen years. Not until the introduction of Indian tobacco, and the English acquisition of the habit of smoking it, did the colony become profitable.

The continental wars of 1739 and thereafter (the French and Indian War amongst them) were really conflicts between the English, Spanish and French, in which “the Frogs gravely miscalculated.” As a result France ceded Canada, Cape Breton, and her claims to lands between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River to Britain. She gave over New Orleans and the vast Louisiana territory to the Spanish, who, in turn, ceded Florida to England, leaving Britain the dominant power, leading eventually to her suzerainty over much of North America.

Enlightenment thoughts were spawned by Smith, Bentham, Ricardo, Malthus and others, which cascaded thru literate society, emerging from the old order of landed gentry, which led to vast changes in government. These changes resulted in the loss of wealth and power by said gentry. Contributing to this downfall was the growing “farm power” of the Americas from Canada to Argentina, which had become the breadbaskets of the world.

Franklin warned that obedience of the colonies “depended far less upon ‘forts, citadels, garrisons or armies’ than upon affection.” King and cabinet so scorned Franklin for this that he gave up on the empire and joined the revolutionary movement, whereupon he became the principal architect of its finance by France. Though having lost, Britain was shorn of responsibility for defending and administering the colonies. This facilitated the expansion of empire as England went on to “discover” Australia and New Zealand, firm her control of Canada and India, and promulgate the Industrial Revolution.

Her heady jaunt thru the industrial revolution notes that the “filthy sewers [where lived the peasants of the industrial centers] poured pure gold,” providing the wealth and power needed to finally defeat Napoleon, after which Britain was the unquestioned—and largely unchallenged--world power for the next century. The population grew immensely, providing the “new industrial slums,” which, in turn, transformed the spiritual landscape, brought hell-fire religion into these slums, and became the underpinnings for Victorian morality in the home, factories and in politics.

She gallops thru the African colonial endeavors: contests with France, Germany and Italy which efforts underpinned a European rush for allies. This promoted treaties and guarantees of support which set the stage for WW I. Having paid the price for the Industrial Revolution, Britain reaped its “dragon seeds.” Having financed the revolution the world over, she was now required to compete against those industrial giants—Germany, Japan the Americas, most notably the U.S.—which she had spawned. She lost her edge.

Reasons are not simple, but as “the U.S. leapt from the oil lamp to electricity, Britain remained with the gaslight age, largely because of the power of the gas companies.” Old habits and established powers assisted in her ruination. Coal mines became less productive, but failed to modernize; similarly so with other industries. As well there was a collective refusal to develop aggressive sales. English custom could not accommodate “cheek” (which Yanks referred to as their “can do spirit.”) And their industrial policy overlooked the fact that a ready supply of spare parts was just as important as the quality of the original equipment in keeping customers happy. They fell behind in the educational race, refusing to school her work force or maintain the connections between scientist and engineer. They bought into the concept of “effortless superiority;” they rested on their laurels and were overrun by the rest of the world.

The historic British social ideal was the landed country gentleman, never the engineer, scientist or industrialist. Gentlemen weren’t supposed to work. Rather, they dedicated themselves to the humanities, giving time to public service and ultimately authoring the socialist state. She thus became enamored of Empire, slipped into complacence and became second rate.

After the “war to end all wars” was over, the world advanced, but not so Britain; and after WW II technological improvements were rampant, but Britain was stuck in the past by attitude, proclivity, unions and state control. America, alone in having been undamaged by the war, had developed massive industrial capacity. Germany and Japan were destroyed, but offered a new beginning with wholly modern industry. England was hidebound, and intransigent.

“Deprived of its 19th century industrial head start and struggling to adjust to diminished world status, but still beset by out-of-date memories of Empire and economic hegemony, the Kingdom lurched from one humiliation and crisis to the next.”

She ends with a fair and balanced review of “Thatcherism,” with the resurrection of England, now in the process of failing again, it would seem. Too complacent? Who knows. But there are lessons for not only Britain but America and the world as well.

I strongly recommend a read. I expect to reread this little gem to further digest this phenomenal “outline of British history.”


Posted by respeto at 1:51 PM

December 20, 2008

Forgotten Fatherland

The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche
Ben Macintyre – 9780060975616

This is the last of the Ben Macintyre books . . . actually, his first, but from the title the least interesting. But, surprise, it’s quite good; altogether is in keeping with my opinion of Macintyre’s talents.

Elisabeth Nietzsche was the sister of the philosopher who is credited with providing the basis of Nazism. In fact, not unlike Jackie Kennedy’s creation of Camelot, Elisabeth warped her brother’s philosophy to make it fit hers, with her nihilism, anti-Semitism, etc. Freidrich was way off the planet in many regards, and became insane at an early age, but a Nazi he was not! His sister took care of him during his last years, and misused his fame and notoriety to wholly mischaracterize his philosophy. This is Macintyre’s quest, and he deals with it quite satisfactorily, disabusing the reader of most everything “Nazish” we’ve learned about Nietzsche. His mini-bios of both characters and their supporting casts is interesting and informative of the individuals, and that period in German history.

What I found most interesting, however, was the back-story of the book; the founding of an obscure German colony in the Paraguayan jungle in the mid-1880’s. Known to most of us is the fact that Paraguay was a hotbed of Nazi sympathizers and Nazi war criminals after WW II, but the little known tale of Nueva Germania is fascinating.

That Elisabeth and her husband--a virulent anti-Semite--undertook to entice and partly subsidize a colony of “pure Germans” is fascinating in itself. The thrust of their effort was to isolate the most Germanic of those interested in participating in this endeavor, thus to breed a “Jew (and commerce) Free” colony of progressively more pure Aryans. At the time Germany was in a serious recession, and many of its peasants were leaving--amongst them my great-great-grandfather. Some emigrated to the United States; others to South America, and some to Paraguay, which had just experienced a depopulating civil war and was encouraging immigrants by selling land cheaply.

Nueva Germania was conceived and executed, but was immediately in trouble. Elisabeth and husband grossly mischaracterized the endeavor, presenting it as a Utopia. It was not, and as this became known subscription dwindled and settlers left, if not for the homeland, at least for the cities of Paraguay. Soon a departing soul wrote a book exposing the settlement as a complete fraud, which all but terminated what remained of interest in settling there.

In the summarizing chapter Macintyre describes in detail his rather harrowing search for the jungle colony in 1992, a century after its founding. He describes the colony in vivid detail and the saga is absorbing. There are a handful of pure Germans there, indeed. These were the struggling offspring of those from generations past who were too poor to emigrate even from their colony. Those who have isolated themselves from the native populations are increasingly physically irregular or mentally retarded because of five generations of inbreeding. Others have begun to integrate with the natives, such that there is a population of dark-skinned, blue-eyed people who care not at all about Germanic ideation or customs.

During the post-war period a few famous Nazis were thought to have spent time there because of its isolation; amongst them Joseph Mengele, though there is no hard proof.

It is a tale of hubris and the ultimate survival of a lost race, the result of near hysterically motivated insistence on purity which has culminated in a forlorn, unknown disaster, except where it is disappearing. An interesting read for those inclined toward such a subject.

Posted by respeto at 4:14 PM

December 6, 2008

Nobody asked me about piracy, but:

The answer now is the same as it was 200 years ago with the Barbary Pirates: destroy their land bases. This B.S. about getting the U.N. interested, and "helping Somalia" develop a liberal democracy, thus to control piracy, is absurd. Look at all the U.N. has accomplished in Palestine since partition. Wow! Impressive. Who's afraid of that "big bad wolf?" Nobody! And, besides, those people couldn't organize a one car funeral.

Blue water patrols can help. Sinking a few of the bastards might get their attention. But Jefferson had the right idea (not Wm. Jefferson--42nd . . . t'other one: Thomas, 3rd president of the U.S.) who loosed an invasion to largely destroy one of the Barbary bases, kill some of the cretins, and threaten the power structure with further damage.

Then, and only then, did the pirates decide they'd had enough. Stephen Decatur had earlier infiltrated their harbor with a handful of marines, and destroyed a valuable ship they had captured. Later, as piracy continued, a local army, and a handful of U.S. marines, (remember: "the shores of Tripoli?") marched in from the deserts to the East, wiped out one base and threatened to overthrow the Bashaw. He got the message. "Peace" was declared.

So . . . maybe Savior Obama should parley with the other (pathetic) Western "powers" to assist in this endeavor. Failing that--and it will fail--SEND THE MARINES!

Posted by respeto at 1:56 PM

December 5, 2008

Dewey

Vicki Myron – ISBN – 9780446407410

This is a fetching tale (and a current mega-best seller) about a tough little kitten, stuffed into the book return of a local library and rescued the following morning nearly frozen to death. He managed to survive and became the mascot of that library, surviving within its walls for 18 years. During that time Dewey became an inspiration to the library staff and patrons, a model of survival for the entire town of Spencer, Iowa, and world famous (though I dmit I’d never heard about him.)

Initially, one is drawn into the story by the very nature of survival (town and cat.) It is an interestingly told tale, written by Bret Witter as shared with him by Ms. Myron, the librarian who salvaged the kitten and became his best friend for life. As well there are poignant insights into small town and farm life . . . and death. "Corn country," especially, is being run over by commercial, mega-farms. Towns are being razed to expand farming. People are forced to move on, altering that life forever. (All that is left of the author's early life is "four feet of driveway" leading to a cornfield!)

Problem is that about a third of the way thru the book begins to die, and while it improves toward the end it never fully recovers.

I was reminded of a book, written in the mid ‘70’s by Robert Ardrey: The Hunting Hypothesis. He wove a really good tale, giving explicit examples of animal behavior corroborating his hypothesis, and then went on, and on . . . and on, example after example. He'd made his point, wrote a fascinating book, but he just couldn’t quit. As I’ve observed in other reviews, there are simply “too many notes.”

Same here. There are so many anecdotes, and there is so much about the librarian/rescuer and her life story that one begins to wonder whether the tract is about the the cat, or if it was also autobiographical of the savior . . . and how long it’ll be until it’s over. It drags.

For those interested it is really both soul snagging and informative. If inclined, I’d suggest that one read the first third or so, skim or skip the middle, and go to the end.

Being an inveterate capitalist, however, I just have to note that one of the side stories mentions—indeed emphasizes—a basic tenant of the capitalist system. When the town was dying, as have so many remote farming communities, Wal-Mart decided to rescue it. The townsfolk were up in arms, with the principal surviving retailers unwilling to “turn over what they had invested in . . . to a national competitor.”

A hired consultant advised that “Wal-Mart will be the best thing ever to happen to the businesses in Spencer. If you try to compete with them you will lose. But if you find a niche they aren’t serving . . . you will win. Why? Because Wal-Mart will bring many more customers to town. It’s that simple.”

It did. They did, and proved the consultant right. The downtown business increased exponentially, as Spencer became the regional retail town. So there!

Posted by respeto at 12:17 PM

December 3, 2008

Florence of Arabia

Christopher Buckley – ISBN – 9780812972269

This is yet another clever, intelligent, entertaining and madcap novel by one of the masters of the genre: a political satire on Saudi Arabia, the French and the Middle East, including not incidentally French Intelligence, clandestine U.S. organizations and venture capitalists.

Florence (or Flor-enzz) Farfalleti, a well intentioned, dedicated American of Italian extraction undertakes the emancipation of Muslim women with the help of “Uncle Sam”—an American whose identity is not revealed until the last page—and a handful of peculiarly brilliant if snarky and furtive Americans including a shady lobbyist, a defrocked CIA agent and a struggling public relations man.

The nation of Wasabi (not, of course, Wahhabi) is an oil rich country intentionally land-locked in 1922 by the order of Winston Churchill, to even a score with its Sheikh. All of its oil must be piped thru the small country of Matar (pronounced mutter—as in Qatar), which borders the Persian Gulf. Matar’s only source of revenue is the Churchill fee for said access.

Wasabi is a violent, radical Muslim nation noted for beheadings, caning, stoning, and otherwise intimidating its population, especially its women, while Matar is deemed the Switzerland of the Middle-East, where drinking, carousing, and gambling—to mention only a few vices—are encouraged, and whose Emir is a dedicated--actually pathologic--libertine.

The Sheika (Laila) is a beautiful Englishwoman, who had been a successful T.V. personality. They have one son, whom she insists become the Emir. She has required that her husband have no other wives, thus to avoid other legitimate heirs. Consequently he has a harem of lacivious and beautiful women in a separate palace where he spends most of his time doing . . . oh, well, you figure it out. Laila will no longer have relations unless he has a blood test, which he refuses to do, resulting in a stand-off.

Florence moves forth to interest Laila in a T.V. station with programming oriented toward the emancipation of women. They agree. The Emir reluctantly agrees because of the enormous revenue it generates. The target audience is the Muslim women, most specifically those from Wasabi, in order to destabilize it, which situation is desired by Uncle Sam and whomsoever he represents.

It works, of course. The Wasabi powers are enraged and, with French assistance stage a coup. The Emir “disappears” and is replaced by his dull-witted brother, permitting the Wasabi notables to take over effective governance. The support staff is secreted out of Matar and Laila is arrested. Florence is sought, but refuses to leave without freeing her friend.

She offers to exchange herself for the Sheika, but is not to be bamboozled, either. When the Wasabis, the French and the new Emir try to entrap her she goes underground and begins to photograph and report upon the new regime, sending video tapes of executions and the mayhem wrought by the administrative change, which infuriates (some of) the world.

Rather than be enraged, the Europeans—predictably—rail against the events being aired on TV.

As noted, it’s a madcap story, but it’s enormously creative and entertaining . . . and while I won’t give away the important stuff, it does end well, as do Buckley’s other novels.

Posted by respeto at 3:29 PM

December 1, 2008

Revolutionary Characters

What Made the Founders Different
Gordon S. Wood – ISBN – 9781594200939
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History, 2006

Here is a unique look at the founding fathers and what made them different. Foremost was character, not then understood as we do today. It was not the inner personality with its hidden contradictions and flaws (which accounts for the regular public bashing of the founders by current politicians and intellectuals.) The understanding was that of their public personae: their outer life. They endeavored to demonstrate that they lived up to the values and duties that the best of their culture imposed upon them. They did not see themselves separate from their world or the culture. Not, that is, in isolation. They were not individualists concerned with their social identities. They “performed” within society as civic minded people, by necessity; and hid their personal feelings for the sake of civility and public personae.

They sought, sometimes unsuccessfully but always sincerely, to play a part . . . to be natural aristocrats. They measured their status by enlightened values and benevolent behavior--in opposition to birth--which hereditary aristocrats from time immemorial had valued. After all, most founders were first generation gentlemen.

That understanding makes clear why the intellectuals of today, with their sense of standing against, and often deprecating the prevailing culture. Moderns delight in seeing themselves as adversaries. They strike out and judge because they do not understand, or perhaps just enjoy showing how noble they are in adjudicating the past by current values and attitudes. It is obvious they consider themselves superior, though I can’t think of one who equals of any of the founders.

The 18th century enlightenment represented roll-back of the boundaries of darkness and barbarism; the spreading light and knowledge. It encompassed science, religion, philosophy and politics as it struggled to address tyranny and ignorance in order to deliberately create civility and refinement. The concern was the imposition of order and reason on the world by “aesthetically contemplating” an ordered universe. Never before had this been done.

We often ponder why we can never replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders. Where are people those people now? The simple answer is that modern society values most its egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people began to be heard as never before, and soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who brought them into being. A society of equals in all parameters is a society of mediocrity. The founders succeeded far too well in promoting equality among ordinary people, and in so doing succeeded in preventing forever the duplication of themselves. (What we have achieved might more accurately, if provocatively, be described as demo-crazy.)

With these explanations and caveats he begins his discussion of the principal founders in a way which makes them understandable to anyone willing to listen. Noble persons these were. Slave owners . . . some of them. Opinionated . . . all of them, but their views were subject to change thru earnest debate. Unwilling to challenge certain norms of their society . . . some of them, but virtually all of them understood that it was impossible to become one nation by bickering over the basic tenets of their society.* Most of them, for instance, held that slavery would be eliminated over time. Moreover, they could not see how to terminate it by fiat. It was yet another of those basic inequalities suffered by many which they were endeavoring to handle, fairly, and ultimately overcome. They were, after all, undertaking to found a nation the likes of which had never existed in all of history. Nor had it been considered beyond a certain ethereal, philosophical mode. (This I believe to be the principal misunderstanding of moderns when dissecting the founders.*)

Indeed, America has been so successful that it no longer considers the presence of such heroes as essential to the workings of government, which is at root both saddening and destructive. Instead we have our culture of fame and/or notoriety: those celebrated for trivialities, or simply for being well-known.

His discussions are both profound and enlightening. It is impossible come away without a sense of awe of each of the founders as he explores their innermost workings, their foibles, weaknesses and strengths. It is a truly masterful work and ought to be required reading for anyone who chooses to have an opinion about America or its founders. Their interactions as they deliberated are discussed: their disagreements, their attitudes about everything from standing armies, national banks, judges, elected officials, political theory, etc. In context he goes into the relations of the original 20-30 years of existence of our republic.

Read it and weep for modern brigades of insipid politicos and legions of vapid intellectuals who make a mockery of history, too ignorant to recognize their ignorance and hypocrisy, usually pretending they are the equal of the founders when they’re not fit to service their chamber pots!
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*What follows, while lengthy, adds meaningful depth to remind of the difficulties surrounding the formation of the United States. It is “lifted” completely, if not as quotations per se, from Bill Bryson’s Made in America (ISBN 9780380713813), another book very much worth reading . . . or rereading, as I find myself doing.)

The United States began as one of the largest countries in the world, with disparities in population, wealth and political outlook. This presented near insurmountable obstacles to finding common purpose. Proportional representation would give Virginia and Pennsylvania over a third of the nation’s political power while leaving Delaware one-ninetieth. Hence, little states feared big ones. Slave-owning states feared the others; Eastern states with fixed borders feared those of the West with a measureless continent as their back porch, with the potential of “rude frontiersmen in tasseled buckskins” controlling the destiny of all. All had distinct, two century histories of which they were quite proud, while none relished the dispensation of even the smallest measure of autonomy to unproven central authority. The challenge of the Constitutional Convention was not to give powers to the states, but to take powers away from them, and to do it in a way they would find palatable.

In less than four months, some thirty men created a framework for government that has lasted to this day. It was like nothing ever before seen. Page Smith (an recognized historian of the period) observed that this was “the most remarkable example of sustained intellectual discourse in history.” Never before or since, Bryson opines, “has any gathering of Americans shown a more dazzling array of talent and of preparedness.” To this effort they contributed, without compensation (or air conditioning), an entire summer of their lives, spending five hours six days a week, and countless additional hours before and after scheduled meetings researching, thinking and debating the various propositions and decisions before them: “Polybius, Demosthenes, Plutarch’s Lives, Fortune Barthelemy de Felice’s thirteen-volume Code de l’Humanite in the original French, and much more. In a single speech Alexander Hamilton referenced the Amphyctionic Councils of ancient Greece and the Delian Confederacy. These men "knew their stuff.” All were brilliant, thoughtful, provocative and profoundly well educated, and they were great enough to put aside their differences.

They debated and determined “the foundations of our government: the legislature, the presidency, the courts, the system of checks and balances, the whole intricate framework of American democracy—a legacy that is all the more arresting when you consider that almost to a man they were against democracy in anything like the modern sense.”

Most favored an America ruled by an informal aristocracy of propertied gentlemen like themselves. But James Wilson of Pennsylvania moved that the executive be chosen by popular vote, which “dumbfounded” the assemblage. In the end the election was given to the states by creating the Electoral College. They determined that the House of Representatives be elected by popular vote while the Senate was appointed by the individual states (the latter, quite unwisely in my opinion, overturned in 1912.)

While it is true that the preamble of the constitution was “pirated” from the Iroquois treaty of 1520, the Iroquois treaty had nothing more to do with their deliberations upon the Constitution itself.

Last, and exactly to the point, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania (best known for being the founder most often ignored) asked sarcastically during the debates over slavery: “Are they Men? Then make them Citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is there no other property included?” (This in reference to slaves counting for three-fifths of a person.) What self respecting man goes to the Coast of Africa, in defiance of the “sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages [and then insists his state] shall have more votes in a Government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.” In the end a difficult compromise was reached, slaves were included as fractional persons, and the word slavery was not used in the Constitution.

Posted by respeto at 2:11 PM