Pursuit of Truthiness

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Archive for July 2008

Guns of August, Pity of War

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I’ve been delving into histories of the First World War. I recently finished two books by popular historians, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Niall Ferguson’s Pity Of War. Though the first covers only the first month of the war, and the second examines several topics over the time frame of the whole conflict, they try to answer many of the same questions.

With any war, but especially one so destructive and world-changing, we are naturally curious about the causes of the war and whether it could have been prevented. Ferguson begins by examining pre-war thriller novels, gauging the fears held by some of spies, plots, invasions. Tuchman begins with the funeral of the English king in 1910, the largest-ever gathering of royalty, the last time the Kaiser could be seen in England as a friend and a sympathetic figure.

Tuchman blames the war on Germans’ desire for power, paranoia about encirclement, and poor ability to win allies, as well as elaborate military planning that made major strategic decisions extremely difficult to change or reverse. War in the era of poor communications and precise railroad schedules meant that once an operation began, it had to be seen through for better or worse; path dependency doomed Germany, a single step into the Schlieffen Plan, to stay the course till the end.

Ferguson, a proponent of alternate history, tries to imagine how things could have worked out differently. Being Scottish, his book largely focuses on the war from the British perspective. He wonders what would have happened had Britain stayed out of the war- if Foreign Minister Grey and the Germans could have reached a diplomatic understanding in earlier years, if a definite commitment to France had dissuaded Germany from attacking, or if the cabinet had simply decided not to fight (as it very nearly did). He imagines that Germany would have quickly won the war, humiliated France, and begun to dominate central Europe. He argues that Britain should have stayed out; that a quick German victory would have been better for Britain than a war which brought so much death, the end of British domination of finance, and the beginning of the end for the British Empire. Furthermore, Bolshevism in Russia would have been delayed or avoided entirely; a shorter war would likely have left the government more stable, and Germany certainly would not have sent Lenin to Russia in 1917 had they not been in desperate straits themselves.

Tuchman also imagines another war. She describes how narrowly the Ottoman Empire entered the war, how Britain would never have fought with such unity and intensity, or even at all, had the Germans not chosen to invade through Belgium. She focuses heavily on how the abilities and personalities of those who happen to be in the right place at the right time have enormous impacts on the course of the war and on world history: a King of Belgium willing, perhaps irrationally, to stand up to a much more powerful enemy; a stunningly corrupt and incompetent Russian Minister of Defense; a cowardly leader of the British Expeditionary Force; the last-minute appointment of a French general who vowed to make a stand at Paris even as the government fled to Bordeaux. These were the people on whom suddenly so much would depend. With every change in command and in plans, Tuchman wonders what else might have been.

Ferguson likes to incorporate the thoughts of people who at the time were marginal figures, but would later become important. He quotes Wittgenstein- who hoped the war would bring him a “variety of religious experience to turn him into a different person” but worried that “the English- the best race in the world- cannot lose. We, however, can lose, and will lose, if not this year than the next. The thought that our race will be defeated depresses me tremendously.” He quotes Churchill (who was important in the Admiralty, but whose greatest hours lay ahead), “I think a curse should rest on me- because I love this war. I know its smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment- and yet- I can’t help it- I enjoy every second of it.” He continually refers back to Hitler, who in the post-war economic chaos said “I’ll see to it that prices remain stable… that’s what my stormtroopers are for.” Ferguson paints a very unflattering portrait of a young John Maynard Keynes. He sees Keynes as a man who badly misunderstood war finance, regurgitated German propoganda in The Economic Consequences of the Peace and in his other essays on the topic. Ferguson appears to blame Keynes’ poor judgement on his homosexuality, saying “it may be that Keynes’ subsequent declaration that he ‘got to love’ Melchior[a German represenative] during the armistice negotiations at Trier and Spa obliquely alluded to a sexual attraction. As we have seen, Keynes was an active homosexual at this time.” Ferguson seems to have almost a vendetta against Keynes, who appears to be consistently wrong throughout the 30-odd pages he occupies. He also refers often to homosexuality, usually in even less relevant situations, though sometimes quite amusingly; a caption of a photo from the Eastern Front of naked German soldiers on horseback reads “Homo-erotic connotations should probably be ignored.”

Tuchman is something of a British partisan, genuinely offended the large-scale killing of civilians in Belgium and France, and appalled at the German destruction of the library at Louvain and the cathedral at Rheims.  She maintains the absolute moral superiority of the allies, even as her tactical criticisms fall most harshly upon them.  Ferguson, himself Scottish, thinks the Germans have been judged too harshly in almost every field, maintaining that their morals, diplomacy, and wartime economy were not all that bad, while their tactics and manouvers were vastly superior for at least the first three years of the war.

Both are quality books; Pity of War is more balanced and comprehensive, Guns of August a more gripping narrative.

Both raise important questions about the meaning of the war and its political implications that I plan to address in a future post.

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Written by James Bailey

July 25, 2008 at 8:02 pm

Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom

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This has been, I think, the most popular book written about economics in the 20th century. Having read many thicker and more obscure tomes on the subject, I figured it was time to give Friedman a try.

As the title might suggest, the book is full of both economics and political philosophy. Its overriding message is that our government has grown too large and taken over many functions it should stay out of in a free and prosperous society.

Given his government-reducing mission, it may come as a surprise to modern readers that Friedman continually refers to himself and his ideas as “liberal”. He says, “as it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in society. It supported laissez-faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world together peacefully and democratically.” Today, I think, these principles would resonate most with people who call themselves libertarian.

Capitalism and Freedom was first published in 1962. While it contains many timeless statements about economics and political philosophy, it was intended to be a book of its time. Friedman looks at the United States of 1962 and explains what its problems are and how they might be fixed. Some of these “fixes” have been implemented; it is somewhat surreal to read someone proposing a new way of doing things, only to realize, ‘wait- that is how we do things!’. We give many scholarships for higher education directly to students, we allow people to buy and sell non-decorative gold, we don’t require “loyalty oaths” of potential employees, we allow banks to pay interest on demand deposits, we have floating exchange rates; we do many things that in 1962 were only ideas biding their time in the minds of people like Friedman.

Most of the ideas presented in Capitalism and Freedom, however, are just as relevant and just as radical today. Many government agencies which he advocated axing are still alive and kicking; the Post Office and its monopoly, the Federal Communications Commission and its powers of censorship, mandatory Social Security, massive agricultural price supports. Controversy still surrounds many of these and similar programs; others have become even more entrenched, like the proverbial “third rail” of American politics, Social Security.

Friedman devotes a chapter to education, beginning what would become a lifelong advocacy for a voucher system, and considering how best to bring about desegregation (in 1962 Chicago!).

He devotes a chapter to occupation licencing, comparing it to the medieval guild system. He argues against the form of licensure “for which the strongest case can be made”, that of doctors. He calls the American Medical Association “the strongest trade union in the United States”, having succeeded wildly in the traditional union goals of keeping wages high by keeping the barriers to entry high (ie with a long, difficult and expensive training process at schools which only they can approve). Correspondingly, there are not enough doctors and medical care is too expensive (sound familiar?). His argument that doctors should not be required to have medical licences to practice is surprisingly convincing; like with Social Security, it has been around long enough and makes enough sense at first glance that almost everyone supports it, but almost no one has been confronted with the best argument (or any argument) against it.

Having advocated so many ways to reduce the size and scope of government, Friedman finishes the book with a surprising argument for a form of welfare- the negative income tax, also known as a basic income guarantee. Below a certain income level, people would receive money instead of paying it out; those who earned no income at all would receive the most from the negative income tax. It would be phased in slowly over the brackets so people at every level of income could still earn more by working more. Though this might sound like a “lefty” proposition, Friedman advocates it because it could in fact reduce the size and scope of government interference in the economy, by replacing other anti-poverty programs which are much more intrusive (ag supports, minimum wage) and much less efficient (all of them).

All in all, it is a very slim, straightforward book that packs in a lot of ideas, many of them quite novel. It has been, and hopefully will to be, very influential.

Written by James Bailey

July 23, 2008 at 9:44 pm

The Future: Like the Past, but cooler

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Making predictions about the future is a notoriously tricky business.  It is often done by extrapolating from past trends.  As often as this method fails us, its hard to imagine a better heuristic than the belief that the future will be like the past, only more so.

Extrapolating current trends in combinations that should be obvious yield conclusions that are, to me at least, surprising and inspiring. Here are two trends:

Recent scientific history, say of the last 60 years, has been filled with major discoveries that appear to have vast explanatory power and with widespread technological applications.

The average expectancy of an American is 78 and continues to increase.

If the past is any guide to the future, me and my generation are likely to witness discoveries of the magnitude of DNA, events like men landing on the moon, new ubiquitous technologies like computers and cell phones.

On top of the science, new developments in the social sciences, in society, and in world politics will be ever interesting if not so distinctly progressive.

All manner of surprises await us, so many before we even consider the real breaks from the past, the “unknown unknowns” that open up entirely new fields of endeavor and ways of thinking.

Here’s to the future!

Written by James Bailey

July 18, 2008 at 5:18 am

Judging a Magazine by its Cover- the New Yorker’s Obama edition

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Given the New Yorker’s well-known political slant, its hard to imagine they meant to try to damage Obama; I find the cover delightfully over the top, with an American flag in the fireplace and a portrait of Bin Laden on the wall. When things get ridiculous enough, you’ve got to laugh- unless you’re thin skinned as a skeleton.

But behind the controversial cover is a substantive story, covering Obama’s rise to power in Illinois. The journalist managed to do the legwork to track down a lot of people who were involved in his career in state politics. The portrait they paint is largely one of just another ambitious American politician- not the most flattering way to describe someone, but an obvious juxtaposition to the cover which portrays him as a secret terrorist. The article gives the sense that he is just a man- obviously not out to destroy America, but not exactly the superman, the savior that many hope for.

They focus on the 9 short years it took Obama to become a lawyer in Chicago, get elected to the state senate, make a failed run for the US congress, then a successful one for US senate.

It is an inspiring story of rapid successes. The lessons that I see:

1) Work hard, work smart.

2) Make connections with people who have power, or money, or are just eager to help. Obama never ceased to seek out and befriend established politicians, donors, or potential campaign workers. My favorite example: his early support from Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy.

3) Learn from your mistakes- like what went wrong in a failed run for Congress

4) Don’t be afraid to be ruthless- whether it getting all your opponents (including the woman who helped launch your career) knocked off the ballot with legal challenges, allowing you to run uncontested; or redrawing your district to have a better chance at reelection. Victory silences many moral qualms. These somewhat shady acts may have tainted Obama’s sterling image, but if he hadn’t won those elections, he would have had no national reputation to taint. This lesson might be the least applicable to other, non-political fields of endeavor.

5) You don’t get to the top by being humble. Obama had the ambition and confidence to put himself forward for ever more important positions, using each as a stepping stone to get to the next. He never stayed in the same job for more than 4 years without trying for a “better” one (a record it may be difficult to keep up as president).

Seeing the details behind Obama’s meteoric rise may lessen the enthusiasm of his more ardent supporters. As a relatively neutral observer, I don’t think the knowledge makes me any more or less likely to vote for him. But knowing how quickly he rose, as a newcomer to Chicago with no rich or influential family, gave me a lot more respect for him.

Written by James Bailey

July 17, 2008 at 3:40 am

Posted in Election 2008, Politics

Arthur Conan Doyle- Historian

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The man remembered for Sherlock Holmes was not only a novelist, but a contemporary historian as well.

Searching for a good history of WWI in the Widener Library, I stumbled across his 5-volume his of the war. I decided to see whether his writing ability carried over to this new field.

One might expect that a man famous as a novelist would deliver a gripping narrative full of beautiful prose, but one lacking in historical accuracy and a thorough understanding of the political situation and military tactics.

One would, however, be wrong on all counts.

Conan Doyle wrote 1914 like a traditional historian. His prose mostly consists of precise descriptions of military actions- X unit attacked Y place on D date for R reason, and sustained ABC casualties. But he demonstrates a thorough knowledge of tactics, strategy and politics.

1914 was written and published in 1916, while the war still raged. Conan Doyle admits that his narrative is handicapped by a lack of information about the enemy and the allies. For this reason, his focus is on the British Expeditionary Force.

For a book written during an ongoing war, it is surprisingly fair. The author continually praises the courage of the German forces. He admits that “Germany was grievously handicapped at sea, and that she deserves the more credit for whatever she accomplished.” The book is not exactly wartime propoganda. His criticisms of Germany are restricted to the same sort impartial people made in hindsight- that invading a small, neutral country, sinking civilian ships, and wearing enemy uniforms are not good things to do. When he does editorialize, however, his words are passionate:

“The German representative at Brussels was perjuring his soul”

“The long-meditated crime had been done, and, with loud appeals to God, Germany began her fateful campaignby deliberate perjury and arrogant disdain for treaties. God accepted the appeal, and swiftly showed how the weakest State with absolute right upon its side may bring to naught all the crafty plottings of the strong.”

The author, like so many others, struggled to understand why the war started, and especially what could have brought English and Germans to fight each other.

“Up to the year 1896 there was a great deal of sympathy and of respect in Great Britain for the German Empire. It was felt that of all Continental Powers she was the one which was most nearly allied to Britain in blood, religion and character.”

He expressed continued consternation that two branches of the German race should be warring against one another, that the Saxons who went upriver should, after only 1500 years, be so different from those who went across the sea. He notes how English regiments would find on the corpses of their Hanoverian enemies insignia matching their own, from campaigns when they had served together.

He lays the blame for the English-German estrangement on the Kaiser, the construction of a massive German navy- and on the most dangerous people of all, fellow writers.

“a number of writers, of whom Nietzsche and Treitschke are the best known, had inoculated the German spirit with a most mischievous philosophy, which grew the more rapidly as it was dropped into the favourable soil of Prussian militarism. Nietzsche’s doctrines were a mere general defence of might as against right, and of violent brutality against everything which we associate with Christianity and Civilization….. The typical brute whom he exalted was blond, but a brute of any other tint would presumably suffice. It was different in the case of Treitschke….. he taught the rising generation of Germans that their special task was to have a reckoning with England and to destroy the British Empire, which for some reason he imagined to be degenerate and corrupt.”

Writing often exerts a power of the minds of men. With such power comes the potential for great danger. Why is it that the German writers of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche, Trietschke, and Marx, could sow so much sorrow in the twentieth? Will books of such power, for good or evil, ever again be written?

Moving back to more definite matters. As he wrote this book in 1916, Arthur Conan Doyle could still speak unashamedly of war in terms of honor and chivalry. He constantly praises self-sacrificing courage on the part of the troops. He refers hundreds of times to “gallant” officers, even as the absurdly high casualty rate meant that most references were to their deaths. Modern war, with its accurate rifles and its machine guns, did not permit many people to survive long enough for a real narrative to coalesce around them. But the author tries his best to see purpose and courage and avoid the words like “pointless”, “futile”, and “stupid”, to which men would soon turn. He could still speak of

“the days when the high gods of virility would smile as they looked down upon the chosen children of Odin, the English and the Germans, locked in the joy of battle.”

Written by James Bailey

July 14, 2008 at 11:25 pm

The Making of an Economist

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Recently finished The Making of an Economist, Redux by David Colander.  The book summarizes surveys and interviews with economics graduate students at some of the top US schools.

Some of its surprising findings:

Most Econ grad students are startlingly ignorant of basic, economics-101 principles.  When questions like “What is GDP?” and “How might the economy be affected by the Fed raising interest rates by a quarter point?” stumped students taking their comprehensive exams, and were promptly removed in favor of the usual abstract, mathematical fare.

They are also startlingly ignorant of economics before 1970, having never read Keynes, Hayek or Smith.

On the brighter side, students mostly felt prepared for the math and enjoyed their grad-school experiences, especially after the first year.

Economics grad school is incredibly international.  Most schools have roughly even numbers of US students and international students; some, like Chicago and Columbia, hardly have any Americans.

The funniest part of the book was the interview with Stanford students.  They described Stanford as being “like a country club, except we get paid.”  They were the most ignorant of economic thought, both historically and currently; most students said they didn’t know a single econ grad student at a school other than Stanford.  My favorite quote from them, when discussing how well math skills predict success, “we should exclude the Asian cohort.”

Apparently the author has been told by a grad school dean that he has done more than any other single person to scare potential students away from economics.

I was glad to glean more information about this somewhat mysterious world.  Some of what I learned was worrying, but certainly not enough to scare me away.

Written by James Bailey

July 14, 2008 at 8:02 pm

Would Edmund Burke have opposed the war in Iraq?

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Edmund Burke, the 19th century British statesman and writer, is something of a patron saint to conservative intellectuals- the same people who spent countless hours arguing about whether the war was a good idea, the same people who largely decided that it was. So I was quite surprised to realize that I’ve never heard this question asked before.

Burke’s most celebrated book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, put forward the most basic conservative idea- that human institutions have evolved as they have for good reasons, and even seemingly unjust and arbitrary institutions should be changed gradually rather than completely overthrown. It is not obvious why overthrowing a government and trying to rebuild a country from the ground up is a better idea in the Iraq of 2003 than it was in the France of 1789. There are arguments to be made, of course, for why this time is different; but, by and large, they were not made. The problem was ignored.

Less famously, Burke was a leading anti-imperialist of his time, advocating a lighter hand in Ireland and India, and supporting the American revolutionaries. He was not a man to easily support the occupation of another nation.

This is the problem with having dead heroes. When they would agree with you, you take comfort in the fact and proclaim it. But when their condemnation should ring loud and clear, we do our best to silence their nagging voice.  When people we claim to respect cannot speak with their own voice, we must remember their words, whether they are convenient for us or not.  This sort of intellectual honesty, practiced widely, could have made for some very different recent history.

Written by James Bailey

July 14, 2008 at 4:19 pm