The Redskins R.G. III Trade and Napoleon III, Revisited

Greetings,

This is getting a bit of traffic, so I should explain.  I originally wrote this after the 2012 draft.  Then, I revised after the 2014 draft, so some of the comments below will be outdated.

With the recent play of Kirk Cousins, and considering that we drafted him in the 4th round the same year that we drafted Griffin, this is looking like my one real shot at an “I told you so!” moment.

I will savor it.

Many thanks!

Dave

And now, the original addition to the original post. . .

***************************************

I published this already, but the day after the first draft day has me saddened as I compare the round 1 trades of the Cowboys and Redskins.

Redskins: To move up 4 places in the draft, they swapped this #1 picks, plus the next two years of #1’s, plus a second round pick.

Cowboys: To move up 6 places in the draft they swapped #1’s for this year, and also gave up this year’s second round pick.

Both trades were made with the SAME RAMS team.

So either the Cowboys got a massive steal, or the Redskins, as usual, paid far too much to a team they probably could have given less to had they waited.  Either way, the news is not good for Redskins fans.

 

In 1848 Charles Louis Napoleon rode a wave of popular enthusiasm and was elected President of France.  He rode this same wave in 1851, declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III of France, backed by a national plebisite.  Ok — so he wasn’t his more famous, more competent uncle.  He did, however, seem to understand a lesson few other European leaders grasped, that leadership in France and in Europe in the post-Revolutionary era required a deep connection to “the people” to be truly effective.  He began his reign with confidence.

Time passed, however, and Napoleon III proved frustrating and inadequate in his statesmanship.  He flailed about, following one policy, then another, seeking the home run that would make France truly relevant in world affairs once again.  First he started with an authoritarian empire, then switched to be more liberal.  But as he liberalized France at the same time he undermined the power of legislature over France’s finances.  He announced that “the Empire means peace,” but strengthened France’s involvement in Southeast Asia.  He helped forge a new alliance system as a result of the Crimean War, but also undermined that system by his support of national independence movements.  Superior statesman learned to take advantage of him in particular, and France in general.  Dangle something of value, and he runs after it, heedless of the long-term consequences.

Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck would prove to be Napoleon’s undoing.  In Bismarck, Napoleon dealt with  a man of  focus, purpose, and creativity.  When Bismarck wanted war against Austria in 1866, he knew that he needed the French not to intervene.  France and Austria had been enemies off and on, and he counted on Napoleon III to underestimate Prussia’s rising power.  True to form, Napoleon III jumped at the chance to be needed.  “Yes,” perhaps he told himself, “France and I are relevant once again!”

Prussia’s swift and crushing victory over Austria surprised many, and it gave them either direct or indirect control over most of the German provinces.  In the blink of an eye, Prussia undid 200 years of French foreign policy, which aimed at keeping Germany divided.  People in France turned on Napoleon III, who felt humiliated.  He then came up with a solution, another attempt at a home run.  He sent his Foreign Minister to Bismarck with a demand.   “We insist that Prussia cede a portion of German territory as compensation for our neutrality.”  Bismarck easily laughed off this suggestion, and then went one better.  To further Napoleon III’s embarrassment, he published France’s demands in major French papers.  The sun had set on the French Empire, and Napoleon III knew it.

I have been a Redskin fan my whole life.  I had the great fortune of growing up with the glory days during the first Gibbs era.  But Dan Snyder’s reign has inflicted a great deal of suffering on many fans like me.  I don’t question his heart. He wants to win.  Like everyone else, I question his strategy.  The continual bid for the grand slam has given us Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs II, Donovan McNabb, Mike Shanahan, and so on.  Though possessing few actual wins, Snyder managed the marginally impressive feat of staying relevant for the past 12 years by his media-worthy signings.

Now, however, fans are getting restless.  The fabled waiting list of season ticket holders seems not to actually exist.  The umpteenth attempt at a home run in the person of Shannahan has brought  5-11 and 6-10 seasons.  But nothing spells relief like “Quarterback.”  So we made an enormously lopsided trade with St. Louis to acquire the right to draft Robert Griffin III.

I can only imagine the desperation Snyder and Shanahan felt when Peyton Manning chose not to give them the time of day.  He wanted nothing to do with us, and I don’t blame him.  Snyder still had one more chance at executing his favorite move, the “splashy signing.”  Shannahan had one more chance to salvage his legacy.  Beware of an old man in a hurry.  For a king’s ransom, we could still snatch Robert Griffin III.

I can’t help but see parallels.  Napoleon III thought he had scored a great coup with their neutrality in the Austro-Prussian War.  In reality, it was Napoleon who did the dancing.  Bismarck knew just how to play him. . .

How St. Louis must have salivated at the thought of Dan Snyder desperate for relevance, desperate to sell tickets, desperate to create the media buzz he craves and needs to sell those tickets.

I am utterly flabbergasted by columnist Tom Boswell who wrote,

There’s a karmic shadow over this deal, of course. It’s the apotheosis of the whole Daniel Snyder era. Just a few hours after Peyton Manning didn’t even give the Redskins a waltz on his city-hopping dance card, the team completed this blockbuster. Maybe Griffin was always Plan A. But the appearance, around the NFL, was that the Redskins hadn’t even made the first Manning cut. “We’ll-show-’em-we’re-not-dysfunctional” decisions have long been a dysfunctional Redskins trademark. But, sooner or later, one of ’em has to work, right?

The Redskins needed a huge splash for every conceivable reason: to give their fanatic fans a glimpse of glory, not more grief; to give Mike Shanahan a realistic chance to be successful again; to stay dominant in a sports market where other rivals are emerging; and to keep printing money for one of the most valuable sports franchises on earth.

None of the reasons he gives for the trade are actual football reasons, and to hope that at some point even a dysfunctional decision will work is an abdication of responsibility, a resignation to fate.  Boswell later talks about the Redskins suffering from a “curse” as he closes his column:
The Redskins just doubled down on the very same high-profile, high-cost, high-risk (or all-of-the-above) method that has introduced Washington to Deion Sanders, Jeff George, Marty Schottenheimer, Dan Wilkinson, Bruce Smith, Steve Spurrier, Mark Brunell, Adam Archuleta, Sean Gilbert, Jim Zorn, Gregg Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Donovan McNabb and Shanahan. That the list is so long and familiar doesn’t make it any less staggering. RGIII will either demolish an amazing losing streak or confirm a curse.
Again, the idea that we suffer from a curse is absurd.  It reminds me of Napoleon III’s uncle Napoleon I, who said after reflecting on his defeats in exile on St. Helena

The vulgar have never ceased blaming all my wars on my ambition.  But were they of my choosing?  Were they not always determined by the unalterable nature of things?

and

I am the greatest slave among men.  My master is the nature of things.

The most I can say for the venerable Mr. Boswell is that he too is a weary Redskins fan, and subject to that great symptom of weariness, blaming fate.  If one actually looks at Napoleon I, we see that perhaps his invasion of Russia, not fate, had a lot to do with his defeat.  If we look at the Redskins, we see that perhaps their addiction to big names and quick fixes, and not a curse, has put them in their current position.

Whether it be Babylonian dream interpretation during their “Time of Troubles,” or the rise of Stoicism in the Roman Empire, trusting to fate and chance is a tell-tale sign of decline.  Toynbee wrote,

Chance and Necessity are the alternate shapes in which this [passivity] is saluted by its votaries, and while at first sight the two notions may appear to contradict one another to the point of being mutually exclusive, they prove to be merely different facets of one identical illusion.

Whenever you think you must trade your future to draft a player, that is a sure sign that you better not, and start dealing with reality instead.

I hate to be a curmudgeon (well — not always, sometimes it’s fun!), and I usually don’t like to agree with Steve Czaban, but he had it right when he wrote:

The other big argument in favor of this move, is purely emotional. It goes something like this… “After 20 years without a franchise quarterback, you have to pay whatever price it takes.”

Oh, really?

Why? Because Robert Griffin III is the LAST  “franchise” quarterback the college game is ever going to produce? Because if the Redskins don’t make the playoffs this year, the NFL has announced the franchise will be folded forever?

Why?

The answer is simple. The owner is desperate. The coach is desperate. And when the fan base is also desperate, you have fertile conditions for “stupid.”

The rest of his column is here.
At least Napoleon III saw his doom approaching.  When it came after the battle of Sedan, he abdicated.  Snyder will not do this.  We are therefore left with, “But, sooner or later, one of [the dysfunctional decisions] has to work, right?”
Saddened,
Dave

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12th Grade: Does Capitalism need a Socialist Inoculation?

Greetings,

This week we continued our tour through prominent economic thinkers throughout history, and we began with Adam Smith.

Smith wrote in the heyday of mercantilist economic policy in the late 1700’s.  Mercantilism functioned along the following lines:

  • Each nation sought to promote complete economic self-sufficiency.
  • To accomplish this, local economic industries needed protection against foreign competitors, which often meant high tariffs on imports.
  • The great fear in this era was having an imbalance of exports and imports — a trade defecit
  • A country’s money supply needed protected

Smith thought that such a system would in fact impoverish a country, and his response to mercantilism laid the foundations for free-market capitalism ever since.  He revolutionized economic thinking in a variety of ways:

Money and Trade Deficits

Building off of William Petty, Smith argued that money has no value unless its used.  Money is just worthless paper under our mattress.  So we should have no qualms about spending money on things we need or want.  For example, when we go the grocery story we do not walk out thinking, “Hey I gave them my money and all I have to show for it is this bread, milk, eggs, and cereal.”  No one likes to spend money if they don’t have to, but in general we are happy to give the grocery story money rather than make our own milk, cereal, and so on.  We make the exchange because it benefits us.

In the same way, we should be happy to import the goods we need to help make us productive.  Just as we don’t think in terms of the massive “trade deficit” we personally have with Costco, so too we need not worry about how our nation has exchanged money for goods overseas.

Specialization

However nice ad idea self-sufficiency may be, Smith points out that it’s inefficient.  We need only to think of our own talents, and how much better we do in areas of strength.  Wealth should not be measured by how much money we have but the purchasing power of that money.  If your economy operates more efficiently, goods become cheaper.  You may still have just $1, but that $1 can buy more than it used to.  You are wealthier under those circumstances.  This is one way in which a more free market can increase the wealth of a nation.

The “Invisible Hand” vs. Regulation

A free market self-regulates, and the regulating is done by consumers themselves.   If a company charges prices that are too high, people won’t pay it.  No company can profit if it fails to sell its products or services.  Ultimately, people decide the prices of the goods they buy, according to Smith.  This is the market’s “invisible hand.”

The alternatives to a free market is a regulated one.  And who shall make the regulations?  What person has the knowledge and omniscience to set fair prices?  No one does, and woe to those who imagine that they do.  All regulations of the market will hinder the economy and rob people of the freedom to decide what they think is a fair price.  Smith would continue and argue that economic freedom helps foster political freedom.

Smith does have his detractors, or at least, those that want to modify his ideas.  Do we really want the free market to decide everything?  Certainly very few of us would want the market to decide who got liver transplants, for example.  If it did, the wealthy would always get preferential treatment.  Would we accept a completely unregulated meat or medicine market?

Free market ideas along with technological advancements swept across Europe and helped create the Industrial Revolution, and this world gave rise to the next thinker we studied,

Karl Marx

Marx wrote during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution.  Production had increased dramatically, and more products were available to more people more cheaply than ever before in human history.  At the same time, the Industrial Revolution seemed to create a huge gap between the rich and poor, and this helped form the basis of Marx’s thought.

We need to approach Marx with an open mind.  We know that Marxism, as practiced by socialists, did not work. But Marx himself said that would not call himself a “Marxist” as he saw it practiced in his day, and in any case, no one is wrong about everything.  Marx argued the following

The End of Economic Freedom

The I.R. had its origins in economic freedom, but Marx saw it eroding freedom in the end.  What would even Adam Smith think about a nation of small-farmers and independent shop keepers being put out of business.  They end up as “wage-slaves” working for “the man.”  Thomas Jefferson too felt that political freedom had its roots in independent landowning.  Those who have freedom in their private lives will naturally want to have freedom politically.  But could democracy continue if we all answer to the big boss man?  Marx saw no point in pining away for bygone days or halting technological progress.  Rather, as technology changes we need to find new ways to put the means of production back into the hands of ordinary people, the way it was before the I.R.

Herein lies one of Marx’s major concepts: each economic system (including free market capitalism) has an internal logic to it that eventually exhausts itself.  As Marx saw it, capitalism would soon do the same.

Why?

Well, you can make good refrigerators and sell them to lots of people.  But what happens when everyone has a refrigerator?  What happens when the railroad company has no more land to build track on?  At this point, capitalism (according to Marx) either collapses, or buys itself time.

Capitalism can buy itself time only by encouraging wasteful consumption.  You can either a) invent pointless new products and try to fool people into buying them, or b) make your products worse so people will have to buy them more often.  But either option will rob people of freedom, making them stooges of corporations.

All this is the gospel according to Marx.  He had many things wrong.  He put too much stock in the “labor theory of value.”  Capitalism has also found new ways to reinvent itself.  Instead of railroads we came up with cars and planes.  Companies can also find profit in ways besides simple expansion.  Marx also did not see how the market could improve standard of living for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  For example, think of the vastly improved quality of even entry-level cars today compared to 20-30 years ago.  Or we can recall how quickly and steeply the price of dvd players fell in the span of a few short years.

But does Madison Avenue ever attempt to create needs that are not there?  Does our society encourage pointless consumption — and can capitalism survive if this kind of consumption forms its foundation?

In our discussion we pondered some of the historical reasons why capitalism did not collapse when Marx assumed it would.  Some suggested that beginning in Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, we abandoned a more pure liberty/untethered market approach and began to sprinkle in a dash of equality and fairness.  We began to regulate businesses in certain ways.  Organized labor became more prominent.  Did this switch either ..

  • Inoculate capitalism from the full blown socialist disease?  In this view, we prevented the rise of socialism entirely by giving ourselves a small dose of it, to allow the capitalist “body” to produce the necessary resistant to socialism.

OR

  • Put on us on the road to socialism at some point in the future.  Will this be a virus that keeps growing  and slowly learn to take over the system.

Part of the nature of the debate has to do with the ever-present tension between liberty and equality in any democratic system, which can take us back to De-Tocqueville.

Many thanks,

Dave M

Ip Man and The Rise of China, Reconsidered

I posted this a few months ago, but a student of mine recently looked at it and had a brilliant observation of his own that I include below.

Here is the original. . .

I like to watch ‘Kung-Fu’ movies on occasion.  Most of these used to come straight from Hong Kong, but recently movies are starting to come from China proper.  I have seen two such movies and their similar characteristics raised some questions.

The first was “Bodyguards and Assassins,” set in the early 20th century.  The plot revolves around an attempt to assassinate the leadership of the  nascent democratic movement by supporters of the traditional monarchy.

The second was “Ip Man,” a movie where you can safely fast-forward through all talking scenes and not miss much.  Thankfully, most of the movie consists of remarkable fighting scenes.

Both of these movies share in strongly nationalistic sub-plots, along with generally sub-par acting.  These are perhaps to be expected.  What did surprise me was the fact that each of these movies go for over-the-top drawn out emotional endings that are entirely predictable.  In the case of “Ip Man,” they even rejected the real story of Ip Man’s actual resistance to Japanese invaders during World War II and replaced it with something far more maudlin.

It is these over-dramatic endings that have me curious.

Are these over-dramatic endings common to any new creative endeavors embarked upon by people for the first time?  That is, are they likely to overdo it?  Are there similarities between Chinese movies today and the stories (written or film) during America’s rise ca. 1890-1920?  Perhaps there are some similarities with these movies and the stories of Horatio Alger.

Is this the kind of movie likely to be made by a nation on the rise?  In other words, do these dramatic expressions express something of the latent emotions of a people held back for a while?

India is in a similar position to China as far as its national arc is concerned.  Do Bollywood films display this same excessively manipulative emotion?

Or perhaps I am missing something and what I call ‘overdone’ is just right for Asian cultures as whole.  Is anyone familiar with media from Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, etc?

A friend suggested that the endings I described reflected how authoritarian cultures tell stories.  Think of Stalinist era propaganda stories.  If so, how authoritarian is China with its artists?

Again, a comparison with India would be helpful here.

This is the extent of my knowledge of foreign film.  I have many questions, and if anyone might have some answers or suggestions, do please respond.

Thus ends the original post.

The student’s theory was that Ip Man is a lot like Rocky in the construction of its story.  The Rocky template is the standard underdog story, of one man rising up against the system, or an unbeatable champion.  Ip Man turns that template on its head, however.  It is not about an underdog.  Anyone with knowledge sees he’s obviously the best at his craft.  He just needs a platform large enough so that others can give him his due.

Both Ip Man and Bodyguards and Assassins are basically national epics, so Ip Man can be easily seen as a stand-in for China.  In contrast, Rocky clearly is about an individual.

Great stuff!  Please keep comments like that coming.

Recently I saw the Jet-Li movie Fearless.  Jet-Li has starred in many American films, and has no doubt imbibed something of a western ethos.  But I think this movie had many distinctive Chinese themes.  The movie was just so-so for me, but I did find the tension between the two competing kinds of stories within the movie.  On the one hand, it is “western” in that Li’s character goes through a transformation and has to prove himself, which is not at all like Ip Man.  On the other hand, Li’s character fights “foreign-devils” just as in Ip Man 2, with strong nationalist overtones.  We will see if Chinese cinema changes if their political culture ends up more western than it is today.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

Warning: The Ip Man trailer has a bit of blood.

Bathroom History and Fungible Human Values

I always enjoy when History presents us with unexpected curveballs.  Blindsided, our perceptions get challenged and the present, as well as the past, can be illumined even by  so-called unimportant aspects of civilization.

One of those unusual bits of flotsam for me are toilets.

Anyone who studies History will ruminate on the question,  “What part of the past would you like to live in?” It usually draws interesting responses from students.  But mention the lack of indoor plumbing and most anyone gets drawn right back into the present.

Flush toilets have a longer history than we might assume.  Their mass production took until the late 19th or early 20th century.  When we consider the infrastructure needed, like piping, drainage systems, and so on, this should not surprise us.  But the flush toilet existed long before in limited use, possibly even in ancient Minoan civilization.  In the modern era, we know that Tudor England developed the flush toilet, and Eilzabeth I had the chance of using a private one herself.

But she didn’t want to.

According to curator and author Lucy Worsley, Elizabeth’s preference for the chamber pot had to do with her concept of royalty.  She would not flee like some subject to the almighty toilet, the toilet would answer to her — in the form of a servant or two carrying the appropriate accoutrements.  To go “to” the bathroom offended her sense of royal dignity.

Who today would choose a chamber pot while others hovered nearby over a private flush toilet?  Had I heard half of the story without the ending, I would assume that Elizabeth would have claimed the new invention as an “executive privilege,” much like some Executive Washrooms today.

Elizabeth’s actions have  echoes in Lyndon Johnson, who according to Robert Caro, used to make his aides follow him to the bathroom when he became a congressman.  This likely had little to do with his desire to continue to conduct their business (no matter the nature of his business in the john), and served more as a way to demonstrate his power and provide a loyalty test.

But most of the time, I’m sure Johnson chose to be by himself.

Not all societies insisted even on relative privacy when it came to bodily functions.  The Romans, for example, had no qualms about sharing space in what we would consider to be an intimate moment, as this public restroom makes clear:

I believe strongly in the uniformity of human nature.  History makes no sense without this bedrock truth applied to it.  However, I do think that a study of bathrooms reveals in a small way how the “geography” of a time and place and  its context relative to other priorities, impacts other values we may have.  Human nature has an unalterable core but our values may be fungible at the periphery.

We need not think that Queen Elizabeth or the Romans placed no value on privacy.  Rather, in their hierarchy of values, privacy did not occupy the pride of place it does for many Americans today.  Queen Elizabeth valued her sense of royal imperium more than privacy.  The Romans valued community more than privacy. They could easily have erected barriers in their mini-stalls of they wanted to.

For the record — I have no problem serving as an apologist for the “Privacy” camp and advocating for indoor plumbing.

12th Grade: The Mystery of Capital

Greetings,

This week we began our look at economic theorists throughout history and some basic principles surrounding economics in general.  This will culminate when the students form rival companies and compete with each other, with the rest of the school as customers.

We spent most of our time trying to understand exactly what money really is, and how it functions.  The title of this post is taken from a book by the famous economist Hernando de Soto, but it also describes my own personal feelings.  Money has a fungible, mysterious identity, but hopefully we reached common ground on a few key ideas.

We often make the mistake of thinking that money is a “real” thing, that it has a natural and inherent value to it.  Rather, money symbolizes or signifies some agreed upon purchasing power.  A strict barter economy makes much more sense after all. If two people exchange a bushel of wheat for a barrel of apples, we immediately see how both sides get value from the transaction.  Although even the wheat and apples do not have absolute fixed values.  If you hate apples, they would not be worth much to you.  If the wheat harvest failed it would have greater value than in previous years.  Still, the transaction seems rooted in understandable reality.

But, I wonder, who was the first person who decided to trade away something tangible and useful, such as bread or animal skins, for shiny rocks?

Of course money  has many advantages to barter economies.  They function much more efficiently, for one.  Shopping is much easier with a pocketful of coins, as opposed to a wagon load of things to trade.  However, a money economy depends on shared societal belief to a much greater degree than barter.  Society must take a collective leap of sorts, for what would happen to our economy if one day the managers of grocery stores said, “Why should I give you this bread and milk?  All you’re giving me in return are these small pieces of paper!”

So, the value of money depends at least in part on a shared, created belief.  But this does not mean that money can simply be invented out of thin air.  Money may not be fully real, but it must be based on something real, be it labor, a product — something.

After laying that groundwork we began our quick look at economic theorists throughout history.  We started with a brief comparison between the Dutch and Spain around the turn of the 17th century.  Spain had an overseas empire that allowed them to bring piles of silver into the country.  The Dutch too, had some overseas trade, but they helped pioneer the idea of the corporation and the stock market.  At first glance, we might expect a mountain of silver to defeat a nascent stock market, but in fact the reverse happened.  How could this be?

When the Bush and Obama administrations gave bailout packages to various financial industries, many commented something along the lines of, “If the government is going to give out all that money, they could just give it to families, and each would receive $35,000.”  Would this have worked?  I asserted that if this had been done, everyone would have more money, but no one would be any richer.  If everyone is special, no one is.  Prices would likely rise, and inflation would kick in.

This happened in Spain.  The supply of silver increased significantly, but prices even more so.  Part of this had to do with how the Spanish used their silver, but the basic principle still holds.  Their silver created no wealth.  In contrast, the Dutch stock market created a system whereby the flow of capital could be constant, and that money would be used to further develop companies.  Thus, the stock market would have a better chance of reflecting “real” value than a pile of silver.  Of course, this serves as only a cursory explanation.

John Law had a checkered career as a financial advisor, but he came up with a couple financial innovations that have done much to influence modern finance.

  • Credit is Money

Money’s value comes from the fact that people trust it.  Without trust, money could not function.  Thus, trust forms the basis of all purchasing power.  Suppose you had no actual money to your name, but did possess a notarized I.O.U. from Bill Gates for $1 million, payable by the end of next week.  We surmised that you could use that credit as money, or at least to secure a loan.

When we use credit cards, for example, no money changes hands at that moment.  The store trusts the credit companies to pay them, the credit companies trust us to pay our bill.  Credit would not work without trust, but we can take it one step further.  Trust can function like money.

  • Credit and Governments

Law argued that since governments have the power to tax, they can issue money against themselves in a crisis.  Borrowing against yourself would force governments, he argued, to pay it back.  To not recollect the money would de-legitimize their whole standing with the people and destroy their currency. If the people don’t trust the government to pay it back, then you have bigger problems than mere financial difficulties.  The government itself would collapse.  Given that this option comes with more pain than repaying the loan, Law thought, governments would choose to recollect in the form of taxes later.

Governments certainly have used this idea numerous times, sometimes with great success, other times it has led to disaster.  But that is part of Law’s point.  Governments risk a lot through this mechanism, and if they’re not “good for it” than they don’t deserve to govern.

In his book, The Cash Nexushistorian Niall Ferguson speculated that one reason why democratic countries have more financial success than other forms of government is the flexibility given through governing by consent.   Since governance through consent has more stability, these governments have more trust in the international community.  This trust leads to more purchasing power.

Next week we’ll look at Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Keynes, and Hayek.  Have a great weekend.

Dave Mathwin

“Cain built a city, but Abel. . .”

Soon Romney will have enough delegates secured and the 2012 presidential campaign will begin in earnest.  All who lack excitement are forgiven.

One theme of the coming campaign is sure to be the economy.  Candidates will talk about creating jobs, and innovation as the key to a strong economy, and a strong economy as the key to a strong country.

Sir Peter Hall’s Cities and Civilization is quite a long read and I have just started it.  But already I am intrigued at the prospect of trying to achieve historical perspective on just what makes cities thrive, and how “golden ages” come about.  Though I have just begun, a few things have already struck me:

  • Vienna glittered in the late 19th and early 20th century, but not for its creature comforts.  Hall noted that the Viennese remained almost indifferent to the new technologies that had arisen in their time.  In contrast to other cities, suburbs had no piped water, with hardly any phones, and almost no bathrooms.
  • Vienna’s cultural golden age owed much to  immigrants, or at least, non-Tuetonic Viennese like the Jewish middle and upper-middle classes (cheers from the left and libertarians).
  • In Periclean Athens, perhaps the most glittering of all western epochs, citizens faced no direct taxation (cheers from the right), but all were more or less expected to voluntarily donate money to the state, especially the rich (cheers from the left).  Indirect taxes had erratic application.  Of course we should realize that Athens financed much of their democracy through tribute from their overseas empire (cheers from hopefully no one!).
  • As in Vienna, Athenian creature comforts practically did not exist.  We are used to the glory of the Acropolis, but archaeologists reveal that Athenian homes were bare and primitive.  Athenian diets did not venture beyond the staples, and foreign visitors remarked how badly planned Athens seemed (cheers from the “back in my day” crowd).

Both Athens and Vienna created golden ages, by seemingly

  • Not caring about technology
  • Combining a curious mix of strong individualism and strong public attachments.
  • Not caring much about personal wealth.

As Kenneth Clarke noted, civilization needs a moderate amount of wealth to get by, but too much money will make any nation lethargic.

In short, vibrant economies and technological innovation will not create greatness.  Greatness comes by seeking something else, something higher.  St. Augustine said as much when he wrote in his The City of God,

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none.

And C.S. Lewis discussed something similar when he elucidated the principle of “First and Second Things,” in his classic essay of the same name, excerpted here below:

The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.

The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.

It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?

Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.

. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

I don’t know if I would have voted for Santorum had he received the nomination, but good Catholic that he is, he rightly stated that, “[W]e hear this all the time: cut spending, limit the government, everything will be fine. No, everything’s not going to be fine.  There are bigger problems at stake in America.”

Kentucky Wins and “There’s Nothing to See Here!”

For  years in the upper echelon of college football and basketball, the notion of the players as “student-athletes” has been stretched to the limit.  Now, along comes John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats to end the charade once and for all.

In the past, we could always count on a team assembled of “one-and-done” players to self-destruct in some way. The players would be selfish, or wouldn’t gel together when it really mattered.  But not this Kentucky team.  Even curmudgeonly commentators noted how unselfish the players were on offense, and how well they played team defense.

But never fear, the NCAA rode into the Final Fourt to fix the situation, in the best way they know how: a silly, ridiculous rule.  As Pierce notes in aforementioned article, reporters had instructions at press conferences not to call Kentucky’s players “players,” but “student-athletes.”  So, for example, a reporter would have to phrase the question along the lines of, “Coach, how do you expect your, ah. . . student-athletes to handle the Louisville defense?” The press conferences came with NCAA bureaucrat attached, ready to enforce the rule.

“There’s nothing to see here!”

The NCAA has long had the problem of inherent contradictions embedded within, and has long sought to fix it in the worst way possible, through rules.  As Tocqueville commented,

The best laws cannot make a constitution work in spite of morals; morals can turn the worst laws to advantage. That is a commonplace truth, but one to which my studies are always bringing me back. It is the central point in my conception. I see it at the end of all my reflections.

When you resort to law to fix culture, you reveal a weakness that predators can smell a mile away.  Law cannot fix culture by itself.

But an attorney friend of mine challenged that assumption in regard to the Civil Rights movement.  Surely, he argued, the Civil Rights Acts of 1965 and 1968 accomplished more change than some amorphous “culture” did .  I countered with the claim that civil rights efforts from Brown v. BOE to the March on Washington laid the foundation upon which law could build, but unfortunately my knowledge of that period lacks the necessary depth for me to be sure.

Or what about the whole question of gay marriage?  Some argue that law has led the fight in this issue, against the general culture, with stunning success.  But again, I’m not so sure.  Maybe the movies, tv shows, and such laid the groundwork for the charge?  The broader question is, if the movement relies on law/judges to lead the way, will they have ultimate success?  As always, I would be curious for anyone’s thoughts on the question, and here is one opinion from the UK.