Showing posts with label: politics. Show all posts.

Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Friday 08 December 2017

I read this book a few months ago, and just decided to write about it after finishing Team of Rivals. The book is about John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. In my high school American history textbook I remember there being maybe a sentence or two about John Brown, which basically said that he was an insane person who went around Kansas killing people in their sleep, before trying to start an insurrection in Virginia, for which he was executed.

The truth is far more nuanced and interesting than this. My best guess as to why I was taught such a different version in school is that high school history is meant to instill patriotism by showing the country in a positive light, and this story has far too much moral ambiguity to do that.

Far from being insane, John Brown seems to have been a very moral person, who was aware of what he was doing, and thought it was for the best, in spite of the violence he was committing. Brown was a very religious man who was very much opposed to slavery. Despite having been raised by a pacifist father, he eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to combat the violence and injustice of slavery was with violence. 

The  Pottawatomie massacre was a response to the sacking of the town of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces, where only one person was killed. Brown and his group killed five people in one night, and this sparked the "Bleeding Kansas" period of violence over the issue of slavery in the state. While killing anyone is in my opinion unjustifiable, I am not sure what the assertion that Brown was "insane" was based on.

After the massacre, Brown continued to support abolitionist causes and had support from many well known abolitionists on the East Coast. After years of planning, Brown finally attempted his raid on Harpers Ferry. He believed that if he got weapons to slaves they would rise and join him in an insurrection. Whether or not he believed his plan could succeed I do not know, but it did not succeed and Brown and most of his men were arrested and executed.

The raid was a very historically important event. The Southerners believed that it was a Northern conspiracy against them, while the Northern abolitionists made him a hero and a martyr who sacrificed his life to help others. Today some people view Brown as a visionary hero who planted the seeds for the Civil War and civil rights, while others - such as the writer of my old history textbook - view him as an insane terrorist. I had not questioned what I was taught in high school before reading this book, but it seems clear that while he may have been a terrorist (depending on how you define the word) he was definitely not insane. He refused offers to be rescued preferring to die and bring attention and support to his cause. It is possible that he never expected his raid to be successful, but no matter how it turned out he would achieve his objective of bringing attention to the abolitionist cause.

While I disagree with his methods, there is no doubt that Brown was a pivotal figure in the history leading up to the Civil War. This was a very interesting and engaging book and I recommend it.


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Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Sunday 03 December 2017

I think enough has been written about this book that there is not much more I can say. It is an amazingly vivid and detailed account of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, painstakingly researched and very engaging. I highly recommend it.

In the beginning of the book it mentions how Lincoln used to debate the portrayal of George Washington in America at the time (and still today) as a flawless saint-like hero. Apparently the issue was over whether it was more important to have national heros or to have a realistic account of history. In American schools this is not an issue - history is always presented as a constant march forward - every problem mentioned is eventually "solved", the personal and political flaws of presidents are never discussed, and the United States never does anything wrong. In my high school American History textbook I remember there being maybe one paragraph about Watergate and maybe a few sentences about the downsides of the Vietnam War. Anything questionable that the US government had ever done - such as supporting authoritarian dictatorships and military coups in the interest of opposing communism - were never even mentioned. Apparently it is more important for American public schools to instill a sense of patriotism and nationalism than to present any sort of objective analysis of history.

After having read the Caro books on LBJ, where Johnson's many, many flaws were detailed, I expected this book to be a more realistic depiction of Lincoln, who was presented in my history class as a saint on par with George Washington and Jesus. I was rather shocked to find very few, if any, negative things about Lincoln. If this is an accurate portrayal then he probably really was close to being the greatest person who has ever lived, and by far the best American president ever. But, being a skeptic at heart, I still have my doubts. 

I am a bit conflicted about the Civil War. While ending slavery was a goal worth fighting over, the other side is that Lincoln's presidency was really the turning point where the power flipped from being primarily held by the states to being held by the federal government. While merely a rationalization for protecting slavery, state's rights is in my opinion an important concept and one that I wish had been preserved. 

If we assume that the country is split roughly 50-50 on a major issue, whatever the government decides to do half the country is not going to be happy about it. If laws are created on a local level each state can make its own decision based on what the people of that state want, which should reduce the percentage of people unhappy with each decision. It seems obvious to me that the more locally decisions are made the better the government will respond to the will of the people. The current system, where the federal government decides most everything and the states can only decide what the federal government allows them to, is in my opinion a recipe for creating the kind of division witnessed in the US today.

As a little tangent, I am not sure I agree that in a democracy the federal government has the right to keep states from seceding. I have been thinking about this lately in light of the Catalan independence referendum in Spain. If the Catalonians don't want to be part of Spain what right do the Spanish people have to dictate what they can or cannot do? Is the the "consent of the people" a non-revokable agreement which will bind everyone and their posterity in perpetuity? Can I grant "consent" for people who are not yet born or do they need to grant it themselves? However, by trying to maintain their "peculiar institution" (without the consent of the slaves) the South lost the right to make any of these types of arguments.

The constitution gives more power to the states than to the federal government, and the Civil War was the point where the federal government really started taking all of that power. Lincoln was only able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a war-time necessity - he did not believe he had the constitutional power to override state laws in a time of peace. Unfortunately Lincoln was assassinated taking with him his moral compass and greater purpose, which was replaced with the petty ambitions, greed and desire for revenge of Andrew Johnson and the radical republicans. If Lincoln had lived it is certain that Reconstruction would have gone very differently, and who knows, the country might have been a much better place than it currently is.

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I just finished two of the four books in Robert Caro's series "The Years of Lyndon Johnson." I read the last two, "Master of the Senate" and "The Passage of Power." I can't really say enough about how good these books were, and I'm really not sure that I need to. They have won Pulitzer Prizes and are widely considered to be among the best political books ever written. At well over 1,000 pages each, they are not exactly casual reading, but they are well worth the effort.

The last history book I wrote about here was "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," and reading the Caro books really highlighted what was wrong with that book as a serious history. Caro does not take a moral position on his subjects. He reports the details of what happened and the reasons why and it's effects, but does not add his personal opinions in. The level of detail indicates the huge amount of research he did to write these books, and the books present a very engaging narrative, but he lets the facts speak for themselves. I also now understand why historians feel that they need some distance from their subject.

What really jumped out at me was how little politics has changed since the days of Johnson. Today, we tend to think of the corruption and influence of money in politics as a relatively recent development but that is absolutely not the case. I believe some of that bias has to do with the way history is taught in American public schools - Presidents are always above reproach, progress is constant, problems are encountered and shortly after are solved never to rear their ugly heads again. (See Lies My Teacher Told Me for an in depth analysis of this.) In school, American history is greatly whitewashed and anything that might reflect badly on the country is eliminated or glossed over. 

One of my favorite stories from these books is how in Johnson's first Senate race, he was behind in votes. Then at the last minute, 300 extra votes were "found" for Johson, in alphabetical order, all in the same handwriting, just enough to put Johnson over the top. While today something like this would be a huge scandal, at the time it didn't seem to be too big of a deal, just business as usual.

Johnson switched position on issues constantly, depending on what would be the most politically favorable stance for him to take. Whether he needed to keep wealthy donors happy, needed to appeal to a segment of the population he felt he needed on his side, or whether it was all just internal Senate posturing he had little hesitation on switching his position whenever it benefitted him to do so. No one knows how he really felt about controversial issues such as civil rights, and it may be that he didn't really have a firm opinion on way or the other besides what was most advantageous at the moment. 

In the end Johnson was a great man because he did great things, not because of his personality or his dedication to social causes. It seems as if all he really cared about was power, and it is just lucky for the world that what he did to gain that power was mostly beneficial to the country, because it could easily have been otherwise.

Although I have been reading these books for months now, I am sad to have finished them and I anxiously await the fifth and final chapter of the Years of Lyndon Johnson, which Caro has said is forthcoming.

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Book: This Changes Everything

Wednesday 17 May 2017

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein, is a book about climate change, and specifically how having a habitable planet is directly at odds with the fundamental tenets of capitalism.

Capitalism is like a shark - it needs to keep moving forward or it dies. Except for capitalism moving forward means constant growth. If there is a year where the economy does not grow it is usually cause for panic. This is kind of a crazy concept to begin with - if there was a company that made the absolute best widgets in the world, and it made a billion dollars a year every year selling these widgets - it would still go out of business because it is not growing. I have thought much about why this is and my best guess is that it has to do with the stock market. Back in the old days most stocks paid dividends and when you bought a stock you were buying the future earning stream of dividends from that stock. This gave an easy and accurate way to price stocks - the present value of the dividends over however long you planned to keep the stock. However speculation has radically changed that. Most people today do not buy stock for the future dividends, they buy it because they hope the price will go up and they can sell if to someone else for more money. The reason the stock price would go up is if the company increases its earnings in the future and pays more dividends. The end result of this is that most stock trading these days is basically speculation - or gambling - that the price of the stock will go up. If the price will not go up there is no reason to buy it, most stocks don't pay even close to enough in dividends to justify their prices. 

But I digress, the point was that capitalism requires infinite growth. This is why companies would rather make poor quality products that will fall apart in a few years than make good quality long-lasting products. They want their customers to have to keep buying new ones, and who cares about all of the raw materials that are used to produce them, and all of the waste generated by people throwing away disposable crap. An example from the book is oil companies, who generally want to have unused oil reserves equal to the amount they are currently extracting. If they don't, it means that they are using up their oil and will eventually run out. This thought process assumes that there is an infinite supply of oil in the ground, and if they can just keep finding it it will never run out. Of course, this assumption is at odds with the fundamental nature of the universe.

This cartoon pretty well sums up my thoughts about people who are against environmental reforms. The most common argument these days seems to be that human carbon dioxide emissions are not the cause of climate change, or don't contribute to it in a meaningful way, so we should go ahead and pollute as much as possible. While to me the thought processes that lead to this conclusion are completely insane, one should never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance. If someone makes money for something, no matter how horrible it is, they will find a way to convince themselves that it is good, or at least tolerable. No one thinks they are evil, the really evil people think everyone else is evil.

The most common argument for continued use of fossil fuels is that the short term economic benefit outweighs the long term harm to the planet. In an economy like ours, based on massive overconsumption, anything that threatens to reduce consumption is anathema. In today's political climate, where most of the power belongs to huge multinational corporations who would be directly effected by any reduction in consumption, such thoughts are unthinkable to any politican who wants to continue to get the corporate money that funds American politics. 

Fossil fuels are very similiar to addictive drugs like heroin. They may be ruining your life and leading to your eventual death, but the quick fix is still preferable to having to go through withdrawal and detox. And now that they have medication to counteract the main side effect of prescription opiates - constipation - you can just add another pill and continue to be addicted. If that pill gives you more side effects at some point someone will invent another pill for those side effects. So instead of solving the problem you just slapping bandaids on it. Getting off of fossil fuels won't be easy, it will be extremely painful and uncomfortable for a while, but in the end it will allow the world to survive and be a better place. 

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Who Stole the American Dream, by Hedrick Smith, is about exactly what you would expect. It explains how and why the wealth in the United States has become so concentrated in the hands of the few. Back in the 1950s and 60s, in what is considered by many to be the height of American prosperity, corporations would act for the benefit of all their stakeholders - their employees, their consumers, society in general. At some point the focus shifted to be on maximizing shareholder value - which means trying to maximize stock price at the expense of everything else. 

The idea of maximizing shareholder value was promoted by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, and like most of their ideas, is a lot better in theory than in practice. The stock market today focuses only on the most recent news and earnings and will punish a small drop in earnings dramatically. This leads corporations to try to maximize their quarterly earnings and ignore any long term considerations. The fact that CEOs get a large portion of their compensation as stock options only increases the incentive for management to focus exclusively on the short term. In the past corporations would regard their employees as long-term assets, and would provide pensions and job security. Today they are more likely to hire the least expensive employees they can find, often in third world countries, and they will offer 401(k)s which require the employees to fund their own retirements. So the working class loses their jobs to offshoring and who benefits? The CEOs who receive massive compensation packages - and the stockholders, who tend to be wealthy individuals.

The book covers a lot of different issues, far too many for me to recount here. The rise of the 401(k) is just one example of how the government has been corrupted by the corporations and the super-rich. Starting in the 1970s, corporations started to take more of an interest in politics, and that influence has grown steadily since. First loopholes in campaign finance laws were used for the wealthy to buy influence with politicians, and then Citizens United basically blew the doors wide open for the wealthy to control the government. 

Thomas Picketty, a French economist, wrote a book about why wealth inequality keeps growing, and it basically boils down to one simple equation: r > g, which means that the return on capital is greater than economic growth. What this means is that those who have money and invest it will make more return on their income (r) than those who works for a living and are dependent on rising wages for greater income. This depends on economic growth (g). This will inevitably lead to wealth concentration, as those who have money can invest it and make more money, while the incomes of those who work for a living are tied to economic growth. 

The book was very comprehensive in addressing the numerous economic and political aspects of this issue. It covers so many different topics one could almost say it was a bit rambling at times. However it was well written enough that the flood of information was never overwhelming. I highly recommend it.

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