Jul 032015

Dear Strict Constructionist:

Please explain to me why the second amendment does not protect my right to build an unlimited arsenal of inter-continental nuclear rockets in my back yard? I mean if my home owners association approved, of course.

Obviously no sane person would allow this, but you are strict constructionist so what sane people would or would not do is moot, right? All that matters is the text, right? So please show me where in the text it allows a line to be drawn between muskets and nuclear arsenals and why that line should not be far closer to muskets than rockets.

I eagerly await your response.

Thank you.

 Posted by at 10:50 pm
Jul 032015

What I’ve learned these last 15 years (listening to talk radio)

* Greed is good (ignore Bernie Madoff, Enron, and all those pesky financial crisis)

* Lowering taxes is the best way to boost the economy (pay no attention to Kansas)

* Austerity is the best thing for Greece (don’t look at Greece)

* QE will cause hyperinflation by 2010 (it actually happened but the gov is hiding it from us)

* Obamacare will destroy jobs (ignore the 220K+ average monthly job growth the last two years)

* We will never get our money back from the bank bailout (OK, so we profited $55.2 billion so far from those loans but its still bad to loan money to the banks that form the backbone of the global financial system because potato)

* The Confederate “battle” flag represents southern heritage (it is and was in no way a symbol of the declaration of war on the United States of America to preserve the ownership of slaves. Why would you even think that?)

* Abraham Lincoln was no different than Stalin (isn’t learning fun?)

* The problem of gun violence in America can only be solved with more guns (how could anyone disagree really?)

* Illegal immigrants commit crimes in the US at a higher rate than US citizens (despite what all those studies say)

* Temperatures are not rising (don’t believe a word those global conspirators or “scientists” say)

* Cigarettes do not cause cancer (OK, I was listening to some replays recently)

* Interracial marriage is an abomination to God (more replays)

* Lead in gasoline is perfectly harmless (it’s a holiday; everything is on replay!)

* The best way to stop people from smoking weed and giggling at cartoons is to spend billions in militarization. Oh, and lots and lots of prisons (really, what problem can guns and confinement in cages not solve?)

* Making things illegal prevents them from happening (don’t watch the news or go outside or you may have trouble accepting this. Just close your eyes and believe. Actually, that’s really the best advice for all of these lessons)

* Obama is a socialist (pay no attention to that free trade agreement thing. Don’t let the fact that the Chamber of Commerce supports it confuse you)

* The Mexican government is exporting rapists to America (proven by the fact that 80% of the women coming to America illegally are raped along the way. Wait, did the rapists get stuck to them or something? Don’t think about it just keep going)

* The police do not treat black people poorly (true, you do have to be white to believe this but that does not mean there is bias on either side)

* There is nothing worse than a liberal, not even ISIS (in fact, ISIS was most likely caused by liberals)

* Speaking of ISIS, they are the only ones who truly understand the Koran (ignore the other 99% of the Muslim population)

* If you disagree with any of these truths you are stupid and evil (this is really the only point of talk radio – to identify the stupid and evil people and call them by name: “liberals”)

* Lastly, what I have learned is that political talk radio is not journalism. It is not about facts. As a producer, I have rarely been able to get the facts on the air. In the end talk radio (vanity radio) is a form of tabloid gossip which feeds off of a very dark impulse in human nature: the need to label and accuse and blame our neighbor. To understand this fully, learn about the role of the scapegoat in human psychology and sociology. Read the Old Testament. Read about the ancient role of the actual scape goat. Then read the New Testament and read about the ultimate scape goat. And never forget Satan’s title: The Accuser. We are tribal creatures. We thrive on conflict and for that, we need enemies. And this is what talk radio gives us. Talk radio gives us our enemies. Talk radio gives us our daily scape goats. It is very profitable business for those who serve it up well. On the inside we call it “entertainment”. Because we know this sad truth: it is fun to hate. Enjoy and happy scape-goating.

 Posted by at 10:43 pm
Mar 172015
I find the human story fascinating. The history or our quest for justice and peace, rooted in our memory of paradise. We seek and we desire, we want and we aspire, we are drawn to something we cannot see or understand, but we believe and we are restless for something more. We are pilgrims trying to find our home.
But we get lost and we get sidetracked and just when we thought we found what we were looking for we realize that it is another mirage. And I love it. Because I love the human. I love the human way that we go wrong. Because it is always the same way, the human trying to go right. We want the good, all of us. And yet we fall into the pit again and again. Like Mattie in True Grit, who just wants justice, wants what is right. And she gets justice. But something is missing. And of course, because isn’t something always missing? The pilgrim is always on the journey. And he goes through the desert, the muck and the mire. And yet, along the way he glimpses the glory of what is to come and so he believes and he keeps on going, keeps on living, because he wants what has been promised, seeks what has been promised. The human keeps going and I love him for that. He goes in all directions because he is human and it is his nature to go, go, go. And I laugh because it is his destiny to fail, especially when he succeeds the most. 
It is a fun, fascinating, glorious trip. I have faith that God is at the other end of it and that his love of us will prevail over all of our silly misadventures.
Meanwhile, I cannot help but to marvel and delight in the journey as we make our way, confusedly and misguidedly to Him and His promises which we desire above all.
 Posted by at 3:18 pm
Jan 042015

From the book, World Order by Henry Kissinger

The Thirty Years War

[Cardinal] Richelieu saw the turmoil in Central Europe not as a call to arms to defend the Church but as a means to check imperial Hapsburg preeminence. Though France’s King had been styled as the Rex Catholicissimus, or the “Most Catholic King,” since the fourteenth century, France moved – at first unobtrusively, then openly – to support the Protestant coalition (of Sweden, Prussia, and the North German princes) on the basis of cold national-interest calculation.

To outraged complaints that, as a cardinal, he owed a duty to the universal and eternal Catholic Church – which would imply an alignment against the rebellious Protestant princes of Northern and Central Europe – Richelieu cited his duties as a minister to a temporal, yet vulnerable, political entity. Salvation might be his personal objective, but as a statesman he was responsible for a political entity that did not have an eternal soul to be redeemed. ‘Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter,’ he said. ‘The state has no immortality, its salvation is now or never.’

This development, early in the Thirty Years War, is worth noting as it is the first time a politician implements the raison d’ etat of Machiavelli. At the end of the Thirty Years War it is France that emerges as the powerhouse of Europe. This important lesson of history would not be forgotten. It is safe to say it continues to be the operating principle of statecraft to this day.


The Peace of Westphalia

The Peace of Westphalia that emerged from these convoluted discussions is probably the most frequently cited diplomatic document in European history, though in fact no single treaty exists to embody its terms. Nor did the delegates ever meet in a single plenary session to adopt it.

… Both of the main multilateral treaties proclaimed their intent as “a Christian, universal, perpetual, true, and sincere peace and friendship” for “the glory of God and the security of Christendom.” The operative terms were not substantially different from other documents of the period. Yet the mechanisms through which they were to be reached were unprecedented. The war had shattered pretensions to universality or confessional solidarity. Begun as a struggle against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire it had turned into a free-for-all of shifting and conflicting alliances. Much like the Middle Eastern conflagrations of our own period, sectarian alignments were invoked for solidarity and motivation in battle but were just as often discarded, trumped by clashes of geopolitical interests or simply the ambitions of outsized personalities. Every party had been abandoned at some point during the war by its “natural” allies; none signed the documents under the illusion that it was doing anything but advancing its own interests and prestige.

Paradoxically, this general exhaustion and cynicism allowed the participants to transform the practical means of ending a particular war into general concepts of world order. With dozens of battle-hardened parties meeting to secure hard-won gains, old forms of hierarchical deference were quietly discarded. The inherent equality of sovereign states, regardless of their power of domestic system, was instituted. Newly arrived powers, such as Sweden and the Dutch Republic, were granted protocol treatment equal to that of established great powers like France and Austria. All kings were referred to as “majesty” and all ambassadors “excellency.”

… The Peace of Westphalia became a turning point in the history of nations because the elements it set in place were as uncomplicated as they were sweeping. The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European order. The concept of state sovereignty was established. The right of each signatory to choose its own domestic structure and religious orientation free from intervention was affirmed, while novel clauses ensured that minority sects could practice their faith in peace and be free from the prospect of forced conversion. Beyond the immediate demands of the moment, the principles of a system of “international relations” were taking shape, motivated by the common desire to avoid a recurrence of total war on the Continent. Diplomatic exchanges, including the stationing of resident representatives in the capitals of fellow states were designed to regulate relations and promote the arts of peace. The parties envisioned future conferences and consultations on the Westphalian model as forums for settling disputes before they led to conflict. International law, developed by traveling scholar-advisors such as Hugo de Groot (Grotius) during the war, was treated as an expandable body of agreed doctrine aimed at the cultivation of harmony, with the Westphalian treaties themselves at its heart.

The genius of this system, and the reason it spread across the world, was that its provisions were procedural, not substantive. If a state would accept these basic requirements, it could be recognized as an international citizen able to maintain its own culture, politics, religion, and internal policies, shielded by the international system from outside intervention. The ideal of imperial or religious unity – the operating premise of Europe’s and most other regions’ historical orders – had implied that in theory only one center of power could be fully legitimate. The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point and drew a variety of multiple societies, each accepted as a reality, into a common search for order. By the mid-twentieth century, this international system was in place on every continent; it remains the scaffolding of international order such as it now exists.


The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, probably the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment period, … developed a concept for a permanent peaceful world order. Pondering the world from the former Prussian capital of Konigsberg, casting his gaze on the period of the Seven Year’s War, the American Revolutionary War, and the French Revolution, Kant dared to see in the general upheaval the faint beginnings of a new, more peaceful international order.

Humanity, Kant reasoned, was characterized by a distinctive “unsocial sociability”: the “tendency to come together in society, coupled, however, with a continual resistance which constantly threatens to break this society up.” The problem of order, particularly international order, was “the most difficult and the last to be solved by the human race.” Men formed states to constrain their passions, but like individuals in the state of nature each state sought to preserve its absolute freedom, even at the cost of “a lawless state of savagery.” But the “devastations, upheavals and even complete inner exhaustion of their powers” arising from interstate clashes would in time oblige men to contemplate an alternative. Humanity faced either the peace of “the vast graveyard of the human race” or peace by reasoned design.

The answer, Kant held, was a voluntary federation of republics pledged to non-hostility and transparent domestic and international conduct. Their citizens would cultivate peace because, unlike despotic rulers, when considering hostilities, they would be deliberating about “calling down on themselves all the miseries of war.” Over time the attractions of this compact would become apparent, opening the way toward its gradual expansion into a peaceful world order. It was Nature’s purpose that humanity eventually reason its way toward “a system of united power, hence a cosmopolitan system of general political security” and “a perfect civil union of mankind.”

 Posted by at 12:07 pm
Dec 302014

She had said – what exactly? Something about her ghostly heart. Such strange, interesting words. A ghost heart. What does it mean to have a ghost heart he wondered? A ghostly ghost heart. Something you might hear in an old folk song.

“Oh, my heart, my poor murdered heart,
Why won’t you die, my haunted ghost heart?”

He began to wonder at her with his grey unblinking eyes. And his wondering was an inexhaustible conversation that ran to the very horizon of himself, winding deep and long to the disappeared edge of his being.

We can never know what it is that happens to people can we? What really happens, I mean. In the heart? Each one of us is a boundless mystery. Even to ourselves. Infinite like the endless sea. The deep dark sea upon which floats the great wide world. We sail along the surface of these limitless depths toward an everlasting horizon that we never meet. And the edge we see at sight’s end is just an illusion; there is no edge at all.

And who knows themselves, really? Can anyone tell what it is, to be? Can any person lay it on the table for any other? Even for themselves?

Can Existence ever explain itself to Non-Existence?

You just don’t get it, Existence would say, shaking his wearied head. Even you have it in a special sort of way – albeit an inscrutable, impenetrable, inexplicable way. For it is from you that I have become, that I am becoming, and to you that I will return.

His thoughts came in crashing waves like a rough and restless river threatening to spill out and over the bank of his mind, desperate to find the great tranquil sea. A secret sea that these waters had never known. Or perhaps only known once – long, long ago. Before the memory was.

But it is not Non-Existence that I am becoming, he continued. Things aren’t always what they seem. Even this horizon is just an illusion. Do we ever reach the edge? Or is there always more on the other side?

“Sometimes he thought, wherefore? And sometimes he thought, inasmuch as which? And sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.”

She said she had a ghost heart. She sounded like a folk song.

Whatever it meant, he knew that life and death were part of it and whatever it was, this life-after-death ghostly thing – it lived inside of her. And he began to fear that it was inside of him, too. He looked at the girl and thought, yes, it is there, something is there. He could see it in her eyes, whatever it was.

He always knew that the pain would come. Someday. Isn’t that what the books had said? The books he had been reading since he was a boy? Books about the pain and suffering of this world and the heroic endurance of it all. Books about things he did not know, but things that were sure to come.

She sounded like a folk song. And what about those folk songs? Didn’t they also speak of what would come? People growing old. People dying. Hearts being murdered. Hearts that wouldn’t die.

Surely this world draws its share of blood from each of us. And he knew that one day he would have to add his drop to the endless eternal sea. The blood red sea rising and falling beneath the inexhaustible blazing sun.

There is more suffering in this world than you can imagine, friend. More in this little town, even. More loss sustained by one single ghostly ghost heart than even the great wide world can bear. One day he would know this all too well. One day he would have a ghost heart of his own. And that day, he thought, would be like meeting an old friend from long, long ago. Before the memory was.

That was something else he had read, in another book. There were songs for that too, he thought.

“Oh, my heart, my everlasting heart,
You cannot kill my holy ghost heart.”


 Posted by at 8:54 pm
Dec 202014

I have a story idea. Maybe a book. It’s about a naive, small-town boy who is full of wanderlust and becomes dissatisfied with the smallness of the town where he was born and so he leaves home for the big city – to learn about the real world. Soon he lands a job working with some political activists. The first thing he learns about the real world is that there are a lot more bad guys in it than he realized. “Don’t even get me started about Woodrow Wilson,” one of his mentors would tell him. “Worst sort of human being you can find! The man almost single-handedly destroyed the world – and all but destroyed America, too. Only by the grace of God are we still standing – and I don’t know for how much longer at that!” (The good thing is that I can use actual conversations that I hear at work to spice things up – like this one about Woodrow Wilson, which I heard Friday)

Eventually, the boy would learn to hate men like Woodrow Wilson, men who had all but destroyed the good earth. Men like that had to be stopped at all cost. It would make him angry just thinking about it. How good the world is and how much these men had messed it all up. But the boy would also learn that the bad men had not all lived in the past. The boy would learn that some monsters are still with us. Like the time someone simply mentioned the name Ben Bernanke and another one of his colleagues was thrust into an involuntary seizure of rage that lasted 2 hours. The poor man suffered what seemed to the boy something like an epileptic fit. The sheer amount of malicious profanity than ran through this man! It was as if he were possessed by some righteous spirit that had been awakened by the mere conjuring of a name so evil.

The boy would learn to bristle at such names. The mere thought of these scheming men would be enough to make the boy lose his appetite for days at a time. Then the righteous spirits began to come to him too. He began to write things down, like the thoughts that would come to him when he heard the name of one of the evil ones. He started a blog and became famous for telling the world the prophetic truth about these men and the danger they posed to the good earth. Because it was worse even than the people knew. But the boy knew. The spirits were with him now and he told the world just how bad it was, how bad these men really were, and how someone needed to do something about it before it was too late.

Not sure how to end the story. I am considering something along the lines of Catcher in the Rye but that seems cliche. maybe something more Gatsby-esque? A story of a great longing, the unquenchable desire and a dream of the world that the world cannot hold up to. A boy in a small town who loves to read about the great big world in the newspaper. The over-arching idea is to take the boy from a point of innocence, from not understanding why there is so much fighting back and forth, why everyone is so angry at each other and then slowly converting him to the violent tip of the very sword he once could not understand. At some point I would like to bring the boy back home to his small town to bring into full contrast the transformation he has made, perhaps bringing the inevitable violence of the story to a catastrophic end where it began, in the desire for something more than what the small, sad town seemed to offer in the beginning of the story.

I will need to build a love interest into the story, and of course, because this is an obvious tragedy, someone has to die – probably the boy, at least. Maybe others.

Not sure about a title. Maybe “The Boy Who Loved the News.” Or,

 Posted by at 4:34 pm
Dec 202014

The two girls never seemed to put their phones down all through lunch. When their food arrived, they both took a photo of their plates before they started eating. One girl even showed the other one the photo she took of the food which was still sitting untouched on the table.

Fascinating creatures, he thought.

But his curiosity was roused by more than the mere ubiquity of their smart phone use at the lunch table – a practice that was all too familiar, and frankly, hardly worth mentioning. Several of the adults in the restaurant were just as preoccupied with their phones. No, he was fascinated by something else. These were teenage girls in high school, after all. The ultimate mystery of the universe.

There was something that was just scary about them, he thought – and he wasn’t sure what it was exactly. And it wasn’t that they were particularly beautiful. One girl was tall and thin and not unattractive but not  intimidatingly pretty either. The other was shorter, with freckles and rosy cheeks. She was cute, but again, not intimidatingly so. These were just your average teenage girls. Probably not the popular girls but not the untouchables either.

What is it about this creature, the teenager, that is so disarming, he wondered?

Maybe it was the honesty of their faces, he thought. Maybe it was simply that those faces told the truth. Still too young to have formed a permanently cheerful social demeanor to wear in public, their faces betrayed a sense of general boredom, a dissatisfaction with the ordinariness of everything.

What is so scary about meeting the gaze of such a face is that it has not learned to lie – or is not willing to – not just for your benefit, that is.  The teenager’s face is not yet willing to offer up the politeness of a comforting smile when entering a room, for example. No. Not these faces. Not the teenage face. The teenage face is still young enough to glare at strangers; young enough even to scowl at family – naive faces with eyes that do not hide their contempt. Eyes that radiate judgment upon every last thing. It is the eyes of the teenager that deliver reckoning upon the world.

On the one hand he watched their faces to better know a certain truth about the world which he had forgotten. But on the other hand it was scary to watch such faces because they will also tell you the truth about yourself and he did not want to see the truth about himself.

This is what the teenager represents, he thought: that beautifully hopeful creature who has finally gazed upon the real world, only to be let down. The eyes of the teenager accuse you of being complicit with the world’s shortcomings, as if it is your fault that the world is the way it is; as if all of us, we, the older generations, have failed to deliver to them the world that they know they deserve. The eyes of the teenager seemed to say, “Is this the best you can do? Are you really satisfied – with this? With this?”

He was worried that he was staring too much. But they did not seem to see him, even when they looked right at him. The shorter girl, the cuter one, met his eyes one time and he thought he was caught but it was as if she saw right through him. He was reminded of how a cat will look at you sometimes. They see you, but they don’t see you. It is as if you are just another piece of furniture in their world. The eyes register only boredom after having fallen on you, as if expecting to find something interesting but disappointedly discovering only another chair.

I am invisible to them, he thought.

The man looked around the restaurant trying to imagine what the girls would see. A bunch of sad old people is all. It must be their age, he thought. Their lack of it, that is. A lack of experience, and perhaps, therefore, of empathy.

There was an elderly woman in a wheelchair sitting behind the girls at a table of five: mother, father, and two sons. The mother had wheeled the old lady in. Mother and daughter, the man thought. The boys were a little older than the girls he had been observing. Perhaps teenagers still, but probably a little older, he thought. They made more of an effort to pretend to not be bored than the girls did.

The man looked back to the girls. What did they see? What could they see? They know nothing about being old. They know nothing of loss. They cannot imagine the sacrifice of raising a family, of taking care of a parent. They really are like cats, the man thought. They do not really see people, they only see the appearances of people. They see wrinkles and sagging, old skin. Those eyes might bring judgment, but not justice.

The man began to look around at the other people in the restaurant. He looked at the woman sitting to his right, behind the flowers on the divider that separated the section he was in from the one where the woman sat. She was probably in her seventies. She had white hair and a wrinkled, pretty face. She too was sharing lunch with her friend. She did not have a phone (of course) and she did not look bored. She was fully present in her conversation – even when she was just listening. Her gaze remained fixed on her friend. There was a sparkle in her eyes and a kindness on her face that comes when you are genuinely enjoying company and conversation. The man appreciated this and he was thankful for the woman.

And then the man began to feel something different toward the girls. He realized that one day the ordinariness of sitting across the table with a friend at lunch on a Saturday afternoon would be treasured for the extraordinary gift that it really is. How could those girls possible know that? Only age can teach such lessons.

The man watched as the two young girls got up to leave. No, their faces do not lie, he thought, but they do not tell the whole truth either. And how could they? They are only teenagers.




 Posted by at 2:24 pm
Dec 142014

The Deluge by Adam Tooze

This book, written by an economist, offers an interesting analysis of of the period from 1916 to the Great Depression. Tooze picks an interesting moment to begin the book – 1916, The Battle of Verdun, the moment the money ran out for the Allies and America became the world’s banker (NY supplanting London), and therefore the hegemonic power of the world, which continues to this day.

I read a couple of the chapters focusing on the years of 1919 and 1920 which were very illuminating. “The explanatory power of economic history” at its best, perhaps. Looking at how the war debts and reparations and other financial factors that dominated that period through the eyes of a historian and economist is quite revealing. The financial maneuvers are all too familiar, unfortunately. It’s amazing how important it is to understand government bonds, entitlement policies and interest rates to understand much of the twentieth century’s woes. For example, understanding the role of Liberty bonds – and the interest rate on them – is an important thread of that story, especially in understanding 1920 and what followed.

I am interested in this pattern of war, followed by war debts, as an important historical ingredient in the history of nations. In addition to understanding the military and political battlefields, I increasingly think it is just as crucial to understand the monetary battlefields to properly understand the twentieth century.

The last chapter is on the Great Depression and by that point Tooze has ostensibly given the reader the requisite political and economic grounding to understand how the deflation-inducing policies of austerity and isolationism came to be the first instinct of the nations, plunging the world into disaster.

 Posted by at 9:17 am
Dec 102014

Wikipedia: “The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal that divided France from its beginning in 1894 until it was finally resolved in 1906. The affair is often seen as a modern and universal symbol of injustice, and remains one of the most striking examples of a complex miscarriage of justice, where a major role was played by the press and public opinion.”


From “The Proud Tower” by Barbara Tuchman:

“Mystified by the complexities of documents, facsimilies, trials and the Secret File, the people could not reconcile the idea of forgeries deliberately prepared to convict an innocent man with their idea of the Army which meant parades, uniforms, boots, epaulets, guns and flags. How could officers who rode proudly past on horseback, sword in hand, to the sound of music and drums, be imagined bent over tables in stuffy offices carefully forging handwriting and piecing letters together with scissors and glue? There was nothing brave or military about this, therefore it could only be calumny. The people were patriotic and Republican, believed what they read in newspapers, loved the Army and hated and feared the “others” – sans-patrie, incendiaries, church-burners, Dreyfusards – who, they were told, were sworn to destroy it. They shouted “Vive l’Armee!” and “Vive la Republique!” “Down with Dreyfusards!” “Down with the Jews!” “Death to traitors!” “Vive Mercier!” and any other form of incantation that would serve to banish evil and reassure their faith.”

“Each time the Dreyfusards brought forward new evidence which they were certain this time must force a retrial, it was quashed, suppressed, thrown out or matched with new fabrications by the Army, supported by the Government, by all the bien-pensants or right-thinking cummunicants of the Church, and by the screams and thunders of four-fifths of the press. It was the press which created the Affair and made truce impossible.”

“Variegated, virulent, turbulent, literary, inventive, personal, conscienceless and often vicious, the daily newspapers of Paris were the liveliest and most important element in public life.

… “Editors on important issues contributed signed editorials of passionate invective. The press was daily wine, meat and bread to Paris. Major careers and a thousand minor ones were made in journalism. Everyone from Academicians to starving Anarchists made a supplementary living from it. Prominent politicians when out of office turned to journalism for a platform and an income.

… “Newspapers could be founded overnight by anyone with energy, financial support and set of opinions to plead. … Columns of opinion, criticism, controversy, poured out like water.

… “The mischief-makers were the privately supported organs of special interests or of individual editors who were likely to be men either of rabid principles or none at all. … There was the old royalist, Paul de Cassagnac, who started the fashion in journalism for abuse and insult, and attacked everyone and everything from habit regardless of consistency.

… “Henri, Comte de Rochefort was the kind of journalist whose capacity for mischief is unfettered by doctrine: the more unsettled his convictions, the more brilliant and scathing his pen. … Approached by the early Dreyfusard and the theory that he would relish a challenge to prove innocent a condemned man whom everyone believed guilty, Rochefort had been cordial, but was dissuaded from the adventure by his manager, Ernest Vaughan, on the ground that public opinion would not stand for disrespect of the Army. … Vaughan meanwhile change his mind with the historic result that Vaughan departed to found his own paper and to provide an organ for the Dreyfusards. Rochefort retaliated with the most mischief-making story of the Affair. He informed his readers that a letter from the Kaiser to Dreyfus existed which the President of the Republic had been forced by threat of war to return to the German Ambassador, Count Munster, but not before it had previously been photographed. Vaughan could say with “absolute certainty” on the authority of a high military personage that this was the “secret document” on which Dreyfus had been convicted.

“So befuddled was the public mind by the fumes of mystification and intrigue rising from the Affair that the story was widely believed. … What acted on public opinion in the Affair was never what happened but what the Nationalist press and whispered rumor said happened.

… “What was truth and what people persuaded themselves was truth became hopelessly blurred. “

 Posted by at 7:37 pm
Dec 072014

Ymir, I cannot speak for Bjarki, but I have found your presentation very interesting. You present your argument very well. However, some of your assertions jumped out at me as below par for such a skillful presenter of ideas. For example, I am not convinced that your claim, “faith cannot survive reading the Bible” is true. I admit that I am no expert, and it sounds like you are far more learned than I am on the Bible (although I have read and studied it a fair amount) but as a non-expert, I do have the pleasure of knowing several consecrated people quite well and so at first glance, based purely on my personal lived experience, it APPEARS that there in fact do exist human beings on this planet whose faith has indeed survived the Bible.

So that proposition seems questionable, if not plainly false.

I am not sure if you would like to offer some “convoluted apologetics” as to why we should reject the claims of faith that these individuals and/or any number of others have made but I nevertheless present these claims as empirical evidence against your assertion.

Ymir, perhaps you were overstating your case to make a larger a point. I understand how these things go. maybe I picked the wrong point to focus on? Perhaps I am grasping at low hanging fruit? If so please forgive a foolish man. But then again, what do I know, maybe you wish to stand by this assertion? If you wish to offer an explanation that would invalidate this evidence, I feel confident that you could produce one, Ymir. Unfortunately I do not feel confident that your presentation could convince me that my friends and family who I know well, who know the Bible well, who live a consecrated life, do not indeed have an intact faith.

However, if you wish to attempt to convince me, and yourself, I will gladly entertain the presentation with an open heart and mind since I did make the objection. I only ask that you do me and your many readers here in the deep comments section of the blog the same kindly favor, which I know you will.

Thank you, Ymir.

So the other part of your discussion which my feeble mind dared to call into question was the inference that you made with regard to the idea that God’s instruction to love Him above all else is merely the pathetic demands of a needy ego.

I quite agree with you that it seems near impossible to believe in and follow such a God. If that is the God you are denouncing, let me second the motion!

I shall do it formally, in fact: I hereby second the motion, made by Ymir, that we should reject the idea of God as a petulant, needy father figure, a bad parent who uses us to feed his ego.

Ymir, let us declare this in solidarity together: boo on that God! Such a God makes no sense. Such a God is a bad God, and we being followers of goodness above all else are duty bound to oppose such a creature, and rightfully so!

How about that, Ymir? Pretty good, huh? Can you imagine it – you and I on a mission together to exterminate lies and uncover the truth! Ymir, it’s very encouraging to me that we can agree on such things. I do hope you are still with me. If so, I think we should congratulate ourselves on this. Finding points of agreement is indeed a very pleasant thing in a discussion such as ours.

Shall we stop here or keep going? I am feeling rather plucky myself so let us be brave and adventurous and keep going, yes?

So if we agree to reject the idea of bad daddy in the sky theology, have we ended all of Biblical theology? Is that all it takes to dispatch thousands of years of Biblical scholarship?

Perhaps it is a bit tempting to think so, for that would be quite an impressive accomplishment on our part, wouldn’t you say? But what if we were to try on some more humble clothes and look a little closer…

Because if we stop here then it seems like we have a contradiction – because that is not in fact the God of the faith you mentioned earlier, the faith I have witnessed, the faith that has indeed survived the Bible, the faith that in fact and in truth does indeed live among us. And moreover, that is not at all how I read that passage, nor do I see the interpretation you presented as the most convincing one – not even on the most superficial, literal level.

Ymir, I do think this divergence of interpretation requires us to investigate further.

Now, I have used the term, “interpretation” with care, for I happen to know that conversations like ours, conversations about the Bible, have been occurring for quite a while now. And it is my understanding that these conversations are not so much about what the text says, but usually they are about what it means – and this raises an interesting observation I would like to share about how we read texts.

When we moderns read texts we tend to be very literal. We ask, “is it true”? And what we mean by “true” is whether it is something like a demonstrable fact. But my understanding of the folks who wrote the Bible is that they would have asked a different question of these texts. My research has suggested that they would have asked, “what does it mean?”

Ymir, do you think that if we asked this question of the passage we have been discussion that we might uncover something new? Would you like to try? I dare say let’d go for it, yes?

Good. So what might it mean, Ymir, that God has instructed us to love Him above everything else?

I will propose a theory and if you can prove my theory to be an absurd impossibility please do your best to purge it from my heart, for I find the absurd to be a rather disturbing thing to be lurking about in there.

Thank you Ymir.

So here is my theory: I think that the answer to the question of what it means to love God above everything else is that we should love goodness first. There. I will keep it simple for both of our sakes. I like this theory much better than the one we rejected earlier, which was to hate our parents to please a fragile petulant ego maniac.

I am tempted to lay out this theory in greater depth, in terms of the Logos we read about in the New Testament, and in terms of the human being’s unique capacity to re-cognize the order and the beauty of the cosmos, but I fear that I have said too many words already and I rather like the simplicity of my theory as it stands, so I will leave it there. I will not delve into the theology of God – not merely as the source of love – but as Love Itself, for I fear that this would tempt us into a discussion delving the mysterious, unfathomable depths of ontology and after all, there is so much virtue in brevity let me stop short of all of that and say simply, that loving God above all else, doing good for goodness sake, is what fulfills the human being, is what we were made for, is why God gave those glorious, wonderful instructions.

Ymir, I am no fool and I surmise that you will find my theory very silly and easy to disprove, which thrills me greatly. Ymir, I am lucky to have found you, for you seem so much more clever and knowlegable than I and meeting those who are more knowledgeable and entering into dialogue with them is one of the best ways to learn.

Ymir, it would be a terrible shame if my interpretation to put goodness above all else and my unfailing obedience to the good is an error. If I should put something else above all; if the fulfillment of my spirit as a human being is to be found in something else than to live according to the true, the beautiful, and the good, please instruct me right away in that which is better than these, for I would find it very good indeed to discover what is better than God, who is goodness itself. If you can show me my error I would be in your debt for to live in error is a disgrace and a shame. Ymir, what should come first, if not goodness?

 Posted by at 4:25 pm
Dec 072014

Excerpts from the book, “So We Read On” by Maureen Corrigan.


A Magnificent Yearning

The Great Gatsby is one of the first modern novels to look squarely at the void, yet it stops short of taking a flying leap. Blame the lingering influences of Fitzgerald’s lapsed Catholicism and romantic bent of his sensibilities. Fitzgerald’s favorite poet, after all, was John Keats. In the end, Fitzgerald always wants to want, even if nothing out there quite measures up. It’s Fitzgerald’s thin-but-durable urge to affirm that finally makes Gatsby worthy of being our Great American Novel. Its soaring conclusion tells us that, even though Gatsby dies and the small and corrupt survive, his longing was nonetheless magnificent. The last movement of the novel also makes clear that the earthbound desire that doomed Gatsby (all that Hurculean effort for a pretty rich girl he met a lifetime ago!) is but an expression of a yearning for something greater that can never quite be grasped or even named.


The Best

I invite my audience that night to think of Gatsby’s connection to Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 hard-boiled masterpiece The Maltese Falcon, with its vision of debased knights chasing the grail of the fake falcon. While it’s not clear exactly when Hammett read Fitzgerald, we know he did, and the two men admired each other’s work.

Hammett respected and defended Fitzgerald against those who jeered at him during his long personal and professional nosedive of the 1930s. In her notoriously unreliable memoir An Unfinished Woman, Lillian  Hellman tells a story that I hope is true. … As Hammett gets up to leave the table, Hemingway grabs his arm and challenges him to do the spoon trick. Hammett refuses, saying, “Why don’t you go back to bullying Fitzgerald? Too bad he doesn’t know how good he is. The best.”

Mutual admiration apart, what Fitzgerald and Hammett shared – along with so many of their Lost Generation cohorts – was a vision of the modern world where God was an empty illusion. Whether the object of worship is unmasked as a phony bird (the falcon) or whether belief itself is dismissed in a contemptuous phrase like Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?.” 1920s fiction in general, and the hard-boiled novel in particular, is godless and vacant.

You hear the despair in Nick’s voice all the time he’s going back over Gatsby’s story: Daisy, the meritocracy, money, celebrity – they’re all gods that have failed Gatsby. Only Gatsby himself, in Nick’s understated testament of faith, “turned out all right at the end.” Chandler, by the way, was another hard-boiled detective writer who admired Fitzgerald. In a 1950 letter to the publicity director at Houghton Mifflin, Chandler commented that Fitzgerald:

had one one of the rarest qualities in all of literature, and it’s a great shame that the word for it has been thoroughly debased by the cosmetic racketeers, so that one is almost ashamed to use it to describe a real distinction. Nevertheless, the word is charm – charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartettes [sic].



Water, Water, Everywhere

In the pivotal reunion scene between Gatsby and Daisy, Gatsby’s death by drowning is already foretold. Recall that it rained almost all day. When the unsuspecting Daisy arrives for tea at Nick’s cottage, Gatsby, who’s been waiting anxiously for her, flees. Then there’s a knock at the door. Nick opens it to find that “Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.”

The last time we see Gatsby, he’s literally dead in the water. Gatsby may have been killed by George Wilson’s bullets, but he’s a dead man the minute he falls for Daisy the siren. Gatsby “run[s] faster, stretch[es] out [his] arms farther,” until, propelled by all that yearning, he leans too far out toward Daisy’s dock, falls into the Sound, and drowns. Gatsby’s pool, with its “little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves,” is the Long Island Sound in miniature.

The novel’s obsession with water and drowning imagery seeps into its very punctuation. I’ve already quoted part of the penultimate paragraph of Gatsby, but here’s the entire famous passage:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther….And one fine morning ——–”

A few have suggested that supersize dash is a visual representation of the end of Gatsby’s own dock, near where we first see him at the close of chapter 1, stretching out his arms to Daisy’s dock across the Sound. If, to invoke Fitzgerald’s own language, we “run faster, stretch out our arms farther,” then, inevitably, there will come a day, like the day Gatsby died in his pool, when we reach the end of the dock, fall off, and drown.

Whether all our frantic effort is noble or wasted – whether, in short, meritocracy really exists in America – is one of The Great Gatsby’s central questions. That’s the reason the novel so incessantly splashes about in water and drowning imagery: to consider the question of just how far a nobody in America can swim before he sinks.

… I opened my talk in Perry that night with the clip from Sunset Boulevard because one of the most crucial connections between The Great Gatsby and the hard-boiled novels and film noirs is that image of going under, drowning. Hard-boiled and noir characters are always going belly-up in pools, oceans, oil sumps, and lakes. They’re always dissolving into sweat and tears. They also all uniformly drown themselves in liquor. It makes complete noir poetic sense that when Gatsby finally takes his very first dip of the season in his pool, he promptly dies. “poor dope, he always wanted a pool.” Dreamers in the hard-boiled universe are always poor dopes.

…Since Gatsby is not the story of one man’s rise and fall but, in its prescient way, of a national “shipwreck” that’s looming on the outer edge of the 1920s, there’s a sense in which he, like almost everyone in this novel, is sunk from the very beginning.


“A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.”

Can you hear the echoes of Homer’s “wine-dark sea” in those lines?


The Hard-Boiled Ethos

As I’ve said, the modern use of the term hard-boiled came out of [World War I], and in almost every classic hard-boiled story, the most stable and intense relationship is not between the hero and the woman he loves but between two men, comrades in arms. … Hard-boiled novels and the noirs that were made from them are male buddy stories that explore what makes a man a man in a newly fallen world.

That Tom Buchanan is the guy who’s cut out from the compromised world (given that he strides off, untouched, at the end of The Great Gatsby) is a grim predictive vision of the “hollow men” – all show, no substance – who are primed to flourish in the modern age.


That Guy Who’s Read a Book

“I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him.” – Max Perkins

Like Max Perkins, we readers also know Tom. We’ve sat next to him on a plane or train. He’s our retired neighbor down the street, our office mate. He’s that fellow in our carpool or someone’s date seated at our table during a wedding reception. Or, as in Nick’s case, he’s our cousin’s husband. Tom is That Guy Who’s Read a Book. Maybe it’s Blink by Malcolm Gladwell or Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua or The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Or maybe it’s Mein Kampf. In Tom’s case, the book is The Rise of the Colored Empires “by this man Goddard.” It’s given Tom what so many people seem to want: the one theory that explains the universe. And now, whether we want to hear it or not, Tom is (like his real-life counterparts) hell-bent on explaining that theory to us.

 Posted by at 3:23 pm
Oct 202014

“So if you take, you know, these polls if you put any credence in them, like the Gallup and Pew polls, you find that about 7 percent of the Muslim world has some sympathy for bin Laden. That’s about 100 million people out of 1.3 or .4 billion Muslims in the world. But then if you look who actually is willing to do something violent, you find that it’s an extremely, extremely small number of people. But when you look at of those thousands out of the 100 million who actually do anything, you find that the greatest predictor has nothing to do with religion.”

“The greatest predictor is whether they belong to a soccer club or some action-oriented group of friends. In fact, almost none of them had any religious education whatsoever. They’re all born again, sort of between the ages of 18 and 22. So if it’s not religious inculcation, if it’s not religious training, if it’s not even religious tradition, what could it possibly be? And again, it’s first of all who your friends are. That’s the greatest predictor of everything.”

“I interviewed this guy in prison in France who wanted to blow up the American Embassy and I asked him, “Why did you want to do this?” and he says to me, “Well, I was walking along the street one day and someone spit at my sister and called her sale Arabe, a dirty Arab, and I just couldn’t take it anymore and I realized that this injustice would never leave French society or Western society, so I joined the Jihad.” I said, “Yeah, but that has been going on for years.” And he goes, “Yes, but there was no Jihad before.”

“So it’s a sort of receptacle. You find it’s especially appealing to young people in transitional stages in their lives — immigrants, students, people in search of jobs or mates and between jobs and mates, and it gives a sense of empowerment that their own societies certainly don’t.”

“So let me just sort of give you two anecdotes that come out of my work with the Madrid bombing. So I went to trial and I interviewed, you know, the surviving plotters and their families and their friends. … While I’m in this neighborhood, two things struck me. First, all of those kids, none of them had a religious education to speak of. They all came into religion quite late. In fact, some of them right before the plots. And they were involved in Spain in petty criminal activities, drug activities, drug trading. It’s these guys who were killing themselves. Now what that means is they’re sacrificing the totality of their self-interests, which goes against all economic theory, and giving up their lives for an idea. Why? Because all of a sudden, they are telling themselves we really don’t want to be criminals. We want to be somebody. We want to be something significant in this world and this is our chance.”

“Well, I went to the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan and I posed this to, you know, foreign policy people. I said, “So what would you suggest?” It’s fascinating. They all come with data-driven, evidence-based arguments for what’s wrong and what we should do. I sort of said, “Look, guys, that’s not going to work. First of all, outside of the Academy, people are not interested in evidence and data or even truth. People are interested in persuading, in victory, and confirming what they believe in or love. Second, you haven’t addressed any of the emotional aspects of this which really drive people — revenge, revenge and fear. You haven’t even touched on those.”

“How do you lessen that? Why is it that an earthquake or what was called back in the 1920s in an old study by Henry Ford, the “jerk effect” when all of a sudden you hit a pothole, why is that so much more powerful emotionally than real threats? You know, if you look at the data, you’d find that even frequent flyers have a better chance of being killed by a lawnmower than in a terrorist attack. People aren’t worried about dying by lawnmower.”

See, here’s what I think is the greatest political challenge of all. In addition to dealing with fear and revenge, there’s something which I like to call sort of the principle of enmity. Human beings are most mobilized when we have enemies. Just look at novels. Look at the news. No one’s interested in happy, good-feeling cooperative things. I mean, when they’re tired of war and they’re tired of conflict and competition, then they’ll go back on it. But what really drives interest and passion is competition and conflict. So the question is, can we actually lessen conflict without having enemies? Well, there are two answers to that. One is the sort of Reagan’s proposal to Gorbachev. We can come up with some kind of enemy, maybe the enemy of my enemy, right? Or we can change it to a sort of abstract enemy like poverty or killing or something like that. That sort of reminds me of how I actually ended the book. You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he’s describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.”

“An elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln says to the woman, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” If you think about it, wars are truly won only in two ways. You either exterminate your enemy or you make them your friends. I think that we have not thought very deeply about the latter alternative, especially when I see how we’re reacting to these young around the world.”

 Posted by at 3:46 pm
Oct 152014

The phrase “objective moral truth” has always puzzled me. Does this mean the same things as “universal moral truth”? The two terms seem quite different to me. Objective truth seems to mean something which is true even in the absence of the “I” of the conscious person (i.e. a “subject”). To speak of objective morality seems non-sense, therefore, like speaking of the morality of rocks, or planetary orbits.

On the other hand, the term, “universal,” seems to mean non-variable; something that is true from place to place and/or from person to person. Whereas the term, “universal” can be applied to persons, the term, “objective” specifically detaches itself from persons. What else should “objective” mean other than that which is concerned with “objects” as opposed to “subjects”? And what then, is the meaning of moral objects? Is there anything moral or immoral – good or evil – in a universe without persons? Show me the evil solar system, the bad rock – only then will I be convinced of “objective moral truth.”

As William James once said, “betterness is not a physical relation.”

…of what we mean by the words “obligation,” “good,” and “ill.” First of all, it appears that such words can have no application or relevancy in a world in which no sentient life exists. Imagine an absolutely material world, containing only physical and chemical facts, and existing from eternity without a God, without even an interested spectator: would there be any sense in saying of that world that one of its states is better than another? Or if there were two such worlds possible, would there be any rhyme or reason in calling one good and the other bad‑good or bad positively, I mean, and apart from the fact that one might relate itself better than the other to the philosopher’s private interests? But we must leave these private interests out of the account, for the philosopher is a mental fact, and we are asking whether goods and evils and obligations exist in physical facts per se. Surely there is no status for good and evil to exist in, in a purely insentient world.. How can one physical fact, considered simply as a physical fact, be “better” than another? Betterness is not a physical relation. In its mere material capacity, a thing can no more be good or bad than it can be pleasant or painful. Good for what? Good for the production of another physical fact, do you say? But what in a purely physical universe demands the production of that other fact? Physical facts simply are or are not; and neither when present or absent, can they be supposed to make demands. If they do, they can only do so by having desires; and then they have ceased to be purely physical facts, and have become facts of conscious sensibility. Goodness, badness, and obligation must be realized somewhere in order really to exist; and the first step in ethical philosophy is to see that no merely inorganic “nature of things” can realize them. Neither moral relations nor the moral law can swing in vacuo. Their only habitat can be a mind which feels them; and no world composed of merely physical facts can possibly be a world to which ethical propositions apply.

– An excerpt from “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, an address to the Yale Philosophical Club by William James, published in the International Journal of Ethics, April 1891.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
Oct 052014

Hark – your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil! (Gen 4:2, 10)

— — —

It’s not true that all wars are fought in the name of religion, as some atheists assert. Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume “Encyclopedia of Wars,” only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause. Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s bloody purges and Pol Pot’s mass murders certainly make the case that state-sanctioned killings do not need the invocation of a higher power to succeed.

It slips so easily off the tongue. In fact, it’s a modern mantra. ‘Religion causes all the wars.’ Karen Armstrong claims to have heard it tossed off by American psychiatrists, London taxi-drivers and pretty much everyone else. Yet it’s an odd thing to say. For a start, which wars are we talking about? Among the many causes advanced for the Great War, ranging from the train timetables on the continent to the Kaiser’s withered left arm, I have never heard religion mentioned. Same with the second world war. The worst genocides of the last century — Hitler’s murder of the Jews and Atatürk’s massacre of the Armenians (not to mention his expulsion and massacre of the Greeks in Asia Minor too) — were perpetrated by secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into. The long British wars of the 18th and 19th centuries — the Napoleonic wars and the Seven Years’ War — were cheerfully fought by what Wellington called ‘the scum of the earth’ for land and empire, not for the faiths to which they only nominally belonged.

The myth of religious violence helps to construct a religious Other, prone to fanaticism, to contrast with the rational, peace-making, secular subject. In domestic politics, the myth underwrites the triumph of the state over the church in the early modern period and the nation-state’s subsequent monopoly on its citizens’ willingness to sacrifice and kill.

Every year in ancient Israel the high priest brought two goats into the Jerusalem temple on the Day of Atonement. He sacrificed one to expiate the sins of the community and then laid his hands on the other, transferring all the people’s misdeeds onto its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere. In this way, Moses explained, “the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” In his classic study of religion and violence, Rene Girard argued that the scapegoat ritual defused rivalries among groups within the community. In a similar way, I believe, modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.

— — —

Fields of Blood

In the introduction of the book, Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong outlines her findings. Violence is endemic inhuman societies, she notes. The root causes of this violence, she argues, stems in some part from our reptilian brains, but also from the seeming need for civilizations to be born and sustained through “the systemic militancy of the state” – a dilemma that worried the Indian Emperor Ashoka (c. 268-223 BCE):

Appalled by the suffering his army had inflicted on a rebellious city, he tirelessly promoted an ethic of compassion and tolerance but could not in the end disband his army. No state can survive without its soldiers. And once states grew and warfare had become a fact of human life, an even greater force, the military might of empire, often seemed the only way to keep the peace.

… So necessary to the rise of states and ultimately empires is military force that historians regard militarism as a mark of civilization.

… Since all premodern state ideology was imbued with religion, warfare inevitably aqcuired a sacral element. … But to what degree did religion contribute to the violence of the states with which it was inextricably linked? How much blame for the history of human violence can we ascribe to religion itself? The answer is not as simple as much of our popular discourse would suggest.

… In religious history, the struggle for peace has been just as important as the holy war. Religious people have found all kinds of ingenious methods of dealing with the assertive machismo of the reptilian brain, curbing violence, and building  respectful life-enhancing communities. But as with Ashoka, who came up against the systemic militancy of the state, they could not radically change their societies; the most they could do was to propose a different path to demonstrate kinder and more empathetic ways for people to live together.

more to come…

 Posted by at 6:36 pm
Oct 052014

From the book, Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

“Why is Egypt so much poorer than the United States?” This is the essence of the question at the heart of this book.

Is it culture, the weather, geography? Perhaps ignorance of what the right policies are? Simply, no. None of these factors is either definitive or destiny. Otherwise, how to explain why Botswana has become one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, while other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence?

The authors argue that the difference is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success. And they reject the dominant view held by most economists that “the rulers of Egypt simply don’t know what is needed to make their country prosperous, and have followed incorrect policies and strategies in the past. If these rulers would only get the right advice from the right advisers, the thinking goes, prosperity would follow.”

Most economists and policy makers have focused on ‘getting it right,’ while what is really needed is an explanation for why poor nations ‘get it wrong.’ … We will argue that achieving prosperity depends on solving some basic political problems. It is precisely because economics has assumed that political problems are solved that is has not been able to come up with a convincing explanation for world inequality. Explaining world inequality still needs economics to understand how different types of policies and social arrangements affect economic incentives and behavior. But it also needs politics. (from the Introduction)

The Making of Inclusive Institutions

England was unique among nations when it made the breakthrough to sustained economic growth in the seventeenth century. Major economic changes were preceded by a political revolution that brought a distinct set of economic and political institutions, much more inclusive than those of any previous society. These institutions would have profound implications not only for economic incentives and prosperity, but also for who would reap the benefits of prosperity. They were based not on consensus, but, rather, were the result of intense conflict as different groups competed for power, contesting the authority of others and attempting to structure institutions in their own favor. The culmination of the institutional struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were two landmark events: the English Civil War between 1642 and 1651, and particularly the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The Glorious Revolution limited the power of the king and the executive, and relocated to Parliament the power to determine economic institutions. At the same time, it opened up the political system to a broad cross section of society, who were able to exert considerable influence over the way the state functioned. The Glorious Revolution was the foundation for creating a pluralistic society, and it built on and accelerated a process of political centralization. It created the world’s first set of inclusive political institutions.

As a consequence, economic institutions also started becoming more inclusive. Neither slavery nor the severe economic restrictions of the feudal medieval period, such as serfdom, existed in England at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, there were many restrictions on economic activities people could engage in. Both the domestic and international economy were choked by monopolies. The state engaged in arbitrary taxation and manipulated the legal system. Most land was caught in archaic forms of property rights that made it impossible to sell and risky to invest in.

This changed after the Glorious Revolution. The government adopted a set of economic institutions that provided incentives for investment, trade, and innovation. It steadfastly enforced property rights, including patents granting property rights for ideas, thereby providing a major stimulus to innovation. It protected law and order. Historically unprecedented was the application of English law to all citizens. Arbitrary taxation ceased, and monopolies were abolished almost completely. The English state aggressively promoted mercantile activities and worked to promote domestic industry, not only by removing barriers to the expansion of industrial activity but also by lending the full power of the English navy to defend mercantile interests. By rationalizing property rights, it facilitated the construction of infrastructure, particularly roads, canals, and later railways, that would prove to be crucial for industrial growth.

These foundations decisively changed incentives for people and impelled the engines of prosperity, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution. (p 102-3)

Small Differences That Matter

World inequality dramatically increased with the British, or English, Industrial Revolution because only some parts of the world adopted the innovations and new technologies that men such as Arkwright and Watt, and the many who followed, developed. The response of different nations to this wave of technologies, which determined whether they would languish in poverty or achieve sustained economic growth, was largely shaped by the different historical paths of their institutions. By the middle of the eighteenth century, there were already notable differences in political and economic institutions around the world. But where did these differences come from?

English political institutions were on their way to much greater pluralism by 1688, compared with those in France and Spain, but if we go back in time one hundred years, to 1588, the differences shrink to almost nothing. All three countries were ruled by relatively absolutist monarchs: Elizabeth I in England, Philip II in Spain, and Henry II in France. All were battling with assemblies of citizens – such as the Parliament in England, the Cortes in Spain, and the Estates-General in France – that were demanding more rights and control over the monarchy. These assemblies all had somewhat different powers and scopes. For instance, the English Parliament and the Spanish Cortes had power over taxation, while the Estates-General did not. In Spain this mattered little, because after 1492 the Spanish Crown had a vast American empire and benefited massively from the gold and silver found there. In England the situation was different. Elizabeth I was far less financially independent, so she had to beg Parliament for more taxes. In exchange, Parliament demanded concessions, in particular restrictions on the right of Elizabeth to create monopolies. It was a conflict Parliament gradually won. In Spain the Cortes lost a similar conflict. Trade wasn’t just monopolized; it was monopolized by the Spanish monarchy.

These distinctions, which initially appeared small, started to matter a great deal in the seventeenth century. Though the Americas had been discovered by 1492 and Vasco da Gama had reached India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, in 1498, it was only after 1600 that a huge expansion of world trade, particularly in the Atlantic, started to take place. In 1585 the first English colonization of North America began at Roanoke, in what is not North Carolina. In 1600 the English East India Company was formed. In 1602 it was followed by the Dutch equivalent. In 1607 the colony of Jamestown was founded by the Virginia Company. By the 1620s the Caribbean was being colonized, with Barbados occupied in 1627. France was also expanding in the Atlantic, founding Quebec City in 1608 as the capital of New France in what is now Canada. The consequences of this economic expansion for institutions were very different for England than for Spain and France because of small initial differences.

Elizabeth I and her successors could not monopolize the trade with the Americas. Other European monarchs could. So while in England, Atlantic trade and colonization started creating a large group of wealthy traders with few links to the Crown, this was not the case in Spain or France. The English traders resented royal control and demanded changes in political institutions and the restriction of royal prerogatives. They played a critical role in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Similar conflicts took place everywhere. French kings, for example, faced the Fronde Rebellion between 1648 and 1652. The difference was that in England it was far more likely that the opponents to absolutism would prevail because they were relatively wealthy and more numerous than the opponents to absolutism in Spain and France.

The divergent paths of English, French, and Spanish societies in the seventeenth century illustrate the importance of the interplay of small institutional differences with critical junctures. (p 105-6)

The Dutch East India Company

The spice trade and the effects on Southeast Asia of the colonization into Indonesia

In the early sixteenth century the Portuguese “systematically tried to gain a monopoly of the valuable spice trade”, but they failed…

The opponents they faced were not negligible. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, there was a great deal of economic development in Southeast Asia based on trade in spices. City-states such as Aceh, Banten, Meleka, Makassar, Pegu, and Brunei expanded rapidly, producing and exporting spices along with other products such as hardwoods.

These states had absolutist forms of government similar to those in Europe in the same period. The development of political institutions was spurred by similar processes, including technological change in methods of warfare and international trade. State institutions became more centralized, with a king at the center claiming absolute power. …

As in absolutist Europe, this generated some economic growth but was a far-from-ideal set of economic institutions for economic prosperity, with significant entry barriers and insecure property rights for most. But the process of commercialization was under way even as the Portuguese were trying to establish their dominance in the Indian Ocean.

The presence of Europeans swelled and had a much greater impact with the arrival of the Dutch. The Dutch quickly realized that monopolizing the supply of the valuable spices of the Moluccas would be much more profitable than competing against local or other European traders. In 1600 they persuaded the ruler of Ambon to sign an exclusive agreement that gave them the monopoly on the clove trade in Ambon. With the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, the Dutch attempts to capture the entire spice trade and eliminate their competitors, by hook or by crook, took a turn for the better for the Dutch and for the worse for Southeast Asia. The Dutch East India Company was the second European joint stock company, following the English East India Company, major landmarks in the development of the modern corporation, which would subsequently play a major role in European industrial growth. It was also the second company that had its own army and the power to wage war and colonize foreign lands. With the military power of the company now brought to bear, the Dutch proceeded to eliminate all potential interlopers to enforce their treaty with ruler of Ambon. They captured a key fort held by the Portuguese in 1605 and forcibly removed all other traders. They then expanded to the northern Moluccas, forcing the rulers of Tidore, Ternate, and Bacan to agree that no cloves could be grown or traded in their territories. The treaty they imposed on Ternate even allowed the Dutch to come and destroy any clove trees they found there.

Ambon was ruled in a manner similar to much of Europe and the Americas during that time. The citizens of Ambon owed tribute to the ruler and were subject to forced labor. The Dutch took over and intensified these systems to extract more labor and more cloves from the island. Prior to the arrival of the Dutch, extended families paid tribute in cloves to the Ambonese elite. The Dutch now stipulated that each household was tied to the soil and should cultivate a certain number of clove trees. Households were also obligated to deliver forced labor to the Dutch.

The Dutch also took control of the Banda Islands, intending this time to monopolize mace and nutmeg. But the Banda Islands were organized very differently from Ambon. They were made up of many small autonomous city-states, and there was no hierarchical social or political structure. These small states, in reality no more than small towns, were run by village meetings of citizens. There was no central authority whom the Dutch could coerce into signing a monopoly treaty and no system of tribute that they could take over to capture the entire supply of nutmeg and mace. At first this meant that the Dutch had to compete with English, Portuguese, Indian, and Chinese merchants, losing the spices to their competitors when they did not pay high prices. Their initial plans of setting up a monopoly of mace and nutmeg dashed, the Dutch governor of Batavia, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, came up with an alternative plan. Coen founded Batavia, on the island of Java, as the Dutch East India Company’s new capital in 1618. In 1621 he sailed to Banda with a fleet and proceeded to massacre almost the entire population of the islands, probably about fifteen thousand people. All their leaders were executed along with the rest, and only a few were left alive, enough to preserve the know-how necessary for mace and nutmeg production. After this genocide was complete, Coen then proceeded to create the political and economic structure necessary for his plan: a plantation society. The islands were divided into sixty-eight parcels, which were given to sixty-eight Dutchmen, mostly former and current employees of the Dutch East India Company. These new plantation owners were taught how to produce the spices by the few surviving Bandanese and could buy slaves from the East India Company to populate the now-empty islands and to produce spices, which would have to be sold at fixed prices back to the company.

The extractive institutions created by the Dutch in spice Islands had the desired effects, though, in Banda this was at the cost of fifteen thousand innocent lives and establishment of a set of economic and political institutions that would condemn the islands to underdevelopment. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had reduced the world supply of these spices by about 60 percent and the price of nutmeg had doubled.

The Dutch spread the strategy they perfected in the Moluccas to the entire region, with profound implications for the economic and political institutions of the rest of Southeast Asia. The long commercial expansion of several states in the area that had started in the fourteenth century went into reverse. Even the policies which were not directly colonized and crushed by the Dutch East India Company turned inward and abandoned trade. The nascent economic and political change in Southeast Asia was halted in its tracks.” (p 246-9)

 Posted by at 11:02 am

The Illiad

 Books, History  Comments Off
Oct 042014

From the introduction, Robert Fagles translation:

“The whole poem has been moving toward this duel between the two champions, but there has never been any doubt the outcome. The husband and father, the beloved protector of his people, the man who stands for the civilized values of the rich city, its social and religious institutions, will go down to defeat at the hands of this man who has no family, who in a private quarrel has caused the death of many of his own fellow soldiers, who now in a private quarrel thinks only of revenge, though that revenge, as he well knows, is the immediate prelude to his own death. And the death of Hector seals the fate of Troy; it will fall to the Acheans, to become the pattern for all time of the death of a city. The images of that night assault – the blazing palaces, the blood running in the streets, old King Priam butchered at the altar, Cassandra raped in the temple, Hector’s baby son thrown from the battlements, his wife Andromache dragged off to slavery – all this, foreshadowed in the Iliad, will be stamped indelibly on the consciousness of the Greeks throughout their history, immortalized in lyric poetry, in tragedy, on temple pediments and painted vases, to reinforce the stern lesson of Homer’s presentation of the war: that no civilization, no matter how rich, no matter how refined, can long survive once it loses the power to meet force with equal or superior force.”

Elsewhere it has been argued that the Illiad is not just an epic, but a tragedy, perhaps the first. Case in point, “The Embassy to Achilles,” book 9. The Acheans beg Achilles to return to the fight. Achilles knows his fate is to die in battle and live forevermore in glory and fame. But he seems torn by this fateful trade-off and instead of acquiescing to their pleas for him to return to battle, he gives a powerful soliloquy that challenges the very ethos at the core of Greek hero worship. He is responding to Odysseus, who has been sent by King Agamemnon who stole Achilles’ slave girl whom he loved, this act mirroring the central act of the war: the kidnapping of Helen.

Odysseus has brought Agememnon’s offer: a long list of booty and treasure worthy of a king (including seven brides to compensate for his lost love). Odysseus delivers the offer and implores Achilles to return to battle and bring with him, victory over the Trojans:

“…they will honor you, honor you like a god.
Think of the glory you will gather in their eyes!
Now you can kill Hector – seized with murderous frenzy,
certain there’s not a single fighter his equal,
no Achean brought to Troy in the ships –
now, for once, you can meet the man head-on!”

The famous runner Achilles rose to his challenge:
“Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, great tactician …
I must say what I have to say straight out,
must tell you how I feel and how all this will end –
so you won’t crowd around me, one after another,
coaxing like a murmuring clutch of doves.
I hate that man like the very Gates of Death
who says one thing but hides another in his heart.
I will say it outright. That seems best to me.
Will Agememnon win me over? Not for all the world,
nor will all the rest of Achaea’s armies.
No, what lasting thanks in the long run
for warring with our enemies, on and on, no end?
One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death,
the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.
And what’s laid up for me, what pittance? Nothing –
and after suffering hardships, year in, year out,
staking my life on the mortal risks of war.

…Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay seige to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies …
true, but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

One thing more. To the rest I’d pass on this advice:
sail home now! You will never set your eyes
on the day of doom that topples looming Troy.
Thundering Zeus has spread his hands above her –
her armies have taken heart!” (Robert Fagles translation)

(Another version of this scene in verse):

Cursed is the man, and void of law and right,
Unworthy property, unworthy light,
Unfit for public rule, or private care,
That wretch, that monster, who delights in war;
Whose lust is murder, and whose horrid joy,
To tear his country, and his kind destroy

Long toils, long perils in their cause I bore,
But now the unfruitful glories charm no more.
Fight or not fight, a like reward we claim,
The wretch and hero find their prize the same.
Alike regretted in the dust he lies,
Who yields ignobly, or who bravely dies.
Of all my dangers, all my glorious pains,
A life of labours, lo! what fruit remains?

But what’s the quarrel, then, of Greece to Troy?
What to these shores the assembled nations draws,
What calls for vengeance but a woman’s cause?

Tell him, all terms, all commerce I decline,
Nor share his council, nor his battle join;
For once deceiv’d, was his; but twice were mine,
No—let the stupid prince, whom Jove deprives
Of sense and justice, run where frenzy drives;
His gifts are hateful: kings of such a kind
Stand but as slaves before a noble mind

My fates long since by Thetis were disclosed,
And each alternate, life or fame, proposed;
Here, if I stay, before the Trojan town,
Short is my date, but deathless my renown:
If I return, I quit immortal praise
For years on years, and long-extended days.
Convinced, though late, I find my fond mistake,
And warn the Greeks the wiser choice to make;
To quit these shores, their native seats enjoy,
Nor hope the fall of heaven-defended Troy.

Add to this the passage in book 11 of The Odyssey when Tiresias takes Odysseus into the underworld where he meets his friends and family. His encounter with Achilles is revealing:

The ghost of the splendid runner knew me at once
and hailed me with a flight of mournful questions:
‘Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of tactics,
reckless friend, what next?
What greater feat can that cunning head contrive?
What daring brought you down to the House of Death? –
where the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home.’

The voice of his spirit paused, and I was quick to answer:
‘Achilles, son of Peleus, greatest of the Acheans,
I had to consult with Tiresias, driven here by hopes
he would help me journey home to rocky Ithica.
Never yet have I neared Achea, never once
set foot on native ground …
my life is endless trouble.

But you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you –
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’

I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
than rule down here over all the breathless dead. (Robert Fagles translation)

Achilles then goes on, breathlessly, to ask Odysseus news of his son, his friends and family.

 Posted by at 12:59 pm
Oct 042014


The Bretton Woods Conference was held in 1944. Its aims were to rewrite the monetary rules of the international economy to prevent devastating trade wars as well as protectionist and speculative currency manipulations and to provide more flexibility for government intervention during downturns in the business cycle.

Monetarily, what came out of Bretton Woods was a dollars for gold system. The dollars for gold system was very beneficial for the US because it placed the dollar in a unique, privileged position in relation to gold and the world economy. But deficit spending during the Vietnam War undermined the dollar and there was a run on US gold reserves which forced Nixon to bring the dollars for gold system to a sudden, dramatic end in August of 1971. Bretton Woods was officially over. It had lasted just shy of 30 years.

The dollars for gold system was then replaced by an ingenious dollars for oil system which put the US dollar in an even more privileged position. In both cases, the dollar acted as a sort of privileged middleman in monetary exchanges. In both cases, the US traded its military assets to secure this privilege, but much more so in the latter case.

What follows are some details of that story.

A modified gold standard for the sake of the workers

“One of the most innovative aspects of the Anglo-American deal [at Bretton Woods] was the fact that it prioritised the need for full employment and social insurance policies at the national level over thoroughgoing international economic integration. To this extent … it represented a dramatic departure from older assumptions about the way the world’s financial system should function. Under the gold standard, which had facilitated a period of financial and commercial globalisation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, governments had possessed few means of responding to an economic downturn beyond cutting spending and raising interest rates in the hope that prices and wages would drop so low that the economy would right itself. Populations simply had to ride out periods of deflation and mass unemployment, as the state couldn’t do much to help them: pursuing expansionary fiscal or monetary measures (what states tend to do today) would jeopardise the convertibility of the state’s currency into gold. For these reasons, the gold standard was well suited to a 19th-century world in which there were few organised workers’ parties and labour unions, but not so well suited to a messy world of mass democracy. The Keynesian revolution in economic governance gave the state a set of powerful new tools for responding to domestic economic distress – but they wouldn’t work as long as the gold standard called the shots.”

This is a fact of life on the gold standard: there will be periods of deflation and mass unemployment. Those who advocate a return to the gold standard do not deny this, though they tend to gloss over it. This occasional deflationary downturn, they say, is a necessary market correction. They refer to this as the “necessary pain”, likening such periods to an addict’s recovery from the disease of the malinvestment that comes with prosperous boom times and easy credit. The deflation is therefore just “the bitter taste of medicine”, a required pill that must be suffered until health returns.

To the unemployed, to the businessmen and women who lose everything in these periods – not because they were foolish, but because their bank failed – not because the bank was foolish, but because something else went sour somewhere – to those innocent individuals who lose everything during these deflationary periods, the gold advocates say to them, “Life’s a bitch. Suck it up.”

As Alvin Hansen described life under this kind of arrangement, ‘If it gave us good times, we were thankful. If it gave us bad times, we accepted this as an inevitable concomitant of a system of free enterprise.’

Well, the world eventually got tired of all that. A couple of world wars and one Great Depression will tend to do that sort of thing to a world. So, despite the claims of the gold bugs that this was the best of all possible worlds, the world decided to try something new. There were new economic doctors on the scene and they prescribed monetary intervention during periods of economic sickness.

“What was needed, and what both Keynes and White wanted to establish, was a system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates, which would allow states to make domestic policy without worrying too much about how it would affect their international economic position. Along with capital controls, this system would work to stabilise currencies, as the gold standard had done, but in a way that gave states more breathing space to pursue the interventionist and welfarist techniques of national economic management that had recently come into vogue across the Atlantic world. The compromise that Keynes and White reached was based on this fundamental insight, and reflected what had become a new (if fleeting) consensus: that the state owed its citizens basic economic security.”

The world wanted to be able to intervene in times of trouble, and prevent the worst horrors of economic seizure which can arise from the loss of liquidity in periods a fear and panic. And the world increasingly wanted a means of government intervention that could address unemployment.

When it came to economics, domestic policy was the focus of nations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the later half of the 20th century, however, the world would increasingly turn its attention to international economic policy. World leaders learned from previous disasters that “there is no domestic solution for international problems” (need citation) – a reference to the sorts of protectionist trade policies and currency manipulations that the nations had embarked on to tragic consequences in the previous century.

One of those lessons, which came from the Treaty of Versailles after WWI, was that a functional world economic system was essential in order to prevent the outbreak of more domestic chaos and war. Many believe that the failure to address this question of international economic concerns at the Treaty of Versailles is what ultimately led to WWII as the economic punishments laid on Germany put it in an impossible position.

Moreover, many economists believed that the failed attempt to revive the gold standard after WWI proved that the world needed a new monetary system. What was proposed was a modified gold standard with a fixed exchange rate that everyone agreed with. They argued that the old gold standard did not allow governments and monetary authorities the flexibility to intervene to revive economic activity but this new gold standard would be flexible enough to allow for such necessary interventions.

This sort of intervention was a new idea, a new prescription from the new monetary doctors, a break from classic economic thought. As such, there were many critics – and there still are. (See Keynes vs. Hayek for more) Nevertheless, only time could tell who was right and who was wrong. The second half of the twentieth century would see this idea play itself out.

We are still in the midst of this experiment.

Ultimately, the arrangement at Bretton Woods failed, at least technically. The agreements that were made were broken and the nations who were party to the agreement abandoned it. The final official blow came when Nixon was forced to completely sever the connection of the US dollar to gold as debts exploded in the US.

How the gold standard finally died

As mentioned, the Bretton Woods arrangement of 1944 ultimately established the US dollar as the medium of international trade between countries. The dollar was the only currency available widely enough across the world to play this role. Although the English wanted to establish a new reserve currency to be controlled at the IMF the US prevailed in their efforts to establish the dollar as the world’s medium of exchange.

The dollar became the only currency pegged to gold, convertible at $35 per ounce. This made it a convenient currency for countries to hold and use for trade. Countries could adjust their exchange rate to the dollar as they saw fit to address local concerns regarding growth or inflation and so on.

At issue was how to stabilize volatile exchange rates and protectionist currency manipulations and prevent harmful short-term speculative investments that affected capital flows. These are the sorts of problems that were widely believed to have destabilized the international monetary system in the period between WWI and WWII.

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) was established at this time as a sort of buffer to smooth out trade imbalances and to provide loans to struggling member nations when needed. The intent was to prevent national bankruptcies and sovereign defaults. The World Bank and World Trade Organization were also created at this time. They survived the fall of Bretton Woods.

Trade imbalances occur when a country imports more than it exports, or vice versa.

Balance of payments imbalances can arise when … well, there are many definitions, and disagreements as to what degree such imbalances matter. Thinking on such topics tends to change. But in this transitional period from the gold standard to the new monetary economics, countries paid a lot of attention to this.

One thing is for certain, the US at this time ran very large export surpluses. This meant that US dollars were flowing into the US to pay for the goods flowing out of the US. This created a dollar shortage overseas (known as a dollar gap). Countries needed US dollars to pay for the goods America was exporting.

It turned out these imbalances were what the IMF was designed to deal with, but in reality they were more than the IMF could handle.

The US responded in the 1950s with a series of grants which injected US dollars overseas. The most famous was the Marshall Plan. The US also established multinational financial institutions designed to direct the flow of US dollars overseas. In each case, the intent was for this money to be used to build up the decimated economies of Europe after WWII, which would in turn create new markets for US exports.

A paradox of the dollars for gold system thus becomes apparent: as the world’s economies grow, more and more of the reserve currency is demanded, which means the country supplying this currency must run a constant trade deficit (or balance of payments deficit?) where currency flows out of the country in order to fuel this growth. Eventually, this trade deficit would erode confidence in the currency because as more and more of it is created, the less valuable it becomes. (see Triffin Paradox:

And this is exactly what happened.

The US trade surplus reversed. The dollar gap of the 1940s and 1950s turned into a dollar glut in the 1960s. Foreign countries were no longer experiencing a shortage of dollars, but were awash in dollars that the US was “exporting.” Meanwhile, real Japanese exports were catching up to the US manufacturing levels and the Vietnam War (and the Great Society programs?) were creating large budget deficits in the US. Instead of paying for these costs by raising taxes, the US went deeply into debt as it continued to print more money.

This in effect caused a run on US gold.

By the late 1960s foreign countries concerned with US debt levels were converting their (increasingly devalued) dollars for gold causing US gold reserves to become depleted. Devalued dollars were flowing back into the US while valuable gold was flowing out.

The US responded by offering military protection to those countries who would hold their US dollars at a loss. In effect, the US was using its military assets to protect its gold (if you don’t trade in your dollars for gold, we will offer military protection), but also to protect the capitalist world’s economic system. It was a trade they would use again and again. The new world order of Bretton Woods was designed to run on US dollars and if needed the US military would make sure it did so.

But to some extent foreign countries were only willing to take a loss holding dollars in exchange for favorable US military policy as long as they supported US military policy, and Vietnam was changing that.

Meanwhile, the IMF was trying to create a special kind of currency that could potentially replace the dollar as mediator in transactions between banks and the IMF. The IMF was positioning itself to replace the US as the world’s central banker. (This tension within the IMF between the US dollar interests and the other members is something to watch going forward as the so-called “currency wars” develop.)

By 1970 US gold reserves had been cut in half as countries demanded fulfillment of America’s “promise to pay”. Tens of billions of dollars worth of gold drained out of the US reserves. It seemed as if the world had lost faith in the ability of the US to cut its budget and trade deficits. For the first time in the 20th century, a country (the US) was running a balance of payments deficit and a trade deficit at the same time.

By August, 1971 the US decided that it had no choice: without informing the international community beforehand, President Nixon closed the gold window. On Monday morning, before the markets opened, Nixon made television announcement that the US would no longer allow dollars to be converted to gold.

It became known as the “Nixon Shock.” Suddenly foreign countries all over the world were holding dollars that they could no longer convert to gold. And just like that, the Bretton Woods system of dollars for gold was officially over. It had lasted just under 30 years.

Bretton Woods was over and the gold standard was gone.

A most ingenious idea

In response to this waning demand for the dollar, America found an ingenious way to create a new artificial demand for the dollar. The US made a deal with Saudi Arabia, and then later with other oil producing nations, who agreed to denominate their oil in dollars. This meant that they would only sell oil for dollars. Anyone who wanted oil had to first convert their currency to dollars to get it. In return for this privileged position as middleman between the Middle Eastern oil and the rest of the world, the US would provide military weapons and military protection to these oil producing nations. Some say, protection from the likes of Israel.

Instead of dollars for gold, now the US was in the business of dollars for oil, which also meant flooding the Middle East with arms. So the US was able to export its inflation (expanding money supply) to other countries by trading on it’s military assets, just as it had done once before in Europe. Except this time, it was on a much, much larger scale.

The dollars for oil system (known as petro dollars) sheds important light on US foreign policy. “The defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States” – FDR

Indeed, the US provides much much more in aid to these other nations in the Middle East than it does to Israel (citation needed), an act which speaks for itself with regard to real US interests in the Middle East.

But more to the point the world’s demand for dollars absolutely skyrocketed in response to this arrangement. Any country that did not possess a surplus of US dollars could not buy oil. At least, not from much of the Persian Gulf region. Some oil producing nations (Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea) did not sign on to the dollars for oil program. Many of these nations, interestingly, are known in the US as the “Axis of Evil”.

Countries who needed a supply of dollars could go into the costly currency exchange markets – or they could run an export surplus to the United States. All they had to do was get their prices low enough to attract US dollars. This is exactly what East Asia (Japan) did in the 1980’s. It needed lots of oil, so it sold Hondas cheap to the US.

This is why the US runs a permanent trade deficit while other countries do the opposite. The world needs dollars because the world needs oil. In order to supply the world with those dollars, requires a trade imbalance.

Another part of the deal with Persian Gulf countries is that they agreed that any excess profits made from oil production would be held in US securities in US banks. This has the benefit of keeping interest rates low. Interest rates on bonds and securities work inversely with the price of bonds and securities. An increase demand for US securities raises the price of US securities while lowering the interest rate paid on those securities.

Bonds and securities can be thought of as promissory notes on a loan. Loans that come with interest payments. Promissory notes that can be sold. The purchaser of a promissory note receives the interest payments from the borrower. The price of the promissory note and the rate of interest the note pays the owner move in opposite directions. The higher the interest rate, the lower the price of the note.

The borrower in this scenario is the issuer of the promissory note. In the case of US securities, the borrower is the US government. The purchaser of the security (Saudi Arabia, for example) is making a loan to the US government.

Persian Gulf countries who are part of this system agree to loan the excess dollars they receive from world oil demand back to the US in what Henry Kissinger called “petrodollar recycling”.

So the US was able to create an artificial demand for US dollars by attaching dollars to oil, then it was able to guarantee that an excess of those dollars return in the form of low interest rate loans. Not only does this create an artificial demand for US dollars but an artificial demand for US debt – all backed by military promises and arms deals.

An important thing to notice in these observations is the effect that these US dollar policies have on everything from Wall Street to Main Street to foreign military policy.

On this last point of interest, we should note that if the dollars for oil system ever broke down like the dollars for gold system did – well, the United States can simply never let that happen, right?

Time Magazine ran a story in 2000 that Sadaam Hussein announced its plan to dump the dollars for oil system in favor of euros.,9171,998512,00.html

“Iraq says that from now on, it wants payments for its oil in euros, despite the fact that the battered European currency unit, which used to be worth quite a bit more than $1, has dropped to about 82[cents]. Iraq says it will no longer accept dollars for oil because it does not want to deal ‘in the currency of the enemy.'”

Sadaam dumped the dollar in 2002. We went to war with Iraq in 2003. Is it possible that the United States went to war with Iraq to protect its dollars for oil program? It would certainly make a lot of sense. It would fit in line with US policy to use the military to defend the dollar, our truly “vital” interest.

Meanwhile, the US is the unique position among most countries that it can buy oil with money it prints.

And print money it did. As noted, this dollars for oil arrangement causes demand for US dollars to increase exponentially (need citation). And as more and more money is printed, assets prices (stocks, housing) naturally rise – along with consumer prices. This inflation has caused the dollar to lose a lot of purchasing power since 1970.

For example, you would need roughly $3000 by the year 2000 to get the same purchasing power as $500 in 1960. “”

Of course, if wages and incomes rise accordingly, this offsets the rise in prices. As long as it is as easy to get $3000 in the year 2000 as it was to get $500 in the year 1960, there is no problem. But this isn’t what happened.

Those individuals in possession of enough assets are shielded from this consumer level price inflation as the rise in asset prices has more than offset the rise in consumer prices. But the working class depend on rising wages, not assets, to compensate for rising consumer prices. Our current trouble is that while asset prices and GDP continued to climb with the ever increasing supply of US dollars, wages stopped rising in the 1970’s. While GDP has risen as the economy has grown, real wages have not.

Real wages as a percentage of GDP:

Wages adjusted for inflation (so-called real wages) have been declining for over 40 years in the United States. In 1950 a high school graduate could find a job working in a factory and support a family of 4 or 5 on that one income. Once wages stopped rising, women went to work and families increasingly needed to use credit cards to maintain living standards.

The upshot of this analysis is that the “economy” is growing during this time (assets prices are rising, GDP is growing) but non-asset owning wage workers are not benefiting from it.

So why are wages not growing with the economy?

Is it because the “real economy” is not really growing? Remember, in order to supply the world with dollars (which causes assets priced in dollars to rise), the US needs to run trade deficits, meaning no more manufacturing and so on. Is it possible that this has created a situation where the rise in GDP is no longer attached to a rise in US productivity?

In short, yes. GDP growth detached itself from real wages precisely in the 1970’s.

Are we in the midst of a currency war?

There has been increasing talk of a currency war in the past few years, which, if true, could have some very large consequences for the US – especially if the US dollar loses. So, are we in fact in the midst of a currency war?

Since 2007 a series of bestselling books have been sold in China titled “Currency Wars”. The same is true in the US. So this is a somewhat popular idea in both China and the US to some level, but is it true?

In 2010, the Brazillian Finance Minister made headlines by claiming that an international currency war had broken out. Many financial sector writers were in agreement but others – especially in the administration – say the claim was exaggerated and that things had fizzled by 2011.

However, after the crisis of 2008, there have been repeated calls by leaders in several countries to begin a discussion about a “Bretton Woods II”.

Perhaps most notably, the People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan said in 2010 that whereas US monetary policy “may be optimal for the U.S. alone . . . it is not necessarily optimal for the world. There is a conflict between the U.S. dollar’s domestic role and its international settlement role.”

If Britain had won out in the original Bretton Woods agreement, the US dollar would not have been the world’s exchange currency. Keynes wanted to create something he called the “bancor” which the IMF would control. This currency would only be exchanged between banks and the IMF as a means of exchange and debt relief and so on. The IMF did eventually create such a thing, called the “SDR” but it represents a small fraction of the reserves there at present.

But more and more nations are speaking out in support of this idea.

Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of China’s central bank, said the global economy would be better off with a “supersovereign” reserve currency, in place of one issued by a specific nation — in other words, the dollar. “The frequency and increasing intensity of financial crises,” Zhou said, “suggests the costs of such a system to the world may have exceeded its benefits.” Zhou recommended turning Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), the unit of account used by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), into the premier international currency. Then a U.N. panel of economists led by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate, concluded that a reformed financial system with a new No. 1 international currency would help bring greater strength and equity to the global economy. Stiglitz told reporters there was a “growing consensus that there are problems with the dollar reserve system,” which he described as “relatively volatile, deflationary [and] unstable.”,8599,1889588,00.html

In fact, Zhou even cited the Triffin dilemma as a proximate cause of the 2008 crises. For reference, see page 6 of this IMF document:

These sorts of discussions continue and examples are easy to find if you search for them. The fact is, there is increasing talk of creating alternatives to the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency and increasing desire around the world to free itself from what it sees as US financial hegemony that is no longer in the best interest of the world economic system. Whether this is a plausible threat to the dollar is questionable. Some say these nations are in fact trapped in the dollar:
Prasad, E.S.: The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance. (eBook and Hardcover)

But for how long?

Whatever the answer to this question might be, understanding the history of the US dollar is helpful in understanding many of the nuances of US domestic and international policies in the world today.

 Posted by at 12:27 pm
Oct 042014

“He had discovered mankind’s tragedy:
that it can draw the blueprint of goodness but it cannot live up to them.”

- The Proud Tower

“How small of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!”

- Samuel Johnson

“No laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious,
the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober.”

- Samuel Smiles

“One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope
that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation.”

- Thomas Reed

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings…”

- Cnut, King of England

 Posted by at 12:25 pm
Oct 042014

Notes taken from “The Proud Tower” by Barbara Tuchman

In the late nineteenth century a wave of bombings and assassinations swept the civilized world. By the time of The Great War several heads of state had been taken by assassins devoted to the idea of bringing about a world without government, by violently removing it. The assassinations at highest levels of government included:

* Russian Czar, Alexander II (1881)
* President of France (1894)
* Premier of Spain (1897)
* Empress of Austria (1898)
* King of Italy (1900)
* President of the United States (1901)
* Governor General of Moscow (1905)
* Premier of Spain, again (1912)

These were not isolated historical events, but were part of a much larger body of violence that had been perpetrated by what one historian referred to as “a daydream of desperate romantics.” Their dream was a utopian state “without government, without law, without ownership of property, in which, corrupt institutions having been swept away, man would be free to be good as God intended him.”

Today we know them as the “Anarchists,” a label first self-proclaimed by the French propagandist of the stateless society, Pierre Proudhon. The Anarchists had their leaders all across the nations. Some of these men were theorists, others were terrorists. Together they represented “The Idea and the Deed”.

The unrest and violence that swept the world in the form of “The Idea and the Deed” had arisen from the tensions between two divisions of society: the world of privilege and the world of protest. Having begun with the French Revolution, these waves of revolt were not finished reverberating through the kingdoms dynasties and empires of the modern world.

From theorists to terrorists, the men of the Idea included:

* Peter Kropotkin – an aristocratic Russian Prince who was an esteemed international intellectual. Bernard Shaw said of him that “he was amiable to the point of saintliness and with his full beard and lovable expression might have been a shepherd from the Delectable Mountains.” Prince Kopotkin was one of the world’s leading advocates of the Propaganda of the Deed, saying “a single deed is better propaganda than a thousand pamphlets.”

* Pierre Proudhon of France – coined the word anarchy, and was a father of the idea, privately using violent rhetoric, but later publicly renouncing assassinations and bombings. “Property is theft” he preached. “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant; I declare him to be my enemy … Government of man by man is slavery” and its laws are “cobwebs for the rich and chains of steel for the poor.” The “highest perfection” for free society is no government, to which Proudhon was the first to give the name, “An-archy.”

* Michael Bakunin of Russia – preached the coming of an organic revolt and overthrow. He competed with Marx over control of the working class movement. He disagreed with Marx that the revolution would have to come from an industrialized proletariat, arguing that organic revolution could explode in any one of the more economically backward countries, and having learned from Czar Nicholas I of Russia that violence was necessary, he intended to spark just such an explosion.

* Narodniki -

During this time, it was not only heads of state who were killed; many others – in England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and America – would fall victim to “The Deed”:

* In Chicago on May 4, 1886 a bomb was “hurled into the midst of an armed police force who were about to break up a strikers’ meeting in Haymarket Square.” The bomb was retaliation against the events that had occurred at another strike the day before. Illustrations of the events of May 3 show what one of the factory managers described as a police force of 200 officers firing “on fleeing workmen and women”, a scene that “resembled a promiscuous bush-hunt.” Five men were caught and sentenced to death for the Haymarket bombing. Louis Lingg, who had made the bomb, blew himself up with a capsule of fulminate mercury the night before his execution. On the wall in his cell he had written in his own blood, “Long live anarchy!” The others were later pardoned by Governor Altgeld, who unveiled deep corruption in the march to trial and conviction, further shaking faith in public institutions.

* In Clichy France on May Day, 1891 several mounted police charged a workers’ demonstration led by “les anarchos” who were carrying revolutionary slogans. The anarchists, calling for the murder of the police, were subsequently dragged to the police station and beaten. At their trial the prosecuting attorney called for the death penalty – even though the three men had not killed anyone. They were sentenced to a few years prison each. This set off a chain of dynamite that included the judge’s home and the prosecuting attorney’ home. The bomber’s name was Ravachol, who later admitted to all sorts of murders and robberies and bombings (including the Clichy bombings) during a two-year reign of dynamite, daggers, gunshots and terror in France. Terror, indeed. During the trial, everyone fully expected the Palais de Justice to be blown up. “It was surrounded by troops, every entrance guarded, and jurors, judges and counsel heavily escorted by police.” Ravochol said what he had done was for the sake of the “anarchist idea” and added, “I know I shall be avenged.” Sentenced to death in 1892, he went to the guillotine crying “Vive l’anarchie!” and became a popular anarchist martyr.

* In Homestead Pennsylvania in 1892 the steelworkers were protesting Andrew Carnegie’s Steel Company which had just cut wages in a deliberate show of force to the union – because they could. In expectation of a battle, the Carnegie Steel Company erected a military style blockade topped with barbed wire. Carnegie decided to spend that summer salmon fishing in Scotland, leaving matters to his manager, Henry Clay Frick. The barbed wire did not stop Alexander Berkman from forging a business card and making his way into Frick’s office and shooting him. Frick lived. Berkman tried to blow himself up at the police station (as Lingg had done), using two caps of Mercury found in his mouth, but he failed. He was sentenced to 16 years.

* In Spain the dynamite campaign was much more fierce, and deadly. The cycle began in January, 1892. An agrarian revolt broke out. 400 men marched on the village of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia to rescue five comrades sentenced to life in prison, in chains, for complicity in a labor dispute ten years earlier. The military stopped the uprising, publicly executing four of the leaders by tying a scarf around their necks and twisting it with a wooden handle. One of those leaders was an anarchist named Pallas who had thrown a bomb at the general, killing his horse and wounding several officers. In response to these executions, anarchists bombed a theater, killing 22 and wounding 50. The police arrested thousands – any who were suspected to be connected to any group of social discontent – and tortured them until they found Santiago Salvador, who admitted to bombing the theater in revenge for Pallas. Several bombings followed. The government countered with more executions.

* During a miner’s strike France, five police officers were killed in an explosion in November of 1892. The city was absolutely seized with fear. Commerce stopped. People were scared to go to church. This was a time of disillusionment, during the infamous Panama scandal in which over 100 officials of government were uncovered in corruption. “As the prestige of the State sank, Anarchism flourished.” In December a bomb went off in parliament. The bomber, named Vaillant, was labeled in the press as one of the “men of blood, born out of the mud of Panama.” Vaillant, whose bomb of nails only wounded, was sentenced to death in 1894, shouting “Death to bourgeois society! Long live Anarchy”. The days that followed were rocked with explosions. The first bomb went off in a peaceful cafe full of anonymous citizens. One person was killed and 20 wounded. The bomber of the cafe turned out to be the same person who bombed the police station. His name was Emile Henry, for whom “there are no innocent bourgeois.” while he was on trial the city suffered a whole series of bombings. While in prison, Emile Henry wrote his manifesto, echoing the teachings of Proudhon, Kropotkin and other propagandist leaders of the movement. Condemned to death, he went to the guillotine shouting “Vive la revolution! Vive l’anarchi!”

* A month later, on June 24, 1894, the President of France, Sadi Carnot, was assassinated by a young man with a dagger in a rolled up newspaper. The next day his widow received a picture of Ravachol inscribed, “He is avenged.” The assassin’s name was Santo Caserio. He described the act as a deliberate “propaganda of the deed.” He was 21 years old and had spent the last 3 years handing out propaganda pamphlets.

* In June 1896 a bomb was thrown into a religious procession as it was entering the church door led by the Bishop and the Commanding General of Barcelona during the festival of Corpus Christi in Spain. Eleven were killed and forty wounded. The government, led by its Premier, Antonio Canovas del Castillo, arrested 400 of its political enemies from all factions. Trials took place in secret. Letters that escaped spoke of torture. Four were executed and seventy-six were sentenced to prison terms, most to the penal colony of Rio de Oro, the Spanish Devil’s Island. An assassin named Michael Angiollio shot Canovas with a revolver while he was vacationing at a spa. Canovas’ wife struck the man in the face screaming, “Murderer! Assassin!” The man, an Italian journalist replied, “I am not an assassin. I am the Avenger of my Anarchist comrades. I have nothing to do with you, Madame.” Despite attempts to justify himself he was silenced during his trial. He maintained “an unbroken sangfroid” at his execution, refusing religious rites.

* On September 10, 1898 the Empress of Austria, Elizabeth, wife of Franz Joseph, was stabbed to death by Luigi Lucheni. There was no reason for it. It was not in retaliation or revenge. The murderer, a frequenter of Italian Anarchist meetings, simply wanted his name in the papers. Asked why he had killed the Empress he stated, “As part of the war on the rich and the great … it will be Humbert’s turn next.” There was no death penalty in Geneva where the murder occurred. Luigi was sentenced to life in prison from which he wrote many letters, at one point stating that “never in my life have I felt so contented as now. … I have made known to the world that the hour is not far distant when a new sun will shine upon all men alike.”

* In October of 1898 an assassin was found with two bombs intended for the Kaiser, Wilhelm II. Like the assassins of the President of France, the Premier of Spain, and the Empress of Austria, this would-be assassin was an Italian, just as the man who had attempted to kill King Humbert with a dagger a year before in Italy.

* In 1899 Tuscany was put under martial law following bread riots in Italy. Cries that the revolution had finally erupted, the government dispatched half an army corps to Milan to regain control, at least on the surface. On July 29, 1900, King Humbert was shot four times by Gaetano Bresci, whose name had been chosen by lots by a cabal of conspirators of the deed. With no death penalty in Italy, Bresci was sentenced to life in prison, the first seven years to be in solitary confinement. He killed himself after just a few months.

* The assassination of President McKinley in 1901 was carried out by a man who was suspect in the Anarchist underground. Czolgosz had expressed to Anarchist colleagues that he was “troubled by the conduct of the American Army, which, after liberating the Philippines from Spain, was now engaged in war upon the Filipinos. ‘It does not harmonize with the teaching in our public schools about our flag.'” This concern with the flag alerted some to suspect Czolgosz of being an agent provocateur, which turned out to be untrue. “I killed President McKinley,” he wrote in his confession, “because I done my duty,” later adding, “because he was an enemy of the good working people.” Perhaps the least sophisticated and significant men of the Idea and the Deed had committed the most significant act of them all. “McKinley was going around the country shouting prosperity when there was no prosperity for the poor man. … I don’t believe we should have any rulers. It is right to kill them.” Theodore Roosevelt called for the deportation of all known Anarchists in the country and in 1903 the Immigration Act was amended to exclude persons disbelieving in or “teaching disbelief in or opposition to all organized government.”

* In 1887, the same year the Haymarket Anarchists were hanged, five students from St. Petersburg were also hanged in Russia for the attempted assassination of Alexander III by bomb. One of the brothers of these men swore revenge for their hanging. His name was Vladimir Ilyich, which he later changed to Lenin.

* In the years of 1901-1903 the Terror Brigade of the Socialist-Revolutionaries assassinated the Minister of Education, the Minister of the Interior (the leader of the Secret Police), and a Governor who had ended a miners strike with particular brutality. In 1904 a second Minister of Interior, Wenzel von Plehve, the most hated autocrat in Russia, who had said “we must drown the revolution in Jewish blood,” was also killed. Plehve had been waging a reign of terror of his own, killing, beating, burning and plundering of homes and shops, and desecrating synagogues.

* Revolutionary groups of all sorts had been calling for a new constitution in Russia but the new Czar, Nicholas II dismissed them all when he rose to power in 1898. A few years later, in response to “Bloody Sunday” (Dec 1904) in which strikers were gunned down outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, a young revolutionary named Kaliaev killed the Governor General of Moscow with a bomb in April of 1905. The Anarchists really wanted to bomb another Czar (they had done so in 1881) but the Governor General was the best they could do at this time. Kaliaev was caught and executed. To his judges Kaliaev said, “We are two warring camps, … two worlds in furious collision. You, the representatives of capital and oppression; I, one of the avengers of the people. … What does all of this mean? It is the judgment of history upon you.” He said that he hoped the executioners would have the courage to carry out his death in the open, publicly, saying to the judge: “Learn to look the advancing revolution straight in the eye.”

Six months later the revolution finally came. “Neither organized nor led by the Socialist-Revolutionaries, Social-Democrats, or Anarchists, it was the spontaneous revolution Bakunin had believed in and did not live to see.” The idea of Proudhon had finally arrived in the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Terror Brigade in Russia would carry several more murders in the years that followed. In 1911, the Premier of Russia was was assassinated. It is unclear if the assassins were revolutionaries or the Russian police themselves.

The events shook the leaders of the world from country to country. “So serious was the problem that in the Italian government convened an international conference in Rome in November, 1898, to try to work out a solution. Secret sessions lasted for a month.” The world was on edge and finally, in 1914 an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo would precipitate a world wide cataclysm and catastrophe, changing the world forever.


Excerpt from Emile Henry’s manifesto, written in prison:

“Scientific studies gradually made me aware of the play of natural forces in the universe. I became materialist and atheist; I came to realize that modern science discards the hypothesis of God, of which it has no need. In the same way, religious and authoritarian morality, which are based on false assumptions, should be allowed to disappear.

What then, I asked myself, was the new morality in harmony with the laws of nature that might regenerate the old world and give birth to a happy humanity?

“It was at this moment that I came into contact with a group of anarchist comrades whom I consider, even today, among the best I have ever known. The character of these men immediately captivated me. I discerned in them a great sincerity, a total frankness, a searching distrust of all prejudices, and I wanted to understand the idea that produced men so different from anyone I had encountered up to that point.

“The idea – as soon as I embraced it – found in my mind a soil completely prepared by observation and personal reflection to receive it. It merely gave precision to what already existed there in vague and wavering form. In my turn I became an anarchist.”

– Emile Henry April, 1894

 Posted by at 12:13 pm
Jan 312013

1. Initial Trust
2. Spiritual Curiosity
3. Spiritual Openness
4. Spiritual Seeking
5. Intentional Discipleship

Quoting from the book, Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell:


Where do we start when seeking to make disciples of unevangelized Catholics? Let us get a common assumption out of the way first. With most twenty-first century people (there are always exceptions), we can’t start with catechesis. They aren’t ready for it yet, and if they aren’t ready, it will just roll off like water off a duck’s back. In any case, catechesis is designed to foster the maturation of disciples, not the initial conversion of thos who aren’t yet disciples.

“The aim of catechesis is to be the teaching and maturation stage … the period in which the Christian, having accepted by faith the person of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and having given Him complete adherence by sincere conversion of the heart, endeavors to know better this Jesus to whom he has entrusted himself.” – Pope John Paul II

The National Directory for Catechesis outlines two critical steps that should precede catechesis: pre-evangelization and initial proclamation of the basic kerygma, or the Great Story of Jesus Christ. Both are necessary to awaken initial Christian faith, and as we have seen, Christian faith is necessary for catechesis to be fruitful.

Here is an article that relates to the above point:

Why do you suppose Blessed John Paul II talked about the “new evangelization” and not the “new catechesis”?

Until recently, I was the director of evangelization and catechesis at a large parish here in Denver. And in that time, it became clear to me that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning between those two terms and that (2) most parishes don’t fully understand that difference, and that hurts our ability to reach the people in the pews.

To put it simply, “evangelization” is the process of introducing someone to Jesus Christ. It is about sharing His good news with them, and inspiring them to make the radical decision to follow Him. It is the fundamental turning of the heart toward God, the reorientation of one’s entire life to live not primarily for self, but for Him. Evangelization is the “why.” Why do I renounce this world for the next? Why do I follow Christ?

“Catechesis,” which happens after evangelization, is the nuts and bolts of instruction — the “how.” It is where we learn in a systematic way what we need to do in order to follow Christ, how to live as a Christian, how to grow in faith and love and grace.
Catechesis, then, presupposes evangelization. It would make no sense to teach people how to live a certain way if they don’t understand why they would want to live that way. It would be like giving someone a road map to a place they have no interest in going. They’d have no use for the map. They’d be more likely to use it to line the bird cage than they would be to actually follow it.

And here is where I see the disconnect in most parishes.

Most churches operate on a presupposition. They assume that their congregations consist of the “faithful” — people who have been evangelized, who have made the decision to follow Jesus Christ, who desire to become “new creations” in Him. They are gathered together to pray, to worship and to learn how to deepen that relationship. The church’s catechesis exists to help those people, who have already made the decision to follow Christ, to follow Him more closely.

Only, in many cases, that presupposition is wrong.

It may have been true, in previous generations, that a majority of the people in the pews on Sunday mornings were fully evangelized, committed Christians who had given their lives to following Jesus Christ. That may still be the case in some evangelical congregations. But it is not the situation in the average Catholic parish here at the dawn of the 21st century.

I believe that there are a lot of people in those pews who have never been evangelized. They’re probably sincere people, for the most part. They’re there. They want to be “good.” They want to meet nice people, maybe please the grandparents, maybe fulfill some kind of obligation. But they don’t get it. They don’t understand the power of Christ to transform their lives. They don’t see the need for the radical, life-altering transformation that He offers.

It’s no wonder our catechesis doesn’t seem to be getting us too far. We’re offering them a road map to a place they have no interest in going.

And hence, the primary need in the average Catholic church is not for catechesis. It’s for evangelization. As Blessed John Paul II said in “Novo Millennio Inuente,” “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian Society’ which, amid all of the frailties which have always market human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.” Our mission fields are no longer in far-off lands. They are right here, in our own cities, amongst the people who gather with us for Mass on Sunday mornings. Those are the people we need to introduce, or reintroduce, to the truth about salvation in Jesus Christ.

Hence the need for the “new evangelization.” There’s nothing really “new” about it, in the sense of new information. As John Paul II himself said, “The new evangelization does not consist of a ‘new gospel.’ … Neither does it involve removing from the Gospel whatever seems difficult for the modern mentality to accept.” What we need to do is to restore the ancient truths, in all of their splendor, and release them from the extremes of sterile question-and-answer catechesis on one side and “Kumbaya and felt banners” emotionalism on the other. We need to speak those ancient truths in ways that are relevant to our modern culture, without watering them down or losing what is essential in them.

How do we do that? Unfortunately, there is no road map for that. It isn’t just a matter of purchasing the right curriculum or scheduling the right programs. It is a matter, first of all, of allowing ourselves to be transformed in Christ. It is about becoming witnesses — showing them what transformation in Christ looks like, and inviting them to pursue the same through the power of our example.

To quote John Paul II one final time: “The new evangelization is not a matter of merely passing on doctrine, but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Savior.” The first goal of parish ministries should be just that — to facilitate a “personal and profound” meeting between worshippers and the object of their worship, Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t assume they’ve already met Him personally, or that they even know much about Him. Because I’m betting that, in many cases, they haven’t.
But I’m thinking that, if they got to know Him, they’d probably really like Him.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.

 Posted by at 8:27 pm
Jan 302013

“It is no great thing to associate with the good and gentle, for such association is naturally pleasing. Everyone enjoys a peaceful life and prefers persons of congenial habits. But to be able to live at peace with harsh and perverse men, or with the undisciplined and those who irritate us, is a great grace, a praiseworthy and manly thing.” – Imitation of Christ

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Lord, thank you for those who irritate.
A moment in the fire with them
strengthens my patience
and teaches me more about myself
than many hours
of peaceful meditation.

Lord, forgive me for my harshness and perversity;
Teach me discipline, that I may learn not to irritate;
Grant me Your great grace and spirit.

Lord, teach me to live at peace in turmoil
and among undisciplined men.
By this may your glory be known.

 Posted by at 7:46 am
Jan 292013

As I go over chapter IV more thoroughly, so many avenues of philosophical inquiry open up and I know these would be distractions but I still have to make note of them as I work my way through my “mental furniture.”

To mention just one, at the very end of his section on Profession as notional assent Newman goes into a digression that touches on group theory, the ontological nature of God, the distinction between notions and the “things themselves” – each of which open up enormous vistas of philosophical discourse – quite a digression!

To touch on just one of these, in the last sentence of the section on “Profession”, just before the section on “Credence” he reminds us of what he demonstrated in an earlier chapter where he shows how an assertion can be converted to an assent by making the assertion the subject of a proposition, and predicating of the proposition that it is true. Once I read him say it this way, I recalled that this is exactly what Frank Ramsey denies in his redundancy theory of truth (“Facts and Propositions” 1927, which is a very fruitful theory in mathematics according to what I have gathered of it).

Ramsey says that adding “is true” to a proposition is equivalent to asserting the proposition itself. Ramsey asserts that it is a “linguistic muddle” to treat “is true” and words like “truth” and “fact” as separate from the assertions they are attached to and denies that the word “truth” corresponds to a “thing” in reality, but is merely a convenient way of speaking. “‘The snow is white’ is true” is the same as saying “The snow is white” is an example frequently given.

We have now entered the realm of group theory and puzzlers like “This sentence is false” (which is false if true and true if false) and other paradoxes dealt with by Russel and Godel and soon we find ourselves faced with dealing with the entire thrust of the Vienna Circle, suddenly realizing that this digression has become quite serious and quite perplexing enough that men have spent their lives here.

These are just the sorts of discussions in which one begins to feel as if caught in a very deep and dangerous quicksand. It was just these sorts of problems which can leave the student of philosophy (this one at least) at a loss, and wondering, if ever a conclusion can be reached, who could follow it? For just as Newman puts forth his idea of converting an assertion into an assent with the predication of “is true,” so have men have put forth great tracts disputing this, and men disputing them back in turn and so on, and on and on.

And so one begins to wonder: how, if truth be this arduous to find, will anyone ever make their way to it? And if we were once and for all able to convince the world and solve these puzzles, what exactly would we have gained? For once we have come to some conclusion, if we are able to do so, what is that we have won? Imagining ourselves at this endpoint, having fought our way through Vienna and all the logical positivists who gather against us, I have to wonder if we would have at last satisfied the yearning that originally sent us on our quest? Imagining ourselves here, victorious in truth, what now of the mystery that originally captured our minds and our hearts?

Again, I imagine Job and his philosopher/theologian friends going back and forth and round and round these paradoxes and puzzles until they have developed a highly symbolic, rigorous system of logic that has stripped away all equivocation from propositions, seeking to avoid all the contradictions brought forth by the metaphors of our common language, only to end up with the “Incompleteness Theorem” which says nothing less than that the crystal palace they sought to construct (which I like to refer to as the Tower of Babel) can in fact never be built.

But again, even if it could be built, even if we could build a bridge to total and complete understanding and knowledge, would this satisfy? If we were able to construct a machine that could compute any answer, or if we were so brilliant as to be able to solve all the puzzles and mysteries ourselves, would we be satisfied at last? In short, is it really answers that we seek, after all?

I think the book of Job has much to say about this. And I sometimes think of philosophy as a tool, perhaps for sharpening the mind, but perhaps not for finding answers or resolving disputes. Like many tools, it can be used for and against the same purpose. Whether as an aid to finding God, or as an aid in losing God, perhaps it is the philosopher, not philosophy, which determines which of these paths is ventured. I like this thought because it corresponds to the gift of our human freedom. If philosophy had the power to resolve these questions in the way that mathematics has the power to resolve an equation, where would that put man’s relation to God vis-a-vis his human freedom? There would be no more room left for making a commitment, for keeping a covenant, or for love.

I used to think that what I sought was answers and that the mystery of life was about solving some puzzle, but I have come to believe that the mystery of life is not about solving, but rather about choosing. I have adopted the motto, “There are no answers, only choices.” Perhaps this goes too far, but I like the idea that some questions have not (and will not) be solved because some questions involve me so deeply as a person that the last thing I want is for those things to be resolved by some clever algorithm that has nothing to do with me as a person. The last thing I want for myself and my life is to be solvable. No. I do not want a solution for my life, I want a commitment. I want to choose. I want to exercise the fullness of my freedom and experience all the anguish and joy that comes with making a choice; with making a promise, and keeping it.

As Pope Benedict XVI says in “Introduction to Christianity” – “There is no escape from the dilemma of being human.” I am thankful that there is no escape, because what would it mean to escape this dilemma? It would mean the loss of my freedom as a person to choose, and more to the point it would mean the loss of my freedom to choose Christ, for if this were truly “solved” then I would have no more choice in the matter of Christ than I do in the matter of some maths equation. This is why faith is faith and not mathematics. It is at this point in the “digression,” when I see philosophy wanting to become a mathematics, that I have to realize that I am very far from what I seek.

And so, in the end, the consolation of philosophy is for me the acceptance that while I may make use of it for my ends, I do not feel the urgency of finding within it some solution that will resolve the problems of my life, or answer the quest I am on. Only whether I am able to make the choice that is before me, and keep it, will determine this.

 Posted by at 6:21 pm
Jan 282013

“To the child who is learning how to swim we explain that because of natural laws there is no reason to be afraid, and if he will only make a few simple movements he will be able to swim. But the child is perhaps still afraid. He shrinks back, and does not seem to believe us. But finally the moment comes when he experiences for himself that what he was told is really possible, after all. He believes, and now he is able to swim.”

-Claude Tresmontant in “Toward the Knowledge of God”

— — –

Lord, you have challenged us to believe;
You have invited us into the water
and assured us we will not sink;

Listening to your word
now we prepare to leave our familiar shores.
Now we cry out, now we reach out
like babes with arms outstretched

as we make our way to you,
Lord, teach us to swim.

 Posted by at 10:27 pm
Jan 272013

“Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.” (CCC 2705)

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Prayer is where the ultimate awareness of self occurs, for it is in prayer where we become most aware of our dependence on Another and therefore it is in prayer where we admit the lie of our self-sufficiency.

In prayer we enter into a relationship (I-Thou) that corresponds with our deepest, truest self. Otherwise it is nothing. Either we are true and we enter into a relationship, or we are false and are alone with our thoughts.

In prayer we are aware of the foundation from which our life, our being, springs. We are aware that we have not created ourselves, and that our creation is not in our past, but rather, it is in our present; it is in this moment, right now. And as our creation is present in every moment, it is present in every action, every breathe, which leads to the question, can our entire life become prayer?


Lord, teach me to pray
so that I may know you;
Lord, teach me to pray
so that I might be true.

Lord, teach me to pray
that I might know myself;
Lord, teach me to pray
that I might know you.

Lord, teach me to pray
with my every breath,
with my every word,
with my every action.

Lord, teach me to pray
so wherever I go
I can say, “He is with me,
and has not left me alone.”


 Posted by at 5:07 pm
Jan 262013

The king hath brought me into his chambers;
[…] He brought me to the banqueting house, 
and his banner over me was love.

The most profound insight of the Desert Fathers is that entering into the heart is entering into the kingdom of God. In other words, the way to God is through the heart. Isaac the Syrian writes: “Try to enter the treasure chamber … that is within you and then you will discover the treasure chamber of heaven.” [more…]

 — — — —

Lord, call me to your chamber.

When I am distracted and confused;
When I am far from you and lost.

Call to me with the glance of another
so I may know I am not alone.
Call me to your chamber
that I may see your face.

Call to me in the gentle breeze
that speaks of your peace
so that I may feel your presence.

Call to me in the silence
of contemplation
so that I may hear you.

Call to me in the candle flame
that flickers in the darkness
so that I may see your light.

Lord, call to me
so that I may follow you
and know your love.

Lord, call to me
so that I may know
how to love.

 Posted by at 1:39 pm
Jan 262013

They said, “We see plainly the Lord has been with you.
[…] So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank.”

May the Lord be plain to see in our lives.

 Posted by at 1:08 pm