Saturday, October 16, 2021

Death of a Historian

I first met Ray Sadler when I was a student in search of a major.  I took his course on military history mostly on a lark, with no real desire to pursue a degree in a field of study that I was certain was both useless and boring.  My ignorance of what history was really like was due to my only previous exposure to history:  its being poorly taught high school history by illiterate football coaches.  

Learning history from someone who not only enjoyed history, but who obviously enjoyed teaching it was electrifying—every class was exciting and I could hardly wait to do the reading so I could learn more of “the story”.   Nor was I alone in this opinion, as an empty seat in the classroom was a rarity.  This was where I learned an important lesson about teaching:  an empty classroom is a more accurate indication of a poor teacher than of poor students.

A well-taught class can make a tremendous, even a life-changing, impression on students—I was far from the only student in that class who decided to major in history.  

Through Dr. Sadler, I also met Charles Harris, his history colleague and writing partner.  Together, these two men were to me the very embodiment of how history professors—at least male professors—should act and how they should respect their students.  I think the best way to describe these two men is to simply say that they were gentlemen.  Though the definition has unfortunately changed over the years, to me, the definition of a gentleman is ‘someone who strives to put others at ease’.  I can give you an example.

In that first history class I took with Ray Sadler, just before the midterm exam, a student asked a simple question.  “Would Dr. Sadler please clarify which side were the Confederates?  The North or the South?”

When this question was asked, I remember staring hard at the student, trying to discover if the hole through his head started in the front or the side.  Dr. Sadler, however, answered, “I’m sorry.  I should have explained that better, the Confederates were from the South.”

When I started teaching, I discovered that whenever I had a problem in a class, I could best solve it by simply asking myself, “What would Ray Sadler do?”  While I doubt that very few would extend the definition of gentleman far enough to include me, remembering the examples of Professors Sadler and Harris did help me frequently while I was teaching.  (And a couple of decades later, when a student asked me the exact same question about the Civil War, I could calmly look at the student and say, “Did any of your parents’ children survive?”)

Years later, even though I had continued my graduate studies of history, I had never even considered teaching history, for I knew that such jobs were impossible to obtain.  Then, one day Ray called me and asked if I was interested in teaching a weekend college course on the history of Mexico.  Truthfully, I wasn’t even remotely interested in ruining my weekends for what I suspected was small pay, but I felt that I owed a deep debt to the man who had first instilled in me a love of history. 

“Sure,” I said.  “When does it start?”

“The day after tomorrow,” he answered.

Teaching my first class with only two days notice was impossible, but because it was Ray Sadler, I spent the next 48 hours practicing my first lecture in the backyard for the benefit of a few birds.  I taught the course, and two more the following semester, and many, many more over the next two decades.  Teaching history turned out to be one of the passions of my life and I never would have known this if Ray Sadler hadn’t called me and offered me a classroom.  I will never be able to repay that debt to the best professor I have ever met in my life.

It might surprise most people to learn that the only qualification to teach a college course is the right sheepskin—there are no preparatory classes on how to teach, nor does the typical administration really care what happens inside the classroom as long as the student pays for his tuition with a check that clears the bank.  It was Dr. Sadler who taught me that the two great reasons for doing your very best in the classroom:  your own pride in doing a job the best you could and perhaps more importantly, that you owed a debt to both to the people who had educated you and to the students who had paid to rent the room, turn on the lights, and pay your salary.

As a student, for five years, I took every available class from Dr. Sadler.  I have a talent for note taking during class, and quickly learned that if I typed up my notes after class, not only were they easier to study, the simple act of transferring the hastily scribbled notes into legible text reinforced my memory of the subject.   As I write this, I can see a whole row of notebooks labeled Cuba, Central America, Military History, Military Intelligence, etc.   Years later, when I had taught some of those same classes in the same rooms where I had been a student, I was astonished to discover that many of the lectures I had written contained long passages identical to what was in those notebooks.

I can’t help but wonder how many other teachers’ approach to history was molded by Ray Sadler and, perhaps, whether any of my own former students, who are now teaching their own courses of history, are even aware that they are passing down the words of Ray Sadler.   Since Ray once told me that he had calculated that over the years, he had taught something close to 7% of the adult population of the state of New Mexico, he has achieved something close to intellectual immortality.

Ray Sadler, the man, has unfortunately passed away.  Ray Sadler, the teacher, lives on in the lives of his students and the students of his students.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

The Heart of the Matter

One of the great joys of a library—among the multitudes of great joys every library offers—is the pleasure of selecting a book at random and opening it up to read a chapter.  You would be surprised at how often this leads to finding a hidden treasure.

Similarly, whenever you are searching for a particular book in the library, after you find it in the stacks, turn around and select a random book from the shelf behind you.  There is buried treasure hidden all over a library, and no one charges you to dig randomly.

I will admit to having a certain bias in favor of books.  I’ve always thought the most challenging ‘escape room’ setting would be a well stocked bookstore with clearly marked exits.  Eight hours later, I'd only be halfway to the exit.  Despite my bias towards books, such random research does have serendipitous benefits, such as today’s topic. 

When James Cameron wrote the story that eventually became the film “Titanic”, he did what most good writers do; he wove together tidbits of facts and imagination to create a great story that was made into a great movie.  One of those combinations of real and fantasy was the 56-carat blue diamond, Le Coeur de la Mer (The Heart of the Sea).

Cameron probably used as a basis for his story, the real-life story of Kate Florence Phillips and Henry Samuel Morley.  Nineteen-year-old Kate worked for Morley, and despite a twenty-year age difference, Morley abandoned his wife and daughter to run away with Kate, intending to resettle in San Francisco.  Traveling under the name of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, they booked a second-class stateroom on the Titanic where Marshall gifted Kate with a large necklace consisting of a blue sapphire surrounded by smaller diamonds, nicknamed “The Love of the Ocean”.  

On the night of April 12-13, 1912, Kate boarded lifeboat 11, wearing only her nightgown and the necklace, and clutching her purse and the keys to her trunk.  Morley, who could not swim, went down with the ship—as did Kate’s trunk.  Neither his body nor the trunk was ever found, but the necklace is currently in the possession of a private collector in Florida.  You may have seen it when Celine Dion wore it at the 1998 Oscars, while she performed the movie’s theme song, My Heart Will Go On.

This is a good story, and the movie changed only a few things.  In Cameron’s version, Hockley, the film’s protagonist bought the magnificent gem as a wedding present for Rose, his fiancée .  As he puts the necklace around her neck for the first time, he explains that the 56-carat diamond had once belonged to the French King, Louis XVI and is incredibly valuable.  For the rest of the film, Hockley chases Rose and her new-found love, Jack, both of whom are unaware that they are in possession of the fabulously valuable jewel.  The movie is not so much about the sinking of the ship, but a quest to recover the expensive jewel.

Cameron once again took real events and slightly modified them.  The gem pictured is not real, it was cubic zirconia, but it was based on an actual jewel.  Louis XVI had actually inherited a magnificent blue diamond, Le Bleu, or the French Blue.  And at the time the movie was made, the fate of the fabulous jewel was still unknown.

What became the French Blue was discovered in India at the same mine that produced the Koh-i-noor diamond that is part of the British Crown Jewels.  Discovered in approximately 1610, it was cut in the fashion popular in India, a style that emphasized the size of the jewel more than luster or symmetry, essentially turning this massive stone into nothing more than a polished river rock.  While most diamonds are prized for their total lack of color, this diamond was notable for its steel blue color.

It was purchased by a French diamond merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier and brought back to Paris.  Originally known as the Tavernier Diamond, it soon caught the eye of the only person rich enough to buy the gem.  Louis XIV bought the gem and had it cut down from an original 115 carats to 69 carats—a process that intensified the unique blue color and made the gem appear more symmetrical.  The beautiful gem remained the property of the French monarchy until the French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, after the King and Queen were put under house arrest, the crown jewels were confiscated and locked up in the French Royal Treasury.  In September 1792, a mob of peasants stormed the building, slashed the throats of the guards and ransacked the treasury for five days.  The crown jewels, include the French Blue, vanished.

For several decades, the exact location of the blue diamond was uncertain, though there are a number of interesting possibilities.  One rumor says that Marie Antoinette had hidden the jewel before she was arrested and had entrusted it to her hairdresser to smuggle back to Austria.  A more likely version says that it was smuggled to England and sold to King George IV, who bought it—and every other shiny object he could find—despite the monarch already being hopelessly in debt.  

In 1812, just a few days after the last possible date to prosecute someone for crimes committed during the French Revolution, a large blue gem was recut by a London jeweler, reducing the size of and rounding the shape of the diamond.  While historians had surmised for years that this might be the French Blue, the recent discovery of working drawings of the stone and how it was to be cut firmly establish that this was the former royal diamond.  Using those drawings, a computer was able to produce an image of what the French Blue probably looked like before it was recut.

It’s most likely that the jewel remained the possession of King George IV until his death in 1830, when it was probably privately sold to pay off some of the immense debts he had amassed during his reign.  Buying the diamond only to sell it—either to pay off debts immediately or after the death of the owner—set a pattern that would be repeated for the next century.

In 1839, the diamond resurfaced as part of the gem collection of William Phillip Hope, whose name has been attached to it ever since.  After Hope died, the stone was bought by and subsequently sold by a series of wealthy people on both sides of the Atlantic until it was finally sold to Pierre Cartier, the famous jeweler.

Cartier had a potential buyer in mind, Evalyn Walsh McLean, of Washington D.C.  Mrs. McLean was…well…today we would call her, “eccentric”.  Cartier, a crafty salesman, loaned her the diamond for the weekend.  The tactic worked:  by the beginning of the next week, the flamboyant Mrs. McLean had purchased the gem and had commissioned Cartier to refashion it as the centerpiece on a necklace containing 45 diamonds.

Until her death in 1947, Mrs. McLean wore the necklace frequently to fashionable Washington and New York affairs… and on at least one occasion, allowed the family dog to wear the diamond.  After her death, her entire collection of jewelry was purchased by the New York jewelry firm, Henry Winston.  In 1958, the gem was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains to this day, as the museum’s most popular attraction.

Well, that’s about it, except for two last points.  First, when the Smithsonian had the diamond removed from the necklace for cleaning recently, the loose stone was weighed and it was discovered that the diamond was now 45.52 carats.  Second, when the movie Titanic was made, Cameron didn’t know that the French Blue was actually the famous Hope Diamond because the working drawings proving the diamond’s true provenance had not yet been discovered.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

$$$$$$$

Perhaps because I have been diligently studying for my economics classes all week, I keep finding myself daydreaming about money.  Not wealth, mind you—I’ll leave that to the politicians in Washington, who are currently arguing about the definition of “fair wealth”.

No—I’ve been thinking about actual physical money:  Greenbacks, sawbucks, moolah, cash, currency, dosh, and dough.  No, I’m not going to give you a history of money (well, not much), but I’ve just been thinking about actual cash, physical, folding money.

I’ll start with a brief correction.  A couple of weeks ago, I predicted that the new government of Afghanistan would likely trigger a wave of runaway inflation by putting the printing presses at the state treasury into hyperdrive.  It turns out that, at least for the moment, this is impossible, since the government of Afghanistan doesn’t possess the necessary machinery to print its own currency:  in the past, it contracted the job out to a company in another country, safely beyond the reach of the Taliban.

I suspect that the Afghani—the currency used in Afghanistan—was printed by the ultra-secretive American Banknote Company, which has a long history of printing currency and postage stamps for many countries.  If I’m correct, I suspect that the new Taliban government will have to find a new way to print their future money, since the American Banknote Company has long since learned the risks of dealing with revolutionary armies.  In fact, one such memorable lesson was taught just a few miles from my home

During the decade-long Mexican Revolution, every army that attempted to overthrow the government tried to finance its operations by printing its own version of the ‘official’ Mexican currency.  It didn’t take long before some “freelance” printers realized that if there were more than a dozen official versions of Mexican money floating around, no one would notice if a few counterfeit versions were added into the mix.  

One such revolutionary leader was Pancho Villa, who operated just a few miles south of my home.  Villa’s first version of currency was pretty sad looking—little more than a rubber stamp on white paper, with each ‘bill’ worth only a few pesos.  It’s kind of hard to imagine how anybody would be foolish enough to accept the bills unless Villa and his army were personally present, urging the recipient to cheerfully accept the banknotes.

Clearly, Villa needed currency with a little more class, and the American Banknote Company cheerfully accepted a contract to print up a more professional looking batch for him.  Well, it was a little more than a batch:  it took up the better part of a railroad boxcar to deliver it to the general.  When the boxcar crossed the border at El Paso into Mexico, a representative of the New York printing company presented the bill to General Villa and demanded payment.

Pancho Villa, the one-time cattle rustler turned Revolutionary leader, promptly agreed, and paid off the company with the freshly-printed bills from inside the boxcar.  Since Villa’s currency was backed up by the full faith and credit, to say nothing of the rifles, of his army, you can be sure the payment was accepted with a smile.

I cannot be sure that the American company actually got the contract to print the currency for Afghanistan since they have a number of rivals, including several European firms, but because the United States was footing the bill for propping up the government, I hope we were smart enough to give the job to an American company.  (Even as I wrote that just now, I realized how hopelessly naive it sounds.)

According to the BBC, the monetary situation in Afghanistan has become a major problem:   currency of any sort is becoming increasingly scarce, shutting down commerce.  Before the Taliban crisis, there were several different forms of currency in wide circulation, with American dollars being the most widely sought after.  The second most popular was the Afghani currency, regardless of which company was actually making them.  These banknotes were widely accepted because the Central Bank of Afghanistan would, upon request, exchange them for American banknotes.

Now, you are probably asking why the Central Bank would want to do that.  An even bigger puzzle is how the bank could afford to do that.  It’s well-known that the only thing that Afghanistan regularly exports to the United States is a substance that is not regulated, is not calculated as part of the GDP, and usually is not a legitimate part of a country’s banking system, so where the hell was Afghanistan acquiring the United States currency to exchange for the somewhat questionable newly-printed Afghanis?

As I am sure you have guessed, the government of Afghanistan simply used currency we obligingly gave them.  According to the BBC, an American military plane transported $249 million in freshly printed money to Kabul every three months.  Why $249 million?  I can’t prove it, but I suspect that any sum above $250 million triggers some statute that requires congressional notice.  $249 million dollars is not exactly folding money, as that much cash takes up far more space than you would imagine.

The United States Treasury stopped printing bills larger than one hundred dollars shortly after World War II, and began recalling them for destruction in 1969.  (Nixon thought such a move would help the ‘War on Drugs’.)  Forced to use only hundred-dollar bills, $249 million would be no small pile of money.

On television crime shows, they frequently use a briefcase that supposedly holds several million dollars in small bills.  In reality, a million dollars in hundred-dollar bills (right) would weigh about twenty pounds and would completely fill an average sized briefcase.  The same amount in fifties would weigh forty pounds, and if you were to use twenties, it would weigh roughly a hundred pounds.  Used bills weigh about 10% more than new ones, so—despite what they show on television—a thief trying to make off with several million in small, unmarked bills is going to need a forklift.

With a little math, you can get the results.  A pallet of bundled bills, stacked six feet high, would hold about $100 million and weigh about a ton.  The United States shipped two and a half pallet loads of such currency to Afghanistan every 90 days to prop up the Central Bank.  At the very least, I hope we got a free toaster for opening the account.

It probably won’t surprise the reader to learn that several hundred million dollars in currency simply vanished from the Central Bank when the Afghan government collapsed.  We know that Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan fled from his palace with so much cash that not all of it would fit inside his helicopter, forcing the fleeing president to leave stacks of bills on the airport tarmac.

As for the rest of the tons of cash left in Afghanistan, it has simply vanished.  I suspect that the forklift tracks lead straight to Switzerland.


Saturday, September 25, 2021

Face Masks and Enema U

First, a couple of confessions.  I hate wearing a mask in the classroom.  With every breath, my glasses fog up and the world briefly vanishes.  While talking a test the other day, I suddenly realized that I was subconsciously holding my breath while reading the exam.  If it turns out I flunked it, I’m going to blame it on the lack of oxygen.  

Secondly, I don’t know a damn thing about whether masks are effective or not.  I tried, like everyone else working on a Google Doctorate of Medicine, to do my own online research and eventually ended up watching videos of cats riding on Roombas.  I’m going to let my wife, The Doc, handle that problem and just wear the mask she gave me.  (I don’t know why I bothered, since after a half century of married life, I have long since learned that the only two problems I am in charge of are bugs and loud noises after dark.)

Now, that I have confessed my ignorance of all things masked, I find the current Covid policy of Enema U to be a little…. well…. useless.  First, everyone has to wear a mask indoors, maintain social distances, and either get vaccinated or be tested weekly.  Or maybe it was weakly.  In any case, very little of that is actually happening.

Okay, everyone is wearing a mask indoors.  Some people are even wearing them over their noses.  And those who remove their masks to sip at the ever-present coffee cup or thermos, usually put them back on.  (Officially, food and beverages are not allowed in any classroom, a rule that is followed religiously—which means the rule is only enforced on Easter Sunday.)

If a student doesn’t have a mask, they can walk into the building, continue down the hall, and go into their classroom, where they can ask the professor for one provided by the university.  The guidelines are unclear on the concept, but presumably the student is supposed to hold his breath until he receives his mask.

The university’s guideline on social distancing is also ignored.  Of the rooms in which my classes meet, if we were to strictly uphold the six-foot minimum spacing, half the students would not be able to enter the room.  Crowded doorways, restrooms, stairs, and hallways will remain the norm until someone redesigns the way the classrooms are built.

While every faculty member and student must provide either proof of vaccination or negative results of a weekly Covid test, these rules were enforced only after the first five weeks of the semester.  Hopefully, the virus, infused with school spirit, patiently waited though this period before it began to spread across campus.

Needless to say, I think most of the measures the administration is invoking to fight Covid will probably prove to be fairly ineffective.  But, I also think the university is doing the best job it can under these conditions.  You can’t rebuild the classrooms, you can’t turn the faculty into mask police, and you can’t control human behavior, though they have periodically tried to do so.  The administration might have instituted the vaccination policy a little earlier, but overall, I give the university a good, solid “B” on its Covid policy.  While I find the conditions to be slightly humorous at times, I’m also grateful I wasn’t tasked to do this impossible job.

College students are, at least technically, adults.  Everyone attending a face-to-face class does so knowing the dangers, and chooses to take the risk of being there in exchange for pursuing an education.  (That voluntary acceptance even includes that weird old, gray-bearded man taking freshman economics courses.)  While the choices may be harder for the faculty, ultimately, they too, are there by choice—something for which the students should be more grateful.

However, not everyone at the university deserves a passing grade.  Alone among the faculty, one professor used his classroom (and his students) as a way of spreading his own personal political opinions and biases.  He refused to wear a mask, refused to be vaccinated, and refused to submit to weekly Covid tests.  These were all ‘impositions upon his freedom’, he declared, daring the administration to take any action against him.

The administration, of course, promptly removed the onus of teaching from him, placing him on leave pending a final decision on his continued employment.  Since then, this lone professor has found any number of avenues via which to voice his opinions about his being placed on leave, about the results of the last presidential election, and on several other rather bizarre topics, managing to blame a large number of people for his troubles in the process, while accepting no personal responsibility for them in any way.

Personally, I believe that every person has the right to decide for themselves whether they wish to be vaccinated.  Although I believe in vaccinations, I also believe the first freedom you give others is the right to make bad choices.  If a person refuses to be vaccinated, that is their right.  I also believe just as strongly, however, that a business has the right to set standards and rules for its employees.

Long before I set foot in a classroom this semester, the university set clear standards for both students and faculty.  As a condition of my enrollment, I accepted these conditions.  As a condition of his continued employment, this professor knew what was expected of him—not only by the university, but by the students in his classroom.  It was within his rights to decide to refuse these conditions and leave the university system.  The university is also within its rights to give him the ultimatum to comply or leave.

The university goes to bizarre lengths to avoid this kind of public confrontation, and I’m reasonably sure that if this professor had wanted to avoid a public fight, he could have taken a semester off or have taken a sabbatical, while continuing to be paid.  Alternately, he might have taught his classes online, avoiding any necessity to be on campus.  The professor obviously chose to make this a public fight, satisfying his ego while sadly ignoring any responsibility to the students, who are the ultimate losers in his needless confrontation.

Employers are capable of making demands that employees do not like, and if they wish, these employees can refuse their paychecks and seek employment elsewhere.  That Enema U is a part of the state government does not change this simple fact.  

On second thought, perhaps the professor is teaching the students a valuable lesson after all.  As a far better writer than I once remarked:

“A person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was getting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn't ever going to grow dim or doubtful.”  Mark Twain – Tom Sawyer Abroad.


Saturday, September 18, 2021

William Mack Lee and the Lost Cause

Having spent the first few decades of my life studying machines and computers, in the nineteen eighties I decided it would be more fun to study people by pursuing degrees in history and anthropology.  I was embarrassingly old before I discovered something that should be painfully obvious to anyone who has paid attention in a high school history class:  that throughout history, there have been no guilty people.

Well, there have been a lot of truly evil people over time, but each of these villains has been perfectly innocent in his own mind.  No matter what people have done, they convince themselves that they are always justified in their actions by forces out of their control.  This reasoning, of course, is nonsense, but people have an inherent need to find ways to justify their actions, no matter how utterly wrong they may be to the rest of us.  People who cannot find a way to do so, probably go mad.

This same inherent need to justify actions evidently applies to large groups of people in a collective need to explain actions that otherwise appear reprehensible.  So it is with Southerners still trying to explain away slavery and the Civil War.  Almost immediately after the war, Southerners wholeheartedly accepted the negationist theory of the Lost Cause—an absurd belief that the actions of the South were somehow honorable and that slavery was not the root cause of the war.  

While the North and the South differed on several issues, all the arguments except slavery could have been resolved by negotiation and compromise.  Put simply, if there had been no slavery, there would have been no war.  Any attempt to justify the war or the actions of the southern leaders is denial of the simple fact that the Southern states fought primarily to retain the institution of slavery because their economy depended on it.

After more than a century and a half (and after more than half million people died fighting a senseless war), you would think that this issue would have been settled for good, but since the recent removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from Richmond, the whole rancid issue has bubbled to the top of the septic tank again, and with it, the ludicrous tale of William Mack Lee.

William Mack Lee was a former slave who, in the first part of the 20th century, began passing himself off as the former cook and body servant of General Lee throughout the Civil War.  In the South, people donated small amounts of change to pose for pictures with William Mack Lee and listen to his stories about how he cooked for General Lee through the war.  You could even buy a copy of his pamphlet, “History of the Life of Rev. Wm. Mack Lee, Body Servant of General Robert E. Lee Through the Civil War: Cook from 1861 to 1865”.  Having read that long title, you can read the other half of the pamphlet for free here.

According to William Mack Lee, the ‘Marse Robert’ was the epitome of Southern gentlemen: a kind master who freed his slaves more than a decade before the Civil War, and who was such a wonderful master that none of his slaves left, preferring to stay on the plantation.  William Mack Lee says he remained on the general’s plantation for eighteen years after the war.

The problem of course is that William Mack Lee was a fraud and liar.  I can’t really bring myself to blame him, however, considering that he was an elderly former slave without a pension or means to support himself, was forced to eke out a living by telling people what they desperately wanted to believe.  I’m just surprised this didn’t get him elected to Congress.

Among the numerous errors in the pamphlet is William Mack Lee’s claim that he was Robert E. Lee’s slave who accompanied the general during the war.  There still exists an accurate inventory of the general’s slaves and William Mack Lee isn’t listed.  Nor did the man cook for the general, as Robert E. Lee wrote about the two slaves that accompanied him during the war:  Meredith was his cook and Perry was his valet.  And while he claims the general left him almost $400 in his will, if you read it—and it’s available online—no such provision can be found.  Nor is it possible for the former slave to have remained on the plantation for eighteen years after the war.  The general never set foot on his old plantation after the war, which by then had been converted into Arlington National Cemetery.  In any case, the general died five years after the war.

For anyone remotely familiar with the events of the Civil War, one tale from the pamphlet is obvious nonsense.  According to the author, "I was with him at the first battle of Bull Run, second battle of Bull Run, first battle of Manassas, second battle of Manassas..."  The Battle of the Manassas and the Battle of Bull Run are the same battle, as the North tended to name battles after rivers and streams, while the South usually named battles for nearby towns, communities, or railroad junctions.  Not only would no Southerner ever refer to that battle as Bull Run, but General Lee was not even present at the first battle.

By far the most ludicrous story in the pamphlet is William Mack Lee’s account of Stonewall Jackson’s putting on the uniform of a Union officer so that he could sneak through Union lines and spy on the enemy’s army.  I will admit that General Jackson was a weird duck—he used to watch battles while sitting in the saddle, sucking on a lemon, with one hand raised in the air (supposedly to “balance” him).  While I would love for the story of General Jackson’s being a spy to be real, it’s impossible.

That the wild tales of William Mack Lee continue to be believed by gullible people is proof that far too many Southerners are desperate to believe that Robert E. Lee was someone worthy of respect.  General Lee was a brilliant battlefield tactician, but he wasn’t a very admirable man.  Lee certainly did not free his slaves a decade before the war—the laws of Virginia required freed slaves to leave the state within 12 months.  There is also ample evidence in the general’s own writings that he treated his slaves harshly.  In one case, after two of his slaves who had run away were recaptured, Lee ordered that they be stripped to the waist and given 50 lashes each.  Still not content with their punishment, Lee ordered their backs washed with brine water.

In 1857, Lee inherited more slaves, but the inheritance came with the stipulation that Lee free the slaves within five years.  Lee went unsuccessfully to court twice to postpone the required manumission of the slaves, only freeing them two days before the deadline.  When Lee took his army north of the Potomac River into Union territory, he allowed his officers to capture free Blacks and take them back south to be sold for profit.  Lee’s writings and letters leave absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he wholeheartedly supported slavery.

After the war, General Lee could have, had he wished to, spoken out against the violence in the south against freed slaves, but he chose not to do so.  In addition, while he never became a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as the president of Washington College, he allowed a chapter of the KKK to operate on campus—something that would have been impossible without his permission.

While I’m at it, I might as well talk about the realities of the claimed amazing abilities of the general.  Robert E. Lee was a master tactician, capable of sizing up the terrain of a battlefield and positioning his forces better than any other general in the war.  However, as a strategist, Lee was poor—even disastrous.  It was his choice to fight a long, conventional war against the more populated and industrialized North—a decision that was just short of downright stupid.  Making matters worse, after Gettysburg, there was no good reason for Lee to continue a war that he could clearly never win.  Certainly, after Lincoln won reelection in 1864, there was no possible way for the South to win the war.  By continuing a futile war, Lee sacrificed tens of thousands of lives long after it was time to seek an armistice.  

I’m a multi-generational Southerner, and I understand the desire to find good in our heritage, but the South needs to find better heroes.  There is no particular reason why the people of the 21st Century need to continue to honor controversial heroes of the past, especially if it was a past like that invented by William Mack Lee—one that never actually existed.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Pedro de Alvarado

In “L’il Abner”, there was a long-running gag about Joe Btfsplk, the very embodiment of bad luck.  Joe, who was always pictured with a small dark rain cloud over his head, brought disaster and calamity to any one around him.  Always well-meaning, Joe was a perfect jinx.

While Joe was Al Capp’s invention, there is a larger than life historical figure who brought disaster and ruin wherever he went.

Pedro de Alvarado was a Spanish conquistador in the early days of the Central American conquest.  Immigrating to Cuba in 1511, Alvarado quickly rose to prominence among the Spanish officials who carved out estates on the island.  Alvarado was tall and handsome, and with red hair and beard, he made a striking impression on those he met.  He was capable both of being affable to his friends but also of being cruelly violent to his enemies—the perfect combination of traits to be a successful conquistador.

Alvarado was on the little remembered first expedition to Mexico that was led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518, a year before the infamous Cortés expedition.  Grijalva, who brought Alvarado with him as his lieutenant, sailed along the coast of Mexico wary of the large war party of natives that generally opposed his landing on the coast.  Trading glass trinkets and metal knives, Grijalva and Alvarado were able to gather a considerable quantity of gold, most of which was in the form of 600 golden axes.  Perhaps most important, they learned of a richer settlement to the west, the Aztec Empire.

Upon returning to Cuba, the axes turned out to be made of copper, not gold, a failure that Alvarado successfully convinced the governor was not his fault, but that of Grijalva.  When the Cortés expedition left, Pedro was the second in command, a move that proved tragic.

Cortés eventually made his way to Tenochtitlan, where he was the guest of Montezuma.  Through the Aztec chief, Cortés learned that a new group of Spaniards had arrived on the coast, whom Cortés knew had come to arrest him.  (The governor had reason to believe Cortés was a little too independent and wouldn’t share the plunder.)  Cortés left Pedro in command and hurried back to the coast.  Leaving Pedro in command of a delicate diplomatic mission was sort of like letting the Taliban run Vassar.

During an Aztec religious festival—which Pedro interpreted as satanic rites—‘he massacred the priests and nobles.  By the time that Cortés returned to the city, the Spanish forces were under siege.  As you can imagine, Cortés was a little peeved at Pedro, and ordered him to guard the rear of the Spanish forces as they evacuated Tenochtitlan.

Tenochtitlan was built on an island that was connected to the shore of the lake by long causeways.  For defensive purposes, the Aztecs had constructed the causeways with removable sections, which Cortés soon discovered could also be removed to keep the Spaniards from escaping.  Using a makeshift wooden bridge, the Spaniards fled for their lives while the Aztecs surrounded the causeway with canoes filled with warriors who attacked the fleeing men with arrows.

The makeshift bridge became stuck in the first gap and the terrified men were forced to leave it behind.  The next gap was crossed by the surviving men climbing over the bodies of the men who had preceded them.  According to an account by Gonzalo Ocampo, Pedro de Alvarado, already wounded, crossed the gap by using a lance as pole vault.  

While Cortés and Alvarado, eventually returned and defeated the Aztecs, the night of their bloody and violent escape, July 10, 1520, is known as La Noche Triste, the Sad Night.  Pedro went on to conquer most of Guatemala and part of Honduras—partly by enticing native leaders to negotiate (occasionally by burning them.  Native tribes deprived of leadership were much easier to conquer. 

Eventually, Pedro got bored and hearing of the great wealth being discovered in Peru by Pizarro, decided to try his luck further south.  You can imagine just how excited Pizarro was to have the personification of bad luck suddenly show up on his doorstep.  Knowing that all Pedro really wanted was gold, Pizzaro gave him a fortune in gold bars simply to leave.

Pedro was halfway back to Spain before he realized that he had been paid in gold painted lead bars.  At least they weren’t copper axes.

Pedro went back to Guatemala where he had been appointed governor, but the conquistador didn’t exactly have the temperament for government, so be began planning an expedition to China and the Spice Islands.  The mischief Pedro could have gotten into in China would be enough material to fill a book, but unfortunately (Or, perhaps, fortunately!), Pedro never made it there.

There was a small uprising among the local natives, and Pedro was responding with a band of soldiers when his horse stumbled and fell on him, killing him.  His death left a political vacancy, so his wife, Beatriz de la Cueva was appointed to be his replacement. The bad luck continued! — a wall of the crater lake above the capital collapsed.  The water rushing down the side of the volcano carried off most of the inhabitants, but the new governor may still have been alive when an aftershock collapsed what was left of the chapel in which she and the remaining townspeople had taken refuge!

Saturday, September 4, 2021

What's Next?

With America’s exit from Afghanistan, our longest war is over.  Personally, as a historian, I have no interest in rehashing America’s military and political missions during that time.   I have no doubt that shortly bookstores will be inundated with books, each detailing exactly what went wrong, with no two such written accounts agreeing on a single detail.

Instead of talking about Afghanistan’s past, I’d prefer to climb out on a limb and make a few predictions about the future of Afghanistan.  It should take only a few months for the reader to plumb the depths of my naïveté, fact-checking my predictions, allowing new grist for the people who delight in sending me hate mail.

Historically, one of the hardest jobs for a revolutionary army has been what to do with your military after the revolution is won.  A revolutionary army fighting a protracted guerrilla war is vastly different from the military needs of a new government that seeks to defend its borders and protect the very infrastructure it had tried so valiantly to destroy during the previous decades.

Military history gives us numerous examples of the difficulty of transitioning a revolutionary army over to a professional army, almost all of such efforts resulting in failures and either new revolution or protracted civil war.  Just off the top of my head, I can think of three main reasons for the failure.

First, there is the difficult problem of military demobilization.  Put simply, angry men with guns react negatively to being issued pink slips.  Angry men with guns who have few skills other than breaking things and hurting people react violently when being told they have to seek employment in an economy that has been crushed by decades of war.  In far too many cases, these men have historically found employment using the only skill they know—they enlist in a new revolution, fighting against the government they have only recently installed.

Demobilization, in general terms, has always been a problem for military leaders.  Julius Caesar gave his veterans land in newly created towns along the frontier, thus not only stabilizing the area, but moving potential threats far from Rome.  If you read the history of Honduras from the last decades of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th century, the same names keep surfacing.  Soldiers rarely even stopped fighting long enough to change uniforms as various governments came and went.  In Afghanistan, there is another problem:  even if the new government keeps all of the Taliban fighters, what do they do with the 300,000 men who were in the Afghan army?

It is inevitable that the Taliban will begin fighting with Al Qaeda, who will fight Isis-K, and all of them will fight groups that we haven't even heard of yet.

Second, there is the problem of what to do with revolutionary leaders, as the skills necessary to lead a small band of guerrilla fighters does not easily translate over to the skills necessary to lead a mechanized unit or to maintain and fly helicopters.  The very nature of the skills necessary to be a successful revolutionary officer are not the same skill set required by a professional army trying to defend a nation’s borders. 

When Francisco Madero successfully overthrew the Mexican government of Porfirio Diaz, there were simply not enough high-ranking jobs in his new government to reward all of the officers who had led his revolution.  As a result, within a year, many of his former trusted officers were now leading a new revolution against Madero.  After his successful revolution, Fidel Castro solved this problem by “exporting the revolution” to Africa and South America.  Many of his former soldiers who didn’t die in those foreign wars ultimately ended up in Cuban prisons.  There is a very good chance that if the Bolivian Army hadn’t killed Che, Fidel would have had to do so.

The next problem with the military is simply the motivation of revolutionary soldiers.  Often, the only bond holding a resistance movement together is a shared hatred of the existing government.  Once that government is toppled, the various fighting forces frequently  realize they no longer have a common cause and turn on themselves.  There is a sad truism that most violent revolutions, deprived of an external enemy, eventually form a circular firing squad.  There are numerous examples:  the French Revolution, the successful slave revolt in Haiti, or even the Republican Congressional revolution of 1994 led by Newt Gingrich.  The Taliban is, at its roots, a collection of tribal allegiances and its apparent unified front will soon dissolve into tribalism with no common enemy, ending with numerous warring factions led by tribal strongmen.

Last, but not least, naturally, the Taliban forces are going to expect to be paid.  Even the most dedicated army grows restless when its pay is withheld.  During the Mexican-American War, Winfield Scott had a very difficult time keeping his army in check when the payroll was not delivered on time.  I don’t relish the job of any general facing a horde of angry, well-armed men while he tries to explain why the promised wealth will be delayed…again. 

This last point brings up the last of my predictions.  The Taliban will never be able to establish a viable economy.  Throughout all of history, there are few examples of a successful revolution setting up anything close to a stable economy without the help of a genius like Alexander Hamilton.  (Though few have failed as spectacularly as Fidel Castro, who turned most of the Cuban economy over to the untrained hands of Che Guevara.  Among the many economic models to follow, Che chose to emulate the economy of Communist East Germany.  No, seriously!  It will be sort of like a car manufacturer’s deciding to reintroduce the Yugo, but with the fuel tank of a Pinto and handling of a Robin Reliant.)

The Taliban have already started imposing some harebrained economic policies.  Banks are forbidden from allowing their depositors to withdraw more than a $100 a day, thus destroying any popular trust in the banks.  There is a shortage of money circulating as people begin hoarding (a condition that is guaranteed to worsen when the Taliban begins issuing its own currency).  Gresham’s Law states that when a country issues suspect currency; the public supply of foreign hard money vanishes.  (Put more colloquially, Gresham’s Law is “Bad money drives out good.”)  

Argentina tried to legislate its way out of an economic crisis by restricting withdrawals from banks, forbidding capital from leaving the country, and issuing so many different kinds of money that, for a while, the most popular form of ‘currency’ in the country was a barter coupon that was the equivalent of an hour’s labor.  The government issued currency was so worthless that even a few airlines preferred payment in barter coupons.

It is almost inevitable that the Taliban will print its own money, legislating an impossible exchange rate with Western currency, thus ensuring inflation.  (When Venezuela did this, it immediately touched off hyperinflation.  The current exchange rate is $1 US will get you 4.6 million Bolivars.)  As the Afghan economy begins to fail, the Taliban will limit how much money can be taken out of the country, thus simultaneously ensuring the beginning of vast capital flight while discouraging any foreign investment.  As inflation gets out of control, the Taliban will probably institute wage and price controls, thus destroying what is left of the economy.  I would predict that Afghanistan, where 90% of the populace already lives in poverty and 1 person in 3 struggles to obtain food, will be back to a barter system of exchange within two years.

Afghanistan currently receives financial aid from Pakistan, China, and Iran, mainly because these countries had a vested interest in seeing America tied down in a war with little possibility of a political victory.  Now that America has left, there is far less incentive for these countries to continue to aid Afghanistan.  Iran is financially broke, and Pakistan, nearly so, and neither country is likely to put Afghanistan’s interests above their own.

I can almost hear the reader saying, “Wait, won’t they just grow more poppies and export opium?”

The Taliban will certainly try, but I doubt it will work as the world has changed since the Taliban were last in power.  Not only is the world market already fairly saturated with opium, but the market is shifting towards more powerful and easier to produce synthetic opioids.  Somehow, I just can’t imagine the Taliban setting up vast chemical laboratories and competing on the world market.  Afghanistan currently does, and will continue to export drugs, but I just don’t believe it can expand its market significantly.

So, the bottom line for Afghanistan a few years from now?  A long and incredibly violent civil war, the battles to be fought in a desperately poor country by impoverished people—with expensive modern arms and equipment left them by the US.  At least until those start to need maintenance.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

How Many Monkeys Can It Hold?

“Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.”  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain.

This was how Twain introduced Huck Finn to the world, in chapter six of Tom Sawyer.  Even with such a prodigious head start, Huck still beat out Tom as the most memorable of Twain’s characters.  I can still remember the first time I read that paragraph—I was immediately filled with a sense of wonder.  Specifically, I wondered just what the hell was a hogshead.  I probably wasn’t the only one to wonder, because eight years later, when Twain gave Huck his own book, whenever he mentioned Huck’s temporary housing, he called it a ‘sugar hogshead’, furnishing a small clue.

Consulting the family’s venerable 1957 set of World Book Encyclopedias—an early analog version of Google—I learned that a hogshead was a barrel, a big barrel.  No, it had nothing to do with hogs, pigs, or even transporting bacon.  The term comes from the 15th century English term 'hogges hede', a large 63-gallon wooden cask, two and a half feet wide and four feet tall, more than big enough for a boy to sleep in, and perfect is incorrect:  they are casks.  A barrel is a specific size of a cask.  (All barrels are casks, but not all casks are barrels.)

Centuries ago, barrel makers (more properly called coopers) discovered that the best barrels were made from white oak obtained from 75-year-old trees, whose sawn timber was left to age for a minimum of six months.  After a master cooper quarter sawed the staves and bound them together with iron rings, the barrels had to age for several more months while the fibers making up the white oak staves slowly dried, and the tannins in the wood leached out.  Master coopers created watertight casks, while ‘slack coopers’ crafted the less demanding casks to transport dry goods.

Among the many reasons the Spanish Armada failed to defeat the English in 1587 was the raid by Sir Francis Drake on the seaport town of Cadiz the year before.  Besides looting and sacking the town, Drake set fire to some 1700 tons of barrel staves that were drying in preparation to make barrels to store food and water for the invasion fleet.  When the Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel to attack England in 1588, the fleet’s food and water were improperly stored in green barrels which quickly contaminated their contents, poisoning the crew.  The crew of one ship, attempting to make landfall, found themselves too sick to maneuver their ship properly and simply ran it aground, ripping the bottom out.

Assuming that no pyromaniac pirates have been around, our seasoned barrel is ready for most uses, but bourbon distilleries learned that if the insides of the barrel was scorched with fire, it gave the aged whiskey a distinctive color and taste.  Across the Atlantic, the distillers of the best scotch learned that if the empty second-hand bourbon barrels were re-scorched, it produced superior scotch.  (Only one of the reasons that Laphroaig—my favorite scotch—tastes so good.)

Since barrels were so widely used for so many different commodities, it is not surprising that there was a wide and confusing variety of sizes of barrels and a guild was organized to regulate the training and pay of the coopers.  What is surprising is that the guild is still operating.  Among the many other guild halls in London, you can find the Worshipful Company of Coopers, which received its royal charter in 1501.  

Just an abbreviated list of the various sizes of wooden casks is confusing, but there is at least a little order to them:  There are 8 pints in a gallon, 4.5 gallons in a pin, 2 pins in a firkin, 2 firkins in a kilderkin, 2 kilderkins in a barrel, 1.5 barrels in a hogshead, 2 hogsheads in a butt, and finally 2 butts in a tun.  If someone says they drank a butt load, they consumed 108 gallons.  If they drank a tun, they imbibed 252 gallons.  The tun is a measurement of volume, not weight, though by a strange coincidence, a tun of water weighs a ton.

What prompted me to think about all of this was a discussion in an economics class about the global oil market.  When someone asked how many gallons of crude were in a barrel, the prompt—and incorrect—answer was 55 gallons.  I volunteered that 55 gallons was the capacity of a modern drum, and that oil barrels were 42 gallons.  No one believed me, even after I explained that when I grew up in West Texas, we learned arithmetic in elementary schools by calculating oil depletions allowances.  I didn’t tell them that as true native-born Texans; The Doc and I actually own a whopping 1/214th of an aging oil well.  The well currently pays an annual royalty not quite sufficiently large enough to buy a single breakfast burrito.  

So how did the international standard for a barrel of oil come to be the somewhat arbitrary measurement of 42 gallons?

It started in America with Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 oil discovery at Titusville, Pennsylvania.  This was the first commercial oil well, setting off a drilling frenzy that today we would refer to as an ‘oil boom’.  For years, the oil was shipped in anything available, a confusing variety of hogshead, barrels, tierces, kilderkins, empty whiskey barrels and just about anything else you could fill and then hammer a plug into the bung hole.  Eventually, people noticed that the 42-gallon tierce, previously commonly used to transport fish, when full of crude oil weighed almost exactly 300 pounds—about as big a container as could be handled by one experienced worker.  Just as important, 20 of the wooden tierces would completely fill a standard railroad flat car.  

Within a few years, the tierce had become the standard container for oil transport.  So many oak barrels were needed that Standard Oil maintained its own oak forests to insure a steady supply of barrels, manufacturing so many that they were able to drop the production cost of a new barrel down to only $1.50.  The wooden barrels could be tipped over by a single man, then using the extended middle of barrel, could be rolled into place, before being righted.  For years after the steel barrels replaced the wooden variety in 1902, the steel barrel retained the traditional shape.  Though oil is no longer shipped in these containers, it is still sold in 42 gallon lots.

Personally, I find it a little difficult to visualize how much a barrel or a hogshead of something is, but I know a trick to help.  A standard American bathtub holds exactly 42 gallons, or one barrel.  It turns out that “a barrel of bathtub gin” is redundant…sort of.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Thanks for the Tamales

There are moments in history when leaders suddenly find themselves in a position to say something important, uttering words that will be remembered through all eternity.  Long after people have forgotten the circumstances, or even who made the statement, exactly what they said seems destined to be recorded in history books forever.  Let you give you a few examples:

During the Battle of the Bulge, when the 101st Airborne Division was surrounded at Bastogne with little hope of survival, the German army sent a demand for the Americans to surrender.  While few remember that it was General Anthony McAuliffe who replied, most people do know his answer, “Nuts.”  

Before King Xerxes invaded Greece, he attempted the impossible: he tried to get the warlike Spartans to surrender and accept Persian rule.  Confident that his much larger army could conquer the independent city-states of Greece, he implored the Spartan King Leonidas to surrender his arms.  In a reply that would later be echoed by numerous armies in later wars, Leonidas answered, “Molon labe.” (“Come and take them.”)

As a Roman statesman, Cato the Elder was furious that Rome had ended each of her two wars with Carthage by demanding only a tribute instead of the city’s total destruction.  For years, Cato ended each of his speeches in the Senate with the phrase, "Carthago delenda est!" (“Carthage must be destroyed.”)  Cato eventually got his wish when Carthage was burned in the Third Punic War and her surviving inhabitants were enslaved.  (The notion that the Roman army sowed the ground of Carthage with salt so that nothing could grow there is a 19th century invention.)

I was tempted to add the battle cry of the Finnish troops fighting the Russians during World War II, "Tulta munille!" (“Fire at their balls!”).  Unfortunately, this seems to be an invention of Väinö Linna's World War II novel, The Unknown Soldier.  If you have never read this excellent novel, you can read it free here.

As you have probably guessed by now, I have a nomination for another great line from a leader—one you have probably never heard of.  

Pascual Orozco was not your typical general of the Mexican Revolution.  Of Basque heritage, he was tall, fair-haired, and well-educated, and he had been a fairly successful businessman before the fighting began.  Born in the mountainous regions of Northern Mexico, Orozco was a muleskinner and was experienced in using long lines of mules to move men and supplies through the rugged terrain of the Chihuahuan mountains, which skill would become useful during the violent years of fighting in the Mexican Revolution.  The small mines of the region were yielding significant amounts of gold so that Orozco hired armed guards and earned enough transporting ore for the miners that he was able to purchase his own small gold mine. Then, recognizing a business opportunity, Orozco set up a series of small stores in the remote towns that made up border regions just south of the United States.

Dissatisfied with the corrupt government of President-For-Life Porfirio Diaz (who had made life difficult for businessmen who lacked political connections or great wealth—neither of which Orozco possessed), he raised a band of soldiers and joined the nascent revolution of Francisco Madero in 1911.  Since Madero’s revolution was incredibly small and highly unlikely to be effective against the large, professional army of a Mexican president who was backed by the United States, Madero eagerly accepted the support of inexperienced men like Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa (the bandit and cattle rustler who was also remaking himself into a military general).

Orozco, the experienced muleskinner, proved to be very effective at logistics and led his army to a series of small victories.  Mexico’s professional army depended on the nation’s railroads for deployments and the revolutionary forces soon learned that they were relatively safe if they moved through the canyons and deserts where there were no railroads.  When Mexico’s government seemed to be powerless to stop the revolution, popular support for President Diaz gradually vanished like the morning fog when the sun rises.  President Porfirio Diaz (until then the longest ruling dictator in Latin American history) eventually bowed to the inevitable and fled—along with the contents of the Mexican treasury—to a comfortable exile in Paris.

Madero became Mexico’s president and quickly learned that starting a revolution was a hell of a lot easier than ending one.  As he appointed men to various offices, there was no good office for a muleskinner/general who had little professional training.  When he offered Orozco a position in the Army—the same army that Orozco had so recently been fighting—Orozco had his feelings hurt and abandoned Madero.  Before long, he was again part of the revolution, fighting this time  against his former leader and within a few short years, the revolutionary general was ambushed and killed in West Texas by the Texas Rangers as he gathered men and horses for yet another revolution in Northern Mexico.

However, Orozco’s death occurred years after he uttered one of those great lines that deserves to be reprinted forever in the history books.  While fighting in the mountains of Chihuahua for Madero, Orozco proved to be a ruthless, if opportunistic, military commander.  There is ample evidence that he frequently used his army to attack his business competitors, “requisitioning” goods from the stores of his rivals while sparing his own stores.  Nor could captured soldiers expect clemency, as Orozco usually had prisoners quickly executed.

Early in the revolution, Orozco led his men into the badlands of Northern Mexico, and set up an ambush at the Cañón del Mal Paso (Canyon of the Evil Pass).  When the Mexican soldiers of General Navarro blundered into the trap, most of the men were slaughtered and the rest hurriedly retreated.  (You would kind of think the name of the canyon might have warned the men.)

Orozco had his men strip the bodies of the dead soldiers and sent their uniforms back to President Diaz with a note that read, "Ahí te van las hojas, mándame más tamales". 

In English, that translates as "Here are the wrappers, send me more tamales." 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

We’re Poised to Fail Again

Even as the White House press secretary was denying the existence of inflation, the Treasury Department was announcing a 6.2% cost of living adjustment for Social Security recipients.  The first conclusive evidence of inflation is always the denial of its existence.

Unfortunately, the second sign of an imminent period of rising inflation is always some elected fool (pardon the redundancy) calling for price controls in an effort to stop it.  It is simply amazing how many times the same failed tactic has been tried to stop a market from following its inevitable path—Without one exception or even a marginal success in recorded history.

Don’t just take my word for it:  I recommend reading "Forty Centuries of Wage & Price Controls: How Not to Fight Inflation” by Robert L. Schuettinger and Eamonn F. Butler.  The book brilliantly outlines how the attempt to “set” prices always fails to reduce prices or to even eliminate shortages.  Using examples from Hammurabi, Ancient Egypt, Rome, Nixon, and all the way to today’s inept leaders, the result of such practices has always inevitably been abject failure.  To quote the authors:

By giving producer and consumers the wrong signals because “low” prices to producers limit supply and “low” prices to consumers stimulate demand, price controls widen the gap between supply and demand.

Of particular interest is the chapter on the French Revolution and the “Law of the Maximum”.  Over roughly twenty months, the Revolutionary Committee tried just about every form of price control (before or since), ultimately managing to “control” the most agriculturally rich country of Europe into a protracted period of starvation and economic collapse.

Despite price controls having a long record of total failure as an economic policy, politicians keep finding new ways to repackage the same old failures.  Under the guise of rent controls, minimum wages, or moratoria on evictions—and despite the name changes—these measures are all simply price controls and they will end up doing more harm than any supposed good.  The eviction moratoria will inevitably lead to higher rents and a housing shortage.  Even as you read this, landlords all over the country are converting apartments into condominiums.

Recently, I read of a proposal for a novel new method of price control that started in France, under which grocery stores are to be forbidden by law from disposing of unsold produce—it has to be donated to the poor.  Although it’s supposed aim is charity, it will inevitably lead to the stores’ purchasing less produce from farmers, lowering production, and leading to higher prices and less choice.   (Notice how the people who passed the law are being charitable with the property of someone else.)

Despite anyone’s best intentions to the contrary, market forces are as fixed as mathematics.  You can no more change the laws of supply and demand than you can pass a law successfully invalidating the Pythagorean theorem…Not that politicians haven’t tried.  Let me tell you about my favorite example.

My parents were older than sliced bread.  Literally, since sliced bread was invented in 1928 and both of my parents were born years before Otto Frederick Rohwedder started selling bakeries a single loaf slicing machine that rapidly changed the industry.  (While not the first bakery to use the new machine, it was Wonder Bread that made the novelty of uniformly sliced bread known across America.  

Sliced bread was more convenient to use, and housewives with large families hated the chore of slicing large amounts of bread before meals.  More convenient to use meant that more people ate bread, increasing sales and rewarding the stores, the bakeries, and the wheat farmers.  

Then came World War II and an era of price controls and rationing to meet the needs of full mobilization.  As is usually the case, the price controls created an active black market and raised prices, but because of international demand, production stayed high.  In America, the price of wheat grew by 25% while production rose by 50%, with most of the excess production being used to feed our allies.

While direct examination of the American wartime wage and price controls is made difficult by the elimination of some models of production, a steady decline in quality, and an active black market, it is obvious that the mandated measures failed—wages and prices still rose.

On January 18, 1943, the Food Administrator, Claude R. Wickard mandated that bakeries cease the production of sliced bread.  Reasoning that the metal used to create the slicing machines were needed for the war effort and that sliced bread needed heavier wrapping paper to keep the bread from drying out and becoming stale, Wickard banned the production of sliced bread as a measure to win the war.  The announcement was timed to come out simultaneously with a 10% rise in the cost of bread, hopefully encouraging less consumption.

Unfortunately, there were several things wrong with the plan.  First, the bakeries already owned the slicing machines and couldn’t have bought new ones since the factories that normally manufactured them had found more lucrative contracts producing war materials.  Second, after more than a year in the war, the bakeries were used to the vagaries of interrupted supplies and thus had already stocked up with a large supply of the waxed paper to wrap the sliced bread.

Bread consumption actually went up, since most people were unable to slice their bread into uniformly thin slices.  At any rate, there was little need to reduce wheat consumption by 1943:  Rising prices meant that the farmers were already growing more wheat and the government had already stockpiled over a billion bushels of wheat (enough to supply the needs of American consumers for over two years, even if no wheat were grown during that time).  

None of the above reasons was as important to the bureaucrats as the outcries of an angry public.  The public might be willing to ration sugar, automobile tires, and coffee, but even rationed gasoline wasn’t the best thing since sliced bread.  In less than three months, the War Food Administration reversed itself and the supply of sliced bread returned to store shelves on March 8, 1943.

Even with this dismal history, the United States seems poised to once again experiment with price controls.  Gee, I wonder what the results will be.


Saturday, August 7, 2021

We Learned This at Valley Forge

The news today carries the tragic story of a Dickenson, Texas city councilman who died of Covid-19 just days after posting on social media about “the folly of vaccinations”.  It is strange to read about so many people being opposed to vaccinations, since I (evidently mistakenly) thought that this was a long-settled topic. 

Being almost as old as dirt, I remember the mass inoculations against smallpox and polio of the fifties—I still have a faint smallpox vaccination scar to prove it.  The vaccines were an incredible success—smallpox has been completely conquered and polio remains endemic only in Afghanistan and Pakistan.   

And those mass vaccinations some seven decades ago are far from the first such endeavors in American history.  Indeed, the very existence of our country may have depended on the very first large-scale inoculation program conducted at public expense.

In the mid eighteenth century, while smallpox was ravaging most parts of the world, the small British colonies of North America were usually spared from the epidemic.  Outside of a small handful of large settlements like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, most colonists lived in relatively isolated settlements with very little contact with the rest of the world.  While smallpox was not unknown, it was relatively rare.

In 1751, seventeen-year-old George Washington took his half-brother, Lawrence—then suffering from consumption (tuberculosis)—to Barbados for his health.  While there, he accepted an invitation to dine with a wealthy planter despite being warned that members of his family had contracted smallpox.  Ominously, Washington recorded his misgivings about the visit in his diary.  Shortly after the dinner, he writes “Was strongly attacked with the small Pox,”—his last entry in the diary for 24 days.  Washington, of course, eventually recovered, though it took weeks.  Having once had smallpox, Washington carried antibodies, making him immune to the disease.

During the American Revolution, most of the European troops brought to America were immune or benefitted from herd immunity because most had contracted the disease in childhood.  Not so, the American troops:  For the first time in their lives, these soldiers were brought from all of the corners of North America, living in camps with poor sanitation, which provided a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of diseases.  The cases of smallpox immediately began to increase.

There was something that Washington could do:  he could inoculate his troops against smallpox through a process called variolation (named after variola, the virus that causes smallpox).  It involved infecting a thread with live pustular matter from someone with the disease, then embedding the thread into an incision on a healthy person’s arm, deliberately infecting the person with smallpox.  While the patient always became sick, the disease was usually a milder form of the disease.  Still, depending on the source you read, somewhere from 3 to 5% of those treated died from the inoculation…And the patient always took weeks to recover.

Variolation had originated in Western Asia—probably Turkey—and had slowly spread west across Europe.  While the preventive treatment was known, it was still highly controversial and seldom used in the New World.  

Note.  There is a persistent story that Washington inoculated his troops with a different but close variety of the disease, specifically cowpox.  The story goes that milkmaids caught the disease from the cows they cared for, and some alert doctor realized that these milkmaids never caught the more virulent form of the disease.  While the story is quite true, the cowpox method of inoculation was not discovered by Edward Jenner until 1796, well after the end of the Revolutionary War.

Washington had considered inoculating his troops in 1775, but rejected the idea because the treatment would incapacitate at least a third of his troops, inviting an attack from the British.  The general issued orders forbidding the army doctors from using the variolation technique on the troops.  Instead, the general issued travel bans, forbidding visitors from Boston (which was then suffering from a smallpox epidemic) from entering his camp.  In addition, those soldiers who did come down with smallpox were quarantined at a special hospital near Cambridge.

Then, as now, quarantines and travel bans had only limited success.  Over the next year and a half, increasing numbers of Washington’s troops succumbed to the disease.  There were even rumors that the British were intentionally sending infected people to strategic areas in a deliberate attempt to spread the disease.  Though this theory remains unproved, England had employed this tactic during the earlier French and Indian War.

Washington grew increasingly desperate, forcing him to reconsider using variolation to treat his troops.  In a January 6, 1777, letter to John Hancock, Washington wrote "Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy."

Finally, in February 1777, Washington ordered a mandatory inoculation of the troops, to be done in absolute secrecy to prevent a British attack, and to be carried out in stages beginning with the new recruits.  It was hoped that by the time the recruits received their uniforms, weapons, and a modicum of training, they would have recovered from the symptoms caused by the inoculation.  

This was the first mass public health initiative of the new country—one carried out with government funds.

“Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that troops shall be inoculated,” he wrote. “This expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.”

Seldom mentioned in history books, but among the horrific conditions experienced by the troops during the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge was that the poorly fed, inadequately clothed, freezing troops were also suffering from the fevers and chills as a result of variolation.  Still, because of the treatment, not a single regiment among the revolutionary army was unable to fight due to the disease.

While Washington treated his troops, the British felt no need to initiate a similar program in their troops who enjoyed a measure of herd immunity.  As a result, the disease quickly spread among colonials, Native Americans, and slaves who chose to fight alongside the British, often making such units more of liability to the British cause than assets.

By the end of the war, Washington had inoculated some 40,000 of his troops and had lost only fifty due to the illness.  Despite the horrors of battle, a little math reveals that compared to the general population of the colonists left to suffer the ravages of smallpox epidemics that swept across America as the European troops traveled across America, a colonist had a better chance to survive the war as an inoculated soldier on the battlefield than as an uninoculated civilian.  

Then, as now, while there are a few dangers of being vaccinated, they pale in comparison to not being vaccinated.  There is no way of telling how many people have been saved by vaccinations, but the number is at the very least many millions of souls.  Vaccines work so well that most of us—unlike any previous generation in America—do not personally know anyone who has died of smallpox, diphtheria, measles, or polio.  After 250 years, you would think this debate would have ended.