Saturday, March 30, 2019

Chaos Theory Meets Civil War Logistics

The story starts, of course, with the Civil War.  For the next half century, the war contributed arms, mercenaries, and tactics to every little brush fire and battle anywhere in the world.  If chaos theory says a butterfly flapping it’s wings in China can affect the rainfall in Spain, then it is only natural that the American Civil War was a tsunami that changed warfare forever. 

Of the tens of thousands of weapons to find their way around the world, however, one was a little different.  Late in the war, Remington designed a single-shot, breech-loading rifle that was simple, cheap, and reliable: the Remington Split-Breech carbine.  While you have probably never heard of this weapon, in a few decades, it would evolve into the most commonly used single-shot military rifle in the world, the Remington Rolling Block, a rifle that was still being carried by soldiers through the end of the first world war.

But in 1864, when the rifle was first designed, there was real doubt that it would ever be made.  Remington was very busy manufacturing weapons already, and could not possibly take the time to retool its machinery to manufacture a new and untested rifle.  One enterprising official at the factory, Samuel Norris, ignored common sense and sought a way to make a profit with the new design.

When the Civil War began, the United States was desperately short of weapons, so the government ramped up orders with every firearms manufacturer and sent a purchasing officer, a newly appointed Brigadier General Marcellus Hartley, to Europe to not only buy as many weapons as possible, but to prevent the South from doing the same thing.  This was early in the industrial revolution, and firearm design was rapidly changing.  As part of the rearming program, the US Army let it be known that it was willing to purchase a thousand copies of any new firearm.

Assured of a sale of at least a thousand rifles, Norris began looking for a way to manufacture them.  Remington was too busy, but Norris found a small firearms company in Massachusetts with surplus production capacity.  The Savage Revolving Arms Company was willing to manufacture the rifles for Remington, but only if the order could be increased to 5,000 rifles.

Norris must have been something of a gambler, for he took his single prototype rifle to the Army, received an order for a thousand rifles, then okayed production for five times that many.  Norris probably figured that somebody, somewhere would need a few thousand rifles.  (While you would think this is a safe bet—wars seem more common than peace—you would be astonished to learn how often firearm companies go bankrupt.)

Before the first rifles could be delivered, a couple of things changed.  First, the Army decided to standardize the ammunition of its rifles to the .56-50 cartridge used by the Spencer Rifle, which was arguably the finest weapon of the Civil War.  The Army, being the Army, then ordered an additional 15,000 rifles in the new caliber from Norris.

Second, the Civil War ended.  Suddenly awash in more weapons than soldiers, the Army promptly cancelled all existing orders for new rifles—except those from Remington for the new rifles.  No one knows exactly why, but I suspect that somewhere a politician was handed an envelope containing the new greenbacks. 

Note.  During the Civil War, the US government began printing paper money for the first time.  (Technically, the paper money of the Continental Congress was not issued by the yet-to-exist United States.)  Since the front of the bills was printed in black, and the opposite side was printed in green to discourage counterfeiting, they were popularly referred to as ‘greenbacks’.

Though the Army did not need the new weapons, they were promptly inspected, stamped ‘USA’, crated and immediately warehoused in a vast government facility.  The warehouses of surplus armaments must have looked like something out of the first Indiana Jones movie—massive piles of wooden crates containing hundreds of thousands of rifles, muskets, and pistols along with crates of millions of rounds of ammunition.

The Spencer Firearm company promptly went bankrupt and was bought out by the newly- formed Winchester Repeating Arms Company that began working on an improved prototype which would quickly become famous.  It is hard to imagine a Western movie without thinking of the Winchester rifle.

Our geography lesson brings us to Germany...Well, actually to Northern Prussia.  Otto Von Bismarck had managed to band together the Northern Prussian states into a union, but he was struggling to add the Southern Prussian states.  Frankly, uniting any two of those fiercely independent states was a minor miracle, and combining all of them together was a near impossibility.  But, Bismarck was a student of history and realized that the only thing a good Prussian hated more than another Prussian was a Frenchman. 

Back in 1701, all of Europe had plunged into war when France tried to upset the balance of power by placing a French prince on the throne of Spain.  Would the same trick work again?  Well, yes: Bismarck played France like a drum, using diplomatic pressure to put a German prince on the Spanish throne, thus maneuvering Napoleon III into provoking a fresh war.  (I had to completely rewrite that sentence because no matter how many times I typed it, Spell Check insisted on changing ‘Germany maneuvered France’ into ‘Germany manured France’.  Even Spell Check hates the French.)

The various Prussian states promptly united to meet the threat, thus starting the Franco-Prussian War.  The German Confederation was a new country, freshly formed, with many problems, so in order to guarantee a French defeat, Napoleon III personally took charge of the French Army. 

At the Battle of Sedan, on September 2, 1870, over 80,000 French soldiers were forced to surrender, yielding up a significant portion of the country’s weaponry.  Napoleon abdicated, fleeing to England, leaving behind the hastily formed French Republic that was desperate to purchase weaponry.

At the end of the Civil War, General Hartley had returned to civilian life, starting several new businesses.  One of which, the Union Metallic Cartridge Company had begun to produce the new style cartridges needed by the new style weapons.  When France began negotiating to buy weapons, Hartley used his contacts to make a profit.  First, he convinced the Army to sell him the crates of Remington Split-Breech Carbines that had been sitting in a warehouse for the last four years.  Naturally, since the weapons were mysteriously labeled ‘Damaged’, Hartley bought them at a discount.

Before Hartley could make his deal with the French, a small opportunity came up on the Canadian Border.  The Fenians, an offshoot of the Irish Republic, were raiding British forts and customs houses in Canada in an effort to force England out of Ireland.  In order "to get their man", the Royal Canadian Mounted Police needed a modern firearm that could be easily reloaded while on a horse, so roughly a hundred of the Remington carbines were sold to Canada.

Hartley sent his agent, W. W. Reynolds, to Paris to negotiate the deal.  Reynolds, of course, sold the pristine rifles at a hefty profit to the French.  He also negotiated a large order for ammunition for the rifles, to be filled by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.  Right about the same time, Winchester sold all the remaining Spencer rifles—along with all the remaining parts to repair them—to the French.  This pretty well cleared up the American market for the new Winchester rifle.

Reynolds went to Paris and secured the order, amounting to over 5 million francs, along with the authorization to release payment from a British Bank.  If you are not impressed, let me remind you that French Francs were made of gold.  Altogether, that was about two and a half tons of gold.  At today’s prices, that would be about $80 million (and that is not even adjusted for inflation).  Four years earlier, the United States only paid $7.2 million for all of Alaska.  Hell, for $80 million, we could have bought someplace warm.

Unfortunately, by the time Reynolds had secured his order and gathered the necessary documents, Paris was surrounded by the Prussian Army.  This was not the end of the war, as French forces continued to mount a disorganized resistance, but it did mean that Reynolds was in real trouble—the kind of trouble that the Prussians would end with a firing squad.

There was, of course, only one practical solution.  Reynolds quickly paid for the construction of two gas balloons.  He gave the spare balloon to the French Minister of War, so he could organize French resistance to the Prussians.  (Why not?—If the resistance succeeded, the French would need more weaponry and ammunition.)

Both men were successful in their escape, though for a while it looked bad when a capricious wind blew them over the Prussian lines.  Luckily, the wind changed and both men evaded capture.  With the profits, Hartley’s company eventually bought the remains of the Remington company.

Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up.  Because Bismarck made a fool of Napoleon III, the French army fought the Germans with rifles marked ‘USA’, except for the ones the Canadians used to kill Irishmen, all of which were originally intended to kill Southerners.

By the way, one of the other companies that Hartley created after the Civil War was also successful.  Since running two successful companies consumed too much time, Hartley sold it to a guy named Westinghouse, who promptly renamed it.  Today, we call it CBS.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Statue of Limitations

According to the news, another Confederate statue has come down.  These monuments have been coming down fast and furious for the last couple of years.  There are not many of them left.

Even here in New Mexico, someone finally remembered that a stretch of Interstate 10 was once named the “Jefferson Davis Highway”and unnamed it.  Well, it wasn’t really official, the State Highway Department had never really renamed it, but about 60 years ago, an Army band from a nearby military base came and played a little background music while a few old crackers dedicated a granite slab to Jeff Davis, who had never been anywhere near New Mexico.

While Jeff never came to the desert, he did send us a few camels in 1855.  Davis was the Secretary of the Army at the time, and he believed that camels might replace cavalry horses.  The experiment was successful, but the start of the Civil War ended the experiment.

Sadly, the markers along the highway never mentioned the camels (which is a shame).  Over the decades, the markers were pretty much forgotten, as they became covered in weeds.  About twenty years ago, on a road trip over to Arizona, I stopped the car and pointed them out to The Doc and my sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One.  They gave me that stare that is usually reserved for when I drag them to museums, the look that says, “Who cares?”

Well, nobody cared until suddenly someone remembered they were there.  Immediately, people were outraged, and the monuments removed.  I’m pretty sure that some people remained outraged, anyway, since outraged is their natural state.

There are still hundreds of monuments out there, and eventually, I would be willing to bet that all of them will be removed, stored away some place, and once again, forgotten.  Well, a few of the monuments will be safe.  There is a tree in Brooklyn that Robert E. Lee planted, but the authorities just removed the plaque and they are hoping that no one will remember the tree is evil.

Removing statues is not new:  people have been doing it for thousands of years.  Every revolution means the statues of the previous regime have to be destroyed.  On July 9, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was read to George Washington and his troops, the excited crowd immediately stormed into Bowling Green—a park in Manhattan—and pulled down a lead statue of King George III. 

The statue was new, having been erected only a few years earlier to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act, but in the frenzied excitement of declaring a new country, the lead statue of George, wearing a Roman toga and riding a horse, was pulled down.  Eventually, the statue was returned to the British, but in the form of 42,088 newly cast lead musket balls.  (Seriously, some idiot actually counted them.)

Statues of Lenin were torn down all over the former Soviet Union back in the early 90’s; some of these were melted down, some were scrapped, and one even made its way to Seattle.  An American was teaching English in Slovakia when he discovered a sixteen foot statue of Lenin at the local dump.  The statue wasn’t exactly abandoned since a homeless man was living in it, but he was willing to be relocated at a bargain price.  The American brought the statue home, and though no one knows exactly what he intended to do with it, the statue is still standing in Seattle.  (Presumably, without a homeless person living in it).

Los Angeles recently permanently removed a statue of Christopher Columbus from a park where it had been ignored for almost fifty years.  A native tribe felt that Chris was “a symbol of oppression”.  Columbus, who never set foot on North America, nor knew of any of the people who lived there, would be puzzled by all of this.

A change in religion has frequently been the cause of the destruction of statues.  The Taliban blew up the 1,700 year old Buddhas of Bamyan.  The Spanish destroyed much of the native art of Central America, and a thousand years ago, a Chinese emperor destroyed the statues in over 3,300 Buddhist temples just to get enough copper to mint coins.

Even in Western Europe, as Christianity replaced the pagan religion of Rome, bronze statues were torn down, melted, and recast with likenesses of Christians.  So many early statues were destroyed that the photo at left
shows the oldest equestrian statue in Europe.  Obviously, this sophisticated bronze statue was far from the first such work of art, but it is just the oldest one left.  Historians can document the destruction of at least twenty other such works, including one that was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution.

Why did this one survive?  Though the man on the horse is Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for centuries it was incorrectly labeled as Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome.  If his true identity had been known, this statue would have been melted down centuries ago.

Study the picture carefully, because it will soon have to be taken down and put out of sight in storage.  Obviously, it can no longer remain in public view, since Marcus Aurelius owned slaves.  (Actually, 30% of the citizens of the Roman Empire were slaves, so a whole lot of historic markers, statues, and assorted architectural pieces will have to be removed).

After all, aren’t we supposed to look at the past with the values of today?

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Shocked, Shocked

Everyone is writing about the college recruitment scandals, so I was going to ignore it.  But, when the news broke that one of the brainless twits who had to buy her way into a state college learned that she had been publicly outed (and her equally brain-dead mother arrested) while spending her spring break aboard a yacht owned by one of the administrators of her crooked university—well, I couldn’t resist joining the angry crowd. 

And while we should all be angry at these universities, we should admit that corruption at our universities is far from rare.  We should be surprised it our universities weren’t corrupt, since those institutions are awash in money.

What?  How can that be?  We constantly hear that education needs more money.  Universities are always broke.  Taxpayers realizing this, routinely vote for school bond issues.  So, universities aren’t really rich, they are poor.  Right?

Nope.  While no entity slurping up cash from the public trough will ever admit it has an ample budget, the truth is that universities have access to massive piles of cash.  The problem is how they choose to spend it.  Some universities are even super rich.  Harvard is squatting on an endowment that is bigger than the GDP of half the countries in the world.  (Literally.  Using data from the United Nations for comparison, Harvard’s endowment is larger than the GDP of 108 out of 192 member countries.)

Where most universities are actually nothing more than poor football teams with small colleges attached like leeches, Harvard is a hedge fund that owns a few classrooms.

Even my own beloved Enema U has a budget of…well, I’m not sure how much it is.  New Mexico spends a hell of a lot per college student:  about $9,300 per student each year, which is the ninth highest amount in the nation.  (Yes, New Mexico spends more per college student than California, New York, or Massachusetts.  This is why Enema U is frequently referred to as "Oxford on the Rio Grande".)

To the money the state throws in, you can add tuition, lab fees, and student activity fees.  Then you can also toss in all the revenue from athletics, the T-shirt shop (formerly referred to as a book store), cafeteria, housing, parking fees, vending machines and all the other miscellaneous ways the university separates money from its students like a dockside hooker fleecing sailors.  At Enema U, this is an additional approximately $40 million a year.

The total budget is supposedly about $621 million, but that number does not include revenue from the Foundation, Enema U’s very own little mini-endowment.  While the foundation received over $20 million in donations last year, the income from the invested assets is a little hazy.  (Actually, the Foundation's finances are so closely guarded that we know more about Trump's tax returns, by comparison). So, let's call this another $10-15 million, conservatively. Of course, how this money is spent is no more transparent than its other accounting. 

Worse, exactly who is giving money to the foundations is also secret.  The two largest universities in the state received donations of over $50 million last year.  These same two universities awarded millions in contracts for goods and services. Are contracts awarded in exchange for "invisible" Foundation donations?  Is there any connection between coaches' publicly supporting various business ventures in exchange for those donations? Is there gambling going on in the back room of Rick’s Cafe? If so, I’m shocked, shocked!

While the university is owned by the state, and as such, is subject to various state public scrutiny laws, the non-profit foundation is a separate entity and thus, is exempt from those laws.  At least, that is how the state Supreme Court has ruled.  (Which is why Supreme Court judges should NOT be elected.) 

In the last couple of decades, the presidents of both universities and their various coaches have received bonuses from the foundations that were anonymously donated.  Did the donors receive any special consideration for their contributions?  Again, no one knows...nor can inquiring minds find out.

The wealth of the universities extends to more than just their bank accounts.  They own vast amounts of real property; student housing, farm lands, cafeterias, and various real holdings.  Whether or not a university decides to build a new dormitory—which would be immune to property tax—would have a huge effect on the real estate market around a university. 

Ask the owner of an apartment complex near the university if the university’s on-campus housing policies have any effect on his bottom line.  Ask the local newspaper whether its editorial policy towards the university is tempered by the advertisement the university takes out in the paper.

Do donations shape influence at public universities?  Well, there is a simple test:  Obtain a list of the regents.  Then do a Google search of their names and the name of the university.  If you find newspaper stories about large contributions from an individual before they became a regent, you have your answer. 

Here is another test:  Look up the last couple of bond issues for your university.  That bond proposal to expand a classroom building—did it really result in more classrooms, or did they tear down the old building and build a new multi-use building (educational code for more administrative offices)?  Was there a bond issue passed to provide a new building because of a dramatic increase in the number of students in the major that would use that building?  If so, double check their math.  How many students majoring in that field did they really have?  How many do they have now?

Library bonds nearly always pass, since the voters naively believe that access to books automatically means better education.  But, did the increase in funds really result in a corresponding increase in the library’s collection?  Compared to a decade ago, are there more or fewer journal subscriptions?  Don’t ask the librarians, ask a couple of professors who use the library. 

The cost of education has grown dramatically.  The Doc and I both went to public universities and we both went to graduate schools.   While the tuition at her medical school was fairly expensive (and we were as poor as church mice), we both managed to graduate without incurring any debt.  Today, that scenario is impossible:  college education has grown to be far too costly.  As costs grew, universities had access to a constantly expanding pool of money, and predictably the size of those funds tempted some people to use the money for their own good.

Costs can be cut at universities.  Any businessman could sit down with a copy of the university budget and easily pare away millions of dollars.  Does the golf team really need a new bus made by Mercedes Benz?  Do we really need expensive programs that annually produce more graduates than there are people employed in that field within the entire state?  Does a university really need thirty or forty times as many administrators than they had two decades ago?

If no effort is made to reduce the incredible amounts of money at universities, then we should not be surprised to discover cases where that money corrupts the institution and the individuals who inhabit it.