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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill of 1832; Operation Paperclip; Manias, Panics and Crashes, A History of Financial Crises; Cahokia: America's Great City on the Mississippi; and After Shock

Antonia Fraser.  Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill of 1832.  © 2014  This is a detailed narrative of Whig efforts in Parliament in 1830-32 to pass a reform bill that would enfranchise a few more people, give representation to major cities and eliminate the so-called “rotten boroughs.”  The effort was led by Whig Prime Minister Lord Charles Grey and bitterly opposed by the Duke of Wellington.   Basically the dispute was between a large majority of the 400 aristocrats in the House of Lords and the 22 million people in England, Ireland and Scotland.  King William IV was in favor of reform, but his wife, Adelaide, from a minor German noble family, was opposed.  This made for some great cartoons in Punch and elsewhere.  Lord Grey proposed to the king that he create about 40 new lords to tip the balance in the House of Lords from the Tories to the Whigs.  William was reluctant but probably would have done it, if necessary.  There were demonstrations nationwide in favor of reform, including some which involved direct attacks on Lords or their estates.  Eventually the Lords decided that maintaining the status quo in the peerage and calming the aroused public was more important to them than the reform.  There were enough abstentions on the third reading for the bill to pass and become law on June 7, 1832.  It increased the number of electors by 49% from 439, 000 to 656, 000 and various Lords lost their right to select anywhere from one to nine members of the House of Commons.  As one commentator remarked, it was not a good bill, but it was a great bill, a compromise as all real progress requires.  What struck me was the similarity between the debates on privilege then and the current debates on the distribution of income in the US between the 1% and the rest of us.  Although this book only covers the reform bill of 1832, more reforms were to come, among them the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had protected the earnings of the aristocratic cereal producers.  The laws were in effect from 1815 to 1846 and prevented imports of grains, even during periods of famine.  September 2014
Annie Jacobsen.  Operation Paperclip.  ©2014  This is a summary of what we know about Nazi doctors and scientists, including their crimes during the war and the whitewash applied to many of them after the war, because their scientific knowledge seemed essential, if the US was to stay ahead of the Soviets in the development of lethal technologies.  Jacobsen didn’t find out everything, but when her FOIA requests were denied, she was often able to go around end and find out what she needed by following up clues in diaries and the like and in interviews with the former Nazis and the Americans who questioned them.  There was already a long history of Nazi crimes, but she has come up with new information and has perhaps provided the most comprehensive account so far of the US government’s attempts to cover up the histories of the doctors and scientists it brought to the US.  The book could use some editing  -- there are some repeats, and there are a couple of flubs in the audio reading – “in the anals of warfare,” but it’s well worth reading.  We lionized Werner von Braun and the other Germans who took us to the moon, but to do that we had to cover up their roles in things like working slave laborers to death.  Most of them seemed to think that their scientific expertise was all that was important and few of them seemed to have had any regrets about what they did during the war.  The doctors were the scariest group of all, in that their experiments killed many prisoners outright.  Anecdotally I should mention that thalidomide was formulated by one of the Nazi doctors and it was probably a by-product of his research on nerve gas at Auschwitz.  September 2014
Charles Kindleburger.  Manias, Panics and Crashes,  A History of Financial Crises.  © 1978  I read the edition that Kindleburger updated just before his death in 2003.  There is a sixth edition with an update by Robert Z. Aliber, which includes our favorite crisis, 2008-2009.  The book is very well known among economists, and many consider it the best thing so far on its arcane subject.  It was a difficult book to follow in an audio version, especially since I tend to listen in bits and pieces as I find a few minutes here and there.  Nevertheless I think I absorbed its main message: the market is the best governor of the financial sector but it needs intervention from time to time.  I was fascinated by his analysis of the tulip mania in the Netherlands in the 17th C.  The thing about tulip bulbs is that it’s difficult and expensive to come up with a new variety, but once you do it it’s easy and cheap to reproduce it in Europe and the US since the 16th C and in many other places.  September 2014
Timothy Pauketat.  Cahokia: America's Great City on the Mississippi. © 2009
This is a really wonderful book about Native American society and culture.  It is centered on Cahokia, a city of perhaps 20,000 people near Thebes Gap about 130 miles up the Mississippi River from its confluence with the Ohio River.  Cahokia was the center of the Mississippi Culture from the 900s to the early 1400s and its influence spread north, south, east and west.  As the author started out describing the mounds and what was found in them, I was thinking that there wasn’t enough there to tell us very much.  That was wrong.  Archeologists, by combing what they have learned from Native American sites and their artifacts all over the continent and the legends that have been preserved, are developing an ever clearer picture of Native American society.  I have too many notes, so I’ll just mention some of the high points.  On June 4, 1054 a Chinese astronomer recorded a supernova, at star 4 times brighter than Venus that could be seen in the daytime and stayed around for two years.  It was not recorded in Europe, the Arab world, Africa or India, but it appears on Cahokian pottery and in a pictograph in Chaco Canyon.  It seems likely that the leadership in Cahokia used this phenomenon to bolster its position and that of Cahokia vis a vis other settlements and tribes.  There is a large observatory or wood henge in Cahokia and many smaller observatories are scattered through its territory, which indicates a high level of awareness of the heavens.  There may very well be some Central American influence displayed in the geometric layout of Cahokia and the propensity for mound building, but it is limited.  The monuments are a representation of the universe.  A gambling game called chunkey which involved rolling a stone disk was an important part of Cahokian life and the disks are found as far away as the Carolinas.  It is thought that the game originated in Cahokia, because no finely made chunkey stones have been found elsewhere that date earlier than 1050.  Society in Cahokia was matrilineal and Cahokians recognized a male female duality in nature.  Hundreds of skeletons have been unearthed, many the subject of human sacrifice.  Particularly notable are the remains of young women, who seem to come from outside Cahokia and to have been selected for sacrifice on the basis of their beauty.  One of Cahokia’s legends involves the marriage of he who wears human heads as earrings and girl with a white beaver skin as a wrap.  Also around is the trickster with a red horn and a pair of twins, one good and one evil.  These entities appear in many Indian legends and the human head earrings were worn in Mexico and points south.  At Thebes gap there is a huge glyph.  Although there are many interpretations of what one sees there, the most convincing one for our author is that this is a map.  It looks like a map, a map would have been useful to mark Cahokian territory and to indicate trading opportunities and maps were common among Native Americans.  People had been digging around in Cahokia at least from the early 19th C but serious work began in the 1950s as archeologists tried to stay ahead of Eisenhower’s interstate highway program. The three most prominent names are Holder, Wintry and Hall.  September 2014
Robert B. Reich.  After Shock. ©  2010  If you are going to read only one book about the crisis of 2008 and 2009, read this one.  It’s only 4 disks so maybe a hundred and some pages.  Reich can see resentment building to point of civil disturbances if not revolution, but he is optimistic that cooler heads will prevail and eventually we will come to a compromise that benefits everyone.  His proposals are as follows:   1.  A reverse income tax that would supplement incomes up to $50,000 and then move to a progressive income tax that would gradually rise to 55% for multimillionaires.  This approach was originally suggested by Milton Friedman and we have elements of it in the EITC.  Wages and capital gains and other income from capital would be taxed at the same rate.  2.  Some form of carbon tax.  3.  A reemployment system that would guarantee a worker who had to take a lower paying job 90% of the income from his previous job for two years.  4.  School vouchers in  graduated amounts in inverse proportion to income.  5.  Get money out of politics.  6.  An increase in public goods such as transportation, libraries, access to high speed internet and so on and these should be free so as to improve the quality of life for working people and make up for stagnant or falling wages.  7.  Medicare for all.  Is anyone out there listening?  September 2014

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