Browsed by
Category: political economy

Review – The Bully Pulpit

Review – The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism

by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published 2013

I picked up this title for two reasons. The first reason was to try to explore the phenomenon of “fake news” and the mainstream media’s war on Donald Trump’s presidency (and vice versa), to better understand the modern concept of the official press as an important check on government/regime power. The second reason was because at (now) 2,024 reviews on Amazon with an average 4.5-stars, this book seemed to promise it’d be a great, and long at 700+ pages of narrative text, story and I was looking for a great story, something that, whatever I thought of the point being argued, at least proved to be interesting and artfully constructed.

On the second point, I find myself frustrated. The research that went into this book is clearly exhaustive– the author speaks almost as much through verbatim quotes from primary source documents of the period (journal entries, private correspondence, public speeches, newspaper articles and editorials, memoirs, etc.) as she does in her own voice. This lends itself to creepy quirks of the book, such as the preponderance of quotes in which Theodore Roosevelt is found explaining himself in confidence via correspondence with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a character who relationship with Roosevelt is never formally introduced or explained! It kind of makes Teddy seem like a tool of some higher, shadowy powers. Why was he constantly justifying himself to another politician when the author never bothered to tell us when and how they met?

But this doesn’t seem to make for a great story. The narrative is rather breathless and sycophantic in tone. Teddy, a progressive openly-hidden amongst Republican ranks, is one of the good guys, he never gives up and, progressivism being the inevitable enlightened state of the universe toward which historical events are constantly moving us all, he of course never meets any real resistance along the way and always wins in the end. And this is a good thing. We never see the author questioning him, catching him in contradictions (though there are many for the alert reader!) or asking how it is that this One, Good Man managed to succeed in a wholly corrupt system and reform it despite the various Interests who had so much at stake in stopping him.

For a critic of progressivism, there is no profundity to consider; for the advocate, no value in confirming what is already known. The story is boring.

As for the topic of “fake news” and watchdog journalism, that must’ve developed at some other time period. We learn again and again of how Roosevelt took various progressive journalists of the era into his confidence and made friends of them, and them of him, with many ebullient feelings being shared all around. We learn of his unique talent for cultivating relationships with these journalists who then heralded him and his policies for public consumption, and we also come to understand the important value this access represented to people who essentially are merchants of information those with access frequently come by. In some scenes, we see them conspiring so closely that it almost seems that the journalists are formulating policy, and the politician is writing the story.

In other words, we see a symbiotic relationship that serves power. Where’s the watchdog here?

One thing I wondered as I read this book was, “Was progressivism truly inevitable?” It’s hard to see how it could’ve been stopped, or what would’ve existed that was much different from it if it had been. Roosevelt’s insidious support for what every critic at the time could quite obviously see was socialism, from within the Republican party, which according to repeated insistence from the text had a stranglehold over the entire government, calls to mind the cliche, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” It seems that there was a competitive advantage in politics in moving further and further to the left, no matter what party you came from, and the investigative journalists of the era (such as the evil Lincoln Steffens, who spent many years becoming “educated” in Europe about Marxism on his businessman father’s nickel) were only too happy to assist in readying the public for this ideological assault. When you read the accounts of the period of union workers intimidating “scab” worker families (women and kids), beating strike-breaking workers and even dynamiting non-union workers in public places, it kind of sounds like terrorism, something that seems like it would be a hard sell to good-hearted middle class Americans.

Yet, that is the side of history that won, and guys like Roosevelt and the investigative journalists helped make it happen.

It seems like it’s worth not forgetting that when listening to the media today tell us the important role it plays preventing democracy from dying in darkness while it does the bidding of the Deep State.


Review – The First Tycoon (#review, #books, #capitalism, #history, #entrepreneurship)

Review – The First Tycoon (#review, #books, #capitalism, #history, #entrepreneurship)

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

by T.J. Stiles, published 2010

How and why did Cornelius Vanderbilt, steamship and railroad entrepreneur, become America’s “first tycoon” and in the process earn a fortune worth an estimated $100M in the 1870s? The simplest answer provided by this lengthy biography is that Vanderbilt was able to think about abstract entities such as corporations as representing competitive business opportunities in an age when most other people controlling them thought of them as profitable grants of privilege from the State (which they were). The result was that Vanderbilt thought strategically about his acquisitions in the sense of actively seeking to own things with identifiable competitive advantages (the best route, the lowest operating costs, network effects) which he would then exploit while slashing prices, while his competitors were stuck playing defense until they gave up and offered to buy him out in self-defense.

But the book really doesn’t offer enough specific and concrete evidence to validate this thesis, it’s really just a hunch and an attempt to read between the lines of what is offered. Like most biographers and historians, Stiles consistently fluctuates between the two extremes of failing to provide the necessary evidence to actually understand what was happening and why, and forcing a tortured narrative metaphor of “the capitalist as king/general” that ends up just confusing the issues. Vanderbilt is constantly in “rate wars”, is “battling” for control of companies and finds himself with an “empire” after yet another “conquest.” But we never hear this language in Vanderbilt’s own quotations (based upon written correspondence, newspaper interviews and courtroom testimony) which are numerous.

How Vanderbilt saw himself as a businessman and operator, and how Stiles chooses to depict him with his jarring anachronistic fadism are even more incongruous because Stiles himself spends much of the time arguing against his own descriptions! It is a puzzling choice. Perhaps books about old tyme capitalists don’t sell well without a not so subtle nod to the villainous Robber Baron laying in wait inside of all of them, but it’s a shame because the much more interesting story would’ve been the one told through Vanderbilt’s own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the Robber Baron myth is a lie perpetrated against Vanderbilt, not because he was a horrible monopolist but because he was such a pain in the ass to the horrible monopolists!

[The NYT] attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition” [… deriding] “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them” [… and called on] “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”

Similarly, there are constant references to “the world Vanderbilt helped make” with reference to markets and businesses, the city of New York and the emergent nation of the United States of America. And while certainly the man’s actions and decisions were influential and impactful, Vanderbilt was not a statesman and never saw himself as anything more than an ambitious private citizen. There is not one example in the book of Vanderbilt plotting to remake the world in his own image. This is just another forced biographical trope that dopey readers, editors and authors seem to think makes a story ten times better to insist upon when the world just doesn’t have that many psychopaths in fact.

Other information missing from the story that seems essential to charting Vanderbilt’s rise: what he paid for various business assets and how he financed them, what he earned from them and what he paid in taxes, when he controlled an asset and when he was a minority partner, etc. Especially, we should like to know his leverage over time and how he was able to benefit from the various money panics that occurred repeatedly throughout his business career. One thing is for certain, he seemed to always be a buyer in such scenarios, never a seller, and he seemed comfortable being in control of his investments and making and enforcing operating policy, rather than being a mere financial speculator such as a partner like Daniel Drew might.

There are many charming bits of early American social and business vernacular we learn sprinkled throughout the book and its strength is in providing so many direct quotations from primary sources, especially the business media of the day, which really help to flavor the narrative and transport the reader to the place and time described. But this can also be a weakness, when the author ends up name-dropping a litany of capitalists involved in some deal or scheme and dribbling their worries and anxieties from private correspondence over several pages as the deal unfolds. I found it difficult to follow and mostly tuned out what I assume are supposed to be the action-packed moments of the story.

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010. I since decided to re-read it and while I wish I had had a bit more energy and focus when I did, I am glad of it. I took a new and different appreciation from some of the book’s events than I did on first pass, which suggests I’ve either improved my mental framework or at least changed it in meaningful ways over the last 7 years. Vanderbilt still comes across as a unique and heroic figure, a true titanic will. The narrative is as confused and cluttered as ever, and while I think there were the makings of a better, more concisely argued book here, and the author certainly has done his research, I am not convinced he did the right research or even fully understood what lessons he was taking away from it. The result is I’ve since downgraded the value of this particular work in my mind and think it belongs to a pretty standard class of historical biographies. Vanderbilt the man himself though is easily a five out of five as far as members of humanity are concerned!

I’ve got far more I’d be willing and able to discuss about this work and Vanderbilt as an example in private correspondence than I think I could fit into a short, coherent blog post, so really ruminating on this story will have to wait for another time and a different occasion.


Blast From The Past: Mike Cernovich’s “Epistemological” Problems With 60 Minutes (@Cernovich)

Blast From The Past: Mike Cernovich’s “Epistemological” Problems With 60 Minutes (@Cernovich)

This is from 2008, from the now defunct “Mencius Moldbug” blog:

In 1933, public opinion could still be positively impressed by group calisthenics displaying the face of the Leader, eagles shooting lightning bolts, etc, etc. By today’s standards, the public of 1933 (both German and American) was a seven-year-old boy. Today’s public is more of a thirteen-year-old girl (a smart, plucky, well-meaning girl), and guiding it demands a very different tone.

You are not a thirteen-year-old girl. So how did you fall for this bizarre circus? How can any mature, intelligent, and educated person put their faith in this gigantic festival of phoniness?

Think about it. You read the New York Times, or similar, on a regular basis. It tells you this, it tells you that, it reports that “scientists say” X or Y or Z. And there is always a name at the top of the article. It might be “Michael Luo” or “Celia Dugger” or “Heather Timmons” or “Marc Lacey” or… the list, is, of course, endless.

Do you know Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc? Are they your personal friends? How do you know that they aren’t pulling your chain? How do you know that the impression you get from reading their stories is the same impression that you would have if you, personally, saw everything that Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc saw? Why in God’s green earth do you see their “stories” as anything but an attempt to “manipulate procedural outcomes” by guiding you, dear citizen, to interpret the world in a certain way and deliver your vote accordingly?

The answer is that you do not trust them, personally. Bylines are not there for you. They are there for the journalists themselves. If the Times, like the Economist, lost its bylines and attributed all its stories to “a New York Times reporter,” your faith would not change one iota. You trust Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc, in other words, because they are speaking (quite literally) ex cathedra.

So you trust the institution, not the people. Very well. Let’s repeat the question: what is it about the New York Times that you find trustworthy? The old blackletter logo? The motto? Suppose that instead of being “reporters” of “the New York Times,” Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc were “cardinals” of “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?” Would this render them more credible, less credible, or about as credible? Suppose, instead, they were “professors” at “Stanford University?” Would this increase or decrease your trust?

For a hardened denialist such as myself, who has completely lost his faith in all these institutions, attempting to understand the world through the reports and analysis produced by the Cathedral is like trying to watch a circus through the camera on a cell phone duct-taped to the elephant’s trunk. It can be done, but it helps to have plenty of external perspective.

And for anyone starting from a position of absolute faith in the Cathedral, there is simply no other source of information against which to test it. You are certainly not going to discredit the Times or Stanford by reading the Times or going to Stanford, any more than you will learn about the historical Jesus by attending a Latin Mass.

News Media Can Not Be Objective

News Media Can Not Be Objective

A friend in the financial industry sent over an article that began,

Hedge funds run by women have outperformed a broad benchmark of alternative asset managers over the past five years, raising fresh questions about why there are so few female portfolio managers.

This is a great example of the “fake news” phenomenon and will serve to illustrate why news media is not and can not be objective in its presentation of facts.

First, news gathering and publishing is part of the discipline of history– it deals primarily with events and information that have already taken place, even while commenting on or attempting to predict events yet to happen. When you open up a newspaper, you are reading articles about things that happened in the past, albeit the recent past. The only difference between what you read in a history book and what you read in a newspaper is how much time has passed between your present reality and the events portrayed in the book or article. In a news article, that time period may be hours, days, weeks or even a few years; in a history book, it may be decades, is often centuries and is sometimes millennia.

Second, as a specimen of history, news gathering and publishing suffers from the same philosophical problem that history in general does, namely, developing a criterion for selecting meaningful facts and data to tell a particular story from the essentially infinite quantity of such facts and figures available. To write history, you first need a person (the author) who has a set of values or curiosity that dictate his desire to explore a particular historical topic. Once he has selected a topic, he has to come up with a theory about the topic and then use the theory to select from and interpret the available data to tell a story about the topic. The news journalist works the same way– start with a person, the journalist (or their editor, advertiser, owner or other primary influencer) who uses their values and judgment to determine what stories need to be told, then, using pre-existing theories of how the world works, select and interpret relevant data to tell the story that needs to be told.

History does not write itself, and neither does the news. Historians write history, journalists write the news, and some innate values and beliefs are necessary in each to cause sufficient motivation to inspire the act of writing and publishing in the first place. Given the motivation, pre-existing logical theories of cause and effect are necessary to determine which facts and data belong to the story and which do not and how they are relevant. At no point in this process up to this point, or after it, is any “objectivity” involved.

Returning now to the example of the story my financial friend shared with me, what can we make of it? A few questions and observations come to mind, using the framework above:

  • Why (what theory/value) is the proportion of female versus male money managers a story that needs to be told?
  • Why was a five year period of data used for observing the phenomenon of relative outperformance?
  • How did the female active managers perform against a genderless, passive index strategy?
  • Were any male active managers able to outperform the broad benchmark used? Were they able to beat the female managers’ performance?
  • Do women want to run hedge funds?
  • Is there is a systemic reason for female fund managers outperforming a benchmark that is persistent and not attributable to luck?

Of course, none of these are addressed in this news story. That is because the job of interpreting the news falls on the consumer of the news, not the news itself– for the news to attempt to interpret itself would be a highly problematic and morally suspect enterprise!

Why Do Some Families Lack Clean Water?

Why Do Some Families Lack Clean Water?

There is an ad pre-rolling on Youtube I have seen several times now that features Matt Damon for Stella Artois/ pitching for some supposed concern they have for “solving the world water crisis.” Ignoring the fact that this phraseology makes it sound like a sudden act of nature and not a socio-cultural phenomenon that so many people around the world go without “clean water”, whatever the hell that means, this ad strikes me as utter bullshit worth commenting on for the following reason:

Damon says they SA/ have partnered to bring clean water to “women and their families” in such stricken Third World environments. Why “women and their families”? Why wouldn’t it be “men and their families”? Don’t these women’s families include men? If so, why aren’t the men doing anything to provide the “women and their (the men’s) families” with clean water? Since women are just as capable as men (Feminist Truth), why aren’t women in these countries able to provide clean water on their own?

Why is clean water something that people in certain countries can do themselves, but in other places, we need Matt Damon and a beer company to shill so people will help out?

This is a fraud on a variety of levels, as indicated by the fact that Matt Damon is a part of the production.

Of Enemies Abroad, And At Home (#politics, #America, @realDonaldTrump, #loyalty)

Of Enemies Abroad, And At Home (#politics, #America, @realDonaldTrump, #loyalty)

We are now being told that the election of Donald Trump represents a virulent strain of tyrannical fascism in American politics, which was before lying under the surface but is now unapologetically out in the open. Certain agitators and political commentators are claiming that they don’t feel safe in a world where Trump is president, implying that there may be physical threats against their life, property or lifestyle under his regime. The conclusion is that Trump is to blame for a politics of potentially open, physical violence across partisan lines.

But if this is what Trump represents, Trump is the necessary response to an earlier dynamic, not the initiator of it. You see, the Left has been successful in its quest to control politically-acceptable speech. The world of man can be controlled by arms, or by words and ideas. If certain words and ideas can not be uttered, then the people who believe in them have no choice but to take up arms in their support. What choice but violence does a person have to convince another of his views, if his views are considered unutterable in society?

We are also told that Trump is committing what amounts to treason in warring with political factions in his own country while buddying up to autocrats in other countries, such as Russia. If the right way, and the only way, to conduct a political strategy is to play by your opponent’s rules, then this criticism may have merit. But politics is war by other means, a game of domination and annihilation. If you are a globalist after global control, you might call a truce here and there with domestic factions to enhance your projection of power outside your borders.

But what if you are a “nationalist” or “patriot”, like Mr. Trump?

If your primary political concern is dominance within your own borders, it is clear who your enemies and your friends are. Your enemies are any domestic political factions which question, criticize or otherwise restrain your full use of power inside your borders. And your friends are any parties, inside or outside your borders, that can either help you defeat your domestic opponents in some way, or who can agree to some kind of truce that lets you focus on defeating your opponents at home.

Make no mistake about it– Mr. Trump is in a war for his political (and potentially even vital) life, such is the nature of politics which has no rules but that which each opponent might individually observe. And looking at the world as he claims to, it seems not only not treasonous, but completely rational, to find friends where they can be found in order to quell the domestic disturbance represented by the Democrats and the American Left. And we can sense the truth of this proposition in observing that while critics of Mr. Trump argue that he should make peace with his domestic opponents to fight external enemies, these critics are not suggesting these opponents make peace with Mr. Trump, nor are these opponents themselves voluntarily laying down arms against Mr. Trump for the time being to take them up against the Great Alien Menace. Actions speak louder than words here.

And what about the spat with the domestic spy agencies? Ignoring the fact that they were un-American and not to be trusted under the Bush regime, and were clearly un-American and autistically-focused on studying the communication patterns of those people they nominally serve under the Obama regime (and when did these people face election and change under any of the last three administrations?), they are supposed to be answerable to the Congress, which supervises them, and the President, who leads the nation they serve.

To raise the claim that Mr. Trump is playing a “dangerous game” in challenging their methods, claim and authority, is to belie the very corruption his opposition to these organizations so far engenders– this may be a hard metaphor for many to understand these days, but it would be as if the appointed chief executive of the owner of a company was playing a dangerous game in challenging the actions and attitudes of the company’s hired employees. This argument has the theoretical cause-effect relationship of American civics exactly reversed.

In case anyone needs reminding these days, why is it exactly that the American intelligence “community” (note: for their to be a community, there by definition must be some who are inside it and some who are outside, that is, citizens of the domain and barbarians at the gates…) is to be considered trustworthy?

Have they demonstrated gross competence at their appointed tasks? Anyone who has not forgotten the failures of September 11th, 2001, must puzzle at the question.

Have they any kind of record of their activities and thinking that is examinable by the public? No, only the Congress and the President have access to that information (if the intelligence agencies are honest in presenting it in the first place!) and there is a clear principal-agent problem in electoral politics presented by these defined secrets.

And what kind of people are they who join these secret cabals, whose jobs seem to consist of lying for a living, trafficking in arms and illicit substances and occasionally murdering people deemed to be strategic problems for themselves or the government they represent?

Well, just that– liars, murderers, professional criminals and reckless thrill-seekers.

A better question than “Why should they be trusted?” is “Why should they be tolerated in a society that claims to have an open government?” Speaking of tyranny and autocratic rule, is there any model more noble in form than the modern spook cartels?

Technological Change And Social Inertia

Technological Change And Social Inertia

Isn’t it interesting how people develop a sense of entitlement over things that, until only a few years ago, did not exist?

And isn’t even more curious that people will become defensive about protecting outmoded jobs they hate?

I read an article about NYC taxi and limo drivers seeking to ban the implementation of autonomous vehicles in NYC to protect their jobs. But how many taxi and limo drivers even like their jobs, or love them? Do these people wake up every morning, breathe deeply and say to themselves, “I am so grateful to get to drive people around again today!”

Technology marches on, and soon it will provide new things and new jobs for people to feel entitled about.

Why I Value Logic Over Data

Why I Value Logic Over Data

Some people think the most rigorous way of thinking about the world is “empiricism”, their word for looking at the “facts” (accumulated statistical data) and making up their minds on that basis.

There are at least two glaring issues with that approach:

  1. The decision about which facts to research and include have a strong influence on your conclusion; this is a problem with forming theory from history, which Mises discussed at length in his works
  2. The facts may not be disinterested; they may be purposeful fabrications or distortions of the public record, produced by propagandists and other agenda-driven entities, or they may be erroneous outcome of an act of unintentional negligence

Number one is always a risk because the hardest person not to fool is yourself, and most people won’t even realize they’re selectively picking data points until they’ve already been happily surprised to realize the facts agree with them and their mind is made up.

Number two is far more sinister because it corrupts the entire empirical enterprise. You can’t reason about the facts when they have no connection to reality.

Few people, if any, take the time to sniff through their sources. They see some number, they assume it was compiled accurately or honestly (or both!) and get on with reasoning from the data. The questions of methodology, competency and partisanship are not part of the equation, and if they were considered, one might be taken aback at just how long it takes to conduct a verified empirical study.

Using logic is more efficient. I don’t have to worry about whether someone is trying to mislead me with bad data. I can think about the logical structure of the argument in question and make up my own mind about its soundness.

Secret Secrets Are No Fun

Secret Secrets Are No Fun

Why are media people, including owners, allowed to have (and acknowledge) non-public conversations? Whose interests are served by that practice?

SULZBERGER: If I could interject, we had a good conversation there, you and I, and it was off the record, but there was nothing secret, just wanted to make sure. The idea of looking forward was one of the themes that you were saying. That we need to now get past the election, right?

I mean what bullshit! If there was nothing secret, why was it off the record?