Category Archives: History

Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Presidents are often unremarkable people. They also often make for uninteresting biographies–Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson being a notable exception. Biographers also tend to glorify presidents who are in office during wars or economic disasters; most presidential rankings reliably improve when reversed. The best presidents are the ones who do little, and thus do little harm. They help quiet and stable times stay that way. They are also often forgotten—as, frankly, presidents should be. The executive branch has long been too powerful and too glorified.

That is precisely why Coolidge makes an interesting subject, and Shlaes does a good job with the material. Lyndon Johnson had a president’s typical bad qualities almost to the point of caricature; Coolidge’s quiet and calm make him come across as the anti-LBJ.  He almost comes across as though he did not want to be there. Yet he still willingly climbed the ladder: Massachusetts State Representative, Mayor, State Senator (and President of the State Senate), Lieutenant Governor, Governor, Vice President, and President. Pretensions to the contrary, he was a career politician. Part of his reputation comes from the fact that he first became President accidentally, when President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in 1923. Coolidge ran for and won his own full term on purpose, though he declined to run for a second.

That contradiction–that “I don’t want to be here, but I made it my life’s work to be here”–is a source of unresolved tension. Coolidge is a bit of a sphinx, and not necessarily in the Silent Cal way he was remembered. Shlaes’ biography focuses more on politics than personality, which suits her subject’s personality. But it would have benefited from more analysis of this part of Coolidge’s character.

Coolidge was also surprisingly tech-savvy. Shlaes notes that not only was Coolidge the first president to give a public address on radio, it was not a one-time experiment. He gave more than 500 radio speeches during his presidency, or roughly two per week, which is quite loquacious for a man nicknamed Silent Cal.

Coolidge was also not the free-market hero some libertarians have made him out to be in recent years. Shlaes is quite plain about this, yet has been accused of writing a free-market hagiography. This made me reluctant to pick up her book, and I’m glad I was not ultimately dissuaded. Coolidge, despite his penny-pinching reputation, did not shrink the federal government. It merely grew more slowly under his watch than under Woodrow Wilson or Herbert Hoover’s. If Coolidge was laissez-faire, it was in comparative terms, not absolute terms. He was also no free trader. He used powers granted him under the 1922 Fordney-McCumber tariff bill, which passed when he was vice president, to raise trade barriers. In proportional terms, Fordney-McCumber was an even larger tariff increase than the more famous 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff.

To Coolidge’s credit, he was progressive on racial issues by the standard of his time, intentionally declining to nominate known Ku Klux Klan members to any position in his government. Though Coolidge was not particularly vocal on racial issues, that was seen as a deliberate statement at the time.

Coolidge also gave his activist Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, a long enough leash to enact a host of interventionist measures. These presaged Hoover’s doubling of real federal spending, one-third money supply contraction (and accompanying rapid deflation), and Smoot-Hawley that would follow when Hoover succeeded Coolidge.

Outside of politics, Coolidge seems to have been a decent man. This is also rare among presidents. He was a loyal husband, and did not mix very well with the philandering Harding. He was also a caring father, and he lost a son, age 11, while in office. The boy cut himself while playing outside on the White House grounds and the resulting infection, easily curable today with penicillin, was mortal. Coolidge mourned deeply, well beyond what the stoic standards of the time allowed. He never seemed quite the same after the loss. The happiest moment of his presidency seems to have been a family vacation he took out West, far removed from day-to-day affairs. His retirement was similarly slow-paced, though rather lucrative, with several board memberships and a weekly column paying for an upscale home. He would live there until his 1933 death, four years after leaving office.

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Amity Shlaes – The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

Amity Shlaes – The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

It’s in part about FDR’s presidency, but more about the country and the times than the man himself. William Graham Sumner first coined the term “The forgotten man” in 1876 to describe people who neither voted for nor benefited from spending programs, but paid for them anyway. FDR later used the term in a very different way, to describe people who were hurting during the Depression and not getting the help they needed. This sharp change in direction is a theme of the times, and of Shlaes’ book.

FDR wasn’t particularly ideological, and as a result many New Deal policies were scattershot and worked against each other, rather than with each other. The result was absurdities such as crops being plowed under to raise food prices for farmers, even as people were hungry and cash-poor.

Despite their contradictions, many New Deal policies have common themes. They tend to increase federal power relative to state and local power; they grow government on net far more often than they shrink it; and they emphasize top-down direction rather than bottom-up adaptation. This even led to officially sanctioned cartels, after forty years of antitrust policy enforcement intended to break them up. This cartel approach was openly acknowledged to have been inspired by Mussolini.

But there is far more to the story of the Depression than FDR. Just as he gets more praise than he deserves, so too does he get more criticism than he deserved. The single biggest cause of the Depression was a one-third contraction in the money supply during the 1920s. The resulting deflation led prices to change for reasons completely unrelated to supply and demand, and led to all kinds of mistaken financial decisions and investments. The 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs, passed shortly after the stock market crash, killed international trade and raised international tensions at the worst possible time. President Herbert Hoover, usually remembered as a free market supporter, doubled federal spending in real terms in just four years.

All this happened before FDR took office. He and his brain trust inherited an amazing mess, which might partially explain their general ethos of throwing spaghetti at the wall until something sticks. They had no precedent to work from, people were scared, and nobody knew what to do.

Politics also played a role, and in the usual negative way. For example, demographers knew from the start that the 1935 Social Security Act would create a program that was not sustainable in the long run.  The worker-to-retiree ratio would lower over time, and would cause massive structural deficits for future generations. FDR acknowledged this in writing, dismissing it for the same reason President Trump waves off deficit concerns today: he’ll be out of office by the time it becomes a problem.We are that future generation, and Social Security’s present value deficit is measured well into the tens of trillions of dollars—in part because a presidential election was coming up more than 80 years ago.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – In the First Circle

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – In the First Circle

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is about a nationwide prison camp system, the gulag, with millions of prisoners that persisted for decades. His most famous story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is the story of one solitary prisoner over a single day. In the First Circle sits in the between. It is about a small group of zeks, or political prisoners, in a relatively cushy camp outside Moscow.

In the First Circle‘s title is an allusion to Inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which reserves the first circle of hell for good people who predated Christ or otherwise didn’t fit into the Christian worldview. Its residents are spared the tortures of the inner circles, but they are in hell nonetheless. The zeks are well aware that they have comforts that prisoners in Kolyma or Lublanka could only dream of. They are still miserable. Regular references to banned literature such as Dumas comingles with dreary Soviet prison routines in a way that perfectly illustrates this tension between privilege and imprisonment.

The First Circle is fiction, but heavily autobiographical. Solzhenitsyn was a gulag survivor, and the protagonist is modeled after himself. The most heartbreaking scenes are during the family visits between separated prisoners and their wives and children. They are just a few miles apart, close enough to have monthly visits. Yet the distance between them is so great the zeks might as well be in Siberia. One couple even contemplates divorce because a zek’s pariah status stains his wife’s social standing and career opportunities.

There isn’t much in the way of plot, but that isn’t the point of the book. It focuses more on the distance, and longing, the mingled joy and sorrow of small comforts, and the pointless rules and cruelties that have become these men’s lives. Solzhenitsyn also gives chapters to the zeks’ wives and children, and Stalin himself even puts in an unflattering appearance, which was unprecedented when this book was published.

Sarah E. Bond – Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean

Sarah E. Bond – Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean

It reads like a dry Ph.D thesis, but interesting nonetheless. Roman commercial taboos mostly centered around the body. Actors and singers had low social status not for being lowbrow, but because they were selling their bodily abilities for money. Even town criers were held in social contempt for selling their voices. Funeral workers were disdained for handling dead bodies—though this pre-germ theory taboo probably made sense for public health. Tanners’ dirty work—leathermaking process involved urine—kept them in low esteem. Moneymakers, in particular the workers who physically smelted and minted the coins were in a weird place, simultaneously shunned and held close to the emperor, and were forbidden to marry women from higher social classes. Cooks and other food workers were also held at arm’s length. They were still necessary, especially the ones who worked for the upper classes Bakers had especially low status, for the more pleasure their food gave, the more disdain they were given.

This ancient, nearly universal disdain for commerce ties into Deirdre McCloskey’s thesis about what caused modern prosperity. Cultures that disdain commerce and wealth remain poor. Those that value it prosper. The particular values and taboos vary from place to place, and there is a large subjective element—some of Rome’s seem strange to us, just as ours would seem strange to them.

But negative views of such earthly things as money and bodies had predictable results. While rich for its time due to its large trading network, Roman per capita GDP was roughly one thirtieth of today’s, and the pace of technological improvement was slow. Roman body taboos likely played into its disregard for individual human beings, from the Roman legions’ harsh discipline to gladiatorial combat to astonishingly high levels of everyday violence.

Robert A. Caro – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert A. Caro – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert Moses played a large role in developing New York’s parks, highways, and major buildings for more than 40 years. He also displaced more than a quarter of a million people to make room for his development projects.

Caro’s primary research interest is power, and Moses is an excellent case study in that regard. He knew how to acquire it, and he knew how to use it. Caro tries his best to be evenhanded, but as with Lyndon Johnson, Caro’s other great subject, some people are just plain unlikable. Moses was a serial liar about finances dating back to his college days at Yale, when he proposed deceiving a donor to his swim team. In his professional life his obfuscations would cost taxpayers billions of dollars. He also enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, including a taxpayer-provided Cadillac limousine with three full-time chauffeurs.

The depths of his racism surprised people even back in the pre-Civil Rights days, to the point of requiring African-Americans to get permits to visit beaches, then often denying the permits on specious grounds. His development projects deliberately either ignored or paved over minority-heavy neighborhoods. Even his personal life showed a lack of character, with him writing his brother out of their mother’s will and estranging him from the rest of the family, and having several affairs and marrying a woman 28 years his junior roughly a month after his wife died.

Moses was a public hero for most of his career, but when the press and public turned on him in the 1960s, they turned hard.

Adrian Goldsworthy – Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Adrian Goldsworthy – Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Julius Caesar’s story has been told a thousand times. What Goldsworthy brings to his telling is an attention to detail. For the larger-picture, go elsewhere; Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography is generally considered the definitive Caesar biography. But for hard-to-find details about Caesar’s personality, insights about what made him tick, and mostly-forgotten life events from flings to the demands he made of his captors while being held for ransom by pirates, Goldsworthy excels.

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Fender is the largest musical instrument company in the world. It was founded in the 1940s by Leo Fender, who got his start repairing radios and building PA systems and amplifiers. Despite not knowing how to play or even tune a guitar, he also invented the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitars. Both are still popular today. Fender also invented the electric fretted bass.

The author, Forrest White, was Leo Fender’s right-hand man, running the business while Fender and his team designed the products. White writes a blue-collar everyman prose, admiring Fender while acknowledging some of his faults—he had his quirks and was a bit of a nutty professor type. White also shares some fun stories and little-known facts, and shares tidbit about how some well-known quirks and features in Fender instruments came about.

The Jazzmaster guitar’s two-channel electronics, for example, were inspired by a design White himself tried in a home-built lap steel guitar he made before joining Fender. White also shares in-house patent applications, advertising copy, blueprints, and wiring diagrams for several Fender instruments, which readers can use for their own repairs, modifications, or even to build their own instruments.