Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Smorgasboard (IV)

Whenever the wolf at my financial door shows the slightest hint of backing away, my thoughts are not "What can I save?" or "What can I pay-off?" or "What can I repair around the house?" but rather, Where can I go?  Travel articles such as this one--about hiking in the Albanian Alps--really whet my appetite.

Sunday Smorgasbord (III)

If you appreciate good doom-and-gloomism, then check out Sundown in America, a review of David Stockman's The Great Deformation:  The Corruption of Capitalism in America.  A selection:

These policies have brought America to an end-stage metastasis. The way out would be so radical it can’t happen. It would necessitate a sweeping divorce of the state and the market economy. It would require a renunciation of crony capitalism and its first cousin: Keynesian economics in all its forms. The state would need to get out of the business of imperial hubris, economic uplift and social insurance and shift its focus to managing and financing an effective, affordable, means-tested safety net.
All this would require drastic deflation of the realm of politics and the abolition of incumbency itself, because the machinery of the state and the machinery of re-election have become conterminous. Prying them apart would entail sweeping constitutional surgery: amendments to give the president and members of Congress a single six-year term, with no re-election; providing 100 percent public financing for candidates; strictly limiting the duration of campaigns (say, to eight weeks); and prohibiting, for life, lobbying by anyone who has been on a legislative or executive payroll. It would also require overturning Citizens United and mandating that Congress pass a balanced budget, or face an automatic sequester of spending.
It would also require purging the corrosive financialization that has turned the economy into a giant casino since the 1970s. This would mean putting the great Wall Street banks out in the cold to compete as at-risk free enterprises, without access to cheap Fed loans or deposit insurance. Banks would be able to take deposits and make commercial loans, but be banned from trading, underwriting and money management in all its forms.
It would require, finally, benching the Fed’s central planners, and restoring the central bank’s original mission: to provide liquidity in times of crisis but never to buy government debt or try to micromanage the economy. Getting the Fed out of the financial markets is the only way to put free markets and genuine wealth creation back into capitalism.
That, of course, will never happen because there are trillions of dollars of assets, from Shanghai skyscrapers to Fortune 1000 stocks to the latest housing market “recovery,” artificially propped up by the Fed’s interest-rate repression. The United States is broke — fiscally, morally, intellectually — and the Fed has incited a global currency war (Japan just signed up, the Brazilians and Chinese are angry, and the German-dominated euro zone is crumbling) that will soon overwhelm it. When the latest bubble pops, there will be nothing to stop the collapse. If this sounds like advice to get out of the markets and hide out in cash, it is.

Sunday Smorgasboard (II)

Another NYT article that caught my eye is the controversial sale of 40 acres in remote South Dakota.  The kicker is that it contains the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  The present owner, a non-Indian named James A. Czywczynski of Rapid City, has owned the property for 45 years and wishes to sell.  In his defense, he has tried to sell it to the Sioux nation in the past.  The tribal leadership was divided and deeply in debt, however, and no agreement was ever reached (of course, many in the tribe are galled, rightly, that they would have to purchase this site.)  The cash-strapped Sioux would do so now, if not for the fact that Czywczynski is asking $3,900,000 for the 40-acre plot.  And so, this episode fits nicely into the entire narrative of American-Indian relations, where greed and dispossession go hand in hand.

Sunday Smorgasbord (I)

A heavy rain this morning took any Sunday afternoon yardwork plans off the table.  This enabled me to enjoy one of my favorite things--a Sunday afternoon with a fresh pot of coffee and the New York Times spread-out over the dining room table.  A number of articles caught my attention. First, there was this:

Wary Easter Weekend for Christians in Syria

"Either everything will be O.K. in one year, or there will be no Christians here."  That is the opinion of Ilias, a Damascene Christian.  The journalist spoke to a number of other Syrian Chrisitans during Good Friday observances (noting, of course, that most Syrian Christians are Orthodox and will be celebrating Easter on May 5.)  The situation was tense during the service at St. Kyrillos Church, as gunfire rattled a few blocks away.

Sam at Notes on Arab Orthodoxy is a good resource for articles on how the civil war (and our support for it) is harming the ancient Syrian Christian community.  Recent posts include:

Christians Slowly Fade from Tripoli's Troubled Landscape (30 March)
The plight of Syria's Christians:  'We left Homs because they were trying to kill us' (28 March)
An Interview with Bishop Luka Khoury on the Situation in Syria (27 March)
Syrian Rebels Target Christian Areas of Damascus (12 March)
Met. Saba Esber on the Crisis in Syria (20 February)

I am more pessimistic than I have been since the civil war started.  After it is all over, I particulary do not want to see U.S. politicians and bureaucrats shrug their shoulders as if to say, "it is not our fault--how could we have known?"

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Runciman, the "Implausibility of American Democracy," and Manzikert

The 21 March 2013 issue of the London Review of Books (not yet online) contains an article by David Runciman entitled "How Can it Work?"  He has in mind, of course, American democracy.  Upon seeing the name of the author, I knew this would be an article I would read, rather than skim--if nothing more than out of respect for his great-uncle, famed Byzantinist Sir Steven Runciman.  The younger Runciman teaches at Cambridge, writes about politics for the LRB and, I suppose, waits around to become the 4th Viscount of Doxford.   His thin wikipedia page contains a quote from Lebanese American author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who described Runciman as "the second most stupid reviewer of his works," the first being an economist.  (A quick check of Taleb's extensive wikipedia entry also convinced me that I needed to become familiar with his writings.)

Well, no matter.   Even though Runciman goes off on some odd tangents--the significance of  first Tuesday in November as election day, for example--his subject interests me.  Scrolling down through our turbulent history, he asks the question:  "Can you really do politics like this and expect it to last."  He finds that there have always been two diametrically opposed answers to the inquiry.

The first answer is:  yes, of course it works.  Just look at it.  It has survived everything that's been thrown at it for more than two hundred years.  During that time the United States has got exponentially richer and more powerful, to become the richest and most powerful nation in history.  This is, by far, the most successful system of government the world has ever seen, certainly as judged by those measures...

The other obvious answer is:  no, of course it doesn't work.  Just look at it.  Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word 'dysfunctional'.  The country is massively in debt, and its elected politicians can't decide what to do about it.  American party politics is toxic and partisan in a way that seems to satisfy nobody....Over the past decade, the country has been getting markedly less powerful and less prosperous.  It has been fighting stupid wars--in Iraq, in Afghanistan--that it neither knows how to win nor how to exit satisfactorily.  Wealth creation is sputtering to a halt and wages have been stagnating, especially for the middle class...A democracy in which the majority is powerless in the face of this sort of rampant inequality looks fundamentally fraudulent.

So there we have it--the parameters of the debate.  He marshalls the ideas of two noted (and prescient) historians for each side of the argument.  Arthur Schlesinger's 1986 The Cycles of American History, advances the idea of cyclicality--that periodically in her history, when push comes to shove, America always pulls out of it and rebounds.  Paul Kennedy's 1987 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers suggests, "not so much."  Both authors reference Toqueville and each side can point to our current dilemma and make their respective cases. 

The idea of cyclicality is a false consolation, though...American democracy is not doomed.  But it is too easy to suggest that, when the time is right, this flexible democracy will seize its moment to act decisively.  The waiting is likely to get in the way of the seizing.  Moreover, history suggests that the time will only be right when things have gone very badly wrong...    

And even the declinists (among whom I tend to number myself) have no real defined sense of being on the wrong side of an failed existential crisis.  Yet.

I have also been reading The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteen Century by Speros Vryonis, Jr. (1971.)  Despite its intimidating title, the book is a helluva good read--that is, if you like this sort of thing.  Byzantium on the downside interests me more than its ascendancy and glory days.  The defeat at Manzikert in 1071 is a good a marker as any to start with that.`

The striking thing about Alp Arslan's victory over Romanes Diogenes is the unforeseen consequences of the Byzantine defeat.  The armies of the East Roman Empire had met with loss before.  And this battle occurred on the far borders of empire, out on the Armenian plateau.  Nothing seemed to signal a national catastrophe.  And yet, it was as if the Byzantines suffered a momentarily collapse of the collective will, as most of the Empire swiftly sluffed-off to the advancing Seljuqids.  In short order, the Turks were looking across at Constantinople from the far shore of the Marmara.

To be sure, the Byzantines regrouped under the revanchist Komnenian restoration, pulling the rim of Anatolia back into the Empire.  But the die had been cast, you might say.  The Seljuqids, Turkomen and Danishmendids were in central Asia Minor to stay.

The severe consequences of Manzikert are understandable, according to Vryonis, once the strains of the preceding 45 years are considered.  Outside pressures existed, to be sure.  The rapacious Normans were not to be satisfied with the boot of Italy and Sicily, eying Constantinople with relish.  And the sheer number of Turkic tribes pushing westward off the central Asian steppes could not fail to impact the eastern fringes of Empire.  And yet, the real damage occurred internally: power struggles between the central government and the provincial magnates, the destruction of the free peasantry and the establishment of feudalism, collapse of the tax base due to immunities issued to Anatolian overlords, etc.

The themata system divided the Empire into themes, with the civil and military administration combined under the Strategos.  In case of an invasion, the Emperor could summon these militias from the provinces, under the command of the Strategos.  The soldiers were given free land to farm within the themes, which in time greatly supplemented the extent of the free peasantry.  The sons of these peasants would also be required to provide military service if needed.  And finally, these freeholders paid taxes to the Empire.  The system seemed to work well on all fronts.  The Emperor had a large standing army if needed.  The troops were often tied to the very areas they were defending.  The taxes paid by the free peasants supported the Empire, including the army. 

The system started to fray as the Anatolian magnates within each theme began to amass more land and power.  These well-connected families sucked up the productive farmland of the free peasants, who now worked for them as feudal tenants.  This removed the obligation of military service that was tied to their free holding, as well as greatly diminishing the taxes flowing into the coffers of Empire, as the wealthy Anatolian elite (think 1%) had secured generous tax immunities for themselves.  As their power and wealth increased, the magnates challenged the authority of Constantinople itself.  In turn, the Byzantine bureaucrats sought to weaken, even dismantle, the army any way they could.  The loyal Imperial troops were often engaged in putting down prospective coups generated by the provincial generals' over-weaning ambition.  Constantinople hired mercenary soldiers to supplement its ranks.  The diminishing tax base, however, delayed the salaries paid these foreign troops.  This caused the mercenaries to often raid the very lands they were purportedly protecting.  And so, when the Byzantine army retreated back to the capital after Manzikert, there was nothing left in place to keep the Seljuqids from over-running the entire peninsula.  The remarkable web of provincial militias formed from an indigenous free-holding peasant class had been irretrievably broken. 

I am not sure that any people truly learn the right lessons from history.  America is not Constantinople, just as it is not Rome.  In many ways, we are such a new thing that applicable historical precedents are hard to come by.  This narrative has elements of naked greed, unbridled partisan power politics, the overreach of a wealthy elite hungry for both land and tax abatements, and the destruction of what passed for a middle class.  As such, it should be a cautionary tale for all nations.

Again, I find it interesting that the catastrophe of Manzikert was only understood later on.  The fact that the social fabric had been damaged beyond repair was not immediately apparent.  Even so, these eastern Romans had a lot of life left in them, and quite a drama to play out over succeeding centuries.  Perhaps we do as well.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Aesthetic Irresponsibility in a Broad and Gentle Land (Part III)

     I finished reading W. E. D. Allen's A History of the Georgian People a few weeks back.  I found the work to be an altogether satisfying read.  Historians rarely write in this manner these days--he was talented, enthusiastic, and a bit idiosyncratic.  Allen could present the sweeping overview, as well as the detailed specificity of an event, and do so in an engaging manner.  He was not afraid to launch off into entertaining tangents. 

     His last sentence in the book is typical:

But the Georgians could always laugh, and laughter, where high principle goes down, can survive terror and it can outlive Empires.

      In places, however, the author tells us more about himself, his own prejudices and conceits, than he does his subject matter.  One such area concerns religion in Georgia.  A native of Northern Ireland, Allen (1901-1973) was very much a product of his times.  He prefaces the chapter on the Georgian church with about three pages of pontifications on Christianity in general.  In short, he finds it mostly to be superstitious nonsense, which hindered the advance of knowledge--"progress," if you will.  And perhaps reflecting his Ulster roots, Allen displays a militant antagonism towards the priesthood--any priesthood.  In its place, he offered up his own tortured modern nonsense.  A few selections illustrute his sentiments pretty clearly.

The vastness of the influence enjoyed by the Churches during the Middle a monument to the credulity [and] ...the intellectual laziness...of the human mind.

The teaching of Christ--that lean and gentle Cynic, that humanistic Lover of men and of nature, than outspoken Paladin of the deceived, that Hater of the mean and hypocritical, bears as little relation to the body of the Church, as an oak tree, gleaming in the sun and freshened for ever by the winds, bears to an oak coffin, covered with homilies inscribed in silver and having inside the emptiness of death.

The Church--organized religion--is, like any other corporate institution, a product of the human mind....And long before the Christian era, the human mind, a credulous mind, had already created the wherewithal to satisfy its credulity--priesthoods which at once lived upon and satisfied "the believer."  For the human mind in its pathetic aching for finality, for an attainable perfection, always sets up fetishes, the idealization of hopes and the contrary embodiment of fears--religions and social systems--that encumber it.  And this will go on, in religion and in politics, until men realized, as they have been taught by experience, that there is no foreseeable finality; that all with change and that change is the salt of life; that faith rests in themselves; that divinity, untouchable and not to be imagined, rests here around ourselves and lies forward in the spaceless spaces of eternity.

The Georgian Church went the way of all other churches.  The bleak strong spirits built it--and passed into a memory revered and neglected by their sanctimonious successors.   The priest-mind took the rough clean spirit of the Founder and the rugged sacrifices of these old and dim-remembered men who found in it a divine message for humanity; and violent and abortive, cunning and obsequious, the priest-mind turned it into the sour wine of the Mediaeval church. 

It is difficult to appreciate the extent to which the Church checked the development of human knowledge during the Middle Ages. 

     You get the picture.  I believe Allen's modern British sensibilities blinded him to an essential element of the Georgian character.  He encountered Georgia during the Soviet era, and did not live long enough to witness the latter's passing.  Perhaps he would be incredulous by the resiliancy and vibrancy of their faith today.  Laughter is not the only thing that survives.