Grey Eminence

Posted on: July 8th, 2012 by
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by Aldous Huxley

Most people know Cardinal Richelieu as the architect of France’s foreign policy during the reign of Louis XIII and the Thirty Years’ War.  Less well-known is his right-hand man, Father Joseph du Tremblay, the subject of Aldous Huxley’s biography Grey Eminence, which has been called the “best book on the intelligence operations of the French state” of that period.

Father Joseph was a Capuchin monk, and even before entering politics, a serious mystic, whose successful evangelism seemed merely to take time from his efforts to achieve union with the Godhead.  His piety was not a pose; he would continue to honor his vow of poverty to the point of rigorous self-denial, right to the end of his life. In their personal lives, Richelieu lived in luxury, while Joseph lived the Church teachings.

The question that fascinates Huxley is how a fellow mystic, so loyal to the Church and its divine mission, could devote his public life to the perpetuation of what amounted to a war of extermination in Germany.  It was a question that Fr. Joseph’s contemporaries asked, and one that marred his reputation almost from the time he took office.  It would follow him even to his funeral.

To fully understand what’s at stake, one needs to understand the position that the Thirty Years’ War holds in German history.  The war’s destructiveness was unmatched for its time, killing about half the German population, reducing the rest to utter poverty and starvation.  Armies, foreign and domestic, pillaged what food their was, and destroyed urban production.

It was the conscious policy of France – both Richelieu and Joseph – to extend it as long as possible, precisely to inflict this damage on France’s most dangerous continental rival.

For Richelieu, the motivation is easy to see.  But when Father Joseph took a position as Richelieu’s right-hand diplomat, the motivations were a little more subtle.  Joseph identified France’s interests with God’s.  He seems to have truly believed that a strong France would advance the Church’s interests in the world.  More than anything, he wanted another Crusade against the Turks, to recover Constantinople and the Holy Land.  (Constantinople had only been Ottoman for about 150 years; Christian rule there wasn’t a living memory, but it also wasn’t terribly distant, and much if not most of the city’s population remained Orthodox.)

Spain had actually expressed interest in the enterprise, but wanted overall leadership.  To Joseph, anything other than French leadership was unimaginable.  In order to accomplish a French-led Crusade, France would not only have to turn Germany into a highway for Catholic troops, it would also have to break the power of the encircling Hapsburgs, who sat on the thrones of both Spain and Austria.  Thus France’s support for the Dutch resistance to Spanish rule, and the strategic support of the Lutheran Swedes against the Austrians, using Germany as their battlefield.  Catholic France’s support for Protestant armies against other Catholic powers only fed the cynicism about its motives.

That such cynicism existed at all was a result of the mixture of religious and political roles, and of religious and nationalistic motives.  The Peace of Westphalia has been seen as establishing a secular international order.  But such an order was only possible because governments – even diplomats who had Church titles – had been pursuing a nationalistic foreign policy for decades beforehand.  Only such a worldview can explain France’s actively promoting German bloodshed almost as an end unto itself, and delaying a crusade until France could lead it.

David Goldman, a.k.a. Spengler, flatly states that our position with respect to the Muslim world is roughly that of France of the early 1600s to the rest of Europe.  Still the main power to be reckoned with, we should pattern our Middle East policy on France’s: divide and weaken, intervening only directly when absolutely necessary.  And just as France became the dominant European land power for over 200 years after the War, so we can manipulate the Sunni-Shia divide to our advantage.

And yet, Huxley, in a somewhat mystical moment, notes simply that violent actions rarely if ever have salutary results. Germany remembered.  Germany rose to challenge France, and Germany never really forgot the horrors that French diplomacy had visited upon it.  It was a vengeance that was fueled by a moral indignation, as well, that France had posed as a religiously-motivated power, even as it reduced Germany to cannibalism.

Huxley answers his central question by concluding that Father Joseph simply bargained away, piece by piece, the practical tenets of his mystical faith in pursuit of his more concrete policy goals.  At a personal level, his extreme piety convinced him that God would forgive whatever compromises he had to make to ensure France’s success.

We too have our ideals, that such a purely realpolitik foreign policy would betray.  And years down the line, some future Huxley might also find that, in pursuit of national interests, we had, little by little, allowed ourselves to completely bargain them away.

Thucydides: The Reinvention Of History

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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Donald Kagan

Since it was written, the prism through which we study the Peloponnesian War has been Thucydides’s History. Virtually everything we know about the war, we know through his writing. It was Thucydides who established the first recognizable historical standards, eschewing myth and legend in a way that even Herodotus did not.

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History is Donald Kagan’s attempt to apply – finally – the same critical approach to the History as we do to virtually every other historical record. What makes it special is that it’s not merely Kagan’s attempt, it’s pretty much the only recent attempt to do so.

There must have been different opinions. A war as long-lasting, as all-consuming, as destructive as the Peloponnesian War, must have produced different contemporaneous interpretations. And yet, as Kagan points out, so effectively has Thucydides established his point of view as authoritative, that people aren’t even aware that there were other points of view. In fact, even the facts that Kagan uses to challenge Thucydides’s conclusions come from the History itself.

Kagan would know. He’s been a serious historian of the ancient Greeks at Yale for decades now. (Yale just made his course lectures available in both video and audio online for the first time. His discussion of Greek hoplite warfare alone is worth the price of admission.) His one-volume study of the Peloponnesian War was even a popular hit. “The damn thing sold 10,000 copies,” he says, in evident amazement.

So when Kagan decides that we must treat the History not as a dispassionate academic work, but an apologia pro vita sur, we should take him seriously.

This conclusion leads Kagan to take issue with a number of Thycydides’s conclusions. Thucydides argues that the war was inevitable, the result of an insecure Sparta facing a rising and dynamic Athens, at odds with each other over the proper form of government for Greeks.

It’s true, Kagan says, that there was tension on this point. The Spartans had invited other Greeks to help them put down a Helot rebellion, and then asked the Athenians – and only the Athenians – to leave, worried about where their sympathies might really lie. Later, the Athenians do turn a captured city over to some Helots, frustrating Spartan plans to round them up and return them to servitude, and no doubt increasing their suspicion and mistrust at the same time.

And yet. It wasn’t the two principals who dragged their alliances into war, but two allies who dragged the principals along. Years earlier, with much better odds and with two armies actually facing each other in the field, Sparta had demurred. Pericles knew the Spartan king to be a personal friend and an advocate of peace between the two alliances. When the Spartans took almost a year to actually start the war, they had reduced their demands to something almost symbolic, something so minor that Pericles himself had to persuade the Athenians not to give in. Those living through those years wouldn’t have seen an inevitable conflict between superpowers, but a series of events and miscalculations leading to war.

Thucydides argues that the Sicilian disaster was the result of the unchecked passions of Athenian democracy, in the absence of Periclean wisdom to restrain it. Kagan shows instead that the general entrusted with the mission, Nicias, never really believed in it, made a series of mistakes of omission and commission, and bears primary responsibility for its failure. Thucydides, having argued elsewhere that Athens under Pericles wasn’t really a democracy, is here trying to show what happened when it became one. It’s a game partisan effort, but its central thesis is at least open to question.

Perhaps the most critical question for our times, however, has been what to make of Pericles’s war strategy, and his diplomatic strategy leading up to the war. Pre-war signals that, to Pericles, must have seemed like subtle signals to the Spartans were evidently too subtle. And his war strategy, instead of persuading the Spartans of the uselessness of fighting, merely encouraged them in thinking that they could go on fighting it out along these lines if it took all summer. Or indefinitely.

In the entanglement that would eventually lead to the war, Pericles adopted a defensive treaty with Corcyra, primarily directed against Corinth. Then, when the crunch came, he sent, from the ancient world’s largest navy, a force so small that it had to be doubled by the Athenian assembly, with instructions only to intervene if it looked as though their ally might lose. While they eventually did intervene to save Corcyra, their manner of doing so neither assuaged the Corinthians, nor earned them the loyalty of their ally.

Nor did Pericles understand the internal politics of Sparta as well as he thought. Knowing that at least one of the kings was opposed to war, he attributed to him far more political influence than he actually was able to exert in the Spartan assembly. As a result, when Corinth accused Athens of breaking the 30-Years’ Truce – in fact, Athens had stayed just within the lines – Pericles had already undercut the position of a relatively weak office.

Kagan argues that Thucydides, as a member of the Periclean political party, is seeking to recast a series of bad decisions by Pericles as part of an irresistible chain of events. Instead, his policy should be seen as one of weakness masquerading as diplomacy and moderation, combined with a deeply mistaken sense of when and where to take a stand.When Sparta did finally declare war, it eventually narrowed its demands down to a rescission of the Megaran Decree, a punitive prohibition of access to the Athenian marketplace to residents of Megara. What led Pericles to argue against a tactful withdrawal from the Megaran Decree was his belief that he had a winning strategy for the war, one that would lower its cost in terms of both lives and treasure to the point where it would be worth it to make the point, and prevent potential unrest throughout the empire. Contrary to all previous Greek strategy, Athens would barely fight. It would play rope-a-dope, letting Sparta punch itself out with destructive, but ultimately futile raids, and make it pay a price by attacking its coastal cities, as only a naval power could do. Eventually, the Spartans would decide that they couldn’t force Athens to surrender this way, and come to terms.

As we know, things didn’t quite work out that way. And yet, even as he – along with a large portion of the Athenian population – was dying from a overcrowding-enhanced plague, Pericles (reports Thucydides) said that he was happy that his strategy had ensured that no Athenians had died by force. Historians have long noted echoes of his Funeral Oration in the Gettysburg Address, but up until this point, in his handling of the crisis, Pericles reminds us more of another president.

Thucydides argues that had the Athenians but kept to Pericles’s strategy, they would have won the war. This seems to stem more from his distaste for the low political tone set by Cleon, the successful commander and politician than from the evidence. In fact, the Athenians, once they pursued an active ground war, quickly won victories and brought the Spartans to sue for peace. Merely raiding coastal cities wasn’t enough; the Spartans had to be afraid that the Athenians would pursue and offensive strategy, invade, and potentially free the helots (or at least severely disrupt the Spartan social order), to sue for peace. They had to fear being beaten, humiliated, and impoverished, not merely wasting their time.

It’s a point that those who would argue for a strategy based solely on missiles and naval power would do well to learn, and it bodes ill for a style of warfare dedicated to dismantling an opponent’s military while leaving the population at large untouched.

Likewise, societies can only absorb so many hits, even superficial ones, without reprisal, before morale begins to erode. The Germans had to re-learn this lesson in WWI, as they sought a quick victory over France, while letting the Russians advance virtually unopposed over East Prussia, ancestral home to the Junker military professionals who had concocted the war in the first place. Whether or not the troops removed from the French front to the east were dispositive is open to question; it’s certain that the second front was a distraction.

Why do we care about the Greeks? Why, even now, 2500 years later, do we still read about their wars, against each and against their neighbor, the imperial eastern superpower?

The Greeks are a lot like us, and by learning about them, we hope to learn about ourselves. Not for nothing are the twin pillars of Western civilization Jerusalem and Athens. We see in ourselves echoes of our fractious, democratic, pluralistic, pious, postmodern Greeks. If we can see what stresses a long epoch of war places on a society, we can at least avoid being surprised.

If we’ve been learning those lessons from the wrong reading of Thucydides, then we’ve quite possibly been learning the wrong lessons. If we believe that wars are inevitable, we will fail to take our decision-making seriously. If we learn that “democracy” cannot make large strategic decisions, we abandon our core value of open debate, and are likely to fail to hold our generals properly accountable.

And if we learn that we can avoid wars by looking non-threatening, and win them merely by showing that we can, we’ll lose.

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Lars Brownworth

I’ve always been a sucker for the Byzantine Empire. The eastern outpost of what was once called Christendom, the last remnant of the old Roman Empire, slowly melted away on the maps, until in 1453, it gets winked out altogether. (The timing of that fall also fascinates. It would be only 39 years before Columbus would open up the West, at a time when the East seemed to be closing in.) The Empire would never stop thinking of itself as Roman, the Emperors would always think of themselves as heirs to the Caesars.

Because of its descent into chaotic palace intrigue, and its relentless decline, Byzantium doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The fact that it was only a shell for several centuries before its final conquest also cemented its feeble image in Western minds. By 1453, the last emperor couldn’t be crowned for fear of religious conflict, and even said that the city needed a mayor more than an emperor. Despite that decline, the empire revitalized itself three different times, each time altering its character to the political and military environment that it faced. In doing so, it performed two invaluable services to the West.

First, it bought time for Western Europe to get its act together. By the time the Empire lost its breadbasket and source of manpower, Asia Minor, at the battle of Manzikert, Western Europe was on the cusp of the High Middle Ages, beginning to develop cohesive social structures, a revival of trade, and would soon begin to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula.

Second, it preserved classical literature and wisdom. In contrast to currently popular imaginings, it was not the Muslims who preserved the Greek & Roman world for Western Europe, but rather Byzantium. Those works would become the common cultural inheritance of the west, and would greatly inform the Founders as they struggled to create the United States.

I haven’t heard Brownworth’s podcasts, but they’ve been fairly widely praised. So I had pretty high hopes for this history of Byzantium. The subtitle led me to hope that it would take on that myth about who had preserved classical learning, and that it would discuss in detail the relationship between Byzantium and the West. Instead, what I got was a fairly linear history of the Empire, which touched on those subjects.

It’s not entirely fair to judge the book by my expectations, but even on its own terms, it fall short in a number of key areas. The storytelling is uneven. Repeatedly, we’re told that armies are scattered, treasuries are emptied, frontiers broken, and yet as if by magic, the next general is somehow paying men and leading them to victory. Another time, “every citizen” takes turns manning the walls. Every citizen? Really?

Brownworth could also have benefitted from a little editing. Several times, we’re treated to the same turn of phrase within paragraphs. And on one occasion, the details of a succession struggle prove too much even for the author, as he fails to identify one of the key participants. It left me flipping back over the account to see what I had missed. Imperial murders, riots, rampages, coups, and poisonings are difficult enough to follow when you do have a scorecard. And if we’re going to have to plow through them, they ought to have a point. Too often these accounts seem to lead nowhere but the next rebellion.

Finally, there weren’t enough maps. Military history is geography. A few more well-placed maps should have been easy to place. Instead, I often found myself looking for cities on maps from hundreds of years earlier. They might tell me where a city was, but often it was in the wrong context.

One studies history to learn about today, and some lessons do come through. Basil II, perhaps the last great emperor, cemented his power through tactics that would seem familiar to close observers of the current administration. And inheriting a sound empire, his successors tossed it away through infighting, civil war, and counterproductive tax and fiscal policies. Sadly, these resonances are too few and far-between to rescue the narrative.

A couple of years ago, I bought the Teaching Company’s audio course on the Byzantine Empire. While the professor had a little more time to make his points, I thought he covered the material in a more sensible manner, filling in gaps that Brownworth leaves open. If you have the time to read the book, you also probably have time to commute to those CDs. I think you’ll come away having learned a lot more.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for that other history, the one I hoped I was getting.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by James McPherson

On this, the 200th Anniversary of perhaps our greatest President – I’m still holding out for Washington, but perhaps that’s on the basis of his entire body of work – it’s worth considering his role as Commander-in-Chief. Not merely as described in Eliot Cohen’s leadership study, Supreme Command, but his role specificallly in shaping policy, strategy, and operations. Other Presidents have had to fill that role, although none under such critical circumstances as Lincoln.

James McPherson, who is rapidly becoming one of our finest popular Civil War historians, published his Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief last year. In it, he follows the progress of Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, first trying to save the Union by preventing the war, then trying to win it as expeditiously as possible. The progress of the war itself is almost background, the battles and campaigns making cameo appearances in support of the main story – Lincoln’s conduct of command.

Much of the anecdotal material is well-known: Lincoln’s depressions after defeats, his constamt urgings of McClellan and other generals to press forward, and his exultation after the victories at Atlanta and Richmond.

What McPherson adds is structure. About 20 years ago, Edward Luttwak famously created levels of strategy – grand strategy, strategy, theatre-level strategy, and tactics. McPherson does something similar, defining five interconnected levels in which Lincoln – indeed, all commanders-in-chief – must operate: National Policy, National Strategy, Military Strategy, Military Operations, and Military Tactics. Lincoln worked in all five, although we typically remember him more for his hectoring his general in the area of military operations.

What McPherson remembers, and what Lincoln never lost sight of, is that war is also a political activity. From the outset, he set a National Policy – the preservation of the union. All else was to support that Policy, starting with National Strategy. At first, the best strategy was to ignore slavery as an issue. Later, as the war stretched on, and Southern Unionist sentiment failed to manifest itself, National Strategy changed to the liberation of the slaves and a more aggressive military posture.

Lincoln, almost before many of his generals, realized that military operations would have to be coordinated in time, to offset the South’s advantage of interior lines of operation. And at the tactical level, he supported the purchase of the repeating rifle, and the eventual jettisonning of the cumbersome supply trains which slowed down Union advances.

McPherson also dwells on the political management of the war, especially during the critical election year of 1864. We all know that McClellan captured the Democratic nomination on a peace platform, from which he immediately began to pull back. Union sentiment swung back and forth, wildly over-reacting to both victories and setbacks, fanned by an equally voluble press.

Advances early in the year were tempered by defeats and stalls on both fronts, and by Jubal Early’s attack on Washington from the rear. We think of the Lincoln-Grant relationship as rock-solid, but McPherson points out that:


Neither Lincoln nor Grant could have been in a good mood when they met on July 31 for a discussion that lasted five hours. No record was made of their conversation. Lincoln may have come as close as he ever did to chewing out Grant for all the failures that had occurred during the past six weeks.

Copperheads in the North were promoting reunion without victory, while the Southern leadership was selling the peace as a means to independence, after all. “The publicity surrounding these peace overtures should have put to rest the Copperhead argument that the nation could have peace and reunion without military victory. But it did not.”

EvenafterAtlanta and Richmond, Lincoln understood that public opinion could be lost. We tend to forget how vital Sheridan’s campaign in the Shennandoah and George Thomas’s defeat of Hood in Tennessee were to sealing the final victory.

And in a further reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same:


Union captives in Southern prison camps could not vote in the presidential election, of course, but most other soldiers could. By 1864 all Northern states except the three whose legislatures were controlled by Democrats – Illinois, Indiana, and New Jersey – had provided for soldiers to cast absentee ballots. Those three exceptions seemed to indicate that Democrats knew quite well which way most soldiers would vote.

Moat of these reminders and surprises come in the last 75 pages of the book. But the whole thing is well worth reading. And a reminder that a successful wartime President needs to be involved in all aspects of the conduct of the war. That it really is too imporant to be left to the generals.

In A Cardboard Belt!

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Joseph Epstein

“I interest myself.” That was Joseph Epstein’s motto during his 23-year run as editor of The American Scholar. Not a bad philosophy, when your interests are as broad as his. He interests us, too, in his latest collections of essays, In a CardboardBelt!

Epstein just turned seventy, so his age has finally caught up with his writing. His essays have always had an air of maturity about them, both in subject and in tone. His two collections of short stories were both about characters a decade older than himself at the time. Even the titles of his books – The Middle of My Tether, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, With My Trousers Rolled – evoke age. So it’s not surprising that some of his themes begin to reflect age. He writes of his own age, his leave-taking from lecturing at Northwestern, his father, and memorial and obituaries in general.

His topics are, as the Table of Contents indicates, Personal, Attacks, Literary, and Intellectual. Epstein’s writing is fluid, light, witty but not gut-bustingly funny. He’s mastered the art of letting the essay flow from one aspect of the subject to the next. He writes so well that a cursory, 10-minute review yielded 14 Post-It notes. Memorable lines, but not necessarily quotable ones. Even the anecdotes require context to make sense.

There are a few darts. In his essay on Proust, he remarks about one reader-turned-memoir-writer:


…[Phyllis] Rose offers an example of the limits of education and culture, for in her a vast overlay of both has not been able to cover up the inexhaustible shallows of a confident but unoriginal mind.

While the cover promises “savage” essays, those looking to read, or have the easy pickings of responding to, Ann Coulter-like screeds will be disappointed. The essays in the Attacks section are essentially the same as the ones in the Literary section: smart, insightful dissections of people or their careers. None of these really goes beyond his earlier essay on Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, the “Boy Wonder.”

The exception is his slicing up and serving of Mortimer Adler, which even then, is done in typical Epstein-like style. The impression one has is of one of those cartoon swordfights, where one character flicks his sword through the other a few dozen times, while slices of the filet, eyes still blinking, slide neatly into piles on either side. Beginning with Adler’s myth, he neatly, methodically reduces him to a figure of fun.


I do not know of any genuine contribution that Mortimer Adler made to serious philosophy, though before he went into big-time indexing he was though a serious Thomist…. Sidney Hook once told me that it was proof of Dewey’s honorableness that not even Mortimer Adler could drive him into anti-Semitism.


The personal essays are among the most fun, possibly because they shed light on common experiences. His essay on how, after 70 years, he’s figured out that he really doesn’t like to travel, is brilliant.


“I hereby sentence you,” runs a standard judge-and-defendant cartoon in a recent New Yorker, “to the Vermeer show on a Saturday afternoon.”

Not funny, McGee. Not if you have, as I have, woken in the Jan Luyken Hotel in Amsterdam at 4 A.M. to drive to The Hague to stand in line in the cold drizzle of a Dutch morning to get tickets to see twenty-six paintings by Vermeer as part of a crowd that was even more wall-to-wall than the carpeting.

Unlike most 57-word sentences, you get to the end remembering where you started. Extra points, too, for knowing who McGee is.

On eating out, in the 1970s: “One would go to a party and be asked, not what one thought of the latest Robert Altman or Woody Allen flick or (more important) what Pauline Kael thought of it, but if one had been to the recently opened bistro on Halsted Street or trattoria on Southport.” The joy, the choices, the trendiness, the shallowness.

Epstein’s essays are rich because he makes serious points tangentially: “The Brothers Ashkenazi remains a magnificent novel, one in which the villain is no less than the country of Poland, and the first book in which I learned, a lesson often repeated, that the one thing the far left and the far right always come around to agree upon is hatred of the Jews.”

On cleaning out his library, getting rid of thousands of books: “The Russians did not do well in this purge.”

The set also includes his final essay for The American Scholar, must-reading for anyone who wants to understand the ravages of political correctness and identity politics. Epstein writes without rancor or malice about the decision to force him out. Indeed, he focuses more on the board and its historic personalities, who turn out to be a lot like everyone in every board meeting of any organization you’ve ever attended.

One can’t help but share Epstein’s evident more-sadness-than-anger about the board’s decision to sack him in the face of identity politics – in this case, animosity over using the word, “homosexual” instead of, “gay” in a submission. That decision then led Phi Beta Kappa, which publishes the journal, to sit on and then reject a $2 million gift – and all the good it could have done – from a conservative organization, supposedly out of fear that it might save Epstein’s job. So much for fiduciary responsibility.

Still, Epstein is turning seventy, not dying. Even if The American Scholar doesn’t want him around, here’s looking forward to the next book.

The Founders On Citizenship And Immigration

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Edward Erler, Thomas West, and John Marini

Last year’s immigration debate left quite an impression on the body politic. It certainly left an impression on the Congressional switchboard operator. But for all the sturm und drang, the discussion barely left the realm of conventional partisan politics. We spent a great deal of time arguing fences and paths to citizenship and ID cards, and very little time on what citizenship means, and what it means for immigration.

We again forgot that the Founders thought about these problems when setting up the country. We also forgot that the Progressives had their own vision for immigration, thoroughly at odds with the Founders.

Into this breach of historical myopia steps the Claremont Institute, with The Founders on Immigration and Citizenship, a collection of four essays by Institute scholars.

While the Claremont Institute is commonly thought of as a conservative think-tank, it’s one with a unique point of view. Stressing the unique and original ideas of America’s Founders, it specializes in what has come to be called Originalist legal and philosophical thought. For Claremont, the great tragedy of American history isn’t the 60s, or even the 70s. It is instead the betrayal and subversion of those ideas by the post-Civil War Progressives.

For the Founders, immigration was to be based on the kind of citizen an immigrant was likely to become. That men had a natural right to emigrate was assumed. That a society had the right, by virtue of the social compact, to decide whom to accept, was just as evident. Included in that calculation was his moral character. Immigrants from more free societies were more likely to have the habits of thought of free men, thus more likely to become better citizens. Those from more despotic regimes would have to be accepted in lower numbers, hopefully to be dispersed throughout society to help speed assimilation. They were more likely to be comfortable with a government dispensing favors. Either way, emigration and acceptance attached to the individual, not to a group identity.

The Progressives planned to re-shape the government into a centralized administrative state, informed not by reason but by science. The saw the government not as a means for securing individual natural rights, but rather for creating rights, and distributing their fruits on the basis of group identity. Making common cause with the nascent socialists and eugenicists, they saw race and class as the most important defining groups. (Convicted by their own writings, the Progressives resented and belittled the Constitution’s restrictions on their plans.) To the Progressives, it made perfect sense to choose immigrants by race and class, rather than culture and ideals.

The book contains four essays: and introduction, a legal case against birthright citizenship, an examination of the historical effects of immigration policies, and the Progressives and immigration. The most legal is Ed Erler’s attack on birthright citizenship. Policy-wise, Erler is worried about anchor babies serving as the bridge to transplant entire Mexican towns to the US, but he makes two critical points. First, the notion of birthright citizenship derives from British common law, which in turn derives it from the feudal relationship between lord and serf. The British held that to be born in Britain was to owe eternal allegiance to the Crown. Put that way, it’s not surprising that a bunch of revolutionary separatists would have a dim view of that basis.

Second, the authors of the 14th Amendment, which is quoted in favor of birthright citizenship, never intended for mere geography to determine citizenship. Children of visiting diplomats, for instance, and members of semi-sovereign Indian tribes, were not considered to be subject to the jurisdiction of the US, in the Amendment’s own language. Whether or not 100 years of contrary interpretation can or should be overturned is another matter.

The two other essays persuasively set out the differences between the Founders and the Progressives, relying largely on their own words. Impressive because they need to show not only the differences, but also their radical nature. West also has a disturbing answer to a question that has bothered me for some time: why was an American population that had soundly rejected Progressive revisions in the 19th Century willing to put up with them in the 20th?

The entries overlap a little, repeating primary sources and quotes, especially from the Founders. While a bit tedious, this actually serves the book’s purposes, reiterating what sources are important.

More frustrating is the number of secondary sources cited for primary quotes, unnecessarily complicating efforts to trace sources, or to check their context. Given Claremont’s reputation for probity, it’s unthinkable that the quotes are unrepresentative of their authors’ thinking. It represents un-Claremont-like editorial sloppiness.

Claremont has no specific policy recommendation at the end of the book, at least not an explicit one. Ed Erler would be happy to get rid of birthright citizenship, and there’s no question that the Claremont guys are uncomfortable with the transplantation of whole sections of Mexican society to the United States. Essentially, the country is setting itself up for trouble, clearly unwilling and possibly unable to assimilate this population into American political and economic ideals.

To their credit, they recognize that this is not, at heart, a partisan issue. Liberal Democrats who want votes have conspired with Republicans, who cater to business’s desire for cheap labor, to keep the border open. Likewise, both parties contributed to the racist revisions of the immigration laws in 1924. Indeed, when the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger said that for many conservatives, the issue was culture, not economic, it represented a split between traditional Republican allies (and a comment that the traditionalists should have embraced, rather than defensively accusing Henninger of accusing them of racism). And while conservative activists may have forced stronger enforcement provisions into last year’s comprehensive bill, it succeeded in peeling away enough liberal Democrats to help defeat the measure.

As usual, the Claremont Institute shows that for those willing to listen, the Founders have something valuable to say on a topic of current interest.

Baseball Between The Numbers

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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“Boy, Davis looks fast this year.”
“Yeah, but that speed’s overrated.”
“Well, he had an EqA of .320…”
“Sure, but his VORP was only a quarter of a win.”
“And at 29, with no power, his PECOTA has him falling off pretty quickly. Just like the Rockies to overpay for a guy past his prime.”

Sounds like a foreign language. Well, except for the part about the Rockies. Welcome to the world of Modern Baseball Analysis. The world of Baseball Between the Numbers, and The world that tells you just how much better Babe Ruth was than Barry Bonds is.

Started by Bill James in the late 1970s, and brought to the World Beyond Rotisserie by Moneyball, modern baseball analysis tries to provide a more accurate and insightful picture of the game than traditional statistics can. Traditional statistics are extremely context-dependent. A batter’s home ballpark, the defense behind a pitcher, who hits in front of a batter, or even the era in which they played, can all skew a player’s numbers to the point where they tell us virtually nothing about his performance on the field. Modern baseball analysis tries to account for these variables, and to introduce new ways of accounting for how a player contributes to (or detracts from) his team’s success.

For offense, the usual technique are to convert a player’s contributions into extra runs for his team – the number of runs he contributes over a player available at the league minimum off the waiver wire. Convert these runs into wins at the rate of roughly one win per 10 runs, and we get a better sense of how much the player is helping or hurting his team. Another technique looks at situational hitting: given the inning, the score, the men on base, and the number of outs, calculate how much what a player does increases (or decreases) his team’s chance of winning the game. A leadoff shot in the first obviously means less than a homer in the ninth, even though both happen with the score tied.

Offensive statistics like RBIs and runs scored are too dependent on the situation, and thus on teammates. After all, if the bases are empty, even the best player can only drive in a single run. However, there’s still only one batter at a time. Defense and pitching are much more intertwined, and here’s where the real action is right now. One of the best articles in the book attempts to isolate a pitcher’s performance. Beginning with the question of why pitchers seem so inconsistent from year to year, we find that the fault dear Brutus isn’t in our stars but in our selves. In fact, certain statistics, things that eliminate the defense, are remarkably constant from year to year. Looking only at home runs, strikeouts, and walks, it turns out that pitchers are remarkably consistent; it’s usually the defense behind them that varies.

Teasing out individual defensive peformance is even harder. Why penalize a second baseman when he’s trying to turn a double play with Marv Thronberry? New stats such as Range Factor (how many balls does a player get to?) and Bases Allowed on Balls in Play – BABIP – help separate the defense from the pitcher.

In general, the statistical analysis is superb, using the proper tools for various correlations. However, every once in a while they do make mistakes. In an early article examining RBI vs. VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), the analyst uses a ratio of RBI/VORP to demonstrate how misleading RBI is, showing the best and worst RBI/VORP seasons over the last 34 years. Since VORP can be 0, he arbitrarily adds 10 to all VORPs on the list. This is just a terrible way to make the comparison. A better solution would have been to put VORP in the numerator, since RBI can never be negative.

Where traditional statistics count things, these new ones calculate them. Even ERA still counts actual runs – the argument is over who deserves the “blame” for allowing any given run to score. The new analysis produces statistics based on the presumptive worth of a given act. How many runs can it be expected to produce? How many runs is a player worth to his team? How much closer to victory does a certain strategy bring a team? These invariably involve judgment calls, and so it’s not surprising that the counter-intuitive – or at least iconoclastic – results they produce have been rejected by long-time insiders.

One of the chief joys of reading Bill James was the joyful writing, the almost blog-like style that he had developed. Never mind the latest statistical toy or gee-whiz discovery. The simple pleasure of his writing was enough to keep me re-reading his Abstracts all year. I still remember some of his writing over 20 years later. By that standard, Baseball Betweem the Numbers falls short. The joy seems buried in the intelligence.

Another shortcoming is the lack of a glossary with the actual equations. Many of the equations are listed, but some are in the text, some are in the glossary, some are in the end notes, and some fairly simple ones, like Equivalent Average, aren’t listed at all. That’s too bad, because this superb introduction to the state of the art leaves the reader eager to pursue some research on his own. While a CD probably doesn’t make much sense, a simple website registration such as O’Reilly or other technical publishers have, could make both data and formulas available to customers.

The book contains some fine individual studies. One analysis of Coors Field struck particularly close to home, with some surprising results. Another article uses Mario Mendoza, of the famous Mendoza Line, as the motivation to examine replacement-level talent. A couple of closely-reasoned pieces take apart baseball economics, from the value of a stadium to the value of an MVP shortstop. “What Does Mike Redmond Know About Tom Glavine” is a reminder of the perils of small sample sizes, applied to all sorts of situations. Even the first article, arguing for replacing RBI with VORP, is still terrific, despite bobbling that ratio grounder at the end. Its fellow bookend, looking at successful playoff teams, as opposed to winning regular-season teams, helps explain why Billy Beane can’t win a playoff series.

If you want to see sharp, finely-tuned analysis applied to your favorite game, this is the book for you. And if Babe Ruth played today? Think 900 home runs.

The Myth Of Market Share

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Richard Miniter

As countless dot-coms, their VCs, and three large car companies have discovered, buying customers is a lousy business plan.

Put that way, it seems intuitive, but not until Richard Miniter’s short but powerful little book, The Myth of Market Share, had I seen it put that way.

Most journalists, most bureaucrats, and too many businessmen operate under the delusion that market share is the royal road to profits. In fact, what matters to investors – and therefore, what should matter to management – is return on investment. Measured by return on capital, market leaders are often not profit leaders.

Why not? Doesn’t a large market share mean control of the market, and this, according to Porter’s Five Forces model, mean substantial pricing power? Isn’t pricing power the whole point of market share? Evidently not. Miniter is positing that nobody has pricing power, at least not outside normal economic cycles.

Then, the marginal customers whom you end up buying are rarely loyal, and have a lower profit margin, Having been bought by low prices, they are the kind that will desert you for them, as well, meaning that you can never raise prices on them in the presence of any competitors.

Moreover, by training consumers to buy only on price, they’re commoditizing products that can and should be sold on reputation. Cars and clothes are two of the more obvious products whose nameplates and labels should carry connotations of class and quality above and beyond the mere cost of their manufacture. If Chrysler wants to try to hang on to customers by tossing 100 years of brand equity out the window, they’re going to find themselves without either.

Even the companies that make progress through lower prices, notably Wal-Mart, do so not because of their non-existent pricing power, but because of their power as consumers. This is almost always the determinative force: even the trusts were losing their market share by the time they were broken up, and that the prices for their products (steel, oil, sugar, rail carriage) all continuously dropped during their existence.

So where did this idea come from? Miniter claims that it probably arose as a correlation between growth and profit after the Civil War during the time of the trusts. I’d place it on another phenomenon Miniter doesn’t mention: the company town and company store. True enough that abused their captive markets, but those conditions are hardly repeatable.

Then there’s the difficulty of defining your market. One of Porter’s Forces is the threat of substitutes, and companies frequently fail to take that into account. Smart CEOs can use this to their advantage. Jack Welch only wanted GE in markets where they could be number one or number two, but then made managers define those markets in such a way that they never had more than 10%. This suggests that market share can used as a metric, rather than a goal. This (as any honest advocate of affirmative action will tell you) is at the least a very tricky balance to maintain, but it may be worth considering in some cases.

Miniter basically eschews measuring yourself against your competition in favor of measuring yourself against yourself, and in doing so, echoes the recent advice in a number of business best-sellers. Organic growth is better than growth through purchase (Deals From Hell). Focus on customer service, and what you love and can do best (Good to Great).

It’s sound advice, and this book can help both managers and potential investors keep that in mind.

Animals In Translation

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Temple Grandin

My dog doesn’t like change. He likes the same morning routine, at the same time, all the time. He likes treats to be predictable, although he won’t turn one down, ever. He knows the bedtime routine of treat-sleep. There are days he won’t eat breakfast unless I give him his glucosamine pills first. When I get dressed, he assumes “walk time,” even when I’m wearing a suit. I used to refer to him as, “my autistic dog.”

Little did I know.

Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin, seeks to explain animal behavior, from a special point of view – that of a very high-functioning autistic adult. Grandin’s basic thesis is that her autistic brain functions similarly to that of animals, which allows her to think the way animals do. Of course, Grandin has most of the higher brain function of what she refreshingly calls, “normal people.” The idea being that a translator needs to be fluent in both languages.

Grandin may be familiar to some readers as Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars. She’s the high-functioning autistic whose ability to empathize with cows has led her to design more humane equipment for stockyards and feedlots. (Don’t think the irony of this escapes her; nevertheless, she eats meat.) As a teenager at a boarding school, she designed a “squeeze machine” to comfort herself, after noticing the calming effect that deep pressure has on animals.

Animals in Translation is heavy on the brain chemistry, and hard on behaviorist theory. This doesn’t mean that training doesn’t work; if anything, it’s intended to direct it more humanely and efficiently. it does mean that the state of the art has advanced so far past the black-box theory of B.F. Skinner that we’ve been locating brain function in specific areas and chemicals for some time now.

If there’s an overarching theory to the book, it’s that the frontal lobes in autistic people don’t work very well, mimicking the depleted frontal lobes in animals. The frontal lobes are what allows generalization, but that generalization comes at a price: the filtering out of a great deal of raw information. When that filtering doesn’t happen, the brain gets overloaded; it’s as though every sensory input is turned up to 11. Things that you and I would overlook, like a plastic bottle on the ground or a yellow raincoat, will bring an entire line of cattle to stamping halt on their way through a plant. Grandin sees things that way, too, which is why she can design systems to reduce the need for electric cattle prods.

It’s also a fascinating look at evolutionary biology. Dogs have been domesticated from wolves, of course, essentially turned into permanent wolf-puppies, and the brain structure comparison between the two are instructive. (You may never look at your dog the same way again.) What’s more startling is the speculation that our close relationship with dogs – and our early dependence on their help – may have altered our own brain chemistry.

Grandin is autistic, and while she’s learned to string together enough phrases to simulate humor, one suspects that most of the cleverness comes from her co-author, Catherine Johnson. Still, the situational humor, the stories of neurotic animals (or neurotic owners) are all Grandin’s, and can be very funny at that.

While Grandin’s favorite animals are also your future lunch, there’s no evidence that she’s laboring to include cats and dogs just to appease a wider audience. What little repetition there is serves to drill in the key points. If anything, it could use an appendix describing all the various brain parts and chemicals, and their presumptive functions; it’s a shame to spend so much time wandering through the innards of your brain, only to discover that you can’t remember as much of the tour as you’d like.

Still, it’s a pleasure to read, and anyone interested in getting to know their pet better could do worse than to start here.

RFID Essentials

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Bill Glover and Himanshu Bhatt

Previously, I had the pleasure of reviewing Spychips, a book which looked at the potentially malevolent (well, apocalyptic, reallly) implications of RFID technology.

Talk about taking all the fun out a subject.

Bill Glover and Himanshi Bhatt have written a perfectly well-ordered discussion of an RFID system. No doubt those banal servants of evil, the middle-managers, will find it useful.

One particularly intriguing section describes how, as a technology gains wider adoption, the scale of possible application moves from the company level to the industry level, to the overall economy. This may be a standard model by now, but it was new to me,

Spychips mavens will find little comfort here. The book essentially validates all the technical concerns raised in the book, although it does throw the timeline out further than Spychips does. Still, it takes security concerns seriously, and encourages managers to do so as well. From a business point of view, groups like CASPIAN are dealt with in classic crisis management fashion – bring them in, make them a part of the process, try to avoid making enemies unnecessarily.

The privacy chapter is much the same as the rest of the book, breaking down the issues into consumer privacy and system security, and trying to balance them with system availability. Both privacy and security are presented as a set of vulnerabilities and countermeasures, along with those countermeasures’ potential effects on system usefulness. (We are awaiting, without much hope, an announcement of O’Reilly’s forthcoming RFID Hacks.)

I did notice that a number of technical fixes were presented, without irony, as though they were universally accepted and agreed-upon. For instance, industry standard packaging is supposed to clearly reflect the presence of RFID chips. The fact is, some of these chips are well-disguised, whether by design or by a desire to keep a low profile. This is where it’s important to remember that the intended audience.

That audience consist of technical managers trying to decide how to implement systems in accordance with the rules. For them, security and privacy are trade-offs, not absolutes. They’re also concerned about vulnerabilities primarily to the extent that they can defeat the business uses of the system, with consumer protection a secondary, albeit important, concern. This isn’t evil; it’s just an agency cost of a new technology, although the industry didn’t help themselves with their initial undue secrecy. If TCP/IP had been subjected to the same scrutiny, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now.

The book is geared to the project manager with some technical background. While it doesn’t shy away from discussions of algorithms and protocols, it also doesn’t provide details about implementation. It’s the kind of book an informed manager wants, in order to be able to ask intelligent questions of his staff.