Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

Should we have a hard dollar, backed by gold?

Summary: We’ll hear much from Republicans during Campaign 2016 about the glories of a gold-backed currency. Today’s post debunks that with history from 19th Century Britain, when both men and money were hard.   {1st of 2 posts today}

“Accursed thirst for gold! what dost thou not compel mortals to do?”
— Virgil’s Æneid (29-19 BC).

Gold coins

Belief in the superiority of a gold-based currency is a core element of their faux economics. They believe it provides a fixed foundation for the economy and prevents boom-bust cycles. It ignores not just modern economic theory but also two centuries of western history.

First, fixed is not always good. It’s usually better for interest rates and currency values to change rather than shocks flow through to national income and employment. To use a bad medical analogy, why don’t we all get pacemakers to stabilize our heart rate? Would a fixed pulse improve our health, especially during sex and other forms of vigorous exercise?

Second, a gold-based currency does not prevent financial bubbles or minimize boom-bust cycles. These occurred under the one of the most solid monetary systems, 19th C Britain, predating fiat currencies (and another of the Right’s bugaboos, fractional reserve banking; see Wikipedia for details). These cycles are an inherent aspect of free-market economies. They can occur even without credit, and can be reproduced in classroom exercises.

James Narron and Don Morgan at Fed of New York tell the story of one of the first great modern bubbles, it’s bursting, and the Bank of England’s successful response: “Crisis Chronicles: Railway Mania, the Hungry Forties, and the Commercial Crisis of 1847“. It’s a fascinating story and relevant to us today. Excerpt…

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The Barons of England warn us not to throw away what they gained in Magna Carta

Summary: 800 years ago on a field at Runnymede the Barons of England took a large step for humanity. The consequences of their actions still echo today. Now we’re losing what they won for us. On this anniversary recognition of that sad fact can alarm and inspire us.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
— Written by Benjamin Franklin for the Pennsylvania Assembly in its “Reply to the Governor” (11 November 1755).

King John signing Magna Carta

If only we were so bold and strong.

Our elites greet the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (the Great Charter) with “no big deal; move along.” A New York Times op-ed by Tom Ginsburg tells us to “Stop Revering Magna Carta“,, He’s a professor of international law & political science at U Chicago. Law professors are often among the leaders of the movement against our liberty.

The Wall Street Journal of course bats for the anti-liberty teams, with the news headline “Magna Carta Celebrations Reignite Legacy Debate: some question the importance of the document“. Its editors live for the day they can run that headline for the Bill of Rights.

The Economist misleadingly says “The great majority of its provisions have been repealed: of the original charter’s 63 chapters only three — one confirming the freedom of the church, one confirming the liberties of the City of London and the crucial chapter 39 — remain on Britain’s statute book” (except that many of the other provisions remain codified in laws expanding and deepening MC’s provisions).

These blasé sophisticates misunderstand the significance of Magna Carta. It matters little that many of its provisions are meaningless or repugnant to us, that King John repudiated it, or that it was often forgotten for generations (then rediscovered).  Runnymede on 15 June 1215 was a milestone on the long road paved with “blood, sweat, and tears”. The meeting at Philadelphia in 1787 laid another milestone, one now being lost.

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The great powers slid into WWI. Martin van Creveld asks if we might do so again.

Summary:  Talk of another Cold War fills our news, with some forecasting a hot war with Russia — perhaps even WWIII. Today Martin van Creveld looks at the last great power rivalry that drifted into war, and explains why it’s not likely to happen again.  (2nd of 2 posts today.}

Your Government Needs You

The eternal call to war.


Slithering into War

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 19 June 2014

Posted here with his generous permission.


As the centennial of the outbreak of World War I approaches, a deluge of new publications seeks to commemorate it and to re-interpret it. Among the best of the lot is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2014). That is why I have chosen to discuss it here.

The war itself broke out on 31 July. As one would imagine, the search for its origins began right away. Assuming, of course, that the accusations which the various future belligerent started throwing at each other during the preceding weeks should not be seen as part of that search or, at any rate, as preparation for it.

At first it was a question of pointing fingers at personalities, be it Serb Prime Minister Nikola Pasič, or Austrian Chief of Staff Konrad von Hoeztendorf, or the Russian Tsar, or French prime minister René Viviani, or British foreign minister Edward Grey, or the German Kaiser, or whoever.

Very quickly, however, the hunt expanded to include not only persons but entire peoples. Not just Pasič but all, or at any rate most, Serbs were bad people always ready to throw bombs so to undermine the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the name of irredentism. Not just Hoetzendorf, but many of the ruling circles in Vienna demanded war in the hope of saving the empire from disintegration. Not just the Tsar but many of his people entertained pan-Slavic dreams of expansion, mostly at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Not just Viviani, but the entire French people formed an arrogant nation used to exercise hegemony over the continent and unable to resign itself to its loss. Not just Grey, but the British people as a whole were hypocritical warmongers determined to hold on to their commercial superiority. Not just the Kaiser, but all Germans were power-drunk militarists.

The list goes on and on.

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Looking at technological singularities in our past & future

Summary:  It becomes increasingly clear that the rate of technological progress might accelerate in the coming years, taking us to an unknown world. Here we look at singularities past and future to help chart a course ahead, avoiding the dangers and seizing the benefits. This is a revised version of a post from 2007, one of the first on the FM website.



  1. About singularities.
  2. Looking at singularities past and future.
  3. Imagining past singularities.
  4. Why is this important?
  5. For More Information.

(1)  About singularities

History tends to look better over longer time horizons. For example, consider one bit of good news: the Singularity is coming.

This mathematical concept came to the public’s attention from Vernor Vinge’s book Marooned in Realtime, describing a wondrous future in which the rate of technological progress accelerates – eventually going vertical — after which the humanity leaves for a higher plane of existence (see links below for more on this).

Since then people have come to see that possible singularities abound in our future, in addition to this technological singularity. Those terrified by the approach of Peak Oil often describe it as a dystopian Singularity; those elated by Peak Oil describe it as a wonderful singularity — a forced purification as we enter a new age. I have described the end of the post-WWII regime as a singularity in a limited sense: we cannot see beyond it (and before worrying about what lies beyond, must first survive the passage through it).

(2)  Looking at singularities past and future

Singularities — and perhaps The Singularity — lie in our past and shaped human history. Consider the awesome accomplishments of our species, each of which radically changed our world. The discovery of fire — giving us power over the environment. The development of agriculture — vastly expanding our food sources. The invention of writing — the key to accumulating knowledge over generations.

Similar discontinuities might lie in our future (we might also experience bad singularities)…
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The New World Disorder: better, or worse?

Summary:  In today’s post Martin van Creveld, among our time’s top historians and military theorists, looks at the geopolitical state of the world. Are the doomsters right, and it is falling down? Or have we begun a new era of peace with the triumph of western culture around the world?  (1st of 2 posts today.}

The clash of civilizations

The New World Disorder

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 19 March 2015
Posted here with his generous permission.

“A new world order” is in the making, said U.S President George Bush Sr. as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, its limbs broken, was lying prostrate. “The end of history” has come, proclaimed famed political scientist Francis Fukuyama. At the core of World War II, Fukuyama explained, stood a titanic struggle between three ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. By 1945 fascism had been destroyed. Fifty-something years later, communism too had failed and would not rise again.

But that, Fukuyama continued, was only the beginning. As more and more countries became industrialized and developed a strong middle class, Hollywood and McDonald’s would spread the happy tidings. They would do away with all kinds of cultural relics, globalize the world, and make it safe for liberal democracy. Better still: since everybody knew that democracies never, ever fight each other, war itself would gradually disappear. The new world order, Fukuyama wrote, might be a trifle boring. But that seemed a small price to pay for the blessings of peace and, hopefully ever-spreading prosperity as well.

A quarter of a century later, most of our dreams have been shattered. True, fascism and communism in their classical forms have not made a serious comeback. But autocracy, which is almost as bad, continues to govern large parts of the earth’s population. Some autocratically-governed countries, such as Belarus and North Korea, have done badly. One, Russia, is currently fighting what may be seen either as a war of expansion or as a desperate struggle to assert itself and avoid disintegration. And at least one, China, has done spectacularly well.

As a Chinese friend told me, this is the first period in Chinese history when almost everybody has enough to eat. In a country as large, and over long periods as poor as China used to be, that is no mean achievement. And as a Nigerian student told me: When the Chinese come marching into a “developing” country they do not waste their time preaching democracy and human rights as Westerners always do. Instead they bring dollars, lots and lots of them. Nor are they shy of paying bribes where they think doing so will grease the wheels. The outcome is that, in quite some places, Chinese autocracy, far from being denounced for its lack of democracy and freedom, is praised as a model to follow.

Another widespread belief which did not come true was that wealth, generated by new technologies and better, read less coercive, methods of organization, would keep spreading. It is not that the world has become poorer. Rather what has happened is that the distribution of wealth has changed. As the French economist Thomas Picketty in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has shown, not since the early years of the twentieth century has the gap between rich and poor been as large as it is at present.

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See our victory in WWII by what didn’t happen afterwards

Summary: On Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices by those who fought in America’s wars. But let us also remember the victories they won. None greater than in WWII. Here the eminent historian Martin van Creveld reminds us of what people expected for the post-war world. We did much better than that, showing what we are capable of doing in the future.

When after many battles past,
Both tir’d with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! taxes, widows, wooden legs, and debt.

— Francis Moore in the Almanac’s Monthly Observations for 1829. We did much better.

From Clement Attlee's 1945 general election campaign against Churchill.

Clement Attlee’s 1945 campaign against Churchill.


The Things that did Not Happen

By Martin van Creveld
From his website.
7 May 2014
Posted here with his generous permission.


Seventy years ago, World War II in Europe came to an end. No sooner had it done so — in fact, for a couple of years before it had done so — people everywhere had been wondering what the post war world would look like. Here it pleases me to outline a few of their expectations that did not become reality.

Communism sweeps through Europe

In 1945, much of Europe — and not just Europe — was devastated. Tens of millions had been killed or crippled. Millions more had been uprooted from hearth and home. Scurrying about the continent, they were desperately seeking to rebuild their lives either in their original countries or elsewhere. Entire cities had been turned into moonscapes. This was true not only in Germany (and Japan), where British and American bombers had left hardly a stone standing on top of another, but in Britain (Bristol, Coventry), France (Caen, Brest), Belgium (the Port of Antwerp), the Netherlands (Rotterdam and Eindhoven), Hungary (Budapest), and Yugoslavia (Belgrade). Transportation and industry were in chaos.

With unemployment, cold — the nineteen forties witnessed some of the harshest winters of the century — and even hunger rife, many expected large parts of the continent to go Communist.

In fact, it was only Eastern Europe that became Communist. And then not because its inhabitants, war-ravaged as they were, liked Communism, but because Stalin and the Red Army forced it on them. Many west-European countries, especially France and Italy, also witnessed the rise of powerful left-wing parties. So did Greece, which went through a civil war as vicious as any. None, however, succumbed to the red pest. By 1950 production was back to pre-1939 levels. By the late 1950s, though eastern countries continued to lag behind western ones as they had begun to do as early as 1600, most of the continent was more prosperous than it had ever been.

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Advice from a sage about America and its future. Listen to this man.

Summary: This morning’s post looked at the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an example of the Republic’s decay. To more clearly see this process, this post consults an expert who knows America, has personal familiarity with such things, and writes with the perspective of time and distance. We should listen to his words.  {Part 2 of the 2 posts today.}

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
— Attributed to Otto von Bismarck.


Part one (this morning)

  1. Partners at the creation
  2. The Trans-Pacific Partnership

Part two

  1. The fall of the old regime
  2. Conclusions
  3. For More Information

(3) The fall of the old regime

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The slow-mo Bush-Obama reformation of America’s political structure exploited the twin shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession. But their successful rapid and massive changes required our apathy and passivity, plus the low vitality of our institutions (especially Congress and the press).

Such decay is commonly seen in history. In Caesar: A Biography Christian Meier describes something similar during late Republican Rome, as its people no longer wished to carry the burden of self-government. This post turns to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). He describes a similar period in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (1856) — writing about the transformation of his own nation, the final acts of which he saw. These paragraphs could be written today (that’s bad news).

The character of the people

This passage describes the hard times preceding the French revolution, but in a different way also fits our times, as increasing inequality and slow economic growth erode away the middle class. The Boomers begin a retirement for which they’re largely unprepared, while many Millennials face downward mobility — lives less prosperous than those of their parents.

In such communities, where men are no longer tied to each other by race, class, guilds, or family, they are too ready to think merely of their own interests, ever too predisposed to consider no one but themselves — to withdraw into a narrow individualism where all public good is snuffed out.

Despotism, far from fighting against this tendency, makes it irresistible since it deprives all citizens of shared enthusiasms, all mutual needs, all necessity for understanding, all opportunities to act in concert. It confines them to private life. They were cooling in their feelings for each other; now despotism freezes them solid.

… every man feels endlessly goaded on by his fear of sinking or by his passion to rise … Almost no individual is free from the desperate and sustained effort to keep what he has or to acquire more.

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