Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Electric City, II: Pedal to the Metal

Edit: Dryden? Defoe? So similar, they're basically the same guy. D'oh.

Oh, heck, why not:

I knew an Eisenhower scholar once who loved this song.

I have no idea what that means. I'm going to talk about bicycles today, which I'm thinking would be more of a Stevenson kind of thing. (Happy Days: the Youtube expects you  to watch the whole episode to find out who the Fonz is voting for; but you already knew.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Running Away to the Air, 6: America, What A Country!

In honour of the Yakov Smirnov of the Twenty-First Century, another actor who lived his role, doing his best to save the unsalvageable: 

Let us all now meditate on the downsides of method acting. On the other hand, it did clear room for Jim Belushi to have a career. The takeaway here is that America was ludicrously unprepared for World War II, but that something deep in the American spirit, symbolised by FDR, and also Blutus, saying everything that needs to be said, here, pulled the country through. If I need to be an A student to win your love, that's what I'll become.

There's other ways of looking at it. There always are. In one, the American military is somehow well prepared for war prepared because the navy taught its pilots deflection shooting, and, you know, Americans, shooting, that stuff. (No, wait, here!)* 

In another, it's all down to the unleashed might of American private industry. Let's stop here, and think about Bluto. Sure, he's gross. But he's also sticking up for us against those rich people's children. Lately, though, it seems to be all about the rich children arguing back. Or, rather, paying people to do it, who are still poor enough to make an effort. There is  full blown argument intended to be taken seriously to unserious efforts by  unserious people best known for those books, and evidently ready to jump on the wingnut welfare wagon. The main point is that while maybe you thought that the New Deal fought the Second World War,  it was actually the titans of American business that pulled us through. So suck it, Paul Krugman!.

Well, whatever. It's not my country. We lost in 1783, so it's Americans that'll have to fix America. My point is, more-or-less, that we had two great wars in the last century, and the economic trends coming out of the second one can presumably replicated, and if that happened, I might still end up in a house as nice as my grandfather's. You know, could happen. 

That being said, the other great war had nowhere near the same effect. My provisional explanation for that is that the first war destroyed the old horse-based economy, destroying vast amounts of economic value, while the second created the modern automobile-based** economy by investing enormous amounts in the "economy of knowledge."

So doesn't that mean that the "industry saved us" guys are right? Doesn't Arthur Herman's blurb start by pointing out that the head of GM went to Washington with Henry Kaiser and organised themselves up the enormous productive power of American industry and built approximately a billion planes, aircraft carriers and tanks and saved the world?

Well, no, as a matter of fact. I have a ...more complicated explanation.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fall of France, VI: Traction Avant!

We live in a world on the verge of chronic underemployment and incipient deflationary spiral. I'd say that it's hard to understand how this came about, except that I'm an early modern historian, so I've seen it before. People who have ready money appreciate perfectly well that it is most valuable when no-one else has it, and people with ready money can usually get the prince to go along with their desires. There'd be no economic growth at all were it not for that great social wonder called "war," which (sometimes) forces the rich to confront the alternative of losing office with the fall of the dynasty. Nothing opens the hoards and sets money into circulation like the thought of your parish rival getting your family's J.P. by coming out for Charlie in time!

Sometimes. Not always. The last century saw two great wars. One was followed by deflation, the other by what I'm increasingly inclined to see as the single greatest economic expansion in human history. If we could just find a way to bottle that stuff, maybe I could afford a house in my neighbourhood. We just don't want to bottle WWI when we mean to be bottling WWII, New Coke instead of Old Coke. So what makes the difference? For one, France won in 1914, lost in 1940. Is there anything, anything, we can learn from that?

How about that Citroën drivers are a weird cult? 

There's older, weirder video footage in the long history of M. Citroën's long history, I'm told. I certainly find "weirder" on Youtube. It's the "older" that's beating me. The top Youtube search result for "Traction Avant" is a 55 second video of somebody's dashboard taken as he drives through Vienna. I made one of those on the Island Highway the other day, but at least I'm willing to admit that I was trying to take the seascape, and delete it, as opposed to posting it.

Okay, wait, Google turned up the "Traction Avant" song. You're welcome. And in the spirit of acknowledging brave efforts, here's Alessandro Galati trying to reclaim the tag from the ashbin of history.

My point, such as it is, is this: At one level, the Allies' defeat in 1940 is not very complicated. Germany had air superiority, and this allowed German bombers to disrupt the French artillery fireplan for the defence of the Sedan bend of the Meuse. Obviously, at another level, it is. I've talked about why the French artillery plan could be so disrupted, and why the BEF was in no position to counterattack, and, indeed, tied up French counterattack assets.

What I haven't talked about is the reason that the Armee de l'Air lost air superiority. It's a story that's usually  accounted for with production statistics, usually accompanied with snide allegations that communistic French workers sabotaged all the planes. It's certainly true that France wasn't building enough aeroplanes in 1938. But it's not the whole story. This needs to be a story about industry,  and what might be different as between  1914 and 1940.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, VI: Clean Up and Julian the Apostate and the End of Hegemony?

So I try to be a good historian, the kind that's not always bringing forth Object Lessons to All Modernity. 

I'm not trying too hard with this post. In my defence, though, there's a lot to make me really, really angry these past few days. First, there's Edward Conard

One more time: in 1856 this guy patented the fucking tipi. I know that stealing from Indians is a thing, even if it's hard to make fun of it when you're busy being holier-than-thou.

This isn't that thing. This is the thing about finding the absolutely most fucking blatant way of monetising connections. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley's Wikipedia biography tastefully avoids mentioning anything so gauche as money, but the paternal uncle who raised him endowed a college in his adoptive hometown, so draw your own conclusions. The future general served on the Texas frontier after the Mexican-American War, where he had the inspiration to do an "engineering drawing" of a tipi, write "but make it out of canvas instead of hide or whatever" in the margin. On the strength of that, he got US Patent 14,740. Big deal, to be sure. There have been dumber patents. So it's perhaps more important that the War Department agreed that it would pay him a $5 royalty for every Sibley tent it bought. That's the American War Department. The one with some glancing familiarity with the concept of the lodge tent, I'm thinking. 

But there's a happy ending, right? Henry Sibley fought for the Confederacy. At the end of the war, the Sibley family took the War Department to court for payment of their $5x44,000 and lost. Sanity won out. Right? Wrong. Sibley assigned a half interest to another officer, who did not defect. This officer collected his $2.50/tent through December 1861, when an officer in the Quartermaster's Department brought the arrangement to the attention of the Secretary of War. Amazingly enough, he got rich, too. Here's his (former) private island. Here's what Google Search turns up when I enter the name of his probable grandson, L. B. Magruder, at this point coming round to at least the fourth, if not fifth generation, from the guy who befriended the guy who patented the fucking tipi.

Wealth-creating risk takers my ass.

That there's just one thing that bugged me on the Interwebs this week, though. Paul Krugman got into a fight with Doctor Ron Paul on the subject of Diocletian this week. Because if you're a crank on economics, why not be a crank on ancient history while you're at it? You'd never guess, but Ron Paul thinks that Diocletian debased the Roman coinage, causing inflation, which he tried to stop with wage and price controls, which led to Teh Fall of the Roman Empire (only a century later).