A Prototype for Biden?

President Biden’s bizarre behavior during media appearances reminds me of something.  The British general Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s personal emissary to the French Army during the campaign of 1940, described a meeting he had with Philipe Petain during the final desperate days of that campaign…his objective being to turn the old general away from his growing defeatist orientation and toward the direction of resistance.  When Spears said that “What France needs today, Monsieur le Marechal, is another Joan of Arc”, the general’s reaction was startling:

“Once more he was all animation. His face lit up. “Have you read my speech on Joan of Arc?’ (no) ‘Well, that is too bad…I made it at Rouen, when was it, in 1937? 38?  It was an extremely fine speech, I may say. I shall read it to you.”

To Spears’ consternation (for the military situation was very urgent), Petain began to search for a copy of the speech. Unable to find it, he summoned his chief of staff, who finally found it.  The speech was very, very long, and Petain read it in a monotone.  “I do not think he was really proud of that speech as a great achievement, for he did not caress it by inflections of voice as a sculptor might stroke a statue he believed to be a great work of art.  He was recalling rather the pomp and circumstance of its delivery, the applause, and he wanted to include me in that admiring audience of years ago.”

And when the speech finally ended, Petain pointed out that “Joan of Arc was a peasant of France,” talked about the importance of peasants, and insisted in locating and reading another speech, this one about the French peasants.

“Genuine alarm brought me back to realities.  Time was passing, I had endless work to do.  The London telephone was certainly calling. How could I get away?”

Spears finally made his escape.  But doesn’t Petain’s retreat to his old speeches, and, further back, to his old victories, mirror Biden’s verbal retreat back to the days when he played shortstop, and such?

A month or so earlier, Spears had discussed some of the key players in France with his combative friend, the Interior Minister Georges Mandel.  Concerning Petain, Mandel had been dismissive:

“Surely you have seen for yourself–barely alive–and what there is left is pure vanity. He became a Hidalgo in Spain.”

I don’t think Biden has ever spent any significant time in Spain, but “what there is left is pure vanity” seems like a pretty good description of the man.

(The quotes are from Spears’ memoir Assignment to Catastrophe, a two-book series which is essential reading for anyone interested in the events of that period.)


An Extraordinary Woman

She was born to privilege and a degree of wealth, at the turn of the last century – Muriel Morris, an heiress of the Swift meatpacking fortune, and by most accounts conflicted over that circumstance. Like a scattering of her peers in the debutant world, she had an interest in social justice, as it was generally understood at the time. She is reported to have read Upton Sinclair’s polemic The Jungle as a teenager and been horrified – doubly so as both sides of her family had made their fortunes in the industry which Sinclair portrayed as especially brutal and gruesome. Muriel Morris was also of an unexpectedly intellectual bent and determined enough to pursue her intellectual interests – first with studies at Oxford, England in the 1920s, and then in – of all places, Vienna, Austria, where she hoped to study psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud. She briefly married a British artist, Julian Gardiner, by whom she had a single child, a daughter, before deciding to pursue a medical degree at the University of Vienna in 1926. She had a trust fund sufficiently generous to support herself and her small daughter.

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The Johnstown Flood

Pennsylvania borrowed more money to build infrastructure supporting canals than any other state to take advantage of the trade opportunities of the Erie Canal. Construction started on the South Fork Dam in 1838 with scheduled completion within a year, but by the time it was finished in 1852 the railroads had made it obsolete. The state wrote it off and it eventually provided a fishing lake for Pittsburgh’s elite. When it burst in 1889, causing the Johnstown flood, the total loss in life and property was probably 100 times the initial construction cost. Pennsylvania, having long since declared bankruptcy in 1841, blamed the rich.

Most every year the Congress metaphorically dances on top of the earthen South Fork Dam looming over Johnstown with the water lapping at their feet. Their solution is always the same: Let’s throw some more dirt on top this year. We’ll drain it when we drain the swamp, after we eliminate the air pollution in Johnstown, the price paid for the industrial revolution raising American living standards in the late 1800s.

The primary issue facing America during the post WW II era was whether its consumerist economy could continue to produce rising living standards for all, the cornerstone of political legitimacy. The leader of America’s competitor Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union put the issue crudely six decades ago: “we will bury you” with a savings and investment rate several multiples of yours. America’s intelligence community and economic elite were shocked by the sudden collapse of the Soviet economy – like a dam bursting – less than three decades later.

Khrushchev, like most of America’s development economists, understood the role of saving and investment but not how important the private capital markets were to the allocation of capital to its highest and best use, politically directed credit being the main cause of their collapse. In Johnstown everyone knew that the valves to lower the water level in the lake had been removed during the last amateurish reconstruction, but fixing or removing it was opposed by rich land owners. The debt ceiling has similarly proven an ineffective mechanism to control America’s flood of debt, with the central bank standing ready to buy it all to the benefit of the wealthy. American politicians, feeling unbound by constitutional constraints, are addicted to issuing debt, the birthing person’s milk of politics. The Biden Build Back Better Plan promises to strengthen the dam, but like the amateurish repairs to the South Fork will weaken the dam’s foundation while causing water levels to rise, possibly to a critical level.

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Down the Drain

Twenty years it’s been, as of yesterday. Twenty years and Afghanistan is down the drain, the Taliban back in charge. At least a comprehensive malignant menace like Bin Laden is dead, with his corpse – supposedly – dropped into the deep ocean, although I suppose that his organization staggers on, zombie-like, and possibly subsidized by Pakistan’s secret service. The dust of the fallen towers is settled, and the American troops are home, more or less. Still under a cone of silence as far as the US media is concerned, as are tales of hairbreadth escapes by American citizens, employees, and American-employed Afghan nationals … perhaps they were all made to sign a binding non-disclosure-agreement, as a condition of getting on that big Freedom Bird. Or our national establishment media is doing their bidding, as obedient handmaidens of the Dem party, and doing their best to disappear this latest disaster. Well, good luck with that. There are too many of us out there, and we have a voice, for at least a little bit longer.

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Labor Day Thoughts

My discussion question for today: In a world with global and highly-efficient transportation and communications…and billions of people who are accustomed to low wages…is it possible for a country such as the United States to maintain its accustomed high standards of living for the large majority of its people?…and, if so, what are the key policy elements required to do this?

Henry Ford did not establish the five-dollar day out of the sheer goodness of his heart.  He did it because worker turnover had become unacceptably high: people didn’t like assembly-line work, and they had alternatives.  Suppose Ford had then had the option of building the Model T in a low-wage country, say Mexico.  Maybe he wouldn’t have needed to bother with the American $5/day wage and the productivity improvements needed to support it. (Although Ford being Ford, he still might have implemented the manufacturing innovations and process improvements even without strong economic necessity to do so.)

America’s premium wage structure has, I think, been historically enabled by several factors:

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