Posts by author:

eric

Money Makers
Forthcoming in September, from Basic Books

As readers of this blog know, Franklin Roosevelt declared he had taken the US off the gold standard on March 6, 1933, as the first substantial act of his presidency. But scholars have not been so quick to accept this date or, with firmness, any other.

When Roosevelt first said he had taken the US off the gold standard, he didn’t want to make too great a fuss about it because he was trying to quiet a panic that had nearly broken the Federal Reserve System. He hoped Americans would bring their gold back for deposit in the nation’s vaults. And they did. Even though the papers were reporting that the president might issue scrip for temporary currency; even though the Emergency Banking Act provided that Federal Reserve notes could be backed by commercial bank assets, people generally preferred paper money to gold, so long as they trusted the paper money – which, with Roosevelt’s assurances, they did, as you can see from the chart. [click to continue…]

Roosevelt’s money policy, 1933-1934

by Eric on March 10, 2015

Money Makers
Forthcoming in September, from Basic Books

On this day in 1933, it was the first Friday of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and the new president met reporters to talk to them about ending the bank holiday with which he had begun his term. The Federal Reserve Banks would open on Saturday so that member banks of the Federal Reserve System could open on Monday. A reporter asked if the banks would be open “[a]ll along the line, Mr. President; that is, all functions?” Roosevelt replied, “Yes, all functions. Except, of course, as to gold. That is a different thing. I am keeping my finger on gold.”

The president’s week had started with his inauguration on March 4, the previous Saturday, when he had told the American people they had only fear itself to fear, and promised them an “adequate but sound currency.” The next day Roosevelt worked all through the day with members of his team and holdovers from Herbert Hoover’s to draft orders to close the banks and halt all payouts of gold. They worked so hard that Sunday that it was late by the time the order was ready for presidential signature – so late that Federal Reserve counsel Walter Wyatt urged the president to wait a little longer to sign, so that it would be Monday, and not so sacrilegious. Roosevelt did wait, and then, on signing the order said – gleefully, according to one account – “We are now off the gold standard.” That was in the wee hours of March 6; later that morning, Americans began a week of doing business without access to banks.

[click to continue…]

It could have been worse, John. A lot worse.

by Eric on February 9, 2015

I recently re-watched Do the Right Thing and found the ending a little shocking. No, not the violent part – which has, sadly, only become more familiar in the quarter century since 1989 – but the actual last scene.

[click to continue…]

Semper ubi sub ubi

by Eric on February 4, 2015

I write to record a position on a subject already treated in more specialist fora, but so far as I can tell given only Kieran’s crispest disposal on CT.

I refer, of course, to a matter routinely, if implicitly, raised by the auditors of curricula, every time they ask for samples of a syllabus: if they request more than one, what do they say they want? Syllabi? Or syllabuses?1

Doubtless this issue vexes few of the hoi polloi, nor troubles many alumni of great universities. Indeed, academics – from the Hebrides to the Antipodes – seem often to use “syllabi.”

A highly scientific anti-prescriptivist study has it that the answer is “syllabi.” Yet Kieran, per above, prefers “syllabuses,” as indeed do I.

If your etymological antennae are twitching, you can find a detailed account of the story of “syllabus” at the specialist links in the first sentence of the post. But the short version is, it’s a made-up word, erroneously thought to be adopted into Latin from the Greek, which it wasn’t. I.e., there isn’t a true proper correct answer, horribile dictu.



1I’ve never actually heard anyone insist it’s syllabūs.

This one goes to 0

by Eric on February 2, 2015

For my new book, I spent long hours trawling through the many, many reels of the microfilmed diaries of Henry Morgenthau, Jr. We didn’t have them at my university, so I had to order a few at a time from Interlibrary Loan, wait, and then seize upon them and go through them before they were due back at their home institution. Working through them at that speed, and on the microfilm reader whose lens & screen combination wasn’t quite right to show a full page, invariably gave me motion sickness.

Then they showed up, digitized, free to download. The joke was on me.

Except, for some reason, the digitized edition seems to begin with Book 1. Which you would think was okay – except the first book is actually Book 00. And that’s the book that covers the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, which was a critical period during which decisions were made about monetary policy that lasted for the duration of Roosevelt’s terms in office.

A peril, perhaps, of the digital archives.

it’s a small world

by Eric on January 29, 2015

California’s measles outbreak has now reached more than 70 cases. 1

Populations especially at risk are those born after 1957 and vaccinated between 1963-1967 or not vaccinated. People born before 1957 would have been exposed to measles naturally and are ok; those not exposed to the virus in the wild will be vulnerable. People vaccinated 1963-1967 might have got the “killed virus” vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control now say is ineffective, and they will be vulnerable.

Unvaccinated people will be vulnerable2 for what ought to be obvious reasons.

California permits unvaccinated students to enroll in public schools if their parents file a form saying their beliefs do not permit vaccination.

The percentage of unvaccinated students in Sacramento-area schools is over fifty percent in some cases.

As the historian Robert Johnston remarks, scholars used to treat anti-vaccination activists as “the deluded, the misguided, the ignorant, the irrationally fearful” but now they command ‘If not sympathy, at least a modicum of respect.”

I suppose we should respect those whom we can rationally fear.



1This is the outbreak that the press keep saying, correctly if punctiliously, began at “Disneyland Park and Disneyland California Adventure,” as if there were some important meaningful reason they couldn’t say “Disneyland”; Disneyland is offering a pretty good discount right now, by the way.

2Rich Puchalsky, I think correctly, points out in comments that all are potentially vulnerable once we drop below a percentage where we have “herd immunity.”

We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

[click to continue…]

Concluding Serial; or, Koenig v. Ranke

by Eric on December 19, 2014

The hott podcast Serial concluded this week with its twelfth episode, an episode that crystallized for me why I like it. For all the complaints – that it is white privilege in distilled radio form; that it is really about its host, Sarah Koenig – it is a pretty good dramatization of the historical process.

And it’s not only because this week one of the intrepid reporter/producers descended into an actual archive to retrieve a critical document and, despite some gratuitous mockery of the archivists, gave a sense of what it’s actually like to do that and why you would want to.

It’s ultimately because Koenig held herself to a standard of argument that’s similar to what historians use. She repeatedly questioned herself as she pursued her research over the course of months; she tried to disprove her hunches even as she followed them, and ultimately concluded with “what we know” – which is distinct from “what really happened” (yes, she goes all Ranke on us).

Here’s how she ends (SPOILERS):

[click to continue…]

André Singer (the documentarian who made The Act of Killing) appeared on Radio 4’s Front Row yesterday to talk about his new documentary, Night Will Fall, a film about yet another documentary – this one the previously unreleased German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, the film produced by the Ministry of Information in 1945 to record what became known as the Holocaust.

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, produced by Sidney Bernstein with help from Alfred Hitchcock and a script by Richard Crossman and Colin Wills, was commissioned by SHAEF in April 1945 and meant to be shown to Germans immediately after the war. [click to continue…]

Lincoln in Manchester

by Eric on August 21, 2014

The statue of Abraham Lincoln in Westminster arrived in 1920. The former US Secretary of State Elihu Root presented it in July, noting its place of honor on Parliament Square among “memorials of British statesmen” and in a place “where the living tides of London will ebb and flow about it.”1 The somber and elegant piece is a product of the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens – son of a French father, Root noted, born in Ireland – artist of the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts and the Double Eagle as well as the Adams memorial. Saint-Gauden’s Lincoln is a fine sculpture.

It is also a bit of a cuckoo: it took the place meant for George Barnard’s Lincoln, which now stands in Manchester, because Barnard’s Lincoln was alleged to look like a “tramp with the colic.” [click to continue…]

Coming soon, to a city near you

by Eric on August 21, 2014

The University of California, Davis, is located immediately next to – across the street from – the city of Davis, California. Davis has a population of about 66,000, about 70 percent of whom have completed at least a bachelor’s degree from university. It is a low crime area.

The Davis police force has recently acquired a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle (MRAP) from the Defense Department under the program described here.

The acquisition “is a reflection of the reality that officers need protection as they try to subdue gunmen barricaded inside buildings and elsewhere,” police say.

Ferguson, Missouri, update

by Eric on August 17, 2014

(Previously)

Yesterday evening, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, including a curfew, for Ferguson.

On Friday, Ferguson police had released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. They did not release details of the shooting, but did release a report indicating Brown was a suspect in a strong-arm robbery, including photographs and video showing someone resembling Brown in a physical altercation with a convenience-store clerk.

Last night there were arrests of people violating the curfew.

This morning, on Meet the Press with Andrea Mitchell, Nixon criticized the police report.

Yeah, we and our security team and the highway patrol did not know that was going to be released. I don’t think the attorney general knew that. And quite frankly, we disagree deeply I think for two reasons. Number one, to attempt to in essence disparage the character of this victim, in the middle of a process like this is not right. It’s just not right. And secondarily, it did put the community and quite frankly the region and the nation on alert again. These are old wounds. These are deep wounds in these communities. And that action was not helpful.

Meet the Press included a report beginning with the note, “Prison sentences for black men are 20% longer than those for whites convicted of the same crime. And on average, 100 black people are killed each year by white police officers.”

Also today, US Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a federal medical examiner to conduct a further autopsy of Michael Brown’s body.

Eyewitness accounts of the shooting have begun to emerge.

Some notes on Ferguson, Missouri

by Eric on August 14, 2014

Following the police shooting of Michael Brown, protesters have taken to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Police deployed there wear uniforms and carry weapons that look more like the desert camouflage and armaments of US armed forces in recent Central Asian wars than like the traditional uniforms of American peace officers.

Indeed, military gear used by the US overseas has been finding its way to American streets. Police forces in the US receive surplus military gear from the Defense Department under a program whose motto is “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.”

Proper training in tactics does not always accompany the equipment, according to Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko.

Veterans on Ferguson” has become something of a social media phenomenon devoted to former soldiers’ (and other members of the armed forces) criticism of police tactics in Ferguson.

Last night, Ferguson police arrested reporters and a St. Louis alderman. Network news crews withdrew their satellite trucks, according to at least one account, on orders.

Major news outlets report the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police.

Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has issued a statement of concern and will visit Ferguson this morning.

The governor may relieve the police of duty.

Ferguson’s police chief says “it’s a lot of outside agitators causing the violence.” He also says they police will shortly release 911 recording from the time of the Michael Brown shooting, following the release of what is supposed to be the dispatcher recordings.

US Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Department of Justice will investigate the shooting and is to talk with Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri today.

I don’t see any point in adding my comments, but you should add yours…

The location of memory

by Eric on June 29, 2014

A quick gloss on John’s post below. American educators now and then decry the failure to remember World War I. Of course that’s only an American failure – World War I is etched into the civic landscape of even small villages throughout the British Empire (starting with Canada).

Meanwhile, at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, you will find this exhibit:

Forgotten by whom?

Which is laughable here in California – here that’s the only war we do remember.

It’s terribly easy to find an inadequate memory of one or another war – all you have to do is ask a child, or someone in the wrong region of the country, or of the world. Where would we look to find an adequate memory of the war? Where do we want it enshrined?

Lepore on disruption

by Eric on June 24, 2014

Jill Lepore deserves an award for her New Yorker essay against the gospel of disruption. The last paragraph alone is a sufficiently fine piece of writing to warrant reading the whole thing.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar with the theory of disruptive innovation, it goes like this: Everyone, every institution that is superb at providing a product or service is in truth a Goliath, merely waiting for a little innovative David to topple him with a better way to do his job. Why work up your muscles to carry a cudgel if you can deal death with a slingshot?

Amazon has disrupted book-selling. Online commentary has disrupted journalism. MOOCs will disrupt the university (people swear).

You who are merely doing your job exceptionally well and profitably – you are a complacent fool.

In her essay, Lepore beats the tar out of the scholarship that gave rise to this preaching. Apart from pointing the article out to you, I want to comment briefly on how she says what she says. In truth, Lepore gives two arguments for the price of one, and it’s the second that I find more fetching and worth a little extra remark.

Mainly, and entertainingly, she points out the entire theory of disruptive innovation is bunk on its own terms. It neither explains what it’s meant to explain, nor predicts what it’s meant to predict. It’s a fable that comforts the comfortable, by depicting their rapacious waste as the inevitable manner of capitalism’s progress. I won’t try to summarize what Lepore says about the embarrassing failures of the theory, because she already says it well.

But Lepore makes a secondary argument you could almost miss. She notes that even if the theory of disruption were sound, there are certain human activities to which it should not be applied.

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Lepore says all this, but spends little time on it; having noted that people aren’t disk drives, she spends most of her essay observing that the theory of disruptive innovation doesn’t really apply to disk drives anyway.

I’d hazard a guess Lepore knows her essay works better this way. A significant portion of her readership would find it tedious to be told less briefly that we need to remember, or revive, the language of public trust, public interest, public service.

Lepore’s choice of emphasis reminds me of the origins of American liberalism in a different age. Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit. You had, he said (and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment), to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus. Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.