Rapping about Alexander Hamilton

While watching Portlandia the other night – at times hilarious and at other times ridiculous and overly-self-conscious – I came across Aimee Mann, who plays a housekeeper in at least one of the episodes. I’m not sure if she has a recurring role cause I’ve only watched a few episodes. Anyway, she’s awesome and so I started youtubing her. One of her videos is of her performing at the White House during some kind of poetry workshop. As is the tendency while on youtube, after watching a capital version of “save me,” I went on to see what other sweet acts Obama’s team had brought to the House. And I found this song by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Which is the sweetest thing I’ve heard in a while.

And then I found this piece by Joshua Bennett.

If you keep searching you can also find the inimitable and sublime Esperanza Spaulding.

There are at least two lessons here – besides the obvious one, don’t shoot Alexander Hamilton. (1) Internet is awesome and (2) whoever is in charge of bringing artists to the White House knows what they’re doing.

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The Legacy of the US Civil War

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent article in the Atlantic about the legacy of the US Civil War. He argues that black Americans ought to honor that war in the same way that white Americans honor the Revolutionary War: as that which established a certain independence and began the conferral of basic human rights. For although the Declaration of Independence refers to “self-evident truths,” courts generally don’t respect an argument from such a premise. Self-evident though they may be, such truths do not become conferred rights until a kind of authority, which in many cases is a state, establishes this in fact. And while many, many steps still needed to be taken after the Civil War, it is nonetheless this event that made the 14th Amendment inevitable and so enshrined in law the equality of all men.

But of course there was a loser in this war – or, to be more precise, there were losers. These losers made up a large percentage of the US population and constituted a large geographic chunk of the country. And it’s never advisable to gloat and exact too great a financial or other reparation on the loser. As WWI teaches, such practices lead only to more animosity and more violence. While certain identifiable villains may and often should be called to account for crimes committed, it is also the case that reconciliation goes a long way toward establishing peaceful future dealings between former antagonists. The lesson of South Africa comes to mind here. Somehow, and awkward as it may be to take the example of WWII, while Himmler (had he lived of course) ought to have been tried in open court, if every member of the Nazi party had been tried, well, then post-war rebuilding and peaceful future relations between Germany and the international community would never have materialized. The lesson of L. Paul Bremer and the handling of the Iraqi army and the Baath party in 2003 are the guideposts here. There’s a line in the sand somewhere, more for practical than for ethical considerations, and it includes more people than no one and fewer people than everyone. If you want to hold all those responsible to account, then, in many important instances, you will no longer have a country to recreate.

What does this have to do with the Civil War? It’s not as if Robert E. Lee was tried for his role in upholding the institution of slavery, even though that is of course exactly what he did. It’s tricky here because in the 1860s there were few, if any, jus cogens, i.e., internationally agreed upon norms. At the time, international norms still flew in the tailwind of the Treaty of Westphalia and so covered things like the principle of sovereignty and the principle of unobstructed diplomatic exchange. Human rights and, more to the point, who fell within the extension of the term “human,” had yet to be formally recognized. Furthermore, under US law slavery was completely legal. The malum in se had not yet become a malum prohibitum.

It’s interesting to note that when Lincoln did finally get around to freeing the slaves, he only did so in those territories which had not yet been conquered by US forces. Like all humans, Lincoln was complicated (as an attorney he defended both slaves and slave-owners); but it seems quite obvious that in this instance the principle of reconciliation was applied too generously.

But if Lincoln was too generous in allowing the earliest conquered southern territories to continue with “the peculiar institution,” which is to say if he was too generous in his conferral of reconciliation, then so too has the dominant historical legacy of that war been mal-taught in an effort to uphold the principle of reconciliation. As Coats notes, while the Civil War was fought over slavery, the dominant story would have us believe that the war was really about internecine conflict and differing interpretations of the role of the federal government versus that of state governments. Not only is this disingenuous, it is an incorrect reading of what happened. In an effort to not overly-burden the legacy of dixie, Americans have decided to speak of the Civil War as a family conflict over conflicting political configurations. But it wasn’t. It was about slavery. But if this truth is acknowledged, then somehow the legacy of the south is called into question and reconciliation cannot happen. The problem with this reading is that it conveniently edits out the millions of black Americans who definitionally moved from property to human in the process.

A war over states’ rights, a war of economics, it doesn’t matter how your frame it, the awful truth in the background remains: prior to the war black Americans could legally be bought and sold; after the war they could not. And even if we were to concede that the war was about states’ rights, then surely we must admit that it wasn’t about states’ rights per se. It was about the right of states to extend the definition of property to actual humans.

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Holidays, Vacations and Capitalism

I’ve always appreciated the distinction that somehow I feel exists more in British English than in American, between a holiday and a vacation. While the former is prescribed, usually by the state, the latter is a personal choice. There are only a few holidays each year, but vacations can be taken at any time. And though I might feel guilty about over-vacationing or untimely-vacationing, at least I’m able to will my time off and don’t have to wait for instructions.

It has been a while since my last post. What started as a holiday quickly tumbled into a vacation. As I returned to the Czech Republic over Christmas break, the holiday began on the 24th. The prescription was slivovice, which is exceedingly strong plum brandy, and many things fried, including of course the national Christmas dish of the Czechs, carp.

Needless to say the festivities were quite festive. My cheeks reddened as the hours passed, and Ježíšek (i.e., baby Jesus, the region’s version of the gift-giver) made me happier than an Austro-Hungarian in a file cabinet.

Now I have returned to Warsaw, land of communion, prefabricated blocks of concrete and ethereal dreams ruptured.

Low-blows aside, I love this city. But today I was reminded of a peculiar habit of religious people. Or at least Christians. Or at least the kind of Catholic that tends these parts of the continent. They don’t work on holidays – unless of course they work in public transportation. Legally, holidays are non-working days. And today is the day of Epiphany, or Objawienie Pańskie as it’s referred to here. Now although I don’t mean to trumpet the value of money over the value of eternal life, I do think that it’s odd that a country and a people that in so many other ways have embraced the ethos of capitalism (e.g., Poland self-identifies as the 51st US state) still find the time to not work on all these prescribed holidays. To a certain extent I understand banks and government offices and what not being shut down (though, again, if the state determines that buses and trains still have to function…). What I don’t understand is that if you walk outside today, there is basically nothing open. No shops, no restaurants, no anything – only flower shops because cemeteries are prime destinations on days like today.

It isn’t just that the country is losing tons of revenue when everything shuts down, which of course it is and this being a crisis and all… It’s also that small business models all over Poland are exposed as wanting. It seems to me that today would be a great day for a business to be open in that all the potential competition is not open. Take advantage of small windows, exploit opportunities, these are some of capitalism’s favorite things. And it’s just rather parochial that the principles of the market are fully embraced right up until the state or religious holiday comes around. Or even any Sunday.

I feel a little bit like a slimy turn-of-the-20th-century industrialist criticizing like this. And one good response to my critique (and I admit there are many) would simply be to say that a healthy balance in life is a good thing and taking time out to remember some of the non-material things is noble. Which is true. And I cannot argue really with that. The unfortunate case remains, however, non-material things can’t feed you. Non-material things can’t put your finances in the black. There is very little difference between a city shutting down because of a snow storm and a city shutting down because of religious prescriptions. Obviously physical damage could happen in the snow storm, but the larger effects of the two scenarios are the same. Nothing really happens and if I run out of milk I better have a neighbor around who’s willing to barter.

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Yes Minister on British Diplomacy

Humpy knows best.

It’s been a couple weeks since UK Prime Minister David Cameron rejected the call for a new EU “fiscal compact.” Cameron’s essential beef was that he didn’t want to subject British institutions to the kind of fiscal oversight from Brussels which the compact seeks to strengthen. Cameron’s cake and eat it too stance here is that on the one hand it’s good for Britain if the eurozone addresses its problems, as London benefits from being Europe’s largest financial hub; yet on the other hand, Cameron doesn’t want to play by rules made outside the country.

I don’t think it says a lot about European unity if one member state can decide on its own to either regard or disregard EU policies. This means that the “union” of the European Union has only nominal reference. This also means that a better way to think about the EU is as an intergovernmental organization, not a political unity. Now this is fine, if that’s what you want. Britain clearly only wants to be a part of the single market aspect of European integration, it doesn’t want anything to do with the currency union or the Schengen border agreement. But opting out of two of the three main parts of the project of European integration means, basically, that the UK doesn’t want to integrate with the continent.

As noted before, this most recent opt-out may not have been an unintelligent move. There are many problems with the compact including its lack of a call for euro-bonds and its potential to cause more pro-cyclical shocks to already reeling regional economies. Here’s what The Economist has to say:

The package dwells too much on austerity, and too little on growth. That risks aggravating the deep Europe-wide recession threatening next year, which could prompt a downgrade of the entire zone’s credit ratings and cause economies to miss their deficit targets—triggering still more austerity.

What’s more, Britain has a history of getting hammered after tying itself to European monetary institutions – both with the “snake” in the ’70s and with the exchange-rate-mechanism in the ’90s. So its caution is understandable.

But for the currency union to survive, a central fiscal authority with oversight power has to emerge. Transfer payments have to circulate and states have to agree to give up some of their budgetary independence. Britain’s move makes it very clear that it will not play this game. Of course, it isn’t a member of EMU so an argument can be made that it has every right to act independently w/r/t fiscal and monetary policy. But this doesn’t bode well for the larger European project.  While Britain likes goods, services and capital moving freely around all parts of Europe, it would rather not be subjected to the free movement of people or to any needling oversight from across the channel.

Whereas Germany and France increasingly see the future of the EU as a strong, centralized political entity, Britain has time only for a trade agreement.

Once again, Yes Minister sums up British foreign policy most clearly. The only difference this time around is that instead of turning Europe against itself, Britain’s tactlessness has seemingly turned the continent into a unified whole:

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.

Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, Minister.

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The National Defense Authorization Act

Wikipedia: Supreme Court Chamber of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Recently the US Senate passed a defense appropriations act that seems to contain some disturbing curtailments of the right to due process guaranteed under the sixth amendment. Now the US already denies due process to those it classifies as “enemy combatants,” but this new bill would strip that right even from US citizens under certain circumstances – i.e., when they are determined to be, or associate with, enemies of the State. It’s probable that the “associate” phrase would refer to those who have provided, according to US intelligence, “material support” to State enemies. Such individuals could be detained indefinitely in military prisons unless the President extends a waiver that would allow the President to intervene in the detention and perhaps trial process. The troubling aspect of this legislation is of course the question of who does the “determining.” Prima facie it would appear to be some entity within the military/intelligence apparatus, e.g., the State department, the Pentagon, or the CIA. Not only am I not sure that these entities get their intelligence correct all the time, I also imagine they tend to err on the more restrictive side in that doing otherwise might, admittedly, lead to problems.

Before leaping into trenchant lamentations, I think it’s important to note that simply because such legislation is passed doesn’t mean it will be abused. That’s no justification for terrifying legislation, but it’s something to keep in mind. Furthermore, as far as the constitutional legality of the bill is concerned, it seems to me that we’re in that tricky area lying between the sixth amendment and Article three, Section three of the US Constitution. Though the amendment establishes the right to “a public trial,” the article states, “No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.” I’m not sure the article implies that the testimony of the witnesses has to be given in open court, or even in any court at all. There is likely a case history here, so it would behoove someone such as myself to go back and educate themselves in order to see in just what way this article has been applied.

Proponents of this kind of legislation often point out, correctly, that habeas corpus has been suspended before in the US. This is the route Lincoln took during the Civil War. But just because something happened before does not mean it’s okay to do it again. Furthermore, the conditions under which Lincoln acted in no way resemble the conditions the US finds itself in today. And this is an extremely important point made most cogently by the late Christopher Hitchens in his wonderful essay on the 16th President.* Hitchens’ point is even more arresting when you consider that he was one of the most ardent trumpeters of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If given a blind test and asked which “tyrannical” president had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, closed the most newspapers, arrested the most political rivals, opened and censored the most mail and executed the most American citizens without trial, few students would mention the “Great Emancipator” as the original supremo of big government. But the facts must be faced, as Lincoln faced them. Until the Union itself could be considered safe and whole again, the Constitution—written for the entire Union and, in a sense, representing it—did not really apply, even though the president’s “inherent powers” most certainly did. (I give this as my own interpretation, as well as to distinguish Lincoln’s drastic emergency measures from some later and more recent ones. Hateful and menacing as it is, Islamic terrorism does not immediately threaten us with secession and disunion and the reduction of millions of Americans to involuntary servitude.)

The conditions underlying the Civil War and the current war are very far apart. And the fact that this current war is almost as much of a war on a concept or ideology as it is on any actual distinguishable group of people makes the suspension of basic rights even more disturbing – it’s a lot easier to determine if someone is from a certain country than if someone believes or supports a certain ideology. And although I will admit that US criminal courts have generally applied a strict burden of proof on the government when adjudicating a material support to terrorism case,** I’m not as convinced military courts will require similarly strong prosecutorial evidence.

* In excellent form, Hitchens says that while Lincoln is rightly called “the great emancipator” he could also just as rightly be called “the great constipator.” After all, not only did Lincoln defend the “property rights” of slave owners when he was lawyer, he also, at first swipe, freed only those slaves not within Union-occupied territory. Lincoln is a fine example of the distinction between what is law and what is right. Thankfully, throughout his life, he kept moving closer and closer to what is right.

** See the case of the US v. Sami Omar Al-Hussayen.

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Christmas stories and the growing legend of Amazon

Ježíšek or baby Jesus

Though I’m fairly certain Santa doesn’t exist, at least, in the context of the story, it’s plausible that he could get the job done. I mean if you take as given Santa’s hearty proportions, the fact that he has workers plying all year in preparation, his flying sleigh pulled by reindeer, and his ability to slide up and down chimneys, it’s not so crazy to think that he could hit quite a few houses in a given night.

In the Czech Republic, by contrast, the story goes that tiny, baby Jesus comes around in the evening and enters the living room through the window. It’s ridiculous to think that a baby – even one miraculously conceived, one with wings – could carry all those gifts. Even granting that Czechs, as Europeans, don’t consume like Americans, baby Jesus still needs some way to lug around all the stuff. Gifts don’t just appear. As the Santa story reminds us, you need a warehouse, common laborers and a production line to manufacture them. As far as I know, nowhere in the mythology of cherubs is it claimed that they have either super-carrying powers or sweet conjuring abilities. The story needs refining.

In other Christmas news, it appears Santa’s workshop has been moved from the north pole to Swansea, South Wales, home of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Center and one of the places the Right, Honorable Jim Hacker was to have given a stump speech in the episode Big Brother in Yes Minister. In Britain’s largest Amazon warehouse real-life, and presumably full-size, elves curry all your online shopping needs.

Amazon warehouse near Swansea. From The Daily Mail.

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More Reasons Not to Take Advice from Goldman Sachs

Over at Zerohedge, Tyler Durden has an amusing piece on why it’s probably not advisable to follow the public pronouncements of Goldman Sachs. Recently, Goldman raised its rating of many European bank stocks from “underweight” to “neutral,” which enabled it, in a cynical reading, to dump off its holdings onto unassuming, and perhaps naively optimistic, clients. While Goldman is telling its clients to buy these stocks, its recommendation is likely self-serving. Durden notes:

Our advice, as always, do what Goldman’s flow desk is doing as it begins to unload inventory of bank stocks.

A bit later he continues:

Sure enough: European banks (as per BEBANKS) are now down 3.84% today alone, or -1.5% from the Thursday close

This raises an issue that’s not, in my callow understanding of things, emphasized enough. And that is to what extent should we, as lay consumers of information provided by experts, trust that those providing the information aren’t doing so to further some ulterior motive? Surely it’s not in the interest of Goldman Sachs to offer – basically for free on, say, CNBC or whatever – information it otherwise spends loads of resources acquiring. And while it’s not inconceivable that it would offer accurate information, which could both help the public and strengthen its positions; it’s just as conceivable that it would offer bogus information in order to benefit only itself. There are many other possibilities too: it could offer genuine advice that is good for a while but, due to some event (perhaps unpredictable, perhaps not) turns out to be a mistake if followed in the long-term.

If a bunch of people follow advice Goldman offers (keeping in mind of course that Goldman generally takes positions before giving advice and so stands to make a much higher profit) for a while everyone might be happy. The stocks rise and everyone pats themselves on the back for following sound advice at the proper time. The problem is, because Goldman is able to trade massive quantities at massive speeds, the moment it cashes in on its trade, the stock in question starts plummeting and your average investor has no time to react. With the resources it has at its disposal, Goldman can take its position first and unload it first – so it makes the most profit. Other investors enter later and leave later, which often nets a loss. The best part is, Goldman was actually being sincere. Its advice was (in a way) good advice, at least at the time it gave it. Again, Goldman is under no obligation to make public everything it knows – and so it offers certain (fairly accurate) information at certain (fairly un-terrible) times.

Having said this, there is a naturally correcting phenomenon at work which discourages perpetual insincerity. If Goldman screws over its clients or the general public every time it opens its mouth, then no one will trust its utterances anymore. So while it might be in Goldman’s interest to protect its information mightily and even intentionally mislead its clients and the public, it’s also in its interest to periodically let some good advice out, if only to maintain a reasonably acceptable level of trust between itself and others.

But like playing poker against Phil Ivy, the best advice for those in the other category is simply not to play.

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