The Price Was Right

The Gist: America was founded by free trade radicals in a costly revolution.

A review of Clashing over Commerce by Douglas A. Irwin.

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Have you ever wondered what was the price of American freedom in 1776?

Bob Barker

Figure 1. “Here is the first item up for bids today: it’s an exciting trip to liberty! You and guests will ride one-way for a multiple century luxury stay courtesy of the Continental Army! And that trip goes to the one of you who bids nearest to the retail price without going over…”

 

Over the 8 years of the Revolutionary War, the new citizens suffered a “sharp decline in real per capita income, nearly as severe as the reduction during the Great Depression of the early 1930s.”’

The Revolution, in short, was an economic disaster. And independence from our now bitter largest trading partner only further complicated matters. Today we review the first part of Douglas Irwin’s magisterial history of American trade relations, Clashing over Commerce, and discover how our relationship with Britain dominated the economics of the early United States as well as how the Founders set up the first of three eras of American tariff policy.

Sugar Cube

Figure 2. Actually, we might have been more bitter: after the Revolution, our sugar trade was much curtailed.

 

From an economic point of view, life in America before the Revolution was pretty darn good. Incredibly, “real per capita income in the colonies was at least 50 percent higher than in England between 1700 and 1774.” The colonies had long been dependent on trade to provide things difficult to acquire on the frontier and Great Britain actively subsidized key products like gunpowder and silk “that lowered their price to American consumers.” Irwin quotes other economic historians: “Whatever the costs of membership in the British Empire, they were largely offset by the benefits: naval protection; access to a large free-trading area; easy credit and cheap manufactures; and restricted foreign competition.” Furthermore, in the years leading up to the Revolution, Great Britain had financed the French and Indian War, which did little long term about the Indians but practically eliminated from North America the principal European security threat. As a result, Britain’s debt increased over 2/3 and servicing it required over half of the British annual budget while maintaining a standing army in North America “amounted to [an additional] nearly 4 percent.” Which made America’s taxation relevant: Grover Norquist concludes that Americans were paying a fraction of what Brits were and “by 1775, the British government was consuming one-fifth of its citizens’ GDP, while New Englanders were only paying between 1 and 2 percent of their income in taxes.

revolutionary soldier

Figure 3. That’s what America is all about: if we ever have to pay more than 2% of our income in taxes, we revolt! 

 

Inauspiciously for Great Britain, there were two powerful (though relatively small) groups that felt adversely affected by British trade policies: Virginia tobacco farmers (like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) and Boston merchants (like John Hancock and the clients of John Adams). Their principal initial objection was to a costly, inefficient, mercantilist British law that required about 20% of imports and 75% of exports to first stop in Britain (or in some cases, the West Indies) before proceeding to their final destination. The merchants were upset that “this artificial routing through Britain involved extra fees, commissions, warehouse rents, and transportation costs and is estimated to have raised the costs of imports of European and Asian goods by about 20 percent.” The Virginians understood that “if tobacco… could be sold directly to European customers, the income of tobacco planters would have been anywhere from 15 to 35 percent higher.

British leaders thought it perfectly reasonable for the rich colonies to help pay for their defense and tried to impose new taxes that were common at home and would have paid for less than half of the expense of maintaining the standing army in North America. But those taxes – the infamous Stamp Act on printed materials, more trade duties – were especially borne by the commercial class that was already upset at the increasingly mercantilist policies of Britain. Tellingly, the legendary Boston Tea Party was not a reaction to taxes on tea – which were actually being lowered – but to the fact that Britain was setting up a state monopoly in the lucrative trade. Local merchants like Hancock, who were already living out their free trade principles as accomplished smugglers, felt compelled to resort to the extraordinary countermeasures that would spark the Revolution. Concurrently, a 1773 financial crisis in Britain prompted a collapse in the price of tobacco (by half!) and the reduction of credit available to farmers, “leading to a wave of foreclosures and imprisonment” – not to mention increased bitterness about their expensive, impeded access to non-British markets.

TV

Figure 4. Today may require a Boston Comcast Party. But, speaking of imprisoning debtors, my favorite Balanced Budget Amendment to a state constitution is Alabama’s, which threatens state officials with both personal fines and jail time if they incur any excess debt not used to “repel invasion or suppress insurrection.” Now that’s commitment.

 

 

 

Without a voice in Parliament (“no taxation without representation!”), Americans had tried to use their economic power by boycotting British goods, which prompted a pattern: “when new British taxes were imposed, a non-importation movement would begin, and British policymakers would retreat.” But “non-importation only had a significant impact when it coincided with an economic downturn in Britain; the colonies could have only a modest influence on the country, because just 15 percent of British exports were destined for America in 1765.” From a position of strength and irritation, Britain eventually banned all foreign trade with the colonies in 1775. “On April 6, 1776, in defiance of Britain, Congress declared that the colonies were no longer bound by British mercantile regulations and that American ports were open to trade with all countries except Britain.” John Adams believed that the April proclamation was America’s true declaration of independence.”

Walmart

Figure 5. Millions of Americans celebrate the holiday by buying goods of foreign origin.

 

Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans did not participate in the Revolutionary War. Of those who did, the majority fought on the side of the British. Relatedly, the vast majority of Americans worked in agriculture that did not export anywhere and, as noted at the beginning, may have enjoyed more economic benefits than detriments of British rule. Irwin concludes: “Only a minority of the colonial population is believed to have actively supported independence in 1776, and this vocal and politically powerful minority may have been precisely those most affected by Britain’s trade policies.”

As might therefore be expected, the Founders were trade radicals who “favored free and open commerce among nations and the abolition of all restraints and preferences that inhibited trade.” John Adams went so far as to draft a “template commercial treaty” in which “the United States would seek ‘national treatment’ from other nations, meaning that US merchants and ships (if not goods) would receive the same standing in foreign countries as their own domestic merchants and ships” which “was far more demanding than the standard most-favored-nation (MFN) treatment” under which “US goods and ships would be treated the same as the most-favored foreign nation in the country’s market.” Irwin quotes another historian: “the United States was demanding special consideration, privileges such as no European country had ever granted to another.” No one agreed. Ben Franklin, who insisted “it is best for every country to leave its trade entirely free from all encumbrances,” even went so far as to ask, when negotiating peace with Britain, for America to retain its privileged access to British markets. Amazingly, the British government initially was interested and even introduced legislation to that effect, but aghast nationalists killed it in Parliament.

So America was now on its own after suffering a near equivalent of the Great Depression. Our great dreams of open trade were dashed by the requirement that other people had to agree. Even worse, because we had 13 different (though relatively open) trade regimes and a weak federal government under the Articles of Confederation, we were in a terrible negotiating position: we couldn’t threaten access to our markets in exchange for other countries dropping their barriers. In the lead up to the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote to Jefferson, “Most of our political evils may be traced to our commercial ones.”

The Constitution that emerged was a brilliant response to the contemporary political crises and set America up for centuries of success. For this newsletter, let’s focus on the trade-related outcomes: first, the federal government would derive their revenue from tariffs, i.e. taxes on imports. Though the Founders favored the elimination of trade barriers, they viewed tariffs as a necessary evil – something easily collectible at ports, crucial to government operations, and permissible so long as they were evenly imposed and non-discriminatory. Until the introduction of the income tax in the 20th century, this would be the primary source of government revenue (over alcohol taxes and land sales). Second, the federal government would have the power to regulate foreign trade but be forbidden from taxing exports. Most students of American history are familiar with the bargains struck by the South to protect slavery, but Southerners had a broader goal to protect their main source of income: agricultural exports. This will become extremely relevant in our next edition but, for now, I’ll just note that George Washington and James Madison were the only Southerners who opposed this provision, believing that America was such a central player in the global tobacco marketplace that they could effectively raise revenue without diminishing output by passing along the costs to eager (addicted?) foreigners. Third, and relatedly, treaties with foreign governments would require the approval of 2/3 of the Senate, another attempt by the South to secure regional interests. 

The first years of the Republic would be a vigorous battle between the Founding generation over the nature of trade. The Federalists – George Washington and Alexander Hamilton – saw the United States as a burgeoning economic powerhouse – “Hercules in a cradle” –  that would balance manufacturing and agriculture and benefit immensely from close commercial ties with our former master, the leading Navy of the world, a familiar and complementary economy with easy credit who happened to share a language: Great Britain. The Democrats – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – yearned for a nation of yeoman farmers, grounded in rural and revolutionary values, and saw kinship in the blood-soaked regicidal ideals of America’s first ally but legally distinct, commercially inferior, and reluctant creditor with more limited global power projection: France.  

The Federalists came to power first and, as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was especially and understandably obsessed with our credit worthiness:In 1792, the interest alone on US debt soaked up 87 percent of total revenue.” As a result, he was desperate to avoid another war: costs would skyrocket while tariff revenues would plummet. If with Britain, we would not only lose our best trading partner but they could also effectively blockade our coast, limiting trade with others. Irwin’s interpretation of Hamilton is a welcome revision to the conventional portrayal of our first Treasury Secretary as an unbridled protectionist: “Hamilton was skeptical of high protective tariffs because they sheltered both inefficient and efficient producers, led to higher prices for consumers, and gave rise to smuggling, which cut into government revenue.” Instead, in order to pay off our debt, Hamilton insisted on “modest tariffs” – in 1790, they were about 20% and, again, the primary tax the federal government imposed. By assuming debts incurred by the states during the Revolution, Hamilton also “enabled states to reduce [their own] direct taxes by as much as 75 percent.”

Still, Hamilton did support some government intervention in the marketplace to support manufacturing. He conceded that “if the system of perfect liberty to industry and commerce were the prevailing system of nations,” then the United States could pursue whatever was its comparative advantage. But he felt that other countries unfairly helped their industry and perverted American incentives. Hamilton’s preferred remedy was a direct government subsidy to nascent industries, which “unlike import tariffs, did not create scarcity and artificially raise domestic prices.” But, importantly, he thought it only “justifiable” when the industry was new and thought continuous subsidy “questionable.” Of course, the Democrats believed, not unreasonably, that direct subsidies by the federal government to businesses were unconstitutional and, relatedly, were keen to preserve the agricultural character of the American economy.

But the bigger debate was always about how to deal with Britain. Democrats “believed that the nation’s political independence could not be fully realized unless the country had its economic independence as well. Madison complained that Britain ‘has bound us in commercial manacles, and very nearly defeated the object of our independence.’” In order to achieve economic independence, they wanted to impose strict economic boycotts of British trade in order to jolt Britain into allowing further market access. While Hamilton and the Federalists certainly desired better market access, they considered this move to be insane brinkmanship with severe tax, credit, economic, and military implications. “Madison contended that the country was in a position ‘to wage a commercial warfare,’ because it exported foodstuffs and raw materials that were essential to Britain, while it imported manufactured goods and other trifles that it could do without.” Irwin counters: “In terms of economic leverage, the figures on bilateral trade seem to confirm Hamilton’s view. While Britain sent nearly 20 percent of its exports to the United States, only 6 percent of its imports came from the United States [and it had other alternatives for the same goods]. On the other hand, about 90 percent of US imports and 25 percent of exports were with Britain.” 

Still, an important takeaway is that the conventional view of the Federalists as pro-tariff and Democrats as anti-tariff is too simplistic: instead, the Federalists saw the tariff as necessary to maintaining the good credit of the United States and Democrats saw the tariff as a bludgeon to get free trade. 

All around this time, France and Britain were in near continuous war with each other. Reflecting America’s radical belief in the rights of commerce, our ships tried to trade with both sides. The Federalists tried their best to appease British concerns, even blocking trade with France, managed to avert war, but ended up sparking a domestic political firestorm that helped sweep the Democrats into office in 1800. As trade resumed with France, the British began to seize hundreds of American vessels while “ships suspected of aiding France were detained and sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to face prosecution under British law. Even if a ship’s goods were not confiscated, the resulting delays could be very costly.” Most outrageous, the British conscripted thousands upon thousands of American sailors into their Navy. 

Seizing the righteous anger about American dishonor, hellbent on punishing the British, President Jefferson rejected any compromise and self-imposed a total prohibition on American ships sailing to foreign ports as well as foreign ships taking on cargo in the United States. “The embargo was the most dramatic, self-imposed shock to US trade in its history [and] brought America’s foreign commerce to a grinding halt” for 15 months. Unsurprisingly, this prompted a depression – according to one estimate, a dramatic 5% decline in American GDP. It also led to a steep decline in revenue, leading to America’s first fiscal deficit. Why did Jefferson ban ALL trade, as opposed to just with Britain? Because, sounding more like an Albanian isolationist than the man who once wrote “all the world would gain by setting commerce at perfect liberty,” Jefferson insisted that it would be too easy for ships to claim alternative destinations but still trade with Britain. The same types of merchants who had been motivated to join the Revolution were appalled and tried their best to undo the policy. Bewildered, Jefferson “concluded that merchants were simply treasonous and therefore even stricter enforcement was required,” including a new bill with “provisions [that] may have violated the search-and-seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment.)” Irwin concludes: “The embargo must be considered a failure: it imposed large costs on the economy but failed to achieve any of its objectives” – the British continued to prey on our ships while denying America full and free market access. Similar to the calculations leading to the Revolution, the problem was that Jefferson had imposed his embargo at a time when Britain was enjoying the height of their business cycle and easily shifted its imports to alternative providers of American goods. Irwin warns that “had the administration persisted with the embargo, its enforcement would have led to a national crisis” but Jefferson insisted he needed only a few more weeks.

Apple

Figure 6. Just try to imagine life for more than a year without any international trade. Or, to give some modern sense of the size of the economic decline, imagine the total annihilation of Apple – no more stores, no more computers, no more phones, no more apps – which is worth about 5% of America’s GDP. Add into the scenario that the government relied nearly totally on Apple for its budget and you have some sense of the situation.

 

Unfortunately, the stumbles would continue into the Madison administration. As Congress ended the embargo, they dangled a carrot for France and Britain: whoever stopped harassing American shipping would get the benefit of America stopping imports from the other country. France, whose harassment was relatively limited to privateers, was the obvious potential beneficiary and they hinted they would accept the bargain. But Madison jumped too soon, restricting imports from Britain before France had even decided. Importantly, the law still allowed exports to Britain. Politically, this made sense: it hurt Madison’s political opponents (the northeastern shippers and merchants) while helping his base (Southern farmers) and doing something bad about Britain fit into the party ethos. But it was strategically stupid: at this moment, Britain desperately needed American food to supply its army in Spain fighting Napoleon. So the tensions continued, and American sailors continued to be shanghaied into the British Navy, until Madison decided that the only way to protect our honor was to fight Britain again in a war. Maybe we could also liberate Canada along the way.

Terribly inconveniently, our declaration of the War of 1812 was being sent over the Atlantic at precisely the same time that Britain sent over a new policy suspending harassment of American shipping. Irwin explains: “Already suffering under heavy taxes due to the war against France, Britain did not welcome the prospect of another war in North America. The weak economy and pressure from labor and industry helped persuade the British government to relax its policy toward neutral shipping.” Madison conceded that he would not have declared war if he had known but the fight was on. Weakened Federalists “were incredulous that the country would take the side of a French despot bent on military conquest (Napoleon) against a country with constitutional government that happened to be an important customer for American goods.” Irwin details the devastation: “The combination of war, non-importation, and blockade squeezed US trade to the lowest levels in recorded history… exports dropped almost 90 percent, while imports shrank more than 80 percent between 1811 and 1814… and the federal debt tripled between 1812 and 1816.” With Napoleon headed for defeat, Britain redeployed forces to the United States that blockaded the east coast (initially excluding New England) and, most embarrassingly, burned down the White House. We concluded the war in 1814 in a peace treaty that offered zero assurances about the impressment of sailors and Canada remained under British rule. But at least we got a cool national anthem – and an American hero in the victor of the Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson, who will be a star of our next segment.

email

Figure 7. You think missed communications might have declined with technology but the crucial decision of George W. Bush not to check his spam folder missed an email from HotBaathParty1937@hotmail.com about giving up WMDs through a Nigerian intermediary if he could get out of debt, work from home with an online degree, and secure a lifetime supply of Viagra and Xanax.  

 

Ironically, all of the self-inflicted disruption in foreign trade led to a transformation of the American economy. Despite the Democrat dream of a rural paradise, their policies had led to dramatic increases in the prices of manufactured goods which unintentionally invited Americans to create industry to produce substitutes. While export-oriented industries were devastated, domestic manufacturing became a new and important political constituency that was able to push the first major tariffs really designed to protect producers rather than simply generate revenue. The South, caught up in the patriotic fervor of the war, initially provided crucial support but would soon realize that they had to pay the costs. This regional divide, whether the tariff should be for revenue only or also protection, enhanced dramatically by the debate over slavery, would dominate American politics until the Civil War. In the meanwhile, British tensions would fade as they embraced a radical global free trade model the Founders had desired so fervently. We’ll conclude with a quote from Madison that defines this book:

“Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good…It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good.”

Clashing over Commerce

Figure 8. Click here to acquire Clashing over Commerce 10/10 – a magisterial retelling of American history through the important lens of trade, filled with insight into the events that defined the country over its three eras of tariffs: for revenue only (through Civil War), for protection (through World War II), and for reciprocity (through today). One more interesting item: the Founders were deeply influenced by the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, but underappreciated is that Smith, for all his endorsement of free trade, believed in three exceptions: first, for revenue, as discussed; second, to encourage reciprocity, as the Democrats desired and America would eventually adopt (in a far milder form); and third, to protect industries vital to national security.

 

Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

Speak For Yourself

The Gist:  The best advice from a half dozen books on public speaking

A review of The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie, among others.

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Dale Carnegie discovered the secret to powerful public speaking quite accidentally.

Carnegie had given up a successful sales job in the Midwest to go to New York and pursue dreams of becoming a performer. But his acting career went nowhere and soon his savings were gone. To tide himself over, Carnegie suggested to the local YMCA that he teach a class on public speaking. Nervous students began showing up and Carnegie was mildly successful in teaching them the ancient art of rhetoric.

Then one day Carnegie ran out of prepared materials and suggested that students just get up in front of the room and talk about something that made them angry. Suddenly, his students lost their nerves and came alive with passion! 

Hulk

Figure 1. “Hulk is strongest public speaker there is! Hulk smash competition!”

 

Carnegie would go on to found a national chain of public speaking schools and write, in a best-selling book we review here, that passion is the “open sesame to Ali Baba’s treasure cave of courage.” It empowers speakers to use material they already have and care about. And most magical, passion is contagious, giving speakers their best chance at connecting with an audience (even when they’re wrong!)

Pursuing your passion is the foundation of the best practices of great oratory we’ll explore today. One of the original public speaking coaches, Plato, went so far as to warn that “a wise man speaks because he has something to say, a fool speaks because he has to say something.”

Breaking

Figure 2. Note how Plato would classify filling 24 hours a day of cable news.

 

What do you have to say? Ask yourself what topic “you have lived with [and] made your own through experience and reflection.” Consider “if someone stood up and directly opposed your point of view, would you be impelled to speak with conviction and earnestness in defense of your position? If you would, you have the right subject for you.” In what do you believe with all your heart? What would be the last things, people, practices, ideas, identities, affiliations you’d ever give up? What do you crave to learn more about? On what do you spend your most time, money, attention? What makes your blood boil? What makes your heart sing? Why? The answers to those questions are the best sources for material – and the best chances for resonating with your audience – that you’ll ever have.

Carnegie argues that the biggest mistake in public speaking is choosing a highfalutin topic, something where you “soar into the realms of general ideas and philosophical principles, where unfortunately the air is too rarefied for ordinary mortals to breathe.” His experience was that “plain, ordinary men and women” better held “the attention of viewers all over the country” when “they were talking about themselves, about their most embarrassing moments, their most pleasant memory, or how they met their wives or husbands.” If you are talking about something grand or complicated, endeavor with all your might to explain how and why it is your passion and relate it to your and your audience’s experiences.

You’re surely starting to see that to most effectively share your passion, you need to prepare. How well your talk goes will depend on your preparation – luckily, you’re already passionate about the subject. Preparation can feel silly, time-consuming, hard. That’s why most people don’t do it. You need to remember that preparation is not for you. It’s for your audience.

Icarus

Figure 3. Icarus presents a cautionary tale of “winging it”

 

Scott Berkun suggests getting perspective by multiplying the number of minutes you are talking by every pair of ears that will hear you. Respect the collective time that is being spent on you! There are various rules of thumb: comedians can spend over an hour preparing for every minute they speak. Others suggest a 10:1 or 20:1 ratio of time preparing to time speaking. Whatever it is, it’s a lot. My favorite observation about one of the great orators of all time, Winston Churchill, was his son’s remark that Winston spent most of his life preparing to give unprepared remarks. Carnegie reports that “Daniel Webster said he would as soon think of appearing before an audience half–clothed as half-prepared.”

What does it mean to prepare? Your general aspiration should be to achieve clarity through preparation. Berkun contends that “the difference between you and JFK or Martin Luther King has less to do with your ability to speak — a skill all of us use hundreds of times every day — than it does the ability to think and refine rough ideas into clear ones. Making a point, teaching a lesson, or conveying a feeling to others first requires thinking, lots and lots of thinking, before the speaking ever happens.” Carnegie insists: “True preparation means brooding over your topics” and asking yourself “Why do I believe this? When did I ever see this point exemplified in real life? What precisely am I trying to prove?.. Try your best to develop an ability to let others look into your head and heart.” For maximum quality, limit your subject: “Assemble a hundred thoughts around your theme, then discard ninety.” Ultimately, can you summarize your passion in a sentence? Could a child understand and repeat back your points?

Crucially, preparation is not memorization. As Carnegie reveals, “If our ideas are clear, the words come as naturally and unconsciously as the air we breathe… Because it will not come from our memories, but from our hearts.” Throw away your memorized (or written) talk to become “more alive, more effective, more human.” As Cato the Elder advises: “Grasp the subject, the words will follow”

Prepare by testing out your ideas in conversation with anyone to whom you talk – what is their reaction? Stand up and give the talk to an empty room and see how it feels. Record yourself giving the talk and review – what went right? What could be more clear? But doing this alone is not sufficient: you need feedback. Recruit some friends to give your talk to and ask them – what did they remember? What didn’t they understand? Berkun adds “What one change would have most improved my presentation? What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered? What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?” And the best practice of all? Give your talk again and again and again on different stages to live audiences.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. You need to structure your speech for feels. As Carl Buechner profoundly observed, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” That other original speaking coach, Aristotle, theorized that rhetoric rested on three pillars: ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion). The most persuasive speech usually has all three elements but the majority comes from the last: emotion. My own motto, not always followed, is to buy data and sell story. If you’re making a decision, get logical. If you’re persuading someone, get emotional.

To structure for feels, understand the purpose of your talk: is it to “persuade and get action”? To inform? To “impress and convince”? To entertain? Align your speech’s emotional pitch with the purpose. Make sure your talk makes sense for your audience (or your audience makes sense for your talk). Get to know the venue and how it feels. Arrange an appropriate introduction. And then…

Grab your audience’s attention immediately! There is no time that the audience will be paying more attention than at the start. How you begin determines how fast people return to checking their text messages. For that same reason, thanking your introducer, apologizing for something, or any preamble takes up too many precious seconds. Get right into it with one of Carnegie’s three suggestions:

dynamite

Figure 4. So, for example, you could run on stage. Naked. Holding a lit stick of dynamite. Screaming “I have ebola!” 

 

First, you could start with a story. The huge advantage of this beginning is that it “hooks attention… it moves, it marches. We follow because we identify ourselves as part of a situation and we want to know what is going to happen…There is no groping for words, no loss of ideas.” Carnegie says he knows of “no more compelling method of opening a talk than by the use of a story.” After all, “one of the most interesting things in the world is sublimated, glorified gossip.” The best stories involve you (usually deficient or in the wrong, but generally empathetic and relatable) in dialogue with other named people (“adds more realism”) in some sort of situation-complication-resolution. The story must be vivid: you have “the obligation to clarify, intensify, and dramatize your experiences in a way that will make them interesting and compelling to your listeners… Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language.” Jeremey Donovan sensibly adds to “make sure your story is directly relevant to your core message.”

politician

Figure 5. “So the first time I went to prison, I got into this argument with Warden Norton…”

 

Second, you could “state an arresting factor opinion to jar the mind. Donovan says “Though shocking statements most frequently rely on statistics, they can also express strong opinions that challenge conventional wisdom. The important thing is that your point must trigger a range of audience emotions.” If you do go with a statistic, make sure it comes alive. Carnegie tells the story of an extraordinarily effective speaker: 

“Then, like a whirlwind, he struck. He leaned forward and his eyes transfixed us. He didn’t raise his voice, but it seemed to me that it crashed like a gong. “Look around you,” he said. “Look at one another. Do you know how many of you sitting now in this room are going to die of cancer? One in four of all of you who are over forty-five. One in four!” He paused, and his face lightened. “That’s a plain, harsh fact, but it needn’t be for long,” he said. “Something can be done about it. This something is progress in the treatment of cancer and in the search for its cause.” He looked at us gravely, his gaze moving around the table. “Do you want to help toward this progress?”

Champagne

Figure 6. “50% of marriages end in divorce. As we raise our glasses to Don and Betty on this special day…”

 

But Carnegie warns not to overdo it. He believes that all speeches should be conversational and so, if you are jarring the mind, make sure you do it in a way that you’d feel comfortable doing similarly at a dinner table. Relatedly, Carnegie is very wary of disagreeing with an audience so early, especially if you are trying to persuade them. He quotes Lincoln who reflected that “My way of opening and winning an argument is to first find a common ground of agreement.” Carnegie analyzes,

Most men, however, lack this subtle ability to enter the citadel of a man’s beliefs arm in arm with the owner. They erroneously imagine that in order to take the citadel, they must storm it, batter it down by a frontal attack. What happens? The moment hostilities commence, the drawbridge is lifted, the great gates are slammed and bolted, the mailed archers draw their long bows—the battle of words and wounds is on.

commencment

Figure 7. “Most of you probably should not have gone to college. Let me tell you why…”

 

Third, you could “arouse suspense.” An example might be opening a book review with the promise of discovering the secret to powerful public speaking. Berkun says, “The simplest kind of tension to build and then release is … problem and solution. If your talk consists of several problems important to the audience, and you promise to release the tension created by those problems by solving each one, you’ll score big.” Donovan says this can also be achieved by asking a question of the audience using the “magical word” of “you,” “putting your listeners in introspective mode.”

casket

Figure 8. “Was Steve murdered? As we remember him today, you should reflect on who might have done it and I’ll conclude with my theory”

 

And then you’re off! Carnegie demands that you “tell the audience what you’re going to say; then tell them what you’ve said.” Repeat your passionate thesis – ideally a short, actionable catchphrase – over and over again until they’re so tired of it that they can actually remember it. Illustrate it vividly with analogies, demonstrations, gestures, emphasis, volume, pauses, common language without jargon, and multisensory allusions that have emerged from your preparation achieving clarity. Consider what Lincoln considered ideal: “I don’t like to hear a cut-and-dried sermon. When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” Guide your audience with signposts as to where you are in the logic of your presentation, especially if your speech is long. And avoid quotes and jokes – use funny stories instead.

Throughout your speech, always empathize with your audience. Be grateful for their time and attention. They want you to succeed! Identify with them and advise how you can help “solve their problems and achieve their goals.” Talk with them as friends.  Fast Company reports this was the secret of the Great Communicator:

When Ronald Reagan wrote about public speaking, he shared “a little secret that dates back over 50 years to my first stint at a microphone.” On his first day as a radio broadcaster, Reagan was nervous. He wondered how he would “connect with all these people listening to the radio.” The secret? Instead of talking to a “group of unknown listeners,” he imagined he was speaking to the “fellows in the local barbershop.” Reagan wanted to replicate that banter—where everyone would swap jokes, talk sports, and tell stories.

Another thing Reagan and many of the great speakers would do is have specific sections of their talk that could be adapted to any audience. If your talk relies on statistics, find some that are focused on the community to which you’re speaking. If your concept is unfamiliar, analogize to something they know well. Best of all, tell some stories about people they know or at least recognize. Carnegie tells a story about how one of the great titans of British journalism was asked what interests people. The answer? “Themselves.”

Whatever time you’re assigned, use less. As Ira Hayes quipped, “No one ever complains about a speech being too short!”

Once you’ve wrapped up your points (three is usually a sound number), you have a few options for your conclusion. You can (finally) thank the organizers and the audience. You can follow the example of comedians, who try to use their second best joke as their opener and their best as their close: what is the single best analogy, demonstration, story that illustrates your point?

Carnegie himself preferred to end by appealing for a specific action related to the talk, ideally one that could be done immediately. So, not “Please help this organization,” but “Pull out your phone right now, text this number, and give at least $25.” Not “Write your Congressman,” but “Sign the letter on your table right now and I will personally deliver it.” Not “Love your family,” but “Take your kids out for ice cream tonight and tell them that you love them!” Donovan also suggests “Many of the most satisfying talks recommend that listeners take tiny actions that can lead to large personal and societal benefits.”

Of course, if you’re following this review, so far you’ve not actually given the talk. Just prepared it. But that’s 90%! If you are pursuing your passion and you’ve achieved clarity through preparation, you’ve earned the right to speak.

As you head toward the stage, you just need to remember: You’re not nervous. You’re excited.

Carnegie says everyone’s scared, even the greats like James K. Polk, whose nickname was “Napoleon of the Stump.” Mark Twain said there were two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and the liars. Bergun tells us why: “Our brains, for all their wonders, identify the following four things as being very bad for survival: [1] Standing alone [2] In open territory with no place to hide [3] Without a weapon [4] In front of a large crowd of creatures staring at you.”

Teddy Roosevelt

Figure 9. Hence Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”

 

But it’s to your advantage! Carnegie says that this is your body “getting ready to go into action.” Bergun cites Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules to note that “it is very difficult for the body to distinguish between states of arousal and states of anxiety.” A Harvard Business School study took advantage of this and found that speakers who told themselves they were excited, not nervous, performed better than control groups left to their nerves. But you can also maximize your readiness by getting enough sleep, eating right, knowing exactly where you need to be and when, and exercising sometime before to get rid of nervous energy.

So, get pumped! You’re going to share your passion! “Draw yourself up to your full height and look your audience straight in the eyes,” Carnegie advises. And then just start. It’s a lot easier once you get going. “Adopt the tone of a passionate one-on-one conversationalist… speak in your own voice with authenticity, interest, and humility,” suggests Donovan. In other words, talk like a human being. It doesn’t need to be – perhaps shouldn’t be – perfect. You’re aiming to persuade, not become a robot. Let your personality shine! Power through. And next time you’ll be even better.

Effective Speaking

Figure 10. I speak publicly with some regularity and I wanted to know best practices. So I asked and Googled around and came up with a list of books that were most frequently, most strongly recommended. Dale Carnegie is more famous for his advice on how to win friends and influence people but his quick and easy way to effective speaking is the best book I’ve read on the subject. 9/10

How to deliver a ted talk

Figure 11. When you look into the best practices of public speaking, TED frequently comes up. Jeremey Donovan is an obsessive analyst who got interested in public speaking when he joined Toastmasters and subsequently watched practically every TED video three times, making notes on common features. His book on how to deliver a TED talk has lots of insightful observations from an extremely popular format. 8/10. (Incidentally, I also read another book on TED but it is not a fraction as good – or as focused. Too often it dwells on the substance of the talks rather than the way they’re given. So, for example, one piece of advice it offers is that you can choose to be happy – which is all very well and good, but has little to do with speaking well.)

Confessions of a public speaker

Figure 12. For a relatively amusing take from a professional public speaker, check out Scott Berkun’s confessions (7/10). Or, if humor is your thing, you could check out an amateur’s attempt at stand-up comedy (6/10) – he passes along some interesting lessons. But Berkun has perhaps the most fitting passage to end this email on:

No matter how much you hate or love this book, you’re unlikely to be a good public speaker. The marketing for this book likely promised you’d be a better speaker for reading it. I think that’s true on one condition: you practice (which I know most of you won’t do). Most people are lazy. I’m lazy. I expect you’re lazy, too. There will always be a shortage of good public speakers in the world, no matter how many great books there are on the subject. It’s a performance skill, and performance means practice — and that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid to write this book.

Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

The Rosetta Stone Of My Relationship

The Gist: People feel love in different ways

A review of The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

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I decided to give online dating maximum due diligence at the very beginning of 2018. Figuring quantity led to quality, I planned to take out 3 women a week for three months.

Math of romance

Figure 1. The math of romance is to figure out how many people you might date in a lifetime, reject the first 37%, and then choose to be with the first person you date afterward who is better than everyone else you’ve dated.

 

10 weeks later, 30 women later, I was exhausted. But then I met someone incredible. She’s sweet, smart, stunning. She’s a fellow Christian. And she suggested very soon after we started dating that we read together in our own book club. 

The very first book we read, and a useful Rosetta Stone of our relationship, was Gary Chapman’s the Five Love Languages. Before I go on, I’d love for you to email me if you have any particularly insightful books into your own relationship. 

Rosetta Stone

Figure 2. Not to be confused with the Romance languages which, for Americans, are mostly useless.

 

Chapman’s premise is that every person creates their own model for what it means to love and be loved – based on their observations of their parents, popular culture (God help us), and others as well as their own personalities, theories, needs, and desires. Chapman’s experience counseling couples as a pastor led him to group people into five broad models he calls the love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gift-giving, acts of service, and physical touch

The first love language is words of affirmation: verbal and written encouragement to bolster your significant other. 

Beware: A common mistake is to make comments pushing something you want them to do but they aren’t necessarily thrilled about. So to say something like “You could be making so much more money!” only is encouragement if that’s what your mate wants. Otherwise your comment can “express not love but rejection.”

If your better half has this love language, affirm their strengths! Give them a living eulogy – both privately and in front of other people. Remind yourself that words are important with a note you will see all the time – and let that note inspire a practice of complimenting a specific thing every day. And, every so often, write a love letter expressing your appreciation.

Calendar

Figure 3. 50 years – 18,250 days – in, Bernard was struggling with new affirmations: “Buttercup, your earlobes warm your ears – but also my heart.” “Cookie, your hair could tow a truck – it’s certainly towed me along these last decades.” “Lovebird, your body fat could make seven bars of soap – well, that’s normal, you’re so thin it’s probably only 2 or 3” 

 

The second love language is quality time: giving someone your undivided attention. Crucially, this means no other distractions: sitting in front of a television together means Netflix has your attention, not your significant other.

There are two dialects of quality time. The first is conversation. Chapman emphasizes that words of affirmation is really about saying but quality time is really about hearing. He envisions a “sympathetic dialogue where two individuals are sharing their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly, uninterrupted context.” If your mate has this dialect, discuss the big 2-3 items of each day and listen for how they feel about each – and ask for clarification to make sure you understand.

The second dialect is shared activity: “The purpose is to experience something together, to walk away from it feeling ‘He cares about me. He was willing to do something with me that I enjoy, and he did it with a positive attitude.’” If this is your partner’s dialect, ask them for a list of a half dozen activities they’d like to do together – and do one a month.

Dinner

Figure 4. “Muffin, I’ve arranged a beautiful candlelit evening for about 10 minutes before I have to go back to work – but, hey, it’s quality not quantity time, right?”

 

The third love language is gift-giving. Here there can be tension between partners with different views of money. Chapman has two responses to the hesitant prudent: First, you need to consider that the way you treat money is more similar than you may realize: “By saving and investing money you are purchasing self-worth and emotional security. You are caring for your own emotional needs in the way you handle money. What you are not doing is meeting the emotional needs of your spouse.”

Second, the gifts don’t need to be expensive or conventional. Pick a flower. Make something yourself. Bring home a small chocolate. Give to your partner’s favorite charity. Give a book of intense interest to your spouse and say you want to read it together and discuss. Chapman even suggests your presence can be a gift – go to your mother-in-law’s birthday party.

Of course, if you don’t have as many qualms about spending, there are plenty of ideas. But keep track of anytime your partner mentions something they like, how enthusiastically they respond to what kinds of gifts from others, and you’ll be well on your way.

Blender

Figure 5. Be careful about regifting that used blender you won as a consolation prize in the office pool. Or giving her that chainsaw you always wanted. Or making a donation in her name to the Human Fund.

 

The fourth love language is acts of service: doing things you know your spouse would like you to do. Crucially, if this is your own love language, make sure that you explain how loved you feel when things are done for you but only ever make requests, not demands. Chapman has found that a sense of obligation can undermine a relationship but freely given acts of service strengthen it.

If this is your mate’s love language, make a list of all the requests (especially those procrastinated) that your spouse has made of you or, if you have trouble recalling, directly ask for a new itemized list. Think about what your spouse does not enjoy doing and that you could do for them. And then remind yourself with a note on your to do list that says “Today I will show my love by…” — and follow through!

General

Figure 6. Ladies love a man in uniform.

 

The fifth and final love language is physical touch. Many men immediately assume this is their love language because of their intense desire for sex – but this is really a broader category. The extreme question to ask is: would you still really want sex if your mate never positively talked about you, never gave you undivided attention, never gave you gifts, never did anything for you – or would the desire be gone? 

If physical touch is your partner’s love language, think consciously about how you can touch them whenever you see them – a big hug when you reunite, holding their hand when you walk together, sitting close on the couch, squeezing their shoulder as you pass through a room. “When family or friends are visiting, touch your spouse in their presence. Putting your arm around him as you stand talking, or simply placing your hand on her shoulder says, ‘Even with all these people in our house, I still see you.’” And “If your spouse’s primary love language is physical touch, nothing is more important than holding her as she cries.”

High Five

Figure 7. Nothing says love like a high five. Unless you’re a germaphobe. Then you better hope your significant other doesn’t prefer this love language.

 

Your own love language may be obvious at this point but, if it’s not, think about what you have most often requested or how you’ve been most deeply hurt by your partner. Consider a process of elimination – what what would you give up first? And, of course, find out your partner’s! Both of you can take the quiz at Gary Chapman’s website

Finally, note that when a couple first falls in love, their relationship is propelled forward by a romantic obsession, the average of which lasts two years (My girlfriend Ashley and I haven’t quite hit that. Stay tuned). But over time, we revert back to a more normal life where our significant other is not the center of our universe – and, because we have different models of love, we may not be attuned to that which makes our person feel loved.

Chapman suggests that each of us has a “love tank” and that we must be spoken to in our preferred love languages to feel fulfilled. When our love tank is empty, we can cast blame and make demands – and we tend to be most critical where we have our deepest need. Our “criticism is an ineffective way of pleading for love.”

Tank

Figure 8. Especially after the blitzkrieg of an early relationship, it’s important to maintain your love tank.

 

But in the drift away from obsession is the opportunity: “Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.” And ultimately, Chapman proclaims: “Forgiveness is the way of love. I am amazed by how many individuals mess up every new day with yesterday. They insist on bringing into today the failures of yesterday and in so doing, they pollute a potentially wonderful day… The best thing we can do with the failures of the past is to let them be history.”

So, forgive past mistakes (and future ones). Choose to love and be loved. And in choosing, request your own love language and speak your significant other’s.

5 love languages

Figure 9. Click here to buy Gary Chapman’s the Five Love Languages, 10/10. A good book to categorize the ways in which people love and provide ideas how to better love your partner. Once you’ve mastered these, you can move on to having enough kids to save America. For Christians, good follow up reading would also include Tim Keller’s the Meaning of Marriage, which finds the five love languages useful but talks about how only God can really fill your love tank.

Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

Check Your Texts

The Gist:  Scalia argues that judges should interpret what the Constitution said, not what they want today.

A review of A Matter of Interpretation by Antonin Scalia.

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In November of 2012, I made my annual trip to Washington D.C. to participate in the national convention of the Federalist Society. Once the leader of Vanderbilt law school’s student chapter, now the leader of Nashville’s lawyer chapter, always a supporter, my name tag is usually delightfully outfitted with enough ribbons to impress a Russian general – or at least a grand poobah of the local Moose Lodge.

But with the re-election of President Obama earlier that month, this was not a happy time for a group of conservative and libertarian attorneys “founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.” 

Now this is a big conference – though the vast right-wing conspiracy is not quite as vast, right-wing, nor conspiratorial as ideal. But at one point I found myself in conversation with a small group that included the Federalist Society’s original faculty sponsor and the man most responsible for elevating its ideas to national significance: Antonin Scalia. Gloomier than anyone else, but always possessing his trademark humor, the legendary Supreme Court justice joked that the Constitution would survive, though his own retirement was delayed.

Scalia

Figure 1. Rest in peace, Nino.

 

Scalia never got the chance to retire, but his legacy endures. In his book A Matter of Interpretation, Scalia does something striking: the Justice lays out his case for how our republic can best live up to its values – and then invites four prominent experts to challenge him. To anyone who has read one of Scalia’s amusing and cutting judicial opinions, this should come as no surprise: the man loved a good debate. But to anyone who has not and never will, this book offers both a clear introduction to Scalia’s philosophy – and to some of its criticisms. 

Scalia believes that every law must be interpreted based only on what the text says, not what a judge wants. You are probably shocked that this is a controversial proposition, but it is. But how do you determine what a text says?  The most important concept, alluded to in the term “originalism,” is that the text must be interpreted according to the original public meaning of the words. In a republic, power is centered in the people who delegate legislators to make laws on their behalf. Those legislators only agreed to what the words meant at the time, not to whatever those words may mean in the future – so the only power laws have is in their original meaning. So judges must write opinions armed with contemporary dictionaries, not the latest op-eds and policy briefs. Without this constraint, if laws can be interpreted by anyone to mean anything, what is the point of having laws in the first place?

Humpty Dumpty

Figure 2. “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more or less.” – Humpty Dumpty, the most strident advocate of Living Constitutionalism in Wonderland, and a preferred legal authority for certain Americans looking abroad for standards.

 

Importantly, Scalia is NOT saying laws should never change – they should! But they must be changed through the democratic process – the regularly elected legislature rather than the unaccountable judiciary. Scalia insists on judicial restraint: “Congress can enact foolish statutes as well as wise ones, and it is not for the courts to decide which is which and rewrite the former.” No, the obligation of the courts is to determine whether the law is followed, not what the law should be. “To be a textualist in good standing, one need not be too dull to perceive the broader social purposes that a statute is designed, or could be designed, to serve; or too hidebound to realize that new times require new laws. One need only hold the belief that judges have no authority to pursue those broader purposes or write those new laws.” Scalia goes further in his observation that if he could change one thing about the Constitution, he would make it easier to change – so that people could litigate their ideas in elections rather than before the courts. Still, this is a relatively recent phenomenon: Scalia points out that we felt obligated to pass a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote even though modern courts probably would have just ordered it to happen.

So you’re sold on original meaning, but why original public meaning? This is most relevant to the Constitution, which derives its authority from the consent freely given by Americans in 1787 when it was submitted to state conventions for ratification. But it also applies to modern statutes: Scalia stridently challenges the attempt to discover meaning by trying to divine what legislators intended to do, as opposed to what they actually wrote into the text and voted upon. To Scalia, this is an impossible task of soothsaying: How can one possibly know the intentions of 535 legislators and a president in crafting legislation? Is a speech – or worse, a private comment – by a single legislator perhaps listened to by no one really the indicator of anyone else’s intent – or even that legislator’s intent? Does a committee report drafted by unelected staff and never read, amended, or voted upon by Senators really reveal their intentions? Scalia maintains that the United States is “a government of laws, not of men. Men may intend what they will; but it is only the laws that they enact which bind us.” Furthermore, Scalia fervently believes in the separation of powers – and that the Constitution grants “all legislative powers” to the Congress as a whole, not to any committee, nor any individual legislator, and certainly not to the judiciary. The search for legislative intent, Scalia reveals, is really a “handy cover for judicial intent.” The more material that judges can draw upon to make a decision, the easier it is for them to justify a decision that comports with their policy preferences rather than a balanced, neutral perspective on what the law really means.

Ouija

Figure 3. Amazingly, whenever Living Constitutionalist judges consult the spirits of past legislators about whether what they really meant to say is that judges should just do whatever they think is right, the Ouija board always says “YES.”

 

Hogwash, replies Lawrence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and co-founder of a liberal counterpart to the Federalist Society. Tribe alleges that it is difficult, if not impossible, to “discover” the meaning of the Constitution or any law and that judges should “replace such pretense with a forthright account” of whatever they find most plausible and best, though he says “in light of the Constitution as a whole and the history of its interpretation” – a minor concession given how far the Constitution’s original meaning has been bent and bruised. But Tribe goes further and says “There is certainly nothing in the text itself that proclaims the Constitution’s text to be the sole or ultimate point of reference.” But what then should America’s 1000+ judges (and in particular, 5+ Supreme Court Justices) review? That, Scalia responds, is the fundamental weakness of Tribe’s position: 

Perhaps the most glaring defect of Living Constitutionalism… is that there is no agreement, and no chance of agreement, upon what is to be the guiding principle of the evolution. What is it that the judge must consult to determine when, and in what direction, evolution has occurred? Is it the will of the majority, discerned from newspapers, radio talk shows, public opinion polls, and chats at the country club? Is it the philosophy of Hume, or of John Rawls, or of John Stuart Mill, or of Aristotle? As soon as the discussion goes beyond the issue of whether the Constitution is static, the evolutionists divide into as many camps as there are individual views of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Tribe concedes that he has no overall perspective because he is “doubtful that any defensible set of ultimate ‘rules’ exists.” If that’s the case, why not trust the democratic process? Scalia explains that’s the point: Living Constitutionalists want to subvert the system. First, they are frustrated with the fact that the Constitution was designed to limit evolution. That’s why we wrote something down, as opposed to allowing the law to just develop on its own as it does in the United Kingdom. And it’s why we created three branches, each with unique responsibilities, inside one of which are two distinctly elected houses of Congress, all designed to achieve ambition clashing against ambition – and limit big jumps in policy. Second, they are frustrated by voters and eager to restrict democracy: courts have taken away power from voters and ordered that God cannot be invoked at public school graduations, that welfare can’t be terminated (or public employees fired) without a hearing, or, perhaps sometime soon, that the right to bear arms will be gutted. But Scalia warns:

We value the right to bear arms less than did the Founders (who thought the right of self-defense to be absolutely fundamental), and there will be few tears shed if and when the Second Amendment is held to guarantee nothing more than the state National Guard. But this just shows that the Founders were right when they feared that some (in their view misguided) future generation might wish to abandon liberties that they considered essential, and so sought to protect those liberties in a Bill of Rights. We may like the abridgment of property rights and like the elimination of the right to bear arms; but let us not pretend that these are not reductions of rights… As things now stand, the state and federal governments may either apply capital punishment or abolish it, permit suicide or forbid it—all as the changing times and the changing sentiments of society may demand. But when capital punishment is held to violate the Eighth Amendment, and suicide is held to be protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, all flexibility with regard to those matters will be gone.

Gordon Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of early America, agrees with Scalia’s indictment of what happens when judges make law – but insists that it’s nothing new. The patriots of 1776 were outraged at “the extraordinary degree of discretion exercised by royal judges” and “sought to severely limit this judicial discretion” in favor of legislatures producing clean and comprehensive codes that would address any situation. Thomas Jefferson demanded an end to “‘the eccentric impulses of whimsical, capricious designing man’ and to make the judge a ‘mere machine.’” But it turns out that legislatures are full of eccentric, impulsive, whimsical, capricious, designing men and they proved incapable of the task, passing a muddle of conflicting laws driven by interests both partisan and corrupt. After fighting a revolution for freedom and to limit laws, James Madison complained “there were more laws enacted in the decade following the Declaration of Independence than had been enacted in the entire previous century of colonial history.” By the time of the Constitution’s framing, “more Americans began looking to the once-feared judiciary as a principal means of restraining these wild and rampaging popular legislatures.”

Vending Machine

Figure 4. Lifetime tenure will take on a whole new meaning when we can appoint Justice vending machines pre-programmed with the Constitution. A lot cheaper than conventional human judges, but they do require crisp bills of only those denominations that depict the Founding Fathers.

 

Wood notes that the judiciary has only historically recently become its own branch of government (having been in either legislative and executive before – including Tennessee’s original Constitution) and that early American judges were often not lawyers at all and “involved in politics and governing to an extent that we today find astonishing” – including simultaneously serving in executive positions like lieutenant governor, Secretary of State, or other diplomatic positions. In the 19th century, courts attempted to withdraw from the “most explosive and partisan political issues” but insisted on retaining power to define rights. Wood concludes that what Scalia indicts is not a modern phenomenon but “one deeply rooted in our history” and may only be “a change in degree, not one in kind.”  And Wood fears that Scalia’s remedy is “scarcely commensurate with the severity of the problem and may be no solution at all” – both because judges can abuse textualism but also because we must either only appoint textualists or convince judges to be textualists.

Scalia indicates that this is part of the give and take of the separation of powers, and that “there have always been, as there undoubtedly always will be, willful judges who bend the law to their wishes. But acknowledging evil is one thing, and embracing it is something else… There has been a change in kind, I think, not just in degree, when the willful judge no longer has to go about his business in the dark—when it is publicly proclaimed, and taught in the law schools, that judges ought to make the statutes and the Constitution say what they think best.” Indeed, when you go to law school, you don’t actually study the Constitution’s text, the Federalist Papers, dictionaries from 1789 – you read the opinions of judges, lots of opinions, and your professors engage you in Socratic dialogue, asking you how the judge reasoned her way to the result. Part of this is so the law student can see what happens when the Constitution meets a situation – but the bigger part is that opinions become the law by virtue of a doctrine called stare decisis, where the court is supposed to defer to what it has said in the past unless it can distinguish the current case. Scalia approvingly quotes the 19th century codifier Robert Rantoul: “The judge makes law, by extorting from precedents something which they do not contain. He extends his precedents, which were themselves the extension of others, till, by this accommodating principle, a whole system of law is built up without the authority or interference of the legislator” or, as Scalia points out, the people. But when is it okay to get rid of stare decisis in favor of the Constitution’s original meaning?

American Gothic

Figure 5. Thanks to judicial discretion, stare decisis, and what one Living Constitution advocate called the “non-textual amendments” to the Constitution, we get to build our case law upon Wickard v. Filburn, where the Supreme Court determined that the Constitution granting power to “regulate Commerce…among the several States” meant that Congress could fine a small farmer thousands of dollars for growing more wheat than the federal government mandated – even when he only consumed it himself, within a single state.

 

Mary Ann Glendon, conservative Harvard law professor and expert in continental European law where stare decisis doesn’t really exist, worries that without stare decisis, the court will be “lurching along in irrational and unpredictable fashion, like the monster in the old version of Frankenstein.” She echoes the concerns of the early Americans: if legislation is not “comprehensive, coherent, self-contained,” then you cannot expect judges to be constrained by it. Glendon doesn’t agree with particular decisions and warns that “as judicial lawmaking expands, the democratic elements in our republican experiment atrophy. American men and women not only are deprived of having a say on how we order our lives together, but we lose the skills of self-government.” But if the Justices don’t defer to previous decisions, Glendon fears, the court loses credibility and deteriorates to a legislature of majority votes. 

Here Scalia essentially retreats into his famous self-identification as a “faint-hearted originalist” and unfortunately empowers lesser originalists of even fainter heart, if they be originalists at all. But before we get to Scalia’s perspective, we might channel his colleague Clarence Thomas, who would ask: if we’re looking for predictability, why isn’t the rule that everyone just stick to the original meaning of the Constitution? If you choose to be extremely faithful to precedent, then you are obligated to respect every time the other side, in a majority vote, betrays the original meaning (and, incidentally, often stare decisis itself). What is this extreme fidelity but a slow bleed to pirates who don’t respect the system at all but are happy to take advantage of you?

Car

Figure 6. Imagine a family of three – mom, dad, and son –  that has a tradition of making a spring road trip from Nashville, Tennessee to Hilton Head, South Carolina – a family beach destination. Dad takes the wheel for the first leg and drives southeast from Nashville to Atlanta, Georgia before handing it off to his son. The son, however, really wants to check out the casinos in Biloxi, Mississippi, so he unilaterally drives west to Montgomery, Alabama. Now mom takes the wheel. Does she honor the direction of the car and proceed to Biloxi? Does she try to slightly correct and split the difference, perhaps winding up in Panama City Beach, the “spring break capital of the world”? Or does she turn the car around and head to the original destination of Hilton Head?

 

Tribe reports that,

“During his confirmation hearings, Justice Scalia revealed that his decision whether to overrule precedent he viewed as wrong would be based in part on how woven the ‘mistake’ was into the fabric of the law. A key factor in making this determination would be how long the precedent has existed. For example, he noted that almost no revelation could induce him to overrule Marbury v. Madison, but he would be more willing to overrule a less established case, such as Roe v. Wade” 

This is a pretty sensible attempt by Scalia to reconcile his philosophy with the operation of the court – but Tribe understandably attacks him for an ambiguous set of rules for when to overturn precedent, totally untied to anything actually present in the text of the Constitution which is supposed to be Scalia’s lodestar. Scalia accepts the critique, saying, regarding the First Amendment for example, “the Court has developed long-standing and well-accepted principles (not out of accord with the general practices of our people, whether or not they were constitutionally required as an original matter) that are effectively irreversible” and admits that choosing when to respect stare decisis leaves plenty of opportunity for judicial discretion. Scalia says following originalism totally would be “so disruptive of the established state of things that it will be useful only as an academic exercise and not as a workable prescription for judicial governance.” Ultimately, Scalia admits “stare decisis is not part of [his] originalist philosophy; it is a pragmatic exception to it.” To which Yale law professor Akhil Amar responds, “If pragmatism ultimately determines when we do originalism, this is in the end pragmatism not originalism.”

Scalia’s final challenger is Ronald Dworkin, the second-most cited American legal scholar of the 20th century. Dworkin accepts Scalia’s plea that we look to the text of the Constitution – but suggests that the Founders gave us abstract principles to aspire to that were specifically intended to be redefined with each new generation as opposed to be frozen at the time of enactment. It is through this reading that the historian Wood fears the abuse of originalism or that Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan could claim “We are all originalists now.” When the Founders’ forbade “cruel and unusual punishment,” Dworkin asks, did they not mean for the definition to shift? When the post-Civil War Congress insisted that citizens’ “privileges or immunities” could not be abridged, Dworkin queries, were those supposed only to be as then-imagined? Tribe piles on: why would the Founders only codify those limited liberties enjoyed by the British, where it was a crime to imagine the King’s death? Dworkin notes that the limits of the First Amendment were vigorously debated by the Founding Fathers shortly after its passage – so how can we know what it protected then? Tribe goes further: is there not a subtext – a penumbra, if you will – in the Constitution that says “the right not to have the government put its regiments in one’s home might make little sense without some presupposed right not to have the government regiment every detail of what one does in one’s home.”

Sunshine

Figure 7. It will be easier to enforce the Court’s finding that the 8 hour workday is cruel and unusual than its determination that sunshine is a protected Constitutional privilege and cancer immunity must be enjoyed by all Americans. 

 

Scalia powerfully responds that abstraction is not aspiration:

“To guarantee that the freedom of speech will be no less than it is today is to guarantee something permanent; to guarantee that it will be no less than the aspirations of the future is to guarantee nothing in particular at all…. It makes a lot of sense to guarantee to a society that ‘the freedom of speech you now enjoy (whatever that consists of) will never be diminished by the federal government’; it makes very little sense to guarantee that ‘the federal government will respect the moral principle of freedom of speech, which may entitle you to more, or less, freedom of speech than you now legally enjoy.’

Scalia returns to his core principles: where do you stop the madness? What other hidden, unstated rights exist in the Constitution heretofore undiscovered but now convenient? If you can’t rely on the original public meaning of what these things meant, then where do you draw the line? More importantly: how do you draw the line? And why is it that certain areas of the Constitution get this expansive treatment – cruel and unusual can mean only cruel, but not unusual, in the guesstimation of a judge that only ever evolves in one direction  – but others, like the right to bear arms is “limited to musketry in the National Guard.”

Magnfying Glass

Figure 8. Not very well known, but if you put on night vision goggles and take a magnifying glass and look closely between the Third and Fourth Amendments of the original document the Constitution is written on, you find nothing.

 

If the Constitution is aspirational, “Judges are not… naturally appropriate expositors of the aspirations of a particular age; that task can be better done by legislature or by plebiscite.” Dworkin et al simply want a philosophy of “if it is good, it is so. Never mind the text that we are supposedly construing; we will smuggle these new rights in, if all else fails, under the Due Process Clause (which…  is textually incapable of containing them” because “it guarantees only process. Property can be taken by the state; liberty can be taken; even life can be taken; but not without the process that our traditions require — notably, a validly enacted law and a fair trial.”) Scalia concludes: “There is no such philosophizing in our Constitution, which, unlike the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, is a practical and pragmatic charter of government.”

Ultimately, this is a terrific book, with each challenge elucidating more of Scalia’s view. But the one challenge that is missing, already implied, is from a dedicated textualist unconcerned with stare decisis. When Scalia was challenged about his inconsistencies or asked about this alternative view, he would reply that he was “an originalist, not a nut.” But even if his explanations seem reasonable, did he go far enough in living out his philosophy? Scalia says that “A text should not be construed strictly, and it should not be construed leniently; it should be construed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means” – but is that enough practical guidance for judges to come to the same conclusion? We may like how he winds up on certain issues (though he often said he ruled against his own policy interests when the Constitution required), but when he says –  “In this constitutional context, speech and press, the two most common forms of communication, stand as a sort of synecdoche for the whole. That is not strict construction, but it is reasonable construction” – does “synecdoche” seem a little too close to “penumbra” to to you? While Scalia lambasts anyone who brings in legislative intent, Scalia disciple Steven Calabresi says, 

“In constitutional cases, Justice Scalia gave weight to “original expected applications,” which he never did in deciding statutory cases. The reason for this difference is that the people’s representatives can always repeal or amend a misinterpreted statute, but they cannot do so with an erroneous opinion on a question of constitutional law. As a result, and believing that the Constitution gave all three branches coequal power to enforce the Constitution, Justice Scalia generally decided constitutional cases in a way that presumed the political branches had acted constitutionally.”

Astronaut

Figure 9. The Constitution has a series of age requirements – Congressmen must be 25, Senators 30, Presidents 35. But when we colonize Mars, which has a 687 Earth-day year, will Americans of that distant colony be required to be 50% older?

Regardless of how true Scalia was to originalism, he deserves immense credit for bringing it to the forefront- and allowing judges to credibly pursue his ideas further than he did. Scalia is the giant of conservative judicial philosophy – and one of the most significant conservatives of any field in modern American history.

A matter of interpretation

Figure 10. Click here to buy A Matter of Interpretation (8/10), an excellent introduction to Scalia’s philosophy and its critics. You can also get a good dosage of originalist interpretation itself, such as this look at the Second Amendment:

[The alternative] reading of the text has several flaws: It assumes that “Militia” refers to “a select group of citizen-soldiers,” … rather than, as the Virginia Bill of Rights of June 1776 defined it, “the body of the people, trained to arms,” … (This was also the conception of “militia” entertained by James Madison, who, in arguing that it would provide a ready defense of liberty against the standing army that the proposed Constitution allowed, described the militia as “amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands.” The Federalist No. 46… The latter meaning makes the prologue of the Second Amendment commensurate with the categorical guarantee that follows (“the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”); the former produces a guarantee that goes far beyond its stated purpose—rather like saying “police officers being necessary to law and order, the right of the people to carry handguns shall not be infringed.” It would also be strange to find in the midst of a catalog of the rights of individuals a provision securing to the states the right to maintain a designated “Militia.”

Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this article, share it with a friend: know any law students or lawyers who should would be interested in this dominant Supreme Court Justice? How about any Americans concerned about keeping their Republic? Or do you know any Supreme Court Justices who should be more textualist?

Also, feel free to sign up with the box below to receive my email. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you aboard.

Santa

Figure 11. One final comment on the meaning of words. You’re of course familiar with Santa’s search for who is naughty or nice. Well, the original meaning of “naughty” was “needy,” which, when you think about it, unfortunately better reflects Santa’s gift-giving practices.

You Can’t Choose Your Family

The Gist:  Nearly all dictators’ children take advantage of their status, often in defiance of the stated motivating ideology of the regime, sometimes in defiance of basic human decency.

A review of Children of Monsters by Jay Nordlinger.

Sign up for Grant Starrett’s non-fiction book reviews (complete with terrible cartoons):

Winston Churchill was no fan of his son-in-law, Vic Oliver. Oliver had fought for Britain’s enemy Austria in World War I, was a mediocre entertainer, and had already been divorced (maybe twice) before becoming secretly engaged to Churchill’s daughter. At one point, “trying to make innocent conversation, Oliver asked [Churchill] what figure [of World War II] he admired most. Churchill answered, ‘Mussolini.’ Astonished, Oliver asked why. Said Churchill… ‘Because he had the courage to have his son-in-law shot.’”

You, like Churchill, may have fantasized about exercising certain powers in your family beyond those permitted in a democracy. Jay Nordlinger writes for the National Review where he often finds just the right anecdotes to illustrate both points and people in stories both of national and human interest. In his book Children of Monsters, Nordlinger relates inhuman interest stories as he sketches the fates of the sons and daughters of dictators, the “more drenched in blood” the more interesting how their progeny might have turned out. How far does the apple fall from the rotten tree? What if what father knows best – what your family values – is evil? The result is entertaining, ironic, and strange. But mostly chilling.

Luke

Figure 1. “Children of Monsters” was an alternative working title for the Star Wars saga which, given the latest sequels, works even for the revisionists who properly understand the series.

 

One immediate example: Hideki Tojo was the strident nationalist leader of Japan during World War II and perhaps the primary advocate for the preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor: his daughter married an American and lived most of her life in Honolulu!

Though Nordlinger provides some background on each gruesome father, some are more notorious than others, so you might want to consult Wikipedia for a fuller account of their crimes. Albania, for example, was disastrously led for over 40 years by Elver Hoxha, a totalitarian Communist so extreme that he broke with the Soviet Union when it condemned Stalin and the People’s Republic of China when it abandoned Mao. Without mass-murdering allies, Hoxha insisted on total self-reliance (i.e. total isolation) and, with the very limited national resources of the poorest country in Europe, amidst housing shortages and any number of other pressing policy problems, he directed the construction of over 750,000 concrete bunkers. For context, Albania is a little smaller than the state of Maryland and never had more than 3,000,000 people. So Hoxha built more than 60 bunkers per square mile, 1 bunker for every four people, all costing more than three times as much concrete as France’s Maginot Line. Nordlinger reports on this as well as his principal subject: Hoxha’s son, despite his father’s ban on private cars, generously permitted himself a Mercedes, and, as the Cold War came to a conclusion (and with it, Hoxha’s slave labor camps, murders, and all-around repression), the Hoxha heir insisted, “The worst evils of the capitalist society are coming to Albania: unemployment, prostitution, corruption, high prices, and inflation.”

No Inflation

Figure 2. “Oh no,” he thought. “Not inflation!”

 

You may wonder how many scions chose to honor their father. Practically, if a child had the opportunity – that is to say, that they were not, as so many were, abandoned by their father – every child took advantage of the privileges of being the dictator’s offspring. At the very least, that meant enjoying a standard of living well above the normal citizen. Francisco Franco ruled Spain for four decades after winning its civil war: his only child married into Spanish royalty which, given the incestuousness of European monarchies means that Franco’s great-grandson, Louis de Bourbon, is considered by Legitimists (but not Bonapartists) to be France’s rightful king. 

Sometimes the dictator doesn’t even have to be in power anymore: A Mussolini son became a jazz pianist, first playing after World War II under an assumed name before “discover[ing] his real name was a draw, not a repellent… He played with many of the greats of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. He married Maria Scicolone, the sister of Sophia Loren.” Their daughter became a Playboy covergirl – and then a neo-fascist Italian legislator, though Nordlinger notes “it’s sometimes hard to tell the ‘neo’ from the old-fashioned variety.”

Of course, the very act of better living often defies the stated motivating ideology of the regime. The first two children of the Romanian Communist dictator Ceaucescu chose careers in science over politics (though no doubt helped by selective state patronage). When the regime collapsed, Ceaucescu daughter Zoia was arrested in a house filled with jewels, cash, and art – and infamously asked “Do you have room in the police truck for my poodles?” In a similar vein, a granddaughter of Chairman Mao was listed in 2013 as one of the richest women in China and had three children – in violation of the one-child policy.

Poodle

Figure 3. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell

 

Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was an Arab Islamic socialist who deported Jews, introduced sharia law (whose Libyan version featured flogging as a punishment for homosexuality), and financed a murderous campaign of terrorism against Western “imperialists” and Israeli Zionists. Almost predictably, all of his sons spent significant time in the West. One was a drug addict who pursued a multitude of bisexual affairs. Another told his Playboy model girlfriend that he spent about $2 million a month, including arranging for private concerts for him and his friends by American pop stars. A third son partied across Europe, including a high speed police chase through Paris. Constantly feuding with police, he always claimed diplomatic immunity until he was finally arrested in Switzerland for physically assaulting servants. Libya retaliated by arresting innocent Swiss businessmen and banning Swiss companies. A fourth son, Saif al-Islam (“Sword of Islam”), got a PhD from the London School of Economics (global imperialism headquarters?), claimed a friendship with (imperialist?) British Prime Minister Tony Blair, had a long-time (Zionist?) Israeli girlfriend, and insisted, repeatedly, that he would not serve in his father’s regime “until Libya had a constitution and a ‘more democratic and transparent’ environment.” Which, understandably, made him the great Western hope for Libya as his life clashed with practically all of his father’s regime’s stated principles. And yet when his father’s regime was finally threatened by a rebellion, Saif returned home and vowed, “We will fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet.” The International Criminal Court has an outstanding warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity during the Libyan Civil War. But today he’s a free man – and running for President of Libya.

Flag2

Figure 4. Sadly, many children of democratic leaders defy the motivating ideology of liberty by becoming Communists. Meanwhile, pop stars play their hearts out for the cash of dictators while boycotting American states whose democratically elected leaders express mild disagreements.

 

Some children became strident proponents of tyranny much faster, almost always as part of a plan to take over after dad. Papa Doc changed the constitution of Haiti to make sure his son Baby Doc could become the youngest leader in the world at 19 (and continue the family business of corruption). Syria’s Bashar Assad was practicing medicine in the West when he had to come home after his brother’s death to take over as heir apparent. But no totalitarian dynasty has been as successful (in terms of sustaining familial power) as the Kims of North Korea.

Kim K

Figure 5. Even Kim Kardashian would be a better alternative for North Koreans – and Dennis Rodman could still visit anytime he wanted.

 

As often as not, dictators don’t really care about their kids. While Mussolini had some cause to execute his son-in-law, who had launched a coup and put Mussolini under house arrest, he had no cause to confine his first son to an asylum and then murder him. Mao appears to have not really cared for his 10+ children, needlessly abandoning a couple to die in the Chinese Civil War, offering others as hostages. Which is to say, he cared about as much about his own kids as he did the Chinese people. Ultimately, dictators care most for their own power: Iran’s ayatollah Khomeini forbade his son from becoming Prime Minister so his family could appear to be above the fray of politics – and responsibility – while maintaining power. 

The child who is an outright dissident is extremely rare. Zoia Ceaucescu, who had mouthed off when she was younger, and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi were considered some of the most vocal critics until their ignoble exposures. A daughter of Fidel Castro became a dissident – but she only met her father a couple of times. Perhaps the most interesting example is a grandson of ayatollah Khomeini who made numerous comments endorsing not only democracy but America’s invasion of Iraq. Predictably, as of the book’s publication, he is under house arrest.

Teenager

Figure 6. That children of dictators are not generally dissidents will shock parents of teenagers 

 

All of which leads us to Stalin, whose offspring Nordlinger spends the most time with. He begins with a deadly insightful line about the Soviet regime: “It is said that Lenin liked children… There must have been limits to his liking, however: He sent children to concentration camps.”

Stalin’s first couple children were illegitimate, one the product of his rape of a teenage girl when he was in his late 30s. He denied them, along with his third child Yakov who was legitimate, the honor of using his adopted name – “Stalin” means “Man of Steel.” Yakov was so distressed over his father’s disapproval that he attempted to kill himself with a gun but only suffered a non-fatal wound. “His father snorted, ‘He can’t even shoot straight.’” Yakov recovered and joined the Red Army to please his dad. He was promptly captured by the Germans, who hoped to trade the heir for a captured General. Stalin not only denied that he had such a son but also that “there was really such a thing as a Russian POW.” Insisting that anyone captured by the Germans was a traitor, he arrested his daughter-in-law. Eventually, Yakov’s second attempt at suicide succeeded: “he threw himself on an electric fence, in April 1943.” The tragedy of Stalin’s kids would not end there.

Super Stalin

Figure 7. If only that Man of Steel had thrown himself in front of a locomotive… 

 

Stalin’s final two children were from his last wife who “was the Bolshevik type: devoted to Party and work, not to ‘bourgeois’ interests such as family. Svetlana could not remember that her mother had ever hugged, praised, or kissed her… We might pause to imagine a household in which Stalin is the more loving parent.” She apparently committed suicide while her kids were pre-teens, though Nordlinger says that she may have been murdered, and “serious people take this suspicion seriously.” As a result, “Svetlana was raised by a nanny and other generally civilized women; Vasily was given over to brutish bodyguards.” 

Svetlana initially had the better bargain. Her father treated her tenderly, nicknaming her “the boss,” and inisting senior Politburo members address her as such. But,

“With some regularity, her schoolmates would simply disappear. They would be there one day, and not the next. Their fathers had fallen from favor, being arrested, imprisoned, or killed. Sometimes, a schoolmate would give Svetlana a note to pass to her father. It had been written by the schoolmate’s desperate mother, whose husband had been dragged away in the night. Could Comrade Stalin do something? The dictator got sick of these notes, telling his daughter not to serve as a ‘post-office box.’” 

When she was 16, two seminal events occurred that irrevocably changed her relationship with her dad: She fell in love with a married 40-year old playboy – and she discovered the fate of her mother through her special access to Western media. Stalin dispatched his daughter’s paramour to the Gulag for a decade and would hardly ever speak to her again. After failing to get with another married man, she accepted a proposal from a fellow student. Seeking permission from her father to marry, Stalin was silent for some time before saying “‘To hell with you. Do as you like.’ He set one condition on the marriage: that the groom and husband never set foot in his house. Indeed, Stalin never met his son-in-law.” They were divorced within two years, and then she was set up for another two short-lived marriages with Kremlin-approved husbands.

In 1963, well after her father’s death, Svetlana fell in love with a visiting Indian Communist whom she was not allowed to marry. But when he died 3 years later, she successfully requested permission to scatter his ashes in India. Once there, Sveltana walked into the US embassy and defected (abandoning two kids to remain in the USSR). “Svetlana became a U.S. citizen and registered with the Republican Party. Her favorite magazine was National Review, she said—the conservative, anti-Communist journal founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. She donated $500 to the magazine.” Svetlana’s strange story would not end there: the widow of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had had a daughter named Svetlana by another marriage who had died in a car crash. She felt a strange connection to Svetlana and invited her to visit the Wright estate, where she lived with her former son-in-law. Within 3 weeks of visiting, Stalin’s Svetlana was married to Wright’s stepdaughter’s widower. But that marriage would also fail, as her new family drained the finances she earned from writing books and operated, in her words, in ways reminiscent of the Kremlin. Incredibly, in 1984, Svetlana returned to the Soviet Union, stating she wanted to care for her alcoholic son and that she had “never enjoyed ‘one single day’ of freedom in the West.” Her daughter, “a die-hard Communist,” refused to even meet her. Svetlana was only there 18 months, returning to the United States: “‘I had to leave for a while to realize, ‘Oh, my God, how wonderful it is’’—the ‘it’ being America. All the things she had said against the West after her arrival in Moscow? She had been misquoted or mistranslated.” She died in Wisconsin in 2011 and I’ll leave it to you whether she fits the description of a proper dissident.

The absolute worst children of dictators, however, were those who used their positions of privilege to wreak rape, torture, and murder without consequence.  As Nordlinger himself relates, “To study the children of dictators is to spend a lot of time with unpleasantness.” Whether by nature or nurture, “Vasily [Stalin] was a classic type of dictator’s son: the little tyrant of a tyrant, the little monster of a monster… Vasily used his privileged position to get everything he wanted: sex, power, riches, thrills. And, as frequently happens, it all ended very badly for him.” Totally unqualified, Vasily was rapidly promoted in the Red Army despite being “drunken, bullying, physically abusive, incompetent, and reckless.” Imprisoned after his father’s death, he died of alcoholism at 40. Similarly, Ceaucescu’s third child “preferred to rape his way through Romania.” After his parents compelled him to marry, he told his new wife “‘Now go live with my mother. She should f*** you because she chose you.’” This was the man Ceaucescu hoped to succeed him – and who the United Nations honored with a medal as chairman of International Youth Year.

Nobel Prize

Figure 8. Speaking of esteemed international organizations, Nordlinger’s other book is about the Nobel Peace Prize. 

 

The worst of the lot, though, was Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. If you are at all squeamish, skip this paragraph

“Uday was worse—probably much worse—than the others. Looking on, Vasily Stalin might have shuddered… About Nicu Ceauşescu, I wrote, ‘I could fill pages with appalling details.’ One could fill more with details about Uday. One obituary described him as ‘Caligula-like’—which may be unfair to Caligula. … He raped constantly. His goons would kidnap girls and women for him. He would simply point them out. He kidnapped and raped the daughters of ordinary men, of course. But he kidnapped and raped the daughters—including the underage daughters—of powerful men, too… One time, a girl had the audacity to complain about being raped and beaten. Uday ‘had her covered with honey and torn apart by hungry dogs,’ in the words of one news report. I mention these things—which maybe I should not—not because they are extraordinary or sensational, but because they were routine.” 

And this is only from the public record. Since domestic critics of dictators (and their families) have a nasty habit of disappearing without a trace, researching such a book can be a challenge. But Nordlinger, who sought interviews with as many living and available children as he could, does not intend a comprehensive encyclopedia. Instead, he provides a series of insightful vignettes, opening with a chapter about a Frenchman who claimed to be Hitler’s long lost love-child (and who grew a matching mustache to enhance resemblance). Moreover, Nordlinger offers something rare among writers: a thorough command of the English language that makes his voice recognizably unique, conversational in tone, and a pleasure to read. Though he is personally passionate about human rights, Nordlinger regularly displays a discerning sensibility, acknowledging, for example: “You and I would not have wanted to live under the shah. But we most likely would have been screaming for him to come back, after experiencing Khomeini and his gang.” Which, incidentally, is precisely the experience of one of my teachers of Iranian history in college, who fought the Shah in the streets, served in prison with the ayatollahs, and then had to flee the country when he realized how much worse they were.

One final story about a dictator I had never heard of until reading this book: Bokassa the First proclaimed himself, in a $90 million inauguration paid for by the French but the equivalent of a year’s national budget, the Emperor of Central Africa. Which was pretty grand until he bucked for a promotion and self-declared a new title: 13th Apostle of Christ. Which was all the more remarkable because he once converted to Islam in exchange for a bribe from none other than Moammar Gaddafi. Bokassa’s apostledom was hard to reconcile with his polygamy – and his practice simply to refer to each wife by her nationality, i.e. the Belgian, the Korean, etc. All of which would be amusing but for his requirement that all school children wear – and pay for – a uniform bearing his image. His impoverished population rebelled and were put down via massacre.

With leaders like these, it’s no wonder that “over the years, the toppled dictator, Ceauşescu, had figured in Romanian advertisements. This was only natural. Free Romanians could hardly help themselves. One of the ads was for condoms. It showed Hitler, Stalin, and Ceauşescu, and suggested that the world would have been better off if their fathers had used condoms.”

Children of Monsters

Figure 9. Click here to acquire Jay Nordlinger’s Children of Monsters, which tells stories entertaining, ironic, strange, and chilling about the offspring of some of the 20th century’s worst dictators. I should mention, incidentally, that in addition to having a gift for the English language, Nordlinger has a gift for friendship and I am honored not only to have been interviewed on his podcast but to call him friend. 

 

Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this article, share it with a friend: know any dictators who are concerned about how their kids might turn out? How about expatriates from former tyrannies who might want to know more about their former tyrants’ corruption? Or do you know anyone who would be fascinated by the family dynamics of some of the most notorious leaders of the 20th century?

Also, feel free to sign up with the box below to receive my email. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you aboard.

Every Trick In The Book

The Gist: How to choose a book to read. Steal authors’ time, and be mindful of whose time you’re stealing and how much. Score books to find more like you like, less like you dislike.

Sign up for Grant Starrett’s non-fiction book reviews (complete with terrible cartoons):

How do you choose what books to read?

Friends, media, algorithms often advise what to read. But we rarely discuss how to choose a book. This email will try to answer that question, at least for non-fiction, and I’d love your input as well (You and I are among the who in this story)

Wheel of Fortune

Figure 1. Try a spin of the WH_ _ L  _ F MISF_ RT _ N_! Alternatively, why choose at all? Harry Truman claimed that growing up in rural Missouri he read every single one of his library’s 2,000 books.

 

Crucial to the answer of how is why. Knowing your objective for reading is essential to realizing whether you’re achieving it.

My principal advice is to steal time. We spend hours reading social media others took seconds to write. We spend minutes reading news that others took (maybe) hours to write. We spend (comparative) seconds reading books others took years to write. Reverse the sequence. As you do, think about whose time you’re stealing and how much of it they spared.

Old man

Figure 2. The ideal back flap picture, preferably a full-time author of a first-time work. 

 

But that’s not to say that reading books is a time-saver. The best returns, where 1+1=3, come from larger investments. Warren Buffett once advised, “Read 500 pages every day…That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” Tyler Cowen expands, “‘It took me 44 years to read this book’ is not a bad answer to many questions about reading speed.” The question is where this would be most useful: On what do you spend time, money, attention that you want to do better? About what are you curious or passionate and why? You bring your whole life to each book you read, including your past library of readings. As you contemplate your next book, consider the path you’re going down and whether it’ll be a good companion along the way. 

So, yes, the best time to start reading was a long time ago. But the second best time is now. And if you’re stressed out by starting so late, great news! According to the American Psychological Association, reading is one of the most effective stress-relieving activities there is.

Jack the ripper

Figure 3. Yes, nothing more stress relieving than reading about the brutal, unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper.

 

Of course, if you’ve found a valuable why for reading books, you must find the when. People say all the time they don’t have the time to do whatever it is they’re not doing. But until we colonize Mars, we all have the same number of hours in a day. We just make choices about how to spend them. Which gets to the most powerful secular concept I ever learned: opportunity cost. Every dollar spent on cable can’t be spent on a book (but hey, get a library card!). Will you choose to read books? If you need some extra motivation: the average American lives to 78. If you multiply how many books you read last year by the number of years actuarial tables suggest you have left, are you satisfied with the number? If not, track your time for a day to see where it goes and spend more of tomorrow on priorities and less on defaults and distractions. Everywhere you go, bring a book. Or Kindle. Or Kindle app on your phone. Or the Audible app. Or just set aside time like you might for exercise. Though I am only a fraction of Warren Buffett’s daily 500 pages, the past couple of years I’ve found I could get to 100 books a year (about 30,000 pages – or 80 pages a day) on an average of an hour a day. But however often you read a book, it’s worth getting right. So let’s dig into that:

From where you source books is our next key question. 

The best source for books you like is books you’ve already liked. Far better to execute on ideas you’ve graded A+ than to be on a constant search for novelty. Besides, it’ll probably be new again. Memory is very fallible. You’ve forgotten key insights. Go back and take some notes. And, before you protest, know that you probably underestimate the joy of repeating an experience. So, go read the greats again.

Illiterate

Figure 4. Never read a book? Skip ahead.

 

The next best source is books like those you’ve already liked. Various websites claim to help you with this but it really comes down to this: what were those absolute favorite books that you’ve just re-read? Have you read other things by the same authors, on the same topics, in the same genres, or from their bibliographies? Those are great places to start. Simultaneously, avoid and discount books like those you’ve already disliked. You don’t need to keep trying to give James Joyce another chance.

Finnegans Wake

Figure 5. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.” – a real passage from Finnegans Wake.

 

If you want to explore something new, actively search for the best books on the topic. Confine your search: What are the best books on parenting, pies, pirates, etc.? Consult Google, friends, a librarian. Has an expert curated a list for a college syllabus or a bibliography? Read through the cluster of results, perhaps starting with the most repeated titles. Not all are bound to fit your needs or satisfy your curiosities but the more you read, the more you’ll figure out what’s the best in the field, and you’ll soon get a real education. My friend Ben does this often: he spent one recent summer reading everything he could on the history and meaning of currency. I’ve tended toward more practical items myself – like giving a speech.

Hammer and sickle

Figure 6. Of course, The Communist Manifesto is literally the 6th most assigned book on college syllabi. Probably even included in your research about how to best parent your kids to bake great pies as pirates.

 

With personal recommendations, tread very carefully. Some of the best and worst books I’ve read have been recommended by friends – sometimes by the same friend! Consider: how enthusiastic was their recommendation? (And how enthusiastic are they, generally? My girlfriend Ashley is a delight because she’s enthusiastic about everything – but that means her book recommendations need to be parsed very carefully). Bearing in mind how they might evaluate a scale, ask them to rate the book out of 10. But beware recency bias: people are almost always more lucid about books they’ve just read or, even worse, haven’t finished reading. If you want a better recommendation, ask your friends what books have stuck with them after many years. Once removed from the conversation itself, consider: has this person recommended any books to you in the past? Were they any good? How much do they read generally? How much do they know about the specific field the book covers?

Democracy can be useful – when the voters have read the book. The more friends who spontaneously recommend a book,  the more likely it may be good. My friend Yinon relies on a system that tracks the frequency that books are mentioned on his favorite podcasts. We will dig into public ratings in a moment, but for now, beware bestseller lists, which are really an indicator of effective marketing inducing prospective readers. More useful might be a buyer’s remorse list.

we the people

Figure 7. Similarly, American democracy can be useful – when the voters have read the Constitution.

 

Published book reviews can be good to the degree that the reviewer/publication shares your perspective. Obviously the best book reviews ever are mine. That’s why you receive and have read this far in the email. But if you must consult other sources, I’ve discovered some great books from the Claremont Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, Marginal Revolution. Reviewers are going to be subject to recency bias, too, but hopefully they’ve read widely on the subject, critically read this book in particular, and are able to tell you what may be better. The crucial value reviews deliver is context – hopefully enough to guide you whether the book is worth adding to your list.

Don’t read a book merely because it won a prize, but an award may be an indicator of quality in a topic you’re already interested in. I once hypothesized that prizes would be a good source of new material – after all, some of my favorite books had won prizes – so perhaps I could outsource selection to some grand poobahs of literature. I read through a series of winners of a few particular prizes… and came away ready to pursue new hypotheses. The truth is I had not read those favorite books because of their winning a prize and the alternative reasons have proved more durable. Prizes have three problems: (1) they tend to give one out every year, regardless of whether 0 or 10 merited the award; (2) unlike book reviews, they rarely provide context for why the awardee is worthy; (3) few prizes are likely to closely match your interests, even in a specialized field. If you’re not trying to research a particular topic but are just looking for a good book, you may be best served by perusing lists of award-winners and only noting down the ones that intrigue you. That’s what I’ve done with military reading lists and I’ve discovered some real gems. But if you’ve read a few from any list and are dissatisfied, discard the list.

There are, of course, other avenues for sourcing books but I haven’t found many to be consistent sources of quality. Some argue that translated works are an excellent screening process: most inhabitants of the Earth don’t speak English and yet plenty still write books – if a book has been translated, publishers have made a determination that it’s more worthy. Provocative idea, but it hasn’t really translated to my own experience. And then, of course, there’s browsing whatever the algorithms suggest or what catches your eye among the aisles. Judging a book by its cover is actually not totally useless – it basically tells you whether you’ve been seduced by the publisher. My general rule of thumb is if you’re merely browsing, make no impulse buys. Just add them to your list for further evaluation.

Wherever you got your books, you can finally go about choosing how to prioritize. Whenever you come across any book that might be interesting, add it to your list with a raw, emotional score out of 10. If you use Excel or Google Sheets, you can just sort and that may be good enough. For the next level, state a specific objective for reading the book: what do you want to get out of it? To return to our whys: Will it help you optimize your life or satisfy a curiosity? Will this book be a good companion in your life? My friend Stan divides books into a limited group of categories that interest him and then rotates between each. Personally, I’ve found that the books I most enjoy are about aspects of history or policy that I’ve been curious about (especially if they look at things with an economic lens or a unique take); very practical advice about how to do better something I care about; and my faith. Of course, you can go deeper and start adding columns to try to find other factors that correlate with your preferences.

A specific evaluation of the author is most useful: whose time do you want to steal and how much time did they give?

Regarding whose time you’re stealing, you need to ask: does the author know what the heck s/he is writing about? I gave my assistant Taylor a list of the best and worst books I read last year without scores and asked him to evaluate each author on the basis of whether they spent the majority of their adult life in the field written about and whether they had a good educational background directly related to the field in question. He was able to predict whether the score was good or bad about 2/3 of the time.

A related question for credibility: do you share a worldview or approach with the author? You should certainly read books that challenge your assumptions but it’s highly doubtful that you are going to consistently enjoy books best that disagree with you. Even the challenges are worth knowing more about in advance to prepare yourself to engage and to test whether respect the author’s thought process. Ultimately though, as I’ve joked before, the very best books I read confirm my existing biases. 

Regarding how much time you can steal, this is a harder thing to assess: how can you figure out how much time an author spent brooding about and researching this specific book? People freely include their (selective) autobiographies but don’t really disclose their specific writing process. But here are some proxies: First, if someone had a full time job while writing their book, be very skeptical they gave it enough time. Second, if someone frequently writes books – say, more than once every few years – be very skeptical. The authors of books I’ve rated 8 or higher have written less than half the number of books in their lifetimes than the authors of books I’ve rated 4 or lower – and very few of the top ones are under 50 (or alive!). Third, extensive footnotes and bibliographies hopefully indicate lots of research – and time. My 8+ books are six times more likely to have a multi-page bibliography than my 4- books.

 

Beyond evaluating the author, you can return to democracy but…

Online ratings very likely overstate how good a book is: in this grade-inflated world, people have a serious allergy to low ratings. If you don’t like math, skip ahead. I rate every book I read out of 10. Out of the past 150 books I’ve read, my average rating is about a 6. But for those same books, Amazon’s average rating is the equivalent of 8.6. If you only include books with over 250 reviews, my average actually drops and Amazon’s average jumps to 9! Of the last 60 books I’ve read, not one with over 250 Amazon reviews is rated below an 8.6. At least for me, Amazon’s ratings system is near useless. But Goodreads, even though the average of the last 150 books I’ve read has been 7.8, is a little more instructive. I tend to give one to two points higher (out of a scale of 10) to books with over 250 Goodreads ratings averaging 8.2 or higher than books with 250 ratings below my average of 7.8. Some friends of mine swear by only reading Goodreads scores of 8+ (4+ for Goodreads 5 point scale) but ultimately you’ll have to discover yourself how closely your tastes match the collective.

Uber

Figure 8. “4/5 stars – ride was okay, though I think the driver might have vomited into the passenger seat right before I got in; anyway seemed like he had been drinking, which was confirmed by the BAC test after we got into that car accident. But I only broke my arm, so you know, it was fine. Of course, we weren’t anywhere near where I needed to be – the driver had gone in the opposite direction. Driver asked for 5 stars but giving 4 because he talked too much.”

 

One friend, skeptical of book democracy, closely examines publishers – essentially asking, what are the reasons a book might be published other than its quality? He reports, “large, popular, mainstream trade presses produce the worst books. Academic publishers have rigorous peer review/high standards. Self-publishers and small/fringe publishers will print niche or controversial books that advance contrarian ideas/views, especially from the right. Mainstream trade presses are the books sourced by very demographically distinct New Yorkers for review in mainstream media to sell to masses.” His general thesis is that the size of an author’s platform to sell books is inversely correlated with the quality of the book.

Finally, older books may be better – so long as they’re timeless, not out of date. Literally hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. If a book is still being published or discussed decades (millenia?) after its original publication, it must have some sort of staying power that may be worth looking into. To return to the earliest example, consider the potential seconds of relevance of social media, the potential hours of relevance of articles, and the potential years of relevance of books. I have a strong bias against anything just published, but I will say reading English authors say, after World War II, is a lot easier and, if the book is reliant on data to prove its point, recency matters. 

I can’t say how well these metrics work for beyond non-fiction as I don’t read non-truth. You may have alternative metrics that work well for you, but that’s something you’ll have to evaluate yourself. Just remember: though there’s value in the process, evaluation is for context, not predestination. Your interests may change, but if you have a highly rated book, strongly recommended by an expert friend who read it many years ago, similar to a book you already love, written by an author who has spent her life devoted to this field that you want to know more about to improve your life, you should probably read that right away. 

And, ultimately, if you want to read a lot, just get started. Capture your interest while it’s still there! If you don’t have a specific project in mind at the moment, read the shortest book with the highest rating on your list and you can get some momentum. Both because of the immediate availability and the option to email myself highlights, that means reading on Kindle – but read on whatever platform works best for you. Highlight and take notes, empathizing with your future self’s attempt to remember the key points. 

If you don’t like a book, quit. Pick a number – 100 pages in, 10% in, 30 minutes in – and evaluate whether you want to continue. Higher discard means more books. I don’t do a great job of this – my own trouble is trying to figure out whether a book is simply something I disagree with, whereupon I’d like to at least know their best ideas, or whether it’s badly written. I mentioned the most profound secular idea I’ve come across is opportunity cost. For my dad, it’s sunk cost, and it’s worth applying here.

And, crucially, once you’ve finished a book, do two things. First, score the book and compare it to your anticipated score. Try to figure out how you got it right or wrong so you can be better for the future. Second, write a summary or review so you can organize your thoughts today and consult it in the future for when you forget all about it!

Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this article, share it with a friend: know anyone who has ever read a book? Anyone planning on reading a book? Anyone writing a book that should be read?

Also, feel free to sign up with the box below to receive my email. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you aboard.

Dry Humor

The Gist: 100 years ago, Congress voted for Prohibition. 14 years later, they voted for Repeal. It might not have happened but for the Great Depression and the inflexibility of Prohibitionists.

Part 2 of a review of Prohibition: a Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh and Last Call by Daniel Okrent. See Part 1, “The Drinking Age” here.

Sign up for Grant Starrett’s non-fiction book reviews (complete with terrible cartoons):

The primary verdict on Prohibition is that it didn’t work.

Pig

Figure 1. We might think of the real entrepreneur who did not sell alcohol but instead gave a free drink to anyone who paid to see his blind pig. Pay for swine, get some wine, if you will.

 

The verdict is true insofar as alcohol was available for sale, especially in large cities, during the time it was legally prohibited – and, perhaps more importantly, alcohol began to lose its social stigma, prompting a totally unexpected increase in women’s drinking. At the same time, alcohol consumption dropped around 70% in the years after the passage of the 18th Amendment and remained lower than before World War I for decades after Prohibition ended. 

How Prohibition ended is not really remembered. Modern Americans might guess that people just came to realize it didn’t work. That’s only part of the story. Bear in mind that there are dozens of dry counties today where you can’t legally buy a drop of liquor. Oklahoma voted five times to keep Prohibition until finally repealing it in 1959. Mississippi didn’t repeal statewide alcohol Prohibition until 1966.

Ultimately, America’s liquor drought lasted 14 years – it was drier than opponents remember, but wetter than supporters wanted. As noted in my last email, W.J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History lives up to its promise with a pithy overview. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call expands on the subject – perhaps a chaser to Rorabaugh’s shot. In today’s edition of Sober History, we’ll explore how national Prohibition worked (and didn’t) as well as how it came to be repealed.

Prohibitionists were wildly optimistic in their cost projections – something they share in common with practically every advocate of a government program. According to Okrent, the Anti-Saloon League’s (ASL) normally astute Wayne Wheeler in 1920 suggested “that five million dollars would be a sufficient appropriation for all federal enforcement of Prohibition (by way of comparison, the sum wouldn’t even have covered the payroll of Columbia University that year).” Only 1,500 federal agents were supposed to enforce the law across the United States while less than 60 vessels of the Coast Guard were supposed to patrol America’s “5,000 miles of saltwater coastline, plus another 1,450 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River” – a problem exasperated when rumrunners hired the same shipyards as the government to build faster boats.

Fence

Figure 2. If we’d only built the fence on the northern border, we’d know know how to do it again.

 

The federal government wasn’t the only available enforcer but Prohibitionists, who had used federalism so effectively on the way to achieving their national goal, ultimately lost the war locally. Concurrent jurisdiction allowed states to enforce the law but, as Okrent notes, “only eighteen states bothered to appropriate as much as a dollar for enforcement… By 1927 the dwindling number of states still spending any money on Prohibition enforcement together appropriated less than 15 percent of what they allocated for the enforcement of fish and game laws.” Maryland never even passed a law to enforce Prohibition and it wasn’t before long that others, most notoriously New York, repealed their local regulations. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the highest-ranking woman in American government up to that time, reflected that “It cannot truthfully be said that prohibition enforcement has failed in New York. It has not yet been attempted.” Without the armies of local law enforcement officers in cities, counties, and states, Prohibition could never really be tried.

Fish

Figure 3. In many states, you could drink like a fish so long as you didn’t fish like you drank.

 

But, even with the power it had, the federal government was either corrupt or stingy. Sometimes both. Warren G. Harding typified the corrupt: his Attorney General, one of two Cabinet officials designated to enforce Prohibition, ordered that seized liquor be delivered to himself and his friends. Calvin Coolidge typified the stingy: Walter Lippmann described Coolidge’s attitude toward government as “far from being indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity.” The other Cabinet official responsible for Prohibition was the Secretary of Treasury, and one man held the position for most of the era: Andrew Mellon. Mellon shared Coolidge’s stingy attitude toward government but also opposed the law in principle because he detested the income tax and liked liquor. The 1920s were a glorious era when Republicans not only said they wanted to spend little money, but actually did. That being said, the stinginess was odd in one respect: enforcement brought back to the government in fines, penalties, and taxes more than three times its cost.

Coolidge

Figure 4. Keep cool with Coolidge, whose determined inactivity made him an underappreciated government executive.

 

Relatedly, federal patronage was crucial to Prohibition’s political support but counterproductive to actual enforcement. The ability to dole out jobs was useful to reward loyal politicians but the men who filled the roles were often incompetent or corrupt. Willebrandt complained that she only had preachers and wardheelers to enforce the law. When they finally tried to professionalize, becoming the famous Untouchables, the loss of patronage undermined Congressional support.

Chicago Way

Figure 5. “You wanna know how to continue Prohibition? They advertise on billboards, you advertise on radio. They win a sheriff’s race, you win a majority in Congress. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you continue Prohibition. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

 

There were gigantic loopholes in the law but Prohibitionists stringently stuck to blocking beer and wine from general distribution. As mentioned in my last email, the phrase “intoxicating” had been left intentionally undefined by the 18th amendment. Many believed that the drys were only targeting hard liquor and were surprised by Congress banning the distribution of all alcohol, which was in keeping with the Prohibitionists’ fears about substance abuse but seriously reduced political support. 

At the same time, the law provided for ultimately immense exceptions. Apple cider was allowed to appease the rural base. Whiskey prescriptions were allowed and soon reached over 10 million ailing patients a year, keeping some distilleries like Jack Daniel’s open while making Walgreen’s a national brand. Rorabaugh reports “Though state law controlled the amount of alcohol that could be purchased at one time, patients could buy liquor from multiple stores. Physicians could write unlimited prescriptions, and druggists had a powerful incentive to maximize total sales.” Some states were more honest than others. Okrent tells us: “Twelve forbade [medicinal alcohol] entirely, and nine more allowed doctors to prescribe only pure, tasteless, undiluted alcohol—no medicinal Old Grand-Dad, no therapeutic Jack Daniel’s, no curative ‘Rare Old Jamaica Rum / Imported in Wood / Exceptionally Fine.’” Wine exemptions were allowed for religious use, which worked fine for the centralized and hierarchical Catholic church but prompted a massive increase in the number of self-identified rabbis, many with suspiciously Irish surnames, some of whom opened up wine stores – “A typical one had a sign in the window reading ‘Kosher Wine for Sacramental Purposes’ and a rabbi behind the counter signing up customers to ‘join’ a synagogue at the same time they picked up the goods.” And, of course, these were just the legal ways to acquire alcohol. The courts did Prohibition no favors by insisting that alcohol passing through the U.S. from one foreign destination to another was necessarily permitted by treaty obligations – a boondoggle for rumrunners. 

And yet despite the unfunded, uneven, unenthusiastic, and unscrupulous enforcement, “To Wheeler, the law worked well enough in small-town America that it deserved to remain in place. He was optimistic that education and proper assimilation of immigrants to the standards that he espoused would dry out the cities in another generation,” reports Rorabaugh. Or, put another way, “Ultimately, drinkers with entrenched habits would die off, while a new generation would grow up abstinent under the salubrious influence of prohibition.” Tracking alcohol consumption in this era is fraught with difficulty but multiple independent analyses point to a drop of about 70% from before World War I to the early years of Prohibition, approximating when the movement against alcohol hit its pitch. While that left plenty of people drinking, that is still a dramatic decline! Harvard professor Mark Moore cites some related statistics:  “cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922.” Edward Behr claims that work absenteeism dropped 70%. Still, Cato’s Mark Thornton eloquently illustrates why the law in one way encouraged harder drinking: “Prohibition made it more difficult to supply weaker, bulkier products, such as beer, than stronger, compact products, such as whiskey, because the largest cost of selling an illegal product is avoiding detection.” In later years as the law was more openly defied, alcohol consumption rose but was still, according to analyses, more than a third lower than before World War I.

Wheeler

Figure 6. Wheeler believed time was on his side. It wasn’t. 

 

Whatever Wheeler’s optimism (or cynicism) about enforcement, his political acumen remained generally sharp, as Okrent relates: “a minority that has lost something will register its protest, he warned his fellow drys, but ‘the majority who have won the fight turn to other tasks.’” But the movement was shifting in a direction away from majority support, starting with their stringent “intoxicating” interpretation. Another permitted use of alcohol was for industrial purposes but, to prevent consumption, the government poisoned the product (a practice that continues today). Rorabaugh recounts the ensuing controversy: “After several New Yorkers died and hundreds were sickened by bad liquor in late 1926, Wayne Wheeler said, ‘The government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable, when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this alcohol is a deliberate suicide.’” 

Prohibitionists only got more extreme when Wheeler died in 1927 and as 1928 delivered a smashing electoral victory against the outright wet presidential candidate Al Smith. The ASL long had two factions, one dedicated to changing hearts, the other dedicated to changing laws. Wheeler had effectively managed the two but his successors did not. Spurred by the enthusiasm of controlling the machinery of law while facing embarrassment from the exposure of personal and family vices, they alienated donors like John D. Rockefeller, who withdrew support. Wheeler had always insisted on making dryness a bipartisan issue but it was threatened on both sides: urban wets became increasingly powerful in the Democrat Party as Republican financiers began funding efforts to repeal Prohibition in hopes that restored alcohol taxes could replace again the despised income tax. Nevertheless, emboldened by the 1928 election results, the ASL pushed for more aggressive enforcement than ever.

The drys were especially overconfident because the political system seemed so tilted in their favor. In order to repeal the 18th amendment, a process that had never happened in American history, the wets would need 2/3 of both houses of Congress AND the approval of 36 states. Every decade, the United States is supposed to go through a process of reapportionment in which some states get more Congressmen and some states get fewer based on population growth and decline. Partially because doing so in 1920 would have given more power to urban wet states, Congress did not bother – an unprecedented and never repeated act in American history. Okrent vividly illustrates why this mattered:

“Detroit provided an outstanding example of the inequities. Its population had doubled between the 1910 census and the unacknowledged 1920 census, but its congressional representation had remained constant; as a result, its two House members represented 497,000 people each, while in the House as a whole the average congressman stood for 212,000. As the decade stretched on, the imbalance only grew worse. By 1929 one of those Detroit districts was home to more than 1.3 million people, while at the same moment ten separate districts in Missouri contained fewer than 180,000 people each.”

So getting 2/3 of both houses of Congress was going to be difficult. But so was getting 36 states: 5% of Americans could block repeal. Rorabaugh recounts “As late as September 1930, the dry senator Morris Sheppard (D-TX), author of the Eighteenth Amendment, boasted, ‘There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.’” And so what? The drys had their law and the wets would have their liquor. Why wasn’t everyone happy?

1929 turned out to be a doomsday year for the drys, even if Prohibition limped along for four more years. Like the lead up to Prohibition, three crucial events would lead to its end.

First, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre horrified Americans and helped build the narrative that Prohibition empowered violent gangsters. The brutal murder of seven bootleggers, conducted by men in police uniforms, was publicly blamed and probably actually conducted on the orders of rival Al Capone. Capone courted publicity more than any other gangster of his era and contributed to a growing outrage that criminals, rather than taxpayers, profited from Prohibition. As alluded to above, the desire to get Capone (and others like him) led to some professionalization of related federal law enforcement that reduced patronage opportunities for Congressional supporters. Somewhat ironically, James Q. Wilson observed “there is not much evidence that crime (except for a few well-publicized gangland killings) went up during Prohibition.” Relatedly, Emily Owens finds that “on average, murder rates did not increase when alcohol markets were criminalized. Observed crime trends during the early 20th century are primarily explained by demographic changes.” Still, federal courts were flooded with Prohibition cases, prisons jumped in population, and crime probably became better organized. Regardless of the truth, the feeling, perpetuated by Hollywood, was that Prohibition drove crime – and was not the panacea to solve social ills that advocates had promised.

Nucky Thompson

Figure 8. “First rule of politics, kiddo: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” – Nucky Thompson

 

Second, the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform was founded by a well-heeled well-organized wet Republican who destroyed the image that women were universally for Prohibition. More than anything, the WONPR leadership was fed up with hypocrisy and disrespect for law. And yet “to avoid the charge that it favored saloons or drunkenness,” Rorabaugh recounts, “the WONPR stressed that it wanted rigorous government regulation of the alcohol industry.” This gave politicians substantial room to maneuver, though they still managed some ambiguity, with many insisting that they would vote to send a Constitutional amendment repealing the 18th to the states for the people to decide. Over the coming years, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (which labeled the WONPR, not inaccurately, a bunch of snobs) and the ASL (without Wheeler) would be politically outmatched.

Third, and most importantly, the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Depression and a government extremely thirsty for alcohol tax revenue. Relatedly, “previously dry newspapers clamored for the bill because they needed alcohol ads to survive the Depression.” Appropriate for such a deft politician, FDR was ambiguous about his feelings on Prohibition for as long as possible. As a state senator FDR had been feted by the Anti-Saloon League for pushing liquor controls. His wife Eleanor was “a committed dry whose father and brother had died of alcoholism.” When seeking gubernatorial reelection, “He said that he favored law enforcement, a hollow promise considering that Smith had repealed New York’s state enforcement law in 1923.” When seeking the presidency, “Whenever Franklin Roosevelt was asked about Prohibition, he stressed that the economy was a far more important issue.” Finally elected President in a landslide, FDR aggressively deployed patronage to repeal Prohibition (and help pay for his programs) in 1933. Instantly, alcohol taxes constituted 9% of federal revenue.

Had the drys been as nimble and flexible during Prohibition as they had been in achieving Prohibition, had there not been a Great Depression, Prohibition may have gone on for decades. Even with a continuous liquor clientele and women voting similarly to men, the Constitution’s strict requirements for amendment are very hard to meet (hence why we have only 27). But because of federalism and that liquor clientele making the business profitable whether legal or not, there would always be something available. The worst part of Prohibition repeal is that we didn’t also get a repeal of the income tax!

There are some interesting side effects of Prohibition: Coca-Cola sales had tripled and the drink became a national pastime; NASCAR evolved from fast cars to escape law enforcement; the cruise industry developed in order to serve liquor in international waters. But the biggest surprise of Prohibition was that alcohol’s social stigma somehow declined in its illegality. Women had drank 1/6th of men in the 19th century and did not frequent masculine saloons unless they were prostitutes but were very welcome in speakeasies. Okrent reports “A scholarly survey of 115 films released in 1929 established that drinking—virtually all of it illegal, of course—was depicted in 66 percent of them, more often than not favorably.” Rorabaugh suggests: “Because the safest place to drink without being arrested was at home, the middle class invented the home cocktail party.” One fascinating counter-factual: if the drys had continued their progress in social ostracizing of liquor without banning it nationwide, what would have happened?

Nerds

Figure 9. Nerds reading this history, eager for social acceptance, pledged to make Dungeons and Dragons illegal – and therefore cool.

 

The biggest surprise after Prohibition is that alcohol consumption remained depressed for decades afterward. Consumption slowly climbed to a number approximating that immediately before Prohibition in 1973 but declined again in the 1980s, such that our per capita consumption today is 20% below our ancestors immediately before Prohibition (and 67% smaller than our ancestors before the Civil War).

There are a few theories on this. First, Prohibition changed the culture. Rorabaugh points out that “an American born in 1900 could not drink legally until age thirty-three, past the age when use normally peaks.”

Second, ironically, alcohol was potentially harder to procure after Prohibition than during. As Okrent pithily puts it, “what was formally illegal was necessarily unregulated.” Rockefeller aggressively distributed reports to journalists and legislators, instructed lawyers to draft model laws, and lobbied to get them passed, such that many states that repealed Prohibition nevertheless tightly regulated the flow of alcohol very close to ASL preferences in the lead-up. In the 1980s, there was a fresh (and successful) push from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to raise the legal drinking age to 21. 

Third, Rorabaugh attributes the decrease to America’s changing demographics. An older America is a sober America: “Consumption drops with each decade of adult life, and by age sixty-five a majority of people are abstainers.” The drop in the 1980s may have been due to “women entering the professional workforce in large numbers” and changing boozy work habits. Women generally drink less than men but have been even more disinclined after the federal government began publishing warnings that alcohol consumption was a danger to pregnant women (somewhat relatedly, it’s notable that infant mortality appears to have risen after Prohibition’s repeal). Ironic for the nativists who supported Prohibition, immigrants are reducing America’s drinking: 

“Mexican American men drink about as much as their Anglo counterparts in their twenties, but they drink much less after marriage because more than half of Mexican American women are teetotalers. When one partner in a couple does not drink, the other partner drinks less… Many Asians have the alcohol flush gene, which causes small amounts of alcohol to produce an unpleasant hot flash. Persons with this gene or from areas where the gene is common tend to be abstainers. African Americans continue to be light drinkers, and half of black women do not drink. Muslim immigrants are unlikely to drink for religious reasons. Members of certain Native American tribes drink heavily, but the country’s heartiest drinkers are white Americans who remain true to their European origins.”

Per capita consumption can also be a misleading statistic. According to the U.S. Justice Department, about half of Americans have less than a drink a month. If that surprises you, it may be because of your social circle: higher education is correlated with alcohol consumption. But, to return to the earlier data set from the 19th century, what that really means is that those who drink can drink a lot. 

There was a report in the early 20th century that “calculated that alcohol was responsible for 50 percent of crime, 45 percent of desertion of children, 42 percent of broken homes, and 25 percent of poverty.” Before we think we’re well-past that, we should acknowledge the continuous problem society has with alcohol, where one expert today says that most people in prison today were drunk when they committed their crimes.

Alcoholics Anonymous is an organization that calls on members to acknowledge their problem and then come to believe that a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity. To AA, that power is God. To Prohibitionists, it also included the government – and it didn’t work out like they hoped.

Prohibition is a fascinating history of political machinations but also of what people find worthy of righteousness – it was very easy to think that opponents of Prohibition were on the “wrong side of history” in 1920, when 46 out of 48 states had 80% of their elected representatives cast their lot with Prohibition. For anyone who cares passionately about persuading the public of some great good, the story is worth knowing from beginning to end.

Prohibition book

Figure 13. Click here to buy Prohibition: A Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh. 10/10. I’m obligated to Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution for recommending these books and providing lots of interesting thoughts on the subject generally. Cowen says about this book: “Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.”

Last Call

Figure 14. Click here to buy Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It’s longer and thus includes more material, has some excellent turns of phrase, but isn’t quite as good.

 

Thanks for reading! You can find part 1 of this series, about how Prohibition ended, here: Dry Humor. If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

The Drinking Age

The Gist: 100 years ago, Congress voted to ban America’s 5th largest industry (and the source of ~40% of government revenue). It took a cultural movement, an income tax, women getting the vote, and World War I.

Part 1 of a review of Prohibition: a Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh and Last Call by Daniel Okrent. See Part 2, “Dry Humor” here.

Sign up for Grant Starrett’s non-fiction book reviews (complete with terrible cartoons):

I don’t drink alcohol but I socialize often “over drinks,” as the time immediately after work is called. Meeting at a bar, new companions often ask if it’s okay if they indulge. “Go ahead,” I say. “I am a teetotaler, not a Prohibitionist.”

Prohibition today is little more than an (unspiked) punchline or a hazy memory. But in the middle history of America, Prohibition was a cause embraced with as much fervor (and by many of the same people) as the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage. Frederick Douglas, pledging never to drink again, claimed “if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery.” Susan B. Anthony entered politics to fight for temperance.

Figure 1. Were the world sober, we might face other problems: a significant downturn in the tattoo industry. Underpopulation. Or, most significant of all, jokes would have to be funnier.

Figure 1. Were the world sober, we might face other problems: a significant downturn in the tattoo industry. Underpopulation. Or, most significant of all, jokes would have to be funnier.

 

W.J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History lives up to its promise with a pithy overview. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call expands on the subject – perhaps a chaser to Rorabaugh’s shot. In today’s edition of Sober History, we’ll explore the extraordinary story of how Prohibition came to be (despite the fact that alcohol was America’s fifth largest industry and provided around 40% of federal government revenue.)

Before the Civil War, the average adult white male drank nearly two bottles of whiskey a week – about 90 bottles a year. By modern accounting, that amount of daily consumption, even spread over an eight hour period, would be more than twice the legal limit for driving – and more than three times the average consumption today.

Figure 2. A properly trained horse was the self-driving car of its day. Your trusty steed “Uber” could get you home but couldn’t do anything for your liver.

Figure 2. A properly trained horse was the self-driving car of its day. Your trusty steed “Uber” could get you home but couldn’t do anything for your liver.

 

There was an economic rationale as “whiskey cost less than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk, and it was safer than water.” But that explanation isn’t entirely satisfactory: men drank nearly six times as much as women, who suffered the consequences. Drinking was cultural: George Washington lost his first election when he failed to distribute enough alcohol to voters. Sam Houston stated with some contempt that his teetotaling Tennessee contemporary (and eventually America’s greatest president) James K. Polk was a “victim of the use of water as a beverage.”

Figure 3. New theory for why Sam Houston left for Texas: the Tennessee Constitution explicitly forbids the distribution of drinks for votes and bans violators from office for 6 years.

Figure 3. New theory for why Sam Houston left for Texas: the Tennessee Constitution explicitly forbids the distribution of drinks for votes and bans violators from office for 6 years.

While plenty of alcohol was homemade, notoriety centered around the saloon. Rorabaugh relates: “The unemployed or unemployable drunkard abandoned his family so that the wife and children sometimes faced starvation while the husband and father debauched himself.” Spousal and child abuse, assault, even murder was committed under the influence of alcohol, which soon earned the credit. The margins on alcohol weren’t especially good for proprietors so they turned to additional offerings, including “gambling and prostitution, which brought financial ruin and sexually transmitted diseases.” Okrent paints the sorry picture: 

“A drunken husband and father was sufficient cause for pain, but many rural and small-town women also had to endure the associated ravages born of the early saloon: the wallet emptied into a bottle; the job lost or the farmwork left undone; and, most pitilessly, a scourge that would later in the century be identified by physicians as ‘syphilis of the innocent’—venereal disease contracted by the wives of drink-sodden husbands who had found something more than liquor lurking in saloons.”

Figure 4. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, things go terribly unbearably wrong. Stay sober, my friends.”

Figure 4. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, things go terribly unbearably wrong. Stay sober, my friends.”

 

Evangelical Christians were horrified. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. At first preaching only against whiskey, they eventually demanded teetotal abstinence, lest drunkards trade one poison for another, and began a debate about whether the wine mentioned in the Bible was actually grape juice. Evangelicals managed to persuade a few states to change their laws but were far more effective at changing hearts: “by 1840, nearly half of Americans had taken the pledge” to quit drinking altogether, resulting in the fact that “between 1825 and 1850, the amount of alcohol consumed per person in the United States dropped by half.” With that stupendous success, less people were drinking but those who did were as boozy as ever.

Figure 5. Water into grape juice was not a miracle greeted with nearly as much enthusiasm

Figure 5. Water into grape juice was not a miracle greeted with nearly as much enthusiasm

 

Still, you can almost understand that contemporaries thought that alcohol abstinence was going to be easier and happen sooner than abolition of slavery. Some “reformers saw alcohol as the greater problem: Drinking took place throughout the country, while slavery was relegated to the South.”

As Rorabaugh relates, they were changing the culture! 

“The use of alcohol became socially unacceptable, particularly in middle-class circles in small towns. Middle-class employers refused to employ anyone who drank. To advance in business or society, a person found it necessary to abstain. Advice books and novels, which were beginning to circulate among the middle class, told young women not to marry any man who drank,” 

including such slogans as “Lips that touch wine shall never touch mine.” Henry Ford would go so far as hiring detectives to check “garbage cans at workers’ homes for liquor bottles.” One of the first major credit rating agencies included in their evaluation business owners’ drinking habits, reserving the highest rating for teetotalers while “anyone with an interest in the liquor industry was all but eliminated as a borrower.” Desiring places to gather and socialize beyond the saloon, teetotalers built their own, including Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the eventual home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Figure 6. Country music would not always prove to be the tribute to sobriety that Ryman might have hoped, where lyrics like “If You Like Whiskey, Let’s Get Frisky” have become more common.

Figure 6. Country music would not always prove to be the tribute to sobriety that Ryman might have hoped, where lyrics like “If You Like Whiskey, Let’s Get Frisky” have become more common.

 

The temperance movement was especially remarkable because it was the one area of public life in which women could participate as equals – and even leaders. The struggle for women’s suffrage was linked closely in the public mind with the abolishment of alcohol, as Okrent suggests: “They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. They wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect their children from being terrorized by them.”  

A great spark was the Women’s Crusade, a civil disobedience movement in 1870s Ohio. Responding to a call to arms from churches, women began to surround saloons, singing hymns, praying on their knees, and insisting they wouldn’t leave until the dens of deceit closed for good. Amazingly, many did! But even when the movement died down, saloon proprietors were increasingly social pariahs. And, so long as we’re on the subject of direct action, we should introduce to Carry A. Nation. Decades after the Women’s Crusade, unsatisfied with mere prayer, Nation took a hatchet to any illegal liquor she could get near, prompting many a bar to display a sign that said “All nations welcome – except Carry!”

Most women were not inclined to violence; in the spirit of the Crusade, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded to organize against alcohol with speakers, materials, and lobbying. Frances Willard was the long-time leader and her slogan was “Do everything.” And the WCTU did, to the harm of their core cause against liquor. Her “Protestant nuns,” fighting for “Home Protection,” were naturally for getting the vote “but also for prison reform, free kindergartens, and vocational schools” while simultaneously being against “gambling, tobacco, opium, pornography and prostitution.” When Willard became a “Christian socialist,” she began “agitating for the eight-hour day, workers’ rights, and government ownership of utilities, railroads, factories, and (she was nothing if not eclectic) theaters. Along the way she also took up the causes of vegetarianism, cremation” and other unrelated topics, previewing the fact that women were not one-issue voters. Eventually, they would even coin the phrase “equal pay for equal work.” Simultaneous to their almost comically broad agenda, however, was a deadly serious opposition to compromise, refusing to sanction anything but total abstinence from alcohol.

Stringent and unfocused, the WCTU could only get so far – but they did manage one significant coup: a substantial takeover of the public school system. Rorabaugh reports that “WCTU members interviewed candidates for teaching positions, and school boards were pressured to hire only abstainers.” Over half of American public schools used textbooks approved by the WCTU and by the end of the 19th century, Okrent reveals “twenty-two million schoolchildren in a given year were administered their three-times-a-week serving of temperance education.” Willard warned Congress: “The day is surely coming when from the schoolhouses all over the land will come trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon.”

Figure 7. Compare to today, when students go to school to learn how to drink, such as at Μπύρα fraternity house.

Figure 7. Compare to today, when students go to school to learn how to drink, such as at Μπύρα fraternity house.

 

But perhaps the most powerful special interest group in American history was the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), ably led by Wayne Wheeler. The ASL was ruthlessly focused on alcohol, tactically flexible in accepting any progress toward their goal, and merciless in punishing opponents. Marketed to the general public as opposed to the worst excesses of alcohol consumption found in the saloon, they were financed by membership dues, church offerings, and a guarantee from the richest man in America, teetotaler John D. Rockefeller, that he’d contribute 10 cents for every dollar they received elsewhere.

Figure 8. America’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos, is unlikely to finance a prohibitionist organization given the amount of drunk online impulse buying.

Figure 8. America’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos, is unlikely to finance a prohibitionist organization given the amount of drunk online impulse buying.

 

The WCTU cared about everything. The ASL cared about one thing. The WCTU refused to work with anyone who drank. The ASL was happy if politicians voted as they prayed, rather than as they drank. The WCTU was excited about the dismally performing Prohibition Party. The ASL wanted majorities of all parties dry and were indifferent to partisan identification. In elections, the WCTU chose only the driest possible candidates. The ASL chose the driest candidate who could win and hold a seat for the long term – and then backed them to the hilt with training, volunteers, cash, and endorsements from the dry press and the church pulpits.

The ASL’s strategy was to systematically dry out America. “In 1910, half of all Americans lived on farms or in towns with fewer than two thousand people.” The ASL started by pushing states to allow counties to ban alcohol. Once large majorities of counties had banned alcohol – and weakened the local liquor lobby – they pushed statewide prohibition. If they couldn’t get a ban, they’d heavily regulate the industry by “stopping sales on Sundays, imposing closing hours, limiting the number of liquor licenses, creating dry zones around churches and schools, setting age restrictions, or banning sales to known alcoholics.”

Figure 9. The last step before Prohibition was to allow alcohol only to be purchased exclusively with penny rolls every other Friday but only 2 hours after the last business closed and before any other opened from the one retailer who was 100 miles from any church or school, so long as you were over 35 and never purchased any alcohol before. Still, given the extraordinary strength of the 19th century dollar, you could get quite a bit for your penny rolls.

Figure 9. The last step before Prohibition was to allow alcohol only to be purchased exclusively with penny rolls every other Friday but only 2 hours after the last business closed and before any other opened from the one retailer who was 100 miles from any church or school, so long as you were over 35 and never purchased any alcohol before. Still, given the extraordinary strength of the 19th century dollar, you could get quite a bit for your penny rolls.

 

With plenty of experience in local regulation, what the ASL desired more than anything was to continue the social ostracization of liquor:

“Some drys naively believed that if the law were passed, it would be honored, but this proved to be untrue in large cities, mining districts, seaports, or logging areas with large numbers of single young men. Other drys were more cynical. They knew the state laws would not be enforced; however, their main concern was not to stop individual drinkers but the alcohol industry. By making the industry illegal, everyone connected to it could be made odious. This would force respectable people out of the liquor business.”

Eventually, the ASL concluded America was sufficiently arid to push for a national constitutional amendment. They directed their allies in Congress to hold a vote in 1914. They lost. But that was the point: they wanted the names of everyone who opposed them. After all, the group’s founder stated their mission: “the Anti-Saloon League is formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.”

Figure 10. Not to be confused with the Anti-Salon League, which was formed for the purpose of opposing dying - an objective that often required clarification for cryogenic freezing enthusiasts seeking to join.

Figure 10. Not to be confused with the Anti-Salon League, which was formed for the purpose of opposing dying – an objective that often required clarification for cryogenic freezing enthusiasts seeking to join.

 

The ASL had certainly set the stage but they could not have achieved their goal without three events and the support of an unruly coalition. It’s easy to think in the modern era that Prohibition was imposed on America by conservatives but some of the earlier referenced positions of the WCTU – led by a Christian socialist – reveal the odd politics. Against the liquor lobby and its consumers were feminists suspicious of men drinking; nativists suspicious of immigrants drinking; racists suspicious of minorities drinking; rural voters suspicious of urban drinking; patriots suspicious of beer manufacturers; commercial interests that sought to benefit as substitutes to alcohol; prayerful Evangelical teetotalers convinced that alcohol was poisonous to the soul; and, new on the scene, Progressives convinced by contemporary science that alcohol was poisonous to the body and to society.

And yet Okrent calculates that the alcohol industry was America’s fifth largest in the lead up to Prohibition – and controlled or owned 70% of American saloons, themselves centers of political power in urban machines. The fight was bound to be brutal – in Tennessee, statewide Prohibition only passed after the leading dry, the editor of the Tennessean, was gunned down on the streets of Nashville.

Three events enabled Prohibition: women receiving the right to vote, the income tax, and America’s entry into World War I.

The funny thing about women earning the right to vote is that they voted fairly similarly to men on Prohibition but, because of temperance propaganda, were thought to be militantly for it. The alcohol industry was perhaps the largest opponent to women’s suffrage, pushing arguments like: “God pity our country when the handshake of the politician is more gratifying to woman’s heart than the patter of children’s feet.” With women’s suffrage imminent, politicians perceived a great wave of support for Prohibition and promptly voted for their own political survival. That women were not of one mind on politics would prove significant soon enough.

The second major event that prompted Prohibition was a constitutional amendment that allowed an income tax. Until the 20th century, America financed its government primarily through tariffs, land sales, and alcohol taxes. Alexander Hamilton thought the alcohol tax ideal, especially for the size of government he envisioned: Uncle Sam could get revenue from (and discourage) a popular unproductive activity roughly evenly distributed across states! In the lead up to Prohibition, up to 40% of federal government revenue (not to mention local revenue) came from alcohol taxes. Prohibitionists saw that number as an embarrassment – a testament to the tax’s ineffectiveness in suppressing alcohol consumption – but needed a revenue replacement. They successfully proposed an income tax, which had the dual political advantages of not only being concentrated on the rich but also geographically: in the first year, 44% of income tax revenue for the entire country came from New York. The tax issue, too, would soon prove significant.

Figure 11. Most Americans even today would probably be very comfortable giving about half of the burden of paying for the federal government to New York.

Figure 11. Most Americans even today would probably be very comfortable giving about half of the burden of paying for the federal government to New York.

 

And what about World War I? There are some interesting smaller reasons: there were food shortages in Britain and France and so people reasonably thought foodstuffs should go to eaters rather than drinkers. Protestant congregations had set aside their theological differences to mobilize America for war and briefly kept united for Prohibition. But the main reason World War I mattered was an earlier decision by the brewers. 

Most politicians did not want to be seen to be taking money directly from the liquor lobby so the industry decided to launder their money through a tangentially related cultural group with 2 million members. Unfortunately for them, it was the German-American Alliance, founded by Kaiser Wilhelm II. When America entered the war, it was suddenly scandalous to have ever taken money from them. But it wasn’t merely a laundering operation, Adolphus Busch, the leading brewer in the United States had personally “been decorated by the Kaiser,” had two sons-in-law in the German army, and owned a million dollars of German war bonds. His son “threw annual parties at his Missouri farm in honor of the Kaiser’s birthday” and his widow, vacationing in Germany when war broke out, decided to stick out the war there – and cared for German wounded at her villa. The liquor lobby, long internally divided and inherently controversial, was now under Congressional investigation and unpopularly associated with America’s enemies.

Figure 12. One disadvantage of winning the Cold War so soon is that the Soviet Union made a very appropriate endorser of big government.

Figure 12. One disadvantage of winning the Cold War so soon is that the Soviet Union made a very appropriate endorser of big government.

 

So, when the Prohibition amendment came up again, times had changed. Even more popular than supporters realized, it sailed through Congress and passed through the necessary 36 states in less than 400 days. All but 2 states ended up supporting the amendment, and within the 46 supporting states, more than 80% of state legislators voted for it. Some context is notable here because legislative districts up until the 1960s were not of equal size – so “in New York, for example, the legislature was configured in such a fashion that an urban assemblyman might represent seven times as many people as the rural representative at the next desk.” But it was still a huge victory for the ASL, whose leader Wayne Wheeler frequently noted “God made the country but man made the city.”

The popularity for the concept overshadowed some thorny legal issues:

    • Should the alcohol industry be compensated for their losses? No. Poison-peddlers were thought to be in the same category as slave-owners. But they were given a year to dispose of their goods.
    • Would Prohibition empower the federal government at the expense of the states? Southerners were hypersensitive about this but mollified by language granting federal and state governments concurrent jurisdiction. But federalism would ultimately be a major contributor to Prohibition’s downfall
    • Should consumption of alcohol be banned? Nope, though the Amendment banned the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating beverages. You could store and drink as much as you wanted – which the rich did, including the Yale Club, which ended up having enough to last the entire 14 year period of Prohibition. 
    • What beverages qualified as “intoxicating,” and therefore banned from commercial use? TBD. The ASL in particular embraced this ambiguity, leaving some people to believe only whiskey would be affected by the amendment. Stringent interpretation would ultimately undermine popular support.

And then there was the fact that the Constitution was primarily a document that limited government, not citizens. Were there any who opposed Prohibition because it took away freedom? Prominent Republican Elihu Root was one, saying that Prohibition “takes away the chief pleasure in life for millions of men who have never been trained to get their pleasure from art, or literature, or sports, or reform movements.” Yet his primary contribution was to argue before the Supreme Court, passionately but comically, that the new constitutional amendment was unconstitutional. He lost. And predictably, when the public rejoinder to his plea for pleasure came from Wayne Wheeler: “Did you ever hear of a man eating so much pie or cake or anything of that kind that he’d go home and shoot up the family?”

So, alcohol was banned! (More or less). Prohibition was the result of decades of concern and agitation about how the heavy consumption of alcohol had led to America’s problems, Evangelical social isolation of alcohol’s users and providers, and an especially adept lobbying organization in the ASL that mobilized a heterogenous coalition with perfect timing.

A new popular song typified the mood: “I Never Knew I Had A Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry.” Now social ills could be cured, men could be good husbands again, and everyone could be a good American! And yet problems lay ahead as clear as vodka. More to come in my next email.

Prohibition book

Figure 13. Click here to buy Prohibition: A Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh. 10/10. I’m obligated to Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution for recommending these books and providing lots of interesting thoughts on the subject generally. Cowen says about this book: “Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.”

Last Call

Figure 14. Click here to buy Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It’s longer and thus includes more material, has some excellent turns of phrase, but isn’t quite as good.

 

Thanks for reading! You can find part 2 of this series, about how Prohibition ended, here: Dry Humor. If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

Whatever sinks your boat!

The Gist: How the U.S. Navy deep state defied the Constitution
to pursue defeat of Japan.

A review of Execute Against Japan by Joel Ira Holwitt.

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If you think about World War II submarines, chances are your mind concentrates on the intense German u-boat effort to sink Allied shipping. Perhaps you might even experience claustrophobic flashbacks to watching Das Boot. A primarily land power facing a primarily sea power, Germany embraced a submarine strategy to avoid major sea battles and attempt to choke off supplies from their last standing western European foe, the United Kingdom.

This strategy was their best naval option but it was also illegal under the international law conveniently created by those who would suffer the most from its use, naturally including the U.K. but also the United States, who had idealistically stood for open sea lanes since 1776, entered the War of 1812 and World War I on this primary justification, and even collected reparations from previous conflicts. In addition to our own strategic reasons, the once and future allies proclaimed humanitarian reasons: in a just war, civilian casualties were to be avoided as much as possible. Unrestricted submarine warfare meant the deliberate targeting of civilian ships manned by civilians. Over the course of World War II, “the unarmed British merchant marine lost almost 33,000 sailors out of 185,000 who went to sea, a 17 percent fatality rate that proportionally exceeded the fatality rates of any of the British armed services.” In other words, a civilian sailor in the British merchant marine was more likely to die from enemy attack than someone in the infantry on the front – and it would have been far worse had the British not broken the German codes.

Figure 1. It’s sort of like if in dodgeball all the tall kids insisted that you couldn’t throw below the belt. Or when some football teams were so frustrated by opposing defenses that they insisted that new rules ensure that the quarterback and receivers get special protection - leading to the current era of record-breaking pass yardage.
Figure 1. It’s sort of like if in dodgeball all the tall kids insisted that you couldn’t throw below the belt. Or when some football teams were so frustrated by opposing defenses that they insisted that new rules ensure that the quarterback and receivers get special protection - leading to the current era of record-breaking pass yardage.

After the war, the German leadership was put on trial, including Karl Donitz, the principal architect of their naval strategy, for waging unrestricted submarine warfare. Intervening on his behalf was a perhaps unexpected supporter: American admiral Chester Nimitz, who told the tribunal that from the very day of America’s entry into the war, we had also waged unrestricted submarine warfare.

Joel Holwitt’s Execute Against Japan is a revealing history I discovered perusing the Chief of Navy Operations’ reading program. Holwitt tells the story of how America evolved from champion of open waters to expert denier of them through a sound strategic shift accomplished practically by military coup in defiance of specific and unambiguous treaty obligations of the United States.

Figure 2. American submariners represented the truly deep state.
Figure 2. American submariners represented the truly deep state.

The story starts even before America and goes to the heart of what it means to maintain a Navy: “Transport over water has long proved to be the fastest, most reliable, and most efficient way to transport large numbers of people and quantities of supplies over extended distances. As a result, interdicting supplies at sea is one of the most vital missions of a belligerent navy.” Holwitt goes further: “without an ability to coerce enemy commerce, there was simply no point in having a fleet, besides coastal defense.” To win a tonnage war, you have one big goal: sink transports faster than the enemy can build them.

Figure 3. “Simply no point” goes too far. Sailing can be a relaxing pastime.
Figure 3. “Simply no point” goes too far. Sailing can be a relaxing pastime.

The British had the most powerful Navy in the world for a few centuries and they had a tendency to “confiscate any neutral ship carrying even the slightest amount of enemy cargo.” Of course, in order to ensure that ships did not have enemy cargo, they often had to stop and search them, sometimes being rather liberal in their interpretations of what constituted contraband. This was not especially popular among countries whose commerce was seized and so the Dutch led an effort in the early 1700s to limit the practice. After declaring independence, literally America’s first diplomatic statement, drafted by John Adams and Ben Franklin, was the Plan of 1776, which vigorously demanded freedom of the seas as a model condition of relations with the U.S.

After we won the Revolution, America remained steadfastly committed freedom of the seas and probably represented the most extreme view in the world. We fought Britain again in the War of 1812 when angered by their forced conscription of our sailors on the high seas. But perhaps the greatest American champion of open seas is not a president you often read about: Franklin Pierce. In his single term, Pierce “helped force Denmark to end the extortion of merchant ships coming through the Danish Sound,” opened up the River Plate in South America, and laid the foundation for the opening of the Amazon. At a time when nations of the world were negotiating a naval agreement to regulate commerce raiding and outlaw privateers, Pierce adamantly refused to give up state-sponsored piracy unless everyone agreed to “the immunity of private property.” Not wanting to totally give up a valuable tool of war, the other nations refused. 55 countries ended up signing up, but the U.S. was not among them. A decade later, the British provided the Confederacy with ships to raid Union commerce during the Civil War. The rebels were spectacularly successful and the American merchant marine didn’t really recover for another half-century. Still, when the war ended with union victory, the U.S. successfully sought financial reparations from Britain (though this was short of the original demand that the U.K. give over Canada).

Figure 4. Unfortunately, we were unable to Pierce British objections to freedom of the sea (nor liberate the 14th colony). True story reflecting the talented Mad Men of the 19th century: Franklin’s election slogan was “We Polked Them in ‘44. We Shall Pierce Them in ‘52.” He didn’t quite live up to his model.
Figure 4. Unfortunately, we were unable to Pierce British objections to freedom of the sea (nor liberate the 14th colony). True story reflecting the talented Mad Men of the 19th century: Franklin’s election slogan was “We Polked Them in ‘44. We Shall Pierce Them in ‘52.” He didn’t quite live up to his model.

It would not be the last time Britain played fast and loose in pursuit of their national interest. International law around World War I only permitted a close blockade of an enemy coast but Britain did not want to risk sending their Navy so close to Germany. Instead, the British Navy was “intercepting any ships bound for Europe and forcing them to detour to British ports for search and potential seizure.” This practice was illegal according to international law but very effective in curtailing German imports.

Germany’s solution was submarines – but while international law didn’t ban their use, it had only really contemplated surface fleets. The “prize” or “cruiser” rules “stipulated that a belligerent warship could stop a merchant ship on the high seas and search it for contraband cargo. If some contraband was found, it could be legally seized. If enough cargo was found, the merchant ship itself could be seized. If, under extraordinary circumstances, the warship commander found it necessary to sink the merchant ship, he had to take the crew on board as prisoners. A submarine, because of its small size, could do none of these things.” And Germany, despite some of the Kaiser’s ambitions, was not going to effectively compete with Britain on traditional terms. After American complaints in 1916, the Germans attempted to follow the rules by surfacing their submarines before attacks but then the British responded by arming their merchant ships – sometimes secretly in order to invite submarine attacks. In one notorious instance, the British flew American colors, sank a U-boat, and then “mercilessly murdered the German survivors.” Both sides knew that they were inviting the ire of the United States but eventually in 1917 Germany decided to resume underwater attacks in a desperate attempt to starve Britain into submission before the U.S. would be angered enough to enter the war.

Figure 5. Submarines are best utilized to run silent, run deep. Pulling over a ship and asking for license and registration is rather impractical.
Figure 5. Submarines are best utilized to run silent, run deep. Pulling over a ship and asking for license and registration is rather impractical.

Woodrow Wilson had run for re-election for President in 1916 on the slogan: “He kept us out of war.” Continuing the American tradition of advocating freedom of the seas, “Wilson was as offended by the British practice of intercepting American ships on the high seas and detouring them to British ports as he was by the German practice of sinking ships and leaving survivors to their fate.” He unsuccessfully attempted to get an agreement where the “the British would abolish their armed merchant ships and the Germans would consequently end all submerged unrestricted warfare.” Ultimately, we joined the British side because “the German unrestricted submarine campaign abandoned [American] noncombatants to possible death, while the British starvation blockade did not.” With American industrial capacity added, the Germans lost the tonnage war – and later paid America reparations for raiding our commerce.

As soon as the war ended, Britain called for the abolishment of submarines. In addition to their disruptive impact on British shipping, German submarines sank at least “5 out of the 13 British battleships lost in the war.” There was considerable irony in Britain, long a historical predator of enemy commerce, attempting to push for international law to limit the latest related technology. But they were always consistent with their national interest! Still, the Royal Navy was skeptical of national policy: “to ensure that no nation was making submarines would require an international agency with the authority to inspect all factories, workshops, and shipyards around the world… any nation that went to war with Great Britain would immediately start constructing submarines, so prohibiting submarine construction would only be effective for a short time.”

American policymakers shared their British counterparts’ sympathies on submarines but went further. In 1921, the U.S. successfully negotiated a treaty that limited the big ships of ourselves, the UK, Japan, France, and Italy, with the anglophone nations getting the most. Nevertheless, “the treaty set restrictions upon capital ships that caused the wholesale scrapping of numerous warships,” making it “perhaps one of the earliest, most effective, and sweeping arms limitation treaties ever signed and honored.” The U.S. wouldn’t build a new type of battleship until 1936. Major treaty restrictions on submarines, including authorizing the hanging of captains as pirates, were ratified by the U.S. Senate over Navy objections but were ultimately rendered void by a French veto. But what we did agree to was a reaffirmation of the prize rules: “submarines were required to remove a merchant ship’s crew to a place of safety before that ship could be sunk. A place of safety, furthermore, was not considered to be a lifeboat on the open sea. It did not matter if the merchant ship belonged to a belligerent nation or a neutral nation. It did not matter if a merchant ship was arguably in the service of a belligerent nation’s war machine. Regardless of origin or ownership, merchant ships could not be attacked without warning.”

Figure 6. So long as they were writing new rules, why not just require submarines to escort convoys directly to Big Ben?
Figure 6. So long as they were writing new rules, why not just require submarines to escort convoys directly to Big Ben?

The rules would soon be relevant again. During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, the nationalist leader Franco requested that Italy do something about Soviet supplies for his Communist opponents. Mussolini ordered unrestricted air and naval warfare against Soviet convoys across the Mediterranean. The British, French, and Soviets gathered in Switzerland and authorized harsh measures against unspecified “pirates” that stopped the Italians. For then. When World War II commenced, Germany was back at their central naval strategy of WWI, though with new carefulness about American shipping. Until American entry into the war, “only four American merchant ships were sunk,” half actually legally and the other half by mistake. Though not nearly as extensive as the German effort, Britain also began engaging in unrestricted submarine warfare within a year of entering the conflict – in retaliation, they said.

American civilian leadership was nevertheless as committed as ever to freedom of the sea, though it was more preached than enforced. Congress wanted nothing to do with the war and specifically banned trade with belligerents or using armed merchant ships. As late as mid-1941, FDR gave a national address boldly proclaiming: “All freedom—meaning freedom to live, and not freedom to conquer and subjugate other peoples—depends on freedom of the seas. All of American history—North, Central and South American history—has been inevitably tied up with those words, ‘freedom of the seas.’” Holwitt expands: “More than any other address Roosevelt had given, this fireside chat thoroughly elucidated his views on freedom of the seas and unrestricted warfare. He defined freedom of the seas as the right of merchant shipping to travel without the threat of attack. He stated that freedom of the seas applied to all oceans at all times. He clearly identified unrestricted warfare as the principal menace to freedom of the seas.”

His Navy, on the other hand, was developing alternative ideas – on its own and without consultation of civilian supposed superiors. Directly after WWI, amidst talk of international bans, the Navy cast submarines as scouts and skirmishers for bigger fleets – a role that had never been practiced by anyone else. Initially agreeing with civilian authorities, they proffered that unrestricted warfare was immoral but likely to be resumed by foreign powers. After all, Naval officers swore an oath to the Constitution, which included not only civilian deference but also a specific obligation to “treaties made…under the authority of the United States… [which] shall be the supreme law of the land.”

Figure 7. They apparently believed that the Constitution is “more what you call guidelines than actual rules”
Figure 7. They apparently believed that the Constitution is “more what you call guidelines than actual rules”

Simultaneously, the Navy was planning color-coded battle plans against potential enemies ranging from New Zealand to Germany. Among the most likely adversaries, and where a fight would involve the Navy most, was Japan: Plan Orange. From 1906 on, they went about

“exploring and rejecting numerous scenarios, such as a forward-deployed naval base like Gibraltar or Singapore, and the idea of a quick trans-Atlantic dash to reach the Pacific in the event of war. Eventually the Navy settled on a war plan that stressed a methodical trans-Pacific offensive, taking islands in the Japanese Mandate as stepping-stones to Japan. By the late 1930s naval planners expected the war to last for approximately three years before the U.S. Navy finally reached Japan and enforced a crippling blockade that would presumably force the Japanese to sue for peace… War Plan ORANGE’s projected blockade against Japan preyed upon Japan’s greatest strategic vulnerability: its reliance upon the importation of war matériel by sea. Except for a few natural resources, Japan required its merchant marine to import oil, steel, aluminum, and even foodstuffs… Unfortunately, by late 1940 the United States simply did not have the overwhelming naval forces necessary to conduct the blockade envisioned by War Plan ORANGE. The U.S. Navy was therefore in a tough position. It had to cut off Japan’s maritime trade, but lacked the surface fleet necessary to control the Western Pacific.”

Figure 8. An orange.
Figure 8. An orange.

The obvious solution was submarines waging unrestricted warfare. But this was illegal and contrary to American policy since 1776. Some bright folks at the the Naval War College thought we needed to officially change our approach but senior Navy leaders were not inclined to get into a bureaucratic fight with the State Department. Instead, uniformed Naval officers started to plan how they might wage war, even at one point consulting potential British allies, but NOT American civilian leadership. “Based on the documentation within the files of the Navy Department [along with the files of relevant civilian leaders], the Navy made little or no effort to consult the civilian leadership of the United States regarding the propriety of unrestricted warfare.”

10 days before Pearl Harbor, our commander in East Asia got secret permission to wage unrestricted warfare in case of conflict. And then the Chief of Naval Operations sent out a “war warning” to everyone that negotiations with Japan had broken down and that “an aggressive move by Japan is expected in the next few days.” Holwitt suggests: “For the United States, the Second World War started with a surprise attack, one that most naval officers expected. The Japanese, however, surprised virtually everyone with their choice of target.” Interestingly, though this would not be known for sometime and therefore could not be a basis for our actions contemporaneously, “the Japanese initiated unrestricted submarine warfare within minutes of the attack on Pearl Harbor” by attacking an American merchant ship.

Within five hours of the attack, per his secret orders, our commander in East Asia issued an order to wage unrestricted warfare. “The order to conduct unrestricted warfare was issued without any formal authorization by the civilian government of the United States.” 20 years later, the director of naval operations recalled that he got permission from President Roosevelt after the order had been issued – but even that has no contemporary documentary evidence. What’s clear is that civilian authorities never reversed the order and ultimately supported the policy – but they were also never consulted on the change. The Navy had been thinking about justifying the policy by blaming “Japanese atrocities in China and Japan’s shared guilt, as a member of the Axis, for the German unrestricted warfare.” But the outrage over Pearl Harbor proved sufficient.

Ultimately, it was the right strategic choice but our meandering way of going about it was both unconstitutional and left us not fully prepared to execute. In particular, producing submarines cannot be done instantaneously and the submarines we had on the eve of World War II were designed with the original purpose of scouting and skirmishing, not commerce raiding. Luckily:

The U.S. submarine force eventually proved capable of carrying out unrestricted warfare not because the fleet submarine had been designed for that purpose, but because the submarines had been designed for the difficult mission of naval combat in the Pacific Ocean… the U.S. fleet submarine’s high speed allowed it to proceed far ahead of American surface forces and maintain contact with enemy battle fleets, but it also allowed submarines to outflank slower merchant convoys. Submarines had the range to shadow Japanese fleet movements all the way from the Sea of Japan, but they could also stay on station for almost two months, allowing them to sink virtually anything crossing their patrol area. The large number of torpedoes and torpedo tubes on U.S. submarines allowed a submarine to shoot a mortal salvo of torpedoes into heavily protected battleships and aircraft carriers, but it also allowed American submarine commanders to persistently and tenaciously continue convoy battles when other, less-well-armed submarine commanders might have broken contact.

Among the most significant Pacific specific actions? Adding air conditioning to submarines after a test run had seen internal temperatures rise above 100 degrees with over 100% humidity – rendering the sub not only unpleasant but dangerous.

Still, not everything went well. “For the first year of the war, the U.S. submarine force was continually hampered by malfunctioning torpedoes, timid commanders, and improper doctrine.” Inexplicably, the Navy had never live-tested submarine torpedoes and perhaps 1 in 6 were actually working. Worse, the supplier of torpedoes “steadfastly insisted that the problem was not the Mark VI exploder but the aim of American submariners.” Training before the war had focused on unlikely methods of attack and it took a while to determine which commanders were aggressive. The only advantage to this slow start was that the Japanese were “lulled….into a false sense of security.”

“At the beginning of the war, Japan only had about 6 million tons of merchant shipping, and of that, only 525,000 tons of tankers.” Japan declared war on the United States because we were the world’s primary supplier of oil and we had ceased trading with them over their invasion of China. Their false hope was that they could defeat our Navy in a major battle and compel us to sue for peace, all the better if we resumed the flow of oil, though they simultaneously attacked French, Dutch, and British holdings in southeast Asia for their resources. Because the war was over resources, Japan should have been especially sensitive to protecting its convoys. Instead they “displayed an attitude regarding their merchant marine that can be only described as staggeringly nonchalant, inept, and incompetent.” They only permitted a third of their merchant marine to be used for civilian resource provision, inefficiently arranged routes, and failed to protect their transports using best practices.

So, despite our problems, we actually succeeded in the first principle of a tonnage war as early as 1942: we sank more than they constructed. Within two years, we sank their entire tanker fleet, depriving them of the oil they went to war over. By the end of the war, we sank nearly 90% of their merchant fleet – and the remainder was in very bad shape. Germany never succeeded with their campaign because England eventually fell back on American industrial capacity to provide more convoys and resources than Germany could sink along with a cohesive strategy to take out the German homeland. America succeeded because Japan was isolated and alone, incapable of major attacks on the American homeland, and our submarine campaign was part of a broader strategy, not the whole gambit.

Figure 9.  Click here to buy Execute Against Japan, 10/10. Learn about the hellcats of the Navy who pursued destination Tokyo and became the enemy below. But more interestingly: how America pursued a winning strategy that abandoned policy we advocated for since 1776 without input from any accountable civilian leadership.
Figure 9. Click here to buy Execute Against Japan, 10/10. Learn about the hellcats of the Navy who pursued destination Tokyo and became the enemy below. But more interestingly: how America pursued a winning strategy that abandoned policy we advocated for since 1776 without input from any accountable civilian leadership.

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