An Honorable Defeat

February 4th, 2013

An Honorable Defeat:  the last days of the confederate government, William C. Davis, Harcourt, Inc (2001)

I've never been a great civil war buff, but it's hard to live in the South for several years and not come out with some fascination with the matter.  That combined with my long standing interest in the early years of this republic to cause me to pick up An Honorable Defeat, which exhaustively recounts the final months of the war, from the perspective of the top civilian confederate leaders, in particular President Jefferson Davis, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, and Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge.

And it turns out to be a very interesting tale of those days, picking up around when Grant had Lee on the edge at Richmond, and following the escape of the government south first by train, then wagons, then horseback, as Lee surrendered to Grant, Johnston surrendered to Sherman, the remaining forces faced massive desertion, then looting and other lawlessness, and the officials faced escape and near escape.

Through it all is an amazing level of detail, derived from telegraph papers, official records from the various government departments, newspaper reports, and letters, diaries, and personal memoirs of all the primary figures and numerous secondary ones.

And from it all rises a picture of the participants.  Davis shown as unwilling to see the reality of the southern defeat, continually hoping and planning for a resurrection of a cause clearly lost, and not taking well anyone who challenged that assessment.  Benjamin characterized as a sycophantic toady, a yes man to Davis whose role could very well have caused the war to last many more weeks than necessary.  And former US vice president Breckinridge, newly appointed to the War Department position, whose subsequent actions were of one purpose:  get the confederacy to admit defeat as soon as possible, so as to put an end to the carnage, to obtain the best possible terms from Lincoln, and put the nation on the least painful path to reconstruction.

But Davis would have none of it, and countered all attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the north, generally by imposition of terms he knew would never be accepted (e.g. at the Hampton Roads conference, the "generals and wives" affair, and his instructions to Lee and Johnston).  Nonetheless Breckinridge persisted, and worked with his staff to show the south was unable to continue fighting, with the Confederate legislature to challenge continued prosecution of the war, with Lee and Johnston to get them to negotiate (only partially successfully) terms applicable to the entire confederate forces rather than the armies individually, and with Davis to get him to recognize the true nature of their situation.

Meanwhile the government and it's treasury proceeded south in progressively deteriorating conditions, but at almost a leisurely pace, set by Davis' undying confidence that a miracle would happen to allow the Confederacy to keep going.  He thought he could rally the people to just a little more sacrifice, and join up with armies to the West, failing to realize that those, too, were on the verge of collapse.  But somehow they carry on, even to the point of maintaining scrupulous records of all disbursements from the treasury, as the Union armies close in.

President Davis wanted to continue the war as a guerrilla action, but this was one of the things Breckinridge was most worried about, and tried most to avoid in spending so much energy counseling Lee and Johnston as they prepared to surrender.  To this end he tried to cause their actions to encompass as much of the confederate forces as possible, to leave as little as possible on which Davis could hang hopes of further military action.   Breckinridge feared an army of irregular partisans, living off the land and sniping Union forces from the sides, in that they would most likely also be stealing from the countryside for sustenance and generally causing more harm than good.  He characterized this possible outcome as a "farce" that would destroy any remaining vestige of honor in the southern cause.  It appears that he tried everything short of a coup, to attain a constitutional end to the conflict. 

We all know of the appalling slavery that played a major part in events surrounding that history, both in the form of chattel slavery imposed on black people in the south, and that of the draft imposed by Lincoln to preserve the Union (and also by the Confederates for their part).  But the interests of federal versus national government were also in play leading up to the conflict, and the suppression of that rebellion laid the groundwork for great expansion in the power of the government.  I have recently wondered whether the gradualist approach taken in Brazil to emancipation would perhaps have been a less painful solution to the problem than the civil war in this country, which left over 600,000 dead, as many injured, the vast destruction of property (mostly in the South), and social conflict persisting to this day.  We all know the South lost the war, but this tale of honor amidst the hopelessness of those final months is quite effective in portraying these men, in spite of their failings, as wholly dedicated to the cause and people they thought to represent.

Not a perfect book, to be sure.  A common family among some participants is confusing when only the last name is given.  And when aliases are taken the characters are sometimes referred to in those names.  And a few typesetting and editing errors as well.  However, extensively footnoted and referenced, and augmented with a helpful map tracing the escape routes, and numerous photos of the principals, the interest of the story far outweighs deficiencies in presentation.

There is a 2002 edition now available

more on why I won't walk the line

January 14th, 2013

As the news reports continued posturing to the effect of threatening a strike, I am reminded of the first disagreement I had with the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, Boeing's engineering union, about how they go about presuming to represent me in contract negotiations.  There are other reasons (such as explained here), but the disagreement dates from my first contact with the union after joining the company in 1984, on the subject of non-wage compensation.

At the time I had become aware of compensation schemes that can be thought of as a benefits smorgasbord, in which one might get a defined non-wage benefits package worth a particular dollar amount, that could be allocated by each individual across all the benefit categories as the individual employee saw fit.  People with no children would be able to take greater compensation in vacation or retirement account contributions,  people who wanted to save for care for their elderly parents could exchange sick leave time for that, and all the other combinations of circumstances that we uniquely face could be best served by a combination of benefits targeted at those circumstances.

So I made that suggestion, that the union should negotiate a conversion from the one-size-fits-all approach into a system that could be tailored for each individual member.  To say the suggestion fell on deaf ears would be a compliment compared to what response I actually received, which was to say that they had decided this would not be good for me.

I knew then that the union did not represent me.

One size does not fit all.

why I won't walk the line

January 10th, 2013

The recent news includes more stories about how Boeing's engineering union, SPEEA, is planning on conducting a strike if they can't get the company to agree to their contract terms. 

One of my co-workers asked what she said was a "quick question": whether I supported such a move.  The short answer is "no", but that response does not really do justice to the situation, which has to be taken in context of a long history of labor relations and how tax policy treats benefits other than wages.

Of course everyone wants "more", so that's not really the point.  I want "more" and all the other union members also want more than they currently receive in exchange for their work for the company.  The problem is in how what "more" turns out to mean in the contract, and much of that is reflected in non-wage benefits, primarily the pension and medical benefits, and these must be considered in the context of socio-economic consequences of 70 years of restrictions and subsidies to those non-wage forms of compensation.

So consider the pension aspect in terms removed from the net present value estimations of the union perspective on defined benefits versus the company offer for defined contributions a la 401k provisions in many other companies.  The union position on pensions essentially locks all employees in to the company for the long term, firstly because the vesting doesn't complete immediately, and secondly because the defined benefits are a function of the final few years salary.  This only serves to weaken the employee bargaining position, since the longer an employee is in the pension system the more costly it becomes to drop out.

In contrast, the defined contribution 401k system immediately vests and is in the complete control of the individual employee, who can then take those savings with them to another company at the drop of a hat.  And the union position is to completely forbid this sort of compensation.

Stranger still is how this argument applies only to people who haven't even been hired; everyone currently under the union control still submits to the pension scheme in the company proposal.  Of course the current union leadership have been with the company a long time, and so are themselves tied in to the pension scheme and don't want that to be upset for themselves.  The result seems to be that their parochial view of things is going to apply to all current and future employees, regardless of possibly divergent views on what might suit their interests.  Instead of arguing on the basis of net present value of the benefits package for all employees, the union is forcing us all into being further locked in to the company pension.


December 28th, 2012

I listen to a few podcasts, when I'm driving or walking around the city, doing laundry or working in the yard.  Among them I find econtalk to be informative and engaging, due in part to the in-depth and calm discourse of the interview format between the diverse assortment of guests and host Russ Roberts.  That might be clear enough based on the number of entries in this blog with comment on one or another episode, so I'm taking this space to organize, summarize and identify a few highlights.

Most of the interviews feature theory and practice of economics at the micro and macro levels, with several recent episodes covering the current financial mess, prior developments, and its fallout. While many episodes deal with the crisis, he also discusses a broad range of other historical and sociological topics.

Roberts approaches the discussion from his Hayekian perspective (an admitted bias) - observing where order spontaneously develops, where uncertainty in outcome represents risk, the importance of local knowledge in guiding social interaction, where individualized knowledge of market participants can not be aggregated, monetary policy contributions to the business cycle, and the effects of monetary and non-monetary incentive regimes.  His guests represent a much broader range of starting points.   In addition to economists from various academic institutions (including Keynesian Steve Fazzari), guests have included Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants, Out of Control), Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness), Eric Raymond (The Cathedral and the Bazaar), former Fed bank presidents, Steve Meyer (former Capitol Records marketing executive), investigative journalist Brian Deer, and the sales manager where Roberts bought a car.  His guests always get the last word.

I came upon econtalk sometime early 2009, so encountered contemporary observations and retrospective episodes about the recent financial crisis and aftermath.  Roberts' economics training was evidently not in finance, so in listening to those episodes one can experience in parallel his eduction on the interconnections and historical details leading to the collapse, as well as observations on the policy decisions made since then in the US and elsewhere.   Roberts is an empiricist, so there is often the circling around to locate what evidence supports different positions.

I used facebook originally to capture occasional remarks about the various subjects, but decided to collect and elaborate on them here, to provide an idea of the range of topics and see if any pique your own interest.    I divided the selection among the following loose categories:

Roberts is Professor of Economics and the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Distinguished Scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.   I sometimes hear him on another podcast, NPR's Planet Money.  Evidently he also appears on occasional NPR news shows.

econtalk can be found at, and on iTunes.  The web site page for each episode includes a summary and links to references (as well as extensive commentary from listeners).

I started this summary over a year ago, back when there were maybe half as many entries as I eventually have linked.  I kept finding interesting subjects, so would add a new entry every so often.  Hope you find something in here of interest.

stimulus theory and practice on econtalk

December 27th, 2012

Theory and practice for those considering the benefit of stimulus programs.

This edition of EconTalk (Ramey on Stimulus and Multipliers)(12/10/2011) discusses the empirical studies that have been performed related to computing the economic "multiplier" - that figure intended to represent the compounding economic effect of spending, how what is spent in the first order may be subsequently spent by those recipients.  Proponents of stimulus make claims that the effect can be double the nominal amount of original spending, but the actual effects may be negative on balance. 

On the theoretical front, I often come back to this excellent piece by Frederic Bastiat - What is seen and What is not seen, which points out all the ways that the people's desires are subverted when the state presumes to choose how to spend our savings.

A related point is the adverse effects of tax increases.  The combination gives reason to expect economic benefits from large federal budget reductions.


Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the effect of government spending on output and employment. Ramey's own work exploits the exogenous nature of wartime spending. She finds a multiplier between .8 and 1.2. (A multiplier of 1 means that GDP goes up by the amount of spending--there is neither stimulus nor crowding out.) She also discusses a survey looking at a wide range of estimates by others and finds that the estimates range from .5 to 2.0. Along the way, she discusses the effects of taxes as well. The conversation concludes with a discussion of the imprecision of multiplier estimates and the contributions of recent Nobel Laureates Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims.

The Hobbit, coming to film

November 26th, 2012

I have been re-reading the novel in preparation for release of the film treatment of The Hobbit.  I can't say how many times I have already read the story - in excess of 10, almost certainly.  

Once again I am struck by how different the narrative feels as compared with Lord of the Rings - so much more conversational, aimed at a younger person, and including features that don't quite seem to fit in the same universe as Middle Earth - the stone giants that throw the boulders during the storm in the pass in the Misty Mountains, for example.   

One detail I wonder how the film will handle is that of the finding of the One Ring.  We know that Bilbo originally told a different story about how he came by the ring, ostensibly to solidify his claim to possess it.  Bilbo's original story was that Gollum promised him the ring, should he win the riddle game - it is a story I have never read directly, being recorded only in the first few editions of There and Back Again.  

However, based on later editions of The Hobbit, Bilbo's own account from the conference in Rivendell, and mentions from the Red book of Westmarch, the story Bilbo later reported as true was that finding the ring was only a lucky break; in return for winning the riddle game, Gollum had promised to show him the way out of the Goblin tunnels under the mountains.  

The film narrative can certainly present the later story in the flow of events; the question is what he will tell Thorin, Gandalf, and the rest about how he came by the ring.

the country club

November 18th, 2012

I intend here to recount what I understand as the "country club" analogy, and then to explain deficiencies I find in its application to discussion of social interactions.

The "country club" analogy argues that the bad things in the social order are the price we must pay to live in the society. It might be expressed as "if you don't like it here why don't you move somewhere else? Oh, you still find things of value where you are? Well then, stop arguing and put up with it". In the past it has been expressed as "are you a communist? why don't you go back to Russia?"

A specific casting of the analogy applies to the proper scope of government, particularly regarding property. That casting emphasizes the notion of property rights as understood in the context of a country club, condominium association or gated community. In such cases, easements in the deed restrict one's use of the property in question: external paint colors, tending of the landscapes, limitations on business operations, parking curbside overnight, etc. The analogy holds that government law equates to such easements.

Three factors contribute to the analogy lacking helpfulness in discussing human interaction: 1) selective application, 2) failure of distinction, and 3) lack of relevance.

Selective application: No one I know happily accepts the current state of political affairs. Many of us want to make the world a better place. Should we all move elsewhere because government policy opposes our desires? Or should we invoke this analogy only when considering particular areas of government action and not others?

Failure of distinction: The analogy fails to represent key features distinguishing government and country clubs. Country club easements limit its authority, while even clearly worded constitutional provisions fail to limit the authority claimed for government. One can move to a country club with reasonable assurance of stability in the restrictions on property; government restrictions change continuously. The country club cares not for one's behavior within the property bounds; government restrictions on behavior are commonplace. Country clubs don't use one's dues to hire thugs to invade a neighboring club and steal their property, while governments wage war continuously.

Lack of relevance: invoking the analogy does not address the points of discussion. If the original discussion deals with the efficacy of single payer health care, central bank financing, or myriad other schemes, to assert that anyone who disagrees should move away constitutes a non sequitur.

my 2012 ballot - Washington initiatives

November 4th, 2012

With a couple days remaining before the election, here is the rationale for my votes on various initiatives on the ballot in Washington.

YES on 1185 - this initiative "would restate existing statutory requirements that legislative actions raising taxes must be approved by two-thirds legislative majorities".  The state does many things poorly (e.g. see 1240), and many other things it actively makes worse (e.g. see 502); improving this performance should be the first goal to reform, while increasing government revenue only makes more of our resources subject to such loss.  In addition, supermajority provisions tend to better protect the popular minority from abuses of government power by the majority.  If we can't convince two-thirds of us that a measure is a good thing for the government to take on, then perhaps those who support such measures should try to find a way to accomplish those ends on their own.

YES on 1240 - this initiative "would authorize up to forty publicly-funded charter schools".  It is a truism that government schools are failing our children; parents pay taxes that nominally are used for education, yet are stuck with inadequate service when they find that the schools available in their neighborhoods are not up to the unique needs of their children, or else they must pay twice for education if they opt to find educational alternatives outside the public school system.  Low income parents can be most adversely affected by this situation, who have more constrained resources to devote to education, but even middle class parents are limited in education choices available for their children through the government schools.  This initiative does not restore full control of parents to find for themselves the best educational environment to suit their children.  Nor does it improve the situation with school administration, where the size of school districts map to political dimensions that have no relation to what might be the right level of organization.  However, the initiative does offer the potential for greater variety of alternatives from which people may choose, and greater variety means that parents will be more likely to find a situation that better suits their individual needs.

Approved on 74 - "this bill would allow same-sex couples to marry".  The state should have no voice in the personal relations or commitments made by consenting adults.  Legal control of marriage is a relatively recent development, but the main effect is in how property rights are held and dispositioned when marriages between two people are formed and dissolved.  There is a convention in how those property rights are treated, which should be open to any couple who so chooses.

YES on 502 - "this measure would license and regulate marijuana".  My support to drug war reform has extended all of my adult life.  This is based first upon reasons of individual rights, but also on practical considerations surrounding the complete failure of the drug war to limit access to drugs in the United States, while simultaneously increasing crime and otherwise draining the public purse.  Allowing access by adults to marijuana is a small but significant step in the right direction.

A question on spending reduction

November 3rd, 2012

I was challenged on the advisability of dramatic reductions in government spending in order to balance the Federal budget, with the concern as to what happens to everyone who is currently employed as a consequence of that spending.   A response requires broader assessment of the overall effects of deficit spending on the economy, beyond the immediately visible.

As we know, the deficit is funded through sales of debt instruments, which funds to purchase come from other parts of the economy. Take away the option to purchase government securities and the question turns again to how that money ends up being spent.  Government spending constitutes control over the way in which our time and resources are devoted. Take away deficit spending and the money formerly spent to purchase that debt immediately becomes available for consumer purchases and investment to satisfy future consumer needs, rather than (for example) continuing wars in the Middle East and military bases in 120 other sovereign nations around the world.

Redirecting those resources would certainly lead to changes. For example, instead of building so many bombs and missiles, we might choose to eat out one more time a week, or put a new roof on the house, or update the car one year earlier, or buy a new iPhone, or expand our restaurant, or develop a new solar power roofing material, or increase our auto factory output, or start a basement software shop.

The history of economic development is not a story of putting more money into the economy, it is one of doing more and more with less and less. The history of politics is replete with destruction, special interest privilege, and the failure to acknowledge that politicians and their advisors are just not smart enough to guide the economy like they think they are doing. There is extensive analytical and empirical work applied to this proposition, but it does not support the political class to wield the levers of power.

my 2012 election ballot - for president, Gary Johnson

October 21st, 2012

There is nothing quite like an election to make me feel disenfranchised, a point of view perhaps understandable to others who are persuaded to support third party candidates for President of the United States.  This year I expect will be no different, but I will still go doggedly to the polls (or the mailbox to post my ballot), knowing that I have made the right choice to express my preference for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, with VP candidate James Gray.

For the issues of the election, comparing Gary Johnson with either Mitt Romney or the incumbent Barack Obama quickly shows Johnson to offer significantly better policy stances across the spectrum, but I will focus on what seemed responsible for Barack Obama winning his first term in 2008 - war, the military, and foreign policy.

Bush II and the neo-con wing of the Republican party managed to once more bring us to war in the Middle East, but the Democratic branch of the war party went willingly along, and it was only after a period longer than the duration of World War 2 that the D's fielded a candidate who capitalized on growing public dismay. But once elected, Obama adopted the same policies promulgated by his predecessor, and shows no sign of letting up.  Romney, on the other hand, doesn't even make a pretense to altering US foreign policy in the region, continuing to kowtow to Israel and threaten Iran.

United States meddling in the region has a long history, with a significant watershed being the installation of the Shah in Iran, and the propping up of other dictators, picking up on the imperial policies of the previously dominant British.  The rational policy would be to get out and leave them alone to sort out their own differences, but instead we continue to choose sides.

And at what cost?  Of course there are the direct costs imposed on US service men and women, some of whom die tragically, or are mutilated, or return to the States with trauma that adversely affects their professional and personal relationships for the remainder of their lives.  Then there are the far larger number of native people in those lands who suffer similar fate, and who don't share the benefit of what modern medical treatments are available to Americans. 

Then there are the financial costs of maintaining our own empire - a trillion dollars a year, all the associated resources and time, going not into improving our material well being, but simple destruction.  I would venture to say there are better ways to spend our time and energy, but you would not know it by listening to Romney and Obama; their plan is to keep it going with no end in sight, with differences in tiny percentages at the margins. And all that spending at a time of ever increasing public debt, reaching par with GDP and approximating that of countries that are going through some ugly bankruptcies.

And finally is the continued erosion of our own civil liberties, such as through warrantless searches every time we cross an airport, spying on our telecommunication, even to the point of killing US citizens without due process.

And to what effect?  The risk of dying on the highway exceed that from violent criminals, let alone terrorist attacks.  But even worse, those foreign threats arise explicitly as a consequence of our meddling in foreign lands, so the whole scheme purportedly aimed at making us safer is actually doing the reverse.

These are the most important issues in the election, and are reason enough to support Gary Johnson for President.