now this just seems wasteful

via


Xth

The ten year anniversary of Helytimes rolled around without our really noticing.  We started this website* in February 2012.  The posts from that month are as clear a reflection as there is of the idea (extinct links and lost images are a curse but come w/t/territory).

There wasn’t a master plan.  “I should know something about writing for the Internet.” The directness is powerful (and frightening): what writer of the past wouldn’t have dreamed of an instantaneous worldwide publishing platform you could control? A piece published on Helytimes generates a link that’s as accessible as a link to The New York Times. How could we not try that? Authors had websites; I’d published two books and hoped to do more.  The magic of putting up pieces that entered the great Google library, the creation of a personal wondermuseum, it seemed fun.  

A strong sense memory lingers about the day of origin: I was in my office on the TV show The Office. Across the hall was my college Alison Silverman. Our offices were in an annex trailer in the parking lot, which often roasted in the sun. Inside between our offices was a treadmill people sometimes used. That was a funny time and place. I told Alison I was thinking of starting a blog and I remember not having any reaction at all. It was like I said I’d had a salad for lunch. But what was I expecting?

WordPress provided the structure. I’m not sure I’d recommend WordPress, it feels flimsy, it feels like it could collapse tomorrow. GoDaddy sold us the URL. Although GoDaddy’s name and TV ads make it seem ridiculous, they are really dependable, we’ve never had a problem. I copied a simple design template my cousin was using and off we went.

Since then we’ve published 1,624 posts.  Some of the most popular are:

– a guest post by Hayes about a local political issue, No on Measure S (No prevailed, and thank goodness). This post shows the value of possessing an easy distribution platform

– a post about the alleged subject of Gordon Lightfoot’s song Sundown. People Google this person and find the site, it’s celebrity gossip.

– a comparison of the UK in size to California. Another Google inbounder.

Mountaineering movies on Netflix (needs updating, The Alpinist and 14 Peaks both great)

– an investigation of whether the last joke Abraham Lincoln heard was funny

– a consideration of how a mosaic at Disney World was made by Hanns Scharff, one of the Luftwaffe’s top interrogators (and revealing insights in interrogation)

– a look into the darkness of Donald Trump’s father and the destruction of Coney Island

Some posts about JFK were also quite popular, as was a post about The White House Pool.

Anything about Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger will pop.  

Anything about writing or writing advice from other people will move the needle.

We consider Record Group 80 to be kind of a signature post.

Ten years as an amount of time is significant.  We once heard an interview with Joseph Campbell, he was talking about a young student who was asking Campbell about whether he thought he, the student, could make it as a writer.

Well, can you go ten years without making it?

was Campbell’s question. A good question to ask.  

What would “making it” mean?  We don’t profit off this website, but it’s very valuable as as storehouse of material that caught our attention. And it feels contributive.  It’s brought about many connections and friendships of great value, even if you can’t put a price on them.  

Once I was talking to a guy who knew a thing or two about SEO and metrics and online business about the site. He suggested we should pick any one specific niche and go deep, make that our thing. For instance, “Navy photos.” But that’s not the idea (and it would be boring).

Once I was talking to a successful Hollywood type guy who’s a reader of Helytimes. I asked him what I should do to get more readers. He looked at me like I was kind of an idiot.

Write about the Kardashians

he said.

That’s not the idea here either.

This isn’t any kind of business. During the lifespan of this website we published a book, wrote several other books, wrote lots of television, co-hosted hundreds of episodes of The Great Debates. This is a straightup side project. But sometimes that’s where the life is.

My life times out so my growing up parallels the Internet growing up. My age 18 was close to the Internet’s age 18. So I followed and tracked the rise of what we unfortunately have to call blogging. 

Andrew Sullivan was an early one. Blogging eventually burned him out and he had to stop.  Matt Yglesias was my near contemporary in college (I don’t think I ever met him).  He seems built to be a blogger and has made a job of it.  That takes stamina, focus, and drive we don’t have.

Hot takes aren’t the game around here. Unless they’re hot takes on something from like the 15th century

We maintain this site out of desire to clean out the brain-attic, to keep an independent publishing vector open, to settle anything that’s gnawing at us, to share (and clear the mind of) passions, obsessions, curiosities and discoveries.  

Over the years we’ve had a worldwide readership, lured in some surprising customers, lost one contributor to death by tragedy, and had some touching comments.  The funniest people reach out to us. Usually about content we never would’ve thought anyone would care about. 

We made a scratchmark on the cave wall, which, what else are we here for?  

So, onward!  Thanks for reading, we really appreciate you.  

* the word blog just isn’t a winner, is it folks?


Healy

“I think that fact that we did it live really made the show what it was,” Ensley said in 1997. “We’d show film of me fishing someplace, then we’d have live guests. People from everywhere would call us to see if they could be on to show the fish they had caught. One time a guy from Hiawatha, Kansas came in with a 72-pound flathead catfish. We had it in a horse tank in the back of a pickup, and he drove it right onto the set. When he pulled that big catfish out of the tank, water went flying everywhere.

Harold Ensley probably the most famous person from Healy, Kansas. He hosted a TV show called The Sportsman’s Friend.

The cast of Gunsmoke appeared on his show, and he appeared on Gunsmoke as one of Festus Haggen‘s drunken cousins who was thrown in jail.

He really did it:

During their last conversation, Ensley claimed, to his son, to have been dreaming about fishing. “He said he’d been dreaming about bass fishing at Table Rock Lake using a buzzbait,” Dusty Ensley said. “He went out thinking about hunting and fishing.” Harold Ensley died at his home in Overland Park, Kansas, at the age of 92.

As for Healy, pop 195:

The community is served by Healy USD 468 public school district. Their mascot is “The Eagles”, and offer volleyball, basketball and track, collaborating with Ransom, KS. Since the 2012-2013 season, the Healy High School basketball team holds a record of 5-97, and according to MaxPreps, is ranked as the second worst team in the state of Kansas, just ahead of the Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe


The Nineties

This was a decade of full-on metacognition, when people spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about why they were thinking whatever it was they were thinking.

This book was absolutely fantastic, I was riveted. The Nineties ran, for me, from age 11 to age 21. It’s kind of neat to have your life decades synced up to the actual decades, although as Klosterman describes in this book and related interviews, the Nineties might be the last time we think culturally in terms of decades: there’s no reason why we have to.

Chuck Klosterman is seven years older than me (if we believe Wikipedia). Some of his obsessions (Motley Crüe, Guns n Roses), even the idea of manically chasing to their endpoint the meaning of obsessions with a rock band, are just a click or two beyond of my own experience with pop culture, so some of his earlier books, although intriguing, I just never got the activation energy to read. Then I got this text from my buddy Sgro, who I met around 1993 or 94, with whom I spent many summers in the Nineties:

Flattery will get you everywhere bud. Here is Klosterman warming up to baseball in the 90s:

A football game in 1995 bore no resemblance to a football game from 1945. The greatest pro basketball player from the fifties, George Mikan, could not have made an NBA roster in the eighties. The physical and technical evolution of football and basketball had been so dramatic that the past wasn’t comparable with the present. That wasn’t true with baseball. Baseball had evolved less. The aesthetics and physiology were more similar than different, and it was not remotely unreasonable to suggest that the greatest player of all time was still an overweight alcoholic who’d retired in 1935. Part of what made baseball historically compelling was its ability to transcend time. The skills of hitting and pitching were static, frozen in amber. It was the rare game where statistics from the past were comparable with statistics from the present.

And then Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs on one season.

Klosterman points to a pivotal moment in Seinfeld. George, who’s been working with Jerry on a pilot for a show about nothing, is confronted by NBC executive Russell Dalrympe:

“Well, why am I watching it?” asks Dalrymple.

“Because it’s on TV,” replies George.

That was how it was then. You watched what was on TV. A related fact:

The Kirstie Alley vehicle Veronica’s Closet, when packaged in NBC’s Thursday night lineup, could sustain a weekly audience of 24 million viewers. When it was moved to Monday, its viewership dropped to 8 million.

(last week, by comparison, the most popular non-Olympics broadcast show, FBI, got seven and a half million viewers. I don’t think any comedy came close to even 5 million viewers).

On the OJ trial:

It is a hinge moment in U. S. media history, ostensibly for its effect on race and celebrity but mostly for the way it combined tragedy and stupidity on a scope and scale that would foretell America’s deterioration into a superpower that was also a failed state. It was a TV show that proved everything that had always been feared and suspected about the medium of TV.

Within a brilliant riff/exploration on Bill Clinton and the much-imitated (though only once actually said) “I feel your pain”:

Without even trying, [90s Americans] could dissect a broadcast like Clinton’s Oklahoma City address with the acuteness of self-taught media analysts. And within those conditions – within the context of grading a speech’s sincerity as much as feeling that sincerity – Clinton was unstoppable.

This is an error:

Proof:

But, I forgive! I thought Klosterman’s analysis of Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines alone was worth the price of admission.

It’s interesting how we talk about a writer having a voice: Klosterman literally has a distinctive speaking voice (as do Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, who else?)


Truckin’

signing of the Staggers Rail Act (source)

Until 1980, long-haul truckers were generally employed by regulated companies whose routes and rates had to pass muster with the Interstate Commerce Commission. Under the terms of the 1935 Motor Carrier Act, the ICC kept potential lowball, low-wage competitors out of the market. Drivers were also highly unionized, under a Master Freight Agreement between the Teamsters and close to 1,000 trucking firms. For which reasons, truck driving was a pretty damn good blue-collar job, with decent pay, livable hours, and ample benefits.

The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 changed all that, scrapping the rules of the 1935 act so that startups, charging far less than the pre-1980 rates and paying their drivers far less as well, flooded the market. Facing that competition, established companies dropped their rates and pay scales, too. By 1998, drivers were making between 30 percent and 40 percent less than their pre-1980 predecessors had made. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, following the steep decline in wages in the decades after the 1980 deregulation, trucker income has flatlined for the past 20 years. 

Why Trucking Can’t Deliver The Goods by Harold Meyerson in Prospect. If I recall right from The Box, the regulation of trucking kept Malcolm Mclean from expanding his routes, which led him to the idea of putting containers on barges and sending them by sea to Houston, thus inventing containerization, which changed the world. Wal-Mart, Apple, the decline of American manufacturing, all of this emerged from how containerization accelerated the ability to ship stuff fast and cheap all over the world.

In an editorial shortly after his death, Baltimore Sun stated that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade.” Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.”

On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

Because this change happened in 1980, and it’s a deregulation, I assumed it was a Reagan thing, but no. Jimmy Carter signed it (and Ted Kennedy was involved). President Carter at the time:

This is historic legislation. It will remove 45 years of excessive and inflationary Government restrictions and redtape. It will have a powerful anti-inflationary effect, reducing consumer costs by as much as $8 billion each year. And by ending wasteful practices, it will conserve annually hundreds of millions of gallons of precious fuel. 

It was Carter and Harley Staggers, D-WV, who brought on railway deregulation around the same time. Staggers was ahead of his time on civil rights, and behind the time on other issues:

In 1973, Staggers heard on the radio the John Lennon song “Working Class Hero” — which includes the lines “‘Til you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules” and “But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see” — on WGTB and lodged a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The manager of the station, Ken Sleeman, faced a year in prison and a $10,000 fine, but defended his decision to play the song saying, “The People of Washington, DC are sophisticated enough to accept the occasional four-letter word in context, and not become sexually aroused, offended, or upset.” The charges were dropped


Scrapbasket

Not a type you see too much anymore>

from James L. Haley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas.

Off-gassing from my lead acid batteries has gotten real bad. Losing the war on corrosion.

Ad in the LRB.

Drawing impression from the Pro Bull Riding finals back in November.

Wild book cover. Easy to fall into the delusion that the present is the craziest period in American history. Far from it.

Just an LA scene I liked.

from Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

Are these songs in conversation? Internet offers no answer. I keep seeing Caroline Polachek’s name (ex. Jia Tolentino’s Instagram, on the marquee in Lawrence, KS, on concert festival posters).

from Gemma Sieff’s review of Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell, by Steve Paul, in Harper’s.

Stewart Brand talking to Tyler Cowen.

To me the best style is no style.

Got a lot from Chuck Klosterman on Longform podcast.

Desert scene in winter.


amazing thing to put in your news article

That’s from Bloomberg, article headlined: Anxiety Over Beef Shortages Reaches Fever Pitch in Golden Corral Fistfight, and subheadlined When a fistfight broke out at the chain, initial reports attributed it to steak shortages

The gist seems to be that: there was a widely shared on social media video showing a fight at a buffet restaurant in Bensalem, PA (Bloomberg says “Bansalem”). In the video someone can be heard saying something about steaks. Tt was then incorrectly inferred by people who didn’t give enough study to the facts of the incident that the fight was about a shortage of steaks at the buffet. But if I read between the lines of the article, there may have been plenty of steaks, the fight was unrelated?

I only call attention to the weirdness of “the media” and “news” in 2022. As to the true origins of this incident, I’ll defer to Evan S. Connell’s epigraph for his Son of the Morning Star:


Space briefing

A briefing is given by Major Rocco Petrone (off camera) to President John F. Kennedy during a tour of Blockhouse 34 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex. Also seen are NASA administrator James Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, NASA Launch Center director Kurt Heinrich Debus, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and other dignitaries.

(source)


Shooter Corridor

Perhaps you’ve seen this scene in Full Metal Jacket, where R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant connects Charles Whitman’s shooting spree from the UT Austin tower and Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting of JFK to the training they received as Marines.

My mind did some pondering of these incidents as I drove on I-35, which connects the two sites of these incidents, Austin to Dallas.

Since my ultimate destination was Oklahoma City, my mind couldn’t help but turn to another former US military member who perpetuated a freakish, difficult to comprehend outburst of violence. Timothy McVeigh, a washed out failure from Army Ranger school with vague anti-government grievances bombed the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh was obsessed with another violent American incident which happened along the route, the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, TX.

Along this route, you’ll also pass Killeen, Texas, where in 1991 there was a mass shooting at a Luby’s cafeteria. Up until that time it was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in the USA (the Virginia Tech massacre would overtake it).

Killeen is home to Fort Hood. In 2009 a US army major and psychiatrist killed 13 people and wounded 30 others in a mass shooting at Fort Hood. The Wikipedia page for that shooting has an amazing American detail:

Fort Hood, set to be renamed sometime in the future, is currently named after John Bell Hood, another renegade US soldier and dramatic personality with visions of violence, who once said to Sherman:

Better die a thousand deaths than submit to live under you or your Government and your Negro allies.

If you throw the site of the Alamo into the mix, I-35 really pops with scenes of strange fanatic American violence.

The big unmarked portion there in Oklahoma is of course the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, destination for the southeastern Indian removals, themselves an act of American violence, but perhaps beyond the scope of this post.

You could probably take any 400 mile stretch of American interstate and string together a few outbursts of historical violence, but I can’t help but observe this stretch of I-35 feels like an unusually haunted and scarred stretch of our national geopsyche.

Some excellent barbecue, steak and catfish can however be found.

Update: an Oklahoma reader sends us this one

Our suburb of Edmond is sadly another spot you could add to Shooter Corridor: the ‘86 post office shooting that inspired the phrase “going postal” happened here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_post_office_shooting

Wild.


Culture notes

  • I didn’t think Dave Chappelle’s most recent special, The Closer, was his best, although there were some funny jokes in it (on JK Rowling: “this woman sold so many books The Bible got nervous”). The tone was off, or something. Dave Chappelle is a contender for GOAT standup comedian, and also man who’s made impressive choices with significant amounts of money on the line. But I like observing that myself; when he reminds me of these things multiple times in his own special, I find it diminishes the value, akin Matthew 6:2 or the kidney donation lady.

I was texting a friend who had not seen it about the special, and he wrote me something like “what is the obsession with trans people? Why doesn’t he just stop?” In a way the special is Chappelle’s answer to this question, with the conclusion “maybe I will just stop.” If you watch the special, you will see Dave himself describe the feeling of being attacked, harassed, and threatened, which is the same feeling his most extreme critics point to as a reason for being careful about material like this.

Language as spell, as magic, words as having power to cause real harm and violence, to even be violence in themselves, is a belief that is growing over my lifetime. Could that have something to do with a blending of what were once more isolated dialects into a great shared language that incorporates more people, with more divergent opinions and backgrounds? The way English was forming around Shakespeare’s time from like Kentish and Pictish and East Anglian and whatever, blended with Norman French and pieces of Gaelic and Latin all the rest? Such an expansion will not be without confusion.

In 2016 I remember going to the source of a news item that was inspiring controversy, a Department of Education memo on Transgender Students. Here is the Notice of Language Assistance that prefaces the letter:

We’re already in a language mess and we’re not even on page one. I’m not used to reading federal Department of Education documents, I assume this is kind of boilerplate, and well-intentioned. Page 1 of the letter is an attempt to clarify terminology:

An important part of the issue is getting the language right, which will not be easy, language being notoriously tricky and fluid. But if language has the violent power we imbue to it, getting it wrong is very dangerous, like miscasting a spell!

(source)

  • Sun & Sea at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA was great! An immersive exhibit / opera? I visit Lithuanian Wikipedia to learn about the creators, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Graintė, Lina Lapelytė,

I was pleased with my burger from Burger She Wrote, although I don’t understand the pun. It’s not like the place is Jessica Fletcher themed or anything. Is it a play on how all burgers are murder?


Politics, Oct 2021

  • On Youngkin and Trump: “You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular ol’ hoops-playing, dish-washing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy.” 

Uh, you absolutely can, it’s the entire playbook. Whether you should is another question, but I don’t even think you can argue it doesn’t work.

  • On fatigue among Dems: “I know a lot of people are tired of politics right now. We don’t have time to be tired. What is required is sustained effort.”

I don’t think “sustained effort from you!” is a winning message for a political campaign. Often I spot sustained effort from my elected officials, but I don’t know what the effort is towards? Most often it seems towards “not doing anything that would upset existing power structures but while avoiding the appearance of giving up, while also fundraising,” which must be exhausting indeed, and is no doubt effortful, but is not effective at improving outcomes.

Anyway, that was former President Barack Obama yesterday in the Virginia governors race, where Terry McAuliffe, a guy who was a Democratic party functionary for like 30 years, who was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and already was governor of Virginia, is running on a program of… change? Keep doing the same stuff? The alternative is worse? Seems like the third, but I haven’t been on the ground in Virginia for a couple years.

Any Virginians with takes please weigh in.


Miles Davis

from the American Masters doc Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool


Kansas

Fragments sad, frightening, and warm in this story “In Trying Times, a Kansas Community Faced Down Its Fear of Outsiders,” by Michael M. Phillips and Dante Chinni for Wall Street Journal. It began when a woman with Colorado plates showed up and tried to buy all the town’s toilet paper. Concerned residents, worried about just who could come up I-70, formed a protection group.

Worried about its image, the group went public early this year, posting a mission statement at the Dairy Queen, feed stores and the Pit Stop gas station.

“Gove County Emergency Response Group works to help maintain peace in Gove County,” the flier said. “By educating citizens in our area of preparedness and self-defense; inviting citizens of all backgrounds and races to stand unified against lawlessness in times of disaster and civil unrest; and building strong relationships with law enforcement through cooperative community efforts.”

Concerns:

A group of women who jokingly called themselves the Enlightened Ladies Club caught wind and were suspicious. They leaned liberal for the most part in conservative Gove County and sometimes dined together to share views. “We were anticipating some sort of vigilante group,” said Patrice Ostmeyer, who works part time at the public library.

Something Rockwellian in this photo by Christopher Smith:

Some real excellence in some of these text-image-scrolling blends that the NYT, WSJ, and Bloomberg in particular seem to have mastered.


Colin Powell

I forget if I found this story on my own in Powell’s memoir My American Life, or if it was called to my attention:

in any case it stuck with me. How about this, from an Atlantic interview, 2004, with PJ O’Rourke:

SECRETARY POWELL: I knew Elvis.

P. J. O’ROURKE: Really?

SECRETARY POWELL: I met him when he was in the Army. I was a lieutenant; he was a sergeant.He was in the neighboring regiment—or combat command, as we called it—in the Third Armored Division in Germany.We were in the training area one day and I was driving my jeep around and suddenly came upon this unit from the other outfit and there he was. And so I went over and shook hands.He was a good soldier. You never would have thought he was anything but a soldier. He had a pimple on his face and everything else. He was not a big star. He was just another soldier.

P. J. O’ROURKE: I’ll be darned. Well, good for him.To change the subject completely, is there symbolic or psychological significance to your fondness for Volvos?

SECRETARY POWELL: No. They just came into my life when my kids needed a car in college and they refused to drive their grandfather’s Chevy Belair. They wanted something sporty; I wanted something safe. They wanted something distinctive; I wanted something safe.I came upon this ’77 Volvo and gave it to my son who took it to college. It was a pretty interesting car. I bought another one, an older one. I play with sophisticated non-zero-sum things all week long. On weekends, if I really want to relax—and I don’t anymore, I can’t relax because I’m too busy here—but there was nothing that was greater fun for me or more relaxing than a zero-sum problem with the car. It’s not running? You put on a new distributor cap and it either runs or it doesn’t. And so the joy for me was to take—drag—home a car. I mean literally drag it home. My driver and I would do it. We’ve been known to go through Alexandria with a Volvo on a rope dragging it home. People started calling and giving them to me. They heard about me. I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I’ll give you a Volvo on a rope.” The rope broke one day coming through the gate at Ft. Myer, with the MPs waving the Chairman through. We coasted until we could get another rope.We used to do this all the time. Bring them to the house and Sergeant Pearson, now Mr. Pearson, and I would take them apart. We had extra engines, we had extra radiators, had extra transmissions.


The Big Room

Michael Herr wrote Dispatches, he wrote a novel about Walter Winchell, he wrote a short book (an expanded article) about Stanley Kubrick, he collaborated on the screenplays for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.

He also wrote the text for The Big Room, a collection of portraits by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, centered around Las Vegas. Short essays about Howard Hughes, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, FDR, Richard Nixon, Bugsy Siegel, Nat King Cole, Colonel Tom Parker, Martin & Lewis, more.

When they talk about luck in Las Vegas, it’s just the way they have there of talking about time. Luck is the local obsession, while time itself is a sore subject in the big rooms and casinos. It’s a corny old gag about Las Vegas, the temporal city if there ever was one, trying to camouflage the hours and retard the dawn, when everybody knows that if you’re feeling lucky you’re really feeling time in its rawest form, and if you’re not feeling lucky, they’ve got a clock at the bus station. For a speedy town like Vegas, having no time on the walls can only accelerate the process by which jellyfish turn into barracuda, grinders and dumpers become a single player, the big winners and big losers exchange wardrobes, while everyone gets ready for the next roll. The whole city’s a clock. The hotels change credit lines as fast and often as they change the sheets, and for a lot of the same reasons. The winners and the losers all have identical marks on them, bruised and chewed over by Las Vegas mitosis, with consolation prizes for anybody left who’s not already inconsolable. Don’t laugh, people. It could happen to you.

It’s fantastic.

The big room is not a clearing that anyone should charge into blindly, unarmed. The way in is hard, as dangerous as the approach to King Solomon’s Mines, and obscure as a tomb. In fact, many a headliner has had good reason to compare the room to the tomb, having experienced for themselves the non-contradiction that once you’ve made it here, it’s all over for you.


Buffett and Munger speak: Berkshire Hathaway 2021 oddities and highlights

Augy18400 for wikipedia

I always feel like I’m getting both nutrition and entertainment when I read the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting transcript, found here at Rev.com

Asked about the morality of owning an oil and gas company like Chevron, Charlie Munger poses and then answers a strange hypothetical:

You can imagine two things. A young man marries into your family, he’s an English professor at, say, Swarthmore, or he works for Chevron. Which would you pick? Sight unseen? I want to admit, I’d take the guy from Chevron. Yeah.

Did not know this about the origin of the rear view mirror:

Warren Buffett: (01:35:54)
Maybe that’s why they called it Marmon. And that we’re proud of the fact that the company in 1911 named one of the first Indianapolis 500. It also was the company that invented the rear view mirror. I’m not sure whether that was a big contribution to society. And certainly around your household rear view mirror, you don’t want to emphasize too much. But they, the car that was entered in Indianapolis 500, the guy who normally sat next to the driver and looked backwards to tell what the competitors were doing, he was sick. So they invented the rear view mirror. So let’s just assume that you had decided that autos were this incredible thing. And someday there’d be an Indianapolis 500 and someday they’d have rearview mirrors on cars. And someday 290 million cars would be buzzing around the United States or autos or trucks there.

On BNSF railroad:

15% of the interstate goods move on our railroad

Competition for BNSF, and for Geico:

This question comes from Glen Greenberg, it’s on the profitability of GEICO and BNSF. He said, “Why do these companies operate at meaningfully lower profit margins than their main competitors, Progressive and Union Pacific? Can we expect current managements to at least achieve parity?

Warren Buffett: (02:33:25)
Was it GEICO and-

Becky: (02:33:27)
BNSF.

Warren Buffett: (02:33:28)
Oh, actually, if you look at the first quarter figures, you’ll see that the Berkshire Hathaway/Union Pacific comparisons has gotten quite better. Katie Farmer’s doing an incredible job at BNSF, and it’d be an interesting question whether five years from now or 10 years from now, BNSF or Union Pacific has the higher earnings. We’ve had higher earnings in the past, Union Pacific passed us. The first quarter, you can look at and they think they’ve got a slightly better franchise. We think we’ve got a slightly better franchise. We know we’re larger than Union Pacific, we will do more business than they do. And we should make a little more money than they do, but we haven’t in the last few years. But it’s quite a railroad, I feel very good about that.

 And it’s a very interesting business, both Progressive and GEICO were started in the ’30s. I believe I’m right about Progressive on that, and we were started in ’36. We have had the better product for a long, long time, I mean, in terms of cost. And here we are 80, 85 years later, in our case, and we have about 13% or so of the market, whatever it may be, and Progressive as just a slight bit less. So the two of us have 25% of the market, roughly, in this huge market, after 80 something years of having a better product. So it’s a very slow changing, competitive situation, but Progressive has done a very, very good job recently. We’ve done a very, very good job over the years, and we’re doing a good job now, but we have made some very significant improvements.

Is Flo just more appealing than the Geico Gecko? Ajit Jain doesn’t think so:

Progressive has certainly done better, but when it comes to branding, GEICO is, I think, miles, excuse me, ahead of Progressive. And in terms of managing expenses as well, I think GEICO does a much better job than anyone else in the industry.

On interest rates:

I mean, interest rates, basically, are to the value of assets, what gravity is to matter, essentially. …

I mean, if I could reduce gravity, it’s pull by about 80%, I mean, I’d be in the Tokyo Olympics jumping. And essentially, if interest rates were 10%, valuations are much higher. So you’ve had this incredible change in the valuation of everything that produces money, because the risk-free rate produces, really short enough right now, nothing. It’s very interesting. I brought this book along, because for 25 or more years, Paul Samuelson’s book was the definitive book on economics. It was taught in every school and Paul was… he was the first Nobel a prize winner. It’s sort of a cousin to the Nobel prize, they started giving it in economics, I think, in the late ’60s, he was the first winner from the United States, Paul Samuelson. Amazingly enough, the second winner was Ken Arrow, and both of them are the uncles of Larry Summers. Larry Summers had the first two winners as uncles.

Weird, did not know that. Buffett goes on:

But if present rates were destined to be appropriate, if the 10 years should really be at the price it is, those companies that the fellow mentioned in this question, they’re a bargain. I mean, they have the ability to deliver cash at a rate that’s, if you discounted back and you’re discounting at present interest rates, stocks are very, very cheap. Now, the question is what interest rates do over time. But there’s a view of what interest rates will be based in the yield curve out to 30 years and so on.


It’s a fascinating time. We’ve never really seen what shoveling money in on the basis that we’re doing it on a fiscal basis, while following a monetary policy of something close to zero interest rates, and it is enormously pleasant. But in economics, there’s one thing always to remember, you can never do one thing, you always have to say, “And then what?”

Buffett goes on to invoke the St. Peterburg paradox.

On, basically, what’s cool about the stock market:

we’ve got the greatest markets the world could ever imagine. I mean, imagine being able to own parts of the biggest businesses in the world and putting billions of dollars in them and take it out two days later. I mean, compared to farms or apartment houses or office buildings, where it takes months to close a deal, the markets offer a chance to participate in earning assets on a basis that’s very, very low cost and instantaneous, huge, all kinds of good things, but it makes its real money if they can get the gamblers to come in because they provide more action and they’re willing to pay silly or fees and all kinds of things.

On the market as a casino:

Well, the stock market, we’ve had a lot of people in the casino in the last year. You have millions and billions of people who’ve set up accounts where they day trade, where they’re selling… Put some calls, where they, I would say that you had the greatest increase in the number of gamblers essentially. And there’s nothing wrong with gambling and they got better odds than they’ve got if they play the state lottery, but they have cash in their pocket. They’ve had action. And they actually don’t have a lot of good results. And if they just bought stocks, they do fine and held them.


But the gambling impulse is very strong in people worldwide, and occasionally it gets an enormous shove and conditions lead this place where more people are entering the casino than are leaving every day, and that creates its own reality for a while. And nobody tells you when the clock is going to strike 12:00, and it all turns to pumpkins and mice. But when the competition is playing with other people’s money, or if they’re playing foolishly with their own money, but the big stuff is done with other people’s money, they’re going to beat us. I mean, we’re not… that’s a different game and they’ve got a lot of money, so we’re not going to have much luck on acquisitions while this sort of a period continues.

Charlie Munger saying Bernie Sanders “has won,” but he didn’t mean it in a complimentary way:

MUNGER: And I think one consequence of the present situation is that Bernie Sanders has basically won. And that’s because with the, everything boomed up so high and interest rates, so low what’s going to happen is the millennial generation is going to have a hell of a time getting rich compared to our generation. And so the difference between the rich and the poor and the generation that’s rising is going to be a lot less. So Bernie has won. He did it by accident, but he won.

Charlie is asked, given high tax rates, what keeps him in California?

MUNGER: Well, that’s a very interesting question. I frequently say that I wouldn’t move across the street to save my children 500 million in taxes and stuff. So I have that, that’s my personal view of the subject, but I do think it is stupid for states to drive out their wealthiest citizens, the old people that don’t commit any crimes, they donate to the local charity. Who in the hell in their right mind would drive out the rich people? I mean, Florida and places like that are very shrewd and places like California are being very stupid. It’s contrary to the interest of the state.

I love the dodge here on a question about Bitcoin:

Yeah, I knew there’d be a question on Bitcoin. I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve watched these politicians dodge questions all the time.” I always find it kind of disgusting when they do it. But the truth is, I’m going to dodge that question because we’ve probably got hundreds of thousands of people watching this that own Bitcoin, and we’ve got two people that are short. We’ve got a choice of making 400,000 people mad at us and unhappy and/or making two people happy. That’s just a dumb equation. I thought about it. We had a governor one time in Nebraska, a long time ago. He would get a tough question, what do you think about property taxes or what should we do about schools? He’d look right at the person, and he’d say, “I’m all right on that one,” and he’d just walk off. Well, I’m all right on that one and maybe we’ll see how Charlie is.

A quality of a great business:

Well, we’ve always known that the green business is the one that takes very little capital and grows a lot, and Apple and Google and Microsoft and Facebook are terrific examples of that. I mean, Apple has $ 37 billion in property, plant, equipment. Berkshire has 170 billion or something like that, and they’re going to make a lot more money than we do. They’re in better business. It’s a much better business than we have, and Microsoft’s business is a way better business than we have. Google’s business is a way better business.

I thought this was funny. The question was re: Robinhood.

But they have attracted, maybe set out to attract, but they have attracted, I think I read where 12 or 13% of their casino participants were dealing in puts and calls. I looked up on Apple, the number of seven day calls and 14 day calls outstanding. I’m sure a lot of that is coming through Robinhood and that’s a bunch of people writing… They’re gambling on the price of Apple over the next seven days or 14 days. There’s nothing illegal about it. There’s nothing immoral. But I don’t think you would build a society around people doing it. If a group of us landed on a desert island, we knew that we’d never be rescued, and I was one of the group and I said, “Well, I’ll set up the exchange over and I’ll trade our corn futures and everything around it.” I think the degree to which a very rich society can reward people who know how to take advantage essentially of the gambling instincts of, not only American public, worldwide public, it’s not the most admirable part of the accomplishment. But I think what America has accomplished is pretty admirable overall. And I think actually, American corporations have turned out to be a wonderful place for people to put their money and save, but they also make terrific gambling chips.

Odd anecdote from Warren, Munger is talking about state lotteries (he doesn’t approve):

Charlie Munger: (04:40:03)
The states in America, replaced the mafia as the proprietor of the numbers game. That’s what happened.

Warren Buffett: (04:40:03)
Yep.

Charlie Munger: (04:40:03)
They pushed the mafia aside and said, “That’s our business, not yours.” Doesn’t make me proud of my government.

Warren Buffett: (04:40:03)
When I was a kid, my dad was in Congress, they had a numbers runner in the house office building, actually.

On the potential CP/KSU railway merger, which would strengthen a rival to Berkshire’s own BNSF:

In terms of the price that’s being paid, like I say, if you can borrow all the money for nothing, it doesn’t make much difference to people. This would not be being paid under a different interest rate environment. I mean, it’s very simple. There’s no magic to the Kansas City Southern. I think their deal with Mexico ends in 2047. It’s the number of carloads carried. I mean, it’s not going to change that much, but it is kind of interesting. There’s only two major Canadian, what they call Class I railroads, and there’s five in the United States. This will result in, essentially, three of the units being Canadian, four being U.S., which is not the way you normally think of the way the development of the railroad system would work in the United States.

We looked at buying CP. Everybody looks at everything. We would not pay this price. It implies a price for BNSF that’s even higher than what the UP is selling for. But it’s kind of play money to some degree, I mean, when interest rates are this low. I’m sure from the standpoint of both CP and CN, there’s only one K.C. Southern. They’re not going to get a chance to expand. They’re not going to buy us. They’re not going to buy the UP. The juices flow, and the prices go up.

Charlie Munger: (03:37:15)
They’re buying with somebody else’s money.

Warren Buffett: (03:37:18)
Yeah. It’s somebody else’s money, and you’re going to retire in five or 10 years. People are not going to remember what you paid, but they’re going to remember whether you built a larger system. The investment bankers are cheering you on at every move. They’re just saying, “You could pay more.” They’re moving the figures around. The spreadsheets are out, and the fees are flowing.

The juices flow, indeed.


Swartzwelder

From Mike Sacks’ interview with the great John Swartzwelder in The New Yorker. The man wrote 59 Simpsons episodes, it’s an achievement difficult to comprehend, up there with Ted Williams batting .400, or, I dunno, the sumo achievements of Hakuho?


Reedy, The Twilight of the Presidency: From Johnson To Reagan

former Nixon and Reagan aide has just told his Miller Center oral history interviewers a long story about the Nixon administration:

Young
So, what is the moral of that story?

Anderson
The moral of the story, I think, is in the White House people don’t realize the extent to which the President of the United States is forced to delegate enormous authority. You know how busy you can get during the day, try multiplying that by 100 times, 500 times. The pressures that come in are incomprehensible. So when he says, Do something, he usually thinks, Well, maybe it will get done. Most of the time, it doesn’t get done, but he says, Maybe it will get done. And he doesn’t have time to follow up.

He doesn’t have time to sit down and say, Ehrlichman, what happened with Anderson? And whatever Ehrlichman tells him, he may say, Well, Anderson wasn’t interested, which is probably what he told them. Now, he’s not going to pick up the phone and call me and say, What happened? and follow through on all this. You can talk to Dick Allen. Similar things happened to Dick Allen, in terms of he gave instructions to have Dick do certain things, and Dick was never told and then the President was told that Dick hadn’t done it.

There’s a wonderful book called The Twilight of the Presidency by Reedy. You ever read that?

Young
George Reedy.

Anderson
In which he says, If you try to understand the White House—most people make the mistake, they try to understand the White House like a corporation or the military and how does it look, with the hierarchy. He said, The only way to understand it, it’s like a palace court. And if you can understand a palace court, then you understand the White House. I think that’s probably pretty accurate. But those are the things that happen. So anyway, I didn’t go back. So I missed Watergate.

Asher
Darn.

Reedy’s book is fascinating, Reedy was himself Press Secretary and a special assistant to LBJ.

This is the bitter lesson we should have learned from Vietnam. In the early days of that conflict, it might have been possible to pull out. My most vivid memories are the meetings early in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in which his advisers (virtually all holdovers from the Kennedy administration) were looking to him for guidance on how to proceed. He, on the other hand, felt an obligation to continue the Kennedy policies and he was looking to them for indications of what steps could carry out such a course. I will always believe that someone misread a signal from the other side with the resultant commitment to full-scale fighting.

Reedy argues that the presidency is such a powerful and weird job that in effect it always creates something of a monarchy, dependent on the personality of the (so far!) man.

When stories leaked out that Richard Nixon was “talking to the pictures” in the White House, it was taken by many as evidence that he was cracking up. To anyone who has had the opportunity to observe a president at close range, it is perfectly normal conduct.

The tone of Reedy’s book is pretty scholarly, but he’s also a skilled, entertaining presenter:

For many years, a corporation sold a popular mouthwash to the American people on the basis that it would inhibit bad breath. The slogan under which the product was merchandised – “Even your best friends won’t tell you” – meant that the subject was too delicate to mention and that a person could exclude the foulest odors without being aware of the fact. As far as the mouthwash was concerned, the slogan was somewhat misleading: not only your best friends but your worst enemies will tell you if you have bad breath. But the concept that “even your best friends won’t tell you” about unpleasant things applies with tremendous force to the president.

Reedy argues that, even in his boyhood, the President wasn’t really that important, or at least not a constant topic in national life:

For those who have lived long enough to have some political consciousness from the pre-Franklin Delano Roosevelt ere, there will be memories of local politicians who had far greater name identification than the president, even among educated people… the press spent very little time covering presidents.

What changed that? The radio, and TV cameras, and national level communication. Reedy mentions how the TV crews in the Johnson White House started keeping the cameras “warmed up,” a huge advantage that gave LBJ the power to give a TV briefing whenever he wanted. What would Reedy make of Twitter?

On the rise of Henry Kissinger:

When a crisis would break out anywhere in the world, Nixon would call his Secretary of State, who would promise to get “my people” together and report back. The president would then call Kissinger, who would give him at least ten answers before hanging up the phone. Presidents like answers.

would hang out w


Serial killers: the podcast in history and the future of podcasts

This post is best enjoyed read to you by “Remy” on Spotify, see link above.

When did the podcast first enter your life? Really settle in? Was it with Serial? Hardcore History? Radiolab? Scharpling? One of the Earwolf shows?

Wikipedia, on the page for Podcast, uses an image of Serial being played on an iPhone. That moment, 2014, seems like a breakthrough, when podcast became a word you could say without flinching. OK, maybe there’s still some flinching.

“The podcast producer, who is often the podcast host as well, may wish to express a personal passion, increase professional visibility, enter into a social network of influencers or influential ideas, cultivate a community of like-minded viewership, or put forward pedagogical or ideological ideas (possibly under philanthropic support).”

Viewship? The fuck are we talking about here? It’s an audio format, Wikipedia. Anyway. One motive you won’t find listed is “to entertain and amuse, to have fun with friends and create something joyful.” That was the motivation behind the creation of Great Debates, and I suspect many another podcast as well.

There’s a whole separate Wikipedia page, “History of Podcasting,” and I won’t attempt to replace or summarize it here. A few tidbits do jump out: in August of 2000, the New England Patriots launched the first “IP radio show,” offered on Patriots.com. The journalist Ben Hammersley has a good claim on coining the term “podcasting,” he used it in The Guardian in February 2004. By a year later, USA Today was reporting on “amateur chatfests.” Apple added podcasts in June 2005. By the next month, President George W. Bush’s radio addresses were appearing as podcasts. Those must be a lot of fun to listen to, maybe I’ll go back and check those out.

The table had been set of course for personality driven radio with This American Life. Radio shows are nothing new. But now that you could get them on demand, they were enabled to narrow, rather than broad, cast.

In that 2005 USA Today piece, it was noted that the most popular podcast at the time was “The Dawn and Drew Show,” and I learn from their Wikipedia page that Dawn and Drew have been inducted into the Academy of Podcasters Hall of Fame. Did you know podcasting had an academy? I did not. To get into the Hall of Fame you need to have been involved with and have promoted the art of podcasting for at least ten years. The Great Debates will be eligible in the year 2024, October 17, 2024 to be specific. I’m not telling you to do anything with that, I’m just telling you that, it’s just a fact.

Marc Maron aka WTF, Hollywood Handbook, My Favorite Murder, Joe Rogan, Call Her Daddy, Reply All, 99% Invisible, Planet Money, The Daily, Chapo Trap House, How Did This Get Made?, Red Scare, “Cumtown,” Fiasco, those are just a few of the shows I’d feel obliged to mention if I were trying to write a cultural history of the podcast. I’m sure there are so many I’m leaving out, sports podcasts, podcasts in foreign languages. Filip and Fredrik was my favorite for years, but they’ve gone back to Swedish, a tragedy for the English speaking world. Lately, as I’ve developed my podcast Stocks Let’s Talk, I’ve been listening to investing podcasts. Jim O’Shaughnessy, with his podcast Infinite Loops, and Patrick O’Shaughnessy, with his Invest Like The Best, are the first example I find of father-son podcasts.

Looking at the Chartable Apple Podcasts list for this week, I see six out of the ten are true crime shows. There are two dueling podcasts about The Office TV show, batting for the 23rd and 24th spots. Conan O’Brien, Bill Simmons, Megyn Kelly, Levar Burton, Jordan Peterson, and Michelle Obama all stay in the top one hundred, but at the moment a Catholic priest, Father Mike Schmitz, is way ahead of them all. Can we really trust these charts? Spotify has their own rankings. Over there Deep Sleep Sounds from Slumber Group ranks number fourteen, and “Relaxing White Noise” beats Ben Shapiro. It sure does in my book! That shows you some of the range of the medium. Leo, Taurus, Aquarius, and Scorpio Today all make it into the top fifty.

Podcasts are intimate, and potent. Passionate audiences will turn up for live shows. In the last conversation I ever had with writer, comedian and podcast star Harris Wittels, I mentioned how so many people seemed to feel like they knew him. “That’s all because of podcasts,” he said. Of all the popular podcasts, I can’t think of one that doesn’t really lay bare the peculiarities and passions of the hosts. Maybe The Daily? I don’t know, I don’t listen to that one.

By the time Spotify brought in Joe Rogan for a reported $100 million dollars, the word was out that podcasts were now a business. I heard that WME Agency has four agents devoted to podcasts. Celebrities have podcasts. Rob Lowe has a podcast. The amounts of money made on Patreon by Chapo and the Doughboys are repeated and passed around among media and comedy people like medieval legends of Cockaigne or hobo songs about Big Rock Candy Mountain.

A living can be made. But much like among the musicians on Spotify, I suspect the money will be top heavy and bottom thin. The top 1,000 (or maybe 500, or maybe 100) will take the bulk, while everybody else either struggles or does it for love. The Rogan deal reminded me of Howard Stern’s deal with Sirius XM, for 500 million dollars. On news of this deal, in October 2004, Sirius stock jumped from around 3.7 to around 7.4. Spotify stock behaved in a similar way after the Rogan deal. Today Sirius stock is around five dollars. How many Sirius XM personalities make a living? When I listen, it seems like mostly celebrities. For awhile The Great Debates, our podcast, was on Sirius. A nice paycheck, but we didn’t quit our day jobs.

Spotify may have made a better bet. CEO Daniel Ek – Sweden again – has made it clear his goal is to dominate audio, worldwide. That includes podcasts, it includes music, it’ll probably include audiobooks someday soon. Apple, as far as I can tell, somehow lost their dominance in podcasts and let their milk get stolen by a hungry competitor.

Podcasts are a little too easy to make. Apple used to put just the right amount of bureaucracy in the way of getting one up and listed, but that’s mostly fallen away. As a result of the ease of starting one, podcasts may never have too much prestige. Jokes about “podcast boyfriends” and so on appear on my Twitter just about every day.

These words were typed by me, Steve Hely, into my “blog,” or website, Stevehely.com, which is run by WordPress. I run the site to promote my books, maintain a space for myself on the Internet as an independent writer beholden to no one, and to share information and ideas about topics rattling around in my craw. I’ve always felt the site’s been good for me, because I can tell stories or recount discoveries that interest me without boring acquaintances at parties with my ramblings. Find it if you want, and quite a few people have, and I’ve been glad of it.

Through Spotify’s podcast platform, Anchor, I can now generate a podcast that’s just a robotic voice reading my words. There are two voices to choose from, Remy or Cassidy. I chose Remy. Remy reads the words and makes a podcast, all I have to do is type, like Stephen Hawking or something. Remy has glitches for sure. For instance, she reads blocked quotes with the odd phrase “greater than,” as in:

four score and seven years ago our forefathers

You get the idea. For that matter, “Remy” won’t distinguish stuff that’s quoted versus the post’s original content. Most of my posts aren’t suited to perfect podcasts, because they’re full of pictures. But still, cool technology, I want to keep playing with it.

If podcasts are this easy to make, it’ll most likely keep the market pretty saturated. But it will also allow a world of weird, unusual voices. Today I listened to a podcast that was a school project by two eleventh graders about the history of Hawaii, done for Ms. Patrick’s class at Impact Early College High School in Baytown, Texas. It was fun and short, and came up when I looked into Hawaii history on Spotify. Will we live in a world of enthusiastic amateur radio? I was interested in Malcolm Gladwell mentioning that books, audiobooks, and podcasts can kind of blur together. He specifically cited Jordan Peterson, who wrote a bestselling book, but which a majority of his “readers” took in as audio. He’s an audio personality as much as a literary one. Where did I hear this interview with Gladwell? I’m not sure, but I know it was on a podcast.

I predict there will be labels, studios, brands, that have some credibility. They’ll have to be careful: I see that Vox media has two hundred “active shows” in its podcast network. Well that’s too many.

Much like bestselling books, celebrity will be a big help. I’d like to see some hyperlocal podcasts. Something like a Reader’s Digest of podcasts could be a success. I wouldn’t mind some kind of randomizer button, where I could tune around, hear strange voices from across the 5G, like what you hear clicking around the dial in a rental car driving around Arizona or New Mexico or Nebraska late at night. I wonder if there will be “podcasts” that include more and more music and audio fun to distinguish themselves from the chatterboxes.

Listening to an automated robot voice doesn’t connect as much as hearing a great human voice, like say Ken Layne of Desert Oracle, or Karen Kilgariff of My Favorite Murder or Desus and Mero, the Bodega Boys. So I’ll end this here, and send Remy back where she came from. Go ahead and subscribe to the Helytimes podcast here on Spotify to see what we come up with next. Robots doing our audio? Yeah, we’ll experiment with that. You can record your own audio with Anchor, I could’ve done that, but where would I find eight minutes or so in MY busy schedule? Forget it. That’s a Remy job.

Why don’t let Remy take us out with some nice sleeping sounds?

zzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzz. Mmmmmmmmmm. Mmmm. MMMM. Zoooooonumnumnumnewnewnew. Ahhh.

Goodbye.


Bretton Woods Is No Mystery and The Nixon Shock

Breaking the Breton Woods agreements, the American president said that the dollar would have no reference to reality, and that its value would henceforth be decided by an act of language, not by correspondence to a standard or to an economic referent.

That’s from The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, by Italian communist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, published by semiotext(e). That book is full of interesting ideas.

Everywhere I turn these days, from the new Adam Curtis documentary to the Bitcoin-heads on Twitter, I hear about Sunday, August 15, 1971. On that evening, Richard Nixon, after conferring with his advisors in a weird weekend at Camp David, went on TV and announced he was taking the US dollar off the gold standard, ending the “Bretton Woods system.”

I’ve always had an interest in the Bretton Woods system, because it was worked out at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods*, New Hampshire. My dad and I used to go cross-country skiing up there.

rickpilot_2000 for Wikipedia. It doesn’t look like that in winter.

The hotel shut up for winter had a grand, imposing, and spooky quality.

President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the conference site, the Mount Washington Hotel, as a ploy (successful, as it turned out) to win over a likely opponent of the pact, New Hampshire senator Charles Tobey.

That’s from Michael A. Martorelli’s review of Benn Steil’s book about the conference, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order.

The conference happened in July 1944. The Allied forces were still stalled in the bocage of Normandy, but the leadership was already planning for the postwar order. The famed economist John Maynard Keynes, who’d studied the disaster of the last postwar peace, was trying to avoid some of the same mistakes while also attempting to save the status and dignity of the UK Keynes suggested the world switch to a new global currency called Bancor. The US, represented by Harry Dexter White, militarily and financially dominant, had the strongest position. The US proposed a system that would ultimately leave the US dollar, pegged to gold, as the world’s reserve currency.

Deeply indebted to the United States after the long, costly ordeal of World War II, the United Kingdom inevitably lost the battle. To secure one key victory, however, White had to resort to stealth. In the waning hours of the conference, he and his assistants replaced the phrase “gold” with “gold and US dollars” in the agreement, thereby enshrining the US currency as the international medium of exchange. Keynes confessed that he did not read the final version of the document he signed.

You think there aren’t thrills in a book about a 1944 economic conference whose results have mostly been overturned? Guess again:

In one noteworthy coup, [Steil] disproves Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky’s claim that Keynes was assigned Room 129 in the Mount Washington Hotel.

The summit does sound kind of exciting. The Soviets brought a bunch of beautiful female “typists” to seduce everyone.

One committee of delegates took a 15-minute recess in the bar each night at 1:30 to watch the “titillating gyrations of Conchita the Peruvian Bombshell.” Afterward, reinvigorated, they would negotiate for another hour or so. The long arguments left White increasingly short-­tempered on less than five hours of sleep a night. Keynes, already weakened by the heart disease that would kill him within two years, was soon holding court from his bed, tended (and guarded) by Lydia, his eccentric Russian ballerina wife. At one point, a rumor spread that he was near death; when he then appeared at dinner, the delegates spontaneously stood and sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” 

from a different review of a different book about the conference:

I’ve now taken a look at both Steil and Conway’s books. The Summit by Conway is a lot more fun and easy to read, and focuses more on the wild details – what he calls the “noises off” stuff – from the conference. The drunken songs, the parody newspaper about the “International Ballyhoo Fun,” the pleasure the delegates from wartorn countries took in huge plates of “chicken Maryland” and enormous bowls of ice cream, the South Africans chilling and playing golf once it was clear gold wouldn’t be replaced by silver, the results of the Soviet vs USA volleyball game (USSR won), that’s in Conway.

The details of the conference are interesting, but in a way the outcome was inevitable. The US was more or less the last power standing as World War II wound down. The UK was tremendously in our debt (literally). What we ended up with was the system we more or less devised, that left the dollar as the default world currency.

The true significance of the conference was noted by Keynes in a speech at the farewell dinner:

We have shown that a concourse of 44 nations are actually able to work together at a constructive task in amity and unbroken concord. Few believed it possible. If we can continue in a larger task as we have begun in this limited task, there is hope for the world.

If you read one review of one book about the conference, I recommend James Grant’s review of Steil in the Wall Street J (behind a paywall I suspect, they’re no fools about money at the WSJ):

Gold figures largely in these pages. The ancient metal was deeply rooted in the psyche of Keynes’s contemporaries, including that of Lt. Col. Sir Thomas Moore, a British Conservative member of Parliament. In parliamentary debate, Sir Thomas said that he had “the impression, not being an economist, that currency had to be tied to or based on something; whether it was gold, or marbles, or shrimps, did not seem to matter very much, except that as marbles are easy to make, and shrimps are easy to catch, gold for many reasons possessed a more stable quality.” For the soundest doctrine expressed in the fewest words, Sir Thomas was hard to beat.

Grant, if you can’t read it, isn’t too boosterish on the Bretton Woods system:

Rare among nations, America pays its overseas debts in money that it alone may lawfully print. Naturally, being human, we Americans have printed to excess. Not since 1975 has the United States exported more goods and services than it has imported. There is no institutional check to square up accounts. We buy Chinese merchandise with dollars. The Chinese, in turn, invest those dollars in U.S. government securities (the better to suppress the value of the Chinese currency). It’s as if the money never left the 50 states. In possession of the “reserve currency” franchise—White’s dream fulfilled—America has become the world’s leading debtor nation. At Bretton Woods, it was the world’s top creditor.

I mentioned the Nixon Shock to a bud who works at a hedge fund, and he put me on to WTF Happened in 1971, which takes a darker view. I love the idea that this is the moment everything went wrong and reality broke, but I’m not totally convinced. What about the Triffin dilemma? Was Nixon changing reality, or acknowledging it?

Consider how things worked before Bretton Woods. Both Conway and Stiel note that FDR would sometimes dictate the dollar price of gold from bed in the morning, once suggesting raising the price by twenty-one cents because that was a lucky number. This was hardly more “real.”

A crazy element of the conference is that the leader of the US delegation, Harry Dexter White, was secretly communicating with the Soviets. To what extent he was a traitor, a spy, vs kind of backchannel communicating with our wartime ally is unclear. But declassified transcripts make clear he was a Soviet asset known at “Jurist” or “Richard.” That’s if you trust our own NSA. Who knows?

White testified in front of HUAC that he was not a Communist, then had a heart attack. He went up to his home in New Hampshire and died four days later.

Is it possible White sabotaged the US team in the Bretton Woods volleyball game? Perhaps to provide a propaganda win for his Soviet masters? The Russians got a lot of concessions at Bretton Woods to induce them to sign on to the agreements, but I don’t see in Steil or Conway any strong case that White’s possible connection helped them unduly. Conway is more of a skeptic on the spy stuff, suggesting that yes, it looks pretty fishy, but it’s impossible to prove White “betrayed his country.”

One person who would’ve known White had been a spy? President Richard Nixon.

Following Alger Hiss’s perjury conviction in 1950, Representative Richard M. Nixon revealed a handwritten memo of White’s given to him by Chambers, apparently showing that White had passed classified information for transmission to the Soviets. Yet his guilt would only be firmly established after publication of Soviet intelligence cables in the late 1990s.

The IMF and World Bank still linger as Bretton Woods legacies. Conway in his epilogue notes how even after the demise of the Bretton Woods system, the IMF is still imposing the “Washington Consensus” on the developing world in return for loans, with mixed results. Maybe someone should activate the Coconut Clause:

Conway also notes that after the demise of the system, US and British banks became vastly more profitable.

In the United States, by the turn of the millennium banks now accounted for around 8 per cent of the country’s total economic output – more than double their zie when the Bretton Woods system ended… Until 1970, an investor in a UK bank could expect to make about 7 per cent a year on his investment. After 1970, the return on equity roughly trebled to 20 per cent, a figure maintained without a break until the financial crisis of 2008.

There is no single, simple explanation for this astonishing rise of the financial sector; however, there is no doubt that one important element is the sudden change in the international monetary architecture following the collapse of Bretton Woods. Almost immediately after the demise of Keynes and White’s system in the early 1970s, every single measure of the size, profitability, and leverage of the banking industry has begun to increase at unprecedented rates.

The big banks in the USA tried to stop Bretton Woods at the time,

After the Bretton Woods conference, the countries involved still had to sell it to a confused public. One method the USA used was to produce a pamphlet called Bretton Woods Is No Mystery, illustrated by the New Yorker cartoonist Syd Hoff. I’m on the trail of a copy, I can only find a few images online.

It’s heartbreaking to hear the names bandied about for the world currency, and think what might’ve been. From Conway:

among the suggestions were Fint, Proudof, Unibanks, Bit, Pondol, and Keynes’ favorite, Orb. Months later, Keynes sent round a note to his Treasury colleagues asking: “Do you think it is any use to try unicorn on Harry?”

What do you guys think will be the world’s reserve currency in 2031? Dogecoin?

*an archaic name for what’s now part of Carroll, New Hampshire.