Thursday, July 28, 2016

The British Army and the Fall of France: A Recap

The winter of 1946 was like this


But the spring of 1955 was like this
I'd doff my hat to an old Simpsons reference, but I can't find it.

Try again:
In the spring of 1940, a British army in France failed to stop the Germans. The consequences were horrifying, the failure abject. 

On its face, this is a subject for military history; but the military-historical counterfactual never seems to turn on the fighting, where the crucial question (the BEF's decision to abandon the line and retreat on an evacuation point) is treated as beyond discussion. Instead, it focusses on David Low's point. The conclusion often drawn is that, had Britain spent more on machines in the 1930s (or perhaps, for much longer than that), things would have been different. It's all quite strained. If you had a car, you wouldn't have missed your flight. Martin Wiener, Correlli Barnett, Winston Churchill and your Dad all have explanations for why you don't have a car, but they're not very helpful for catching the next flight unless they come with a $30,000 cheque. 

I disagree. There is a much less strained counterfactual than the idea that Britain could have been, oh, say, six years "more advanced" than it was, had public school boys been forced to do maths instead of Latin. The fact is that the 10 infantry divisions of the BEF were scheduled to be joined by its first armoured division in the third week of May, and that an entire fourth infantry corps was to come over in June. The Battle of France was a near enough thing that these additional forces would probably have been enough to change its outcome. You wouldn't have missed the train if the power outage hadn't knocked out your alarm clock. Set your phone's alarm next time, and you're set. 

So forget fancy analogies and drive by sneers, and drill down, with laser-like focus, on one, simple fact. The BEF may have been as little as one month late in getting enough troops into the line to change the course of history. This is, mind you, ten months after a parade in London described by The Economist as featuring 28,000 marching representatives of the two million men and women who had so far volunteered for national service in the defence of the United Kingdom. It sure looks as though Britain had built up quite the war machine even before the fighting started. 

But, on the one hand, two million.  On the other, short four divisions. It seems to me that the gap between these two numbers is worth exploring.

Why did Neville Chamberlain not set his phone alarm? What were his reasons? I ask this because Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1923 and again from 1931 to 1937, and Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, was more than any other individual the face of an era described by Harvard economist, Alvin Hansen, as one of "secular stagnation." The connection here may not be obvious, but Hansen himself claimed that the "secular stagnation" thesis was just another name for Keynes' "underemployment equilibrium." We broke out of that equilibrium during World War II. The best explanation for that just is WWII, and the question we should all be asking is whether we can have the outcomes without the consequences. The buildup to World War II gives us perhaps the best taste of what WWII would look like without the fighting. (There is also the interesting question of whether and when the impetus of the WWII faded away.)

So the questions are:

-How big was the actual 1937--39 build up. How real is the "two million"?
-What data do we have about the immediate consequences of this buildup?  
-How did this buildup fall short of what was needed?
-How do any failures identified reflect back on the persistence of "secular stagnation"?

Four questions, two economic, two military, all worth exploring. (I guess I've telegraphed my answer to the question of whether the one-time impetus of World War II "faded away." It's here, if you're into ghost towns.)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Postblogging Technology, June 1946, I: Brick By Brick We Shall Build This Place




R_.C_.,
General Delivery,
Nakusp,
Canada.

Dear Father:

I am so very glad to hear that you are on the mend, and that you were able to take "Miss V.C." out to lunch in Nakusp. Obviously I am very pleased to hear about the ranch house there, with its fine vistas, good pasture, and inconspicuous pull out from the river road. Uncle George says that he would like to hear more about the neighbours before he signs off on the idea of having guests stay there for any length of time. He may visit in August, on his way to and from Prince Rupert. 

You ask about your sons, and I am afraid that I can't tell you very much. I doubt that the atom bombs will set the atmosphere on fire, or anything so drastic. Instead, their main concern seems to be playing with remote-controlled airplanes. 

It could be worse. They could be following Communists around in the muggy heat, waiting for them to whip a time bomb out from under their drooping jackets and blowing up America. At least, so I hear from Lieutenant A., who might finallly be showing signs of shuffing off growing up. Although he still tells me all about what the last very important person said to him. (He is quite tiring right now on the importance of voluntary food restrictions and the famine in Europe; because of course, he has been talking to the Engineer, and even the Engineer can only go on so long about the Commnist Menace before the subject turns to his latest cause. Given how much trouble the Lieutenant has got himself into in the past by listening to the Engineer, I want to shake him by the lapels. But what can I do? He has to learn for himself not to back straight into irreplaceable Ming vases, etc.) 

Speaking of the Engineer always managing to be wrong, you will have heard by now that there is to be a bumper harvest in America again this year, and that the concerns of the spring were overblown --again. No-one cares, however, because we are all focussed on houses. 

The bottom corner is cleared, and the old swinging tree gone, I'm sad to say. We will be building four houses there on half-acre lots: one for the Murphys and three for people you do not know. Construction will start in the summer, and use some of the crew off Arcadia, which will by then finally have an actual roof from one end to the other by the end of July, at which point the family will move over from the gatehouse, which we will let. (Though not on ten-year terms, I promise!)

As was pretty much expected, the Spokane lands will be about as far away from the air base as they are now, because the new air base will be the old air base. That does not mean that we can't put housing on it, unless the wool subsidy goes up to a million percent, in which case we'll let it again.

In other business matters, there might be something to report on the magnetic tape front next month; we'll see. Our friends in Virginia are apparently hearing more Russians ciphering at each other than they can keep up with, and are interested in a better recording method than the wax tubes they are using right now. I should say so!

And now I shall have to cut this short, as I have to go and take an unlady-like walk on the roof of Arcadia. (At least I shall be a hero to little James.) I wonder if San Jose will look any better from another storey higher up?  




Friday, July 15, 2016

Recapping the Fall of the Roman Empire: The Cavalry Problem

It's summer! God speed the plough! Unfortunately, with the hand of every good man and woman turned out to bring in the mangelwurzels and vetch, there's no-one to staff the university library on Sundays. (The alternative explanation, that the university needs to save money, is self-refuting nonsense. The objection that there is an acute shortage of actual researchers using the library, although supported by notoriously unreliable visual evidence, is equally crazy. We're spending enough money on the research-education infrastructure that we must be getting results.)
The "I. K. Barber Learning Centre." It used to be the boring old Main Library used to stand, but we got rid of the stupid stacks in favour of a "state-of-the-art system [which] drastically reduced space, which allowed for the integration of classrooms, offices, informal learning environments, group rooms, reading rooms, and even a climate-controlled vault for rare books." Which is nice, I guess. Well, not nice in the sense that automated retriveal is anywhere near as good as open stacks or in the sense that a schoold with declining enrollment needs more classroom space. But nice in the sense that the university gets to build a Real Big Building. Otherwise, it would be stuck with only building all of the other Real Big Buildings that it is building. Oh! Oh! I have a theory about where the decline in consumer spending might be coming from!

Meanwhile. . . .

St. George's School charges $20,000/year in tuition, and is a bucolic fifteen minute bike ride from Main Library. Does "bucolic" mean rain-drenched forests? Maybe not. Not many buildings in sight, is what I'm saying. In a city where a detached home  on a city lot is going for seven figures. Oh, well. Whatcha gonna do? Develop the 2000 acres of Pacific Spirit Regional Park? Then where would Vancouverites go to get back to nature?


Shorter ironically couched rant; the library was closed on my last day off, and that's why this is a recap.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Postblogging Technology, May 1946, II: Lost Continents


New Denver Museum


R_.C_.,
General Delivery,
Nakusp, B.C.
Canada

Dear Father:

I address this note, although I hope that it will be delivered by hand, as per plans, "Miss V.C." will be receiving this package by courier in Spokane before making her way up the new highway to see you.

This is part of her whirlwind tour of our leases along the riverfront. If anyone asks, she is checking whether one of our tenants might have built, oh, say, a skyscraper, without telling us. Actually, she's looking into safehouses. Moving displaced persons through the near-wildnerness works far better in a thrilling novel than in reality!


On the other hand, she's barely 20, so who knows whether her plans might not go astray? Deliberately or not. She is very eager to do this for us, and I had some trouble dissuading her from continuing north along the old route, at least as far as motor roads currently go. Her grandfather and father will be meeting in San Francisco in June, and Lieutenant A will be there. This will be to discuss a New Zealand interest which might be willing to assume "the Cs" canned mutton contracts in the Middle East. As you know, the "Cs" cannot close their Madison packing and rendering plants until the contracts are moved. And, until they are closed, the "As" cannot develop their adjacent farm for a housing development. Etc, etc. A very important matter for both families!

So, and this has been a long wander towards my point, I very much hope that she does not find herself holed up somewhere as sublime as it is isolated with a bad tire, or such, when she should be in San Francisco, and, even more, I hope that no-one encourages youthful irresponsibility. (I am glaring fiercely at you, Father of my Darling.) Yes, yes, I know. You will go to the grave convinced that she keeps a secret flame lit in a shrine to your youngest in the innermost strongholds of her mind, and I cannot disabuse you of this. 

More importantly, she has repeatedly told me that she thinks that the Kiwi connection is a bit doubtful. I am worried that she is getting cold feet, and not without reason! You will hear below about an FBI raid on a Liberty Ship docking in Seattle, and an ostensibly unrelated arrest of a member of the San Francisco Naval Cheka, in town to buy naval plans. The raid was publicised as being over charges that the crew diverted some of the cargo to a black market at Batavia, while the Chekist was arrested in retaliation for the Russians arresting an American diplomat in San Francisco. In fact it looks like someone on the Bureau going a little wild. The chances of actually convicting the crew of the Liberty ship is small, and any competent legal counsel would turn the thing into a circus sideshow by calling anyone up to and including the new British ambassador as a witness. The last thing the Director wants is a black eye with assorted Batavian peculators, or for Russian eyes to be drawn to the San Francisco conuslate.

So what's going on? Well, another thing that happened in Batavia was that our agents, at the Kiwis' suggestion, very briefly met with the captain of this ship to discuss moving some of our clients. The arrangements were entirely unsuitable, but it seems as though someone talked. We are in a in a pickle here. We still have almost 500 people to move to meet our commitments. If there is a possibility of reviving the northern route, we need to know, before the raiders hit a ship that is carrying our clients. So, yes. There is cause to worry. But we must do this thing --one way or another. 

Please do what you can to settle "Miss V.C.'s"nerves. It is okay if she spends some time motoring about the valley enjoying her summer --as long as she makes her meeting! At the very least, we need a clearer idea of what the Kiwis have to offer.




Friday, July 1, 2016

Fall of Rome, A Recap, One: Honorius tells England That He's Invoking Article 50: Some Underappreciated but Scarcely Unknown Economic Aspects of the Problem. You'd Think.







So you might have expected the second part of June techblogging about now. Up until 12:16, Tuesday afternoon, so did I. That's when I was asked to give up my Victoria Day statutory holiday because my company can't find someone else to do my job in the city of Vancouver for one night. For those funny-looking foreigners who don't celebrate the name day of Victoria of House Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha, it's on May 24th. Don't worry, though. I get my May 24th statutory holiday next week! You know, after we celebrate Canada Day. As for my Canada Day statutory holiday --further bulletins as events warrant.

As I have said before, you would think that this would reflect a "labour shortage," in that there is a shortage of "labour" to do the job. (Lots of jobs; not just mine.) You would, however, be wrong. In so far as I understand this "economics" thing, shortages cause prices to go up, and the price of (my) labour in this city is not going up. It's going down. 

I know, blah blah globalisation. But you can't outsource a neighbourhood grocery store, and we already hire every immigrant we can. Something else is going on, and I am not sure how well we understand it. 

The bright side of this is that I get to link a post about the distant past to current events. It's a hot take! The disadvantage is that it's hard to write about what you don't know, if you don't know what you don't know. (Or you'd think it ought to be hard.)

I, for example, do not know why the house at 7249 Cartier Street, theoretically worth seven figures, is sitting abandoned, and looks like it was abandoned more than ten years ago, well before the current "red hot housing market" started --perhas going back to the last boom. Maybe they have fled the oppressions of modern life to live up some BC sideroad! Haven't we all dreamed of "going off the grid" that way?

Much more likely, the owner went "off the grid," by going into a nursing home. There's lots of ways of going off the grid, including not existing; but, also, from the point of view of the economy, by not working, or not working very hard.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Postblogging Technology, May 1946, I: Baby Boom!





My Dear Doctor B:

Please again accept my thanks for your hospitality during my recent, all too brief stay. I have included a small present in way of thanks, since your wife mentioned having so much difficulty obtaining good tea and chocolate in Nakusp. I hope that it will not offend anyone's sensibilities.

And thanks as well for your solicitude. As you know, my husband and my father-in-law's younger son are both in the South Pacific on Admiralty and Navy duties, respectively. (They're there to watch some giant bombs blow up, and confirm that giant bombs don't blow up giant ships. I'm not as optimistic as the Navy seems to be about that, but no-one's asked me, either.) You are right to say that the strains of carrying on without them are telling, and right to say that I should trust to my mother-in-law to carry on the family business, as she has so well. As you also say, I am a young mother with three at home, and my attention should be on them. 



R_. C_.,
General Delivery,
Nakusp.

My Dear Father:

I include a packet of photographs from the South Seas, where you will find plenty of "Reggie and his Uncle James," Tommy Wong, and all of the other young and not-so young men mentioned in your son's long and belated letter.  As you can see, although the business is supposedly serious, the actual atmosphere at Bikini Atoll is something closer to a holiday camp. 


I shouldn't worry about doings in San Francisco, either. The Russians, incredibly, contracted cleaning at their embassy with Kong Loh Suee (have you met?), and securing the additional material wanted in Virginia was a simple matter of sending someone in with the regular janitors to replace the old rat traps --no heroic second story work needed at all, although the safe did have to be cracked. Mrs. W. hopes that this is "good enough for Piggly Wiggly," as she puts it, and that she will not have to cross the continent enceinte. It is bad enough that her cousin is now in Texas, and, after some months delay, allowed to write to certain persons of unimpeachable credentials. Yes, I am still a little amazed that Mrs. W. counts as such, but we have the Director on our side. I just hope that we don't end up exposing, oh, say, the Secretary of Commerce as a red-under-the-bed as the price we pay. plaintive letters demanding attention. Anyway, he sends long screeds in impenetrable German handwriting about how Texans do not pay him enough attention, and reporting that the lineoleum in his hut is cracked, and that the Army food is awful. 

"Miss V." remained in the northwest after I returned, and hopefully will stop in again to see you in the first week of June. She is trying to arrange for a proper survey of the Spokane lands, with dreams of Uncle Sam busting the bank to build a nice officer's country right along the stream. We'll see. Even the outside-the-gates "strip" would be better than trying to make money on sheep on that land. Of course, even that is presuming that the Army chooses to buy from us, and not one of our neighbours. She will also be piecing her way through the papers in Couer d'Alene. She tells me that she has a "hunch" that she can hang something not covered by the state of California statute of limitations on the Engineer.

Finally, in the matter of the tape, we have a bite! Uncle George has found a New Jersey company which is eager going to manufacture tape recording/playback machines. all that is wanting is a customer, and Eimac has secured an FM license in the San Francisco area. Without going into the gory details, FM needs good sound reproduction a lot more than AM. James had a bit of doing to persuade the board that we had the right technology for them, but they were sufficiently open to the idea that I had the principal partners over to Arcadia. They seemed to take well enough to Bill and Dave, and  I think we have a sale. 

Uncle George had what he describes as an excruciating interview with the young man chosen to take on your little problem. He is apparently one of those supercilious boys who are wrong about everything, invincibly convinced that they are right, and determined to explain just why in the most annoying way. Obscure vocabulary, affected accent, condescending manner, hysterical religiosity. Truly a prig before his time. (Not to mention some casual remarks about "Asiatics," which do  not, of course, sit well with Uncle George. Really, you expect these things in an older man) 

Now, I do not know that Uncle George might not be exaggerating out of guilt. After all, the only thing the young man is really guilty of is tattling on a few fellow students to the Spanish embassy. The fact that one of them ended up getting arrested in Madrid does not look well on the boy, but it is a bit of a stretch that he planned it that way. 

Ah, well. It is not as though the boy, at least as described, is likely to let "playing husband" get in the way of his life. Ahem. Perhaps I should rephrase that?

I include pictures of your grandchildren. Vickie is now walking, and in honour of her stubborn determination to follow along on the war trail of mischief blazed by her brother, I also send along a footprint. We all hope to see you together, perhaps at Christmas.




Sunday, June 19, 2016

Planting America: A Recap



Greek-style salt cod salad. Source


When the library is on summer hours, it is probably not a good idea to hang around the apartment until quarter to two if you need to do five or six hours of work to write a postblogging post. Just sayin'. And so much for last week.

Fortunately, a rich and famous blogger posted something that I felt I'd like to respond to in a way that won't take up too much of my now-blown time here. He's a Berkeley economics professor in his secret identity, and obviously I could  name him, but then you wouldn't feel "in the know" for guessing his secret identity. (Hint: he's not the Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania fur trader, George Croghan,)




As we have argued elsewhere, to a truly remarkable degree all United States citizens today owe that framework to the one single individual who may have made a significant difference in American political economic history, Alexander Hamilton—although even he needed his followers and successors to make a durable impact.
But, before there was a Hamilton, before there was a United States of America, there were earlier deliberate shapings of the economy of North America-to-be. These shaping were carried out by the colonial powers who ruled North American: Spain, France and Britain--and, in the end, especially by the British politicians who decided on the form that the British colonizing effort in the Americas would take.. Their plans and powers resulted in a pre-revolutionary American economy that was quite different in where it was located and how it was organized from what nature--also known as economic geography—-would appear to have intended.
Back in the 17th century the British government made the decision that its colonial policy would be to bet on populating the Atlantic seaboard--at least the Atlantic seaboard north of Virginia--with colonies based on staple agriculture and yeoman settlement, rather than with colonies based on treasure theft, on forced-labor mining, on slave-plantation agriculture, or on long-distance trade:

To some degree, this was a matter of necessity: Britain being late to the American colonial enterprise, It had to take what was left over.

To some degree, this was because the British government was not an absolutist one with Bastilles available, and it seemed wise to try to diminish domestic tensions by subsidizing the emigration of especially-vocal malcontents--whether Puritan, Quaker, or Catholic.

But mostly this was a matter of policy . . . . The English settled the wrong, eastern, Atlantic coast. Ships probing upward along the rivers soon encountered rapids, and beyond the rapids came the mountains: the great Appalachian Range. The Spanish and French built their port-forts on the proper, southern, Gulf coast of America. From that base broad navigable rivers allowed rapid, cheap, and easy movement inland; culminating, of course, in the unique Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio River. Spain had, of course, known about the Mississippi Valley since Hernando de Soto's thousand-man expedition of 1540.

Gulf of Mexico-based settlement provided a major advantage. The settler agricultural economies possible in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were far from self-sufficient. Their spearheads required the weight of full spearshafts behind them, in the form of a steady supply of largely hand-made manufactured goods--high-tech for their time--from Europe.
Thus the southern, water road to the most fertile and valuable parts of agricultural America was the obvious and optimal one. A simple glance at the map of where U.S. agriculture is today tells the story. America's prime agricultural resources are in the watersheds of the St. Lawrence, Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio, Sacramento-San Joaquin, and Columbia Rivers--not east of the Appalachians. . .

So, anyway. . .


Our blogger has a huge and important point. State intervention in the economy is not un-American, but rather baked into it from . . . Well, our blogger vacillates. The hero of the monograph from which this is  extracted is Alexander Hamilton. He's big right now, I hear. And a hero for the times, too! The problem is that Hamilton arrived on the scene of a society already very different economically from the French and Spanish North American colonies. Our blogger also supposes that the English colonies had the further disadvantage of being in the wrong place, hemmed in on the shallow East Coast, basically between the fall line and the sea. Surely the right place to build a proper cameralist police state was in the midst of the Old Northwest, scene of the main indigenous North American experiments in state building, and the heart of modern American agriculture.

The last thing I want to do is contradict the main lines of this thesis. Sign me up for a Hamiltonian moment! That said, he's wrong from the get-go, when he characterises the British American colonies as not being plantation economies, because they were exactly and perfectly plantations. It's their success as plantations that make the history of the northeast coast different.

There you go, some contrarianism, to be developed below the cut. At least you can be glad that I am not going to lay it off on differences in relief and the neglected role of animal husbandry in economic history. Or will I?