You have to wonder about a book with the words, “banking and metaphysics” in the subtitle. What does banking have to with metaphysics? Quite a lot, actually.
The full title of the book is, “Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence.” The author, Tom Parks, makes a compelling case regarding money and metaphysics, and he’s not alone. Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” made the same case way back in 1776. A more recent example is “The Alchemists” by Neil Irwin. This book, however, is focused specifically on the Medici family business, which in fifteenth-century Florence was dealing in woolen and silken fabric: importing it, dying it, and shipping it to cities throughout Europe. This, in turn, involved money in its many forms: bills of exchange, promissory notes, letters of credit, and usury. Before the advent of wire services, overnight couriers, railroads and armored trucks, payment in gold and silver over long distances wasn’t easy or safe. Thus, a great deal of business was transacted with paper, with actual payment in hard currency being made some time in the future, thus tying up large sums of money over long periods of time. This involved banks—and usury.
Usury is charging interest on bank loans, and changes the game significantly. “With interest rates, money is no longer a simple and stable metal commodity that just happens to have been chosen as a means of exchange,” writes the author. “Projected through time, it multiplies, and this without toil of the usurer. Everything becomes more fluid. A man can borrow money, buy a loom, sell his wool at a high price, change his station in life. The usurer, or banker, meanwhile, lending lots of money, grows richer and richer.” This is where the Medicis come in. They started out as dealers in fabric, with client cities throughout Europe, making untold thousands on textiles. They ended up as bankers, making untold millions in the shuffling paper. “No sooner does money project itself through time and space then it generates vast quantities of writing,” says Parks. “It becomes a thing of the mind, fluid and fickle.”
Cosimo de’ Medici (the genius behind the family business) was a master banker. “Banking,” he said, “involves manipulation, risk, power. It’s magic that works.” Where others saw risk, he saw opportunity. Banking became his passion: “I would be a banker even if money could be made by waving a wand.” Having so much wealth means you must do something with it. Medici knew hoarding money decreases its value, while spending increases it. The act of money moving from hand to hand spreads wealth and benefits everyone. His hometown of Florence grew rich under his watch. He became a great patron of the arts, gave to charities, financed municipal building projects, and was a large benefactor of the Catholic Church (mostly to save his soul from hell, as usury was considered the greatest of all sins). At its height, the Medicis owned banks in Florence, Rome, Naples, Milan, Venice, London, Geneva, Lyon, Ancona, Basle, Pisa, Bruges, and Avignon.
As rich and as generous as he was, Medici preferred staying out of the spotlight. He did not flaunt his riches. “He mixed power with grace,” writes Machiavelli, a contemporary. “He covered it over with decency.” “Whenever he wished to achieve anything,” says Vespasian da Bisticci, “to avoid envy he gave the impression, as far as was possible, that it was they who had suggested the thing, not he.”
With the death of Cosimo, the Medici empire gradually receded. Bank after bank shuttered it doors and eventually the Medici business collapsed, 30 years after Cosimo’s death.
ZERO SUM GAME
The Medici empire expired, but the lesson of creating wealth through banking and paper money was not lost. Following in their tracks were the Netherlands, England, the early American Republic, and eventually all of Europe. The results were stunning. Tying money to the traditional forms of wealth—to land and to material substances, particularly gold and silver—was limiting. It was a zero sum game, one in which if any player gained, another lost in proportion. The 20th-century economist Sumner Slichter has calculated mathematically that through human history the annual production of wealth could not, in fact, have increased a great deal from, say, the days of Adam and Eve until approximately the year 1750. That is the time when banking and paper money took hold in Western Europe, and an explosion of wealth followed that benefitted the many.
The same phenomenon began in the U.S. in 1790 when Alexander Hamilton became Treasury Secretary. Where others saw the Revolutionary War debt as a national curse and recommended repudiation, Hamilton saw opportunity. He monetized the debt by converting the vast unpaid public debt into federal securities, which traded on what would become the New York Stock Exchange. Then he created the Bank of the United States (B.U.S.) to insure the value of these securities never dropped below par. In America’s cash-strapped economy, these securities passed as money among businessmen. Coupled with the Federal government’s newly-acquired power to tax, America was able to issue dividends and begin paying back foreign creditors. Within two years, America’s credit rating rose from the world’s worst to the world’s best. In turn, B.U.S. was able to make loans to U.S. businesses and charge interest on these loans. Instead of decreasing, national wealth increased dramatically. The depressed national economy took flight, and the war debt was retired in the time Hamilton had prescribed—in 20 years. Metaphysics? You bet.
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Unexpected Greatness—the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower
Posted - Jul 30, 2017
Who would have guessed? Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower rated among our greatest presidents? The latest poll among historians has Truman ranked sixth and Eisenhower seventh on the short list of presidential greatness. Surprising? Yes, especially when considering the state of their reputations upon leaving office. Never perceived as being truly “presidential,” Truman’s popularity was a lowly 32 percent, his act as plainspoken everyman having worn thin in the closing days of his administration. While Eisenhower’s was considerably higher, at 60 percent, he was widely perceived as a grandfatherly do-nothing chief executive who spent more time on the golf course than in the Oval Office. Interestingly, both were political moderates, and grew up in the midwest within 150 miles of each other. The following is an overview of their achievements as our 33rd and 34th presidents.
33. HARRY S. TRUMAN (1945 - 1953)
After his party’s blistering defeat in the 1946 election, Harry S. Truman decided it was time to stop being Mr. Nice Guy and trying to please everyone. “I think the proper thing to do . . . is to do what I think is right and let them all go to hell.” The result was like being issued a get-out-of-jail pass. Truman was free to be himself—honest, blunt, plainspoken—to give as good as he got in the political arena. More importantly, he was free to pursue a course he thought best for the nation, rather than for his party; free to conduct a presidential campaign that—despite long odds—would see him reelected in a stunning upset, and free to pursue a course that would see him become—despite even longer odds—one of our greatest presidents.
You could say Harry Truman was dealt a bad hand upon taking office as president, after the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt. Neither FDR nor the White House staff had prepared Truman for what lay in store—thrust unexpectedly into office as a wartime president. The war in Europe was nearing an end, while the war with Japan continued unabated with no end in sight. Incredibly, Truman was unaware of the atomic bomb. His first 100 days in office were unlike that of any president before or since. He took office in April, saw Germany surrender in May, met with Churchill and Stalin in Pottsdam in July to discuss postwar arrangements, and in August ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to drop nuclear bombs was the most controversial decision of his presidency, and is second-guessed to this day. The decision was based on saving the lives of American soldiers (estimates range from 100,000 to half-a-million lives), and Japanese civilian lives (one million or more), should U.S. ground troops have to invade Japan, which seemed the only alternative to ending the war. The decision to drop the atomic bomb prompted Japan’s immediate and unconditional surrender.
Truman’s second year was nearly as fraughtful. Stalin was not about to give up the territory his army occupied, from Poland south to the Balkans, in what Churchill described as an “Iron Curtain” dividing Europe. It was a bad time for Truman, as his biographer David MaCullough has pointed out. “To the press and an increasing proportion of the country, he seemed bewildered and equivocating, incapable of a clear or positive policy toward the Russians.” In the mid-term elections, the Republicans took back both the House and the Senate. Truman was down but not out. “Nobody but a damn fool would have the job (of president) in the first place,” he lamented. “But I’ve got it damn fool or no and have to do as best I can.” The plaque on his desk said it all: The Buck Stops Here.
Over the next two years, Truman set a course that would define his presidency, and that of the nation for the next half century. To contain the Russians, he created the Truman Doctrine, a policy of supplying aid to countries resisting Soviet advancements. He urged his secretary of state, George Marshall, to outline a plan—later known as the Marshall Plan—to provide the financing necessary to rebuild Western Europe and prevent further Communist influence there. When the Soviets blocked access to West Berlin he ordered an airdrop of vital food and supplies that enabled the beleaguered city to remain democratic and free until the Soviets reopened access to the West. And when the nations of Western Europe began to recognize the need for a military network of mutual support, he backed the formation of NATO. Indeed, World War III seemed to beckon at every turn, but Truman remained cool, and let his Containment Policy keep the Russians in check. The result—cold war instead of hot war.
Truman faced a mountain of difficulties at home as well, with labor unrest (including a national railroad strike), a shortage of consumer goods, inflation at over 14 percent in 1947, and an economy struggling to regain its footing after the slowdown produced by the end of the war. Truman’s approval rating, sky high at 87 percent when he took office, plummeted to 36 percent in 1948, and it was widely believed that he didn’t stand a chance of beating Republican Thomas Dewey in the election that year. Truman complained bitterly, but the truth was he loved a political fight, and relished beating opponents who had repeatedly underestimated him. He embarked on a relentless whistle-stop campaign that took him from one end of the country to the other and resulted in his narrow victory over Dewey. The Democrats also regained both houses of Congress. Vindicated, an exuberant Truman held up an early edition of the Chicago Tribune that proved the pundits wrong. The headline read: “Dewey Beats Truman.”
Truman’s renewed popularity was short-lived. As with nearly all presidents elected to a second term, he would find his job even more difficult (if that were possible) and the political attacks ever more brutal. He began his second term promising a Fair Deal for all Americans, including universal health care, an increase in the minimum wage, increased funding for education, and equal protection under the law for all Americans, regardless of race. Some of this agenda was enacted, taking significant steps to ban racial discrimination in federal hiring, desegregate the military, and raise the minimum wage, but falling short in other goals. When a strike by steelworkers persuaded Truman to take over the companies involved, he was overruled in the courts. It proved to be one of the biggest blunders of his presidency. When Korea erupted in armed conflict, Truman saw the Communist influence in the North as a threat to the entire region. To stem the tide he sent in U.S. ground forces. When the popular General Douglas MacArthur publicly resisted Truman’s order not to pursue the enemy across the 38th Parallel, Truman fired him for disobedience. Later, to his chagrin, he watched as MacArthur was given a hero’s reception in Congress and a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in Lower Manhattan. For a man of Truman’s pride and sense of decency, it surely was a bitter pill to swallow. Truman left Washington a bitter and quickly forgotten man.
34. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (1953 - 1961)
General Eisenhower, who led the allies to victory in Europe, was an incredibly popular man following World War II. Both parties wanted him as their presidential candidate. Eisenhower (who had never voted in a presidential election) chose the party of his parents—the Republican Party. One of his campaign staffers came up with a slogan that captured the mood of American voters: “I Like Ike.” The Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust touched American fears, but with a much-revered and much-loved five-star general in the White House there was hope for a lasting peace. Eisenhower confirmed that hope by bringing a negotiated settlement to the Korean War and by opening a dialogue with the Soviet Union. While most Americans didn’t realize it at the time, he kept American ground troops out of Vietnam when the French were losing their hold on Southeast Asia and seeking U.S. involvement. Ike knew—the jungles of Vietnam were no place for American boys to be fighting.
In 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA, to beat the Soviet Union in the race to the moon. At the same time, he anticipated the vigorous attempts at nuclear disarmament that would follow his presidency, in part through the Atoms for Peace initiative, which promoted nuclear power for peaceful purposes while amplifying the need for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. On the domestic front, Eisenhower reduced the federal deficit, in part by slashing the massive military spending. The savings he achieved enabled him to launch the interstate highway system, which authorized $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.
Hanging over the Eisenhower presidency in its first two years was the question of what to do about the red-baiting Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, whose quest for publicity and destroying careers knew no limit. Rather than confront him head-on—and risk a war of words and who knew what else—Eisenhower decided to wait him out, believing the unconscionable bully would go too far and destroy all credibility—which is what he did, on camera, with the nation watching.
Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Supreme Court chief justice never dreaming Warren would do what he did—make an immediate push for a unanimous decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. It was too much too soon for the nation to accept, Eisenhower believed. He was wrong, as the polls revealed—51 percent of the public were in favor of Court’s decision. When the High Court urged the nation to go slowly, Eisenhower was relieved. Without question, his feeling towards the civil rights movement was decidedly lukewarm. Nonetheless, he showed presidential leadership by sending federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, to protect nine African American children who were integrating a school there. On his watch, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were passed in Congress.
Eisenhower signed off on coups in Iran and Guatemala that were sanctioned by the U.S., one a Pyrrhic victory in Iran, the other intended to topple an elected, legitimate government in Guatemala. Neither action was necessary to “stop Communism” as it turned out, and both led to unforeseen upheavals that at the very least called U.S. foreign policy into question. Eisenhower also authorizing U-2 spy missions over the Soviet Union at a time when talks of a test ban treaty with Khrushchev were in the the planning stages. The downing of a U-2 spy plane scuttled the talks.
Eisenhower felt unfulfilled when he left office, due to the downing of the U-2 spy plane that stopped a possible arms agreement with Russia. After that “he saw nothing worthwhile left for him to do . . . until the end of his presidency.” Unfulfilled or not, his approval rating was a hefty 60 percent when he left office.
Eisenhower’s greatest achievement, perhaps, was keeping the nation out of war. Which brings us to the next installment: Undeclared war and three presidents—Kennedy, Johnson, & Nixon.
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My two sons were surprised. None of their high schools friends had ever heard of the Byrds. They’d heard of the Beatles—of course—and Simon and Garfunkel, and the Rolling Stone, all from the 1960s. But the Byrds? No. At our house the Byrds was a staple, old friends whose songs never wore out their welcome: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “Eight Miles High,” “So You Want To Be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star” to name but a few.
There was something beguiling about the choir of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, the jingle-jangle of electrified 12-string guitar, and the twangy vocal stylings of space cowboy Roger McGuinn. McGuinn was more than the Byrds’ frontman. He was the visionary who combined folk and rock to create a whole new sound. Band members came and went. It didn’t matter. McGuinn was the Byrds. When the Byrds’ franchise wore out its welcome in the early ‘70s, McGuinn moved on to a solo career and toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. When that ran its course, he joined with two ex-Byrds to form a new outfit—McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. Despite a host of new songs in tune with the slick ‘80s pop aesthetic, the trio failed to recapture the magic. McGuinn returned to flying solo and discovered he still had a large and devoted following, not only in America but in Canada, England, the Netherlands, and Germany. Indeed, McGuinn continues to tour America and Europe, in the company of his third wife who doubles as his manager and keeper of the McGuinn travel blog.
Below are reviews of three albums that testify to McGuinn’s unique artistry.
MR. TAMBOURINE MAN (1965)
When "Mr. Tambourine Man" broke big in the summer of 1965, faster than you could say “folk-rock,” the Byrds were hailed as America's answer to the Beatles. The funny part was, the Byrds weren't true rockers like the Beatles. Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby were folkies. Columbia Records signed them because their vocal harmonies sounded Beatlesque. Ambitious as the three were, they weren’t ready for success. After "Mr. Tambourine" topped the charts, they scrambled to perform in public like something they weren’t—seasoned rock `n' rollers. They also scrambled to come up with enough quality songs to fill an album. Gene Clark was the group’s sole romantic and most proficient songwriter but all his songs tended to sound alike. Management said variety was needed to showcase their talent. Fights were common. McGuinn and manager Jim Dickson argued over the direction the band was taking. Crosby was upset because his songs weren't considered worthy. And producer Terry Melcher presented yet another point-of-view, that of Columbia Records, which was banking heavily on the band’s success. Despite bruised egos and at least one black eye, the Byrds added three more Bob Dylan songs, sang three-part harmony until they were hoarse, while studio engineers discovered a way to make McGuinn’s 12-string resonate huge as an orchestra. The result was a pop masterpiece.
Entitled "Mr. Tambourine Man,” after the hit single, the album was an overwhelming success—embraced by the kids and the growing counter-culture, praised by music critics on both Coasts, and by the Beatles themselves, who announced to the world that their favorite American band was the Byrds. What made the album stand out was its sound: the Byrds' gothic harmonies intertwined with resonating guitar solos. McGuinn put it best when he described their sound as a "krrrriiiiisssshhhh" jet sound. "It's the mechanical sound of the era," he said, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Whatever it was, no other band could duplicate the Byrds' unique 12-string symphony and ethereal harmonies. Thirty years later, critic Richie Unterberger pronounced the Byrds' first album as "One of the greatest debuts in the history of rock. `Mr. Tambourine' was nothing less than a significant step in the evolution of rock & roll itself."
NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968)
The Byrds were at a creative peak when they entered the recording studio on Sunset Boulevard to make this brilliant yet flawed album. Producer Gary Usher created the appropriate sound world in which countrified steel guitars blended perfectly with psychedelic electric guitars, grounded with the baroque sound of a string quartet. But the Byrds' famous vocal harmonies suffered as a result. Part of this may have been due to David Crosby's dismissal midway through production, and part of it may have had to do with the recording mix. As it is, the krrriiissshhh of vocal harmonies sounds an octave higher than usual, as if the recording engineers speeded up the tape. No matter. This a wonderfully inventive album that abounds with creative confidence and compares favorably with the Beatle's "Sgt. Pepper." Standout cuts include McGuinn's magnum opus "Get to You,” plus "Goin' Back,” "Natural Harmony,” Crosby’s “Draft Morning,” and "Wasn't Born to Follow.”
When future musicologists get around to sifting through Roger McGuinn's solo albums and Byrds’ records, they're going to place "Thunderbyrd" somewhere near the top. As one of his songs says, "It's not the singer, it's the tune." With this, his fifth solo effort, he finally had a superb song playlist to record, and sang the songs like he meant it.
"Thunderbyrd" was recorded at a low ebb in McGuinn's career. The Byrds had long-since disbanded, and his modest solo career was going nowhere. He was still working with lyricist Jacques Levy, and the pair wrote four enticing tunes: "Dixie Highway", "It's Gone", "I'm Not Lonely Anymore", and "Russian Hill." To these were added five others: "American Girl" by Tom Petty (“a long-lost Byrdsong,” as McGuinn wryly put it), "All Night Long" (a Peter Frampton tune), "We Can Do it All Over Again", "Why Baby Why" (by George Jones), and Bob Dylan's "Golden Loom.”
When recording began McGuinn realized his backup band wasn't up to it, so he fired them, and recruited a new band. The new band was up to it, consisting of future Fleetwood Mac guitarist Rick Vito, drummer Greg Thompson, and bassist Charlie Harrison. With a strong set of songs to sink his teeth into—and McGuinn re-committed to being a Rock ’N’ Roll star—the recording sessions were magical. Every song sounded right, and "American Girl" joined McGuinn's short list of most requested songs ("Mr Tambourine Man", "Turn! Turn! Turn", "Eight Miles High,” “My Back Pages” and "So You Want to be a Rock N Roll Star”).
It wasn't long after the release of "Thunderbyrd" that McGuinn began performing again with Gene Clark and Chris Hillman, two of his old bandmates from the Byrds' days. The results were mixed. While the trio wowed audiences from coast-to-coast, their studio albums failed to click. "Thunderbyrd" stands as McGuinn's one truly inspired album outside of the Byrds.
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July 11 is John Quincy Adams’ birthday. That’s John QUINCY Adams, sixth president of the United States, and son of John Adams, second president of the United States.
It’s the exceptional leader who foresees coming events and foretells the likely outcome. John Quincy Adams was one of these rare individuals. His sterling character is portrayed in the movie AMISTAD. More about that in a moment.
SEVERING THE BONDS OF SLAVERY
As early as March 1820, as secretary of state under President James Monroe, Adams told his cabinet colleagues, in connection with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, that slavery was inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence. Adams was not ready to say so publicly, but that night he wrote in his diary: “If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself.” As “calamitous” as a civil war would be, “so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”
After the cabinet meeting ended, Adams walked home with Secretary of War John Calhoun, the Yale educated former congressman from South Carolina and fierce slavery advocate. Adams later recorded what Calhoun had said to him, “that the principles which I had avowed were just and noble; but that in the Southern country . . . they were always understood as applying only to white men.” Manual labor was “the proper work of slaves,” Calhoun said. “No white person could descend to that.” Adams, however, said he “could not see things in the same light. It is, in truth, all perverted sentiment—mistaking labor for slavery, and dominion for freedom.”
The Missouri Compromise made a decided impression on Adams’ thinking. He realized the Constitution’s bargain between freedom and slavery “is morally and politically vicious, inconsistent with the principles upon which alone our Revolution can be justified; cruel and oppressive.” By treating slaves not as persons “to be represented themselves” but as a reason to award “their masters . . . nearly a double share of representation” in Congress, the bargain ensured “that this slave representation has governed the Union.”
During the 1830s and 1840s, after Adams’ four years as president, he argued that the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, was the nation’s founding document—“the ark of your covenant,” as he told his fellow citizens in a famous 1839 speech. Abraham Lincoln after him would arrive at the same conclusion.
That same year, speaking before the Supreme Court, Adams cited the Declaration of Independence once again, arguing for the freedom of 39 African captives liberated from the slave ship Le Amistad. The scene is featured in the 1997 motion picture, AMISTAD. It’s a powerful drama that underscores the cruel and inhuman acts of converting innocent free men and women into slaves. The movie features the courtroom drama that freed the captives, and the key role played by Adams. It’s a case of noblesse oblige at its very best—men of high station helping those caught up in a living nightmare—of disinfecting a monstrous miscarriage of justice before the judicious light of truth. In one of the most moving scenes of American cinema, Adams points to the Declaration of Independence on the wall inside the courtroom as his clients’ greatest defense, in particular the phrase, “All men are created equal.” In a unanimous decision, the Court agreed, and the African captives were freed at last. The cast is special: Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, and the perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins as the wise and discerning John Quincy Adams.
Happy Fourth of July.
"If Hemingway Had Written a Racing Novel" is a first-class collection of motor racing fiction. Each of these stories, excerpts of course, feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store with nose to glass.