Gordon Book Review Blog

Without Precedent - the Story of John Marshall

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 @ 10:46 PM

Without Precedent, by Joel Richard Paul, was the story of Chief Justice John Marshall, our country's most influential and most prolific Chief Justice's in the nation's history. Over 34 years Chief Justice Marshall oversaw 1129 decisions, of which over 1000 were unanimous, with 547 authored opinions. While Marshall was not perfect, his commitment to Washington's and Hamilton's vision and execution of Federalism for the young nation's first four decades was remarkable and extraordinary. Most importantly, he established the Judicial branch a a near co-equal to the legislative and executive branches.

Unlike many of the other founding fathers, Marshall's upbringing was not among the elite class of large plantation owners and lawyers, such as his cousin, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson grew up in privilege on a plantation with 500 slaves, while Marshall came of age as the oldest of 14, scraping out a living on the edge of the wilderness on his father’s farm. His childhood taught him resilience and humanity, and his experience in the Revolution, at Valley Forge with Washington, Hamilton and Stuben, taught him the real suffering of war.


Marshall was a quick learner, however, getting a law degree and demonstrating leadership and  skills in compromise and collaboration. His sharp mind got him noticed by the elites in the young republic. His simple hardscrabble upbringing did not limit his opportunities, and ultimately contributed to his legendary contributions to American jurisprudence.

The book seemed to be broken into three parts: Marshall’s early life including his service during the Revolution, the time in France negotiating terms of peace for his new country, and finally the Supreme Court years. In France, (with too many pages dedicated according to Doug), he was exposed to both government corruption and runaway ideologies. These seem to have influenced his ideas of how an effective judiciary could limit flawed humans from establishing autocratic rule. For me, the most memorable part of the time in France was the overt demands for a bribe from France’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, before commencing in negotiations between nations.  For others, the descriptions of revolutionary Paris and the collapse of due process under the law, under the guise of ‘equality’ was equally remarkable.

Thomas Jefferson was relentlessly criticized throughout the book. Part of this view is historical: the closer we look at Jefferson, the more elitist and detached, and flawed, he appears. Juxtaposed to his cousin, Marshall ended up being Jefferson’s greatest nemesis during his presidency.  Some examples: Marshall had a close business and personal relationship with his slave, all his life. Jefferson had Sally Hemmings. Marshall lived simply, and left substantial landholdings to his family, while Jefferson always lived in and died, deeply in debt.

We expected the court cases to be long and arduous; but were pleasantly surprised. The descriptions leading up to the decisions were well organized and clearly described, and the relevance of the decisions to affected parties at the time, as well as to the development of legal thought, including establishing precedence, for the young nation was outstanding.  Every case made sense.

The first case described of course, was Marbury vs Madison, the first case they discuss in law school. The relevance of this case was the establishment of the Judiciary as an equal to the Executive branch. Madison (he defendant - and Jefferson's Secretary of State) didn’t even appear at the hearing, so little was thought of the controversy at the time. The Constitution barely mentions the Supreme Court, and nothing in it says the Court can stop the legislature.  Marshall established these standards through his brilliant early opinions. This particular case (MvM) established Marshall’s credentials as a force on the national scene – against his cousin, President Jefferson.

We delved into the disparity of concepts of equality within the Declaration of Independence (authored by Jefferson) versus what actually made it into the Constitution (written mostly by James Madison). The Declaration spoke about all men being equal by God, while the Constitution held that slaves were valued at 3/5ths of a freeman; and women and non-property owner men had no vote, no representation. The Constitution was eventually amended to grant voting rights to non-property owners, and 100 years later to women,   Marshall laid the foundation well ahead of his time, through contract resolution and three Indian cases, where he ruled that Indian Nations were in fact entities qualified to execute contracts, thus effectively placing them on equal footing as white landowners,.

We talked about how Federalism vs States Rights affects us today. Doug talked about how the energy sector - its bifurcation is one result of different states’ policies toward energy. Today securities and aviation are nationally regulated, while energy (and insurance and many other industries) is regulated by states. States’ rights issues were potentially limiting to the economic growth of the nation in the early 1800’s; the establishment of Congress’ authority over ‘interstate commerce’ stopped monopolistic state standards in transportation in particular, opening up the eastern seaboard to the rest of the continent. Marshall knew enough about international trade to know that different regulations by states would hamper the country's economic vitality, and its trajectory.  He was not about to protect monopolistic interests under the law.

We disagreed over the role of the judiciary in solving social issues, a reflection of the Kavanaugh hearings. Should the court serve as England’s House of Lords, deciding social issues? We disagreed.  London's Supreme Court does not overrule laws as they do here.  Washington warned against parties (factions) in government, and parties are often influenced by social influences.  

Chuck remarked that the current stable of justices, exclusively from Harvard Law or Yale Law today, does not play well in the heartland, really anything between Route 5 and the Acela Corridor. If Trump had found someone from UT or other qualified institution for the Kennedy vacancy, the disgraceful hearings in September might have taken a different tone.

We asked and revisited the question, Did the founding fathers have any idea of the enduring influence of the institutions they built?  I argued they did. They had a continent to populate and develop, and they knew (and often wrote of) the importance of getting it right after the Articles of Confederation. Getting it right rested in a document and a national commitment to remain a country of laws, of liberty, and most importantly of limiting the natural aggregation of power by people or groups of people.  Marshall’s consequence was a judiciary which can stop the legislative and executive branches both form incurring on the people’s freedom.  Without a strong judiciary, we’d’ve become an autocracy, a true dictatorship of the majority.  Or worse, a human controlled autocracy more common on the world today, as through history.

Marshall’s ability to bring parties of opposing views together was as remarkable as his mind. How many decisions were made over a bottle of claret in a boardinghouse, where the justices lived in the early days? Imagine the arguments they had, the projection of consequences, the collaboration over the best interests of a new country. They knew.

Overall, we agrees this book was one of the best to read to understand the fragility of the men, and indeed fragility of the structure of our republic. John Marshall was a quiet giant among giants, and his influence in the strength and dynamism of our country that we know today cannot be overstated.

Next book
Bart Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity





Tags: legal

12 Rules of Life - by Jordan Peterson

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 18, 2018 @ 06:50 AM

Our discussion of Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life - an Antidote to Chaos began with criticism of his verbose prose and slightly scattered style, contrasted with real appreciation for the many jewels of wisdom about developing lives of meaning. On balance we all felt it was well worth the effort.   A summary of our book club's meeting necessarily leaves out the depth and breadth of the content, but a brief list of chapter highlights and comments may get us close.  Overall, this was one of the best discussions we’ve had as a group.

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back 

We all heard this from our parents and grandparents (a recurring theme to many of the rules), but agreed that when you act the part, you can BE the part.   Bill reminded us that in competitive sprinting, form and structure are critical. As in life.  This chapter's dive into the brain chemistry of the lobster, and human, drove home the point that some of our deepest traits are hardwired into our Being.

  1. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping 

As they tell you on the airplane, look after yourself first, and you can look after and help others better.  The example that many people look after their dogs better than themselves was a good springboard.

  1. Make friends with people who want the best for you 

This chapter was unique in that it was all formed in Peterson's own personal experiences, unlike other aspect where he draws from philosophers, clinical research, and religious foundations. Said otherwise, if you had a friend whom you would not recommend as a friend for your brother, sister, or other loved one, why do you have that person as a friend? 

  1. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. 

Success can be measured in so many ways today, because there are so many games being played across life. Some are measured by their nature: many sports, business, for example. When viewed from the Long View, small steps, in the right direction, add up.   But comparing yourself to others is a dark and unproductive path.

  1. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

Most of us liked this chapter and we all like our kids.  For a group of guys, several with grandchildren, we talked about the state of college bound students today; college and university resources dedicated to psychology and socialization dwarf those from our ‘sink or swim’ generation.  Too many college kids today have the emotional IQ of 2-year olds.

  1. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world 

We can't know other people's dances. In the words of that philosopher Thumper, if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.

  1. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). 

This chapter delved into evil, whose roots are in expedience.  Just make things better; you don't have to make them perfect.  In the words of Mrs. Raymond, ‘There is little value in things easily attained.’   Evil is so far worse than tragedy, the differentiation is foundational. 

  1. Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie. 

The most dangerous lies are those we make to ourselves, justifying empty lives steeped in ideologies, detached from human interaction or reality.  Little lies enable big lies, and big lies by ideologues led to a hundred million murders in the 20th century.

  1. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't 

Rick talked about Emotional Intelligence, and its effectiveness within organizations today.  EQ (as distinct from IQ) allows us to listen and understand: ‘he who speaks first loses (control over the direction of the conversation.)’   Several of us have found emotional intelligence training in business to be equally valuable in life.

  1. Be precise in your speech 

And be especially careful what you tell yourself. The world is simple only when it is predictable. When things go wrong is when chaos rules.  These rules are the antidote to Chaos.

  1. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

This  chapter admonished the general public for closing skateboard parks, but Peterson rejects that, asking why would we discourage such dedication to improving at something.  For me personally, this moved the dial on what others, younger people inparticular, do to fill their time, to improve. 

  1. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street 

We don't understand other people's struggles, so don't assume their motives are any less pure than our own.  Even if you prefer dogs.  This rule covered pain and tragedy, so central to humanity. Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you. 

We discovered from several reviews that this book has come under criticism for its matter-of-fact discussion of the difference between sexes, hierarchies, and a focus on the individual.   While some of these criticisms may have merit, Peterson's overall message to look after yourself first, seems to be good advice.

 Here's a link to the book:

The book prompted a discussion on Emotional Intelligence, a topic embraced by several of us, and widely employed in business today.  This book includes an overview and a self assessment test as part of the price.   Worth it.

  Our next book about Justice John Marshall will help us to understand Justice Kavanaugh better


Tags: Rules for Life, 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson

Rogue Heroes - the story of the SAS, the first 'special forces"

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Apr 18, 2018 @ 05:25 PM

Rogue Heroes is the non-fiction historical accounting of the development of the world’s first “special forces”, the British SAS (Special Air Services), conceived and developed in the African theatre in World War II, subsequently used effectively in France, Italy and Germany in a variety of tactical needs to securee the Allied victory.    
Chuck led our discussion, and began with some of the characters.  He began with the initial force behind the birth of the SAS, David Stirling.  This aristocratic soldier hadn’t accomplished much in his life until the war.  He was openly contemptuous of mid-level military leaders as he considered different ways of achieving bigger strategic goals.  His aristocratic upbringing helped him make connections to high command from the outset, as the stodgy military command he challenged was still stuck in the Great War.   Many obstacles stood in the way of getting up and running, not least of which was the legacy British sense that this was not the proper way to fight a war.  But the bucking authority theme ran throughout the book: two examples much later in the book were when senior officers disobeyed direct commands to stand down: one “accidentally fell out of a plane" (to join his team on the ground), and another told high Command that he didn’t get the order to stand down until the mission had been underway.  This tendency to think independently and find solutions irrespective of higher military authority became part of the special forces ethos that endures today.   

Paddy Mayne was the other force behind the development of the SAS, and couldn’t be more different from David Stirling.   An Irish rugby player, prone to extreme violence when drinking, and ready to kill people under any circumstances.  Initially he and Stirling competed for control and influence within the SAS, but soon developed a working relationship recognizing each other’s strengths and differences.   About halfway into the book Stirling was taken prisoner and Paddy Mayne became the defacto sole leader of the SAS.

The development of Paddy Mayne reflected the development of many of the soldiers serving in the SAS, veering from asset destruction to assassination. Morality blurs in war.  Early in the war, destruction was the goal; by the end, killing was indiscriminate.  War changes people.   Not that Mayne began as a tender character; author Ben MacIntyre commented that Paddy Mayne had so many demons he could populate his own Hell.

The blurry line between murder and a fair fight was highlighted on several occasions.  We discussed the relative breadth of field tactics that SEALS have compared to other military units.  Chuck cited a New York Times article questioning the accountability of these special forces in the field often unrestrained by rules-of-engagement.  Geoff argued that the purpose of these forces is as psychological as tactical.  Canoeing became the topic of debate between Geoff and Rob.

The brutality of the men in these SAS forces was always underlying their efforts, but the war changed  in the move from Africa to Europe. Even in Africa, the early objective was to destroy materiel, but tactics employed by Germans (Hitler’s Commando Rule: shoot all operators behind the lines), mass killings, civilian killings changed the behavior of Allied forces in Europe dramatically.

The book had so many characters identified by so many stories, our discussions often went from character to character, with some of the crazy events highlighting the men involved.  In this case, the series of short stories kept us all captivated.

On the other hand, the death of so many characters was an insight into the destruction in war, a far cry from movies and history written by the survivors.  Unlike a novel, so many characters play a major role in one operation, then killed in the next. 

We talked another moral question, that of injured soldier Seymour, left behind to be captured by advancing Germans.  He was abandoned by his buddies, so he's feeling betrayed.  His story after the war did not add up, and many asked whether he was one of the sources of so much intelligence on the entire SAS operation including leaders, tactics, supply sources, and on and on.  How much can one ask of a man held captive, subject to torture?

Other characters we discussed were: the captured officer who had dinner with the German general, who told him, we can't guarantee your safety once these (SS) guys take you. Knowing you're going to be shot sharpens the mind: they escaped.

In the desert, Sadler was the navigator, trained in celestial navigation, taking the team dozes of miles from an oasis to an airport.  Incredible talent on display.

We talked about how today's special forces are similar, and how   they are different. They are similar in training intensity and high fall-out rate; physical and psychological fortitude; and the breadth of operational latitude.  The breadth in operational latitude prompted the discussion of how much is too much, reviewed earlier.  What is fair in war?  

The differences are the assets dedicated to supporting these warriors.

The impact on the men who go into special forces is life changing.  Even the survivors of operations become different people because of what they are asked to do.  And their impact, psychologically and militarily, remains over-sized to their footprint.

On a topic that we could only discuss because we have warriors out in the world allowing us to live a life of freedom and independence in an otherwise dangerous world, we will discuss the 12 Rules of Life, by Jordan Peterson.




Machine Platform Crowd

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Tue, Jan 23, 2018 @ 10:46 PM

The Bonnie Lea Book Club convened to discuss a book on the social and economic revolution happening today, entitled Machine Platform Crowd. The book begins with examples of the Triple Revolution, a quick synopsis of three major trends that the book focuses on: computing power, including deep learning, self-learning "Machines"; Platforms, where new business ideas can be tested and shaped, giving us the largest transportation company in the world (Uber), with no vehicles, the largest hospitality company, Airbnb, with no properties, and the largest content creator in the world that doesn't create any content (Facebook); and finally the crowd, small market microcosms, inspiring businesses exactly what products consumers want, ss well as solve problems too big or complicated for individuals operating independently.

The writing was OK, but the volume of information and examples cited made reading tedious in large chunks. Further, while excellent in technology, was less insightful in matters of business.  That said, we are all glad we read it for the insight into the trends affecting our economy and our society.

Computers have only recently emerged from a marginal role in business, keeping track of money, information transmission, and data storage, into a more central role in decision making today. Instant recall and deep thinking analysis of ever greater amounts of data means machine decisions eclipse many traditional human roles.  In many businesses, the only humans that matter are the customers. This is the second machine age.  It's bigger than the first.

One of the distinctions of this confluence of deep learning machines and platforms is between bits of data and atoms. When information (bits) is the product, platforms can distribute to customers as perfect products, for free, and instantly.  Music is one example: there is no marginal additional cost to distribute a song to another listener.      Free, perfect and instant is difficult to compete with.  And this ‘free, perfect and instant’ is changing the economic applications of supply and demand with lower and lower prices bringing more new buyers into a  market.   

An example of what the crowd can create, consider Linux, an open-source operating system, meaning its source code is freely available, and anyone can make changes to make it more stable and effective. Microsoft and Apple hold their source code close.  Today Linux powers over 1.5 billion Android phones, and is the most professional operating system in the world. The crowd brings a diversity of thought, experience and insight that no panel of experts can offer. Crowd solutions work best when open and self-regulating: good solutions progress, bad ideas die.  One of the contributors to Uber's and Airbnb's success is that both buyer and sellers of service can rate each other.  These solutions can exceed the performance or insight of the "core", the experts - the HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person in the Office).  

Platforms will not cannibalize everything, and in some cases simply add demand that hadn't existed: Airbnb's offer of homes and interaction with hosts, for example.  However, disruption to all industries with information assymetries will still be widespread.

Decentralization and fast powerful computing enable Bitcoin, an open, decentralized currency. Because ledgers exist in blocks, showing where each bitcoin has been spent, the chain of previous ledgers provides the entire history of bitcoins spent.  However, digital currencies may not survive national governments interests (China) or ownership by a block of more than 50% (who could decide who keeps their currency).

We talked a lot about the disruption expected in employment: millions will be displaced. New jobs will be created as others are made. The question is the transition, the re-tooling.  Digitization puts pressure especially at the lower end of wage earners.  We know that wages as a percentage of GDP are shrinking; capital is taking an ever larger share of GDP.  This trend is sure to accelerate.  While the book doesn't delve into the social implications of this pattern, the conclusion is easy to draw: bad for the lower half of today's wage spectrum; possibly bad for the lower 90% in a few years. 

Doug and Rob both talked about the effect of block chains on the internet of things; including whether processing power can keep up with the volume of data.  Both agreed that the open nature of block chains will have tremendous impact on financial transactions, as they can eliminate the risk of fraud, and can follow every transaction to the nano-grids.

Our conversation eventually turned to when machines eclipse human creativity, and then, the Skynet concept, the Rise of the Machines, a new Alpha on planet earth.  Bill argued that human creativity, with every nuance from personal experiences, will never be eclipsed by machines. Can a machine hold two different opinions on a single subject?  Not today. Not yet?  

The social benefits of lower prices will continue to benefit workers at the lower end of the wage spectrum. But what will these folks do when the jobs they’ve trained for don’t exist?

The book talked about the future of platform development, and the continued disintermediation of the knowledge vendor.  The internet has already disrupted travel, finance, and many other industries.  Platforms thrive where asymmetrical information exists, accelerating the disintermediation process.  Are future platforms only for the FANGs?  - the digital giants: Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google. Is economic growth limited to the FANGs with their head start on the aggregation of data?  The immediate solution is to provide the services along with the human element.  It may be a barbell effect: OK for the very large, already ahead, and OK for the small, who can leverage the powers of this second machine age without the legacy ballast.  Time will tell, but recognizing the landscape is one requirement.

Overall, the book was a wake-up call on this new economic age we're entering into.  Worth the read. 




Our next book:


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Red Notice by Bill Browder - Bonnie Lea Book Club review

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Mon, Oct 23, 2017 @ 10:46 AM

Red Notice is the story of big finance in Russia by Bill Browder, founder and driving force behind Hermitage Capital, a uniquely successful mutual fund that took advantage of undervalued, recently privatized Russian companies' assets in the early to mid 1990's.   As well as a story of power, greed and corruption in Russia today.
We began with a few personal experiences with Russia.  Bill had visited USSR in the 1970's: gray, dingy, repressive. No children to be seen anywhere.  Bill told a more recent story about the son of a friend who was held at Russian border only 3 years ago, for a $65,000... 'exit fee'. The U.S. State Department said to pay it before the boy became an embarrassment and disappeared. Such was our single direct contact with Russia before beginning our discussion of the book, the book about systemic human abuse, greed, corruption. Russia is a dangerous place, run by nasty people.

The book begins with Browder's arrival to Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, toward the end of his run in Russia at Hermitage. On the flight he had read a story about another American in a foreign country, China, which had imprisoned a fellow Stanford MBA, Jude Shao; this was troubling foreshadowing, as Browder was then held at the airport, unlike hundreds of prior flights. The opening scene was tense, setting the stage for the strong arm of the Russian legal system.

The privatization program where Browder was in the right place and the right time, with the right drive and intellect and willingness to be on the ground floor, was one of the greatest arbitrage opportunities in modern investing history.  Dealing with the Russian state was another matter.

Browder began his valuing and investing career in Poland, where he saw an opportunity to buy ownership in a company for a nickel on the dollar, as that country was trying to de-nationalize many former state-owned industries. Opportunity soon brought him to Russia, where his efforts led to a ‘eureka moment’ in Murmansk.  Consider this: a fishing company with about 100 ships, each costing about $20,000,000. The fleet was roughly half depreciated, meaning the fleet – the physical assets alone - was worth about $2,000,000,000 new, or a billion dollars after 50% depreciation (average age was 7 years).  Management had an opportunity to purchase this billion dollar business for $25 million, or about 12 ½ cents per hundred dollars of value. Just for the physical assets.

Kremlin image.png

What Browder learned, and was struck by, was that very few people in Russia had any idea how to value a business.   These owners had no idea, no background, and no experience in determining a value.  After all, after a hundred yeears of 'state-owned' industries, value was unimportant..

In another example, consider the distinction between "preferred shares" and "ordinary shares"; this distinction is different from the U.S. differences.  Preferred shares paid 40% of profits by contract; and ordinary shares paid nothing.  Ordinary shares had voting rights, but preferred shares were selling at a 95% discount to these ordinary shares.   These too were bargains that may never exist again on such a scale in world capital markets.  Nobody alive in Russia had ever needed to know the concept of value.

These incredible arbitrage opportunities were not known to brokers in western cities: The realization could only be understood by being there on the ground, talking to business owners, learning the nascent equity markets. Doug concurred with the hard work described: as a consultant, he described the heady days of consulting overseas trying to stay ahead of the client's understanding. Bad food, bad accommodations, cold winters.   Bill Browder was there.

Some other amazing stories we discussed centered on the people Browder was able to connect with: Edmund Safra, a world famous investor early in the book; a meeting with John McCain later.  Bill Browder could open doors.

Joel questioned the credibility of several of the story lines, including Browder's luck. One example was when Vadim bought a CD on a street corner, full of information about public company structure in Russia. This was full of crudely organized data about corporate control, sold on the street corners of Moscow: a virtual Rosetta Stone of corporate ownership in Russia.  But Jeff reminded us on his professional respect for the work that Browder did from the ground up, the street work, understanding how things got to be the way they were.  This tedious work created opportunities and understanding.  The data would be useless to most people; Browder and his team recognized its value, and leveraged it.

Within Russia, a small group of other people did recognize the opportunities.  These people today are Russia’s richest people. Vast fortunes were created by aggregating assets – often through entirely phony ownership transactions – in the early days of privatization,  Putin was among these, but was separately slowly securing his own power.  We all recalled the scene in the book where an oligarch is sipping champagne and sampling caviar on his yacht in the Med; he sees Mikhail Khodorkovsky on TV in a cage in a Moscow courtroom.  Putin had consolidated power.  Oligarchs asked, what did it take not to be stuffed in a cage?  Putin: Fifty per cent.

Putin is Russia's new tsar. It took 100 years of interim, but he's the tsar.  His financial value is difficult to quantify because so many assets are held nominally by others, but U.S. News estimates $200 billion.  Forbes has ranked him as the most powerful man in the world for the past six years.   He is 65; what is his end game?

We believe that Browder’s own drive for justice was based on measures of guilt, lost justice, and need for revenge.   As the powerful began circling, how could Browder put others in his team at so much risk?  The escape of some employees juxtaposed to Magnitsky’s failure to escape was reminiscent of Jan Karsky (Secret State).  We questioned whether they all truly understood the danger of making money in Russia.  Clearly, Sergei Magnitsky overestimated the power of law and justice in his own country; and Russian traditions of criminals using the government as a tool to their personal ends prevailed.

The opportunities were limited to natural resources companies. Trawlers, oil, No intellectual property or businesses providing services. Such is the nature of Russian assets.

Sergei Magnitsky's brutal treatment by the government was systemic, built into foundation of the system itself.  Russia’s long history of human abuse is blossoming under Putin.  Nothing was fair or right.

The book's last chapters followed the tedious and circuitous route to passing the Magnitsky Act, which now appears to be an effective thorn in Putin’s and his oligarchs' sides.  Witness the meeting arranged by Natalia Veselnitskaya with team Trump in 2016.  Browder himself testified before Congress that the effort to repeal the Magnitsky Act was orchestrated by high level Kremlin officials.  Browder also testified that opposition research company Fusion GPS lobbied against the Magnitsky Act as well. These are big, well fimded influence peddlers.

An overall takeaway from this book is the absence of a rule of law, no independent court system, no check on the theft, the abuse. The foundational flaw is the lack of effective checks and balances, permitting cover, deception, and lack of accountability. Here in the U.S., there is a level of expectation, rarely perfect, but within a range of predictable and reasonable, that truth eventually emerges.  Russia still denies these truths exist.  Learning this through an interesting, but tragic Russian story made this book selection one of our favorites of the year.


Get it here        Our next book is Machine Platform Crowd: 

Tags: Red Notice, Bill Browder, Sergei Magnitsky

Agent Storm by Morten Storm with Mark Cruickshank and Tim Lister

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 19, 2017 @ 12:33 PM

Agent Storm is the story of a Danish man's personal transformation from street thug, to jihadist, to secret agent for Danish, British, and American intelligence agencies. It provides a bird's eye view of Islamic terror networks, the links injecting Middle Eastern Islamic beliefs into European societies, as well as the personal allure and ultimate rejection of Islam by the Dane, Morten Storm.

Young Morten Storm grew up in a poor, dysfunctional home, with a violent alcoholic step-father. By 18 he found brotherhood with the Bandidos, a drug running gang of Danish miscreants, and was in and out of jail. A fellow prisoner introduced young Morten to Islam, and the transformation, right at the library, was swift. Almost too swift for credibility. His embrace of Islam prompted him to rid his body of drugs and alcohol, and drove a hunger to learn from the clerics in his Danish, and later Birmingham (UK) neighborhoods. The allure of Islam to someone living with chaos and deprivation was strong, but Islam also justified and provided a release for his violent temperament.

We explored the evolution of the world's religions, the co-evolution of societies and governments and their delivery of economic stability and opportunity, intolerance of religious differences where social order is fragile, and other broad topics. Deviating from the book itself was easy and frequent. This first conversion was the first notable example of the credibility stretch in this book. There were several examples where we questioned the veracity, if not the 'whole story' of the narrative. This is Storm's story; the basic story was clear.  However, we all often wondered if events cited in the book were really just as described, or if they were bent by perspective.

The book never provides specific violence against 'kaffir', non-believers, but it is difficult not to believe his ascendancy into the inner circles of worldwide terror networks didn't include plenty of illegal muscle along the way. Selective omission is the writer's prerogative in an autobiography, but many absences were noticeable.

Storm's first trip to Sana'a in Yemen begins his deeper conversion to Islam, absorbing the philosophy of Salafism, a transnational religious - political movement rejecting of all things non-Muslim, further along the path to jihadist. This spectrum of belief was central to this topic: the allure of Islam as a religion of submission to God's will is not far from the allure of violence on others, especially amongst societies where violence or lawlessness are already extant. And while the book never described killing soldiers or civilians, such actions are entry level for Mafia, drug gangs, and other violent organizations, so expected within a jihadist community.

Having read Reza Aslan's No God but God and more recently Andrew Bacevich's America's War for the Greater Middle East, Chuck asked whether a national strategy of active containment - including targeted assassinations - is effective against a religious based threat. The question has gained importance with collapse of Libya and Syria, and the rise of Daesh / ISIS, and unprecedented migration. While America's physical distance, restrictive immigration policy, and a history of integration into the American ideal provides greater protections against the migration overwhelming Europe, the threat from conversion of society's disenfranchised into jihadists may be as dangerous here, and clearly more challenging to identify and intervene. Will AI and its expected employment disruption create more fertile opportunities for this avenue? Is Islam fundamentally incompatible with democracy?

Storm had become committed to two particularly important operations: delivering Aminah, the wife for Al Awlaki, and later his assassination. After Al Awlaki was successfully incinerated, the CIA told Storm his operation was not what led to the Awlaki kill, no payoff. Beyond the details of the Awlaki operation and subsequent non-payment, what does the evolution of the relationship say about Storm's emotional ties to these people, and Storm's ultimate goal?

His subsequent trip to Jaar and Azzam in Yemen gave further insight into the loose and disparate worldwide network of al-qaeda. Unlike national entities defined by borders, the glue that holds al-qaeda together is the draw to kill Kaffir, non-believers, and to instill sharia law throughout the world. As one character had said, 'we love death more than they love life'. This adds additional perspective of the nature of Salafism and jihad.

The book also gave a good look into three foreign service operations: PET (Dansih foreign service) paid him while the police watched him to keep a seat at the table with CIA and MI5. When Chuck asked if Storm's fear of the CIA was well founded, we all agreed he was an expendable asset, that his fears were probably well founded. His tell-all book is a statement in itself.

We closed with Bill's question: when is the movie coming out? While there are many forces eager to keep this story from broader distribution, it prompts important questions, and is full of action and intrigue. Morten Storm probably needs the money, having gone dark. Who will play Morten Storm in the movie?

Next book is Bill Browder's Red Notice. Browder was the force behind sanctions against Russia for murdering his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and in the news recently.

   Next Book:


Tags: agent storm, best selling books

America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew Bacevich

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Apr 19, 2017 @ 09:53 AM

The book America’s War for the Greater Middle East is a four decade chronology of America's military involvement in the Middle East, taking military and civilian leaders to task for a strategy that has cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, with little to show for it.   Colonel Bacevich does not offer any easy solutions to the crisis in the Middle East today, but argues persuasively that the efforts of the past four decades has produced no discernable positive results, likely creating more problems that it has solved.  Colonel Bacevich joined us for about forty minutes of our two-hour discussion, adding depth and a personal connection.  For me personally, it moved the needle on my perspective toward military action in the Middle East.

The war began with the Carter Doctrine, based on the premise that American demand for predictable oil out of the Middle East had to be protected from outside interests, at the time primarily Iran and Russia.  As Rob pointed out, the gas lines of the mid-70’s made Americans feel vulnerable to foreign forces that threatened our way of life.  Efforts to prevent disruption in oil were politically defensible.   While Bacevich begins his timeline with President Jimmy Carter, several agreed that the time line could have begun decades before or after Carter.  Reagan pursued military involvement as an extension of the Carter Doctrine and was president when a force of U.S. Marines in Beirut were bombed in 1983, resulting in over 300 deaths.   Reagan pursued his own small scale war against Libya' Moamar Gadhafi for his involvement in the Lockerbie and Berlin bombings, and played both sides of the long running Iran - Iraq war, including the convoluted and illegal affair known as “Iran-Contra”.  As an aside, one of our member’s brother was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot painted by a U.S. manufactured air defense missile system operated by Iran during Operation Preying Mantis naval battle in the Persian Gulf (1988), illustrating the absurd complications present in the Middle East even in the 1980’s.   In retrospect, the 9 year Iran-Iraqi war stalemate might have been one of the most stable times for the region in the past 40 years, an idea resurrected in our conclusion.   George H.W. Bush was at the helm when our former ally Saddam Hussein decided to annex Kuwait, violating the premise of the Carter Doctrine, and placing the supply of Saudi oil in jeopardy.   Desert Shield was employed to protect Saudi oil fields (though tactically limited to Kuwaiti fields), soon followed by Desert Storm, all under the same basic premise of the Carter doctrine: the political demand for a predictable oil supply.

Clinton took a different approach, siding with Muslims in Kosovo during the Balkans conflict, while never securing Islamic appreciation for U.S. engagement there.  To his credit, the focus on air support limited U.S. casualties unlike any previous conflict.   George W. Bush went back to Afghanistan and Iraq big:  After 9-11, Congress’ transfer its constitutionally derived war powers through the “Authorization to Use Military Force” Act (AUMF) to remove Saddam Hussein from that country and to remove the Taliban and Islamic militants from safe havens there.  The Bush Doctrine took a step beyond Carter Doctrine with a focus on pre-emptive action, taking the war on terror to them.  George Bush's greatest mistake in Iraq may have been the false optimism that we could impose or insert democracy into a place like Iraq.  The ‘nation builders’ never adequately considered the impact of religion, cultural, tribal and ethnic forces.   More recently Obama turned back to Afghanistan, while trying to disengage from Iraq, but returning there and making the same mistakes Johnson made in Vietnam, gradual escalation by half steps.  Obama also amped up use of drones as tools of assassination inconceivable thirtty years ago, while opening up new fronts in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya, and offering US military assets to over 50 African nations in an attempt to preempt radical Islamic influence. His legacy was to expand the fronts of war geometrically.  The story behind the detailed and meticulously referenced chronology is consistent: continued involvement of United States military assets, for objectives rarely clearly articulated to the American people.

The book spares no one. Civilian leaders never took a long view, often swept along by political winds and politically motivated decisions, and military planners focused on military solutions, killing or degrading, while Middle Eastern societies crumbled and new leaders, often worse than their predecessors, emerged.  The demonstrable effects of this decades long war has been political instability, social degradation in, and most recently, a humanitarian disaster of migration from the area.  One of the known sources of instability are the legacies of western incursion.

Much of the book reads as Monday morning quarterbacking, with scathing criticisms of many American military leaders including Stan McCrystal, David Petraeus, Norman Schwartzkopf, to name just a few.  Mal wondered whether Colonel Bacevich is still on the Christmas card list of anyone at the Pentagon.  Not likely.

The premise of the wars’ earliest justification, predictable oil, has since been turned upside down, as American engineering ingenuity and competitive solutions to oil price pressure have given us a $60 bbl oil price ceiling.  The Bakken Shield in North Dakota alone has rendered imported oil merely a pricing mechanism.  The original need for oil price stability and supply predictability have been solved, without the military.

Could we roll back to Carter's famous malaise speech, and question whether disengagement would have produced any better results for America?   Had we let market forces develop alternatives thirty years earlier, would the Middle East be a better place?   And more relevant, now that oil predictability is not held hostage by foreign nations, can we leave now?  American armies have a way of showing up but not leaving.  Should this always be the case?  Looking forward, the candidate Trump was critical of wars in the Islamic world: America First.  But the Syrian tomahawk missile strike was a questionable legal act, and accepted by Congressional leaders from both parties.  Dare we hope that this strike in Syria and the MOAB in Afghanistan will be the closing bell on militaristic solutions to the Middle East?

As a group, we discuss and ague about paths forward to help us define our own positions on these topics. While the book offers a few closing thoughts on how diplomacy and military disengagement are better solutions, they lacked depth.  Our discussion with Colonel Bacevich on what a successful strategy would look like in his mind was much clearer from him directly.   Simply stated, success looks like the absence of war and a balance of power contained within the region.  This balance, with an absence of a broader war does NOT necessarily include democratic governments, respect for human rights, or tolerance for many of what many Americans consider social imperatives.   Nor can we expect an ambitious Iran or adventurist Russia to play along.   A strategic objective should be to persuade and facilitate countries to manage their own affairs better, without spilling out broadly beyond the region. Change to a region skeptical of any change happens at a slow pace.   In the west we’ve figured out how to reconcile faith with politics.   In the Islamic world, that social contract appears unrealistic.  At best, it will be a long time before any peace comes to the area, but great limits of American military solutions would be a good starting point.  


                                       Our next book :

Tags: War in the Middle East

“Our Man in Charleston” by Christopher Dickey

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Fri, Jan 20, 2017 @ 11:54 AM

“Our Man in Charleston” is a story of Britain's consul in Charleston, South Carolina in the several years before, and into the War Between the States… The Civil War.

Robert Bunch was 32 years old when he arrived in Charleston, an aspiring diplomat originally assigned to Philadelphia, a more agreeable and cultivated assignment. He had roots in America, born in New York to an American mother and gunrunning British father.  He did all he could to delay his assignment from Philadelphia, as Charleston was "sickly" in the summer: people did not understand that yellow fever, a form of encephalitis, was carried by mosquitoes. Plus it was oppressively hot.  They knew New York was a better summer residence for anyone who could move there.

His first charge as consul was to amend or terminate the Negro Seamen Act 1822, whereby any black seaman landing in Charleston could be arrested. The Act had been passed after an insurrection, but was harsh and particularly offensive to black British seamen, who could not leave their ships when in port for fear of becoming slaves.  Bunch's predecessor George Matthew had taken an adversarial legal approach, but Bunch preferred to learn about the local society first.  This made him incredibly effective.

Britain had been trying to limit slavery and particularly the 'middle passage' since the early 1800s. It took several years before Bunch saw the Act amended, but he learned much about Charleston, its economic and political leaders, and its soul, along the way.

His ability to insert himself was more remarkable given his personal (and British) view toward slavery.  A mere 10 days after his arrival he wrote to The Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon "Even people who were on other issues sensible and well informed wanted to hear nothing about slavery is inconveniences its injustice or its atrocities."  That opinion on the depravity of slavery as an institution never wavered.  His effectiveness and his value to locals increased throughout the book as the importance of British recognition increased.   All this while he took ever greater chances of penning unencrypted correspondence to Washington or London by post and private courier.  He was always just a breath away from being caught.

Bunch's insightful analyses undermined the Confederacy's desire to be recognized by European powers, while maintaining an air of sympathy locally.   We don't fully accept the idea that his efforts to undermine Confederate recognition by European powers changed the direction of history, but history is rife with 'what-if's'.   Some have argued that if Pickett's charge had succeeded and Lee had won at Gettysburg, the Union would have sued for peace, England would have recognized the Confederacy, and our country would now be two, or many.  

Insurrections were on the minds, and arguments, of many whites, but the truth was, insurrections were rare.  John Brown's attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry Virginia was conceived to inspire a slave revolt, but was quickly suppressed.  More common were massacres of slaves, such as the massacre of freed slaves that followed Sherman's march across Georgia at Ebenezer Creek.

We have all read enough history to avoid making moral or ethical judgments based on our contemporary mores.  And yet reading the accounts of the 'Middle Passage', the term for Africans shipped from Africa to Cuba, or illegally to the United States, involved such indecency, we had to ask, did supporters of slavery believe that God saw slavery as the natural order of humanity?  And did people really believe that Africans were better off working plantations in America than they would have been in Africa?  Bill posited that the better educated, upper levels of society had enough education and understanding of the world that they certainly should have recognized these as mere rationalizations.  For the less educated, less traveled parochial farmers, perhaps these arguments resonated. But the bigger picture, including exposure to the Middle Passage, treatment of so many with no legal protection, it is difficult to find any common ground with the Fire Eaters, the political protectors of slavery, even through the lens of history.    Descriptions of the conditions were horrifying.  The description of that 'unique human stench', emanating from the slaver Echo, brought to Charleston harbor after its interdiction by the U.S. Navy, was powerful prose.  Scenes of what other boarding parties found on slavers were equally disturbing.

Our discussions took us across the economic, cultural, and political forces that were converging in the United States, often centered in Charleston.  By joining Robert Bunch, we caught a deeper glimpse into those forces.

The economic forces are not complex.   In 1807 importation of slaves became illegal, as part of a compromise to get the Constitution ratified in 1787.  While the population of African slaves increased 150 percent from 1807 to 1850, cotton production increased 3,000 percent.  The price of human laborers – slaves - increased accordingly.   Thus much of a slave owner's wealth was measured in the number of slaves he owned.   On this topic, Chuck brought up our earlier discussion of Frederick Law Olmstead who reflected after his trip across the South how cheap labor left the South little incentive to innovate on labor costs.  It was a doomed economic system, but many fought its demise.

Insight into politics was highlighted in the Democratic convention of 1860, which could not resolve a candidate after some 57 ballots, reflecting the divide between Pro-slavery Fire Eaters such as Rhett and Yancey, and the Douglas crowd that would have been content with territorial sovereignty.   The convention gave up and adjourned to Baltimore six weeks later.

Secession was disorderly and took time.  The states were not unified after South Carolina seceded.  There was no plan, only a few states leading, others came in eventually, but nobody seemed to appreciate what it was all leading to.  Fire Eaters were not unified by anything other than an economic need and cultural desire to keep other humans in bondage, a shaky foundation for a new country.

We also learned more about the many characters in Bunch's life, including: James Petigru, the lawyer who argued for amending the Negro Seaman Act, Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, then Lord Clarendon when he became foreign secretary, Lyons, the consul in Washington, who, in spite of his initial dislike of Bunch for his overstepping British bounds, quickly recognized his diplomatic skills and insight into South Carolinian ethos.  Lawyer Judah Benjamin understood how South Carolina was so out gunned by the North, but his insight couldn't persuade others to see into the future so clearly.

While the book rarely mentioned Lincoln, it did cast unfavorable depictions of James Buchanan, who saw conflict coming, and was relieved to have delayed it until the final days of his presidency, and of William Seward, a presidential aspirant whom we agreed may have simply lived ahead of his time.  He was after all the same Seward who bought Alaska.

Finally, some insights into our contemporary lives that this examination of history prompted:

there is a natural trend to social progression, pushed along by younger generations, but limited by people whose personal experiences influence their worldviews, neither of which are effectively accelerated by external admonishments.  We agreed that these forces move faster today facilitated by faster communication and greater migration, but these social trends still encounter broad resistance that only time dissipates.  Our parents' formative years were different from ours, as our children's world is different from ours.  Social progression has a natural evolution, with differing speeds in different places, as new generations grow and experience their respective worlds.   But progression is subject to the same forces of inertia as physics: when pushed by external forces, equal and opposite pushback occurs.  The recent ascendancy of the 'unenlightened', blue collar, less educated so-called 'deplorables', and a Trump presidency, is today's manifestation of that trend.  The Civil War was a far bloodier result in its day.

All this aside, man's inhumanity continues; last week in Lynn MA, an arrest was made for human trafficking: the sex trade is alive and thrives today.  But today, most people are deeply offended, and no justification for today's slavery withstands scrutiny.

Overall, while the prose was dense, and perhaps described more detail than was needed, this book gave a far deeper insight into slavery from its epicenter and the forces leading to our Civil war than most books do, by chronicling the work of an extraordinary diplomat.  



Next Book:

America's War for the Greater Middle East 

by Andrew Bacevich

Tags: Our Man in Charleston, book review

5 Easy Theses by Jim Stone

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Oct 26, 2016 @ 11:19 AM

Jim Stone's book about five problems that challenge America, and his solutions, resonated with the whole group. Only half of Bonnie Lea Book Club were able to make tonight's meeting, but that turned out to be OK.   Jim joined us by teleconference for a half hour early in the meeting.

The book addresses problems facing our country from an economic perspective, acknowledging and challenging positions on both sides of the political spectrum.

The first chapter is Fiscal Balance, addressing our government's income, expense obligations and debt. To demonstrate the current imbalance, he apportions the federal debt burden to all Americans, and then to all taxpayers, with obligations of $55,000 and $100,000 respectively. We discussed after the call that when one includes the unfunded liabilities - SSI and Medicare - and apportions these liabilities to the top10% of taxpayers, the debt per person exceeds a million dollars per taxpayer. Jim focused on two topics in particular: how improving lifespans threaten the future of Social Security, and why interest deductions should be phased out for both businesses and individuals.

On Social Security, Rob added that his sons, in their late 30's and early 40's, would welcome later retirement ages to strengthen the system. But the political danger is well known: politicians who promote changes to this sacred program become stars of political ads pushing grandma down the stairs. It will take a crisis to address.

On interest deductions for businesses, Jim pointed out that the majority of interest expenses in big business goes to M&A financing; why should this be subsidized by the taxpayer? To protect small businesses who benefit from debt financing of capital to grow, Jim had no objection of a reasonable cap, say a million dollars, to restrict this particular subsidy.

On interest deductions for individuals, Jim showed how this deduction truly benefits such a small group of homeowners, roughly million dollar homes, that it unfairly subsidizes this small group. After the call we discussed the importance of housing starts on fueling the nation's economic engine, as well as the reach of the real estate and construction lobbies; but mostly came around to the idea conceptually.

Income Inequality is the second essay, and Mr. Stone's concern is the long term: on its current trajectory, we are headed to economic disparity such as those that existed in the middle ages (the Dark Ages?) in Europe. Trusts now enable generational transfer of wealth, which undermines the founders' vision of wealth not by heredity, but by effort and thrift. But we diverge on the current state of inequality, if measured by consumption as opposed to income, as addressed in my review of Capital in the 21st Century, here.

We all agreed that a nation with no middle class is not a society we aspire to live in, and that intergenerational wealth transfer should be limited.  We are more skeptical about the taxing of unrealized gains.   The devil is in the details on these.

On health care, Jim reiterated his clarification in the book that his proposal for so-called single payer is not government control of the delivery of health care, but rather consistent systems - removing multiple insurance companies - and better governmental negotiations for pharmaceuticals.  Disproportionately costly end-of-life expenses could be addressed by asking all patients, when healthy, what kind of care they wanted. Today this care involves emotional decisions by families, and economic incentives for providers, an expensive combination. Reminder to all: get a health care proxy executed so individuals can make these decisions for themselves, not leaving to others.

We did not discuss HSAs with Jim, but Geoff continues to believe that removing the insulation of insurance carriers from the economic decisions works well at both the micro and macro level, given a chance.

Chapter 4 on finance outlines the financial history of the past century, highlighting the laws passed under FDR in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929.  These laws provided the regulatory backbone of our nation's extraordinary financial system, regulating banks and the mutual fund industry.  Unregulated hedge funds operated quietly for private wealth until the '70's, but their assets grew from $120 billion in 1997 to 1.2 trillion just seven years later.  As the hedge fund industry is populated by 'the same spectrum of integrity' as other professions, there are many who employ outright criminal activity, plus non-fundamental investment activity as that described in Michael Lewis's Flash Boys.

After the conference call, we also discussed Graham Leach Bliley, ending Glass Steagal's separation of commercial banking from investment banking.  Banks have grown to a stage where oversight, management, and protecting the rest of the market from the effects of a failure become impossible.  To critics who argue that additional regulation will chase capital away, Stone argues persuasively that strong regulation is a net magnet for capital.  Rob L remarked that the time spent on compliance in the financial sector is excessive, and Joel added that the paperwork for a recent construction loan was comical.  Simple, clear regulations for all players could be an improvement both systemically and operationally.

The derivatives market was originally conceived to reduce risk in commodity and agricultural markets but derivatives markets opened to unregulated financial forces.  Open derivatives of the country's ten largest banks approximate $200 trillion, about three times the GNP of the planet.  It is an opaque market, with unrestricted leverage, and by nature, a zero sum game; thus great risk for no apparent net economic gain.   Jim's solution: Reduce scale and risk of largest banks, regulate hedge funds as mutual finds, and limit derivative leverage with capital requirements that other businesses are subject to.

We did not spend as much time on education as the other topics, but had talked about the universal national service before and during the teleconference. Jim pointed out that of the many radio shows he has done, this topic elicited the greatest interest ...and support.  While the idea is new to today's political discussions, it has been employed successfully here in the US in the past, and is successful in many other countries.  A well conceived program could address many ills: social stratification, education expense, and vocational training to name just a few.

Overall, while several of us are skeptical of the government's ability to handle our money effectively, the solutions offered in 5 Easy Theses deserve active discussion and promotion so that our political leaders can attend thoughtfully the risks we face as a nation.

 For our next book, we decided to go back to historical fiction, and selected Our Man in Charleston, about an ante-bellum British spy.

Tags: finance, health care

Dynasty - Tom Holland

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 20, 2016 @ 12:07 PM

file0001776616142.jpgThis book was a slog, and only began to flow with the arrival of Caligula past the book's halfway mark.  Nero seemed to be Holland's favorite Caesar.   So began our book club review of Dynasty.

The book chronicles, in detail that seemed difficult to believe in many passages, the lives of Rome's great line of Caesars, from Julius Caesar to the august Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.  The writing was dense, characterized early on by sesquipedalian (long winded, characterized by long words) prose.  And yet it was another book most of us were glad to have read.

The early part of the book chronicled extensively the intrigues of family and political maneuvering of Rome, from the wolf's enduring influence beginning with Romulus and Remus, past the brutality of Tarquinius the Proud, the politics of the First Triumvirate, and into the second Triumvirate.  The second Triumvirate included Marc Antony, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Lepidus, and most of us know how Marc Antony's trysts with Cleopatra worked out (not well for him), better for Julius Caesar.  Until the Ides of March.

With that background set, much of the early book was duly dedicated to the ascension of 'the young Caesar", Octavius.  When Octavius decided he wanted Nero's wife, Livia, whom we had met in an earlier chapter, we had an early sense of how raw power worked in Rome.   At least the young Caesar waited for Livia's child to be born before marrying her.  

This was the Caesar who would take the name Imperator, Princeps, Pontifex Maximus, and ultimately “Augustus Caesar”.  His early brutality to his enemies and skillful consolidation of power with the Senate’s guarded blessing, was masterful.   Jeff reported that he is considered the richest man in the world, ever, having been assigned a current-day wealth of some $3-4 trillion.  He owned Egypt, after all.  Under his leadership, he expanded Roman control to Hispania, Germania, and Egypt, and the wealth transferred from those vanquished places, plus the continued taxes extracted annually, permitted lavish spending on his family, and of course, on Rome. He was by most accounts, the greatest of all the Caesars, and no doubt the most enduring.

His moderated way had limits, however, as the exile of his daughter Julia to Pandateria demonstrated as well as Ovid’s exile to Tomis.

In reflection of the building during Augustus' reign, we discussed the infrastructure, and particularly the vulnerability to famine Rome often faced, due to vast sourcing of grain, imported primarily from Africa.  Today Italy is a leader in farm-to-table food sourcing and culinary arts, but Rome was not so well developed, the Appian Way notwithstanding. 

We also marveled at Roman engineering, particularly aqueducts, wishing that the book had explored Roman engineering further.  Pompeii, the novel by Richard Harris is one such source offered by Geoff.

In a similar vein, and based on Ovid's observation that no art nor peace can exist without the art of war, we all would have liked to have known more about the Roman war machine.  We did learn the soldiers could not marry, but did have license to kill, unlike Roman citizens.  And learned a little about discipline: order a soldier to go, he goes.  Order a soldier to come, he comes.  Until discipline breaks down and centurions or other leaders are horribly killed by their troops.  But the discussion of the military was relatively superficial.

We made comparisons between then and today, and talked about the predisposition to make judgments about mores of the past throughout own contemporary lenses.  Geoff offered that his long reading of history kept him from making judgments while simultaneously describing many Roman practices as brutal, depraved, or odd.  Such are our prejudices, based on our unique personal experiences.  Rick offered that his extensive travel has helped him appreciate different ways of behaving or thinking for what they are: different, and we all agreed.   That understood, the sexual activities of Caligula and Nero in particular, were hard to accept as anything but weird.  

Comets, monsters, and myths presented as reality were also part of life in early Rome.

The women, Livia and Agrippina in particular were noteworthy in their influence, particularly given the male dominated society on so many other ways.  We wondered how effective ordinary women were; not just the wives of Caesars.  This thought line brought up another sense, that the book could have been more readable if it had developed even slightly topics beyond the Caesars and the people directly within their sphere.  Again, Richard Harris’ novels, including Imperium and Lustrum do that job suitably. 

Otherwise the treachery among people of power was noteworthy: At its extreme, consider Nero, who killed his brother Britannica, took his confidant, Otho's wife, then killed his own mother Agrippina, then kills his wife Octavia to marry Poppaea Sabina, whom he kills “accidentally” by kicking her in the stomach while pregnant. 

Overall, the book read as an academic tome, and we all agreed that while it was interesting and full of facts, it felt like a professor’s imposition, and could have been better presented.  Online reviews, however, disagree with our take, and almost exclusively praised it.

Next Book: Our next book is Five Easy Theses by Jim Stone, a Boston insurance executive and respected economist.  This should make for good discussion of our country’s direction when we meet next on the third Tuesday in October, October 18 at 7:00 PM at Bonnie Lea.

Tags: book review, tom holland, dynasty, caesar

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