Lost

The Bloomberg Businessweek cover was on point last week

The Bloomberg Businessweek cover was on point last week

Since the America election several weeks ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what’s happening with the world politically and what this moment in history will mean. Like most people on the left, I was crestfallen from the election. The right has almost complete control of American government now, and it has as its leader the most erratic and unskilled individual ever to hold the office of the presidency. Xenophobia has become the central motivating impulse for a vast swath of the American electorate. I’ve found it difficult to give our political situation thorough and rigorous consideration because find the conditions that need thinking about so dispiriting. And yet I find too that it is impossible to avoid thinking about them. I spent this past weekend in the Rocky Mountains, in relative isolation, trying to cleanse myself of this election, but in the course of my long walks in the woods, as I let my mind wander, time and again I would be visited by thoughts of the impending Trump presidency. I wonder when will be the first day in which I don’t think about politics. I’ve scarcely had any since the summer of 2015.

In the week following the election, my aunt and I shared a number of articles and ideas. I found some solace in the interaction and some good ideas too. I’d like to share some of it here:

Nov. 12, 2016 – (In response to several articles my aunt sent me about feminist defiance) Thanks for the articles.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to look at anything news-related for several days.  I’m even reluctant to seek distraction in entertainment things like tv shows and movies, I’m just so disgusted with America.  I didn’t even want to be reminded of its culture or its people.  My intellectual curiosity got the better of me though. I’ve begun making some tentative steps toward trying to figure out what’s going on.  I started reading the internet again this morning: lots of things, both in the conservative and liberal press.  Most of what I read is unhelpful.  I feel like everyone is a little off-the-mark.  But here are a few of the more useful things I think I’ve come across:

Thomas Frank’s Opinion piece in the Guardian – Frank is the guy who wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas?, about why the white working class votes against its own self-interests by electing conservative Republicans.  He has this old labor activists’ mentality and his big thing is that he’s against the liberal technocratic elite for abandoning the cause of the working man.  I usually disagree with him on most things, since, as a liberal technocrat, I find his attachment to labor to be backward-looking and unprogressive.  But I think after this election, he’s dead-on.  Old labor had a bone to pick with the Clintons for opening up foreign trade.  The Clinton trade agreements made the country on the whole much richer and gave us a new, brighter economic future, but it killed labor and and made a lot of people irrelevant to the new reality.  I think in this election we saw labor take its revenge.

David French’s commentaries in the National Review – It may be an act of self-flagellation to read the National Review after this election.  French is probably the least measured of the commentators they have on staff.  It’s hard to get past the name-calling and the gloating—at one point he refers to birth control as “abortifacients.”  But he brings to light some very salient facts about the election and how voters have lost faith with the progressive cause.

Michael Moore on Salon.com – Add Michael Moore to the list of writers whom I never agreed with in the past but am now loathfully listening to.  This plea to Democrats to anoint new leaders and hold the line against resurgent Republican power is clear and true.

In addition to that, I have a few conclusions I was hoping to share with you.  I’m curious to know what you think:

  1. Democrats are failing, at almost every level of government, to sell the mission and purpose of social liberalism to the public.  Also, I think it’s questionable as to whether true progressivism in the age of the global economy and social liberalism are even comparable.  This proposition requires a fairly lengthy discursus to explain.  I’m going to try to write a blog post about it.
  2. Censure of cultural insensitivity and mysogeny is a rhetorical dead-end.  This is probably the most dispiriting outcome from the election.  It is mystifying that someone so overtly and brutally sexist could still curry the favor of over 60 million Americans and somehow escape public condemnation. But that is the apparently the nation in which we live.  We’ve devoted ourselves on the left to a politics of identity as a means of endorsing social equality where economic equity is denied us, but in many ways this election repudiated that.  For a disturbing number of Americans, the oppression of others is unimportant.  I’m not sure how we are to combat this tendency in our neighbors.  This election showed us that even when you call bigotry what it is, you’re still ultimately failing to persuade anyone new.  We have to figure out a new way of dressing these wounds.  A politics of empathy maybe.  Or a politics of transgression, of rage.  I saw a dance show last night where two black men did this piece that was just true art.  It was all meticulously choreographed and yet it conveyed pure and unbridled fury.  As an audience member I found it disturbing and off-outing.  I felt implicated.  I felt anxious.  Maybe we need more of this sort of thing in American politics: forcing the other side to confront us in our rage.  And us them.
  3. More jobs promises from the Right and a public that just won’t learn.  People voted for Trump because he says he’s going to bring back the jobs.  Pretty much everything hinged on that, even the xenophobia connects back to job-creation.  The jobs are going to come, he says, from imposing tariffs on foreign imports and keeping immigrants out of the labor market… Of course this is asinine.  If manufacturing comes back to the United States it will all automated work, and the only result will be higher prices for consumer goods.  Immigrant labor is not depressing wages for the vast majority of Americans and is instead contributing to increased vitality in the consumer market.  The Right has been making this promise about creating jobs since Reagan, but those promises have never added up economically and never will.  I don’t see how Democrats will every be able to make an equally appealing value proposition, since to do so you would have to offer the impossible.
  4. The Midwest revolted.  Trump swept the rustbelt outside of Chicago and the Twin Cities.  And maybe for good reason.  At no point in the entire two century history of the Middle West has the region’s future looked so bleak.  Every time I come home I find the place more and more ragged and diminished.  The Midwest sucks, and the people who live there will readily admit that it does.  What they won’t admit is that they are the cause.  They won’t admit that they have rent the social fabric of their own communities by defunding schools and social services, that they have pillaged their natural environment through careless land use policy and unregulated industry.  They won’t admit that they have allowed themselves to become irrelevant to the broader economy by neglecting to respond to the demands of the changing labor market.  The Midwest is frustrated, but it doesn’t know to be frustrated with itself. So it takes it out on the rest of the country.  But the sad truth is that what ails the Midwest, no government can fix.

——

In response to my little rant about the Midwest, my aunt, who has lived in Michigan her entire life, sent me this article from Salon that suggests that Trump’s race-baiting tactics might have pushed the scales in the great lakes region, where racism though never explicit, is evident everywhere you go just by looking at where people live and where wealth is concentrated. To this Salon article I gave the following response:

This article about the Midwest is interesting.  I actually hope that Midwesterners voted for Trump for his economic policies, because when he fails to deliver on them they’ll quit him without a second thought.  It will be the ultimate invalidation of conservative ideology and the Left will come back stronger than ever. If, however, people in the Rust Belt went for Trump because of the demagoguery rather than in spite of it, I don’t know how we resist that.  How do you disabuse a people of their racial animosity?  Maybe this is why the Midwest is faltering and has become so unlivable for some many people.  I see it in Toledo whenever I have to go there.  Everything about that town is broken, because everyone is out for themselves.  If you can afford it you send your kids to private school because the public school system is chaos.  People don’t drink the water because the don’t trust it.  The home values are all depressed.  There aren’t even decent places for people to gather and share culture.  And the root cause of all of these failings is that the people there just have this mutual suspicion of their neighbors.  They think that everyone’s taking and no one is giving back, and so they see no reason to give themselves.  As a kid I used to sense a desolation about the place, like nothing was connected to anything.  I remember the image I associated the feeling with was of a distant train whistle in the night.  It was like a haunting sensation.  Now as an adult I can rationalize it and discern the cause: Toledo is a city where no one belongs.  Everyone thinks the city is for someone else besides them.  And they’re angry because they don’t feel like they belong in the place that’s their home.

You know, everyone is so angry with elected officials and with government right now.  And we bemoan the decline of liberal democracy and see the government as a distortion of the collective will.  I think we’re actually becoming more democratic than we were in the past, and that our politicians are really very reflective of who we are as a people.  And that’s why we hate them.  Because we hate each other.

Pharaoh’s Tomb

george-w-bush-library_Front

A couple weeks ago I was in Dallas for a work conference and I had the opportunity to visit the George W. Bush Presidential Center. It was, like all presidential libraries, a fantastic spectacle of power and wealth. Ostensibly, the point of these places is to preserve the papers and records of the executive administration for historical research. Most presidents treat them as a means for securing their legacies. This is done with a mixture of awe-inspiring architecture, propaganda-laced museum exhibits, and, of course, very careful control of the vital information buried within.

Compared with the LBJ’s towering monolith at the University of Texas or Reagan’s mountaintop fortress overlooking the Simi Valley, the George W. Bush Presidential Center has a more understated grandeur. It’s built in a weird neo-neoclassical, antebellum style that appears to mimic the old mansion residences of the Highland Park neighborhood that surrounds it. The public is allowed access to only a small portion of the building’s interior, giving one the false impression that the space is not very large. In fact, the George W. Bush Center is the second largest presidential library and comprises 207,000 square feet. President Bush raised an astounding $500 million for the construction and maintenance of the library. Of the building’s several wings, I only visited one: the museum.

In the grand, marble and granite lobby of the Presidential Center’s museum visitors may gather, purchase tickets, and gape bemusedly at the lavish gifts of state given to the President and to the First Lady by various dictatorial regimes from across the globe. I found that the ostentatiousness of the gifts roughly corresponded to the poverty of the country of origin. Africans autocrats seem to be fond of garish sculptures shaped from precious metals. Middle Eastern states gave gems. The Saudi royal family gave a jewelry set of diamond and sapphires which itself is probably worth a moderate-size fortune.

The museum exhibits were not as bluntly propagandic as I was expecting. I think there was a willingness on the part of the museum’s planners to acknowledge that a uniformly positive narrative of the George W. Bush presidency would be met with some skepticism. Bush’s approval ratings at the end of his second term were hovering around 30% and most of his economic and foreign policy had been roundly discredited. Consequently, the museum’s focus tends to be more on the historical events that took place during the Bush presidency and less on the extent to which the president shaped and had influence over those events. Not surprisingly, too, the museum gives a good deal of both physical and intellectual space to the 9/11 attacks, when Bush’s approval ratings were at an all-time high and the country was awash in patriotic sentiment. Special focus is paid to the speech President Bush gave at the Ground Zero a few day after the attacks, with artifacts like the bull horn that was used to deliver the speech, audio recordings, handwritten drafts of the text, and high resolution photographs all on display. I don’t remember this being a significant occurrence at the time, but the museum posits it as a galvanizing moment in the national consciousness and an heroic act that signaled strength and resilience to the nation and to the world. I don’t actually think the museum is trying to mislead visitors by over-playing the ground zero speech. I imagine Bush’s view this was a genuinely important moment in his life, and I think we learn more about the President—though perhaps less about September 11th—by seeing how it is presented in the museum. In this respect, the museum is honestly fulfilling its purpose by preserving the provenance of the president’s thought process.

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Be that as it may, the George W. Bush Presidential Center Museum cannot be said to be perfectly honest and measured in its representation of the Bush years. The omissions are noticeable: no explanation given for the failed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, no justification for Abu Ghraib or the administration’s tacit approval of torture, no mention of Guantanamo, complete disavowal of the “Axis of Evil” speech, the Hurricane Katrina exhibit included nothing about FEMA’s disastrously inadequate response, nothing about how the financial crisis might have been averted through better regulation of the housing market, or about how the Patriot Act might have jeopardized our civil liberties. The countless blunders and errors in judgement, all of them danced around ever so delicately, as though the place was less a museum and more a white elephant preserve. But if I try to imagine a presidential museum that did plunge itself heedlessly into the controversies and debates of its day, what would it be but a pillbox of political partisanship and bitter antipathies? What lessons would it have to teach beside shameless historical revisionism and pointed bluster? In the story that the Bush library attempts to tell, there is a minor note of reconciliation. One of the more popular features of the museum is an interactive exhibit called the “Decision Points Theater.” Visitors are placed in front of individual video displays and introduced as a group to one of three key crises which President Bush was forced to confront during his presidency. Given a limited set of facts presented by a host of advisors, all in various states of disagreement with one another, you are prompted choose between three courses of action. At the end of the exercise all of the participants’ choices are averaged and a cumulative decision is presented. You are not told if your answer was right or wrong, only what the president decided and what the consequences of his decision were. It is a magnificent device of rhetorical ethos, one in which the president seems to be saying to his critics, you think you could have done better? And for the most part, we do chose the same decisions that the president did. I will say that the decision points are cherry-picked somewhat. Apparently, they removed the decision point about going to war in Iraq, presumably since there is been a good deal of debate about what the administration did and did not know in that situation. While the exercise fails to make Bush’s policy positions seem any less objectionable, it does succeed in making the president a more sympathetic character in the drama of our nation’s history. It really is difficult to make these decisions, when none of your options seems exactly right, and you are keenly aware of the extreme and unforeseeable consequences any decision is bound to trigger. It illuminates just how untenable the position of the president is. No one emerges from the apparatus of power with her or his soul entirely intact.

The Bush museum has other exhibits that create a similar effect of placing you, the average person, at the reins of power. There is, for example, an exact replica of the oval office, painstakingly recreated down to the upholstery and the wallpaper. The only thing missing, we are told, is the bust of Winston Churchill, because they could not get the size right apparently. The museum stations a photographer in the exhibit who can take pictures of you sitting at the president’s desk which can be purchased on your way out in the gift shop. I think this consonance with the average person underscores a lot about what made the Bush presidency appealing. Here we have a man of manifestly average intelligence and ability, friendly in his demeanor and firm in his beliefs, who after a series of improbably political victories finds his himself in the highest office in the land, this proving to all that it does not take that much really to be a great man. More than any other president, I think people saw themselves in George W. Bush, because he was mediocre, like most everybody else.

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Touring the oval office replica I was struck by the room’s artificiality. This was due I think not to the fact of the exhibit’s being a simulacra of the real thing, but more because the real thing has the uncanny feel of a museum exhibit. In every archival photo we have of the oval office, it always look so impeccably maintained. When a president is at the desk there is rarely nothing more in front of him than a single piece of paper an a cup of coffee. Most often we only see presidents using the phone or hosting guests of state. It makes one wonder if any work actually gets done in this room. I would wager that it doesn’t. The oval office is more like a stage upon which the gestures of governance are performed for a unsuspecting constituency. The real labor of statecraft, the schemes, the maneuvering, the intrigue, is played out behind closed doors. In this sense I think the oval office exhibit in the George W. Bush Presidential Center serves an almost identical purpose to its counterpart in the White House in that it functions as a sign or totem of a power whose true countenance remains obscured from view. It and the museum to which it is attached are a fun and palatable surrogate for the complex of secrets which lie hidden in the Center’s restricted archives.

Here I’ve gone on for pages about the Bush Library’s museum exhibits and have largely ignored the central purpose of the place which is preserving and restricting access to the administration’s corpus of records and information. I imagine the museum being a mere tip to a vast iceberg of material concealed beneath the Center’s liminal surface. The public is not allowed access to the archives. Even if you have a stated research interest, you still must arrange an appointment with one of the Center’s 20 or so archivists and submit a request to obtain material from the collection. Of course, this would be rather difficult to do given that there is no comprehensive inventory of the library’s contents. If we look at the Library’s finding aids, we find surprisingly little in the way of documentation. There is no catalog, no metadata. And this for a collection of over 70 million leaves of paper and petabytes of digital information. How are we to know anything about the contents of this mountain of information? The only material that has been digitized and made available on the internet is a smattering of FOIA requests which the library has been compelled to service. I wonder what it must be like to be a librarian to a collection like this. It seems like you’d be more like a prison guard than a guide; that you would spend your days patrolling the vault, protecting its contents from the intrusions of sunlight and human thought.

Thus I concluded my trip to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, great monument to the old king. As we drove back through Highland Park on our coach bus, the driver, who was black, told us about how he had been pulled over by police while scouting the route the day before. He said they wanted to know if he had business in the community. We rode back to our suburban hotel, through the sprawl of Dallas and surrounding communities, this most American of places. I recommend visiting the Bush Library next time your are in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It is something to do in a city famously empty and sedate for its monstrous size.

Trust in Civil Service

Last week President Obama nominated Merck Garland, Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court of the Unites States. After the President announced the nomination in the White House Rose Garden, Judge Garland was given a few minutes to speak. It was a simple speech. Garland introduced himself, spoke of his family, his personal background, his philosophy of service, his approach to adjudication. It was a very abridged auto-biography delivered by a modest man, a mere whisper in the public discourse against the backdrop of a provocative and spectacular campaign season. And yet many found the speech quite moving. Garland shows marvelous candor. Here we witness a man of great ability reaching his highest professional accomplishment, and there is not a single note of pride or ambition in his reaction. I think achievement must be sweeter to those who have devoted their lives to service. It justifies all of the sacrifice, invalidates all of the doubts with which you wrestled getting to where you are. It is vindication. I think Judge Garland must be an unusual embodiment of the best parts of Plato’s tripartite soul: the merging of logistikon and thymoedes, the logical and spirited soul, which when aligned strengthens one to virtue, making you a creature of duty and higher purpose.

Putting aside praise for a moment, I would like to examine more closely how Judge Garland characterizes his career in public service. Describing his work on the bar and bench, he repeatedly cites this value of trust-building. He talks about winning the trust of his witnesses as a prosecutor, not in him necessarily but in the rule of law. Of his prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing, he speaks of the sense of responsibility he felt to restore the trust in the victims that the system will protect them and will respond justly. I think Garland’s statements can be summarized as follows: it is necessary in a just and orderly society that people trust their government, and that those individuals who make up the government do everything in their power to cultivate and sustain the trust of the people. To me, this has to be the driving principle of public service. More than investment in the common good or protection of markets or advancement of national interests, a government must first and foremost produce a stable platform of inextricable law and social order that can support all of the varied and diffusive activities of the nation. And that platform must be firm and consistent and utterly unassailable, and the people must trust that it is so. I think anyone working in civil service or in any other public interest capacity should constantly be asking her or himself, is what I am doing promoting trust among the people in their government and in the social system more broadly? Because this should be the primary concern of any government. Some would argue that this is all government should ever aspire to do. I’ll not go so far as to say that the government cannot be a positive force for change in society, but before it can even begin to be that, it must first create a degree of tranquility which would foster profit, progress, and improvement derived from the people. Not only would I call this the highest purpose of government, I would also suggest that it is what government is best at doing. No other entity in society is better positioned than government to preserve the public trust. In government you have a powerful and ubiquitous force whose only motive is to promote the public good. Now that isn’t to say those who control and carry out the business of government cannot abuse its systems for their own personal profit. But government itself, as a body, does not seek profit. It sets out only to enrich the people whom it serves. This makes it a unique manifestation of human community: an executive organization that is not ruled by profit motive but by the sacred requirement to maintain order and protect civil rights. Now, the fact that the defining principle of democratic government is one of reservation rather than action probably does place limits on what a state can plausibly be expected to accomplish. As we’ve seen time and again, the state falters when it is made to lead the people to social change or when it is compelled to carry out some utopian vision of its leaders. Government is not flexible or nimble. It cannot pivot to adapt to changing circumstances. It will never be an agent of change or disruption. But it shouldn’t have to be. Government is a regular, reliable, policy-driven, rules-based collection of unprofitable but incredibly necessary and useful services. We can look to business, labor, or the academy for the novel or the revolutionary. We turn to government when we need something to be permanent and lasting. And yes, this makes government boring and predicable, but that is why we rest our trust upon it, as the bedrock that underlies everything we do, the ballast the keeps everything upright. Such a government succeeds when it is guided by steady hands and a quite kind of leadership. Judge Garland is a crowning example of what a model civil servant should look like. We should be thankful that there were so many like him who came before, and do everything we can to ensure that there will be more like him in the future.

Cab Economics

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Listened to this podcast story about Uber and the economics of variable rate car services. The story is premised on the question of whether it’s fair for a cab driver to charge extra for a ride when demand is higher. I was surprised to hear so many people on the customer end complain in interviews about how they felt they were being cheated. The typical taxi passenger is cheated to a much greater degree by the outmoded municipal rules that govern the ride service business. In many places cab fares are standardized for all companies and the law restricts the number of companies and cabs that can operate within city limits. These systems are set up specifically to thwart competition between drivers and to make sure that everyone get some business. Rules are different in every city. Some places have next to no restriction on taxi carriers; but most do. I don’t know where the laws come from or why they were passed in the first place. I can say with some certainty that standardization has an unmistakably negative effect on quality of service. It isn’t favorable to the consumer. It does mean that the cab companies pull in regular and reliable profits. One cab company in the town I grew up in had been in business since 20s. It was a small but assured revenue stream for this old ,wealthy family that had always owned it.

When I graduated college, I worked for that company for a little while, or more accurately I contracted with them since none of the drivers were actual employees. What we were, in fact, were customers of the cab company. We would pay them rent to use their cars and their dispatch service. It was then up to us to make enough money on our fares, on top of the money needed to pay for the car, to support ourselves. As you might imagine, this sort of arrangement attracted a lot of dodgy people: deadbeat dads trying to hide their incomes so that they didn’t have to pay child support, ex-convicts who couldn’t get traditional employment, people on disability who wanted a sit-down job that the government didn’t know about. The whole operation was sketchy as hell, and I blame the city for setting it up so that it could be that way

I can say with confidence that municipal control over fares and licensing has a ruinous effect on cab service in a city. If you’ve ever called for a cab to take you to the airport and they never showed up, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. If you’ve ever been taken to your destination via an indirect route, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. So much of what’s wrong with getting a cab could be remedied if we let drivers and companies compete with each other directly for our business and let them control their own pricing models.

Some anecdotal evidence…

When I was a cab driver, I used to work the bar time crowd. This was in Madison, Wisconsin, a college town full of bars. When the bars let out at 2am, hordes of inebriated people would flood into the street, and everyone all at once wanted to go someplace else. It was like a salmon run to the cab drivers, wall-to-wall business. A driver could make a third of his money for the night during that 2 o’clock hour if he worked it right. What you wanted is to do as many rides for as many people as possible the shortest amount of time that you were capable of doing them. You wanted short rides so that you could turn over and get a new ride in the cab right away. And you wanted to drive a lot of people at once, since each body added a dollar to the fare. So we’d look for big groups of students because most of the students in Madison lived downtown, and if you worked for them you could be pretty sure that you’d be done with their ride in five or six minutes and you’d be ready to work again. What we would avoid is older, affluent-looking people whom we could tell probably lived in the suburbs and were downtown to blow off some steam and have fun like they did when they were kids. If these people got in your cab, they’d take you all the way out to the edges of town and you’d miss out on the bartime frenzy. Now this is exactly counter to how the market should work. The wealthier customers would all get served last, and business of the poorer, more numerous underclasses was coveted. There isn’t much in a capitalist economy that functions this way, and I can tell you that the rich and entitled do not appreciate being neglected by service workers. They’d bang on my windows and kick at the car because I’d lock the doors on them. One time, on New Year’s eve, I had a man offer me sixty dollars to take him home to Middleton, about eight miles away. I did a calculation in my head and determined that I could make it worth my while for $90. He agreed. I took him home and we were both happy. Uber has made a wildly successful business out of doing exactly this.

I will say, it is interesting how the rules of our bartime game completely inverted the normal market. Instead of going after the whales we all hustled after the big schools of little fish. When the prices are all fixed, the only way you can prosper is by scaling up and being efficient, spending less of your time serving more people. It’s a good case for setting up a market that is more egalitarian and that works for more people. It would be effective in the majority of cases, but completely dysfunctional for anything irregular or outside of a foreseeable norm.

Efficacy of Monarchy

I once had a Greek professor who insisted that the very best form of government was monarchy. We were discussing the Greek tyranny and how the hoi polli tended to favor the king in political matters rather than the oligarchy which was constantly wrestling with the king for supremacy. My professor pointed to the fact that society is more just under a strong central power like a monarch because, though people still remain divided by class, all citizens are basically equal under the law since they are all subjects of the king. There is less favoritism under monarchs, greater stability. One’s role in the society is foregone and protected. Oligarchic rule is usually disadvantageous for common people, he said, because law is enforced capriciously and leadership is constantly disputed. Without a king to serve, oligarchs are free to pursue their own interests exclusively. To thrive in an oligarchy one must split his loyalties between competing magnates and hope he carries the favor of the right one at the right time. Rule is constantly exchanged between victors and the vanquished. Interestingly, my professor characterized the democratic republic in the United States as an oligarchy. His reasoning being, I suppose, that one can buy influence in government with money and clout. So called democratic pluralism, as practiced today, is just another manifestation of oligarchic interests competing for dominance. The argument has some merit, but it fails to take into account that rule of law is still quite potent in the United States. The superiority of the judiciary and its relative independence from the other branches of government are vestiges in the Anglo-American legal system of regal authority and, ostensibly, countermeasures against oligarchy.

There is only one draw back to monarchy, according to my professor. He asked if we knew what it was. I guessed it was that the state is entirely dependant on the talent and leadership of a single individual, or the lack there of. He said this was true, but only insomuch as the monarch needed to be considered formidable enough to rebuff challenges to his authority. With social order, it matters less what the central authority does with its power and more that it is obeyed by others in the society and deferred to. A rogue king will always harm the commonwealth less than a civil war fought on behalf of competing oligarchs. The real problem of monarchy, he said, is that transition of power from one regime to the next had to be determined by lineage and inheritance. Every time a king dies the government must be rebuilt from the ground up for a new monarch. This is the case even when rules of dynastic inheritance are firmly in place and respected. And during the period of interregnum, the governments power is always vulnerable. Claims to the throne can be numerous and matters of succession often resolved through warfare.

The final ingredient of European feudalism and the precipitating event that resulted in oligarchic rule by the nobility for almost a half a millennium to come was the weakening and eventual dissolution of the Frankish crown. The Carolinian Empire collapsed just three generations after Charlemagne, and similar to the Merovingian kings before them, their fall was brought about by ineffectual leadership and disputes over succession. When Charlemagne died, he divided his realms between his sons, who then further subdivided their lands between their sons. Technically, rule was supposed to be shared between the brothers jointly, but after Charlemagne’s death, they almost immediately began fighting to take territory from one another. The Frankish custom of dividing inheritance between siblings insured that state power would always dissipate between generations and rulers would always have an impetus to betray one another to satisfy their ambitions. And as the empire’s strength steadily declined, threats from outside the kingdom became more menacing. The 9th and 10th centuries CE saw the beginning of the great Viking raids. What the Franks called the Great Heathen Army pillaged the coastal regions of the northern empire. They conquered the Low Lands and Normandy and settled them for their own. When the Viking king Sigfred sailed up the Seine and seized Paris and Charles the Fat’s only riposte was to pay them silver to leave, the Emperor of the Romans was deemed unfit to defend the realm and was forced to capitulate. After that the duchies exercised complete autonomy. The era of European feudalism was inaugurated.