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“Founding Finance” is now out in paper from the original publisher, University of Texas Press.

Splendid … full of smart, unsettling observations that will enlighten — and discomfort — liberals and conservatives alike.” — Stephen Mihm, University of Georgia

“Hogeland’s position deserves to be seen as a politics of anti-founding.” — Tom Cutterham, “Jacobin”

“Hogeland doesn’t just set out to show how the conventional [founding] story has things shaded a little wrong or omits a telling incident. He wants to persuade us that it’s a cover-up. . . . It’s a rip-roaring story whose most remarkable rips come in an unusual chapter…in the exact middle of the book. ‘I’m untrained,’ Hogeland begins. He isn’t confessing so much as throwing down the gauntlet against the élites in the history business.” — David Skeel, “Books and Culture”

“Provocative.” — Library Journal

“Thought-provoking.” — Booklist

One of the best books about the revolutionary period ever written.”
– a guy on Amazon.

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Bill Chapman called my attention to an interesting Newsweek piece by David Cay Johnston entitled Why Thomas Jefferson Favored Profit Sharing, reporting on new research by Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse of Rutgers and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, as well as on Johnston’s own research, to describe

… the future envisioned by the framers more than two centuries ago – an America in which every worker is a capitalist.

Possibly unsurprisingly, I question that conclusion about the framers’ vision. Some back-and-forth on Twitter leads me to clarify here my dissent from Johnston’s article.

This is the situation — classic, at this point, for me — in which I might agree with an author about the kinds of things we ought to be doing now do encourage far greater economic equality but disagree that there’s any realistic hope of finding support for those things in the thinking of our founders. That’s in part because I recoil, and possibly too hard by now, from what has come to seem to me a compulsive troping by some progressives toward the kinds of American-essentialist, founder-invoking gestures that the right wing routinely uses, possibly to the greater good of their propaganda, and always to the detriment of realism about our history as a people.

The same damage is done by liberals, and in the liberal case I think it’s worse. For while it might be nice to believe, I guess, that if we could only get back to the vision bequeathed us by our founders, progressive values would prevail and the greater good be achieved, that’s way too simple, and too simple in a way that I think undermines both our understanding of where we come from and any hope we may have for where we might be able to go. As usual, the only hope I see lies in complication.

The Johnston piece opens by quoting Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton on such things as the importance of “equal distribution of property” (Washington); fear of “the rich and the proud” destroying “all the equality and liberty” (Adams); a hope that government would defeat “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches” (Madison); and expectations of abuse “whenever a discretionary power is lodged in any set of men over the property of their neighbors” (Hamilton). These are familiar remarks. In the quote battles waged so hard online, they can always be countered with opposing thoughts from the same men, which can in turn always be countered by quotes more like these, and so on.

Johnston, however, uses this collection of quotations to assert that the equality thing is the one thing the warring founders agreed on. Context is everything, and I’d suggest that these quotations instead indicate that the founders all participated in what was then a familiar, even reflexive Whiggish rhetoric, appealing to an ideal of rough equality of wealth as a key to stability. Such ideas are loose enough in any event, and in the case of some of the founders’ visions for America, fantastical enough, to have permitted these men lifestyles of supreme fabulousness while inspiring them to oppose at every turn the efforts of organized labor (yes, it existed then) to gain access to political power and use it to equalize wealth via representative government. (more…)

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The Economist has an interesting but, I think, historically misguided piece paralleling the current shale energy boom, especially in the West, with the Gold Rush of the 1840′s. And the similarities are indeed obvious: feverish greed, quick mineral wealth, smelly camps full of rowdy and frustrated men, American “westernness.” That’s all summed up in the old expression “black gold.”

But even as it strains comparisons past the breaking point, the piece itself reminds us, explicitly, that the thing about the Gold Rush was that any shmoe with nothing but a pick and a sieve could start looking for gold and might indeed find it: many did; others failed to. The Economist piece therefore sees the Gold Rush as something new in the world, something rowdily democratic and quintessentially American.

Whether or not that’s true, in the fracking boom, by contrast, the guys in the camps are not self-employed treasure-seekers competing with one another in a quest to wrest from the earth enough personal wealth to live a life of riotous idleness. The Economist piece itself notes that they’re workers employed by the big companies that can afford the awesome, actually terrifying technology on which this boom relies.

Nobody doing the actual labor, that is, will reap the boom’s immense profits. For the ordinary person, this is a boom in employment — of working, that is, on behalf of somebody else’s profit. To the ordinary person, the fracking boom holds out no hope, misguided or otherwise, as the Gold Rush once did, of never having to work again. That opportunity remains with the elites and their progeny.

It’s axiomatic, for the Economist, to view the Gold Rush as democratic, and therefore quintessentially American. So the piece must make the Gold Rush the first American fever for quick untold wealth, thus the template for all later booms. The piece therefore gets confused about meanings, for American ideas about wealth and democracy, of both the Gold Rush and the shale-energy boom.

* * * *

The Gold Rush wasn’t the first such event in America. The land-speculation bubble of the 18th C. was the first great American speculation rush — closely intertwined, during the Revolution, with speculation in flurries of state and federal war bonds.

And while it’s less romantic, to us, than the Gold Rush, the 18th C. land-speculation bubble has two features that make it more grimly salient, I think, than the Gold Rush, both to our current boom and to the history of American wealth, booms, and democracy. (more…)

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Christmas Story

The following is the Christmas story that I know, or I guess I should say that I like (along with Jean Shepherd’s): my only-slightly-tweaked version of the Bible story that I and so many others grew up on. This is the origin of traditional crèche Nativity scenes dusted with snow on the village green, the Xmas parts of “The Messiah” [UPDATE: Well, no, the wise men are not in "The Messiah"], the festivals of lessons-and-carols, etc. The narrative below blends and trims a big chunk of Luke 2 with a small chunk of Matthew 2 (Luke and Matthew are the only Biblical gospels with any Nativity story), and the last line is one of my favorites in all of both Bibles — not that I know all or even most of the lines even in one of them. It’s all King James. Further remarks on sources and significance follow today’s reading.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, behold, there came wise men from the east, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

Commentary:

1. That last line may be a breakthrough in narrative technique. Not sure. Anyway, the sudden close-up of psychological realism, humanism, intimacy — and yet mystery — of what the young mother may have been making of all these things is kind of breathtaking. It first got to me somehow when I was, I think, about six. (more…)

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Writing, Money, Auteurs

I’ve spent decades now doing my own writing, while trying to get paid for it as best I can, and also “writing for hire,” where payment is agreed upon and the work is not my own, despite the fact that I’ve done it. I’m not in any practical sense the author of the work I do for hire: copyright, control, and other aspects of authorship are held by somebody else, per contractual agreements. I just write it.

Legally, that is, “authorship” refers not to who did the work but to who owns and controls the product and the rights in it. You’ll see this at the end of closing credits on a movie: “Columbia Pictures [say] is the author of this motion picture for the purpose of copyright and other laws.” It means that the Hollywood studio that distributes the film has become its author, per contract, regardless of the degree to which the film was actually made by others. Assigning authorship is a price of getting film distribution.

My work-for-hire contracts often involve restrictions on disclosing anything I know about the work and how it was done, including the fact that it was done by me. So details will naturally be lacking here.

But it’s interesting to me that film directors don’t have this issue: A director might pitch his or her own favorite idea for a movie he or she wants to make or be approached to take on a directing role in a project that’s already in development. Either way, unless the director funds the thing himself, or otherwise has a producing role, or unless there’s a very unusual deal involved, if the project is underway, the director is in a way working for hire. Successfully pitching your own film idea doesn’t get you copyright on the resulting film; it gets your idea bought and you hired to do it.

The supposed downside, compared to book deals, is that the director is legally not the author. In a book deal for something I pitch, with my name on it — unlike in my writing for hire — I retain copyright, control, and many of the subsidiary rights.

The upside for filmmakers, though, is huge. (more…)

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This interviewer always brings out the argument. My third time on Brian’s show, and really the best, I think (it’s a QuickTime movie): http://pcntv.com/blog/2013/02/21/feb-24-founding-finance/.

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Errata!

There’s an error in my 2010 book Declaration. A howler. I learned of it only because of a recent Amazon review pointing it out. Yet it’s not an easy error to make, as the reviewer notes, and as I now see all too clearly, so I’m amazed not only that I harbored such a fundamental misconception but also that nobody has called me on it before.

While I do not, for oddball reasons of my own, submit my work for scholarly review before publication, many of the people who have read the book are highly knowledgeable — far more than I — in the area where I’ve made my mistake. And since a lot of time has gone by since publication, I had become pretty confident that the book went to press with only one error. (I’ll list that error below, since this is an “Errata” column; it got corrected for the paperback. This one didn’t. I’ll have to live with it.)

I’ve always thought — by which I mean “I’ve always for some reason believed, so never even bothered to think about” — that a brother of Dr. Joseph Warren, who was killed at Bunker Hill, was James Warren, to whom some leadership of revolutionary Boston and Massachusetts did indeed lapse after the death of the doctor. In Declaration, I look at correspondence between John Adams and James Warren during the climactic days of 1776, and I refer more than once to James Warren as the late Joseph Warren’s brother.

Dr. Warren did have brothers, but if James Warren was related to that batch of Warrens, the connection would have been only very distant. And it would take but a second or two to find that out. (more…)

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My Kansas City Public Library talk on the founders, class, and finance is now available any time at the C-Span Video Library.

I’d thought it went well — except for some mild nerves, messing with the banjo-vocal byplay — and it did go well, largely because, I am reminded by looking at it, the KCPL audience just seems to get me, and to enjoy my schtick. Crosby Kemper, who introduces me here in terms that could not be more pleasing, knows his stuff (history, for one thing) and knows his crowd and tees the thing up expertly. And Henry Fortunato, who has the thankless job here of trying to remind me to repeat people’s questions and make them to go the microphone, knows all there is to know about audience development, as far as I can tell. So, as I’ve noted before, KCPL remains one of the great places for me talk about my particular subjects.

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… recorded giving a talk at the Kansas City Public Library back in April. C-Span 3 is a channel I don’t get, so I assume many others don’t get it either. The show can be streamed at 9PM here: http://www.c-span.org/Live-Video/C-SPAN3/. Also tomorrow afternoon.

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You’re So Money

Here’s the C-SPAN teaser for a talk I gave at the mighty Kansas City Public Library back in April. The whole thing airs this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon on American History TV.

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