Thoughts After A Crash

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My first recollection of any event connected with history or the political process is a speech made to me in the fall of 1932 by Jimmy Gallagher, the son of the apartment house superintendent. In a surprising gesture of amity (he was usually trying to hit me), he confided that his father was voting for Roosevelt “because Roosevelt drinks sweet wine and Hoover drinks sour wine.”

Economic panic is simply a heightening of the emotions that always determine our behavior in the marketplace—where greed and fear are opposite ends of the same spectrum. Madly exhilarated, we bet on the promise of ever-expanding future wealth; madly depressed, we hoard our mite. The old and experienced are better at hoarding than spending, but that is just another form of betting.

Some days I awake radical, by noon I’m liberal, at dinner conservative, and by bedtime reactionary. But finding it hard to sleep as a reactionary, I fumble around in the cabinet of my mind for the liberal potion. On other—more ordinary—days, the winds of change don’t sweep through in a predictable sequence, and I’m astonished by the weather.

Judge Bork has the kind of combative certitude we both admire and find unsettling. Someone like him in personality and character but of diametrically opposed views would probably have had just as much difficulty passing muster with the majority. Which is not to suggest that the majority is therefore unworthy of brilliant, prideful men and women.

Never let principle stand in the way of doing what’s right . I would like to see that aphorism imprinted in brass on the desk of everyone trying to stem our current economic malaise. It’s just puzzling enough to force them to think twice.

And while they’re trying to figure it out, I recommend they read Edward N. Luttwak’s marvelous book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Belknap/Harvard). Especially the passages on how a successful army almost always overshoots its mark, turning victory into defeat. Luttwak warns that even the most clever strategy applied without modifications in a rapidly changing situation will run out of gas. Only inanimate objects can be subdued once and for all by a brilliant stroke. And the market, if nothing else, is animate and reactive—you and me.

Works of history are for the most part incomplete and provisional. They go out of date every twenty years or so because new documents are uncovered, new levels of interpretation are plumbed, and subsequent events that impinged on the original incidents are now seen to modify in detail or even in the larger picture everything we thought we knew. The history we learned as children is not the same history that is taught today—and that either upsets you or fascinates you. The readers for whom I edit fall into the second category.

Byron Dobell