Herschel Grynszpan11 February 2019.

This will tell you something: in October 1938 Germany’s Nazi government ordered the expulsion of many Jews of foreign nationality who were then residing in the Reich.  The Jews—especially the Polish Jews—didn’t want to go.  Five years after the Nazis had come to power, and two years after the “fake nice” show of the Berlin Summer Olympics, they didn’t want to go.  Jews had left Poland and Rumania and Hungary for a reason.  From September 1939 on, everywhere in German-controlled Europe would become increasingly, unimaginably worse for Jews.  But not now in October 1938.  There were still places worse than Nazi Germany.  Out they went all the same.  However, the Polish Republic refused to accept the returnees.  So those people sat in the squalid space between the German and Polish border train stations.  The international press reported the suffering of these people.

One attentive reader of the stories lived in Paris.[1]  Like the Moldavian cleaning ladies and Portuguese plasterers with whom my son was supposed to be learning French (instead of pan-handling in the Place Beaubourg the instant my back was turned), Hershel Grynszpan had gained illegal entry into the Republic.  He had come through Holland from Hanover, where he had grown up.[2]  Then he spent some time in the wind.  Grynszpan’s parents and sister were among the deported Jews freezing the in the mud just short of the Polish customs post.

On 7 November, Grynszpan bought a pistol, then went to the German Embassy and shot a young diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, who had been assigned to see him.  Rath died on 9 November 1938.  That night, the Nazi government unleashed a pogrom against the Jews in Germany.  It has come down to later generations as “Kristallnacht” (The Night of Broken Glass).[3]  The gigantic riot shocked Western peoples.  Along with the German occupation of Rump Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it played an important role in persuading French and British opinion that, much as they wanted something else, the Germans needed another beating.

The Nazis made Ernst vom Rath a race-martyr in the eyes of the Germans.  He was hardly that: Rath seems to have been merely a standard-issue late-joining, careerist, upper-class German.  French Jews made Grynszpan a pariah.  Then Grynszpan’s lawyer intimated that the murder resulted from a lovers quarrel between the killer and the killed, with allegations that Rath had suffered from anal gonorrhea.  The French courts quickly convicted Grynszpan, but spared him from the guillotine.  He was in a jail cell when the Germans conquered France in summer 1940.  The Nazis dragged him off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The Nazis were just as big on “show trials” as were the Stalinists.  They just weren’t as good at them.  In the end, Grynszpan disappeared into “night and fog.”  He may have been murdered in late 1942.

In spite of what he hoped and what historians may say, Herschel Grynszpan has no larger significance.  Either the Holocaust was on rails from Hitler’s early career OR the Holocaust sprang from decisions taken in the Winter of 1940-1941. But individuals act all the same.

[1] Stephen Koch, Hitler’s Pawn (2019).

[2] Unfortunately for mythology and film, Grynszpan was a jerk.  He was “a loner, immature, self-absorbed, quick to quarrel, [and] not always given to thinking things through.”

[3] Huge numbers of identifiably “Jewish” sites—stores, offices, synagogues—were destroyed or had their windows broken, the homes and businesses of individual Jews were looted, 30,000 Jews were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps until they were ransomed, and thousands of Jews caught a beating—of whom 91 died.

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Just the Facts, Ma’am 2 11 February 2019.

Second, three tax proposals have been offered to raise more revenue from the rich.[1]  Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising the tax on incomes above $10 million from the current 37 percent to 60 or 70 percent.  This would return upper-income tax rates to the level that prevailed during the 1970s.  In the regime of the 1970s, many deductions and exemptions existed which do not exist today.  The effective tax rate on high incomes under the Ocasio-Cortez proposal would be much higher than the one of the 1970s.  However, the top rate in the 1970s applied to the contemporary equivalent of $800,000.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a “wealth tax,” not merely an income tax.[2]  People with a net worth between $50 million and $1 billion would pay 2 percent per year[3]; people worth more than $1 billion would pay 3 percent per year.[4]  According to the calculations underlying Senator Warren’s proposal, this tax would generate $2.75 trillion over ten years.

The Warren proposal may not be constitutional.  The 16th Amendment to the Constitution created a tax on income, not a tax on all assets.  Apparently, the courts have held that taxes on estates and gifts are excise taxes on the transfer of assets, rather than a tax on the assets themselves.  The tax also might be a logistical nightmare to apply.

Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed revising the estate tax.  Until 2009, the tax applied to estates of more than $3.5 million.  A 2017 tax change raised the threshold for individuals to about $11 million and the threshold for couples to about $22 million, with a standard tax rate of 40 percent.  Senator Sanders would return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million.  In addition, he replaces a single tax rate with multiple rates.  From $3.5 million to $10 million, the rate would be 45 percent; on estates of $1 billion or more, the rate would be 77 percent.

[1] Paul Sullivan, “Taxing the Rich Sounds Easy.  But It’s Not,” NYT, 2 February 2019; Sydney Ember, “Sanders Unveils a Plan To Increase Estate Taxes,” NYT, 1 February 2019.

[2] Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the idea of a wealth tax, if not necessarily Senator Warren’s version of such a tax.

[3] Apparently, there are 39,735 people worth between $50 million and $1 billion in the United States today.

[4] Apparently, there are 680 billionaires in the United States today.

Just the facts, Ma’am 1 11 February 2019.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that spending on people aged 65 and older[1] has increased as a share of federal spending from 35 percent (2005) to 40 percent (2018) and is projected to rise to 50 percent (2029).  The federal budget deficit is projected to exceed $1 trillion a year from 2022 to 2029.  Proposals recently offered by Democrats intending to run for President in 2020 or to shape the party’s policy for that race may have an effect on this situation.  None of the proposals claim to aim at deficit reduction.  Instead, they target reducing income inequality and/or financing expanded programs.

First, it is proposed to reform Social Security.[2]  As originally designed, Social Security enhanced private preparation for retirement by adding the resources from a tax on currently working people to individual savings and/or pensions.  Today, however, there appears to be a savings crisis among working people.

There is also a financing crisis for Social Security.  The actuaries at the Social Security Administration report that outlays (payments) will soon exceed income (withholding tax revenues).  Thereafter the payments will be paid from an accumulated surplus held in the form of U.S. treasury bonds.  When that trust fund is exhausted by 2034, benefits will have to be reduced.  Currently, about 63 million people receive Social Security benefits.  The number is expected to rise to 89 million by 2030.  The total current cost is about $1 trillion.  The maximum amount of income subject to Social Security tax is $132,900; the current withholding tax on payrolls is 12.4 percent.

Democrats propose to increase the minimum benefit to help lower-income people who have saved less than have higher income people; increase benefits by an average of about two percent; raise the annual cost-of-living adjustment to payments to respond to the reality that retirees consume goods and services in a different pattern than do still-working people; cut the tax on benefits for middle-income recipients while increasing them on upper-income recipients; and increase the payroll tax rate from the current to 14.8 percent by 2040, and the payroll tax would be imposed on incomes above $400,000 a year, while incomes between $132,900 a year and $400,000 a year would not be subject to taxation.

This proposal would permanently fix the financing problem.  It would also increase benefits paid out to some Social Security recipients.  An estimated three-quarters of the extra income would go to covering the looming deficit; the rest would go to increased benefits for lower-income recipients.

[1] Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

[2] Robert Pear, “Democrats Push First Major Social Security Expansion Since 1972,” NYT, 4 February 2019.

My Weekly Reader 8 February 2019.

Although Henry Lee III (1756-1818) was connected to a host of great landowners and political leaders of the Virginia Tidewater, read a great deal as a young man, and attended Princeton, he seems to have been about half horse: Lee loved to ride and was a superb horseman.[1]  Naturally, he joined the cavalry of the Continental Army in 1776.  In April 1778, Lee gained command of “Lee’s Legion,” a mixed force of infantry and cavalry employed in harassing British lines of communication and supply in New Jersey and New York.  He won several small-scale victories.  In September 1778, Lee ambushed and annihilated a smaller force of Hessians at the Battle of Edgar’s Lane; in August 1779 he commanded a successful raid on a British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

When the British shifted their main effort to the Carolinas in 1780, Lee’s Legion rode south.  Here Lee had much greater scope for the cut-and-thrust type of war to which he was so well suited.  The British offensive began well, with the capture of Charleston, South Carolina (and a large force of American forces ordered to hold an indefensible position) in May 1780, and then a crushing defeat of the American army at Camden in August 1780.  The British now hoped to raise a large force of American volunteers from among the Loyalists who had been terrorized into submission for the past two years.  A march by British troops through the Carolinas would show their command of the region.  Large numbers of Loyalists began to be recruited in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Along the way, small forts would guard lines of supply and provide rallying-points for Loyalists.  In February 1781, Lee’s Legion greatly discouraged the Loyalists with a surprise attack on Loyalist militia in North Carolina.[2]  In March 1781, the British won a costly victory over a larger American army at Guilford Court House.  The British commander, Lord Cornwallis, then divided his army.  He led most of them toward Wilmington, North Carolina in search of supplies.  The rest, mostly Loyalist troops, he left in South Carolina under the command of Lord Rawdon.

Rather than follow Cornwallis north, the Americans began to re-conquer South Carolina.  Lee’s Legion played an important part in this campaign.  Although Rawdon won a victory at Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781, he soon found his lines of supply under heavy attack by Lee and by partisans under Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.  In May 1781 a series of smaller British posts fell to Lee and the others.  Only Ninety-Six, stubbornly defended by Loyalist troops during May and June, defied the Patriot forces.  Rawdon had little choice to fall back to Camden, and then toward the coast.  In September 1781, Lee’s Legion fought with the rest of the American army at Eutaw Springs, where it suffered another defeat at the hands of a smaller British force.  But then news came of the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

Lee had a fitful postwar political career as a devoted Federalist.  (He’s the one who described Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”)  In contrast, the management of his business affairs failed to command from him the same attention as had his military operations.  He went bankrupt, spent a year in debtors prison, and wandered the Caribbean for a time before returning to die in Virginia.

His son, Robert Edward Lee, commanded the Army of Northern Virginia.

[1] There is a new biography by Ryan Cole, Light-Horse Harry Lee (2019).

[2] Commonly known as the “Pyle Massacre.”

Venezuela 7 February 2019.

In 1998, the Venezuelan people elected Hugo Chavez as president of a country with a strong economy, but also one divided over the distribution of the benefits of that economy.[1]  Chavez was a “populist”: he nationalized the oil industry, the banks, and much of the land, then used the profits to fund programs to aid the poor.  A big rise in government spending outstripped revenue, so they started printing money.  Prices soared.  Chavez slammed on price controls.  These didn’t (and don’t ever) work.  By 2013, the inflation rate had climbed to 50 percent; since then it has headed toward 10 million percent per year and the currency is worthless.  Furthermore, owners of nationalized assets were bent out of shape (see: selfish) and the price controls had distorted economic activity (see: Paul Samuelson).  In these circumstances, men with guns might make all the difference when it came to staying in power.  Chavez kept a tight leash on the army.  They—and politicians–went into drug trafficking.[2]

Then America’s “fracking” revolution hit.  An alternative to oil and coal flooded the energy market.  Oil prices collapsed everywhere, to the distress of Arabs, Russians Nigerians, and Venezuelans.  In the case of Venezuela, the country lost most of its foreign exchange earnings.  This cut the amount of money available to pay for key imports.  One of these was food, because the “populist” polices in the countryside had reduced food production.  Venezuela had to import more food, but lacked the foreign exchange to do so.  The same went for pharmaceuticals.  Entrepreneurs-with-pistols now extract goods and services.  As a result, 75 percent of the country is in poverty.  An increasing number of Venezuelans demanded a new course.  The army became even more important.

Then Chavez died in 2013 and his chief subordinate, Nicolas Maduro, took his place.  Maduro could have tried to clean up a bad situation.  He would have been a national hero.  Instead, he decided to ride it down.[3]  Ever-growing street protests began in 2014.  When opposition groups won the 2015 elections, Maduro fell back to rewriting the constitution so that he could do what he wanted and arresting anyone who seemed like a threat.[4]  Both the police and pro-government paramilitary groups called “colectivos” assailed the protestors.  Hundreds are dead.  Many of the original leaders are in jail.  Many ordinary people are pre-occupied with getting food and other necessities.[5]  Three million people have emigrated to neighboring countries.[6]  So protests died down in 2018.  Maduro rigged the 2018 election to win a new six-year term.  Cuba has sent intelligence officers to support the repression, China has loaned millions, and Russia has warned off American intervention.

From one perspective, this looks like the collapse of Communism in 1989.  Like the collapse of Communism, the aftermath will be painful, messy, and often un-just.

[1] “The growing crisis in Venezuela,” The Week, 25 January 2019, p. 11.

[2] This probably isn’t much different from Mexico.

[3] See; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_SMJ-Uwmkg

[4] Many of these people were old Chavez loyalists in government ministries and in the army.  As a historian, I can’t help thinking of Stalin purging the “Old Bolsheviks.”  I’m sure this is an over-reaction.  So don’t write to me.

[5] So, a capitalist black market thrives amidst the ruins of a formally socialist society.

[6] Perhaps seven million more may follow their path, according to one estimate.

My Weekly Reader 6 February 2019.

When the War of the American Revolution began, the rebellious colonies had no real army with which to fight it.  The colonists had long relied up militias made up of part-time soldiers.  For the most part, these militias had been dedicated to local defense against Indian attacks.  The militia units from the frontiers had more experience than did the militias from the eastern territories.  They all lacked training, discipline, equipment, and—often—competent officers.

Still, a bunch of them had “seen the elephant” up close.  George Washington had a couple of experiences in the back-country, then had a memorable experience with General Edward Braddock’s catastrophic attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.  Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) had been a teamster—no very exalted position–on that expedition.[1]  Morgan differed greatly from Washington.  He was a poor-boy immigrant from New Jersey to the Shenandoah Valley.  He arrived with nothing but muscle-power, but there was great need of that on the 18th Century frontier.  He began to accumulate property: first a team of horses, then a farm, and later slaves.  Braddock’s expedition offered him his first taste of war.  It left him unimpressed with British military leadership and also deeply bitter toward British rule after he was severely flogged for smacking one of his officers.  Soon, Morgan became an officer in the Virginia militia and experienced at war with the Indians.

Morgan led a company of Virginia riflemen on Benedict Arnold’s expedition through the wilds of Maine to capture Quebec.[2]  The effort failed and many American soldiers were captured, Morgan among them.  He spent a year in British captivity before being paroled.  Upon his release in early 1777, George Washington promoted Morgan to colonel in the Continental Army and told him to raise a regiment of frontier riflemen.  Morgan led the regiment in the campaign that ended with the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga (1777).  He and his men passed from this triumph to disaster in the Philadelphia campaign and wintered in Valley Forge (1777-1778).  In 1779, fed up with Congress and ts mismanagement of the army, Morgan stormed off in a huff to retirement.

Then Horatio Gates, who had commanded at Saratoga, took charge in the South.  Morgan initially declined the offer of a command.  When Gates led the army to disaster at Camden (1780), however, Morgan returned to service.  The new commander, Nathaniel Greene, put Morgan in command of a small unit.  His mission was to avoid a battle while harassing the British lines of communication.  In January 1781, Morgan disobeyed the order to avoid battle by setting a trap for a British light force under Banastre Tarleton.  The two forces collided at a pasture called the Cowpens in South Carolina on 17 January 1781.  Morgan’s adept handling of his militia led to a brilliant, small-scale victory.  The American victory had a disproportionate effect because Tarleton’s force—virtually annihilated in the fight—included much of the British light infantry.  This hampered Lord Cornwallis going forward in the Southern campaign.  It also set a pattern for a campaign of attrition that would end at Yorktown.

Plagued with ills, Morgan left the army soon after Cowpens.

[1] Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (1961) is still the best biography.

[2] See Kenneth Roberts, Arundel (1936).

I’m Running for President in 2020–3.

The Global War on Terror is approaching a new stage.  The Islamic State (ISIS) has been driven out of Iraq and almost destroyed in Syria.  Recently, President Trump ordered a sudden withdrawal of American forces from Syria and announced a desire to do the same from Afghanistan.  Much expert and political opposition arise to slow him down.  Some people argued that the Islamic State had not yet been totally defeated or destroyed.  Parallels were drawn to President Obama’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq.  This had been followed by the rise of the Islamic State and its invasion of Iraq.

Peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban have been proceeding and may be approaching a settlement.   With regard to Afghanistan, two lines of criticism or concern arise.  First, a peace deal with the Taliban will be based up on some kind of compromise or power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and their indigenous Afghan opponents.  What assurance can be offered that the Taliban will honor their commitments?  The Taliban came to power in the first place through victory in a civil war.  Are they likely to pursue the same path again.  Second,  the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  Who is to say that they will not again become patrons of anti-Western jihad?

In both cases, critics of President Trump argue for a continued American role in what Dexter Filkins called “The Forever War.”  While these critics are experts–and I am not–and they make important points, it seems to me that they fail to address a key question.  “How does this thing end?”  We are at war with an idea–Islamic radicalism–and with global social conditions–the failed states and the failed societies in much of the developing world.  It seems likely that the “defeat” of ISIS will soon be followed by a wild fire of Islamic radical rebellions running from Bangladesh through Indonesia to the southern Philippines.   Islamist movements are on their heels in much of Africa, but the conditions that gave rise to them have not been addressed.

I ask my fellow candidates the following questions.  Are we going to keep military forces in every place an Islamist wild fire has broken, been contained, and burned out in case the embers catch light once again?  Are we going to send military forces to every new place an Islamist wild fire breaks out?  Of course, it will be argued that American military technology and special forces are effective force multipliers.  America can “lead from behind” and on the cheap by assembling” coalitions of the willing” to do much of the fighting.

It might be answered that even these forces are not infinite.  America is not on a real war-footing and has not been since 2001.  A small share of Americans bear the cost of battle.  We develop plans for Operations in each Theater of Operations as it arises, but I see no Strategy for winning the global and forever War.