Curmudgeon Me.

Il y a etait un fois, America had the best democratic public school system in the world, AND the greatest college and university system in the world.  More Americans went farther in education than did people in any other country.  In percentage terms, America had more and better “human capital” than did any other country in the world.  “We cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy.”

Then, standardized tests revealed a terrifying decline in American educational attainment.  The generally-accepted, state-mandated, and Federally-funded response took the form of more standardized testing, accountability through assessment, the standardization of delivery models, and the proliferation of rubrics.

Here’s the thing.  When American education led the world, nobody did much standardized testing, nobody did much formal assessment[1], nobody insisted on standardized delivery, and no truly-educated person knew what the word “rubric” meant.  Schools and teachers didn’t do ANY of the things that now are supposed to cure “the prince of our disorders.”  This suggests that the origin of American educational problems lies elsewhere than in the educational system itself.

This applies to the American education reform experience of the last several decades.  Has anyone—other than me—ever been lost in the woods?  The hard-won lessons of millennia in this matter counsel certain behaviors.  First, Stop where you are!  Do not keep going forward!  Do not turn aside to the left hand or to the right to go bush-whacking through the brush!  You will fall over the edge of a cliff, bust your leg, and end up being mauled by some aggrieved Momma-bear.  Second, turn around and head back down the trail that you came up.  Eventually, you will come upon the place where you last knew where you were.  Third, stop in that place, consult your map and compass, and discern where you went wrong.  Fourth, get back on the trail you were supposed to be on before you missed the way-mark because you were looking down at your boots, trying not to trip over roots, when you should have been looking up to notice the white-painted blaze in a tree.

Thus, we need to stop bush-whacking through the educational underbrush.  We need to stop, turn around, and go back to whatever it is we were doing right before the wheels came off.

What was it we used to do when “once we were warrior kings”?  Historians have begun to explore what went wrong since the 1970s.  The early evidence suggests that complex social, economic, and cultural forces combined to wreck the foundations of American educational achievement.  The oil shocks of the 1970s put an end to an already troubled economic boom.  Families stopped valuing education as the pathway to success and stopped supporting the teachers who provided it.  Women’s Liberation took a lot of smart women out of career ghettos in teaching school (and nursing and bank-tellers and secetaries in offices), then replaced them with inferior substitutes.  They stopped buying encyclopedias and stopped subscribing to newspapers and magazines, and stopped taking their children to public libraries.  (Which have now become “social centers” with Ute and yentas grumbling at the top of their lungs.)  Divorces and re-marriages multiplied even though that meant that children had fewer resources and less family-support structures in challenging circumstances.  Trust in any and all institutions (understandably) declined.  (Hard to appreciate where those idiot anti-vaxxers come from otherwise.)  In short, the bourgeois social norms that had raised up individual “achievement” and collective “civilization” (along with its many injustices) went into a death spiral.

It would be un-fair to ask college administrators and faculty leaders at any one college or university to have the testicular fortitude to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  So, I’m doing it.

That’s my straw-man.  Knock it to bits.

[1] Although teachers and professors wrote a good deal of commentary in the margins of blue-books and essays.  Less common now because many people just score a rubric.  Leave the student to figure it out on their own.


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.

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;

[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).