Fordlandia: interesting facts about Henry Ford

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin, has some interesting facts about Henry Ford that I want to jot down.

Ford was 50 years old when he put together the Model T with the assembly line and began his ascent into legend:

SUCCESS CAME LATE to Ford. Born on a Michigan farm in 1863, he was forty years old when he founded the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, forty-five when he introduced the Model T, and fifty when he put assembly line production into place and began to pay workers a wage high enough to let them buy the product they themselves made. So while he came of age during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the America he lived in for the first half of his life was still mostly rural, and the changes he helped set in motion came stunningly fast. Ford didn’t invent the assembly line. He claimed he got the idea of having workers remain at one location and perform a single task from the “disassembly lines” found in Chicago’s and Cincinnati’s slaughterhouses, where butchers hacked off parts as pig and cow carcasses passed in front of them on conveyor hooks. Nor did he conceive the other central idea of modern mass production, that is, making parts as identical as possible to one another so that they would be interchangeable. But Ford did fuse these two ideas together as never before, perfecting the idea of a factory as a complex system of ever more integrated subassembly processes. Most of this innovation took place in Ford’s new Highland Park plant, opened in 1910 and designed by the architect Albert Kahn, who prior to his work with Ford had been associated with the anti–mass production arts and crafts movement.

Ford gave a tremendous amount of work to Kahn, a member of the Jewish tribe that Ford would come to blame for many of the world’s problems. If he didn’t mind Jewish workers, he did object to unionized workers, referring to unions as “the worst thing that ever struck the earth.”

It is difficult to conceive of how much vertical integration Ford achieved in the 1920s:

Ford moved forward with the construction of a new factory complex, which he built along the Rouge River, in the county of Dearborn, near where he was born. When it was finished, the River Rouge would be the largest, most synchronized industrial plant in the world: sixteen million square feet of floor space, ninety-three buildings, close to a hundred thousand workers, a dredged deepwater port, and the world’s largest steel foundry. Ford barges, trucks, and freight trains brought silica and limestone, coal and iron ore, wood and coal, brass, bronze, copper, and aluminum from Ford forests and mines in Michigan, Kentucky, and West Virginia to the Rouge’s gates and piers, and everything was organized to achieve maximum efficiency in receiving the material and getting it to the complex’s power plants, blast ovens, furnaces, mills, rollers, forges, saws, and presses, to be transformed into electricity, steel, glass, cement, and lumber.

Is it an original idea that we Americans with our superior technology and ideas can improve countries south of the border so much that nobody will want to migrate up here and begin living in means-tested public housing, subscribing to Medicaid, and shopping for food via EBT?

It was technology, production, and commerce that made history, and it would be not gunboats or marines that would tame the world but his car. “In Mexico villages fight one another,” Ford said, but “if we could give every man in those villages an automobile, let him travel from his home town to the other town, and permit him to find out that his neighbors at heart were his friends, rather than his enemies, Mexico would be pacified for all time.”

Compare to “The imperative to address the root causes of migration from Central America” (Brookings, 2021), “VP Harris To Work With Central American Countries To Address Root Causes Of Migration” (NPR, 2021), and “How to address the causes of the migration crisis, according to experts” (Vox, 2019).

Ford had a grand idea for upgrading life in one of the most benighted parts of the U.S.:

… Ford made a bid to realize his industrial pastoralism on a large scale in a depressed river valley—not in the Amazon but in Muscle Shoals, along a stretch of the Tennessee River in northwestern Alabama.

He also said he planned to establish a seventy-five-mile-long city, as thin as Manhattan but five and a half times its length. Other chaotic, unplanned cities grew in sprawls, in a “great circle” that trapped residents, never giving them a chance to “get a smell of the country air or see a green leaf.” Those who lived in Ford’s river metropolis, in contrast, would never be more than a mile from rolling hills and farmlands.

Frank Lloyd Wright remarked that Ford’s valley city, imagined above in an illustration published in Scientific American in 1922, was “one of the best things” he had ever heard of. Ford was “going to split up the big factory,” Wright said. “He was going to give every man a few acres of ground for his own.”

(Instead, of course, the U.S. became more urbanized as the population grew from 106 million (1920) to 330 million (today) and a median-earning worker cannot afford an apartment, much less “a few acres of ground” anywhere near a job.).

Extreme climate events are new?

A week earlier [in 1928], he and Edsel had taken the Ormoc out on a trial run down the Rouge River into Lake Erie. But now, a heat wave had settled over lower Michigan, killing scores of people. Defying the Amazon’s dry season from a world away was one thing. Suffering Detroit’s humidity in the flesh was another, so Ford escaped the city by taking off on one of his road trips.

Ford was an early enthusiast for aviation, having first flown in 1927 (including some stick time), according to the author (the Henry Ford Museum page on aviation shows that he began working to build airplanes, however, in 1924 (giving up in 1933)).

Aviation pioneers failed to predict the military uses of aircraft:

The disappointment of Alberto Santos-Dumont’s life was not that he didn’t get credit for inventing flight, though he did resent that the Wright brothers won all the acclaim. His real heartbreak was that he lived long enough to see the machine he helped develop be used as an instrument of death. Santos-Dumont wasn’t an ideological pacifist like Henry Ford, but he did hope that airplanes would knit humanity closer together in a new peaceful community, just as Ford had believed that his car, along with other modern machinery, could bring about a warless world and a global “parliament of man.” Both were of course proven wrong by World War I, which broke the conceit of many like Ford and Santos-Dumont that technology alone would usher in a new, higher stage of civilization. “I use a knife to slice gruyere,” Santos-Dumont said when war broke out in Europe, “but it can also be used to stab someone. I was a fool to be thinking only of the cheese.”

Ford dealt erratically with the fact that, after all his high-handed opposition to World War I, he turned his factories over to war production. He continued to speak out provocatively against war, maintaining his position that soldiers were murderers and quoting Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” to the end of his days. Yet Ford’s faith in America as a revitalizing force in the world led him to say that he would support another war to do away with militarism. “I want the United States to clean it all up,” he said. No wonder the Topeka Daily Capital said that Ford put the “fist in pacifist.”

Orville Wright, for his part, predicted after World War I that the airplane had made war so terrible that no country would start a future war. The author reminds us of the 1932 war between Bolivia and Paraguay over non-existent oil that killed nearly 200,000 people. Airplanes were used on both sides.

Even the smartest best-connected people failed to predict that the Great Depression would last far longer than any previous economic downturn.

Ford at first restrained himself from using the crash to scold Wall Street and lash out at the money interests. He instead responded in a way many deemed responsible, preaching his gospel of consumer spending as a way out of the downturn. To back it up, he pledged that not only would he continue production at the Rouge full bore but he would raise his daily minimum wage from $6 to $7 a day. Ford seemed well positioned to lead the recovery: he himself had little invested in stocks, so his personal fortune was untouched, and his company, unlike General Motors, whose share price plummeted, wasn’t publicly traded. Yet demand for the new Model A gradually slowed, and inventories backed up. Ford lowered its price, taking the difference out of dealers’ commissions. But by the end of 1930, there was no margin left for any more reductions. The company quietly began to cut production and to buy more and more parts from outside low-wage suppliers—thus beginning the erosion of the fearsome self-sufficiency of the Ford Motor Company. By early 1931, the company had slashed the number of weekly hours of most workers, rendering meaningless Ford’s vaunted Seven Dollar Day. Later that year, the company officially reduced that as well. And then in August the assembly line ground to a halt—Ford had more cars than customers to buy them. Just four years after its introduction in late 1927, the Model A, which Ford had hoped would have as long a run as the T, was history.

The author reminds us that the solution to any economic problem is bigger government!

Of course, his exhortations to self-reliance and patronage of village industries had as little chance of solving the problems revealed by the Great Depression as Fordlandia managers had of taming the Amazon. Yet Ford never relented in his condemnation of the New Deal’s solution to the crisis: the promotion of unionism, government regulation of industry, and establishment of federal relief. Specifically, Ford refused to warm to Roosevelt and his New Dealers.

(See The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by a WSJ reporter, for the opposite perspective! Amity Shlaes says that FDR and bigger government are precisely what dragged out the Great Depression until World War II.)

How new is the idea of using distilleries to make hand sanitizer and/or making fuel in a way that is carbon-neutral?

[in the 1930s] Ford lobbied for Prohibition, saying that Detroit’s distilleries could be converted to make biofuels.

How new is the inability of a typical American worker to afford the kind of housing that he/she/ze/they thinks he/she/ze/they is entitled to?

Then he turned to Fordlandia’s housing crisis. The plantation’s original plans from 1928 called for the building of four hundred two-room houses “per Ford Motor Co. drawings,” at a cost of $1,500 each—clearly insufficient for the thousands of workers and their families who had come to the settlement. In truth, this failure to address workers’ housing needs was not that different from what was happening in Michigan. Despite his famed paternalism and acquisition of towns like Pequaming, Ford, except for a small experimental community of 250 homes, largely tried to avoid providing houses for his Dearborn and Detroit workers, believing his high wages would be enough to create prosperous neighborhoods. He steadfastly ignored the city’s mounting housing problems, which had dogged the automobile industry since the beginning of its expansion. Workers lived in overcrowded slums, flophouses, and tenements, most without decent plumbing, electricity, or heat, with African Americans consigned to the worst of the lot.

With a touch more focus on those who identified as “women” or

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Bitcoin has plenty of runway if we look back to the 1960s and 70s and the Great Society

When the U.S. was founded, minimum voting age was 21. A man might start work at age 13 or 14 and therefore a voter would be someone who’d worked for 8 years and who would experience higher taxes and a bigger government as a requirement to work longer hours. Since 1972, however, the 26th Amendment has ensured that 18-year-olds can vote and an 18-year-old may not begin working full time for 10 years (or ever, if he/she/ze/they has figured out that welfare yields a similar spending power). The majority of voters either work for the government or don’t work at all (too young, too old, in “means-tested” living (not “welfare” since it is only housing, health insurance, food, and smartphone that are received rather than cash), collecting alimony or child support from a defendant worker, married to a worker). So the big surprise is that this majority hasn’t voted itself a vastly larger government to be paid for by private sector suckers who will have to work longer hours.

(Imagine how different our government would be if, except for the disabled, 8 years of full-time work history was a requirement to vote!)

There have been three major episodes in U.S. history when the voters hungry for more government benefits prevailed over the beasts of burden (folks for whom the main consequence of bigger government will be longer hours). One was in 1930s (FDR and the New Deal). One was in the 1960s (Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, though arguably started by JFK). One was in November 2020. If we think that Episode 3 will be a lot like Episode 2, it is worth reading Great Society: A New History a 2019 book by Wall Street Journal reporter turned economic historian Amity Shlaes. I’m just digging into this, but the author seems to have anticipated our current situation (Episode 3). She looks at what happened to last the time that the U.S. decided to “go big” on addressing inequality. The economic and stock market stagnated while the dollar fell and gold surged. If Shlaes is right, every Federal spending initiative is great news for Bitcoin investors.

Some excerpts:

As Stalin was said to have joked, America was the only country in the world that could afford communism.

In a recent book the author had itemized the kinds of reform America needed. Laws that backed up organized labor so it might represent a greater portion of the American workforce, including black Americans or immigrants from Mexico. Higher minimum wages—the current levels were a cruel joke. Minimum wages that covered more workers, even those who did not work in an office or full-time. A dramatic change in the training of bigoted policemen in the big cities. A reinvigoration of the poor so that they became a force in political life. America was a country made of classes, the author thought; it just didn’t know it. The money was simply in the wrong hands. The writer wanted a tax system that captured the elusive wealth of the superrich. The moment had come to level incomes in a systematic fashion. Poverty was the obvious lunch theme. Just days before, the president had tapped the author’s host to lead a new campaign against poverty. In his State of the Union address, the president had told the country he wanted not only to alleviate suffering but to actually “cure poverty.” No American leader had ever taken on poverty in this way before.

The focus of the author’s book was the cycle of poverty in one region, Appalachia. The man had also seen poverty in the city where he grew up, St. Louis. In St. Louis the poverty was in part caused by government plans gone wrong, as in the case of the bulldozing of streets people loved in the name of moving them into public housing slums they didn’t love. America, the author thought, should invest billions to abolish poverty. It was incredible that America knew so much about poverty and had done so little. The state governments could not do this work. State governments were beholden to retrograde conservative legislatures. For systemic change, the author had come to believe, there was “no place to look except toward the federal government.”

Still, as he sat in the makeshift offices, the author kept returning to what he saw as the problem behind the problem, American capitalism. He and his friend took to concluding their memos with a half-serious line: “Of course, there is no real solution to the problem of poverty until we abolish the capitalist system.”3 At one point the author stopped censoring himself and wrote a few lines of what he actually felt: “that the abolition of poverty would require a basic change in how resources are allocated.” The boss actually took this bold call for redistribution to the president, who, the boss reported, proved remarkably friendly. The boss said that the president, a Roosevelt fan, told him that if serious economic redistribution was necessary to realize the long-delayed completion of the New Deal, then redistribution might be worth it.

The president being pitched on what today we might call transferism was Lyndon Johnson and the year was 1964. The author was Michael Harrington, whom Wikipedia describes as a “democratic socialist.”

The economic boom that had preceded JFK’s election gave Americans the confidence that anything was affordable. (I’ve seen this among quite a few folks in my parents’ social circle. Born in the 1930s, they don’t agree with Margaret Thatcher that it is possible to run out of other people’s money. They imagine the U.S. to be so wealthy that no spending proposal could ever exceed Americans’ ability to pay.)

Most Americans shared something else with Harrington: confidence. In the 1930s, the New Deal had failed to reduce unemployment. The prolonged periods of joblessness were what had made the Depression “Great.” But the memory of the New Deal failure had faded just enough that younger people liked the sound of the term. And memories of more recent success fueled Americans’ current ambition. Many men were veterans. They had been among the victorious forces that rolled across Europe and occupied Japan at the end of World War II. Compared with overcoming a Great Depression, or conquering Europe and Japan, eliminating poverty or racial discrimination had to be easy. American society was already so good. To take it to great would be a mere “mopping up action,” as Norman Podhoretz, who had served in Europe, would put it.

First came a campaign, led by President John F. Kennedy, to rehabilitate troubled youth. Soon after, President Johnson led the passage of series of federal civil rights laws. Around the same time came Johnson’s War on Poverty. Next were Johnson’s national housing drive and his health care drive. Richard Nixon followed up with a guaranteed-income campaign and an environmental drive.

When government accomplishes little, how do you persuade the public that enormous achievements are occurring?

Ambitious reforms needed time to succeed. It would be a shame if a project aborted because early results didn’t look good. So, for display purposes, presidents emphasized inputs, not outputs. Congress, too, as the Hoover Institution’s John Cogan has put it, “measured success by labels and dollars attached to legislation”—not by results. The political success of a project mattered more than empirical success. Occasionally, the effort got a new name. The “New Frontier” of Kennedy became Johnson’s “Great Society,” which became the “Great Nation,” and then the “Just and Abundant Society” of Richard Nixon.

We hear a lot about the various $2 trillion spending plans, but we never see a New York Times article on what Americans actually got from the preceding $2 trillion spending program. (exception?)

How did the dreams of the 1960s play out?

… by 1971, for the first time, federal spending on what we now call entitlements—benefits for the aged, the poor, and the unemployed, along with other social programs—outpaced spending on defense.

In 1966, the [Dow Jones Industrial Average] moved tantalizingly close to the 1,000 line, a landmark. Soon after, however, the index stalled, and stayed stuck below the 1,000 line, year in, year out. By the end of the decade, inflation, always present, was expanding to alarming levels. The same period brought another alarm, this time from abroad. Foreign governments started to turn more of their dollars in for gold from the United States’ coffers. The U.S. papers went into denial, quoting a Yale professor, Robert Triffin, who argued that the withdrawals were the result of crossed incentives in the international monetary arrangement, a technical, rectifiable flaw. What came to be known as the Triffin dilemma provided a convenient explanation for the mysterious outflows.

The 1971 run on American gold also, however, reflected foreigners’ insight. Outsiders knew a tipping point when they saw one. America had moved closer to Michael Harrington’s socialism than even Harrington understood. The United States had locked itself into social spending promises that might never be outgrown. Today, interest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies serves as a measure of markets’ and individuals’ distrust of the U.S. dollar. In those days there was no Bitcoin, but gold played a similar role. The dollar was the common stock of America, and foreigners used gold to short it.

The disastrous performance of the U.S. economy in the following years proved the foreigners’ 1971 wager correct. To pay for its Great Society commitments, the U.S. government in the next decade found itself forced to set taxes so high that it further suppressed the commercialization of innovation.

Eventually the market bounces back, right?

The Dow flirted with the 1,000 level throughout the decade, but did not cross the line definitively until 1982, an astonishingly long period to stagnate, nearly a generation.

You just had to wait from 1966 to 1982 to sell a stock for more than you’d paid… in nominal dollars. Shlaes fails to point out that you’d need $3 in June 1982 to have the same spending power as $1 in 1966. On an inflation-adjusted basis (chart), the DJIA didn’t exceed its 1966 high until 1996, i.e., 30 years later.

What about all the great stuff that happened in the 1960s? Going to war in Vietnam was a terrible decision, of course, but continuing Eisenhower’s work in desegregation wasn’t, surely. The author says “Well…”:

The early civil rights laws, as important as they were, set a precedent for federal supremacy over states to an extent some of the Constitution’s authors would have likened to tyranny. The later civil rights laws, with their emphasis on group rights, pitted Americans against one another. Both Johnson and Nixon conducted domestic policy as if they were domestic commanders in chief.

Already I can see some stuff that seems wrong or at least not supported.

For today, the contest between capitalism and socialism is on again. Markets do promise strong growth; we do live in a creative society, the most creative in the world, creative enough to lift the nation to new heights. Yet new, progressive proposals bearing a strong resemblance to those of Michael Harrington’s and his peers’, from redistribution via taxation to student debt relief to a universal guaranteed income, are sought yet again. Once again, many Americans rate socialism as the generous philosophy. But the results of our socialism were not generous. May this book serve as a cautionary tale of lovable people who, despite themselves, hurt those they loved. Nothing is new. It is just forgotten.

How does the author know that the U.S. is “the most creative in the world”? Why isn’t it equally plausible that our wealth was built on stealing a huge chunk of land from the Native Americans rather than on some sort of unique creativity? If it was the land that made us comparatively rich, combined with the wars and Communism consuming our competitors in the 20th century, then we aren’t guaranteed to get richer going forward. Taking the long view, it is the Chinese and Europeans who have

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Happy 27th birthday to the cable modem

“Big Cable Company to Offer A High-Speed Internet Link” (New York Times, March 9, 1994):

Continental Cablevision Inc., the nation’s third-largest cable television company, said yesterday that it had begun offering a high-speed link to the Internet data network over the same coaxial cables that carry television channels into the home.

The Internet connection is initially available only to Continental customers in Cambridge, Mass., but company officials said it would eventually be offered to nearly three million customers nationwide. Continental, based in Boston, provides cable service to Westchester County, N.Y., and in California, Idaho and Michigan.

However, at a rate of $125 a month for residential customers, and higher for business customers, the service is unlikely to displace the MTV’s and the Home Box Offices at the top of a 500-channel hit parade, even in Cambridge, the sort of academic-technical redoubt where enthusiasts consider Internet access more important than the telephone.

At the same time, telephone and data-communications companies are constantly expanding the capacity of twisted-pair phone lines and speeding the installation of fiber optic lines, which also offer data-transfer speeds fast enough to handle video signals.

“Cable is a kludge,” remarked Mr. Harris of Jupiter Communications, using a computer term for an inelegant solution to a technical problem. “The market is aching to have everything in full motion, and cable is sort of a middle-of-the-road solution.”

Here we are, 27 years later, and Cambridge, thanks to the miracle of government regulation, still doesn’t have fiber to the home!

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Obituary of Nathaniel Greenspun, 1930-2021

Nathaniel Greenspun died at age 90 on February 24, 2021 at home with his wife Regina in the Maplewood Park Place Retirement Community, Bethesda, Maryland.  He had been getting progressively weaker over the past few years and suffered a dramatic episode of weakness, leading to a fall, one week after receiving his second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. It is possible that a stroke accelerated his decline, but no definitive diagnosis was obtained. Most of the following was written by Nat himself in 2017.

He was the loving husband of many years of Regina, the father of Suzanne, Philip, and Harry, the grandfather of 11, and great-grandfather of 1. In addition to his immediate family, he is survived by his younger sister, Elinor Dulit.

Born in New York City, Nathaniel attended elementary and high schools in Forest Hills, Queens, and was the valedictorian of his class at Forest Hills High School. He then went to Harvard College where he was graduated summa cum laude and admitted to Phi Beta Kappa.

After college, he earned an M.A. in Economics from Harvard and was a Teaching Fellow  in the Economics department. Beginning in 1953, he served twenty-one months in the Army.

In 1956, he married Regina Gittes and in 1958 moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked at the Bureau of the Census on a new program of “company statistics.”  Four years later, he transferred to the Bureau of Economics at the Federal Trade Commission where he worked on an effort to collect data from the 500 largest companies. In 1962, he transferred to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve where he worked in a division that evaluated the competitiveness of bank mergers.

In 1966, he returned to the Federal Trade Commission where he mostly worked on issues relating to consumer protection, such as false advertising.

Living during an era of the rapid development of technology, he became an enthusiastic user of the computer, enjoyed music in stereo, frequently recorded TV programs, etc.

He and Regina loved to travel and over the years made numerous trips to many parts of the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel. Classical music was his constant companion, something he had enjoyed since perhaps the age of 10. He was a devoted supporter of Israel.

Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Plant a Tree in Israel (JNF) organization.

A memorial service will be held in May 2021 at the Garden of Remembrance in Clarksburg, Maryland.

From a family history video project:

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Happy Valentine’s Day from the Katherine Group of the 13th Century

From Hali Meiðhad (“holy maidenhood”) of the Katherine Group (translation into modern English by Huber and Robertson)…

A letter on virginity for the encouragement of virgins.

(1) Of these three states (maidenhood and widowhood, and wedlock is the
third) you may, by the degrees of their bliss, know what and by how much the one surpasses the others. (2) For wedlock has a thirty-fold fruit in Heaven, widowhood sixty-fold. (3) Maidenhood, with a hundred-fold, surpasses both. (4) See then by this: whoever descends into wedlock from her maidenhood, by how many degrees she falls downwards…

(1) “No,” you will say, “it is not at all for that filth. (2) But a man’s strength
is worth a great deal, and I need his help for sustenance and for food. 

(1) You say that the wife has much comfort of her husband if they are well-
matched, and either is in all ways satisfied with the other. (2) Yes, but it is seldom seen on earth. (3) Though their comfort and their delight be like this now, what is in it mostly but the flesh’s filth or the world’s vanity, which all come to sorrow and to pain in the end? (4) And not only in the end but always, for many things will anger and annoy them and cause them to worry, and to grieve and to sigh for each other’s misfortunes.

(10) What will the joining between you in bed be like? (11) Even those who love each other best often quarrel in there, though they do not show it in the morning, and often, however well they love each other, they bitterly irritate each other over many nothings when they are by themselves. (12) She must endure his will greatly against her will — however much she loves him — often with great misery. (13) All his foulnesses and his indecent love play however filled with filth they may be (in bed, that is!), she must, will she nill she, endure them all.

Look, blessed woman: once the knot of wedlock is knotted, be he idiot or cripple, be he what so ever he may be, you must stay with him.

(1) But now, say it happens that she has all her desire for a child that she
wishes for; and let us look at what happiness she gets from that: in the conceiving of that, her flesh is at once soiled with that filth (as it has been shown before); in the carrying of it, there is always heaviness and hard pain; in its birth the strongest of all stabbing pains and sometimes death; in its upbringing many a weary hour. (2) As soon as it comes into this life it brings with it more worry than joy, especially to the mother. … (5) And often it happens that that dearest and most bitterly paid for child upsets and grieves his parents the most in the end.

(6) Let us now go further and look at what joy arises thereafter in the carrying of the child, when that offspring in you awakens and grows, and how many miseries awaken at once with that, which work woe enough for you, fight against your own flesh and make war upon your own nature with many miseries. (7) Your rosy face will grow lean and become green as grass. (8) Your eyes will grow dim and will darken underneath, and from your brain’s turning your head aches sorely. (9) Inside, in your womb, a swelling in your belly that puffs you up like a water-skin, your bowels’ pain and stitches in your side, and pain in your aching loins, heaviness in every limb, your breast’s burden of your two paps, and the streams of milk that flow from them. (10) Your beauty is completely ruined with wilting, your mouth is bitter, and all that you chew nauseating. (11) And what food your stomach scornfully accepts (that is, with distaste) it casts out again.

(1) After all this there comes, from that child born in this way, wailing and
weeping which will wake you up around midnight, …

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What if Thomas Edison were alive today?

Edison by Edmund Morris, gives us some hints as to how Thomas Edison might have dealt with our society’s challenges today. (Below, Edison’s workshop, transported to Michigan by Henry Ford and now part of Greenfield Village.)

Although he was an early enthusiast for aviation, trying to build a helicopter in the 1880s, Edison (1847-1931) actually lived (and continued to work hard and effectively) through the period of the most rapid advances in aviation. He seems not to have contributed anything significant to the development of flying machines.

One thing that I learned from the book is that Edison loved huge projects and was not afraid of doing things at scale. He put about $2 million and years of work into trying to mine iron ore in New Jersey and then mill it profitably. From the early 1890s:

A party of inspectors sent by Engineering and Mining Journal toured the plant early in the fall. Although some sections were idled for refurbishment and Edison was coy about showing any of his new machines, they could see that he already excelled at quarrying and magnetic separation, if not yet in the difficult processes of crushing and refinement. They were particularly impressed with his cableway system, every suspended “skip” delivering four tons of rock to the crushers at only twelve cents a load. But they predicted that in view of the low iron content of local ore, Edison would still have to spend a fortune and deploy “the utmost resources of engineering skill” to compete with Mesabi ore at 64 percent iron. “With his surpassing genius [and] capacity for taking infinite pains, it cannot be doubted that he will ultimately achieve success.”

In July Edison learned that his mining venture had so far cost him $850,000, including some $100,000 that could not be accounted for. A profit-killing amount of money was being lavished on labor that simply loaded and unloaded rock at either end of the conveyors. The jaw crushers took too long to do their work and often broke down, necessitating expensive repairs. The magnetic separators, plagued by screening problems, were concentrating only 47 percent iron—far less than the 66 or 70 percent he needed to match the richness of Great Lakes ore. He was still digesting this information when a stockhouse under construction at Ogden collapsed, killing five men and injuring twelve. Lawsuits alleging negligence were filed by bereaved families.106 A newspaper clipping he carried in his wallet read, “Thomas Edison is a happy and healthy man. He does not worry.” As usual he countered the pull of bad news by pushing forward harder. Rather than continue to “improve” Ogden with ad hoc adjustments, he increased the capital of its parent company to $1.25 million, then shut the plant for a tear-down rebuild that would expand it enormously and make it a showpiece of automated design. No sooner had a new separator house gone up than he decided it needed some screening towers, and should be constructed all over again.

Given what we now know about the ore near Lake Superior (ore in the water of Tahquamenon Falls, below, from Travels with Samantha), the idea seems laughable today and, indeed, it was a complete failure. Nonetheless, it was amazing how many problems Edison was able to solve.

My theory about what he would be working on today, therefore, is geoengineering. He would take complaints about a warming planet as inspiration to work in the lab and then build infrastructure on the scale of the largest mines and power plants.

How about coronaplague? Edison did like to jump into solving problems that society perceived as urgent. But what kind of machine would be useful for fighting the plague? Big shade structures to move activities outdoors? Edison did put a lot of effort into “tornado-proof concrete houses”:

Last May’s catastrophic earthquake in San Francisco revived an idea he had had when the cement mill was first ready to roll. He saw low-cost, molded concrete houses replacing the fragile wooden boxes in which most Americans lived—houses that contractors would mix from cement (with a colloidal additive for grit suspension) and spill on the spot into prefabricated forms. A three-story house could be poured in six hours and set in less than a week.

He had to admit that the individual kits, consisting of nickel-plated cast iron parts, would be expensive, at around $25,000 apiece. But they would pay for themselves in frequency of use and universality of detail, molding mantelpieces, banisters, dormer windows, conduits for wiring, “and even bathtubs.” Having made the investment, a contractor could pour a new house every four days. Each could be sold for $500 or $600, enabling millions of low-income Americans to become homeowners for the first time, with no need to worry about earthquakes, hurricanes, or fire. “I will see this innovation a commonplace fact,” Edison promised, “even though I am in my sixtieth year.”

What about a wearable device that would deflect the evil coronavirus away from a person’s mouth and nose, but without obstructing breathing the way that a mask does?

Where would Edison have stood on this year’s Presidential campaign? “Edison had always been a loyal Republican,” writes Morris, but quotes Edison explaining why he voted for Teddy Roosevelt whose statue was just toppled in Manhattan: “I’m a Progressive, because I’m young at sixty-five,” he said. “And this is a young man’s movement. There are a lot of people who die in the head before they are fifty. They’re the ones who get shocked if you propose anything that wasn’t going when they were boys.” Morris says that “Edison had come to despise government bureaucrats, seeing them as a blight on democracy,” but perhaps Edison’s Progressive streak would have led him to support Bernie nonetheless!

On the third hand, Edison would probably not have been able to hold a job in the present-day U.S.:

Relations between him and [son] Charles warmed to the extent they could resume their old exchange of “negro jokes.”

Wikipedia points out that Edison married a subordinate whom we would today call “underage”:

On December 25, 1871, at the age of 24, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell (1855–1884), whom he had met two months earlier; she was an employee at one of his shops.

Mary likely died, only 28 years old, in the modern American manner. The author quotes from a contemporary source:

At the request of Mr. Edison she took a trip to Florida last winter. Instead of obtaining relief she fell victim to gastritis, due to the peculiar atmosphere or perhaps the long acquaintance with morphine. She returned to Menlo Park in a more troubled condition. Her pain intensified, and at times she was almost frantic. Morphia was the only remedy, and naturally she tried to increase the quantity prescribed by the doctors. From the careless word dropped by [a] friend of the family it was more than intimated that an overdose of morphine swallowed in a moment of frenzy caused by pain greater than she could bear brought on her untimely death. The doctor in attendance said she died of congestion of the brain. When a reporter put the question to him he positively asserted that it was the immediate cause, but about the more remote causes he preferred to remain silent.

(1.5 years later, Edison was 39 and married Mina, age 20.)

What about shutting down schools, society, and the economy for three months so as to end up with the same death rate from Covid-19 as Sweden?

as Edison lay dying [in 1931, age 84], it was suggested to President Hoover that the entire electrical system of the United States should be shut off for one minute on the night of his interment. But Hoover realized that such a gesture would immobilize the nation and quite possibly kill countless people.

Readers: Fun speculation for today… suppose that Thomas Edison were alive today, age 40, and had $1 billion available to invest. What problem would he attack?

More: Read Edison by Edmund Morris.

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Migrants and Refugees were Genghis Khan’s best weapons

I enjoyed Professor Dorsey Armstrong’s Years that Changed History: 1215 course.

One interesting tidbit: When Genghis Khan wanted to take over a big fortified city, he would attack surrounding small villages and drive the inhabitants as migrants and refugees to the big city. Swelled with a larger-than-usual population, the big fortified city would collapse from within, its resources (such as food) exhausted. This saved Temüjin, the Great Khan, the effort of a traditional Greek/Roman-style siege and catapult attack on a walled city.

Thus did Genghis Khan assemble the largest contiguous land empire that the world has ever seen.

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Popularity of Bernie Sanders proves that Marx was right?

Karl Marx remains one of the most referenced and taught authors in Academia today. The best that one has been able to say about him was that he was a great historian and sociologist, but a failure as a prophet. It was supposed to be a rich industrialized country that turned socialist and, ultimately, communist, not a relatively poor and just-beginning-to-industrialize country such as Russia. (the Bolsheviks got a big boost from Germany, though, which may have distorted the natural course of history)

What if the socialist governments that returned to a market system, e.g., in Russia and China, were not evidence that Marx was wrong, but only that the particular countries that had adopted socialism weren’t rich enough?

The U.S. right now is in an unprecedented position of material prosperity. Americans on welfare today have a far higher material standard of living than did middle class Americans in Marx’s time. Suppose that Bernie wins the primary elections and then at least wins the popular vote in November. Wouldn’t that be evidence that Marx was right? Once a country is rich enough, the working class citizens will demand socialism and many of the elites will go along with this.

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Medieval Scholar explains why elites fear a shrinking population

One staple of American elite media is the scary headline regarding a potential fall in population. Without open borders and a warm welcome for migrants, the story will read, U.S. population will actually drop. The same papers sing the praises of middle class wage growth from 1950-1970, when the population was about half what is it today, so it is unclear why a return to that level is an emergency for the elite.

“The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague” by Dorsey Armstrong, a professor at Purdue, explains exactly why! The fall in population from the Black Death in Florence led to a dramatic reduction in the economic power of the elite. Skilled and unskilled laborers experienced at least a 3X boost in wages. She attributes the Ciompi Revolt (1378) and similar uprisings elsewhere in Europe (e.g., one in England) to the loss in elite power that occurred due to the population reduction.

The Florentine elites knew that a shrinking population was going to be bad for them. The miracle of valorizing single motherhood was in the future, so they came up with the idea of giving young single women dowries to ensure that they would get married as quickly as possible and then start to produce children. (See “When and why did it become necessary to pay Americans to have children?”)

It is interesting to see how little has changed in 650+ years!

Examples of headline hysteria:


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Academic lectures on a modern subject: the Black Death

I’m listening right now to “The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague” by Dorsey Armstrong, a professor at Purdue. Unfortunately, due to coronavirus, this is a timely subject. Fascinating topic even without the connection to our latest events.

Oh yes, guess where the author says the first wave of plague that hit Europe in the 14th century started? The Hubei province of China, in 1331.


  • “Immigration is the Reverse Black Death?” (Professor Armstrong concurs with other scholars that the reduction of population by 50 percent led to an enormous boost in income and standard of living for the survivors and their descendants; the U.S. is trying this in the other direction and expecting the same result!)
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