It happened today – October 6, 2015

Peanuts gang
Good grief. It’s been two thirds of a century since Peanuts first appeared in daily papers on Oct. 6 1950. And while a great deal has happened since to grab headlines, I suspect that once again culture has had more influence on the course of human events than politics while getting less ink.

Charles Shultz’s ironic, sometimes depressing but usually determinedly upbeat vision shaped people’s sense of the world and of themselves in ways that windy stump speeches about our values did not. We saw more of ourselves in his everyman Charlie Brown, philosopher Linus or endlessly imaginative Snoopy than we did with Joe Politician.

Curiously Shultz himself seems to have felt a lot like Charlie Brown. He suffered from depression and was apparently surprised to hear that his work was popular. Which is a bit weird when you’re syndicated in 2500 papers worldwide. And I do wish he could have given Charlie Brown a few more triumphs over the years. But Charlie Brown never does quit.

Its odd to think that Peanuts bridged the gap between strips with very long story lines like Terry and the Pirates or (no one knows why) Prince Valiant to today’s almost invariant single-day stand-alone format. And it’s also strange to dig out very early Peanuts strips and see how the characters began and fairly quickly evolved into the familiar versions that greeted us for decades. Certainly any aspiring cartoonist should study how Snoopy changed (and Pogo, Opus and others) to save themselves a lot of time and heartache in their own artistic development.

Charlie Brown didn’t even have a stripe on his shirt at the very beginning. And Peanuts did change a bit with the times. But through it all there was a comforting, if sometimes slightly gloomy, sense that decency must persevere and would somehow come out all right.

Again, such things were not often found in the headlines.

It happened today – October 5, 2015

Remember those “Write on, brother” ads for the Write Bros. 19 cent ballpoint pen? Or do I date myself, especially as I go on to stammer that it was something called an “advertisement” on a thing called “television”? Anyway, a reliable, long-lasting pen for less than a fifth of a dollar is a remarkable thing, though hardly an elegant one. And it dates back to 1880, when the first ballpoint pen was patented by Alonzo T. Cross.

A lot of useful things got invented in the late 19th century. It was that kind of time, and also one thing that got invented was the mass production of quality steel and hence of cheap quality steel. From bicycles to ballpoints to railway rails, it helps to have this super-versatile, hard metal that can be shaped very precisely and relied on to keep its shape. And the ballpoint was of course invented in the United States, long the focal point of modernity as of conservatism.

For all that, I have to say that the ballpoint pen is an inelegant tool for an inelegant age. I myself used a fountain pen from early in high school until my professional life took me on too many airplanes and I discovered the vibrations of this convenient and remarkably cheap but, again, inelegant form of travel tended to cause significant leakage. If it didn’t get ink on my shirt in flight, the next time I used it, it sure got ink all over my fingers.

This lament has nothing to do with calligraphy. My handwriting is so bad my printing is barely legible. But while I appreciate Mr. Cross putting cheap pens in the hands of students and businesspeople around the world, I do rather miss the elegance of dipping a pen then dusting the product with sand before sending it.

In contrast with email and tweets, especially given the cost of postage, it forced you to consider whether you had expressed yourself properly, including in the arcane field of actually spelling things right, and whether whatever you’d said was worth saying and whether it needed quite so many obscenities.

So yes, I have ballpoint pens on my desk. You can’t avoid them nowadays. But I never use one with pleasure, as I did with my old fountain pens, and that’s not an unqualified victory for modernity.

It happened today – October 4, 2015

On this day in history, Napoleon struck again for the first time. In 1795, he helped rout a Royalist mob in the streets of Paris with his infamous “whiff of grapeshot,” catapulting him to command of the French armies in Italy and ultimately to imperial power. And for what?

I get that Napoleon didn’t like disorder and was contemptuously impatient with nonsense. And he was also without question a great military strategist and tactician. He rose rapidly from obscurity to supreme power within France and made a valiant effort to conquer Europe, Britain and much of the New World. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those darn Anglo-Saxons.

Along the way, Bonaparte confirmed the maxim “Don’t attack the Anglosphere.” And helped to exhaust France, which should have been content with excellence and not been obsessed with greatness and glory. But to me he’s like Julius Caesar, a man of many admirable qualities, a giant among dwarves in many respects, but one whose whole career seems to have no point and ends in unlamented disaster.

What exactly did Napoleon want to do with all that power? He doesn’t seem to have had much of a social agenda and what he had seems incoherent and pointless. Obviously he enjoyed planning and winning battles. But as an end in itself a military career is gory and vainglorious.

Conrad Black recently argued that if Napoleon had conquered Europe the 20th century would have gone much better than it did. I doubt it, not least because with men like Napoleon, Caesar or Alexander the “Great” the appetite grows with the eating. And I think it grows partly because the conquests have no purpose beyond personal aggrandizement and further conquest.

I suspect the mob Napoleon dispersed needed dispersing. But after that, well, frankly, so did he as far as I can tell.

Wish I’d said that – October 4, 2015

“Man not only dines; he also kills and sacrifices. The room in which he relishes the animal orders lies between slaughterhouse and temple. There are death’s heads at each end of the table of the world. No doubt we would just as soon forget them. Most cookbooks are content to sit in the kitchen and sing songs. Blood is not pretty. But… Man is not simply gourmet, he is carnivore and offerer as well…. Our home ground remains what it has always been: bloody ground and holy ground at once. Inattention explains nothing.”

Robert Farrar Capon The Supper of the Lamb

It happened today – October 3, 2015

55 Continental dollars
On this day in history, a government debauched its money. Which doesn’t narrow the field much, now does it? You can’t guess which government but you can guess that on plenty of other days one or another did so. Sometimes on consecutive days.

In this case it was the Continental Congress and the year was 1776. And actually what the Congress did was to borrow money to try to undebauch the currency. But borrowing to back unsound money only works if it’s a short-term desperate measure, buying time to do something about the monetary policy that’s causing the problem, namely printing more money than you have in real assets, essentially taxing without consent.

The way it works is that when a government increases the money supply faster than the economy grows, it has a larger share of the total amount of money than it did. It therefore gets to buy a larger share of the total economy than it did. But since the economy didn’t get larger, each dollar is worth less and everyone who didn’t get to print their own now has less real wealth.

There’s not much they can do about it because all dollars, francs or whatever it may be taste like chicken. Eventually people start refusing to accept the money, at least at face value, and if things get bad enough they won’t take it at all and insist on barter, gold or foreign money. But they have to refuse everyone’s debased money, not just the government’s, because there’s no way to tell them apart. And everyone refuses theirs.

Now the Continental Congress had a legitimate problem. It had to win a war without the ability to collect taxes, lacking both the legal authority and the administrative capacity given the war it was busy not winning for most of the next four years. But appeals to patriotism and pleas of necessity only take you so far.

Ultimately the Revolution succeeded and the new national government eventually made some effort to clean up the mess. But the simple fact is that you can print money far faster than you can borrow it and, indeed, if you didn’t have to print it you probably wouldn’t have to borrow it. And while the United States became a great nation, the expression “not worth a Continental” underlined for years the fact that it did so in part on a tried and false monetary expedient of substituting paper for real wealth to grab resources in a crisis.