Making a Fizzy Splash – It Happened Today, January 15, 2017

You know all those internet-era stories about if only I’d put a few hundred bucks into that garage venture by those two awkward jokers I used to know, I’d be a billionaire today? The problem being to figure out which jokers are actually Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Well, would you have gambled on the Pemberton Medical Company back in 1889?

If not, maybe stick to broad-based mutual funds. If so, you’re arguably just plain lucky. Because, you see, the PMC incorporated in Atlanta on January 15 of 1889 went on to become the Coca-Cola company. And obviously if a morphine-addicted Civil War veteran reacts to local Prohibition by removing the alcohol from his mixture of cola nut and cocaine extract into a gooey sweet brown health tonic and accidentally mixing it with soda water, you’ll make a fortune, right? Like a music player with no off switch or a Quick and Dirty Operating System. Can’t miss. (I should mention that Coca-Cola may not have contained much cocaine to begin with and certainly had only minute traces after 1891, and none after 1929.)

Like many giant purveyors of non-health food, the company has been battling economic headwinds recently. But it remains true that if you’d bought a single share in 1919 for $40 and reinvested the dividends, you’d have had $9.8 million by 2012, more than 10% a year real returns (that is, adjusted for inflation). Plus the company more or less gave us the modern image of Santa Claus, and his less famous helper Sprite Boy. No, really.

The point is, capitalism is wonderful at creation and its disquieting cousin creative destruction. The marketplace allows things to succeed that sound absurd or revolting at first blush, things that would never get a grant or the central planners’ stamp of approval. But that’s precisely why entrepreneurial success is inherently unpredictable, at times even inexplicable in retrospect (think pet rocks). So don’t kick yourself if you didn’t foresee that a web site where you could post every inane thing that drifted into your head for the benefit of hundreds of friends you don’t know and nothing was sold could make some guy so rich you couldn’t count all his money in a lifetime.

Or that business with the fizzy syrup.


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Napoleon Not Blownapart – It Happened Today, January 14, 2017… or didn’t

Can we just get back to assassinating politicians for a moment here? As a theoretical exercise, I hasten to add. For instance Napoleon III, the “French Emperor” in a rather comic opera sense from December 2, 1852 to September 4, 1870 after having been President from December 20, 1848 until he build himself a throne in a coup.

He was eventually overthrown in the aftermath of the humiliating French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in which the Emperor himself was captured. D’oh. But years earlier, he was not blown up on January 14, 1858, unlike eight members of his escort and bystanders when would-be assassins threw three bombs at the royal carriage on its way to the opera. It was a pretty serious effort; over 100 people were also injured.

I have repeatedly quoted Disraeli’s dictum that “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” But for purposes of discussion not dogmatism because I’m far from certain that he is still right even if he was then. I’m not even convinced that assassination changed history on June 28, 1914, because Germany was bent on launching World War I anyway so the shooting of Franz Ferdinand was in many ways just a convenient occasion for doing so. But what about the people who were not assassinated but might have been?

Napoleon III was a vainglorious nit whose meddling in the conduct of the Crimean War by telegraph helped prolong that conflict. But assassinating him in 1858 wouldn’t have helped in that regard because it ended in 1856. And I don’t think history changed much because that war took longer than it might have; its major impact was its unsettling impact on Russia due to this unexpected defeat, at least unexpected in the eyes of the Tsarist regime, right in their breadbasket.

What, though, of the Franco-Prussian War? Might a better-led France, a less absurdly led France, either have avoided the war or fought it better, perhaps even with allies? And if they had, might the subsequent course of European history and the lessons drawn from the brief 1870-71 war have been sufficiently different to avoid or dramatically alter the course of World War I?

I’m not endorsing assassination even of people who put themselves outside the law by staging coups. And to give him as much credit as possible, at the possible expense of the French themselves, Napoleon III subsequently legitimized his seizure of power in a reasonably fair referendum. But if those bomb-throwers had had better aim, the world might be considerably different. Even better.

Of course, the result might also have been that Germany won the big European war that was probably brewing around the turn of the century. Or things might have unfolded much as they did. But Napoleon was an idiot. And even though fools are not in short supply including in positions of leadership, including in France, it’s hard to believe it didn’t matter at all that a major European power was ruled by one for almost a quarter-century ending in humiliating disaster for the man and his nation.


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A Feeble Blow Against Slavery – It Happened Today, January 13, 2017

So I’m trying hard to be fair here. Which requires me to note that on January 13 of 1435, before European colonization really got going, Pope Eugene IV issued a papal bull called Sicut Dudum which said you couldn’t enslave Canary Islanders who had converted to Christianity or were about to.

Sixtus IV was obliged to repeat this warning in “Regimini Gregis”, threatening the excommunication of seafarers who enslaved Christians. But as I’m sure you know, it didn’t stick. There was an initial argument that enslaving Africans was OK because they weren’t Christian, but when slaves began announcing their conversion and requesting their freedom it is sadly predictable that they didn’t get it. (Incidentally the Canary Islands have a long and interesting history including, despite being off West Africa, being settled by people who appear to have been more Arab than sub-Saharan African.)

In some cases slave conversions may have been a dodge to get freedom. And it’s not obvious how you would enforce the rule if, after being liberated, they turned around and said actually I don’t find your religion convincing on sober reflection. But it doesn’t really matter in the simpleminded sense that it’s just plain wrong to enslave anybody of any race. A point that was in fact made by the local bishop, Fernando Calvetos, prompting Eugene’s bull.

It’s amazing the feebleness of the reasoning, in retrospect, for enslaving people. The original impetus behind Sicut Dudum was that as the Canaries were disputed between Portugal and Castille people said we might as well, you know, just rush over there in the absence of effective authority and stuff the inhabitants into sacks or something. Even though many of those inhabitants had already converted to Christianity before the shackles descended.

It’s also amazing how readily people acquiesced in what amounted to a rebirth of slavery in the Christian or at least Roman Catholic world after it had all but vanished in the Middle Ages. Including in many cases the Church itself. So it is important to note that there were at least some moves in the other direction, however inadequate, including Sicut Dudum itself, which imposed the penalty of excommunication for anyone who did not free any enslaved Canary Islander. As well as the arguably more significant point that it did not apply more widely, then or later.


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