It happened today – February 8, 2016

Mongol empire, 13th century

On this date in history, February 8, in 1238, the Mongols burned Vladimir. Which sounds like hard luck for him even if he had done something to annoy them. But what of the rest of us?

Well, bear with me here. First, Vladimir isn’t a who, it’s a what. Specifically, it was an important city in medieval Russia. But then the Mongols came, slaughtering, burning, raping and otherwise destroying. Which was as bad as it sounds; not every evil historical reputation is undeserved.

What followed was worse. Not just for Vladimir, though it never really recovered, but for Russia and the world. Because the Mongols came to stay, and did stay for several centuries. And by the time they were gone the place was unrecognizable.

It’s hard to recall, or perhaps believe, but pre-Mongol Russia was very much oriented toward the West. Kievan Rus, founded by Vikings, had strong links to Western Europe. King Henri I of France married princess Anne of Kiev and apparently it was through their son that the name “Philip” became popular among Western royalty. So perhaps its political history could have been much less dismal despite its geographically exposed position which necessarily would have made national security and a strong state high priorities. But the Mongols put their stamp on its face in a singularly brutal way.

As Richard Pipes put it in his depressing Russia under the Old Regime, the Mongols were the first real government most parts of Russia ever experienced and provided rulers and citizens alike with a most unfortunate model. It taught the populace that the state “was arbitrary and violent, that it took what it could lay its hands on and have nothing in return, and that one had to obey it because it was strong; it taught the princes that governments collected tribute, maintained order and security, but had little responsibility to its people, and to regard political authority as inherently arbitrary.” And this lesson persisted and made the Russian state a menace to its own people and its neighbours to this day.

The fate of Vladimir was illustrative rather than decisive. But the destruction of city-states by the Mongols, imitated by the tsars as soon as they became independent, and the crushing of the idea as well as the fledgling institutions of political liberty, was a tragedy indeed, for Russia and the world.

It happened today – February 7, 2016

Today was the first day you could land on Boardwalk with a hotel and go bust. I think. Monopoly was evidently copyrighted by Parker Brothers on February 7 but seems first to have been sold on February 6. The details of its origin can be confusing. But one thing is not in doubt. It’s about Henry George.

Huh? You thought I was going to say “You want the Oranges.” And you do. They are apparently the most landed on properties. And since the houses are relatively cheap, they become lethal fast. But it is also true that the game was originally invented to popularize the theories of Henry George. Which are about as useful as Baltic Avenue.

It has of course evolved enormously since the original “The Landlord’s Game” was patented by Henry George follower and militant suffragette Lizzie Magie, who then lived in Maryland although her father was an abolitionist who traveled around with Lincoln while he debated Stephen Douglas. (Yes, really.) She was trying to illustrate the idea, or obsession, of George, a Progressive-era political economist and crank, that a single tax on land would be more efficient and fair than the system where we tax income, sales, property and everything else that twitches or looks as if it might.

Without holding any brief for the current tax system, I must say this idea is about as useful as the Water Works. Land isn’t the only scarce thing and taxing only land would be highly distorted and insufficient. Though ironically Monopoly, the most commercially successful board game in U.S. history, has generated huge sums in tax revenue that would not have materialized had it succeeded in its ostensible purpose. But perhaps I waste my time critiquing “Georgism” or “Single-Tax” because its followers, though vocal to this day, are also as common as people who’ve won the game by owning the purples. Which are now brown. I know not why.

The game has undergone all sorts of refinements over the years, which are described in detail in various Wikipedia entries and elsewhere. The Income Tax used to be $300 apparently and I’d swear when I was a kid Luxury Tax was $75 not $100. (I checked. It was. Also you used to get $45 for sale of stock but I guess people found making change tedious so now it’s $50. That change was brought in in 2008 although oddly in that year due to the fiscal crisis you’d have been more likely to get 50 cents for sale of stock.) There have also been all sorts of variants, from a Canadian version (in the latest edition of which the most exclusive property is Robson Street!) to a Klingon version to Bond, Smurf, Simpsons and Zombie ones. Henry George would faint, or so I hope.

Clarence Darrow apparently really did play a major role in developing the game, although he also apparently swiped the concept from friends of his wife who never spoke to him or her again afterward. But it was one Ruth Hoskins who learned the game in Indianapolis but developed a version based on Atlantic City, where she lived, naming the various properties for streets where her friends happened to reside, thus creating the illusion that there are nice places to live in Atlantic City.

I could go on and on, as the game’s partisans have, for instance telling you that the British Secret Intelligence Service devised a version for POWs held by the Nazis in which were hidden items useful for escaping, which was distributed by fake charities. It’s amazing what has come of this game. And what has not.

Like anybody remembering its connection with Henry George or believing his theories because of it. And if you do, I’ll trade you your Marvin Gardens for my St. Charles.

It happened today – February 6, 2016

On this day in history Charles II was declared King of Scotland in 1649. I’m not really sure why.

I mean, I do realize the Stuarts were a Scottish dynasty and that the Scots had supported his father Charles I. No. Wait. They had opposed him fiercely, going to war against him over his attempt to force Archbishop Laud’s crypto-Catholicism on the Church of Scotland, creating the fiscal crisis that forced Charles I to summon a Parliament that soon was also at war with him.

I also realize that eventually the English too wanted Charles II as king, after suffering through the unstable repression of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. But the English wanted him as a reasonable monarch and after exhausting the alternatives. And while Charles did live up to his commitments, albeit deviously, his brother James II reverted to inept tyrannical Stuart type and the English gave him the royal boot in the Glorious Revolution.

So why were the Scots in such a hurry on Charles II? And why did they cling to the idea that James II had been a gude and legitimate king (and that he’d been James VII) and support first his son James, the “Old Pretender” and alleged James III/VIII for whom they rose up in “the ’15” and then his son “Bonnie Prince Charlie” on whose behalf they rose up again in “the ‘45” that ended so bloodily at Culloden Moor?

I generalize here because clearly many Scots did not support the exiled Stuarts, certainly not to the point of taking up arms for them. But those who did not were generally obliged either to break with family and friends or pretend it was merely a matter of prudence. Somehow this political foolishness became a matter of national pride and national identity.

Yes, I see the romance of lost causes. And yes, I realize Scotland did not have the heritage of liberty under law that England did. Yes, they prized their liberty. But their parliament was a pale shadow of England’s, unable to defy the monarch, and they had no Magna Carta. Still, it all seems so silly and also sad.

They are not the first or last of whom this can be said. But when I look at the Scots’ support for the exiled Stuarts, I am convinced that such men and women deserved a better cause than that which they inexplicably embraced.