Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Road from Morocco

Successful generals are rarely specialists. More often they are well-read, well-rounded polymaths. More than a few are good writers of history. Julius Caesar set the pattern with Conquest of Gaul and Civil War. American generals have been fond of the pen, too. Sherman’s memoirs are the best of this type for my money. Though he is still reviled in parts of the country for his methods in the Civil War, his writings are succinct, intelligent, and insightful. Sherman also knew that historical writing is a battlefield as bitter, if not so bloody, as Chattanooga, so he preempted critics in his introduction by reminding the reader that three people watching the same brawl in a tavern will give three separate versions of events afterward.

Recently I picked out Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower which had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time. It covers his experiences from the invasion of Morocco and Algeria in 1942 until the German surrender to the Allies three years later. The tone, like that of Ike’s public personality (which, somewhat scarily, I remember), is uncomplicated, unassuming, and competent. Yet, the reader (like a careful listener of his speeches) senses somehow that this is a cover for a clever and ambitious mind. Such, by the way, was Nixon’s sense of the man, too, and Nixon surely knew a complex, crafty, ambitious person when he met one. An example is the way Eisenhower handled George Patton, who was full of bluster but actually (Ike’s term) “soft-hearted.” Patton at one meeting demanded that dozens of senior officers be fired for cowardice. Eisenhower calmly agreed if Patton would submit the list of names in writing; Patton, who hadn’t expected Eisenhower to agree, sheepishly withdrew the demand.

Published in 1948, Crusade was written with one eye on the White House, and it shows. As a demonstration of the author’s fitness for command, it is fine campaign material.

The memoir tradition is alive and well. Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks both wrote about their campaigns in Iraq. These also are worth a read, but both lack significant commentary on the aftermath, omissions which are, under the circumstances, painful.

The U.S. has elected a fair number of Presidents who first made their name in the military. Yet, Eisenhower was the last, and he left office half a century ago. There have been medal-earning vets to be sure, including JFK and Bush senior, but there has been no one first known primarily as a military leader. Perhaps this is because decisive victories have been a bit sparse since 1945. There have been many successful operations, but the larger results have been murkier or remain yet unsettled.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Economic Ape

In the past year, so many things went wrong with the economy at once that economic theory itself has been shaken. After all, most leading economists were caught completely off-guard by the scale of the melt-down. True, there were a few doomsayers here and there who had predicted a collapse of asset values, but nearly all of them were habitual doomsayers from way back. They were bound to be right eventually. The mainstream theorists were astonished.

Are the very foundations of modern economic theory flawed? Well, yes, in spots. One of the weak spots is the notion of Economic Man, the economist’s ideal person who always seeks out maximum economic gain. As an approximation of human behavior, it is close enough to the truth to make economic models possible that are broadly valid most of the time, but “close enough” isn’t terribly close. For the purpose of predicting the behavior of individuals rather than groups, it isn’t close at all. Many individuals forgo profits and accept losses because of non-economic values. He or she may turn down a better-paying job, for example, for a more enjoyable one, or may make the extremely non-economic decision to raise children. Another deviation from Economic Man – one with obvious political consequences – derives from the human sense of fairness. What is "fair" is open to interpretation, of course.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA reported results on a variation of what is sometimes called an Ultimatum Game. The game allowed one player to choose how to split $15 with a second player. The second person was free to reject the offer, but in that case neither party got anything – no further negotiations allowed. The economically rational act for the second person in this case is always to accept any offer, even $1, since something is always better than nothing. Instead, in this study as in others, lopsided offers typically were rejected. Offers under $3 always were rejected, despite the personal cost, in order to punish the first player’s greed.

Is a “fairness” sense just a human thing? Apparently not. Other animals sometimes are visibly annoyed by lopsided rewards. However, they don’t necessarily resort to the same sort of self-harmful retribution. Dr. Hauser, in a study published in Current Biology, describes an Ultimatum Game played by chimpanzees. Hauser devised an elaborate mechanism with trays, ropes, and treats. A pair of chimpanzees had to co-operate to work the mechanism in order to retrieve treats, but the first chimp could choose how to split the loot. If the second didn’t like the split, he could stop co-operating, in which case the first chimp wouldn’t get anything. Oddly, this never happened. The first chimp always took the biggest share of treats for himself that the mechanism allowed, and the second always co-operated rather than punish the other ape’s greed at the cost of forgoing a meager treat for himself. In other words, the apes behaved with pure economic rationality, perfectly in synch with the Economic Man model. Something about this is unsettling.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why I Love Morticia Addams

I refer to the Carolyn Jones version rather than the Angelica Huston. I could say simply that she is beautiful, feminine, unconventional, passionate, and open-minded -- she once urged tolerance of the neighbors despite their ghastly taste for petunias. She possesses that special way with carnivorous plants. What’s not to love? But there is more.

TV in the 50s and early 60s was more innovative than we commonly remember – perhaps because few of us are old enough to remember. Playhouse 90 and similar programs offered new original screenplays with no recurring characters every week. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and the Twilight Zone still hold up if seen today. The comedy show of Ernie Kovacs was truly off-the-wall. However, the sitcom genre was another matter. It was family-friendly with a vengeance: Donna Reed, Leave It to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, Ozzie and Harriet, and the like. There was and is nothing wrong with shows of this type, of course, except for the fact that these were the only images of domesticity presented in that format prior to 1964.

The Addams Family, based on the macabre cartoons of Charles Addams, was something different. It was marvelously subversive. The show very much reflected the 60s social revolution in a way that its obvious competition, The Munsters, did not. (Beneath the make-up and d├ęcor, the Munsters had solidly Ozzie and Harriet values.)

I loved the very first episode of The Addams Family, which aired on September 18, 1964, and at age eleven I also was smitten by the seductive lady in black. The Addams Family stood ordinary conventions on their heads, as in one early episode when Morticia finds a baseball glove in her son’s closet and holds it up at arm’s length by two fingers, as appalled as another mother might be by drug paraphernalia. The characters are not merely oddballs, they are seriously dangerous. They serve their guests henbane tea. They casually contemplate murder and suicide. Their children literally play with dynamite. The sensual interaction of Morticia and Gomez was then, and remains today, something unseen among other sitcom couples; modern shows have much more randy jokes and frequent direct references to sex, but that is very far from the same thing. The Addams household defies (along with all social norms) property maintenance regulations, zoning regulations, weapons regulations, safety regulations, and just about every other kind of busybody reg to which the rest of us long have been resigned.

The family remains likable for all that, even if it is advisable to decline the offer of tea when you visit. Here were some folks who definitely did not live by the standards of the Cleavers, and yet they were deeply appealing. They still are, and the point is still a valuable one.

I purchased all four seasons of the series on DVD. I enjoy each episode as much as when I was eleven, and my crush on the long haired beauty with the lovely gray pallor remains unbroken.