We were eight years in power

I’ve enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for a long while. But I was reticent to spring for a copy of We were eight years in power if it was only going to be reprints of essays that are already available on The Atlantic.

Fortunately, it turned out to be worth it, because TNC’s writing is electrifying, even in the short snippets he writes ahead of each essay, which are worth reading in themselves, and interesting insights into his writing experience. I would recommend this for anyone who enjoys TNC’s writing; but if you’re on the fence, start with Between the world and me.

Quotes (from the essays and his introductions to them)

Symbols don’t just represent reality but can become tools to change it. The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency — that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle– assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries.

I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past, that as sure as the black nationalist dreams of a sublime Africa before the white man’s corruption, so did Thomas Jefferson dream of an idyllic Britain before the Normans, so do all of us dream .of some other time when things were so simple. I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy.

What people anywhere on this earth has ever, out of a strong moral feeling, ceded power?

His advice is beautiful, which is to say it is grounded in the concrete fact of slavery. That was how I wanted to write – with weight and clarity, without sanctimony and homily … Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivational speaking. Art was not sentimental. It had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire not to be enrolled in its lie, not to be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.

Nothing in the record of human history argues for divine morality, and a great deal argues against it. What we know is that good people very often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world. There is no evidence that the score is ever evened in this life or any after … The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.

Ideas like cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption had no meaning for me. The truth was in the everything that came after atheism, after the amorality of the universe is taken not as a problem but as a given. It was then that I was freed from considering my own morality away from the cosmic and the abstract. Life was short, and death undefeated. So I loved hard, since I would not love for long. So I loved directly  and fixed myself to solid things — my wife, my child, my family, health, work, friends.

It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.

… slavery was but the initial crime in a long tradition of crimes, of plunder even, that could be traced into the present day.

For Americans, the hardest part of paying reparations would not be the outlay of money. It would be acknowledging that their most cherished myth was not real.

… all around us there was a machinery meant to verify the myth and validate the illusion. Some black people believed but most of us would look out at the illusion, on a particular day, at a particular angle, in a particular light, and the strings and mirrors would be, if only for an instant, revealed. What I wanted most was to shine an unblinking light on the entire stage, to tell my people with all the authority I could muster that they were right, that they were not crazy, that it really was all a trick.

I don’t ever want to lose sight of how short my time is here. And I don’t ever want to forget that resistance must be its own reward, since resistance, at least within the life span of the resistors, almost always fails. I don’t ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even in the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. If focuses me. After all, I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny. And if tragedy is to be proven wrong, if there really is hope out there, I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of it being proven right. No one — not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods — is coming to save us.

Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.

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Books: American Neolithic and Roadside Picnic

American Neolithic, by Terence Hawkins

I enjoyed American Neolithic a lot. It was an excellent read. It tells the story of Neanderthals, hidden on the fringes of human society until they’re uncovered in an (increasingly plausible) dystopian future. From there, we follow their wise-talking lawyer as he struggles to keep his client (the first Neanderthal to be tried in a human legal system) alive, and his client. Both are touching, relatable characters, and the story draws you in – can they beat the system?

His Neanderthal protagonist in particular is likeable; weaving an idealised story of a caring, gentle group of humanoids who’ve lived in the shadows, compulsively creating beauty and harming no-one. In a way, it feels like a fairy-tale; but not in a bad way.

The reference to a WWII movie to set up the final expose felt a little forced – it could have been done more subtly, or woven in earlier. But for all that, it’s an excellent read. Well worth it.

Quotes

Odd how quickly the Republic crumpled into a police state, or at least a Police State lite. One fine afternoon in May the FBI says it thinks there’s a dirty bomb in a container ship in Long Beach. The next day they don’t find a bomb, but rather a radioactive hotspot on a vessel whose last port of call was Karachi. Which is even worse, they say, because we know there was a bomb but now we don’t know where it is. A mere forty-eight hours of blubbering hysteria later a special session of Congress declares a state of national emergency and the President federalizes the National Guard to kind of help look for it. And while the pesky thing refuses to show up, the general feeling is that we should find room on Rushmore for Bush and Cheney. And, by the way, these constitutional amendments they’re talking about on Fox sure would take the handcuffs off the good guys, wouldn’t they? And streamline government, too! So before you know it there was a forty-state landslide ratifying the Patriot Amendments.

… Sometimes I blamed myself. Maybe if I hadn’t switched stations during NPA pledge drives.

When I started out, a very old lawyer told me that you don’t get to make many really big choices but one was whether you represent the haves or the have-nots.

… history is not what happened; it is what is said to have happened.

… But when it came down to it and I had to choose sides, I picked where I had come from rather than where I’d wanted to go.

Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic is a strange book. I really wanted to like it, mostly because of this review:

Rather, one character hypothesizes, aliens seemed to have zipped carelessly around Earth and strewed it with trash—like roadside picnickers leaving behind wrappers and empty bottles. The scientists, smugglers, and other profiteers so drawn to these alien objects are but ants crawling through the picnic crumbs. Is this a book that makes you contemplate the smallness of humans?

Unfortunately, for all that’s exciting about the metaphor of humans as ants crawling through the crumbs the aliens have left, the actual book felt incoherent and aimless. I pushed through till the last page, in the hope that the ending would make it worth while. Let me save you the trouble, and tell you that it doesn’t.

 

Robert Service’s ‘Lenin’

Lenin is a figure whose mystique has grown so much that it’s hard to know where the antipathy (or in some cases, adulation) stops and the actual history begins.

I’m not a Russian historian, so I’ve only read Robert Service’s Lenin. There are undoubtedly other biographies that handle Lenin’s story differently, in harsher or more positive light. Have you read any? Let me know if you’d recommend one.

From Service’s account though, and it seems well supported as a non-expert, Lenin was a selfish, dishonest person, willing to use people to his own ends, and to change course on a whim without apologising or explaining. He relentlessly shifted his ideological positions to suit his political context, whether it was internal political debates amongst exiles, or when running Russia after seizing power. Despite the vagaries of his life, Service doesn’t paint a picture of someone who experiences self-doubt, even in the midst of momentous decisions that will shape the course of history.

Lenin comes across as unfeeling, uncaring for the suffering of individuals. If he had perhaps built some kind of utopia, it might be an interesting case study in the sacrifices and tradeoffs involved in political change; as it is, he just comes across as callous.

That’s particularly so given the state that he created. There are some, I think, who would like to turn early Russian Communism into a utopia, gone awry in later years; but Service recounts how suppression of the press and ruthless political control (including a secret police) seem to have been integral from the very start. This isn’t a fall from grace, but a continual starting from the bottom.

I found Service’s account of Lenin’s role as a German agent startling, and fascinating. This is a piece of history I’d missed completely, and it was eye-opening. In earlier years, Service recounts, the Russian tsarist secret police used him as a way to tear apart one of the main internal political parties, and their agents actively supported his rise.

One interesting theme that emerged was how much debate there was at the time over the emergence of communism. It’s easy in retrospect for the emergence of a communist state in Russia to seem inevitable, but at the time there was a strong (and widespread, in the relevant circles) belief that agrarian states must become capitalist ones, before socialism could emerge – Lenin leapfrogged that idea, after initially supporting it.

It’s also funny to read the intense internal political debates over points that seem trivial in retrospect – see particularly the quote below, where a short sentence of a slogan becomes a paragraph.

I wanted to read about early twentieth century Russian history, so this was worth it for me. It may be for you too, if you’re looking to learn a bit more about that part of history. Otherwise, though, it’s a little dense for general reading.

What do you think? Would you recommend other biographies or histories on the same period?

Quotes

Lenin had greater passion for destruction than love for the proletariat.

‘The other Russia’, the Russia of barge-haulers, peasants, country priests and factory workers, was unknown to him except through reports from his father or the novels of Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoi.

The Ministry of the Interior under the tsars was nothing like as systematically oppressive as the police force set up by Lenin at the end of 1917.

A less bookish nineteen-year old might have got acquainted with his peasants. But Vladimir’s transformation into a revolutionary came through volumes about the peasantry more than from direct regular experience.

From Marx he had already taken a philosophy of history which stressed that the conventional ideas in society were always framed by the ruling classes in their own interest. Morality was consequently a derivative of class struggle. Every political, social and cultural value had only a ‘relative’ significance. There was no such thing as ‘absolute good’; the only guide to action was the criterion: does it facilitate the more rapid and efficient progress through the necessary stages towards the creation of a communist society?

Vladimir Ulyanov stood out against the rest of the intelligentsia; he would not even condone the formation of famine-relief bodies in order to use them for the spreading of revolutionary propaganda. Virtually alone among the revolutionaries of Samara and indeed the whole empire, he argued that the famine was the product of capitalist industrialisation. His emotional detachment astonished even members of his family.

Thus the famine, according to Ulyanov, ‘played the role of a progressive factor’, and he blankly refused to support the efforts relieve the famine. His hard-heartedness was exceptional.

He ridiculed the possibility that capitalist economic development was avoidable.

There was jubilation despite the information that innocent people had been shot outside the Winter Palace. The point for Lenin was that tsarism stood on the edge of a precipice; the throne of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great was beginning to totter.

Lenin helped to devise a scheme to lay his hands on this legacy by contriving to get two Leninist Bolsheviks, V.K. Taratuta and A.M. Andrikanis, to woo the sisters, marry them and obtain funds for the faction.

The delegates were perplexed by a basic question: if Leninist Bolsheviks agreed with Mensheviks about the importance of legal political activity, why was Lenin still using a megaphone to announce the iniquity of Martov and his fellow Mensheviks? Lenin ducked the question. In truth there was no intellectually respectable answer available.

The Okhrana saw Lenin as a brilliant potential executor of the task demanded by the Emperor: the disintegration of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The enhancement of Lenin’s career was the Okhrana’s confidential priority.

For them, Lenin was the single greatest obstacle to unit among Russian Marxists.

Lenin kept faith in himself because he saw nothing to shake his assumptions. The Russian Empire and the rest of Europe, he thought, were on the brink of Revolution. Another assumption was that social classes, even if they were quiescent for lengthy periods, could quickly rise to the tasks of carrying out Revolution. A third was that it did not matter how small the party of Revolution was before it seized power. The most important thing in Lenin’s eyes was to have a party, however minuscule, of indoctrinated revolutionaries who could spread the word. A fourth assumption was not stated expressly, but indisputably he believed that the cleanest test of a revolutionary was simply whether he or she stuck by Lenin in factional disputes.

The wartime phenomenon of socialist parties supporting their governments became the norm … Only a few parties held to the Socialist International’s policy of active opposition to the war, and Russian parties were prominent among them.

The seeds of strategy for the October Revolution of 1917 were germinating in Switzerland even before the Romanov monarchy’s downfall.

Thus Lenin was trying to foment the ‘European socialist revolution’ with a secret financial allowance from people he publicly denounced as German imperialists … There was much circumstantial evidence that the Bolsheviks were in receipt of money from Berlin …

… Congress agreed to drop the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. After a lengthy debate about slogans, it was decided to replace it with ‘All Power to the Proletariat Supported by the Poorest Peasantry and the Revolutionary Democracy Organised into Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies’

… Lenin indicated that he wanted to introduce the time-and-motion principles of the same American theorist, F. W. Taylor, whom he had once excoriated as an advocate of capitalist interests.

There were turns in the history of Russia and the world that would not have been taken without Lenin. He decisively affected events, institutions, practices and basic attitudes … Not only the October Revolution but also the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the New Economic Policy might not have occurred without his influenced – and the Soviet regime might have quickly disappeared into history’s dustbin.

Books: Dark Money, Foundation, and the Ministry of Fear

Dark Money, by Jane Mayer

I’m no physicist, but my rough understanding is that dark matter is something that has not been directly observed, but which is believed to exert an influence on the things we can observe, and without this hypothesised dark matter, the model doesn’t quite fit.

It’s an apt metaphor for the role of political donations in the political system – not deeply discussed, difficult to observe in detail, but likely to have an impact (if not a significant one).

It seems that a critical moment for Mayer in her research on political donations was writing a profile of David and Charles Koch (they have two other brothers, but when people say ‘the Koch brothers’, they’re typically referring to David and Charles). After an attempted smear campaign against her, Mayer has published an in-depth book on political donations in American politics – and in particular, conservative political donations.

The book is mostly told through the lens of individuals. In particular, Charles and David. She chronicles their childhoods, their growth and subsequent careers as political donors. She touches on some of the other key donors, in particular networks. She also looks at individuals whose lives have been impacted – there are devastating stories of people who have suffered tremendously, employees who didn’t receive compensation, small people on the losing end of the power of the Koch brothers’ companies.

Through tracing these individual stories, Mayer tells the story of how political donations have come to exert a huge influence on the American political system. As a review in the New York Times notes:

The brothers had spent or raised hundreds of millions of dollars to create majorities in their image. They had succeeded. And not merely at the polls: They had helped to finance and organize an interlocking network of think tanks, academic programs and news media outlets that far exceeded anything the liberal opposition could put together.

It is this conservative ascendancy that Jane Mayer chronicles in “Dark Money.” The book is written in straightforward and largely unemotional prose, but it reads as if conceived in quiet anger. Mayer believes that the Koch brothers and a small number of allied plutocrats have essentially hijacked American democracy, using their money not just to compete with their political adversaries, but to drown them out.

It’s an excellent book, based on what must have been years of in-depth research. I’d highly recommend it, as one of the more detailed accounts of how capital can be used to influence academic and media systems, which in turn can influence democratic votes.

The only area where I thought the book might have been improved, was if it had provided a little more big-picture context. Particularly in historical and political economic terms. Historically, it would be fascinating to know how the influence exerted by some of today’s wealthiest donors compares to the wealth and influence of key actors during the gilded age. In turn, that leads to interesting questions of political economy – is this political use of wealth unprecedented? How has it interacted with other parts of the political system previously?

This is an interesting area, that I’ve seen some fascinating work on (research that suggests elite preferences have much more impact on outcomes, and other research suggesting that people may not vote in their own self interest). It would have been interesting to see at least some links there, from Mayer’s in-depth and valuable research, to a broader conceptual framework.

But it’s worth quoting here a statement (not by Mayer) that Mayer thought was worth including in her book:

The system is controlled by a handful of ultra-wealthy people, most of whom got rich from the system and who will get rich from the system.

Mayer is very careful throughout to allow that the donors may genuinely believe in all the ideas that they’re financing, regardless of what they stand to gain. But it’s important to note, as she does, that:

… it was impossible not to notice that the political policies they embraced benefited their own bottom lines first and foremost.

It’s also interesting with these types of books (written by journalists about very wealthy individuals – for example Virtual MurdochMurdoch’s Pirates and McKnight’s Rupert Murdoch). For example, Mayer carefully words this quote with a qualifier:

” … a lot of people got sick, and there were more birth defects in Saltville than in other parts of the state,” she asserts, although there has been no study proving this or establishing any causal correlation.

But for all those minor flaws, this is an excellent read. Well worth it.

UPDATE: Just a quick note, that given the context that Mayer’s book provides, this article at Vox by Andrew Prokop is an interesting read: The GOP can’t quit Obamacare because of their donors. It’s an interesting read.

Quotes

In his telling, he was almost feverishly bent on finding some overarching system of political theory to bridge his father’s emotional anti-Communism with his own more analytical approach to the world. He also wanted to merge his thinking about business and his interests in engineering and mathematics. “I spent the next two years almost like a hermit, surrounded by books,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 1997. Visitors to his apartment recall him littering almost every surface with abstruse economic and political texts. He later explained that having learned that “there are certain laws that govern the natural world,” he was trying to discover “if the same isn’t true for the societal world.” …

The conservative publication omitted Hayek’s politically inconvenient support for a minimum standard of living for the poor, environmental and workplace safety regulations, and price controls to prevent monopolies from taking undue profits …

In order to alter the direction of America, they realized they would have to “influence the areas where policy ideas percolate from: academia and think tanks.” …

A consequence [of charitable trusts], however, was that the tax code turned many extraordinarily wealth families, intent upon preserving their fortunes, into major forces in America’s civic sector …

Called “The Structure of Social Change,” it approached the manufacture of political change like any other product. As Fink later described it in a talk, it laid outa  three-phase takeover of American politics. The first phase required an “investment” in intellectuals whose ideas would serve as the “raw products.” The second required an investment in think tanks that would turn the ideas into marketable policies. And the third phase required the subsidization of “citizens” groups that would, along with “special interests,” pressure elected officials to implement the policies. It was in essence a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled, and switched on …

And if there was one test of its members’ concentrated financial power over the machinery of American democracy, it was this minority’s ability to stave off government action on climate change as science and the rest of the world were moving in the opposite direction … For most of the world’s population the costs of inaction on climate change were far greater than those of action. But for the fossil fuel industry, as Mann put it, “it’s like the switch from whale oil in the nineteenth century. They’re fighting to maintain the status quo, no matter how dumb.” …

But an effort by the congressman’s staff to reach the angry constituents revealed that the letters were forgeries, sent on behalf of a coal industry trade group by Bonner and Associates, a Washington-based public relations firm …

A political minority, responding to the interests of its extreme sponsors, had succeeded in rendering the most powerful democracy in the world dysfunctional …

It was one more indication that an invisible wealth primary was shaping the discourse and the field long before the rest of the country had the chance to vote …

 

Mayer also examines the progressive side of politics, noting both the presence of political donors, but she is also willing to draw contrasts, rather than falling into false equivalence bias. One progressive operative recounts:

“I remember meeting at a restaurant in California with some of the major Democratic operatives and funders, Margery Tabankin, Stanley Sheinbaum and Gary David Goldberg. I was telling them that they needed to figure out a way to fund books on the left. But books aren’t sexy. They weren’t interested. They didn’t think that in the political culture it mattered. The Democrats were hostage to star personalities and electoral politics.” …

That year, the Clintons were in the headlines for campaign-finance scandals ranging from virtually renting the Lincoln Bedroom to big donors to taking contributions from a dubious Democratic bundler who later pleaded guilty to raising some of the money from China.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

It’s been so many years since I read some of the Foundation series that I can’t remember which ones I read, or whether I’d read the original novel.

Foundation tells the story of a collapsing empire, and psychologist (Hari Seldon), able to predict its collapse through the laws of psychology. In an attempt to shorten the period of disarray that will ensure (from thirty-thousand to just a thousand years), he sets in motion his own plans.

The approach felt in some ways reminiscent to Cixin Li’s Three Body Problem. In each, the driving force isn’t really the characters or their motivations, but the unfolding of a set of fascinating science fiction questions.

In Asimov’s, this is handled by having the story tell three separate points in time, each a stage where Hari Seldon’s carefully planned society must defeat external or internal threats to survive. Asimov’s writing and handling felt better than Li’s – more depth, and a little more believability to the characters. Well worth a read, if you enjoy sci-fi.

The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

The Ministry of Fear tells the story of Arthur Rowe, a man with a deep sense of pity – so intense that he struggles with others’ suffering. When we first encounter Arthur he is visiting a church fete, a welcome relief from the gloom of London during the Blitz. It’s there that he accidentally receives the cake that sets of a series of surreal and bizarre chases.

The style is so surrealist that at points I wondered if Greene had decided to forgo a coherent plot as part of a broader theme, but the different pieces are explained in a coherent way in the last third of the novel. I won’t say more here [SPOILER ALERT – you can read more on the plot below]. 

What makes the novel excellent is Greene’s beautiful writing, which can make even a lazy Sunday church fete feel poignant, or transform a set of bombed out Blitz ruins into something far more significant.

Throughout, he has a very surreal atmosphere, which only recedes in the last third of the novel. He also toys with the question of pity and cruelty – what does pity drive us to do, and what does it mean for our humanity? It’s well worth a read if you enjoy Greene, although it’s not quite as good as his best stuff.

[SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE]

The plot that emerges clearly in the last third of the novel is that Rowe has stumbled onto a German intelligence attempt to get classified information out of the UK. In searching for more information, he goes through a bizarre sequence of events including being framed for a murder at a seance, surviving two bomb blasts (one dropped, the other planted), trying to cash a cheque from a widower during the funeral, and ending up in an asylum after losing his memory.

Throughout, we learn that Rowe’s sense of pity is so intense that he murdered his wife, who suffered from a painful, incurable disease. This hangs over Rowe, and Greene returns to it throughout the novel.

In the final scenes, Rowe is told that he is a murder, bringing that weight back into his life after the amnesia had lifted it from him. His parter-to-be is desperate that he not know, and so he sets out to deceive her for a lifetime; while she will carry the secret that she thinks he has forgotten.

Quotes

That attempt failed. A bomb that hit your house destroyed the cake and everything – and probably saved your life. But they didn’t like the way you followed the case up. They tried to frighten you into hiding – but for some reason that was not enough. Of course they meant to blow you to pieces, but when they found out you’d lost your memory, that was good enough …

He was bewildered: he didn’t know what to do. He was learning the lesson most people learn very young, that things never work out in the expected way. This wasn’t an exciting adventure, and he wasn’t a hero, and it was even possible that this was not a tragedy …

It was a Ministry as large as life to which all who loved belonged. If one loved one feared … He was pledging both of them to a lifetime of lies, but only he knew that … They sat for a long while without moving and without speaking; they were on the edge of their ordeal, like two explorers who see at last from the summit of the range the enormous dangerous plain. They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much. They would never know what it was not to be afraid of being found out.

Virtual Murdoch by Neil Chenoweth

Neil Chenoweth is one of the better Murdoch biographers out there. In part, that’s because he’s an excellent business journalist. Rather than trying to create a picture of a character, he hones in on the deals that have made Murdoch: mergers, acquisitions, and the like.

His book on a particular News Corp subsidiary, Murdoch’s Pirates, was at times overly complex and slightly baffling (to be fair, it’s a difficult topic). Virtual Murdoch is a similarly complex piece, in that it tracks Murdoch’s career from its very start until publication at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps because Murdoch as central character gives it something to hang from, the book feels a little more tightly knitted than Murdoch’s Pirates; it follows each stage of the deals and gambles (and Chenoweth very much presents them as gambles) that Murdoch has undertaken throughout his career.

In on instance, he outlines the leveraging the Murdoch was able to use to acquire an asset without losing equity control:

In 1985, under the US accounting standards News Corp had net assets of $166 million, which suggested Murdoch could only borrow about $175 million. He was raising new debt of $2.7 billion, fifteen times more than the banks’ lending limit allowed him. It was enough to induce cardiac failure in even his most hardened bankers. The only way that Murdoch could borrow more money was to increase his net assets, or shareholders’ equity. The easiest way to do this was to raise capital by issuing stock, as Turner eventually did with the cable companies. But it cost Turner control of his company. Murdoch was never going to allow that to happen.

Murdoch had two ways of getting around this bothersome lending restriction. First, his finance director Richard Sarazen argued that News Corps’ newspapers were worth far more than the modest values assigned to them in the group’s balance sheet. And to prove this point, he kept revaluing them … Between 1984 and 1987, Sarazen wrote up the mastheads of the group’s newspapers by $1.5 billion …

The revaluations solved half the debt-raising problem. Arthur Siskind and the legal team at Squadron Ellenoff solved the other half of the problem. Murdoch needed to raise $1.15 billion in junk money from Michael Milken to buy Metromedia. It was, as Siskind later told American Lawyer, ‘an extraordinarily complicated and very unusual financing’. Siskind’s twist was that instead of treating the loans as junk bonds, News would call it preferred stock. While in essence this would be a $1.15 billion loan, it would appear on the News Corp balance sheet as a stock issue. Because it was called a stock issue, it would be treated like an asset.

Later, Chenoweth summarises quite neatly a set of causally linked crises that he’s described:

Murdoch had never been able to afford his great move in 1985-86 to buy Twentieth Century Fox, the Metromedia television stations and to launch the Fox network. To pay for it, he moved his British newspapers to Wapping and triggered a year of violent industrial confrontation. The Wapping success produced a new debt problem that he tried to solve by taking over the Australian newspaper industry. When that plan went wrong he had been forced into a deal that left a crippling debt in a family company. Then, in the deals after Black Monday 1987, Murdoch flipped the problem back to News Corp. Cruden’s loan problem was now once again News Corporation’s lurking debt crisis.

Then documents some fascinating patterns in corporate accounts:

David DeVoe celebrated News Corp’s escape from the debt crisis with the accounting equivalent of a barrel roll. Sarazen had produced his party trick once in the News Corp accounts each year. DeVoe did it three times in the same set of accounts. Profit before abnormal items came in at $A391.391 million. Minority interests of $A70.070 million were subtracted to give a profit of $A321.321. The odds against three numbers repeating themselves like this were more than 100 million to one.

There’s a lot more in the book that’s worth reading, if you’re interested in media economics and finance. It is of course hard to know how seriously to take Chenoweth’s Kremlinology, given that he relies very much on secondary sources; but it’s an interesting read, and has experience at the AFR that gives him some credibility.

Oh, and if you’re interested in reading about the infamous ‘poison pill’, this is one of the better explainers I’ve found.

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is an interesting writer, and one of my favourites. God Bless You, Mr Rosewater is perhaps the most determinedly socialistic of his pieces I’ve read. It was published only a few years after Harrison Bergeron, a short story by Vonnegut which takes a very different approach to questions of distributive justice.

The story follows a wealthy princeling, who is perceived by his father as insane when he tries to give away everything he owns, loving each and every person in Rosewater county. There are some lovely passages that contrast the Senator’s desire for love that is unique to him, from his son, with his son’s love for each and every human, no matter how hopeless they are.

There are also some lovely passages where Vonnegut reflects on distributive justice; again, in a very different way than in Harrison Bergeron.

Overall, this is well worth a read.

Quotes

The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it- and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently …

We’re born close enough to the river drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But still we hire the experts to teach use the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw …

“It’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own.”

“Sure-provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is. ‘Go where the rich and the powerful are’, I’d tell him, ‘and learn their ways. They can be flattered and they can be scared. Please them enormously or scare them enormously, and one moonless night they will put their fingers to their lips, warning you not to make a sound. And they will lead you through the dark to the widest, deepest river of wealth ever known to man. You’ll be shown your place on the riverbank, and handed a bucket all your own. Slurp as much as you want, but try to keep the racket of your slurping down. A poor man might hear.”

“You’re the man who stands on a street corner with a roll of toilet paper, and written on each square are the words, ‘I love you’. And each passer-by, no matter who, gets a square all his or her own. I don’t want my square of toilet paper.” “I didn’t realize it was toilet paper.”

Money is dehydrated Utopia.