Archive for October, 2009

Alternate History novels.

October 31, 2009

Enough of the economics, my interest lies in writing fiction. However I expect I will use some contrarian economics in an alternate world scenario some time. Keep reading for the promise below of some free plot suggestions.

 

I see a lot of alternate history that starts with an event not happening, or turning out in an a-historical way, but what about impulses that try to go against the stream of history?

What about a successful class war in Medieval times? Watt Tyler tried to overthrow a cruel feudal society in 1381, as did many others, so how might their revolutions have turned out?

What if slavery was outlawed by the church in the early 16th Century? (Religious integrity overcoming economic interest.) Would Spain’s empire have foundered? What about all the later plantations in the New World?

What about the technical advances in the 1700s, that could have led to the Industrial Revolution taking off then – steam pumping engines, canal building, dyeing, cotton spinners, and knitting frames, etc? What they lacked in order to start the industrial ball rolling were the social conditions. These, if I recall correctly, were the agricultural advances that enclosed the common farmland and created a large dispossessed workforce, the colonies that supplied cheap raw materials, and the captive markets in those colonies for cheap manufactured goods – especially cotton products.

In my novels I wanted to bring together the ideas of starting an Industrial Revolution in a society not otherwise prepared for it, and that of the interactions between people with outlooks like our own and those of an earlier age. Like Samuel Clements (Mark Twain), who was so fascinated with the idea of juxtaposing our common sense with attitudes frozen in backward societies that he wrote “A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur”, I wanted to explore the interactions between moderns and people of an earlier time.

How would one create a scenario where a static society could be pushed enough to start it moving in a new direction? First, you have to pick a society – and select something that readers are already fascinated with. In our history, between 1650 and 1720, we have all the elements of swashbuckling adventurers (although strictly speaking, the buckler went out in Shakespeare’s time), sailing ships and cannon (seafights and pirates), revolutions and wars (Marlborough and Prince Eugene against Louis XIV’s marshals), and some good diarists (Pepys) to provide the day to day life as background.

This gives rise to my Iskander scenario.

My group of people with modern ideas and knowledge have to be brought into this earlier society, and they have to be persistent enough to overcome the inertia of ideas inimical to the developments they want to introduce. I didn’t see any alternative but to have them arrive together by some vehicle (a starship), and have no means of avoiding the task I set them (they are in an alternate Earth and cannot get back). The starship is just a taxi and becomes a geosynchronous satellite and communications base – I wanted to keep the focus on the realistic aspects. (No whizzing around the stars in space opera, and no funny-face aliens.)

There is a choice between bringing them into our own 17th – 18th Century world or a completely different one. If I chose ours, I need to have them act within already known parameters and events. I felt that limited me to another very English or American colonies what-if, since only a selected few foreign sources have been translated into a language I read. By picking a markedly different alternative world, I could use the culture of the period but set it in other parts of Europe, or even the world.

Early drafts were criticized as having too weak a story tension. These poor local inhabitants with their gunpowder weapons presented no danger to my modern whizz kids. This was before the Iraqis and Afghans demonstrated that the perseverance, doggedness, and outright cussedness of a less technically proficient society could outweigh all that modern technology could bring against them. (One more proof of the old military dictum that the spirit of the soldier is worth more than all the secret weapons imaginable.) Before 2006 I had to counter the impression of technological invincibility by introducing earlier stray starship invaders who arrived 200 years before and conquered the largest empire in the alternate Earth. (The Carthaginian). By the time my people arrive, these other strangers have clamped down an interdict on any technical advance which could upset the status quo of their empire. They thus provide a second and larger obstacle to my group’s success.

Ideas about the Multiverse hold there has to be a historical bifurcation to get into an alternate timeline, and I chose to have the Carthaginians win the Punic Wars. There was no Roman Empire on Gaia, the name of this alternate Earth.

I know there could be some weaknesses in my scenario, but throughout my emphasis has been on creating publishable character driven novels – and their requirement is different than a wargame or sim-type scenario. I propose to suggest possible openings and scenarios for a number of alternate history plots over the next few weeks (just think, some FR** novel plots that I’d like to see but don’t have the time to work on).

And they call them Equities?

October 17, 2009

If you had bought the whole basket of stocks used to provide the Dow Jones Index in 1999 in preparation for your retirement this year it would have cost you $10,000. Guess what? The Dow just clawed its way back to $10,000 this week – you wouldn’t have lost a thing. Except today’s US dollar would buy you 25% less than it would in 1999. Good luck on your retirement.

The dictionary says of the word equity; fairness or impartiality, justness, something that is fair and equitable. Since everyone’s stocks would have lost the same amount of value I suppose one must concede that the stock market is eminently fair and equitable. I’m not so sure I would call it just.

I have stayed away from the stock market for 40 years, because the hit I took in 1969 convinced me that the only source of profits in the market are the losses of the poor suckers whose stocks go down. And the probability was strongly in favour of mine being the ones to go that way. I don’t know horses, but I would expect an equal amount of insight and judgement devoted to following the races as one spends on investigating corporate balance sheets would result in somewhat better returns. At least horses don’t lie, even if their owners might.

Of course, most people put their savings in the hands of experts – mutual funds, hedge funds, real estate income trusts and the like – and sleep soundly at night. The question there is the competence of experts – the economists who advise banks and governments for example. The people who I follow online at the Daily Reckoning have a sound contrarian take on economists, quote –

“Of course, everyone now knows that the recession is over. NABE interviewed 44 economic forecasters. Four-fifths of them said the recession was over.

But we don’t care what they said. These are the same seers who missed the biggest single event in financial history. There are many banking crises, recessions, panics and defaults in the record books. But none were as great as the one that hit September a year ago. Most economists didn’t see it coming; why should we trust them to tell us when it is going?”

The US administration is attempting to shore up the hole in the credit dyke with every last trillion they can borrow (satire intended) – and badgering wiser foreign governments into maintaining the same reckless policy. The problem isn’t a lack of credit – it’s an overwhelming preponderance of debt. People don’t want to borrow and spend – they have already borrowed and spent too much. They are trying to whittle down the debt they’ve already taken on. The only organizations accepting the free credit that the US government is shovelling out the door are the banks, who borrow it for next to nothing and turn around to lend it back to the government as Treasury bonds making a 4% return. Talk about money for old rope. Talk about a swindle.

Goldman Sachs announced a big profit. JPMorgan, the Wall Street firm that was bailed out by the feds a year ago, reported income of $3.6 billion in the 3rd quarter. Isn’t that good? Not if you look where the money came from – the poor sucker who foots the bills, the US taxpayer.

Following the Daily Reckoning again – the current crisis is not a recession, it’s a depression. A recession is a temporary hiccup in the daily flimflam of putting one over on the suckers – it recovers quickly once the markets hit the brakes and then the accelerator and continue with business as usual. But when the problem comes from a systemic failure – like the failure of the credit bubble that has lasted for around thirty years – and no amount of twiddling will get the fuel flowing again, then you’re in a depression.

Everybody’s mother warned them about borrowing when they were in the cradle – or should have. When you borrow, the folks who loaned it expect it back – with interest. If you borrow more than you can pay back you land in the poorhouse with Dickens’ Mr Micawber – “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” The US, both government and society, have been borrowing and spending far beyond their means since, at least, 1973. There can be no recovery until a huge portion of that debt is paid off and the creditors are confident that the rest will follow in due course.

The rest of the world waits with bated breath to see what is going to happen, but some are still betting on the stock market – in this case, not that stocks will go up in value but that they will come down. They are shorting the market, selling stocks that they do not have in the expectation that they will be able to buy them at a lower price by the time the law requires them to hand them over. Is what happens to the sucker who just bought them at the higher price equitable? Is it fair and just? Considering that the market would be a great deal fairer if the law required a more prompt delivery of the stock – but doesn’t – the amount of profit to be made at the sucker’s expense could be limited. Regulate such a thing? Outrageous! How are the financial wizards to keep their profits up and their queue of eager clients increasing? I guess the other fellow’s loss is unimportant if it doesn’t happen to your savings.

If you’re into stocks, the $10,000 Dow is an illusion. It can fall as fast as it did last year. October is a good month for stock market crashes … and waddayaknow, it’s October now.

Meet Gore Vidal – another Contrarian.

October 2, 2009

I picked up a couple of London Times interviews with Gore Vidal this week and have to reproduce some of his comments here to show you what a really intelligent contrarian brings to a discussion. I’ll quote a few things from an earlier interview, from May 18th 2008 – while the presidential election campaign was just gathering steam.

Firstly he speaks about JFK and compares him to Barack Obama. The interviewer is ‘I’.
“I ask if he thinks Obama has a similar charisma to that of John F Kennedy, whom Vidal got to know because he was related to his wife, Jackie.

“I never believed in Jack’s charisma,” Vidal says shortly. JFK, he believes, was “one of our worst presidents”; Bobby, his brother, was “a phoney, a little Torquemada”; and their father, Joseph, was “a crook – should have been in jail”.

So much for Camelot. “But Jack had great charm,” he adds. “So has Obama. He’s better educated than Jack. And he’s been a working senator. Jack never went to the office – he wanted the presidency and his father bought it for him.”

Here, GV is a contrarian from insider knowledge – always the best source upon which to base an opinion. The trick is to find an inside source one can trust. I’m prepared to accept the opinions of the Kennedys on trust, because they are not unique to my reading.

The next excerpt which aligns with the educated opinion from outside the US, is contrarian in that it is the opposite of that expressed by most of the internal US commentators. I particularly like his take on advertising which backs up my own comments in a previous post of mine.
“However, in Vidal’s eyes, McCain is just a symptom of the real malaise affecting America today: the cynical subversion of the US constitution. “The Bush people”, he says, “have virtually got rid of Magna Carta and habeas corpus. In a normal republic I would probably have raised an army and overthrown them. It will take a hundred years to put it all back.”

By now he has worked himself up to a crisp fury: “Those neocons, lawyers, the big corporations – worse than that, extremists – want to get rid of the great power of oversight of the executive. See what they’ll try to do to Obama. They’re crooks. They’re just gangsters. They are the enemy of the United States. There’s no such thing as a war on terrorism. It’s idiotic. There are slogans. It’s advertising, which is the only art form we’ve invented and developed. It’s lies.”

Now to go to the later, September 30th 2009 article.
“Last year he famously switched allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic nomination process for president. Now, he reveals, he regrets his change of heart. How’s Obama doing? “Dreadfully. I was hopeful. He was the most intelligent person we’ve had in that position for a long time. But he’s inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters. He’s acting as if Afghanistan is the magic talisman: solve that and you solve terrorism.” America should leave Afghanistan, he says. “We’ve failed in every other aspect of our effort of conquering the Middle East or whatever you want to call it.” The “War on Terror” was “made up”, Vidal says. “The whole thing was PR, just like ‘weapons of mass destruction’.”

In this next paragraph, note that he speaks of ‘you foreigners’ because the interview is for a British newspaper. Also the reason for the fox hunting metaphor, which I must say doesn’t equate to kindly old men in most British eyes – so the contrarian can be as biased or out of touch as the rest of the world, but then Vidal is 83.
“Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in “a black city” (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama’s intelligence. “But he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star. Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it’s a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative’ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They’re not, they’re fascists.”

One or two more excerpts – just to pull a few more chains.
“Today religious mania has infected the political bloodstream and America has become corrosively isolationist, he says. “Ask an American what they know about Sweden and they’d say ‘They live well but they’re all alcoholics’. In fact a Scandinavian system could have benefitted us many times over.” Instead, America has “no intellectual class” and is “rotting away at a funereal pace. We’ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn’t realize how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is. Benjamin Franklin said that the system would fail because of the corruption of the people and that happened under Bush.”

I guess the contrarian has to be prepared to support unpopular, even hated causes at times. ( I suspect the ‘bought’ below is a typo for brought.)
“Vidal became a supportive correspondent of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. The huge loss of life, indeed McVeigh’s act of mass murder, goes unmentioned by Vidal. “He was a true patriot, a Constitution man,” Vidal claims. “And I was torn, my grandfather [the Democrat Senator Thomas Gore] had bought Oklahoma into the Union.” McVeigh claimed he had done it as a protest against tyrannical government.”

The links to the articles are —

I think that paints a fair picture of a lifelong contrarian, even if Vidal is rather a unique case. It points up the contrast between holding contrarian views and expressing them. I’m sure, if you asked Gore Vidal, whether it is honest and useful to express contrary opinions so forcefully he would reply that such are the bones of a full and complete debate. Does he get away with it? Well, he is 83.