A Modest Proposal, Finally

“In 2003, the San Antonio Symphony was again plagued with financial difficulties and canceled the last few concerts of the season. The Symphony declared bankruptcy, and the board of directors spent the 2003-2004 season reworking the Symphony’s business plan” Yes, that was nearly twenty years ago. It resides in memory because, as some of you may recall, another unwelcome viral guest, the known principally by its acronym SARS (but today, more accurately called SARS-Covid) had made its appearance in 2002. I’m not going to say that people didn’t take it terribly seriously, at least here, but I had friends in the orchestra who were accustomed to making dubious jokes about its spread among section plays of a certain ancestry. No, Trump did not invent “Wu flu,” although its consequences, plainly, have demonstrated what happens when you stupidly politicize a public health issue. We hadn’t quite advanced to that stage of political ignominy yet in the United States. Yet.

I can’t remember if SARS had much to do with the financial problems of the Symphony back then, although the Symphony had already enjoyed a history of financial problems. I was, however, a lot more involved, because I was then the parent of two aspiring musicians, both of whom ended up studying with symphony players. One of them, my daughter Rosie, is now a freelance classical bassist living in Berlin. So, in a manner of speaking, I came by interest in the Symphony’s finances honestly. A lot of the players were frustrated, and my daughter’s teacher, a brilliant player from Curtis, was actively involved in the negotiations. He was not happy. It was already becoming apparent that classical music in the United States was in for a rough ride, and that, perhaps, there were questions as to whether or not what was then regarded as a quintessentially white, European art form had much future in a part of the country where the emerging majority, may or may not have been called white, but their roots were in Latin America, not Europe.

I remember being really frustrated, not to say irritated by the discussion, because after living in Mexico and spending significant time in Latin America, I really hadn’t noticed that “classical” music had no audience. Actually, in Mexico, it seemed to be quite the contrary, and while it certainly wasn’t popular music, well, the Boss Jocks at WFIL 56 didn’t exactly spin Rachmaninoff to an eager audience either. So, you figured, why would it be that people in San Antonio or the Southwest wouldn’t support symphonies? Other than quoting Oprah Winfrey about blacks not liking classical music–I’ll let the irony sink in once more about generic people of color in America–nobody could give me much of an answer. “Ah, it’s a working class town,” some savant cautioned me. Well, sorry, but I came from a working class family in Philadelphia that listened not only to jazz and pop, but to opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra too. I won’t say that Eugene Ormandy was a household deity or anything, but I don’t think we were exactly unique in regarding him as part of the panoply of civic institutions. So, long story short, my reaction was “this discussion is ignorant, patronizing and misleading at best.” At worst, it was vaguely racist, and I don’t throw that term around lightly.

So, well and surely ticked off, I wrote a piece whose intent was satirical. It was to suggest that San Antonio, by virtue of its proximity to Mexico, was remarkably well positioned to support a symphony orchestra if only the city leaders exercised a little imagination.

Welp, I sent it everywhere I could think of here, including the underground press. No one would touch it. I sent it to Nexos in Mexico thinking it might give someone a laugh. Nada. Now people who read it were really complimentary, it circulated among some of the orchestra people, and yeah, a couple thought it was hilarious. It was intended to be funny, but I guess no one got the joke. There were no blogs in 2003. You couldn’t inflict your half-baked ideas and crummy prose on some captive audience, much less a volunteer one. So, alas, you put such ephemera aside, chalking their production up to experience. Teechur writers, as Gore Vidal called us, get accustomed to rejection pretty quickly anyway. Or you don’t last.

In any event, now that I am retired, and having stumbled across of a copy of the text of the piece, I figured, “Hey, why not?” I’m not touching a word of it, and I’m going to make sure that my colleagues in Mexico get to read it. It proves that we are dos paises nunca distantes. Or something like that. You can download it here.

Downa Shore

You knew this was coming. No Philly city-kid life in the 1950s and 1960s could possibly be complete without it. You were inevitably part of the great chain of land-breathing creatures whose ancestors emerged from the cheap seats on Big Ships. And as soon as they could possibly afford to, they went back to the sandy fringe of the Jersey shore (Jersey, dammit, not Maryland) to sleep on damp sheets, get basted in greasy crap called Coppertone (“Tan don’t burn, get a Coppertone tan”), lay on the beach, get sunburned (Coppertone, surprise, didn’t work), dig holes in the sand (until other amusements drew your attention–more anon), get tossed around in the waves, eat hot dogs for lunch, collect seashells, see your parents half naked, and then go back to whatever mildewed bed-sit for an outdoor shower, some mystery dinner, and then an evening stroll on the Boardwalk. Stuff happened there: food, fun, the occasional movie, lots of people watching. Then back “home” rinse, sleep, repeat, only to start another day. If your family was hip (mine wasn’t), maybe a morning bike ride. If you were lucky, sunshine. If none of the above, rain, comic books, boredom, and the drone of the AM radio stations that excitingly drifted in from Long Island, or even, at night, some place called Canada. If you were working class, you maybe got a week. If you were fortunate, maybe two. And then there were those few, construction-money scented , indeed, blessed beings who had a place downa Shore for the Summer. Like as in June through August. Damn: Memorial Day through Labor Day. I knew one or two of them after we moved to the verdant suburb of Penn Wynne in 1960. But never before. Hell, you got a week and thanked God for it. We always went to Ocean City (New Jersey, NOT Maryland), but a lot of the South Philly contingent hit one of the flavors of Wildwood, Ventnor, or Margate. Almost never Cape May, except for one memorable summer to which I will return. A lot of firsts generally happened downa shore. They mostly had to do with rituals of childhood and adolescence. Be patient, and I’ll cop to a few.

Now be aware that there are many possible narratives, all necessarily age-adjusted. I’m gonna be conflating about 18 years of them. So don’t get confused. And pay attention, lest you think I was chugging Schmidts while still in diapers. Actually, it was Valley Forge (raw Schmidt’s), and that had to wait until 1967 when I was sixteen and a hotshot.

Getting downa shore before the Atlantic City Expressway (1964) generally entailed a romp through backwoods South Jersey, the Pine Barrens included. You took the Ben Franklin Bridge (before 1957) and then the Walt Whitman, which avoided lovely Camden, but included any number of motels out of Psycho (all since gone, I’m sure) along the Back Horse Parkway. As a bonus, you got to stop to take a leak in Cecil. These little garden spots had local constabularies whose agents would gleefully stop you (or my Dad), as well as the odd service station that specialized in fixing some mysterious ailment called vapor lock that I’m sure was induced by stifling heat, too much traffic, and the Jersey Devil. It was rural then, dotted with little amusement spots (See Little Mexico. We never did) and fruit and vegetable stands. At some point, as you escaped the Pine Barrens and their weird denizens, known as Pineys (you could’ve made Deliverance there), the soil started to change and the air perceptibly cooled. Maybe around Absecon, you’d start to smell decaying marine life, which was not exactly the same as the sea. I remember the great relief that greeted Somer’s Point and the Causeway across Egg Harbor Bay (Little Egg Harbor, I think), “are we there yet” no longer ticked off your parents. Cause you were there.

I should mention in passing that I think Ocean City was founded by Methodists, and the town was dry. That sort of made Somer’s Point a kind of Subic Bay fleshpot, with lots of booze stores (“Package Goods”), road houses, like Bayshores, the Dunes, Tony Mart’s, which were off limits to respectable people, but always jumping with college kids and other dissipated types by night. I was too young then, but, eventually, like the song says, I found out. A nice Catholic girl who had driven down to Ocean City with me and a few friends years later cheerfully announced “Here’s where we leave our morals.” I wouldn’t have known, at least then.

We usually settled into some dank rental, inevitably going out to the ACME to stock up on exactly the same stuff we ate back home. Exciting, right? But then, if you were lucky, you went down to the sea in your father’s old Hudson or Buick. You had to find a place to park because you never could afford to be near the beach. But you could now see it, and then hear it: The Sea! As we got a little more affluent, my parents stayed in a place called the Garden District–which I take it is wildly unaffordable now, but was still modest then. By then I was learning trumpet, and the landlord, a sax player, would drop by, critique and even jam some. But, again, this is getting ahead of ourselves.

Going to the beach as a little kid was always wild. You got to see your parents half undressed (and my Dad’s ulcer surgery scar, that really freaked me out), you ate sandy hot dogs, you avoided the water for at least an hour after eating (“cramps”–what kind of cramps you gonna get standing in water no higher than your knees?) and worked at excavating, shell collecting, and intermittent runs into the ocean under the watchful eye of your Mom (my Dad just wanted to sleep, poor guy) and some impossibly blonde lifeguard, sort of a Jersey Beach Boy type. Normally, there wasn’t much excitement, unless the surf was rough, or some idiot overestimated his (always his) swimming ability. At which point all Hell would break lose and the somnolent white boys on the stand turned into quasi-Olympians paddling out to get said idiot out of trouble. I never saw anyone drown, but there were a few close calls, and that was enough. Even when I took to body surfing, I made sure to know where the cross currents were. A few abrasions, unwanted doses of sea water. For the most part, it was tame. We’d loiter until the tide came in, and then back to the chateau. An outdoor shower awaited you, usually cold as Hell, and then a chance to clean up. Mostly, then, you went up to the Boardwalk for dinner, although I do remember a sit down restaurant once or twice over the years.

Ocean City opened my palate. I learned to eat pizza at Mack and Manco (it was Mack and Manco then, see) which had just opened. In fact, I think 1957 was a kind of breakthrough year. I ate pizza, saw The Curse of the Demon (which scared me half to death–I still can’t watch the damn thing), and learned the words to Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod” which was like a summer version of White Christmas-dawn to dusk. My Dad, God love him, would indulge me in all sorts of arcade games on the Boardwalk, but sometimes we’d just walk en famille and watch the phosphorescent waves crash up again the pilings by Fisherman’s Pier. Look, I’m sure the normal tensions of family life had some tendency to get magnified under close quarters for a week, but the release from routine, work, “the pain in the ass innocent bystanders” who populated your life, obviously compensated for my parents. And I got to eat salt water taffy.

I inevitably enjoyed myself.

One year, 1961, we did go to Wildwood Crest to stay at a property a great uncle had rented for the summer. That was really memorable because, for the first time, a kid saw the outside world intrude on fantasyland. For one thing, we went to the beach in Cape May, and I got to see the harbor defenses and the bunker that had gone up to protect the coast during World War 2, which still wasn’t twenty years in the past. I asked my Dad a lot of dumb questions, and I recall he told me that he thought a German U Boat had gotten into the Delaware Bay, which just around the other side of the point. As if that wasn’t enough, I distinctly recall Jack Kennedy making an address about Berlin. Well, I wasn’t wrong. That was July 25, 1961. And man, he scared the Hell out of me. He made it very clear that a lot of young men might find themselves in harm’s way if worse came to worse. Do remember we had a draft. I may have only been 10, but virtually every male member in my immediate family was a veteran of World War II, some wounded and decorated multiple times. My Dad and I watched the speech in complete silence, along with a couple of friends of my cousin, who were definitely draft age. They exited immediately afterward, I guess to get a stiff drink. I asked my Dad if there was going to be a war. “Let’s hope not, Rich. Let’s hope not.”


I can see all of it, the furniture, the cottage, the black and white tv, and a grim-faced Jack Kennedy. And an equally grim-faced Dad. The holiday was over for that year. We went home soon after. I thought about that night a lot for the rest of the summer.. In October, the Russians set off an ostensible 100 megaton bomb in some God-forsaken part of Siberia. The Summers were warm and memorable, but the winters, man, they were cold, dark and long. You had to go downa shore to stand them. Or, at least, I did.

More to come in my next post.

The Ides of Texas Are Upon You (Sorry)

Full Disclosure: don’t submit this for serious publication anywhere, even in your local newspaper. These are all back of envelope calculation. The numbers are pretty crude and I haven’t revisited their sources. This is just more a kind of Saturday in Summer WTF meditation. Read at your own risk.

Ok. When I last checked, I figured that “defense spending” accounted for about 5 percent of Texas’ state product (just as a ratio). If we guessed a reasonable fiscal multiplier of 2, we might get this all the way up to 10 percent. That’s a pretty big number, given that the state product of Texas is around 1.7 trillion dollars (around 10 percent of US GDP, roughly, which is huge). Now, Texas’ “exports” are about 17 percent of Texas’ state product, and a third of them go to Mexico. So, we’re talking, what, 5 or 6 percent as a ratio, or more or less what defense spending adds up to. Again, very crudely, figure a similar multiplier. So, at a first pass, defense spending and exports to Mexico might account for 20 percent of income (production) in Texas. Again, that’s a lot.

Now here’s the thing, Texans are reputed to hate government. Hell, “government overreach” is nearly a four-letter word. And, believe me, so is Mexico (six, actually). To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so many owed so much to so little–especially to so little little they have so little regard for. An outsider (believe me, you can live in Texas for 30 years and still be an outsider) might be forgiven for thinking the locals are a little confused. And that’s being kind. An outsider from the evil Northeast (waving my hand) may be thinking there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the Lone Star State. We love the sin, but we hate the sinner. Not very Christian, is it?

In any event, there are bigger fish to fry. Texas, you may have noticed, is a red state. As in Trump Red State. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I had the impression that Donald Trump really didn’t understand (among other things) economic theory. Trump was one of the exports good, imports bad guys. A mercantilist, in other words. Now, that’s ok. The left of the Democratic party, which professed to detest Trump, has it’s share of mercantilists too. I never could quite understand why they and The Donald couldn’t get along. Except, apparently, in Texas, where the “natural” Democratic constituency of Hispanics, Latinos, whatever in South Texas, is called the Red Wave by some. It is, justifiably, considered a big problem. What’s wrong with these people. Don’t they know that “people of color” have this mystical abstract almost Louis Hartzian love of Liberalism? Ha. Tell them. They–imagine–may well keep Texas from turning Blue. Traitors. Why aren’t Texas Hispanics naturally Democrats? Funny you should ask.

When I worked for Barack Obama, I made a lot of phone calls. Because I will talk to anyone in almost any language I have a chance of speaking, I made a lot of calls to people of the Spanish-speak. Urging them to vote for my man Barack. Sure enough, some were sympathetic and pledged their vote. But, would you believe, some of these people had their own ideas about politics, and their vote wasn’t necessarily going to El Negrito. Oh, my. You never heard that phrase? That was Texas-Latino talk for Obama. I bet you can figure out what it meant. If not, call me. I’ll straighten you out.

That was my first inkling that those people down there along the border weren’t necessarily Democrats, People of Color they might be. Oh my. Republican Mexicans in the Valley. Nobody told the DNC about these people. Especially the people in Texas–with names like Castro or Cisneros–whom you would’ve expected to raise the alarm. No. They had careers to make, didn’t they?

Meanwhile, I watched, awestruck, as another Negrita went to Central America the other day to tell our brothers in Honduras, Guatemala, Salvador, who knows, “Don’t Come.” Except this wasn’t any negrita. This was the Vice-President of the United States. Was iot the right message? Of course it was. Was she the right messenger? Dude, unless your head is stuck in Wilmington or Delco, God forbid no. Imagine the GOP spots in 2022 with Mamala telling the bros “Go home.” That’s just brilliant isn’t it? And even if the people in the Valley are secretly in agreement, well, they can cluck and say “Those white Democrats aren’t our people.” Right. As if some Republican is? Never mind. We’re talking politics, not logic. And on this one, Biden screwed up big time. Really big time. And if you’re one of the people who has the ear of an ear of an ear, you might want to say something. Like, our expat in Texas says you screwed up. For what it’s worth.

Let’s try this again. Henry B Gonzalez, whom I liked and admired, and with whom I corresponded extensively, voted AGAINST NAFTA. Why, in a state, with such large connections to trade with Mexico, would he do such a thing? Economic theory, something else Democrats don’t much like, suggests an answer. People vote in their own interest. And if they’re going to lose by trade and immigration, then they will vote against it. Labor in America is the “scarce factor” and trade punishes the scarce factor. No kidding. Henry B’s people were going to compete directly with the goods (and people) that NAFTA brought into Texas. Of course he opposed it. Henry B may have been crazy, but he was no fool. Texas may be resource abundant, but in economic terms, it is labor scarce. Just because labor appears to be powerless changes nothing. This is Latin America, in case you didn’t know. A white oligarchy, not a popular democracy.

So now we wonder why “those people” in the Valley don’t vote on the basis of some mystical connection to the great community of People of Color? You mean money is thicker than blood? Imagine that, if you can. It takes far less than a PhD. Sometimes I think a PhD keeps otherwise intelligent people from getting it. Like many of my colleagues.

Meanwhile, I keep wondering why we can’t just get on with it and start by renaming Ft Hood “Ft Jesse Benavides”? And telling people that Joe Biden sends his greetings. And that there is plenty more where that came from if people are willing to listen. And they will listen if they have something other than abstract nonsense to sell them. It may work in Austin. It won’t work in Mission, TX.

Wake up. You’re going to lose the House in 2022 and the Presidency in 2024. You’ve been warned. Texas is sending you a message: beware the Ides of Texas.

Bring Back the Reserve Clause. Save MLB

C’mon man, are you serious? Bring back the reserve clause to major league baseball? Are you nuts? Well, not exactly. Next you’re gonna want to see the airlines reregulated. Well, from time to time, especially when confined to a miserable modern airport, the thought has crossed my mind. But I digress.

When I started college teaching, 1978 more or less, I had a brilliant, but rather eccentric office mate. He held a Phd in Economics from Virginia Tech, and had been a student of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Virginia Tech was considered Chicago East at the time. My office mate, may he rest in peace, was a true product of the VPISU Economics department. He was dogmatic as Hell, believed in the Market the way I believe in God, and never let the facts stand in the way of a good economic argument.

Well, I left Villanova, where I started out, for the greener, but ultimately deceptively greener fields of what David Lodge called Euphoric State. That’s the subject of a future post. Here we gotta stick to baseball and the reserve clause.

I’m pretty sure the incident in question occurred after I went to California, because I heard about it from my former Chair, a good guy who deserved better faculty members than me and my office mate. It seems my late colleague, because he had won some sort of well deserved teaching award, had been invited to the VIP reception after graduation. Oh, oh. Bad move. He was really smart, but, well, not housebroken. And you know how that goes.

Apparently one of the guests at the shindig was a certain Paul Owens, GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. Owens was what they used to call “a good baseball man.” That means he was a hopeless reactionary, mainlined Wild Turkey, and probably made Cardinal Spellman look like a hopeless panty-waist. More importantly, he had been brought up in the days of what Major League Baseball called “the reserve clause.” I’m gonna explain this in brief for my younger readers. If you’re over 60, feel free to skip ahead. I’m going to defer to https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Reserve_clause

The reserve clause was a clause in player contracts that bound a player to a single team for a long period, even if the individual contracts he signed nominally covered only one season. For most of baseball history, the term of reserve was held to be essentially perpetual, so that a player had no freedom to change teams unless he was given his unconditional release

That changed with Curt Flood. Flood, an outfielder for the Cardinals from 19581969, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. Flood was outraged, both because he had put down roots in St. Louis and because the team hadn’t even told him about the deal; he found out about it over the radio. Instead of submitting, Flood challenged the trade in the courts with the backing of the MLBPA. This time, the players were acting together and refused to be bought off. The suit eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Flood and the players lost.

Although the players lost the Flood case, they were still able to make progress. In the 1972 strike, they were able to convince the owners to accept binding arbitration for contract disputes. Several players then tried to refuse to sign contracts, play through one season under the reserve clause, and then demand free agent rights in arbitration. The owners, understanding that the reserve clause was under threat, were able to convince several players to relent, but in 1975 both Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith played through the season without a signed contract (actually, McNally retired partway through the season, then refused to accept a proposed salary increase in order to see his case reach arbitration).

Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled for McNally and Messersmith. In essence, Seitz ruled that since the owners had written the contract, it was their responsibility to spell out its terms exactly. Because the reserve clause didn’t explicitly state that it would be applied to the season played without a signed contract, he had to accept the players’ interpretation that the clause only extended for one season and not in perpetuity. The owners challenged Seitz’s ruling in court, but it was upheld, ending over 80 years of the reserve system.

Now, my office mate, being a good free market guy a la Virginia Tech, had no time for stuff the restricted competition, of which the reserve clause in baseball was a shining example. Owens, steeped in the whiskey-sodden traditions of MLB, thought that baseball depended on the reserve clause, and he hated free agency, aka, “the free market.” He had distinguished company. Sparky Anderson, the long-time manager of the Reds and the Tigers, detested free agency. He thought it was ruining baseball in the 1990s, and bailed out of the game, saying he couldn’t stand what it had become. Oh, God, Sparky, if you could see it now.

Now, Villanova lore has it–I wasn’t there, you see–that my office mate and Paul Owens tangled at the post graduation reception over the reserve clause. I’m sure Owens was three sheets to the wind. My office mate didn’t need liquor to be outrageous. Ownes apparently told my office mate that baseball needed the reserve clause because it spent so much in training and grooming young players–only a few of whom would ultimately make it to the Bigs-that the reserve clause made perfect financial sense. My office mate, LOL, proceeded to tell Owens that this was precisely the justification that the Soviet Union used in its refusal to let skilled Jewish scientists and intellectuals emigrate to the West. In other words, Owens, red-white-and-blue American baseball man, was a Commie. Much merriment ensued.

I take it there was a scene. On graduation day. Between an Honored Guest of Villanova –and some smart-ass VU pointy head economist who was a libertarian. I only heard stories about it, but, damn, I wish I had been there. The two of them deserved each other, but, nisi sed bonum. I missed out on a great time. Years later, I got my revenge on Owens, who had come down to field-managing the club after firing somebody, at Candlestick Park. I stood up and called him every name I could think of, much to the chagrin of my sweet wife, who was my date, not to say of the San Francisco Giants security people, who were getting ready to remove me. Payback, Owens, is Hell. I called him every name I could think of, in honor of my office mate (strictly speaking, at this point, he was still alive). At one point, going out to the mound, Owens stopped, looked around, and he stared straight at me. I gave him the finger. It felt good.

Now, what has all of this to do with economics, the reserve clause, and saving baseball?

Glad you asked.

Look, I don’t claim any expertise in baseball. I’m just the average fan. I’m always astounded at how much real students of the game know. I don’t consider myself a real student of the game, although I’ve watched my share. In fact, I guess all I do is follow the Philadelphia Phillies. That is hardly the same as being a serious fan. And even there, it’s been years since I’ve listened or watched every game. Probably the last season was 1980, which is when my life got turned upside down and I left Philadelphia. Probably for good. Anyway. I watch baseball when I can these days. And I follow the Phillies via the Inkwire. That’s about it. Too many other things call, and the caliber of the Phillies play is not such as to give up some more productive use of my time–like going to the head. Honestly, they stink.

I think back to when Ryne Sandberg managed the Phillies in the early 2010s. He was a HOF player and a true pro. I remember him trying to do base running drills with one of the teams he manged. The players didn’t like it. Ok. Maybe Sandberg, as good as he was, wasn’t cut out to be a manager. It happens. But then consider what Mr. Philly, Larry Bowa said–and Bowa flopped as a manger in Philly too

“When Ryno came up, I thought he was going to be a good player,” Bowa said. “But did I think he was going to be a Hall of Famer? No. He worked. A lot of Hall of Fame guys have natural ability. He had the ability and he worked. I think he thought if he worked that hard, why can’t everybody work that hard? He was shocked at not everybody, but some guys that were on the fringe. He’d look at them and say, ‘Why don’t you work harder?’ That bothered him a lot.”

Yeah, I get it. I looked at a lot of my students, especially the undergraduates since 2010. You’re not stupid, I thought. But you’re lazy and lack motivation. And I can’t give that to you. Nor can I give you the fundamentals you didn’t get in grade school. A lot of my students couldn’t do stuff that I had learned to do by the time I was in junior high. Spelling, grammar, organization, thinking in a straight line. Forget it. They were hopeless. And I couldn’t give them the fundamentals that they didn’t have. It was too damn late. You need five years of Sister Marie Suzanne. And you’re not about to get it. Frankly, they don’t pay me enough. They expect a scholar and a babysitter? Forget it. It’s not happening. Sister Marie Suzanne didn’t have a professional reputation to worry about. I did.

But then I watch the state of modern baseball. Oh my God. I watch the Phillies (among others) make mistakes that Little Leaguers shouldn’t make. Where is the play? What are the rules? How many outs are there? Do I cut off the throw from the outfielder? Where do I throw the ball if I do? How does a catcher block a low pitch? And on and on and on. They may be better athletes, bigger and stronger, but they play stupid, as if no one ever bothered to teach them the fundamentals. And then I wonder.

The idea idea behind the reserve clause, an “exclusive services contact”, was that you spent an awful lot developing players knowing full well very few would make it. But when they did, you had their services for the duration. Maybe that was–and I think it was–an abuse–but any decent economist can explain why an exclusive services contract exists. You invest a great deal in some raw talent. Most don’t make it. But you are compensated by the few who do. Economists call it monitoring your dependencies. And, alas, it makes more than a little sense.

I sometimes wonder how much teams spend these days in actually developing their players? Do they figure they can’t hold on to them that long anyway (I think maybe 12 years max, both minor and major leagues), so there’s a limit to how much you want to spend developing a player? I don’t know. I’d welcome someone coming in here and telling me this is complete nonsense, like most economic theory is. Go ahead, make my day. Otherwise, I’ll keep wondering if the reserve clause was really as bad an idea as the players made it out to be. Meanwhile, enjoy your next bat flip. That, they can do.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

[Note: I apologize to early readers for so many typos. It’s true. You really see what you think is there. Not what is there. Like a lousy umpire calling balls and strikes]

Joe Villari

In the 1940 Census, he is listed as the head of household at 912 Tree Street, Lower Moyamensing, Philadelphia PA. His wife, Frances, was a bit younger. Both were born in Italy (my Mother, Maddelena Villari, seemingly did not know her Mother was not born here, because she told me otherwise); Joseph in 1895, Frances in 1900. He arrived as a 16 year old at Ellis Island in 1911, after boarding a ship in Naples. I remember holding the woolen cap of his U.S. Army uniform, in which he served from 1918 to 1919, when he was sent to Camp Greenleaf, Georgia. The army record is surely accurate. I remember Grandpop (and I had only one, since my paternal grandfather died before I was born) telling me about the time that he and some army buddies scoured the streets of Chattanooga, TN, looking for a plate of spaghetti. I figure that Camp was no more than 20 miles away over the Tennessee line. If that was the worst that happened to Joe during his hitch, he didn’t have it so bad. He was naturalized in 1919.

He was not an educated man, although he was literate in that he could read and write. He got as far as third grade in Sicily, and Grandmom, the seventh. I was never quite able to figure out the details, but, God love them, they had an arranged marriage in Philadelphia, and they were inseparable until the end–over 50 years of marriage starting in 1922. I can remember Grandmom getting exasperated with Grandpop, usually starting out with “Joe!” But I never saw them fight. I never saw him really angry with her, or with anyone, for that matter. They were a big part of my world growing up–Hell, they were my world growing up. And I was lucky. Day care in extended Italian families was all part of the deal; and for me, it worked out wonderfully. I had four parents.

For a cabinet maker and a seamstress, they didn’t do too badly. They had three daughters and an income that would have been worth over $50,000 today in 1940. I remember when Grandpop died, my father, “Lou Larkins”, helped settle the estate. Dad was not the communicative type, but he was stunned at what Grandpop had been able to do. “Rich, I don’t know how the Hell he did it,” which was more or less a direct quote, a it being a stash of US Savings Bonds, that astounded my Dad. Yes, they raised a family, and yes they owned three homes in their lifetime. But they had no real expenses other than food, clothing, and shelter. Their family was everything. And I mean everything. And they were raising it in a country of genuine opportunity, genuine mobility, and, for what it’s worth, genuine democracy of which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was their patron saint. You may say, correctly, “but your grandfather was listed as ‘white’ on the census form”. Other Sicilians, like the ones who got strung up in Louisiana, were less fortunate. That was the extent of Joe’s white privilege. The rest was work, and I saw it, so don’t be giving me any crap. Maybe that country no longer exists. I frankly don’t think it does. But that does nothing to diminish what two very modestly educated immigrants achieved.

Joe’s life was uncomplicated. He went to bed around 8 or 9 PM. He rose at 4 AM. He commuted by trolley, subway, and the Ben Franklin Bridge to RCA Camden where he worked as a cabinet maker until 1960, when he retired. His big entertainment was the Friday Night Fights on our RCA (naturally) cabinet tv. He tended his garden in the front of the house–the rosa bushels (“rose bushes”) and enjoyed a glass or two of wine with spaghetti, bracciole, or some close substitute every night in the kitchen. The wine came from Tomasello in Hammonton, NJ, in large glass jugs. Vintage Tuesday, probably. He re-bottled it in a Four Roses Whisky bottle and after dinner, usually smoked his pipe on the front porch, depending on the season. Until he was well into his sixties, I never saw Grandpop in Church. That was for Grandmom, and I guess he had a good bit of that bred-in -the-bone anti clericalism that Italian men often had. In fact, the only real dispute I remember between him and Grandmom was over some building project at Saint Donato’s that Monsignor Pasta (Honest to God, could I make it up?) was dunning the parishioners for. I don’t know how much was involved, and I was a little kid. But I got the impression he thought Monsignore should keep his hands out our pockets. As he got older, and mortality dawned, he’d go on Sundays, usually dressed beautifully in a suit and box coat that would’ve done Luca Brasi proud.

Joe was stout. His English was a thing of beauty, and his son-in-law, Stan the Man, compiled quite a Joe Villari Concordance. When he finally moved out to the suburbs in the early 1960s, Grandpop set up a real vegetable garden that was in production all summer long. His deadly enemies were the “habbits” (rabbits) and them God-damna squirrels. What little profanity he used he saved for his varmint foes, although “managia” and “pada Madonna” did make an occasional appearance. Sicilian he saved for card games with his buddies, and I couldn’t understand a word. Of course, wine, laughter, and the less-than-transparent rules of the game, “Abriscula” (Briscola for Tuscan purists) didn’t help. Man what a character he was. When he was decked out in his rumpled farming clothes, deeply tanned, and grinning from ear to ear, he was a sight. If I managed to make an appearance, I’d be greeted with a boisterous “Reechee old boy!” I’d give anything to hear that again. It was no accident I took “Joseph” as my Confirmation middle name. In my own weird adolescent way, I thought he’d be with me forever. My friends fussed over Joe and Frances–“Such handsome people,” one said. Damn right. Dignified, hard-working, unassuming, you name it. How could you not love them?

When I say that Joe and Frances were generous with their family, I’m not exaggerating. In their house in West Philly, I can remember a time when Mom and Dad, yours truly, and an aunt who had taken ill (with her husband) were all in residence. Yeah, it was a big house, but Joe’s attitude was his entire family should be there. And on the major Catholic holidays–Christmas, Easter, New Year’s–everyone was there. We had these massive family dinners laid out in the kitchen, spilling over into the dining room, with turkey, spaghetti, soup, nuts, salad, fruit, pies, cakes, beer, wine, whiskey, more or less like in the Godfather holiday meal scene, sans fisticuffs. The benign Philadelphia presence of broadcaster John Facenda (our Walter Cronkite) was always hovering in the background on Channel 10, to the point where he was–as in so many other Italian families–more or less an honorary guest. These were all day affairs, at least, starting sometime early in the morning and stretching into the night hours. And always with Grandmom intoning “Nobody’s eating!” although Grandpop did a good imitation. Yeah, there were all the usual frictions. Probably even more I had no inkling of. But with Stan the Man and Joe Villari around, you really didn’t have to pretend much that we all liked each other, because sure as Hell, everyone liked them, and some kind of transitivity seemed at work.

I didn’t just like Grandpop. As a little kid, I worshiped him. In the summers, I guess when he was on vacation, he’d take me to the park to play horseshoes. He’d get me crackers and a soda. I think he let me win a lot, because I remember once I didn’t and started crying. God, he was so upset, but really amused at the same time. We’re talking about an event that probably occurred 65 years ago, so if you think his kindliness didn’t make a Hell of an impression on me, guess again. In 1960, he retired from RCA. I remember the surprise party the family gave him, the shocked look on his face as he came through the door on Haverford Avenue. That night, for the first time in my life, I got to stay up past midnight, all thanks to Joe, who joined me in watching Science Fiction Theater before the tv station signed off. Now you want to win a kid’s heart: let him win at horseshoes and stay up past midnight. It’s not complicated,

1960 was, in a lot of ways, a really critical year. Over Grandpop’s objections, my Mom and Dad moved just across the City Line to verdant Penn Wynne, which is today some kind of fairyland suburb that enjoys all the virtues of diversity, inclusivity, political liberalism, a Great Public School, you know, all that stuff that owns the Libs. Back then, it was nothing special, and some of the neighbors openly feared the integration of the neighborhood by Eyetalians (I first heard dago and wop on the mean streets of Lower Merion, for God’s sake). I think my Mom was worried I was in training to become some kind of city hoodlum, which seems laughable now. So for a while, I saw less of Joe (and Grandmom). I got yanked out of Saint Donato’s, where I was happy, and sent to Presentation BVM, where I was not. But in the meantime, not to be deterred, Joe found a nice stone house with a back back yard (i.e., potential farm site) in Penfield, a ten minute walk from where we had moved, albeit in Delaware County, far less distinguished than Montgomery Country. Who cared? We were practically reunited. Thank God. Suburbs or not.

I spent a lot of time at that house, particularly after school, in the years leading up to high school. Joe and I watched a lot of afternoon tv, which, in those days, seemingly included a lot of news. The news was not always good , with Cold War vibes, albeit leavened with Jack Kennedy’s press conference humor (and you wonder why Trump made so many of us ill?). There was also a good dose of Bull Connors’ dogs in Birmingham mauling Black people on film, great afternoon fare. Which we all watched in stunned and disgusted silence. I can say–and I’ll swear to it–I never heard a racist word in any language come out of Joe’s (or Francis’) mouth. Grandpop solemnly told me that Democrats were for the working man (him) and Republicans were for the bosses (them) and that was that. I think I unconsciously absorbed that assumption being around them so much. Joe had been out of work for three years during the Great Depression. He would’ve wondered how the Hell anyone with a brain in their head could have classified that as voluntary unemployment based on rigid money wage. Meanwhile, Grandmom, a crack seamstress, went out to work, sending her three daughters to be monitored by her mother on Cross Street in South Philly. You detect any running themes here: family, taking care of each other, a kind of gentle class consciousness based on decency and a peasant Catholic culture–if not rigorous church attendance? We do for each other. That’s a given. We’re loyal to each other. That’s a given. Coppola got a tart and aggressive version of it right: never take sides against the family. Besides, why would you want to? It wasn’t enforced by guns, dammit. It was enforced by an unself-conscious and implicit understanding of this was how the world worked. And, maybe until 1960 or thereabouts, it did.

Mercifully, Joe Villari died suddenly in 1978. He never suffered, and he was literally in the arms of his daughter and son-in-law, who frantically tried to revive him. His death almost killed my grandmother, who simply withdrew from life for a time. I remember running my fingers through his beautiful head of white hair at his wake, not quite comprehending what had happened. My Mother kept numbly repeating “He was so good to us.” I said goodbye at his graveside, in the bitter February cold, and walked away. I went back to his house and got plastered. Life was never the same.

The ship that brought 16 year old Joe to Ellis Island

Dick, This is Woodrow. Did I Wake You?

(The following is a text written 21 years ago on the occasion of a commemoration of Woodrow Borah, the Shepherd Professor, Emeritus, at Berkeley. I didn’t go, but someone–who knows, delivered it. It is verbatim. Borah once called me on a Saturday morning at 10:00 A.M. The title was his memorable opening sally. I had been up since 6:30 A.M. writing lectures.)

Lou Larkins

“Are you always that conventional?” Oh, man, what a line. My Dad, Louis Richard Salvucci, used it on a cute chick he saw on the 31 trolley in West Philly. I’m not sure how he got her number, but he asked her out. By phone. Party line–and you gotta be ancient to know what that was. Said cute chick told Louie she had no idea who he was, so how could she date him? Well, I’m here, and said cute chick was one Madeline Villari. My Mother. This was, what 1946 or 1947. So she went out with him. Sly dog.

When my Mom told me that story–and I was well beyond the age of reason–I never quite looked at my Dad the same way. Dude. You laid that line on a woman, otherwise known as my Mother? Shame on you. I wish I had thought of it first.

Let’s get something straight. Of all the people I wish I could get back in my life, my Dad is the numero uno. Maybe he’d be surprised, but maybe not. He was a deeply sensitive guy who rarely showed emotion. Which is why from the time he was in high school until the time he left us, his stomach was always killing him. He was under few illusions about life, but he never tried to push me one way or another. Probably because he knew what getting boxed in meant. He wasn’t about to do that to me.

He came from a big immigrant family originating on the Abruzzo-Lazio border, San Donato Val di Comino. I can’t remember off hand if he was one of 12 or 13, but he was next to the youngest. His own father was one of 17, which Lou never believed. No surprise, I was a singleton, a classic example of regression to the mean. I should be able to rattle off dates and stuff, but I can’t, other than 1937. That one mattered because that was when his father became a naturalized citizen. He, Alfonso, was an Italian emigrant and remained so, which meant my Dad was born–1919– unknowingly, an Italian citizen himself. God love him, he bequeathed dual nationality to me and my family. I stare at that EU Passport and figure, worse comes to worse, I’m gone. I owe you, Louie, once again.

I have an early shot of Louie, probably from the late 1920s, standing in front of Saint Donato’s parish school. Yeah, they named the parish after the town, since probably 75 percent of the families I knew started out there, with names like Cedrone, Antonelli, Gallo, Rufo, and Camilli. I know they didn’t realize that their ancestors had been decidedly tight back in the old country, and that there was a lot of inadvertent cousin marriage in West Philly. I always thought Italian Americans were crazy; but they were inbred, not nuts. In retrospect, it explains a lot of the stuff I saw or sensed. I often wonder if any of these families understood why ” ‘it’ just runs in the family.” “It” would make for an absorbing psychosocial history. Anyway, Louie is there, dressed in a dark suit, and staring fiercely at the camera. He must have been born serious, or pissed off, or both. In his high school yearbook, West Catholic 1937, there he is, a good looking guy–heh, heh, you devil–but described as “quiet, unassuming, workmanlike.” Boy, that was Dad. Was there ever a better description?

Now, Louie should have graduated in 1936, but a duodenal ulcer nearly finished him off (I know he was found, passed out, in a pool of blood, in the Men’s Room at West–and no, I never asked too many questions), which resulted in big time surgery in about 1953, by my guess. He had a Hell of a scar on his belly, and no, he didn’t have war stories, because even the Army wasn’t that desperate. He did war work that involved him stamping a lot of papers for “copper” bound for the “Manhattan District” in Chicago. He told me he figured it out after the War, copper being a codeword for uranium. He recalled on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, he was hanging with his friends in front of a garage in West Philly when the broadcast was interrupted by the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. You want to know how hard is is to think like a real historian? He told me that the first thing they all asked was “Where the Hell is Pearl Harbor?” and they had to go find a map. So when you think you can understand the behavior and mental world of some Genoese dude who sailed the ocean blue in 1492, please remember that we can’t even easily access the head of one of our own post-Enlightenment types in 1942.

Dad was a Swing Kid. And he played tenor saxophone. God did he love the Big Bands, especially Goodman. But interestingly enough, his saxophone heroes were Lester Young, Chu Berry, and Coleman Hawkins. At his funeral, one of his old friends told me his was the first guy in their circle to bring around Bird’s recordings. Dad saw Tatum live and told me I’d have to wait a bit before I got what Billie Holiday was doing. You do get where I’m going here, right? White boy from West Philly? I never heard him talk about Bud Freeman that way, and as I got older, I realized his love of early Getz was pure Lester Young–although I never pushed that angle with him. After all, he liked George Shearing too–and so did I. He played “Body and Soul” for my Mom once over the phone. Wildly romantic, no?

But, alas, Lou Larkins (I take it that was his “stage name” –I have no clue, but I did hear it once as a kid in West Philly coming from his friend Mike Renzulli)–did not follow music, or woodworking or electronics, or any one of a number of the manual arts at which he was truly–and I mean truly–gifted. Boy, when I compare my fumbling efforts to get a can open with my Dad doing plumbing on the home we moved to in 1960, I feel sort of foolish. Geez, Pop. I got your stomach. How come I didn’t get your craftsmanship? He could fix most anything, cars included. And he actually was, for a time, one of the first generation of people who could operate an IBM mainframe. He actually did contract work for Lawrence Klein and Morris Hamburgh of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s on the monsters that his employer, Oscar Mayer, rented out when they were idle. He’d take me down to the plant at 36th and Gray’s Ferry in Philly at night and let me punch cards while he wired panels. How the Hell he taught himself that is beyond me.

If there was ever a guy less suited to industrial accounting, it was Louie. He hated it, but he went to Penn at night in the 1950s to learn. He took care of his family, even though I know he would have sooner jumped off the Walt Whitman Bridge than go into the office. He had that sense of duty that so many of his generation did. You know, no one said this was gonna be fun. I had to grow up before I figured out how admirable he was, because there was no way a guy that creative should have suffered through the profession he did. When he’d take me to the Philadelphia Zoo, and we’d watch the big cats yell for their raw meat and purr (really) afterward, he was genuinely happy. When we went to the Franklin Institute and and he showed me how stuff ticked, he was genuinely happy. When we went to see the resurrected JATP together, he was happy. Or to see Ellington. Or Buddy. Or when he was entertained by Stan the Man, who was making some politically incorrect crack down the Shore, he was happy. Listening to Sinatra on a Friday nightwith Sid Mark and a glass of sherry and a cigarette made him happy. I know, cause I was there. We watched the 1960 Presidential debate together. We watched the moon landing together. We watched the Tonight Show together. We watched David Susskind together. We watched Bill Buckley together. I won’t say we never argued, especially as Vietnam and puberty were becoming twin curses. But he was always cool, and he never had to say much. And he didn’t.

I know he thought I put too much pressure on myself, but he never scolded. I had to laugh when he caught me with a bottle of wine in my car. His only question: “Who’s the joy juice for?” Since he liked the girl I was dating (so did I–we are happily married), his only words were “Be careful.” For a guy who must have spent most of his time not doing what he would have rather done, he was remarkably cool, if not necessarily tranquil. There was no bitterness that I can see now. Hell, he took things out on himself. Lou was no saint, but he lived a remarkably spiritual existence. Dad introduced me to Augustine and Thomas a Kempis. I know he felt that God had abandoned him somewhere along the way. But unlike most of us, he blamed himself, not God. “If thou art neither hot nor cold, I will vomit thee out of my mouth.” If he had a favorite saying, that was it. Think about it. When Dad retired, he became a daily communicant. It was no deathbed conversion. Something sustained him, and quite possibly, it was his faith.

I’d like to say Dad was happy in retirement, but I don’t think he was. When we came to visit, especially after we had kids, that visibly changed. We’d go down to the Franklin Institute again and ride the Conrail engine–Dad, me, and Martin. Or we’d go somewhere, maybe out to a train museum in Lancaster County, and just have a good time. For a bit, he’d be distracted, and his very personal version of the tragic sense of life would dissipate. That was nice to see. I didn’t know that the last time I hugged him–and told my Mom to stop yelling at him for some damn thing–that our next encounter would be in the same hospital, Fitzgerald Mercy, via which I entered the world forty or so years earlier. He was, unfortunately, on the way out.

Woody Allen supposedly said 80 percent of success in life was showing up. By that standard, Lou Larkins was, unbeknownst to himself, a great success. He showed up. Every day. I miss him. Every day.

Hello, Dick. What’s Up?

Earlier this year, I published an In Memoriam for my thesis supervisor, Stanley J. Stein, who died at 99. It was not easy to write. All the difficulties of graduate education, and they range from personal to professional, come back to you when you are asked to write a memorial. And there is one you never anticipated–the John Donne moment. You know, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, hotshot. Writing about someone who was like the major grown-up in your life after your biological parents reminds that tempus fugit. Today, you write for your mentors, but that assumes that you are now old enough to be shown the door too. If it doesn’t cross your mind, you’re a hardier soul than I am. Maybe you are.

One of my friends who read the memorial called it a “formal elegy.” Since this friend was a long-time Perfesser of English, I was pretty pleased, as if learning that I spoke prose for the first time. But, knowing me, he also said he doubted it really got to the core of the relationship between me and Stanley Stein. Well, yeah, you could say that. You know, Gibbon says that in the Roman Legions, discipline was such that the average soldier feared his officers more than his enemies. I think Stanley must have read Gibbon in junior high.

Which is not to say we didn’t end up as real friends, because we did. Or that I didn’t look forward–well, maybe that’s too strong–anticipate is better, my periodic phone conversations with him over the last twenty years. Talking to Stanley Stein was always a seminar, and there wasn’t much question as to who ran the show. I told friends nothing could take me back to those glorious 1970s in Princeton faster than having Stanley decide he was going to bounce a few ideas off me to see if I hadn’t lost my edge (what little I have) living in the Great Beyond. Like, conversations got serious in a hurry. After “Hello, Dick, what’s up,” there wasn’t much time for small talk. It was off to work. And keeping up with Stein was tough when you weren’t used to it.

Linda, my wife, friend, and fellow sufferer through graduate education, had a great description of a seminar with Stein. “He’d come out swinging. And he’d pound you into a corner. And, boy, you better be ready to have a comeback (or an escape route). Because, otherwise, you were finished.” Was that ever true. I once watched him interrogate a fellow student in American history(whom I know he liked) by asking “Having you read any Russian history? Have you read any German history? Have you you read any French history?” When he got a negative shake of the head to each more insistently uttered query, he finally exploded, “Well, what the Hell have you read?” Even now, I’m laughing as I recall this little pas de deux. Didn’t seem quite so entertaining then.

My first in the flesh glimpse of Stanley was in late Summer 1973, as Linda and I were trying to figure out a very complicated marital residence situation. We sort of decided, jointly, that if I was going to work with this guy, I better go meet him. So I (we) screwed up our courage and went over to Dickinson Hall, then the seat of the Great Princeton History Department (sic), down in the basement, to see him. I knocked tentatively on the door, he said come in, and there we were.

My first impression of Stanley J Stein was of a dapper little guy with an Adolphe Menjou moustache in an office neatly but fully stacked with old books, a thick stack of typescript in front of him, wearing a seersucker suit. Yeah, wearing a suit. In his office. In the Summer. Working. Since my undergraduate teachers had been, shall I say, somewhat less formal (not to say considerably less famous), I was suitably intimidated. And we didn’t exactly get off to a flying start. “I was trying to make myself scarce,” he said. From which I gathered he was not altogether pleased at the late-afternoon intrusion. God knows what I stammered, but what seemed like the very next question was “What do you plan to write your dissertation on?” Oh, sweet Jesus. WHAT? Again, God knows what I stammered. He looked distinctly unimpressed and said something like “Well, you know, sometimes people arrive and they are all on fire to do a specific thing.” On fire. Right. I just wanted to get the Hell out of the room at that point. It was, alas, a feeling I frequently had in my student* days at Old Nassau. The little asterisk is intentional. You get that when you are a product of the Graduate School at Princeton. You are never a Bentley Goldman ’06. You are, alas, always a Richard Salvucci* Kind of telling, ain’t it?

I don’t remember what Linda and I talked about after that, but I suspect both of us were a little shell shocked. Welcome to the NFL, rookie. Both of us would learn that Harvard PhD’s of a certain age, ethnicity and background shared a certain characteristic intellectual aggression that was not personal, but too direct to seem otherwise. The idea was that intellectual discourse was hand-to-hand combat, and you had damn well be ready to kill or be killed. Bernard Bailyn, Stein’s exact contemporary, had the same manner, and so did David Landes. Stein was no outlier, but it took some time in a Higgins boat on Nassau Street to figure that out. Actually, it took a lot longer than that. I got to know David Landes at Berkeley, and Linda really got to know Bailyn in the 1980s at his Atlantic seminars. It took about twenty years to get over the initial shelling, but the ordnance was always the same.

There are so many stories I could tell about my academic interaction with Stein as a student–frankly, I’ll have to leave some of them for a second installment. I’ll give you a taste here.

My first “homework” as a grad student almost stopped me dead. I had gone down to visit Stein in his office and was undoubtedly saying something stupid about economic history. He sat back regarding me and then came out with, “Dick, I want you to read Huguette and Pierre Chaunu, Seville et l’Antique.” I dutifully wrote this down, phonetically, since I had no French (we had a triple language requirement in Latin American history, even if we fudged by sticking to the Romance languages: I passed, dude, all of them. French after a week’s crash study). So then over to Firestone Library as it was then (not the Wall Street financed Taj Mahal it is now) and to the old card catalogue. Little did I know this was a repository of scholarship itself–I pray Princeton did not discard it–and went to look up “the book.” My first inkling that something was amiss was that I found so many damn cards for Chaunu. “Weird,” I must have thought, and then repaired to the dungeon of, I think, B Floor to go find “the book.”

Well, I found it. Did I ever. I pulled down one volume. Then another. Then another. Damn, it took up an entire shelf. Some of the volumes had two parts and some of the parts had two parts. I carefully cleared the shelf, walked up the stairs to Circulation, and checked the whole damn thing out, volume bu volume, with my name joining the ranks of predecessors on the circulation card, some of whom were well known historians. I do remember bringing the stack down to the graduate study room and putting them on my desk. Where they remained for a week while I frantically tried to figure out what to do with them. It made no apparent difference where I started or ended, not that I could read much of the text anyway. And the maps. And the tables. And the routes. And the cartograms. It got to be a kind of running joke among the other first years, until an advanced Europeanist told me there was a pretty good summary of the thing in one of John Elliott’s books, which I quickly acquired. And with a dictionary, a grammar, and lots of cigarettes, I slogged. And slogged. And slogged. I would occasionally report back to Stein who listened without saying much.

Now, the climax came when I had to produce a report for him, which must have been a mess. I can’t find it, and I still have some of that stuff. In any event, there was no letter grade, but a comment that Stein nearly eviscerated me with. “Dick, this is a good job. But you didn’t answer a basic question. So what?” I remember wondering how the Hell were you supposed to answer some existential question about the work of some bonkers Frenchmen that came down to why did you do this and what did you learn? I do think I got loaded that weekend from our perch in 903 Lawrence Apartments. It was quite a view in 1973, mostly sod farms on Route 1, little else. No malls. No corporate centers. You could get trashed and contemplate the Great American Question. “So what?” Years later, when I posed that same question to a couple of grad students at Berkeley, they regarded me as if I were some kind of madman. One of them said as much. For once, at the moment, I understood why I was supervising people older than myself who clearly weren’t pleased at being put in such a position. For once, they had no answer. “God bless you, Stanley. I shut them down today.”

Because Stein was in the throes of composing his (and Barbara Hadley Stein’s) magnum opus on the Spanish Empire, I didn’t see much of him until the end of my second year, right before my comprehensives. We were like two pipe bombs that crossed paths occasionally. I didn’t much like him. And, to be honest, I’m not sure he thought too much of me. He once wrote I had a critical mind, but it wasn’t clear that I had an original mind. Ouch. Can you imagine being 23 or 24 and getting clobbered that way? When I hear the current generation of students complaining about their teachers, the unfairness of life, and all the rest, I think back to that moment. Stein would have killed most of them. And he would have simply thought he was doing his job. And he was. There was no bs. I later joked that Princeton was the Parris Island of Latin American Economic History. Because it was. I told Stein that many years later and he laughed. He told me he ended up in the Navy only because the USMC wasn’t interested. No one ever accused the Marines of being too cerebral.

So when does this story become “And they lived happily ever after?”

Oh, boy. You got a minute?

I somehow managed to squeak through my general exams, although, quite honestly, I was by that point wondering why I had left the prospect of a nice career at a bank in Philly behind. And had once walked out of a seminar on a break and almost not gone back, were it not for the insistence of Linda, who basically said, since when do you run away from a challenge? And I almost never went to Mexico to do research, which is another long story. But while it isn’t irrelevant, it isn’t very edifying. So we cut to the chase.

Linda and I worked in the Mexican archives for the better part of eighteen months. Linda, who has her own Stein story to tell, got involved in her own research and ended up publishing a very well regarded paper in Historia Mexicana that won the Haring Prize. Yup. Would you believe that Stein read it as a seminar paper and actually gave it an A-? My theory, recently developed, was that her argument essentially contradicted one of the major points of the multi-volume project he and Barbara were at work on for 20 years. I think he admired the scholarship, but was ticked that one of his students may have been stealing his thunder. Stein was very smart, but very human. I honestly think he was thunderstruck That’s how it works sometimes. Since it’s Linda’s story, I’ll pass over the rest. But anyone who thinks either one of us sailed some “Hey Boomer” graduate program with a Club Med fellowship is apt to get some dirty looks and a curt, if not obscene, dismissal. Life, dear younger colleagues, is tough all over. That doesn’t change.

Living in Mexico and working in the archives every day–sometimes double shifts–was the education in “Latin American” history I never had. Basically you learned how to decipher centuries old documents written in some kind of scrawl in metallic, flaking ink and adorned with incomprehensible symbols that you asked the Mexican staff about. If you hit them on a good day, you got an answer. If not, you kept plugging. At first you had–I had–no idea of what I was doing, but there, buried in this stuff, you started to look for patterns, meaning, something that would tell you what the Hell you were trying to work out. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle whose final image appeared nowhere. You had to conjure it up. That Stein called “historical imagination,” and he valued it even more than independence, a thick skin, or a facile line of slick historical trivia. If you had it, you were ok. If not, well, you’d find out. About 75 percent of the way through our stay, I sent him a forty-some page precis of what I thought I was seeing. To my utter amazement, he liked it. No, he didn’t say that, but the wind started blowing from the South for the first time, and I confess, it felt good.

Stein valued originality and independence of mind–frequently these are difficult to distinguish from absolute ignorance, which I displayed in abundance–and he had no reason to think I had anything on the ball until I showed him. And he wasn’t going to pat you on the head, hold your hand, anything. He was very much a tough sob because that was how he did it. And if you were going to do study with him, that’s how you were going to do it. It was, really, a compliment of sorts, although many of us had no clue. Especially me.

What really broke the ice between us finally was my finding the manuscript to an important mercantile bankruptcy which had long eluded his grasp. This was one of those dark basement “archives”, unorganized, no copy machine, places where current legal files were kept and the historical stuff just happened to be there. You had to beg your way in–and you got good at that in Mexico after a bit–and then you plodded. No finding aid. No calendar. Hell, barely any light to read by. Me and my buddy Gabe Haslip Viera sat in that dungeon for months inhaling God knows what and plowing through stacks of uncatalogued stuff, frantically writing down digests of what we read. One day, by luck or God’s grace, I found this case, which documented the collapse of a commercial house named Oteyza Y Vertiz. I knew that Stein was bugged by this particular case, but had never been able to make much headway with it. So I wrote him. Snail mail, right, it’s 1978. Lol. He called me. In the DF. At our apartment. I’ll never forget the tone in his voice: “You found the quiebra (bankruptcy)?” Man, if he could’ve come down on the next plane from New York, he would have. However he was teaching, so I told him I’d handle it. No microfilm. No xerox. Forget your little smartphones, yet to appear. I sat down for a week and transcribed most of the case. Yeah, you’re thinking brownie points, and I’m sure that entered my mind too. But actually, it was more like “Hey, this is amazing. It’s like walking around Mexico City in the 1790s and talking to all the big shots.” It wasn’t really work, and I probably got as much out of it as he ultimately did. Maybe more.

Coming home, writing the dissertation, teaching full time as Linda went back to class (and working on a biographical project directed by Frank Craven about wealthy Princeton boys from back in the antebellum day, of all ironies) was the kind of life that you really need to be in your late twenties to handle. A lot of stress, not much sleep, a lot of tobacco, not much bread, but, somehow, if you wanted it, you did it. And we both did in our own ways and at different schedules. This was by no means a solo thing. It never is. We both paid our dues, and plenty of them. I won’t dwell on it, but we did run out of gas in Princeton once. For a week.

I remember the triumphal moment in Berkeley when I sent off the finished manuscript to Stein, the thing I would defend as a dissertation. I was an Acting Assistant Professor making about 17K. Big deal, right. And it was all great fun right? Like Hell. I don’t think either of us could or would do it again.

As for Stanley, my day of the defense went ok–a small rumble with Herb Klein, down from Hudson U, notwithstanding (see, plus c’est la change, right). When we had finished up and we got ready to go to lunch at the Faculty Club, a first, believe me. I can’t remember much about it other than spotting that Olive Tree and Lexus guy holding court. But I do remember what Stein said to me about the dissertation before we left his office. “Dick. It’s a gem.” Yeah, Stanley J Stein said that to me, the kid from West-by-South Philly. Stein and I would go on to become colleagues and even very good friends, about which I’ll write some other time. But one thing no one can take from me: I earned his respect, and frankly, he earned mine. The difference was he really didn’t need mine, but it was nice to think that somebody as smart–and tough–as Stanley Stein liked and respected me. Priceless, as they say. Stockholm Syndrome, you say? Maybe.

Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned

If you were born sometime between 1945 and 1955, more or less, you remember the drill. On Saturday afternoon you summoned up your courage and went to church. Not just any church. You went to your parish church. And with seriousness of purpose. Because you were going to Confession. It was a familiar sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church, and you were there because you were human. You had sinned. Everyone sinned other than Jesus, Mary, and a few smart-ass kids in your parochial school class. They never were affected by PALEGAS, the acronym by which we remembered what the deadly sins were. Hell, they could probably really draw in art, sing in music, and clap the school erasers clean. The nuns loved them. You regarded them suspiciously as some sort of pain in the ass. They didn’t go to confession. Or if they did, they were in an out in a minute. Damn. Following them was not good. Some old Irish priest would say “You did what???” Or “explain to me exactly what you did with her.” Man, that always took time. And when you finally caught holy Hell from the priest and got to leave, the other people, especially the kids you knew, were grinning. Heh, heh. “I know what you did last week.” Yeah, they could guess. But you were saved. Temporarily. You said Five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys if you were lucky. And you felt good for a day or so. You wouldn’t go to Hell that weekend. By Tuesday, who knew?

In retrospect, what seems like some sort of adolescent initiation into a shame culture probably had a deeper effect. For some of us, it would eventually drive us out of the Church. The pointlessness of pretending that you regretted doing something that you had no real intention or ability to stop doing–and inevitably, this was something mortally sinful, which meant go straight to Hell, dude–got to you. Or you took a deeper view. You figured you would suffer through this ritual because you should–and that was half the penance. You kept it up because, well, because the Hound of Heaven was there somewhere. You had to do it and you really were at a loss to explain why. Maybe it was neurosis. Or maybe neurosis was a modern name for God’s grace. But the reality of God and the sacred were there, like it or not. You felt it when you walked into a church. And you weren’t kidding around. You may have hated yourself for it, but you went along with it. And you probably struggled with it. As any sensible person would. Belief was not a choice. Any more than eye color, intelligence, or, God forbid, sexuality. Not that we ever discussed that much.

But for me, thinking over this part of my life in light of the Vatican’s latest pronunciation on the intrinsic disorder of homosexuality is a bit revealing. When you say to yourself, as I often do, how in God’s name do I continue to count myself a member of this homophobic misogynistic cult? What is there that keeps me hanging around, the dreadful revelations of pedophilia and corruption over the past few decades notwithstanding? There is, for some of us, the very slight suspicion that if we could somehow go back to the fourth century CE, that if we could could recover the early Christian communities whose bane was the Roman Empire, we might find what we were looking for. We might be totally off the mark as far as details go–the role of women, the view of sexuality, the frank theological anarchy–that we imagine the early Church to be about. But we don’t much care. If that wasn’t the Church that Jesus Christ founded, it should have been. This one, we fear, lost its moral compass well before Charlemagne knelt before Leo III in 800 CE. We are Christian anarchists, like it or not. We survive in the thrall of a miserable desire to know God’s will as interpreted by a bunch of curial bureaucrats who likely practice the very behavior they satanize. Bless me, father.

We live with cognitive dissonance as our creed. We are, as they say, “faithful Catholics”, at least in our own minds. Miserere nobis.

Hedging Your Bets

When I started reading economics, long, long time ago, I was taught the cliche about there ain’t no free lunch. Now in high toned circles of the Econ profession, I understand that there is some debate about that. Good. Intellectual differences sharpen thinking, although you’d never know that from a lot of modern American universities. But, I digress. I have come to understand in conservative circles there is something that you might term “a quasi-free lunch,” mostly one you can eat if you are a market fundamentalist. I’ve been mystified by this paradox for some time, because you’d think those for whom supply and demand are a religious icon of sorts might flee in terror from any such notion. Nope. They sure don’t. But I have a theory. Oh, oh.

Now the idea here isn’t very complicated. The future is basically unknowable, but it isn’t unpredictable. A ghoulish example. Since I am mortal, I will die. The probability is 100 percent, sniff. Now, ask me to pick a date. My primary care physician tells me she thinks I’ll make it into my 90s, so that gives me roughly 20 years to fool with. That’s 7,300 days. If we hopelessly oversimplify and say one day is as likely as the next (don’t try this on an actuary), then I have a 1/7300 chance of being correct about the exact date. That is, I have a .0001 chance of being correct, or one in ten thousand. More or less. Are you feeling lucky? Not that lucky, I’ll bet. Me neither.

Not to extend this depressing conceit too far, but the point is, I will die, I just have no idea when. And precisely because of this mix of certainty and uncertainty, I buy life insurance. I make a bet with my insurer each year that I may well cash in my chips before the term of my policy expires. I lose, right, but I win. Or my beneficiaries do, because my insurer has to pay off. My insurer loses, right? But look at this way. For thirty years or so, my insurer has been winning, for real, because I pay the premia, and get nothing in return. But when I do lose–er, win–my insurer has been winning for years, but can afford to lose. And this particular gamble involves not just me, but millions of other people who buy life insurance. The insurer is a bit like a bookie who use the losses of some to pay the winnings of the other, while keep a small slice of the handle for him or herself. Not for the faint of heart, but that’s why you only read about this stuff. It’s very risky.

But you know what else is very risky? Screwing with the lives and well being of people to whom you have a social, if not a fiduciary obligation. You are the governor of a state, or some other public official, you have a duty of care. Somewhere you probably swore to protect and defend the people of the great state of Whatever, so help you God. Quite. And when you manifestly fail in that duty, well, like Truman said, that’s where the buck stops. You can’t say “This is unacceptable” when something goes horribly wrong. Of course it’s unacceptable, you weasel. You didn’t do your job, but you want to posture and to strut around as if you were somehow the victim. Right. Welcome to Texas, and to the Republican party of Texas. The well of crocodile tears never, ever runs dry.

As so many other writers have emphasized, Texas is governed by a party that is really not interested in government, much less governing. They have been in power for over two decades, and, honestly, I’m hard pressed to think of a positive accomplishment to their name. They like guns, true enough. They think everyone should have one and in almost any venue you can think of, including churches and schools. They don’t much like women, it seems, especially outside of janitorial and reproductive functions, just as the Lord intended. To be honest, they don’t seem to like anyone other than white people, and when you come right down to it, I don’t think they much like Southern Europeans with olive skin. Which would include people like me, whom they confusingly label “Yankees.” Go figure. Logic doesn’t seem to be a strong point with them.

Now they claim to like honest-to-God capitalism and free markets, which, of course, make free people. It’s why Texans (the right kind) are free: free of income tax; free of other power grids; free of social capital; zoning; planning–you name it, they don’t want it. No sir. Now this sort of cowboy capitalism really confuses me, because it doesn’t appear to have much to do with reality. Since the future is uncertain and things do happen, it is hardly socialism to plan on having extra capacity in any business. Just in case. Like when I was a kid, Al the Barber always seemed to have an extra chair, because, as he patiently explained, you never knew when a wedding party was gonna show up. You didn’t want to turn away customers, so you made provision–you took out a form of insurance–knowing you could call a brother barber and have a station for him (it was always him in those days). Besides, what did it cost? Once the chair was there, it was there. You just had to make sure you could pay your bills at the end of the month, and it wasn’t like that chair was gonna make or break you. Since Al had been in the business forever, he had a feel for these things. They happened, he just couldn’t predict exactly when. He was a prudent businessman. And a good barber, too, as I recall.

Now, you’d think in the business of providing basic public services like water, gas, and electricity, you’d know there were times when demand was going to surge. Some pretty predictable, and some not. And you might even, if you paid attention, have some idea of when your productive apparatus might be likely to fail, especially if you had been around the business for years. So you hedged, right. You planned for the worst case, and then said “but what if it’s even worse than that? What could I do, within reason, to say the worst case might not be the worst case?” Don’t laugh. It happens. It happened at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in the old Soviet Union in 1986. The unthinkable happened. The “that’s impossible” wasn’t. And as a result, the world came very, very close to seeing large parts of Western Europe uninhabitable for God knows how long. How close? Go read Midnight at Chernobyl. But not before bedtime.

What happened there happened under the aegis of a corrupt and incompetent Communist Party and a bunch of apparatchiks whose job was to praise Lenin first, lie second, and then worry about the results. It happened that some of the very well trained engineers and physicists had actually worried that what sent the reactor (No 4) to kingdom come could actually happen. But no apparatchik let science get in the way of politics or their careers. Now doesn’t that sound familiar? We’ve known for some time that the Texas grid was vulnerable to extreme cold. We just chose not to do anything about it. Why? Well, it was unlikely to happen, as if the very meaning of “unlikely” wasn’t changing at the same time. Climate change is, in part, about extreme events, but we weren’t gonna worry about ordinary extreme events, let alone the possibility that something even worse could happen. And did. The extra capacity that might have prevented the disaster was–and isn’t–there, in any form, including weatherproofing wind turbines. But, hey, Texas Republicans bragged about cheap electricity. They still do. Maybe the benefit that came from paying a higher price, the clear ability to afford extra capacity without squeezing nickels, would have made for a greater margin of error. But, no, we don’t really have to pay for things here–any more than we have to wear masks to prevent viral transmission. The Lord provides: the quasi-free lunch is the Texas Miracle. God, like Lenin at Chernobyl, will watch over us.

And taxes. Ugh. As if taxing anything the market incorrectly overvalued–like the products of internal combustion engines–could ever be justified. Nope. There are no market failures in Texas, only a touching in faith that no “deadweight loss” from a tax could be compensated for by using the revenue raised for a more valuable social purpose. Like weatherizing Alamo Grid. Nah. Just like the guy here who refused to wear a mask in a Walmart by shouting “I’m a godly man.” Right. Faith-based market economics. Somehow, I’m glad I’m a heretic. And at this rate, I may end up as an agnostic.