What’s Normal?

Like most Americans, I’m concerned about the looming loss of our superpower status to China and the challenge of Islam.  Our comfortable normal seems to be changing into an uncomfortable abnormal.  On the other hand, maybe there was nothing normal to begin with about the general dominance of the West, and our superpower status in particular.

Take China.  For something like 3,000 years the Chinese Empire was the world’s most advanced civilization.  The West didn’t truly gain the upper hand over China until it lost the opium wars waged by the British roughly 160 years ago.  But the British Empire is now gone, having lasted only  250 years or so, and China now vies with us for supremacy.

How about Islam?  Well over 1,000 years ago, it swept to power in North Africa, Asia Minor, the Midle East (including the Holy Land), and much of India, then morphed into the Islamic Ottoman Empire.  It conquered  Christian Constantinople in 1469 and renamed it Istanbul in 1469.  After that the Balkans fell to Islam, and in 1688 Vienna narrowly escaped the same fate.

The Ottoman Empire only fell apart roughly 100 years ago, first with Balkan independence and second when it was carved up after World War I by Britain and France.  That didn’t last long, and what was once Islamic is still Islamic.  Not only that, Islam has now peacefully invaded Western Europe proper, where Muslims have high birth rates and the natives are failing to reproduce themselves.

So what’s normal and what’s abnormal? Taking the long view, the dominance of the West wasn’t normal, it was abnormal.  It seems to have sprung from a temporary and now ending advantage in technology, mainly in weaponry and the ability to project power around the globe.  Depending how you count, Western dominance has lasted only about 300 years.  Our waning superpower status is less than 100 years old.

Is the supremacy of China and Islam actually the normal state of affairs?  Possibly the answer is yes, and the world is only returning to its usual course after a relatiely brief detour. Perhaps that can be of some solace to us and our European friends.  We’ve had a good run for a few hundred years.  And having had a taste of freedom, people around the world may not be willing to see it disappear.

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Stan Prowse

Our National Industrial Policy

United States CapitalDid you know that the United States has a National Industrial Policy?  If you don’t, take a look at the Web site of the National Labor Relations Board.

In 1932 after Roosevelt’s election, Congress passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which removed the legal basis for the use of court injunctions in labor disputes.  In 1936, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which provided a legal framework for the oganization of workers into unions, workers’ election of unions to represent them, collective bargaining between unions and employers over labor contracts, and arbitration of labor disputes when collective bargaining failed and strikes ocurred.  The Act included the creation of the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces compliance with the Act’s terms and provides arbitration services.

By promoting the Wagner Act, Roosevelt gained organized labor’s vote in his successful bid for a second term as President.  Since then organized labor has been a reliable and powerful supporter of the Democratic Party.  Its clout increased when public employees gained the right to unionize, starting with an executive order issued by President Kennedy, apparently to reward the AFL-CIO for succesfully supporting his 1960 Presidential campaign.  Since then the political power of public employee unions has become enormous.

Restraint of trade, otherwise known as monopoly power, has been illegal under the common law for centuries. The Sherman Act, which predates the Wagner Act by several decades and remains very much alive and well today, follows the common law by explicitly prohibiting restraint of trade by business monopolies. Labor unions essentially restrain trade in labor and therefore represent labor monopolies, which explains the courts’ hostility to unions and strikes prior to the New Deal.  It also suggests our National Industrial Policy may be less than sacrosanct.

If prohibiting business monopolies by the Sherman Act, while legalizing labor monopolies by the Wagner Act, strikes you as logically inconsistent, you’re right.  However, without unions labor was felt to be powerless in the face of big business.  Whether that feeling continues to be justified in the face of hyper-competitive globalization is debatable.  Business monopolies are harder to come by today than they were 100 years ago.  Closer to home, the political power held by public employee unions at local, state, and federal levels appears increasingly counter-productive and unjustifiable.  Perhaps the common law was right after all, across the board.  We’ll see.

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Stan Prowse

Inevitability and the Great War

National Cemetery at Fort Rosecrans of San Diego, CaliforniaThe War That Ended Peace, despite its author’s caveat that the Great War was not inevitable, left me with the feeling that it was.  Ms. MacMillan’s detailed description of the decision makers and the context in which they made their decisions makes it difficult to imagine what could have happened to influence them to make different decisions more conducive to the maintenance of peace.  Most of them may not have wanted the war, but they expected one and were willing to have one.

Nail Ferguson’s The Pity of War makes an interesting counterpoint.  He tries harder than MacMillan to show that the Great War was not inevitable, but he covers much of the same ground showing the gestation of the War.  This undercuts his suggestions that if only people had hewed to the truth rather than their myths, the War could have been avoided.  However, the truth is that they clung to their myths.

Both of these books, along with Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, confuse the distinction between how and why.  The title Sleepwalkers must have been chosen by Clark’s publisher, not by him.  Like the other two, Clark’s book makes it perfectly clear that the decision makers as well the public were wide awake.  “How” goes to causal chains and their interplay.  “Why” goes to fate.  The Great War is best understood as tragedy.  By the same token, assigning fault to any of the players in the play is an unprofitable exercise.

Stan Prowse

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Stan Prowse

Annexation of Crimea by Russia

Annexation of Crimea by Russia. A book review for the Bar magazine. 

Comparison to the origins of World War I and World War II.

By Stanley D. Prowse

SWAT tactical unitThe Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark.
Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max HastingsBloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy SnyderNo Simple Victory: World War II in Europe 1939-1945, by Norman Davies

The recent annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the Russian instigated war in progress in Ukraine (albeit for now a small one), invite comparison to the origins of World War I and World War II.  These four books, three of them recently published and one from 2007, provide a good place to start.Sleepwalkers, a New York Times Important Book, is inaptly titled.  It is a long and densely detailed story of how the war started, focusing on the role played by Serbia and the Russian ambassador in Belgrade in sowing the seeds for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the assassination’s  centrality to the series of events culminating in Germany’s invasion of Belgium in August, 1914.  The book’s title is inapt, because the book itself makes it crystal clear that the players who made the decisions producing  the war did so over time, with considerable deliberation, and with the knowledge that their decisions would almost certainly lead to a general European war.  They were not sleepwalking.  Clark, although a British historian, self-consciously avoids taking sides, but it appears fairly clear that the Tsar’s decision to announce the first general mobilization of the Great Powers was taken for the benefit of the Serbs, and in legal terms was the efficient cause of the war.

In contrast to Sleepwalkers, Catastrophe is shorter, oriented more towards the individual experiences of soldiers and civilians alike, and an easier and more enjoyable read.  Catastrophe takes a self-consciously British viewpoint of the beginnings of the war and its first few months.  Hastings is not shy about pinning the blame for the war on the Germans for giving Austria the famous “blank check.”  He acknowledges the thesis of the revisionist German historian Fritz Stern that Germany’s major goal in World War I was strikingly similar to its major goal in World War II, the domination of Eastern Europe.  On the other hand, Hastings fails to acknowledge the enormous role France played in goading both Serbia and Russia into war, while ensuring England would intervene against Germany.

Bloodlands, by American historian Timothy Snyder , tells the story of the bloodletting in Eastern Europe between the Wars and during World War II.  It is an alarming and ghastly tale of human suffering by civilians, from Stalin’s plunder of Ukraine and other non-Russian areas conquered by the Soviets following the end of World War I, through the contest for control  of Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Germany during World War II.  Bloodlands stands for the proposition that in terms of the slaughter of both civilians and soldiers, the number of combatants involved, and the scale of battle, World War II in the European theater of operations was fought primarily in and over what is now roughly Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.

No Simple Victory might be seen as the precursor of Bloodlands.  It emphasizes that our perceptions of World War II are biased and parochial depending on our national and cultural perspectives.  For example, it is hard to argue with Davies’ thesis that the American contribution to the War was primarily the production and provision of weaponry and related supplies to the Soviets, and that the Normandy invasion and the liberation of France and eastern Germany was a sideshow in comparison to the series of colossal cauldron battles like Bagration fought successfully by Russia on the Eastern front.   Davies shows beyond a doubt that Eastern Europe – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine – was the primary theater of the War in Europe.

Vladimir Putin is obviously a student of Russian and Soviet history.  He knows full well that Russia has exercised hegemony over Eastern Europe for most of the last 250 years, and that its eastern border has repeatedly been well within Eastern Europe.  Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine as independent, sovereign states are historical anomalies in modern history, not the norm.  Russia’s border has already moved west again to encompass Crimea, and threatens in the near future to encompass another chunk of Ukraine.

History has a way of repeating itself.  Russia is clearly a revanchist state bent on regaining its historically former territories, just as France in 1914 was bent on regaining Alsace Lorraine.  How will Russia’s current ambitions play out?  Its annexation of Crimea, like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, was no accident, although at the time his assassination did not seem to be a threat to world peace.  In addition to the annexation, we have a downed civilian airliner and a small war which might still get bigger.  If you’re Polish, you should be worried.

Stan Prowse

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? In one of my current cases, a husband and wife I represent are being sued by the husband’s mother (!) over what she calls a several hundred thousand dollar loan. Mom’s complant is based on a document entitled, “Promissory Note.” The document certainly reads like one. However, the kids and I are arguing that the Promissory Note should be treated as an irrevocable trust agreement. The basis for our argument doesn’t matter for this blog, but the result does. If the document is a trust agreement, the loan isn’t a loan. Instead it’s money mom put in the trust as an asset of the trust. The interest due mom under the document isn’t interest. Instead it’s a distribution of trust assets to mom. Finally, the kids aren’t debtors. Instead they’re the trustees of the trust and its ultimate benficiaries, so when mom dies they get what’s left of the money.

On the radio this morning on the way to work, I listened to the news on KNX, a major CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. The reporter was talking about some aspect of the recent death of our Ambassador to Libya and the destruction of our Benghazi consulate. She attrributed both to, “the demonstration.” That got my attention, because most people (including the State Department) seem to have come around to attributing both the death and the damage to a terrorist “attack.”

There’s a world of difference between a demonstration and an attack, just as there’s a world of difference between a promissory note and a trust agreement. Demonstrations start peacefully, otherwise they couldn’t “turn violent.” When they turn violent, they generally result in attacks on police and property. A demonstration can turn into an attack, but it’s awfully difficult to imagine an attack turning into a demonstration. It seems reasonable to conclude an attack by a large group of people that didn’t start out as a demonstration doesn’t belong in the realm of peace. Instead it belongs in the opposite realm, the realm of war.

The choice between “demonstration” and “attack” as the correct name for what happened in Benghazi is far from trivial. The proper response to a demonstration is most likely negotiation. The proper response to an attack is most likely a counterattack.

I’m surprised by the functional similarity between arguing in court over the correct name for a document, and arguing on the national stage over the correct name for the events leading up to our Ambassador’s death and our consulate’s destruction. Names matter. Happily enough, getting the document in my court case named correctly – one way or the other – isn’t a matter of life or death for mom or the kids. Unfortunately, choosing the wrong name for what happened in Benghazi could be a matter of life or death for many more Americans.


Stan Prowse