An Adventurer Looks for the Next Fight

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Georges Lefebvre: Napoléon ISBN 978-2-84736-677-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ It is no coincidence that I devour biographies of political or religious leaders. I am trying to understand how such people’s minds work to grasp the awe-inspiring policy of people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. And it is no coincidence that I have read now a second biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, written by Georges Lefevbre back in 1936, with just as much pleasure and interest as I took in the work by Max Gallo. Napoleon Bonaparte’s political reforms had a profound impact on my home country’s destiny, and his personality – basically a cunning political adventurer seeming war for the benefit of the psycholigical kick – reminds me of some of today’s political leaders. This said, 2019 is the 250th anniversary of Bonaparte’s birth. That alone should be a reason to take a look at this extraordinary man.

When I speak about Bonaparte, I am more interested in the homo politicus than in the general. It is indisputed that he was a military innovator, a daring commander and an intellectual heavy-weight – despite strategic and tactical errors, despite the disaster in Russia and the lost battle of Waterloo. As for his political ambitions, now that is another story. As Lefebvre shows, Bonaparte’s decisions were often contradictory and at odds with his political goals, dictated by emotions, faciliated by an applauding ignorant crowd and a complying entourage. It is this facet of the man that reminds me of the appalling decisions made by Trump or Johnson. At the same time Bonaparte was a ruthless dictator, an enemy of democracy and hell-bent to break the law to increase his political power. He did not care about the public good, the interest of the nation, not even about even the legacy of the French Revolution of which he claimed to be a child. He was after power and glory, nothing else. His political career was about his ego, just as for Trump and Johnson.

While General Bonaparte seemed to be guided by reason and strict military logic, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte appears as quite a different man. In domestic affairs, the wish to consolidate the political power of the state institutions quickly gave way to Bonaparte’s desire to concentrate all the power in his person. In foreign affairs, calculated risk-taking gave way to recklessness, military caution to deliberate provocation. Just to give you an idea: In 1803, Bonaparte was far from ready to win a naval war with Great Britain. 43 French battle ships were operational, but 23 were still under construction. His government was almost broke, and the French people gladly had adjusted to a life in a pacified country on a pacified continent.

Nevertheless Bonaparte treatened the British government’s interests by insinuating that he could invade once more Egypt and thus triggered a war he actually wanted to fight much later. Great Britain launched a preventive maritime campaign to deny France the command of the seas and cripple its overseas trade, while Great Britain’s allies Austria and Russia engaged France and its allies on the continent. Bonaparte engaged in a policy that could lead either to the subjugation of all Europe or his own fall. It was all or nothing. In the end France won this round, that is the third Coalitiin War – against all odds. And this victory encouraged Napoleon to push his luck further and further.

Whenever an adventure was looming at the horizon, Bonaparte could not resist. As a general he had to hold back his horses as he had superiors and political masters that defined policy goals and red lines. Once Bonaparte had secured the supreme political authority for himself, there were no more limits to his desire to cover himself with glory in a military campaign. He became addicted to success and to the veneration by his peers and by the crowds.

We should consider this evolution of a man when we try to evaluate the actions of Trump and Johnson. And we shouldn’t bet all our money on their early failure. I have deceived myself with the idea that Trump will shoot down Trump. He didn’t. He and Johnson may be lucky and win once or twice. That will be the moment to look out for and get ready for a new edition of Waterloo. Emboldened by initial success they may plot ever more adventurous schemes and ultimately fail, but only after having influcted a huge collateral damage on our societies.

Now a last word about the book: Lefebvre goes to great length to explain the rise an fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the socio-economic conditions in post-revolutionary France, its fractured political landscape and the interests of the other European powers. He does it with much knowledge and an excellent pedagogical approach. His work, written more than 75 years ago, remains one of the landmarks in the field of research on the Napoleonic era. However, at times the author expects the reader to be himself an expert in French history. Many names, functions and technical terms go unexplained, and the editors of the modern edition would have been well-advised to add a glossary, a name index and a timeline of significant events.

In 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 saw its premiere, and the composer had given it the title “Bonaparte”. But once Bonaparte had proclaimed himself Emperor of France, Beethoven lost any sympathies for the autocrat and renamed it “Eroica”:

The Case Beethoven vs. Napoleon

Rescueing America’s Middle Class – A Woman’s Mission

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Antonia Felix: Elizabeth Warren. Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. ISBN 978-1-4926-6528-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I had no idea how much I would love this book. It was fun to read, and it gave me an excellent insight into the plight of the American middle class, a fundamental factor in understanding how somebody like Donald Trump could become president of the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s story, told by Antonia Felix, reminded me of Karl Marx’ description of how factory owners exploited factory workers in the 19th century and how the proletariat got caught in the trap of low-income, no education and no chance to rise from misery. An informed account of social injustice and the economic mechanism behind it.

Don’t get me wrong. Warren is not a Communist, not even what the Americans call a “Socialist”. She is labeled sometimes a “dangerous liberal”, and her Republican opponents mean it as an insult. But this only adds to her credibility. She is dangerous for selfish, arrogant politicians and bank CEOs, not for common mortals. Actually Warren is very much in favor of the market economy. She is also a staunch defender of the level playing field that should give all Americans a realistic and equal chance to live the “American Dream”. And there you have it: The playing field is not level. As a scholar she studied the income situation of the middle class for decades. She initiated the first large field study to find out why households file for bankruptcy. Investigating what circumstances pushed households over the cliff became her academic mission.

Losers and winners

Globalization divided the United States into losers and winners, it turned Main Street against Wall Street. The unbridled capitalism, marked by a deregulated banking sector and highly fragile financial constructions, proved to be one of the traps in which the middle class got caught. Lay-offs and the lack of adequate social security were part of the problem. Another element was the easy money that flooded US consumer pockets. You have bills to pay? Use the credit card? You default on your credit card? Take another credit card! Never mind that the bank will charge you outrageous fees later. And African-Americans and Latinx become more easily a prey for ruthless lenders as they are more often targeted by such lenders and often lack the education to see the trap closing.

Then there is the housing issue. A house in a good neighbourhood – one with a good school and other public infrastructure – is an expensive investment. Mortgage financing seems to be the quick and easy solution. But many are not aware of the dangers and the expertise needed to work through the paperwork. Add the risk that many take in refinancing their consumer credits through their mortgage. A grim picture. “Americans are drowning in debt”, Felix writes. “One in four families say they are worried about how they will pay their credit card bills this month […] Last year [2017], 1.2 millions families lost their homes in foreclosure.”

On the brink of poverty

A situation all too familiar to Senator Warren. She grew up in a poor family in Oklahoma. Both parents had to work, and at some moment, their home was at risk. Young Elizabeth was expected to marry a good man and not to start expensive studies to become a teacher as she wished. Gender roles were an issue, but already as a young girl, Elizabeth Warren knew how to persist. Persist – it became one of her winning formulas and quite a few members of Congress and staffers at the White House have experienced Warren’s tenacity. She became an outstanding researcher and teacher wining multiple awards.

Warren’s desire to learn and to teach brought her to the pinnacle of law studies in America: Harvard. However Warren’s career did not stop there. Having situational awareness is one thing. Finding ways and means to remedy the situation is another. But is it the job of a Harvard scholar? Warren’s expertise, her savvy use of TV shows and her publications made her a well-known person all over the United States. And soon after the financial crisis, Democrats from Washington started to reach out to her. In her youth she had been a Republican, her study of the consequences of “laissez-faire” capitalism have converted her.

A scholar turned politician

In October 2008, Congress authorized 700 billion US dollars to stabilize the economy through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It targeted the failing banking sector, and Warren joined the Bankruptcy Review Commission to supervise the implementation of TARP. She got a first taste of Washington politics and was appalled. It was all about saving the banks, and still no one cared about those who had their savings and pensions wiped out. She wrote a brilliant article with the title “Unsafe at Any Rate” and requested safety standards for credit card contracts and mortgages similar to those in force for electrical appliances, toasters for example. At the end of a long political battle stood the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Partisan infighting prevented Warren to become the agency’s first director as Republicans had vowed to take the agency down, no matter what the political costs were. And a retired senator, Barbara Mikulski, gave Warren a piece of advice: “Don’t get mad; get elected.” What she did. After some hesitations, she resigned from her post in Harvard and went on an election campaign targeting the people who were the subject of her studies: the impoverished and weakened middle class that did not seem to have a champion in Washington.

Serving the people

Warren’s desire to serve the average American has become her hallmark. She appears genuine in championing this cause, and it’s a worthy, noble cause. She knows as much about the issues at hand as anyone in the United States. As a senator she forged bipartisan bills by reaching out to other female senators with common sense. She has a strong sense of community, visible to anyone who cares to watch, and being elected twice to the Senate proves that she stands a chance to accomplish even more. A “Washington Post” writer has her in the first slot of the Democrat’s candidates for the presidential elections in 2020. People like Elizabeth Warren do not claim to make America great again. People like Elizabeth Warren actually make America a better place.

Female heroes are not exactly abundant in classical music, but this does not mean that they do not exist at all. Judith, who gave her name to a chapter of the Old Testament, is such a hero, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed at the age of 15 “La Betulia Liberata”, an oratorio about Judith’s deeds:

A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment

Out of Control

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Bob Woodward: Fear. Trump in the White House.  ISBN 978-9-526-53299-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I knew that reading this book would not be a source of joy. Though it is meticulously researched and extremely well written, its subject, as it unfolds, comes close to a political horror trip. Welcome to the White House of President Donald Trump aka @realdonaldtrump. In Bob Woodward’s book, he is more real than ever, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I will not go into the details of Woodward’s description of how amateurish the Trump campaign was organized, how he hijacked the Republicans and how willfully unprepared he arrived at the White House. The old warhorse of the “Washington Post” does it much better than I could ever do. I will not delve into the daily chaos that marked the White House after Trump had taken office, triggered by the president’s emotional tweets, the absence of rules and procedures, the exit of hundreds of experienced public servants and the arrival of ignorant nobs. Woodward has interviewed hundreds of people, and his fact-checking team must have spent thousands of hours verifying each statement illustrating the pervasive anarchy. It’s all in the book, and it’s worth reading it.

You may be asking why. Perhaps you think the worst is over, now that the Democrats rule the House of Representatives. I would like to temper your optimism. It’s not yet over. Trump has already profoundly changed politics in Washington, and one may even say that he has profoundly changed the United States. Here are a few take-aways related to the book.

Polarize the Nation!

Steve Bannon, the alt-Right ideological sharp-shooter, the brain behind Trump’s electoral success and the first presidential decisions in 2017, set the tone for the political dialogue in Washington: Polarize the Nation! Attack the establishment! Annihilate any enemy, left, right, centre! Republicans inside and outside Congress went along with that strategy. And many subscribed to it in the recent mid-term elections. Us versus them. No prisoners taken.

This style appeals to those who voted for Trump in 2016: Disenchanted people, with no optimistic outlook that the “American Dream” will ever become a reality for them. The forgotten ones in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt, in the conservative south, those for whom globalization brought unsecurity and often misery. These people and their legitimate griefs will not go away. They will embrace Trump again or anyone emulating him. For they have nothing to lose.

Life in the Trump bubble

Since Inauguration Day, the White House is ruled by a man who seems to have lost touch with reality long ago. He lives in a bubble, shaped by excessive TV consumption, Fox News mainly, by the yes-sayers around him, by rallies with adulating crowds and the absence of any knowledge about economics and politics. According to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump has the comprehension of “a fifth- or sixth-grader”, as Woodward writes.

Trump lives in a world where smoking factory chimneys mean progress and prosperity, where climate change is a scientific fraud and where the United States is a self-sufficent country, capable of handling all kind of challenges on its own. This makes it so easy to manipulate the president, with unforeseen consequences for the United States and the rest of the world. You just need to dangle the right type of carrot in front of Trump. Russia quickly understood this, Steve Bannon’s alt-Right too. That reminds me of that wonderful bon mot “Now we have them exactly where they want us.”

Outbursts and lies

Trump’s virulent attacks on all kind of multilateral agreements, from the “Iran Deal” to the Paris Climate Agreement and free trade treaties, have changed the international landscape already. Stockmarkets are wary of trade wars, while former allies will distrust the US government for as long as Trump and his ideas are around. And for good reason. There is no coherent foreign policy and there is no orderly policy-making process in the White House anymore. It’s all emotions. The president gets set up by CNN or the “Washington Post”, by the investigation on his ties to Russia, by a staffer taking longer than 10 minutes to explain an issue, and all hell breaks loose. Trump throws a tantrum and has to break something: a treaty, the relationship with an ally, anything.

Speaking about the Russia investigation, I relished Woodward’s account of the US president’s interaction with his lawyer John Dowd, who did everything possible to protect Trump from himself. To do so efficiently, he needed Trump to trust him, to faithfully recall what had been said and done during the campaign… are you laughing already? That’s precisely the point. Trump didn’t know, didn’t recall, didn’t trust. Dowd faced a pathological liar, for whom reality and fantasy have become one. One must assume that most of the time, the US president doesn’t know himself which of his statements are true actually.

Donald Trump’s presidency is about destroying the current order without replacing it by anything else – just for the sake of media coverage. Trump’s presidency is about an embattled ego, longing for recognition. Trump’s presidency is about Trump. Nothing else. The title of Woodward’s book stems from a quote of the presidential candiate: “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” Trump spreads fear, no doubt. But his anger and his destructive actions are the symptoms of a suffering man.

As Woodward subtly shows, Trump himself is filled with fear. The fear to fail. He was filled with that fear probably since he was a boy, growing up in the shadow of his successful father, the New York real estate tycoon Fred Trump. What makes Trump dangerous, is his fear to fail. It makes him weak too. The first step to counter Trump and his disruptive potential is to let go any fear, to think for ourself and to speak our mind. There’s nothing to fear except our own fear that makes us helpless.

A dysfunctional system, not unlike the White House, has been described by the composer Aribert Reimann in his opera “Lear”, based on Shakespeare’s play:

Lear – You are men of stone

Changing Shape in Order to Shape Change

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John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge: The Fourth Revolution – The Global Race to Reinvent the State. ISBN 978-1-846-14733-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Changing the shape of government and shaping the change of government – that’s the challenge for any Western public service. Good governance, a solid financial base, lean decision-making structures and satisfied customer-citizens – who wouldn’t like to subscribe to such a model, be it in Europe, Brazil, the United States or Japan? Micklethwait and Wooldridge provide a useful recapitulation of the past: Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb and Milton Friedman are the names of the thinkers whose ideas contributed to the creation of the modern welfare state.

However, that model is about to break down because of over-extension, as the authors rightly observe. Demographics are at work here. We are getting older and become an expensive liability for the younger generations, far less numerous than our generation. Public service has grown into a seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable monster, pervading and regulating every aspect of our lives with great inefficiency.

The authors describe in a fascinating way the challenges ahead, and relish in enumerating the many failings of present governments in almost all the fields where it should succeed: health, transport, assistance to the weak, affordable housing, security. The list of what went wrong is endless, despite the efforts of many courageous public servants to reverse the trend. However when it comes to sketch possible solutions, the ideas the authors advance are at best naive, at worst misleading. I will just list a few, significant shortcomings in Micklethwait’s and Wooldridge’s arguments.

Efficient governments as in Singapore – the Asian model – come at the price of unacceptable restrictions on human rights and high risk of corruption among the elites-in-charge. I understand the authors fascination by the fast transformation from backward, inert to avant-garde, fast-paced policy-making, but the simple fact that China’s president Xi Jinping has suggested to lift the constitutional provision restricting the number of presidential terms indicates how tempting it is for a self-declared elite of “wise men” – women do not figure anywhere in the part of this book dealing with the future – to extend their power in the name of the people’s will.

This leads me to the next point: the absence of women. They are not part of the equation. More women are better educated, more women want to work, more women want to take over responsibilities in the private sector as much as in the public sector – this totally escapes Micklethwait and Wooldridge despite the fact that it changes any model of social mobility they may use in explaining part of the evolution of the public sector. Women adopt a different management style – different as in relying more on cooperation and creativity in finding solutions – and may well be the key to change the way governmental agencies operate, but the book doesn’t say an iota about it. Boooooh!

Much admired public health systems as they have been put in place in Sweden may be cost-saving, but quick discharges from hospitals are not the only scale to measure their performance since the aspect of the quality of the treatment and the well-being of the patient is neglected. Customer satisfaction does not seem to weigh heavy in the minds of the authors since their emphasis lies on budget efficiency exclusively. The same could be said about the much less admired UK railway systems. After privatization it is still running late, the seats have not become more comfortable, the cost-per-mile-track has remained about the same and the blame-game about what went wrong isn’t even funny anymore.

My personal experience in the public service is that the information age does not automatically lead to a lean and more efficient government. The authors put exaggerated hope into technology. Quite often incompatible IT-solutions are put in place and prioritization of who buys what becomes a drama in multiple acts. In-house software development addressing specific public service issues is hampered by a lack of available IT engineers, willing to leave the private sector, and supervisors prefer to decide small issues since they quite often do not understand the bigger picture – an issue shared with the private sector where thousands of badly trained managers fail when the time has come to assume responsibility. The human factor cannot be emphasized enough and will always neutralize efficiency gains through technology. This is less ironic than it may appear.

Making government agencies more responsive is always a lovely idea. Giving citizen the option to share with government agencies pictures of problems (pot holes, graffiti, missing road signs etc.) along with GPS data through mobile phones sounds like a cheap and democracy-friendly idea but it will lead government to fund additional posts. It will feed the monster, not put it on a diet. Someone will have to process and prioritize the data, generate specific orders for work crews and provide a feedback to senders. And write reports about efficiency gains neutralized.

Finally raising pension age is not a solution per se as burn-outs are a common issue in the higher echelons of public service, partly because leaner structures – smart government is the key word here – have increased the workload for decision makers. Posts have been cut, but the work has remained the same. The resulting costs – increasing hours of sick-leave – do not show up on the authors’ balance sheet. Sure we can work longer. But will we work better at age 70 than at age 65? I have my doubts. The solution will rather lie in a reduction and a better distribution of essential tasks among public servants.

It is a pity that these two respected journalists have not managed to really understand some of the inherent problems of “big government” that make changing its shape and shaping its change so difficult. Their idea – streamline everything and cost-efficiency is our new God – is far too shortsighted as an approach. Micklethwait and Wooldridge should know better. They worked for “The Economist”.

Now, one thing the two authors got right is a fact from the world of music. While musing over labour-intensive services provided by government, Micklethwait and Wooldridge correctly state that it took four players to perform a Beethoven quartet in the 19th century and that today it still takes four players to play a piece like Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 in C minor by which Beethoven provided an early proof of his revolutionary mind:

Radically innovative – now and then