Review of Neal Stephenson’s “The Baroque Cycle”

(This is a repost of a review written in 2008)

Neal Stephenson's trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, is a must read if you are interested in any of the following: history, The Enlightenment, science, philosophy, reason, how ideas shape world events, the birth of capitalism, pirates, battles, or love stories. Yes, this isn't so much a book review as a trilogy review, but the books can't really be separated.

Stephenson is perhaps best known for his "cyberpunk" science fiction work, most prominently Snow Crash (1992). The Cryptonomicon (1999) was a break from the pure sci-fi realm, and was a brilliant integration of the themes of pre-Internet bubble high-tech entrepreneurship, cryptography, and WWII history. Yes, the book really did span from WWII to the late 90's, and it worked.

However, The Baroque Cycle is unlike anything else he has written, in theme, scope, and depth. It's not just a work of historical fiction, but a celebration of reason and ideas, and the impact both had on the world. First, let's look at the history.

The books follow three primary fictional characters as they weave in and out the massive scientific, philosophical, economic and political changes of the period from 1680 to 1713, and the real world people who shaped the events. As a quick refresher, here is a short list of some of the events from that period in history, all of which are integral to the novels:
  • The failed 1683 siege of Vienna by the Ottomans
  • Protestant revolution and Oliver Cromwell
  • The Restoration
  • The Glorious Revolution in England (overthrow of James II and the Catholics)
  • 30 Years War
  • War of Spanish Succession
  • The rise of the Hapsburgs
  • Principia Mathematica and the philosophical battles between Newton and Leibniz
  • The emigration of Protestants from England to the American colonies
  • The Spanish Inquisition
The first character we meet is Daniel Waterhouse, an eminent Natural Philosopher, member of the recently established Royal Society, and close friend of Isaac Newton. The second main character is Jack Shaftoe, an English vagabond who by chance takes up with the Polish army at the siege of Vienna, meets and kills a Janissary (Ottoman warrior), and in the process rescues the third character, a young slave girl from the northern British Isles, Eliza.

Through the course of the novels, these fictional characters interact with all sorts of famous historical figures, from Newton and Leibniz to Kings (James II, William III, Louis XIV), Queens, Electors, a young Ben Franklin, Peter the Great and John Locke, just to name a few. The reader follows them on travels throughout Europe, the Middle East, India, the Americas, and Japan. There are thrilling naval and ground battles, political intrigues, and sword fights.

This is just the backdrop, however. The primary focus of the novels is to showcase the enormous changes in the "system of the world" as Stephenson put it, and these changes were wrought by ideas.

Through Daniel Waterhouse, we see the battle of ideas between reason and mysticism, science and religion, at the start of the Enlightenment. We see the political changes in England, the fight for representative government and religious freedom.

We watch as Eliza rises to become a brilliant, self-interested and rational capitalist, playing and creating the early stock markets, all the while orbiting in the nobility around Louis XIV. As a former Turkish slave, we see her use her money, influence and intelligence to battle slavery and attack the Asiento trade.

Through Jack Shaftoe's travels and adventures, we explore the state of the rest of the world and see the stark contrast between the brilliant energy and progress of England and the backward mysticism and barbarism of the Spanish colonies, India, and southeast Asia. We see Jack struggle with understanding the economic changes in the world as the feudal systems are replaced by markets, banks, complex investments and production of wealth.

All of these threads are woven together in a great heroic story, and through it we witness an amazing period in history as old systems of government, economy and science are turned on their heads, and the stage is set for the birth of a new nation in the Americas. The books end in 1713, but they present the rebirth of reason, progress of representative government, and nascent ideas of individual rights that were exported from England and were the bedrock of American thought.

Stephenson portrays these ideas with a great sense of life and expert skill. The books aren't without some philosophical problems, but they are minor. Overall, they make up a brilliant work of art, and you will be glad to have read them.

If you intend to buy the books...
On Amazon, you will notice that there appear to be many more than just three books in the series. This is because after they were initially released, Stephenson split them into sections, roughly three per original book, and sold as smaller volumes. I recommend buying the original three, however. Their titles are:
  • Quicksilver (Vol. 1)
  • The Confusion (Vol. 2)
  • The System of the World (Vol. 3)

Update: Make sure to read my review of Ed Cline's Sparrowhawk series. If you would be interested in an amazing historical fiction portrayal of the American Revolution that rivals (and I think betters) the quality and scope of The Baroque Cycle, you'll want to read this review and then the books.


Christina Romer: Old Dog, Old Tricks

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post called "The Great Depression Reenactor" about former White House Economic Adviser and noted Great Depression "expert," Christina Romer. The gist of the post was that, despite the evidence to the contrary, she was still clinging to her failed Keynesian policies, wishing that unemployment was lower but still happy that they were able to get some stimulus into the economy.

Now that it's been another year and the unemployment rate is still above 9%, the US credit rating was downgraded, we appear to be headed for a double-dip recession, stocks are poised for another sell-off after a horrific week last week, and gold is up over $1700/ounce, do you think she's learned her lesson?

Fat chance.

Now she's on Bill Maher's show (watch the 6 minute video) joking that we're "darned fucked," and lamenting that the stimulus wasn't big enough.

See, she's an expert, if you didn't know, and she teaches that government spending drives recovery. It's in all the textbooks, she says, and she teaches that to the undergrads because she teaches the "truth." But don't worry. She says the empirical evidence "is definitely there," and to those who disagree, her thoughts are "that people wanna say that the sky is green."

In a humorous exchange -- though not for the reasons they suspect -- Maher compares her to a climate scientist in that they both "know real things that you study at a college," but the "stupid people" keep getting in the way. He suggests that people who disagree must have been "Palinized" and he asks, "isn't it frustrating when the people who don't know things about the subject you're so well versed in, get an equal vote in the debate?"

Of course, she agreed.

Now, it's easy for Maher to lump free market proponents into the Palin camp (note: this is no defense of that theocrat, Palin) because that's the same way he deals with climate change "deniers": ad hominem, insults, and mockery. Yet, his comparison of Romer to the climate change alarmists is quite apt, for one, because Romer sticks to the conventional wisdom despite any countervailing evidence, and for another, because the proposed solutions always entail a drastic attack on individual.

Let's be thankful that she was frustrated by the stupid people, at least a little bit. And let's hope that her brethren in the administration currently will be similarly frustrated in their attempts at a third round of cheap-money policy, QE3.


The Specific and the General

Random happenstance led me to read two articles today that have connections in ways I wouldn't have otherwise noticed and both articles are worth sharing. The first is the Specific.

In Chipotle Mexican Grill versus egalitarianism, Stephen Hicks examines the recent case against the restaurant chain for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. To sum up, a man in a wheelchair sued because he couldn't see the food as it was being prepared. As Hicks writes:
The justices in the Ninth Circuit Court agreed, writing in their decision that Chipotle’s counter “subjects disabled customers to a disadvantage that non-disabled customers do not suffer.”

Let’s set aside some secondary matters to get to the key issues. So set aside the large majority of restaurants at which no customers can see their food being prepared. Set aside the children under four feet tall who can’t see their burritos being assembled at Chipotle. Set aside Chipotle’s offer to bring sample spoonfuls to their wheelchair customers.

Here are the key issues decided by the case, one ethical and one political:
Ethical: Customers should have equal food-ordering experiences as a matter of moral principle.
Political: We must use the law, i.e., physical compulsion, to enforce such an important moral principle.
What follows is a nuanced examination of how the ADA and the court enforce a bastardized form of the concept of "equal," one championed by egalitarianism where "to put it in metaphorical terms: they treat equality as a Procrustean Bed." The take home message is that the rights of Chipotle are being trampled upon by the implementation of bad philosophical principles.

As I was cleaning off my desk today, I came across a print out of the article I refer to as the General.

What happens to a society when it is being eaten alive from the inside out by countless examples like the one above? Billy Beck wrote about that nearly a year ago, and his words are even more relevant now:
This is my working concept, now: that it's over, and that all that's left are the particular details of collapse. That will be a rich story in itself, for sure, but we are living a truly unparalleled tragedy. It is unparalleled in that this was the first country in history founded on rational ideals of individualism (even accounting for the original sin of black slavery), and it is a tragedy in that it has been destroyed from within.

...Their grandfathers could build houses if and where they wanted to once they had accrued the moral authority (that's "money", kids) to do it: these people can barely un-flatpack a bookshelf, but at least they wouldn't have to beg zoning permits for that.

Even as it slides, though...they will notice the cold bite of the state. These are special generations -- the earliest of them just passing now and the last of them alive in albums with long hair and bell-bottoms -- who can see it all freezing right in front of their eyes. Their children are groomed to the cold from birth now. All the time, they know less and less about the sheer gaiety of life that once was this country, and what it took to produce that. They take for metaphysically-granted political (and their consequent cultural) structures emergent right in front of them that were once the stuff of "fevered McCarthyism". The worst part of that is the complicity of their parents, who should know better because they actually lived a great deal of what's been lost, now.
If it's not clear why I draw the connection, read both posts for yourself, especially Billy's. I'm no longer able to marshal arguments against Beck's overall assessment of America. Hick's particular example is one of seemingly infinite reasons.

In light of that, Beck's mention of "the complicity of...parents, who should know better," and that "their children are groomed" to accept the all-powerful state struck a chord. As a parent of young children, I struggle with this daily. How do I open their eyes to the fact that omnipresent government is not a metaphysical absolute, that men can deal with each other voluntarily without a statute or regulation (replete with taxes) to govern it, and that amazing prosperity and happiness are the result, without also passing on my own profound anger at it all? Right now, the anger may be all they understand, really, and that's no way to raise a reasoning, happy child. This is a battle I fight constantly, raising my wondrous, beautiful little humans in this time of decay.


Will 2012 be 1936 Redux?

In 1936, the country was still in the stranglehold of the Great Depression, and despite billions of dollars of government largesse, (largely to swing states and politically important groups) unemployment was still hovering near 20% and more Americans were "on relief" (make work jobs and welfare) than was the case 3 years prior. This last despite FDR's solemn promise to reduce the number of people on relief.

The Supreme Court started to declare some New Deal programs unconstitutional and the Republicans were winning back some key congressional seats, as the country seemingly began to wake up to how destructive the New Deal really was. FDR's poll numbers were diving and Republicans salivated at the chance to kick FDR out of office in November.

On election day, FDR crushed the Republican candidate, winning 523 electoral votes to the challenger's 8, which is the largest margin in American history.

What happened?

Two things happened. First, FDR used his printing presses and his political machine to flood swing states with cash and jobs. From Burton Folsom's New Deal or Raw Deal?:
In 1935, Congress had allocated $4.8 billion for the newly created WPA to use for relief work, and much of that cash the president had personal discretion in distributing. What that meant was that state governors had to come hat in hand to Washington hoping to persuade the president to build roads, dams, bridges, and model cities in their states.

...In the four months before the 1936 election, 300,000 men were added to the WPA. In the month after the election, 300,000 were promptly removed from WPA work. As Thomas Dewey observed, "Three-hundred thousand men and their families moved on and off relief as pawns of New Deal politics."

...When, for example, Roosevelt heard that thousands of WPA workers were to be laid off October 1—the month before the election—he told Morgenthau, "I don't give a god-damn where he gets the money from but not one person is to be laid off on the first of October."
Clearly, this was an assault the Republicans could not fight. "As the campaign wore on, and with the New Deal money spigots turned on high, Landon [the challenger] fell behind more and more. Landon won a majority of donations from businessmen, but that cash was dwarfed by Roosevelt's federal money machine. Roosevelt's patronage trumped Landon's protests of high prices, high taxes, failed programs, and executive usurpation of power."

It seems like a clear cut answer, and that alone likely sunk the Republicans despite the clear evidence in their favor. However, something else made it impossible for them, no matter whether they had a stellar candidate (they did not) or more money than FDR.

The second thing that led to FDR's landslide victory is that the Republicans were entirely lacking in principles. Folsom indicts them, then and now:
Landon had a dilemma, and it has been a Republican dilemma ever since 1936. So many Americans were now working in federal programs that he risked offending about ten million voters if he argued for cutting programs to balance the budget. But if he agreed to continue the programs, then the balanced budget crowd would be unhappy and the people on the programs, although no longer angry, would still have no real incentive to ditch the man who created so many of their federal jobs. As one reporter quipped: "Don't switch Santa Clauses in mid-stream." Roosevelt accurately attacked Landon in Syracuse as follows: "You cannot promise to repeal taxes before one audience and promise to spend more of the taxpayers' money before another audience.... You simply cannot make good on both promises at the same time."
Sound familiar? On the one hand, in the midst of widespread unhappiness we have federal largesse working in the favor of the statist incumbent. On the other hand, we have wishy-washy, unprincipled statists making laughable and half-hearted arguments, all the while supporting the same basic goals as those they are fighting against.

Will the 2012 election end up with the same result as the 1936 election? Time will tell, but if history is any guide, it's doubtful the country will see any relief from this disastrous presidency any time soon.


Dangerous in the Extreme

What follows comes from the private journal of a man close to the president who, when confronted with the reality of the man, looked on in fear and apprehension:
I was impressed as never before by the utter lack of logic of the man, the scantiness of his precise knowledge of things that he was talking about, by the gross inaccuracies in his statements, by the almost pathological lack of sequence in his discussion, by the complete rectitude that he felt as to his own conduct, by the immense and growing egotism that came from his office, by his willingness to continue the excoriation of...business in order to get votes for himself, by his indifference to what effect the long-continued pursuit of these ends would have upon the civilization in which he was playing a part. In other words, the political habits of his mind were working full steam with the added influence of a swollen ego. My deliberate impression is that he is dangerous in the extreme, and I view the next four years with no inconsiderable apprehension.
This was written in 1936 in the diary of a member of Franklin Roosevelt's "Brains Trust," Raymond Moley, in the run-up to the election for FDR's second term.

I pulled this quote from New Deal or Raw Deal? by Burton Folsom, Jr., which critically examines FDR's New Deal programs and exposes them for the destructive and rights-violating abominations that they were. The book includes a large amount of biographical and historical material about FDR himself, and the more I read the more I see stronger parallels with Obama than I thought existed. I find this latest quote from Moley especially interesting in light of some of my recent (admittedly not all that recent) posts about White House insiders and their view of Obama. Moley could have been writing in 2011.

Let us hope that Obama's rhetoric and Democratic machine is not as effective as FDR's was.


The Great Depression Reenactor

Having done all she can to bring about a country-wide reenactment of the Great Depression, President Obama's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Christina Romer, is stepping down. Following the standard doctrine of politicized, progressive economists, she believes that heavy government intervention saved the country from the Great Depression, and she relied on that "expertise" in her position for the past year and a half.
Among her challenges was explaining why her prediction that the Obama-backed fiscal stimulus would keep the unemployment rate below 8% proved overly optimistic. The unemployment rate is now at 9.5%.

"I certainly hoped it would be lower," she said. "The world deteriorated between November 2008 when I started" and the initial estimates were made "and when we took office January 21. Do I wake up every morning and wish it were 8% instead of 9.5%? You bet."
Well, as least she hoped it would be better. But it's not her fault, you see? The "world deteriorated!" "I'm not to blame! It's not my fault!" (Is that Dr. Robert Stadler or James Taggart -- or both -- from Atlas Shrugged?)

I wrote about Romer in November 2008 when she was first picked to lead the Council. I quoted the following passage from a Boston Globe article:
The lesson she drew from that crisis, according to colleagues and a review of her writings, is that strong government intervention is sometimes necessary medicine. That may mean she will urge Obama to act aggressively to keep capital flowing through the financial system and to enact an economic stimulus package that injects government spending into the economy at the risk of ballooning the deficit.
See my post for Henry Hazlitt's take on how well that worked when FDR did it. Similar policies threw the country into deeper depression which only relaxed when FDR (and the Supreme Court) finally lifted the boot from the neck of American business.

And yet, after seeing the failure of her policies -- even though she wishes! for lower unemployment -- Romer did, in fact, learn something new:
Where we are today is certainly not good. But in the absence of the actions [of the government --ed.] the economy would have been even more terrible."

One thing she says she hadn't realized previously: "The degree to which you often only get one shot at something like the Recovery Act."
See? She learned that as bad as things are, it would have been worse without her. What evidence does she have for that? To quote a favorite phrase of Ayn Rand's, "blank out."

Romer only got "one shot" and it was right on target. She hit America in the jugular and we've been hemorrhaging red ink ever since.


Not Right

In "Scalia Was Right" in today's WSJ, James Taranto discusses how Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia predicted the 9th Circuit's overturning of California's Prop. 8. Taranto uses that model to predict that when the SC hears the appeal, it will be upheld by a 5-4 vote with Justice Kennedy writing the opinion.

He notes how in a 2003 dissenting opinion, Scalia described -- the bile flooding from his pen as fast as were his logical arguments -- how the ruling would lead inexorably to allowing same sex marriage, and his logic was certainly sound. Taranto seems to share Scalia's "the world is going to hell in a handbasket" view, writing:
In Perry [the current Prop 8 case], however, the defendants are unlikely to be able to counter the plaintiffs' claims by arguing that forcing states to recognize same-sex marriage violates anyone's individual rights. Their appeals are to tradition, morality and the collective right of the people to self-government--worthy arguments, we would say, but ones Justice Kennedy has already rejected in Romer and Lawrence.
Did you notice the problem there? Taranto laid it out for you on a platter. Let me state it clearly: individual rights don't matter to him. Instead, some bastardized crap called the "collective right of the people to self-government" should rule the day.

Taranto, I expected better of you. I don't know why, but I did. You're advocating the tyranny of the majority -- i.e. pure democracy -- and the wanton and willful violation of individual rights in the name of tradition and morality, or some non-existent bullshit idea of "collective rights".

Well, that will come back to bite you when it's the other guy's traditions and morality that are in the majority. In fact, I think you've been advocating against Obamacare. Didn't the democratic process lead to that rights-violating monstrosity? Would you be more comfy with it if it was put up for a direct vote by the people? 51% calls it? No?

This is the problem with Conservatism in a nutshell. It's the same crap the Lefties peddle but from the religious side, with a bit of free market pandering thrown in. It may be fun to watch guys like Taranto attacking Obama's insanities, but this man is no friend of individual rights.

Update 8/6/10: Removed "you fool" from second to last paragraph. Upon reflection, it was unfair and unnecessary.


"What is your back-up country?"

I've asked myself this question a number of times in the past year.
When do you suppose the citizens of imperial Rome first realized that their way of life had tipped into inexorable decline?

A few foresaw the impact of Caesar's usurpation of the rule of law, marking his ascension as the beginning of the end. . . .The plebeian masses, accustomed to bread and circuses, were probably oblivious until Rome was finally sacked. Everything was fine yesterday, how did these barbarians arrive at our gates?[. . .]

The other day while out to dinner with a number of tech investors and entrepreneurs the conversation turned to a disturbing subject. "What is your back-up country?" These people weren't kidding. Property was being purchased. Contingency plans were being made.

What will it take to make most people realize that the grand American experiment is tottering on the brink? The destruction of their life savings? The nationalization of vast industries? The high seas teaming with pirates? A humiliating military defeat at the hands of primitives in a far off land?
Make sure to read Bill Frezza's whole piece at RealClearMarkets. It looks like he's starting to see the Endarkenment coming, too.

While I've given some thought to contingency plans, I think it's likely that if America falls down it will be uglier than we can imagine, and it will drag the rest of the world down with it for a long, long time.

[HT: Doug Reich]


The Typical American

It seems that foreign observers often have keener insights about the fundamental American nature and sense-of-life than do Americans themselves.  The following was written in 1929 by British historian B. H. Liddell Hart, in the preface to his biography, “Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American.” In the years after the Great War, Hart was attempting to learn historical lessons to avoid the horrific and useless mass casualties of deadlocked trench warfare, and in the process, seemingly developed a healthy admiration for the man and his country:
This study of Sherman is an attempt to portray the working of a man's mind, not merely of a man's limbs and muscles encased in uniform clothing.  The man is William Tecumseh Sherman who, by the general recognition of all who met him, was the most original genius of the American Civil War.  And who, in the same breath, is often described as "the typical American."  To reconcile the apparent contradiction, of the exceptional and the general, is a problem which in itself invites study and excites the creative imagination.  It is curious that the attempt at a solution has been neglected for so long.  For if this man was both so original in mind and so characteristically American, that combination—which many in Europe would say was paradoxical, if not improbable—may help to illumine our understanding not only of the last seventy years but of the tendencies still in the womb of fate.

. . .this study of Sherman may serve to give the European reader a clue to the better understanding of the American character as it has evolved from its "prototype," and to give the American reader an opportunity of testing, by the acid of Sherman, the purity of the present product and how far the reality corresponds with the ideal set up by that most realistic of idealists.
If that doesn't get you fired up to continue reading the book, I don't know what would.

Yet, at the same time, I can't help but think about what Liddell Hart—transported 80 years into the future—might have to say about how the "purity of the present product" in America stands up to the acid test.