Sunday, December 13, 2015

Past Present and Future

The Near Future:  2016
Elections, they say, are about the future, especially US Presidential elections.  The way it should be, candidates put forward something resembling their visions of the future, and voters choose the person they want to be the midwife of the next four years' events--technically, how they would direct the course of Federal execution of the laws. Unfortunately, we are too easily fooled; candidates always promise outcomes they can not deliver, and the vision is obscured by the talking points and attack angles.

One of the favorite angles that candidates are trying to play this year (not unlike some other election years) is to convince us that their election will make the difference, that, with them in charge of our government, our children's future will be bright and our country will be greater than it has ever been before. It's true of all of them (that they will try to do this attempt at convincing us), and it's true of none of them (that they can make the country greater than ever).  Still, I would suggest that we evaluate the prospective Chief Executive/Commander-in-Chiefs by which of the following three future outcomes they would tend to lead us:
1) The US draws back from the dangerous and unaccepting world around us, and we try to achieve greatness within our own borders;
2) The US leans forward and acts to change the world and make it more the way we want it to be; or
3) The US presents an example before the world, acting within it in accordance with our values, but accepting that our contributions will ultimately be incorporated in the emerging global society.   
Each of these visions has its merits and defects, and our President's responses to various challenges will not fall exclusively in one category or another, as they often depend more on the specific circumtances, but there are differences in the attitudes of the various candidates with regard to this essential question, and our choice among them is the critical issue for the year.

The Distant Past:  "Memoirs of Hadrian" 
As they sometimes say, history rhymes, and the stanza that resonates to me with our geopolitical status and stage in our society's lifecycle is Rome, early-to-mid-Empire, roughly 50-200 A.D.  Not a perfect analogy, of course, but the basic idea works well:  Europe is to us as Greece was to Rome, in our emergence we had our kings (the colonial period), our phase as a popular republic, and what we have now.  And that is an oligarchy, in which the critical role of our military/foreign policy has made the Commander-in-Chief (that is what "emperor" means in its Latin root) the predominant figure. Remember that Imperial Rome had the original Senate (it means "old men") but its role during the Imperial period was about like our Electoral College, confirming the election of the foremost but hardly a check on executive power.

Anyway, this period of Roman history had both a string of awful Emperors--the remnants of the Caesars' dynastic line, descendants of Julius and Augustus (Octavian)--and then, after a period of intense chaos and power struggle,  a series of rulers we now know as the "Good Emperors", including five in a row who ruled for over 80 years, dying of natural causes (as opposed to the many who were killed in military coups).  Their careful succession planning helped preserve some stability, and during this period, citizenship was opened up more broadly, the Empire thrived and maintained its extensive reach, and gained enough vitality for it to retain its coherence and regional dominance through a couple hundred more years of often chaotic power struggles.  

Hadrian was the second of those long-ruling Good Emperors (Nerva, who founded the line, could be counted but ruled only two years), succeeding Trajan, and, like Trajan. was born to prominent Roman citizens who lived in what is now Spain.   As such, one of the key characteristics emerging during the period was the expansion of fully-fledged Roman civilization beyond the Italian peninsula.

His rule was the stuff of Roman legend, as was his mourning of Antinous, his lover who died as a young man. The French author Marguerite Yourcenar wrote Memoirs of Hadrian in the 1950's, a work of fiction based on her extensive historical research into his life. She tried to incorporate all that we know of his life, his administration, his philosophy, and his times.

In terms of his lessons for us, Hadrian gave up the effort of his predecessors to try to conquer the Asian subcontinent, but instead promoted trade with it and exploration in other directions and developed the capability for the military to hold the territory it had won (most will associate his name with Hadrian's Wall, which he had built across middle-north Britain to keep out those crazy Caledonians in the north).  He toured his empire constantly, planned for great cities to be built, and planned his succession through adoption of a few in whom he found to have the greatest potential (among them the famed philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who followed in his footsteps).

There is much that we can learn from Yourcenar's attempt to re-create his thoughts, memories, and philosophy of life--the book is written as an extended letter from dying Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius--though we also see the ways our society is different from that one; one important aspect is the relative unimportance (!) of religion to Romans, in this period when worship of the pagan gods was little more than ritual, but Christianity had not yet taken hold.  Of course, Yourcenar has the benefit of knowing what followed Hadrian, and she gives him a level of foresight which would be unusual for anyone, in any time.

The Present Moment--in Live Popular Music
This seems to be a special instant for live performance of popular music on TV.  There is a long, and generally somewhat ugly, history of televised rock concerts--low production values, playing to the cameras, bad sound.  Techniques have improved, though, and the importance of the concert tour to the economics of popular music has never been higher.  Of course the quantity of video concert footage that is available is growing exponentially.

Three events I want to mention:  first, the postponed performance from Paris by U2 which was televeised this past week on HBO.  It was to be televised on November 14 but was cancelled after the terrorism which struck the city the day before.  The event went off on the new date without incident; the performance was mostly the same as the U2 tour which this event completed:  a stage running the length of the floor of the stadium with an equally large projection screen overhead; the songs were about 60% from the latest album, which featured a great deal of memories of their early lives in Dublin, and also of the terror in the Irish island in those days.  You will (probably) never get a better chance to see The Edge and how he plays those guitar lines at which we have marveled for decades; Bono's voice was a bit bit thin, understandably so at the end of a long tour, but he was up for the occasion.  Then there were the Eagles of Death Metal, the American band that was playing at the Bataclan theatre that was the site of the worst terrorist massacre--U2 invited them onstage to perform at the end of the concert. They played Patti Smith's song "People Have the Power" with U2 and then one of their own songs.  I will say only that it was not what I thought it, or the band, would be--if you have not seen the concert, you should take a look:  HBO is usually very good about rebroadcasting their content, almost endlessly, in fact.

Second, Adele will be on national network TV with a performance from Carnegie Hall on Monday night.  Her album's sales are through the roof, and we don't get many chances to see her perform live. Third, there will be a special televised event that was celebrating the 75th birthday of John Lennon, on AMC on December 19, with a host of well-known performers, and I guess Lennon's songs will be featured throughout.

On the subject of covers, I would like to close this section with a discussion of "The Voice", a
"reality" TV series. part taped and part live, that presents singing talent performing hit songs. The format is a drawn-out elimination contest, in which the performers need to appear a dozen or more times, getting tutelage from established star performers who each have their own "team", with voting by Twitter, by download song purchase, and sometimes by judging from the four stars.

There are a couple of things I like about the series, which I have gradually been sucked into by my wife and daughter's interest:  the singers genuinely are talented, the stars seem genuinely interested in the teaching (this season, they are Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Pharrell Williams, country star Blake Shelton, and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, the latter two of which have developed a surprising public romance during the season), and the backup band is excellent.  I hate the format, which draws the tension out excessively in each episode, and over weeks, and I hate the way the popular voting is done and how it is utilized. At the end of the day, I feel the performers are being exploited for the commercial benefit of the network (the stars/teachers, too? Their motivations/pay are not very transparent): all this exposure doesn't seem to translate into hitmaking careers for the talent, who are tested heavily and repeatedly.  There's something very "Hunger Games" about it all, except nobody's getting killed.

Present:  Trump/Rubio/Cruz/???
(Political Drama--Act II, Scene 1)
Still more than 50 days from the first real results of the 2016 Republican nomination contest, the online market in which I participate has already narrowed the field to three contenders--in order of support, Rubio (currently trading at 38 cents on 100), Cruz (30), and Trump (25)--three more rated with dark horse chances (Bush at 11, Christie at 6, and Kasich at 2)--and a long list of longshots at 100-1 odds.  This list includes former monthly flavors Ben Carson, who has dropped precipitously during a two-week tour of the world to learn what foreign policy is, and Carly Fiorina, as well as a variety of moribund active candidacies (Paul, Graham, Huckabee, Santorum, Pataki) and some not-even- candidates like Mitt Romney, Susana Martinez, and my own longshot favorite, Paul Ryan (the scenario for him is the deadlocked party turns to a draft-Ryan movement at some late stage, out of pure desperation, and as he did with the House Speaker role, he "reluctantly" steps forward).

Looking at's individual primary/caucus markets (which have been set up through Super Tuesday, March 1), we currently just see variations in the order of the top three. Trump leads in New Hampshire and only a couple more, Rubio in the Eastern states and Cruz in the Southern ones.  The one that is viewed as the tightest three-way race, at this point, is the fourth in the series of early primary/caucuses, Nevada.

The only market where this pattern varies at all is New Hampshire.  Christie edges out Cruz for third place in the betting to win the state (which seems unlikely to me), and there is a more wide-open race (and a special market) for the coveted second-place finish there: there is significant support for Bush, Kasich and Christie; however, second-place in Iowa shows the same three as usual (Carson has faded to a distant fourth at 4 cents), the betting now rather strongly favoring Cruz to win and Trump to finish second.  Is there room for someone other than Tea Party wingers Rubio and Cruz, and flaky outsiders Trump and Carson, to make a run?  Yes, but that person has yet to show they can garner a significant share of potential Republican voters in the polls.

The newest market to draw big interest is whether Donald Trump will declare a run as an independent or third-party candidate in 2016. This market is currently valued at over 30 cents on the dollar.  We explore this concept in a brief fictional scenario below.

Possible Near Future:  The No Trump Bid
Offstage, we hear rumors--shots, screams, explosions--of tragic incidents in Paris, in Colorado Springs, in San Bernardino, in Mali, and elsewhere.  Our villain, the modern-day Alcibiades, the short-fingered vulgarian (an old description coming from Spy Magazine), the Man of Wherever, takes center stage. 
Donald Trump smiles to hear of the latest atrocities and proclaims his newest outrage to our senses of propriety, fairness, justice, and due process.  The mob howls its pleasure. Meanwhile, in a dark corner of the same stage, a group of momeymen and political strategists plots their desperate counter-strategy. 

Megadonor1:  We have a pot of money ready to use, but for whom?  Trump laughs at us when our people meet with him. I can't see backing him in the general election.
Strategist1:  Keep your powder dry, Charles.  We'll come up with something.
MD1:  I'm tired of this, Bill--you've been wrong at every turn this cycle.
Megadonor2:  Just tell me who we are going to go with--I have wasted tens of millions on Jeb already.
Strategist2:  Sorry, Boone, but you know you did that on your own.
Megadonor3:  OK, so who do we rally behind?  Anybody but Trump, as long as he's strong on Israel.
Strategist2:  Truth is, Sheldon, the Presidency is already lost--it doesn't matter who we pick.  If we nominate Rubio, or Bush, or Christie, we will get the organization behind him, and if Trump runs as an independent, his voters will show up.  That way, we can keep control of Congress.  I'd say, we go for whoever wins Florida, or whoever finishes second there, if Trump can win it.
All:  Done!

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