WSJ Historically Speaking: The Great Swindlers

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Great swindles used to have a face or at least a name to vilify. By contrast, our current financial scandals seem diffuse, transnational and as incomprehensible as their acronyms. Libor, ISDAfix and now HFT, or high-frequency trading—all were once regarded as harmless instruments that facilitated the movement of capital. But there was more to them than met the eye. As the best-selling financial writer Michael Lewis, author of the recently published “Flash Boys,” recently said on “60 Minutes,” “The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism, is rigged.”

Though computers have increasingly replaced humans and business methods have grown more arcane, what links today’s scandals with those of yesteryear is the hypnotizing power of confidence. Violence can force people to act against their instincts, but only confidence can make us override them. Charles Ponzi, whose fraudulent postal-coupon scam in 1919 gave rise to the term “Ponzi scheme,” exuded such confidence that he was still able to attract investors even after he brought down six banks, lost about $20 million and spent 3½ years in prison.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When Justice Drowns in the Law

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

In “The Federalist Papers,” No. 62, James Madison warned his readers against drawing up laws that were unnecessarily dense or complicated: “It will be of little avail to the people…if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”

Congress largely heeded Madison’s advice until World War II, when the average bill was still only 21/2 pages long. But today, 1,000-page spending bills routinely pass through Congress. President Bush’s 2007 budget bill counted 1,482 pages, while the 2010 Affordable Care Act ended up at almost 1,000 pages.

According to Philip Howard, the author of “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government,” the chief problem with laws that rival “War and Peace” in length is that the rule of law suffers. Instead of being the facilitator for civil society, he warns, the law can become an instrument of paralysis.

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The Sunday Times: The Ugly American inside Obama is wagging his finger at the world

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Barack Obama began his recent four-nation tour of Asia by having dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Japan’s renowned sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.

The restaurant has three Michelin stars but only 10 seats and it can take years to get a reservation. The set meal consists of 20 exquisite sushi pieces, each personally cut by 88-year-old chef Jiro Ono. According to a witness, Obama decided he was finished after the 10th and put down his chopsticks.

There are three possible reasons why Obama stopped eating halfway through the meal. 1) The 44th president is severely allergic to raw fish. 2) Obama was frightened of pulling a George HW Bush and throwing up in Abe’s lap. 3) He was, well, kind of full, you know?

I have a strong suspicion that the answer is No 3. Obama has a political tin ear whenever he has to hobnob with foreigners — such as the time he bowed to the Japanese emperor in 2009 only to ruin the gesture by simultaneously shaking hands. Whether it was ignorance or arrogance or a combination of the two, the gaffe pandered directly to the stereotype of the “Ugly American”.

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The Huffington Post: ‘Belle’: An Austenesque with a Racial Twist

By Regina Weinreich

The name of this utterly charming movie conjures images of the Disney cartoon feature with a brunette cartoon star singing in the library. Dido Belle, however, was a real life mixed race woman, smart enough to have had a career in the law, but for 18th century England, she went far. The talented Amma Asante’s movie is an Austenesque comedy of manners, keenly involved with who shall marry whom, and whose fortune is more plump than so and so’s social standing, but here’s the delicious twist: Belle is desirably financially endowed, but as a mulatto, and illegitimate, she is of dubious position. Thoughtful and daring, she influences an important decision, changing the course of British history.

Born in a slum to a black woman and a high-born white navy captain (Matthew Goode), Belle’s fate takes a turn when her father takes charge of her, and brings her to his family’s stately mansion. There, surrogate parents, Lord and Lady Mansfield (excellent Tom Wilkinson and a witty Emily Watson), manage Belle’s education and upbringing. Her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) is a constant playmate. Belle’s father disappears early on, and in many ways this romance becomes a father-daughter piece, with Wilkinson beaming proud of his ward as Belle shows intelligence, not only in helping to adjudicate a
famous legal case involving the Zong slave ship vs. an insurance company, but also insisting that when she marries, her race would not be an issue of conciliation and embarrassment. Sam Reid plays the suitor, a kind of Mr. Darcy.

At a recent lunch at la Grenouille, hosted by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant and W Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi, Phyllicia Rychard, Star Jones, Tamron Hall, and others were introduced to director Amma Asante and her leading actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Diners also heard historical novelist Amanda Foreman flesh out the legalities of the Zong slave ship matter. Foreman, originator of the popular and entertaining House of Speakeasy nights, where writers are invited to extrapolate on a theme, knows how to make history and literature engaging and fun. The discussion went down with the ease of the delicious striped bass: in the case of Belle, and the lovely actress who plays her, a refreshing gem in the season of sequels and action hero blockbusters.

The Wall Street Journal: The Special Vilification of Female Leaders

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Thirty-five years ago this Sunday, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to be elected British prime minister. She wasn’t the first woman to be at the head of what had often been “Her Majesty’s Government,” of course, but only Thatcher had fought her way to parliamentary power via a general election. Standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, she acknowledged the sexual and political revolution that had taken place. To her naysayers, Thatcher offered the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…where there is doubt, may we bring faith.”

During her 11 years in office, Thatcher repaid her Tory supporters’ faith, eradicating any last doubts that a woman could govern as well as a man. But her wish to bring harmony was in vain. Judging by the names she was called, Thatcher attracted a unique hatred among some Britons that was hard to separate from the fact she was a woman. After Thatcher’s death in 2013, a vociferous minority campaigned to propel the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to the top of the official U.K. singles chart. It stopped at No. 2.

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WSJ Historically Speaking:The Verse Heard Round the World

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

April 19, 1775, was a quiet day in America’s Thirteen Colonies—except for a deadly encounter in Lexington, Mass., between about 80 militiamen and 700 British regulars. Neither side had been expecting a fight, and no one knows who really fired the first shot. But accident or no, it set off one of the greatest social and political experiments in history.

The Battle of Lexington was also the inspiration behind one of America’s best-known poems, the “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even those unfamiliar with the poem will recognize the line: “Here once the embattled farmers stood/ And fired the shot heard round the world.”

A single act can indeed change the course of history, and Emerson’s line has often been invoked since the poem appeared in 1837. It is particularly associated with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Though powerful forces were already building before the Habsburg archduke’s death, Princip’s shot is widely regarded as the blast that set them free.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Lesson of the Last Passenger Pigeon

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

In April 1896, a flock of American passenger pigeons was discovered nesting in a forest outside Bowling Green, Ohio. Once the most ubiquitous bird in North America, the passenger pigeon had shrunk from countless billions to this single of flock of 250,000. News of the find was telegraphed across the country, drawing hundreds of visitors to the area.

By this time, the great bison—a powerful symbol of frontier America—had dwindled from a population of tens of millions to just a few hundred, all in zoos or reservations. Determined to prevent a similar fate for the passenger pigeon, several states had already enacted hunting bans. Seeing the birds gave conservationists hope that the restrictions were working.

Unfortunately, the visitors to Bowling Green weren’t bird watchers but hunters, and Ohio had no such protective laws. They killed the entire flock in a day. Afterward, the train taking the carcasses to sell in New York City derailed, leaving them to rot in a ravine. Eighteen years later, the lone survivor of the species—a female bird named Martha, after George Washington’s wife—died in a cage in the Cincinnati zoo.

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Smithsonian Magazine: The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

I loved watching the “Wonder Woman” TV series when I was a girl. I never wanted to dress like her—the idea of wearing a gold lamé bustier and star-spangled blue underwear all day seemed problematic—but the Amazonian princess was strong and resourceful, with a rope trick for every problem. She seemed to be speaking directly to me, urging, “Go find your own inner Amazonian.” When I read the news that Wonder Woman was going to be resurrected for a blockbuster movie in 2016, Batman vs. Superman, it made me excited—and anxious. Would the producers give her a role as fierce as her origins—and maybe some shoulder straps—or would she just be cartoon eye candy?

The fact that she isn’t even getting billing in the title makes me suspicious. It wouldn’t have pleased Wonder Woman’s creator either. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” declared the psychologist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston, offering a proto-feminist vision that undoubtedly sounded quite radical in 1943. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”

Over the years, the writers at DC Comics softened Wonder Woman’s powers in ways that would have infuriated Marston. During the 1960s, she was hardly wondrous at all, less a heroic warrior than the tomboyish girl next-door. It was no longer clear whether she was meant to empower the girls or captivate the boys. But the core brand was still strong enough for Gloria Steinem to put her on the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine in 1972—with the slogan “Wonder Woman for President.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Gambling and Other American Hustles

Photo: PETER ARKLE

Photo: PETER ARKLE

More than 100 million Americans are expected to bet in some way on this year’s NCAA men’s college basketball tournament–proving that the “madness” in March Madness is no mere expression. In 2013, according to Pregame.com, more than $12 billion was bet on the tournament—$2 billion more than on the Super Bowl. Between the slacking off, the drinking, the overeating and the surreptitious score-watching at work, one recent study predicts that March Madness will cost the U.S. $134 million in lost productivity and wages—all this despite the fact that in most U.S. jurisdictions, NCAA tournament pools remain totally illegal.

The U.S. has always had an uneasy relationship with gambling. Internet gambling remained illegal until this year—though that didn’t prevent Americans from spending more than $3 billion gambling online last year, according to the American Gaming Association. This great dichotomy in attitudes has been part of the national landscape since the early settlements in the 17th century. In Puritan New England, gambling wasn’t just a sin but a crime, whereas in the South, gambling was a gentlemen’s sport so long as it didn’t involve cockfighting. In the 1770s, the 13 colonies adopted a more robust attitude: Every one of them resorted to lottery schemes to raise revenue. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton all benefited from lottery money. Even the Revolutionary War was funded by lottery.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Beware of Astrologers on the March

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, an unnamed soothsayer repeatedly tried to warn Julius Caesar that calamity awaited him, famously saying, “Beware the Ides of March.” But March 15 arrived without anything untoward taking place, and Caesar bumped into the soothsayer as he made his way to the Curia Pompeii. “See,” chided Caesar, “the day has come.” “Yes,” came the reply. “But it has not yet gone.”

If the story is true, the soothsayer is one of the few astrologers in history to make a completely clear and unambiguously accurate prediction. But the abysmal record of astrology and its intellectual cohorts doesn’t seem to have dented their popularity. Looking to the stars for guidance is as ancient as the Babylonians, who used astrological charts to help predict the recurrence of the seasons. Every ancient civilization from the Egyptians to the Persians studied the stars, seeing astronomy and astrology as variations of the same pursuit.

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