Thursday, August 31, 2023

John Donne's Body

I received an unexpected book for my birthday: "Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne", by Katherine Rundell. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that, despite being an English Lit major, I wasn't completely sure just who John Donne was: I recognized the name, but I don't think I read anything by him in school, and couldn't even tell you what century he lived in.



Given that lack of understanding, this turned out to be the perfect book for me. It's kind of a mix of biography, literary criticism, collection and history. It's a relatively short book and itself is written really well, forcefully making claims and backing them up with vivid language.

The book is also pretty perfect for me because, it turns out, John Donne is mostly known as a poet, and I'm not very well versed in poetry - I admire poetry in the abstract, but have a really hard time connecting with it in practice. At first I thought this might be a collection of Donne's poems, and if that was the case I probably would have bounced off of it. Instead, Rundell introduces the context in which Donne was writing, shares brief stanzas of his writing, and cogently draws out what was so startling and refreshing about it.

Donne was a contemporary of Shakespeare; it isn't clear whether they ever actually met, but they definitely moved in the same circles of London, spanning the reigns of Elizabeth I through James and Charles. Shakespeare is mostly remembered for his plays but also wrote popular sonnets. Donne moved through several different phases of literature during his life. As a young man he wrote poetry; what you might call "love poetry", but even today it's weirdly raw, visceral, engorged, overflowing. At a time when most poets were singing the praises of their beloved in the most ethereal, spiritual way possible, Donne was focused on bodies, on sex, on desire and panting and ecstasy. And while his contemporaries were writing courtly verse with elegant meters and expected imagery ("Oh how my love / Is just like a dove"), Donne broke free of these staid forms, and used unexpected, attention-grabbing metaphors that haven't been used before or since. His poetry collected a lot of indignation and scolding from literary peers in his lifetime and after, but it also made a deep impression on people, lodging in their brains... the evidence of that being that folks are still reading about him over 400 years later!

Near the end of his life, Donne became, rather improbably, a preacher: Dr. Donne was appointed by James I to be the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, after a successful career preaching at other churches around London. It seems like quite a leap from an oversexed Catholic boy to a dogmatic Protestant man, but you can tell that it's the same person: in both mediums he was trying to communicate something important to his audience, and deploying terrific imagery and words to do so. His sermons were very popular; in one instance, three men were nearly trampled to death by the eagerness to see him. And much like his earlier verses were copied and passed around between friends, so his sermons were recorded and re-read over the coming week.

In between his early poetry and his late sermonizing, Donne led a very full life. He trained as a lawyer, and worked hard to try and work his way into the royal court, without ever really succeeding. He was thrown into prison after marrying the 17-year-old niece of his employer, then proceeded to have 12 kids with her over the next 16 years. He served in several military expeditions. He also did a lot of writing, including some very obtuse metaphysical treatises and a shocking defense of suicide.

Rundell obviously greatly admires Donne's writing, but she doesn't airbrush any of his imperfections. While his love of Anne seems to have been genuine and lasting, it was also fairly squicky, as they married when he was 30 and she was 17, and their marriage removed her from a life of comfort and support to one of poverty and almost constant pregnancy. John doesn't seem to have been a good father: he wasn't very present for his kids, and only mentioned them when they were born, when they died, or when they were especially annoying. Those of his kids who survived to adulthood seemed to have turned out poorly, variously convicted of manslaughter and embezzlement and other crimes.

I guess that's kind of the inevitable conclusion of a lot of literary/artistic biographies: "This person did some terrible things, but their art is still really great, and worth experiencing today." While Donne had faults, it does seem like, for the most part, he was honest: honestly grappling with God, with desire, with his personal ambitions for fame and money and comfort.

I was pleasantly surprised by how readable the Donne excerpts in this book are: I think they're closer to modern English than Shakespeare is. Part of that is because Donne was creating modern English: a lot of our words were first invented by him, as well as some of our best-known phrases ("No man is an island"). So, it turns out, I did known John Donne after all!

Monday, August 21, 2023

Freedom & Necessity & Revolutionaries

When I'm looking for something new to read, I have a few possible avenues to follow. The easiest is thinking of an author who I already enjoy and finding a book of theirs that I haven't read yet, either because it's their latest book or because I haven't exhausted their catalog yet. I also maintain a reading list spreadsheet; this is where I pop in books that are recommended to me in one way or another (personal recommendations, a positive review I stumble across online, a reference from some other piece of media, etc.). A recent source from the last couple of years has been a particular list from China Mieville, an author who I generally enjoy, and who has led me to quite a few enjoyable books from authors I otherwise wouldn't have read.


The latest entry from that list is "Freedom & Necessity" by Emma Bull and Steven Brust. I haven't read (or even heard about) either author before; from some extremely light online research, it looks like they usually write fantasy novels (separately). I went into this book completely cold, not knowing anything other than that China Mieville enjoyed it.


The first thing I noticed was the form: the novel mostly consists of a series of letters written between the major characters. Each person will usually recount some piece of action that recently occurred, but also include a lot of their personal reflections, references to previous experiences, and maybe some good-natured ribbing. Early on I would typically flip forward to find who signed the letter, then go back and read the whole thing. After a while, though, you get to know the voice of each author so well that this becomes unnecessary. Kitty is particularly easy to identify, with breathless run-on sentences spilling from her pen. Along with the letters we get occasional journal entries: Susan encrypts hers, while Richard does not. And there are a few articles from The Times which, apparently, are taken verbatim from the actual paper.

Unlike my initial assumption, this is not a work of fantasy, but rather of historical fiction. It's set in England during the 1840s, and while reading this novel I came to realize just how little I know about this period: well after the War of 1812 and long before the peak of the Empire, what was happening in England? There were quite a few times while reading this that I went over to Wikipedia to look up some reference and would swiftly go down a rabbit hole, swept up in the fascinating revolutionary movements of that era that I was completely ignorant of. For some reason I assumed that both authors are British, but I see now that they are American, and I think it's cool that they found and explored this period of history.

There were some parts early on when I thought that there might be some fantasy to this after all: Kitty writes about opening the gate and communicating with spirits, James speaks in an unrecognizable tongue. Much later in the book there are some other references to pagan-ish rites. The book itself seems resolutely realistic, though. Characters are interested in mysticism because people of that era were interested in mysticism, not because mysticism is real within the context of the book.

So, what is the book about? It's pretty hard to tell for quite a while! I honestly had a bit of a hard time getting into it. The letters-writing mechanic isn't my favorite, and the plot is so vague and for quite a long time that it's hard to hold on to anything in particular. There's a general sense that something is afoot and various events that seem to be evidence of some form of conspiracy, and that sense of foreboding looms over a lot of the book before you start getting clarity. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing: most of my favorite fiction of these days are from writers like Bolano who specialize in ominous-but-vague writing. The old-fashioned language may have been an issue as well; the book uses modern spelling, but the pacing and writing is a lot like the contemporary Austen and Bronte novels.


Once you do get to the actual plot, though, I found it really compelling. There are a lot of different threads in play, but the most exciting one revolves around the Chartist movement. I'd never heard of this before, but it was a working-class political movement in England and Ireland that was agitating for a more democratic system. That included demands like universal male suffrage, salaried members of Parliament (so people who weren't independently wealthy could afford to serve), proportional representation, and so on. Today all of those demands have been implemented and they sound innocuous, but at the time it was seen as a dangerous, treasonous, revolutionary sentiment, and the Chartists were brutally suppressed, with many leaders thrown into prison or killed by the state.

One of the main characters, James, has been an undercover Chartist for years. Like all of the other main characters, he was born into the aristocracy, but he sees it as corrupt and wants to overthrow (or at least reform) it. One of the tricky things about the book is that James is coming from a life of deceit, and so a lot of the information we get from his letters (or that others record him saying) isn't accurate. It takes a while for us to get a clearer picture of what's actually been happening.

While not a key part of the plot, one of the most enjoyable elements of the book is the inclusion of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx as supporting characters. We barely see Marx at all, but Engels is a great presence: warm, helpful, challenging, curious, bright, passionate. You get a sense that "fellow travelers" existed long before that term existed; Engels is following his own program, but sees the kindred spirits in Chartism and wishes them well.

The big revelation near the end of the book is that, rather than trying to untangle a single big elaborate conspiracy, they've actually been facing something like three or four separate conspiracies, all after them but for different reasons, and competing with one another as well. That was a pretty clever reveal; it makes things even more complicated, but that feels appropriate to what the book is trying to do.

The core political conspiracy has to do with the Prussian government stoking a false-flag operation that will cause the British government to crack down on the community of Continental leftist exiles living in England at this time, eliminating the threat to stability that they pose. There's also a set of personal conspiracies revolving around James, the son of Andrew Cobham: Andrew is a wealthy and powerful man in society, and we learn that he also leads the Trotters Club, a secret society organized around ritual murder. There's a three-way struggle within the club: Andrew wants to keep control of the club and eliminate James, his bastard son and a living embodiment of Andrew's shame; Allan Tournier is a longtime foe of James who also joined the Chartists but has been informing on the organization, and now seeks to kill Andrew and James and deliver the Chartists to the government, so he can be rewarded with leadership of the Trotters as well as receiving the old family estate; and Allan's sister has arranged to get impregnated by James and wants her unborn son to inherit the estate.

It was kind of satisfying to have all these threads finally out in the open and start to draw closer near the end; the flip side was that the novel becomes "The James Show" near the end, with everything being about the character I liked the least. Kitty has the most compelling voice but is almost completely missing from action; Richard is incredibly likeable but is in exile in the Continent for much of the last third of the book, and only appearing to back up James at the end; Susan is great, and does have some really wonderful lovemaking scenes with James, but (her great feminist words notwithstanding) by the end she seems to mostly serve as a window to show us more of James. James himself does change by the end: he's more trusting, less cynical, has a reinvigorated sense of purpose and destiny, while keeping his lifelong determination; but, I dunno, I just didn't like him all that much.


Even though it wasn't completely my cup of tea, I did enjoy this book, and liked it a lot more the further I got into it, as I got more used to the language and could wrap my arms around some of the plot. I am pretty curious about exactly how it was written: my assumption would be that Emma wrote the parts that came from the women's perspective and Steven the parts from the men's, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn that they did it differently.

Looking back, it seems like the 90s may have been the peak time for collaborative novels. When I was growing up I loved the (age-inappropriate) Thieves World books, a shared-world setting with a bunch of different authors contributing stories that used each others' characters. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens came out in 1990 and might be my favorite collaborative novel ever. Freedom & Necessity was published in 1997. I'm sure that people are still co-writing spec-fic novels, but off the top of my head I can't think of one I've read from the last decade. Which definitely could say more about me than about the publishing industry! But it is interesting that in an age where it's so easy to collaborate with one another (both technically, through sharing editable documents rather than mailing manuscripts, as well as through the many tools available for instant communication over long distances), we don't seem to have experienced a corresponding explosion in collaborative works of fiction.

Thursday, August 03, 2023


Phew! I just finished reading Ron Chernow's first book, the massive tome The House of Morgan. I checked it out from the library at the same time as two more reasonably-long books, and was amused to see that while the others were due on July 8th, HoM was automatically checked out until September 19 - I think it's cool that they would automatically give extra time for getting through it!



It's a fascinating book, and very well-written, so engrossing that I once completely missed my bus stop and had to loop all the way back around. It covers the history of the J. P. Morgan bank in its various manifestations, from a small American outpost in the City of London established early in the 1800s through its titanic presence at the turn of the century through its involvement in the scandals and malfeasance that came to characterize Wall Street in the 1980s. Chernow published this book in 1990 and it continues right up to that point, through the 1987 stock market crash and the presidency of George Bush. It has some aspects of a biography, but it's more of a biography of a dynasty than of an individual person. It's also a fantastic walk through history, especially compelling because it tells a coherent narrative story instead of needing to broadly cover everything that happened over those momentous 150 years.

I picked this up for a couple of reasons: I've highly enjoyed all of Chernow's other books I've read (biographies of Hamilton, Washington and Grant), and the financial thrust of this book seemed likely to align with my recent fascination / obsession with topics of wealth and inequality. To my surprise, for once I read a book and was not constantly cross-referencing it with ideas from Thomas Piketty. Instead, the book that most often came to mind was Matt Stoller's Goliath. Both books focus on roughly similar eras, from the start of industrialization through the present (although the "present" was three decades earlier for Chernow). It is really cool to see the same history through different perspectives. Chernow's book is a lot longer page-wise but its focus is narrower: primarily on the Morgan bank, and by extension the companies it did business with, which includes a lot of other competitive banks and railroads, but not many of the industrial and retail firms that Stoller pays attention to. Some of the people who towered in Stoller's book are barely mentioned here; one of the biggest examples is Andrew Mellon, who is a huge villain in Goliath but here is only fleetingly referenced as Hoover's secretary of the treasury. But they both have a lot to write about Louis Brandeis, and the creation of the Federal Reserve, and the various Congressional hearings of the first half of the 20th century, and how National City / Citibank is and always has been absolutely awful, and how Walter Wriston in particular is terrible, and so on.

The first 2/3 or so of the book reads like an anthology of biographies, covering the strong-willed men who started the Morgan empire and describing the world in which they operated; Chernow also does a great job at giving layman-level introductions to some key financial concepts, while keeping the focus resolutely on the human beings who execute those transactions and are affected by them. The story begins, oddly, not with a Morgan but with a Peabody: George Peabody, an American who relocated to London and became the de-facto representative for Americans seeking to raise money from the British. One of the biggest themes in this book is the shift in the flow of capital over this period of time. In the 1800s, the British were the world's richest empire and the biggest creditors, investing in projects around the world; the Americans were vibrant and developing upstarts, frequently in debt as they sought funds to build out their railroads, factories and other infrastructure. After the two World Wars, this orientation had shifted, with Wall Street the financial capital of the world and the place everyone went to raise capital, and Britain now playing a financially subservient role.

The genesis of this bank was having a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic, being able to vouch for the credit-worthiness of virtuous American projects, and acting as a clearinghouse for both lenders and borrowers. In particular this was what was known as a "merchant bank". Unlike a retail bank, which took deposits from individuals and small businesses (checking and savings accounts) and made loans (mortgages and small business loans), merchant banks only operated at the wholesale level, working with large companies and nations to raise large sums of money. They started off as financing mercantile operations such as long ship voyages, and evolved over time to exclusive providers for capital-intensive projects.

Peabody seems like a copy of Ebeneezer Scrooge. He was very miserly, and there are some great anecdotes about how this fabulously wealthy man would wait twenty minutes for a cheaper carriage to come by. Near the end of his life, he turned into a very generous philanthropist, giving away most of his fortune to care for the poor and other worthy causes.

Peabody never married (though he was very fond of prostitutes). He didn't want his bank to just vanish after he died, so he asked his American associates to recommend a partner to him, and they sent over Junius Morgan, a bright, serious and hard-working banker. Junius carefully analyzed the operation and agreed to join as a partner. Junius felt some bitter disappointment when Peabody gave away most of his capital rather than keep it in the bank, but carried on after his death, rebranding as J. S. Morgan. He opened another office on Wall Street and thus carried on bank business on both sides of the Atlantic axis, eventually bringing up his son Pierpoint Morgan to manage affairs in one hemisphere while he managed the other.

Chernow dips a lot into the psychology of the people in this story, which makes for very compelling reading, although I did find myself feeling curious about how confidently we can say what these individuals were thinking and feeling. In some ways, this weighty tome is a story of intergenerational neglect and trauma, a series of damaged men rising to powerful positions while carrying unrequited feelings. Junius seems to have had good intentions in raising his son, but, perhaps to compensate for their physical distance, was extremely controlling and micromanaging, constantly giving advice and orders on how much to chew his food, how to spend his day, how to talk to people and make friends, and so on. Perhaps in response to this, Pierpont became a very driven and cold individual, and seems like he would have been extremely unpleasant to meet: when he was done with a meeting, he would simply stare silently at his visitor until they got nervous and left. Pierpont was a fantastically skilled banker, but unlike his father, didn't get any joy or pleasure from banking; it seems like it was just an obligation to him (albeit an extremely lucrative one). Pierpont's biggest passions were the Church, collecting fine art, and having lots of mistresses.

Pierpont's relationship to his son Jack was almost the opposite of Junius's relationship to Pierpoint: Pierpont mostly ignored his boy and rarely shared his own feelings or acknowledged Jack's. Chernow sees this resulting in a vulnerability and sadness in Jack; he lacked his father's rough edges, as well as his confidence. Jack also wasn't especially passionate about banking: his own passion was for sailing. It's interesting to see how Junius's strong will carried on for many generations of Morgan men, even in the absence of true feelings for their profession.

The dramatic human elements are a strong part of the book and a big part of what kept me reading, but personally I was just as fascinated with the economic-historical parts. In the first half or so of the book, railroads loom over most of the activity: raising investments for railroads was by far the biggest focus of Peabody, Junius and Pierpont's careers. Railroads have also come up a lot in other books I've recently read about the 1800s, including histories of labor. I was a little surprised when Chernow confidently asserts that, due to the high fixed costs associated with railroads, they should have been funded as public utilities, and were only created as private enterprises because there were insufficient public resources. Chernow doesn't really back that up or explain why; that idea does sort of make sense to me but I don't think I've encountered it elsewhere.

A big theme of the Pierpont era has to do with efficiencies. As Chernow explains (and I've read elsewhere), lots of people were starting up railroads, which often traveled redundant routes and competed against one another. This lead to price wars and bankruptcies. Pierpont and his ilk hated inefficiencies, and their drive to consolidate seems as much of an aesthetic and philosophical objection as out of a desire for profit. It's wasteful to spent millions of dollars laying track that doesn't provide any advantage over the existing track, so Pierpont wanted the major players to join into cartels and work out their differences behind closed doors instead of competing in the market.

I don't remember Stoller spending a whole lot of time on the railroads in Goliath; he's much more interested in heavy industry, which the Morgans mostly eschewed until well into the 20th century. (Industries were very new at the time, used significantly less capital than railroads, and were much riskier.) I'd be curious to hear Stoller's thoughts on railroads, since he invariably values competition over consolidation, even publicly-owned consolidation. I've mulled over it a bit, and I think Stoller might still have preferred the wasteful status quo of the early Pierpont era: slashing rates was terrible for the owners of the railroads, and the banks and wealthy individuals who invested in the railroads, but those same low rates were a huge boon for users of the railroads, mostly small merchants and farmers. "Creative destruction" may have led to investors taking haircuts and lower ongoing prices. (The pains of consolidation are described by both Chernow and Stoller in the debacle of consolidated railroads slashing costs and safety measures, leading to widespread crashes and deaths and triggering nationwide recessions in their wake.)

Glass-Steagall has been on my mind lately, especially with this year's failure of Silicon Valley Bank, First Republic and Signature Bank. Glass-Steagall is a big presence in this book from the introduction. I kind of knowingly chucked in the first few pages when Chernow lays out his thesis: basically, banks used to be hugely powerful and influential in the 19th century when they controlled the flow of capital, heading empires that ruled over weak corporations. In the 20th century, though, Glass-Steagall neutered banks and corporations became the new goliaths, capable of funding their own expansion through retained earnings, and so today banks are once more serving at the whims of their customers rather than ruling them as their masters. "Ah," I chortled, "Little did Chernow know that by the end of the decade, Clinton would undo Glass-Steagall and banks would rise to once again become powerful and destructive forces in the economy!"

As I headed deep into the third section ("Casino"), though, I came to realize that Chernow and Stoller actually pretty much share the same thesis: that Glass-Steagall was neutered in spirit decades before it formally ended, and its repeal was more of a burial than a murder. Thanks to decisions made in the 1960s to relax rules around acquiring deposits (which Stoller calls "hot money" and Chernow calls "bought money"), banks regained their muscular power and their ability to reach far beyond traditional loading operations, into increasingly arcane and risky financial speculation.

And honestly, I think the last couple of chapters of the book sort of belie the claims made in the introduction. We see a world where Glass-Steagall is still technically the law of the land, but completely eviscerated: a few very narrow technical things still can't be done, but there are a dozen ways to do equivalent things, and everyone assumes a formal repeal is around the corner. I was really struck by how similar the lending crises of the 1980s are to the things that happened in 2000, 2008, 2023, etc. I've been conditioned to blame these crises on the repeal of Glass-Steagall, but this stuff was already happening decades earlier. Motivated by greed, and not feeling sufficient caution, banks plummet into disaster again and again.

Chernow points out a significant change from the pre-Glass-Steagall era to the modern one: governments are now larger, more muscular and effective than the banks, so unlike previous times they are capable of taking direct action and don't need to defer to the banks. But we also start seeing government bailouts, rescues from the risky decisions made by the banks. This feels like another form of co-opting, similar to the creation of the Federal Reserve, which both Chernow and Stoller convincingly portray as a Progressive initiative that was captured by the banks for their own uses. I think of 2008's financial crisis as being a watershed moment, the final nail in the New Deal's coffin: but it was exactly the same as the bailouts from Latin American defaults and other earlier activities, where banks threatened to bring down the economy unless they were rescued. Going back to Stoller, refusing to allow businesses to fail keeps them from acting well. We've created a world where they're strongly incentivized towards the riskiest possible legal strategies: if they profit, they'll reap enormous rewards, and if they fail, they won't suffer meaningful consequences. They get bailed out by threatening economic calamity if they go under, and the solution to that is to keep any institution from getting too big to fail, too powerful to say "No" to.

Chernow does have the marked advantage of not coming across as racist like Stoller does, though. Throughout the book he carefully notes the prejudices and blind spots of the generations of Morgans and later people who headed the bank; in some cases their antisemitism was perfunctory and clubby, other times it was deeply felt and vicious. Chernow recounts how the Morgans' anti-Catholic prejudice led them to spar with Koe Kennedy, and how antiquated their attitudes towards women were. Unlike Stoller, Chernow doesn't seem at all nostalgic for the days when mediocre WASP men ran the banks.

Like I mentioned before, I was kind of expecting more "Aha!" moments with Piketty's works than with Stoller's, since these days I seem to read everything through a Piketty lens. I think the difference might be because Piketty operates mostly at the micro level (what's happening with individuals) and the macro (entire countries), while House of Morgan and Goliath are both more focused on the middle level (companies and sectors). But where HoM does overlap with Piketty they seem to reinforce one another. In particular, the transformation from the 1800s to the 1900s is revealing. Previously, central governments had small tax bases and limited power in the economy, and later on they acquired money and power that shifted previously private functions into the public sphere. Piketty persuasively shows at the level of national accounts where, when and how this has happened, while Chernow gives some vivid, on-the-ground examples of this change, most especially in how economic crises have been handled.

Throughout the book, Chernow does a fantastic job at structuring the narrative. This could have been an unreadable slog, but he thematically groups stories into his major sections: he'll lay out the theme up front, tell the story, tie events back to the theme, and then move on. Things generally progress forward in time, but he'll follow one set of characters or a development through a period to its conclusion, then rewind a few years to tell another subplot. This occasionally feels slightly odd when jumping back in time across a major political event: you'll read one page discussing reconstruction after a World War, and then a few pages later you're back to events that occurred during that war. But it all reads well and is much better than the alternative of a rigid progression through time while simultaneously tracking a dozen actors. This gets even more true in the second half of the book: during Jack's time the bank evolves from the manifestation of one man's will into a collegial team of bright, talented, interesting men; eventually the singular bank shatters into several separate organizations, who first cooperate with one another but eventually turn into vicious competitors. Along the way the hereditary Morgans are nudged out, first as wealthy playboys who are merely token partners and eventually gone altogether. We're left with a revolving door of top executive leadership, and again, it's a huge testament to Chernow's writing skill that the story remains comprehensible at this point. He has a knack for quickly and vividly drawing a few characteristics for a new player, so we can make sense of the brief part of the story they're occupying.

Why are we reading a book about J. P. Morgan & Co in 1990 (or 2023)? I imagine a big reason people pull this book from the shelf is due to the centuries-long mystique of the Morgans as all-powerful manipulators of finance and politics. Particularly during the Progressive era, the Morgans in particular were often depicted as the shadowy power behind the throne, manipulating nations into profitable wars and inflicting misery to pad their profits. Chernow takes this reputation seriously, pulling back the curtain and exploring in what ways their reputation was accurate and in what way it wasn't. Much of this reputation was a natural consequence of Morgan secrecy, which in turn was a natural outcome of the nature of their business. Merchant banking inherently feels secretive since regular people can't interact with those banks: you couldn't walk in to a Morgan branch office with a paystub and open an account. Merchant banks only deal with companies, nations, and a handful of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Even within the elite world of merchant banking, Morgan always had a very outsized influence relative to the amount of capital it directly controlled. The reasons for this outsized influence (which I and nobody else call the "Morgan Bump") varied over time. Early on, Morgan was lucky to have footholds in both the City of London and on Wall Street, benefiting from connecting the two major sources of capital in the world. Later on its power came from strong personal connections between the bank's leaders and and government officials, central bankers, and the heads of major corporations: a Morgan could get the Secretary of the Treasury on the phone at a moment's notice, and could summon the heads of all the major banks and industries into his office, not because he had bribed these people but because he personally knew and worked with all of them.

Chernow shows how Morgan often used this unique power for good, stepping in to prevent or limit recessions that were caused by less cautious banks. There's a strong sense of noblesse oblige that colors the first 120 years or so of the bank: they make good money, and feel a social responsibility to keep the economic machine and the nation it resides within humming along as smoothly as possible. As the bank continued through the generations, its reputation grew and became its own source of power. Pierpont seems like an unlikeable and deeply unpleasant man, but he also always kept his word and dealt fairly and straightly with people. Almost nobody liked him, but everybody trusted him, and could count on how he would respond in a given situation. I was surprised to learn that Pierpont never negotiated: he would make or receive a single offer, it would be accepted or declined, and that would be the end of it. I tend to think of business leaders as being cunning negotiators and hagglers, but Pierpont was the ultimate take-it-or-leave-it guy, and in the end, that did more for his reputation and power than he would have won as a skilled haggler. He was feared but trusted.

A major concept that's introduced at the very beginning and continues through the end is the idea of the Gentleman Banker's Code. This is a certain unwritten but iron-clad code of conduct by which the merchant bankers in the City of London and Manhattan operated. The key principles were basically:

  • Your word is your bond. If you say you'll do something, you'll do it, whether there's a formal contract or not.
  • You serve your clients. Advise them fairly and act in their interest. Avoid any conflicts of interest, even if it means forgoing potential income.
  • The relationship between a banker and a client is seen as sacred. Banks won't poach other banks' clients, any more than they would pursue another man's wife. If an existing client wishes to move to a new bank, the new bank will seek the first bank's approval before accepting.

Chernow repeatedly uses the phrase "golden handcuffs" to describe the relationship between a bank and its client. For much of history, this was seen as a symbiotic relationship: the company could share its deepest secrets with the bank, without fear that the bank would exploit it. The client could count on the bank to raise the capital it needed. In return, that client provided a lot of money to the bank, often in the form of keeping large deposits in the bank that bore no interest.

Between banks, there was a sort of high-level maneuvering, but competition tended to be very abstract and obscure. A gentleman banker would never dream of "stealing" another bank's client by offering lower fees or better interest rates. Banks as a whole were definitely a cartel, quietly colluding to keep fees high and their clients content. There was definitely competition between banks, but it had more to do with actions they took in the real economy, what sectors and regions they invested in, what new business they sought out and nurtured, as opposed to directly opposing one another. Again, you can see why this spawned so many conspiracy theories about banks, many of which were quite reasonable.

It's an interesting thought experiment to imagine whether we'd be better off today if the Gentleman Banker's Code was still around. Ending it diminished the power of banks (probably good) and cut into their profit margins (also good), but led them to take increasingly reckless risks that could bring down the economy (very very bad). Individual clients as a whole are getting a much better deal today, keeping more of their money working for them and having more options as a result of the competition for business; but it feels like the economy as a whole is shakier now that everything is transactional rather than reputational.

I'm reminded of a comment that the Federal Reserve made to Morgan in the 1960s, essentially "It's OK if you do this, but not if other banks do, so we can't let you do it." Morgan was, to its credit, a conservative bank up until the 1970s or so. Banking used to be managed by norms and culture. "We do first-class business in a first-class way" is not just a catchy slogan, but how generations of Morgan men defined their purpose and existence, and that North star kept their banks on a generally reliable course.

Norms and culture mostly worked, but definitely had problems: less scrupulous institutions could flout the unwritten rules and create major damage, and sometimes even the major banks would turn a blind eye towards bad or risky behavior. After the Progressive and New Deal eras, banking was increasingly managed by laws instead of by customs. That worked really well while the law was actively enforced, with both banks and society as a whole on a smooth, profitable, nicely boring trajectory. Once enforcement of the law eroded, though, the old norms were no longer in place to provide guard rails. My feeling is that bank behavior in 2023 is much worse than it was in 1864, unconstrained by either vigilant government nor a moral sense of obligation.

Speaking of rules, though, it is interesting to see how strongly different rules in the path impacted investor behavior. Several times we read about how Junius and Pierpont would re-organize a flailing company, which would often include getting bondholders to agree to exchange their higher-interest bonds for lower-interest ones. I wondered why they would agree to this, but it turns out that at the time, people who had a financial interest in a company and stood to profit from it could be held individually liable for other unpaid debts and obligations held by that company. These reorganizations were a little like a private-sector form of bankruptcy, where creditors would receive some amount of payment, bondholders would swallow lower interest rates, owners would put up more capital (often borrowed), and management could be replaced or continue working under less-extreme financial pressure. Anyways, it's interesting to see that just two centuries ago there was a system where investors were incentivized to act for the good of the whole rather than their own narrow best interests. I'd be curious to hear more about how that system worked, when and how it changed: it sounds like reviving a similar system could go a long way towards restoring a more humane and less cut-throat world of business. (As I'm writing this, I'm reminded that Pistor's Code of Capital writes quite a bit about the history of prioritizing creditors versus prioritizing debtors, which seems to dovetail with this topic.)

As I reached the last several chapters of the book, it was cool to start seeing familiar contemporary names popping up as characters in the narrative: Robert Reich, Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, Rudolph Giuliani, Ed Markey, and others enter the story. In the end, that's one of the great achievements of this style of book: presenting history as a single contiguous narrative that seamlessly brings us to the present. The world we live in now is the outcome of decisions people in the past made, and it provides an implicit reminder that the choices we make, individually and as a society, will shape the lived experiences of people yet to come. With the financial system in particular, we seem incredibly short-sighted; it's depressing to see how banking crises causing depressions and recessions used to recur every 20 years like clockwork, then were held at bay for much of the 20th century, and now are with us once again. House of Morgan gives a really valuable and compelling behind-the-scenes look at just how banks work, how they cause and respond to those crises, and hopefully we can remember the hard-won lessons of the past. We don't need to keep doing this!

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

Rest In Coffin

So, I was vaguely hoping to wrap up Elden Ring prior to Baldur's Gate III officially releasing on August 3rd. That's not happening! I probably could have done it if I just focused on the main quest, but I'm congenitally incapable of turning down side quests, and I know I haven't even opened up half of the map. So I wanted to write this post to kind of capture where I am at the moment, with the vague thought that I'll likely set this aside for several months while I quest in Faerun, before hopefully returning to the Lands Between. (That said, if there do end up being game-breaking bugs in BG3 [unlikely] or I don't dig the game [even more unlikely], I may come back to Elden Ring while BG3 gets its initial patches.)


Before spoilers, some gameplay things:

In an earlier post, I confidently wrote about how I'm intentionally boosting INT to increase damage for my sorcerer, while paying less attention to Vigor/Health, with the thinking that the best defense is to kill enemies before they can reach me. I've since done a bit more online reading about theorycrafting, and am grokking why the current recommendation is to initially prioritize leveling Vigor, with just enough in the offensive stat to allow you to wield your weapon or catalyst (staff, seal, etc.).

The reason for this comes down to how damage is calculated in the game. A given weapon does a flat amount of damage, plus an additional amount that scales based on your stat. The amount that the stat contributes varies based on the scaling level of the weapon. So, as a made-up example, a short sword might do 20 points of flat damage, plus a "B" level of scaling based on DEX. If you have 10 points of DEX, this might add an extra 5 points of damage; if you have 20 points of DEX, it might add an extra 10 points of damage, for a total of 30. As you continue through the game, you will be able to level up your weapons. This will increase the flat damage, but also the scaling amount. After several upgrades, that same short sword might now do 35 flat damage plus S scaling. That same 10 points of DEX could now give 15 more points of damage, while that same 20 points of DEX would now give 30, for a total of 65 damage.


The point is, early in the game, most of the equipment you find will have a low scaling value, so you don't get much incremental benefit by leveling up your attack stats. In contrast, the extra Health you get from Vigor is consistent throughout the whole game: leveling up Vigor from 10 to 11 will always give the same number of extra HP. Because of this, there's a benefit to front-loading your Vigor points early in the game, because you're already getting the full benefit of that investment. Offensive stat points can be spent later, shortly before you start getting those higher scaling amounts.

All that said, in my very specific case of a sorcerer who was wielding the Meteorite Staff, my build was still OK: the Meteorite staff can't be upgraded, but has "S"-level scaling for sorcery, so I was getting full benefits from the moment I found that staff. Which also helps me understand why so many online guides recommended picking it up ASAP for these types of builds!



I've also been warned that thee is a big spike late in the game, when enemies can suddenly do a lot more damage in a single hit. Having a big fat hit bar will be essential for getting through that part, and you might as well have extra health before then anyways.


Like almost every RPG, health is ultimately the single most important resource: if it gets reduced to 0, you die. This can happen in a lot of ways (fall damage, poison effects, lots of little pinpricks over time, some big swings that connect), but for most people most death will occur during boss fights. Bosses in Elden Ring are tough, resourceful, have unique mechanics and lots of health. As I've noted before, boss fights can feel a lot like puzzles, in some ways like in The Witcher 3: learning about your opponent will allow you to prepare for them, applying the best buffs ahead of time or discovering how to counter their moves in combat. Unlike The Witcher 3, where you could do that research by Witching around the enemy in advance, in Elden Ring you usually get that damage by dying a lot. I've had a lot of moments of going "Oh, OK, that guy swings his whip twice, so I can't just dodge the first and then attack, I need to dodge both before there will be a window."


Partly because of this, it can be really hard to decide when to keep attempting a boss and when to give up. IF you could pull off every move with perfect timing and perfectly read everything your foe would do, you could definitely beat him/her/it/them. If you mess up too many times, you'll fail. Having more health will let you mess up a few more times, and having more offensive power will shorten the duration of the fight and give fewer opportunities for failure. I've also had the experience many times of fighting a boss, getting them down to ~5% health before dying, then trying again another dozen times without getting them below 80%. I don't really have a hard and fast rule for when to give up... for sure if I've died a lot of haven't gotten them down, but if my frustration rises too high I may call it quits even if I've gotten close multiple times. When this happens, I just open the map and add a Skull marker to the spot. I'll come back 10-20 levels later and almost invariably stomp the floor with them.


One of the things I really love about Elden Ring is how different types of areas have different modes of play that reward different strengths. Boss fights are mostly about skill and secondarily about stats. You'll chug your Flask of Wondrous Physick, maybe chug a consumable, and join the dance, maybe using some potions during the fight. Bosses are typically at the end of long dungeons, and dungeons are a game that in my opinion is more about resource management. Particularly as a sorcerer, I have a finite amount of FP available to cast all the spells I'm going to cast between the beginning and end of the dungeon. That FP is based on my Mind, the number of Golden Seeds I've collected and how many Flasks of Cerulean Tears I allocated at the Grace. Even if I'm outplaying all of the enemies in the dungeon, if I run out of FP along the way I'll need to bail and return to the start, respawning the enemies.

To some extent, this is a little like boss fights where the next time through you'll likely do better. I might have learned that I only need a single cast to take down a particular enemy, so I won't spam my spell and waste FP. I may have already picked up a collectible down one branch, so on my next run I can skip that branch and the enemies inside it, saving my resource for the main branch and the boss. But in some cases I just realize that I need to go explore elsewhere, level up and get more Seeds so I can have the resources I need to finish the dungeon.


There's also the Overworld portion. The thing that's unique about this is that defeating groups of enemies will grant you recharges of spent Flasks. This leads to a more open-ended, wandering feel to things: unlike a dungeon, which has a tight beginning with you at full health and resources, and a tight end where you're bloodied and exhausted but victorious (or just bloodied and dead), in the open world you're typically near, but not at, full Health and FP, and have several, but not necessarily all, of your Flasks. What's kind of fun is that you can just keep wandering indefinitely, without needing to visit Sites of Grace - in fact, I often prefer to avoid them, to keep the map depopulated. Overall the Overworld is much easier than the rest of the game, and I think it's nice to have a rhythm which makes the tense parts feel more tense.



Monsters in the overworld tend not to be too worrisome. There aren't any yellow-fog gates, and everything is out in the open, so if you do get into trouble you can typically just GTFO on Torrent's back; you can even escape boss fights this way. The big concerns here are fall damage and, to a lesser extent, status effects. Scarlet Rot is really nasty in the early game but can be easily avoided by staying on horseback; stay out of fights to avoid getting knocked off! Death Blight can kill you in a few seconds, so move quickly to get out of it. Actually, in general, "run away" is a good all-purpose response to bad things happening in the overworld.

Scarlet Rot is just about my least favorite thing in the game, and for quite a while I've put off doing things that involve this effect. Much like with bosses, I'd drop a marker on my map that basically means "Nope" and then move on. I recently kind of had to deal with Scarlet Rot, so I did a bit of reason on how to handle it. The main thing to do is get your Immunity as high as you can. This slows down the rate at which the Rot gauge will fill up. Once Rot does fill up, you will start taking significant DoT. For some DoT effects like Poison, you can potentially heal through it with enough Flasks of Crimson Tears; in my experience, you can't heal through Scarlet Rot, but if aren't in combat you can fast-travel to a Site of Grace to clear the effect. There's also a rare craftable and consumable item called a Preserving Bolus that helps with this, but I'm honestly not totally clear on how it works, with even online information not being very helpful: it doesn't make you immune to the effect, and may just slow down the effect and clear an instance of the effect on you; I haven't died from Scarlet Rot while using one, so I think it may keep the effect from triggering during some period of time, similar to how the Flask of Wondrous Physick buffs for a period of time.



I got to one point in the game with a ton of Scarlet Rot, and resorted to the wiki to figure out how to deal with it. My eventual strategy was:

  • Go back to a previous dungeon that I had skipped because of the Scarlet Rot in it.
  • In here, swap out all of my armor for the pieces I had with the highest Immunity. Some of these were lighter than I would normally use, but there aren't a ton of tough enemies in these areas; also, you can totally swap out equipment while in the field and not just at Sites of Grace, so it's tedious but possible to put one one set while navigating through Rot and swap it out on the other side.
  • Equipped a Talisman with a boost to Immunity and another that boosts Immunity, Focus and Robustness. (These come with normal and +1 versions that don't stack with each other, but the different types of talismans do stack.)
  • With highest possible Immunity, you usually want to run across Rot for the shortest distance to dry land. Jumping doesn't help but is OK if you need to go up. Rolling is unhelpful.
  • Once on dry land, wait for the Rot gauge to tick down. This is very tedious and my least favorite moments playing the game.
  • Repeat until you reach your destination.
  • In this particular dungeon, I was able to pick up the Mushroom set of armor, which has extremely high Immunity. It makes navigating this dungeon a lot easier, and that other area feasible.
  • In the other area, you can race forward and kill an enemy in the rot who drops a +1 version of the Immunity-boosting Talisman. It's impossible to kill him before getting Rot yourself, but you can heal through for many seconds while you grab the talisman and then fast-travel back to the Grace.
  • Once again, Run to dry land and try to change the terrain to something you can walk on!



For Spirit Ashes, I think that at the time I wrote my previous post I was mostly rocking the Jellyfish Ashes, which are pretty cool and easy to get early on: it's decently tanky, which is helpful for a ranged fighter like me. Since progressing further in the game I've gotten the amazing Greatshield Soldier Ashes. I'd read about these online, but hadn't realized that it summons five of these guys: huge defensive stats and health, they're the ultimate tanks. They are a bit weak when it comes to AOE, but overall they make battles a breeze. I've since also picked up the Mimic Tear, which duplicates your PR, and leveled it up to 10. It honestly feels a little like cheating to use that Ash so I often don't, but when I do bring it out it's pretty amazing.


In terms of my progression: in the main story, I'm no closer than the previous post, but I've now cleared most of the major content before I can progress. In particular, I've defeated four of the Shardbearers and several Legends. Radahn was a little frustrating but also one of the coolest fights in the game. With Rykard, I somehow totally missed the Grace right outside the yellow fog and got frustrated when I died, and hated the journey to that point so long that I waited well over a week before trying again. In the meantime I'd done a ton of Nokrun Eternal City and picked up the Mimic Tear, which is insanely helpful for that fight as well as being a great Spirit Ash in many other fights.



I peeked at the Wiki several times to figure out how to progress quests, but I'm trying to play as organically and naturally as possible, without spoiling anything. I had seen a few references to the Shabiri Grape maiden quest, which I discovered I had totally missed due to not seeing her hanging out at a Site of Grace just past Stormveil Castle. I think this was a spot where Boc the Seamster was hanging out, so maybe I just didn't notice her standing there. Anyways, that's a super-dark quest with some really unsettling voice-acting! Even for a game that feels dark, I'm surprised at how much darker it can get at parts. I'm also starting to have real conversations with the Loathsome Dung-Eater, and phew boy, I can tell that will be an ordeal.


I'm currently going through Ranni's quest, which I've mostly been able to do without the wiki, and Sellen's, which has needed a little wiki assistance. Ranni's in particular seems really key to the game and the plot, opening up huge new areas of play, and it's really ballsy game design to have these things be so easily missible. I have been wondering if From Soft could or would have made their games this way in the pre-Internet era; trusting that they will be big hits and communities will come together to help answer questions and document solutions probably empowers developers to make more obtuse games than they otherwise would have dared.



This is a great game, I'm loving it, and just about the only thing that could keep me from playing it is the prospect of a return to Baldur's Gate. Until next time, Tarnished.