John Roberts and Harvard: Letters to the Editor

Byron King responds to reader mail about John Roberts and Harvard, among other things.

“YOU ENTITLED IT ‘In Re: John Roberts,’ but you barely mentioned the guy. All you did was write a puff piece about Harvard.” So said one correspondent in her e-mail. Another correspondent called it “self-congratulatory.”

Oh, really? I wrote a “puff piece about Harvard?” Or even worse, I wrote a puff piece about me? Heck, if you want to read about Harvard, you can dial the place up on the Web at or send in a few bucks and subscribe to the alumni magazine. Whiskey & Gunpowder is far less costly, and we even send you the e-mail.

And as to the charge of me writing about me? Is there any such thing as purely objective writing? Everybody writes about himself, in one way or another. I write about “me” only in the sense that I might write about some things or events about which I have firsthand knowledge. If I was someplace and you were not there, is it possible that I might have some insight that you lack? Then again, some defense attorneys will argue that the worst type of witness is an eyewitness. Being at the scene of the crime can be confusing. At the very least, I understand the problem and try not to be confused by my proximity to people or events.

In reply to the substance of the critics, I thought that I was using the history of Harvard to write about “the long view of things.” And don’t we all want our Supreme Court justices to take a long view of things? Or do you prefer the form of situational ethics and fluid jurisprudence evidenced in the recent Supreme Court decision of Kelo v. City of New London?

In my article entitled “Harvard and the Long View of Things,” I wrote about at least five wars. (OK, go back and count them: the Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the nuclear standoff that formed the basis of the Cold War.) I provided interested readers with a link to George Marshall’s 1947 speech and an article on the Marshall Plan.

Also in the Harvard article, I discussed in general the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Sure, I illustrated the point with a good deal of relatively unknown detail and context about what occurred at Harvard. It was international news at the time. But I thought that the key concept in that part of the article was my discussing the alienation of privileged youth, which tends to lead to a sense of entitlement to rebel against the existing order. Sound familiar? I believe that it is a rather timeless verity.

And just to toss some kerosene on the intellectual fire, I connected the phenomenon of the alienation of the privileged few to the disaffected Saudi rich kids who became the Sept. 11 hijackers. No one rose to that bait.

John Roberts and Harvard: Marxists Are Losers

What else? In the Harvard article, I wrote disrespectfully and contemptuously of Marxism and its sucker-adherents. I thought for sure that I would get me some hate mail on that topic, but alas… nary a peep from our rather substantial subscriber base. Maybe Marxists do not subscribe to Agora Financial products. But let me try it again: If you are a Marxist, you are a sucker and a loser.

And on a subject near and dear to my heart, I used the Harvard article to hit on the peak oil argument like a sledgehammer against the Liberty Bell, in case you missed it. In that context, I discussed the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, and the economic recession that it helped to precipitate. What with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez currently banging his drums and threatening a similar oil embargo against the United States, perhaps some readers will find it a useful historical parallel.

As to the relevance of peak oil to the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, let me amplify the thought. I think it will be one heck of a lot harder, albeit more tempting, for justices and judges to legislate from the bench in a future era of declining supplies of liquid fuels. Less fuel equals less power, in many respects. To paraphrase Andrew Jackson, it is one thing to make a decision; it is quite another to enforce it.

Do you want to read a discussion of John Roberts in the context of discussing the Interstate Commerce Clause? OK, dear readers. Try to envision engaging in interstate commerce when the price of oil hits $250 per barrel, which is what some analysts forecast as the intermediate target price in the next 5-8 years.

Long term, considering the price trends of oil, you had better own at least a subsistence plot of land in some tropical paradise. That is, if you can get your gringo rear-end down there when most of the world’s commercial aircraft fleet is grounded for lack of fuel. But as to this latter thread, it is another discussion for another time.

And oh, by the way, apropos to the part of the title that the reader criticized, I discussed the Harvard of the 1970s where John Roberts spent about six formative years of his life. Did I give you any inside-baseball accounts of the comings and goings of young Mr. Roberts back then, along the lines of “John did this” or “John said that”? No. Why should I? This is a free (to you) e-mail, and our faithful editor Greg told you in the introduction to Part I that I am not the kind of guy who tells those kinds of tales out of school. It is not my job to spread gossip. I leave the telling of such tales and spreading of gossip to others, who are far better at it than I.

John Roberts and Harvard: Gossip about John Roberts

If you want tales and gossip about the current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, try reading Janny Scott’s August 21 article in the Sunday New York Times, entitled “Roberts’ Harvard Roots: A Movement Was Stirring”:

The Times article is filled with name-dropping on the subject of one John G. Roberts by such well-known “conservative” political figures as Grover Norquist and Spencer Abraham. And Ms. Scott quotes a slew of other Harvard classmates, and a distressing number of total strangers, on the subject of her inquiry.

Interestingly, nowhere in the article does Janny Scott or her editor mention that she is a graduate of Harvard, who enrolled in the school as a freshman in 1973, the same year as none other than John Roberts. (Janny lived in a freshman dorm right across from the one where I lived.) I suppose that her affiliation with Harvard, and her membership in the class in which John Roberts entered the school, was not the kind of news that is “fit to print” in the not-so-Gray Old Lady.

Everyone who is quoted in Ms. Scott’s article seems to have an opinion about John Roberts, including people who never met him and do not know him. Ms. Scott quotes one Morton J. Horwitz, a professor of American legal history at Harvard, “who never taught Mr. Roberts.” Well, congratulations! There is a deep-throat source for you. But at least professor Horwitz is a real person, and not some made-up fictitious name along the lines of what former NY Times reporter Jayson Blair used to dream up for his paycheck.

Professor Horwitz told Ms. Scott that he was struck recently when reading excerpts from a paper young Mr. Roberts wrote as a college senior, entitled “The Utopian Conservative: A Study of Continuity and Change in the Thought of Daniel Webster.” Professor Horwitz said that it “seemed apparent to him” that Judge Roberts “was a conservative looking for a conservative ideology in American history.”

Yes, indeed. If you ever write a college paper about the great American historical figure Daniel Webster (a distant relative of mine, by the way), it then becomes “apparent” to people who never met you — 30 years after the fact — that you are “a conservative looking for a conservative ideology in American history.” Perish the thought that if you write a paper about Daniel Webster you are exercising your mind and looking for some insight into, of all people, Daniel Webster.

Daniel Webster, I suppose I should note for those who may have forgotten (ahem…), was born in New Hampshire in 1782. He died in 1852, aged 70. A farmer’s son, he was known as one of the outstanding lawyers of his era, as well as a statesman and orator. In his day, he was among the foremost advocates of raw American nationalism.

In other words, Webster lived almost contemporaneous in time and space with the era of the national founders of the United States, and during a time of great territorial expansion across the continent. So it is indeed possible that Webster held, and even exhibited, some rather keen insight into the concept of limited federal powers, if not of ordered federalism, that is now lost to the national consciousness.

But apparently, if you dare attempt to articulate the vision of Webster in a college paper, you are at risk of being labeled as a you-know-what. Let’s cut to the meat of the argument: Why does the NY Times not just boil it all down to its essence, and make the point that Daniel Webster was one of those horrid white guys who lacked our fine sense of modern world view. (And as a cautionary note, John Roberts seems to have admired Herr Gauleiter Webster.)

John Roberts and Harvard: Oil

This being an article in Whiskey & Gunpowder, I am obliged to note that Daniel Webster lived in the pre-oil age, having died seven years before Col. Drake hammered down the world’s first commercial oil well, near Titusville, Pa.

Back in Webster’s time, there was only a very limited human ability to release or multiply physical force via the application of large-scale supplies of energy, and certainly from energy derived from fossil fuels. In other words, there were upper limits to human powers, and to the human span of control over other human beings and certainly over the winds, waves and rocks of the Earth. These limits were simply accepted by people as a fact of nature, if not an immutable Law of God.

In our modern era, most people and governments have forgotten the notion of limits to power. Hint. Many decades of cheap and available petroleum has helped the process along. If you do not quite understand this point, you need to keep on reading my articles, because it is one of my central themes.

But then again, dear readers, I cannot blame you if you do not get it. Our world is just now entering or at the cusp of peak oil. World petroleum production is bumping along at about 84 million barrels per day, with less than 1% of slack in one direction or another. The slightest change in total daily world oil production, or volumes of refined product on the world market, will shock the trading and financial markets and spike the price of the black substance.

As you all probably know, the price of oil has risen over 50% in the past year or so. Complain all you want about the price of gas for your car, but these are the good old days. When the world’s daily oil supplies begin to contract, and enter into irreversible decline, so will, I believe, the pervasive sense of human empowerment. Think of this in terms of who will sit on the Supreme Court when a lot of rice bowls start to get broken.

In the not-too-distant future, the magic substance that drains from the rocks of the Earth, with the incomparable energy density that is so useful and portable, will be unavailable at any price most people can afford to pay. Eventually we, or our descendants, will have to re-learn the forgotten lessons of the past. You did not read that in the NY Times.

Instead, according to the NY Times article, professor Horwitz opined that “It was interesting to me how self-conscious [Roberts’ paper on Daniel Webster] was in terms of his [Roberts’] own discovery of where he stood….My guess is [that Roberts] came to Harvard College with conservative prejudices and tried to educate those prejudices whenever he had the opportunity.”

Ah, yes. The NY Times is quoting a source who is “guessing” about the personal intellectual formation of someone he has never met, based on reading one old college paper. And to boot, young Mr. Roberts “came to Harvard with conservative prejudices.” Gotta watch out for those “prejudices,” don’t we?

According to professor Horwitz, as cited in the NY Times, some students lose their “prejudices” during college. Wow. It is good to dodge a bullet like that, isn’t it? “But others,” said Horwitz, “especially the more intellectual types, actually educate their prejudices.” There it is, that “P” word again. And young Mr. Roberts “educated” his prejudices, no less. The guy looks radioactive to me.

Now really, dear readers. Do you expect us at Whiskey & Gunpowder to compete with that level of NY Times journalism? And how could we possibly do it on the research budget that we receive from Agora Financial? Then again, why would we even want to try?

John Roberts and Harvard: Sticking to What I Know

Well, I suppose I could go out to the hallowed halls of some famous university and brag about how I write for Agora Financial (which has more electronic subscribers than the daily New York Times, by the way). Surely, in such an environment, I could dig up some liberal professor of something or other, probably a subject with the word “Studies” at the end of the name. Then, leveraging my big-shot position as an influence peddler who controls the focus of mega-minds and the flow of great events, I could ask her questions and opinions about someone she has never met.

Or maybe I will just stick to what I know, or to what I can divine from the more reputable history books and science texts. I hope that this addresses the issues that I mentioned were raised by a few of the correspondents in their e-mails.

On another note, a reader e-mailed to critique the Harvard article and asked me for a “reasoned defense of U.S. imperialism.” This reader listed his address as Palm Desert, Calif. My first reaction to that particular question coming from that particular locale was, “Huh?” Give me a break, Palm Desert dweller.

Frankly, anyone who lives in Palm Desert, Calif., ought to be giving ME a “reasoned defense of U.S. imperialism.” Palm Desert is located in — not to put too fine a point on it — the middle of a desert. Absent massive amounts of imported energy, water, food, and labor (from you-know-where, amigos), Palm Desert would be little more than a tank town on a railroad spur that passes through the middle of nowhere. Absent cheap and available gasoline, that 10-minute drive to work, or to the store, or to the doctor’s office may as well be the Bataan Death March.

What is the fundamental thing that makes Palm Desert inhabitable? That is, what is the magical mystery substance that procures the energy, the water, the food, and the yard boys and the pool boys?

Answer: It is the U.S. imperial currency, aka the U.S. dollar. Yes, the U.S. dollar, a fiat currency, not backed by anything of tangible value, and which is emblematic of a nation with a nominal national debt of over $7 trillion and unfunded liabilities of over $50 trillion. If there were a World Court into which a nation’s creditors could put the overly indebted government into involuntary bankruptcy, Uncle Sam would be standing in the dock. The bankruptcy trustee would be retaining an auctioneer to sell off Yellowstone Park to some Chinese real estate conglomerate.

Peak oil and Palm Desert aside, when someone asks me to provide a “reasoned defense of U.S. imperialism,” it makes me wonder if they have been reading any of my other articles. In the past couple of years, in both The Daily Reckoning and in Whiskey & Gunpowder, I have utterly trashed the U.S. slide from its origins as a constitutional republic to an indebted, globe-spanning, overstretched, and incompetent empire.

I have discussed the collapse of the U.S. monetary system of the Revolutionary War period, and the early decision to establish an economy based on sound money. I recounted the story of individual farmers battling with their nascent government over unjust taxes and unfair governance in the Whiskey Rebellion. I discussed the concept of avoiding foreign entanglements through the writings of Ben Franklin.

Recently, I helped Agora’s Financial’s own Addison Wiggin and Bill Bonner by reviewing and offering suggestions for their forthcoming book, Empire of Debt. (Order your advance copy! Beat the rush!)

In my other writings for Agora Financial, I have discussed the growth of big government as concomitant with the rise of fascism, and referred interested readers to John T. Flynn’s 1944 masterpiece As We Go Marching. In one series of articles published in The Daily Reckoning, I detailed the rise of Mussolini in postwar Italy in the 1920s, through his leveraging of the infrastructure of that nation’s prewar “Big Government.” Empire did not work too well for fascist Italy, as I am sure you all know.

I have discussed the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and not because it is a cute little case study of a long-distant war between odd people who spoke funny languages. It is a timeless story of an arrogant world power getting itself involved in a conflict with a proud and rising nation on the other side of the world. Due to Russia’s utter lack of understanding of Japan, or its culture or its dominant religion or its growing military prowess or the difficulties of fighting in Manchuria, Russia suffered a massive defeat at the hands of what the tsar called “little yellow people.” A few years later, the government of Russia crumbled from the inside. Any questions yet?

Closer to home, I have written extensively on the upending of U.S. republican (small “r”) form of government by such historical figures as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. I have made no secret of my belief that the rise of big, imperial U.S. power is directly linked to the central government’s use of the Federal Reserve to fund the growth. And I have noted my belief that the artificial creation of credit-backed growth by the Fed is merely an economic illusion over the long haul. It plunders the future to meet the immediate whims and desires of the present.

To paraphrase Lord Keynes, in the long term, you will be lucky if you are dead. But somebody else will be unlucky enough to have to be around to pick up the pieces when the whole mess comes crashing down. And adverse things might happen fast enough that that somebody is you, dear readers.

I think that the Palm Desert dweller was annoyed that in the Harvard article, I wrote favorably of professor Otto Eckstein putting down some academic punk who was running his mouth during a retrospect of the Vietnam War. I stand by my comments. The U.S. debacle that ended its involvement with Vietnam was a very bad thing for this nation. The Communist victory over South Vietnam was distinctly not a good thing. The culminating event is now over 30 years in the past, and we still do not know the long-term consequences of the Vietnam War. We do know, however, that the United States as a nation is still paying the bills from that era. On that point, professor Eckstein was right.

By way of analogy, and as former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai once, when Henry Kissinger asked him for his opinion of the consequences of the French Revolution, said, “Henry, it is still too early to say.”

Thank you all for your comments and insights. Best wishes.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
August 26, 2005