/ The Well-Read Investor
Episode 14: Richard Kreitner
New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post columnist Richard Kreitner and host, Mike Hanson challenge and discuss common views of American History.
Today our guest is Richard Kreitner here to talk about his book Break It Up: Secession, Division, and The Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union. Richard’s essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post among many other outlets. You can find him on twitter @Richard Kreitner. If you’re enjoying the show, we think you’ll dig our book reviews. We’ve got book recommendations with insights and summaries designed specifically for investors to take you beyond the podcast and enhance your reading all year round. Follow us on twitter @wellreadpod and Instagram at @wellreadinvestorpod for all the latest or just google the Well Read Investor and you’ll find our home site for all Well Read content.
Full Episode 14 Transcript
Hello everyone and Happy New Year! Welcome to our first 2021 edition of the Well-Read Investor, the podcast that profits your mind and your money.
Today our guest is Richard Krietner here to talk about his book Break It Up: Secession, Division, and The Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union. Richard’s essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post among many other outlets. You can find him on twitter @Richard Kreitner.
This is a lively conversation that’s going to challenge many views about the US and its history. We invite those kinds of discussions because investors must consider ideas outside the consensus to be successful—investing is a constant struggle with preconceived notions. Richard’s thesis is that the US has never really been “united”, and in fact threats of secession have been present pretty much through the history of the country, not just the Civil War. His writing is just as full of verve as his interviews, and whether you agree with or not it’s a rollicking ride worth the effort. I found the book to be researched thoroughly and well crafted, regardless of my own conclusions.
We recorded this episode late last year, after the elections and you’ll hear some election talk. But we’re recording this intro on January 5th—just as Georgians are at the polls once again for the two runoff elections that will decide control of the US Senate. The raw fact is that regardless of the outcome the senate will be razor thin—along with a very tight House. That means the US legislative branch likely won’t get much done in the years ahead, and that means gridlock.
Richard tends to see our persistent disunity as something to be solved. In today’s political climate, it can certainly feel that way. For me, and you’ll hear us get in to this a bit, I’ve always believed one of the great strengths of America is that we have it out, we argue a lot—we’re a huge and diverse country in so many ways: there’s no real possibility of us agreeing on everything. I hear daily that today’s angst is “unprecedented”, that we’ve never been more divided. Maybe so, but this book will bring a lot of perspective on just how often—to my mind, anyway—we have such a seemingly hostile political climate. Americans bicker and scream at each other—we always have. Maybe, despite the tone of it all, that’s one of the reasons markets continue to shrug off so much political turmoil lately. But decide for yourself in this great kickoff conversation to the New Year.
Lastly, if you’re enjoying our show, we think you’ll dig our book reviews. We’ve got book recommendations with insights and summaries designed specifically for investors to take you beyond the podcast and enhance your reading all year round. Follow us on twitter @wellreadpod and Instagram at @wellreadinvestorpod for all the latest or just google the Well-Read Investor and you’ll find our home site for all Well-Read content.
Now, enjoy our conversation with Richard Krietner.
Mike Hanson (03:20):
Well, Richard, thank you again for being on the program.
Richard Kreitner (03:25):
Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.
Mike Hanson (03:30):
Before we get to the content of this I think it's very much worth saying to our listeners that this is, can be a controversial book at times, but it's just such a well-written book that I think people were really enjoying the content. And it's one of the reasons why we wanted you on here. I certainly do hope to see this book on many nonfiction lists heading towards the end of the year.
Richard Kreitner (03:47):
Thank you. Me too. I was hoping in writing the book to please both the usual father's day narrative history crowd, and also people interested in reads about the crisis of the moment and contemporary politics.
Mike Hanson (03:58):
Are you a historian by trade? I know you studied philosophy, but this book really is jam packed with quite a lot of factual information.
Richard Kreitner (04:04):
Yeah. I've taken one history course in my life. My joke is that if I had studied history in college, I probably would have written a dense tome about philosophy. I wasn’t much for formal schooling. I considered this my informal self-directed PhD and my masters, By Analogy, was I was an archivist for the nation magazine which was founded 150 years ago or so, and digging through the archives and the old files there, gave me more of a training in real historical research.
Mike Hanson (04:28):
So, what is the central concept and argument of this book?
Richard Kreitner (04:33):
America has never really been united, and that we may indeed be breaking apart. And perhaps that we should. The last one is kind of the weakest proposition or the one I'm willing to put the least amount of emphasis on, because I have my doubts; I still change day-to-day on that. Less, so I've been feeling that we should in the last month or so, as we record this in early December. But yeah, so it's that the United States has never really been united and have always been people in one part of the country in one party or another, arguing or supposing that perhaps it should be broken apart. And that reveals a certain inherent fragility in the country itself, such that it shouldn't really be any surprise that people talk today about, is America going to survive? Or about our persistent divisions. They've always been there and we've never really reckoned with them, and done what we would need to do, I think, to move forward and truly be united.
Mike Hanson (05:18):
One of the things that I think is so important about this book is it really reveals that some of the given narratives about history of course, are always worth questioning and that politics, you really should have some dimension of cynicism about politics because even the founders had motivations. And in fact, they flip-flopped quite often didn't they?
Richard Kreitner (05:35):
They did. And including on the key question of allegiance to the nation, there's some people who helped write the constitution like Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton's friend, and often has political ally who later not only turned against the Jefferson administration, you know, who's a different political party at the time, but against the union itself, and Gouverneur Morris actually favorite succession. What we assume had a lot to do with philosophical principles or ideals, really had a lot to do with power and with interests, as in our own time.
Mike Hanson (06:05):
Yeah. As I recall in the book, there's an interesting antidote. I want to say it's Jefferson, in fact, once they get into office, they flip flop on the topic of union at all, don't they?
Richard Kreitner (06:13):
Exactly. And almost everybody throughout the period, there was a politician at that time who called it a game of roundabout where Federalists, who had been in favor of strong national power when they were in charge of the 1790s under Washington and John Adams, actually embraced session itself once Jefferson is in power and they're expelled from the ranks of national government. And then the exact opposite occurs wherever Republicans, who in the 1790s under Jefferson and James Madison had criticized national power and even in favored succession, now say the union is in-dissolvable. And it reminds me of politics in our own time. This book, a lot of people think it came out of the Trump era, but was really a response to the Obama period, and certain developments and tendencies I was seeing in American politics at the time, including Obama's increasing resort to executive orders after the 2014 election, when Democrats lost control of the Senate.
Richard Kreitner (07:01):
And I remembered that Democrats had all been against executive orders when president Bush was an office. And then we were against them again when Trump was in power. And I assume that in the next two months, we'll be seeing people who criticized Trump's executive orders, insist that Biden use the power of the pen and the phone, as Obama called it, to enact new things on immigration and climate change and whatnot. And that kind of flip-flopping, and that kind of opportunism, I guess, reminds me of politics from the early Republic.
Mike Hanson (07:26):
It’s interesting because what we'll say to investors quite frequently is, if you can get past the ideological parts of things and you look towards the power and the structure of things, you do find that people have different perspectives once they get into certain positions or whatever. And all of a sudden certain things become justified, certainly when power is involved. So you have this book divided up into four big parts here, what are those? And what were the choices there and why?
Richard Kreitner (07:49):
Good question. So they kind of are organized yes, chronologically, but also by metaphor, different metaphors that I found people using to describe the union. And what I found revealing about each of those metaphors is that they implied the opposite of union. They implied the possibility that it might come apart. So for the colonial period through the ratification of the constitution, the title is A Vast Unwieldy Machine. And that's because a lot of the people who created the American Republic and the union were amateur scientists. It's like Benjamin Franklin who were constantly performing experiments. And they thought, and they actually explicitly spoke about, the union as an invention that had to be cobbled together from various discordant parts. And they hope that it could be made to function and to work. But that also implied the possibility of a breakdown that the machine would falter and cease working, but it implies the possibility of failure.
Richard Kreitner (08:38):
So the second part conference from the ratification of the constitution, 1790 or so, to 1850, on the Dawn of the civil war era. And that one's called Irreconcilable Differences. Of course, the reference to marriage, the union as marriage, and marriage as a union as well, which of course, implies the possibility of divorce, which many people spoke about at the time. I saw this great letter from John Quincy Adams, before he was president. A colleague says to him, it looks like the union might break apart because there had been a contested election, you know, very familiar today.
Richard Kreitner (09:05):
And he wrote, and John Quincy Adams wrote to his friends saying if the South should ask for and insist on a divorce, I would grant it, though it would break my heart. Comparing it to a marriage. And then the third one is called The Earthquake Comes, which is about the civil war era from 1850 through reconstruction about to 1900. A lot of people at the time were comparing what was happening in national politics to things from the physical sciences, like volcanoes and earthquakes. The civil war, Walt Whitman describes as a volcanic eruption, which suggests that these pressures have been building under the surface, as in the kind of tectonic science that was just being discovered at the time. And that proves my point that the civil war wasn't really an exception to the rest of American history, but the eruption of these forces that had been long present before that, and then were only dormant afterwards. That the civil war didn't really resolve the core question of union versus disunion, which in much more subtle ways, continued to shape and bedevil American history.
Mike Hanson (10:01):
Am I right in saying that, in order to keep the union together, the reconstruction and so forth had to be compromised post-civil war, is that right?
Richard Kreitner (10:08):
Exactly. And you know, this is where I don't want to go in the metaphor too hard because there's not really an equivalent of capping a volcano or putting the forces back underneath the surface, but that's effectively what I consider the end of reconstruction to a been, was an attempt to suppress these volcanic energies that have previously led to an explosion. And then the metaphor that does capture that is the fourth part of the book, which is called The Return of the Repressed, which draw the psychoanalytic idea that we all have these conflicts and contradictions, as individuals and I think also as a society, that we carry around and that we put off, we don't really want to address them because it's too difficult.
Richard Kreitner (10:43):
So after the civil war, that the conflict between union and this union was repressed because the civil war had been snow violent and so damaging to the country, nobody wanted to go through it again. And the terms of that repression were basically, the enshrinement of white supremacy and Jim Crow until the civil rights movement, when it was challenged and our politics broke apart. Those conflicts and contradictions, again, burst to the surface of the national mind where they bedevil us to this day. And I actually found Freud himself talking about the repression of those kinds of conflicts, can really lead to what he called a civil war in the patient's mind, when they tried to kind of keep these things from consciousness. Which, of course nailed the metaphor home for me.
Mike Hanson (11:21):
It is one of the parts of the book I enjoyed most because you do weave these ideas in throughout. Montesquieu, you reference, there's the enlightenment thinking and the idea of thinking as a machine. And I certainly did pick up on the psychoanalytic part of it as well, which I always enjoy, and I still think is fairly relevant. But I want to go back and just have you talk for a little bit about one anecdote. You were talking about the union as an experiment, an enlightenment type of machine and Ben Franklin, I've heard you even talk about how he got the idea for a union. Would you just say a word or two?
Richard Kreitner (11:49):
Yeah, sure. This is a research hole I fell into for about six months, the material that made it into the book on this is like 1/20th of what I wrote up, cause it's so fascinating. I landed on this moment in 1744, there were always these conferences between colonial officials and Indian delegations, usually over land or some other injury that one side had caused the other. So there was a conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744, where an Iroquois chief made a speech. He had noticed that the colonial officials at this conference were from Maryland, Virginia, and I think Pennsylvania. And then they had kind of bickered with one another before the conference began over, who would speak first and who would give the gifts first and kind of ceremony.
Richard Kreitner (12:28)
And he noticed that there was this real tension among the white colonists themselves. And so he urges them to unite, he gives them kind of a brief history lesson in the history of the Iroquois Confederacy, which was, five nations at the time, and then later six, who had united together about 300 years or so earlier, archeologists kind of disagree. They had formed this Confederacy to strengthen themselves and unite. This is where the phrase bury the hatchet comes from, to basically ensure peace among these previously warring tribes. And that really enabled the Iroquois to grow into a very powerful empire in North America.
Richard Kreitner (13:01):
And it was a very sophisticated form of government and a lot of European observers admired this about the Iroquois. So this Iroquois chief in Pennsylvania encourages the American colonists to form a similar union. Now this comes to Benjamin Franklin because he had a job as a printer, of course, and he had a contract with the Pennsylvania legislature to print all Pennsylvania's important documents, including treaties. So there's no real like solid proof that this is how it happened, but I think there's really excellent circumstantial evidence that Franklin read this treaty, read this chief's speech, and then got the idea that the colonist should similarly unite. Very shortly thereafter, he starts reading everything he can about the Iroquois. And 10 years later, he introduces the first really fully thought out plan to form a colonial union. Readers might remember the famous snake cartoon that says join or die, and each part of the snake is labeled with a different colony. I would tend to think of that as an emblem of the American revolution, even though it's 20 years earlier, but it suggests the growing unity of the colonies.
Richard Kreitner (14:01):
But when you actually look at the context and the meaning of it, it signifies exactly the opposite. It signifies disunion and how little in common the colonists had, and really how little they wanted to do with one another. Franklin’s plan of union was rejected out of hand, completely, the colonists wanted nothing to do with it because they equated union with tyranny, basically. And I show in the book how, when the revolution actually started, the union that they formed was really a means to the end of achieving independence, not really an end in itself. And there were always skeptics as to what purpose the union served, whose interests that is served. I try to give these kinds of different takes on stories that we're familiar with to show that this mythology of American unity, there's never really been too much to it.
Mike Hanson (14:43):
I thought it was interesting too, just the discussion that even back then people were having hot debates about how big democracy could function, and that debate raged on for quite a long time, and much to your point once the means to the end of becoming free, at least at least from Britain happened, there was once again, just renewed talk of, well, we've done our thing now let's break up again. Isn't that right?
Richard Kreitner (15:04):
Yeah, exactly. There had been no real purpose to form a union other than to win this fight. And the attitudes of the immediate post-revolutionary period are very similar to those that was just describing the 1750s before the revolution, which is that people thought that the closer power was to themselves on a more local level, the more democratic it would be. I'm glad you emphasized that, cause that tension between democracy and union is one that I'm trying to tease out in every era. I feel like today, we kind of assume that they're synonymous.
Richard Kreitner (15:31):
There's one later episode that comes to mind and in regarding this tension, is Alexander Hamilton's last letter, you know everybody's kind of obsessed with Hamilton these days. The musical came out like a year or two into my work on the book. But a lot of people don't realize that at the very end, the dual with Aaron Burr came out of a debate over succession. There was a strong new England secessionist movement at the time, that Aaron Burr as vice-president and running for governor of New York was kind of in cahoots with. It's not really clear. He was exceptional at not really showing his cards. But Hamilton got word that Burr was talking to these new Englanders about possibly seceding from the union. And he called Burr out on that. And that's what lives at their tool. Not simply that they had kind of a personal animosity.
Richard Kreitner (16:10):
But in any case, at the very end, right before the duel in his last letter, he writes to one of these new Englanders, trying to encourage him to disavow the secessionist movement in new England. And he says that to break up the union would only make our real disease worse, which is democracy, which would become more virulent in each of its parts. So if you break the union down to a more local level, they would be more democratic. And that's what Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris had mentioned, and all these new England Federalists were against, was democracy. I cheekily say in the book that, well, if we're in for democracy, maybe we should take Hamilton at his word and give it a shot and see if you did break down the union to a more local or regional level, maybe it would be more democratic.
Mike Hanson (16:49):
As something of an economist and an investor, the way I would think about that is you're seeing in real time, just the intractable issues of what tradeoffs are all about. And that's pretty much what an economist studies is impossible trade-Offs. Is there any way though, to see any of this in your mind as somewhat optimistic? I mean, I've had the thought that at times anyway, and I don't want to take the analogy too far either, that the fact that we fight with each other so much can be a strength at times. Would you agree with that statement? Do you see it that way at all?
Richard Kreitner (17:18):
I certainly think that democracy is about fighting and about contest, but I think that you also need a governmental arrangement that is conducive towards actually getting some end, reaching some kind of decision making. Right now, one president comes in, immediately undoes everything that the previous president did. We actually don't even pass laws anymore. It's just, Trump passed the tax law, Obama passed Obamacare and that's it, there's no major legislation happening at all. It simply seems to me that the mechanisms of our constitutional government are malfunctioning and not in a productive way for investors or for any group. If there's something optimistic about it, it's a hard earned one and it's not so optimistic, but it's basically this.
Richard Kreitner (17:56):
Some people see the stories that I'm telling about American history, the divisions of the past. And they say we've been through worse before and we're going to prevail again. And when I actually look at the stories, I don't see that. I see that there's no guarantee that we would make it out in the past, either in the civil war, the most obvious instance of a breakdown in crisis, or at these other moments, much less known, but where that there's something about chance that enabled the country to survive in one piece. Or it was a compromise, that was morally dubious and regrettable because it enshrined injustice, in American politics for decades. But what I do think is true, is that it is in our power to decide what to do about all this division, and what we are willing to give up. People assume that union is good, to stay united is necessarily good, no matter what, but what that means is that you're going to be willing to give up certain things that, I at least wouldn't want to give up.
Mike Hanson (18:48):
One of the things that hits you again and again in the book is how regardless of time, there's always been Americans on both sides who threatened to leave, threatened violence, and in some cases go through with it, but it's just such a large part of our tradition. Given the current state of things today, and I want to go with this metaphor you had a little bit earlier, which is there was sort of a leading up to an eventual eruption with the civil war and just taking all that into account. How do you you think about right now?
Richard Kreitner (19:12):
It seems to me like we're heading into a better place, that some of the safeguards in our system have held up better than they might have. The book is trying to show that things are more open than we might otherwise think that the union may actually be at risk in the next, 10, 15, 20 years. I think Trump has actually shown the much wider range of political possibilities in this country for good or for ill that are available to us that I think five, 10 years ago, we were a lot more comfortable or relaxed or about. I hear Biden's rhetoric about unity and it's very familiar to me from American history. It's the rhetoric of Henry Clay. It's the rhetoric of Lincoln at certain points, which continues to be inspiring to me, but I also have doubts about its efficacy. And I think that the contrast between Biden saying, let's all come together and 48% of the country saying you're not legitimately elected president elect of the United States is instructive. So I don't think that, say four years from now, I don't think that the temperature will be any lower than it is today.
Mike Hanson (20:09):
One thing that I just really have to agree with you about is I think you and I are probably not too far off in age and in our generation, it certainly has been a wake up to say, things are contingent. Things can change. They're not as stable as you think, and you have to take those things very seriously. So to finish Richard, I just want to ask you what else do you read for pleasure and what are you reading over the holidays and what do you enjoy?
Richard Kreitner (20:30):
Yeah, sure. Well, right now I'm reading what everybody else is reading, Obama's memoir, I’m about 250 pages in and I'm liking it a lot. I mean, he's a great writer. I'm actually reading him on any subject, but I kind of zone out or find myself vigorously fighting him against in the margins of the book, is really all his thoughts about history and politics. He's a little disingenuous in that he has this story that he was, in a younger life, more idealistic and wanted to hold people to a higher standard and that's kind of what drove him into politics. And then the whole story is of his recognition that you actually have to walk that back. You have to make compromises, blah, blah, blah. But he has nothing but contempt and scorn, It seems to me, for people who have his prior attitude of wanting to hold politicians to high standards.
Richard Kreitner (21:11):
Right now I’m reading the section about the 2008 financial crisis. And he's defending the choice to put the people in charge who had in many ways instituted the policies, deregulation, that had led to the crash. And I just think that was a huge mistake. I've also been reading a lot of the novelists, Don DeLillo I've been on a huge kick with him. He’s the writer of our moment, paranoia and conspiracy, vast systems and how they work and don't work.
Mike Hanson (21:34):
What are you on with him now? I mean, I have not gotten to his latest book yet, but I’m a fan of Libra and White Noise and all that.
Richard Kreitner (21:40):
I was just thinking we really need a Libra movie. I was watching this episode of the crown, where they show the guy who snuck into Buckingham palace and then met with the queen. And my wife pointed out that he reminded her of Lee Harvey Oswald. And I was just thinking, wow, we haven't had Lee Harvey Oswald on film, which I think would be amazing. I just finished Underworld, kind of his Magnum Opus, which is astonishing. I actually started reading it cause I was watching the world series and getting into baseball for the first time in 20 years. And the book opens with this long 80 page passage about the shot heard round the world, Bobby Thompson's home run in 1951. Earlier in the pandemic I read War and Peace. Like, it seems like a lot of people did it for some reason.
Mike Hanson (22:18):
Yeah. You know, we've talked about Russian literature more than once on this show because I'm a Dostoyevsky guy and I had plenty of opportunity to read things like Demons and the Possessed and all that during the pandemic as well. What is next for you? What's on the horizon then?
Richard Kreitner (22:30):
Ooh, I've got two book ideas. I'm not sure. I mean, I put everything I had into this, it was my every waking thought really for five or six years. So I'm trying to figure out what to do next then do I need to be as obsessed by it? Because that's kind of hard to imagine there being another one where it just felt like every trip I'd ever taken, every book I'd ever read, every thought I'd ever thought was preparing me for this subject and this book. So one idea is kind of it would be kind of a piece off of this book would be an expansion of the section about the 1780s, the period we were just talking about a little bit, right after the revolution where the country is kind of falling apart. And nobody's really sure if they really care to save it until this group of very wealthy people institutes, what I see as a nonviolent coup d'etat to replace the Articles of Confederation with the constitution. So this will be a book about the year 1786, the crisis that led to the constitution.
Mike Hanson (23:17):
What is in sum, the one big thing that you wish everyone knew about this book, Break It Up.
Richard Kreitner (23:23):
I see it, it's kind of an x-ray of American history. Whereas most books are telling you about the story of America's national becoming, and its persistence as a nation, and the policies and whatnot that were debated and instituted, blah, blah, blah. And that's kind of an x-ray where it's telling the story of the constant possibility of unbecoming of this union. And in that way, I think provides a history of really the last 400 years that explains our current moments, or at least that our current moment feels a part of in a way that I think the kind of traditional story of the United States doesn't really. The name itself aspirational; that the founders didn't really think that they were United at the time. Nobody could have, because the, the country was obviously divided. And then a lot of people doubted whether independence should even be pursued. But it was aspirational. It was ambitious. It was kind of awkward also, and implied the constant possibility that that which had been united could become disunited which, even two and a half centuries later I still think is the case.
Mike Hanson (24:16):
Well, Richard don't take five or six years to do your next book. We look forward to the next one. Richard Kreitner, thank you so much for being on the program.
Richard Kreitner (24:24):
My pleasure, thank you so much. I’m really glad you liked the book.
That was our talk with Richard Krietner. Agree, disagree—this was a fun one to do and I found it insightful and challenging. I hope you enjoyed it as well.
In two weeks on Wednesday, January 20th I am quite excited to have professor William Goetzman of Yale in to discuss his book, Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible. It’s one of my all-time favorite books about the history of money, and the culmination of over 20 years of work from professor Goetzmen.
Until then, here’s hoping your New Year is off to a wonderful start. And may all your reading profit your mind and your money. Take care.
Investing in securities involves the risk of loss, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The content of this podcast represents the opinions and viewpoints of Fisher Investments, and should not be regarded and personal investment advice. No assurances are made we will continue to hold these views, which may change at any time, based on new information, analysis or reconsideration. Copyright Fisher Investments, 2020.
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