Streetwise Professor

April 30, 2023

Will No One Rid Me of This Meddlesome Laptop?

Filed under: History,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:29 pm

About six weeks ago, the NY Times ran a long story about election interference. From about the time of the Trojan War. Well, not quite that long ago–but a long time ago: the 1980 election. In its story, the NYT resurrected the “October Surprise” allegation that the Reagan campaign persuaded the Iranians not to release American hostages before the election, thereby torpedoing Jimmy Carter’s chances.

The sources? Well, the plural is not appropriate here: there is a single source, a certain Ben Barnes who allegedly accompanied John Connolly on a tour of Middle Eastern capitals “to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.”

Insofar as confirmation is concerned, the NYT talked to four people. All of whom said that Barnes told them the same story he told the Times.

What could be more solid than that, right? A single source plus an echo chamber. Journalism!

Let’s look at the last sentence of what I just quoted: “Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.” So, just what was that better deal? What evidence is there of such a deal? In fact, there is no evidence of such a thing in 1981, 1982, etc. It wasn’t until Iran’s proxies kidnapped Americans while Reagan was in his second term that he made a deal with them.

The hostages were released right when Reagan was inaugurated: I remember vividly watching the split screen of the inauguration and the release of the hostages. This was plausibly more of an FU to Carter, whom the Iranians loathed and disdained, than it was some gift to Reagan–and again, there is no evidence of any reciprocal benefit redolent of a “deal.”

Barnes’ story would have been more credible had he said that the “blunt message” was: “If you don’t release the hostages when Reagan is president, we will bomb the living shit out of you.”

The NYT’s dedication of extensive ink and pixels to this story is particularly striking given its complete–and I mean complete–lack of ink and pixels to a story of far more relevance and news value, and which is much more firmly sourced than the recollections of the 85 year old Mr. Barnes: specifically, the revelation that ex-CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said–under oath–that he had organized the creation of the letter signed by 51 ex-US intelligence officials suggesting that the Hunter Biden laptop was “Russian disinformation.” Moreover, that Mr. Morell testified–again, under oath–that had done so after being prompted by current Secretary of State, and then Biden campaign official, Anthony Blinken.

Pretty explosive stuff, especially given that according to polls a large majority of Americans say that the truth about the laptop–namely that it was 1000 percent real, and not the creation of the dreaded Russkies–would have impacted their vote. Given the closeness of the election, it is abundantly clear that absent the letter prompted by Blinken and organized by Morell, the outcome of that election would have been different. Talk about your election interference, and tampering with our “precious democracy [sic].”

But apparently this does not fall under the category of “all the news that is fit to print.” Instead, it falls under the category of “all the news that is fit to memory hole,” while items of merely antiquarian interest, such as the 1980 “October Surprise” emerge from the memory hole and wind up on the front page of the Times.

If you want evidence of the utter corruption and partisanship of the elite “news” media, you need look no further.

Those elite sources who have deigned even to mention the story attempt to downplay its significance by saying that Morell also testified that Blinken did not order or direct the letter.

Yeah, and Henry II did not order or direct his knights to murder Thomas á Becket: a mere “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” sufficed.

Blinken suggested, and Morell immediately organized an effort to bash the story on the skull and leave its brains on the floor, a la Beckett’s.

And the New York Times is perpetuating the lie–the disinformation, something it allegedly deplores repeatedly, accompanied by frenzied chin pulling–by failing to cover the story, not even running a column inch or two next to the obituaries.

And if Ben Barnes is telling the truth, I say thank God, if that spared us four more years of Jimmy Carter and brought us the most successful and beneficially impactful presidency since FDR’s. I am sure that Morell is telling the truth now–as rare an event as that is–and I say damn him and all of his co-conspirators (including the elite media, social media companies, etc.) to hell, because through their manipulations they have visited upon us the worst and most balefully impactful presidency on us since . . . James Buchanan’s? John Tyler’s? Or more likely–ever.

Further, unlike the Homeric retelling of long ago events, the laptop letter story is of great importance now, given that The Senescent One has announced his candidacy for 2024. Reagan ain’t running again. Biden is. The dishonest machinations of his 2020 campaign are obviously relevant in evaluating his 2024 effort.

Which is precisely why the NYT, and most of the rest of the elite media, is burying the Morell confession.

NYT delenda est. Hell, the entire elite media delenda est.

April 24, 2023

Redistribution in the Worst Way–By Messing With Prices

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 5:53 pm

“Equity” is one of the three legs of the iniquitous DIE gallows. It is a driving force behind a variety of policy proposals, two of which have surfaced in recent weeks. They illustrate the fundamental depravity of such “equitable” policies generally.

The first is the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s policy to reduce rates and fees for homebuyers with low credit scores who put down relatively little on a house, and to raise them for those with higher scores, especially those who make a downpayment of between 15 and 20 percent of value. In other words, good credits are being forced to subsidize bad credits. In the words of the FHFA director, this is intended to “increase pricing support for purchase borrowers limited by income or by wealth.”

In other words, it is a purely redistributive policy. And excuse me, but where have I seen this movie before? Oh, that’s right. During the last financial crisis, which was in large part the consequence of policies designed to, well, “increase pricing support for purchase borrowers limited by income or by wealth.”

It isn’t rocket science to figure out where this will go. More low credit quality households will buy houses they can’t afford. A loss of a job, or a downturn in the real estate market, or one of myriad of other things means that they won’t be able to repay the loan, resulting in default, foreclosure, and a credit loss to the lender. Most likely followed by class action law suits alleging predatory lending.

Wealth redistribution via housing policy and housing finance policy has always been a bad idea plagued by unintended–but totally predictable–consequences. But it’s like a bad drug, and one that the United States government just can’t quit for long.

The other policy, smaller in scale but similar in design comes from California. There the three major state regulated utilities have proposed implement two part tariffs, consisting of a fixed monthly fee and a per unit usage charge. The fixed fee will be based on income, with low income households paying $15/month and higher income households paying as much as seven times that amount. Further, the utilities will reduce the rate per kwh.

Now you can make an economic case for a two part pricing structure in an industry (like electricity) with high fixed costs, but that doesn’t appear to be the motive here: instead, it is an attempt to use electricity tariffs to redistribute income and wealth. It is also somewhat ironic that California, which faces chronic electricity shortages and constantly strives to reduce consumption because climate change is introducing a policy that encourages consumption. I am sure that will work out swell.

If you believe in redistribution, there are better and worse ways to achieve that objective. The better ways are through lump sum transfers or something like the negative income tax. The worse ways are through messing with prices. It’s fair to say that the worst ways are through messing with prices.

And that’s exactly what these two policies will do. The FHFA policy messes with the price of credit. The California electricity policy messes with the price of power.

Messing with prices distorts decisions on a variety of margins.

For example, distorting the price of credit (i.e., charging borrowers rates and fees that do not reflect default costs) encourages overborrowing by those with poor credit and underborrowing by those with better credit. As we saw in 2006-8, such policies can have systemic consequences. Even absent systemic consequences, they will lead to greater financial distress costs, deadweight bankruptcy costs, reduction in housing values due to the effects of foreclosure, etc.

Both policies also increase effective marginal tax rates, which distort labor supply decisions. In California’s case, the redistributive policies represent one more straw on the camel’s back of those debating where to locate, and due both to the direct effects and the signal sent regarding the extractive nature of California policies will add to the exodus of the middle class from the state.

The means by which these redistributive policies are being imposed is also pernicious. This is redistribution via regulatory fiat. The administrative state is already too large and too unaccountable. Giving it a license to redistribute income and wealth–or to engage in more such redistributive schemes–in the name of “equity” will result in a proliferation of such ghastly schemes, and the deadweight costs they entail due to their distortions of prices. Make elected politicians make the case for and take responsibility for redistributive schemes rather than delegating them to the unelected and the unaccountable. Especially those who can only implement redistributive policies through destructive distortions in the prices of the goods and services they regulate.

The United States desperately needs pro-growth policies, not redistributive ones–not least because growth is essential to prevent a debt crisis. These redistributive policies are decidedly anti-growth.

They are also divisive, and are being implemented at a time where social divisions are already acute.

I wish I could say that these two policies were outliers. They are not. They are representative of today’s strongest policy current: the Biden administration’s “whole of government” plan for “environmental justice” is another. Such policies are a recipe for stagnation, and taken collectively and together with lavish government spending bear the seeds of future economic crises. And not far into the future either.

April 18, 2023

Joe Biden: A Husk of a Hollow Man

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 2:34 pm

Biden was recently in Ireland, where he reveled in his Irish roots.

I only exaggerate slightly when I say that if you ate Lucky Charms for breakfast, you are about as Irish as Joe Biden. He is more Irish than Elizabeth Warren is Native American, but not by much.

Biden has two Irish great-great-grandparents. As do tens of millions of Americans. By that standard, I am as Irish as Joe Biden. Exactly the same: a great-grandfather had two parents who immigrated from Ireland. Meaning that my mother and uncle–of Biden’s generation–are twice as Irish as he. But they never went on babbling for years about returning to the auld sod.

Interestingly, Biden’s last and middle names are of English origin. You know, the “Brits” that he has denigrated for years and gratuitously insults today. Biden–English name. Robinette (his middle name)–also English.

Biden’s celebration of his thin Irish roots goes back years. His Secret Service code name was “Celtic,” for God’s sake.

This is all quite revealing about Biden, and part of a longstanding pattern. And revealing of a hollow man, always grasping for power, and creating a facade to achieve it.

Biden has no fundamental convictions, and no real, organic identity. Irishness is an assumed identity. He assumed it at a time when it was politically advantageous. In his era, every Democrat with presidential aspirations posed as the next JFK (cf. John Kerry, Gary Hart, and on and on). Instead of “Kiss me, I’m Irish” it was “Vote for me, I’m Irish–just like JFK.” And no doubt Biden also found dancing the political jig was a great way to suck up to Teddy Kennedy in the Senate to work his way up the greasy pole there.

In other words, Biden’s Irish persona is just another biographical construction, a fabrication, a piece with all the other lies about his life that he has told–and continues to tell even long after they’ve been proven lies. There is no there, there. Just a hollow vessel festooned with fantastical decorations.

(It is nauseating how the press to a large extent bought into and amplified Biden’s Irish fantasy.)

Joe Biden has always been a hollow, convictionless, ambitious man. And now he is a husk of a man as well. His trip to Ireland was littered with the now familiar confusions and muttering of an old man: on one occasion, Hunter had to explain a small child’s question to him. The cringe moments came one after another.

But he swears he is going to run again. We had better hope that Bismarck was right.

Wither Shale? Don’t Count on It. It Has Been a Technological Progress Story, Not a Diminishing Returns Story

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 2:00 pm

Recently there have been quite a few articles declaring the death, or at least the senescence, of the shale boom. This from today’s Bloomberg, about the Permian specifically, is one of the more optimistic takes.

The gravamen of the argument of those digging shale’s grave is that the most promising prospects have been drilled already. This is no doubt true–and I’ll present some evidence of that shortly–but it’s hardly the entire story. When one looks more comprehensively at the shale boom, it becomes clear that it was driven by technological progress that has overwhelmed the traditional sources of declining productivity in natural resource extraction.

I recently completed a paper on the shale boom. It examines the sources of productivity growth in both oil and gas unconventional wells. In particular, it quantifies the impact of learning-by-doing on productivity growth on a well-by-well basis in all of the major production basins.

The empirical framework captures three potential sources of productivity growth. Firm specific learning, basin-wide learning, and exogenous technological change. As is conventional, I measure the former effect by the cumulative number of unconventional wells drilled in a basin by a given firm prior to drilling a particular well. The second effect is measured by the cumulative number of unconventional wells drilled by all firms in a basin prior to the drilling of a particular well. The last effect is captured by a time trend (again conventional in the learning-by-doing literature dating back decades).

I examine a variety of productivity measures. In what I consider the most novel and potentially interesting part I also look for evidence of cost-reducing innovation and learning effects.

Productivity measures include things like initial production, maximum production, production over the first 12 months, and decline rates. I find strong evidence of firm-specific learning effects in the first three variables, but not so much in decline rates. (Interestingly, learning does not appear to improve drilling speed, contrary to empirical findings in conventional wells.) I do not find strong evidence of industry-wide learning effects.

The last finding sheds light on the exploitation of most promising prospects first. The cumulative basin-wide experience variable is also impacted by this effect. More wells drilled means more industry experience, but it also means more of the good prospects have been drilled. Those two things offset, leading to coefficients that are small positives or actually negative.

The crucial thing to note is that productivity increased from 2011-2020 (in oil) despite the impact of going to progressively less promising sites. This demonstrates the importance of learning and exogenous technological change.

The cost results are the most fascinating to me. I regress the number of wells drilled in a given month in a given basin against the learning variables, input cost variables, a time trend, and price (instrumented for gas to take into account endogeneity–the oil price is reasonably exogenous). I find strong industry-wide cost reducing effects of learning. Specifically, holding price and input costs constant, the number of wells drilled in a given month increases strongly with cumulative industry experience in a basin. That is, cumulative experience shifts out the supply curve. This is evidence of declining cost, and in particular declining fixed cost.

Here again you would expect that the exploitation of the low hanging fruit first should lead to higher costs as cumulative experience grows. But if that effect is there, it is overwhelmed by learning-driven cost reductions.

Based on this research, I am more bullish about the prospects for unconventional production growth in the United States than the conventional wisdom is. The conventional wisdom focuses on a single margin: the stock of potential drilling locations. That totally overlooks the real shale story: massive technological improvement, largely driven by learning effects. Those learning effects work on a variety of margins, including getting more out of a given well, and reducing the cost of drilling a well.

In essence the conventional wisdom is like neoclassical growth theory, in which diminishing returns are the depressing fact of life. But as modern growth theory emphasizes, technological progress has overcome diminishing returns. That’s why we are so rich–far richer than neoclassical growth theory can explain.

My interest in learning-by-doing dates back decades, to my amazing experience of taking bob Lucas’ undergraduate economic growth course at Chicago: Bob decided to teach the course as a way to master the growth literature, and so those fortunate few of us in the class were witnesses to the genesis of his research on growth, which is more important than his (still important) macro/money research for which he won the Nobel.

I wrote a few papers in grad school on LBD, for example showing how learning effects drove productivity growth in US gun manufacturing (at Springfield and Harpers Ferry Armories) in the 19th century. Researching learning in shale gave me an opportunity to dust off and update that previous research interest.

I would also note that shale pessimism is focused on oil. Gas has continued to go great guns–despite the fact that the same diminishing returns effect should be operating there as well. US gas production has continued to grow, especially in Marcellus and Permian. The latter is largely associated gas, but the former is not. This is a productivity story, and it’s not like diminishing returns don’t operate in Marcellus.

Indeed, gas supply growth has been so robust that prices are hovering around $2/MMBTU–back to the level prior to the spike in 2021-2.

Of course one cannot count on the rate of technological improvement continuing at the rate observed in 2010-2020 (for oil) and 2006-2020 (for gas). But one should certainly not discount it, and one should definitely not ignore it altogether and focus only on a source of diminishing returns.

April 17, 2023

Fixing Texas’ Electricity Market: The Theory of the Second Best In Action

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:05 pm

The Texas legislature meets every other year, meaning that 2023 is the first session in which legislation to address the issues that became apparent with the near death experience of the Texas power grid during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 can be considered. The Texas Senate has passed two bills. Senate Bill 6 mandates the building of 10,000 MW of thermal generation (with on-site fuel storage), to be paid for via an “insurance” mechanism that guarantees a 10 percent rate of return to be funded by uplift charges to transportation and distribution utilities. Senate Bill 7 effectively creates an ancillary services market that allows dispatchable generation to sell reserves (e.g., spinning reserves) on a day ahead basis.

Opponents of the legislation state that it represents backsliding from the ideal of competitive energy markets:

Opponents immediately created the false narrative that the Texas bills are proof that Texas politicians “no longer have faith that competitive markets can adequately and economically satisfy the electricity need of Texas citizens,” said Beth Garza, a consultant for the think tank “R Street Institute.”

Well, the bills do represent major departures from Texas’ “energy only” market design. But this raises the question of what undermined the energy only market in the first place. And the answer to that is clear: subsidies for renewables. Past subsidies have wreaked havoc for years. Future subsidies, especially those in the Green New Deal in Drag, AKA the Inflation Reduction Act, threaten to wreak even more havoc in the future.

As I’ve written, this problem was evident years ago, in the mid-2000s. Even then, the penetration of renewables was undermining the economics of thermal generation, leading to exit of such capacity, thereby pressuring reserve margins and compromising–seriously–reliability. The process has continued inexorably in the past 15 years or so, leading to the precarious situation that culminated with Uri–and which has led to chronic concerns about blackouts during every cold snap and heat wave since.

The upshot of the process is an electricity system with a decidedly suboptimal generation mix. Too much intermittent, non-dispatchable renewables, too little dispatchable thermal. The Senate bills are attempts to address that distortion.

This is a great example of the “theory of the second best,” in which one policy that would be suboptimal in the absence of any distortions is welfare-improving in the presence of other distortions. The massive past, present, and prospective subsidies for renewables have distorted the operation of an energy only market. The past subsidies cannot be undone, and the future subsidies are also largely out of the control of Texas and ERCOT. So subsidies for thermal generation that would otherwise be objectionable can improve economic efficiency because they counterbalance the effects of these other subsidies.

It is clear that persisting with the EO market would be a recipe for future disaster. Subsidy to offset subsidy is a second best approach, but the first best is unattainable due to the renewable subsidy induced distortion.

Are there other policies that might be preferable? The only real alternative I can see is a capacity market (another departure from energy only), with capacity obligations clearly directed at dispatchable resources. I am skeptical about the credibility of capacity commitments, and the ability to tailor them to address reliability concerns in particular. Furthermore, political economy considerations threaten capacity markets: renewables operators will lobby to qualify for capacity payments.

SB6 is focused on encouraging investment in dispatchable, reliable capacity. It is likely the MW will be forthcoming. The main challenge is whether the MWh will be there when needed, that is to ensure that the new generation is maintained so as to be able to supply surge demand with a high probability. To provide the incentive to make it so the EO market has to allow generators to earn high prices when supplies are tight. Political economy may again be the main obstacle to this. The new generation will earn high returns–perhaps well above 10 percent–during the periods they are most needed. This will create political pressure to claw back these profits: “windfall profits tax,” anyone? The prospect for clawback undermines the incentive of the new generation to be optimized to supply power in times of short supply.

In sum, renewable subsidies distorted the EO market. Some second best measure (the first best being no renewable subsidies) is necessary. These must effectively subsidize investment in reliable, dispatchable, thermal generation. Between the two main alternatives on offer–guaranteeing a return on investment on such generation, or a capacity market–the former seems superior. But regardless of which is chosen, it is essential to keep in mind what requires the choice: the distortion that compromised the reliability of the Texas grid in the first place, namely, renewables subsidies.

April 14, 2023

Albert Sidney Johnston At Shiloh: Man With a (Better) Plan? Probably Not.

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:02 pm

Last week was the 161st anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, and fortuitously saw the delivery of David Powell’s Decisions at Shiloh.

Dave is a prolific author, especially of Western Theater subjects, most notably Chickamauga (the subject of his three volume trilogy, as well as a book on the Tullahoma Campaign that preceded Chickamauga). He is also author of Failure in the Saddle, a devastating critique of Confederate cavalry performance in the Chickamauga campaign: Nathan Bedford Forrest is not spared! Thus, Dave is not shy to criticize and challenge.

It was therefore surprising to me to see him accept uncritically conventional wisdom about the Confederate deployment at Shiloh. In a nutshell, under a plan developed by second-in-command P. G. T. Beauregard’s chief of staff Thomas Jordan, the Confederate Army of Mississippi attacked Grant’s Army of the Tennessee with a formation of three successive lines: Hardee’s corps in front, followed by Bragg’s, followed by Polk’s, all supported by Breckenridge’s Reserve Corps. This allegedly led to command confusion as once contact was made with the enemy, as units from different corps were intermingled, thereby preventing corps commanders from controlling their troops. Eventually, Hardee, Bragg, and Polk agreed on an ad hoc arrangement whereby each would command units in a particular sector, regardless of the corps to which the units belonged.

The alternative, according to Powell and numerous others stretching back decades (e.g., Wiley Sword–yes, his real name–in Shiloh: Bloody April from 1974) was the plan allegedly conceived by Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston, whereby the three Confederate corps would be arrayed in separate columns attacking in line, rather than successive lines, with with Polk on the left, Hardee in the center, Bragg on the right, with Breckinridge in reserve.

The basis for this assertion is thin indeed. In a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Johnston wrote:

Confederate forces, 40,000, ordered forward to offer battle near Pittsburg [Landing]. . . Beauregard, second in command; Polk, left; Hardee, center; Bragg, right wing; Breckenridge reserve.

That’s it. The entire basis for the supposed alternative (and supposedly superior) plan.

So many issues. Most importantly, Powell (and many predecessors) seem to be reading way too much into this. Is it the barest sketch of an operational plan designating a deployment of troops, or is it merely a description of the organization of Johnston’s army?

A fair reading supports the latter interpretation. First, the mention of “Beauregard, second in command” suggests organization, not operation. Second, the use of the word “wing” is clearly ambiguous, especially in the context of early-1862.

Specifically, in this period, the word “wing” was used to describe a multi-division organization: it was essentially a synonym for “corps.” Army corps were not officially recognized by the Confederacy until 18 September, 1862: recall that in August, 1862 at Second Manassas Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was organized into a Left Wing (under Jackson) and a Right Wing (under Longstreet). In Johnston’s army, the three corps were designated as such only 5 days before Johnston’s letter to Davis, and prior to that were referred to as “Grand Divisions”.

It is therefore not clear whether the reference to “wings” in Johnston’s obviously clipped (for telegraphing) missive to Davis represented an operational plan, or a mere description of the forces at Johnston’s command, and who commanded the basic units of maneuver.

Further, if this was Johnston’s operational plan, why did he abandon it in favor of Beauregard/Jordan’s supposedly inferior one? He was the army commander, after all.

But beyond the very thin evidence that Johnston envisioned an attack by three corps in separate columns rather than in successive lines is the issue of whether such a three column attack was even feasible, given the road net and terrain of the battlefield. I seriously doubt that it was.

The optimal conditions for a three column attack required three parallel roads, one for each corps. But no such roads existed.

The Confederates marched from their camp at Corinth, MS to the battlefield on two parallel roads that converged at a place called “Mickey’s” (or Mitchie’s). From there, only a single road led to the Union cantonment.

Indeed, quite predictably there was a confused traffic jam at the road junction that required some time to sort out, which contributed to the delay in the Confederate attack. Due to the necessity of marching northwards on a single road to get at Grant, the four corps of Johnston’s army were necessarily arrayed one after the other.

So how would they have deployed from this line of march into the (allegedly) preferred (and superior) Polk left; Hardee center; Bragg right formation? Not easily, that’s for sure. They could not magically appear in that formation: they had to get there. But how?–and Powell and his predecessors don’t say.

There was a single road leading towards the Confederate right north of the Mickey’s intersection: the Bark Road. (Johnston wanted to place the weight of his attack on his right to drive Grant away from the Tennessee River and into the bottoms of Snake Creek.). Theoretically, once Hardee’s corps had passed that intersection, Bragg’s could have turned right along the road, marched until it’s left was clear of Hardee’s right, then moved onto line with Hardee. Or eschewing the road, Bragg’s corps could have marched by the flank through the woods south of the Bark Road and then advanced to line up with Hardee.

All of this would have taken time. Hours, given the rawness of the Confederate troops and their commanders, and the nasty terrain. During which time the element of surprise would have almost certainly been lost. (Grant and Sherman would have been most appreciative, given the intense criticism directed at them for being surprised.)

The movement of Polk’s corps/wing to the left would have been even more problematic. There was no road along which it could have moved. A cross country march through the woods cut by ravines and bounded by Winningham Branch and Shiloh Branch would have been confused, time confusing, and noisy.

Given the limitations of the road net and the nasty terrain, a set piece deployment as envisioned by the critics of the Beauregard/Jordan plan was wildly impractical, and wildly unlikely. The advance of the subsequent lines into open spaces uncovered when Hardee attacked from his lead position astride the Corinth road was probably the best, and certainly the fastest, way to bring Bragg’s and Polk’s units into contact with the scrambling Federal defenders.

Yes, it led to a jumbling of units, and the devolution of the battle into a series of attacks by brigades operating largely independently of one another, and under no central command. But this would have almost certainly occurred even under the hypothetical alternative plan (even assuming that it was feasible). Ultimately the battle by brigades was dictated by the exigencies of terrain and the rather haphazard deployment of the Union brigades, which was driven by where they were camped and their extemporized response to surprise.

And note well that the planners of even well-organized Civil War assaults exercised little control once battle was joined. Think of Jackson at Chancellorsville or Longstreet at Chickamauga. In the latter case, Bushrod Johnson’s division attacked straight ahead, Hindman veered to the left, and Law wheeled to the right, each in response to immediate threats posed by the Union forces. Naturally units oriented towards the threat, not according to some pre-ordained plan, and the planner could do nothing about it.

One must also consider the specific corps commanders who were supposedly going to exercise control.

Polk? Ha! Look at Chickamauga, where he was formally in command of two army corps, but did not orchestrate the ordered attack on time, and when it did occur, exercised virtually no control over it.

Hardee, later reputed to be the best Confederate corps commander in the west? At Peachtree Creek and Atlanta in 1864 he launched attacks with far more experienced troops. In each case, these attacks splintered into independent actions by individual brigades, again due to the exigencies of terrain (wooded, cut by ravines–like at Shilho) and an unknown and irregular deployment of the Union troops (again like at Shiloh). There is little indication that Hardee exercised any command once his troops stepped off in either of these battles.

Bragg? Another guffaw. At Shiloh itself his tactics were clumsy, consisting mainly of ordering uncoordinated piecemeal assaults on the Hornet’s Nest.

Raw troops. Inexperienced commanders at every level. Rough terrain. A primitive road net. A determined foe. These are what ultimately dictated the course of the battle. It probably would have played out in much the same way in the end regardless of the formation in which the Confederates started.

In sum, I think that the controversy over the Confederate battle plan at Shiloh is a red herring. The evidence that Johnston seriously considered an alternative is wafer-thin: and if he did consider it, he obviously was not strongly committed to it, else he would not have deferred to Beauregard. More importantly, the feasibility of the plan is highly doubtful, given the reality that the Confederates had to approach the Union camps over a single road and there were no easy ways to deploy from a column of corps on that road into a line of corps abreast. And perhaps most importantly, the friction of battle and the reality of no-plan-survives-contact-with-the-enemy meant that regardless of how they were lined up to begin with, the Confederate brigades would have almost certainly operated largely independently as dictated by the terrain and the deployment of Union troops.

The outcome at Shiloh was not dictated by the Confederate battle plan. In fact, that plan arguably had little or no influence on how events played out on 6 April 1862. It was a matter of roads and terrain, and given those constraints it is likely that putting the Confederate troops as they were worked as well or better than any alternative would have.

April 10, 2023

Burke’s “Soldiers by Experience”: Praising and Slandering Sherman’s XVth Corps in the Same Book

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:31 pm

The XVth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee was one of the most storied and successful combat formations of its size in the Civil War. (Not to mention two ancestors served in it.) It is therefore gratifying to see it receive a book-length treatment in Eric Michael Burke’s Soldiers By Experience: The Forging of Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps 1862-1863.

I can give the book a qualified endorsement. It is really a tale of two books, one very good, the other not so much.

The narrative history portion of the book is excellent. In particular, the extended treatments of three largely neglected campaigns/battles–Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, and the efforts of Grant to get at Vicksburg from the north via the twisting streams of the Mississippi Delta–are very well done and fill a gap in Civil War historiography.

I was particularly interested to read the role that Morgan L. Smith and two Zouave units–the American Zouaves (recruited in Illinois but incorporated into Federal service as the 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry) and the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry–played in developing innovative tactics that eventually spread throughout what became the XV Corps. I’ve read a huge amount of Civil War history since I was 8, and never came across this fact. A nice riposte to the Confederate general Daniel Gladden’s remark that all it took to make a Zouave was 6 yards of red flannel and an Irishman.

The analytic part of the book is not up to the standard set by the narrative part. The basic thesis is banal: military units have a culture that is shaped by their experience. Well of course.

The more specific thesis, that as a result of the bad experiences at Chickasaw and Arkansas Post the XVth Corps was neuralgic about attacking fortifications, is borderline slanderous (because it insinuates cowardice), and repeated endlessly.

The XVth Corps’ neuralgia was hardly unique. Every unit, North and South, had an intense aversion to attacking earthworks–once they had experienced it. If the XVth Corps was unique in any way, it was that it had such unfortunate experiences earlier than any other large unit, and therefore learned of the futility of such assaults earlier than any other large unit.

The XVth Corps assaults occurred in December, 1862 (Chickasaw) and January, 1863 (Arkansas Post). Prior to that time, the only other major assault against field fortifications occurred when the Confederates attacked Corinth, Mississippi in October, 1862. Even then, the Corinth defenses were not as formidable or as heavily manned as those at Chickasaw Bluffs or Arkansas Post. (There were of course earlier attacks on troops stationed behind pre-existing defenses, like the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg or the Sunken Road at Antietam.)

Virtually every time other formations attacked earthworks subsequent to December 1862-January 1863 (a) the attacks were bloodily repulsed, and (b) like the XVth Corps, the attackers shuddered at the the thought of ever doing it again. The XVth Corps was therefore no exception possessing some distinctive culture involving a unique aversion to attacking earthworks: it was the rule, and the corps essentially pioneered the rule through its experiences in the winter of 1862-3.

In other words: they were no dummies, and learned quickly because they had to.

I note that bad experiences were not even necessary. Yes, the XVth Corps was reluctant to attack the formidable defenses of Vicksburg in May, 1863. But so were the XIIIth and XVIIth Corps, which had not had to attack earthworks prior to 19 and 22 May, 1863. As veterans they could quickly understand the likely outcome of rushing prepared defenses manned by veteran troops.

Crucially, after the grim experiences of the winter of 1862-3 the XVth Corps drew upon the Zouave tactics of the 8th Missouri and 11th Indiana to develop an open order, skirmishing-style tactical system that was well-adapted to the realities of the rifled musket, field fortifications, and combat in wooded terrain. Not all who would be bloodied in attacking trenches in the Civil War figured that out. Hell, 1914 armies (especially the French, but the Germans too) hadn’t figured that out.

I have to say too that as a book based on Burke’s PhD thesis, its academic style is sometimes rather grating: it comes off as somewhat pompous and stilted. And I say that as an academic.

In sum, if you are interested in the Civil War at a relatively deep level, I can recommend the book. It provides excellent coverage of some overlooked campaigns, and goes into considerable tactical detail. But if you do read it, discount the (academic) thesis and focus on the historical narrative.

April 9, 2023

He Blowed Up Real Good.

Filed under: History,Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:29 am

And the war grinds on.

The main news in the last weeks is the death by bombing of Vladlen Tatarsky, AKA Maxim Fomin, a mouth-breathing Russian nationalist military blogger–or at least he was, before he rested in pieces. He blowed up real good.

The deliverer of the bomb (concealed in a statuette of Fomin, apparently to appeal to his narcissism) was a woman who was associated with the opposition movement (such as it is). She claims she was duped, and had no idea that the statuette contained a bomb.

Of course the issue is whodunit. The Ukrainians might first jump to mind, but they have far bigger fish to fry. My immediate conclusion was that Fomin was a casualty of dogs fighting under the carpet, Russian style. Specifically, the military vs. Wagner, and vs. Yevgeny “Nosferatu” Prigozhin specifically. Prigozhin definitely thinks so. Fomin was blown up in a Wagner-associated club, and was a vehement partisan of Prigozhin.

This makes perfect sense, and is emblematic of the mafia-like nature of the Russian state. (I am reminded of Cleveland, circa 1976-7, when it was known as “Bomb City USA” because the mobsters were whacking one another with bombs rather than bullets during that period). Darya Dugin’s demise is another example.

These internecine struggles are traceable to a single fact: the utter failure of Russian military efforts in Ukraine. The fact that private security companies are vying with the state, and specifically the uniformed military, is also symptomatic of the degradation of the state and its concomitant loss over the monopoly of violence. This poses a threat to the autocrat.

Wagner was created to give Russia plausible deniability when intervening overseas, in Africa and Syria, for example. (Although in the latter case, when they attempted to tangle with the US hundreds of them got greased. By Trump. You know, Putin’s puppet.) But there is no guarantee that a force created for that purpose can be limited to that purpose, but instead may slip the bridle and pursue its own interests.

Meaning that Putin is fighting a war on two fronts, one far more dangerous than the other.

On the other battlefield, i.e., Ukraine, the meat grinder stalemate continues. Russia makes incremental gains around Bakhmut, but at appalling cost. And for what? Even if they take the city, it will not materially change the operational picture. They will push back the Ukrainians, rather than achieve a penetration. And even a penetration would be irrelevant, because Russia lacks the means to exploit it. Hell, it is refurbing T-54s and T-55s (NB: the number refers to the year the model was introduced) to replace its horrific losses in armor. Those will be meat for Javelins and Carl Gustavs, and regardless, the Russians haven’t the logistical capability to support a breakout.

The Russians are also on tenterhooks awaiting a threatened Ukrainian counteroffensive. To illustrate their anxiety, they have dug defenses on numerous beaches in Crimea.

How are the Ukrainians going to get there, pray tell? Swim?

The success of any such counteroffensive depends less on Ukrainian capabilities than Russian infirmities: last autumn’s Ukrainian advances were made possible by Russian exhaustion and collapse. The more Russia wastes itself in futile assaults against meaningless objectives that lead to nowhere, the better chances the Ukrainians have to push them back again.

Now is not a favorable time for a serious advance and breakout, due to rasputitsa. May is the time to look for something decisive to happen, when the roads and fields dry. The question is whether Putin will recognize that reality and husband his forces to resist, or will persist in attriting them for no purpose. Based on form, I predict the latter.

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