Five awesome history podcasts

At my former day job in Iowa, I had the opportunity to listen to a great deal of audio while I was working. Consequently, I discovered some really fascinating podcasts on a wide variety of subjects.

As a writer, I particularly enjoy history podcasts. Not only do they give me lots of interesting story ideas, but they help to expand my mind and give me some useful perspectives on where we came from and how we arrived at where we are in the modern world today. Before I started listening, there were a lot of dark areas in my understanding of world history. Now, much less so.

I tried out a wide variety of history podcasts, some good, some acceptable, and a few that were less than useful. Of all the podcasts I tried out, here are the five best.

History of Rome by Mike Duncan

Of all the history podcasts out there, Mike Duncan sets the standard with History of Rome. Short and concise, yet full of fascinating insights and connections, this podcast opened my eyes to Roman history and lightened what was previously a very dark section of my understanding of the world.

Where other podcasts lose sight of the forest for the trees, History of Rome never does. And where other podcasts advance a single narrative without exploring alternate explanations of events, History of Rome retains enough curiosity for this never to be a problem. Indeed, for major events like the crisis of the third century or the migration period, Mike Duncan explores multiple causative events, both proximate and ultimate. He’s not just presenting somebody else’s version of history: he examines original sources and comes to his own conclusions.

Histoy of Rome was what got me into history podcasts in the first place. It’s also what opened my eyes to things like monetary systems and the rise of serfdom. There was a hole in my understanding of the world, and History of Rome not only filled it, it gave me a bridge to knowledge I wasn’t aware I didn’t possess. Definitely recommended.

History of Byzantium by Robin Pierson

When the History of Rome ended with the fall of the western Roman Empire, Robin Pierson didn’t want it to end. So he started a podcast of his own, about the eastern Roman Empire from the reign of Zeno in the fifth century to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The result is The History of Byzantium.

This podcast is very much a continuation of the History of Rome. It’s a little more difficult to follow, mostly because Byzantine history is so… well, Byzantine. However, Robin does a good job tying it all together and making it comprehensible. He also interviews a number of historians and other subject experts, which can be very interesting.

I never realized how pivotal and important the eastern Roman Empire was. From Justinian and Theodora to the apocalyptic wars with the Muslims that stopped them from overrunning Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries, the history of Byzantium is absolutely fascinating. Well worth a listen.

Revolutions by Mike Duncan

After finishing the History of Rome, Mike Duncan started a new history podcast called Revolutions. This podcast explores the major political revolutions of the modern era, starting with the English civil war and ultimately leading to… well, we don’t know yet! Once again, this was a relatively dark area in my understanding of the world that Mike Duncan quite effectively illuminated.

It’s been particularly interesting to see how all of these revolutions are connected. The English civil war in many ways laid the groundwork for the political philosophy of classical liberalism, which led to the American Revolution. In turn, the American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, which triggered the Haitian Revolution (the only successful slave revolt in history), which spilled over into South American with Simon Bolivar. The failures of the French Revolution led to Napoleon, the restoration of the Bourbons, and the backlash of Metternich and European conservatism. This led to the tensions which exploded in the revolutions of 1848, whose failures led to the rise of socialism and communism.

Revolutions has shaped up to be just as good as History of Rome, if not better. Definitely worth subscribing.

Western Civ by Adam Walsh

The scope of Western Civ is a lot broader than the other podcasts I’ve listed, and that’s part of what I like about it. Instead of diving into the minutiae, it gives a very good sweeping overview of civilization, starting with the prehistoric fertile crescent and ultimately leading to… well, so far we’re at the high middle ages, but I get the sense that we’re ultimately headed for the modern day.

Adam Walsh also does a lot of readings from stuff like Homer, Cicero, Beowulf, and Norse mythology. It can be really interesting to hear the original documents in translation, especially after getting a context for them. It’s clear from his reading that he’s got a passion for this stuff, which bleeds over into the whole production.

For a broad overview of Western history, both to get a sense where your blind spots are and to put everything else into context, Western Civ is probably the best history podcast I’ve found for that.

History of English by Kevin Stroud

Years ago, in college, I took an ELANG class for my English minor and found it absolutely fascinating. The History of English Podcast combines all the best parts of that linguistics class with the history of the people who spoke it. Starting with the Indo-Europeans and what archaeologists have managed to piece together about them, Kevin traces the origins of just about every aspect of the English language.

In particular, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the Anglo-Saxons and the language they spoke. Kings and Earls, pagans and Christians, far-reaching marriage alliances and invasions from the Vikings and the French. I never considered how the English language itself is a historical artifact, but it really is. As a writer, I find this particularly fascinating.

The History of English Podcast goes really in-depth about things like the Norman conquest and the English monarchy, but it’s never too dry or difficult to follow. Also, each episode is packed with some really fascinating insights into our everyday language. Definitely worth subscribing, especially if you like to write.

Fed Up by Danielle DiMartino Booth

When the economy crashed in 2008, few people were in a better position than Danielle DiMartino Booth to witness the crisis as it unfolded. At the Dallas Fed, she’d been sidelined for years for warning that housing was in a bubble. That changed very quickly when Lehman Brothers collapsed, and from 2009 to 2015, she became the eyes and ears for Richard Fisher, on of the most important dissenting voices within the Fed.

As Bernanke and Yellen flooded the market with helicopter money, massacred savers and pension funds with a decade of zero percent interest rates, exploded the Fed’s balance sheet to the tune of trillions, and dragged the US economy through one of the worst “recovery” periods in history, Danielle was there, right in the thick of it. And now, she’s written a book to explain what the hell happened—and what happens next.

This was the first in-depth financial book I’ve read. It did not disappoint. Danielle’s writing has a sarcastic and witty edge that is both insightful and incisive. She has the enviable ability to take dry technical analysis and make it entertaining.

At the same time, this is not a lightweight book. To someone who is unfamiliar with the financial world and is still confused by things like the subprime mortgage crisis or the housing collapse, this is not a good entry point (for that, I’d suggest The Big Short).

However, for someone with some passing familiarity on the subject, who understands the basics of finance and the Federal Reserve, and has a growing sense that something, somewhere, is very very wrong in our economy, this book is fantastic.

I’m not in total agreement with Mrs. Booth. The most pertinent point of disagreement was probably this:

Though [Ron] Paul made some good points [with his book End the Fed], America is not a banana republic. It needs a strong and independent central bank.

A country that grants a quasi-government entity a monopoly on the right to counterfeit money is much closer to a banana republic than the likes of the Roman Empire, which endured for one and a half millennia because their monetary system was anchored to gold. But if I only read books or listened to sources that I always agreed with, I would be locking myself in an intellectual prison of my own making.

Towards that end, Danielle DiMartino Booth offers a fascinating and unique perspective that I’ve found to be invaluable. If, like me, you feel that something is deeply wrong in our economy and want to know what it is, or if you believe that we’re on the verge of another economic collapse and want to educate yourself on the things that are driving it, I highly recommend this book.

Also, she posts a regular column on her site! Check it out!

The thousand year view

How will your life impact the world in a thousand years?

It’s an easy question to dismiss. After all, how can one person possibly shape the course of history? Even if we accept the impact of certain great men, how can we have the hubris to think that we might one day join them?

But the truth is that our lives have more impact than we realize. Each one of us is literally a product of our ancestors. Their decisions, for good or for evil, have put us where we are today. We also have a hand in shaping the people we come into contact with. That impact can be felt through multiple degrees of separation—and how many degrees does it take to encompass the world?

In the year 1017, Europe was rising out of the ashes of the Viking age. Kievan Rus was ascendant in the east, vying with the Romans who dominated the religion and commerce of Europe (we know them today as the Byzantines). However, tensions were rising between Constantinople and the bishopric of Rome, where one of the last vestiges of the Roman state in the West would soon break communion and form the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, an apocalyptic Muslim death cult known as the Fatimids had swept from North Africa all the way to Baghdad, the cultural and scientific capital of the world. From the harsh steppe wilderness of central asia, the Seljuk Turks were building an empire that would save Baghdad from destruction, while in China, the Song dynasty had invented the first paper currency.

In short, it was a completely different world. How different will things look a thousand years from now?

By the year 3017, we will probably have established an independent colony on Mars. Other parts of the solar system will probably also be colonized, and we may have even begun our expansion to the stars. After all, faster than light starship drives are about as fantastic to us as cars, airplanes, and space stations would be for medieval serfs.

It is highly unlikely that the United States—or any other country, for that matter—will exist with its current borders. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the majority of countries extant today will even exist at all. China is probably an exception, but let’s not forget that China is a civilization pretending to be a country.

Pessimists will say that there’s a good chance humanity won’t exist at all. They point to things like climate change, pandemics, and global war as challenges we may not overcome. But in the last millennium, we faced all those challenges and rose above them (little ice age, Mongol hordes, black plague). Same with the millennium before (extreme weather and crop failures of 535-536, Muslim conquests, plague of Justinian).

So how will your life impact the world a thousand years from now? What sort of impact do you want your life to have? How have the things you’ve done today brought you closer to leaving that legacy?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few weeks. I want to impact the world through my books, but it’s unlikely that most of my books will still exist. My family and descendants will, though. I want to leave them with the best foundation I can. Here’s how I plan to do it:

Step One: Master the Basics of Provident Living

Provident living is more than just learning how to do your laundry and keep up with the maintenance of your car. It’s learning how to live sustainably, with a degree of self-reliance that can see you and the ones you love through hard times. It’s all the stuff I’ve been writing about in the Self-Sufficient Writer blog series.

I’ve made a lot of progress in this area, but there’s still a lot of progress left to make. Here are the next few steps I want to take in this area:

  1. Establish a rotating 90-day food storage for dry goods.
  2. Establish a herb garden.
  3. Expand food storage to canned goods.
  4. Buy a chest freezer and expand to meats and dairy.
  5. Plant a garden and expand to fresh fruits and vegetables.
  6. Learn how to can.
  7. Learn how to hunt.
  8. Begin keeping livestock (chickens, goats, etc).

A lot of these steps are going to have to wait until I have my own land, which brings us to:

Step Two: Live Debt-Free and Own the Place Where You Live

When you live on someone else’s land and owe them a portion of your labor, that’s a form of serfdom. In both historic and modern times, this has been the norm for the vast majority of people.

It shouldn’t be.

When my ancestors came from Europe to the United States, one of the first things they did was buy land. There was a reason for this. In the old country, they were serfs. They paid the corvée. They were not free.

They knew that unless they lived on land that they owned, in a home that was theirs, their children would not be free either.

We’ve enjoyed a century of prosperity in the United States. It’s led us to believe that home loans and mortgage payments are normal. They aren’t. When your home is the collateral for a loan you’ve taken from the bank, and you spend most of your adult life paying it back to the tune of 250%, that is a modern form of serfdom.

Until you own it outright, your house is a liability, not an asset. And in some places, true ownership is impossible. After all, if the government has the power to seize your house for non-payment of taxes, did you really ever “own” it to begin with?

It’s a similar thing with debt. All debt is a form of bondage. “Leverage” is when someone else has control over you or something that belongs to you. Unless you can get out from under it, you will never truly be free.

If most of your life is spent in serfdom and bondage, the thousand-year impact of your life will be muted.

The Habsburg dynasty started with a small castle on the top of a hill. From that starting point, the family went on to shape the development of Europe into the modern world. The castle was so important in that effort that the family took their name from it.

I know how to live debt-free. I’ve been doing it for several years. But I do not currently live in a place that I own. That is my overriding goal: to own the place where I live within ten years.

The government isn’t making it easy. Neither are the central banks. A decade of 0% interest rates has ravaged the middle class. As a direct consequence, home ownership rates are dropping to historic lows. 70% of Millennials have less than $1,000 saved for a down payment on a house, while at the same time, the helicopter money from the Fed has inflated a new housing bubble larger than the one that burst in ’08. In California, Google employees with six-figure incomes are living out of RVs because they can’t afford to buy a house.

It’s brutal. These are the same economic pressures that led to the rise of medieval serfdom in Europe. But there are also opportunities, for those who know how to take advantage of them. Which leads to:

Step Three: Build Multi-Generational Wealth

Poor people buy luxuries. Middle class people buy necessities. Rich people buy investments. If I want to leave something behind for my children and descendants, I need to master the skills of investing and managing wealth.

This goes back to the thousand-year view. The biggest impact I’m probably going to make on the world is going to be through my children and descendants. Raising them will be the most important investment I can ever make. I want to give them a life of opportunity, so that they, like me, can make a thousand-year impact on the world.

This is what my ancestors did for me. My Mormon ancestors crossed the plains in the Willie handcart company so that their descendants could grow up in Zion. My first-generation immigrant Czech ancestors invested in Texas farmland that still pays a small dividend to their descendants (greatly increased now because of oil royalties). There are many other countless others who made great sacrifices so that I could enjoy a life of privilege and opportunity. I’m sure that’s not unique to me.

We seem to have forgotten, here in the United States, how important it is to make sure that our children enjoy better lives than we have. To some generations much is given, while of others much is required. I fear that we are transitioning from the former to the latter. Nations are born stoic and die epicurean, surrounded by mountains of debt.

This is why it is so important to build wealth: not for your own personal consumption, but for the security of your children and descendants.

The most important investment you can make is in your education. If I’m going to develop these skills, that’s what I need to do: invest in my own financial education.

I also need to learn by experience, so I’m taking $100 of my book earnings each month and investing them. I’ll probably experience a couple of big losses, but that’s called paying tuition. The knowledge I gain from doing this will hopefully help to accomplish this goal: to build wealth that will bless the lives of my children and descendants for generations to come.

A lot of things fall into perspective when you take the thousand-year view. When you focus on the challenges of the present, it’s easy to become pessimistic, but when you take a clear-eyed look at the future—not just the immediate future, but the long-term future as well—you cannot help but take an optimistic view.

How will your life impact the world in a thousand years?

The end of politics in America, part 2

How did Trump become the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth?

A lot of people are asking that question, while a lot of other people already know (hint: it wasn’t the Russians). But I want to get beyond the circus that is Washington DC, and answer that question by asking another:

Can politics solve our nation’s greatest problems?

I think there is a dawning realization among Americans that it doesn’t really matter who lives on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Republican or Democrat, the outcome is pretty much the same.

Never at any point in living memory have we been so politically divided, but the party distinctions have become increasingly meaningless. Trump campaigned on providing universal healthcare. Clinton campaigned on escalating our military involvement in Syria. Which one was the Republican, and which one was the Democrat?

In the previous post, I said:

I am convinced that the grand key to understanding United States history in the 20th century—and by extension, current events in the 21st—is a deep knowledge of monetary policy and the financial system.

What is that system?

It is a system of debt. Pure and simple. We have turned our debt into money, and made every other form of money illegal. And the rest of the world has followed us gleefully off the cliff.

Washington is bankrupt. Literally bankrupt. Every year, the Treasury runs an internal audit, and every year, that audit fails. The government’s single biggest asset on their balance sheets is… $1 trillion in student loan debt. Social Security is insolvent and, according to the government’s own reports, will completely run out of money in less than twenty years.

So if Washington is bankrupt, why haven’t they declared bankruptcy? Because they can just keep printing money through the Federal Reserve.

Because of this, the US dollar has lost about 97% of its value since the Federal Reserve system was established in 1913. A time traveler from the new Wonder Woman movie couldn’t buy $5 worth of stuff with $100 of our dollars today. And to keep up this Ponzi scheme we call “money,” Washington has gone nearly $20 trillion in debt.

How much longer can we keep that up?

If we could grow our economy fast enough, and never stop growing, we could keep up the Ponzi scheme for a very long time. But growth is no longer a solution, because the debt is bigger than the economy. The debt is the reason we can’t grow.

If we could innovate fast enough, we could lower the cost of living so much that the poor don’t realize that they’re poor. To some extent, we’ve already done that. But the effects are too uneven: startphones and computers are super cheap, but houses and health care are practically unaffordable.

Which brings us to serfdom.

Let’s go back in time a couple thousand years. Before the days of the empire, the Roman dream was that every family would have their own plot of land, making them independently wealthy, and the head of every family would take up arms in defense of his country whenever called upon by the state. This was not all that different from the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer.

Then the Punic wars happened, which, for the Mediterranean world, was basically the ancient WWI and WWII. As Rome became a major world power, the military-industrial complex made a few select elites fabulously wealthy, who kept the masses pacified with welfare handouts.

But the endless cycle of foreign wars came at a heavy cost. Decades of budget deficits and an unsustainable national debt forced the Romans to debase their currency, which completely collapsed. Trade halted, the middle class lost everything, and the 1% became fantastically wealthy, buying up all the real estate and forcing everyone else out. The Roman dream was dead, replaced by a form of bondage called serfdom.

Serfdom came in a number of different flavors:

  • Slaves, who had always existed in the Roman world and continued for some time in the Medieval. Landlords got tax benefits for holding slaves.
  • Villeins, who were bound to the land and worked for the landlords. In exchange, they enjoyed protection and tax relief. Theoretically.
  • Coloni, or sharecroppers, who leased land in exchange for labor and a portion of their harvest. They were eventually taxed out of existence.
  • Freemen, who technically weren’t serfs, but were only a raid or a bad harvest away from becoming one. They were basically renters.

The corvée was a tax, paid in labor, that non-landowners owed by law. Basically, for every XX days out of the year, you worked for the state. It continued even after the abolition of serfdom, until the revolutions of 1848. My Czech ancestors paid the corvée, which is probably one of the reasons they and their children emmigrated to the United States.

But wait—we pay the corvée too! It’s called the federal income tax: for XX days out of the year, you work for the state. The taxes are even higher if you’re self-employed or a small business owner.

Except… not everyone pays the income tax. In fact, nearly half of Americans pay no income tax. Why? Because the politicans know that they can use the welfare system to buy votes. If you’re on welfare, who are you going to vote for: the guy who plans to cut your handouts, or the guy who says that the wealthy should pay their “fair share”?

And sitting at the top of it all are the central bankers.

The medieval serfs were bound to the land and worked for the landlords. In contrast, modern debt-serfs are bound to their debt—national debt, student loan debt, mortgages, consumer debt—and work for the banks.

So I ask again: can politics solve this problem? Can we find a political solution to our national debt?

Unfortunately, there is only one political solution: default on the debt. If we default on entitlements like social security, there would be chaos, riots, and anarchy… and we still wouldn’t pay down hardly any of the debt. If we defaulted on our treasury bonds, it would send a ripple of financial panics across the world, destabilizing the flashpoints in Europe and Asia before returning to our shores. Stocks, mutual funds, and pensions would all be wiped out. Almost the entire savings of the Baby Boomer generation, gone.

But there is another option, though it’s hardly a “solution”: kick the can a little further down the road. Print the money, devalue the debt, and inflate the currency to oblivion.

This is the path we’ve been on since 1913. This is the reason why our dollars buy a little less each year. And this is the reason why we, as a nation, are backsliding into serfdom.

We’ve seen this happen before. Rome fell because of it. Europe came under the yoke of serfdom as a result of it. Our ancestors fled to this country to escape it. And now, we are repeating it.

This isn’t a political problem: it’s a math problem. The numbers just do not add up. The next financial crisis could very well be the “extinction level event” that puts the final nail in the coffin of the US dollar, throws the world into a global war, and sends the United States into its greatest existential crisis since the Civil War. The Republicans don’t have the solution, and neither do the Democrats, because the problem is not political.

This is what the end of politics in America looks like. We’re watching it happen in real-time. Our politicians have become the clowns in the bread-and-circuses routine. Meanwhile, the central bankers are shackling us in chains with every dollar that passes through their hands.

What are you going to do about it?