01 Mar. 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

Harry Browne Special Report

I recently made two observations about things presidential.  They are non-partisan, so it is safe to continue reading.  The first has to do with electability, and it came to me suddenly while skimming current press reports on the 2008 election campaign, now in progress.  I think that the greatest deterrent to being elected is a syllabic one.  Dwight Eisenhower was the only president in our two-century continuum that had as many as four syllables in his surname.  So, male or female, black or white, if you're not a war hero and you intend to run for president, this is something you must consider seriously.

The second is a more personal issue, and I don't know whether I should be surprised by this or not.  I have never seen a president!  Have you?  Is there a small coterie of American citizens who line motorcade routes and attend political events and rallies?  Or have the majority of people, at least those out of the first blush of youth, attended one or another presidential event?  My "never-seen" list includes not just sitting presidents, but winning and losing major-party candidates, and presidents whose terms have expired.  The closest I have ever come, so far as I know, was an accidental glimpse of Barbara Bush while her husband was in office.  This occurred as I was trying to escape from a shopping mall that had been overrun by security for her appearance, of which I had not been warned.  (Don't worry.  I wasn't shopping; this mall had an embedded Nathan's Famous hot dog emporium.)

Which brings me to the point of this blogitem.  I actually knew a minor-party candidate for president.  I met him long before he assumed that thankless task, in what I have to assume were happier times for him.  At the time Harry Browne lived in Switzerland with his Hewlett-Packard 9845B computer and his financial newsletter.  This would have been in the late '70s, after we had starting making H-P compatible memory boards.  I believe I was introduced to him through my friend "Rudolfo," who later was to attempt a foray into the shrimp trade.  Harry was a financial writer.  Other than reading the very common-sense and enjoyable books by Andrew Tobias I don't often embrace this genre.  Whether it's hubris on my part (what does he know that I don't?) or the usual "if he's so smart, why is he writing about money,"  I don't think there's enormous value in this genre.  And even if there is, it is so hypertrophied that there is no way to pick the correct advice from the panoply.  Harry, as I later found out, wasn't as much of a catastrophist as implied by the titles of his books, such as "You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis" and "How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation."

Back in the early days of personal computing, people invented their own publishing software.  The H-P 9845B computer was designed for scientific and engineering use, but Harry managed to use it to produce the graphs and charts in a financial newsletter that he also wrote on the computer.  H-P at the time always seemed to be a generation behind on memory capacity, leaving a capacious and Harry Browne's Special Reports, produced on an H-P 9845B computerlucrative umbrella for third-party suppliers.  We would, for example, make a compatible memory board with four times the capacity of an H-P board and sell it for only twice the price.  This easily paid for my vanity license plate "64K RAM" which got a lot of double takes since it was cryptic and not quite the same pattern as normal New Jersey plates.  (You can count on seeing it here some day.)  Harry, canny financial dude that he was, came to us when he needed to expand his 9845B, and we became occasional nerd correspondents.  Once he even stopped by the office when he was in from Switzerland, and I found him to be an interesting and charming guy.  I'd love to say that the meeting was filled with portent, or even that I came away with more than a general impression.  But this was decades ago, and the fact that I remember our meeting at all is pretty telling.  There are a lot of people I've met just in the past year that I've forgotten.

Harry and I corresponded and occasionally had a telephone babble up through the late '80s, inevitably about things H-P and products that we made that he could use.  He bought one of our Expressways to speed up his plotters, and we shared the odd insight about the future of writing.  We never discussed politics or finance, although he was kind enough to give me a complimentary subscription to his newsletter.  (I didn't feel guilty about this.  If I had actually used it for the purpose intended instead of casual reading I might have insisted on paying.  I tracked down my old issues, in a giant binder he provided, for the photograph above, and when I get a chance to reread them I'll pass along the odd quote or so.  Akin to Tobias, Harry's writing embodies common-sense, although their political views are very different.)  We lost touch around 1991, when the PC had come into full bloom and Harry upgraded his ancient hardware and software.  Just as bad, in a spasm of economizing, Harry terminated all the freebie subscriptions to his newsletter during those not-so-great stock market years.  As I recall, I wrote him an effusive letter (letter!) of thanks for all the interesting material he had sent in the past and wished him well.

Harry Resurfaces!

You could have knocked me over with a defective H-P 9845B power supply, especially if the capacitors hadn't discharged yet.  Harry Browne resurfaced as the Libertarian candidate for president in 1996, and again in 2000!

"I want you to be free to live your life as you want to live it--not as Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush thinks you should. You're the one who gets up every morning and goes to work for eight, 10 or 12 hours a day. How dare Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore presume to decide how much of what you earn you should be allowed to keep? I want you to be able to keep every dollar you earn--to spend it, save it, give it away as you think best--not just the crumbs the politicians leave for you."

Pretty outré, huh?  His Wall Street Journal statement has more of the same.  He's against the "War on Drugs," the Social Security tax, and any number of other governmental programs and activities that we take for granted.  (Deconstruct that cliché:  for "granted."  Hmmm.)  Of course with a program like that, he knew he couldn't get elected and said as much, but hoped for enough votes to show the major parties a thing or two.  And, presumably he did.  Just as Nader was a spoiler for the Democrats, Browne probably siphoned more votes from Bush than he did from Gore, so if Nader ran and Browne didn't, the election might not have been so fraught in Florida.  (And if we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs if we had some eggs and some and.)

I certainly didn't agree with every element of his politics.  For example, he loved opera and I'm an unreconstructible rock-n'-roll fan.  Although it never appeared in the Libertarian Party platform, I do believe he was planning to outlaw "grunge" and pack the Supreme Court with classical music fans.  But that's sheer speculation on my part.  Harry was an intelligent and decent and thoughtful guy.  What little acquaintance I had with him made that clear, and a lot more came though in his writing.  I say "was" because this is the last death I mentioned, and I clearly was entitled to "predict" it since Harry died a year ago today, when he was 72.

I often think that we need intelligent and decent and thoughtful people in politics.  But then I'm reminded of USDUC and reconsider.  I can't help thinking that Harry might have shared my reservations.

NP:  "Tommy" - The Who

© 2007
Richard Factor

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