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Christmas 2015
Wednesday, 18 May 2016

I am writing this just after Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a time to relax with family and enjoy wonderful pies (also turkey). It is a respite from a troubled world. 

And the world is troubled in late 2015. Syrian refugees are flooding Europe, Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris, in Beirut, in Mali. Russians flexing military might in Syria. Turks shooting down Russians. Our President trying mightily to appear he has a plan. He does not. Thank goodness for Pope Francis. He is in Africa spreading love and common sense on global warming. The Pope seems to be the only beacon of hope just at the moment. 

Personally 2015 was a year of 50ths: my 50th Reunion at the Naval Academy and the 50th Reunion of our American Rhodes Scholar Class. Both were memorable 

The Rhodes Reunion was here in Maine on a beautiful long weekend in mid-September. We had a fine group of almost forty scholars and spouses or significant others. The Reunion was a nice blend of discussion and Maine coast excursions. One highlight was an afternoon cruise on the Kennebec River in Bath as part of a tour of the Maine Maritime Museum. We saw a classic part of the Maine coast complete with historic lighthouses, as well as the beautifully restored shipyard that houses the Museum. We also had lively discussions of the issues of the day and about our post-retirement engagement. Who could ask for more. 

The 50th at the Naval Academy was different, in part because we had over 700 attendees. Still, the bonds formed by the banks of the Severn are strong and unique. I was able to reconnect with several old friends and company-mates. I was part of the winning team at our Class golf tournament – a nice, if improbable, memory. 

There were other memorable anniversaries. 2015 was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the battle that ended the Napoleonic Era in Europe. The battle could have gone to the French but for the timely arrival of the Prussians, causing the Duke of Wellington to famously remark “It was a close run thing”. Of course, we devotees of Admiral Horatio Nelson believe the French fate had been sealed a few years earlier at the Battle of Trafalgar. 

2015 was also the 150th anniversary of Alice going down the rabbit hole. This event has engendered many reminisces including a new biography of Charles Dodgson, the Oxford don who penned the work. All of this prodded me to get out our copy and try to re-read it. It is a strange and bizarre tale. The Disney version was much more fun. 

On the sports scene in 2015 let us acknowledge the Rugby and Cricket World Cups. The Rugby World Cup this fall in England reinforced the dominance of New Zealand’s All Blacks, continuing a remarkable run of global victories. The New Zealanders convincingly dispatched Australia in the final. But as a South African friend said, the game of this tourney was the semi-final with South Africa. The All Blacks prevailed 20-18 in a hard fought battle of attrition. 

The Cricket World Cup was a wonderful event held in New Zealand and Australia this spring. Australia, the favorites, prevailed in the final against host New Zealand with some remarkable bowling. However, the match to watch was again a semi-final, this one the match between New Zealand and South Africa. The match came down to the last over (an over being 7 balls or “pitches” in baseball parlance). This close a match is almost unheard of in cricket. New Zealand won it on a “six” (something like a home run) on the next to last ball. Check it out on YouTube. It may make a cricket fan of you. 

On more serious matters I recommend two books: The Founders and Finance, by Thomas McCraw and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Thomas Putnam. The Founders and Finance is the story of how Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin built the US financial system. It is an extraordinary story, particularly from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton – a founding father who has rarely gotten the recognition he deserves. 

In Our Kids Robert Putnam, an accomplished sociologist, has documented just how far we have moved from the American Dream. It is sobering. He tells this from the perspective of his home town, Port Clinton, Ohio. Putnam opens his book with “Port Clinton in 1959 is a good place to begin because it reminds us how far we have traveled away from the American Dream”. If you still believe in the Dream in which the kid from the other side of the tracks works hard in school, goes on to college and finds wealth and happiness, think again. 

Our kids deserve at least the same chance we had. They are not getting it. The vast gulfs of income inequality have all but devoured the American Dream, making the odds way too long. There are things we can do about this. Putnam offers practical suggestions. 

As 2015 closes I look back on much that is disturbing in our country. We seem to have lost the knack for problem-solving that has been such a part of the American experience. If I had just one wish for my country it would be to recover that vital piece: the willingness to tackle big problems. We have so much to build on. 

My best wishes for a 2016 filled with problems little enough to solve.

Christmas 2014
Wednesday, 18 May 2016

In America we have recently had our mid-term elections – a resounding win for Republicans who took the Senate and increased their majority in the House.  Here in Maine we re-elected a confrontational, conservative Republican governor – in a state that went overwhelming for Obama in 2012. 

Careful readers of last year’s letter will remember my noting that “The Republican majority refuses to govern responsibly. They deserve to lose the mid-term elections of 2014.”  I don’t believe I was wrong in assessing the Republican majority. Unfortunately Barack Obama had a worse 2014 than the Republicans. 

All of which is to say that our country’s governance is falling apart. This fall Francis Fukuyama published a masterful analysis of world political systems called Political Order and Political Decay in which he despaired for America’s current political system, describing it as a “vetocracy” controlled by special interests, unable to address any significant issue. 

In spite of all this, the American economy continues to be the envy of the developed world.  The economy put up sound growth numbers in 2014 and most economists are relatively bullish about 2015 – as long as we don’t lurch into a national fiscal crisis or an international conflagration over who controls Ukraine. 

From a professional perspective 2014 has had a nice balance to it.  My involvement as an advisor to a private equity group in San Francisco gives me both business challenge and personal flexibility.  Here in Maine I continue to play a strong role in Educate Maine, a business-led group advocating for more and better education. I have also joined the Board of MPBN, the Maine public radio and television system. 

2014 was the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.  The anniversary sparked the release of several books on the origins of the war.  The conventional view is that Europe stumbled into the war as if sleepwalking. This is not the view shared by Max Hastings, the English historian, whose Catastrophe 1914 makes the case that it was Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany who brought the idyllic early years of the 20th century to a close by giving its ally Austria a blank check to deal with Serbia.  While he is at it, Hastings decries the inept military leaders of France and England who sent hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths in the first four months of the war before realizing that the machine gun had transformed the modern battlefield. The exception: French Marshall Ferdinand Foch who, as legend has it, turned the tide of the war at the Marne with the dispatch: “My right is driven in, my left is falling back. Excellent. I attack with my centre.” 

Hastings is a good read.  Other good reads of 2014:  A Spy Among Friends – Kim Philby by Ben Macintyre.  I had not realized how compelling a figure Philby was in one of the great betrayals of the Cold War.  Redeployment by Phil Klay – a riveting set of stories of Iraq veterans from a former Marine officer.  In Duty, the memoir of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, one gets an unvarnished look at the Washington politics of the Iraq War.  This is one of the most honest of the genre – and devastating to Barack Obama’s foreign policy reputation.  Lastly, check out The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz.  Another brutally honest book, this one is about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. 

I look with hope toward 2015. We are better and much more capable than our national governance suggests. If you have the chance to participate in a Constitutional Convention near you, jump in.  Democracy needs your help.

Christmas 2013
Saturday, 14 December 2013

I am writing this on Thanksgiving, feeling particularly thankful for little Connor Bancroft Johnson, our second grandchild; born on November 24th in Seattle to our younger daughter Emily and her husband, Andy Johnson. Connor joins our other grandson Greg Sewell-Bancroft, now 19 months and also living in Seattle with older daughter Carrie and her husband Phil Sewell.

Looking back it has been quite a nice year for the Bancroft family and quite an unfortunate year for America. This being the holiday season I prefer to focus on the former. But of country I will say this – dysfunction in Washington has reached levels not seen since Lincoln’s time. We are in dangerous waters here. It is the symptom of deep and debilitating malaise- malaise that threatens our ability to govern.

Some of us have seen this coming – now all of us are feeling the chilling impact. We may be able to stumble along from crisis to crisis but the chance of tragic miscalculation gets ever larger. The only short-term fix I can see is the House returning to a Democratic majority. The Republican majority there now refuses to govern responsibly. They do not represent a majority of the country. They deserve to lose in the mid-term elections of 2014.

On a personal note, 2013 was the year when I began to step back from the level of business commitment I have sustained over many years. I stopped taking new assignments and began to phase out current assignments. I am keeping my advisory commitment to Industrial Growth Partners, a small Private Equity firm out of San Francisco – otherwise I am winding down.

The most obvious result of this winding down was the five week road trip that Sally and I embarked on at the end of August. We hopped into Sally’s Prius and set out to see the West. In 8,000 miles of blue highways we saw much of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. It is a grand and glorious country out there where Lewis and Clark first ventured more than 200 years ago. Much detail is on our trip is on our trip blog (that name is a story in itself). I will only say visit the little town of Medora in the North Dakota badlands before you die.

A Somber Addendum to the Year-End Letter - The Tragedy at Newtown
Friday, 21 December 2012

The shooting deaths of twenty 5 and 6 year olds in the picture postcard New England town of Newtown added a grim post-script to 2012. There is little to say about this horrific act except that it is becoming a pattern. Yes, we are seeing a pattern of disturbed young men with arsenals of lethal weapons taking out their frustrations on the innocent and, in the case of Newtown, on the very innocent.

Our response can only be: make it as difficult as possible for such people to get weapons – particularly weapons that wreak extended carnage, i.e. assault weapons like the ones used in Newtown, Aurora, Colorado, Virginia Tech, and just a few weeks ago at a mall in Portland, Oregon where only two people were killed because the shooter’s AR-15 jammed.

Just as the Newtown killings are part of an increasingly frequent pattern, so there has been a pattern in our Nation’s response. We do nothing. Fear of the NRA and that organization’s fanatic members are enough to make most legislators both at the national and state level run for cover.

Christmas 2012
Monday, 17 December 2012

For those of you who have been visiting another planet, the US had a Presidential Election in 2012. It seemed endless. Previously unthinkable amounts of money were spent. If you had the misfortune to live in a swing state, your life was hell- only in America, land of Citizens United.

Barack Obama did secure a second term, comfortably in the electoral college but narrowly in the popular vote. The red states were very red, the blue states were very blue. Those few swing states (getting ever smaller in number) went narrowly to Obama. Almost 60 percent of whites voted for Mitt Romney, 80 percent of minorities voted for Barack Obama – not exactly a mandate for a united country.

Meanwhile the country goes on with surprising resilience. The economy is improving. The big and small cities that I visit with some regularity are outwardly robust – restaurants are busy, cell phones and iPads ubiquitous. American manufacturing continues to put up record numbers. We may be losing our edge but, if so, it is happening so slowly that most of us, at least those of us with jobs, aren’t seeing it.

Christmas 2011
Wednesday, 21 December 2011

In August I had my 50th Reunion from Cape Elizabeth High School, a town just across Portland from where we live today.  It was a surprisingly lively and fun time.  We had different events over three days, and more than half of our class of 72 graduates turned up, including our exchange student from Turkey.  We listened to lots of great music from the 50’s and 60’s – the big hit of 1961, our graduation year, was Elvis of course: “Are you lonesome tonight.”


We reflected on the fact that we were fortunate to have grown up in New England at what can only be called a Golden Era in American history.  The economy was booming, driven by GI’s back from the war, many with newly won college credentials courtesy of the GI Bill.  Families were blossoming- young kids were everywhere. Kick the Can was our neighborhood game of choice.  The sun seemed to be shining on America.  We felt such a sense of opportunity – study hard, go to college, get a good job.. and that’s just the way it worked out for most of us.