Death bets Saturday, Jul 14 2012 

 Back in 1700s, the English were really into betting on just about anything: ships lost at sea, election results, the loser in a duel, or the outcome of sieges. One particularly gruesome wager involved betting on how many German refugees would survive starvation and death on the streets of London.

So says Michael Sandel in his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. This Harvard economics professor shows just how well the adage plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose applies to gambling and to its latest incarnation as insurance. Through his explanations, I think I finally understand something about the “derivatives” that went bust and launched the Great Recession.

But what has that to do with anything Acadian? Well, back in the 1700s, when the English would bet on just about anything, Louis XIV was the Sun King of France. During his reign, Acadie was the ping-pong ball in a war game between England and France.

Finally, in 1713, Louis gave up his claim to Acadie to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht. Because of various wars and high living (sound familiar?), his royal coffers were near bankrupt, and giving up Acadie seemed a good way to downsize. So what if all your former French subjects now found themselves required to take an oath of loyalty to the English king?

Then, on August 15, 1715, Louis fell ill. The English ambassador to his court made a bet that the king wouldn’t make it until fall.

Two scenes pop into mind

–                          a man in ruffles and hose, a coach rumbling over dirt then cobblestones, the sweaty flanks of dappled horses and

–                          a man in a Burberry trench coat, a limousine muscling down Fifth Avenue, the sweat and dirt of homeless men on 44th Street.

Both men are eager to reach their bookies, one working for the 18th century Lloyd’s, the other on 21st century Wall Street. One wants to bet on the death date of the enemy king, the other on that of a company’s employees.

Yes, in the 21st century U.S., companies can wager on the death dates of employees. It happens because a company can take out life insurance policies (nicknamed janitor’s insurance) – without an employee even knowing it. If the employee dies, the company collects. Some of these policies extend beyond a person’s employment with a company, so that it’s not “if” but “when” the former employee dies that determines the cash award. If I understand it right, bunches of these policies get bundled together and offered to investors.

That’s just messed up.

As messed up as it was back in 1715, when the English ambassador treated the impending death of a country’s leader as a situation no more significant than a horse race.

Louis died in September. The ambassador won. I cringe at the word “won.” Perhaps it would be better to say, the ambassador collected on his wager.

Sometimes, one wishes that the more things changed, the less they stayed the same.


World Acadian Congress Aug. 8 to 24, 2014 Sunday, Jul 8 2012 

Just a quick post to let you know that plans are well underway for the next World Acadian Congress. Imagine 600,000 cousins, many of whom look familiar — though you’ve never met them and though your ancestral tree branched hundreds of years ago —  gathering on Aug. 15 (National Acadian Day) at 17:55 (5:55 pm) to make a great noise (tintamarre) as a show of solidarity for our culture.

Heck, grab a pot and a spoon this August 15 and celebrate on your own. Just in case you don’t know, 1755 is the year of the Grand Derangement that sent Acadians on the great diaspora that resulted in some of us starting a Cajun culture in Louisiana. Others of us ended up in New England, and when hostilities settled down, walked 700 miles back to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia only to find our homes appropriated by British loyalists.

Ah well, you do with what you’ve got.

My youngest brother Glenn and I learned about the Congress when we went to Bouctouche and Beaubassin in 2010. While we were at an archeological dig run by Parks Canada in Beaubassin (where some of our ancestors may have lived), one of the locals told Glenn he looked like a Gallant. The Gallant ancestor is our many times great-grandparent. Then we went to Le Pays de La Sagouine, where so many people at the 1755 Concert looked familiar that we played the “who’s that look like?” game. We saw people who looked like our brothers, sister, uncles, aunts, cousins, and neighbors. And they treated us like family members. Made the decision then and there that we would go back for the Grand Rendezvous.

From the sound of things, this next Congress aims to make the whole world Acadian for a time. Can’t wait.

Here’s the announcement — en francais!

Bling for the King Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Welcome to AcadiAnn, a blog about French-Acadian-Quebecois-FrancoAmerican times. I’m writing a novel about the experiences of women in these cultures. The novel is loosely based on my female ancestors.

As I work on this, ideas and observations and tidbits of information surface that surprise and provoke deeper thought – like the following:

Catching up on The Week today, the Jan. 27 issue (p. 14), I come across a snippet of a column done by Yves Michaud for Libération. According to this snippet, Monsieur Michaud says “I never used to join in the annual outcry about national honors being given to undeserving people” – until the latest round in which President Sarkozy awarded a Legion of Honor to Salma Hayek, actress and wife of François-Henri Pinault, a billionaire campaign donor to the French president. The snippet goes on to say the award “is a sad reflection on France’s new ‘supermarket culture,’ which Sarkozy has fostered with his lack of taste and love of bling.”

I know next to nothing about any of these players, but, if what I’ve been reading about the Ancien Régime is true, awards of honor in exchange for money have a long history in France. Before Napoleon’s time, people – men as far as I can tell – could buy noble titles in exchange for plenty of bling and support of the king. And they had to live “nobly” – no manual labor or commercial activity – and they had to find a way to exempt themselves from the land tax (taille).

My head spins trying to understand the different ways in which people could come in and out of nobility – born to it, bought it, given it by the king, earned it as a judge or administrator, or married it (unless you were a noble woman in a province that didn’t recognize female inheritance, in which case you lost it if you didn’t marry someone of equal rank). And then there was a system by which you could claim it if your ancestors were noble before 1400, you devoted at least 20 years of service to the king (which you could split with your son), or you’d managed to pay enough and act noble through four generations. I wonder how our ancestors kept track of all this.

The upshot of this is that we appear to have had a ‘supermarket culture’ well before there were supermarkets. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, heh? (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

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