What You Should Think About Mount Rushmore

June 3, 2011

“Monuments are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another.”

–Joseph Joubert

This nation, since the final months of George Washington’s Presidency, has been troubled by a partisan divide.  It is in the nature of any self-governing people to take sides as disagreements about policy give rise to factions in politics.  Unlike most other authentic democracies, ours seems afflicted with a craving for simplicity in these disagreements.  Even journalists are often inclined to dumb things down so that, in presenting “both sides of the story,” they prop up the false narrative that a complex issue can be understood from only two perspectives.

Thoughtful people know better than to embrace false dichotomies.  Because so many Americans assume the duty to actually cast a vote is much more important than the duty that ought be its prerequisite — to form a rational fact-based opinion that would make such voting well-informed — false dichotomies have become the norm in our political life.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, the divide was crystallized.  It was Republicans who championed progressive values, social justice, and modern thinking; while the Democratic Party took its strength from supporters of traditional values, racial segregation, and fundamentalist religion.  The bipartisan oligarchy offered a neat and simple way for the political process to address a reality that was rarely ever neat or simple.

In a dance that could hardly be described as delicate, these two parties traded places during the 20th century.  Little by little, the Democrats who once opposed emancipation and largely withdrew from Congress during secession were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that support bettering the plight of minorities and broad exercise of the powers of the federal government.  Little by little, the Republicans who once preserved the Union and promoted emancipation as a matter of principle were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that oppose efforts to alleviate hardships experienced disproportionately by minorities.  They so vigorously oppose the exercise of federal powers that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some actually suggested that the timely deployment of emergency relief assets was an abridgement of states’ rights!

In 1927, this dance was already well underway.  President Calvin Coolidge was among the first of our national leaders to promote the absurd belief that the private sector is innately and consistently more efficient than the public sector.  He earned public support in part through arguments like, “government ought to be run more like a business.”  He firmly believed, to the extent there was any concern about Wall Street speculation at all, that this was a matter to be settled at the state level.  His unwillingness to act in this realm was clearly a key factor in the severity and duration of the Great Depression.  Even so, it was through his rhetoric that the very institutions established to create space for Americans to enjoy liberty became branded as impediments to that exercise.

Yet Calvin Coolidge was still a very different man from the sort of anarchocapitalist ideologues the Republican party embraces in the 21st century.  He understood that what differentiates partisan zealots from one another is far less important than what unites as all as Americans.  He understood that working together as a whole would propel this nation forward far better than working against one another across a political divide.  Even in the midst of unprecedented poverty and unemployment, he was not in complete denial about the value of taking action to uplift public morale and renew pride in what greatness could rightly be attributed to our nation.  It was with this in mind that he worked with Congress to approve funding for the sculpting of Mount Rushmore into a national monument.

Of course, President Coolidge was not entirely above the partisan divide.  For his part in the negotiations, he insisted that the monument feature two Republicans and one Democrat along with George Washington.  In this way he showed partisan favoritism without taking the project so far into that realm as to make it unpopular with people outside the Republican base.  Thomas Jefferson was an obvious choice, for he was both the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent supporter of so many other measures crucial to the establishment of liberty as an American value.  Abraham Lincoln was also an easy pick, since he alone had served and died as a President determined to keep these states united in the face of a real threat to that unity.  The original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, selected Theodore Roosevelt for the fourth figure — a perhaps not-so-subtle dig at the cozy relationship between government and big business that Roosevelt once so boldly opposed.

Gutzon Borglum would not live to see his great vision completed.  Work on the mountain began in 1927 and continued through the fall of 1941.  The man who conceived and planned this project would die in the spring of that year, leaving it to his son to continue the work.  Originally, Mount Rushmore was intended to depict the four former Presidents from the waist up, alongside a panel commemorating the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and a variety of our nation’s territorial acquisitions.  Due to funding constraints imposed by acts of Congress subsequent to the original authorization, young Lincoln Borglum was only able to apply some finishing touches before concluding work on the monument as a carving of the four faces in place there today.

In spite of all this time and effort, the final cost of Mount Rushmore’s sculpting was less just under $1 million.  Even adjusted for inflation, this is less than the cost of three hours of funding for the war in Iraq.  A site that has inspired millions of Americans, a marvel that is known throughout the world, was less expensive than 1/20,000th of the effort made to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with something else.  Even more remarkable, in spite of the obvious dangers of sculpting the face of a mountain, not a single worker died during the construction of Mount Rushmore.  There is simply no way to compare that with the cost in human lives lost in pursuit of eliminating the non-threat Saddam Hussein’s government posed to American national security.

There is no doubt that the United States of America can achieve great things.  We once enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world, all measures of quality of life in constant ascent, while we helped to vanquish the Nazis, subdue Japanese imperialists, and even sent explorers to the surface of the Moon.  Yet there can be no doubt that something changed in our national character during the final stage of the Cold War and the years to follow.  Some of us no longer seem to want rising standards of living.  Some of us no longer seem to care about exploitation by the elite nor suffering among the downtrodden.  The “square deal” and the “fair deal” have given way to the “raw deal.”

This has coincided with a shift in national priorities.  Today funding for artistic pursuits is routinely criticized as “government waste.”  The small-minded among us attack scientific grants as “pork barrel spending” and receive approbation for what any honorable American would instantly recognize as shameful conduct.  We allow ourselves to be limited by the words of the petty and the deeds of the ignorant.  Yet it was not always so.  Given sound national priorities, the United States is a nation that will prosper like none other.  Fiction tells tales of people from a future dark age, gazing up at Mount Rushmore and asking, “how did human beings ever do that?”  I sit in the present, knowing full well what we as a people can accomplish, and ask, “why did we ever stop doing that?”

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What You Should Think About Abraham Lincoln

June 2, 2011

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

–Abraham Lincoln

Unlike most U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln faced economic hardship as a child.  His father had been a prosperous Kentucky landowner, but young Abraham, at the tender age of 7, watched his family lands taken away due to a legal technicality.  Having resettled in Indiana, he was able to study briefly and sporadically under a series of traveling teachers.  Even so, the bulk of his learning was a function of self-education.  Over time, he grew into a strong laborer.  He did not take every job on offer, but he was often quick to trade his services for the loan of books he had not previously read.

When he was 21, his family relocated once more, to the state he would consider his true home — Illinois.  He soon obtained a loan in order to join a partnership running a mill and general store in New Salem.  Contemporary accounts depict him as an able shopkeeper, but the store did not prosper, and he had to leave the business.  When a battle-hardened Native American known as Black Hawk rallied hundreds of warriors to reclaim his ancestral homeland on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln remedied his unemployment by volunteering for the Illinois militia.  He was particularly honored to have been elected captain of his militia company.

Though young Lincoln did not engage in actual combat, he repeatedly arrived in the aftermath of a clash and undertook the duty of burying the dead.  He would learn much about the costs of war even without experiencing the heat of battle.  He would re-enlist several times, accepting the role of an ordinary private, as his units would be mustered out of service.  He was awarded a land grant for his efforts, though perhaps more valuable were the many new friendships that would prove assets during the start of his political career.  His time in the militia spanned less than four months.  A horse theft on the eve of its conclusion would afford him ample time for reflection as he walked much of the distance from northwest Illinois back to his New Salem home.

Soon after, Abraham Lincoln turned the full force of his energies to politics and the law.  His 1834 bid for a place in the Illinois General Assembly would be his second run for political office and his first campaign victory.  He was the second youngest in a particularly young class of legislators.  Here he kept quiet long enough to live up to his own aphorism, “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  By the time he was ready to do more than observe and vote, he had such a command of the process that many others turned to him for help in crafting and promoting their own legislation.  Though his Whig party was a shrinking minority, Lincoln’s efforts at leadership did much to help move their agenda through the bicameral Assembly.

During this same time, he also sought and obtained a license to practice law in the state of Illinois.  In 1837, both the capital of the state and the man himself relocated to Springfield.  There Abraham Lincoln formed a law partnership with an old acquaintance from his time in the militia.  In his time as a prairie lawyer, Lincoln would participate in over 5,100 cases.  Among his most notable was the defense of an accused murderer, acquitted after a witness who claimed to have seen the crime by moonlight was impeached with an almanac entry indicating the Moon was in an unsuitable position to provide illumination on the night in question.  He also successfully defended a railroad against claims that its bridge over the Mississippi was a hazard to navigation.  This established a precedent that advanced the cause of economic development extending westward.

Of course, modernity knows Abraham Lincoln best as a critic of slavery and a wartime President who restored the United States after our nation’s only great schism.  He had already served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he failed to win election to the U.S. Senate.  After a lifetime of promoting obedience to the law and working with traditional political institutions, Lincoln abruptly embraced challenges to the status quo.  He found the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford to be deeply offensive.  He recognized that many state governments were unlikely to yield to the moral objections against slavery and abandon that institution in his lifetime.  He lent his intellectual force to an increasingly fiery abolitionist movement.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln became a prominent figure in the emergent Republican Party.  He asserted that the compromises perpetuating slavery were failures of the Founding Fathers and all subsequent American leadership.  With oratorical skills honed before countless juries then popularized by events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he developed a reputation as just the sort of man who could catapult this fledgeling party into a strong position on the national stage.  After winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States, he also emerged victorious in an unusual race that saw the Electoral College of 1860 split four ways.

Before the year was out, secession had begun.  The newborn Confederacy had the benefit of a more skilled body of officers, but its largely agrarian economy would prove an enormous liability.  The great cities of the north, with their industrial capacity, higher standards of education, and technological sophistication would provide a power base that the south could not hope to equal.  The Union Navy acted quickly to inhibit trade, doing much to strangle the Confederate economy that was so dependent on cotton exports.  Quelling the fighting spirit of the rebels was another matter.  President Lincoln went through one senior commander after another, frequently unsatisfied with his generals’ ability and/or willingness to undertake offensive actions.

Ultimately, harsh action was required to restore the nation.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman performed the heavy lifting that brought the Confederacy to the point of surrender.  After years of bloody give and take, Grant’s masterful offensives dealt his enemies a string of painful defeats.  Dealing out pain was also a hallmark of Sherman’s actions.  Most remarkably, after securing the city of Atlanta under his control, his forces set fire to all government buildings.  The resulting conflagration was the one of several he would ignite in order to devastate the cities of the south.

Abraham Lincoln himself became no stranger to harsh measures.  His government suspended basic Constitutional rights in order to suppress disloyalty within the Union.  He imprisoned Confederate sympathizers and even some opposition politicians without due process.  He authorized military spending without Congressional approval.  He fully supported the bloody and brutal tactics his most successful generals employed to end the conflict.  Yet he was no barbarian.  As forceful as he was in putting down the rebellion, his intentions were gentle for dealing with the south in the aftermath of the war.

John Wilkes Booth saw to it that history would never learn firsthand of Lincoln’s intentions for the defeated Confederacy.  Formal surrender had occurred just days before the actor-turned-assassin put a bullet in the head of Abraham Lincoln.  Yet Lincoln’s spirit would help to guide his successor in the restoration of the United States as a single coherent nation.  Penalties for war crimes were only imposed on Confederate officers guilty of horrific abuses, like the deliberate starvation of Union captives in the Andersonville prison.  Even the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a free man no longer facing treason charges within four years of his initial arrest.  Both Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, understood that healing the nation required viewing even the most ardent rebels as U.S. citizens, entitled to the same levels of fairness and respect due any Yankee.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents.  Though his time in that office was dominated by the Civil War, his success at restoring the Union was an incredible feat achieved in the face of growing public unrest about the costs of war.  Subsequent leaders have made pretense of facing “an existential threat” to the United States of America, but Lincoln confronted an actual threat that grave.  His willingness to do what had to be done, knowing full well what it was like to arrive on a battlefield littered with corpses, holding in his heart a passionate commitment to due process and the rule of law, is what made him a truly exceptional leader.  A far cry from twenty men with boxcutters, he had to deal with the loss of nearly half of the nation, and deal with it he surely did.


What You Should Think About Theodore Roosevelt

June 1, 2011

“This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Imagine a former President, currently campaigning for a return to the White House, is shot in the chest.  Horrified aides prepare to transport him to the hospital.  An adviser begins to compose an apology for the candidate’s absence at a nearby rally.  The wounded man will have none of it.  An experienced hunter and soldier, he reasons that he would be coughing up blood if the bullet had penetrated his lungs.  Each of the fifty pages of his prepared remarks now sports a prominent bullet hole.  With blood seeping into his clothing, he goes on to address the crowd for a full hour and a half.

There is much more to Theodore Roosevelt than pure grit.  Yet this quality must be understood to make a start of understanding the man.  Almost all of his adult life was dedicated to identifying serious problems and charging headlong into the struggle to solve them.  Considered a frail child and subject to home schooling, he embraced the opportunity of Harvard life to reinvent himself.  So began a lifelong love of boxing as well as a deep interest in military history.  By graduation, he had established himself as physically formidable.  At the same time, he made a solid start on The Naval War of 1812, a historical book of uncommon detail and rigor for the times.

He went on to law school, though soon he gave up that pursuit to run for and win a seat in the New York State Assembly.  He was a prolific legislator, but it would not be long before he would face a challenge not at all of his choosing.  On February 14, 1884, both his mother and his first wife died, the latter unexpectedly.  Writing in his diary, “the light has gone out of my life;” even his spirit was not impervious to such a loss.  Unable to find further satisfaction in political wrangling, a few weeks later he sought a change of scenery by heading for the Badlands of the Dakotas.

Embarking on a new course, he became a cattle rancher, frontier lawman, and magazine correspondent.  His tales of life in what was then the “Wild West” proved popular among readers in New England.  His keen sense of ethics and relentless determination made him a threat to any outlaw in the region.  Though he befriended the legendary gunfighter Seth Bullock, Theodore Roosevelt remained a firm believer in the rule of law.  In an instance when no one would have faulted him for the exercise of vigilante justice, he instead transported a trio of thieves to a distant venue where a proper trial could be conducted.  Only after a severe winter wiped out his cattle herd did life in the Badlands no longer seem suited to this future President.

With his return to political life he embodied the spirit of a new progressive movement.  After an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, he took work as a federal bureaucrat determined to stamp out corruption and patronage at all levels of government.  His unyielding and sometimes downright pugnacious pursuit of fairness earned him a favorable public reputation.  He was later able to build on this reputation as president of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners.  There he faced tasks that anyone with less determination and force of personality could not hope to have accomplished.  Yet he left the department transformed in a myriad of constructive ways.

He would next return to federal service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, using a brief absence of his superior (in conjunction with battleship Maine sinking) to prepare the nation for the pending Spanish-American War.  Yet planning and management were not enough for a man of action like Theodore Roosevelt.  He soon resigned his post, recruited over a thousand volunteers, and set out for Cuba as leader of a regiment that would become known as the Rough Riders.  His boldness and perseverance in that conflict was recognized with a nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor, though an initial rejection meant that the award would not actually be bestowed until a posthumous ceremony held in 2001.

Now a bona fide war hero, his return to politics involved a quick rise to the very top.  As governor of New York, he continued to fight corruption while taking measures to address the problems of the poor and downtrodden.  William McKinley ran with Theodore Roosevelt as his Vice Presidential nominee in 1900.  At that time, the red-blue polarity of almost every state was inverted from what we see in the 21st century.  Republicans truly were the party of Lincoln.  Democrats continued to openly support candidates sympathetic to the de facto apartheid in place throughout many of the southern states.  The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket earned a solid victory against William Jennings Bryan’s appeals to archaic traditions and unscientific beliefs.

Still in his first year as President, William McKinley was assassinated.  At 42 years of age, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the youngest President in the history of the United States.  Yet this youth did not prevent him from achieving greatness.  He immediately spoke out to promote more aggressive regulation of large corporations and to condemn corrupt dealings between government and business.  He answered John Muir’s call to conserve and protect many of America’s greatest natural treasures.  President Roosevelt even used federal power to resolve strikes by demanding fair treatment for the exploited working class.

After winning an easy landslide in the 1904 election, he continued to champion populist causes and govern in the public interest.  He pushed for regulations that dramatically improved the safety of the American food supply.  He opened the White House to reporters and provided regular briefings so as to better inform the public about the inner workings of government.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize — a Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.  He was also the first President to call for universal health care to become the policy of the United States federal government.

Though he did not run for reelection in 1908, he found the policies and practices of his successor intolerable.  William Howard Taft talked a good game when it came to promoting free and fair trade while regulating the excesses of big business.  Yet he was a new force in Republican politics — a dissembler closely allied with the tycoons of his time.  Even as he spoke of championing the causes of consumers and laborers, his actions served the interests of industrialists and speculators.  Initially supportive of Taft, Roosevelt belatedly came to understand that the sitting President embodied everything the progressive movement was dedicated to purging from political life.

So it was that Theodore Roosevelt set out to win a third term as President of the United States.  With primary elections a relatively new phenomenon, the contest for the Republican nomination was a complex and messy business.  Aware of imminent defeat at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt pulled his supporters away from that gathering and formed the Progressive Party.  Declaring intent to oppose the “unholy alliance” between government and big business, Roosevelt generated enormous popular support.  After the failed assassination attempt, his movement became known as the Bull Moose Party in reference to his quip, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”  Though he was ultimately defeated, Theodore Roosevelt earned the distinction of being the only third party candidate ever to finish second in a U.S. Presidential race.

Looking back at these events roughly a century ago, it is hard to imagine how much brighter history would have been if the Republican Party remained true to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt instead of allowing itself to be bought by the fortunes of the corporate elite.  While the Democratic Party became more and more principled, eventually supporting causes like social justice and civil rights, the Republican Party embraced those constituencies that no honorable public figure should ever service.  There is no legitimate place for corruption, sexism, racism, or homophobia in the political life of an enlightened people.  With prevarication supported by the deepest of pockets and the shallowest of scruples, they have provided a political platform on which voters driven by those motivations can continue to make a stand.

So the next time you hear someone refer to the Republican Party as “the party of Lincoln,” keep in mind that this assessment was not always wrong.  Once upon a time, they were champions of what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “square deal.”  Once upon a time, they believed in the value of scientific thought, the importance of environmental conservation, and the Constitutional directive to promote the general welfare.  Could such a transformation occur again?  Could the party of Palin and Gingrich ever hope to recover integrity and usefulness?  Stranger things have transpired in the history of American politics.


What You Should Think About Thomas Jefferson

May 31, 2011

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred. . .”

–Thomas Jefferson

Before our country was a sovereign nation, it was a series of ideas.  Some among the ancient Greeks wrote about and lived by the belief that specific populations were well-suited to self-government in the form of direct democracy.  Both the ancient Romans and the people of 18th century England had experience with rule by elected representatives.  Yet the Greek concept of popular governance was thought unsuitable for most people born outside specific city-states, and the British Parliament formed as an outgrowth of compromises designed to maintain order in a society where monarchs presided by a claim of divine right.

The notion of intrinsic and universal human rights was not widely accepted in the 1770s.  Even among the most progressive societies today, the struggle continues to recognize and address increasingly subtle ramifications of commitments to liberty and equality.  In the time America struggled for independence, many British loyalists remained skeptical of the idea that life without an official aristocracy would be an improvement over the status quo.  Before soldiers and arms could be rallied to the cause of freedom, voices and printing presses had to make the case that freedom was a cause worth fighting for.

Abusive policies and a fundamental lack of fairness in the dealings between England and its colonies created the unrest needed to drive rebellion.  Yet fear and anger never accomplish anything productive when they are given free reign to shape the course of human events.  It took rational men, acting with benefit of calm reflection, to reshape this unrest into a constructive force.  Most of the Founding Fathers were men of ideas, reasonable and thoughtful by nature.  When it came to declaring their intention to rebel, they turned to the foremost intellect in their midst — Thomas Jefferson.

Like so many other architects of the revolution, Jefferson was an educated lawyer.  However, no single discipline could monopolize his mind.  He took an active interest in farming, both as a landowner and a believer in agricultural productivity as the foundation of any prosperous economy.  He studied architecture, pouring much of his own time and money into neoclassical buildings like his beloved Monticello.  His personal library was among the largest in the New World.  When British troops burned the original Library of Congress, it would rise from the ashes through the acquisition of Jefferson’s personal book collection.  He was also a prolific inventor, perhaps second only to Benjamin Franklin in terms of his contributions to early American technology.

Yet Jefferson’s greatest invention was the argument that the fight for independence was both just and necessary.  He did not fall back on the worldly concerns of rising taxation, unfair trade, or coercive garrisons.  He claimed that rule by unelected authorities, even the most enlightened of despots, was an intolerable abridgement of “certain unalienable Rights.”  He gave voice to the will of the people in his time by insisting that the will of the people in all times and all places must determine under what laws and institutions those people would live.  He could have chosen the path of the incendiary bombast, ridiculing royalty while stoking the fires of hatred.  Instead he embraced the way of the philosopher, invoking reason and principle to shape the world’s grandest experiment in the history of civics.

Thomas Jefferson embodied so many of the best qualities of our nation.  He lived much of his life in debt not for lack of accomplishment, but because he thought his greatest inventions were too important to be constrained by the doctrine of intellectual property.  Enriching the nation and the world were much more important pursuits to him than personal enrichment.  He always hungered for knowledge, yet he was also not shy about thirsting for wine.  Though he lived much of his adult life as a debtor, he was the first U.S. President to push for an end to the federal debt.  His reluctance to tax made that pursuit one of his few great failures, but it was the start of a tradition that has produced balanced budgets as recently as the Clinton administration.

Keenly aware of the importance of land, it was Thomas Jefferson who made the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling the size of the United States and paving the way for the modern scope of our nation.  He also dispatched Lewis & Clark to explore the lands west of the Mississippi.  Were it not for his vision, the U.S.A. might still find France in control of the entire western bank of that river and lands beyond.  West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers were also achievements of his Presidency.  Though he did not favor costly standing armed forces, he understood the value of professional officers and other military specialists constantly prepared in ways only possible through a career of service.  His lofty ideals did not blind him to the need for actions of practical advantage to our young nation.

Such were the dividends of rational and brilliant leadership.  Like all nations, America never thrives and grows quite so well as when it embraces thoughtful guidance and elevates those persons most intent on advancing the general welfare.  This makes it all the more unfortunate that we have lost our taste for pursuit of the public good in modern times.  In military matters, the euphemisms of “defense” and “security” disguise belligerent posturing that builds at least once per generation into a misadventure of epic proportions (and epic losses.)  At the same time, “liberalism” and “socialism” have become epithets that malign one of the central purposes of all governments.

The Constitution expressly limits acts of war to those authorized by Congress. It also repeatedly articulates a national duty to provide for the general welfare of the citizenry.  Alas, legislative reflection is long lost as a prerequisite to war, and even the most reasonable efforts to improve the American way of life are attacked as a betrayal of the very traditions and documents that dictate such efforts should be undertaken!  The perversions of this modern “ownership society” make it seem downright un-American for a corporation to balance any other concerns against stockholder gains or for an individual to forfeit a fortune in the name of making new technology available more quickly and cheaply.  In this nation conceived so that people might peacefully enjoy the fruits of worthwhile labors free from the imposition of aristocrats, we instead concentrate rewards on a new aristocracy of do-nothing heirs and downright harmful wheeler-dealer types.

Thomas Jefferson lived in bizarre times fraught with suffering and injustice.  His boldest actions served to make this land a better place for inhabitants both present and future.  The suffering and injustice we see in America today is so much less severe than the hardships faced by colonists in the 18th century.  Yet to some degree it is also more intractable.  Because we are the architects of our own misfortunes, we must look inward for remedy.  Wisely, the Founding Fathers gave us a system capable of supporting perpetual revolution.  Through voting alone, it is possible to replace leaders and even amend our Constitution.

Yet to get those votes — to make those changes and build a better tomorrow — we need great ideas and wonderful language with which to popularize those ideas.  The voices of fear and anger are upraised in ever newer and more powerful ways.  A booming choir of willful ignorance constantly threatens to dominate the process by which we practice self-government.  There is no need for this to continue.  There is no reason for this to continue.

Progress requires turning the greatest minds of our times away from the crafting of ever more arcane financial instruments or ever more trivial enhancements to common medications.  Progress requires turning that brilliance toward the invention of new systems of economic organization and new technologies of real benefit to humanity.  This would improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine.  Once this land was a haven for the greatest of ideas.  We can and should choose to make it so again.


What You Should Think About George Washington

May 30, 2011

“Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind. Not only does your pocketbook suffer for it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved.”

–George Washington

The United States of America was forged in battle.  Yet this nation was neither created nor conceived to become a dominant military power.  To the contrary, it was our founders’ ability to defy a military superpower that gave rise to the most authentically populist form of government the world had seen since ancient Greece lost its original democracies.   Extraordinary leadership and unwavering determination made all the difference.  Neither the manpower of the Continental Army nor the skill and equipment of allies opposing the British Army were overwhelming.  The decisive outcome of the Revolutionary War would not be predicted by any purely military analysis of the capabilities each side was prepared to field in when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Even the legendary leader behind this outcome, George Washington, was no great conqueror.  His early military experiences as an American officer fighting for British interests were fraught with misadventure.  In 1754 Colonel Washington surrendered his militia to the French, negotiating a bloodless withdrawal from a hopeless position.  By the end of 1755, his greatest accomplishment involved minimizing losses during the retreat of the disastrous Monongahela expedition.  He emerged from the crucible of defeat as a strict disciplinarian and a cautious tactician.  He went on to promote the prosperity of Virginia by defending the colony’s western frontier with impressive efficiency.

By the time revolutionary sentiment was strong among British possessions in North America, George Washington had already established himself as a commander gifted in the transformation of uneducated and undisciplined volunteers into effective fighting forces.  Yet the ranks of these forces only measured in the hundreds.  His only decisive victories had been won against indigenous tribes equipped with few, if any, firearms.  In 1775, when the Continental Congress asked him to take command of their army, he was selected more by default than acclaim.  The delegates did not recognize how perfectly suited he was to lead an army of underdogs, but they did recognize that he was one among very few prominent American revolutionaries with real experience at military command.

So it was that the fate of our aspiring nation was placed in the hands of a man best known for mitigating the damage from past military defeats.  War had already erupted with the clashes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusettes.  Yet Continental forces amounted to little more than impromptu militias.  Even the core of the army was only committed to single year terms of service.  General Washington immediately set about organizing the military — clarifying chains of command and insisting on rigorous drilling to maintain cohesion when forces were not otherwise engaged.  He held his ground when it was wise to do so, yet he employed his considerable experience at retreat in maneuvers that did much to preserve the modest combat assets of a fledgeling nation.

This leadership went beyond uncommon exercise of military caution.  Washington eventually overcame political resistance in order to restructure the Continental Army as a more stable and durable institution.  Disease and the elements claimed one quarter of his forces during the winter at Valley Forge, but the survivors emerged as tough disciplined professionals on par with the veterans of European conflicts.  Yet even when equipped for plausible victories, he continued to show restraint.  He would strike when the British blundered into a position of extraordinary vulnerability.  Otherwise, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the army and the maintenance of rebel control over an overwhelming majority of colonial territory.

By fighting only the most favorable battles, General Washington bought the revolution time enough to succeed.  Diplomatic achievements, first in France and then elsewhere, forced the British to deal with bigger threats than the loss of American colonies.  He reminded the world that having more men and better equipment does not insure victory.  When he went on to promote adoption of the Constitution and serve as the first President of the United States, he continued to emphasize the value of caution and restraint.  He warned against the costs of lengthy military commitments abroad.  He was openly hostile to the emergence of partisan politics.  He only embraced conflict when he believed doing so was crucial to the survival of the nation.  For example, he personally took command of state militias in order to put down a violent rebellion sparked by one of the federal government’s earliest efforts to raise revenue.

This makes it all the more ironic how George Washington is viewed in some circles today.  Know-nothing fools imagine he would be quick to rebel against federal taxation, when in fact he did not hesitate to put down such a rebellion through force of arms.  Right-wing ideologues imagine he would support costly and deadly exercises in foreign regime change and nation-building, when in fact one of his most clear admonitions was a directive to avoid such entanglements.  Jingoistic bombasts imagine he would take pride in America’s overwhelming military might, when in fact he dedicated much his life to achieving victories while minimizing loss of life and public expense.  It is unlikely that George Washington the man, general, and President would have any respect for the George Washington of Tea Party folklore.

As this Memorial Day comes to a close, I believe it is wise that we ask ourselves, “are we remembering those noble and honorable people who have served this country at great personal risk, or are we celebrating the elective violence and hyperactive warmongering that now consumes over $1 trillion of our $14 trillion national economy?  If we are to truly remember and honor those who were selfless in service to our nation, do we bear no obligation to act against those who engage in the manipulation of political processes and world events for the sake of personal enrichment?”  I believe George Washington would be proud to know that the United States commands the strongest military on Earth.  I believe he would be horrified to know that we only manage to realize that goal by spending 40% all the money the entire planet spends on military procurement.

When we look at the way George W. Bush and Barack Obama launch wars, there is a dramatic contrast.  The former indulged in radical spending increases, made a profound national commitment, ineptly managed alliances, refused to articulate precise objectives, and seemed to believe that merely having an exit strategy was the same thing as accepting defeat.  The latter engaged in modest spending, made a cautious national commitment, harmonized smoothly with allies, and expressed a single clear goal.  The exit strategy for U.S. involvement in Libya remains fuzzy, but otherwise the contrast is dramatic.

First names aside, it is unmistakable which of these leaders is more like the first man to hold the office of President of the United States.  If the entire electorate could be bothered to actually remember the first and greatest of our military commanders, our nation could enjoy a clear path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. As the foremost of our Founding Fathers himself once observed, “experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.”  There is no shortage of hard work ahead for modern day patriots intent on taming the beast of runaway military and security service spending.  Yet it is work that must be done if we are truly to honor the memory of those who made this country great in the first place.


What You Should Think About Poverty

October 15, 2008

“For the first time in our history it is possible to conquer poverty.”

–Lyndon B. Johnson

Almost forty-five years ago, the President of the United States declared a War on Poverty.  Like the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, that militant metaphor ultimately proved misleading and counterproductive.  Unlike the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, our nation showed a stunning lack of resolve in dealing with this issue.  As Red Scare propaganda crystallized into an ideology of free market fundamentalism, the War on Poverty was displaced by an agenda that might be characterized as a war on the impoverished.

At the heart of this is a form of political opportunism that demonizes large groups of people by focusing on exceptionally bad, exceptionally rare, conduct within that group.  Often it is children who pay the price.  The typical beneficiary of Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a single mother who started her family with every intention of paternal involvement.  The scope of this need would be much reduced if there were no deadbeat dads.  Yet the political dialogue that killed AFDC was dominated by the hateful distortion holding that the program was nothing more than a meal ticket for “welfare queens” who became pregnant repeatedly for no other reason than pursuit of a government check.

Because of irrational hostility toward the very idea of welfare, this nation has traded a program that enabled poor mothers to focus their energies on parenting for a program that compels poor mothers to labor in unskilled jobs.  In some of the worst cases, child care expenses required to enable this makework approach outweigh the value of the work itself.  Even in the best cases, the policy change compounds the disadvantage of being born into poverty with the disadvantage of decreased parental involvement in the upbringing those children.

The present debate about immigration is similarly distorted.  The typical illegal immigrant is eager for honest work and reluctant to engage in criminal activity.  It is the lack of a viable alternative, not a preference for lawbreaking, that drives the illegal component of their activities.  Worse still, many politically vocal Americans are obsessed with the relatively rare phenomenon of “anchor babies.”  Their hatred for people who exploit our laws see their children born as U.S. citizens becomes an excuse for counterproductive malice in the framing of policies meant to govern the inevitable (and thoroughly useful) flow of foreign workers into our economy.

The theory capitalist extremists espouse is that “nanny state” largess somehow weakens our people and our economy.  The facts would beg to differ.  At the close of World War II, the average height of the Dutch had stagnated.  Growth dating back to a 19th century prosperity surge gave way to the devastation of brutal military occupation.  Yet generation by generation since, they have risen to become the tallest nation on Earth.  A major factor in the change was a body of social policy that insured no citizen of the Netherlands went hungry but for the choice to do so.

Progressive social minima, including universal health care and robust poverty relief, are not economic liabilities.  To the contrary, they provide economic stimulus on many levels.  In the most immediate sense, an uplift in public morale created by alleviation of domestic hunger, homelessness, and ailments is good for business.  So too is the increased productivity generated by direct beneficiaries of sensible welfare spending.  Coupled with a long term commitment to minimizing domestic deprivation, the intergenerational result is a markedly healthier, happier, and more productive national workforce.

This is not simply some theory crafted to manipulate voter behavior.  The Dutch example is the clearest of many.  Global happiness surveys routinely turn up the best results in Scandanavia.  I have a hunch those results are not on account of the weather.  Right wing protestations about the certain failure of the welfare state are soundly repudiated by its many real world successes.  Besides which, recent events should make as clear as day that cutthroat capitalists are in no position whatsoever to criticize the democracies of Western Europe in the arena of fiscal responsibility.

It may well be the case that individualism has, even deserves, a special place in American culture.  Yet this raises the question — what is truly more useful to the purpose of enabling American individuals to pursue happiness in their own fashion?  Is the entire answer nothing more than big guns and small taxes?  Might instead there be a wide range of constructive actions that can be taken to promote broad-based economic growth while giving our least fortunate citizens options they otherwise would be unlikely to experience?

The ideology of supply-side economics was evidently corrupt at first blush.  Yet it has taken thirty years of disastrous public policy, punctuated by events taking place just this year, to provide overwhelming hard evidence to support that conclusion.  For decades, some citizens upheld the private sector as intrinsically superior to the public sector, without any regard for technical specifics.  Those same people also insisted free markets were sacrosanct ideals that ought be held inviolate.  These beliefs went beyond “regardless of the cost” and to the extreme of “the idea that there is any price to be paid for this form of extremism is unthinkable.”

Of course, the price is enormous beyond words.  To many Americans, every homeless schizophrenic, every undernourished child, every undermedicated senior citizen, and every serious medical condition left untreated constitute a great failure.  To turn Stalin on his head, behind each of those statistics is a staggering number of personal tragedies.  Each of them is heartwrenching.  Most of them are preventable.  That we as a nation should eschew efforts to engage in that prevention is abominable.

Obviously there are limits to our resources.  Yet those resources are part of a dynamic system that thrives under sound stewardship.  This same system withers when abused or neglected.  Trickle down economics endorsed a philosophy of deliberate neglect and fostered an environment of rampant abuse.  An ideal replacement would be a paradigm that transcends all ideology.  Yet if the ideal is unattainable, the least we can do is formulate a replacement ideology that fully recognizes the lessons to be learned by the realities of social spending around the world.

Just as Republicans never held any monopoly on patriotism, they also hold no monopoly on promoting economic growth.  Their leaders are quick to speak of growth as a justification for even deeper descent into the bowels of voodoo economics, but their ideas have been shown to create a false sense of prosperity amidst a backdrop of enormous fundamental problems.  Refusal to address those growing problems over such a long span of time is a big factor contributing to the crisis our economy faces today.  If we are ever to get serious about eliminating American poverty, we must first transcend the poverty of ideas afflicting this nation for the past few decades.


What You Should Think About Victory

October 14, 2008

“It is common sense to take a method and try it.  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another; but above all, try something.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt

In theory, a two party system could provide a sturdy national rudder to guide the ship of state along an optimal path to the future.  Imagine a democratic China where a Red Party promotes traditional values and industrial growth while a Green party promotes modernism and environmental protection.  The Greens could provide support for a wide range of new ideas while the Reds oppose change and strike down the worst of new government institutions.  The end result would be constant improvement without runaway excess.

As wonderful as that sounds, it is merely theory.  Here in the United States, our politics are dominated by one party that emphasizes new ideas and another that favors the status quo.  In theory, while Democrats bring modern values and institutional changes to the table, Republicans obstruct all but the best of those new ideas.  In practice, this simply is not the case.

Many historical Democrats have brought helpful new ideas into the public arena.  Yet the Clinton administration found itself browbeaten by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.  After backing down in the fight for universal health care, Bill Clinton signed off on a range of institutional changes that were decidedly conservative.  While catering little to traditional values, his bold spending cuts and restraint with new initiatives were a wild departure from the “tax and spend liberal” brand Democrats’ critics so often apply to them.

Yet the historical record of Republicans is even less consistent with the idea of substantive conservatism.  Again and again a rhetorical emphasis on spending restraint gives way to bold new levels of federal spending.  Some Republicans may have stood in firm opposition to the rise of modern values, but their economic practices have ranged from incoherent to downright hypocritical.  As unpleasant as “tax and spend” may sound, surely it is better over the long term than “borrow and spend.”

Even today that side of the aisle offers us nothing new.  Senator John McCain continues to push for lower taxes on business, lower taxes on high personal incomes, increased defense spending, and a more belligerent posture on the world stage.  Even in those moments when he eschews fearmongering and presents himself as an agent of change, almost all the substance of his policy proposals is a call to stay the course.

Yet his opponent actually does rise up to fulfill the role of a liberal reformer.  Senator Barack Obama sometimes draws on ideas crafted in previous decades, but even his oldest proposals have yet to be given due consideration in national political dialogue.  Only a strong sense of unrest coupled with a spectacular failure of trickle down economics sets the stage for mainstream consideration of sweeping change.  The underlying realities are largely as they were years ago, but the signs indicating a need for change have become much harder to ignore.

It is in this context that some Republicans have taken to decrying a lack of jingoism in Senator Obama’s rhetoric.  The Rovian word count game (as in, “he spoke for an entire hour and did not use the word ‘victory once'”) is a sleazy and often misleading trick.  Yet it is true that the Democratic nominee is reluctant to use simplistic language in addressing complex nuanced subjects.  Rather than make unsubstantiated claims about future prosperity, victory, etc. he favors more precise and technical discussion.

Yet this should not be cast as a liability.  Amidst frequent Republican talk of prosperity, today’s announcement of a plan to increase the income tax deduction for dependents is the first proposal by Senator McCain to offer some benefit to working class families that was not inferred as an inevitable byproduct of making the rich even richer.  Though this does represent substantive change, it is both a departure from the rest of the Republican campaign and an oddly belated effort to acknowledge that America’s real economic distress must be addressed through outreach to the families and individuals in the most difficult of circumstances.

The same can be said for foreign affairs.  Republicans often speak in sure tones of victory in Iraq.  Some have tried to link this to declining levels of violence over there, as if partially cleaning up a mess of our own creation constitutes some sort of victory.  Others focus on the idea of a stable democratic regime able to provide for its own security.  Perhaps that would be a real victory, but it has not been advanced by recent military initiatives, nor is there any Republican proposal that speaks to the heart of political challenges facing democracy in Iraq.

In spite of the blood spilled, in spite of the treasure consumed, in spite of the goodwill lost; the McCain-Palin campaign pushes for continuity in U.S.-Iraq policy.  No matter how many times the candidates employ the word “victory,” neither does much to define it, let alone offer up a concrete plan for its achievement.  Rather than work on rallying the nation behind some sort of real solution to the serious problem, the Republican party has chosen to demonize their opponents for nothing worse than the failure to embrace hollow rhetoric.

Yet the absurdity does not end there.  Senator McCain has frequently told the nation that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden.  What is he holding out for?  Does he fear such an accomplishment would not catapult him into the White House?  Is it an idea the present administration has refused to implement?  Is it an idea he would withhold from a future administration if Barack Obama should happen to serve as its Commander-in-Chief?

Senator Obama is not fast and loose with terms like “victory” only because to do so without coherent and concrete plans to accomplish victories is dishonest.  When we are honest, a discussion of Iraq must recognize tremendous challenges that no amount of military power can resolve.  Our armed forces are second to none, but that acknowledgement does not imbue them with supreme abilities to address diplomatic, political, or economic problems.  Perhaps the federal approach long advocated by Senator Joe Biden has drawbacks as well as advantages, but at least it speaks realistically to the nature of the situation in Iraq.

Should the next President of the United States be John McCain, I believe everyone would expect much talk of “victory.”  Yet does anyone expect him to swiftly neutralize Osama bin Laden?  Does anyone expect him to smoothly resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq?  Does anyone believe that his economic proposals would remedy fundamental economic problems the man himself was among the last to recognize?

If one does not look beyond the two party system for answers, then the choice is clear.  One alternative leads to a future where there is much talk of victory, while meaningful actions only perpetuate economic and foreign policies framed by the present administration.  The other path leads to a future of much more realistic discourse, with meaningful actions that strike a new economic balance and adopt a new tone on the world stage.  If ever our nation is to achieve real victories over the great challenges of our times, it seems to me that the political choice we must make is clear.