Sunday, October 31, 2010

England or Spain?

If you had been a dispassionate observer of the European political scene in 1585, you would almost certainly have said that Spain was far and away the most dominant power. With its Empire in the Americas sending huge amounts of treasure to the mother country each year, Spain was much the richest of nations. It's armies dominated Europe, using a military system based on blocks of pikemen with arquebusiers at the corners that rolled over opponents. Through its dynastic connections with the Hapsburg emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain's domains were spread across Western Europe.

England, in contrast, was a small nation on the periphery of the continent; it shared the British Islands with Scotland, a traditional ally of England's enemy, France. The English had a substantial fleet, but no regularly organized navy to speak of, and no standing army beyond a palace guard. Although prospering from trade and fishing, the English were poor when compared to the Spanish.

As we can see now, by the mid 1580's Spain had passed its zenith and was on a downward curve that would lead, with a only a few brief intervals, to the poor, weak and divided nation that emerged from the blood-soaked exhaustion of its Civil War in 1939. England would go on to establish the greatest empire the world has seen--for two hundred years it was literally true that the Sun never set on it--be a power of the first rank for three and one-half centuries and the Earth's richest nation for much of that time. England--later the United Kingdom--survived the loss of the American colonies that became the United States and the rise of the Napoleonic and two German empires; it outlasted them all.

Spain, confident in its wealth and power, sank into centuries in which it lived off its assets and watched is political horizons to become steadily more limited. England, in contrast, gave freer rein to its citizens, rewarding initiative and encouraging innovation. Where the Spanish aristocracy continued to rule even as it became increasingly entrenched and entrusted, England permitted commoners to rise and even to rule.

The question facing the United States today is whether we will be like England or Spain. Are we on a path of irreversible decline or will the American system prove resilient and regenerative? Actually, we may first have to face a preliminary question: Do we care enough to accept the challenge of being the world's leader? (For those who believe that this is only question of empire-building, see Tom Friedman's column today.)

This is a much larger question than whether Democrats or Republicans should control Congress, or the importance of the Tea Party. Indeed, the scope of the issue dwarfs the mean, petty, self-destructive quarrels that constitution our politics.

And the American people are quite aware of the challenge the nation faces. On NPR, both E.J. Dionne and David Brooks--who agree on little--reported that they have found a wide and deep-seated feeling (or maybe fear) that the United States is in decline. Indeed, I suspect that much of the rage that is said to power the electorate this year represents frustration with apparent decline at just the moment when we--the World's Only Superpower--should be supreme.

The party that dominates American politics in the next quarter century--and perhaps much longer--will be the one that recognizes and acknowledges this issue and can mobilize the nation to confront it. Which one will it be: Democratic? Republican? Or some new grouping?

The activist Constitution

Yesterday, the lovely Diane and I watched Hubert H. Humphrey, The Art of the Possible, a terrific documentary on one of the most underrated figures of Twentieth-Century American politics. The close of the program is Humphrey explaining the inspiration he found in the Preamble to the Constitution. The opening words of the Preamble, "We the People," embodied for Humphrey the essence of American democracy: that all power and all sovereignty derive from the citizenry. That's a truth that's all to easy to overlook--a lesson for political leaders and would-be leaders of both Left and Right.

But what really affected me was the way that Humphrey proceeded to explain how the Preamble formed the basis of his view of the Constitution and, indeed, of the role of the federal government.

The Preamble reads:

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

As Humphrey noted, each of the verbs is active: to "establish" Justice; justice does not spring up on its own. "Insure" domestic tranquility: we must act to assure a civil society. "Provide" for the common defense: we must make the efforts necessary to defend the nation. "Promote" the general welfare; it does not come automatically. "Secure" the blessings of liberty: we cannot simply expect that freedom will flower, we must work to make liberty real.

As the Preamble sets the tone for the Constitution that is the foundation of the United States government, Hubert Humphrey argued that it should set the tone for our politics as well. In doing so, he also refuted those who would take a cramped and narrow view of government's role.

(Your editor worked very, very hard as a volunteer for Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign. Hubert Humphrey was a good and gentle man, but tough enough to come within a whisker of winning that year; indeed, had the Left turned out, he would have been President. I recall how I walked around in a near-stupor for days after the election, unable to believe that the American people had chosen moral midgets like Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew over men with the stature of Hubert Humphrey and his running mate, Edmund Muskie.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Post hoc

As most of those who read this post yesterday probably realized, I indulged in the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after therefore because) in suggesting that, had President Obama taken a stronger position against the big banks, Wall Street and the health insurers, we might have had no financial or health care reform.

What I assumed was that the political equation would have been the same if the White House had come down on the side of more change than they were in light of the President's tepid positions and that, therefore, the outcome for reform would likely have been worse (even) that it has been. Yet the power of the President is the power to persuade, as Richard E. Neustadt wrote in Presidential Power in 1960. (The link is to a later edition.) Had Barack Obama taken to the airwaves and the stump to call for real, top-to-bottom financial reform, had he espoused single-payer national health insurance, or the replacement of fee-for-service with other approaches to charging for health-care services, or just the breakup of huge health insurance companies to insure competition in the market, he could have changed the terms of debate. That, if accompanied by adroit political handling, might have led to very different results, to the benefit of the nation.

So, we'll never know what might have happened. More's the pity, especially as we are faced with the substantial likelihood that the next two years (at least) will see even more division as the forces of reaction block progress on almost all vital issues.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Were the liberals right?

If Obama had pushed to break up the big banks and weaken the huge investment banks (banking and investment banking used to be entirely separate lines of business; they should be again), Republicans would have had a lot more trouble in arguing that the Administration is in bed with Wall Street, and perpetrating the lie that it was the Obama, rather than the Bush Administration that bailed out the banks.

If Obama had taken on the health insurers, Republicans would have had a harder time assailing the Administration over "Obamacare," and particularly at the charges that health care reform will raise rates.

On the other hand, we might not have health care reform or financial reform on the books, even in their highly imperfect forms.

One thing is, however clear: The President should have been much stronger at criticizing Republican obstructionism from the beginning, and he should have made it clear that the bills he signed had many flaws and were only first steps toward real reform. The political people in the White House should have resisted the understandable, nay, inevitable, urge to celebrate the passage of health care and financial reform and urged the President to make the signing ceremonies muted affairs at which he noted the progress that had been made, but coupled that with strong statements that we need to go much further--with specific statements of the direction that further change should take.

Oh, and Mr. Obama should not have surrounded himself with people who were in the Wall Street club. He didn't do that on health care, and so you don't see Republicans attacking the administration for being too cozy with the health care establishment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shake the tree, you never know what will fall out

Some fallout from Virginia Thomas' misguided attempt to obtain an "apology" from Anita Hill.
This will not surprise most thoughtful people who, I suspect, long ago concluded that Prof. Hill was telling the truth, and that Clarence Thomas either perjured himself or engaged in the most massive self-deception in his quest to join the Court.

Some of us have not forgiven such examples of Senatorial rectitude as John Danforth (then R. MO), Arlen Spector (R/D PA) and Alan Simpson (then R WY) savaged Prof. Hill although they must have known that she was telling the truth and that Thomas was not.

I'm voting Republican, redux

Remember that great "I'm Voting Republican" video that we featured in this post? Funny thing: within a day after I first saw it, the number of views skyrocketed from a bit over 600,000 to more than 4.6 million. (Disclaimer: Not because it was posted on this blog!)

But then the number of views reported by YouTube got stuck. Go to the piece today, as I just did, and the number is still 4,673,586.

What gives?

Update: a few hours after this was posted, I checked again and let the video run full length to see if the clicker would roll over. Now the number of views is 4,673,932. But that is still a very small number of new views over several weeks.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why didn't I think of that?

And why didn't the Democrats who are actually running? From Malcolm Fleschner, a very funny guy with whose mother I worked:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Truth or lies

Todays Times has a fine lead editorial on the Senate race in Wisconsin, between Russ Feingold (D), who is one of the best Senators in a long time, and Ron Johnson (R), a former plastics manufacturer (remember The Graduate?) and political neophyte. Astoundingly, Feingold is trailing in the polls, and if you believe them he is seriously behind. Clearly, the ghost of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy is haunting the Badger State.

As the Times editorial points out, Johnson has got to his present place by dismissing the importance of mere details (like the effect of healthcare reform on costs, the number of people put to work by the stimulus bill and the effect of letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire on the vast majority of small businesses), and by outright lying.

Republicans have had little regard for truth--unless it happens to support their pre-conceived positions--for many years. This year, they have taken their cavalier attitude to new heights.

Truth does not always win out, but it's a better base for getting votes than lies. The truth can't be exposed.

How I would love to see a [Democratic] candidate turn to her/his [Republican] opponent in a debate and say, "If you believe that you are a fool. If you do not, you are a liar. You may choose." Think about how often that would fit.

So, in the last few weeks of the campaign, Democrats ought to make truth an issue. Maybe the issue. Expose the lies. Ask the voters: Do you want people to tell you the truth, or people who lie. If the voters choose the liars, they will get what they deserve. (You and I shall not deserve that, of course.)

(I do not suggest that Democrats and truth are perfectly congruent, or that all Republicans lie; there must be some who do not. But the difference is sufficiently great to be significant and worth making a bloody fuss over.)

Monday, October 11, 2010


When was the last time an American President challenged the American people? I'll save you the troubled of going to Wikipedia. It was Lyndon Johnson, with the War on Poverty.

That is both a symbol and a cause of our national decline. Where is the President to challenge us to rebuild our roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, to provide broadband to all areas of the nation, to improve an educational system that has fallen to 12th among industrialized nations in the proportion of college graduates?

Yes, its true that President Obama has raised all of these issues, but he has not used the power of his office to challenge the American people to participate in these efforts, not because they will help in the short run, but because they are imperative in the long run. And that is one reason--just one, but an important one--why his numbers are unfavorable.

The fact is that people, especially Americans, want to be challenged. Why politicians--Republicans and Democrats--have forgotten this remains a mystery.

The difference

What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

Democrats believe that we're all in this together.

Republicans believe that it's every man for himself.

Democrats need to point that out.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

This is what we have to look forward to

if Democrats and intelligent independents don't get out to vote on November 2nd.

Gene Cranick owns a farm in rural Tennessee. He and his neighbors have to pay a $75 annual fee for fire protection from a nearby department. Cranick hadn't paid. When his house caught fire last week, he called 911 and in the call he offered to pay the costs of fighting the fire. No dice. Firefighters responded when his neighbor--who'd paid the fee--worried that the blaze would spread. But they sat by and watched Cranick's house burn. More details here.

Is this the way we really want our country to run? A fee for everything, even the most basic services? A system in which its every man (and woman and child) for him/herself? Or are we all in this together?

Justice Holmes was right: "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." He had taxes in mind--not user fees.

(I might note that by not fighting the fire at Cranick's house, firefighters increased the likelihood that the flames would spread, not just to the neighbor who called them, but to other property or structures as well.)

You gotta see this

Regular readers will know that they haven't been able to be regular readers, because the Editor has not posted anything for some weeks. (He's been too busy to turn around, if that's an excuse.) He is roused from his torpor, however, by this video. Take a few (3) minutes to sit back and watch why your neighbors are voting Republycan this year: