Category Archives: limited government

24Snobbery and Vox Populi



There is no end to the admiration for the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. Not only did they conceive and implement the most representative government the world had known, drawing on their knowledge of The Greek and Roman Classics. But when they anticipated a particularly galling problem – or, as in the case of the competition of the larger and smaller of the original 13 British colonies which were to form the new Republic.

 

They also understood that the U.S. Constitution which established America’s fundamental law, and guaranteed certain basic rights to its citizens, would in the end be at the mercy of impulse and fads. When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed it on September 17, 1787, presided over by George Washington, they faced an issue in the fear of smaller members they would be dominated by the numbers and wealth of the larger states such as Virginia. In 1790, Vermont, for example, had only 85,539 free whites and slaves compared to its neighbor, Massachusetts with its 378,787. [Yes, violations of Vermont’s anti-slavery law, a part of its 1777 constitution when it broke away from New York, were not unusual].

In the Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued against “an interested and overbearing majority” and the “mischiefs of faction” in an electoral system. Madison defined a faction as “a number of citizens whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison and others hope and planned what was then called republican government [i.e., federalism, as opposed to direct democracy], with a distribution of voter rights and powers, would countervail against factions. Although the United States Constitution refers to “Electors” and “electors”, neither the phrase “Electoral College, or as until the early 19th century when the name “Electoral College” came into general usage for the electors selected to cast votes for president and vice president. The phrase was first written into federal law in 1845 and appears in the Constitution as “college of electors.

In a sense, what the Founders feared has come to pass in the creation by the system itself of a privileged c political lass, the so-called Establishments of both parties. They have come to dominate the federal government through their expertise in its intricate operations and skill in maneuvering in its constantly growing bureaucracy,. But in a largely unanticipated reaction, a general popular reaction took place in 2016 with the election of Donald K. Trump. Trump’s election, was unforeseen by even the most astute political observers – particularly those in the mainstream media who still are smarting from their failure.

Trump’s decisions since his election have further confounded these media observers along with the leaders of both the major parties. His unpredictability – from their standpoint – has led not only to inability to anticipate them but to a originality to the Trump Administration that has not been equaled for decades.

In that sense, even though he received a smaller popular vote than the Establishment’s candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, he has very much become the successful candidate of the vox populi, the voice of the people, or indeed, from the original Latin phrase, vox populi, vox dei – the voice of the people as the voice of God..Trump may indeed be the voice of “the forgotten man” in the American society to which he so often refers. One thing is clear: the continued struggle between Trump and his base against the Inside the Beltway Establishment aided and abetted by its Hollywood apparatus will continue to dominate the American political scene for some time. The ultimate victor is not now predictable but there is little doubt which side the Founders would have chosen.

sws-09-29-17

 

 

 

 

 

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Tolerance and toleration


 

“No offense intended. None taken.”

That old tried and true cliched axiom of American social relations seems to have been lost in the latest outbreak of campus madness; we have lived through several you know!

In a free society where the fundamental issue of freedom of speech is sacrosanct, it is obvious that there will be virtually constant friction.

You are allowed to say anything which is not actionable to the detriment of others. There is the dictum of Oliver Wendel Holmes, perhaps the most distinguished American jurist of all time, in his famous “clear and present danger” opinion for a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court in the 1919 case of Schenck vs. United States. One of Holmes great attributes was that he could lay out the law in language anyone could understand. In this case, he said that free speech did not cover crying “fire” in a crowded theater when there was otherwise no real danger of an incendiary. That obviously could produce a stampede which would indeed be a menace to life and limb.

Free speech is therefore likely to go off the rails, in the U.S. as in other democracies, when it wobbles in either direction: that is, when it goes over the line out rightly advocating violence in what would be construed as an inevitable manner. On the other hand, there is current wave of violating the very essence of free speech among a growing little band of university students. They see all criticism of totems of their particularly prejudices as prohibitive. Or they take it upon themselves to determine what is allowed or what is not permitted, what is in accordance with morality and what is immoral. .

Young people will be young people, and that includes their “knowing” that they can replace ancient verities with their new found knowledge and insight.

What is disturbing about the current wave of intellectual warfare in what are supposed to be the seats of higher learning in this country is that the raging students either are able to immediately intimidate the recognized authorities, or worse still, get faculty acquiescence to their fantasies.

Neither of these phenomena are unknown. Courage in the face of a screaming rabble is a rare commodity. That is true even if it is a crowd composed of what could be well dressed young people whose parents have the wherewithal to pay enormous tuition and other costs for a vaunted education. That kind of intellectual courage has never been nor will it ever be abundant.

And that the students’ worst violations of logic are endorsed by the generation of academics who still cling to their idiocies of the 1960s – their half-understood accumulations of socialist thought that had been debated over several centuries and always found wanting. That was, too, to be expected. Having not accomplished their revolution, these parlor guerrillas have followed some of their leading lights of those days and pledged to make their transformation of society through “the long march through the institutions”. Supporting loud and misguided young student revolutionaries is better than putting their own highly paid careers in jeopardy through a forthright advocacy of their own pseudo-revolutionary agenda.

This too will pass.

But the concern is with a group of young people, soon emerging into adult life and its responsibilities, presumably as our elite, who do not seem to grasp the fundamental premise of democracy. That is, the old saw that I oppose your ideas with all my being, but I would fight to the death to defend your right to express them.

There is an essential difference, therefore, between tolerance and toleration. To tolerate is to permit others to express their opinions and be heard. Tolerance is a well honed ability to listen to opposing opinions with receptive understanding to better appreciate the views of others and to examine, studiously, whether they may indeed be better than our own. That is what is being lost at the moment, and puts us in great jeopardy.

sws-11-27-15

 

 

 

The rule of law


The rule of law
Call us obstreperous, call us nitpicker, but we are a little more than upset by Pres. Barack Obama’s presidential edict setting aside the name of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America.
We understand that renaming it – or rather accepting the name that locals have always called it, Denali – is extremely popular with Alaska’s own half a million inhabitants. And we also appreciate that the renaming, or the adoption of the traditional name, has the support of Alaska’s elected officials including its Congressional delegation. We also appreciate that while McKinley was an honored and martyred chief executive, he never set foot in Alaska and to our knowledge, never had much to do with that then huge territory in his time.
But the fact is that the designation of the mountain’s name for our 25th president [January 29, 1843 – September 14, 1901] was an Act of Congress passed in 1917. An Act of Congress is a statute proclaimed by our national legislature and one of the most important acts of the federal government and all governing institutions. It can either be a Public Law, relating to the general public, or a Private Law, relating to specific institutions or individuals, as in the case of naming the mountain. But until rescinded or inactivated by their irrelevance or noncompliance they are a sacred trust.
Obama’s presidential set-aside is a much too common imperial action which has increasingly marked his presidency. In this instance as in a number in the recent past, it flaunts the legislative prerogative of the Congress and violates the sacred principle of separation of powers unique to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the principle involved here.
But there is more in a commonsense view of our history. Contrary to what probably would be the vague memory of most of us for earlier presidents, McKinley was not an insubstantial figure. After a Congressional career and a very successful governorship in Ohio, in 1896 he beat his Democratic rival, the flamboyant orator William Jennings Bryan, with a “front porch” campaign. Nor was he indecisive about his principles: contrary to Bryan’s famous speeches calling for a currency based on silver and dire warnings that the country was being “crucified on a cross of gold”, McKinley strongly advocated “sound money” [a gold standard unless altered by international agreement] and high tariffs. Those policies worked, or at least, McKinley’s administrations were marked by rapid growth of the economy and his policies were given credit for it.
Furthermore, his first and second abbreviated presidency were chocked full of important international events. He led the country in the short but decisive Spanish-American War of 1898 which brought the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam under American control, and he promised that Cuba where the war had begun, its eventual independence. The Kingdom of Hawaii came under America’s control under his aggressive foreign policy.
McKinley defeated Bryan again in the 1900 campaign focused on discussions of imperialism, protectionism, and free silver which were strongly debated. Our current anemic discussion of issues would do well to imitate those debates. But his life and his presidency were cut short on September 6, 1901, when Leon Czolgosz, a second-generation Polish-American and professed anarchist, shot and hilled him.
We are among what seems to be a dwindling minority who believe that history is history. That it must not be set aside, for all the reasons of academic scholarship, but even more so because we attempt – however haltingly – to learn from our past. [We rarely can learn from others’.] But history must be history, tragedies and successful outcomes, wounds and scars, unpleasantries and ecstasies.
The current movement to set bits and pieces of it aside, whether removing Confederate flags or now to destroy commemorative statues to the Confederate dead, is a travesty History must be studied, with all its ambiguities and transgressions, if it is to be appreciated and learned from.
We therefore urge the Congress to clean up this bit of minutiae, if nothing else by formally renaming the mountain, and perhaps designating a new monument to an honored president.
sws-09-01-15

Whatever, it was not debate!


Whatever, it was not debate!
With a little hindsight and reflection it’s clear voters were shortchanged in the first presidential debate staged by Fox News.
Our tradition of political disputation goes back to The Founders when major differences arose between those favoring a stronger federal government and those holding out for personal freedom through decentralization. Unfortunately, the former group of aristocrats, as they all were, were burdened with mercantilism including slave and drug trading. [Yale University was originally endowed with an opium cargo shipped from India to China, in the early days of that nefarious trade.] Strangely contradictorily, the strongest advocates of personal freedom were either slaveholders or natives of the slavery states.
Personal debate among the contenders for the highest office in the land reached something of a zenith with the 1858 debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. They were issues that had been avoided for a half century, setting out the arguments which were to bring on The Civil War a few years later. The recent performance had little to do with that kind of confrontation, a personal contention between two candidates for high office delineating their different political approaches. Instead we got a group of fairly mediocre journalists holding a press conference in which they controlled the discussion of issues. The quintessential sendoff was Megyn Kelly, now the Queen of Gotacha journalism – the art of trapping an interviewee into a misspoken quotation that can be contested for days if not weeks.
Rising to her bait was Donald Trump, a candidate from nowhere for the presidency who has managed to fire the imagination of the disaffected Republican Party.conservative base, so long disaffected from its Eastern Establishment leadership. Trump, who in a short lifetime has been all over the political spectrum on every issue, fulminated and provided media fodder for those whose worldview halts somewhere around the firsdt items of the vening cable/network news.
Instead of trying to figure out a way to line up the gaggle of Republican contenders in personal encounters – for example, a pyramid of one-on-one confrontations – we got the spectacle of the media leading the arguments. It’s no wonder that Ms. Kelly fell into the trap of using a Democratic Party political ploy, the supposed Republican/conservative war on women, and dragged Trump in after her. The only semblance of debate, and it was largely a screaming incoherence, was when the bullying New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the self-anointed libertarian Sen. Rand Paul went at each other over security versus individual rights.
We will get another extravaganza shortly arranged by CNN, not likely to be more informative, and with that network’s increasing faux-Brutishness [replete with strange looking and marbled-mouth anchors] and its anti-Americanism, it won’t be better.
One would have hoped that the Republicans, at least, had learned their lesson the last time around when they entrusted their fate to the media and were saddled with anti-conservative moderators who actually directly threw in their 2 cents. But that was not to be. With the presumptive – although perhaps crumbling – Democratic nominee for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton, determined to keep herself aloof from any contact with the unscheduled hoi polloi, and any real discussion of issues, and the “me tooism” of the Republican candidates for the nomination mainly trying not to make a misstep, the outlook for real debate is bleak.
But we remain optimistic that somewhere, somehow the American people will find a way for their candidates for public office to discuss the basic issues, not the least is the Obama Administration’s efforts at “transformation”, e.g.. turning traditional policies on their head for uncharted adventures, particularly in foreign policy, and giving the accusation of “imperial presidency” on domestic issues new meaning.
sws-08-12-15

Devil in the detail


The talking heads, never missing an opportunity to play follow the leader, are thumping again — with John Roberts again becoming Chief Semanticist — for a Republican “alternative to Mr. Obama’s Affordable care”.

That’s exactly what we must not have. There are possibly solutions to many of the problems of American health care [and far too many ill-informed comparisons with other countries’]. But they do not lie in adopting some new, monstrous, unworkable, poorly written, overall solution to a gigantic problem.

Obamacare may be collapsing on its own – and thereby making a massive contribution to those who would reform America’s health system, to pardon the phrase, in a systematic way.

Hawaii’s exchange is the latest to implode of the 13 which chose to have state-run exchanges to provide medical insurance. That’s in spite of $205 million in federal taxpayer funding to set it up and keep it going, a part of the nearly $4.5 billion Washington has thrown at the state exchanges in an effort to save them. Only 37,000 ever enrolled in Hawaii’s exchange – a long way from the estimated 70,000 required to make the website financially viable. Now Hawaii’s legislature refused to toss in another $28 million after not a single person would sign up during the extended enrollment period. It had been an off and on affair in any case with the fund periodically closed down for problems including its website coding.

But that is only the beginning of the national problem. Next month, the Supreme Court was supposed to rule on whether the Obamacare law intended for the subsidy to be paid to individuals insured by state exchanges or only for the federal ones. The opponents of Obamacare argued that was the intent of the law’s drafters and therefore ought to honored. The Obama Administration is argued that it was simply a mistake in the wording of the bill that allows it to be interpreted that way. Chief Justice Roberts argued that he was going to save Obamacare, whatever, even if he had to retranslate the law, apparently to preserve the peace and quiet of The Court for even more momentous decisions later on in what looks like a long tenure.

It was a tough decision for the justices. “Legislative history”, the record of all the debate producing the law, should tell us what was in the minds of the drafters. But since Obamacare was rushed through the Democratic majorities in both Houses at the time, that may not be clear. [Remember, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told us we would know what was in the bill once it was passed.]

The argument that it was just a few misplaced words could be true. For the days when the old “Bourbon and branch water” veterans with their long experience drafted legislation on The Hill are long since gone, replaced too often by “the blow-dry boys” [and girls], many from a new class, if highly “credentialed”, rank amateurs who float back and forth between parliamentarians and even party allegiances.

But when the Court ruled for the Administration, however, that would be only the beginning of new troubles. It would encourage those states who did not choose to set up state exchanges to do so in order to grab the subsidies for its participants. But with state exchanges failing, that’s not an easy choice – especially since the feds have run out of money to set up the websites, much less to continue the subsidies.

This mess will have to be sorted out, of course, piece by piece – along with the other real issues of covering non-insured sick Americans and curbing rising medical costs. [Okay, they are down recently – maybe just because with the economic downturn, fewer sick have an option for medical service.]

It is therefore painful to hear the constant drumbeat in the mainstream media and among talking heads on TV bemoaning the fact, they say, that the Republicans don’t have an answer to Obamacare.

The Republicans, they say, ought to come up with a comprehensive solution.
Trying to solve the problems of one sixth of the U.S. economy, perhaps its most complicated for more than any other it involves personal “feelings” in decision-making, was a stupid idea. None of the 365 members of The Congress are endowed with that kind of omnipotence.

The way to solve the problems of American health is to go at them one by one, specifically and with detailed knowledge. Some are easy: wipe out the nice little patsy some insurance companies have with some state legislatures to limit access to within their state. Others such as how to assure a maximum coverage at minimal cost [yes, the U.S. spends much more on breast cancer testing than the Europeans, but look at the difference in mortality rates!]

When we hear “comprehensive”, we reach for our gun, to paraphrase one old Nazi’s threat. So let’s drop it and go to work on specific solutions to specific problems. That has been the American way in the past, a pragmatism we enjoyed over the rest of the world. Obamacare is a painful lesson in the need to review and renew that history!

sws-05-21-15

Why a possible demise of Pax Americana?


It was a cold, rainy and miserable day– either late 1951 or early 52. I was unemployed but had taken part-time work to help do a piece of market research for a friend’s firm. With my little clipboard, I was importuning what we thought would be an upper-class, sophisticated sample in rush hour in front of New York City’s Grand Central Station. Most of the passersby annoyingly brushed aside my attempt to talk to them, assuming I was just one more panhandler.
But when I did manage to collar someone, it was to ask them if they knew what SAS meant. No reason that they would unless they were veteran Atlantic airline commuters, not a large commodity in those days. But my friend’s client was spending a great deal of money trying to establish Scandinavian Airlines System’s name and its acronym, SAS, in the public mind. And they wanted some proof that it was happening.
Bored after a while, instead of the normal: way of asking my question, “Do you know what SAS means?” I began to play with it: That would become, Do YOU know what SAS means?” Or maybe I would ask, “Do you what SAS means?” Or I would put it into, “D’ya know what SAS MEANS?” with a rising intonation which always produced an affirmative response, although a follow-up question would prove they didn’t. Our second question, “Do you know where Scandinavian Airlines flies?” produced equally negotiable results. “Do YOU know where Scandinavian Airlines flies?” produced a different answer from “Do you know where SCANDINAVIAN Airlines flies?” and still another if it were “Do you KNOW where Scandinavian Airlines flies?”
Polls have come a long way in the decades since, I know– we have all those computer calculations and algorithms to strengthen the results. But I can’t help believing that that afternoon’s conviction of the limitless possibilities of tweaking the results isn’t still the case. And while we haven’t had a catastrophe like The Literary Digest [the U.S.’ leading magazine that collapsed in 1936 when it predicted a huge Republican victory against FDR], we have had enough glossed over failures to suggest that polling is still an art form rather than a science.
Yet polling and polls have become a major concomitant of our lives today. No public– nor often very private– issue in our lives is discussed by our talking heads without recourse to what the polls have to say about it. Increasingly, polls have taken on a life of their own, as when our most gifted commentators say something to the effect that Pres. Barak Hussein Obama can’t do such-and-such because of what the polls indicate. In an Administration less transparent than any so far, we still have every reason to believe that nothing is discussed in the inner sanctums without a recourse to where it is in the polls. Nor dies it take much to put us over the edge. I hear the Great O’Reilly babbling on about how Obama isn’t able to do such-and-such because the polls don’t permit him. There is a growing lack of recognition that not only may be the polls be just wrong, but that public opinion reacts to leadership as well as the requirement that in a democracy leadership must bow to public opinion on a controversial issue.
If that were not enough to undermine even a more cogent and well informed leadership than the U.S. now has in its chief executive and his advisers, there is an equally formidable and debilitating aspect of contemporary decision-making. With instantaneous communication [aided and abetted by more and more rapid transportation] the ability of the highest echelons of decision-making reaching into local scene to micromanage is almost unavoidable.
It was no accident that The Founders in their genius of devising a new system of government sought to stack the deck of popular government to some extent with indirect representation. Their foundation, however much it was dictated to them, was the federal system which required most of the power to govern be kept with the states, and there, in turn, more often than not left it to local institutions.
One look at the increasing difficulties of a highly centralized system like that of the French, enhanced from its traditions by Napoleon’s effective reforms, to see the basic differences the new government here envisaged.
But an erosion has been coming on for years, of course, reinforced by the Progressive movement with its basic theory that time and technology has dynamited the basic assumptions of the Constitution and have to be amended. The 1913 17th Amendment requiring direct voting for members of the senate substituting for the various ways the states had chosen their representative as states to the federal government was a major step away from this concept. It remains only for a new generation of reformers to point out the dichotomy that direct election does not, in fact, assure equality among the voters between larger and smaller states. They will argue, therefore, a “reform” requires an amendment to the basic assumption that each state having the same representation was meant to assure a continued a balance of the power of the smaller and larger states at the federal level.
In the early Republic but decreasingly as technology has galloped into the political picture, distance and time meant that the voice of the people would be heard through filters of representation. Now, on every hand, you see the ability of the federal government at the highest levels to have an immediate detailed description of a problem or an incident at the lowest level of government. It is then construed as an invitation to intervene with direct action and decision-making. Whether this was an attempted military rescue of hostages in Iran run rather than local command from the Executive Office in the White House or recent attempts at adjudicating local criminal cases with possible racial overtones, the long arm of the federal government’s highest office is apparent.
A millennium from now, if and when, the sway of the U.S. as the world’s hegemonic power is viewed in retrospect and the mystery of its relatively short history is reviewed, historians may well look for reasons. No doubt as in the past, it will be ascribed to a growing inability of leadership. But then, that is tautological, bad leadership is based leadership, but why?
There are too many unknowns, of course, at this moment. But it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibilities that their answer then will be that polling of public opinion [as a substitute for decision-making by the leaders] and instantaneous communications permitting local intervention [instead of indirect representative government] were what did in the most powerful governmental structure the world has ever seen.
sws-02-14-15

A euro for your thoughts


by Sol Sanders

The European Union has entered a multifaceted and what promises to be an extended crisis.

It will reshape European politics and its outcome will have far-reaching effects on the world economy and international politics. Resolution of the crisis will come with even more difficulty since the Europeans for the first time since the end of World War II cannot count on a strong role of Washington as mediator and mentor.

First off, it is important to remember that despite all the propaganda to the contrary about newly arriving power centers – and the weaknesses exposed by its current troubles – Europe remains the force in world affairs unmatched except by the U.S. Its more than half a billion population with almost a quarter of the world’s total economic activity, enormous cultural diversity and heritage, with infinitely fecund research and technological innovation, and with a diminished but technologically powerful military, still dominates the world scene.

When we speak of “Europe”, of course, we are lumping in a set of complicated relationships as well as groupings. The geographic Europe is everything west of the Urals in mid-Russia, but for the moment Russia has excluded itself from the European family. That’s in part because the European Union now includes all the countries of Western Europe except Norway and Switzerland, and more recently central, northern and parts of eastern Europe for a total of 28 countries [with four more former Yugoslav states soon to join].

The EU institutions include the European Commission, the Brussels-based appointed executive, the Council of the European Union, its upper house of parliament composed of executives of member states, the directly elected European Parliament, the lower legislative house, the Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and the Court of Auditors. At least theoretically, these countries now have a common market and are moving toward a standardized legal system. A separate treaty removes passport controls among all the countries [including Norway] with the exception of the U.K.

Eighteen of these countries – with the exclusion of the U.K., Denmark, Sweden and Poland – are part of the Erozone, using the Euro as their currency. [Seven additional states are obliged under their treaty obligations to join the common currency at a later date.] Since the international crisis of 2007-08, the European Central Bank has become a mini-International Monetary Fund. It has taken on a role of handing out emergency Euro loans to some of its members in deep trouble and is helping to work out individual national economic reform agendas. Through it purchase of national government bonds – Germany has blocked Eurobonds – it also indirectly helps direct the finances of the individual members.

Rather suddenly, a series of problems have grown acute, testing to their limits these and older European institutions in a way not seen since the onset of The Great Depression and the resultant collapse of much of Europe into authoritarianism. These developments put into question whether national interests can be subsumed in a superstate which has become the aim of many of the proponents of further European economic and political integration. Or whether, as an alternative, national and regional sentiments within some older nation-states will scotch this movement, or, indeed, reverse the whole effort.

The problems are, of course, interrelated and will require new efforts at international collaboration as well as mobilization of resources to move on to another stage whatever that may be. It’s no wonder then that any attempt to describe the ideological and more practical conflicts of the various constituents looks like a cat’s cradle of connections which alas! are not likely to fall apart as quickly as success at that old string game.

Putin’s challenge After more than a half century with sometimes bitter but relatively minor wars, Europe is faced with the continuing threat of naked aggression by a major power, Russia. An unstable Moscow regime glories in its inability to assimilate politically to the European consensus. But unlike its autarchic Soviet predecessor for which many of its leaders [and unhappily its citizens] have deep nostalgia, Putin’s Russia is not only directly intertwined with the world economy but virtually totally dependent on its sale of fossil fuels to the rest of Europe. [Recent feints to the East to China are just that with so-called trumpeted agreements falling far short of their ballyhoo.]

Using methods that could have been copied from the aggressive pre-World War II Fascist and Communist dictatorships, Moscow bluffs at least temporarily have overwhelmed European [and American] leadership. Neither Brussels, the national capitals, nor Washington have found an adequate response thereby inviting further aggression from Putin’s ad hoc agenda to restore what he claims is Moscow’s hegemony in Eastern and Central Europe if not a superpower. The fact that Ukraine has become the focal point for the conflict is symptomatic, for it is the irresistible attraction of participation in the European movement toward integration which draws Kviv away from its traditional domination by Moscow.

Democracy quotient The EU’s original deadly fault – top-down imposition of a new regulatory regime on self-governing societies – has finally climaxed in the candidacy of a new president of the Brussels bureaucracy. Tiny Luxembourg’s former prime minister, the lackluster politician Jean-Claude Juncker, has by happenstance become the nominee of the European parliament for the presidency of the EU on the claim that his party now has a majority in that assembly. That claim, reinforced by the lack of other major alternate contenders, in effect would establish parliamentary supremacy against what has been a tradition of hand-picked appointed Brussels bureaucracts..

But Juncker’s advocacy of more “federalism” – further political as well as economic integration – challenges London’s opposition to a stronger federal union at the same time its most ardent advocate is Germany. Furthermore, a clutch of anti-EU parties – some of them proto-fascist – now hold a fourth of the seats in the European parliament.

Britexit The sweep of anti-EU skeptics of the British delegation in a just completed Europe-wide election for the European parliament threatens to increase the growing minority in the U.K. who want to leave the EU. Conservative Prime Minister James Cameron, increasingly threatened by an anti-EU, anti-immigration, nationalist swell on the right, has promised a 2017 referendum on leaving EU membership. At the moment, British public opinion remains divided with apparently a small majority for remaining in the EU, but continuing as a limited partner. However beleaguered is its sterling currenmcy, most Brits count themselves lucky they stayed out of the Euro and thereby reinforcing the role of The City as perhaps the foremost international financial center.

Germany, a proponent of further integration, nevertheless makes preventing the departure of the British, its main ally in opposition to French and other EU partners’ statism, its highest if contradictory priority. Britain’s exit would, of course, have enormous repercussions inside the EU beyond its role as the main opponent of further bureaucratization, feeding skepticism which exists in Scandinavia, for example, and may even be growing in Germany where it has been a dogma of the post-World War II regime.

Economic malaise The European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi’s imposition of a negative interest rate – that is, the national central banks’ deposits into the Euro would be charged interest – is a groundbreaking effort to stimulate growth Theoretically, it would force the central banks to loose their lending policies. It is an attempt to counter the austerity policies throughout most of bankrupt southern Europe’s economies and the resultant high unemployment of low growth rates and increasing political instability.

Draghi’s policies are bitterly opposed by Germany with its paranoia about inflation from the deadly post-World War I expeience. Meanwhile, as by far the largest EU economy it continues to maintain a budget surplus through its “beggar your neighbor” trade policies. [Germany rolled up the highest trade surplus in the world at $270 billion in 2013 despite the fact that 60% of its exports went to other EU partners. [If Germans sanctimoniously blame their souther partners’ priofligacy for their situation, it was German-financed exports that in large part brought on the disaster.]

Germany’ situation is almost unique in the region. Its per capita income is 23% above the EU average with more than a fifth of the federation’s gross development product. That it is inimitable to Draghi’s grand strategy sets up an enormous conflict inside the EU at a moment of economic crisis.

Nor is it at all clear that Draghi’s effort will help given that the bulk of the Euro’s transactions still remain in national budgets, most of them already in deficit. That, of course, is the long term argument for further integration, welding differing financial strategies into a whole behind the Euro. But Berlin’s notorious historical incapacity to lead a democratic alliance contradicts Germany’s hegemonic economic role inside the EU, another reason why its effort to keep Britain inside the union is consered by many,m even in Germany, so critical.

This welter of crosscurrents takes place at a time of a growing perception – probably realistic — among European leaders that the U.S. is retreating from world politics and when the world engine of growth, the American economy, is sputtering.

Any of these various issues and contradictions could at any moment flare up into the kind of crisis that would feed popular sentiment and the 24-hour media, overshadowing the general confusion of these more complex economic and political issues. That question of unexpected events now dominates the European and ultimately, the world scene.

Sws-09-06-14

A test we mustn’t fail


The United States is going through one of those periodic crises, testing a complex and often sclerotic constitutional system.

An increasingly diminishing presidency has tried to “transform” the society, and particularly its economy, with draconian measures. One at least, Obamacare, rammed through an absent-minded Congress with a temporary majority of the President’s party, has come a cropper.

But behind the immediate problem of whether the Affordable Health Care Act can/should be salvaged or whether it must await repeal by a Republican Congress, and, perhaps, president, after 2016, is a much graver issue. Pres. Barack Obama, despite his experience as a part-time instructor in constitutional law, has run afoul of the principal of separation of powers.

It’s an ancient concept going back to Aristotle in ancient Greece which posited that the best way to avoid repressive government was to a balance its functions among various competing entities, usually the legislative branch to make the laws, the executive branch to enforce them, and an independent judiciary to adjudicate and punish disputes when they arose. Some Western European democracies have rejected this concept, expressed through a system of checks and balances. But more recently, even they have come around to giving their courts a greater role than was traditional in deciding what is inviolable in their unwritten constitution.

The Founders of the United States, who demonized the British sovereign in their quest for independence, had in fact become what they considered victims of an elected parliament. This phenomenon must have made them even more cognizant of the need to provide not only a defense against authoritarian government in general but against any of its appendages .As the young democracy endured, against all odds, it developed an additional concept of judicial supremacy – the power of the Supreme Court to override even the people’s elected representatives to strike down a law as unconstitutional, that is, in flagrant violation of the basic intent of the Constitution.

That was not specifically written into the Constitution, and, indeed, before the Civil War, the Supreme Court did not invoke it that often. That concept – contrary to the British tradition from which the U.S. borrowed so much which had parliamentary supremacy, meaning in the end, the parliament could do no wrong – was unique in its time. And the argument has gone on in newer governments modeled in the Anglo-American tradition, for example, in India and Pakistan, and, indeed, increasingly, in our neighbor Canada and Australia which once were closer to the Westminster tradition.

But the separation of powers has taken a beating in the U.S. over the years. Everything from the growing complexity of American life to unprofessional Capitol Hill writing of legislation has fuzzed the issues. To regulate growing and complex industries and parts of the increasing interwoven society, the Congress has created semi-judicial, semi-independent bureaucracies which have the power, in reality, to legislate, enforce and adjudicate — and even to punish. In our time, the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Labor Relations Board, increasingly politicized during a period when the differences between our two major political parties have widened, are flagrant examples.

“The regs”, the instructions on how to implement a law enacted by the Congress, have become if not more important than, often as crucial in determining the direction new legislation takes as law. That compilation is increasingly in the hands of a permanent and growing class of federal bureaucrats who — at this moment when the question of how large the government should be and how far reaching its activities — undergird many of the more serious political arguments. Once again, The Founders were prescient: they saw that an interested local populace might twist the national will by maneuvering a central government, and thus sought to isolate the federal apparatus in a castrated federal district with no political rights. Not only has that principal been abandoned in the cause of self-government for the District of Columbia, but the early 19th century when everyone went “home” for most of the year is a distant memory. No “special interest” is stronger than that of Washington’s permanent – if at its upper echelons, a revolving door – bureaucracy.

I wince every time I hear the Congressional Research Service or the Congressional Budget Office described as “nonpartisan”. While that may be true literally, it is a concept more honored in the breach than the observance, to quote The Bard. It would demand more than human failings afford for members of this or any of the other Washington bureaucracies to completely abandon their own prejudices for big government and their advocacy of federal discretion.

In times of crisis, especially when a soured economy which underlies all politics as well as the life of every citizen, there is an almost instinctive reach for government intervention. Never mind that the essence of the fabulous American economic history is its freedom for the individual entrepreneur and the absence of the kind of European dirigisme that to a greater or lesser degree has marked the histories of the Continental powers.

Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, with his strange amalgam of advisers spanning the political spectrum from far left to far right, tried to thrust the economy forward with a massive intervention the country had never seen. One by one, a traditionalist Supreme Court struck them down as contrary to the Constitution. [After all, a Constitutional amendment was necessary to foist the federal income tax on citizens.]. FDR’s riposte was to propose remaking the court with new legislation – a stick the legislative branch holds over the judiciary. But his “court packing” proposal outraged the country, even including some of FDR’s most loyal followers, and it was abandoned. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, FDR’s further ministrations still did not rescue the economy from The Great Depression. That took the unprecedented World War II mobilization which revamped the American economy’s entire nature producing the great postwar prosperity.

Those who lie with statistics tell us that President Obama has not invoked his executive mandate, the authority to use executive powers, more than his immediate predecessors. But the difference lies in quality not quantity: changes of specific deadlines and other requirements of the Affordable Health Care Act is a stretch too far. True, virtually all legislation affords the executive the authority to make discretionary changes in order to more effectively and orderly implement a law. And it is argued by his – and the increasingly fewer diehard supporters of the law – that this is precisely what he has done and that he need not go back to the Congress. But the very fact that the law is so controversial — every poll tells us opposition is massive if not in an absolute majority — demands that he do just that in pursuit of representative government. The reason he does not is obvious: a Republican-ruled House of Representatives where the Constitution specifically says the power of the purse resides might very well have taken the opportunity to try, again, to defund the law or at least to hamstring it while a Democratic-led Senate fumed.

Furthermore, the whole constitutional concept of the law has been muddled by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., joining in a 5-4 decision to rule the law constitutional on the basis of what the Obama Administration called “fines” for its infraction. But Roberts chose to reinterpret the Administration’s brief to the Court calling these penalties “taxes”, and therefore defensible under the taxing authority of the Constitution rather including them under the ever elastic “commerce clause” which the Administration had argued. One could only assume that the Chief Justice was leaning into the wind in order to maintain some unanimity in the court for what promises to be an avalanche of efforts to test the constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s actions on various fronts in the months and years ahead.

For the Obama Administration’s bending the law has not been confined only to Obamacare. The President and his Attorney-General Eric Holder, who one must remind errant analysts is not an independent agent but a part of the executive, have taken it on themselves to decide which part of immigration law on the books they are to enforce. It has reinterpreted legislation to prevent discrimination in voting practices only to cover minorities rather than all voters, a blow at the very essences of elected government  and what the civil rights movement was all about. In direct violation of the constitution, the President has made “interim” appointments while a Democratic-controlled Senate was legally in session.

Thus Pres. Obama’s promise to extend executive privilege to its outer limits threatens to test the whole fabric of the constitutional process

It is time for a reordering of protocols if not of issues. Even FDR, with his enormous ego, after his ham-fisted effort backfired to ram through his own remedy for what he saw as government gridlock, went for conciliation with his critics. Pres. Bill Clinton in his second term saw he had to cooperate with fiscal conservative to accomplish his goal of an expanding economy. It would be time for Obama “to reach out” [as that overused current cliché goes] to the opposition. But, for the moment at least, his choice seems to be defiance with his “pen and telephone” – and continued pushing the constitutional envelope.

It’s a dangerous game and threatens our whole constitutional system.

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Washington’s “political” class is blinging out!


           A couple of decades ago when that temple of conspicuous consumption, Neiman Marcus, opened another store in metropolitan Washington, my old friend and astute political observer, the late Nat McKitterick, warned me we were lost.

For it was about then that – “a political class” – was becoming apparent in the nation’s capital. It was a new phenomenon. Those of us who knew Washington pre-World War II., remember how it largely emptied out on the weekends when the government elite departed for hometowns. The wretched climate in the former swamp meant summer holidays were forced on the bureaucracy when the thermometer maxed out, then without the now ubiquitous air conditioning. In an era when the country depended less on Washington delving directly into our inner most reaches [and pockets], part-time government, or something approaching that, could be tolerated if not welcomed.

Certainly the Founders wanted the new Republic to have limited government, peopled by a constantly fluctuating hierarchy composed of a wide range of citizens with other professions and livelihoods. True, eight of the original 55 men who participated in framing the Constitution were sometime politicians. And fourteen were rich enough to own slaves. George Washington, himself, was not only a slave owner but one of the richest men in the New World. Eighteen framers might be called “speculators” in land and finance. Still, they dreamed of a regime in which the power of the state would be lodged at its lowest level and therefore more responsive to the will of the people.

And, indeed, at the insistence of “the radicals” they immediately adopted the ten first Constitutional amendments to guarantee the people’s rights, changes most of which had been discussed earlier. They were adopted to ease the document’s approval from the various states’ legislatures, jealous of their power and fearful of a central government. The tenth amendment put it in unambiguous 18th century prose: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The reasoning was clear: a ruling political elite was the nightmare of the Founders, especially those ideologues committed from the beginning to the Revolution against the British crown. Their opposition arose from an overweening King and Parliament repeat and Parliament which had usurped their rights as Englishmen. Steady progress of Anglo-Saxon individualism and strength of new and growing centers of power in Great Britain had erased the once divine right of kings. And then the power of the barons, squeezed reluctantly from John, gave way to a London elite which governed, but in part still based on aristocracy. That was not to be, the Founders hoped, in, after all, what was their Republic modeled on Greek popular democracy and the Roman worship of the law. [Benjamin Franklin, according to legend, famously quipped when asked by a constituent what had come of the secret constitutional conclave, and he replied, “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it!”.]

But over two centuries that original intent, as undeniable as it is, has been chipped away “in order to form a more perfect union” and to meet the growing needs of a vast, new land and population and the effects of a continuing industrial revolution. By the time the U.S. finally assumed its obligations as a world power, in fact, as a superpower, in the post World War II environment, that process had gathered new, rapid momentum.

On The Hill, the old bourbon-and-branchwater boys gave way to new blow-haired pseudo-sophisticated Congressional staffers, who incidentally, didn’t know how to draft legislation. In the Congress, more and more seats were “inherited” – either through DNA or through gerrymandering which now was based on class, ethnicity and color rather than on old machine politics handing out a Christmas turkey. The two-year term in the House, intended to insure a rapid turnover close to the electorate, of necessity turned into permanent campaigning. The judicial system which more or less had bucked Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “court-packing” successfully in the mid-30s succumbed increasingly to politicalization – with sociologists rather than legal scholars providing psychoanalytical analysis for decision-making on school desegregation, and a couple of decades later, abortion, rather than resorting on the old torts.

In one of those vaunted reforms with unintended consequences [The 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act and all is subsequent additions], the effort to insulate the federal bureaucracy from the corruption of political “spoils” created an independent but self-aggrandizing bureaucracy. So much so that sheer dereliction of duty – as witnessed in the current Congressional hearings – is hard to punish with dismissal much less economic sanctions and imprisonment. Watching Committee television hearings, we have seen the apotheosis of the trendy, smirking, self-important, arrogant, self-anointed bureaucrat, defying elected inquisitor politicians – who, however tainted themselves, recognized the dangerous politicalization of the tax system has reached new and dangerous heights.

Grown like Topsy is a class of bureaucrats, political appointees supposedly in their command, reinforced by their K Street lobbyist appurtenances and an increasingly kept mass media and blabbering tax-free, high-paid foundations with pretenses for intellectuality. These latter all too often simply reflect the least common denominator on thinking about any strategy or policy. A systemic revolving door of cushy jobs await any government executive who falls from his seat – until the hoped for next election either brings him back or he continues to work with his alter egos in what is laughingly called the private sector.

Look around and you see the incredible character of our new political elite. They unashamedly reward themselves until the District of Columbia [despite its poverty-stricken Black ghetto] and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties have the country’s highest per capita incomes. Alas! The demise of the Founders’ effort for a politically neutral federal territory! And even with the Dulles Corridor information technology industry, you would be hard pressed to find productive sources other than intra-government relations.

To describe the relationship among the inhabitants of Georgetown, Langley, Bethesda, FriendshipHeights, and the other ‘golden ghettoes” of suburban Washington as incestuous would be magnificent understatement. These denizens are often tied by kinship – the former Internal Revenue Service head who presided when it targeted conservative organizations is married to the head of an Obama political organization [not audited], two major network news directors have siblings in “media relations” on the White House staff, etc., etc. They constantly hobnob in New York-priced restaurants, chatter at the plethora of cocktail parties, often vacation together in The Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or other plush resorts, when not taking overseas “inspection” trips at the taxpayers’ expense.

It is no wonder that such inbreeding leads to group-think. Only such relationships could produce the catastrophe of a fanatical effort to remodel at one stroke one-sixth of the U.S. economy, the medical services and health industry with its infinite and unanticipated complications. And then, of course, to continue to pursue that course when every single opinion poll in the country shows a majority of the voters oppose it. Obamacare is, in fact, the culmination of a growing tendency of “the political class” to demonstrate increasing incompetence and lack of realism in the face of the growing complexity of American economic, social and political life after the subordination of old methodology by the digital revolution. But it was the ultimate expression of a political class who knowingly and arrogantly “know” what is good for the rest of the population.

Is all lost?

The closest I have ever come to Oklahoma was as a teenage ColumbiaUniversity student I got an invitation from Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra, then playing at the Warner Bros. Theater on Broadway, to see Oklahoma! Opening that 1943 spring. I assume its freshness and authenticity is a reflection of its namesake. To this observer it seems if one wants an antidote to what is happening in Washington, which inspires faith in the American ethos and its political dreams, he must turn to the victims of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes. Even the mainstream media, so often given to stigmatizing ordinary Americans as boobs [“who cling to guns, or religion”], had interview after interview with survivors who expressed their acceptance of the inevitability of life’s disasters but determination to adhere to old Oklahoman and American principles of self-help and perseverance. And I doubt that many of them would recognize a Los Rudos cocktail — with cilantro. As the Communists were want to say, it is not accident that not a single Oklahoma county voted for Obama in 2012.

Therein, perhaps, still lies the essence and the hope of the Founders’ American dream.

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