The Worst President Ever 5 July 2019.

Typically, the popular understanding of American history is that the Revolution gave rise to the Articles of Confederation (the first government of the United States); then that ramshackle arrangement soon proved unsatisfactory to many people; and then the present Constitution created the legal framework for subsequent American history.  In fact, there existed deep divide over several issues.  First, federalism (a union of sovereign stares) versus nationalism (a union of states under a strong central government).  Second, the divide—which would only grow until our own time—over who got to be a full “American.”  Those arguments had to be fought out over many presidential administrations.

Many of the contentious issues that would shape American society down to the present day became evident in the administration of Andrew Jackson (1767-1845).  Jackson served as the seventh president of the United States (1830-1838)

He believed that the final interpreter of the Constitution was the President, not the Supreme Court or the individual states.  It is in this light that one must see his opposition to John Calhoun’s doctrine of “interposition,[1] rather than in some doctrine of general federal supremacy.

He believed in the forced removal of the Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi.  In 1830, he signed a federal law, the Indian Removal Act, which ordered the rapid evacuation of Native Americans from the Southeastern United States.[2]  He defied the Supreme Court to do so.

He opposed the Second Bank of the United States.  The Bank sold government bonds to finance the deficit; it issued a “sound” paper currency that allowed the economy to expand; and it provided credit for business.  In this sense, it served as a predecessor for the Federal Reserve System.  He believed that the Bank endangered American democracy and prosperity by concentrating excessive wealth and power in a few hands.  He vetoed the renewal of its government charter.

Jackson then began shifting federal funds from the Bank to a number of “pet” banks in the state.  Many of the “pet” banks were located in the West.  The principal use of credit in the West was land speculation.  This led to easy credit from the “pet” banks and much speculation in land.  At the same time, Eastern banks found themselves with declining reserves, so they raised interest rates.  In 1836, in an effort to rein-in speculation, Jackson issued a requirement that federal lands sold to the public be paid for in gold or silver, rather than in the inflated paper currency issued by state banks.  This “Specie Circular” was one, important, factor among several causes of the “Panic of 1837.”   The resulting recession dragged on into the 1840s.

A pre-Keynesian, he eliminated the deficit and paid off the national debt.

He appointed Roger B. Taney to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In the “Dred Scott Decision” (1857), Taney and the majority held that a) African-Americans could not be citizens, and b) that slavery could not be prohibited in the territories.

So, arguably, America’s worst president.

[1] “Interposition” meant that individual states could block the local enforcement of federal laws which the state government considered to be unconstitutional.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Removal_Act.  Enforcement of the Act resulted in the “Trail of Tears.”  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trail_of_Tears

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My Weekly Reader A 19 June 2019.

In traditional societies, people found their identity within and as members of groups.  In the Medieval and Early Modern West, for example, the Christian churches taught morality and sponsored religious confraternities.  The peasant agricultural societies portrayed by Pieter Breughel involved much group labor and existed within the framework of village life.  European cities were governed by professional groups (guilds) and had purchased various group “privileges” from local lords or more distant kings.  People belonged to hereditary “orders” like Commoners and Aristocrats.  These societies existed within belief systems and economic systems that offered little individual choice.

Then things changed.  It took hundreds of years, but intellectual, political, and economic systems all changed.  The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment created a skepticism about all received wisdom.  The Voyages of Discovery and the Agricultural Revolution began an economic revolution that spurred rapid growth in both population and wealth.  Rising distrust of received beliefs, an absolute confidence in the power of human Reason,[1] and the growth of a complex middle class then rocked the political system with an Age of Revolutions.[2]

A central feature of all these changes was the rise of Individualism.  Essentially, people aren’t Lego blocks.  Each person is different—if only in subtle and minor ways–from every other person.  Only the Individual person knows what is best for that person: strength and weaknesses, and hopes and fears.  Hence, society and government should seek to maximize the opportunity for Individual fulfillment.  This Individual freedom should be limited only by the requirement that one Individual’s freedom do no harm to the freedom of other Individuals.

This belief system gave rise to Nineteenth Century Liberalism and, by way of reaction, to Nineteenth Century Socialism.  Political Liberalism espoused individual equality before the law, individual rights guaranteed by law, governments answering to elected legislature, and freedom of the press and of thought.  Economic Liberalism espoused economic individualism, free markets, competition, free trade within and between nations, and a small government that concentrated on the essential functions of law and order and national defense.  What Liberals didn’t believe in was either equality or democracy.  Competition—between producers, political parties, and ideas—produced both winners and losers according to the informed choices of consumers.  The whole of society benefitted from competition even when individuals lost.  Similarly, people without the education necessary to understand the competition of ideas and parties, and people with no material stake (property) in the outcome of the debates should have no voice (vote) in the outcome.

Reacting against this position, Nineteenth Century Socialism called for co-operation over competition, planning instead of the market, collective ownership of the “means of production” in place of private property, and democracy with vote for all adult males.  After a while, revolutionary Marxism dominated Socialist thought.

The success of industrialization created immense wealth and immense numbers of industrial workers who were excluded from the political system while living in misery.  Something had to give.  Beginning in the late Nineteenth Century, it did.

[1] See Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932).  Hilarious.

[2] I stole that from Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Revolutions: Europe, 1789-1848 (1962).  Remarkable.

Just typing out loud here 12 June 2019.

You challenged me on my enthusiasm for Joe Hill’s “Rebel Girl.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_tz3wPgLUw  Didn’t have a good response at the moment, but it got me thinking.  My mind works slower than do those of most people.  Hence the delay.

To my mind, the Democrats are generically anti-business.  Sure, they talk about income inequality and anti-monopoly and this, that, and another New Deals.  But what they mean to apply is an anti-business policy that will fall on all businesses, great and small.  Taxes.  Regulations by decree.  You never see Democrat candidates who have ever worked in/for a business.  You never see ones who have had their own business.  Barack Obama was a “community organizer.”   (George McGovern’s post-presidential experience is instructive here.)  They’ve all spent their lives as lawyers or “in public service.”  Public service is just another way of saying “public employment.”  You don’t get laid off in a recession and you get good benefits.  For following an elaborate set of rules.

They have a fantasy of returning to the Fifties: a few big industries that don’t have any global competition; high wages and good benefits achieved through government-sponsored union-bargaining; owners who inherited their wealth from their rough-and-ready ancestors who actually created it; and a horde of professional managers who deploy B-School-certified skills in return for a generous, but socially-acceptable, salary.  That—at best—is what the Democrats want to recreate.  Basically, Rudolf Hilferding seventy years on.   (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Hilferding )

None of this has anything to do with contemporary reality.  It has been one, but only one, of the factors that have driven the American economy—and society—into the ground over the last fifty years.

Yes, there is a lot to criticize in Republican policies.  Mostly, to my mind, it is the starving/shrinking of the necessary regulatory functions of the Federal bureaucracy.  To take some examples: the IRS can’t audit; the FAA has shifted airline safety to the plane manufacturer (singular); the FDA can’t keep up with the companies trying to poison us for fun and profit.  Theodore Roosevelt theorized that only a strong government could mediate the conflicting demands of Capital and Labor.  Republicans are gutting the system projected by their second-greatest president.  The reduction of the corporation tax to international (i.e. Canada) norms seems to me a good idea.  All the tax cut-spend-elect stuff to counter Democrats’ tax-spend-elect stuff is wrong, but wrong for both parties.  And wrong for the American voters who gobbled it up.   Maybe “snorted” would be better?

As for “bigness,” see Ellis Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly.  Yes, we’ve been down this road before.

In the end, what I’m fighting for is my Dad and all the people like him.  He didn’t want to work for the government and he didn’t want to work for a giant business.  He had done both (Army, Shell Oil).  He just wanted his own show.  Win or lose, it was on him.   What’s wrong with that?  He provided a service that people wanted.  He paid his employees the best he could.  Wasn’t great money, but it was the same deal for them that he made.  They weren’t working for the government or big business.  There weren’t procedures to deal with.  Just people.  He and my Mom did a lot of unpaid work to make the business run.  I guess I don’t see much difference between my Dad and an artist: they’re both self-actualizing and creative.  Along the way, he put a roof over our head and food in our mouths and paid his taxes.  Some of those taxes went to pay for public competition with his private business.  Why?  Because not all high-school teachers wanted to coach, so some of them would rather work extra as driving instructors.  Teachers had a union, but private business did not.

 

American Opinion on Abortion 12 June 2019.

For a baseline, most Americans support Roe v. Wade.  To be clear, in that decision the Supreme Court of the United States (popularly SCOTUS) “ruled that during the first trimester, governments could not prohibit abortions at all; during the second trimester, governments could require reasonable health regulations; [and] during the third trimester, abortions could be prohibited entirely so long as the laws contained exceptions for cases when they were necessary to save the life or health of the mother.”[1]

Oddly for a democracy, many Americans don’t hold the same opinions on abortion as do their elected representatives.  Many people—both Democrats and Republicans—reject the maximalist positions of their parties.[2]  Some 40 percent of Democrats oppose abortion “for any reason” and some 29 percent of Republicans support abortion “for any reason.”  Better than a third (36 percent) of Hillary Clinton voters in 2016 opposed using Medicaid money to pay for abortions, and better than half (58 percent) of all Americans opposed using Medicaid money to pay for abortions.  Basically, that’s the Hyde Amendment, which Joe Biden has just repudiated.

Why have the two parties missed out on this reality?  Well, they haven’t missed out.  They just don’t care.  Take the abortion-uncertain Democrats as one example.  They are more rural, more Southern, more politically “moderate,” less-educated[3], and more religious than most Democrats.  Basically, they live in areas and represent demographic groups that Democrats know they can’t win anyway.  So, why concede anything to the dissenters?  The same is probably true of Republican dissenters.  They’re probably more urban, more Northern, more educated, less religious, and more “moderate” than most Republicans.  Republicans aren’t going to win these regions or groups anyway, so why concede to the dissenters?[4]

Then–and this will be creepy for liberal Democrats–African-American Democrats (but I repeat myself) split 50-50 on abortion “for any reason.”[5]  At the same, public opinion supports abortion when the child is the result of rape or incest, or when the pregnancy endangers to life of the mother, or when the child would be born with some defect (i.e. Down syndrome like my sister Bronwyn[6]).

Anyway, abortion-rights is for Democrats what gun-rights is for Republicans: the issue mobilizes one-issue true-believers.[7]  No fixing America this way.

[1] According to a Gallup Poll, 60 percent of people support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.  That would be within about 12 weeks.  That is, once a woman has figured out that she is pregnant, and has had some time to figure out how she feels about being pregnant, and has thought about whether she can manage a child, and has figured out how she will feel about terminating a pregnancy.  Put that way, people opposing abortion in this framework are just an immense collection of assholes.  IMHOP.

[2] Nate Cohn, “Crisp Battle Lines on Abortion Blur When Surveys Ask Voters,” NYT, 9 June 2019.

[3] Think about this for a minute.  Democrats with less education are more moderate than Democrats in general, let alone Democrats with more education.  Could one argue that more-educated people—Democrat and Republican—are messing-up our country?

[4] See: Clayton Christenson on Disruption.  Start at the bottom and eat upward.

[5] If I recall correctly—always a tricky issue—African-Americans also oppose gay rights.

[6] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQ_4m2ocxhI  “Go fuck yourself you fucking child!”

[7] In 2015, there were 13,286 firearm deaths, excluding suicides.  According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2015, there were 638,169 abortions.  Put this way, gun control advocates are dealing with the lesser of two evils.  For those people who think that life begins at conception, abortion is a rolling-Holocaust.  Forced to choose between a child molester and a child murderer, about half of Alabama Republicans sat out the election.

American Opinion in June 2019.

According to a recent poll, ten percent of Americans believe that Donald Trump is the best president of their lifetime.[1]  Trump’s support was concentrated among older, white, men.  In particular, according to a Pew Trust analysis, “49 percent of those aged 30‒49 feel warmly toward him, 60 percent of those aged 50‒64 do, as did 56 percent of those over 65 years of age.”[2]  So, the enthusiastic ten percent may come from older voters.

In contrast to most voters, both Trump supporters and Trump opponents have some historical basis for judging “best” and “worst” presidents.  If someone was 50 in 2016, then they were born in 1966; if someone was 60 in 2016, then they were born in 1956; if someone was 70 in 2016, then they were born in 1946.  If we postulate that people start to become politically aware at age 20, then 2016 Trump voters became politically aware between 1966 and 1986.

What do they have to work with in terms of historical experience of the presidency?  They have late-stage Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam, the social turmoil associated with the “Great Society”); Richard Nixon (Vietnam, Watergate); Gerald Ford (the first “oil shock” and inflation); Jimmy Carter (second “oil shock,” inflation, Iran hostage crisis); Ronald Reagan (Paul Volker wringing out inflation, defeat of the “evil empire,” Iran-Contra); George H. W. Bush (Preppy in the White House, first Iraq War, “read my hips”); Bill Clinton (Eddie Haskell in the White House); George W. Bush (Frat Boy in the White House, 9/11, the flunked war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina); Barack Obama (Affordable Care Act, but also the Stimulus bill, rule by decree).

Experienced voters might be forgiven (although they will not be forgiven) for thinking that in their lifetime American government has run amuck and that the quality of presidents has deteriorated.  This ignores the reality that we have lived through very turbulent times that demanded government responses.  Many of these problems found no easy solution.  Still, is it possible that the typical voter follows the meta-narrative, rather than the micro-narrative?

Polls also showed that Trump appealed most to those with only a high-school education, but least to those with a college BA or more.  Well, auto-workers and steel-workers and a bunch of other workers used to be able to earn a middle-class income walking off the graduation stage and into an industrial job.  These people used to be a) Democratic voters, and b) the salt of the earth in Democratic discourse.[3]  Why did they stray, assuming it was the voters, rather than the party, that strayed?  Then, how does the educational profile of Trump voters compare with the educational profile of African-Americans?  Data suggest that educational attainment among African-Americans, measured in terms of BAs, is about two-thirds that of whites.[4]  How different is this from the educational profile of Trump voters?

The Pew poll also showed that core Trump voters believed—correctly—that free trade had harmed their own interests.  They believed that he would address illegal immigration, which they regarded as a serious problem.  They thought he was an awful person who might get things done.  “Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 June 2019, p. 17.

[2] See: https://www.thoughtco.com/meet-the-people-behind-donald-trumps-popularity-4068073

[3] See: Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech.”  https://www.periodpaper.com/products/1945-print-norman-rockwell-vermont-man-freedom-of-speech-open-forum-oil-painting-126405-xaa5-061

[4] See graph: https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/01/28/us-education-still-separate-and-unequal

Roe versus Ferguson 19 May 2019.

Almost a third (32 percent) of Americans want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, while almost two-thirds don’t want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.  Seems clear enough as a democratic policy preference.[1]

However, there are intricacies.

First, does life begin at the moment of conception?  If it does, then do those lives deserve legal protection from harm?  If it, doesn’t, then why do women want abortions?  Is there some definable moment when not-life turns to life?  When it gets its own insurance and phone plan?

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was “stare decisis” (settled law—just to show I’ve been reading the newspapers, if not law books).  All the same, the Supreme Court overturned this settled law in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  In the common understanding (which is different from a lawyer’s explanation), the Supreme Court overturned Plessy on the grounds that it did a moral wrong.

If life does begin at the moment of conception, then abortion is a moral wrong disguised as an elective medical procedure.  The Supreme Court could overturn Roe on the same moral grounds that it overturned Plessy.  (Yes, a bunch of judges appointed by Republican presidents would be accused of having wormed and slimed their ways through Senate confirmation votes in order to achieve this end.  Many reasonable people will find that accusation credible.)

Second, what exactly would the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade mean for the law?  Would it return abortion to the pre-Roe status where it was regulated by the states?  Or would it replace the nation-wide right to “choice” with a nation-wide ban on abortions?  If a Supreme Court decision led to a nation-wide ban on abortion, then would the best analogy be to “Scott v. Sandford” (1857)?  That decision held two things.  First, that African-Americans could not be citizens.  Second, that the division of the country into “slave” and “free” areas was unconstitutional.[2]  Slave-holders could go anywhere they wanted, establish their “peculiar institution” anywhere they wanted.  Majority opinion in a democracy (by the standards of that time, not ours) be damned.

Third, ignorance of facts plays a role in current discussions.  Half (50 percent) of Americans are open to curtailing abortion rights to some degree, while 44 percent support at least an integral defense of Roe as it now stands.  “Right to life” advocates appear to have played upon this willingness to curtail, rather than ban, abortions.  The state of Alabama has recently passed a law banning abortions once a heartbeat is detected in a fetus.  Nationally, 50 percent support such a ban.  However, that support dropped to 38 percent when the people being polled are told that physicians’ modern technology can detect a heartbeat at six weeks.  That 12 percent change undoubtedly comes from men who aren’t too familiar with the menstrual cycle and its vagaries or with the psychology of women facing the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy.[3]  When they figure out they’ve been played, they shift position.

A Supreme Court decision endorsed by only one-third of the people and opposed by two-thirds of the people is going to be a problem.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 24 May 2019, p. 17.

[2] This referred to the “Missouri Compromise” (1821).

[3] Me neither, but I recognize that I’m not.

The Boston Massacre.

In 1768, the British government sent army troops to Boston, Massachusetts, to support the civil authorities in enforcing unpopular new laws.  The troops were equally unpopular as the laws.  On 5 March 1770, a crowd harassed a lone British sentry posted in the street before Boston’s Old State House.  An officer brought other soldiers to his support.  The crowd grew in size and emotional mobilization.  Long story short: the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five.  We remember this tragedy as “The Boston Massacre.”

The bloody events came at a moment of intense political polarization in Massachusetts.  The political middle ground had disappeared as the people of Massachusetts divided into a large majority opposed to the policies of the Crown and a minority who supported those policies.  By the end of March, the British soldiers and four civilian employees of the Customs House—who were alleged to have fired into the crowd from the windows of the building—were indicted for murder.

A pamphlet campaign—part of the larger pamphlet war that preceded the American Revolution—told strikingly different stories about the Boston Massacre.  That media war was full of curiosities.  For example, one of the most inflammatory—and untrue—portrayals of the events came in an illustration by Henry Pelham.  The illustration showed the British officer ordering his men to fire into the crowd and a musket fired from a window.  Paul Revere copied that illustration and presented it as his own.  Pelham himself turned into a Loyalist who left Boston with the British troops and the other Loyalists in March 1776.

John Adams, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and future President of the United States, defended the British soldiers when they were tried for murder.  Adams argued that the soldiers had the right to fight to defend themselves against the mob.  If any of the soldiers were provoked but not actually in danger, then they were guilty of manslaughter.  His argument persuaded the jury.  The officer commanding and six of his men were acquitted; two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter.  They escaped the death penalty by pleading “benefit of clergy” (i.e. they could read and write, which was enough to escape the gallows in literate-deficient colonial America.)  Instead, they were branded.  On the thumb.

The four civilians who were alleged to have fired from within the building were tried later.  All were acquitted and the man who had testified against them was later convicted of perjury.

In retrospect, Adams concluded that “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers[1] or Witches[2] anciently.”

I butcher History in this fashion because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recently analogized his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation to John Adams’ defending the British soldiers.[3]    The related analogies will suggest themselves.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_martyrs

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

[3] Katie Benner, “Rosenstein Answers Critics In an Impassioned Speech,” NYT, 27 April 2019.