Monday, November 9, 2009

Documentary on Bordeaux Wines

Thomas Jefferson epitomized the ideal of the Renaissance Man, for in addition to being a great statesman, he was also an architect, scientist, musician, inventor, writer, university founder, and planter. He also happened to be the greatest wine connoisseur of the 18th and early 19th centuries, not just in America, but in the entire world.

21st Century Jeffersonians would be well-advised to take Jefferson's example and make their own self-improvement their chief priority. A sound and comprehensive knowledge of good wine is an indispensable part of being a well-rounded human being. It also serves as a unifying pole around which people of various political, religious and social views can come together and forge common bonds of friendship, a Jefferson fully understood when he hosted innumerable dinners at the White House.

Watch this wonderful hour-long documentary on wines of Bordeaux, which is probably the most famous wine region in the world. Then, go out and buy yourself a good, affordable bottle of Bordeaux and drink it tonight with a home-cooked meal. A more Jeffersonian evening cannot be had.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Major News Organizations Should Cease Entertainment Coverage

Thomas Jefferson would have deplored the modern American obsession with entertainment celebrities. Indeed, had he seen the grotesque amount of time the average American citizens spends analyzing the minutia of the lives of actors, singers, and those bizarre celebrities who seem famous only for being famous, he would conclude that celebrity obsession is a cancer eating away at American society.

We live in a time when most Americans would be very hard-pressed to name their own representative in Congress, or even the governor of their state. However, it is likely that substantial majorities would be able to identify the subject of the latest reality television show, or which Hollywood couple is expecting a baby, or which musical superstar has been arrested for drunk driving.

While the main blame for this must be laid at the feet of the American people themselves, a large part of the problem also lies with the media. We used to be able to distinguish between legitimate news organizations and those who engage in mere tabloid journalism. But today, there seems to be little that separates them. When we turn on CNN or one of the three semi-reputable network news affiliates, we are just as likely to see a story about the latest party escapades of a young Hollywood figure as we are to see an investigative story about the budget deficit.

About the only news organizations which maintain a shred of credibility in America are PBS and NPR. Because they are public broadcasters rather than corporate networks dependent on advertising revenue, their producers can resist the pressure to down down their programming and can focus on news reports of genuine importance to citizens. (A wonderful way for a 21st Century Jeffersonian to begin the day is to listen to the hourly news summary on NPR while sipping a cup of coffee.)

The media barons see their operations as mere profit-generators and choose to ignore their civic responsibilities to educate the American people about the issues of the day. It is imperative that 21st Century Jeffersonians begin to put pressure on the media establishment and send the message that stories about the lives of entertainment celebrities belong in tabloid magazines and should have no place among serious news reporting.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Searching for Jeffersonian Economics in the 21st Century

In Jefferson's time, more than nine out of ten people were independent, largely self-sufficient farmers. They provided for almost all their own needs, and only relied on others for luxuries. The people who provided these luxuries, such as book sellers or makers of musical instruments, were tradesmen whom we might today call small business owners. If a person worked for someone else, it was often as an apprentice until he had accumulated enough knowledge to strike out on their own. People controlled their economic destinies to a vastly greater extent than they do today.

Times have certainly changed since then. Today, our economic destinies are almost entirely beyond our control, being determined instead in the high-rise offices of faraway corporations or in government agency buildings in Washington D.C. Since Jefferson's time, the simultaneous rise of the mega-corporation and of government economic intervention have so transformed the economy that it is effectively impossible for citizens to obtain any level of self-sufficiency.

In our time, economic conflict is often reduced to a competition between socialism and capitalism, with every position marked somewhere on a scale between complete government control of the economy on one side and absolutely no regulations on economic activities at all on the other side. Is there a place on this spectrum where should 21st Century Jeffersonians should stand?

First off, Jefferson not only would not only reject socialism, but would fight against it with every ounce of his strength. All his life, he struggled against those who sought centralized governmental power, whether it took the form of George III and the British or Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. The idea of socialism would have terrified Jefferson, as it removes decisions from the hands of individuals and places it in the hands of others: the very antithesis of freedom.

From a rational perspective, Jefferson would also point out the obvious fact that socialism simply doesn't work. In every country where socialism has been tried on a large scale, it has not only failed but failed disastrously. The Soviet Union collapsed spectacularly between 1989 and 1991, while India and China dumped socialistic models in favor of capitalism and experienced massive economic growth as a result. Modern Venezuela, with its clownish President, is today on the brink of economic collapse, being propped up only by high oil prices.

No, Jefferson would never have been a socialist. Having said that, though, it is equally clear that unbridled capitalism would also have dismayed Jefferson. He was a man who lived in a time of broad economic equality, with a vast class of independent farmers and tradesmen making up the great bulk of the American population. There were very few super-rich people and and astonishingly small number of people living in poverty. Jefferson saw real poverty during his years in Europe, and often expressed how grateful he was that America had escaped such conditions.

In our time, of course, Jefferson's fears have been realized. Wealth is highly concentrated at the very top, with a shrinking middle class and an impoverished lower class, the very existence of which would have saddened Jefferson. The question Jefferson would ask, therefore, is how can America restore the self-sufficiency of the individual and economic equality, while avoiding the socialistic trap of government control?

Could it be the present European model, which attempts to mix elements of socialism and capitalism to reach some sort of synthesis? Jefferson would have followed the European experiment with interest, as he believed the world was entering "the age of experiments in government". But he wouldn't have held out much hope of success for the European model, in which the people rely to such a great extent on their government. Rationally speaking, the long-term fiscal and demographic situation of the European nations will spell an end to their welfare-state experiment, which even now is only maintained due to the willingness of the United States to finance the defense of Western Europe.

Jefferson would dismiss the contest between socialism and corporate capitalism as not particularly relevant, as both models eventually result in citizens losing their self-sufficiency and hence their liberty. Socialism deprives citizens of their liberty by denying them freedom of action, whereas the prevailing corporate model of capitalism deprives citizens of their liberty by permitting powerful corporations to exploit citizens and take away their freedom. Either way, the result is the same.

Jefferson would call upon us to devise a new economic model altogether, freeing ourselves from dependence upon corporations while avoiding the socialistic trap of state control. But what form could such a model take?

These days, there is a lot of talk about the globalization. The steady trend in increasing globalization is largely inevitable due to advances in transportation and communication technologies, and in many cases there is no particular reason to object to it. Obviously, there are no mom-and-pop semiconductor plants, car manufacturers, or big-screen TV factories. The economic activities of such corporations do not directly threaten the freedom of individual citizens, they provide good jobs for a great many citizens, and the corporate models are probably the best way to provide for the manufacture and distribution of such things.

But globalization has taken root among many other economic activities that are vastly more important to individual liberty and community cohesion, particularly the local establishments and businesses which are the heart and soul of individual communities. Corporate chain stores and restaurants are slowly squeezing the life out of both individual citizens and entire communities, whose cash reserves allow them to undercut competition and force independent businesses to close. By doing so, they represent as great a threat to American liberty as that posed by British bayonets in 1776.

Communities should protect their own independent businesses, ensuring that the greatest proportion of money being spent remains within the community and is not swept away into the coffers of some distant corporation. Jeffersonians avoid Starbucks in favor of locally-owned coffee houses, disdain Barnes and Noble in favor of independent bookstores, and stay away from Chili's and Olive Garden in favor of locally-owned restaurants. By supporting a vibrant local economy, Jeffersonians help themselves and their neighbors to disentangle themselves from the prevailing corporate economic structure, becoming that much more free.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Public Buildings Should be of High Architectual Quality

In addition to being a great statesman, a scientist, a farmer, a musician, and the foremost wine connoisseur of his age, Thomas Jefferson was also an important architect, whose work helped create the neo-Palladian style in the United States. In addition to his homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest, Jefferson designed the Virginia State Capitol and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Even had he never done anything else, Jefferson's work as an architect would have made him worthy of being remembered.

Public architecture is a reflection of the society that creates it, and Jefferson liked the Palladian style because he felt it represented the Enlightenment values of rationality and natural rights on which the country had been founded. It's interesting to speculate as to what Jefferson would think of the public architecture of our time.

As an example, compare the New York Public Library Main Branch Building, completed in 1911, with the central branch of the Denver Public Library, finished in 1996. The former building is an excellent example of civic architecture, symmetrical and rational, projecting an image of knowledge as strength. The building in Denver, by contrast, is an irrational mash of colors and shapes, looking like it was dropped into place by a passing plane.

Jefferson would consider modern architecture a travesty of aesthetics and a betrayal of Enlightenment values. Postmodernism would be nothing but nonsense to him, and he would be calling on us to recapture the vibrant architectural quality we had when our country was young.

Whenever any level of government creates a new building, whether it be a post office, train station, city hall, or court building, it should be seen as an opportunity to create a piece of architecture that properly reflects the community and its values. America was founded on Enlightenment values of rationality and progress, and its architecture should reflect that fact.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Is NATO Necessary?

21st Century Jeffersonians believe that the United States must abandon its long-standing policy of high-level interventions around the world. This does not mean isolationism, as we must acknowledge the critical importance of global trade and recognize that the safety provided by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is no longer what it was in Jefferson's time. But in the murky waters of the 21st Century, we would do well to remember Jefferson's exhortations against becoming too deeply embedded in the affairs of other nations.

2009 has seen the 60th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was the key foundation of American policy during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It effectively deterred a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and played an enormous role in the eventual victory of America and its allies in the ideological struggle with the Soviets. But with the end of the Cold War in 1989, it can easily be argued that the mission of NATO was at an end. Today, it's hard to identify exactly what NATO is for.

In 2009, the United States maintains 56,000 troops in Germany, about 9,000 in Italy and another 9,000 in the United Kingdom. To defend against whom? Russia no longer poises any conventional military threat to Western Europe, and even if it did, shouldn't the defense of Western Europe be undertaken by the Europeans?

America spends nearly 5% of his GDP on defense, whereas only four other NATO members spend even 2% of their GDP on defense. Germany spends only 1.19% of its GDP on defense, while Spain spends a mere 0.73% of its GDP on defense. European nations can afford to do this only because of the American commitment to defend Western Europe. Since they are not required to spend much on their own defense, European nations are able to spend immense amounts on social programs while keeping taxes artificially low. When you get right down to it, the main effect of the American membership in NATO is that the American taxpayer subsidizes European social programs.

NATO is continuing to expand, bringing in small and vulnerable countries that are fearful of a resurgent Russia. This is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it needlessly provoke Russia, but it raises the possibility of the United States being drawn into a full-scale war with that country over some minor squabble in the Balkans or Caucuses. In 2008, Russia and and the small nation of Georgia (a prospective NATO member) engaged in a brief but fierce war over the status of the tiny region of South Ossetia, a dispute in which the United States has absolutely no compelling interest. Is America really willing to risk a nuclear war with Russia over such petty disputes?

NATO's extremely disappointing performance in Afghanistan raises further questions about the utility of the alliance. Nearly all the fighting against the Taliban has been done by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands. Other NATO members have deployed troops to Afghanistan, but insist on keeping them away from combat zones. What good is having allies when they won't help you?

NATO achieved its goal with the end of the Cold War in 1989, and its continued existence is simply the result of bureaucratic sluggishness. The American fiscal crisis demands that we significantly cut our military spending, and the deployment of massive numbers of American military forces in Europe must therefore be put under the microscope. It is imperative that the federal government implement a phased withdrawal of American troops from Europe, to begin as soon as possible.

The political unification of Europe under the auspices of the European Union is a development that America should watch with great interest, and good relations between America and Europe are essential for the well-being of the American republic. But NATO seems an anachronism, more likely to drag America into an unwanted war than promote American national security. It is time we sent it into honorable retirement.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Public Financing Would Help Reduce Influence of Corporate Money in Elections

Thomas Jefferson would consider modern elections in the United States to be a complete sham. No longer are political campaigns conducted by newspaper editorials and printed pamphlets filled with detailed discussions of public policy, but rather by massive waves of thirty-second television or radio spots, financed by corporations that have their own selfish interests at heart. When the incumbency rate of members of Congress is usually as high as 90%, even while public approval of Congress is very low, it's obvious that something is very wrong.

Money rather than ideas has emerged as the deciding factor in who wins a congressional election. Corporate interests of all sorts have established large-scale operations designed to funnel massive amounts of campaign money to political candidates. Because political candidates depend on this money to finance their electoral campaigns, these corporations utterly dwarf ordinary citizens in the influence they have on the actions of office-holders. If an office-holder toes the line, the corporations will keep the money flowing; if not, the money stops. If that's not bribery, I don't know what is.

An incumbent member of Congress, by doing favors for powerful corporations, is able to count on massive financial resources for their reelection campaigns. Consequently, it is always difficult if not impossible for ordinary citizens to challenge sitting members of Congress (or, for that matter, state and local office-holders), because there is simply no way for them to raise the necessary amounts of money to be competitive. In the 2008 elections, 55 incumbent members of the House of Representatives lacked a challenger, something Jefferson would have considered an utter disgrace.

There is an idea that may not, by itself, solve this problem, but which at least has the potential to make it much better: public financing of elections. If qualified candidates have access to public funds with which to launch a respectable political campaign, the power of incumbency can be greatly reduced, and the corrupt practices that have bedeviled politics in recent decades would be reduced along with it.

We can examine whether or not such a system would work by looking at the successes and failures of it on the state level. 14 states now provide some form of public financing to certain types of candidates, but let us take the state of Maine as a case-in-point for how public financing can make electoral politics more Jeffersonian.

In 1996, the Pine Tree State passed the Maine Clean Elections Act, which provided for public funds for candidates running for Governor, the State Senate, or the State House. In order to quality, candidates had to demonstrate a reasonable level of public support by raising a certain amount of money in $5 donations. Once they crossed the threshold, they qualified for public funds and could no longer accept private donations.

The program has been a great success, with more than four out of five candidates for the Maine State Legislature using the program. This has largely eliminated the power of corporations to unduly influence the legislation passed in Maine, giving control of the legislative process back to the people where it belongs. In the 2006 gubernatorial election, the Democratic and Republican candidates were forced to compete with competitively-financed independent candidates, one of whom gained over 20% of the vote, while the candidate of the Green Party earned nearly 10% of the vote. This vibrant competition for office was exactly what Jefferson would have wanted to see.

Imagine taking the example of Maine and applying it on a national scale for elections to Congress. No longer would the corporate-controlled candidates have the field all to themselves every two years, facing either minimal opposition from underfunded candidates or no opposition at all. The rotation in office, so important to the survival of a vibrant democracy, would be greatly increased, an even incumbent Congressmen would be forced to act more responsibly if faced with genuine opposition every election cycle.

By itself, public financing for congressional elections would not solve the problem of corporate dominance of the political process. But it would be a great step forward if it could be implemented. Of course, the very people who would have the most to lose are the very ones who would have to pass it, so it will be a long struggle to get such a program passed. We'd better get started.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Four Jeffersonian Reasons to Support Farmers' Markets

Eating a meal composed of ingredients purchased entirely at farmers' markets is one of the most Jeffersonian acts a person can take part in. Here are five reasons why.

1. Every dollar spent outside the corporate-dominated economy is a good thing. If Jefferson were alive today, he would see the influence corporations have over our lives as a greater threat to our freedom than the federal government, especially due to the manner in which it robs us of our self-sufficiency. By getting our food from farmers' markets, we can cut out the corporate middlemen who have done so much to usurp our economy and use their power to degrade the state of American freedom. It's a way of voting with our dollars for a Jeffersonian republic and against a corporate-controlled society.

2. Locally-grown food is healthier, fresher, and better. The produce at a corporate grocery store comes from fields sprayed with chemicals and grown in soil that has been contaminated with artificial fertilizers. It has been picked weeks before, frozen, and transported over a thousand miles before arriving on the shelf. By contrast, the produce at a farmers' market was likely grown organically, with no chemicals or artificial fertilizers, and was very likely picked within 24 hours of arriving at the farmers' market.

Compare the taste of a tomato from a corporate grocery store with the taste of a tomato purchased at a farmers' market, and the latter will win hands down, every time. Try it.

3. Farmers' markets strengthen the community. Corporate grocery stores are pretty bland places and there's little reason to any more time in them than absolutely necessary. Farmers' markets, however, are magical places. People seem more friendly and comfortable, perhaps because they sense their freedom from outside control as they exchange cash for produce or meat directly with farmers and ranchers.

4. Farmers' market helped support farmers. The decline of the independent farmer under the crushing weight of corporate-run factory farms is a trend that must be reversed. By allowing farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers, farmers' markets provide a mean for farmers to avoid the enormous operating costs that would otherwise be imposed on them by agribusiness corporations. As more and more farmers' markets are opening each year, it provides proof that the death of the independent American farmer has been greatly exaggerated.

Monday, September 21, 2009

United States Should Sign Treaty Banning Antipersonnel Landmines

Thomas Jefferson was a humanitarian far in advance of his time, standing out among the great men of his age for his constant advocacy on behalf of prisoners-of-war and civilians caught in war zones. In 1779, in a celebrated letter to Patrick Henry, dealing with British prisoners-of-war captured at the Battle of Saratoga, Jefferson said, "It is for the benefit of mankind to mitigate the horrors of war as much as possible."

The amelioration of human suffering was a key element of the Age of Enlightenment in which Jefferson lived. The Founding Fathers tried to infuse America with Enlightenment values as they created it. The early 21st Century is, in many ways, a more brutal and less civilized time than was the 18th Century, and 21st Century Jeffersonians have a responsibility to do everything they can to alleviate suffering in our time, just as Jefferson tried to do in his.

One cause of great human suffering in our age is the deployment of massive numbers of antipersonnel landmines during conflicts in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, and Latin America during the 1980s. These devices are specifically designed to maim rather than kill, the sickening logic being that it requires an enemy to spend more resources caring for a badly-wounded soldier than to dispose of a dead body. Vast swaths of land remain infested with these minefields, usually long after the conflict for which they were deployed had ended.

Every week, hundreds of people are maimed and killed, many laid decades before for use in conflicts long since over. Almost all the people being killed by landmines today are innocent civilians with no connection to any combatant force. A very large proportion of those injured or killed are children.

Adding to the miserable human toll are numerous other costs. Landmine fields often prevent refugees from returning to their homes after the end of a conflict, hindering the economic redevelopment which might prevent a future war. Livestock are often killed by landmines, contributing to poverty and starvation. The long-term negative impacts of the deployment of antipersonnel landmines, both direct and indirect, boggles the imagination.

On December 3, 1997, 122 countries came together in Ottawa and signed a comprehensive treaty banning the production and deployment of antipersonnel landmines. Since then, many nations in Africa and Asia have made great progress in clearing their minefields, returning the land to productive use, and allowing people from war-torn regions to begin to rebuild their lives. The total number of countries that have signed the Ottawa Treaty now stands at 156. The movement to free the world from the scourge of antipersonnel landmines represents one of the most glorious episodes of the last few decades of human history.

But despite innumerable requests, the United States of America has refused to sign the treaty. Indeed, antipersonnel landmines are still being produced in American factories.

The fact that America has not joined the movement to ban antipersonnel landmines would have shocked and saddened Jefferson. He would have seen is as a failing of the American people and a black mark on the honor of the United States. Having an opportunity to alleviate the suffering of humanity, yet not taking it, is a failure of us to live up to the Enlightenment values on which the country was founded.

It is high time for the United States to join with the rest of the world, submit its name to the Ottawa Treaty, and join in the effort to rid the world of antipersonnel landmines. Rather than selling weapons to undemocratic regimes, our government should be dispatching teams of specialists to clear landmine fields.

Contact the White House and contact your Senators. Tell them that the United States should sign the Ottawa Treaty, and should do so immediately. Doing so is one more step in living up to Jefferson's vision for what our country can become.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Time for a New Constitutional Convention?

It's September 17. Happy Constitution Day!

Thomas Jefferson personally celebrated just two holidays: New Year's Day and Independence Day. He also didn't believe it was the business of the federal government to officially proclaim official holidays, or days of observance of any sort. Still, September 17 was the day that the men of the Constitutional Convention signed the document, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should set aside a few moments to reflect on just how important the Constitution is.

The fact that 55 flawed men could craft such a brilliant intellectual achievement as the United States Constitution almost defies belief. The further fact that it has continued to function, almost unchanged, for more than two hundred years simply seems miraculous. Observers of the time, Jefferson included, would have been astounded. Certainly it is the most successful written constitution in the history of the world.

But it's not a perfect document, by any means. The Electoral College is archaic and should be thrown away, the term "high crimes and misdemeanors" needs to be clarified, Supreme Court justices shouldn't serve for life, and there are other problems. And while many constitutional problems within our current system, such as the overwhelming superiority of the Executive Branch, are not the fault of the Constitution itself but rather our flawed interpretation of it, they could be solved were the wording of the document somewhat different.

Jefferson was not involved in the creation of the Constitution, as he was then serving as the American Minister to France. Madison sent a copy of it immediately after it was made public, and Jefferson didn't much like it at first. He objected specifically to the lack of a bill of rights and the lack of presidential term limits. The first was corrected almost immediately, thanks to James Madison steering the Bill of Rights through the First Congress. The second was largely corrected by Washington's decision to step down after two terms, thus creating a firm tradition of serving only two terms that wouldn't be broken until Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. It was permanently solved by the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

Jefferson also believed that a new constitutional convention should be held every twenty years or so, as he felt no generation should have to live under a constitution it had had no role in crafting. Jefferson would be very surprised and disappointed to learn that, over two centuries, the American people would only amend the Constitution twenty-seven times. Were he alive today, he would be calling for an immediate constitutional convention, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should do the same.

Larry Sabato, one of the most respected political commentators in our time, has authored a wonderful book entitled A More Perfect Constitution. The book lays out 23 proposed amendments to the Constitution that would essentially update it for the 21st Century. Among the proposals Sabato lays out, which Jeffersonians should support, are:
  • A Balanced Budget Amendment
  • Nonpartisan redistricting of congressional districts
  • Term limits for members of Congress
  • Giving the President a line-item veto
  • Limiting Presidential war powers
  • Abolishing life tenure for Supreme Court Justices in favor a single, 15-year terms
There are many other interesting proposals and Sabato's book is highly-recommended for all 21st Century Jeffersonians.

There are many aspects of our modern system of American government that are fundamentally anti-Jeffersonian and need to be corrected. Human nature being what it is, we cannot expect the members of Congress to pass the needed amendments, no matter how much political pressure may be brought to bear. It will likely be only slightly easier to make use of the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, which state that a constitutional convention will be assembled if two-thirds of the states (34 states, in other words) call for one. Either would take many long years of intense lobbying and campaigning, involving substantial grassroots organizing on the part of 21st Century Jeffersonians. And there would be no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Still, the fact that it will be difficult is no excuse not to try. At the very least, it will be easier than the task the Founding Fathers faced in 1776.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Supporting Independent Bookstores

Few institutions are as Jeffersonian as the bookstore. In a letter to John Adams late in life, Jefferson said, "I cannot live without books." Although he distrusted large cities, Jefferson haunted the bookstores of Paris and Philadelphia, eventually accumulating what may have been the largest private library in the New World. A visit to a bookstore is a Jeffersonian act.

A good bookstore, however, is more than just a place to buy books. A good bookstore provides a meeting place for the community, where groups of people can come together to discuss anything from politics to gardening. It hosts authors, known and unknown, for book-signings and readings. It provides assistance to struggling local writers by giving them preferential treatment on the shelves. A good bookstore a pillar of any local community.

There are many bookstores across America whose connection with their community has become famous. There is City Lights in San Francisco, Tattered Cover in Denver, BookPeople in Austin, Strand Bookstore in New York, and hundreds of others. These independent stores glow with literary culture, and they are places where Jefferson would have been right at home.

Unfortunately, for the past several years, independent bookstores have been fighting a battle for survival against the corporate chain bookstore giants, Borders and Barnes and Noble. Able to draw on unrivaled financial resources, these two corporations have opened thousands of bookstores across the country, often strategically choosing store locations with the deliberate intention of driving nearby independent bookstores out of business. Across the country, hundreds of independent bookstores have been driven out of business over the last few decades. Every time one is forced to close, a little bit of the Jeffersonian fire is extinguished.

In contrast to independent bookstores, the chain bookstores are fairly bland and lifeless. Each store looks more or less identical to every other store, with no local uniqueness in their character. There is little real interaction between a chain bookstore and the local community, as the activities at a chain bookstore must be approved by some corporate bureaucrat higher up in the organization. Books by local authors are not highlighted in any way, as the choice of merchandise for sale was decided in a corporate office far removed from the community. Everything is geared merely towards maximizing sales; even the music played at a corporate bookstore is designed only to advertise the record in question, rather than provide pleasure to the customers.

In the early 21st Century, the greatest threat to the freedom of the American people does not come from a foreign enemy, but rather from the gradual sapping of what Jefferson called "the sacred fire." One element of this is the encroachment of corporate standardization on pillars of our communities like independent bookstores and, for that matter, independent coffee houses, restaurants, and other types of stores. We need to vote with our dollars by shopping only at independent bookstores, shunning those corporate establishments that would destroy these citadels of Jeffersonianism if they could.

Monday, September 7, 2009

NASA's Dawn Mission to the Asteroid Belt

Roughly two years from now, the Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around the asteroid Vesta. It is one of the most exciting missions of space exploration currently underway, venturing into regions of the Solar System that have never previously been explored. It will become the first spacecraft to orbit multiple worlds beyond the Earth, and will utilize advanced new technologies. The objective of the Dawn mission is to go into orbit and intensively study two major asteroids: Vesta and Ceres, the latter technically being defined as a dwarf planet.

The mission was launched in 2007, and has been sailing through the Solar System since then, powered by its remarkable ion engine. It flew past Mars in February of 2009, using its gravity to "slingshot" it along on its orbital path. If all goes well, Dawn will arrive at Vesta in September of 2011, depart a few months later, and arrive at Ceres in February of 2015. The information that will be sent back by the Dawn spacecraft will be a scientific treasure trove.

Studying the asteroids serves three major purposes. First, scientific knowledge is good in and of itself, contributing to the greater human understanding of the universe. Second, asteroids represent a small but real risk to the safety of Earth, and knowing more about them might one day prove priceless to the human race in the event that we discover that an asteroid is on a collision course with our planet. Finally, as the human race expands into the Solar System, the resources of raw materials present in the Asteroid Belt will prove to be of great value. The more we know about them, the better.

Thomas Jefferson was a strong proponent of exploration and discovery, which is why he sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition, among many other missions, to explore the American West. If he could see the activities of the modern American government, he would disapprove of a great deal, but he would excitedly approve of the activities of NASA. The 21st Century Jeffersonian should follow the course of the Dawn mission with great interest and excitement.

Watch this short documentary, made a few months before the launch of the Dawn mission, that provides an excellent background to the mission and its goals.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Excise Tax on Wine Should Be Reduced

In addition to being a brilliant statesman, scientist, farmer and a myriad other things, Thomas Jefferson was the greatest wine connoisseur of the 18th Century, not just in America but in the entire world. While serving as Minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson toured all the important French wine regions, as well as some of most significant wine producing regions in Germany and Italy. The careful notes he kept on this trip reveal his astonishing knowledge and skill as a wine-taster.

During his years in the White House, President Jefferson famously invited members of Congress to the White House for weekly dinners. The wines he served at these gatherings, along with the wonderful food prepared by his French chef, kept both Republican friends and Federalist enemies coming coming back to his table. While talk of political matters was apparently discouraged at these meals, we can imagine the positive effect they had on achieving Jefferson's political goals simply be building goodwill between erstwhile adversaries. And although he drank wine every day, he claims never to have been intoxicated in his life.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, then and now, Jefferson did not think that wine was a drink for the upper class. Indeed, he thought the high cost of wine as compared to beer or liquor was a major social problem, because it contributed to drunkenness and therefore violence among the lower classes. He therefore called for a reduction of excise taxes on wine and an increase in excise taxes on gin, so as to make wine relatively less expensive and therefore less expensive to common people.

As Jefferson put it: "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage."

One thing Jefferson would love about the modern world is the widespread consumption of wine by members of the middle class, and the easy availability of wine to all members of society. Truth be told, the cheapest bottle of wine available in a typical grocery store is possibly superior in quality to the best wine Jefferson himself ever consumed. American consumption of wine still lags behind European countries, but it is increasing every year. This would please Jefferson and he would be calling on us to do what we can to further this social trend.

For a standard bottle of wine, with an alcohol level of 14% or less, the federal excise tax is $0.21. For a "naturally sparkling" bottle of wine, the federal excise tax is $0.67. These taxes should be reduced or eliminated. As Jefferson realized so long ago, there are clear social benefits to encouraging the consumption of wine over other alcoholic beverages, and we should do whatever we can to do so.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Current System of Foreign Aid Does More Harm Than Good

Every day, over 20,000 people around the world die from causes stemming from extreme poverty. Infectious diseases continue to ravage Africa and many other parts of the planet, long after they have become mere memories in the West. Half the world's population lives in conditions that affluent people in America, Europe and Japan can scarcely imagine.

Although their exposure to the suffering is mostly limited to images on television, many people in the West are moved by the plight of the developing world and want to help. In 2008, the United States spent about $25 billion in foreign aid to countries in the Third World. The European Union spent even more than that. By some estimates, Western nations have given $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades. Entire government agencies and international organizations have been created to focus on the problem of raising the people of the developing world out of poverty, employing armies of well-paid technocrats.

But despite the gargantuan amount of money the West has poured into the developing world since 1945, the people of the recipient nations seems more impoverished today than ever. Why the lack of progress? The sad fact is that the massive amount of foreign aid from the West does nothing to help the people of the developing world. Indeed, it makes the problem worse.

For the people of any nation to be free and prosperous, they obviously have to be able to stand on their own and not be dependent upon the largess of others. Ostensibly, the purpose of foreign aid to to help the people of the developing world become self-sufficient, but in truth it cruelly traps them into a cycle of dependence from which they cannot escape.

Consider the case of a random farmer in Tanzania. In order for him to prosper, he has to deal able to sell his produce at a reasonable rate, so as to provide for his own needs while incidentally helping to feed the nation. But when a development agency from a Western country shows up in his town and starts unloading bags of flour for free, it's quite clear that no one is going to buy the farmer's wheat. Why pay for something you can get for free? Consequently, the farmer is driven out of business and becomes an impoverished person dependent on the very aid that destroyed him. Expand this logic from a single farmer to an entire country, and you have one of the key problems with foreign aid.

Making the problem worse is the blatant corruption that pervades most of governments in the developing world. A huge portion, perhaps the majority, of the foreign aid money from the West ends up in the pockets of well-to-do corrupt officials, with little and sometimes none at all filtering down to the ordinary people who are the intended recipients. It might well be said that one outcome of foreign aid has been providing economic stimulus to the Swiss banking industry.

Another root of the problem is the inefficiency inherent in large governmental agencies being endowed with vast resources, but being given open-ended and effectively permanent mandates. If a government creates a very specific objective, such as getting a man on the Moon or eradicating smallpox, it can often achieve great results. But if it creates an agency and tells it to make the world better, without any real benchmarks or responsibility, the inevitable result is a bloated bureaucracy and a lot of wasted taxpayer money.

Aid agencies also fixate on top-down efforts, when they should be looking at bottom-up solutions. Economists and bureaucrats in New York or London, who may have little or no knowledge of the conditions in the country in question, devise elaborate and complicated plans that look good on paper but which almost always fail in practice. In the meantime, talented entrepreneurs in the impoverished countries themselves, who are undertaking their own efforts to improve their societies, are usually ignored by international aid agencies.

Proponents of foreign aid seem remarkably blind to the utter failure of their policies. Usually, they claim that any shortcomings in their work can be overcome by more massive infusions of cash. Entertainment celebrities (particularly U2 front man Bono, who has become the global face of the effort) are deployed in public relations efforts that largely disguise the inability of foreign aid to raise the quality of life for anyone. Their hearts are clearly in the right place, but their levels of self-deception are so high that they don't see how their efforts are actually harming those they are trying to help.

A few people are beginning to cry out that the emperor has no clothes. The man who has done the most to reveal the failure of foreign aid programs is William Easterly, who wrote two books on the subject, The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man's Burden. But considering the appeal of the underlying message of foreign aid proponents and their sophisticated public relations efforts, it will be some time before people come to understand the problems with foreign aid.

Frankly, the people of Africa and other impoverished regions would probably be better off if Western nations simply ceased providing foreign aid money. If Western citizens want to help the people of Africa, they would be well-advised to work through institutions other than the government. One particularly interesting method of assisting the developing is microfinance, which provides small loans to people to help them set up economically self-perpetuating means of supporting themselves.

Thomas Jefferson would have felt his heart be moved by the plight of the impoverished people of the developing world in the early 21st Century. But he would have also insisted that any effort to alleviate it be guided by rationality and common sense. Looking at the failure of big government action on this front, we can easily see that the prevailing approach hasn't worked. Therefore, we should do something else.

Monday, August 17, 2009

We Need a Balanced Budget Amendment

When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he inherited a national debt of several tens of millions of dollars, an immense sum for the time. This was a legacy of the large standing army created by Alexander Hamilton during the Adams administration. Over the next eight years, despite paying Napoleon $15 million for the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Jefferson succeeded in maintaining balanced budgets and significantly paying down the debt.

Jefferson believed that governments debt was something to be avoided at all costs. He stated specifically that whenever a government was compelled by some emergency to borrow money, it should implement a tax to ensure that the debt was paid off within twenty years at most. Failure to do so, in his mind, constituted an act of theft against a generation that hadn't even been born yet. It was not only bad fiscal policy, but was a crime.

Today, the national debt is obscene: roughly $11.7 trillion. That's roughly $38,000 per citizen. And the debt is increasing by nearly $4 billion every day. In 2008, the federal government spent $249 billion, 8% of the total budget, just to pay the interest on the debt. Jefferson would be shocked and dismayed, and would tell us that we should be ashamed of ourselves.

The nation's disastrous fiscal situation is one of the great issues of our time. Neither of the two major parties are willing to address the issue, and both act as though the problem doesn't exist. Since they would rather pass the buck on to unborn generations than face the wrath of living voters, members of Congress are always more willing to go more deeply into debt than they are to either raise taxes or decrease spending.

The last time the country saw a balanced budget was in the last years of the Clinton Administration. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush advocated using the surplus to cut taxes, whereas Al Gore called for using it to secure various government programs. The idea of actually using the surplus to pay down the debt never seems to have occurred to either of them.

If things continue down this path, the troubled fiscal structure of the United States will completely collapse, taking the country with it. But there is a solution to this problem: a Balanced Budget Amendment.

The gist of such an amendment would be very simple: the federal government cannot spend more than it earns in any fiscal year. Obviously, emergencies such as war or economic depression may occasionally require deficit spending, so the amendment would have to include a provision allowing Congress to engage in deficit spending if a supermajority (three-fourths would seem appropriate) declares such an emergency to be in effect, or Congress declares war against a foreign power. To avoid misuse of this provision, the amendment would have to require such emergency deficit spending to be strictly temporary, requiring another two-thirds vote to be renewed for an additional fiscal year.

Under the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, the federal government must convene a convention to discuss possible amendments to the Constitution if two-thirds of the states request it. In the early 1990s, this very nearly happened when 32 states (just two short of the required 34) had filed requests with Congress for a convention specifically to discuss a Balanced Budget Amendment. Some states subsequently rescinded their request, but this pressure from the states was partially responsible for the more responsible behavior of the federal government on budget issues in the 1990s, when we actually had a surplus for a few years. Since then, unfortunately, any semblance of fiscal responsibility has been thrown away.

Next year is a congressional election year, and some jockeying in the primaries has already begun. 21st Century Jeffersonians should take every opportunity to meet with congressional and state legislative candidates of all parties and ask them whether or not they support a Balanced Budget Amendment. Their response to that question should go a long way in determining who you end up voting for.

Monday, August 10, 2009

21st Century Jeffersonianism in Action: The Black Star Co-Op

The essence of Jeffersonianism, whether in the 18th Century or the 21st, is liberty. Most of the time, we are talking about ensuring freedom from governmental or corporate power. But an individual's true liberty is measured by the extent to which he or she is free from any interference from entities which can infringe on their own freedom of action, even inadvertently. Therefore, we must guard against restrictions on our liberty which come from our own laziness, as well as those which come from people with sinister motives.

Self-sufficiency is the key. The more self-sufficient an individual or a community is, the greater its liberty is. If an individual has a vegetable garden in their backyard that can provide a significant portion of their food, they are that much less dependent on others, and hence that much freer. If a community can achieve a desirable goal on their own, without recourse to the government, they are that much more free.

As a single example, consider the case of the Black Star Co-Op, a collective effort by citizens to create a member-owned brew pub in Austin, Texas. Having made a decision that a member-owner brew pub was a desirable goal, ordinary citizens came together and are making it happen on their own.

Watch this five-minute video to see what we're talking about:

Jefferson probably wouldn't have known what to make of the Halloween costumes, and he personally preferred wine to beer. But he certainly would have understood and approved of the spirit of independence and self-reliance of the citizens behind this project. Whether they know it or not, they are helping to bring America closer to the Jeffersonian ideal.

(NOTE: Since the time the video was made, the Black Star Co-Op has expanded to more than 1,000 members.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sotomayor Confirmation Expected Today

Unless something truly unexpected happens, Judge Sonia Sotomayor will today be confirmed as the next Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. While a significant political victory for President Obama, it does not represent a serious shakeup in the court's composition, as we have a moderately liberal justice replacing a moderately liberal justice.

21st Century Jeffersonians can easily be of two minds about this. On the one hand, President Obama won the election with a significant mandate from the nation and, therefore, has a certain right to appoint whomever he wishes to the court, so long as the Senate gives its approval. And it must be frankly admitted that Judge Sotomayor is a highly-qualified candidate, having been a federal judge for fifteen years.

Still, there are some concerns. In terms of constitutional law, America has wandered too far from solid grounding in the Constitution. 21st Century Jeffersonians are, by and large, strict constructionists when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, tempered by their desire for far more frequent amendments to the document, and new constitutional conventions once every generation to rewrite it completely.

The first fight over an Obama nomination to the Supreme Court generated far fewer fireworks than we might have expected, but it is clear that Republicans missed a tremendous opportunity in the debate over the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor. Rather than examine her judicial philosophy and use the hearings as a platform to debate the sound interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court, Republicans instead engaged in childish attacks on a few obscure comments Judge Sotomayor made in the past, including some attacks with had a clear racial tinge to them.

Had the Republicans made their stand in the debate on such foundations as actually matter- namely, how the Constitution is to be properly interpreted by the Supreme Court- and had they conducted the debate in a civil manner, then the country would have benefited greatly. Let's hope this happens the next time President Obama has to appoint a new member to the highest court in our land.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mars: A Worthy Jeffersonian Goal

Thomas Jefferson was a believer in the exploration and colonization of new lands. Indeed, he did more to explore and settle the American West than any other president. He engineered the Louisiana Purchase, sent the Corps of Discovery and other exploratory missions to map and chart the land, and laid down the principles for future legislation (such as the Homestead Act of 1862) that made the settlement of the American West possible.

Jefferson believed that the existence of vast amounts of land to the west of the original 13 colonies was the greatest blessing America possessed. It allowed future generations the chance to recreate America over and over again, starting afresh in new lands. Jefferson called it the "Empire of Liberty" and believed it would lead to "the age of experiments in government." Innumerable communities would be able to decide for themselves how they would be governed, and the great diffusion of humanity across the continent would, Jefferson hoped, ensure that no powerful central government would be able to control the entirety of them.

While much of what Jefferson foresaw did come to pass, as can be seen in the Jeffersonian spirit that still pervades small towns throughout the Midwest, it must be admitted that the continent is all filled up now. In Jefferson's time, a person dissatisfied with his life in Boston or Philadelphia could head west to start his life over again. In our time, with no open frontier, this option no longer exists. As Jefferson understood very well, societies have no open frontier will eventually stagnant and decay.

This is why space exploration should be an important priority for 21st Century Jeffersonians. A Jeffersonian society can only exist if there is a frontier to act as a social steam valve, and with the Age of Exploration long since relegated to the history books, there are no open frontiers on Earth any longer. If 21st Century Jeffersonians want to find a new frontier, they must look to the stars.

Of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars is certain to be the first which is explored and settled by human beings. Even now, three robotic spacecraft (two American, one European) are orbiting the Red Planet, while the plucky robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity wander its landscapes as they conduct geological studies. NASA has declared that human expeditions to Mars are its long-term goal, and we will hopefully see the first men and women exploring the Red Planet within the next twenty years.

Some visionaries are looking forward to the day when permanent human settlements will be established on Mars, an event which would reopen the frontier to humankind and mightily advance Jeffersonian ideals. One such man is Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society. More than just about anyone, he has put the exploration and colonization of Mars on the map as an achievable goal.

Watch this documentary (in five parts) about Zubrin and his work. It is certainly a vision of which Jefferson would have strongly approved.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Liberty Continues to Vanish in Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez continues his long slide from elected leader to outright dictator of Venezuela, as CNN is reporting that his government is systematically shutting down dozens of independently-controlled radio stations, with hundreds of other potentially being targeted, too. At the same time, a "Special Bill Against Media Crimes" is making its way through the Venezuelan legislature, as if there can be such a thing as a "media crime" under natural law.

At the same time, a new election law has just passed in Venezuela which will allow the government to redraw legislative district lines. The measure is clearly intended to benefit the Chavez ruling party ahead of next year's National Assembly elections. People who think that Venezuela remains a representative democracy are deluding themselves.

President Chavez was once the darling of the world's radical leftists. After he won election in 1998, he implemented popular educational and health programs that seemed to raise the quality of life for many of his country's disadvantaged population. Today, these same programs are mired in corruption and inefficiency, with lucrative contracts going only to Chavez loyalists. And all of Chavez's anti-capitalistic rhetoric cannot hide the utter failure of his particular brand of socialism to bring prosperity to his people, as inflation goes through the roof and shortages of basic goods begins to be felt.

Whether or not Chavez started out as an idealist and gradually morphed into a dictator or whether he was interested only in his own power from the beginning is irrelevant, for the man clearly is a dictator now. Thomas Jefferson would have understood him perfectly well, and would have cast him into the same class as King George III as a tyrant who deserved to be overthrown. His governance of Venezuela is a violation of natural law; the sooner it ends, the better.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Citigroup, Bank of America Continue to Rip Off American Taxpayers

The Hamiltonian impulse is alive and well on Wall Street. Months after taking tens of billions of dollars from the federal government (which, needless to say, hasn't been paid back), Citigroup and Bank of America have paid out billions of dollars in bonuses to hundreds of high-level employees, despite their utterly disastrous performances in recent years. Legal or not, this is theft from the pocketbooks of hardworking Americans.

Of the $45 billion in government money received by Citigroup through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) last year, more than one-seventh went to massive pay bonuses for their high-level employees, with 738 people receiving bonuses of more than $1 million each. Bank of America also got $45 billion in government money, and paid out $3.3 billion in salary bonuses, with 172 employees receiving bonuses of $1 million or more. Even worse, Bank of America spent $20 billion on its TARP money to acquire Merill Lynch, which is a great move for the business but does absolutely nothing to restore stability to financial markets, which was the ostensible purpose of TARP to begin with.

These types of financial abuses are not new in American history. When Alexander Hamilton created the financial structure of the nation in the early days of the Republic, he made sure his cronies were given inside information that allowed them to make immense profits by buying up bonds the government had issued during the war. The Hamiltonians knew it was about to skyrocket in price, while the veterans and widows who owned them had no idea and were willing to part with them for a fraction of their cost. The result was that the corrupt stockjobbers made huge amounts of money, while the veterans and widows were financially ruined.

Thus far, President Obama has not followed through with his promises of a complete overhaul of the laws governing the financial industry. Today's revelations about Citigroup and Bank of America illustrate the urgent need to do so.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Creating a Jeffersonian Military

In the early 21st Century, the United States is by far the world's dominant military power. Indeed, the military budget of the United States is nearly as large as the rest of the world put together. While it is basic common sense for the nation to take adequate measures to guarantee its security, the massive American military expenditures every year certainly raise eyebrows, especially in an age of severe budget pressures and a rapidly increasing national debt.

If Jefferson could see the American military of the modern age, he would be very confused and not a little frightened. Jefferson was deeply opposed to the existence of a standing army. Not only was a large standing army a massive weight on the national budget, but it could potentially entice the national leadership to military adventurism of the kind undertaken by the Bush administration in Iraq. Even worse, it could potentially be used by the political faction in power to suppress the opposition by force, as Alexander Hamilton threatened to do to the political followers of Jefferson.

Jefferson would be mystified at the permanent American military deployments overseas, wondering why we have tens of thousands of soldiers in places like Germany, South Korea, and Japan. More to the point, he would wonder why the United States feels it necessary to maintain a massive standing army at all, when defense is easily provided by sufficient naval strength in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The current regular United States Army is made up of ten divisions, six independent brigades or regiments, and large numbers of independent smaller units. The personnel for these units are full-time regular soldiers, a substantial portion of whom intend the Army to be their lifetime career. Regular full-time strength of the Army is around 550,000 men. The Army Reserve contributes another 200,000 men.

For Jefferson, the ideal means of ensuring national security rested primarily with the militia system of the individual states. The state militia could be used by the individual governors to deal with immediate emergencies, such as Indian attacks or slave uprisings. In the unfortunate event of a major war with a foreign power, the first line of defense would be provided by the militia units, until a regular army could be raised by the federal government. In peacetime, only a small federal army should exist, to serve as the core of a large federal army needed in the event of war.

The idea of a national defense secured by a small regular army supplemented by militia units, which can be quickly expanded if necessary, has achieved great success in many countries. Indeed, it is the concept behind the structure of the Israeli Defense Forces, which has proven to be an astoundingly successful military force over the last six decades. And the United States has a ready-made organization to transform our current, bloated military into a fighting force more Jeffersonian: the National Guard.

The Army National Guard has eight divisions and a large number of independent service brigades. Unlike the personnel of the regular Army, the men and women of the National Guard are not full-time professionals, but reservists. They serve, as the motto states, "one weekend a month and two weeks a year." When not training or on actual duty, the men and women of the National Guard are ordinary citizens, working ordinary jobs and living ordinary lives. During peacetime, they may be called into service by their state's governor in the event of an emergency, such as civil unrest or a natural disaster, but they can also be called into federal service in the event of war.

Recently, National Guard units have served with a high degree of effectiveness in both Afghanistan and Iraq. At any given time, between a quarter and a half of all American personnel in the conflict zones have been members of the National Guard. By all accounts, the performance of the National Guardsmen has been excellent.

21st Century Jeffersonians should favor a complete revamping of America's military policy, and the National Guard should play a major role in this. An ideal policy would include a massive reduction of the active-duty military (including the termination of most, if not all, of our permanent overseas deployments) and a shift in reliance from the regular units to the National Guard. In the event of a war with a foreign power, the National Guard could serve as the core of a great national army, and would be returned to its ordinary state once the war was concluded.

Such a policy would allow the United States to maintain a more-than-sufficient ability to defend itself, especially as our security is mostly dependent upon sea and air power in any event. It would also allow us to significantly reduce military expenditures, vastly relieving pressure on the federal budget. Perhaps most importantly, it would remove the temptation for military adventurism that brought such disastrous results to the country during the Bush administration. And American society would also be enriched by the contributions of hundreds of thousands of citizens whose energies would otherwise be sadly devoted to destructive ends.

Monday, July 20, 2009

President Barack Obama at Six Months: A Jeffersonian Perspective

Today marks six months since Barack Obama took the oath of office as President of the United States. It certainly has been an eventful half-year, although opinions of President Obama's performance are largely dependent upon the party affiliation of the person venturing the opinion. Democrats are likely to declare Obama the greatest President in the history of the United States, while Republicans are equally likely to condemn him as the Antichrist.

But how does Obama stand up to an analysis from a 21st Century Jeffersonian perspective? His record is decidedly mixed. He has done some excellent things, but he has also made serious mistakes.

Let's list a few of the positive actions of the Obama Presidency first.
  1. President Obama, on his very first day in office, issued an executive order prohibiting American agents from engaging in torture. Americans should be shocked and dismayed that our government ever acted in such a dishonorable and barbaric manner, which is unworthy of a civilized nation. President Obama's decision helps to correct a great wrong.
  2. President Obama has done a lot to rebuild American credibility in terms of its foreign relations. By dropping the unwise and unethical notion of unilateralism, President Obama has begun to restore the moral authority America once held throughout the world and, by so doing, greatly improved our strategic security situation.
  3. President Obama has dropped the use of such nonsensical terms as "War on Terror". Rationally-speaking, one cannot wage war against an abstract noun, and the use of such terminology only muddles the situation and implies the Orwellian specter of a never-ending conflict. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama seems to clearly understand that the effort to defeat Al-Qaeda should never be used to further domestic partisan political goals.
  4. President Obama has made an admirable effort to work with Republicans, only to be rebuffed. Rather than take the seat at the table that President Obama offered them, the Republicans have become the "Party of No." They are not acting like a responsible opposition party, but rather like petulant children.
  5. President Obama downplayed the so-called National Day of Prayer, signing the proclamation but declining to have a formal service. While it would have been better for him to ignore the event altogether, the downplaying of it is an important step.
  6. President Obama has begun the process of drawing down our forces in Iraq and shifted our military focus toward the more important campaign in Afghanistan.
So, in many ways, President Obama has acted in a manner that 21st Century Jeffersonians should approve. But that's far from the whole story, as President Obama has also done many things of which we must disapprove.
  1. President Obama has ballooned the size of the federal budget deficit, and therefore the national debt, in a massive spending package the likes of which America has never seen. President Obama inherited an already disastrous fiscal situation, but his policies have made it much worse.
  2. President Obama has further undermined federalism by consolidating more power to the federal government, including unprecedented interventions in the national auto industry.
  3. President Obama has broken a campaign promise to always allow a five day period of public comment before signing non-emergency bills sent to him by Congress.
  4. President Obama has, despite promises to stand up to Congress on pork barrel spending, signed into a law a budget and stimulus package that were both jam-packed with congressional earmarks.
There is one final problem with President Obama from a Jeffersonian perspective. It lies not with the man himself, but rather with his most zealous supporters. Any elected official, from dog-catcher to President of the United States, is simply a public servant, yet many of Obama's supporters seem to consider him as some sort of man of destiny- a quintessential leader on a white horse. This form of hero-worship is extremely dangerous when it is directed towards political figures. The long story of human political history, from the age of the Roman Republic down to our own time, teaches the lesson that no one individual should be the deposit of all of society's hopes.

(Note: the preceding paragraph also applies to a large number of Republican supporters of Sarah Palin.)

21st Century Jeffersonian should give President Obama a lot of credit for the good he has done, but should also be concerned at many of his other actions. As good citizens, we must maintain a careful vigilance as we observe his policies, to support him in those with which we agree and oppose him on those with which we disagree.

Most importantly, though, we need to step back and look at the whole picture from a rational perspective, and not succumb to the partisan trap in which Democrats claim Obama is a messiah and in which Republicans claim he is the devil. These false caricatures serve no purpose and only cloud the real issues.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pork Barrel Projects Continue to Bedevil Military Appropriations

The showdown between President Obama and Congress over two expensive military programs appears to be coming to a head. At issue is whether Congress will include $1.75 billion to purchase seven additional F-22 Raptor fighters that the Air Force says are unnecessary and $439 million (this year's installment of what is estimated to eventually be $7.2 billion) for an alternative engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Air Force says is also unnecessary.

President Obama has quite properly threatened to veto the bill if it includes these two funding items (one of his key allies in this fight, interestingly enough, is Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the man he defeated for the presidency). So far, though, Congress hasn't blinked, and it appears that the President will soon have to make the decision as to whether to follow through on this declaration. One hopes that he does.

The New York Times has run an op-ed piece that lays out in detail why the purchase of further F-22 Raptors is not only unnecessary, but harms American security by taking away funding from other, more appropriate military programs. And the government watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste is launching a multimedia campaign to raise public awareness of the alternative engine program for the F-35, including the web video that follows:

If Congress sends the defense appropriation bill to the White House with these two funding provisions included, President Obama should keep his promise and veto the bill. Congress would have little choice, in that event, but to repeal those provisions and send the bill back to the White House, since the Democrats who control Congress aren't about to pick a major fight with the President.

These two projects may represent a drop of water in the ocean of the nation's fiscal crisis, but event penny saved helps, and Congress needs to be taught a lesson when it comes to pork barrel spending.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Senator Reid's Hate Crimes Measure Misguided

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has added a controversial hate crimes measure as an amendment onto a critical defense appropriations bill. Not surprisingly, this has caused an angry flare-up from the Republican side of the aisle.

Senator Reid's effort is misguided. Hate crime measures are bad policy in general. Criminal law is supposed to punish actions alone, but hate crimes laws attempt to punish motives as well as actions. This is, for all practical purposes, unenforceable. It is also unconstitutional, as it violates protections against double jeopardy and the provisions of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law. A case could also be made that it violates the First Amendment, which has established that no person can be punished merely for holding beliefs, no matter how distasteful and repugnant those beliefs may be.

To test the logic behind hate crimes legislation, consider the following scenario. A racist bigot walks into a crowded pub, where he shoots and kills two men, one of whom is black and one of whom is white. If the logic behind hate crimes legislation is accepted, the murder of the black man is a more severe crime than the murder of the white man. Since we accept that all citizens are equal before the law, this is obviously absurd.

In the case of crimes committed by racist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, hate crimes legislation plays right into their hands. Rather than treating them like the loathsome criminals they are, hate crimes legislation raises them up in the eyes of their followers and turns them into martyrs for their cause. Being put on trial for a hate crime would also give such a terrorist a platform from which to espouse their views.

Senator Reid's proposal is also a matter of a concern for an entirely different reason. He has added the hate crimes measure as an amendment onto a defense appropriations bills, but what does hate crimes legislation have to do with defense appropriations? The congressional habit of attaching controversial bills onto unrelated legislation, to better increase their chances of passage, is something that must be stopped.

For all these reasons, let us hope that this measure is defeated.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Today, Would Jefferson Be a Democrat or a Republican?

Both the Democrats and the Republicans like to think of themselves as the true heirs of Thomas Jefferson. The modern Democrats are historically descended from the Democratic-Republican Party that Jefferson himself organized to thwart the ambitions of Alexander Hamilton (although, ironically, they were known as "Republicans" in Jefferson's time). Democrats around the country annually celebrate Jefferson-Jackson Dinners, avowedly declaring a connection between Jefferson and the modern Democratic Party. But Republicans claim that their platform of small government and low taxes is more in line with true Jeffersonian philosophy than that of the big-government Democrats.

So, let us ask ourselves this: if Jefferson were alive today, would he be a member of the Democratic or Republican Party?

The answer: neither.

Let's begin with examining why Jefferson wouldn't have been a member of Republican Party. Firstly, Jefferson was a strict believer in the "wall of separation of church and state". Indeed, he coined the term himself in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. Needless to say, the modern Republican Party does not share this position, as it is largely dominated by a group of people who clearly disdain the separation of church and state. Had Jefferson seen the efforts by the Religious Right to subvert science education, enforce religious standards for judicial nominees, divert taxpayer money to religious institutions, and use the power of government to regulate personal moral behavior, Jefferson would have been horrified. Indeed, he likely would have considered the Religious Right the most dangerous people in America.

Secondly, Jefferson believed in keeping military expenditures minimal and holding to a largely pacifistic foreign policy. The modern Republican Party, by contrast, believes in pouring gargantuan amounts of money into a vast military-industrial complex, including military projects of huge expense and very dubious value. In a time of severe budget pressures and rapidly mounting national debt, this policy has contributed to the bankruptcy of the nation.

Furthermore, Jefferson believed that war should only be resorted to if absolutely necessary; indeed, he strenuously avoided war with Britain in 1807, even when the entire country was clamoring for it. By contrast, the last Republican administration almost gleefully invaded Iraq, a country that had not attacked the United States and had no plans to do so. Jefferson would have supported the campaign in Afghanistan, which was undertaken in response to a direct attack (and in which we can see parallels with his campain against the Barbary Pirates), but he would have fiercely opposed the invasion of Iraq as an unnecessary war of choice, and it would have tainted the Republican Party in his eyes.

Jefferson would have agreed with the planks in the Republican platform calling for lower taxes, smaller government, and balanced budgets. But he would immediately have noted that, during their years in power, the Republicans singularly declined to implement their own stated policies. Indeed, they massively increased the size of government and transformed a sizable budget surplus into an immense budget deficit.

There are more areas where Jefferson would have fundamentally disagreed with the Republican Party, from warrantless wiretaping to blatant cronyism in government appointments (remember this guy?). But the most obvious reasons Jefferson would never have been a Republican are the fact that the party is largely controlled by the Religious Right and its militaristic attitude to defense spending and foreign policy.

So, Jefferson would obviously not be a Republican. Would he, therefore, be a Democrat?

No, he wouldn't. Jefferson would have firmly rejected the Democratic Party's over-reliance on the power of the federal government, whose powers Jefferson clearly believed should be strictly limited. The vast powers of modern federal institutions would have dismayed Jefferson, who would have believed that they sap the self-reliance of the people, and therefore indirectly sap their liberty.

A few quick examples should make the point. Jefferson would have asked why we have a federal Department of Education; shouldn't educational issues be decided on a purely local level? He would question the purpose of a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, when a truly self-reliant people would be expected to deal with such issues on a community level, without resource to the government at all. And do we really need the federal government, rather than the German-American community, to declare October 6 to be German-American Day?

Jefferson believed profoundly that government at all levels should be limited only to activities that meet two criteria: 1) activities which are necessary, and 2) activities which only the government alone can do. If an activity is not necessary, then the government shouldn't bother with it. And if an activity can be done by ordinary people without recourse to the power of government, then the people should do it on their own. The modern Democratic Party does not feel the same way, as demonstrated by the whirlwind of federal programs they constantly propose and create, and this is the main reason that Jefferson would spurn them.

Jefferson also would have strongly opposed the current policy of President Obama and the Democratic Congress of incurring massive federal budget deficits, leading to a shocking increase in an already-disastrous national debt. Granted, the Republicans took a budget surplus and foolishly blew it, but President Obama's spending in his first year in office is much higher than spending was in any year of the Bush administration. Looking at this, the Shakespearean line "a plague on both your houses" would certainly have crossed Jefferson's mind.

The 21st Century Jeffersonian is not necessarily a Republican and not necessarily a Democrat. He or she participates fully in politics on all levels, but judges each candidate on his or her individual merits. And if 21st Century Jeffersonians believe that none of the candidates in a given election truly represent their values, they should step up to the plate and run for office themselves.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Something is Rotten at the Central Intelligence Agency

For the last week or so, rumors have swirled around Washington of a secret program undertaken by the CIA in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. While details of the program have not yet been made public, the critical information in the story is that the existence of the program was deliberately hidden from Congress. Even more ominous are reports that the program was kept secret from Congress at the instigation of Vice President Dick Cheney (who is, incidentally, about the least Jeffersonian political figure in modern life).

This matter merits a full investigation, because if these rumors are true, it represents an extremely dangerous breakdown in the separation of powers, the key pillar in the maintenance of our republic.

Obviously, it is often necessary to keep critical military or intelligence information from the general public for reasons of national security, as its public revelation might serve the interests of our enemies. We certainly don't want details of our next covert raid in Afghanistan plastered on CNN for all to see, for example. But there can be absolutely no justification for one branch of government to operate free from oversight from the other branches of government. Down that road lies tyranny.

There are other troubling stories emerging about the Bush-era Central Intelligence Agency in recent days. We are now learning that the unconstitutional program of warrantless wiretaping was of effectively no value in fighting terrorism, and that its legal analysis within the Bush administration relied on the opinion of a single Justice Department official. And, of course, we will certainly see more information regarding CIA torture and secret imprisonment of terrorist suspects come to light.

As we learn more and more about the unconstitutional actions that were taken by the Bush Administration, Thomas Jefferson's archenemy Alexander Hamilton comes to mind. The man whom we illogically honor by placing him on our $10 bill (from which he should be removed, by that's another story) was willing to engage in outright electoral fraud to keep Thomas Jefferson from winning the Presidency in 1800, and dreamed of leading the federal army into Virginia to put down his political opponents by force. When the political leadership of the nation is willing to ignore the Constitution, the liberty of the American people is in peril.

President Obama has largely rejected the idea of investigations into the unconstitutional actions of the administration of his predecessor, probably because the partisan struggles which would ensure would threaten his legislative agenda. But as more and more information becomes public, it becomes increasingly clear that we must have a full investigation. Recent reports that fact that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the claims of CIA torture represent a step in the right direction, but is not sufficient in itself.

We must have a full investigation into the unconstitutional actions of the Bush Administration, both for basic reasons of justice and to ensure that such things never happen again.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

American Knowledge of Supreme Court is a Disgrace

A poll released yesterday by C-SPAN indicates that few Americans know much about the Supreme Court. In fact, when one examines the results of the poll in greater detail, it reveals an America that is shockingly ignorant of the highest court in their land, which routinely makes decisions that greatly impact their lives.

Less than half of respondents knew that the Court had nine justices. Less than half were able to name a single sitting justice. A mere 5% could identify Brown vs. Board of Education as a case that was heard before the Court. While the poll didn't go into details about the way the Court operates, we can safely assume that similarly pathetic percentages would represent the number of Americans who understand how cases end up before the Supreme Court.

This is a disgrace. Any person who graduates from an American high school should have a sound working knowledge of the Supreme Court. They should know how many members it has, who those people are, what the important cases in its history have been, and how the Court operates. The fact that the American public is so shockingly ignorant of such a critical part of their nations' governmental structure is a cause for serious concern.

This is not just a fault of the American educational system; it is also a failing of the American people themselves. What percentage of the American people can name a Michael Jackson song? Or identify the mother of Brad Pitt's children? Call me crazy, but I am guessing the numbers would be quite higher than those of the C-SPAN survey on knowledge of the Supreme Court.

The American people must free themselves from the mental chains created by an obsession with modern pop culture and liberate their minds to embrace the truly important aspects of the world around them. Until we do, we will never achieve the dream of a truly Jeffersonian republic.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Greenpeace Stunt a Silly Exercise in Futility

Greenpeace is an organization with laudable goals. Thomas Jefferson would certainly have agreed with them that climate change is a serious concern, that the world's forests need to be preserved, that overfishing needs to be prevented, and that nuclear weapons need to be abolished. But Jefferson would have considered their tactics silly and counterproductive, and would therefore likely have dismissed the organization as mostly useless.

Their latest escapade neatly illustrates this point. A group of Greenpeace activists has apparently infiltrated Mount Rushmore and unfurled a large banner calling on President Obama to be more pro-active in fighting climate change. This is not only illegal and dangerous, but it reduces the members of Greenpeace in the eyes of the public from the status of activists to the level of clowns.

What possible good has this stunt achieved? Does Greenpeace seriously think that President Obama will hear this news and therefore decide to increase his efforts against climate change? If so, they are deluded. And did it not occur to Greenpeace that President Obama already has a very strong position against climate change? The only result this action might have on President Obama is to make him irritated at Greenpeace.

Greenpeace is far from alone. Almost every time the G8 meets, and whenever the Republicans and Democrats hold their election year conventions, they are confronted by a bizarre army of costumed clowns, waving banners and engaging in rather pointless forms of what is euphemistically called "protest". Not surprisingly, these activities have absolutely no bearing on the policies of the leaders who are ostensibly the subject of the protest.

The powers-that-be that these protesters rail against are never particularly bothered by this odd form of protest, because they recognize that it does no good and hence does not represent a threat to their interests. Indeed, they would be delighted if all activists focused their time and energy on stunts like this, because then they wouldn't be engaging in activities that might bring about actual changes to the status quo.

Imagine if these demonstrators took all the time, money and energy they have invested in these protests, and spent them instead on helping congressional or state legislative candidates with policy positions of which they approved. Or spent them on organizing efforts to establish community gardens, thus increasing their freedom from agribusiness corporations. Or any other activity which might actually result in positive, concrete results?

The behavior of Greenpeace is absurd and irrational. 21st Century Jeffersonians would be well-advised not to follow their example.