Monday, March 30, 2009

Bringing Back the Ideal of the Classical Education

In Jefferson's day, a man was not considered properly educated unless he could read Virgil, Homer, Tacitus, Plutarch and the rest of the classical authors in the original Latin and Greek. The delightful exchange of letters between Jefferson and John Adams in the latter years of their respective lives is filled with charming references in the classical languages, each knowing the other would understand perfectly. These days, however, people who can read Latin and ancient Greek are about as common as chickens with hooves.

Ancient Greek has long been out of reach for everyone except academic specialists, and the days when Latin was required by our schools are long gone as well. Some high schools still offer Latin as an elective course, but they are rare and getting rarer. If we are to recapture Enlightenment values in our own time, this trend should be reversed and schools should be encouraged to offer more widespread education in Latin. Ancient Greek, sadly, is probably out of reach for at least a few generations.

Why would learning classical languages be of any use to anyone, much less any use to society as a whole? First, the ability to read the classics in their original language is not something to be underrated in the slightest. There is more wisdom within the pages of Plutarch and Tacitus, and more beauty within the poetry of Lucretius and Homer, than can be found in any number of modern volumes. I think that if every legislator in every congress or parliament were familiar with Cicero, the quality of our modern political rhetoric would be better by several orders of magnitude. While a vast amount can be gained by reading these works in translation (and several excellent translations exist), it is far better to read them in the original.

Second, learning to read Latin instills rigorous mental discipline in young minds. At a time when they are bombarded with every conceivable kind of distraction, America's young people are increasingly unable to perform even the most basic intellectual tasks, their reading habits are pathetic when compared to earlier generations, and their attention spans raise alarm even among the most optimistic education specialists.

Also, because English and most foreign languages Americans routinely encountered are, at least in large part, derived from Latin, a working knowledge of Latin gives a young person a "leg up" when they encountered unfamiliar terms in fields ranging from botany and biology to medicine and law. Learning Latin helps a young person understand the subtleties of his or her own language. Indeed, Latin permeates our culture in ways so basic that the average person is utterly unaware of it.

The values and virtues of classical civilization still existed in the 18th Century and the fact that educated persons could read and write in both Latin and Greek was a major reason why. In our time, we have divorced ourselves utterly from classical civilization, and there is much that we need to recover. A good place to start would be a restoration of a widespread knowledge of Latin among our students.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Reduce the Drinking Age to 18

When a person turns 18, they become a citizen. People who are 18 vote, serve in the military, and even run for local political offices. But for extremely convoluted reasons, Americans are legally forbidden to drink alcohol until they are 21. The idea that citizens who are entrusted with the responsibility of voting and serving in the military are legally denied the right to drink an occasional beer is, quite frankly, bizarre.

Technically speaking, it is the constitutional right of each individual state to set its own legal drinking age. In a practical sense, however, the federal government usurped this right with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which withheld federal highway funding to those states which refused to increase the drinking age to 21. In addition to trampling upon the rights of the individual states, this law enacted age discrimination and was, quite simply, bad policy.

The United States is alone among developed Western nations in upholding a legal drinking age of 21. Nearly every other Western democracy has a legal drinking age of 18 or 16. Some Europeans countries, Norway and the Netherlands among them, have no drinking age at all. According to the logic of the anti-alcohol activists who pushed for the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, European nations should have far worse problems related to alcohol than does the United States. But a cursory glance at the facts demonstrates that the opposite is true.

Consider France, where the drinking age is 16. This is a country where wine is considered a regular part of the average family meal, and young people are raised in a cultural environment that promotes responsible consumption of alcohol. While people between 18 and 21 in France do drink more than their American counterparts, they are significantly fewer cases of dangerous intoxication. Proportionately, France has substantially fewer drunk-driving deaths than does the United States, and fewer injuries and deaths resulting from alcohol-related accidents or violence.

If the arguments of the anti-alcohol advocates were correct, France should have more youth alcohol-related problems than the United States, because it's drinking age is five years younger than that of America. Instead, France has fewer such problems. It's not a coincidence.

In addition to bad policy, the legal drinking age is effectively unenforceable in any event. Anyone who pays a momentary visit to an American college campus can see this. The major consequence of the law is to drive youth drinking underground. Rather than drinking in bars or pubs, where the proprietors can refuse to serve someone clearly intoxicated, youth drinking on American college campuses generally takes place in home parties, where it is much easier for young people to get out of control. Raising the drinking age to 21 is a classic case of a well-meaning (albeit misguided) policy having precisely the opposite effect of what it intended.

Advocates of maintaining a drinking age of 21 sometimes claim that the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was responsible for the decline in drunk driving deaths since the early 1980s. Again, rational analysis refutes this argument. The decline in drunk driving deaths seems more due to the substantial increase in the use of seat belts and the inclusion of airbags in American automobiles since 1984.

Even if it couldn't be demonstrated that raising the drinking age to 21 was bad policy, an argument could be made that the law was unsound because it increased the power of the federal government at the expense of the states. If there is one tenant of Jeffersonianism that we need to regain in the 21st Century, it is the concept of federalism. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act should be repealed and the states should again have the power to determine their own legal drinking age. If this were to be done, I think we would find that those states which returned to a legal drinking age of 18 would begin to have fewer youth alcohol-related youth problems.

Monday, March 16, 2009

American Military Forces Should Be Withdrawn from South Korea

Thomas Jefferson believed firmly in avoiding unnecessary entanglements in the affairs of other nations. He also had a distrust of standing armies and believed government spending on defense had to be kept within reasonable limits. Because of this, he would likely view with distaste the permanent American military deployments around the world, such that which exists in South Korea.

The Korean War raged from 1950 to 1953, resulting in more than 36,000 American deaths, not to mention the deaths of millions of Koreans. For more than half a century since the armistice that ended the fighting, American troops have remained deployed along the Demilitarized Zone guarding against the possibility of another North Korean attack on South Korea.

While the number of American service personnel has been reduced in recent years, it remains substantial. All told, 26,000 American men and women are serving in uniform in South Korea, primarily in the 2nd Infantry Division and the 7th Air Force. One of the foreign policy goals of the Obama administration should be a program to gradually reduce this military presence, with a view to abolishing it completely by the end of the Obama presidency.

South Korea is fully capable of defending itself from a North Korean attack. It has 600,000 active soldiers, with a massive force of 4,500,000 in ready reserve. Compared to these numbers, the 26,000 American personnel are just a drop of water in a bucket, clearly there for political purposes rather than military ones. Furthermore, from a qualitative point of view, the South Koreans are superior to their North Korean foes in virtually every respect. If the North Koreans were to attack, it is quite clear that the South Koreans can defend themselves without having American troops on the ground.

In the event of a Second Korean War, the important aid that the United States could provide to South Korea would involve logistical support, with perhaps some naval and air involvement. Being ready to provide this does not require having a large and permanent presence on South Korea soil.

It can be argued that the United States presence in South Korea actually hurts American interests and the overall stability of East Asia. Firstly, it has been pointed out that having thousands of Americans within range of 11,000 North Korean artillery pieces, not to mention a potential nuclear weapon, raises the possibility of the world's largest hostage crisis. Furthermore, the people of South Korea seem decidedly opposed to the continuation of the American presence. A recent study found that South Korean military cadets consider the United States a greater enemy than North Korea. Polls show strong support for an American withdrawal, and doing so would help combat the disturbing trend of increasing anti-Americanism in South Korea and the wider East Asian region.

It is also worth considering the financial burden on the American taxpayer caused by the military presence in South Korea. Recently announced base improvements will, by themselves, cost roughly $10 billion. At a time when the federal budget of the United States is facing severe pressure from so many different directions, it is clear that the bloated American military establishment must be substantially reduced. First on the list of military reductions should be the unnecessary presence in South Korea.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Madoff Represents the Hamiltonian Impulse

It was announced yesterday that Bernard Madoff, the disgraced financier and former chairman of NASDAQ, will plead guilt to 11 felony charges, including securities fraud, money laundering, and false filing. The penalties for the combined charges add up to 150 years in jail. Considering the fact that Madoff is 70-years-old, his admission of guilt is essentially an acceptance of the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Good. This guy is a criminal of the sickest sort, and of the type that Thomas Jefferson particularly loathed. In his time, they were referred to sneeringly as "speculators", although that term is no longer considered a pejorative. Perhaps it should be, because Madoff and others like him- R. Allen Stanford, the Enron crew, and, for that matter, pretty much every executive from every major bank in America- have nearly wrecked the country. Their obscene quest for wealth derived from the labor of other people, when they themselves do nothing productive, would have dismayed but not surprised Jefferson.

In 1789, when Jefferson returned to America from his diplomatic tenure in Europe, he was shocked by the financial shenanigans being perpetuated by the associates of Alexander Hamilton. In particular, he was horrified by the manner in which teh Hamiltonians took advantage of ordinary citizens who have bought government bonds during the Revolution. These patriotic citizens have often poured their own life savings into these bonds in order to help finance the government and contribute to the victory over the British. In the years following the end of the way, hwoever, the bonds had depreciated to a fraction of their former value.

Hamilton, as the first Secretary of the Treasury, labored to establish the credit of the United States, but he made sure that his friends made money in the process. Citizens were frantically selling their bonds for whatever they could get for them, but Hamilton was planning on buying back the bonds at par. Had the citizens known this, they could have held onto their bonds and get their full value back. But the only people Hamilton told were his own cronies, who promptly bought up as many of the bonds as they possibly could. When the bonds eventually wer bought back, Hamilton's friends made a killing at the expense of the ordinary citizens, many of whom were ruined. Hamilton couldn't have cared less about the people, so long as his friends made money.

The current economic crisis was caused by very similar men with very similar motives. People who have never done any productive work in their lives, in that they have never built anything or grown anything or provide any useful service to anyone, sought to agrandize themselves on an unimaginable scale by using their financial tricks to siphon money out of the system. They made promises that were impossible to fulfill, and they apparently never expected the good days to end. Well, we are now reaping the whirlwind for their greed and short-sightedness.

Most of the discussions about how to fix the economy revolve around the premise that we should get back to where we were before it all began. Jefferson would have very different advice for us. He would tell us that we need to scale back our materialistic ambitions and recover the lost virtues of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Oh, and he would also tell us to put Madoff and the others like him in jail for the rest of their lives.

Monday, March 9, 2009

White House Reveals Previously Secret Bush Administration Legal Memos Regarding War Powers

The Obama administration, thus far making good on its promise to be more transparent and less secretive than the previous administration, has released several secret legal memos issued by the Bush administration following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These secret opinions asserted that the executive branch had vast war-making powers which the other governmental branches did not have the authority to check, and which severely infringed on the civil liberties of American citizens.

The most disturbing item in the memos states that "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully." All Americans should be shocked that any administration would declare this, and had this single item been made public during Bush's tenure, he should have immediately been impeached. The right of every citizen to express his opinion is a natural right that the government cannot infringe upon.

This recalls the memory of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the Federalists in 1798, when it was feared war would soon break out with France. Although ostensibly a national security measure, and despite the fact that they were obviously unconstitutional, the laws were soon used to arrest newspaper editors who supported Jefferson's party. Many were thrown in jail, and countless others intimidated into silence. It wasn't until Jefferson became President in 1801 that the laws were repealed.

One wonders what use the suppression of First Amendment speech and press rights could have in anti-terrorist activities. Did the Bush Administration envision action against citizens who merely voiced opposition to its policies? We know that some people within the administration were willing to make public the identity of a covert CIA officer in retaliation for such talk on the part of her husband (which very possibly lead to the deaths of American agents overseas). If they were willing to do that, what else were they willing to do?

The memos also show that the Bush administration felt it had the right to ignore the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Along with free speech and freedom of the press, the right to be protected against unreasonable search and seizure is a natural human right. The idea that a President of the United States asserted the right to search and seize at whim, without the countervailing balance of judicial approval, would shock and sadden Jefferson.

Another disturbing aspect of these released memos are the blunt assertions that, on virtually any issue dealing with national security, the executive branch had the right to act without approval from Congress, or even without notifying Congress. This blatant breach of the doctrine of the separation of powers, one of the pillars on which our republic is based, should enrage all citizens of this country.

The single most problematic thing about the federal government in the modern age is the concentration of power within the executive branch. These newly-revealed memos show clearly that the Bush administration had no respect for the Constitution and was willing to throw it away in pursuit of its own narrow goals. It shows why the American people must always be vigilant and ever wary of those in power, because the distance between freedom and despotism is not as big as we might like to think.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

NASA's Kepler Satellite Telescope Launched

Launched night, NASA successfully launched the Kepler satellite telescope, a revolutionary mission designed to search for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. For the next three-and-a-half years, it will study 100,000 stars in a small patch of sky, seeking to detect the tiny dimming that will result when a small, Earth-sized planet passes in front of the star. It is one of the most sensitive scientific instruments ever launched into orbit.

Thomas Jefferson would love this. Were he alive today, he would follow the progress of the mission with great interest over the next few years. And he wouldn't have had a problem with the cost of the mission, for while he generally opposed government spending, he firmly believed that the government should promote scientific progress. Indeed, during his presidency, he spent considerable sums of government money dispatching scientific exploratory expeditions to the American West, the most famous being the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

I think NASA is one modern government department that Jefferson would strongly support today. He always considered himself a scientist first and a statesman second, and always gave his support to those activities designed to increase the general scientific knowledge of humanity.

Let's hope the Kepler Mission has great success over the next few years.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Moderate Democrats in Senate Organize to Counter President Obama

Jefferson believed that deficit spending was one of the worst things a government could do. He was one of the very few presidents in history who balanced the federal budget every year during his administration. He was of the opinion that, if it was ever necessary to borrow money due to emergencies, a tax must be implemented to ensure that the debt was paid off within twenty years. Otherwise, it would be a case of one generation stealing from another. In Jefferson's view, this was not only bad fiscal policy, but also a moral crime.

While Jefferson would probably approve of much of what President Obama has done in the opening weeks of his administration, one thing he would likely have objected to very strongly is the massive increases in government spending and the resulting increases to an already bloated national debt. And now it appears that some moderate and conservative Democrats in the Senate are of that same opinion.

In the debates over this budget that will be dominating the political headlines in the coming weeks and months, let's hope that fiscally-responsible politicians on both parties press for a certain measure of restraint. It remains to be seen whether increases in government spending will contribute to ending the current economic troubles, but what is certain that the every penny we spend today is a penny we're stealing from our grandchildren. And Jefferson would certainly have disapproved.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

D.C. Should Be Given Congressional Representation, But the Constitution Must Be Respected

The American Revolution was sparked by a belief among the colonists that the British had no right to tax them directly, as they themselves were not represented in the Parliament. Strangely, the capital of the republic created by that very Revolution today suffers the very fate that their ancestors fought so long and hard against.

The District of Columbia has a population of nearly 600,000. This is more people than the state of Wyoming. Although the citizens of the District have the right to cast their votes in Presidential elections, thanks to the 23rd Amendment, they are still denied any meaningful representation in Congress. The District has a single non-voting member in the House of Representatives and no representation at all in the Senate. Despite this lack of congressional representation, the citizens of the District of Columbia are subject to the federal income tax and all other federal taxes just as if they were citizens of New York or Texas. This truly is a case of taxation without representation.

This shameful situation must be properly remedied by providing the citizens of the District with full representation in the United States Congress.

Some have called for this situation to be solved through the simple expedient of making the District of Columbia a state in its own right. Another possible solution is to simply give the district back to Maryland and toss the 600,000 D.C. residents into the political mix of that state. However, either of these two proposals face a particular problem: they would give a state control over the territory housing the federal government. James Madison pointed out in Federalist #43 that "a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy." In other words, having the seat of federal government within the confines of a particular state could give that state disproportionate influence over the federal government.

Madison probably wrote this with a particular incident in mind. In late 1783, Congress had been threatened by mutinous soldiers demanding back pay. The Governor of Pennsylvania, in sympathy with the soldiers, had refused to provide adequate protection for Congress, thus forcing them to flee to Annapolis. The lesson had been learned: the seat of the national government had to be under the direct control of the national government, because they could not always depend on the government of a state.

A better option than making D.C. a state or giving it back to Maryland would be to pass legislation that simply states that the District of Columbia should, for the purposes of elections to the House of Representatives, be considered a state. This is the intention behind a bill currently making its way through Congress (giving an extra seat to heavily-Republican Utah to ensure the party balance remains unaffected), but its ultimate fate is uncertain. A report from the Congressional Research Service indicates that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to grant voting power to the District. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution states clearly that only states can send representatives to the House. D.C. is not a state, and therefore the law is unconstitutional.

It seems to me that giving D.C. representation in Congress would require a constitutional amendment. This was done in 1961 to give D.C. the right to vote in presidential election, when the 23rd Amendment was enacted. Congress did, in act, pass an amendment to give D.C. congressional representation in 1978, but it was not passed by enough state legislatures to become law. We need to do it again, and this time do it right.

Whether D.C. representation in the Senate should be included in this proposal is up for debate. However, given the overwhelmingly Democratic voting record of D.C. residents, I think any measure that included D.C. representation in the Senate would have a difficult time becoming law, as the Republican party would block any such proposal with all the means at their disposal. It's better to push for legislation that gives you half of what you want and has a chance of actually passing then going to wall for legislation that gives you everything you want and has no chance of passing.

If enacted, this amendment would remove a small stain on the American governmental system that has been ignored for too long.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Jeffersonian blog for the 21st Century

Of all the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson articulated the American creed and American dream with the greatest eloquence and clarity. Though he died nearly two centuries ago, he still has much to teach our country. Since his passing, we have drifted away from the American vision he imagined, and we must begin to find our way back.

Jefferson spoke of the natural rights of humanity, in both the individual and the collective sense. His ideas of government, especially the need to limit the powers of government, inspired the Enlightenment reforms of the 18th Century in both Europe and America. Along with James Madison, he was one of the fathers of the concept of separation of church and, which has been the bulwark of our religious liberty ever since.

But Jefferson's life and ideas teach us about more than politics and government. In his personal life also, he had much to teach which we would do well to learn. He was the quintessential Renaissance Man, able to understand seven languages and making himself well-educated in nearly every field of human knowledge. In addition to being a statesman, he was an architect, scientist, planter, wine connoisseur, writer, and musician, among other things. In an age of mediocrity and over-specialization, we must recapture the Jeffersonian ideal in our own individual lives.

This blog will explore how Jeffersonian ideals can be recaptured for the 21st Century. At a time when America is at a crossroads, looking to the greatest of the Founding Fathers is of the utmost importance.