Monday, June 29, 2009

Support the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act

Last week, a bi-partisan group in Congress introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act, which would take the power to draw congressional district lines away from the state legislatures and mandate that it be conducted instead by a nonpartisan commission in each state. This legislation is critically important and 21st Century Jeffersonians should give the bill their full support.

The representatives filing the bill were John Tanner (D-TN), Mike Castle (R-DE), Allen Boyd (D-FL), Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Baron Hill (D-IN). On the other side of the Capitol, Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) filed companion legislation in the Senate. These men should be congratulated for the public service they have rendered to America by introducing this bill. It is refreshing to see that, every once in awhile, Republicans and Democrats are still capable of being republicans and democrats.

This blog has previously discussed the urgent need for redistricting reform on a national scale. Under the current system, most states simply allow the state legislatures to draw the lines of congressional districts. In practice, this means that whichever political party controls the state legislature can draw the districts in such a manner as to maximize the number of seats their party is likely to win by packing voters who support the minority party into as few seats as possible. The result is usually that the majority party gets a far greater proportion of congressional representation in their state than is actually justified by the percentage of the vote they received.

It also means that millions of Americans effectively have no representation in Congress. If one party routinely gets 70% of the vote in a given district, the person who represents that district is free to ignore his or her constituents from the other party. If you're unlucky enough to be a Republican in a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican district, you might as well not have a Congressman.

The provisions of the FAIR Act would go a long way toward fixing this problem. If it becomes law, each state will have its congressional districts drawn by a nonpartisan commission. The membership of the commission will be chosen by the floor leaders of the two major parties in each state legislature, with both parties getting to select an equal number of commissioners. Qualifications for being a commissioner will exclude those who have actively worked in politics during the preceding four years, and commissioners themselves will be forbidden from running for Congress until another session of redistricting has taken place.

The bill would prohibit states from redrawing congressional districts more than once in a decade, thus preventing episodes such as former House Speaker Tom DeLay's brutal power grab in Texas back in 2003. The commissions would be prohibited from taking into account factors such as past voting history or party affiliation of citizens, and would have to respect political boundaries such as city limits and county lines. Once the commission presents its plan, the legislature can either accept or reject it, but cannot amend it.

If adopted, the FAIR Act would massively benefit the democratic process in America. Political parties would no longer be able to gerrymander their states purely for partisan advantage, nor would potential congressional candidates be allowed to draw up districts in which they themselves intend to run. Competitiveness would be greatly restored to congressional elections, thus giving citizens real voice in determining who represents them in Congress and forcing representatives to pay attention to all their constituents. Simply put, the passage of this law would be the greatest victory for democracy in America since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

21st Century Jeffersonians should support this legislation with all the power at their disposal. Contact your representatives and ask them to support this bill. Write letters to the editor to your local newspaper to help spread the word. Email your friends and family about it. The powers-that-be don't want this bill to advance through the legislative process, and the most effective way for them to block it would simply be to ignore and hope the people don't mobilize in its support. This is an opportunity to strike a real blow for freedom, and we should not let it pass us by.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cattle ID Plan Unnecessary, Expensive and Intrusive

A plan by the federal government to implement a national identification system for cattle has run into intense opposition from ranchers. This should come as no surprise when one examines the flawed and intrusive plan.

The Department of Agriculture wants to mark cattle with electronic tags and a centralized computer database to track the movements of livestock in order to monitor possible outbreaks of animal diseases. It's called the National Animal Identification System, or NAIS. Its utility in fighting animal diseases is debatable, but even if it were effective it would only matter to large agribusiness operations and would have little or no benefit to small, independent ranchers.

The opposition to NAIS from independent ranchers is understandable. First of all, they would bear the financial cost, which would be enormous. Each electronic tag would cost at least $2, and requiring one for every single animal would add enormously to the cost of doing business at a time when the poor economy is already hitting the livelihood of independent ranchers. The time and effort that ranchers would have to spend in sending reports to the federal government, as they would have to do whenever an animal died or changed premises, would add even more to their already heavy burden.

Aside from the cost to independent ranchers, NAIS would also represent a significant increase in the administrative structure of the Department of Agriculture, the costs of which would be on the shoulders of federal taxpayers. Considering our disastrous national fiscal situation, we need to be shrinking the federal government, not making it bigger.

There also objections to the NAIS, interestingly enough, on the grounds of the separation of church and state. Amish farmers have opposed the plan because they see tagging livestock "as making a mark", which they consider sinful. They also believe that the use of electronic technology violates their right to live in their traditional, non-technological lifestyle. The federal government has absolutely no right to interfere with the religious lives of citizens, as specified by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Giant agribusiness corporations are supportive of the plan, and no wonder. It fits nicely into their efforts to export meat products to foreign countries, and the added costs would be compensated for them by increased profits. But small independently-run and family-owned ranches have no such advantages, and the added costs will certainly drive a large number of them out of business. Indeed, some of these ranchers believe that one of the true motives on the part of NAIS supporters is to help agribusiness drive small operators out of business.

Independent ranchers are generally people of strong Jeffersonian impulses, determined to remain independent from both government and corporate control. Anything that threatens their economic well-being is a threat to 21st Century Jeffersonianism. But this plan represents more than an economic threat to independent ranchers; it represents yet another example of the federal government increasing its power to intervene in the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. This is a federal program that we certainly need to get rid of, and the sooner the better.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Turning Responsibility for Iraq Over to the Iraqis

June 30 is the deadline for American troops to be withdrawn from Iraqi cities so that Iraqi security forces can take control. This process has been underway for several months now and it looks as though the deadline will be met. American forces will be redeployed outside the Iraqi cities, ready to intervene if necessary and beginning to focus instead on training the Iraqis.

With a disturbing rise in violence in recent weeks, some are raising concerns that the American withdrawal from the cities could result in a return to the security situation of years past, when insurgents and ethnic militias engaged in bloody guerrilla warfare, largely characterized by massive suicide bombings. Perhaps so. But if increased violence does take place, it's no longer our problem.

We have occupied Iraq now for six years. For most of that time, we have been training Iraqi security forces and propping up the elected Iraqi government. This effort has cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers. It has also cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The Iraqis have had a long time to get ready to take over their own security, and we have provided them with more than enough in the way of resources for them to do it.

If violence escalates after the American withdraw, we can only conclude that the cause is not a lack of Iraqi ability, but a lack of Iraqi will. And in that case, we should simply wash our hands of the whole affair.

From the standpoint of a 21st Century Jeffersonian, the invasion of Iraq was a foolish and utterly misguided mistake from the beginning. Unnecessary wars are not acceptable under any circumstances, and it should have been completely clear that Iraq posed no threat to the United States. More fundamentally, meddling in the affairs of other countries is almost always a recipe for disaster, and the convoluted mix of religion and politics in the Middle East make this particular part of the world especially dangerous. Were Jefferson alive today, he would certainly advise us to have as little to do with the Middle East as possible.

Jefferson would have wholeheartedly approved of President Obama's determination to extricate the United States from Iraq as soon as reasonably possible. We have given the Iraqis the tools to secure their own country. Whether or not they do so is up to them. Meanwhile, it's time for us to bring our troops home.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Jackson's Death Reveals the Triviality of American Popular Culture

Yesterday's unexpected announcement that singer Michael Jackson had died immediately resulted in an intense media frenzy which reveals a great deal about modern American culture.

Obviously, any individual's death is a sad event, but why is Jackson's death such a massive news story? Three of the country's leading historians, Ernest May, David Herbert Donald and John Hope Franklin, have passed away in the last few months, but there was no media frenzy for any of them. Henry King, an attorney who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and was described as the "George Washington of international law", died last month and no news station mentioned a word. Judith Krug, the librarian who founded Banned Books Week, passed away in April and no media outlet noticed. Nor did any major news outlet note the passing, earlier this year, of astrophysicist Mario Acuña, who designed experiments for several planetary exploration missions and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.

For that matter, how many ordinary citizens who worked as community leaders, volunteered in local hospitals, bravely served as firefighters or police officers, or lovingly raised children as stay-at-home mothers died yesterday, with no more mention than a short obituary in the local newspaper?

The fact that Americans are apparently much more moved by the death of an entertainer than by the deaths of arguably much more deserving citizens is a manifestation of a very real problem: America is being entertained to death. The fixation people have with the personal lives of entertainers shows that we are now more concerned with amusing ourselves than we are with becoming better individuals or with addressing serious national issues. The American obsession with pop entertainment has become a steady dripping of acid that is slowly dissolving our national soul.

Of course, there is a tremendous difference between art and entertainment. Art is an aesthetic manifestation of truth and beauty, whereas entertainment is an effort to distract and relax the brain. Some musicians create art, while others merely entertain. Revealingly, those musicians whose music has the greatest artistic quality generally ignored by the readers of the tabloid press. It's the entertainers they're obsessed with.

Pop entertainment is to modern America what bread and circuses were to the ancient Romans. The Romans were so lulled by free food and so fixated by gladiatorial entertainment that they ignored the corruption within the Roman government, the bankruptcy of the treasury, and the barbarians smashing through the imperial frontiers. Consequently, their civilization collapsed. Similarly, many modern Americans are too busy watching reality television or discussing the latest Hollywood rumors to be bothered with anything requiring them to actually act as responsible citizens.

A glance at the average magazine stand provides clear evidence of this. For every thoughtful and informative periodical like The Economist or Scientific American, the reading of which might actually make one a better-informed and more well-rounded citizen, there are literally dozens of magazines focused on the personal lives or hairstyles of entertainment celebrities, with no redeeming or useful content whatsoever. It's enough to make a Jeffersonian recoil in horror.

Of course, we need entertainment to rest our brains and provide a reprieve from our professional and civic work. Recharging our batteries, so to speak, is an end for which entertainment is a means. But in modern American, rather than being a reprieve from work, entertainment has become a replacement for it. Our lives should be devoted to improving ourselves and our society, but truthfully our lives seem devoted to entertaining ourselves. Rather than serving as a means to an end, entertainment has become an end unto itself.

The average American can tell you the names of any number of pop entertainers, but has no idea who their representative in Congress is. The average American can tell you who won last year's Super Bowl, but has no idea who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize. If Thomas Jefferson could see how our society has evolved, he would frankly tell us that our priorities are the exact opposite of what they should be. And if America is ever to be the nation Jefferson dreamed it could be, we will have to get our priorities straight once again.

A well-informed and well-educated citizenry is a prerequisite for a free and prosperous society. We no longer have that, and the pop entertainment industry is largely to blame. We need to put down the copy of People and pick up the copy of The Economist. We need to turn off our televisions and reopen our books. We need to cease our psychological dependence on pop entertainment and again dedicate ourselves to self-improvement and good citizenship. If we don't, we risk going the way of the Roman Empire, with our civic identity gradually dissolving until we wake up one day and discover that our country has fallen apart.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Legislative Battle Rages Over Funds for F-22 Raptor

The F-22 Raptor is by far the most sophisticated fighter aircraft ever developed. It is also monumentally expensive, with a price tag of $339 million per aircraft when development costs are taken into account. Designed in the waning days of the Cold War as a replacement for the F-15, the mission of the F-22 was to be an air superiority fighter that would take on the Soviet Air Force.

When planned production of the F-22 ends in 2011, the United States Air Force will have taken delivery of 187 fighters. The White House and the Defense Department assert that no more are needed, that any additional F-22s would be a waste of money, and that the production line should therefore be shut down when the last of the 187 aircraft is completed. Nevertheless, the House Armed Services Committee has voted to appropriate $300 million in the current budget cycle as a down payment to purchase 12 more F-22s after 2011. Whether Congress wants more aircraft beyond these additional twelve is unclear.

This appropriation for additional F-22s is a needless waste of money and the effort should be defeated. President Obama has rightly threatened to veto it, and several key Democrats in the House bucked their party's leadership by voting against a debating rule that would bar any amendment to kill the F-22 funding. But because the production of the F-22 is spread across more than forty different states, there will be intense opposition within Congress to killing the funding.

Since the Cold War ended in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, it may fairly be asked what the actual mission of the F-22 is. While we have occasional tensions with Russia and China, the idea of an all-out war with those states seems remote (and, it must be admitted, much of the tension that exists is the result of our own meddling in their neighborhoods). In the unlikely event of a major conflict between America and either Russia or China, our current level of air power is more than sufficient to defeat them, and the coming deployment of the much-more affordable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will greatly add to our security. Besides which, we will have nearly 200 F-22s as it is.

In the kinds of conflicts the United States is likely to fight during the next several decades, the F-22 is essentially useless. It's air-to-ground capability is no better than the much less expensive F-35, and commanders will probably be extremely reluctant to risk the aircraft in a war zone anyway. It is worth pointing out that we have been fighting a war in Afghanistan since 2001 and a war in Iraq since 2003, and yet the F-22 has yet to make a single combat sortie since entering service in 2005.

Jefferson believed in a military that provided the necessary security for the country at the minimal cost. In our time, he would doubtless want a vastly smaller army, and a significantly reduced navy and air force. Spending vast amounts of taxpayer money on unnecessary projects like these additional F-22s would have struck him as simply ridiculous. The motivations of the members of Congress who are pushing for more aircraft are purely about securing their own political careers and are not in the best interests of the country as a whole.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Republican Hypocrisy on Moral Values

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, has reappeared after inexplicably dropping off the map for a few days, being forced to admit to the press that he has been cheating on his wife. This comes immediately on the heels of Senator John Ensign, also a Republican, being forced to admit that he, too, has been unfaithful to his wife. Both of these politicians had been considered front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

The unfolding scandals of the last few weeks are only the most recent in a long-line of Republican sex scandals. Louisiana Senator David Vitter, it turns out, has a certain fondness for prostitutes. Senator Larry Craig, as most will recall from the immense media coverage at the time, was arrested for lewd conduct in an airport, with the subsequent disgrace preventing him from running for reelection. And, of course, we all remember Congressman Mark Foley of Florida, who was kicked out of Congress after sending emails requesting oral sex from underage boys.

This is not to say that Democrats don't have similar problems with members of their own party, as clearly demonstrated by the disgraceful actions of Senator John Edwards, Governor Eliot Spitzer, and, of course, President Bill Clinton. Clearly, the Republicans have no monopoly on the matter of political sex scandals.

However, there is the question of hypocrisy to consider. The Republicans have made a tremendous effort over the last two decades to brand themselves to the American people as the party of "family values". Republican political rhetoric during the Clinton years insinuated again and again that Democrats were more likely to be morally lax, whereas Republicans were the party that would stand up for American families and social values. Obviously, it was a complete facade, and the Republicans were living in a glass house.

Thomas Jefferson was not as priggish as John Adams, but he had very high moral standards and had nothing but contempt for people who were unfaithful to their spouses. But the idea that a political party should declare itself the guardian of moral values would have struck him as insane. Questions of morality are the business of the individual. Politics and government is about securing the rights of the people, and such mundane matters as overseeing an efficient postal service.

As Republican hypocrisy on questions of "family values" is exposed for the whole country to see, Thomas Jefferson would probably have simply said that they had it coming.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Missing Element in the Healthcare Debate: Personal Responsibility

The healthcare debate that the Democrats have been wanting since 1994 is in full swing, and we can expect the political headlines of the next few months to be dominated by it. Unfortunately, this being modern American politics, most of the rhetoric will consist of childish ad hominum attacks and ridiculous straw man arguments rather than thoughtful discussions about public policy.

It's difficult to say what Thomas Jefferson would have thought about the current healthcare debate. In his time, a sick person would simply be cared for by other members of the household. Only in the event of a very serious illness would a doctor be summoned, and the fee would simply be negotiated between the doctor and the head of the household. The very concept of a "healthcare system" would have been confusing to Jefferson, or any person from the 18th Century.

On the one hand, he believed in small government and low taxes, so he would likely have strongly disapproved of a healthcare system run by the government. On the other hand, he would have believed that the fruits of the advances of medical science that have taken place since his time should be equally available to all citizens, irrespective of income. Let us not forget that "life" is among the natural rights to which he believed all human beings are entitled.

If a government-run healthcare system is the only means by which this natural right can be made into positive law, he may have supported it, however reluctantly. But I believe he would have wanted it limited to providing treatments for conditions that are beyond a person's ability to control.

Why? Because one thing that I think is certain is that Jefferson would have told us that we needed to focus on the issue of personal responsibility in matters of our health. How much healthier would we be if everyone took a half-hour walk every day? If we eschewed fast-food in favor of light, home-cooked meals? If we didn't smoke? If we looked to our own health with more responsibility and common sense, it would do more to improve the overall health of the American people than the creation of the best healthcare system in the world.

Jefferson himself was an extremely healthy man, which he attributed to his lifelong habit of soaking his feet in ice water every morning. Throughout his life, he was essentially his own doctor. In his time, everyone was expected to have rudimentary medical knowledge in order to take care of themselves and other members of their household. They expected to take care of themselves whenever possible, rather than putting their trust in someone else. In that regard, they were far more free than we are.

Obviously, we need a healthcare system of some form so as to provide citizens access to medical science in the event of serious illnesses and diseases, to ensure the safe delivery of babies, and to take proper advantage of the tremendous advances in medical science that have taken place since Jefferson's time. But we must face the fact that a very large proportion of our health problems stem from our own lack of responsibility.

Rather than depend entirely on the government, let's start by putting down the cheeseburger and getting a bit of exercise.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iranian People Have a Duty to Overthrow Their Government

For the past week, the eyes of the world have been fixated on Iran. In the aftermath of a clearly stolen presidential election, the streets of Tehran have been filled with hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters, demanding a free and fair vote. Nothing like this has been seen in Iran for thirty years.

It is obvious that the theocratic government of Iran, dominated as it is by an unelected Guardian Council made up of Islamic theologians, does not represent the will of the Iranian people. If they did, they would take in account the clearly-expressed wishes of the Iranian people and hold a full recount of the election results or redo the election altogether. Instead, they are now deploying armed force against unarmed and peaceful demonstrators. The Iranian people now face a choice very similar to that which faced the American people in 1776, the French people in 1789, and the peoples of China and Eastern Europe in 1989.

When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independent and enumerated the rights to which all human beings are entitled under natural law, he specified: "[W]henever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness."

He went on to say: "[W]hen a long train of abuses of usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, eninces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."

The Iranian government does not represent the will of the Iranian people, nor does it uphold their natural rights. Under natural law, therefore, the current Iranian government is illegitimate and illegal. The massive street protests show that the Jeffersonian impulse for freedom fires the hearts of the Iranian people no less than it did the American people in 1776, or the Frenchmen who stormed the Bastille in 1789, or the Germans who tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The events of the past week clearly demonstrate the illegality and illegitimacy of the present Iranian government. 21st Century Jeffersonians should hope, therefore, that the demonstrators in the streets of Tehran do not content themselves with mere protests of the recent election results, but that they move forward boldly and overthrow the corrupt and wretched structure of the present Iranian government entirely.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Obama Unveils Financial Reform Plans

Earlier today, President Obama announced his administration's new plan for reforming the nation's financial sector. Considering the wild ride the financial institutions have taken the American people on for the past two years, this comes as no surprise.

This package of reform measures will expand the power of the Federal Reserve to oversee banks, create a new federal agency to monitor financial practices that might harm citizens, require banks to keep more of their assets as security for loans, and various other measures. President Obama has said it is the more far-reaching and comprehensive shakeup of the laws governing the nation's financial sector since the 1930s.

It's hard to say what Jefferson would have made of this. Deeply distrustful of centralized power, he instinctively recoiled from any increase in the power of the federal government. If we didn't know better, we might assume that Jefferson would have immediately opposed President Obama's proposal.

But in truth, there was one thing Jefferson hated more than central government: banks. As Jefferson put it in a letter to John Taylor, "I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies." He fought tooth and nail against Alexander Hamilton and his associates, who sought to create a powerful financial sector in the United States. Jefferson thought that this was a threat to the hard-won liberty of the American people, and that the Hamiltonians were merely trying to accumulate wealth for themselves at the expense of the common good.

Had Jefferson seen the events of the past few years, with all the Wall Street shenanigans that have brought the world economy so much pain, he would have been dismayed but not surprised. He would have recognized that the Hamiltonian impulse is stronger than ever in the 21st Century, and that the Wall-Street fat cats were willing to treat the money of hard-working Americans as mere tiny chips in the world's biggest poker game.

One item in President Obama's plan is something that Jefferson would certainly have supported: a requirement that executive compensation packages by approved by direct vote by a company's shareholders. The current practice essentially allows the company executives to determine their own salaries, and we can see how well that turned out.

21st Century Jeffersonians should examine this admittedly complicated issue very carefully. Jefferson opposed centralized power in the federal government, but he also opposed overriding power held by financial institutions. Considering the vast changes in the world between 1826 and 2009, one can suspect that Jefferson would favor laws designed to reign in these financial institutions. After all, he said he favored laws against anyone who "picks my pocket" or "break my leg." No one can argue that Wall Street has been picking America's pocket these last several years.

Jefferson would ask us to maintain a constant vigil, ensuring that the laws are rational, achieve the aims for which they are written, and incorporate no more power to the federal government than is absolutely necessary.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

America's Disastrous Fiscal Situation

The Economist magazine, one of the few fair-minded and intelligently-written periodicals left, has a fascinating if highly disturbing article about the general fiscal situation of the United States. To summarize quickly, the budget situation was already horrible when President Obama took office, thanks to the irresponsible fiscal behavior of the Bush administration. But with the stimulus package and potential massive spending on healthcare reform, the situation is now getting even worse.

The Republican Party is already trying to attack President Obama on the issue of the budget deficit and the national debt. So far, their attacks aren't really working, because the voters know that it was the Republicans who got them into this mess in the first place (the last time the budget was balanced, educated Americans recall, was on Bill Clinton's watch).

But if the Republicans have no credibility, the American people certainly do, because it's their money being spent. And 21st Century Jeffersonians should be alarmed at the mortgaging of the futures of their great-grandchildren by irresponsible men and women in Congress.

In any case, read the article, then forward it on to all your family and friends.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Congress Continues to Waste Taxpayer Dollars on Dubious Programs

Another day, another example of fiscal irresponsibility from Congress. According to the Citizens Against Government Waste, the House Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee has voted to spend $603 million on a program to develop an alternative engine design for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The Air Force considers the alternative engine project useless and has repeatedly tried to get it canceled (and one suspects they know more about such things than members of Congress). Two independent panels have investigated the program and determined that it is "not necessary and not affordable." President Obama himself has singled it out as a wasteful program. Nevertheless, Congress continues to fund the project through earmarks.

Congress Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) has emerged as the champion of this wasteful program, and he was probably the representative who inserted the anonymous earmark tossing a few hundred million dollars to it last year. The phone number for his Washington office is (202) 225-2726, and the fax number is (202) 225-4580. If you don't care for having your hard-earned tax dollars flushed down the toilet, contact the Congressman and give him a piece of your mind.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Sometime this month, if all goes according to plan, an Atlas rocket will launch NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter into space for a short trip to the Moon. One of the most important robotic space exploration missions in years, its goal is to survey lunar resources and investigate possible landing sites to pave the way for human missions to the Moon within the next decade or so. Although it is a machine, it is, in a certain sense, a spiritual descendant of Lewis and Clark

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will spend at least a year orbiting the Moon, examining every inch of the celestial body with some of the most advanced scientific instruments ever sent into space. It will give us the most exact map ever created of the Moon, a comprehensive examination of the dangers of radiation in the lunar environment, and the most high resolution photographs ever taken of the Moon. In essence, it will provide us with a treasure trove of scientific knowledge, which is not only good in and of itself, but will prove invaluable to future human expeditions and eventually a permanent human outpost.

Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer in mankind's need to explore. As President, he dispatched several expeditions to explore the American West, of which the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the most famous. He believed in the destiny of America to spread across the North American continent, building communities where hundreds of succeeding generations could flourish under republican forms of government and Enlightenment ideals. Men like Lewis and Clark paved the way for the pioneers in covered wagons, which followed during the next century.

Jefferson would have eagerly followed the exploration of space undertaken by NASA and other national space agencies. Recognizing its importance and knowing that only government can effectively do such things, the exploration of space would have been one field where Jefferson would have unabashedly supported vibrant and active government action and would have been willing to expend government funds.

In the long-term, the exploration and colonization of space, and the bringing into our economic sphere the resources of the Solar System, is the destiny of humanity. Jefferson would certainly have approved.

UPDATE: NASA has delayed the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from June 17 to June 19 in order to attempt to launch the Space Shuttle Endeavour on Wednesday. The Shuttle had originally been planned for launch yesterday.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Is Revolution Stirring In Iran?

The elections in Iran are over and, according to the official news agency, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been reelected with 63% of the vote, nearly twice that of his nearest competitor, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who officially got 34%. Pretty much everyone except the Iranian government, however, has denounced the elections as fraudulent.

This doesn't come as much of a surprise. What is surprising, however, is the reaction on the streets of Tehran, where supporters of Mr. Mousavi have taken to the streets in their thousands to protest the results of an election they believe to have been rigged. Violent clashes with riot police are now taking place, and the protestors are chanting "Down with the dictator!"

The Iranian government has responded as oppressive regimes generally do: by attempting to block information from the people. Apparently all BBC websites have been blocked and cellular telephone service has been cut in Tehran. They're clearly frightened of the demonstrations and are hopign to nick them in the bud. Let's hope they fail.

Thomas Jefferson believed that human nature was the same for everyone, no matter what culture they happened to be born into. That's a philosophical question that will be endlessly debated, but I do think we can safely say that the yearning to be free is an innate part of being human. Look at the Iranian demonstrators on the streets of Tehran today, and they don't seem all that much different than the colonial Americans protesting the Stamp Act in 1765.

Wal-Mart Wants to Build Supercenter on Civil War Battlefield

Looks like Wal-Mart is up to its old tricks again. According to local media reports, the megacorporation wants to build one of its signature massive "supercenters" in Orange County, Virginia. A new Wal-Mart is regrettable enough, of course, but this one is a special case: it's being constructed right next to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, putting at risk priceless historical sites.

During the Civil War, between December of 1862 and May of 1864, four major battles were fought within a few miles of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Tens of thousands of Americans died, many more were wounded, and the course of American history was changed. Fittingly, we have set aside the land as a permanent historical memorial to the men who fought and died, as well as to serve as a history lesson to all the generations of Americans to follow.

Wal-Mart has a history of trying to muscle their way into communities, even when citizens organize and make clear that they do not want them there. With unrivaled cash reserves, public marketing experts, and legions of high-paid lawyers, Wal-Mart simply uses brute force to badger the local political leaders into accepting their terms. The end result is often (though not always) an ugly blue building blighted the previously attractive landscape, as well as more pavement, more traffic, and more development.

In this particular case, the land that will be blighted will be the same land over which the Union and Confederate armies fought one another in the Battle of the Wilderness, in early May of 1864. The newspaper article quotes Wal-Mart attorney Tim Kleine as saying that "no evidence of military engagements was found at the site." But any high school student can look at a map and a quickly flip through a general history book about the Civil War and see immediately that Kleine is lying through his teeth. One wonders how a man like him can look at himself in the mirror every morning.

But the retail giant has run into opposition. The citizens of the community are generally outraged at the proposal and are fighting it with every means at their disposal. Hundreds of historians, including Pulitzer-Prize winner James McPherson, have appealed to Wal-Mart not to build the supercenter on the location. The Civil War Preservation Trust has organized a campaign called Stop the Wilderness Wal-Mart.

The decision is apparently up to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. The citizens of the community should appeal to them to reject Wal-Mart's proposal. Any supervisor who votes to approve the plan should be voted out of office at the next election.

21st Century Jeffersonians should do their part, through the very simple expedient of never shopping at Wal-Mart.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Senators Wasting Taxpayer Money with Unnecessary and Expensive Air Travel

This story is the kind of thing that should cause outrage among American citizens. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have each racked up more than $140,000 dollars in charter air travel fees so far this year, far more than most of their colleagues. In both cases, commercial flights would have been far less expensive.

In one case, Senator Cornyn chartered a flight for nearly 60 staffers to a Maryland resort for a weekend retreat, spending more than $38,000 to do so. Is there any place in Maryland that is more than two hour's drive from Washington D.C.? Couldn't they have taken a bus?

Three other senators- Kit Bond (R-MO), Bob Corker (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA)- also spent more than $100,000 each on chartered air travel so far this year.

It might be argued that a couple hundred thousand dollars represent a mere drop of water in the bucket of the massive federal budget and that this is therefore not an important story. But that's not the point. Each one of those dollars came from a hardworking citizen, and this kind of activity reflects the irresponsible attitude that most of the current members of Congress hold towards their stewardship of the taxpayer's money. The fact that this is going on during a time of economic hardship for many citizens makes the insult all the worse.

21st Century Jeffersonians should remorselessly monitor the uses their own Senators, Congressmen, and state legislators make of taxpayer money for their own expenses and hold them to account.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

America Should Leave Central Asian Air Base

According to this article in the New York Times, the government of the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan has asked the United States to vacate an air base which it has been leasing for the past few years. The base plays an important logistical role for the campaign in Afghanistan, and the United States government is trying to negotiate an extension of the lease.

While it is unfortunate that the closure of this base will hinder the logistics of the Afghanistan operation, we must respect the wishes of the Kyrgyzstani government and leave the base. We have no business operating a military facility in a country whose government doesn't want us there. And leaving the base will send a signal to the region that, contrary to what many have feared, the United States does not intend to set up a permanent military presence in Central Asia.

This may seem like a rather unimportant, technical issue. But even in small matters, we should remember our country's Jeffersonian values, among which are to avoid permanent military entanglements in foreign territory.

60th Anniversary of George Orwell's "1984"

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell's masterpiece, 1984. It has gone strangely unnoticed, considering the monumental importance ofthe work. But some people have taken the opportunity to write on the book's significance for our time. Take a look at this column by commentator Cathy Young, which examines the lessons Orwell's book has for us in the early 21st Century.

Soviet communism, the real target of Orwell's attack, has been cast into the ash heap of history, hopefully never to return. But one of Orwell's messages most pertinent to the modern age, and which Cathy Young comments on quite effectively, is the political usage of hate to maintain political loyality and to avoid the need to discuss actual questions.

As she puts it:

Looking at much of our political discourse today, from right-wing talk radio to left-wing blogs, it's hard not to think of such rituals as "Two-Minute Hate" and "Hate Week." On too many political websites, every week is Hate Week - whether the object of hate is liberals, Muslims, neocons, or Christian bigots. Partisan propagandists and professional hate-mongers bear a large share of the blame, but so do "regular" people who need little encouragement to demonize political opponents.

People on all sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this, and it was something Jefferson would have understood very well. Indeed his Federalist opponents were very good at whipping the American people into a fearful fury by evoking the specter of a French invasion, despite the fact that such an event could not possibly have happened.

1984 remains a boom with important lessons to teach, and all 21st Century Jeffersonians should have it on their bookshelf.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

President Obama Proposes Making "Pay As You Go" a Federal Law

If 21st Century Jeffersonians were to criticize a single action of President Obama's up to this point, it would be the massive increase in federal spending that has happened under his watch. While one could make a legitimate argument that the present economic situation requires such actions, the massive budgetary pressure, the rapidly expanding national debt, and the increasing accumulation of power in the central government certainly are a cause for concern for modern Jeffersonians.

Today, however, we have news that perhaps the winds are beginning to shift direction. President Obama has announced a proposal to enshrine the "Pay As You Go" rule, which require Congress to balance any increase in spending by making cuts elsewhere, into federal law. Currently, this rule (known as PAYGO) is simply an administrative Congressional action, which can easily be countermanded.

This will please the fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Democrats in Congress, while the liberal Democrats will clearly raise concerns. The Republicans are sure to find some way to criticize the President about this, but they would also criticize Obama if he said he thought the sky was blue. All in all, this is a positive move that 21st Century Jeffersonians should support.

Jefferson believed that any time the government spent more money than it brought it, a tax should be implemented to ensure that the debt was paid off within twenty years, so as to ensure that no generation would be required to pay for expenditures about which it had not been consulted. In Jefferson's mind, failure to do this was not only bad fiscal policy, but a crime.

President Obama deserves a lot of credit for many of his actions thus far, but the level of spending that we have seen since he has taken office should raise alarm bells. If he is serious about enshrining "Pay As You Go" into law, this concern will be greatly lessened.

Monday, June 1, 2009

20th Anniversary of the Tianamen Square Massacre

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when thousands of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing were slaughtered by government soldiers using tanks and heavy machine guns. In a year in which democratic revolutions brought down Communist regimes across Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communist Party used brutal force against their own people to maintain their iron grip on power.

For days before the massacre, the protesters had appealed to the soldiers to disobey their orders to clear Tiananmen Square and instead join with the protesters in creating a new, free China. One wonders how different the history of the last two decades might have been had the army had the courage to do so. Could China have been started on the road to democracy? We will never known, because rather than join with the protesters, the army obeyed the orders of its masters and butchered the people.

The demonstrators were ordinary people, students and workers, old and young, male and female. In a way, they were quite similar to the ordinary citizens in the American colonies who held protest meetings after the British passed the Stamp Act in 1765, except that the repression under which the Chinese people lived was orders of magnitude greater than anything experienced by the contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson. It still is.

Jefferson and his contemporaries (with the notable exception of Alexander Hamilton) believed that the American Revolution was about much more than simply securing the independence of the United States. They thought that it would be a beacon to all oppressed peoples throughout the world, inspiring them to rise up and overthrow tyranny in their own lands. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 seemed to verify this belief. And it is true that, throughout most of its history, the United States has been seen as a model of freedom to be emulated (although it must be said that this image has been damaged by the actions of President George W. Bush).

The Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square wanted to reform their country, to achieve freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to have some say in how their own country was run. They wanted, in other words, to have the freedoms enjoyed by the people of the United States. The leaders of the Communist Party wanted to maintain their control over the lives of the Chinese people. It was a clash between what Martin Luther King called "physical force and soul force." In this case, tragically, physical force won.

In the years since the massacre, China has liberalized its economy, with truly massive consequences both for its own people and for the larger global stage. China in 2009 is a completely different country than it was in 1989, with economic growth bringing uncounted millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class. But politically, the Chinese Communist Party maintains its iron grip and shows no sign of releasing it. The ordinary people in China may be materially better off than they were two decades ago, but they still have absolutely no say in how their country is run or what its policies may be. Prosperity without liberty holds little value. Besides which, rapid economic growth is bringing its own problems, as China struggles to deal with the social unrest common to industrializing societies.

As the Chinese people labor to produce the cheap consumer goods that fill the shelves of American Wal-Marts and Targets, and use their new-found prosperity to become consumers themselves, one wonders what they are thinking. The pressures that lead to the protests of 1989 are not as intense now as they were then, since economic liberalism provides a steam valve, precisely as the Chinese Communist Party intended. But the human impulse for freedom is not so easily extinguished, and only time will tell how long the Chinese people will remain oppressed, prosperity or no prosperity.

Watch this extraordinary 2006 documentary by South African filmmaker Antony Thomas, entitled The Tank Man. As well as providing an absorbing retelling of the story of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and its long-term implications for China, it explores the mystery surrounding the now-legendary unknown person who stood in the path of a column of Chinese tanks the morning after the massacre, whose photograph came to symbolize the entire incident and, indeed, the longing of the Chinese people for freedom.

I think American citizens should pay particular attention to the last portion of this remarkable movie, which examines the role played by American corporations, including Google, Yahoo, Cisco Systems and Microsoft, in assisting the Chinese government in the oppression of the Chinese people. Many Chinese pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and some doubtless killed, because of information provided by these American companies to the Chinese authorities.

As citizens, what attitude should 21st Century Jeffersonians adopt towards China? The economy of the United States is so closely bound up with that of China's that we are locked in a mutual embrace, so we could not cut our ties to the country without causing massive economic dislocation. Considering China's rapidly expanding military power and its nuclear capability, it would be unwise in the extreme to wish to provoke them. But can we morally adopt a friendly attitude to the Chinese government, considering the oppression they inflict upon their population?

Jefferson believed in honest commerce with all nations and the avoidance of unnecessary entanglements with any of them. He believed that America should stand as an example of what a people might achieve if they embraced representative democracy and the ideals of the Enlightenment. He would have opposed any blatant American interference in the internal affairs of China, but he would also have given unstinting support to the Chinese people if and when they made the decision to rise up on their own. Such support would necessarily have been limited by the need to ensure the security of the United States, but within those bounds he would have called on us to do all we can to help the pro-democracy elements within China.

One day, I hope, Tiananmen Square will again be filled with pro-democracy demonstrators, and this time they will succeed in toppling the Communist regime and replacing it with a democratic government. When that happens, if it ever does, I would hope that the spirit of Thomas Jefferson will be part of what inspires these brave people.