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.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Restoring the Concept of Dignity in America

David Brooks, a conservative columnist who writes for the New York Times, is one of the few remaining commentators on American public life who is truly worth listening to. And his most recent column, In Search of Dignity, is worth its weight in gold.

Brooks begins by recalling George Washington, who has come down to us not so much as a military or political hero, but rather as a hero of dignity. The "110 Rules of Civility" that Washington copied down as a young man effectively guided his behavior throughout his life. It was Washington's dignity and manner that Jefferson admired so much in Washington, even after their differences in matters of public policy had emerged towards the end of Washington's presidency.

In our time, the very concept of dignity seems to have been tossed out the window. In his column, Brooks discusses the recent press conference of disgraced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, the ridiculous media frenzy surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, and the rambling and bizarre behavior of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. To any American who believes that citizens should behave with a strong sense of dignity and etiquette, all these events are rather disheartening.

As Brooks says:

The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.
Everywhere we look, people from all walks of life and at every level of society act in a loud, brash, emotional and undignified manner. Political scandals are unvealed with a grim regularlity. Shouting down the other person with ad hominem attacks is now the accepted form of what passes for public debate. Self-help books and talk shows try to teach us that we should pour out every detail of our personal lives for all the world to see. Well-written drama and comedy are gradually disappearing from the airwaves, replaced by nonsensical reality television and so-called "comedy" whose humor is limited to jokes about sex and less pleasant bodily functions.

As we observe the undignified and uncivil chaos of modern public life, from politics to entertainment and at all points in between, it might be easy for 21st Century Jeffersonians to throw up their hands and say that old notions of public dignity are lost and are never to be regained. But whether or not that is true, there is nothing preventing us from acting with dignity in our own lives, and people will begin to admire our example and perhaps desire to emulate it.

If nothing else, we can each individually live with dignity in our own lives.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thoughts on the Death of Robert McNamara

Yesterday, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara died at the age of 93. In his time, he served in the administrations of both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. He is remembered chiefly for the role in played in crafting American policy during the Vietnam War.

In his memoirs, published in 1995, Secretary McNamara revealed that he became convinced the United States could not prevail in the Vietnam War relatively early in the conflict, but despite this he remained at his post and continued to supervise the war until he left the Johnson administration in late 1967. 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War was an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Over half a million American troops were committed to the conflict, which was undertaken to prevent Communism from spreading into South Vietnam, The fear was that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow and that this would be disastrous to the interests of the United States. Despite the efforts of the American military, South Vietnam did indeed fall to Communism, but the anticipated fall of the rest of the region never materialized. It is worth asking what the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War gave their lives for.

Secretary McNamara was, in many ways the public face of the Vietnam War. Indeed, it was often referred to as "McNamara's War". As such, his death should be the occasion for some reflection regarding what the Vietnam War really meant for America.

It is a Jeffersonian principle that war is to be avoided at all costs, and must be resorted to only if there is absolutely no other option. It would have been nice if the Bush administration had heeded this advice rather than launching a war of choice against Iraq, a country that posed no threat to the United States. But it would have been even better had the Johnson administration have taken this advice before taking an essentially made-up incident in the Gulf of Tonkin and blowing it up into an illegitimate casus belli.

What difference did it make to the people of the United States what form of government controlled Saigon? Did such an abstract and ideological question justify the expenditure of 58,000 American lives and uncounted billions of dollars from American taxpayers? The support the Vietcong received from many elements of the South Vietnamese population and the distinct lack of willingness to fight among much of the South Vietnamese Army indicates that the South Vietnamese population had little or no interest in embracing the American democratic vision, so why should America have sacrificed for South Vietnam?

The life of Robert McNamara is an object lesson that teaches us to avoid useless and unnecessary interventions in the affairs of other parts of the world. At a time when the United States still has over 56,000 troops permanently stationed in Germany, 33,000 troops in Japan, 28,000 in South Korea, and roughly 10,000 each in the United Kingdom and Italy, this lesson obviously needs to be relearned.

The United States of America is not, and should not be, an empire. McNamara was an agent of empire, and he knew it. His 1995 memoir was an attempt to atone for what he had done wrong three decades before. One hopes that he found peace before his death. But Americans today should heed the indirect lessons of his life, and ensure that their country is never drawn into unnecessary and imperialistic wars, which sacrifice American lives for no good reason.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Will Progress Be Made on Nuclear Reductions?

President Obama has arrived in Moscow for his long anticipated diplomatic visit to Russia. On the agenda are what one might expect: Afghanistan, Iran, trade and such. But one key item on the agenda is the possibility of both countries reducing their nuclear arsenals.

Russia and the United States both currently have about 6,000 nuclear warheads each. Either arsenal is far more than enough to obliterate the world many times over. Their very existence is an affront to the values of the Enlightenment, and they cost the taxpayers of the respective nations uncounted billions of dollars every year, while also robbing them of the talents of engineers and scientists whose knowledge might otherwise be put to much better use.

Commentators suggest that the new agreement between Russia and the United States could reduce the number of warheads to below 2,000 for each country. This blog has previously suggested that the United States follow the lead of its British and French allies by unilaterally reducing its nuclear arsenal to a few hundred weapons, while eliminating its land-based missiles and air-delivered bombs by relying exclusively on submarine-based weapons. We still feel that this would be the most appropriate policy. But any progress in the reduction of nuclear arsenals would be a good thing.

Carl Sagan once made an appropriate analogy about bloated nuclear arsenals. He said that it was like two enemies facing one another, one with five matches and the other with three, standing waste-deep in gasoline. What possible rationale can be given for assembling a nuclear arsenal in excess of that which is necessary to deter an attacker?

Let's hope President Obama, who has spoken about his vision of a nuclear-free world more than once, as some success in these negotiations.

Farmers' Markets Versus Grocery Stores

Thomas Jefferson saw himself as a farmer before all else, seeing his political work merely as a regrettable burden he would rather have done without. He was always happiest when he was supervising the agricultural activities at Monticello, and his letters during his years in political office are filled with expressions of how much he would rather be at home on his farm with his hands in the soil.

Identifying himself with the American farmer, he believed that the unique virtues of the American character derived from the agricultural class. He put it most profoundly in Notes on the State of Virginia, where he wrote:
Those who labor in the Earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus which keeps alive that sacred fire which otherwise might escape from the face of the Earth.
In Jefferson's time, nine out of ten Americans were self-sufficient farmers. This gave them an independence that modern Americans can hardly imagine, for even if they were entirely cut off from the rest of society, they could still produce their own food and therefore would not go hungry. In our time, if the nation's grocery stores and take-out restaurants magically vanished, the result would be immediate mass starvation. The American people today are utterly dependent upon agribusiness corporations for their supply of food, and that means that they are not truly free.

Today, the idea of ordinary citizens living on their own farms has been reduced to a quaint notion from centuries past. The ideal of the yeoman farmer-citizen, so dear to Jefferson's heart, seems to be fading away. And by allowing themselves to become dependent upon agribusiness corporations for their supply of food, the American people are allowing their freedom to slip away. But perhaps there is cause for hope.

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the popularity of farmers' markets throughout the nation. These public outdoor markets allow farmers in a region surrounding large urban areas to bring their produce to the city folk, circumventing the middle-man of the corporate grocery store. According to the Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers' markets has risen from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,685 in 2008, and the trend is continuing.

The question of whether to buy food from a corporate grocery store or a farmers' market is an important one for 21st Century Jeffersonians. The food one purchases in an ordinary grocery store is rarely organic; the meat usually comes from animals pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, and the produce comes from fields sprayed with chemicals, the health effects of which we scarcely understand. Almost all of the produce comes from far away, perhaps from the other side of the planet, whose long journey to the store shelf saps the food of any freshness it might have had. Not only that, but the transport costs of the food contribute to our national dependence upon foreign oil and increase the destructive effects of global climate change. Hardly a penny of the profits made at corporate grocery stores end up going to farmers themselves, but rather to corporate bureaucrats who have likely never seen a farm in all their lives.

By contrast, the produce sold at farmers' markets comes from small farmers rather than massive agribusiness operations. It is mostly organic and always locally-grown. The freshness of the produce sold at these markets cannot be bettered. Since the farmers can sell their produce directly to consumers, the middle-man is cut out and all the profits from the sale of the produce stay with the farmer. Simply put, eating a meal composed of ingredients purchased at a farmers' market is a fundamentally Jeffersonian act.

From a Jeffersonian point of view, any dollar that is usefully spent outside the prevailing corporate economic structure is a good thing. Farmers' markets are an ideal way for citizens to purchase the meat and produce they need, while supporting traditional family farms. They are also a way for communities to come together in a civic atmosphere, in a manner that no corporate grocery store could ever dream of.

A wonderful website, Local Harvest, provides a complete listing of farmers' markets in America, including a search engine to find the market nearest to your address. In addition, it provides a listing of restaurants that purchase their meat and produce from local farms, as well as farms which sell directly to local consumers.

21st Century Jeffersonians should, as much as possible, boycott corporate chain grocery stores in favor of traditional farmers' markets. By doing so, we strike a blow against the anti-Jeffersonian forces of the prevailing corporatist economy and help sustain and restore the traditional family farm, which Jefferson felt was a key to the survival of American democracy.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day

It being Independence Day, it would do us all some good to reread the Declaration of Independence in its entirety.

In Congress, July 4, 1776.
A Declaration
By the Representatives of the
United states of America,
In general Congress assembled

When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces 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. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the Present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People; unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.

He has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.

He has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and Amount and Payment of their Salaries.

He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.

He has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislature.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:

For imposing taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule in these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Powers to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic Insurrections among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

So-Called "Oklahoma Citizen's Proclamation for Morality" Is Irresponsiible and Arrogant

The controversial Oklahoma state legislator, Sally Kern, known for her fiery rhetoric against gays and lesbians, her disdain for the separation of church and state, and for her childish attempt to carry a gun into the Oklahoma State Capitol, is again injecting her religious views into politics in a manner that would have disgusted Thomas Jefferson.

Representative Kern and several of her supporters are gathering at the Oklahoma State Capitol to sign the so-called "Oklahoma Citizen's Proclamation for Morality." This document makes the curious assertion that the current economic troubles facing America are the fault of homosexuals, divorcees, people who have children out of wedlock, and (just in case she missed anything) "other forms of debauchery." The document also goes on to say that the hope of the United States "rests upon the principles and morality as put forth in the Holy Bible." It concludes by calling upon God to "grant a national awakening of righteousness and Christian renewal as we repent of our great sin."

This kind of behavior is the purest lunacy, and any politician who indulges in it should be kicked out of office by his or her constituents at the next election.

It was Thomas Jefferson who coined the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state". He, along with James Madison, is the framer of the key concept that government and religion should essentially act as though the other didn't exist. Modern attempts to portray him as a man who would be friendly to the Religious Right (as Rep. Kern attempts to do in this proclamation) would be amusing if so many people didn't actually believe them.

The government has no right, and should have no desire, to pass judgment on purely moral issues. To adopt a phrase from Jefferson, if an action does not "pick my pocket [or] break my leg", it is none of the government's business. Government has no right to interfere in the acts of a citizen if they do not cause harm to another person, so it has no right to pass judgment on the morality of homosexuality, divorce, or children being born out of wedlock.

In the proclamation, Kern also blames President Obama for the economic crisis, not because he has made bad economic policy decision but because he has downplayed his involvement in the National Day of Prayer (he signed a the traditional proclamation, but declined to hold a ceremony). Obama's failing in this was not in doing too little, but in doing too much, for he should not ignored the National Day of Prayer altogether. As Jefferson said, in an 1808 letter to Samuel Miller:

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies, that the General Government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises and the objects proper for them according to their particular tenets. . . Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
If religious groups across the country want to celebrate a National Day of Prayer, they should obviously feel free to do so. But they shouldn't involve the government. It's the government's job to run the post office, not to publicly take sides in religious matters.

Sally Kern and the many political figures who think and act as she does are enemies of 21st Century Jeffersonians. Whenever they get the chance, 21st Century Jeffersonians should contribute to the defeat of these people at the ballot box.