Monday, October 26, 2009

Searching for Jeffersonian Economics in the 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

Public Buildings Should be of High Architectual Quality

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Is NATO Necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

Public Financing Would Help Reduce Influence of Corporate Money in Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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