Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama's Spending Freeze Good, But Not Good Enough

One of the major announcements that President Obama made in his recent State of the Union Address was that he would freeze federal spending on nondiscretionary programs in the budget. In other words, there would be no increases in spending on anything aside from defense, homeland security, international affairs, and mandated programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

It is estimated that this measure would save $250 billion over the next decade. But while it is a positive gesture, it is still only a gesture. The vast bulk of the federal budget is spent on defense, mandated programs, and paying interest on the debt, and none of these will be affected by the spending freeze.

To get serious about the fiscal crisis facing our country, we need more than just gestures. We need effective national leadership. Both parties are clearly blind on this issue, with the Democrats remaining obsessed with increased spending while the Republicans remain obsessed with lower taxes. In order to even begin to solve the problem, a Balanced Budget Amendment needs to be passed, massive reductions in our military spending need to be made, the mandated programs need to be reformed (which will be a painful process), and much if not most of the discretionary programs need to be abolished, rather than merely having their funding frozen.

Whether the political leadership in Washington has the courage to do what is necessary remains to be seen. Recent events are not encouraging in this regard.

Monday, January 25, 2010

State of the Union Addresses Should be Discontinued

Under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, the President is required to report to Congress on the "state of the union" from time to time. This has evolved into a tradition of a grand speech by the President at the beginning of the year, in which the chief executive lays out his legislative agenda and highlights the achievements of his administration and the challenges facing the country. It is usually aired live by all major networks and cable news stations, becoming a grand media event.

It hasn't always been this way. George Washington and John Adams gave speeches to Congress, but Thomas Jefferson refused to do so, sending only written messages instead. This may have simply been due to shyness and the fact that Jefferson was a very poor public speaker. But Jefferson also believed that the State of the Union address had the appearence of a monarchial ceremony, similar to the Speech from the Throne that the British sovereign gave at the opening of every Parliament.

The country would be well-advised to go back to Jefferson's style of having the President merely send a written message and not elevating the State of the Union address into a public spectacle. After all, one of the most disturbing trends in American history over the last several decades has been the emergence of executive supremacy, and the steady rising of the office of President of the United States into an institution increasingly appearing to be a monarch. An elected monarch, to be sure, but still a monarch.

In Jefferson's mind, the President of the United States was merely the chief officer of the executive branch of the federal government. Nothing more, nothing less. While more powerful and possessing greater responsibilities, the President is no more worthy of elaborate ceremonial trappings than any local mailman. If Jefferson could see the elevation of the State of the Union address in the public spectacle it has become, he would be a bit disappointed in us.

The gradual elevation of the President of the United States into a de facto monarch is one of the most distressing trends in American history. Believing that the people of the country are the sovereign power, the simple fact of the matter is that Congress, and not the President, is supposed to be the supreme organ of the federal government, as it has the closest contact with the people themselves. Every American knows the name of the President, but shockingly few know the name of any of their representatives in Congress.

In an ideal Jeffersonian republic, the President should send a written State of the Union message to Congress, which would be reprinted in the newspapers and read with interest by all citizens. But the public addresses the people would really pay attention to would be those of their own congressional representative at town hall meetings.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

President Obama's Response to Recent Supreme Court Decision

This blog has more than its fair share of problems with President Obama, not least of which is the massive deficit spending of his administration. But in his weekly radio address today, President Obama responded to Thursday's decision by the Supreme Court to overthrow all limits to corporate spending on political campaigns and he hit the nail right on the head.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Supreme Court Decision on Campaign Finance an Outrage

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned critical campaign finance laws regulating political campaign contributions from corporations. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the brainchild of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), had limited how much corporations could spend on political campaign advertising and imposed other restrictions specific to the final days of a campaign. Other campaign finance laws going back nearly a century had already limited the ability of corporations to directly fund election campaigns. Yesterday's decision, however, will allow massive amounts of corporate and labor union money to flood the electoral process all over the country, drowning out the voice of the people.

Somewhere, the ghost of Alexander Hamilton is laughing.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that placing restrictions on political campaign spending by corporations represents a violation on free speech. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Natural rights such as the right to free speech are possessed by human beings, not artificial entities like corporations. A corporation has no more an inherent right to donate to a political campaign than does a puddle of water.

The idea of corporate personhood is an insidious legal concept that should be rejected with maximum prejudice. After all, can the entity known as "Bank of America" or "Walmart" walk into a county courthouse and register to vote?

If the executives of a corporation want to donate their own money to a political campaign, they are as free to do so as any other citizen. But they have no moral right, and should have no legal right, to rob the company coffers of shareholder money and funnel it to political candidates their shareholders may or may not support. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous on the face of it. The same, by the way, is true of labor union bosses using the funds of the union members.

Beyond the abstract outrages inherent in this court decision, its practical impact is likely to be extremely damaging to American democracy. Without any restrictions, corporations will be able to use their gargantuan financial weight to flood the airwaves and mail boxes with virtually unlimited advertisements attacking or supporting political candidates. If the past is any guide, these ads will be mere twenty-second soundbites designed to create false caricatures, utterly devoid of any meaningful content. The grassroots efforts of ordinary citizens, the true currency of genuine democracy, simply won't be able to compete.

Genuine democracy can only function when all viewpoints have a roughly equal opportunity for expression, and that requires the playing field to be as level as possible. If the financial power of the corporations is allowed to sweep away the words of ordinary citizens, then our elections are no better than the sham elections held by tin-pot dictatorships all over the world, in which the ruling party's control of the media ensures that the people hear only good things about the incumbents and only bad things about the challengers.

This decision is terrible news, and unfortunately not likely to be overturned anytime soon. It is yet more evidence of the critical need for fundamental reforms of the American electoral system on all levels. We need public financing of elections to ensure a more level playing field, we need redistricting reform to prevent partisan gerrymandering, and we need many other reforms.

We can only hope that there will be enough people of common sense and a commonwealth interest among our elected leaders to help bring this about.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Interesting Column by Charles Lane

Charles Lane of the Washington Post makes a very good point in this brief online column. He suggests that the reason comprehensive national healthcare reform is so difficult to enact is because of the basic structure of the Constitution itself. Because the Constitution was written by men who lived in a time when the power of the states was dominant and the power of any central government was to be feared, the system put in place by the Constitution made it extremely difficult for any significant national legislation to be passed (except during a time of war, when partisan rivalries might be put aside).

It makes for some very interesting reading. Perhaps those people who want significant healthcare reform would better use their time in their own state capitals rather than in Washington D.C.

Republican Victory in Massachutsetts Gives Both Parties a Chance to Act Responsibly

The surprise victory of Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy has left the Democratic Party reeling in confusion. The unexpected result reduces the Democratic majority in the Senate from 60 to 59, meaning that the Democrats will no longer be able to block a Republican filibuster. Among other things, this development seems to have effectively derailed President Obama's much-touted healthcare bill.

The Republicans have proven adept at blocking the Obama agenda in the year since he took office. Their newly-acquired ability to sustain filibusters, assuming their caucus remains firmly united, substantially increases their political power. Republicans are hopeful that this special election result is a harbinger of more gains to come when the general mid-term election takes place in November.

Democrats, by contrast, seem in despair. A year ago, the party was celebrating the inauguration of President Obama and the elevation of the party to a more powerful position than it had enjoyed since the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Now, faced with a resurgent opposition and having failed to enact much of their domestic agenda, the Democrats seem as confused and disjointed as a man picking himself up after being run over by a dump truck.

The new political situation now gives both parties a chance to act like responsible public servants. Over the last year, the Republicans have not acted like a responsible opposition party, but merely as the "Party of No" determined to block any and all initiatives by the Obama administration for purely political motivations. They certainly have not had the public interest in mind. For their part, the Democrats have attempted to ram through enormous and expensive bills as though the Republican Party didn't exist.

Now that the Republicans have solidified their ability to block Democratic bills, one of two things will happen. It may be that the two parties will simply continue to snip away at each other and refuse to work together, ignoring the people's business and allowing the critical problems facing our country to go unsolved. Or they can do what the people have been asking them to do for decades: sit down together and work out compromise solutions that will tackle the important issues.

There are a few good signs in the days since the election. Immediately after the results were announced, there was talk of simply rushing the healthcare bill through the final stages of the Senate legislative procedure and sending it to the President's desk before Senator-election Brown took his seat. However, President Obama himself has firmly rejected this course of action, saying that it would be improper in light of the new political situation. The next few days will be very interesting to watch.

Because we live in a representative republic, the government should act only in keeping with the wishes of the great majority of the people, as nearly as these can be determined. Unfortunately, when one party is firmly in control, it acts as if the American people who support the other party no longer exist. The Republican Party did this between 2000 and 2006, when it controlled both Congress and the White House, and the Democratic Party has done the same over the last year.

Perhaps the two parties will recognize the futility of continuing this way of doing business and sit together together in the spirit of compromise and cooperation. But don't hold your breath.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Remembering Martin Luther King

It is strangely ironic to reflect that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Jeffersonian.

The dark side of Jefferson, of course, is that he was a slaveholder. Even though he personally supported the abolition of slavery, his own lifestyle was made possible only by the labor of the human beings he owned. Like most white Americans during his time and for a century afterwards, Jefferson was a blatant racist by any modern standard. For many, these facts alone is sufficient to cast Jefferson and his ideals into the dustbin of history.

It's often difficult to look past the failings of Jefferson the man in order to embrace the ideals of Jefferson the visionary. But Martin Luther King was able to do so. He respected Jefferson very highly and it's no surprise that he quoted the Declaration of Independence in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. At a very fundamental level, the vision of Jefferson and the dream of King fuse together, each embracing and absorbing the other.

It's worth remembering that this blog is about 21st Century Jeffersonianism, not 18th Century Jeffersonianism. We are not simply picking up Jefferson's ideas and trying to transplant them to our own time; we are also adapting and modifying them in the context of all that has happened since Jefferson's death in 1826. Had Jefferson been able to see the unfolding of American history, being the rational man of the Enlightenment that he was, he would certainly have changed his views on the subject of race. In our mind's eye, we can see Jefferson marching with King on the Mall in Washington on that day in 1963.

Thoughts on the Departure of Senators Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan

Earlier this month, two prominent Democratic senators, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, announced that they will not be seeking reelection this year. From the standpoint of 21st Century Jeffersonianism, the departure of Senator Dodd is most welcome, but the departure of Senator Dorgan is to be much lamented.

Senator Dodd has represented Connecticut in the Senate since 1981, and while he has supported some sound environmental policies and opposed the Iraq War, he is also corrupt to the core and completely in the pocket of the nation's crooked financial industry. While serving as the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he received a sweetheart mortgage deal (not to mention massive campaign contributions) from Countrywide Financial, even while he was pushing a bill through the Senate that bailed out the mortgage industry from its self-imposed financial crisis. As if that were not bad enough, Senator Dodd also inserted a loop hole into a bank bailout bill allowing AIG and other institutions to use taxpayer dollars in order to pay obscenely massive bonuses to their executives, the very people whose greed brought the country to the brink of economic ruin. Not surprisingly, Senator Dodd has received more campaign donations from AIG than any other senator.

The sleaze stories don't end there. Senator Dodd owns a vacation home in Ireland, which somehow tripled in value when the rest of Irish real estate was plunging in value. Clearly, the property was purchased at a price far below its actual market value. The man who helped Dodd buy this home, Edward Downe, had been convicted of insider trading and wire fraud back in the 1990s. Senator Dodd was instrumental in getting Downe a presidential pardon.

Senator Dodd is a man after Alexander Hamilton's heart: an officeholder who would rather use his influence to serve the rich and powerful rather than the ordinary citizens who elected him. Luckily, the wheels of democracy have not entirely halted, for the voters in Connecticut have made it rather clear that, in the wake of these revelations, Dodd had little or no chance of being reelected. Hence, his announcement that he is leaving the Senate is as welcome as it is unsurprising. Dodd will have to look at himself in the mirror for the rest of his life and know that he failed in his sacred trust as a United States Senator.

But if Senator Dodd's departure from Washington will bring smiles to the faces of 21st Century Jeffersonians, the departure of Senator Dorgan will leave crestfallen expressions of sadness.

Senator Dorgan is one of a dying breed- one of the last genuine Jeffersonians in a position of major political power in the United States. Embodying the virtues of small town North Dakota, he has always displayed an ability to cut through the complicated morass of policy-making to get at the real issues at stake. He has been a constant opponent of incompetent (corrupt?) military contractors in Iraq and American companies who harm our own economy by shipping our jobs overseas (especially Wal-Mart, a mortal enemy of 21st Century Jeffersonianism). And he has cracked down when he saw wasteful use of taxpayer dollars, no matter how small, as when he squelched a foolish proposal by the Treasury Department to hire a humor consultant. And while he initially supported the Iraq War, he publicly disavowed the war when it became clear that rationale the Bush administration laid out for the war was completely false, and that the administration had either been deliberately deceptive or criminally incompetent.

Perhaps most notably, Dorgan was one of only eight senators who, in 1999, voted against the so-called Financial Services Modernization Act, which broke down the regulatory barriers between banks and investment firms and thus paved the way for the current financial crisis. Dorgan saw the disaster coming and tried to stop it. How much better off would we be had we listened to him?

America needs a Congress that has fewer Chris Dodds and more Byron Dorgans. The best thing 21st Century Jeffersonians can do, aside from making themselves as self-sufficient and free as possible in their own lives, is to help elect people to Congress and the state legislatures who possess common sense, who resist the seductions offered by special interests, and who have a commonwealth interest at heart. The more we do that, the closer we are to the dream of living in a truly Jeffersonian republic.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Democracy Stirring in Egypt?

Since becoming President of Egypt in 1981, Hosni Mubarak has maintained his grip on power through a series of rigged elections, imprisonment of political enemies, and massive government censorship of the press. Despite being considered an "ally" of the United States, there can be no question that Egypt is a dictatorship and President Mubarak is a dictator.

21st Century Jeffersonians, as a general principle, oppose American intervention in the affairs of other countries, noting that these have historically done little good and much evil. But this does not mean we ignore what goes on beyond our shores, and we should always cheer on and provide moral support to those who seek to bring democracy and representative government to their own nations. We saw this nearly happen last year when the people of Iran launched a massive series of protests against fraudulent election results.

In this spirit, 21st Century Jeffersonians should applaud the current activities of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner best known to Americans as the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He has been making statements indicated that he may run for President of Egypt when the next election takes place in 2011. If he did so, it would present a significant challenge to President Mubarak, who, at 81 years of age, is reportedly grooming his son Gamal to succeed him when he either dies or leaves the Presidency.

As a Nobel Peace Prize winner who commands immense international respect, ElBaradei could not be treated by Mubarak in the same manner as other opposition politicians (the last candidate to challenge Mubarak in a presidential election, Ayman Nour, was convicted on trumped-up charges of forgery and thrown in jail for four years). Egypt's economy only keeps its head above water with the help of the United States and Europe, and while they have been willing to close their eyes to Mubarak's dictatorial tendancies in the past, it would be impossible to do so with ElBaradei in the picture. His international profile is simply too large.

The prospect of an ElBaradei candidacy has rejunivated the stagnant political scene in Egypt and Egyptians seem excited by the prospect of a credible choice in the upcoming election. With Mubarak and his security forces having ruled Egypt with an iron fist for so many years, and with elections having been long recognized as fraudulent farces, the Egyptian people are hungry for democracy and a real chance to assert their sovereignty, which, after all, belongs to them by natural law.

ElBaradei seems open to the idea of running for President, but has said he will only do so if there were guarantees that the election would be free and fair, including international observers and equal time for all candidates in the Egyptian media. Considering Mubarak's past record, these requirements seem unlikely to materialize. Indeed, the Egyptian constitution effectively limits candidates for President to a few people selected by the ruling party, so it's possible that ElBaradei would not be allowed to run at all.

Again, it is not the business of the United States to stick its nose into the internal affairs of other nations. But we can hope that Mubarak sees the way history is moving and agrees to a free and fair election in 2011. The ideals of Thomas Jefferson may have emerged in America, but they are equally valid the world over.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bipartisan Senate Pair Team Up to Tackle National Fiscal Crisis

21st Century Jeffersonians believe that the most important issue facing the United States today is not terrorism, or healthcare, or immigration. Important as those issues are, they pale in comparison with the most critical challenge of all.

The national debt.

As of today, the national debt is $12.3 trillion and rising by about $3.92 billion every day. The enormous costs of our mandated social programs like Social Security and Medicare, the sickeningly bloated military budget and the wars being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unnecessary waste that is endemic on the federal level have completely bankrupted the nation.

Our current political leadership in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, would like to pretend that this crisis simply doesn't exist, and therefore are continuing to spend money as if it grows on trees. They can only do this, of course, by passing the buck onto succeeding generations. In order to pay for our present extravagance, we are quite literally stealing money from our children and grandchildren.

Jefferson believed that fiscal discipline was one of the two greatest responsibilities of political leadership (the other was avoiding war). He believed that running a government at a deficit was a greater evil than higher taxation. Indeed, he stated explicitly that if government on any level had to borrow money , it had a moral duty to immediately implement a tax to ensure that the debt was paid off within twenty years. To do otherwise was not only poor fiscal policy, but a moral crime.

Both Republicans and Democrats regularly accuse the other of creating this crisis. The fact is that they are both equally to blame. When President Bush took office in 2001, his administration and the Republican-controlled Congress took a large budget surplus (which obviously should have been spent on paying down the debt) and turned it into a massive budget deficit by cutting taxes for the rich and launching an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. A year ago, when President Obama took office, his administration and a Democratic Congress embarked on an even bigger spending spree, passing a stimulus bill totalling nearly $800 billion and transforming an already horrible fiscal situation into an absolutely catastrophic one.

It should come as no surprise that the last time the budget was balanced was when one party controlled the White House and the other party controlled Congress. A bipartisan approach to this crisis is essential to solving it, and in that spirit, two members of the Senate from opposite sides of the aisle have come together to lay out an interesting joint proposal.

Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, have proposed creating a bipartisan commission of 18 members (eight congressional Democrats, eight congressional Republicans, and two representatives from the administration) to study various proposals for lowering the deficit and getting the national debt under control. If 14 of the 18 members could agree on a plan, then it would be sent to the House and Senate for an up-or-down vote, but would need to be approved by a 60% vote in each house, rather than by a simple majority.

Here is an NPR radio interview with the two senators as they discuss their plan.

These two senators should be applauded for their willingness to face the problem fair and square. We should be under no illusions that this proposal will be some kind of silver bullet that will solve the problem, but it's a start. 21st Century Jeffersonians should immediately contact their own senators and tell them to support what Conrad and Gregg have proposed.

Monday, January 11, 2010

President Proposes New Tax on Wall Street Banks

According to this story from the Associated Press, the Obama Administration is considering a new tax on those Wall Street banks which benefited from the taxpayer-funded, government-run Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The goal of the proposed tax would be to recoop any money lost to the federal government as a result of expending TARP funds and to help balance the woefully-unbalanced federal budget.

This is good news, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should wholeheartedly support this proposal. It is only right and fair that these banks pay an additional tax after having been bailed out by the federal government. Furthermore, considering the fiscal crisis, this new bank tax would be a most welcome stream of additional revenue (although, truth be told, persuading the federal government to use the money for deficit reduction is likely to be an uphill battle).

In any case, Wall Street clearly needs to be reigned in, and an additional tax on these banks would be a welcome addition to any new regulations on their activities that may emerge from the current Congress. These people ruined the lives of millions of American citizens, and brought the country to the brink of total econoic collapse, merely to line their own pockets with obscene multi-million dollar bonuses. While millions of Americans were losing their jobs and homes because of the mismanagement and greed of Wall Street, the bank executives were popping open champagne bottles.

These banks only survived because they were bailed out by extremely reluctant American taxpayers. But even after that, we now see the Wall Street fat cats already back to their old tricks again, preparing to pay out billions of dollars in bonuses even before they have paid back the taxpayers. This is something that should outrage every American citizen.

Let's hope President Obama's bank tax proposal is successful, and that a serious financial regulation reform package can get through Congress. Thus far, Obama has been far too soft on the bankers, despite occasional populist rhetoric on the subject. It's high time for him to take the kid gloves off and crack down on them. In a truly just world, many of these investment bankers would be in jail. Slapping them with an additional tax, however, is a good place to start.

What Would Jefferson Think of the Healthcare Debate?

Thomas Jefferson would have been rather stunned by the debate on the future of America's healthcare system currently unfolding in Congress. As a man of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the very concept of a healthcare system would have been alien to him, and it would have taken him some time to adjust to it. Jefferson would certainly have been delighted and amazed by the astonishing progress that has been made in medical science since his time, and would certainly want its fruits to be available to all citizens. Indeed, it could be argued that access to proper healthcare is part of a person's inalienable right to life. But how to ensure it?

After familiarizing himself with the debate, Jefferson would have first pointed out that personal responsibility is the most important aspect to this question, and he would have been dismayed by its near-total lack of mention in the debate. Americans, he would quickly say, would do more for their own health if they simply took a thirty minute walk every day than if they created the best healthcare system in the world. But aside from this, what manner of public policy would Jefferson call for in the healthcare debate?

One of the key sticking points in the healthcare bill that is to emerge from negotiations between the House and the Senate is whether it should include the so-called Public Option, a program to be offered by the federal government to compete with private insurance plans. The House bill includes it, while the Senate bill excludes it. Its proponents say it is the only way to ensure proper coverage for a large segment of the American populace, while its detractors say it would lead to a collapse of the private healthcare system altogether.

Jefferson would almost certainly oppose the Public Option, because he opposed virtually any measure that increased the power of the central government. He clearly saw that every increase in the power of the central goverment made the people less free, and enacting the public option would certainly be a massive accumulation of goverment power. Even if the federal government had the very best of intentions, it would be a blow to the self-reliance of the people and, therefore, to their freedom.

But Jefferson equally understood that the government was not the only threat to the liberty of the people, and he would have opposed private health insurance companies when they sought to rob Americans of their right to healthcare. The image of private companies denying coverage to citizens because of their past medical history would have struck Jefferson as immoral and unacceptable. He saw the government as the protector of the rights of the citizens, so it seems clear that he would have supported those provisions of the bill which prohibit private health insurance companies from discriminating against citizens based on their past medical history.

In short, Jefferson would have opposed the government becoming a provider of healthcare itself, but he would have supported reasonable government regulation of private healthcare companies to ensure that they couldn't deny Americans their right to health insurance. He would be rational enough to recognize that there had to be some government involvement in the healthcare system, but he would have striven to make sure that this was limited as much as possible to local and state governments, and that federal involvement was kept to an absolute minimum.

Both the House and the Senate versions of the bill prohibit taxpayer money from being used to pay for abortions, and Jefferson would have approved of this. While it's impossible to know what Jefferson would have thought about abortion in general, he certainly would have opposed a person being compelled to pay taxes to support a practice he or she found morally repugnant.

Jefferson, as a rational man, would also ask us to look at the multitude of examples provided by the experiences of other nations and see what miht be emulated in an American environment. What does the healthcare of France do well, which we might do as well? Or Germany? Or Japan? The all-too-common American practice of ignoring what works well in other countries would have dismayed Jefferson, especially on such an important matter as this.

And finally, Jefferson would have been kept up at night by the thought of how much the final bill that emerges from Congress was going to cost. While always in favor of low taxes, he would have approved of the measures in both versions of the bill to pay for the expense through increased tax on higher-income earners, because he firmly believed that deficit spending was a greater evil than taxation. Still, he would call on us to do everything in power to minimize the cost to taxpayers, while still ensuring the provision of affordable healthcare to every American.

Between the House and Senate versions of the healthcare bill, it's rather clear that Jefferson would consider the Senate verson to be superior. But he would still consider it too expensive and call for additional revisions to reduce cost and curtail the involvement of the federal government. To the greatest extent possible, Jefferson would want decisions regarding healthcare to be kept local and personal.

This does not mean that Jefferson would want to maintain the status quo on healthcare. Believing as he would that access to the fruits of medical science is an inalienable human right, he would recognize that the current system allow private companies to deny this right to Americans and that this wrong needed to be righted.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why We Must Protect the Financial System from the Hamiltonians

This column in the New York Times by Frank Rich is an absolute must-read piece. He begins by pointing our, quite correctly, that the damage done to the United States by those responsible for the financial crisis that sparked the 2009 "Great Recession" was, in a certain sense, greater than that which might be caused by an Al-Qaeda terrorist attack. From this, he makes the obvious point that we must guard against a repeat of the recent looting of the nation by Wall Street executives just as assiduously as we would guard against another Al-Qaeda terrorist attack.

The men and women responsible for the disaster on Wall Street that has unfolded over recent years- and they number in the thousands- have escaped any meaningful punishment. Sadly, this is not surprising. Thanks to the armies of lobbyists the Hamiltonians employ on Capitol Hill, Congress has never passed any meaningful legislation prohibiting the unscrupulous activities the Wall Streeters that lead to the economic crisis (and, lest it be forgotten, ruined lives of millions of American citizens).

Adding insult to injury, of course, was the fact that American taxpayers were forced to shell out the money to save the massive Wall Street financial institutions, even as the executives have continued paying themselves billions of dollars in obscene bonuses.

Thomas Jefferson would not be at all surprised by the financial crisis that has unfolded over the past few years, and he would point out the fitting irony that it was caused by the greed and unscrupulousness of men and women working within a few hundred yards of where Alexander Hamilton was buried. The struggle between Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism did not end in the early 1800s, but continued to rage even in our own day. Indeed, the contest is as fierce as ever.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Film Recommendation: Food, Inc.

In Jefferson's time, the greatest threat to liberty came from overbearing governmental power, first from the British and later from the Hamiltonians. If he could take a peek into our own time, however, he would see the unrestrained greed and arrogance of corporate power to be just as great a threat as that of government. Indeed, it often seems that those two go hand-in-hand, working together to reduce the American people to a state of dependence.

Nothing would terrify Jefferson more than the control multinational corporations have over the nation's food supply. In his time, more than nineteen out of twenty citizens were independent farmers entirely self-sufficient in terms of food. In our time, independent farmers have virtually vanished as a segment of society. Only about two percent of Americans today are farmers, and most of those have been reduced to the status of servants of the big multinational corporations.

It might seem infinitely more convenient for an American citizen to go to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread than for him to grow it and produce it himself, but the unseen costs are astronomical. By allowing something as fundamental as our food supply to be taken out of our own individual control, we have perhaps gained a bit of comfort, but only at the price of freedom. Even worse, we have little or no idea how the multinational food corporations are producing the food itself.

A wonderful documentary, Food, Inc., hit the theaters last year and is now available for rental. Better than any previous documentary on the subject, it lays out the facts of how the big multinational corporations have taken control of the nation's food supply, how they disdain the health and safety of our citizens in pursuit of profits, and how their lobbying of the federal government allows them to avoid any meaningful regulation which might help protect the American people. Directed by Robert Kenner and featuring authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food), this movie cannot be recommended strongly enough.

Watch the trailer below.

Find this movie and watch it whenever you get the chance. Better yet, invite a bunch of friends over and watch it together while eating a meal made from ingredients purchased entirely at the local farmer's market.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Obama Administration's Efforts to Improve Science and Math Education Would Be Better Left to the States

President Obama announced today that the federal government will be allocating $250 million to improve training for science and math teachers throughout the country. While believing that the President is well-intended and agreeing with him that the international rankings of American students in math and science need to be improved, 21st Century Jeffersonians should view this effort as a misguided assertion of federal power and yet another erosion of the principles of federalism.

The Constitution does not delegate any powers to the federal government in the field of education, which is an issue that should be left entirely to the states. In the last half century, especially since the establishment of the Department of Education in 1980, the federal governmnt in Washington has encroached continually on the independence of state governments in matters of education. Different states have different requirements, and the idea that a congressman in Vermont understands the needs of a student in Oregon better that the local schoolboard is simply ridiculous.

Furthermore, while $250 million may be a very small sliver of the overall federal budget, every single one of those dollars makes the disastrous fiscal situation of the federal government that much worse. It can easily be argued that the money would have been spent in reducing the deficit.

Wherever federal money goes, federal control will inevitably follow, even with the best of intentions. State and local governments should be working hard to improve the quality of math and science education (and, indeed, education in general) because that is part of their duties to their citizens. But as failed efforts like the No Child Left Behind Act have amply demonstrated, interventions by the federal government into the education system usually produce little or no good and a great deal of trouble.

Thanks, Mr. President. But no thanks.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

So, the first decade of the 21st Century has come to an end. It certainly hasn't gone as planned. Speaking frankly, the hopes we all felt on New Year's Eve of 1999, when we saw out one millenium and welcomed in another, have not come to pass the way we expected.

Ten years ago, the world seemed energized by tremendous optimism. The Soviet Union was gone and the Cold War was a memory; the possibility of a general war between major powers seemed ridiculous. Terrorism was an admitted problem, but the horrors of the 9/11 attacks had not yet been experienced. The global economy was humming along and there seemed no reason for it to stop. Science and technology were making rapid gains. More than perhaps any time in history, the future looked bright and sunny.

But almost immediately into the new decade, things began to go wrong. The first disaster was the horribly undemocratic election of George W. Bush in the 2000 election, when half a million more Americans voted for Al Gore than for Bush and the result in the state of Florida was settled by a biased Supreme Court rather than a fair recount of the votes.

At the same time, the booming economyof the 1990s morphed into te sluggish economy that would characterize the first decade of the 21st Century. This was largely on account of the "dot com" bubble bursting, but the situation was made worse by Republican fiscal policies, which helped the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class, and took a federal budget surplus and turned it into a deficit. Uncertain economic times would characterize the entire decade.

Then, of course, we had the horrors of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. For the remainder of the decade, the political and diplomatic activities of the United States would revolve around the threat of terrorism. The image of a world largely at peace, which seemed obtainable in 1999, was shattered.

And finally, we had the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the resulting war which has dragged on to the present day. While the campaign in Afghanistan was undertaken in response to a direct attack, we now know that Iraq was no threat to the United States and that the claim that it possessed weapons of mass destruction was a mere excuse used to justify the invasion. 4,400 Americans, and a much larger number of innocent Iraqis, have paid the ultimate price.

The great thing about New Year's Day is that is presents the possibility of a fresh start. In the next decade, we can hope that our country will avoid foolisly stumbling into unnecessary wars, enact sensible legislation to deal with critical problems and pursue more sound fiscal policies. And while we're in such a hopeful mood, we can even envision the implementation of critical political reforms that are so desperately needed.

So, on this New Year's Day, let's hope that the coming decade is one of peace and prosperity, rather than war and disorder. Jefferson would certainly raise a glass of Bordeaux to such a toast.