Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.


June 1, 2012

Droppin’ Hamiltons like Aaron Burr

Before I say anything, I want to make sure I’m not stepping on Jeff’s post about university presses and state and local history. I hesitate to even click “post” before everyone in this profession reads what he has to say.

And following that, I should say hello again. I haven’t posted since 2010, about a week after my wife and I learned we were expecting a child. What followed was a rush to “finish” a manuscript, a bathroom renovation, a semester of teaching, and a bunch of the usual things. Blogging fell by the wayside in this fanatical effort to manage time and maximize productivity before the bambino arrived, and the last 10 months have been an exercise in seeing what I still care about now that I feel like an adult. Suddenly, the ‘blog it’ bar got harder to clear, and the ‘do I have time to read this?’ question became far more urgent.

But here I am, thanks to David Brooks.

I know it’s a bit of a parlor game to bash Brooks, the New York Times in-house conservative columnist. In general, Brooks strikes me as a guy trying to do a good job in a tough situation: the cheese slid off the cracker in the conservative movement, to the point where we’ve got a birther-curious GOP nominee who will say anything and a House Republican caucus that looks like a circus (did you ever watch special orders speeches at night on CSPAN? Oh my.) The kinds of Republicans Brooks really wants to respect are dead, retired, or Democrats. And yet he has this grating habit of embracing false equivalency, following in the vapid tradition of David Broder of proposing superior ‘centrist’ policies that equate and dismiss the ideological commitments and organized constituencies of both major political parties.

If you read his May 28 column, “The Role of Uncle Sam,” you know exactly what I mean.

But what interested – and irked – me was that the centrism Brooks proposes for the country he’s rebranded as “Hamiltonian.” As in Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the bank guy.

Brooks thinks the U.S. government has gotten way too big. He doesn’t specify what that means exactly, but his opening line is that “Government promoted industrial development in the 18th century, transportation in the 19th, communications in the 20th and biotechnology today.” Within that frame, “the federal role has historically been sharply limited” and our guy Hamilton was “the man who initiated that role” He was “a nationalist” whose  “primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal.”

You should read the column yourself and not take my word for it, but in short, Brooks posits that:

  • *The Hamiltonian tradition has been followed by “Whigs, early Republicans, and early progressives”
  • *People in the Hamiltonian tradition “reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots”
  • *“generations of leaders [in this tradtion] assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor”
  • *Everything was going great until progressives, the New Deal, and LBJ came along
  • *The so-called Tea Party was a culminating outcome of a decades-long festering revulsion among conservatives who were becoming anti-government

And finally Brooks’ conclusion asks:

 Does government encourage long-term innovation or leave behind long-term debt for short-term expenditure? Does government nurture an enterprising citizenry, or a secure but less energetic one?

Never mind the shoddy history of political parties in the 20th century, or the false choices and false equivalencies posed in those last two sentences.

(By the way, can someone explain why secure people aren’t enterprising? Would we all be more productive if we were being chased by lions or sleep better if we took the batteries out of smoke detectors?)

I’ve been reading Hamilton in a serious this-is-my-career way for the last 10 years, and what’s striking about the Brooksian verision of the “Hamiltonian tradition” is how utterly ahistorical these claims are. That’s not surprising from a pundit, but David Brooks is no ordinary pundit. He’s a Very Serious Person – a public intellectual. Yet he seems to be profoundly unfamiliar with the contours of Hamilton’s career in government and politics – one that was, need I remind you, very short and very learnable.

Look, I’m intrigued by Hamilton. I hope to make a career and sell literally dozens of books by writing about Hamilton and some of the institutions he guided. But once you know anything about Hamilton’s politics, you know that’s why he should not be looked to as a guide to anything you want to describe as centrist or moderating. Hamilton was not representative of majority opinions at the Convention in 1787, and by the time he was through Washington and Adams, he was – with complete sincerity – regarded as a monarchist by many of the Republicans of 1800.

I could spend 2000 words rebutting David Brooks’ claims one-by-one, but I find it utterly perplexing that in an age when you can find many of Hamilton’s papers on Google Books for free, that you would say that Hamilton’s goal wasn’t to make people “rich or equal, that he rejected a politics of “haves” vs. “have-nots,” and that Hamiltonians think of capital and labor as equally-weighted forces in political life.

Let’s be clear.

Banking politics was contentious precisely because it was about winners and losers, the exclusivity of membership in networks of credit, and the privileging of capital over labor. The aggregation of political power within banks was what Hamilton’s opponents understood to be their most powerful argument against the multiplication of banks in general and the existence of the Bank of the United States in particular.

Yes, “nationalists” cared about roads, bridges, and schools. But so did Hamilton’s opponents, who we also have to call “nationalists,” too. And contrary to Brooks’ claim, Hamilton and his successors cared a great deal about jobs, employment, and security – it was why the U.S. had a tariff. In fact, the early American tariff is often cited in modern macroeconomic textbooks as a case where a tariff is justified – you’re protecting infant industries in your domestic economy that would wither under the pressure of competitive disadvantages if left unprotected.

And those long-term infrastructure projects that the “Hamiltonians” loved? At some point, they had to have been the near-term projects that Brooks detests. Glaciers and laser cannons didn’t carve out the Erie Canal – it was a debt-financed state project that paid workers for their hard labor over many years. Wizards didn’t lay train tracks or build bridges and maintain roads. You only get to do long-term projects by engaging in near-term planning, execution, and financing. At some point, the question is called, votes are cast, and the nasty business of politicking begins to become public policy.

I guess what’s surprising about Brooks’ columns – this one and others preceding it – is that the man seems so insistent on dismissing 21st century liberalism as little more than a basket of blind demands for spending and regulation that he has to carve out this absurd definition of Hamilton’s politics. It’s why he can write a column about Hamilton without mentioning the word “bank” (yes, really).

I’m not sure how useful Hamilton is to 21st century political thought. He was only in power for 12 years (unofficially) and killed in 1804. He never saw the Erie Canal. Never saw the steamboat Clermont, or the telegraph, or the steam locomotive, or had time to contemplate the effects of the cotton gin, or Louisiana land, California gold, and the industrial revolution. He never even got to savor Aaron Burr’s downfall, let alone think about the needs of modern powers.

My guess, though, is that Brooks might not be so keen on Hamilton if he knew that he hated speculators, was in favor of highly-regulated banks, state-supported industry, a tariff, and a sweeping definition of the Commerce Clause. The real Hamilton would have laughed someone out of the room who claimed a corporation was entitled to free speech rights as a “person.”

And the real Hamilton, I suspect, would find David Brooks’ “Hamiltonian” politics utterly unrecognizable.


December 14, 2010

Americans: Labeling Since the 1780s

In New York City yesterday, there was a meeting for a newish political group calling itself No Labels. Headed up by center-right Democrats and center-right Republicans and self-proclaimed independents, their stated goal is to find common ground on issues they see consumed by hyper-partisanship. They want things to happpen! Now!

We’ve heard this before. And I fear that – even in my own work – it’s possible that historians of our era stress the top-down hand-wringing about partisanship at the expense of a bottom-up explanation for their utility.

Of course political parties are controversial development in the early republic. They’re apparently controversial today. But it’s apparent in the 1780s that state legislatures, as institutions, found it difficult to function without organized coalitions, as did Congress in the 1790s. A key difference between Britain and the U.S. was that in the latter, out-of-doors partisan organizing followed from wider (white male) voter eligibility rules. Politics could become more democratic since partisans could recruit and support lesser-known candidates to stand for elections, letting representation drift away from the established brand names of a handful of prominent families. That’s why we see startlingly high turnover in the House of Representatives and stunning vulgarity among the rough yeomanry who populate legislative chambers.

Because many historians, I suspect, value their political independence and would rather focus on specific policy issues relating to preservation or education or civil rights, partisan commitments don’t necessarily come naturally. And they defy deep context – using a shorthand to link a constellation of issues and views to one party’s label. Sometimes these can be just wrong; other times, the distinctions among parties can’t be exaggerated.

I think this a moment when historians should speak up to defend partisanship. It’s tempting to listen to established politicians (and people who can’t win a primary) rail against the nastiness of political campaigns, but I confess I don’t understand the recent vitriol directed at people who passionately care about certain issues or who are committed to advancing them through party discipline. I, for one, care a lot more about particular issues than I do the fate of a party. That’s why I’m a professor and not party official.

But if I was a candidate, I’d want very much to be able to rely on a network of voters who shared my priorities, who knew something about organizing and electioneering and fundraising, and could make it easier for me to run for office without having to first be rich or famous. And I wish – very much – that there was a price to be paid by people like newly-elected West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who’s decided that his legislative mission is to protect “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” even though he can’t quite explain why he supports it, and doesn’t seem to even understand the issue itself.

The ‘No Labels’ campaign seems misguided and ahistorical to me. One of their stated goals is to “establish a Political Action Committee that can operate in the 2012 primary races of members who get challenged by the ideological extremes of either party.” In this case, partisanship itself is something they want to see eliminated. No wonder Manchin, along with Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, were headliners at yesterday’s event.

What is their alternative? A pluralism that isn’t too pluralistic? A set of leaders who think they’re above building broad governing coalitions? Or that understanding and coherently explaining their contrarian positions would be beneath them?


What we are told, in the most condescending terms, is that people unwilling to compromise longstanding political commitments aren’t welcome at the table. Or their issues aren’t welcome. So we can’t talk about repealing DADT because it’s too controversial.

It reminds me of the Gag Rule. Which worked oh so well. Because if we can’t agree about it, it must not be worth discussing.

And it’s a reminder that legislators who call themselves “independent” don’t just mean that they’re independent of party leaders – they want to be independent from voters too.

Think about it this way: Joe Lieberman, darling of the ‘No Labels’ crowd, was the Democratic nominee for vice-president ten years ago. Then he endorsed the policies of a Republican winner* and consequently lost his party’s primary. Lieberman then worked against Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and was even dressed down on the Senate floor by Obama himself after Lieberman – repeatedly – left Jewish audiences with the impression that Obama was a Muslim.

Yet for all this, Lieberman continues to enjoy privileges of committee leadership that are denied to more loyal – and reliable – members of the Senate’s majority party. And today, a thousand people got an earful of Joe Lieberman (CT-Lieberman) recalling his narrative of victimhood and the nastiness of partisanship.

It seems to me that this is a moment when the grassroots of a political organization clearly have reprimanded a member of their team for bad behavior – by booting him from the team. If they had continued to support him, what would that eventually mean for a legislative caucus? Think of how disruptive it would be to have freelancers peacocking around the floor of the Senate, with no shorthand to figure out who might be more likely to support things like a national bank, the American System, or a bill to aid 9/11 first responders?

It makes me wish Gordon Wood had been invited to talk to them about the differences between the U.S. Senate and the House of Lords.

P.S. Also funny: apparently the group’s logo – a zoological abomination – was ripped off from a lesser-known graphic artist. Probably because intellectual property is the exclusive purview of extremists.


November 19, 2010

Bridge to the 19th Century

Filed under: Business History,Early Republic,Economy,Government,Political Parties — Morning Chronicler @ 6:30 am

On the way to the SHEAR conference in Rochester this summer (if you missed it, they apparently have local ordinances prohibiting hotels from having lobbies!), I had the chance to see the Erie Canal up close. I’d seen it from a plane before, but at ground level you really appreciate the magnitude of the project.

But even more impressive than the physical structure, I think, is the fact that it was built at all. I can’t imagine that happening today. Building new bridges and public transportation systems seems like a thing of the past, made impossible by legions of nitpickers, privatization evangelists, politicians afraid of being blamed for added expenses, and people who have somehow decided that our governments are supposed to function like our households.

The project cost the state of New York $7 million in 1817, which was about 1% of the nation’s GNP at the time. In a smaller and agricultural economy, this figure looms even larger. Plus, the 363-mile-long route crosses an upstate New York region that was – and still is – fairly empty, to reach Lake Erie and a thinly settled territory toward the west.

Just think about the scope! The percentage of the federal budget that today goes toward transportation and infrastructure projects is 3% – a fraction many in Congress want to cut. Yet even that federal figure is smaller than the relative expense of the state-funded canal. If we invested 1% of our GNP in a single project today, that would be a $140 billion piece of work.

That’s just less than the inflation-adjusted cost of the entire Apollo moon program.

No wonder they named so many things after DeWitt Clinton! But he of course didn’t act alone – the sums speak volumes about the under-appreciated state legislatures of the early republic, where we find frequent bi- and multi-partisan consensus in favor of infrastructure projects, and a high tolerance for debt-financed economic development.

Compare that with the country’s current inability – and unwillingness – to address $2 trillion in infrastructure needs that result in the occasional bridge collapse, blackout, and routine, epic traffic jams.

This legacy casts an even more unflattering light on politicians like N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, who recently killed a Hudson River rail tunnel that would have been the first built in the New York City area in more than a century. The N.Y.-N.J. Port Authority and the federal government each were kicking in $3 billion for the $8.7 billion project, and N.J. was responsible for the remaining $2.7 billion. Basing his decision in estimates of potential – yet not probable – cost overruns, Christie trashed the project’s sponsors and the unions who were already at work on the site, and announced his intention to keep the federal money. Instead, he has to give it back, with interest, and may have put his state on the hook for $600 million already spent the groundbreaking.

What’s baffling about these decisions is that the country’s population isn’t getting smaller. At peak hours, the existing Hudson River tunnel has a train passing through every few seconds. It is already at capacity. Expanded rail access would not only serve the region’s growing population by reducing commuting times and expanding transit access; it would also raise property values – one study pegged the boost at an average of $19,000 per home for a total of more than $18 billion. If you captured that gain in real estate taxes, it would pay for the debt service on the tunnel’s bonds. This project would pay for itself in one of the densest populated corridors in the developed world, and the money could be borrowed during a period of record-low interest rates and paid back over 35 years.

When New Yorkers planned the Erie Canal, they hoped for federal support. When they didn’t receive any, they built it anyway, borrowing the funds at 6% per year. They didn’t spend their time searching for reasons to abandon the project, and unlike Christie and his ilk, they didn’t see a popular project as some kind of albatross.

We have an unemployment rate of almost 10% and more than $2 trillion in needed projects. We have students who have invested heavily in their own educations entering the weakest labor market since the Great Depression. And we have international competitors boldly investing in their futures – drawing provocative comparisons to the 19th century U.S.

What a contrast to 2010, when 75% of our national budget is promised to the military and retirees, and when we see firsthand how financial downturns can turn politically regressive. There was a time, until fairly recently, when politicians competed to outdo each other in support of public infrastructure projects. Most of the Interstate Highway Act, believe it or not, passed the Congress on a voice vote.

Compare that to the buzzworthy announcement that the northeastern United States will have high-speed rail by…. (wait for it) 2040.



Filed under: Common-Place,Uncategorized — Morning Chronicler @ 6:15 am

Well, hello there.

I’ve been meaning to start doing some light blogging at Common-place since Jeff invited me many moons ago, but work and life intervened to make time a scarce resource.

I’m not sure how much traffic my posts will draw, since I’ll be thinking out loud about page-turning subjects like political economy while trying to bridge the gap between my life as a professional historian and the world I inhabit as an observant citizen and newshound.

I think historians’ appreciation for deep context is what sets us apart from other disciplines, and it sometimes frustrates me (but doesn’t surprise me) that our work so often seems cloistered from a public sphere that’s decided context is irrelevant, or biased. Jeff’s posts at this blog have tried to bridge this divide and reach out colleagues and the public alike, and I hope to add to that effort.

For the most part, I’ll try to stick to what I know. However, I’ll surely be tempted to post some half-baked notions. But, hey, this is a blog after all.

And because it’s a blog, and not my full-time job, I have decided to keep myself anonymous, dear reader. Why? I think the reasons are fairly obvious. Our colleagues are often competitors, our promotion and hiring processes are opaque, and our so-called job ‘market’ is oversupplied, all of which amplify unequal distributions of power in the academy. This discourages junior faculty and adjuncts from doing and saying all kinds of things their senior colleagues can take for granted. So, if my pseudonymity bugs you, I’m sorry, but you should be far more upset with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for claiming the mantle of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay than an amateur blogger.

But enough of this palaver… let’s get this show on the road!


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