Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

August 5, 2009

Democracy means never having to say you’re sorry . . . to the government

Filed under: Government,Historians,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:23 pm

I have found that even most historians don’t want to give government credit for important developments, preferring a universe in which all people are the agents of their own destinies. And that’s fine, Americans are conditioned to think that way, and at least historians usually know enough about the social and institutional details of American life to understand the stiff challenges most people have faced in trying to take control of their lives. But imagine the chore involved in selling a government program to ordinary Americans who have the same conditioning, but know none of those details, or refuse to acknowledge them. One example would be the detail that we already have a huge government-run health care system called Medicare that senior citizens would fight to keep . . . the government out of? The president speaks ruefully about some of his mail:

[Via TPM]: The Washington Post reported a similar anecdote from a recent town hall in rural South Carolina with Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC). Someone reportedly told Inglis, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

Bob Cesca at Huffington Post has a funny piece with those details and more, emphasizing the fact that a lot of the people disrupting these Democratic “town hall” meetings on health care are obvious Medicare recipients. I have talked to more than senior American myself who likewise touted their Medicare out of one side of their mouths and decried “socialized medicine” out of the other.

This is American political psychology at work, the same kind of self-hypnosis that a lot of military people seem to perform on themselves, depending on government for their every need while refusing to intellectually or emotionally process that fact, the better to maintain their ultra-conservative politics in the world outside the military. Perfectly happy to be dependent on Medicare, millions of older Americans have just conveniently “forgotten” the fact it is a government program that should, according to their conservative ideology, be enslaving them, destroying their initiative, euthanizing them, etc.

I think this is why the health insurance industry really should be worried about the “public option” health insurance program being enacted. If the public option exists, people and small businesses will start relying on it, and about two weeks later, they will forget all about its being an evil socialistic intrusion and the thing will be as hard to get rid of Medicare and Social Security, which is to say nearly impossible.  Even the next Republican administration will be trying to expand it. The smarter right-wing ideologues and industry lobbyists know this very well. I hope the president and the congressional Dems are ready, because the onslaught of disinformation and disruption is not going to stop. Certain people have too much money and ideological crediblity at stake.

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Now playing: Ideal Free Distribution – The American Myth
via FoxyTunes

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June 30, 2009

An Interstate Running Through His Front Lawn

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Colonial Period,Government,Historic sites,Urban history — Benjamin Carp @ 9:21 am

The blogger Atrios likes to highlight articles about the incongruities between urban life (with its walkability and density) and automobile culture (which demands curb cuts, parking spaces, fast-moving highways, and suburban developments). He’s especially giddy when drivers are driven mad by cities–because suburbanites perceive them to be unsuitable as places to live, yet they still want to visit urban attractions (or work their urban jobs).  So when they can’t find a place to park, their frustration is palpable (particularly on internet comment boards).  For an urban planner, the only solutions seem to be: a) destroy your city, or b) resist the suburbanites’ car-centric frustration, possibly by coming up with transportation alternatives.

Atrios highlighted an article on the parking shortage in Newport, RI, particularly this quote:

Though a modern streetcar system may seem out-of-place with the city’s colonial appeal, officials say it could actually be a throwback to the early 20th century, when trolleys operated in the city. Plus, Bronk said, there’s nothing quaint about the city’s traffic.

“Does four lanes of automobile congestion, is that in keeping with the colonial period? It’s not,” he said. “Is a highway downtown in keeping with the colonial era? It’s not.”

Of all the cities I discussed in Rebels Rising, Newport is the best place to discern a surviving colonial landscape and surviving colonial buildings.  After that, I’d rank them as follows, from best to worst: Charleston (SC), Philadelphia (where Atrios lives), Boston, and New York City.  (Obviously there were other cities at the time, but those are the five that got the most attention in my book.)  Of those five, Newport has grown the least, economically and demographically, over the years, so it’s not so surprising that more of its colonial landscape survives.  The other cities have also struggled with transportation access in a lot of ways, and I’m sure visitors to all these cities (and to all cities, really) can call to mind the highways that lead into these cities, the neighborhoods that have been blighted by modern highway construction, and the public transportation alternatives that exist (or don’t exist) in these places.

All this is making me very grateful that my fellow fellow at the John Carter Brown Library used to offer me a parking space at his father’s office whenever I was driving down to Newport for dissertation research.

UPDATE: Why preserve historic buildings?  Because sometimes the findings are really cool.

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May 11, 2009

Privatization News Flash: Profits Cost Money

Filed under: Education,Government,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:15 pm

Via Dean Baker at TPM Cafe, I learn that a light bulb has finally appeared over the heads of U.S. policymakers, including the Congress. It turns out that they have started to grasp the obvious fact that turning over government functions to business corporations costs more money because private businesses have to take their profits and high executive salaries in addition to doing the job they were tasked with in the first place:

Sallie Mae, the largest private issuer of student loans, is now proposing to accept a plan in which the government is the sole issuer of government guaranteed loans. Sallie Mae’s plan is that it continue to be given the opportunity to originate these loans, picking up fees in the process. This proposal is in response to the Obama administration’s plan to get the private sector out of the government guaranteed loan business. There is ample evidence that the involvement of private firms just adds costs — approximately $90 billion over ten years according to the Congressional Budget Office.

So 2+2+1 really is more than 2+2 after all. I have never understood how anyone who has ever seen how much it costs to fly “business class” or stay in a business-oriented hotel during the week could possibly think private business was more cost efficient than government. But here in the lean, mean world of public education, I feel like we have always known. Privatization only saves money if the private entity sets out to do a crappier job. Sallie Mae seems to have followed that strategy and still cost more.

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April 15, 2009

Early American Solutions to Modern American Problems

Filed under: Conservatives,Government,Military — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:50 pm

The “teabagging” movement (the one that involves throwing teabags at things in the name of liberty, or something) reminds me of something I have often thought before when encountering modern right-wing “libertarianism” or “constitutionalism.” Though I never feel sure whether they are misguidedly sincere or mischievous or delusive in their observations and proposals, what such libertarians constantly seem to gravitate to are early American solutions (usually misunderstood or decontextualized) to modern problems that were actually much worse before the government institutions that libertarians dislike were created. Here is today’s example, which I learned of from Josh Marshall at TPM, applying some of his colonial history know-how. As you will see below, former presidential candidate and Republican congressman Ron Paul has proposed that a good small-government solution to Somali piracy would be to reestablish privateering, the practice of authorizing private shipowners to arm their vessels and play pirate against enemy ships:

Josh has many good points about the obvious problems with this proposal, and he also makes the interesting historical observation that privateering was “a classic stage of under-developed state power in which we may not have the capacity to have a fully built out Navy but we can subcontract the harassment and capture of enemy shipping and commerce by setting up privateers to do the job for them.” I see what Josh means, but it should also be noted that in the 18th century even powers with plenty of naval capacity (like the British Empire) engaged in privateering. It was just part of the tool kit of international politics, as we might say today, along with press gangs, mercenaries, dynastic marriages, and other unsavory practices.

Privateering was a form of economic warfare, a way of turning part of your civilian economy into a weapon that could be used against your enemy’s civilian economy and the underpinnings of his military machine. The practice, and the attitudes behind it, were part of what made the high seas a far more dangerous and chaotic place 200 years ago than they are now. The waters off Somalia may be somewhat hazardous to ply at the moment, or at least expensive for shipping companies, but generally the odds of modern ships being intentionally sunk, or being forced to land and be sold or scrapped in an unfriendly port, or having their crews taken captive (and possibly sold into slavery), or having their men pressed into service on a foreign ship at gunpoint are far, far less than they were. The creation of powerful modern navies and the worldwide revulsion against German U-Boat attacks on civilian craft during the 20th-century world wars seem to have made commercial shipping safer than it has ever been. The very fact that maritime dangers are a kind of amusing novelty for the U.S. and European media speaks volumes.

Privateering was also an example of the kind of legally sanctioned injustice and predation that was once standard operating procedure for almost all governments, especially in times of war. When the British and French fought their imperial wars in the 18th century, they not only issued letters of marque and reprisal against each other’s civilian ships, but each also encouraged their Native American allies to join the land-based conflict in the American colonies. Usually this amounted to authorizing the kinds of actions we call “asymmetric warfare” or “terrorism” when they are practiced against the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan. The frontier equivalent of roadside bombs and RPGs was raids against isolated settlements and ambushes of hunting parties and lightly defended supply trains. Scalp bounties were commonly paid for each enemy the Indians killed, and distinctions between soldiers and civilians could not really be made based on that one little piece. Some settlers may have had it coming in some ways, but innocents were extensively harmed in these conflicts, on both sides, often by design or tacit design emanating from the high ranks of government. To say the least, governments of the privateering era placed very little stress on the sanctity of individual autonomy and private property, a la Ron Paul, despite their greater willingness to deploy private initiative in the service of their goals.

The fact that creating some modern institutions, paid for by a few taxes, actually made life, liberty, and property considerably safer for citizens of the developed countries seems to be completely lost on most of our modern “libertarians” and conservative thinkers.

[Let the record show that these positive thoughts on the modern state were thunk, and written, immediately after sending off a couple of rather large checks to relevant taxing authorities. So you know I am not thinking with my wallet.]

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April 10, 2009

Clio Takes a Look at 2009 Tea Parties

Reader BMC insists that I post on this clip from the Rachel Maddow show.  (If you want to know what all the snickering is about, I’d suggest consulting an online slang dictionary, and I’m not responsible for what you find.)

I think the easiest thing to do would be to start picking out all the bad historical analogies and use it as an excuse to guffaw at the “Tea Party” movement that’s scheduled to demonstrate on April 15, 2009 (tax filing day).  But I’m not going to do that–instead I’m going to try and be even-handed about this, and see if there’s anything to this grassroots conservative invocation of the Boston Tea Party.

Unfortunately, the ideology behind all of this seems rather vague.  For instance, here’s what the website TaxDayTeaParty.com says on its front page:

The Tea Party effort is just a small piece of a much larger movement aimed at restoring the basic free-market principles our country was built on. The Constitution, for the most part, is being ignored by our current government and we intend on working together to correct the problem.

The Tea Party effort is a grassroots, collaborative volunteer organization made up of every day American citizens from across the country. We take pride in the fact that we’ve built a 50 state network of leaders and activists using nothing more than the internet, a few websites and a burning desire to restore freedom.

There’s not much there: the protesters are in favor of “basic free-market principles” and “freedom.”  (Well, me too!)  The site doesn’t say how the government is ignoring the Constitution, exactly–and if you dig a little further, it all goes back to Rick Santelli’s displeasure with the stimulus plan and the budget.

To the extent that the 2009 tax protests are part of a grass-roots movement, I think it’s fine to invoke the Boston Tea Party as your inspiration–although many suspect that corporate lobbyists and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News have a lot to do with organizing and promoting this protest, and even Santelli himself apears to have been the frontman for a rightwing foundation.  Still, if people are responding to the movement and even organizing local “tea parties” on their own, then that does accord with the local tea protests that sprang up in 1773-1774 in the wake of (and even immediately before) the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.

One historical analogy that fails, however, is the idea that the Bostonians aboard the tea ships in 1773 were protesting higher taxes under the Tea Act.  This is just wrong.

  • First, the British Parliament first passed the tax on tea in 1767, and Bostonians had in fact purchased plenty of tea bearing the threepenny-per-pound duty during the intervening years.  New Yorkers and Philadelphians, who smuggled almost all of their tea from Holland and elsewhere, were in fact outraged at how little the New Englanders were able to stick to their “anti-tax” principles.  In this respect, the Boston Tea Party was almost an apology.
  • Second, the Tea Act would in fact have lowered the price of tea for Americans–so the idea of invoking the “Tea Party” every time you think your taxes are too high is incorrect.  Instead, the Tea Party protesters were energized by a series of principles: the government was propping up a monopoly company (the East India Company), the government was perpetuating an unjust tax (the 1767 tax on tea which had been confirmed in 1770), and the government was using the revenue from that tax to pay the salaries of judges and executive officials, thus rendering them independent of local legislatures.
  • Third, and most importantly: I’ve been extremely dismayed at how many of the protesters say, “Taxation WITH representation ain’t so hot either.“  (I’m not just cherry-picking a random blog comment here–this phrase is everywhere.)

Well, no, no one LIKES paying taxes, but most people recognize that you need some form of taxation in order to pay firemen and astronauts, defend the country’s borders, try to ensure that our food isn’t poisoned, etc.  The point of protest against the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act in 1765-1774 was that “taxation WITHOUT representation” would lead to slavery–in other words, the colonists believed that the British ministry was arbitrarily levying taxes on Americans when those Americans had no say in electing members of Parliament.  In a democratic republican government, if you don’t like the level of your taxes or you don’t like how your tax money is spent, you have the power to peaceably “throw the bums out.”  And you certainly have the First Amendment right to protest and rail against the stimulus and bailout.  But the point is, the people of the Revolutionary Era had to fight for those rights to get rid of a constitutional monarchy–it’s hardly the case that paying taxes from a colony to a (partially hereditary) government that you don’t elect is the same as paying taxes to a government consisting of representatives and an executive that you DO have the power to elect.

On the other hand, to the extent that the tax protesters believe that their government doesn’t adequately represent them anymore, they’re arguing something more interesting.  If we stipulate that the current execution of the United States Constitution has failed, and that reform of the Constitution is needed (which many on both the left and the right have argued), then legislation and executive policy under George W. Bush or Barack Obama (or whoever) really is the product of a flawed system, and therefore (perhaps) as unjust as anything passed by King George III and the British Parliament. Still, before making this argument, I’d recommend picking up (for instance) Edmund Morgan’s Inventing the People, on how Americans came to believe that a representative government DID have the legitimate right to make laws in a way that a king did not.

By all means, let’s have a civil debate about Obama’s policies in the midst of the economic crisis.  And by all means, if we think that the problems we’re facing are due to underlying constitutional problems rather than the current legislative/executive solutions, then let’s talk about constitutional reform.  But (although I realize it’s too late now) please don’t abuse the analogy to the Boston Tea Party, even if such abuse (again, from both the right and left) is almost as much of an American tradition as the Tea Party itself.

P.S.  Also?  Why even mention tea bags?  In 1773 they were dumping loose tea into the harbor–the tea bag wasn’t invented until later–and you can still buy loose tea.

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February 24, 2009

Peace Dividend Revividus

Filed under: Conservatives,GOP,Government,Military,Obama Administration,speeches — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:48 pm

I started to write a post labelling President Obama’s promise to cut the deficit in half as the first careless utterance of his term, and not a very good idea even if it could be done. Then I listened to the speech tonight and twigged to what he has in mind. Or at least I think I have.

I am sure there will be some self-defeating, triangulatory budget cuts coming down the pike, but it seems clear from the speech that what Obama plans is a form of what they used to call the Peace Dividend, the conversion of now-superfluous defense spending to other more useful purposes. So, a good chunk of Obama’s savings will come from winding down our commitment in Iraq and “not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.” This target was linked with several other examples of pork-barrel spending for GOP-leaning constituencies, such as ending “direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them.” Amen! Munitions (my preferred more accurate retro term over “defense”) and agriculture have long been two areas in which vast sums of public money have spent to boost the  profits of people who immediately turn around and give some of it back to politicians who promise to get the government off their backs. The Projectionist Right, you might call them, wards of the state who can’t stop complaining about it.

The really clever and yet doubly praiseworthy bit had to do with the changes in government accounting practices Obama plans to implement:

Finally, because we’re also suffering from a deficit of trust, I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget. That is why this budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules – and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price.

An incredible and increasing proportion of the government’s spending on “national security” has been hidden since the beginning of the Cold War, especially in the Reagan and Bush years. Obviously minmizing these figures made it easier to make the typical GOP arguments for transferring money from domestic social programs to their favored constituencies, under the pretense that the federal budget was bloated with wasteful “welfare” programs while Baby Pentagon went begging for a new set of aircraft carriers. Obama’s more honest accounting will shock people with just how much of our national wealth we have been flushing down the defense establishment all these years. By revising the Bush era deficits vastly upward, it will also make this cutting the deficit in half promise considerably more achievable.

Call it a potential case of doing well politically by doing something really good for the cause of honest government. That is high praise in my book.

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February 4, 2009

Early American Stimulus

The Obama Administration has frequently said that it hopes to make the strengthening of America’s bridges and roads a top priority.  Since Americans need jobs as well as a better transportation infrastructure, the deployment of tax dollars to improve transportation would seem a natural solution.

Weighing in on this question from a historical perspective are Brian P. Murphy of Baruch College (a fellow University of Virginia Ph.D.) and Robert E. Wright of the Stern School of Business, with a working paper on Transportation Infrastructure in the antebellum United States.

Murphy and Wright observe the flourishing of private transportation corporations chartered in Early America.  It was these private companies, and not direct state spending, that helped lay down roads and railroads, dig canals, and improve the waterways in the years leading up to the Civil War.

This makes a lot of sense–when you’ve got a weak central government (like, say, England at the beginning of the 17th century), you charter corporations to do what we might otherwise consider public works.  Such was the genesis of the East India Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and a number of other chartered ventures.  The state still keeps its hand in shaping public priorities, but leaves the risk to private actors.  (Of course, the contradictions inherent in these public/private creatures became apparent by the end of the eighteenth century, as Adam Smith and the Massachusetts patriots were eager to point out.)

The paper argues, somewhat more tendentiously, that these private corporations provide a lesson for the United States and state governments in the current financial climate: that where government spending often throws money at wasteful projects, the private deployment of capital for transportation can be quite efficient, just as it was in Henry Clay’s day.

How you would raise private capital in the current climate, of course, is another story.  But in any case, check out the working paper for yourself.

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January 29, 2009

Read ‘em and Weep

Filed under: Economy,Government,Media — Benjamin Carp @ 7:16 am

Following hot on the heels of my post yesterday, where I wondered how historians (and journalists) can get support for their best work and find an audience in today’s climate, today we receive news that the Washington Post‘s Book World will cease to exist as a separate print section.

So not that anyone’s counting, but: independent bookstores all over the country have closed.  Libraries are slashing budgets.  Academic presses have been hurting for quite some time, and now corporate publishing isn’t looking so hot, either.  Amazon’s Kindle may or may not herald the death of printed books.  The flourishing internet used-book market means that most people need never buy a book in the first place.  And even if you do manage to get a publisher to sell your book, how will anyone know about it if mainstream book review sections are also being closed off?

Here’s Douglas Brinkley, in the linked article:

Douglas Brinkley, the historian, suggested that the book industry and book reviews deserved some kind of public bailout. “I think that just like public television — I think book review sections almost need to get subsidized to keep the intellectual life in America alive,” Mr. Brinkley said. “So if we can do that for radio, and we could do it for television, why can’t we do it for the book industry, which is terribly suffering right now?”

I’m not sure government subsidy for books and book reviews is necessarily the right answer (and besides, the government’s got its own problems right now).  But things certainly do look grim, don’t they?

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January 17, 2009

So that’s why they call it agribusiness!

Filed under: Government — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:21 am

“USDA employee accused of running prostitution ring” — a statistician no less. As Jefferson said,  “Corruption of morals in the mass counters of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no our age nor and nation has furnished an example.”

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January 11, 2009

Relying on DNA

Filed under: Congress,Government,Presidency — Benjamin Carp @ 4:06 pm

My last post referred to Lincoln, FDR, and JFK as “pretty good presidents,” but heck, Lincoln and FDR were great presidents, while JFK never even had the chance to finish out his first term.  I’ll let 20th-century historians debate JFK’s greatness, but I hope we can at least agree that there’s always been something a little fishy about the mythmaking surrounding “Camelot” and the Kennedys as an “American aristocracy.”

Ted Sorensen exemplified this during the panel at the New York Times.  When asked who New York Governor David Paterson should choose to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacated senate seat, Sorensen replied, “I always rely on DNA.”

Really?  How did that work out for the Hapsburgs?

Now this line also got a laugh.  And at the lordly New York Times, you rather worry that they were laughing with him rather than at him.  But does Sorensen choose his doctors and airline pilots this way?  Sorensen, of course, refers to Caroline Kennedy’s bid for Paterson to name her to the seat.  And at the end of the day, you can’t really blame him for his preference.

Still, it’s irritating.  I’m neither the first nor the smartest person to say this, but if Caroline Kennedy wants to demonstrate her fitness to hold a Democratic seat as junior senator for New York, she should run for the office in 2010.  In the meantime, Paterson should pick a placeholder.  It’s bad enough when Senate seats become dynastic, but you should at least burnish your résumé by showing you can face the electorate and win.

This is Common-place, so it seems fitting to give the floor to Common Sense (by Thomas Paine):

But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked; and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.

Furthermore, as someone at the panel pointed out, if you’re going to rely on DNA, then Andrew Cuomo would serve just as well, wouldn’t he?  Once again, Paine has the last word:

However, it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right, if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion.

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