Antiquated Constitution?

About one hundred years after the Constitution was adopted in this country Henry Adams was convinced it was already obsolete. As the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents he might have been concerned that the document tied the hands of the executive. That would be understandable. It certainly is the case that when it was written, one of the major concerns of its authors was to limit the powers of the President. Perhaps it limited the executive too much. Adams thought it made government stagnant and he hoped that when Grant took office the situation would be remedied. It wasn’t, however, since Grant didn’t do much of anything except make some bad appointments and get mixed up with the Gold Scandal. Adams came to believe that Grant was a living argument against Darwin!

But there does seem to be some truth in Adams’ concerns. A document written in the eighteenth century, especially one that didn’t even mention corporations, seems antiquated at best and positively outdated at worst. Large Wealth has gained the upper hand and turned our Republic into a corporate oligarchy. Further, consider the powers granted to the U.S. Senate which is the body that was targeted by Adams for most criticism. It has immense power and its members seem to be around forever gaining more and more power. The Senate is able to abuse that power even more readily than the President — something the framers did not foresee.

Madison, for example, was convinced that no minority, within or without the Senate, could ever stall the workings of a democratic system because the majority would simply sweep them aside. In Federalist # 10, Madison expresses almost naive confidence in the ability of a majority to eliminate what he called “factions,” or those small groups within and without government that would misdirect the public good. He says “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by a regular vote.” But then Madison was also convinced that those in Congress would be the best and brightest in the country at large, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary and partial considerations.”  Yeah, right.

Let’s consider some of the powers of the Senate listed in Article II Section 2 where, ironically, the document explains some of the powers of the President (note the repeated qualifications):

[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.

It is precisely the powers to “advise and consent,” as Adams saw it, that pretty much tie the hands of the executive and can bring government to a halt. In fact, as we have seen in our day, the Senate can simply refuse to act on presidential appointments and they remain vacant for years. During Adams’ lifetime, Secretary of State John Hay was repeatedly frustrated by the Senate’s reluctance to ratify treaties Hay had painstakingly arranged. The two-thirds majority required for ratification was the killer. It seems that this power is the one Adams most strenuously objected to as it ties the government in knots. It was certainly one of the most hotly debated topics at the time of the writing and subsequent adoption of the Constitution: would the President be hindered from doing his job or would he be given enough power to do the job and then abuse that power? It was a difficult line to draw.

But given the snail’s pace with which this government goes about its business; its susceptibility to the influence of “factions” and PACs; the lack of term limits on members of Congress; the persistent misreading of the second amendment; and the unrestricted influence of large corporations on the election and functioning of officials within government, a strong case can be made that the Constitution can no longer do the job it was designed to do more than two hundred years ago. Rexford Tugwell, part of F.D.R.’s “brain-trust,” years ago proposed a revised Constitution that was widely discussed but went nowhere. Perhaps it is time to reconsider.

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Britexit and Bigotry

The recent vote by the British people to withdraw from the European Union is making the headlines and has the international community abuzz. The “experts” pretty much agree that the major factor behind the vote is the increasing fear of foreign people coming into Britain. Isolationism by any other name is bigotry.

Bigotry, like the fear that fuels it, stems from ignorance and there are a number of causal factors that seem to be operating not only in Great Britain but in the United States as well — who, it is said, has just passed the mantle of the stupidest people on earth to the British. I have commented in numerous posts about the possible causes of this ignorance, to wit, the shift in news reporting toward entertainment and the deterioration of the school system. Interestingly enough the latter has been noted in Britain as well in the United States where both countries, in hot pursuit of “vocational education,” have fallen behind other “developed” nations in the intellectual skills of those who graduate from their schools.

F.D.R. famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is a wise and even a profound comment and was timely indeed. But it suggests what is impossible, namely that we can simply switch off fear like we would a light switch. Fear is a powerful emotion and it is fostered at this time by the entertainment industry and the schools — the former for sensationalizing every item of “news” and the latter from failing to make their students more aware and critical of what is going on around them.

But then, the schools have been forced to fill the vacuum resulting from the breakdown of families and the lack of any significant social role played by the Church. The schools, as a result, have for some time now been asked to raise our children while at the same time they are supposed to educate them. Both of these jobs are impossible — as Freud once suggested — but we demand it of our teachers none the less (while we pay them less than a living wage).

In a word, the only way to root out bigotry is through education, the acquisition of information (not misinformation) and the honing of critical thinking skills. Unless we as a nation determine that this is of major importance and begin to shift some of the billions of dollars now spent on “defense” into education and, at the same time, demand of the news media that they report facts and not more misinformation, that they not feed the fires of fear, we can expect to go the way of Great Britain.

Clearly, as shown by the success of a bigot like Donald Trump,  a responsive chord has been struck in the hearts (not the minds) of a great many Americans to build a wall and keep “foreigners” and “immigrants” out of this country. The very success of Donald Trump, as I have noted in the past, is testimony to the fact that our education system is failing and our entertainment industry has taken over the news media. We are flooded with misinformation half-truths, blatant falsehoods, and myths all disguised as the truth. And growing numbers of people don’t know how to sift through the trash and pick out what is worth knowing.

The result of all this is the fear that is almost palpable in this country and which was most evident in Britain in the recent vote. We fear that which we do not know. If we hear a noise in the other room and we know it isn’t the cat who is sleeping quietly beside us; we are afraid because we don’t know what is making the noise. Ignorance is at the core of fear.

Unless we address the root cause of this fear it makes no sense to talk about “having no fear.” We must gain control of our own minds and understand that those who differ from us do not really differ so much. We are all human and we are all in this together. Bigotry has no place at the table — except in the home of people like Donald Trump who simply don’t know any better.

Viewed From Up North

It is always enlightening to get the take on this country from the perspective of another. In this case, Gerald Caplan writes in Canada’s Globe and Mail about Bernie Sanders and about America’s mangled political system — and how out of touch we are with the rest of the world. It is worth a read:

Across the rich world, only in the United States is Bernie Sanders seen as some kind of extremist of the left. It shows just how dangerously far to the radical right America’s political culture has moved.
Sanders situates himself four-square within the tradition of American reformers like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the view of many historians, F.D.R., president through most of the Great Depression of the 1930s, saved American capitalism from its capitalists.
Nor does Sanders embrace such once-classic, now-abandoned left-wing nostrums as the nationalization of industries. “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production,” he told students at Georgetown University. “But I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down.” Throw in a couple of “hard-workings” here and there, and Comrade Bernie could jump right into the middle of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party.
Nowhere are the absurd limits of American politics better exposed than when Sanders is bitterly pummelled for supporting something really far-out, even near-Bolshevik – a Canadian-style public health system.
Last October, a voter challenged Bernie. “I come from a generation where [socialism] is a pretty radical term – we think of socialism [with] communism. Can you explain to us exactly what that is?” Bernie: “If we go to some countries, what they will have is health care for all as a right. I believe in that. They will have paid family and medical leave. I believe in that. They will have a much stronger childcare system than we have, which is affordable for working families. I believe in that.”
“What I mean by democratic socialism,” Bernie explained, “is looking at countries in Scandinavia that have much lower rates of child poverty, that have a fairer tax system that guarantees basic necessities of life to working people. Essentially what I mean by that is creating a government that works for working families, rather than the kind of government we have today, which is largely owned and controlled by wealthy individuals and large corporations.”
Whatever you call Bernie’s vision, bring it on! It’s what every civilized society should provide its citizens as a right. It’s what the NDP has long stood for.

But, as Mr. Caplan goes on to explain, Sanders has almost no chance of winning the American presidency. And if he were to somehow pull it off, Caplan predicts, “he will be gone within a month.” I’m not sure what he means by the latter statement, but it is clear to me that the American electorate is not sophisticated enough to elect a man who is regarded as an “extremist.” Their ignorance is exemplified here by the question Sanders is asked by “a voter” who doesn’t know the difference between communism and socialism. Nor is it that Sanders is going to be able to effect any real change in this country until or unless the Congress is totally separated from the corporations that at present elect them to public office and pull their collective strings. That seems to me to be most unlikely.

 

The Speechless President

Like so many others, I had high hopes for our current President. After his predecessor, he seemed like such a breath of fresh air. But it is beginning to appear as though that’s all he is: “a breath of air.” Except for his annual appearance on ESPN picking the winners in the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament (seriously?) one hardly knows he’s around. However, he does have considerable speech-making abilities and is able to hold the attention of an audience and make his points in a most persuasive way, so this gives rise to a question I have had for some time.

Given the unwillingness of this Congress — especially the House of Representatives — to cooperate in any way with the sitting President (for whatever reasons), why doesn’t the President use his powers of persuasion and the ready availability of the TV networks to make his case to the American people to put pressure on a recalcitrant Congress? Recall the ability of Ronald Reagan in this regard (old “Teflon Ron”): he was forever going on TV and pleading with the American public to have them write or call their representatives to get things done. And it worked: it boosted his popularity and got the people involved. In fact, we can go back to FDR’s use of the radio to get the public behind him as Churchill was able to do in England. These men knew the power of their position combined with the power of the airwaves and they used them to their advantage.

There was one time, especially, when Obama could have made use of his considerable speech-making abilities and the magic of television to get the American public involved in one of his pet causes. I refer of course to gun control and wonder why, after Sandy Hook when the American public was outraged, the President didn’t go on TV and urge folks to get behind his efforts to push some sort of gun-control legislation through a refractory Congress backed by the considerable power of the NRA. Public polls showed that the American public was overwhelmingly behind some sort of gun controls — at the very least some sort of waiting period, including checks on those who would purchase guns. But it didn’t happen, and despite a good deal of public posturing and a smattering of small, ineffective, steps on the President’s part, nothing happened at the federal level. The issue is not whether or not gun controls could help prevent the madness that seems to have this country in its grips. The issue is why the President didn’t take advantage of the support he obviously had in the American public and “take on” the Congress and the NRA. After all, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In any event, the President complains about the lack of cooperation from this Congress and is out beating the campaign trails to raise money to get more sympathetic members of Congress during the mid-term elections to help him push through some of his favorite programs during his final years in office. But it’s not all about sympathetic members of Congress. It’s also about getting the apathetic American public more involved in the political process and the sitting President could play a vital role if (s)he chose to do so. There is considerable power out there sitting glued to television sets, and that power could have been tapped into a number of times during this man’s presidency. But it has not. One wonders if that power might even have been enough to thwart the growing influence of the monied interests who seem determined to buy this government and who silently line the pockets of politicians they know will surely answer the call when the time comes to push their narrow, all-for-profit agendas.

In the game that is power politics, Barack Obama has shown himself to be inept. Given his status and his opportunities together with the precedent for “going public” he has ignored one rather obvious avenue for courting political success: the sleeping giant that is the American public that might have been aroused by Obama’s considerable powers of persuasion, but who now sleeps on undisturbed and unconcerned.

The Capitalist Myth

As the wealthy accrue more and more power, the middle class disappears, and the number of poor and homeless increases there are those that still cling to the myth that we live in a capitalistic economy that rewards those with grit and determination. The poor are poor because they lack gumption: they are so by virtue of their unwillingness to work hard and achieve the success that is there for anyone who truly wants it. This is the old “Horatio Alger” fiction that went out with gas lights. But it lingers in the minds of the very wealthy who like to think they live in a free-enterprise system that has made it possible for them to have earned their wealth and position by virtue of their own intelligence, determination and will-power. Some have, of course, but a great many have simply been downright lucky.

In any event, the fiction that we live in an economy that can be described as “free-enterprise capitalism” is just that, a myth. Joseph Schumpeter wrote about it in the 1940s and he pointed out that even back then capitalism in this country was being slowly displaced by socialism (gasp!!). And that was at a time when the middle class had political clout and was a significant part of our economy and there was real competition among a wide variety of businesses.  Schumpeter put this notion forward in his remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy where he also pointed out that today’s politician is a professional whose only qualification for public office  (and only genuine concern) is that he is able to get himself (or herself) elected. Schumpeter also has a number of wonderfully pithy comments about classical political philosophy and the notions of the Common Good and the General Will — the latter of which he insists should more accurately be called the “manufactured will,” constructed by the media in general and advertising in particular. He has a rather low opinion of ordinary citizens and the effort they put into political involvement.

“The ordinary citizen musing over national affairs. . . is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, [on which] he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . .Thus the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his own real interest. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

But I digress. To support Schumpeter’s claim about the demise of capitalism, consider that capitalism had devolved to the point that private property — which John Locke and Adam Smith regarded as the cornerstone of capitalism — has disappeared. The banks now own our homes and we lease our cars; we buy things on credit and owe thousands of dollars to merchants as we continue to “buy” things we may never actually pay for and certainly cannot be said to own in any meaningful sense of that term. Consider also that the concept of “family,” another cornerstone of capitalist societies, has become radically altered as many couples do not get married or raise children and many who do get married end in divorce; in general the family has evaporated as the need for children disappeared with the agrarian society of years past which gradually morphed into a commodified culture in which both parents went to work and sent what children they had off to day care. Before farms became highly mechanized farmers needed a large number of children, accountants do not.  As Schumpeter says, many couples now apply a rationalized “utilitarian calculus” to the question of raising children and decide “Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?” Indeed. But bear in mind that both family and private property helped to define capitalism during the Victorian era when capitalism reached its apogee — and came under withering criticism by thinkers as diverse as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

Further, open competition among businesses has become a thing of the past as well. It was safely laid to rest by F.D.R. in the 1930s, especially in his “New Deal” which included such acts as the National Industrial Recovery Act designed to end “cutthroat competition” within major industries. In any event, meaningful competition in business is a bit of a joke any more as the corporations have taken over and are busily running small businesses out the economic back door — an estimated 200,000 small businesses went under during the recent recession. With the collusion of obliging legislators, the corporations can withstand years of weak economic times; small businesses cannot. And on the agrarian front the private farms are being taken over by the corporations as well. It is calculated that more than 90% of the corn now produced in this country is produced on corporate farms. One might even argue that the corporations are writing the epitaph of the democratic process as well as the economic one as they continue to buy politicians and commandeer the political process.

In any event, it is time to admit that free-enterprise capitalism, if not Democracy, is a thing of the past. If we can agree that Socialism is an economic system in which the government owns the means of production, as Marx defined it, and we can agree that the corporations now own our government, we can perhaps conclude that our economic system is socialistic, in a peculiar sense of that term. And to coin an ugly term to describe our ugly political system, we have devolved from a Democratic Republic to become a corporatocracy. The notion that we are no longer a democracy may be debatable; the claim that free-enterprise capitalism is a fiction is not.

Antiquated Constitution?

About one hundred years after the Constitution was adopted in this country Henry Adams was convinced it was already obsolete. As the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents he might have been concerned that the document tied the hands of the executive. That would be understandable. It certainly is the case that when it was written, one of the major concerns of its authors was to limit the powers of the President. Perhaps it limited the executive too much. Adams thought it made government stagnant and he hoped that when Grant took office the situation would be remedied. It wasn’t, however, since Grant didn’t do much of anything except make some bad appointments and get mixed up with the Gold Scandal. Adams came to believe that Grant was a living argument against Darwin!

But there does seem to be some truth in Adams’ concerns. A document written in the eighteenth century, especially one that didn’t even mention corporations, seems antiquated at best and positively outdated at worst. Large Wealth has gained the upper hand and turned our Republic into a corporate oligarchy. Further, consider the powers granted to the U.S. Senate which is the body that was targeted by Adams for most criticism. It has immense power and its members seem to be around forever gaining more and more power. The Senate is able to abuse that power even more readily than the President — something the framers did not foresee.

Madison, for example, was convinced that no minority, within or without the Senate, could ever stall the workings of a democratic system because the majority would simply sweep them aside. In Federalist # 10, Madison expresses almost naive confidence in the ability of a majority to eliminate what he called “factions,” or those small groups within and without government that would misdirect the public good. He says “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by a regular vote.” But then Madison was also convinced that those in Congress would be the best and brightest in the country at large, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary and partial considerations.”  Yeah, right.

Let’s consider some of the powers of the Senate listed in Article II Section 2 where, ironically, the document explains some of the powers of the President (note the repeated qualifications):

[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.

It is precisely the powers to “advise and consent,” as Adams saw it, that pretty much tie the hands of the executive and can bring government to a halt. In fact, as we have seen in our day, the Senate can simply refuse to act on presidential appointments and they remain vacant for years. During Adams’ lifetime, Secretary of State John Hay was repeatedly frustrated by the Senate’s reluctance to ratify treaties Hay had painstakingly arranged. The two-thirds majority required for ratification was the killer. It seems that this power is the one Adams most strenuously objected to as it ties the government in knots. It was certainly one of the most hotly debated topics at the time of the writing and subsequent adoption of the Constitution: would the President be hindered from doing his job or would he be given enough power to do the job and then abuse that power? It was a difficult line to draw.

But given the snail’s pace with which this government goes about its business; its susceptibility to the influence of “factions” and PACs; the lack of term limits on members of Congress; the persistent misreading of the second amendment; and the unrestricted influence of large corporations on the election and functioning of officials within government, a strong case can be made that the Constitution can no longer do the job it was designed to do more than two hundred years ago. Rexford Tugwell, part of F.D.R.’s “brain-trust,” years ago proposed a revised Constitution that was widely discussed but went nowhere. Perhaps it is time to reconsider.