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the eighteenth century, especially one that didn’t even mention corporations, seems antiquated at best and positively outdated at worst.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.

Advertisements

The Trumpet Blares

I swore I was not going to blog about the Trumpet that plays off-key, but when he refused recently to correct one of the zanies in his audience who insisted that Barack Obama is a Muslim and THEN went on to say he would not “defend ” Obama by correcting such people, one must raise his voice in loud protest.

In what universe is correcting a blatant falsehood a “defense” of the person wrongly accused? It is simply a matter of common decency to set things straight, especially when it’s a gross insult based on twisted thinking. But, of course, Donald The Trumpet is a stranger to common decency.

One is reminded of John McCain politely correcting a woman in his audience who misspoke when referring to Obama’s supposed religious affiliation. Again, it is the decent thing to do and clearly McCain is a decent person. The Trumpet is not. He is a loud, misogynistic egoist who gets off on hearing his own name and is lost among visions of grandeur that are way beyond his meager talents.

The perplexing question, of course, is why this man has any following at all, much less one large enough to put him ahead in the race for the highest office in the land. The simple answer, which a number of folks have suggested, is that voters are sick and tired of politics as usual (I know I am) and want something fresh and new. But this man is not a breath of fresh air, he is a blowhard. And the fact that anyone would take him seriously deserves serious reflection by anyone who truly cares about the survival of this democratic system. The Founders never had this scenario in mind — in their willdest nightmares. They were convinced that the best and brightest would rise to the top like cream in milk. The key, of course, was (and is)  education — which is why Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. They envisioned — or many of them did — a natural aristocracy, not one predicated on wealth, but one predicated on intelligence, ability, vision, and courage. Very few of today’s candidates exhibit these traits, and one must look far and wide to find anyone who might in fact do so.

I am convinced that this is a mark of the failure of the education system in this country coupled with the fact that parents are too preoccupied with making a living to pay close attention to their children who are then left to the wiles of entertainers, day-care, and teachers. While entertainers are hugely overpaid, day-care providers and teachers are not trained to do the jobs they are forced to do — and are not paid anywhere near as much and their job requires. In fact, teachers, especially, are today held in low esteem by a culture that puts the highest value on those who make the largest income. Teachers make very little, ergo they are not worth taking seriously. It’s simple logic, or logic for the simple-minded.

This might explain why the very wealthy Donald Trump is striking a responsive chord in the hearts of so many people in this country: they simply don’t know any better. They cannot differentiate between fact and fiction; they cannot spot the fool that mouths false platitudes; they cannot see beneath the surface; and they cannot  make intelligent choices.

The founders weren’t wrong: democracy requires an educated citizenry. While George Washington did worry, on the whole the Founders failed to see that their democratic system would flounder because so many of its citizens are, in fact, uneducated and even stupid. The condition that was necessary for this republic to succeed has failed to bear fruit and the system has been turned over to the image makers and the wealthy who have enough money to buy themselves a government. This is not what Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe had in mind. Not by a long shot.

Go Get ‘Em, Harry!

A recent story tells about the attempts by at least one member of the political Establishment to restore this country to the democracy it once was. I am talking about Harry Reid who is nothing if not outspoken and certainly not everyone’s cup of political tea. But he is decidedly a man of courage in a political climate where the very wealthy are on the verge of taking total control of the strings of power. A recent Yahoo news story begins as follows:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid amped up his crusade against the Republican megadonor Koch brothers Thursday,  backing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to undo recent Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance.

In a speech from the Senate floor, Reid said a vote on the amendment would be held sometime in the summer, after the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up the amendment in the coming weeks. Reid also said there would be hearings on the amendment, giving Democrats a chance to elevate the campaign-finance issue to a higher profile in the thick of campaign season.

“Every American should have the same ability to influence our political system,” Reid said Thursday. “One American, one vote. That’s what the Constitution guarantees.  The Constitution does not give corporations a vote, and the Constitution does not give dollar bills a vote.”

The Republicans and others who are in the pockets of the wealthy will fight the attempt to amend the Constitution in the name of “free speech,” and from where I sit an amendment is unlikely, especially if mid-term elections go the way the monied interests want them to go. But it is necessary if the political game is to be changed back to some semblance of what the Founders had in view when they struggled so hard to establish a Republic in the wilds of America. As things now stand, the country has become an oligarchy — as a recent study has attested — and the ability of wealthy folks like the Koch brothers to have things their political way simply proves the point. In a word, they, and others of their ilk, are in the process of spending billions of dollars buying a government that will dance to their tune.

They have received considerable support to this point by a Supreme Court that seems determined to read the constitution with glasses provided by the wealthy and recent decisions have extended the power of corporations and the few very wealthy who can now determine the direction the political winds blow, as the story goes on to point out:

. . . the amendment would reverse some major recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, including  2010’s Citizens United  case and the  recent McCutcheon v. FEC  ruling. Those decisions have eliminated limits on millions of dollars’ worth of donations to political campaigns from corporations, labor unions, and generally wealthy individuals.

A brief look at history will show that people like Madison and Jefferson worried about the effects of wealth on a free government. While they tended to focus attention on the Aristocracy they thoroughly distrusted, they were dimly aware of  rich men who could simply bribe their way to power. If anyone knew about power and its abuses, it was those men who gathered in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, though the document they eventually came up with is flawed in many ways — the most serious omission being any reference to the power of unlimited wealth. It is an oversight that can easily be forgiven in light of the fact that in spite of their awareness of possible abuses of wealth in the future, they couldn’t have been expected to foresee a country in which both wealth and income are super-concentrated in the top 0.1% of the population, which is just one in a thousand.  But it is a flaw that an amendment could eradicate if it is possible to get this Congress to act as it should and not as it almost certainly will.

It is interesting to note in passing that former Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has written a book in which he argues for six amendments to the Constitution. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention an amendment to specifically limit the power of corporations, but he does mention the need to limit campaign spending, the need to prohibit gerrymandering, the need to articulate the principle of sovereign immunity which guarantees each state the right to sue without federal interference, the need to specifically include a prohibition against the death penalty, the need to modify the second amendment allowing for gun control, and what he calls “a supremacy clause,” which determines whether the federal government can compel state officials to enforce federal laws. Whether one agrees with Stevens or not, it is clear that our sacred Constitution is dated and in need of revision.

It remains to be seen if there are enough politicians of conscience to join with Harry Reid to push this particular amendment through. In the meantime we can only hope, though I honestly can’t see this group biting the hand that feeds them.

In Defense of Education

I have referred in my blogs to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent group in Washington, D.C. that has been working since 1995 to improve the quality of America’s colleges and universities — to restore the word “higher” to higher education, as they would have it. I have supported this group from the beginning because I am convinced, like Madison and Jefferson, that our democracy cannot survive without an educated citizenry and it is clear that our schools are failing. My hope is that if the ACTA can apply pressure from above — to the faculty, alumni and trustees, the power-brokers at our institutions of higher education, then that pressure will be felt all the way down to K-12 where the problems that begin at home are exacerbated. To this point, the ACTA is having remarkable results and deserve the support of all those who care about the survival of our unique form of government, whether they have kids in school or not.

There are those, of course, (including many of those employed by the schools themselves) who deny our schools are in trouble. But as the recent annual report from the ACTA points out,

“Instead of providing students with a broad-based liberal arts education, too many schools allow the students to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of niche courses on ‘hip’ topics. 82% of schools do not require a basic survey course in U.S. History or Government, over 95% don’t require a course in Economics, and over 40% don’t require any college-level mathematics. Instead, students take courses like “The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga” and “The Sociology of the Living Dead: Zombie Films.”

As a result, as President Anne D. Neal of the ACTA points out in her report,

Surveys show that college graduates, including those from elite institutions, lack fundamental academic skills and are ignorant of the very basics of citizenship. They don’t know the term length of Congress and they can’t identify the father of the United States Constitution.”

Further, I would add, they cannot determine the amount required to tip in a restaurant and an alarming number of them graduate from college at an eighth-grade reading level.

Clearly, there is a problem. As noted, the ACTA’s goals are to return “higher” to higher education, to hold colleges and universities accountable, to keep tuition and costs affordable for students, to reduce the number of support staff and administrators and to reduce the bloated salaries of administrators, protect academic freedom, to restore rigor and real accountability to higher education. As Ms Neal puts it,

“Ours is a call for an education of intellectual growth, an education that expands perspectives and liberates minds, an education that prepares students for career and community.”

These are worthy goals, indeed. And they are being achieved by this remarkable group of people as more and more institutions turn to them for assistance in re-thinking curricula and planning for the future. If, as hoped, this puts pressure on the lower grades to prepare their graduates better for the challenges of a viable education and for life after school, this can only help get our democratic system back on track. It seems at the moment to have lost its way and the failure of the schools is, at least in part, responsible.

 

Scientific Ignorance

The new chair of the House Science and Technology Committee is Rep. Lamar Smith. He’s a Republican from Texas so that pretty much tells you what you need to know about Mr. Smith. Texas is the state, you will recall, where a recent survey revealed that four out of ten high school science teachers think that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. It’s also the state where creationism is routinely taught as a science.  So it makes perfect sense that we would want such a man to head up this science committee where the first order of business, we are told, will be to convene a hearing to determine whether or not the globe is in fact warming. The fact that these men might not know a fact if it bit them in the britches is apparently not to the point.

Heading up the House Science Subcommittee is Representative Paul Brown (R-Ga) who famously said “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” I wouldn’t know if this is true because I have never been to Hell, but I will take Mr. Brown’s word for it; I assume he knows whereof he speaks. But it still makes me nervous to think that men of this caliber are leading this country. Madison and Jefferson must be turning over in their graves.

In any event, I shall pass over the irony that stares us in the face to address the comment of Representative Brown which shows an alarming ignorance about just what science is. Because science, if it is properly understood, does not allow an intelligent person to accept or reject its conclusions at will. Those conclusions demand our attention and acceptance — whether we like them or not. And I assume that Mr. Brown would prefer to think of himself as an intelligent person — even if we find it difficult to agree with him.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not a devotee of science. I am not a true believer. I think there are things science does not know and there are limitations to the scientific method. There are things in literature and poetry, for example, that are profoundly true but which cannot be known by science or reduced to scientific formulas. But this is because science relies on mathematics and it insists on quantifying data in order to measure and calculate. In its proper domain, however, when it follows the correct procedures and presents its findings to the scientific community — which then has the opportunity to test its findings — it makes no sense whatever to contend that science is “straight from the pit of Hell” (no matter how familiar we are with that part of the cosmos.)

Representatives Brown and Smith will be involved in the search for what they regard as truth with respect to the warming of the globe. This despite the fact that the government they are a part of recently completed a study involving 300 scientific experts (including NASA) who agreed overwhelmingly that the earth is warming at an alarming rate and that humans are very much a part of the cause. So the globe will continue to heat up, our weather will become more and more freaky with “events” like hurricane Sandy becoming more common, the drought in the Midwest will continue and crops will burn up in the fields while forests are increasingly engulfed in flames. At some point even people like these two men will have to admit there is a problem.

In the meantime they (and 74% of their fellow Republicans in Congress) continue to deny the obvious. They put me in mind of a group of morons sitting around a table in a cabin perched on the side of a mountain ignoring the increasingly loud noise from the approaching avalanche as they discuss whether or not they should (maybe?) shore up the roof.

A Rich Country

In one of his travel notes written in 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote “What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.” He was even then concerned about America’s preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself. The reason wealth interferes with freedom is to be found in the captive nature of avarice as Jefferson saw it. In fact, Aristotle had the same thought a thousand years before Jefferson when he attributed the breakdown of aristocracies to the accumulation of wealth; the aristocracy degenerated into an oligarchy, rule by the rich. The problem, as Aristotle saw it was that the rulers lose sight of the common good out of a growing concern with their own self-interest.

There are lessons here for us to learn, of course, as there are when reading the words of any great mind. And Aristotle and Jefferson were two of the greatest minds that ever lived. We like to think we live in a Democracy, even though the founders saw it as a “Republic” governed by representatives, not the people themselves. The people were not thought to be wise enough to govern themselves, though through education they would at least come to recognize those around them who were worthy of elected office. And some would become well enough educated to lead the others. This is why Jefferson established the University of Virginia: he saw education as essential even in a Republic, because those who remained in school long enough would be recognized as able and elected to office. The cream would rise to the top. Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy” governed by the brightest and best minds the country could produce. Madison tended to agree with him — as he did on so many other issues. The idea is originally Platonic.

But it is clear that, as Aristotle foresaw, our “natural aristocracy” has degenerated into an oligarchy. It has been called a corporate oligarchy (“corporatocracy”) given the fact that those with great wealth are the ones, in fact, who choose those who govern and later tell them how to govern. And the wealthy are clearly preoccupied with their own self-interest in the form of maximum profits. So Aristotle was correct in his notion of what factors lead to the degeneration of an aristocracy, even though he saw an aristocracy in a different light than Jefferson did. And Jefferson was also correct in saying that a rich nation could not long remain a free one. Let me explain.

By world standards ours is a rich country, though it is the top 1% who have the bulk of the wealth. But our conviction that we are one of the freest nations on earth is based on the misperception of what freedom is: that it is a function of the number of choices we have rather than our ability to decide for ourselves what is worth choosing. As long as the wealthy continue to control the governing body, not to mention the media, whereby they divert attention with entertainment and games, we will continue to maintain the illusion that we are free when, in fact, we are not. So Jefferson was indeed correct.

It is not likely that the wealthy will give up their wealth. Thus, if the nation is to regain any semblance of its freedom the only hope is education whereby citizens come to know what freedom is and realize that it does not come down to the number of loaves of bread on the shelves at the local box store, or the number of cars at the dealership. Freedom is a function of knowing which bread is healthy and which cars are the lemons: it is a function of knowledge and the capacity to think about what we know. Job training won’t get us there, though it is what the corporations want us to buy into: it is only through education properly conceived that we can realize this capacity. That is why a liberal education is vital to our political system as originally conceived: it sets us free and keeps us free.

The Scum Also Rises

In previous blogs I have explored the dilemma that faces anyone who hopes for real change in the political status quo. The seemingly insurmountable difficulty in effecting change is the fact that Large Wealth holds all the cards in Washington — giant corporations that the Founders simply never foresaw. Indeed, it is trivially true that money is the source of power in this country and those of us who have little or none also have little or no power. But it is true nonetheless.

The only way change can come about, it seems to me, is if large numbers of people get worked up enough to pose a threat to the possible election or reelection of one or more politicians who always hold a finger aloft to see which way the political winds blow. If a sufficient number of people are upset with the way things are going, an aspiring or incumbent politician might get worried enough to ignore the money that is always being dangled in front of them by Large Wealth. The internet could be — and indeed has been on occasion — a factor in rallying the troops back home.

But there are two keys. To begin with, there must be deep concern — enough to threaten the political future of the politician in question. Secondly, an incumbent politician must have enough power in Washington (key committee memberships, for example, friends in high places, etc.) to effect change. It is not enough for one small player in the game of politics to have a conscience; there must be widespread and general concern. Fulfilling the first of these conditions, however, seems increasingly doubtful, even with the internet.

Recent studies reveal that the Millennials (20 -30-ish), whom many regarded as our great Hope, don’t really care about things going on in the world around them — unless those things affect them directly. They don’t care that the environment is being destroyed by uncontrolled greed, for example. And these young people are not unlike their elders, it would seem. Environmental issues simply don’t rate very high on the list of concerns of most people in this country at present. Certainly not as high as the cost of gas for their cars. It would seem to follow that until or unless one can get the attention of self-involved people and rally them to a cause that they see as directly impacting their lifestyle, real change simply will not come about.

To make matters worse, those in power have learned that they can control the vast majority of those who vote by instilling fear and uncertainty and overwhelming them with double-talk that results in doubt and distrust. This drives people away from the voting booth and breeds apathy; it doesn’t lead to political change. The framers of our Constitution were optimistic that if politicians were not doing their job they would be voted out of office. One cannot read the Federalist Papers without being struck by the almost naive optimism that ran through the minds of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton. They really thought they had devised a failsafe system that would control power, weed out the weaker elements and allow the cream to rise to the top. They did not anticipate Large Wealth and apparently forgot that the scum also rises.