The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.

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The “Debates”

I often think of the Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858. These were debates to win the seat of Senator from Illinois — not president of the United States. Nevertheless, the two men debated several times, the first in Ottawa, Illinois, a town of about 9,000. As the debates began 10,000 people showed up to watch and listen for three hours in the hot, summer sun. One participant spoke (without interruption) for an hour. The second participant spoke for an hour and a half, and the first spoke for a half hour in “rebuttal.” For the most part, the debates involved prepared notes, but there was considerable spontaneity and a few barbs — but no personal insults designed to make the other blanch. Always, the debates focused on major events of the day, chiefly abolition and the slavery question, the preservation of the Union, and the role of the government in these major events. Newspaper reporters were on hand to take notes in shorthand which were later reproduced at length in their papers then to be taken up by papers around the country to be widely read and discussed.

Today, in contrast, — and especially in 2016 — the debates ate relatively brief (90 minutes) on television which allows the voters to sit in air-conditioned comfort sipping their favorite drinks and turning the whole thing off if they become disenchanted or disgusted. Most recently the initial debate involved one unprepared participant sniffling and interrupting the other innumerable times, being as boorish and rude as possible and making sure that his comments were directed at the person of his opponent or bragging about his own accomplishments which, he repeatedly insisted, put him (and only him) in the position of savior of this country, making it “great again.” His opponent sought to address the questions and remain calm in the storm and make sure she didn’t lower herself to the level of her opponent. Her advisors, predicting further attacks in future debates not against her but against her philandering husband 20 years ago, have urged her to go on the attack, i.e., lower herself to the level of her opponent. One would hope she will not do this, but one also knows that this is what the people viewing want to see. After all, they have cut their teeth on “The National Enquirer” and “Reality TV” and one of these participants is convinced that the debates are exactly that with “uge” audiences.

The fact that this approach to what was once a very serious business is so very popular, as is the Reality TV star who is center stage regardless of what the other person is doing or saying, puts me in mind of the movie “Idiocracy.” In that movie, you will recall, the minions have indeed become mindless. Because of devolution of the human species resulting from too much TV, among other things, the  IQ of the average American has lowered itself, roughly speaking, to that of a toadstool. TV is not the only culprit, of course, as genetics has been a large factor, since the bright people over the years decided to have no children, or only one or two, while the masses of humanity are reproducing like rabbits. This is what we might call a “leveling down in spades.”

The problem is that life is not reality TV and we have not become quite like the America envisioned by that movie. There are serious problems facing this country and there are qualified people who are able and willing to address them. But the media love a circus — it sells the peanuts after all — and they love the clown who brings in the audience to buy the peanuts. And, as we know, the media rule. Well, their sponsors rule, since they are the ones who eventually make the call.

So while we know that those in the media should be holding the candidates’ feet to the fire and asking them tough questions to see what they are made of, they will continue to allow the participants to have their way. A free-for-all sells better than at least one bright person struggling with tough questions. This is the age of “The Enquirer” and Reality TV after all. We get what we are wiling to pay for, even if we are getting ripped off.

Talking To A Wall

In light of the recent Senate vote on climate change, I had an imaginary dialogue with Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, who is the Chair of the Senate Energy Committee — a very important position indeed. The dialogue, such as it was, went something like this:

Me: So, Senator, it appears your colleagues in the Senate have finally arrived at the position scientists have held for many years about the radical changes in our climate that are already impacting on our weather and food production in disturbing ways. Is that so?

L: Yes they have and I was one of the 98% who agreed that climate change is a scientific fact.

Me: I also noted that 59 Senators agreed that humans are somewhat responsible for that fact but that only 50 agreed that humans have had a “significant” impact on global warming. You were one of those who voted “no” on this latter question, were you not?

L: Yes I was.

Me: Why was that?

L: Because I think the jury is still out on weather humans have had a significant impact on climate change. After all, there have always been ebbs and flows, oceans rising and falling, radical changes in weather patterns and temperatures, and even though humans may have contributed somewhat, it is a stretch to say that we have made that much difference.

Me: Really? Even though human populations are exploding all over the earth and industrial gasses are expanding at a very rapid pace in order to feed and clothe those folks? You don’t think that the carbon monoxide that our homes, cars, planes, and factories spew into the atmosphere has a significant effect on the rising temperatures around the globe?

L: No, I do not. Moreover, I resent the implication that because I don’t recycle and I want to keep my house warm and drive a car that can get me down the road quickly I am part of the cause of a global problem, that I should alter my lifestyle in order to please some crazies who seem determined to exaggerate the problem. Besides, any serious attempt to curb global warming, I am told, would require stringent controls on industry which would be bad for business and, as we all know, business is the engine that runs this great country of ours.

Me: Indeed it does. But there are companies harnessing alternative energies and building mass transit systems that could create work for anyone who might be displaced by currently existing industries that might be forced to cut back in order to reduce our carbon footprint — especially if they received a fraction of the $8 billion in subsidies that, as an example, the oil industry receives at present.  But let’s go back to the original question. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that those “crazies” are correct and that you and I, along with the industries that support our present standard of living, are all making an impact that could be reduced if we altered our lifestyles. Shouldn’t we attempt to do something that will reverse the trend?

L: Not in the least. Until you can show me that humans, all humans, are making a huge difference I prefer to continue to live the way I am right now.

Me: OK. So if the “crazies” are exaggerating the problem then you are home safe. But if they are correct in their estimations, by the time you and the others who think like you realize this it may be too late. It seems to me you are taking a huge risk. On the other hand, if you were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt it would doubtless alter our lifestyles somewhat, but it would also pay dividends in the long term by preserving a healthy planet for future generations. We would still maintain one of the world’s highest standards of living. Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution?

L: I don’t see why I should have to make any sacrifices at all on the basis of assumptions and speculation.

Me: Because these “assumptions and speculation” are supported by 98% of the scientific community that has studied the problem in depth. It is not simply an assumption or idle speculation, but a fact based on solid evidence and it behooves us all to take steps — again, if it’s not too late. As a nation we seem to be hellbent on conducting a risky experiment that places a premium on profits and creature comforts in the hope that the serious problems we are facing will simply go away by themselves. It’s virtually certain that humans are playing a significant role in climate change and we are making a terrible mistake to simply ignore that possibility — especially since the price of attacking the problem is so small in the grand scheme of things.

L: Who are you anyway? And why are you in my face?

Me: I am sorry. But just one quick question. I noted that two of your biggest contributors this past election were utilities and oil and gas companies — to the tune of well over $1 million, and that four of your five largest individual contributors were electric utilities and oil companies as well. Doesn’t that skew your thought process somewhat on this issue and, at the very least, shouldn’t you step down as chair of the Energy Committee because of a conflict of interest?

L: I don’t have time for this. I have a committee meeting.

Snippits From Adams

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

I discovered Henry Adams late in life and wish I had done so earlier. One can always tell when he is in the company of genius, and Adams is just such a one. Accordingly, I want to share some of my favorite thoughts from Adams’ autobiography, which he wrote in the third person and which is historically fascinating and philosophically provocative. Being the grandson and great-grandson of two American presidents would lead one to expect that Henry’s life would be eventful and in some ways it was. But he spent much of his life trying to determine what he was best suited to do and in many ways he felt out of step with the world around him. In spite of this, the man became a keen observer and one of the brightest minds of his day and his reflections still have the ring of truth today. For one thing, he was convinced that even after only 100 years the Constitution needed drastic revision, since, among other things, it gave the Senate too much power. With the large number of presidential appointments still awaiting Senate approval today, we can see the truth of what Adams had to say. And given the Supreme Court’s recent decision taking off all limits to political contributions, we can see that the Founders clearly ignored one aspect of power that has every sign of crippling their brain-child beyond recognition. The Constitution simply didn’t mention corporations, leaving the door open for all manner of bizarre judgments regarding their status in this polity. In future, we can expect the very rich to determine who runs for political office and what their agenda will be once they are elected — and no restraints on unbridled greed. Our democracy is in danger of being transformed into an oligarchy — though that ship has almost certainly already sailed. But let’s hear some of what Adams had to say in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Adams saw himself as one of many young men after the Civil War who awaited U.S. Grant’s arrival in Washington with great hope. Here was a man of action who would surely move quickly to revise and update the Constitution and make it more workable. But he was soon disappointed as Grant seemed unwilling to do much of anything, except to get himself involved in scandals. Adams described what he took to be the type:

“In time one came to recognize the type in other men, with differences and variations, as normal men whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil to power, apt to be distrustful of themselves and others; shy, jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward appearance; and always needing stimulants, but for whom action was the highest stimulant — the instinct to fight.”

In general, Adams didn’t trust men in power and said several times that he worried that when one of his friends came into power “he was lost.” Power did, in fact, corrupt, as Adams saw it. With tongue firmly in his cheek, Adams tells us what political power did to U.S. Grant:

“That two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

Like so many others, Adams placed his hope in the Supreme Court:

“Although step by step he had been driven, like the rest of the world, to admit that the American society had outgrown most of its institutions, he still clung to the Supreme Court, much as a churchman clings to his bishops, because they are his only symbol of unity; his last rag of Right. Between the Executive and the Legislative, citizens could have no rights; they were at the mercy of Power. They had created the Court to protect them from unlimited Power, and it was little enough protection at best. . . “

Unfortunately the founders simply didn’t foresee the power of corporations. Indeed, given the power of corporations today, the Supreme Court offers far too little protection as it happens! Adams was thoroughly disillusioned, as appears in the following observation:

“The political dilemma was as clear in 1870 as it was likely to be in 1970. The system of 1789 had broken down, and with it the eighteenth century fabric of moral principles. Politicians had tacitly given up. Grant’s administration marked the avowal. None-tenths of men’s political energies must henceforth be wasted on expedients to piece out — to patch — the political machine as often as it broke down. Such a system, or want of a system, might last for centuries if tempered by an occasional revolution or civil war; but as a machine it was, or soon would be, the poorest in the world — the clumsiest — the most inefficient.. . . . The [fore]fathers had intended to neutralize the energy of government and had succeeded, but their machine was never meant to do the work of a 20-million h.p. society in the twentieth century, where much work was needed to be quickly and efficiently done. The only defense of the system was that, as government did nothing well, it had best do nothing. . .”

Adams’ despair soon extended so far as to include most of his fellow citizens:

“The American character showed singular limitations which sometimes drove the student of civilized man to despair. Crushed by his own ignorance — lost in the darkness of his own gropings — the scholar finds himself jostled of a sudden by a crowd of men who seem to him ignorant that there is a thing called ignorance; who have forgotten how to amuse themselves; who cannot even understand that they are bored.”

In the end, Adams placed his hope in education:

“The object of education should be the [mind’s] teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. Throughout history the waste of mind has been appalling and, as this story is meant to show, society has conspired to promote it. No doubt the teacher is the criminal, but the world stands behind him and drags the student from his course. Only the most energetic, the most highly fitted, and the most favored have overcome the friction or the viscosity of inertia, and those were compelled to waste three-fourths of their energy in doing it.”

We can only hope that those few will somehow manage to resist society’s determination to force them into a mold of its making by turning them all into mindless robots, trained to do a job; that they will demand the best education available and continue to make the effort required to attain it. Otherwise, the democratic experiment in America will be judged a failure.

 

 

Obstructionist Tactics

A somewhat bizarre series of comments surfaced on Sunday during an appearance by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Graham is determined to hold up confirmation of two of the President’s national security advisors until he “gets to the bottom” of the Benghazi debacle. As Graham said on that program:

“In a constitutional democracy, we need to know what our commander-in-chief was doing at a time of great crisis, and this White House has been stonewalling the Congress, and I’m going to do everything I can to get to the bottom of this so we’ll learn from our mistakes and hold this president accountable for what I think is tremendous disengagement at a time of national security crisis,” he said.

At the Senate hearing, Panetta testified that he and Dempsey were meeting with Obama when they first learned of the Libya assault. He said the president told them to deploy forces as quickly as possible.

Graham asked whether Panetta spoke again to Obama after that first meeting. Panetta said no, but that the White House was in touch with military officials and aware of what was happening. At one point, Graham asked Panetta if he knew what time Obama went to sleep that night. The Pentagon chief said he did not.

While this assuredly smacks of extortion, it would seem that even though Panetta and Dempsey have already answered Graham’s questions the man is determined to grandstand and draw attention to himself while he tries to make political hay. (He wants to know what time the President went to bed, for Pete’s sake!) It’s hard to know what is on this man’s tiny mind, except to try to continue to embarrass the Administration in the name of the “families” of those who were killed on that dreadful day. It certainly is not designed to help the government to do its job by moving on to the serious problems facing the nation. It would seem that the questions have been answered, in so far as they can be answered, and that nothing except Graham’s ego and his political future are served by continuing to twist a knife in painful wounds.

I am reminded of Henry Adams’ hatred of the Senate after the experience his grandfather and great-grandfather had trying to serve the nation as President only to have the Senate repeatedly exercise its power in opposition to the will of the President of the United States. I wrote about this some time ago. Granted, Adams had a bias, but he is certainly correct in pointing out that the Senate, under our Constitution, has tremendous power if they choose to exercise it. And with no term limits that power simply increases.

The founders were so worried that the executive would have too much power that they effectively handcuffed anyone in that office by giving the oversight powers to the Senate to check the President’s every move. One look at the Constitution convinces us that the writers gave considerably more attention to the role of the Senate than they did the President or the House of Representatives. This is almost certainly because they saw the Senate as America’s version of the House of Lords, an elite group of landed (wealthy) men who would have the best interest of the country at heart and could not be easily swayed by personal motives. We have seen how that turned out.

In any event, Graham’s histrionics are misplaced and entirely self-serving. He should get back to work and see what he can do to contribute to the pressing problems that face a nation during difficult  economic times with a globe that continues to warm as he vents his spleen and draws attention to himself.

Leaders Who Follow

An interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times recently made the case for more aggressive leadership in Congress. It concluded with the following paragraph:

Politicians play in a rugged arena and are understandably obsessed about losing power. But that power needs to be used for something other than perpetual re-election. The next two years will challenge lawmakers of both parties to demonstrate that they came to Washington for a purpose.

The article generally faults a number of Senators for failure of nerve and the Democrats generally for their lack of cohesion, sense of purpose, and their timidity. They are in a position of power and influence after the recent election yet they hesitate to take charge and lead the country. Instead they wait to see which way the wind is blowing and adjust their sails accordingly.

This is a most interesting point. I have referred in previous blogs to Joseph Schumpeter’s claims in the 1940s that the only real job professional politicians have any more is to get re-elected. This is certainly one of the author’s points above when he refers to “perpetual reelection.” But his point that those in Congress need to step up to the plate and take a healthy cut — to assume the mantle of leadership and show a bit of courage — is well taken. Even in a political climate where those with large purses call the shots, there is room for an occasional Congressman to play a leadership role, though I recognize that it takes courage. Rather than simply holding up a wet finger to see which way the political wind blows, or transferring allegiance to the lobbyists who wait in the outer office to take them to dinner and fatten their campaign war chests, one wonders whether a courageous man or woman might not appear on the horizon who is willing to take a risk in order to do the right thing. Imagine the groundswell of popular support for such a person!

The article focuses attention on several possible candidates, among whom one of the more interesting is the Senator from West Virginia who won re-election by a large margin and is in a position to take a decisive stand on the issue of gun control. Instead, we are told:

. . . senators have an obligation to lead public opinion, not to follow it blindly. Hunters in red states know full well that a semiautomatic weapon bristling with military features is unnecessary to bring down a deer or a duck. If Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who just won re-election comfortably, were to make that case, he might change a few minds, given his unquestionable support for Second Amendment rights.

If Mr. Manchin explained that such a ban was anything but a “gun grab,” people would pay attention. Instead, though he supports background checks, he will not endorse anything further.

Whether Joe Manchin hears the call to leadership remains to be seen. One does begin to doubt. The siren call of reelection seems so much more alluring where a high-paying job is assured and little is demanded but continued efforts to please those who slip them money under the table. It is sad to admit that Schumpeter may well be right: the only thing on the minds of a majority of those in Washington is hanging on to the soft job that offers them a public spotlight when they want it and job security as long as they don’t rock the boat.

You Must Be Kidding!

This story from HuffPost beggars belief:

On Tuesday, FedEx Chairman and CEO Fred Smith, an adviser to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, said that the notion that tax hikes on the richest Americans would kill jobs was simply “mythology.”

And on Monday, a gathering of the nation’s top defense executives took a surprising turn when they endorsed tax rate increases on the wealthy and cuts of up to $150 billion to the Pentagon’s budget. Top executives from Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, TASC and RTI International Metals appeared at the National Press Club at an event organized by the Aerospace Industries Association, the top defense contractor lobbyist.

David Langstaff, CEO of TASC, said that the executives were speaking out because so far leaders of the defense industry were “talking a good game, but are still unwilling to park short-term self-interest.” After the event, he told a defense reporter for Politico that tax rates need to go up.

“In the near term, [income tax rates] need to go up some,” Langstaff said. “This is a fairness issue — there needs to be recognition that we’re not collecting enough revenue. In the last decade we’ve fought two wars without raising taxes. So I think it does need to go up.”

And apparently there are a number of other key members of the wealthiest classes in this country who agree with Fred Smith and David Langstaff.  This is truly quite remarkable. Cut military spending? You must be kidding me!  It can’t be April Fool, but it may be a Christmas miracle! Not so. As expected, the Congress hasn’t given any sign that they will move on the question of continuing the tax breaks for the very wealthy which many believe are the reason we are in such a financial pickle. Led by intransigent Senators like John Thune and Marco Rubio, who would apparently just as soon see us fall head-first off the fiscal cliff, the Republicans in the Senate are adamant that there will be no rise in taxes on the rich — even if they want them.

Now there’s the kind of enlightened, inspired leadership the founders were hoping would rise to the top like cream in a milk bottle. Oh, that’s right, the scum also rises!

Senate Aristocrats

I have been reading a painstaking analysis of the forming of our Republic. It is very long but fascinating. The period before and just after the American revolution has always been a bit hazy for me and it is a relief to have some of the haze cleared away. The eleven years between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution were especially remarkable years. The thirteen colonies were all busy writing their own constitutions (while the war was in progress) and struggling with the issues that would face the united colonies later on. One such issue was the “mixed form” of government.

Some of the more radical colonists like Thomas Paine and the authors of Pennsylvania’s  constitution wanted nothing to do with mixed governments; they wanted  a pure Democracy. A great many others distrusted the “people” and wanted what they regarded as the more solid foundation of an aristocracy of some sort to temper and provide balance to offset the “lower” house. This was Jefferson’s idea behind starting up the University of Virginia — to train young men to become future leaders. He was convinced the people at large would recognize exceptional people and elect them to public office. They would form America’s new aristocracy! Other thinkers were not so sanguine, and eventually Jefferson himself began to have doubts. But nearly all were agreed that two houses were essential — with a governor at the head of each colony’s government whose role would be exclusively that of executor of the legislative will. Each house of government would differ from the other in important respects — the lower house, which was similar to the British House of Commons, and the upper house, which they hoped would resemble in important respects the House of Lords. The problem was how to assure that the upper house (the Senate) was not just a mirror image of the lower house — given that America had no aristocracy?

Jefferson and his peers in other states finally decided that even with electoral colleges designed to elect the folks to the upper house (the people themselves couldn’t be trusted) the Senators in the various colonies began to look very much like the representatives in the lower house. But they were convinced that the House of Lords in England lent ballast to the ship of state and it was essential that the colonies have something like that or subject themselves to the rabble running the show — people at large who had no “public virtue,” a quality they thought essential for the common good. How to guarantee that the Senates would be “the best and wisest” — which was their perception of the British aristocracy — and thus more stable than the lower houses?

In the end since there were no natural aristocrats in America — or unnatural ones, as it happened — the various colonies settled on property ownership as the only criterion that could separate the “wiser” officials in government from the rest of the herd. It was clear that these people did not want a King or any royalty. They pretty much tied the hands of their governors and, later, the President. But they didn’t trust the rabble, either. When they settled on property as the criterion for membership in the Senate they did just that: settled. It was the best they could come up with. They rejected birth and were unable to find any criterion that would satisfy other than property to differentiate the upper house from the lower one.

It would appear that it was during this time — these eleven years — that the Americans came to grips with the question of the place of wealth in government. They distrusted great wealth (as I have noted in a previous blog) but they could come up with nothing better to separate the two houses they regarded as essential to a Republic. They understood power and knew full well how easily it could be abused. But they failed to see that wealth would become the greatest power in this country — though Jefferson was leery, noting that “‘Integrity was not in my experience the characteristic of wealth.” Both “he and Madison were baffled by the apparent inability of the people to perceive the truly talented and were thus compelled reluctantly to endorse property as the best possible source of distinction in the new republics.”

By making property the criterion of membership in the Senates of the various colonies — and giving the Senate pride of place in our Constitution later on (note how much of that document is focused on the operation of the U.S. Senate) they opened the door to excessive power in the Senate  (which Henry Adams complained about loudly a hundred years later)  and the ownership of the government itself by the very rich.

[Quotations are from Gordon S.  Wood’s excellent The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787.]

Just Plain Wrong!

A recent NBC News story is a grim reminder of a chapter in this nation’s history that we prefer not to read. It tells about a recent death at the Guantanamo detention center where more than 200 prisoners remain 10 years after their capture as suspected (but not proven) terrorists. The story begins:

A Guantanamo detainee who died Saturday was a former hunger striker who had recently been placed in a disciplinary cell after splashing a guard with a “cocktail”– typically containing urine, a U.S. military official tells NBC News.

In itself the news is grim, especially since it was reported only because guards at the facility were concerned that word would leak out and their eyes would be even blacker. But not only their eyes but this nation’s eyes are blackened by the very existence of this facility where men are kept in stark conditions and denied the fundamental right of every human being to trail by jury.

We recall that President Obama promised that he would close the facility. It was a promise made, I dare say, without knowledge of the implications of such a step. Once elected he quickly came to realize that the closing of the facility and moving the prisoners to a secure facility in the United States and trying them in a civil court would prove difficult at best — especially with a Congress that was only interested in resisting every step the new President attempted to take.

But the fact remains that the prison remains open and men are still held in captivity (excuse me, “detained”) even though they have not been tried and found guilty. A brief look at Obama’s attempts to close the facility is instructive (as quoted from Wikipedia):

On January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order to suspend the proceedings of the Guantanamo military commission for 120 days and that the detention facility would be shut down within the year. On January 29, 2009, a military judge at Guantanamo rejected the White House request in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, creating an unexpected challenge for the administration as it reviews how America puts Guantanamo detainees on trial On May 20, 2009, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2346) by a 90-6 vote to block funds needed for the transfer or release of prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum dated December 15, 2009, ordering the preparation of the Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Illinois so as to enable the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners there. The Final Report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force dated January 22, 2010 published the results for the 240 detainees subject to the Review: 36 were the subject of active cases or investigations; 30 detainees from Yemen were designated for ‘conditional detention’ due to the security environment in Yemen; 126 detainees were approved for transfer; 48 detainees were determined ‘too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution’.

[Footnotes in the original article]

Needless to say, the detainees were never transferred to a facility in this country as the Congress simply will not allow it. The United Nations has sought to have the facility closed to no avail. And other nations have been harsh in their judgment of our treatment of these men, calling it a form of “torture” and a violation of human rights — pointing out that we are in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Whether we agree with these criticisms or not, we must agree that this entire venture is something we cannot be proud of and would rather it had never happened — though “In a February 2012 poll 70% of Americans (53% liberal Democrats and 67% moderate or conservative Democrats) replied they approve the continued operation of Guantanamo.” If the poll is to be believed, it is even more embarrassing than the fact that the facility remains open.

Same Old, Same Old

I have blogged about the lack of term limits in the Senate and House of Representatives. Others have expressed their dismay as well. It was clearly an oversight on the part of the framers and was corrected in the case of the President but not in the case of the other national offices. I have also spoken about the fact that the Senate ties the hands of the President and makes it impossible for him or her to do the job. This situation is simply exacerbated by the length of time many of the Senators remain in office.  I stand by my claims in that earlier blog. Henry Adams thought it a blunder of immense proportions and I would have to agree.

There is an obvious case in point as Orin Hatch, Republican Senator from Utah, recently failed in his attempt to win the endorsement in his home state and will have to run in a  primary to regain his senate seat. He’s a good bet to win for the seventh time. The man is 78 years old (which doesn’t seem so old as I approach that age) but it reflects 36 years in the Senate and tremendous power in the form of committee chairmanships. In fact, Hatch stands to be the chair of the Finance Committee if a Republican majority wins in November, which is likely with the economy in the fix it is in.

In any event, a story about Hatch tells us that The senator on the campaign trail has been promoting his potential ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans win a majority in the Senate this November, something he emphasized in his last pitch to delegates gathered here Saturday.

“I’m not impressed by the title and neither should you be,” Hatch said prior to the first round of voting. “But believe me when I say that a strong and experienced chairman can make all the difference in the world,” he added to cheers from the audience.

The man’s a pro. “I’m not saying that it is important to have me in that chairmanship, but believe me it is vital.” This is what we call innuendo, and it is a powerful and persuasive rhetorical tool. It’s something like intellectual slight-of-hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. Clearly, Hatch thinks (a) that the Republicans will achieve a majority again in November, and (b) an experienced Senator like himself will be assured of the chairmanship of an important committee where he will be in a position to benefit those who vote for him. His opponent for the Republican nomination, being new to the job, will not. You gotta love it!

But we should have learned by now not to put much stock in what politicians say and while it is true that a veteran Senator has a much better chance of getting a key chairmanship than a new person, there is every reason to elect new blood into the Senate. The idea that  a man or a woman could remain in such a powerful office for nearly 40 years was never in the minds of the framers of the Constitution, who envisioned a fluid political organization with what Thomas Jefferson called a “rebellion” every 20 years. Though he may have been referring to Shays’ rebellion in 1787 which almost certainly hastened the ratification of the Constitution, he may also have meant a non-violent rebellion, a radical shake-up of the status-quo. This seems likely since in calling for a rebellion every 20 years Jefferson hopes to avoid “lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” He was convinced, as were the others who were in on the founding of our Republic, that there would be change and that change would be a good thing.

As it turns out, of course, the Senate is filled with ancient relics, immensely wealthy men (mostly) who hang on to power like grim death. These days the job pays very well while in the early days it did not when it actually involved personal sacrifice. Perhaps that is why the framers thought people would not stay in office very long. In any event, today’s longevity is not the way it was supposed to be, and I say again that the Constitution is in need of serious revision to accommodate the oversights and the many violations of the spirit, if not the letter, of the framers’ original intentions.