Saturday, October 27, 2012

On John Adams; An Appreciation

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, and as his birthday is near, it is an opportune time to reflect on his life. At times – and by his own account – he was a failure as a human being. At times, he was spectacular, electrifying the Sons of Liberty with the passion and the intellectual courage to not only challenge the British Empire but to ratify a bold and visionary national Constitution.  He was a modern day Jeremiah, who could foresee the future, but his words often fell on deaf ears.

The Cantankerous John Adams
While still deciding whether to enter the profession of law, John Adams “admitted to feeling a ‘strong desire of distinction’ and dreaded being an ‘unknown.’”  On one hand he berated himself for having the vainglorious desire for professional recognition and on the other hand he berated himself for his failures to achieve recognition. In social settings, being a rustic who kept refined company, he could not behave naturally, and strained to cultivate a “habit of affecting wit and humour (Ferling, 192; 27).” As the biographer Ferling notes, 20 years later Adams’ physician observed that he, “alternated between long periods of shunning human contact and moments of emerging from his self-imposed isolation to rant and rage in the most frightening manner against his [political] enemies.”  The doctor added, he has "not only grown suspicious of almost everyone about him but had even begun to believe that he was the likely target of assassins (p. 237).” 

He played the martyr. He never wavered in the knowledge that he had dedicated every fiber of his being to advancing the cause of American independence. He trusted no one’s opinion as highly as his own. He knew that he was the butt of jokes. And his accomplishments – even when he earned Vice Presidency and later the Presidency – never seemed to win him the recognition he’d always craved. His own cabinet often opposed him (source). 

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a long friendship – interrupted by the rancor of the Election of 1800, but restored in time. Jefferson was aware of his faults. Adams was vain, lacked taste, and was prickly and irritable. And Jefferson clearly agreed with Benjamin Franklin’s assessment of Adams as, “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad (letter to James Madison, July 1789).”

Even though Jefferson betrayed a patronizing attitude toward his eccentric friend, he did not slight John Adams’ important role in persuading Congress to approve the Declaration of Independence.  Adams, Jefferson wrote, “was the Colossus on the floor; not graceful, not always fluent in his public addresses, yet he came out with a power both of thought and expression that moved us from our seats. John Adams was the pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence on the floor of Congress; its ablest advocate and defender (letter to William Gardner, March 1813).”

Adams, afflicted by an excessive pride in his own intellect, disparaged Jefferson for writing a Declaration that cribbed from older political pamphlets by James Otis. But he believed passionately in the ideas expressed in those pamphlets and in the Declaration. Later, when John Adams drafted the Constitution of the state of Massachusetts, he alludes to the principles expressed in the Declaration

The end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body-politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it, with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity, their natural rights, and the blessings of life: And whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.
To reiterate then, the principles are thus: if the government comes to stand in the way of general prosperity, if it allows people across the land to be fearful and troubled rather than at peace in their lives, if it is distracted by foreign involvements that have little to do with the welfare of the body-politic, then it has failed to achieve its mandate. It is incumbent on the people to change their government. 

Over the span of many years, Adams and Jefferson debated the differences in their views of government. Jefferson believed that Adams feared the common people more than he feared the gradual re-emergence of monarchy. As "monarch" suggests royalty, perhaps the better choice of words is tyrant: the word applies to a single chief executive who is in a position to override or misdirect the wishes of the electorate and other members of government.Adams had a different view; as he wrote to Jefferson, “You are apprehensive of monarchy, I, of aristocracy (to Thomas Jefferson, December, 1787).” 

Now, Jefferson himself was an aristocrat, and owing to this, he may have seen little to fear from the educated upper classes. When he drew a contrast between “the common people” and a tyrant, he likely viewed the "common people" as property-owners like himself, who held the franchise to vote. But Adams, who never belonged among the aristocrats and could view them as an outsider, recognized their sense of privilege. 

In light of this reading of the differences between Jefferson and Adams, consider this passage from the Constitution of the state of Massachusetts: 

No man, nor corporation, or association of men, have any other title to obtain advantages, or particular and exclusive privileges, distinct from those of the community, than what arises from the consideration of services rendered to the public; and this title being in nature neither hereditary, nor transmissible to children, or descendants, or relations by blood, the idea of a man born a magistrate, lawgiver, or judge, is absurd and unnatural.
The passage unmistakably alludes to the danger that men of wealth and social standing may gain undue influence over government. Adams was fearful of the effects on democracy of the inheritance of vast wealth and titles. The only reason a man ought to be granted high office within the government, he believed, was on the basis of that man’s record of service to the public. In the following passage, this point is made even more clearly:
Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; Therefore the people alone have an incontestible, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require it.
History remembers Jefferson as a champion of states’ rights, who wanted to ensure that government power remains decentralized in order to prevent the emergence of a tyrant. In contrast, it has been largely forgotten that Adams was a champion of a way of government that remains alert to the danger of a class of people gaining power through their wealth, social position, and influence over political leaders. One could say that both Jefferson and Adams had legitimate concerns. But if one were to be asked which of the two is the clearer and more present danger to democracy: the concentration of power into the hands of a single individual, or the concentration of power into a small clique of individuals whose interests are at odds with those of the public, what is the wiser answer?

Adams understood that the advent of a tyrant occurs in stages. First, he enters the aristocracy of wealth and influence, secondly he gains the support of other aristocrats, and finally ascends to a position in which he is no longer accountable to the people. And Adams also know that, even when a tyranny does not arise, oligarchic rule by aristocrats was to be equally feared. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Anniversary: The Edenton Tea Party

October 25, 1774 is the anniversary of the Edenton Tea Party. It was inspired by the more famous Boston Tea Party, and is worthy of remembrance for at least two reasons. First, the “Edenton” in question is a town in North Carolina; hence, this event reminds us that revolutionary fervor was not confined to the Northeastern States, even if Boston and Philadelphia tend to steal the revolutionary limelight. Secondly, the Edenton Tea Party was a project undertaken entirely by women, and historians have noted that this is one of the earliest recorded instances of American women engaging in organized civil disobedience. 

Penelope Barker
“On October 25, 51 women -- members of the Edenton Ladies' Patriotic Guild -- gathered at the home of Penelope Barker and made this promise: ‘We, the Ladys of Edenton, do hereby solemnly engage not to conform to the Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea ... We Ladys will not promote or wear of any manufacturer from England until such time that all the acts which tend to enslave our Native country be repealed’ (Copeland, 2000; p. 316).” They signed a petition and not only did they promise to boycott goods imported from Great Britain, but they set fire to the British tea they already owned. 

The members of the Edenton Ladies’ Patriotic Guild were courageous not only for speaking out against the British government; they were also courageous for engaging in an activity in which, in the eyes of society, women ought not to be involved. When the London press received word of the Edenton Tea Party, the women were harshly treated. An editorial cartoon depicted a dog urinating on one of the women signing the petition. Then, as now, news articles occasion published letters to the editor, and the author of one of these letters asserted that women do not have the mental capacity to concern themselves with politics. And, the author was quick to add, if these women were taking proper care of the household, they would not have the free time to get involved. 

In some, but not all, historical documents pertaining to the event, the name Hannah Iredell appears among the petitioners (source). This is noteworthy because Hannah was married to James Iredell, who worked tirelessly to convince his fellow North Carolinians to ratify the United State Constitution and became one of the first Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court. And just as Abigail Adams and John Adams supported one another, it is apparent from their letters that James and Hannah Iredell supported one another as well.  

When the Edenton Ladies’ Patriotic Guild spoke of the American colonists being “enslaved” by Great Britain, it is a reminder of the fact that the tea parties which occurred in Boston, Edenton and elsewhere were not simply tax revolts as depicted in popular historical accounts. This is spelled out in James Iredell’s The Principles of an American Whig, a document which pre-dates and helped to inspire The Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Iredell declared, “ is now a principle ... that government being only the means of securing freedom and happiness to the people, whenever it deviates from this end, and their freedom and happiness are in great danger of being irrevocably lost, the government is no longer entitled to their allegiance, the only consideration for which it could be justly claimed or honorably pledged being basely and tyrannically withheld.” 

Let us be clear about this: a government is legitimate for as long as it promotes the “freedom and happiness” of its people. A government is able to provide for the welfare of the people provided that the interests of those who govern coincide with the interests of those who are governed. If members of government become corrupt and pursue their own separate interests, the energy of government will be spent enriching the corrupt and impoverishing the people. 

So it was never taxation per se which animated the War of Independence. It was the combination of two things: the taking of tax money, and the spending of that revenue on projects that benefited the governors and not the governed. The British spent the public treasury on a bloated military, even while failing to protect the American colonists from real dangers that faced them; they denied Americans opportunities to manufacture, and instead made Americans dependent upon foreign imports; they denied Americans the right to due process; they spied on law-abiding citizens; they blatantly rewarded their political allies with wealthy appointments. The American Whigs and the courageous women of Edenton did not wait until the boot of oppression was at their throats; they saw what the future held, and acted.

Copeland, D. (2000) Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT

Saturday, October 13, 2012

On Truth, and Americans' Responsibility to Defend It

He who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.
-- Thos. Jefferson, letter to John Norvell, 1807

Both President Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney profess a great love of small business owners. I will suggest that they are both being dishonest with the American people on this subject. The argument will proceed like this: Obama and Romney support the so-called “free trade” deal with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama (also known as the Transpacific Partnership). They claim that this free trade deal will create American jobs and help small business. They know that this will not create American jobs and will not benefit small business.

It is difficult to argue with the formidable array of political leaders and economic experts who assure the American people that these trade deals are beneficial. Many Americans are, I think, reluctant to doubt the unanimous opinion of so many individuals who are clearly authorities on the arcane subject of trade policy. Therefore, it is important to rely upon the evidence of history.
In 1993, the American people were assured by a formidable array of political leaders and experts that small business owners would benefit from NAFTA. The head of General Electric assured Congress that the trade deal would give the company an incentive to hire more American workers. Instead, “only a small number of multinational companies have benefited from NAFTA, while many workers and small businesses in a broad swath of industries based in the United States, Mexico, and Canada have suffered extensive harm from this flawed agreement (source).” Indeed, The U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and Canada has increased by 378% or 63 billion dollars since 1993. A trade deficit means fewer jobs and a larger national debt.
The reader should take note of those words: “a small number of multinational companies.” General Electric is among this small handful of multinationals. In the current election cycle, General Electric has donated more money to Mitt Romney than to any other political candidate. His campaign has received $214,450. The second largest beneficiary of their largesse is Barack Obama, who has received $75,150. And it is worth noting that number 3 on this list of recipients is Democrat Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, who sits on the powerful Financial Services Committee that is charged with maintaining oversight over companies such as General Electric (source). Political Action Committees such as General Electric and Goldman Sachs provided 35% of the money he received in his most recent campaign.
General Electric is pleased by the Transpacific Partnership. They earn 2 billion in revenue from the partner countries and anticipate strong revenue growth now that this partnership is in place (source). As was the case with NAFTA, spokespersons for General Electric assure the American people that this will mean more American jobs.  
According to U.S. News and World Report, the Transpacific Partnership “also gives American companies such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, FedEx, UPS and MetLife, increased access to South Korea's $580 billion services market (source).” Let’s put this in perspective:
Recipients Running for President (rank out of all recipients, dollars)
Mitt Romney (1, $418,263)
Barack Obama (2, $138,292)
Mitt Romney (1, $45,150)
Barack Obama (4, $23,742)
Goldman Sachs
Mitt Romney (1, $891,140)
Barack Obama (2, $137,974)
Mitt Romney (1, $171,450)
Barack Obama (2, $31,264)
Barack Obama (1, $26,238)
Mitt Romney (2, $17,500)

Democrat members of Congress have gone along meekly with the Transpacific Partnership, despite the fact that their traditional constituents have included union members who will suffer from the trade deal. Some members of Congress have expressed regret that Colombia has not done more to prevent the murder of union leaders in that country.
John Castellani, the head of PhRMA said of the Transpacific Partnership in 2010, “This agreement will contribute directly to increased U.S. exports and the expansion of highly skilled, well-paying jobs here. PhRMA looks forward to the ratification of the Agreement by Congress in the next year (source).” Barack Obama is the largest recipient of cash from pharmaceutical industry lobbyists, receiving $1,178,076 in the current election cycle, followed closely by Mitt Romney who has received $1,070,012. Unnoticed by many Americans, firms in South Korea are ramping up preparations to make that country a more hospitable location for foreign companies seeking to OUTSOURCE pharmaceutical production (source, source). 
I humbly suggest that it is the responsibility of American voters to deny both Obama and Romney our votes. There is a fine slate of alternative candidates for president this year, including Rocky Anderson, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson. As near as I can tell, PhRMA, Citigroup, General Electric and Goldman Sachs have shown little interest in supporting their campaigns.

Monday, October 8, 2012

On Zombie Politics

The young possess a certain kind of wisdom: the wisdom that comes with youthful energy and idealism. The older possess a different kind of wisdom: the wisdom of experience. If you are old enough to remember the 1980 or 1984 presidential elections, and reflect on what has changed and what has not changed since then, you might conclude as I have that we live in an age of Zombie Politics. By that, I mean that certain issues which ought to have been resolved long ago still shamble across the political landscape, neither entirely dead nor entirely alive.
The Swing Voter (source)
In the 1980 presidential debate, Jimmy Carter accused Ronald Reagan of conspiring to cut the Medicare budget. Reagan denied it, but after the election that is exactly what he set out to do. It’s no different today. Candidates will praise Medicare before the election, and attempt to bury it after the election. During the debate, Reagan swore not to cut Social Security saying, “I will never stand for a reduction in … benefits (source).” He lived up to his promise: he didn’t exactly reduce Social Security benefits, but he did decide to tax the benefits. One could make the case that taxing a benefit is, in essence, reducing the benefit. And it is worth noting that this policy had the support of Democratic Party leader Tip O’Neill (source).  
During the 1988 election, the economy was the top concern among voters, followed by the federal budget deficit (source). During the presidential election of 1992, unemployment and the economy were the most important issues in the minds of American voters (source). Thus, from 1988 onward, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party had opportunities to address the economy, jobs, and the budget deficit, but have failed to arrive at a solution that is satisfactory to the American people.
So, clearly, not much has changed. The Clinton years did usher in lower unemployment and a budget surplus, but the facts tell us that Mr. Clinton was not responsible for these occurrences (source, source). Instead, it was America’s manufacturing sector which, for a short time, boomed as a result of the success of American-made high technology goods in the global marketplace.
Every four years, promises are made to the American people by Republicans and Democrats, and these promises are not kept. Americans are made to feel alarmed about cherished programs like Medicare and Social Security, and once alarmed, they will rush into the embrace of the candidate who is better able to reassure them with lies. It is madness to continue supporting either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. As Albert Einstein defined it, madness is: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The Will of the American People Defeated
The 1984 election, for all its tiresome resemblances to elections before and since, was unique in one respect. There was a national dialog concerning international trade, and there was apparently some public awareness of the fact that the national debt and trade policy are linked. “The … campaign revolved mostly around the issues of deficit and tariff barriers … Democrats attacked the Republicans for their proposed budget deficit. The Democrats called for more tariff protection (source).” By the time that the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) came to a vote in 1993, President Bill Clinton was prepared to support it. What happened between 1984 and 1993? It is chilling in retrospect to note that many people understood what the consequences of NAFTA were going to be. Ross Perot famously predicted an “enormous sucking sound” made as jobs are drawn out of the United States and into Mexico. Among Democrats, Dick Gephardt led opposition to NAFTA. According to Slate magazine,
In 1993, Gephardt, who was then the second-ranking Democrat in the House, led the opposition [to NAFTA] … Gephardt said in July 2003, “I'm the one who led the fight against NAFTA, and I did it because I believed that that trade treaty was not going to help the United States, was not going to help Mexico, was not going to help anybody in the world, because it is the beginning of a race to the bottom. And that is exactly what has gone on (source).”
Has NAFTA inaugurated a ‘race to the bottom’ that harms Americans? The impact of NAFTA on American jobs has almost certainly been negative (see chart below).
Now, in the grand scheme of things, a net loss of just under a million jobs may not appear to be disastrous. But on the other hand, as I write this in October of 2012, Democrats are exceedingly happy to report that, nationwide, there are 114,000 more jobs than there were a few months ago.
The disadvantages of NAFTA are not measurable solely in terms of job losses. There is also the matter of the trade deficit. Since NAFTA went into effect in the 1990s, the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico has grown fairly steadily, as shown in the figure below, which I created using Census data (source). When businesses go overseas, they pay less in U.S. taxes, creating a loss of revenue and, in turn, a budget deficit. Unemployed Americans pay less in taxes than gainfully employed Americans. 
Trade Deficit with Mexico, 1994 - 2010
If NAFTA is bad for Americans, why did politicians vote for it? The answer is almost certainly Political Action Committees (PACs). Pro-NAFTA members of Congress received sizeable campaign contributions from PACs representing industries that would benefit financially from the trade agreement (source). In 1993,
A business coalition calling itself USA*NAFTA got thirty-five Fortune 500 companies to serve as “captains” in the lobbying drive for NAFTA. The captains contributed a total of $7.2 million in “soft money” to both parties in the most recent election cycle. Seven captains -- including representatives from DuPont, BankAmerica [now 'Bank of America'], United Technologies, American International Group, and AT&T -- were invited for coffee at the White House by President Clinton (source).
It is easy to suppose that PACs have always been a part of American politics, but that is a mistaken view. In 1974, corporations and unions were allowed to fund PACs for the first time. A 1976 Supreme Court case, Buckley vs. Valeo, removed some of the remaining limits on PAC spending. Between 1978 and 2006, the amount of campaign spending more than quadrupled

The chart to the left shows PAC spending from 1978 to 1988. The chart to the right shows PAC spending from 1994 to 2006. The gap reflects missing data (source).
The industries that benefit most from NAFTA are those which have a large return to scale: that is, as the volume of items produced increases, so does the profit margin. These are for the most part multinational companies. General Electric is one example. When Congress was deliberating on NAFTA, a GE representative assured Congress that sales to Mexico would create 10,000 U.S. jobs. Instead, GE laid off 2,108 American workers after the company shifted production to Mexico.
In the following years, multinational companies have enjoyed increasing profit margins and have found an increasing number of low-wage countries to support their efforts. They have also developed an unholy alliance with Wall Street financiers: as these companies enjoy ever-greater profits, stockholders enjoy larger dividends. Wall Street firms and companies such as GE shower members of Congress, the president, and anyone who cares to run against the president with cash. One can only assume that they expect a return on their investment.
After a debate with other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, Obama promised that, “In my first week in office, I will notify Mexico and Canada that the US is withdrawing from NAFTA. We need a president who knows what the right thing is to do the first time, not in retrospect. And I think that we need to go forward to trade that’s based on workers’ rights, human rights and environmental quality principles. No one else on this stage could give a direct answer because they don’t intend to scrap NAFTA (source).” Obviously, this is a promise he did not keep. And, just as obviously, he understands that withdrawal from NAFTA is in the best interest of the American people.
Needless to say, Mitt Romney is also avid in his support of free trade. He has openly embraced a “territorial tax system” that will allow multinational companies to pay less in U.S. taxes, provided that they conduct their manufacturing overseas. President Obama hasn’t had much to say about this, presumably because his advisers are advocating an identical scheme (source). Biden had a few negative things to say about a territorial tax scheme, but evidently he is out of the loop.