Friday, March 27, 2009

A Few Observations About Feminism

There is another 'f-word' in contemporary political, cultural, and sociological discourse. That word, as you probably gathered from the title of this post, is "feminism".
Today the idea is shockingly prevelant that feminism is an outdated movement rendered obsolete by the fact that it succeeded in accomplishing its various goals, with feminists being thus viewed as bitter misandrists, political opportunists, narrow-minded radicals, sexual/societal deviants, or some combination of the four. What makes this so disturbing to me is the fact that, for those who believe that women should exist on a plane of complete societal, economic, and political equality with men (and those who dissent with this view are unworthy of any further consideration from me), feminism is as necessary now as it has been at any other point in our nation's history. The follow bullet points list, in no particular order, why this is the case:

1) The Equal Rights Amendment. Since the 1970s, progressives have been trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which goes as follows:
Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
That seems pretty reasonable, right? Unfortunately, that stipulation would force businesses to pay female employees the same salaries that are given to males for the same work (granted, they are more likely motivated by avarice than misogyny), require sexual harassment and other gender-based crimes to be taken that much more seriously, further facilitate a woman's right to control her own body when it came to issues such as abortion, and in general obliterate any legal distinctions between the sexes. That is why, despite having been re-introduced in every successive Congress since 1982, the ERA has yet to be passed.

2) Female intelligence. My observations here are based not on evidentiary studies, but on anecdotal experience. I acknowledge that this renders the scholarly soundness of my conclusions questionable, and am adding this disclaimer as a means of accepting that before proceeding with an expression of my views. Intelligent women, in my personal experience, receive far more social rejection than do their male counterparts. Why is that? For one thing, intelligence has often been viewed as a "masculine" trait, and women who display "masculine" traits are often viewed as being "bitchy" as a result of it (just look at outspoken women, aggressive women, headstrong women). For another, we live in a society wherein there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic mobility and intellectual ability. Consequently, intelligence in women is viewed by many individuals (male and female alike) as somehow being rebellious, even radical, as it causes women who possess that asset to potentially not only equal but surpass men in status (this is not true of other "masculine" traits, such as physical strength, which though potentially emasculating to males who see them in women do not generally carry with them the connotation of social mobility). Finally, the social dynamic that is imposed upon women when it comes to their interactions in personal relationships is not conducive to the presence of those personality traits that often accompany intelligence. This is connected to the first reason I mentioned. Because intelligence is a "masculine" trait, thus causing women who possess that attribute to be perceived as "bitchy", women who are intelligent often have difficulty blending in to peer groups (both those solely comprised of members of their own gender and those that are intergender), and can even be viewed as anti-social as a result.
There are countless examples of the prevelance of this trend. Lawrence Summers, the man who now serves as one of President Obama's chief economic advisors, was forced to resign from his position as President of Harvard a few years ago for stating that women were less intellectually capable of excelling in mathematics and science then men. Countless acquaintances of mine expressed an unwillingness to support Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary (and, hypothetically, in the general election) either because they felt her femininity would make her too emotional for the job or because they interpreted her mental strengths as being synonymous with "bitchiness" (incidentally I was a zealous Obama supporter, having predicted his candidacy as early as 2005 and volunteering for him as early as 2007, so I do not point to this sexism as a way of retroactively supporting her campaign). Finally, there is the fact that cultural archetypes associated with cerebralism are almost always male in nature - how often do you see a female scientist, scholar, artist, or other intellectual figure appear in our culture, except as an excuse to provide a love interest or some other traditionally female role within a narrative?
In short, we live in a society that is not especially fond of intelligent women. Considering that these prejudices have existed in almost every civilization throughout the course of history, it causes me to stagger not merely at the moral injustice, but at the loss in potential progress. How much further advanced would we be in those areas that require the exercise of the human brain if half of our population had not been discouraged from contributing?

3) Female aesthetics. My observations here are based not on evidentiary studies, but on anecdotal experience. I acknowledge that this renders the scholarly soundness of my conclusions questionable, and am adding this disclaimer as a means of accepting that before proceeding with an expression of my views. One thing that many of my female friends don't recognize is the extent to which physical attractiveness defines how they are viewed by men. It is not merely that men possess greater sexual desire for women whom they find to be physically attractive (although they do). It is also that a man's masculinity, and thus social status, is in many ways determined by the physical attractiveness of the woman (or in the case of certain types, women) with whom he is romantically/sexually involved. In this last respect, the man's individual sexual preferences are often irrelevant.
Let me elaborate on this for a moment. When men rank women, they generally consider anything below a 5 to count as unattractive, a 5 to count as average, a 6 to count as slightly-above-average, a 7 to be pretty, an 8 to be beautiful, a 9 to be stunning, and a 10 to be absolutely perfect (10s are few and far between). The criteria by which these numerical designations are assigned are pretty well-known - large breasts, small waistlines, flat stomachs, long and slender legs, clear skin, limpid eyes, and well-defined facial features are preferred, with only ideal posterior size being in real dispute (men are genuinely split as to whether they prefer large or small). Men like women who are in shape but not muscular, with red and full lips that aren't grotesquely puffed out, with breasts that are real but aren't obviously made of something recently mined from a quarry, etc. These and other traits are thought to comprise the aesthetic ideal for women. Further explication is unnecessary, since few of us, male or female, are spared their constant reinforcement at any point in our lives.
Yet despite the fact that a woman's "hotness" is designated according to this criteria, that does not mean that all, or even most, men are primarily attracted to women who adhere to these models. When men are truly candid, it can be found that only a sizable minority feel genuine sexual preference for these women above all others. Beyond that, men wildly vary - some like women who are curvaceous or zaftig and others like women who are downright fat, while some prefer women who are even more slender than the accepted norm or even childlike in their physiques. Genuine preferences vary.
Nevertheless, given the option, most of the men I know - even the ones who are "chubby chasers" or "skinny chasers" or who are turned on by the women with big noses or square jaws or round faces - will romantically and sexually gravitate toward the women whom societal conventions deem to be more beautiful than they will those for whom they feel genuine sexual desire. The reason is simple: A man's masculinity, as it is perceived by others and thus himself, is enhanced when he is known to have won over a woman who adheres to societal norms of "hotness", and is likewise diminished when he is viewed as being unable or unwilling to do so. A man who can show off a sexual conquest or romantic partner who is a 7 or above is generally viewed as having elevated himself socially as a result of it, whereas those who are seen with 4s or below - even those toward whom they may feel a sincere sexual attraction - are implicitly told to be ashamed of it.
I must add that I am NOT condoning the trend described above. I am merely diagnosing it because I have not seen others do so, and I think it covers a significant area in which women are placed at a disadvantage in American society. While men are not entirely free from being judged by their appearances, it is ultimately not viewed to a woman's detriment if she dates a man who is deemed physically unattractive (provided that he compensate in other ways, such as professional success or desirable personal characteristics like charm, humor, compassion, and intelligence). There is an unspoken idea among men, however, that your sexual masculinity is based on the attractiveness of the woman/women with whom you are associated as that attractiveness is perceived by the societal whole. This is a phenomenon that needs to be remarked upon.

I have very little else to add on this topic, at least for now. Because half of the human population is female, and because women remain discriminated against, in ways subtle and overt, the world over, it is one that will doubtless come up on this blog in the future.

Jettisoning Chris Dodd

In 2006, the Democratic left (a.k.a "The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party") decided to jettison one of its own, a wayward United States Senator who had abandoned liberal ideals. That man was Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who was held accountable for his support of Bush's Iraq war policies by being defeated in the Democratic party's senatorial primary that year to Ned Lamont.
Now it is time for liberals to take the same approach toward Connecticut's other Senator, Christopher Dodd. As has been made increasingly clear, it was Senator Dodd who was responsible for inserting into the AIG contract that clause which allowed them to use taxpayer funds to give $165 million in bonuses to 73 of their employees employees, many of whom were directly responsible for the actions that caused our economic collapse (including several that aren't even American citizens). While America may ultimately be unable to force accountability on the AIG employees who absconded (in spirit if not substance) with the public's money, it can impose it on the politicians who gave them the bag in which they stuffed our money. More than anyone else, that politician was Chris Dodd.
Senator Dodd has betrayed the interests of his constituents just as seriously as did Lieberman way back in the ancient days of George W. Bush, and as he is up for re-election in 2010, it is vital that the Democratic Party make it clear that his ideals are no more welcome in our ranks then are Lieberman's. That is why I hope either Ned Lamont or some other progressive both challenges and defeats Chris Dodd in the 2010 Democratic senatorial primary, as well as goes on to win the general election in November. Should the Democratic party allow Dodd to serve another term, it will call into question their motives for so passionately hating one malefactor (Lieberman) while displaying much milder animosity toward another (Dodd).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eleven Ideas for Improving Education

Politicians will often expound upon the need for significant improvement in our nation's education system, yet frequently I find that members of both parties offer little substance to back up their rhetoric. At best, our public figures will simply throw more money at our education system, which though failing to directly address our problems at least does serve as a stop-gap against them; at worst, they will actively promote bad ideas (such as by advocating the proliferation of standardized testing) or will infuse their personal agendas into their proposed education policies (such as by attempting to breach the separation of church and state by giving public money to parochial schools or teaching religious concepts like creationism in the classroom). Creative and innovative reforms are almost never seriously considered by those political figures who are prominent enough to have a real chance of getting them implemented.

What makes this especially inexcusable is that such ideas not only exist, but continue being created. Advances in our knowledge of the inner-workings of the human mind continually synthesize with common sense in ways that offer outstanding possibilities for meaningful education reform. Yet rather than continue to spout off on this matter in the abstract, I shall instead elaborate upon it by briefly surverying eight such possibilities.

1) Teach time management and personal organization skills at early age.
Our growing knowledge of the human mind, and early developmental psychology specifically, suggests that many attributes which were once thought of as reflecting upon individual strength of character are really specific skills that need to be taught if one does not possess a natural aptitude for them. Foremost among these are the skills that are crucial for professional success in a 21st Century economy - the ability to effectively manage one's personal time and allocated resources for the completion of given work assignments.
The conventional wisdom is that people who are able to manage their individual time and resources in ways that maximize their personal productivity and efficiency are simply "harder working" and in general more perseverant than those who are less gifted in these areas. Despite this misconception, time management and organizational ability are skills just like any other - some people naturally possess these skills, and others need to be taught them. Considering how crucial they are to success in virtually any career, however, it makes sense that they should be imparted to all American schoolchildren at an early age, when they are at the right developmental state to integrate them into the way they conduct their lives. This can best be done through immersion - i.e., having children take classes on time management and organization from their first school classes onward, and likewise have all other classes they take constantly reinforce the utilization of these skills. Children who have difficulty picking up on them should not be penalized by receiving negative grades, but instead receive special (and if necessary intensive) attention until these skills have been mastered. Should this program succeed, I am willing to bet that Americans would see remarkable progress in academic success rates (in individual subject aptitudes, average grade point averages, and graduation rates), as well as a corresponding increase in productivity and innovation in virtually every sector of our socio-economic life.

2) Teach a foreign language before the age of ten.
Just as time management and organization abilities are best acquired if taught at an early age, so too is the capacity to adopt and attain proficiency in foreign languages most advantagenously given to students at that time. Scientific studies have conclusively shown that the parts of the brain which enable human beings to pick up on new languages are most malleable during early childhood years, and what's more, that children who master at least two languages during this period will have greater ease at picking up additional languages during adulthood than those who only mastered one language in that same developmental period. Consequently, it makes sense that all American students be required to master a second language early in their academic careers. It may even be advantageous to allow children to develop the sense of individuality that comes with the power to make important personal choices by allowing them to choose which language they wish to learn. English should obviously be the required tongue for all non-native speakers; for those naturally proficient in it, alternatives should include not only such common stand-bys as Spanish, French, Italian, and German, but also languages that have proven unusually useful in their own ways (like Ancient Greek and Latin) as well as ones that are becoming more necessary due to the increasing importance of the nations which speak them (like Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic).

3) Teach children the intellectual practices behind given fields before expecting them to master specific information.
Jean Piaget once observed that children are viewed by most adults as little vessels to be filled with knowledge, when in fact most of them have a natural inquisitiveness about the world around them that leads them astray when they are unfamiliar with the proper means of acquiring and/or interpreting information. As such, I think it is important that children be taught the intellectual methodologies behnd certain disciplines before they are force-fed the information contained within each of those disciplines.
To better illustrate this point, let me use a specific example. All modern scientific knowledge traces back to certain fundamental principles pertaining to logical deducation, rational inquiry, and empirical observation. Simply teaching children what we have learned through these techniques may help them catch up with where contemporary thought happens to be at the moment that they are being taught, but it does not really help them learn what lies at the heart of the sciences. Instead, children should first be taught how scientists gather knowledge through the scientific method and other critical thinking skills. Once these ideas have been effectively conveyed, they will not only have a greater appreciation for the advances we have made in scientific knowledge, but possess the mental instruments to challenge the false ones and use the accurate ones as a platform for ever great progress in the pursuit of truth.
This same principle can also apply to the other mental disciplines, such as visual arts, music, social sciences, history, etc.

4) Modify the grading system so as to eliminate the creation of a de facto hierarchy.
Although few wish to openly admit it, our contemporary school system is used as a means of creating a de facto hierarchy within our society. Students who obtain higher grades early on are more likely to be accepted into honors courses, which in turn increases their probability of obtaining higher grades there and thus opening the doors of opportunity to them for admissions into a respected college and consequent career advancement. Likewise, students who receive lower grades early on are less likely to have a chance of being accepted into honors courses, which in turn lowers their prospects of admission into a high-ranking college and subsequent career advancement and socio-economic mobility.
The question is whether the hierarchy created by this system is fair. The only way the answer to that question can be "yes" is if one is to argue that:
a) Our current education system is a finely-tuned machine that flawlessly separates the intellectual wheat from the mental chaff, and
b) That children who are less capable of performing well academically (a term that in this hypothetical situation has to be used interchangeably with intellectually) between the ages of 5 and 18 are always going to be thereby limited.
Given the absurdity of the hypothetical answer I just provided, I think it is safe to say that the means by which our education system creates this hierarchy is not only inefficient, but extremely unjust to those who happen to be on the wrong end of its distribution. Are we to say that children who either develop later in life or who make honest mistakes in their childhood that they wish to correct as adults should be scarred with the legacy of their schoolyears for their entire days (thereby entrusting to children responsibility for their entire futures during the same period in which we won't even trust them to drive a car)? Is the creation of such a stress-inducing environment really most conducive for the healthy intellectual and psychological development of these young minds? For that matter, what of the psychological toll taken on potentially productive citizens who are convinced early on by this system that their capacities are limited - could not this very negative reinforcement create a self-fulfilling prophecy? And what of the statistically verified advantage that children from privileged parents (i.e., those who come from more affluent economic backgrounds and who are white) have in our current economic system - parents who are able to get their less intelligent children into honors courses based on their pre-existing social status, whereas their economically disadvantaged and/or minority counterparts find it infinitely more difficult to do the same thing even when their children are more gifted?
These are only a few of the countless questions that need to be asked about the adverse ramifications of our existing grade-based hierarchical system; for me to adequately delve into all of them would require more space than this limited blog post permits. What can definitely be said here, though is that considering how the downsides to our existing system are plentiful and severe, while virtually nothing can be said to its credit, there is little reason to keep it in place.
Oh, I did forget the three transparently flimsy arguments used to defend it. Let me quickly dispose of those:
1) Teachers need to use grades to monitor student progress. True, but they can easily keep grades as they are without needing to use them as a means of social distribution. One does not necessitate the other.
2) Putting less intelligent students in classes with more intelligent students drags the latter down. Not if the teacher does his/her job in proper classroom management.
3) Grades are vital to helping colleges determine which students to admit. That is why we have so many dumb-asses in our current college system - because administrators care more about the numbers you put on a piece of paper than they do about the actual quality of your mind, which may or may not be accurately reflected in those numbers. I will concede that getting rid of the grading system would force college admissions personnel to do their jobs instead of use grade points as a crutch. That doesn't mean I care.

5) Adjust school hours to accomodate proper sleep habits.
It is taken for granted that students should wake up at very early hours in the morning and return home in the mid-afternoon. Why? Because that's the way it's always been (the origins of this system trace back to the need for most children to help their parents on their farms).
The study of sleep is a burgeoning field in medical science. Frequently downplayed or dismissed entirely in the name of our Weberian work ethic, the reality is that sleep is key to proper physiological and psychological development, and excessive sleep deprivation at a young age can lead to a whole host of cognitive and physical problems for children, often with lifelong ramifications. As such, we need to conduct a comprehensive study on what the ideal sleep patterns for children are, regardless of how those sleep patterns correspond to the way our current scheduling systems accomodate them, and then see to it that our school schedules are adjusted accordingly. The little data that currently exists on the subject suggests that if this were done, school hours would be pushed back to later in the day (since children are generally programmed to want to go to bed later at night and wake up later in the morning) and would get out later in the afternoon (since there is reason to believe that children hit their mental peaks much later in the day than the adults who teach them). Yet even if these speculations are incorrect, we have to stop acting as if sleep is a matter of minor consequence when everything science tells us flies in the face of that assumption.

6) Incorporate ongoing knowledge about multiple intelligence types into teaching methodologies.
Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist, developed a theory regarding the inner-workings of the human mind that ought to have shocked the world of education to its core. For once, wikipedia is useful, as it provides an aptly concise summary of that theory:
"Gardner's theory argues that intelligence, particularly as it is traditionally defined, does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities humans display. In his conception, a child who masters multiplication easily is not necessarily more intelligent overall than a child who struggles to do so. The second child may be stronger in another kind of intelligence, and therefore may best learn the given material through a different approach, may excel in a field outside of mathematics, or may even be looking through the multiplication learning process at a fundamentally deeper level that hides a potentially higher mathematical intelligence than in the one who memorizes the concept easily."
According to Gardner, there are eight types of intelligence:
- Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
- Interpersonal intelligence
- Verbal-linguistic intelligence
- Logical-mathematical intelligence
- Naturalistic intelligence
- Intrapersonal intelligence
- Visual-spatial intelligence
- Musical intelligence
While I do not necessarily agree with Gardner as to the number of individual intelligences that exist, what those intelligences are and entail, and what is the specific nature of their co- relationship with each other, I do feel that the fundamental premise upon which he is operating is correct. As soon as more concrete information is determined on just what the actual types of intelligence are, revolutionary changes should be made to our school curricula in such a way that every student is taught to develop his or her individual strengths in every one of those areas to the highest extent possible. That said, two potentially dangerous pitfalls must be avoided in utilizing this approach:
1) We must not allow the theory of multiple intelligences to undermine our understanding of intellectual superiority and inferiority. While being less intelligent in certain areas does not mean that one can't be intellectual gifted in others, there still are certain individuals who are more generally intellectually gifted than others... which means that others, by default, will be less so. While this truth may be hard for some to swallow, one of the greatest threats to individuality in any society is the concept that all people are fundamentally the same, which is the very conclusion that we arrive at when we go down the slippery slope of thinking that "everyone is special".
2) We must not allow either parents or the school system to try to determine early in a child's life what his or her "individual intelligences" are and then brand him or her accordingly. All children should be given the opportunity to test their strengths in every conceivable area of intelligence regardless of attempts by others to classify them, and what's more, not all forms of intellectual strength become evident at an early age (see my earlier criticism of the grading system). Rather than use these developments as yet another way of predetermining de facto hierarchies, we should instead use it to increase the depth and breadth of the education our children receive.

7) Provide every student with easy access to career counseling services.
The current vogue for providing tests to help students ascertain their proper career paths is as ineffective in reesult as it is lazy in principle. Schools should instead meet with students on an individual basis from an early age (perhaps 13 or 14) to help determine, based on their passions and personal strengths, what career paths make most sense to them . Then they should help the child in a proactive manner in figuring out what courses to take and what processes they should undergo to bring those career goals to fruition. This is something that should comprise a key role in every student's day-to-day academic activities, and counsellors should meet with youths individually (rather than in large groups) so as to provide them with the personal care they need. These counsellors should also be specifically trained in this practice.

8) Increase an emphasis on the performing arts.
Our culture has developed a habit of focusing so extensively on mathematics and science that we have do so to the neglect of the arts. As Alexis de Tocqueville astutely observed more than a century-and-a-half ago, Americans "habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they would require that the beautiful should also be useful." In addition to the points made in the above argument, I think it's critical that children be instilled with a love of learning for its own sake, and not merely as an instrument through which to achieve utilitarian ends. While much of this can be done through the study of science and mathematics, of course, I think that an increased emphasis on performing arts, music, literature and creative writing, cinema (yes, even cinema), visual arts, and (on a somewhat tangential note) philosophy can be extremely valuable. Today we believe that if a field can't earn you an easy dollar, it must be viewed as a waste of time (or at best as an indulgence). This point-of-view makes America poorer - perhaps not financially, but spiritually.

9) Establish stricter anti-bullying policies.
The psychological effects of bullying have been greatly downplayed in our own time. Often this is due to the self-serving logic of teachers who prefer the stressless environment of a laissez-faire approach to interstudent persecution (one that frees them of angry parental threats and immersion in the brutality of youth social politics), often this is due to the fact that the parents of many a bully refuse to admit that their precious darlings are anything less than angels sent from heaven, and often it is due to politically correct assumption about human nature that refuse to acknowledge the presence of genuine unprovoked malice (the idea that both parties in a given conflict are somewhat in the wrong, or that children who persecute others have low self-esteems and thus deserve as much sympathy as those they torment). The reality is that children who pick on others generally do so as a means of establishing dominance over that child, either within their social environment or for their personal gratification. This need to establish dominance has nothing to do with low self-esteem; in fact, very often it indicates an excessively high sense of their own self-worth relative to other human beings. Either way, this problem must be halted through strict anti-bullying policies for three reasons:
1) It creates an environment in which needless social distractions and/or stress interfere with the ability to learn.
2) It can lead to severe and often permanent psychological problems for the children being bullied.
3) It can lead to dangerous assumptions about the way one can rightly view other human beings among the children who get away with bullying.

10) Train teachers to be more aware of the signs of learning disabilities, and guarantee that all schools have effective programs toward treating them.
Although we have made great progress here over the past few years, it has been far from adequate. The presence of learning disabilities must be more widely recognized as a fact, and teachers must be trained to recognize the signs in other students and know how to respond in ways that are to those students' ultimate benefit.

11) Teach civics again.
One of the key reasons Americans are both less politically active and show greater difficulty in understanding how to use the tools of government to effect change in their own lives is because President Ronald Reagan removed civics from public school curricula in the 1980s. That has to be changed.

I can imagine that one of the criticisms I am likely to receive is that some of these ideas would prove too challenging for our children. The problem with that particular attack is that it has its logic backwards - it is based on the fact that today's children would find these too difficult because they have not been properly trained for them, as opposed to the fact that they were first tried and then found to be wanting. The human mind is most capable of learning when it is youngest, and our assumption to the contrary (i.e., that children have limited intellectual faculties that need to be accomodated until they reach an older and thus more receptive state) has done us far more harm than good, particularly because it has been adhered to without ever having been substantiated.
There are proposals that I had for which I did not have sufficient time and energy to put in this post (foremost among them ideas as to how guidance counselors could better prepare students for the job market). At the basis of all the proposals mentioned above, however, is a single underlying fact - much of the way we educate our children is based not on what we know about child development and the human mind, but on assumptions that we as a society have been too lazy to question. Until we start challenging these assumptions, and modify our education system accordingly, America will never fully tap into its single greatest resource - its human beings.

The Economic Bill of Rights

The following passage comes from Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union address, and is frequently referred to as the Economic Bill of Rights. As far as I'm concerned, it ranks right up there with the Declaration of Independence and the first Bill of Rights as a seminal document articulating the philosophical underpinnings of American civilization (January 11, 1944):

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

Just to make this complete, first the original Bill of Rights (December 15, 1791):

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Amendment VII
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

... and the key clause from the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Franklin Roosevelt - the founding fathers of the American idea.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Robert Reich: The Real AIG Scandal

The diminutive former Clinton Secretary of Labor says it best, and the rest of the nation needs to not only listen, but feel outraged:

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Red-Blue Divide

Just for the heck of it, I decided to figure out just how "red" and "blue" each of the fifty American states have been during our nation's recent political history. To do this, I looked at the results of every presidential election since 1992 and compiled a detailed list of which states voted Democrat every time, which states voted Republican every time, and which states varied during given elections. The results of my inquiry are listed below.

Constant Red States (states that voted Republican in every election from 1992 to 2008):
  1. South Carolina
  2. Alabama
  3. Mississippi
  4. North Dakota
  5. South Dakota
  6. Nebraska
  7. Kansas
  8. Oklahoma
  9. Texas
  10. Wyoming
  11. Idaho
  12. Utah
  13. Alaska
Constant Blue States (states that voted Democratic in every election from 1992 to 2008):
  1. Maine
  2. Vermont
  3. Massachusetts
  4. Connecticut
  5. Rhode Island
  6. New York
  7. New Jersey
  8. Pennsylvania
  9. Maryland
  10. Delaware
  11. Washington, D.C.
  12. Michigan
  13. Wisconsin
  14. Illinois
  15. Minnesota
  16. Washington
  17. Oregon
  18. California
  19. Hawaii
As you may have noticed, more than three-fifths of our Union has dependably supported one of our two major parties in every presidential election since the Clinton-Bush-Perot contest of 1992 brought an end to the immediate Reagan era (i.e., the period beginning with his first election and ending after he left office, which thus encompasses three presidential elections since the Bush-Dukakis contest of 1988 took place while he was still in office). Next we need to look at the states which are as close to dependable as possible - the ones that voted constantly red or blue in all but one of the elections from 1992 to 2008.

Nearly Constant Red States:
  1. Virginia (deviated in 2008)
  2. North Carolina (deviated in 2008)
  3. Georgia (deviated in 1992)
  4. Indiana (deviated in 2008)
  5. Montana (deviated in 1992)
  6. Arizona (deviated in 1996)
Nearly Constant Blue States:
  1. New Hampshire (deviated in 2000)
  2. Iowa (deviated in 2004)
  3. New Mexico (deviated in 2004)
All that remains now are the purple, or swing, states, which split their votes as close to evenly as possible in the five elections herein discussed. It is worth noting that none of these swing states are split right down the middle - because we have an odd number of elections, all of them lean either slightly red or slightly blue. That is why I have labelled those states that went Republican three-out-of-five times as "Reddish Purple States" and those that went Democratic three-out-of-five times as "Bluish Purple States".

Reddish Purple States:
  1. Florida
  2. Missouri
  3. West Virginia
  4. Kentucky
  5. Tennessee
  6. Louisiana
  7. Arkansas
  8. Colorado
Bluish Purple States:
  1. Ohio
  2. Nevada
So what can glean from these figures? For one thing, it is remarkable just how many states have consistently supported either one candidate or the other in every one of these elections (31 states, as well as the District of Columbia, voted for one party or the other in all five elections, and a grand total of 40 states plus DC voted for one party or the other in all but a single election). For another, it makes the electoral college breakdown in future presidential elections that much more interesting, as seen in the figures below.

Note: The number of electoral votes distributed to each of the states varies in accordance with the new figures that come out during each census. As we are due for a new census in 2010, the electoral college tallies presented below - which are based on the electoral vote allocations from the 2004 and 2008 elections that came from the 2000 census - will not be precisely accurate by 2012, which will have electoral vote allocations taken from the 2010 census and will likely see one additional vote added to the Electoral College.

Let us look at the number of electoral votes guaranteed to each party, based on the states that went one way or the other in all five contests:

Electoral Votes Guaranteed to Republicans: 93
Electoral Votes Guaranteed to Democrats: 248

As you can see, even when the electoral college adjustments caused by the 2010 census are taken into account, Democrats can rely upon a much heftier chunk of that vote than can the Republicans. Now let us look at these same figures, only with the electoral votes that went to one or the other party in all but a single election incorporated in there:

Electoral Votes Virtually Guaranteed to Republicans: 160
Electoral Votes Virtually Guaranteed to Democrats: 264

Although the margin between the Democrats and Republicans has narrowed, it is still quite considerable. Finally, let us look at the distribution when the proclivities of the purple states are added to create a final sum:

Republican Electoral Votes: 249
Democratic Electoral Votes: 289

Those swing states significantly depleted the Electoral College lead for the Democrats, although it ought to be born in mind that that diminished margin is dependent upon states that recent history has shown can swing either way. What is most noteworthy here is that, although Republicans often talked about the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 as having ushered in an era of national Republican rule, the electoral college map tells a different story. It does back up their story insofar as the three presidential elections of the 1980s are concerned (Reagan-Bush-Anderson in 1980, Reagan-Mondale in 1984, and Bush-Dukakis in 1988), since the first one occurred during an unpopular Democratic administration and the last two took place during the reign of his extraordinarily popular Republican successor. That said, it cannot be ignored that thirty-two states (for the sake of argument I am including DC as a state right now) consistently voted against the Republican party once Ronald Reagan no longer existed to lead them, with the sum of their electoral votes coming just shy of what would have been needed to deprive the Republicans of victory in all five subsequent presidential elections. This suggests that while Reagan's personal popularity was enough to create an era of Republican dominance during the decade that bore his name, it created a political culture that turned a massive portion of the country permanently against the Grand Old Party as soon as Reagan was gone.

There is one more set of statistics that I would like to share. It is a list of the popular vote percentages accumulated by the two major parties (as well as any major third parties when they existed) in the elections from 1992 to 2008.

Republican Democratic Third Party
1992: 37.4 43.0 18.9
1996: 40.7 49.2 8.4
2000: 47.9 48.4 2.7
2004: 50.7 48.3
2008: 45.7 52.9
Average: 44.5 48.4 10.0

There you have it: Even in an era when Republican claimed to rule the land, more Americans on average cast their votes for Democratic presidential candidates than they did Republican ones (although a full one-out-of-ten decided to vote for different parties altogether). It is only appropriate that I end this article on its most fitting conclusion: With the exception of George W. Bush's defeat of John Kerry in 2004, the Republicans did not win the popular vote in any of the presidential elections during the past decade.

This era is quite comparable to the period of Republican rule that supposedly occurred in the five presidential elections following the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, during which the GOP allegedly "dominated" our body politic even though they lost the popular vote in three-out-of-five of those elections (and only received the presidency in one of those contests by stealing it from the rightful Democratic winner). That, however, is another discussion for another time.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Presidential Election Voter Turnout

The final tabulations for the 2008 presidential election have come in, and a massive 61.6% turnout of eligible voters, numbering in excess of 131 million, was reported!
In celebration of this news (and to put it in a bit of perspective), I have decided to offer a historical survey of presidential election voter turnouts.

Presidential Election Voter Turnout: 1824-2008
1824 26.9 Adams-Jackson-Crawford-Clay
1828 57.6 Jackson-Adams
1832 55.4 Jackson-Clay
1836 57.8 Van Buren-Harrison
1840 80.2 Harrison-Van Buren
1844 78.9 Polk-Clay
1848 72.7 Taylor-Cass-Van Buren
1852 69.6 Pierce-Scott
1856 78.9 Buchanan-Fremont-Fillmore
1860 81.2 Lincoln-Douglas-Breckinridge-Bell
1864 73.8 Lincoln-McClellan
1868 78.1 Grant-Seymour
1872 71.3 Grant-Greeley
1876 81.8 Hayes-Tilden
1880 79.4 Garfield-Hancock
1884 77.5 Cleveland-Blaine
1888 79.3 Harrison-Cleveland
1892 74.7 Cleveland-Harrison-Weaver
1896 79.3 McKinley-Bryan
1900 73.2 McKinley-Bryan
1904 65.2 Roosevelt-Parker
1908 65.4 Taft-Bryan
1912 58.8 Wilson-Taft-Roosevelt-Debs
1916 61.6 Wilson-Hughes
1920 49.2 Harding-Cox
1924 48.9 Coolidge-Davis-La Follette
1928 56.9 Hoover-Smith
1932 56.9 Roosevelt-Hoover
1936 61.0 Roosevelt-Landon
1940 62.5 Roosevelt-Willkie
1944 55.9 Roosevelt-Dewey
1948 53.0 Truman-Dewey-Thurmond-Wallace
1952 63.3 Eisenhower-Stevenson
1956 60.6 Eisenhower-Stevenson
1960 62.8 Kennedy-Nixon
1964 61.9 Johnson-Goldwater
1968 60.8 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace
1972 55.2 Nixon-McGovern
1976 53.6 Carter-Ford
1980 52.7 Reagan-Carter-Anderson
1984 53.1 Reagan-Mondale
1988 50.2 Bush-Dukakis
1992 55.2 Clinton-Bush-Perot
1996 49.1 Clinton-Dole-Perot
2000 51.3 Bush-Gore-Nader
2004 55.3 Bush-Kerry
2008 61.6 Obama-McCain

There are several noteworthy features regarding this data:
1) For our nation's first nine presidential elections, most states opted to not even bother keeping records of voting results, since state legislatures were responsible for selecting the electors who would choose the president from the Electoral College. This dismissive attitude toward popular will clearly had an impact on how many citizens deemed it worthwhile to even get out and vote, as is evidenced by the abysmally low number of voters (26.9%) who bothered to cast a ballot in the first presidential election for which this information was recorded (1824). Thankfully, voter turnout has never sunk that low again, in no small part because...
2) Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign in 1828 was a turning point in the history of American presidential elections. Prior to Jackson, the culture of American democracy was such that individuals of low socioeconomic status were discouraged from participating in the electoral process. Much as was the prevailing attitude in the mother country, England, the idea was that those who did not own land were not educated or well-connected enough to really understand the nuances of government, and as such should defer to their wealthier superiors. Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign in 1828 shot this notion to shreds - he openly appealed to the lower-classes for their votes, and challenged the notion that only pre-designated elites were qualified to select a country's leaders. The egalitarian nature of this message was nothing short of revolutionary, and we are still feeling its effects today; even though Jackson himself only targeted economically disadvantaged white males, the precedent he established of making it politically taboo to advocate electoral elitism laid the foundations for the movements that would eventually enfranchise all of America's other politically disempowered groups, including blacks, women, and 18-to-21-year-olds. Jackson was of course an immediate beneficiary of this movement as well, managing to increase voter turnout by a staggering 30.7% and winning the largest popular landslide of the 19th century. It is hardly a coincidence that it was this campaign which led to the birth of the Democratic Party.
3) A second electoral revolution, albeit of a more temporary sort, occurred with the election of 1840. It was in this contest that the atmosphere of American political campaigns reached its hedonistic zenith, because it was at this time that the nascent Whig Party - desperate to put forth a president after two consecutive unsuccessful campaigns - took the methods that Jackson had pioneered in 1828 and racheted them up a notch. Like the Jackson campaign of 1828, the Whigs of 1840 selected a popular war hero as their candidate (William Henry Harrison), and like the Democrats of that year, spread a populist message through grassroots political organizing. Unlike the 1828 Jackson campaign, however, the 1840 Harrison campaign increased the carnival atmosphere surrounding presidential campaigns. While such a premise may be hard for contemporary Americans to imagine, at the time political activism was an increasingly popular way of people to spend their free time. Alcoholic beverages were liberally served, barbecues that caused wooden tables to creak were whipped up, local bands would come from miles around to perform at rallies, orators of local and national renown would come to deliver spellbinding speeches, and people could revel in the comradery of their family, close friends, and entire community in pursuit of a common goal - namely, the victory of their own candidate against a despised adversary. While these factors had long predated the 1840 election, they were increased to a level never before seen with that contest, as the Whig party seized upon a brilliant campaign slogan for their candidate ("Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", in reference to Harrison's famous military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe and the surname of his erstwhile running mate) and used the vast financial resources at their disposal (unlike the Democrats, the Whigs were favored by the wealthy in America, and thus had far more money to spend) to lavish in creating the kind of festive atmosphere that American voters were known to love (see above). They even managed to brilliantly synthesize the American love of intoxication with the cause of political egalitarianism - by quoting a supporter of Harrison's opponent, President Martin Van Buren, as saying that all of Harrison's supporter lived in log cabins and loved drinking hard cider, the Whigs found an excellent excuse to provide gallons of hard cider at every campaign stop, urging their supporters to get drunk as a way of showing their solidarity with the common Americans that Van Buren allegedly despised. By the time the election was over, voter turnout had reached 80.2%, one of only three elections in which four-fifths of all possible voters actually turned out to vote (the other two being the 1860 election, in which Lincoln was chosen and a Civil War started, and the 1876 election, in which the American people chose reform and had their ballots flung in their faces). While the conservative revolution for which the Whigs had hoped was cut short by Harrison's untimely death a mere one month after taking office (his successor, John Tyler, was a Jacksonian in ideas, even though he personally detested Jackson the man), the 1840 campaign had a much more signifcant legacy: As a result of the campaign ethos it established, every presidential election for the next sixty years would see turnouts of 70% or more; since then, no election has surpassed 65% in turnout.
3) The next period in the history of American election turnouts spans from 1904 to 1968. In these elections, we see a trend emerging that has held to this day - elections in which the consequences are perceived as being especially great (such as wartime elections or elections that occur during periods of great economic calamity) and elections in which one or both candidates are the recipients of tremendous personal popularity receive higher turnouts than elections in which the times are more tranquil, the candidates are viewed as more lackluster, or the outcome is in general viewed as foreordained. Thus the election of 1904 saw a high voter turnout (relative to the statistical paradigm established for this era) due to the enormous personal popularity of President Theodore Roosevelt; 1908 saw a slightly higher turnout (the highest of the past century) due to the popularity of Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan among many, and the animosity with which he was held among an even larger number; 1912 saw a decline in voter turnout due to the prevailing assumption that Democrat Woodrow Wilson was bound to be elected (thanks to the Republicans being split between incumbent William Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt); 1916 saw an increase in voter turnout due to concerns over America's potential involvement in the First World War, which was at that time tearing Europe apart and from which we had managed to avoid interference; the elections of 1920 and 1924 both reflected the widespread disenchantment with politics and social activism in general, and its willful reversion to the laissez-faire spirit of the pre-Roosevelt period of American political history resulted in a significant dip in voter turnout; the election of 1928 saw a modest increase in voter turnout due to the moderate interest taken in the personalities of the two candidates, Herbert Hoover and Alfred Smith; the election of 1932 saw the same level of turnout due to concerns over the Great Depression; the elections of 1936 and 1940 saw tremendous increases in voter turnout due to the personal popularity of President Franklin Roosevelt (who had not been as personally popular when he first ran for president in 1932, winning primarily because of the failures of his opponent, the incumbent Herbert Hoover); the elections of 1944 and 1948 saw dips in voter turnout due to the perception that the outcomes of those elections were foreordained (a perception that was proven to be inaccurate in the case of the 1948 election); and the elections from 1952 to 1968 saw high voter turnout that spurred on first by the extreme popularity of the Republican and Democratic candidates from the first two elections (war hero Dwight Eisenhower and charismatic intellectual Adlai Stevenson), and then continued by the ability of both parties to capitalize on the momentum established by those candidates in subsequent contests. Thus in these elections the personal popularity of one or both of the major candidates and the pressing nature of immediate economic and/or international circumstances caused certain elections to see increase in voter turnout, whereas elections with factors that were conducive to voter disinterest saw a correlative decline in voter participation.
4) The elections from 1972 to 2004 were all marked by widespread voter distinterest. Whereas every election from 1840 to 1900 saw a voter turnout of 70% or higher, and while thirteen of the sixteen elections from 1904 to 1968 had turnouts surpassing 55% (with ten of them surpassing 60%), the elections from 1972 to 2004 never broke 55% turnout. This can be attributed to a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with, distrust of, and general jadedness toward the American political process. Even candidates who were considered to be personally popular (most notably Ronald Reagan and William Clinton) were only popular relative to the general norm of politicians being unpopular figures; the genuine affection and enthusiasm that had been inspired by presidential candidates before 1972 was nowhere to be seen in any of the presidential elections that occurred in the thirty-two years following it, with the Reagan and Clinton candidacies being flaccid imitations of their predecessors. Every contest in this more than three-decade period saw a turn-out between 49% and 55%. The elections with the largest turnouts were those in 1972, 1992, and 2004, each of which took place during a period of great international and/or economic turmoil; those with the lowest turnouts occurred in 1988, 1996, and 2000, during which time peace abroad and prosperity at home lowered the sense of urgency that was needed to drive voters to the polls.
5) The 2008 election likely begins a new period in the history of American voter participation. It was a perfect storm of those factors that have been known to increase voter turnout since our modern era began in 1904 - significant immediate issues of pressing concern to average Americans (which in this case involved both economic and international concerns, whereas in most elections it is either one or the other) and a candidate whose personal charisma inspired genuine enthusiasm among voters (Democrat Barack Obama), as opposed to the pallid reactions stimulated by the candidates chosen by the two major parties in the previous nine elections. Should Obama succeed in addressing the economic and international crises currently facing our country, his personal popularity will likely not only increase, but solidify, so that by 2012 he will have supporting him a massive political coalition that will help him win by large numbers and with high voter turnout, similar to Franklin Roosevelt's movement from the 1936 presidential election. Should he fail, voter turnout is still likely to at least plateau by 2012, as the desire to remove him from office will likely mirror the sentiments against Hebert Hoover in 1932. And of course, if the Republicans should nominate a charismatic candidate who stimulates genuine enthusiasm among his base (Michael Huckabee), the positive feelings among liberals will be echoed with a similar reaction among conservatives. Even so, the ball lies mostly in Obama's court - he will either stimulate high voter turnout and a favorable landslide by mirroring Roosevelt from 1936, or stimulate high voter turnout and an unfavorable landslide by mirroring Hoover from 1932.

This is my analysis of the recent voter turnout results, put in a larger historical framework. Any thoughts?

Three Excerpts That Explain Our Economic Plight


The first excerpt comes from the memoirs of Marriner Eccles, who served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve for fourteen years (1934-1948) and was an early fiscal liberal whose advocacy of stimulus spending in times of economic distress predates that of the better-known John Maynard Keynes. The parallels between the origins of the Great Depression and the catalysts of our current "mini depression" are, to say the least, sobering. Before you read it, however, candor behooves me to confess I did not discover this passage, but instead stumbled upon it while browsing through the blog of former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich:

As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth -- not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced -- to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation s economic machinery. Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants. In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.

That is what happened to us in the twenties. We sustained high levels of employment in that period with the aid of an exceptional expansion of debt outside of the banking system. This debt was provided by the large growth of business savings as well as savings by individuals, particularly in the upper-income groups where taxes were relatively low. Private debt outside of the banking system increased about fifty per cent. This debt, which was at high interest rates, largely took the form of mortgage debt on housing, office, and hotel structures, consumer installment debt, brokers' loans, and foreign debt. The stimulation to spending by debt-creation of this sort was short-lived and could not be counted on to sustain high levels of employment for long periods of time. Had there been a better distribution of the current income from the national product -- in other words, had there been less savings by business and the higher-income groups and more income in the lower groups -- we should have had far greater stability in our economy. Had the six billion dollars, for instance, that were loaned by corporations and wealthy individuals for stock-market speculation been distributed to the public as lower prices or higher wages and with less profits to the corporations and the well-to-do, it would have prevented or greatly moderated the economic collapse that began at the end of 1929.

The time came when there were no more poker chips to be loaned on credit. Debtors thereupon were forced to curtail their consumption in an effort to create a margin that could be applied to the reduction of outstanding debts. This naturally reduced the demand for goods of all kinds and brought on what seemed to be overproduction, but was in reality under-consumption when judged in terms of the real world instead of the money world. This, in turn, brought about a fall in prices and employment.

Unemployment further decreased the consumption of goods, which further increased unemployment, thus closing the circle in a continuing decline of prices. Earnings began to disappear, requiring economies of all kinds in the wages, salaries, and time of those employed. And thus again the vicious circle of deflation was closed until one third of the entire working population was unemployed, with our national income reduced by fifty per cent, and with the aggregate debt burden greater than ever before, not in dollars, but measured by current values and income that represented the ability to pay. Fixed charges, such as taxes, railroad and other utility rates, insurance and interest charges, clung close to the 1929 level and required such a portion of the national income to meet them that the amount left for consumption of goods was not sufficient to support the population.

This then, was my reading of what brought on the depression.


The next article was written by the aforementioned Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. As a Jew, I must admit that I am quite proud of the long history my co-religionists have of serving in that office with abundant distinction, tracing back to the very first Secretary of Labor, Theodore Roosevelt’s Oscar Straus (also the first Jew to serve in any presidential cabinet, unless you include Judah Benjamin, who served as the Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State under Jefferson Davis). This article, and many others of equal lucidity and insight, can be found at his blog,

Why is this recession so deep, and what can be done to reverse it?

Hint: Go back about 50 years, when America's middle class was expanding and the economy was soaring. Paychecks were big enough to allow us to buy all the goods and services we produced. It was a virtuous circle. Good pay meant more purchases, and more purchases meant more jobs.

At the center of this virtuous circle were unions. In 1955, more than a third of working Americans belonged to one. Unions gave them the bargaining leverage they needed to get the paychecks that kept the economy going. So many Americans were unionized that wage agreements spilled over to non-unionized workplaces as well. Employers knew they had to match union wages to compete for workers and to recruit the best ones.

Fast forward to a new century. Now, fewer than 8% of private-sector workers are unionized. Corporate opponents argue that Americans no longer want unions. But public opinion surveys, such as a comprehensive poll that Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted in 2006, suggest that a majority of workers would like to have a union to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. So there must be some other reason for this dramatic decline. But put that question aside for a moment. One point is clear: Smaller numbers of unionized workers mean less bargaining power, and less bargaining power results in lower wages.

It's no wonder middle-class incomes were dropping even before the recession. As our economy grew between 2001 and the start of 2007, most Americans didn't share in the prosperity. By the time the recession began last year, according to an Economic Policy Institute study, the median income of households headed by those under age 65 was below what it was in 2000.Typical families kept buying only by going into debt. This was possible as long as the housing bubble expanded. Home-equity loans and refinancing made up for declining paychecks.

But that's over. American families no longer have the purchasing power to keep the economy going. Lower paychecks, or no paychecks at all, mean fewer purchases, and fewer purchases mean fewer jobs.

The way to get the economy back on track is to boost the purchasing power of the middle class. One major way to do this is to expand the percentage of working Americans in unions. Tax rebates won't work because they don't permanently raise wages. Most families used the rebate last year to pay off debt -- not a bad thing, but it doesn't keep the virtuous circle running. Bank bailouts won't work either. Businesses won't borrow to expand without consumers to buy their goods and services. And Americans themselves can't borrow when they're losing their jobs and their incomes are dropping.

Tax cuts for working families, as President Obama intends, can do more to help because they extend over time. But only higher wages and benefits for the middle class will have a lasting effect.

Unions matter in this equation. According to the Department of Labor, workers in unions earn 30% higher wages -- taking home $863 a week, compared with $663 for the typical nonunion worker -- and are 59% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance than their nonunion counterparts.

Examples abound. In 2007, nearly 12,000 janitors in Providence, R.I., New Hampshire and Boston, represented by the Service Employees International Union, won a contract that raised their wages to $16 an hour, guaranteed more work hours and provided family health insurance. In an industry typically staffed by part-time workers with a high turnover rate, a union contract provided janitors with full-time, sustainable jobs that they could count on to raise their families' -- and their communities' -- standard of living.

In August, 65,000 Verizon workers, represented by the Communications Workers of America, won wage increases totaling nearly 11% and converted temporary jobs to full-time status. Not only did the settlement preserve fully paid healthcare premiums for all active and retired unionized employees, but Verizon also agreed to provide $2 million a year to fund a collaborative campaign with its unions to achieve meaningful national healthcare reform.

Although America and its economy need unions, it's become nearly impossible for employees to form one. The Hart poll I cited tells us that 57 million workers would want to be in a union if they could have one. But those who try to form a union, according to researchers at MIT, have only about a 1 in 5 chance of successfully doing so.

The reason? Most of the time, employees who want to form a union are threatened and intimidated by their employers. And all too often, if they don't heed the warnings, they're fired, even though that's illegal. I saw this when I was secretary of Labor over a decade ago. We tried to penalize employers that broke the law, but the fines are minuscule. Too many employers consider them a cost of doing business.

This isn't right. The most important feature of the Employee Free Choice Act, which will be considered by the just-seated 111th Congress, toughens penalties against companies that violate their workers' rights. The sooner it's enacted, the better -- for U.S. workers and for the U.S. economy.

The American middle class isn't looking for a bailout or a handout. Most people just want a chance to share in the success of the companies they help to prosper. Making it easier for all Americans to form unions would give the middle class the bargaining power it needs for better wages and benefits. And a strong and prosperous middle class is necessary if our economy is to succeed.


The final excerpt comes from a speech delivered by Adlai Stevenson (not coincidentally my political role model) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during his 1952 campaign for the presidency. While election oratory is not usually considered to be the right place to go for scholarly ideas (Book VII of Plato's Republic be damned!), Stevenson was noteworthy for his stubborn refusal to lower the quality of his speeches in the name of accommodating what his advisors felt were the limited intellectual capacities of the voting public. Whether his intellectualism did indeed cost him the presidency is a matter for others to debate (I for one would like to believe that Stevenson’s sole mistake was that of having the bad luck of running against a popular war hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower). My purpose here is to show you an excerpt from the talk he gave to those college students in Wisconsin on October 8, 1952. In it he reminds the generations that grew up with the advantages of the New Deal to never forget that the economic opportunity and prosperity which they could now take for granted had not always been a part of American life, and admonishes them against ever supporting politicians who would use oratorical tricks to turn them against the New Deal, and who upon rolling it back might make America as vulnerable as it had been before its arrival:

Most of you students were born, I suppose, in the early thirties and do not remember the state of the world at that time. Looking back, it must be hard for most of you to realize that such a world ever existed. Your world has troubles of its own - perhaps greater troubles than those of twenty years ago. But one worry you are spared is the worry of finding a job. When you finish college and military service, you will enter a world which wants and needs you.

This seems a natural thing - when you have it. It is a terrible thing when you don't. As we look around our booming country, it is almost incredible to think that mass unemployment was ever a problem. Yet a short twenty years ago millions of people were engaged in a desperate search for work...

It was a sullen and hostile world - a world which little for youth of opportunity, of hope, of a future. The system was running down, like a broken clock. The wonder is, not that so many young men and women turned to socialism or to communism, but that there were so few.

The election of 1932 was, in a way, a last chance for a free America. Nearly a million votes were cast against capitalism that year. That million might well have swelled to ten million by 1936 if the economic paralysis had continued.

But, as you all know, the election of 1932 brought Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, and also the vitality and guts to tackle our economic problems within the framework of the democratic system. The growth of extreme radicalism was arrested by bring an end to human distress and economic chaos. In 1936, not ten million but a bare 250,000 people voted for socialism and communism. I firmly believe, therefore, that the man who was more responsible than any other for checking the spread of communism in America was Franklin D. Roosevelt...

I go into this because it is something more than ancient history. I would have hoped that all Americans could accept the gains we have made in the last generation, and that on this basis we could move forward together. But I fear the struggle is not over. The minority which fought this effort at every step along the way is still fighting. Senator Bricker spoke for them when he cried at the Republican convention this year that the "last vestige of the New Deal" must be "destroyed".

I hope this was just partisan elocution, but the record is not reassuring that the constructive work which has been done is secure. And it is well for you who can't remember where we have been to know where we are. This freedom and this security are part of the landscape of your world. But they have only been part of that landscape for a short time.

*Note: There were two segments that I excised from this passage in the speech. The first was a rather poetic survey of the cultural and political attitudes of the 1920s, which though fascinating would have taken attention away from the relevant portions of the text. The second went into detail about agricultural policy (a necessary topic for any politician soliciting the votes of Wisconsinites), which was equally irrelevant to the main theme of the speech.

True American Economic Policy

Republicans and so-called “moderates” from both parties are screaming about the “socialistic” policies being proposed by President Obama. So far as they are concerned, Obama’s ideas are entirely consistent with the incendiary “class warfare” rhetoric in these two quotes:

"I hope we shall...crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

“The bank mania is raising up a moneyed aristocracy in our country which has already set the government at defiance, and although forced at length to yield a little on this first essay of their strength, their principles are unyielded and unyielding. These have taken deep root in the hearts of that class from which our legislators are drawn, and the sop to Cerberus from fable has become good history. Their principles lay hold of the good, their pelf of the bad, and thus those whom the Constitution has placed as guards to its portals, are sophisticated or suborned from their duties.”

They would also agree that it bears a striking similarity to the economic philosophy both implicitly and explicitly espoused in these two passages:

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society - the farmers, mechanics, and laborers who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves - have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing."

“Unless you become more watchful in your States and check this spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges you will in the end find that the most important powers of Government have been given or bartered away, and the control over your dearest interests has passed into the hands of these corporations."

Needless to say, they would simply relish the opportunity to pounce on the way Obama’s ideas resemble those conveyed by the 19th Century radical who penned the words presented below:

“In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.

“It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

“Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them...

“Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.”

One can hardly argue that Obama’s efforts to use an activist government to promote economic egalitarianism, and his populist insistence that the power of big business poses a grave threat to our most fundamental freedoms, does fall completely in line with the statements quoted above. Indeed, I have shown some of these passages to many friends, who are quick to recognize within them many menacingly Marxist traits.

The only problem is that none of them were written by Karl Marx. The first two were culled from letters written by none other than Thomas Jefferson during the years following his presidency (the first to Pennsylvania Senator George Logan in November 1816 and the second to a Dr. J. B. Stuart in March 1817); the next two come from Andrew Jackson, who wrote them during his term of office (the first is an excerpt from his address on the fight against the Second Bank of the United States in December 1832, and the second from his Farewell Address in March 1837); and the final passage comes from the State of the Union address as presented to the United States Congress by the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in December 1861.

With the exception of the Lincoln quote, all of these passages were written well before Marx had published his seminal economic works, including Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (published in 1844, shockingly enough), Wage-Labor and Capital (1847), and The Communist Manifesto (1848). Even Lincoln’s remarks pre-dated the most famous of Marx’s writings, Das Kapital (1867). In short, although Republicans love to claim that the populist style and pro-actively anti-plutocratic tone of Barack Obama is covertly pro-Marx and overtly un-American, they are actually rebelling against ideas that were as American as the stars-and-stripes well before Karl Marx introduced himself to the world.

The Founding of

By Matthew Rozsa and Brian Davis

Note: The following conversation was held between myself and my good friend on February 25, 2009. As I was lucky enough to have this dialogue via a medium that lends itself to preservation (i.e., Instant Messenger), I saved the transcript and deemed it appropriate to open my blog with its contents. This is the conversation that planted the seeds from which has sprung. Everything you see here is exactly as it was, unedited and unabridged, although I have divided it up into chapters so as to make browsing a bit easier.

Chapter One: Obama’s “State of the Union Address”
ZweihanderSword (3:46:23 PM): greetings, comrade
Benecras (3:46:36 PM): Salutations, ally.
ZweihanderSword (3:47:09 PM): any interesting new political news?
Benecras (3:48:00 PM): Did you watch Obama's de facto State of the Union Address, as well as the response delivered by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (the man who I've been saying for years is seeking the Republican presidential nomination)?
ZweihanderSword (3:48:23 PM): nope
Benecras (3:48:28 PM): You should have done so.
Benecras (3:48:33 PM): Both speeches are available on YouTube.
Benecras (3:48:48 PM): Obama's was the best he's given since he became president.
Benecras (3:48:55 PM): It was precisely what this nation needed.
Benecras (3:49:08 PM): How familiar are you with Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats?
ZweihanderSword (3:49:17 PM): not very
Benecras (3:50:14 PM): Although FDR is best remembered for his soaring rhetoric ("We have nothing to fear but fear itself...", "One third of a nation ill-fed, ill-clad...", "A day which will live in infamy..."), his greatest contributions to presidential oratory came from his "fireside chats".
ZweihanderSword (3:50:37 PM): live radio broadcasts
Benecras (3:50:44 PM): Exactly.
Benecras (3:51:23 PM): He understood that Americans were concerned about events both at home (during the Great Depression) and abroad (during World War Two), and saw that a large part of his job as president was in educating them about the state of affairs at home and/or overseas, as well as explaining to them what his policies were, how they would be implemented, why he believed they would work, and what they could expect occurring from them.
Benecras (3:51:49 PM): Those speeches were not meant to be poetic or memorable. They served instead a very different but equally crucial function - of providing people with a nuts-and-bolts idea of what the president had in mind.
Benecras (3:51:58 PM): Never before had an American president attempted anything like this.
ZweihanderSword (3:52:05 PM): i think obama should do a weekly podcast
Benecras (3:52:14 PM): Granted, prior to the 1920s, the technology didn't exist which would have made this even possible.
Benecras (3:52:41 PM): Nevertheless, Roosevelt used his eloquence, intelligence, and almost grandfatherly presence to both comfort people and provide them with faith in the soundness of his policies.
Benecras (3:52:48 PM): That, in a nutshell, is what Obama did with his speech last night.
Benecras (3:52:53 PM): It was perfect.
Benecras (3:53:44 PM): He covered a panoply of subjects in unprecedented depth and detail - our economic crisis, health care reform, energy independence, and education - outlined what he felt needed to be done to solve them, what we could expect to occur as a result of his policy proposals, and so on.
Benecras (3:54:09 PM): He managed to do this for just under an hour without ever once dragging on or becoming pedantic.
Benecras (3:55:36 PM): He convincingly explained each of his policy ideas and why he felt they would work, rebutted the various charges being made against his programs by Republicans, and tied everything together under a single theme - namely, that America had problems which posed a grave threat, but which with the right policies it could emerge from stronger and more prosperous than ever before.
Benecras (3:55:59 PM): The only set of issues he didn't discuss were those pertaining to foreign policy (Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and so on), although I suspect that that was the wisest course of action.
Benecras (3:56:16 PM): He had an hour's worth of material about domestic and economic issues, and probably deemed it wisest to leave foreign policy for an entirely separate address.
ZweihanderSword (3:56:46 PM): so what did bobby jindal say?
Benecras (3:57:04 PM): Jindal's speech, and I say this as an unbiased critic of rhetoric and not as a partisan liberal, was horrible.
Benecras (3:57:08 PM): He made three crucial mistakes:
ZweihanderSword (3:58:46 PM): which were?
Benecras (3:58:49 PM): 1) He over-inflected. This goes back to one of the basic tenets of oratory and one of the greatest challenges presented in speechmaking - how do you sound both lofty and conversational (a paradox in its own right) without making your tone seem artifical and/or forced? Obama has long been a master at doing precisely that (as are Bill Clinton and, loathe though we may be to admit it, Ronald Reagan and Mike Huckabee). Jindal failed miserably. His tone emoted so excessively that it became mockable.
Benecras (4:00:33 PM): 2) He didn't have a coherent theme. Another challenge in presenting any lengthy speech is in connecting your various arguments, anecdotes, rhetorical flourishes, and other verbiage into a single speech with an overarching theme. That is crucial to the success of any lengthy address; if you fail, then it winds up coming off as a hodgepodge of random thoughts and ideas, which makes it hard to follow and even harder to remember (except in the most negative terms). Once again, Obama (who had to discuss a much larger array of subjects than Jindal and needed more than quadruple the time to do it) succeeded wonderfully in this. Jindal failed, and his speech had virtually no unifying thematic elements.
Benecras (4:02:11 PM): 3) Jindal missed a grand opportunity to deflate Obama. One of the advantages of delivering a response to a State of the Union address is that you speak IMMEDIATELY AFTER the president, which means that before people can react positively to the president's speech (assuming that he did a good job), you have the opportunity to analyze everything he said point-by-point and undermine it. If you do this effectively (as Edmund Muskie did to Richard Nixon in 1970 or Jim Webb did to George W. Bush in 2007), you can do a great deal of damage to the president, both by preventing his agenda from ever taking off (since you shoot it down before it can really settle into people's minds) and by making him look bad independent of his own words.
Benecras (4:03:11 PM): Jindal failed miserably in that regard as well. His speech barely touched on anything Obama said, making it extremely clear that he either didn't watch the speech or wasn't paying attention. The words he spoke were obviously written well before Obama delivered his address, and as a result, didn't really touch upon any of the points he made except in the most general terms. It missed a great strategic opportunity.

Chapter Two: The Republicans, Who Are In Trouble Now
Benecras (4:05:10 PM): The Republicans are in trouble now.
Benecras (4:05:37 PM): Polls show that most Americans support President Obama, are mildly supportive of the Democrats in congress, and are outright opposed to the way Republicans have been handling things.
Benecras (4:06:04 PM): They are clearly adopting an obstructionist strategy - i.e., whatever the president says or does, they will oppose it merely because he is the president from an opposing party.
Benecras (4:07:09 PM): The problem with that approach is that Obama is an extremely popular president right now, and by aligning themselves against him, they are not only working against public sentiment, but giving the strong impression that they are more interested in partisan politics than helping the country.
Benecras (4:07:17 PM): It is a strategic blunder of massive proportions.
Benecras (4:07:31 PM): What they should be doing is what the Republicans in Congress did when Franklin Roosevelt was elected.
Benecras (4:07:49 PM): They recognized that he was popular, and that his policies might work, so most Republicans embraced FDR hook, line, and sinker.
Benecras (4:07:51 PM): Why?
Benecras (4:08:42 PM): Because that way if he failed, they could still oppose him (on the grounds that they were the oppositional party), and if he succeeded, they could then claim partial credit for his achievements, thereby denying him the full benefits of his success and protecting themselves from charges of having been, well, obstructionist.
Benecras (4:08:50 PM): That's the smarter approach in times like this for two reasons:
Benecras (4:11:09 PM): 1) When the nation is mired in crisis, people are looking for results. While normally people are made uneasy by the idea of both parties working in cahoots (it suggests a one-party government), in times of catastrophe people want to know that their government is putting its differences aside and working to solve problems. Because the president is the leader in times like this, people thus expect both parties in Congress to more or less approve of anything the president suggests. That is why Democrats supported most of George W. Bush's suggestions for the first year or so after September 11th, and why most Republicans did the same for Lyndon Johnson after John Kennedy's assassination and for Franklin Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbor. To do otherwise gives the impression that you care less about your country than you do about your own petty hatreds and your personal career.
ZweihanderSword (4:11:43 PM): brb
Benecras (4:11:46 PM): 2) As I just explained, it can never hurt. If the president's policies fail, you can distance yourself from them by opposing them later, and thus still reap the benefits of kicking him when he's down; if they succeed, then you flew on his coattails.
Benecras (4:11:48 PM): OK
ZweihanderSword (4:16:19 PM): bacl
Benecras (4:16:29 PM): Did you read my thoughts?
Benecras (4:16:33 PM): I know that I was quite verbose.
ZweihanderSword (4:16:39 PM): yeah, i just finished
Benecras (4:16:45 PM): And?
ZweihanderSword (4:17:03 PM): it sounds like good news for the democrats
ZweihanderSword (4:18:11 PM): unfortunately it would seem, judging by what you sent me yesterday, that there are many among us who support, if not outright prefer, partisan squabbling over real action
Benecras (4:18:22 PM): Absolutely.
Benecras (4:18:44 PM): But every poll that has been taken shows that most Americans favor President Obama (I love writing those two words next to each other) and congressional Democrats over the Republicans.
Benecras (4:19:16 PM): The polls also show that an overwhelming majority of Americans feel that President Obama is making a solid effort to work with Republicans in Congress, and blame Republicans for all of the difficulties that have occurred so far.
ZweihanderSword (4:19:27 PM): that's good
ZweihanderSword (4:19:29 PM): i know i do

Chapter Three: Republicans Haven’t Changed That Much Since The Days of Coolidge
Benecras (4:19:35 PM): "Vote the straight Republican ticket, regardless of the qualifications of the candidate even though you know a man to be incompetent... even though you know him to be immoral, vote for him because he represents the Republican ticket."
- Benjamin Willoughby, Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (1925)
ZweihanderSword (4:19:36 PM): although i am disappointed in obama
ZweihanderSword (4:19:46 PM): simply because he conceded so early
Benecras (4:19:47 PM): The Republican philosophy hasn't changed that much since the days of Calvin Coolidge.
Benecras (4:20:05 PM): Either in political strategy or economic philosophy.
Benecras (4:20:51 PM): At one point in his speech, Obama addressed those who complained about the fact that he is going to raise taxes to pay for health care reform, energy independence, education reform, economic stimulus, and deficit reduction with the following quote:
ZweihanderSword (4:23:02 PM): ?
Benecras (4:23:10 PM): I'm trying to find it.
Benecras (4:23:12 PM): Give me a second.
Benecras (4:23:57 PM): In order to save our children from a future of debt, we will also end the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. But let me perfectly clear, because I know you'll hear the same old claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people: if your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime. In fact, the recovery plan provides a tax cut - that's right, a tax cut - for 95% of working families. And these checks are on the way.
Benecras (4:25:46 PM): When he said "if your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime", every Democrat got up and delivered a standing ovation. The Republicans remained in their seats (and the camera zoomed in one old man whose eyes were literally bulging out of his head and his neck veins literally bulging out), and then after about ten seconds, they sort of looked at each and half-heartedly got out of their seats (probably because they realized that people could see them and they didn't want to look bad).
Benecras (4:26:47 PM): One thing I noticed from his speech is that Obama is proposing policies that are much more aggressively liberal than anything contained in his first economic stimulus package.
Benecras (4:26:56 PM): What that suggests to me is that he learned from his mistake and is determined to not repeat it.
Benecras (4:27:24 PM): He was under the mistaken impression that Republicans in Congress have legitimate differences of opinion with Democrats that they will put aside when the welfare of the country is at stake.
Benecras (4:27:52 PM): He has now learned, the hard way, that this is simply not so, and I think he is modifying his approach in dealing with them accordingly.
Benecras (4:28:15 PM): To me, their mentality is proven in the look on that old man's face when Obama mentioned that he would not raise taxes for those who make less than a quarter-million dollars by one dime.
Benecras (4:28:34 PM): When they hear that, they're not hearing about the 98% of Americans who will see a massive improvement in their standard of living.
ZweihanderSword (4:28:48 PM): they're only thinking about the rich folks
Benecras (4:28:49 PM): Who will suddenly have opportunities open up to them that are closed because the malfeasance of the wealthy few.
Benecras (4:28:55 PM): Exactly.
Benecras (4:28:59 PM): That's why they didn't stand up and cheer.
Benecras (4:29:17 PM): Because what Obama said means that taxes WILL be raised on the upper 2%, the people who make a quarter-million dollars a year or more.
ZweihanderSword (4:29:54 PM): good
ZweihanderSword (4:30:10 PM): let them pay their fair share
Benecras (4:30:28 PM): I wish everyone in America had watched that speech, and more specifically noticed the reaction of Republicans when Obama announced that he was planning on having the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes.
Benecras (4:30:36 PM): It would make it mighty hard for any of them to be re-elected.
Benecras (4:30:42 PM): The problem, of course, is that people DON'T watch.
Benecras (4:31:03 PM): As a result, these Republicans will go back to their districts and speak proudly of their populism without anyone seeing through their lies.
ZweihanderSword (4:32:21 PM): we should set up a secret organization that replaces every ounce of chocalate and pillow mints at every country club and 5 star hotel with laxatives
Benecras (4:32:40 PM): lol
Benecras (4:32:51 PM): Wall Street tumbled after Obama's speech, which Republicans are jumping all over.
Benecras (4:32:55 PM): This ignores the reason why it tumbled, though.
Benecras (4:33:29 PM): In his speech, Obama alluded to the possibility that the government might temporarily take over (or at least crack down on) banks that aren't solvent enough to effectively serve the public.
Benecras (4:33:37 PM): Wall Street hates any news that involves regulation.
ZweihanderSword (4:33:54 PM): rich people, fearing the repeal of the bush tax cuts, started selling?
Benecras (4:34:23 PM): No, Wall Street reacts to the confidence of the wealthy in their markets. They fear government regulation and react accordingly.
Benecras (4:34:41 PM): Oh, by the way, Governor Jindal (who I am on printed record predicting would be the Republican presidential nominee as early as August 2008) has announced that he will not accept the economic stimulus money Obama is giving governors for his State of Louisiana.
Benecras (4:34:55 PM): Then when he realized how bad it would look, he announced that he would "only" accept 99% of the money.
Benecras (4:35:01 PM): Guess what 1% he is rejecting?
Benecras (4:35:06 PM): I'll give you a hint:
Benecras (4:35:14 PM): It's not the tax cuts for the wealthy.
ZweihanderSword (4:35:15 PM): tax breakes for low income families
Benecras (4:35:21 PM): Nope.
Benecras (4:35:28 PM): He is rejecting all unemployment benefits.
Benecras (4:35:30 PM): That's right.
Benecras (4:35:46 PM): Even as unemployment continues to escalate in his state, he is refusing any government funds that will help the unemployed makes ends meet.
Benecras (4:36:31 PM): Congressman Barney Frank (a great liberal from Massachusetts, and a man who makes me proud to be a Jew) was on Keith Olbermann, and he had a great line. It was something to the effect of, "Jindal has created a new definition of bravery - my ability to endure the suffering I impose on others".
ZweihanderSword (4:37:13 PM): jindal is indian
ZweihanderSword (4:37:23 PM): i sincerely doubt that his ancestry is from a lower caste
Benecras (4:38:07 PM): I have no idea whether he's a Brahmin or an untouchable.
Benecras (4:38:19 PM): in a way, I don't care.
Benecras (4:38:33 PM): His ideas are the problem, not his parents' socioeconomic status.
Benecras (4:39:36 PM): In other news, Northern Trust (a Chicago-based bank) was found to have layed off hundreds of workers and continued to refuse opening up credit AFTER they'd received government bailout money... but they did throw parties with that money, complete with rock-and-roll bands and the best catering money can buy.
Benecras (4:39:47 PM): And note that I used the plural, "parties", not the singular, "party".
Benecras (4:39:51 PM): There were four.
Benecras (4:39:55 PM): They costs tens of thousands of dollars.
Benecras (4:40:04 PM): * - cost
Benecras (4:40:07 PM): I hate typos.

Chapter Four: Where Do I Come Off Making Grandiloquent Statements About The Sweep of Human History?
ZweihanderSword (4:40:27 PM): how can these people live with themselves?
Benecras (4:41:01 PM): Their logic is pretty simple, actually.
Benecras (4:41:35 PM): Ever since the beginning of human history, in every civilization known to man, there has always been a small class of people on top and a large class of people on the bottom.
Benecras (4:41:43 PM): In their eyes, that's the way it's always been, and that's the way it will always be.
Benecras (4:41:53 PM): Therefore there is no "right" and "wrong" when matters of socioeconomics are concerned.
Benecras (4:41:57 PM): Things just "are".
Benecras (4:42:06 PM): And they're just grateful to be at the top instead of the bottom.
Benecras (4:42:31 PM): They consider right and wrong to be measured by how you treat your family and friends, and maybe a couple of pet causes that you champion vis-a-vis charities and other philanthropic work.
Benecras (4:42:34 PM): All of that is well and good.
Benecras (4:42:47 PM): But at the end of the day, there will always be a small group at the top and a large group at the bottom.
Benecras (4:43:05 PM): To argue that this is wrong is to be a silly idealist, almost juvenile in your naivete.
Benecras (4:43:19 PM): Of course, on some level, they do know that it is wrong.
ZweihanderSword (4:43:24 PM): until the large group becomes so large and so downtrodden that they rise up and destroy the small group
Benecras (4:43:26 PM): The argument I just told you is what they tell themselves.
Benecras (4:43:35 PM): It is NOT what they actually believe.
Benecras (4:43:57 PM): Deep down, they know that they are in the wrong, and that the people they oppress may and probably will someday make things right.
Benecras (4:44:01 PM): How can we prove this?
Benecras (4:44:07 PM): With two simple observations:
Benecras (4:45:02 PM): 1) If they were so confident that this is just the natural order of things, why would they be worried that liberal economic legislation would upset that ordre? Hypothetically, if this is the way things will always be, then no amount of legislation could possibly impair their status, and they'd have nothing to worry about. Indeed, they'd be better off ALLOWING this legislation to pass, as sops to the poor and middle-class to shut them up and thus even more securely preserve the status of the wealthy.
Benecras (4:46:18 PM): 2) History is full of examples of revolutions taking place due to situations very similar to this one. Look at France during the late-1700s, or Germany during the mid-1800s, or Russia during the early-1900s.
Benecras (4:46:46 PM): But those aren't the best examples.
Benecras (4:46:51 PM): The best examples are the revolutions that WORKED.
Benecras (4:47:03 PM): Look at America under the New Deal, or the countless successful socioeconomic programs of reform in Western Europe.
Benecras (4:47:19 PM): The situation of the average man has shown a steady rate of improvement over the centuries that only a simpleton could overlook.
Benecras (4:47:34 PM): It means much less to be wealthy, well-connected, and powerful today than it has ever meant at any previous point in human history.
Benecras (4:47:43 PM): That is what frightens them.
Benecras (4:47:48 PM): The current of history is against them.
ZweihanderSword (4:48:11 PM): vampires
Benecras (4:48:17 PM): That is why they champion Ronald Reagans and George W. Bushes and anyone else who they believe can roll back the progress that was made under Jefferson, Jackson, the two Roosevelts, Wilson, and Johnson.
Benecras (4:48:35 PM): It is ultimately a holding action against the inevitable.
Benecras (4:48:44 PM): This, by the way, is why I am an optimist.
Benecras (4:48:53 PM): In the grander sweep of history, we're winning and their losing.
Benecras (4:48:58 PM): * they're
Benecras (4:49:02 PM): That typo was my own fault.
Benecras (4:49:32 PM): The point is that they are trying to delay the inevitable, and their sheer stark terror comes from the fact that all of the signs point to the reality that socioeconomic egalitarianism is inevitable.
ZweihanderSword (4:49:37 PM): sooner or later the vampires are going to run out of blood to suck
Benecras (4:50:08 PM): The dream of the modern conservative movement is to bring us back to the Gilded Ages.
Benecras (4:50:24 PM): That period in America's political and economic history that began with the end of the Civil War and continued up until Theodore Roosevelt became president.
Benecras (4:50:28 PM): 1865 to 1901
ZweihanderSword (4:50:43 PM): with southern aristocrats and their slave-worked plantations
Benecras (4:50:54 PM): No, that was before the Civil War.
Benecras (4:51:01 PM): You're thinking Antebellum - 1789 to 1861.
Benecras (4:51:08 PM): I'm talking about the Gilded Age, 1865-1901.
Benecras (4:51:20 PM): That was the height of laissez-faire capitalism, when the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, and the middle-class strove to be the former while teetering toward being the latter.
Benecras (4:51:50 PM): When every congressman and senator from both parties agreed on every ideological issue of import, and only feigned disagreement on issues that were long dead (such as the sectionalism of the Civil War) in order to keep the public distracted from the real problems they faced.
Benecras (4:52:16 PM): They were all bought by major corporations, and controlled by big business.
Benecras (4:52:21 PM): Government was a lame joke.
Benecras (4:52:30 PM): Large corporations were king, and ruled the nation.
Benecras (4:52:41 PM): That is what they want to go back to.
Benecras (4:53:43 PM): it began to change when Leon Czolgosz assassinated William McKinley on September 6, 1901 (although President McKinley didn't die until one week later).
Benecras (4:53:53 PM): That's when Theodore Roosevelt became president and began his progressive policies.
Benecras (4:54:30 PM): It continued through the presidencies of all the twentieth century liberals - Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, to a lesser extent Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and to a lesser extent Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
ZweihanderSword (4:54:48 PM): it's utterly disgusting that republicans to this day invoke teddy roosevelt as a champion of their party
Benecras (4:54:56 PM): Oh yes.
Benecras (4:55:37 PM): Since 1901, the Republican Party has been engaged in a nonstop and fierce effort to undo everything that was done first by Theodore Roosevelt, and then later by Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, et al.
Benecras (4:56:15 PM): They have produced several presidents who helped them in that capacity, including William Taft (who did some trustbusting but only as a sop to liberals), Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Hebert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and the two George Bushes.
Benecras (4:56:41 PM): They preferred Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon over their liberal alternatives, but never really liked how much both fo them "sold out" to liberals in their policies.
Benecras (4:57:41 PM): Harding and Coolidge actually succeeded in ending the age of progressivism that had been perpetuated by Roosevelt and Wilson, and by the time Hoover soundly defeated Alfred E. Smith in the election of 1928 (a landslide accentuated by Smith's Catholicism), it looked like the two decades of economic liberalism were a fluke and that laissez-faire capitalism was here to stay.
Benecras (4:57:47 PM): Then the Great Depression happened.
Benecras (4:58:01 PM): The policies of Hoover and his two Republican predecessors were discredited.
Benecras (4:58:31 PM): And yet another Roosevelt brought an end to the era that they had began in 1920 (when Warren Harding defeated James Cox), and which they had been certain had kept progressivism dead and buried.
Benecras (4:58:51 PM): The liberal era begun by Franklin Roosevelt continued for forty-eight years.
Benecras (4:59:34 PM): It was brought to a close when the failures of Jimmy Carter's presidency resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (and as much as I respect Carter, his presidency did contain many mistakes, albeit nowhere near the magnitude of what Hoover had done forty-eight years earlier).
Benecras (5:00:07 PM): The political era that began then has now lasted for twenty-eight years..
Benecras (5:00:23 PM): Our only hope for getting out of it rests on the character of Barack Obama.
Benecras (5:00:51 PM): If he fails, the Republicans will come back with Bobby Jindal or Mitt Romney in 2012, and we will go right back to where we were - temporary prosperity to keep us quiet, and then years later, another crash.
Benecras (5:01:10 PM): Don't worry, I'm done pontificating (although I would like to put this conversation on Facebook, with your permission).
ZweihanderSword (5:01:38 PM): lol
ZweihanderSword (5:01:40 PM): of course
ZweihanderSword (5:01:50 PM): but it's more of a reactionary essay than a conversation
Benecras (5:02:19 PM): LOL
Benecras (5:02:42 PM): Although the term "reactionary" is often used as a synonym for "right-wing", so I'd prefer that you call it something else.
ZweihanderSword (5:03:11 PM): well it's up to you
ZweihanderSword (5:03:15 PM): you're the one posting it
Benecras (5:03:35 PM): Just to make this more of a "conversation", what do you think of the various ideas I presented?
ZweihanderSword (5:04:14 PM): well, to be honest, there's not nearly as much "idea" here as there is "fact
ZweihanderSword (5:04:48 PM): you're more or less just eloquently stating the obvious
Benecras (5:05:09 PM): I take that as a great compliment.
Benecras (5:05:22 PM): The real job of any pundit is to eloquently state the obvious, even if others don't see it.
ZweihanderSword (5:05:27 PM): at least, what's obvious to intelligent people who care about more than themselves and their bank accounts

Chapter Five: Brian Makes The Suggestion…
ZweihanderSword (5:05:56 PM): you should really do a blog
Benecras (5:06:02 PM): I hate blogs.
ZweihanderSword (5:06:06 PM): nonetheless
ZweihanderSword (5:06:28 PM): i think you'd make a phenomenal pundit in the medium of the written word
Benecras (5:06:46 PM): I appreciate the compliment, but despise the medium of cyberliterature as a rule of thumb.
ZweihanderSword (5:07:05 PM): perhaps you should reconsider that opinion
ZweihanderSword (5:07:15 PM): granted, any asshat can put anything he wants on the internet
Benecras (5:07:26 PM): Precisely why I loathe the idea of doing it myself.
Benecras (5:07:50 PM): There is quality writing in cyberspace, no doubt.
ZweihanderSword (5:07:59 PM): posting your thoughts on the internet does not an asshat make
Benecras (5:08:04 PM): True.
Benecras (5:08:10 PM): But it forces you into the company of asshats.
ZweihanderSword (5:08:41 PM): hmmm...
ZweihanderSword (5:09:05 PM): i'd think that your writing would be over the head of most asshats
ZweihanderSword (5:09:27 PM): and were any asshat to respond to you, they'd succeed only in outing themselves as an asshat
Benecras (5:09:42 PM): Fair enough.
ZweihanderSword (5:09:43 PM): isn't that a great word?
ZweihanderSword (5:09:45 PM): asshat?
Benecras (5:09:50 PM): Oh yes, it is.
Benecras (5:09:56 PM): Here's my qualm:
Benecras (5:10:03 PM): I don't ever want to refer to myself by the title of "blogger".
ZweihanderSword (5:10:08 PM): lol
ZweihanderSword (5:10:14 PM): i can understand that sentiment
ZweihanderSword (5:10:31 PM): you don't want to be compared to asshats like Perez Hilton
Benecras (5:10:33 PM): I view it as being another way of saying, "I embody the truism that being able to write does not mean that you can write anything worth reading".
ZweihanderSword (5:10:59 PM): here's my take on this matter
ZweihanderSword (5:11:04 PM): you know your shit
Benecras (5:11:11 PM): Facebook is nice because it means the only people who will read my writing are people whose opinions I actually value.
ZweihanderSword (5:11:45 PM): the problem is those are not the opinions you need to change
Benecras (5:11:54 PM): When I post this on Facebook, should I change your screenname?
ZweihanderSword (5:12:00 PM): i don't care
ZweihanderSword (5:12:13 PM): but i digress
ZweihanderSword (5:12:18 PM): you know your shit
ZweihanderSword (5:12:38 PM): you are eloquent
Benecras (5:12:42 PM): The people whose opinions need to be changed are people who are, in the deepest psychological sense, averse to changing them.
ZweihanderSword (5:12:52 PM): you can reach a vast amount of people
Benecras (5:13:06 PM): If they weren't of a mindset that prevented them from changing their minds, then they wouldn't hold their reprehensible opinions in the first place.
ZweihanderSword (5:13:10 PM): you should suck up your pride and try to reach them
Benecras (5:13:25 PM): 99% of the human population consists of individuals who will never admit that they are wrong.
Benecras (5:13:52 PM): Most people consider admitting error in opinion or idea to be a sign of weakness.
Benecras (5:14:09 PM): They would rather lose a limb than acknowledge their own intellectual fallibility.
Benecras (5:14:19 PM): That is why dialogue is often so pointless.
Benecras (5:14:37 PM): That is why a moron can often "hold his own" in a debate against his intellectual better (see Gore-Bush debates, 2000).
Benecras (5:14:46 PM): People would rather be dead than be wrong.
Benecras (5:15:02 PM): The art of persuasion is thus one of the most difficult that any human being can endeavor upon.
ZweihanderSword (5:15:26 PM): and i think you'd be better at it than any human being i know
Benecras (5:15:29 PM): People who actually force you to challenge your dearest assumptions - who force you to take a hard look, closely, at who you are and what you believe - wind up being force-fed hemlock.
ZweihanderSword (5:15:33 PM): or don't know, for that matter
Benecras (5:16:00 PM): I will try to find my own venue, in a matter of time.
Benecras (5:16:03 PM): But not the blogosphere.
Benecras (5:16:14 PM): I'd prefer a place where I can avoid the company of asshats, at least as much as is possible.
ZweihanderSword (5:16:56 PM): well then you should probably kill yourself, because there are asshats everywhere in this existence.
ZweihanderSword (5:17:06 PM): you can't avoid their company
Benecras (5:17:18 PM): No, but I can minimize my exposure to and association with it.
ZweihanderSword (5:17:22 PM): you can only remain solid in your resolve
ZweihanderSword (5:17:47 PM): i'
ZweihanderSword (5:18:05 PM): I'm well known in internet martial arts circles as a defender of Aikido
ZweihanderSword (5:18:24 PM): in case you don't know, Aikido doesn't get much respect in the greater martial arts community
ZweihanderSword (5:19:00 PM): every time some asshat gets up on their soapbox and toots their horn about how Aikido is worthless and impractical, i'm there to defend my art
ZweihanderSword (5:19:06 PM): does that make me an asshat?
Benecras (5:19:12 PM): No.
Benecras (5:19:18 PM): It makes you a man with a stronger stomach than I possess.
Benecras (5:19:25 PM): I'm weary of dealing with asshats.
ZweihanderSword (5:19:47 PM): why?
ZweihanderSword (5:19:50 PM): they're asshats!
Benecras (5:20:03 PM): Because there's no hope of ever winning with them.
Benecras (5:20:12 PM): It's like punching a brick wall.
Benecras (5:20:28 PM): You could be the strongest man in the world - you could be Hercules cum Samson - and all you'll do is bloody your knuckles.
Benecras (5:20:45 PM): Does it matter whether you are strong as Thor or as weak as a wet noodle?
Benecras (5:20:59 PM): The result of punching a brick wall will be the same regardless of your strength.
Benecras (5:21:02 PM): Bloodied knuckles.
Benecras (5:21:31 PM): I do have ambitious life goals, though.
ZweihanderSword (5:22:05 PM): i think you'd make a great political analyst

PS: Credit also goes to Erin Vickers for pushing me toward the conclusion that becoming a blogger (shudder) was a good idea. Along with Brian’s argument, she pointed out how someone in my rather trying financial circumstances could benefit from the advertising revenue that can result from particularly successful blogging efforts. Necessity thus combined with narcissism in just the right way to push me over the threshold and into cyberspace.