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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Equal Access to the American Economic Opportunity Structure

How will our contribution be judged by future generations?  Will the ordinary citizen be prepared for the demands of Judgment Day?  …

Wave after immigrant wave to our shores fantasize about realizing the American Dream.  When it comes to obtaining better, more equal, access to the American economic opportunity structure, the stakes are high.

Factually, the unemployment rate may be hovering around 7% of all Americans, but 20% of American teenagers, and 50% of American black teenagers.  In such times, the ordinary citizen may feel an urge to reflect.  At the end of the Civil War, blacks were so impoverished, so illiterate, and for the most part so lacking in skills that freedom meant little more to them than the ability to leave the place to which they had been bound by slavery.  The post-war records are replete with tales of blacks who took to the roads and retraced their paths back to the plantations from which they had been sold, in search of the families they had lost.  Surely there were blacks who were so battered by the system of slavery that they became sexually promiscuous or irresponsible parents, and apparently remain so, today.

An ordinary citizen may be urged to reflect further.  There are a multitude of decent Americans, who not only are unmoved by the fact that 40% of black children are living in poverty, but use that fact to buttress their own convictions about black inferiority.  Is it reasonable for an ordinary citizen to consider that blacks should constitute 49% of America's prison population?  Is it reasonable for an ordinary citizen to ignore persistent disparities between black and white health, income, wealth, educational attainment, and employment?

Opposing arguments aside, is it also reasonable for an ordinary citizen to consider that a significant number of decent Americans regularly assert enormous efforts to destroy affirmative action?  Is there empathy for the fact that the fragile affirmative action program was enacted in the 1960s and 1970s to compensate for deep injuries sustained over 350 years of legally sanctioned subordination?  Some label the campaign to do away with affirmative action as “brilliant rhetorical propaganda.”  But Cory A. Booker, the black mayor of Newark, NJ calls on the ordinary citizen to consider the economic reality that, in fact, “Yale is cheaper than jail.”

One scholar has warned that his

recurring nightmare in recent years has been that there will be such a significant separation of the black upper and middle classes from poor blacks that when America declares total victory over anti-black racism, substantial numbers of well-off blacks and members of other minorities will be complicit in the deceit.  We will then have a society much like that found in Brazil.  We could tell ourselves that we have a ‘racial democracy’ here, and overlook the fact that the only thing the blacks at the bottom have in abundance is misery, made permanent by their virtually complete lack of access to the national opportunity structure.  We will have put the finishing touches on our national scapegoat; an untouchable, impoverished caste of permanent mudsills, filling a role not at all unlike the one John Smith had in mind for Native Americans almost four centuries ago.

When it comes to civil rights, history does suggest a sort of rather dim view of prior times.  But what about the present?  Put another way, how will our contribution be judged by future generations?  Today, the 400 richest Americans possess more wealth than the bottom half (150 million) combined.  Does this sobering statistic uphold the basic ideal of social justice which is this nation’s moral foundation?

While there will be time later to contemplate “tomorrow,” for now, it is understood that if America stands for one thing, more than any other, it is the following.  America provides the ordinary citizen with the opportunity to make something of himself.  The ordinary citizen may accomplish this by exerting his God-given abilities to engage in struggles for decency, discharging the responsibility to hold up his own end of the challenge.  In the end, Judgment Day may demand nothing less.

-Michael D’Angelo 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Reasonable Regulation and the Old Boat

If the test is not how big or small government is but whether it works, what fate awaits the old boat?  Must the ordinary citizen look to science for a marine finish superior to that of plain varnish?  …

Franklin D. Roosevelt was well known for a series of “fireside chats” over the radio airwaves.  He explained his programs to ordinary Americans in plain, simple terms, telling the people to have “confidence” and “courage.”  F.D.R. warned ordinary citizens that unless they rejected fear, they would never be able to pull out of their malaise.  Instead, he urged them to embrace its opposite: hope.  His confidence in his own determination to defeat the disease of polio, and rise out of his wheelchair with the aid of heavy metal braces, inspired the ordinary citizen.  Ultimately, F.D.R.’s New Deal offered a consistent message of encouragement which began to take hold on the American psyche.

In foreign policy, F.D.R. guided America through the uncharted waters of World War II, the Second European Civil War, and the atrocities of Hitler ‘s Nazi Germany.  He implored ordinary Americans to cherish and hold onto the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.  Shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, F.D.R. announced the controversial “lend lease” policy, promising to help the British and Russians through the lease of American military equipment.

What was lend lease?  F.D.R. assessed the situation using a metaphor that ordinary Americans could easily understand:

Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away.  If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him put out his fire.

In the same way, the US Constitution can be seen as a classic, old, wooden boat.  The wood is fresh, hard, pristine --- and beautiful.  It is built to last but would need protection from the corrosive elements.

The US Constitution did not endorse nor contemplate a particular economic system.  President Washington chose capitalism as recommended by Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.  This was over the objection of Jefferson, Secretary of State.  Government’s initial foray into economic matters gave the boat a handsome finish stain which transformed the wood’s appearance.

Materially, the nation prospered, as the boat skimmed across the smooth surface.  But the horizon foreboded turbulence and rocky shoals.  As the boat rocked, a Civil War which was almost the nation’s undoing was matched by a Great Depression.  In the wake of the old order which had failed, F.D.R.’s new order of reasonable regulation restored the ordinary citizen’s faith in capitalism and made it seem more humane.  This provided the boat’s necessary protective varnish.

Over time, the protective varnish would become one with the wood, such that what was once new and strong became old and brittle.  Following the Great Recession of 2008, some do not see the point in applying another coat of varnish over the old, that there is already too much reasonable regulation.  They merely advocate stripping the varnish and then leaving the old boat to fend for itself.  Yet in such instances others trace history’s destructive path of individual excess in proclaiming a warning of dire consequences.

Common sense does seem to suggest that merely putting another coat of varnish over a failed coat --- that layering new reasonable regulation over existing regulation whose properties have been compromised  --- serves no useful purpose but to buy time.  When the new coat also fails, a day of reckoning with even greater upheaval surely awaits.  Common sense does also seem to suggest that, eventually, the layers will have to be stripped and the surface re-finished.

If the test is not how big or small government is but whether it works, what fate awaits the old boat?  Perhaps the varnish which is needed has yet to be discovered, that sophisticated scientific hurdles remain in search of a superior marine finish, that buying time is a reasonable approach.  Wouldn't it be ironic if a prototype for what’s needed --- the performance of duty which is faith in action --- has been with us all along for more that 2,000 years?

-Michael D’Angelo