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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness (Part Two)

(Editor’s note: This is the second segment in a three part series.  The first segment traced happiness to Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence.  It outlined Alexander Hamilton’s vision in implementing a financial system of capitalism for the republic with the new constitution.)

Yes, Hamilton’s plan conceived a new class of speculative wealth and money-making, created out of thin air and to be endorsed by the full faith and credit of the US government.  Members of Congress, as well as the bankers and speculators, all more or less positioned on the inside, were the earliest plan subscribers and beneficiaries.  By and through its undertaking the new federal government created a system of preference for the so called moneyed class over the remaining classes of society that were not moneyed.

Nevertheless, understanding that this model had achieved unsurpassed economic dominance on the world stage through the British, Hamilton’s financial plan placed the new nation upon a solid economic foundation.  Moreover, the plan placed the new nation on a course for more than two centuries worth of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity for the masses of ordinary citizens.  It certainly turned out to be a wise decision --- for empire.

But, almost immediately upon enactment, Hamilton’s financial plan was the subject of intense criticism and attack.  On the one hand, there could be little doubt that it was a practical plan.  The nation needed a stable, secure banking system, without which the established European powers would supply neither loans nor credit.  It was also expedient.  Its proponents pointed for validation to a proven model.

But on the other hand, it was self-serving, Hamilton being a resident of New York with a multitude of personal and professional connections in the financial arena.  It unfairly and disproportionately rewarded Northern bankers at the expense of Southern farmers, thereby heightening sectional differences.  It created a preference for two distinct economic classes: the haves – and have nots.

It may come as no surprise, then, that Jefferson himself, the Secretary of State in President Washington’s cabinet, was the primary objector to what he viewed as Hamilton’s perversion of the idyllic pursuit of happiness.  But his objection had little to do either with numbers, economics or speculation.

According to Jefferson, the essence of the pursuit of happiness commenced with the removal of all forms of arbitrary, artificial or hereditary distinctions, influences or preconceived ideas.  The desire was to attain full, unencumbered intellectual and religious freedom of the mind, unconstrained by previous efforts to set authoritative delineation using lenses and filters.  Absent these external influences and thus empowered, the mind would exist in a completely and intellectually free state: to master its environment and attain its natural potentialities.  Central was the belief in the improvability of the human mind and the limitless progress of human knowledge.

The author of the document which set forth that “all men are created equal” viewed with consternation a plan which would not treat all men equally under the law.  Such a plan violated the unfettered freedom of the individual citizen to pursue happiness.  It flowed from principles adverse to liberty, accomplished by creating an influence of the US Treasury over members of Congress, inherently susceptible to corruption.  With the grant of inherent privileges artificially conferred upon certain of its benefactors, the plan tended to narrow the government into fewer hands and approximate it to a hereditary form.

In a later period, Andrew Jackson would declare war on and victory over Hamilton’s federal banking system.  In the throes of battle, Jackson astutely observe that “If the people only understood the rank injustice of our money and banking system there would be a revolution before morning.”

For his own part, Theodore Roosevelt had an interesting insight as to what was happiness:

But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.  It may be true that he travels farthest who travels alone; but the goal thus reached is not worth reaching.  And as for a life deliberately devoted to pleasure as an end – why, the greatest happiness is the happiness that comes as a by-product of striving to do what must be done, even though sorrow is met in the doing.

(Next week’s third and final segment will explore The Pursuit of Happiness from the realm of Eastern Civilization, dating to a time period centuries prior to the American founding fathers.)

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness (Part One)

 (Editor’s note: This is the first segment in a three part series.)

The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the one document which best identifies the American spirit among the nation’s of the world and is consequently what makes us unique.  The 1776 writing has been aptly described as “an expression of the American mind,” as painted by its author, Thomas Jefferson.

In pertinent part it states that among the “certain and inalienable rights” which all men possess are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Interestingly, however, the word “happiness” is without definition.  Neither are the words “property,” the ownership thereof, or “bank” anywhere mentioned.  Nor is a particular economic system contemplated either here or in the US Constitution that was subsequently enacted in 1789.  What, then, is the pursuit of happiness?

The answer to that question in the annals of American History begins with the figure of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury serving under then-President George Washington.  Importantly, like Franklin before him, Hamilton was also a superb student of human nature, even going so far as to elevate its status to that of its own “science.”  Hamilton approached and studied history to determine the nature of the laws which controlled human affairs, seeking to extract a moral and thereby useful lesson, to chart the course of human events.  His later efforts earned him his deserving place on the $10 bill.

Hamilton saw the “pursuit of happiness” in the form of the physical greatness of the state as being above the happiness of its citizens.  To the extent that the two were at odds, Hamilton would choose the former, since

there was no hope of combining order with liberty until the people were prevented from giving free reign to their passions.  The people sober might be trusted, but when they became drunk --- and history proved that they went on such binges with distressing frequency --- they behaved like tyrants.  It was the peculiar merit of the Federal (US) Constitution … that under its benign auspices the people, even when they lost possession of their faculties, were constrained from running amuck.

His highly controversial financial plan was set forth on the successful British model of capitalism.  It specified, among other things, the creation of a central banking system under one supreme National Bank.  This bank was to be in corporation form, chartered under the authority of the new federal government of the US (today seen in the form of the Federal Reserve, headed by Benjamin Bernanke).

Good thing Hamilton was armed with a keen understanding regarding certain predictable patterns of human nature which did not change over time.  In this instance, knowledge was power.  Hamilton well knew that the plan alone, sound as it may have been, was insufficient to guarantee its passage in the republic with the new constitution.  Something more was needed, some human incentive.

And so Hamilton used the forces of human nature, in their uninterrupted forms both good and bad as they were observed to exist, to successfully implement and solidify his economic plan.  Noting perhaps the greatest human vice to be greed, he surmised that if this passion could be harnessed in service to the state, “the nation was on its way to power, opulence and greatness.”  So he incentivized the speculative interest, prevalent on the dark side of human nature and especially among the moneyed class, to provide the support vital to its success.

(The second segment in this three part series will further explore Hamilton’s controversial methods for implementing the system, as well as the basis of firm opposition, which began with Jefferson.  What did the author of the Declaration of Independence consider to be the pursuit of happiness?)

-Michael D'Angelo

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The First Lesson of US History

Did we have to attain higher education than kindergarten to learn the first lesson of US History?

The first lesson of US History comes by way of the classic 1966 movie, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, starring Clint Eastwood, among others, in one of his early, featured roles.

The setting is the state of Texas, during the Civil War early 1860s.  Texas, as some may recall, was a slave state in the fledgling Confederate States of America.  For the better part of the movie, Clint Eastwood (the “Good”) and Tuco, his Mexican counterpart (the “Ugly”, played by Eli Wallach),  engage in a systematic series of Western, small town robberies.

The script did not deviate from the following.  Tuco would get himself arrested for the commission of a serious capital offense, which called for his hanging in the public square.  Customarily, the town residents would come out to witness the hanging.  While the noose was being prepared, and the prisoner brought forth, Eastwood would rob all of the vacant homes.  Just before the noose would tighten, Eastwood would appear on horseback.  With his excellent aim, he would shoot through the rope from a distance, freeing Tuco.  Simultaneously, Eastwood would ride through the square, displaying perfect timing to snatch him up and ride off.  The two would repeat the sequence in the next town.

Although very different and caring little for the welfare of the other, each is compelled to keep the other alive, because each has half a secret.  Together, they know that a large stash of money, containing exactly 8 bags of gold, is buried in a cemetery.  Eastwood knows the name of the grave under which the stash is buried, and Tuco knows the name of the cemetery.  But, neither knows the other’s secret.  Lacking a corresponding bond of trust, each guards his half of the secret with his life.  A third player, a corrupt Union Army officer (the “Bad”, played by Lee Van Cleef), sheds his military uniform for civilian clothes and secretly follows the two for what he hopes will be his own private payoff.

Toward the movie’s climax, Tuco finally gives up his share of the secret, reluctantly disclosing the name of the cemetery.  The three then come together at the cemetery circle, near the grave site where the gold is buried.  But since Eastwood will not voluntarily divulge the name on the grave, they engage in a final stand off.  After some tense moments that seem like hours, Eastwood draws first, killing Van Cleef (the “Bad”).  Eastwood then admits to Tuco that he had secretly removed the bullets from Tuco’s gun the previous night, which had rendered harmless Tuco’s stand off threat.

Viewers are left with the “Good” and the “Ugly”.  With a loaded gun, the entire loot at his disposal and Tuco absent any weapon and defenseless, Eastwood now faces a moral dilemma.  Does he take all the gold, and run?  In the process, what does he do with Tuco?  Kill him?  Wound him?  If he allows Tuco to live, does he leave Tuco his full share?  Or, does he leave just a portion, in Eastwood’s sole but arbitrary discretion?

It is an interesting dilemma, not vastly different from the one which faced the early Old World European settler to the continent of North America, upon facing his brethren, the American Indian.

In the end, Eastwood rides off into the sunset, with his own 4 bags of gold securely mounted to his saddle bags.  He leaves Tuco stranded and thirsty in the sweltering Texas sun, without a horse, and with a difficult situation in which to make his way back to civilization.  But, importantly, Eastwood leaves Tuco with his entire share, fully 4 gold bags.  For, when one thinks about it, how much of the gold do any of us really need?

The New World was a land of plenty, so called, but its historical relationship with the native American Indian culture was marked by contact, conquest and catastrophe, the three “C’s”.  Simple contact was the predominant destructive force.  The Old World germs to which the settler had become immune effectively wiped out 90% of the indigenous Indian population, whose systems were not similarly protected.  Second was the idea of forced “removal” of the Indians from their lands.  And, of course, there were mass killings.  But, this was the side show.

We all learned the first lesson of US History by the time of kindergarten.  There is more than enough to go around.  The lesson, of course, is to share.

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Speckled Ax Was Best

The analysis of our imperfect human behavior tends to be perplexing and sobering, yet predictable nonetheless.  Are there other recurring patterns, both good and bad, which can be readily identified and typed?

Among Ben Franklin’s many varied endeavors included a fascinating attempt to arrive at moral perfection.  In his reading, he had enumerated and catalogued 13 moral virtues.  Arranged in order of importance, the previous acquisition of some perhaps facilitating the acquisition of others, they were as follows:

1.       TEMPERANCE.
Eat not to Dullness.
Drink not to Elevation.

2.       SILENCE.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.

3.       ORDER.
Let all Things have their Places.  Let each Part of your Business have its Time.

4.       RESOLUTION.
Resolve to perform what you ought.  Perform without fail what you resolve.

5.       FRUGALITY.
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself:  i.e., Waste nothing.

6.       INDUSTRY.
Lose not time.  --  Be always employ’d in something useful.  --  Cut off all unnecessary actions.

7.       SINCERITY.
Use no hurtful deceit.

8.       JUSTICE.
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.

9.       MODERATION.
Avoid Extreams.  Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Cloaths or Habitation.

Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.

12.    CHASTITY.
Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.

13.    HUMILITY.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin’s intention was to attempt, systematically, a plan for self-examination, seeking somewhat ambitiously to acquire all the virtues at once.  But he quickly judged that this would be an impractical distraction.  So, he lowered the bar, beginning to focus his attention on just one virtue at a time, in the arranged order.  When the first had been mastered, he would proceed to another, until he had successfully gone through all 13.  He allotted 1 week to each venture, and consequently he could complete a full course in 13 weeks, and 4 courses in a year.

He continued the plan for some time, with occasional intermissions, achieving satisfaction in seeing his faults diminish.  But, he was also alarmed to some degree in learning that he found himself so much fuller of faults than he had imagined.  Business, travel and a multiplicity of affairs also interfered, however, stretching a single 13 week course to a full year, or longer.  Strength and progress in one virtue would cause a relapse in another, vexing him to consider giving up the attempt altogether.

In the end, he found that his undertaking was akin to a likeness of a man, who brings his ax to the grind stone to be sharpened.  As the wheel ground on, the ax had become speckled, that is, very sharp and shiny at one turn, yet a bit duller nor as bright at another.  No matter how much the wheel ground on, and the ax turned to a point of physical fatigue, the speckled ax still looked the same.  He concluded that although he had fallen short, he was better and happier than had he not attempted it, and contented that perhaps a speckled ax was best.

-Michael D’Angelo