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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harnessing the Properties of Light (Part One)

(Editor’s note:  This is the first segment in a new two part series introducing readers to the US Constitution of 1789.)

How frequent is the observation made that the team which appears to have the superior talent does not win the contest? …

…  Primarily, the loser offers up the excuse that the players simply did not perform up to their capabilities --- as a team should.  Instead of a bus, it is said, they take 25 individual rides to the ballpark.  Typically, in baseball as in representative government, the outcome is fatal to success.

In a democracy which exceeds 300,000,000 people, the objective of keeping the citizens content in the pursuit of happiness requires considerably more expertise.  How does the American government keep the game and its players functioning so smoothly?  How is the officiating kept separate and unbiased in a low key, unassuming manner?  Wasn’t it always this way?

This question suggests the response.  In 1787 the founding fathers were faced with quite a predicament.  Flying under the radar would appear to have been rather impossible then, given the scope and magnitude of the crisis which was upon the young nation and their proposed remedial social science project.  Today, however, this seems lost on the ordinary citizen.  But it is worth remembering.

The young, fledgling democracy was in danger of failing, just 11 years into the experiment.  Under America’s then and first constitution, known as the Articles of Confederation, each state (there were 13 at the time) retained its own individual sovereignty and the corresponding power to veto any law with which it happened to disagree.  Given the diversity of regional and economic interests, this meant that no truly uniform or effective law could reasonably be enacted.  An effective army could not well be raised for national defense, nor taxes either levied or collected to pay for it.  Nor could the commerce of the national economy be effectively regulated.

Unfortunately, the setting did not make provision for a team bus.  Rather, there were to be essentially 13 separate cab rides to the ballpark, and social chaos was the potential imminent consequence.  The experiment in democracy was in acute danger of failure, the patient on life support.  Accordingly, there was an urgent sense to maintain a state of order and control, or as it has been couched in political terms, to preserve internal political stability.

But what if there were too much order and control?  The corresponding fear in that instance was that the mass of ordinary citizens would be left with a one man wrecking ball, serfs to what we otherwise know as a dictator.  The people of France were to learn this lesson painfully, when their popular revolution, corresponding in time more or less with our own American Revolution, degenerated into mob rule and then eventually the dictatorship of Napoleon.  The French Revolution would later conclude with the anomalous result of the near ruin of Europe in continental military conquest and its people subjected to a military tyrant.

Either extreme presented the founding fathers with vexatious concern for the survival and continuation of the great American experiment in democracy.  The situation was analogous to harnessing the desirable properties of light.  On the one hand, the founding fathers viewed the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation as the futile attempt to illuminate the path with a flashlight which contains failing batteries.  This light simply had neither power nor strength sufficient to provide even minimal let alone adequate illumination.

On the other hand resided the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” comparison with the ongoing French Revolution, as described in Charles Dickens’ novel, The Tale of Two Cities.  In that situation, the light of democracy had become so supremely concentrated in strength as to represent the immense power of a pure, unfiltered laser beam.  That is to say, if anyone were to fix a gaze directly into the beam or somehow end up in its path, the result would conceive a wrecking ball of disaster.

(Editor’s note:  The second and concluding segment in this two part series guides readers through the horns of the dilemma to its solution.  What was needed was something in between the two undesirable extremes ...)

-Michael D'Angelo

Monday, February 10, 2014

Andrew Carnegie and the Gospel of Wealth (Part Two)

(Editor’s note:  This is the second and final segment in a two part series, introducing readers to the Industrial Revolution and one of its iconic heroes.  To view the first segment, click here.)

What, if anything, is the duty of the rich man to society, according to one of the most iconic and storied rich men of early industrial America?

While the industrial robber barons of the Gilded Age were said only to flash their great wealth to the masses, Andrew Carnegie, for one, articulated a call for these wealthy business titans of industry to return their wealth to society.  This illustrates Lesson 3 (of 4) of US History.  The king of steel strongly believed that the rich man had not the option, but rather a corresponding duty, to voluntarily return his wealth to society from whence it came.

Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth writings set forth a model of how the wealthy man should conduct his life.  First, the capitalist’s primary goal was to make money.  But he should then live only modestly, so as to bring no undue attention to himself.  Then, since the rich man had figured out how to achieve great wealth in the first place, he alone should choose how to spend that wealth.  Whether on charity, society, science, or any other worthy cause, in his sole discretion, he should accomplish all this before he dies.

According to Carnegie, it would be a curse for a rich man to die with money in the bank, and which the government could then get its hands on by mechanisms such as the inheritance tax.  In the end, if all went according to plan, the rich man who made it would, in turn, give it all away freely, the government involved neither while making the money, nor spending it in the end.

And Carnegie acted.  As part of his considerable financial legacy, Carnegie, the king of steel, donated substantial sums for a pension relief fund to the families of killed and injured workers, based on merit, and not given indiscriminately.  Additionally, he made bequests to build 67 libraries forming the backbone of the venerable New York City public library system and some 1,689 public libraries in the US during his lifetime.  The program was expanded to include church organs.  Lastly, he made a gift to establish the International Court at the Hague, in support of a world court of arbitration, where international disputes could be resolved without resort to war.

As the so-called “Apostle of Peace,” Carnegie has been quoted as saying: “We have abolished the duel.  Let it be our race that truly takes the first step to abolish international dueling.”  And Carnegie (remember, the year was 1910, before the World Wars) had also stated:

The whole matter is so simple  …  Germany, Great Britain and the US coming together (somewhat covertly) to form a joint police force to maintain peace is all that is needed.

But the impact of the Industrial Revolution on American society was not all positive.  Neither were the results all pretty, nor without a heavy price.  Consider that the process generated a sink full of dirty dishes.  The growth of corporations and trusts raised immense amounts of targeted capital but, importantly, decreased social responsibility.  Materialism was pronounced over all other values.  Natural resources were exploited, despoiling the land, to increase profits.  Wealth and industry, over production, people and politics, became overly concentrated.  This, in turn, led to corrupt political machines led by party bosses, the overcrowding of cities, the straining of resources and services.  It also necessitated the combination of diverse cultural groups which were unfamiliar with American city life or each other.

Moreover, American industrial workers faced deteriorating labor conditions.  Women, children and the unskilled immigrant factory worker were exploited, suffering work conditions which could perhaps best be described as unsafe, inhumane and produced substandard products.  Hours were excessive, on a daily and weekly basis.  Wages failed to keep pace with the cost of living.  Still, the abundant supply of cheap, new, unskilled immigrant workers greatly exceeded the supply of new factory jobs in the nation’s big industrial cities.

Workers also faced strong opposition not only from their employers but also the courts.  Government policy and judicial decisions fiercely protected not the industrial worker but the entrepreneurial spirit of American businessmen to lead by way of innovation.  Sweatshop working conditions and stagnant wages stimulated a movement toward the formation of labor unions.  However, attempts at unionization led to violent confrontations between big business and government in tandem against the interests of labor.

One thing was clear: America was making more products than it could consume.  This factor, added to the free-for-all, further stimulated unstable economic cycles of boom and bust that produced unrest on farms.  Due to increasing productivity, farmers faced declining prices for their crops, as well as a diminution of their land, with laws and government interest in protecting neither.  Land foreclosures skyrocketed.

Instability spawned a first of its kind political movement, a populist wing of the Democratic Party traced to the protection of the nation’s agrarian and common man labor interests.  Dramatized by William Jennings Bryan, “The Great Commoner,” “on the wings of a single great speech about a cross of gold,” it rose briefly to political prominence but ultimately failed and was swept away by 1896.

In cities, living conditions degenerated into tenement slums filled with crime and poverty, racism and nativism.  Advances in transportation, specifically the railroad, exacerbated segregated living arrangements for an increasingly diverse cultural society.  And the entire process, given the magnitude and swiftness of the forces of change, fueled a painless escape to drugs.

The ultimate result and impact, it has been said, was a society in chaos, seeking reform.  This was the state of affairs as the American industrial machine rolled into the 20th century.

-Michael D’Angelo