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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

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Harnessing the Properties of Light (Part Two)

(Editor's note:  This is the second and concluding segment in our two part series introducing readers to the US Constitution of 1789  To view the first segment, click here.)

With so much at stake in the present, can anyone well imagine a bloodless, under the radar revolution to table the US Constitution and replace it on the fly with another?  The truth is it's been done before ...

The dilemma of the founding fathers in 1787 was intriguing.  The stakes were no less than the continuation of the great American experiment in democracy, at grave risk as it attempted to leave the station.  The flashlight of the existing constitution from the nation's first 11 years was too weak, unable to illuminate the path forward --- the path to continued enlightenment.  Clearly, it had to be strengthened.  But there was equivalent danger at the other extreme --- should the flashlight be transformed into a destructive laser beam.

From this dilemma, a delicate yet efficient balancing act was necessary.  What was needed was something between two undesirable extremes.  The flashlight's batteries had to be replaced with new, more powerful ones --- strong enough to illuminate the path.  At the same time, the light still had to be kept weak enough, filtered to counter direct contact and avoid injury or plunder as with a laser beam.  Somehow, the strengthening of the flashlight had to match the gentle diffusing of the laser.  What was needed, perhaps, was “a government that was too weak to aid the wolves, and yet strong enough to protect the sheep.”

James Madison devised his great doctoral thesis from this vantage point.  Here, of course, we are speaking of his authorship of the US Constitution, America’s second and latest attempt at true democratic self rule: a solemn, permanent, social compact among the states to operate with individual sovereignty but within the framework of a collective federal system.  The creation of the US Constitution was molded, set forth and argued in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Madison’s review of all such prior human efforts at harnessing effective democratic rule, coupled with a series of compromises as a result of the founders’ debate, forged a system of checks and balances.  The result was creation of our present system of current government, with three equal branches, each independent of, yet answerable to, the others.  The legislative branch would make the laws, the executive branch would enforce them and the judicial branch would provide interpretation where necessary.  No one branch, nor the people themselves, would be able to grab all the light at any one time.  However, a sufficient concentration of light would still be permitted to protect the rule of law and permit progressive social change to occur.

In the legislative branch, a compromise denied the big states (House of Representatives) the ability to swallow up the small states (Senate).  That is, the legislature itself would be split into two distinct branches, creating what was referred to as a bicameral chamber.  The assent of both would be required to enact a new law.  Even the president, the one direct representative of all the citizens, would be elected not directly by a majority vote of the citizens but rather indirectly by what would become known as an electoral college.

Seeking to ensure that a lone rogue state or small minority of states could not stalemate the process, the founders also made a shrewd agreement for implementation of the new US Constitution.  When the affirmative vote of 9 of the original 13 states had been given, the new constitution would become the law of the land in all 13 states.  The necessary ratification figure was thus accomplished two years later in 1789, and in the end, all 13 states would vote unanimously to ratify the new constitution.  It was a bloodless revolution, or, as the French might say, a coup d’├ętat.  Compared to the way things had been done previously, it could be said that the revolution to create a new US Constitution turned our old system of government on its head.

Fast forward almost 230 years to the present.  With so much at stake, can anyone well imagine a bloodless, under the radar revolution to table our constitution and replace it with another?  The feat would present an extraordinary testament to the people's yearning to be free.  It's been done before.

-Michael D'Angelo