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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Needs vs. Wants

In a land of plenty, what does the ordinary citizen really need?

What does the ordinary citizen really need?  On a collective level, an excellent place to begin analysis is on the expense side, that is, how the Prince is prioritizing the expenditure of the People’s money.  Common sense dictates that those items which relate to what the People “need” must first be identified as the so-called necessities of life.  These must be distinguished from the things which the People merely “want,” relating not to need but rather a whole host of discretionary items, or simply greed.

In the category of “needs,” much of the conduct of Benjamin Franklin’s early life evidences the truth that the only thing we need is the mere subsistence of bread and water.  However, when it comes to human nature, it is amazing, Franklin remarked, how many poor souls, given the simple choice of bread (needed) or beer (discretionary), in fact, would choose beer!

Over the ensuing centuries, a self-proclaimed “enlightened” People has continually and consistently expanded on what are presumed to be our needs.  Concepts incorporating more scientific theories about diet (other necessary subsistence in addition to bread and water), standards of “adequate” housing, “equal opportunities” in education, and “good,” meaning high-paying, jobs are identified.

In the more recent decades of the late 20th century, prior Princes and legislatures have presumed to add to the basic list of needs certain guaranteed “benefits” atop the salaries of public sector jobs.  Although contractually promised, and presently protected under our laws, it is doubtful these benefits were ever the subject of valid actuarial accounting practices.  Surely, secure retirement payments in the form of lifetime pensions, unconscionable annual expenditures in too many cases, as well as free, unlimited access to health care and related services, are not on the ordinary citizen’s list of needs.  But, hence, the Prince calls for more revenue anyway.

When it comes to analysis of “need,” the ordinary citizen is guided by the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd President.  In the throes of the Great Depression, F.D.R. left the ordinary citizen with the enduring legacy: a primary obligation of the government is to provide help to its Citizens, especially in their time of need.  During that time, need meant food, government bread delivered to hungry people waiting desperately on long lines.  The government subsidized clothing, housing and sponsored programs designed to put the People back to work.  The New Deal "freedom from fear/freedom from want" experiment was designed to confront an ongoing emergency, because the private sector had failed.

In the category of “wants,” all the People must do to distinguish needs from wants is watch just a bit of television in prime time.  In less than an hour, it is apparent that 99% of what talented Madison Avenue marketing professionals advertise involves a wish list, for which the ordinary citizen falls easily.  Just how badly does the ordinary citizen need another prescription, marketed by the powerful pharmaceutical industry, to alleviate the phenomenon of “restless leg syndrome?”

Ben Franklin also warned of excessive Debt, an ugly but sometimes necessary evil.  If permitted to grow unchecked to the point where it can not realistically expect to be repaid, Debt robs the ordinary citizen of the ability to act independently.  Debt thus poses perhaps the greatest danger to fundamental liberty.  Its potential adverse consequences can be chilling.

Finally, lawmakers who take an oath of “service” invariably find themselves intertwined with economic interests.  In a capitalist economy that often expresses itself in terms of excess, the alliance tends to corrupt both.  An understanding of how and why laws are made --- or not made --- is not always apparent.  As the line between needs and wants loses definition, the greater good is overwhelmed by an identifiable self-interest component.  May the People some day realize that all they truly need is the will to contain it?

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Traffic Light (Part Two)

(Editor's note:  This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series published under heading of The Traffic Light.  To view the first segment, click here.)

Does the ordinary citizen's pursuit of happiness come with any significant limitation?  Perhaps, we should just wait ...

The traffic light serves as a useful metaphor for the ordinary citizen’s interaction with change.  Some prefer the safety and comfort of a red light, indicative of all they know and all they care to know.  Sometimes, when the light turns green, all hell breaks loose.  Others detest the red light as evil and the mortal enemy of progress.  For them, the traffic light is always, or should always be, green in a perfect world.

But suppose there were a powerful force which had little interest in permitting the traffic light to change.  What happens then?

Recall the young Baptist minister, reared in Atlanta, well educated with a doctorate degree in theology.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated civil disobedience, but in a different way.  He preached nonviolent, direct action guided by the Christian ideal of love and not through racial hatred.  Jailed in Birmingham for such protests, Dr. King wrote that his people had been told to “Wait!” for constitutional (and God-given) rights for nearly 350 years.

By any reasonable measure that’s a long time to wait at a red light, while the cars with the green on the other side barely noticed.  It’s called empathy, and the lack thereof.  But reasoning correctly that wait usually meant never, Dr. King’s people were no longer willing to stand by and wait patiently for equal rights, that the “Time is now.”

The phenomenon of the 1960s sit-ins, the civil rights march on Washington, D.C. and his powerful “I have a dream” speech were embedded into American culture.  Meanwhile, the mass exodus of Southern white Democrats to the Republican Party seemed to coincide with, and may have been facilitated by, these events.  Presently, that powerful constituency comprises the party’s affluent conservative base.

Some fear change --- others embrace it --- all in the constancy of our predictable human nature.  Do we dare risk the folly of changing a classic Rembrandt painting?  Sometimes, as Theodore Roosevelt has noted, the institution fittest to survive tends in fact to survive the change whirling about relatively unscathed:

It is true, as the champions of the extremists say, that there can be no life without change, and that to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life.  It is no less true, however, that change may mean death and not life, and retrogression instead of development.

Change is messy.  Great achievement is all but impossible absent an individual willing to incur a dangerous level of risk that is unacceptable to most.  The first person through or over the wall always gets hurt.  This ordinary yet peculiar but necessary citizen gets beaten up, beaten down and absorbs the full brunt of the damaging blows of an entrenched status quo.  Taking it square in the teeth, the innovative risk taker oft becomes a regrettable front line casualty.  But the process exposes the powerful force of resistance as a dying voice.

Recently, President Obama stated that “I am not going to walk away from 40 million people who have the chance to get health insurance for the first time.”  It’s an admirable undertaking which has befuddled presidents dating back to T.R. a hundred years ago.

At a time when the richest 400 Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined, consider that these stark numbers do not lie.  At the traffic light they present a distorted reality from what one may have come to expect.  One privileged car commands the favored state road on a long, uninterrupted green for every 375,000 cars jammed in at the crossroad red.  The one car, in turn, provides consideration to a small percentage of the latter group to keep it that way.  Everyone, it seems, must wait.

Dare to engage in a social science project charged with the responsibility of adjusting the flow at that particular traffic light?  Such an intellectual exercise may prove enlightening.  The requisite, independent traffic studies are completed, and demonstrate beyond doubt that the timing and sequence must change.  But it doesn't end there.  Where human nature is concerned, perhaps the individual who happens to have things in abundance and consequently the perpetual green light has a valid point and typically the final say:  Do pretty much whatever you want in your pursuit of happiness, but just don’t try to change my status quo.

Who wants to be first over that wall?

-Michael D’Angelo

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Traffic Light (Part One)

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

What may we learn from the cycling of a solitary traffic light from red to green and back again?

Long distance travel by auto remains a favorite family pastime, especially during the busy holiday season.  Often, a pilgrimage to the home of relatives is the only occasion a family may have to spend meaningful time together as a unit, all in one place.  In their children parents anticipate the pleasure of a captive audience.  For children, extended travel offers a host of valuable new experiences.  It is a time when lasting memories are born.

As the family car meanders along one of the nation’s many rural state roads, invariably it encounters a lonely traffic signal.  Often, it is the only traffic light in small town America.  Fortunately, traffic is not terribly heavy, but thank goodness the light is green anyway.  And we speed on through without giving it another thought.

The intersection is often empty.  But sometimes a lone car or two may wait, patiently, for the light to change.  A certain curiosity may develop as to how long these cars have been waiting, what they may be up to.  As these cars disappear in the rear view mirror of our adventures, surely the light which is now behind us must change for them at some point, that they should be permitted to cross.  What is their story?  Occasionally, what may seem like more cars than the little town possesses are backed up to the traffic light.  The first thought of the passing motorist may be how all those cars got there and what the attraction is in the first place.

Eventually, the traffic light turns in a three part cycle, first from green, to the yellow caution, and finally to red.  The yellow permits cars driving at highway speeds sufficient time to properly judge long stopping distances and decide whether to stay on the gas pedal and continue through the intersection or hit the brake and come to a safe, controlled stop.  The yellow light is a product of the country road.  Typically, it does not even exist in the city, where the traffic light contains only a two part cycle, going from green directly to red.  Long stopping distances are of minimal concern in the physical confines of the city, where things happens faster.

At state road intersections the traffic light for the small town crossroad tends to be red for a long time.  The change to green allows as many cars to pass through safely as the short cycle permits, depending on driver reaction time.  Logic predicts better than chance that when reaction time is coordinated, more cars pass.  When it is uneven, there will be fewer.  Those cars toward the rear may be destined to wait for more than one cycle to get through.

The change to green also elicits familiar reactions drawn from the range of driving habits.  The daydreamer returns to earth just in time to barely clear the short cycle before the light is red again.  The impatient floors his older car, the one with the manual transmission, carburetor and loud exhaust pipes.  Invariably the car jerks and stalls out.  He’ll have to await the next cycle, as will the angry people stuck behind him.  The risk tolerant tests fate, taking a chance after due circumspection, and crosses against the red light.  If there are no other cars around, no traffic camera to record the transgression, then what’s the harm?

In a multi-racial, economically stratified, complex industrial society, the traffic light serves as a useful metaphor for the ordinary citizen’s interaction with change.  Some actually prefer a red light.  It represents the safety and comfort of what they know, indispensable to the measured progress of an established order whose inconvenience is trifling and may be overlooked.  For on occasion, when the light turns green, all hell breaks loose, and chaos abounds.  This is to be avoided at all costs.  Others come out on the opposite side, detesting the red light as evil and the mortal enemy of progress.  For them, the traffic light is always, or should always be, green in a perfect world.

But suppose there were a powerful force which had little interest in permitting the traffic light to change.  What happens then?

(Editor's note:  The second and concluding segment in this two part series continues the discussion of change in the context of The Traffic Light, touching upon issues ranging from civil rights, to access to affordable health care, to record levels of wealth disparity in the US today.)

-Michael D’Angelo

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Compromise Is Not a Dirty Word

What is necessary to unite the rigid ideologue with the political expedient who believes in nothing? ...

Success is sometimes merely about getting along. Even when there are issues which divide, consensus is borne of close relationships. The importance of identifying common objectives among those with differing viewpoints on various issues cannot be understated. The individual who shuns consensus and surrounds himself with like thinkers is destined to lead a minority.

Compromise is not a dirty word. Our constitution is in fact the first great compromise, national in scope. The southern bloc would not sign off until a Bill of Rights was secured. In the US Senate, the power of small states equals that of large states, assuring the protection of the minority interest. If Alexander Hamilton wanted necessary support for his capitalist system, he needed to induce southern skeptics by offering to locate and build the new capitol city in the nation’s South.

Those guided by strict adherence to ideology become dangerous, when they are unyielding and their majority moves to dominate self-righteously. They do not compromise. The governed only get to march, the music, cadence and beat pre-determined. Rigid minds leave no room for differing viewpoints, which reflect the spectrum of human needs. Yet in certain respects we do need those who demand more than humanity can deliver, aggravating as they can sometimes be.

On the other hand, some are guided simply by political expediency, believing in little or nothing other than the upward mobility of ambition and self-interest. They are confounding, having risen without commitment to any general ideology. Since they function without program, principle or consistency, they, too, are a dangerous lot.

Between the two extremes lies an area ripe for compromise. Suppose the whole loaf is not available? Does one not accept a slice or two or maybe only just a few crumbs? The democratic system requires that this point be fairly understood.

For some in politics, it is sufficient that “the duty of the opposition is to oppose.” The need to suggest alternatives, to curb internal radicalism and irresponsibility, is irrelevant. Truth and reality have little substance in the shadows of political gamesmanship.

Against this backdrop a president heads the responsibility of government. At home, needed legislation is proposed: a national health insurance program, a comprehensive civil rights bill, labor legislation to raise the minimum wage, investment in jobs creation through infrastructure improvement to spur the domestic economy. Meanwhile, constituents raise cane about employment, adequate housing, education. But taxes must be slashed, expenditure cut from budgets, in apparent contradiction.

What begin as well-intentioned foreign policy initiatives in support of democracy on distant horizons in Asia, the Middle and Far East devolve into confrontational quagmires. Civil unrest erupts and spreads, involving unstable, unfriendly and sometimes hostile regimes. It is right to send troops, but then they turn and we must get out. Apparently, we must be internationalist and isolationist at the same time. The opposition moves further to curb the powers of the presidency. Who can be trusted in government?

Demagogues and irresponsible attackers rarely with substance cause irreparable damage to individual reputations, the State Department, Foreign Service and America’s reputation. Talented people who may be in the position to save us from future agonies are silenced or driven out, as the nation pays a heavy price. Life at the extremes has the awful consequence of compelling otherwise reasonable minded citizens into simplistic, unsustainable positions.

The times require patience, understanding, tolerance. Instead, the rabid demand quick and precise answers according to their own ideology of what is right and wrong. They have little patience with the UN, with diplomacy, with rational talk. It is much easier to claim that our leaders --- weak-kneed and soft-hearted --- are selling us out to the socialists. There is little wonder that the ordinary citizen seems confused or has a difficult time judging just what is going on.

The decade following World War II was perilous by any measure. But President Truman stood up to the grave national security threat posed by the Russians and the Chinese on the one hand, and to the unpredictable trend of harsh domestic critics on the other. It was a testament to an extraordinary display of strength and fortitude.

-Michael D’Angelo

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Andrew Jackson: Where There's a Will ...

“He is a much abler man than I thought him,” commented one US Senator from Pennsylvania, “one of those naturally great minds which seem ordinary, except when the fitting emergency arises.”

Andrew Jackson, genuine American hero, enjoys an iconic, champion of the common man reputation, earned strictly on merit.  He is perhaps best known today as a highly distinguished military general and two term president.  And of course there is that face on the $20 bill.  How did it get there?

Like most of us, the colorful Andrew Jackson was not the Senator’s son.  Rather, he was the epitome of a self made man.  His father had died before Jackson was born, in the year 1767.  When he was still very young, Jackson's mother left him and his older brother to care for the Revolutionary War soldiers, who had been wounded in action and were convalescing.  As a result, he had grown up as an orphan, on his own.

During the Revolutionary War, a British soldier arrogantly demanded that the young boy get down on his knees and clean the soldier’s boots, immediately.  At the time, he was but age 13 and quite impressionable.  When Jackson refused to obey the order on grounds that he was a prisoner of war, the soldier lashed out at him with his sword.  Jackson ducked and partially deflected the blow with his left hand, blunting its full force.  The resulting deep gash left a permanent indentation on Jackson’s skull and fingers, the episode serving as a reminder for the rest of his life of his extreme contempt for all things British.

Later, at age 39, already having achieved the military rank of General, Jackson had gotten into a scrap with a local braggart on the frontier of western Tennessee.  It seemed incredible that the slightest misunderstanding over the “merest word play” should lead to tragedy.  However, each demanding “satisfaction” from the other, the two agreed to a duel.  Jackson’s adversary was a man of local prominence, who was also known to be one of the best shots in Tennessee.  For his part, Jackson knew that neither his aim nor speed at the draw of a pistol was any match.

Understanding this, together with his second, he devised a plan.  The two calculated that the only way he could survive the duel, and win, was to let his adversary draw first and hope that the wound inflicted upon him would not be fatal.  Amazingly, the plan worked.  His adversary’s quick shot had shattered two of Jackson’s ribs and buried in his chest, but it had missed his heart.  Whereupon, Jackson calmly raised his left arm and clenched it against his throbbing chest, took aim with his own pistol, and fired.  The bullet struck his adversary in the chest, passed clean through his body, leaving a gaping hole from which he bled to death.

The bullet in Jackson’s own chest could not be removed, because it was lodged so close to Jackson’s heart.  The wound never healed properly, his discomfort was considerable.  For many years thereafter, Jackson suffered intense physical pain, on account of a gunfight to restore his reputation.  “I should have hit him,” Jackson said at the time, “if he had shot me through the brain.”

What set Jackson apart was his willpower, which was not ordinary, nothing normal or even natural.  It was superhuman, almost demonic, sheer total, concentrated determination to win and thus achieve his goals, at whatever cost.  Consequently, as the preceding story serves to illustrate, Jackson was capable of extraordinary feats of courage, daring and persevering in the face of incredible odds.  Nothing less than victory was acceptable.  Defeat was unthinkable.  This fierce exercise of will, supported by supreme self-confidence and a healthy measure of talent, shaped his considerable triumphs.

Andrew Jackson’s most distinguishing physical feature was his bright, deep, blue eyes, which could shower sparks when passion seized him.  Anyone could tell his mood by watching his eyes; and when they started to blaze it was a signal to get out of the way quickly.  But they could also register tenderness and sympathy, especially around children, when they generated a warmth and kindness that was most appealing.  Unfortunately, the artist's depiction on the $20 bill offers the ordinary citizen but a tantalizing glimpse.

-Michael D’Angelo

Monday, October 7, 2013

Andrew Jackson vs the Politics of Extortion

“The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.”  Andrew Jackson addressed his future vice president very quietly, without any passion or tone of rage.  Nor was it a boast.  Just a simple statement of fact.  …

October 2013 brings the ordinary citizen face to face with yet another economic crisis, this one self-inflicted.  A threatened refusal by Congress to honor obligations already incurred finds the government on the brink of default for the first time in US history.  Former President Reagan has once warned that the failure to act would result in consequences which are “impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate.”  The script is familiar, however muddled the outcome may now appear.

The status quo is born of the larger, desirable idea of a common culture or identity.  Hard earned and built with the blood and sweat of prior generations, the culture evolves deliberately.  It cannot, must not, be casually discarded.  But on uncommon occasion the status quo breaks down, and change becomes necessary.  What happens then?  Does anyone realistically expect that the status quo will not push back?  A comforting fact is that today the ordinary citizen is not alone.  We have faced these demons before.

The nation’s early days featured a period known as the Era of Good Feeling (1816-1824).  It was marked by a rare absence of partisan conflict.  At the same time widespread corruption began to infiltrate and plague many American institutions.  Andrew Jackson saw that period not as an Era of Good Feeling but rather as the Era of Corruption.

No institution at the time was perhaps more corrupt than the Bank of the United States (BUS), which had been the sole, central banking institution in the nation.  The BUS was a banking monopoly, headed by a director who was the subject of a political appointment, not answerable to the electorate.  It was discovered that many Congressmen were on open “retainer” to the BUS, and as such more than eager and willing to do its bidding.

Andrew Jackson had articulated the fundamental doctrine of Jacksonian Democracy long before his election to the presidency in 1828:

The obligation of the government to grant no privilege that aids one class over another, to act as honest broker between classes, and to protect the weak and defenseless against the abuses of the rich and powerful.

President Jackson saw the danger and corruption inherent in the set up of the BUS.  He argued that not only was the BUS corrupt but so was all of Congress for supporting it, among other reasons.  Appealing over the head of Congress directly to the ordinary citizen, Andrew Jackson sought to “kill” the BUS.  In its place he proposed a number of smaller, state “pet” banks to promote competition and fair play.

Not surprisingly, the Congress whose members were financially reliant on the BUS fought bitterly to oppose its demise.  The BUS quickly brought on economic depression which was well within its power, occasioning tremendous hardship upon the ordinary citizen.  At the same time the BUS issued an ultimatum carefully disguised as a media campaign.  It told the ordinary citizen that all President Jackson had to do was abandon his efforts to kill the BUS.  The depression would then lift and things return to “normal.”

The battle became so vicious that the Congress went so far as to publicly censure the president for his actions on the road to the demise of the BUS.  An undeterred Jackson sought to make the issue of whether to re-charter the BUS the central issue of his re-election campaign in 1832.  His advisors said the issue was too hot, too risky, that any action as to the national bank’s continued existence should come after the election.  Jackson ignored them.  He gave the ordinary citizen a clear choice, challenging him to vote either for Jackson or the BUS.

Of course, and as always, the ordinary citizen sustained Jackson, the BUS suffering its ultimate demise in the name of necessary reform.  A thoroughly embarrassed Congress was left with no alternative but to revoke the president’s censure and issue in its place a resolution of public gratitude.

The banking crisis left an enduring moral impression on the national conscience.  It also capped a fascinating period in American history.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Jackson administration was the most productive in history in dealing with government debt.  Inheriting a federal debt of $58 Million in 1828, President Jackson reduced it to $33,000 (that’s 33 Thousand dollars) by 1835.  No wonder the BUS hated him.

Returning to the present, it matters little that two national elections with affordable health care as a featured campaign issue have been lost, as efforts to “repeal and replace” similarly failed.  And it matters little that a conservative-leaning US Supreme Court has also reviewed the law and found it to be constitutional.

The present crisis finds an entrenched but failed status quo seeking to destroy the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s signature legislative achievement, by de-funding it.  The ultimatum is similarly orchestrated.  If the president would only accept delay in implementing the provisions of affordable care, the ordinary citizen is told, everything will be fine.  The approach cannot be appreciably distinguished from the bank robber who instructs the teller: “Put your hands up, do as I say, and nobody will get hurt.”  It's a last ditch effort in death spiral.

In the process of attempted political blackmail, who knows what dark times may yet await the ordinary citizen?  But the similarities to Andrew Jackson's dealings with the BUS are unmistakable, the result to come perhaps no less fundamental.

-Michael D’Angelo

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Congressman's Mystique

What is the motivation that drives political lawmakers?  Is Congress a representative sampling of America’s very best?  Or are other human factors at play?

Some believe that how much we think we know, measured up against how little in reality we actually do know, is the difference between book smart vs. experience smart.  It’s knowing that the lessons learned as a kid on the playground in grade school may be more relevant and important than the high-minded intellectual concepts studied later in professional school.  It’s also the difference between knowing when to talk, and knowing when to shut up and listen.  Others say it’s the difference between amassing knowledge and gaining wisdom.

At some point, the brain logically shifts from consideration of “what is the law” to “why is it the law.”  How many times do we find ourselves uttering the familiar words, “If I only knew then what I know now.”  There is always more to learn.

More and more these days, whether it’s about politics, religion or even the local Little League program, I find myself questioning the motives of the leaders involved.  What do they have to gain, or lose, should a particular policy which is being put forth prevail?  Or whether the institution permits discussion of any changes to its arranged order?  When we’re dealing with human nature, doesn’t it seem that self-interest is typically the proponent’s top priority?  Even (and especially!) if it does not appear to be presented that way?  And is the delivery of the proposal true and unbiased, as Jeffersonian simplicity would demand, or are the familiar forces of physical and psychological manipulation hard at work?

Membership in the US Congress provides an illuminating example.  When I was in grade school, I believed that the 535 individuals who comprise the legislative body charged with the unenviable task of lawmaking (435 from the House of Representatives and 100 from the Senate) were idealists.  They maintained character and integrity first and foremost and stood on a higher intellectual plane.  These lawmakers subordinated their own self-interests, bestowing favor instead upon policies for the benefit of the masses of ordinary citizens.  After all, this was the oath they had taken to public service.  They were distinguished citizens, people we looked up to with great respect and admiration for all that they had accomplished and stood for.  And as for those in the Senate, the more reserved, deliberative body, all the more so.

I continued to believe in this line of thinking for many years, until learning Abraham Lincoln’s views.  Many ordinary citizens are unaware that Lincoln was a member of the House of Representatives in 1846, where he served a brief, two year term, some 15 years before he was elected president.  I was much pleased to learn that Lincoln shared at the outset the same speculations and musings about the character and motivations of the men who filled the seats of Congress, and who he was about to meet, encounter and interact with.

But when he had occupied his own seat, then-Congressman Lincoln's views quickly changed.  He became extremely disappointed, finding members by and large to be “men of mediocre ability and only local reputation.” [1]  This was a huge letdown for Lincoln, the thought striking me also with a dull thud.  Further pondering, however, provoked another sobering question: If that was the makeup of Congress then, could it possibly be any different now, with the threat of another federal government shutdown looming on the near horizon?  Being somewhat familiar with the players, I was pretty confident of the answer.

-Michael D’Angelo

[1]  Of course, Congress consisted only of men at the time.  Lincoln mentioned one great exception in John Quincy Adams, the former president, who was one of only two former Presidents to do so (Andrew Johnson later served in the US Senate in the post-Civil War era).  According to Lincoln, JQA was “distinguished alike for his rocklike integrity and his implacable hatred of slavery.”  He was elected to the House of Representatives, serving Massachusetts for eight consecutive terms from 1831 until his death in 1848.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Unreality of Personal Ambition

Is the realization of self about oneself?  Is the great motivation only about collecting things and changing money?  Or does the essence of satisfaction seem to lay elsewhere? ...

We don’t have a lot of detail on the day to day life of Jesus, unfortunately.  But in one familiar story he overturns the tables of the money changers who had infiltrated the halls of the temple, casting them out with a rare display of anger.  It seems that economics had gained an undesirable preference over morality.

And so it goes with the American system.  A human being, to whom we sometimes refer as labor, is a commodity to be used up and exploited.  We have witnessed exploitation in the form of unsafe working conditions, excessive hours, of a wage below the poverty line.  The idea of a “living wage” simply “does not compute” on Wall Street.  When wage “costs” become excessive, jobs and even entire industries are outsourced to a distant shore.  The displaced worker is not consulted.  When he cannot find a comparable paying job, he is ridiculed for being lazy, lacking initiative.  Moreover, little consideration is given either to the needs or desires of the locals in the new “work force.”  What ever happened to altruistic notions of paying a fair share, giving back and paying forward for the next generation?

Typically, the exploitation of a human being is accompanied by the exploitation of the environment and natural resources, without any thought given to sustainability.  Although global warming is now an in-progress fact of life, the powerful status quo continues to muddle the picture for the ordinary citizen, stubbornly refuting its proven scientific validity.  And as progress stalls, the privileged few who comprise the base of the status quo quietly add to their material conquest.  Conservation as a “National Duty” and policy as expressed by T.R. more than 100 years ago, based on “efficient use of finite resources and scientific management of renewable ones,” remains a utopian liberal plot.  It’s either economic prosperity, or the environment, but not both.

The violence of unregulated capitalism, which is portrayed in too many places in the nation’s heartland, produces sacrifice zones, areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. Think coal mining ventures in West Virginia, offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, fracking for natural gas in a multitude of geographical locations. Rich natural resources are extracted, yet the money is not funneled back into the communities that are sitting on top of, or next to those resources. Destruction is not limited to the environment. It includes communities, human beings, families. There appears to be no way to control corporate power. The system has broken down, whether it's Democrat or Republican. We’ve all become commodities.

Why is the value of labor in the human condition to be diminished?  Why does labor only seem to be an expense on the economic balance sheet – but not also an asset?  How is human welfare to be fairly measured, and acknowledged?  T.R. had felt that those who gave earnest thought to the matter saw that the problem of labor was not only an economic, but also a moral, a human problem.  A generation later, F.D.R. signaled the primary role of government was help for the dispossessed, especially in time of need.

But the crisis of a Great Depression occurs.  Then, it passes.  The calamity of a Great Recession of 2008 takes place and passes, too.  A sense of normalcy returns.  But no matter how hard we strive to create a more perfect union, collecting things and changing money remain the great motivation which obscures life’s true purpose.

Consider the story of the man who does yard work.  Taking a break, he drops the rake in a pile of leaves.  When the break ends, since it is partially hidden or perhaps forgetting that the rake is there, he carelessly steps on it.  But when the shaft springs up and strikes him square in the forehead, he is immediately reminded.  Startled, he makes a mental note never to do that again.

But inexplicably, we keep stepping on the same rake. In this way, the business of providing a fair shot for the many, of achieving equality of opportunity for all citizens, remains our great unfinished business. The president said as much in his recent remarks on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s march on Washington.

Yes, the challenge can seem daunting.  But can it be any more daunting than that facing the New Dealers who descended upon the grimness of Washington in the midst of 25% unemployment and the corresponding national fear and despair of 1933?  For the best of them, the satisfaction lay

in some deep sense of giving and sharing, … rooted in the relief of escaping the loneliness and boredom of oneself, and the unreality of personal ambition.  The satisfaction derived from sinking individual effort into the community itself, the common goal and the common end.  This is no escape from self; it is the realization of self.

Yet despite the New Deal’s accomplishment, 35 years later, what had really changed, if anything?  “For the many,” said Robert Kennedy, “roots of despair all feed at a common source.  …  Our gross national product … measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth while."

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, August 22, 2013

When the Moral Issue Is "Secondary" (Part Two)

(Editor’s note:  This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series.  The first segment reflected on how one ordinary citizen’s pursuit of happiness is often at another’s peril.  Historically, this could be demonstrated best, perhaps, through the peculiar institution of slavery, coming as it did from the devil.)

Moral issues:  When are they merely "secondary?"  Although both sides in the Civil War claimed God to be on their side, was it not more important in the end, as Lincoln himself had emphasized, to be on God’s side? …

Lincoln claimed that secession was unconstitutional, since the voluntary "compact" among the states was intended to be a permanent, binding arrangement.  This permanent compact could not be legally broken, absent the unanimous agreement of the states to permit secession.

After the results of the 1860 election were known, some held out an olive branch of compromise to the point of exhaustion to keep the Union intact.  But Lincoln believed that no appeasement should be entertained regarding the extension of slavery, after an election had just been carried on principles fairly stated to the people.  To surrender the government to those we have beaten, "is the end of us."  Lincoln hoped against hope that "right would make might."

It was then, and only as a last resort, that Lincoln played his final card, the one that bespoke "morality."  Unlike 1776, the motto, according to Lincoln, was not liberty, but slavery.  Lincoln reasoned that

the right of revolution, is never a legal right.  At most, it is but a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause.  When exercised without such a cause, revolution is no right, but simply a wicked exercise of physical power.

The South was not persuaded.  It stuck doggedly to the argument that it was about states’ rights over federal under the constitution and the loss of some $4 billion in property rights (that the slave labor purportedly represented).  An exasperated Lincoln was compelled to pose the direct question:  "How about the morality of slavery?"

But the South remained unmoved.  As even the casual observer of drug and substance abuse addiction well knows, dependency will play evil tricks on an otherwise sensible, rationally thinking mind.  And so the South's response rang with an air of determined finality:  "The moral issue is secondary."

The idea that the South saw the moral issue of slavery as secondary is generally attributed to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the stakes being an Illinois US Senate seat.  Lincoln had won the Republican Party’s nomination for the seat, which put him head-to-head in a race with the powerful US Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, an incumbent, who was running for a third term as a Democrat.  A series of seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas in towns across Illinois ensued over the next 10 weeks.

The debates attracted national attention for several reasons.  First, Douglas had enjoyed a reputation as the “Little Giant” of the Democratic Party and its best stump speaker.  Together with Henry Clay, he had been one of the key figures behind the Compromise of 1850.  The national debate over slavery was also reaching a boiling point.  Responding to the fervor, journalists accompanied the candidates, writing detailed articles and offering editorial commentary that was unprecedented in American political history to that point.  Consequently, the whole country watched the debates unfold.

Lincoln had boldly announced that slavery was simply immoral and had to be dealt with forthrightly by Congress.  For Lincoln, slavery violated the fundamental assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, arguing that its continued existence and support ran counter to the wishes of the Founding Fathers.  Ultimately, only the power of the federal government could resolve the issue by extinguishing slavery from the nation.  Although Lincoln contended that there existed no constitutional way of interfering with slavery where it presently existed, he believed that it should not be allowed to expand westward.  For him, the matter was a question of right and wrong, with Douglas indifferent to a moral wrong.

Douglas met the challenge by trying to portray Lincoln as a radical abolitionist, disagreeing with Lincoln's claim that the Founding Fathers had opposed slavery.  Douglas pointed out that many of them, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, had owned slaves.  He played down the moral issue, saying that the power to decide about the existence of slavery should be dealt with on the local level.  And he argued that slavery would never be able to survive outside of the South for simple economic reasons in any case.  He warned the nation not to try to judge political issues on moral grounds, lest emotions spill over into civil war.  Ultimately, Douglas argued that the issue came down to conflicting ideologies: a view of the nation as a confederacy of sovereign and equal states vs. a federalist empire of consolidated states.

Although both sides claimed God to be on their side during the ensuing carnage of the Civil War, Lincoln’s concern was not so much whether God was on his side but, rather, whether he was on God’s side.  As fate would have it, however, his own fame for preserving the Union through perseverance on the side of the right would not be secured in the conscience of the reunited nation until many decades following his death.

-Michael D'Angelo

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

When the Moral Issue Is “Secondary” (Part One)

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

History reveals how one ordinary citizen’s pursuit of happiness is often at another’s expense …

In the race to achieve material gain, sometimes we neglect consideration of our neighbor.  It’s as if he or she doesn’t even exist.  It’s as if we aren’t all connected.  Is there a moral issue at stake?  If so, a fix is at least plausible.  But how about when we are told that the moral issue is secondary?  What happens then?

The peculiar institution of slavery provides perhaps the best illustration.  Thomas Jefferson once said of the South’s dilemma that the institution of slavery was like holding a tiger by the tail: You can’t let go, but you can’t very well hold on, either.  August St. Clare, the fictional Louisiana master to our friend, Tom, the loyal slave in the 19th century classic novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had presented the Southern intellectual’s view towards slavery:

It comes from the devil, that’s the short of it; --- and, to my mind, it’s a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line.

We’ve all heard the expression at one time or another: “Give the devil his due.”  The fictional St. Clare had been frustrated by a moral conflict.  On the one hand was his moral rejection of slavery as an insidiously evil institution.  But it stood against the reality that to stand alone as a pariah in its public rejection or to organize a force in the larger cause of its defeat was all but impossible.

One story in particular relates to Lincoln’s discussions with the political leaders of the various Southern states, as they contemplated secession, at the brink of the Civil War.

What could Lincoln have been thinking about upon his inauguration in March 1861?  Prior to his election, Lincoln’s goal had simply been to preserve the Union.  Whether that meant a Union that was to be all free, all slave, part free and part slave did not matter, that anything would be possible with compromise.  But since the South was economically dependent on slavery, the Southern states were not of a mind to compromise.  “Either slavery grows or it dies,” they reasoned.  And the platform of Lincoln’s new Republican Party to ban its further extension to the western territories meant the death of slavery. 

Consider an analogy involving “the South, slavery and the feeding tube.”  When the feeding tube of a patient who is on life support is removed, the consequences are that the patient dies.  Such was the South’s dilemma in the case of slavery: remove it and the economy of the South would also die.

Moreover, from the South’s perspective dating from the time of Texas statehood in 1845, the idea of the extension or spread of slavery westward flowed quite logically from the concept of Manifest Destiny.  Under that concept, the US had a right and special destiny by the power of God to surge westward, stretching clear across the continent from coast (Atlantic) to coast (Pacific).

But was the land grab in the creation of an empire one for liberty, or for slavery?  For if one adhered to the Southern view, one would also have to consider the following:

Natural rights, of course, are derived from natural law, the author of which is Nature’s God.  Americans might well have believed that God had staked out North America as their Promised Land, but it was a dangerous claim because it implied a responsibility to obey all of God’s other laws.

According to the theory of secession, each state, when it had joined the Union, had authorized the national government to act as its agent in the exercise of certain functions of sovereignty.  However, each state had never given away its own fundamental sovereignty.  Since the agreement or “compact” of the states was not permanent, any state could withdraw from the compact and reassert its individual sovereignty.  In practice, the South was bound neither by national laws with which it did not agree, nor the result of an election (in this case, Lincoln’s election of 1860) which it did not win.  The South was free to secede from the Union and form its own country.

Lincoln was well aware, and Northerners knew, that the South could scarcely be denied the right of revolution.  He knew that the secessionists were attempting merely to follow the example of their forefathers in declaring independence from a government which was threatening their civil rights and liberties.  Lincoln was also well aware that the South was basing its position on a constitutional argument, whose question had yet to be decided on a political basis.

(Editor’s note:  The second and final segment in this two part series encounters an exasperated Lincoln playing his last card.  He asks the South directly:  “How about the morality of slavery?”)

-Michael D'Angelo