jasonbwatson

November 4, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington (Part 3)

Washington continued his address by transitioning to the matter of public debt. Debt was a big deal during the Washington administration and the assumption of state debts was a crucial element of the plan out forward by Alexander Hamilton to unify the nation and strengthen its economy. (Interestingly, this plan also ended up resulting in Hamilton’s support of relocating the national capital to the banks of the Potomac River, as he needed Thomas Jefferson’s support for his financial plan). Washington was intimately familiar with the financial cost of war and with what happens when soldiers and officers are not paid as promised, so he knew whereof he spoke when he addressed the matter of public debt. Still, while recognizing that it may at times be necessary, he left no question as to his opinion on the subject. Note what he had to say:

As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties) ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

That’s a long paragraph and it is, at times, wordy, but Washington makes three key points: avoid debt whenever possible, pay off debt that was unavoidable as quickly as possible, and remember that public debt can only be paid from public revenue–so it is necessary to pay taxes.

The United States has done exactly what Washington advised so strongly against. We have accumulated, and continued to add to, a massive public debt–one now hovering around $20 trillion. We have, for several generations now, been “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Back in 1995 and again in 1997 I devoted considerable time and attention to the federal budget–why it was in the shape it was in and what needed to be done about it. I did that as a lowly undergraduate student in college. My research and findings generated mild interest from professors at my university as well as others after I presented at an honors symposium, but it was essentially an academic exercise. Nothing came of it and no one really paid much attention. Several years before that Harry Figgie and Gerald Swanson had written a book–which did receive a fair amount of attention–entitled Bankruptcy 1995. Believe it or not, the predictions of that book could not have been much closer to spot on, as the federal government did shut down over budgetary issues in 1995. In his two presidential runs, but especially in 1992, Ross Perot devoted the bulk of his attention and energy to the matter of the U.S. debt. What, by the way, was the national debt in 1992? It was just over $4 trillion. We’re not doing anything to solve the problem. We are burdened with a debt that our ancestors ungenerously burdened us with, and we are doing nothing but piling on to it and–ungenerously–passing it on to our posterity. Eventually someone is going to have to pay the piper.

That piper, by the way, is mostly U.S. citizens and entities, but about one-third of U.S. debt is owned by foreign nations. About $1.3 trillion is held by China and $1.1 trillion by Japan, with other nations holding $3.8 trillion (according to a May 2016 report from CNN). And that raises another point that Washington made. He cautioned strongly against being attached too strongly to other nations, be that through treaties or just closer-than-healthy fondness. He did not mention debt specifically, but he would have understood it as an issue, since the United States had debts owed to France following the Revolutionary War. Such “avenues to foreign influence,” Washington said, “are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.” Why would that be? Simply this:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. … Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and to serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.

Washington cautioned the U.S. to honor its existing treaties at the time he left office and to resist making more. The risks involved with getting too entwined with another country were simply not worth it, Washington believed. The risks far outweighed the reward. That is because, as Washington and so many of the founders understood, human nature is fickle and corrupt. It is hard enough to govern your own people fairly and effectively; why introduce a dependence upon the people and/or governments of other nations over which the U.S. had (and has) no control? “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation,” Washington said.

We have failed, as a nation, to heed Washington’s warnings about party and faction. We have failed to heed his warnings about religion and morality. We have failed to heed his warnings about public debt and dependence upon foreign nations. Regardless of who wins the election next Tuesday, We the People have a long way to go and a lot of work to do to even begin to rectify the mess we have gotten ourselves in by ignoring, and continuing to ignore, the wisdom of the Father of our Country. George Washington was not perfect because no one is. Imagine, however, how different things would be today if our parties disagreed respectfully and actually worked together to accomplish what is best for the country. Imagine how different things would be today if religion and morality were not relegated to the categories of irrelevant and unnecessary. Imagine how different things would be if we paid off unavoidable debts quickly or even, having missed the chance to do that, determined to stop adding to it. That would be a very different country than the one we find ourselves in today.

November 6, 2014

Freedom is not an entitlement

The Facebook page of the organization called The Federalist Papers posted an image of an American flag today with the caption, “The only entitlement I expect from my government is freedom.” The Federalist Papers is an organization with this purpose: “The mission of The Federalist Project is to get people the history and the civics lessons public schools don’t teach to motivate them to push back at the erosion of our liberties and restore constitutionally limited small government.” The organization relies primarily on social media to communicate its message. What is ironic about its post from today, however, is that freedom is not an entitlement at all.

An entitlement, by definition, is the right to guaranteed benefits under a government program. Such programs–Social Security, for example–are called entitlements because those who are qualified for the benefits are entitled to them. That entitlement, however, and the conditions qualifying one to become entitled to those benefits, are determined by the laws made by the government. Congress, for example, has been gradually increasing the age at which one becomes entitled to Social Security. I do not have a real problem with that, but it is clear evidence that entitlements are created by the government and can therefore be changed by, or even eliminated by, the government. Accordingly, referring to freedom as an entitlement is probably not a good idea.

Ironically, the very source the Federalist Papers claims as its name–the original Federalist Papers penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay–would have had very serious concerns about referring to freedom as an entitlement or as something which comes from the government at all. John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government articulated the idea that humans enter into a social contract through which they surrender some natural rights and freedoms in order to establish a government that will protect their other rights and freedoms. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence that man is endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights–meaning that the government does not give them and the government cannot take them away. And then the authors of the Federalist Papers, written to encourage the ratification of the Constitution, vehemently argued that the Constitution gave the federal government only those powers that were enumerated in the Constitution. So passionately did they feel about this that they argued against the need for a Bill of Rights, demanded by the Anti-Federalists, because articulating that the government did not have the powers prohibited in the Bill of Rights would imply that the government had had those powers prior to having them forbidden.

Maybe its semantics, and I understand and appreciate the point the Federalist Papers post was trying to make, but we need to be careful with our words…and the last thing we want to do is suggest that our freedom is an entitlement we receive from the government!

February 17, 2014

President Hamilton?

Though the quote has appeared in several different forms over the years, philosopher George Santayana wrote this: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If I may, I would like to reword this famous statement and apply it to a current event: “Those who never learn the past are condemned to misstate it.”

What has prompted me to mess with the immortal words of Santayana? A monumental President’s Day blunder by online coupon provider Groupon, that’s what. According to a plethora of major news outlets Groupon issued a news release last week promoting $10 off of local deals over $40, complete with this explanation of the deal: “The $10 bill, as everyone knows, features President Alexander Hamilton — undeniably one of our greatest presidents and most widely recognized for establishing the country’s financial system.”

Now, in Groupon’s defense, Hamilton is generally credited with laying the foundations of the nation’s financial system, having served as the first Secretary of the Treasury the U.S. ever had. However, as with Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, Hamilton never served as president of the United States.

Compounding the problem, Fox News has reported that upon being informed of the blunder Erin Yeager, Groupon spokesperson, told MyFoxNY.com, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.” Agree to disagree? Whether or not someone was ever president of the United States is not a matter of opinion; it is historical fact, easily checked and verified.

Groupon’s press release–which, believe it or not, is still available on its web site–refers to Hamilton as president three times and refers to him once as “our money-minded commander-in-chief.”

In the grand scheme of things this is pathetic but not that big a deal. However, it is evidence of a greater problem. That problem is a two-edged sword of ignorance of and disrespect for U.S. history. There is no excuse for having multiple professionals at a major corporation failing to recognize that Alexander Hamilton was never president of the United States. (Presumably more than one person has to approve press releases and ad campaigns). There is no excuse for a company spokesperson responding “we’ll have to agree to disagree” when the error was identified. The error was a result of ignorance or stupidity (or both), and the explanation once the error was identified is a result of ignorance or stupidity (or both, but most likely the latter).

Furthermore, the explanation is a prime example of the foolishness of relativism. Relativism is the idea that there is no absolute truth, that all beliefs and points of view are relative, subjective, and based on the preferences and viewpoints of those who adhere to them. “Agree to disagree” is a shorthand definition of “tolerance” and it works fine for things like which baseball team has a better starting rotation, which fast food chain has the best French fries or even which U.S. president was the best president. Those are topics subject to legitimate differences of opinion and conviction. There are different ways of defining “best” and legitimate, cogent, rational arguments could be made for multiple answers to those questions. Relativism has its place. I see it demonstrated almost daily at family meal times, for example–particularly when it comes to the vegetable of the meal and the opinions of my children as to how good–or not good–the vegetable may be!

Relativism has no place, however, when it comes to verifiable facts. There can be a difference of opinion as to which fast food chain has the best French fries, but whether or not a fast food chain even exists or even serves French fries is not open for discussion; the answer can be found and proven. Which U.S. president was the best will bring plenty of different answers, and you will probably find plenty of them today in particular, since it is Presidents Day. At a minimum I can guarantee you will find arguments for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. There is no definitive standard by which one can determine “best president” so that range of opinion is fine–healthy, even. But there is no question as to whether or not Alexander Hamilton was a U.S. president.

It is a sad day when a major company errs on what should be basic elementary school history. My favorite professor in college used to refer to some things by saying, “Every good schoolboy or schoolgirl should know this….” Sadly, the number of things every good schoolboy or schoolgirl knows is rapidly diminishing. That is due in no small part to an observation regularly made by my favorite graduate school professor: “Sometimes there is nothing common about common sense.”

July 5, 2013

The Antitode to an Abuse of Freedom

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias posted this statement on his Facebook page on July 4: “Freedom can be destroyed, not just by its retraction, but also by its abuse.” That is a profound reminder for everyone who claims to be a lover of freedom. And if I may be so bold as to add to this statement, I would suggest that freedom is most likely to be abused when those who possess freedom fail to understand freedom–what it is and what it is not, where it comes from, how it is preserved and so on.

In the United States of America one way to gain a more complete understanding of freedom and what it means in the U.S. is to understand what the Founders were thinking and doing when they formed the framework of this nation following the accomplishment of independence from England. As a student of American history, I would suggest that one of the best ways to understand what the Founders intended when they wrote the Constitution is to read the eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay that have come to be known as The Federalist Papers. These essays were originally published in newspapers between October 1787 and August 1788 in order to present the case for the ratification of the Constitution. The complete collection of essays was bound into two volumes in late 1788 and have been available in single or dual volumes ever since. For those who prefer to read on their computers or e-readers, the text of all eighty-five essays is also available (for free) on the Library of Congress web site as well as a number of other web sites. For more than two centuries they have been the authoritative source understanding the thinking and intentions of the Founders.

Historian Richard B. Morris said that The Federalist Papers form “an incomparable exposition of the Constitution, a classic in political science unsurpassed in both breadth and depth by the product of any later American writer.” Thomas Jefferson called them the best commentary ever written about the principles of government. The Federalist Papers website quotes James Madison as writing that “a people who mean to be their own governors must be armed with the power that knowledge gives.” Alexis de Tocqueville visited the young American nation and wrote in his book Democracy in America that Americans of that time were “far more knowledgeable about government and the issues of the day than their counterparts in Europe.”

Why bring all this up? Because, according to a recent article by Mindy Belz entitled “Against the Mental Grain,” The Federalist Papers are now being ignored by the most respectable institutions of higher learning in America, including its law schools. Belz quotes Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, as pointing out that Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley no longer require their students to read any of the Federalist essays, and these are the schools that “produce many of the nation’s leading members of the bar and bench.” Berkowtiz goes further and explains that not just the law schools, but the political science departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford do not even require undergraduate or graduate students to study The Federalist. Berkowitz writes, “The progressive ideology that dominates our universities teaches that The Federalist, like all books written before the day before yesterday, is antiquated and irrelevant,” and that by letting students acquire an education without studying such important writings as The Federalist Papers, “our universities also deprive the nation of a citizenry well-acquainted with our Constitution’s enduring principles.”

The Federalist Papers Project, whose web site I linked above, has this states purpose: “The mission of The Federalist Papers Project is to get people the history, government and economics lessons they never got in school and to motivate them to push back at the erosion of our liberties and restore constitutionally limited small government.” And to bring this discussion full circle, please note that “the erosion of our liberties” is but another way of saying, in the words of Zacharias, “an abuse of freedom.” Founding documents are important, whether the Ivy League schools think so or not. Let us, as Madison urged, arm ourselves with knowledge that we might defend against the abuse of our freedoms by those who have ignored the limits on government intended by our Founders.

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