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 1, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington (Part 2)

After addressing the dangers of political parties and factions George Washington makes a clear and unmistakable shift in focus, beginning with this statement: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

I think anyone would be hard pressed today to find any evidence to refute this statement. Political prosperity is not something that the United States is enjoying today by almost any means of measurement–and the “indispensable supports” of religion and morality have been increasingly seen as dispensable over the past fifty or sixty years. Notice, by the way, that Washington did not say that religion and morality were helpful or beneficial or even advantageous; rather, he said they are indispensable. Much like fuel for an automobile, in other words; without it, the car is not going anywhere. Similarly, in Washington’s mind, there cannot be political prosperity without morality and religion.

Washington went on, though, in order to ensure that there was no misunderstanding the point he was making. First, he said it was contradictory to claim to be patriotic while also opposing or undermining morality and religion. Second, he said that without religion and morality property, life and reputation were all tenuous at best. Third, he said,

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of the refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Morality is all about right verses wrong–specifically the principles of right conduct. Washington knew, without a doubt, that if religion is removed, or even significantly diminished, that morality would crumble. That is because without religion–specifically, a belief that there is a God and that He created earth and humans and is sovereign–there is no basis for right and wrong. When God is removed from the equation it all boils down to survival of the fittest, might makes right, he who has the most toys wins, or fill in the blank with any other self-centered, power-based worldview.

It matters not at all, Washington said, if there is a wonderful educational system. That is because if the supports of religion are removed, what is being taught is all without foundation. It is tenuous, it is temporary, it will shift with the whims of the people or the preferences of those in power. “Who that is a sincere friend to it [a free government] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?” Washington asked. And, that by way, was a rhetorical question, assuming the answer of “no one.” That is because, in Washington’s mind–and based on his experience–the two were mutually exclusive.

So, when we find ourselves looking at the mess our country is in, wondering how the best two candidates “we the people” could come up with for the highest office in the land–if not the world–are a serial liar and serial adulterer, someone with no regard for the law and another with no regard for common decency–we need look no further than Washington’s Farewell Address. We have systematically removed religion from the public sphere and even done our best to minimize it in the private sphere–or at least to keep in private–and the result has been a collapse or morality, an embrace of that which has served only to “shake the foundation of the fabric” of our country. We have bid adieu to religious principle; we cannot now be surprised that national morality has followed it out the door.

October 26, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington

I have written here twice–fairly adamantly at that–that so-called prophecies shared recently that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States are false prophesies. I did not say that Trump will not be elected–though I am doubtful that he will–but that God did not reveal any prophetic message to anyone that Trump was His chosen man. I stand by that position. In this post, however, I would like to talk about the prophetic George Washington. By that I do not mean that Washington was a prophet or that he received any prophecies from God. Part of the definition of “prophetic” though is “predictive” and “ominous” and Washington was definitely that.

I would like to draw your attention specifically to Washington’s Farewell Address. It was not actually delivered publicly, but Washington’s thoughts in September 1796, as he decided not to run for a third term in office, contain a wealth of valuable and relevant advice that our country would do well to remember now 220 years later.

After sharing his thoughts on his tenure in office, his feelings for the people and the nation and his appreciation for the trust that had been placed in him, Washington transitions with this:

Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend for your review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.

If nothing else, the address is a primer in 18th-century vernacular and may serve to expand someone’s vocabulary, but the simple truth is that Washington’s reflections led him to share some of the most insightful, practical and crucial comments on the elements essential to maintaining America as a free, independent and thriving nation.

I strongly recommend reading the entire address. It is not overly long and it can be found with ease by doing an internet search. Allow me, though, to highlight a few of Washington’s most poignant observations.

Regarding political parties, which were just beginning to emerge during Washington’s presidency, he said this: “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” Here Washington was talking specifically about regional differences being taken advantage of by parties, but his point is relevant even now that regional differences are not so important as they were then. Do political parties misrepresent the opinions and aims of the other party(-ies)? Ummm…yeah. In fact that seems to be what they spend the majority of their time doing. If you have watched any of the debates this presidential season you have seen Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spend most of their time saying something about each other only to then have the other respond with something along the lines of, “everything just said is completely false” or something even more strongly worded.

Washington, too, knew that the dangers of party went far beyond geographic and regional differences. Roughly half way through the address he said this:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns his disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.

If you follow current events at all then the last paragraph above will sound eerily familiar to you. How many jealousies and false alarms have occupied the national news media in the past six months (and beyond)? How much animosity is there between the two parties? It is incredible; toxic almost. The time, effort and attention of the candidates and the parties (not to mention the media) is primarily on the squabbles and the scandals, calling names and slinging mud, with little of any substantive discussion of what policies might be pursued to actually help the country. And have we opened the door to foreign influence and corruption? I think “flung it open” might be more accurate. Read some of the accounts of the foreign influence purchased through the Clinton Foundation. Read about the amount of influence China has over the United States because of the amount of our debt China owns. Read about the offer from Russia to send election monitors over to the U.S. to ensure that the elections on November 8 are free and fair, i.e. “not rigged.”

Washington was no fool, and he knew that it would be impossible to eliminate parties and factions from any country. He did, though, observe this: “A fire not to be quenched, it demands uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.” I think it is safe to say that it is indeed bursting into flame, and the United States may well be consumed.

Back in 2008 Sean Collins wrote a book review for Spiked Online that began with this sub-heading: “It is not a clash of ideologies but rather an empty bickering over nothing of much substance that makes the presidential campaign seem so shrill and divided.” If that were true in 2008 it is exponentially more true today. In a 2014 PowerPoint presentation available online, Artemus Ward of Northern Illinois University’s Political Science department stated, “there are now, more than ever before, two Americas—Democratic America and Republican America that have inevitably led to government by crisis (shutdowns, sequestrations, fiscal cliffs, and debt ceiling threats).” In a 2015 article, the Washington Post examined ten reasons why American politics are worse than ever, and included this statement: “As these [party] divisions have intensified, Americans have come to hate the other party and its members more and more.”

I could provide additional commentary and evidence–and you could easily find your own with an online search if you do not already have enough knowledge from personal experience–but it is obvious that what Washington warned would happen has indeed happened. It did not just happen, but it is certainly getting worse. The fire has burst into a flame–and if we do not put it out it will indeed consume.

Next time I will examine another facet of Washington’s prophetic Farewell Address.

 

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.”

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