Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reading The Beast of Political Thought

Also known as "oh no, we got a homework assignment on Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan."

Ta-Nehisi Coates, boss of bosses, has decreed that the Lost Battalion of the Horde should read Leviathan next as our social project of the season.  Hobbes is in the grouping of must-read political thinkers as Locke and Rousseau: Leviathan is spoken of as the serious tract on politics compared to the borderline satire of Machiavelli's Prince.

That said, as a librarian I heartily recommend everyone wanting to keep up with TNC's reading project to ask your local library for a copy of Leviathan for check out.  Better still, for those of you with ereader devices or a budding ebook collection should visit Project Gutenberg and download an ebook copy (most ereader formats available)!

To the bookshelves, Horde!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Four, Wrong Man Wrong War

Just to note: Sober Nate Silver recently posted a statistical review of Presidential popularity to determine how a two-term President would fare by historians' measurements during the second term.  Not much to relate to the ongoing character series I'm doing here, just noting it for people with an interest in Presidential history.

That said, time to move onto our fourth Federal foreman, our fearless Founder James Madison.

This was the guy when it came to the creation of the Constitution.  It was his "Virginia Plan" that formed the basis of most of the final product: he had a hand in the writing of the legal language in the document itself: he was a key defender of the final product - alongside Hamilton and John Jay - being one of the contributors to the Federalist Papers.  You would think Madison would prove one of our more effective Presidents, someone who knew the system well enough to manage and moderate it, forging a term of office that would rank among the top five ever.

Re-review that link to Silver's article.  It has James Madison at 15th overall ranking by historians.  And to be honest, that's a bit high.  Mostly because two-term Presidents get more positive views by historians (save the more glaring disasters like Nixon, Coolidge, and Bush the Lesser) while one-termers get more unflattering judgments.

Why am I dissing a guy ranked at 15th as overrated?  Mostly because his actual performance as President left a bit to be desired.

If you look back at the first three guys I've reviewed for character, you'll note a common thread: the push for war.  Europe had been ablaze for decades as a consequence of the American rebellion, especially France and Great Britain being at each others' throats during both the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Empire.  Each of the new Presidents - Washington, Adams, Jefferson - had to cope with the foreign policy nightmare of getting entangled with an overseas war that our young nation could ill afford.  Sheer logistics aside - the thing that hampered England and France during the American tussles - the fledgling United States had been working on stabilizing our finances at home and with our overseas trading.  The one war we did get into - the Barbary Coast War during Jefferson's tenure - was against an overseas power that was par to the nation's strengths and over specific grievances that hampered our Mediterranean trade.

All other times, our Presidents kept us out of war on Europe, a large-scale enterprise involving tens of nations and millions of lives that showed little sign of ending thanks to the revolutionary zeal of France at the beginning and then later the military skill and conquering hunger of Napoleon.  Washington did so because of his Passive-Negative character (note well his farewell address begging America to avoid all permanent alliances).  Adams' Active-Negative character made him intelligent enough to know how hard a war would be, and worried enough about his legacy to avoid starting something he couldn't finish.  Jefferson's Active-Positive sentiments allowed him to be open-minded and capable of trying alternative solutions, hence the Embargo acts that actually did no good.

Problem was, during all those years the pressure from other politicians (and sometimes from the public at large) to go to war grew.  A boiling pot of resentments and outrages at various actions by Great Britain or France (sometimes both) driving the popular mood into a war-hawk mentality.

Into this came a Passive-Positive president like Madison.

The one word to describe P-Ps... uh, that doesn't sound so good, let's stick with Pass-Pos's... anyway, the word is Compliant: they are amenable, well-liked, have low-self-esteem masked by outward friendly behavior.  Like Passive-Negative brethren, the Pass-Pos reacts to situations rather than lead or innovate. These are the types of guys you'd want running the farm when the farm's operating in the black, everybody knows their roles and are competent at those jobs, and there's no sign of oncoming drought or famine for the next, oh, twenty years or so.  In short, this is a Caretaker.

For all of Madison's work getting the Constitution created, it wasn't always his initiative driving him to do it, nor any ambition on his part to lead.  Madison's mentor was Jefferson, to whom a lot of Madison's ideas originated and toward whom Madison dedicated a lot of work.  The name on the Virginia Plan was Edmond Randolph, not Madison (even though most knew Madison was the primary source).  Madison was bright, well-educated, capable... but he answered to and sought approval from so many others.

What this meant was that sooner or later under his administration the push for war by the War-Hawks (an actual yet informal group in Congress: this is where John C. Calhoun pops up, the bastard) would finally give way.  It didn't help that the causes for war - ongoing British impressment of sailors off American ships, growing frontier tensions with the natives and with Spanish and British colonists along the borders - were still hot topics by Madison's first term of office.  It also didn't help that the War-Hawks were primarily a generation that had come of age and political influence after the American Revolution: they had little first-hand experience with war and didn't realize what the costs would be.  For example, a good number of the Hawks believed invading Canada and seizing it as more territory for the US of A would be sweet, simple, and quick.  Whatever wisdom Washington, Adams and Jefferson had that kept us out of war was in short supply with Madison, who followed more than led.

Madison began the War of 1812 with almost no Army and a small Navy.  Most manpower had to be raised by the states through their militias - say hello to the militia provision of the Second Amendment, by the by - and in terms of supplies and organization the United States wasn't ready one bit.  Another problem was that during all this time the national military had failed to churn out competent army leadership: most high-ranking officers were political appointments with almost little experience.  The state-organized militia leadership wasn't any better (and in a lot of cases, worse).  A more Active President might have made sure he had the right men leading his army first before declaring a war: Madison, well...

Hampering the war effort was the fact that the states and the population were NOT unified in their interest in going to war.  The states of New England, still pro-British and still pro-let's-not-do-anything-to-mess-with-trade, refused to raise militias as needed to help with any invasion of Canada.  Madison had little political influence: being a Southern and Democrat-Republican, he wasn't too popular with the Federalist-led New England populus.  Any decent war-time President (usually an Active) would tell you: get ALL the people rallied to the cause first, then declare war.  (I will grant that this was the first time a President had to do such a thing: Madison had no guide-book to follow)

For those who slept through this part of the history classes: the War of 1812 did not go well for the Americans.  Canada was NOT an easy pick as the War-Hawks believed: in fact, the war brought out a nationalist fervor in Canadians that led them to defend their commonwealth home (still a colonial holding at the time to the British) with enough determination and victories to provide a basis of pride and identity (Canadians remember this war with pride the way they remember with pride their service in World War II).  The British weren't even interested in fighting the first fourteen months of this war, due to focusing on Napoleon and European warfare instead.  Once Napoleon abdicated after his failures in Russia, Great Britain finally sent major forces into Canada and the United States.  This is the point where British troops seasoned against the likes of Napoleon's best faced American civilian militias that fled the battlefield faster than jackrabbits fleeing from hunting dogs.

During all this time, Madison and his Cabinet continued to mismanage the war.  Lacking the skills of an Active President, Madison kept relying on people still eager for war and failing to recognize better need of logistics and organization.  Over-reliance on militias that kept proving themselves unable to stay on the field longer than 30 seconds left Washington DC itself undefended in August 1814, leading to the great embarrassment of the British occupying our nation's capitol and burning nearly every building to the ground.  Only an organized defense of Baltimore by officers who had enough military experience to know what they were doing staved off complete defeat.

British indifference to the whole war - plus the fact that both sides kept winning then losing battles preventing any momentum - was pretty much the only reason the Treaty of Ghent was completed.  The causes of the war - naval impressment, native uprisings along the frontier - were long done: England finished its war on Napoleon and had no need of impressment; the war itself killed off much of the hard-line Indian leadership like Tecumseh and essentially pacified the native tribes of the Great Lakes region.  Canadian resistance to invasion proved the War-Hawks wrong and ended most thoughts of warring with our northern neighbors (save for one more territorial issue, will cover it later).  The treaty itself retained the status quo: all occupied areas reverted back to original ownership.  The only significant change was that the United States got British (formerly Spanish) Florida out of the deal, which made sense to the British giving up a tempting piece of territory that the southern slave states would want sooner or later.

The only reason any American would remember the War of 1812 is the final battle, the great victory at the Battle of New Orleans... which historians will always note came two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent only because ship travel kept news of the treaty for another four weeks or so.  The British practically don't remember the war at all, a mere afterthought to the struggle against Napoleon.  Canadians, as mentioned earlier, remember every victory like they were hockey scores. ;-)

There was little else to say or note about Madison's two terms.  The war dominated most of the administration's focus, especially during the second term.  Most of the sound and fury during the war - the War-Hawk drum beats, the New England Federalist refusal to fight - pretty much died off on their own accord, not due to any influence on Madison's part.  In terms of political issues, Madison retained enough of a Republican view of federalism to veto a major roads and canals bill, yet was open to Federalist ideas of financial policy that retained the federal banking system and high tariffs that favored the New England business interests.

So why am I down on Madison as a Passive-Positive?  He was the wrong man for the wrong war.  Being Positive made him think well of things (relying on militias and not a standing army as the Founders hoped) without considering the consequences or think long-term: being Passive made him rely on the wrong people (War-Hawks) pushing for what needed to be done.  A Negative-inclined President would have paused before bending to a war cause or at least started the war on his terms rather than the War-Hawks' (who had no clue of how to wage war themselves); an Active-inclined President would have avoided war (Active-Negative) or at least made a more energized effort to get it organized and find competent leadership (Active-Positive).

So there we have the first four Presidents, and four examples of what each Character entails as promised from the first time I mentioned this (during my rant about Romney being a Passive-Negative).  Next up: James Monroe, and I'm gonna let you readers start guessing which Character he is.  C'mon, leave me some comments guessing (or at least showing me you're reading other resources on James David Barber's work on Presidential history).  C'mon, I dares ya.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration Day 2013

Technically, Obama was sworn in to his SECOND TERM BEECHES on Sunday because the Constitution specifies it happens on January 20th no matter what... which caused a problem one year conflicting with a Super Bowl, which forced President Reagan to stave off the inauguration parties until Monday, so even though the Super Bowl is now in February and the games this Sunday were for the Conference Championships, Obama is carrying on a proud tradition of recognizing Americans' priorities (sports and beer).

Anywho, here's a Liveblog from the Washington Post if you wanna track that sort of thing.  I'm pretty sure the networks are covering it... no, the networks are still talking about Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend.  Again.


Anyways, baseball season is around the corner.  Go Rays!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Three, It's All Jefferson's Fault

It's a hell of a way to open up a blog post, you think?  Blaming Thomas Jefferson for everything?

Well, not everything.  But still...

We're up to the example of Presidential Character for the Active-Positive types.  The one word to describe this type is Adaptive: these are the guys who enjoy not just the perks of being the President but also the duties, self-deprecating but also self-confident, self-starters who seek accomplishments and problems to solve before anyone else even realizes there's a problem, and someone willing to compromise with others in politics to get things done.

The perfect example of Jefferson's adaptive style was the biggest event during his tenure: the Louisiana Purchase.  By Jefferson's administration France fell under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, and during his reign building up to Emperor Napoleon had negotiated Spain - then a vassal state under his brother's rule - to hand over the Louisiana Territory that took up the middle third of the North American continent.  His intent was an overseas empire combined with French holdings in the Caribbean.  However, ongoing disasters with Haiti including a slave uprising discouraged Napoleon to where he decided against keeping it.  At the same time, Jefferson had sent envoys to France to negotiate either a lease or the purchase of the City of New Orleans, the key trading port of the Mississippi River.  Jefferson feared that if Napoleon secured Louisiana, he could tie up a major waterway route for the western edge of where the United States then reached.

Instead of negotiating over New Orleans, Napoleon offered up all of the Louisiana Territory.  For $15 million.  Even in that time, this was effing dirt-cheap (roughly 3 cents for every acre) and essentially the biggest land deal of the millennium (well, for the U.S.  For the native tribes already living in the Territory, they never saw one red cent).  Napoleon either didn't know the value of land, or simply wanted to get rid of what he then saw as useless (he also probably sought to buy off American neutrality as his war against Britain was kicking into high gear again).

This quickly became a major dilemma for Jefferson, for two reasons: One, he simply wasn't prepared for such a major land-mass addition to the nation's frontier; two, there wasn't any rule for this anywhere in the Constitution.

I need to back up a bit and note how Jefferson was the leader, the banner carrier of the Democratic-Republican Party.  Unlike the Federalists who used a loose interpretation of the Constitution to establish laws and precedence, the Democrats believed in strict interpretation of the Constitution, including the limitations of powers on the Executive and ensuring the states had rights nearly comparable to the federal government.  Jefferson's original view of government was opposed to a strong Federal system.

But now here was something challenging that view.  He may have had power to conduct treaties and leasing arrangements, but there was no authority in the Constitution to make a land purchase from a foreign nation of this size.  Jefferson could have gone to Congress, explained the deal Napoleon was offering, and wait for Congress to give him the political authority via amendment to get the deal done.  But that meant working with a Congress that could bicker over every detail, delaying what was clearly an impulse buy: Napoleon could well change his mind within another week or month waiting for something to happen and kill the offer.

So Jefferson did what any Active-Positive would do: he broke his own rules.  He authorized the purchase without first securing Constitutional authority to do so, pressing Congress to get the funds lined up as quick as possible.

And so, thanks to Jefferson's A-P attitudes, we went from being a decent-sized nation made up of states into an expanding pre-formed empire with enough territory to double in size and to equal the same land-mass as most of Europe.  Before this, no one had any notion of Manifest Destiny: the Pacific Coast seemed so far off.  After this, reaching the Pacific was now a genuine possibility (and the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery proved it, although their original intent to find a Northwest Passage water route didn't pan out).  And now all of a sudden the issue of slavery, which was confined to southern states and territories and could have moved no further than the Mississippi, became a bigger hot potato... underlying the passions under the colonization of Texas by southerners, leading to their rebellion against Mexico... leading to Texas annexation into the U.S. and soon after stirring up the Mexican-American War, solidifying our nation's reach between two oceans... adding even more territory that slave-owners sought to acquire for their ever-growing reliance on slave labor economics.

This kinda needs to be pointed out that Active-Positive Presidents are NOT always good things, no matter how... positive... the wording seems.  A-Ps are active and very aggressive with their powers... and while they resolve a lot of challenges they never take into consideration the consequences of their actions (political axiom: Every political action generates an unequal and disproportionate reaction (pa < dpr) ).  In short, they are quick to act, but fail to plan ahead (Active-Negatives tend to at least put more thought into what they're doing).

Another example is Jefferson's attempt to engage Great Britain for transgressions during the Napoleonic Wars.  The United States tried to remain neutral but England kept impressing - raiding American ships and taking crewmen the British claimed were deserters - to the point of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.  Rather than pursue the threat of war - Jefferson knew as his predecessors did that the U.S. was in no condition for war - Jefferson tried instead a series of embargoes blocking off all trade with Great Britain.  He figured that the lost trade would hurt England enough to force them to terms.  He failed to figure that the American traders would also get hurt in the process - and that England had other trade partners and colonial holdings to keep them stocked with supplies.  The embargoes failed quickly and spectacularly, causing major rifts across the U.S., and Jefferson ended his term of office repealing those acts before they caused more damage.

Jefferson's two terms of office were very active indeed, more than the administrations of the first two Presidents Washington and Adams.  But a lot of those actions had unintended consequences, which led to things like the War of 1812, the march of Manifest Destiny - which Natives, Mexicans, and even Americans would come to loath - and the increasing debate over slavery.  Whether or not Jefferson's actions were good, the positive aspects of his actions are obvious... and the negative aspects are obvious as well.  The debates will not end here.  Not until much later...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When Bills Are Passing The House Despite the Majority

This sorta happened last night:

A very big thing happened last night in the House of Representatives. For the second time this month, Boehner broke the Hastert Rule. The issue was Hurricane Sandy relief, a follow-up vote to a smaller package approved earlier this month. It passed, but the important thing is how it passed:
Yeas: 241 (192 Democrats, 49 Republicans)
Nays: 180 (Rep. Jim Cooper + 179 Republicans)

Just what is the Hastert Rule? It's a nickname of the political concept for "Majority of the Majority," which states that the House Speaker will not allow a vote on a bill unless that bill has a majority of the majority party backing it.  It essentially kills the party in the minority to even bring up any bills that a small portion of the majority could and would support, because the majority leadership will cut off that outreach in a heartbeat.

For Boehner to allow a vote that required, NEEDED the minority party to pass is a big deal.  That it's the second such vote inside of two weeks (the "fiscal cliff" deal passed on New Years Day also broke the Rule). In a way, it questions the very need or existence of that majority party in the first place. 

In truth, this is not about how Boehner is breaking the Majority rule: Boehner is not the problem here.  This is really a sign of how dysfunctional and broken the House is when even the majority of the majority cannot be counted on to pass bills that are no-brainer "this has broad public support" deals.  There were enough Americans in favor of getting aid to Sandy victims.  A previous vote attempt that got dumped by the House GOP led to a massive public outcry and very public rifts between the two wings of the Republicans: the Populists (pretty much the only moderate force left in the GOP) and the Wingnuts (the Batsh-t Crazies).

If the GOP majority of the House continues to be obstructionist on key issues - the Debt Ceiling conflict is a big one, the planned Sequester is the other - are we going to see more votes that will pass with Democratic plus moderate support? 

Monday, January 14, 2013

I Take It These People Never Studied 19th Century Utopias In College

I got a one-two punch here:

Over on Salon.com, they got an article about Glenn Beck wanting to start an Ayn Rand inspired Utopia community.

Over on Balloon Juice, they got an article about the gun-worshiper crowd offering up a map of the proposed Citadel, a walled community of Second Amendment acolytes defending themselves from the imminent global apocalypse brought on by godless fascist commie libruls.  See below:

This looks like a beginner-level Dungeons & Dragons module from 1982.

(The quality of such a walled-in community is best left to the military experts.  But having just one route in or out through two gates is a major design flaw.  And a serious campaign using siege engines like trebuchets would make quick work of the walls and housing without even risking troop incursions... and we're talking using weaponry from the Middle Ages, peoples.  Like Patton said, fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.)

And for any of you regular readers, you kinda already know how I feel about Utopian thought: the absolute expression of an -ism ideology brought to the real world... where Utopias quickly fall apart from internal strife and mismanagement.

It does amaze me that there are yet another round of generations eager and willing to buy into this kind of Utopia business pitch (and there is money involved here.  Why not?  Libertarianism is all about the free market).  Part of it may well be that most of my fellow Americans pursuing these libertarian communities simply don't remember their American history, or that our schoolbooks no longer devote a chapter to the attempts like New Harmony and Oneida and Fruitlands to build a "model community".

It doesn't amaze me that there seem to be enough Americans willing to buy into these communities out of what looks like cultural fear.  There's been that fear brewing for ages, brought to the fore with having Obama in the White House, and it's gotten to the point where such communities are openly promoted on the national stage.  From where I stand, this is an unfounded fear: there is no Apocalypse or Armageddon approaching, there are no invading hordes charging across the oceans. 

Look, a lot of the anger stirred up against Obama are from partisan media hacks paid to stir up trouble.  Always talking about the current President as ZOMG WORST PREZ EVER.  Which is what they've been saying since the days of George Washington for God's sake (yes, even he got demonized by the masses during his two terms).  A lot of this anger from the Far Right?  I heard a lot of this sh-t back during Bill Clinton's tenure.  Guess what?  Nation's still here.  There was a lot of wailing and pulling of hair from the Far Left (and then the centrist Left, and then about 60 percent of the nation) during Bush the Lesser's tenure about him being the WORST EVER.  Guess what?  Nation's still here.  Every President - even James Monroe, the only other guy than Washington to run unopposed - gets demonized by the opposition: it all depends on how accurate they truly are.  Do you think ANY of these wingnutters are going to feel sheepish about how they've been behaving these years when Obama finishes out his term and exits in 2016 with the United States of America still here?  I doubt it...

Back to the planned Citadel and GlennBeckistan communities.  If you're seriously intent on throwing in your money on these communities, just remember: they've tried this already with something called Future Cities Development and they filed for bankruptcy in 2012.  There's a list of attempts on the Economist's website as well, and none of them ended with smiles and sunshine.  Caveat emptor, people (it's Latin for "suckers").

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Two, Always Second

Abigail Adams: I never asked for more. After all, I am Mrs. John Adams and that's quite enough for one lifetime.
John Adams: Is it, Abby?
Abigail: Well, think of it, John, to be married to the man who is always the first in line to be hanged!
 -- from the movie 1776.

In all other respects, John Adams - one of the major players in the ground-breaking uprising that formed the United States of America - was second in line for everything else.  To say that this made him a personally bitter man isn't entirely right: he was pretty grumpy and stubborn to begin with.

Adams was one of the major independence leaders in New England... except that he was overshadowed by his more passionate cousin Sam Adams (yeah, the beer guy).  He was one of the workers on the Declaration of Independence, the key document in American History and our nation's most sacred secular parchment... except that Thomas Jefferson was the major drafter and provided more of the literary flourish that makes the Declaration so memorable.  Adams was one of two major ambassadors to France trying to secure financial aid and military support from France... the other guy was Benjamin Freakin' Franklin, who wooed and wined his way into Frenchmen (and women's) hearts.

And of course, when it came time to vote for our nation's first executive under the Constitution... well, John Adams had to know in his heart that George Washington was the go-to guy there.  The only consolation Adams had to have was the knowledge that he'd qualify for President once Washington retired for good.

But by then the American political landscape had shifted: while the Founders attempted to create a non-partisan form of federal government, it couldn't last.  People naturally gravitated towards like-minded groups, and quickly two parties formed: The Federalists and the Republican-Democrats (aka the modern Democratic Party).  They formed along domestic, foreign, economic, and geographic lines.  And they formed around two natural leaders: Democrats (States' rights, France-leaning, agrarian anti-bank) swarmed to Thomas Jefferson; Federalists (Strong central government, British-leaning, business pro-bank) swarmed to... Alexander Hamilton.  Once again, Adams was second-place.  And while Adams got to be President, Hamilton was used to the idea of being the power-broker behind the scenes (his role during Washington's tenure).  This meant Adams and Hamilton - both ambitious men - were quickly at odds.

As a President - as a person - Adams is a textbook example of an Active-Negative.  The one word comparative is Compulsive: A-Ns are stubborn and uncompromising, ambitious, hard-working but derive no pleasure or feeling of success, suffers from low self-esteem, and a problem with anger management.

An Active-Negative could be a problem as President - especially on the uncompromising part - but you can agree that at least things get done.  A-Ns come in with an agenda or an ideology and gets right to work on it,  that quickly defines the administration and the nation.  It also creates a ton of political conflict, which shakes up the discourse for both good and ill (sad to say, usually "ill" due to hurt egos and unintended consequences).

Adams' administration was contentious where Washington's more... placid, stable.  It didn't help that Adams had decided - out of deference to his predecessor - to keep Washington's second term Cabinet intact.  It hampered Adams' abilities to get things done his way because the Cabinet were composed of men who preferred answering to Hamilton, who indulged in behind-the-scenes meddling to Adams' ever-growing ire.  And it didn't help that in that age, the Vice President was elected separate from the President: Veeps were the guys who won second place in the Presidential election, which at the time was Thomas Jefferson (this was one of two times in American history the President and Vice President were from different political parties, well three if you count that SOB Tyler).  Jefferson was nowhere near interested in helping his ex-friend (they broke their friendship over the French uprising) out against fellow rival Hamilton (the enemy of my enemy... in this case was still an enemy).

Of Adams' administration, there was one dominant matter: how America should respond to the European conflict between Revolutionary France and Great Britain (alongside other fearful monarchies).   By the time Adams entered office, the French Revolution had concluded its Reign of Terror and had reverted back to an uneven (and corrupt) Directory coping with wars and inflationary economics.  France was winning the ground war but was heating up their foreign adventures at sea, creating issues with the United States trying to ply trade across the Atlantic and Caribbean.

Adams sent diplomatic agents to France to discuss an amicable solution that didn't involve dragging the U.S. into a war it couldn't afford.  By 1798 Adams' agents replied back that they were approached by three French officials known only as X Y and Z and told to offer up a huge bribe just to even get one meeting with the French foreign minister Talleyrand.  The Americans refused, informed Adams what happened, and two of them returned home.  Adams then called on Congress to begin war preparations, but withheld the scandalous letters.  When the Democrats in Congress balked, Adams revealed the XYZ Affair to the public.  The cry was immediate: "Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute!"

Adams's Active nature kicked into gear.  He called on Washington to return and serve as Commander-in-Chief of any organized army Congress would muster (Washington was in no shape to lead: Adams begrudgingly allowed Washington to organize with Hamilton as second-in-command).  He formed a new Cabinet post for a Secretary of the Navy (separate from the Secretary of War (Army)) and ordered the first true U.S. naval fleet to be built (the famous ships of the Barbary Pirate Wars and the War of 1812). 

But there was also Adams' Negative nature.  He knew the United States was still too financially weak to endure a prolonged war against France.  He feared getting involved between Great Britain (resolved issues with the Jay Treaty, which was one reason France was angry at the United States) and France would stir up the populus into a civil war of sorts between Anglophile and Francophile.  His active nature combined with his negative fears to make another attempt at brokering a deal with France.  (Most A-Ns are reluctant to start wars, as they're usually smart enough to know wars don't end well and fearful enough of failing)  He re-sent diplomats to France who this time were received warmly by Talleyrand who publicly admitted he had sent the XYZ agents as a form of apology.  They were able to hammer out a deal that ended the Quasi-War efforts in the United States.

And this is where Adams' uncompromising A-N habits became his downfall: his resumption of peace talks while the public - especially the Federalists like Hamilton who fancied himself the next great American war hero - were stirred up into war passions caused a break among the Federalist party leaders.  They were eager for a war that Adams didn't want.  Losing his party leadership would hurt Adams' chances for re-election in 1800.

It didn't help that during the Quasi-War period that Congress passed with a Federalist majority the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The nation's first anti-foreigner law that gave government the power to expel unwanted immigrants or travelers to our shores: this was the Federalist response against French emigre agitators.  It was also the first censorship law that allowed government to arrest and jail anyone who spoke against the federal government: this was the Federalist response against the Republican-Democratic newspaper publishers railing against Federalist majority rule.

Adams may not have started those Acts but he did sign them into law, and he and the Federalists did profit from them.  This is the other big worry about A-N Presidents: they don't like criticism very much.  Their uncompromising, angry world-view (best described as "My way or the highway") make them the most likely among Presidents to subvert into dictatorial rule.  Other A-Ns during wartime or political strife show the same disregard for dissent (Wilson, Nixon, Cheney).

The Federalists didn't go completely overboard enforcing the Alien Sedition Acts: to be fair, compared to the Reign of Terror and other purges, this was the meekest with only 25 arrests and 10 convictions (Stalin would consider that a coffee break).  And there's no evidence that Adams personally oversaw or ordered any persecutions.  But like all repressive acts it backfired on Adams and his party: the Republican-Democrats were able to rally against the Acts and make huge wins in the 1800 election.  Combined with Adams' losing his party's support, he fell in his re-election bid to his rival Jefferson.  Worst of all, the Democratic reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts were to lay the foundations to two ideas destructive to the concept of federalism: state nullification - when Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions - and secession.  Even though such arguments have been shot down - nullification in the Peters case, secession through the American Civil War and Texas v. White - we're stuck with the damn things even today...

From David and Robin Whitney's American Presidents (8th ed.), one of the sources I'm using, a final summary:
He tried to do what he believed was right for his country, rather than what was politically expedient.  His blunt frankness sometimes lost him friends, but he was respected for his honesty even by his political enemies... (p. 18)

Adams' legacy in the end wasn't much except in one regard and he does get a first: he presided over the first relative peaceful transition of the Presidency from one political party to another. And like some A-Ns, his administration's legacies got the benefit of hindsight showing where his caution about war proved the most sensible.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Here's a First: a Poll

It's probably a bit messy but we'll see how it works...

Update (1/13/13): Noooooo.  The Treasury, White House, and Federal Reserve spokespeople have all said they won't use the Platinum Coin to pay off the debt if Congress remains insane.  Defeats the whole purpose of a poll.  Sniff... I can't ever have the fun toys...

What image should be on the face of the $1 Trillion Platinum Coin?
Just remember kids, the rules on coinage is that it can't be a currently living President, so all those mock-ups with Obama's face on the front, you're doing it wrong kiddo...

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Two Cents On The Platinum Coin (Yeah, I Went There)

With the Fiscal Cliff no longer an issue, the next scheduled disaster from our elected leaders is apparently yet another Debt Ceiling vote needed to ensure the Federal government can pay out those Medicare checks, military pay, and basically keeping the street lights on.

There's a good argument to be made that we don't even NEED a Debt Ceiling vote, the whole thing can be done through other budgetary bills and never be an issue: but sad to say the powers that be in Congress don't want to give up their ability to be bratty monsters to their fellow Americans, and also they've realized they can use this man-made disaster to wriggle out some twisted deals making the rest of us suffer in the process.

Considering how broken the system is, we've got a ton of people thinking outside of the box, using some lateral thinking.  And one idea that's come up - it actually started brewing last year when the government shutdown over the last Debt Ceiling vote happened - is the fact that under current law the Treasury Department can cast a platinum coin, give it any value they deem fit, and then use that coin as revenue to be spent however the government needs.  The actual value of platinum as a metal isn't at stake - this is called Seigniorage - all that matters is what value the Treasury Secretary can put on that coin.  As a result, the Secretary could stamp it as a One-Trillion-Dollar (that's 1,000,000,000,000.00 if you wanna count out the zeroes) Coin and that coin, probably no bigger than an Eisenhower Silver Dollar, will be worth that one trillion.

A law originally designed to allow the government to make and sell commemorative coins to a collectibles industry to turn a modest profit could be used to tell Congress to go screw itself over the Debt Ceiling nonsense:

As former Congressman and author of the original bill Mike Castle told Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post, the intent was to use the government's seigniorage power to very modestly reduce the deficit. Seigniorage is the delightfully literal concept of making money by making money. It's the difference between the cost of creating currency, and the value you assign to that currency -- in other words, the "profit" governments get from minting money. The trillion-dollar coin is seigniorage just like commemorative coins are seigniorage -- well, except that the trillion-dollar coin is a whole, whole lot more of it. Even if you don't find this terribly convincing, it doesn't really matter. The plain text of the law, not its intent, is what matters. And that means the trillion-dollar coin is almost certainly legal.
To be fair, our debt obligations aren't as high as one trillion: it's roughly about 52 billion.  A more modest plan would be to mint more than 52 platinum coins at One-Billion each and save the One-Trillion coinage for a more special occasion.

That persons among the Obama administration are talking seriously about this of course has the Far Right in an tizzy.  Most of them don't even realize the concept of seigniorage and are trying to mock the Platinum Coin proponents by thinking one trillion worth of platinum has to be cast for the world's largest coin.  The truth is much simpler: the coin can be the size of a DIME (our smallest coinage) and as long it's made out of platinum it can get valued however high it can, meaning it CAN be a One-Trillion Coin.

This may look on its face like a silly solution.  But the reason we're even thinking of this as a legitimate possibility is due to the fact that Congress is broken.  Full-on partisanship rules the floor, and the House Republicans have convinced themselves to never retreat on any issue that would give Obama a good day.  Especially if they can use their hostage-taking on the Debt Ceiling vote to force harsh social spending cuts on the Democrats.  There is no reason to believe that the House GOP will negotiate in good faith to resolve the matter, and we'll be facing yet another showdown just like in 2011 that crimped the nation's bond rating and caused enough financial chaos to choke a bull.

To consider Matthew O'Brien's thoughts:

As my colleague Derek Thompson explains, a world without a debt limit increase is a world where the government has to stop paying 40 percent of its bills overnight. Everything from food stamps to defense spending to maybe even Social Security benefits would go unpaid. Now, Congress would presumably relent after a few weeks of this, but if it didn't, the economic damage would be mind-blowing...
And that brings us to the trillion dollar coin. If you haven't heard, there's a law that technically lets the Treasury mint platinum, and only platinum, coins in whatever denomination it chooses. It's legal, it's doubtful anybody would have standing to challenge it in court, and it would let us keep paying our bills, without setting off massive inflation, if the debt ceiling isn't raised. But as Ross Douthat and Ezra Klein point out, the politics of it are toxic. It sounds crazy, and it would look like a crazy power grab, all of which would empower the very Republicans pushing us towards a possible default. Risking complete catastrophe is worth it if it will break the swamp fever according to this logic. That very well could be true if we were talking about a run-of-the-mill catastrophe, but it falls apart when we're talking about a debt default. The financial fallout and increase in our long-term borrowing costs are much too high a price to pay for discrediting the default caucus. Here's the way out. If Congress doesn't lift the debt ceiling in time, Treasury should prioritize payments while Obama and Republicans negotiate an increase. But if a day ever comes when incoming revenues won't meet interest payments, Treasury should mint a platinum coin to cover the difference. As Steve Waldman argued, use a billion dollar instead of a trillion dollar coin -- and only as a last resort to avoid irrevocable damage.
The full faith and credit is worth a platinum coin.
Personally, I kinda find this One-Trillion Coin idea amusing, a creative solution to a bankrupt problem.  But I'm kinda also with O'Brien here: I don't think we should be jumping straight at the platinum coin as the immediate solution.  The real problem is that we've got a Republican base pushing for a default (remember Grover Norquist, kids?  He wants to drown your government in his bathtub) no matter the hazards.  Going to the coin solution isn't going to solve the way Congress does business.  Congress needs serious fixing, especially considering how much of a sick joke the Debt Ceiling really is.
Get rid of the Debt Ceiling.  That's the real solution.  The pity of it is, that also takes real political courage right now, and NO ONE has that.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Presidential Character: Week One, Guess Who

I threatened you all with pursuing a weekly write-up on Presidents regarding their Character traits as defined by David James Barber: the Active-Positive, the Active-Negative, the Passive-Positive, the Passive-Negative.

When one works a list of U.S. Presidents, one has to start (depending on the topic) with the first: George Washington.
Note: Okay, there were Presidents of the Congress before the Constitution was ratified, but dude they don't really count.  Sorry, John Hansen...

Washington's character has been classified as Passive-Negative: basically, the defining trait is Withdrawn, an oddly unambitious leader in an ambitious office who answers to a sense of duty/obligation, does not seek conflict or political gaming, and has an open aversion to politics.  This type only becomes President because it was expected of them, either from their friends or from the nation at large.  And it Washington's case, it was expected of him by practically everyone: the entire model of the Presidency as designed by the Constitution's founders was based entirely on his role as both military commander and as presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention.  If he had said "no" to being the first federal President, the whole deal would have collapsed, the young nation would have died on the vine, and he knew it.

It's not to say that P-Ns don't want to be leaders: Washington for example pursued a military career for both good and ill.  But that was about the limits of his ambition.  He loathed political deal-making, had to be pushed into making certain decisions.  His primary aide, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, had to talk Washington into a second term convincing his former general that the United States needed four more years of his leadership to stabilize.

Why did Washington succeed (he's routinely listed in the Top Three Ever) as a Passive-Negative?  Two reasons: he was above all a patriot who did what he thought best for the nation; and because oddly enough the nation needed him to be unambitious and self-limiting.

Washington is unique among Presidents because he came to power before partisan party formation.  The original intent of the founders was to create a party-free political environment (which they saw as hindering their electoral model, the British Parliament), but parties still formed around key issues - finance vs. farming, foreign intrigue especially France vs. England - and key political figures such as Hamilton (Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (Republican Democrat, which evolved to just Democrat).  Washington's advantage was that - being above party - he thought first and foremost of the nation as a whole, and as such worked towards a recognized consensus between the growing factions and an awareness of how the nation was truly doing.

The best example of that was how Washington handled the European continental crisis of the French Revolution.  Due to France's bankrupting itself to finance the American Revolution, and due to the example of the American colonies rebelling against the British king, France devolved into its own revolution and an overthrow of their king Louis XVI.  Passions on the issue ran high.  When Republic France fell into war against Britain and Spain, France sent a minister (ambassador) Genet to the United States to drum up support.

Passions on the issue were running high in America: half the nation openly supported another republican uprising especially with it being our recent French allies.  But Washington took a good long review of the situation and noted the United States was still too young and unbalanced as a nation to get involved with an overseas conflict. The nation's finances were still a mess from the revolutionary era, the logistics of an overseas fight overwhelming, and the nation's best course at that moment was to get on good terms with as many European powers as possible, which actually meant getting on good terms with our recent opponents the Brits.  Despite the pressures to come to the side of the nation that backed us in independence, Washington had to think of his nation's needs first.  Washington issued a neutrality order, claiming the United States would not get involved in the war between Britain/Spain and France.

Genet ignored Washington's neutrality order and organized militias to attack Spanish-held Florida and privateer ships to raid British ships and Caribbean ports.  Washington didn't faze Genet in the least: after all, he found thousands of Americans eagerly signing up to help his cause.  But then Genet made the mistake of lying to Washington about the privateering when he met the President about getting the neutrality order revoked.  When caught in that lie, even Genet's ally Jefferson abandoned him, Washington openly issued a letter reprimanding Genet, and the French government was publicly embarrassed. It didn't help Genet much when the French republican leaders fell to the more radical Jacobians and the Reign of Terror started: when the Jacobians recalled Genet, he begged Washington for asylum... and received it.

The second thing that Washington did - being unambitious and self-limiting - is easier to see because a lot of what the Presidency is all about today is still based on the precedents Washington set.  The Constitution may spell out the specific things a President may do (Article II), but in practice no one really knew what a President COULD do... until Washington himself did them.

Article II may have a provision for "principal officers in executive departments" but no one knew what such a person could be.  Washington named his advisors as Secretary of particular offices - State, Treasury, War, and Attorney General - and defined the scope of each position's duties and authorities under the Executive office.  He made sure to make the appointments go through the Senate as established by the Advice and Consent clause in Article II.

One thing Washington did not do was impose himself much on the Congress: he fervently believed in the separation of powers between the Legislature and Executive.  He rarely exercised his veto power although he was still the first to use it, and used it in a way to get Congress to revise that bill to a more bipartisan form, setting that precedent of veto power.  He reportedly only tried once to impose himself on Congress when trying to get a treaty with a Native tribe passed, by showing up in person.  The Senators present felt intimidated, insisted on more time with the treaty, and Washington stormed out, his hatred of politicking fully confirmed.

This was where the benefits of being a Passive president by nature helped the nation.  A more Active president in office - say, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, or even Alexander Hamilton (yes, he could have served if not for his scandalous behavior) - may have ignored many of the checks and separations of power in the Constitution, could have weakened the Legislature and/or Judiciary branches, and could have turned the Presidency into a Dictatorship.  Adams' and Jefferson's own Presidencies showed hints of that, if not for Washington's setting of precedence limiting their future roles.

Will a Cat Picture on Caturday Suffice?

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Follow-Up About Utopianism (Apparently That Is a Word Now)

I wrote awhile back about my disdain for libertarianism - and isms in general - due to my studies of utopian literature my freshman college year.

Now here I see in Salon.com that contributor Michael Lind shares the same disdain for utopian thought, and how he sees the current Far Right as unhinged as the Far Left of the 60s-70s were:

In that environment, what attracted me in my college years to conservatism was its hostility to utopianism, to the attempt to remake society according to some abstract theory. This was a theme shared by the older generation of “vital center” liberals like Arthur Schlesinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as well as conservatives like Bill Buckley. Their distrust of doctrinaires using power to achieve utopia on earth was inspired not just by thinkers like Edmund Burke but even more by the examples of Hitler’s genocidal racist utopia and the mass murders and famines that accompanied Stalin’s and Mao’s attempts to use terror to remake society. The vital-center liberals (some of whom became early neoconservatives) disagreed with those further to the right, the “paleoconservatives,” over whether Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society were examples of sensible reform to save the system, as the paleoliberals/ neoconservatives believed, or mild versions of collectivist utopian madness, the view of many traditional conservatives...
By the 1990s, the communist movement had collapsed as a global secular religion, even though a few relic communist tyrannies survived in China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. The few remaining Marxist radicals in the Western world were mostly English professors hunting for classism and imperialism in the novels of Jane Austen. Nature abhors a vacuum, and as utopianism died out on the left, it found a new home to the right of center. The last generation in the U.S. has seen three forms of demented right-wing utopianism: religious, military and economic.
The religious utopianism was that of the Protestant religious right, which grew in influence in the 1980s and peaked in the 1990s... The religious right faded as a force by the early 21st century, largely because of the growing secularization of younger Americans. The next wave of utopianism was military. The older generation of neoconservatives had been New Deal liberals who had grown cautious and skeptical about the ability of public policy to remake American society. In contrast, the younger generation of neoconservatives — some of them literal heirs of the older generation, such as Irving Kristol’s son William Kristol — were wildly optimistic about the ability of the American military to remake foreign societies. Their utopian project of a “new American century” and a “global democratic revolution” exported by force of arms collided with reality in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of the century... As the neoconservative utopia faded, it was followed in turn by the libertarian utopia... Ron Paul went from being a marginal figure to a folk hero for young people in search of gurus, and the works of mid-20th-century prophets of the free market like Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek enjoyed a revival. The libertarian utopia peaked in 2010, around the same time as the Tea Party movement, which helped the Republicans to regain the House of Representatives. To judge by the elections of 2012, in which more Americans cast votes for Democrats for the gerrymandered House as well as in Senate and presidential elections, the public has turned against free market utopians like Paul Ryan...

It's rare for me to double-post in a day, but see Lind's article reminded me of what I wrote, and I enjoy the justification of a shared viewpoint.  ;-)

It's a New Year. I Need Resolutions.

I hereby resolve for this year of Common Era Two Thousand and Thirteen that I will do everything in my power to increase traffic to this blog site.

Shouldn't be too hard.  I've finally paid notice to the statistical trends on my blog and found out that my most popular entry has been the Iran Day Six article.  And that was because it had pictures that came up in search engines under "funny" "Iran" "pictures".

Shouldn't be too hard to do that, either.  I got a bunch of captioned photos already on my I Can Has account:
funny iran military pictures

funny pictures middle east
also wik
funny Iran pictures

Gonna have to make more of them by hand, though.  I Can Has website dumped their political funny caption maker.  Sigh...

Another way I can uptick the blog traffic is to do a regular series of articles.  I'm thinking of writing up entries on Presidential Character - the personality tracker developed by James David Barber - much like I did pointing out what Character a President Romney could have been.  It'll be tricky coming up with Character profiles for a lot of the One-Termers of the 19th Century... but I'm damn sure Millard Fillmore is gonna be a doozy when I get some research on him done!

Also, my other New Year's resolution: get some writing done and e-published!

See ya.