This is really what set off the resistance movement -- American brutality. At first, all Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, were willing to accept the Americans. They were hopeful. ... Nobody liked Saddam, and people were willing to give the Americans a chance. But it was just a brutal, Draconian occupation that pushed more and more Iraqis, Sunni or Shia, into accepting violence as the only way to deal with the Americans. And there was such American arrogance -- just dismissing people from their jobs, telling the Iraqis that the Koran would not be a source of law, legislating not only what the country would look like politically, but also culturally trying to change Iraq. These sorts of things just infuriated Iraqis, and it was only a question of time.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of "The Conservative Nanny State" by Dean Baker, a macroeconomist with a PhD in economics from the University of Michigan and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.
It's brilliant, encompassing some of the most important and relevant economic issues of our day.
It's easy to read - at 108 pages and written with a comfortable average-guy style.
It's shocking in that dozens of times - at least dozens - you'll slap your forehead and say out loud, "I never understood that!" or "I knew something like this was happening but never knew how they got away with it!!" or "Oh, my God, this is criminal what these rich cons are doing!!!."
The table of contents gives you a good sense of what's included in The Conservative Nanny State:
- Doctors and Dishwashers: How the Nanny State Creates Good Jobs for Those at the Top
- The Workers are Getting Uppity: Call In the Fed!
- The Secret of High CEO Pay and Other Mysteries of the Corporation
- Bill Gates' Welfare Mom: How Government Patent and Copyright Monopolies Enrich the Rich and Distort the Economy
- Mommy, Joey Owes Me Money: How Bankruptcy Laws Are Bailing Out the Rich
- The Rigged Legal Deck: Torts and Takings (The Nanny State Only Gives)
- Small Business Babies
- Taxes: It's Not Your Money
- Don't Make Big Business Compete Against Government Bureaucrats
In the preface, Baker points out how language has been used by conservatives to turn our semantic world upside down:
"The key flaw in the stance that most progressives have taken on economic issues is that they have accepted a framing whereby conservatives are assumed to support market outcomes, while progressives want to rely on the government. This framing leads progressives to futilely lash out against markets, rather than examining the factors that lead to undesirable market outcomes. The market is just a tool, and in fact a very useful one. It makes no more sense to lash out against markets than to lash out against the wheel.
"The reality is that conservatives have been quite actively using the power of the government to shape market outcomes in ways that redistribute income upward. However, conservatives have been clever enough to not own up to their role in this process, pretending all along that everything is just the natural working of the market. And, progressives have been foolish enough to go along with this view."
In the introduction, Baker adds:
"Political debates in the United States are routinely framed as a battle between conservatives who favor market outcomes, whatever they may be, against liberals who prefer government intervention to ensure that families have decent standards-of-living. This description of the two poles is inaccurate; both conservatives and liberals want government intervention. The difference between them is the goal of government intervention, and the fact that conservatives are smart enough to conceal their dependence on the government."
While liberals want government to make things more fair, enhance democracy, and protect the commons, Baker shows how conservatives want to government to reset the rules of the games of business to favor the hyper-rich, reduce the possibility of democratic participation by We The People, and steal the commons for themselves.
They cynically talk about "free markets" while working to make markets as unfree as possible. Examples include the limited liability corporation - a creation of government, not the market - and patent and copyright laws that have turned folks like Bill Gates and big drug company CEOs into what Baker refers to as "Welfare Moms." He lays out how conservatives have both historically and recently rigged bankruptcy laws to favor themselves and screw working people, and are working hard to eliminate any protections average folks may have left in either the markets or the courts against corporate malfeasance.
One of the most interesting points Baker makes is how the truly rich and the hyper-rich have co-opted the merely-upper-middle-class to promote the worldview that supports their lifestyle and transfers wealth from workers to owners. Thus the "influencers" in society - from TV and radio personalities to college professors to syndicated columnists - find themselves in a situation where if they want to stay at the top of the bottom, they have to side with those at the top of the top and promote a mythology that does far more for Paris Hilton than for Joe Sixpack.
"From 1980 to 2005 the economy grew by more than 120 percent. Productivity, the amount of goods and services produced in an average hour of work, rose by almost 70 percent. Yet the wage for a typical worker changed little over this period, after adjusting for inflation. Furthermore, workers had far less security at the end of this period than the beginning, as access to health insurance and pension coverage dwindled, and layoffs and downsizing became standard practices. In short, most workers saw few gains from a quarter century of economic growth.
"But the last 25 years have not been bad news for everyone. Workers with college degrees, and especially workers with advanced degrees like doctors, lawyers, and accountants, have fared quite well over this period. These workers have experienced large gains in wages and living standards since 1980. The wage for a worker at the cutoff for the top 5 percent of wage-earners rose by more than 40 percent between 1980 and 2001. Those at the cutoff for the top 1.0 percent saw their wages increase by almost 75 percent over this period.1 The average doctor in the country now earns more than $180,000 a year.2 A minimum wage earner has to put in 2 days of work to pay for an hour of his doctor's time. (After adding in the overhead fees for operating the doctor's office, the minimum wage earner would have to work even longer.)
"While doctors, lawyers, and accountants don't pull down the same money as corporate CEOs or the Bill Gates types, their success is hugely important in sustaining the conservative nanny state. If the only people doing well in the current economy were a tiny strata of super-rich corporate heads and high-tech entrepreneurs, there would be little political support for sustaining the system. Since the list of winners also includes the most educated segment of society, it creates a much more sustainable system. In addition to being a much broader segment of the population (5-10 percent as opposed to 0.5 percent), this group of highly educated workers includes the people who write news stories and editorial columns, teach college classes, and shape much of what passes for political debate in the country. The fact that these people benefit from the conservative nanny state vastly strengthens its hold."
Walking the reader, step-by-illustrated-step through the primary economic fallacies of our time, Baker concludes his book with this sterling call to action:
In addition to being essential for the effective design of government policy, reframing the debate is also crucial for the prospects for political success. The basic point is very simple: if progressives argue their positions using a script written by conservatives, then we lose. If we argue about “free trade'agreements, which have as one of their primary purposes increasing patent and copyright protection, then we start with a huge disadvantage. Even worse, progressives will sometimes talk about restricting drug patents (as in requiring compulsory licensing for essential medicines) as a form of interference with the free market. The hearts of the nanny state conservatives must be filled with joy when they hear their own rhetoric spouted passionately from the mouths of their political opponents.
"The nanny state conservatives have largely been running the political show in the United States over the last quarter century. This is due in part to the fact that the liberal/progressive opposition has been so incredibly confused in trying to lay out an alternative framework. At the moment, there is nothing on the table that passes the laugh test in either its policy coherence or political appeal.
"In order to have any hope at succeeding, we will have to move beyond the political framing of the nanny state conservatives. Many people have become comfortable with the framing “we like the government, they like the market,'but it is both wrong and politically ineffective. If liberals/progressives insist on adhering to this framework, then they guarantee themselves continuing failure in the national political debate. This framing would be fine if the point is to simply show up and be the perennial losers of national politics, but if the point is to actually change the world in a way that makes it better for the bulk of the population, then we must be prepared to move beyond the ideology of the conservative nanny state."
True to his call for a relative end to copyright and patent protections, Baker has published the book under a "Creative Commons" copyright. It can be downloaded and printed, or read for free, on the internet from Baker's site at www.conservativenannystate.org. Baker also sells a printed edition -- printed on demand through LuLu.com.
The Conservative Nanny State is a vital long-term addition to your library, although you may want to pick up two or three copies, as you'll surely be sharing this book with everybody you know.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
On November 22, 1963, the day he was assassinated in Dallas, John F. Kennedy was scheduled to give a speech in which he would have said:
"We in this country, in this generation, are - by destiny rather than choice - the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, goodwill toward men.' That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago, 'except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.'"
It's probably the only one of JFK's truly brilliant speeches that you can't actually listen to when you buy "Let Every Nation Know," because the book comes with a CD with the audio files from 31 of JFK's most brilliant speeches, two of RFK's, and Ted Kennedy's tribute to RFK.
This book is extraordinary in how the audio is interleaved with the writing. Each chapter is a short vignette from the life of JFK, a biography that covers most of the arc of his presidency. And associated with each chapter is an audio clip, on the attached CD that comes in a plastic sleeve glued into the back cover of the book. Reading about JFK, about his positions and beliefs, about the events of a particular moment in time, and then hearing him talk about those very things, has a powerful effect. It brings to life this man, who was truly one of the 20th century's greatest presidents, in a way that no book I've ever read has done before.
The book is also a masterpiece in that it's not a polemic (unlike this review <g>). It's a solid, straightforward, and candid biography of JFK, without the artifice of "analysis" or the psychobabble "insight" so common these days in presidential biographies. Robert Dallek's "Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963" was a New York Times #1 bestseller, and he won the Bancroft Prize for his book "FDR and American Foreign Policy." Terry Golway is the author of "Washington's General" and writes for The New York Times, American Heritage, and the New York Observer. These two authors have put together a book that is as clean, clear, and concise as they get.
As JFK's youngest brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, said, Let Every Nation Know is "Perhaps the best of all the books on JFK. Jack speaks to us again across the years, in words still highly relevant to our times."
It's also a relatively short book, a quick and easy read, in large part because it's lacking in the padding and bullshit so common in nonfiction these days, and in part because it begins in 1960 and ends in 1963. It's a solid history. Just the facts.
And, in a way, that's what's so painful about this book. In its unvarnished and straightforward description of the major points of JFK's presidency, it's hard not to wince in nearly every chapter when thinking of the bumbling incompetents, preening egoists, and outright criminals who have followed in their occupancy of the Oval Office since 1963. Fortunately, the book itself spares us from such comparisons, although it's hard sometimes to not remember Vietnam, Watergate, the 1980 October Surprise, Iran-Contra, WTO/GATT/NAFTA, Iraq, the NSA spy scandal, and the Republican culture of corruption that have engulfed the White House in the years since JFK.
The years of Kennedy's presidency were truly the optimistic years of America. Reagan's phony rip-off of JFK's "city on a hill" speech (which is on the CD in this book) barely concealed the fact that he borrowed and dumped into the economy trillions of dollars to make the economy look good for his re-election, or that Bush Jr. has done the same. There are times when reading this book - and particularly when listening to JFK's speeches that come with it - that it's hard not to shed a tear for the idealism and hope we've lost in the Nixon/Reagan/Bush/Bush death cult that has clung like a pall to this nation in the years since JFK's death.
And yet the book also inspires optimism. It reminds us what it means to be an American. To be hopeful and forward looking. To believe that government really can be a force for good, and really can make a better world for all. And to act on that belief, whether in the Peace Corps or the voting booth, in the streets or in the newsrooms, in our daily lives and in our political lives.
By bringing forward the voice of a president who half the people alive in America today can't remember, this book and its attached CD may help introduce an entirely new generation to the ideals that once animated this nation, that took us to the moon and back, that took us to Africa and Asia to feed bodies and minds, that took us into the depths of our psyches and our ghettos to cleanse and to heal.
Like the burning lamps, the leafing trees, and the resurrection that most Americans celebrate in the springtime, this book brings a renewal of times past coupled with a hope for times future. It's an essential part of the healing from the crimes and filth of the current Administration. It reaches into our nation's soul and offers us hope for a new beginning.
Don't just get one copy for yourself. Get one for somebody under 40 as well, and introduce them to both the words and the voice of the man who inspired an entire generation to do and be more than any of us ever thought possible.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
In his recent book, The Shield and the Cloak, Gary Hart notes that "When every child in America is secure, then America will be secure." He frames social and economic security as not only equal to national military security, but as the foundation of national security. Hart is right. But he is not the first to have suggested this concept.
The path to that security was laid out in 1944 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when, in his January 11th State of the Union address to the nation, he laid out his "Second Bill of Rights":
It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people.whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth.is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights.among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however.as our industrial economy expanded.these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. 'Necessitous men are not free men.' People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all.regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America.s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.
By 1937, Roosevelt had even convinced the US Supreme Court that there was merit to his ideas, as they began famously undoing decisions of the previous 32 years that had struck down minimum wage, maximum hour, unemployment insurance, and right-to-unionize laws. The Court picked up the pace of following through on Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights with the appointment of Chief Justice Earl Warren and, notes Cass Sunstein, had Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in 1968 (in the tightest election in American history), Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights would probably now be "settled law" in the United States (as it is in many other developed industrialized nations).
As it was, however, Nixon appointed four members to the Court, and the most conservative of them, Rehnquist, began an aggressive process of dismantling the pro-rights decisions of the Court's previous thirty-plus years. That "conservative" court is with us today - and growing more conservative - and so, Sunstein suggests in his seminal book "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever," we the people of this nation should begin a strong push at all levels to pass FDR's vision into law, and perhaps even into the Constitution.
There is hardly a chapter of this book that shouldn't be required reading in this nation - particularly in our schools and in the halls of government. Chapter Two, for example, "The Myth of Laissez-Faire," Sunstein notes:
"In a nutshell, the New Deal helped vindicate a simple idea: No one really opposes government intervention. Even the people who most loudly denounce government interference depend on it every day. Their own rights do not come from minimizing government but are a product of government. The simplest problem with Laissez-faire is not that it is unjust or harmful to poor people, but that it is a hopelessly inadequate description of any system of liberty, including free markets. Markets and wealth depend on government.
"The misunderstanding is not innocuous. It blinds people to the omnipresence of government help for those who are well-off and makes it appear that those who are suffering and complaining are looking for handouts. The New Deal vindicated these basic claims about our dependence on government, and the second bill of rights grew out of them. Unfortunately, under an onslaught of confused rhetoric about government as a 'necessary evil,' we have lost sight of these claims today."
Sunstein points out that there are no "natural" rights - all rights are the product of government, defined by government, enforced by government, and protected by government. The "right" to ownership of property, for example, which most people think of as a primal right inherent to all who are born into society, is actually a product of law. The law determines who owns what, defines the boundaries of that ownership, and protects that ownership with courts and police. Without government defining ownership of property (from land to the shirt on your back) the "right" evaporates. Those who most loudly want "the government out of my business" very much want the government protecting their business.
As Sunstein notes: "Economic value does not predate law, it is created by law." (Emphasis Sunstein's.) He adds:
"Of course many people work hard and many others do not. But the distribution of wealth is not simply a product of hard work; it depends on a coercive network of legal rights and obligations. ...[T]he laws of property, contract, and tort are social creations that allocate certain rights to some people and deny them to others. These forms of law represent large-scale government 'interventions' into the economy. They are coercive to the extend that they prohibit people from engaging in desired activities. If homeless people lack a place to live, it is not because of God's will or nature. It is because the rules of property are invoked and enforced to evict them, if necessary by force. If employees have to work long hours and make little money, it is because of the prevailing rules of property and contract. ... Sometimes those rules disserve liberty."
This reveals the "myth" of Laissez-faire. Those who most demand "no" government intervention in the marketplace because of their wealth and power owe the vast majority of their wealth and power to the specific intervention of the government in the marketplace by enforcing one particular set of rules and laws of property and contract. What these "free market" advocates are really saying is that they want the rules to continue to be set and stacked in their favor, rather in ways that may better serve both society and liberty for all.
"...Roosevelt believed that the real questions were the pragmatic ones: What form of intervention best promotes human interests? What form of regulation makes human life better? If a new regulatory system is superimposed on another, we should evaluate the new system for its effectiveness in diminishing or increasing human liberty. A system of private property is good for individuals and for societies, and the fact that it is created by law does not suggest otherwise.
"But in the face of the Great Depression, it seemed a kind of cruel joke to maintain that free markets were sufficient to ensure either liberty or prosperity. As Roosevelt pointed out, people in desperate conditions lack freedom."
Roosevelt was the ultimate pragmatist in this regard. He was fond of quoting an old English judge who pointed out that "necessitous men are not free men," as he notes in the SOTU speech which opens this review. Some of the programs he started were failures or worked to diminish liberty, and he discarded them. Others, like Social Security and the 1935 laws that enshrined the right to unionize worked and he kept them.
It may appear that the primary frames Roosevelt (and Sunstein) use are "welfare," "domestic tranquility," or even "justice." The opening sentence of the US Constitution, after all, says that the reason it was instituted was "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." But the frame used both by Roosevelt through the four terms he won as President, and by Sunstein in this book, is "Liberty."
While cons argue that progressive taxation, minimum wage laws, and right-to-unionize laws limit their "liberty," Roosevelt pointed out that without the liberty of others being limited by the Laissez-faire economic system that brought us the Robber Barons (who brought us the Republican Great Depression) they would not have the wealth and power they enjoy. Indeed, as Roosevelt famously said in his 1936 acceptance speech for his second term of office:
"These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike."
Sunstein writes in his chapter "The Birth of the Second Bill" that in Roosevelt's mind, "Private economic power would have to be seen as holding a public trust," in large part because it was public laws of property ownership and business organization that made it possible to acquire and maintain that economic power.
"Here Roosevelt emphasized two rights that would be central to the new system. The first was the 'right to life,' which means 'also a right to make a comfortable living.' It followed that the government 'owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of [its] plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.' The second right was to property, 'which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable,' of the safety of savings. This safety was necessary to assure people that they could live through situations that 'afford no chance of labor: childhood, sickness, old age.'"
The result was an increase in liberty for all, since without economic security a person has very limited liberty. Roosevelt's assertion - very much like Theodore Roosevelt's a generation earlier - was that if a citizen plays by the rules, works hard, and is an active participant in citizenship, then s/he shouldn't have to fear economic disaster because of unemployment, illness, or family problems like divorce.
Today, fully half of all bankruptcies are the result of a serious illness wiping out a working class family. Another third of all bankruptcies are the result of divorce leaving a woman with children and bills but lacking the earning power of a two-income family. Forty years of a conservative Supreme Court has swung us hard-right away from Roosevelt's dream and back toward the feudal society overseen by McKinley, Coolidge, and Hoover.
In "The Second Bill of Rights" Sunstein addresses all the arguments put forward against Roosevelt's vision, and refutes them one by one.
Is it constitutional? Yes. Sunstein points out, however, how the ultimate Supreme Court answer to that question will depend both on public opinion and the makeup of the Court, which itself is a consequence of the politics of the presidency.
Is it consistent with capitalism and free enterprise? If anything, it will extend capitalism and invigorate free enterprise (in a very real way, Roosevelt rescued capitalism from its own excesses).
Is it in line with the vision of the Founders of this nation and the Framers of the Constitution? Absolutely, says Sunstein, and extensively cites Madison, Jefferson, and Paine to demonstrate his point.
What about the so-called "negative liberties" like the rights to free speech, contract, and accumulation of personal or corporate wealth through the use of "free markets"? Sunstein puts it in context elegantly:
"For free markets to work, governments cannot possibly stand aside. They need to set out a great deal of contract law. They also need to hold buyers and sellers to their contractual obligations, through courts and possibly the police; otherwise, too many people will fair to carry out their promises. If contractual commitments cannot be enforced by government, free markets will not operate. A strong and active government is indispensable. The supposedly negative right to contractual liberty is positive in character, requiring governmental involvement rather than absence.
"The same points hold for all of our so-called negative liberties. Consider freedom of speech. In the United States, as in most democracies, free speech requires the streets and parks to be open and safe for political dissent. For streets and parks to be open, government must act; it is not enough to abstain. It is expensive to maintain public streets and parts. But government must do even more; it must expend effort to protect and manage public protests. In fact the most negative of liberties require an affirmative government. The basic right to be free from torture and police abuse requires that government take action to monitor the acts of its own agents to ensure that torture and abuse do not occur. If they do, government must prosecute the torturers as criminals. We can describe the right to be free from government abuse as a 'negative' right if we wish, and in a sense the description is intelligible. But we should not overlook the extent to which protection of this 'negative' right requires an array of (well-funded) 'positive' protections."
Sunstein goes on to show how the same is true of other so-called "negative" rights (those that "protect" us from government abuse) such as the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments which guarantee protections from abuse of legal process against us by government (through fair trials by jury, etc.). All are expensive, require extensive government apparatus to enforce, and represent "a significant fraction of the federal budget."
"Once these points are understood, it becomes impossible to oppose the second bill [of rights] on the ground that rights are properly limited to protection 'against' government. Even for those who reject the second bill, freedom requires government's presence, not absence."
Although he doesn't say so in this brilliant and eminently readable book, one gets the sense that if a Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2008 were to take up Sunstein's modern update of Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights, he or she would certainly both win the election and poise America for a great renewal of liberty and justice.
Sunstein's "Second Bill of Rights" is one of the most important books of this decade (and a vital addition to your personal library), because it informs us about the past (from the Revolutionary era to today), provides an understanding of how we got where we are, and lays out a roadmap to a future in which the core founding principles of this nation - liberty and citizenship - are expanded.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
On February 14, 2006, the Associated Press quoted U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, while addressing the Federalist Society in Puerto Rico, as criticizing "those who believe in what he called the 'living Constitution.'" The specific quote from Scalia was:
"[T]he argument of flexibility . . . goes something like this: The Constitution is over 200 years old and societies change. It has to change with society, like a living organism, or it will become brittle and break. But you would have to be an idiot to believe that . . . . The Constitution is not a living organism, it is a legal document."
The main "idiot" the Scalia was referring to - a point not lost on most in the legal or political fields - was U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who along with the majority of his and Scalia's peers agreed with the Founders of our nation and the Framers of the Constitution that it was a document that should change with the times.
If Thomas Jefferson were to be consulted, there is little doubt he would disagree with Scalia and his extremist conservative compatriots on the Court. In a letter to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816, eight years after he'd left the presidency of the United States, Jefferson wrote clearly and unambiguously his thoughts on the nature of our Constitution and the Founders' and Framers' opinion of it being a legal document or something that should change with the times.
Jefferson even went so far as to suggest that the Constitution should be regularly revisited, and expressed his concern that if it were not, and society were rigidly maintained as it were in 1787 when the Constitution was written, society would crumble; an oligarchy of, by, and for "the rich" would arise and increase the public debt for their own enrichment; the middle class would be destroyed; and Americans would become mere "automatons of misery."
SIR,--I duly received your favor of June the 13th, with the copy of the letters on the calling a convention, on which you are pleased to ask my opinion.. .... The infancy of the subject at that moment, and our inexperience of self-government, occasioned gross departures in that draught from genuine republican canons. In truth, the abuses of monarchy had so much filled all the space of political contemplation, that we imagined everything republican which was not monarchy. We had not yet penetrated to the mother principle, that "governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it." Hence, our first constitutions had really no leading principles in them. ...
"Where then is our republicanism to be found? Not in our Constitution certainly, but merely in the spirit of our people. That would oblige even a despot to govern us republicanly. Owing to this spirit, and to nothing in the form of our Constitution, all things have gone well. But this fact, so triumphantly misquoted by the enemies of reformation, is not the fruit of our Constitution, but has prevailed in spite of it. Our functionaries have done well, because generally honest men. If any were not so, they feared to show it.
"But it will be said, it is easier to find faults than to amend them. ... Only lay down true principles, and adhere to them inflexibly. Do not be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid, or the croakings of wealth against the ascendancy of the people. ...
"I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependance for continued freedom. ...
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.
"I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.
"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects.
"But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.
"We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. It is this preposterous idea which has lately deluged Europe in blood. Their monarchs, instead of wisely yielding to the gradual change of circumstances, of favoring progressive accommodation to progressive improvement, have clung to old abuses, entrenched themselves behind steady habits, and obliged their subjects to seek through blood and violence rash and ruinous innovations, which, had they been referred to the peaceful deliberations and collected wisdom of the nation, would have been put into acceptable and salutary forms.
"Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs. Let us, as our sister States have done, avail ourselves of our reason and experience, to correct the crude essays of our first and unexperienced, although wise, virtuous, and well-meaning councils. ...
"Each generation is as independent of the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself, that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years, should be provided by the Constitution; so that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.
"It is now forty years since the constitution of Virginia was formed. The same tables inform us, that, within that period, two-thirds of the adults then living are now dead. Have then the remaining third, even if they had the wish, the right to hold in obedience to their will, and to laws heretofore made by them, the other two-thirds, who, with themselves, compose the present mass of adults?
"If they have not, who has? The dead?
"But the dead have no rights. They are nothing; and nothing cannot own something. Where there is no substance, there can be no accident. This corporeal globe, and everything upon it, belong to its present corporeal inhabitants, during their generation. They alone have a right to direct what is the concern of themselves alone, and to declare the law of that direction; and this declaration can only be made by their majority. ...
"If this avenue be shut to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go on, as other nations are doing, in the endless circle of oppression, rebellion, reformation; and oppression, rebellion, reformation, again; and so on forever.
"These, Sir, are my opinions of the governments we see among men, and of the principles by which alone we may prevent our own from falling into the same dreadful track."
As you can see from this rather lengthy (and not previously published in its long form since 1904) quote from Jefferson, in the minds of the Founders and the Framers, the "idiot" would be Antonin Scalia.
So what about the other side of the Court? Although there is no "liberal wing" to today's Court, Breyer is one of the most articulate of the "moderates" on the court. (In this, I'd suggest his "moderate" perspectives are probably most similar to those of Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, JFK, and today's "moderates" like Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, and Joe Biden.)
Justice Stephen Breyer opens his book - it's first paragraph - with several quotes from Jefferson expressing similar sentiments to those laid out above. The core of his book is the struggle of modern Justices to "interpret" a document written in a very different age and time for a very different society, while yet staying true to the core principles the Framers put forward.
In a chapter entitled "Speech," for example, Breyer talks about how this collision of founding precepts and changing times require careful examination. He refers to his vision of his work as a Supreme Court Justice as "active liberty" (in opposition to Scalia's "originalism"), and lays out this example:
"The first example focuses on the First Amendment and how it applies if the government seeks to regulate certain activities affecting speech, in particular campaign finance, corporate advertising about matters of public concern, and drugstore advertising informing the public that custom-made pharmaceuticals are available. These examples show the importance of reading the First Amendment not in isolation but as seeking to maintain a system of free expression designed to further a basic constitutional purpose: creating and maintaining democratic decision-making institutions."
Breyer then points out that the First Amendment doesn't differentiate between these various types of "speech," but notes that "active liberty is particularly at risk when law restricts speech directly related to the shaping of public opinion..." He adds in the next paragraph, "Second, whenever ordinary commercial or economic regulation is at issue, this special risk is normally absent."
Already we're slicing and dicing the words of the Founders, but in Breyer's view this is absolutely essential - in the context of understanding them and understanding our modern society - to maintain "active liberty" in the United States. Speaking of campaign financing, he notes:
"The campaign finance problem arises out of the explosion of campaign costs, particularly those related to television advertising, together with the vast disparity in ability to make a campaign contribution. In the year 2000, for example, election expenditures amounted to $1.4 billion, and the two presidential candidates spent about $310 million. In 2002, an off-year without a presidential contest, campaign expenditures still amounted to more than $1 billion. A typical House election cost $900,000, with an open seat costing $1.2 million; a typical Senate seat cost about $4.8 million, with an open contested seat costing about $7.1 million.
"Comparable expenditures in foreign democracies are far lower. A typical British or Canadian parliamentary election involves expenditures for individual seats of about $13,000 and $43,000 respectively. ...
"A small number of individuals and groups underwrite a very large share of these costs. In 2000, about half the money the parties spent, roughly $500 million, was soft money, i.e., money not subject to regulation under the then current campaign finance laws. Two-thirds of that money - almost $300 million - came from just 800 donors, each contributing a minimum of $120,000. ... At the same time, 99 percent of the 200 million or so citizens eligible to vote gave less than $200. Ninety-six percent gave nothing at all."
So, asks Breyer, how is the Court to consider laws that may restrict "speech" - particularly the most vital form of speech of all, political speech - when increasingly it's becoming something quite unimagined by the Framers of the Constitution?
"It is difficult to find an easy answer to this basic constitutional question in language, in history, or in tradition. The First Amendment's language says that Congress shall not abridge 'the freedom of speech.' But it does not define 'the freedom of speech' in any detail. The nation's Founders did not speak directly about campaign contributions. Madison, who decried faction, thought that Members of Congress would fairly represent all their constituents, in part because the 'electors' would not be the 'rich' any more than the 'poor.' But this kind of statement, while modestly helpful to the cause of campaign finance reform, is far from determinative.
"Neither can we find the answer through the use of purely conceptual arguments. Some claim, for example, that 'money is speech.' Others say 'money is not speech.' But neither contention helps. Money is not speech, it is money. But the expenditure of money enables speech, and that expenditure is often necessary to communicate a message, particularly in a political context. A law that forbade the expenditure of money to communicate could effectively suppress the message.
"Nor does it resolve the problem simply to point out that campaign contribution limits inhibit the political 'speech opportunities' of those who wish to contribute more. Indeed, that is so. But the question is whether, in context, such a limitation is prohibited as an abridgment of 'the freedom of speech.' To announce that the harm imposed by a contribution limit is under no circumstances justified is simply to state an ultimate constitutional conclusion; it is not to explain the underlying reasons."
This sort of an analysis portrays the brilliance of Breyer's mind, and exposes his desire to be true to Founding principles in a modern context free of his own political bias. Unlike Scalia, Thomas, or Roberts - who have demonstrated in the Oregon Death With Dignity decision a willingness to interject their own personal religious and political perspectives into a decision, which even contradicted their own previous assertions about the importance of respecting the Tenth Amendment's provisions of "states' rights" - Breyer is ever the even-handed pragmatist. He continues in his chapter on speech:
"Once we remove our blinders, however, paying increased attention to the Constitution's general democratic objective, it becomes easier to reach a solution. To understand the First Amendment as seeking in significant part to protect active liberty, 'participatory self government,' is to understand it as protecting more than the individual's modern freedom. It is to understand the amendment as seeking to facilitate a conversation among ordinary citizens that will encourage their informed participation in the electoral process. It is to suggest a constitutional purpose that goes beyond protecting the individual from government restriction of information about matters that the Constitution commits to individual, not collective, decision-making. It is to understand the First Amendment as seeking primarily to encourage the exchange of information and ideas necessary for citizens themselves to shape that 'public opinion which is the final source of government in a democratic state.' In these ways the Amendment helps to maintain a form of government open to participation (in Constant's words) by 'all the citizens, without exception.'
"To focus upon the First Amendment's relation to the Constitution's democratic objective is helpful because the campaign laws seek to further a similar objective. They seek to democratize the influence that money can bring to bear upon the electoral process, thereby bulilding public confidence in that process, broadening the base of a candidate's meaningful financial support, and encouraging greater public participation. Ultimately, they seek thereby to maintain the integrity of the political process - a process that itself translates political speech into governmental action. Insofar as they achieve these objectives, those laws, despite the limits they impose, will help to further the kind of open public political discussion that the First Amendment seeks to sustain, both as an end and as a means of achieving a workable democracy."
The logic - and conclusions - of several of the arguments in Stephen Breyer's book are ones with which many progressives would find discomfort or outright disagreement (including me), particularly when it comes to corporate personhood. (I wish he would read my book "Unequal Protection" about the corrupting of the Supreme Court in 1886.) On the other hand, several of his insights and deep-diggings are startling, thought-provoking, and ultimately very common-sensical. Because Breyer is not a doctrinaire conservative, it is all the more important that the legacy of his thought-process exist in the form of this book, and that Americans familiarize themselves with his perspectives on the most important issues of our day.
What is most useful and interesting about "Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution" is that it provides an extraordinary insight into the thought processes a US Supreme Court justice of considerable intellectual power and genuine integrity uses to decide cases.
This is an important book, made all the more important by Scalia's ideological attacks on Breyer and his fellow justices. At 135 pages it's a relatively quick read, and an essential addition to your library.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
It would not be an exaggeration to say that without Thomas Paine there may not have been an American Revolution. At the very least, it may well have been of a substantially different nature and character, and our government may be far more plutocratic than it was designed to be.
Yet Paine is often absent from broad-brush overviews of the American Revolution, or simply relegated to the title of "pamphleteer."
Part of the reason for this is that he wrote "The Age Of Reason," which was a finely-tuned attack on organized religion. After "Common Sense" and "The Rights of Man," two books that were massive best-sellers, "Reason" caused many Americans - then in the midst of a religious revival - to turn against Paine. Thus he died in relative obscurity in New York City, and today even the whereabouts of his body is unknown (an interesting story that Harvey J. Kaye tells well).
His critics notwithstanding, Thomas Paine was in many ways the father of modern liberalism, and thus one of the most important of the founders of what both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson referred to as that "liberal" experiment, the United States of America.
Liberals, after all, founded our nation. They were skeptical of the power of any institution - be it corporate (the Boston Tea Party was an anti-globalization protest against the world's largest transnational corporation, the East India Company), religious (Ben Franklin left Massachusetts for Philadelphia during his childhood in part because they were still hanging witches in the outlying regions), or governmental (the "kingly oppressions" such as the power of a king to make war, referred to by Madison and later quoted by Lincoln). It wasn't FDR who first seriously promoted the progressive income tax in the USA: it was Thomas Paine. It wasn't LBJ who invented anti-poverty programs by introducing Medicare, housing assistance, and food-stamp programs: Thomas Paine proposed versions of all of these. It wasn't Jack Kennedy who first talked seriously about international disarmament: it was Thomas Paine. And Teddy Roosevelt wasn't the first American to talk about the "living wage," or ways that corporate "maximum wage" wink-and-nod agreements could be broken up: it was Thomas Paine. Even Woodrow Wilson's inheritance tax, designed to prevent family empires from taking over our nation, was the idea of Thomas Paine, as was the suggestion for old-age pensions as part of a social safety net known today as Social Security.
Paine thought that the best way to build a strong democracy was to tax the wealthy to give the poor bootstraps by which they could pull themselves up. He proposed helping out young families with the expense of raising children (a forerunner to our income tax exemptions for children), a fund to provide housing and food for the poor (a forerunner to housing vouchers and food stamps), and a reliable and predictable pension for all workers in their old age (a forerunner to Social Security). He also suggested that all nations should reduce their armaments by 90 percent, to ensure world peace. Summarizing, Paine noted:
"When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government."
In his marvelous biography of Thomas Paine, Harvey J. Kaye explores all these issues and much, much more. In truth, it's difficult to review this book as if it were merely a biography - it's really one of the very best histories of the Revolutionary Era in print, using Thomas Paine as the pivot point for telling stories that range from well before the Revolutionary War all the way up to the present day.
Kaye shows how Paine was a powerful influence not only at a national level, but also on the states. He writes about how Thomas Paine helped promote an early draft of the Pennsylvania constitution, wherein "they provided for a one-house legislature, annual elections, voting an office-holding rights for all taxpaying men, and term limits. (The drafters even entertained setting limits to the accumulation of property!)"
Later in the book, Kaye notes:
Observing that Monarchy and aristocracy entail "excess and inequality of taxation" and threw the "great mass of the community ... into poverty and discontent," Paine added the question of class to the brief. "When, in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the work-house and youth the gallows, something," Paine declared, "must be wrong in the system of government." And he bluntly asked, "Why is that scarcely any are executed but the poor?"
It is positively refreshing to read history from somebody who understands the time and the era. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson's most recent biographer describes him as a hypocrite and implies he was an utopianist fool, and John Adams' biographer reinvents our second president - who tried his best to destroy American democracy with the Alien and Sedition Acts - as a modern and noble pseudo-Republican.
But Kaye lays it all bare. Noting that Jefferson well understood the importance of Paine's contribution to Jefferson's anti-Federalist "Republican" movement (now known as The Democratic Party), Kaye notes:
In the spring of 1791 Jefferson had hailed the first part of Rights of Man. Then serving as secretary of state, he saw in it an antidote to the rise of antirepublican sentiments expressed in writings like Discourses on Davila, a series of newspaper essays penned anonymously by Vice President John Adams warning against the dangers of democratic politics and praising aristocratic governments.
In the next chapter, Kaye adds:
Outfitted with Paine's arguments, Republican newspaperman attacked the Fderalists for their "monarchical and aristocratic" ambitions and pretensions.
When Paine was attacked by British conservatives not as a liberal or a democrat, but as a staymaker (it was actually his father who helped make women's undergarments and dresses), Kaye points out that the Aurora - one of the more prominent of the pro-Jefferson anti-Federalist newspapers of the day - published a commentary in December 1792 that said:
It is well enough in England to run down the rights of man [speaking of Paine's book], because the author of those inimitable pamphlets was a staymaker; but in the United States all such proscriptions of certain classes of citizens, or occupations, should be avoided; for liberty will never be safe or durable in a republic till every citizen thinks it as much his duty to take care of the state, as to take care of his family, and until an indifference to any public question shall be considered a public offence.
After treating the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary eras with extraordinary insight and detail, Kaye shows how Paine's influence continued in America. He chronicles the rise of the "workingmen's movement" through the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s, leading to the creation in the mid-1830s of the National Trades' Union. "However, the Panic of 1837 devastated the economy and, with it, workers' capacities to organize," Kaye writes. "Still, the worker's ideals and aspirations did not die but persisted in the initiatives of a generation of democratic intellectuals who would continue to draw upon Paine's arguments."
By the 1840s, the battles between progressive Democrats citing Paine and conservative Whigs were heating up all over again. A group inspired in part by Paine, the Young Americans, were split in 1845 by debates over Manifest Destiny, but, Kaye notes, "The group's original Painite vision lived on, however, in the labors of the nation's greatest democratic writers, Melville and Whiteman. ...to both, Paine was democracy's first champion."
From here, Kaye carries us through the whole arc of the 1800s, up to and through the Wilson administration, Eugene Debs, through the Great Depression, the presidency of FDR, through WWII, and into the Vietnam conflict. At each step along the way, he finds the inspiration of Thomas Paine in the forward progress of Americans who believe in the deepest and most profound principles of democracy and liberty.
For example, from the Vietnam era:
SDS members of the early 1960s proudly conceived of themselves as renewing America's revolutionary heritage, with Paine standing at the heart of it. [Todd] Gitlin [SDS President] would recount of a November 1965 antiwar rally: "Carl Oglesby [then president of SDS] stole the show ... by treating the war as the product of an imperial history ... But Oglesby, the son of an Akron Rubber worker, also self-consciously invoked 'our dead revolutionaries' Jefferson and Paine against Lyndon Johnson and [national security adviser] McGeorge Bundy. He romantically sumoned up a once-democratic America against the 'colossus of ... our American corporate system.'"
Even many years later, SDS veterans would have recourse to Paine when recollecting their early activist days and what they were about. In his own memoir, Tom Hayden would write, "The goal of the sixties was, in a sense, the completion of the vision of the early revolutionaries and the abolitionists, for Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass wanted even more than the Bill of Rights or Emancipation Proclamation. True Democrats, they wanted the fulfillment of the American promise."
Bringing us to the present moment, Kaye points out that modern conservatives are undertaking a massive and well-funded effort to re-write history, characterizing anti-democratic men from the Revolutionary Era as Adams and Hamilton as true champions of democracy, and trying to recast the firebrand revolutionary and liberal Thomas Paine as a conservative. As noted early in the book, they even are stealing lines from Paine, such as Reagan's quoting a Paine line from Common Sense that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
But Kaye won't let them get away with it:
For all their citations of Paine and his lines, conservatives do not - and truly cannot - embrace him and his arguments. Bolstered by capital, firmly in command of the Republican Party, and politically ascendant for a generation, they have initiated and instituted policies and programs that fundamentally contradict Paine's own vision and commitments. They have subordinated the Republic - the res publica, the commonwealth, the public good - to the marketplace and private advantage. They have furthered the interests of corporations and the rich over those of working people, their families, unions, and communities and overseen a concentration of wealth and power that, recalling the Gilded Age, has corrupted and enervated American democratic life and politics. And they have carried on culture wars that have divided the nation and undermined the wall separating church and state. Moreover, they have pursued domestic and foreign policies that have made the nation both less free and less secure politically, economically, environmentally, and militarily. Even as they have spoken of advancing freedom and empowering citizens, they have sought to discharge or at least constrain America's democratic impulse and aspiration. In fact, while poaching lines from Paine, they and their favorite intellectuals have disclosed their real ambitions and affections by once again declaring the "end of history" and promoting the lives of Founders like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who n decided contrast to Paine scorned democracy and feared "the people."
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America is not only one of the finest biographies of this great Founder ever written, it is also one of the best histories of the United States of America in print.