Friday, December 13, 2013

Rethinking "Rethinkin' Lincoln"

In a previous blog post, “Rethinkin; Lincoln,” (
in January 2011, I pretty much trashed Abraham Lincoln and said because he put such a high value on preserving the Union that he gave it a higher priority than even ending slavery.  I had indicated that slavery was destined to end eventually anyway and that since there was nothing in the Constitution to prevent a state from seceding from the Union, President Lincoln should have let the eleven southern states go that had seceded from the Union because it would have prevented the Civil War, a war that has cost more American deaths than all the other wars in history combined.  Since I published that blog post, I have come to the conclusion that the Constitution, although it does not state so as clearly as I would have liked, does forbid states from seceding, and that President Lincoln’s oath to support and defend the Constitution required him to do what he could to bring the rebellious states back into the Union.  There is still that inconvenient fact that the Civil War cost over 600,000 lives and caused unimaginable suffering.  If Lincoln had known that the war would last so long and cause so much death and suffering, he might have decided differently.  However, at the beginning of the war, nearly everyone on both sides thought that the war would be relatively short and hardly anyone could have predicted the suffering it would cause.  I was wrong to second-guess his decision to bring the Confederate states back into the Union by force.

In his book, America’s Constitution, Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale University, makes a convincing case that the framers of the Constitution intended the federal government that they were creating to be an indivisible nation which no state had a right to secede from once the state became a part of the nation.  The Constitution begins with the words “We the People” rather than “We the states” or “We the delegates from the states” to indicate that the relationship between the states was to change from a confederation of independent, sovereign states to a federal republic in which each state sacrifices a portion of its sovereignty and its right to break free from the union of states in exchange for the benefits of being in the union.   At the other end of the Constitution, it states that it will become effective after being approved by conventions in the states rather than by state legislatures.  In other words, it was to be approved by the people, or at least by persons elected by the people for the sole purpose of deciding whether the Constitution should be ratified.  In other words, the new federal government under the Constitution was not intended to be a compact among the states as the Congress under the Articles of Confederation had been.  During the period between when the Constitution was originally proposed and the time when all thirteen of the original states ratified it, both the Federalists who argued on behalf of ratification and the Anti-Federalists who argued against it stated in their arguments that they understood that once a state became a part of the form of government that the Constitution was creating there was no turning back.  In fact, that was one of the main points in the argument of each side.  They agreed that the union was to be indivisible; what they disagreed on was what that indivisibility implied.  The Federalists argued that it was a means of protecting the freedoms of Americans; the Anti-Federalists argued that it was a threat to those freedoms.  Eventually, the Federalists prevailed, but not before an implicit agreement was reached to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution after it had been ratified to protect  the freedoms fo individual Americans from the threats implied by the creation of a more powerful national government.

Although he stated that he gave a higher priority to preserving the Union than he did to ending slavery, Abraham Lincoln was a strong opponent of slavery.  His Emancipation Proclamation freed, if not all the slaves in the United States, at least the slaves that he had authority to free in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States.  The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the states that were still in rebellion against the United States and not yet under control of the Union forces.  That excluded the slaves in the slaves states that had not left the Union, but the Constitution gave the President no authority to free those slaves.

By today’s standards, Abraham Lincoln would still be considered a racist.  He indicated that he believed that European Americans were generally superior to African Americans and that the races should remain separate and should not intermarry.  However, he did believe that all people, without exception, should have equal rights under the law and that no person had the right to enslave any other person.  We have learned from subsequent history that there is no significant difference between the races and that there should be no laws to enforce segregation of races.  Race is very much an artificial concept.  It may take a while, but we do learn from history, and have more history to learn from than Abraham Lincoln did.  Abraham Lincoln was not an angel and had his faults, but he was a remarkable and heroic human being and I owe an apology to his memory.

Friday, November 29, 2013

One Thing About Obamacare That Fiscal Conservatives Should Like

Since we fiscal conservatives believe that the less the government gets involved in the economy the better the economy will function, there is plenty about Obamacare to dislike.  However much we should like the rest of it to go away, there is one effect of Obamacare that we should rejoice in.  That is the beginning of the end of government encouragement of employer-based health insurance.  I have no disagreement with the idea of an employer voluntarily offering health insurance to its employees.  However, there is something wrong when most Americans and their families obtain their health insurance through an employer.  The major disadvantage of this situation is the insured person typically loses the health insurance when he or she loses the employment, and it is no longer common for an employee to work for decades for the same employer.  Therefore, periods of unemployment also become periods in which health insurance is lost.  The reason why most health insurance is obtained through employment is that the federal government does not tax money that he business spends to provide health insurance for its employees, but it does tax the money that most individuals would spend on purchasing health insurance on their own.

How did this situation come about?  It began during World War II when the federal government imposed wage and price controls at a time when it needed to support manufacturing of military goods while at the same time millions of men became unavailable to work in private industry because they were scattered around the world fighting the war.  This created a severe labor shortage in the domestic economy.  Since employers could not increase wages without violating the law, they had to provide increased compensation by other means to attract qualified workers.  The other means included offering benefits that did not violate the wage and price controls.  The facts that tax rates were high and money that an employer would spend to provide health insurance for its employees the health insurance a very popular benefit for employers to offer.  In my opinion, it would have been simpler and would have made much more sense to end the wage and price controls.  However, the federal government is not good at doing things that are simple and sensible.

Among the consequences, both intended and unintended, of Obamacare has been that it has caused many employers to abandon providing health insurance for their employees because many of the mandated additions to coverage have made it too expensive for many employers to continue to provide health insurance.  Unfortunately, those same mandates have also driven up the cost of health insurance policies sold to individuals.  When Obamacare finally collapses under its own weight, there are going to be many proposals for health insurance reforms to replace it.  Since Obamacare has already seriously disrupted the market for health insurance, there may be an opportunity to set things right.  Therefore, I propose that if the federal government must subsidize health insurance, it do so by providing tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to individuals to buy their own health insurance rather than by subsidizing employers to provide it for them. Individuals may also be able to obtain health insurance at reduce cost by getting group rates through an organization or association that is not tied to a specific employer.  That will make it less common for workers to lose their health insurance when they lose their employment.  Also, the absence of a perceived obligation to pay for health insurance coverage for employees with free up money that employers have available to hire new employees, retain all the employees, or to increase wages.  There would be simple and sensible, but given the history of the way the federal government works, the fact that something as simple and sensible may decrease its probability of happening.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Education Bureaucracy in the Twenty-First Century

I received a couple of messages dated July 10, 2013 right next to each other in the inbox for my e-mail account at Housatonic Community College, where I am a member of part-time faculty.  I thought the combination of those two messages have a lot to say about the state of the educational bureaucracy in the twenty-first century.  The first message was resending a message dated June 17 with an additional comment.  The original message said that because of a serious budget deficit at the college, agreement was reached in a recent Administrative Team Meeting to adjust the air conditioning temperature at the college to 74 degrees (Fahrenheit). A comment added when the message was resent on July 10 said, “If anyone is having difficulty with this temp. setting you should contact your Dean with your concerns.”

This message raised all kinds of questions in my mind, including the following:  Why does it take an Administrative Team Meeting to determine the temperature at which to set the thermostat?  If saving money is a goal, it seems to me that much money could be saved by having an individual make the decision to adjust the temperature of the air conditioning by a couple of degree rather than using up the time of several people who are making a good salary and who could be doing more productive things with their time.  Why was it necessary to tell everyone about changing the temperature on the thermostat?  Not knowing at what temperature the air conditioning was set at before, I assume that it was set at 72 degrees.  Would anyone in the buildings have known that the temperature had gone from 72 degrees to 74 degrees?  If the goal is to save money, why is the temperature set as low as 74 degrees?  Why is the school inviting anyone who feels uncomfortable at 74 degrees to complain to the dean?  Is anyone who claims that they were comfortable at 72 degrees and uncomfortable at 74 degrees going to be referred for a mental status evaluation?  Is any dean who takes such a complaint seriously going to be referred for a mental status evaluation or a job performance review?  When I read the message, I checked the temperature in my office here at home (I work at home, since the classes I teach are online) and it was 82 degrees.  I was not uncomfortable enough to bother turning on the air conditioning, but then an online instructor can get by with working in shorts, sandals, and a sleeveless T-shirt during warm weather.

The second message was from the Director of Public Safety announcing that the college is hosting an enrichment program, emphasizing math and literacy skills for students entering high school in the City of Bridgeport.  The program includes security provided by the Bridgeport Board of Education, with guards posted outside the classrooms and in the cafeteria during lunch.  If the guards are needed, they I am happy that they are being provided, but the fact that all those guards are thought to be needed shows either that Bridgeport schools have a serious issue with security, or that a lot of unneeded security guards are drawing paychecks.  Neither conclusion gives me comfort.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Confession of a Tea Party Extremist

One of the major items in the news lately has been the alleged targeting of groups with the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their names and other conservative. Also,their have been stories about units from the Department of Homeland Security monitoring rallies which were organized to protest the targeting of these groups. The Tea Party movement has been considered by many people, including some members of Congress to be an extreme and dangerous movement having approximately the same status in the minds of many people as terrorists who committed violent acts or advocate the violent overthrow the government. I take great interest in the stories because I have a faded bumper sticker on the back of my care that has been present since 2009 this says "Tea Party Patriots." I certainly don't consider myself to be a terrorist extremist and the people that I've met in Tea Party groups or at Tea Party rallies are the farthest things from violent terrorist extremists that I can think of.

Following are some examples of the ideas hostile to the Tea Party movement that I have seen, which I will follow with an explanation of why they are wrong. As part of an online class in American Government that I taught at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport Connecticut in the Spring semester of 2013, one of the assigned books was a collection of debates on current issues (2012 You Decide!; Current Debates in American Politics by John T. Rourke).  Another part of the class is a discussion board on which students are to discuss different topics based on the reading material. One of the debates in the reading material was "Tea Party Members: Irresponsible Zealots or Responsibly Dissenting Citizens?" and one of the questions for discussion on the discussion board was "Are tea party members extremists or ordinary citizens with legitimate complaints?" Here are relevant excerpts from comments on the discussion board: "… I do believe that the tea party members are extremist with and it's my way or the highway attitude." "I think the Tea Party are mostly ordinary citizens who have legitimate complaints but like in every group I'm sure that there are a few that can be categorized as extremists." "The Tea Party, started a good idea, but has become an extremist organization. It seems to be filled with people who have all sorts of crazy notions about the government, have some racist hatred of Barack Obama, or have other ideas that are ultimately destructive to American society. Most Republicans are in the Tea Party.… I believe between the GOP and the Tea Party, one is openly racist and the other uses code words to show the racism." "Of course tea party members are extremists. Therefore for ordinary citizens with legitimate complaints. They complain about all the wrong things instead of what is at hand. Such as, job lost I really do not hear much of the tea party address this issue. They want to sit around and address non-important things instead of what can actually help this country we live in today. In my opinion, they are not just ordinary citizens, but on the extremist side."

In the book of debates, the supposedly objective introduction to the debate regarding tea party members describes supporters of the Tea Party as "… overwhelmingly white, over age 45, and identify as Republicans and conservatives." It goes on to say that a majority of them are men, or least $50,000 here, and are Protestants.  I fit part of that description in that I am a white man approaching 65 years of age, a member of my town's Republican Town Committee, and have income over $50,000 a year, although most of my income as a retirement pension from my 38 years of work at the Social Security Administration. I doubt that most people would consider a retired employee of the Social Security Administration to be a typical Tea Party member. Also, most other college professors, particularly in the social sciences, have views quite the opposite of those of the Tea Party, but that is another story.  The characterization of the Tea Party movement as "overwhelmingly white" is misleading. Although a majority of members of Tea Party organizations are white, that is to be expected considering the majority of the general population is white. At every event I've been to, I've been in close proximity to African-Americans and at some events, African-Americans were among the organizers. I have no idea what the typical incomes were, since I never asked and never considered it relevant, and do not know the religious affiliation of most members, although I note that a majority of the general population of the United States that attends church attends Protestant churches. Although I'm not a particularly religious person, when I do occasionally attend church, is a Catholic Church, because my wife is Catholic.  Many critics of the Tea Party movement focus on stereotypes of what the people are in are like instead of addressing their ideas.

The side of the debate in the book describing the tea party members as irresponsible zealots comes from remarks made by Senator Frank Lautenberg to the U.S. Senate on March 10, 2011. Senator Lautenberg described the Tea Party as being busy trying to eliminate opportunities for the American people to stay in their homes, have adequate healthcare, and provide education and a better path for the lives of their children. By his description, the Tea Party opposes affordable college education and even education of of small children before kindergarten. They are against protecting the health of women, and funding for medical research in general. According to him, the Tea Party opposes making the air cleaner and wants to get rid of the air traffic control system he claims that the Tea Party, and the Republican Party want to cut funding to help states protect drinking water and that "the water is not safe for dishwashing, much less consumption." I don't know where in United States Senator Lautenberg finds drinking water that is not fit to drink. I've lived in many places the a number of  states, in environments that they been rural, small-town, urban, and suburban. I have never encountered drinking water that is unfit to drink. Most of the time, the husband said to breathe, except when I lived in Chicago it was easy enough to detect the air pollution from the steel mills on the south side of the city and the Indiana suburbs on hot summer day in which there were no breeze.  Yes, there are such days in the Windy City.  As for getting rid of the air traffic control system, let me say that as an occasional airline passenger, I am very much in favor of air traffic being controlled, but I think it can be done better than the federal government does it.

I will skip describing the side of the debate in the book that portrays Tea Party members as responsibly dissenting citizens, because frankly I think I can do a better job of it than Senator Mitch McConnell did. Since the Tea Party movement is not one organization, but is made up of many organizations, any general statement about what a Tea Party member or Tea Party organizations like would have to be qualified with exceptions. The core principle or belief of the Tea Party movement is the federal government of the United States spends and borrows far too much money because it is incapable of being efficient, of setting priorities, or of recognizing that most issues involve making trade-offs. Tea Party members and libertarians are often accused of being anti-government. They are not anti-government. I, for one, believe in a strong and efficient government that does well what governments are supposed to do. What is it that governments are supposed to do? According to the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted among men to protect their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At best, government enables us to pursue our own happiness; what it cannot do is provide happiness for us. Voters and politicians alike tend to forget that the government's resources are limited and that the only way it can obtain more resources is by taking them from someplace else. We also tend to forget the economic law of diminishing returns. With that means is that even if of the particular sum of money spent for a particular purpose, such as housing, education, or health care improves the product or service for which it is spent by certain amount, spending twice as much does not make it twice as good. We also tend to forget that for every benefit, there must be a cost, and that if we're not very careful the costs can easily outweigh the benefits. Like many other Tea Party members and supporters, I believe that housing that is affordable is better than housing that is not affordable, that is desirable for people to get education, that is desirable for them to be healthy, the it's desirable for them to have clean air and water, and so forth. It is also desirable that we have police to protect us from crime, firemen to fight fires, and armed forces to protect us from those who would do us harm. Unfortunately, the federal government cannot, as many voters and politicians think it can, do everything at once. When the government does too much, it ends up doing most things not very well and wasting a lot of resources.

Independent analysis by the nonpartisan and reasonably objective Congressional Budget Office indicates that the federal government's current pattern of spending and borrowing cannot be sustained. Currently the interest rate that the United States government pays him and on the national debt is at or near historic lows. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that unless the rate of increase in the National Guard brought down, within a few decades, the combination of paying interest on the national debt, and paying for Social Security and Medicare will consume the entire national budget, leaving no money for such essential government services as national defense or protecting the environment. As the economist Herbert Stein has put it, something that cannot go on forever must stop. Many critics of the Tea Party movement claimed that the Tea Party does not care about children. What kind of future do our children face when the government becomes insolvent and no matter how hard it tries it is unable to raise enough revenue to pay for the most basic of government services? I, for one, and not so much worried that the government is currently doing more than it should as I am that within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren the government will burn itself out and be unable to function at all. If worrying about that and standing against it makes me extremist, then that is something for which I make no apologies. If that causes me to become a target of the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Homeland Security, then so be it.

I don't know were many critics of the Tea Party movement have gotten the idea the members or supporters of the movement are prone to violence. I've attended local events in which there were hundreds of people. I've attended events in Washington, D.C. in which there were hundreds of thousands of people. Not only was there no violence at any of these events, all interactions between the people that attended these events and law enforcement officers were courteous and respectful. Many people brought garbage bags with them so they could dispose of their own trash and even the trash that they found on the ground. They left the site of the event in better condition than he found it. Compare that to the behavior  the people attending Occupy Wall Street and similar events. Who are ordinary citizens respectfully requesting common sense changes and who are the extremists?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Demonization vs. Persuasion

Every now and then I see someone say what I think better than I can myself.  That is exactly the case with the article “Persuasion as the Cure for Incivility” by John J. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in the opinion section of the January 9, 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal ( ).  Read it and ponder it; it is more persuasive than anything I could conjure up.

I read a lot of political commentary on the Internet and one thing that disturbs me a lot is the abundance of name-calling and demonization and the lack of language that might actually persuade.  In my last post, I asked people of different political ideologies to recommend books, articles, blogs, or other material that they found persuasive that their ideology was correct.  I got an underwhelming response of one comment.  However, it was a comment of high quality from my state representative, James Albis.  He is a liberal Democrat and I am a mixture of conservative and libertarian who is a member of my local Republican Town Committee and have worked in the political campaigns of the opponents of Mr. Albis.  However, I have to say that I have a lot of respect for his civility and integrity even though I disagree with his political philosophy.  I am about a third of the way reading the book he endorsed, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.  It is taking a while because at the same time, I am re-reading A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, a book, by the way that has some critical things to say about Howard Zinn.  I am alternating between chapters of each book to compare what each has to say about approximately the same time period.

What I am finding so far is the Howard Zinn’s book is a valuable supplement to more traditional history books.  I would not recommend it as a substitute for another history book because it is far from complete and is slanted toward a particular ideology.  However in the introductory part of the book, Mr. Zinn makes it clear that the main goal of his book is to tell the parts of the story that most history books leave out, which is the impact of historical events on ordinary people – of all genders and races.  It is not intended to be a complete and thorough history; so one has to forgive his omission of important historic events (as in most of the Civil War) and accomplishments of famous people.  I found Mr. Zinn’s intentional avoidance of detailed footnotes to be annoying.  He mentions things that authors of other books have said, but not where in the book they said it.  On the other hand, I was favorably impressed with his use of primary sources, such as excerpts from letters of people who were involved in history, which make the book more interesting as well as more informative.  I don’t share his view that the history of the United States is primarily one of victimization of oppressed classes by elites, but it is important to remember that such victimization occurred and that some of the people who have traditionally been worshipped as heroes also had a dark side.  Like too many people, Mr. Zinn is very critical of capitalism and does not make the very critical distinction between free-market capitalism and crony capitalism.  Free market capitalism is relatively benign.  Crony capitalism, the collusion between business and government, is what is dangerous.  Although, according to Wikipedia, Howard Zinn was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States, his book is generally skeptical of the wisdom of government in general.  I share his skepticism of government, but I wonder how an admitted socialist and communist would expect either to function without the heavy hand of government.  Since Mr. Zinn died in 2010, it is too late to ask him.

The book by Schweikart and Allen is also an excellent book.  I have less to say about it because it is more traditional.  To the extent that it strays from the usual history book, it places more emphasis on the importance of religion in the development of the United States.  It doesn’t ignore the dark side of American history, but it doesn’t dwell on it as Mr. Zinn’s book does.  The book is more academic in that of Mr. Zinn in that it is full of detailed notes.

Both books are recommended reading.