Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage"

This summer, I enjoyed another book from Stephen Ambrose. Undaunted Courage was a terrific read, especially as we were traveling out west this summer, through many of the lands he was describing. As is usual with Ambrose, it was an easy read, thorough but not dense, and a ton of interesting stuff to learn.

Some of the nuggets: 

It's noteworthy that Jefferson wanted the new land to be divided into new states, rather than colonies of the new country. I had never thought of that previously, but that was a novel decision. 

Likewise, I didn't know that it was Lewis who pushed and formally proposed a co-command with Clark-- and led the expedition in that manner, even though it was not officially approved by Congress. The idea was really good, given the men involved. But it was not intuitively obvious and met with resistance.

It's interesting that Jefferson feared (and generally argued against) a strong central government-- most notably, with the "separation of church and state". In such cases, he was not necessarily opposed to a given policy, but rather, the idea that it would be implemented at the federal (vs. state) level. With the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis/Clark expedition, Jefferson violated his norms to pursue larger goals. 

As in Band of Brothers, Ambrose depicts people who engage in a lot of immoral behavior, particularly in the realms of drinking and sexual ethics. (At one point, Ambrose notes that alcohol was the most important compensation on the trip!) We're often told that the old days, in America, were much more moral. But from the drinking and debauchery in post-colonial America (e.g., p. 15) to the antics in World War II of our young soldiers, it is difficult to imagine that as anything but a false remembrance of times past. 

Sexual immorality among the Indians was roughly equivalent, but often driven by different if not higher motives. Many of the tribes traded their wives freely-- and really interesting, they wanted their wives to sleep with the white men since they were seen as magical. These Indians believed that the magic could be communicated/spread through sex. Instead, it was venereal diseases that got spread! (On p. 303 he says there is a debate over whether syphilis started with the Indians or the Americans.) 

Ambrose notes what slavery did to the character of whites, particularly the children of slave-owners (p. 18-21). Speaking of bad public policy: Ambrose's treatment of the Whiskey Rebellion (p. 23-24) reminded me of King Solomon's unjust tax/spend policies, redistributing monies from one part of the country to another. It is an underemphasized part of American (economic) history-- that politicians often chose policy solutions which benefited one region over another. 

Ambrose makes an interesting point that government had to be limited in the old days (p. 39) given the limited technology and ability to communicate, given the vast amount of land in play. More broadly, he notes that "Since the birth of civilization, there had been almost no changes in commerce or transportation...the Americans of 1801 had more gadgets, better weapons, a superior knowledge of geography, and other advantages over the ancients, but they could not move goods or themselves or information by land or water any faster than had the Greeks and Romans." Wow!

Finally, I was amazed at Lewis' pre-expedition life-- and his really close, father/son-like relationship with Jefferson, as his right-hand man and fellow bachelor roommate in the White House. And I was shocked to learn about Lewis' sad post-expedition life. he was unable to discipline himself to put the journals in publishable form. And he repeatedly tried to commit suicide before succeeding just three years after his return. 

His suicide and especially his failure to get the journals published hurt his reputation and limited the now-amazing level of praise for their exploits (p. 526-531). It was nearly a century afterwards that scholars began to emphasize the importance of the famous expedition that we now take for granted, historically.

the fiscal cliffs

From its appearance in the (Jeff-NA) News-Tribune, here's part 1 of a two-part series on various cliffs our politicians are driving us towards. This one focuses on the infamous "fiscal cliff" and its less famous cause, the debt cliff. 

Before President Obama’s second term, he has some crucial business with the “lame-duck” session of Congress. Because of temporary tax cuts, previous budget deals and procrastination in dealing with the debt, the country now faces a “fiscal cliff” on New Years Day 2013.

The key factors are the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the scheduled end of a handful of tax cuts. The BCA lays out automatic budget cuts to be split between military and domestic spending: $55 billion in both categories. This would result in a 9 percent cut to the Pentagon and an 8 percent cut in domestic programs — but only when compared with their regularly scheduled increases.

The tax increases would be much larger: about $500 billion overall or what the Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center estimates to be $3,500 per household on average and $2,000 for “middle income” households.

About $156 billion of this is the expiration of the Bush-Obama income tax cuts. Marginal tax rates would increase across the board — from 10 to 15 percent on the lowest end and 35 to 39.6 percent on the highest end. The child tax credit would be reduced from $1,000 to $500 per child and would no longer be refundable.

As for the tax cuts on those earning more than $250,000, their expiration would raise about $23 billion. Higher tax rates for all capital gains and dividends would raise about $25 billion. The estate tax — currently 35 percent on wealth over $5.12 million — would revert to 55 percent on wealth over $1 million, raising about $10 billion.

There are four other significant tax increases on the horizon. First, “accelerated depreciation” would end — a subsidy to business which artificially boosts the attractiveness of capital.

Second, Congress will consider another Band-Aid for the “alternative minimum tax” — an arbitrary limit on loopholes. If not, the alternative minimum tax would expand from five million to 25 million households, raising their taxes by $3,700 on average.

Third, Obamacare will add new taxes of $23 billion, mostly from a payroll tax increase on high incomes. Fourth, Obama’s “payroll tax holiday” will expire, increasing taxes by $125 billion on all workers.

The problem is that we have massive deficits and debt. The White House estimates that revenues will cover only interest on the debt and “entitlement” spending in 2012. All other functions of government are being financed through borrowing.

It’s doubtful that enough of our elected officials have the courage to cut spending, so the rich are an attractive target. Politically, the GOP may be better off to join the president here. It wouldn’t raise much money, but it would show willingness to compromise and remove a big distraction.

Then, we can focus on the critical choice: big spending cuts versus big middle-income tax increases to close the budget chasm caused by our elected officials.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Thomas Frank is not happy with President Obama

Frank is a real liberal-- not the faux, partisan sort you see a lot more often. If you're read him in Harpers the past few months, you can tell that he is profoundly disappointed with President Obama and the divorce between the promise and the reality.

The hopers of 2008 set the bar impossibly high. Their candidate turned out to be a lobbyist-bound, bank-coddling centrist of the usual variety...The only honest way for progressives to assess the experience of these past four years is by coming unflinchingly to terms with our own futility and irrelevance. We reached a historical turning point in 2008, all right. We just didn't make the turn...

The only necessities that really mattered to this man-above-the-fray were the usual political ones: the need to get 50% plus one, and the need to reassure big money and big pharma and big prestige that they had nothing to fear from him...To those holy ends, everything else was secondary. Those who subscribed to the Great Man theory of Barack Obama were, ironically, the ones whose voices were most completely ignored...

Obama and his allies trudge onward, in a meritocratic world of their own, taking no notice of what is said and thought outside the palace gates...In some ways, they are as detached and remote as the Bush people at their theocratic worst. For me this has been the most disheartening realization of all.

Here are excerpts from his October column (with comments/replies):

[Some]thing the president likes to say--or liked to say, back in the days when his administration was new and "hope" hadn't started to stink yet--was that "we should be looking forward and not backwards." More recently, he has argued that we should not "relitigate the past."

--> Frank notes that this translates to largely continuing Bush's foreign and banking policies. I would add that it apparently doesn't include blaming Bush.

And yet, in the great electoral contest that has now commenced in earnest, it is Barack Obama the would-be socialist dictator who stands on trial.

--> So is it funny or sad that the other side (including Frank) seems to see Bush and Romney as some sort of free market ideologues? 

The president is a man whose every instinct is conciliatory.  He is not merely a casual seeker of bipartisan  consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in it. He simply cannot imagine a dispute in which one antagonist is right and the other is wrong. No, there is always something honorable about both sides, some concession to be made by each. His presidency has been one long quest for a "grand bargain"...

--> Not really-- and not more than Bush (to his detriment, IMO). 

How have conservatives transformed this born compromiser into the Red Menace? Well, there is the
fact that Obama is a politician of unusual plumage.

--> Kinda like talking about how dumb and yokel Bush was?

Now, it is permissible in American political life to watch movies about the plucky doings of such beaten-down people. You may even pretend to have their interests at heart, especially if you're proposing to "empower" them with enterprise zones or school vouchers.

--> Frank and most of the Dems would rather question motives of the reformers/Progressives and kick the poor in the pants. 

I used to wonder how long it would take Obama to switch on his inner FDR and start grappling with the nation's problems the way they obviously needed to be grappled with. The years passed, and I finally realized that this was never going to happen. Then a different possibility started to dawn on me: Maybe a second New Deal is precisely what Obama was here to prevent. Maybe that was the hope all along.

--> ouch...that's the sound of a statist's heart being broken. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

secularlism on morality and esp. beauty

Excerpts from an essay from Ross McCullough in First Things that emanates from his thoughts on Malcolm Muggeridge's reflection on Mother Teresa in "Something Beautiful for God"...

There is a traditional worry about secularism and its slide into amorality, a worry that you cannot have ethics without God; but whatever the merits of that case, it is more about where our secular neighbors are headed than where they are now; it is more prediction than description. For our neighbors, warmly secular or tepidly religious, do believe in morality, even if they lack the metaphysics to explain what it is, and they do act on that belief, even if they cannot say exactly why. One need only glance at their general behavior and their public policy proposals, comparing them to a mental image of what truly amoral behavior and amoral policy would look like, to see that this is so. The average secular man does not deny the wrongness of theft; he is willing to say that genocide is evil; he will raise moral objections to murder and rape and domestic abuse...

Here is the first and farthest step in understanding Muggeridge’s [use of] 'beautiful': It is as much about the smile and nod you give the bag boy as the products he bags, about friendliness by force of will and a happy nod in an unhappy mood. Some would call it “small scale,” but it seems small only because we are accustomed to oversized thinking; really, it is human scale. It is neither bigger nor smaller than everyday life...

For what goes with that is a sense of the beauty of the ethical, a sense that acting rightly and well can be attractive and even in a way—here a pregnant ambiguity—graceful...what the Greeks called kairos, the right moment, the perfect time—and not just the when, but what is done, and why, and where and how it is performed. It is just right...

There is a beauty to the moral gesture, the moral life, the moral soul; there is a quiet harmony to the parts of the act and to the priorities of the life and to the passions of the mind; and there is from all this a beauty that spreads slowly and subtly but unstoppably out across this sleeping world, like the first signs of the sun. For there is no doubt that here the world is asleep...