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Posts Tagged ‘American history’

Bill Chapman called my attention to an interesting Newsweek piece by David Cay Johnston entitled Why Thomas Jefferson Favored Profit Sharing, reporting on new research by Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse of Rutgers and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, as well as on Johnston’s own research, to describe

… the future envisioned by the framers more than two centuries ago – an America in which every worker is a capitalist.

Possibly unsurprisingly, I question that conclusion about the framers’ vision. Some back-and-forth on Twitter leads me to clarify here my dissent from Johnston’s article.

This is the situation — classic, at this point, for me — in which I might agree with an author about the kinds of things we ought to be doing now do encourage far greater economic equality but disagree that there’s any realistic hope of finding support for those things in the thinking of our founders. That’s in part because I recoil, and possibly too hard by now, from what has come to seem to me a compulsive troping by some progressives toward the kinds of American-essentialist, founder-invoking gestures that the right wing routinely uses, possibly to the greater good of their propaganda, and always to the detriment of realism about our history as a people.

The same damage is done by liberals, and in the liberal case I think it’s worse. For while it might be nice to believe, I guess, that if we could only get back to the vision bequeathed us by our founders, progressive values would prevail and the greater good be achieved, that’s way too simple, and too simple in a way that I think undermines both our understanding of where we come from and any hope we may have for where we might be able to go. As usual, the only hope I see lies in complication.

The Johnston piece opens by quoting Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton on such things as the importance of “equal distribution of property” (Washington); fear of “the rich and the proud” destroying “all the equality and liberty” (Adams); a hope that government would defeat “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches” (Madison); and expectations of abuse “whenever a discretionary power is lodged in any set of men over the property of their neighbors” (Hamilton). These are familiar remarks. In the quote battles waged so hard online, they can always be countered with opposing thoughts from the same men, which can in turn always be countered by quotes more like these, and so on.

Johnston, however, uses this collection of quotations to assert that the equality thing is the one thing the warring founders agreed on. Context is everything, and I’d suggest that these quotations instead indicate that the founders all participated in what was then a familiar, even reflexive Whiggish rhetoric, appealing to an ideal of rough equality of wealth as a key to stability. Such ideas are loose enough in any event, and in the case of some of the founders’ visions for America, fantastical enough, to have permitted these men lifestyles of supreme fabulousness while inspiring them to oppose at every turn the efforts of organized labor (yes, it existed then) to gain access to political power and use it to equalize wealth via representative government. (more…)

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The Economist has an interesting but, I think, historically misguided piece paralleling the current shale energy boom, especially in the West, with the Gold Rush of the 1840′s. And the similarities are indeed obvious: feverish greed, quick mineral wealth, smelly camps full of rowdy and frustrated men, American “westernness.” That’s all summed up in the old expression “black gold.”

But even as it strains comparisons past the breaking point, the piece itself reminds us, explicitly, that the thing about the Gold Rush was that any shmoe with nothing but a pick and a sieve could start looking for gold and might indeed find it: many did; others failed to. The Economist piece therefore sees the Gold Rush as something new in the world, something rowdily democratic and quintessentially American.

Whether or not that’s true, in the fracking boom, by contrast, the guys in the camps are not self-employed treasure-seekers competing with one another in a quest to wrest from the earth enough personal wealth to live a life of riotous idleness. The Economist piece itself notes that they’re workers employed by the big companies that can afford the awesome, actually terrifying technology on which this boom relies.

Nobody doing the actual labor, that is, will reap the boom’s immense profits. For the ordinary person, this is a boom in employment — of working, that is, on behalf of somebody else’s profit. To the ordinary person, the fracking boom holds out no hope, misguided or otherwise, as the Gold Rush once did, of never having to work again. That opportunity remains with the elites and their progeny.

It’s axiomatic, for the Economist, to view the Gold Rush as democratic, and therefore quintessentially American. So the piece must make the Gold Rush the first American fever for quick untold wealth, thus the template for all later booms. The piece therefore gets confused about meanings, for American ideas about wealth and democracy, of both the Gold Rush and the shale-energy boom.

* * * *

The Gold Rush wasn’t the first such event in America. The land-speculation bubble of the 18th C. was the first great American speculation rush — closely intertwined, during the Revolution, with speculation in flurries of state and federal war bonds.

And while it’s less romantic, to us, than the Gold Rush, the 18th C. land-speculation bubble has two features that make it more grimly salient, I think, than the Gold Rush, both to our current boom and to the history of American wealth, booms, and democracy. (more…)

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Washington’s real birthday was just last Friday, and perhaps in preparation for it, on Wednesday the anti-tax, anti-government-debt activist Grover Norquist posted this: “Today, in 1792, George Washington signed the law creating the US Postal Service. Oh, well. No one is perfect.”

The purport of Norquist’s tweet — even great Washington nodded — is actually kind of funny. Yet it relies, not surprisingly, on a false presumption: that the first president’s other efforts and decisions were dedicated to bringing about the kind of American government that Norquist and fellow anti-tax, anti-debt types do want: little-to-zero debt and very low taxes, a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.

In fact the Norquist crowd would get little support from the real George Washington. The first president did not, putting it mildly, hope to diminish the size and scope of central government. He loved federal taxes. And he was a big fan of national debt. (more…)

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It won’t cease, no matter what I say. Still:

The well-regarded historian Thomas McCraw, author of the recently published The Founders and Finance, who died untimely only a few days ago, has a characteristically well-written, and persuasively liberal posthumous op-ed in today’s Times on Alexander Hamilton’s finance policies, which makes all the usual Hamiltonian — I don’t know what to call them, because they can’t be mistakes — presumptions? misconceptions? — that my book Founding Finance is in part out to challenge? correct? demolish?

In the wake of the election, the neoliberal desire to invoke Hamilton (yet again — Paulson, Geithner, Orszag et al were self-professed Hamiltonians) as a guide to current policy certainly raises some big questions. But as a writer on the period, I’m most bewildered by the reflexive Hamiltonian tendency to misconstrue what Hamilton actually did.

In this and many other cases, the miscontrual doesn’t even serve a useful purpose: McCraw’s most persuasive point — that obsessing about “fiscal cliffs” and lowering taxes and cutting benefits, etc., is not a realistic  way to deal with national finance problems — would be at least as strong with full acknowledgment of the real Hamilton plan. (more…)

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[UPDATE: Ideas sketched and stabbed at here now get boiled down in the next post, from AlterNet. Thanks to commenters, here and on Twitter, especially Bill Chapman, for helping me shape my thinking. (Not roping any of them into my ideas, however! Blogging as public note-taking? Mixed feelings about that, but ...]

[UPDATE. The bottom line of this post:

1. I blame -- yes, blame -- James Madison.

2. But that's not because I'm so deluded as to believe he was trying to protect an individual right to keep and bear arms!

3. And I'm not, literally, holding Madison responsible for problems he couldn't have foreseen -- I'm trying to turn up the volume -- to eleven -- on what I think we desperately need, in this dire moment: some grown-up perspective on the strange, bumpy, sometimes shabby, all-too-human, all-too-political processes by which our rights were first secured by our Constitution. Such perspective may be our only hope for improving matters that we actually do have the power to improve; it might help us stop "constitutionalizing" every political dispute we have. This connects with what Michael Moore was talking about on CNN the other night, and with some sort of weird madness, some immature love of fantasy, that sometimes seems hardwired into the American psyche. That's what I talk about too.] (more…)

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… will be no news to readers of Declaration: “How Radical Economics Led to U.S. Independence.” (These themes will be developed in a larger context in the forthcoming Founding Finance.)

Happy Fourth!

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On Occupy Wall Street’s “general strike” Mayday, a thought on activism and history. I think I just heard David Graeber, author of Debt, a book I admire very much, say on Brian Lehrer’s show that the term “general strike” is now being redefined in context of the inescapable fact that American organized labor has not come out on strike today. Graeber explained that dissonance by noting that laws have made sympathy strikes illegal, anomalously in Graeber’s view when compared to standards of labor activism that he says prevailed in the 19th century.

Lots of stuff to unpack there historically. But politically, my immediate reaction: I can’t imagine that even if any and all “general strike” legislation were instantly repealed, much of American organized labor as we know it would be out on strike today. More to my point, I can’t imagine Graeber thinks so either.

So what’s up? Something to do with wishful uses of history, writing, and criticism in the service of activism. What Occupy intellectuals seem to want to do, both with the past and with current realpolitik, is to construct current and historical conditions as favoring immense growth and success for Occupy — i.e., rally to the cause. Graeber’s soundbite may well distill a nuanced historical view in which, had things gone differently in American labor history, American labor would be radically different from what it is today. If such a view enables his implying that absent a legal crackdown on the big unions, they’d be on strike today, the nuance is perverse.

As always, I think these constructions are not only misleading, possibly deliberately so, thus politically and existentially inauthentic, but also counterproductive to developing any realistic critique, an actively usable one, of American finance, economics, and government. A critique I remain unsure the Occupy movement even wants to develop. But I do.

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(More b-roll, cut from my forthcoming book Founding Finance. Might have some resonance for those in protest today against government money corruption and high finance.)

We often see 1760′s and ’70′s patriot Boston as especially well-unified, across social and economic classes, against British oppression, and it’s true that, certainly with the occupation, much unity did prevail there. But dramatic examples of conflict in the relationship between Adams and the Loyal Nine and Sons of Liberty, on the one hand, and Boston’s workers and poor on the other, occurred even during one of the most famous Boston riots, the Stamp Act protest of August 1765. In the same traditional styles of protest we’ve seen [or will have seen, in the forthcoming book] in the Regulator riot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the Boston protest involved attacks on not only on hated stamp-administration offices but also on officials’ homes. A large crowd — which today might have appeal for both the Tea Party and Occupy for being of mixed classes — hanged in effigy Andrew Oliver, the stamp tax official.

But then, at night, Boston’s two most famous street gangs, previously at war with one another, the South End Gang and the North End Gang, burned a property Oliver owned in Boston. Even later that night a smaller crew and entered his house in Cambridge and ransacked it. The attack on Oliver’s home went beyond protest against England. Breaking elegant things seemed to many an assault on extravagance and luxury itself. In that effort, the North End and South End gangs ceased making war on one another.

Some see the gangs’ new unity as responding to a common enemy in British corruption; others see their unity as the formation of a class consciousness that distinguished the workers and poor of Boston not only from British-connected Bostonians like Oliver but also from anti-British upscale Bostonians like Adams, Hancock, and Sons of Liberty. What’s most illuminating to me is that upscale Whig resisters, including Sons of Liberty, tried to distinguish themselves from the gangs even as they hoped the gangs’ violence would pressure and harass British officials. The Boston town meeting didn’t censure the attack on Oliver’s house — but two weeks later, the gangs tore down Governor Hutchinson’s house, and the town meeting, while anything but friendly to Hutchinson, did condemn that action.

Upscale people, however anti-British, now began turning out to protect property. They created their own militias in distinction to the laboring gangs. In revolutionary Boston, rich people on both sides of the taxation question feared the working-class crowd. And the working class knew it.

General Gage of the British Army had an interesting point of view on the situation. Occupying Boston with troops, he lived with the Cassandra curse: always right, always ignored. Gage understood Boston far better than his British masters; ultimately he was recalled to England for offending them by having been so right.

And Gage’s take on the elite-vs.-crowd issue was that Whig gentlemen had begun by arousing crowds, assuming ordinary people had none of what historians call “agency” of their own and would defer to establishment leaders. Then those leaders found, to their dismay, that crowds would rise unbidden. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, far from endorsing the crowd’s desire for equality, nevertheless needed the crowds to pressure the British establishment and lend credence to the seriousness of the resistance. So even in Boston, seemingly so unified against England, revolution in America was full of social, economic, and political tension on the part of the revolutionaries.

That’s the story Occupy gets wrong here (see “From the Liberty Tree to Liberty Park”) and the Tea Party gets wrong here (just for example).

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My forthcoming book — forthcoming six months from now, for the election — is already on Amazon: Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation. The book is from University of Texas Press, part of Mark Crispin Miller’s series “Discovering America.”

And to me it’s a big one: a different mode from my two narrative histories, in this case mixing historical narrative with the kinds of connections between founding history and current politics and economics — and with criticism, in that context, of the historians who precede me, especially Wood, Morgan, Hofstadter — that I’ve explored in this blog (especially regarding the Occupy movement).

For example: Should you want a view of the founding period absolutely the reverse of those presented by Akhil Reed Amar or Grover Norquist, this is the book. I hope it undermines all Tea Party/Norquist claims on the founding period while also questioning — OK, more than questioning — the impact of the academic liberal consensus on public conceptions of founding history over the past fifty years. Even as, I hope, it also tells some lively and startling stories about Paine, Herman Husband, Robert Morris, Thomas Young, Hamilton, et al. Oh, and raises questions about the debate over debt, finance, and protest in the 2012 election. And the real roots of Occupy’s economic protest. That’s it!

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[UPDATE: Two more posts developing these ideas are here and here.]

You won’t find a better-expressed, more compelling encapsulation of the precise reverse of how I see the founders and the U.S. Constitution than in this talk by the constitutional scholar and well-regarded author Akhil Amar, “Andrew Jackson and the Constitution.”

Is this yet another Tea Party rant against abuse of the “necessary and proper” clause and the hegemony of the welfare stare? No, no, no. For those who don’t know Amar and his benchmark work The Constitution: a Biography, this is liberal history in a nutshell, ideally expressed by one of our brightest academics, a consultant to “The West Wing” no less, mentioned by some as a future Supreme Court nominee. He’s doing yeoman work making the rounds in constitutional defense of the Health Care Act. And as a speaker he’s got his own kind of charisma. To me the talk is a fun crash course in exactly the wrong way to look at the founding, a quick summary of the story I’ll never be able to undermine the way I’d like to. Check it out!

In his talk, Amar runs deftly and powerfully through what I can’t see as anything but our dominant narrative about the Constitution: that the document was structurally, “in its DNA,” as Amar says, and possibly against the founders’ conscious intentions (an idea Amar types always toss off without exploring), the most democratic thing ever created to that point, with almost all of its later expansions into further democracy almost magically hardwired from day one, and thus a mighty pivot in world history, with only one horrible thing wrong with it: the adoption of African slavery via the infamous three-fifths clause. The Constitution was thus elementally Jacksonian, in two key respects: admirably democratic (since Amar, with so many others, takes it as given that the rise of the white working class and the development of small-scale capitalism associated with Jackson is fundamentally democratic, making the Jackson administration in a special sense the “real” founding); and horribly “slaveocratic” (as Jackson, unlike slaveowning founders like Jefferson, was unapologetically pro-slavery).

In this reading — say it with me — the founders’ Constitution “failed” (tragically, as it was so earthshakingly democratic), as did the systems of Jacksonian America, precisely because of the slaveocratic element, leading to a civil war that, had the founders only faced up to the slavery nightmare, pragmatically revising the three-fifths clause over time, we could have avoided. It was left at last to Lincoln to hit reset and begin to get the American balance right: democracy without slavery. Then the Civil Rights movement and the liberal triumphs of the twentieth century and there you have it. Thank you and good night!

Being mind-numbingly familiar isn’t what makes that narrative wrong. (more…)

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