Civil Unrest, Not Civil War

Among many conservatives, Civil War is in the air.   For many, there’s a sense that things as they are now cannot go on.  The civil order as we have known it is broken, and that things will end either in organized violence or in a semi-violent divorce.

Conservatives should remember not to immanentize the eschaton.

Instead of looking to the decades leading up to 1861, we have a far closer parallel with another decade – the 1790s.

Read this, from a 1961 number of American Quarterly, “Republican Thought and the Political Violence of the 1790s,” by John R. Howe, Jr.:

By the middle of the decade, American political life had reached the point where no genuine debate, no real dialogue was possible for there no longer existed the toleration of differences which debate requires.  Instead there had developed an emotional and psychological climate in which stereotypes stood in the place of reality.  In the eyes of Jeffersonians, Federalists became monarchists or aristocrats bent upon destroying America’s republican experiment.  And Jeffersonians became in Federalist minds social levelers and anarchists, proponents of mob rule.  As Joseph Charles has observed, men believed that the primary danger during these years arose not from foreign invaders but from within, from “former comrades-in-arms or fellow legislators.”  Over the entire decade there hung an ominous sense of crisis, of continuing emergency, of life lived at a turning point when fateful decisions were being made and enemies were poised to do the ultimate evil….

In sum, American political life during much of the 1790s was gross and distorted, characterized by heated exaggeration and haunted by conspiratorial fantasy.  Events were viewed in apocalyptic terms with the very survival of republican liberty riding in the balance.

Sound familiar?

Gordon S. Wood, in his magisterial Empire of Liberty notes that friendships were broken, there was political violence on a local scale scattered throughout the country.  Everyday life and even religious affiliation became increasingly politicized.  While this happened at the beginning of parties, those parties were largely organized around the personalities of their respective leaders, Hamilton and Jefferson.

Jefferson’s Republicans didn’t necessarily expect to win in 1796, but the loss was clearly disappointing.  In response, they adopted tactics that can only be described as resistance.  They retreated to the state governments as bulwarks against what they saw as a too-powerful central government.  They openly talked about states nullifying federal laws they considered unconstitutional.  That picture accompanying this post?  That’s from a fistfight on the floor of the US House of Representatives.

The Federalists, whose real leader wasn’t President Adams (who saw himself above parties), but Alexander Hamilton, continued to govern as though the government were simply the government, and any organized opposition to it was akin to treason.  They reached out not to allies, but to the local or state elites to fill appointed posts and run for office.  Instead of organizing, they wrote opinion pieces for the newspapers, and letters to each other.

Ultimately, it was organizing that brought the Republicans to power nationally.  Aaron Burr’s efforts in New York tipped that state’s legislature, and thus its electoral votes, to the Republicans, and put Jefferson over the top.  The Republicans would win the next six consecutive presidential elections, even as the part fragmented into regional and ideological factions of its own.

The Federalists were down, but not really out until the elections of 1816 and 1820.  The conflict between the parties was resolved when the Federalists, by then almost exclusively concentrated in New England, ended up on the wrong side of the War of 1812.  They worked to break the embargo and trade with Britain.  They rediscovered their small-f federalist principles when their state militias frequently refused to cross the border into Canada.  Old line churches often actually prayed for British victory.

By the end of the war, the country had a renewed sense of nationhood, and had turned away from Britain in the east, and towards its own future in the west.  In 1789, almost all Americans had once been British subjects; by 1815, only those over 40 had, and even fewer could remember that time.

Neither the ideologies nor the tactics nor the self-identification with an “aristocracy” cut as cleanly today as they did in 1796.  That’s less important than the fact that the conflict was eventually resolved, peacefully among Americans, even if it did require a war.  Right now, the question of which issue will be the ultimate dividing line, which party is more in touch with the body politic, which one will emerge to create a durable, long-term majority, is still very much up in the air.

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Talking Down the Dollar

The dollar has been weakening over the last year.  I tend to like a strong dollar, so I don’t like to see the President or the Treasury Secretary talking the dollar down, as the expression goes. I understand the impetus – it makes exports easier, which should help employment. But of course, you’re also being paid in depreciated dollars.
 
Now, maybe that works out when the cycle swings back, and you’re holding all these more valuable dollars, and you can start buying up valuable properties overseas. I just tend to think that underlying economic competitiveness overshadows transient currency moves, and that those moves are unpredictable enough as it is.
 
That said, the reporting on this has been, as usual, atrocious. First, talking down the dollar is not ipso facto a threat to or an abandonment of the dollar’s status as a reserve currency.
 
Second, the ECB is furious about it, because it undermines their own strategy, and they’re already pissed about tax reform repatriating potentially hundreds of billions of dollars back here to invest. If it were clearly against our interests, the ECB wouldn’t be reacting this way.
 
Third, it’s not an abandonment of decades long US policy. That’s just the sort of historical amnesia that 23-year-old reporters with no interest in the “date range” feature on google have been exhibiting since before Ben Rhodes saw it as a way to sell them on the Iran Deal.
 
John Snow did it in 2003 under GW Bush. Prior to that, Jeffrey Frankel has documented similar short-lived statements and policies under Carter, during the second Reagan Administration, GHW Bush in 1991, and early, briefly, in the Clinton Administration.
 
Only when the dollar has been extremely strong has it worried policymakers enough to actually intervene in the markets; many of the above examples are just talk. And there’s no evidence that right now, Trump or Mnuchin are doing anything other than talking, or that even if they wanted to, they could successfully intervene in the exchange rate markets for very long, anyway.
 
Chill.

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Some Short History Reading Lists

We were over at a friend’s house for lunch this Shabbat.  Knowing that 1) I have a lot of history books, and 2) I tend to read them, he was kind enough to ask me for some reading lists about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Cold War.  “I haven’t had much luck with fiction, so I’m trying to round out my history.”

Here’s what I sent him.  These aren’t intended to be college syllabuses, or comprehensive.  They’re books that I have and leafed through, or that I’ve read.  I’ve tried to vary them by author.  I could have had the entire Revolutionary War list by Joseph Ellis, the whole Civil War list by Bruce Catton, but what’s the fun in that?  My library, while large by 19th Century standards, is limited by the size of the house.  Had I fewer books, I would paradoxically have more room for them.  But it’s a good list, enough to cover some key points, get an overview, or just when your appetite for more.

American Revolution

For a decent overview of the war as a whole, Liberty by Thomas Fleming isn’t bad.  I think it was originally written as a companion book to a PBS series, but it’s good in its own right.  For a deeper examination of the issues around the Revolution and the war, and how the Founders handled them, American Creation by Joseph Ellis is recommended.

We all know of Washington Crossing the Delaware; David Hackett Fischer has written a great in-depth review of the events surrounding that crossing and subsequent battles, and how they set the stage for the rest of the war, in Washington’s Crossing.

And for well-researched discussions of adoption of the two primary founding documents – the Declaration and the Constitution, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture and Ratification give surprising insights into what people were thinking at the time.

The Founders lived on into the post-Revolutionary era, and had a second act right after the Constitution in  1787, so some bios are in order.  Richard Brookheiser’s short Founding Father is a fine thumbnail bio of Washington; for something longer Ron Chernow has bios of both Washington and Hamilton.  And David McCullough’s John Adams is what the PBS series was based on.

Having come this far, read about 700+ pages about the early Republic, when were getting ourselves established, with Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.  I’m reading it now, and pretty much every chapter has some surprise or another.

Civil War

For the lead-up to the war, and how we got to the point of secession and war, William Freehling’s long, two-volume The Road to Disunion is among the best.

Much of the same material is covered in the first volume of Bruce Catton’s very readable and shorter three-volume Centennial History of the Civil War.  These are The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat.  I would recommend anything written by Catton on the Civil War.

Also excellent is Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.  As a guide to Lincoln’s war, what the events looked like from DC, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is magnificent.

Cold War

This one is tougher, because it covers decades, not mere years, so the politics, military, and technology changed substantially from 1948 to 1989.  I’ve picked out the books I have and have read that do a good job talking about the Cold War.  My library is heavier on the spy stuff, but there was a lot of spy stuff.

Witness by Whittaker Chambers is indispensable.  He starts out as a Communist, and then converts over to the good guys, and was a key player in one of the great Cold War controversies, the Alger Hiss case.  Nixon’s rise to prominence began with this case, and the left never forgave him for being right.

The Great Terror, is one of the best books about Stalin’s Russia, by one of the best chroniclers of the 20th Century, Robert Conquest.

The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn is recognized as the best insider account of the Soviet punishment system.

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe covers the building of the Berlin Wall.

Merchants of Treason by my friend Norman Polmar and KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents are old now, but a good guide to how to the KGB operated in the day, and how the Russians still operate today.

There’s also a vast literature of spy fiction, from Len Deighton’s devastating Game-Set-Match trilogy to John LeCarre’s oeuvre (start with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

That’s enough to keep you busy for a few years.  So what are you still doing on this page?

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DACA and the Courts

Two days ago, a 9th Circuit federal judge in San Francisco blocked the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama’s DACA, the program under which illegal aliens brought here as children could register, in return for a suspension of enforcement of immigration law.  He did so with a decision that, as Josh Blackman puts it, reads like bad punditry, bereft of any legal reasoning or precedent.

On the Twitters, the pseudonymous “Thomas H Crown” explains in an 800-word thread what got us here, why this sort of ruling both stems from and feeds a deeper civic rot.

So a judge begins with the proposition that an executive order is lawfully entered; executive orders by definition lie entirely in the discretion of the Executive and may be withdrawn or advanced at his sole discretion; and concluded withdrawing it may be illegal.

The problem with our system of government right now is diffuse responsibility and a categorical unwillingness by the legitimately-enumerated-and-responsible actors to retake their power and responsibility.

The judiciary has absolutely no power to order the Executive to retain a program the Executive created ex nihilo and contrary to the express terms of a lawfully-enacted, Constitutional statute.

The Executive should be aggrieved because its power is being summarily denied by a Branch with no rule/law-making power of its own; its power is (theoretically) limited to derivative lawmaking based on other Branches’ acts.

The Legislature should be absolutely losing its poop because (1) its power was wrongfully grabbed by the Executive at the start and (2) now that the Executive is backing down, the Judiciary is grabbing the mantle in its place.

Elementary civics teaches that the Constitution creates checks and balances, i.e., no one branch can become more powerful than any other because each has a power to negate the one taking its authority; and two beat one.

Elementary civics also teaches that Congress has the power, under extraordinary circumstances, to rip the other branches to shreds, by impeachment and by defunding their day-to-day operations (but not Article III’s salaries).

But this arrangement is a dead letter.

Instead, here, roughly, is our system.

Congress passes laws sometimes and sometimes not, and passes budgets sometimes and sometimes not, but never actually exercises the power of the purse over anything.

Impeachment, because of its uneven execution on the Executive, is considered a nuclear device, and even in the face of clear lawbreaking and arrogation of power is at best a toss of slightly-loaded dice.

The bulk of lawmaking is actually done by the Executive, by a facially unconstitutional delegation of authority of that power by Congress almost a century ago that most people now take for granted.

When the Executive makes laws/novel interpretations completely outside the text/creates whole new programs, Congress races to fundraise off it. Sometimes, it asks the third branch to say the second is naughty.

The judiciary makes new Constitutional amendments, something it’s really not qualified to do (lawyers know our own), occasionally orders the Executive to change its interpretation of a law to what the judiciary wants, and now runs illegal Executive programs.

Instead of ordering up a round of impeachments or at least informing the judiciary that its electric, gas, water, rent, etc., bills won’t be paid any more, Congress races to fundraise.

Instead of telling the judiciary it can enforce its own damned laws (BUT THE MARSHAL OF THE SUPREME COURT) if it wants to be the Executive, the Executive asks the judiciary to please reconsider. Please.

So instead of Article I — the first and most expansive — being primus inter pares, which is necessary for effective small-r republican governance, or Article II, which is at least elected, the system is totally inverted and no one changes it.

The system is now designed to funnel power to the only unelected — and therefore least-inclined to republican responsibility — branch, then the second-least responsible, and leave the most electorally-responsible one the one with the least power.

In times of economic downturn or uncertainty, direct stimulus to the humans does not lead to increased spending. They instead disproportionately use it to pay down debt or accrue savings (same thing).

This is because the humans are surprisingly cannier than the people they elect to govern them.

The effects are fairly straightforward: Increased voter apathy, lower turnout for elections in which only Congress is in play, and increased energy and commitment to the outcome of the only elected branch where real decisions are made.

In other words, the humans can tell that there’s no point in caring too too much about Congress, as it’s an ATM with occasional fits of lawmaking, and a great deal of reason to care about the Executive, the source (more or less) of judges and only meaningful elected office.

It’s an unpleasant feedback loop, as this only encourages the same mess that caused that behavior in the first place.

Worse, the incentives the Founders identified in the elected officials were way and totally wrong. In Congress, they don’t care about power, they care about prestige, the appearance of power, and wealth.

They have no incentive to check the Executive or Judiciary because if what they do doesn’t make vox populi roar with approval, their incentives could be endangered.

The people care that they feel like they have a responsive system, regardless of the accuracy of this feeling, and have a king/champion and wise philosopher bench to guide them.

If you care about republican governance, this is a truly hideous state of affairs.

Most people don’t.

People have been fixated on the dangers of getting used to Trump’s unusual behavior for a president. Getting used to this kind of “because I said so” jurisprudence strikes me as just as dangerous.  Hamilton wrote that the judiciary would be the weakest branch, and that judges would be afraid of getting so far out of line for fear of being impeached.  This is the kind of ruling that begins to make impeachment look plausible.

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PERA Forum

On December 20th of last year, the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum on the future of Colorado’s deeply troubled public pensions, the Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA.

PERA’s been in trouble for a while, but it only noticed how much trouble it was in late in 2016 when it adopted new mortality tables an a slightly less unrealistic estimate of its long-term rate of return.  Since then, it’s been frantically trying to salvage the current defined benefit plan.  PERA has a legislative proposal to tighten up COLAs, slightly increase the retirement age, increase contributions, and tighten up some loopholes in the benefit calculation formula.  Governor Hickenlooper has released a plan of his own, similar to PERA’s with a few tweaks.

Independence Institute and I think the long-term solution needs to be more sweeping – a cutoff of the traditional pension plan for new members, and even providing the option for existing members to transfer into a new, 401(k)-style defined contribution plan.  This won’t get rid of the massive, $80 billion unfunded liability, but it will keep it from getting any worse, and it will take the investment risk off the shoulders of the rest of the state and put it where it belongs, on the shoulders of the employees themselves.

The panel featured PERA’s interim Executive Direction Ron Baker, Amy Slothower representing the pro-reform Secure Futures Colorado, and Lynnea Hansen of the pro-PERA Secure PERA lobbying group, and me.  It was moderated by State Senator Jack Tate (R-Arapahoe).

Here’s the audio from the event:

Play

As you can see, things got most heated around the discussion of the composition and responsibilities of PERA’s Board of Trustees.  Ron claimed the PERA’s Board was responsible for managing the money and administering the plan.  That’s true, but as I point out, it’s far too modest.  PERA’s Board also lobbies the legislature, posing as a disinterested unbiased source of information, but in fact opposing almost all interim reform proposals, including some that are now part of its proposed slate of reforms.

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The Eternal Tax Debate – Lessons from the 1920s

The President entered office determined to pursue tax reform.

Growth was too low, as the post-war economy struggled to recover from a recession.

The new president and his treasury secretary were convinced that a serious package of tax reform could unleash much-needed growth.
And they had a plan. The top marginal rate was too high; it should be in the 20s. The estate tax drove down the price of assets and should be eliminated. There were too many special carve-outs. Tax-free interest on municipal bonds was diverting capital from private enterprise.

To be sure, not all the proposals were for lowering tax rates. The secretary wanted a capital gains rate higher than the income tax rate.

But the political situation was working against them. Their own party was split, and they ran into opposition not just from the openly Progressive party, but from the Progressive wing of their own party, which included the Senate Majority Leader. Opponents of the administration’s plans pointed out that the bulk of the benefits would go to the wealthy, including the treasury secretary himself.

Opponents argued that federal revenue would plunge; the treasury secretary persuaded the president that unlocking capital would cause an economic boom and swell the tax take. They argued for a top tax rate around 40%.

Conservatives believed that nearly everyone should pay something. Progressives disagreed.

Scandals, distractions, and Congressional investigations also sapped the president’s attention and political capital.

The president and the treasury secretary also complained that the time it was taking to pass a bill was extending the experimentation of the previous Democratic administration, and the destructive uncertainty that accompanied it. Passing something, they argued, even if it didn’t meet their exact specifications, would be more important than dithering and passing nothing.

Eventually, the treasury secretary would get his tax reform package, mostly on his own terms, and he and the president would see federal revenue leap upward as a result. (He wouldn’t get everything; the secretary wanted a top marginal tax rate in the 20s; Congress seemed more inclined to something around 40%.)

The treasury secretary was Andrew Mellon, and it would take another round of elections, the death of President Harding and the accession of President Coolidge to make it happen.

Ironically, these tax reform plans weren’t originally even Mellon’s. Wilson Administration Treasury Department bureaucrats developed them after the war. They hoped to transform federal tax policy from an ad hoc patchwork into a permanent, systemic tax regime, the emphasis being on permanent.

Ninety years later, we are still having substantially the same discussions, on substantially the same terms. Does that mean that the Progressives were successful? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

Mellon dubbed his approach “scientific taxation,” designed to maximize revenue while minimizing the tax burden. But the fact that we’re still picking over many of the same details in 2017 suggests that the science is far from settled.

Analogies to past epochs in American history are not currently commonplace. Some see a darker replay of the late 60s and early 70s. Others, more alarmist, see a replay of the pre-Civil War 1850s divide. Those comparisons rely more on the social atmosphere than on specific issues.

It’s unusual to see a policy debate stagnating, with the same arguments, over roughly the same issues, for nearly a century.

To some degree, this is the peculiar result of its being both narrow and central. The income tax itself cuts across numerous persistent philosophical and political divides.
Superficially, the room for policy debate is narrow: after 100 years, the personal income tax’s basic structure – progressive rates with special-interest credits and deductions – remains essentially the same.

But the tax’s seeming simplicity masks endless room for mischief, and therein lie the complications.

The personal income tax contributes nearly half of the federal government’s annual revenue; combine it with the payroll tax, and just under 5/6 of federal tax revenue is based off of personal income.

Lowering or raising rates will affect not only an individual year’s deficit, but also the economy’s rate of growth and attendant opportunities for investment, entrepreneurship, and employment. The overall take calls into question the size of government as a whole.

The amount of progressiveness, both the top rate and the number of people who pay nothing, raise the ill-defined but politically potent question of “fairness.”

In policy terms, each deduction or credit raises the question of whether or not the government should be supporting or suppressing the industry or choice involved. What gets exempted raises the question of privileged institutions like university endowments or state and municipal debt and taxes.

In fact, the whole structure implicitly accepts the idea that it’s the federal government’s job to support or suppress certain economic decisions. That credits and deductions can only be taken under certain circumstances open the door to micromanaging those decisions.

And every one of these credits and deductions immediately acquires a non-partisan, which is to say bipartisan, constituency, either because it helps someone or hurts their competition. Thus are we treated to the spectacle of otherwise conservative Republicans in New York, California, and New Jersey defending national taxpayer subsidies for their expansive state and local governments.

That goes a long way toward explaining why we’re stuck in the same debate.

And unfortunately, why we probably will be for a long time.

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PERA and the 30-Year Amortization

In its campaign to sell its proposed reforms the PERA board has taken to emphasizing that the 30-year amortization period is written into Colorado statute.  Per C.R.S. 24-51-211:

(1) An amortization period for each of the state division, school division, local government division, judicial division, and Denver public schools division trust funds shall be calculated separately. A maximum amortization period of thirty years shall be deemed actuarially sound. Upon recommendation of the board, and with the advice of the actuary, the employer or member contribution rates for the plan may be adjusted by the general assembly when indicated by actuarial experience.

Not only did they mention this at the Aurora tour stop last week, they tweeted it out last night.

The less rigorous standard means they never actually have to achieve full funding. PERA’s appeal to the authority of the law in this case rings hollow.

It’s the industry standard for public pensions, which is why it was written into the law in the first place.  Presumably, if the industry standard were to change, the statute would change as well.  Legislators aren’t experts in this material; they were clearly relying on the recommendations of the public pension stewards at the time.  In effect, PERA is appealing to its own authority in this matter.

The fact is, industry standards for public pensions haven’t saved the industry from its problems.  Not so long ago, the industry standard was a rate of return well over 8%.  Right after SB1 was implements, PERA’ amortization periods all dropped under 30 years.  That lasted all of one year.

The choice of a target amortization period should be based on whether or not it makes sense, not on appeals to authority that have proven less than authoritative over the years.

Photo Credit: Todd Shepherd

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Breaking News from 1800

 

In 1800, in the midst of a contentious presidential election, Alexander Hamilton decided that the future of the Federalist Party was too important to be left in the hands of John Adams.  In order to promote his own candidate for Federalist electoral votes, Hamilton issued an anti-Adams broadside cataloging the shortcomings of Adams as president.  Chernow assesses the screed as one of the worst of Hamilton’s political miscalculations.

That it was partly also driven by personal grievances, though, doesn’t change the truth of some of the charges, or that they echoed much of the popular sentiment around Adams’s performance in the job.  Many of the weaknesses of the Adams presidency may sound familiar to observers in 2017, even though the book was written in 2004.

Beyond the unenviable task of succeeding Washington, Adams had several handicaps to overcome.  Despite long years in politics, he had never exercised executive power at the state or federal level.  And he detested political parties at a time when America was being torn asunder by factions.  As president, Adams was the nominal head of the Federalists, but yet he dreamed of being a nonpartisan president….During his presidency, Adams was often stranded between the Federalists and the Republicans and accepted by neither.  It was to prove a rare case in American history of the president hesitating to function as the de facto party leader.  — p. 523

He had retained his cabinet from the second Washington Administration.  But even as he found himself frequently publicly at war with them, he refused to fire them until late in his term.  It was certainly true that Hamilton exercised some influence over the individual cabinet members, in some part because he bothered to engage them rather than dictate to them from afar during his frequent absences in Quincy.

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet.  Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.  His cabinet members found him aloof and capricious and prone to bark out orders instead of asking opinions. — p.524

Adams, having held over for too long subordinates with no personal loyalty to him, or ideological loyalty to his program, whatever than might have been, found himself stuck with no good defense of his leadership, and so found himself putting out several mutually inconsistent but self-serving versions, simultaneous arguing that people were working to undermine him, and that he was actually in control and playing a higher-level game the whole time:

John Adams told two stories of his presidency that never quite jibed.  In one, he claimed to be an innocent bystander, long oblivious of Hamilton’s influence over his cabinet members.  He had no idea until the end, he said, that they were receiving guidance from his foe; when he belatedly discovered the plot, he moved swiftly to purge the culprits.  In another version, Adams claimed that he had known all along that Hamilton controlled the cabinet, because he had already controlled it under Washington… — p. 524

And Hamilton’s pamphlet drew heavily on anonymous, inside sources – the cabinet members themselves – who were concerned about Adams’s temperament and suitability for the job.

[Treasury Secretary Oliver] Woolcott considered the president a powder keg.  Of Adams, he told Fisher Ames, “We know the temper of his mind to be revolutionary, violent and vinditive…. [H]is passions and selfishness would continually gain strength.”  …At moments, however, Woolcott grew ambivalent about the idea of Hamilton exposing Adams, arguing that, “the people [already] believe that their president is crazy.”

Thus, in his massive indictment of Adams, Hamilton drew on abundant information provided by McHenry, Pickering, and Woolcott about presidential behavior behind closed doors….Stories about Adams’s high-strung behavior, if legion in High Federalist circles, were little known outside of them.  Hamilton also wanted to stress the mistreatment of cabinet members, lest readers dismiss his critique of Adams as mere personal pique…

Yes, the Republic survived both the mutual enmity of protean political parties, and the chaotic behavior of the often-absentee Adams.  But that was at the beginning of our Constitutional framework, when we were still working out how the presidency and parties would work.  (And even then, one could argue that parties didn’t survive this first attempt.  The Federalists pretty much collapsed after the 1800 election, leaving no effective opposition to Jefferson’s Republicans.  Madison was widely blamed for a terribly destructive and unpopular War of 1812, but the mediocrity that was James Monroe won two terms virtually unopposed, anyway.)

The point is that by now, we’re a world power, still the wealthiest nation on earth, responsible for maintaining freedom of the seas and some level of global stability.  That we’ve reverted back to some of the inchoate quality of our early political development does not necessarily bode well for the coming decades, possibly the coming century.

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Hamilton’s Productivity

In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow marvels several times of Hamilton’s capacity for work. He wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, sometimes turning out as many as 5 in a week.  When his opponents in Congress wanted to try to hang him on unfounded corruption charges, for instance, they demanded that he produce voluminous reports on short deadlines.  They underestimated him.  On p. 250, Chernow describes how Hamilton was able to do this:

Hamilton’s mind always worked with preternatural speed.  His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades.  Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax.  His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with few revisions.  At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought.  He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.

Both the organized mind and the regurgitation are harder than they look.  They both require patience, training, and discipline.  Yes, he was writing at a different time, when repeating arguments didn’t mean chewing up half of your allotted 700 words.  Length was never an issue, and Hamilton, being Hamilton, was brilliant enough that neither was publication or readership.  But I notice it when favorite columnists of mine no longer have anything new to say, and part of my own lack of production is from a desire to say something new each time, rather than even mentally cut-and-paste from previous efforts.  Contrary to popular opinion, it takes patience to repeat yourself.

This goes hand-in-hand with having an organized mind.  One wants to be able to assimilate events and ideas, and to respond to them.  But there’s a concomitant risk of building a system and fitting everything into that system.  One’s thinking becomes rigid, rather than supple and responsive.  You see this all the time with people who reduce all political arguments to one or a handful of principles – everything becomes confirmation of those few underlying ideas, but then all arguments return to those same few ideas.  Discussions become stale, because it’s more comfortable to have the discussion you’re used to having.

 

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Breaking News From 1798

I may be the last person on the planet to have read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  I’ll certainly be digesting it for a while.

Among Chernow’s contributions is a detailed discussion of the American political climate, during the Washington and Adams administrations, when the bulk of Hamilton’s contributions to the nascent government were made.  It’s also when we saw the emergence of the first real political parties in history, parties committed to more than the mere attaining and retaining of power, but also to rival economic and political theories.

Today, we’re used to the stability of the two-party system, but at the time, they were not only a novelty, but a bit of a shameful one at that.  The Founders had wanted to avoid factions, or parties.  The new parties were not only organized around ideas, but also around the personalities of their leaders.  This led to a curious combination of personal touchiness, mutual misunderstanding and hostility, and denial that it was going on at all.

From Pages 391-92 of the softcover edition:

The sudden emergence of parties set a slashing tone for politics in the 1790s.  Since politicians considered parties bad, they denied involvement in them, bristled at charges that they harbored partisan feelings, and were quick to perceive hypocrisy in others.  And because parties were frightening new phenomena, they could be easily mistaken for evil conspiracies, lending a paranoid tinge to political discourse.  The Federalists saw themselves as saving America from anarchy, while Republicans believed they were rescuing America from counterrevolution.  Each side possessed a lurid, distorted view of the other, buttressed by an idealized sense of itself. No etiquette yet defined civilized behavior between the parties.  It was also not evident that the two parties would smoothly alternate in power, raising the unsettling prospect that one party might be established to the permanent exclusion of the other.  Finally, no sense yet existed of a loyal opposition to the government in power.  As the party spirit grew more acrimonious, Hamilton and Washington regarded much of the criticism fired at their administration as disloyal, even treasonous, in nature.

One last feature of the inchoate party system deserves mention.  The emerging parties were not yet fixed political groups, able to exert discipline on errant members.  Only loosely united by ideology and sectional loyalties, they can seem to modern eyes more like amorphous personality cults.  It was as if the parties were projections of individual politicians – Washington, Hamilton, and then John Adams on the Federalist side, Jefferson, Madison, and then James Monroe on the Republican side – rather than the reverse.  As a result, the reputations of the principle figures formed decisive elements in political combat.  For a man like Hamilton, so watchful of his reputation, the rise of parties was to make him ever more hypersensitive about his personal honor.

The parallels between the politics of that day, when parties were being formed, and today, when they have been structurally weakened and are in flux, should be obvious.  The party establishments and the administrative state mitigate some of the effects, but there’s no question that election laws have neutered party back-rooms and allowed anyone to run under a party banner.  The move towards open primaries further erodes party discipline.  Each party increasingly sees the other less as principled opposition and more as a conspiracy bordering on organized crime.  And there is no question that the Bush and Clinton dynasties, along with the personally prickly Obama and Trump, have personalized presidential politics to a degree we’ve not seen in a while.

Over the last several presidential elections, people have called attention to the vitriolic nature of political campaign rhetoric, if not (until 2016) by the candidates themselves, then by their surrogates and supporters.  As often, people have trotted out some of the truly vicious things said in the campaign of 1800.  With a somewhat broader view, that similarity seems less a coincidence and more like the product of a common cause.

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