Monday, November 21, 2011

November 22

Tomorrow is the date in 1963 that President Kennedy was shot.  Every American alive then can tell you where he or she was at the moment they heard.  We are getting old and it is history.  But the hatred that may be the real story of that day is not history. America has always had this deep vein of hatred running through it.  I saw this weekend a local production of a play about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  The hatred goes back even farther than this.  It is rooted in our Declaration of Independence and our central lie that all men were created equal.  We had slaves, all thirteen states had slavery.  Slavery defined us and it still does.  At bottom, the hatred aimed at Lincoln, Kennedy and Obama is about the feeling that while we are slaves - to all kinds of forces beyond us - we have none.  It's about powerlessness and the inch-deep popular culture that cannot really sustain us.  It's about not really controlling ourselves or much of anything and not knowing what to do about it.  It's about being owned and having nothing we can really own.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Case for a Constitutional Convention

I wrote several days ago on the usefulness of rediscovering the Articles of Confederation. But it is clear that the crisis – economic, political and moral – facing the United States today cannot be resolved by simply returning to the past. For years now, things seem to have been getting worse. Income disparity has been increasing, wars proliferating, politicians squabbling. Government has become overbearing, inefficient and too beholding to money. The American people's growing sense that things need to be fixed has energized both the Tea Party and Occupy movement.

Change is necessary but we the people cannot trust others to do it for us. Our politicians seek nothing more than power. Once elected, they spend most of their time and energy raising money in order to get re-elected. Our leaders do not lead because taking necessary actions might lose this or that constituency. So we need to start the change ourselves.

We need to begin pushing for a Constitutional Convention to change the way our government works and to ensure it better serves the 99%. A government lean, more responsive to our needs in the 21st Century and more focused on achieving economic prosperity with justice and liberty.

The Occupy movement has been criticized for not having any overall objective. How about occupying the Constitution?

The Tea Party wants fiscal responsibility, free markets, and constitutionally limited government. Let's do that the right way.

The US Constitution in Article V allows for various ways to amend the constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; 

Leaving constitutional changes to the Congress would be to leave it in the hands of the professional politicians. The most reliable way to ensure real change would be to use the mechanism of a Constitutional Convention. None has been called since the first in 1787. But if the Occupy movement – perhaps alongside the Tea Party – focused now on electing in 2012 state legislatures committed to calling a Convention, a new era of American democracy could begin.

A Constitutional Convention would surely be a hotbed of democracy. Whether Occupy or Tea Party, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, everyone would come into it with different ideas. Reaching agreement on amendments to the constitution would probably be difficult and require equal measures of consensus and compromise. But such a convention would offer a real opportunity for the people to once again assume control of their government. The process of reaching agreement and then ratification by 3/4s of the states would offer further opportunities for democratic participation.

Some are no doubt afraid – whether they say so or not – of such direct democratic participation. They are comfortable with the way things are done today and do not want anyone to mess with that. But we, the great law abiding majority, the 99%, have nothing to fear from coming together to discuss and enact change.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Concluding Reflections

Introduction    Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5

   The victory of the Founding Fathers in 1787 put the Articles of Confederation into the dustbin of American history.  But the debate between anti-federalists and federalists never entirely disappeared.  A fundamental difference in political vision has continued to run through the American political tradition like twin rivers.  The source of one river is the impulse, typical of Americans, to rise above local and individual differences to grasp the elements of a national, even global, commonality.  A rich and powerful mass democracy with universalistic pretensions has been built along this river.

   The source of the other river is the impulse, equally typical, to do it ourselves, to keep it small.  Upon this river have floated the various proposals and efforts over the years to reduce or limit the size and powers of the federal government.  Politics in America has often been the attempt to sail upon both rivers at once.  Those on opposing sides have had various labels:  Federalists and Anti-Federalists, unionists and states-righters, liberals and conservatives and now Occupy and Tea Party.

    Since the Articles were cast aside, the federalists have generally been ascendant. Those who have sought to advocate states rights or who have fought to preserve state powers against encroachment by the federal government have been handicapped.   The Articles were judged by its opponents to have failed.  Memory of the 13 years of confederal government faded.  This is not to say that the idea of state sovereignty has not returned at times to haunt American politics.  The southern Confederate States of America, in its mixture of states rights and an unholy effort to maintain slavery, was the final nail in the coffin not only of state nullification but of an historical consciousness of what was lost with the victory of the Federalists.

    What has been lost can be seen most closely in the failure of government in the current United States to serve the majority, the 99%.  One could say that this failure was inevitable in the age of nation-states, superpowers and globalization.  Governing a large modern nation in a world of fierce ideological, political and economic competition must entail enormous bureaucracies and incomprehensibly large budgets.  In our case, the attempt to guarantee the “pursuit of happiness” of all citizens - as much a necessary requirement of centralized, representative government as the gladiatorial games were for Imperial Rome - requires great effort and considerable resources and organization.  It gives great scope to the power of money.  

   Yet the voices raised against “big government” and "big business" express true insights.  The role of the average citizen in government has dwindled to the vanishing point while that of big money has come to predominate.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans experienced the full range of challenges -- collective and personal -- associated with the growth of modern industrial society.  These difficulties included wars and cyclical economic downturns.  The growth of the central government in response to these challenges – especially during the Civil War and the Great Depression -- was dictated, at least in part, by practical necessity.  But the Constitution gave the government a mandate to provide for the “general welfare” and “common defense.”  It armed Congress with all “necessary and proper” power for doing so and vested in the president whatever "executive power” might be necessary.  With each major crisis, the focus shifted to what “government” could do to resolve the situation and, thus, from local efforts to the central government.  Along with the “welfare state,” the seeming imperatives of economic development made the government in Washington the ultimate provider  The Cold War, as well as the “hot” ones, levered the presidency into what can fairly be described as an imperial throne.  Meanwhile, as government receded from the people, it fell more and more into the hands of those with the cash to fund the politicians and manipulate the bureaucracy to their own ends. 

    In 1787, America reached a fork in the road.  It could have chosen to stay on the course it was marking out for the first time - confederal democracy - or it could return to the well-trodden path of centralized government.  Perhaps being “too young to know what we are fit for”, we chose the old road, and that has made all the difference.

    There are, however, two features of confederal democracy that might lead one to see in it a workable model for self-government.  First, by leaving decision making in the hands of those most directly affected, confederal democracy provides the citizens of the relevant community a public space in which to confront each other and work out jointly what is to be done.  They enjoy what Arendt called the pleasures and benefits of public life.  Tempered by the experience of mutual recognition and cooperation between citizens in the process of self-government, local government can become, as it was for the Greeks, an arena for collectively seeking the good life.  Politics in confederal democracy therefore would be vigorous and complex and would mirror the full range of interests, values and tastes in the community.

   Second, by leaving primary responsibility for living the good life where it most belongs, with those most immediately affected by the results of collective decisions, confederal democracy leaves less space for others to operate in the shadows.  Power flows not from beyond but from below.  Problems are solved at the level of government at which all affected can participate - town, county, state, regional, national - but no higher.  Citizens face each other directly in full transparency to solve their common problems and to resolve their differences.  A confederal polity requires citizen initiative.  Confederal democracy - built on active citizen participation in their polis - is the unrealized potential of the American tradition of local self-government.

    Certainly, the need to guarantee social justice and political equality amidst the strains of modern society assures that even a confederal central government would be an important political actor.  But perhaps the load might be more evenly placed, resting more directly where in a democracy it should, on the people.  However, the road chosen in 1787 followed the premise of maintaining government as far from the people as the new notions of popular sovereignty allowed.  Under the shocks of industrialization and war, Washington came to monopolize political space and government became someone else’s concern: citizens became subjects.

   The result is ironic.  The fate of over 300 million Americans - and essentially the entire globe that we have come to dominate - rests with a mere handful of people often far removed from the results of their decisions.  The Constitution that took the place of the Articles of Confederation set up a powerful central government and left we the people with no place else to turn.  But the call to resurrect the vision of that other, more democratic America still echoes.  Those who hear this call should ensure that they go back to the source to be sure they understand what they are hearing. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 5

Introduction    Part 1    Part 2     Part 3    Part 4

Confederation, Community and Bodies Politic

   The anti-federalists saw the question of power from the bottom-up.  The Constitution would establish a government with too much power, too far away from the people.  They feared the return of aristocracy.  To set up one government in place of thirteen, and to endow that government with the law, the purse and the sword, would be to destroy democracy.  No matter the supposed guarantees, the states would eventually be reduced to the administrative agents of the central government.  Without the intermediation of the states, the power of the central government could be brought to bear directly on the individual.

   The anti-federalists therefore opposed establishing a “great” power.  Instead, they favored granting power in small pieces, close to what they held to be the only reliable check, the people.  In place of one preponderant national government, they wanted to preserve the division of government among the states.  The state legislatures, more accessible to the citizenry, more closely tied to local politics, and with membership in the hundreds, could better reproduce the full variety of local interests and opinion than could a handful of representatives in a national legislature.

   Those who supported the Articles tended to see the representative in the legislature as a delegate (or ambassador) - as someone bound to vote as his constituents would if they could be there - rather than as a trustee - who would be free to vote according to his own judgement.  The delegate model could not work in a national parliament because of the great size of the country and the correspondingly greater number of people each legislator would represent.

   The national congress envisioned by the federalists would not represent the views of the citizens but pass them through a chosen few who would end up doing whatever was to their own advantage.  The anti-federalist view of representation as a simple transmission of the wishes of constituents fitted with their reliance on state and local politics, where interests are more immediate, communication more direct and government more subject to majorities.

   The Articles were based upon the assumption that people live in communities that mean something to them and reflect what they hold in common.  They supposed, in other words, that the natural community of man is not a mass of competing individuals but real local groupings based upon shared activities and characteristics.  Such groupings were not abstractions but were well within the reach of each person, where he lived his everyday life in his town, village, city and region. 

   In building a national government based upon sovereign entities within the traditional sphere of life of their people, the Articles kept government from becoming a Leviathan confronting individuals as something above and beyond them.  Real politics took place at the local level.  What mattered, happened there, where people could see it and directly participate in the decisions affecting them.  If democracy works best when people actively participate in government, then keeping government as close to them as possible to facilitate participation would assist the development of democracy.

   One may argue that confederal government is less “efficient” than unitary government.  Under even the amended Articles, if a majority of the states resisted a particular requisition or other action proposed in Congress, nothing would happen.  If a majority of states agreed and complied with a congressional decision but a minority did not, there would ultimately be nothing beyond moral suasion to enforce compliance by the holdouts.  Thus an action that many might judge rational and necessary might fail to be adopted.  It might also be that a majority (or minority, for that matter) might desire a particular course of action with considerable intensity and feel corresponding frustration on being unable to gain collective agreement or compliance. 

   But in practice, confederal government may be, in its own way, more efficient by allowing a greater range of political spaces.  Based on the premise that the expression of self-interest is unavoidable, the confederal government embodied in the amended Articles would have allowed for cooperation at various points along a continuum of mutual commitment and judgement of interest.  Finding the right node for achieving consensus takes its place along side intensity of interest in resolving political issues.  All states might agree and actively participate in joint national-level decisions.  Or, a majority of states might decide to act anyway, either through bearing the costs of collective action unequally - i.e. by themselves - or by acting as a subgroup outside the mechanism of the national congress.  A minority might well decide to do the latter as well.  Politics would no doubt be dense, as states jostled for both advantage and, at least occasionally, to avoid being left out.  But in a flexible and fluid situation where there was more than “one game in town,” things that needed to get done would mostly likely get done and lone holdouts or interstate differences would not necessarily block all further action.  

   The Constitution of 1787 sought to ensure that the body politic would speak only when a sufficient number and diversity of interests had sufficiently checked-and-balanced each other to be able to say one thing.  As we now know quite well, this leaves the Leviathan either powerless or impelled by intensely interested minorities. 

   Confederation provides for many voices to be heard on many levels.  The Continental Congress was a forum for the states but the states could act outside that forum, in groups or singly.  The Articles also left entirely unregulated the political forms that might exist within states.  A confederal united states offered the possibility of a structure of multiple bodies politic.  Government or associations could exist at each level - local, state, regional, and national - to exercise authority on specific matters delegated to it from the level below.  This meant local approaches for local issues, regional for regional and national for national.  Local government, possessing the sovereignty of immediacy, would anchor a framework of legitimacy and decision-making built from the bottom up.

   In the continental-sized federal system that grew out of the Constitution of 1787, final authority - exercised in the name of the “people” - is far away from where the people actually live.  The government in Washington has understandably come to feel alien to many, who have been reduced to being political spectators assembled once every few years to cheer from the stands.   The states remain, but as political “backwaters” bypassed by the present constitution.

   Is it not, however, inevitable that as we become ever more immersed in the emerging global context, we will require more and more that government make sense of the resulting web of complexity?  And who will trust the government to do that if it seems more a part of the external environment rather than something that belongs to us?  And as the World Wide Web and economic globalization connects us in ever more complex ways, does a sovereign “central government” per se still play a necessary role?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 4

Introduction   Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

The Federal Leviathan

   In the debate over what to do to go beyond the Articles, the issue, for confederalists and federalists alike, was power.  Both shared the belief that great power, concentrated in one place, is an open invitation to abuse.  However, the Federalists did not object to centralized power.  For them, a strong central power was a necessary element in holding together and directing a continental-sized nation.  In a large, powerful and wealthy society, preponderant force must exist as the basis for rule.  The Federalists sought only to check the powers of a strong executive with a strong parliament.   They proposed, in other words, to grant this great power to the center but divide it.

   The Federalists’ fundamental charge against the Articles was that they provided for a government both too weak and inefficient and too open to local majorities and interests.   It could be argued that even the confederation of the amended Articles would continue to depend on the voluntary compliance of its member states and thus remain fatally flawed.  Without the ability to enforce compliance on the states, the central government could not perform that one function necessary in a community of individual entities each seeking advantage, to enforce cooperation and contribution to the common good.

   Throughout the brief confederal period, some states failed to fulfill commitments to the central government and there were always inter-state and inter-regional rivalries.   Clearly, without the states’contribution and active participation, the confederation could not prosper.  The Articles, even if amended, would not have done away with this problem.  Indeed, the Constitution of 1787 did not do so.  The Civil War had to be fought, hundreds of thousands of Americans had to die, and the federal government had to settle by force-of-arms the question of where ultimate authority resided before the Constitution could be “perfected.”

   Seeking the common good is a classic political conundrum that has called forth various responses.  The most obvious, and the one perhaps most used, is the Hobbesian option, constituting a “Leviathan” which can force obedience.  Although not all supporters of the Constitution of 1787 were so motivated, the option for creating a strong central authority had great appeal to many of the Federalists and their supporters, and most clearly for Hamilton.

   According to the Federalists, the government of the Articles did not create a national polity that could manifest the broad interests of the people.  Rather, it represented the states.  Dividing America into localities, it allowed local majorities to hold sway.  Holding power in the states, these “local interests” – or “factions” – did not seek the public good but their own.  Thus, the Federalists argued that the confederation lacked not only efficiency but also representativeness.  The new government that the Federalists proposed would merge these many local majorities together into one polity where they would have to contend with each other on equal grounds, i.e., as minorities.  Through the several institutions of government, the public view could be “refined” and a national will -- stripped of factionalism -- could emerge.  The Constitution would, in effect, arrange the political machinery so that a “nation” would form around the polity.

   The Founders as much as hoped to create “America” as to supply it with a government.  In this sense they were indeed “nation builders.”  The confederation stood in the way of this intended act of creation.  That in some cases the local majorities that governed in the states used their power against their “betters” -- such as in the chronic confrontation between debtors and creditors -- further motivated some of the Federalists to look to establish a federal government out of the reach of these local majorities.

   The Constitution of 1787 was a document of predominantly nationalist, not democratic, sentiment.  It took the politically necessary tact of presenting in republican form the Hamiltonian vision of an imperial America.  The Constitution stripped the states of sovereignty and established an what was in effect an “elective monarchy” with a president/commander-in-chief – chosen by a collection of local notables called the Electoral Collage – and checked by a national parliament.  In establishing a separate executive branch, the Constitution also provided the new federation with a nascent bureaucracy.  

    Because the contemporary political reality was based upon the sovereignty of the thirteen states, the Federalists did not highlight the issue of the states’ relationship to the proposed federal government.  But the anti-federalists were aware of the potential in the new document.  The Constitution sought to submerge the states within the framework of a national government that largely dispensed with them as localized aggregators of political input or prime vehicles of political output.  It established a national government with broad undefined powers and with legal precedence in those areas in which it was given authority.  It provided for taxes raised independently of the states and gave the central government a standing army and control over the state militia.

   To the confederalists, the changes proposed by the Federalists did not seem to guarantee the continuance of the political preeminence of the states.  If their fears were often exaggerated, the subsequent shift of the political center of gravity to the central government has supported their fundamental concern.  The states have not completely disappeared, in large part because of the strong American tradition of local government and a concomitant fear of big government.  But the growth in the size and importance of the federation’s central government -- and the increased power within that government of the president -- have filled in the mere outline of electoral monarchy established by the Constitution.

   It was the “genius” of the Founding Fathers to move beyond the states to structure the basic political dynamic around the contention of “faction” writ large.  Implicit was the notion that the “natural” community of man was the mass of individuals competing in the “state of nature.”  In the face of this abstract “community”, the states added nothing and, indeed, got in the way.  As long as the central government followed its own rules, there would be nothing between it and the individual and little role for state governments.  It is not surprising that even some Federalists were alarmed enough by this prospect to push through the first ten amendments to the Constitution of 1787 even before it was adopted.   

Monday, October 31, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 3

Introduction    Part 1   Part 2

The Articles Amended

From 1781 to 1787, attempts were made to amend the Articles in three areas:  (1) to give Congress coercive power to compel the states to comply with its decisions; (2) to allow Congress to collect an impost (export and/or import duties); and (3) to authorize Congress to regulate trade.  James Madison sought to accomplish the first through a proposal in 1781 to give Congress a military and naval force, which could be used against the states if needed to enforce its authority.  Congress ignored the proposal and no other coercive authority was considered again until the Constitution of 1787 (or used until the American Civil War).  The latter two areas for change were seriously considered throughout the decade.

    Although contained in the original Dickinson draft, the Articles as finally accepted denied Congress the power to regulate trade.  It became increasingly clear, however, that trade suffered from the lack of uniformity of tariffs and regulations from state to state.  The states also came to agree on giving the Congress its own source of funds.  Focus centered on the collection of import duties, which would complement Congress’ role in regulating commerce.  By 1786, all the states had reached tentative agreement to grant Congress (for 15 years) the authority to regulate commerce.  However, the various forms of approval passed by the state legislatures remained to be reconciled.  All states except New York had agreed to the impost.  New York demanded that the states collect it, not the central government.  Congress resisted this provision.  In order to pass these final hurdles, the Congress decided to review the amendments for final passage by the states.  Congress formed the Grand Committee to accomplish this review and received its report in August 1786.  Congress delayed action on the report because of a heated debate over the Treaty with Spain.  The Federalists seized the initiative and Congress never again had the opportunity to return to the Grand Committee’s report.  Still the report may be taken as the confederation’s last words on itself.

    The Grand Committee’s report took the form of seven proposed additional articles of confederation.  Article 14 gave Congress the sole power to regulate foreign and domestic trade as well as the authority to levy import and exports imposts.  To meet New York’s objection, the revenue would be returned to the states where it was collected.  The impost would have to be passed by nine (or 9/13) of the states but would then be binding on all.

    Articles 15, 16 and 17 were to meet the problem of assuring Congress a reliable income.  They called for an elaborate system for collecting the requisitions on the states.  Any state that failed to meet its quota of funds (or military forces) could be assessed an additional sum of ten percent of the quota.  If the state still failed to deliver its assessment within ten months, and a majority of the states had already complied, Congress could then collect the sum itself.  It would do so by assessing and collecting taxes in a manner, and at the rate, last used by the state itself using state tax collectors supported by state sheriffs.  Congress could appoint its own assessors, collectors and sheriffs to enforce collection if the state refused to allow its officials to be used.  Should the states or its citizens still resist, the state’s conduct would be considered “an open violation of the federal compact.”  As a last resort, Article 18 empowered Congress, with the support of 11 of the 13 states, to institute a new tax system, which would be as binding as though passed by all the states.  This latter grant was to be provisional, expiring after 15 years.

    Article 19 gave Congress the authority to define treason and piracy.  It also established a national judicial court (appointed from the states as divided into seven regions) to try and punish all officers appointed by Congress.  This Court would also serve as the Court of Appeals from state courts on treaty matters, law of nations, trade and commerce regulation, and collection of confederal revenues.  Finally, Article 20 bound the states to fill their delegations in time for the first session of Congress and compelled the attendance of individual members.

    The amended Articles would have left the confederal nature of the central government unchanged as Congress would still have been denied the ultimate power to coerce the states into obedience.  Yet the amended Articles would have allowed the states a forum for agreeing on a uniform structure for foreign and domestic trade, thus finalizing the American economic union.  The amendments would have provided the Congress with a source of confederal income – the impost – while leaving it to the states to collect and funnel the funds back to the national government.  If, in the face of majority agreement, a state refused to participate in this system, only the moral force of the compact remained as Congress’ ultimate support.  The amended Articles also would have made provision for a supreme court that would help legally bind the states, but only in those areas where they agreed to establish national law.

    The proposed amendments were in accord with the Articles as a whole.  They were consistent with a confederation of states that was not a sovereign entity but one in the service of sovereign governments.  Only when a significant majority of the states “lent” their sovereignty to the confederation did it assume the semblance of superior power, and then only a kind of “moral” superiority as the institutionalization of the compact the states had made with themselves.  This is the defining characteristic of a confederation: power flows from lower levels and “resides” at the top only at the pleasure of the confederated entities.  The amended Articles went perhaps as far as a confederal system can go to empower the center without altering the nature of the system fundamentally.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 2

Introduction    Part 1

The Articles Tested

    The Articles of Confederation responded to the practical necessities of the time, which at first centered on maintaining an army in the field to fight the British.  In this, the states shared one great purpose, to secure the independence they had declared together in the Declaration.  In spite of the difficulties the Continental Congress had in funding the war, the united states outlasted the British, and with the help of the French, defeated the chief world power of the day.  The confederated states passed one of the most difficult tests of any new government, winning independence.  This essential fact has been often overlooked in judging the Articles.

    The problems that the successful war left behind, however, severely tested the new confederation.  The chief problem was the debt.  The debt, incurred in order to pay for the war, threatened the ability of the new country to borrow further oversees.  Domestically, the inability to fully meet commitments to the army almost led to a military coup against the new government. 

   Perhaps the chief result of the debt was the controversy over paper money.  A severe post-war depression had ensued as the ex-colonies suffered a cut-off of their traditional source of finished goods in Britain.  The lack of specie held back domestic industry from taking quick advantage of the new home market.  It also became the focal point of a nascent class struggle between debtors - who favored cheap paper money to pay their loans - and creditors - who wanted a strong currency that would preserve the value of the debts owed them.  In state after state, the paper money question -- and the related issue of imposts (taxes) -- became the main political conflict.  The conflict over paper money contributed considerably to the premature abandonment of the confederation.

    In theory, the Articles empowered the Congress to requisition funds from the states to pay the debt represented by its paper securities.  The states, however, often fell in arrears.  Congress lacked its own taxing authority or the power to enforce its requests on the states.  This complicated efforts to retire the debt as quickly as its holders wished.  The conflict between debtors and creditors, exacerbated by the post-war recession, erupted in bitter state politicking and rioting.  To some, the violence (especially Shay’s Rebellion) appeared to threaten the ability of Congress to adequately preserve domestic peace and stability.  Thus the debt problem highlighted an apparent twin flaw in the Articles, Congress’ lack of taxing and enforcement authority.

    The United States faced apparent danger on the international front as well.  The overseas representatives of Congress felt that foreign governments were not according the new nation sufficient weight.  Spain threatened to close outlets for western trade and seemed poised to cut off any of the western territories of the states that became disaffected.  England still held on to several western forts in lieu of payment of money owed English businessmen. These factors contributed to the fear on the part of some that the confederation might prove too weak to protect itself from foreign aggression and intrigue.

    In spite of the confederation’s apparent shortcomings, often exaggerated by its opponents, it did not in fact perform all that poorly.  Given what we now know of the difficulties of developing nations and their foreign debt, the Congress and the states retired the war debt rather quickly.  The treasury received an average of $600,000 a year from the states.  Although the debt incurred during the war totaled about $200 million, by 1783 total domestic debt fell to about $34 to $42 million.  By 1787, the debt was essentially liquidated.  Throughout the 1780’s, the states and the Congress paid off their debts in whatever way proved acceptable given the shifts in relative political strength between debtors and creditors.  Without doubt, the general economic recovery during the decade contributed to the progress in dealing with the debt.  By mid-decade, domestic industry had expanded to fill the gap left by the British.  Foreign trade also increased greatly, surpassing pre-War levels. If the confederation could not take full credit for this recovery, neither did it deter it.

    In the field of international relations, in spite of the various threats, the confederation delivered the United States intact to the government of 1789.  The fear of intrigue and war remained a factor even after 1789, witness Aaron Burr and his “western empire” and the sacking of Washington during the War of 1812.  Indeed, the confederation achieved its greatest success in regard to settling the western lands.  To settle the question of western cession by the eastern states, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinances (during 1784-87).  These acts provided for an orderly process of admitting new and equally sovereign states into the confederation and became, in fact, the basis upon which future states were added to the union.

    Undeniably, there were flaws in the Articles.  Chief were the inability of Congress to assure itself of a reliable income and to regulate foreign trade.  Congress and the states recognized these problems and attempted before 1787 to address them.  These attempts failed because of a third problem in the Articles, the need for unanimous approval of the states to amend them.  But it is far from proven that these problems could not have been dealt with within the confederal framework.  That ultimately forces conspired to move outside the Articles of Confederation should not deter us from examining what the amended Articles might have looked like. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 1


The Articles

The government of the Articles of Confederation fought and won the American Revolution. The confederation lasted 13 years, until 1789, the year that George Washington became the first president under the new constitution. The Articles established a confederal legal order, a national system of exchange and communication, and a permanent congress of the states to oversee common affairs. Yet Americans are largely ignorant of the existence of this distinctly American government founded as the political union of individual sovereign states.

The Articles were founded on the principle of state sovereignty and contained a pact of “perpetual union between the States.”  Each state retained “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence” except in those areas in which power was “expressly delegated” to Congress. (Preamble; Art. 2) The need to provide for a “common defense” motivated the states to enter “a firm league of friendship with each other.” (Art. 3) To promote this friendship and to further intercourse between the states, Article 4 extended to the citizens of each state the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship of whatever state to which they might travel. It also guaranteed free exit and entrance across state borders and forbade duties, taxes or restrictions on out-of-staters that a state government did not also impose on its own citizens. Article 4 called for extradition upon request and recognition by each state of the “records, acts and judicial proceedings” of the others.

A congress made up of delegates appointed by the state legislatures was established for “the more convenient management of the general interests of the united states.” The delegates could be recalled at any time. Although a state could send from two to seven delegates, each state had only one vote in congress. (Art. 5, 10 and 11)

The Articles forbade any state from pursuing its own foreign policy and regulated the terms under which the states could enter pacts with each other. Although the congress served as a court of appeal in conflicts between the states, the Articles protected the control of each state over its militia (reserving to Congress the authority to appoint general officers). (Art. 6, 7 and 9)

The Articles expressly denied congress the power to tax. But all defense expenses were to be paid out of a common treasury filled through requisitions levied on the states “in proportion to the value of all land within each state.” The states themselves would decide how to raise the money within the period allowed by congress. (Art. 8 and 11) Congress, however, received the authority to regulate the value of coin – national or state – as well as to fix the standard of weights and measures. Congress could also organize a postal system, charging fees to offset operating costs.

The Articles established, in short, a confederation, a non-sovereign union of sovereign states. That this first government of the United States should be confederal should not be surprising. Under British rule, the colonies had been politically independent of each other. When the tie with Britain ended, it left the colonies as a collection of independent, sovereign states with no formal political ties between them. During the Revolution, these newly independent polities saw a need for cooperation. They therefore sought a practical balance between independence and cooperation: they would work together to the extent it would benefit all of them, but no further.

In spite of the limited nature of this first effort at national cooperation, the motive of reciprocal advantage propelled the states far beyond a mere mutual-defense treaty. The Articles provided for a common, yet confederal, legal framework. The laws and legal proceedings of each state were mutually recognized. The Articles protected the freedom to travel and to do business across state lines. Such activities were subject to no more regulation that a state imposed on its own citizens. The Articles provided for a national mail system, a national system of weights and measures and a national currency in order to facilitate interstate communication between persons and traffic in ideas and goods. By these measures, the Articles assured the necessary minimal ground for the development of a national community.

The states further agreed to establish a legislative body to pursue the “convenient management” of their collective interest. The Congress became the vehicle to determine this “national” interest. Insofar as the national interest required coordinated action, Congress itself acted as the executive organ of government. This combined legislative and executive function of Congress was partly a reaction to the colonial experience of arbitrary executives. States such as Georgia and Pennsylvania went so far as to establish unicameral legislatures to avoid an “aristocratic” upper house. The newly constituted Continental Congress followed this same tradition, serving as the unicameral common legislature of the states and without a separate executive.

As a confederal assemby, the Congress could not escape the fact that the states held ultimate power. Given the responsibility of working toward the national interest, the Congress remained a body in which state met state to decide what that interest might be and how to realize it. A separate executive branch would have implied an authority greater than that of the states themselves. It was Congress, as the institutionalized committee of the states, that conducted the war for independence, and foreign policy in general, and directed whatever other joint undertakings the states found convenient.

The confederal framework established by the Articles went a long way towards providing the means by which the thirteen sovereign states could achieve a working social, economic and political unity (and went beyond the degree of common institutions found in today's European Union). The confederation made possible a degree of cooperation and exchange that could have allowed the already culturally bound states to build a nation without necessarily having to construct a nation-state. Certainly, this revolutionary course of development needed time to be tested and to be modified in light of experience. The forces of reaction gave the experiment just 13 years.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Introduction

In the summer of 1787, a group of counter-revolutionaries met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were asked by the Congress of the United States of America to gather and work on necessary amendments to the existing constitution. Instead they decided to throw the old document away and write a new one. The new document minimized the role of the people, divided the government into parts so that it would make majority rule difficult and moved the center of power beyond the reach of the common man. These counter-revolutionaries became know as America's “Founding Fathers” and the document they wrote the US Constitution.

Over the last two hundred years, the original government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation has became lost to history. Yet – as has become clear to many in the Occupy movements and the Tea Party – the current government of the United States is not serving the majority of the American people but rather a small elite who use it for private gain and political power. We need to recover awareness of the thirteen years during which the United States were governed under the Articles of Confederation. These were years of great accomplishment, the establishment of an independent North America and the beginning of a new experiment in confederal government where power remain close to where people lived.

There exists a profound neglect of this beginning. One might assume there would be interest in these years, in which the government of the United States was fundamentally different from the government that we have come to know. But the confederal period has never been fully assimilated into the great American myth of the “Founding.” Nor has the model of confederal government expressed in the Articles gotten much respect from those who have commented on the period. The confederation and the Articles either have been ignored or have been dismissed as a thankfully short-lived detour. This neglect and disregard is not justified. Indeed, the neglect of the Articles helps explain both the failure of conservative critics of the present American regime to go beyond mere criticism of “Washington’ and “big government” and the failure of its defenders to offer meaningful reforms of their own.

Reconsideration of the Articles of Confederation is an indispensable step in educating the impulse toward less government that has become one of the dominant strains of American politics. Reconsidering the Articles can tell us something not only about how confederal government might work but also refocus attention on the advantages for democracy of renewed governance at state and local levels. The Articles are crucial in this regard in that they stress not “less government” as much as “more politics.” And they are as deeply rooted in the American political tradition as the Constitution of 1787.

In upcoming installments I will try to cast some light on the Articles. This does not imply that a simple return to 1786 would resolve our 21st century problems. But it seems clear that our current government is too big and too much in the hands of the 1% to allow us to meet the challenges we face in the globalized world of the new century while also preserving the justice, progress and fairness by which America has prospered. Reminding ourselves of the beginning may help us find a way to begin again and perhaps prepare the way for a new constitutional convention and a new way to do our politics.

Note: “Confederal” denotes a political system in which the member states, not a central government, are sovereign. A “federal” system is one in which ultimate sovereign authority is exercised by the central government and not by the individual member states. The European Union is a confederal system while the government of the United States is now a federal system. The Articles refers to the union of states as a “confederacy.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Riff on Modern Capitalism

During most of human evolution, we lived by hunting and gathering.  Our daily activities were focused almost entirely on getting enough food to survive today and tomorrow.  Around 10 thousand years ago, we started replacing hunting and gathering with agriculture and animal husbandry.  Along the way, we no doubt began engaging in trading and bartering.  But the pursuit of today's bread and meat remained the central part of our daily existence.  By now, in industrial and post-industrial society, the actual production of food has become an activity which most people in developed - and increasingly in developing -  societies do not directly participate.  Instead, we earn our daily bread - and much else we now find essential for "modern life" - through buying and selling, earning and spending.

Production is now just one small part of the process of sustaining human life and society in the modern world.  People must buy and must be encouraged to buy.  Advertising is essential in this process so we get bombarded constantly with it.  All of life can seem built around being incessantly offered opportunities to spend our money.  If people stop buying - perhaps because they cannot earn - then selling becomes difficult, production may falter and more people end up not earning.

As production becomes more remote from the actual consumption processes - buying/selling, earning/spending - that feed us, space has grown for some to profit mightily from satisfying and creating needs.  This is not always bad.  The Internet and iDevices vastly open space for human interaction and productivity.  But the space for profit has become quite big and indeed can be thought of as a kind of petri dish for growth of a "tumor" - the mythical "job creator" - in the middle of the human enterprise.

The problem is how to even conceptualize a way of organizing our society around some other way of life.  We can't really all return to hunting and gathering.  Making and trading also cannot sustain our seven billion.  For each according to his needs and from each according to her ability would rely even more on an "invisible hand" than our current capitalist system as no mere human hand could sort out all our needs and capabilities. 

For now there seems no good answer other than trying to reduce the size of the tumor.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Human Nature and National Character

How one sees “human nature” probably reveals a lot about one's self. The range of views is broad. Some may deny there is such a thing, seeing human beings at birth as blank slates. Some may see humans as intrinsically good and others as essentially evil and still others everything in between.

However, it must be that human beings are by nature social. Our species had to evolve this way to survive. But beyond being just “social,” human beings all want to love and be loved. Yes, perhaps there are those born with some failed wiring who we call psychopaths. In the normal case, we are born wanting to be immersed in warm relationships with others, quite apart from sex. This suggests that by nature, most of us are born being “good” people, eager to talk and listen, eager to learn and share, eager to exercise our minds and bodies while exploring our world. This is what it means to be homo sapiens.

Nurture takes us from this starting point and either allows us to grow strong and mature as self-confident, wise and kind beings or it tears us down. We either develop as secure and open egos with positive character traits – honesty, compassion, loyalty, inquisitiveness – or we become encased in what Freud called reaction formations, negative character traits formed as defensive mechanisms against the bad things that we suffer as we age. Few of us are saints or outright devils. Most of us come out somewhere in between and some shine even when surrounded with sorrow and want. By nature we are good. Departures from this owe mostly to the inequalities and inadequacies of our social organizations.

National character is analogous to individual character. The humans that make up any language, ethnic or social group start out and grow as we all do. But they are confronted by the “character traits” built up over history and many of these traits are collective reaction formations, expressing those events – real or as imagined – that have defined that history. Nations are departures from a common human inheritance and nature. But they are also real. And it seems that few of us are ready to live without them.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


That nothing exist is the logically more stable state of being. Nothing needs anything further and ought to be unchangingly nothing. That there be something requires a departure from nothing, requires explanation. I.e., nothing should be being.

But we are, and the universe is. We don't know anything about what preceded the Big Bang, what dark matter and dark energy are and mean, what consciousness is, where it comes from, or where it may go. It may be that we will never know. It may be that as St Thomas Aquinas suggested, when reason can take us no further, that is the finger pointing to God. In any case, we know too little to rule out what science cannot explain and too much to believe much of what we take for certain.

An adherent of possibilianism is called a possibilian. The possibilian perspective is distinguished from agnosticism in that it consists of an active exploration of novel possibilities and an emphasis on the necessity of holding multiple positions at once if there is no available data to privilege one over the others. Possibilianism reflects the scientific temperament of creativity, testing, and tolerance for multiple ideas.

Friday, April 22, 2011


To be eternal is to exist no where, in no time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Civilizations in the Goldilocks Zone

A "Goldilocks" planet is a one that would be neither too hot nor too cold to support life. This is the catchy term science has given to describe those hypothetical planets orbiting stars in the "comfort zone" that would permit liquid water and perhaps life such as we might recognize.

Perhaps one can talk of intelligent life and civilizations in an analogous fashion. Intelligent life would arise from creatures with the potential for intelligence as man arose from more primitive primates. In some of these cases, while creatures might arise with a degree of intelligence they would not progress far or they would evolve much more slowly. Perhaps their environment would be relatively undemanding with conditions allowing the species to flourish without elaborating itself into large civilizations that then enter a cultural/technological evolution of their own. These might be termed "Garden of Eden" species. They might never leave their own planet or solar system and could be stable for very long periods of time.

At the other extreme, there might be intelligent species that evolve very quickly - perhaps to keep up with a more dynamic environment or perhaps out of some dynamic internal to its unique cultural/intellectual makeup. These civilization would tend to be unstable and the most extreme of them would grow beyond the ability of their planet to support them. These civilizations would suffer catastrophic declines and perhaps extinction. They might never survive long enough to go beyond their own atmosphere.

In between these two ends of the spectrum, civilizations would evolve at a fair pace, perhaps suffering precipitous events but eventually settling down to a sustainable level of dynamic evolution and change. These civilizations would be the Goldilocks ones in which the rate of change is neither too slow nor too fast for their intellectual, social, cultural, economic and political systems to keep up with. They might be the ones to go as far afield into the universe as physics and their own culture allows.

It would be nice to think that the human species of Earth is in that Goldilocks zone. But it is too early to say and the 21st Century may decide the issue.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bits of Consciousness

It seems that all the minutia of our mental activity - our mind - is governed strictly by physical matter and biology. It must be so, consciousness is pure awareness and without content. (That mental activity is physically-based suggests that higher processing speeds are possible.)

Conscious is analog, not digital, not quantized. However, physical reality, including time, is quantized.

In the beginning was awareness. That without end is without meaning.