Archive for December, 2010

is the USA the greatest, or what?

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

Dec. 27, 2010

The idea that the United States is “exceptional” is not popular with many people today. When our President was asked about it he replied that yes, he thought the United States was exceptional. But then he qualified his judgment (fatally) by adding – if he were a Greek citizen he would think the Greeks were exceptional, if he were French, etc. etc.

That’s not the way our founding fathers or John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan saw it.  All of them agreed with the Puritan John Winthrop when he claimed in a 1630 sermon that the new Massachusetts Bay colonists were founding a “city upon a hill” (taking the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount) that would be a shining example for all the world to follow.

John Kennedy agreed. In a speech in 1961 he said, “we must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”

Ronald Reagan in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989 put it this way. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life . . .  a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

And so it was, so it is, and so it will be.

It is true that this new system of “we the people” was not perfect in 1789 when our Constitution was made the law of the land. Nor is it perfect today. “We the people” in 1789 did not include enslaved people from Africa. Nor did it include Native Americans. It is also true that other reactionary ideas from the past were not addressed nor did they disappear. In fact many linger in weakened forms today.

Ideas (memes?), for instance, that justified male dominance, aggression to protect honor, gender prejudice, homosexual isolation and persecution.  Memes that excused violence against other ethnic groups; like our wars against the native American inhabitants of the continent; our importing and violent oppression of Africans; our disgraceful treatment of African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, Japanese-American, Latino-Americans, etc. etc. And finally memes that looked on religions other than Christianity as inferior if not blasphemous.

It was not utopia in other words. And it still isn’t.

Severe critics today like the popular Harvard scholar Noam Chomsky (as well as a large host of leftist academic scholars who should know better) go further. They routinely denounce America as a “rogue state,” “fascist,” “imperialist” and “racist.” They base some of this on historical fact. In this they sometimes have the facts right but are guilty of gross historical malpractice in applying today’s moral standards to the past.

Every society in the world in the late 18th century shared most of these reactionary memes. Slavery, for instance, was the norm everywhere in the world in the 18th century (it is still practiced in some countries) and had been for thousands of years before. Gender prejudice, violence between ethnic groups, imperialistic wars, racism and male dominance had been the norm for thousand of years everywhere in the world. Imperialism, getting wealth by making war against your neighbor, was the way it had been done for thousands of years in every society, including primitive tribal societies. Most of these reactionary memes were closely allied to zero-sum agricultural-age economic systems.

The genius of our founding fathers was to take the first giant steps to make things better, to move away from zero-sum ideas and implement instead win-win ones, and then to take giant steps in the direction of equality and social justice. The fact that they did not solve all the problems at once is not surprising.

Chomsky and like-minded critics go further and claim that the United States not only always was, but also still is “fascist,” “imperialistic” and “racist.” Compared to what?

It was the United States that took the lead in abolishing slavery in the western world at the cost of 500,000 American lives in the Civil War. It was this country that has spent billions of dollars and devoted millions of acres of land to repay and restore Native American rights and wealth. It was this country far more than any other country on earth that has been and is struggling, successfully for the most part, to accommodate, enrich and expand a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, gender-blind, tolerant and progressive democratic society.

Chomsky claims to be an anarchist, not a communist. It is time he and his compatriots did some comparison-shopping.

Historically for instance, how much have the Iroquois nations done, yesterday or today, to recompense the Algonquians (and other tribes) that their ancestors fought, tortured, murdered, and forced out of the Northeast North America? It was and is the same story with most Native American tribes? Wars between these tribes, like those between almost all agricultural as well as all hunter/gatherer groups were the norm for thousands of years before the United States was created. It was a zero-sum situation. Steal or be stolen from. Kill or be killed.

Internationally, how much have the West African nations done to punish (or even criticize) their ancestral tribal brothers who were the ones who kidnapped and sold their neighbors to Arab, English, American, Indian and Chinese slave-traders? Why not condemn Cuba today because it imported more slaves than the entire North American continent? Or the Arab states whose ancestors had made slaves of more Africans than all the Europeans and North America colonies combined (and some of them still today practice slavery!) Steal or be stolen from. Kill or be killed.

What country has done more to assimilate and integrate large numbers of racial and ethnic groups within its society in the 20th and 21st century? What country has devoted more energy, money and blood to opposing reactionary and imperialist regimes in this imperfect world? The list is long. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, militaristic Japan, Totalitarian Soviet Union, Maoist China, Communist North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Vietnam. And today the list continues: Radical Islamist Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Al Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and Somalia. The defense rests.

I doubt whether the prosecution will let up. Why not? I don’t know. It may be a good subject for another blog.

I do know that since our revolutionary days America has continued to be a world leader. Today in the 21st century it is no accident that, according to Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, “the U.S. leads the world by an immense margin in just about every measure of intellectual and technological achievement: PhDs, patents, peer-reviewed article, Nobel prizes. But in the end, it’s the culture, stupid. The economy follows culture, and American culture today, as ever, is uniquely suited for growth, innovation and advancement.

“The most obvious bedrock of success is entrepreneurial spirit. The U.S. has the most risk-taking, most laissez-faire, least regulated economy in the advanced Western world. America is heartily disdained by its coddled and controlled European cousins for its cowboy capitalism. But it is precisely American’s tolerance for creative destruction—industries failing, others rising, workers changing jobs and cities and skills with an alacrity and insouciance that Europeans find astonishing—that keeps its economy churning and advancing.”

What was true in the terrible days of our Civil War it just as true today when we in this great country are called upon to lead the world in advancing the cause of freedom and opportunity for all the world’s people. What Abraham Lincoln said 150 years ago in his message to Congress freeing the slaves still holds true today “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. Speaking of Lincoln, you can get our classic program, A. LINCOLN, on DVD now at a sharply reduced price ($19 on Amazon). To access this program and many other Hawkhill DVDs on Amazon.com please enter Hawkhill, or my name, Bill Stonebarger, in Amazon’s search field.

Science, solstice and wonder

Monday, December 20th, 2010

“Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.”

The words are those of a poet named Euripides. They were sung in 400 BC by the chorus in a play performed in an outdoor theatre built by citizens of the world’s first democracy in ancient Greece.

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view, the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.”

The words are those of Thomas Jefferson, Enlightenment philosopher and one of the founding fathers of the first modern democracy in the United States of America.

On this day before the solstice of 2010, it is time to pay respect to the giants of science who have “engaged in inquiry” over the ages. We stand on the shoulders of those precious few who changed our world so profoundly. The ancient Greeks were among the first to recognize the twin virtues of science, power and wisdom. Sophocles put it better than I can in his play Antigone. (Translation by R. C. Jebb)

“Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man;

the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind,

making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him;

and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear,

turning the soil with the offspring of horses,

as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year.

And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts,

and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils,

he leads captive, man excellent in wit.

And he masters by his arts the beast whose lair is in the wilds,

who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane,

he puts the yoke upon its neck,

he tames the tireless mountain bull.

And speech, and wind-swift thought,

and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself;

and how to flee the arrows of the frost,

when ’tis hard lodging under the clear sky,

and the arrows of the rushing rain;

yea, he hath resource for all;

without resource he meets nothing that must come:

only against Death shall he call for aid in vain;

but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.

Cunning beyond fancy’s dream is the fertile skill

which brings him, now to evil, now to good.

When he honours the laws of the land,

and that justice which he hath sworn by the gods to uphold,

proudly stands his city: no city hath he who, for his rashness,

dwells with sin. Never may he share my hearth

never think my thoughts, who doth these things!”

With Christmas on the way I note, reluctantly, that religions have a mixed record when it comes to scientific progress. Islam was a leader in supporting science during the Middle Ages, but is a laggard today. Christianity laid some foundations for modern science by supporting reason and technology during the Middle Ages, but has only recently apologized for suppressing Galileo and other Renaissance scientists some 500 years ago.

On the other hand as Albert Einstein said, “the mysterious is the source of all true art and science.” Religions have historically paid homage to that mysterious heart of nature and life, and Christmastime is one of the times that homage becomes public.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is the one that begins, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.” The next line is not a favorite with tolerant atheists like myself, “how Jesus the Savior did come for to die.” It rhymes though, and who am I to dispute its power and popularity over the ages. The next two lines are fine.

“for poor on’ry people like you and like I

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

As a bonus this week I suggest you read the Sophocles quote yet once more, and then go outside and “wonder out under the sky.” (Don’t wander too far though if the weather is anything like it is here in Wisconsin, the UK, and most of Europe – cold, cold, cold.)

But please do have a Merry Christmas, a Hearty Hanukkah, a Wonderful Kwanzaa. And please bring a Sunny Solstice to all Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and assorted believers of whatever. (I do hold with Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” )

And to all believers and non-believers a most Happy New Year.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

“the government that robs Peter to pay Paul … “

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

Dec. 13, 2010

This is going to be controversial. And personal.

Maybe you know the quote in the subject line. It is from a famous socialist, the playwright George Bernard Shaw. “The government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.”

I think it is, unfortunately, germane to some of the present battles between Democrats and Republicans about tax policy. The Democrats argue that the rich should pay more. Much more. It’s only “fair” since the rich have so much more money.

The Republicans argue that taxes should be more “fairly” spread; everyone should pay his or her share. After all, not only do the poor get more benefits from taxes than the rich do, but the rich create the jobs that support the poor.

Of course the Democrats counter that is like the argument some French intellectual made a few hundred years ago. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

What is “fair?” What is right? What is just? What is possible?

The last question is ultimately the one that matters. It all depends on who has the most power. And that power in a modern democracy depends on who presents the most convincing arguments in the public forums. (I realize some would add, who has the most money. Who is richer, the left-liberal George Soros or the right-conservative Koch brothers?)

I find myself on a risky road here. Personally I think­– in fact I know–that on a comparative scale, I am a poor person in this country and have always been so. Never in my 80-plus years have I had an income above the average in this country. Nor have I inherited wealth. And I have never won a thing in lotteries or at the race track. Including our social security, my wife and I live now on a very modest income.

On the other hand I have never, even as a child in the Great Depression of the 1930s thought of myself as poor. And I still don’t. Maybe I am like the impresario Mike Todd who once said “I have been broke, but I have never been poor.” Broke is out of money. Poor is a state of mind.

Having confessed all that, on an intellectual level I do find strange and disturbing the argument many left-liberal Democrats are making about current taxing policies. Our President himself made it clear that he thinks not raising the taxes on the rich among us is “costing” the government many billions of dollars and “taking” money that could go toward reducing the deficit and supporting government programs that help everyone.

Isn’t this a little like saying “my not robbing the bank next week is costing me a lot of money next year.” Or my claiming that because my rich aunt did not bequeath me much inheritance in her will, she has “taken” money away from me.

I suppose you could argue that the rich don’t “deserve” all that money. Does that make it ok to rob them? As I recall that was the argument Dostoyevsky made in his famous novel, Crime and Punishment. The pawnbroker Raskolnikov murdered was a worthless old hag, a parasite with no future. She didn’t deserve the money she had hoarded. Raskolnikov was a deserving young man with tons of potential but no money. Why not kill her and take her money for a better cause?

You could also argue that the rich get more benefits than the poor and thus should pay more in taxes. Is that true? The rich can afford to pay cash for all the goods and services they desire. They can also afford to support their own schools, their own playgrounds, their own wilderness preserves, their own security forces. They can live in gated communities; make their own travel arrangements, etc. etc. They do breathe the same air and use the same roads, bridges, etc. The roads and bridges are mostly paid by gasoline taxes, but the rich use more gas than the poor so they do pay more here as well. It is true the rich probably do benefit by having less crime. Not as much as the poor though, since most thefts and murders are poor on poor. The rich also benefit by not having to step over homeless people on their way to the symphony or the opera (often subsidized by our taxes, most of which are paid by the rich).

Some of course, following Marxist dogma, claim that the rich actually stole their wealth from the poor by virtue of owning the means of production and making workers their wage slaves. On those grounds it is only fair for the workers to steal the wealth back by putting very high taxes on rich incomes and rich estates. (Actually this view is common enough that many wealthy people themselves seem to believe it. When they retire, they promise to “give back” some of their “stolen” wealth to charitable enterprises.)

What is the truth? What do I believe is the truth? What do I believe is the best answer?

I hate to disappoint you but my answer is I’m not sure. I do believe with Oliver Wendell Holmes that taxes are the price we pay for civilization. So while I am like everyone else in wanting fewer taxes, I realize we do need to pay for civilization.

I think the Marxist dogma is wrong. Not only wrong, but destructively wrong. Most of the rich, at least the rich in this country (not necessarily in Europe or other countries in Asia, Africa and South America, many of which are still living in a society dominated by agricultural-age hangover ideas), got their wealth by creating services and goods that people, rich and poor, need and want. They did it sometimes by founding whole new industries, sometimes by effectively managing old and new industries, and sometimes by making productions of goods and services more efficient. The result today is that the “poor” are actually much better off than even the “rich” were two hundred years ago. Despite the ridicule this gets from some leftists, wealth has “trickled down.”

I know there are a few bad guys who stole their way to wealth. They should be jailed. And there are a few slouches who inherited wealth. They should be envied (actually sometimes pitied; see Paris Hilton, Patty Hearst and Mark Madoff). But the great majority of wealthy people are wealthy because they contributed more than their share to our nation’s well-being. They should be thanked, not robbed.

I also know that many “poor” people may be poor in money, but are not poor in spirit or in effort or in production. Some are unskilled. Some are uneducated. Some are stupid. Some are handicapped. Some are just unlucky. And some are talented but are more interested in things other than money. Things like: helping others; producing art, theatre and music; discovering new things in science, literature or history; simply living a good stress-free life. Many of these folks also contribute more than their share to the nation’s well being. So this is a democracy, let all the flowers bloom.

In the end a compromise is all we can hope for in taxes as in everything else. But that is what a democracy is all about, compromise–decent pragmatic answers to irresolvable difficult questions. As far as taxes go, to me such a fair compromise would be some kind of flat tax. Why not be fair and tax everyone at the same rate, say around 15 to 20 percent on their income, whether it is from salaries, profits, investments or whatever? In the interests of compassion, you could exempt the first $30,000 or so of anyone’s income. People could file their taxes on a postcard. No deductions, no special deals, no loopholes. No tax accountants. No tax lawyers. No IRS. Economists I have read say that the revenue for the government from such a flat tax would be about the same as the present tax code. Then if we want more services or need to reduce the deficit or retire some of the national debt, raise the rate. But for everyone. Fair enough?

Maybe a new Tea Party platform could make this kind of compromise more formal, flesh out the details and make it a sound sexier. What do you think?

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President

P.S. Whether you agree or disagree with this one I encourage you to take a look at some of our recent programs in social studies. I don’t have any directly about taxes but we do have quite a few that feature capitalism. See Capitalism and Democracy and The Industrial Revolution, Capitalism and the United States of America and Democracy in the 21st Century.

“they’ve gone about as fer as they can go”

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Dec. 6, 2010

When I wake up in the morning a song often pops into my head. Yesterday it was an old one from the musical Oklahoma

“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City

They gone about as fer as they can go

They went an’ built a skyscraper seven stories high

About as high as a buildin’ orta grow.”

When I go to sleep at night a popular buzz word sometimes pops into my head. Last night it was a new one– “sustainable.” It makes a good companion with the song.

Have we in America gone about as far as we should go? And should we strive now for making it sustainable? Activists for green sustainable policies seem to think so. Recent polls show that close to a majority of Americans agree that the best days of America were in the past and the best we can do is not decline too much or too fast. I strongly disagree.

I know”sustainable” is a popular word today. Not only do green activists use the term generously, but schools, universities and corporations, large and small, have also caught the bug. You can hardly pick up a newspaper or watch a TV commercial when someone isn’t boasting about how green and “sustainable” their goods or processes are. (A local credit union here in Madison is advertising “green checking accounts!”)

I don’t like the word. Before you condemn me as a hopeless curmudgeon or a totally out of touch reactionary, let me explain.

“Sustainable” in some ways is obviously good. We certainly don’t want to encourage waste. We don’t want to foster activities that lead to irresponsible growth that results in a bubble that can’t last, like the housing one of the last few decades. (Actually that bubble was probably caused by too much government regulation rather than too little, but that is another story.)

BUT … be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

That hoary cliché calls attention to the contrast between what I call “light green” directions and “dark green” directions. The former are progressive, the latter regressive.

Light green in my view means doing more with less–a continual quest for greater efficiency in all our activities. In large measure this has been the story of the industrial revolution and free-market capitalism. Together they have made us almost unbelievably rich in the Western world and now they are doing the same for the two largest countries in the world, India and China. They have also provided the economic base for liberal democracy to blossom. Efficiency, doing more with less, has been and is very profitable.

Dark green on the other hand only too often means doing less with more—costing more for less benefit. Unfortunately some of the modern quest for a sustainable green lifestyle is of the dark green variety. When activists want us to develop new energy resources that do not use fossil fuels, I applaud. When they urge us to insulate our homes better, make our machines more efficient, waste less food and fewer resources, I applaud. And when they push to make our air, water and soil healthier and to preserve wilderness tracts and save endangered species, I heartily support these light green efforts.

However, many sustainable green activists go further, much further. They want us to eat only organic food grown within 100 miles of our home. They want us to buy local “natural” goods and stay away from the “big box” stores. They urge us to buy American and reject Chinese and other imported goods and services. They want us to shun chemicals, close down nuclear power plants, and stop genetically engineering plants and animals. They want us to have fewer children. They want us to live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars, travel less, eschew plastics, and recycle instead of buy new. They claim that a growing economy means a shrinking ecosystem.

All of these are dark green directions. And while some may sound good in the short run, they also lead to very undesirable outcomes in the long run. Smaller cars, smaller homes, less travel, fewer plastics, less energy, more recycling and less buying new—all mean fewer jobs in building cars, constructing houses, building airplanes, oil and gas exploration, power plant construction and use. Fewer jobs in making and selling furniture, appliances, catalogs, magazines and books. Fewer jobs for travel agents, pilots, hotel clerks, restaurant cooks, dishwashers and waitpersons in America and in all other countries around the globe. And in the long run with less growth, less energy and less wealth, we won’t be able to afford more jobs for teachers, professors, scientists, engineers, doctors and nurses.

Following dark green directions also means more people will have to move from the cities and suburbs back to the farm. (Organic and “natural” are both much more labor-intensive.) Less trade with other countries may save a few union jobs here, temporarily, but it also means higher prices here and abroad on almost everything. In the long run it means more poverty here and abroad for almost everyone.

Let’s spell it out in more detail. Take energy first. Yes, we should move away from a fossil fuel base to a more diverse one that offers insurance against climate change. The only serious candidate for providing enough energy to do that today on a large enough scale to make a difference is nuclear power. Dark green activists are opposed. Let’s do it anyway.

By all means let’s also invest in research and development for other possibilities like solar, tidal, hydro, geo, fusion, wind–you name it, we should research it. But in the meantime it is counterproductive (and dark green) to invest large amounts of the country’s wealth now to subsidize commercial developments that may prove more wasteful than helpful. I’m thinking now of the new GM Volt that can only be successful commercially if it gets enormous subsidies. At the moment I understand it is something like $7000 to $8000 a car, probably much more. I’m thinking too of giant windmill farms, making gasoline from corn and in fact the whole biofuel industry, as well as the current passion for high speed rail where it can never attract enough riders to be profitable.

All of these are a long way from doing more with less. They are more like zero-sum transactions instead of win-win ones. In fact most of them are lose-lose transactions. We spend a lot more to get a lot less. This direction, if accelerated too vigorously, in the long run will lead to less growth, more poverty, and more violence.

Take organic foods and the locavare (buy from local farmers) movement. So long as you view organic foods, gourmet restaurants and expanding farmer’s markets as welcome additions to our ever-growing choices for a healthier, richer and more flavorful life—and they are profitable for the producers and the consumers–I have no objection. Many proponents go further though in the dark green direction, and in their zeal to promote organic foods they want to ban genetically modified crops, ban the use of pesticides and herbicides, cut back on if not ban all chemical fertilizers. Some even suggest using horses instead of tractors for the family farm. In other words, they promote a retreat from modern industrial agriculture and a return to ways of life common in early America or for that matter in all earlier agricultural-age societies. Here I do have a problem. If we tried to rely on organic farming methods nationwide or worldwide, it would mean a few billion people would starve to death.

So too “Buy American” seems on the face of it to be a decent patriotic thing to do. If we try to isolate ourselves from the world economy on a major scale, however,  it would mean the standard of living here would plummet and countries like Mexico, China, India, Brazil and a host of others in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe would return to desperate poverty.

No one in authority of course is advising these extreme directions, but even on a lesser scale (blocking trade treaties with Korea, Columbia and Mexico for instance and in general bashing free trade) they lead to more unemployment, more restriction of choices, less freedom, and in the end to more harm to education, health care and other much desired things of our modern welfare state democracies.

Finally the “sustainable” concept itself is misleading and I think mischievous. Insofar as it simply means paying attention to the natural environment, yes. Fine. We should of course consider what any new project will do to our environment.

However the word and the concept behind it is kind of like the idea satirized in the Oklahoma song, “they’ve gone about as fer as they can go.” In other words “green” and/or “sustainable” encourages zero-sum living, stand pat, slow down, horde what we have, use less energy, fewer resources, be super careful not to pollute, strive for a steady-state economy and a risk-free lifestyle and environment.

But what the country and the world needs above all is more economic growth, more risk-taking, more energy, more resources and creative thinking, more confidence and optimism, more “morning in America.” How else can we continue to lead the way in eliminating poverty and disease and premature deaths from this country and from the rest of our often ailing world?

An anonymous writer in the New Yorker magazine a few years ago wrote “if everyone in the world were to live a lifestyle like we do in the United States it would be a catastrophe.”

Don’t believe it. As our own President promised in his campaign, “Yes, we can.”

And we can.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. My new book is taking shape. Tentative title now is: The Road to a Tea Party: A Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. It is tentatively scheduled for publication and release in the spring of 2011.