Saturday, March 28, 2020

Presidential Leadership

With all the talk this week about the role of the president during a crisis, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the first such example in American history.  I’m not referring to either the revolution or any of the wars that followed, but an emergency so large that it required the direct action of the federal government.

In 1793, the Secretary of the Treasury was Alexander Hamilton, who was concerned about the debts the 13 states and the federal government had run up fighting the British.  Desperately trying to bolster the nation’s economy, Hamilton’s policy for the federal government was to assume the debts of the states, then pay off the consolidated debt with a new tax on distilled liquor.

This was the first of a long, long list of sin taxes, wherein the politician decides to tax the “unnecessary” goods that, in his opinion, are harmful to society.  (Usually, these taxes are placed on something that the politician, himself, is not engaged in.  As far as I can tell, no one in history has ever proposed a tax on something they, themselves do).

Almost immediately, there were problems, as the tax burden was unevenly spread.  Needless to say, those who didn’t drink were not taxed at all.  More important, farmers who lived in the interior, farther from the coastal cities, were used to distilling their surplus crops into whiskey, which was easier to transport to the cities and less subject to spoiling than the original bulky grains. 

There was also the problem with licenses and how the taxes were paid.  The larger distilleries on the coast could spread the cost of the license out over their wider production.  And since the option existed to either pay a flat fee or to pay a tax per gallon, the tax itself was a third higher on the small producers than the larger ones.

In Kentucky and Western Pennsylvania in particular, farmers thought that they were being taxed without representation—a cause that echoed back to the Revolution.  These farmers flatly refused to pay the tax, starting a tradition of illegal stills that continues to this day.  Worse, they directly challenged the authority of the government to tax them, eventually even threatening to split off from the country.

These same farmers were justifiably concerned about several more issues.  The Mississippi River and the lands to the west of it were still the property of Spain, who flatly refused to allow the farmers to use the river to transport their crops.  More troubling to the farmers was the federal government’s inability to end the attacks of Native Americans along the frontier.  In the minds of the farmers, they were being picked out for heavy taxation to pay for a government that was proving to be ineffectual.

When federal revenue agents attempted to collect this hated tax in Pennsylvania, violence quickly erupted.  Several tax collectors were attacked, tarred and feathered, and at least one was run out of town on a rail.  Anyone doing business with tax collectors was threatened, and the home of one collector was attacked by a crowd of 600 men who burned the home down.

By this point, the issue of the ‘whiskey tax’ had become a political issue that though it was not the only cause, certainly helped divide politicians into camps that quickly evolved into political parties.  And we’ve been stuck with them ever since.

To President Washington in Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital), this was a major test of the legitimacy of the federal government.  Not only was this the very first direct tax placed by the fledgling government upon its citizens, but Washington was astute enough to realize that the very fate of the nation depended upon his response and how he ended the crisis.

What George Washington understood was governments don’t really exist—they are nothing more than shared myths among a group of citizens.  Our government exists because we all agree that it does, and an act that threatens that shared belief threatens the very life of a nation.  Throughout history, powerful nations have suddenly ceased to exist, not because of invading armies but, simply because their citizens stopped recognizing the authority of their governments.

Washington brought his cabinet together and asked each member to submit what each thought should be his correct response, in writing.  Every member, except Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, suggested that Washington call up the militia, since at the time, the United States did not have a standing army. 

Wisely, Washington chose a middle path:  While he sent peace negotiators into Western Pennsylvania, he also called up the National Guard troops of Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland.  This was a large army of 13,000 men, comparable to the armies used during the Revolutionary War.

By law, Washington could not use the army to enforce domestic policy until a Supreme Court Judge ruled that the state government had proven incapable of maintaining order, something that Justice James Wilson quickly agreed to.  For the first time, an army of the United States was being used to maintain civil order within the United States.

President Washington personally led the army west, the only president to ever lead the US Army in the field.  All the history books say that, and it is true—up to a point.  Actually, after reviewing the troops, Washington turned the army over to the Governor of Virginia, Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, a hero of the Revolutionary War and future father of Robert E. Lee, who had served under Washington during the war.  It was Lee who actually led the army into western Pennsylvania.

The western farmers were angry, but they weren’t stupid.  Long before the army arrived, the ‘Whiskey Rebellion’ had ended.  Through negotiations, the government agreed to lower the tax a little, and most of the farmers agreed to pay the tax.  The collection agents were gradually more effective in collecting the taxes, and the agents wisely ignored some of the smaller distillers who held out.

Every time the military is used, it is only natural to ask, Who won?  Well, Washington did:  He averted a major crisis and demonstrated that the government had both the means and the authority to meet a crisis, so he won.  The farmers eventually got a reduction in taxes, so they won a little, too.  Alexander Hamilton won, as he successfully imposed the nation’s first internal tax.

Most important, the people of the United States won.  The dream we all believe in survived an existential crisis.  And as bad as our government sometimes is, we need to remember that our shared dream is still better than all the alternatives.  That is something we really do need to remember before we jump to criticize it during a crisis.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why Aren’t They Burning Kindles?

Now that so many of us are self-quarantined, this is a great time to read a book.  Evidently, I’ve been in quarantine for about six decades. 

Still, I’m looking forward to reading a few new books in the next few weeks.  John Scalzi has a new book coming out, as does John Sandford.  And I just picked up Erik Larson’s new book on Churchill.  Larson is about as reliable an author as you can find.  In my long quest to buy and read all of Rex Stout’s books in order, I’m up to the fifties.  As always, I have a nice pile of new books waiting their turn to be read, alongside of another pile off favorites that I read over and over and over.  (Huck Finn, Three Men in a Boat, and Cyrano de Bergerac absolutely have to be read at least once a year.)

I own one book that I am unlikely to reread again any time soon.  (That might prove to be in error, as I just spent half an hour rereading certain passages.)  I don’t like this book, and I doubt if you do (or would), either, but I strongly believe you should have the right to read it if you want.

I’m referring to Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. 

The book is horrid:  it’s a nonstop hate-filled screed.  Reading this monster’s book is like playing with a typewriter ribbon (somebody explain what that is to millennials):  the longer you play with it, the more black you get on your fingers.  I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone.

But everyone should have the right to read it if they wish.

I bring this up because Amazon stopped listing the book for sale this week, and then a few days later reversed itself.  Amazon says this move was part of its program for removing pro-Nazi material from its ‘shelves’ and that the sale of Mein Kampf is “under review”.

As a Libertarian, I believe that any bookstore has the inherent right to choose what to sell, to set the sale price, and to set the sales conditions.  But, because Amazon is the 500-pound gorilla that has beaten to death all of its competition, I’m not happy with the country’s single book monopoly deciding what is suitable for me to read.

I buy a lot of used books and, at one time, I was happy that (the world’s largest supplier of used books) was a suitable alternative to Amazon.  Unfortunately, Amazon’s response to the competition was to simply buy Abebooks.  And  And Goodreads.  My six-year-old granddaughter just sent me her first letter; she already has an exclusive contract from Amazon.

Amazon has a de facto monopoly on the publishing world and I’m not real comfortable with anyone having that much power over what I can read...even when it comes to Hitler’s crappy book.

If you have never read the book, Hitler wrote the first half in 1923, while serving nine months in jail for his failed Munich Putsch.  He wrote the second half after being released.  At first, the book didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, but after Hitler became more politically active, the brisk sales would have made him a multi-millionaire today.  (And when he was sworn in as chancellor, he owed a small fortune in taxes on the sales—a tax that was quickly waived by the government.) 

By the time the war started, Hitler had deliberately distanced himself from the book, stating that if he had known he would one day become chancellor, he would never have written it.  Still, after the war started, every soldier was given a copy, just as were all newlyweds.  During the war, at least another 10 million copies were printed.

After the war, the German copyright, along with the rest of Hitler’s property, transferred to the German state of Bavaria, which refused to allow the book to be printed in Germany.  In 2016, seventy years after Hitler was declared legally dead, the book passed into public domain and has since been republished—with heavy and appropriate annotations.  The book is available in most of Europe—except in the Netherlands—and in the rest of the world.  In the United States, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who printed my copy—has long published it, though they have lately had a problem finding a charity willing to accept the proceeds, as the publisher has refused to keep any profits from the sale of the book.

If you read the book, you’re probably not going to learn much that you didn’t already know.  His views of the German postwar years are both heavily biased and factually incorrect.  Yes, Hitler was obviously anti-Semitic as early as 1923.  No, he probably had not yet decided to use mass murder as public policy (though he does write a few times about extermination of the “inferior”).  And yes, he was the hate-filled monster you already know him to have been.

There are several arguments for not selling this book.  It dredges up horrible memories that are beyond painful for many people.  It has also been argued that the book has no value and has no merits for today’s world.  Both arguments are flawed.  If we ban books that bring up painful memories, almost any book can be banned.  And contrary to public opinion, no one has the right to be free from insult or having their feelings hurt.

Though I hate the book, it does have merits.  The book does explain why Hitler felt justified in invading Germany’s neighboring countries and why he believed the destruction of other cultures was necessary.  The book also sheds light on why many German people felt betrayed by Germany’s surrender in the first world war.  He is incredibly wrong about most things, but his arguments are laid out so that the reader can see how his later policies were developed.

Enough about Hitler’s lousy book.  The problem today, is not that book, but that Amazon and a few libraries that are making decisions about what people are allowed to read.  Amazon is engaging in censorship, which even with works by an author as despicable as Hitler is still wrong.  If we can ban “meritless books”, who gets to say if a book has merit?

Our freedoms are heavy burdens.  If you want free speech, you have to bear the burden of hate speech from groups that make your skin crawl.  If you want freedom of religion, you have to allow the church or mosque whose dogma is the antithesis to yours.  A free press requires that even Hitler’s evil book be available to those who want to read it.  And the first freedom you must allow anyone is the freedom to make bad choices.

Perhaps most important, we need to trust that the vast majority of the people who read this sort of book will ultimately realize that the book is just wrong.  If we are really worried about people taking the book seriously, we should work harder to make sure that in the marketplace of ideas, the rants of a madman come off second best.

Saturday, March 14, 2020


How can you tell if the talking head on TV is truly knowledgeable about ….well, anything...but especially about this pandemic?  The acid test is how he pronounces ‘preventive’:  If he says ‘pre-vent-ta-tive’, ignore him.  This test eliminates every governor of every state. 

Before a single case of Covid-19 was discovered in the United States, I had a talk with both of my sons about preparing for a possible outbreak.  I told What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One to pretend they knew in advance that someone in their family was going to catch the flu and take the necessary steps to prepare ahead.  I advised them to make sure prescriptions were up to date and perhaps buy a couple of weeks worth of food over and above what they normally would have on hand.  (Actually, I suggested a few cans of Chicken Noodle soup and a case of 7-Up.  As a Boomer, I was taught this was the optimum medical treatment for any disease.)

I also advised my sons to buy a small bottle of hand sanitizer for each of my grandchildren to put in their school bags, even though I was fairly sure that it would never actually be used for its intended purpose.  If I had been given such a bottle when I was in elementary school, I would have immediately used it in experiments on the red ants, with whom I was constantly in a state of all-out warfare.

Intent on following my own advice, I searched the house for hand sanitizer and found one tiny bottle in my suitcase, one that I had probably bought a decade ago.   Feeling a little foolish, I ordered a 12-ounce bottle from Amazon and then forgot the whole matter. 

My first indication of the public virus panic was an email from one of Amazon’s suppliers, informing me that,  “Per your request”, my order for a bottle of hand sanitizer had been cancelled.  Checking back online, I discovered the cost of the bottle had gone up six-fold.  Hell, at that price I couldn’t afford to use it on the ants—or on me.

Don’t get me wrong, the Covid-19 virus is real, we should be reasonably concerned and proactive, and I sincerely hope this crisis passes quickly and with minimal harm—but some of the irrational reactions by the public are hilarious.  Like my neighbor who is stocking up on bottled water and charcoal briquettes.  Or the mailman who complained—while scratching his nose—how uncomfortable it was to wear a pair of woven cloth gloves all day.

Now, more than two weeks after I had that talk with my sons, there is not a roll of toilet paper to be purchased in this town.  Bottled water, cans of Spam, rubbing alcohol, bottled bleach, and hand sanitizers have all vanished from grocery stores.  There is even a shortage of flashlight batteries.  Now, I live four thousand feet above sea level and about 700 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, but evidently some people think a hurricane is coming.

Is it possible that the entire shortage of toilet paper is part of a secret government plot to force us to wash our hands more often?

Can someone explain to me why there is now panic buying of freezers?  Surviving a quarantine for a few weeks is not the same thing as surviving a nuclear winter.  

And (predictably), Enema U has overreacted, too.  Though there is not a single reported case of the virus within hundreds of miles, classes are now cancelled, as the university starts spring break a week early.  I’m not sure how effective this action will be since the dorms and cafeterias are still open.  The already confused students are now wondering when coursework scheduled to be turned in during the “closure” is actually due...if ever. 

Many of the faculty are furious, since the administration acted without consulting them.  (As a child, it was my regular chore to collect eggs—something I did without consulting the chickens.)  That the administration hadn’t even had a chance to do so,  but acted unilaterally is a clear violation of principle of “shared governance”.   Now, that’s a myth, especially popular in academia, that is kind of like the existence of Santa Claus—only academics,  small children and fools really believe in it.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept of shared governance, allow me to make another country analogy:  It is when the wolves allow the sheep to believe they have input on the dinner menu.

The university is moving rapidly towards pushing all courses to be taught online, which is a poor method of teaching at best and all but an impossible task for lab classes.  There is probably no way to be sure, but the students are probably just as safe from the disease on campus as they are scattered across the state.  However, everyone in administration is under pressure to do something, so the students and faculty are being inundated with contradictory and inarticulate emails.

It is not just on the campus:  the whole world seems to be acting weird.  The email spam filter on my computer is filled with offers to sell me high-priced surgical masks and special soap.  Now, the weird stories are coming in a flood:

    44 Iranians died after drinking industrial-strength alcohol to treat a disease that it’s likely none of them had. 
    On Etsy and eBay, sales of knitted Coronavirus stress balls and virus-related arts and crafts are surging.
    An Australian newspaper, the Northern Territory Times is publishing editions with blank pages for their readers who can’t find toilet paper to purchase. 
    In India, a popular cure for coronavirus involves drinking a concoction of cow urine and cow manure. 
    Stores and restaurants are reporting that people are stealing the toilet paper out of public restrooms.
    If what’s on Facebook is accurate, about half of California is consuming garlic to ward off Coronavirus.  And vampires.
    The Dalai Lama has announced that chanting the Tara Mantra will “contain” the virus.
    Some jackass in California wants me to invest in his newest invention, a medical robot. (“Please state the nature of the medical emergency,” says The Doctor.)
    The sales of Corona beer have dropped dramatically. 
    Taiwan is now printing its national flag on the medical face masks that are   manufactured there, so anyone using one on mainland China, will show the Taiwanese flag on their face.

Yes, I’m prepared for the Coronavirus:  I have several new books to read, and as you can see, I’ve stocked the medicine cabinet with all the drugs I’m likely to need.

I’d write more, but I have to go.  I’m meeting my neighborhood dealer who has promised to sell me a dime bag of the really good, lavender-scented Purell.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

No Contest!

This election season is turning bizarre.  There—that is my entry for this year’s Redundant Platitude Contest.

In particular, the Democratic primaries seem destined to create chaos at the coming party convention.  Every single day, the news reports claim that the lack of a single dominant candidate will result in “a brokered or contested” convention.  The talking heads on the television use the two terms interchangeably, and they shouldn’t, for a brokered convention is very different from a contested convention.

First, let’s start with the surprising news that party conventions are not part of the constitution, which never mentions either political parties or conventions.  There are few laws that actually govern political parties, most of the rules that regulate party operations are drafted by the party themselves.  If you want to create your own party, imbibe a case of beer, and then suddenly announce your party’s platform and your slate of candidates.  There is nothing to stop you from doing so, and personally, I've always thought it was a shame that America doesn't their own version of the European Pirate Party.  England not only has a Silly Party, but a separate Monster Raving Loony Party.

Political party conventions are actually relatively new in American History.  The Democrats first convention was in 1832, at which they chose Andrew Jackson.  For the Republicans, the first convention was held in 1856 when they selected John Fremont.  Jackson won and is currently on the $20 bill; Fremont lost and has a couple of streets named after him out West—sic transit Gloria mundi.

A brokered convention is one at which the party officials meet privately and reach an agreement about who the candidate will be.  The decision involves, at most, minimal input from the voters (who presumably are anxiously waiting to learn the identity of their favorite candidate).  This has been portrayed in countless films, invariably set in smoke-filled rooms populated by bloated plutocrats, smoking cigars and imbibing bourbon while relaxing in overstuffed leather chairs.  (Like a mafioso meeting, only with less spaghetti.)

Since the term, “brokered convention” implies (correctly) shady backroom deals, you will almost never hear a politician use the term.

Presumably, the candidate is selected after numerous reciprocal deals.  “I’ll back your man if I can pick the Secretary of State and the Postmaster General.”  These kinds of political deals were so widely accepted as the norm that when Lincoln won the nomination, his handlers may have promised more political jobs than actually existed.  Such deals inevitably led to corruption and malfeasance, prompting the Civil Service reforms after the Civil War, a measure that curbed but by no means eliminated the practice.

The last brokered convention—at least the last one done obviously—was the 1964 Republican Convention when Barry Goldwater failed to win enough pledged delegates to win on the first ballot, so former President Eisenhower worked together with Governor Nelson Rockefeller—who had also run for the nomination but came in second to Goldwater—to “convince” delegates to choose Goldwater. 

These political machinations were well-known, resulting in mass protests at the convention, in heated arguments on the floor, and in public demonstrations outside of the hall.  The convention generally devolved into a political dumpster fire, which was fully reported on the evening news and was in no small part responsible for Goldwater’s inevitable loss to Johnson in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.  (Four years later, the Democratic convention was much, much worse, but that is a different story.)

By comparison, a contested convention is one at which no single candidate has enough delegates to win on the first ballot, resulting in multiple votes before a candidate is selected.  The last such convention occurred in 1952 when the Democrats struggled to find a suitable candidate because the candidate they actually preferred, General Eisenhower, was running as a Republican.   This problem, coupled with the general public’s dissatisfaction with a party that had held the White House for two decades, all but guaranteed that the Democratic Convention would accomplish nothing more than choosing a sacrificial lamb doomed to make pleasant speeches before losing gracefully. 

You wouldn’t be completely wrong to say the Democrats didn’t even really try that year—they even held their convention in the same city and in the same convention hall as the Republicans had, just a few weeks earlier.  Their eventual victim, Adlai Stevenson, lost with such grace and style that four years later, the Democrats let him lose to Eisenhower a second time.

Note.  The 1956 election is the first I can personally remember, though somewhat dimly.  There was a lot of joking about the amount of time Eisenhower spent playing golf.  (I know what you are thinking—NO!  Neither Eisenhower nor Trump set the record for playing golf, since neither came close to Woodrow Wilson.)  I remember seeing, perhaps a year or two later, bumper stickers that read:  “If we have to have a golfer for president, elect Sam Snead!”

Both parties have learned that contested conventions usually result in a loss at the ballot box, so party officials desperately try to privately broker the convention to prevent a public fight and the resulting inevitable loss at the ballot box.  Contested conventions are such bad news, that no one really wants to see one occur….Except historians and political junkies.  I qualify on both counts.

If we carefully examine all the party conventions since the Civil War, there have been 18 contested conventions almost evenly split between the two parties.  From those conventions, only seven candidates were successfully elected, but four of those were during years where both parties ran candidates resulting from contested conventions, meaning one of the contested candidates had to win.  Only three times in the last 150 years has a sole contested candidate managed to win the White House.

For contested convention madness, few measure up to the absurd chaos of the 1924 Democratic Convention.  While the party had two popular candidates, the front runners were competing against fifty-two other candidates, including Marcus Coolidge, a relative of then President Coolidge, who was seeking reelection.  The most serious deadlock was caused by the Ku Klux Klan, reemergent after World War I, who opposed Al Smith on the grounds that he was not only a Catholic, but he opposed prohibition.

It probably surprises you that the KKK supported prohibition, as it seems only logical that morons who would cut up their mother’s bedsheets and act like fools just had to be drunk at the time.

It was also probably a good thing that the convention was held at Madison Square Garden, since eventually, the convention broke down into the sort of general violence that one associates with prize fights and hockey matches.  By the second day of voting, disgusted spectators were spitting from the balconies on the delegates below.  Long before a consensus could be reached, many of the delegates ran out of money and simply went home.

Finally, after 17 days and 103 ballots, the dwindling remaining delegates selected a “dark horse” compromise candidate, West Virginia Congressman John W. Davis.   The entire nation, acting as one, said exactly what you are thinking—Who the hell is John W. Davis?  The answer is simple—the guy who lost to Calvin Coolidge.

Both political parties have changed their rules over time to avoid contested conventions.  At one time, a candidate had to have a two-thirds majority to win.  That rule was changed in the 1930’s to require only a simple majority.  When even that became unlikely, the parties began to experiment with “super delegates” (unelected delegates who are chosen by the party and who are free to vote for whomever they—or more likely the party leaders—desire). 

Unfortunately—at least for historians eager to see a gory convention—this year will probably not result in the carnage we would like to see.  Since there is simply too much to lose, the Democratic Party will quietly move heaven and earth to prevent multiple ballots.  Call it a “brokered convention lite”—a sanitized vegan convention that is less filling, with fewer calories and no red meat for the starving political junkies and eager journalists. 

How can I be so sure?  Well, the last time the experts promised us a contested convention was in 2016, when there was absolutely no way the Republicans could possibly unite behind anyone.