US Exceptionalism or Right Wing Delusion?

Thomas Jefferson, when he left office, was quoted as saying:

“The station which we occupy among the nations of this earth is honorable but awful. Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.” (Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900))

A lot of people are a little confused about the beginnings of democracy in the US. People tend to think that the US went right from Revolution and Declaration of Independence to Constitution. From 1776 to 1789 the US was governed not by a Constitution but by a document called the Articles of Confederation. The states soon learned that they needed a central government powerful enough to collect taxes and settle disputes between states in order to prosecute the war and keep the peace.

Both the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution were heavily influenced by the latest political thought of that era. Political thought in the 1700’s was dominated by the Enlightenment. Treatises by philosophers like Voltaire, Locke, and Spinoza brought concepts like separation of church and state, freedom of expression, and individual liberty into the political mainstream. These new concepts fundamentally changed the relationship between government and its citizens. The first nation to be founded under these new liberal concepts was the US.

Unfortunately the liberalism of the time was still heavily moderated by the bigotry of that era. Freedom in the US didn’t extend to Slaves, Native Americans or Women. There were also very few protections for the average worker. Debt slavery, the practice of paying off a debt by using the debtor as a slave, was common until well into the 20th century.

The expressions of liberal ideals found in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were unique at the time but those liberal ideals had already been adopted throughout Europe. Scotland, England, Germany and a host of other countries had all gone a long way toward implementing those same liberal standards well before the US Revolution. The written documents were unique but US practices, especially in adhering to slavery, were despicable.

Thomas Jefferson was the first of many US politicians to conflate the idealism of the Constitution with a mandate to spread the ideals of democracy. The US saw itself as a sort of new Israel spreading the new republican religion. Expansionism became ‘manifest destiny’ and the new American Exceptionalism demanded the slaughter of all in its way. Unfortunately atrocities against Native Americans and war with Mexico meant that a lot of the people the US brought freedom to were dead at the time of acceptance.

The end of the Civil War marked the supposed end of slavery in the US. Could this finally be that period when US Exceptionalism would prove the US as a force for good? Unfortunately between The Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and groups like the KKK the US was still mostly failing to live up to their goals.

The beginning of the 20th century was when the US finally became an economic power. Prior to the beginning of the 20th century the US economy was not much of a factor in the world economy. Technology and manufacturing advances got the US into a leading economic role by the 1920’s. By the end of the 1920’s the US economy, driven by very irresponsible speculation, was big enough to cause a global economic collapse.

A big driving force in the economic rise of the US was WWI. In 1917 the US was still basically a third world power. When German u-boats started attacking US merchant ships they did so knowing that the US had very few forces (in 1916 the US Army had 208.000 men and 11,300 officers) and poor equipment. The Germans had even contacted Mexico and were recruiting them to attack the US so they could recover the lands they had lost to the US 70 years earlier. The US responded by passing the Selective Service Act and drafting 2.8 million men. By 1918 the US was sending 10,000 men a day to France. Germany and its allies, already weary from three years of intense warfare and running low on resources, quickly lost the war of attrition.

All of the buildup in infrastructure fueled a massive postwar economic boom ending in the Great Depression. FDR’s remedies for the Great Depression faced a lot of opposition. Businessmen in the US had never really had to deal with any significant regulation. The modern right-wing was born from opposition to FDR’s reforms.

Finally the US, after WWII, entered its period of greatest prosperity. The period from 1945 to 1975 saw the US with the worlds highest standard of living, best educational system, most advanced technology, etc. By the end of the sixties the US finally began to recognize the civil rights of most of its citizens (still no gay rights). Could this finally be that period in which American Exceptionalism resulted in the ‘good’ promised by Jefferson et al?

Sadly the post WWII era saw the US using its military and economic might to keep other nations from freely choosing their own governments. Through organizations like the School of the Americas and plans like Operation Condor the US trained Latin American terrorists to overthrow governments that went against US corporate interests. While the US had no equivalent in the Middle East that did not stop Eisenhower (under the Eisenhower doctrine) from ordering the CIA to topple Premier Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran-after Mossadegh had nationalized British- and American-owned oil companies. In every case the US preferred to prop up dictatorships rather than allow the people of those countries to make their own choices.

US meddling with the Middle East in particular may have actually been responsible for one of the most nefarious groups in the modern era. During the Carter Administration the US helped fund a group of Afghanistan terrorists who were fighting an attempted invasion by the Soviet Union. They were an unknown group called Al Queda.

Throughout the history of the US there have been moments when the US has done wonderful things but the US is no different in that respect from any other world power. The fact is that the principles upon which the US was founded are noble but the history of this country is not exceptional.

The real irony is that the people who claim we are exceptional the loudest are precisely the people most opposed to the liberalism upon which we were founded. The Jeffersonian notion that the US was exceptional because it had codified within its Constitution the liberal principles of the Enlightenment has been distorted by the Republican Party into a notion that somehow the US is entitled to whatever it wants because of its inherent ‘goodness’. The problem is that the US has all to often thrown out their principles in the name of profit.

The Ongoing Economic Crisis and Why it Goes On

The Fiscal Cliff crisis was just resolved but the Debt Ceiling Crisis is still hanging over our heads. The US economy lurches back and forth like a drunken sailor in a foreign port. US victims of a natural disaster wait for aid while Republicans debate over whether we should help victims of natural disasters. How do we go from being the undisputed greatest nation on the planet to the worlds biggest banana republic in just 30 years?

One of the more interesting things that has happened in the modern era is that the majority of people, including many ‘experts’, have completely forgotten how the US became successful. Early US history isn’t a very pretty sight between the genocide of Native Americans and fairly constant warfare between the US, its neighbors and various European powers of the time. Lest you think I’m exaggerating here is just a partial list of US wars from the US Revolution to 1900:

1775-1783 American Revolution English Colonists vs. Great Britain
1798-1800 Franco-American Naval War United States vs. France
1801-1805; 1815 Barbary Wars United States vs. Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli
1812-1815 War of 1812 United States vs. Great Britain
1813-1814 Creek War United States vs. Creek Indians
1836 War of Texas Independence Texas vs. Mexico
1846-1848 Mexican-American War United States vs. Mexico
1861-1865 U.S. Civil War Union vs. Confederacy
1898 Spanish-American War United States vs. Spain

There are conflicts I left off, like the Arikara War (1823) and the Winnebago War (1827) only because the point being made is that the US early on is really only prosperous because we are in the process of taking prosperity from other groups of people. All of this conflict, by the beginning of the 20th century, results in the US we recognize today (Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma are added just after the turn of the century and while Hawaii and Alaska are added in 1959).

Until the turn of the century the US is an agricultural power fueled primarily by cotton and tobacco. The industrial revolution and an explosion of technology (cars, radios, refrigerators etc) fueled an economic boom but that economic boom really doesn’t happen without a very important economic principle known as Fordism. Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, this principle could be applied to any kind of manufacturing process. Major success stemmed from three major principles:

1) The standardization of the product (nothing hand-made: everything is made through machines, molds and not by skilled craftsmanship)

2) The use of special-purpose tools and/or equipment designed to make assembly lines possible: tools are designed to permit workers with low skill levels to operate “assembly lines” – where each worker does one task over and over and over again – like on a doll assembly line, where one worker might spend all day every day screwing on doll heads.

3) Workers are paid higher “living” wages, so they can afford to purchase the products they make.

The third principle, in particular, became the key element in creating US prosperity. Ford realized early on that his workers only worked for him an average of three months. When Ford began paying his workers better and giving them days off (Ford was one of the first factories to go to a five day work week) along with other perks he began retaining workers. These workers were now making enough money to buy not only Ford’s automobiles but all of the new technology ranging from stoves to radios. The US economy was booming, or roaring as they said in the twenties. Then the Great Depression happened.

The Great Depression was the kind of global event that should cause a great deal of introspection. The entire world economy collapsed, banks failed and people saw their life savings wiped out literally overnight. This triggered a massive debate about the cause of the depression. There are several views of what might have caused the depression but the one that came to dominate was that of an economist named John Maynard Keynes. Keynes argued in General Theory of Employment Interest and Money that lower aggregate expenditures in the economy contributed to a massive decline in income and to employment that was well below the average. In such a situation, the economy reached equilibrium at low levels of economic activity and high unemployment. Keynes’ basic idea was simple: to keep people fully employed, governments have to run deficits when the economy is slowing, as the private sector would not invest enough to keep production at the normal level and bring the economy out of recession. Keynesian economists called on governments during times of economic crisis to pick up the slack by increasing government spending and/or cutting taxes.

FDR listened to Keynes and created a host of government agencies to pump money into the country and employ workers. He also created a number of regulations to ensure that some of the more egregious economic excesses by private business would not be repeated. Most that the recovery of the US economy (and that of most of the rest of the world) began in 1933 and full recovery came with the massive spending required by WWII in 1939 (the US didn’t enter WWII until 1941).

The period of greatest prosperity in the US by any measure is the period from the end of WWII in 1945 to 1973. During this time people in the US enjoyed the highest standard of living, the best education and a vibrant, progressive society.

The debate over what caused the Great Depression was never completely resolved but it was never forgotten. FDR used a huge Democratic majority to override conservative opposition to the New Deal policies designed to end the Great Depression. The reaction by conservatives was to create the ‘conservative coalition’ a group of conservative congressmen from both parties. The Conservative Manifesto (officially titled “An Address to the People of the United States” ) was a position statement drafted in 1937 by the conservative coalition. The statement called for:

lowering taxes on capital gains and undistributed profits,
reducing government spending and balancing budgets,
restoring peace to the relationship between labor and industry,
resisting government competition with private enterprise,
recognizing the importance of profit in private enterprise,
protecting collateral as a prerequisite for credit,
reducing taxes,
maintaining states’ rights,
aiding the unemployed in an economical and locally responsible manner, and
relying on American free enterprise.

The conservative coalition was dedicated to overturning the New Deal even though New Deal policies were what ended the Great Depression. They wanted to return to the same policies Herbert Hoover had enacted, the same policies that led to the depression.

Conservatives were in a terrible position by the end of the 1940’s. The public liked their newfound prosperity and they knew that the New Deal was a part of that prosperity. Nixon had figured out how to appeal to southern conservative which broke up the biggest Democratic voting block of that era but they still had no way to get people to buy into getting rid of the New Deal. Finally in 1964, after a disastrous defeat in the Presidential election, a conservative senator named Barry Goldwater decided that he would never be able to be elected without making some fundamental changes in the thinking of US voters. The result was think tanks like the Heritage Foundation which was formed to find ways to reframe anti-New Deal conservatism in a way more palatable to the public. This led to the rise of conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh and eventually conservative media.

The Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups began a program of pushing conservative professors onto college campuses and repealing the Fairness Doctrine so that they didn’t have to present balanced views. From 1975 to the present conservatives have managed to get the majority of the electorate to completely forget that the policies they are advocating are the same policies Hoover was enacting before the Great Depression. They want to return to the era of false prosperity because that was an era when they had no social responsibility.

Don’t be fooled. What is going on right now, this argument about the economy, really is about social responsibility. Do we want to be the kind of country that gives everyone a real chance to have a good life or are we just a society that abandons those of us who struggle now and then? The Free Market system is a great vehicle for creating wealth but it can be equally good for stifling the opposition. A well established company can quite easily destroy weaker competition and even prevent new competition from gaining a foothold, eventually creating a monopoly for itself under the free market system. Regulation is what levels the playing field in the free market system, that is what allows an innovative startup to compete with established companies.

Wisdom and Expertise

No one can know everything.  Over the years I’ve heard this mantra recited in all manner of discussions to justify everything from climate change denial to belief in any number of religious doctrines.  The argument is an interesting one because it is the sort of half-truth that absolves its adherent from responsibility from the consequences of their beliefs and decisions based on those beliefs.

Let’s face it, we all have lives that, if we are lucky, have us involved in a plethora of activities in which we are really interested.  We know the most about things that we are passionate about and we tend to know the least about those things that we care the least about.  A relatively small percentage of people really care about things like economics, metaphysics, theology, car repair, cooking or almost any given subject enough to devote to them any formal study.  We rely instead on “experts”, people who we believe understand the subject more fully than we do and are willing to give us advice.  When your car breaks down you see a mechanic, if the pipes leak you call a plumber.  Our society is built on the notion that we can always get reliable expert advice.

One drawback to this system is that it relies on our experts acting ethically and on them actually being experts.  Incompetence and fraud usually lead to disastrous results.  We even have experts like the Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau, Media Matters etc. to advise us on which experts are really experts.

The last four decades in the US have seen a unique sort of war being waged against certain kinds of experts.  Suddenly the experts we rely on to study the physical world and its fundamental structure are being discredited.  Evidence for scientific theories like Evolution and Climate Change are being portrayed as no more reliable than religious doctrine.  People are being asked to choose between their religious experts and scientific experts with politicians actively using religiosity to push policies scientific experts would discredit.

The knee-jerk reaction is to simply line up behind your preferred set of experts and do whatever they recommend but there is a better alternative.  Both sets of experts have track records, we can see what happens when religion dominates a culture and when science takes the lead.  We can critically evaluate the nearly 1200 years of church dominance in the West and compare it to the 500 or so years of Post Enlightenment Western culture.   We can see the thousands of years of little to no progress versus the incredible cultural acceleration we achieved once the oppression of religious rule was eased.

The anti-science movement in the US is nothing more than a confidence game.   Greedy businessmen and power hungry politicians would prefer you to follow religious experts because those experts have no knowledge of the real world or the consequences of poor policies and unethical profiteering.  Do you really think it a coincidence that the very kinds of experts who warn about the consequences of things like climate-change, fracking, pollution etc. are targets of massive campaigns to discredit them?

I encourage all readers here to find their own experts but keep in mind that sometimes the person telling you what you want to hear has others things in mind than keeping you informed.