Posts tagged ‘Civil War’

A Small Bit of Good News -- DC Circuits Slaps Down the IRS

The creeping regulatory / corporate state gets a setback

Faulting the IRS for attempting to “unilaterally expand its authority,” the D.C. Circuit today affirmed a district court decision tossing out the agency’s tax-preparer licensing program. Under the program, all paid tax-return preparers, hitherto unregulated, were required to pass a certification exam, pay annual fees to the agency, and complete 15 hours of continuing education each year.

The program, of course, had been backed by the major national tax-return preparers, chiefly as a way of driving up compliance costs for smaller rivals and pushing home-based “kitchen table” preparers out of business. Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, lead counsel to the tax preparers challenging the program,called the decision “a major victory for tax preparers—and taxpayers—nationwide.”

The licensing program was not only a classic example of corporate cronyism, but also of agency overreach. IRS relied on an 1884 statute empowering it to “regulate the practice of representatives or persons before [it].” Prior to 2011, IRS had never claimed that the statute gave it authority to regulate preparers. Indeed, in 2005, an IRS official testified that preparers fell outside of the law’s reach.

Perhaps a first indication that the Obama Administration strategy to pack the DC Circuit with Obama appointees may not necessarily protect his executive overreach.

PS - you gotta love the IJ.

PPS - The IRS justified its actions under "an obscure 1884 statute governing the representatives of Civil War soldiers seeking compensation for dead horses"

How Newspapers May Survive

Local blogger Greg Patterson writes:

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Gannett will soon be adding USA Today to it's local papers.

With this change, the Republic and USA Today are essentially a hybrid.  As print revenue continues to slide the USA Today side will grow and the Republic side will shrink.  Eventually, your morning Republic will consist of a copy of USA Today with enhanced local coverage.

This is a change I have expected for a long time.  The wire services have always existed as an attempt by local papers to share costs in national and international news gathering, but I would have expected this next step of national consolidation some time ago.  The internet allows not just the text, but the entire layout of newspapers to be transmitted instantly across the country.

The whole situation reminds me of television broadcasting, where local affiliates exist mainly as a byproduct of past technological limitations in signal transmission.  Satellite and cable have eliminated these restrictions, but still local affiliates exist, in part because there is some demand for local content but in part because of the fact that the government protects their existence (by law, cable and satellite operators must give you the local affiliate, they cannot give you the national feed).

This is what I wrote back in 2009

I actually think the problem with newspapers like the Washington Post is the "Washington" part.  Local business models dominated for decades in fields where technology made national distribution difficult or where technology did not allow for anything but a very local economy of scale.  Newspapers, delivery of television programming, auto sales, beverage bottling and distribution, book selling, etc. were all mainly local businesses.  But you can see with this list that technology is changing everything.  TV can now be delivered via sattelite and does not require local re-distribution via line of sight broadcast towers or cable systems.  Amazon dominated book selling via the Internet.  Many of these businesses (e.g. liquor, auto dealers, TV broadcasting) would have de-localized faster if it had not been for politicians in the pocket of a few powerful companies passing laws to lock in outdated business or technological models.

Newspapers are ripe for a restructuring.  How can one support a great Science page or Book Review section or International Bureau on local circulation?  How much effort do the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, etc. duplicate every day?  People tell me, "that's what the wire services are for."  Bah.  The AP is 160 years old!  It is a pre-Civil War solution to this problem.  Can it really be that technology and changing markets have not facilitated a better solution?

The future is almost certainly a number of national papers (ala the WSJ and USA Today) printed locally with perhaps local offices to provide some local customization or special local section.  Paradoxically, such a massive consolidation from hundreds of local papers to a few national papers would actually increase competition.  While we might get a few less stories about cats being saved from trees in the local paper, we could well end up not with one paper selection (as we have today in most cities) but five or six different papers to choose from  (just look at Britain).  Some of these papers might choose to sell political neutrality while some might compete on political affiliation.

IRS Argues Your Tax Return is Just Like a Dead Horse

Normally this would be a good Friday story, but you can't always control when Washington is going to bring the crazy.

The Obama administration on Tuesday defended its effort to regulate the tax return preparation business for the first time in U.S. history, basing its case largely on a 19th century law dealing with horses lost or killed in the Civil War....

[the Obama Administration attorney] explained that the administration sees the "Horse Act of 1884" as providing ample authority for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to regulate the tens of thousands of preparers who fill out millions of Americans' federal tax returns.

Here is the logic, such that it is

A post-war industry emerged of agents who would press war loss claims for a fee, usually a percentage of the claim collected. Soon, claim values were being fraudulently inflated.

In response, the government started regulating these intermediaries, barring unscrupulous ones and certifying honest ones as "enrolled agents," a title that is still used today by people who represent clients in matters before the IRS.

The IRS is arguing that tax return preparers represent their customers in much the same way that enrolled agents do, so the agency should be able to expand regulation to include preparers.

Note that tax preparers are not actually IRS enrolled agents, they just argue they are kind of sort of like them (in that they both deal with tax returns, I suppose).  But enrolled agents explicitly act as an intermediary between citizens and the government in disputes and claims.  This is not the role of tax preparers.  They merely charge a fee to fill out time-consuming and confusion paperwork.  My tax accountant has never once had any conversations with the IRS on my behalf, nor should he.  I would engage an attorney for that.

Guns, Germs, Steel

The story I was always taught is that the Spanish conquistadors rolled over the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas in what would be an inevitable victory chalked up to guns, germs, and steel.  But I always found this conclusion a bit smelly.  Sure the Spanish had guns and horses, but they didn't have very many of them (a few hundred) and they were not very good.  Three and a half centuries later, the US struggled at times in its wars with North American tribes (just ask the Custer family) despite having FAR better guns, many more trained troops (just after the Civil War), numerical superiority rather than inferiority, and a much better logistics situation (land access by rail vs. sea access by wooden boat).  In addition, Latin American civilizations faced by the Spanish were better organized, far more numerous, and technologically more advanced than plains Indians.  So why the seemingly easy victory by the Spanish?

Apparently there is a new book discussing this topic, which claims the results were much more contingent than commonly believed.

The “steel and germs” explanation for the rapidity of conquest has not convinced all specialists. The newcomers’ technological advantages were insufficient and in any case only temporary; differential mortality was a long-term process, not something that happened at the moment of outsiders’ assault. Thinking about the endemic vulnerabilities of empires helps us understand the situation. The Aztecs and the Incas were themselves imperial formations of relatively recent origin, with highly concentrated power and wealth at the center and often violent relations with not entirely assimilated people at the edges of their empires. When the Europeans arrived, indigenous people were not sure whether the newcomers were enemies, gods, or evil spirits–or potentially useful allies against an oppressive power. These uncertainties made it harder for their rulers, who had no way of knowing what was in store for them, to respond effectively. Cortes and Pizarro recruited allies among disaffected peoples, thereby making their armies as large as the Aztec and Inca forces they fought against. The battle against the Aztecs was hard-fought, with Spaniards suffering reverses, despite their indigenous allies and the hesitations of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The conquest of the Inca empire–more centralized than that of the Aztecs–was also facilitated by turning those excluded under Inca power into indigenous allies.

Petersburg: First Battle of WWI

For something like 9 months in the Civil War, the Union and Confederate armies engaged in a stalemated trench warfare that was a preview of the western front in WWI (a preview that no one learned from).  Only Grant's ability to keep flanking the Confederate line and stretching it out until Lee faced thinning his troops too much eventually broke the stalemate.

One interesting parallel with WWI-- the Union in the Civil War had miners dig tunnels under the Confederate lines and packed them with explosives.  When they blew, it created a great gap in the line and an opportunity for the Union, an opportunity that was lost when Union soldiers went racing into the crater rather than around it.  Trapped in the crater, they were slaughtered by the Confederates.  The mistake was apparently the result of a last minute change of plans.  A group of black soldiers was supposed to lead the attack and had been trained to not go into the hole, but they were replaced at the last minute with white soldiers who had not been similarly briefed.

Anyway, it is odd how history repeats itself.   In WWI, the British tried the same trick, blowing a huge hole in German lines and eventually making a little headway against the German army, though the advantage was, as so many such things were on the Western front, short-lived.

My Highest Recommendation

I have pimped the Teaching Company (now called the Great Courses) for years on this blog.  I have done over 20 courses, and am nearly addicted to their offerings.  Nothing bums we out more than to read their catalog and find nothing new I want, except when that happens I order something random I don't think I want and usually love it.  I listen to music a lot less than I used to because I often have a Great Course on my mp3 player instead.

Via Econlog comes a great article about the Great Courses, and make me feel a bit better that I am not alone in my obsession.  Its one of those really interesting stories about an entrepreneur who sticks with his vision, right down to his last dollar.

But it is also a depressing read for someone who may soon be sending his kid to a small liberal arts college.  Some excerpts related to current college education:

the company offers a treasure trove of traditional academic content that undergraduates paying $50,000 a year may find nowhere on their Club Med–like campuses. This past academic year, for example, a Bowdoin College student interested in American history courses could have taken “Black Women in Atlantic New Orleans,” “Women in American History, 1600–1900,” or “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl: Gender and the Suburbs,” but if he wanted a course in American political history, the colonial and revolutionary periods, or the Civil War, he would have been out of luck. A Great Courses customer, by contrast, can choose from a cornucopia of American history not yet divvied up into the fiefdoms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, with multiple offerings in the American Revolution, the constitutional period, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, and the intellectual influences on the country’s founding. There are lessons here for the academy, if it will only pay them heed....

The Great Courses’ uninhibited enthusiasm is so alien to contemporary academic discourse that several professors who have recorded for the firm became defensive when I asked them about their course descriptions, emphatically denying any part in writing the copy—as if celebrating beauty were something to be ashamed of....

So totalitarian is the contemporary university that professors have written to Rollins complaining that his courses are too canonical in content and do not include enough of the requisite “silenced” voices. It is not enough, apparently, that identity politics dominate college humanities departments; they must also rule outside the academy. Of course, outside the academy, theory encounters a little something called the marketplace, where it turns out that courses like “Queering the Alamo,” say, can’t compete with “Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition.”...

In its emphasis on teaching, the company differs radically from the academic world, where “teaching is routinely stigmatized as a lower-order pursuit, and the ‘real’ academic work is research,” notes Allen Guelzo, an American history professor at Gettysburg College. Though colleges ritually berate themselves for not putting a high enough premium on teaching, they inevitably ignore that skill in awarding tenure or extra pay. As for reaching an audience beyond the hallowed walls of academe, perhaps a regular NPR gig would gain notice in the faculty lounge, but not a Great Courses series. Jeremy McInerney, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1998 that he wouldn’t have taped “Ancient Greek Civilization” for the company if his tenure vote had been in doubt: “This doesn’t win you any further respect. If anything, there’s a danger of people looking down on it, since many people are suspicious of anything that reeks of popularism.” So much for the academy’s supposed stance against elitism....

Further, it isn’t clear that the Great Courses professors teach the same way back on their home campuses. A professor who teaches the Civil War as the “greatest slave uprising in history” to his undergraduates because that is what is expected of him, says University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Kors, will know perfectly well how to teach a more intellectually honest course for paying adults.

While I took a fair number of liberal arts courses, being an engineer really sheltered me from this kind of BS.  But my kids interests run more towards liberal arts, and while I am working to enforce the double major approach (you can take whatever major interests you as long as you double it with economics or something useful), I still despair that they really are going to get what they think they will get at college.

Biden on Government

From the New York Daily News, quoting VP Biden: (via Maggies Farm)

Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive

Wow, its hard to believe that even a hard core statist believes this in the face of historical evidence, but there it is.  The example  (and remember even a single correct example does not support the word "every") is an interesting one:

"In the middle of the Civil War you had a guy named Lincoln paying people $16,000 for every 40 miles of track they laid across the continental United States. "¦ No private enterprise would have done that for another 35 years."

I am actually stunned that he is historically literate enough to get the second part of this right, that there was in fact a single transcontinental railroad, James J Hill's Great Northern, that completed its line without government subsidies or land grants.  He even gets the date about right.  A few thoughts:

  • Not mentioned by Biden is the emergence of the entire rest of the US railroad industry, which by 1860 had about 30,000 miles of track, mostly via private initiative.
  • I think the original transcontinental railroad has interesting parallels to the Apollo program -- certainly government action got us into space and a transcontinental railroad faster than private action, but it could be argued that both delayed private initiative in these areas longer than would have occurred without the action.
  • For Lincoln in the Civil War, the transcontinental had as much to do with cementing Union control of California as it did promoting commerce or any other values

Here is my favorite fact -- Every single transcontinental railroad went bankrupt at least once before 1925, except one.  Can you guess which one did not?  Yes, it was the Great Northern, the only one built entirely with private capital.

I'm Pretty Sure We Are Not Going to Get Any Deficit Reduction

Via Reason, from the man Obama personally appointed to lead the Deficit Commision

"America needs a 21st century economic plan because we now know the market-worshipping, privatizing, de-regulating, dehumanizing American financial plan has failed and should never be revived, worshipping the market again," Stern said in remarks at the annual conference of the liberal activist group Campaign for America's Future in Washington on Monday."It has failed America and everyone that works here," Stern said.

Stern said the changes that Obama and Democrats in Congress have made are nothing short of a "revolution" that will move the American economy from national to international.

"This not our father's or our grandfather's economy," Stern said. "We're as far today from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War. And we cannot drive into the future looking in the rear view mirror."

He said the progressive movement must build on the past and look to the future as the economy is transformed "from a manufacturing base, to a service, finance, knowledge, green, Internet, and bio-science economy."

"This revolution's going to only take 30 years," Stern said. "No single generation of people have ever witnessed this much change in a single lifetime. [...] And as we've witnessed now in the absence of a simple and realistic way forward, people "“ even us "“ sometimes resist the future or try to turn back the clock to days that are now long gone."

I am not sure I have ever heard anyone sound more like a scabby beauracrat in Atlas Shrugged.  Can you believe this dweeb along with Barrack and the gang who can't shoot straight taking credit for the transformatoin of the economy?  As if these guys have anything to do with the rise of new industries and technologies, except to make their birth and growth more difficult through strangling regulation and taxes.

The last paragraph about progressives and change is an interesting one in the context of this old post of mine, where I discuss how progressives most hate free markets for their constant change and unpredictability. Here is an excerpt:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount. ...

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or"¦
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful "” as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).

Update: What does the line about shifting form a national to international economy mean?  It must be some kind of progressive code phrase that does not mean what it sounds like, since most progressives and this administration tend to be opposed to free trade and have a strong tendency towards protectionism.  After all, these are the same guys that sympathize with the anti-globalization rioters at various G8 conferences.

Post-War Devastation

We associate photos like this one with the devastation of post-war Europe.


In fact, this is a post-war photo, but it is of Charleston, South Carolina after the Civil War.   We seldom think of such scenes as being relevent to the US, but the South was at least as destroyed after the Civil War as Germany was after WWII.   Sherman's march to the sea in Georgia was famous for its devastation, but in their letters, many of Sherman's soldiers say they were particularly ferocious in South Carolina, the state that they most associated with the war and its start  (though much of the devastation in Charleston was self-inflicted, as a fire to burn the remaining cotton and keep it out of Yankee hands spread to the rest of the city).

Full sized image at Shorpy

Generation Skipping

Glen Reynolds linked this a while ago, but I was fascinated that two of President Tylers grandsons are still alive.   President Tyler was born in 1790 and died before the Civil War was over.  The younger of the two is profiled here. The key seems to be that his father was conceived when President Tyler was in his 60's, and he was conceived when his father was about 75.

Save Our Industry, The Economy Depends on It

I have been on a Civil War reading binge lately, which began when I read "Time on the Cross", which is a really interesting economic analysis of American slavery.  Since I have read a number of other Civil War and Ante-Bellum history books, including James McPherson's excellent one volume Civil War history.

I was struck in several of these books by the reaction of British textile manufacturers to the war and, more specifically, the informal southern embargo of cotton exports in 1860-61.  These textile producers screamed bloody murder to the British government, demanding that they recognize the Confederacy and intervene on their behalf, claiming that the lack of cotton would doom their industry and thereby doom the whole country.  On its face, this was a credible argument, as textiles probably made up more of the British GDP at the time than any three or four industries account for in the US today. 

Fortunately, the British chose not to intervene, and risked the economic consequences of not supporting the textile industry by jumping into the American Civil War.  As it turned out, the British economy was fine, and in fact even the textile industry was fine as well, as demand was still high and other sources around the world stepped up (because of the higher prices that resulted from the Southern boycott) with increased cotton supplies.

The Libertarian Foreign Policy Problem

Outside of trade policy and climate treaties, I very seldom discuss foreign policy.  First, because it is not my first interest.  Second, because I am not an expert and do not spend the time to keep myself sufficiently informed on the issues to have useful insights.  Third, because of exactly this problem stated so well my Megan McArdle:

I periodically flirt with isolationism, or if you prefer,
"non-intervention". Like most libertarians, I'm attracted to "high
concept" political philosophy: simple rules that can be stated in a
sentence or less. No arguments about causus belli, blowback, or
ultimately unknowable political ramifications; just a simple "yes or
no" test. Did a foreign army invade the United States? For "Yes", press
one; for "No", press two, and go back to arguing about what should
replace child welfare laws in the coming anarcho-capitalist society.

Besides, all the foreigners hate having us there. Why not leave, and
see if absence makes the heart grow fonder? (I suspect that many
nations which have come, over long decades, to regard regional peace as
some sort of natural law, will get a rather nasty surprise. This might
make our influence look, in retrospect, rather appealing.)

But anyone who thinks at all seriously about libertarianism will,
fairly early on, be faced with a very high hurdle. There are a handful
of wars in which American intervention unambiguously halted gross
abuses of human liberty. World War II is one, though many end up going
around, rather than over . . . arguing that the Nazis were the direct
result of American intervention in World War I; or that it was
justified because Japan attacked us1; or that Russia and Britain would have defeated Hitler anyway2.  The American Civil War, however, is by far the highest leap; and the hardest to dodge.

In theory, every state has the right to secede, and the stated
Federal rationale for the Civil War--preserving the union--was the
vilest tyranny. In practice, chattel slavery was a barbarism even

And so we killed 20-30% of the Confederate Army, not a few of our
own, and uncounted numbers of civilians. That's not counting the
wounded, who probably outnumbered the dead. All we managed to achieve,
at this horrendous cost, was a corrupt and brutal occupation, followed
by the "freedom" of Jim Crow, sharecropping, and "separate but equal". And it was worth it.
The good guys won. We didn't do everything we wanted to, or even
everything we could have, or should have. Jim Crow was putrid. But it
was nonetheless so much better than slavery that it was worth the
horrendous cost--in my opinion, and that of almost everyone in the

For me, a big part of the problem is one of information -- generally, most of the information one might find useful in deciding if X is a good war to pursue is from the government, an institution that demonstrably cannot be trusted based on past history when it makes this case.  Non-interventionism seems the right way to go, except for the
(relatively few) times it is not.  The problems is, to paraphrase the
famous dictum about advertising money, "half (or more) of our wars are
a waste -- we just don't know in advance which half."  Megan uses the
example of the Civil War, saying that that war was worth it because we
got rid of slavery.  But the war by no means began that way.  It wasn't
really until well into the war that both sides were pretty much in
agreement that the war was about ending or retaining slavery. I would argue that in advance, that war looked like an awful, terrible, horrible proposition.  The initial value proposition was "let's go to war so the Feds can have a bigger empire to run."  Only later did it become, "let's go to war to free a large part of our population."  There was a female professor, I forget her name, who made the point that the Emancipation Proclamation changed the war from a bloody waste of time to a moral positive.  But that came years into the fight.

The other problem I have is that the war is fought by, well, the government, the institution for which I have no trust.  One way of thinking about it is that every time we go to war, we put our lives and treasure and very future as a country in the hands of the Post Office.  Eeek.

8th Grade, 1895

I thought this was pretty interesting. It purports to be (and I have no reason to doubt that it is) an 8th grade final exam given in 1895 in Salina, KS.  I have seen it in the context of "gee, look how much worse our schools are" and to some extent that is unfair.  Sure, I think we all can get a gut feel from the test that expectations on students were a bit more unyielding and rigorous back then. One gets the sense that the Salina school district has not had to defend the test in court against charges that it discriminates against ... whatever and that they would not really understand the current public mantra that self-esteem should somehow trump learning and achievement.

But the fact that you and I can't answer a lot of the questions doesn't really mean much. Some of it would be hard to pass because it asks for frameworks we don't necessarily ascribe to today.  For example, it asks for the epochs into which US history is divided.  I have no idea what such epochs would be and in fact they are probably irrelevant given we have twice as much history as a country today as in 1895.  And it takes a minute to remember that when they say the "rebellion" they are probably talking about the Civil War.  And as to "orthography,"  I am not losing much sleep at night over not being able to "Give four substitutes for caret 'u'."

In general, the test reflects a shift in teaching from a lot of technical memorization to the more conceptual.  Kids who passed this test in 1895 could probably spell oddball words and fill out a map better than my kids, but I would be curious how well they would do on a five paragraph persuasive essay, something my eighth grader spends a lot of time on. 

Math is one area where my kid's education would blow this stuff away.  The math on this 1895 test is pretty tailored to the needs of a small farming town:

1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.

2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many
bushels of wheat will it hold?

3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50 cts.
per bu., deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?

4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary
levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have
$104 for incidentals?

5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.

6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7

7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at
$20 per m?

8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10

9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per are, the distance
around which is 640 rods?

10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

But by the end of eight grade my kids will have had two years of algebra, not necessarily because they are smarter than kids in 1895, but because perceived needs change.  My kids are more likely to need complex math for advanced science and technical degrees than they are going to need to be able to figure out how many bushels of grain will fit in the silo.  Further, where is the science on the test?  How about a second language? 

My kids go to a private school, so maybe public school parents have a different perspective.  There are a lot of reasons to criticize public schools today, but I don't think this test gives us much insight into them.

Ken Burns Disappoints?

I had eagerly awaited the first installment of Ken Burns documentary on WWII.  While it was fine, it undershot my expectations.  My expectations may be affected by the fact that, unlike the Civil War or other topics he has addressed, WWII has been done to death by documentaries.  It may also be that WWII is so sprawling, its hard to get a handle on in his timeframe.  After all, his series will be much shorter than the classic World at War and even than his own series on Baseball.

As with the Civil War, I thought the focus on a few American cities and the impact of the war worked pretty well.  However, I found the narrator (Keith David) for this particular series sleep inducing, particularly after David McCullough in the Civil War did such an outstanding job (and he was not even a professional "voice") and after the incredible cast of voice-overs in that same series.  Also, the organization seemed bizarre.  Around the 2 hour mark, they seemed to be clearly wrapping up the first episode, with summaries of dead and injured in the first part of the war.  But then all of a sudden they grafted on a short segment about Latinos and the marine raider battalion on Guadalcanal, and even a little snippet about Bougainville.  And then it just ended suddenly.  Made zero sense to me.

A Nation of Slaveholders

With the northern victory in the Civil War, and the subsequent passage of the 13th amendment, slavery was formally ended in this country.  Specifically, the 13th amendment stated:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist
within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, over a century later, slavery has returned to the United States.  Today, through the exercise of political power and the redistribution of wealth that should never have been Constitutional, 55% of Americans hold the other 45% in bondage, living off the product of their efforts just as surely as the white plantation owners of the Old South lived off the sweat of their African slaves.  The basis for this new servitude, however,  is not race, or religion, or national origin, but productivity. (via TJIC)

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Slightly over half of all Americans - 52.6 percent - now receive
significant income from government programs, according to an analysis
by Gary Shilling, an economist in Springfield, N.J. That's up from 49.4
percent in 2000 and far above the 28.3 percent of Americans in 1950. If
the trend continues, the percentage could rise within ten years to pass
55 percent, where it stood in 1980 on the eve of President's Reagan's
move to scale back the size of government.

Meanwhile, Ari Fleischer writes in today's WSJ (sub req) that the
top 1% of income earners pay 37% of total income taxes, the top 10% of
income earners pay 71% of total income taxes, and the top 40% of income
earners pay 99% of total income taxes.

The latter analysis is a bit off because it does not include payroll taxes, but if you include these taxes you still have under 50% of Americans paying virtually all the taxes (table at top of this page includes payroll taxes

The second greatest failing of the Constitution as originally drafted (the first being legality of slavery) is the lack of clear protections for property and commerce.  As a result, the only protection we have against full confiscation of everything we own is the whim of the electorate.  Now that a clear majority of voters are on the receiving end of money confiscated from a minority of voters, how good is this last protection? 

We have become a nation of slaveholders, with the majority holding the productive minority in bondage.  Inserting government in the middle of this process as an agent, so the recipients of this slave labor don't have to get their own hands dirty, does not change the nature of the relationship one bit.  It just pretties things up for our conscience.

Update:  Is the word "slavery" over the top?  Maybe, and I guess I could be accused of trivializing the true horrors of African slavery in the 19th century.  So substitute the word "serfdom" for "slavery". 

05 / 05 / 05

Happy Cinco de Mayo, because it is always good to celebrate independence from the French.  As you might imagine, this is a fairly big celebration down here in Arizona.

A bit of history, from the source above (I have added emphasis to a couple of lines I really liked)

The French had landed in Mexico (along with
Spanish and English troops) five months earlier on the pretext of collecting
Mexican debts from the newly elected government of democratic President (and
Indian) Benito Juarez.  The English and Spanish quickly made deals and
left.  The French, however, had different ideas.

Under Emperor Napoleon III, who detested the
United States, the French came to stay.  They brought a Hapsburg prince
with them to rule the new Mexican empire.  His name was Maximilian; his
wife, Carolota.  Napoleon's French Army had not been defeated in 50 years,
and it invaded Mexico with the finest modern equipment and with a newly
reconstituted Foreign Legion.  The French were not afraid of anyone,
especially since the United States was embroiled in its own Civil War.

The French Army left the port of Vera Cruz to
attack Mexico City to the west, as the French assumed that the Mexicans would
give up
should their capital fall to the enemy -- as European countries
traditionally did
. [ed.-- and as the French inexplicably did as recently as 1940

Under the command of Texas-born General
Zaragosa, (and the cavalry under the command of Colonel Porfirio Diaz, later to
be Mexico's president and dictator), the Mexicans awaited.  Brightly
dressed French Dragoons led the enemy columns.  The Mexican Army was less

General Zaragosa ordered Colonel Diaz to take
his cavalry, the best in the world, out to the French flanks.  In response,
the French did a most stupid thing; they sent their cavalry off to chase Diaz
and his men, who proceeded to butcher them.  The remaining French
infantrymen charged the Mexican defenders through sloppy mud from a thunderstorm
and through hundreds of head of stampeding cattle stirred up by Indians armed
only with machetes.

When the battle was over, many French were
killed or wounded and their cavalry was being chased by Diaz' superb horsemen
miles away.  The Mexicans had won a great victory that kept Napoleon III
from supplying the confederate rebels for another year, allowing the United
States to build the greatest army the world had ever seen.  This grand army
smashed the Confederates at Gettysburg just 14 months after the battle of Puebla,
essentially ending the Civil War.

Union forces were then rushed to the
Texas/Mexican border under General Phil Sheridan, who made sure that the
Mexicans got all the weapons and ammunition they needed to expel the
French.  American soldiers were discharged with their uniforms and rifles
if they promised to join the Mexican Army to fight the French.  The
American Legion of Honor marched in the Victory Parade in Mexico, City.


Lessons for the UN from the American Civil War

The United Nations is broken -- this is beyond question.   The only thing left to argue about is if it is Worldcom-broken, where the basic business model is OK but the management is corrupt; or Internet-startup-broken, where the whole mission and business model is wrong.  I would contend that the answer is a little of both.

One of the sources of confusion in discussing the UN is that the organization has several very different missions.  These missions fall in roughly two categories:

  1. Distribution of aid and relief, including funds and training for education, public health, and poverty mitigation.
  2. Helping to manage relationships between nations and, sometimes, between nations and their people

The first mission, of administering aid, is plagued mainly by corruption and bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, and would probably be fixable to some extent with better leadership in place.  Personally, I think much of the aid provided is well-intentioned but misguided.  Poverty generally results from corrupt, confiscatory, totalitarian regimes.  As a result, much of the aid (see oil for food in Iraq) gets siphoned off as graft by rulers, and the rest may alleviate some suffering but provides no long-term progress toward fixing the real problems the poor face.  However, given that so many people and nations feel conscience-bound to keep sending the aid, and given that some of the aid does in fact help, a cleaned-up UN is probably a reasonable vehicle for delivering it.

My main focus in this post, however, is on the second UN mission listed above, that of managing the relations between peoples and nations.  The fundamental problem is that we as Americans (rightly) expect the UN to carry a set of values into its dealings with nations that the majority of its member nations do not share.  Here, I am not even talking about contentious issues that even Western democracies might argue about (e.g. abortion, capital punishment) but the basics -- things like free elections, free expression, and free markets.  Just scan the list of member nations, or, even more revealing, the list of countries on the UN Human Rights committee (yep, you can bet that Sudan brings a lot of moral authority to that committee).  The UN is a dictators club.

The best analogy I can come up with is the United States in the decade before the Civil War.  Imagine that rather than being split 50/50, the majority of states in the US at the time supported slavery.  In those circumstances, how much chance would there be that the Congress would successfully pass a law outlawing slavery?  Right, none.  In the same way, it is unreasonable to expect a UN that is majority-controlled by totalitarians to take any meaningful steps to support freedom and plurality.

Until the Civil War, states in the South believed that the Constitution allowed them substantial, in fact near total, leeway in setting their own laws and standards.  While in a Federalist system this is always somewhat true, what the Civil War was really about was the United States establishing that there are certain minimum standards that member-states will be held to, even if enforcement of those standards requires the use of force.   Ever since, though states may vary in terms of tax rates and such, there are minimum standards that are non-negotiable  (though sometimes this gets carried away - was the 55 mile an hour speed limit really a necessary element of these minimum standards?)  The civil rights movement of the 1960's was another such time when the US enforced a minimum standard on its individual states.

Bringing this analogy back to the UN, the UN is weak because there are no minimum standards for membership.  An immoral nation alone is immoral.  A grouping of immoral nations is still immoral - the grouping does not confer any moral authority.  When the UN was founded, it was thought that having as many of the world's nations as possible as members would confer the maximum moral authority on the body, sort of like having a higher turnout in an election tends to increase the perceived mandate and legitimacy of the victors.  Its becoming increasingly clear, though, that having all the nations of the world, many of them dictatorships, as members is in fact destroying any moral authority and effectiveness the UN might have.

Since 9/11, the United States has adopted a dual foreign policy of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy around the world.  Most Americans support these goals, thought many disagree with any number of the tactics over the last several years.  In achieving these goals, it would be far better for the US to be able to pursue them as part of a coalition, an alliance for freedom and democracy, rather than on its own.  As has been made pretty clear, the UN is not going to be that vehicle.  It houses too many terrorists to ever agree to fight terrorists (it cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism) and it encompasses too many totalitarians ever do anything meaningful to fight for individual rights (see Sudan, Congo).  Of course, this doesn't stop the UN from trying to take credit for progress made by others.

What is needed is a new organization with a core group of countries strongly committed to democracy that can act with greater moral authority than any single country but who will not be hamstrung by members who oppose strong interventions because they fear being the next target.  This article by Jonathon Rausch in Reason shows encouraging steps in the right direction:

Since 1996, a handful of foreign-policy wonks have been kicking around the idea of a "democracy caucus" at the U.N. Two administrations, first Bill Clinton's and then George W. Bush's, took quiet but significant steps in that direction. Now, according to Bush administration officials, the concept will be test-flown at the six-week meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that began on Monday in Geneva.

He concludes:

"United Nations" is an oxymoron. Democracies and dictatorships are mongoose and cobra, with no real hope of uniting except opportunistically. But a community of democracies"”that might just work. It already works in NATO and the E.U. The new community is a fledgling, but many readers of this article may live to see it soar.

UPDATE:  By the way, a reader pointed out to me one other problem the UN has:  their mission has been perverted from one something like "working toward a more peaceful world" to "peace at all costs".  The problem with peace at all costs, and something the American left and many of my fellow libertarians need to do a gut-check on, is that if you seek peace above all else, it means that you are willing to live, literally, with anything else.  That can mean anything from living with genocide (Sudan) to living with totalitarianism (N. Korea) to living with sponsorship of terrorism (Iran, Syria). 

By the way, I will pre-empt the obvious straw man here:  opposing peace at all costs does not mean favoring war as a first option.  I approved of the war in Afghanistan, but opposed invading Iraq, though in the latter case I am hopeful for the Iraqi people and that the example of Iraq may be setting a good example elsewhere, as in Jordan.