That might sound like a strange article title from a libertarian. After all, aren’t we supposed to be ultra-isolationist types? Aren’t libertarians not supposed to care what happens anywhere else in the world? While that is ordinarily true, the situation in the Ukraine differs from, say, that of North Korea on a whole bunch of levels. First and foremost, the odds of the US entering a shooting war with the Koreans (or Iran, a host of other nations) is infinitesimally small. Should the Koreans actually be dumb enough to lob a nuke at Anchorage (or Seoul, or Tokyo), they fully understand their half of the Korean Peninsula won’t be suitable for human habitation for another 10,000 years. Let them rattle their sabres and keep Dennis Rodman busy. If they want to become a glass parking lot, I could care less.
What separates the situation in Ukraine from others around the globe is the agent provocateur, Russia. I know what you’re about to say – I can see the eyes rolling over from here. “What does the Russian interest in Ukraine have to do with the US?”; “If it’s Europe’s problem, let Europe handle it”; “The Ukranians can fight their own fights” and my favorite, “Haven’t the Russians been part of the Ukraine for centuries?”
Well, yes – the Russians have used Sevastopol as the home port for the Black Sea fleet since Catherine the Great was “Tsar of all the Russias.” In fact, Sevastopol was the original “Potemkin Village.” It also marked arguably the bloodiest loss for the Russian Empire during the Crimean Way, when after 11 months of siege the city fell to British, French and Turkish troops – but only after the classic Russian “scorched earth” stratagem of burning the city to the ground and scuttling the Black Sea fleet. But the entire argument that the Russians are simply securing a port and region with historic ties to Moscow is as fallow as the Sahara in July. When Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, one of the provisions was recognition of the “special status” of both Crimea and Sevastopol. The city is (or was, until Saturday) jointly ruled by both Russia and Ukraine; the region was given semi-autonomous status and under the Ukrainian constitution, allowed to pursue it’s own relations with Moscow. The Russian naval base was leased to Moscow until 2042. In short, Russia had no pressing reason to invade Crimea. Indeed, if anything, the situation after the Orange Revolution in 2004 would have dictated military action more so than the current one.
The middle two arguments and part of the first are debunked by more recent history than the Crimean War. When Ukraine gained independence, there was an immediate problem faced by the entire world: Ukraine inherited an entire Soviet ICBM fleet – and those missiles were armed. Overnight, the world was faced with a new nuclear power – in fact, Ukraine commanded the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. It was larger than the combined nuclear forces of Great Britain, France, China, South Africa and Israel. The answer to resolving the potential nightmare was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Under the terms of that treaty, Ukraine agreed to relinquish her nukes in exchange for guarantees of her sovereignty and protection from the other signatories: the United States, Great Britain and Russia. There can be no doubt the Russians have violated the terms of that treaty (as of this writing, 2 regiments have taken up strategic positions with Ukraine and another 3 full divisions are poised to complete the invasion). The question before us is, do we agree to abide by our treaty commitments? Failure to do so demonstrates to every other ally of the United States that we are a feckless, irresponsible partner in world affairs. Already, the fealty of the US is being questioned after our actions (or inactions) during the Obama presidency. Failure to act now will destroy what remains of 75 years worth of credibility built by successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican.
But ultimately, the decision of what our country should do regarding the current situation in Ukraine belongs to We, the People. Just as an outcry against the planned bombing of Syria nearly a year ago persuaded the government to abandon those plans, a similar outcry of support for Ukraine could lead to action. But why should we, as citizens of the United States, care about what Russia does to her neighbors?
To understand that, you need to know a bit about the history of the principle actors on the stage. First and foremost is Vladimir Putin. I think most of my readers are aware of Putin’s ties to the former KGB. But I doubt few understand the type of command Putin has over the Russian government and the thrall he has over Russia’s people. As a politician, Putin is an ultranationalist, appealing to the Russian desire for a return to the type of world dominance once enjoyed by the Soviet Union. As a leader, he has been every bit as ruthless in the political arena as he was during his 16 year stint as a KGB colonel. Indeed, he rose within the infant Russian democracy to take the reins of the FSB, the successor to the KGB – and used the power of that office to “convince” Boris Yeltsin to appoint him Prime Minster in 1999. Only 3 months later, Yeltsin agreed to resign and appoint Putin as acting President. In the 14 years since, Putin has assumed autocratic command of every aspect of Russian political, economic and military life. As to Putin’s intentions on the world stage, he has made it clear his overarching goal is to first expand Russia’s border to encompass the territory of the old Soviet Union. Additionally, he regards any countries that were formerly in the Warsaw Pact as Russian “protectorates,” even should those nations decide to join the EU or NATO.
Part of Putin’s strategy has been to install puppet leaders in several of former Soviet republics. As a strategy, it has proven quite effective – for minimal expense, Russia effectively brought all of the former Soviet Republics back into herself. One place it didn’t happen was Georgia, which led Russia to invade South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and occupy those territories ever since. It was the ouster of one puppet, Viktor Yanukovych (who has since turned up in a dacha outside Moscow), in the latest Ukranian uprising that led to the Russian incursion in Crimea. Yanukovych’s career is a strange one. This marks the second time Ukrainians have deposed him, the first being the Orange Revolution in 2004. It was the chaos among competing democratic factions that allowed Yanukovych to return to power, but it was his insistence on doing the Kremlin’s bidding that ultimately led to his downfall.
Perhaps it’s paranoia speaking, but if so my family’s history justifies a little paranoia. The Russian crackdowns on dissidents and “undesirables” are very reminiscent of two of the most horrible regimes in world history, that of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Putin has, like Stalin, Lenin and Hitler before him, made no secret of his desire to control the world. My family suffered at Dachau and Auschwitz; those that survived suffered near equal indignities at the hands of their Russian “liberators” in Austria. So, yes, I grew up with those horror stories, with the tattoo on my grandmother’s arm and with an innate understanding of the types of atrocities autocratic regimes impose upon the populace. As an American, one of the things I’m proudest of is our commitment to the principle of “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is a principle we abandoned in the 1930’s as Adolph Hitler absorbed country after country in central Europe.
But even if we allow our founding principles to stand aside, there is another compelling reason to actively engage Putin’s Russia now. Our failure to take decisive action from 1933 – 1939 led to the invasion of Poland and World War II. Indeed, although FDR is not one of my favorite Presidents, I do commend him for pushing through the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed Britain to continue the fight once hostilities began – despite strong objections from the “America Firsters” in both parties. We have see any number of tin-pot dictators come and go in the 70 years since that war ended, but this marks the first time that one has seized control of a nation that is actually capable of plunging the world into general war. If Hitler had been confronted in the Ruhr, the Sudetenland or Austria before Poland, that great conflagration would have been avoided (in the case of the Ruhr and Sudetenland) or played out dramatically differently. Instead, we (along with Britain and France) played a geopolitical game of appeasement, believing that “giving” Germany predominately German-speaking territories would sate Hitler’s appetite.
My fear now is we will have forgotten the lessons learned at the expense of over 100 million lives and try to appease Putin. Tin pot dictators always mean what they say – the only question is if they have the ability to make those threats reality. Vladimir Putin has that ability, and this failing to stop him will cost the world far more than 100 million people.
Yesterday, Senator Frank Lautenberg died. While I doubt there was anything politically speaking we agreed on, I still respected the man’s commitment to our home state (New Jersey) and country. When I posted those thoughts on Facebook, I was blasted by a sizable number of my friends for memorializing a liberal Democrat. The commentators disparaged him for everything from “spitting on his oath of office” and “attempting to overturn the Constitution” to being an “outright fraud” or “typically corrupt NJ politician.”
Those last two made me stop and think for a moment. Had Lautenberg ever been associated with any sort of corruption or abuse of of his office? The answer is no, and that is saying something for a New Jersey politician. The only association with scandal in his 30+ years of public service is that he replaced a Senator who was convicted for his role in Abscam. Was he a classic liberal? Yes. Corrupt. No.
But why the vilification of a man whose biography is the epitome of the classic American success story? Within the answer to that question lies the answer to much of what ails our political system today. And the answer is not a matter of liberal or conservative principles, but rather what defines those principles in the 2010’s. Undergirding those definitions is not racism (though it is always an undercurrent) or sexism, but ageism.
A little relevant history is probably in order here. I was born in 1965. This makes me either an old Gen X’er or young Baby Boomer, according to demographers. Frank Lautenberg was born in 1924, making him a member of the “Greatest Generation.” Now stop to consider what those demographic distinctions mean, politically speaking. Senator Lautenberg would have been in kindergarten at the start of the Great Depression. By the time he was entering his junior year in high school, Germany was invading Poland and World War II was underway. After a youth of watching New Deal programs like the WPA and CCC save his hometown from disappearing from the map, his young adulthood would be spent fighting the Nazi’s. He would spend the rest of his twenties attending college under the GI Bill. In his 30’s, government programs helped him found ADP – and government contracts helped him grow ADP into the world’s largest payroll processing company.
In contrast, my youth was dominated by the debacle of the Vietnam War and shame of Watergate. The economic stagflation of the Carter years ended with the ignominy of the Iranian Embassy. After my time in the Marines, there wasn’t a GI Bill – it had been replaced by the Veteran’s Education Assistance Program (VEAP), which paid for one semester of college. My first business wasn’t assisted by the government; rather I spent more time than I really had ensuring I wasn’t running afoul of some obscure regulation or another (something that still plagues entrepreneurs to this day.
In short, Frank Lautenberg witnessed an activist government that worked to improve lives, that won the most critical war of the pre-nuclear age and that literally saved the world. As Robert Samuelson points out in this op-ed, I grew up witnessing an activist government with rampant corruption, rife with incompetence, incapable of managing even a comparatively small crisis. Lautenberg’s political views were largely shaped by watching a government managed economy, that while imperfect, at least managed to make poverty tolerable. Mine are the result of watching a government managed economy that has eroded the earning and savings power of it’s citizens and thrown millions into poverty (see chart below).
This clash on the views of the efficacy of Big Government is at the heart of the the turmoil within the Republican party. Baby Boomers, such as John McCain, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner share the view that Big Government isn’t inherently bad – just that our current government is poorly managed. The Gen X’ers (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, etc) simply believe that government has grown too large and unwieldy – or as Samuelson put it, government has “bitten off more than it can chew.” Democrats have largely staved off this demographic upheaval because (a) the vast majority of their Congressional Leadership is comprised of people over 70 and (b) the current President is also an unabashed liberal. The clash of identities that marked the Clinton presidency (Clinton, while more liberal than his Republican counterparts, certainly isn’t as far to the left as the current president).
So how does this story end? It can only end one way, and that’s also a result of demographics. The old standard bearers will eventually die off, leaving the Gen X (and eventually, Millenials) in charge of the Republican brand. Although my friends on the left probably do not want to hear this, eventually the liberal wing of the Democrat party will also die off (liberals are a declining percentage of the population, as recently as last year’s elections only 24% of the electorate declared themselves as “liberal” or “progressive”). That will leave the more conservative DLC wing in command. Future arguments will focus entirely on what role is appropriate for the federal government in our republic, not the size or machinations of said government.
And that is a good thing.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know there was a user’s guide to the Constitution?
Well, obviously SOMEBODY wasn’t paying attention in Civics class. Either that, or you’re one of the unfortunate millions who never had the opportunity to study civics – but that’s a different post for a different day.
Let’s begin with a little history. Our Constitution didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Neither did it arrive at the National Archives in the same manner that Moses received the Ten Commandments. (I’m only half being tongue-in-cheek about that; one of my younger acquaintances honestly thought that God himself gave the Constitution to George Washington in a burning ring of fire. And we wonder why the country is heading off the rails?) In fact, our current Constitution wasn’t even the first one The United States used. That honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation. It’s in there that some of the quirkier aspects of our national government can be found: the idea of state representation, as opposed to popular representation for instance. It went into effect in 1781 and was quickly realized that it made the federal government too weak to be effective. The principle reason we scrapped it is as old as the fight for American Independence: taxes.
The USA incurred serious debts while fighting off the British Empire, primarily owed to the French. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the US officially became an independent nation, the French – who were near broke themselves (this was the time of “Let them eat cake”, after all) – came looking for their money. The French King was quite accommodating: the new United States could pay up in gold and silver, or could hand over land from the former British Colonies. Not willing to give up the territory we had just fought over for the past 8 years, the Continental Congress passed excise duties in order to pay the debt. Great idea, except under the Articles of Confederation, any state could opt out – and 11 of them did. Just to compound matters, most of the states had individual liabilities resulting from the war, mostly due to the French crown as well. So, they passed taxes and tariffs on each other to pay off those debts. By 1787, the entire country was readying for civil war as each state asserted its rights under the Articles and a hapless Congress could only look on in despair.
Enter the Constitutional Convention. In February of 1787, rather than go to war with one another (thankfully), the states agreed to a redo on how the federal government should operate. Originally, 70 people were selected to attend. Only 55 actually did and of those, only 39 signed on to the new Constitution. It was understandable: most had shown up expecting a sort of massive peace negotiation, not a negotiation about scrapping the current government and replacing it with something entirely different. Rhode Island was so upset by the idea that they recalled all of their representatives. The new Constitution, even after weeks of negotiating, was hardly a hit: as mentioned, 16 representatives refused to sign, including some fairly big names of the day. Imagine if we decided to reboot under a new Constitution today and the current Speaker and Vice-President refused to lend their support to the document. That was the same effect that George Wythe (Virginia) and John Lansing (NY) not signing had in 1787. And that was just the beginning of the trouble getting the Constitution ratified: popular support was anything but forthcoming. Just like today, a document that is amazingly short proved to be incredibly difficult for the populace to comprehend.
That’s where our user guide comes in play. The two principle architects of the Constitution, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York engaged in a series of letters that sought to explain how the Constitution affected everyone: from vagabond to Senator; scullery maid to Governor. Today, we know these letters as the Federalist Papers. These 85 letters, most commonly published as essays on what equates to our modern op-ed pages of the popular newspapers of the time, provided the Founding Father’s actual vision for how the Federal government is supposed to act.
It is the quintessential user’s guide. Like any good instruction manual, it lays out – in detail – how each branch of government should interact, not only with one another but also with the states and the general population. So next time you have a question about why something is set up the way it is, hit that link and review the reasons before going off half-cocked.
First off, I’d like to welcome everyone back from their Fourth of July vacations. I know I enjoyed mine and I hope you enjoyed yours.
As we head into the languid, steamy summer months most of us aren’t paying particular attention to the Presidential campaign. Both candidates, as is typical for the 6 weeks or so leading up Labor Day, are concentrating on fundraising and polishing their message. Unless either commits a gaffe of historic proportions (something the Romney family is well acquainted with), don’t expect either to make much news.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Mitt Romney. Unlike his opponent, he is relatively unknown to the American voting public. If he uses these next few weeks wisely, he can create the underpinnings of a successful candidacy. If not, he will get crushed in November.
A little historical perspective is in order. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination and faced off against an incumbent with a high personal favorability rating. The incumbent, Jimmy Carter, presided over a nation seemingly in decline. The “stagflation” of the late 1970’s – marked by persistent underemployment, inflation and low economic growth rates – had taken its toll on the American labor force. Combined with what seemed like capitulation to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and an inability to deal with the rise of Islamic extremism in Iran, the 39th President had few policy successes to point to, other than the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord. The future 40th President was known by the country primarily as a former “B” movie actor and Governor of California. That July, Carter made his now infamous “malaise” speech, in which he laid out his vision of an emaciated America, impotent in foreign relations and incapable of robust economic growth. “It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation,” said Carter in that speech.
Although initial polling indicated the speech gave Carter an 11% boost in approval and most operatives thought he was crazy to do it, Reagan sensed the opening Carter’s opinion of the American People presented. He countered with an approach that said the problems the nation faced were not from ordinary people, but rather from an intrusive government that seeked to micromanage the American Dream. When he unleashed “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” during the October 28 debate, the nation responded with a heartfelt “NO!” Reagan, of course, went on to win the Presidency with an overwhelming mandate, carrying 44 states and besting Carter by 10 points in the popular vote. Reagan, despite national polls showing him trailing by as much as 8 points a mere week before the election, had stayed on message, trusting in his instincts. His aplomb – and characteristic belief in the American people and their belief in him – had carried the day, the same as it would for the next eight years.
Fast forward 32 years: President Obama could just as easily have delivered the speech Carter gave in July 1980. (In fact, Obama has delivered at least three similarly-themed speeches in the past year). Consider these talking points – can you guess which President delivered them?
“What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends…All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.”*
Like Carter two generations ago, Obama is preaching a gospel of government dependence, of sacrifice and demonization of “special Interests.” Of course, we know from our history that when Reagan forced a Democratic Congress to accept much of his program, unleashing the private sector to grow and innovate in ways it hadn’t been able to since the 1950’s, growth exploded and America went back to work. “Morning in America” became the central theme of Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, and a proud President was able to speak to a proud nation about the accomplishments we achieved over the previous four years. He did not have to fear anyone asking if the nation was better off. We were, and we knew it.
The central question of the 2012 campaign is not whether the economy will rebound in time for President Obama to win reelection, or if PPACA will fire up a coalition of conservatives and libertarians that leads to his ouster. No, the biggest question in this election is whether Mitt Romney can emulate the Gipper. Like Reagan, Romney faces off against an incumbent that’s generally well liked as a person, but whose executive ability is met with ambivalence. In terms of policy positions, Romney is as far from Obama as Reagan was from Carter. But as anyone who has followed politics knows, personality matters. If Romney wants to win, he needs to do more than hammer the President on his failings. He needs to demonstrate some of the same optimism about the USA’s future that exemplified Reagan’s campaign style. He needs to show that he can and will lead. He needs to ditch the handlers and speak from the heart about his vision for what America looks like in four years.
Can he overcome what has been a wooden personality and achieve a similar result? Certainly, the opportunity is ripe. Despite his personal favorability ratings, President Obama consistently polls under 50% on policy – in fact, his poll numbers mirror those of Carter at similar points in their respective Presidencies (actually, Gallup had Carter with a bigger lead over Reagan than the one enjoyed by the current incumbent). The American People, much as they were in 1980, are looking for a real leader; someone who believes in the future as much (if not more) than they do. If Romney can project the same confidence as Reagan, Obama will suffer a similar electoral fate as Carter. If not…well, that is the end of the American Dream, isn’t it?
*Delivered by Jimmy Carter during National Address, July 15, 1980.
It doesn’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog that I am not a fan of Barack Obama. I never have been. I’ve never seen in him the things the media generally transposes onto the Obama persona. I’ve always seen him as nothing more than another cold, calculating politician. Just another in a long line of despotic Chicago politicians; a man after whom Bill Daley would find more in common than the typical working stiffs that populate the Windy City. And like all politicians, I always figured he was more than a bit narcissistic.
But then today came word that the Obama White House is attempting to actually rewrite history, to include one Barack Hussein Obama in some of our country’s greatest Presidential moments. If you’ve heard about this already, then it was probably the rewrite of the Reagan Presidency that got your attention:
“In a June 28, 1985 speech Reagan called for a fairer tax code, one where a multi-millionaire did not have a lower tax rate than his secretary. Today, President Obama is calling for the same with the Buffett Rule.”
It’s actually beyond narcissistic to rewrite this bit of history. Reagan was not arguing for higher tax rates on anyone, as Obama contends with his historical rewrite. Rather, the Gipper was proposing a complete revamping of the tax code – lowering rates for everyone and eliminating loopholes. You can read the full text of the speech here, but I figured I would give you the portions where he talks about the need for a simpler, fairer tax code. Keep in mind, this speech was given at the commencement for Northside High School in Atlanta. The main thrust of the speech was celebrating the students achievement in turning their once failing school into one of the ten-best in the nation, while also lauding the nation’s economic turnaround. Neither of these are accomplishments that the Obama administration can even hope to match.
“We’ve already come a long way. Just 5 years ago, when some of you were in junior high, America was in bad shape, mostly bad economic shape. Rising prices were making it harder for your parents to buy essentials like food and clothing, and unemployment was rising; there were no jobs for seniors in high school and college to graduate into. It was as if opportunity had just dried up, and people weren’t feeling the old hope Americans had always felt. And that was terrible because hope was always the fuel that kept America going and kept our society together.
Just a few years later everything’s changed. You and your parents are finally getting a breather from inflation. And if you graduate and go out into the work force in June, there will be jobs waiting for you. Hope has returned, and America’s working again.
Now, you know how all this came about, how we cut tax rates and trimmed Federal spending and got interest rates down. But what’s really important is what inspired us to do these things. What’s really important is the philosophy that guided us. The whole thing could be boiled down to a few words—freedom, freedom, and more freedom. It’s a philosophy that isn’t limited to guiding government policy. It’s a philosophy you can live by; in fact, I hope you do…
As you know, that last week I unveiled our proposal to make the Federal tax system fairer, clearer, and less burdensome for all Americans. Now, someone might say it’s odd to talk about tax policy with young people in their teens. But I don’t think so. You not only understand what taxes are, what effect they have in the average person’s life, but if you don’t understand, you will pretty soon when you get your first job. I know some of you already have part-time jobs, and I know you keep your eye on the part of the check that shows what Uncle Sam is taking out.
What we’re trying to do is change some of those numbers. We want the part of your check that shows Federal withholding to have fewer digits on it. And we want the part that shows your salary to have more digits on it. We’re trying to take less money from you and less from your parents…
We’re going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. In theory, some of those loopholes were understandable, but in practice they sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary, and that’s crazy. It’s time we stopped it.”
Of course, Warren Buffet was already a successful investor by the time President Reagan assumed office in 1981. And he was one of those millionaires Reagan was referring to, the ones who were paying nothing while bus drivers were paying 10% of their salary. The only difference is now, Warren Buffet still pays nothing, but that bus driver (assuming he’s still employed) is paying over 1/3 of his salary in taxes. And do you know who was at the forefront, leading the charge against the type of tax reform Reagan advocated? Yep, the same Warren Buffet who today is still against tax reform – instead opting for the Obama option of the “Buffet Rule.” And the reason for that is as simple as can be. Today, there are even more loopholes in the tax code than there were in 1985. Guys like Warren Buffet will still pay nothing. Note the difference in approaches: Reagan supported eliminating loopholes to equalize the tax rates. Obama just wants to raise rates.
So, yes, Warren Buffet is being disingenuous with his chicanery. But Barack Obama is, once again, flat-out lying to the American people – and all to make his ego feel better.