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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Was President Obama's Role in Budget Negotiations Undercutting his Role in Presiding?

On April 5, 2011, President Obama observed, “We’re going to have some very tough negotiations. And there are going to be, I think, very sharply contrasting visions in terms of where we should move the country. That’s a legitimate debate to have.” (1) He sounded very presidential in making the statement because he was taking the perspective of the nation as a whole. Furthermore, he used that vantage-point to try to keep negotiations from falling off the track. “If they can’t sort it out,” he said, “then I want them back here tomorrow.” (2) In short, he was presiding, rather than being partisan in taking a side, as he framed the situation facing the union. 

                                             Doug Mills, The New York Times                 

However, even as the president was referring to the two sides sorting the budget out as “they,” he himself was on one of the sides. That is, even though he “sought to position himself above the nitty-gritty haggling going on in Congress, which . . . limited his influence on the process” yet distanced him from any blame, his taking a side in the dispute subtly worked against his attempt to preside to hold the process as a whole together. (3) 

Material from this essay has been incorporated in The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.


1.      Gregory Korte, “Meeting Fails to End Impasse on Federal Budget,” USA Today, April 6, 2011, p. 2A.
2.      Naftali Bendavid, Jonathan Weisman, and Carol E. Lee, "Budget Talks Head to Brink,” Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2011, pp. A6.
3.      Ibid.

Democracy and Capitalism: On Managing Equality and Inequality

Both capitalism and democracy claim to maximize individuals’ freedom—capitalism in the economy and democracy in politics.  In spite of this superficial commonality, Henry Brands points out that democracy “depends on equality, capitalism on inequality. Citizens in a democracy come to the public square with one vote each; participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards.” (1) In fact, a capitalist economy cannot operate without inequality. According to Brands, “The differing talents and resources of individuals are recruited and sorted by the differential rewards, which reinforce the original differences.” (2)


It is difficult to concurrently embrace democratic equality and capitalistic inequalities because they have qualitatively different sources, at least theoretically speaking. Whereas Jefferson's democratic equality is based in natural rights that do not depend on being recognized by a government (a notion from John Locke), Adam Smith's capitalism is based on human nature. Whereas natural rights are based in what it means to be human as a self-aware being of a rational and sentimental nature, Smith's human nature is based on self-interest, which in turn is based on the instinct of self-preservation. Even though economic considerations may lead us to conclude that people are unequally able to preserve themselves, Thomas Hobbes argued that a basic equality exists in self-preservation because any person can be killed in his or her sleep.  In other words, none of us is immuned from the possibility of being killed.  However, this basic condition of equality seems very remote next to the inequalities that are enabled by differential wealth. Such differences in wealth may well be more than reinforced by capitalism.

Does capitalism reinforce the original differences in talent and resources by merely reflecting them, or does the system multiply them? For example, if a capitalist invests the surplus gained from her talents or resources to gain still more, are the original differences merely reinforced? A series of profitable decisions, for example, may display a multiplier effect. Furthermore, if the capitalist uses her surplus to restrict other capitalists from being able to exercise their talents and resources (e.g., cornering the market), is not more involved than reinforcement?

In terms of the impact on democracy of the widening inequalities of capitalism, the “one citizen, one vote” dictum may become a chimera. For instance, historically, employers and unions in New York pressured their employees/members to vote a certain way. It was not unheard of for candidates to buy votes outright. More subtly, the imprint of corporate interests can perhaps be discerned not only in the “third party” political advertisements, but also through surrogates whether in office or the media.  For instance, a health insurance company lobbyist revealed in 2010 that the “death panels” line thought to be sourced in Sarah Palin had actually come from the lobby in an effort to kill the public option in health care reform. Such an option was not in the interest of the concentrations of capital known as insurance companies.

In short, the exaggerated inequalities that come with the denouement of capitalism, particularly in its mature stage, compromise or even extirpate the basis of equality in democracy.  That is to say, greater and greater inequality monetarily puts a republic at risk. Indeed, the corporate form itself may be inherently antithetical to republican ideals.

Click to add a question or comment on equality in democracy amid income inequality.

1.      Henry W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900 (New York: Doubleday, 2010), p. 5.
2.      Ibid.

Legislation of the U.S. Government during the Civil War: A Case of Unconstitutional Governance?

Lest history be forgotten, it may come around again to bite us when we least expect it.

During the war between the Confederate States and the United States of America, The Legal Tender Act required debtors to accept “greenbacks,” the U.S. Government’s paper currency. The National Bank Act barred state banks from issuing notes, giving the U.S. Government a monopoly on paper currency. Finally, The Internal Revenue Act imposed a federal income tax and other levies.

Brands asks, however, whether “greenbacks” fall under the U.S. Constitution’s wording that the federal government can “coin” money. If money was in coin specie when the constitution was written, the meaning could be widened to include new means without necessarily extending the power of that government beyond what was intended.

Brands also asks, “Did the proscription against state bank notes follow from the [interstate] commerce clause, from the elastic clause, or from Treasury secretary Salmon P. Chase’s imagination?” The fact that state banks had been issuing notes even as the U.S. Government was minting silver and gold coins points to, or illustrates, the dual sovereignty element in the American federal system. Ironically, for nearly the first hundred years of the United States (as alliance, confederation and finally a modern federal system), the states had more currency power than do the state governments that use the euro in the E.U. 

In terms of the interstate commerce justification of barring state banks from issuing notes, that justification does not reach such notes being used within a state’s borders. In terms of interstate commerce, mandating a common currency can be covered by the clause. As per the example of the E.U., it is possible to have both a common currency and currencies particular to certain states. In fact, it is possible, as per the European case, to have the particular currencies displace the common currency in the state of the particular currency. However, if, for example, the euro cannot be used in Britain, this restriction of the common currency in a state would detract from the common market (i.e., out-of-states would be discriminated against).  So while the U.S. commerce clause could be interpreted as allowing for state currencies, any such currencies could not be mutually exclusive with the common currency.

As for the income tax, Brands avers that it “seemed a patent violation of the constitutional ban on ‘direct’ taxes not proportioned to population.”  Indeed, a constitutional amendment was deemed necessary for the purpose in the twentieth century. The unlimited potential of the U.S. Government to raise revenue by taxation was not missed on some of the delegates at the constitutional convention in 1787. They worried that that government would crowd out the governments of the states, which would also depend on revenue. These fears were not without foundation. By the twenty-first century, state governments were under popular pressure not to increase taxes in large part because of the taxes already being taken by the federal government.

In general terms, these federal laws enacted during the Civil War can be interpreted as evincing various degrees of encroachment of the U.S. Government. It was such expansion of power that had been in mind when the confederated states seceded from the United States. Even though Lincoln’s 1860 platform affirmed protecting slavery where it existed at the time, southerners feared that the reach of the federal government would continue unabated. The result, they feared, would be the eventual loss of their self-determination and way of life.  This concern transcended the issue of slavery. Accordingly, the states would have perhaps been wiser to free the slaves then fire on Fort Sumpter—the underlying issue would have been made more transparent thusly. Even in the twenty-first century, the trajectory of the U.S. Government in going beyond its enumerated powers is an issue even if other issues tend to get first play.

Source: Henry W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900 (New York: Doubleday, 2010), p. 13.

Click to add a question or comment on the enumerated powers on currency, commerce and taxation.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On the Birth in 1869 of Corporate Social Responsibilty amid Excessive Corporate Power in Government

Referring to the speculation in gold that was engineered by Jay Gould and others in 1869 to enrich themselves and the Erie Railroad, Henry Adams (1838-1918), a grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams, wrote at the time:

“For the first time since the creation of these enormous corporate bodies, one of them has shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Erie [Railroad] — swaying power such as has never in the world’s history been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens  . . . — will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance.” (1)

Gould had wanted the price of gold to rise not only because he had bought some to sell at a higher price, but also because as a stockholder of the Erie, he would benefit from the railroad transporting more wheat from the Midwest to the east coast for export. A higher price in gold meant a lower dollar. Wheat being based in dollars, a lower dollar meant more exports. The strategy was essentially to devalue the dollar, which Gould assured President Grant would be in the national interest economically. As the price of gold rose to $165 in 1869, Grant, fearing a bubble, pulled the plug by having the Treasury sell $4million in gold.  The collapse in the gold market triggered a drop in the stock-market. Even if it might have been in the short term interest of the speculators and railroads, the manufactured bubble was not in the national interest after all. Gould’s bribes of administration officials had been in vain.

Henry Adams saw the imprint of corporate power eviscerating both societal norms and democracy in the scandal.  In other words, the new-found corporate power eventuated in the birth of the need for corporate social responsibility amid capitalism eclipsing democracy. In academic terms, corporate social responsibility and (corporate) business & government, although discrete fields, were both first publicly recognized in 1869.

The corporate power occasioning Adam’s recognition was a novelty at the time, according to Brands, because the large corporation had only come into being as the railroads incorporated in the 1850s. Looking back after the Civil War, Henry Adams observed, "The last ten years had given to the great mechanical energies — coal, iron, steam — a distinct superiority in power over the old industrial elements -- agriculture, handwork, and learning." (2)  The power of steam in particular translated into large, publicly-held, corporations first in the railroad industry.

On account of their size and scope, and the associated equity capital requirements given the risk faced by lenders, the railroads were the first large American corporations to be publicly traded. The diffusion of ownership — a consequence of the large capital demands — led to a separation of ownership from control and to a new ownership interest: that of the short-term-oriented speculator. A short-seller, for example, seeks lower corporate earnings in the future, while a long-term investor hopes for higher dividends, and thus profits. Managers can exploit this difference in order to pursue their interests in the name of the corporation at the expense of societal norms and democratic governance.

Undergirding the managerial basis in skill, the railroads were the first companies to develop the methods of corporate administration. For example, there were supervisors over supervisors—in other words, multilayered organizational charts. Furthermore, dovetailing with the need for safety and efficiency (given the competition), the railroads developed precise management of their operations, including the development of standards for measuring performance. In short, the railroads were the first to develop a cadre of managers specialized in administration in the particular industry. (3)

Regarding the private power based on technique (i.e., managerial power), Henry Adams announced in 1869 that there was no authority, whether in society or government, capable of resisting it. The normative call for corporate social responsibility and the political call for a resurgence of democracy amid the encroaching capitalism were born. In other words, with great power came a recognition of a need for great responsibility. The corporate social responsibility movement began as precisely this recognition even as the modern large corporation was in its second decade.

Punctum Saliens, the large corporate type of commercial organization itself is inherently powerful relative to societal norms and even potential governmental or regulatory restraints. That is to say, the invention of the large corporation may have been inherently problematic, essentially involving systemic risk to the republic itself on account of the private power of the managements. To paraphrase Nietzsche, power cannot be but powerful. To unleash an inherently powerful feeding machine and expect it not to eat the grass is naive, if not patently irresponsible. To expect the managements of extremely wealthy corporations to be willingly socially responsible when their economizing and power-aggrandizing nature is to run through such non-constraints is simply ideological, if not fanciful. Fundamentally, the problem with corporate management is its inherent proclivity to bristle at any external constraint. It is the underlying maximizing egoism that is innately antithetical to the limiting natures of government regulation and corporate social responsibility.


1.      Henry Adams, “The New York Gold Conspiracy,” in Charles F. Adams, Jr. and Henry Adams, Chapters of Erie (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956), pp. 135-36.
2.      Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 238.  
3.      H. W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900 (New York: Doubleday, 2010), pp. 22-23.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Disentangling the House Republican Health Care Budget: Redistribution, Government and Federalism

There is a saying in politics. “Elections have consequences.” In 2011, the impact of the 2010 election was particularly obvious in that the Republicans had gained control of the legislatures of Wisconsin and Ohio as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.  While the governments of Wisconsin and Ohio were going after public-sector unions (or restricting them to reduce government deficits), the House Republicans had their eyes on health-care.  Rep. Paul Ryan, an up and coming Republican from Janesville Wisconsin—a town with high unemployment after the auto plant there closed—was producing a budget that he claimed would cut $5 trillion over 10 years. His proposal reflected, or conflated, two salient traditional Republican aims: to shift power from the U.S. Governments to those of the states and to reduce the size of government. These are distinct, albeit not disparate, goals. Shifting power does not in itself imply or mandate a reduction in the size of government. For example, in shifting public health-care policy, an expansion of government could result if enough states develop programs further-reaching than what Congress had enacted.  Of course, as per the nature of federalism, particularly in an empire-scale instance, the resulting health-care programs would differ from republic to republic, given the innate heterogeneity that exists at such a scale.
Because restoring a balance of power to a federal system is distinct from decreasing (or increasing, for that matter) the size of government, it is important to distinguish them in Rep. Ryan’s proposal.
The New York Times points to the two aims in observing that “while saving large sums for the federal government, the proposals on Medicaid and Medicare could shift some costs to beneficiaries and to the states.” Shifting costs to the beneficiaries involves or implies a reduction in the size of government, while shifting costs to the states impacts the balance of power in the federal system. It is in the public interest for such items to be distinguished in debate and legislative votes because the people could want one without the other.
Under Ryan’s proposal, according to the paper, “Medicaid would be transformed into a block grant, with a lump sum of federal money given to the states to care for low-income people. States would be given more discretion over use of the money than they have under the current federal-state partnership.” Even though increased discretion adds to the power of state governments relative to the federal, or general, government, block grants maintain state dependence. In fact, if health-care is not among the enumerated powers of the U.S. Government, it could be argued that lump sum payments to the states for health-care are unconstitutional; otherwise, spending for the general welfare would eviscerate even having enumerated powers at all.
Regarding the “size of government,” The New York Times reports that “(f)or future Medicare beneficiaries — people now under 55 — Mr. Ryan’s proposal calls for the federal government to contribute a specified amount of money toward the premium for private health coverage. Under the traditional Medicare program, the government reimburses doctors and hospitals directly.” The “specified amount” element is “less government” than is an open-ended entitlement.

At the time of Rep. Ryan’s proposal, Medicaid and Medicare were open-ended entitlements. Anyone who met the eligibility criteria was entitled to benefits. Under a fixed lump sum, Republicans say the federal government could better predict and control its costs under Medicaid and Medicare, which as of the beginning of 2011 insured more than 100 million people and accounted for more than one-fifth of the federal budget. Unless the states would pick up the added costs (which would shift the taxing and spending federal balance), beneficiaries of these programs would be at risk for more of the costs if health-care costs rise.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat and a former executive director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens, said “Mr. Ryan and the Republicans are declaring war on entitlements — and war on the elderly and the poor. . . . Beneficiaries will end up paying more.” The New York Times also reports that as of 2011, “(a)bout half of Medicaid recipients are children. Nearly two-thirds of the money spent on Medicaid benefits is [sic] for low-income people who are 65 and older or disabled.” For his part, Rep. Ryan said “he was not cutting Medicaid and Medicare, but rather slowing their growth rate. Furthermore, he insisted that if health costs for a group of patients exceeded the federal payment in a given year, the insurer would have to absorb the cost.” Finally, Rep. Ryan “claimed his proposal is equitable because Medicare would pay less on behalf of higher-income beneficiaries, and they would pay more of the cost of their health coverage.”
Whether the beneficiaries or insurance companies pick up the slack, the fact that public funds would not be used means that government would be reduced from what it otherwise would be. Yet if the states pick up the slack, the balance of federalism rather than the size of government would be changed. Moreover, in addition to the size of government (and federalism) elements, the matter of redistributive justice is involved. It is no wonder that these elements are conflated in the public sphere.
I contend that legislative representatives have an obligation to more clearly distinguish the elements of federalism, the size of government, and redistribution in public policy proposals. A desire to shift power to the states can be better distinguished from the questions of redistributive justice and the related matter of the size of government (and latter two can be better distinguished, since, for example, government could be expanded in a way that helps or hurts the poor, for example). Democracy itself would be improved were the people, either directly via a referendum or indirectly through representatives, able to decide on the three elements one by one. In fact, a decision for greater federalism would mean that questions of the size of government and redistribution would be decided on both the state and the federal level.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Exfoliating a Hero: On Lincoln's Unconstitutional Overreaching

Lest we get carried away and inadvertantly enshrine our leaders with mythic laurals, it is worthwhile to peel back our societal "remembering" of past figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, who have become larger than life.

Lincoln was a moderate, promising merely not to spread slavery. In his address after being sworn in, he promised not to go after slavery where it existed. Accordingly, radical abolitionists complained. Even so, the 1860 campaign had been viewed, at least in the south, as a referendum on the southern way of life. Lincoln received only 40% of the vote; he was not even on the ballot in ten states.  There were just 33 states in the union at the time. Lincoln's victory suffered from a deficit of legitimacy in some quarters. In fact,he was burned in effigy at a state capitol in the south. With free Kansas becoming a state, the slave states felt that their respective abilities to defend their way of life in the general councils of the union would become even more truncated or dilute. Berift of a sense of influence on general matters that concerned themselves, the confederating republics felt they had no alternative other than secession.

On Feb 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederate States of America. At his swearing in, Dixie, which had been composed by a northerner, was played. The two sides in the continental dispute were closer than they perhaps realized. Both Lincoln and Davis, for example, were from Kentucky originally.  According to the Confederate constitution, Davis had a line item veto and would have had a six year term had the confederacy lasted that long. Astonishingly, international slave trading was outlawed. Even so, there were fundamental differences involved in the dispute. Ironically, had the southern states freed the slaves before firing on Fort Sumpter--depriving Lincoln of his motivational tactic midway through the way--perhaps something resembling the southern way of life in a loose confederacy would have prevailed. The United States would have been left to consolidate to its heart's content.

On the way to his inauguration, Lincoln declared that he would rather be assassinated than to see even one star removed from the flag. Such a stance reflects the "all or none" mentality that accompanies political consolidation. In spite of Lincoln's line in the sand, the War between the Confederated States and the United States began at 4:30am on April 12, 1861.  Technically, it was a war between a federated alliance and a federal government. The opening act was bloodless, even as the war to come was the bloodiest in American history. Siloh alone matched the casualties at Waterloo, and there would be 27 more to come. 51,000 men lost their lives in the three days at Gettysburg alone. The contest between the old and new federal forms exacted a heavy toll in human loss and suffering. Who would have thought that contending distinctions in political theory could be so bloody. Of course, might does not in itself make right, although the passion of the unjustly oppressed can bring about victories disproportionate to the relative lack in number. Furthermore, in this particular case, the respective populations in the federations and the industrialization of several of the union's states gave the forces of modern federalism an advantage not necessarily sourced in the nature of the type.

At the time, the union states had a combined population of 21 million while the confederacy had only 9 million, 4 million of which were slaves and thus not in the fight. In spite of the fact that so many southerners volunteered to enlist that a third of them had to be sent back home, the confederacy was perhaps destined to lose the bellum given the tremendous disadvantage in terms of population. That the conflict lasted until 1865 may point to the extent of resentment that had been allowed to build up throughout the slave states against what was viewed there as an “intrusive” federal government. For example, the devisive tarriff that had nearly caused South Carolina to secede in 1832 was reimposed by the U.S. Government in 1858. As in 1832, the tax was to finance northern industrialization. The states producing cotton and/or rice were left not being able to defend their interests in Washington. Accordingly, that distant government was viewed as encroaching and increasingly foreign. The root of the festering dispute went far beyond the issue of slavery.

To the confederate citizens, the cause involved the rights of their republics as well as their property rights. Slaves, being viewed as property by their "masters"--a decadent conception of slavery unknown to ancient understandings--were thus in play as part of the wider and deeper southern concern with self-determination, which the southerners identified with their respective countries and associated ways of life. Even Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863 (almost two years into the war), applied only to slaves in the states that had already left the union (rather than to the five slave states that had remained).

The confederate states were not subject to U.S. law as long as they were part of the confederacy rather than the union. Lincoln's proclamation was thus extra-constitutional, and thus without immediate effect other than to motivate an increasingly weary northern citizenry and armed forces. To be sure, Sherman freed slaves as he blazed a trail to the sea. However, even without the proclamation, he would have deprived the confederates of their "property" along with their other means until they surrendered. Slavery was not outlawed in the United States until 1865, when the thirteenth amendment was ratified by the states (the former confederate states excluded even though they had been re-afixed to the union).  There was some duplicity involved in, "Welcome back to the union! But unfortunately your vote doesn't count yet because you don't agree."

Fundamentally, the "north" and "south" interpreted the United States differently. This is what the war was really about, and the issue went all the way back to the contentious debates in the constitutional convention in 1787. The delegates had hotly debated whether the proposed General Government would consolidate power via "general welfare" spending and the potentially unlimited taxation, irrespective of the question of slavery. The people who wanted to secede viewed the U.S. as more like a confederation than a modern federal government. That is, confederates viewed their states as countries and the U.S. more as an alliance having only strictly defined enumerated powers that a national government. Robert E. Lee, for example, was offered command of the union army. He refused and went with Virginia. He could not draw his sword, he said, against his native country. Virginia had to come first; there was never any question about that. Such a view of Virginia and the other republics was to fade even as they still retained residual sovereignty at least into the twenty-first century.

In general, the southerners feared that the federal government would usurp more and more power from their countries; as things turned out, the fear was not without foundation. Even then, Lincoln declared war against the confederated states even though the U.S. constitution clearly stipulates that Congress is the governmental body in the U.S. Government that declares war.  As the president is the commander in chief, there is a conflict of interest in that office also declaring war. So technically speaking, the war was not constitutional, and thus legal.  Lincoln also suspended habeus corpus, though the constitution allows for this in time of rebellion.  To keep the Maryland from seceding, he locked up thirteen of the state's legislators without trial. 

Chief Justice Taney, who had four years earlier concurred with the Dred Scott decision, said that Lincoln had gone too far beyond the constitution in the powers he was exercising. Taney was on firm ground on the declaration of war. Even so, astonishingly, the president simply ignored the chief justice. From the standpoint of an independent judiciary with teeth, Lincoln was laying a precedent very dangerous to the republic.

Because the judiciary has no means of enforcing its decisions by force, the branch depends on the other branches, and, indeed, the people, resisting the temptation to contravene a judicial decision. The basis of the resisted temptation rests on the court's legitimacy, for the judiciary has no troops of its own. In fact, Bickel refers to the court as the “least dangerous branch” for this reason. Lincoln’s precedent in simply ignoring the court put at risk the system of checks and balances that resides in the separation of powers in the federal government. Fortunately for us, Lincoln’s treatment of the Chief Justice's effort to hold the executive branch within its proper constitutional sphere, as though Taney were a mere bystander, has largely been forgotten.  Yet the expediency of an imperial presidency has indeed been on display since Lincoln as Congress has gradually lost power to the commander in chief. The danger is real, and Lincoln's precedent could yet be used by an ambitious commander in chief who has his or her eye on another country to invade. 

Ironically, Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions at the beginning of the war ironically to save the union could be viewed as confirming the charges made by the confederates against the encroaching nature of the federal government.  Lest we miss the lesson as we remember the bloody war 150 years later in 2011-2015 from the standpoint of the victors, we might take note of the susceptibility of power itself to consolidate, ultimately in one person—indeed, even in a hero. The consolidating proclivity is as much a danger in the modern American empire today as it was in ancient Rome.  

Source: Ken Burns’ The Civil War (PBS)