Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Old Ben may yet have the last word

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, sociology

Tom Blair is not a young man. While he might bemoan that fact, it is actually very, very good. He is about the same age as Benjamin Franklin was when he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence. By that age of seventy, Franklin had been retired from business for nearly thirty years, and instead occupied with diplomacy on behalf of the American colonies and then for "Our America", not yet formed, but a growing gleam in the eyes of a few such as John Adams.

Franklin died at the age of 85, some 221½ years ago. Had he the benefit of these two-plus centuries to accumulate further wisdom, aided by further observation of the American condition, what would he say today? Author Blair provides one possible window in Poorer Richard's America: What Would Ben Say? Having drunk deep of Franklin's writings, particularly in Poor Richard's Almanack, and having mastered Franklin's voice, as one of the most lucid writers of 18th Century English prose, Blair presents forty essays on the American condition, her fortunes, failures, foibles, and possible future as a nation in decline, but not yet fated to decline further. His watchword is, in my estimation, that continued decline is not inevitable, but is still "up to us."

Amidst essays aimed at targets from elitist educated ignoramuses to dogmatic, insecure religionists to an overhyped media to self-proclaimed leaders who nonetheless only know how to follow, he reserves his most persistent polemics for those imprudent guardians of the national treasury, the Congress. There is not one "problem of Congress", but a welter of them; the greatest being corporate lobbying and that great black box of campaign funding. For these he has a simple solution, one unlikely of passage, but it would nonetheless prove effective: a 28th Amendment that adds a $20 tax on every American household, from which all national campaigns are to be financed in equal measure, with no other financing being allowed. Divide the expected $2+ billion by a thousand or so, and you have about $2 million each, which is plenty for the TV/radio/print exposure of any incumbent or challenger.

But as several of the essays make clear, the greatest threat to America is a combination of two forces. One is internal, and was well stated by Lord Thomas MacCauley, who wrote:
A democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government. It can last only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority (who vote) will vote for those candidates promising the greatest benefits from the public purse, with the result that a democracy will always collapse from loose fiscal policies, always followed by a dictatorship.
This well states the course America has been on at least since the "New Deal" that preceded World War II, and is thus about eighty years along.

The second force is external, and is the determination of the Chinese leaders, not to foolishly try to bury America as Nikita Khrushchev threatened, but to instead simply buy America. At this moment, to repurchase America's debt held in China would cost each of us, from the cradle to the hospice-dweller, $2,800. That is assuming the Chinese would be willing to allow the bonds to be redeemed at par…unlikely. When, one day, the "banker" calls in the debt, the stars and stripes will be replaced by a banner reading "Under Foreclosure".

Considering the persistent call to responsibility found in its pages, some might call the book a Conservative work, but it is not. Those who bear the label Conservative today are not conservative, and those labelled Liberal are far from liberal (except with someone else's money). We have instead two kinds of totalitarian ideologues taking turns cursing one another's ideas, without bothering to consider whether any of the ideas proffered by either side makes any sense. Most do not.

America has great strength yet. Is a day coming in which that strength will all be harnessed to the well-being of others, while "the cobbler's children go shoeless"? I tremble for my son and his generation, even as I advise him to learn Chinese…

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