Friday, April 29, 2011

A Republic, You Say?

As avid droves descended on London and as billions around the world tune-in to the broadcast of the latest “Royal Wedding” (British/Commonwealth version), Americans might gnash their teeth and wonder why we couldn’t have such a colourful revenue-generating institution.

This regret derives from the strange notion that the United States is not a monarchy. This misconception was spawned by Benjamin Franklin’s now famous remark that the constitutional convention had been resolved upon “a Republic, if you can keep it.” A Republic, you say? Readers might well consider Edward Gibbon’s definition of a monarchy:

"The obvious definition of a monarchy seems to be that of a state, in which a single person, by whatsoever name he may be distinguished, is intrusted with the execution of the laws, the management of the revenue and the command of the army." (Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, ch.III (1776).)

The application of the definition to the American presidency seems obvious and the false notion that the United States was not a monarchy perpetuated a species of trick on the gullible.

Auberon Waugh once explained to the French that England was ruled by the concept of the Total Joke, the four pillars of which were the Monarchy, the House of Lords, the Tory Party and the Church of England.

No less a joke attended the Republic founded by England’s distressed progeny on Atlantic shores. Although the entire constitutional edifice bore a republican and, indeed, a Roman, facade, its true structure was entirely of English Oak.

The lower House of Representatives was plainly a House of Commons, presided over, as in England, by a Speaker. The Upper Chamber, which in England represented estate interests was converted into a Senate representing the several States. In either case, that house represented the interests of an established, corporate, entity with its own legal and jurisdictional powers. The courts of law and equity which, in England, had long struggled to achieve their independence were, in America, firmly established as an independent “branch” of government. If Americans bothered to study their own antecedent history they would easily see that the Constitution of 1788 was a restatement of the “Settlement” of 1688 which had established the framework of England’s constitutional monarchy. Almost.

When it came to the executive, however, the constitutional Framers hedged their bets. As is well known, George Washington cut short any notions of an hereditary monarchy. But the equal necessity and dangers of a strong executive bedevilled the Framers. The Constitution as originally written reflected a certain toying with the idea of a Roman duumvirate - the system of an elected diarchy. As originally provided, the Vice President was the runner up in the presidential elections. As President of the Senate, he held a position as potentially powerful as the Speaker of the House and certainly one which could be used as a foil against his erstwhile opponent, the primary President. A divided monarchy, was among the many “checks and balances” the Framers built into the system.

However, the embarrassment proved unworkable and the Twelfth Amendment, enacted in 1804, provided the constitutional mechanism for the election of a “presidential ticket” whereby the Vice President was reduced to the position of a Lady-in-Waiting or, as has been said, a “Brother-at-Sea”.

In so amending, the country returned full circle to the Settlemen of 1688 with the sole exception, that our monarch was elected for a term. Thus, almost from the outset, the Constitution provided for a constitutional monarchy, as defined by Gibbon and established by English custom.

The Joke, in America at least, was that the Founding Fathers were revolutionaries who had established the “World’s First and Greatest Democracy.” The Constitution of 1788 had been in fact a coup d’etat carried out by the most conservative and philo-British elements in the Colonies.

Upon achieving their independence, the American States fell prey to the twin evils of mobocracy and despotism. Strong, genuinely democratic movements coalesced in most of the states, inspired by radical French Jacobin ideas, and drawing political strength from the debtor and working classes. At the same time, tin-pot governors, gave themselves titles, airs and fancy carriages, drawing inspiration from the Hegelian concept of the “World Historical Personage” -- otherwise known as a “Napoleon Complex”. The newly united States hovered between the very radical democracy and megalomania that in the next several decades were to destroy the political and economic cohesion of Hispanic America. Not without reason the Framers of the “more perfect Union” sought to return to the statu quo ante by putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It was not an altogether bad choice. While one might sympathise with the grass-roots movements of the 1780’s and 1790’s, the historical record of democracies, as James Madison correctly noted, had been “violent and short”. An evolving English conservatism, on the other hand, did provide that balance between extremes that de Tocqueville so admired.

In the end, however, the success of any system depends on Abiding the Joke. For the system to work, it was necessary that the American Monarch exercise his prerogatives sparingly. For the most part, excepting Jackson and Lincoln, U.S. presidents kept a relatively low profile. Apart from a species of pseudo monarchical hoopla upon taking office, most presidents adopted a low key managerial style. Stressing the purely executory nature of the office, they did not submit legislation to Congress until the beginning of the 20th Century.

In many ways, despite his position as head of state, the president functioned more as prime minister than as a monarch. Alas, the apogee of the fait neánt presidency under Calvin Coolidge was followed soon thereafter by Franklin Roosevelt's Augustan Restoration. "At age nineteen," Augustus wrote, "I raised an army at my own expense and restored liberty to the Republic which had been oppressed by a faction." (Res Gestae, Divi Augusti, ch. 1, Loeb Classic. Lib, Harvard Univ. Press (1924).) Again, Gibbon comes to mind:

“The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant.... He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government. ... The system of the Imperial government, as it was instituted by Augustus ... may be defined as an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. • • • The masters of the Roman world... humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the Senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.” (Gibbon, op. cit.)

Historical analogies are the treacherous precipice of political commentary and there is much in circumstance and detail that distinguishes Roosevelt’s America from Octavian’s Rome. But in a salient and significant way the core issue was the same. The problem faced by Augustus was that a vast and complex empire, beset by regional differences and increasing class disparities, required a centralized and consistent governance. Similarly, if there was a singular statement that could characterize Roosevelt’s policies it was his statement that a national emergency required a national response -- and by “national” he meant centralized and presidential.

Roosevelt’s “saving” of the Republic was accompanied by the conivance of Congress itself which -- while retaining ultimate control over “policy” -- devolved actual “rule making” power to the executive bureaucracy or to the Emperor’s Household Slaves, as Romans would have put it.

Ultimately the Supreme Court obliged, not simply in upholding key components of the New Deal, but more fundamentally in putting its nihil obstat on the idea that Congress did not need to enact every law or “regulation” so long as it maintained “general oversight” of the executive bureaucracies whose decrees and orders would otherwise be deemed “presumptively” valid.

It was as monarchical as a Republic could get and the ensuing War placed the American imperator in command of the nation-at-war. In the post war years, the first imperial presidents, like the early Roman princes, “disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen but could add nothing to their real power. In all the offices of life, the affected to confound themselves with their subjects and maintained with them an equal intercourse of visits and entertainments.” (Gibbon, op. cit.)

Such were Harry Truman’s morning walks, Ike’s golfing on the lawn, the Kennedy’s tag football, Jimmy Carter’s cardigan and even Nixon’s “Republican cloth coat” and “little dog Checkers.”

But if personal restraint were sufficient of itself there would be little need for political science. Nixon traded in republican cloth coat for gold-and-creme ceremonial palace uniforms and Johnson all but had the White House toilet paper emblazoned with the Presidential Seal. Along with these brassy and tinseled displays of power went artifices of a darker, more secret and insidious sort, until in its latter manifestations, Bush II imitating Commodus, alighted on to ship deck like some aerial gladiator. We do have a monarchy, it just lacks class.

It is strange how England and America moved in opposite directions, the mother country becoming more democratic as she moved through the course of empire, we becoming less.

The ruling fact is that the country long ago ceased to be even the republican-monarchy of 1788. In the end, it will be said, that we cashed in the fol de rol of an English monarchy for the farce of a Roman one.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Knock, Knock -- "It's the I.M.F....."

For years we have read reports about the International Monetary Fund telling Mexico, Argentina, Greece, Lithuania, Russia ... whoever... to get their economic house in order. Invariably, these reports contained buzz-words like “unsustainable” and “belt-tightening.” Officials would explain that “current levels of social services” had to be slashed in order to produce something called “sustainable economic growth.” The IMF web page puts it this way:

"The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an organization of 187 countries, working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world."

Simply put, the IMF is a big bank or, more precisely, a mega credit union which lends money to “creditworthy” countries. But like any bank, the IMF will not lend money unless it is assured it will get it back; and not only “back” but back at a given rate of return -- i.e., with a profit. What this means is familiar to any home-buyer or borrower: in order to qualify for the loan one has to cut back on things that make life worth living and even on things necessary to living life.

With individuals this “loan qualification” standard is accompanied by a certain amount of obnoxious Puritanical hectoring. “Vacations” get equated with “sloth” and a balanced diet gets equated with “gluttony.” The borrower, if he wants the loan, must learn to live lean and work hard. After all, it’s good for character.

Of course, the hectoring is a canard. What is really at issue is the "reproduction of labor" at an acceptable social level. The concept is simple. In order to “work hard” on Monday it is necessary to rest and recuperate on Sunday. The body must “restore” itself (from whence the word “restaurant”) and this requires food and sleep. The concept is also natural. Land in production must, at a certain point, lie fallow in order to regenerate itself so as to produce new yields. These basic truths provide the basis for the economic principle that a sustainable production of goods requires a reliable re-production of the ability to work.

While it is possible to come up with a minimum schedule of “inputs and outputs” most people would like to think that society is something more than a labor camp operating at “minimum cost” and “maximal efficiency.” In fact, mordern research has shown that true economic efficiency depends on human happiness. Because many industrial processes require more than mere repetitive motion, the ability of a laborer to replicate his work from one day to the next depends not only on calories but on clothing, shelter, medical care, educational opportunities and leisure time. It is the complexity of society itself that requires more complete and complex forms of regeneration.

While it is true that the lives of many people in the West can be described as fat and lazy this fact simply serves as an excuse for bankers. It would make absolutely no difference to them if the same monies spent on vacations were “spent” on retirement savings. The banker sees the borrower as a value generator -- a hamster on a wheel -- that needs to churn out a certain quantum of value to meet the lenders desired ROI. This avarice results in a primitive equation which thinks only of profit and conceives of profit as simply the inverse of costs. Ergo: “get your ratios down if you want to qualify”.

The same hectoring takes place between the IMF and borrower countries. The only difference is that what is put on a diet are a country’s social services: child-care, education, health, retirement. As if they were self-indulgent luxuries, these social benefits are deprecated as living beyond one's means.” Tsk. Tsk. If the country in question wants a “bail out” then it must put “cut backs” in place. It is typically left unsaid what these cutbacks entail in the flesh. But “living within one's means” invariably means old people eating cat food and shivering in the cold. It means infants deprived of formula or vaccinations. It means otherwise talented young people relegated to menial, part time service jobs. It means -- and this is no exaggeration -- toothpaste being too expensive for large segments of the population.

How is this possible? Doesn't the IMF itself say that its goal is to promote financial responsibility, high employment and sustainable economic growth while reducing poverty around the world? It is necessary pierce the razzle-dazzle. These catch-phrases mean something different to the IMF bankers than they mean to ordinary people.

"High employment" does not equate with high living standards. A labor camp has high employment. “Financial responsibility” means the type of tightened belt and ROI that has just been described, and “sustainable economic growth” does not refers to the economic enrichment of people but to the maintenance of an efficient generation of corporate profits. In the IMF manual, poverty gets “reduced” only via the tried and untrue mechanism of trickledown, as is more than evident in any country that has been the unlucky beneficiary of IMF "aid." Poverty has been so reduced in Peru, that swarms of orphans roam the streets of Lima sniffing glue to kill the hunger pains.

It is no surprise that people around the world view the IMF with utter loathing. Even the illiterate among them understand that the IMF is a money lender who is going to take its cut out of their flesh. It is as age-old and as simple as that.

But not in the United States. If any people are suckers for Puritanical hectoring it is Americans. It makes us feel good. How many times in the past 25 to 50 years has one heard the racially-tinged, self-righteous disdain for those Mexicans or those Poles or those backward, third-world whoevers who need to get their “shtuff” together and learn to be more like us.

Ah... but what goes around comes around. The IMF has now come a-knocking and has advised the United States that its national debt levels are “unsustainable.” The U.S. needs to get its house in order. Issuing its semi-annual, long-term economic assessment, the organization warned that the size of the U.S. deficit risked creating instability in the financial markets. The IMF urged the United States to adopt measures that would allow it to meet its fiscal commitments. (BBC Report ; IMF Report [13 Apr 11].)

Not that this “assessment” was much of a surprise. Speaking in January to the plutocrati assembled in Davos, Switzerland, Treasury Secretary Geithner protested that “There are some people who [would] like to move... very quickly to do very deep cuts in spending, but it is not the responsible way to do it."

In the name of “economic recovery,” Geithner prefers making the cuts gradually over time. In other words, we can belt tighten slowly... so slowly that maybe Americans won’t really notice the slow boil. By the time we live lives of ragged destitution, we will think it’s natural and the way God ordained things.

But among the things that God ordained was prepositional phrases. Deciphering what is natural and what is expedient begins with good grammar. And so the question becomes: "Fiscal commitments to whom?" Answer: to those few who, as Franklin Roosevelt said, “seek to enrich and advance themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens."

The High Priests at the IMF are Moloch’s acolytes. Their "assessment" was simply a salvo in the financial propaganda war. Their buzz-words are designed to occlude a “system” the integral and ultimately sole purpose of which is to generate “sustainable income growth” for a few at the expense of many. They want us to produce greater yields with ever lesser costs of reproduction. They will plow the land till it yields nothing even for locusts.

We are all value-producers on a wheel; that is an inescapable fact of life, unless we are to return to the days of nut and berry plucking from the vine. The issue is not whether we reproduce in order to produce value but how that value is distributed among us.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011