Wednesday, June 26, 2019

On National Service

In the early 1940s, when the forces of fascism in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan threatened to take over the world, the American people rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

It was, in the words of General Dwight Eisenhower, a “Great Crusade”.  Millions of brave American soldiers fought their way across North Africa, Western Europe, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean.  The sailors of the U.S. Navy secured the sea lanes from German U-boats in the Atlantic and won epic battles against the Japanese in the Pacific.  The pilots in their fighters and bombers supported their comrades in the other services and shattered the war production of our adversaries through strategic bombing.

Yet you did not have to put on a uniform to take part in America’s war effort.  On the assembly lines of countless factories, tens of millions of workers (more than a quarter of them women) toiled to produce the war material that would bring victory.  Sailors of the merchant marine manned the vessels, sailing across dangerous waters to carry the supplies to the war zones that made the military campaigns possible (more than nine thousand of them lost their lives).  Men not eligible for military service took part in civil defense efforts, enforcing blackouts, guarding bridges, and keeping an eye out for spies and saboteurs.  Even schoolchildren did their part, growing fresh vegetables in “victory gardens” at their schools and collecting rubber from tires, aluminum from bubblegum wrappers, and anything else that could help the war effort.

In many ways, World War II brought out the best in our nation.  Everyone, from all races, religions, and backgrounds, felt a responsibility to contribute to the war effort in whatever way they could.  We did not fully free ourselves of our internal tensions and contradictions, as was shown by our shameful internment of Japanese-Americans and some serious incidents of racial tension in 1943.  Yet, all things considered, there was a sense of national unity and common purpose between 1941 and 1945 unlike any other time in our nation’s history.  Not for nothing was it called the Greatest Generation.

Our own time could not be more different.  We see ourselves in our time, first and foremost, as members of distinct racial, religious, or cultural groups (“tribes”, to use a term currently in vogue among sociologists) rather than as fellow Americans.  A liberal from San Francisco feels that he has nothing in common with a conservative from a rural Oklahoma town, and vice versa.  The ties that used to bind us have weakened, steadily chopped away by the resentments and prejudices, real or imagined, that are pulling us apart.  This process has been accelerated by the rise of social media and by populist demagogues acting in their own self-interest, instinctively but expertly exploiting our divisions by appealing to fear, anger, and envy.

When I look at the myriad of problems facing America in our own time, it seems clear to me that one of the root causes is the lack of a common American identity.  If we are to recover, we need to recapture the spirit of the Greatest Generation, adapting it for modern times.  We need to solidify a sense that, though we may have different religions, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, though we may speak different languages, though we may have different political beliefs, we are all Americans and we are all part of the same grand experiment in democracy.  Like Washington and his men crossing the Delaware River, we are all in the same boat.

I believe that a comprehensive program of national service, in which young Americans would be expected to devote at least a year of their lives, would be the most effective means of rebuilding a common American identity among our people.

I don’t propose in this blog post to lay out all the specifics of such a plan, which would obviously require enormous debate and consideration before it became a reality.  Generally speaking, though, I believe that an additional type of educational certificate should be created in the United States, between a high school diploma and a college degree, which one could obtain only by doing a year of national service.  In effect, this would add an additional year onto our system of public education, but it would be a year in which our young people would be out in the world rather than behind the desks of their classrooms.  Nobody would be required to do this, but young Americans who had earned a national service certificate would naturally have an advantage over those who had not in terms of employment and college acceptance.  The federal government could require federal agencies, as well as any companies with federal contracts, to give preference to holders of such certificates in their hiring practices.  Tax breaks and tuition incentives could also potentially be included for those who participate.  Self-interest, as well as a simple desire to serve, would draw people into the program.

The idea of national service is nothing new. In the colonial era, all able-bodied men in a community were expected to serve in the militia.  Mandatory military service was a fact of life for American men in every major 20th Century conflict, until the draft was abolished in the wake of the Vietnam War.  In the midst of the Great Depression, millions of young men participated the New Deal program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), building and improving parks and doing other jobs on government-owned land.  President Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps in 1961 and President Clinton launched AmeriCorps in 1993.  Fundamentally, Americans are decent people with a strong desire to serve their nation.

In a new program of national service, young Americans should be able to fulfill their requirements through a variety of means.  Military service is the most obvious route; even if they did not want to join the military, they could take part in a year-long period of military training and enter the National Guard or the Reserves.  Enrollment in already established programs, like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, would also qualify, as would participation in service-oriented, apolitical nonprofit organizations that meet certain requirements.  Internship programs for professions such as teaching, law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medical services would also fit into this vision.  Even construction work on critical infrastructure such as highways and bridges, and work in National Parks and local and state parks, might be included.  The possibilities are almost limitless.

Enrolling millions of young people into such a program would, of course, be a tremendous undertaking and cost a good deal of money.  But the return on investment for something like this would be astronomical.  We are constantly told of an overstretched military, of shortages of teachers and police officers and emergency responders, of a crumbling infrastructure, and the desperate need of volunteers for our nonprofit sector.  So much work that desperately needs to be done would, under this program, finally get done.  Indeed, if we launched a genuine program of national service, our biggest problem would probably be finding enough spots for everyone.  If you ask me, that’s not a bad problem to have.

The larger, more abstract benefits to America are impossible to calculate.  Generations of young people would gain useful hands-on experience in a variety of different fields, which might also light the spark that will push them towards their destined careers.  During their service year, Americans would meet fellow citizens from around the country, people very different from those with whom they grew up.  This would build social tolerance for people of different ethnicities, religions, and social and political perspectives, helping to foster a more cohesive country and rebuild the common American identity that gave the Greatest Generation its amazing strength and fortitude.  Research shows that citizens who have engaged in national service vote at a higher rate and are more deeply engaged in various forms of civic activism than those who did not.  I believe a program like this would go a long way to burying the partisan divide that is currently poisoning political discourse in our great republic.

A program of comprehensive national service like this would have to be organized and funded by the federal government, because every young American would have to have an equal opportunity to participate regardless of their socioeconomic status.  Many would argue that students would dismiss such a program as a waste of time.  I disagree.  Having spent years working in high school and middle school classrooms, I am convinced that the vast majority of young Americans would not only be willing but would be genuinely eager to participate in a program such as this.  They would understand the benefits they would gain, they would see it as a chance for adventure, and they would jump at the opportunity to serve their country.  It would be of particular benefit to those young Americans who might otherwise fall into addictive drug use and gang culture.

In recent years, some members of Congress have proposed legislation to enact some form of national service, though these efforts have been overwhelmingly defeated or ignored.  Retired general Stanley McChrystal, formerly the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, has launched an effort to promote national service, though it has yet to gain much traction.

It is high time that this trend be reversed.  The voice of the people should begin loudly calling for a program of comprehensive national service.

(This essay was originally published on the blog of Unite America.)

Monday, June 3, 2019

We Need to Revitalize the American Family Farm

There is nothing more central to the idea of America than the family farm. The image of a red barn and small farmhouse set amidst vast fields of corn or wheat, with a windmill slowly turning in the breeze, is a picture that almost automatically comes to mind when you think about what our country is all about. It's not too much to say that America was built on a foundation of family farms.

During the Colonial Era, well over ninety percent of Americans were farmers. The rest, mostly craftsmen and merchants, made their livings by providing goods and services to farmers. The wealth of the nation was ultimately derived entirely from the products of the land. The average American yeoman farmer in those days was infinitely more independent than any American citizen is in our own time, able to produce their own food for their own family on their own land, and, if a crop was good and produce could be sold on the market, perhaps generating enough money to pay for other necessities and the occasional luxury. Today, if we want so much as a piece of lettuce, we have to go to a grocery store whose supply chain is controlled by a corporate oligarchy.

Yet the American farmer in the days of old was not isolated from his fellows. In fact, for America to work, community had to play a central role in the lives of citizens. The nearest town was where a farmer came to sell their produce at the market, buy goods at the stores, and perhaps deal with some legal matter at the county courthouse. Church was vitally important, almost the glue which held society together. Each county had a militia company to protect the community from whatever might threaten it, including a distant British government that could threaten their liberties. as the poet John Donne said, no man is an island, sufficient unto himself.

Thomas Jefferson said it best in one of his most memorable quotes:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he made the peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire which otherwise might eclipse from the face of the earth.

And to his fellow Founding Father, John Jay, Jefferson once wrote as follows:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most virtuous, and they are tied to the country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.

To Jefferson, the freedom of owning one's own land was coupled with a societal obligation to educate the public, down to the members of the lowest social class. He envisioned a society in which independent farmers would come home at night and read Homer in the original Greek by the fire. Some people would say that this is unrealistic, if not unobtainable. Jefferson would probably chide them for setting their expectations for the American people too low.

Lincoln, a spiritual heir to Jefferson in many ways, also understood the importance of the family farm to the fabric of the American republic. Even in the darkest days of the Civil War, he took the time to sign into law the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act, two key pieces of legislation that helped form the American Midwest into a society based around the family farm. The Homestead Act made it easy and cheap for families and individuals to secure small plots of federal land in the west, provided they agreed to live on the land and farm it. The Morrill Act allocated federal funds for the establishment of agricultural colleges, to teach American the practical skills necessary to make a success out of farming.

During his legendary first hundred days in office, Franklin Roosevelt made the salvation of the American family farm one of the top priorities. The Agricultural Adjustment Act enabled the government to raise prices by paying farmers subsidies if they reduced their planting. An emergency measure, the law helped stave off a complete collapse of the American agricultural sector.

From the founding of the republic to the middle of the 20th Century, the federal government recognized that the American family farm was an institution crucial to the social and economic fabric of the nation. That being the case, they took common sense measures to foster its development and protect it when it was threatened.

Not anymore.

It is no secret that the American family farm has been disappearing for the last several decades. It is not yet extinct, yet it clearly is in danger of becoming so. Many people, including many American farmers themselves, have entirely given up. Thirty years ago, family farms of the sort that Jefferson would still have recognized still made up over half of American agricultural production; today their percentage is less than a quarter.

On the national and state levels, the evidence is there for all to see. In the last twelve years, the number of American dairy producers had declined from 70,000 to 40,000. The great state of Wisconsin, famed across the world for its dairy products, is now seeing two dairy producers shut down every single day. Missouri had 23,000 independent pig farms in 1985, whereas today it has only 2,000. The average annual net farm income for an American farmer is now nearly about $1,500 in the negative.

Today, the bulk of American agricultural production comes out of corporate-controlled factory farms, gigantic industrial-scale operations so mechanized that to even call them by the name of "farms" seems almost absurd. The products of these facilities are not only of greatly lesser quality than those of family farms, but they are less healthy, less safe, and pumped full of chemicals, antibiotics, and growth hormones.

The decline of the American farm has precipitated a collapse in the rural society of the United States. As the farms vanished, so did the restaurants, shops, hardware stores, movie theaters, and other establishments that depended on them for their customer base. Doctors and dentists, with insufficient patients able to pay, closed up and left. Countless small towns across rural America are now empty shells, like skeletons in a desert. With those towns goes a priceless part of the national soul.

Most people believe that the decline of the American family farm has been a regrettable but unfortunately inevitable consequence of new technologies and a changing economy. It has been nothing of the sort. It did not need to happen, nor should it have happened. It is entirely the responsibility of a formidable set of corporate enemies: Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Cargill, Swift & Company, ConAgra, Dean Foods, Monsanto, and a whole host of others.

If the American family farm finally does die, it won't have been an accident. It will have been murder.

Corporate agribusiness has one of the most powerful lobbying presences in Washington D.C. The campaign coffers of politicians, from both parties and at every level of government, overflow with donations from wealthy people connected to these companies. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the agribusiness sector gave a whopping $118 million in campaign contributions during the 2016 election cycle. This allows them to buy an obscene amount of political influence, which they wield ruthlessly to slice down the opposition. The immense farm bills that wind their way through Congress every half decade are essentially written by the agribusiness lobbyists. Needless to say, owners of family farms do not possess even a fraction of their political clout.

Freed from the fear of any serious regulation by the government, the corporate agribusiness conglomerates can shape the marketplace as they choose, just as a sculptor manipulates clay. According to Farm Aid, a mere four companies control the majority of American supply and distribution of each of the following: beef (84%), corn (80%), soybeans (70%), hogs (66%), poultry (59%), and turkey (55%). Despite widespread evidence of price-fixing and other anti-competitive behavior, as well as numerous lawsuits, enforcement of federal antitrust laws has been effectively nonexistent. And if you think this latter fact has nothing to do with the political power of the agribusiness lobby, I have a bridge to sell you.

Because the corporate agribusiness control such a disproportionate market share, they have been able to vertically integrate the entire production, distribution, and sale of American food into their hands. Small-scale processing operations and slaughterhouses that used to fill the small towns of rural America have vanished, forcing the remaining family farms to turn to the corporations themselves to get their products to the market. Insult has been added to injury, in that the few remaining family farms are now mostly forced to produce crops and livestock to sell to the very agribusiness giants who already threaten their existence.

The dominance of corporate agribusiness is not only bad news for farmers, but bad news for the American people as a whole. The food we eat is now produced in an unnatural manner, so infused with artificial chemicals that even describing it as "food" is being charitable. The horror stories that emerge out of factory farms are so sickening as to make one vomit. The animals are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones and raised in nightmarish conditions.

Now, no man who loves barbecue, hamburgers, pork chops, lamb korma, and sesame chicken as much as I do could ever be a vegetarian. Nevertheless, I believe strongly that the animals from which we obtain our meat are entitled to due respect as part of the natural order of things. When I eat pork chops, I want to know that the pig from which it came was not mistreated.

Two-and-a-half centuries ago, when they felt their liberties threatened by a distant monarch, American farmers set aside their plows, picked up their muskets, and gathered on Lexington Green to fight for their freedom. Fortunately for the nation, their family farmer descendants are now doing the same. And the American people need to back them up.

Since 1985, patriotic musicians such as Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and many others have organized an annual benefit concert called Farm Aid to raise money in support of American family farmers. From this has emerged an organization that conducts research and advocacy on behalf of ordinary farmers, provides grants to smaller nonprofits focused on food independent and sustainability, and connecting farmers with resources that can help them stay on their land. Farm Aid is one of the most worthwhile advocacy organizations in the United States.

Over the last few years, farmers markets have sprung up all across the country, in both big cities and small towns, allowing family farmers to sell their products directly to consumers. This is an act of resistance against the corporate oligarchy, side-stepping their control of the farm-to-table food chain that keeps Americans fed and going directly to the source. Buying so much as a single carton of eggs or one little basket of potatoes at a farmers market helps the American family farm survive. It is a fundamentally patriotic act.

(Use the Local Harvest website to find the farmers market closest to you.)

Many restaurants are now choosing to buy their meat and produce from local farms rather than through the agribusiness pipeline. Whenever possible, Americans need to eat at these establishments and avoid the others. Like shopping at farmers markets, doing so is a fundamentally patriotic act.

If the American family farm disappears, the United States will have lost a crucial aspect of its heritage and national identity. The agribusiness giants, in placing profit over the health, safety, and social stability of the republic, are traitors to the United States no less sinister than was Benedict Arnold. Through political advocacy, support of such organizations as Farm Aid, and being more careful with where we buy our groceries and where we go out to eat, the American people can help save the family farm.

Government on every level could implement sound public policies to help our nation's farmers, just as it did before with the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Why not give hefty property tax exemptions and income tax deductions to family farms, provided that the sell a certain percentage of their produce directly to the public? Why not create a system of low interest loans for farmers having trouble, or for people wishing to start new family farms? Above all, why hasn't there been much more aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws against the agribusiness giants? There are any number of things that could be done.

As always, it's up to us.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

On Voting

A few days ago, I cast my vote in the local municipal election for Hutto, Texas, the town I now call home. Five things were on the ballot - the mayor, three of the six city council positions, and a bond package for Hutto Independent School District. All of these are of interest to me. The mayor and city council govern the community in which I live, and Hutto ISD is where my oldest daughter goes to school and where my two younger daughters will go as soon as they are old enough. The issues facing Hutto are typical of small but growing towns on the edge of larger urban areas. I voted for the bond package, being myself a teacher and obviously a strong supporter of public education. For the mayor and city councilors, I did my research on their backgrounds and positions, watched a livestream of a candidate forum (being unable to physically attend on account of having three kids), tried to judge how effectively the incumbents had been at running Hutto, and made my decisions accordingly.

I love voting. I vote because it makes me feel good. It's not just that I love sporting my "I Voted" sticker around, although I do. It's that I feel a certain thrill in exercising the most fundamental right of citizens in a republic like America - the right to participate in the choosing of our leaders. When I watch the returns on election night, I love to look at the numbers in the column of the candidates I voted for an reflect that, had I not done my civic duty, their total would have one fewer vote.

I vote because I don't want to be a hypocrite. Being a history and civics teacher, I feel especially obligated to be vote in every election, even the minor ones that get little or no attention in the media. After all, I tell my students regularly that those who don't vote don't matter. I despise hypocrisy in others and am therefore unwilling to tolerate it in myself, so I vote in every election no matter the inconvenience.

I vote because I don't want to be ungrateful. It's a cliche to point out that thousands of brave American men and women suffered and died to secure and defend our right to self-government, but it's a cliche that happens to be true. Whether we're talking about the seventy-seven immortal Minutemen who stood their ground on Lexington Green, the men who stormed ashore at Normady or Iwo Jima, or the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen currently fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, all Americans owe their right to self-government to the sacrifice of these brave warriors. Aside from hypocrisy, the vice I most despise is ingratitude. People who choose not to vote are being sickingly ungrateful, when you think about it.

I vote because it matters. In 2004, I worked as a staffer on a state legislative campaign in Texas. 68,663 votes were cast in that election and our campaign lost by 148 votes. If a mere seventy-four people had changed their minds, or if one hundred and 148 more people had shown up and cast their votes for my candidate, the outcome could have been different. For that matter, if 537 Ralph Nader supporters in Florida had instead voted for Al Gore, the whole course of history over the last twenty years would have been radically different. The incredibly slim outcome of the 2016 presidential election, which came down to a few thousand votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, is well known.

In perhaps the most astonishing example, the 2016 elections saw one state legislative race quite literally tied at 11,607 to 11,607. Moreover, the uncertain outcome of this race determined whether the Democrats or Republicans would control the lower house of the Virginia state legislature, with enormous consequences for the eight-and-a-half million citizens of Virginia. In the end, the outcome was determined by drawing names out of a hat. If a single additional person had shown up to vote, it could have altered which party controlled the Virginia House of Delegates. So don't tell me that voting doesn't matter. It does.

I vote because, as a citizen, it's my job. As one of nearly three hundred and thirty million Americans, I am a cog in the vast machine that is the American republic. Every cog that comes loose in the form of a citizen that doesn't vote makes that machine work just a little bit less effectively. As a teacher, if I don't bother teaching classes, completing my paperwork, grading assignments, and so forth, I get fired. And that would be perfectly fair, because I in that case I wouldn't deserve to have my job. It's not possible to fire someone from citizenship, but people can fail to deserve their citizenship.

When I voted in the local Hutto elections, I made a point to bring my six-year-old daughter with me to the polls. When my two-year-old and ten-month-old are big enough to understand what voting is and why it's important (and, honestly, when they're easier to handle), I will be bringing them, too. I feel it's important that my children see me and my wife in the act of voting, to have it impressed upon them that this is something that people are expected to do, just like saying 'please' and 'thank you' and holding the door open for people coming in behind you. I strongly urge everyone to bring their children to the polling places with them when they go vote.

When I vote, even in a relatively minor election such as this, I am heir to traditions and values that can be traced back to Athens and the Roman Republic. The idea that governments should only exist by the consent of the governed and that the actions of governments must mirror the wills of the majority of their people was fused into the DNA of our nation by our Founding Fathers. It is the whole idea behind the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

It bothers me to no end that the United States of America, which is largely responsible for the spread of democracy over the globe during the last century, has such dismal voting numbers. The problem is well known but bears repeating. According to Pew Research, 55.7% of Americans eligible to vote actually did so in the 2016 presidential election. Compare this to 67.9% in France, 70.6% in Norway, 79% in Australia, and a whopping 87.2% in Belgium. In this crucial field, clearly, America is definitely not #1.

Unfortunately, there is a group of people in America far worse than citizens who choose to vote. These would be the sinister elements within our nation's political system who are intentionally trying to make it more difficult for people to vote.

First and foremost, we have so-called "Voter ID laws", which have been pushed in Republican-controlled states across the country. Ostensibly, these are intended to prevent non-citizens from voting by requiring state-issued identification such as driver's license. In truth, they are intended to limit voting by poor and minority voters, who are less likely to possess the necessary photo identification even though they are registered voters. This was clearly proven by the outstanding investigative reporting done by The Washington Post in its 2016 report on North Carolina's law. Any number of comprehensive studies have shown that voter ID laws disproportionately reduce minority turnout.

Preventing voter fraud by non-citizens is a classic red herring, because such fraud is so rare as to be statistically non-existent. Besides, if the goal is to prevent non-citizens from voting, the obvious answer would be the issuance of some sort of national ID card to be used in all elections, provided to all citizens for free. Nothing like that, to my knowledge, has been suggested by those pushing the voter ID laws.

Republicans also make strong efforts to limit the number of days for early voting. Many states with Republican-controlled governments purge their voter rolls of minority voters. North Dakota recently passed a law requiring voters to specify their street address, which effectively disenfranchised thousands of Native Americans (who tend to support the Democrats) as those who live on reservations typically don't have street addresses. Polling places are closed down in heavily minority areas and opened up heavily white areas. Laws of this sort are more appropriate for an authoritarian banana republic than a genuine democracy, yet sadly they are becoming increasingly common across the United States.

The vast majority of voter suppression in America is being done by Republicans, but Democrats are not entirely free from guilt on the issue. Their party has strongly resisted efforts to hold municipal elections on the same day as federal or state elections. This simple measure would be cheaper, logistically much easier, and increase pitifully low turnout in such elections. But it also would disadvantage the Democratic Party, which tends to dominate such local elections in urban areas due to the out-sized influence labor unions hold in such contests. Municipal elections would gauge the true feelings of the electorate much better if they were held on the same day as state and federal elections, yet Democrats balk because they don't want to have a level-playing field in a type of election where they have an advantage.

If you ask me, any government official who tries to use their legal authority to make it more difficult for citizens to vote is guilty of a serious crime against the American republic and should be punished accordingly. I wouldn't mind seeing them serve hard time in prison, to be perfectly honest.

I could spend an enormous amount of time on other problems with voting and what is needed to solve them. We need to replace our winner-take-all system with one based on ranked-choice voting, as has recently been successfully done in Maine. We need to abolish gerrymandering and do something about the oversized influence of special interest money. We need automatic voter registration. If I had my way, Election Day would be a national holiday, so that people would not have to choose between skipping work or skipping voting. Early voting and ease of access to voting places should be vigorously supported, not clandestinely diminished.

If democracy were a human body, the act of voting is the blood flowing through our veins. So let's vote. And let's punish those who would hinder a citizen's right to vote. And let's all work together to make voting easier and more reflective of the will of the people. In the end, after all, this is what democracy is all about.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Envisioning a John Adams Memorial

In March, as part of the mammoth John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, the legislation to create an Adams Memorial Commission was signed into law. Twelve commissioners are now supposed to be appointed, who will carry out the work of locating, designing, and building a memorial to John Adams in our nation's capital.

This has been something I have long wanted to see. Two years ago, I started a Facebook group for "Supporters of a John Adams Memorial in Washington D.C." The group now has more than a thousand members, many of whom had reached out to their representatives in Congress to advocate for this legislation. We would flatter ourselves that we had some impact on the decision to move this legislation forward, but you never know.

There is no doubt that Adams, one of the greatest Founding Fathers, richly deserves such a memorial. His name ranks with Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and other great Americans who have had memorials built to them. Now that the Adams Memorial Commission will be created, it is worth asking what form a memorial to John Adams should take. As an interested citizen, I feel I have as much right as anyone else to put forward some of my own thoughts and suggestions. So, here goes.

I feel very strongly that the design of this memorial should be traditional. Adams was a New England Yankee of Puritan stock, a man decidedly of the 18th Century, who was naturally suspicious of newfangled things. He believed deeply in the classical tradition of Greece and Rome and the design of the memorial should reflect that. It would be ridiculous, in my opinion, for Adams to be commemorated with anything like the abstract designs of postmodern architecture and sculpture that have become fashionable in our time. Far better, I think, for a future Adams Memorial to be designed along the same lines as the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials - a fine statue of the great man in stone or bronze set amidst a Neoclassical structure of some sort.

I think that the bulk of the memorial should not be made of marble, the primary material for the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, but of granite. I think the essence of John Adams - steadfastness, ironclad integrity, unwillingness to compromise one's principles - is evoked more by granite than it is by marble. Moreover, Adams was a New England man through and through and New England is the source of some of the best granite in the world. It would be fitting if the Adams Memorial be constructed out of good, strong, New England granite. The United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, where John and Abigail are buried alongside their son John Quincy and his wife Louisa, was made of granite quarried from the Adams farm itself.

It seems to me that while the memorial should center around the man of John Adams himself, it must also be designed in such a way as to commemorate the rest of his remarkable family, particularly his extraordinary wife Abigail, whose fiery spirit animated and inspired Adams throughout his life and whose wisdom he turned to repeatedly throughout his career. Obviously, space must be made to remember his son John Quincy, arguably America's greatest diplomat, the sixth President of the United States, and a key figure in the rise of the abolitionist movement in America. If possible, mention should be made of Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of John Adams who played a crucial role in winning the Civil War as Lincoln's minister to Great Britain.

Many of the great Americans commemorated by great monuments in the nation's capital can have their achievement summarized into overall themes. Washington was the "Father of the Nation"; Martin Luther King led the fight for racial equality and justice; Lincoln preserved the Union and ended slavery; Jefferson gave voice to the values on which our republic was founded. This is simplistic, of course, for the careers of all these men were complex and complicated. But it is clear that the contributions of Adams cannot be neatly packaged in an overall theme. They simply were too widespread. I believe, however, that the design of the future Adams Memorial needs to incorporate elements that take into account the following facts:

  1. Adams was the key figure in the Continental Congress who pushed the delegates to declaring independence from Britain.
  2. He persuaded the Dutch to recognize American independence and to assist the American cause with crucially-needed financial loans, without which the Revolution might have failed.
  3. He was the key negotiator of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.
  4. During his one term as President of the United States, Adams kept the United States out of what would have been a ruinous and unnecessary war with France.
  5. As a champion of naval power in the Continental Congress, as a diplomat, and as President of the United States, Adams deserves to be called the father of the American navy.
  6. He refused to own slaves as a matter of principle.
  7. As the framer of the state constitution of Massachusetts and the author of the treatise Thoughts on Government, Adams became one of the most influential constitutional thinkers in American history, articulating the concepts of the separation of powers and checks and balances.
  8. As exemplified by his willingness to serve as legal counsel for the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre, Adams stood as a champion of the rule of law and the idea that all people have the right to legal counsel no matter who they are or what they have been accused of.
  9. In writing the Massachusetts state constitution, Adams included provisions that created a public education system in the state, knowing that an educated public was essentially if a democratic form of government was going to survive.

All the other memorials to great Americans on the Washington Mall include a selection of quotes from the men they commemorate. I don't think that the Adams Memorial should be any different. Here are some of the quotes I would like to see on the walls of a future Adams Memorial.

  1. "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
  2. "Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that ever took half the pains to preserve it."
  3. "I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day's transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not."
  4. "Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives."

Every summer, I take a group of 8th graders to visit Washington D.C. I hope that I will be able, before I retire in twenty or twenty-five years, to begin visiting the Adams Memorial on these trips. When I do, I hope that it will be designed along lines similar to what I have suggested here. It would be a fitting memorial to a great American and a wonderful contribution to the civic architecture of our nation.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Moral Authority Crisis of the American Presidency

It has been a roughly couple of days in America. In Kentucky, a suspected white supremacist attempted to attack a predominately black church; failing to get in, he murdered two innocent African-Americans at a nearby grocery store. A far-right extremist attempted to use pipe bombs to assassinate prominent Democrats and critics of Donald Trump; only through luck and the dedication of our law enforcement agencies was the plan thwarted and the suspect apprehended. Worst of all, in the most bloody incident of anti-Semitic violence in the history of the United States, a bigoted right-wing extremist murdered eleven Jewish worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

It is fair to ask: what on earth is happening to America?

In such times as these, it is common to look to the person inhabiting the White House for leadership and words of reassurance. After all, the President of the United States is the head-of-state and is supposed to be the unifying individual looked upon as our leader, transcending, as much as possible in such times, the politics of the day.

American history affords plenty of examples. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt calmed a terrified and suffering nation in the darkest days of the Great Depression, promising them that help was on the war. When the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed in 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke beautiful and moving words of comfort to a shocked people. When the Oklahoma City bombing took place, President Bill Clinton did the same. In perhaps the most moving example of all, President George W. Bush calmed and comforted the nation in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and did the same a few years later when the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed. President Barack Obama sadly had to do it several times during his administration, in the wake of the shootings at Charleston, Orlando, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Though there were actions and beliefs of each of these presidents to which I object, they were all genuine patriots who loved their country and tried to use their position for the common good, reinforcing the moral authority that comes with the presidency.

In our own trying times, however, Donald Trump will not speak any meaningful words of comfort to the American people. First of all, he doesn't really want to. From his very first day in office, he has made it clear that he does not care about the nation at large, but only about himself. If people are killed in hateful violence, he cares only to the extent that it affects him. One can see this clearly in his blasé attitude towards the recent violence, just as we have seen in his lack of concern for the victims of the series of hurricanes that have struck our country.

Moreover, Trump psychologically lacks the ability to even attempt the comfort the nation. Being a man with absolutely no empathy, he genuinely doesn't understand why anyone should care about the sufferings of others. Indeed, he does not even fathom that there is such a thing as "the American people" at all. In the last few days, he has mouthed various platitudes about unity and decried violence, but no one has taken them seriously because he so clearly doesn't mean a word of what he says. To me, he sounds like the third grader who apologizes for saying something rude to a classmate only because his teacher demands that he do so.

Rather than try to comfort and reassure the nation, Donald Trump has spent a lot more time and energy over the past few days trying to convince everyone that this sudden outbreak of violence is not his fault. He even had the gall to say that the pipe bomb attacks happened because of media criticism against him. As always, Trump is looking out for himself and his interests above everything else. Since the first moment he announced he was seeking the presidency, Trump has done his best to divide the American people and turn them against one another for his own political gain. Nothing he has done or said has had the effect, and certainly not the intention, of bringing people together for the common good.

Trump is right to be worried about being blamed for what's happened. To say that the recent violence is at least largely his fault is as obvious as saying that the sky is blue. What do you expect from a man whose rallies revolve around a chant about throwing his political opponents into prison, who offers to pay the legal bills of any supporter who violently attacks a protester, and who proudly says he supports a congressional candidate because the man pleaded guilty to physically assaulting a reporter? If Trump is not himself guilty of committing violence, he certainly has encouraged it.

Nor has Trump denounced, as any person of dignity and decency holding the presidency should, the conspiracy theories about the pipe bombs being a "false flag" operation designed to help the Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections which have been spread by Trump supporters across the right-wing media. Again, he is making a calculation that such stories may be politically advantageous to him, so he will do nothing to stop them. In one tweet, Trump even seemed to lend credence to the false flag theories and complained that the "bomb stuff" was distracting voters who would otherwise support Republicans.

When I reflect on the man who currently lives in the White House, nothing bothers me more than to think that he holds the office once held by men such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and other giants of the past. They were genuine patriots who loved their country, whatever their human flaws. They had the gravitas and strength of character that became genuine moral authority, which was enhanced when they entered into the high office of the presidency.

So long as Donald Trump occupies the White House, there is an enormous and empty chasm where much of the moral authority of the United States of America is supposed to reside. Whoever is the next President of the United States will face the enormous challenge of having to rebuild that moral authority.

It won't be easy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

What I Love About America: 2018

Happy Independence Day, folks!

It is July 4. Two hundred and forty-two years ago today, a group of brave and determined men voted to approve a document, written by a young and brilliant Virginian, which declared the thirteen British colonies hugging the eastern coast of North America to be an independent nation. That day in Philadelphia is rightfully seen as our country's birthday.

Now, we spend a lot of time talking about what's wrong with our country and it is true that we have our fair share of problems. Yet on Independence Day, I think it's healthy to stop thinking about those things that trouble us about our country and consider instead what we love about it. So, here goes.

I love the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I love the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, and the hundreds of beautiful letters that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote to one another in retirement. I love the journals of Lewis and Clark. I love the Declaration of Sentiments that came out of the Seneca Falls Convention. I love Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. I love the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. I love FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech, MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech, and the speech JFK gave at Rice University in which he declared that America chose to go to the Moon.

I love Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Harper Lee, Louisa May Alcott and Edgar Allan Poe. I love Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love the poetry of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Maya Angelou. I love The Autobiography of Benjamin FranklinA Narrative of the Life of Frederick DouglassThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

I love the Statue of Liberty (thanks, France!), the Liberty Bell, and Mount Rushmore. I love bald eagles and American bison. I love Mount Vernon and Monticello. I love the monuments and memorials around the National Mall in Washington D.C. I love the USS Constitution - "Old Ironsides" - launched in 1797 and still officially a commissioned warship in the United States Navy. I love the Space Needle in Seattle, the Empire State Building in New York City, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I love the Art Deco architecture of Miami. I love the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the thousands of small bridges one passes over while driving the back roads of our vast nation.

I love the cultural institutions of New York City: the Met Opera, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hayden Planetarium, and the musicals of Broadway. I love the museums of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.: the National Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History. I love the Boston Aquarium, the San Diego Zoo, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, and Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. I love the Library of Congress and presidential libraries.

I love the National Parks: Yellowstone, the Everglades, Yosemite, Acadia, Bryce Canyon, and all the rest. I love the national battlefields: Saratoga, Yorktown, Antietam, Gettysburg, and all the rest. I love Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave. I love the carefully preserved homes of historical figures and sites of historical events. I love the haunting stillness one can feel amid the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park and Bandelier National Monument. I love the way the wind howls through "The Window" at Big Bend National Park.

I love NASA. I love the rovers that have wandered the surface of Mars, the Juno probe in orbit around Jupiter, and the plucky little New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto back in 2015. I love the two Voyager probes, still functioning decades after being launched and embarking on their lonely journey into the vastness of the Milky Way Galaxy. I love the beautiful photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the scientific information sent back by Galileo from Jupiter, Cassini from Saturn, and dozens of other amazing missions throughout the Solar System. I love the fact that the United States was the first nation to land human beings on the surface of another world (why aren't we sending anybody these days?).

I love Texas barbecue more than words can express. I love the breakfast tacos of Austin. I love locally brewed beer and locally distilled spirits. I love the overpriced hot dogs and pretzels at baseball stadiums. I love corny dogs at the Texas State Fair. I love the cabernet sauvignons of Napa and Sonoma County and the pinot noirs of Oregon and Washington. I love New York pizza and Massachusetts haddock. I love cheddar cheese from Vermont and colby cheese from Wisconsin. I love the Steak Dunigan made at the Pink Adobe restaurant in Sante Fe. I love Boston cream pie and I love s'mores around the campfire. I love those Cuban sandwiches you can order in Florida restaurants. I love Kentucky bourbon. I love the grits, catfish, fried okra, and pecan pie of the South. I love coffee, bacon, eggs, and hash browns served at dingy highway diners by sarcastic old waitresses who reek of cigarettes. I love making dinner from ingredients purchased at farmers' markets. I love the food you can buy in family-owned restaurants in cities and town all across this bountiful country.

I love New Orleans jazz, Memphis blues and the indie rock of the Pacific Northwest. I love the bluegrass of the Appalachian Mountains, the Creole music of southern Louisiana, and the amazing music that comes out of my own beloved Austin. I love country stars singing patriotic music. I love the singing of James Taylor and Bing Crosby, the guitars of B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the trumpet of Miles Davis and the piano of Dave Brubeck. I love the beautiful voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday. I love the classical compositions of Aaron Copeland and John Philip Sousa. I love the haunting music that can be produced by the Native American flute.

I love silly American traditions. I love that the Le Pavillion Hotel in New Orleans serves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with ice-cold milk in the lobby every evening at ten o'clock. I love the singing of Sweet Caroline by Red Sox fans at Fenway Park in the middle of the eighth inning every game. I love the daily duck parade between the elevator and the lobby fountain at the Peabody in Memphis. I love the different drinks and different theme songs for each of the Triple Crown horse races. I love the emergence of Punxsutawney Phil from Gobbler's Knob on Groundhog Day. I loved the Poe Toaster, wonder what happened to him, and still hope he comes back.

I love the mystique of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Clark Gable, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, John Wayne. I love old Frank Capra movies, especially Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I love the movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together. I love Frank Sinatra. I love the script-writing of Aaron Sorkin, the documentaries of Ken Burns, the acting of Tom Hanks, and the films of Steven Spielberg. I love watching the Academy Awards. I love the Charlie Brown specials shown every Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

I love liberals, conservatives, and libertarians - all equally American. I love freedom of expression, and I don't much mind that it means that people can express opinions with which I disagree and which I might even find repugnant. I love that I can stand on any street corner and denounce the governor of my state or even the president of my country and not fear arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, or execution. I love freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, which allow me to worship God as I choose, and I don't much mind that it means people can practice religions different from my own or choose not to practice any religion at all. I love that even a person accused of the most heinous crime imaginable will still get a lawyer and appear before a judge in the same manner as anybody else. I love that the police cannot enter my home or search my car unless they have a warrant. I love that I can go into a voting booth and cast my ballot for whomever I wish.

I love the police, firefighters, and emergency medical workers who keep us safe every day and night. I love the teachers who work in an incredibly stressful job with little pay because they love children and care about the future of our republic. I love the volunteers who make possible the work of nonprofits like Meals on Wheels, Homes for our Troops, and Habitat for Humanity. I love the plumbers, electricians, highway construction workers, and mechanics without whom the country would fall apart overnight. I love that anyone in America can take a risk and start their own business.

I love the men and women who have served or are serving in the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, and Marines. I love the grizzled old veterans of the Second World War, who fought a glorious crusade to destroy the sinister forces of fascism. I love the veterans of Korea and Vietnam, whose heroism and sacrifice has still never been fully appreciated. I love the Navajo Code Talkers. I love SEAL Team Six, who rid the world of the evil of Osama bin Laden on an epic night in the spring of 2011. I love the 1st Battalion, 5th United States Field Artillery, formed by Alexander Hamilton in 1776 and today the oldest continuously serving unit in the United States armed forces, with battle honors stretching from the Revolutionary War to the modern campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. I love the men and women of every battalion, every ship, and every squadron who put their lives on the line every day to protect everything else I've written about in this piece.

I could go on and on and on, but I think the point I'm trying to make is pretty clear.

I love America.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Toys 'R' Us and the Gracchi Brothers

As a child, I felt that Toys 'R' Us was only a few steps away from heaven. The massive toy store, with every conceivable kind of toy or game a kid could think of, was a delightful part of life. More than thirty years later, I can still remember the route the car would take on those happy occasions when I had been especially good and my mother would take me there to pick out a new toy. I would be giddy with anticipation, imaging what new Transformer or Lego set I would carry home in all its glory. Such memories are held by millions of Americans.

Last month, Toys 'R' Us announced that it was going out of business after more than six decades, closing down all of its seven hundred and thirty-five stores. This is sad news for sentimental people such as myself, with so many happy memories of Toys 'R' Us, but it is far worse news for the tens of thousands of people who will lose their jobs.

Economists will carefully be analyzing the causes of the demise of Toys 'R' Us. Many have been quick to blame competition from Amazon, Walmart and Target. Other, more esoteric factors, such as the declining birthrate in the United States and other countries were Toys 'R' Us operates, are also likely to be noted. None of the experts are likely going to bring much comfort to the former company workers who are now going to be trying to find other ways to make ends meet.

Toys 'R' Us might have been a national chain, but the reasons for its demise are similar to those afflicting independent, locally-owned businesses across the country, which I wrote about last fall. A small number of powerful corporations are consolidating greater and greater proportions of market share into their hands. Clearly, Toys 'R' Us is not the only major retail chain to go out of business in the last few years. Some, like Blockbuster Video, were victims of the failure to adapt to the challenges posed by new technologies. The national bookstore chain Borders is gone and Barnes and Noble (which recently had to lay off nearly 2,000 workers) may soon follow, simply unable to compete with online retailers. Once mighty department stores like Montgomery Ward have gone the way of the dodo, while others like Sears are on life-support. All over the country, once thriving shopping malls now are quiet and empty, like old ghost towns in the American West. Amazon and Walmart seem likely to be the only men left standing when the dust settles.

Thus far, the ongoing consolidation does not seem to be producing a drag on overall employment. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of the United States currently stands at 4.1%, nearly a twenty-year low. On the other hand, we have now had a steady decrease in the unemployment rate since October of 2009. If experience is any guide, the trend will soon reverse, because no one has yet devised a way to break out of the boom-and-bust cycle that has long characterized national economies across the world. And if such a massive percentage of our nations labor force is employed by such a small number of powerful mega-corporations, with no real loyalty to their employees, we might even see more ruthless job-cutting than normal when the time inevitably comes.

There is another factor at work, whose impact is only just beginning to be felt but will have repercussions so enormous that it is difficult to fully fathom them: the trio combination of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Of course, people have been crying foul over automation's impact on the work force for nearly two centuries. The Luddites were smashing textile machinery in England in a futile effort to protect their jobs as far back as 1811. Such people have long been dismissed as cranks and economists have pointed out, correctly, that the development of new technologies has always created more jobs than it has taken away. White collar service jobs have expanded in America even as blue collar manufacturing jobs have proportionally diminished, thanks to basic economic expansion and the creation of new types of professions, such as computer programmers.

However, the welding of automation to advanced artificial intelligence is going to be a game-changer. It is no longer a matter of using technology to make individual workers more productive, but using technology to replace human labor altogether. According to a widely circulated report last fall by the McKinsey Global Institute, between 40 million and 70 million jobs could be lost in the United States due to the automation/robotics/artificial intelligence combination. Some of the jobs to be lost are obvious and expected, such as fast food workers and cashiers, due simply to basic automation. The advent of artificial intelligence, however, means that many professions previously seen as immune from automation will be endangered, such as mortgage lenders, paralegals, and a whole multitude of other such jobs.

The authors of the report counsel us not to worry too much, however, for economic growth and the increase in the number of jobs involved in healthcare for the elderly will go a long way to make up for the jobs lost to the automation/robotics/artificial intelligence combination. Perhaps. But this certainly feels different.

As usual, there is a telling story from ancient history that might help shed some light on this strange and new development. It is the dramatic and ultimately tragic tale of two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchis, two of the most important figures in Roman history, whose actions helped spark the downward spiral that would eventually bring down the Republic and replace it with the autocratic Empire.

The Gracchi brothers lived during the 2nd Century BC and were members of the distinguished Sempronia family. After the early death of their father, they were raised by their mother Cornelia, who went down in history as one of the greatest examples of what a Roman mother should be. They received an outstanding education by Greek tutors. Tiberius, the older brother by about a decade, was a distinguished officer during the Third Punic War and was said to have been the first Roman over the walls of Carthage. As was customary for a respected member of an aristocratic family, he began moving up the cursus honorum and was elected quaestor. Sent out to help stabilize the rebellious provinces in Spain, Tiberius negotiated with an enemy that had defeated a hapless Roman governor so as to allow twenty thousand Roman soldiers to depart who would otherwise have been slaughtered.

As his star rose in the realm of Roman politics, Tiberius turned his attention to a longstanding problem that was reaching critical proportions, to which we can draw analogies to the developing employment crisis in our own time.

Rome had originated as a society of citizen farmers and small landholders. Members of older, noble families might control more land, but the strength of the Republic was personified in the simple, stoic Roman farmer who owned his own land. Only such men were allowed to serve in the legions, for they could provide their own weapons and equipment (nobles, for their part, provided the officer corps and the cavalry). The grain of the farms fed Roman mouths and modest land taxes financed the state. For centuries, the system worked remarkably well.

The Second Punic War proved a turning point. For one thing, Hannibal's depredations in Italy inflicted terrible damage on the Roman agricultural economy. For another, the manpower of Rome was almost fully mustered into the legions, where much of it was slaughtered. For decades, Roman farms were worked largely by the women and children who had remained behind on the fields. Even after the end of the long war in 202 BC, Roman legions campaigned for decades in regions remote from Italy, going as far as Spain, Greece, and into Asia.

As the wars finally wound down with the firm conquest of Greece and the destruction of Carthage, the long-suffering soldiers returned home to find their lands (or, conceivably, the lands that they thought they had inherited from their fathers and grandfathers) were no longer theirs, but had been bought up by the wealthy citizens when the families occupying them become so desperate that they had no choice but to sell. The vast tracts of public land (ager publicus) that had been seized by Rome from its enemies had become, in effect, the private property of wealthy citizens, too. Making this bad situation even worse was the enormous influx of slave labor into Roman lands, men captured in war and prisoners from conquered cities. The common Roman citizen quickly discovered that his small farm could not hope to compete with vast agricultural estates worked by slaves.

Soon, a steady stream of impoverished people were moving from their failed farms into the city of Rome itself, looking for work or some other means of survival. The population expanded rapidly and stretched municipal resources to the breaking point. A large class of urban poor was created. Very soon, the mob that had come into being would be a decisive factor in Roman politics. Also alarming was the fact that only landowners were legally allowed to serve in the Roman legions; the growing proportion of landless citizens threatened Rome's source of military manpower.

Tiberius Gracchus recognized the dispossession of the poor from their land as a crisis which, if it were not dealt with, might bring down the Republic altogether. In 133 BC, he was elected a tribune of the plebs, an office created to protect the interest of the common people, and Tiberius took up the cause of the landless poor in general and homeless veterans in particular. He proposed a law that would redistribute land to these people, giving them the ability to support themselves and no longer be wards of the state. The Senate, whose members were universally of the wealthy, landowning class, refused to even consider these reforms. Rather than accept this, Tiberius went over the head of the Senate and proposed the laws directly to the Concilium Plebis (the "Plebian Council" or "Popular Assembly"), made up of the whole of the common people. This was technically within his rights as a tribune, and it was also technically within the rights of the Concilium Plebis to pass legislation, but these powers had not been exercised within living memory, so completely did the Senate dominate the political landscape of the Senate.

The aristocrats were determined to block Tiberius, for they had no intention of sacrificing the wealth that the newly acquired land represented. They persuaded one of Tiberius's colleagues in the tribunate, Marcus Octavius (incidentally an ancestor of the future emperor Augustus), to veto the proposals when they were passed by the Concilium Plebis. Most likely he had been bribed to do so, either with money or with promises of favors after his term as tribune ended. Tiberius saw the actions of Octavius as a serious violation of the man's pledge to protect the interests of the Roman people.

Tiberius then did something unthinkable. He instructed his supporters to physically remove Octavius from the Assembly's meeting, which they promptly did. This turned what had been a political controversy into a serious constitutional crisis, for tribunes were sacrosanct and it was strictly forbidden for any Roman citizen to lay a hand on them during their term in office. This was more than a mere rule, for it was essentially a religious and sacred obligation. In violating the sacrosanct status of Octavius, Tiberius was moving far beyond the traditional methods of Roman statesmen. Members of the Senate now suspected that Tiberius intended to overthrow the Republic altogether and make himself a king.

Tiberius now proceeded to use his tribunal powers to veto every single piece of legislation that came before the Concilium Plebis, shutting down government entirely, and asserted that he would continue doing so until his land reform proposals were made into law. He eventually was able to get the Assembly to both remove Octavius as a tribune and ram his proposals through so that they became law. A special committee was created to oversee the redistribution of land, which Tiberius promptly filled with members of his own family. The Senate refused to provide the committee with the necessary funds, but Tiberius simply allocated money to it that had come to Rome from the defunct Kingdom of Pergamum in what is today Turkey.

The Senate now believed that the survival of the Republic was at stake and that, since Tiberius had chosen to violate all constitutional norms and traditions, it was now necessary for them to do the same. After Tiberius was reelected to the tribunate (again, technically legal but a violation of tradition), he promised further sweeping populist reforms. A mob of senators and their supporters swarmed around Tiberius when he next appeared in the Forum, beating him to death and throwing his body unceremoniously into the Tiber River. For this, they earned the wrath of the common people, who had looked upon Tiberius as their hero and champion.

The younger Gracchi, Gaius, took up the cause after the assassination of Tiberius. His story was almost an identical repeat of what happened to his older brother. Taking office as a tribune of the plebs, he proposed an expansion of the land reform law, extension of Roman citizenship to other Italian cities, and the provision of grain to the poor at state expense. For all this, he suffered his brother's fate, differing only in that he committed suicide when cornered by senatorial supporters rather than being killed outright by them. Either way, he was just as dead.

The violent deaths of the Gracchi marked a turning point in Roman history. Previously, while political debate in Rome had often been heated and acrimonious, it had not involved outright violence and bloodshed. The episode of the Gracchi brothers, however, shattered long-established traditions and constitutional norms, making violence an acceptable part of the political process in the Republic. The course was now set inexorably to the violent, unconstitutional usurpations of power by Marius, Sulla, Caesar, and the eventual collapse of the Republic altogether. What rose from the ashes was the autocratic Empire, which certainly reached great heights of power and culture, but was in no way at all a free society.

When I reflect on the steady consolidation of larger and larger shares of the economy into a few powerful corporations and the terrifying potential of the automation/robotic/artificial intelligence combination to entirely replace human workers rather than simply make individual workers more productive, I am filled with foreboding. To me, the consequences might well be similar to those that swept through the Roman Republic when the small landowners were dispossessed of their farms during the 2nd Century BC. Now, as happened then, the gates will be opened for charismatic populists, for either well-meaning or self-serving purposes, to shatter the foundations of the society and so wreck its governmental framework that the whole structure will eventually fall apart.

We are currently living through an age in which the dangers of populist demagoguery are all too clear. How much more dangerous will populism be if measures aren't taken to ensure an economy that has enough worthwhile jobs for its labor force? Decades from now, when tens of millions may have been thrown out of work by artificially intelligence robots, how much more easy will it be for unscrupulous demagogues to whip the people up into frenzies?

It is, at the very least, something to think about.