Sunday, April 24, 2016

Whose Faces Should Grace Our Currency?

It's the same now as it was when I was born. On our dollar bills, George Washington is on the $1, Abraham Lincoln is on the $5, Alexander Hamilton is on the $10, Andrew Jackson is on the $20, Ulysses Grant is on the $50, and Benjamin Franklin is on the $100. Thomas Jefferson is on the $2, but that bill doesn't circulate much at all (and, if I am not mistaken, they don't even print it anymore). On our coins, Lincoln is on the penny, Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime, Washington on the quarter and John F. Kennedy on the rarely used fifty cent piece. Although Jefferson's face design on the nickel a little different than it was, there have been no changes in the people themselves for as long as I can remember.

Yet change is now in the air. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced that the design of the $10 bill would be changed so that a woman's face would be featured. Confusingly, however, he also said that Hamilton's face would remain. Exactly how this will happen is not clear (I think I'm on safe ground when I predict that the woman in question won't be Maria Reynolds). On April 16, however, Secretary Lew reversed himself a bit, saying that Hamilton would stay on the $10 and that Andrew Jackson would be replaced by a woman on the $20. Some suggest that the extraordinary success of the Broadway musical about Hamilton's life may have played a role in this decision. A couple of days ago, it was announced that Andrew Jackson would be replaced by a portrait of Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist, participant in the Underground Railroad, and scout for the Union army during the Civil War.

But if we're talking about making changes to one bill, why not consider a full shake-up of the faces on our currency? In my capacity as a well-informed, politically active citizen, allow me to take this opportunity to put forward some suggestions.

If you put our commonly used bills and coins together, we have eleven slots on which we can place the faces of important historical figures. Several efforts to introduce a $1 coin have been unsuccessful, which is to be much lamented (during my time in the United Kingdom, I found the £1 coin extremely convenient). So let's assume that a $1 coin eventually gets off the ground, therefore giving us twelve slots with which to work.

A few of the people already on our currency surely deserve their places. Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin must remain, for their contributions to the history of the United States have never really been questioned. Washington led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War and served as the first President; he is rightfully called the Father of the Country. Lincoln is America's Christ figure, seeming to bear the terrible burden of the Civil War and being struck down after having saved the Union and destroyed slavery. Franklin is America's patron saint, manifesting in himself the virtues of common sense, self-reliance, innovation, hard work, voluntary cooperation, and entrepreneurship that have built our nation, to say nothing of his actual contributions in science, diplomacy, and statesmanship. Keeping Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin on the currency is a no-brainer.

Jefferson and Hamilton present rather more difficulty. Both made enormous contributions to the country, yet both are tainted by serious flaws. Jefferson was the country's most articulate spokesman for our shared values of freedom and democracy, was the driving force behind the separation of church and state, public education, and was one of the most successful Presidents. He also was the owner of hundreds of slaves. Hamilton played an important role in securing the ratification of the Constitution and, as our country's first Secretary of the Treasury, essentially created the fiscal and financial structure that has benefited our country ever since. He also despised the notion of equality, believed that the country should be run by a wealthy elite, and dreamed of leading an army of conquest across the continent and using military force to silence his political opponents.

Taken on the whole, Jefferson and Hamilton not only deserve but need a place on our currency. Their contributions greatly outweigh their flaws, severe as they are. Moreover, both left a legacy of political thought that has infused our nation ever since. There is a reason that the words "Jeffersonian" and "Hamiltonian" exist, but no comparable words for any of the other Founding Fathers.

Two other members of the august group we call the Founding Fathers do not appear on our currency, but probably should. One was John Adams. Adams was arguably the individual most responsible for pushing the Continental Congress to declare independence in 1776, his efforts both in Congress and as a diplomat in Europe were vital to winning the Revolutionary War. As President, after overcoming his initial stumbles, he had the courage to stand up against the High Federalists and keep America out of an unnecessary war with France, knowing that his actions cost him his chance at a second term.

The other Founding Father should face should be on our currency is James Madison. He was too young to play a major role in the Revolution and his tenure as President was mostly characterized by a ineptly managed war with Britain. Yet his role in the Constitutional Convention was so profound that he earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution" and he was the individual most responsible for the passage of the Bill of Rights through Congress. More than any other Founder, the republic in which we live today is of Madison's making.

Ulysses S. Grant presents a complicated problem. Is he on the $50 bill due to his military role in the American Civil War or because he was the 18th President of the United States? If the former, perhaps his place is deserved. Grant was not a perfect general, but he was the North's greatest commander and the individual most responsible for the defeat of the Confederacy. As a President, he was well-meaning but generally inept, with devious subordinates who pulled the wool over his eyes and ran one of the most corrupt administrations in American history.

Grant surely doesn't deserve a spot if he's on the $50 on account of his presidency, so we can assume that it is in recognition of his military role during the Civil War. But if we are going to place military heroes on our currency, why not consider Winfield Scott, or John Pershing, or Dwight Eisenhower, or Douglas McArthur, or Norman Schwarzkopf? It's a question worth asking.

Andrew Jackson is even more problematical. I'll admit up front that I've never been particularly fond of Old Hickory, who has always struck me as uncouth and not especially smart. His presidency is known primarily for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans (the so-called "Trail of Tears"), economic turmoil, and the first stirrings of the conflict between North and South that would eventually culminate in the Civil War. The Jacksonian Age did see the expansion of the franchise to all white males, marking a great step forward in the march of democratic rights in America, but that was merely another step in the walk begun when Jefferson set pen to paper in the summer of 1776. I just don't feel that Jackson should be there.

What about Franklin Roosevelt, who graces all of our dimes? Old FDR was President longer than anyone else and led the country through the darkness of the Great Depression and through the fires of the Second World War. Historians still go back and forth as to the benefits and costs of FDR's New Deal programs, with some now challenging the long-prevailing view that they helped get the country through the Depression and a few even claiming that they might have made the problem worse. Moreover, as a war leader, he made many misjudgments which later allowed Soviet communism to entrench itself in Eastern Europe. Yet whatever hiccups might have occurred along the way, the fact is that Franklin Roosevelt gave the country hope when it appeared that all hope was fading away and maintained a sense of purpose through the long war when it might easily have faltered. I'm not as enamored with FDR as are many others, yet were it up to me, I would grant him a place on our currency.

The we have John F. Kennedy, whom I have always considered perhaps the most overrated President in American history. Strangely enough, most of the achievements for which the American people give him credit - particularly civil rights and the landing on the Moon - were actually achieved by President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. His role in the Cuban Missile Crisis is largely misunderstood, for it was Kennedy's own decision to install American nuclear weapons in Turkey in the spring of 1962 that prompted the Soviets to place their nuclear weapons in Cuba in the first place. I've always considered Kennedy the first of the modern Presidents, who place style above substance and focus more on their media image than actually achieving anything significant in terms of the good of the nation. I just don't think that Kennedy deserves a spot on our list of twelve.

The changes that are currently being proposed stem largely from concerns that the currency is not representative of America. Many voices strongly urge that a woman, an African-American, or a Hispanic-American should depicted on American currency, Some might see this as just another example of political correctness trying to twist history to serve a modern political agenda, but I think there is a valid point here. For better or worse, the course of American history has been such that the most influential people have been white men. There's nothing wrong with admitting this, since it's simply reality. We have to ask ourselves whether we are wanting people depicted on our currency because of their actual contribution to the nation or for purely symbolic reasons.

I personally feel it's a bad idea to try to raise up female or minority historical figures to a level of importance they don't actually deserve. Harriet Tubman, the person now being named as the replacement for Jackson on the $20 bill, was certainly an amazing and admirable person. But if we're being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that she was not remotely as important to the abolition of slavery as were Secretary of State William Seward, or General George Thomas, or hundreds of other people utterly unknown to most people. I greatly admire Abigail Adams and fully acknowledge her role as a wife and mother of presidents, but to place her on the same level as her husband or the other Founding Fathers in terms of importance to the history of the nation is simply silly.

That being said, there have been women and people of color who have had enormous positive impact on American history. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton personified the effort to obtain voting rights for half the people in the country; to recognize them is not to engage in some politically correct revision of history, but simply to acknowledge a historical truth. The same could easily apply to Frederick Douglass, who truly played a seminal role in the abolition of slavery, or Martin Luther King, Jr., who played a similar role in the civil rights struggle.

You also have the issue of doubles. Lincoln is on both the penny and the $5 bill; Washington is on both the quarter and the $1 bill. Should we keep them on just one and give their other spot to someone else? I say no. Washington and Lincoln are arguably the two greatest and most influential people in American history and I think it's entirely appropriate that they are recognized on our currency twice.

All of these people we've discussed have to do with the American political and social struggle for freedom and equality in one form or another. Why only them? We've already asked about military heroes. It may also be fairly asked whether we might include images of the great American scientists like Edwin Hubble, writers like Mark Twain, poets like Emily Dickinson, or inventors like the Wright Brothers. But there are only so many pieces of currency and, for logistical reasons relating to the thwarting a counterfeiters, it takes an enormous amount of time and effort to design them. That being the case, let's leave things be.

Having considered all this, here is what I would recommend if anyone asked me:

The Penny: Keep Abraham Lincoln
The Nickel: Keep Thomas Jefferson
The Dime: Keep Franklin Roosevelt
The Quarter: Keep George Washington
The Fifty Cent Piece: Replace John F. Kennedy with John Adams (he'd complain that not many people use the fifty cent piece, but he'd complain no matter where he ended up)
Dollar Coin: Put on Frederick Douglass
$1 bill: Keep George Washington
$5 bill: Keep Abraham Lincoln
$10 bill: Keep Alexander Hamilton
$20 bill: Replace Andrew Jackson with a double portrait of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton
$50 bill: Replace Ulysses S. Grant with James Madison
$100 bill: Keep Benjamin Franklin

Now, if only anyone in a position to decide these things would bother listening to me...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Second Hundred Years War and the Power of the Bond Market

In a few recent blog posts, I put forward my ideas as to which battles deserve a place on a list of the fifteen most decisive battles in world history. If any one of these battles had gone differently, the entire course of history would have been changed. However, it's important to remember that while history can sometimes be changed in a day, or even an hour, by the seemingly insignificant actions of a single individual, there are also very long arcs in history that have even more power. This is especially true when we try to comprehend the historically misunderstood subject of money. To illustrate this, consider the following story.

Between the ascension of King William III in 1688 until the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Britain and France went to war with one another with grim regularity. They fought against one another in the War of the Grand Alliance from 1689 until 1697, in the War of the Spanish Succession from 1701 until 1714, the War of Austrian Succession from 1742 until 1748, the Seven Years War from 1756 until 1763, the American Revolutionary War from 1778 until 1783, the French Revolutionary Wars from 1792 until 1802, and the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 until 1815. The wars were waged not only in Europe, but on the high seas, in the Americas, in India, and among assorted islands and colonies across the globe. War between Britain and France during this time period was so common that some historians have taken to calling it the "Second Hundred Years War" and have compared the Franco-British rivalry to that of Rome and Carthage in ancient times.

The Second Hundred Years War began as a conflict over religion, with Catholic France pitted against Protestant Britain, and a struggle to contain the personal ambitions of King Louis XIV, the Sun King. Before too long, however, the struggle had morphed into a larger conflict over trade, empire, and which nation was to emerge as the global superpower. Britain and France fought each other during this time period basically because they were the two toughest kids on the block. Only one could be left standing in the end.

At the beginning of the struggle, intelligent observers probably would have given the more favorable odds to France. It had a larger population, superior resources, and a much more stable government. The mighty French army had been feared across Europe for centuries and it seemed posed to ensure French hegemony over the whole continent. The power of the French king was unchallenged when the Second Hundred Years War began. In the conflict's latter stages, in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French army and state would be led by one of history's most brilliant generals and most effective rulers. Britain, by contrast, was emerging in 1688 from a period of social, religious, and political chaos and a bitter civil war between King and Parliament. It was only in 1707 that England and Scotland united, under dubious circumstances, into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Subversion by Scottish Jacobites opposed to the Union would continue to be a problem for years, until finally crushed at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Nevertheless, when the end came in 1815, it was Britain that had emerged victorious from the Second Hundred Years War and France that lay prostrate in defeat. Britain became the undisputed global superpower for the next century, with an empire on which the sun never set. Today, English rather than French is the global language of business and diplomacy, and innumerable countries use political, economic, and legal systems derived from British rather than French models.

How did Britain do it? How did the weak and divided English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish triumph over the united power of France?

The valor of Britain's soldiers and sailors, as demonstrated in battles such as Blenheim, Quebec, Trafalgar, and Waterloo, certainly had something to do with it. So did the brilliance of statesmen like William Pitt and military leaders like the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington. But if you really want to know the answer, the place to look is the London establishment known as Jonathan's Coffee House. It had opened in 1680 and, very soon and without any planning, became England's de facto stock market.

When William III became King of England in 1688, he maintained his other position as Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, simultaneously ruling both nations. The close relationship between Britain and the Netherlands during the early years of the Second Hundred Years War exposed the British to the revolutionary economic concepts and new financial institutions then emerging among the Dutch. In the 17th Century, the Netherlands had become the first nation to establish a central bank, the first nation to establish a stock market, and one of the first nations to establish a national lottery. The money raised, borrowed, and loaned out by these institutions helped propel tiny little Holland into the ranks of the great powers of Europe.

Britain followed the Dutch example. The Bank of England was established in 1694. By then, scores of companies were trading stock issues at Jonathan's Coffee House and, soon enough, other establishments. Chartered companies enabled an enormous boom in trade with the colonies in North America and the Caribbean, as well as with India and the Far East. Economic development throughout Britain and Ireland became possible on a scale never before imagined and such inventions as James Watt's steam engine and James Hargreaves's spinning wheel came into being due to an extensive system of financing.

This unprecedented economic boom, made possible by the financial institutions the British adapted from the Dutch model, allowed the British government to raise enormous amounts of money through the issuance of government bonds. The Royal Navy grew from a pathetically small force in the late 17th Century into a vast fleet of warships that dominated the globe by the early 19th Century, shattering French naval power at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The British were not only able to field armies on the plains of Germany, in the mountains of Spain, and throughout the overseas colonies, but to subsidize continental allies like Prussia, Austria, and Russia to do their fighting for them. Without the revolutionary financial system that took hold during the 18th Century, none of this would have been possible.

The British did not so much outfight the French as out-finance them.

The French might have matched their British adversaries in financial innovation. The brilliant if roughish Scottish economic John Law immigrated to Paris in the early 18th Century and found himself appointed Controller General of Finances by the French government. He began to implement many of the financial practices which had been developed by the Dutch and were even then being put into practice by the British. But like a figure in a Greek tragedy, Law became arrogant and eventually went too far. In 1720, a Ponzi scheme he had set up surrounding the largely fictitious Mississippi Company came crashing down, instantly ruining the lives of thousands of Frenchmen. Law fled France and died in exile, while the French turned their backs on newfangled financial schemes for nearly a century. One wonders how different history might have been had Law been able to keep his head and bring about the creation of a sound financial infrastructure in France to match that of Britain.

The lesson of the British victory over the French in the Second Hundred Years War is that wars are won on the floors of the bond market no less than they are won on the battlefield. The power of a nation is to be measured not merely by the number of aircraft carriers or nuclear weapons they possess, but by the flexibility and reliability of their financial institutions. In an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, this lesson is one we forget at our peril.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What If Julius Caesar Had Not Been Assassinated?

The most famous assassination in world history took place on March 15, 44 BC, when a group of senators fatally stabbed Julius Caesar to death. It was an event of world-shaking importance, so fixed in the Western consciousness that it has been the subject of countless plays (including one of Shakespeare's finest productions), operas, paintings, movies, and, for good measure, a highly entertaining HBO mini-series. All educated people know the sinister implications behind the words, "Beware the Ides of March."

Caesar was one of the most fascinating and dramatic personalities in all of history. At the time of his death, he was the most powerful man in the known world. In earlier years, he had steadily worked his way up the cursus honorum, the ladder of public offices of the Roman Republic that all ambitious Romans sought to climb. He had successively been a military tribune, quaestor, praetor, propraetor, and finally, in 59 BC, was elected consul, the highest office in the Republic. Through all of this, Caesar had spent lavishly on bribes and pushed populist policies to win support among the plebian class, despite the fact that he himself came from a patrician (though not especially distinguished) family.

As he had worked his way up the cursus honorum, Caesar had made many enemies among the old aristocracy, largely because he proposed land reform legislation that would have confiscated land from the wealth and distributed it to the poor. To protect himself from them, he formed an unlikely alliance with Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest and perhaps most unscrupulous man in Rome, and Pompey Magnus, Rome's outstanding military hero and as politically ambitious as Caesar himself. These three men became known as the First Triumvirate, linked together out of pure self-interest rather than any mutually held political ideals. Among the three, Caesar was decidedly the most junior member.

It was customary to grant a consul a "proconsulship" after their single year as a consul was over. Despite the efforts of his enemies to grant him an inconsequential proconsul office, Caesar was made the governor of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy). Using this territory as a staging point, he embarked upon an unauthorized campaign conquest of Gaul, which is today roughly the territory covered by France. Though he had not previously had much military experience, he very quickly demonstrated extraordinary skills as a military commander, which he would continue to exhibit for the remainder of his life. Indeed, whenever I am asked the name the man I consider the greatest military genius of all time, I unhesitatingly name Julius Caesar.

In ten years of tough, ruthless and brilliant campaigning, Caesar completely subjugated the tribes of Gaul, winning battle after battle. He launched expeditions into Britain and across the Rhine into Germany as well, sternly warning those tribes that they would face the full brunt of Roman power if they dared to interfere with the Republic. A final uprising of the Gauls in 52 BC, led by the gallant Vercingetorix, was crushed by Caesar at the Battle of Alesia, after which Gaul was incorporated into the Roman Republic as a conquered province. Through it all, Caesar kept the people of Rome informed of his achievements through writing what amounted to long and lucid press releases, compiled together into Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic Wars), which make for fantastic reading even today.

Caesar's conquest of Gaul unsettled many of the prominent leaders of the Roman Senate. He had become enormously popular with the people and so rich that he could bribe enough voters to be elected to whatever office he wanted. In the meantime, though, the First Triumvirate had collapsed, with Crassus dying in a misguided campaign against the Parthians in the distant east and Pompey now aligning himself with Caesar's enemies. The moment that Caesar's term as proconsul ended, his legal immunity would be stripped and his enemies would be able to haul him before the courts for crimes going back to the days of his consulship. Caesar was determined not to let that happen.

In 49 BC, in the face of demands from Rome that he lay down his consulship and disband his legions, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, thus launching a civil war. For the next four years, war would rage throughout the Mediterranean world, as Roman fought against Roman in Italy, Spain, Greece, Egypt, North Africa, and elsewhere. When the fighting ended, Caesar had crushed Pompey at the decisive Battle of Pharsalus and destroyed remaining opposition at the Battle of Thapsus in North Africa and the Battle of Munda in Spain, As an added bonus, Caesar had conquered Egypt for the Roman Republic, though by this point it could be fairly asked how much of a "republic" Rome still was.

Caesar returned to Rome in triumph. Now declared dictator for life, he immediately embarked upon a massive system of reform. He conducted a famous reform of the calendar, turning it essentially into the calendar we use today (where do you think "July" comes from?). He reformed the system of grain distribution, while expanding Roman citizenship to new groups of people. He brought in many of his own supporters to replenish the depleted ranks of the Senate, many of whose members had died in the civil war. He laid plans for a fabulous new center of learning in Rome, perhaps in emulation of the Library of Alexandria. He also passed laws restricting excessive luxury in clothing and foodm though he had no intention of obeying these rules himself. He also initiated a colonization program for his veterans, which included the resettlement of Carthage in North Africa.

These reforms were clearly intended to reshape Roman society and government from bottom to top. Fears increased among Caesar's enemies, whom he had pardoned rather than punished, that Caesar intended to declare himself King of Rome. The last king had been expelled from Rome in 509 BC, nearly five centuries before. In the eyes of Caesar's enemies, the survival of the Republic was at stake.

And so it came to pass that dozens of senators conspired to murder Caesar, finally doing him in on March 15, 44 BC, in the chamber of the Senate. Caesar had arrogantly dispensed with any guards, apparently feeling invincible and perhaps believing that his gracious pardons had eliminated any resentment towards his increasingly authoritarian rule. His killers, most famously Brutus and Cassius, left him writhing on the floor with twenty-three stab wounds. The aftermath of the story, told and retold by Shakespeare and others, is well-known. More disorder and civil war followed, until Caesar's grand-nephew and heir Octovian defeated all his rivals and became the first Emperor of Rome under the name Augustus.

But what if Caesar had not been assassinated?

As with the question of what would have happened had Alexander the Great lived to old age, this is one of the most fascinating alternate history scenarios that comes to us from ancient history. There are any number of ways that Caesar could have escaped his fate. He was apparently warned of the conspiracy several times, but foolishly discounted these reports. According to the accounts of Plutarch and Suetonius, some of his murderers seemed fearful in the moments before the assassination; perhaps if Caesar had had armed guards with him, the attempt would not have been made. More importantly, Caesar was due to depart from Rome a few days after March 15, to begin a military campaign to the east. Had the conspirators failed to kill him on the day that they did, their chance would have been gone.

If Caesar had escaped death, then his dream of a great campaign to the east would have come to pass. According to the ancient historians, Caesar wished first to conquer the kingdom of Dacia (modern day Romania), then attack the mighty Parthian Empire to avenge the defeat the Parthians had inflicted on the Romans a few years earlier. It was to be an enormous undertaking, the likes of which had never been seen before in Roman history. No less than sixteen legions, a much larger force than Caesar had used to conquer Gaul, were being mobilized in the eastern provinces. For the first time, Caesar would have the resources of the entire Roman world at his disposal.

Dacia would probably have been no pushover. Its ruler, King Burebista, was said to be a talented military leader who had already led several successful campaigns. Unlike Gaul, Dacia was not a divided land but was united and well-organized, When the Emperor Trajan launched his campaign against Dacia a hundred-and-fifty years after Caesar, the Dacians proved to be excellent fighters. Still, this is Caesar we're talking about. With so much military might in the hands of such a brilliant strategic mind, it is hard to see the campaign of Dacia turning out as anything other than a victory for Caesar and the incorporation of Dacia into the Roman world a century-and-a-half before this actually happened.

Parthia would be a different matter, though. Excepting only the Carthaginians, the Parthians were the most formidable enemies the Romans ever encountered. Their strength lay in their unconventional maneuver tactics and their use of armored heavy cavalry troops called cataphracts, which were far superior to Roman horsemen. In 53 BC, they had utterly destroyed a Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae, in which Marcus Licinius Crassus had been killed and several legionary standards been carried away as trophies.  After Caesar's assassination, Mark Antony led a war against the Parthians and suffered a humiliating defeat for his pains. Yet the Parthians were far from invincible, as proved by Trajan a century-and-a-half later.

Caesar would have carefully studied the failed campaign of Crassus before embarking on his own invasion of Parthia. Crassus had been overconfident and had not bothered to do much in the way of intelligence gathering. Caesar, by contrast, was a master of military intelligence who also strove to learn everything he could about the enemies he was to fight. Long before the invasion, his mind would have swirled with ideas for how to counter the Parthian cataphracts and maneuver tactics. While nothing in history is inevitable, if I had had to place a bet on such a conflict, I would have put my money on Caesar.

Yet assuming that Caesar defeated the Parthians, what then? Trajan successfully defeated them in the early 2nd Century and so did Septimius Severus almost a hundred years later, but in neither case was Rome able to fully incorporate the conquered territories into its empire. The distances were so great and the desert so unforgiving that creating any kind of provincial administration was basically a logistical impossibility. The most that Caesar could have hoped for was to reduce the Parthian Empire to the level of a client state of Rome, perhaps taking Mesopotamia from it and reducing that portion of Parthia to a Roman province. But a complete conquest of the Iranian plateau is probably beyond Caesar's power.

Fantastic stories are told that Caesar intended to follow up a conquest of Parthia by marching his armies around the Caspian Sea and conquer what is today southern Russia and Germany before returning to Rome. This seems highly unlikely. Caesar always balanced his twin ambitions of wishing to win military glory and to hold supreme power in Rome. Taking himself and his army so far away from Rome, in which any meaningful communications would take several months at least, would allow political foes in the capital to regain control of the city long before he could do anything about it. Besides which, the whole idea of such a campaign is outlandish. No general could have succeeded in such an effort, not even Caesar himself. Caesar certainly had hubris, but he never was a megalomaniac like Alexander the Great.

In 44 BC, Caesar was 55-years-old and in reasonable health. The ancient historians indicated that he planned on being away from Rome for the campaigns against Dacia and Parthia for three years. Perhaps it would have taken a few years more, but most likely Caesar would have been successful and returned to Rome with Dacia conquered and Parthia stripped of its western territories and reduced to the status of a client state. Of course, it's entirely possible that Caesar would have been struck down by an enemy arrow or sword in either campaign, for he was not the kind of general to command from the rear. When one reads the story of Caesar's life, one never gets the feeling that this is a man who is supposed to die peacefully in his bed of old age.

And what of Rome itself? In the aftermath of Caesar's assassination, his adopted son Octavian and his chief lieutenant Mark Antony joined forces to defeat Brutus and Cassius, the chief leaders of the conspirators, and then divided the territory of Rome between themselves. Inevitably, war broke out between the two men and Octavian emerged supreme following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. With that victory, Octavian brought an end to the long cycle of civil wars and, in doing so, brought an end to the Roman Republic itself. In 27 BC, he was granted the title of Augustus and became the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. The Republic was sadly cast into the ash heap of history.

Had Caesar lived, would the outcome have been any different? Some would say no, thinking that had the assassins not killed Caesar, he would have eventually full and formal power for himself. Perhaps he would even have assumed the hated title of King, which Augustus was wise enough to avoid. In that case, history might not have been all that different, except that we'd refer to Caesar as the first emperor rather than Augustus and Shakespeare would have had to write a somewhat different play (not that Shakespeare would have ever been born thanks to the butterfly effect, but that's another topic).

It is possible that the conspirators were horribly wrong and that Caesar, rather than seize power for himself, intended only to put the Republic in order and then retire, rather like Sulla had tried to do three decades earlier? Caesar was undoubtedly a man of enormous ambition and obsessed with his own dignitas, but was he a seeker of glory alone, or glory and power both? At the distance of more than two thousand years, it's impossible to know. On the one hand, he was constantly striving to increase his own control over Rome. On the other, he was always reaching out towards his enemies in the spirit of conciliation, asking for their help in governing the Republic. We will never know what really went through the man's mind and perhaps he himself did not ever flesh out his full intentions even to himself.

There is another thing to consider. Caesar was a brilliant politician, to be sure. But even his brilliance utterly pales before the sheer political genius of his grand-nephew and adopted son Octavian, who was, simply put, the most successful politician in the history of the human race. Octavian completely outwitted all his enemies, deftly transformed potential enemies into friends and (having learned from his great-uncle's mistakes) ruthlessly slaughtering those who remained obstinately opposed, and took a disorderly Republic that had been torn by a century of civil strife and recreated it as an Empire. He left a unified state that would see general peace for more than two centuries and would last, in some form or other, until 1453. Could Caesar have achieved a similar feat? For all his undoubted gifts, one seriously doubts it. Today, only serious students of history know much about the Gracchi brothers, Marius, Sulla, and other men who momentarily gained power in the Republic. Had Caesar not been assassinated, perhaps his efforts would have faltered anyway and he would be no better known than those men. What would have happened in the aftermath of his death or, more likely, his fall from power, is anyone's guess.

On the other hand, it can't be denied that the manner of Caesar's death set the stage for the rise of his grand-nephew. Had Caesar not been killed in such a public manner, Octavian would never have been able to rally his followers around his banner and adroitly used that support to defeat his rivals. Put simply, had Caesar not been killed, Octavian could never have become Augustus. Ironically, then, Brutus and Cassius might have simply made certain the very thing that they were trying to prevent: the consolidation of the Roman state under one-man rule.

The story of the fall of the Roman Republic in the 1st Century BC is one of the most fascinating and enthralling dramas in history and one that has some disturbing warnings for our own time. How different would the story have been had Caesar not fallen under the daggers of his assassins? While we will never know, there can be little doubt that the future history of the world would have born very little resemblance to that with which we are familiar.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

My Five Amendments To The Constitution

The National Archives, which everyone needs to visit at least once in their lifetime, is currently hosting an exhibit called "Amending America", about the history of attempts to amend the United States Constitution. A giant banner is filling to main hall, listing the names of all of the 11,000 proposed amendments that have been put forward over the years. I hope to get a chance to see the exhibition before it closes, but sadly I have no immediate plans that would place me in Washington D.C.

Amending the Constitution is often discussed but very rarely done. Article V lays out what needs to happen for a constitutional amendment to be approved. One way is for two-thirds of both houses of Congress to approve an amendment, which then would need to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The other is for two-thirds of the state legislatures to vote for the calling of a convention to consider amendments, any of which being approved would also have to pass muster with three-fourths of the state legislatures.

If the Founding Fathers could see the Constitution as it operates in 2016, I think they would be both delighted and shocked. I think that they would be delighted, and extremely surprised, to learn that the Constitution is still in operation after more than two centuries. When it was adopted in the late 1780s, many saw it as a stopgap measure and some did not expect it to function for very long. At the same time, however, I think that they be rather shocked that the American people have only amended the Constitution twenty-seven times (with ten of those amendments making up the Bill of Rights and being passed very early, and two of the remaining amendments cancelling one another out). Surely the wisdom that comes with experience should have caused us to update the document far more often. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was of the opinion that the country should hold a new constitutional convention every generation or so.

This has gotten me to thinking about what amendments I might support if a new constitutional convention were to be held. I am among those who unabashedly consider the Constitution of the United States close to sacred, so the idea of amending it needs to be treated with extreme caution. On the other hand, for all the brilliance of the men who created the document, we have learned a great many lessons in the subsequent two centuries that demonstrate the need for a few changes to the way our government operates. So, with no illusions that my opinion on the subject matters in the slightest, I'll make my five top recommendations here.

1. Term Limits for Members of the House of Representatives
In last year's mid-term elections, 95% of members of Congress who ran for reelection returned to office even thought polls showed that only 14% of the American people approved of the job Congress was doing. This is absurd and outrageous. The many advantage of incumbency, the most obvious being the massive amounts of corporate campaign contributions a congressman can start reaping in when they walk into the Capitol, make it so difficult for qualified candidates to challenge sitting congressmen that they rarely bother trying. So they get reelected year after year, comfortably ensconced in the halls of power, lording it over the rest of us like the dukes, barons, and earls of medieval Europe.

Some members of Congress regularly call for term limits to be enacted, but unsurprisingly they never are. As with the imposition of term limits on the President, it can only be done by a constitutional amendment and that has to be forced onto the political establishment by the American people. To me, three two-year terms for members of the House of Representatives sounds about right.

The Senate is a different matter. It was specifically designed by the Founders to have a greater buffer against popular opinion than the House, allowing it to check what Elbridge Gerry called "an excess of democracy." Most of the Founders (with some notable exceptions, such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine) worried about the power of demagogues arising the take advantage of temporary passions or alarms among the people in order to obtain political power for themselves. Against such situations, the Senate was intended to stand as a bulwark, allowing them to resist such momentary gusts of misguided popular opinion. If one adopts their way of thinking, frequent rotation in the Senate is less desirable than it is in the House. Having thought about the question at length, I think that term limits should apply to the House but not to the Senate.

2. Prohibition of Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering is the purposefully drawing of congressional districts by state legislatures to cram as many of the opposition party's voters into as few districts as possible, thereby maximizing the number of districts in which supporters of the governing party have a majority. The end result is that the majority of state congressional delegations are skewed disproportionately towards one party or the other by a huge margin. The actual voting totals mean nothing; in a state where the congressional vote was roughly fifty-fifty, one party or the other might control three-quarters of the congressional seats. It's sickening, it's corrupt, it's unethical, it's undemocratic, but it's perfectly legal and constitutional.

This effectively disenfranchises millions of Americans. If you're unlucky enough to be a Republican in a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican district, you might as well have no congressional representative at all, because your vote doesn't matter. The person who ostensibly represents you can ignore your concerns with no fear of political disadvantage. Even worse, the extensive use of gerrymandering is a major contributing factor to the extreme partisan divide that now afflicts our country. Because gerrymandered districts effectively snuff out threats from the other party, a sitting congressman worries much more about a primary threat from within their own party than he does about the general election. In order to forestall this, a Republican has to veer to the far right and a Democrat has to veer to the far left as much as possible. The result is that we get a House of Representatives filled with ideological extremists rather than people disposed to moderation and compromise.

A few states, whose representatives perhaps had a momentary awakening of integrity at some point, have set up bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions charged with drawing up new congressional districts after each census. A Supreme Court case last year ruled that these commissions are constitutional. Unsurprisingly, congressional races in these states have been more competitive than in other states and do a better job reflecting the actual popular vote. Congress has the authority to prohibit gerrymandering with regular legislation, but that could always be easily repealed at a later date. I think that this problem is so serious that a constitutional amendment is absolutely necessary. So my second proposed amendment is a requirement that each state set up bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to handle congressional redistricting.

3. Instant Run-Off Voting
In all House and Senate races, and for the allocation of presidential electoral votes for each state, we currently use a "winner-take-all" voting system (which is known in much of the rest of the world as "first-past-the-post"). Simply put, whichever candidate gets the largest share of the vote wins. This sounds fair enough, but using the winner-take-all voting system creates an enormous number of problems and, in the grand scheme of things, significantly undermines the democratic process.

Since the earliest days of the republic, the two party system has had a stranglehold on the American political process. Efforts to launch third parties, such as Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party in 1912 or Ross Perot's run for the presidency in 1992, have failed despite having the support of millions of Americans. Today, the Green Party and the Libertarian Party both have strong cores of support, but have no representation in Congress or the state legislatures. This dampens political discourse in the United States and gives disproportionate influence to the political machines of the two major parties, thanks to the use of winner-take-all elections for all federal and state offices and the vast majority of local elections as well.

Another problem with winner-take-all is the so-called "spoiler effect". A good example of this was seen during the 2000 Presidential election in Florida, when a vote for the Green candidate Ralph Nader effectively became a vote for the Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Fore, since the number of votes Nader garnered was greater than the margin between Gore and Bush. This is undemocratic, as supporters of Nader almost certainly would prefer Gore over Bush. Similarly, it is common in congressional and state legislative races for the Libertarian candidate to spoil the election of a Republican in favor of a Democrat, even though the voters supporting the Libertarian would probably prefer the Republican over the Democrat.

An easy alternate to winner-take-all elections would be the instant runoff voting system. Under this, voters rank their choices in order of preference, ignoring those they don't at all. Imagine a congressional election with a Democrat, a Republican, a Green, and a Libertarian. A voter who cared mostly about small government might choose the Libertarian as their first option, the Republican as their second option, and ignore the other two. A voter who cared mostly about environmental protection might choose the Green as their first option, the Democrat as their second option, and ignore the other two. The decision is made by a simple formula. If any candidate gets more than 50% first choice votes, they win. If they don't, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choice of those who favored the eliminated candidate becomes their first choice. The process is repeated until a candidate gets 50%. As far as the person in the voting booth is concerned, it's as simple as 1-2-3.

Instant runoff voting would eliminate the spoiler problem entirely and would give genuine representation to those voters who don't feel that their interests and views are expressed by either of the two major parties. It has been used with great success around the world, perhaps most visibly in elections to the Australian House of Representatives and state legislatures. It has also been used in some local elections in the United States. Of particular note is the fact that instant runoff voting sharply reduces negative campaigning, since candidates are reluctant to attack opponents whose supporters might choose them as their second choice.

A very beneficial constitutional amendment would simply state that all elections in the United States, on federal, state and local levels, shall use a system of instant runoff voting.

4. Balanced Budget
Of all the irresponsible actions we the people have witnessed on the part of the federal government over the past few decades, surely none can match the sheer insanity and senselessness of how it has managed our nation's finances. As I type this blog post, the national debt is a whopping $19 trillion. Although annual deficits have shrunk sharply in recent years, the debt is still increasing by more than $1.5 billion every day. And this is not even counting unfunded liabilities for Medicare and Social Security, which amount to much more, This represents an unsustainable fiscal emergency.

Truth be told, the national debt represents a far greater threat to the United States than any conceivable combination of foreign enemies. Every dollar that is added to debt increases the amount of the annual budget that has to be set aside simply to service the interest on the debt we've already accumulated. It currently stands at 6.5% of the entire federal budget, but this is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.

Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, has proven utterly unable or unwilling to restrain its spending habits. Therefore, the only viable solution to this pressing problem lies in a Balanced Budget Amendment, establishing constitutionally that the federal government cannot spend more than it brings in as revenue. An exception might be made for major wars or perhaps some unprecedented national emergency, but any language in the amendment designed to allow this would have to be very carefully written so to prevent it from becoming an easy loophole around the restriction.

In a 1798 letter, Thomas Jefferson (who maintained a balanced federal budget throughout his presidency) said that if he could insert only a single change into the United States Constitution, it would be a requirement that the national government maintain a balanced budget. It is time for us to recognize this wisdom and get this amendment done.

5. Limiting Presidential War Powers
The men who wrote the Constitution were very careful and explicit in granting Congress, and Congress alone, the power to declare war on another country. Allowing the President, a single individual, to hold such power was such a dangerous proposition that they apparently never considered it (with the apparent exception of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the president to have powers akin to a monarch). The Framers, unlike the politicians of today, were people who studied and understood history. To them, hundreds of examples from the ancient and medieval world showed convincingly how foolhardy it would have been to give one man the power to take his country into war.

Yet we have forgotten their wisdom and allowed the constitutional power of Congress to declare war to fade away. The last time the United States actually declared war on other nations was during the Second World War, yet our armed forces have since gone to war in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as fought a number of smaller campaigns in places as diverse as Panama, Lebanon, Grenada, and the Balkans. From a geopolitical perspective, some of these campaigns have been successful, others have had decidedly murky results, and some have been downright disastrous. In all of these cases, some nod to congressional approval has usually been sought, but not always. In some cases, as with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, congressional approval was obtained through clearly fraudulent means. What has been clear is that, since 1945, the decision on whether to send American men into harm's way has been made, for all practical purposes, by the President, and not by Congress as the Framers intended.

Congress has only itself to blame for the disintegration of its power to declare war, since it has meekly acquiesced as one president after another has made war without genuine constitutional authority. Its one effort to claw back the war-declaring rights granted it by the Constitution, the War Powers Resolution of 1973, was a pathetic display of incompetence which granted the President the right to wage war however and wherever he wanted for three months, so long as he deigned to inform Congress within two days of what he was doing. Even under the provisions of the War Powers Resolution, it would be perfectly legal for the President to order the military to invade a foreign nation for no other reason than that he felt like. For that matter, if the congressional power to declare war has become obsolete, there is nothing preventing the President from launching an unprovoked nuclear strike on whomever he wanted whenever he wanted.

We are in desperate need of a clear constitutional clarification of presidential war powers, which would specify that the President of the United States cannot initiate military action without congressional authority except in response to a direct military attack upon the country.

These would be my top five amendments. I've written before about the need for an amendment to give congressional representation to the people who live in the District of Columbia. I might make others, including some clarifications on the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, and some other things. I don't like the Electoral College, though the proposed National Popular Vote Interstate Compact provides a way for the people to circumvent the Electoral College without the need for a constitutional amendment. Something desperately needs to be done about the amount of money flowing into political campaigns from special interest lobbyists, which is nothing short of mass bribery. Any amendment, though, should only address the general structure of the government and how it operates, not specific political issues like the minimum wage or offshore oil drilling.

Here's the thing, though. If another constitutional convention were to actually be convened, I would be extremely wary and worried if the delegates were made up of the current crop of politicians in Congress and the state legislatures. Given the politically stratified and deadlocked condition of our nation at the present time, I would expect such a convention to become an absolute circus of crazed egomaniacs each trying to shoulder the others out of the way so that they can get in front of the television cameras. They'd see the convention not as a chance to serve the American people, but only to advance their own personal agendas and grind their own ideological axes.

Personally, I would rest easier if the delegates were randomly chosen from among the general population in the same manner as people are chosen for jury duty.