Frying Pan versus Fire

The other day, Scott Alexander called on voters in the USA to cast ballots for presidential candidates who are not Donald Trump. Scott Alexander himself will apparently be voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton, though the title of his post is “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, or Stein.”

I agree that Mr Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, is not suited to the presidency.  I do have a number of demurrers to Scott Alexander’s piece, however.  Let me share one of these.

Scott Alexander writes:

[O]ne of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.

“Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out” is “one of the central principles behind my philosophy,” as well. That’s precisely why I won’t be voting for HRC.  On the one hand, the hyper-warlike approach to foreign affairs that informed her support for US-led wars in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya, and now for the Saudi-led war in Yemen represents a strong tendency to destroy all existing systems in and hoping that some mysterious force replaces them with something good. For that matter, the economic policies of the Bill Clinton administration- for example, deregulation of the financial sector, gutting of the “welfare as we knew it,” and the erection of an industrial policy that subjects all other economic interests to the transnational mobility of capital and the defense of intellectual property- whatever may be said in their favor, have been all about destroying previously existing systems, with very little specified as to what was supposed to replace them. For that matter, measures such as warrantless wiretapping and the presidential “kill list” represent a disruption of the system of judicial oversight called for in the Bill of Rights and codified in centuries of legislation and court rulings, a system that has long guaranteed civil liberties in the USA. HRC has been deeply involved in all of these acts of destruction, continues to support them, and does not propose anything that might bring an end to the age of destruction.

On the other hand, when systems that directly benefit the world’s ruling elite face a crisis, that elite has consistently tried to defuse those crises before they could force any change in the way those systems operate.  It hasn’t always been this way; 95 years ago, when President Warren Harding faced a financial crisis that would put many major concerns out of business, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon spoke for his fellow financial titans when he advised against bailouts, arguing that “the recession will find what the auditors miss,” purging bad practice from business and leaving the economy stronger in its aftermath.  The sharp downturn and even more dramatic recovery during the Harding administration would seem to be a clear example of a system strengthened by crisis.  Compare that with the Wall Street bailouts of 2008 and 2009, with the fear that financial concerns had become “too big too fail”- and with the fact that those same concerns have now been allowed to grow even bigger. By 2012, the US Justice Department was openly admitting that it was afraid that the financial system had grown so fragile that HSBC would have to go unpunished for its crimes, lest a prosecution bring the whole house of cards crashing down.  Thus the fear of the fragility of the financial system, leading as it has to bailouts, acts of impunity, etc, has served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Vacillating between reckless interventions to destroy systems with little thought of what will follow and equally reckless interventions to prop systems up by stripping them of the parameters that regulate them, the Bushes and Clintons and their colleagues have, these last 30 years, created a political moment  in which it is very likely that Don John of Astoria will receive between 220 and 280 electoral votes for the US presidency. If, as seems likely, that number is below 270, then HRC will become president, accompanied by a Republican Congress. They will together continue the policies which have brought us to this pass. Electing Don John to the presidency this year would precipitate a catastrophe; protracting our current political arrangements for another four years might precipitate a still greater catastrophe.

I can understand why people would vote for HRC, hoping perhaps that things will somehow improve sufficiently between now and 2020 that in that election the country will not face another choice between apocalypse now and apocalypse later. That hope would be an example of hoping that the “build a better one” step will “happen on its own,” however. Such a vote, however defensible it might seem in the eyes of the one casting it, would certainly not be a sufficient response to this situation. Voting for the Green Party isn’t a sufficient response either, but at least it is a step towards building a set of movements to adjust the relationship between mass and elite to a more sustainable balance and enable a new departure in our political life. Failing such a new departure, the next few years are likely to be very dark indeed.

The Nation looks at the Green Question


Click here for the issue

In 1999, I toyed with the idea of setting up a website called “The Nader Question.” It would have asked whether Ralph Nader ought to run as an independent candidate in the 2000 US presidential election, and have featured short statements pro and con by various commentators, as well as giving readers the opportunity to post their own replies. If it were a hit, after the election this site would morph into “The Green Question,” a forum set up along similar lines devoted to presenting contrasting views on whether US nationals who find the Democratic Party consistently too cozy with the Power Elite to merit their support ought to coalesce behind a new party under a “Green” label.

“The Nader Question” would have been in many parts. For example, should the Democrats have moved left, and if so was such a run a logical step in an effort to push them left?  The first question could have been answered negatively by someone wanting the Democrats to move further to the right, to continue on their Clinton-era course, or to go out of business altogether.  The second could have been answered negatively by someone regarding campaigns by candidates outside the two major parties as pointless, by someone regarding them as so unpredictable in their consequences that such a run would be as likely to make the problem worse as to make it better, or by someone supporting the idea of a campaign but deeming Mr Nader an unsuitable candidate. It should be easy to see that many such questions would be open to just as wide a variety of answers.

The state of blogging platforms at the end of the twentieth century, combined with my lack of entrepreneurial spirit, scanty computer expertise, even scantier connections to political and media figures whose writing might draw the public to such a site, and nearly non-existent financial resources combined to discourage me so that “The Nader Question” never got off the ground. I hadn’t thought about “The Nader Question” in many years, not until looking at the latest issue of The Nation magazine. It examines Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign from several angles, much as “The Nader Question” would have examined Mr Nader’s candidacy.

Columnist Katha Pollitt and Nation Institute fellow Joshua Holland argue that Dr Stein is unlikely to make an impression on the race, and that voters who cast one of over 100,000,000 ballots for one of the major party candidates will somehow be more likely to influence subsequent national policy. Difficult as it might be to imagine circumstances in which this would happen, it is even more difficult to restrain laughter when Mr Holland claims that the United States opposed the military coup in Honduras in 2009. That coup was led by officers of the Honduran Air Force, a service all of whose aircraft are supplied by the US defense firms.  These aircraft cannot fly without spare parts and other materials provided at regular intervals by these companies. No officer of any air force is going to join an enterprise which, if successful, will ground his or her aircraft.  The idea that the leaders of the coup did not act with firm assurances from the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, that if successful they would continue their dealings with their aerospace contractors in the USA, is simply a joke.

Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant argues that there is a perverse relationship between the Democratic Party and the right wing, that the Democrats regularly provide cover for policies that the public would not accept if proposed by the Republicans and that this relationship has been a necessary a condition for the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the financial elite in recent decades.  A vote for Dr Stein, and continued support for parties to the left of the Democrats, is an indispensable step towards breaking this link.

Other pieces that do not bear directly on the question of whether voters should support Dr Stein shed light on it indirectly. Four pieces deal with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet: a 1976 essay by Orlando Letelier; Naomi Klein’s recommendation of the essay; a memorial by Susan George of Letelier‘s work in exile against the Pinochet regime; and Peter Kornbluh’s call for the US government to release the documents it still keeps secret which cover the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC in 1976 by agents of the Chilean secret service and the collaboration between US administrations under presidents from Gerald Ford through Bill Clinton to keep the particulars of the assassination from the public and to continue security cooperation between the US and Chile.  The active roles the Carter and Clinton administrations took in this cover-up, along with the refusal of the Democrats who held the majority in the in the US Senate for 8 of those 14 year and in the US House of Representatives for the entire period to do anything to stop it, and finally the Obama administration’s continued embargo of these documents, show that Ms Sawant is not entirely wrong when she says that the American right could not perpetrate its worst misdeeds without the assistance of the Democratic Party.

Bryce Covert argues that the welfare reform act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 has been a disaster for low-income Americans and that we must hope President Hillary Rodham Clinton will undo its worst provisions. This does seem rather like trying to escape bankruptcy by hoping that the thief who impoverished you will refund your stolen goods. It’s true that HRC’s opponent, Don John of Astoria, has shown no inclination to make a change for the better in the welfare system or much of anything else, but neither is HRC likely to do so unless the political reward of doing good outweighs the political cost. If welfare recipients and those who are directly interested in their well-being either do not vote or vote for the Democrats no matter what they do, then they have no political incentive to do anything for them. They won’t act without such an incentive, not because they are evil, but because there are so many other things they could be doing that might perhaps be good and would certainly bring strong political rewards that they will not find the time to do unprofitable good deeds. Only a left of center movement capable of seriously inconveniencing Democratic politicians, a movement partly working inside the party to reward it for moving left and partly working outside the party to impose a costs on it for moving right, can make it rational for the Democratic Party to pay real attention to issues like welfare. That’s how the welfare state was created in the first place, in a time when the labor movement not only gave the Democrats the backbone of their party’s organization but also included major unions that regularly considered endorsing candidates to the Democrats’ left.

The cover story is an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, who of course urges those who backed him in the primary to throw their allegiance to HRC in the general election. I had assumed that the Sanders campaign would end up like the Bill Bradley 2000 campaign, gaining some publicity and intriguing poll numbers in the early going, only to collapse when people started voting. Mr Bradley did not win a single statewide contest, losing every primary, every caucus, and every state convention to the Tennessee Turd, then-US Vice President Albert Arnold “Al” Gore, Junior. I was glad when Mr Sanders won enough votes to show that a very large percentage of the Democratic voter base was so desperate for a change from the Clinton approach that they would vote for a 74 year old Jewish Socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent and only tenuous ties to the Democratic Party.

A candidate in Mr Bradley’s mold, a party regular with a substantial record in high office, a celebrity background as a professional athlete, and no habit of donning labels that large segments of American society regard as equivalent to treason, could well have taken the Democratic Party this year away from the Finance First approach that the Clintons fastened on it almost a quarter-century ago.  I backed Paul Tsongas in 1992, because I thought the time had come for a Finance First approach; I preferred him to Governor Bill Clinton, because Tsongas tried to combine Finance First with as much of the New Frontier/ Great Society liberal agenda as he could. Had Tsongas won, I suspect that the party would have been more flexible in later years, using Finance First in the early 1990s when it made sense, but turning to other priorities as the country’s circumstances changed. A powerful force outside the party would still have been needed to actuate those turns, but at least the party’s leaders would have remembered where the intersections were.

Some good stuff on io9

You, you like whatever it is you like. But me, I think io9 is a pretty good website. For example:

A strongly favorable review of a movie about a young woman who abandons vegetarianism for cannibalism includes this paragraph:

As the film unfolds, Justine slowly becomes more acclimated. She begins to experiment with sexuality and, for some reason, starts to break her diet in really odd ways (namely the human meat thing). This is the one dark mark on Raw. Watching the film, Justine’s turn from hardcore vegetarian to something else comes out of nowhere.  There are a few hints for sure, but the transition is still jarring. Once you get over that, though, is when things go from really good to completely great.

As I say, I don’t know about you. But if I went to see a movie in which the main character begins as a vegetarian and ends as a cannibal, I would be disappointed if there were not some kind of storyline explaining why she made that transition. As in Le Weekend, for example.

Anyway, just as any one person’s culinary tastes may vary within a lifetime, so cinematic tastes vary from person to person. I realize this.

io9 also brings bulletins of astronomy news, many of them written by the estimable Maddie Stone, PhD.  So, here’s an update about geysers on Europa, and here’s one about geological faultlines on Mercury. Anyone sufficiently interested in planetary exploration to find those pieces exciting will be concerned to learn that NASA’s complex at Cape Canaveral is gravely endangered by rising sea-levels. If our current woes are too much of a downer for you, Dr Stone has some hope to offer, in the form of a theory that life might continue to be possible in several corners of the Solar System after the Sun vaporizes the Earth a few thousand million years hence.  So, if life has another 9,000,000,000 years or so to go in the Solar System, surely some relatively agreeable species will pop up along the way between now and then…

Never bring a knife to a clown fight

I just saw this on Twitter:


I don’t advocate violence against clowns or anyone else. But if, hypothetically, one had to defend oneself against malevolent clowns, I’d think that a knife would be a poor choice of weapon. Clowns typically wear multiple layers of loose-fitting clothing, often with padding underneath, obstructing true thrust. Many clowns are accomplished magicians, far more likely than the average person to disarm an opponent in a knife fight. And many clowns are trained dancers, skilled at avoiding thrust. Since most knife fights require several successful strikes of the blade to terminate the threat from one’s opponent, those advantages make it quite unlikely that an untrained combatant would win a clear victory in a knife fight with a clown.

If this girl is correct in regarding clowns as so grave a threat to her well-being that she needs to carry a weapon, an assessment which I by no means endorse, I would advise her to carry something else, perhaps a heavy club or a spray bottle or something else where a single stroke is likely to disable an opponent. Her school probably has policies against 11 year olds carrying guns (though it is Georgia so maybe not,) so firearms really aren’t worth considering even if her threat-assessment is correct.

The Atlantic, October 2016

840Molly Ball suspects the political consulting is largely a scam; James Fallows cannot imagine what will happen when Hillary Clinton and Don John of Astoria meet in a televised debate; Iraq War advocate Peter Beinart can explain public distaste for Iraq War advocate Hillary Clinton only by accusing most of the country of misogyny; Jeffrey Goldberg hopes that President Hillary Clinton will send her husband to charm the Israelis and Palestinians into making peace (a result that can apparently be achieved without any substantial change in US policy, let alone in the neoliberal world order; all it takes is personal charm, and a little persistence, and the Palestinians willingness to pretend that this is the country from which they have been living in exile); Derek Thompson claims that American business is becoming less innovative because of the growth of monopolies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, reviewing the TV documentary series O. J. : Made in Americareminisces about the O. J. Simpson murder case. As a college student attracted to militant black nationalism, Mr Coates had been exasperated by the support so many African Americans showed for Mr Simpson, a man who had never shown the slightest interest in any form of the African American freedom struggle. Here’s an interesting paragraph:

Two things, it seemed to me, could be true at once: Simpson was a serial abuser who killed his ex-wife, and the Los Angeles Police Department was a brutal army of occupation. So why was it that the latter seemed to be all that mattered, and what did it have to do with Simpson, who lived a life far beyond the embattled ghettos of L.A.? I vented in the school newspaper. “Since Simpson’s practices show he clearly has no interest in the affairs of black people,” I wrote, “the question becomes why do blacks have any interest in him?” In those days, I conceived of African Americans as a kind of political party, which needed only, in unison, to select the correct strategy in order to make the scourge of racism disappear. Expending political capital on O. J. Simpson struck me as exactly the opposite of the correct strategy. Looking back, I realize what eluded me. I had lived among black people all my life, but somehow I had come to see them as abstractions, not as humans.

Mr Coates goes on to discuss the way in which the case and its aftermath brought a strange unity to African Americans, not the unity of a political party but a unity with political implications. Putting the case in its historical context as the next major event in race relations in southern California after the Rodney King matter, he says:

The beating of Reginald Denny was vengeance for the beating of Rodney King. And vengeance for King played a role in Simpson’s acquittal, according to one of the jurors, Carrie Bess. But revenge only partly explains Simpson’s last great escape. What I couldn’t fathom in 1994 was a reality that black people around me likely sensed and that Made in America brings into deeply discomfiting focus: that Simpson may well have murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and that the jury got it right in declaring him not guilty.

At the time, I thought that Mr Simpson had certainly murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and that the jury was probably right in acquitting him. The investigation was botched at a hundred points, and, after all, the only question a jury has to answer is whether the case the prosecution has presented is adequate to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused is guilty of the charge. I didn’t believe that the evidence and argumentation the prosecution gave the Simpson jury met that standard, and the acquittal seemed right to me for that reason.

Once as tragedy, once as farce

The recent announcement that the New York State Attorney General’s office is looking into the Trump Foundation, one of Don John of Astoria’s more dubious enterprises, reminds me of Marx’s famous dictum that historical situations occur twice, once as tragedy, once as farce. The Clinton Foundation is tragic; it has done a great deal of good, but as a project of people who are planning to return to the White House has also become a lobbying venue. Not only do its connections to the State Department during HRC’s tenure as Secretary raise eyebrows, but its practice of running its own projects rather than distributing money to established charities and the substantial amounts it has spent on luxurious gatherings of its super-rich donors are red flags.

The Trump Foundation, by contrast, lacks the grandeur of scale and the mixture of heroic achievement with moral ambiguity that are essential components of tragedy. It is simply farcical, a scam that has enabled Mr Trump to obscure the fact that he does not give nearly as much money to charity as a person who is as rich as he claims to be typically would.

The same could be said of the Trump and Clinton campaigns respective practice regarding information about the health of their candidates. Since cellphone video surfaced of HRC having some kind of medical episode the other day, the Clinton campaign’s unwavering insistence that any questions about her health are signs of derangement on the part of those asking them has become laughable, but I would still say that her apparent physical decline and her refusal to level with the public about it do attain to the dignity of the tragic. HRC is a major figure in the last quarter-century of history, and that she and Bill Clinton were as youthful as they were when they first appeared on the world stage did mark a transition from the Cold War era to the present time. That Clinton-world obdurately insists that she is still in her prime therefore represents, not an individual shortcoming on her part, but the difficulty with which the entire Baby Boom generation admits that the sun is setting on the period of history in which leadership rightfully belongs in its hands.  So the tragic scale of HRC’s pretense that nothing is the matter with her health comes not only from the threat of another presidency, like that of Franklin Roosevelt in 1944-1945 or Woodrow Wilson in 1919-1920 or Chester Arthur in 1883-1885, in which the White House palace guard refuses to admit that the president is gravely ill and thereby creates uncertainty as to who is really in charge, but also from her place in history.

As for Mr Trump, what he has made available to the public about his health is a statement from a guy who looks like this:


As the man said, once as tragedy, once as farce.

The two foundations and the candidates’ health are in the news today. If we cast our minds back a few weeks, we will recall Mr Trump saying that as president, HRC would appoint left-of-center federal judges, and that no one could stop it- “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know- but I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.” There was a great deal of parsing and analyzing this remark, though it seemed clear to me that it started in Mr Trump’s head as a joke about political assassination from which he recoiled when he heard it (“that will be a horrible day.”) Mr Trump’s opponents rightly expressed dismay at a potential US president making jokes about political assassinations.

Mr Trump’s tendency to say whatever pops into his head is suitable for a character in a low farce, not for a US president, and this joke about political assassination shows why. But what of HRC? She also has publicly joked about political assassination. Although in her case, it was not the hypothetical assassination of an opponent, but an already-accomplished assassination which she was instrumental in bringing about:

Considering the lack of provocation for the intervention that overthrew the Gadhafi regime and the catastrophic consequences of the Libyan war for the whole of North Africa, to say nothing of the gruesome manner of Colonel Gadhafi’s death, it is difficult to watch this gleeful boast without revulsion.

Still, low and coarse as HRC’s behavior might have been in this moment, it still qualifies as tragic. A phrase like “war crimes,” as in “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,” does betray a certain lack of imagination. “Crime” names something inescapably small and grubby, and death as the result of crime is an unworthy end to one bearing the dignity of a human being.  War is the greatest of evils, but there is a greatness even in its evil. Thomas Aquinas developed a concept which he called “the law of the fomes of sin,” that even the darkest sin mimics the law-governed structure of God’s living creation. Nowhere is the law of the fomes more compellingly demonstrated than in the spectacle and efficiency, the awe-inspiring scale and undeniable bravery, with which even the most unjust of wars is waged. Responsibility for an unjust war is, therefore, a tragic guilt, not a farcical one.

Healthy skepticism

Recently Rod Dreher posted about his concerns for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health. I commented as follows:

I join other commenters in wishing HRC a speedy recovery, and in being willing to believe the official story.

As for the issue, if (God forbid!) a president dies in office, the vice president takes over. Provided the vice president is competent and broadly in sympathy with the policies of the administration, that is not in fact a major national crisis, however much talk it may inspire, however much angling for jobs among Washington types it may inspire. Likewise, if a president becomes disabled and signs over the powers of the office to the vice president under the 25th amendment, that is no crisis. It just means that the vice president is earning his salary for a change.

What is a crisis is what happened in the White House in 1883-1884, 1919-1920, and 1944-1945, when the president did become incapable of carrying out the duties of the office and the palace guard closed ranks, denied there was a problem, and created a situation where it was not clear to anyone who was making decisions there. The same thing happened in Britain in 1953, when Churchill had a stroke and deputy prime minister Anthony Eden was also ill, and does happen with some regularity around the world. (Remember Leonid Brezhnev’s colds?) That’s why the real issue is the refusal of either major party candidate to release their health records, and their retainers’ increasingly absurd insistence that neither of them has any health problems at all. It is so clear that each of them is surrounded by people who are prepared to do exactly the wrong thing if they should fall seriously ill while serving as president. Especially clear about HRC, of course, but who can doubt that the people around Don-John of Astoria would behave in exactly the same manner?

Mr Dreher is far more interested in the state of HRC’s health than I am. The post linked above is the second of three he has put up about it in the last 24 hours. (I also commented on the first, in that case cautioning against over-interpreting the particular directions in which HRC wobbled when she was having her episode yesterday. Mr Dreher expressed suspicion at my note of caution, requiring me to add a further comment.)  Mr Dreher’s third post links to pieces by Damon Linker, David Goldman, and Peter Hitchens’ late (but still less interesting) brother.

Mr Dreher explains why he is so exercised about the particulars of this story in these paragraphs:

The Clintons lie. That’s what they do. Their pattern is:

1. It didn’t happen.
2. OK, it happened, but it wasn’t a big deal, and we’ve got to get back to work doing the business of the American people.
3. Only haters say it’s a big deal.

We saw the same pattern emerge from the Clinton camp over the course of Sunday afternoon, regarding Hillary’s serious health episode. Presumably we are now not supposed to be concerned about whether or not she is leveling with the American people about her health situation because if you start asking those questions, Trump will win. Therefore, we must not ask those questions, and demonize anyone who does. You see the same thing in institutions with serious wrongdoing to hide, for example:

1. Priests did not molest those children.
2. OK, priests did molest those children, but it was only a few, and it shouldn’t distract from all the good work of the Church going on right now.
3. Only anti-Catholic bigots say it’s a big deal.

Apply this pattern to any similar situation involving a public figure or an institution, and you’ll see the same thing.

Mr Dreher covered religion for the Dallas Morning News in the mid-2000s; he was Roman Catholic when he started working that beat, and became Russian Orthodox after writing his umpteenth story about Roman Catholic bishops covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests.  So I understand his sensitivity to coverups, and the urgent need he feels to uncover whatever has been covered up. In this case, however, I think he is getting ahead of himself.


The Old Right’s New World

This Labor Day weekend, I made an attempt to catch up on the magazines that have been accumulating around here for the last couple of years. I did come upon some things I wanted to note.

For example, in both a column about his personal evolution on questions of immigration policy the July 2016 issue of Chronicles and an article about the electoral prospects of the Libertarian Party in the July/ August 2016 issue of The American Conservative writer Justin Raimondo presents the same quote from Murray Rothbard’s speech to the 1992 meeting of the John Randolph Club:

The proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.

I don’t fault Mr Raimondo for presenting this excerpt twice, not only because the pieces are quite different from each other, but also because it is so uncannily like what he and other admirers of Mr Don-John Trump seem to see in their presidential candidate. I am an undisguised social democrat, and do not see much evidence that a tacit commitment to social democracy characterizes the policy-making of either the Democratic or Republican Parties in the USA.

Nor do I think that Mr Trump’s campaign represents a particularly strong challenge to the elites where they are in consensus; on immigration, the one issue where Mr Trump’s position has been fairly consistent and sharply at odds with the leadership of the Republican Party, I tend to agree with those observers, ranging from Slate magazine on the ultra-relaxationist left to John Derbyshire on the ultra-restrictionist right who say that the likeliest outcome of a Trump campaign is an electoral defeat that will push restrictionism to the margins for years to come. I grant it is possible, indeed rather likely, that Hillary Clinton will be such a shockingly bad president, leading the USA into pointless wars and so on, that the Republicans will win a huge landslide in 2020. That would give the Trumpians just enough time to establish themselves as a major part of the Republican Party, and not enough time for the entrenched elites to push them back out.  In that case, the president who follows the Clinton Restoration may have little choice but to throw a sop to the restrictionists every now and then. However, that’s a long way from the kind of epochal change Rothbard prophesied and for which Mr Raimondo hopes.

There are some other interesting bits in recent issues of my favorite “Old Right” reads. In the May 2016 issue of ChroniclesSrdja Trifkovic reviews Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of The Andulusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016,) which along with Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint Michel (2008) and Raphael Israeli’s Islamic Challenge in Europe (2008) represents a powerful scholarly riposte to happy-talk about Islam. Professor Trifkovic himself is rather fonder of unhappy-talk about Islam than may seem strictly necessary, but even at his angriest he is less obnoxious than are aggressively ignorant Washington figures such as Madeleine Albright and George W. Bush who have spent the last couple of decades setting themselves up as the authorities on what constitutes “true Islam.” No matter how hostile he may be to Islam, at least Professor Trifkovic doesn’t purport to speak as the arbiter of its orthodoxies.

In the June issue of Chronicles, Gerald Russello reviews Barry Alan Shain’s The Declaration of Independence in Historical Contextwhich builds on the thesis of Professor Shain’s 1996 book The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. Professor Shain argued in that book that the principal influence on American political thinking in the late eighteenth century was Calvinism, and in his new work collects documents that illustrate the extent to which the Declaration of Independence is a Calvinist tract. That thesis may sound familiar to readers of this blog, though I have so far been only vaguely aware of Professor Shain’s work. That looks like a gap in my erudition that I will need to fill post haste!

The August issue of Chronicles included a remarkably charming bit of light literary writing by Derek Turner, of all people. Mr Turner discusses Samuel Johnson and James Boswell’s famous tour of the islands and Highlands of Scotland, comparing their experiences with some recent observations of his own as he visited the same areas.

The September issue of Chronicles features Aaron D. Wolf’s discussion of Don-John of Astoria. Mr Wolf theme is that the word “conservatism,” as used by Republican luminaries who attack Mr Trump for his lack of ideological formation, is an empty one; Mr Wolf appeals to the late M. E. Bradford’s critique of all ideologies, branding every attempt to discover a totalizing set of political values as a reversal of history, an imposition of the present on the past in order to justify whatever one’s favorite political movement happens to be doing at the moment. Like Bradford, Mr Wolf values an attitude of respect for the particular, for particular places, particular times, particular customs, particular people, as an antidote to the brutality that so regularly finds a cloak for itself in the abstract and general language of ideology. Bradford could describe himself as “conservative” because that attitude of respect led him to want to conserve things, not because the word named a program that he was committed to carrying out though the heavens fall.

Don-John of Astoria is no more a conservative in the Bradfordian sense than he is in any of the ideological senses that the recent leaders of the Republican Party have tried to attach to the term, and Mr Wolf does not try to claim that he is. But he does close his column by finding a redeeming quality in the rise of Mr Trump:

Trump’s statement [that “if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country”] resonated with a great many of the American people, whose impulse is conservative (regardless of party and ideological affiliation,) and who had to be convinced by ideologues of both political parties that their impulse is immoral and contrary to “conservative” values.

Given that milieu, it’s no wonder that the only candidate who could break through with an argument for immigration sanity was a man of Trump’s character, whose narcissism makes him immune to their ideological attacks.

So it is precisely in the characteristic that would most have horrified Don John of Austria that Don-John of Astoria makes his contribution to the latter-day Battle of Lepanto to which the anti-Islamic writers of Chronicles imagine the West to be heading, rallying the forces of Christendom by throwing a series of self-aggrandizing tantrums.

The July/ August issue of The American Conservative includes not only the Justin Raimondo piece mentioned above,  but also an essay by David Cowan about economist Frank Knight, a pioneer in the study of uncertainty as the precondition for innovation and growth. Along with that is an excerpt from Knight’s work.

The September/ October issue of The American Conservative features Samuel Goldman’s review of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatismby George Hawley. Professor Goldman’s review is full of gems; I’ll quote these four short paragraphs from the middle of the piece, since they seem to form the heart of his case:

Hawley begins with the observation that the historic pillars of the American conservative movement—limited government, an assertively anti-communist foreign policy, and quasi-Christian moralism—have no necessary connection. Beginning in the early ’50s, these elements were packaged together by a group of intellectuals and activists led by William F. Buckley. The story is often told as a process of addition, in which disparate constituencies were brought into a grand coalition. Hawley emphasizes that it was also a process of exclusion, as unsuitable ideas and characters were driven out.

All students of the conservative movement know about the marginalization of Robert Welch and other leaders of the John Birch Society. Hawley reminds readers that the purges did not begin there. National Review was established partly to distance conservatism from the anti-Semitism that bedeviled the Old Right. Its founding manifesto was also a statement of protest against so-called New Conservatives of the 1950s who accepted the New Deal. Secular-minded anticommunists like Max Eastman were theoretically welcome in conservative circles but found their ostentatiously pious tone intolerable. In its first decade, the conservative movement was defined as much by who was out as who was in.

This process of self-definition did not end with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the first movement conservative to seek the presidency. Since then, Southern nostalgists, critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance, opponents of the Iraq War, and offenders against the movement’s code of racial etiquette have all been treated to quasi-official denunciations. Skeptics of supply-side economics have also been encouraged to make their homes elsewhere. This magazine has its origin in some of those disputes.

One result of this boundary-policing is a “true” conservatism of striking narrowness and rigidity. Its less recognized corollary is the development of a diverse ecology of ideas outside the movement’s ever shrinking tent. Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.

“Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.” Indeed, many of those the bitter and even poisonous growths flourish in and around Chronicles magazine, and the attention I’ve paid to that magazine so far in this post should suffice to show that I believe that healing tonics may sometimes be distilled from bitter and even poisonous growths.

In the May/June issue of The American ConservativeAlan Mendenhall reviews Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Conceptin which Professor Gottfried neither neglects fascism’s connections to the political left nor denies that it was, after all, a creature of the far right.  That may not sound like much, but lesser writers do often resort to sleight of hand to disassociate labels they accept (and Professor Gottfried does accept the label “rightist”) from odious labels (and no label is more odious than “fascism.”)

The March/April issue of The American Conservative includes Richard Gamble’s review of John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.  Evidently Professor Wilsey argues that the USA should let go of religious ideas that incline it to militaristic enterprises around the globe, but adopt religious ideas that will incline it to humanitarian enterprises around the globe. As a student of the thought of Irving Babbitt, Professor Gamble recognizes in this proposal an exchange of one indulgence of the expansive temperament for another, and sees in the apparently benevolent expansive humanitarianism the barely-concealed potential for warfare. He calls instead for what Babbitt endorsed, a truly humble policy that is founded in self-restraint and self-denial.


There are two types of multinational federations: Those that end peacefully, and those that end violently

In a few days, the United Kingdom will hold a non-binding referendum, advising members of parliament either that the majority of voters would like to remain in the European Union, or that a majority would like to withdraw from it. Every party with more than one MP has a leader who is committed to remaining in the EU, and the classes to which MPs belong are dominated by economic interests which benefit from British membership in the EU. Therefore, unless Leave wins by a vast majority, as there is almost no chance it will do, the results are unlikely to precipitate British withdrawal from the EU. A win for Remain will lead to self-congratulation by advocates of British membership, to vows of continued resistance by opponents, and to no significant change. A win for Leave will probably trigger a leadership contest in the Conservative Party, the winner of which will be a prime minister who makes a great show of going to Brussels and presenting various demands for the European Union to reform its institutions. When those demands are either granted or politely taken under consideration, that prime minister will declare victory, claim to be a reincarnation of Alfred the Great (or more likely Winston Churchill, since historical literacy in the UK isn’t what it once was,) and go on with business as usual.

None of this is directly my business, as I do not live in the UK and am an American citizen. However, it does strike me that, throughout the history of the world, there have been many multinational federations. Some of these have labeled themselves as empires, famously including the Holy Roman Empire and the Dual Monarchy of the Hapsburgs; others as movements embodying a nationalism transcending borders that were dismissed as historical accidents, like the United Arab Republic under Nasser or Yugoslavia under Tito; some as the vanguard of global revolution, like the Soviet Union; etc. What they have in common is that their formal bureaucratic and legal structures were tolerable to the people of their member states as long as the underlying realities of economics and Realpolitik supported them. When economic circumstances and the power relations among the federation’s constituent parts shifted, those formal structures broke down and the federation itself ended. Since economic circumstances and power relations continually change, it is safe to assume that all multinational federations will sooner or later collapse, and that the primary distinction among them is between those that dissolve peacefully, like the Soviet Union or the United Arab Republic, and those that dissolve violently.

Among federations that dissolve violently, there is a second distinction to be drawn. Some dissolve as a consequence of wars they have fought and lost against outside states; others dissolve as a consequence of wars among nations within the federation. Outside states usually involve themselves in these internal wars as sponsors of the various sides.

If the current goings-on in the UK are any indication, it seems unlikely that the European Union will dissolve peacefully. How might a violent dissolution of the EU play out? The principal geopolitical division in Europe is between the Western section, naturally dominated by Germany, and the Eastern section, naturally dominated by Russia. When the European Economic Community and NATO were formed, Germany was divided, defeated, and occupied, as weak as it could be, while Russia was the nucleus of the USSR, an empire of nearly unlimited reach. These institutions then served to sustain a balance of power between the two halves of Europe. Now, Germany is the undisputed mistress of western Europe, while Russia is still isolated and relatively impoverished. Under these conditions, a set of institutions that commit the United States of America and the members of the EU to a perpetual alliance with Germany against Russia can serve only to unbalance the European system and make general war more likely. Every time in history when Germany has been strong and Russia is weak, the Germans have grown reckless pressing their claims in the East, ultimately provoking the Russians to war. There is little reason to suppose that matters will play out any differently this time.

If Russia undergoes an economic and political resurgence soon enough, then perhaps Russia will be able to contain Germany’s ambitions before they take the situation to its usual cataclysmic outcome.  If that resurgence continues long enough, and is accompanied by a relative decline in Germany’s fortunes, perhaps the European Union will end as Yugoslavia ended. As Germany sponsored Croatia and other states in their anti-Serbian efforts leading to the destruction of Yugoslavia while the powerless Russia of the 1990s looked on, so in the future Russia might sponsor anti-German efforts on the part of various EU member states, leading to the destruction of the EU while a weakened USA looks on from across the ocean.  This scenario would be as likely as an outright war between Germany and Russia to involve a large-scale thermonuclear exchange and therefore the destruction of civilization.

Of course, simply because the UK is going through rather an unfortunate bit of political theater right now does not mean that it will not be possible, at some future date, for the members of the European Union to escape peacefully. It might be more difficult than one supposes, however. A German government unrestrained by the need to maintain a coalition that includes the Social Democrats might very well charge hard enough into the former Soviet republics, pressing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia for example, that there might not be time for a peaceful breakup. If the USA is led by so hawkish an administration as that which Hillary Clinton has promised to conduct, then such a danger would be very close by.

If that danger is avoided, there would likely be some warning before EU member states erupt in civil war. One would like to suppose that member states would withdraw peacefully rather than fight civil wars to postpone departure. What might prevent peaceful dissolution would be a sharp cleavage in economic interests between social classes in the member states. Should a time come when it is clearly not in the interest of most people in certain EU member states to continue in the federation, while it was as clearly in the interest of the elites in those states to continue, then civil wars on the Yugoslav model would be very close at hand.

Who made a dollar worth a dollar?


Some years ago, the founder of this blog, VThunderlad, suggested that the time had come for the English-speaking world to scrap its old Christmas carols and adopt a new set. I was willing to be convinced, until he proposed that the first to be retired should be “The Carol of the Bells.” “The Carol of the Bells” is the one Christmas tune of which I have the strongest and most numerous memories, and so as soon as he recommended ditching that one I was dead set against scrapping any Christmas carol, even the drab, barely-singable ones.

What brought this story to mind is the ongoing discussion about redesigning US currency, a discussion most recently brought into the spotlight with the US Treasury Department’s decision to partly replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman’s. Since Jackson was a slave-trader whose most remembered political achievement was forcing thousands of Cherokee people to leave their homes in the southeastern US, costing an untold number of lives, there has long been a demand that his face should be removed from the $20 bill, but the Treasury Department opened the year with a proposal to remove, not Jackson’s portrait from the $20 bill, but Alexander Hamilton’s from the $10 bill.  The success of the Broadway musical Hamilton (much more productive of sympathy for its protagonist than Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson ever was,) doomed that plan and redirected attention to the $20 bill. Even now, it looks like the Harriet Tubman $20 bill won’t be making its debut until 2030, after four presidential elections, any one of which may bring in an administration that will put a stop to the whole thing. Even if the plan goes through as announced, the new bill will feature on its reverse an image depicting a statue of… Andrew Jackson! The whole thing feels like a fiasco.

Andrew Jackson’s fans aren’t that numerous nowadays, but he is still a popular figure in the state of Tennessee, which was his home in adulthood, and in the border area between North and South Carolina, where he was born and raised. So people from those places felt singled out by the push to remove him, and resisted that push intensely enough to force the Treasury into the ridiculous position it now occupies. I say we should take a lesson from the United Kingdom’s decimalization of its currency, accomplished on a single day in February 1971. If we want to redo the currency, we should do it all at once.

What changes do we need to make? I can think of seven:

  1. The $100 is so attractive to counterfeiters and so inconvenient to the average currency user that it is not reasonable to continue its production.
  2. The $1 and $5 bills wear out so frequently that it would be logical to discontinue their production and replace them with coins. In the past, the USA has introduced dollar coins but kept dollar bills in circulation, with the result that it has not made economic sense to redesign vending machines and cash registers to take the dollar coins. Therefore, currency users have found little use for the coins. Only the discontinuation of the bills will prompt the redesigns necessary to bring the new coins into wide circulation.
  3. All US bills are the same size and texture, exposing the visually impaired to the threat of larceny every time they pay with cash. The $50 bill should be larger than the $20 bill and the $20 bill larger than the $10 bill.
  4. The $.50 piece has never caught on and is valued almost exclusively as a collector’s item. Ceasing production of this coin would inconvenience no one and please collectors by giving scarcity value to a coin many of them can’t help but hold onto, even though, as a coin still in production, it is worth only its face value.
  5. Each $.01 piece costs more than $.01 to produce, yielding negative seignorage. Moreover, they are nearly as inconvenient to currency users as is the $100 bill, and tend to fall out of circulation almost immediately. The presence of the $.01 piece in the US currency system benefits only two groups: the zinc industry, which would still be doing just fine without the subsidy the piece represents, and retailers who advertise prices of “$9.99” or “$19.99” knowing full well that, on the one hand, these keep them under the psychological barrier that $10 and $20 present to many customers, and on the other that buyers will leave a $.01 piece rather than claim it in change. As such, the $.01 piece not only costs the taxpayers money and unnecessarily inflates the price of a strategic mineral, it also encourages deceptive trading practices. Its production should be discontinued.
  6. As the physical size of bills should decline in proportion to their value, so the diameter of coins should decline in proportion to theirs. So, the $5 piece should be the largest coin, the $1 piece the next largest, and so on, so that the $.05 piece, not the $.10 piece, should be the smallest coin.
  7. All the men who are now or have ever been on the obverse of US coins or bills should be retired from them, and should be replaced by the faces of others who symbolize reasons why a dollar is worth a dollar.

The first six points are relatively familiar, and I don’t propose to enlarge on them. Point seven does require a bit of explanation.

That all the men who have been featured on the obverse of coins should be retired I support by the example of the not-entirely-unsuccessful resistance diehard Andrew Jackson fans have put up to the idea of removing him from the $20 bill. Only if every region and interest group that has ever succeeded in putting the face of its favorite on the money simultaneously gives up that success will reform go through.

Why should the new faces symbolize reasons why a dollar is worth a dollar?  Ever since the end of the seventh century BCE, when Alyattes of Lydia struck the oldest coin known to numismatics, it has been customary to put an image on the obverse of the coin indicating the power that gives the coin its value. In Alyattes’ case, that image was a lion, an image that his house apparently used as an heraldic device:


The coin was worth what it was worth because Alyattes and his kinsmen said it was worth that much, and no further explanation was required. It better not have been required, since it wasn’t going to be forthcoming from the unadorned gouge on the reverse:


A bit later, Alyattes’ old neighbors in Lycia started stamping portraits of their kings on the obverse of their coins, and the Greeks then started putting deities symbolic of the community at large on the obverse of their coins and doing imaginative things with the reverse. In each case, the point was to show who guaranteed the value of the coin, and with the reverse designs to give some background as to why that guarantee could be trusted.

The USA has no king, of course, but the images on US currency are still meant to show why a dollar is worth a dollar. Abraham Lincoln is on the $.01 piece and the $5 bill, and Ulysses Grant is on the $50 bill, because the Union’s victory in the civil war of 1861-1865, and the subsequent rise of a relatively strong central government, made it possible for the USA to build single internal markets for capital and labor, to conduct trade policy on a grand scale, and to break free of British economic domination once and for all.

Thomas Jefferson is on the $.05 piece and the $2 bill, and Andrew Jackson is on the $20 bill, because these two men were instrumental both in the territorial expansion of the USA in North America, and in the creation of the Democratic Party, which, despite the anti-nationalistic ideology of its first century of existence, as a political party operating on a national scale could not but act as a force consolidating the USA, thereby inadvertently promoting the ends which Lincoln and Grant served consciously.

Franklin Roosevelt is on the $.10 piece, not only because he had polio and the anti-polio efforts of the March of Dimes were very much associated with the $.10 piece at the time when Roosevelt’s portrait was put there, but because his New Deal policies normalized the idea of a mixed economy in which large-scale state intervention would both ease the plight of those individuals who took financial or career risks that did not pay off and counter the extremes of the business cycle. Moreover, leading the USA’s efforts in the Second World War, the Roosevelt Administration did three things that still help to make a dollar worth a dollar. First, in the period from September 1939 to December 1941, Roosevelt did what Woodrow Wilson, in an act of negligence approaching outright treason, failed to do in the period August 1914 to April 1917, and forced the UK to give up its gold reserves, its equity in strategically vital US industries, its naval bases in the Western hemisphere, and other assets that not only would have been dangerous had they fallen into German hands after a British surrender, but which also represented the dead hand of the former colonial power on the American economy and the US position in world affairs. Second, the USA did play a key role in defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, two powers which would have built an intolerable world had they won a secure triumph, and which would have left the world in utter chaos if, as was more likely, they had been unable to hold onto their gains. The USA emerged from the Second World War, not into either of those nightmare scenarios, but into a world in which it had greater access than ever before to the markets of Western Europe and Northeast Asia. Third, it was under the Roosevelt Administration that the USA established the relationship with Saudi Arabia that has periodically stabilized the price of petroleum over the last 70 years, a stabilization that has made possible worldwide industrial development that well merits the words of Gordon P. Merriam, an official of the Roosevelt administration, who called Saudi Arabia’s petroleum reserves “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

George Washington is on the $.25 piece and the $1 bill because if the thirteen colonies had not made a successful military revolt against the British Empire, there would be no US currency, and if the USA’s elites had not managed to create a stable political system in the aftermath of that revolt such currency would be valueless.

John Kennedy is on the $.50 piece because television promotes nostalgia for celebrities who die young, but also because his tough talk about Berlin still highlights the relationship between the USA and Germany, a relationship which guarantees US access to markets throughout the German Empire (or, as it is politely known, the European Union.) In turn, Germany’s desire for access to the American market keeps its behavior in check to some extent, though occasionally one does see the Chancellor unilaterally disregarding Germany’s international commitments, triggering a movement of populations which threatens to dissolve the borders of states in Central and Eastern Europe. And the Germans do still behave recklessly when they see an opportunity to set up operations in territories that have historically been within Russia’s sphere of influence. However, these tendencies are to some degree inherent in Germany’s geopolitical position and the deepest structures of its political culture. The attraction of trade with the USA can moderate Germany’s bent to those forms of bad behavior, but only a strong Russia can contain it, and nothing can eradicate it. So it is not unreasonable that an American coin should commemorate the US-German relationship.

Alexander Hamilton is on the $10 bill because, as the first Secretary of the Treasury, he did a great deal to create a viable financial system in the USA. The musical may have kept him on the bill, but that fact would make it absurd to dump him and only him from the currency.

Benjamin Franklin is on the $100 bill, not only because of his role in the War of Independence and the writing of the Constitution, but also because, as a scientist and inventor, he represents the roles that basic research and technological advancement have played in the enrichment of the USA. Besides, Franklin’s remark that Americans had a higher standard of living than their cousins in Europe because the country’s low population meant that the USA was a country of “cheap land and high wages” explains more about the USA’s economic and political history than any other five words could.

So those guys do a pretty good job of explaining why a dollar is worth a dollar. For old-fashioned types who want the design of the currency to include an explanation as blunt as Alyattes’ family crest, there are the words printed on each bill, “Federal Reserve Note. This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” A dollar is worth a dollar because the Federal Reserve Board says it is, Congress has passed a law saying that you have to take dollars if your debtors offer to pay in them, and the Secretary of the Treasury and the Treasurer of the United States have signed their names to the whole thing. If we’re going to change the images on the currency, we’re going to have to choose a set that give at least as good an explanation of why a dollar is worth a dollar as does the existing set.

What does the existing set leave out?  The first thing that comes to my mind is the smallpox epidemic that wiped out about 90% of North America’s population when European settlers arrived on its shores in the sixteenth century. Without that, Europeans may well have established more of a foothold on these shores than the Vikings had a few centuries before, but there is no way that a federative nation-state dominated by their descendants would today span the continent.  Perhaps the descendants of the natives would today be more prosperous than is the actual United States of America and perhaps they would issue currencies even more valuable than the dollar, but the dollar wouldn’t exist if it were not for that incomparable disaster.

You can’t really put the smallpox virus on a coin; it would be an ill-omen, for one thing, and in quite bad taste. Besides, the thing is just unsightly:


So, I would suggest that the $.05 piece carry a portrait of Dr Donald Henderson, who led the World Health Organization unit that completed the eradication of smallpox in 1967-1977. Honoring Dr Henderson would also honor both technological advancement and international cooperation, two other pillars of US economic might. Dr Henderson is still alive, and no living person may appear on US currency, but by the time this program could be implemented he’ll probably have died.

Some other points illustrated by the faces now on the currency would still have to be brought out. The main enemy US foreign policy confronted, beginning a decade or more before the formal inception of the United States in the 1770s and continuing up to about 1965, was the British Empire. In all those years, the USA’s chief international objective was to resist, contain, and destroy British influence. As I mentioned above in regard to Woodrow Wilson, some American leaders weakened in this resolution or even tried to betray the project altogether, but the general thrust was to restrict the British, whether by fighting them, supporting their opponents, or insisting on the highest possible price for whatever support the USA might give them in some or other limited enterprise. Even today, when Britain is a satellite of the USA in military affairs and a province of the German Empire in its domestic arrangements, memories of that tension linger. It’s hardly surprising they should, since the president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama II, is the son of a man who may very well have been assassinated by the British Secret Service in 1982.

If we have to retire George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy from the currency, whom shall we choose as the symbol of the country’s two-century-plus struggle against Perfidious Albion? I would suggest Samuel Adams, who as an opponent of the Stamp Act of 1765 emerged as the best-known leader of the first step in the process that would reach its climax when the Union Jack was hauled down and the Stars and Stripes were raised in Singapore almost exactly 200 years later. So I propose Samuel Adams for the $.10 piece.

The political stability of the USA has of course been a major factor in raising the value of the US dollar above that of the Thai baht, let alone the Sudanese pound. George Washington is so much the obvious symbol of this circumstance that it is no wonder he is on two denominations of currency, but perhaps someone else could symbolize the same thing as effectively. Much of the cult of Robert E. Lee which is now in the process of evaporating from the USA comes from the fact that Lee’s surrender and his subsequent advocacy of reconciliation with the North were vital to preventing the decades of guerrilla war that usually follow the defeat of a major rebellion. Neither Lee nor any other representative of the Confederacy would be acceptable on US currency now, so I won’t propose him. But perhaps we should look to a gracious loser, rather than to a circumspect winner like Washington, to be our embodiment of political stability, since stability can’t be achieved without both. Perhaps Takanka Iyotanka, a.k.a. Sitting Bull, would serve this role as effectively as Lee did in a different time. The leader of his people and the last man to surrender his rifle at the end of the Great Sioux War in 1881, he strove in his last years to find a place for the Plains nations in the postwar world. Those efforts were repaid by an assassination at the hands of renegade Sioux working for the US authorities, which in itself should serve to remind us that it can be more dangerous to be a peacemaker than to be a warrior.

Much of the wealth of the USA has its roots in the unrewarded toil of dispossessed slaves, of Native Americans, and of women long excluded from direct participation in the labor market. Harriet Tubman is an excellent symbol of this fact, and of the initiative the dispossessed have taken to remedy this situation. She also takes over for Lincoln and Grant as a celebration of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. So, I propose her for the $1 piece.

Technology and basic research are vital to the USA’s economic position, as are the periodic expansions of opportunity to groups previously excluded from participation in the market. Moreover, the ability of various religious groups to live in peace is vital to the political stability, and therefore to the material prosperity, of the USA. One person who symbolizes all four of those things is Maria Mitchell. Mitchell was the first human being to use a telescope to discover a comet, the first American woman to earn a living as a scientist, and a Quaker lady who thought deeply about the relationship between science and religious faith, and about the role of religion in public life. I propose Maria Mitchell for the $5 piece.

Organized labor and the mixed economy are not beloved by the American far-right, but they should be pretty happy seeing pets of theirs like Sam Adams and the guy I have in mind for the $20 bill. So they shouldn’t complain too loudly when we acknowledge that working people not only have as much right to organize to demand better terms for their labor as investors have to form corporations to demand better terms for their capital, but also that increased wages and improved working conditions, which only organized labor can secure, do in fact increase economic activity by moving wealth away from those who would tend to hoard it and towards those who tend to spend it more quickly.  And without organized labor behind them, politicians like Franklin Roosevelt could never have built the mixed economy with the benefits, both to individuals and to the nation as a whole, mentioned above. I would suggest Cesar Chavez for the $10 bill, as symbol of organized labor, of American agriculture, and of opportunities won by the previously dispossessed.

The US financial system has its ugly side, but we started this exercise by facing the fact that the North American smallpox epidemic of the sixteenth century was a sine qua non of the USA’s existence, so I suppose we can stand to acknowledge that a dollar wouldn’t be worth a dollar without that system. Some might think the dollar would be worth a lot more than it is if the USA had a radically different system, but we aren’t trying to speculate about ways to increase the value of the dollar, only about ways to explain the value it actually has. So the $20 bill should feature a financial figure. Alexander Hamilton may have been the single most important figure in the inception of the system, but we can’t make any exceptions- they all have to go. So I would turn to a later stage in the development of the system, and, since the US currency is made up of Federal Reserve Notes, I would choose someone who symbolizes the founding of the Federal Reserve. The basis of the original Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was something called “the Aldrich Plan,” which Senator Nelson Aldrich put forward after a famous meeting on Georgia’s Jekyll Island. So I suppose I’ll suggest Nelson Aldrich for the $20 bill.

For the $50 bill, I think the choice is actually pretty obvious. George Washington Carver symbolizes technological advancement, opportunities won by the previously dispossessed, the unrewarded toil of the still-dispossessed, and American agriculture. Besides, his name has “George Washington” in it, so even if we can’t keep GW on the currency, at least we can tip our hats to him.

Those are the obverse portraits I would suggest. For the reverses, I would suggest three themes that don’t much lend themselves to prominent individuals as symbols. Those would be the natural resources of North America, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the system of legal title that gives US land-owners secure claim to their property.

For the natural resources of North America, I would suggest a wilderness scene on the reverse of the $.05 piece, depicting the world that the people who died in the great smallpox epidemic never had the opportunity to develop with the technology they and their descendants would likely have imported from the Old World had they lived. On the reverse of the $1 piece, I would suggest an agricultural scene suggesting the Great Plains, the sort of image that the people Harriet Tubman led to freedom might have had in mind as a hope for their future. And on the reverse of the $10 bill, I would suggest a scene depicting the Hoover Dam, which, coupled with Cesar Chavez on the obverse, would put the West Coast on regular US currency for the first time. And of course the three together would represent a chronological progression that thrusts up to the present day, inviting currency users to write themselves into the story.

There aren’t any generals or admirals or wartime political leaders of the USA on my list of obverse portraits; the only warrior is Takanka Iyotanka, who led a valiant fight against the USA. I’m anything but anti-military, but we only have eight units of currency, so some major things have to be left unrepresented. I believe it was James Bryce who said that it was wondrous how ready Americans were to identify as their countrymen’s martial valor what might more accurately be described as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Those bodies of water have secured US independence by physically separating North America from Europe and Asia. That isn’t the whole story; when George Washington gave his Farewell Address advising against undue involvement in quarrels abroad, he was speaking to a nation that bordered on territories claimed by Britain, France, and Spain, with Dutch and Portuguese bases less than a week’s sailing away. Never since has the USA been within reach of so many revisionist world powers. Anyway, I suggest a scene of the Pacific on the reverse of the $.10 piece, an ocean which the relentlessly anti-British policy inaugurated in Sam Adams’ day made it possible for the USA to reach and, for a time, to dominate, and a scene of the Atlantic, the ocean on whose shores Nantucket’s Maria Mitchell passed her days, on the reverse of the $5 piece.

Secure title to land is a pretty hard thing to illustrate, but an absolutely indispensable part of the story of what makes a dollar worth a dollar. People who have secure title to land can borrow against it to make major investments, and without the ability of so large a segment of the US population to invest substantially the country would not have developed the industry it did or the middle class it did or the democratic politics it did. I’m not sure exactly what images could be put on the reverses of the $.25 piece, the $20 bill, and the $50 bill that would make this point; a mortgage book isn’t a very inspiring sight, neither is a loan officer’s desk. Maybe a house with some big trees out front, suggesting long residence, might do the trick. Or a picket fence, or a hearth, or something like that.