Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds

By John P. Caves III

Many difficult and uncertain things need to go right for our nation to heal and recover its full vigor. They will take long, patient, arduous work. But they can still be done. Only malice or despair can render them impossible.

This piece was first published on Medium.com.

As was said by Abraham Lincoln one hundred and fifty-five years ago, so still it must be said: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

Our nation is wounded again. In 1865, there were more than 500,000 dead from civil war. In 2020, there are more than 200,000 dead from disease, plus a small but growing body count from street violence sparked by police shootings. At perhaps no point in between have political passions been so vindictive.

Right now, one big political fight—the presidential election—is nearing its climax. Another, over the Supreme Court, has suddenly resurfaced with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Each has only two possible outcomes: either the Republican or Democratic candidate will be elected President, and the next Justice will be installed by either the incumbent President or the next one. The daggers are drawn, and both duels will soon be settled. That much is unavoidable.

Whether or not the partisan bloodletting is followed by healing depends on the conduct of the winning side in the presidential contest.

Either the victor will indulge malice and vindictiveness, and so ensure that our Republic continues to bleed until it lies dead on the ground; or else, by following Mr. Lincoln’s example, the winner will nurse the Union back into health and stand it once more on its feet.

We cannot expect the latter from the incumbent President. Donald Trump—may he soon recover from his brush with Covid-19—exudes malice. He has shown us as much for four years, and he will not change.

Joe Biden perhaps has the character and temperament to heal the nation. Yet his election, if he is elected, will not in itself be enough to do so. It is not sufficient merely to have a “Good Emperor.” To maintain a republic, there must be no emperors, and thus the fear and contempt that lead people to seek one must be stemmed.

Mr. Biden can do this, or at least begin it. There are four bandages he could apply to staunch the bleeding, none of which are inherently partisan.

He must first set aside those in his party whose “attachment to their country itself, is only so far as it agrees with some of their fleeting projects”—as Edmund Burke derided the radicals of the French Revolution—and instead cultivate thoughtful pride, to replace hollow flag-waving, in the one thing that all Americans have in common: our country. To his credit, he has already begun to do so.

As polarization will not fade overnight, the next act of triage is to make politics less winner-take-all by decentralizing decision-making, when constitutional and practical, to state and local governments. Mr. Biden can begin by simply not wielding federal funds as a weapon for bending cities and states to his will.

Decentralization might be a difficult sell to today’s Democratic Party, given the long history of excuse-making for slavery and segregation with hollow “states’ rights” arguments. Yet federalism, done right, stands on enlightened political ideas. It accommodates regional and cultural differences in a large republic by diffusing power and providing more opportunities for different interests to win a share of it. When all issues hinge on the Presidency and the Supreme Court, the struggles to gain them are harsh and embittered. The more that state and local governments can meaningfully determine policy, in contrast, the more partisans can healthfully expend their energies in another election rather than battle each other in the courts or on the streets.

Indeed, it could help to give each state’s residents space to sort out their disagreements among themselves. A Wisconsin Republican may be more willing to trust a Wisconsin Democrat if he or she doesn’t fear that a Manhattan Democrat is pulling the strings. In local governments, where one party often dominates, greater responsibility for governing may force different wings of a party to pit their ideas against each other, helping to restore intellectual diversity and rebuild the “big-tent parties” whose loss we sorely feel today. There is potential here: when there has been constructive policy innovation in the past decade, it has often been in towns and cities.

Third, the Presidency itself needs to be curtailed. We have seen it unrestrained by any respect for tradition—and it is a fearsome spectacle. Many of the powers a President wields today are not inherent to the executive branch under Article 2 of the Constitution, but have been delegated to it over decades by Congress. Congress should take some of them back.

We have gone so far down that road, though, that to limit the power of the Presidency will require the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the President. Mr. Biden may be reluctant to give it; few people who ascend to high office want to constrain themselves. But Gerald Ford turned away from the imperial presidency to heal the country once, and Joe Biden can do it today.

Fourth, the aspects of our elections that feed extremism—namely primaries and gerrymandering—need to be reformed. Mr. Biden cannot do this himself, but he can encourage it. State governments have it largely within their power to act.

Once our wounds have been bound and, under those bandages, are beginning to heal, then we as a nation can productively debate and act on divisive national issues such as entitlements, inequality, immigration, and representation for Washington, D.C., and the territories—to name but a few. Then, for the love of God, our Republic, the Earth, and posterity, let’s take on the century-shaping issues which we have neglected for far too long: the challenge from China, the national debt, global warming, and the regulation of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

Many difficult and uncertain things need to go right for our nation to heal and recover its full vigor. They will take long, patient, arduous work. But they can still be done. Only malice or despair can render them impossible.

Let us not give into that temptation. Let us not, on our watch, accept our Republic degenerating into a dictatorship; let us not, in the world, accept freedom taking second place to despotism; let us not, through inaction, accept the map of the United States being redrawn by rising sea levels; and let us not resign our grandchildren to automated social control and winters without snow.

Let us, through forgiveness, hard work, and dignity, “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Picking up the candy hearts

By Rich Tucker

Adulting remains difficult. But it’s more important than ever right now.

First published at TheHill.com

By Memorial Day it was, finally, time to pick up the candy hearts.

During my son’s freshman year at Vanderbilt University, I sent him a letter or a package every few weeks. Not so much to cheer him up; he loved the university and enjoyed being there. More to cheer myself up, and remind myself that I still mattered to his life.

Around the first of March I spotted two-week old Valentine candy hearts on super-duper sale at a CVS. No doubt they were 95 percent off by that point. Who wants hearts that say “I Love You” when it’s already March, the Roman month of war? I dashed off a letter to my son, packed it in with the candy, and sent it off to Nashville.

Then they closed his school.

On March 9 Vanderbilt had a report of exposure to coronavirus. The administration planned to shut down for a week or so, but my wife correctly predicted there would be no further classes on campus this Spring. She booked my son on a flight out the next day. He hadn’t gone back to Nashville since.

Zoom replaced office hours, online learning replaced lecture halls. The candy hearts sat, unopened, on his desk.

In late May, the school announced its next step. Students should return at prearranged times to clear out of their dorm rooms. That’s how we ended up driving to Nashville on Memorial Day weekend.

It was eerily quiet when we arrived at his dorm. When we’d moved him in back in August, campus had been a madhouse. Teams of students unpacking cars and helping freshmen move in. Thousands of sad parents milling around. Now, we were about the only people on campus. We parked, illegally, in the roundabout by his dorm and headed in.

A gallon of milk from the fridge quickly went down the drain. A bag of apples ended up in the front seat for the drive home.

I unzipped the suitcase we’d brought, and realized there was a smaller suitcase inside. When I unzipped that one, I found a third. Because I didn’t want to get stuck in an Abbot and Costello routine, I didn’t open that third suitcase to find more and more and more suitcases. I just set it aside.

My son didn’t have much stuff. His clothing fit in the large suitcase, his schoolwork and books into the second one. His bedding went into the dirty clothes hamper. Some posters, a small keyboard, toiletries. Boom. Within an hour we’d packed everything from the room neatly into our car.

“Ready to roll?” I asked.

“Sure, but it’s warmer than I thought. I shouldn’t have worn a long sleeve shirt,” he answered. We were both sweating from the trips up and down from the fifth floor.

“Well, you have about 100 short sleeve shirts in the trunk,” I noted. It took just minutes to pull one out of the suitcase and we headed toward home.

The drive back is a metaphor. 

For hours and hours, we rolled through the country with no problems. The sun was shining. I listened to podcasts, he tapped into music on his phone. It could have been 2019, except that we also spent some time plotting our family’s future in this changing world.

Suddenly, after seven hours on the road, as I was preparing to have him drive again, came a challenge. A downpour of biblical proportions. I slowed but didn’t stop.

Gripping the wheel and concentrating on the stripes in the middle of the road, I steered carefully for more than hour, able to see just well enough to keep us, like our nation, moving forward. While I kept a white-knuckle grip on the wheel, I noted that my son was playing on his DS, apparently oblivious to the storm.

And I realized: this is the difficulty of being an adult.

“Adulting” means, simply, that there are people depending on you. You cannot afford to let them down even when it’s all too easy to do so. I suddenly had a memory. I was a child, riding home through a snowstorm on New York Route 17, an interstate-like highway. That trip meant hours of high-stress driving for my father. As a child, though, I had no idea the pressure he was under. Now I understand.

Also on my mind is the fact that, just a week before this trip, I’d lost my job. I’m laid off from a trade association because of Covid-19. It was nothing I’d done, they told me. They just needed to make some cuts in this new economic environment. I have no idea when or whether I’ll land another gig. That makes for some white knuckles as well as gnawed fingernails.

What will the world look like after Covid-19? The thought is as scary to me as a downpour on I-81. However, we cannot avoid the coming crisis. We can only steer through it as best we can, keeping our eyes on the road and hoping for the best.

My family is depending on me, just as your family is depending on you. As Americans, we’ll all get through this together.

As for us, well, we ate my son’s candy hearts on the drive back. When I dropped them in the mail, I’d never expected to see them again. Today, the world of Valentine’s Day 2020 no longer exists.

Our family is luckier than most. My son had a normal high school graduation, and more than half of a normal freshman year. He can expect to see the Vandy campus again in good times.

As for the rest of us: yes, there’s a downpour. But we need to keep our eyes on the road and keep moving forward. Adulting remains difficult. But it’s more important than ever right now.

Is this really a Christian nation?

By Mike Frates

Is the United States of America a Christian nation? Well, that depends upon how you choose to construct the question.

I have a world of respect for Judge William Carey, and I enjoyed the opinion piece he submitted to The New Bedford Standard-Times published Sunday, March 11 (“Your View: A free lunch on contraceptive services.”) That said, I do wonder if Judge Carey is picking favorites regarding the specific clauses in the First Amendment to our national Constitution. “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ” is the second clause in the Amendment, and where the faithful usually hang their hat, but we do curtail religious practice in this country, don’t we? In fact, the very first time the Supreme Court interpreted this clause, that’s the conclusion it reached. “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”

The Reynolds case involved a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who married a woman already married to another man. Now, in the Mormon religion, polygamy is considered a religious practice sanctioned by their holy creed, and we stopped it dead in its tracks. As recently as 1990, the Supreme Court was willing to uphold state laws that criminalize certain religious ceremonies, albeit only indirectly. In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, our High Court ruled that Native Americans were not exempt from the laws of our land, and could not ingest peyote during religious ceremonies while it remained as a criminal offense on Oregon’s books. So long as the prohibition against peyote indiscriminately applied to all Oregonians, the faithful had to bow to it.

Notably, Florida screwed this up in 1993 with Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah when they sought to-single out a specific religion, Santeria, and criminalize a particular religious practice: animal sacrifice. We even saw a bit of such prejudice right here in my home town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, recently when William Camacho was discovered holding chickens for slaughter and consumption in accordance with his chosen religion, Palo Mayombe. A Caribbean religion similar to Santeria. With all the hoopla involving Mr. Camacho, I laughed out loud at the hysterical proposition that the chickens in Mr. Camacho’s custody met a harsher fate, prior to his dinner, than do the commercially processed birds that land on our dinner tables.

Let me tell you something, take a glance into the world of commercial poultry and you will soon realize: That was one pampered chicken.

So, here we are. The Catholic Church and its ministries, including private universities and hospitals, have a religious prohibition against providing their employees with birth control. The government has mandated that all employers in the country provide their employees with the same. The mandate in question in no way singles out the Catholic Church; it clearly applies to all employers and all employees across the nation. And, yet, the Catholic Church has hunkered down for a fight. Do they think they can win? Probably, and due in no small part to the general belief that Judge Cary touched upon in his letter: that this is a Christian nation.

This leads us to the first clause in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Is the United States of America a Christian nation? Well, that depends upon how you choose to construct the question. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian. This is both clearly true and part of the problem. It’s problematic because, as such a strong majority, they stand ready to run roughshod over the rights of their fellow religionists, and the rest of us, by promoting a vision of America that incorporates their beliefs while ignoring those of others. In the matter at hand, the Catholic Church wants preferential treatment due to its sheer numbers and kindred spirit with the far larger population of Protestants.

Implicated here are the economic and social consequences of supporting unwanted children often shouldered by unwed mothers who otherwise had dreams and opportunity of their own. I can hear the mantra now: abstinence, abstinence, abstinence. This always reminds me of that old saying, “Conservatives care a great deal for your baby – right up to the moment he or she is born.” Is this a Christian nation? No, not as long as the establishment clause prohibits that final, governmental endorsement and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment stands ready to protect religious minorities from the, “tyranny of the majority,” in Tocqueville’s words.

Judge Carey’s preferred construction of this debate is that it’s all about a, “struggle for power,” but isn’t every political, social or commercial contest a, “struggle for power,” if you so choose to view it that way? The definition of, “power,” is getting someone to do something they don’t want to do.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, March 15, 2012.

Blue Lives, Black Lives, ‘The Republic’ and ‘Leviathan’

By Mike Frates

A strong central government may be necessary to keep us in check, but that same government may be employed as a tool of oppression in the hands of a tyrant.

Plato of classical Athens, to this day, is one of the ten most cited intellectuals in contemporary scholarly publishing. This should at least give us pause since he was also one of the Western tradition’s most ardent critics of democracy. In any case, we have decided to make a go of it, and, accordingly, we can’t simply sit back and blame our problems on a tyrant. A democratic republic places responsibility for our state of affairs squarely upon our shoulders, and the loss of life in our African-American communities at the hands of the police is no exception. This piece is about the relationship between our sovereign and her citizens.

Signed during the summer of 1215, the Magna Carta was an agreement between an unpopular English king and his barons. More than just commercial issues, the Magna Carta guaranteed a modest set of civil liberties to the wealthy aristocrats subject to his rule. Within weeks, the document was scrapped, and, some years later, annulled by the pope, but the Magna Carta earned its place in history as the first time limitations were imposed upon the authority of a legitimate European monarch.

The need for such an agreement had become clear; the West has been no stranger to tyranny. The first ruling family of the Roman Empire, the Julio Claudians, gave us two of history’s most famous tyrants. Germanicus, better known by his nickname, Caligula, and Nero, whose malevolence became legendary. A democratic republic doesn’t necessarily inoculate against the rise of a tyrant. The Roman Republic, which preceded the Empire, produced Sulla, and Hitler came to power by completely legitimate means. Indeed, the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville counseled us against the, “tyranny of the democratic majority.”

This conversation was defined by Thomas Hobbes of 17th century Europe. Hobbes believed that we are a fundamentally flawed species. He believed that life for, “man in the state of nature,” was unpredictable. “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” His masterpiece, “Leviathan,” published in 1651, argued for a strong central government to check the passions and proclivities of men. “Leviathan” may be the second most influential work of political theory we have after Plato’s “Republic”.

And, herein lies the problem: A strong central government may be necessary to keep us in check, but that same government may be employed as a tool of oppression in the hands of a tyrant. In 1748, Montesquieu published “The Spirit of the Laws” exhorting us to divide our government into separate, coequal branches with a Judicial Branch dedicated to mediating the executive’s desire to enforce the law contra its citizens. President Rutherford Hayes, in 1878, signed the Posse Comitatus Act into law promising the American people that they will never face the United States military.

Today, our state and federal constitutions serve has a bulwark against such abuse. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our national Constitution, is enforceable only against the government to stem overreach. The First Amendment guarantees the government won’t punish us for speaking our mind. The Fourth Amendment ensures freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. And, the Eighth Amendment promises we won’t be subject to cruel or unusual punishment. The government must prove our transgressions in a court of law, as required by the Sixth Amendment.

Understanding manufacturing processes is part of any good business school curriculum. No one cares if you’re building cars, rugs or light bulbs; the principles are the same. So, when the professor gets the inevitable question from one of her students, she responds, “Today, we’re building ‘Widgets’.” Likewise, no two Americans are alike. We all have different histories, biases and beliefs. Some of us are caring and gregarious while others sharp or perhaps a bit slow. Some hold good will in our hearts and others less so. A police officer has no idea who he will encounter on any given shift so he is trained for any contingency.

When it comes to lives both blue and black, l would simply like to make one point. When a confrontation takes place on our streets between a police officer and a black man, consider this: On one side of this equation is a police officer with a badge and a gun. Standing behind that police officer is the municipality by whom he is employed. Standing behind that municipality is, in my case, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and standing behind the Commonwealth, by operation of the 10th Amendment, is the most powerful political entity in the history of civilization. On the other side is a widget.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, November 6, 2016.

The Enlightenment and its Enemy: White Nationalism

By Mike Frates

Our goal should be to repress our inner Troglodyte, and embrace our better angels, but that’s not the problem right now. The problem is that the troglodytes are winning.

The European Enlightenment of the 1780s made two promises. The first, if we embrace reason to the exclusion of all other human capacities, the inner workings of nature will be revealed, and the technology that results will better our lives. The price we paid was the embrace of a loving God. As the great Enlightenment philosophers began to apply reason like a scalpel to our understanding of human nature, Jeremy Bentham and Emmanuel Kant were developing sophisticated theories of moral philosophy that bring us to the second covenant. The Enlightenment also promised to make us better people, instilling the wisdom with which to wield this technology. One promise was kept, the other … not so much.

Our species survived for quite a while without the benefit of Enlightenment principles. We fashioned tools out of rocks and sticks to better manipulate our environment. Hunting methods provided us with the protein necessary to support our evolutionarily expensive large brains. And, we developed strategies to exploit the resources around us. That which was different from us may have been dangerous in the form of competitors or predators.

Hunter-gathering gave way to farming, and crop surpluses allowed families to barter for goods and services. The feudal bureaucracy was born. Militaries were assembled, and walls were built to protect us from other humans. We continued to highlight the differences between ourselves and others because that which was different may have been dangerous. The Portuguese slave trade aggravated these ingrained, superficial biases.

We share ninety-six percent of our DNA with one of the most vicious and territorial animals on the planet, Pan troglodytes: the chimpanzee. As we civilized ourselves, those hunting, social and mating strategies began to translate into two principles that will forever bedevil our species, “pride and respect.” The recognition of which became a zero-sum game. Our attempts to make sense out of our world through mythology, and, later, the three great monotheistic religions, normalized these influences. Instead of describing the evolutionary psychology that shaped our behavior, they became the values that dictated how we should behave.

Militaries grew larger, the walls got higher and the 1780s came and went. The lessons of the Enlightenment triggered Industrialization along with advances in warfare. We also witnessed the geopolitical status quo reach its culmination in balance of power politics. Germany brought the world to the brink of war when England, and the rest of Western Europe, failed to contain Bismarck. The old way of doing business had broken down, and humanity was about to pay a dear price as a result.

We responded to the two World Wars by embracing Enlightenment principles. Nations were no longer judged based solely upon their actions, but now their intentions as well. We held state action to moral standards. We embraced universal human rights in recognition of our common humanity, and self-determination flourished with the spread of democracy. We learned that pooling our resources would result in greater social justice for all. We looked forward to ameliorating human poverty and disease while we looked back upon the Holocaust.

Populist elections both here and in Britain have, for the first time, placed this global order founded on Enlightenment principles under serious attack. But make no mistake: These issues have been raging ever since Nietzsche declared God’s death. Science unleashed the wonders of nature while it reduced love to a chemical reaction. Science charted the heavens as it stripped us of our soul. The death of God meant the death of Our Father who gave our lives meaning and purpose. To embrace reason – to embrace the truth – we had to step out from beneath God’s grace, and find the courage to tackle the world on our own terms. From Roe v. Wade to how we educate our children to our justice system, everyone has a dog in this fight.

There are a few groups who oppose the Enlightenment. Pride of place goes to religious evangelicalism trying to resuscitate an enchanted vision of Camelot, but there is something refreshingly honest about these white nationalists. Instead of using religion to drape their most base impulses in respectability they put their pre-Enlightenment, tribal racism right there on display stripped of any pious pretext. Our goal should be to repress our inner Troglodyte, and embrace our better angels, but that’s not the problem right now. The problem is that the troglodytes are winning.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, April 30, 2017.

Fund States to Ensure America Recovers from Coronavirus, Then Help Them Fund Themselves

By John Caves

In the struggle against Covid-19, the states have possession of the field. State governments led by both parties have made, and will continue to make, the toughest decisions about how to contain the virus.

(An earlier version of this piece was first published at InsideSources.com)

As the war against Covid-19 rages in empty streets and crowded hospitals, a battle over the authority and resources to wage it has broken out in the halls of government between the federal government and the states.

President Donald Trump opened the engagement by claiming “total” authority to reopen states, only to retreat under heavy fire from both parties. He then attempted a flanking movement by egging on protests against state governments, followed by a bait-and-switch by encouraging and then undermining the governor of Georgia’s own decision to reopen.

Mr. Trump was soon reinforced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who responded to a funding request from the National Governors Association by advising states “to use the bankruptcy route.” Drawing fire in turn, Mr. McConnell gave ground, saying there “probably will be another state and local funding bill” soon.

The outcome of the political battle is yet to be seen. But in the struggle against Covid-19, the states have possession of the field. State governments led by both parties have made, and will continue to make, the toughest decisions about how to contain the virus. They took initiative on social distancing when the federal government was slow to act. And they can shield their residents from certain misguided federal impulses, such as premature reopening or ill-judged medical advice.

This is possible because the states’ reserved powers under the Constitution enable them to function as an unofficial fourth branch of government at the national level. In this way, they don’t only make the Union more resilient in a crisis, but help to guarantee its long-term liberty and vitality through separation of powers.

The states’ tenacious response to the coronavirus has a big price tag, however. Emergency expenditures have depleted state budgets just as the revenues supporting next year’s budgets have dried up. Whereas the federal government largely funds itself with relatively stable (for now) income tax and debt, states rely mainly on sales taxes and have limited capacity to borrow. Sales taxes and related levies on goods and services have been battered by Covid-19: people are buying less, and prices of taxable commodities such as oil have collapsed.

State governments cannot carry out their vital role if they are bankrupt. If America is to emerge resurgent from this pandemic, it must get its states back on their feet.

The first step is for Congress to reconsider its resistance to the National Governors Association request for $500 billion for the states, with no strings attached. The two governors who sent the request — Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York — have worked hard against Covid-19. They should be taken seriously when they say the absence of such funds will hamper “public health, the economic recovery, and — in turn — our collective effort to get people back to work.”

But in the long run there will need to be a different fiscal cure. While it is right for the federal government to mobilize resources in times of crisis, it is unhealthy for states to rely heavily on Washington for funding in normal times. The expectation it engenders could incentivize states to habitually spend far beyond their means, the object of Senator McConnell’s ill-timed but somewhat justified concern. More importantly, overreliance could enable a dictatorial-minded president to assert “total authority” by threatening to withhold cash, and we would lose one more restraint on power.

Our states are already worryingly dependent on federal money: it amounts to roughly a quarter of state revenues, much of that tied to healthcare. Let Covid-19 be the impetus to rebalance this. One way is to reduce the federal income tax rate to give states an opportunity, if they choose, to increase theirs. At the same time, give states more responsibility for entitlement programs such as Medicaid that are now run at the federal level but overlap with the role of state governments.

The states would have more work to do, but more of their own resources with which to do it. The federal government could focus on things only it can do such as defense and diplomacy, including working with other countries to contain epidemics before they reach our shores.

There will be a conflicting impulse to give the federal government sweeping power over public health, which we now know entails control over many aspects of life. This impulse relies on an assumption that the federal government is always wise and virtuous. It is not. States are not either; some will make poor decisions in response to Covid-19. But, as a whole, they constantly learn best-practices from each other and find solutions that fit regional needs.

More centralization would be dangerous. Our Union has already concentrated a lot of power in Washington over the past century. As a result, every presidential election now feels like a one-shot, winner-take-all struggle for the only prize that matters: the one at the top.

I suspect that’s contributing to the corrosive polarization we all lament. Instead, let’s heal our country by reinvigorating our states.

Younger Generations Will Build A Better Future

By Rich Tucker

When this virus passes, the United States will quickly look very different. The very pace of change will be an opportunity. It’s time to embrace that change.

(First published at TheHill.com)

It’s impossible to say what the United States will look like when the Covid-19 quarantine is lifted, although there is no doubt some businesses and even entire industries will be swept away. Certainly the social distancing habit is likely to stick around for some time, if not forever.

However, there are many ways that the U.S. can bounce back in the months and years ahead. To do so we must unlock the potential of rising generations and make an opportunity out of this crisis.

The first thing to do is reduce overly burdensome regulation.

As the country geared up to fight the virus, governments tried to speed the response by waiving many regulations. But these changes came too late. For example, Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal reports that a doctor from Johns Hopkins tried to get a Covid-19 test approved in January. “And we lost precious time when one of the original scientists submitted an application and was told that he had to submit it also by paper mail with a CD-ROM with the files burned on it,” Dr. Marty Makary explained.

The federal government isn’t ready for the digital age, but rising generations of Americans can change that. At Facebook, “new hires and even summer interns could, within a week of starting, see their features distributed to a billion users. That’s the speed of software in 2020,” Kessler writes. As another author puts it, “the faster things change, the younger and younger the best and most competent models get.” That’s Joseph Henrich in his book “The Secret of Our Success.” We need new generations to deliver that speed throughout the economy.

It’s important to note the main way that the current recession is different from the recession caused by the mortgage meltdown in 2008. In that crisis, Wall Street was the cause of the disruption. When the market started to drop, millions of Baby Boomers lost millions in their 401(k) accounts. Some, no doubt, shelved plans to retire.

This time, the banks are part of the solution, not part of the problem. The market has rebounded. It is down from February’s records, but (as of mid-April) the S&P 500 is still about 25% higher than it was at the end of 2016. So Boomers may still feel flush. Meanwhile, the older generation has been working from home for weeks now.

A good number of workers in their late 60s and 70s are going to decide they don’t want to go back into an office every day when this is all over. They will retire, switch to part time or work from home. This could present leadership opportunities for younger workers.

These generations are ready for more, and ready to work. “My whole generation learned relentless work was the way to cope with the rolling crisis, with the mood of imminent collapse and economic insecurity that was the elevator music of our entire youth,” writes Laurie Penny in Wired. But that effort hasn’t paid off yet.

“Millennials and Gen Z are disillusioned,” Deloitte Global’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey found. “Many are not particularly satisfied with their lives, financial situations, jobs, government and business leaders, social media, or the way their data is used.” The aftermath of Covid-19 could give these generations openings to show real leadership and finally be rewarded for their hard work.

They’ve earned it. A crisis can define a generation, and even elevate it. “The experience of World War II in their development window may have forged America’s Greatest Generation, permanently elevating their national commitment and public spirit,” Henrich writes in his evolution book. And yet today’s generations may be even more self-sacrificing than that one was.

“As loudly as their contributions resound in history, two-thirds of them were drafted,” Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) notes in his book “Knife Fights.” He adds, “This new greatest generation has fought longer if not harder than its grandparents did, and all have been volunteers.”

Nagl was writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can add the battle against Covid-19 in there as well. Younger people were at little risk from the virus, yet volunteered to stay home to bend the curve and help their elders.

When this virus passes, the United States will quickly look very different. The very pace of change will be an opportunity. It’s time to embrace that change. As those younger generations rise, we can be assured the United States is in great hands.

A Paucity of Scarcity

By Rich Tucker

Policymakers are always ready to pass out “emergency” money, making Washington, D.C. the lender of last resort. What if it runs out of money?

(First published at TheHill.com)

Economics is the study of scarcity. Resources are limited. Human desires are unlimited.

But while the laws of economics haven’t been repealed, it is clear that Americans don’t think much of the idea of scarcity. We prefer to focus on prosperity. Start with spending, which is abundant, both by consumers and governments.

Until recently, lawmakers in both parties preached the need for the government to show financial restraint. To be fair, for decades they never followed through on that rhetoric. But they liked to talk about reducing spending and trimming deficits. During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, Barack Obama declared himself in favor of a “net spending cut.”

In 2010, he appointed a bipartisan commission led by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles. “This can’t be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem,” the president announced in his State of the Union address. “The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline.”

But when the commission did make recommendations, everyone in power in Washington simply ignored it.

They’re still ignoring the deficit. Consider the big “compromise” lawmakers agreed to last year. Republicans kept the tax cuts they’d enacted in 2017, and Congress agreed to spend $320 billion more over the next two years. Lawmakers also lifted budget caps during that time. The annual deficit neared $1 trillion in 2019, and will soar higher in this fiscal year. The only thing scarce in D.C. is fiscal discipline.

This matters, because everyone looks to the federal government to step in during emergencies.

When banks seemed on the verge of collapse in 2008, it was Uncle Sam that ponied up, whether banks wanted the money or not. A decade later, the “too big to fail” banks are even bigger: S&P Global found Wells Fargo is 300 percent larger, J.P. Morgan has doubled and Bank of America is 50 percent larger.

Meanwhile, for weather disasters, farm subsidies, or an upcoming census, policymakers are always ready to pass out “emergency” money, making Washington, D.C. the lender of last resort.

But failures are looming: Social Security, for example, is set to run out of money in 15 years, even as American life expectancy approaches 80 years, up by a decade since 1960. Yet there’s no political urgency to address this; Americans just seem to assume scarcity won’t be a problem for Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Another way scarcity could come back to bite is if it causes a drop in consumer spending, which goes up month after month and year after year. Consumer spending is two-thirds of the American economy. Just as with the government, a share of that spending is borrowed money. As of 2018, the average American had about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgage debt. That is $13.21 trillion that year, accounting for about two-thirds of the entire economy ($20.55 trillion).

Only about a quarter of us claimed to carry “no debt” in 2018. Most Americans admit they couldn’t raise $400 in case of an emergency. And while the government may be too big to fail, individual households can, and do, fail all the time.  

As usual, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was ahead of his time on this. “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity,” King wrote in 1967.

That quote encapsulates the hubris of the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson promised Americans that we had such abundance, we could have both guns and butter. Instead, we ended up with “stagflation.”  King is correct that the upper classes are doing well. Today we have more millionaires and billionaires than ever before.

Still, scarcity hadn’t vanished in the 1960s, and it hasn’t vanished today. We ignore that at our peril.

Start With the Positives to Rebuild America

by Rich Tucker

It’s important to figure out where American jobs went, but even more important to figure out how to get them back. Or at least how to help the people who’ve lost them.

(FIRST PUBLISHED AT THEHILL.COM)

In my home town, there are many carousels.

Six, to be exact. They exist because a man named George F. Johnson ran a shoe company. Maybe you’ve worn E-J (Endicott-Johnson) footwear. The company employed hundreds of thousands of people in the Binghamton, New York region. The Johnson family also believed in “welfare capitalism.” In addition to free merry-go-rounds, E-J profits funded schools, parks and a hospital.

The factories are empty now, undone by competition from overseas. E-J was replaced as a major employer by IBM. Then, by the late 1980s, that came to stand for “I’ve Been Moved” as that company shipped jobs out of the area. Now IBM is gone as well, leaving empty facilities and a “plume” of groundwater pollution it will cost millions to clean up.

It’s important to figure out where American jobs went, but even more important to figure out how to get them back. Or at least how to help the people who’ve lost them. After all, we can’t all move to Brooklyn; some of us have to be able to shelter in place. Perhaps residents in troubled regions could even deliver positive changes on their own.

Where to begin? Start small.

In their book “Switch,” authors Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of Miner County, South Dakota. By 1995, the region was shrinking as “farm and industrial jobs had slowly dried up.” When young people “got old enough, they left and didn’t return.” But it didn’t need to be that way.

Students at a local high school launched a campaign aimed at reversing the decline. They called it “Let’s keep Miner dollars in Miner County.” The students calculated that if residents “spent just 10 percent more of their disposable income at home, they would boost the local economy by $7 million.”

They ended up doing much better than that. A year after the campaign started, the state calculated that the amount spent in the county had jumped by $15.6 million. That helped local businesses, of course. But it also increased tax revenues, making more money available for other projects. Instead of a death spiral, Miner County started spinning up.

In local communities today, people could start by shopping at a local grocery instead of a dollar store. Then eating at a local restaurant instead of a chain. That would begin to keep more local money circulating locally. Then, they must find ways to keep more people around.

In their book “Our Towns,” Jim and Deborah Fallows write that successful areas usually have a major research university nearby. Well, Binghamton University is one of the top New York State schools. But students usually get their degrees and leave the area.

Give more of those grads a reason to stay (the way technology grads often remain near Boston and Palo Alto after graduation) and the area might find itself playing host to the next big thing. It’s worth noting that, in their book “Jump-Starting America,” economists Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson list the Binghamton-Ithaca region in the top-10 for potential development.

Of course, you can also try to compete on beer. Brewpubs won’t change everything, but having some helps; the Fallows book notes that the presence of a craft brewery is a sign of a healthy community. So it’s good news that small breweries are popping up in communities nationwide. Let’s all drink to that.

Finally, think really big. Warehouse big.

The Binghamton area, like many places throughout the U.S., is blessed with superhighways, railroads, and affordable land. There are plenty of places for more inland ports. As long as a region is within a three-hour drive of a major city, where shoppers are hungering for same-day delivery, it could be home to massive fulfillment centers. Failing malls, once the center of suburban life and now eyesores, could be converted to data centers. Or they could become places to store and ship goods for e-commerce.

Weather forecasters have all the available information, and yet they still sometimes end up caught in downpours. Americans can’t know what the future will hold, but we can still try to shape it with development that would generate jobs and drive innovation. There’s no reason the future can’t be bright, all across the fruited plain.

Pope Francis and American Conservatism

By Mike Frates

Modern American conservatism represents a triumph of the rich and powerful over all who remain in this country.

“Pure Marxism,” decried Rush Limbaugh in response to Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, or the Joy of the Gospel. Bill O’Reilly later said that Jesus, “wouldn’t be down,” with giving food stamps to the drug addicted: “If you’re an [addict] and you can’t hold a job, and you can’t support your children, … then you’re bringing the havoc. You’re asking people who may be struggling themselves to put food on the table to give their tax money to you, … and then you’re going to buy booze and drugs with it.” It looks like Pope Francis has rattled a few conservative cages with his new emphasis on the plight of the poor. Let me offer one reason why.

John Locke once famously suggested we are born but blank slates, and our conception of the world around us is nothing more than the sum total of our experiences imprinting themselves on that slate. Can you feel the passivity in those words? This particular theory went on to have a major impact in the 20th century, especially in the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner figured, “Why stop at knowledge?” All of human behavior, Skinner thought, could be explained by how we respond to our environment leaving the individual’s role in this analysis more of an empty vessel.

Skinner was wrong, very wrong, and a young man from MIT, Noam Chomsky, made a name for himself in 1967 when he published an academic paper blowing Skinnerian Behaviorism out of the water. Skinner’s Behaviorism was a major theory in 20th century psychology, and, as a result, had a reasonably far-reaching impact on other disciplines. One example was its impact on the Nature/Nurture debate. Much of what we understand about human nature today comes to us through that debate. Nature/Nurture asks, “What role does the environment play in shaping our destiny as opposed to the genes with which our ancestors provided us.”

This is a very touchy argument. Since the dawn of science, racists have been using the “pro-gene” (Nature) argument to make the case that certain cultures, or peoples, are inherently inferior to others. The 19th century actually had a name for it: “The White Man’s Burden.” Liberals gravitated toward the environmental (Nurture) conclusion because it gave rise to an egalitarianism they were more comfortable with. It turns out that the truth is something in between, slightly favoring our genes, but we also have learned that the strong role our genes play needn’t give rise to those ridiculous racist arguments.

Here’s where it gets interesting. This conversation triggers a principle that philosophers call, “agency.” If we can take a child of any pedigree, and turn her into a sinner or a saint, a doctor or a thief, based solely upon what environment she’s subject to (an inner-city ghetto or elite private schools), exactly what room is left for “personal responsibility?” The choices she’s making are defined by her environment. She’s reacting, albeit with a textured richness commensurate with the complexity of her brain, but reacting nonetheless.

Sure, she can choose between reading the New York Times and the Washington Post on any given morning, but her environment has defined the limits of her world as well as her idea of right and wrong just as it has from culture to culture and age to age since the dawn of time. Behaviorism fell by the wayside, but the independent science behind Nurture remained strong.

Modern American conservatism represents a triumph of the rich and powerful over all who remain in this country. Our proud progressive roots, from FDR to the Great Society, evidenced a strong Christian morality for caring for the most vulnerable among us while, at the same time, recognizing that without middle-class labor the rich and powerful in this country would have nothing. The wealthy now had to distract the middle class while they dismantled this tradition.

They chose a divide a conquer strategy, but to succeed – to pit the middle class against the poor – the poor could not simply be victims of their own circumstance. They had to be at fault. They had to bear the blame for the very poverty that shackles them. We live in a capitalist system that has a built in, “structural,” unemployment rate. When everything is working great, this system guarantees an impoverished underclass. Meanwhile, there are CEOs in this country at the helm of multi-million or multi-billion dollar corporations who will die of lung cancer because they can’t quit smoking.

When the poor lose their battle against the mental health and drug addiction issues that bedevil them, we throw them in jail. When the rich and powerful succumb to their own avarice, we bail them out, give them a tax break and send them on their way. Pope Francis hasn’t just embraced the original teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by pointing to Republican policies such as supply-side economics as the cause of the problem, he’s warming the glue that binds together an entire power structure.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, December 12, 2013.