Friday, August 18, 2006


Before the CAFE Standards

I've been reading Joyce Chaplin's biography of Benjamin Franklin as scientist, The First Scientific American. The section on the Franklin stove is particularly interesting, as it turns out that Franklin's explanation of the design doubled as an opportunity to explain his theories on why heating air made it move. It was an elegant combination of the theoretical and the practical, and it made money too. (Well, not for Franklin. Although he didn't make it a general rule, he felt that it was improper to profit himself by his inventions.)

But what really caught my eye was his awareness of the impact of the growing American population on the forests. "As the Country is more clear'd and settled, [wood] will of course grow scarcer and dearer." An important advantage of the Franklin fireplace was that it consumed far less wood than ordinary fireplaces. Franklin noted that the alternative to striving for fuel efficiency was an expensive internal market for wood, or an expensive import traffic in coal from overseas. "We leave it to the Political Arithmetician to compute, how much Money will be sav'd to a Country, by its spending two thirds less of Fuel."

Franklin's pamphlet, Account of the New Invented Pennsylvanian Fire-Places, was published in 1744.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Searching for Democratic Roots

Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy concentrates on that period in American history during which the recognizable framework of the modern American political system developed. This includes the formation of the first loyal opposition party (by Jefferson and Madison), the formation of the populist Democratic party (by Jackson), and the formation of the modern Republican party (leading to the election of Lincoln). It's a useful resource for 'radical' Democrats, in the sense of those who are searching for the roots of the party's political stances.

I was struck by the timelessness of this statement of principle made by Andrew Jackson as part of his 1832 message accompanying his veto of the rechartering of the Bank of the United States:

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes… Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

A core mission of the Democratic party has always been to stand against the injustice of a Government that focuses on making "the rich richer and the potent more powerful."


Caution from a Conservative

"One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results." - Milton Friedman

Monday, August 14, 2006


Echoes of the Past

In the category of déjà vu all over again, we draw attention to the remarks of Daniel Webster, delivered in Congress in 1813, as the war began to turn sour.

Utterly astonished at the declaration of war, I have been surprised at nothing since. … Unless all history deceives me, I saw how it would be prosecuted when I saw how it was begun. There is in the nature of things and unchangeable relation between rash counsels and feeble execution.

(Annals of Congress, 13th Congress, 2nd session, pp. 943-944; as cited by Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, p. 159)

<>Webster’s dissatisfaction arose in part from the realization that one of the major presumptions of the initial war effort – that the invasion of Canada would be assisted by a substantial number of anti-British Canadians, who would flock to support the American forces, greeting them as liberators – was mostly wishful thinking.

(cross-posted from From the Rachel)

Saturday, August 12, 2006


A Historical Note

Several states (e.g., California and New York) have recently begun initiatives to regulate carbon emissions, thereby taking the initiative against global warming that has not been taken up by the industry-beholden Congress. Those of us who grew up during the battles for civil rights do not normally associate state legislatures with progressive vision. Yet, in the early days of the republic...

In 1792, James Madison (“A Candid State of Parties”, National Gazette, Sept. 26, 1792) was worried about the fledgling Republican party. Why, if the Republicans truly represented the interests of the majority - "the mass of people in every part of the union, in every state, and of every occupation" - why didn’t they win every election? Indeed, why couldn't they get their voters to the polls to turn out the rascally Federalists? Turnout in national elections was only 1 in 4 eligible voters, significantly lower than in state or local elections.

John Taylor (A Definition of Parties; or, The Effects of the Paper System Considered, Philadelphia, 1794) blamed the special interests. With the setting up of Hamilton's Bank of the United States, government securities were available not only for commercial activity, but also for speculation. Those who benefited from paper-based schemes were, according to Taylor, exercising undue influence over the Congress, and (by propaganda and patronage) over the electorate.

It's no wonder they're so good at it; they've had 220 years of practice!

Taylor's manuscript was well circulated in Virginia, and impressed such worthies as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. They paid particular heed to his recommended solution, which was to encourage the state legislatures to take a more active role in running the country. Of course, that was in a time when state legislatures could exert more control, through the election of senators and the selection of presidential electors.

Nowadays, the linkage is different, but the approach remains sensible. Control of the state legislature means control of redistricting, strong local organization means strong turnout, and so on. Not all politics is local, but the kind we can really have a say in is.

A sidenote: This rumination is rooted in further reading in Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy. I really like this book.

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