Sunday, August 28, 2011

Whittaker Chambers - Friend or Foe?

In the complex world of counter-espionage and double-agents, it is difficult to sort out who is on whose side. Whittaker Chambers, technically a member of the Communist Party and paid by the Soviet Union to undermine and sabotage the U.S. government, is remembered largely as a friend to the United States, because he eventually helped expose the spy rings operated in America. The Washington Times writes that Chambers

is remembered for testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 about the penetration of the Soviet spy apparatus into the highest level of the U.S. government. He detailed his own involvement as a courier for the communists and fingered Alger Hiss - a friend, former State Department official and (at the time of Chambers' accusation) president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - as a fellow operative.

The evidence against Alger Hiss was both shocking and undeniable: not only an employee of the federal government, but one who had access and influence in foreign affairs. In the course of revealing evidence against Hiss, Whittaker Chambers lost his career and reputation. Spies are useless, once they have revealed themselves in public. Chambers told about his activities in court, sacrificing his career in order to protect America from Communist spies.

Chambers was viewed as a hero who stood up under considerable pressure, in a sense destroying himself in order to witness to the truth about an inhuman system that had beguiled many.

Whether in the year 1948, or in the year 2011, systems like Communism and Socialism present themselves as viable and kind-hearted options. One must look past the rhetoric about helping one's fellow human being (who could argue against that?) in order to see that these systems are built upon flawed assumptions about human nature, and are doomed, despite any good intentions, to become ruthless tyrannies.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Growth Resumes

After the Great Depression and WWII, the United States could look back on thirty-six difficult years (1929 - 1945). Resuming a peacetime economy, people were eager for prosperity. Cengage's history book tells us that

Newer U.S. industries, such as chemicals and electronics, quickly came to dominate the world marketplace. The Corning Glass Company reported that most of its sales during the mid-1950's came from products that had not even been on the market in 1940. General Electric proudly proclaimed that "progress is our most important product."

These advancements in technology led to changes in economics. The notions of "working class" and "middle class" and "upper class" were no longer quite accurate. Factory workers often enjoyed a middle class lifestyle, and people at all levels saw themselves as enjoying economic mobility - the opportunity to change their income levels. Given the high level of economic freedom, people often did not fit, or want to fit, into a simple 'class' structure of low, middle, and upper. Some ideologies, however, have been slow to grasp the waning of the class structure. Temple University's Mark Levin writes:

The Marxist class-struggle formulation, which pits the proletariat ("working class") against the bourgeoisie ("wealthy merchant class"), still serves as the principal theoretical and rhetorical justification for the Statist's assault on the free market. But it is an anathema to the free market in that the individual has unto himself the power to make of himself what he chooses. There is no static class structure layered atop the free market. The free market is a mutable, dynamic, and vibrant system of individual interactions that engages all aspects of the human character.

To maintain the freedom of individuals to shape their own economic roles, and with them, their cultural and social roles, depends upon a free market: allowing people to make decisions about buying and selling:

the free market is a vital bulwark against statism. And it would appear the Statist agrees, for he is relentless in his assault on it. Indeed, the Statist’s rejection of the Constitution’s limits on federal power is justified primarily, albeit not exclusively, on material grounds.

Although inefficient and indirect, allowing millions of people to make their own economic choices adds up to a whirlwind of business activity which ultimately brings prosperity to both the individual and the nation.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Making of a First Lady

While the wife of the president has no power or authority under the U.S. Constitution, she has long held an influential and symbolic role. One need only think of Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Jackie Kennedy to see this. What makes a successful First Lady? Barbara Bush writes that "one summer," as a graduate student at the University of Texas after completing her Bachelor's Degree, she

spent nearly every day reading the classics of Russian literature, traveling through the frigid, snow-laden novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

An appreciation for world literature is an important cultural skill, given that the First Lady is often involved in diplomatic receptions. While working on her Master's Degree, she recalls spending days in the library school,

a treasure trove of rare manuscripts from Shakespeare's First Folio to manuscripts by the Bronte sisters and John Keats and the page proofs from James Joyce's Ulysses. I was learning about the conservation of books in a place with some of the most beautiful pieces of literature in the world.

Representing, even if unofficially, the United States, the First Lady needs to be conversant with history and culture.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Clinton Applies Federalism

One of the successes, or apparent successes, of the Clinton administration was a welfare reform program, President Bill Clinton, according to Cengage's history book,

used his 1996 State of the Union address, his last before having to stand for reelection, to declare that "the era of big government is over" and began working with congressional Republicans to fulfill his goal of overhauling the social-welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) represented a series of compromises. Clinton voiced concern over cuts in the food stamp program and in benefits for recent immigrants, but he embraced the law's central feature. It replaced the AFDC program, which had long provided funds and services to poor families headed by single unemployed women, with a flexible system of block grants to individual states. The new program, entitled Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), allowed the fifty states to design, under general federal guidelines, their own welfare-to-work programs.

This move, as a political compromise, contained both good and bad. Allowing fifty different states to explore program possibilities allowed for expansive experimentation and creativity, much more than a rigidly-dictated program from the central government. There was also an attempt to change the emphasis from supporting families to empowering families to support themselves. Welfare program had previously done great damage, by intimating to men that they need not support their families - a man could father a child and leave, knowing that his family would be paid for by the government when he chose not to support them.

Both Clinton and the congressional Republicans took their cues from the federalist principle: the ability of the individual states to make their own decisions in certain matters. As Temple University's Mark Levin writes,

Whatever kind of experimentation states and local communities may engage in, it is correct to say that they serve as useful examples for adoption, modification, or rejection by other states and localities. In the 1980s, Oregon's welfare reform experiment was so successful that it became a model not only for other states, but also for the federal government. Milwaukee's experiment with school vouchers sparked similar efforts across the country. Experimentation properly understood is a dynamic characteristic of federalism, which exists among, between, and within the various states. That is not to say that all experimentation produces desirable results. When Maryland passed a computer-services tax, its burgeoning technology sector threatened to relocate to neighboring Virginia, which had no such tax. Maryland repealed the tax. But other states learned from Maryland's experience.

Whatever Clinton's motives - he certainly did not believe or agree with his own words about reducing the size of government, given that he endorsed a program of socialized health care - and whether or not the 1996 welfare reform was a success - the data are ambiguous - we can see the principle of federalism at work in this political event.