Author Archive: Mark Tiedemann

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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How We Got Here: Conclusion

March 14, 2011 | By | Reply More
How We Got Here: Conclusion

In an earlier post on this topic I made the claim that the thing which changed everything in this country was the rise of capitalism as the dominant economic model. It’s time to make good on that claim.

Firstly, we need to understand, once and for all, just what Capitalism is and how it is misunderstood in these sorts of discussions.

Capitalism is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of practices under one general heading, practices like mercantilism, industrialization, and interest-based lending. But to be precise, all these different practices overlap but are not themselves capitalism.

Capitalism is the strategic use of money to determine the value of money and thereby transfer latent wealth from one sector of an economy to another.

This simple distinction does much to explain the animosity throughout the 19th Century toward any kind of centralized bank, including the Jacksonian war on the United States Bank, and Jeffersonian suspicion of corporate power. It is nothing less than the ability of a small group to determine the value of local currency and the buying power of a community, all through the manipulation of currency exchange markets (like Wall Street), regardless of intrinsic values of manufactures and production.

But we have so conflated this with all other aspects of our much-vaunted “free” enterprise system that to criticize capitalism is seen as an attack on the American Way of Life. It is not. Although many Left attacks on it become hopelessly mired in broad attacks on wealth, it is not so much an attack on wealth per se—that is, wealth based on the prosperity of a community—but wealth derived at the expense of the community.

Which is what we are seeing take place today. Which has taken place often in our history.

The difficulty is, this has been one of the most successful economic systems ever for creating prosperity, especially for the individual who understands it and works it, and, if properly regulated, has been the foundation of American achievement, at least materially. So any critique can be made to seem like a critique of America itself. This fact has been useful to plutocrats defending their practices against attempts to rein in and control abuses. The coupling of what in extremes are parasitic practices of economic pillage with grass roots patriotism has been the most difficult combination to deal with in our history. In its contemporary guise, it couches itself in an argument that socially responsible community-based efforts to address economic and resource inequality are Socialist and therefore fundamentally un-American. This is historically inaccurate and strategically manipulative, but the bounds between the anti-federalist sentiments that began even before the revolution and became quasi-religious among certain groups in the aftermath of the Civil War are many and strange and need teasing apart to understand.

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How We Got Here: The Debate II

March 9, 2011 | By | Reply More
How We Got Here: The Debate II

To continue…

The Whiskey Rebellion more or less blew up in Alexander Hamilton’s face. The tax he pushed through congress on whiskey that triggered the entire affair was shortly thereafter repealed and it was a while before the federal government tried to impose internal taxes. One of the stated goals of the revolution was to end taxation without representation, but in practical terms this meant an end to taxation, period.

The federal government used tariffs and land sales to pay off the debt incurred by the revolutionary war. Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana was still done by a combination of the two plus borrowing. Generally, tariffs were kept low, to encourage volume of trade. Some high tariffs were employed in the 1820s and 1830s as protectionist measures to level the field with Britain, which was in the midst of its “workshop of the world” period. The South hated these tariffs because it raised the price of manufactures and shipping, which impacted on their trade which was almost entirely agricultural.

It was different in the states. Property taxes early became a source of state revenue. The definition of “property” for the purposes of such taxes stretched far beyond the bounds we would recognize or accept today and under Jackson came to include just about anything a person owned. Local reaction to such impositions varied by city and state, but rarely rose to the level of rebellion.

Federal internal taxes did not come into play until the Civil War. The need to raise revenue in huge amounts and quickly necessitated the creation of the first income tax, among others, including a vast array of excise taxes and licensing. There were special corporate taxes, stamp taxes for legal documents, and inheritance taxes.

Most of these were phased out after the Civil War. Interestingly, the Republicans—a new party formed just before the Civil War which became the second national party, supplanting the archaic Whigs—kept two elements of the new tax system: high tariffs and taxes on liquor and tobacco. High tariffs were protectionist measures. The excises on liquor and tobacco were not greatly challenged because they coincided with the growing Temperance Movement, which was becoming politically significant.

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How We Got Here: the Debate I

March 6, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
How We Got Here: the Debate I

This will be a rather lengthy piece. It is my intention here to examine the historical underpinnings of what is happening today in the fight between the Right and everyone else. This will be part one of a two-part essay. Bear with me, it all does lead somewhere.

The talking heads have been bloviating for decades now about the function of government vis a vis a so-called Welfare State. The Right claims that having the government “take care of” people is a violation of the American tradition of independence and self-reliance and will sap our resources, both fiscal and moral. The Left has argued that such government programs are there to protect people who have few resources from the depredations of the wealthy and an economy that fluctuates as a normal element of its functioning and that it is the responsibility of the better-off to aid those who are left without recourse in such a system.

That’s the basics of the debate. The Right says no, people should look out for themselves. The Left says many people can’t and it isn’t right to let them starve in the streets. The Right says it has no desire to see anyone starve in the streets but rejects the idea that others are responsible for the perhaps bad choices of individuals who have been unable to take advantage of an open system. The Left counters by pointing out the system is not as open as the Right believes and built in to its workings is the inevitability that a certain number of people simply won’t be able to participate. Even if the Right then agrees, they assert that it is not the job of the State, using tax payer money, to off-set this imbalance. The Left says it is if people vote for it and even if they don’t there’s a moral imperative involved. The Right counters that the State is not the instrument for pursuing moral imperatives.

Well.

Let me be up front here—I think the Right has it wrong. They base their philosophy, if that’s what it is, on an idea of equality that is unsupportable. In the narrowest sense, they argue that our system is open to the extent that everyone has an equal shot at some measure of success and if they fail it is either because they were lazy, foolish, or unlucky. The government can functionally do nothing about any of that.

The argument falls apart on its face. Equality in this country is a principle concerning representation before the State. The State in this sense is the community as a whole, both public and private. The ideas that we are not born to a Station in life which determines at the outset how far an individual might go through his or her own efforts. It was never intended as an assessment of talent or a measure of will or a guarantee of achievement. It is only a promise of access. Because people are not equal as individuals.

They aren’t and there’s not much point in arguing about it. Intelligence, physical attributes, proclivities, all these things vary widely throughout any population group and to argue that, if somehow we could take away all social obstacles, everyone would be exactly the same is absurd.

The Right seems to argue that because this is true, the rest of us have no responsibility for the fundamentally unequal achievements of any one, or group of, individual. They discount social obstacles. Not completely, because when an individual rises above a certain level, reaches the precincts of success, and has done so from straitened beginnings, many on the Right like to point to that individual as an exemplar of succeeding in spite of the circumstances of his or her life. So there is a tacit recognition that social conditions matter, but only as an ennobling aspect to a Horatio Alger story. The question really is why those conditions keep so many others down, but that, as much as the successful individual’s achievement is credited to personal qualities, is a matter of personal failure, not attributable to anyone else.

Which seems to make success and failure a matter of choice. Exclusively. Ergo, the tax payer, through the medium of the State, has no responsibility for such failures.

This can only be true if the assertion of equality is true as an innate quality.

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We Are Not Parts

February 21, 2011 | By | 13 Replies More
We Are Not Parts

I’ll admit up front that I’m shooting from the hip here. There are many aspects to what is happening in Wisconsin right now with parallels to several past instances in the country in the fight over workers’ rights, unions, and moneyed interests, but I frankly don’t have the time to research them all right now and get something up before it all comes to a head.

Isn’t it interesting, though, that we are collectively cheering what is happening in the Middle East right now and something similar is happening right here and people don’t seem to be paying attention to what’s at stake?

I grant you, it’s a stretch. But on principles, not so much. We’re talking about who has the right to speak to power and over what. The protesters in Madison aren’t having their internet access and phone service pulled and it’s doubtful the military will be called in, but on the other hand the Wisconsin state police are being asked to go get the now-labeled Wisconsin 14 and bring them back to the state capitol to vote on something that is clearly a stripping of the right of petition and assembly. So this can become very quickly a constitutional issue and that’s scary, because right now the Supreme Court has been decidedly against workers’ rights.

Governor Scott is at least being clear. I’ll give him credit, he’s not ducking questions about what he’s trying to do. Wisconsin, like many states, has a budget crisis. He’s already gotten concessions from the unions, a lot of money. The unions have not balked at doing their civic duty in terms of agreeing to pay cuts, freezes on raises, and some concessions on benefits to help the state meet its budgetary responsibilities. But he’s going further and asking that all these unions be stripped of their collective bargaining abilities in order to make sure they never again demand something from the state that the legislature or the governor believes they don’t deserve. In other words, Governor Scott doesn’t ever want to have to sit down and ask them for concessions ever again—he wants to be able to just take what he wants.

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Because Sometimes Things Are Forgotten That Shouldn’t Be

February 7, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Because Sometimes Things Are Forgotten That Shouldn’t Be

This is a completely personal anecdote, so take it for what it’s worth. This is about a defining moment for me in my education as an egalitarian.

Equality is something we talk about, we assume to be the case for everyone, and never really question. Here, it’s the air we breathe. It’s not true. We are not all equal. And in spite of our all our lip service to the idea of equality under the law or the equality of opportunity, we all know, if we’re honest, that we’re still trying to get to that level. Probably it’s a function of how well we think our lives are at any given moment. “If I’m doing all right, there’s no problem. What are those people over there complaining about? I don’t see anything wrong with my life.”

Well.

This is about gender equality. It’s one of the most under-considered things in our present world. I saw a PBS special last week about early television and on it Angie Dickinson was talking about her series Police Woman. Breakthrough television. It had been the first dramatic tv show since the mid-60s to be headed by a female in prime time. It was shortly before Charlie’s Angels and a decade after both Honey West and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. During the interview, Dickinson commented that the feminists had been angry with her because she hadn’t used the show as a statement for the cause. She defended herself by declaring that she was feminine not a feminist—as if being a feminist were somehow a bad thing, a dirty word, a slur.

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The Past As Spin

January 26, 2011 | By | 9 Replies More
The Past As Spin

Representative Michelle Bachman is the national voice of The Tea Party. Recently, in speaking to a group of Iowans, she made some claims about American history that would be laughable if they had not come from someone who likes to style herself an authority of Constitutional matters. She claimed that the glory of our country is that color and language didn’t matter, nor did class or parentage, that once people got here, “we were all the same.”

Wishful thinking at best. Certainly that was the idea behind the Declaration of Independence, with its grand opening phrases, but like all such ambitions, it took reality a long, long time to catch up—and it still hasn’t. The fact is, despite our stated political and social goals, immigrants have always had difficulty upon arriving here, some more than others, and those already here have always resented new arrivals. And even for those who were already living here, equality was simply not a reality. African slaves aside, women did not achieve equality until…well, some would say they’re still trying to achieve it, but just for one metric, they didn’t get the vote until 1921. People who owned no property were barred from the vote for a good portion of the 19th Century and other barriers were put up here and there, time and again, such as literacy tests. Anything to keep certain groups from being able to vote against the self-selected “true” Americans.

She went further, though, and suggested that slavery was an unfortunate holdover from colonial times and that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was gone from the United States.” She cited John Quincey Adams, who was a staunch campaigner against slavery. The problem, though, is that he was not a Founder. He was the son of one.

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Taking Cues

January 11, 2011 | By | 10 Replies More
Taking Cues

In the last post, I opined about the atmosphere in the country generated by overheated rhetoric and the irrationality that has resulted from seemingly intransigent positions. Some of the responses I received to that were of the “well, both sides do it” variety (which is true to an extent, but I think beside the point) and the “you can’t legislate civility or impose censorship” stripe.

As it is developing, the young man who attempted to murder Representative Gifford—and succeeded in killing six others—appears to be not of sound mind. We’re getting a picture of a loner who made no friends and indulged in a distorted worldview tending toward the paranoid. How much of his actions can be laid on politics and how much on his own obsessions is debatable. Many commentators very quickly tried to label him a right-winger, based largely on the political climate in Arizona and that he targeted a moderate, “blue dog” Democrat. This in the context of years of shrill right-wing political rhetoric that fully employs a take-no-prisoner ethic, including comments from some Tea Party candidates about so-called Second Amendment solutions. It’s looking like trying to label this man’s politics will be next to impossible and, as I say, if he is mentally unbalanced, what real difference does that make? (Although to see some people say “Look, he’s a Lefty, one of his favorite books is Mein Kampf ” is in itself bizarre—how does anyone figure Mein Kampf indicates leftist political leanings? Because the Nazis were “National Socialists”? Please.)

Whatever the determination of Mr. Loughner’s motives may turn out to be, his actions have forced the topic of political stupidity and slipshod rhetoric to the forefront, at least until Gabrielle Gifford is out of danger of dying. Regardless of his influences, in this instance he has served as the trigger for a debate we have been needing to have for decades. This time, hopefully, it won’t be shoved aside after a few well-meaning sound-bites from politicians wanting to appear sensitive and concerned, only to have everyone go right back to beating each other bloody with nouns and verbs.

But while it may be fair to say that Mr. Loughner is unbalanced and might have gone off and shot anyone, the fact is he shot a politician, one who had been targeted by the Right. Perhaps the heated rhetoric did not make Mr. Loughner prone to violence, but what about his choice of victims?

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Our JFK Moment?

January 9, 2011 | By | 25 Replies More
Our JFK Moment?

We finally have our Kennedy Moment in the current political climate. Saturday, January 8th, 2011, is likely to go down as exactly that in the “Where were you when?” canon.  On that day, Jared Lee Loughner, age 22, went on a shooting rampage at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and […]

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Scalia’s Problem

January 4, 2011 | By | 11 Replies More
Scalia’s Problem

Recently, Justice Antonin Scalia shot his mouth off about another bit of “social” judicial opinion and managed to be correct to a fault again. Here is the article. Basically, he is of the opinion that if a specific term or phrase does not appear in the Constitution, then that subject is simply not covered. Most famously, this goes to the continuing argument over privacy. There is, by Scalia’s reasoning (and I must add he is by no means alone in this—it is not merely his private opinion), no Constitutionally-protected right to privacy.

As far as it goes, this is correct, but beside the point. The word “private” certainly appears, in the Fifth Amendment, and it would seem absurd to suggest the framers had no thought for what that word meant. It refers here to private property, of course, but just that opens the debate to the fact that there is a concept of privacy underlying it.

The modern debate over privacy concerns contraception and the first case where matters of privacy are discussed is Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965. That case concerned the right of a married couple to purchase and use contraception, which was against the law in that state (and others). The Court had to define an arena of privacy within which people enjoy a presumed right of autonomous decision-making and into which the state had no brief to interfere. Prior to this, the Court relied on a “freedom of contract” concept to define protected areas of conduct. Notice, we’re back in the realm of property law here.

People who insist that there is no “right to privacy” that is Constitutionally protected seem intent on dismissing any concept of privacy with which they disagree, but no doubt would squeal should their own self-defined concept be violated. Therein lies the problem, one we continue to struggle with. But it does, at least in Court tradition, come down to some variation of ownership rights—which is what has made the abortion debate so difficult, since implicit in it is the question of whether or not a woman “owns” her body and may therefore, in some construction of freedom of contract, determine its use under any and all circumstances.

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