Happy Presidents’ Day

Today is Presidents’ Day, which began as an amalgamation of George Washington’s birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but now is nobody’s birthday but just honors our chief executives.  So let’s take a pause from the current presidential campaign to discuss the institution itself.

Is it wise to have the same person be head of state and the  head of the executive branch?

Most democracies today have a Prime Minister as chief executive, who is the head of the party that has the majority in the legislature.  Is that better than our elected Presidents?  If not, why are Prime Ministers more common in modern governments?

Do our presidents have too much power or not enough?

What does it mean to be “presidential”?

Who do you think was our greatest president? The top five?

 

Is the U.S. Constitution obsolete?

[An earlier version of this post went up with just the raw quotation and with my introduction, edits, and commentary  not showing up, for some reason.  Sorry for the confusion.]

Conservatives worry that the U. S. Constitution is being ignored.  The next step is for the Constitution to be spoken against and then repudiated.  That seems to be happening, even by a Supreme Court Justice!  In the meantime, the rest of the world has stopped imitating America’s constitutional system, which, in many people’s minds does not parcel out enough rights, and the rights it does recognize are the wrong ones:

In a television interview during a visit to Egypt last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court seemed to agree [with the irrelevance of the Constitution to new nations today]. “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” she said. She recommended, instead, the South African Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights.

The rights guaranteed by the American Constitution are parsimonious by international standards, and they are frozen in amber. As Sanford Levinson wrote in 2006 in “Our Undemocratic Constitution,” “the U.S. Constitution is the most difficult to amend of any constitution currently existing in the world today.” (Yugoslavia used to hold that title, but Yugoslavia did not work out.)

Other nations routinely trade in their constitutions wholesale, replacing them on average every 19 years. By odd coincidence, Thomas Jefferson, in a 1789 letter to James Madison, once said that every constitution “naturally expires at the end of 19 years” because “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” These days, the overlap between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and those most popular around the world is spotty.

Americans recognize rights not widely protected, including ones to a speedy and public trial, and are outliers in prohibiting government establishment of religion. But the Constitution is out of step with the rest of the world in failing to protect, at least in so many words, a right to travel, the presumption of innocence and entitlement to food, education and health care.

It has its idiosyncrasies. Only 2 percent of the world’s constitutions protect, as the Second Amendment does, a right to bear arms. (Its brothers in arms are Guatemala and Mexico.) . . . .

“America is in danger, I think, of becoming something of a legal backwater,” Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia said in a 2001 interview. He said that he looked instead to India, South Africa and New Zealand.

Mr. Barak, for his part, identified a new constitutional superpower: “Canadian law,” he wrote, “serves as a source of inspiration for many countries around the world.” The new study also suggests that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982, may now be more influential than its American counterpart.

The Canadian Charter is both more expansive and less absolute. It guarantees equal rights for women and disabled people, allows affirmative action and requires that those arrested be informed of their rights. On the other hand, it balances those rights against “such reasonable limits” as “can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

via ‘We the People’ Loses Appeal With People Around the World – NYTimes.com.

I suspect that in the years ahead, since nations come and go, that eventually we will be hearing calls to eliminate our obsolete constitution in favor of something new.   The new constitution will feature new rights (to food?  to health care? to travel?), but other rights will pass away–the right to keep and bear arms will be sure to go.  Also, if Canada is to be our guide, the right to express criticisms of Islam.  And we can be sure that there will be lots of other “reasonable limits” to what we will be allowed to do.

I am a bad American

I did not watch the Superbowl.  I turned my back on America’s great unifying festival, in which citizens of all political persuasions, subcultures,  creeds, and no-creeds set aside their differences for one night of football, snacks, and television commercials.  I really have no excuse.  My heart hasn’t been in football since the Packers flamed out, and I know that I would just torment myself with thoughts of what might have been.  The half-time extravaganzas nearly always annoy me, and the prospect of Madonna putting on a show filled me with dismay.  And watching the game solely to see the commercials would fill me with self-loathing.  So I did something else.  I am one of the few Americans to sink so low–I hope for my country’s sake that I am the only American to remain aloof from our moment of national unity.

So what did I miss?

Calls for an American dictator

George Will notes progressivism’s impatience–”We can’t wait!” in the words of President Obama’s campaign–which manifests itself in an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to get around them.

His column, which I also posted about yesterday, includes some interesting quotations from journalists during the depression of the 1930s who were actually calling for a dictatorship:

Commonweal, a magazine for liberal Catholics, said that Roosevelt should have “the powers of a virtual dictatorship to reorganize the government.” Walter Lippmann, then America’s preeminent columnist, said: “A mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead.” The New York Daily News, then the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper, cheerfully editorialized: “A lot of us have been asking for a dictator. Now we have one. . . . It is Roosevelt. . . . Dictatorship in crises was ancient Rome’s best era.” The New York Herald Tribune titled an editorial “For Dictatorship if Necessary.”

via Obama follows the progressive president’s model of martial language – The Washington Post.

As we face our national problems, economic and otherwise, we must take care not to jettison our liberties in a panicked  desire for the government to “do something.”

Who are the 1%?

Who are those 1% of the wealthiest Americans who allegedly are oppressing the rest of us? From Robert Samuelson:

In a study, economists Jon Bakija, Bradley Heim and Adam Cole break down the top 1 percent as follows: executives in nonfinancial companies, 30 percent; doctors, 14 percent; professionals in finance (banks, hedge funds, pension funds), 13 percent; lawyers, 8 percent; computer experts and engineers, 4 percent; sales workers, 4 percent; sports, entertainment and media stars, 2 percent. The rest include farmers, management consultants, real estate developers and scientists.

Also, it turns out that the membership in that group keeps changing.  From John Q. Wilson:

The “rich” in America are not a monolithic, unchanging class. A study by Thomas A. Garrett, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, found that less than half of people in the top 1 percent in 1996 were still there in 2005. Such mobility is hardly surprising: A business school student, for instance, may have little money and high debts, but nine years later he or she could be earning a big Wall Street salary and bonus.

Mobility is not limited to the top-earning households. A study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that nearly half of the families in the lowest fifth of income earners in 2001 had moved up within six years. Over the same period, more than a third of those in the highest fifth of income-earners had moved down. Certainly, there are people such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who are ensconced in the top tier, but far more common are people who are rich for short periods.

via Angry about inequality? Don’t blame the rich. – The Washington Post.

This isn’t to feel sorry for them.  Can we tax these people to end the deficit and fund all kinds of  wonderful things as the president and other Democrats are advocating with the so-called “Buffett tax”?  More from Samuelson (who favors the tax):

In September, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 10-year deficit at $8.5 trillion. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation estimates that a Buffett Tax might now raise $40 billion annually. Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal group, estimates $50 billion. With economic growth, the 10-year total might optimistically be $600 billion to $700 billion. It would be a tiny help; that’s all.

The rise of American emotionalism

In the context of discussing an embarrassing video in which a hysterical fan blames the playoff loss of the Green Bay Packers on the fact that she wore sparkly nail polish, Ed Driscoll quotes a passage from David Frum’s  How We Got Here: The ‘70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better Or Worse:

What an amazing turn of events. Only a generation before, the United States had been the homeland of efficiency and practicality, a country so uncongenial to dreamers, artists, and poets that they fled for Europe as soon as they could scrape together the boat-fare. And yet, if we cast our mind back only a little further, the turn of events might not seem so amazing after all. The “Oprah-ization” of public life is usually talked of as it were a brand-new thing. It is in reality the return of something antique. A hundred years ago, middle-class life in Britain and America was bathed in the gush of emotions. Reread the poetry of Swinburne or the orations of Daniel Webster, glance at the paintings of Frederick Leighton or old photographs of the obsequies of General Grant if you doubt it. The wry, laconic anti-emotionalism of a Jimmy Stewart or a Prince Philip is a last relic of the early-twentieth-century reaction against the overwrought romanticism of the Victorians. Bob Dole brought to his political speeches the same sensibility that Ernest Hemingway brought to his novels. Hemingway’s generation had learned in the fire and slaughter of the First World War to mistrust the man who put his hand on his heart while wiping a tear from his eye. Frederick Lewis Allen recalled the terse manners of his contemporaries: “During the whole three years and eight months that the United States fought [the Second World War], there was no antiwar faction, no organized pacifist element, no objection to huge appropriations, no noticeable opposition to the draft. Yet there was also a minimum of crusading spirit…. They”—the men and women of the 1940s—“didn’t want to be victims of ‘hysteria.’ They felt uncomfortable about flag-waving. They preferred to be matter-of-fact about the job ahead…. These people were unstintedly loyal, and went to battle—or saw their brothers and sons go—without reservation; yet they remained emotionally on guard…. disillusioned and deadpan. …”

We think now of the dislike of emotional fuss and show as generically old-fashioned. It is probably truer to say that the laconic style we associate with the GI generation came into fashion in the 1920s and went out in the 1970s, to be replaced by a style reminiscent of the moist, voluptuous sentimentality of a hundred years ago, with the teary television interview replacing black crepe. This was the style of the two party conventions in 1996. It is the style of the most-talked-about mass movement of the 1990s, the evangelical Promise Keepers, who brought stadiums full of middle-aged husbands and fathers together to weep and hug. It is the style of contemporary American evangelicalism. And it is the style of the most successful politicians of the age—the Bill Clintons and the Tony Blairs—as they explain how this or that policy will “save the life of a child.” The gurus of the 1970s taught, and we today still seem to believe, that to delve honestly into one’s feelings requires one to shut down the analytical lobes of the mind. “People often talk about wanting to be spontaneous, to live out of their feelings,” reported the authors of How to Be Your Own Best Friend. “They have locked themselves into intellectual boxes, where they hardly know what they feel any more. They become desperate to experience plain, simple emotion. They think if they could throw away their minds, they would be free.”

via PJ Lifestyle » How Sparkly Nail Polish Doomed the Green Bay Packers.


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