Friday, May 21, 2010

Assault of Thoughts - 5/22/2010

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" -JMK

- Matthew Yglesias criticizes conservative readings of the Commerce clause. More specifically, he puzzles over why conservatives would think their position is so self-evident. He hits a lot of the points that I often make with respect to the enumerated powers of Congress, but I would differ from him somewhat. I would agree that you have have to do some pretty exhausting mental gymnastics to come out with anything but a broad reading of (1.) the General Welfare clause (the first power granted to Congress), and (2.) the necessary and proper clause. Both of these are deliberately phrased in just about the broadest, most discretionary language you could come up with - the idea that they should be construed narrowly is hard to defend, particularly because they made liberal use of these powers in the early republic, in Congresses and during administrations lead by the founders themselves. However, I would depart from Yglesias on the Commerce clause, and I do agree that the default on this one should be a narrower reading. There's no reason it needs to be impotent, but I think the language of the Constitution makes fairly clear that it is only commerce that has substantial ramifications across states - commerce that would need to be made "regular" - that they have authority over.

- Evan has an interesting post up on how he views working on seemingly irrelevant, antiquarian problems in theology. I liked this insight the best:

"Narratives are things that you live into and out of- they provide conventions
for thought. They are the huge mass under the tip of the iceberg. There is no
urgency to exposing the details of a narrative; no apologetic goals are going to
be directly achieved by it. But the formative effect of forgettable events and
unimportant details is what colors our perception of the world with which we
engage, and in this sense the useless antiquarianisms are essential to the "real
work" of constructive discourse."
History of thought and history in general is always important and illuminating - it shows us how we got where we are. If we're lucky, we can learn lessons from history, but that's not always necessary.

- ThinkMarkets has a great post on the economics of the Twilight series. This also seems like it might be a decent explanation for some wage stickiness, although I'd have to think about it a little more.

- The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has a budget simulator online (HT - Cobb Dug Less). It's a neat exercise. As usual, I have to over-analyze. First, let me say that I stabilized the debt at 60% of GDP by 2024. But that was my first concern - why are we stabilizing the debt at this level? I suppose you have to pick something to make this a game. I reversed some, but not all of the tax cuts (reversed all of the high-income cuts and half of the rest). I did a lot of adjustments to Social Security and Medicare, but didn't really change the health reform too much (the changes I would have made weren't an option except for an all out repeal choice). I chose the VAT which helped me score a lot - you could tell they were pushing that. One question I had was whether your choices affected the denominator (GDP) as well as the debt. After all, I made a lot of my choices precisely because I thought they would improve GDP - a few of the tax cuts and credits, my choices on the stimulus, etc.. I'm not sure if I got "credit" for that or not.

- Sam at Lector et Auditor on the importance of conversation in a liberal education. I think it's a good point. I've realized that I'm not nearly as good expressing myself speaking as I am writing. I think this is probably fairly common, but when you spend so much of your time writing, it can be shocking to get up to speak or present and have such a struggle.


  1. "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;"

    If you consult the Federalist Papers (not exactly documents which win the debate, but important to consider) you will see conflicting interpretations of the clause. As for its practice in the early republic; following the election of 1800 the Hamiltonian perspective was rejected for roughly a generation (so you are wrong abouts its early use). In fact, it was not until the 1930s that the view of the clause that you are purporting here was recognized by the Supreme Court.

    "The Congress shall have Power - To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof."

    What this clause means has always been controversial; it was so during the period of writing and ratification of the Constitution, and it remained so throughout the 19th century. For example, while McCulloch vs. Maryland affirmed the broad view of the term; but President Jackson implicitly rejected that view when he crushed the second B.U.S.

  2. And of course, Patrick Henry viewed the second clause above as so broad so as to grant the federal government any power it chose; but the defenders of the Constitution prior to ratification argued that it was actually quite narrow.

    Not that any of this really matters; constitutions are really not any check on the majority over even short periods of time - as the numerous human rights abuses committed by the U.S. over time is an indication of.

  3. Anonymous -
    It's a nice rendition of high school history. I remember that case too. I guess we can just forget the Jefferson administration's push for roads and canals from the Atlantic through to the Ohio in 1802. This was pushed through by Jefferson and Republicans over Federalists who were claiming it was constitutional (an interesting pattern that would emerge a lot in American history - use the Constitution as a prop to stymie your political enemies). That's just one of the most famous episodes - we can also add the Massachusetts Canal, the Raritan Canal, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal, the Roanoke Great Falls Improvement, the Santee River Improvement, the James River Improvement, the Potomac River Improvement, the Shenandoah River Improvement, the Susquehanna River Improvement, the Ohio Falls Canal, the Hudson and Champlain Canal.... and what was that other appropriation of money for the General Welfare...


    These all saw the light of day to varying degrees, but they were all formulated and pushed by the Jefferson administration and Republicans in the Congress. I haven't even mentioned the national roads that the Republicans wanted to construct from Maine to Georgia at this point, of course. And that's just the Jefferson administration. Calhoun hasn't even taken center stage yet.

    And you'll want to consult Calhoun, among others, when you reconsider the extent to which this understanding of the Constitution was put off until the 1930s.

  4. *Federalists who were claiming it wasn't constitutional

  5. "And of course, Patrick Henry viewed the second clause above as so broad so as to grant the federal government any power it chose"

    No, not "any power". Discernment and deliberation are always necessary for a responsible republic. Although I agree with you - to the extent that discernment and deliberation are abandoned, you are going to have problems.

  6. There is no Massachusetts canal that I know of as such.

    Raritan Canal: built in the 1830s.

    Chesapeake and Delaware Canal: the federal government did not buy stock in such until the 1820s.

    Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal: this was not built until the 1850s; as far as I know it was not until 1913 that the federal government became involved in its ownership or funding.

    "These all saw the light of day to varying degrees, but they were all formulated and pushed by the Jefferson administration and Republicans in the Congress."

    Since the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was not even under construction until the 1850s that seems rather unlikely. By Republicans I assume you mean Democratic-Republicans, otherwise your statement makes very little sense whatsoever.

    Yes, facts are rather stubborn things.

  7. These were all planned and pushed by the Jefferson administration, Anonymous. I said they all saw varying degrees of the light of day. There wasn't a lot of capital in America at that time, and Jefferson had already cut the federal revenue stream to the bone (the Jefferson administration was a bit like California in that sense).

    They were all pushed by Treasury Secretary Gallatin in 1808.

    The reason why many were delayed so long was largely sectional differences. Virginia Republicans didn't want canals built in New England until Virginia rivers were improved and vice versa. But nobody except the few remaining Federalists challenged the constitutionality of Gallatin and Jefferson's internal improvements plan - and I think its safe to say that these Federalists were being a little disingenuous.

  8. And you haven't mentioned the roads and the Louisiana purchase. You also haven't mentioned the roads and the light houses and harbor improvements made under the Federalists that the Republicans championed as justification for their own road and canal building schemes when they came into office.

  9. "These were all planned and pushed by the Jefferson administration, Anonymous."

    The Jefferson administration had nothing to do with the construction of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal (really two canals).

    They were all pushed by Treasury Secretary Gallatin in 1808."

    Now we get to the nub of the matter; yes Gallatin did make a report on the state of canals, etc., and how these should be funded by the federal government, and Jefferson rejected said report, in part questioning the constitutionality of such (he was also troubled by the state taking on planned debt). So that is not the "Jefferson administration," it is one member of his cabinet that Jefferson did not agree with.

    "The reason why many were delayed so long was largely sectional differences."

    The reason for the delay was the War of 1812 and the opposition to such internal improvements by Democrats following the "Corrupt Bargain" of 1824 (and Jackson's election). To my knowledge just four of Gallatin's roads were built between 1808-1860 with federal money; only in the aftermath of the Civil War (and the changed nature of the government following the Civil War) did some movement on Gallatin's plan get underway.

    "And you haven't mentioned the roads and the Louisiana purchase."

    I didn't think I needed to.


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