Saturday, January 29, 2011

Daffy-ness is a requirement ...

... to be a star pundit. Like David "Bobo" Brooks. In Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Burke New York Times 01/27/2011, he's caught the Maureen Dowd disease and is typing up what hashing over some weird gender-role obsession. The one Bobo hears claim to be Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton.

But The Voices are clearly scamming poor Bobo. The Hamilton Voice expresses sputtering outrage over federal debt. The real Hamilton favored federal debt. It was the Jefferson Administration and his Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin who first put the United States on an internationally credit-worthy basis by getting the debt under control. Deficits and debt were a whole different issue for the new country in the time of Hamilton and Jefferson than they are today, when the dollar is the world reserve currency in a floating exchange-rate system.

It's inevitable that history and current politics overlap. (Though it doesn't have to be psychotic ways.) One of the weirder symbolic twists in American history converted into political symbols happened with Hamilton. At some point - I've never sorted out just when - the use of "positive government" to protect the rights and social conditions of ordinary workers and farmers became known as the "Hamiltonian" approach of affirmative government. The Calvin Coolidge approach - "the business of America is business" - which insists on small government when it comes to restraining the power of predatory businesses and corporations, become known as "Jeffersonian" limited government. The New Deal, in this imagery, was the triumph of "Hamiltonian" government.


Politics is politics, and all that. I guess it worked as political symbols for somebody at some time.

But as a reading of the actual history of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, this is just cracked. Hamilton was a real American patriot and a personally decent guy. When the traitor Aaron Burr killed him in a duel, it was definitely the better man who perished.

But despite his support for the Constitution - which Jefferson also supported, contrary to some popular mythology - Hamilton was basically a monarchist. He didn't believe in popular self-government. He thought that government should primarily serve the class interests of the wealthy and was particularly interested in promoting manufacturing. He also believed that for the Constitutional system to work, it would require the Executive Branch to control the Legislative Branch by corruption. As his adversary Jefferson put it, Hamilton was personally scrupulously honest, but he also favored corruption as a way to control Congress.

The famous political battle between Jefferson and Hamilton over setting up the Bank of the United States, which the Washington Administration eventually did, was not primarily an argument on how best to manage the national currency or something like that. We didn't even have a single national currency until the Lincoln Administration. It was an argument over the nature of the democratic political system. Hamilton viewed the Bank as the main tool by which to corrupt Congress. And, in practice, it actually functioned that way. Andrew Jackson wasn't blowing smoke when he campaigned against the Bank of the United States as an anti-democratic tool wielded by the wealthy against the vast majority of the population.

Bobo's take on history - "Bobo-istory?" - is pretty sad. But it is interesting how he tries to position Obama in that debate between The Voices playing the classic English conservative (within the broader classical liberal tradition) Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton. I guess we should give Bobo credit, though, for not using the Hamilton-as-New-Dealer image. Instead he makes him into a Tea Partier, though, which is actually weirder. Burke, on the other hand, thinks Obama's the stuff:

... his State of the Union address demonstrated an admirable sense of moderation and continuity. His competitiveness initiatives build intelligently on the ones Bill Clinton spoke of in 1996 and the ones George W. Bush mentioned in 2006. They also demonstrate an exquisite realism.
I actually don't know quite what to make of Bobo's momentary slide in schizophrenia. My best guess is that the two Voices represent the range of what Bobo considers respectable political opinion.

One thing about the original Edmund Burke. We don't know exactly where he's buried. We know the cemetery, but not the actual gravesite. That's because shortly before his death in 1797, he gave instructions that his grave not be marked. His reasoning was that there could be a French-style Revolution in Britain at any moment. And that if the British Jacobins knew where he was buried they would dig up his corpse and, I don't know, do something with it.

I'm not sure whether the revolution fear or the grave-robbing fear was more over-wrought. But it kind of puts into perspective what it means to have the Voice Of Burke calls you a realist.

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