31 December 2009

An Old Story

I've been reading Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. I haven't read extensively about the founding of the United States, but I am struck by the political compromises that took place, and how the avoidance of conflict and the justifications lead to larger problems and greater conflict in the future. The most conspicuous of which was the question of slavery. Ellis will give a much more nuanced description, but there were two arguments for not upsetting the status quo that struck me as resonating today. One was the issue of compensation for slave holders for the loss of their property, and the other was that slavery was woven into the fabric of southern life.

In 1790, opponents to abolition had a "relentless focus on the impractical dimensions of all plans for abolition." The estimates for the cost of emancipating the slaves at the time was ranged between $70 and $140 million. At a time when the total federal budget was $7 million annually, this had the appearance of an insurmountable obstacle. However, Ellis goes on to describe how a gradual emancipation would have worked, and the numbers seem much more reasonable when looked at over time. With 20/20 hindsight, we see the subsequent 200 years of internecine strife in the Civil War, and the barbarism of segregation and the struggle for civil rights, the history of which affects us to this day.

The other argument was that slavery "was grafted onto the character fo the southern states during the colonial era and had become a permanent part of American society south of the Potomac" and that it was "one of those habits established long before the Constitution, and could not now be remedied."

Thus the reasons for not addressing the single most obvious moral failure of the founding of this country could not be addressed for economic and cultural reasons.

This old story continues today, and echoes of this argument exist today in two contemporary issues: that of health care reform, and that of climate change.

The opponents of health care reform, in particular the opponents to the public option, frequently cite the costs of such a program, and use inflated numbers and fail to recognize the societal benefit and the long-term savings. They portray the expense as an insurmountable obstacle.

The same are the arguments regarding fossil fuel use: that such use and the cheap cost of energy are long established, and to try to change would be a terrible burden on the American people. These arguments perpetuate the inertia. Yet, as we see with the Civil War, that inertia ultimately leads to an explosive result, untold death, destruction and misery. We already see the results of our moral failure on the health care issue. The pain from climate change will be far more severe and final, and potentially threaten the survival of our species. Our "leaders" are morally derelict. They are unwilling to make the hard decisions to change the behavior of this nation because of political patronage and the status quo. In the face of a common enemy our political system has provided positive leadership that has significantly altered past patterns. We need this leadership again.