Monday, August 1, 2011

My Summer Tour Of Homes

I took last week off from work to tour a few historic Presidential homes, mainly James Madison's home Montpelier, but also those of Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson. Montpelier is still undergoing historic restoration and archaeological exploration of the building and grounds, but I have to say it's looking like the best instance of historical interpretation of all the American historic sites I've seen.

I immensely enjoy these little road trips. For a week I can wear flip-flops, and everything I need is located in a small duffel bag behind my seat. Fantastic! I'm seriously thinking about getting a VW Passat with a diesel engine - a car that has comfortable seats and can cruise for 800 miles between fill-ups - and doing this all the time after I retire.

One of the many things I enjoy about road trips is that the deeper you go into Beyond The Beltway America the scarcer the Starbucks become, until eventually they can be found only inside a Target or some such retailer, and finally they disappear. But what you lose in Starbucks you gain in Sonic drive-ins, a delightful place that I only see when on vacation in rural areas. I recommend their iced latte with a couple of Sonic Booms (shots of espresso) to counter the sweetness of the whipped cream.

While touring around I strictly avoided the news out of Washington. By which, I mean that I read only USA Today, since every hotel I stayed in slips it under your door in the morning. I don't understand how that curious newspaper acquired its stranglehold on the hotel market. Each morning last week I read the whole thing at breakfast, and yet all I could remember from it afterwards was the national weather map. Those very short stories and colorful news boxes seemed to evaporate as soon as I looked at them.

But I digress. Although I was avoiding the debt crisis news, I still saw it in all the homes I toured.

At the home of James Madison, the Founding Father who imagined and invented the Constitution, I saw this quote from the Federalist Papers on why we need, and should want, partisan conflict between the houses of Congress and between the Legislature and the Executive:

"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?" - Federalist 51

That's a very Adam Smith-ian insight. In a system of separated government powers, each politician's inherent ambition to gain power for himself serves to check the same inherent tendency in other politicians. So, when you see all the hand wringing about partisan conflict and gridlock, and hear the old oh-why-can't-we-all-just-work-together coming from those in power, know that things are working the way Mr. Madison designed them to work. Because people in power cannot be trusted.

I also saw that Thomas Jefferson would be for a Balanced Budget Amendment.

"I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the general principle of the Constitution; I mean an additional article, taking from the federal government their power of borrowing." - Letter to Virginian Senator John Taylor, 1798

George Washington would use public debt as little as possible, mostly for defense expenditures, and wanted it paid off by the same generation that incurred it.

"As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is, to use it as sparingly as possible; avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts, which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen, which we ourselves ought to bear." - Farewell Address, 1796

Lastly, Andrew Jackson actually eliminated the public debt. Gone. Zero. The USG operated in the black at the end of his second term. It has not done so since.

"Free from public debt, at peace with all the world, and with no complicated interests to consult in our intercourse with foreign powers, the present may be hailed as the epoch in our history the most favorable for the settlement of those principles in our domestic policy which shall be best calculated to give stability to our Republic and secure the blessings of freedom to our citizens." - Sixth annual message to Congress, December 1, 1834.

God only knows how Jackson would react to the idea of a government having fun, fun, fun until our Daddy takes our T-Bills away.


Anonymous said...

Great Post TSB! We're taking our road trip this week. No hotels, just friends and relatives. Now that they have established that committee to run the government there is nothing to worry about! I love those weather maps too! gwb

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post TSB! I never read the Federalist papers but I did read a 2 vol. biography of Justice John Marshall when I was 12 or 13. It was a great read.. especially Marbury vs Madison. (I think my dad bought it for law school) I wonder what Madison would think now?? gwb