Saturday, June 06, 2009

Powell, Bastiat, a Republican Resurgence?


I have no idea how many editorials and columns were written by Chris Powell, Managing Editor and former Editorial Page Editor of the Journal Inquirer, during the course of his long and eventful career in journalism; certainly more than a thousand which, to date, is the number of blog entrees in Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State. Most of the entrees here were columns printed in one or another of Connecticut’s small but vigorous and independent minded papers.

Shortly after he started in the journalism business, Powell became the youngest Managing Editor in Connecticut. I can testify from my own personal experience that he is a) unflappable, b) very much the hound of heaven in pursuit of a story and c) of indeterminate political persuasion.

But Powell’s most endearing characteristic may be his jolly spite, which keeps him going to the office every day with a dagger in his hand and bounce in his step.

I suppose if one has to force Powell into a procrustean formulation, radical democrat (with a small “d”) might do. But I like to think of him as Fredrick Bastiat updated, with a touch of Bitter Bierce thrown in to spice the mix.

Bastiat was an economic journalist, a no nonsense free marketer, who loved a joust and had a devilish way with words.

Only 21 in 1846, Bastiat established the Association of Free Trade in Paris and started his own weekly newspaper to beat the hides of the socialist and protectionist phonies of his day.

Calling himself the French Cobden -- after Richard Cobden, an English pamphleteer who campaigned against the British Corn Laws -- Bastiat wrote “The Petition of Candlemakers,” a jewel of rakish commentary that begins:

“We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light, that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price.... This rival ... is none other than the sun....

‘We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights and blinds; in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures…”

Bastiat forever blew the dust off economic commentary, and there were few in France while he was writing who did not feel his lash.

In Connecticut, if you are of a certain temperament, there is always something to write about; the well never runs dry, though it does take a bit of courage to bring up the water and blow it in the faces of smug politicians-for-life-who have never been made uncomfortable by a critical word. The good journalist, if there is such a creature, is supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Here in Blueville, most of the comfortable are entrenched Democrats. Were Bastiat alive and writing today in this the land of steady bad habits, he would be a Republican journalist with a knife in his teeth. If the grain is Democrat, those who go against the grain must risk the charge of being thought too Republican.

It’s a small price to pay for liberty.

At one point, Powell ran for office on the Republican ticket against a popular Democratic Rep., now retired and living the good life as a fixture in one of the too many offices in state government where donkeys and elephants go to die.

Had he won, Powell very likely would have set Connecticut’s political house on fire; not hard to do, as there is much kindling in the legislature. But he lost, gave up his berth as Editorial Page Editor of the JI and then took up cudgels as the paper’s chief political columnist.

The Democrat Party this year has been pummeling the Republican governor for having underestimated the deficit. At the present time, Gov. Rell thinks the deficit is about 8 billion, while Democrat leaders insist it is 9 billion, if not more.

What’s a billion or two among friends?

The present deficit, if Democrat figures are right, is about one billion more than the state’s last pre-income tax budget, a whopper of a black hole, though not quite as crippling as California’s.

Faced with a gargantuan deficit, Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature by a veto-proof margin, this year punted on presenting a rational budget. Democrat leaders put forth a budget that fills the 8 or 9 billion gap by raising the business killing corporation tax 30%, a move that left Republicans scratching their heads and muttering darkly, “Corporations? We still have corporations in Connecticut?”

Bastiat, had he been alive, might have called the Democrat solution to the deficit politicide, state suicide.

However, before the legislature shook the dust of the Capitol from its feet, it passed, puffing out its collective chest as it did so, a bill apologizing for slavery, which provided Powell with a column titled, “Will a future legislature apologize for this one?”

Powell dove into this ironic compost pile with his usual alacrity.

“Shortly before the mandatory adjournment of the General Assembly's regular session,” Powell wrote, “the state Senate followed the House in approving a resolution apologizing for the days of slavery in Connecticut. Maybe in another century or two some future legislature will apologize for the failure of the current one to deal with the here and now by passing a state budget.

“While the Democrats have a potentially veto-proof majority in both houses and while they proposed to raise taxes by any amount necessary to feed the ravenous machine of government, they declined to put their own budget to a vote. They wanted political cover by getting Governor Rell, a Republican, to agree to tax increases first.”

Among politicians and Mafiosi, this stratagem is called “dipping the handkerchief in blood.”

Whoever is involved in the crime owns the crime. In past times, Republican governors have been only too happy to implicate themselves in overspending. It was, after all, a former long time Republican, Lowell Weicker, who graced the state with its income tax, known in Republican quarters as “a license to spend.”

And spend the Democrats did, assisted by weak-kneed Republican governors. Throughout the administrations of one faux Republican governor, Weicker, and two moderate Republicans – John Rowland, whose peculations landed him in jail for a year, and Jodi Rell, demeaned by the Democrat loyal opposition as “Snow White” – the state budget nearly tripled.

And then something happened that helped to stiffen Connecticut Republican spines: The nation’s economic underpinnings collapsed; Democrats nationally and in-state captured political offices and a decisive fork appeared in the road. What might be called moderate Republicanism in the Northeast had been thoroughly routed with the loss of a seat held for many years by Rep. Chris Shays, Weicker lite.

Having hit bottom, some state Republicans decided there was no where to go but up.

They began to resist; blood once again began to course through palsied limbs.

This time around, Rell may offer something more than a token resistance to ruinous Democrat spending, though it is always possible that at the last moment she may surrender to her old habits, consort with her opposition and achieve yet another ruinous compromise that will contribute further to the beggaring of her state.

If that is the case, leading Republicans will and should bid her a fond farewell, and continue their course.

The slavery issue, as we all know, was decided ultimately in a brutal Civil War in the course of which Connecticut’s sons offered up that “last measure of devotion” that figures so prominently in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

Apology comes easy, Powell notes, to a generation oblivious of history and suckled on its own self importance.

“Of course apologizing for the offenses of people who are long gone and unable even to put themselves in the context of their times is a lot easier than writing a state budget. It is also wonderfully more self-righteous than acknowledging the apologies that were delivered by, say, the sacrifices of the 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Antietam in 1862 or the state's ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It is also a lot easier than doing something about the grotesque racial disproportions in Connecticut's prison system.”

But the self-importance of a legislature that flees its responsibilities while patting itself on the back for its own historical rectitude does not end there.

“Another sin of the present for which an apology is being left to the future is the eagerness of this legislature to run everyone else's business while remaining oblivious to its own. This legislative session may be most celebrated for passing a bill to require certain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, on the premise that it is the people of Connecticut who are too fat, not their government.”

Are the priorities of the legislature in good order? It would seem not.

“Responding to the horrible incident in Stamford in February, the legislature outlawed making pets of large primates and other animals considered dangerous. But the legislature has yet to respond to the horrible incident in Cheshire two years ago, in which a woman and her two daughters were murdered, purportedly by two career criminals on parole. Not only did the legislature refuse again this year to pass a "three strikes" law or even a "20 strikes" law; it again declined to inquire into why the defendants in Connecticut's worst atrocity in living memory have not even been brought to trial after two years. Apparently it is enough that Connecticut is now a bit safer from rogue chimpanzees.”

In the absence of a new budget, Powell notes, “the legislature just appropriated $10 million to bail out insolvent dairy farms. The bailout will be financed with a $40 surcharge on municipal property record filing fees. What obliges property registrants particularly to underwrite dairy farms? Maybe only the absence of the real estate industry's lobbyist when the bill was voted on.”

And finally, with a curtsey to Bastiat: “Maybe most amazing about this session was that even with their supermajority the Democrats still could not pass most of their committee chairmen's important bills, which were delayed until the session's last day, when the mischievous Republican minority could run out the clock by prolonging debate. Having watched his own big bill, providing tax breaks for economic development near Bradley International Airport, die for lack of time, state Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford, noted, ‘The governor says we are a do-nothing legislature -- and the Republicans are making sure we are one.’ But then the Democrats had found time for the calorie-counting bill. Maybe economic development just wasn't meddlesome enough.”

Not a bad pull at the udders of indifference, complacency, bad judgment and self promotion.

Bastiat would be proud.

10 comments:

James said...

You write that, "The slavery issue, as we all know, was decided ultimately in a brutal Civil War in the course of which Connecticut’s sons offered up that 'last measure of devotion.'"

While this is historically accurate as far as it goes, you seem to be implying that this somehow mitigates Connecticut's responsibility for its slave-owning past, or at least that it makes a difference in whether or not the state apologies for the brutality of its slavery.

In fact, as I'm sure you know, Connecticut itself only gave up slavery in 1848, and its soldiers did not make the ultimate sacrifice in the Civil War in order to end slavery, but in order to preserve the Union. Slavery wasn't even a war aim yet when most of them died.

It seems to me that if we are not to be "oblivious of history," we ought to at least acknowledge, fully and finally, the full scope of slavery. Connecticut as a state engaged in slavery until the eve of the Civil War, had a terrible record when it came to treating its slaves, and most importantly, built its economy around slavery in ways which have lasted to the present day.

Don Pesci said...

James,

“In fact, as I'm sure you know, Connecticut itself only gave up slavery in 1848, and its soldiers did not make the ultimate sacrifice in the Civil War in order to end slavery, but in order to preserve the Union. Slavery wasn't even a war aim yet when most of them died.”

That is only partial true, which is to say it is partially untrue.

Beginning with John Brown onward – Thoreau wrote a defense of him, as well as a document called “Slavery in Massachusetts,” not much read these days – the abolition movement was very strong in the Northeast. It is true that Lincoln settled upon the abolition of slavery well into his term as a war aim to deprive the South of its free labor, but he did not like slavery either. (See the review of “Tried By War” here: http://donpesci.blogspot.com/2009/01/tried-by-war.html)

I think Powell’s point, though you’d have to check with him, is that even in a day when when blacks were oppressed, there were men who were willing to make blood sacrifices to end slavery.

Apologies, beside these sacrifices, are cheap. The question whether there ought to be such an apology is a different one.

Don Pesci said...

There can be no mitigation of slavery, or any other profound injustice.

James said...

the abolition movement was very strong in the Northeast

There certainly was a strong abolition movement in the Northeast.

To quote you, however, "That is only partial true, which is to say it is partially untrue."

In fact, there was also strong pro-slavery sentiment in the Northeast. Connecticut repeatedly refused to abolish slavery, allowed its economy to be dependent on slavery, and was deeply divided over whether slavery ought to be abolished in the South.

In other words, the presence of an abolition movement in the state hardly means that Connecticut didn't have a terrible record on slavery, or that its participation in the Civil War wasn't about atoning for that wrong. Nor does it speak to the appropriateness of an apology for this history.

even in a day when when blacks were oppressed, there were men who were willing to make blood sacrifices to end slavery.

This is true, and we should never forget that.

However, I doubt very much that the existence of a few dedicated abolitionists was Powell's point. Why? Because he wasn't arguing that there were such people.

Instead, Powell was making the historically false claim that the Civil War sacrifices of young Union soldiers were made to end slavery, and arguing that they somehow constituted apologies for the terrible record of their elders on slavery.

He was also arguing that an apology for slavery fails to put those in Connecticut who profited from slavery "in the context of their times," which is almost the reverse of the argument that there were also a few people of good conscience in those days.

Apologies, beside these sacrifices, are cheap.

This is true, although they are hardly without cost, as can be seen from the loud complaints being directed against the state legislature and its members for this apology.

The more important point is that apologies can make a difference in the real world, and may just be the right thing to do.

Don Pesci said...

All very sensible, but we may both be misinterpreting Powell.

He mentioned slavery only in passing, in this context: "Of course apologizing for the offenses of people who are long gone and unable even to put themselves in the context of their times is a lot easier than writing a state budget. It is also wonderfully more self-righteous than acknowledging the apologies that were delivered by, say, the sacrifices of the 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Antietam in 1862 or the state's ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It is also a lot easier than doing something about the grotesque racial disproportions in Connecticut's prison system."

Would it not be reasonable to assume that some of the men of that company were familiar with the writing of Thoreau and Theodore Parker, among others, who condemned slavery?

Albert Camus once asked why a friend of his had committed suicide, said the question was highly misleading, “because a man may have two reasons for committing suicide.”

In many heats and minds during the Civil War, the same may be said of the motivation involved among those who in this war gave “their last full measure of devotion.” Some may have had one (anti- slavery) or another reason (pro-union) for taking up arms. Some may have had two reasons.

Don Pesci said...

Here is Thoreau's Slavery in Massachussetts. It's worth a glance, I think: http://thoreau.eserver.org/slavery.html

James said...

All very sensible, but we may both be misinterpreting Powell.

Fair enough. :-)

But I had precisely that quotation from him in mind when I wrote what I wrote.

I agree that it would be reasonable to assume that "some of the men of that company were familiar with the writing of Thoreau and Theodore Parker, among others, who condemned slavery."

It would also be reasonable to assume that some of them even agreed with the abolitionists (as did many Confederate soldiers, of course). The point is that few, if any, of these soldiers died to end slavery, since slavery wasn't even an aim of the war when they died, much less when they joined up. They were fighting to preserve the Union, protect their families, and so forth.

Some may have had one (anti- slavery) or another reason (pro-union) for taking up arms.

A minority of Union soldiers were undoubtedly anti-slavery, since there was a growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North at that time.

However, ending slavery was not a declared aim of a Union victory for most of the war. Nor was it an unstated aim, either, since Congress debated long and hard before finally deciding in January 1865 that slavery would be abolished in the south at the end of the war.

So I doubt that many Union soldiers could have been risking their lives, even in part, for the speculative hope that a Confederate defeat might mean the abolition if slavery.

Surely a few did just that, but this makes a mockery of Powell's argument that Connecticut -- a state which had barely abolished slavery itself by the time the Civil War broke out -- had already apologized for slavery by the actions of its soldiers in the Civil War.

Here is Thoreau's Slavery in Massachussetts. It's worth a glance, I think:

I agree that it's well worth reading, but I'm not sure how it's relevant here. After all, there were powerful southern intellectual voices in favor of abolition, too, but no one suggests that this means southern states never needed to apologize for slavery, or that southern soldiers were sacrificing themselves to end slavery. I'm just not sure what else your point might be in this context.

Don Pesci said...

Lincoln made the decision to use the issue of slavery as a part of his war strategy sometime before 1862 when he told his cabinet that he would no longer wage this war with “elder-stalk squirts charged with rose water,” the water pistols of the day.

“We want the Army to strike more vigorous blows,” Lincoln, who was a hands on war president, told his cabinet. “The Administration must set an example, and strike at the heart of the rebellion. The destruction of slavery had been a part of his war strategy.” The quotes are from McPherson.

Before this time, the tolerance of slavery everywhere but in the territories had been a part of his political strategy. That changed around 62, after Lincoln had brought Grant and Sherman into the war as his leading generals.

I do not think it is possible to claim that Lincoln was concerned solely with saving the union because he had adopted earlier a political strategy that was designed to prevent the territories from going over to the Confederacy. Though this strategy proved unsuccessful militarily, Lincoln spoke out bravely against slavery during his debates with Douglas, and he brought his political strategy with him into the White House, which was an impediment, until the course of events forced him to shake it off.

Strategy is strategy. But Lincoln let himself go in his second Inaugural address: “Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

The difficulty in historical interpretation is to shed one’s preconceived notions at the door of history. Not everyone can insert themselves imaginatively into a preceding time period. We all have our ideological portmanteaus – me too.

Lincoln’s route I think was the route of many men of conscience of his day. Their stumbling blocks are not ours.

We don’t want to be too certain that if we really could step into the shoes of an average citizen of the day here in the Northeast, we would not think and behave as they did.

I think Powell’s warning was on his point.

I must tell you that I enjoyed your discussion. Congratulations on your site also.

James said...

Don, Lincoln did decide to make slavery a part of his wartime strategy. However, I believe your reliance on Lincoln, including his personal views and his views long before the war, may miss the mark.

It was up to Congress to decide whether slavery would be abolished in the South if the North won the war, and Congress was in fact deeply divided and unable to decide until 1865. I find it hard to believe that there were many Union soldiers who were convinced that their struggle would necessarily free the southern slaves, particularly since the political paralysis in Congress on this issue simply mirrored the deep divisions in the North over slavery.

I agree that we must all struggle against applying our preconceived notions to our understanding of the past. In this case, I fear that our widespread focus on Lincoln and his role in the slavery issue, as well as our traditionally exclusive emphasis on the South when it comes to slavery, may be clouding this issue.

We don’t want to be too certain that if we really could step into the shoes of an average citizen of the day here in the Northeast, we would not think and behave as they did.

I couldn't agree more.

In fact, I say exactly the same thing, in only slightly different words, in the PBS documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, about the history of the North in slavery and the slave trade.

Thanks for an enlightening discussion.

James

Don Pesci said...

Thank you. The more light the better.

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