NOW & THEN Newsletter Series
by Steven Acker
In 1991 and ’92, I wrote a series of eight newsletters for Nashville’s Knowledge Products, a company that produced a high-quality audio cassette teaching tool called “Audio Classics.” My task was to research and write persuasively about both sides of current issues and to make it entertaining. Here is the text of four of those newsletters.
“WHAT'S THE POINT?” Issue 1
Plato, Locke, Aristotle, Marx...marble busts on dusty shelves. Antique theories from bygone ages. Why should we, in our microchip-CNN world, accord the ancients any more thought than that required for a passing grade in Philosophy 101? What's the point?
That is the question we hope to answer in this and future issues of Now & then. For our world today is the sum of all the days before it, just as our world tomorrow will be the sum of our aspirations today; to know where we are coming from is to better foresee where we are going.
The Audio Classics Series analyzes classical thought in the context of its own era. With this newsletter, we'll consider great ideas in the context of current events. Using our subjects' own words as a launching point, we will explore our world as it is and might be, and pose provocative questions that we hope you will answer.
Let this be a dialogue, then—an ongoing debate with Now & then as the moderator. As Socrates was to the Athenians, so too will we serve as a “gadfly” to you and all our thousands of subscribers. If, like Socrates, we must submit to an occasional shot of poison from your collective pen, then so much the better.
Let the dialogue begin.
IN THIS CORNER, REASON...
In the 1980 film, Being There, we meet the ultimate product of “a priori” observation—Chance, the gardener. Cloistered since childhood behind his wealthy employer's walls, his entire knowledge of life comes from watching television. When his employer dies, poor Chance, devoid of any trace of “a posteriori” experience, is tossed out on the street. As superficial as one of his TV models, he soon is hailed as a philosopher, a sex symbol, and a presidential candidate.
As in real-world politics, style renders substance immaterial.
Many philosophers have depicted Man as a creature of two distinct dimensions. Thought and feeling, empirical and rational, mind and soul...whatever the labels, the concepts are similar. There is a great sphere of harmony between the great philosophers in spite of their differences. Perhaps we can employ their insights to get our own world in tune.
Reason or experience? A priori or a posteriori? Again—different terms for the same dichotomy. Philosophers have tried to reconcile these two paths to Truth for ages.
Can we regard and government policy as “just” if achieved without either the rational or the empirical? Shall we create policies from logic alone, without regard to the historical perspective? What about policies borne of experience without concession to rational ideals? Or should we strive to achieve some profound synthesis of the two?
Our cemeteries would be full indeed if surgeons learned their craft from experience alone. Only after years of study combined with practical experience do we trust a surgeon to operate. Should we demand no less of government?
At this very moment, two old friends are about to debate some current issues that hinge on that very question. Let's eavesdrop and hear what they have to say...
INTRODUCING CROMETHIUS AND RENE
Cromethius and Rene sit at an antique table covered with crusty dishes and a near-empty bottle of wine. Rene gingerly wipes the remnants of the lavish feast from his lips and leans back, fat and happy. Cromethius, ever proper, restrains a mighty belch.
Now, another round in an ageless debate, initiated when both were students at the Academy. That two so opposite could be such fast friends is an irony they've long taken for granted.
With one last sip from a silver goblet, Rene opens the dialogue.
“I hear America's new Secretary of Education is making a fresh pitch for vouchers,” Rene says. “Now you know as well as I, Cromethius, that when free choice is granted and public schooling is privatized, poor, black and difficult children will suffer even greater disadvantages than now.”
“I know nothing of the kind,” Cromethius protests, “and you shouldn't—,
“But it's only rational,” Rene interrupts. “Education isn't merely a private benefit. It's for the public good. If the government endorses private schooling, what kind of message will it send? To families without school-age children—the majority—the message will be clear. education isn't the community's concern anymore.”
Cromethius rolls his eyes. “By claiming education for the public good, you're getting around, as you always do, to more government control. Of course, this means more government spending, and we all know what that means. Look at what government control has achieved: A 25% dropout rate. 40 percent of 13-year-old’s have trouble reading and understanding their textbooks. Only 28 percent of all 17-year-old’s can write an adequate imaginative essay. In inner-city schools, it's even worse!”
“And that is exactly why vouchers won't work,” Rene mowed. “How many inner-city private schools do you think profit-minded 'educators' will open? There, public schools will remain the only choice. No, my friend, vouchers will hopelessly cripple public education. And that spells greater disaster for those already disadvantaged.”
“As usual, Rene, your logic disregards reality. Aren't you aware that there are now hundreds of private schools throughout the country run by (and for) minorities, with more opening every day? And with higher standards than public schools, the State has no divine right to deploy children as tools on behalf of the 'public good.' If public schools can't succeed, let others try. You reason that the State can legislate equal education, yet experience disproves it. Vouchers will create something even better--an equal opportunity for education.”
'By selling education as if it were toothpaste or an automobile? I can hear the slogans now: 'We Teach Excitement!' Hah!”
“But hasn't competition produced better cars? And better toothpaste?”
“Yes, Cromethius, but it's also given us 'Married with Children' and Madonna.”
Cromethius, who had excused himself momentarily, returns to the table and opens the next debate.
“As you know, Rene, flying was once a luxury. Then in 1978, after forty years of government control, Congress deregulated the airline industry. Today, flying is nearly as cheap as taking a bus...and often cheaper!”
“Ah, I have you there, Cromethius!” Rene whoops. “You claim unfettered competition creates excellence? Well, the airline industry is in deep trouble, my friend, and the only way out is re-regulation.”
“There you go again...Uncle Sam to the rescue,” Cromethius says, shaking his head reprovingly. “Sure there've been some growing pains. You'd expect that of any child turned loose for the first time. Should a mother return a child to her breast after one false step? No. Nor should Congress return to its meddlesome ways with the airline industry.”
“In this instance, you're ignoring the lesson of experience, Cromethius. Last year, the airline industry lost $1.5 billion. Eastern is out of business. Pan Am and Continental are bankrupt. And most of the upstart low-fare carriers are gone. There's no competition. On the contrary, the airline industry has become an oligopoly! And consumers are poorly served. Sure, you can get a low fare if you lock in your itinerary. But what about business fares? They're rising out of sight. Those cheap fares you hang your argument on, dear Cromethius, are an illusion.”
“And you claim re-regulation is the answer? Hmph! Congress didn't go far enough. They still restrict private ownership of municipal airports. They still limit foreign equity in domestic airlines. They still restrict U.S. landing rights for foreign carriers. I say let 'em in! What are we afraid of, anyway? Why not let competitiveness really work?”
Rene, still convinced he has the upper hand, chuckles. “Oh sum, so they can set up even more hub-and-spoke routes and expensive computer reservations systems to choke the little guys out of business. That's what comes of your unchecked competition, Cromethius.”
Rene rises from his seat. “You can't use experience as a weapon for debate on one issue and ignore it the next,” he says. “In this case, the lesson of experience is clear.”
Convinced his friend has missed the point, Cromethius pours the last drops of wine and empties his goblet. Savoring the taste, he idly picks up a newspaper lying at his feet.
“If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it;...whether you marry or do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world's follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will regret that; laugh at the world's follies or weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret that; believe a woman or believe her not, you will regret both...Hang yourself, you will regret it, do not hang yourself and you will also regret that; hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both.
This, gentlemen, is the sum and substance of all philosophy.”
THE TWIN DEFICITS
Rene is again seated at the table. Cromethius looks up from his paper. “hp sure you've read that the Bush administration and congressional Democrats agreed last year to the largest tax increase in history. Conventional wisdom—the rational premise—said more tax revenue would reduce the deficit. But what happened? The deficit increased by nearly $100 billion over projections. And Federal borrowing is up by $425 billion. So much for conventional wisdom!”
“So what's your point?”
“My point, Rene, is that conventional wisdom and reasoned arguments often prove faulty in the face of practical experience.”
“Well, who's to blame for that? How do you reduce the deficit when you've got the savings & loan debacle draining hundreds of billions a year from the economy?”
“No,” Cromethius smirks, “the real question should be: how do you reduce the deficit when Congress spends money we don't have on a social welfare agenda that's out of control? Raise taxes and what do they do? Spend more! Since 1981, there's been a 66% increase in tax revenues and a 76% increase in spending. $1.6 trillion dollars’ worth of red ink! Now, who's to blame for that?”
Rene snorts, “Well, you've got to pay the piper for a just society. Social Security, Medicare...these are its hallmarks. There are no other rational choices.”
Ignoring Rene now, Cromethius plows on. “And what about the trade deficit? Two years ago it was at an all-time high, and unemployment was at its lowest level in a decade. Conventional wisdom said, `reduce the trade deficit and create more American jobs. So they did. And what happened? Unemployment has gone up to nearly 7%! Go figure.”
“Are you attacking someone in particular here, Cromethius, or just railing against rationalism in general?”
“Oh, I don't know Rene. That last sip of wine went to my head. Why don't we call it a night?”
Rene, too, feels the effects of the food and wine and readily agrees. And so ends another round of the debate… until another day.
Are expensive government programs required to achieve a just society? Or does a free market achieve “justice” by making individuals responsible?
We invite your comments.
NOW & Then Issue 2
In their new bestseller, The Day America Told the Truth, two advertising executives expose prevailing American attitudes about a variety of subjects. Among their findings: “America has no leaders and, especially, no moral leadership. Americans believe, across the board, that our current political, religious, and business leaders have failed us miserably and completely.”
What has happened to our country? Where have all the Great Men gone? That's the central issue in this fourth edition of Now & then.
Perhaps the Great Men never disappeared at all. Perhaps they never existed. In the passage of history, reputations assume mythic proportions. We see George Washington crossing the Delaware. We see him wrapped in glowing robes, worshipful cherubs at his head. We see him with ax in hand, standing by his Daddy's fabled cherry tree. But we never see plain George.
Would our perception change if we knew the man himself? In George Washington's case, probably not much. He was revered in his own time, as well. Yet even ole George had his flings.
Until recently, reporters generally protected politicians' private lives. The press was aware of Kennedy's countless White House playmates. It knew of Eisenhower's wartime girlfriend, Kay Summersby. It was a constant witness to LBJ's crude and flagrant sexism. It reported practically none of that during those presidents' lifetimes. Later, it made little difference; many people still regard Kennedy as one of our greatest presidents, moral character notwithstanding.
Then there was Watergate and the cat was out of the bag. Suddenly scandal was the order of the day, with a slathering press reporting every sleazy detail. Today, despite unprecedented anti-corruption legislation and regulation, the scandals continue at a pace that would shock Machiavelli himself. It's not just amoral politicians, either. Now we have drug-addicted sports heroes, sexaholic preachers, and wholesale white-collar robbery. Americans are no longer shocked. They're simply disgusted.
Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Machiavelli, and others examined the moral dimensions of leadership. We at Knowledge Products believe that their great ideas are still relevant...that ideas still possess the power to illuminate and guide us.
We like to think that every politician who runs for public office is firmly grounded in those ideas. John Lennon imagined all the people “living life in peace.” There's as much hope for one as the other.
IS THERE A STATESMAN IN THE HOUSE?
Cromethius sits in a rich leather chair in the Academy Library, leafing through a book with a modest title: Great American Leaders. Other students are arrayed throughout the cavernous room, among them Cromethius' dearest friend and intellectual adversary, Rene.
Suddenly Cromethius shatters the hush. “He couldn't keep his pants on!” he exclaims loudly. “He didn't really write Profiles in Courage. He was the only naval commander lax enough to let a destroyer ram his PT-Boat. He never held a regular job in his life. His daddy practically bought him the presidency. He was a waste in the Senate. He botched the Bay of Pigs. And now they call him one of the greatest presidents in history. Ridiculous!”
“SHHHHH!” The whole room glares at Cromethius. Muttering, he continues to flip through the book.
Rene slides into the seat next to Cromethius and whispers, “He instructed young enlisted men to engage in homosexual acts to expose a homosexual ring at the naval training station. He had an affair with his secretary. He...”
“Who?” Cromethius interrupts.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
“Roosevelt made big government a way of life, and for that, we should all be sorry,” Cromethius says, “but I've always respected him. He was America's last great statesman. Why don't you just disillusion me entirely, Rene, and tell me that Santa Claus is a communist?”
“SHHHHH!” The whole room glares again. The persnickety old librarian peers at the pair disapprovingly.
“Check that book out. Let's go,” Rene says, “before they throw us out”
Minutes later they rest under a magnificent elm on the Academy Triangle. Cromethius looks through his book. “George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln—great statesmen all. Why have we no statesmen today, Rene?”
“Because we have television,” Rene answers.
“Is that all?” Cromethius wonders. “Is television all that stands between Ted Kennedy and statesmanship?”
“Maybe,” Rene says. “It's more than that, though. It's the entire press. It's this huge, unforgiving microscope we focus on our leaders today. No one can stand up to that kind of scrutiny.”
“Shall we turn the microscope off, Rene? Turn a blind eye on unacceptable behavior?”
“No, Cromethius, but I suggest that your great statesmen were no angels, either. Alexander Hamilton had an affair with a Philadelphia woman named Maria Reynolds, who turned out to be—along with her husband—a blackmailer. He paid them for two years to keep the relationship quiet.”
“What happened then?”
“Hamilton got fed up and stopped paying. Reynolds spilled the beans to his political rivals. They questioned Hamilton and decided the situation hadn't affected Hamilton's performance in office. He went on to become a 'statesman.”
“Well, after all, it was only an affair,” Cromethius says.
“You're quite forgiving with your heroes.”
“Kennedy's affairs were different. He was reckless.” Cromethius replies. “A suspected Nazi agent. A mafia boss's girlfriend. A movie star.”
Rene dismissed the indictment with a wave of his hand. “While Jefferson was President, an opposition journalist reported that he had seduced two married women, one of them the wife of a close friend,” Rene says. “Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, was accused of being a bigamist.”
Cromethius groans. “Stop! You're killing me!” he says. “Hey, it's not just sex. It's the S&L thing, Abscam, skipping tabs and bouncing checks, Watergate, PACs, Koreagate, the Iran-Contra Affair, BCCI...the American people are fed up.”
“As they have a right to be,” Rene agrees. “I'm simply pointing out that political scandal is nothing new. It's television that's changed things. There's no lack of potential leaders in Washington, we just know them too well. The great-leader image depends on distance, mystery and careful management of public impressions. In the early days, if a speech bombed, no one would know but the few who were there. Now, politicians are right in voters' faces, warts and all, ready or not. The media exposes everything. The public barely realized that Franklin Roosevelt was badly disabled. Very few ever heard Thomas Jefferson's slight speech impediment.”
“Those men had substance, though,” Cromethius says, “they took a stand. They were statesmen because they stood for something in government, for better or worse, and everybody knew what that was. You can't tell what a politician stands for anymore. Bush said 'Read my lips—no new taxes.' A statesman would have stood on that. Bush caved in.”
“Maybe he studied Machiavelli,” Rene says. “There's a difference between political expediency and political cowardice.”
“Just as there's a difference between yesterday's statesmen and today's politician” Rene adds, “and I'll tell you what it is: A statesman is nothing but a dead politician.”
“You're wrong, Rene. In 1790, there were only 250,000 people eligible to hold high office in America, and from that small number came dozens of talented statesmen. Today we're lucky to find just one appropriate new Justice for the Supreme Court.”
“Now there's one place where you still find Platonic ideals alive and well—the Supreme Court...but then, they don't have to run for office every couple of years.”
“That's it!” Cromethius says, “That's the one talent that today's politician must have—the ability to run for office, to campaign, to win elections. That's all that counts. And that's the problem.
“During the first generation of the republic,” he continues, “many of our nation's leaders shared fundamental political values. They modeled their ideas of citizenship on the Roman Republic and Classical Greece. Personal virtue was considered a prerequisite to public office. Superior wisdom, energy, initiative, and moral stature—these are the qualities they sought and found in men like George Washington. The man should never seek the office, they believed, the office should seek the man.”
“I agree with you again, Cromethius. Limiting terms is an excellent way to restore 'public service' to the government. Obviously, tougher campaign-finance regulations and ethics codes aren't working.”
Cromethius nods, “Because they always find ways to get around them. Term limitations would be hard to circumvent. I've read that in a recent focus group study, The Congressional Institute found that voters preferred term-limitations to campaign-finance reform by a vote of 60 to 21. I'm certain typical of the nation as a whole.”
“But will term limitations add any new chapters to that book of yours?” Rene asks. 'Will it open the door for a new hero, someone who will gallantly rush from the wings onto the political stage and rescue America?”
Cromethius gazes for a moment at a lithograph of James Madison and shakes his head. “No, Rene. Because as you so wisely pointed out, there's always a television camera in the wings. So much for grand entrances. Ah, but look at the time! If you don't mind, Rene, I need to make a grand exit now.”
To the west, a magnificent sunset spreads across the sky. Cromethius closes his book and stands with Rene. Together they walk toward the sunset.
Are there are any great men or women left in American politics today? Or is mediocrity all we can hope for? Have people changed so much since the early years of our republic, or has typical of the nation as a whole.”
“But will term limitations add any new chapters to that book of yours?” Rene asks. 'Will it open the door for a new hero, someone who will gallantly rush from the wings onto the political stage and rescue America?”
NOW &Then Issue 3
THE CLASSICAL PERSPECTIVE
Welcome to another edition of NOW & Then: Classical Commentary on Our Contemporary World.
This issue, like those before it, uses the words of Audio Classics' subjects as a launching pad from which to explore some of today's most complex and divisive issues. The greatness of these classical thinkers becomes even more apparent when considered in the context of current events.
We the publishers of Now & Then neither advocate nor admonish. That we leave to our two immortal friends, Cromethius and Rene, who have been observing the human condition since graduating together from Plato's legendary Academy.
The subject of their dialogue this month is as old as the Academy itself, yet as current as this morning's headlines. Philosophically, it makes little difference which countries we include in a discussion of international trade. As it happens, however, today's headlines focus on two specific world powers—the United States and Japan—and so shall we.
What do history's great thinkers think?
Plato thought that trading with foreigners would allow undesirable characters to enter the polls, along with gold and silver, all of which would corrupt the soul. Aristotle thought that exchanging products for money had a corrupting influence and that the ideal state was self-sufficient.
Adam Smith, on the other hand, advocated unfettered free trade, and it is with his definitive statement on the subject that we begin our dialogue.
In every country, it always is and must be the interest of the great body of people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it the cheapest. [This] proposition...could never have been called into question, had not the interested sophistry of merchants and manufacturers confounded the common sense of mankind.” — Adam Smit
It is a perfect day for golf at the Sunrise Country Club. Cromethius and Rene stroll together toward the green of the notorious seventh hole.
“I've heard about this one,” Cromethius says. “It's been known to induce paranoid psychosis in more than one frustrated putter.”
Rene snorts contemptuously, “Piece of cake.”
Arriving at the green, Rene crouches and eyes his ball lying in a slight depression twelve feet from the pin. He confidently lines up his putt as Cromethius removes the pin. Tapping the ball, it rolls to within an inch of the cup, then suddenly veers left, coming to a rest at the cup's very lip.
Rene stares in disbelief for a moment, then explodes. “It's rigged!” he cries. “Where's the owner of this dump? I'll sue him!”
Amused, Cromethius informs Rene that he has a problem. “You'd better buy a ticket to Tokyo,” he laughs, “because the owners are Japanese.”
“What? Is nothing sacred?,” Rene asks. “Automobiles and electronics aren't enough? Now they're invading our golf courses, too! What in the world is this country coming to?”
“It's frightening to speculate, Rene. But wherever America is headed, the Japanese aren't to blame.”
“Try telling that to those 70,000 auto workers GM is laying off,” Rene counters. “But don't stand anywhere near me when you do.”
“I'd be happy to debate this issue with you, Rene,” Cromethius says, “but let's talk about the Coca-Cola Company, too. It earns more in Japan than from its U.S. soft-drink business. Motorola is cleaning up in the Japanese cellular phone market. Proctor & Gamble is putting diapers on a whole generation of Japanese babies. And Japanese classrooms are using thousands of Apple Computers. Before we carry on the debate, however, let me sink this shot.”
Cromethius casually strokes the ball into the cup. “Piece of cake,” he remarks with a wink.
As the two old friends walk to the next tee, they continue their discussion.
“Are you aware,” Cromethius asks, “that the biggest importers of Japanese-made cars in the U.S. are General Motors and Ford? Did you know that there are 120 Japanese-owned firms in the U.S. employing U.S. workers and making parts for both American and Japanese branded cars? And consider Japanese automakers in Kentucky and Tennessee. Would you say their cars are American-made or Japanese?
“Sony makes televisions in San Diego. Harley Davidson makes motorcycles in Japan. Volvos sold in America have Japanese transmissions, American air conditioners, German electronics, French engines, and on and on. I could cite thousands of similar examples.”
“We were talking about American jobs, Cromethius, not products,” retorts Rene. “Wherever the raw materials come from, somebody has to put them together, and Americans are losing out. But there's still hope. Back in 1984, to cite just one example, voluntary export restraints on steel resulted in 16,900 new jobs in the American steel industry. That's 16,900 workers no longer draining U.S. tax dollars in unemployment benefits.”
“And 52,400 more jobs were lost because steel-using companies had to pay more for their steel,” Cromethius reminds his friend.
Rene reasons, “But because those companies started buying American again, those steel workers had money to spend again. And when they started putting their wages back into the economy, those lost jobs were restored.
“Anyway, though it's inconvenient to your way of thinking, Cromethius, offering consumers and manufacturers the best price isn't the only thing involved in building a good society. Permitting children to work in garment factories would certainly lower the price of shirts. But would it be in the broad national interest? Of course not. Japanese underpricing may save consumers money in the short term, but is it worth the erosion of American strength and will? Is it worth her loss of independence and solvency? I think not.”
At this point, a foursome of attractive women strolls by. “Are you guys gonna stand there jabbering all day or are you gonna play golf?” one of them asks.
“I think my friend prefers to jabber,” Cromethius answers, “so you're quite welcome to play through.”
FAIR TRADE OR FREE TRADE?
“Whether the advantage which one country has over another, be natural or acquired is in this respect of no consequence. As long as one country has those advantages, and the other wants them, it will always be more advantageous for the latter, rather to buy of the former than to make.”--Adam Smith
Much philosophic energy has been spent contemplating great beauty. So it is entirely within character for Cromethius and Rene to contemplate the beauty standing before them on the golf course for a few lingering moments before continuing their discussion.
“Perfect swing,” Rene observes as the last of the female foursome follows her ball down the fairway. “Quite,” Cromethius agrees.
Emerging from his reverie, Rene continues. “Now where were we? Ah yes, Japan. The big problem, of course, is that Japan plays the global market game by its own rules. It's terribly unfair, and the result is that America's trade deficit with Japan in 1990 was some $40 billion.”
“That's an improvement, actually,” Cromethius points out, “It was nearly $60 billion in '87.”
“$60 billion, $40 billion, so what? The point is that while Japan floods America with its own products, it refuses to reciprocate. Coca-Cola notwithstanding, Japan is closed to most American companies. For example, they actually have a law preventing foreign competitors from opening department stores and supermarkets without the consent of local merchants. Foreign drugs can be tested only in Japanese laboratories on Japanese nationals. Every single imported car has to be individually tested on the dock for compliance with emission standards. They have these huge, interlocking groups of companies they call Keiretsu, who do business only with each other. American companies are locked out. In the U.S., that would be called a monopoly. In Japan, it's accepted trade practice.
“America has been protecting Japan militarily for 47 years,” Rene continues. “That has allowed Japan to use its resources to develop its economy rather than build up its defense. But when we have to fight a war to protect one of their prime sources of oil, they don't even appreciate it. No wonder Americans are angry!”
Cromethius opens his mouth to reply, but Rene is on a roll “To keep a world trade system going, the strongest powers must be willing to make certain sacrifices. They must be willing to keep their markets open. Japan isn't willing to make such sacrifices, and in time it will weaken the rest of the world's ability to do so, as well. If they can't restrain the excesses of their own economy, the United States must do it for them.”
“Oh ho! Here we go again!” says Cromethius. “Uncle Sam will solve all our problems! But don't you see? That will only make the problems worse. Protectionism just doesn't work, Rene.
“According to the Institute for International Economics,” he continues, “Washington's trade barriers already cost U.S. consumers $80 billion a year—more than $1,200 per family! Even voluntary restraints, which you want Japan to impose on itself, are harmful. In the first place, when they come about as a result of economic threats and intimidation, restraints aren't really voluntary, are they? And instead of helping consumers, they hurt. One economist, Robert Crandall, estimates that voluntary export restraints on automobiles increased the price of a Japanese automobile by $2,500 in 1984; he says this allowed domestic manufacturers to charge $1000 per car more than they would have in the absence of restraints. That alone cost American consumers about $16 billion in 1984 and 1985.
“In effect,” Cromethius goes on to say, “quotas, tariffs, and restraints are nothing more than corporate subsidies, benefitting only the targeted industry at the expense of everyone else.
“Two wrongs do not make a right, Rene. Even if Japan is unfair, it's not in the interest of the United States to retaliate in kind. Would you allow a Ford or General Motors executive to personally obstruct a willing American who wants to buy a foreign car? Of course not. Then why would you ask the government to do the job for them?”
AMERICA—JAPAN'S DUMPING GROUND?
Rene is undaunted by what he perceives as impractical philosophic idealism, though he forgets that he is frequently guilty of it himself. He replies: “So we should swallow whatever they dish out. Is that what you're saying Cromethius? Shall we permit them to undercut entire American industries by dumping their products over here? By selling under cost?”
“Companies that make a practice of consistently selling under cost to gain market share usually go out of business,” Cromethius points out.
“Not if their government subsidizes them.”
“Even if Japan does that,” Cromethius argues, “should American consumers complain? If Japanese taxpayers want to pay for part of my automobile or stereo, let the Japanese taxpayers complain. They're just helping me raise my standard of living. And besides, even if a company succeeds in driving its competitors out of the market by cutting prices, it can't keep them out. As soon as it starts to raise prices, the competitors will reappear. Or some other company will buy the bankrupt company's assets for ten cents on the dollar and become a low-cost producer itself. Again, the long-term effect of government interference is, as always, to protect domestic producers at the expense of the consumer.”
“Dumping is only one of the reasons for the U.S. government to protect its industries from unfair Japanese trade,” Rene insists.
“Ok,” Cromethius continues, “why don't you tell me what the other reasons are, and I'll tell you why they aren't good reasons. Fair enough?”
“To start with,” Rene begins, “Japan's intrusion protection from foreign competition so they can grow strong enough to hold their own.”
Cromethius: “David Ricardo's law of comparative advantage says otherwise; it says that countries should produce what they can produce efficiently and buy everything else from foreigners. If foreign countries produce something better or cheaper, it's in consumers' best interests to buy it. Let fledgling industries produce products that are competitive...without government's help.”
Rene: “America has become a debtor nation; we owe foreigners more than they owe us. We must stop relying on foreign investment and foreign loans.”
Cromethius: “Would you rather have it the other way around? If foreign investment strengthens America's economy, what's wrong with that?”
The sun sets behind the sand trap at the fourteenth hole and the course grows dark. Time has slipped away on Cromethius and Rene and the game is over before it's done.
As they stroll back to the clubhouse, Rene begins to reel off another protectionist argument. Cromethius holds up his hand.
“Enough Rene,” he says. “We could debate these minor points forever, but there's a major underlying issue here, and that's the cultural differences between the two nations. Those who claim that Japanese culture is superior forget that American music, cinema, TV and fashion lead the world...that American computer software is the universal standard...that the U.S. military is the finest there is...that American democracy and individual freedom are unexcelled.”
“And you forget,” Rene interrupts, “that among the leading industrial nations, America is also number one in homicides, infant mortality, drug abuse, homelessness, and energy waste—conditions that have been aggravated, and in some respects even brought about, by decades of unfair Japanese trade practices. Americans have watched helplessly as Japan buys their country piece by piece, putting more and more people out of work while the government sits by and lets it happen.”
“And I say it's America's own government that's fostered those conditions,” Cromethius argues, “not by failing to contain Japan, but by creating a society hopelessly dependent on welfare. By legislating social conditions in which criminals thrive, education suffers, and the work ethic all but disappears. The government has erected economic barriers to entrepreneurship and encouraged labor unions to run roughshod over American industry for decades. That, Rene, is why America can barely compete anymore.”
Barely pausing for a breath, he continues, “The Japanese have the longest lifespans, the highest employment, the highest literacy. And let's face it, most of their manufactured products are the highest quality, too. American workers may be angry about it, but given a choice, they'll choose the better product at a better price every time. Why I'd bet that a third of those 70,000 GM workers you're so worried about drive Japanese cars!
“Now Americans are blaming all their problems on Japan, and you, Rene, with your persistent blind faith in paternalistic government, would force Japan to slow down so America can catch up. It's absurd.
“The solution isn't protectionism,” Cromethius concludes, “It's the eradication of it.”
The day is over and so is the debate. Lugging his bag to the car. Cromethius feels compelled to make a final observation. “I've noticed, Rene, that you frequently fail to practice what you preach.”
Rene protests, “Hey, have I said one word about the Germans?”
Cromethius howls with laughter as he climbs into Rene's black Mercedes 450-SL. Embarrassed, Rene revs up the engine and roars away, leaving the Sunrise Country Club far behind.
Should America pursue a policy of free trade or “fair trade?” Will protectionism and putting “America first” help to create more jobs? Or higher prices? We invite your comments.
NOW & Then Issue 4
FIVE LITTLE WORDS
On December 15, 1991, America celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
Two centuries of controversy have not dimmed the power of those first great Constitutional Amendments. On the contrary, they remain at the heart of virtually every social issue America struggles to resolve today.
As adopted, the Bill of Rights applied only to the national government. Except for a few specific limitations on state power found in the original text of the Constitution, individual states were restrained only by their own constitutions, not by the Federal Bill of Rights. Theoretically, any state could have shut down a newspaper or denied religious freedom without violating the First Amendment.
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, closed that gap. It also gave impetus to the debate that is the subject of this issue of Now & then.
Those five little words—”equal protection of the laws”—are the primary fuel of a serious constitutional controversy. Call it “judicial review” or “judicial activism.” Whatever the label, there is no doubt that the United States Supreme Court, originally envisioned as the weakest of our three branches of government, now wields substantial power over our lives.
Many important social-policy innovations of the last 37 years—abortion, capital punishment, crime control, school prayer, racial integration, pornography, sex discrimination, libel, and so on—have been decided not by our elected legislators, but by the nine appointed justices of the Supreme Court.
Depending on your philosophic bent, this activist role either fulfill a noble, humanitarian vision or is a dangerous and decidedly unconstitutional seizure of power by an egalitarian elite.
Ironically, the Constitution doesn't even grant the Supreme Court the power of Judicial Review. That power was inferred and claimed by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803 in the celebrated case of Marbury v. Madison and has been accepted doctrine ever since.
The basic issue to be tried here is: Can the Supreme Court, whose authority is to decide cases according to the law of the Constitution, be justified in imposing new values not contained in the Constitution?
That raises a host of ancillary questions, like: What did the framers of our Constitution intend? Is Original Intent even relevant 200 years later? Does the Court have the authority to create rights not specified in the Constitution? And this: Quis custodiet ipsoscustodes? Who indeed will guard the guardians themselves?
Subscribers to The Audio Classics Series have heard (or soon will hear) Walter Cronkite's stirring account of the creation of our Bill of Rights. We hope the debate that follows will further illuminate the Bill of Rights, and the great document they amended, in the context of contemporary issues...issues that affect our lives in so many ways.
THE BALCONY IS OPEN
There is no balcony in the United States Supreme Court. At least, none in which mortals may sit.
Cromethius and Rene, however, hold permanent passes to a special, phantom balcony, unseen by mortal eyes. And there they sit, an ethereal Siskel and Ebert, arguing the historic cases that parade before them.
As students at the Academy centuries ago, they set out to follow the thread of philosophic thought through the ages. Finally, a small group of enlightened men in Philadelphia synthesized history's most noble ideals into a single great document—the Constitution of the United States of America.
Now Cromethius and Rene observe the resulting proceedings in a chamber of awesome dimension and profound influence. For them, time is compressed. Justices come and go. Cases are heard and disposed of and sometimes heard and disposed of again, like a VCR on rewind and fast forward. Cromethius and Rene see it all.
“Brown v. Board of Education,” Cromethius says, “that's where it all started.”
Rene smiles at the memory. “Ah yes. 1954. I remember it well. The Supreme Court's shining hour.”
“And that places me on the proverbial horns of a dilemma.”
“What do you mean?”
“The court was constitutionally correct to outlaw state-enforced segregation of schools,” Cromethius explains, “but they went too far—they created federally-enforced integration. And that was beyond the scope of their constitutional authority.
“But their decision struck at the heart of great evil,” Rene says patiently “Legal racial segregation was no longer acceptable in America. Brown v. Board of Education merely crystallized that consensus and made integration the law.”
“That's the dilemma. You can't say it was wrong; you'd be called a racist. But you can't say it was entirely right either. The Court isn't supposed to create new federal laws. That's what amendments are for.”
“Sixteen new amendments in 199 years,” Rene snorts contemptuously. “Come on, Cromethius. Congress is bogged down in failure and inaction. If we left it up to them, the South might still have bathrooms marked “colored.” If elected officials don't have the decency to end segregation or the death penalty or sexual discrimination, why shouldn't the judges do it? Who better to direct the winds of change than the Supreme Court?”
“I think I still have Karl Marx's number,” Cromethius replies.
Rene ignores the sarcasm and continues. “And besides, the judicial process is superior in all respects. It's governed by lawyers, who are in turn governed by a professional ideal of reflective and dispassionate analysis. As judges, they're insulated from political pressures...unlike members of Congress.”
The logic stuns Cromethius. He stares at Rene in disbelief, collecting his thoughts. Finally, he says, “I would expect that reasoning from some left-wing law professor, Rene. Coming from you, it's a real disappointment. But that's what judicial activism is all about, isn't it? Liberals want the Supreme Court to make laws because they know that majority rule would never accept their liberal agenda. Government by the elite, isn't that it?”
“Not at all,” Rene answers indignantly, “Call it government by the Constitution. Only you put the Constitution in a straitjacket and I see it as the great Justice William Brennan saw it.”
“And how's that, Rene?”
“Brennan called the Court 'the lodestar of our aspirations,' a compendium of 'majestic generalities and ennobling pronouncements, both luminous and obscure.'“
“Just what liberals want ordinary people to believe,” Cromethius says, “They propagate this myth that the Court's policy prescriptions, however unpalatable, are commands of the Constitution they can move us closer to their idea of a good society.”
“And what's wrong with a society that embodies Man's highest philosophic ideals? A society of equals? A society—
“...polluted by pornography and drugs,” Cromethius interrupts. “A society of coddled criminals and welfare junkies…a society that bans God from the classroom. That's the society your liberal Court has given us, Rene. That's America.”
“I could argue the causes, Cromethius, but right now, the Justices are taking their seats.”
“Well, by all means, let's see what new laws they pass today,” Cromethius sneers.
ORIGINAL INTENTION AND CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS
It is now 1986. A reverential hush falls over the Courtroom as nine robed Justices file in and take their places behind the imposing bench. The opposing lawyers prepare to present oral arguments. Each lawyer is given one-half hour, not a minute more.
“This case is interesting,” Rene whispers, “Bowers v. Hardwick—a homosexual sodomy case.”
Cromethius rolls his eyes. “Why don't we fast forward this one? I'm not too interested in the details, but I can't wait to hear the decision.”
Rene agrees. “Click.” Fast forward. The decision is in; the Constitution provides no fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy.
“Frankly, I’m surprised,” Cromethius comments. “This seems to be the only right not granted by the Constitution...according to the Supreme Court.”
“But read Justice Blackmun’s dissent,” Rene counters, “The majority missed the point. This case wasn’t about sex. It was about the fundamental right to be let alone.”
“Where in the Constitution does it say we have a fundamental right to be let alone, Rene?” Cromethius asks. “Let alone to do what? To worship? Sure. To read? Yes. To waste time? Even that. But to rob a bank? To counterfeit money? To produce child pornography? I don't think so.”
“Now you're being ridiculous, Cromethius,” Rene complains.
“I call it ridiculous to claim that the right of privacy is constitutionally granted. It’s not. Every special interest group in the country claims some kind of Constitutional right, and most of them are wrong. For example, do you really believe that the Framers of the Constitution intended to grant a dentist with AIDS the right to keep treating patients?”
“How can we know what they intended?” Rene counters, “And why should we care? The Constitution is just a bundle of vague compromises...a starting point. Even if we always knew the original intent, it wouldn't always be relevant today.”
“We do know this, Rene: they intended to limit the power of the federal government. The Supreme Court, it seems, is intent on the opposite.”
“What about Congress?” Rene asks.
“Congress is power-hungry, too.”
That surprises Rene. “You mean we actually agree on something?”
“Not for long. Another case is coming up. I’m sure we’ll find something new to argue about.”
“Click” Rewind to 1975. The case before the Court is yet another in a long procession of death penalty appeals. Many more would follow. As usual, during this period of judicial history, the Justices overrule the lower courts and throw the death penalty out.
Cromethius is disgusted. “Another killer reprieved,” he says.
“Another victory, for human dignity,” Rene counters.
“Oh, come on Rene! The guy raped and strangled a four-year-old little girl. What's human dignity got to do with it?”
“The Eighth Amendment, Cromethius—'cruel and unusual punishment.' America's not a country of barbarians. To deny the intrinsic worth of any human, even a killer, is to deny the humanitarian principles that make America great.”
Exasperated, Cromethius argues, “What about the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, Rene? The Constitution explicitly sanctions the death penalty not once, but twice.”
“But the Constitution contradicts itself, Cromethius. So what are we do? Someone's got to clarify it. If Congress won't do it, the Supreme Court must.”
“If something is not explicitly prohibited by the Constitution—and capital punishment is not—the Court has no right to prohibit it.”
Rene is quick with his rebuttal. “You want to interpret the Constitution literally, Cromethius? Well, what could be crueler than killing someone? And capital punishment certainly is unusual. Therefore, it's unconstitutional. Stop being so selective in your adherence to Original Intent, Cromethius.”
“Thankfully, the Court will soon come to its senses and grant Gary Gilmore his death-wish But you liberals will never stop trying.”
A banging gavel reverberates through the courtroom. Another case is about to be heard.
“Click.” Fast forward a decade.
The State of Alabama has passed a statute permitting moments of silence–for prayer or meditation–in public schools. The Justices, by a 6-3 vote, declare the law unconstitutional.
Cromethius can sit still no longer. Leaping to MN feet he shakes his fist at the bench. “Boo!” he cries. “Throw the bums off the bench!”
Shocked at his friend's boorish behavior, Rene tries to silence him. “Shhh! Cromethius! Sit down! You can't boo the Supreme Court!”
“Why not? They can't hear me, anyway.” Cromethius brushes Rene's restraining hand away and continues to boo.
“I hope that makes you feel better,” Rene says. “Because it's giving me a headache.”
“Rene, aren't you concerned about the erosion of America's moral values? Well, I am, and there's the reason for it.”
“But the Alabama law was an attempt to establish state-sanctioned religion in the schools. The Constitution doesn't allow that.”
“Justice Rehnquist disagrees,” Cromethius points out. “He says that the establishment clause of the First Amendment was intended only to bar the creation of a national church, not to force the government into neutrality toward all religions.
“But public education wasn't even a glimmer in Horace Mann's eye when they drafted the establishment clause,” Rene says. “They didn't intend anything about prayer in public schools. The Court's majority opinion is that the underlying purpose of the establishment dause was a total ban on state endorsement of religion or prayer. Alabama tried. The Court put a stop to it.”
“Good for Alabama,” shouts Cromethius, “and boo again for the Supreme Court. It's just one more example of the liberal agenda forcing itself on a majority that wants and obviously needs school prayer.”
The gavel bangs again. This day's session is over. The Supreme Court Justices file out of the courtroom and retire to their chambers to contemplate the cases before them. Cromethius and Rene retire, as well. Though unresolved, it's been a healthy debate. Now it's time for a relaxing dinner.
“French?” Rene asks.
“Greek.” Cromethius answers.
And with that, the balcony is closed.
Does judicial activism circumvent majority rule? Does the Court make itself a Platonic elite whose own policy choices become the law of the land, no matter what the Constitution says? Or is the Court serving its rightful purpose—as a shield against minority oppression by a tyrannical majority, and as the champion of America's noble aspirations?
We invite your comments.