There should probably be another name. I’m terrible at naming things. But that can wait.
Since it was adopted, the constitution has been amended periodically:
– and 1992.
Thus the longest period without a constitutional amendment was 61 years, from 1804 to 1865. The tumultuous 1960’s saw three amendments, the most of any decade, though there’s no reason to believe that that was related to the tumult.
Tellingly, the last amendment in post modernist/narcissistic 1992 concerned the profound and burning issue of Congressional pay. This is a measure of the degree to which the “constitution” has become a play thing of the rulers rather than the choke collar it was meant to be.
After 18 years, then, we’re more or less due for another constitutional amendment. And we need one.
I’ll stipulate that amending the constitution is dangerous. It should probably be done only when not doing it is more dangerous.
Such as right now.
We are witnessing the breakdown of the United States government. Whether you or I think this is a good thing or a bad thing does not matter. It is as certain as the next sunrise or any other overwhelmingly obvious, inevitable and empirically verifiable future event, meaning an event that hasn’t happened yet but we know will happen based upon historical precedent, and we’ll all be able to see it when it does. In practical terms this is proximately due to economics. But it is also fair to say that economics at the relevant level is a practical expression, individually and collectively, of our deeper beliefs. Our true beliefs, not the ones we necessarily profess. As in, we say we believe in the “presumption of innocence” but we demonstrate day in and day out that we don’t. You get the idea.
We know from history that such events – the collapse of governments – usually entail disruption, displacement and human suffering, sometimes not so bad but sometimes just god-awful. Whether the break up of the United States would be of the former or latter type is something no one can really say. At least I can’t.
Because of this, prudence dictates that if possible the event – the breakdown of the United States – should be avoided if possible. Or, if it cannot be avoided it should be made as painless as possible, unnecessary human suffering being something to be avoided in any case.
There is normally a lot of discussion about and interest in who to blame when things are going wrong. I’m not sure if that ever serves a good purpose, but in this situation it’s completely irrelevant and frankly undeserving of consideration because there are more important things to do than carping and blaming. For what it’s worth, there’s plenty of blame, so much among so many that it’s practically meaningless to talk about it.
The men who founded this country had faith that people could be self-governing and act like grown-ups. That doesn’t mean we do either of those well – or at all – very often. But unless we want to risk the potentially frightful and abrupt social degeneration associated with the collapse of a national government we’re going to have to rise to the occasion now. It is up to us. There’s a fast closing window of opportunity.
We’ll find out if the founders’ faith was misplaced. But first, a little bit of diagnosis. Not too much, because it’s not that important, but a little bit is necessary.
The United States stood across the 20th century globe like a colossus. There were two great political conflagrations – called “wars” – that were so terrible and costly in human terms that the world’s good will was bound to be heaped upon whoever ended them. Remember that: the United States did not become a hegemon by fighting wars; it became a hegemon because in fighting them, it ended them.
This was all in the first half of the 20th century.
In the second half of the 20th century the US basked in the glory of the first half and became something of a one-trick pony, always marching off to some little war or other. But we had still ended the big wars, terrible wars, that nobody else seemed capable of ending. We harnessed the power of the atom (using mainly foreign scientists, but that’s another subject). We built stuff, here and abroad. We believed we could do anything, from eradicating hunger and poverty on earth, to conquering outer space.
Wanting to do great things, believing you can do great things, is not necessarily wrong, though it is perhaps immodest. But on the other hand you can’t do anything if you don’t believe you can, and actually try.
Where does this belief become delusion, though? This is where: when you become heedless of the cost, the price to be paid. It’s one thing to think you can do a great thing and try to do it. It’s quite another to believe and demand that it’s going to be easy. The former, soberly undertaken with a dose of humility, is the province of adults; the latter is the fantasy of children. The former recognizes a world apart from what our will would have of it; the latter is infatuated with power and seeks to bend the world to itself, as if that was the world’s only purpose.
We honor our veterans and I suppose we should. But the price of the world’s good will towards the United States, earned in the first half of the 20th century and just about completely spent in the years since, was not paid by them; it was paid by the ones who didn’t come home. That payment is no less real because we have never known or even met those people; but we behave as if it is precisely because we have become heedless of what things cost. This is always a temptation when the cost – which nature itself never fails to impose – is borne by someone else.
And now you know, if you didn’t before, why we are drowning in unpayable debt.
The solution is a paradox. We must recover our sense of the cost of things by absolving ourselves and everyone else of their debts. We must forgive one another, which begins and ends with an acknowledgment of our fault, that we have refused to count the cost and forced or tricked others into paying it to maintain our denial, and we have been doing this for a long time. As we used to say in a more civilized era: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
And we’re going to have to do this ourselves. We like to complain about our “leaders”, but we have exactly the leaders that we deserve. They are just like us, perfect mirrors. They will never exhibit any character unless and until we do.
A constitutional amendment is required for this. Section 4 of the 14th amendment is one reason, but ultimately the legal reasons are not important. The important thing is that this is just as is should be, since we have to do it ourselves anyway, and amending the constitution was precisely the mechanism left by our ancestors to do precisely that.
There are a lot of problems that this will create. But this, too, doesn’t really matter: first, because there will be serious problems if it isn’t done, no matter what else anyone does – such as the collapse of the government; and second, because those problems will be more serious than the problems of not doing it.
And also because not doing anything is an extremely serious, even terminal problem of its own: the denial of a spoiled child who cannot accept that he won’t get his own way. Children doubtless have their charms, but the refusal to accept a reality that stands in the way of what you want is not cute. I have represented a fair number of criminals, and others who have done the same can tell you that this child-like quality is prevalent in many of them, and always in the worst of them.
I am going to post a proposed 28th amendment in its entirety, to be followed by a series of posts explaining it. It is fairly long and complicated, which is unfortunate, but then this is not an easy subject: it’s not easy to know what to do and how to do it and who should do it; how much needs to be specified; and how much needs to be left to the discretion of the people who will ultimately carry out its provisions.
This amendment is the populist solution to the difficulties we face, and I will categorically state that it, or something like it, is the only such solution there is. That may sound imperious to some, but there really isn’t time for endless digressions into the arcane minutae of economics and monetary theory when, in the end, this is about law more than it is about economics.
And in any case, the law trumps economics. You know that because the man who defies economic considerations by forgoing benefits in order to comply with the law is still just; but the man who reverses this, and defies the law to obtain economic benefits is a criminal, like Al Capone. There are some things that are simply true, as in self-evident and axiomatic, and require the assent of all reasonable people. And that’s one of them.
In practical terms as well, even a brief foray into the world of economics blogs and publications on the internet will reveal such a dizzying multitude of opinions on matters economic that in order to actually do anything, economists are going to have to subordinate their theories and speculations to the law, just like everyone else. And if that means lawyers are the way out of this mess and not economists, what does that matter – as long as we get out of this mess? Lawyers have abdicated their role in favor of economics for far too long as it is; indeed if lawyers had not done so we probably wouldn’t be facing these difficulties. But that, too, is a subject for another day.
Our rulers may have other plans up their sleeves, though I have also seriously entertained the idea that they don’t – that they are as paralyzed, confused and frightened and useless as they look, that they have no clue what to do other than prepare to get the hell out of dodge when TSHTF. If the latter, they may wind up being grateful for an exit strategy even if it isn’t theirs; if the former there may be trouble, but in an allusion to the late Senator Edward Kennedy we’ll just have to drive off that bridge when we come to it.
See? These are serious subjects for a serious time, but you have to keep your sense of humor.