Saturday, October 12, 2013

No, wait, this explains everything! Retroactionism revisited

Rep. Morgan Griffith doing his Eric Cantor imitation, in full revolutionary snarl mode. Love the chin whiskers showing that he's not just an oik but a  pretentious oik.
One Republican congressman who is fully aware of the suffering that is being caused by the federal shutdown and will be caused by any default on the country's financial obligations is second-term Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia. But he hastens to clarify, with a Leninesque grandeur, that those are just the eggs you need to break for this particular omelette:
“We have to make a decision that’s right long-term for the United States, and what may be distasteful, unpleasant and not appropriate in the short run may be something that has to be done,” he said. Griffith, a former majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, cited as an example the American Revolution. [jump]
“I will remind you that this group of renegades that decided that they wanted to break from the crown in 1776 did great damage to the economy of the colonies,” Griffith said. “They created the greatest nation and the best form of government, but they did damage to the economy in the short run.” (The Hill)
A lot of people are making merciless fun of the congressman for comparing himself in this way to our heroic ancestors (we should call the current Congress the Foundering Fathers). But I think he has a genuine point to make here, one we ignore at our peril.

The Revolutionary War did indeed cause a lot of economic hardship in the new country. It took Tory capital to Canada and patriotic workers into the armed forces, drastically reducing industrial and agricultural production, and it was financed by huge loans made (especially by France) to the individual states (there was no federal government with borrowing authority), which found it really difficult to raise taxes to pay off all that debt; when they did, they might find themselves with a rebellion on their hands, on the part of poor unpensioned veterans. And no money, of course, to offer the veterans pensions.
"Neil and Alyson's house". Photo by Traveler.
This is exactly the kind of situation the House seems to be trying to recreate with their own Revolution, just as the southern states did back in the 1860s with their Confederate constitution, shrinking the central government especially in regard to its taxing and borrowing ability, eliminating the sources of productive investment, and of course starving the veterans (while making sure they can have guns).

You might be wondering, now, how is that a good idea? If it's "distasteful, unpleasant, and not appropriate" in the short run, what makes it appropriate in the long run? How does that even make any sense?*

Our Founding Fathers didn't like it much. That's why they called a constitutional convention for 1787 to dump the Articles of Confederation after six years. They proceeded to establish a strong central government to take over the state debts, creating a national debt as a way of encouraging investment in the young economy, began collecting taxes on a pretty large scale for itself, and made some moves to take care of the veterans too**. The secessionist Confederacy of the 1860s did even worse, as readers will probably remember, lasting only five years before losing its war and ceasing entirely to exist, constitutional inability to tax effectively being one big reason.

If our new Confederalist party feels, as Rep. Griffiths says, that this period of chaos and deprivation was necessary to create the "greatest nation and the best form of government," why go through it all over again? We've got that best form of government—strong central authority and well-maintained national debt—already. Why would we want to work so hard to get where we've been all along? Why would we want to be twistered off to Oz to get to our own back yard?

The only possible explanation lies in what I have called the retroactionary impulse: Griffiths and his fellow Foundering Fathers want indeed to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, but they want to follow them backwards: not just into the Articles of Confederation but out the other end, to the Revolutionary War and at last into the dear old monarchy, the green and pleasant (and monoracial) land of the past, touch-your-forelock feudal Merrie England. Back to the land of the Established Church and enclosure, where abortion and bread-theft are capital crimes! Freeeeedumb!

*"Put that thing back in your pants right now, Congressman, this is extremely distasteful, unpleasant, and inappropriate." "Yes, but only in the short run!"

**Among the first acts of the First Congress was taking veterans' care off the states' hands; today's Republicans would have been screaming Tenth Amendment over that one.
But not all retroaction; if you can afford it you ought to be allowed to ride in an aeroplane. Via.

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