Sunday, September 16, 2012

Constitution Day

Monday is the 225th anniversary of the day our nation's founders signed their names to the final draft of the Constitution. On Friday I spoke to a gym full of elementary and middle-school students (and some parents) at my son's school's Constitution Day program. I didn't do a ton of research for it, but I did give considerable thought to how to address such a wide range of ages. The following is more-or-less what I came up with.

We celebrate the Constitution because it is the set of rules that the founders of the United States worked out and agreed on 225 years ago – when our country was brand new, and no one was sure yet that we wouldn’t fall apart.

They did an amazing job. They agreed to rules on how we would elect our leaders, how we would write and approve and carry out laws, how we would pay for it, and how the states would continue to interact with each other.

The founders wanted a central government strong enough to create an army and navy to defend us from foreign enemies, but not one so strong that it could be just as oppressive as the King of England had been.

Who can tell me how many branches of government the Constitution set up? And what are they? Good. And why is it important that we have THREE? Right. For balance. So no ONE gets too strong.

Which one do you think they were most afraid would get too strong?

I think you’re right. Most of the rest of the world at this time had an Executive Branch led by a king, or a czar, or a Sultan, who ultimately had all the final authority over whatever legislature and certainly whatever courts existed.

The power and independence given to our judicial branch to overturn legislation or to prevent the executive branch from enacting it – to declare it unconstitutional – is one of the things that really set the United States apart, certainly back then. And that is where the ACLU often comes in, by the way – sometimes Congress, or a state legislature, will pass a law that they THINK is solving some problem, but along the way that law is also depriving people of their rights, or treating some people differently than it treats other people. And when one of those people who have been hurt – even unintentionally – comes to the ACLU for help, the ACLU sends a lawyer to ask a judge to interpret the constitution and decide if that law is unconstitutional, at no charge to the person who was hurt. The ACLU helps make the system work the way it was designed.

So 225 years ago this week, on September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention finished their work and signed it, and sent it back to the state legislatures of the 13 states – because the states all had to accept, or ratify it – or else what good would it do? And that took another year and a half.

Was it perfect? What do you think was the biggest problem that it left in place?

Yes, I think most people agree that the answer to that question is Slavery. In 1787 some states allowed slavery and some didn’t, and the Constitution compromised by allowing it to remain in place. It took 90 years and a civil war to fix that.

What did the Constitution say about who could vote? Ah, IT DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING! At the time, it was customary and assumed that only men who owned property had the right to vote. Not until after the Civil War did we amend the Constitution to specify that the black men – but only the men – who had been freed from slavery could vote. And when were women allowed to vote? Anyone? Right, not for another fifty years after that, in 1920.

So, the Constitution is a living document, that still works because we’ve amended it when necessary – but not really all that often – for 225 years.

In fact, the first ten amendments were done immediately, and all at once … and who can tell me what those ten amendments are called?

Yes, the Bill of Rights.

Whereas the original Articles of the Constitution deal with the powers and limits of powers of the branches of government, and the relationship between the states and the federal government, they don’t talk much about the rights of the People.

So that’s mostly what the first ten amendment did – list freedoms that the government could not take away from the people. And we just heard a great presentation from the second graders on what those rights were.

So, the Constitution in general, and the Bill of Rights in particular --
Defend the people from the government;
Defend the weak from the strong; and
Defend minorities from the majority.

Take note. What are the first three words of the Constitution? Yes, “We the People.” And the Bill of Rights consistently refers to The People. All the people. Not just white male landowners, not “citizens.” The People. True, in 1787, women (and men who didn't own homes) couldn’t vote, but they still had free speech, freedom of religion, the right to trial by jury. The government couldn't search them without a warrant or force them to let soldiers live in their homes.

The Bill of Rights also introduces the concept of due process, which courts later extended from just matters of trial by jury, to all dealings with government – the idea of equality under the law.

It’s an election year, and candidates are falling all over themselves to convince us that they believe America is the greatest country on earth, and that they are the MOST PROUD to be an American.

America is indeed a great country, and I feel proud AND blessed to live here. One of the things that makes America great is that we are a huge country, rich in natural resources, and relatively safe across two oceans from most of the troubles of the rest of the world. I feel blessed by that, but not particularly proud – any more than I’m “proud” that I’m six feet tall. Being six feet tall is an advantage, but it’s not something I worked to achieve.

I think what really makes America great is the 225 years of upholding this Constitution and its principles, and working to extend freedom and equality -- liberty and justice -- to ALL PEOPLE. That’s something to be proud of.

So go be proud Americans. And be Americans we can all be proud of.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Notes from the Pacific Northwest

Observations on the Pacific Northwest from the plane on the way back from our trip to Seattle:

(If you're reading this blog, you probably know that our son Grant is in France with a school exchange program that we've been preparing for for years. Partly to distract us from fretting about our 12-year-old being on another continent, Sally cashed in a few thousand frequent flyer miles, and we took our first kidless vacation in years -- staying, for the most part, with Sally's cousin Bruce and his wife Julie and their daughter Taylor. With the expenses of travel and lodging covered, we were able to indulge ourselves with great food [and the related hidden costs of parking and ferry crossings] without worrying about the budget.)

We spent the first week in June there without ever unpacking my walking shorts or short-sleeved shirts. The weather alternated between sun-splashed and drizzling, but it rarely got above 60 degrees. And since we didn't really have a spring in the Midwest this year (its been in the 80s more often than not ever since early February), the cool climate was perfect, from my perspective.

When I travel, I tend to plan my days around cultural and historical sites -- whether that means castles and cathedrals and seaports and cityscapes, or simply pubs and bistros and the food and drink and music and conversation within, I'm pretty much a "man-made" kind of guy.

On this trip, we encountered a heap of male seal lions basking in the sun;
a peregrine falcon perched above its cliffside nest; a herd of elk lying down on a roadway in a valley below us; and best of all, for a few magical seconds, a bald eagle skimming across the surface of the Columbia River just a couple of hundred feet from us. These unplanned events rarely lent themselves to photography or any other souvenir-taking. The memories will have to do.

Nature had the starring role in two other attractions that weren't on my pre-trip agenda. On Monday Bruce and Julie took us up into the mountains to Sosquamish Falls (remember the opening scenes of "Twin Peaks"?) --
a waterfall that is narrower but taller than Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, but that somehow manages to send a tower of mist higher and farther, it seems, than Niagra.

And, on the return leg of an overnight trip to Portland, we took a detour to visit Mount St. Helens. We had been advised to allow at least two hours for the trip and ended up taking five. It's an amazing experience that just keeps getting more compelling the farther up the 52-mile road you drive -- especially if you stop at the four different visitors centers along the way, watch the videos, and talk to the interpreters and forest rangers (this property is part of the U.S. Forest Service, not the National Parks ... more on why that matters later).

I remember when this volcano erupted in May 1980. I was in the middle of my last finals week as an undergraduate at Ball State; and the huge news story of the day wasn't the volcano, it was the Iran hostage crisis -- "I'm Ted Koppel and this is America Held Hostage, Day 143". We've all seen the pictures and the video of the column of ash, but -- probably because of the relatively small loss of life (incredibly small, once you've been there) -- the enormity of this event didn't register on me before.

You start this trek on Interstate 5 a couple hundred feet above sea level,
and end up 4000 feet higher (and 20 degrees cooler) on an observation deck outside a bunker-like interpretive center atop Johnston Ridge, staring across two miles of a lunar landscape at the bottom rim of a huge, angled crater, the top edge of which , at 8000 feet, is 1000 feet lower than the peak of the mountain used to be. Everything in between -- and as far as the eye can see to your left and your right -- is an almost-barren field of boulders and dried ash and pumice, a new valley floor hundreds of feet above a former wooded valley floor that was filled, for 30 miles downstream, with the raw material of a mountain that blew itself apart.

And in the middle of that crater, silent and snow-covered, is a new lava dome that has risen over 800 feet in just the past thirty years.

The mountainside was sparsely populated to begin with, and "only" 57 people died because authorities had evacuated the area in advance. "Only" 300 homes -- spread across a 40-mile long valley -- were destroyed, and most of them were empty. That's why the numbers don't prepare you for driving miles and miles and miles across empty countryside -- most of it now replanted with fir trees. On the way back down the mountain, you pass the point at which the trees were splintered by the power of the eruption; to the point at which the trees were yanked out by the roots and hurled down the valley along with the avalanche of melted snow and mud; to the point at which the trees were left standing but naked and blackened by the heat from the blast. That point is 14 miles downhill from Johnston Ridge.

No one lives less than 25 miles from Johnston Ridge today. Except maybe Bigfoot. It was an amazing experience, but coming down the mountain -- even with three hours of daylight left -- I felt very small and alone and eager to get back to civilization. It felt good to get back to Seattle and settle into a neighborhood grill for a martini and duck quesadillas and rabbit tacos.

So, yeah, we had great meals -- charcuterie from Charlesbourg, a French bistro in the newly revitalized, funky little Greenwood neighborhood; wood-fired pizza at a Ballard art fair; great meals of salmon and pork tenderloin that we took turns cooking for each other; marionberry crepes at a ferry landing in Kingston; dungeness crab in eggs benedict at the Edgewater and crabrolls and salads at Lowell's in Pike Place Market and in stew in an oyster bar in Old Town in Portland. I also had a reindeer sausage from a food truck in Portland. So we not only saw wildlife on this trip; we ate a fair amount of it too.

The daytrip to Portland was the only real disappointment. Not only did plans to meet a friend fall through; that was the day that Sally hit a wall, physically, and she ended up using our lovely suite in the restored Mutnomah Hotel for napping. And for a few hours of another perfect cool spring day, I was fairly content to wander the riverfront and the used bookstores and head shops and open-air bars for an afternoon.

This was my second time in Portland, and I lobbied for this hotel because I stayed there for a museum conference in 2003. At that time, I found the surrounding edgy neighborhood and its population of young people in dreadlocks and tattoos to be exotic and charming. I don't know whether things have gotten seedier, or I'm just nine years older. After a few hours, I found it depressing this time.

Of course, 24 hours in Old Town can't be a fair evaluation of Portland. And indeed, part of what was special about this trip was the time we spent in Seattle, not so much as "tourists," but rather as co-residents. Bruce is a free-lance videographer who had client meetings during the days; Julie is a Lutheran minister. They had school events with Taylor on a couple of evenings, and we joined them for a pitch-in dinner at church one night and for worship on Sunday morning; otherwise, they went about their business (including, happily, their usual "Sunday-afternoon-through-Monday-evening 'weekend'" with us) and we spent much more time behaving, it felt, like Seattlites than visitors -- watching sunsets over Puget Sound from city parks (or from catwalks over freight train tracks);

going to a farmer's market; or, as Sally and Julie did on Sunday evening, attending a compline service at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral (an austere and stunning space which they insisted I go see the next day, and about which I want to do a separate blog. Later.).

Or just grilling out and making mojitos and sharing stories with very good friends.

There are places I love to visit but I wouldn't want to live there: New York, New Orleans, Clearwater Florida, among others. And there are places where we can't help picking up real estate guides, and making the leap from fantasizing to strategizing about relocating. I've felt that way about our last few summer trips to Lake Webster in northern Indiana. We really feel that way about the Pacific Northwest.

Surely, the physical beauty of the mountains, the bays and islands, and the ocean can only go so far. You've still got to make a living. And the long months of cloud cover from October through April might be a problem for someone with a touch of seasonal affective disorder -- although I'm told that the mild temperatures and the thousand shades of evergreen (along with the thousand shades of gray) bring a texture to the Seattle winter that offsets the lack of direct sunlight.

But mostly, I feel at home with the cultural/social/political values of the region. The environmental awareness, the embrace of diversity, the value placed on education. This is the home of Boeing and Microsoft (and Starbucks), of course, so there's no objection to capitalism, which seems to thrive with an educated populace. Prices are high and so are taxes, but I didn't talk to a single person who could imagine living anywhere else.

Which brings me back to Mount St. Helens. The scale of the devastation makes the effort to build a road and several bridges and a sizable, if spartan, monitoring station/visitors center between 1982 and 1997 seem like an epic story in itself -- a "they said it couldn't be done" story in the mold of Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge or the Apollo project. A federal project, moreover. After 1980. And for what purpose? To educate people about an historical event -- to provide them with an opportunity to comprehend the scale and power of nature?

From a utilitarian viewpoint, some of what the federal government did around Mount St. Helens must make sense even to those who say that government is only good for fighting wars and paying for prisons. Surely, building a dam to trap the annual rush of sediment and seeding thousands of acres of mountainside with new trees and grasses to prevent erosion is a prudent use of precious taxpayer dollars. Weyerhauser, the private company that owned (and lost) hundreds of thousands of acres of mature lumber, aided that effort by investing in replanting forests that are still years away from harvest ... perhaps it was a fair trade that the government would build a road for them. But the last 14 miles of that road, and the visitor's center at the apex, seem to serve no purpose beyond allowing the public to share in an experience.

Kind of like a national park, except it's not a national park. National parks can only be created by acts of Congress. Mount St. Helens is a National Monument, administered by the Forest Service, and created not by Congress, but by executive order in 1982. By Ronald Reagan.

Once upon a time there we lived in a world where some issues, some endeavors, were not partisan, and not immediately opposed by 49.9% of the electorate. Vacation over, tomorrow I go back to work, in hopes that we can get back to such a world. And if I'm wrong ... there's always Washington state.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hudnut and Laffer

Last week I went to two separate events where economist Arthur Laffer and former mayor Bill Hudnut were the speakers – two great and divergent stars of 1970s and ‘80s Republicanism. The contrast could not have been greater.

I had never heard Laffer speak, and I wasn’t prepared for him to be so entertaining. Or to be so youthful-looking. With his exuberant personality and head full of dark hair, he appeared to be younger than me. How old was he in 1979 when he was giving Ronald Reagan the ideological underpinnings of his fiscal policy (aka voodoo economics, according to George HW Bush) – 19? (Possibly … when I was that age I was really good at telling professors and bosses exactly what they wanted to hear, whether I could support it or not.)

Actually, Laffer is 71! And he’s completely unrepentant. He doesn’t QUITE say that “the lower the tax rate, the greater the revenue” is an absolute. If that was the case, cutting the tax rate to 1% would generate so much economic activity that overall tax receipts would actually increase … and so cutting tax rates by another point to ZERO would produce even MORE revenue! No, he’s not that silly … but he seems happy to provide the rhetorical ammunition for tax-cutting warriors who would fail to grasp the absurdity of my hyperbolic example.

And he cloaks his dogma with non-partisanship, from his opening lines about how Barack Obama is a great and wonderful American success story (“he’s just wrong”), to his claim that Bill Clinton was a great President (“a despicable human being, but a great President”) to listing Nixon and Ford as two of the four worst Presidents ever.

Some of Laffer’s points are backed by indisputable facts; others are supported by anecdotes and fables. There’s no doubt that his main point – that taxes can get so high that they smother economic growth – is true. We get it. But I would have liked to have thought that Arthur Laffer – particularly at age 71 – might have developed some perspective on how his advice to Ronald Reagan 33 years ago was used by the Republican Party to disconnect spending from revenue and replace revenue with credit, and thus create most of our $14 trillion national debt.

On Friday, former Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut spoke at IUPUI’s Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. I had almost forgotten that before Hudnut was a Republican Congressman and mayor, he was a Presbyterian minister. One of his first observations was about how the ministry prepared him to govern: whereas a politician only needs 51% of the electorate to win or keep office, a minister had better have 90% of the congregation behind him. With that perspective, Hudnut said, once he was mayor, he felt he represented all of Indianapolis, not just the 55% or so who voted for him.

Hudnut may have said something like that 35 years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it then. But clearly, today, he was referencing the tendency of elected officials of both parties to use their offices to railroad through the desires and fetishes of the 51+% that elected them, even if that means ignoring or crushing the 49-% of the residents of their district who want or even need something else.

Hudnut was a popular and successful mayor from 1976 to 1992, and early in his career was seen as a rising star in Republican politics. Without him, Indianapolis may never have built a domed stadium, attracted an NFL franchise, created the vibrant downtown anchored by first Union Station and then Circle Center Mall, hosted a Super Bowl, or maybe even kept Eli Lilly, Simon, and OneAmerica in town. By the end of his 4th term, he had developed a reputation as a facile cheerleader, and he lost a statewide election for Secretary of State. By then, he was also out of step with a Republican party that had no place for consensus-building moderates.

At age 80, Bill Hudnut looks (and deserves to be) healthy and content … but his prepared remarks and his responses to questions reveal an undeniable wistfulness. He repeatedly made statements that it was “foolish” for the Republican party to talk only about cutting taxes, and to not even consider “enhancing revenues” as an option. He suggested several times that he believed the antagonism toward the President is racially motivated. His response to a question about public education sounded despairingly like “that problem may be intractable,” but I have to believe that was mostly a function of the fact that education policy was outside his purview when he was in office.

At one point, his contemporary, former North United Methodist pastor Dick Hamilton, rose to ask him a question about the role that clergy could have and should yet play in support of a mayor. Hudnut flatly admitted to having felt “isolated” when he pushed through an affirmative action program to actively recruit and promote women and minorities in the city police and fire departments (hardly a “right wing” initiative), and “no one” in the clergy defended him against the criticism he received. He urged clergy today to play a role in depoliticizing the “intensely personal and complicated” issue of “pro-life and pro-choice,” believing that there should be room in both parties for people who have convictions on both sides of that contentious issue. He urged clergy to address the issue of hatred – hatred – in public dialogue.

Hudnut also made the point that in his faith tradition, "giving back" encompassed
not only making charitable contributions and volunteering one's time, but also "public service," in the sense of taking one's turn in an elected office, even if that meant taking four or eight years away from one's career. The idea seems quaint. When I was in high school, I believed it -- and I assumed that such "public service" was in my future. Sometime over the past 30 years, that kind of public life became something that I refused to contemplate ... and it was because the public arena became dominated by ideologues who wanted to beat the other side, instead of collaborators who wanted to move the whole community.

Before the event began, I found myself shaking hands with a woman that I realized, as she introduced herself, I had met before. It was Beverly Guidara Hudnut, who had interviewed me in 1985 for a position on Hudnut’s staff for which I had been recommended. I was serving as acting assistant director of the Indiana State Museum then, and frankly, withdrew my application primarily because as a young professional just getting ready to start a family, I couldn't afford the pay cut. I never again considered a position in what might be called “public service,” or “politics,” and I have grown more apolitical ever since. And it’s probably just as well. If today’s Republican Party has no place for a man like Bill Hudnut, I can’t imagine it would have kept a place for me.