America under the Articles of Confederation was a mess, not unlike Europe today. Could it lead to a stronger European Union?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy after a joint press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris / AP
Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of their desire to change the treaties currently holding the European Union together, and to push the countries towards a tighter, more integrated federation. "We want to make sure that the imbalances that led to the situation in the euro zone today cannot happen again," Sarkozy said.
This would be a worthy project, of course, but treaty change and Union restructuring are about as big a political and legal headache as one could possibly imagine. With Europe this fractured, could leaders really agree upon a new setup? Is the political will present in the right states? Will the markets wait for the deliberations?
One always wants to be careful with historical comparisons: though TV pundits toss them around like party favors, their predictive power is limited. Looking to the Great Depression, for instance, doesn't immediately yield a solution or a timeline for our current economic woes. But there's another moment in American history that makes for a better comparison to Europe today: the 1781 signing of the Articles of Confederation.
There's something comforting about turning to a time when America was nearly as screwed up as Europe is today. Not only did the U.S. emerge from the tangle, but it emerged considerably stronger: the states' and nation's financial and logistical problems and mismanagement wound up pushing them to develop "a more perfect Union." So let's take a look for a moment at our own country's poor showing under the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation, our pre-Constitution national legal framework, were drafted during the American Revolution and ratified largely in the late 1770s, Maryland finally signing on in 1781. By the late 1780s -- though historians may disagree over the extent to which the states were in actual crisis -- the Confederation and its members were looking pretty shabby.
American was then a picture of, at least superficially, fascinating disarray. Under the Articles, the federal government had no power to tax. It procured money through a "requisition" system, all states contributing, in theory, to the cost of providing national, public goods. In practice, this was a disaster. After only a few requisitions, as Keith Dougherty and Michael J.G. Cain recall in an article on "Marginal Cost Sharing and the Articles of Confederation" in the journal Public Choice, "states learned to withold their payments, leaving Congress without the resources to carry out its constitutional responsibilities. Lack of revenue prevented Congress from forcefully responding to British non-compliance with the 1783 Anglo-American peace treaty, reacting to the Spanish blockade of the Mississippi River between 1784 and 1787, enforcing treaties with the Indians by limiting western movement of settlers, and averting the piracy of the Barbary states."
A pretty little arrangement, no? Much has been written about the Articles' failings, but what Dougherty and Cain point out is that they "failed to organize a union where state and national interests coincided." In practice, "states fully complying with [...] requisitions, when others did not, incurred a greater portion of the national costs than originally intended." Game theory 101.
Another set of problems, of course, came from the fact that the states were proving truly terrible at handling issues of taxation on their own. In fact, though the particulars differ, the strong financial and debt-driven component to the Confederation's problems really does prompt images of Athens in the past year.
The American Revolution, after all, was a war, wars being so famously costly that historians like Charles Tilly have argued warmaking and its associated taxation were the main drivers of state formation in Western Europe. The American Revolution had been financed through loans, bonds, and poorly conceived paper currency. States then took on this debt. Historians Oscar and Mary Flug Handlin estimated that Massachusetts in the 1780s owed over $5 million to the Confederation, its total debt around $14 million -- enormous numbers at that time. The taxes imposed as a result proved extremely burdensome, one of a few factors leading to unrest in Massachusetts culminating in the armed uprising known as Shays' Rebellion, which then became one of the factors in the general consensus that a new system might be a good idea.
Causation is tricky to establish: Robert Freer argued forcefully in The New England Quarterly back in the '60s that "in all likelihood, the Constitutional Convention would have met when it did, the same document would have been drawn up, and it would have been ratified even if Shays's Rebellion had not taken place." But one of the reasons Freer argued that we would have gotten the Constitution anyway is that there were plenty of other examples of financial and political disorder, like failure to pay federal requisitions and the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Rhode Island mucking around with paper money.
America under the Articles of Confederation, in short, was a mess. And though you could debate the details endlessly, there's little doubt that the extent of that mess was in political leaders' minds when they started talking about reconfiguring things and calling the Constitutional Convention. Thus far, the Constitution has had a better track record than the Articles in keeping order.
What does this mean for Europe today? There are a number of cases in both American and European history where a non-lethal screwup -- say, the Articles of Confederation -- has provided the necessary impetus to establish a more screwup-resistant setup, as with the Constitution. So, while the ratings agencies seem to get more pessimistic by the day about Europe's prospects, maybe European leaders could pull out of this with something even stronger. Merkel and Sarkozy likely have a very nasty path ahead of them, if, indeed, either of them manages to stay around to push the treaty modifications through -- France, recall, has elections scheduled for next year. But there's a universe in which Europe exits this crisis in a better position than that in which it entered.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
The Michigan billionaire’s confirmation hearing was heavy on partisanship and light on substance.
Donald Trump advocated on the campaign trail for a $20 billion federal school-voucher program. But during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday evening, Betsy DeVos, the president-elect’s choice to lead the U.S. Education Department, said school choice should be a state decision. She framed school choice as a right for students and families. And she said during the hearing that she was committed to strengthening public education for all students.
While the Michigan billionaire has backed charter schools and vouchers, which let families use public money to pay for private schools, DeVos would not, she said, try to force states to embrace school choice. But a number of organizations, largely Democratic, that had raised questions about DeVos’s commitment to expanding charters and vouchers and about her family’s financial holdings and religious causes were unlikely to find much more of the hearing reassuring.
Betsy DeVos, the nominee for education secretary, and Ryan Zinke, the nominee for interior secretary, will testify on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
Senate confirmation hearings continue this week, as Donald Trump’s inauguration approaches.
On Tuesday, Montana Representative Ryan Zinke, the nominee for interior secretary, will testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. And the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hear from Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Education.
We’ll bring you the latest updates from Capitol Hill as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
The president-elect has yet to name a secretary of agriculture, a delay that has caused controversy and illustrated the difficulties governing will pose.
Three days before Donald Trump is to be inaugurated as America’s new president, just one Cabinet agency lacks a nominee to lead it: the Department of Agriculture.
The pick has become mired in politics and drama, unsettling the agriculture industry and potentially imperiling Trump’s standing with some of his most ardent supporters—the residents of rural America. In the process, it has become a case study in the difficulty Trump will face as he begins to govern, as his sweeping promises and catchy slogans run up against competing interests.
Already, the delay in picking an agriculture secretary has caused alarm. “The lack of quick and decisive action on picking a new Secretary of Agriculture by the Trump administration has given rise to charges that agriculture is not a high priority for the incoming president,” columnist Gary Truitt wrote recently in Hoosier Ag Today. “While this may or may not be true, the fact that this was the last cabinet post to be filled has raised concerns and will produce some challenges for the new nominee.”
The first lady attacks Donald Trump by measuring him against the principles and ideals he fails to uphold.
It has become an unofficial anthem for the Clinton campaign: “When they go low, we go high.” The applause line originated with Michelle Obama, in the remarks she gave at the Democratic National Convention in July. Since then, Clinton has frequently invoked the phrase on the trail.
But what does it mean to “go high” in a campaign against a man like Donald Trump, whose xenophobic rhetoric and casual calls to violence represent a notable low-point in American politics?
“Going high” is how Clinton’s surrogates explained why she wasn’t nastier to Trump in the second presidential debate. While some pundits were puzzled that Clinton hadn’t delivered a death blow to her opponent, jumping on every opportunity to underscore his deficiencies and hypocrisies, her supporters had an explanation: She was focusing on actual issues and ideas. She was simply going high.
Is there room in the movement for people who morally object to abortion?
Updated on Monday, January 16 at 4:05 p.m.
Pro-life women are headed to D.C. Yes, they’ll turn out for the annual March for Life, which is coming up on January 27. But one week earlier, as many as a few hundred pro-lifers are planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, which has been billed as feminist counterprogramming to the inauguration.
With organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsoring the event, pro-life marchers have found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. What’s their place at an event that claims to speak for all women, but has aligned itself with pro-choice groups? With roughly a week to go before the march, organizers also released a set of “unity principles,” and one of them is “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.”
In its fourth season the BBC show turned its main character into a superhero, and lost everything that made it special in the process.
This story contains spoilers through the most recent episode of Sherlock.
Christopher Nolan is a truly brilliant British creative talent, which makes it all the more ironic that his work seems to have (at least temporarily) unmoored two of that nation’s greatest fictional heroes. In dampening the palette and tone of superhero movies so spectacularly with his trilogy of Batman movies, Nolan created a domino effect that stretched all the way across the ocean, transforming James Bond from a louche, debonair intelligence agent into a tortured, self-medicating hitman, compelled by the death of his parents to hunt down a series of increasingly psychopathic villains. And, as “The Final Problem” revealed on Sunday, Nolan’s influence has similarly transformed Sherlock. A wry detective drama with a twist has turned into a superhero origin story, complete with agonizing childhood trauma, terrifying antagonists with improbable powers, and a final showdown in an ancestral home burned to the ground.
“Trump’s wall is already under construction,” Wole Soyinka says. “Walls are built in the mind.”
Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, once fled to the United States from Nigeria. Now the fickle winds of politics are pushing him in the opposite direction.
Back in the 1960s, jailed for alleged associations with rebels amid the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka composed protest poems on toilet paper in solitary confinement. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” Soyinka wrote in the collection of prison notes he later published. In the 1990s, the Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha confiscated Soyinka’s passport after the playwright urged Nigerians to stop paying taxes in defiance of military rule in the country. Soyinka managed to sneak out of his homeland and take refuge in the United States—a period he described to me as his “political sabbatical, because I never accepted, really, that I was in exile.”Abacha sentenced Soyinka to death in absentia. Soyinka’s crime was said to be treason.
Surfing the app on a trip back home can be a way of regressing, or imagining what life would be like if you never left.
My parents moved out of my hometown almost as soon as I left for college, and therefore I am obsessed with the idea of other people’s hometowns. Over any major holiday or break from a work schedule, hometowns become a sort of time travel, a way for people who have made adult lives elsewhere to return to their origin story.
Going home for the holidays can act as a kind of regression. Most of us know people, whether our friends, our partner, even our own parents, who suddenly turn into their teen or pre-teen self once they step foot in the house where they grew up. My mom used to say that whenever my dad got within 50 miles of his mom’s house, he suddenly became a teenage boy. Our hometowns become a kind of permission and hideaway, a place where we don’t have to be ourselves, where our actions don’t count and we get to be briefly less visible than we are in the adult homes we’ve made for ourselves elsewhere, the places where we expect ourselves to take action and achieve things and move upward through each day. For many of us, hometowns allow the luxury of a brief period of stasis, a rare few days of doing nothing.