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.
A project begun after 9/11 assumes new urgency after the 2016 election—creating a more sensible plan for what happens when a chief executive steps aside.
American politics is deep into the theater of the absurd—but unfortunately, it is a deadly absurdity, like being in a horror funhouse where the creatures leaping out at you have real knives and chainsaws. Americans now have to face at least the possibility, a tangible one, that the election itself was subverted by a hostile foreign power in league with the winning presidential campaign, with implications all the way down the ballot.
What to do if that proves to be the case? It is a question I have been asked a lot; my stock answer begins with, “The Constitution does not have a do-over clause.” But I am now rethinking the response: Maybe it needs a do-over clause. And it does not have to require a constitutional amendment.
Conservatives once warned that Obamacare would produce the Democratic Waterloo. Their inability to accept the principle of universal coverage has, instead, led to their own defeat.
Seven years and three days ago, the House of Representatives grumblingly voted to approve the Senate’s version of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats in the House were displeased by many of the changes introduced by Senate Democrats. But in the interval after Senate passage, the Republicans had gained a 41st seat in the Senate. Any further tinkering with the law could trigger a Republican filibuster. Rather than lose the whole thing, the House swallowed hard and accepted a bill that liberals regarded as a giveaway to insurance companies and other interest groups. The finished law proceeded to President Obama for signature on March 23, 2010.
A few minutes after the House vote, I wrote a short blog post for the website I edited in those days. The site had been founded early in 2009 to argue for a more modern and more moderate form of Republicanism. The timing could not have been worse. At precisely the moment we were urging the GOP to march in one direction, the great mass of conservatives and Republicans had turned on the double in the other, toward an ever more wild and even paranoid extremism. Those were the days of Glenn Beck’s 5 o’clock Fox News conspiracy rants, of Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” of Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers, of Tea Party rallies at which men openly brandished assault rifles.
Many experts have blamed a poor job market, but new research indicates that an overlooked cause may be poor health.
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina—John LaRue is having a tough time of it these days. He used to move things for people, advertising his services on Craigslist. But work slowed up, and he became homeless and started sleeping in his truck, until, that is, someone stole it.
Now, he told me, he’s fighting alcoholism and his health is deteriorating from living on the streets. I met LaRue at a Social Security office outside of Charlotte, where he was hiding his belongings in the bushes because he didn’t have anywhere to keep them and wasn’t allowed to bring them inside. “I feel like there’s a cloud over my head,” he told me. “It’s just been one thing after another.”
LaRue is one among many. In 1957, 97 percent of men in America ages 25 to 54 were either working or looking for work. Today, only 89 percent are. Italy is the only OECD country with a lower labor-force participation rate for men in their prime years. Just why there are so many men who aren’t working is a matter of debate. In a 2016 report, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers examined the declining labor-force participation rate and suggested that a drop-off in good jobs for low-skilled men was part of the explanation. Wages, the report theorized, are so low for many jobs that don’t require a college education that men don’t find it worth it to seek out bad jobs. A lack of job training and job-search assistance—when compared to other OECD countries—makes it more difficult for men to move into more lucrative fields. And a surge in incarceration has made it more difficult for men to find work when they leave prison, according to the report.
The two-hour work, written and directed by Happy Valley’s Sally Wainwright, is a vibrant dramatization of how three sheltered women became such extraordinary novelists.
When it comes to the Brontë sisters, questions—and mythology—abound. How did three such relatively sheltered women, the daughters of a priest living in rural Yorkshire, write some of the most passionate and proto-feminist novels of the 19th century? To Walk Invisible, a two-hour drama airing on PBS on Sunday, touches on the fascinating contradictions of the Brontës, focusing on the three-year period when the sisters determined to publish their writing as a means of self-preservation. Aware of how they would be judged as women entering a man’s realm, they elected to use gender-neutral pseudonyms, so they could, as Charlotte explained in a letter, “walk invisible.”
To Walk Invisible is written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the creative force behind the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. Like Happy Valley, a gritty drama about a forceful female police sergeant that’s developed an ardent American fanbase on Netflix,it draws much of its mood from the sullen bleakness of the Yorkshire landscape, suggesting a hostile, imposing environment that fosters strength in some and despair in others. In both dramas, Wainwright explores women forced to endure familial hardship: In the Brontë family, the burden is their brother, Branwell, whose descent into alcohol and drug addiction coincides with—and possibly spurs—the literary success of his sisters.
The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from the courses—and, in an uncertain environment, students keep being suckered.
Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes. To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That's the case with Advanced Placement courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.
That's a pretty strong claim, right? You bet. But why not be straightforward when discussing a scam the scale and audacity of which would raise Bernie Madoff's eyebrows?
The miscellany of AP courses offered in U.S. high schools under the imprimatur of the College Board probably started with good intentions. The idea, going back to the 1950s, was to offer college-level courses and exams to high-school students. The courses allegedly provide students the kind of rigorous academic experience they will encounter in college as well as an opportunity to earn college credit for the work.
Walk into the offices of Memac Ogilvy Advize, an advertising firm on the third floor of a car rental building in a business district of West Amman, Jordan, and you’ll be greeted with an immense black-and-white photo of Donald Trump’s face. The red cursive text printed across it reads: “We Trumped the awards.”
The sign sits behind a reception counter boasting a large trophy won at the Dubai Lynx 2017, an annual advertising competition where Memac Ogilvy won the Grand Prix for PR (a first for any Jordanian agency) along with four other silver and gold prizes, for trolling Trump in their ads on behalf of Royal Jordanian Airlines.
Years of misguided curricular theories are at the core of America’s educational shortcomings.
Why has the topic of teacher quality suddenly reached such a crescendo? Education reform has been on the national agenda since 1983, the year of A Nation at Risk, but only in the last few years has the teacher-quality issue risen to the top. I think it may be reform fatigue, possibly desperation. The teacher is becoming a convenient scapegoat for America’s education reformers, who, after decades of ideas that have not panned out, cling to the belief that the flaw is not in the reform ideas themselves but in their implementation.
Teachers are being blamed for failures not their own. The “back-to-basics” and “whole-school reform” strategies disappointed. Similarly, as the National Assessment of Educational Progress has consistently shown, the state-standards movement and the No Child Left Behind law have left high-school students just about as far behind as they were before the reforms were instituted. Charter schools, despite their laudable triumphs, are highly uneven in quality, and their overall results are not much better than those of regular schools.
Supporters of Trump’s budget are eager to restore the central role of faith-based organizations in serving the poor—but it’s not clear they can be an adequate substitute for government.
President Trump’s initial budget proposal would end aid for poor families to pay their heating bills, defund after-school programs at public schools, and make fewer grants available to college students. Community block grants that provide disaster relief, aid neighborhoods affected by foreclosure, and help rural communities access water, sewer systems, and safe housing would be eliminated. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, suggested recently that even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.
With billions of dollars worth of cuts to federal social services likely ahead, the wars of religion have begun. Bible verses about poverty have suddenly become popular on Twitter, with Republicans and Democrats each claiming to better know how Jesus would think about entitlement spending. While conservatives tend to bring religion into public-policy conversations more than liberals, the valence is often switched when it comes to the budget: Liberals eagerly quote the Sermon on the Mount in support of government spending, while conservatives bristle at the suggestion that good Christians would never want cuts.
"Where people are desperate, it is still America they count on, whether they love or scorn it, and America they blame when aid does not come."
After Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November, a foreign ambassador accosted one of my deputies at the State Department, where from 2014 to early this year I served as theassistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. “You must be so sad!” the man, a representative of a Central Asian government, said, grinning widely. “All this talk of elections being important, of democracy being important, and now look at you! Now even your new president says there were 3 million illegal votes in your election! … You must all feel so stupid these days.”
Since then, the global club of autocrats has been crowing about Trump. Sudan’s dictator Omar al Bashir praised him for focusing “on the interests of the American citizen, as opposed to those who talk about democracy, human rights, and transparency.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei thanked him for showing “America’s true face” by trying to ban Muslim immigration. The Cambodian government justified attacks on journalists by saying Trump, too, recognizes that “news published by [international] media institutions does not reflect the real situation.”
The divide sometimes has devastating consequences.
Doctors are doctors, and dentists are dentists, and never the twain shall meet. Whether you have health insurance is one thing, whether you have dental insurance is another. Your doctor doesn’t ask you if you’re flossing, and your dentist doesn’t ask you if you’re exercising. In America, we treat the mouth separately from the rest of the body, a bizarre situation that Mary Otto explores in her new book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America.
Specializing in one part of the body isn’t what’s weird—it would be one thing if dentists were like dermatologists or cardiologists. The weird thing is that oral care is divorced from medicine’s education system, physician networks, medical records, and payment systems, so that a dentist is not just a special kind of doctor, but another profession entirely.