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.
The president’s irate criticism of the omnibus spending bill demonstrates his continued attachment to a flawed theory of the presidency.
In the end, Donald Trump had to sign the bill—for the military, he said. But he didn’t have to like it.
That was the upshot of a peculiar and rambling set of remarks (even by his standards) the president made early Friday afternoon as he signed a bill funding the government through September.
“I’ve signed this omnibus budget bill. There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill,” Trump said. “But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again.”
What it came down to, apparently, was defense spending. Trump threatened to veto the bill in a tweet Friday morning, after the White House had previously indicated he’d sign it. (My colleague Elaina Plott reported, however, that the president himself had reservations at that time.) Throughout the remarks, Trump returned incessantly to the question of funding national defense.
Gigantic piles of impounded, abandoned, and broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many Chinese cities, after a rush to build up its new bike-sharing industry vastly overreached.
Last year, bike sharing took off in China, with dozens of bike-share companies quickly flooding city streets with millions of brightly colored rental bicycles. However, the rapid growth vastly outpaced immediate demand and overwhelmed Chinese cities, where infrastructure and regulations were not prepared to handle a sudden flood of millions of shared bicycles. Riders would park bikes anywhere, or just abandon them, resulting in bicycles piling up and blocking already-crowded streets and pathways. As cities impounded derelict bikes by the thousands, they moved quickly to cap growth and regulate the industry. Vast piles of impounded, abandoned, and broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many big cities. As some of the companies who jumped in too big and too early have begun to fold, their huge surplus of bicycles can be found collecting dust in vast vacant lots. Bike sharing remains very popular in China, and will likely continue to grow, just probably at a more sustainable rate. Meanwhile, we are left with these images of speculation gone wild—the piles of debris left behind after the bubble bursts.
This is no way for two grown humans to make a major life decision.
The marriage proposal is one of the most ritualized moments in modern American life. Growing up, many girls are instilled with a specific idea of how it should go: He’ll take us somewhere romantic—we’ll have no idea what’s happening—he’ll get down on one knee—we’ll start crying—he’ll pop the question—we’ll immediately say yes. It should be magical.
But for a lot of heterosexual couples, the proposal—as movies portray it, as many millennial women have internalized it—doesn’t reflect the kind of modern, egalitarian relationships many women want today. Whom to marry is among the most important decisions most people will ever make in their lives, and yet it’s not a choice made in the course of a conversation—the normal way two grown humans make big life decisions. Instead, it has to be a show, with a prefixed grand finale: “yes.”
Considering SpaceX accidentally blew up one of Mark Zuckerberg’s projects, this is a little awkward.
This week’s revelations about a British political consultancy’s use of data from 50 million Facebook users for potentially shady purposes has prompted many people to declare they will quit the social network in protest. One of the newest additions to the bandwagon is Elon Musk, the wealthy entrepreneur with companies like Tesla and Space X to his name—and he followed through in a very public way.
It happened, as these things do, on Twitter.
“It is time. #deletefacebook,” Brian Acton, the cofounder of the messaging service WhatsApp, tweeted on Tuesday, the day the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into how Cambridge Analytica accessed the Facebook data. For whatever reason, Musk decided to respond to Acton’s tweet on Friday. “What’s Facebook?” he replied. He appeared to be joking, but someone decided to call his bluff.
A new six-part Netflix documentary is a stunning dive into a utopian religious community in Oregon that descended into darkness.
To describe Wild Wild Country as jaw-dropping is to understate the number of times my mouth gaped while watching the series, a six-part Netflix documentary about a religious community in Oregon in the 1980s. It’s ostensibly the story of how a group led by the dynamic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased 64,000 acres of land in central Oregon in a bid to build its own utopian city. But, as the series immediately reveals, the narrative becomes darker and stranger than you might ever imagine. It’s a tale that mines the weirdness of the counterculture in the ’70s and ’80s, the age-old conflict between rural Americans and free love–preaching cityfolk, and the emotional vacuum that compels people to interpret a bearded mystic as something akin to a god.
The original sitcom reveled in complexity. In the premiere of its highly anticipated reboot, though, it has simplified politics down to easy partisanship.
“We’re not going to talk about who the Conners are going to vote for. I think people would turn us off real quick.”
That was Roseanne Barr, talking with the Los Angeles Timesabout the politics of the original version of her hit ABC sitcom. It was 1992: The American presidential campaign, Bill Clinton versus George H. W. Bush versus Ross Perot, was being waged. Dan Quayle was arguing about family values with a fictional journalist. Roseanne, though—the producer, the character, the star—was insisting that her TV family transcended both the vagaries of political partisanship and the messiness of the culture wars themselves. The Conners are “somewhere in the middle of it all,” Barr said, “not knowing what anything stands for anymore. So really what they do is go to work and come home to be with their family, and try to make do.”
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
Why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy
In 2009, Ford brought its new supermini, the Fiesta, over from Europe in a brave attempt to attract the attention of young Americans. It passed out 100 of the cars to influential bloggers for a free six-month test-drive, with just one condition: document your experience online, whether you love the Fiesta or hate it.
Young bloggers loved the car. Young drivers? Not so much. After a brief burst of excitement, in which Ford sold more than 90,000 units over 18 months, Fiesta sales plummeted. As of April 2012, they were down 30 percent from 2011.
Don’t blame Ford. The company is trying to solve a puzzle that’s bewildering every automaker in America: How do you sell cars to Millennials (a k a Generation Y)? The fact is, today’s young people simply don’t drive like their predecessors did. In 2010, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down, too. Even the proportion of teenagers with a license fell, by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008.
Data misuse is a feature, not a bug—and it’s plaguing our entire culture.
After five days of silence, Mark Zuckerberg finally acknowledged the massive data compromise that allowed Cambridge Analytica to obtain extensive psychographic information about 50 million Facebook users. His statement, which acknowledged that Facebook had made mistakes in responding to the situation, wasn’t much of an apology—Zuckerberg and Facebook have repeatedly demonstrated they seem to have a hard time saying they’re sorry.
For me, Zuckerberg’s statement fell short in a very specific way: He’s treating the Cambridge Analytica breach as a bad-actor problem when it’s actually a known bug.
In the 17-months-long conversation Americans have been having about social media’s effects on democracy, two distinct sets of problems have emerged. The ones getting the most attention are bad-actor problems—where someone breaks the rules and manipulates a social-media system for their own nefarious ends. Macedonian teenagers create sensational and false content to profit from online ad sales. Disinformation experts plan rallies and counterrallies, calling Americans into the streets to scream at each other. Botnets amplify posts and hashtags, building the appearance of momentum behind online campaigns like #releasethememo. Such problems are the charismatic megafauna of social-media dysfunction. They’re fascinating to watch and fun to study—who wouldn’t be intrigued by the team of Russians in St. Petersburg who pretended to be Black Lives Matter activists and anti-Clinton fanatics in order to add chaos to the presidential election in the United States? Charismatic megafauna may be the things that attract all the attention—when really there are smaller organisms, some invisible to the naked eye, that can dramatically shift the health of an entire ecosystem.