Forecast: Death of the American Constitution

A thought-starter for your Fourth of July festivities — The the post-WWII global order collapses around us, but America seems unable to see this — let alone adapt to it.  This post discusses one of the most important consequences, the slow death of the Constitution. It has been revised several times since publication in 2006.  This is the most important of the 3700 posts on the FM website. Other chapters in this series appear at the end.

“The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican.  It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

Federalist Paper #39, James Madison (writing as Publius), 18 January 1788. The experiment is still running. Perhaps soon we’ll have a conclusion.

The Constitution: RIP.

Contents

  1. Death of the post-WWII era.
  2. Check the health of the Republic.
  3. Who killed the Constitution?
  4. Consequences for the government.
  5. Consequences for us.
  6. The cutting edge of Death’s scythe.
  7. The future of America.
  8. For more information.

(1)  Introduction — death of the post-WWII era

The post-WWII era was defined by…

  • America as a model state: a capitalistic republic which values its citizens’ liberty.
  • American as a superpower; later the sole superpower.
  • The American dollar as reserve currency; “good as gold” for holding the world’s savings
  • 3rd generation warfare as the dominant mode of military force.
  • Growing American “wealth” through the debt supercycle, continuously expanding debt of government, corporations, and households.
  • Cheap energy, largely from coal, oil, and natural gas.

With each passing day these things slowly fade away.  The daily newspapers record their passing, although most journalists are unaware of the larger significance of what they report.

This essay discusses the fall of our political regime as its heart dies. We do not see this since we have change blindness, a flaw in our mental processing where we fail to see clearly visible changes right before us. Here is the definitive demonstration.

(2)  A brief self-check on the health of the American regime

“Do not scatter diamonds before ducks. They prefer grain.”
— Chiun, the current Master of Sinanju (from “The Destroyer” series of books by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy; see book one).

Aristotle said that the political regime of a state dominated other aspects of its society. So it has proved for us. Standing firmly on the foundation provided by our Constitution, we obtained wealth and freedom unknown in human history. But a constitution — written or unwritten — lives only to the degree it is inscribed on the hearts of its citizens. That was true throughout most of our history. That is no longer true today.

History shows that people’s recognition of a regime’s passing usually lags behind the facts.  Generations passed before the Roman people recognized that the Republic was dead. So it is today. This is easy to prove. Let’s do a quick test about the health of the American Nation-State. The correct answers are given after the questions.

  1. Describe a major feature of the Code of Hammurabi.
  2. List a simple majority of the Ten Commandments.
  3. List any three rights guaranteed under Magna Carta, the Great Charter of Freedoms – one of the foundational documents for our system of laws.

The correct answers, unless you’re are a student or teacher, are all “so what.”  Who cares?  These are all dead documents, with no current effect on our lives. As a check on the vitality of the Constitution, see this test of our knowledge about it.  The questions are segmented for each age group, since each generation knows less than their parents.

(A)  For the Greatest Generation, whose courage defeated fascism, whose love of freedom helped end legalized racial discrimination, and whose insatiable greed saddled their descendants with debts and liabilities impossible for them to pay.

  1. Quote the Preamble to the Constitution. Or paraphrase it for half credit.
  2. When drafted and by whom? Who ratified it? What came before it?
  3. Outline the Constitution’s major features, including powers of each branch of the Government and the checks of each branch on the other two.
  4. What is the Bill of Rights? Describe all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, and list ten rights so guaranteed.

(B)  For the Baby Boomers, who passively volunteered to be the subjects of a series of social experiments whose scope and daring would have horrified Dr. Frankenstein.

  1. Quote the opening three words of the Constitution.
  2. What was the Constitutional Convention?  Date?  Name two members.  Hint: Ben Franklin was one (from which state?).
  3. List the major features of the Constitution, including three powers of each branch.
  4. What is the Bill of Rights? List six rights it guarantees.

(C)  For everyone born after 1964, who inherit the mess left by the Greats and Boomers:

  1. What is the Constitution?
  2. Who wrote it, and when?
  3. What are the three branches of Government and the powers of each branch?
  4. What is the Bill of Rights? List any three rights it guarantees.
  5. What is a living Constitution?

Whatever your score, the sad fact is that few Americans know what the Constitution says, let alone understand the political regime it describes.

“A 1998 national survey of teenagers conducted by the National Constitution Center found that 59% of those interviewed could identify the Three Stooges while only 45% could provide the name of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and even fewer (41%) knew the three branches of the U.S. Government! Less than 2% could correctly identify James Madison as the “father” of the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.

“… In another poll taken by the National Constitution Center in November 2001, for example, two-thirds of those responding could not identify the Constitution as the framework for American government, while less than one-fourth could identify correctly the provisions of the Declaration of Independence and those of the U.S. Constitution; others were unclear as to the Bill of Rights’ place within the Constitution.”

— “Bill of Rights Memories” by Allen Weinstein (Archivist of the United States) in Prologue, Winter 2005.

Once we no longer revere the Constitution, or even know what it says, it becomes a different kind of living document. Its meaning now changes to conform to the current needs of our ruling elites. We return to the state of Roman before its laws were posted on the Twelve Tables of ivory (or brass) and posted in the Forum for all to see. Or, if history repeats as farce, we will become like the beasts in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The laws are written on the side of the barn, but we don’t realize that they are changed by the pigs during the night.

Death of the republic

(3)  Who killed the Constitution?

“… the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
— George Washington’s First Inaugural Address (1789).

How did this happen? There are many possible explanations. Here are a few.

(A) It’s the Founders’ fault.  The Constitution was just not good enough.

(B) America has changed.  Perhaps we no longer meet the conditions the Founders considered necessary for a republic, such as…

  1. A small government;
  2. a citizenry of farmers, self-employed craftsman, and business owners (property owners, one and all);
  3. an educated citizenry, knowledgeable about the republic’s history and operation;
  4. a people jealous of their liberties and willing to fight to preserve them; and
  5. a small nation. Our population has grown by a factor of 90 since the Convention. The Constitution might not work for such a large, complex state.

(C) A contingency of history: it just happened.  The Constitution may have died to due our cumulative errors in judgment over the past two centuries. Plus some bad luck.

(D) Bad or even evil people have killed the Constitution.  Both right and left sound alarms about the evil leadership plaguing America, although they differ on the names of those responsible.  Why we tolerate such leaders is seldom explained.  One exception is Thomas Frank in his book What’s Wrong with Kansas, who attributes this to the stupidity of the American people (excepting only liberals).  The cause of this epidemic of stupidity seems unclear to Frank.  Too much TV, perhaps.

(E) It’s fall was inevitable, as “consent of the governed” to the Constitutional regime becomes a meaningless formula with the passing of time, as it refers to consent to the regime by people long dead — people not even ancestors to many of today’s Americans.  It becomes a founding myth, like the foundation of all traditional governments.

(F) We have traded away liberty for promises of security, and prosperity. Everything has a price.

Whatever the cause, the result is by now obvious. We have become consumers, clients of the government, instead of citizens. This deprives the Constitution of its power source. Once a people believe that governing themselves is too difficult or burdensome, someone will take this load from them. After that happens there is no point in crying about the consequences.

“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
— Calvera, bandit leader in the movie “The Magnificent Seven” (1960).

Death of liberty

Killed by apathy.

(4)  Consequences of the Constitution’s death: the government

 “What more befits a decent man, a decent, peaceful citizen, than that he should remain aloof from civil disputes?”
— Letter from Caesar to Cicero, from Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography (1982).

The Founders designed the Constitution largely according to the ideas of Montesquieu and John Locke.  From Montesquieu they got the three branches. From Locke, they limited the government’s powers to protect individual liberties. Its ability to do this has faded rapidly since the New Deal. For example, much of the Bill of Rights remain in force de jure but are void de facto. This can be easily tested by a Lexis search of successful attempts to use them in litigation.  You will find few for many of them.

At some point in our future the Constitution seems likely to become a purely procedural document, much like that of the former Soviet Union, and equally effective at preserving our liberties.  Our rights will exist only on the sufferance of the government and our ruling elites.  This is already true in the UK, as their “unwritten constitution” protecting the “rights of Englishmen” has blown away like smoke in the wind.

One can see our future in the fracas over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.  Judicial outrage over the Bush administration bypassing of the Court of Review cannot result from concern over our civil liberties, as the Court of Review seldom denied requests for government action (see 2015’s record). The Supremes’ anger is understandable, however, as this cut the judiciary out from a role in the rapidly expanding national security apparatus — an obvious violation of the balance of power among the three Branches.

The US government will likely continue to evolve as it has since WWI: growing larger and more intrusive, absorbing an ever larger fraction of the national income. It will become less responsive to direction from the American people and more controlled by and for our elites.

(5)  Consequences of the Constitution’s death:  the people

“Instead of decency, self-discipline and competence, there was insolence, corruption and rapacity.”
Sallust (Roman historian, 86 – 34 BC), quoted in Meier “Caesar” (ibid).

Most of us ignore this evolution. Many people see it as natural or unstoppable, and even desirable. Europe shows how quickly deeply held beliefs can fade from a culture. For millennia Christianity’s doctrines and rites shaped their lives. It faded quickly away once God died in their hearts. After only a handful of generations, churches now see mostly tourists during the week; even on Sunday they remain lightly occupied.  Divorce is common, and on the cutting edge of social policy are euthanasia and infanticide (both relabeled for people’s comfort).

What might be the effect of the Constitution’s death on the cohesion of the American polity?  Cohesion has been a major source of America’s strength, helping us survive crises often fatal to political regimes, including the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the race riots of the late 1960’s (in which large areas of major cities burned).

What will give us a sense of mutual belonging (social cohesion) after the Constitution dies?  What will give us a sense of being Americans?  We share no common religion, ethnicity, heritage, or (with each passing year) even a common language.  To what will we give our allegiance?

As cohesion decreases with every new generation, recruiting for the combat units of our military services might become far more difficult.  For what will these men and women put their lives at risk?  Especially in future wars far more lethal than those now waged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our burning constitution

(6)  The cutting edge of Death’s scythe

“What kind of a crisis was it in which it was not Roman society that fell apart, but Roman reality — the sense of shared security in an order that was essentially unquestioned?”
Caesar: A Biography by Christian Meier (1982).

We might stumble on for a few generations not noticing the corpse of the Constitution lying about — but for one destabilizing factor:  immigration, now running at rates similar to the early-20th century peak.  Although opposed by a large percentage of Americans of all ethnic groups (including Hispanics), our elites find open borders highly beneficial. They enjoy cheap servants for the upper middle classes, workers willing to accept low wages, and votes in support of the welfare state.

The elites running the Republican Party like the cheap workers; those running the Democratic Party like new voters; both enjoy cheap servants. Perhaps most important, large numbers of hard-working and ambitious immigrants create competition for the middle class, spurring desperate efforts to maintain a stable lifestyle for themselves and their children. This creates a hard-working labor force, willing to work 24-7 at their Blackberries and home computers, with no thought of unions or overtime pay, and (best of all) no time or energy leftover for politics.

However desirable to our elites, the cost of immigration to America is high.  To what will these new “Americans” give their allegiance?  To our Constitution?  That is radical concept in most lands, where they change constitutions as easily as our football teams change cities.  They cannot learn this allegiance from us, as many of us no longer have it (this is the big change from the previous waves of immigration).

If not the Constitution, will they give their allegiance to the American nation-state?  Even this is uncertain.  While our love of country lives on, it fades with each generation. Reading our children’s schoolbooks, watching their TV shows and movies, one wonders where the next generation will learn love of country — let alone transmit it to millions of immigrants.

Phoenix

In our future lies the Third Republic.

(7)  The future of America

“There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.”
— Marcus Aurelius, in the film “Gladiator” (2000).

The most common reaction of the Romans to the death of the Republic was resignation, as seen in the popular philosophies of the Empire: Stoicism, Hedonism (including Epicureanism), and Christianity.  How will Americans react when they realize that the Constitution has died?  Reform, rebellion, or resignation?

The coming years might test America more than anything in our past, including the Revolutionary and Civil wars.  America might lose both what defines it and what we hold most dear:  our Constitution, our vast wealth, and our role as global hegemon.  This transition will be like a singularity in astrophysics, a point where the rules break down — and beyond which we cannot see.

Such trials appear throughout history.  Consider Russia in 1942. Ruled by a madman.  Their government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution and killed tens of millions of their own people. Most of their generals were dead, their armies were in full retreat, with vast areas  controlled by a ruthless invader. Yet they hung together and won. The mark of a great people is the ability to carry on when all is lost, including hope. I doubt we will fall into such peril. But no matter what happens, there is no cause for despair.

  • Our wealth is just things (“hardware”), an inheritance from past generations.  What we lose we can work to replace.  Our aspirations to global hegemony were revealed as a mirage in Vietnam and Iraq, lasting less than two generations after WWII.
  • Our culture is a collection of discordant ideas, mixing lofty and base elements in a manner despised by much of the world — a disgust easily understood by watching our TV shows and movies, or listening to some of our popular music.
  • Our Constitution is just an idea inherited from the founders.  We created it, and its death will give us the experience to do better with the next version.

We are America, strong because of our ability to act together, to produce and follow leaders. We are strong due to our openness to other cultures and ability to assimilate their best aspects. We are strong due to our ability to adapt to new circumstances, to roll with defeat and carry on. We will be what we want to be. The coming years will reveal what that is.

“There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.”
— Maximus Decimus Meridius, in the film “Gladiator” (2000).

(8)  For more information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the quiet coup in America, about reforming America: steps to political change, about good news about America, a collection of articles!, about the constitution, and especially these…

  1. How the 1% runs America. Runs us. The answer points to 2 futures for us.
  2. Can Constitutional amendments save the Republic?
  3. Could a new Constitutional Convention help reform America? Is it worth the risk?
  4. Obama repeals Magna Carta, asserting powers our forefathers denied to Kings.
  5. Celebrate what happened one year ago. It’s the birthday of a New America! — Revelation about government surveillance.
  6. We’ve worked through all 5 stages of grief for the Republic. Now, on to The New America!
  7. Conservatives tells us not to worry about the Constitution’s death. Also see this about the Republic’s domestic.

36 thoughts on “Forecast: Death of the American Constitution

  1. thepopulist

    Excellent post: For years I thought that our corporations were responsible for selling us out and exporting our manufacturing base. I thought that a small cabal of corrupt politicians were responsible for cutting taxes on the wealthiest citizens and corporations, while American middle class incomes eroded. In short, I thought that the American people were the victims of our oligarchy.

    But after long reflection, I have realized that this has happened only because the American people dont give a shit. Future generations will be aghast at our decadence. They will try to figure out how a nation with all the power in the world, and all the freedom in the world managed to bankrupt itself.

    The constitution did not fail, the people failed.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. How could it be otherwise? The Constitution is only paper. It has life only to the extent it lives in our hearts, and we are willing to act accordingly. Limit ourselves to its rules, and defend it whatever the cost.

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  2. Fabius Maximus Post author

    As I said in “Some good news“:

    “To see where this leads, read Christian Meier’s biography Caesar. He describes how the Roman people grew tired of governing themselves, perhaps finding the burden too great to bear. Inevitably, strong men came forward to take this load from the people’s backs. People who will not govern themselves have no right to complain about the decisions of the elites who rule them.”

    On the other hand, I have faith that we will pull out of this slump and preserve our self-rule and freedom (two sides of the same coin).

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  3. truthwalker Post author

    Perhaps the greatest and most pervasive lie of this age is that the constitution guarantees our rights. No document, no belief, no history could ever guarantee our rights. The only thing that can ensure one man’s rights is his constant vigilance. The failure of the constitution is not the failure of the document or its enforcement but a failure of will in the people of this country. We have come to value security more than freedom. The constitution languishes because the people don’t choose to exercise their rights, not because the government choses to take them away.

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  4. plato's cave

    A noble post! I certainly agree with the last sentence above, but I interpret it in a different way. Self-rule will come with “re-localization”, which will either happen gradually and voluntarily, as people discover they can buy their own power, do better with locally grown food, can steward their childrens’ education better than a distant bureaucracy — or it will happen traumatically, as state and national governments become unable to provide any services at all.

    Once again, though, Fabius, I wonder when you would locate this golden age of free and responsible citizens in our history? In the 19th century we certainly had a lively intellectual atmosphere, that directly impacted government actions, but, except perhaps for the muckraking and progressive era, I dont see anything comparable in the last century or the present. (In the present, the vaunted internet is more of a distraction and a way of keeping people separate and at home, than a channel for building democratic action.)

    I’m afraid I just see the idea of a virtuous Roman republic as a sentimental wish for this country, at this time.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe — athough these things are difficult to support — that citizens had more influence in the 19th cntury than today. Compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates to those of today. Note only were those longer, far more complex and sophisticated — but reached larger audiences. Likely related and significant the number citizens per representative or senator was tiny compared to today. Numbers matter.

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  5. Cam Hui

    The result of this deterioration has been the ability of the current administration to shred the rights embedded in the constitution, and indeed going back to the Magna Carta, by arguing on procedural grounds or on grounds that it’s only a piece of paper.

    Why hasn’t anyone stood up and said that many Americans have died for that “piece of paper”?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, but the current Administration is just continuing further along the road. Look behind and you will see the footprints of the Clinton administration, and Bush Sr’s, and so forth back to Kennedy’s. Perhaps beyond.

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  6. judasnoose Post author

    ‘because the people don’t choose to exercise their rights, not because the government choses to take them away.’

    Choosing to exercise your rights doesn’t guarantee them either, as Randy Weaver’s wife found out when she chose to stand in the doorway of her house holding a baby — the last choice she made in this world.

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  7. Fabius Maximus Post author

    Judasnoose’s observation is spot on. We see one aspect of this in Shaw’s play “Major Barbara” (Act II).

    CUSINS. By the way, have you any religion?
    UNDERSHAFT. Yes.
    CUSINS. Anything out of the common?
    UNDERSHAFT. Only that there are 2 things necessary to Salvation.
    CUSINS [disappointed but polite] Ah, the Church Catechism. Charles Lomax also belongs to the Established Church.
    UNDERSHAFT. The two things are–
    CUSINS. Baptism and–
    UNDERSHAFT. No. Money and gunpowder.
    CUSINS [surprised] That is the general opinion of our governing classes. The novelty is in hearing any man confess it.
    UNDERSHAFT. Just so.
    CUSINS. Excuse me: is there any place in your religion for honor, justice, truth, love, mercy and so forth?
    UNDERSHAFT. Yes: they are the graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.
    CUSINS. Suppose one is forced to choose between them and money or gunpowder?
    UNDERSHAFT. Choose money and gunpowder; for without enough of both you cannot afford the others.

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  8. Duncan Kinder Post author

    A thumbnail sketch of Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property” is that people shall be meaningfully free if and for so long as they are secure in the means of their livelihoods.

    “Life, Liberty, and Property” was the late 17th and early 18th century formulation of this more basic principle. It does not follow that, in the 21st century, that this principle can or should be formulated the same way. In particular, given the growth of monopolies and other massive concentrations of wealth and power, “property” does not jive as well with “life” and “liberty” as it once did.

    So the trick is to reformulate the old principle in a new manner calculated that the general run of the population will be secure in the means of their livelihoods on the whole and in good measure, by and large, and for the most part, in solid, substantial, durable, meaningful terms.

    How this may or may not jive with the Preamble, the Commerce Clause, the meaning – if any – of the 9th Amendment, or the “penumbras,” I will leave to others.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Is wealth more or less concentrated now than at the Founding? I know there are — very rough — studies of this, but do not know the results.
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    This is a different question than attempting to translate the wealth of past elites into modern terms (impossible to meaningfully do, except for fun).

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  9. OldSkeptic

    Being selfish, as a non-US person, if it collapses, what is the external damage?

    In the end US people have to solve their own problems, however it comes out (personally I’m, strangely for me, in the longer term optimistic, though with lot of short, perhaps medium term, pain, but only if US people get off their collective butts .. and that is the rub). But, in the death throws of its current model, designed by the the dominant country of the world for half a century, will it go quietly or with a bang? Will it, move back quiety from the world stage, rebuild itself and then come back later as a major contributer?

    The US elite worry me, they are not like the British elite, who knew the gig was up and (Suez not withstanding) basically moved back off centre stage in a reasonably orderly way. Or the USSR elite, who basically gave up. Are they more like the Nazi elite who went down fighting to the last German?

    My gut feel, for what it is worth, they will go down fighting, unless US people basically kick them out. They will do anything do prop up the current financial model, depite its obvious failures, they will stay in Iraq as long as they possibly can, they will attack other countries. They will escalate to Russia and China.

    Sadly I can see President McCain (and it will be President McCain, get used to it), ordering phantom armies into the breach, ‘another division into Iran’, ‘more tax cuts for business’. “But sir, we have no more divisions, we have rioting in the streets, the dollar is worthless and we can’t pay to import any more oil, all the multinationals have moved their head offices”.

    Just as likely a scenario as any I’ve heard recently. But the damage worldwide, the wasted resources, the economic damage, the instability it will cause, the risk of Armageddon. I keep coming back to my consistant argument, the world needs the US, but not as it is now behaving.

    Only US citizens can prevent this and rebuild their country, none of the rest of us can change or influence anything.

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  10. Sven Ortmann

    “1. America as a model state: a capitalistic democratic republic which values its citizens’ liberty.
    3. The American dollar as reserve currency; “good as gold” for holding the world’s savings
    4. 3rd generation warfare as the dominant mode of military force.
    5. Growing American wealth through the “debt supercycle”, continuously expanding debt of both Government and households.”

    1: U.S. citizens overestimate that. Many states shared values and liberties with the U.S. in 1945 – and many typical U.S. features of society/state were rarely exported (I wouldn’t know them as typical U.S. if they were).

    3: The USA had a positive trade balance for decades after WW2 – this excludes the possibility that the USD had at that time the function that you describe. Net export (goods and services = net capital exports). Bretton Woods was very different than your description of the post-war time in general.

    4: Really? I don’t remember much 3rd generation warfare. Some episodes of Korean War early on, two conflicts involving Israel, one battle in Ogaden, some South African incursions to Angola – but most of post WW2 warfare was either militia-grade battling (IIRC that’s 1st gen?) or co-called 2nd generation warfare (most of the Korea war, much of Afghanistan and Indochina wars, South Asian conflicts).
    3rd generation warfare dominated the threats, but not the actions (otherwise – NATO planning for WW3 in Europe looked extremely linear!).

    5: Most of the growth was not due to debt, but due to technological advance.
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    Fabius Maximus replies:

    I believe #1 is a fair description, but it is of course subjective assessent. The political trends was toward things associated with the Anglo-american political system: free markets, representative democracy, individual “human” rights.

    I do not believe you have stated #3 correctly. The equation is (net balance from trade in goods and services) + (net capital flows in/out) = the current account balance. The reserve currency can have a c/a balence that is zero or positive (a creditor) — like the US until the late 1960’s — but if it has a negative c/a balance (a borrower), it will eventually lose its status as the reserve currency — a storehouse of value and medium of trade.

    #4 — Quite right, there were few 3GWs, although some of those were important. Korea, Vietnam (ended by standard WWII-like battles), the “6 day war”, the Yom Kippur War, the Falklands War, the Iraq – Iran war, the first Gulf War. The entire period lived in the shadow of the Cold War, the end war between the USSR and the US. But, more significant, most people considered 3GW to be the dominant form of military power, and acted accordingly.

    #5 — I did not say that debt accumulation was the only or even the largest drive of wealth-generation. Rather that the accumulation of debt generated wealth but at the cost of eventually bringing to an end the post-WWII regime. I described this in detail in “Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, III — death by debt“.

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  11. Duncan Kinder Post author

    I can’t state off hand what the relative distribution of George Washington’s vs. Daniel Boone’s was in 1788. The point was that Daniel then had the capacity to tell George to take his powdered wig and shove it. The point being that George’s plantation did not then threaten to gobble up Daniel’s farm – the way that Walmart now threatens to gobble up the local grocery store.

    My favorite summary of this old idea is Longfellow’s village blacksmith standing tall under the spreading chestnut tree – looking every man in the eye for he owes not a dime to any man. To the extent that contemporary Daniel’s likewise share have this capacity, then the fundamental essence of the Constitution will endure.

    Actually, the stuff John Robb is currently writing about resilient communities seems to be not too far off from what I am now talking about.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. The founders believed, to varying extents, that this independence of a large fraction of the citizenry was necessary for a successful Republic. There are indications we are moving towards a Client-Patron system, like Mexico’s — incompatible with self-government.

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  12. rjh

    You might also consider changes in educational and intellectual standards. The Federalist papers were written as propaganda aimed at the politically involved. They require a certain degree of education and skill in reading. Would they be effective propaganda today? What does this imply about the politically involved and their ability to handle complex concepts?
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    Fabuis Maximus replies: Yes, that is a powerful and revealing comparison. The Fed Papers were written for a mass audience (18th century version): farmers, merchants, craftwmen. Today it is high-level reading, for an academic audience.
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    However, to call the Fed Papers “propaganda” sets the bar pretty high. What topical writing on political issues is not propaganda?

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  13. plato's cave Post author

    I thought I had posted a comment on this thread last night, but as it was similar to a contentious comment I had made to a post by Fabius a few days ago, maybe he censored it. In less elegant words, I agreed with the idea Duncan refers to above — resilient communities. I called it after a current slogan — relocalization.

    I also questioned — and I think Fabius heartily disapproves this line of attack — where in earlier American history he found evidence of this sturdy, indepent, civic-minded American citizens — having an impact on government — other than the limited class of property-owners like the founders?

    An informed electorate is truly an indispensable theoretical requirement of democratic government, and a great anguish to democratic-minded people today that we clearly dont have one. But I wonder when we have ever had one? Isn’t it truer that Americans have largely gone along with the actions of their government because they were doing well under them? That is a very passive form of consent, not the active virtuous participation imagined by Fabius, and others on this thread.
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    Fabius Maximus: Due to a technical error on my part, comments were being posted in two places. I have moved them all over here. I apologize for the confusion. I do not delete comments with leaving an entry and an explanation.

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  14. judasnoose

    ‘where in earlier American history he found evidence of this sturdy, indepent, civic-minded American citizens — having an impact on government — other than the limited class of property-owners like the founders?’

    It can be difficult to separate legend from history, but the Revolutionary War a.k.a. War for Independence was characterized by rather strong-minded individuals who fought from ideology. This undoubtedly supported the government, but I think the question was intended to discover whether the individuals had much of an impact on policy.

    Certainly the U.S. government handed out a great deal of frontier land. Westward expansion would have been impossible without this proto-socialistic handout to a (sometimes lower-class) special interest group. Any time in American history when the lower or middle class started a movement and the government decided to run to catch up and then put itself in front of the parade, a similar observation can be made. Consider irrational popular movements like alcohol prohibition.

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  15. Fabius Maximus Post author

    Speaking as an amateur historian, I believe one important factor weakening the American polity started in the late 19th century.

    The gold standard “capped” US growth during the late 19th century. Instead of a long expansion, like that in post-WWII emerging nations, we had a painful boom-bust cycle. Brutal depressions, which vaporized much of our middle class. That was one factor behind our side into a capitalist – proletariat class structure, which had so many ill results in the first half of the 20th century.

    Another factor was industrialization, destroying the craftsman class. Much later, the New Deal and later regulatory programs favored large corporations over the small business class. All of these, and other developments, broke the “class” of independent Americans (the American bourgeoisie**), replacing them with a mass of dependent employees for whom economic security is the primary goal. (as Duncan said in comment #11)

    If only we had a modern financial system in the 19th C! One might just as well wish that we replaced kerosene with nuclear power.

    ** I use bourgeoisie in the Marxist sense, the social class which profits from ownership or trade in capital assets, or from commercial activities such as the buying and selling of commodities, wares, and services.

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  16. Sven Ortmann

    Iran-Iraq war was either no 3rd generation war or I misunderstood the whole generations stuff badly. It was by 99% a positional war of attrition.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Correction noted!
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    What you have really seen is that I phrased that item wrong (not the list of examples). After all, for most of the post-WWII era the US military was a 2GW force. #3 s/b “Conventional military forces were perceived as dominant (2GW and 3GW) by most States, although their effectivenss in actual conflicts decreased over time as 4GW mastery spread.”

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  17. judasnoose

    “If only we had a modern financial system in the 19th C! ”

    Ben Franklin knew and practiced the issue of fiat currency. The trick was that his currency was debt-free, unlike Federal Reserve Notes.

    The problem wasn’t the lack of a “modern” system — the modern system is optimized for wreck-it-and-run profiteering. The problem was the presence of traitors (who attempted to profiteer in various ways, including banking) and the lack of Andrew Jacksons to keep killing the bank.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Judanoose refers, I think, to an interesting work by that polymath, Franklin. However, since Franklin never acted as treasurer for a nation or state, I suspect he overstates the significance of this little essay (2,175 words): “A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of Paper Currency“; Benjamin Franklin (1729).
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    Frankin shows that some special interest groups benefit from inflation, others from deflation — insights which apply to our time as well as 18th century America. However, I suspect both 19th and 20th century economists knew that too much money in circulation was bad, as well as too little. The question is how to know what is “too much” and “too little.” Franklin does not tell us this secret.
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    There are many solutions to this problem. Some use fixed rules, and cause consideable suffering as a corrective force. Some rely on human judgement, and cause considerable suffering when they do not work. The best currency rule, like the best political regime, remains a subject for study and debate. I believe the late 19th century system served America poorly, but might have been the best possible given the state of economic science at that time.

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  18. Pingback: More from Fabius Maximus…We must do something « Don Vandergriff

  19. anon in tx

    Reread Livy and tell me his tales had no role in the making of the constitution. The constitution lives as long as all three branches of government and the states are in tension. This condition ceased to exist long ago…

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  20. anna nicholas

    Good post . We just dont study enough history ! Two pointless points I’d like to make .

    1. Immigration . I have very mixed feelings on this .My gut feeling, to blame it for the loss of ‘ my country ‘ . Refugees and Old Empire citizens welcome , the rest ruddy invaders . On the other hand it is a small world now . On my third hand , some of these people may be good for us . Afghan lads who try 36 times to get through the Chunnel under a truck ( one recently rode unnoticed in an army bus full of soldiers ) , should refresh our gene pool . UK Muslim societies today are not dissimilar to the UK Christian society I grew up in .

    2. The education experiment : conducted on the next generation after the Baby Boomers .” Can we , instead of producing what (Disc Behavioral Styles call) Task Driven Extroverts , produce a nation of people-people ?” ( Not sheep . Sheep are always alert for hole in fence . )

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  21. Slaney Black

    How long can we endure with this absurd bicameral legislature of ours? Talk about change blindness…any serious, discontinuous response to looming challenges – whether socialized medicine or privatized social security – becomes a pipe dream because of the Ben Nelsons and Chuck Grassleys of the world. Small men who represent, what about 10% of the population, have a liberum veto over everything.

    The argument that this is a salutary conservative check is no longer tenable. If that were true the Senate would also check imperial expansion and the state’s police power. But in fact the opposite is true. No one is a bigger suck to the jackboot of Empire than your US Senator.

    The most far-seeing leaders in our hemisphere, from Alberto Fujimori to Hugo Chavez, have all abolished the upper house of the legislature. How long will we labor under this self-imposed millstone?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The concept of a bicameral legislature is not flawed, but our implementation of it is. The result has been the creation of the equivalent to the “rotten boroughs” which paralyzed early 19th century England. For more on this see What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outline of a “Mark 3″ version of the United States? (10 November 2008).

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  22. Gaius Gracchus

    There are several reasons for the decline of great country:

    1. We allowed the elites to destroy our economy through globalization. We have exported jobs and imported cheap goods from abroad, while the elites have rapidly increased their personal income, well eliminating the blue-collar, good-wage backbone of this country. We have accepted the mythology of free trade, especially with the Kennedy Round and ever since, so that America must allow all other countries to exploit its economy.

    2. We have brought in low wage workers (though H1-Bs and large scale immigration, both legal and illegal), further lowering wages, while allowing inordinated and unreasonable expansion, such as in the housing bubble, where illegals built millions of sub-standard homes, especially across the Sunbelt, many of which are already falling apart.

    3. We have eliminated democracy. Gerrymandering has created numerous districts throughout the country on the state and federal level where there are no real choices. One party districts allow (no, require) extreme politicians into legislatures. Lobbyists, working for the elites, run our country and write our laws. Our elected officals and their staffers, as well as federal bureaucrats aim for riches achieved through lobbying, furthering the power of elites.

    4. Most people are wrapped in minor “wedge issues”, which seem so important — gay rights, gun control, abortion, the environment, prayer in school, Terri Schiavo, etc. These are all diversions — Thomas Frank was only partially right. Both parties use the wedge issues, while largely continuing the same policies of the previous administration. Outside of wedge issues (which he has only barely touched), Obama has largely continued the policies of GWB.

    5. The Republicans have abandoned any pretense of supporting “law and order”. The oligarchs only want the Republicans to defend their property and powers, opposing even reasonable tax increases and regulation. The Democrats have long held power as their primary purpose, building a party of numerous factions and groups, but betray those groups over and over again to satisfy the governing elites. Large numbers of people have abandoned the political system in disgust.

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  23. Slaney Black

    FM: “The concept of a bicameral legislature is not flawed, but our implementation of it is.

    There are certainly more bicameral than unicameral legislatures in the world, so that position would seem to have the wisdom of experience on its side. On the other hand, very few upper houses around the world are as strong and assertive as the US Senate. And there is a high correlation between having a US-style system with a strong, territorial-based upper house and being a complete freaking basket case (e.g. Mexico, Argentina).

    An undemocratic institutions can endure for a very long time so long as it do not make spectacles of itself. But the Senate is becoming ever more arrogant and assertive even as it becomes less and less representative. Either the Senate can be a technicolor forum for free-form Dadaist parliamentary procedure performance art, or it can be stupendously unrepresentative. It cannot long be both. These people cannot continue to require a supermajority for everything except war funding.

    By the middle of the next presidential term, I expect to see one of the following happen: 1) “reconciliation” or some similar procedure gets used to pass everything or 2) the Vice President asserts his reserve powers as President of the Senate, like Cheney threatened to do a few years back.

    Thanks as always for your valuable analysis, FM!

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  24. Highlander

    The major question remaining is on the Roman contiuium for America is it 70BC or 370AD? Whatever the correct answer, we are on fast forward as a culture and nation. The future will arrive quickly. Strap in tightly, it will be a rough ride.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I strongly agree. For more insight into this I recommend reading Christian Meier’s biography “Caesar.” He describes late Republian Rome so clearly that the similarities between then and now leap off the page. The Roman people had grown weary of the burden of governing themselves. Inevitably someone would take the burden off their shoulders.

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  25. Bjørn Holmgaard

    Maybe it is time for the american people to realise that the US og A at the time of the founding fathers wasn’t a liberal freedom loving utopia. Rather it was a post-kommunist society. Having killed alle the property-owners (the Indians) and distributed the proceeds amongst themselves Americans in general (the whites) had a lot to fight and die for therefore their vigilance in defending the status quo.

    Now, as Fabius Maximus notes, the US of A is much closer to a Client-Patron system in which the people is suckered into one dead-end conflict after another by people to rich and powerful for the health of the nation. Why fight and die for a country/or a constitution in which birth is all-important to the chances of succes. Freedom from oppression has become freedom to manipulate, to hinder and ultimately to destroy the workings of your own republic.

    As Thomas Jefferson said:

    “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
    — Letter to William Stephens Smith (13 November 1787)

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  26. Don

    Outstanding Fabius!! As always. How can we get you into a political office? Read chapter 3 of my book Manning the Legions why I think we have lost our republic.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I strongly recommend everyone reading “Manning the Legions”. Since both parties are committed to foreign wars, the subject is of extreme importance.

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  27. Byron King

    You ask the questions… “To what will these new “Americans” give their allegiance? To our Constitution? That is radical concept in most lands,… ”

    Good questions… And in a remarkable new book (pub’d. June 2009) called “When China Rules the World,” historian Martin Jacques notes a critical distinction. China has a competitive advantage in the world because it’s a “civilization-sate” (which he explains in great detail). Compare this to most other countries in the world — including the US — which are “nation-states” and temporary constructs on the arc of history.

    “Civilizations” will win out over “nations,” in the long haul. I’d write more, but don’t want to push the comment limits.

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  28. Frankie

    You guys can sit around a hold these parlor bull-sessions all you want, anyone who understands reality (not theory) knows that the US is hosed beyond redemption. You’ll be sitting around in the soup kitchens (or worse places) discussing Aristotle.

    As for me…frankly, I don’t give a shit. I hedged my bets, so I am not beholden to the coming wave of incredible suffering that is going to hit. It’s a big world out there, and much of it, or at least some of it, is more enjoyable than the US nowadays.

    I hate to be the guy to tap you on the shoulder and point out the obvious, but the outside world knows the US is sliding down beyond redemption. Asia, in particular, is forging its economic ties with Europe, and the U.S. is going to fade into obscurity…they all know it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Can you provide any evidence to back your absurdly confident assertions? The track record for such predictions is very poor. It’s fun (in a nutty sort of way) that you know what the “outside world” thinks. Have you spoken with Mr. World, or did you take a poll?

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  29. Marcellus

    Pursuant to section 6, and at grave risk of being labeled a xenophobe . . . .

    The Civil War pretty much closed the question of whether or not Anglo society would accept the Irish and Germans. Then up to WW I came a flood of immigrants from across Europe, met with suspicion, and their ghettoization. Restrictive immigration legislation in 1925 ended that. National policy was for assimilation, characterized in public education. Thus at midcentury came a period of homogenization of the 2nd and 3rd generation of those earlier immigrants. This produced the “Greatest Generation” and the cultural strength of the postwar period. That period ended with the generous immigration legislation of 1965 which has reshaped American society. Hard on its heels was the valorization of multiculturalism, in which every culture other than European was held to be more noble, authentic, and vibrant. Assimilation was out; the Federal government passed laws encouraging cultural balkanization (for example, bilingual eduation).

    Accept for consideration that our founding principles, expressed in documents, are cultural artifacts. When that culture withers and newcomers are not enculturated in those principles, the result is a country of convenience: better job opportunities, cheaper food, decent housing; but not a country of united citizens.

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  30. Slaney Black

    FM: “The Roman people had grown weary of the burden of governing themselves. Inevitably someone would take the burden off their shoulders.

    Well, imagine this: the US is its present size. Congress is hereditary and the only check on its power is a public assembly of the residents of DC. After a while, military dictatorship would start to look pretty attractive. On the other hand, city and town self-government was pretty robust under the Empire. Things really fell apart only when the slave trade collapsed and the elites started enserfing their own people to compensate.

    Thus at midcentury came a period of homogenization of the 2nd and 3rd generation of those earlier immigrants. This produced the “Greatest Generation” and the cultural strength of the postwar period.

    Immigration restriction and public schools were part of that, but it didn’t hurt that the population was regimented by two world wars and two red scares – liberals like to harp on the fancy Hollywood and civil service martyrs, but the main target was always labor. As a carrot for those sticks, you had government-fostered megacorporations who could pay higher wages and an extensive welfare state.

    Naturally the wheels fell off in the ’70s, and then we got the present neoliberal state order that just collapsed this year.

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  31. El Zorro

    I would not exaggerate the picture as if US America would be a sort of quarterback champion that has the abbility to open to other cultures and strike cultural integration.

    FM said “We are strong due to our openness to other cultures and ability to assimilate their best aspects“.

    Exactly, where that openness lays….??? Profits, Globalism, Imperialism, Nationalism, a cultural hegemony perhaps? Is Coca Cola part of this ‘adventurous’ assimilation of others?……the demize of others values into a more liberalized society was always the easiest way to market who are the so called “good guys”.

    What a lousy argument this was Fabius. As always, you seem to fall when least expected.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Look at our language, our mores, our food, our political regime — almost every aspect of our society shows a high level of openness to foreign ways — and an extreme facility at adopting them. Most esp note our high rates of immegration. How can you not see this?

    “Profits, Globalism, Imperialism, Nationalism, a cultural hegemony perhaps?”

    I have no idea what you are saying here. I said we assimilate other ways easily. That was not a claim of moral superiority.

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  32. El Zorro

    El Zorro:

    If you think I accounted to you any ‘moral argument’, please, do stick to the real meaning of Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") has 3 principal meanings:
    * In its first, descriptive usage, morality means a code of conduct or belief which is held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong.
    * In its second, normative and universal sense, morality refers to an ideal code of belief and conduct.
    * In its third usage, ‘morality’ is synonymous with ethics. Ethics is the systematic philosophical study of the moral domain.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: A comment from El Zorro, addressed to El Zoro? This is confusing. Even the text is confusing, as I don’t see its relevance to the thread.

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  33. El Zorro

    El Zorro: I have inserted into the comment some answers to his questions.

    FM: “Look at our language, our mores, our food, our political regime — almost every aspect of our society shows a high level of openness to foreign ways — and an extreme facility at adopting them. Most esp note our high rates of immigration. How can you not see this? “Profits, Globalism, Imperialism, Nationalism, a cultural hegemony perhaps?” I have no idea what you are saying here. I said we assimilate other ways easily. That was not a claim of moral superiority.

    El Zorro replies: Can you provide any evidence to back your absurdly confident assertions?

    1) Can you provide evidence that your language provides “high level"…of openness to foreign ways.
    FM: A large fraction of our words are of foreign origin. Ignoring our direct roots in German, Latin, French, and Norse, about 11% of commonly used words are of foreign origin. (source) See examples from 30 languages here.
    El Zorro: from your own source, “English is a West Germanic language that originated in Anglo-Saxon England. As a result of the military, economic, scientific, political, and cultural influence of the during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries and of the United States since the mid 20th century, it has become the lingua franca in many parts of the world.” Then, how can an alien fabricated language influenced by the British Empire be of “high level” openness to aliens. Rather I would say this “openness” is false, and is just a natural by product of its Anglo-Saxon origin in England.

    2) Can you provide evidence that your mores provides “high level…of openness to foreign ways.”
    FM: Look at how easily American culture has adopted over the past 150 years to waves of people from radically different cultures. Southern Europe, China, Eastern Europe, Latin America, SE Asia, India. Many different religions, different value systems. With very little stress, as such things go.
    El Zorro: (i) Can this be a by-product of an economic force driving foreign aliens into US American society to profit and businesses? Can you prove this is not the case from the last 150 years of immigration? (ii) Can you prove that what you call “American culture” is totally different and dissociated from Southern Europe, China, Eastern Europe, Latin America, SE Asia, India, Anglo-Saxon ? Or is it a byproduct of them all combined?

    3) Can you provide evidence that your food provides “high level"…of openness to foreign ways.”
    FM: This is silly. How many foreign restuarants can you find in an average US city? How many foreign foods are in the diet of typical Americans — Mexican, Chinese, Italian, French…
    El Zorro: This one is the best….does restaurants provide “high level"…of openness to foreign ways.”? In what sense? Is their absence is a point of “low level"…of openness to foreign ways.”? Is their existence a proof of “high level"…of openness to foreign ways.”? Are you familiar with the “openness” Palestinian food provides to isreali in Israel ?

    4) Can you provide evidence that your political regime provides “high levels…of openness to foreign ways.”
    FM: To cite one of many — Our political system was originally expressly Christian (perhaps even Protestant), as seen by prayers in Congress, national holidays, religious doctrine in laws (e.g., blue laws on Sunday, prohibitions against Christian-defined deviant behavior). Throughout history people have killed each other in uncountable numbers over such things, and still do so today throughout the world. Our regime has adapted to a wide range of faiths without violence. Bosnia and India, to name just two, might learn something from us in this area.
    El Zorro: If you political system was –as you say- “originally" expressly Christian”, how can a christian engange in slavery as the early stages of your colony in North America? and even, How can your “originally" expressly Christian” political system, sell the land of native americans with deceivement and coercion in the early stages of your colonization?

    5) Can you provide evidence that 1, 2, 3, 4 are not related or correlated with commerce and currency exchange incentives towards less strong economies?
    FM: Proving a negative is difficult, and worth the effort only if there is an obvious connection.
    El Zorro: This gives us some light to see that you are probably ‘talking yourself out’….just using ‘cherry-picking data’ to make and advocate a ‘false case’ in the opinion of others….probably.

    6) Can you clarify and please –quote me– where I asserted “moral superiority”?
    FM: Not at all. I wondered if you implied that I did so.
    El Zorro: I presumed, hence my question.

    Do I smell a populist and weak speech here ???
    FM: I have no idea what that means.
    El Zorro: I think you have. Or you would prefer to start showing “high level…of openness” and giving straight answers to my questions –instead of this unfunded reasoning and lack of logic ?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I’ve been a good sport about this, but this is highly off-topic from this post about the Constitution. Answers like as #4 take this off into basic history, best discussed on another site (Christianity is compatable with both slavery (e.g., Ephesians 6:5) and stealing land). No more, please.

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  34. El Zorro

    This is Amazing! FM does believe that Christianity is compatible with slavery !? He said "IS COMPATIBLE", hence currently is…painting himself AS if he KNOWS what he is speaking about.

    I will prove to the readers here, he does not understand this point. Catholicism is AGAINST and is NOT COMPATIBLE with SLAVERY !!…..poor kid, doing this blog he has lost all elegant logic and all capacity to recognize when he was defeated by a reader. {click here to read the rest}
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I give a citation from Ephesians 6:5), used in the west for almost 2 millenia to justify slavery, and El Zoro writes a rebuttal? Has he written any books of Scripture, or does he just have great self-esteem?

    Too bad he cannot send his wisdom back in time! Millions of slaves owned by Christian masters might be freed (the tenses of this are confusing, as always when speaking of time travel). However interesting, in an odd sort of way, it is off-topic here. I leave a link for anyone interested to read it.

    By the way, “Catholicism” (to which El Zoro refers) is not the same as “Christianity” (the term I used).

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