September 25, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 5:28 AM


Founding Fathers, Founding Villains : The New Liberal Originalism (William Hogeland, Boston Review)

It's true that, as treasury secretary, Hamilton did everything he could to strengthen federal authority and build the nation on the concentrated wealth of the lending class. When opposition to his plans grew intense, he was eager to ignore constitutional protections of individual rights in the interest of a small group of government-connected insiders, the public bondholders. The view of Hamilton as a betrayer of founding values therefore plays not only among conservatives of the Leahy type but also among certain liberals.

Roger Hodge is one of them. In The Mendacity of Hope, his view of practical aspects of Hamiltonian finance is more nuanced than Leahy's, but he joins Leahy in denouncing Hamilton for spoiling the best hopes of the founding generation. "Undeniably," Hodge asserts, "Hamilton had been trying to corrupt the government by cultivating a moneyed class dependent on it."
Like Leahy, Hodge defines Hamiltonianism--the first treasury secretary's cultivation of the money class--as a corruption of our constitutional republic. Hodge's target, too, is Obama, whom he, like Leahy, presents as an avatar of Hamilton. And, like Leahy, Hodge gives us a hero to fight the villain: James Madison.

But Hodge's and Leahy's Madison is a flimsy construction, and their idea of a U.S. Constitution lacking any essential Hamiltonian contribution is not history but wish. Both authors refuse to look backward from the pivotal moment in the early 1790s when Madison startled Hamilton by suddenly opposing him. They ignore Madison's dedicated efforts in the 1780s, as Hamilton's partner, to pursue a federal authority that would not only vitiate the states' power but also suppress popular, democratic approaches to public finance. When the War of Independence was winding down, the two young lawyers worked together in the Confederation Congress to impose a tax, to be collected by federal officers, earmarked not for support of troops but for making interest payments to the small, interstate class of rich investors who had bought Congress's bonds. That tax was planned as a wedge for further taxes, collected throughout the country by a top-down, well-armed government in support of government lenders. Madison especially looked deep within the Articles of Confederation for an overarching power--an implied one--to levy the tax without amending the articles.

His effort failed. Yet in the desire to sustain a large public debt to bondholders, supported by federal taxes, American nationalism flourished. Far from opposing Hamilton's vision of America as a great economic power knit together by collectors of regressive taxes, in the early 1780s Madison criticized Hamilton only for, as Madison put it, "let out the secret" by expressing that vision so honestly.
The partnership with Hamilton went on. Madison's fans routinely cite those parts of the famous essay we call "Federalist Ten" where Madison explains how a republican government may balance the deleterious effects of factions without repressing them. Rarely do we see quoted parts of that essay expressing a fear and loathing of popular, democratic finance as deep as anything ever expressed by Hamilton; or parts that call failure to pay investors in the public debt a major flaw of the confederation, curable only by creating a national government with power to enforce its finance policies. 
Throughout the framing convention, the ratification debates, and the amendment process, Madison's persistent desire was for the most vigorous kind of national authority, for reasons he shared with Hamilton.

In the Constitutional Convention, Madison's and Hamilton's hyper-nationalism did in some ways fail. Sovereignty was divided, against Madison's wishes at the time, between the national government and the states. Yet all-important fiscal provisions gave immense power, explicitly, to the federal government and took power away, explicitly, from the states. Imagining a U.S. Constitution free of inspiration and provisions that we call Hamiltonian is imagining a constitution other than ours. And a Madison free of Hamilton is not the Madison we call the Constitution's father.
That dissonance causes trouble for authors who want to read the 1790s Madison, who became Hamilton's enemy, back into the Madison who authored the Constitution. 

Had the Founding been about weak central government we'd still be governed under the Articles of Confederation.

Posted by orrinj at 5:19 AM


Portrait of the Artist as a Postman : The strange and secret world of Kermit Oliver. (Jason Sheeler, OCTOBER 2012, Texas Monthly)

In July 2011, more than five thousand miles east of Waco, an assistant designer at the Hermès silk factory, in Lyon, France, unfurled a ninety-by-ninety-centimeter square of the company's famous silk twill. It was lushly illustrated with the plants and animals of Texas. "This is my favorite scarf," she said, pointing out the highlights to those of us assembled at the factory for a tour. The scarf, called Faune et Flore du Texas, was designed for the state's sesquicentennial and had all the romantic detail of a vintage encyclopedia illustration. The assistant designer ran her finger around a ring of prickly pear that encircled an enormous turkey. Her hand brushed over nests of mallards, clusters of raccoons, a rearing mustang, a wild hare, and a stoic-looking Longhorn. More than fifty native animals coexisted within a viny ivy frame that blossomed with firewheels, Texas bindweed, and a particularly lovely downward-facing sunflower.

There are few labels higher on fashion's Mount Olympus than Hermès. The 175-year-old luxury goods company is known for its handmade handbags, such as the Kelly (which is named after Grace Kelly) and the Birkin (which is named after Jane Birkin, costs between $9,000 and $150,000, and once had a legendary multiple-year waiting list). But perhaps its most coveted and collectible items--and the reason for my visit to the factory--are its $410 silk scarves. Since 1937 the company's scarf sales have exploded; it is estimated that Hermès now sells one every twenty seconds. Jackie Onassis used an Hermès scarf to hold back her hair, and Princess Grace slung her broken arm in one. Each scarf design is an original commissioned artwork, screened on 450,000 meters' worth of mulberry moth silkworm thread, and the scarf's hem is hand-stitched--a process, legend has it, that was once handled by nuns.

The artist behind Faune et Flore du Texas, said the assistant designer, first caught the attention of Hermès in the eighties. According to company lore, Jean-Louis Dumas, the CEO at the time, loved driving across the United States. On one trip, while visiting Texas, he encountered a painter whose work was so bold but simple, so impressive in its portrayal of animals, that Dumas immediately commissioned a scarf design. That scarf had since been reissued several times and always sold out. The painter's style was so popular that in the past thirty years, the company had commissioned fifteen more original designs from him. He was the only American artist ever to have designed scarves for Hermès.

Who was this man? I asked the assistant designer. He was very special, she told me. His name was Kermit Oliver, and he was a postal worker in his late sixties who lived in Waco. 
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Posted by orrinj at 5:10 AM


The Conservative Mind (DAVID BROOKS, 9/25/12, NY Times)

When I joined the staff of National Review as a lowly associate in 1984, the magazine, and the conservative movement itself, was a fusion of two different mentalities.

On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.

But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn't see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.

Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.

Recently the blogger Rod Dreher linked to Kirk's essay, "Ten Conservative Principles," which gives the flavor of this brand of traditional conservatism. This kind of conservative cherishes custom, believing that the individual is foolish but the species is wise. It is usually best to be guided by precedent.

This conservative believes in prudence on the grounds that society is complicated and it's generally best to reform it steadily but cautiously. Providence moves slowly but the devil hurries.

Note that the more libertarian right is prey to the same fallacy as the Left, the bizarre faith in human perfectability.

Posted by orrinj at 4:55 AM


Design Wants to Be Free : An object is no longer something you merely consume. It's something you create. Famed industrial designer Yves Behar explains why this shift is a revolution in the making. (YVES BEHAR, 09.24.12 6:30 AM

Design wants to be free, to paraphrase Stewart Brand. And when I say "free," I'm talking about the broadest sense of the word--meaning both low-cost and liberated. We're not there yet, but that moment isn't far off. What will liberate design? Our tools, for one; they are increasingly cheap, powerful, and available to all. Design no longer signifies high priests at their drafting tables but rather you and me at our computers: 3-D printers are the new inkjets, and the age of desktop publishing is fast becoming the age of desktop manufacturing. Haven't yet printed your own toys, household staples, and replacement parts? You will soon. And even if you're not remotely interested in making stuff yourself, you're probably still quick to appreciate that there's something really cool about skyscrapers that go up in two weeks or the glass that protects your iPhone.

Tools are liberating design, but so are people. We have become participants on social platforms that allow us to collaborate and customize and create, and in the process we've become expert collaborators, customizers, and creators--whether that means sharing gorgeously distressed photos on Instagram or uploading a 3-D design for a Warhammer soldier on Thingiverse, the MakerBot community site.

The upshot: Design isn't just something we appreciate, it's something we do. Autodesk is helping by creating tools and services that it hopes will power the maker movement. And Etsy is changing the definition of "handmade" by helping its sellers manufacture their wares on a larger scale.

This ever-more-free design is speeding the adoption of new ideas, which in turn disrupt old industries. Designers, coders, and entrepreneurs are challenging notions that sustainability is expensive, that technology is hard to use, that quality is exclusive. No segment of the economy will be left untouched.