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Archive for November, 2012

Alcoholic Originalism

[ 65 ] November 26, 2012 |

You may have seen this study that came out a week or so ago showing that American adults consume almost as many “empty calories” through alcohol as through soda.

In a world of “facts,” this study might be “correct.” Yet, this is outrageous on two levels. First, calories that get me drunk are not empty calories. Soda offers nothing that can’t be achieved in other ways. Need caffeine, drink a cup of coffee. Need something sweet, there are a million options. People drink alcohol for specific reasons that cannot be replicated in a legal way. Humans throughout history have found drugs to alter their minds. In the United States we have chosen to make most of them illegal. Alcohol is an exception and so looking at it through the same lens we do as other food choices provides a limited perspective.

Second, the study is unpatriotic. Why do I drink? Because I am a good American. In a country where we have Supreme Court justices trying fit a brief 225 year old document understandable only in the context of the late 18th century around the contours of modern society in ways that often defy logic, we might as well examine what early Americans actually did if we want to emulate the Founders. What did they do? Drink.

The definitive book on this is W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the first chapter gives a solid overview of the topic and is where most of the following material originates. In short, before the Revolution, Americans drank approximately 3.7 gallons per person per year of hard alcohol alone (not counting beer, wine, and cider–by the far the predominant non-distilled beverage). While that dipped when rum supplies became scarce after 1776, it exploded to reach nearly 5 gallons by the 1820s, by this time mostly domestically produced whiskey. Between 1800 and 1830, the average American drank 15 gallons of hard cider, at least in the North. This was certainly gendered. According to the American Temperance Society (a fifth column of un-American activities if there ever was one), in the late 1820s, the nation’s 9 million women and children drank a total of 12 million gallons of distilled spirits per year; the nation’s 3 million men drank 60 million gallons. I’m not sure if or how those numbers included slaves, but like women, they drank less than white men. Both women and slaves faced social norms against excessive drinking; moreover, they were not accepted into the public and social drinking life of the early 19th century tavern. But both drank when and where they could. Children routinely drank in taverns by the age of 14. Drinking was especially popular within the American working class. In 1829, the Secretary of War estimated that 3/4 of the nation’s laborers drank at least 4 ounces of distilled spirits every day.

Ministers who considered themselves temperate drank. One, a supporter of temperance, drank 4 glasses of hard alcohol on Sunday to help him through his arduous workday. The Methodist church allowed at least one southern planter to be a member if he was temperate enough to hold his daily consumption of alcohol to one quart of peach brandy. On one horse carriage trip across Virginia, the team stopped 10 times over the 17 hour, 66 mile day. The passengers drank one drink at each stop, leading one foreign observer to write “the American stage coach stops every five miles to water horses, and brandy the gentlemen!” New York Governor George Clinton once hosted a dinner for the French ambassador. 120 guests at this party polished off 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch.

George Washington was a whiskey distiller. John Adams drank a tankard of hard cider at breakfast every morning. Thomas Jefferson hosted the first presidential cocktail party and was one of the first Americans to import large quantities of French wine. Dolley Madison openly poured herself a hot toddy while meeting with a temperance reformer.

I could go on.

So hoist one this evening for George Washington, for the person working on the docks of New York in 1801, for the Pennsylvania corn farmer turning his product into whiskey, and for the slave woman sneaking some alcohol behind her master’s back. And if this means hoisting one for each of these people, well, that just makes you more of a patriot. If you’re going to say that alcohol is empty calories, you might as well say the Declaration of Independence is empty rhetoric. After all, it’s not like Thomas Jefferson was sober while writing the thing.


Southern Demographics

[ 81 ] November 26, 2012 |

I found this Douglas Blackmon piece at the Post interesting for a couple of reasons. Exploring changing demographics in the South, he notes that Republicans have far from safe majorities along the entire Atlantic coast. Growing Latino and black populations in Virginia and North Carolina have turned those states into Florida, meaning Republicans have to fight for more states they used to count on for easy wins. But more alarming if I were a Republican is shrinking victory margins in Georgia and even South Carolina.

What blew me away though was just how strong racial identity still matters in the mid-South.

The results show a region cleaving apart along new electoral fault lines. In the region’s center, clustered along the Mississippi River — where Bill Clinton polled most strongly — the GOP remains largely unchallenged and the voting divide between blacks and whites is deepening. Nearly nine of 10 of white voters in Mississippi, for instance, went for Republican nominee Mitt Romney this year, according to exit polls. About 96 percent of black voters in the state supported Obama.

I’ve often attacked blanket denunciations of the South. When people say that we should have let the South secede, it irritates me, not only because it erases the millions of black people who only live lives of anything approaching equality because of federal intervention but also because of the liberal whites I have known from the South. But 90% for Romney among Mississippi whites? That’s amazing and disturbing. I understand why 96% of blacks would vote for the Democrats–the Republicans are a party of institutionalized racism. But that 90% of Mississippi whites would essentially accept that racism and identify with the white man’s party (understanding that not every Mississippi Republican voter is a racist, we can also assume that a whole lot are) suggests that it wasn’t just a few white yahoos rioting at the University of Mississippi on election night. Rather, it was endemic of the feelings of most Mississippi whites.

Majorities Should Be Able to Govern

[ 73 ] November 26, 2012 |

This might be the key paragraph in this useful Times description of the increasing gridlock in the Senate:

Critics of the idea, who exist in both parties, say such a change would do great damage, causing Washington to career from one set of policies to another, depending on which party held power.

Your point being? The first problem here is that making the Senate function like a proper legislative body wouldn’t, itself, cause radical shifts of policy to result from elections. The United States would still retain a system with an unusually high number of veto points, and the power of the Senate would be constrained by the House, the executive branch, and the courts (who are most likely to challenge the federal government in periods where there has been a major partisan shift.)

And perhaps more importantly, even in parliamentary systems you generally don’t see radical shifts resulting from changes in government. Responsible party government has a moderating effect because it decreases the chances to shift responsibility for unpopular policies. And you can see this even in the American system during times of unified party government. Note, as I’ve pointed out before, that it wasn’t the filibuster that stopped the Bush administration from privatizing Social Security. Filibusters did allow Democrats to stop a few terrible judges, but they certainly haven’t been net winners here, and every time a more dysfunctional equilibrium is established this helps reactionary interests.

Anyway, it is true that policies would shift more after elections were won and lost without the filibuster (even if this shift will be much less severe than many expect.) So what? Parties that win elections should be able to govern and properly staff executive and judicial positions.

Hopefully This Doesn’t Portend A Notre Dame Win Too

[ 25 ] November 26, 2012 |

Grudging congratulations to the Argonauts for winning North America’s most important football championship. I am, however, disappointed that we didn’t get a Gordon Lightfoot/Carly Rae Jespen duet at halftime…

Impersonating someone can be a federal offense

[ 41 ] November 25, 2012 |

SEK is inside his apartment being forced (by proximity) to listen to children playing basketball on the court adjacent to his porch.

CHILD #1: Pass the ball!


CHILD #1: Pass the damn ball!



SEK: What the—

SEK exits his apartment and looks at his porch. On the ground is a shattered pot and another plant that will inevitably not survive re-potting at this time of year. There is also a basketball. SEK picks up the basketball and looks at the children on the court.

SEK: Which one of you is “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #1: What do you mean?

SEK: I mean, which one of you is “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #2: Not us.

SEK: Have a good night then.

CHILD #1: What about our ball? Can we have it back?

SEK: This isn’t your ball.

CHILD #1: It is.

SEK: So you’re “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #2: No one’s “RAY ALLEN”! Now give us back our ball!

SEK: This ball belongs to “RAY ALLEN.” If you’re not “RAY ALLEN,” this isn’t your ball.

SEK enters his apartment with “RAY ALLEN”‘s ball. Ten minutes pass. His doorbell rings. Standing at the door is an OLDER WOMAN with a firm grip on CHILD #2’s arm.

OLDER WOMAN: My son has something to say to you. (OLDER WOMAN elbows CHILD #2)

CHILD #2: I’m—



Sure, But Obviously the Feds Made Them

[ 76 ] November 25, 2012 |

Today in highly principled federalist arguments:

Derrick Belcher, a libertarian in Alabama, is so furious that the government shut down his topless car wash business that he’s organized a petition for Alabama to secede from the union.

Understandable! Only…

There’s just one catch: the government that shut him down is the state of Alabama.

I hope the petition also demands that the federal government get its grubby paws off our Medicare.

This Fully Armed and Operational Aircraft Carrier…

[ 60 ] November 25, 2012 |

The “China has an aircraft carrier with no aircraft” talking point is now obsolete:

Some analysis here. Impressive work.

The Waning of Grover?

[ 54 ] November 24, 2012 |

Moving away from reflexively opposing any possible tax increase is still a long way from being to vote for decent tax policies, but it’s still an interesting development. I still wonder about whether Republicans who break from The Pledge in congressional votes will be able to survive capable primary challenges.

Just Pay Them

[ 140 ] November 24, 2012 |

When employers complain about a lack of skilled workers, what they tend to really mean is “a lack of skilled workers willing to work for subsistence wages.”


Black Friday Wal-Mart Strikes

[ 147 ] November 23, 2012 |

I’m going to assume anyone who actually shops today is someone I don’t want to know. But in any case, you should be following the Black Friday Wal-Mart strikes, the largest organized labor action in the history of the company. Josh Eidelson’s blog at The Nation is the best place for all the latest information.

Abraham Lincoln: Railroad Hack

[ 66 ] November 23, 2012 |

Lynn Parramore’s piece exposing Abraham Lincoln’s history as a railroad lawyer has some demythologizing value, but it would be a lot more useful if it placed Lincoln’s railroad history within the larger context of the early Republican Party. Thinking of Lincoln as a corrupt Gilded Age Republican politician is not at all incongruous with Lincoln the Great Emancipator. Essentially the entire generation of early Republicans turned very quickly from emancipation to corporatization without a blink; in fact, their rapidly evolving ideas of free labor ideology made these two things entirely compatible. After reading so many books on the Gilded Age, including Richard White’s Railroaded, you see again and again the people who opposed slavery essentially treating workers almost like slaves themselves. The entirety of the difference was the actual ownership of labor. Once they were no longer actually owned, you could exploit them in all sorts of disturbing ways, a distinction that helps explain why so many Republicans were essentially fine with southern treatment of black labor after Reconstruction. While you can find the occasional quote from Lincoln bemoaning capital, it’s also entirely expected for Gilded Age politicians to worry about corruption from capital in public while also being incredibly corrupt themselves.

In other words, had Lincoln lived I don’t see any reason to think the Gilded Age would have happened any differently. Reconstruction is another matter. But the fundamental questions of labor and capital in late nineteenth century America was something an aging Lincoln almost certainly would have accepted and perhaps embraced.

Foreign Entanglements: Horse, Bayonets, and Iron Domes

[ 8 ] November 23, 2012 |

Happy post-Thanksgiving, all. With luck, we won’t have to deal with another holiday situation until Memorial Day or thereabouts. On Monday, I spoke with Bryan McGrath (my co-blogger at Information Dissemination) about the election, asymmetric beliefs, maritime issues, and Iron Dome:

On the Iron Dome point, my contribution at the Diplomat this week concerned the exportability of the model to East Asia:

The apparent success of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system in the latest iteration of the Israel-Hamas conflict has spurred interest in how East Asian states could apply similar defensive technologies. Indeed, an Israeli media outlet reported that South Korea is considering procurement of the Iron Dome system, potentially as part of a reciprocal agreement that would supply Israel with maritime patrol ships. On Sunday, Max Boot argued that the success of Iron Dome effectively justifies Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era concentration on the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense system expected to defeat a Soviet nuclear attack. Demonstration effects matter; does the success of Iron Dome have implications for rocket or missile defense in East Asia?

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