George Washington, Feb. 22, 1732 – Dec. 14, 1799

I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.

—George Washington (various sources)
 

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George Washington seems a strange choice for this series, which is (after all) about those forgotten greats. How can we include a figure so well known, so omnipresent, and so publicly venerated as George Washington: Founder of the Country, First President, First in Hearts of His Countrymen, etc.?

But fame is as a great a peril as obscurity if our goal is to remember the man and not the legend. And Washington is great precisely because he was a man—a man of his time and class—and not a myth. He was not the flawless saint of the classic “cherry tree” story. He deceived others from time to time (though perhaps only after deceiving himself). He was, at times, guilty of poor judgment, of jealousy, of passionate anger, of greed for wealth that lead to involvement with speculative schemes.

And for all his modest demurements, and socially correct (for the time) public rejections of ambition, he was certainly an ambitious man. One who took considerable pride in the good name he had won through his deeds, and one who could be jealous of his perquisites when challenged.

Indeed, that very ambition is one of the great things about Washington. He was a man who, in Britain, would have been doomed to obscurity by his relatively low birth. At best he might have risen to a modest career in the military, and perhaps eventually earned a minor peerage. But certainly he would not have risen to be ranked among the wealthiest men in his nation, nor risen to a role not only on par with the Prime Minster’s but above it in every way. But in America, his talent for being in the right place, at the right time, with the right plan; his noble good looks and regal bearing; and his upright moral character and sheer persistence allowed him to climb steadily up the ranks of society.

And so this, above everything else, makes Washington worthy of our praise: that after he had risen to the top of the heap, after his enemies domestic and foreign had been vanquished, when he was not only handed the laurel of victory but offered the imperial scepter, then he demurred. He who could have been King chose instead to be President.

And with a firm understanding that everything he did would be immortalized, and that his slightest act might become precedent for the office he held, this very ambitious, talented, and passionate man became the very model of restraint. A man who had bent the efforts of long years to rising in wealth and status now became almost passive, in order to ensure that nothing extravagant or unnecessary would attach to the office he was establishing each day by his actions.

This is not to say that he did not act, he did, and with force, when he felt it necessary. But he realized just how fragile the new nation was, and how fragile its rule of law was. If its first President had been a bad President, all might have been lost. Just as Pompey and Cesear had turned the offices of consul, dictator, and imperator into the trappings of tyranny, Washington could easily have hijacked the Republic and made it his. Not only be the crude method of being declared King, but by subtler methods: undermining Congress through direct appeal, having political enemies quietly eliminated, running for re-election until dying in office.

Any of those methods might have strangled the United States before it grew strong enough to survive them. And Washington understood this deeply, and bent all his intellect and will to ensuring that it did not happen. And he crowned those efforts with his greatest act: voluntarily stepping down and choosing not to run for election, and then lawfully handing over the office to a man who had publicly vilified his policies and privately vilified him. And then he took up station quietly on his farm and refused, largely, to engage in political debate for the remaining years of his life.

George Washington did many great things for this nation, and made many wise pronouncements about matters foreign and domestic. He was a force for moderation between extremes and for patriotism before party loyalty. He would have despised any notion that a man’s political affiliation should be more important than his principles or character. He crafted a foreign policy that sought, and ensured peace for a critical few decades as the country grew. He, and his administration, built many institutions that endure to this day, and without which we cannot imagine the nation.

But none of those were his greatest gift to the United States. His greatest gift was the incredible restraint which enabled him to do much, but not too much. To make sure that the nation would be shaped in We the people’s image and not simply George Washington’s image. And for that, we owe him eternal gratitude.

With due humility, I will take issue with one wise counsel given by President Washington:

We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.

I propose that there is another reason to look back, as good as these: to celebrate. Not to dwell in the past at the expense of the future, but to remember past victories as well as past defeats, and past wisdom as well as past error. In that spirit, let us remember our First President, who is truly worthy to be First in the Hearts of his Countrymen!

Happy Presidents Day Everyone!
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The most complete human being of our age. —Jean-Paul Sartre, about Ernesto “Che” Guevara

“Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” —Argentine saying (“I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”)

Fatherland, socialism or death!El Presidente Hugo Chavez’ rallying cry.

So I was reading Gmail the other day and saw one of those really Twilight Zone-esque ads that Google puts up above your inbox along with the news crawl, such as advertisements for golden-crusted Brussels sprouts, tips on caring for cocker spaniels, top-dollar custom-made guitar picks, or The Circumcision Center, a urology practice in Atlanta specializing in fly-in snip-snip to your willy. Don’t eat gas-inducing Brussels sprouts before your visit or attempt to pay in expensive boutique guitar picks while your manic cocker yips at the good doctor’s heels….

No, those are just ordinarily weird(?) but this ad was for Radical Jack’s T-shirts, which was downright ironic. Radical Jack, it seems, is an aging ’60s radical (ex-SDS, etc.) who has embraced capitalism to bring merch to the progressive masses… merch bearing the smiling likeness of Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Subcommandante Marcos, etc., anti-Bush merch, etc. This is the place you can get the acne-pocked face of Leftist dictator du jour Hugo Chavez along with a bunch of guys that are handy with red, blue and yellow face paint printed on a t-shirt of your very own. Note to Jet Set Leftists: Good old Hugo has been showing his true colors in the coming Dec. 2 capstone of his autogolpe, taking plays straight from the playbook of Stalin and Hitler: Shooting student protesters, widely intimidating voters, calling for the execution of former allies, etc. (Bolivár in the end ruled as a dictator, too.)

Well there is a place in Marxist thought to make use of the techniques of the enemy against him and I would be hard-pressed to think of a more crassly capitalist mushroom than a online merch store, well except maybe this. From the “about”:

Welcome to RadicalJack.com – A place for radical T-shirts, books, films and gear. Most progressives and revolutionary activists agree that putting messages on T-shirts is a very effective way of popularizing the movement’s message. At RadicalJack.com we are seeking to offer a broad selection of progressive t-shirts and other cultural items designed to get your message across and stimulate discussion. Please browse our site and let us know what you think! All of our proceeds go to support the progressive movement, so the money generated by your purchases will be used to support the struggles you believe in!

That’s right, folks, if your cause is, oh, mass death of tens of millions by famine induced by collectivization and crazy forced industrialization followed a decade later by a fit of pique which lead to a million and a half additional deaths, do we have a T-shirt for you! A notable asymmetry: While the classics of Lenin, Trotsky, and Chairman Mao (“Mao More Than Ever“), appear all over Radical Jack’s, Comrade Stalin, defender of Marxism from 1928 (or so, depending on how you count it) until he dropped dead in 1953, gets no love, no love At All…. =>:{( (That’s a sad Stalin smiley, in case you were wondering.) I didn’t see a shirt for Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe, who’s managed to turn what was arguably an African success story into a hellhole in less than a decade, but I’m sure that’s just an oversight. Like Chavez, Mugabe had his foreign jet-set claque (not so much these days). He also had his Night of the Long Knives/Dirty War mashup in Ndebeleland. No love for Middle Eastern anti-American tyrants either, or either of the Kims, père or fils—I guess Kim Jong Il’s official biography and Elvis ‘do is just too weird even for Radical Jack’s. Challenge to readers: Post your favorite oversights in the comments!

Naturally there is much Che to be had. Che was incredibly photogenic to be sure—he had a Brad Pitt boyish handsomeness about him—but not a nice guy, having been, among other things, commander of La Cabaña Prison in Cuba which made the likes of Abu Ghraib look like summer camp… we’re talking about a place where an unknown number of “enemies of the revolution” went in to receive a bullet to the back of the head. Che’s tenure there makes George W. Bush’s exercise of clemency, or, rather, lack thereof, in his years at Texas governor downright lenient. He also managed to run the relatively thriving Cuban economy into the ground during his brief tenure as Minister of Economy through the ever-popular collectivization (though I bet anyone likely in that position would have done the same). In other words, Che was Castro’s Lavrenti Beria or Heinrich Himmler and wearing a T-shirt of him should be seen to be roughly similar to wearing one of those fine gentlemen on your chest. Suffice it to say that Che—like famed Waffen SS member Otto Skorzeny or ringleader of the 911 hijackers Mohammed Atta—is proof-positive that courage is a tool; it matters to what end you put it. (Oddly enough, Skorzeny was, in fact, banging Eva Peron when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Che was supposed to have been interacting with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita. I should also note that, so far as we know, Skorzeney fired his guns at combatants, not helpless civilians.) Che is, as a recent stories indicate, so protean a figure that I hear tell even German neo-Nazis carry signs with him on it claiming he was “a nationalist,” which is patently ridiculous. (I can’t seem to find a reliable link, sorry.) You used to be able to buy Che stuff at Target and he is, of course, nearly ubiquitous coffee shop decor. And a lock of Che’s hair goes for big bucks these days. He’s even become Saint Ernesto in Bolivia. Sainthood, it seems, is pretty darn protean, too. I’m quite certain Radical Jack makes most of his money (“used to support the struggles you believe in!”) on Che (and anti-Bush stuff). Remember, Che urges you to Chenge the World… in a fetching powder blue scoopneck T. Even Marxists it seems are not immune to the lure of a stupid double ententre… a sure sign they’ve embraced their inner retailer.

Now, if I were getting a T-shirt, I’d want two:

  1. Two dead radicals, thereby giving Stalin his due.
  2. The Hoff in, unarguably, his finest moment:

I have to say, though, this one, this one, this one or this one—all available on Radical Jack’s—would do pretty damn well. (There are others.) Too bad they’re up with a bunch of megalomaniacs and murderous rogues….

Hola amigos! Angry New Mexican here to talk a bit about the Land of Enchantment, and our neighbors. You see, New Mexico, the land of chile (red or green) and piñon, is a unique place. Granted, we have our problems, like crappy schools, the proliferation of pueblo casinos, and the influx of hippies in Taos and Santa Fe who drive up prices for the honest Joses like me, but overall New Mexico is a great place… except for the neighbors. Que? Let me explain.

First we have Arizona, which is like the dirty old man next door who spends his time staring sketchily out the window and muttering to himself. Like any good little kids, we just avoid him. Arizona is populated almost exclusively by retired Anglos who somehow thought that Phoenix would be paradise. And they’ve diverted enough water from the Colorado River to make their very own garden of Eden in the desert. What about Nuevo Mexico, you might say? Isn’t it a desert too? Si, compadres, but the high desert of New Mexico can actually grow things, like green chile (the non-Anglos in the audience are nodding their heads in agreement, I can tell), while plants would naturally waste away in the fiery hell-hole which is Phoenix. Besides having poor taste in places to settle, the geriatric Arizonans have a tendency to elect politicians who compulsively avoid Latinos who aren’t busy landscaping their freakishly lush yards. Barring the honorable Senior McCain, who (oddly among Arizona politicians) sees Latinos as human beings, many politicians in Arizona are fighting Don Quixote-esque battles against the illegal immigrant boogyman (he’ll deal drugs to your children and seduce your wife; the horror!). Folks like Russell Pearce and JD Hayworth seem to think that nothing screams “America” like oppressing Latinos (evidently it now surpasses both mom and apple pie). With my muchachos y muchachas in mind, I won’t say exactly what I think of these individuals, but rest assured, when they’re hitting up the geritol we’ll still be alive and voting, thank you very much.

Now we have Colorado, who I’d liken to the nice family next door who has a penchant for lavish ski vacations. Lucky for us we’re almost always invited along. Skiing in New Mexico is alright, but it’s worth the drive to Copper, Vail or Snowbird to get the real deal. I only wish that the Coloradans would stop diverting so much water from the Rio Grande (you see, the neighbor is a heavy drinker), which is decidedly not grande, if you know what I mean. Gazing at that sickly little stream which runs through the Land of Enchantment, I wonder, what did it once look like which earned it the name Rio Grande? Perhaps one day we might again know, but Colorado needs to lay off the water for us to find out.

And now we have Texas. Texas is like the neighbor who’s always sitting on his porch, cleaning his gun, minding everyone else’s business. By virtue of having the biggest house on the block, he’s cocky, obnoxious and self-righteous. If there’s a neighbor we’d want our neighborhood association to kick out, it’d be Texas. But thankfully, no matter how much he’s always talking about his gun, he’s not really good at using it. Perhaps he needs more gun control…

Exhibit #1 is the Battle of the Alamo, where the bravest Texans (and their heroic allies) needlessly wasted their lives to accomplish absolutely nothing. I’m sure that Santa Anna was laughing his head off when he found out just who his troops killed there. Heck, the swollen rivers slowed Santa Anna down more than the fools at the Alamo.

Exhibit #2: In addition to being a state full of traitors, they had the cajones to attempt to invade New Mexico. After marching through Los Cruces and bypassing Fort Craig (leaving an American army blocking the traitors’ supply lines), confederate forces took the (almost abandoned) Duke City and pushed up the Santa Fe Trail towards Fort Union. Confronted by American forces under the command of Col. Slough (1st Colorado Volunteers) the confederates fought a pitched battle in Glorietta Pass. Meanwhile, Maj. Chivington (1st Colorado) and New Mexico’s own Lt. Chaves ambushed and captured the entire confederate supply train. Without supplies and cut off from Texas by Maj. Canby (Commander, Dept. of New Mexico) at Fort Craig, the Texans beat a hasty retreat back to their home stomping grounds. The Texans would never again threaten New Mexico.

Well, that’s the neighborhood here in the Southwest… a dirty old man, the nice family next door with a bit of a drinking problem and the gun nut who can’t shoot straight. It’s a wacky place to live, but where else can I get Sopaipillas like this, hombre? It’s home and nobody’s going to take the Land of Enchantment from me. Except maybe the aliens if they show up at Roswell again…

The first time I saw you
Oh, you looked so fine
And I had a feeling
One day you’d be mine
Penny lover, don’t you walk on by
Penny lover, don’t you make me cry

–Lionel Richie, “Penny Lover

Back in 1976, my five year old self—doubtless dressed in a velour shirt with a big zipper ring and a collar, Toughskin jeans and tennis shoes, all from the Sears catalog—was given a giant cookie tin of pennies by some relative (about $3 worth) and it was love at first sight, just like the song. It seemed like a fortune to me and I concocted grandiose “kid mind” plans for what I planned to do with it, which of course went nowhere. I have no idea what I spent it on, but it was probably Legos (this was pre-Star Wars). In today’s dollars it is about $11. Roughly speaking every fifteen years, inflation makes a dollar worth about half as much in terms of buying power. 1976 was thirty-one years ago so now my cookie tin of pennies would buy about 25% of what it did back then.

Penny and I have long since fallen out of love. It’s really very simple: Due to inflation, pennies really don’t buy anything anymore and are more of a nuisance than anything else. The last thing I recall them buying was Tootsie Rolls and other “penny candy”, an item many small grocery stores used to have on their counters by the register to tempt Junior into whinging until Mom gave in and Junior got a Tootsie Roll. At least the horribly sticky things kept Junior’s mouth shut until the groceries were stowed in the station wagon, though they did make for higher dental bills down the line. Still, the tradeoff was worth it. These seemed to have disappeared sometime in the mid ’80s, but I admit to having ceased looking around then. I’m sure it’s nickel candy now.

Now pennies are almost completely worthless. One of my favorite op-ed writers, Sebastian Mallaby, currently of the Washington Post and formerly of The Economist, in The Penny Stops Here provides a nice analysis of why pennies aren’t worth it and that, in fact, getting rid of nickels makes good economic sense too. Dimes are on the edge. Let me go down the reasons:

  • They cost the government more to produce then they are worth. Pennies ceased being made of copper in the early 80s when copper ended up being worth markedly more becoming wire rather than being pocket change. Copper-coated zinc was substituted and all the copper pennies were melted down. While this leads to a cool DIY chemistry experiment, it also lead to much less pennies-on-railroad-tracks copper jewelry. Now the zinc in a penny has become more expensive. This means that pennies cost us more money since we pay for the currency in circulation through taxes. To understand just what this means, here’s a story about the rampant smuggling of rupees from India to Bangladesh to turn them into razor blades, which sell for way more than the rupee coin’s face value. That’s right, you could be shaving with former rupees….
  • The main advantage of coins is the fact that they last a long time, something you can see easily by looking at the dates on the coins in your pocket. So even if a coin costs somewhat more than its face value (so long as it’s not too much more), it might be a net gain. Unfortunately pennies are frequently out of circulation sitting in garbage dumps, penny jars, on the floor of the car, in furniture, etc., so there’s little hope to recoup the cost via savings over the lifespan of the coin.
  • Transaction costs due to handling pennies are not huge but certainly not chump change. For instance, stores pay about $.60 for a roll of 50 pennies due to rolling costs and just guess who this cost gets passed on to? Due to inane managerial policies, many stores won’t allow the nearly ubiquitous penny jar. This leads to pointless fumbling during transactions, which takes up yet more time.
  • In addition to making small change, the big advantage of coins is the fact that they work in vending machines, parking meters, etc. These machines will happily take nickels, dimes and quarters… but no pennies. Why? Because pennies would take up too much room in the coin collection hopper. Vending machine operators would love to see the dollar coin gain acceptance and I bet would be happy with a two dollar coin like they have in Canada, too (which, by the way, are a fantastic idea, but that is for another day), because bill changers are notorious for breaking.
  • Removing the penny would also make room for a dollar coin, which would save the Treasury, well, a mint. Dollar bills get the absolute crap kicked out of them in circulation and are replaced constantly.
  • Pennies are even more worthless these days because so many transactions are electronic, in which case the rounding necessary in a system without them—which averages out to not cost us anything anyway—doesn’t matter at all. There are some worries, of course: I worry about prices and sales taxes getting futzed with, but honestly, so long as that doesn’t happen much, it should be fine.

There’s predictable opposition from the zinc industry, of course, but screw them deep and hard. They can find corporate welfare elsewhere or, better yet, not at all—the price of their commodity is going up after all. There’s opposition from the State of Illinois because Lincoln is on the penny and as we are constantly reminded, Illinois is… Land of Lincoln. Now I admire Abraham Lincoln probably way more than the next guy ever since I spent a lot of time reading about the Civil War several years back, but he’s safe on the five dollar bill. (Take the time to read American history as an adult. It’s worth it.) It would take some serious inflation indeed to nuke the five spot. I worry more about George Washington—someone I also admire a lot more than the next guy—on the quarter and dollar bill, but at historic rates of inflation which has a halving of current money value for every fifteen years, give or take, quarters won’t be worth essentially nothing for a few decades yet. The Mint has shown that they can strike coins of different types, for instance the “states” quarters and the “dead presidents” dollar coins, which will give luminaries like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge their sole opportunity to be on money. So they can make sure to put plenty of dead politicians on our money, or maybe they could go back to the old days before politicians’—no matter how worthy—were on the money entirely. The first presidential head on coins was in 1909… Lincoln, on the penny. It was controversial.

Penny lover, walk on by….

Mildly Piqued Academician

(First in a series about the currency of the USA.)