Priorities

So long as I’m talking about change I want to bring attention to some commentaries by Chris Farrell in Marketplace Money. On September 16th he noted that hurricane Katrina (Rita hadn’t hit yet) “ripped the veil off poverty in America” and wondered aloud weather the voting public would continue to support the Republican obsession with tax breaks in the face of this new empathy for those struggling to hold on to the bottom rung of that same economic ladder.

Earlier, in a commentary on September 9, he says he believes the driving theme in government is shifting from “private interest” to “public purpose.” Farrell is leaning on Albert Hirschman, the “maverick economist” who wrote about how government policy oscillates back and forth between themes of public and private interest. Certainly, one would agree, we’ve endured thirty years or so on the private side of that cycle.

Robert Reich was poking at this in his October 5 Marketplace commentary about the Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court. Here’s a quote:

The President says Miers will “strictly interpret” the Constitution. That tells us almost nothing. The Constitution can be strictly interpreted in all sorts of ways.
Before 1937, a majority of Justices, saying they were “strictly interpreting” the Constitution, struck down as unconstitutional laws setting minimum wages and maximum hours, and barring child labor.

The economic values of those justices favored private property over community standards of fair play. To them, due process of law was mostly about freedom to contract and liberty was the ability to accumulate personal wealth.

Then, early in 1937, one of those Justice switched sides (coincidentally, his last name was Roberts) and the Court’s new majority chose community over property. They said they were still strictly interpreting the Constitution. But suddenly due process was about making laws fairly, and liberty was about giving people opportunities to get ahead.

I don’t have the credentials of Farrell or Reich, but I do believe that while governments can’t prevent hurricanes[1], they do have a role in making sure its people and communities are strong enough to endure the tragedy in their wake.

[1] Preventing hurricanes is one thing, participating in treaties that reduce the threat of global warming and the inevitable effect it will have on dramatic weather like hurricanes is another. The insurance industry already understands this.

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