Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution by Richard Beeman

After the last book I reviewed, I felt I needed something a bit more intellectually challenging to recharge my brain cells.  Thus this volume, which contains not just the annotated text of the United States Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence, selections from the Federalist Papers, and a short history of how these things came about.

The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

The troubles started in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which England won, but at high cost, and the British government was broke.  Parliament decided that as the American colonists had gained the most with the new lands taken from the French, they should be willing to help pay for them with raised taxes and trade restrictions.

Unlike the West Indies (where Alexander Hamilton was from), the Continental colonies had not yet been able to buy seats in Parliament to represent their interests; and they’d thought that their successful help in the war would have changed that.  So it was like a teenager who’s helped Dad with a big project and is expecting more autonomy as a result being told, “No, son, money’s tight, so I’m cutting your allowance and you  can’t hang out with your friends at the mall any more.”

The colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown and therefore deserving of all the rights and privileges of free Englishmen.  Parliament and the British government considered the colonists wayward children to be taken in hand.  When the colonials protested against “taxation without representation”, the children were backtalking their rightful elders, and the proper response was to put them back in their place.

Part of the issue was that the British Constitution was “unwritten”, cobbled together from documents like the Magna Carta, court decisions, and acts of Parliament.  Thus it was vulnerable to being altered at any time the government felt they could get away with it.  Such as in this situation.  After all, the colonists had no representation in Parliament, and thus no voice to speak for them.  What were they going to do, declare independence?

Feelings and actions escalated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Still mostly loyal British subjects, the colonists kept trying to find diplomatic solutions even as protests escalated and started breaking out into violence.  The British government reacted by cracking down even harder, and demanding obedience, not negotiation.

By the time the Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from the various American colonies, convened, the Colonies were already in a state of rebellion, with British troops on the ground fighting them.  Faced with this reality, they decided that it was time for a Declaration of Independence, explaining to the world why they were rebelling.  The reasons listed are one-sided–the colonists were no longer trying to be fair-minded or conciliatory.

Of course, once you’ve declared independence (huzzah!) you then have to govern yourself (drat!)  The thirteen colonies had learned the perils of too-centralized government that didn’t understand local issues.  But without the unifying tie of British rule, the colonies were like thirteen small countries that had very different priorities.  Some had large populations, while others were tiny.  Some had already begun industrializing, while others had agriculture as their main economic activity.  And the sticking point that caused the most argument, slavery.

While some forms of slavery had been legal in all the colonies during the preceding centuries, by the mid-Eighteenth Century, economic changes and philosophical/religious movements turned against the practice, especially in the Northeastern colonies, some of which had actually banned owning people as property!  Meanwhile, the Southern colonies had made their economic system and culture highly dependent on chattel slavery, and particularly on enslaving people of African descent.  And they had their own religious movements to promote the idea.

With all those disagreements in mind, the Articles of Confederation for the newly independent United States of America were more like guidelines than rules, and gave responsibilities to the central government without the power or funds to actually do those things.  It didn’t work at all well.

Faced with the possibility that this alliance would fall apart, a Constitutional Convention was formed, supposedly just to amend the Articles.  But it was hijacked by delegates who wanted to create a whole new written Constitution with a central government that was strong enough to do necessary things, but bound by checks and balances to prevent tyranny.

Many, many compromises later, including some shameful concessions to slavery, a Constitution was made, and proposed to the States.  Notably, an enumerated Bill of Rights of the citizens was not included, for two reasons.  First, what would become known as the Federalists feared that if some rights were enumerated in the Constitution, that would block un-enumerated rights from being extrapolated.  (See, for example, the arguments for and against women having a right to make decisions about their own reproductive systems.)  And second, everyone realized that it would take more months of arguing to agree on a Bill of Rights, and the delegates were already sick of each other.

Instead, it was promised that a series of amendments to provide a bill of rights would be the first business of the new United States Congress, to be voted on by the states.

What we now call the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay as both propaganda to convince the States to adopt the Constitution, and to explain their interpretations of how the Constitution worked.  For example, judicial review by the Supreme Court of the constitutionality of acts of Congress wasn’t spelled out in the Constitution, but Hamilton argued that it would be part of their natural function.  (And in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court agreed.)

Once Congress convened under the new United States Constitution, the amendments we now call the Bill of Rights were indeed a top priority.  More amendments have come along since, each with its own consequences and controversies.

The annotations by Richard Beeman, a professor of history and Constitutional scholar, explain in plainer language what each part of the Constitution is about, and why they’re important.  He also discusses the controversies and alternative interpretations that have arisen over the years.

After the main history section, Mr. Beeman discusses various important Supreme Court cases that have altered the interpretation of the Constitution.  (He admits that other cases could have been included.)

The book ends with suggested further reading on the various subjects presented–after all, you don’t want to take just one scholar’s opinion on these important matters.  There is no index or endnotes.

This is a good condensed and portable edition that will be valuable any time you need to know what the Constitution and related documents actually says.  All American citizens should have a copy of the Constitution handy, so I highly recommend having a book like this, if not necessarily this book,  on your shelf.

And now, let’s have a video of someone reading the Declaration of Independence out loud.

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economics can be a deadly dull subject, at least when dominated by stuffed shirts talking about trade deficits, returns on annuities or fiat currency.  But the basics of economic theory can be used to learn useful or amusing things about the world.  With a large enough set of valid data, you can tease out fascinating conclusions, such as the answer to the question “is there cheating in professional sumo wrestling?”  (Probably, or some really amazing and highly consistent coincidences.)

Freakonomics

This book, as the front cover, back cover and several pages at the front remind us, was a New York Times bestseller and all-round phenomenon back in 2005.  (I wonder if there’s some sort of data available on whether having eleven pages of praise for the book before you even get to the title page is a good investment; I skipped right over it.)  It talks about such concepts as positive and negative incentives, regression analysis and information inequality as they relate to cheating schoolteachers, crime rates, baby names and other offbeat subjects.

Perhaps the most controversial subject covered is the notion that legalized abortion led to a massive drop in crime rates in the United States.  The evidence seems sound, but as the authors remind us, the data only shows us what is there, not what should be there.  The same results might have been achievable by other, less painful means.

There are some major changes to this edition of Freakonomics; the chapter  with the story of how the Klu Klux Klan was beaten back had to be heavily revised when one of the sources was revealed to have been exaggerating his role.  There are also several newspaper articles covering subjects that only got a passing mention in the main text, plus the one that got Mr. Dubner interested in covering Mr. Levitt’s research in the first place.  The advertised “Author Q & A” is rather flippant, and more of an advertisement for their next book, Super Freakonomics.

As a semi-scholarly book, there are footnotes, and an index, as well as a list of baby names you might want to consider.

I found this an interesting book with some thought-provoking insights, though some of the conclusions seem a bit iffy.  Recommended to just about everyone, but especially those who’d like to know more about the less stuffy side of economics.

Book Review: In the Wet

Book Review: In the Wet by Nevil Shute

This is rather an odd book by the author of On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.  It starts as the story of Roger Hargreaves, an aging Anglican priest in Northern Australia in the 1950s.  In the course of his parish duties,  Father Hargreaves meets a colorful local character, an old drunk named Frankie.   Frankie may have some sort of precognitive abilities, or maybe he just got a lucky guess.  Still, there’s more to Frankie than meets the eye.

In the Wet

During the rainy season, (as the locals call it, “in the wet”,) Hargreaves receives word that Frankie is dying.  Along with a local medical woman, he hurries to the remote cabin Frankie is staying in.   They lose their medical supplies in the floods, and the lamp fuel is almost gone.  There’s not much to be done for Frankie but allow him to smoke opium to dull the pain.   To distract Frankie, Hargreaves asks the dying man to tell the priest about himself.

But the story Frankie tells is of Wing Commander David Anderson, an Australian test pilot who is asked to become a member of the Queen’s Flight (kind of like Air Force One for us Yanks.)  As the story continues, it becomes clear that Anderson lives in the 1980s, a time of crisis for the Commonwealth.

After this paragraph, I’ll be going into SPOILER territory, and also some racially charged language.  For those who don’t want to see that, I’ll say that this is an interesting book, but On the Beach was better.  Some very nice sketches of North Australian life in the 1950s at the beginning and end, though, and the aviation scenes are excellent.

SPOILER WARNING

1980s Britain is not, in many ways, like the one in our timeline.   For starters, there’s still food rationing.   Rosemary Long, our hero’s love interest, has a good job at Buckingham Palace and can afford her own good sized sailboat, but has never seen an intact pineapple before, let alone had enough meat to worry that it might spoil.  (In real life,  rationing officially ended in 1954, with many items being derationed well before that.

Also, Britain is largely Socialist, with Labour having been in power almost uninterrupted for the last thirty years.  (Evidently, Mr. Shute did not have confidence in Winston Churchill’s ability to hold onto the Prime Minister job.  In real life, he was able to swing the voting to the Conservative party for quite some time.)  This has resulted in the Prime Minister, Iorweth Jones being a barely disguised Communist, (Communism having gone out of favor after “the Russian war”) with a class warfare mentality.  Also, the Secretary of State for Air is so out of touch with the state of aeroplane technology that he is unaware planes have things called “radios” now.

One thing Mr. Shute did get right was that Queen Elizabeth II is still on the throne, with Charles as the Prince of Wales.  Charles is married and has two sons.  Well, he does on page 111.   A daughter pops up as well on page 181.

We don’t get much information about the Russian war; it was a few years ago, Commander Anderson spent most of it in the Philippines, it evidently did not go nuclear, and there’s no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union.  As mentioned above, the end of the war discredited Communism as a viable government style.

Britain is also undergoing a population crash, due to heavy emigration (in our timeline they mostly had immigration from the former colonies and Commonwealth.)   Things have gotten bad enough that the government nationalized housing after the 1970 crash and hasn’t given it back since.  Rosemary has never seen a new house being built, to her memory.

Meanwhile, Australia’s been doing great, thanks to the new multiple vote system.   Every adult gets one basic vote.  if you get higher education, you get a second vote (Anderson got his for officer school.)  Working outside the country for two years gets you the foreign travel vote (Anderson admits this is pretty much a racket so military veterans get an extra say.)  Getting married, staying married and spawning two children who you raise to at least fourteen gets you a family vote.  (Divorce, widowry or your kids dying or disappearing means starting all over.)

There’s also a business vote for anyone with an earned income over a certain amount (and it’s substantially high) and a religious vote for anyone holding an office in an approved Christian church.  That last one would never fly in America!  Finally, there’s the Queen’s Favour vote which you get in much the same way you would a knighthood.  Thus a truly dedicated person can have up to seven votes; somehow this has led to Australia getting a better class of politicians.

By the end of the book, England is looking to install the same voting system.  Notably, England had had a similar thing called plural voting up until 1948 in real life, when it was reformed for a one person one vote system.  Instead of multiple voting, real life Australia went with “preference voting” instead, where you rank candidates in order of how much you like them.

In other political oddness, the Queen seems much more involved with ruling the Commonwealth than the largely figurehead role she had in the real 1980s.  She even moves the Royals to Australia, and appoints a Governor General for England as it’s clear Parliament can’t handle the job.

Oh, and what will be truly horrific to some of you, rock and roll never caught on, and ballroom dancing with live orchestras is still the thing.

And then there’s the racism weirdness.  Mr. Shute was against racism, especially Southern United States style racism, but it’s expressed oddly here.  Commander Anderson is mixed race, being one-quarter Aborigine, and apparently is light-skinned and fine-featured enough that most people assume he just has a tan.  He goes by the nickname “Nigger,” and insists all his friends call him that.

You can sort of see that, as a way of “reclaiming the word” and apparently Commander Anderson’s worried that people will think he’s trying to “pass” if he doesn’t bring up his ancestry directly.  But it’s still very jarring.  Especially when he uses the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” unironically.  It’s clear that most of the characters consider his deeds more important than his ethnicity, and indeed, he’s the only one to ever bring it up.

The sections set in the 1950s have more obvious casual racism.  There’s a bit of author blindness to sexism; the Queen rules but all the other speaking women in the 1980s are secretaries, telephone girls,  stewardesses and maids.  Rosemary majored in history and paid special attention to the suffragette movement, but otherwise seems content with a 1950s style romantic relationship.

If you’ve read the book and have some comments, by all means let me know.

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