Relics From a Secular Religion

Being a history geek, while I was in Washington D.C., probably my number one priority was to go to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

There is just something about having an artifact that is associated with a historical figure that moves something in me. I’m not sure, maybe it’s the equivalent motivation that leads medieval Catholic churches to showcase their, what to a modern, areligious point of view, seems to be silly, relics. You know what I mean. It’s the right knuckle of St Stephen, the big toe of St Christopher, one of many slivers of the cross that Jesus was crucified on.

Somehow, beholding something that you know that this distant historical figure once owned or used gives that object special feeling, as if you can somehow reach across the centuries and commune with that person through the object.

I remember, many years ago, I was in Rome. I was wandering around the Roman Forum, somewhat lost, not really appreciating what I was experiencing. Out of nowhere, a young man walked up to me and said that he was doing a free tour (he was starting up some kind of new business and was just trying to generate word of mouth business and hopefully generate some tips in so doing). Well, he brought the Forum alive to me. Where before I was just wandering around in a desultory manner, he pointed to objects and explained them. It was amazing and ended up being one of the highlights of my trip to Rome. The main point that he made was that the stones that we were walking upon were literally the original stones. That is to say, that we were walking on the very stones that once upon a time, Julius Caesar also once walked upon. For whatever reason, that blew my mind and somehow made the past and the present collide in some way that made my mind reel.

The Smithsonian American History museum is chock full of such artifacts. Inside its walls are a nearly endless bounty of relics that allow you to commune with the history of our relatively young country.

Relics that I came to worship include:

  • Muhammad Ali’s gloves
  • Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick
  • Pikes used during John Brown’s raid
  • The actual fucking penicillin mold that Alexander Fleming grew and gave to America (seriously, WTF!?)
  • Clothing that Harriet Tubman wore
  • Uniform and swords for both George Washington and Andrew Jackson
  • George Washington’s mess kit (including his camp stool)
  • Sam Houston’s rifle
  • Grant’s official promotion from Major General to Lieutenant General, signed by Edwin Stanton AND Abraham Lincoln
  • The top hat that Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre
  • The chaps that Theodore Roosevelt wore when he was a cowboy out west
  • William Tecumseh Sherman’s much abused hat that he wore on his march to Atlanta
  • Bill Clinton’s nuclear football
  • Tongs made by Paul Revere
  • Light bulb made by Edison laboratories
  • One of Alexander Graham Bell’s original telephones
  •  The desk where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence
  • The compass William Clark used on the Lewis and Clark expedition

You get the point, right? This is pretty amazing stuff that, if you’re a history geek, just automatically transports you back through time.

There are two things that transported me, but in a negative kind of way.

First of all, they have FDR’s original order (at least the first page is original, apparently the other two pages are copies) to intern American citizens of Japanese descent. This is one of the darkest, most paranoid periods of American history. Especially for FDR, with all of his New Deal politics of lifting the everyman out of hopelessness, this is darkness. To automatically assume that an American citizen, because he has a different color skin, must be considered suspect is disgusting. And then to hear about all of the Japanese young men volunteering to fight, even knowing that they will face racism and knowing that their families have been imprisoned by their government makes it all the more horrifying. Seeing the original order signed by FDR brought me back to this dark part of American history.

Another artifact had meaning to me because it is more historically tangible to me. I was a pretty young man when Ronald Reagan was elected. Sometime, I think it was in the middle of his second term, I read David Stockman’s book, The Triumph of Politics.

For those that don’t know, Ronald Reagan was the first president that really believed in supply side economics. This was the trickle down economics that he was so famous for.  David Stockman was one of the original believers in the theory.

The way that the theory goes is that if you tax a very wealthy person at a 100% effective tax rate, then that person would no longer work because he’d have no incentive to work. Therefore, his potential earning would be worthless because he’d choose not to earn them. Fair enough. Similarly, if you taxed a wealthy person at 90%, then he’d work some, but not a lot because, again, it’s not really in his benefit to do so.

So, the theory goes, if you tax a wealthy person lightly, then that person would work more and would put his wealth to full use, which in turn would employ more people, who in turn would get taxed and ultimately there would be a net increase in taxes.

Therefore, paradoxically, by taxing wealthy people relatively lightly, the government would end up with more tax revenue.

It’s a great theory. Unfortunately, it’s absolute bullshit. Reagan tried it but deficits exploded. George H.W. Bush (and later Clinton) made a deal to raise taxes, (for which Bush probably paid for it with his presidency) and by the end of Clinton’s term, the government was running a surplus. George W. Bush tried it again and deficits went out of control again. Obama came in, raised some taxes (on the rich!) and by the end of his eight years had cut the deficit in half.

Empirically speaking, it simply does not work.

And how did this madness even start? Well, there’s an economist named Arthur Laffer. In a meeting with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (yes, those guys) in 1974, he described the theory to them and on a napkin, he drew what came to be called the Laffer curve (even though he admittedly did not invent it). It shows the relationship between levels of taxation and levels of tax revenue (which, to remind you, has empirically been determined to be bullshit).

This napkin served as the underpinnings for so-called Reaganomics and for the later George W Bush tax cuts.

At one time, believe it or not, the Republican party was known as the party of fiscal conservatism. The Democrats were the tax and spenders. A Republican president would need to be brought in to bring things back into control.

Now, as a result of this napkin, the Republicans are the party of the borrow and spenders. Dick Cheney has said that deficits don’t matter.

It can be argued that this napkin is one of the things that has left the American economy in a state of serious peril. It might be the thing that, 100 years from now, people might look back on and say that marked the beginning of the end of the Pax Americana.

And yes, believe it or not, that fucking napkin is in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.


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