Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Let's do one for the holiday tomorrow, more or less: which US president has been overrated? Underrated?

To give a sense of how they're rated (critical to questions about under- and overrating!), use this excellent wikipedia page. Oh, and let's leave Barack Obama out of it; I don't take seriously the one survey to date which includes him.


  1. Underrated: Ronald Reagan at 17th in the Wikipedia aggregate. His defense build-up set in motion the Soviet crack-up that led to victory in the Cold War, and his tax cuts revived the animal spirits of businessmen, including mine. I was so inspired by his pro-business attitude as well as his leading the charge to bring down the top tax rate from 70% in 1980 to 28% in 1987 that I left my Ivy League faculty position at age 36 in 1987 to become a Wall Street multi-millionaire.

    Overrated: Richard Nixon, the worst President in American history. His 1971 imposition of wage and price controls started the economic turmoil that led to double digit inflation and interest rates by 1980, as well as constituting a fundamental violation of economic freedom. He, not LBJ, started the US government policy of anti-white discrimination with his Philadelphia Plan, the first imposition of racial quotas on government contractors. He did not repeal or defund any of LBJ's domestic programs, and he pushed for a federal guaranteed annual income with his Family Assistance Plan, which fortunately the Senate defeated. He was the most liberal Republican President on economic policy since Teddy Roosevelt, and he was unethical and disrespectful toward the rule of law as well.

  2. Just to be provocative, I'm alone on my ice floe in believing that Lincoln is overrated. His cachet derives from winning the Civil War and ending slavery, though the two events are inextricably intertwined. That many see them separately is a reflection, imho, of a massive collective defense mechanism regarding how problematic is the black-white racial history in the USA.

    I'm no Civil War scholar, but it doesn't take much research to realize that Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, north of the Mason-Dixon, a line that if held by the confederates would have pretty much been game over for the union. It's not that strange that Lee carried terms of northern surrender to that battle. To see the Gettysburg Address as a moral statement, rather than a last-ditch military effort, is rather generous, particularly since Union-friendly border states were allowed to keep right on with the slave-ownin'.

    And while Lincoln obviously can't be held responsible for the Reconstruction, in much of the Jim Crow, early 20th century south, life for the bound black man was not really all that much better than being a slave.

    So as a military tactic, the Emancipation Proclamation was a pretty shrewd move, though given that Lee was in PA with terms of northern surrender, it seems (without being that educated, admittedly) to be pretty much inevitable, regardless of President. The rest strikes me as puffery to make us feel better that our history is nobler than it is.

    Lincoln rides the wave of that puffery, imho. I think he's probably a little bit better than average for actually winning an important war, but for me that's about it.

  3. Uh.. I disagree. Lincoln's generally rated as #2 in the ranks of US presidents, just down from Washington at #1, and I'll go along with that. He won the Civil War, after all, and transformed that conflict into a victory for American idealism and nationalism. Really important things -- think of what the country might be like if he had failed, and try to imagine which of his political rivals in the the 1850's and 1860's would have been more successful.

    Underrated: US Grant, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson.

    Overrated: probably JFK, maybe maybe maybe Jefferson.

    Unrated: Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt. Nothing against them, but they've become mythological creatures in American history rather than living human beings with political agendas, successes and failures. My suspicion is that were the two Adams's and Monroe and Madison closer in time to the present day we'd probably have more to say about them as well.

  4. @Mike Shupp: I am no expert, and your view is shared by far more folks than mine, but suppose the following (more or less) captures the Emancipation Proclamation: "Defensive side in brutal civil war takes the fighting into the offensive side's territory. Defensive side understandably expects to emerge victorious forthwith. Defensive side's achilles heel is a critical economic input that is ritually abused and hates life there. While on the ropes, offensive side offers the abused economic input an escape hatch, and the rest follows more or less naturally".

    So, sure, Lincoln gets credit for doing the right thing, but the mythologizing is a by-product of things layered on the narrative above, no?

    For curiosity's sake: which of Lincoln's political enemies wouldn't have seen the obviousness of the Emancipation Proclamation with Lee's army north of the Mason-Dixon?

    1. The Emancipation Proclamation was floated during the summer and autumn of 1862 and announced Jan 1, 1863. Lee didn't move move north of the Mason-Dixon until summer 1863 (and Gettysburg is, what, barely 10 miles north of the line?). I'm not really sure that I understand the point being made. So Lee brought terms of northern surrender with him in his saddlebag and yes, he managed to spend a couple of days just over the PA border before getting his behind handed to him and shown the door by the Union Army. But what’s the connection between Gettysburg and the Emancipation Proclamation which had been issued 6 months previously? Are you perhaps thinking of Antietam/Sharpsburg which was fought in Maryland (south of the Mason-Dixon) in September 1862?

  5. I can go both ways on Lincoln, but just to back up CSH’s contrarian view -- over half a million Americans died and the goal of human freedom wasn’t actualized in the south for years afterwards. In some places blacks would even experience a state of servitude that was worse than chattel slavery. The war itself was certainly justified -- but while celebrating the victory, we sometimes forget to use an asterisk for all who died and all who continued to live unfree for many years to come. All things considered, it’s hard not to call Lincoln a great president. But I stop short of calling him the brilliant mastermind and national savior that most people revere him as.

    Underrated - Carter (Appointed Volcker)
    Cleveland -- The last Democratic President to see limited government as an ideal, a rare principled anti-imperialist, and probably one of our most able and honest chief executives overall.

    Overrated - Adams (Alien and Sedition Acts), Johnson, Wilson (most of our war Presidents, really)

  6. So no one is going to quibble about George W. Bush, who is ranked #34 out of 43 (worse than Nixon and Benjamin Harrison) on the Wikipedia page?

  7. Couves, I agree with your point: winning the Civil War is a Big Deal; any President who does so is Top 15 pretty much automatically. Sorry for the overkill, but something else occurred to me last night:

    I think I mentioned before visiting the Hermitage, the Nashville home of (inexplicably Top 10) Andrew Jackson. Near the Hermitage is a retirement home for Confederate Veterans. Next to the Retirement Home is a cemetary.

    Visit that cemetary and you will find many, many headstones with dates of death post-WWI and headstones describing "loyal sons of the confederacy who fought the war of Northern Aggression". Tacking a bit: not an expert, but my personal favorite explanation for the Confederate loss is the inflation one. That is, when the war seems won by the South (Lee is in Pennsylvania), confederate currency flows freely throughout the (new?) South. As the Union army begins rolling up the confederacy - north to south - now-useless confederate currency flows south from conquered cities. That's a recipe for hyperinflation; add in the disruption of labor capital and you get an economic catastrophe.

    One could argue, I think, that the Jim Crow early-20th century South was more or less inevitable, with its nominal freedoms and defacto servitude. Perhaps explicit slavery would have been intolerable in the 20th century, and an independent Confederate states would have moved to the defacto Jim Crow 'slavery' system on which they eventually settled.

    If that's true, then the thing that changed with the Gettysburg Address was the course of a critical war. As a resident of the south, I think there are a lot of people here who feel that way. Which raises the ultimate provocative counterfactual:

    If the Jim Crow south was more or less inevitable anyway, was the bitterness engendered by the Emancipation Proclamation (as a smart military tactic) actually bad for race relations in the US?

    1. CSH -- As you suggested above, national unity was the primary war aim. If Lincoln’s priority were the liberation of slaves, then I think his response would have been very different. Today, we assume that liberation required a bloody and destructive civil war followed by a lengthy period of Jim Crow… because that’s what happened. But it’s worth remembering that almost no one at the time, including Lincoln, thought that freeing the slaves would require bloodshed. It’s also worth remembering that a majority of the slave states (including Virginia) remained in the Union until Lincoln announced his intention to undo southern secession by force of arms.

      With the departure of only the cotton states, peaceful manumission would have been even easier in the slave states that remained. National reconciliation with the departed CSA states could have then been pursued on the basis of continuing a federally-funded manumission program that had already proven to work in states like Virginia. It was also only a matter of time before Britain’s imperial ambition and anti-slavery sentiment induced her to produce cotton in her own colonies, further encouraging the CSA states back into the Union. I’m not saying that any of this would have been easy, but sometimes the wise and courageous path involves not drawing the sword.

    2. Having said all that... libertarian that I am, I probably would have been a radical abolitionist if I had my feet on the ground in 1860.

    3. That's very interesting perspective, Couves. I'll follow your suggestion that the Civil War was a somewhat arbitrary response to an otherwise real problem that could have been addressed in other, less problematic ways. Let's say further that the Gettysburg Address was an obvious escape hatch for a war going badly, which coincidentally led to (sort of) other positive results.

      You know what that means, right? Suppose there had been a button in the Oval Office in 2007, clearly labelled "Push this for Shia/Sunni reconciliation in Mespotamia", with the result also happening to lead to salutary impacts on US trade, the economy, happiness, etc. The occupant may have needed to consult with several advisors and dictionaries to know what the instructions said. But he would have eventually determined that pushing said button was a good idea.

      You know what you'd get as a result?

      George W. Bush = Best President Ever.

    4. That's brilliant, CSH! I'll add that Lincoln looks even better when we consider what DIDN'T happen:

      That applies to other Presidents as well:

      George Bush -- Protected your family from a Sharia takeover of the US!

      Barack Obama -- Protected your family from having to roast rats over a hobo fire!

    5. Ha, Couves, you're much too kind, I'm no good for these types of conversations because I always end up feeling like that guy at the Beantown party who's like "Guys! Guys! Did you read Francona's book? Guys! Guys!" And then gets all agitated that no one sees the trouble the Sawx are in. Maybe if I resonated more with hagiography I'd get invited to more parties.

      Your suggestions are good ones. I think the last one has potential for a Krugman column, if he feels so inspired...

    6. Yea, for Krugman it would only be an especially colorful variation on a theme.

      If you have the time, watch that movie I linked to -- it's pretty good.

    7. Couves, that was pretty good, I'll have to catch the other parts when I get a chance. Fits with a theme from this conversation for me, which is how frustrating white majority culture must be for blacks in the USA.

      The whole slavery thing is horrid enough. The fact that you can never walk into a Valdosta McDonalds without risking some hillbilly asshole throwing an n-bomb at you is pretty bad too. But even having to indulge sympathetic whites for their Lincoln hagiography could be a bit of a pain.

      Are blacks not supposed to notice the infamous letter from Lincoln to Horace Greeley, mid-Civil War ("If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it" - and so on and so forth)? Maybe the rendering of the Emancipation Proclamation was a bit harsh in that movie, but if I put myself in a slave's shoes, I'd see this:

      "So if I live in a border state, I'm absolutely not free. And if I live in an independently functioning, not-yet-conquered state, I'm also not free, because Lincoln doesn't have jurisdiction (though forgive me for querying why exactly those 600,000+ people will die in this war)? However, if the Union army comes to attack my plantation, and assuming I am not forced to fight by my slaveholder (and thus guilty of war crimes, perhaps), and if your guys actually conquer this land, THEN - by your deep moral sentiments - I can go.

      "Pretty inspiring stuff! I'll be waiting out back. Let me know how that battle goes".

  8. Even though he was a sleazebag, I rate Polk very highly. He got the US to the Pacific in a big way.


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