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Richard Fierro: Real American Hero

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The events that unfolded in a small LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs last fall could have been ripped from the script of any gritty action movie. A decorated war vet long since returned home to civilian life is out for a night of wholesome revelry with wife, daughter, and family friends, when unspeakable violence explodes around him and his long-dormant military training comes roaring back to life. We all know what happens next: the good guy pummels the bad guy to a satisfying pulp, and everyone lives happily ever after. But the hero riding off into this particular sunset was different. What happened in the aftermath of Richard Fierro’s bravery that night was a plot twist no Hollywood screenwriter would dare try to sell.

Instead of serving the expected masculine tropes—giving us a strong silent type, perhaps, or someone less laconic and more prone to spouting gruff macho platitudes about honor and duty—Fierro wept openly in interviews. Seemingly unashamed of his tears, he cried not only for the five people he was unable to save, but for the trauma responses he knew would lay ahead for those who had survived. Unapologetic about his anger toward the shooter, he freely admitted that his goal had been to kill the man who was threatening the lives of his family and friends. But instead of glorifying the violence he’d just committed, Fierro was candid about the psychological toll of his four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, lamenting that the civilians around him were about to experience something all too familiar through no fault of their own.

The right has long bemoaned the current state of masculinity, painting progressives in this post-#MeToo era as bent on nothing short of the complete emasculation of the American male. Fierro’s acts of bravery lay all that definitively to rest. The macho possibilities his character portrait exemplify make clear that it’s not masculinity per se that progressives take issue with, but a particular varietal of masculinity—entitled, expansive, self-aggrandizing, violent, emotionally stunted and ultimately immature and needy—that has held too many of us in its sway for long enough. 

Watching Fierro recount the details of that night serves as a crash course in a new, non-toxic American masculinity. Instead of reveling in the attention, Fierro immediately clarifies that the situation is not about him, shifting the focus to his daughter grieving the loss of her beloved boyfriend and his friends hospitalized with critical injuries. Instead of allowing an interviewer to paint him as the night’s lone savior, he credits the efforts of another young man (apologizing for not getting his name, since identified as Thomas James) in helping him pull the gunman down and knock the rifle out of reach. Instead of aggrandizing the effectiveness of his combat training, he expresses gratitude that it allowed him to protect his family but condemns “the guys running around doing GI Joe stuff” and explains that he’d left the military because he was “done doing this stuff—it was too much.” Instead of pretending that this kind of violence leaves no effect on those who commit it, he expresses regret for having to ask the people helping him to “kick another human in the head.” 

Even as he was describing how he had ordered one of the performers to stuff her stiletto into the attacker’s face, Fierro managed to effortlessly get her pronouns right. (Later reports suggested that the person with the now-iconic shoe was in fact a trans woman, not a drag queen—a distinction Fierro is not to be faulted for mistaking in the moment, but important to correct in retrospect.) “These kids want to live that way, want to have a good time, have at it,” Fierro has said of the drag performers. “I’m happy about it because that is what I fought for, so they can do whatever the hell they want.”  Characterizing queer culture as one of the distinctively American freedoms combat veterans take themselves to be protecting puts the lie to narratives that portray patriotism as the sole province of the most conservative wings of the Republican party. 

It’s almost certainly no coincidence that the attack at Club Q took place on Trans Day of Remembrance. The gunman was right about one thing, at least: trans and queer people, and the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ experiences into America’s larger cultural identity, represent a serious threat to the old regressive forms of masculinity that are represented in part by the shooter himself (not to mention the killings at the Universities of Idaho and Virginia that happened in the same tragic week). These old ways of being a man are dying, and while there’s unfortunately no reason to think these will be the last of many violent extinction bursts, Fierro’s heroic response tells us something important about the direction we are headed. Masculinity is still in crisis, but many boys are no longer being told that they can’t cry, and many men are being shown that they can protect their loved ones and still be emotionally available to them afterward. “I really hope people use this,” Fierro said, “and kind of shake someone’s hand, man—give them a hug, give them a kiss.” 

Fierro’s masculinity doesn’t pretend that all problems can be solved by talking them out; it recognizes that there are moments when the only thing that can stop violence is more violence. But this masculinity recognizes the costs of violence. Fierro knows what violence does to you—witnessing it and perpetrating it—and you can hear the heartbreak in his voice knowing what’s to come in the months and years ahead for his family, friends, and community members now affected by it. He has the experienced maturity to recognize that while violence is sometimes a necessary evil, it always exacts a psychological and moral toll, and it is never an end in itself.

“I have never encountered a person who engaged in such heroic actions and was so humble about it,” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers. Men like Fierro have always existed, of course—what’s new here is the ideal of masculinity he represents for the rest of us. He’s a husband who runs with his wife a successful “female-forward,” Latino-owned brewery whose motto is “Diversity, It’s What’s On Tap!”  He’s a dad unfazed by queer sexuality who goes to a drag show with his daughter.  He’s a friend unashamed to show how deeply he cares about the well-being of those he loves. He’s an ally who understands that when heteronormative privilege thrusts a megaphone into his hands he should use it to speak out for those whose queerness makes them likely to be ignored or afraid to be identified. Self-described as “just a dude, … a fat old vet,” Fierro is a new kind of progressive everyman whose bravery, humility, and compassion make him an instantly iconic ally to the LGBTQ community. 

The recognition that masculinity can evolve, and is evolving, raises the natural question of where we think we might eventually end up. Some feminists and other gender theorists argue we should think of gender as a spectrum–with pure masculinity on one end and pure femininity on the other, and all of us actual human beings living our actual lives somewhere in between. If they’re right, then what it is to be a man is probably always going to include the necessity of grappling with violence. But others vote for rejecting the gender binary altogether, arguing that we should stop affixing artificially gendered labels onto virtues and character traits that are, properly speaking, just different ways of being human. Regardless of who’s right, everyone would agree that we’re venturing into new territory in our collective understanding of what it means to be men and women. Bell hooks once bemoaned that, “[b]ombarded by news about male violence, we hear no news about male love.” Richard Fierro’s bravery offers up a tantalizing glimpse of what it’s like to hear about both.

Featured image is “Toxic Masculinity“by Sarah Mirk.

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The Case Against Dictatorship

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The problem with democracies is that they are sclerotic, indecisive, and dithering; by contrast, states ruled by strong and capable dictators are capable of rapid policy change–or so it is argued.  As one prominent critic puts it, democracies “are inherently reactionary and absolutist” compared with dictatorships, which “accept the most daring political and social experiments.”[1]  Certain events seem to bear this perspective out: in America, a pioneer of liberal democracy, our representatives regularly struggle to perform basic tasks like agreeing on a budget. In Israel—another liberal democracy, but with very different institutions—such difficulties have led to elections being held with comical frequency.

Meanwhile, it is China’s system, rather than a monarchy or the fascist state, which stands as the alternative to liberal democracy. In 2020, The Atlantic ran a defense of China’s massive Internet censorship regime, mere months after their heavy-handed and flat-footed response to the COVID-19 outbreak allowed the novel virus to escape and become the world’s problem. Yet as liberal democracies struggled with the consequences of this for the years that followed, China was largely praised for its willingness to lock down large population centers to an extent most other countries had little political appetite for.

Now, however, China has failed to vaccinate their vulnerable elderly population to any great degree, while those who have been vaccinated have received a markedly inferior product. Their lockdowns have grown more and more intense as the contagiousness of COVID has increased by leaps and bounds; for this and other reasons, US GDP will actually grow more in percentage terms this year than China for the first time in my lifetime. Russia, meanwhile, has spent the year on a failed and pointless invasion for which they have paid a substantial cost in national wealth, geopolitical strength, military hardware, and human life.

Regimes blunder; this is not unique to China or Russia, or to non-democracies in general. But contrary to Mussolini and less nefarious critics, liberal democracy does have important structural advantages over its rivals that are too often overlooked.

One reason for this oversight among even its friends is that liberal democratic ideals are so dominant today.  Today, nearly every country in the world is either a liberal democracy or to some degree pretends to be. As of 2013, 90 percent of the world’s population lived “in independent states with constitutional documents that asserted their democratic character.”[2] Moreover, most of these assert their liberal democratic character in particular; even North Korea’s constitution promises “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association.”[3]  Even Mussolini himself, while rejecting that “numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society” or the right of “numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations” nevertheless felt compelled to portray fascism as “real democracy.”[4]

Understanding the practical strengths of liberal democracy paradoxically requires a bit of demystification. North Korea may present a stark example, but even in the best cases liberal democratic ideals soar far above the reality on the ground. Ideals are abstracted from the messy details of life; they can be used to judge just about any sort of regime or society, at any point in history. But the liberal democracies that exist today, even as varied as their institutional particulars may be, share a family of key traits. They are a particular type, which developed under particular conditions, and which may not be possible absent those conditions. Their pioneers may well have held liberal democratic ideals or older, related ones, but they needed more than ideals to navigate the political realities of their day.

Among those realities was the development of a citizenry who are “modular,” able to form links between one another “which are effective even though they are flexible, specific, instrumental.”[5] This quality emerged as part of the global transition from agrarian to commercial societies. After all, modularity is wonderfully useful for investors, business owners, and employees, and for the many who enjoy the social benefits that result from the contractual and financial links these groups form. It can be troublesome for regimes, however. After all, the average country has a population in the tens of millions; it doesn’t require a very large fraction of these modular millions to link together and cause serious trouble for the governing class.

Every society faces crises due to natural disasters or disease, or even due to social change that is on the whole positive, such as economic growth. These crises produce broad unrest among the highly capable “modular” masses, as well as among elites. Liberal democracies have the mechanisms to see the signs of unrest before it erupts, and to act decisively in response to this information. By contrast, the very means by which non-democracies insulate incumbents from competition sabotages their ability to understand and respond nimbly to changing circumstances.

Flexible, responsive, and effective

During the debates over ratification of the American Constitution, the anti-federalists made the case that republics had historically been very small, and that a geographically large one could not be sustained. James Madison famously argued for the virtues of an “extended republic,” but what was lost on both parties is that the primary reason republics had been small in the past is that it could not have been otherwise.

Our world is very different from the one that the old republics and monarchies existed in. In the agricultural societies of the pre-modern world, it would have been quite difficult to send representatives from New Hampshire or Georgia to Washington, DC, and harder still for voters to find out what those representatives were up to. Today, voters in California or Oregon can send representatives to DC and keep up with events there practically the moment that they occur. Moreover, representatives in DC can write laws which can be communicated to officials and courts across the vast continental territory of the contemporary United States. Modern transportation and communication technologies enable a degree of centralization across enormous territories that was impossible until very recently in the history of the world.

As already discussed, the “modularity” of the modern citizen, stemming in no small part from the broad-based enrichment and access to technologies of coordination, creates a great deal of risk for regimes that outright ignore even very small interest groups. Genuinely open electoral competitions for government leadership with universal enfranchisement provides an institutional valve for the many interests and factions of a nation-state to exert influence, thereby discouraging extra-institutional measures. This is especially true of legislatures, which by their nature subdivide the electorate and thereby create representatives to negotiate on behalf of particular interests.

The chief distinguishing characteristic of liberal democracy is the way that the elected offices relate to the rest of the system. The lion’s share of non-democracies today hold elections too, but they are either rigged to some degree, or the offices themselves hold no real power. By contrast, as Joseph Heath describes, “a successful, well-administered, and reasonably responsive liberal state” is:

the product of an ongoing internal tension between an essentially technocratic executive branch, an elected legislature that is highly responsive to public opinion, and a judiciary endowed with important supervisory functions. (. . .)each brings its own considerations and concerns to the table, and policy is ultimately determined through the interaction that results.[6]

In a sense, voters choose officials who go on to use the executive branch to govern well on behalf of those very voters. This of course is a considerable simplification; Heath himself emphasizes the wide berth of discretion that actors in the executive branch effectively have in their daily decision making, in any regime type.

Nevertheless, the responsiveness of the elected officials in a liberal democracy and their ability to turn this into actually executed policy should not be underrated. Ari Berman for example cites the testimony of an Edgefield County, South Carolina council chairman on the effects of voting reform there:

We paved roads for the first time in the black communities, improved garbage collection, changed road signs, got blacks in every office in the court house, changed the land fill, got a black magistrate, and started a rural fire department.[7]

Once the electoral system was modified to be more responsive, these public benefits were quite rapidly invested in. The African American constituency’s vote was given teeth, and their representatives actually put the local government to work on their behalf.

Plainly a moral victory. In a non-democracy, such pockets of ignored populations in a country would remain so. But purely from the perspective of a regime’s stability and self-preservation, this sort of result has practical merit as well. While the Edgefield County African American population may seem harmless before the enormous power of a modern government, allowing even relatively small segments of the population to become marginalized and neglected risks creating a base for the regime’s opposition to mobilize in the future. In a liberal democracy, of course, this mobilization can be channeled through elections, potentially resulting in incumbents being removed from office peacefully. In a non-democracy it could contribute to bringing down the whole regime.

No regime type is guaranteed a particular practical outcome; be it economic growth, an uncorrupt bureaucracy, or effective pandemic prevention. All regimes will stumble, all types of regimes will at times get on the right track for some area or other. But liberal democracy has the best set of institutional arrangements to give it the best shot of getting to a good outcome, though it may involve no small amount of muddling through to get there.

If that sounds like a qualified defense, it is only so if the point of comparison is utopian. Liberal democracy holds unqualified superiority over all other actually existing regime types.

The brittleness of non-democracy

The myth of the dictator is of a man who is not held back by politics and is therefore able to act decisively on behalf of the public good. But politics is nothing more than the striving “for a share of power or to influence the distribution of power”[8] and the politics that dictators must engage in to obtain power and to keep it thereafter is not only nastier from a moral perspective than the politics of liberal democracies, but also ties his hands in a number of crucial ways. All regimes are constrained, but the constraints on all modern non-democratic regimes are systematically at odds with long term stability and citizens’ wellbeing.

The methods by which incumbents in non-democracies come to power are many. Some were elected by young or fragile democracies, and insulated themselves from competition after taking office. Some were military leaders who used their superior force of arms to take power from civilian leadership. Some were well organized outsiders who opportunistically seized power when the prior regime was weakened or vulnerable in some way. Some are selected through internal party procedures in a one-party state.

Once in power, they must take measures to stay there. The termination of electoral competition does not mean the termination of constituents that must be appeased; it simply means that those constituents represent a drastically narrower set of interests. Military dictators can be decisive indeed, when they are decisively pilfering the country to pay off their key supporters within the military itself. Party chairmen can be decisive when having competent officials arrested or assassinated to prevent the rise of any potential rivals.

In Sheena Greitens’ study of dictators’ intelligence organizations, she notes that “managing popular unrest is best accomplished using a unitary and inclusive internal security apparatus,” that is, an organization that is centralized and draws on the general population for its personnel. Securing a dictator’s position against coups by other elites, however, “calls for fragmented and exclusive coercive institutions,” that is, multiple organizations pitted against one another with tightly restricted membership.[9]

Coups are almost always the more imminent threat, and so most dictators will take measures to “coup-proof” their regime in the manner Greitens suggests. This keeps each agency dependent on the dictator’s goodwill, as they can be discarded for one of their rival agencies if they show themselves to be disloyal. The exclusivity of their membership keeps them segregated from the general population, making them unlikely to collaborate with them against the regime. But this very separation makes it more difficult to gather information about the population, and the pressure to prove themselves over their rival agencies can lead intelligence services to take unnecessary actions. The combination of a bias towards action with poor information make it much harder to engage in “more targeted, pre-emptive, and non-violent repression” and the regime therefore ends up with “higher levels of and less discriminate violence.”[10]

This problem is most acute in personalist autocracies, “where one person rules(. . .) constrained only by the de facto power of other people, rather than by more or less impersonal rules, norms, or customs.”[11] Russia’s Putin is a contemporary example of this. By contrast:

[I]n China, after Deng Xiaoping’s death in 1997, formal rules and implicit understandings came to effectively limit the terms of General Secretaries of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and even during his lifetime party bodies met regularly to make policy[.][12]

Deng’s reforms enacted an institutionally constrained form of non-democracy, which are more successful and more numerous than personalist non-democracies. These may suffer from Greitens’ dilemma less acutely than their personalist counterparts. Nevertheless, these too face great challenges in gathering accurate information about their populations. While far from perfect, in a liberal democracy “polls, independent media, and the like provide a reasonably accurate” source of information about a regime’s level of political support among society’s factions. But for incumbents in non-democracies, “their very power gives many groups in the population incentive to hide their true feelings.”[13]

Almost by definition, non-democracies exercise substantial control over their national media. The line between non-democracy and liberal democracy, after all, rests to a great degree on the barriers that are set up against opposition groups. And one of the most common barriers placed is on the ability of opposition groups to publicize their criticisms widely or to get taken seriously by popular media outlets. The Peruvian government in 1990 kept itself in power through an extensive bribery ring of both officials and members of the media, but notably “bribes paid to TV stations were more than a hundred times the amount paid to politicians[.]”[14]

Both the barriers to electoral contestation in the institutional sphere and the barriers to public criticism in the information sphere come at a cost for the regime. While it may help them stay in power in the short term, it can leave them flying blind to the level of their true support among the population. Moreover, if state media makes claims that “habitually conflict with lived experience or deeply held popular values, or contradict other trusted sources of information,” then rather than shoring up the regime’s position it can reduce its credibility. As Xavier Marquez puts it:

[C]riticism can be a source of information about lower-level malfeasance, popular needs and desires, and general policy feedback(. . .)and allows [the regime] to modulate its own messages; and it also bolsters its own credibility on occasion. (. . .)A sophisticated information management strategy thus does not attempt to silence all government criticism, but instead tries to prevent criticism from escalating into potentially uncontrollable collective action.[15]

He notes that China’s public sphere “produces much criticism but little coordinated action.” The approach that 21st century authoritarians have by and large converged on, therefore, is not total control of the media, which in the era of the Internet is anyway impossible. Instead they must maintain a fine balance. Does anyone truly believe that such a goldilocks approach to information management is permanently sustainable? Indeed, China has just recently faced open protest of the regime, which they have responded to with a mixture of repression and concessions.

The bottom line is that those non-democracies that tend to be more successful and long lasting than others almost all emulate “the institutional repertoire of representative democracies, using parties and elections to their advantage, ditching obvious and ineffective propaganda, and learning to live with more open public spheres.”[16]

In other words, most of them come quite close to the line of being liberal democracies, and simply take measures to make it very unlikely that current incumbents will have to leave office. Can such a system truly live up to the hopes that critics of liberal democracy have for it? Would it not plainly import many of the problems of liberal democracy without the benefits of true electoral competition for the highest levels of authority?

Why bother?

No non-democracy is ever going to solve the problem of succession and peaceful transfer of power as thoroughly as liberal democracy does. Meanwhile, those non-democracies that try to have it both ways need to maintain several fragile balancing acts simultaneously in order to survive; is it so surprising that they frequently fail to do so? In China, not only has the information management regime failed to prevent the recent protests, but its current head of state has dismantled many of the institutional constraints set in place during the Deng era, moving the country towards a personalist dictatorship with all of the warts that regime type brings with it. China’s last such case did not work out especially well.

At the end of the day, if most non-democracies feel compelled to come as close to liberal democratic institutional arrangements as they can while still insulating incumbents from competition, and to characterize themselves as liberal democracies in their own official documents, one wonders what the case for dictatorship really is. Why settle for anything less than the real thing?


[1] Mussolini, Benito, and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” World Future Fund, September 1, 2022. THE DOCTRINE OF FASCISM. http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm

[2] Márquez, Xavier. Non-Democratic Politics: Authoritarianism, Dictatorship, and Democratization. London: Palgrave, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2017. 22.

[3] Quoted in Ibid, 23.

[4] Mussolini, Benito, and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” World Future Fund, September 1, 2022. THE DOCTRINE OF FASCISM. http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm

[5] Gellner, Ernest. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. Penguin History. London: Penguin Books, 1996. 100.

[6] Heath, Joseph. The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State. New York, New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2020. 32-33.

[7] Berman, Ari. Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. First edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 156.

[8] Weber, Max, David S. Owen, Tracy B. Strong, Rodney Livingstone, Max Weber, and Max Weber. The Vocation Lectures. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub, 2004. 33.

[9] Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 17-18.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Márquez, Xavier. Non-Democratic Politics: Authoritarianism, Dictatorship, and Democratization. London: Palgrave, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2017. 63.

[12] Ibid. 64.

[13] Ibid. 131-132.

[14] Ibid. 141.

[15] Ibid. 138

[16] Ibid. 243.


Featured Image is Protestors Hit Spanish & Italian Fascists in DC: 1939, by Harris & Ewing

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Inventing Invention: Brad DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia

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In the 19th century, some of the world—the “global north”—began to grow rich. It began at a jog but, by the end of the century, it had become a sprint. As scientific, technical, and productive capabilities expanded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, some contemporaries did begin to imagine something more. What they saw at the end of the tunnel of material progress was a true utopia, where all conceivable human wants could be met with ample time left over for leisure.

A century and a half later, we have failed to reach the leisure society of Keynes, much less the classless society of Marx, or any of the other visions of heaven on Earth promoted by those utopians that grew up in the Victorian Era. For the historian Eric Hobsbawm, humanity made its only credible attempt to reach utopia in the “short twentieth century” from 1914 to 1991, in which time the Soviet Union rose and fell. In something of a direct response, economist Brad DeLong posits a “long twentieth century” from 1870—when, he argues, economic growth passed a crucial threshold—to 2010, the throes of the Great Recession. During this time, though we seemed at times to be racing towards utopia, over the whole period, and down to the present, we could at best be said to have “slouched” towards it.

DeLong’s book is self-styled as a “grand narrative” rather than a dry academic analysis. He offers a strong perspective, in contrast to a book like Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin’s How the World Became Rich, whose authors do offer a perspective of their own, but only after performing a long survey of the many competing perspectives on modern economic growth. Slouching Towards Utopia is in this way much more like Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth; each book allows both the lay reader and the specialist to walk away with a greater grasp of the general economic history of the time period covered, and both offer a strong thesis that remains controversial among specialists.

Among economic historians, the precise timing of modern growth is a matter of some dispute. The classical point of view is that it all began with the Industrial Revolution in England in the late 18th century. Now, even those who might defend that timing are less likely to say it was as simple as what was going on in industrial manufacturing specifically, as tinkering and innovative breakthroughs occurred across a remarkable variety of domains. And nearly all agree that, whenever it might have begun, this growth became much faster in the second half of the 19th century.

DeLong’s story does not dispute the established facts that go into these other interpretations. His chronology is largely supported by the consensus among economic historians:

 [T]here was more proportional techno-economic progress and change in a single year over the 1870–2010 period than in fifty years before 1500, and more than in twelve years over the period from 1500 to 1770, or more than in four years over 1770–1870.[1]

But beyond these less controversial descriptions, he advances a very strong thesis, both in terms of timing and in terms of causation:

What changed after 1870 was that the most advanced North Atlantic economies had invented invention. They had invented not just textile machinery and railroads, but also the industrial research lab and the forms of bureaucracy that gave rise to the large corporation. Thereafter, what was invented in the industrial research labs could be deployed at national or continental scale.

(. . .)Not just inventions, but the systematic invention of how to invent. Not just individual large-scale organizations, but organizing how to organize. Both were essential to the arrival of the integrated, command-and-control central planning of modern corporations.[2]

Great Britain and some of its neighbors and colonies had undoubtedly grown at an unprecedented pace from 1770 to 1870. But, according to DeLong, this was destined to end the way of all previous eras of temporarily heightened growth and innovation: the population would grow until the per-person gains were quite literally eaten away, according to a logic articulated by Thomas Malthus. What made the world after 1870 different was that the most advanced economies had uncovered a path to permanent prosperity; they had “invented invention.”

In a long and thorough book, DeLong spends remarkably little time defending this thesis, or even fleshing out the basic mechanisms by which the research lab and the corporation made possible the world-historic change that he documents so thoroughly. In the beginning he mentions that “One gathered communities of engineering practice to supercharge economic growth, the other organized communities of competence to deploy the fruits of invention.”[3] Later, he elaborates that inventors such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were able to make their impact because the research lab and the corporation took care of “the ten other roles that their predecessors had had to fill, from impresario to human resource manager. That work was left to the corporation. This made a huge difference. Invented technologies could be rationally, routinely, and professionally developed; and then they could be rationally, routinely, and professionally deployed.”[4]

The rationalization of invention and the routinization of diffusing innovations at scale; that is the basic logic behind the role of the research lab and the corporation in DeLong’s grand narrative. But the manner in which it was rationalized and routinized is explored in far less depth than, for example, the “war of the currents” between Edison and Tesla, and the “perhaps five to ten years’ worth of difference—in advancing electricity in the economy” that the outcome made, which “may have permanently shifted the economy into a somewhat different direction from the one in which it had been heading.”[5]

But how exactly did the research lab and the corporation empower these men to accomplish these tremendous feats? And why did no one think to gather “communities of engineering practice to supercharge economic growth” before 1870? It seems answers to these questions were left on the cutting room floor.

What DeLong does do, however, is no less valuable. Having established his theory of why it all happened, he moves on to what exactly happened, and how the world was transformed by this unexpected pivot from millennia of stagnation to a “long century” of slouching onward and upward.

The book’s ambitious promise of “An Economic History of the Twentieth Century” still manages to sell what its author delivers short. DeLong effortlessly jumps from the scientific details of the difference between alternating and direct current, to what those differences mean in terms of the cost of providing electricity at the scale of a city or town. He jumps from the tactical and organizational strength of the Germans in World War II, with examples drawn from early and late in the war, to the overwhelming superiority of America’s war production to the entire Axis combined. He offers detailed diagnoses of the Great Depression, the Great Inflation, and the Great Recession, as well as strong prescriptions for how they ought to have been handled, yet is reasonably understanding of the actual state of knowledge and uncertainty faced by the key decisionmakers at the time.

He encourages his readers to constantly consider the conflicting moral perspectives of Friedrich Hayek on the marvels of the market and Karl Polanyi on its dangers in order to evaluate the flow of events he narrates from a broader perspective than either. It is difficult to conceive of a reader who will fail to come away from Slouching Towards Utopia with their knowledge and their perspective enlarged; the breadth of what is covered is staggering.

While DeLong does not flinch from the horrors of his “long twentieth century,” nor from the challenges we still face ahead of us, he strikes a tone of measured optimism. Given the unprecedented human accomplishments detailed in the book, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. Rather than accepting pessimistic narratives of stagnation in the global north or inevitable climate catastrophe, we ought instead to take a page from DeLong’s “grand narrative” and get to thinking about the steps we might take to press ahead—even if we must do so at a slouch, and even if we never quite arrive at utopia in the end.


[1] DeLong, J. Bradford. Slouching towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2022. 82.

[2] Ibid, 62.

[3] Ibid, 12.

[4] Ibid, 35.

[5] Ibid, 70.


Featured Image is Nikola Tesla with his equipment, by Dickenson V. Alley

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Opportunities and Pitfalls for a Revived Liberal International Order

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the world—and the Ukrainian counterattack in Kharkiv Oblast may have changed it again. While it’s too soon to say what will ultimately end up happening in Ukraine, at this point the continued existence of the Ukrainian state (if not its borders) is essentially assured, as is the deep military and economic weakening of Russia. Even if the Russian state can use mobilization to turn the tide militarily enough to capture substantial Ukrainian territory and hold itself together, its military capacity will be noticeably lessened for years to come—and there is the possibility for greater changes still. This weakening of the Russian sphere of influence creates opportunities for a revived liberalism, but potentially serious obstacles still stand in the way. An effective American response needs to reward allies while moving beyond offshore balancing to the creation of hardy liberal multilateral structures around the world. 

Regardless of the precise outcome of the war in Ukraine, the world’s eyes will be on it. The Ukrainian state and its people have made profound sacrifices for their sovereignty, and overwhelmingly support a westward orientation for the future. Support for EU membership runs at over eighty percent, compared to a mere two percent supporting joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. For many, the war is about both Ukrainian sovereignty and the ability of Ukrainian society to make the choice to align westward. While Ukraine has been granted ‘candidate’ status in the EU, existing EU states like France are much more lukewarm about granting Ukraine full membership, with French president Emmanuel Macron warning that the process could take ‘decades’. The United States needs to ensure that Ukrainians enjoy notable material benefits from their westward turn—even if the EU itself is unwilling or unable to allow Ukraine to join their ranks. This may carry a hefty price tag in terms of rebuilding—but the strategic cost of allowing a very public US ally to fall into deeper poverty once the war is over is much steeper. If, in a decade, Ukraine (and other long suffering European states like Bosnia and Kosovo) appears to be on its way to Polish prosperity, the message to the world will be that support for democratic liberal norms, even when done imperfectly, is rewarded. If by contrast Ukraine languishes, other countries will be profoundly discouraged from following a similar path. And it is almost certainly the case that many other countries will be faced with similar choices.

Already, a power vacuum is emerging where Russia had previously balanced against other regional powers or exercised regional hegemony. Russia had long headed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), consisting of itself, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This organization strove to serve as a Eurasian counterweight to NATO, but its future is unclear. Only Belarus has provided material support for the invasion of Ukraine, and Kazakhstan has been opposed on a rhetorical level and is seen by many as moving out of the Russian sphere. It is Armenia and Central Asia, however, which are now demonstrating the impotence of the organization: under increased attack from its neighbor Azerbaijan in a conflict that has spread outside disputed territories into Armenian territory, Armenia had (at this writing) received no substantial support from Russia, and Russian peacekeepers in its territory have proven insufficient to secure it or prevent Azerbaijan from occupying Armenian territory. By contrast, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia shortly after the conflict erupted and has thrown considerable political capital behind the fragile ceasefire currently in place there.  In Central Asia, the already tense relationship between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has recently resulted in Tajik shelling of Kyrgyz territory—a notable escalation from previous clashes. Other Russian clients are struggling as well—Syria, for example, is being hit by repeated Israeli airstrikes which have gone so far as to knock the civilian airport in Aleppo out of service. And Iran, perhaps Russia’s most important close ally (and one of a very few that has supported Russia’s war with weaponry) has been rocked by a series of immense protests against mandatory hijab and, by extension, the morality police and Islamic government that rules over them.  

All of these cases, and others beyond, show both the danger and promise of a distinctly weaker Russia. The immediate outbreaks of violence are the expected result of a balancer losing its capacity to balance—but the lesson should be that some policy beyond ‘offshore balancing’ should be pursued. In situations like Armenia and Azerbaijan, the US should play a role similar to that played by President Jimmy Carter in the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt: bring the two sides together to commit to a binding peace—and sweeten the deal for both of them with improved American relations and aid. The leading role US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has taken in current peace proceedings is wise in this regard. 

In other cases, Russian allies like Venezuela and perhaps even Iran will be realizing their suddenly greater vulnerabilities. The approach to these states should also be magnanimous—lifting some sanctions (particularly if done in a way to induce human rights progress) will not only benefit the people on both sides but will improve US strategic position. Obviously, these countries will not be immediate US allies (though some, like Armenia, may be quick to adopt a more friendly policy, by necessity). However, if Russia is unable to regain its position as a great power, they may well see the wisdom of keeping friendly relations with both the US and China, rather than aligning entirely with China. 

The result may be somewhat cooler relations with states like Israel and Turkey that have benefitted from US hostility towards their enemies. This should not be seen as a terrible outcome, however: both Israel and Turkey have shown, over the course of the war in Ukraine, that they do not see their own positions as universally ‘west aligned’, but rather as being independent states already navigating between power blocs—as of course is their right. This is the reality to which the US should be reacting.

There is also an economic dimension to Russia’s weakening. Economically, Russia was a major member of the BRICS group—a loose organization of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa aligned to present an alternative to western banking and financial hegemony. But the increasing isolation of Russia and potential recession and economic softening in China presents an opportunity for the US here, as well. 

US and European global financial structures, however, should learn the lessons of the last twenty years and the relative success of Chinese lending: the IMF, World Bank, and other economic organizations, have come under increasing criticism for attempting to dictate terms on developing countries regarding privatization and other structural adjustments required for loans. A softening of this approach, accompanied by greater willingness to forgive truly odious debt, could help bring about a more liberal world in the longer run, rather than forcing through ostensibly ‘liberal’ reforms that often generate considerable blowback (such as the water privatization scheme in Bolivia that contributed to the rise of more radical left wing parties there). The US, Europe, East Asia, and other developed capitalist states should be actively ensuring that prosperity continues to grow worldwide, and that this prosperity translates into higher living standards for the working class around the world. This will, in the long run, create a more stable liberal order—and the current window, with Russia firmly on the back foot, provides a new opportunity for liberal democracies to take the lead in fostering that development. 

Finally, the US should learn from what has worked in Ukraine. Just as a broad liberal alliance of states in Europe—especially the UK, Poland, and the Baltic & Nordic states—has emerged to support Ukraine militarily and diplomatically, a similar coalition of proximate states should be organized to defend other areas vulnerable to expansionism and revanchism. Most immediately this means that Taiwan would be best supported by its own arms with backing from Japan, South Korea, and potentially other neighbors concerned about Chinese influence, like the Philippines or Vietnam. The ‘hub and spokes’ security arrangement leaves each east Asian country in a tight bilateral alliance with the US but largely without the expectation of mutual cross support with one another. This arrangement will not be sufficient if the US remains—understandably—unwilling to directly assist its allies against nuclear powers, as has been the case in Ukraine. Transforming this arrangement into a multilateral mutual defense organization should be a top goal of American diplomacy. 

Of course such a sweeping liberal policy towards a changing world will attract opponents. The major objections will, as ever, be that the US is getting ‘soft on anti-Americanism’ if we lift sanctions on Iran or Venezuela, and that the US is sinking too much money into parts of the world that are ostensibly ‘not our problem’. Others may claim that any US involvement, even if it comes with a lifting of sanctions and genuine efforts at economic development, constitutes American imperialism. Both claims must be strongly countered. The coming decade presents opportunities not seen since the early 1990s to produce a world that is friendly to liberalism and democracy, one in which these values can flourish even as countries around the world gain more sovereignty free of the domineering influence of Russia. The last time the US had such an opportunity, much of the progress made in building such institutions (and the resources needed to economically support allies) was squandered by the War on Terror. If the US instead invests its substantial wealth in equally ambitious peaceful initiatives, we can make up for many of the errors of that period.


Featured Image is The President of Ukraine Visits NATO

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adamgurri
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The Protecting America’s Police and Strengthening Law and Order Plan

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America is facing an epidemic of violence. Our police officers are overworked, overburdened, and faced with increasingly conflicting duties and imperatives. If we want to uphold law and order in America, we must strengthen our police forces and enable them to face the challenges of the 21st century. This essay outlines a comprehensive six-point proposal for doing just that.

Too often, police officers will be required to perform jobs that they aren’t trained for—and then punished when they do their best anyways. We must protect our police from this Kafkaesque Catch-22. We must enable police officers to focus on their real job of catching violent criminals—and that means shifting the burden of mental health and other social service calls onto other departments that are properly trained and equipped to deal with them. Our police officers are trained to deal with violent, dangerous criminals—not ordinary people having a bad day.

I’ll be blunt: we don’t need highly-paid, highly-trained police officers camped out at stop signs twiddling their thumbs, waiting for a moving violation to happen. In the midst of our epidemic of violence we need our police officers on the front lines tracking down murderers, robbers, rapists, and other violent criminals. This is why we must free police officers from this drudge work, and put traffic enforcement back in the hands of the people who design the streets in the first place, such as local departments of transportation. Departments of Transportation are in a better position to balance the uses of enforcement officers, automated technology like red light cameras, and infrastructure changes like traffic calming.

Across America, hard-working young men have been forced into a life of crime by government overregulation. The war on marijuana has overcrowded our jails, overworked our police officers, and distracted us from the real work of dealing with violent crime. As we’ve seen in states across America, ending the fruitless war on marijuana can create jobs and promote industry and thrift in young people, while bringing in much-needed tax revenue and safety regulations. We must stop overcrowding our jails and overworking our police officers with enforcing burdensome government regulation to no social benefit!

Elliot Ness brought down Al Capone—but even he couldn’t stop the booze. It is a likewise unfortunate fact of human society that men will pay for sex. And it is a similarly like fact that the prohibition on prostitution has created a criminal underworld where rape, pedophilia, and human trafficking can flourish. These heinous crimes are enabled and supported by a culture of silence, in which witnesses and victims are too afraid or too unwilling to go to the police with what they know. By ending the criminalization of sex work, we can end this culture of silence, and bring the pedophiles and predators hiding in their midst to light. As a side benefit, we also protect our police officers from the common temptations of policing such communities!

The distrust between rank and file police officers and “the rats” in Internal Affairs is legendary—and understandable. Informing on your coworkers sows distrust and suspicion. Such distrust can be lethal in the life-or-death situations we expect our police officers to deal with on a daily basis. For that reason, we must move such matters to a panel of law-enforcement experts appointed by the mayor with the power to investigate and discipline abuses among law enforcement. This panel will uphold standards of professionalism and expertise, while protecting our hardworking police officers from the corruption of bad apples.

We have seen time and again what happens when greedy local officials turn hard-working police officers into tax farmers: distrust, alienation, and crime. Police officers depend on the cooperation of honest Americans to report and testify on the problems in their community. Such cooperation is undermined when the police officer is also the tax man. This is why we must prevent profit from corrupting the mission of police departments, and abolish predatory fines and civil asset forfeiture. Police officers are here to protect taxpaying citizens from violent criminals—not play at being tax farmers themselves.

Calls to abolish our police are misguided and unproductive. The American people want a police force that genuinely serves and protects—that identifies, prosecutes, and punishes the rapists, murderers, and robbers who prey on the rest of us. Our current system has heaped our police with too many distractions and left them unable to focus on this pressing goal. By freeing our police departments from the mess of busywork and false imperatives we have burdened them with, we can create a freer, stronger, safer America in the twenty-first century.


Featured Image is The Centennial Police – Their Universal Answer

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Puerto Rico’s Constitution at 70: An Innovation in Self-Government

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For an experiment to succeed, time and attention are required.  The Constitution of Puerto Rico, which celebrated its 70th anniversary on July 25, was just that:  an experiment in sovereignty crafted jointly by the Federal Government and the People of Puerto Rico.  But rather than adhering to the basic scientific principle, the Federal Government has since abandoned the innovative Constitution, and in so doing, it has annulled those promises made in 1952.  This article looks into how the Constitution of Puerto Rico was created, what it meant, and how in recent years, it has been demeaned as a measure of sovereignty and government by consent.

Before the Constitution

Puerto Rico became a United States Territory in 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War.  That same year, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, reserved for Congress the power to determine “[t]he civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants” of the new possessions.[1] Not long after, the United States moved to administer the island, passing the Foraker Act in 1900, which formed a civil government for the island.[2]  Under it, the People of Puerto Rico would not decide who governed them (except for the lower legislative chamber); the Federal Government would.[3]  Further, the People of Puerto Rico were left stateless in that they were not citizens of the United States, as always happened when the United States acquired territories; they were instead considered citizens of Puerto Rico.[4]  And the Foraker Act also treated Puerto Rico distinctly by imposing duties on goods coming from and going to the island.[5]  This last portion went directly against the Uniformity Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”[6]  (Long before this, Chief Justice Marshall had noted that the term “United States” embraced both States and Territories.[7])

After the enactment of the Foraker Act, a New York merchant sued the Federal Government on those grounds after incurring north of $600 in tariffs on his orange trade.[8]  But the question in Downes v. Bidwell went beyond the precinct of tax law; the Supreme Court’s decision would authorize an American Empire, of which Congress was the masthead and in relation to which Congress placed itself above the Constitution.  In the many opinions issued by the Court in Downes, the one that has commandeered territorial law ever since was a concurrence that found it “impossible to conceive that the treaty-making power by a mere cession can incorporate an alien people into the United States without the express or implied approval of Congress.”[9]  This was a theory buttressed by the Territory Clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”[10]  But this clause should not be interpreted as allowing Congress to operate above the Constitution with respect to these territories.[11]  Three members of the Court, however, placed it just so, when it manufactured a doctrine (embraced by the Court in later decisions) of incorporated and unincorporated territories—the latter would be subject to Congress’s plenary powers but would not enjoy full protection under the U.S. Constitution.[12]  Even when the United States made Puerto Ricans American citizens in 1917 through the Jones Act,[13] the Court noted that the Constitution’s application turned not on an individual’s American citizenship, but on their locality.[14]  So—with few exceptions—Puerto Ricans enjoyed little popular sovereignty and government by consent of the governed until the United States entered into World War II.

 A constitutional government by the people of Puerto Rico?

Progressively, the United States has extended measures of self-government to Puerto Rico.  Consider the amendment to the Jones Act made in 1947, which allowed Puerto Ricans to elect their governor for the first time.[15]  And in 1952, Puerto Rico’s watershed self-government moment came:  After two years of constitution-making, Puerto Rico became the first non-State to adopt a constitution crafted by its people “in the nature of a compact” with the Federal Government.[16]  Puerto Rico had become a democratic experiment.  For example, the Puerto Rico Constitution’s Carta de Derecho (Bill of Rights) safeguarded the dignity and fundamental equality of people; enshrined the right to vote by guaranteeing “direct and secret universal suffrage and [protecting] the citizen against any coercion in the exercise of the electoral franchise”; it also secured the right to an education by mandating a free, non-sectarian educational system;  it barred the death penalty; it protected organized labor movements; it protected laborers’ right to strike; it guaranteed the minority party a third of the legislative ranks if the majority party gained more than two-thirds in one or both chambers so that no political party could monopolize the amendment process.[17]  Still, the Constitution of Puerto Rico went beyond that.  It created an independent body tasked with the reapportionment and the district-drawing processes, overseen by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s Chief Justice.[18]  When it came to Jeffersonian (and the more robust Jacksonian) principles of democracy, Puerto Rico’s internal government came first compared to the States.   

The Puerto Rico Constitution also tinkered with federalism:  “[I]t … establish[ed] a new relationship of partnership between the United States and its dependent areas without embracing either of the radical solutions of statehood within the Union on the one side …, or, on the other, the grant of a full sovereign independence.”[19]  Through the compact, Puerto Rico had become a free associated state, and—at least as understood at the time—was supposed to “enjoy[] full local self-government”; the United States had “created for itself the opportunity of democratizing the spirit and structure of the government of its dependent territories.”[20]  And it achieved that by stripping away some of the restrictive measures of the Foraker and Jones Acts that once anchored the island.  For example, the Constitution of Puerto Rico empowered the once-feeble legislature.  It also empowered the Office of the Governor by making the governor the “main driving force behind most legislation.”[21]  It likewise tasked the central government with many duties the Federal Government often delegates to (or does not take from) the States.  The central government, for example, made it its own prerogative to provide an education, not a municipality’s.  This was not your grandfather’s federalism.  But perhaps you’re wondering:  just what is this constitutional arrangement? 

Recall that under Downes-era decisions, Puerto Rico was considered an unincorporated territory, bereft of the Constitution’s full protections.  Not only that, but Congress had unilateral power—except for appointments made by the President with Congressional consent—to administer the island, acting as both jury and executioner.  Perhaps the Constitution of Puerto Rico altered the Foucauldian dynamic between the Federal Government and the newly formed Commonwealth of Puerto Rico by including the principle of consent in the charter initiating the constitution-making process.[22]  But maybe it didn’t, and that was the main problem with Puerto Rico’s Constitution since its inception.  Chiefly, did Congress retain those plenary powers  and through them repeal the Act of 1950 unilaterally?[23]  These concerns were doubtless compounded by some differences between the Commonwealth and States.  For example, Puerto Ricans would get no representation in Congress, having just a Resident Commissioner in the House who’s barred from introducing measures or from voting (unless the outcome is a given).  On top of that, though having ample measures of internal democracy, Puerto Rican voters would not be granted the ability to cast a vote for the President.  A universal postulate is that life turns on a dime—the Constitution of Puerto Rico was no exception.

 Take two individuals, Luis Sánchez Valle and Jaime Gómez Vázquez, selling a gun (on separate occasions) to an undercover police officer in Puerto Rico.[24]  Puerto Rico’s prosecutors indicted them for, among other things, selling guns without a permit.[25]  While they awaited the outcome of the Commonwealth charges, a federal grand jury indicted them for the same sales under U.S. gun trafficking laws.[26]  They both pleaded guilty to the federal charges.[27]  They then moved to challenge the Commonwealth charges based on the Double Jeopardy Clause.[28]  After gaining a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case.[29]

           For the Court, the question turned not on whether a “government possesses the usual attributes, or acts in the common manner, of a sovereign entity,” but on whether separate sovereigns “draw their authority to punish the offender from distinct sources of power.”[30]  The Court found that based on the “ultimate source” of power, Puerto Rico and Congress were the same—for double jeopardy purposes, they could not bring successive prosecutions for the same offense.  Because “Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution, which in turn confers the authority [to Puerto Rico] to bring criminal charges,” Puerto Rico and the Federal Government could not both prosecute Sánchez Valle and Gómez Vázquez.[31]  And with this decision, Puerto Rico became subsumed under the Federal Government’s power once again.

This ruling is fundamentally flawed both as a practical and historical matter.  The Court, for example, observed that the States “rely on authority originally belonging to them before admission to the Union and preserved to them by the Tenth Amendment.”[32]  And doubtless, this is so; but if the Court’s inquiry into the dual-sovereignty doctrine is indeed historical,[33] then under it, thirty-seven of the fifty States would still be attached to the unbreakable chain between them and Congress.  In other words, if the Court were to “look[] at the deepest wellsprings, not the current exercise, of prosecutorial authority” of the thirty-seven States proceeding the original thirteen, there too it would find Congress—like Puerto Rico, they too derived their prosecutorial powers from it.[34]  But of course, this conflict is in many ways preempted by the equal footing doctrine, which holds that when a new State joins the Union, it is entitled to the same standing–the same privileges and rights–as those preceding it.[35]   And this is conceded, even if it undermines the Court’s strictly historical test.  From this, it’s easy to conclude that the sole way through which Puerto Rico can gain equality–and through which Puerto Ricans can gain equal measures of sovereignty–is through statehood.  But this supposes that Puerto Rico’s situation is just like that of any other former territory’s, particularly as–and here’s the quiet part only the Insular Cases said aloud–it is an island populated by American citizens who are not of the same ethnicity and culture as most mainland counterparts.  So to say that the Federal Government will miraculously change course after a hundred-plus years of the same indifference (and at some points hostility) is more than wishful thinking.  But here’s perhaps where the rotten-to-the-core Insular Cases provide some hope:  All throughout them, the Court agreed that the Territory Clause conferred awesome powers on Congress, and Puerto Rico is subject to them.  Under that theory, then-counsel at Interior Felix Frankfurter noted that Congress could engage in “inventive statesmanship” with the new, unincorporated Territories.[36]  Congress could remedy this dearth of autonomy and popular sovereignty, but it has refused to do so.  Puerto Rico has not left the democratic abyss not because its people–again, all American citizens who lack basic political power in representative government–have failed it; Congress has. 

And Congress failed the island again the same day the Sanchéz Valle decision was handed down when it installed a fiscal board managing the island’s finances and thus barring the island’s legislature from truly holding the power of the purse.[37]  Harkening back to the undemocratic Foraker and Jones Acts, the members on this board are unelected, and the way they are appointed is murky.  Let’s not forget the obvious:  The members tasked with appointing or selecting the members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board are themselves unelected by the American citizens of Puerto Rico.  Of the seven-member board, all are appointed by the President.  Six of the members come from a list provided by Congress (two are selected by the Speaker, two by the Senate Majority Leader, one by the House Minority Leader, and one by the Senate Minority Leader).  The Governor of Puerto Rico may participate in the board, but he has no vote.  If this is not repugnant enough to the principles of representative government, perhaps the powers of the board are:  The board casts the dispositive vote over what finances are approved, regardless of the extent of support for the measures tied to those finances.  For example, Puerto Rico’s legislature may have passed a budget with overwhelming support from the parties, but if the board so chooses, it can reject it.  On top of that, the Governor must present the board with expenditure reports every three months.  And more boldly, it could revise active laws and make decisions over the popular will.  The board, as its Chairman David Skeel put it, was meant to be a “temporary” measure, but after six years, the board still directs the island’s financial prerogatives,most notably among them some healthcare and public employee leave laws.

Promises made long ago are not promises to be broken.  The value of popular sovereignty in our Republic is unparalleled.  It means that the people, not the government, get to decide.  Like Madison put it:  “[R]epublican liberty” requires “not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people.”[38]  The Puerto Rico Constitution was a step in that direction but, as it celebrates its 70th, rather than gaining strength as it is more and more engaged in that form of experimental self-government, it has deteriorated with age because of external forces–it has been deteriorated by Congress and the other unelected branches.  The ball thus lies in Congress’s court:  It has refused time and again to pass legislation aimed at untangling the situation it has made for Puerto Rico;  at upholding its side of the compact with Puerto Rico.  Congress has abandoned its responsibilities. 

But Puerto Ricans in the island, unfortunately, have no voting power in federal elections, and so it’s hard to exert any political pressure.  So there’s the other missing piece of the sovereignty puzzle.  Here too, Congress needs to act.  Recall the Felix Frankfurter memo calling for “inventive statesmanship.”  This, coupled with the powers bestowed on Congress by the Territory Clause (and the Court), Congress is able to provide for representation for Puerto Rico.  Or, at the very least, provide voting rights in the general elections.  But of course, that’s the key to the game, isn’t it?  If there are no voters capable of holding elected representatives accountable, then there’s no need to address their interests.  So again, we reach a dead-end.  It’s time the Federal Government meets its end of the bargain and that it honors that compact by increasing autonomy and democratic ideals on the island, and an easy start is to provide meaningful representation in Congress.  It is by no means bound by the practice that States only are the ones to get a seat at the table. Under the powers of the Territory Clause, Congress can engage in “inventive statesmanship,” and that includes the ability to increase representative government for American citizens (it seems almost a given).  On the flip side, the Federal Government could also abolish the Financial Oversight and Management Board, which casts its sprawling shadow over the island and its people.  If the Federal Government’s true goal is to remedy Puerto Rico’s precarious financial situation, then it could work together with the island to address the issues rather than make its people comport with the financial omnipotence bestowed on the board–devolve some power back to the island’s legislature. 

The problems Puerto Rico faces, which are also shared by the other American Territories, holds up a mirror to who we are and what we stand for.  In 1776, Thomas Jefferson jotted down those now-familiar words in the Declaration of Independence:  “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  The United States, though it boasts being the bastion of democracy–and in many ways, it has been–has left its own stranded and in so doing, it has abrogated the primordial values of self-government.  Its practices in Puerto Rico have torn right through the fabric of the ideals this Republic was founded on; it has torn through the fabric Susan B. Anthony extended so assiduously and courageously; it has torn through the fabric John Lewis resew with his blood and broken skull on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  To fulfill the highest ideals of self-government, which the United States has aspired to throughout its quest to form “a more perfect Union,” principles of both national representation and democratic governance must be upheld everywhere–that includes Puerto Rico.  And this requires going to the negotiating table with those most affected by this rudimentarily undemocratic regime. 


[1] Treaty of Paris, Art. 9, Dec. 10, 1898, 30 Stat. 1759.

[2] Organic Act of 1900, ch. 191, 31 Stat. 77 (Foraker Act).

[3] See ibid., §§17-35, 31 Stat. 81-85.

[4] See, e.g., Louisiana Purchase Treaty, Art. 3, April 30, 1803, 2 Stat. 202 (stating that “[t]he inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according to the principles of the federal Constitution to the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States”); Adams-Onis Treaty, Art. 6, February 22, 1819, 8 Stat. 252 (stating that “[t]he inhabitants of the territories which His Catholic Majesty cedes … shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution, and admitted to the enjoyment of all the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States”); Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Art. 8, Feb. 2, 1848, 9 Stat. 922 (stating that Mexican citizens who wished to remain in the now-U. S. Territories would be granted “the title and rights … of citizens of the United States”);

[5] §3, 31 Stat. 77-78.   

[6] Art.  I, §8, cl. 1.

[7] Loughborough v. Blake, 18 U.S. 317, 319 (1820) (“Does [the United States] designate the whole, or any particular portion of the American empire? Certainly this question can admit of but one answer. It is the name given to our great republic, which is composed of States and territories”).

[8] Bartholomew H. Sparrow, The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire (Lawrence:  Kansas University Press, 2006), 80.

[9] 182 U.S. 244 (1901) (White, J., concurring).  This case marked the start of a series of case law coined the Insular Cases, which concerned the new Territories.

[10] Art. IV, §3, cl. 2.

[11] Cf. Rooke’s Case, 5 Co Rep 99b, 100a; 77 ER 209, 210 (1597) (“Notwithstanding the words of the commission giv[ing] authority to the commissioners to do according to their discretion … their proceedings ought to be limited and bound with the rule of reason and law”).

[12] Downes, 182 U.S. at 342.

[13] Organic Act of Puerto Rico, ch. 145, 39 Stat. 953.

[14] Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 309 (1922) (“It is locality that is determinative of the application of the Constitution, in such matters as judicial procedure, and not the status of the people who live in it”), but see, Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U.S. 763, 769 (1950) (“Citizenship as a head of jurisdiction and a ground of protection was old when Paul invoked it in his appeal to Caesar”).

[15] Act of August 5, 1947, ch. 490, §1, 61 Stat. 770.

[16] See Act of July 3, 1950, §1, 64 Stat. 319 (approving the constitution-making process); Act of July 3, 1952, 66 Stat. 327-328 (approving the Constitution of Puerto Rico).

[17] P.R. Const., art. II, §§1, 2, 5, 7, 17, 18; art. III, §§2, 7.

[18] Ibid., art. III, §4.

[19] Gordon K. Lewis, “Puerto Rico:  A New Constitution in American Government,” Journal of Politics 15, no. 1 (February 1953):  42.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Lewis, “A New Constitution in American Government,”:  52.

[22] See Act of July 3, 1950, §1, 64 Stat. 319.

[23] Lewis, “A New Constitution in American Government,”:  58.

[24] Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, 579 U.S. ___ (2016) (slip op., at 4).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 5.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 7 (internal quotation marks omitted).

[31] Ibid., 15-16, 18.

[32] Ibid., 8 (internal quotation marks omitted).

[33] See ibid., 1, 7, n.3, 12, 17.

[34] See ibid., 7.

[35] See Idaho v. United States, 533 U.S. 262 (2001).

[36] See Memorandum for the Secretary of War, in Hearings on S. 4604 before the Senate Committee on Pacific Islands and Porto Rico, 63d Cong., 2d Sess., 22 (1914).

[37] See 48 U.S.C.A. §2121, 2142(c)(d), 2144(a)(b)(c).

[38] Federalist No. 37, p. 4 (J. & A. McLean eds. 1788) (J. Madison).


Featured Image is Exhibition of Constitution of Puerto Rico at the Capitol of Puerto Rico, by Carlo Giovannetti

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