20 May 2020
What Is Left Behind
by J.R. Thomas
After the death in 1726 of his architect John Vanbrugh who was building the baroque paradise of Castle Howard for him, the Earl of Carlisle lost interest in completing his two-thirds built house. Instead, he focussed all his attentions on landscaping a thousand acres or so surrounding the domed mansion. At the very centre of this, at the intersection of four roads, he built a newly fashionable obelisk. On it he ordered carved an inscription:
If to perfection these plantations rise
If they agreeably my heirs surprise
This faithful pillar will their age declare
As long as time these characters shall spare
Here then with kind remembrance read his name
Who for posterity performed the same
then going on to recount the earl’s titles and works, surrounding the no-doubt enormously impressed reader. It may seem a piece of eighteenth century hubris, the arrogance expected of a great aristocrat, the product of a vast fortune expended in a showy manner (though Carlisle in fact was not so rich and had to build out of surplus annual income – not the least reason for the slow progress of the works). But Carlisle’s confidence was not misplaced; the obelisk still stands, time has spared the characters to read, his descendants still live in Castle Howard, and his plantations and great avenues, now getting on for 300 years old, are magnificent. (They are indeed becoming a headache for his heirs as they approach the end of their lives, vulnerable to any great storm that might take them all down.)
How many modern housebuilders would build and plant with such supreme confidence? Not many dynasties are founded now, the ancient aristocratic families that do survive retreat year by year, and those who would replace them often last one generation, if that. How should a modern aspirant ensure his mark is left so that those yet to come will remember and admire him in twenty generations? The modern way must be to go into politics and bring about fundamental change. We can be sure Margaret Thatcher’s government will be studied and argued over in three hundred years time, as will Clement Attlee’s, and Winston Churchill’s. Across the water: Ronald Reagan, FDR (if you don’t know what that stands for my theory is blown to bits), Abraham Lincoln.
And now, it seems, Joe Biden. Mr Biden, having spent fifty years as Sleepy Joe, the pleasant but rather non-descript Senator and Vice President, has suddenly become Shake-em Up Joe, the least expected transformation since Clark Kent put on his Superman tights. This metamorphosis began with Joe’s reinvention of economics, where he shared with Boris Johnson the startling realisation that if the start button for the cash printing machine can be found, there is no need to locate the off button. Joe is US$6 trillion of special programme spend so far – $1.6 trillion on Covid19 relief and the rest on new infrastructure and enhanced social programmes. Joe happily assured Congress this can all be done without increasing the US Treasury deficit – already running at record levels – by a tax tweak here, and another one there. So far, not many economists can be found that go along with this, saying that there will need to be a programme of increasing taxes – and on middle income folk as well as those annoying rich ones.
But that was just the beginning; now Joe is looking to change the constitution and the governance of the USA. Never mind proposals to enlarge the Supreme Court to overturn the current conservative majority, and to accelerate the accession of Washington DC and Pueto Rico to statehood, which would have caused outrage had D Trump proposed them with such obvious and calculated political advantage; Joe is shamelessly on the case (he’ll have to be quick, given the dangers of losing his control of House and Senate in 2022). But now he is on to a bigger cause – to erode state rights. We won’t have to remind many readers that the United States is a federation, but it seems Joe may have forgotten, or just decided this structure has gone on long enough. He wants the federal government to have enhanced powers, at the expense of the separate states, each now a minor mirror of Big Brother in Washington – congresses of representatives and senators presided over by a governor, and with local taxes. Often even the state congress buildings are mini-takes on that spread in Washington.
One of the features of the modern Democrat Party is that it knows best. Better than free spirited Americans, and certainly better than Republican run states pursuing unapproved (by Washington) strategies. Top of the current disapproval list are various states’ approach to Covid control where such wild border states as Florida, Texas, and South Dakota have refused to follow President Biden’s demands for lockdowns and mandatory facemasks and business shut-downs. Joe wants to strengthen federal direction in matters of health so that in any future troubles Washington could take control of health issues from the individual states. In environmental matters too the President thinks that any climate emergency is much too important to be left to interpretation out in the boondoggles; Washington must make and enforce such decisions. Greenness must prevail, whatever local electors think.
Traditionally of course, Washington acted to deal with matters which the states could not; defence, foreign affairs, national economic strategy, social support, crime across state borders. This principle was eroded by the victory of the Union in 1865 as the southern states fought for the indefensible, retention of slavery; by fighting for that they lost the deeper arguments over the balance between state rights and federal direction. Nevertheless Washington has been slow to reduce the states to mere local governments, in the style perhaps, of English county councils. Nor is that the intention now on the part of Joe Biden, but he is certainly making a notable and historic play for significant power to be transferred to Washington.
None of this is what anybody expected from Joe, nor does it seem to be coming from the Veep’s office down the hall. Indeed, vice President Harris is rumoured to be concerned about quite a lot of this programme, being not especially radical herself and thinking none of this will help her become the first female President in 2024 (or perhaps 2028). For Kamala to be out-radicaled by Joe is no end of a turnup. What has driven this sudden apparition of an old man in a hurry (Gladstone, and we should not forget how Gladstone became increasingly radical in his old age – older even than Joe), we can only speculate, and will do so in a future edition.
Will it get delivered? Probably not; the American system, including elements of the Democrat Party, is resistant to change, and there is no widespread demand for radical reforms to the constitution (as opposed to noisy small minority demands). Electoral mathematics are not on Joe’s side. Civil war in the Republican Party may yet change that (though centrist moderate Republicans and Democrats alike are no doubt noting opinion polls showing the rise in popularity of a certain Donald Trump).
But if the Biden reforms do find their way through, if the Democrat Party somehow keeps control of Congress, if luck and wiliness favour Joe, he will certainly have his prominent place in history. Whether as villain or hero we could not possibly say.