Thursday, March 17, 2011

Final Exam

In December of 2008, George W. Bush was President, Barack Obama had just been elected President, and I was a high school Honors American Government teacher. I stumbled across the final examination I gave them just before Christmas break that year and thought I'd share it here. It seems relevant today in light of today's volatile international political and economic climate, and a national economic climate that includes a national debt that is 34% higher than it was in 2008.

My students did very well on the exam, but I wonder how their elected officials today would do on it.

Here it is:

Looking back to the collapse of the Roman Empire, Rome's economy had been declining for centuries. Rome had grown wealthy on the proceeds of its territorial expansion, but when expansion ended after Rome succeeded in bringing stability to its frontiers, this source of new wealth and economic growth also ended. Lacking new sources of income from expansion, manufacturing, expanding exports, and so on, Rome's capitalist economy contracted. In order to pay their armies and other costs of government, the emperors debased its coinage (diminished its true value by diluting its inherent value while maintaining that the coinage held the same value in the marketplace). To escape the resulting inflation, those who still had money invested in real estate, which, unlike the money at the time (because of debasing), held its value. Inflation and an overreaching tax burden ruined much of the middle class.

The Cato Institute (a free-market think tank) says that the emperors later "deliberately overtaxed the senatorial (or ruling) class in order to render it powerless. To do this, the emperors needed a powerful set of enforcers -- the imperial guard. Once the wealthy and powerful were no longer either rich or powerful, the poor had to pay the bills of the state. These bills included the payment of the imperial guard and the military troops at the empire's borders. Since the military and the imperial guard were absolutely essential, taxpayers had to be compelled to produce their pay. Workers had to be tied to their land. To escape the burden of tax, some small landowners sold themselves into slavery, since slaves didn't have to pay tax and freedom from taxes was more desirable than personal liberty. Since the Empire wasn't making money from the slaves, the Emperor Valens (368) declared it illegal to sell oneself into slavery."

Ultimately, Rome collapsed fully and Europe fell into the Dark Ages.

Roll the calendar forward 1,500 years to today. Times are difficult. As of December 3, the national debt was $10.6 trillion with $412 billion spent in 2008 on interest on the national debt. In 2008, we spent $700 billion on health and human services, $660 billion on social security, $640 billion on national defense, $61 billion on education, $60 billion on the Office of (Government) Personnel Management, $56 billion on transportation, and billions more on other items. Congress has a reputation for misspending the public's money on "pork barrel" items. Congressmen contend that since they represent their districts in Congress they need to send the budget money home to help their part of the country (which they would equate to doing their part to help the country).

The Brookings Institute (an independent research and policy institute) reports that fifty different governmental units share in the responsibility for planning and delivering aid to foreign countries with dozens of often overlapping broad objectives ranging from narcotics eradication to biodiversity preservation. The United States currently sends more than $100 billion overseas to the developing world in government and individual contributions. Major cornerstone industries in the U.S. are in jeopardy of collapse. The government is considering additional massive bailouts of these industries and businesses which will create a financial burden on your children and grandchildren, but they might also relieve pressure on the economy today. Everyday Americans and new businesses are having difficulty borrowing money because of faulty credit policies of the past. Fuel prices are unpredictable and we are at war to defeat terrorism and stabilize the world's largest oil producing region.

We haven't yet begun to sell ourselves into slavery, but there are undoubtedly difficult times ahead. The speed and complexity of communications and technology not only produce great things quickly, they also accelerate calamities and cause government action to ripple rapidly through the country (and the world), and not always with the desired effect. Events that once took centuries to occur in Ancient Roman times transpire in mere months and years today.

We need leadership now. We need it today. We need a leader who will be bold and will seize the initiative. We need a leader who can and will make difficult and maybe unpopular principled decisions. We need a leader who will break the mold of contemporary politics and establish a new benchmark in American history while holding onto this country's founding principles and the visionary values of the framers of our Constitution. We need a leader who realizes that these times require a standard bearer who possesses astounding moral courage: the willingness - the eagerness - to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. That leader is YOU.

In my capacity as your instructor, I have vested in you the power to fix it all and I have appointed the great Roman philosopher, orator, and statesman Cicero to be your chief of staff. His advice to you is the same as the advice he gave Roman leaders in 55 BC, "The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome (the U.S.) becomes bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance."

Your Assignment:

Write an essay reacting to Cicero's counsel in the context of current political and economic events in the United States using your knowledge of at least THREE of the Six Principles of the U.S. Constitution:

(1) Popular Sovereignty
(2) Limited Government
(3) Separation of Powers
(4) Checks and Balances
(5) Judicial Review
(6) Federalism