“We Are Elected!”

Sunday, November 7, 2010 \AM\.\Sun\.

Since a number of regular bloggers and visitors here at TAC are Abraham Lincoln and Civil War history buffs, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you my impressions of a unique event held last night in Lincoln’s hometown (and mine) of Springfield, Illinois. Saturday, Nov. 6, was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election to his first term as President in 1860.

To commemorate the event, the Old Capitol and Lincoln Home historic sites staged a reenactment of Lincoln’s election night celebration. This also marks the beginning of what is likely to be a boom period for history buffs nationwide — the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s presidency. But more on that in a moment.

Lincoln’s election marked the end of a bitter four-way contest for the presidency among Lincoln, the nominee of the recently organized, anti-slavery Republican Party; U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, also of Illinois, the Democratic nominee; then-Vice President John Breckinridge, nominee of Southern Democrats who split from Douglas and the rest of the party over the issue of expanding slavery to the western territories; and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, a loose coalition of former Whigs, Know-Nothings, and moderate Democrats who hoped to avert secession and war by evading the slavery issue altogether.

Lincoln had not been the first choice of the Republicans; many had preferred William Seward of New York or Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, who had more experience in public office (both had been governors and U.S. Senators from their respective states) and had taken stronger public stands against slavery. Also, several Southern states had made it clear before the election that they intended to secede if Lincoln won. Nevertheless, Lincoln won 40 percent of the popular vote on Election Day, and Douglas finished second with 29 percent.

It’s worth noting that the electorate even in Springfield was sharply divided that day. Lincoln prevailed in the city of Springfield by just 70 votes over Douglas, but lost surrounding Sangamon County by about 40 votes. As the official Democratic candidate Douglas would have enjoyed strong support among the Irish and other predominantly Catholic immigrants that were flooding into Illinois at the time. Douglas also campaigned in person throughout the nation — something that no presidential candidate before him had done, while Lincoln allowed Republican operatives to do most of his campaigning for him.

On Election Day itself, Lincoln had not originally planned to vote, believing it wouldn’t be appropriate to vote for himself. However, his law partner William Herndon persuaded him that he should at least vote for the other offices on the ballot, so he walked across the street from his office to what was then the Sangamon County Courthouse to cast his ballot.

Later in the evening, after the polls closed, he gathered with other supporters in the State House of Representatives chambers to await the results, transmitted via telegraph. He later went directly to the telegraph office in hopes of getting the results more quickly (lacking, of course, the modern advantages of exit polls and network news anchors projecting the results).

Around 11 p.m. Lincoln received word that the critical state of Pennsylvania had gone to the Republicans. He and his group then adjourned to a saloon near the Statehouse to await results from New York, the state that would put him over the top in electoral votes. Around 1 a.m. he learned that New York was safely in the Republican column, and the celebration began. Accompanied by a throng of supporters, he arrived at his home on Eighth Street and announced to his waiting wife, “Mary, we are elected!” Illinois historian Paul Angle describes the scene that ensued:

Old men and young men, bankers and clerks slapped each other on the back, danced, sang and yelled until their voices sank to hoarse whispers. Outside one long shout announced the news. From stores, from houses, even from housetops, men called out that New York was safe, while groups ran through the streets shouting their joy at having joined the Republicans. Never had Springfield seen anything like it.

Since I live just a few blocks from the Lincoln Home, the weather was nice (albeit chilly) and the event was free, I decided to participate in the election night reenactment. (Unfortunately, my cell phone didn’t have enough charge left to take pictures.)

The event began with local Lincoln presenter Fritz Klein and others in historic dress leading a torchlight parade from the Old Capitol to the Lincoln home.  National Park Service personnel then conducted candlelight tours (using electric candles for safety reasons) of the home at 10-minute intervals. Each tour began in the home’s front parlor with a beaming Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln greeting each visitor. Costumed interpreters were stationed in each remaining room of the house, explaining not only the room’s use but also the impact Lincoln’s election would have had on the occupants.

For example, the interpreter outside what had been the bedroom shared by the Lincolns’ youngest sons, Willie and Tad, noted that the boys had frequently “campaigned” for their father and were excited at the prospect of living in the White House. However, they would now have to leave behind their friends as well as the family dog, Fido. The interpreter also pointed out the small bedroom used by the Lincolns’ live-in maid. With the family on their way to Washington, the maid would have realized her days of working for the Lincolns were numbered.  On the other hand, having the President of the United States as a reference probably didn’t hurt her prospects for future employment!

Another interpreter noted that Lincoln greeted his wife by saying “We are elected” because in many ways, he could not have achieved that milestone without her. Mary Todd Lincoln had been born into a prominent Kentucky political family, had a lifelong interest in politics and unfailingly promoted her husband’s political ambitions. Her husband’s election as president would have seemed like a dream come true for her. Of course, she did not know then that the next four years would turn into a nightmare of war, personal attacks against her, and grief over the loss of both her son Willie and her husband.

The pride that the Lincolns and the citizens of Springfield felt at his election was tempered by their realization of the enormous burden he faced. By the time the Lincolns departed for Washington in February 1861, seven Southern states had seceded and a provisional Confederate government had been organized.  We see those times through a somewhat romanticized lens since we know the outcome.

However, the people who actually marched through the streets of Springfield with Lincoln that night in 1860 had no assurance that their nation would survive. For all they knew, Lincoln would be the last president of the United States and they would be living within shouting distance of a hostile slave nation a few years hence.

Three months later, on the day Lincoln left Springfield for the last time, he acknowledged that he faced a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington”  at the nation’s founding.

“Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed,” he added.  “With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.” That’s still good advice, especially for those times we are tempted to become mired in despair over the state of our current political discourse.

Update: The New York Times last week launched a series of opinion pieces titled “Disunion”, analyzing events of the same week 150 years before as if they were being covered in real time. The feature began with an analysis of the 1860 presidential race and Lincoln’s chances of victory in New York.

In 1860 St. Louis reporter Samuel Weed spent Election Day with Lincoln. His account, however, was not written until 1882 and not published until 1932. The story can be read at this link.


A Chicken or Egg Question

Saturday, October 30, 2010 \PM\.\Sat\.

The question above has nothing to do with cooking.  Rather, it has to do with the ongoing debate over the role of government vs. the role of the family, churches, charities, and other voluntary private organizations in assisting vulnerable persons such as the poor, children, the handicapped and the elderly.

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Are Public Employees Overpaid?

Saturday, October 9, 2010 \PM\.\Sat\.

If you believe what you read on blogs or hear from certain politicians and pundits, a new kind of haves-vs.-have-nots class war is brewing across the land. Not between the rich and the poor, but between private and public sector workers, as related here.

Scandalous stories of public officials enjoying lavish or disproportionate pay and benefits at taxpayer expense, such as in Bell, Calif., and elsewhere , frequently make headlines and prompt calls for reductions in such compensation.

As with many other economic and taxation issues, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post usually depends on which side of the political spectrum you are on. Conservatives tend to answer “yes,” while liberals tend to answer “no” .

But which side is correct?

Before I delve into that question, I will first make some disclosures.  I am a full-time employee of the state of Illinois, making $35,000 per year. I do not belong to a union, and due to the nature of my job and agency, probably never will. I have only received one raise the entire time I have been so employed (nearly 4 years) due to a promotion to a slightly higher job level. I do not expect to receive any raises for the foreseeable future; in fact a pay cut is a distinct possibility. Prior to that I worked 20 years in private sector employment in the newspaper field. In some instances the pay and benefits were comparable to, and even better than, my current job. In other instances they were not as good.

Now to the question: are public employees overpaid? That depends on who you ask and how one defines “overpaid”. The average pay of state and federal employees in general is higher than that of private sector workers in general. When broken down by education, profession, etc. the picture is not as cut and dried. For lower-skilled jobs requiring only a high school or vocational education — e.g. custodians, receptionists, guards — the public sector pays better, whereas for professional jobs requiring a college degree or higher (attorneys, doctors, CPAs, etc.), the private sector pays more — often a lot more. These articles from Kiplinger and from Governing.com explain the differences in greater detail.

Two of the biggest reasons for these disparities are that 1) public employment tends to have a greater percentage of jobs requiring a college education or beyond and 2) public sector jobs are more likely to be unionized.

Public employee unions are a favorite bete noire of fiscal conservative politicians and candidates at the moment, and much of the public seems to agree with them. The fact that public employees continue in many (though not all) states and localities to enjoy benefits most private employees no longer have, such as regular salary increases, defined benefit pension plans, and caps on health insurance premiums and co-pays, arouses resentment among ordinary citizens who are forced to pay for such benefits via taxation.

Although many officeholders and candidates talk a good game when it comes to reining in public employee benefits, in practice the most frequent targets of budget cutting measures such as layoffs, furlough days and pay cuts, are lower or mid-level non-union employees. They often end up being punished for the sins (real or perceived) of their higher placed or unionized colleagues, simply because they are the easiest targets — not protected by either union contracts or political/personal connections.

The biggest problems on a state and local level are pension deficits — the growing gaps between the amount of money in public pension funds and the amount of benefits those funds are expected to pay in the future. According to this report by the Pew Center on the States, pension shortfalls are fiscal time bombs that threaten to devour entire state and city budgets if nothing is done to defuse them before it is too late.

How did the situation get that bad? In most cases it was due to a variety of factors — yes, generous union contracts played a part, but so did repeated failure on the part of lawmakers to invest properly in public pension funds, demographic changes (aging of the Baby Boomers, people living longer), and investments tanking due to the recession. No one factor can be singled out, and the entire blame for the pension crisis cannot be laid at the feet of one person or group of people. But regardless of who is or was to blame, the problem has to be dealt with, not swept under the rug.

Private sector employees are quick to point out that while they have to support public employee benefits with their taxes, public employees are not forced to do the same for private employees — they can choose whether or not to do business with a private company.

I agree, and this is in my opinion an argument that should be taken most seriously. For that reason, public employees are by necessity accountable to the public and will always be subject to various restrictions and considerations that do not apply to private employees (e.g., their salaries being public information).  This is not “unfair” or unequal, but simply part of the deal one signs up for when working for a government body.

Another claim often made by private employees is that government workers, by virtue of the pay, job security and benefits they enjoy, are artificially insulated from the realities their privately employed neighbors face — the constant threat of being fired or laid off, lack of retirement security, worry about medical bills, etc.

That might, perhaps, be true of top officials/administrators with strong political connections who make six-figure salaries, whose spouses have equally high-paying positions, and whose children or other family members are completely healthy. Otherwise, I am not so sure.

Many public employees, particularly non-union ones, are regularly threatened with layoffs or missed paychecks (most often at the end of a fiscal year). Given the poor financial standing of many public employee pension funds, combined with the fact that some public employees don’t get Social Security, I’d say many of them (including myself) who are 10 years or more away from retirement are just as worried about their retirement as you are.

Also, most public employees do not live in a bubble or a vacuum. Most used to work in the private sector at some time in their lives, and many are married to spouses who work in the “real world” or are currently unemployed or disabled. Their grown children, their parents, their siblings, and their friends and neighbors  include private employees or unemployed persons looking for work. The only exceptions I can think of might be political “dynasty” families like the Kennedys or Daleys. Plus, public employees pay all the same taxes everyone else does — federal, state, sales, property, the whole works. If taxes go up, it cuts into their budgets too.

Just because someone has a government job doesn’t mean they have, or should have, no interest in whether private business succeeds. If factories close and move overseas, if private companies go bankrupt and abolish or raid pension funds, if high taxes drive up the cost of living, if college education becomes unaffordable without taking on ruinous levels of debt — it affects them and their families too. It is in everyone’s interest, no matter what kind of job they have, to have a fiscally sound and honest government, competent public employees, and a sustainable tax structure.

Also, do not forget that for every instance in which a public official received undeserved pay, pensions or perks at taxpayer expense one could probably cite an equally egregious case of a private business executive enjoying lavish pay and benefits at the expense of fired workers, closed factories/offices, or raided pension funds. Greed is greed no matter where it occurs, and no sector of the economy is exempt from the effects of original sin.

Finally, since this is a Catholic blog, we should approach this issue from a religious perspective as well. Christ Himself chose a public employee, Matthew the tax collector, to be one of His Apostles. He also told His followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” So, apparently, He did not believe that working for the government was inherently evil, unproductive or exploitive.

Some more pointed advice was given by Christ’s precursor, John the Baptist, to the public servants of his day who came to see him (Luke 3:12-14):

“Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John was referring to practices for which the public employees of the day were notorious — tax collectors often overcharged citizens and pocketed the “profit” they made, while Roman soldiers were known for shaking down citizens of the provinces they occupied for money, food, or other goods. Here John is telling them simply to do their duty, not demand any more of the public than the law requires, and be content with what they are paid. If today’s public officials and employees did the same, there would be a lot fewer problems.

As with most problems in a fallen world, there is no perfectly just way to balance the need for a professional, competent government workforce with that of a private sector free of unnecessary taxes and regulation. This does not mean, however, that we should not attempt to find as just a resolution as possible. However this will require people who are not to blame for the situation to help clean it up, and at considerable personal cost.

For public employees, this means more work for less pay, more out of pocket expenses, and for some, no job at all. For the rest of us it could mean higher taxes, reduced services or some combination of the two. All these things will impact thousands, even millions, of good, hardworking people who are simply doing the best they can and had no part in creating the situation. It may not be perfectly fair, but life ain’t fair.


The Third Rail of the Catholic Blogosphere

Friday, September 17, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

The “third rail” to which I refer — a topic likely to severely burn any Catholic blogger, particularly a male blogger, daring or foolish enough to touch it — is the issue of modest and appropriate dress … specifically, whether Catholic women ought to prefer wearing skirts/dresses rather than pants or jeans at all times.

This Great Pants Debate seems to have triggered an intense reaction on some other Catholic blogs. So, as a currently active female member of TAC, I thought I would tackle it so the guys would not have to endanger themselves or their domestic peace by doing so.

The debate began with this recent post (http://www.catholicity.com/message/2010-07-30.html) at CatholiCity. The author counsels observant Catholic women to eschew pants and wear skirts or dresses at all times because this will, he says, enable good Catholic men like himself to appreciate their God-given femininity without being (ahem) distracted or tempted by certain physical attributes.

Meanwhile, other bloggers (http://simchafisher.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/pants-a-manifesto-2/) and commenters (http://markshea.blogspot.com/2010/09/go-simcha.html) reacted with amusement, outrage, resentment, defensiveness, or some combination of them. Some dubbed the author’s teaching “sola skirtura” and characterized it as merely a chauvinistic man’s attempt to control women instead of controlling himself. Others saw it as a ham-handed attempt to create a litmus test for judging a woman’s piety, chastity, and/or obedience to her husband. Still others attempted to defend the author by citing the dress code Padre Pio imposed on penitents and the reported warning of Our Lady of Fatima concerning “certain fashions… that will offend God very much.”

I must admit I was surprised at the level of interest in this subject — more than 600 comments just on Simcha Fisher’s and Mark Shea’s blogs alone. I would have thought that a debate over whether or not it is appropriate for Catholic women to wear pants would be about as timely as, say, the Kennedy-Nixon debate over Quemoy and Matsu. For most people that train left the station at least 40 years ago. Why the big deal now?

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Filial Responsibility Laws and the Fourth Commandment

Friday, September 3, 2010 \AM\.\Fri\.

Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land the LORD, your God, is giving you. — Exodus 20:12

The Fourth Commandment is most often interpreted as a directive for children to obey their parents and, by extension, for persons of all ages to obey lawful authorities. It has also been interpreted to mean that children remain obligated to respect, honor, and love their parents even after they reach the age of majority and are no longer bound to obey them.

Moreover, other passages in Scripture make it clear that this commandment carries with it a certain level of responsibility to care for parents who have become elderly or disabled:

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Mosque Opponents: Be Careful What You Wish For, You Might Get It

Saturday, August 28, 2010 \AM\.\Sat\.

The debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center in New York has raised public interest in, and opposition to, other proposed or recently built mosques and Islamic centers throughout the country.

In areas where Muslim migration or immigration has been significant, some citizens have attempted to discourage construction of new mosques. Few come right out and cite the threat of terrorism; more often they seem to resort to time-honored NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) tactics such as creative interpretation of zoning ordinances, claims of decreased property values, or claims of real or potential problems with traffic, noise, etc.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I understand the need to be vigilant regarding the potential for violent subversion, as well as the dangers of taking such a politically correct approach to militant Islam that people hesitate to report obvious suspicious activity for fear of being labeled bigots (as seems to have happened in the Fort Hood massacre case).

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Deliver Us From Blago

Friday, August 27, 2010 \AM\.\Fri\.

According to legend, the Vikings were so greatly feared by the people of northern Europe during the Dark Ages that they used to pray “From the fury of the Norsemen, Lord, deliver us!”

Of late, I suspect that many Illinois residents like myself are making a similar petition to be delivered from the fury of another force nearly as frightening.

I am speaking of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose trial on 24 separate federal corruption charges ended on Aug. 17 with the jury finding him guilty of just one charge — lying to federal agents — and deadlocking on the other 23. Federal prosecutors will retry Blago on at least some of the unresolved charges, but in the meantime, he has once again resumed his nationwide media blitz, protesting his innocence to anyone who will listen and making a complete idiot of himself in the process.

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