We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Can you imagine such a document being written and ratified today? It was created 231 years ago and wasn’t ratified until several months later, June 21, 1788. I mention the US Constitution here, on a personal finance blog, because what happened back then affects where we are now and is a reminder of where we may be headed.
Today’s times are tough, existentially tough, but the times were tougher then. The creators of the Constitution couldn’t nuke humanity into extinction, but it was easy to imagine the country dissolving and disappearing. It was a grand experiment that was massively disruptive. Great Recession? Ha! Try tossing out a system based on royalty, a stable currency, and everyone’s livelihoods (something far more precious than careers, jobs, or gigs) and replacing it with a completely new system. It must have been like switching to Bitcoin while relying on some new dotcom and retraining major portions of the populace. And they did it. And it wasn’t easy.
One thing that made it easier was a common enemy, and even that wasn’t unanimous. There were factions for and against, each probably seeing the other as an internal threat. And yet, they fought to find common ground from which to fight a common enemy. That’s the same and different now.
A hundred years ago, there were the Central Powers in The War to End All Wars. After 1929, the common threat was poverty and hunger. The Axis (Nazi Germany and Japan) pulled the Allies together again in WWII. For much of the remainder of the century, the enemy was the only other country that could truly contest the country, the Soviet Union.
Then, the Berlin Wall fell. With the US left standing alone, it was if we lost our purpose. Partisan politics has always been the norm, but the data shows it accelerating. 9/11 rallied folks for a while, but an amorphous enemy is harder to target. Instead, a pervasive threat was met with pervasive, and frequently inappropriate, paranoia.
We’re not the only ones. Look around at a world of dysfunctional governments. It’s almost as if we’re searching for something but we don’t know what. Meanwhile, systemic threats like climate change and injustice continue.
The US Constitution was a compromise, and a wise one. The country’s motto is e plu·ri·bus u·num – out of many, one. The founding document acknowledged the many and the benefit to being one.
“the Constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession, which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.”
That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every State is not, perhaps, to be expected; but each will, doubtless, consider, that had her interest alone been consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others; that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe”
They made sure it could be changed, because they knew it’s impossible to be perfect.
“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution”
A few things that seem to be neglected or changed elsewhere:
- To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; (Two years? I can think of a few wars that we’ve continued far past that.)
- No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts… (So much for gold and silver. Imagine how many investors were upset when their existing contracts were changed, or later when we abandoned the gold standard.)
- And then there’s the famous takeback;
- the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
- The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed
Considering some of the debates that have lasted for decades, there’s probably opportunity for more changes. I can think of one that would benefit from a bit of clarification, editing, wordsmithing, and basically. Of course, if we did that social media traffic would crater.
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
They probably thought it was perfectly clear at the time. At the time, and at the same time knew that something in the document would need correction.
And, let’s recall the bizarre concept that is the Electoral College.
By the way, impeachment is mentioned six times, as well as several phrases that resurface in the news;
“he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”
Evidently, they expected someone to try to benefit from the office.
By the way, the US Constitution uses He so often that I wonder if it would have to be rewritten to apply to a She. Or do She(s) get a free pass?
Personal finance models are built on conventions. Plans assume the future will be like the past, maybe with some tweaks to interest and inflation rates. History is ready to remind us other pieces of conventional wisdom: the only constant is change; and if even if you think you see it coming, it will look different when it arrives.
Without a common enemy, divisiveness may continue to grow. Currently, that’s meaning greater income and wealth inequality, a similar bifurcation in housing and health, and ideological differences that are being amplified for the consolidation of power and profit, not for furthering the maturity of the country. If the US is no longer seen as an us but as a collection of thems it is no longer united.
I expect something will happen. Moderating forces are losing energy. Social, financial, environmental, and technical changes have unstoppable momentum. I continue to pay my mortgage, strive for a sustainable income, and try to prolong life by living healthily; but I’m also aware that complete systemic changes have happened before, and could happen again thanks to the speed of communication. If we all recognized a common enemy, that could help; but that seems like a reflexive response, not a mature one. Maybe we need a nice alien to show up, or a global awareness of how to make life sustainable here, or something else that I can’t imagine, yet. How about an awareness of common consciousness?
A few hundred years ago, a small portion of the world’s population saw a problem, took the risk, found a new way, and pursued it despite internal dissension and external reactions. They changed the world. We may be ready for a change again. And in that case, I suspect my 40 year mortgage may be more than a bit moot.