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Herbert Hoover: Resourceful on Policy, Removed on Politics (Book Review, Law & Liberty) March 27, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Book Review, Politics.
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Imagine a highly successful businessman choosing the presidency of the United States for his first political race. Running as an outsider, he campaigned like no other, defeated the politicians,  and won the office. As President-elect, he held court in a suite of rooms at a fancy hotel, vetting prospective cabinet members. He had his own policy ideas, such as sharply curtailing immigration as a threat to American jobs.

Donald Trump? No, Herbert Hoover, as described by Charles Rappleye in his new book, Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency.

History has been simplistic and unkind toward President Hoover. Seemingly all we need to know is that he presided unsuccessfully over the Great Depression. Hoover himself has said he was “the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him.” Rappleye, a Los Angeles journalist who has written histories of several figures from the American Revolutionary period, has done Hoover and us a favor by delving deeper into the complexities of the Hoover presidency. Our 31st President did far more than we knew, though it still wasn’t enough. Franklin Roosevelt, after thwarting Hoover’s reelection in 1932, also did a lot about the Great Depression, making sure we knew all about his efforts, and still didn’t beat it back. Escape from the Depression and unemployment occurred only during the industrialized efforts of World War II.

In a nutshell that is Rappleye’s take on Herbert Hoover: a capable and resourceful leader who undertook reasonable policy approaches to an economic crisis, but a political novice whose personality was unsuited to democratic politics and the modern presidency. He worked too modestly and in secret. His disposition was dour and his speeches failed to connect. Unlike the politically gifted FDR, who comforted millions with his fireside radio chats, or Bill Clinton who could “feel your pain,” Hoover’s speeches were technical lectures about economics, delivered with his chin on his chest, deep into his notes. According to Rappleye, Hoover’s failures emanated from his lack of political and communication skills more than his policies.

In this respect, Rappleye seems to be caught up in a bit of presentism, that is, applying modern standards to figures of history. Compared to his predecessor, “Silent Cal” Coolidge, Hoover was a ball of fire. Radio was only a newly emerging medium in Hoover’s day and Roosevelt began to use it as a tool of the presidency as the country entered “the golden age of radio” in the 1930s and 40s. In a sense, Roosevelt was the first truly modern President, growing the office, issuing executive orders, undertaking personal leadership. Hoover’s was a transitional administration, from the premodern presidency of Coolidge to the thoroughly modern Roosevelt. Rappleye’s conclusion, like other accounts of Hoover,  seems simplistic in its own way, suggesting that a different personality might have led to greater success in the face of something as powerful as the Great Depression.

Most valuable in this book is its nuanced understanding of Hoover’s approach to the crisis. He has been painted by history’s broad brush as an uncaring, free-market, laissez faire businessman who did nothing while the country suffered. Instead Rappleye’s more detailed strokes reveal Hoover’s evolving approach, which had distinct phases. He saw the market collapse and banking crisis initially as a psychological problem of public confidence, so his early efforts were to reassure the nation. He also followed his approach of “cooperative” government, calling business leaders to the White House to enjoin them to keep wages up.

– Read the rest of the review at:


Health Care Reform: The System Actually Worked (Forbes.com) March 25, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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While conservatives and Republicans join in choral lament over their inability to repeal and replace Obamacare in the first 64 days of the Trump administration, allow me to sound a different and slightly positive note:  the governance system actually worked, or at least lurched in that direction.  I may be singing a solo on this but, as Congressman Joe Barton concluded when he surveyed the situation, “democracy is messy” and, I would add, sometimes something good can arise from a mess.

My premise is that when you are dealing with the biggest and most important federal takeover in 50 years, and one that affects one-sixth of the economy, you should deliberate with some care.  And you should not be tempted into such a huge overhaul by party-line votes (or executive orders, either, for that matter).   The whole notion of our representative democracy—divided as the power is among two branches of the legislature, the vast executive branch and the court system—is to find, as the founders put it in The Federalist, the cool and deliberate sense of the community.  The point is most assuredly not to rush things through on a narrow party-line vote in order to hit an anniversary of the law you are trying to undo.

Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sounded that note, saying Trump should “build consensus…not the shortest, quickest monstrosity you can bring to the House floor.”  Of course her line would have had more credibility had she followed it herself in passing Obamacare in the first place, which was enacted rather quickly and on a straight party-line vote.  In that case, she famously said “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it,” not exactly the kind of deliberation and consensus-building she wants now that voters have moved her party from the driver’s seat to the back seat.  Sadly, important principles of our representative democracy like deliberation, consensus-building and federalism seem to be important only when you are not in power.

And that’s my point:  here a failure of the majority party to drive yet another party-line vote on a major domestic policy may actually force those in power to pay attention to deliberation and consensus-building.  It’s bad enough that, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month, Republicans plan to repeal Obamacare and reform the tax code without any Democrats.  But here there was sufficient diversity of views within the Republican ranks themselves that further deliberation was needed.  Several moderate Republicans feared that the Ryan-Trump bill left too many Americans uninsured, or paying too much, while other conservative Republicans were adamant that it didn’t go far enough in repealing expensive mandates of Obamacare.

To the extent this was a failure of Republican leadership—and many are saying that about Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump—it was a failure to take enough time to develop the ideas around which a consensus could be built, at least a consensus of Republicans if not a majority from both parties.  Last-minute tinkering and compromising was making the bill worse, covering fewer people with less cost savings.  Since Washington is in this mode of—as President Franklin Roosevelt put it facing the Great Depression— “action, and action now,” any failure to take immediate action and obtain instant gratification becomes a failure.

As the famous inventor Thomas Edison concluded from his stumbles: “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  The lesson from this round of health care reform is that we don’t need one more party-line vote that can be undone by a new president or congress following the next election.  We need to stop veering from one direction to another based on party-line votes or executive orders and return to deliberation and consensus.  It is difficult in the short-run, but it produces the only kind of change that really lasts.

To view the column at Forbes.com:


Young People Robbed of Individualism (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) March 22, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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America used to be a land of “rugged individualism.” People came to this country so that the key decisions about their lives would no longer be made by kings and queens, or the church, or their social class, but rather for themselves. Individual freedom was promised by the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution.

But today individualism in America is in trouble. Not only has government taken over more and more of our money and decision-making, but young people are being coddled, first by helicopter parents, then in “safe spaces” in their college campuses. College used to be a time when kids went off to establish their own values and beliefs. Now we protect them from “micro-aggressions” and “trigger words.” We cleanse the campus of so-called controversial speakers and any real diversity of ideas.

Is it any surprise that young people are more open to socialism, for example, when we coddle them from birth through college? This does not bode well for America and its future.


Bad News from the Index of Economic Freedom (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) March 21, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Radio Commentaries.
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The 2017 Index of Economic Freedom has been released and it contains some bad news for Americans.  The U.S. dropped 6 positions in the ranking of economic freedom around the world to #17, its lowest level since these studies have been published.  While most nations of the world increased their economic freedom, the U.S. saw a significant decline, rated now not “free” but only “mostly free.”

The main contributor was a new category in the study called “fiscal health.”  This shows that a shocking 38 percent of our gross domestic product now goes to government and also emphasizes our growing national debt and deficit.

Milton Friedman, the greatest economist of the 20th century, said that the country that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither, but the nation that puts freedom ahead of equality will end up with a great measure of both.

Clearly we need more economic growth, less government spending and less debt.  In other words, more freedom.


Trump’s Budget Asks: What Should Government Do? (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) March 17, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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President Donald Trump’s first budget proposes some big changes. A much higher commitment to national defense is at the top of the list and, in order to fund that, less foreign aid, government regulation, and federal subsidies for research and the arts.

What Trump is doing is returning to the age-old question of what the federal government should do (and not do). Over the centuries, nearly everyone has believed that providing a national defense is the essential role of the federal government. But, as the economist Milton Friedman pointed out, when the federal government does more and more, it gets expensive and inefficient and—over time—it limits our freedom.

What government has been doing for a long time is adding more programs at a higher cost and simply sending the bill to future generations through our growing national debt. What the Trump budget finally asks is, what must the federal government do … and then what can we cut to pay for that?

See http://www.townhallreview.com



Donald Trump’s Budget Raises a Question of the Ages: What Should Government Do (and Not Do)? (Forbes.com) March 8, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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With Donald Trump busy tweeting about everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Celebrity Apprentice” to whether President Obama tapped his telephones, it may be difficult to imagine that he is deeply engaged in any important questions of political philosophy.  But, alas, there is at least one:  the age-old question of what government should do and not do.

This is precisely the deeper question underlying Trump’s first budget proposal.  Essentially he is planning a large $54 billion increase (or nearly 10%) in discretionary defense spending.  And, in order to pay for it, his budget will correspondingly reduce foreign aid, environmental protection, and federal subsidies of the arts, research, etc.

Whether you agree with his budget or not, there is a classic philosophical and constitutional underpinning for it.   Simply put, national defense is the number one priority of a federal government.   Starting with the preamble to the Constitution, one of the primary purposes of our federal government is to “provide for the common defense.”  Further, when Article I Section 8 of the Constitution lists specific powers of the federal government, several of those deal with national defense (declare war, provide for a navy, etc.).  Article II makes the president our “commander in chief,” again underscoring the priority of defense.  Later the Constitution requires the federal government to protect the states from invasion, and prohibits the states from engaging in war.

After that, the federal government’s role is debatable.  And let’s face it, there has been a steady growth of government spending, such that it now takes as much as 38% of gross domestic product.  Every president comes into office seeking to add something to federal power and spending, most recently President George W. Bush funding prescription drugs for seniors and a greatly expanded federal role in education.  And President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, Obamacare, again federalized something that once belonged to the states:  health and welfare, at great expense.

Milton Friedman, arguably the greatest economist of the twentieth century, put it this way: “Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom.”   That is the debate President Trump’s budget proposals should prompt.

The other key principle underlying the Trump budget is how to pay for the increase in defense spending.  The history of the modern era has been one of simply funding greater government spending by transferring the tab to future generations via the national debt, which now stands at a record-setting $13 trillion.  But apparently Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, are determined to include budget cuts to help pay for the defense increase.  The EPA may cut 20% of staff and eliminate dozens of programs.  Commerce may see its budget reduced by 18%, including large cuts for research and climate science.  There is talk of eliminating the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts, as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports PBS and NPR.

To some, all these proposed cuts in domestic federal spending mean the sky is falling.  But in reality, these are legitimate philosophical questions raised by the Trump budget.  Should the federal government be in the business of funding the arts, humanities and public broadcasting?  Is it more important to give extensive foreign aid over restoring our national defense?   Let the debate begin.


To read the column at Forbes.com:


Podcast and Column on Rugged Individualism March 2, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Radio Interview Podcasts.
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The Washington Times has a syndicated column today with a segment on Gordon Lloyd’s and my new book on rugged individualism:


Also, the Conservative Book Club has released a podcast interview I did recently in their Washington, D.C. office about the new book:



Donald Trump Rediscovers Franklin Roosevelt’s Forgotten Man–Or Is It Someone Else? with Gordon Lloyd (History News Network) February 20, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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With many uncertainties about Trumpism, one thing we know for sure: Donald Trump’s key constituency is “the forgotten men and women.” His first tweet as president-elect promised that “the forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again.” Indeed, the forgotten men and women were recurring characters in a flurry of campaign speeches he gave just before the election, the people who “built our country,” he said, the “middle class.”

In his inaugural address, President Trump doubled down on this theme, saying “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.” He described them as holding a “crucial conviction that the nation exists to serve its citizens,” not the politicians and elites of Washington. What they want, Trump said, is “great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves.” He called these “just and reasonable demands of a righteous people and a righteous public.”

Over 80 years ago, another wealthy New Yorker elected president with populist support, Franklin Roosevelt, introduced “the forgotten man” on the national stage. About a month after his inauguration, Roosevelt delivered a radio address—a 20th century version of Twitter—in which he said: “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power for plans … that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Roosevelt wished to replace an American icon, the rugged individual, with a new one, the forgotten man. For Roosevelt and the Progressives, rugged individualism only existed on Wall Street, where the business titans ruled and market forces had failed to protect Americans from economic disaster. Rugged individualism, Roosevelt said in a May 22, 1932 speech at Oglethorpe University, results in a lot of “haphazardness … gigantic waste …. superfluous duplication … dead-end trails … and waste of natural resources.” Roosevelt’s close advisor and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes concluded that “we have turned our backs for all time on the dreadful implications in the expression ‘rugged individualism.’”

Instead the forgotten man, the man at the bottom of the economic ladder who needed help and support from the government against the vagaries of the market and the power of the business titans, would become the focus of federal policy. As New York Times columnist Timothy Egan would say 76 years later, with that radio talk lifting up the forgotten man, Roosevelt “found his theme, and the Democratic Party found its agenda for the next half-century” (or longer, we would argue).

But the origin of the term “forgotten man” was different from Roosevelt’s understanding. Yale professor William Graham Sumner coined the term to describe the man who pays for someone else’s reforms that, in turn, benefit yet another person. Sumner described him this way: “The Forgotten man … works, votes, generally he prays—but he always pays.” Sumner’s more libertarian take on the forgotten man opposed special interest legislation, such as earmarks or targeted tax relief or protectionism, that benefited only a narrow group. In a sense, his forgotten man was more like President Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” people who paid for the government but were unhappy with how things were going. But Roosevelt had a larger platform than Professor Sumner and it was his forgotten man, at the bottom of the economic pyramid, who is best remembered from history.

Which brings us to Donald Trump’s forgotten men and women: who are they? Are they Roosevelt’s forgotten man, or Sumner’s, or someone else altogether? Trump’s forgotten man and woman seem different from Roosevelt’s. If Roosevelt’s forgotten man had been overlooked and beaten down by the financial markets and needed government help and support, Trump’s forgotten men and women have been overlooked and beaten down by the federal government itself, and need a new set of government policies to make things right. Trump’s supporters, as he said in his inaugural address, were loyal tax-paying Americans but the government wasn’t working for them. Instead the government was made to work for the political elites. They paid their taxes but the roads, the schools, safe neighborhoods and things they cared about from government were neglected. Because of bad government trade policy, the forgotten men and women have seen their wealth shipped off to other countries.

Trump’s forgotten men and women need new government policies, but what kind? Does Trump want to return more power to rugged individuals and to state and local governments? Or is he more of a big government conservative who would keep the federal government large and active, but in favor of different policies to benefit the forgotten middle class? At this point, we simply don’t know the answer to this question. On one hand, Trump’s appointment of traditional conservatives to his cabinet and administration might suggest a reduction in the federal role, for example in education and the environment. But Trump’s stated desire to spend lavishly on infrastructure suggests big government and an even bigger federal debt. Which of these Trump’s will win out? Only time will tell.

In the end, Trump’s forgotten men and women sound more like, but not just like, Professor Sumner’s origin of the term. They are, like Sumner’s forgotten man, those who pray and always pay, but for whom the government has not by and large worked. In Trump’s view, the special interests that Sumner abhorred have gained more from government policy than the solid, tax-paying middle class.

Over 80 years, the primary rival to the forgotten man has been the rugged individual, who has been in constant retreat. We wish Trump’s revival of the forgotten men and women might mean room for greater individualism, but making America great again isn’t the same as making the individual central again. Trump is no Ronald Reagan, who said in his first inaugural that government was not the solution to our problems, government is the problem. Trump is no Herbert Hoover, who argued that the American system of rugged individualism need not be undone in order to deal with the economic crisis of the Depression.

Are Trump’s forgotten men and women more like Sumner’s or Roosevelt’s, or might they even be first cousins to Herbert Hoover’s rugged individual? So far Trump seems to be content with an unsatisfying mix, but time and policy will tell

To see the article at History News Network:


Religious Liberty Questions are in the Courts and Agencies (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) February 17, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Some churches took heart when President Trump said he would work to do away with the Johnson Amendment, part of the tax code that prohibits churches from endorsing political candidates.

But the really difficult and important issues of religious liberty lie elsewhere in the courts and federal agencies. And the question is what happens when civil rights protections based on the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment clash with religious rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently found that exemptions for religious groups infringe on civil rights. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Supreme Court in the gay marriage decision, said religious groups could teach their traditional values, but he ignored the stronger language of the First Amendment allowing them to actually practice it.

The most important steps President Trump can take to protect religious liberty are to appoint Supreme Court justices such as Neil Gorsuch and leaders of federal agencies who respect the First Freedom—religious freedom.

To listen to the audio:


Will Trump Get Past the Easy Religious Liberty Questions to the Hard One? (Forbes.com) February 15, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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President Donald Trump recently announced in his own colorful way that he would “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 amendment to the tax code that prohibits churches and other nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates.  This appeared to be a gift from President Trump to the evangelical Christian community that ultimately supported his candidacy.  Shortly afterward, bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate to carry out the repeal.

Although this would be appreciated by some in the religious communities, endorsing candidates is not really the hot public policy issue in the evangelical world, nor is it clear parishioners would even appreciate hearing such political endorsements from their pulpits.  Oh occasionally you see something crazy, like the mayor of Houston who, in 2014, started to subpoena ministers’ sermons to see if they were opposing the city’s new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance the mayor had championed, leaving churches to wonder if their tax-exempt status was at risk.  But after a huge hue and cry erupted over her chilling religious rights under the First Amendment, the mayor backed down.

No, the pressing issue for evangelicals is the rapidly developing clash between the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  It reared its head in the Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) gay marriage case when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that religious groups could “continue to advocate” and “teach” their views on marriage, but came short of saying they were free to “exercise” their views about marriage, which is the language of the First Amendment, if they came in conflict with the civil rights the Court affirmed for gay marriage.

The justices who dissented in the 5-4 case pointed out this looming conflict between the civil rights increasingly extended by court interpretations of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment right to “free exercise” of religion.  Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the decision “creates serious questions about religious liberty” while offering “people of faith…no comfort.”   Justice Clarence Thomas was even more direct: “The majority’s decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect.”  Expressing concern about Kennedy’s slight nod to religious groups’ ability to teach their values, Thomas said “religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion.”

The same underlying issue—the clash between equal protection and free exercise of religion—was raised a few months ago in a report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  Lawyers and commissioners wrestled over this for three years, finally concluding that religious exemptions from civil rights protections “when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights.”  All that basically tell us is that it’s a problem, a conflict that one commissioner, Peter Kirsanow, called “profound” noting that “the passions involved may be fiercer than in any civil rights since the 1960s.”

What seems to be developing is a very constrained view of exercising one’s religious liberty.  It’s ok as long as you confine it to the worship hour in the church house, but don’t try to exercise it in the work place or the larger world the rest of the week.  If you’re a religious college that doesn’t believe in gay marriage, good luck when a gay couple wants to live in your married housing, or when a Christian baker feels a constraint of religious conscience decorating a wedding cake for a gay marriage.

Ultimately, there are only a few ways presidents can address a tough dilemma likes this.  One would be to issue an executive order, or propose legislation, beefing up religious exemptions to civil rights laws.  Another would be to nominate judges, such as Neil Gorsuch, who have a record of supporting religious liberty.  Appointing new commissioners of federal agencies, such as the Civil Rights Commission, could also make a difference.

President Trump’s willingness to address the growing conflict between civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, will be his big test on religious liberty.  Indeed it’s a huge and important test for our country as a whole.

To view the column at Forbes.com–