Archive for the ‘Lincoln’ Tag

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COLCHESTER, Vt. — BY leaking details of the National Security Agency’s data-mining program, Edward J. Snowden revealed that the government’s surveillance efforts were far more extensive than previously understood. Many commentators have deemed the government’s activities alarming and unprecedented. The N.S.A.’s program is indeed alarming — but not, from a historical perspective, unprecedented. And history suggests that we should worry less about the surveillance itself and more about when the war in whose name the surveillance is being conducted will end.

In 1862, after President Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton penned a letter to the president requesting sweeping powers, which would include total control of the telegraph lines. By rerouting those lines through his office, Stanton would keep tabs on vast amounts of communication, journalistic, governmental and personal. On the back of Stanton’s letter Lincoln scribbled his approval: “The Secretary of War has my authority to exercise his discretion in the matter within mentioned.”

But part of the reason this calculus was acceptable to me was that the trade-offs were not permanent. As the war ended, the emergency measures were rolled back. Information — telegraph and otherwise — began to flow freely again.

So it has been with many wars: a cycle of draconian measures followed by contraction. During the First World War, the Supreme Court found that Charles T. Schenck posed a “clear and present danger” for advocating opposition to the draft; later such speech became more permissible. During the Second World War, habeas corpus was suspended several times — most notably in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack — but afterward such suspensions became rare.

This is why, if you are a critic of the N.S.A.’s surveillance program, it is imperative that the war on terror reach its culmination. In May, President Obama declared that “this war, like all wars, must end.” If history is any guide, ending the seemingly endless state of war is the first step in returning our civil liberties.

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Fareed Zakaria But, first, here’s my take. President Obama’s State of the Union Address presented an expanded vision of smart government to create jobs and revive the economy. It had many important ideas in it.

Yet he lowered his sights on the single policy that would both jumpstart the economy in the short-term and create the conditions for long-term growth; infrastructure spending.

Having tried several times to propose infrastructure bills of around $50 billion, just 0.3 percent of gross domestic product, the president now further scaled pack proposing a fix it first plan that repairs 70,000 bridges that are literally falling down nationwide.

Maybe this is all he thinks he can get through the Republican House, but it would really just place a Band-Aid on America’s cancer of failing infrastructure.

A 2009 study of U.S. infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded that we need $2.2 trillion to be spent over five years to bring the nation’s roads, bridges, railway tracks, airports and associated systems up to grade.

Let me make three crucial points. First, this is the big bang. It would be the most effective way to create good jobs. Unemployment in the construction industry is among the nation’s highest, around 16 percent. The private sector is still not investing much in construction.

Second, it’s cheap. The federal government’s borrowing costs today are lower than they are ever likely to be again. Deferring maintenance is not fiscal prudence. When your boiler explodes, it costs more than it would have you just spent the money keeping it in good functioning order. We need to spend that money now.

Third, this is an area where the federal government has always had a big role; one that Republicans have long embraced. In 1930, even as Herbert Hoover was trying to balance the federal budget, he urged large-scale expenditures on infrastructure.

And yet, despite all this, infrastructure spending is politically dead. President Obama invited congressional Republicans to a private screening of Lincoln hoping that they would see compromise in action. Of course, they refused.

Perhaps he should get them to watch the splendid, new American Experience documentary on the making of the Panama Canal.

One hundred years ago, the United States completed what was then the most expensive, complex, but ultimately successful government program in human history. It was a project where everything went wrong.

The French had tried to build the Panama Canal a few years earlier, and, despite putting the builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, on the job, they left in total failure.

The American project’s first chief engineer quit after the first year. His replacement left as well. Only with the third did the project start moving.

Yellow fever killed thousands of workers and caused others to flee in fright. The engineering challenges were immense and they often seemed insurmountable. Media reports about the project were largely negative.

Then, in November 1906, Theodore Roosevelt visited the canal. It was the first time an American president had ever left the boundaries of the United States.

Roosevelt, a Republican, was determined that the project continue and it be adequately funded. He turned his visit into on the first great presidential photo ops. Public support for the canal grew sharply after it.

Through sheer perseverance, the age-old fantasy of connecting the world’s two great oceans became a reality. The practical result was to cut travel time for goods and cargo between the east and the west coasts by an order of magnitude, igniting an explosion of trade.

Today, more than 14,500 ships and 244 million tons of cargo pass through the canal annually. What are we doing today? What are we building today that people a hundred years from now will look back upon with pride?