Thursday, November 21, 2013

Government for the People

President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, here at Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Digitonin (via PBS)

One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, arguably one of the greatest speeches ever made.

I have been watching and reading the story behind the Address in recent days. Lincoln's 270 word speech remains as fascinating to me as it was when I first learned and recited it from memory as a class assignment in grade school.

One of the aspects of the Address that really hadn't occurred to me until recently, however, was the fact that in 1863 democracy was still in the experimental stages.

Monarchies ruled most of Europe and Asia in the middle part of the 19th century.  These leaders were hopeful that the American experiment would fail, and that the outcome of the American Civil War would be a bitter lesson to those that would allow "the people" to have a say in how their country was run.

Lincoln obliquely references this sentiment at the end of  his memorable speech (my emphasis added):

That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It seems odd to think about democracy as an experiment a century and a half later, but some in Europe are beginning to question whether governments are truly working on behalf of all of its citizenry.

source: London Telegraph
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard penned a column yesterday titled "There is Talk of Revolution in the Air" for the London Telegraph.

He discusses the fact that in many parts of the world, most notably France and Italy, as well as China and Russia, there is open discussion about the need for revolution, or at least dramatic changes in the way countries are being managed.

The problem is largely economic:  since the 2008 credit crisis, nearly all of the gains in the industrialized countries have gone to the very few at the top of the income strata.

So while the stock market hits record highs, and real estate prices for high end properties reach staggering heights, real income levels have barely moved for more than a decade for most workers.

Evans-Pritchard recites some of the dismal figures:

Even as stocks soar, world trade is becalmed, and the West is still stuck in a contained depression. 

Manufacturing output is still down 3pc from its pre-Lehman peak in the US, 6pc in Germany and the UK, 7pc in Japan and France, and 12pc in Italy. Compare that to the 60pc surge in US factory output over the same time lapse in the 1990s. It is another world. 

The US workforce shrank by 755,000 in October. The labour participation rate for men dropped to 69.2pc, the lowest since data began in 1948. Discouraged workers are dropping off the rolls.

The speech that former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers gave earlier this month coined the phrase "secular stagnation".  For a 16 minute talk given at an obscure IMF conference, it is striking the amount of discussion and reflection that his remarks have generated.

Like Lincoln so greatly put it, democracy remains an experiment in progress.