Thoughts on Independence Day

In his Independence Day post, Scott Greenfield writes:

Americans will not be deeply concerned about freedom in our 233rd year. They will be concerned about eating, jobs, gas and keeping a roof over their children’s heads. Abraham Maslow explains why higher order concerns take a back seat to basic needs. For most of its history, America did a superb job of feeding and housing its citizens. But in this flat world, where our dreams are counted by the price of a barrel of oil, we may have run out of American miracles.


I’ve hesitated to write about this, because its connection to the art and science of criminal defense trial lawyering is tenuous: hungry people aren’t going to be as concerned about putting people in jail as well-fed people will be (retribution is nowhere in Maslow’s hierarchy). Hungry people also aren’t going to be as concerned about staying out of jail as the well-fed, so my criminal-defense lawyer brethren and sistren had better have a Plan B.


We need power to keep our economy ticking; there are four sources of power: the sun (fossil fuels, solar, wind, hydro), the earth’s core (geothermal), the nucleus of the atom (nuclear), and the motion of the planets (tidal).

We’ve been depending on million-year-old sunlight (stored in the form of fossil fuels) for about 80 years; now we’ve burned all the cheap fossil fuels we’re going to be burning. Production is decreasing at the same time demand is increasing (world oil production peaked in June 2005). Prices are going up. Sure, there’s more oil to be squeezed out of the earth, but it’s getting harder and harder to squeeze. The energy return on energy investment of oil is diminishing (it’s about 15 now — from a 1-barrel investment, we get 15 barrels out of the ground now; it was 50 in the 1970s); when it hits 1 there’ll still be oil in the ground, but there’ll be no point in trying to get at it.

The last time we had a depression we were in the opening years of the oil age. We burned lots of fossil fuels recovering from it. We won’t have that luxury next time.Hoovervile.jpg

All of that is by way of preface to this: we are in a precarious position. We may be able to muddle through an energy crisis by itself, with supplies and prices of gas, food, and everything else going through the roof. But troubles never come singly. Can we withstand a natural disaster of Hurricane-Katrina magnitude during this energy crisis? Where will the refugees go? What will they eat if the truckers stop hauling our food because the price of diesel is so high? How about if the hurricane season is followed by the harshest winter in years, at a time when heating oil is short? What if an epidemic strikes then?

I figure we are set to withstand one, maybe two cataclysms. But when three or more of these disasters strike at the same time (and at some point it’s sure to happen, especially since some of them — natural disaster and disease, for example — are linked), we’re going to get knocked to our knees; it’s going to be bad, especially with about 175,000 of our troops otherwise occupied in the Middle East and unable to assist at home.

Which brings me to the other thing that’s on my mind today.

Yesterday I posted the text of the Declaration of Independence. Read it. It is a hugely aspirational document: It is self-evident that all men are endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The idea was not that America should be a little island of freedom in a sea of tyranny, but that the obvious Idea of America, equally applicable to all men, should take root there and spread to the rest of the world. The notion that constitutional limits on the U.S. Government’s power apply only to American citizens, or to people on U.S. soil, is inimical to the notions contained in the Declaration of Independence. Our politicians talk big about spreading American values to the rest of the world, but if we can’t manage to provide due process and habeas corpus to people in U.S. custody a few hundred miles offshore, how are we to export these fundamentals of freedom to other parts of the world?

The Declaration of Independence is, from the third to the twenty-ninth paragraph, an indictment of King George. In part:

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.800px-Proposed_flag_of_Iraq.svg.png

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:


For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.


He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers . . . whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Somebody really should tell the Iraqi people about the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence; maybe they could declare their own independence and ask that we bring our troops home.

Now that would make for a happy Independence Day.


0 responses to “Thoughts on Independence Day”

  1. Wow. The parallels are stunning. What’s even more amazing is the fact that so few people realize the stakes of our modern arguments over whether the Fourth Amendment should continue to apply and whether the Framers, whose motivations you’ve described, somehow created a Unitary Chief Executive, endowed with unwritten powers for unending wars, shortly after included the language you describe while declaring their independence from an all-powerful king.

    I also found it highly ironic to read that yesterday oil hit $144 a barrell. Several years ago I read Robert Baer’s books See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil. He described Bin Laden’s vision of transferring wealth from the wealthy west to the Muslim world and how Bin Laden saw that western economies ran on Middle Eastern oil. I remember him describing Bin Laden’s vision of driving the price of oil up to what several years ago seemed an unbelievable price: $144 a barrel.

    Looks like Osama had a happy fourth of July.

  2. It’s always been known that alternative forms of energy have been available, albeit not fully developed from a technological standpoint and made cheap and accessible to the public. It was known during WW2 that the power of splitting atoms for a bomb was also available, but like today’s potential alternative energy sources, not yet developed technologically. The Germans knew it, and we knew it. It was just a question of who would get there first.

    Enter the Manhattan Project. Our government gathered our best scientists and armed them with the resources and facilities to develop the atom bomb, and to do it before the Germans. What a shame that such a sense of urgency, such a national prioritization, hasn’t occurred in the the quest to find non-fossil fuel based forms of energy, or at least to make fossil fuels a hell of a lot more efficient. At $144 per barrel and climbing, it seems now more than ever that we should institute a Manhattan-style project to end our addiction to having to buy oil from the very people who’ve proven time and again just how much ill they wish us.

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