Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The State of Statehood

            On November 6th, while all eyes were fixed on Ohio and Florida, waiting to see who would win the presidential election, an often forgotten member of the United States was holding a monumental referendum.  Puerto Rico, an America territory since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, voted for the first time in its history to become a state.  This does not end the process, however, as the procedure to become a state does not often run smooth.

            While content to remain a territory for much of its history, Puerto Ricans voted 61% in favor of becoming a state.  This sentiment has not always existed on the island.  Arguably the most famous incident involving the political status of Puerto Rico concerns the desire of some Puerto Ricans to become an independent nation.  In 1950, the White House was going through extreme renovations, rendering it uninhabitable.  This forced President Truman to live across the street in the Blair House, often used as a guest home for foreign dignitaries.  Two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Callazo and Griselio Torresola, approached the house and planned to kill the guards stationed outside, proceed into the residence, and murder Truman.  The attempt, however, was arguably one of the worst planned presidential assassination attempts.  Torresola was killed and Callazo captured less than ten minutes into the attempt, before either of them even got close to the front door.
            Although that incident occurred more than sixty years ago, the sentiment for independence has always been present in Puerto Rican life.  With the referendum approving statehood, however, that sentiment will likely diminish and disappear, except amongst the most fringe groups.  Despite the island’s readiness to become the 51st United State, it likely has a long road ahead.  The history of America’s two youngest states, Alaska and Hawaii, make this rather clear.
            Alaska, purchased from Russia under the direction of President Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State William Seward in 1867, had little impact on American culture for the first eighty years of its territoriality.  Home to occasional gold rushes, a few naval bases, and a minor battle in World War Two, Alaska only gained prominence during the Cold War, due to its proximately to the Soviet Union.  When Alaska passed its statehood referendum in 1946, it faced heavy Congressional opposition.  Republicans feared that due to the territory’s minuscule population it would not be able to support itself via taxation, thus depending on the other states for its continued existence.  Democrats opposed Alaskan statehood due their fear that Alaska would bring more pro-civil rights Congressmen, threatening the Democrat-backed segregation policies in the South.  Eventually, after twelve years of intense lobbying, Alaska got enough votes in Congress to become a state, with President Eisenhower signing the Alaska Statehood Act in 1958, effective in 1959. 
            The pre-statehood history of Hawaii is much more American than that of Alaska.  An independent nation for its entire history, the Kingdom of Hawaii’s monarch, Lili’uokalani, was overthrown in 1893 in a coup funded by American businessmen who suffered under unfavorable trade policies of the Kingdom.  Successful in their coup, the businessmen established the Republic of Hawaii while urging the Cleveland administration to annex the newly formed Republic.   President Cleveland, however, was disgusted with the coup and refused.  Five years later, however, President McKinley approved the annexation of Hawaii.  When the push for statehood gained enough steam in the 1950s, Hawaii faced similar problems as Alaska.  Democrats were terrified of a state populated almost entirely by a racial minority, which they were sure would staunchly oppose their segregationist practices in the South.  Republicans, meanwhile, believed that Hawaii was an outpost for Communism due to the ruling coalition government at the time including the Communist Party of Hawaii.  Eventually, though, Congress passed the Hawaii Admission Act in 1959 which was approved by a Hawaiian referendum by an overwhelming ninety-three percent of the vote. 
            While these two examples highlight the recent resistance to increased statehood, such sentiment was exhibited almost every time a territory attempted to become a new state.  The most glaring example of this comes from the antebellum period, roughly defined as 1820 to 1860.  Due to the South’s dedication to slavery and the North’s general unease with the institution, every new state admitted in the South had to be balanced with a new state for the North and vice-versa to ensure that neither the pro-slavery nor the anti-slavery factions gained a majority in Congress.  Just as some territories were denied or delayed statehood due to their position on slavery, Utah’s push for statehood face a severe roadblock in the form of prejudice against Mormons and Mormon polygamy.  When Utah first applied for statehood in 1850, under the name “Deseret”, Congress thoroughly rejected the notion due to the popular resentment of the Mormon religion.  Additionally, Mormon’s unwillingness to abandon polygamy, banned by Congress, delayed Utah’s statehood for forty-six years until 1896. 
            Puerto Rico will likely face similar roadblocks to statehood as Hawaii was forced to overcome.  If Congress approves statehood, Puerto Rico will become the twenty-ninth most populous state, allocating it with five representatives and the standard two senators.  Over seventy-five percent of Puerto Ricans are of Hispanic origin while the dominant language on the island is Spanish.  In the somewhat xenophobic political culture prevalent in the United States today (many conservatives oppose bilingual ballots to accommodate citizens who do not speak English), public sentiment towards a potential Congressman who only speaks Spanish will be overwhelmingly negative.  In a matter of more importance in contemporary America is the fact that Puerto Rico’s debt is equal to eighty-nine percent of its GDP, which would become the highest in the nation should statehood pass Congress.  Additionally, the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico is just under fourteen percent, two percent higher than Nevada’s rate, currently the highest in the nation. 
            A companion topic which must arise from the discussion on Puerto Rico’s potential statehood is the absurd petitions filed in the wake of President Obama’s reelection.  Such a ridiculous notion should not even be justified by discussing it, but alas, I have received requests for the subject so I will touch upon it.  On September 22nd, 2011, the White House launched a program called “We the People” which allows for petitions to be filed directly to the White House.  Individuals can read the petitions online and virtually sign them if they so desire.  Each petition is on display for thirty days during which it must amass twenty-five thousand signatures to warrant an official response. 
            In the past six days, from when the election was called in favor of President Obama, thirty states have seen residents file petitions to secede from the Union.  The list provided in the next sentence will include, for informational sake, which candidate won that state’s electoral votes.  Alabama (Romney), Alaska (Romney), Arizona (Romney), Arkansas (Romney), California (Obama), Colorado (Obama), Delaware (Obama), Florida (Obama), Georgia (Romney), Indiana (Romney), Kansas (Romney), Kentucky (Romney), Louisiana (Romney), Michigan (Obama), Mississippi (Romney), Missouri (Romney), Montana (Romney), Nebraska (Romney), New Jersey (Obama), New York (Obama), Nevada (Obama), North Carolina (Romney), North Dakota (Romney), Ohio (Obama), Oklahoma (Romney), Oregon (Obama), Pennsylvania (Obama), South Carolina (Romney), South Dakota (Romney), Tennessee (Romney), Texas (Romney), Utah (Romney), West Virginia (Romney), and Wyoming (Romney).  Twenty-three of the states who would like to secede were won by Romney while seven were won by Obama.  For those of you who paid close attention to election results, you’ll see right away how pathetic the individuals who filed these petitions are.  If you do not know what I am referring to, allow me to explain.  Romney won twenty-four states in the election.  Every single state Romney won, with the exception of Idaho, has residents who now would like to secede.  This is unacceptably ridiculous.
            To continue explaining the childish nature of the filers, these cry-babies are astonishingly naïve in their rationales regarding secession.  The most popular of these requests, naturally Texas, has already received the twenty-five thousand signatures to warrant a response.  Let us take a look at the wording of the petition.

The US continues to suffer economic difficulties stemming from the federal government's neglect to reform domestic and foreign spending. The citizens of the US suffer from blatant abuses of their rights such as the NDAA, the TSA, etc. Given that the state of Texas maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world, it is practically feasible for Texas to withdraw from the union, and to do so would protect it’s (sic) citizens' standard of living and re-secure their rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers which are no longer being reflected by the federal government.

The first issue raised by the petition is the federal government’s “neglect to reform domestic and foreign spending.”  I do not know to what “foreign spending” specifically refers, but in the assumption that it refers to foreign aid provided by the U.S. government the petition fails even the briefest of fact-checks.  The United States provides more money to foreign aid than any other nation, but the budget allocation for this aid is less than one percent, roughly equaling $53 billion dollars.  Meanwhile, the Department of Defense’s budget is $707 billion dollars, thirteen times that of foreign aid.  Perhaps the defense budget is referred to in the “domestic” category, but since we are talking about Texas, I think we can rule that out.
            Instead, “domestic” spending likely refers to what are typically known as welfare programs:  food stamps, disability pay, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.  These programs do indeed take up a high percentage of the U.S. federal government’s budget, but again the error in the petition’s reasoning is abundantly clear.  If Texas secedes, will it simply end such welfare programs?  Likely not, because while the public loves to criticize such spending, they would react very bitterly if these programs were to actually disappear.  Thus, if Texas became independent, it would very likely enact very similar domestic spending policies as the petitioners decry.  Since we are discussing economic issues, I will skip the “rights abuses” and return to it later.  The petition claims that Texas “maintains” a balanced budget and would have the fifteenth largest economy in the world if it seceded.  First off, the claim that Texas maintains a balanced budget is misleading in its phraseology.  Texas, like every other state except for Vermont, has a balanced budget law requiring the state to balance its budget lest automatic cuts kick in until the deficit disappears.  The petition congratulates Texas for something it is legally required to do in the first place.  The claim that Texas “maintains” a balanced budget is disingenuous on its face. 
            It is true that the GDP of Texas would place it fifteenth in the world taken alone, but once more this argument is deeply flawed.  The petition claims that due to this high GDP, Texas could maintain its citizens’ current standard of living even if it became an independent nation.  The sheer absurdity of such a claim is simply mindboggling.  The petition is either willfully ignorant or, even worse, genuinely ignorant of the reason why states such as Texas, California, and New York can maintain such a high GDP.  All states receive certain benefits from being in the Union that they would have to pay for entirely by themselves if they were independent.  The welfare programs mentioned above are a good example, but to cover new ground, consider the military.
            All states pay into the military via the taxes paid by every citizen and thus receive uniform protection by the federal government.  Should Texas secede, it would lose this protection and instead be compelled to fund its own military.  One might be tempted to think that such a prospect is not too bad, given the amount of military installations scattered around Texas, but such a viewpoint forgets American history.  The first shots of the Civil War were fired by South Carolinians on the federal arms depot at Fort Sumter.  Carolinians assumed that since they had left the Union, the supplies within the fort were theirs for the taking.  Obviously, the federal troops stationed in the fort disagreed.  Similarly, should Texans assume that they were entitled to the tanks and artillery at Fort Hood, the federal government would be less than pleased and deploy troops to prevent the seizure.  Unless the Texans immediately allowed the American government to withdraw all its arms (in the assumption that the federal government even would withdraw), a war between the United States and Texas would ensue and likely end in approximately a week.  No, Texas would have to spend its own money to buy tanks, artillery, fighter jets, bombers, naval vessels, and pay its soldiers.  Such expenditures would drown the state in debt to the point that the leadership of the new Texan nation would be begging to reenter the Union. 
            With the belief that any state could be economically self-sufficient dispelled, we turn to the supposed rights violations imposed on Texan citizens by the federal government.  The two specific right-violating agents named in the petition are the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA).  The issue the petition has with the NDAA is the provision which reaffirms the federal government’s right to indefinitely detain any individual, including American citizens, who is believed to be affiliated with al Qaeda or any other terrorist group which threatens the United States.  This is a very real issue, although the Texas petition is again either willfully or genuinely ignorant that such a right was originally created by President Bush, a former Texas governor.  Additionally, while the issue is important, it has not been used to the egregious potential it is endowed with and likely will not be, due to the public outrage and political suicide such an act would elicit.  
            The continued argument over the supposed right to privacy violations carried out by the TSA is disappointing.  The issue here is likely the full-body scans employed in many airports which scan individuals and creates an x-ray-like image revealing any hidden objects on the individual’s person.  This procedure is no more a violation of privacy than getting an x-ray.  The argument against my x-ray claim is that people have a choice to get an x-ray but full-body scans are mandatory, thus violating the right to privacy.  This argument holds weight, but is dispelled in the aftermath of every incident involving an attempted terror attack.  Whenever an attack is attempted, the public decries the government for not protecting us enough and yet turn around and complain about “invasive” security methods.  America cannot have it both ways.  As Benjamin Franklin is often quoted, “Those who choose security over liberty deserve neither.”  While such an assessment is rather harsh, it can be boiled down to a less strict position:  either one has wide liberties and acknowledges that there is a chance they could be attacked, or one has wide security and acknowledges that their liberties will be curtained to ensure this security.  Americans seem to expect wide liberties and wide security, despite the fact that the two concepts are in contradiction with each other. 
            The Texas petition does not hold up to even the slightest level of scrutiny and neither do the twenty-nine other petitions.  Besides, as individuals in those thirty states scramble to leave the Union, they would do well to take into account why Puerto Ricans want to join.  Drowning in debt and unemployment, Puerto Ricans know the best way to ensure their continued adequate standard of living is to join the United States.  Should any of those secessionist individuals get their wish and liberate themselves from the United States, it will not be long until they return, backs broken by debt and unemployment far greater than that which current exists in America today, the weight of which is in fact steadily diminishing.  Let us hope that such an event, the federal government teaches them a lesson, leaving them out in the cold.

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