Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Arlen Specter and a Postpartisan Landscape

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on April 29th, 2009

The Democrats have gone from minority status to almost filibuster-proof majority status in the Senate with blazing speed, at least in political years.  The essential switch in party affiliation by Sen. Arlen Specterspecter.jpg coupled with the anticipated eventual victory of Al Franken in Minnesota has nearly made the transformation complete.  The irony is in how many Republicans have changed their tune with respect to the power that should be accorded a majority.  Many Republicans seemed to argue that 51 Republican votes in the Senate should lead to the exercise of 100% of power.  When Democrats gained 51 votes in the Senate, the Republican mantra became shared power.  The claim was that power should be shared because America was essentially equally divided.  Indeed, even when Democrats reached the high-50s in number of Senators, the Republican position appeared to be that using the filibuster to enforce shared power was perfectly acceptable.  Using the filibuster until Democrats shared power or put some Republican ideas into specific pieces of legislation was deemed perfectly appropriate.  The question now becomes: What power should the Republicans be able to exercise in a Senate in which Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority?

Republicans, as a political group, should not be able to exercise much pure power vis-a-vis the Democrats.  Of course, individual senators and certain groups of senators with ideologically similar positions on specific issues should be able to exercise influence on particular matters.  As a consequence of the numerical paucity of Republicans, Democrats arguably should stop listening to Republicans as Republicans and should start listening to individual Republican senators or mixed groups of Democratic and Republican senators as members of the club who might have good ideas.  Ironically, if Democrats take the ideas of these groups seriously, Sen. Specter’s switch in party affiliation may be the first step to a postpartisan Senate.

Infrastructure and Intergenerational Theft

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on April 1st, 2009

Some folks seems surprised that the stimulus package, its infrastructure spending and the high deficits that will come along withtmpphpw7mhrv1.jpg them will eventually lead to higher taxes.  Folks ought to be surprised if the spending does not lead to higher taxes.  Indeed, folks ought to hope that the spending does lead to higher taxes as a reminder of who is being aided by much of the spending.  Infrastructure spending is necessary to guarantee that the America we give to the next generation is as prosperous as the America our parents gave us.  Infrastructure is the platform on which we build to make our lives, the lives of those who live in America, and even the lives of those who do not live here better.  As importantly, infrastructure is the often unseen subsidy that allows high earners and even some non-high earners to make life as comfortable as possible for themselves and their children.  That subsidy can be sensibly paid back by higher future taxes, to the extent that a superior infrastructure is a large subsidy for the incomes of future generations.

Simply put, many people who make large salaries in the future will do so because of the wonderful infrastructure that will be built on the back of today’s stimulus and today’s deficits.   Indeed, many people who make large salaries now do so because of the wonderful infrastructure that was built on the back of yesterday’s stimuli and deficits.  Of course, many will claim that this ignores uniquely talented individuals who made it all on their own.  Those many are simply wrong.  An example of the supremely talented individual who did not make it on his own would be a professional athlete who happens to work in a building that has been paid for by taxpayers.  That athlete may well be highly paid because of his talent.  However, the amount of his salary may depend in significant measure on the size of the subsithis-this.jpgdy that has been given to the athlete’s team through tax breaks or a publicly financed stadium or the infrastructure of the airwaves that allows for lucrative television contracts.   To be clear, Athlete A may get paid much more than Athlete B because of Athlete A’s talent.  However, without the infrastructure, Athlete A’s paycheck might be quite a bit lower.  This story can be played out in nearly every industry, from the trucking industry that relies on our interstate highway system to the direct mail industry that relies on the postal system to many others.   The story plays out in part because starting from scratch rarely requires that one create the infrastructure that leads to profits.  Rather, success often results from plugging into the infrastructure that helps one turn one’s skills into large salaries or profits.  The payment of higher taxes as a recognition that the infrastructure into which one is plugging is superior to the one that would be available without stimulus and infrastructure building that leads to large deficits is reasonable.

Claims that high deficits for today’s projects constitute generational theft are misguided.  If we want to tax ourselves to pay for infrastructure, we are giving future generations a large gift.  Gifting is fine, but the refusal to give a gift is not theft.  Though some may suggest that those who will have to pay for the infrastructure might prefer to keep their money and forgo the infrastructure, history suggests that when infrastructure is properly completed, the investment is worth the price.

AIG Bonuses and Treating the Public Like Grown-ups

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on March 25th, 2009

The furor revolving around the AIG bonuses continues.  Mention was made of the situation yesterday in President Obama’s second nighttime press conference.  Though the press has continued to fan the flames and the Obama Administration has not done all it could to put the controversy to rest, blame for the continuing storytmpphpoqqwn91.jpg should be laid directly at AIG’s feet.  AIG has failed to end the story by failing to treat the public like grown-ups.  Rather than search for whatever tack it thought could allow it to weather the storm, AIG should have explained for what purpose the bonus money was paid and stood by the rationale.  By treating the public like it could not possibly understand a supposedly complex issue like compensation at AIG’s Financial Products Division (AIG-FP) and declining to explain why the bonuses were acceptable, AIG allowed the press and public to continue to paint the story as one more example of corporate greed and stupidity financed by the taxpayers.  Consequently, a number of extraordinary actions have occurred.  The House of Representatives voted to tax the bonuses at 90%.  The head of AIG has suggested that the executives who received bonuses return them.  Government officials have expressed outrage that particular individuals were paid particular amounts of money based on contracts signed between the individuals and their employer.  If only AIG had explained for what purpose the bonus money was paid, the public might have accepted the explanation.  The public can digest the fact that people who work for faililng entities may yet be paid significant amounts of money.  However, the why has to be explained.

The AIG bonuses can likely be explained in one of four ways, each of which a sentient grown-up ought to understand.  First, the bonuses may be for a job well done.  If AIG explained the relevant job as being the winding up of the business that caused the company to crater and explains that the quality of the job done really was extraordinary given the circumstances, the public might have been unhappy with the size of the bonuses, but might not be so unhappy with the existence of the bonuses.  At least, the press and Congress might not have been willing to fan the flames.  Nonetheless, the bonus as bonus is likely the least palatable explanation, though getting it out might have been a single-news-cycle event.  Second, the bonuses might have been retention payments.  Put differently, the promise of a bonus at the end of the year may have been what got people to stay and wrap up AIG-FP.  Of course, the public would still ask, “Who was going to hire these people?”  However, the ready response would be that the point of retaining the people is to get them to work for AIG-FP, not to stop them from working for someone else.  Again, there may have been some grumbling about the size of the “bonuses”, but not much legitimate complaint about the existence of the “bonus pool.”  Third, the bonuses could be thought of as deferred salary.  Even though AIG lost incredible amounts of money, no one would expect its workers to work for free or even for below market rate.   If the bonuses were really deferred salary, structured to be paid later so that AIG could alter the amount up or down tmpphpshbuk41.jpgbased on final receipts, the public’s problems would again likely be with the size of the pool rather than its existence.   Of course, such an explanation would make the claims in the New York Times letter to the editor written by a resigning AIG executive that he worked for a $1 a year salary ring hollow.  Working for a $1 a year while expecting a seven-figure bonus does not really qualify as working for $1 a year.  Fourth, the bonuses might be thought to be deferred commissions.  If AIG could make the argument that its workers were winding up trades that would bring lots of money into the firm and that those workers were being paid a standard Wall Street commission on the money they recouped.  Of course, the money would be paid at the end of the year.  Public outrage may have been nonexistent if this really is the reason the bonus pool existed and was paid as it was.  Presumably, one of these explanations or a combination of all four explains some, if not all, of the bonuses paid.  Had AIG just explained for what purpose the money was paid, rather than merely claiming that the money had to be paid pursuant to contracts, the firestorm might be over.

The American public can deal with automobile company executives who make more than $10 million annually while their companies collapse.  It can deal with coaches at public universities who resign after a string of bad years receiving seven-figure contract buyouts.  It can deal with the real estate agent who make 6% on the sale of a home that has lost significant value.  The American public can understand that compensation may come in many forms and may be justified in many ways.   However, the American public will not understand justifications that are never put forth or that appear to be conveniently fabricated.  That lack of understanding will be supplanted with the kind of outrage that AIG is still seeing.  For that, AIG has no one but itself to blame.

“Progressive Originalism”

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on March 19th, 2009

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article this week about the surge of interest in originalism among constitutional scholars and advocates.  These scholars and advocates focus not on the original constitutiojohn-bingham.jpgn, but on the Reconstruction Era, also known as the Second Founding because the Reconstruction Amendments changed our constitution so fundamentally.  I am happy to see the Framers of the Reconstruction constitution getting attention in the mainstream media, especially John Bingham, the original author of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment and one of the leading constitutional theorists in the Reconstruction Congress.  The article also provides an opportunity to consider the question of originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation, and whether “preogressive originalism” is an oxymoron.  “Originalism” as a method of constitutional interpretation has long been associated with conservative ideology.  Indeed, originalism is a fundamentally conservative method of constitutional interpretation in the classic sense of conservatism.  There are varying schools of originalism, but basically originalists ask judges who are interpreting the constitution to look back at the past and to be bound (to varying extents depending on the scholar or judge) by the meaning of the constitution at the time that it was drafted.

Given the fundamentally conservative nature of originalism, how could any originalist consider him or herself to be “progressive?”  For scholars such as myself who research and write about the Reconstruction Era, the answer is simple.  The members of the Reconstruction Congress were progressive, very progressive, even radical.  They intended the Reconstruction Amendments to alter our system of federalism by transfering the primary responsibility over individual rights from the states to the federal government.  They also had a very broad vision of what these individual rights would be, ranging from the rights to life, liberty and property to all of the fundamental rights.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they were the first to give Congress the power to define and protect our individual rights by including congressional enforcement clauses in the Reconstruction Amendments.

Focusing on Reconstruction enables scholars to be originalists and believe that the constitution is a progressive document at the same time.  But this attitude does not answer the fundamental dilemma of constitutional interpretation – whether those interpreting the constitution must always look back to what constitutional provisions meant at the time that they were written, or whether they can consider what those provisions mean in contemporary times.  Conservative originalists like originalism because it cabins the discretion of unaccountable judges when they are interpreting the constitution.  They argue that considering the contemporary meaning of constitutional provisions is an invitation to judges to allow their political and personal views to color their interpretation of the Constitution.

The dilemma of “progressive originalism” is less problematic when we understand that the members of the Reconstruction Congress did not believe that judges were the sole, or even the primary interpreters of the constitution.  Like conservative originalists, members of the Reconstruction Congress were very skeptical of the judicial branch, which they recognized as the author of Dred Scott and an apologist for the Slave Power.  They also believed that members of Congress had a large amount of autonomy to interpret the constitution themselves, and they intended the congressional enforcement clauses to reflect this vision of constitutional interpretation.  When members of Congress interpret the constitution, they need not look back to the meaning of those provisions at the time that they were adopted.  Instead, they may take their political views and contemporary circumstances into account.  That is their job, and that is the task assigned to them by the Reconstruction Congress.  The Framers of the Reconstruction Amendments assumed that those interpreting the broad provisions establishing individual rights in those amendments would take contemporary circumstances into account.  They just didn’t expect the Court to monopolize that interpretation the way that it has in cases such as City of Boerne v. Flores.  Thus, an originalist understanding of the Reconstruction Amendments is progressive, both politically and institutionally.

Unfortunately, the current Supreme Court, comprised primarily of “originalists,” has failed to take an originalist approach to the Fourteenth Amendment.  In Boerne, the Court restricted the Congress’ power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment in a manner that would have made Reconstruction Framers such as Bingham, James Ashley and Lyman Trumbull roll over in their graves.  Let’s hope the new originalist approach to Reconstruction makes its way to the US Supreme Court, so that the progressive vision of the Reconstruction Framers can be restored – not just in the courts, but also in Congress.

Does Limbaugh Have a Point?

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on March 4th, 2009

The dustup between Republican Party Chair Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh regarding Limbaugh’s statements that he hopes President Barack Obama fails has a clear winner.  Rush Limbaugh has proven that he has far more power than the ostensible Chairman of the Republican Party.  As Steele’s pathetic apology to Limbaugh suggests, Limbaugh is the undisputed champion of the GOP.  Limbaugh may not be the intellectual powerhouse of the operation.  Indeed, many far more thoughtful Republicans exist.  However, Limbaugh may be the most powerful Republican in America, at least in terms of his ability to galvanize support.  He will continue in this role until someone knocks him off of his perch or until a few more Republicans win a few more elections.

Though the winner of the bout its clear, whether Limbaugh’s original statements were appropriate is not so clear.  Limbaugh’s take on President Obama’s plans suggests that Obama’s plans will spell the death of capitalism and free enterprise.  Consequently, Limbaugh wants the plans to fail.  What that means is unclear.  If Limbaugh means that he wants Obama’s plans to do less than Obama says they will do, Limbaugh’s comments are understandable and may well be appropriate.  To the extent that Limbaugh believes that his version of capitalism is better than Obama’s version of capitalism, a mild failure of Obama’s plans would be vinidcation of sorts for the notion that Limbaugh’s fundamental principles are superior to Obama’s.  I suspect that even if Obama’s plans succeed, Limbaugh will claim that the plans “failed” because the success would have been even greater or faster had Limbaugh’s principles been put in place.  If this is the limit of Limbaugh’s hope, most would give him a pass.

However, if Limbaugh desires a wholesale collapse of the American and world economies just to prove that Obama’s principles are misplaced, most may be quite disgusted with him.  This is so even though his basifinal.jpgc point will not have changed.  If outcomes prove the worthiness of ideas, a collapsed economy that can be pinned on Obama is precisely what hard-core conservatives would expect.  Indeed, the farther right the more likely the person would be convinced of ultimate failure.  However, a key difference exists between expectations and desire.  There may be where Limbaugh’s quick tongue failed or merely betrayed him.  Almost no one would have been surprised or upset if Limbaugh had said that he expected the economy to crash as a result of Obama’s policies.  It was his claim that he hoped Obama would fail that is the issue.  We may say that Limbaugh is morally bankrupt for hoping that millions more suffer just so that he can claim that his principles are superior to Obama’s.  However, if his ultimate desire is to have tens of millions of Americans vote Republican for a long time, some short-term intense pain may be necessary to (wrongly) convince those folks that Rush is right.  If this is what Limbaugh meant by wanting Obama to fail, he may have a rusty moral compass, but he spoke what he believes is the truth.   Such a belief may be a manifestation of a strain of sickness or just the same old loudmouth hardball that Republicans have traditionally played much better than Democrats.

Taking America Through Lent

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on February 26th, 2009

Barack Obama gave his first address to Congress on what we typically call Mardi Gras.  Mardi Gras is the day before Lent begins on the Christian holy day Ash Wednesday.  Typically, we think of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as the day of gorging before the day of reckoning.  I wish Barack Obama had used the Fat Tuesday/Ash Wednesday dichotomy in talking about our country. Leaving the more obvious gorging/fat cat analogies to Fat Tuesday alone, it is fair enough to suggest that our nation has not engaged in mufat.jpgch retrospection over the last several years.  We have not been terribly mindful of our responsibilities to our fellow Americans, to our fellow countries or to the world in general.  However, we can leave those failings to the side on Fat Tuesday night.   Ash Wednesday is a new day, albeit a somewhat depressing one.  In many churches, Ash Wednesday includes services at which one’s minister reminds parishioners, as he or she is putting ashes on foreheads that, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  However, once the shock wears off, we realize that Lent is about self-examination, self-denial and fasting (another form of self-denial), among other things.  The core of Lent is not about showing how much pain we can inflict on ourselves physically or psychologically, nor is it explicitly about losing weight.  Indeed, Lent is not really about giving something up or taking something on, as many folks do during Lent. Rather, the self-examination, self-denial and fasting – by stripping ourselves bare and using fewer things that make us feel better – allow us to realize that we have been given all we need to survive in this world.  In the process of counting our God-given assets, we can determine whether we are making the very best use of those assets.  We can come out of Lent, a season of want, with real hope for the future and a recognition that brighter days are ahead.  Those brighter days are not brighter because we can stop fasting, but because we will recognize that we do not need as much stuff for the journey.

It may be that Barack Obama is guiding America through its own Lent.  We as a country have been given an embarrassment of riches.  If the self-examination is critical enough and if the self-denial is serious enough and if the fasting is productive enough, we just might be able to see our brighter days ahead with a leaner and more focused republic that is an even more powerful force for good in the world.  President Obama is not the Messiah.  However, he knows his way around a church and should feel very comfortable climbing into his bully pulpit for the good of the country.

James Ashley, another “Great Emancipator”

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on January 29th, 2009

Next month, our country will celebrate the 200th birthday of The Great Emancipator, President Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln deserves  his revered status in our history.  He presided over the nation during the Civil War which preserved the Union; he freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation and his advocacy for the Thirteenth Amendment.  However, Lincoln was not the only Great Emancipator, nor was he the only politician of his time who dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery.  Members of the Reconstruction Congress were also responsible for the end of slavery, and the expansion of individual rights, which they constitutionalized in the Reconstruction Amendments and enforced in civil rights statutes that are still effective today.  In a very real sense, the leaders in the Reconstruction Congress were responsible for the Second Founding of our country.  Yet few of us know anything about these other Great Emancipators.

One of those members of the Reconstruction Congress was Representative James Ashley, who represente2332634c-9468-09e8-c827db016f8216511.jpgd northwest Ohio, including my home, Toledo.  Ashley was a lifelong opponent of slavery, probably a participant in the Underground Railroad, and a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Toledo.  In Congress, Ashley fought ceaselessly and relentlessly to end slavery, first in the territories, then the rebellious states, and finally throughout the nation.  Ashley introduced the first version of the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in Congress, and he lead the fight for that Amendment through a recalcitrant House of Representatives.  After the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted, Ashley continued to fight for the rights of the freed slaves.  He supported the Fourteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Era civil rights statutes, and fought for the freed slaves’ right to vote.  After Lincoln died, Ashley also led the unsucessful fight to impeach Lincoln’s successor, the conservative Andrew Jackson, who opposed Congress’ Reconstruction measures.

President Lincoln helped James Ashley to convince members of the House to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, joining Ashley in making promises and twisting arms to convince them to vote for emancipation.  As a radical, Ashley often disagreed with the more moderate President Lincoln.  However, the two joined forces when it mattered, in the fight on the ground.  James Ashley deserves to be celebrated alongside the President who presided over most of his years in Congress.

What The Inauguration Does Not Mean

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on January 21st, 2009

A number of folks have suggested that the inauguration of President Barack Obama is the fulfillment of or a down payment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.  It is unclear it is either.  Barack Obama’s election suggests that more Americans in particular states voted for Obama than voted for John McCain.  The key issue is not merely whether those folks voted for Obama, but why they did.  The problem with using a winner-take-all election tally to suggest that Dr. King’s dream is on the march is that the vote is a collective judgment that can mask individual judgments and prejudice.  Dr. King’s dream is based on the actions of individuals, rather than the collective.  The traditional claim in the black community is that blacks have to work twice as hard to get half as much.  Dr. King’s dream would require that blacks need work only as hard as others to get the same amount as others.  It is unclear that President Obama’s inauguration indicates that we are close to fulfilling Dr. King’s dream.

Given the economic times, concerns about the shortcomings George W. Bush’s presidency and the concern that a McCain/Palin administration might be a continuation of Bush ideas, that many Americans were willing to vote for Obama over McCain may say little about where we are regarding Dr. King’s dreams.  We can separate voters into four groups.  The first group judged Obama and McCain without regard to race.  The judgments of this group closely track Dr. King’s dream with respect to voting in the past electiontmpphpybwtlw.jpg.  The second group voted for Obama in spite of his race.  This group is not fully living Dr. King’s dream.  The third group voted for Obama because of his race (as opposed to voting for him because of the experiences gained because of his race).  This group also arguably is not fully living Dr. King’s dream.  The fourth group refused to vote for Obama because of his race.  This group is definitely not living Dr. King’s dream.   I make no claims about the number of people in any of the groups or the demographics of those in any of the groups.  Nonetheless, it should be clear that Barack Obama could have won the election even if very few people were in the first group.  Conversely, it would have been possible for the number of people in group one to have been large and growing even the midst of a McCain victory. To be celar, we may be moving closer to Dr. King’s dream, but the election of Obama is not proof of that.  Rather than focus on the collective result that was Barack Obama’s election, we should refocus on the individual actions of those in all four of the groups mentioned above.  Those in the first group may be Kinglike in their electoral decisions, but be quite un-Kinglike different in their decisionmaking in other areas.  Conversely, those in the second, third and fourth groups may be even more un-Kinglike in their other affairs or may be more focused on equality in those other affairs.  At any rate, though the election of Barack Obama appears to be a hopeful sign, we need to wait for many more signs before either thinking about declaring victory over racism or even declaring that racism is on the run.

The Lincoln Bible

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on December 25th, 2008

I learned yesterday that president-elect Barack Obama has chosen to take the oath of office using the smallerthumbnail1.jpgsame Bible as Abraham Lincoln did when he was first sworn in as our 16th president.  The choice is laden with symbolism.  Obama, the first Black president, has chosen to use the same Bible as the Great Emancipator, the only other Senator from Illinois to be elected president.   The choice also is not surprising.  Obama has been open about his admiration for Lincoln.  Indeed, he began his historic campaign for the presidency in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s adult home town, with a speech invoking Lincoln’s name.   The use of the Lincoln Bible is a fitting end to that campaign.

What is surprising is that no other president  since Lincoln has made the same choice that Obama has made.  Given that Lincoln is such a revered figure in our nation’s history, I would have thought that other presidents would have made the same choice as Obama to invoke Lincoln’s legacy.  Nevertheless, despite much rhetoric from past president-elects about the man who arguably ranks as the greatest American president, no president-elect has chosen, until now, to place his hand where Lincoln did while swearing to uphold our constitution.

Why will Barack Obama be the first American president to use the Lincoln Bible since 1861?  The reason has roots in our country’s tortured history dealing with the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.  For much of the Twentieth Century, the predominate view of Reconstruction was what I call the “Gone with the Wind” version of history (also known as the Dunning school of history after historian William Dunning) – in which northern carpetbaggers intruded upon the end of the gentile southern aristocracy.  Even in the northern and decidedly pro-Union state of Minnesota, when my parents were in grade school, they learned that the Civil War was the “war between the states,” a name that implies two equally legitimate sides to the conflict and obscures the true history of the war – that is, that rogue states attempted to break away from their mother country in order to preserve the barbaric institution of slavery.  Therefore, it is not surprising that no leader of our nation wished to remind our country of that conflict and its conflict-ridden aftermath.

Of course, the “Gone with the Wind” story of the Civil War and Reconstruction also served to implicitly condone thlincoln.jpge Jim Crow South – a place where Blacks were still treated as second class citizens, systematically denied the right to vote, and terrorized with racialized violence into the late 1960s, when historiography and current events  began to shift in similar, almost parallel, directions. Thus, even as the Civil Rights movement emerged to overcome state-sponsored segregation and win the right to the franchise for Blacks, a new group of historians such as Les Benedict and Eric Foner began to reconsider the Reconstruction era and to describe its true nature – a “new birth of freedom” when the United States Congress attempted not only to free the slaves, but to create rights that would place them upon the same plane of citizenship “as white citizens.”  As more Americans came to understand the need for national civil rights legislation, the work of those scholars served to enhance the legitimacy of such action by linking it to the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction.

It has often been noted that if it were not for the 1960s Civil Rights era and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Barack Obama would never have stood a chance of being elected president.  Obama’s choice of the Lincoln Bible reflects his awareness that the Civil Rights movement did not begin in the 1950s, but in the 19th century, with the abolitionist movement, the Reconstruction Congress, and of course, President Abraham Lincoln.  By choosing to place his hand where Lincoln did, Obama is paying tribute not only to one of our greatest presidents, but contributing to the restoration of Reconstruction to its rightful place in our nation’s history.

Bowl vs. Playoff

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on November 28th, 2008

As I am not yet ready to comment on the Mumbai tragedy, I will stick to the lighter fare of college football.  The debate rages between opposing camps, those who favor a single national championship bowl game and those who favor a playoff to determine college football’s national champion. The issue must be important, as Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue more than once in the last few weeks.   

Those who favor a playoff have legitimate points, including that every other NCAA national champion is determined by a playoff, including those in other NCAA football divisions.  Those who favor a national championship bowl game also have legitimate points, including that a playoff will devalue the regular season and that the most talked about playoff system – a 16-team playoff – will add four games to a season that is already plenty long given the violence of each football game and the possibility of injury.

The fundamental problem with the bowl-vs.-playoff argument is that its key term is not defined.  If “national champion” is supposed to describe the best college football team in the country, it is unclear that any more than four teams should play for the national championship.  In few years are there more than three teams that can claim to be the best team in college football before the bowl season a the end of the regular season.  Never in recent memory have even five teams even had a plausible outside claim to having been the best team in college football based on their regular season performances.   Consequently, a 16-team playoff is nothing more than a tournament. 

The winner of the proposed tournament will be deemed national champion though it is hardly clear that the winner will be the best team in college football.  This is no surprise.  Anyone who thinks the winner of the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament is necessarily the best team in college basketball should look at the list of winners of the tournament, including two of its most inspirational – the 1984 North Carolina State Wolfpack and the 1985 Villanova Wildcats.  Golf provides an even better example.  The winner of The Open Championship (the British Open to most) is designated the “champion golfer of the year.”  Rarely in the last 10 years has that title meant anything unless it was being bestowed on Tiger Woods.

If folks want to see a post-season tournament with a clear winner, so be it.  However, if folks want to guarantee that the best team in college football is crowned national champion, as our president-elect seems to want, we are going to have to think much harder about the issue rather than default to a tournament.