Poorer Richard's America: What Would Ben Say? by Tom Blair, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Poorer Richard's America: What Would Ben Say?

Poorer Richard's America: What Would Ben Say?

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by Tom Blair

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For decades, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack provided sage advice and commentary on eighteenth-century America. Now, a modern businessman reflects—writing as Benjamin Franklin—on what America has become.

Federal and personal debt are ballooning beyond sustainable levels. Our futures are being jeopardized. Partisan


For decades, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack provided sage advice and commentary on eighteenth-century America. Now, a modern businessman reflects—writing as Benjamin Franklin—on what America has become.

Federal and personal debt are ballooning beyond sustainable levels. Our futures are being jeopardized. Partisan bickering and the entrenched powers of special interests have made it nearly impossible for a real leader to lead. Where is a good American to turn? How about to the man who wrote this timeless observation: “A small leak will sink a great ship”?

Ben is back! With his signature intelligence and wit (not to mention a good sprinkling of aphorisms both old and new), Benjamin Franklin, through Tom Blair, moves from the national deficit to Wall Street, from health care to marital bliss. The result is electrifying.

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Skyhorse Publishing
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Chapter 39

America, You Can Do It

You the Congress, President, and Citizens

Many challenges, many threats have confronted the citizens of America since its inception. And at the very moment of our Country’s birth, with signatures of wet ink on the Declaration of Independence, America faced its greatest challenge. Our thirteen Colonies held just over two million souls. From these Colonies stood, in ragged lines, an untrained militia of only a few thousand. With these few we declared a fight with—we dared to fight—no less than the strongest of nations, England. An England of might, with a fearful army of Redcoats and a navy of two hundred ships . . . America had five. And England possessed another wondrous advantage, a Treasury of gold and wealth; enough to finance a war, enough to pay other nations to join the fight against the American quilt of Colonies. A quilt held together by a few thin threads of hope; hope of what could be. So, dear reader, while today’s challenges are great, greater challenges have been beaten into submission by strong-willed, brave-hearted Americans.

I know that many of the essays laid before you in this narrative were broken-glass sharp. Too sharp, if the truth of the matter be known. But the written word does not allow a voice to be raised, the written exhortation does not convey the tremble in the voice of a worried messenger, nor a sentry warning of doom. Sharp words were my trembling voice; so do not take offense.

I ask that you consider my opening words to this transmittal . . . “Let me acknowledge what a truly admirable nation of citizens populate America.” Today, no less than ever, citizens of other countries admire and, yes, covet much of what is America. And one such admirable quality of America is that ability to look inward and exercise constant hand-wringing over America’s faults, many of these faults being only the less-than-perfect execution of attempting to do right for all; not an all for America, but an all for the world.

Let me set aside my plaudits for today’s American citizens; let me instead be a quorum of one presenting in boldface America’s greatest problem: Congress. America has an array of challenges: energy, debt, ecology, defense, immigration, education, plus scores of others discussed thus far. The solutions to these problems, or the foundations to the solutions, reside in passing constructive legislation in Congress, such legislation to be sculpted by a single eye, an eye for America’s best interests. To fault those elected officials in Congress for the nation’s dysfunctional governance is not a fair indictment. While there have been individual abuses of power, and while too often partisanship trumps patriotism, Congress possesses a congenital flaw that renders America’s legislative body with a rigor mortis. Those elected officials of Congress suffer from entrapment. Realities under which they serve often coerce them to take paths of necessity, not patriotic service.

In my America, if one owned a horse, or could borrow a neighbor’s horse, one could run for Congress. The hopeful candidates rode from village to village, and from village to town. At each village or town center they sought a small rise, a stump, or other perch to stand tall and convey, in a strong voice, a message crafted by their well-paid pollsters, media coaches, and issue specialists . . . sorry, I could not contain my satiric. Those gathered around a candidate could measure his words . . . yes, they were his words, never her words . . . and call out questions. As the citizens learned about the candidate, the candidate learned firsthand about the citizens’ needs and fears.

Today a newly elected congressman or congresswoman arrives in Washington brimming with patriotism and a sense of duty. With much ceremony, the new representatives are sworn in to office with their proud spouses by their sides, then the waves roll in; waves of realities that wash away the patriotic sand castles in their minds. Representatives are advised by the Party’s whip . . . the drill sergeant to the platoon of new recruits . . . that future congressional committee assignments will be based on Party loyalty and adherence to the dictates of the congressional leadership. If they are strong Party loyalists, the Party will transport bundles of monies to their districts for their reelection. They are told they need to raise $1 to $5 million for their next campaign, and the primary campaigns will begin in sixteen months. Soon smiling lobbyists invite the fresh-faced representative to a duck shoot on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to a luxury box at a Redskins game, or, perhaps, to a round of golf at the Congressional Country Club . . . just to get to know them better, no other agenda. In time friends of the lobbyist appear at these outings; corporate friends of the lobbyists. Corporate friends either for or against some pending legislation. Corporate friends who, with their lobbyists providing hors d’oeuvres and drinks, host fund-raisers for the representative. Corporate friends who direct the flow of Political Action Committee contributions . . . barrels of monies corporations raise from their employees . . . for the representative’s upcoming election.

A horse and a tree stump no longer carry the day. To obtain office, to retain office, today’s candidate must raise monies; for the 435 representatives in Congress, $1 to $5 million for general elections every two years. Thus a successful representative in Congress must be an energetic fund-raiser; and know well that the ability to raise funds is hindered or helped by whether the representative conforms to the expectations of the Party and donors.

In my introduction I acknowledged how it was “immodest of me to pen essays that expound upon your faults and problems.” Permit me to be even more immodest as I suggest, in a manner I trust not too pretentious or too imbued with unfettered arrogance, my plan to remedy this unhealthy preponderance of special interests steering and manipulating our legislative branch of government. For your consideration I recommend the following course in order to counter and lay limp this greatest threat to America, these nearly omnipotent corporations exercising their mountain-range-sized fiscal bulk as if they were the fourth branch of government. Permit me to suggest how to render our Congress once again a constructive force in crafting legislation to confront, confound, and solve America’s problems. We begin with the lobbyists.

“Weighty questions ask for deliberate answers.”
Poor Richard’s; April 1735

So then, how do we put corporate lobbyists out of business . . . a few are presently in jail . . . and tell Corporate America to keep its money, thus returning to the three branches of government the Founding Fathers envisioned? Please, sit up. America needs a Twenty-eighth Constitutional Amendment. An amendment to provide horses and tree stumps. And unlike most challenges facing America, repairing Congress is of little effort, other than the will to make the change.

Do not squirm or flinch. I am not suggesting America undertake anything not done before. There have been many amendments to our Constitution; many have dealt with voting, elections, and terms of office. So what I suggest . . . a play on a word to follow . . . is not revolutionary; rather, it is evolutionary. An evolutionary change necessary for the legislative body to productively survive the changing environment of America.

If we attempted to place more stringent campaign spending limits on candidates, ways around these prohibitions would quickly be found. Rather, let us place the money on the table for all to see. Let the money come from the taxpayer. We established earlier in these essays that American taxpayers pay for everything in the end anyway. Bear in mind that when MasterCard, McDonald’s, and Pfizer pay their lobbyists tens of millions of dollars, the executives of these firms don’t reach into their waistcoat pockets for the money; instead, the cost of your MasterCard, your Big Mac, and those little blue pills, and in fact the cost of most every product sold by American corporations, goes to pay Washington lobbyists. You, the American consumers, are paying the lobbyists, albeit indirectly; you provide the monies from the products you purchase. Corporate America writes the check to the lobbyist and thereby acquires and exercises influence with your monies.

What would be the cost to Americans to fund the campaigns of Congress directly? About $10 per household each year would be the meager expense. Do you not think it’s a staggeringly low sum to pay for unbiased representation dedicated to protecting and promoting the voters’ interests rather than the interests of mighty corporations? In concert with tendering all representatives campaign monies, consider a change in their term. It takes many new representatives months to find the restrooms of the Capitol. Should not we give them more than a two-year term to become productive patriots? Perhaps a constitutional amendment providing three years would be both practical and more consistent with the senator’s term of six years. And speaking of senators, they should benefit from the same campaign financing as the representatives. Would each American family be willing to pay twenty cents a week to have a Congress beholden to them, and not to the banking industry, the defense industry, the oil and gas industry, the medical and drug industry, the telecommunications industry, the insurance industry—the list goes on. Recall the 2003 Medicare drug legislation: If our government had carved out a mere single-percentagepoint discount on the $50 billion it spends on drugs for the elderly, the savings would have offset the twenty cents a week by many multiples.

As long as our thoughts are within that great domed Capitol, another problem should be addressed; it is the behavior of certain Congressional Members. Behavior that at times is immoral, unprofessional, unpatriotic, and fraudulent. With today’s media coverage of the trivial, trite, and trashy, you likely know of the senator sleeping with his aide’s wife, the congressman who keeps cash bribes in his freezer, and the chairman of the committee overseeing tax legislation who forgot to pay all his taxes . . . we have already pulled the scab off Medicare. But let’s consider another problem perhaps no less troublesome: Most often when offenses by members of Congress involving untoward behavior are made known, a Congressional Ethics Committee, composed of peers of the offenders, sits in judgment and almost always administers only a whispered admonishment or a gentle tap on the wrist.

“You may give a man an Office, but you cannot give him Discretion.”
Poor Richard’s; August 1754

Every one of our young Americans attending a military academy must adhere, with no tolerance allowed, no exceptions permitted, to a strict Honor Code. These young cadets and middies are quickly dismissed for any misstep. Their Code requires that no one shall lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. A summary as follows:

  • LYING: Shall not deceive another by stating an untruth or by telling of a partial truth or ambiguous use of information or language with the intent to deceive.
  • CHEATING: Shall not act out of self-interest or assist another to do so with the intent to gain or give an unfair advantage.
  • STEALING: Shall not deprive or defraud another person, or others, of the use and benefit of property, or to appropriate it to the use of any person other than the owner.
Should not our Congress agree to the same standard of moral conduct as those young persons in our military academies? Is this too much to ask?

So, then, to repair Congress and allow those representatives and senators to “do the people’s work,” a constitutional amendment is suggested that would provide 100 percent of the campaign funds necessary for both the incumbent and challenger to finance their campaigns. Also, for your consideration, I suggest a modification to the oaths of office in such a manner that each member of Congress agrees to abide by those same ethical and moral standards as our young men and women in America’s military academies.

“One Mendfault is worth two Findfaults, but one Findfault is better than two Makefaults.”
Poor Richard’s; December 1735

Now, for the presidency. But first a paragraph of heartfelt emotion and awe. The life story of today’s President is America’s story. For both, from meager circumstances great obstacles were overcome. Obstacles overcome against odds that most rational individuals would have claimed made success impossible. Odds that seemed to render failure predestined. But persistence, persistence in doing that which was right overcame all. Overcame all by heroic efforts and staying the course. Thirteen Colonies populated by the descendants of immigrants became the greatest Country of the world. An African American youngster with a strange name and an absentee father in time became the President of the United States. Know well that the preceding sentence was made possible only by that sentence that preceded it.

Permit me to dry my eyes. To the point of this essay. Mr. President, you possess a keen intellect, you have benevolent and sympathetic intentions, and most citizens are proud to have you represent America on the world stage. But, if I may, permit me to restate a portion of my letter of introduction:

Those kindhearted benevolent qualities of America, those sterling attributes that are such a part of your greatness, will if not bridled with financial restraint and reasonableness cause “Greatest” to slowly fade from our Country’s honored title.

As America cannot afford to address all the world’s problems, neither can it address those problems of its citizens that are best addressed by individual citizens. As with all things, words to instruct drip easily, actions to implement a thick molasses. This molasses turns increasingly viscous the more uncertainty there is between that which is the Country’s collective responsibility and that which is the citizen’s individual responsibility.

At the risk of being too immodest let me recount a story from my tenure on your good earth. At seventeen years of age, the year was 1723, I broke away from my half brother’s printing business and journeyed to Philadelphia, thus leaving my family behind in Boston. In time I saw an opportunity to establish my own printing business in Philadelphia. I returned home, and with a letter of support and promise from the Governor of Pennsylvania, I approached my father; I asked him for a small loan to start my own printing business. He thought on the matter for several days. He then told me no. What I knew would be an enterprise of good commerce he denied me; my father denied me my opportunity.

I returned to Philadelphia discouraged. Then armed with entrepreneurial promises of money I journeyed to England. There these promises were broken, marooning me so that I had to work again for meager pay in print shops owned by others. After two years of hard labor and frugality I managed to return to America. With Hugh Meredith as a partner, together we began a small printing business. I worked long hours, he drank long hours. After one year I bought out his share of our business. Six years after my father denied me my dream, I was nevertheless living my dream. If my father had granted me the loan, would my life’s happiness have been greater? No. Would my life’s happiness have been less so? I think certainly yes. And permit me to quickly testify that my life was productive not only for what my father didn’t provide, but for what he did provide. He provided what he should have: a home of taught values, a home of frugality. If these gifts had not been tendered to me in my youth, whether he had acquiesced to the loan requested or not, my life would never have been the one I embraced, lived to the fullest, and so cherished.

Mr. President, you are the Captain of a great ship that, I humbly warn, is sinking. It was sinking when you became Captain. Large gaping holes below the waterline had been smashed open by rocky shoals of naive benevolence, staggering incompetence, and, yes, greed. Mr. President; cease regaling the passengers with pleasing tales and uplifting visions of happy visits at future ports of call at palmstudded islands; grab a megaphone, tell all to follow your lead, and take immediate action to stem the flow. And be forearmed, Mr. President, those within the great Federal Beast will not easily capitulate to tempering federal expenditures. Neither will many of your American citizens. Actions to reduce spending will be met by voices screaming of the hurt, the misery you are causing. But as my father, a father who loved me, denied me the money I sought, so must you for America . . . brace yourself.

“He that would rule must hear, but be deaf; he must see, but be blind.”
Author unknown

Take comfort, Mr. President, in knowing that if you go to the people, if you speak frankly about what must be done, most will understand. But, please do not speak of consensus building. Do not speak of all those that have good ideas, do not speak of America’s greatness, or of America’s wonderfully diverse population. No, speak of what must be done. Speak of firmly curtailing expenditures knowing that Americans crave a strong leader. And no matter how harsh the message, if delivered with a singular purpose, and with confidence and conviction, it will be embraced by most citizens.

“The secret to rulership is to combine a belief in one’s infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes.”
George Orwell; 1984

My fellow citizens, it is your life. It is your responsibility to make your life a productive one. Yes, I know that many of you did the right things. You worked, you saved, you voted, you prayed. Now you suffer. For this I am truly sorry. But your government cannot make it right. Your government, the source of much of the problem, is itself fragile, too fragile because it tried to “make it right” for too many; too many who needed to create their own happiness, not look to their government to provide it gratis. While you cannot ask your government for help, you can first stymie, then eradicate Corporate America’s influence on our Congress . . . yes, it is our Congress . . . the people’s Congress, not Corporate America’s Congress. Support, demand, that the Twenty-eighth Constitutional Amendment be passed into law.

Take action, do not hope that others will.

“He that lives on Hope, dies farting.”
Poor Richard’s; February 1736

Meet the Author

Tom Blair was born in England during World War II. His father, an American serviceman married to a young British girl, was killed at Normandy in 1944. He has been a tremendously successful businessman, starting and going public with several companies. As a long-term Washingtonian, he has keen insights into the political process, and clearly, Blair understands Wall Street, though he does not think of himself as a driven businessman. For him, business has always been a means to finance his passions, particularly American history, economics, and aviation. He has the world’s largest personal collection of WWII British aircraft, many of which he flies. Blair has three children and fifteen grandchildren. He lives with his wife, Alice, in the Washington Metropolitan Area.

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