October 2010

A voice from the past

By Tom Blair
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Ben Franklin is worried. “My dear America may well have reached its majestic zenith,” he frets, “thus being poised to begin its slide from grace.” But the sage of Philadelphia is too constitutionally optimistic to succumb to despair. While he doesn’t propose an overall program to save the republic, he does offer some more of the common sense ideas he first put forth in his various editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack. Persnickety critics may kvetch that Franklin has been dead for 220 years and thus has no business sticking his disembodied nose into our peculiarly 21st-century problems. But they have not reckoned with the time-bridging skills of author Tom Blair, who channels herein both Franklin’s can-do spirit and his epigrammatic literary style.

Before he assumed this Founding Father mantle, Blair founded several companies, the most recent of which is Catalyst Health Solutions. This may help explain his skepticism toward the recently enacted national health-care bill, which his alter ego labels “both anemic and misengineered.” His is not a broadside, however. It’s more a probe into human nature and political realities.

Chief among our faux Franklin’s concerns are America’s enormous and escalating debt, the power Congress accords lobbyists and the privileged lifestyle (not a word he would use) that saps the strength and resolve of American citizens. He calls for a constitutional amendment that would require taxpayers to fund congressional political campaigns and thus do away with lobbyists. (After all, he notes, taxpayers already subsidize lobbyists—and at considerably greater expense.) As did his flesh-and-blood predecessor, the new Ben sometimes treads the peripheral. He devotes two pages to arguing that flag-burning should not be a First Amendment right—as if that activity has ever posed a danger—and he drolly asserts that the moment of conception occurs when a suitor “pulls the cork from the second bottle of Madeira.”

Like its 18th-century model, Poorer Richard’s America is fun to read and moderately thought-provoking. The sentences are straightforward and pithy, and the tone is gentle, even when it’s chiding something. Note the price “Ben” affixes to this book. Dead or alive, he always has a gimmick.

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