Abraham Lincoln was born 201 years ago last week. He was America’s greatest president because he took charge in a time of crisis, a civil war that seems unimaginable in these days of splitting hairs and massive overreactions.
The outcome of the civil war wasn’t just an end to slavery. It was a new approach to what it means to be a state. Join the union, accept our constitution, and don’t expect to get out if you don’t like the way things are going. “This government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, Lincoln said, no matter how much time and energy Todd and Sarah Palin devote to the Alaska Independence Party.
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The U.S. government creates a constant tension between the rights of the states and the powers of the federal government. The duplication of effort is sometimes ridiculous; do we really need fifty standards for how to drive? Fifty different childhood vaccine schedules? You’d really think this could be standardized, couldn’t you?
And yet, somehow or another, it works, at least most of the time.
The European Union is an attempt to bring the nations of Europe together to create a superpower to rival the United States. There’s one key difference: many of these new allies have been enemies for centuries. The continent had three genocides in the twentieth century alone (in Armenia, Germany, and Bosnia.) Somehow, the disputes over whether Connecticut was allowed to have colonies or whether Ohio could be its own state seem quaint in comparison.
At the same time, the people of Europe aren’t stupid. They realized that they could only be a force in a global world if they put aside their historical hatred and worked to cooperate. In with various treaties, councils, and committees, the post-World War II period has been one of European nations working together for collective economic strength. The culmination was the formation of a common currency, the euro, in 1999. It would simplify trade and travel by reducing exchange hassles, and it would make it easier for companies and countries to raise money. Not every European nation joined the euro; the U.K. made a point of keeping its own currency, while many nations that wanted to go on the euro had to wait to meet its economic standards.
Greece went on the euro on 2001. And now, in 2010, the country’s economic problems threaten the stability of the euro. Greece is in danger of defaulting on its massive government debt (some of which was taken on the pay for the Olympics, and yes, I’m one Chicagoan who is happy to have dodged that bullet.) Greece needs a bailout. The choices are for the Europeans to do it or for the International Monetary Fund (i.e., the United States) to come in.
So far, the European Union has said that it will arrange a bailout of Greece, although no one in charge has revealed any details. Beyond the crisis in Greece, the EU members have to decide if they will handle all members on the verge of default similarly (it looks like Ireland, Italy, Portugal, or Spain could be next); if members can be expelled from the euro or from the European Union; and if it will still consider Iceland’s membership given the problems with its current members.
California and Illinois are on the verge of bankruptcy. If that happens, I have every confidence that the federal government will step in and bail them out. Somehow. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be without controversy. But we are a union of states. We have a 234-year history. We can work it out. Can the EU?
It’s going to be interesting to watch.