- - Tuesday, August 4, 2020

After the violence of the late 1960s, there was a bipartisan Thermidor. National drug legislation was initiated, the product of a “bidding war” among Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Sens, John McClellan, Roman Hruska and Edward Kennedy supported expanded federal criminal jurisdiction and draconian sentencing guidelines. The Nixon and Clinton administrations subsidized expansion of police forces and state prison cells. 

The epitaph on all this was pronounced by the historian John T. Taft: “The ‘marginal elements’ that dominated American campuses in the Sixties were often inspired by a sense of decency and compassion. But no movement succeeds because of the virtue of its motives. In action, student radicals exhibited so much self-indulgent intolerance that their reforms were transitory, their allies were estranged, and their entire generation was diminished.”

The present agitation of Blacks, many associated with drug gangs and miseducated, bored and temporarily unemployed Whites has fostered an upsurge in homicide rates and vandalism of monuments, reminders of the Civil War and the cost of conflicting self-righteous claims.

Yet, the stars may temporarily be aligned for pursuit of constructive approaches to underemployed youth, not the problems of urban ghettoes only. Former Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin warned of the ravages of the opiate epidemic and Mike Pence did the same with respect to the methamphetamines in Indiana.

Clashes between the police and minority youth are what happens when police are given “missions impossible.” Sumptuary legislation opposed by 15% of the population can only be enforced by low-grade terrorism. Laws to be respected must be respectable, and the marijuana laws have long since ceased to be that.



Where transactions in substances are illegal, contracts for their supply, as former Fed Chairman Paul Volker and Secretary George Shultz have reminded us, are usually enforced by the barrels of guns. Some years ago, it was  predicted that the drug war, like alcohol prohibition, would not end until we had another St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago. Chicago has now obliged.

Criminalization precludes quality control, labeling, ordinary business taxation and excise taxation, drug testing, and the conditioning of use on age and medical advice. Yet, it can be relieved without legislation by the reclassification of drugs by appointees of the Trump administration, without even the legislation and constitutional amendment decisively sought by Franklin Roosevelt. 

President Trump is almost uniquely qualified to preside over such a change. He is personally a teetotaller, and spent much effort keeping his family away from drugs. He can convincingly give advice about discouraging use, and can urge that age prohibitions, licensing, testing, education and taxation will be more effective than the criminal law, which is subject to the constraints of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Mr. Trump has urged relief from payroll taxation as a coronavirus recovery measure. Because of its impact on the Social Security trust fund, this is opposed. But relieving persons under the age of 25 from payroll taxation should not be that difficult. The Germans and Dutch, mindful of the 1930s, have elaborate credits relieving younger workers and their employers from taxation; more recently Poland and Croatia have enacted simple exemptions from taxation. Such workers make up a tenth of the labor force, and their wages are less than a third of the norm; the lost revenues are thus no more than 3% of payroll tax yields.

The first two measures of the Roosevelt administration were the repeal of alcohol prohibition and the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was abandoned due to wartime manpower shortages. Its revival has been urged by Sen. Bernie Sanders, and something like it is endorsed in his agreed program with Vice President Joe Biden. The success of the original program has been described in recent works by Paul Dickson (“The Rise of the G.I. Army”), Neil Maher (“Nature’s New Deal”) and in Forrest Pogue’s biography of Gen. George Marshall.

Unlike the Johnson administration’s Job Corps and the Clinton administration’s Americorps, the Roosevelt program was largely organized by the military, which contributed transportation orders, barracks, mess halls and drill sergeants, the enrollees then being turned over to the Forest Service, Parks Service, Soil Conservation Service and Army Corps of Engineers. 

It introduced enrollees to parts of the country far removed from their associations. “Shovel-ready projects” still exist in abundance: flood control in the Mississippi valley, reforestation, soil conservation, the creation of new national parks in Appalachia, the construction of walking and bicycling trails in urban and suburban flood plains.

At a time when hundreds of billions are being hurled about, there is scope for this modest investment in human and natural resources. A forthcoming report of a Commission on Military and National Service provides political cover. 

There are three months left in the election campaign and six months at least left in the Trump administration. It is to be hoped that the president will forswear reactionary demagoguery, no matter how tempting, and that the Democrats will renounce their addiction to identity politics in favor of a program for all Americans aimed at not losing another generation.

• George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of various works on law and history, including “America’s Political Inventors” (Bloomsbury, 2019).

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