Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power
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Western states later pressured the federal government to limit and even exclude immigration from China and Japan. In the s we limited all immigration, trying to make the ethnic mix that was then in place permanent. To be sure, we need to secure our borders. All sovereign governments have a right and a duty to decide who gets to come in.
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But it is entirely in our interest to allow in those who want to work hard and succeed, for that makes us all richer. And in a time when by far the most precious economic asset is human capital a phrase not coined until the midth century , turning away those who possess it makes no sense.
In particular, current regulations regarding H-1B visas and visas issued to foreign postgraduate students at American universities often force the holders to return to their native countries after they finish their studies or the particular job for which they were admitted. Many of these highly educated and highly skilled people wish to stay. Instead of letting them, we send them back to work in economies that compete with us.
In colonial times we had a chaotic money supply. Britain forbade the export of British coins, so while American colonists kept their accounts in pounds, shillings, and pence, what circulated in day-to-day transactions was a hodgepodge of Spanish, French, Portuguese, and some British coins, warehouse certificates for tobacco and other products, paper money printed by the colonies—until the British government forbade that too—and even wampum, the form of money used by the Indians.
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After the Revolution, the need to create a national money supply was an urgent task of the new nation. The question of what unit of account to adopt was a complex one because the colonists were accustomed to so many different, and often incommensurate, units. Thomas Jefferson—whose role in this process amounted to his one and only positive contribution to the financial system of the United States—argued instead for simply using the dollar. Once the dollar was chosen, it would have been natural to adopt the British system of dividing the basic unit into twenty smaller units, and those into twelve still smaller units, the way American merchants kept their accounts.
AN EMPIRE OF WEALTH: The Epic History of American Economic Power
The Spanish system in use in the colonies—cutting dollars into halves, quarters, and eighths, called bits—would have been a natural idea as well. That made Jefferson the first person in history to advocate a system of decimal coinage, and the United States the first country to adopt one. This was a very good idea, and, as good ideas always do, it quickly spread. Today every country on earth has a decimal currency system. This was different from the English system where the loser has to pay the court costs of both sides. The Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolution stipulated that British creditors could sue in American courts in order to collect debts owed them by people who were now American citizens.
To make it less likely that they would do so, state legislatures passed the American Rule. With the British merchant stuck paying his own court costs, he had little incentive to go to court unless the debt was considerable.
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The American Rule was a relatively minor anomaly in our legal system until the midth century. For every malpractice case filed in , for instance, are filed today. Your choice. Trial lawyers defend the American Rule fiercely. They also make more political contributions, mostly to Democrats, than any other set of donors except labor unions. One of their main arguments for the status quo is that the vast number of lawsuits from which they profit so handsomely force doctors, manufacturers, and others to be more careful than they otherwise might be.
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The reason for this is that when policing has been in private hands, self-interest and the public interest inevitably conflicted. The private armies of the Middle Ages all too often turned into bands of brigands or rebels.
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- Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power?
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In the War of , for instance, American privateers pushed British insurance rates up to 30 percent of the value of ship and cargo. But when a war ended, privateers had a bad habit of turning into pirates or, after the War of , into slavers. Predictably, the American Rule has spread exactly nowhere since its inception at the same time as the decimal coinage system. There is not another country in the common-law world that uses it. Indeed, the only other country on the planet that has a version of the American Rule is Japan, where a very different legal system makes it extremely difficult to get into court at all.
The United States has more lawyers and more lawsuits, per capita, than any other country. Few things would help the American economy more than ending the American Rule. Texas reformed its tort law system a few years ago and the results have been dramatic. Doctors have been moving into the state, not out of it, and malpractice insurance costs have fallen 25 percent.
And remember, good ideas always spread. The Great Depression that started in the fall of ended, at least technically, in early March The stock market, almost always a leading indicator, had bottomed out the previous June, down 90 percent from its high in September But recovery was very slow in coming. Unemployment, over 25 percent in , was still at 17 percent as late as Indeed, in , when the economy suddenly turned south again, there was a problem: what to call the new downturn.
Usually, when there has been a steep decline in economic activity, recovery is equally steep. The valley is V-shaped. To license content, please contact licenses [at] americanheritage.
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