05/21/2013SIENA, Italy -- Here's a modest idea to break the gridlock, the stupidity, the meanness, the partisan lying and irresponsible ineffectiveness of modern Washington. We should consider returning to the Middle Ages.
Siena today is a small city of about 50,000 people, not much bigger than it was at its peak in the late 13th century. In those good and bad old days, it was a major manufacturing, mostly wool, and commercial center in Tuscany. The bad things were the Black Death -- the plague of 1348, which wiped out more than its inhabitants, reducing it to a population that might have been as low as 16,000 -- and its repression by a larger neighbor, Florence. The good thing was that it was prevented from growing by those great troubles. Because of losing its struggles with its northern neighbor, much of Siena is still a beautiful and preserved city of the 14th century.
The other good and interesting thing about the city is how it was governed from 1277 to 1355. The largest building on the city's spectacular oval Piazza del Campo, then and now, is the Palazzo Pubblico, were the city was governed by the "Nove," nine men selected by lottery and locked in the palace for two months at a time.
The idea: to keep away outsiders and outside influences --we call them special interests, lobbies and lawyers -- as the "councillors" debated the problems and future of their city and then wrote its laws. The motives: to reduce the power of the Catholic Church, the richest institution in the area, and the power of aristocrats, members of the 56 families exercising military and commercial power.
One of the rooms in the palace, the "Sala della Pace," the room of peace, where the nine gathered, was decorated by murals -- still visible today -- showing dramatic instances of good and evil in government. The "Good Government" paintings show peace, prosperity and the virtues of Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Magnanimity -- and, of course, Faith, Hope and Charity.
The "Bad Government" paintings show murder in the streets, soldiers carrying away women, and Justice bound in the chains of Tyranny.
Looked good to me. Unfortunately, the Council of Nine was overthrown by aristocrats and soldiers of Florence, who blamed the Nine for the plague destroying the city.
So where are we today in Washington? What will people hundreds of years from now think of our national governance with all its blaming, nastiness and negativity? It looks as if our country is being run by thugs and liars motivated by revenge and pettiness beyond description.
Our leaders are obsessed, it seems, with peripheral "scandals" and misjudgments, public relations arguments, talking points and plain old nonsense. A relevant critique of the current state of affairs in the IRS "scandal" was published a week or so ago by Michael Hiltzik, the economic columnist of The Los Angeles Times:
"It's strange how 'scandal' gets defined these days in Washington. At the moment, everyone is screaming about the 'scandal' of the Internal Revenue Service scrutinizing conservative nonprofits before granting them tax-exempt status.
"Here are the genuine scandals in this affair: Political organizations are being allowed to masquerade as charities to avoid taxes and keep their donors secret, and the IRS has allowed them to do this for years.
"The bottom line first: The IRS hasn't done nearly enough over the years to rein in the subversion of the tax law by political groups claiming a tax exemption that is not legally permitted for campaign activity. Nor has it enforced rules requiring that donors to those groups pay gift tax on their donations."
I'm with him. Lock up the leaders of our Republic and force them to deal with real issues -- and with each other.