Political Reform

Should politicians be responsive or isolated and free to make their own decisions? The U.S.’s Founding Fathers weighed on this and structured Congress to get a little bit of both features. The House of Representatives is meant to be a highly responsive body, whereas the Senate is more insulated from the public. How does each chamber achieve that?

For the House, it’s two main factors: smaller districts, which allow for smaller voting populations and better connections, and shorter, 2-year terms, which allow for representatives to face reelection much more often. Contrast that with senators, who represent entire states and hold office for six years per term. The Founders also had senators appointed by state governments rather than directly elected by a state’s voters, but we have done away with that for better or worse.

There are flaws with each chamber, of course. No system is perfect. What are the biggest flaws with each?

Size of districts/number of representatives. The U.S. increased the number of representatives to account for population growth and new states throughout the 19th century but has not done so since 1911. The population of the country has more than tripled since then. Today, a House district on average has around 700,000 constituents. In 1911, that figure would have been roughly 211,000. There are quite a few consequences of this:
The increased size of districts means that there is more distance between politicians and their constituents. The chamber meant to be more responsive becomes less responsive as a result.
Elections for the House become bigger affairs. More voters mean larger advertising markets, which means more money, which means politicians spend more time with donors, large donors have more influence, and so on. Were the districts smaller, it could be easier for candidates with less money to make a splash, or for candidates to focus more on things besides fundraising.
Since every state must have at least 1 representative but the total number of representatives is capped, this distorts how big some districts are. Wyoming is the least populous state: 586,000 residents with 1 representative. Compare that to California’s 39m residents and 53 representatives, who have an average district of 735,000.

Redistricting/gerrymandering. Every 10 years, states redraw district lines based on the latest census. States that have grown relative to the U.S. population get more; states whose populations shrank or didn’t grow fast enough get fewer. For instance, in 2010, Texas got 4 new representatives, Florida 2, and Georgia, Arizona, South Carolina, Washington, Utah, and Nevada gained 1. Ten states, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, lost representatives. Districts also get redrawn based on shifting populations even if states don’t get new representatives. The power for this ultimately lies with state legislatures. Think there are any possible motives for state legislatures to draw lines to favor one party over another? The Supreme Court has ruled against partisan gerrymandering at times but has never set a standard of when district lines go too far.

Skewed Senate. This is something that has been around since the start of the country, but it bears mentioning again. The ratio of California’s population to Wyoming’s is 66:1. Yet both states get 2 senators. The ratio in 1789 (I’m going by total population here, including slaves and women, who obviously couldn’t vote) of the most to least populous states (Virginia to Delaware) was about 13:1, obviously still skewed but nowhere near today’s.
So what’s the solution here? Maybe none; I personally rank this below the other 2 problems in priority. If you did want to address it, you could either add senators to states above a certain population (for every 5 million, an extra senator on top of 2, perhaps), break up states (either actually break up states or just add electoral regions for big states like California or Texas), or merge smaller states (again, either actually merge them into 1 state or just say Wyoming and Montana get to elect 2 senators between them). I don’t think any of these are necessary to really improve things; it’s just worth pointing out how demographic changes have resulted in an entirely different situation than what the Constitution’s drafters were dealing with in the 1780s.

So how do you solve these? I’ll touch on this in a post tomorrow. There’s no one way, and none of these are particularly likely to ever happen, but there are some easy fixes, ranging from total revamps to minor tweaks.

The long term

One of the advantages to not being in politics is that you can actually think about issues facing the country without worrying about reelection in a few years. Because politicians operate with that constraint constantly, it colors all the decisions they make. Not just formal policies adopted, but what issues even get priority or discussed at all. Questions that can be distilled into easy campaign talking points, problems with an apparently easy solution.

Terrorists in a foreign land? Drone strikes or special forces operations give an easy winner in time for November. Elected [ostensibly] on a platform of fiscal conservatism? Propose a budget that cuts some social programs and research funding (maybe even some military spending, if you’re feeling bold) yet leaves Social Security and Medicare untouched. Waves of immigrants causing disquiet among constituents? Build a wall, deport some, strike a deal with transit countries to hold them there. Meanwhile, problems like climate change and environmental impact, the rise of automation and loss of middle-class jobs to low-wage service work, increasing inequality, and the troubling concentration of power in a decreasing number of companies in industries like the media go without any serious action or even discussion at times.

If you were designing a government from scratch, you’d face this fundamental problem. How do you get decision makers to focus on the long term rather than the short term? This is not to say that short-term problems don’t deserve attention–indeed, often they are pressing crises or such. But long-term problems should not be allowed to fester unaddressed because no politician wants to start a program or change something that he or she won’t be around to take credit for, that may cause things to worsen before they get better, or (worst of all) that his or her successor and rival may be able to take credit for instead. In an elective government, this manifests itself through terms. Suppose a president is newly elected. He or she then has 4 years (less, really) to make the case for reelection. Even if term limits are imposed, or the president won’t seek reelection, the party system means that he will undoubtedly want to ensure that his successor is from the “right team.”

So are longer terms an answer? Perhaps, but it’s not without its own issues. Longer terms–say, six or more years–may allow a politician to pursue longer-term goals, but it comes with its own issues. One advantage of shorter terms is that it allows the people–ostensibly the ultimate authority in any representative form of government to regularly check in and impose the ultimate veto on elected representatives, voting their asses out. It’s a nice idea in practice, but given the rate of incumbent reelection in the House of Representatives, I’m not sure Americans are too adept at this–although this may well be more a function of gerrymandering and the lack of general interest in party primaries than anything else.

I want to take some time and explore some topics that I think are real long-term questions. These aren’t necessarily obscure, but they are not part of the regular political discourse at the moment, as much as I may like them to be. I envision this being an ongoing sort of series on this blog. Some of my ideas for long term problems/potential solutions:

  • Universal basic income
  • Climate change
  • Media oligopolies
  • Electoral and political reform
  • Campaign finance

I’m open to any ideas or critiques, as always. I think I may start with UBI, although I have some [in my humble opinion] interesting thoughts on electoral and political reform that I may turn to soon also.

40 Days, 100 Days

This weekend marks the end of Lent. As I wrote about last year, I always try to observe Lent by going without something significant. It’s not for any particular religious reason; rather I do it more for self-improvement: willpower, health, self-denial, whatever. My Peace Corps experience taught me a little about that, and now that I am coming up on 5 years’ removal from that, 5 years living a comfortable existence in America, I find that life can be too easy sometimes. Everything is accessible, understandable. Any food, drink, or other indulgence you want is right there, if you have the money for it.

I digress. This year, I decided to go without both beer and whiskey. Those who know me have been very surprised. Beer and whiskey generally comprise 95% of all the alcohol I drink, and my total alcohol intake probably puts me closer to an average Eastern European than an average American. This is the result of 4 years in Athens, GA, 2 years in Ukraine, and a free-flowing home environment growing up.

Since giving those up–and making no other changes of substance in diet–I’ve lost 4-5 pounds. Drinking wine instead of beer and liquor has proved to be a more efficient (speaking calorically) way to unwind after a long day, although it’s not without its drawbacks, chief among which is looking like a twat with a huge stemmed wine glass at a Czech bierhaus in Colorado. There are advantages, however, as I discovered sipping white wine from a resealable box while camping the other day–the resealable cap is really genius when outdoors and flies and floating bits of campfire ash are an issue.

I am very much looking forward to returning to beer and wine this weekend. Lent technically does not include Sundays, but I thought it wouldn’t be much in the way of going without if I indulged once every seven days, so I haven’t had a sip of beer or whiskey since February. I will probably break my “fast” before Sunday, which I suppose is cheating, but forget that since I’m doing this for myself only anyway, and I’ve already gone over 40 days.

The other reference in my post title is to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Since I write about politics a lot on this, I’ll weigh in shortly on this. This “100 days” is in many ways an artificial timeline that the media likes to impose on presidents so they can assess them. It’s like crowning a national champion in college football in the first week of October (a system which probably would have resulted in a Georgia 2008 title, so maybe it’s not all bad). The previous 3 presidents’ administrations were really defined by events beyond their first 100 days: Obama by the ACA passage in 2010 and subsequent Tea Party wave election, Bush by 9/11 and the Iraq War, Clinton by–well, many things, but welfare reform, the 1994 midterms, the sex scandals, and the booming late ’90s economy.

But looking at the current administration, there’s something for detractors and supporters to cheer. Trump justified his election to many on the right with the confirmation and swearing-in of Neil Gorsuch. This does a lot to outweigh some of the setbacks, like the failure to repeal the ACA, the court-stymied travel bans, ongoing investigations, and the like. The most significant event so far has been the missile strikes on Syria last week, which is continuing to unfold. The real tests are coming at the ballot box: special elections in Kansas and Georgia this month offer voters a chance to weigh in. Will the left mobilize to snatch seats (or at least over-perform) from the GOP? I’m somewhat bullish on Democrats’ chances in Georgia; less so in Kansas, but we’ll see. In the Georgia election, Jon Ossoff probably needs to clear the 50% line in a crowded field in order to avoid a runoff. In a runoff, the GOP will probably coalesce and rally around 1 candidate, diminishing his chances.

It’s still too early, and even a midterm sweep for the opposition party doesn’t mean much for Trump’s administration: Obama and Clinton handily won reelections despite losing Congress in their first term. But it is one of the first bellwethers of public opinion on the new administration.

Does obstructionism pay? & other thoughts

President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by the late Antonin Scalia today, validating nearly a year of steadfast refusal by Senate Republicans to entertain President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

While strident obstruction may make bad policy, it seems that it makes excellent politics. Aside from losing the 2012 presidential election, Republicans have steadily gained at the state and national levels since commiting to obstructing Obama’s agenda during his first term. The GOP successfully thwarted efforts at immigration reform, gun control, and more, and forced Obama down on issues like raising the highest marginal tax rate and any fix to the ACA.

Now Democrats find themselves in a similar position to the GOP’s predicament in 2009. Cooperate or obstruct? Their reaction (and Americans’ views on it) will decide their fate for the next 4 years and beyond.

Adding to more notes on literature, I read Underground Airlines earlier this month. It’s an alternative history thriller, set in 2016 in a America that never fought the Civil War and abolished slavery, and 4 states still permit bondage in the present day: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and a united Carolina. President Truman induced Georgia to abolish slavery in the 1940s with lucrative wartime contracts, and abolitionists organizedo a successful takeover of state government in Texas to abolish a decade prior. The U.S. in this world is largely a pariah state, with limited international trade and a much-reduced role on the world stage. Instead of fighting a war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, the U.S. fought a stalemate with separatists in Texas.

It’s a very entertaining novel that follows a freedman now working as a slave catcher. I wont dwell too much into the plot, but alternative history novels always fascinate me. They paint a portrait of a world near ours, a shadowy reflection. It’s a genre with a lot of possibilities.

Diary of an Oxygen Thief

It’s a new year, and I’ve already knocked 2 books out so far: On the Map by Simon Garfield and Diary of an Oxygen Thief by…anonymous. I’m going to write my thoughts on the latter for a short while.

Let me preface this by saying this is a “pure” analysis/critique/reaction, in the sense that I haven’t read anything about the book and don’t know anything beyond that it was published anonymously in the last decade, appeared on some “best of” list (where I discovered it), and that the anonymous author is supposedly European (I thought he/she was Danish or Dutch, but since the protagonist is Irish, I doubt myself now).

The book plays on some familiar tropes: an antihero, potentially an unreliable narrator, with downright despicable characteristics. Heartbreak. Reinvention. Recovery. Punishment and atonement. At its heart, Diary of an Oxygen Thief is a novel about the unnamed narrator (he’s an Irishman in his late 20s to mid 30s living in the UK and US) and his evolution. It’s almost a coming-of-age story in some ways. At the start, the narrator describes how he purposefully hurts (not physically, generally) his romantic partners: leading her on until she starts falling for him, then attempting to painfully end or sabotage the relationship. Is this behavior deliberate? The narrator believes so, but perhaps there is some underlying compulsion toward this, a gratification gained from what is essentially sadism in emotional form.

This opening covers the narrator’s destruction of a 4-year relationship that seemed to be happy otherwise, despite his proclaimed infidelity. The ensuing events, the meat of the book’s plot, are attributed to be punishment for this. He turns his alcoholism around, attending AA meetings and achieving remarkable sobriety, and he turns his emotional sadism around too by way of shunning women altogether. This leads to a considerable degree of professional success in his advertising job–not itself a major plot point beyond the fact that his company sends him to a small town in Minnesota for a few years in a well-paying job.

In cold isolation in Minnesota, he lives a monastic life: no alcohol nor women, and he seemingly throws himself into his work. To please his employer, he buys a house there, cementing some kind of tie to the community. This never crystallizes beyond that, and after growing increasingly despondent, he goes to New York on business. He meets and quickly obsesses over an Irish woman there, Aisling, whom he was warned about being a heartbreaker on a trip home to Ireland.

His ensuing heartbreak continues the penance. Has he atoned for his earlier sins? Difficult to say. That interpretation requires viewing Aisling as an angel of vengeance for the women he wronged previously, which is implausible. Has he grown? This, I believe, is the important takeaway. He maintains his sobriety and avoids falling back into other destructive habits. This is assuredly growth in some way. This novel is at best only his version of events, however, which may not be taken as the undiluted truth.

Now I intend to read some other thoughts on the matter. If I get some brain wave or my earlier thoughts are proven inept or inane, I may update this post below.

Post-election world: autopsy of a loss

I haven’t written since the election, and it’s more due to not getting around to it and being busy with travel and work rather than mourning. The mourning period lasted maybe a day and a half until a cathartic post on my personal Facebook, which I posted earlier.

A lot of political journalists have been delving into the reasons why Hillary Clinton and Democrats at large lost big on November 8. Uninspiring candidates, focusing on the wrong issues, failure to connect with rural voters and/or working-class whites, and so on. I want to focus on a small slice of one possible factor in Donald Trump’s victory: the disconnect between Democrats–narrowly defined here as liberal intellectuals, which of course ignores the millions of non-liberal intellectual Democrat voters–and most of the country. There have been dozens of articles about the vast gulfs between coastal, city-dwelling professionals and voters in Wisconsin and Michigan. That isn’t quite what I’m getting at here.

I was prompted to write this after reading “Too Much Stigma, Not Enough Persuasion” in The Atlantic over lunch just now. Conor Friedersdorf, a great writer, explores a back-and-forth exchange over a seemingly innocuous statement that Bernie Sanders made, suggesting that successful candidates need an agenda (one aligning with his, naturally) beyond “I’m a member of X demographic, vote for me.” Is Sanders’s suggestion there an example of white supremacy?

Perhaps in academic debates over the terms white supremacy and racism, but not in any common usage of the word. This shows a broader problem, in my view, with the political left in the United States. Labels like white supremacist and racist are thrown around with abandon, and the more these words are used, the more meaningless they become. If those words are to maintain any ability to shame, they need to be reserved for unequivocal embodiments of them, not for offhand, insensitive remarks that get lumped under the usually idiotic umbrella term of “micro-aggression.”

Identity politics and games of “who’s the bigger victim” or “who’s racist” don’t win over people, they alienate them. I’m not suggesting that any of this played a role in Clinton’s loss, even a tiny one, but that it’s a troubling trend in the left in this country. Remarkably, the left in many other countries seem to be less plagued by it, although that’s hardly universal.

Thoughts on the election

I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about this election, and as you probably can guess, I’m not very pleased with the outcome. I have no reason to feel personally imperiled or threatened by President Trump enacting all of his promises. The sum of what will happen to me personally is, probably, that my taxes may go down a bit. But I am really concerned for a lot of people and the country (and world) as a whole.

What happens to the environment when someone who has said climate change is a Chinese hoax runs the EPA? What will victims of sexual assault feel when the president has bragged about groping women? How will Muslims feel when one of his signature policies was banning them from entering the country? What about Latinos, worried about how welcome they are too? What about anyone who’s worried about being profiled by police if stop and frisk makes a comeback nationwide? With people like Mike Pence in the administration and the judges who could be appointed, what will happen to LGBT folks, who could lose their marriage rights and still get fired for being who they are? The list of questions goes on. These aren’t abstract to me; I know people personally affected in each category.

Those are the concerns I have, not to mention a sense that a good portion of what I’ve spent the last six years of my life doing was for jack shit. Peace Corps in Ukraine? I have a sinking feeling that Ukraine is about to get completely sold out, and the thousands of Ukrainians who fought for independence from a corrupt government and Russia will be left to stand alone. Expanding access to health care for those who can’t afford it? If the ACA gets repealed, twenty million people lose health insurance, and this includes HIV+ and other folks who couldn’t get any insurance without the law. Studying policy to work for our nation? We just elected the meme candidate who barely laid out any concrete plans for months beyond “build a wall” and “I’m a fan of the Second Amendment,” and who still lacks so many details on what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it.

But in a democracy you accept the results of elections, even when your side loses. I voted for John McCain—with many reservations, like Sarah Palin—in 2008 and remember feeling down in the days after that election. Barack Obama turned out to be a much better president than I thought he would be. I genuinely and sincerely hope that I’m wrong about the kind of president Donald Trump will be, and the kind of people he’ll surround himself with. My impression of him is that he’s a con artist and pathological liar with an undiagnosed personality disorder who cares only about himself. I want to be wrong about him. I want him to be interested in making the country better, stronger, safer. Campaigns are full of rancor and ridiculous rhetoric and have almost nothing in common with actually governing. Maybe I’m totally wrong. But I’m not holding my breath.

This is still my country. I feel like this because I love and care for it. I’m not going to stop doing what I can to make it better, in whatever way I can. Neither should you.