Carts and Horses

The media are all lauding the successful budget agreement that would finally pass the FY2011 budget. Underemphasized is the key point that the deal will not actually come to a vote until sometime this week. The White House and congressional leaders have agreed–I haven’t seen any clear reporting on whether the Republican rank and file in the House or the Democratic rank and file in the Senate are on board. Perhaps they are, but until the actual vote, all we have is a tentative agreement.

NPR breathlessly announced that the $38 billion in cuts were record spending cuts. Undoubtedly so, but it’s rather like a half-ton man boasting about not eating the whole pumpkin pie for dessert after Thanksgiving dinner. Look, ma, I left a slice!

Between our runaway budget deficits and ever-increasing executive power, our country is doomed. The current structure of our political system is what has brought us to this point, so only major structural reform–i.e., blowing up the first two articles of the Constitution and completely revamping our political branches–can change our course.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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24 Responses to Carts and Horses

  1. Lance says:

    The current structure of our political system is what has brought us to this point, so only major structural reform–i.e., blowing up the first two articles of the Constitution and completely revamping our political branches–can change our course.

    Holy crap! “blowing up” articles one and two? Why not the rest as well? Or at least article three. It doesn’t seem to me that the federal courts are doing so well either.

    That only means throwing out the entire structure of the US government. Not that I necessarily disagree with the “doomed” prognosis. But how do you propose we go about this process? Are you advocating using the amendment process outlined in article five or are we tossing that as well?

    Do you expected the entrenched government to just agree to be dismantled, and if not are you ready to take up arms against it?

  2. Lance says:

    Damn it! Botched the blockquotes, but I guess you know which part you said.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Lance,

    I would never want to fuck with judicial independence, at least so long as the Court has “neither the purse nor the sword, only judgment,” so Article III stays.

    How do we go about doing it? I don’t have the faintest hope that anything can actually bring it about. The American public is continuing to blindly put their faith in elections, not knowing that their choices are only between “status quo” and “more of the same.” The system itself weeds out nearly any candidate who would in fact create a serious challenge to the status quo.

  4. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    Now I’m no Tea Partier but they did manage to elect some “not quite” the status quo candidates. Even if you don’t agree with their agenda (and I’m not sure they have a coherent agenda) you have to take notice that they are trying to change the status quo.

    Maybe when, and if, the republic actually starts shaking apart at its foundation the “status quo” and “more of the same” candidates will be swept under by radical reformers of the type that desperate masses tend to embrace.

    With our luck it will be Glenn Beck or Donald Trump.

    Hey, anybody but Sarah Palin.

    I say we change that native born requirement, and the citizen requirement and start a draft campaign to elect Michael Palin.

    At least we could laugh our way to the gallows.

  5. Lance says:

    Hmm, is it me or is there a problem with your embedded features? I was pretty sure it used the italics command correctly.

    Testing one, two , three.

  6. Lance says:

    Ah ha! It’s your features.

    Unless I’ve had a stroke and can’t even enter the code for italicizing when I REALLY take my time.

  7. Lance says:

    Of course I might have broken your blog by goofing in that first post.

    Apologies in advance if that’s the case.

  8. AMW says:

    You seem rather dour on our prospects, Dr. Hanley. I hope your passport is current. JamesK would probably put in a good word for you with the NZ immigration services. I know that’s my backup plan.

  9. James Hanley says:

    Lance–you had a faulty close-italics tag. Why that should carry on through multiple posts is a mystery, but it’s clearly a WordPress template problem.

    As to whether the tea-partiers are really not “business as usual,” I don’t believe it for a moment. The great freshman Republican class of the 1994 elections thought they were pretty different, too. They brought us the first huge increase in deficits under George W. Bush. They also brought us total acquiescence to dramatic increases in claims of expansive executive power under George W. Bush. And these tea partiers are far more interested in keeping taxes at historically low levels than they are in having a balanced budget–they haven’t seriously argued touching military spending, for example. And they’re not remotely interested in real governance. They’re simple destroyers with no real vision. When I see a tea partier from Texas argue against subsidies for the oil industry, or one from Kansas argue against farm subsidies, or any damn one of them making a serious effort to reign in military spending or an executive of their own party, then I’ll sit up and take notice.

    AMW–I am dour on our prospects. And I’d love to live in New Zealand for a while. But unless or until the executive becomes too dangerously authoritarian, I’d like to keep the U.S. as my permanent home. At least from the central Great Lakes westward, and sweeping south at Colorado to cover the southwest minus Texas, I have the type of love for the American landscape that Russians supposedly have for their motherland. But after years of defending the American system against the great mass of political scientists who prefer parliamentary systems, I’ve become doubtful about whether I was ever right.

    Then again, in my more optimistic moments I think that all it might really take is an end to gerrymandered political districts, to prevent the regular election of extremists.

  10. James K says:

    AMW, our immigration policies are pretty light and I’d be happy to have more libertarian-leaning economists in the country (for one thing, you only need to have residency to vote).

    And I’m pretty much with James Hanley on the prospects for the US. Democratic systems just won’t address problems with costly solutions until there’s no way to deny what is happening. And by the time default becomes undeniable it will be too late (I’m pessimistic about political solutions to climate change for much the same reason). Getting out of this mess would require a black swan event and those are, by definition, pretty unreliable.

  11. ppnl says:

    Then again, in my more optimistic moments I think that all it might really take is an end to gerrymandered political districts, to prevent the regular election of extremists.

    There you go.

    The first thing to do is elect the president by popular vote. This can be accomplished effectively without constitutional changes. States could do it themselves. Change the constitution later after people are comfortable with it.

    Use instant runoff voting to avoid the wasted vote issue and encourage a larger range of candidates.

    Do away with districting entirely. Congressmen elected by a state should be elected by the entire state and serve the interests of that entire state not some small politically derived arbitrary geographical region. This would return power to the state that the districting has robed them of.

    Remove any privilege of political parties from the electoral process. Presidential power is driven by the requirement of party unity. Make congressmen beholden to their state and the constituency that elected them rather than a national party. They then would be less willing to support a president simply for party unity. Districts serve the party not the state.

    I’m not sure how to handle elections in a state that may have a large number of representatives. You could have a state wide election for each or you could have a single election that selects a group of the top winners. I generally prefer individual elections but that may be cumbersome.

  12. Matty says:

    Ppnl,

    Are you sure it is the power of parties that is the problem in the US system?

    My understanding is that parties are relatively weak in your system for several reasons.
    -The primary system means that a party does not pick its own candidates, the Republican National Committee does not get to decide who will run in its name for a whole host of positions, making movements like the Tea Party more likely to get somewhere.
    -Political funding is more in donations to individuals than to parties so the party leadership has less indirect control of candidates.
    -When they get elected the separation of powers means there are relatively few carrots and sticks to make a legislator vote the right way. In the British system the cabinet and shadow cabinet, both with higher salaries and more influence, are recruited from MP’s by the party leaders and not only retain their seats but are required to vote the party line every time as a condition of the job. A US president has none of this and you don’t seem to have any equivalent at all of a shadow cabinet that the oposing party could use.

    One more thing, I think James has made sympathetic noises about increasing the power of parties and the idea that this gives voters more coherent sets of policies to choose between.

  13. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    Parties are not the problem. Incoherent parties are. Our parties have no control over their members, so they cannot present a coherent policy message for the public to vote on. Instead we have individualistic politics, in which each representative is accountable only to their heavily gerrymandered constituents, so that parochial and fringe elements dominate.

    I am 100% with you on eliminating districts, but since that’s not going to happen, I advocate non-partisan commissions that must draw districts to maximize competitiveness. That will be difficult enough to accomplish, but it’s at least a realizable goal. E.g., in Iowa, the redistricting law specifically states;

    districts shall not be drawn to favor any political party, an incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or any other person or group,

    We need more of that.

    As to direct election of the president, it doesn’t matter. I would not lift a finger to either help or to hinder the plan to have states give all their electoral votes to the popular vote winner. It simply doesn’t matter in terms of reigning in the executive. The problem is that the parties’ nominees, as Matty notes, are not chosen by the parties, but through primary elections. It’s a surfeit of democracy. Whoever becomes president is not accountable to his party–he thinks he is “the tribune of the people,” and having been elected by them all his further actions are thereby consecrated. And the weakness of the parties in Congress means that Congress is itself weak, unable to act as an institutional counterbalance to the executive. Direct election is just another means of selecting between bad choices, candidates who through the candidate-selection process have proven themselves to have exceptional hubris and minimal humility and willingness to be constrained. Direct election is a sideshow, nothing more.

  14. ppnl says:

    Matty,

    It isn’t the power of the parties that is the problem. It is the power of the parties to game the system and construct perverse incentives for themselves. Parties then decay into organizations that grab power by any means possible. Any stated principle is a distant second to the need for power. Remove the power to set perverse incentives and the parties are free to pursue the fulfillment of their actual principles. The party becomes stronger in any way that matters.

    Parties are not the problem. Incoherent parties are. Our parties have no control over their members, so they cannot present a coherent policy message for the public to vote on. Instead we have individualistic politics, in which each representative is accountable only to their heavily gerrymandered constituents, so that parochial and fringe elements dominate.

    I agree completely.

    I am 100% with you on eliminating districts, but since that’s not going to happen, I advocate non-partisan commissions that must draw districts to maximize competitiveness.

    But you will always have the problem of legislative capture. Across countless districts in 50 states. I don’t see this as more practical than doing away with districts.

    As to direct election of the president, it doesn’t matter. I would not lift a finger to either help or to hinder the plan to have states give all their electoral votes to the popular vote winner. It simply doesn’t matter in terms of reigning in the executive.

    The problem is that the electoral college system is just a way to disenfranchise voters. If I live in a strongly red or blue “safe” state then my vote does not matter. This depresses the vote. This concentrates influence into a relatively small number of swing states and distorts the political discourse. Small, irrelevant and stupid issues can become dominant. Parties become incoherent.

    This has no direct effect on presidential power but it does help destroy the ability of parties to construct perverse incentives. One of those perverse incentives is that you must support the president if he is of your party. That is what is driving presidential power.

    Yes anyone who runs for president is likely to have a massive ego. But this will always be true. Congresscritters also have massive egos. Remove the absolute need for party unity and the egos can counterbalance.

    I do agree that party primaries must go. That is what I mean by removing any party privilege from the election process. Parties can choose their candidates by any internal process that they want. Again in a sense this seems to make the parties weaker but it actually frees them to construct a coherent agenda.

  15. James Hanley says:

    But you will always have the problem of legislative capture.

    I can think of several things this could mean, but I’m not sure what you mean by it, so I don’t want to respond without some clarification from you.

    The problem is that the electoral college system is just a way to disenfranchise voters. If I live in a strongly red or blue “safe” state then my vote does not matter.

    The fact that there are a hundred million voters disenfranchises individual voters. If the country is going strongly toward one presidential candidate over another, my vote still does not matter. There are many institutional rules that depress voter turnout, but I don’t think the literature supports the electoral college as being a major one.

  16. Matty says:

    our immigration policies are pretty light and I’d be happy to have more libertarian-leaning economists in the country (for one thing, you only need to have residency to vote)

    I’ve been meaning to ask about this, what does NZ citizenship mean if not a part in national politics that is denied to resident aliens?

    On a practical level does being a citizen get you anything that residency doesn’t and if not does that mean a high proportion of immigrants simply don’t bother with the final stage of paperwork?

    More broadly, it has been my understanding that citizen has since ancient Athens usually meant being a member of the political community. Removing this distinction would seem to take out one of the last barriers to including *everyone* in that community. I’m broadly in favour of this but it does seem a big change and I’m curious how you got there.

  17. ppnl says:

    I can think of several things this could mean, but I’m not sure what you mean by it, so I don’t want to respond without some clarification from you.

    Yeah, sorry. I intended to say regulatory capture. Deciding how to divide districts is inherently a political process. Deciding who is or isn’t favored is inherently a political process. Deciding who is or isn’t “non-partisan” is a political process. In a large complex state I doubt it is possible to draw districts without favoring or disenfranchising some group. Well total fairness really isn’t an option anyway but it opens the door to gaming the system for structural advantages.

    The fact that there are a hundred million voters disenfranchises individual voters. If the country is going strongly toward one presidential candidate over another, my vote still does not matter.

    The more ways that voters are divided the more ways there are to construct structural advantages. The election becomes about who can create the best pattern of disenfranchised voters rather than about the issues. It is all about constructing structural advantages.

    Look at the budget deal. What was the stumbling block? Planned parenthood?!? The budget negotiations aren’t about the budget at all. It is about both sides trying to achieve structural advantages by servicing irrelevant concerns of a tiny group that may be important for winning a few key states.

    The electoral college was intended to preserve the power of states. They could pool their votes and have more of an influence on national politics. The problem is that in the modern world it is serving the interests of the national political parties. The states are mere pawns in a political death match between national parties who have been forced to abandon all their principles in the pursuit of power.

    The answer is to divide the voters in fewer ways making it harder to construct structural advantages and create perverse incentives.

  18. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    Maximizing the number of competitive districts is a rule that can be enforced by the courts. It’s the direct reverse of maximizing the number of uncompetitive districts, so it’s a fairly bright line rule, not really subject to the problems you fear.

  19. James K says:

    Matty:

    I’ve been meaning to ask about this, what does NZ citizenship mean if not a part in national politics that is denied to resident aliens?

    You still have to be a citizen to be eligible for elected office. Also, you travel on a New Zealand passport, which is handy since basically the only country that’s pissed off at us is Fiji. There are some international conventions that apply to New Zealand citizens – it’s easier to get into Australia and as a citizen of the Commonwealth we can get consular support from the UK (if you’re in a country where New Zealand doesn’t have its own facilities). Also any Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK can vote in their elections (strange, but true).

    But I’d have to say that on balance it means citizenship isn’t as much of a big deal as it is in other countries.

    James Hanley:
    It may be that mathematics can help in implementing more objective districting rules. If you can drive as much of the process as possible by formula, you can hamper gerrymandering.

  20. James Hanley says:

    James K,

    Agreed. Mathematics drives the gerrymandering, so it can certainly drive the opposite outcome. The hindrances to purely formulaic resolution are the Supreme Court’s requirement that districts be a) contiguous–which is a wholly made up rule with no substantial constitutional provenance, given that districts aren’t even mentioned, much less required, by the Constitution–and b) compact, which is a “pornographic” rule (i.e., not formulaic, but they “know it when they see it”). But those are just hindrances, not showstopper.

  21. Lance says:

    Caution: Irrelevant aside, in poor grammar, below.

    Jame Hanley,

    How come your last post ain’t blue?

  22. James Hanley says:

    Lance, I think that happens when for some reason the computer doesn’t sign me into my WordPress account, so it treats me like a visitor. I’m logged in right now, so this one should be blue.

  23. Lance says:

    I was actually paid to gerrymander congressional voting districts in Indiana.

    I was a twenty one year old deputy county assessor, one of four, for Washington township in Marion County Indiana. Marion county is in effect the state capital, Indianapolis. At the time I was also attending IUPUI for my undergraduate degree in Physics.

    During the winter there were very few building permits so we didn’t have to “inspect” many building sites ( meaning checking to see if they were building more than they had filed a permit to build so we wouldn’t assess the actual property improvements and raise their taxes). During this down time we were actually told to “look busy” in case any property owners or real estate attorneys came in looking through property assessment records.

    In the midst of one especially paralytic January morning Alan Brassard, my supervising deputy, came to me and said we had a “special assignment”. This assignment was to count the number of registered Democrats and registered Republicans in Marion county and the counties surrounding Indianapolis.

    When I asked why we were so engaged, my supervisor said, bluntly and unapologetically, that we were doing the research so that the Indiana Republican party could redraw the lines of voting districts.

    When I naively, and somewhat indignantly, pointed out that this was gerrymandering Mr. Brassard said “So what. The Democrats do it too.”

    I spent the next two weeks counting precinct rolls and marking out lines on maps to show where concentrations of voting Democrats and Republicans resided.

    It was illuminating and disillusioning in equal measures.

  24. ppnl says:

    Hey, what about random districts? When you register to vote you are assigned a district at random. It has no geological or political identity at all. This seems to technically violate the supreme court’s ruling but I’m not sure how they can justify opposition to this. This would solve a large number of problems all at once.

    But people would probably freak out.

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