After 230 years, the Constitution needs fixing

Summary: September 17 was the 230th Anniversary of the Constitution’s signing. By now many Americans realize that it no longer works well. Here are some of the reasons why it broke, and paths — fake and real — to fix it.

“Every country has the government it deserves”
— Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. From Lettres et Opuscules (1811).

Burning Constitution

Democracy is a process of progress.

The first American regime was born with ratification of the Articles of Confederation on 1 March 1781. It failed catastrophically. The second American regime was born with ratification of the Constitution on 21 June 1788 and reached mature form in 1803 with the Supreme Court decision Marbury v. Madison.

We have constantly tweaked it to suit our changing needs and circumstances. There have been 27 formal amendments. The first major informal change occurred during the Civil War, fundamentally altering the relationship of the States to the newly empowered Federal government. The fires of the Great Depression and WWII drastically altered the form and operation of the government. Other major changes were the National Security Act of 1947, the great civil rights bills of 1964-1968, and the formal and informal expansion of the government’s power (and erosion of our rights) after 9/11.

Unfortunately all these changes have not sufficed to keep the Constitution functioning because our circumstances have changed faster. The system has ossified and mutated in scores of ways. Perhaps the most important is that America’s population has grown.

Population growth wrecked the Constitution.

Demographic change has undermined the Constitution order in two ways. First, there are so many more of us. In 1789 the United States had roughly 5 million people and 120 representatives in the House: approx 41 thousand people (only a fraction of them could vote) per official. The population was 92 million in 1911 when the House grew to its current number of 435 members; each represented 211 thousand people (only a fraction of them could vote). We still have 435 in the House, but now representing 300 million people, 690 thousand people per member.

As the number of people represented by each official increases, they grow more remote from us. They grow in status and power — and hence inevitably in wealth (legally or otherwise). The other side of the equation: our votes lose strength. The individual’s ability to affect the machinery diminishes.  Disinterest in the system, even alienation, follows and erodes the regime’s legitimacy.

Second and equally damaging is the Senate’s design. The Great Compromise of the Constitutional Convention, gave every State two votes. Two votes for Wyoming’s 586 thousand people and two for California’s 40 million. The ten largest States have more people than the remaining 40. The fifth largest, Illinois, has more people than the 11 smallest States. (See Wikipedia for US population by State)

Worse, this disparity is growing as population slides from the rural center to the coasts.  These States with few voters — they were called rotten boroughs 19th century Britain — increasingly shape US legislative action.  Under Article V of the Constitution this game cannot be changed without the consent of each state losing its “equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

These are quiet but potentially terminal flaws. Remember, the American Revolution was about unequal representation — not unequal taxation (the 13 Colonies were taxed far more lightly than was Britain). For a good summary see “Damnable Deficient” by Colin Kidd at the London Review of Books.

“For all its sentimental and antiquarian dimensions, the cult of the founders has damaging political consequences. In particular, abject deference to the constitutional machinery devised in 1787, whose murky compromises are underacknowledged, tends to thwart the popular will and to stymie reformist impulses. Democrats proper, who have woken up in recent years to the dangers inherent in the electoral college, the equal representation of states – whether populous or empty – in the Senate and the judicial review of federal and state legislation, see little possibility of amending a venerated constitution. However, a few bold voices have questioned the infantile subservience of 21st-century citizens to 18th-century political solutions, foremost among them Robert Dahl in his devastating audit of the American political system, How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2002).”

Before we try to fix the Constitution…

Chet Richards gives us an important warning in his magnum opus If We Can Keep It: “We need to be careful, though, that in changing {the Constitution}, we move closer to ideals stated in the Preamble, which, because it may have been a while since many readers have thought about it, is worth repeating.”

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Everything needs updating, eventually.

American Eagle with shades

Fixing the Constitution.

The 1% have gained economic and political power from our apathy and passivity. They own both major political parties. There are no substantial alternative mechanisms for political activity now that the unions have been largely neutered. In our plutocrat-run nation, any amendments to the Constitution will benefit the 1%. A Constitutional Convention would institutionalize plutocracy. See these for details about the many proposals.

Dreaming about the wonderful changes we want is like singing “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?” Instead of dreams, let’s put our faith in work — because our problem is not too few goals, but too little discussion about actions. Plans are the connecting link between infotainment and great deeds. We need to have some.

How do we recruit, train, and motivate people to organize for political reform, and begin the long, difficult, and probably high-risk trek to a better America? The Reforming America: steps to new politics page lists over one hundred posts about steps people can take. They’re the least popular posts of the 4200 on the FM website. When we become more interested in acting than becoming “informed”, then change becomes possible.

Big dreams help after we build organizations to harness the energies of Americans committed to reform. After that, eventually, we will have the strength to challenge the 1% directly with Constitutional amendments, or even hold a Convention to radically reshape our political regime.

Until then we dream while we lose, getting weaker every day. Time is not our friend.

A last word

The Constitution has brought incredible freedom and prosperity to America, but neither its past nor our needs make it eternal. As Queen Gertrude says to Hamlet in Act I, scene 2.

Thou know’st ’tis common;
all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

We are strong because of our ability to act together, to produce and follow leaders. We are strong due to our openness to other cultures and ability to assimilate their best aspects. We are strong due to our ability to adapt to new circumstances, to roll with defeat and carry on. We will be what we want to be. The coming years will reveal what that is.

This transition will be like a singularity in astrophysics, a point where the rules break down — beyond which we cannot see. Let’s work so that what comes next is better than what we have now.

Phoenix

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the Constitution, about the New America, about Reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…

  1. Important: the Constitution is dying.
  2. Lewis Lapham explains why America needs a Third Republic: the government runs the way it was designed to run by the Founders.
  3. Can we love the Constitution without knowing what it says?
  4. What comes after the Constitution? Can we see the outline of a “Mark 3” version of the United States?

A great book reminding us about the secret power source of the Constitution.

A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture
Available at Amazon.

A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture by Michael Kammen (the late professor of history at Cornell).

“The Constitution occupies an anomalous role in American cultural history. For almost two centuries it has been swathed in pride yet obscured by indifference: a fulsome rhetoric of reverence more than offset by the reality of ignorance.”

From the publisher…

“Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen explores the U.S. Constitution’s place in the public consciousness and its role as a symbol in American life, from ratification in 1788 to our own time. As he examines what the Constitution has meant to the American people (perceptions and misperceptions, uses and abuses, knowledge and ignorance), Kammen shows that although there are recurrent declarations of reverence most of us neither know nor fully understand our Constitution.

“How did this gap between ideal and reality come about? To explain it, Kammen examines the complex and contradictory feelings about the Constitution that emerged during its preparation and that have been with us ever since.

“He begins with our confusion as to the kind of Union we created, especially with regard to how much sovereignty the states actually surrendered to the central government. This confusion is the source of the constitutional crisis that led to the Civil War and its aftermath. Kammen also describes and analyzes changing perceptions of the differences and similarities between the British and American constitutions; turn-of-the-century debates about states’ rights versus national authority; and disagreements about how easy or difficult it ought to be to amend the Constitution.

“Moving into the twentieth century, he notes the development of a ‘cult of the Constitution’ following World War I, and the conflict over policy issues that persisted despite a shared commitment to the Constitution.”

52 thoughts on “After 230 years, the Constitution needs fixing

  1. Certainly the Senate is the most egregious offense against representative government. In a sense it is ‘taxation without representation’ as Wyoming residents get ‘fullest strength” representation for their taxation while those US citizens residing in California get vastly less represention for the same amount of taxation.

    Court approved gerrymandering makes the House of Representatives the second least representative body.

    The unmentioned electoral college is a re-setting time bomb that seems to be going off more often.

    Finally the sclerotic supreme court. Twenty and off the bench is fine. No one on the bench is ‘really’ a lawyer but rather ‘scholars’ feigning to be lawyers. None have ever represented a defendant in a criminal matter, as far as I know. We don’t need ‘scholars’ on the bench. We’d be better of with a jury making the law than these ‘judges’. Twelve randomly selected citizens who would hear arguments and decide couldn’t do any worse. cheers.

    1. And then one of the pet “reforms” people keep advocating is — making the state legislatures the ones who appoint Senators again! Yet somehow I imagine advocacy for that amendment will vanish the moment Democrats (or some future party) control the majority of state legislatures.

      But then the most widely spread proposals for “reform” (term limits, cutting legislator pay) seem, for some strange reason, to be the ones that would accomplish the least.

    2. SF,

      Good points all. Many proposals for “reform” are just attempts to tilt the system to favor one side.

      “the most widely spread proposals for “reform” (term limits, cutting legislator pay) seem, for some strange reason, to be the ones that would accomplish the least.”

      My guess is that these are just magic nostrums. People want quick easy solutions. It’s the same reason drug store shelves are loaded with weight-loss “aids”, when dieting and exercise work quite well.

    3. Steve,

      Yes, the system is showing signs of senescence — in the sense that it does not work as designed. On the other hand, none of these things matter to America’s stakeholders — the 1% and the other top few percent. America’s government well serves their needs. So perhaps the things you mention are just minor bugs. Like having a red car when you would prefer a blue one.

      These things are largely a matter of perspective and context.

    4. The widespread call for House/Senate term limits just baffles me. I don’t even think we should have presidential term limits. Despite the fantasies of the Republicans (widespread voter fraud) and Democrats (Russian hackers changing the ballots), we still live in a system with free and fair elections…if you don’t like your rep or senator, PRIMARY HIM/HER OR VOTE FOR THE OTHER PARTY!!

      Having unlimited elected terms is the compromise between the stability (but tyranny) of permanently-installed officials and the disruption of a constant stream of inexperienced novices being brought in, only to be kicked back out once they’re finally good at their job. You see how chaotic and muddled the first year or two of a presidency is…you want to do that with the House and Senate too!?

      Term limits would only ensure that we are further beholden to the shadow government of unelected bureaucrats, plutocratic contractors, and wealthy 1% donors.

  2. Be careful what you ask for. The USA no longer has the social cohesion needed to make serious changes to the Constitution.

    What is needed is a change in Senate rules to allow majority voting for most legislation and super-majority for those special situations.

    Who ever heard of a real democracy where one oligarch had the power of veto in the upper house?

    Poland to mind. One reason Poland was so easy for Germany (Prussia) to dominate in both the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1939, Poland’s elite cavalry fought on horseback with swords against motorized invaders with machine guns.

    No constitutional amendment is needed to reform Senate. What is needed is to retire the RINOS.

    1. That stuff about Poland isn’t true.

      The liberum veto predates the periods you discuss. (It was not doing Poland any favors.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberum_veto

      The Polish cavalry in WWII served as a mobile infantry force. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_cavalry#World_War_II Their only formal charge on horseback that’s been recorded was in 1945, and it was successful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Schoenfeld (But it was against demoralized and nearly-whipped German infantry lines.)

      What would the “special occasions” calling for supermajorities be?

    2. Frederick,

      These discussions tend to drift into people giving their pet solutions. Everything would be just fine if we just tinkered with XX or YYY changed.

      “Who ever heard of a real democracy where one oligarch had the power of veto in the upper house?”

      No one Senator is an oligarch. Where the vote is close, one voter always has the “power of veto” — no matter if the requirement is for a majority or super-majority. Nor is it clear that allowing the Senate to more easily act would improve government. It might just allow the 1% to more easily pass bills.

      “What is needed is to retire the RINOS.”

      So empowering the Right-wing even more would help. So you believe America’s slide to the Right since 1980 — bringing the GOP to power at all levels of government — has drastically improved America? Few people agree with you.

      “Poland to mind. One reason Poland was so easy for Germany (Prussia) to dominate in both the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

      Poland had lots of governance problems during that period. I don’t see their relevance to America. Also, their ability to survive in 1939 was nil no matter what they did against invasion by both Russia and Germany.

  3. Just in case you find all this stuff about the Constitution a little heavy, here’s some interesting trivia about the US Cavalry —

    According to Wikipedia, the last charge of the US Cavalry was in the Philippines in 1942.

    My dad was commissioned in the Regular Army. In the (horse) cavalry at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. In 1946.

    And in 1953, John Herr, the last Chief of Cavalry, wrote The Story of the US Cavalry in which he called for the remounting of the 1st Cavalry Division. The horses would ride to the battlefield in special trailers. Boyd thought this was hilarious.

    1. Because if there is anything we’ve learned after 15 years of getting our butts handed to us by a bunch of dudes wearing baggy clothes, sandals, and armed with AKs, RPGs, cellphones, and the ability to take their adversaries unexploded ordnance and turn it into IEDs is that “we just need to spend more money and eventually technology will lead us to the promised land!”

      So many experts and yet we can’t even identify who is supposedly the “enemy” (apparently ourselves at this point). The greatest generation has to be rolling in their graves.

  4. Let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. Maybe the country is too big and diverse to operate efficiently under a central government. The 2016 election has left me wondering if maybe it’s time for some states and regions to go their own way. Maybe California and the upper Midwest don’t have enough in common anymore. I’m note sure that I actually favor this, but also think I might just live to see it anyway if I manage to keep these creaking wheels turning long enough.

    I’ve come to think of a Constitution as being a bit like the operating system of a computer. There are hacks, and operating systems come under open source attack sooner or later. if the exploits can’t be patched in a timely manner, then eventually someone other than you is going to in control of that box. A lot of hacks have been found in our operating system, and we ain’t plugged into Windows Update.

    Here’s an idea,not original with me, although I can’t recall now when or where I read it. maybe some percentage of the legislature should be elected at large. That would certainly get around the gerrymandering problem, although it might come with other problems of its own.

    Some procedure for removing the chief executive through a vote of no confidence. I’ve seen enough political scandals, some real, some imaginary, that dragged out forever, that in a parliamentary system would have been over in a week.

    Just a few random thoughts over morning coffee.

    1. the Many Who Laughs,

      All good and useful insights. But somewhat irrelevant for two reasons. First, implementing these stray ideas without a clear diagnosis of the problem is just fiddling with the controls on the monitor hoping to get a clearer picture (odds of success: low). Second and more important, the main point of this article is that we have lots and lots of ideas. What’s missing are people committed to reform of America.

      “Some procedure for removing the chief executive through a vote of no confidence”

      We might get that soon. It would be a minor structural change, easily done without change to the Constitution, probably with big effects. I discuss that here: The GOP might impeach Trump, changing our politics forever – for the better.

  5. “We might get that soon. It would be a minor structural change, easily done without change to the Constitution, probably with big effects. I discuss that here: The GOP might impeach Trump, changing our politics forever – for the better.”

    Trump is a symptom, not a problem. He may be removed, or not, depending, but if he is it will not create a new procedure for votes of no confidence. I’m not clear on what the planned endgame for the GOP Congress is here. They may not know themselves. I actually think what they want is for Trump to resign. I think Congress wants him gone, but I’m not sure that they really want to impeach him, because then they’d have to own it and take responsibility for it. We’ll see how it plays out, but whatever happens, it’s not ending in any kind of Constitutional reform.

    You’re right of course that none of the suggestions I made would be of much practical use absent a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, but there’s the rub. What, exactly, do you want to accomplish? There doesn’t seem to be much agreement. I think a Constitutional convention (And we may get such) would end up being mainly about who does what to whom.

    1. The Man Who Laughs,

      “but if he is it will not create a new procedure for votes of no confidence. ”

      I suggest you read the post before giving that review of it. IMO you are almost certainly wrong — unless some sort of smoking gun is found that allows Trump to be ejected on traditional grounds.

      “What, exactly, do you want to accomplish? There doesn’t seem to be much agreement.”

      That’s a very secondary issue. Agreement upon people with little interest in acting is a dorm bull session among sophomores. Agreement among people willing to risk “their lives, fortune, and sacred honor” makes history

      “I think a Constitutional convention (And we may get such) would end up being mainly about who does what to whom.”

      I doubt that very much. Such a wonderful opportunity would be effectively used by the 1%. It’s a mystery to me how Americans remain so blind to the 1% steady take-over of all levels of government, nattering on about “polarization” and “gridlock.” Total nonsense. We are well-governed in the interests of America’s stakeholders. They just don’t include most of us.

    2. I think the Constitutional convention thing has actually moved backwards – I had heard that at least three states who had gone “we should totally do one” have moved to “actually, no we shouldn’t” because they did not want to stumble into the Koch brothers getting to run one because of something they passed back in the 1960s.

      I do suspect it might not accomplish much, and they are gonna be faced with the thorny question of: Do we let the Democrats in?

      And of course, all of this is to get a balanced budget amendment and term limits in, which will somehow, miraculously, produce good governance.

    3. SF,

      “I do suspect it might not accomplish much”

      I suggest that you worry about it doing a great deal. Remember, the first Constitutional Convention was given limited goals, too.

      “hey are gonna be faced with the thorny question of: Do we let the Democrats in?”

      They can’t do much without at least some support from the Democratic Party’s officials.

      “And of course, all of this is to get a balanced budget amendment and term limits”

      That’s a great point. We might get some big-time crackpot ideas put into effect. Both Left and Right see us a lab rats for testing their ideology. They would love to implement the kind of big-scale testing that made the Soviet Union and China such horror stories.

  6. Fabius,

    Proportional representation in the House doesn’t require Constitutional fixes. The House voted for the limiting of representatives in 1911, but it is a law, not the Constitution.
    The Consitution says: ” The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; ”

    Given the telecommunication revolution, one would think that we could add representatives without losing too much given the limitations of physical space in the building, which I believe, is why the current number of representatives is fixed. Obviously, that creates its own problems and is more a bandaid on a larger issue, but better proportional representation is more possible (techonologically) than previously and that matters.

    IceCubed62

    1. IceCube,

      “Proportional representation in the House doesn’t require Constitutional fixes. ”

      The House already has proportional representation. A few small states have excessive representation, but on a trivial level.

      “we could add representatives without losing too much given …but better proportional representation is more possible (techonologically) than previously and that matters.”

      Increasing the size of the House does not fix proportional representation, but — as you say in the first sentence — lowers the ratio of reps to people.

      “which I believe, is why the current number of representatives is fixed.”

      I disagree. More important is the belief that too-large a body will have too-weak relationships with one another — losing the collective sense of acting together, which many (including me) is an important part of an effective legislature.

      “Obviously, that creates its own problems”

      Few or none of which we know now. I suggest trying that out on a local level first. Let’s not use the US government as a social science experiment.

  7. By my count, the US has had 57 presidential elections and more than 90% of the time, the popular vote and electoral college vote has been the same. So the “democratic choice” is made more than 90% of the time.

    What happened in the other five is a feature, not a bug. There are many features to the constitution/the way these elections are organized, that give strength to the government/cohesion of the country. Note that when and if there’s a vote integrity issue, it gets focused on one state, instead of the whole country. Pretty smart.

    Whenever somebody wants to change a few lines of Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Washington’s work, I think about how well it would go to change a few lines of Beethoven’s 9th or Mozart’s No. 20.

    Good luck with that.

    1. Except we already changed a few lines dealing with presidential elections, so why should a few more be any more sacrosanct? (Now they were changed in the lifetime of the founding fathers, but that’s a different point) In the first four elections governed by a supposedly inviolable document a vice president from the opposing party of the president got elected and a vice president tied a president in electoral votes and only got cleared up after 36 votes by the house.

      This is leaving aside that the electoral college was constructed as such to give greater representation to southern states by counting their slaves, and outside that rationale no other argument holds up for why it has any relevance in today’s environment. (Urban/rural is hogwash due first to the lack of an urban population at the nation’s founding and the current 80/20 split, and protection from big states is also off base seeing as 11 states can choose the president if they vote together)

      So yes, change a few lines, especially the electoral college ones. They got it phenomenally wrong at the time and fixed it, and it’s gone phenomenally wrong too often recently for any nation that holds to the ideal of one man, one vote. (Unless you subscribe to Lord Vetinari’s ‘I am the man, I have the vote’ but that only works with an enlightened tyrant, and as far as I can tell mostly only in fiction)

    2. the murr,

      “So yes, change a few lines”

      The main point of this article is that we have lots and lots of ideas. If chatting about ideas made a better America, America would be like Heaven. But since the Blue Fairy has failed to appear, let’s talk about how to make things happen. Work, not ideas, are the scarce element in America today.

  8. Hi FM and all,

    Is there a coherent “demos” in a country of more than 300 million who live in states that range from Mississippi to Montana? Perhaps federalism is more relevant than ever. There was a time when having to get a “club membership” to get a glass of wine at a restaurant in Salt Lake City was an irritant, but that’s a world they hacked out of a desert next to a salt lake. Should Utah live by the wishes of San Francisco?

    My biggest nit is with the very important fourteenth amendment and the birthright citizenship provision. That needs clarification. It was never intended for people who are here provisionally or illegally. One can be very much pro-immigrant, but constrained to immigration under a just rule of law.

    Regards,

    Bill

    1. Bill,

      “Is there a coherent “demos” in a country of more than 300 million who live in states that range from Mississippi to Montana?”

      Yes. By almost all objective measures, regional difference today are lower than at any time since the Founding. No surprise why. Modern communications links us together. Rapid and cheap travel links to together. Business, charity, and government institutions are national. Intermarriage rates between regions are too high to bother tracking.

      I could go on, but the facts suggest that Federalism is less relevant than ever.

      “My biggest nit is with the very important fourteenth amendment and the birthright citizenship provision.”

      I agree. But it is a very different issue from federalism. Do attitudes to immigration vary by region?

    2. Hi Mr Kummer aka FM,

      I grant that as a nation more people who are alike live all over the place. We can enjoy great beer in Moab, Utah as well as Kalamazoo, Michigan. Still, I respectfully submit that Utah and Mississippi are different places and have different needs than Massachusetts and Minnesota. However, my “infatuation” with federalism is less that these regional differences are to be preserved, but to let different states try things out before imposing one-size-fits-all across the board. We have states that are much larger than many, and in some cases most, countries in the world, and they can’t figure out how to make things work. Why should we trust kicking up a level is going to work any better? I think I say this as a pragmatist, not an ideologue, but I could be wrong on that. I enjoy very much you challenging my assumptions and reasoning, so thank you for that.

      LK/FM: [Birthright citizenship] I agree. But it is a very different issue from federalism. Do attitudes to immigration vary by region?

      I think yes, but I am not everywhere all at once (if I could have a sci-fi wish, I’d take a TARDIS!). Here in Georgia, our relationship to immigration is complicated, and perhaps more so than in, say Maine. We’ve had a de facto pro *illegal* immigration policy in place for years. Law enforcement had (and may still have) to give farmers a heads-up before they’d be inspected for hiring illegal immigrants. Again, I am *not* anti-immigrant, we just should not be wink-wink, nudge-nudge with the rule of law, because if rule of law means nothing, then what founding myths do we have to fall back on? Go pitch watermelons for an *hour*. Screw hot yoga. It’s hard work. Cut cane for 14 hours then go try to sleep in a cinder block “house” with no windows or doors with 14 other guys in Okeechobee during the cut. You start milking cows at 4 in the morning. The folks in Florida hire women to do the milking, not because they’re sexist, it’s because cows give more milk (on average) when handled by women. The kindness and generosity shown to me by “illegals” has been humbling. This is the hard thing to articulate. Many amazing people, and I’d swap them out 3 to 1 if I could, but we need a rule of *just* law. Maybe this is my delusion.

      I agree that the birthright citizenship is a different issue from federalism, but my thoughts were about tweaking the Constitution, and those were my two tweaks:

      1) re-enforce federalism, not for ideological reasons, but to limit the damage of bad policy (Georgia is as big (as in contribute to the world’s economy) as Sweden!), and
      2) move toward an “op-in” model of citizenship rather than circumstance of birth. If you’re going to be a radical country, then be radical!

      With regards,

      Bill

    3. Bill,

      Thank you for the clarification to your comment. One point seems a bit odd.

      “but to let different states try things out before imposing one-size-fits-all across the board.”

      Policy experiments can be done by State or National governments. And the love of Federalism (needed now “more than ever”) seems radically wrong in as the nation is tied together far more than in the past. In 1800 different states could make economic and social policy in isolation. That is seldom the case today, and likely to be even less likely true tomorrow. Pollution, race-to-the-bottom competition for corporate business, internal migrations of products and people — these and a thousand other things make traditional Federalism increasingly a romantic anachronism.

      More useful would be to determine those things that are best done at each level. Clear focus, backed by analysis.

    4. Dear Mr Kummer,

      You may be right about federalism being an anachronism. But why is the EU not the United States of Europe? It’s far from it. As knuckle dragging savages, we still have a lot to work through, and I’m just skeptical that Hillary Clinton or John McCain are ready to lead us to the promised land. Consolidating the power of 300+ million behind Donald J Trump (google him ;) is an indication that the train has left the rails. I’d rather see Vermont successfully implement single payer before saying they can’t do it until they get money from California, and I’d *really* like to see it before they write into law mandatory profit margins for the health-care middle men who are already raking it in and while providing absolutely no value add. You are right about the other models we have to follow around the world, but they haven’t been implemented here. I’d like to see it demonstrated. We have the best health care system in the world — if you’re rich. I am less interested in equitable (I won’t beat LeBron James in a game of horse, and no law should try to make it be otherwise) than I am in fair. Some decades in DC and mired in the military-industrial-congressional complex leaves me less than optimistic about fairness at that level.

      I heard Ike tell us that every bomb we build takes the food from a baby’s mouth (or something like that, it’s been years!), but few took that to heart.

      With regards, fond and considered,

      Bill

    5. Dear Mr Kummer,

      I am not kidding in the least. Alabama and Auburn people come to blows. Duke versus NC. This may seem trivial but don’t underestimate the power of dualism. We are a federation not that much different from the EU perspective once you throw places like Saudi Arabia or the “Democratic” “Republic” of Congo into the conversation. We are much more coherent as “Americans” but the real politik is to make us less so. Anyone who believes in the right of another to express how they feel and live their life as they please without trampling the rights of another is my brother. Is that a woman? How does she absorb EM radiation due to her pigmentation? I don’t care. No from the rights perspective, at least, but scientific things get my attention, but it’s impersonal.

      I anticipate your reaction and you’re not wrong, but please recognize it’s a spectrum. Advertisers get this. Watch truck adds in California. They’re different from the ads in Georgia.

      Why?

      This is our *great* blessing. We’re so different, but we’re all American. Come to Georgia, and I’ll take you to the AME churches in a literal stones throw from where I am now (I can do it left handed!) and the and hipster bar where no one knows what an AME church is, also a stone’s throw (right handed, with a running start). Ain’t gonna happen in Saudi Arabia. Or Deutschland, for that matter.

      I think a Commonwealth model might be better than what we have, if only conceptually, not structurally. We only have a handful of states smaller than New Zealand, yet we can’t provide health insurance the way they do? What’s up with that? Dig in. Why?

      No. The “all in” on some national figure is *not* the answer, IMO. I am mostly wrong in life, it seems. But even that experience doesn’t deter me from that skepticism…

      We cannot expect or fight for top down solutions. We have to make what’s around us better and let that “infect” adjacent regions.

      Interesting territory. No clear answers, despite fairly clear goals.

      With regards,

      Bill

    6. re: Federalism and the devolution of powers, I think it’s telling that a lot of states run by small-government, state’s-rights conservatives have taken pains of late to restrict what can be done by cities and counties, on the grounds that it’s the United States not the United Cities and besides which the only legitimate form of federalism is that which benefits the Republican Party, oops we didn’t mean to say the last part aloud.

      Basically, it’s whatever best empowers the Party. If they thought workers and peasants soviets would get the tax cuts through, they’d back those.

    7. SF,

      That’s an important point. For all the Right’s gushing about local governments, many small town governments are autocracies — run by the local elites as fiefdoms. With the police and judges in their pockets, they can get away with almost anything. Much of American history consists of sad tales about such towns, where the bad guys usually win.

    8. Hi SF,

      SF: I think it’s telling that a lot of states run by small-government, state’s-rights conservatives have taken pains of late to restrict what can be done by cities and counties

      On the one hand, I *personally* think this hypocritical forfeiture of subsidiarity on the hands of the so-called small-gummint set is a heaping truck-load of horse hockey. Alas, states are within their rights to do all sorts of crazy, self-destructive stuff.

      On the whole, I think that the federal government does things from an administrative/executive POV better than many state and local equivalents (my experience is on the IC side of law enforcement and to some extent environmental, agricultural, and energy program admin): their people are better educated, better trained, and subject to much greater professional oversight (there are of course exceptions, you have to squint and the variance is very large). Please note, this does not extend to contract administration or anything to do with Paperwork Reduction Act.

      I am not so much infatuated with small-gummint (you have to say it like they do to get the full and proper effect) for its own sake, but rather that I’m skeptical that our legislative process at the federal level is capable of knocking out a one-size-fits-all program of consequence that can work reliably. Cf. tax reform. This should be easy (get rid of the perversions that are mortgage interest and state and local income tax deductions — how hard could that be (chortle)), but it’s not only not easy, it appears not possible. It’s because the legislative branch was never designed to carry out these big pan-federal types of initiatives. Hamilton, War of 1812, all that stuff notwithstanding. It just doesn’t compare.

      The sad thing is there is little that actually needs to be invented (HT FM and others — not my observation at all) — there is a smorgasbord of programs out there and all we’d need do is pick and choose (just let New Zealand run it for us!), but we don’t because the system is not designed to allow that to work that way. Rand Paul and Lisa Murkowski make John McCain the Anthony Kennedy of the Senate and a more consequential Democratic Senator than HRC ever was, LOL. People in the House and the Senate are begging Trump to violate the laws so “insurance” companies can continue to profit under Obamacare (pay out unappropriated funds as hush money). That tells you something when people in Congress are begging the President to bribe people so they don’t actually have to do their job, because it’s likely they can’t.

      So, it’s not because I think there are a bunch of geniuses under the Golden Dome in Atlanta that I think a lot of stuff should be delegated to the states, it’s because I think they’ve got a better shot of getting it right than DC’s pan-federal legislative process — for the people of Georgia. Does Mississippi or Louisiana have a better shot? Maybe not. But this is the calculus, and it’s probabilistic.

      With kind regards,

      Bill

    9. Bill,

      “On the whole, I think that the federal government does things from an administrative/executive POV better than many state and local equivalents”

      Looking at US history, that is so obvious I’m amazed at how many conservatives believe otherwise. They should spend less time in Oz and more in America. To take the extreme example, local governments (despite having in many ways narrower and simpler responsibilities) are very often stunningly corrupt. That’s true of both urban and rural governments (the neofeudal nature of so many US small town governments might account in part for their long outflow of their young people to cities seeking freedom and opportunity).

    10. Hi Mr Kummer,

      LK: Looking at US history, that is so obvious I’m amazed at how many conservatives believe otherwise. They should spend less time in Oz and more in America.

      Indeed! There *are* very good “local equivalents” like Florida EMA (Georgia’s too, is not too bad), but you don’t need to go very far down the food chain before you get to Roscoe P Coltrane. I am actually very much in favor of the notion of subsidiarity — pushing decision making as close to where the decision is going to affect people — but that’s not the same as those are the smartest people and people higher up are somehow less smart. It’s kin to “small-gummint”, but not the same. And it’s not ideological.

      Science, empiricism, pragmatism, and a healthy dose of humility is this “doctor’s”* prescription for what ails us!

      With kind regards,

      Bill

      * PhD not an MD/DO/DDS or anything like that. Used mainly these days for ironic or humorous purposes.

    11. Bill,

      “I am actually very much in favor of the notion of subsidiarity”

      I agree, sorta. The problem with local governments is that they are easily captured by local elites. That is especially true in America, with rural areas often have a Latin America client-patron system. That is, a few families own almost everything, with a tiny middle class (the undertaker, doctor, etc) — and everybody else living hand-to-mount, a large fraction with jobs that are some combination of season, part-time, minimum-wage, no-benefits. These levels of inequality almost guarantee exploitative government.

      The only effective solution is supervision from State or Federal government. Since local elites often own State governments in smaller States (by population), that leaves the Federal government as the only check to provide balance. This has been demonstrated countless times. It requires thick blindfolds by conservatives to avoid seeing this.

    12. Hi Mr Kummer,

      LK: I agree, sorta. The problem with local governments is that they are easily captured by local elites.

      Right! So the right mix, it seems is strong federal enforcement of individual rights and a *just* rule of law and policy pushed off to locals with a strong sense of opprobrium should they go off the rails (including fines and jail time (and flogging and time in the stocks, too)). I really get this is not perfect. Having Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi on the TV moving their mouths and filling the air with nonsense is likewise not perfect. That we allow such hot air to contribute to global warming without capturing the energy to spin a turbine should have Al Gore reach critical mass (and maybe we can spin a turbine with that release of heat, too).

      Elections are imperfect. Better would be a “cursus honorum” where we just draft people to serve as representatives, they do their time and are done with severe penalties for corruption (but sympathy for bad, but well-intended, decision making). No election pressures, just time in the barrel, and once you’re discharged honorably, you have a modest pension and the thanks of a grateful nation for the service. It actually could work at all levels, and I wouldn’t want them being cross-contaminated (e.g., Bob gets drafted for the GA House, so he’s now out for federal service).

      I *know* this seems crazy, but no less so than the bucket of crazy we love and adore with our system now, LOL!

      Thank you, sir, for your service in fostering this conversation.

      With kind regards,

      Bill

    13. Bill,

      “Better would be a “cursus honorum” where we just draft people to serve as representatives”

      First, who is this “we” that would choose our leaders? Second, in Rome they were elected to the increasingly powerful positions on the cursus honorum path. It was a high honor, like being “drafted” into the NFL — the opposite of being drafted to be a private in the US Army.

      See wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursus_honorum

    14. Hi Mr Kummer,

      LK: First, who is this “we” that would choose our leaders? Second, in Rome they were elected to the increasingly powerful positions on the cursus honorum path. It was a high honor, like being “drafted” into the NFL — the opposite of being drafted to be a private in the US Army.

      Actually, I’m thinking it’s more akin to being drafted as a private, except totally random once you get past some age limit, which I’d set around 24, just because. I do know the history, and my thinking is more of a hybrid thing. At one point, I thought it would necessarily need be left to the literate and the more highly educated, but if the pool is diverse enough and there is enough collective wisdom to go around, I don’t think it would be essential. This latter notion has come to me in my dotage. Maids drafted along side the masters of industry. Wisdom and privilege are not necessarily correlated, though they can be present in an individual. It’s largely a thought experiment, I know, but would a school teacher pushing seventy thinking retirement or a young dad working for extra cash for his new kid at the Checker Burger really be any worse than (a) Lindsay Graham? Sad thing is, I actually had some sympathy for him at one point until he ran off the rails onto the kill them all and let God sort them out foreign policy dogma. It’s a variation on that thing attributed to WF Buckley which I’m sure I also don’t get right, but it would be better to be governed by the folks who constitute the first couple thousand names in the Cambridge phone book than the top 1000 people from Harvard or whatever. It’s not a matter of competence — it’s agenda.

      This is where my flirtation with federalism gets titillating. That kind of system would never go federal, but you could almost see it happening in a Wyoming or Alaska or New Hampshire or even Maine. Not really, of course, but if you squint…

      With kind regards,

      Bill

    15. Dear Mr Kummer,

      LK: That’s pretty much the opposite of Rome’s cursus honorum.

      Right! Between, Latin I, II, and III and a Rubik’s cube worth of permutations on European/Ancient/Classical history classes, and crap I just read because that’s the kind of stuff I read, I get the Roman cursus honorum. That’s why it would be the American take on it. New and improved! We have to adapt. It’s probably unreasonable to think we can just take what came before and just use it without a little tweaking. Rather than twiddle our thumbs and wish for a Cincinnatus, we just press our fellow citizens into service (which means maybe ourselves). No volunteers, because a volunteer might have an agenda beyond just doing one’s duty. I’d say just call it a draft, but it’s really a variation on the cursus honorum, because you have to follow the path once you’re on it, and to drop off of it is to flick the chin to honor, which I hope would be shameful enough in itself. Rugby wouldn’t be the game it is if someone hadn’t picked up the ball, which is pretty much the worst thing you can do in that sport where they kick the ball about. ;)

      Again, it’s a thought experiment, but one that might inform how we run our chamber of commerces and libraries. Or schools, even. Or not. There are two modes — what we’ve always done, and the infinitude of alternatives.

      My “oh sh*t!” moment contemplating this was to understand that not everyone needs to be a law school grad, or even literate, to be an effective /representative/ in the service of the people. Wisdom and life experience, if balanced by a diversity of viewpoints that might understand things like English common law and why (pretty much) anyone could become a Roman citizen under their laws. A few thousand reps should be sufficient.

      With kind regards,

      Bill

    16. Bill,

      A look at what research shows about results at different levels of Federal governments: “Are States Really More Efficient Than the Federal Government?” by Annie Lowrey at The Atlantic, 2 oct 2017 — “Political scientists and economists don’t think so, but many Republicans — who want to turn national programs over to local control — do.”

      It makes some good points, but ignores the big factor: size. “States” are not an especially useful category for analysis of US politics. There is an order of magnitude difference in population among them. California has 40 million people; as a nation it would be the 36th largest in the world. Wyoming has 585 thousand people; as a city it would be the 35th largest in America.

    17. Hi Mr Kummer,

      LK: A look at what research shows about results at different levels of Federal governments: …

      I had seen that; it’s an interesting read, and it largely matches my experiences (perhaps that’s a case of confirmation bias tho… :)

      LK: It makes some good points, but ignores the big factor: size. “States” are not an especially useful category for analysis of US politics.

      Man oh man is this ever the important point. The US is truly unique in this regard. Many of our states would be relatively large, prosperous countries were they hung out by themselves. One of my favorite comparisons is Georgia with Sweden, and Sweden has two car companies and makes an air superiority fighter, and, oh yeah, fairly universal health care, yet the GDPs and populations are comparable. California would knock Russia and Italy out of the G8. Wide, wonderful Wyoming has a population *smaller* than Dekalb County GA, which btw boasts a supremely well run city in Decatur and one of the worst, most corrupt, incompetent county governments that have ever stunk up a joint (point is scale is merely correlated to competence, not deterministically related).

      One of the reasons to favor letting states run the experiments is that some of them are actually capable of doing it (see how California leads the rest of the country including the Feds around on environmental standards especially with respect to cars). Others are not. Others may not be interested either way. The cost is increased levels of replication, corruption, incompetence, etc., etc., but at least something might get done. The collateral damage of people living in crappy states in crappy circumstances is unfortunate, but somehow I don’t think hoping for Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to come riding to the rescue with good federal policy is going to salve that wound, alas.

      Anyway, I think I’ve beaten that horse sufficiently well that the glue factory won’t take the corpse.

      Congratulations on 8M views!

      With kind regards,

      Bill

  9. Mr. Kummar, you’re absolutely right that instead of wasting time telling people they’re wrong on the internet I should be putting that time into the problem solving aspect, but the idea that the Constitution and specifically the Electoral College are untouchable is a pet peeve of mine so I get carried away, and once I was done with that part I figured any more text would get people to tldr my comment. (https://www.xkcd.com/386/ explains most of what I type)

    1. the murr,

      “the idea that the Constitution and specifically the Electoral College are untouchable is a pet peeve of mine”

      I doubt that many people believe that the Electoral College is “untouchable.” Rather, changing it will be difficult.

      I don’t believe that anyone believes the Constitution is “untouchable”. After all, Congress has proposed 33 ammendments — and 27 have been ratified.

  10. Except there is a not insubstantial number of people that think that way, and about the founder’s thoughts in general. I was originally responding to wkevinw who compared changing the constitution to changing Mozart, and it’s an opinion I’ve come across more than once.

    More generally it’s the idea that anything that’s lasted should keep going no matter what. (Saw this a lot in the Air Force, it was the justification for a lot of dumb things, hazing for one) My word choice might be suspect but the underlying idea that the founding documents of the US created a brilliant system and if only we stuck to it everything would work out (Pangloss, Pangloss everywhere) instead of a system that was a kluge full of compromises that requires a lot of work to keep running is one I come across not infrequently.

    (In their defense, there is I think Burke’s comment on old fences and whether one should tear them down or not without knowing their purpose)

    1. the murr,

      Thank you for the explanation! By “untouchable” I assumed “cannot be” — whereas you meant “should not be”. As you show, there are many people who believe in the inerrancy of this particular bit of 18thC political horse-trading. As for the illogic of that view, you nailed it.

      The Founders would be, I believe, horrified at such worship of the result their horse-trading. They were practical men. If they were brought back today, my guess is that they would work for a drastic revision. Given their skill and gravitas, they could probably make it happen. I’m skeptical we can do so without a substantial change in the US citizenry.

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