Monday, January 30, 2012

Of freedoms and prepositions

If I may dust off the cobwebs quickly, I'd like to explore an idea that's been bouncing around my head for a bit. This may take a few posts to sort out in full.

Democrats and Republicans both love freedom, and both claim it as one of their core principles and driving forces. And yet, from this same starting point, people from both ideological camps tend to draw radically different conclusions. How can this be? It all comes down to negative liberty vs positive liberty -- or, to tack a preposition to that favorite word, freedom from vs freedom to.

In economics, conservatives tend to worry about the freedom to conduct businesses as they please, while liberals worry about freedom from corporations' decisions. This dichotomy comes up in debates about all sorts of regulations: freedom to run polluting businesses vs freedom from living with pollution; freedom to invest at will vs freedom from those investments bringing down the economy; freedom to buy political ads vs freedom from corporations dictating public discourse.

Freedom's prepositions are frequently at odds with each other. A few years ago, an entry at The Economist's Democracy in America blog pointed out that corporate regulations can increase personal freedom if a company is deprived of its right to pollute and a citizen can therefore exercise his right to swim in a river. The argument there was focused on "nanny-state" regulations, like not being able to swim in a pond where one might drown, and the distinction was that an individual can easily assess the risk of downing, but can't easily assess the risk of water pollution. This misses a larger point, which is that some policies have a risk which an individual can assess as well as the state, but which only the state has the power to act on.

Take political spending and super PACs. It's easy for me as an individual to see the risk of a cash-driven election; we live in that world already. What's harder impossible for me to do is to stop it. I can't reasonably boycott every corporation that donates too much to a political campaign, and with a super PAC, I can't even learn which corporations are donating what to whom on a timely basis. Without government regulations, the corporations' right to spend its money has won over my right to have an equal voice.

Of course, "from" shouldn't always win. Nobody thinks that my freedom from annoying ads should strip companies of their freedom to advertise, and freedom to conduct business has given us many goods and leaps of innovation. It's always a balancing act.

What's interesting is that in many social matters, the prepositions don't follow party lines quite so much. Liberals worry about the right to marry whomever one wishes; conservatives worry about the freedom from having marriage tarnished; where conservatives see the right to pray in school, liberals see the right from religious pressure. I'll leave those discussions to another post.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wherefore bipartisanship?

In just a few short hours, Obama will address both houses of Congress to deliver a speech that will probably make me wish my hockey game had been scheduled earlier, so that I'd have an excuse not to listen to presidential drivel.

Not counting the media and public at large, his audience can be divided in at least two easy ways. One is Senate vs House of Representatives, and I've recently written how that could be made into a useful distinction. The other, more obvious division, is between Republicans and Democrats.

I'm sure Obama will pay lots of lip service to bipartisanship, and I'm equally sure that nobody — not the Republicans, Democrats, media or public — will believe it. We've seen that movie before. But a recent comment on NPR made me wonder why we care so much about bipartisanship, anyway.

A couple weeks ago, a guest on WBUR's Here and Now made an intersting point about the recent Congressional hearings about the financial crisis:

I'm torn about that "ten people having questions" thing. Because it's clearly a smart bunch of people on the committee, and the fact that they have different viewpoints isn't necessarily a bad thing; but the hearings this week have caused me to go back and read the transcripts of the Pujo and Pakora [financial] hearings [of 1912 and 1932, respectively] ... it was basically one person asking the vast majority of questions, and it was almost handled like a prosecution. And the witnesses kept having to come back day after day until they'd satisfied the prosecutor.

The difficulty here is if it stays this sort of "oh, we must be bipartisan, and we must let everyone ask questions," then you miss that opportunity to really go in depth and really figure out what was going on in certain aspects of the financial system over the past couple years.

—Justin Fox, editor at large at Time magazine

There's a lot to be said for using democracy to decide who has power, and then more or less leaving that government to govern how it see fits. Fox lays out the benefits of that approach, and the example goes beyond just Congressional hearings. From drafting legislative goals to penning the specifics of each law, too many chefs can ruin the stew.

To some degree, that's the point of our partisan system. The idea is that by slowing down the process and forcing people to average out their ideologies, we manage to avoid the bad extremes (even if it's at the cost of avoiding the good extremes, too). The problem is that, as the early years of the Bush administration demonstrated, extremes are actually still very much reachable. Meanwhile, every bill ends up hacked, watered down and compromised.

I've long been a huge advocate of bipartisanship, but Fox's point made me realize that the real goal isn't bipartisanship for its own sake; it's moderate and intelligent policy decisions. We can achieve those with 50%+1 votes in the legislature, even when those votes are strictly along party lines, if our legislators are smart and open-minded.

The majority party should be willing — even eager — to seize on the minority's best ideas and implement them, taking all the credit. The minority party should be equally vigilant in identifying which of the majority party's ideas are good, and accepting them. That will do a lot more good for the country than continuing our system of polarized and closed-minded lawmakers, with the occasional bone thrown to the opposition for the sake of 60 votes.

So tonight, Obama shouldn't promise to get the Republicans on board with his health care. He should rile up the Democrats with an inspiring, exhaustive plan that gives liberals everything they want — and also steals the Republicans' best ideas, including tort reform. And the legislature should argue it, yell about it, and pass it without filibuster.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Of axioms and bananas

Implicit in my post yesterday warning that America is at danger from a corporate takeover was that this is a bad thing; to anyone who thinks that it's a neutral or even good thing, the whole post would have read like a Michael Mooreian rant. My post was predicated largely on one prediction and one axiom: the prediction was that corporations would drown out individual humans in the public discourse, and the axiom was that humans are more important than corporations.

The problem with axioms is that they're the dead ends of arguments. You can debate a prediction or a logical connection, but an axiom is more or less the end of discussion. This is often times lethal to policy. For instance, many Americans, and particularly the GOP, have an axiomatic belief that the free market is always the best mechanism for allocating resources. Empirical evidence shows that this isn't always the case — health care is a great example — but no amount of empirical evidence can trump an axiom. That's what makes it an axiom.

The only thing you can do with an axiom is to explore its implications (as I'll do in just a bit) to see whether they really match your intuition, and to see if the axiom really deserves being one. The fewer axioms we have, the more discussion we can have (since we have fewer dead ends) — so if we can demote an axiom to a hypothesis, we should.

Back to my axiomatic belief that corporations are lesser than individuals. Some people would say this is because corporations are just an artificial construction of our legal system; but I don't buy that. Every legal entity is an artificial abstraction of a (hopefully) real thing, and corporations are real things. Banding together in groups in order to co-operate is human instinct.

But I would argue that while injustices against humans are wrong in themselves (malum in se, if I may quote Elle Woods), an injustice against a corporation is only wrong insofar as it harms humans. If a government kills someone for no reason, that's horrible in and of itself; but if a government dissolves a corporation, that's only horrible because it threatens the livelihood of its employees and their families (and because by setting that precedent, it puts at risk employees at every other business, too). I challenge the commenters to come up with an injustice against a business that is bad for reasons other than the harms it inflicts on people.

I am not at all advocating that businesses should have no rights. What I am advocating is that they have a different set of rights, and that those rights explicitly make businesses secondary to humans.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

USA: Now with 50% more potassium

A few months ago, I posted a proposal to curb campaign spending in anticipation of a Supreme Court case that threatened to strike curbs to campaign fundraising. The results of that case are in, and it ain't pretty. In a 5-4 decision, the justices voted to overturn a 63-year-old law that limited corporate spending on campaigns.

This is a deadly blow to a democratic process that is already near a crisis point. Already, many Americans — myself included — see too much corporate power in Washington. The Supreme Court's decision takes away one of the few hurdles corporations faced in their attempt to control the government, and the precedent it sets puts most of the other hurdles in danger as well.

To make matters worse, since this is a SCOTUS decision, nothing short of a radical shift in the Court or a Constitutional amendment can change it. We're stuck with this new world order.

One of the core issues at question is whether corporations should automatically enjoy all Constitutional rights. It seems almost self-evident to me that they shouldn't; the government should serve people above all else, and the interests of humans and corporations are often at odds (see my first link in this post). There's a fundamental understanding that free speech is not absolute: you can't yell "fire!" in a theater, nor can you order a hit on someone and claim you were just talking. It would not be inconsistent to put even more stringent restrictions on purely (or even mainly) commercial speech, especially given that it's not clear whether corporations should enjoy any first amendment rights at all.

About three years before the first major campaign finance law was enacted, an American author coined the phrase "banana republic" to describe the gripping power that fruit companies has over Honduras' government. That phrase is now synonymous with corrupt and ineffectual governments under which the many suffer for the benefit of a few tycoons. Too bad for me, I don't like bananas.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Excuse Me, I Was Using That Supermajority

The title of this post is taken from my facebook status message yesterday, shortly after learning of the major upset in Massachusetts. Caligula's Horse (forever the neighsayer -- get it?) responded by saying, "Were you? Because the Democrats certainly weren't." Touché. But the prospect of real health care reform seems much less realistic now. While Obama would still prefer a major overhaul, it seems unlikely now. Compromise will transform the already-watered-down proposals into a series of token measures that perpetuate the status quo.

Perhaps the Democrats should have been more fervent in insisting on serious reform (with a strong public option) and then backed down only after their loss in Massachusetts. Right now, there's no room for compromise unless Democrats want to abandon the push for real reform altogether.

I am also a little bewildered by the surprise at this election result. It was a close race, and Coakley was behind. There was little support from the White House, and little national coverage of the significance of this election. Now all of a sudden it's a huge deal and the end of the world for the Democrats. Shouldn't we have been a little more concerned before the election?

Anyway, pardon my bitterness. My four months as a Beltway insider have clearly caused me to become jaded with politics.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A proposal for viable third parties

Today is election day in Massachusetts, and I had to choose between meh and bad. I voted meh, but not without the obligatory "if only there were a viable third party" mutterings. If it didn't mean throwing my vote away, I might have actually voted for the libertarian candidate (no relation).

Our two party system comes directly from our first past the post, aka winner take all, electoral system. All a candidate needs is a plurality of the vote in order to win the whole shebang: if one person gets 49% of the vote and the next two get 48% and 3%, that first person gets 100% of the prize. This leads to tactical voting for one of only two options, as my example shows. I don't like the Democratic candidate, and I don't like the Republican candidate; but I know that the libertarian candidate doesn't have a shot, so I'm not going to throw my vote away by voting for him. I have to choose between meh and bad.

The other way of holding elections, which is more common in parliamentary systems, is proportional representation off a party list. In those elections, you vote for a party instead of a candidate. Each party has its list of candidates, and if the party wins X percent of the vote, they get to put enough people from their list in office to take up X percent of the available seats. For instance, if there are 100 seats, each party puts up its list of 100 candidates. If a party wins 51% of the vote, it gets to put its top 51 candidates in office. If it wins 5% of the vote, it puts 5 people in office.

Both systems — proportional and winner-take-all — have their pros and cons. Proportional systems take away the tactical element of voting, so people are freer to vote for someone they actually like instead of the lesser of two evils. But they're also unstable, since it's rare for any one party to actually have full control. They also give lots of power to small parties, which are in the enviable position of being able to turn a 49% loss into a 51% win if the right quid pro quo is offered.

Of course, we already have those issues in America. Our de facto requirement for a supermajority gives us instability — or rather gridlock, since we don't have a vote of no confidence — and small factions within parties already hijack national policy: witness the power of the religious right and the left's unions.

So, here's my idea. The United States has a bicameral legislature, but both houses use the same electoral system: first past the post. This makes a lot of sense in the Senate, since every state gets only two senators; it's hard to fill 5% of two. But in the House of Representatives, the more populous states could implement a proportional system. Instead of electing House representatives on a per-district level, states could hold an at-large election with party lists. If the Democrats get 60% of Massachusetts' votes, they put in 6 House reps. If the Republicans get 30%, they get 3 reps. And if the dogged libertarians pull off a measly 10% of the vote, they'll still have their say in DC with their single representative.

This would lead to viable third parties in the House, and that publicity could eventually lead to them having a shot in senatorial and even presidential elections. Better yet, we'd have the pros of both systems: stability and slow movement in the upper chamber (Senate), and fluidity of ideas in the lower chamber (the House). The plurality of voters who aren't fully committed to either the Democratic or Republican party line would be the huge beneficiaries.

As far as I know, states are free to elect House representatives however they please, so this idea wouldn't require any change to the federal Constitution. Granted, I don't see any state actually implementing this, but a guy can dream. Maybe it's something for Massachusetts' next referendum.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Defending Avatar

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the blockbuster film Avatar in 3D. Although it's difficult for me to sit through a 160-minute film, no matter how captivating it is, I really enjoyed this one, and not just because of the amazing visuals. Of course, it's impossible to see the film without noting the myriad political and social statements that James Cameron makes. Much of the film revolves around humans attempting to exploit the resources of a distant inhabited moon, to the detriment of the native humanoid population there. Earth has become war-torn and devoid of natural resources, so humanity is willing to kill the alien race in order to access the moon's precious minerals.

My friends have been vocal about how transparent these themes are. People seem insulted by the fact that the film hits you over the head with the white guilt concept. I don't mind that so much. What's the merit in making it more subtle? This goes so far as to suggest that James Cameron shouldn't be making movies, because he's white, and that he should step aside and let actual members of oppressed minorities make movies (because apparently they don't). Kind of ridiculous.

Another cool theme in the movie deals with the evils of capitalism. People on Earth were so obsessed with their stock dividends that they didn't care if the corporations they invested in were committing genocide to improve their bottom line.

I also liked the parallels between Avatar and American imperialism. The humans in Avatar used phrases like "stay the course" and "we'll fight terror with terror." In addition, they thought the solution to dealing with the people on the distant moon was to impose our own values and norms on them, when in reality they were perfectly fine with their own lifestyle.

I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Avatar, some subtle and some not-so-subtle. It may not be a sophisticated art film filled with metaphors and symbolism, but it wasn't trying to be that. A lot of its social commentary is very valid, relevant and timely.