Friday, January 11, 2019

The Congress, Electoral College and Representative Democracy

The Supreme Court confirmation in the Senate last October has had me thinking about the subject of political representation in our country. As citizens we should be secure in our belief that our wishes are being heard and respected.

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed with a 50-48 vote, with only 44% of the country’s population represented by the winning votes:

“…the reality that a majority of the country’s population is represented by just 18 senators …is driving concerns about the Senate’s ability to function as a representative body in a changing America.”

Two of the yes votes to confirm Kavanaugh came from the two Senators from Wyoming. As of July 1, 2018, Wyoming had a estimated population of 577,737, which is .17% of the total in the U.S. Due to its small population size, Wyoming is only able to seat one person in the U.S. House of Representatives, but is still able to seat two Senators.                   

Two of the no votes came from the two Senators from California. As of July 1, 2018, California’s population was estimated to be 39,557,045 - 12% of the country, which enables it to seat 53 members in the House.

North and South Dakota, with a combined population of .50% of the country’s total, provided three yes votes for Kavanaugh. The fourth vote cast by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp was a no. (A month later, Heitkamp lost to Republican Kevin Cramer in the mid-term elections.)

What is becoming increasingly clear is that control of politics in this country is in the hands of rural America: “Rural America, even as it laments its economic weakness, retains vastly disproportionate electoral strength. Rural voters were able to nudge Donald J. Trump to power despite Hillary Clinton’s large margins in cities like New York. In a House of Representatives that structurally disadvantages Democrats because of their tight urban clustering, rural voters helped Republicans hold their cushion. In the Senate, the least populous states are now more overrepresented than ever before. And the growing unity of rural Americans as a voting bloc has converted the rural bias in national politics into a potent Republican advantage.”

“…Today, states containing just 17 percent of the American population, a historic low, can theoretically elect a Senate majority…”

Back in January of 2016, Mikhail Fishman, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times, wrote: “…[Vladimir] Putin is always keen to emphasize flaws in the American democracy, usually pointing out that George H. Bush won the presidency in 2000 despite losing the popular vote. In doing so, he seems to be sending a message to his nation that rigged elections in Russia are somehow a similar phenomenon.” (Al Gore garnered nearly a half million more “popular votes” than George Bush, but lost by five Electoral Votes.)

Brett Kavanaugh was nominated by a president who was elected in 2016 with 46.1% of the popular vote. His opponent garnered 48.5%, with a plurality of 2,868,686 votes. To put that number in perspective, there are 15 states with smaller total populations. The win was due to the Electoral College, an institution which exists nowhere else in the world, and is the reason we talk about the “popular vote”, a term that exists nowhere else in the world.

The make up of this body, arrived at by the founders during the time of the Constitutional Convention, has evolved over time and now is comprised of 538 electors. The number is the combined total of 435 House members plus the 100 Senators plus 3 for the District of Columbia. A majority of 270 is needed to win the presidency.

The House of Representatives was envisioned by the founding fathers to be a population-based body, while the Senate would be state-based. In the words of James Madison in Federalist No. 39, “The House of Representatives, like that of one branch at least of all the State legislatures, is elected immediately by the great body of the people. The Senate, like the present Congress, and the Senate of Maryland, derives its appointment indirectly from the people.”

But, as it has been pointed out, the membership of the House has not changed to keep pace with the population growth of the country. “…in response to the 1910 Census, [Congress] expanded the House to a total of 435 seats — to represent 92.2 million people. In the ensuing 107 years, the size of the House has remained unchanged, even as the nation’s population has swelled to well over 300 million — three-and-a-half times what it was in 1910. …As a result, the average member of the U.S. House of Representatives today ‘represents’ somewhere north of 747,000 people."

Further: “Although it’s not the only way to make our political branches (and, through them, our judges) more representative, changing the size of the House of Representatives — from its current total of 435 seats to 650 seats, or one for every 500,000 constituents — would make that body far more reflective of the country at large; would dramatically affect presidential elections; and, perhaps alone among all of these proposed reforms, would most be in keeping with the wishes of the Constitution’s drafters.”

If the House were to be increased to 650 seats, California’s delegation would increase from 53 to 79, while Wyoming’s would remain unchanged. The Dakotas would remain unchanged as well. New York would send 39 members to the House, up from 27. Importantly, the ability of these members, in every affected state, to better represent their constituents would improve dramatically.

As illustrated above by the examples of state-based (Senate) voting to confirm a Supreme Court justice, and how it worked against the wishes of the majority of the population, the Electoral College can have a similar impact and result in much dissatisfaction. “Today, in every state except Nebraska and Maine, whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state wins all the electors from that state, no matter what the margin of victory. Just look at the impact this system had on the 2016 race: Donald Trump won Pennsylvania and Florida by a combined margin of about 200,000 votes to earn 49 electoral votes. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, won Massachusetts by almost a million votes but earned only 11 electoral votes. The winner-take-all electoral system explains why one candidate can get more votes nationwide while a different candidate wins in the Electoral College.”

The discontent surrounding the feelings of being underrepresented has led to efforts to split up the states with large populations. Parts of California, for example, were upset that their two Senate votes were cast to oppose Kavanaugh. “Today’s Californians would go from being the most underrepresented by the Senate to slightly overrepresented. The people of Jefferson would probably become America’s most overrepresented citizens in terms of swing-state clout — just 949,000 people in possession of two competitive Senate seats, a competitive House seat and three competitive electoral votes.”

Why did it happen that the American people had to accept this lack of representation? And can anything be done to correct it? If, in some cases, they are considering splitting up their states, what would rule out the possibility of their encouraging the abolishment of the Electoral College? The majority of people actually favor going to the “popular vote”. I earlier covered how increasing the size of the House would be another possibility. As for the Senate, there has been talk of statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. 

Partisanship will always be a factor, and at present one party benefits from maintaining the status quo, both in the Senate and Electoral College. Citizens of the U.S. that hunger for better representation in our democracy need to demand that party politics take a back seat to the efforts for constructive change.

D. Norman

Friday, October 5, 2018

Shareholder Revolt - Fire the CEO?

“… that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

For me, the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg have always meant that, effectively, the politicians in our government that represent us work for us. 

I have likened it in this way: the U.S. government is like a corporation. At the top is the CEO (President) and his executive team (Department Secretaries) and all the managers (Senators and Representatives). Unlike a corporation, we hire (vote in) the CEO, and he/she hires the executive team. And we hire the managers. Unlike a corporation, the managers (legislative branch) act as the Board of Directors, providing advice and consent to the CEO’s actions.

Again, I want to stress that this is a concept of government that works for me, and some elements may not match up perfectly with what is taught in a Civics class.

As to my neighbors and me, we are like shareholders in the corporation/country. We rightly believe that the CEO and managers work for us. Our positive satisfaction is what they strive for and for which they are compensated. As shareholders/constituents, our continued endorsement of the job these people do is to vote them in during election time. Or the opposite, every four or six years.

In a corporation, when a CEO is making poor strategic decisions that pose an immediate or long-term threat to its success, it falls to the Board of Directors to exercise its duty and, if necessary, rein in or even fire the CEO. 

It can be sudden, and the shareholders may not participate much in the decision, but they know that the action is in their best interest. They feel that way because they have been assured that the Board is independent of the CEO. They know that the members have not been chosen by the CEO and do not act in a partisan manner toward him/her. 

So what are we to make of the current state of our government? We have a CEO that has little interest in its workings or structure. He has little concern for how much expertise his key people have in order to do their jobs. His main objective seems to be to denigrate and reverse the actions of the previous CEO. His executive team members have staffed (or understaffed) their departments with demonstrably unqualified or disinterested people. 

In an interview after the launch of his newly published book The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis says: “I’m trying to think if there’s anybody who’s just full-throatedly enthusiastic about the enterprise he’s been charged to run. Rex Tillerson wasn’t. Defense. [Jim] Mattis. And maybe, strangely, [Steven] Mnuchin. We never hear about him. I keep getting asked what’s the source of the next financial crisis, and I don’t have an answer because I don’t know anything, but there’s one thing that’s been eating at me since this man was elected. It’s the thing that, if it happened, you’d rewind the tape like in The Usual Suspects and say, (gasps) “Why didn’t I see that coming?”

So far, there are a number of concerns that a shareholder could have when it comes to the performance of the current CEO. The cursory transition effort, as described by the Michael Lewis book, is certainly one. Lewis focuses his alarm on the aging workforce of the Department of Energy, “which is no longer attracting young people as it once did” and the risk of “responding  to long-term risks with short-term solutions.” 

Should a shareholder/voter look to the corporation’s board to address these concerns? In my take on our government/corporation, one can see that the board/legislators are aligned with the CEO/president in an alarmingly partisan way. They are supposed to work for us and listen to our concerns. Is the welfare, and possibly the survival, of the country more important than the party to which our President and legislators belong?

D. Norman

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Snake Oil Salesman Who Can’t Leave Town

Back in frontier times, in the days before the Food and Drug Administration, a colorful visitor would arrive in town. He would ride in on his horse-drawn wagon, and set up his wares. The townsfolk would soon be regaled with promises of aches relieved, as well as other miracle cures. Customers who could afford it would walk away with bottles of what often was called snake oil. 

From Wikipedia: “The snake oil peddler is a stock character in Western movies, depicted as a traveling ‘doctor’ with dubious credentials, selling fake medicines with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) will often attest to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The ‘doctor’ will leave town before his customers realize they have been cheated. This practice has wide ranging implications, and is known as a confidence trick, a type of fraud. This particular confidence trick is purported to have been a common mechanism utilized by peddlers in order to sell various counterfeit and generic medications at medicine shows.”

I think of this bit of history often, as the days unfold in the current administration. I thought of it as well during the lead-up to the 2016 election. The thought would always be: what would happen when people realize that many of the promises they were so taken by were not pursued, or were broken?

In the context of the story of the snake oil salesman who would make sure to be gone before the townsfolk found out that their purchase was worthless, I wondered how the current occupant in the White House would fare, since he can’t “leave town”.  He has to face the people to whom he made all these promises.

There are several ways, as we have observed. Since the 2016 election, many sources have sprung up to keep track of these ways. Most telling, a reputable news organization calculated that the President of the United States tells, on average, between 7 and 16 lies per day. And he reinforces them by repeating them endlessly, in the hopes that such repetition will convince people that they must be true. Chief among these is to assert that the reputable news organizations are “fake”, so having them say that he tells 7 to 16 lies per day must not be true.

He was recently heard to say: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what's happening. Just stick with us, don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news." Telling so many untruths becomes a steady avalanche, making fact checking difficult. His loyal “customers” won’t even try, instead choosing to believe everything he says.

Another way is to organize rallies in friendly locations and put up signs that proclaim “Promises Made - Promises Kept”. Many, many signs. Repetition. People strategically placed for the best camera exposure perform in much the same way as shills in the snake oil salesman’s audience, who would brag about how much they were helped by the miracle product.

How promises are kept can be easily tracked. Here’s one:

August, 2016: “I'm going to be working for you. I'm not going to have time to go play golf." In my research I have found that our President has spent nearly 33% of his time in office at a golf club, usually one he owns. Another source has estimated the cost to the taxpayer has reached $77 million.

One enterprising site has taken on the task of keeping a running tab of his promises. They show a total of 174 so far, of which 21 have been achieved, 43 have been broken, 18 are in progress, and 84 have not been started. 

There are signs that unrest and doubts among the “customers” are beginning to show. Less than two months remain before the midterm elections. Will they show that there are serious doubts about the value and effectiveness of the product?

D. Norman

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Perilous Disdain For Knowledge

About a year ago, I wrote about a troubling trait of our president-elect, namely his disdain for the Presidential Daily Briefings.  This was attracting increasing attention at the time, as evidenced by this NPR piece

“On Fox News, Trump didn't address that question specifically, instead getting back to his reasons for not getting the daily intelligence briefing, known to the president and White House staff as the PDB.  ‘I don't have to be told - you know, I'm, like, a smart person," Trump said.  ‘I don't have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years. It could be eight years - but eight years. I don't need that.’”

A recently published Washington Post article shows how much this vital part of the presidential routine has been stripped of its importance: 

“U.S. officials declined to discuss whether the stream of recent intelligence on Russia has been shared with Trump.  Current and former officials said that his daily intelligence update - known as the president’s daily brief, or PDB - is often structured to avoid upsetting him.

“Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally, said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the matter.  In other cases, Trump’s main briefer - a veteran CIA analyst - adjusts the order of  his presentation and text, aiming to soften the impact.  ‘If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference - that takes the PDB off the rails,’ said a second former senior U.S. intelligence official.”

Robert Tracinski wrote in The Federalist way back in September 2015 about Trump’s performance during an appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program:  
“But the Hewitt interview reveals something that’s worse than not knowing the names of major Mideast players. What’s worse is his insistence that he doesn’t need to know them. His immediate excuse for this is that ‘by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed…. The names you just mentioned, they probably won’t even be there in six months or a year.’

“What this highlights is not just Trump’s ignorance of the Middle East.  It’s his contemptuous indifference to knowledge.  It’s the fact that he feels confident making a sweeping assertion about the Middle East - that all of the big players are likely to change in the next year and a half - without even knowing what an absurd assertion this is.

“The problem isn’t that Trump doesn’t know, it’s that he doesn’t care.

“He asserts that he will know ‘when it’s appropriate.’  And he offers us this doozy of blustering over-confidence: ‘first day in office, or before then, right at the day after the election, I’ll know more about it than you will ever know. That I can tell you.’

“You know when it is ‘appropriate’ to know basic information about the Middle East?  It’s appropriate to know it now, while we’re still deciding whether we want him as our president.” 

World leaders have already sized up our president, and are very aware of his lack of knowledge about world affairs and threats.  Worse still, they are beginning to realize that he doesn’t seem to care about this lack.  He tells the world that he is “a smart person”, capable of becoming an instant expert on any subject.  

As the Post article points out:
“The allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, which the president has denied categorically, also contribute to his resistance to endorse the intelligence, another senior White House official said.  Acknowledging Russian interference, Trump believes, would give ammunition to his critics.

“Still others close to Trump explain his aversion to the intelligence findings in more psychological terms.  The president, who burns with resentment over perceived disrespect from the Washington establishment, sees the Russia inquiry as a conspiracy to undermine his election accomplishment - ‘a witch hunt,’ as he often calls it.

“‘If you say ‘Russian interference,’ to him it’s all about him,” said a senior Republican strategist who has discussed the matter with Trump’s confidants.  ‘He judges everything as about him.’’

Another acknowledged threat is his lack of a basic understanding of economics. We will most likely see the passage of the tax cut bill before Christmas.  He believes in its underlying premise that the resulting increased growth of the economy will pay for it.  I heard him say this past Saturday that the GDP rate of growth could increase to as much as 6%!  This is debunked by economists on both sides of the political spectrum.  Ironically, one economist says that we would need to drastically increase immigration to compensate for the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers.  But, as he is fond of saying: “We’ll see what happens”.  (And shucks, if it doesn’t work, we can always go after entitlements, which, in my opinion, is looking like the GOP’s end game anyway.)

Michael Bloomberg recently offered up this scathing analysis:  
“Corporations are sitting on a record amount of cash reserves: nearly $2.3 trillion. That figure has been climbing steadily since the recession ended in 2009, and it's now double what it was in 2001. The reason CEOs aren't investing more of their liquid assets has little to do with the tax rate.

“CEOs aren't waiting on a tax cut to ‘jump-start the economy’ - a favorite phrase of politicians who have never run a company - or to hand out raises.  It's pure fantasy to think that the tax bill will lead to significantly higher wages and growth, as Republicans have promised.  Had Congress actually listened to executives, or economists who study these issues carefully, it might have realized that.”

Our president clearly hasn’t listened either- he just wants a win.  And apparently he doesn’t want to hear much from the intelligence community, with their important input in the Presidential Daily Briefings.  He is convinced that all they want to do is invalidate his winning the presidency.

D. Norman

Friday, March 31, 2017

Nepotism and Value

The current administration has undergone some questioning regarding the subject of nepotism. Apparently, the placing of family members in unpaid positions of authority is being found to be acceptable.

As the linked article cited above states, “The [DC federal] court’s [1993] ruling [when Bill Clinton appointed First Lady Hillary Clinton as the chair of the president’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform] was that the White House and Executive Office of the President were not agencies under federal anti-nepotism law. Multiple law experts contacted by ABC News believe this made way for the incoming president to potentially have leeway to appoint relatives to advisory positions in the White House.

“Due to the 1993 ruling, legal experts say Trump's wiggle room would be if he does not pay Kushner a salary, and appoints him to an advisory board that doesn't fall under a specific government agency.

“'I think it clearly violates the intent of the law,’ said University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter, who served as a Chief White House Ethics Lawyer from 2005-2007. ‘But there are arguments that could be used to try and wiggle around it if you were making an appointment in the White House.’”

What comes to mind is the matter of value. Merriam-Webster offers a number of definitions of value, the first being: “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged”.

How can holding these unpaid positions be considered in the light of actual or potential value? Why would Jared and Ivanka Kushner be willing to spend significant amounts of time when they do not receive monetary compensation? Could it be that they perceive the political mileage that such positions could afford, in terms of visibility and cultivation of important contacts? It is my belief that they do recognize the value of their efforts, with political aspirations firmly in mind.

Money is of little consequence to them. It should be noted that the Kushner family net worth has been reported to be $1.8 billion. And Ivanka on her own is worth $300 million. And, of course, they would have the same shadowy backer that was so critical to the election of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The current president fully expects to serve two full terms, barring any possible outcome of investigations underway. Will 2024 (or sooner) see the coronation of President Kushner and First Lady Ivanka?

D. Norman

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Value of Curiosity

Curiosity seems to be generally lacking as a contributing factor in our political discourse these days. Statements and claims are made that should trigger healthy bouts of skepticism and thorough efforts at verification. Instead, they are taken at face value and acted upon as if they are completely valid by readers or listeners lacking the curiosity to withhold judgements or reactions.

The phenomena of “fake news” is especially alarming. During the most recent presidential campaign, intentionally made-up stories were posted on the internet by people whose only interest was generating ad revenue with clicks. But this fake news has appeared all over the world for quite some time. A favorite example of mine is the one from October of 2015 about the 10th-grader in Canada that created a fake story on his cell phone while sitting in class. The headline: “Justin Trudeau To Build Marijuana Stores In Every City Across Canada.” The very next day, the story caused his AdSense account to increase by $900. Every dollar rung up by these bogus stories that are re-tweeted and opened over and over is testament to the lack of curiosity of their readers. How hard can it be in the age of Google to quickly fact check such dubious-sounding titles?

I, along with many others, find it troubling that an increasing number of news stories from so-called mainstream reporting outlets are also being called “fake”. Venerable organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post have for years scrupulously ensured that their stories would hold up under scrutiny and could be verified. Despite that, the fashion is now to lump them in with the fake internet sites. The press are even called the “enemies of the people”. This is usually because they publish critical stories about the person doing the accusing, despite the truthfulness of the content. This is nothing less than the demeaning and marginalizing of a free press.

Conspiracy theories also rely on a lack of curiosity and skepticism. Those responsible for them take comfort in the knowledge that their fans will generally not take the time to verify them. Recently, one of these conspiracy purveyors struck gold. Last Thursday he accused the previous administration of wiretapping our current president. No proof was given, and despite that, the story was picked up by another site known for advancing conspiracy theories. Our current occupant of the Oval Office then made the accusation part of a series of tweets over this past weekend. Why was this story not considered fake news? Where was the curiosity to at least check with his advisors? With what has resulted, they probably would have loved to have the chance to intervene and educate.

In a post last December, I bemoaned the prospect of our country being led by an incurious president. There have been others with this quality, most notably Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The state of foreign affairs is perilous, and one of the most important charges a president has is the security of our country. How they treat the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) speaks volumes. Ironically, even this subject has spawned disinformation regarding President Obama. From the article, this speaks to his well-known curiosity: “Obama reads the PDB ahead of time and comes to the morning meeting with questions. Intelligence briefers are there to answer those questions, expand on a point or raise a new issue.”

The contrast is telling: “But Donald Trump, who defied all conventions of campaigning for the White House, is doing the same when it comes to the President's Daily Brief. Most days he has declined to receive the briefing, making it more of a weekly occurrence than a daily one.
‘Well, I get it when I need it. I don't have to be told — you know, I'm, like, a smart person...I don't have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years. It could be eight years — but eight years. I don't need that.”’

Curiosity has been defined as a passion or an appetite for knowledge, information, and understanding. The lack of it in our country as it applies to politics is what I find discouraging. Candidates make promises and some voters don’t seem to know or care whether they are even feasible. One vital area that voters could be more curious about is the effects of gerrymandering across the country. The next national census is in 2020. Pushing for redistricting with independent commissions, rather than with legislatures as is still the case in 37 States, may prove to be the most effective road to fairness.

It is said that elections have consequences. For example, some politicians insist that “trickle-down” economics will result in dramatic increases in jobs. It didn’t work in the years before President Bush, or when he tried it, but it comes up time after time. I have found the plight of the citizens of Kansas to be instructive. What their governor’s “real live experiment” in conservative fiscal policy represents is a peek into what could lie ahead for the country. That prospect is appalling when ones takes into account the comparison with our State.

It doesn’t have to be that the usual outcome for the electorate is feeling what amounts to buyer's remorse. We just have to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.

D. Norman

Monday, February 6, 2017

Willing to Learn?

The amount of controversy or questioning surrounding the LGBTQ community appears to be age-related.  The young, and now even the middle aged, seem to be more accepting and aware.

I have felt strongly for a long time that homosexuality and gender dysphoria do not happen as the result of a lifestyle choice. But as someone who chronologically would be considered a senior, I want to know more about something that was largely hidden from view when I was growing up. I am planning to tune in to the two-hour National Geographic special about the subject, hosted by Katie Couric.

It’s called “Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric”.  Monday, 2/6 at 9 PM on Volcano 471, repeating the next day at noon, and again on Friday the 10th at 9.

D. Norman