Hexadecimal apportionment

This is pure political fiction. It takes place in an imaginary universe where the United States of America is capable of agreeing on a new constitution that fundamentally restructures the nation, an act of which I do not believe we are capable in our actual universe.

The basic theme is to get rid of several aspects of the current system that have plagued us for over 200 years. I must note that by "plague" I do not want to imply that most people are aware of the problem as I will state it; this is simply a view of our government and its history in a fictional context.

The current system, being built up from most of the old North American British colonies in a time when there was a great deal of isolation and separation among the colonies, depends strongly on a state level of government. The states are tied to the map: each one is defined as a certain region, usually contiguous, of the national territory. Each state has invented its own version of the wheel in many areas, most importantly the structure of its own governments and laws. In addition, the federal government mirrors the isolation of states in several ways. First, members of the two legislative bodies are grouped by state, two senators for each state and a number of representatives that is very, very roughly proportional to the number of citizens residing in each state. The executive is also chosen by the states such that presidential electors are tied to the individual states, generally in a number corresponding to the total congressional representation of the state the elector represents.

This structure, which was not so bad in the early 19th Century, is very bad today in my opinion. It splinters the nation and puts unequal representation into the very structure of the government. If the national motto is E pluribus unum, (out of many, one), then the organization of the nation into states has prevented the lofty goal of that motto from being realized.
Probably the largest problem, though, is that the constitution has actually interfered with the most basic processes of a democracy by downplaying any direct connection between individual voters and elected officials. Over the years since 1790, convention, state laws, and constitutional amendments have addressed some of these disconnections, but the result is still a kind of hodgepodge and there are still annoying and counterproductive vestiges of the original, no-direct-election-required version.

I consider the following as just some examples of how the organization into states has harmed us: the lack of a national education system; the lack of a national approach to the environment; the lack of a national approach to labor relations; the lack of a national approach to immigration; the lack of a national approach to several contentious areas of civil rights. However, this article is not intended to focus so much on the results of our disunited states, but on a simple solution.

It seems obvious to me that there is no way to get away from the necessity of a hierarchy of government. Our territory is too large and too populous for there not to be subsystems and subsubsystems, and for the structure to reflect, to some degree, geographic proximity. However, I do not believe that the system should cause there to be actual allegiances to the subunits, or at least, not in any lasting, deep sense.

This solution has some similarity to one dating back to Roman times, and is very simple. The Roman system was decimal, based largely on the number 100. We simply take advantage of the hexadecimal system as a way to organize the system. Furthermore, since we will have a well-organized hierarchy, we will use it to increase the connection of the voters to their representatives at all levels.

The lowest level is that of the 4k (16³=4,096). Let's call it a "precinct". After each census, the nation is divided into precincts that are geographically contiguous and that contain 4096 citizens (foreign residents do not count, children and other citizens that can't vote do count). The precincts are the building blocks of the system. There should be some care taken to avoid huge shifts in precinct boundaries, but in fact, many of them would shift, disappear, or split after each census. We could call the executive for each precinct a "captain". Note that a variant of the rule of the census would be to include only citizens who are 8 and older (assuming an 18 year voting age), on the assumption that they would become voters before the next 10 year census and apportionment. You could also add a certain percentage of legal residents over 8 (say 10%), on the assumption that some would become US voters within 10 years. Each precinct should also have a precinct board with all members elected at large from within the precinct, but there is no need for there to be 16 members. Probably about four board members, plus the precinct captain, would be enough. The precinct boards would primarily be local administrators.

The next level is that of the 65k (16⁴=65,536), which we will call a "district". Again after each census, precincts would be combined into districts. There would be a district commission consisting of one commissioner elected from each of the 16 precincts, plus a district chief elected by the district as a whole. Note that districts would tend to be similar to "neighborhoods" in an urban setting, and "counties" in a rural one.

Next would come the 1m (16⁵=1,048,576). Let's call this these "boroughs". The borough council will consist of 16 councillors elected separately from the 16 districts of the borough, plus a mayor elected from the whole borough. Note that some current states would be smaller than the borough, while large cities would have more than one borough associated with them. For example, New York City would have several boroughs, while the old state of Alaska would be part of a borough also including part of the old state of Washington.

The next level is the 16m (16⁶=16,777,216). These levels could be called "provinces", and each province would have a provincial caucus made up of 16 representatives elected from the 16 constituent boroughs, plus a provincial chairman. In addition to that, there would be a national House of Representatives that would not have a maximum size, but which would consist of one representative elected from each borough in the nation, plus a Speaker of the House elected from the nation at large. The number of representatives would currently be a bit less than 300; Provinces would be larger than most current states.

The top level body is the national Senate, which would have no fixed maximum size (but would currently have about 18 or so members). This body would be made up of one senator elected from each province, plus a nationally elected President of the Senate.
Finally, there would be a chief executive, or President of the Republic, elected by the nation as a whole.
To summarize: voters would elect a precinct captain plus board members, a district commissioner, a district chief, a borough councillor, a borough mayor, a provincial representative, a provincial chairman, a national Representative, a Speaker of the House, a national Senator, a President of the Senate, and a President of the Republic. The leaders of the two legislative bodies and the President of the Republic would all be elected nationally. If the President of the Republic were to leave office or die, the President of the Senate would assume his duties; next in line would be the Speaker of the House. (There would be no Vice President.) As for terms, it would probably be best to use two-year terms for all levels below the House; Representatives and the President of the Republic could have four-year terms with half coming up for re-election in each two-year election cycle. Senators, the Speaker, and the President of the Senate could have eight-year terms.

Obviously, there could be some rounding errors. These would be handled at each level by adding one sub-unit to one or more selected higher level units. This would minimize the disparity in representation.

Also, the district boundaries would be assigned by algorithm. The algorithm would be a matter of law, and would be applied to the nation as a whole. The algorithm would be conservative in that it would weigh previous apportionments highly, and it would seek to reflect demographic and geographical factors.

As for laws, all laws would be national in scope. Laws would be debated in the House and the Senate, and could move in either direction (that is, they could originate in the House and then move to the Senate, or vice-versa).

Also, while it seems like science fiction, if it were necessary to form a system that encompassed more than 4,294,967,296 people (a level large enough to govern the entire world), then one more level would be added, pushing the House and Senate levels up, but keeping the bodies the same size as before. It should be remarked that if a system such as this one had been adopted by the Founders, this rescaling would have occurred twice already in history, to adapt to the rising US population (in the system of 1790-1800, the Senate would have been at the 65k level, the House at the 4k level).

I believe that a system such as this one, where every individual's vote counts the same as every other's, where the size of all governmental bodies are manageable, and where all laws apply to all US citizens; such a system would increase national unity and would decrease the perception that so many people have that government is separated from the people. In other words, I think it would increase the power of our democracy while simultaneously strengthening our republic.

This is just a skeleton of national organization, a mere framework. There would still have to be many changes made within the framework. Imagine how different (and better!) the constitution would have been, even in the 18th Century, if the country had been a single, unified hierarchy in which a single system of law and of government had been the goal. Given such a framework, I think we could do better even now.

And what about the states? I suggest that the old state boundaries be retained for historical and heritage purposes. There could be nongovernmental organizations of the old states and/or groups of states. I see no harm in that, it is part of our history. However, the state boundaries and old state governmental structures and laws would be phased out of the new system.

Well, that's the basic idea. I may come back and tighten this up a bit. To do: the idea of a parallel system of executives has great power. The change will be to (1) convert the chairman roles to executive ones, and (2) go back to each body choosing a single parliamentary leader. Also, consider parallel (3) judicial and (4) infrastructure systems.


Educating Sarah Palin

There is currently a high probability that Sarah Palin will run for President in 2012. This is not based on her qualifications, but on her strength as a symbol for Republicans who are suspicious of advanced education and secularism.

As things stand now, it appears that a Palin campaign would be just like McCain's, but without his moderating influence. It would most likely be a very divisive campaign, fought at the level of fear, insinuation, holier-than-thou moralizing, and dirty tricks. That is, yet another a campaign that would harm America regardless of who wins.

As a Democrat, I would rather have a Republican win a campaign focused on constructive debate and including all elements of our society, than have Obama or some other Democrat win a second term by vanquishing yet another destructive, McCarthy/Nixon/Bush-ish Republican attack. But given that Palin is likely to run, is there anything that can be done now to raise the level of the 2012 campaign?

I think there is. I think that Obama should have as one of his priorities the "education" of Sarah Palin, with an eye toward the level of debate of the 2012 presidential election.

This does not mean that he should try in any way to convert her into a progressive. In fact, that would be a mistake, because if that happened, someone else, maybe someone even less likely to run a responsible campaign, would run as the Republican candidate. Instead, what Obama should do is to give Palin a voice in the Obama administration. Not in a central position with a title and real power (because she is not yet qualified for that), but in an advisory capacity, where she would have a genuine opportunity to shape national policy through the force of her ideas.

A straightforward way to implement this, for example, would be for Obama to ask groups of governors (including Sarah Palin) to produce executive advisory reports on topics of interest to their states. Palin should be included in both energy and wildlife related committees, and any others that might apply. President Obama should take an active part in these governors' groups, and Governor Palin should be asked to take on a leadership role as well.

This would be valuable experience for Palin in two ways. First, in a group consisting of governors and presidents, hopefully only good ideas would survive. Even if she herself did not produce much in this regard, the experience of taking part in such a process at a national level would provide her with context that was desperately lacking in the 2008 campaign. Second, by working personally with Obama and with a diversity of governors and members of Obama's cabinet, I believe that she will lose her fear of them. They will become colleagues. At a minimum, this will provide a degree of collegiality that was sadly missing in 2008.

In short, ironically, perhaps the best thing that Obama can do to prepare for 2012 is to help prepare his most likely opponent. This is a win-win for everyone. Her participation in these national groups will add essential breadth and depth to her candidacy. Her input will make the product of the groups more representative of the national consensus. The campaign will most likely be far less harmful to the nation. And, in the event that she actually won the election, the experience could make her a much better president than she would be otherwise.

One might imagine that Palin would be unwilling to partake in this process, because it could lose her her Mackerick™ spurs. This would be a decision she would have to make. I think the governors advisory groups are a good idea in any case (something like that seems to be gather steam even now, before the inauguration), and I think it would be her loss if she decided not to participate, or if her participation was obstructive rather than constructive. In any case, I think the attempt should be made to include her.

Greg Shenaut


Foreign language education and national security

America was caught flatfooted by the attacks of Sept 11, 2001 in many ways, but one of the most subtle was linguistic. American people have almost no understanding of Muslim culture, and this is due in large part to our even greater lack of comprehension of the languages spoken in most Muslim countries. This has been seen directly by US armed forces in Iraq (Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Aramaic) and Afghanistan (Farsi, Hazaragi, Pashto, Pashayi, Turkmen, Uzbek, Aimaq, Balochi, Brahui). Our soldiers have been in increased danger, and our foreign policy has been a disaster, in part due to the language gap.

There have been several programs set up by the US military to increase knowledge of key languages, including special high-paying positions for translators, and educational programs for members of the military. However, progress has been slow.

On the seemingly unrelated front of the presidential elections, both candidates have at least mentioned foreign language education. Senator McCain has included some support for online foreign language training in his plan, and while Senator Obama has not stated anything specific regarding foreign language education in his plan, he has made several statements indicating that he understands its importance.

The position of Senator Obama deserves some further comment. First, he stresses the importance of foreign language training solely in the context of business, which I feel is a mistake. The principle advantage of foreign language training has to do with the ability to make all kinds of connections (yes, including business connections) to members of another language culture. This includes social relationships, but it also includes the ability to read a newspaper or a novel written in and for a different cultural milieu. Foreign language is really more like a doorway than it is a cash register.

The other aspect of Senator Obama's position that is noteworthy is the response to it by his opponents. Senator Obama emphasized the end product of a good foreign language program by mentioning that it would be very desirable if all Americans were bilingual or even trilingual. This position was criticized as an attack on America, in that (if I understand this criticism at all), it would somehow dilute the role of English. This criticism has actually received considerable support during the electoral campaign. I see this as a manifestation of the strong distaste of Americans for things foreign, a kind of fear, in fact. I admit that I don't understand this objection, so perhaps I've misinterpreted it. However, perhaps as a result of the criticism, Senator Obama's education plan does not emphasize foreign language education, in spite of his strong support for it.

It is very interesting that neither Senator Obama or McCain, or the American military, has seemed to notice the connection between the abysmal status of foreign language education in America and the flat-footedness with which we were caught on Sept 11. The connection seems obvious to me: if substantial numbers of Americans were conversant in languages spoken in Muslim communities around the world, there would have been a shared knowledge base available to us to help guide our foreign policies. Instead of relying on summaries from the government and the media (which may or may not be complete, correct, or objective), we would be able to talk to the guy down the street who took Farsi in school and reads a Kabul newspaper online every day.

Obviously, we would also be able to find soldiers who spoke the language in any area of the world where we might need to become engaged, and not only soldiers: there is a need for all kinds of American expertise and support in many places around the world, and having a strong linguistic connection with them would help our country in countless ways.

The point I am working towards here is that foreign language expertise is a national security issue. American schools must begin to teach many more world languages, not just Spanish, French, and German. This must be supported federally from the Homeland Security budget in the form of an educational grant program aimed at second language diversity all over America.

There are many details that would have to be worked out, but here are some basic ideas:
  • Learning a second language, or at least trying hard to do so, should be a requirement at the elementary school level and beyond. This is because pre-pubescent children, whose brains have not yet fully lateralized, learn a second language more like a native.
  • Different schools or school districts should be targeted to learn the same languages, so that a kind of ad-hoc community allowing interaction in the languages can exist. The corollary of this is that the adoption of a certain set of languages in a school district should be a long-term commitment, to increase the depth of understanding of the language.
  • The "classic" foreign languages, that is, the large languages, should still be taught orthogonally to the targeted world languages. That is, French, Latin, and Spanish should still be taught just as they are now. The federally-funded program to teach world languages should be separate.
  • The choice of which languages to teach should reflect the number of people who speak that language in the world. There are as many as 15,000 US school districts, which means that there could be a fairly accurate reflection of world languages and dialects in US schools.
  • There will be a problem of finding teachers. I believe that an informant-based approach could be used in the beginning, whereby an individual trained in language teaching and in the basics of the target language could work with a native speaker informant in the classroom to teach the language. The "teacher" would be a trained teacher with knowledge of English or foreign language instruction who has passed a course in informant-based methods; the "informant" would be a native speaker of the target language and dialect, possibly brought into the country with government support for the purpose. Later, a combination of informant-based and conventional instruction could be used.
I think that a program like this should be emphasized even in the electoral campaign and certainly afterwards. This would enrich America both economically and culturally, and it would also make us more secure in an increasingly globalized world.


Human beings, oaks, seeing forests and trees

A recent article in Science Now describes a very interesting situation regarding oak trees in North America. Based on a recent survey of plant life in several forests that were surveyed in detail in 1950, researchers concluded that (1) oak trees are in decline; (2) smaller plant species that depend on the oak forest environment are fading out in favor of intrusive species; (3) human activity is the primary cause of this change. There really shouldn't be anything all that surprising about that, it sounds like just another human-caused environmental tragedy in the offing, where human beings upset the natural order.

However, the concept of "natural order" is something that pulls random philosophizers' chains. What the heck is "natural order" if it doesn't include human activity? Aren't humans "natural"?

Well, the story of the oaks is a pretty interesting example of why the idea of natural order is overly simplistic.

It turns out that one of the major mechanisms whereby human activity is killing off the oak forests is the control of forest fires. Oaks, it seems, need fire to succeed. They are capable of surviving most forest fires, and after a fire, less fire-resistant vegetation, including maple trees, their primary competitor for lifegiving solar radiation, is thinned out, allowing the hardier oaks to thrive. This is also a reasonably familiar theme--we have heard, for example, that fire control in the West causes the buildup of thick forests filled with flammable underbrush, so that when a fire does come, it is much more difficult to control. Once again, human beings, messing with the natural order.

But here is where the article spins into random philosophizing territory: it turns out that Indians, over hundreds of years, had depended on the oaks for acorns, one of their primary food sources. No dummies, they figured out about oaks and fires, so for hundreds of years, they had been deliberately setting fires in North American forests to bolster the oaks, thereby increasing their own food supply.

Therefore, the preponderance of oaks in North American forests is the product of human intervention in the first place!

So where is that natural order argument now? The fact is, when it comes to oaks versus maples in North America, we can't see the forest for the trees. Who knows which species would naturally be dominant (i.e., without humans)? Probably, it would vary over the centuries, perhaps with variations in rainfall and fires. Probably, oaks would be far more limited, on average, than they were when Europeans arrived.

It seems to me that it does no good to talk about abstractions like "natural order". It's just a little too close to "divinely ordained" for my taste. I think that humans should do things to benefit humanity, and fuck natural order arguments. The truth is, humans can not survive as a species in an unfriendly environment, and so doing things that would make big changes should be done only after careful scrutiny and with great care.

That is, if we want more oaks, and after adequate study we conclude that no great harm would be caused by selective burns in oak forests, then why not do it? On the other hand, maybe maples are pretty cool trees too, and so maybe burning wouldn't be such a great idea. Either way, let's make the decision after figuring out what we want as human beings, and what effects a certain endeavor will have on us as a species, without worrying about the abstract "natural order".

Greg Shenaut


"Occupancy in default": a solution to future mortgage crises?

As we all know, there has been a wave of primary residence foreclosures in our country. Foreclosures always do two things: someone who is living in a house can't live there anymore, and the bank or mortgage company now has another house in their inventory. However, when there are many foreclosures happening within a fairly short period, as is the case in America now, a third thing happens: significant numbers of houses remain vacant, creating crime and safety hazards in the community.

There are various government initiatives that may or may not solve this problem, but it seems to me that it is partially due to the absolutist way in which mortgages are structured. That is, either you make your payments, or you lose your home.

There is another possibility, one that I think would be a net win for all concerned, especially in times of mortgage/home ownership crisis: occupancy in default (a word I just made up meaning something that continued occupancy of a property after defaulting on a mortgage).

The way this would work is very simple. When a homeowner fell behind on payments to a sufficient degree that foreclosure proceedings would commence, the mortgage lender would make all of the standard notifications, put the home on the market, and try to sell it, exactly as under current law. The difference is that the homeowner would not be evicted. That is, the dwelling would continue to be occupied by the homeowner until someone else bought it and was ready to move in. Furthermore, all of the usual negotiations would continue regarding interest rate, payment schedules, and so on, and if an agreement could be reached, and the homeowner could raise the cash and meet the requirements before someone else bought the house, then the (possibly modified) mortgage could be resumed with no disruption of the homeowner's family. On the other hand, if someone else bought the house and wanted to move in before the previous owner could meet the requirements, then a conventional foreclosure and possible eviction would take place.

I believe that it would also be advantageous for previous mortgage holders who are still occupying the premises to have a one-shot opportunity to accept (and to qualify for) the terms agreed to for the would-be owners. I say "one-shot" because the last thing we would want would be a bidding war between the current occupant and the prospective owners. Basically, the law would establish that in the case where a previous occupant in default still occupied the premises (under the occupancy in default law), the previous owners would have an opportunity (three business days?) to qualify for the same terms as the new occupant before the sale could close. If they did qualify, they would be able to stay under those terms; if they did not, the sale could close with the new buyer, but only on those terms.

I also believe that a court should decide whether and how much money the in-default occupants should pay the mortgage holder. This will depend on their circumstances, not on the size of the debt or even the value of the property. One possible rule of thumb is that it be no more than 1/4 of their net or "take-home" income. As long as they remained in occupancy in default, the payment would be split between principal and interest in proportions reflecting the term implied by the payment amount and the size of the debt, with an interest rate determined by the average rate for the time and region. This amount would be garnished from their wages if necessary. That is, it is theoretically possible eventually to pay off the mortgage and become the full owners of the property while still in occupancy in default. (Of course, not if someone came along willing and able to pay the full market value of the property.)

Now reliance on occupancy in default would not solve all of the problems of bad mortgage debt, but it would certainly do one thing: it would not allow situations such as the current mortgage crisis to cause largescale evictions at a time when new buyers are not available. Owners would not be so quickly evicted and would at least have a chance to retain the property; lenders would receive a reduced but greater than zero flow of cash from defaulted properties. In "good" times, where there is a healthy stream of home purchases, this new law would have little effect, because new owners willing and able to pay the market value of the property would come along fairly quickly. Basically, the new law would only serve to add a three-or-so-day delay into the purchase timeline. But in "bad" times, this law would have a profoundly positive effect on both lenders and borrowers.

I believe that both lenders and borrowers would be in favor of this possibility, but I do believe that for it to work fully, it should be supported by state and/or federal law, because part of the motivation for it is to protect our economy against crises of mortgage lending. For example, how would the occupancy in default status of a property affect inheritance or other transfers of the property (it seems to me that the law might want to distinguish between transfers to someone already living in the property versus to someone else).

The main target of occupancy in default is, of course, primary residences of mortgage borrowers. However, I can see little reason why the laws should not be extended to all residential properties, or even to all improved properties. It is less clear how it could help with unoccupied and/or unimproved property, but on the other hand, I don't see how it could actually hurt.

Greg Shenaut


"Soviet" aggression against "democracies" ?

The recent Caucasian conflict has awakened the anti-Communist Right around the world. I have actually heard the battle described in terms of "Soviet" and "communist" aggression against "democratic" and "Christian" neighbors. And, even if those words are not used, it is clear that they are beneath the surface: Georgia, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, is seen as a "democracy", and a "Christian" nation, while Russia is not. Russia is considered "Communist" and "Soviet", while Georgia is not.

In fact, though, Russia and Georgia are both former parts of the USSR, and are both capitalist democracies today. And, in both formerly officially atheist countries, Christianity is now the main, state-favored religion. The old vocabulary and the old framing simply do not work.

It is true that one can quibble about variations of democratic procedure, yet, there is no doubt that both countries are proudly democratic and thoroughly capitalistic.

So, what vocabulary should we use to talk about Russia? One advantage of the old Soviet/Communist/Atheist versus Democratic/Capitalist/Christian dichotomies is that it is very efficient. With that vocabulary, there was never any need for a deeper analysis of goals, motives, or plans: the commies wore the black hats, the democracies wore the white ones. Is there any possible replacement vocabulary that could hope to do this job?

Another word I've seen is eastern versus western, but of course Georgia is just as eastern as Russia, so that doesn't work.

Basically, I don't think there is a replacement.

This has enormous implications for our political discourse. In order to castigate the Russians, we will have to drill down into whatever the specific action is that they have done. There won't be a convenient shortcut. We will be forced to analyze the issues involved, and consider that maybe there will be two sides to the situation, with good and bad on each.

There are certain other very interesting questions that this raises for the Right.

The biggest is: what about the Cold War? Since Communism was invented way back in the 19th Century, we have been defining international relations in terms of the struggle between it and Capitalism. Somewhere along the way, Communism was tagged with "atheist" and "dictatorship", while Capitalism got "Christian" and "democratic". For many decades, both before and after World War II, those tags were adequate to explain every detail of the economic and military aspects of our foreign policy. However, if the Right is right (which I doubt, but for the sake of argument), and Russia is about to embark on its earlier imperialistic adventures, then perhaps the problem during the Soviet years wasn't with Communism (or with dictators or with atheism). Maybe the problem all along had to do with Russia: its history, its neighbors, its peoples, its geography, and so on. This is a potientially mind-altering thought.


Holy Matrimony

Just read today that the US Census Bureau will not record married couples as married unless they are of different genders. In other words, the words "married", "husband", and "wife" will have the implicit modifier "heterosexual(ly)" in the census documents.

This seems rather petty on the part of the Census Bureau, but it is completely on a par with most cases where religious traditions, practices, and/or beliefs become part of civil law. For many years, I have advocated that the word marriage, which is so highly loaded with religious baggage, be removed completely from our civil law and replaced with a purely civil term, like "civil union". We could have laws that specified under what conditions civil unions could be created and dissolved, and what rights and responsibilities flowed from their existence. In parallel, there could also be marriages--religious unions--and each religion could define their own set of conditions and definitions. However, no marriage would be recognized by the law unless it also met the criteria of a civil union. Religious leaders could become qualified to perform civil unions, but they would be obligated to follow the civil law in so doing. This would be very rational, and would solve a heap of social and politico-emotional problems.

However, California and Massachusetts have now made this approach impossible by legally extending "marriage" to include homosexual unions, which are recognized by almost no religious organization, or by the US Census Bureau. It is no longer quite so easy to resolve the problem by use of the "civil union" versus "marriage" dichotomy.

The only thing I can think of as a possible direction for change is for religions to back away from the word marriage, and to use a word that has a strong religious connotation, such as "holy matrimony". Since there is nothing that corresponds to husband or wife that are strictly religous words, perhaps something like "sanctified husband/wife" could be promoted. This terminology would never be used informally, but it could be used whenever necessary to distinguish religious from purely secular marriages.

For example, my marriage, performed by a marriage commissioner in British Columbia, is a legal marriage, and under it, I am a husband and my wife is a wife. Yet, we would never refer to our union as an instance of "holy matrimony", and our roles in it were never sanctified by any religious organization. I would be perfectly content to stop using the words "marriage", "husband", and "wife" completely, in favor of "union", "partner", "spouse", and so on. Under my proposal, homosexual married couples could use the same terminology, while only couples whose marriages were sanctified in the religious sense could reasonably use "holy matrimony" or "sanctified spouse".

It is interesting to note that some churches actually do recognize homosexual marriage, so for members of those religions, a homosexual marriage, civil union, or even a legally unrecognized relationship could be an instance of holy matrimony. It really is because of such confusions and ambiguities that I still think that the best solution is to get the government strictly out of the "marriage" business.


Supply and demand versus illegal immigration

One of the advances of 20th Century business policy is the post-Depression concept of using government to assist rather than hinder the law of supply and demand. It has been observed that human beings have the propensity to resort to sneaky and often illegal methods to increase profits or reduce costs, and that those practices tend to interfere with what might be called the inside-the-box application of market forces.

I hasten to note that if we view the system globally, those sneaky and illegal methods can well be viewed as manifestations of the same laws, and that getting caught and punished may, in the (very) long run cause adjustments in the system. In fact, the laws I want to talk about could well be seen as exactly the kind of adjustment predicted by global supply-and-demand processes.

The specific set of laws of interest here are labor laws, laws passed to better the lot of workers. These include minimum wage laws, laws regarding unions, laws regarding medical care and on-the-job safety, and laws regarding discrimination.

Normally, if you have a class of job that is viewed by workers as very undesirable because it is physically strenuous and dangerous and seasonal, the benefits given to individuals who do that work would have to go up. This is simple supply and demand in the labor market. In some types of undesirable jobs, we already see those pressures at work. For example, plumbers and sanitation workers have been paid well in most places in the US for quite some time.

However, there is a large set of jobs where pay and benefits have remained very low, even illegally low, namely, the jobs filled by illegal immigrants.

Employers, given a choice between remaining in our "box" of labor laws and saving a lot of money by hiring illegal undocumented workers for substandard wages, tend in large numbers to break the law.

In effect, this practice has forged a leaky connection between many different "boxes", or economic systems, the largest two being Mexico and Canada, our immediate neighbors. These leaks allow the substance of each system to invade the others, and all of the systems are distorted by these invasions.

In our system, the natural cycle of movement among the various economic levels is impeded, because there is an increasing lack of viable low-end jobs for our native workers. If all of the jobs taken up by illegal immigrants had to be filled by legal residents, and therefore at competitive levels of pay and benefits, two things would happen. Efficiencies would be made to reduce the number of workers needed and to improve the experience of doing the work, and a large number of jobs would be available at the low end of our economic ladder, but jobs with benefits, healthcare, and middle-class salary levels. People who now go into crime or on the dole would be able to earn a good living by doing those jobs.

The solution to all this is not to tighten the immigration system, to build fences and so on. The solution is to enforce existing labor standards and hiring laws. In other words, we need to plug this enforcement hole so that it is no longer viable to seek workers who get less than a legal, living wage with the kinds of benefits that Americans should be able to expect.

Some might object: paying farm workers or day laborers enough money to attract legal residents might increase illegal immigration because they could make more money. This could be true, if the change is done in a half-assed way, for example, forcing employers to increase wages, but not enough to entice legal workers, and/or by not enforcing labor and hiring standards.

In order to be effective, employers at every level, from people who might hire a day laborer to build a fence up to agricultural giants who hire lettuce pickers, have to understand that it will personally cost them more to break our labor laws than they could ever save by doing so.

I would say that the best way to approach the problem is through a tax. That is, even though it is not legal to hire an undocumented worker, the practice could be taxed enough to increase the cost to that of the competitive standard, plus a penalty of, say, 10% for each year from the time the offense occurred to the time the tax was paid. Under this system, there would be no tax on hiring illegal workers, if they were paid enough money in wages and benefits. This is the case because that practice does nothing to encourage illegal immigration. The normal enforcement of laws regarding hiring of undocumented aliens would still apply as it does now, but in parallel to the tax system.

This tax would normalize the application of labor market supply and demand; it would in effect plug the holes in our economic system that is sucking in so many undocumented workers and leaking out money and jobs for our legal residents. I would rather deal with those leakages at the legal/conceptual level than try to create physically impermeable borders.

I just saw this article describing how employers who want to hire legal workers do not receive the support they need to actually allow workers to be checked. Apparently, these are employers who are already paying a fair, competitive wage, who have been hiring workers who use false documents. Under the proposal I am making here, there would be no penalty for those employers. From my perspective, they are not increasing the flow of illegal immigration. In this case, the problem is solely with the government to enforce its laws regarding immigration, including the obvious computerized cross-checking of records.

One area where I have not been in step with my colleagues on the left has to do with a good national identity card. I am in favor of this and always have been. It needs to have cutting-edge security technology, and it must be backed with a good sample of demographic and physical data. However, it must also be convenient and free of charge to all legal residents. The reason I am in favor of this is that once it is in place, a number of items on the long-standing left agenda will be facilitated (lower-cost, more standard healthcare coverage; less intrusive border crossings; better checking of gun purchasers...). And, in this case specifically, it could allow us to dispense with things like border fences and sweeps of factory floors by the Migra.

Greg Shenaut


Doing away with retirement

There is a standard way of looking at work versus leisure wherein if someone has worked "long enough" or "until they have reached a certain age", that the "leisure years" begin, in other words, that the person can retire. I think we need to re-examine that idea.

Start from the concept that our society will support, at a reasonable level, all who cannot support themselves. In the United States this is less true than in most other developed countries, but let's take it as a starting point. A corollary is that someone who can partially support himself might still receive a graduated supplement, but that someone who is fully self-supporting at an average economic level should receive no supplemental support from the government.

Next, let's take it for granted that someone who is rich enough not to need to work can retire whenever they want, whether society considers them to have worked enough or to be of retirement age. The corollary is that someone who is rich enough, who has a high salary level, or who gets support from their family, can decide not to work full time whenever they want.

Based on those premises, there are then several different categories of retirement: people of any age who can no longer work due to physical or mental incapacity; people of any age who can no longer work full time or at high enough level to support themselves; people who are above age 60 or 70 who can still work enough to support themselves in full or in part; people of any age who have saved or inherited enough so that they no longer need to work if they ever did to support themselves.

I argue that no mechanism of retirement per se is needed to account for any of those cases. If you can't support yourself, social programs will take up the slack. If you can support yourself, then social programs do not need to be involved.

What about pensions? I would say that a pension should not be viewed in terms of retirement. It should be viewed in terms of a bonus for long service, in other words, as part of the compensation package. No company should be required by the government to provide a pension to its employees, but obviously those that do will be more attractive.

This view of retirement is seen very clearly with military pensions. In the United States, a young man or woman can enlist in the military at age 18 (or 17 under some circumstances). If they continue to serve until age 38, they can retire with a 50% pension for the rest of their lives. I am an unusual case, but I (finally) finished my PhD when I was 35. If I had done so as a member of the armed forces, I would have begun my work life with a substantial pension from the military. Some might find the idea of a fat pension at such a young age obscene, but I don't, because to me, it is only the name "pension" that is inappropriate. In fact, it is very much part of the compensation package for members of the military, and it is one of the most attractive aspects of military service. If it were eliminated or postponed until, say, age 65, you would see re-enlistment rates dwindle to a trickle.

I think that this concept should be embraced explicitly by all employers--why not give employees a reward for long service, that they can start to enjoy after, say, 20 years on the job? Just like in the military, the amount could be increased beyond this, up to (say) 100% after 40 years. Whatever. My only objection to this is that it be thought of in the context of retirement.

Few military retirees (other than those who can no longer work for some reason) actually retire. Instead, using the security and cushion of their long-service bonus, they go into a wide variety of fulltime careers, be it ranching/farming, writing, technical careers, mercenary work, police work, and so on. After all, at age 38 or so they still have 25 or more years even in the traditional view of "retirement age" to work, and if we set no such years, they could have perhaps in some cases twice that long.

So, I say let's get rid of retirement as a concept. Instead, let's support all of our citizens with a quality level of life (including, by the way, all childcare and medical needs). The only very important thing is that the entire system must be seen as fair, and must be accepted by everyone. For example, there must always be work for the able, even if it's WPA-style make-work. No one who is able should ever receive a free ride from the state. Given that all must work, most will prefer to choose their job rather than be assigned one by government administrators.

OK, I know, there are issues with this idea, so why did I write down?

My starting point was with the changes that are occurring with birthrates. I had just read a comment that adjusting the retirement age will not suffice to support the large number of retirees that we will soon have. Perhaps small adjustments can't succeed, but a system that eliminates the concept of retirement could do it. That is, someone who at age 80 is still working and earning a living will pay taxes, along with his fellow workers of all ages, to support those of all ages who can't do so. It seems to me that that is the kind of approach that we need. The other reason is that I am 60, and as long as I continue to be healthy, I have absolutely no interest in retirement (as in not working), and I have no problem helping to support, say, a young man of 30 who is disabled and cannot support himself.

Greg Shenaut

The Error of "War" on Terror

Much has been made about the infelicity of making war on something as vague as "terror". There are probably several reasons why this nomenclature stuck. First and foremost, metaphorical phrases like that, combining a word like "war" or "struggle" or "battle" or "fight" and a broad, vague term like "tyranny", "oppression", "Communism", or "fascism" to characterize actual military actions, have been seen for a long time. It shouldn't seem too odd, and it doesn't, for a people who grew up "fighting Communism" to embrace a "war on terror". Second, just as when in the Cold War we were "fighting Communism" rather than (explicitly) the Soviet Union and Red China, and except for a few relatively brief spans of time, Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, and so on, we are engaged in a "war on terror" instead of a war with al-Qaeda, a war with the Taleban, a war with Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Tamil Tigers, the Aryan Brotherhood, and so on. It is easy to forget the Cold War rhetoric of "fighting Communism", but in fact, although the Cold War was declared "over", Communism is still alive and ticking in many places around the world, from a left-wing faction in most western European nations to actual governments and officials in eastern Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. The third reason, and the one that I think has doomed the War on Terror to the same ultimate oblivion suffered by Johnson's War on Poverty, is that it militarized our response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Once again, there has been considerable debate about whether what we are doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo is really a "war". In both Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a fairly brief and fairly conventional invasion of a nation by another nation which cast out the former government and installed its own. What this resembles the most--strictly at the level of what happened rather than of motivations--is the classical invasion such as that of Germany of Poland and France, and that of Germany by the Allies. That is, we went in, blasted the hell out of the place, kicked out the government, and took over. But that phase was very short, and its connection to our motivations and goals was never very clear.

When Hitler invaded Poland, his motivation was lebensraum, space for Germans to spread out in the manner to which they wanted to become accustomed. When the Allies invaded Germany, the goal was to "make the world safe for Democracy", a goal that shares a surface similarity with our goals in invading Afghanistan and Iraq. But after VE day, the Allies had expended the resources necessary to own Germany. There was an immense military presence there, one that had cost mind-boggling amounts of money and lives. Very few people objected to this because of the horrendous events of the past ten or so years. In the beginning, the Allies hand-picked people to run the German government, and no trace of Naziism was tolerated there during the occupation. By sweetening the deal by providing heavy-handed security, economic prosperity, and hope for the future, even the conquered Germans were on board (and those who weren't were thrown in jail). The extent of the Allied control of Germany is perhaps best seen in the fact that the Soviet Union kept it up in East Germany and East Berlin for fifty years(!) until the end of the Cold War and reunification. That is what a military occupation looks like. And make no mistake, immediately after the war, the Americans occupied their portions of Germany just as thoroughly as the Russians did theirs; we simply differed in our goals, motivations, and interests, and acted accordingly.

Our goal in invading Afghanistant and Iraq was to kill or capture the band of murderers who attacked us, and/or to prevent subsequent attacks on us using weapons of mass destruction. Obviously, that goal is an ambiguous one, and one that has received some, but not much, public debate. Killing or capturing murderers is, after all, something that our police do every day. And preventing attacks from other nations is something that a strong defense coupled with competent diplomacy has succeeded in more often than not. But we made the decision to militarize our response rather than use conventional civilian and diplomatic methods.

However, compared to the war with Hitler, this was never anything more than a half-hearted militarization, even though the Bush administration managed to scare--or freak out--a lot of people. Osama, Omar, and Saddam were no Hitler and the American people, or many of them, understood that from the outset. For one thing, Germany had an immensely powerful military machine that had already invaded and gobbled up most of Europe. The people who attacked us were outsiders, losers, thugs, who basically took advantage of a window of inattention on the part of the still-fairly-new Bush administration. In other words, they blind-sided us with a one-time lucky shot. Their goal was never conquest, it was simply to attract attention, even very negative attention, to their movement and its aims. Once the attack took place, their goal had already been achieved.

Obviously we can't allow people to kill thousands of people on our soil with impunity, and this takes us back to the main point. The Bush administration and Republicans in general had been floundering since the end of the Cold War's "fighting Communism" meme. Perhaps they assumed that they could replace it with the "war on terror" concept, thereby uniting the nation largely behind them. In any case, they rejected the specific pursuit of al Qaeda in favor of military adventures against Afghanistan, where they were located, and against Iraq, which had been a thorn in George Bush's side for more than a decade.

However, their error was in grossly overestimating the nation's interest in a new war. In fact, there never was any desire for war. We wanted more than anything to understand what happened on September 11, and we wanted the perpetrators brought to justice. In the early phases of each war, I think we were expecting those things to happen, and at many of us were willing to accept the Bush administration's assertion that we could achieve those goals through military action. However, the whole wartime sociology, such as what the world has experienced in all previous sustained engagements, never came about. In effect, the government was attempting to blend the "life goes on" aspect of the Cold War with the "any means to the end" aspect of World War II, and it simply could not be sustained over the years. Furthermore, the nation's real interests--security and justice--were not met. In order to support the pretense of a war footing, the government has had to resort to the creation of an environment of fear. Most Americans feel much, much less safe than they did on September 10, 2001, and not much safer than they did on September 12, 2001. As for justice: instead of bringing the perpetuators to justice, we have largely imprisoned a group of assorted bearded coreligionists of the perpetuators in an initiative characterized more by gross injustice than by anything recognizable as justice.

I believe that the fundamental error in all this was to militarize our response to the September 11 attacks. Our military works best when is is used as an adjunct of diplomacy, and the best way to bring criminals to justice is through competent and vigorous law enforcement. Although it is painful to remember now, virtually the entire world was behind us after September 2001. If we had marshalled a diplomatic effort coupled with a very strong police investigation of the facts in order to make a case that would have succeeded even under the strictest Sharia law, we might have taken out al Qaeda without firing a shot. And even if we had needed to go into Afghanstan or Pakistan to get them, we could have done that with immense international support and without starting a war. A non-military response would have achieved our goals (which have not yet been achieved!), would have bolstered our position as a world leader, and would have supported world peace rather than the use of military force. An opportunity that lamentably has now been lost. Perhaps the lesson will be remembered, though.

Greg Shenaut



All my life, I've been a heavy pleasure reader. At times, it has seemed like an addiction, and there is little question that it has affected the course of my life in negative ways. However, that's not what this post is about. I want to talk about one of the greatest pleasures available to the lifelong reader: the rediscovery of books read and enjoyed long ago.

What prompted this post was my recent reading of the Glencannon stories, written from around 1925 to around 1950 by Guy Gilpatric. I have come into contact with Colin Glencannon, Chief Engineer of the SS Inchcliffe Castle, during three periods of my life.

When I was a child, my parents had a fairly small collection of books in the house. Several volumns of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, the Encyclopedia Americana, other miscellania, and Mr. Glencannon Ignores the War. I would say that by the time I was out of elementary school, I had read all of their books several times over, and Glencannon many times. 

I should add that my father was a Marine who had fought in the South Pacific in World War II, and that the book was given to him by my mother, probably because the story was placed there. The Glencannon book, along with other fare such as Robert Sherrod's "Tawara: the Story of a Battle", along with war souvenirs like a Japanese sword & flag, gave me a glimpse into the world as it was for my parents during the War (I was born a bit more than two years after VJ day).

Perhaps it is a tribute to my shallowness, but I related to the fictional universe created by Gilpatric much more than the real one written about by Sherrod, and while I remember almost nothing about Tawara, Glencannon and the other characters in Mr. Glencannon Ignores the War have stayed with me all my life.

When I was in college, my father died. I don't think it's an accident that some time after that, I thought of that Glencannon book, and decided to see whether the university library had a copy. I was extremely pleased that not only did it have a copy of Mr. Glencannon Ignores the War, but there were copies of a Glencannon Omnibus and a "Best of" Glencannon collection. I devoured all of those with great pleasure.

Last spring, my mother died. I have no idea if there is a connection, but I recently began to have the desire to re-read some Glencannon. I am associated with a different university now, and I was able this time around to get my hands on all three of the Glencannon Omnibus volumes. I just finished them, and it was a wonderful experience. For one thing, the effect was much greater to be able to read all the stories, but without question, the peak was in ending right where I started more than 50 years ago, with Mr. Glencannon Ignores the War.

There is no question that this is a great story and a great series. I would have enjoyed them even had I not been exposed to them as a child. But because of the linkage with my earlier life, I feel flooded with nameless emotions and memories. I suppose that this may be similar to other kinds of nostalgia -- going back to old places, smelling old smells, and so on, but I can't help but think that there is a kind of synergy from the experience of reading the story, already a kind of escape from the here and now, with the re-reading of such a familiar story from my childhood, and one that had such strong personal associations for me.

If you are a lifelong reader, I encourage you to go back over some of these old tales. If you aren't, then it's not too late to get started now, so hop to it.

Greg Shenaut
P.S. For a taste of Colin Glencannon, there are etext versions of three stories here.


Toward a more rational public education system

I have been a student far more than most people: it took me 29 years to get through school from first grade to the PhD (with various twists, turns, and interruptions along the way). I also spent ten years teaching music privately, and later, several years homeschooling my two daughters. I often have randomly philosophized on the question of education, and over the years have developed a few ideas and opinions on the subject.

The first main difference between my ideas and the conventional view is over who controls the pace of learning. In the conventional approach, the teacher and school district/department/college control the pace, and the student must keep up, along with all of the other students in his class. Those who work more slowly are lost, and those who work more quickly are bored. I think that a critically important component of a rational educational system is that the student work at his own pace through a structured curriculum.

The second big difference between my approach and the conventional one has to do with what it means to "pass" a course or a grade. The conventional approach is to set a certain average level of performance--generally what is called a "C" grade--and to pass those with C or better averages and fail those with less than C averages. Note that a C average can be attained either with Cs in all subtopics, or with an A in half and an F in the other half of the subtopics. That is, a C average means that there are certain subtopics that have not been mastered; yet, the student must advance to the next level and do work that presupposes this mastery. As one moves through 12 grades, there is an accumulation of nonmastery such that students who graduate highschool with an overall C average will have mastered, on average, only half of the subtopics in the courses that they passed. I think that a second critically important component of a rational educational system is that students must master each and every subtopic that they study, in a structured curriculum. By "master", I mean that there should be no misunderstanding, basically performance at the "A" or "A+" level.

Finally, a third significant difference between my ideas and conventional education is that all students must end up at the same point. That is, there is something called a highschool diploma, or a bachelor's degree, that all students must achieve within a certain period of time. Those who don't, fail; those who do, pass. My idea is that, given a properly structured curriculum through which students pass at their own pace, but in which each and every subtopic must be mastered before advancing, the proper outcome measure is not a single diploma/no diploma, but rather, an index that represents just how far they have progressed--with complete mastery, remember--through the structured curriculum, at any given point in time.

The structure of the curriculum is extremely important, however, there is already wide general agreement, at least for the core subject areas, as to this structure. There is no reason why extra, less-structured, non-core subjects can't be incorporated into the core curriculum as such, as long as the well-structured core is available. For example, if performance ability on the violin is not part of the core (and why should it be?), there is still no reason why a student should not add a violin performance component to his individual curriculum.

So there should be a national core curriculum broken down into a network of interrelated subtopics such that the dependencies are encoded into the curriculum in the form of prerequisites. When a student has mastered all prerequisites, then he advances to the next set of obligatory and optional subtopics, in an ongoing process.

This means that students will work much more independently than in a conventional classroom. There are two relevant precedents for this. The first is so-called "open education" which was popular in the 1970s (and in which my elder daughter participated for two years). The second is the style of "unschooling" used in many homeschooling families. In both cases, chaos can result in the absence of knowledgable, well-trained teachers or parents, and the training must include how to let students work as independently as possible, as well as how to convey the information in the curriculum. The approach is also found in Montessori schools, whose emphasis on properly prepared manipulables and other structured materials is an excellent example of how to carry out this approach.

It is true that under a fully-implemented version of this approach, some students would make their way very quickly through most of the curriculum, "graduating" while still elementary school age, while others, even after 12 years, will still not be at what is currently known as the "high school level". Is this a bad thing? I would argue that it is much bettern to master each aspect of basic skills than never to do so, but by occupying a seat, to receive credit for "passing" more advanced ones.

The largest problems in using this approach are (1) to create the curriculum along with all supporting materials, and (2) to train (or de-train) teachers and parents in the method so that they strike the right balance of support for the students.

Greg Shenaut


Term Limits and Lame Ducks

The spector of the lame duck president, or of a lame duck congress, is a familiar one on the American political landscape. For many years there has been a tension between those who want professional, experienced government leaders versus those who would use term limits to allow new blood to enliven government. However, the emphasis by all parties has been on elections and on the beginnings of terms of office; relatively little attention has been paid to the problems of the lame duck.
It seems to me that the problem of the lame duck is at least as serious for the country as the problem of entrenched incumbency. It is well known that the effectiveness of government is greatly diminished during the last year of a president's second term (or the first term if the incombent does not seek re-election), and also of a congress that has seen a shift in the majority in the elections but must still finish out the current term. Officials either don't do much at all, or they do things that are contrary to the current mood of the nation.
An equally serious end-of-term problem is that of re-election. All too often a great deal of an office-holder's energy during the latter portion of a term is focused on things like fundraising, speechmaking, and pandering, all focused on getting re-elected to office.
I think that both incumbency and end-of-term problems can be addressed by making a few simple changes in the structure of our government, including but not limited to extreme term limits. (This is another in the series of random philosophizations regarding the need to replace our existing constitution through a full-bore constitutional convention.)
Well, for one thing, all elected offices should be limited to a single term, and the lengths of those terms should be increased somewhat. For example, four years for representatives, six years for presidents, and 10 years for senators. Federal elections would be held every two years. Note that during each election, 1/2 of all representatives and 1/5 of all senators would be up for elections, and the presidential election would be held every third cycle. To my way of thinking, this scheme would provide much more stability in government, since at least half of each body would remain in office (1/2 for the house, 4/5 for the senate) each cycle. (Note that the terms are all prime numbers multiplied by 2.)
The second change would be to limit the term of each office to one term. That is, to four years maximum for representatives, six years for presidents, and 10 years for senators. The concept of re-election to an office would become obsolete. Every election cycle would bring in new blood: 1/2 of the House, 1/5 of the Senate, and 100% of the presidency. Note that the increases in the lengths of the terms proposed above is a counterbalance for the rather extreme single-term limit. There would never be a complete shake-up in Congress. There could still be a system of seniority, but only to the extent that in the House, the representatives in the second half of their term would be senior, and the ones just coming in would be junior; the same situation would obtain in the Senate, but there would be five levels of seniority instead of two.
Furthermore, this term limitation would not be only on re-election to the same office currently held, but would also apply to any elective office. That is, someone who is currently serving in a federal office would not be eligible for any elective office for the term immediately following the current term. This would reduce the problems we have seen with fundraising and electioneering during the latter portion of most elected officials' terms.
However, there is no reason why someone who has been out of government entirely for at least one government election cycle could not run for election to another office. That is, one could see a four year term in the House, two years out of office, and then a ten year term in the Senate, or perhaps a six year term in the White House. However, no matter how long out of office, once an individual has served in the House, they would no longer be eligible to run for a seat in the House. This should even apply to those appointed to fill vacancies: once the term to which they were appointed is up, they would become ineligible in the same way as if they had served a full term. The reason for this is to simplify the seniority system and to prevent end-of-term pandering.
Problems: one problem with this scheme is that the terms of House members no longer divides into the ten-year census cycle. However, there is always a delay in implementing new apportionment after a census; under the proposed system, there would simply be a more gradual application of changes due to each successive census. I have written elsewhere in the blog about my concerns regarding how we have implemented our House of Representatives and Electoral College; for example, an universal at-large election of representatives whose votes in the House are weighted either by the number of constituents they represent or by the actual number of votes they received in the general election would make the census question less problematic. However, the fact remains that because of the way that representatives overlap one another in this scheme, there would never be a clean break between one system of apportionment and the next, however, given that re-apportionments that change the numbers of representatives would only occur at the time of an election, there is a fairly simple set of procedures to deal with this fairly.
When a re-apportionment occurs, there are three possibilities. First, the number of representatives could remain the same for a given state. In this case, the boundaries could be redrawn and the new districts assigned to continuing representatives as well as to those up for re-election. Second, the number of representatives would be reduced. In this case, the reduction would occur only when representatives' terms end; at that point, the number of candidates would be reduced. In the interim, any extra continuing representatives would be considered to be "at large" representatives, that is, representing the state as a while rather than their old (non-existent) districts. Third, the number of representatives would be increased for a given state. In this case, continuing representatives' districts would be redrawn and re-assigned as needed, and for the election, there would be more open seats. Since no representative would be running for re-election, this modified system for implementing reapportionment should cause minimal disruption.
A second class of problems has to do with incumbents who campaign for their "favorite" replacement. This system does nothing to help with that, nor should it. Politicians would still be politicians. However, when we observe campaign activities under the current system, we notice two things: (1) people campaign much harder for themselves than they do for others, and (2) we cut people much more breaks in terms of missing votes, being out of Washington, and so on, when they are campaigning for themselves than for when the are campaigning for someone else. Therefore, while this activity will still go on, it will be reduced, and it will no longer really be an end-of-term phenomenon (because people will also campaign for members of their party when their term is not ending).
A third class of problems has to do with incentives. Maybe the above changes would simply make all of our elected officials lame ducks. Without any incentive to get re-elected, this line of argumentation goes, what would force our elected officials to do their jobs honestly and sincerely? Well, there are several responses to this. First, I simply happen to believe that the problems surrounding the ends of terms are much greater when the official can be re-elected and is working for that. If all officials were, in effect, lame ducks, the entire dynamic would be changed. People would enter office knowing full well that their time in Washington is limited. Yes, some might treat their elected position as a sinecure: ethics enforcement would be at least as important under this scheme as it is under our current one. However, it would also become much easier for our officials to follow their conscience. Even in the last session of a term, every official would be fully aware that they could not run for elective office for at least two years, which is more than ample time for the fallout from an unpopular vote to dissipate. But this is definitely a balance that deserves full public discussion.
A fourth class of problems is related to the previous class: accountability. Currently, the system is supposed to eliminate an official who doesn't follow the desires of constituents, by electing someone else. As a result, relatively small groups of people in congressional districts often can have a disproportionate effect on national policy and laws, and members of congress abuse such institutions as the legislative earmark. This proposal will, in effect, change the balance, especially in the House, between small groups of constituents and larger national issues. However, it will also make the House somewhat less responsive to the people. Once again, this is a balance that would need to be discussed in detail.
All of the above should be discussed in a nationwide constitutional convention, in my opinion. There is no chance that our current Congress would ever pass such a sweeping change.


Why George Romney's Defeat is Good for Atheism

• No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States —Article VI, US Constitution

As an atheist, I have long been aware that the American political structure discriminates against atheists. For example, there have been many polls in which a majority of participants say that they would never, or would be unlikely to, vote for an atheist for high office. The way I've always encoded this bigotry is that only monotheists are allowed to pass the constitutionally nonexistant religious test required to qualify for high office. Romney himself as governor of Massachusetts, along with various senators and representatives who are also Mormons, supported that view, as did the recent election of a Black Muslim into the House of Representatives. I always figured that the divide was between atheists and polytheists on one side, and monotheists on the other.

However, George Romney was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential candidacy because he is a Mormon. This really isn't very ambiguous: the Republican base is packed with religious conservatives who are basically on record that they will never vote for a Mormon, and in state after state, it was shown that this was no empty threat, especially since the religious conservatives could support the nonviable Mike Huckabee with their votes instead. The difference between the presidential campaign and other, lower campaigns, is simply that: the president is the truest test of American prejudices. Various individuals who are not members of mainstream-to-conservative Christian denominations can be elected to lower offices, basically as exceptions or due to the nature of the local consistency or simply as a fluke, but the likelihood of that diminishes to near zero for the office of President of the United States.

Therefore, it appears that the split is not between monotheists and everyone else after all. So what is the nature of the religious test for office and public trust in the Land of the Free?

I think that the test is actually based on fear of being attacked, as are several other important aspects of the US political landscape (the "War on Terror", the Border Fence, the fear of socialism). In this case, religious individuals view atheists and Mormons as a threat because they understand that their ranks are filled with former main-stream Christians who either have become atheists, agnostics, or non-participants in religion, as well as Mormons (and to a much lesser extent, Muslims). That is, the exclusion of certain religious categories is very similar to the kind of discrimination formerly seen among GM workers against Fords and vice versa, or among American autoworkers and foreign cars, or among supporters of various athletic teams. In short, it is a "branding" phenomenon, a defense against competing brands. And why not? At times it appears that our entire culture is based on advertising and marketing. Entire segments of our economy are "ad-based", that is, they make their living by enticing consumers to view or listen to advertising. It should come as no surprise that religions in America have adopted the same kind of advertising/marketing mindset, and that they demand brand loyalty from their adherents. (One might even speculate about the historical connection between religious brand warfare and consumer brand competition: which came first?)

As a practical matter, atheists, Mormons, and Muslims, along with Hindus and most other non mainstream-to-conservative Christians, still fail and will continue to fail the nonexistant religious test for high office in our land. But it is actually comforting to see that the test is not actually based on religious grounds at all, but on brand loyalty. Who know, maybe this insight could show a way to move beyond our current religious divisiveness and pettiness. For example, is there a secular brand (American?) that could actually transcend traditional religious and ethnic branding?