Indiana: Beyond Thunderdome

Let’s begin with this image. In a bleak, dystopian future, a lone stranger arrives at the gate of a struggling bastion of civility in an otherwise savage world. The stranger is allowed in. But first, he must leave his weapons at the door because: “That’s the law.”

 

 

Mad Max is fiction, of course, so you wouldn’t consider the scene from Beyond Thunderdome to be a very persuasive argument when it comes to actual policy today. But if you look at actual history of the United States, you’ll see the same thing. Keeping guns out of certain peaceful, civilized places has always been an American practice. According to the LA Times and myriad other sources, Cities in the American Wild West required people to leave their guns at the sheriff’s office when they rode into town.

Back then, Tombstone had far stricter gun control than it does today. In fact, the American West’s most infamous gun battle erupted when the marshal tried to enforce a local ordinance that barred carrying firearms in public. A judge had fined one of the victims $25 earlier that day for packing a pistol.

“You could wear your gun into town, but you had to check it at the sheriff’s office or the Grand Hotel, and you couldn’t pick it up again until you were leaving town,” said Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West Magazine, which celebrates the Old West. “It was an effort to control the violence.”

Now consider a new initiative by the Republican majority in the state legislature of Indiana, framed in the following question from a constituent survey:

 

 

 

The question is dishonest. A good survey should ask questions without influencing the respondent to give a particular answer. But the language of that question is going to persuade people to choose “No.” Most people naturally (and rightly) oppose the notion that “law-abiding citizens” might be “denied” anything that is truly their “right,” so people are going to choose “No” without really considering the question.  Had the question been something like, “Should people be allowed to carry guns on state property, including college campuses?” it would have been much more legitimate.

There’s a larger point here, though. The wording of the question isn’t simply biased. It is based on a falsehood. “Should law-abiding citizens be denied the right . . . .” asserts that the right exists. But no such right exists today. Current law forbids carrying guns in certain places, including college campuses. Logically, nobody has a right to do what the law forbids. There is no genuine or legal right to carry guns on campuses, so denying that non-existent right is impossible.

Gun rights proponents are employing the “rhetoric of rights” to make their case. This “rhetoric of rights” occurs anytime anyone claims they have a “right” to something, as a way to make their argument more persuasive than simply saying they want it. A drunk might claim to have a “right” to another drink after the bartender has shut him off. A lazy mother might claim to have a “right” to more welfare money because she wants a nicer apartment or a newer smartphone. A sports fan might claim to have a “right” to playoff tickets. These are all example of the “rhetoric of rights” in practice. In each of these made-up examples, the person claiming the right has no real knowledge of (or interest in) the law. But respecting the gun question, the people asking the question ought to know better. Because the people asking the question are Indiana’s elected lawmakers. The survey was mailed out recently on behalf of various members of the Indiana House of Representatives.The survey came to me from Representative Jim Baird, elected to serve District 44.

 

 

 

I’ve met Mr. Baird once and got a good impression of him. My neighbors mostly speak well of him. To tell the truth, I don’t think Jim Baird is to blame for the fraudulent and deceitful survey design, or for the unprofessional use of rhetoric in place of fact. I think someone higher up is responsible and Mr. Baird is a dutiful member of the Republican caucus who does little more than go along with whatever the leaders say. And I think those leaders often do what they are told by powerful national influence groups. We know for a fact that the National Rifle Association was behind the unnecessary Indiana constitutional question about hunting and fishing on last year’s election ballot. It doesn’t take much to imagine they are back in Indiana again and demanding more.

So Mr. Baird and other like him are going to consider the gun question in the upcoming General Assembly. Before they decide, they are going to be influenced by whatever the NRA lobbyists whisper, snake-like, into their ears. And they are going to be influenced, too, by the results of the dishonest and biased survey mentioned above. I will be calling and writing Mr. Baird’s office to voice my opposition. I work at Purdue University, and have a daughter attending the same campus. I know the “right” doesn’t exist, and I don’t believe there is any benefit of any open- or concealed-carry weapon policies. And, oh, look! The evidence supports my position! Consider the October, 2016 report from Johns Hopkins University:

A recent study identified 85 incidents of shootings or undesirable discharges of firearms on college campuses in the U.S. from January 2013 through June 2016. Only two of these 85 incidents (2.4%) involved a shooter on a rampage. The most common incidents were interpersonal disputes that escalated into gun violence (45%), premeditated acts of violence against an individual (12%), suicides or murder/suicides (12%), and unintentional shootings or discharges (9%). Campus police much more commonly respond to a variety of violent and non-violent incidents than to rampage shootings. If those campus officers must assume that any given student is armed, this may compromise their ability to effectively respond to, and de-escalate, these incidents.

 

There are two arguments in favor of allowing individuals to carry guns on campuses and in other public places. The first argument is simply that the 2nd Amendment says “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  There isn’t any argument against that. The 2nd Amendment does, unambiguously and irrefutably, say that. And I hate it. I have relatives and neighbors who hunt and shoot. I’m cool with that and I hope they’ll always enjoy their hobbies. But I hate the fact that our celebrated and revered national law says something as horrible and stupid as that anybody can take any gun anyplace at any time. I am grateful to level-headed people who have recognize how dumb the 2nd Amendment is and have gone ahead and infringed the dumb thing.

The second argument for guns on campus contends that the way to stop “bad guys with guns” is having more “good guys with guns.” But the Johns Hopkins study refutes that. The sort of incident vigilantes fantasize about ending doesn’t happen, and private vigilante citizens with guns don’t help enforce law or save lives. If you’ve heard anything to the contrary, it probably comes from a corrupt researcher named John Lott who has made a career of “proving” what the NRA wants to be true. In More Guns, Less Crime and other publications, Lott “proves” that right-to-carry laws lead to less crime and fewer gun deaths. His “proof” plays well on Fox News, but not so well in real scientific and journalistic circles who routinely review and find fault with his work.

 

Four Words Where One Doesn’t Suffice

Often people argue past each other, saying things that create an impression of discord where none exists and failing to reconcile minor disagreements between well-intentioned parties. I think this happens because we use the word “politics” too many ways. Here I’m suggestion four distinct ideas that go by the words “politics” that are actually very different.

  • Public Service — Public Service is any activity that is intended to benefit others outside a person’s own immediate circle of family, friends, associates and neighbors.
  • Governance — Governance, or Administration, is activity, either paid or volunteer, that aims to run a program or an organization. Being the US Secretary of State and organizing a church bake sale are examples of governance.
  • Politics — Politics describes what people do to agglomerate power and influence to themselves, and then use that power to achieve some purpose.
  • Policy — Policy is the underlying notion of what ought to be done. Policy is strictly ideas.

 

When you think about these four distinct ideas, you start to recognize why so much effort goes into making Washington (and the 50 state capitals) run, and so little good comes from them.

When you think of a senator or member of Congress (or a member of your state legislature), you should think of them as politicians. They are primarily concerned with, and spend most of their time, agglomerating power to themselves. Perhaps they first ran for office with a hope of doing public service. But “You can’t do the people’s business unless you win the office.” Fundraising for election campaigns is politicians’ job one, and most members of Congress spend more time doing that than anything else. The priority for fundraising is so extreme that a group called Issue One has a live streaming webpage that keeps (estimated) track of how many hours our present Congress has spent asking for money “instead of doing their jobs.” When I clicked it, the counter was over a million hours. And that is a tally that started with the current members when they took office in January of 2015. To put that in perspective, 2 years * 365 days a year * 24 hours a day = 17,520 hours. To accumulate over a million hours the 535 members must have spent, on average, 1,869 hours campaigning during the last 2 years. That is very nearly half of their total working time. That’s Politics.

Once elected, politicians angle and vie for prestigious committee assignments and for opulent office space. (There are 3 buildings for senators’ offices and 3 for house members’ offices, and the widely recognized worst assignment is at the far end of the back corridor of the top floor of the oldest building: Room 437 of the Cannon House Office Building.

So, we need to make a distinction between politics and those other things. They aren’t the same. They aren’t even compatible. True, politicians find time to do some governance when they aren’t fundraising. The rate of absenteeism in the US Senate and House of Representatives is far higher than you could get away with at your job, but most of them do show up to push a button and cast a vote most of the time. But don’t expect them to find time for public service. If they meant to do public service, they wouldn’t be in politics.

Does it seem as if I want you to think of politics as strictly and purely and altogether bad? Good. That is my intention. It is possible that a person involved in Politics might also perform Public Service, and it is possible for Governance to achieve Public Service. But Politics, as I define it, simply cannot and never will serve the public interest. You might want to use a different words. But you must remember that the politicking/campaigning/agglomerating is a vast enterprise that is opposed to public service.

Governance can be good or bad. To be good, it needs to be virtuous and effective. A good idea or policy that doesn’t get done doesn’t help anyone. A bad idea that does get done is even worse. The only thing that helps is when a good idea is put into practice. That is good governance. And that can be done at any level from a church committee up to the United Nations.

I have a video about Germany before World War II. This was in 1938 or so. The extermination phase of the Holocaust hadn’t started yet but the Germans were working to expel Jews from Germany. The thing was, German law at that time was very strict about issuing exit visas. A Jewish family could spend weeks or months — and hours of official time — petitioning for the necessary paperwork before leaving. And then some German bureaucrat got the idea: They want to leave, and Hitler wants them gone. Why don’t we make this process easier?

After some changes to the procedure, the pace at which Jews could leave Germany and go to Israel or America or somewhere safer picked up. Without making any judgments about the motivations of the bureaucrat, his suggestion undoubtedly saved thousands of lives: far, far more than Oscar Schindler saved.

So there’s an example of how governance can help. A counter example would be that of former Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, shown here getting praise from former President George W. Bush:

 

 

There’s more you should know about Brown:

On September 12, 2005, in the wake of what was widely believed to be incompetent handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by state, local and federal officials, Brown resigned, saying that it was “in the best interest of the agency and best interest of the president.” Overall, at least 1,245 people had died in the hurricane and subsequent floods. His standing had also been damaged when the Boston Herald revealed his meager experience in disaster management before joining FEMA.

By the time he resigned from FEMA, Brown had already been discharged from his functions as coordinator of the federal efforts in New Orleans and Gulf Coast by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and was sent back to Washington to continue FEMA’s central operations. At the Mobile (Alabama) Regional Airport on September 2, 2005, President Bush, who had appointed Brown in 2003, praised him shortly after the storm hit, saying infamously “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” but later deflected questions about the resignation, except to deny having discussed the resignation with him.

 

Brown demonstrates a case of Governance that is the opposite of Public Service. And 1,245 people died. (OK, be fair, datasaur. Brown didn’t kill those people, nor did Bush kill them. The hurricane and flooding killed most of them and the rest died from the chaos or deprivation and disorder that followed.) Governance can fail to achieve Public Service for a number of reasons. Brown was incompetent. FEMA wasn’t a high priority for President Bush. And Hurricane Katrina was an immense, overwhelming challenge.

Now let’s turn to the problem with Public Service itself. In the majority of cases where public service is intended, the beneficiary is not the general public at all, but the donor’s own immediate circle of family, friends, associates and neighbors. Look at this detailed chart of where US charitable giving went last year:

 

[Source: Giving USA]

The top category is religious organizations — people giving to their own church. The second is schools — people giving to their own alma mater or the school their kids attend now. Together, those two categories amount to 49% of all giving.

What’s wrong with giving to organizations and causes we care about, you ask? Nothing. I wouldn’t presume to criticize, but Jesus did:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43-48

There’s nothing wrong with giving (or volunteering) to groups you care about. But, as the Bible verses show, its not sufficient. It still doesn’t accomplish that elusive goal of Public Service.

My purpose here has not been to suggest that nobody does Public Service. Certainly there are many generous people who do. But I think it helps to realize how many other activities there are that masquerade as Public Service, and how many people we credit with high and noble works who are really just in it for themselves.

Is Christmas a Big Deal for the Economy?

There’s a quaint old story that you may have heard before:

A wise man provides a valuable service to a king, and in return the king offers the wise man anything he can ask for. The wise man smiles and thanks the king for his magnanimity, but says he only asks that one single grain of wheat be placed on the first square of a chessboard, then two grains on the next square, and then three grains on the third square, and so on until the chessboard is filled up. The king shrugs at this odd request, but orders that it be so. As a meager portion of grain is placed on the first few squares everyone thinks the wise man has chosen foolishly. But as more and more spaces are filled with increasing numbers of grains it dawns on them that the quantity of wheat is more and more substantial. The wise man has, after all, gained a great boon in a surprising way!

 

This story illustrates how hard it can sometimes be to judge quantities. And the same difficulty arises with respect to the economic effect of various stimuli, including Christmas shopping. Here’s a clip from a recent news report from ABC News:

With only six days left before Christmas, holiday shoppers are flooding the malls and local stores. Nearly half of shoppers have not finished their Christmas shopping yet, and the traditional biggest shopping days — Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Green Monday — are all behind us. The outlook seems to be that it’s shaping to be a robust season for the economy.

We’ve heard before that “holiday shopping” provides a big boost to the economy. I found one site that says it is “the largest economic stimulus” of all:

Christmas is typically the largest economic stimulus for many nations around the world as sales increase dramatically in almost all retail areas.

But just how big a deal is Christmas retail sales and the boost it gives to the economy? We get a pretty good answer from the Census Bureau’s report on Retail Sales. The link shows the source of the data, which is probably about as complete and accurate a tally as exists. My chart illustrates the trend for last year:

 

[Source: US Census Bureau]
[Source: US Census Bureau]
You can see the uptick there at the right edge of the chart — signalling the month of December. But does that really look like a big deal? December is the month with the highest total, but not by much. One of the sites I link above contends that the holiday shopping season accounts for nearly 20% of all US retail sales. That is true — if you define the holiday shopping season to include nearly 20% of the year and include all sales during that time as “holiday shopping.”

December sales were $371 billion, or 10.3% of the annual total. The monthly average was around $301 billion. The month with the lowest sales total is February, which is not surprising simply because it has only 28 days. If you consider that people eat food and brush their teeth and change their socks and replace lost umbrellas and damaged smartphones in December just as they do in every other month — and that most of the money they spend in December is spent on the same things they spend money on in every other month — it comes clear that the December boost is only about $69 billion or 1.9% of annual sales. That is a far cry from the exaggerated nearly 20% claimed by the news story.

I once had a heated argument with someone about the economic boost associated with hosting a Super Bowl. He insisted the effect was astounding because of all the people who would be eating food in restaurants and staying in hotels and riding in cabs and so forth. I agreed that those activities were all helpful spurs to economic activity. But I asked him, “Do you know another time when people eat at restaurants and stay in hotels and ride in cabs? Every single other day of the year!” He just wouldn’t hear it, and when I showed him numbers, he wouldn’t consider those either.

So, chalk up the hoopla about holiday shopping to another lazy, routinized news story. Remember that what really boosts an economy is ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. No government initiative or specially negotiated deal works as well as a fair system where everybody is working and paying and living and dying like normal. And is it asking too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath (and affordable health care and good public education)? Anyway, the datasaur doesn’t think so.

 

Christmas is a big deal, by the way, in terms of religious and cultural significance. My friend Mike Mercer at Internet Monk has the first perspective. A savior coming to Earth doesn’t happen every day! And here’s a brief taste of that trove of glorious Christmas music that, if you avoid malls and big box stores, more than balances the bad Christmas music.

 

I’m going to be singing this and several other wonderful songs at our church’s Christmas Eve service, under the guidance of our excellent director, Edward Atkinson.

 

So, Merry Christmas to all!

 

 

Harking back to my opening story, do you have any idea how much wheat the wise man accumulated by the time the chess board was filled? The answer is not what you expected unless you thought about it: only 2,080 grains!

You’ve probably heard the story, or some variation of it, in which the man gets an astounding amount due to compounding. But to accomplish that he would have needed to ask that the amount be doubled: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc. By the 64th square, that amounts to 9.2 raised to the 18th power. Ya gotta pay attention to detail!

 

“They ain’t but two side in this world”

Richard Cohen at the Washington Post has written a very timely and important column, titled, “‘Real America’ is its own bubble. I urge you to click the link and read the whole thing. But the essence is that Cohen, who lives on the East Coast and works in an elite profession, is just as much a real American as the people who despise his sort. The recent presidential election was a referendum on two versions of America — a referendum that his side lost. But Cohen insists the differences aren’t what people imagine:

 

I served in the Army. I worked at blue-collar jobs. I washed dishes and bused tables. I went to college at night and worked during the day for an insurance company (as the legendary “Cohen of Claims”). My father was raised in an orphanage, and my mother was an immigrant from Poland whose first childhood memory was of hunger. Somehow, despite all of that, I am called a member of the “elite.” If so, I damned well earned it.

Cohen hasn’t written these words to put down people in the Midwest and South. Rather, he has written them to emphasize that the false distinction is being drawn between good people and other good people. This video clip, from the 1987 movie Matewan, illustrates the point. James Earl Jones visits a secret meeting of West Virginia coal miners and is abused by the white men. They all want to make a living digging coal and they are all threatened by ill-treatment from the company. Their interests are the same, but all they can see is skin color and “Where you from, boy?” It takes union organizer Joe Kenehan to remind them that they are in the same side of the only conflict that matters:

 

 

In the movie, the white and black miners — plus a third batch of newly arrived immigrant workers — make common cause and stand together for better pay and safer work conditions. They still lose, which is what happened in reality back in 1920 in the real town of Matewan, West Virginia. Cohen asks us to consider who we’ll stand with today.

I’ve been fortunate to grow up in rural Indiana, but also to live in big cities (Indianapolis, Washington, DC) as well as overseas. And it has been pretty easy for me. I never thought I belonged in one place more than another. I understand its not so easy for everyone. My mother, for instance, would become physically ill whenever she traveled more than about 20 miles from home. She couldn’t trust or enjoy being with people from outside her community. But she seldom needed to. My mother never did much harm.

But there’s a great deal of harm in the works from the unwise electoral choice that was made a few weeks ago. Cohen suggests that the “victory” of the red parts of America will last about as long as a bubble:

I will not concede that a greater wisdom exists in what is known as “flyover country.” It has voted for a charlatan, a blinged ignoramus who has promised the past as the future. Trump, who lives in a gilded bubble of his own, cannot reverse automation, replace robots with people or blunt American businesses’ compulsive search for the cheapest workforce.

Gibson is one thing. I understand. What I cannot understand is fellow bubble dwellers who tell me, with an air of impeccable condescension, that a vote for Trump was such proof of their own superior wisdom that it eclipsed all doubts about his qualifications, his temperament, his honesty in business and his veracity in speech. These people live in a bubble of their own. It is one that excludes the lesson of history and the demands of common sense. It will burst.

How “real” an American are you? You can find out by taking Charles Murray’s How Thick Is Your Bubble Quiz.

I got a 63. I’ve never bought a pick-up and I’ve never gone to Branson.

Post your results below!

Thoughts While Christmas Shopping

This is not one of those things about Christmas being too busy and bustling and commercialized. It is not one of those about little moments of joy that “made my day.” It is more of a follow-up to some other things I’ve observed recently.

 

Someone on my Christmas list has an interest in military history. And so I found myself browsing online for “best books of military history.” Google returned a long list of results, and there at #1 on the list of relevant sites was “The 14 best non-fiction military books of all time” from wearethemighty.com. I was not impressed. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert about military history, but just off the top of my head I could name several important books that were missing and could see other problems with the list.

There was only one book by a non-English speaking writer (“The Art of War” by Sun Tzu) and only three about military experiences occurring before living experience (Sun Tzu, “1776” by David McCullough, and Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August.” Four of the 14 were published since 2000. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is to military literature what macaroni and cheese is to food. It is what Cancun is to world travel. The person behind the list clearly hadn’t made a very serious survey of the subject, but he had no hesitation to publish world-wide a list of very recent, very predictable, very America-centric books and call them the “best non-fiction military books of all time.” Of. All. Time.

This dilettante-ism reminded me of an article I read a couple of years ago in The American Conservative. You can read the whole article if you follow the link, but the essence is seen in this excerpt about the level of scholarship currently observed in America’s military leadership:

They have learned what they do on a monkey-see, monkey-do basis and know no more. What defines a professional—historically there were only three professions, law, medicine, and theology—is that he has read, studied, and knows the literature of his field. The vast majority of our officers read no serious military history or theory. A friend who teaches at a Marine Corps school told me the most he can now get majors to read is two pages. Another friend, teaching at an Army school, says, “We are back to drawing on the cave wall.”

 

I don’t mean to single out the military for being unprofessional or un-serious. I recently wrote that America is generally a Half-Fast Nation with un-serious people in many fields of endeavor. The idea is relevant to the military, too, though I’m sure there are many (including the person on my Christmas list) who want to take the subject seriously. I vouch only for the not-seriousness of the list of 14 books. I accept William S. Lind‘s word that the problem goes deeper.

And to be fair, several of Google’s other listings were better. I think my favorite was from the site called The Art of Manliness. Their list of 43 books about war every man should read started well with Xenophon’s “Persian Expedition,” also called “The Anabasis” and “The March of the Ten Thousand.”

“In 400 BC, 10,000 Greeks are hired as mercenaries by Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to steal the Persian throne. They won the battle but Cyrus is killed in the fighting, stranding the entire Greek force thousands of miles and dozens of hostile countries from home. Xenophon is elected to be a leader of the troops and encourages them to fight their way home. All sorts of wonderful tactical thoughts and stories of leadership and bravery are shown in their journey home. Xenophon was a student of Socrates and philosophy so this book is a chance to see those teachings in action.”

I don’t want you to think the datasaur has some snobby, affected inclination toward ancient affairs. No. What’s wonderful about “The Anabasis” is that, at many points in the narrative, when the situation seems desperate, someone jumps up onto a wagon or onto a horse and shouts, “Greeks! Listen to me!” and then delivers a compelling speech about how honor and reason and duty obliges them to take a certain course of action, and they all shout, “OK! Let’s do that!” How great would it be to live in a society where honor and reason are compelling arguments, and where people agree on what they mean?

 

Someone else on my shopping list has a penchant for social activism. So I did a google search for relevant items. I found several sites offnosjwering t-shirts and other gear adorned with slogans relating to “Social Justice Warrior.” And it turns out that most of them ridicule the idea of social justice in one or the other of two ways. One way is simply to declare animosity to social justice by making fun of it or cursing it or calling  people who are concerned with it bad names. The second is by encouraging the people who are nominally concerned with social justice warriors to trivialize themselves.

I think what’s going on here is complicated. There probably aren’t that many people who honestly oppose the idea of “justice” or “social justice.” I won’t say there are none, because the news this very morning reveals a juror in South Carolina who declared in a letter to a judge that his conscience would not allow him to convict a man who shot another man who was no threat to him and had done nothing to offend him. (Did I mention the killer is a white police officer and the victim a black man named Walter Scott?) We don’t know what was going on in the juror’s mind — whether it was a perverted sense of white privilege or a perverted sense of cop privilege. But there wasn’t anything close to “justice” for Walter Scott.

But anyway, I think the term “social justice warrior” reflects badly on two groups of people and pretty much ignores the principle of social justice. On the one hand are the critics who make fun and criticize. On the other hand are the silly and self-important types who talk about social justice and immediate turn it into self-privilege. A recent example of this is the writer to the forum Quora who seeks to proscribe use the words “Train Wreck” because his or her grandfather was injured on a train and now the words “trigger” some unhappy visceral reaction. To their credit, most of the responders on Quora reasonably suggested that the words “train wreck” should remain in use and the questioner ought to grow some thicker skin and practice discernment.

 

So. We’re in a state where a very vital concept (social justice) is made ridiculous by people who claim to care about it. I probably won’t be ordering any t-shirts for the people on my Christmas list. But I will continue to think about this and other issues. I will continue to try and learn all that I can, and to share my thoughts in ways that might be useful to others.

Peace on Earth, and Good Will to Men!

 

 

 

Congratulations to the Standing Rock Sioux!

I see this morning that the Army Corps of Engineers has decided to seek another path for the controversial pipeline through North Dakota. This is a victory for the thousands of people who’ve been actively resisting the construction of that pipeline.

 

[Source:Slate]
[Source:Slate]

I don’t know much about the engineering or property details of the pipeline. I don’t know much about how many jobs, or how much lower the price of gasoline would be if the pipeline were built. I don’t know how badly the pipeline would have jeopardized local water supplies. Those are all important considerations. What I do know is that the people who live there didn’t want it, and in a democracy that ought to matter. For once, it has.

Yesterday’s decision isn’t the last word. the Army Corps is just saying it needs to look for alternative routes for the pipeline. It may eventually say the controversial route is the only one. This may just be a ploy to get the protesters to disperse so the ‘dozers can roll. But at least for today, the folks at Standing Rock can catch a breath.

 

 

“Bring Democracy Back to Life”

Michael Ramirez is a syndicated political cartoonist. His stuff is pretty consistently nonsense and distortions, but he’s a cartoonist and we oughtn’t to expect wisdom from him. Recently he produced the following ‘toon concerning the Electoral College:

 

woec

 

The point of the cartoon is pretty evident. Four big states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York) have overwhelming population advantages. Without the Electoral College to mitigate those few states’ influence, they would dominate national politics. The people in the rest of the country would hardly have a voice in choosing the president, and depriving citizens of a voice in government is not the American way. So, Hooray for the Electoral College!

Here, for your consideration, is a morph chart of the actual Electoral College strength of each state, from Wikipedia:

 

woec2

 

This shows the balance of state voting power after the effect of the College is included. The 4 big states still have the largest effect, but are no longer overwhelming as in Ramirez’ “Before” picture.

The thing is, Ramirez greatly exaggerates the case. Without the Electoral College, 9 states — not 4 — would have a majority of electoral power. And the relief provided by the Electoral College is pretty slight. After the corrective effects of the EC, an electoral majority still resides in only 11 states. We’re told that the Electoral College is valuable because it balances the strength of large and small states. But it doesn’t affect that balance by much. (Nor should it!)

Now consider the data in the following table. You see, next to each state, the number of electoral votes the state has, and next to that its population according to the 2010 Census. Then, under the heading, “Proper Share” is my calculation of the number of electoral votes the state would have if votes were apportioned by population. California ought to have 65 votes rather than the 55 votes it gets. Wyoming ought to have 1, rather than the 3 it has now. (As you may know, each state’s electoral votes equals its number of senators and US representatives. So the tiny-population states with only one member of Congress still get 3 electoral votes. The difference between a state’s actual number of electoral votes and the number if would have by proper proportion appears under the “Difference” column. If you live in any of the 19 states with a negative value in the “Difference” column, the Electoral College works against you.

Electoral Votes, Population & State Tallies

StateElectoral
Votes
Population
(in 2010)
Proper
Share
DifferenceCitizens
per Rep
California5537,253,95664.9-9.9677,344
Texas3825,145,56143.8-5.8661,725
New York2919,535,48334-5673,637
Florida2918,801,31032.7-3.7648,321
Illinois2012,830,63222.3-2.3641,531
Pennsylvania2012,702,37922.1-2.1635,118
Ohio1811,536,50420.1-2.1640,916
Michigan169,883,64017.2-1.2617,727
Georgia169,687,65316.9-0.9605,478
North Carolina159,535,48316.6-1.6635,698
New Jersey148,791,89415.3-1.3627,992
Virginia138,001,02413.9-0.9615,463
Washington126,724,54011.70.3560,378
Massachusetts116,547,62911.4-0.4595239
Indiana116,483,80211.3-0.3589,436
Arizona116,392,01711.1-0.1581,092
Tennessee116,346,10511.1-0.1576,918
Missouri105,988,92710.4-0.4598,892
Maryland105,773,55210.1-0.1577,355
Wisconsin105,686,9869.90.1568,698
Minnesota105,303,9259.20.8530,392
Colorado95,029,1968.80.2558,799
Alabama94,779,7368.30.7531,081
South Carolina94,625,3648.10.9513,929
Louisiana84,533,3727.90.1566,671
Kentucky84,339,3677.60.4542,420
Oregon73,831,0746.70.3547,296
Oklahoma73,751,3516.50.5535,907
Connecticut73,574,0976.20.8510,585
Iowa63,046,3555.30.7507,725
Mississippi62,967,2975.20.8494,549
Arkansas62,915,9185.10.9485,986
Kansas62,853,11851475,519
Utrah62,763,8854.81.2460,647
Nevada62,700,5514.71.3450,091
New Mexico52,059,1793.61.4411,835
West Virginia51,852,9943.21.8370,598
Nebraska51,826,3413.21.8365,268
Idaho41,567,5822.71.3391,895
Hawaii41,360,3012.41.6340,075
Maine41,328,3612.31.7332,090
New Hampshire41,316,4702.31.7329,117
Rhode Island41,052,5671.82.2263,141
Montana3989,4151.71.3329,805
Delaware3897,9341.61.4299,311
South Dakota3814,1801.41.6271,393
Alaska3710,2311.21.8236,743
North Dakota3672,5911.21.8224,197
Vermont3625,7411.11.9208,580
DC3601,72312200,574
Wyoming3563,62612187,875

 

Just for curiosity, I calculated how many people in each state are represented by each federal representative from that state. The differences ought to be very slight, because each American citizen is entitled to equal representation in the national government. The “Citizens per Rep” column shows how far from the ideal we’ve drifted. People living in California have 1 federal representative (House or Senate) for every 677,345. That is 53 members of Congress plus 2 senators divided by the population of 37-million people. Meanwhile, people in Wyoming share a federal representative with fewer than 200,000 people. Is that “equal representation?”

 

I see in the news today that Al Gore, himself a victim of Electoral College shenanigans back in 2000, is promoting the idea of eliminating the College altogether.

He said that he believes eliminating the Electoral College “would stimulate public participation in the democratic process like nothing else we could possibly do.” And he was adamant that something must be done. “Our democracy’s been hacked now,” he said. “It’s pathetic how our system is not working today.”

Gore describes eliminating the Electoral College as one of 3 or 4 things we could do to “bring democracy back to life.”

 

Now, to close this out, I’d like to observe that the most amazing issue relating to the Electoral College hasn’t even been mentioned yet. Have you noticed?

The main problem about the Electoral College, as applied in most states, is the winner-take-all aspect of it. I don’t think it necessary to vote by state. We ought to simply vote as individuals. But the winner-take-all aspect distorts the outcome extremely. Every state except Maine and Nebraska gives all its electoral votes to the candidate that wins a plurality (not even a majority) of votes. Because of that weird practice, the votes of non-plurality voters are completely disregarded in the final phase of the presidential selection process. (And by “final phase” I mean the one phase that actually chooses the president!)

A few paragraphs above, I wrote, “depriving citizens of a voice in government is not the American way.” But, as a matter of fact, it absolutely is.