“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.

 

A Dynamic Economy?

Way back in February, when the Republican Party was filtering its most eminent prospects for the imminent nomination for the presidency, long-shot, side-show, comedy-relief candidate Donald J. Drumpf was asked what he might do about the American economy:

Drumpf closed his eyes and smiled. “We will do my tax plan, and it will be great,” he said. “We will have a dynamic economy again.”

Drumpf promised a dynamic economy, and now, because a small minority of Americans voted for him, Drumpf is going to be the president. So let’s consider what “dynamic economy” means. Look at this chart:

 

[Source: BLS]
[Source: BLS]

The data for the chart comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Business Employment Dynamics Quarterly Report. You can see the exact numbers displayed in the chart here. What the chart shows is that over any period of time, lots of people lose their jobs and lots of people start new jobs. This chart shows the change during the first three months of 2016.

The blue line is the net new jobs across the US in each of several large industry categories. The largest growth is in “Hospitality” which includes restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions and so forth. It is mostly restaurants. That category of business, in the first quarter of 2016, added 109-thousand net new jobs. (Look at the right-hand scale and add 000.) The second largest job growth was in retail stores, with just under 100-thousand increase in jobs. Those two growing sectors are offset by a decline of 118-thousand in Business Services and a drop of 64-thousand in Transportation industries.

But the real evidence of a “dynamic economy” is found in the colored segments of each column. The dark green segment represents new jobs from new business in the industry. This can be either an entirely new company, or a new branch of an existing company. The pale green is new jobs from existing companies that expanded early in 2016. That’s if the local steel mill or tattoo parlor hired another worker in addition to the current staff. For the Hospitality sector, expansion added about one million jobs (Read the left-hand scale and add 000.) and start-up business in Hospitality added another 200-thousand to make 1.25 million total new jobs.  In all industries, new and expanding employers hired more than 6.5-million workers during that three-month period. Hooray!

But consider also the pale and bright red segments. Those represent contracting and closing business. Contracting is when the tattoo parlor tells one of their people, “We don’t need you anymore.” In Businesses Services, the gains were 1.24 million and the losses were 1.36 million. The previously mentioned 1.25 new jobs in Hospitality are nearly offset by losses of 1.14-million jobs. All together the declines add up to 6.5-million workers.

So 6.5 million people got hired in new and expanding companies, while, in the same interval of time, 6.5 million people lost jobs because their employer cut back or closed. Friends, that is what a dynamic economic means.

Oh, and remember that these numbers are only changes in total workers employed by establishments. If a person quits and is replaced by another person, that has no effect on total employment at the business and doesn’t show up here at all.

Employers complain they can’t find good, reliable, stable people to hire. And I’m not saying they’re wrong. But for every two people who quit a job and leave their employer shorthanded, another person is kicked to the curb because the employer is closing or downsizing.

Job churning — the combined effect of people quitting jobs and jobs quitting people — is a big deal. And we don’t hear enough about it. About once a month, the major news sources do a routine story about the economy. They get the information from a BLS monthly Employment Situation report. The EmpSit report is really detailed and informative, but news sources touch only a few details. Here are a couple of short takes from CNN Money‘s October jobs report:

The economy added 156,000 jobs last month, a tad lower than the revised job gains for August, the Labor Department said Friday. It was the next-to-last checkup on the job market before Election Day.

Job gains in September came across the board. Professional and business services led the way, adding 67,000 jobs. Those industries have gained more than half a million jobs this year.

Health care and restaurants both added more than 30,000 positions. And the energy industry finally stopped hemorrhaging jobs in September after losing 220,000 since September 2014.

 

See? The report mentions the net growth. But they don’t give you any idea of the amount of churning that goes on all the time.

I looked it up. About a third of adults in 2016 were working in the same job they’d held for at least 10 years. Not surprisingly, how long a person has stayed in their current job is closely tied to age. Older people are much more likely to have longer job tenure. BLS data shows 55% of people 65 and over have held their current job for 10 years or more while 0% of people under 25 year have. Here’s what the job tenure distribution looks like:

 20 Years
or more
15 Years
or more
10 Years
or more
5 Years
or more
20-240.0%0.0%0.1%5.1%
25-340.0%0.7%7.4%29.1%
35-443.4%12.8%29.3%53.7%
45-5417.3%29.2%44.9%65.5%
55-6428.0%39.3%53.7%71.8%
65+28.1%39.7%55.3%75.2%

 

I don’t mean this post to be entirely negative. If a company that cheats its workers closes and a company that pays fairly opens up to fill the void, we should all rejoice. If a polluting industry cuts back and a green industry expands, that’s good. If a guy quits a job he doesn’t like and finds a new one he likes better, Hooray! I think those are all better options than staying at the first job you got out of high school for the rest of your life, as some people do.

But I’m not at all certain the job churning that comes with a dynamic economy is overall a good thing. I’m not convinced that all the changes that occur move us in the direction of greener and fairer jobs. And I don’t trust Drumpf to make it better than it has been in the past. What do you think?

And now, one of the best I-like-my-job songs:

 

Half-Fast Nation

I find it remarkable that so many people think of the election of Donald Drumpf as a mistake or an accident or a temporary act of poor judgement. They think it is what British people call a “one-off” — something that happened once but probably won’t happen again. To me, the election of Donald Drumpf seems a result of circumstances that haven’t changed and are likely to produce more results of the same kind. Rather than ponder what he’s likely to do, I think we ought to think about the process that produced Drumpf.

I am a believer in democracy and in the right of the majority to choose the leaders and the policies they want. I would accept his election cheerfully if Drumpf had been elected by a genuine majority of well-informed people who voted for him because they wanted him and no other person for president. But we know that was not the case.

He did not get a majority of votes cast. The number of votes cast in total represents only about 38% of the population, and Drumpf’s vote total amounts to barely one American in five. He got fewer votes than his major-party opponent. (Yes, I know Drumpf won without a majority because of the Electoral College. I know that it works to keep the populous states from ramming their candidate down the throats of the less populous states. I know that the Electoral College has the potential to work to my benefit, since I live in a less populous state. But I don’t care about tweaking the system to my advantage. I want a system that is 100% fair 100% of the time.)

During the primary there were more votes cast against him than for him within his own party. Many millions of people disliked or distrusted Drumpf but still voted for him because they disliked Hillary Clinton even more. And in many cases those Americans were deluded by false reports about Clinton. That isn’t me whining about Fox News spin. This a man named Paul Horner who over the course of the campaign made up and circulated dozens of pro-Drumpf reports that were Liked and Shared on Facebook millions of times. Horner is interviewed by the Washington Post about how much effect he had on the outcome. And he says he may well have turned the election. [ADD: The Washington Post also declares soberly and seriously that other fake news stories that undoubtedly influenced opinions of many voters were created by Russian hackers.] You can view this as a testament to the great power of social media. Or you can view it as proof that the American system does not meet the definition of a republic.

No, I don’t suppose that Horner’s assessment of his influence is exactly right. Perhaps it was less than he imagines. I don’t precisely know the effects of the Russian hacks, either. But I don’t doubt that millions of Americans who voted for Drumpf and for other politicians who promised to “drain the swamp” are going to be disappointed. We have a rotten system. It gave us a rotten outcome. And we can expect rotten results.

Years ago I lived in downtown Indianapolis near a service station that displayed a sign reading, “Half Fast Mechanic on Duty.” It was only after I got to know the wise-cracking, off-color proprietor that I understood the sign. You may be inclined to think that maybe there are some good people in power who will put things back in good order — make the electoral system fairer, protect individual rights and national interests over mere corporate interests, and so on. But before you rest too happily on that thought, you might consider whether the people you are counting on are also half fast, or if they exist at all. Start with “Smart, Qualified People Behind The Scenes Keeping America Safe: ‘We Don’t Exist'” in The Onion. Or, setting aside The Onion’s satire, we might consider the words of the great Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

The poet William Butler Yeats summarized this moment in his monumental poem, The Second Coming. You should read it all, but the key lines are:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 

(“Lack all conviction” is another way of saying “half fast.”)

 

Maybe I’m being unfair here. I don’t personally know of anyone who’s resolved with renewed energy since the election to work to make America a better place, or to establish (again, or at last) justice and domestic tranquility and the blessing of liberty for themselves and their posterity. If I’m missing something like that, I wish you’d tell me. Because, as I said at the beginning, the election of Donald Drumpf by a manifestly undemocratic process strikes me as proof that Americans aren’t, and have never been, very serious about improving our system of government.

The scandal of Drumpf taking the election when Clinton got more votes ought to have been sorted out in 1824, or in one of the other previous times it happened. But John Quincy Adams didn’t fix it. Rutherford B. Hayes didn’t fix it. Benjamin Harrison didn’t fix it. George W. Bush didn’t fix it. Donald Drumpf and Mike Pence aren’t going to fix it now.

To conclude, Here’s what America’s path forward looks like to me:

 

Closer to the Truth

Richard Burkett

Veterans Day came and went earlier this week. I was mindful of one veteran in particular, a man named Richard Burkett. Here’s a little about him:

Sergeant Major Richard Burkett enlisted in the Navy during World War II and was assigned as a signalman on the destroyer U.S.S. Charles E. Brannon, and saw action in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Borneo. After being discharged from the Navy in 1946, Sgt. Maj. Burkett enlisted in the Army as an artilleryman, infantryman, and airborne parachutist. In the spring of 1947 he was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division in Japan as a radio operator. With his former Navy training in various signal codes, he was transferred to the headquarters of the division artillery as a radio code operator. His next duty was as an announcer with Armed Forces Radio in Sapporo, Japan. This service was cut short by his transfer to the 7th Division Signal Battalion, where he served during the Korean War in Inchon, Wonson, and the Chosin Reservoir. He also served as a training sergeant at the South Eastern Signal School at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, organizing the Army’s first training television station. Burkett’s post-military career included work in the television industry as an announcer and film editor at stations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and he enlisted in a unit of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He joined WISH-TV in Indianapolis in 1954 and served as a film man and a children’s show host during a 14-year tenure with the CBS affiliate. In the early 1970s he returned to full-time Army duty, when he was assigned as the 35th Divisions Operations Sergeant in the Plans, Training, and Operations section. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1986, at which time he took a position at the Military Department of Indiana at Stout Field as the manager of military schools. He worked for the state of Indiana for eleven years until retiring once again at age 70.

 

Here’s more about Burkett, from a Library of Congress recorded interview:

I enlisted in the Navy when I was 17 years of age, which you could do back during World War II, in December of 1943. You had to have your mother and father’s permission to enlist at the age of 17 and you had to have a–had to graduate from high school. I graduated in three and a half years, which was a real strain, but I made it.

 

Then later

Our ship was one of the very first ships into China, into Shang Hai in very early–let’s see, it was December of 1945. And we went up the Yangtze River. The Japanese had been told to get rid of all the mines at the mouth of the Yangtze. And they did. They just cut them loose. And there were mines floating all over the place. So unfortunately our Captain tried to be brave that day and started shooting at a 300-pound sea mine with a .45 caliber machine gun. And I was almost dumber. I was standing beside him. And when that mine went off and I was headed for the deck, and then when I stood up somebody said, “What’s that in your leg?” And I looked down and I had a nine-inch piece of steel sticking out of my right leg.

 

And still later

And finally in August of 1946 I was given orders to–back to Gainebridge, Maryland, where on the seventh of August of 1946 I was discharged from the Navy. In September of 1946, after applying to various schools and deciding that I hadn’t learned enough–as much as I should have in high school, thought I had better go back in the Service because I didn’t look–it didn’t look like I was going to get into college. So I joined the Army.

The narrative sounds impressive. Burkett seems to have grown up right when there was plenty of action and he seems to have gotten his share of it. There is another side to consider, however. Look at what it says about him on socnet.com, a website described as “The Authority Since 1996”:

 

socnet

 

The above clip is one post in a thread discussing whether or not Burkett is a fraud — a military poser. The participants in the discussion can see the extensive collection of badges and metals on Burkett’s chest in the photograph. And with their expertise about the requirements of the service (actually “services” since Burkett began in the navy and later reenlisted in the army. Anyway, the consensus of the discussion is that Burkett is guilty of what is called “stolen valor.” You can see how the dialogue heats up as more people get involved, contributing their knowledge about the meaning of various medals.

socnet2

 

See there at the end, “my opinion is that makes his feats very unlikely.” The conversation picks at Burkett’s story from every angle. In one place an expert disputes his claim that the destroyer escort ship he was on was “the biggest ship in the world.” In another it is assumed that Burkett spent his later years “peddlin’ his bullshit tales in order to secure accolades and guest appearances as some kind of wandering narrator.” Near the end of the discussion came this:

 

socnet3

 

So the final expert opinion is that Burkett is probably a fraud, but probably isn’t around any more anyway.

Richard Burkett is alive and well. He attends the same church I do. He still gets up and reads the Bible text in his Sergeant Major’s gruff booming voice. He moves pretty slow these days — something to do, perhaps, with the effects of that “nine-inch piece of steel” mentioned above in addition to being 90. But he’s there every week, and he wants nothing to do with any accolades. He won’t even use a handicapped parking space close to the door.

I’ve heard Mr. Burkett’s war narrative from his own mouth. I believe him. I think the photographic and documentary evidence he’s able to share is sufficient. Perhaps he uses some inaccurate language when describing his service when he’s talking to someone like me who is 30 years younger and never in the military. But I don’t think there is any doubt at all that he was in the Pacific during WWII and at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. I don’t think there is any doubt that he was wounded in battle more than once. I think the mean-spirited pseudo-detectives at socnet are wrong. And why shouldn’t they be? They’ve got nothing to go on but a small and grainy photograph showing some medals on a man’s chest. They have no sense of humor, so they wrongly interpreted  Burkett’s remark about the Charles E. Brannon being the “biggest ship in the world” as a lie or a mistake, rather than as the wry hyperbole he intended. Very probably, these men (who are supposedly devoted to the honor of outstanding military service) are foolishly maligning someone who deserves that honor as much as anyone alive. Almost certainly, they are placing a higher value on the orthodox display of military bling than on the facts of a man’s genuine service.

 

This foregoing tale shows how complicated it can be to know what’s true. People with little to go on might believe one thing, and people who know more might believe something different. Either of them could be wrong, and its hard for an observer to know whom to believe. I certainly would not defend the notion that ignorant people are as likely to be right as those who research. But I would say that plenty of people who know a little bit probably would do better to study more.

A second illustration of this principle happened on the election ballot for Indiana last week. Indiana voters supported a constitutional amendment guaranteeing state residents the right to hunt and fish. People have always been allowed to hunt and fish, so nobody really gained anything by approving the amendment. I imagine a lot of the people who voted “Yes” feel they stood up for citizen rights against interfering, oppressive government. But they were actually doing to opposite. You see, this amendment takes away liberty — not secure it. Hunting and fishing were already allowed throughout the state, so literally nobody gained any privilege at all. But because the fish/hunt clause will be part of the state constitution, local communities lose self-government. If some very good reason arises in a particular community — if public safety or the survival of a species or some other obvious long-term good is at issue and even if an overwhelming majority of the people agreed on the need for a small curtailment — that community will not be able to restrict hunting or fishing now. And that is just what the NRA (a big powerful organization with headquarters in Washington) wanted.

Me? To be honest, I didn’t notice the question on the ballot and I didn’t vote either way. I support the right to fish and hunt, and I would have voted “No” if I’d seen the question on the ballot. I’d have taken the side of local control and allowed each community, today and in the future, to do what they wish inside their territory.

 

We Might As Well Fix This

This election has meant almost nothing. Millions of words have been written and read, spoken and heard, come and gone like . . . . Andy Dufresne. And almost nothing has changed. The proof for that came this week in FiveThirtyEight, where writer Dan Hopkins showed that Most Voters Haven’t Changed Their Minds All Year:

 

[Source: fivethirtyeight.com]
[Source: fivethirtyeight.com]

This is an unusual, but effective, display of data. I recommend you hit the link and read the article. Hopkins is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and runs the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics.

Reading across the rows, you see how people who supported Hillary Clinton back in January stand today. (Hopkins and his colleagues work with a panel of people — the same people over a long period of time. So he is not just talking about overall trends but is really measuring individuals’ changes of mind.)  Most of the people who supported Clinton in January still support her in October, though some have shifted and now support neither. The chart shows 37.2% in the upper-left cell: people who supported Clinton both in January and in October. That means 37.2% of all people polled. Among early supporters of Clinton, 90% still support her, 1% have gone over to Drumpf, and 9% have soured on the whole idea of voting.

Similarly, 84% of the people who said, “Drumpf, by-gum!” in January were still saying that last week, while 4% have gone over to Hillary and 12% are breathing slowing into a paper bag.

Among the 21.6% of people who were undecided in January, 3 out of 5 are still undecided, while similar numbers have fallen off the fence to one side (19% to Clinton, 22% for Drumpf) or the other.

(My numbers are derived by summing the row values and making that equal to 100% and then taking the share of that. The share of people who supported Clinton in January and October is 37.2% of the total, but 90% of January Clinton supporters.)

It is possible to find contrary evidence. Slate has done that by tracking the opinions of 25 conservative pundits over time. These are 25 people who in ordinary times would be sure and unwavering supporters of the Republican candidate. They were all presumed a year ago to be likely supporters of whoever the GOP nominated. But Slate finds that only three of them are in Drumpf’s corner. Another eight are “inscrutable.”

Jonathan Chait impresses me two or three times a week, and  recently he provided a clear picture of the process of not changing one’s mind in the face of facts. Chait’s example happens to be Indiana governor and vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence:

When the audiotape first emerged of Donald Drumpf boasting of his sexual assaults, Mike Pence, like many Republicans, reacted with horror. It “was a devastating blow to him,” reports National Review’s Tim Alberta, in a fascinating profile of the Republican vice-presidential candidate. But according to the friends and colleagues who know Pence, and spoke with him at the time, the initial shock and disillusionment gave way to a very different response. “Pence spent the weekend holed up, unwilling to face questions,” reports Alberta, “and when he re-emerged after private discussions with a contrite Drumpf, he went into a different sort of shell, newly certain that his running mate — a man he’s prayed with, golfed with, become friends with — is being victimized by a bloodthirsty liberal media.”

His capacity to suppress his own moral qualms is chilling. Pence is perfectly representative of the conservative movement and the normal, non-Drumpf Republican Party, which is why Drumpf selected him over his personal preference for the more instinctively slavish footman Chris Christie. And Pence’s response to the revelatory Billy Bush audio is a synecdoche for the behavioral response that has allowed Drumpf to mostly consolidate his party and come within missed-short-field-goal odds of becoming president.

This is not a joke. This is one of the moments in history when the republic is at the brink.

And its that last part of Chait’s article that is really interesting. For all the grim distaste this election, how many people perceive the “republic at the brink” aspect of it?   I crossed paths with a neighbor a few days ago — an elderly man who has been a fixture at the local polling station for as long as I’ve lived in this rural western Indiana community. I said, “See you on Tuesday,” and he said, “No, you won’t. I’m not working the polls this year.” So my neighbor has cottoned to the fact that this process isn’t something he wants to associate with.

We have been trained through the years to believe that the solution to whatever is wrong can be fixed in the next election. But if elections are not the solution — if elections are a big part of the problem — then we have to stop believing that elections are going to solve anything. Writer Seth Stevenson takes us a couple of steps in that direction with this article on “The Stupid Way We Vote.”  Here’s the cogent part:

“A ballot that insists you choose just one option doesn’t let you convey much information about your feelings and intentions. Your vote for Ted Cruz in the New Hampshire primary might have meant that you adored Ted Cruz; or it might have meant you could barely stand Cruz but you thought he was the guy with the best chance to derail the horrifying Drumpf Train. Similarly, your vote for Ralph Nader in the 2000 general election might have meant you thought Ralph Nader could legit win the White House; or it might have meant you were super jazzed to send a message about your progressive ideals, but, of course, when it got down to it you knew Al Gore would be a better president than George W. Bush and whoops, your bad, so sorry for the Iraq war. Given the wide range of things a vote can mean, shouldn’t we find a better way to let people signal what they actually intend on their ballots?”

Yes, we should. That doesn’t happen because elections are controlled by the two political parties and the political parties have little interest in what people “actually intend.” But if the US (and the states) were to reconsider and to choose real democracy, there are plenty of reasonable alternatives.

  • Many more issues should be decided by referendum. Instead of voting for candidates who promise to lean one way or another on an important issue — let the people decide the issue directly. Instead of pondering how a vote for one or the other presidential candidate might affect the future of the Supreme Court and how that might affect fishing off the pier or the right to wear popped collars or what ever issue people care about, let the people decide the issue. Say “Yes” to popped collars!
  • No one should ever win an office with fewer than 50% of votes. Any time there are more than 2 candidates running for an office or more than 2 positions on an issue, there should be multiple ballots. Any vote that results in a plurality but not a majority has be voted again.
  • No party primaries. Political parties may exist and may tout their candidates as they do now, but all candidates must appear on the same ballot. Stevenson’s suggestions for “approval voting” is probably a good idea. But we also need a “none of the above” option in every decision.
  • Every citizen 18 and over should be allowed to vote without challenge. I like the method used in several Asian countries. Instead of a very technical administrative process that qualifies people to vote, the process should be that anybody who is alive and 18 years old can vote. They dip their finger in purple ink to show they’ve voted once. The ink can’t be washed off in a day. It is a low-tech method but is more consistent with democracy than what do in the US. I don’t think foreigners should vote in US elections and I don’t think people should vote twice. But the expectation ought to be that every adult citizen can vote if they are alive.
  • We might as well develop a way to vote by internet from home. If there are multiple votes in every year for the reasons given above, the cost of going to polling places and flipping levers or pressing buttons will get prohibitive. So let’s do away with polling places altogether and vote online at home or from libraries or other public access locations. Recently I took my daughter in college to the store to replace a lost cell phone. After she had picked the phone she wanted, the store clerk asked if she wanted to keep her old number. He then proceeded — in about three minutes — to get the old number transferred to her new phone. Her old phone was a different model from a different manufacturer, with a different carrier and it hadn’t been bought at the store. Yet the Geek Squad was able to find her old number, get the other company to release it, and assign it to her new phone almost as fast as it took me to type, and you to read, those three steps. She walked out of the store with her new phone already charged up and working. Our ability to manage electronic information, including a sort of electronic “purple finger” to know when a person has already voted once,  is well up to the task.

 

Everything I’m saying here is shaped by a sincere commitment to democracy and the right of the majority to fix their path of the country. I advocate radical change, because I don’t believe the way we do things now is good enough and because I do believe America can do better. Do you have any suggestions?

 

Run Away from the Same Ol’ Same Ol’

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Bruce Springsteen has stayed immensely popular long after he stopped being very good. At the time, I just wanted to make the point. There isn’t much harm in a stale entertainer milking a crowd that wishes to be milked. People are still entertained by old Bruce. But there is a downside that comes from keeping old gods on their throne. I want to talk about that now.

About 4% of all American household spending goes to entertainment. This comes from the very good Consumer Expenditures Survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2014, that amounted to $2,728 out of $53,495 in total spending. If you spent more or less than that — don’t panic. You are probably not living in an “average” household, which is defined in this case as having 2.5 people (presumable the .5 of a person works for a magician), including one who is 50.3 years old, 0.6 children under 18, 0.4 adults over 65, and 1.9 vehicles.

The biggest expenditure is for what the BLS calls “audio and visual equipment and services” but we can rephrase as “recorded music/video and cable TV.” Since almost every household in America pays for premium cable TV, it is no surprise that this captures about 38% of total entertainment spending. (Note that here and in the next paragraph we’re talking about shares of the entertainment category. Entertainment still only captures about 4% of total spending, but within that 4% some things get more than others.) In households headed by people under 25 years old, music and video captures almost 50% of the total. Here’s a chart showing the percentage spent for different types of entertainment by age group:

ent_age2

 

The next biggest category is “tickets to shows and events” which get 23% overall and 30% among households headed by people 35-44. Shows and events includes all movies, college and professional spectator sports, musical and dramatic theater, live music concerts, amusement parks, gun shows, monster truck rallies and tractor pulls, opera, Burning Man, Bonnaroo, and so on. I’m always amazed at how small this category is. Pets gets 19% overall and 23% among the 55-64 crowd. The “other” category (Oh, how I hate the ill-defined “other” category!) gets 16%. The smallest category is toys and hobbies: just 4% of the 4%, and greatest among the 25-34 set, which presumably is having the most first children and also still doing a lot of the hiking and fitness and such. Here’s another chart, but now the categories are grouped together:

 

ent_age1

 

You might be surprised that the age-group differences are no greater than they appear. But remember the tyranny of the average. Yes, there are some young people who spend every dime they can scratch together following a beloved band from city to city. There are people who drop more than 4% of their annual income on one pilgrimage to Rat City in Orlando. There are sports fans who sacrifice deeply to buy a season ticket to their favorite team. There are animal lovers whose lives revolve around their dogs or their horses or their ferrets or their fish. But these real enthusiasts are always swallowed up by the masses. For every season ticket holder for any sports team in any city in America, there are 10 people who will go to one game in a season and hundreds more who will go to none. The aggregated data I’m showing is not very accurate as a descriptor of any particular person but is very useful in describing the size of markets for various kinds of entertainment.

So we can conclude that the American entertainment dollar is a fixed amount. It is what economists call a zero-sum. Whatever one person or team or venue takes cannot be replaced and will not be  available for any other person or team or venue. There might be a lot of shifting within categories — from one source of entertainment to another, eating chicken instead of beef, renting instead of buying, taking the bus instead of  driving and paying to park. But there is very little of people spending dollars from one category on another category. And as people get older and wealthier, the shares devoted to each major category of spending stays pretty rigid.

And in recent years, it has become very common for a small number of entertainment acts to capture immense portions of the limited (vast, but limited) American entertainment dollar. Consider this list of The Ten Most Profitable Concert Tours of All Time. Now, I don’t think the numbers cited here are actually profit. I think they are the gross amount of revenue associated with the tours. The Pink Floyd/Roger Waters and U2 concerts were particularly costly and I think the numbers shown ($764 million for U2) was the gross and not the profit. (Look it up, datasaur!) Yes, Wikipedia confirm it here. Also, those totals are world-wide and not just from America.

Bruce is supposedly “worth” $350 million. so he’s taken a whale of a lot more than he needed to pay the bills like the simple honest working-class fella’ he symbolizes. And because he took it, it wasn’t there for an entire generation of other artists.

On Friday of this week, my daughter Sarah and I drove up to Chicago (without the need of a GPS device, thank you!) And saw Sunflower Bean at Lincoln Hall. Sunflower Bean is three young musicians with serious talent. They are still too young to go into a bar, but this was an all-ages show.

 

[Source: Rolling Stone]
[Source: Rolling Stone]

No, that isn’t a time-warp Bob Dylan on the right. It’s Nick Kivlen, the guitarist. Jacob Faber, the drummer, has shaved his mustache. And that’s Julia Cumming (bass and vocals) in the middle.

We had a great time. We arrived crazy early, because we wanted to be and because we forgot about the Illinois time-zone change. So we were first in when the doors opened and Sarah went straight to the very front of the stage exactly where she knew Julia Cumming was going to stand. She got to talk to her and give her a picture she’d painted, and Julia thanked her and gave her a hug! That seldom happens in stadium rock shows, unless it is choreographed the way Bruce Springsteen routinely pulls one fan onstage during Dancing in the Dark. I, meanwhile, took a seat on a stool by the balcony railing because I did not wish to mosh. I was still only about 12 feet from the stage. As you might expect, the second enthusiast who entered and moved to the front edge of the stage near Sarah was another young music fan named Cloe. Sarah made an instant friend. And I found that the next person to take a seat in the balcony was . . . a father bringing his daughter to her first all-ages rock show!

The two warm-up bands were both young and deserving. Sunflower Bean, when they came on, gave a fervent 90-minute show to the crowd of about 300 who were packed onto the floor or lined around the balcony. (Don’t say, “But Bruce plays for three hours!” This was an all-ages show and had to end by 11:00 pm.)

I could talk about the songs and the artistry and Nick’s deft use of effects pedals. But the point I want to make is that they did a day’s work, just as any good carpenter or teacher or hotel maid or other worker would do. Oughtn’t they be able to make a living, just like every devoted worker ought? Musicians, or artists in general, are not a separate category. They are workers like other workers. And it is a serious social question whether work deserves fair payment. The Bible says they should. Most Americans probably think so too. But when they spend their money the way the biggest of marketing campaigns supporting the biggest established interests tell them to, they are keeping the young and deserving down. Or sometimes the old and deserving, but let’s focus on the young. I don’t mean to say everybody should go to bars and listen to loud rock music played by teenagers. But I do say, as a principle, that people ought to support young, local, non-corporate goods and services.

OK, datasaur, point taken. But what does any of this have to do with the title of this post? Answer: it is a reference to the words in this Sunflower Bean song:

 

 

 

Exodus For Sure, Lamentation Maybe

The third chapter of Paul’s letter to the apostle Timothy sets down some qualifications for a leader:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

[Source: Boston Globe]
[Source: Boston Globe]
You may be able to think of a prominent politician in our day who falls short of these guidelines. Yet Donald Drumpf continues to hold the support of two-thirds of evangelical Christians. This is according to a PRRI report released October 11, well after Drumpf had erased all doubt in the world that he is an untested, quarrelsome, intemperate lover of money who has not been faithful to his wife:

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of white evangelical voters remain committed to supporting Drumpf, while only 16% say they favor Clinton. However, Drumpf fares much worse among other white Christian voters, a notable shift from support patterns in recent elections. White mainline Protestants voters are split between the two candidates with an equal number supporting Drumpf (42%) and Clinton (42%). White Catholic voters are closely divided with roughly equal numbers in favor of Clinton (46%) and Drumpf (42%). Clinton leads Drumpf among all Catholics voters (55% vs. 34%, respectively) and among unaffiliated voters (70% vs. 20%, respectively) by considerable margins.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds this problematic. How can anyone claim to be a Christian and still support a candidate for office who is clearly unqualified, not to mention a reprehensible human being? And the answer is obvious: they are hypocrites. [We’re instructed not to judge other peoples’ hearts and souls. But their political positions and their ideological claims are fair game.]

Let us turn now to another set of American people who are not hypocrites.

My daughter Hannah recently sent me a link to this report: Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back. It is a detailed bit of social research showing the rapid decline of religious identity in America — especially among young people. I had written about this before using data from the General Social Survey and Pew Research Center, but the new report from PRRI goes further. (I recommend you hit the link and read it all.) This chart, for example, explains the top reasons why people who may have identified as religious when they were young are not religious now:

 

prri1

 

Each of the reasons listed here is unfortunate. But, if you think about it, it is understandable that sensible people would abandon religion in the face of these conditions. If church was never anything growing up but a dull routine their parents followed for the sake of social standing, who can blame a young person for abandoning the hollow charade and quitting entirely?

The New Testament nowhere says that traumatic events won’t happen. But plenty of religious leaders have made that promise. So someone who has abandoned his or her “childhood religion” may be turning away from Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar or other proponents of the false Prosperity Gospel. If their religion was based on the teaching of a liar, they are wise to discard it. Similarly, they may have seen their church’s purpose slop over into politics. Or the lessons taught in the church may have evolved into a vacuous mix of talking vegetables and bad science museums that . . .  well:

 

[Source: The New Yorker]
[Source: The New Yorker]

The New Yorker article is satire. But it reads like real news and plenty of people would believe it. Even the strongest proponents must admit that Christianity has lost the high ground it enjoyed when Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, Carl Linnaeus and others were both leading scientists and convincingly devout believers. The sexual scandals focus mostly on Catholic priests. But this Daily Beast article reminds us there are so many incidents involving every denomination that nobody can keep up.

Please follow what I’m saying. I’m saying the provocations are terrible things and very regrettable. But they have happened. For millions of people, the face of religion is ugly and stupid. Once we accept that, the fact that those people have abandoned what is ugly and stupid is understandable.

 

I’d like to come at the issue now from a completely different direction, if I may. Let me preface this by saying that I am ignorant about chemistry. I may not use terms correctly and I certainly can’t provide any formula to prove or justify what I’m saying. But I asked my knowledgeable daughter Jenny and she confirms that the following is reasonably correct.

If you have a quantity (say, a tablespoon) of salt, it will taste very salty. If you pour that tablespoon of salt into a quantity of water (say, a gallon) and stir it, the salt will still be there. The quantity of stuff will be increased. But the saltiness of the solution would be noticeably less than the saltiness of the pure salt you started with.

If you worked the process in reverse by evaporating the water, the volume of stuff would get less. Instead of a gallon of saline solution, you’d have less and less until — when the water was all evaporated — you were back to a tablespoon of pure salt. And as the quantity diminished, the saltiness would increase. If saltiness is a virtue, the tablespoon of pure stuff is better than the gallon of weak solution. A gallon of full-strength salt would be nice to imagine. But it never existed. You can’t add water without diluting the salt. So the best you can do is keep your virtue as pure and you can — however small the quantity.

History tells us that Publius Horatius Cocles saved Rome by standing with two others and beating back an enemy on a narrow bridge. The incident was later turned to romantic verse by Lord McCauley:

 

 

 

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,

“And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,—
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?

“Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three:
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”

 

The Bible speaks of the need for someone to stand in the gap in exactly this way. But in the time of Ezekiel, none was found:

“The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD.…(Ezekiel 22:29-31)

Shoot. I put this reference in here without realizing just how spot-on it is. I don’t mean to commit the fallacy of thinking that Old Testament events have exact parallels in our day. We are not Bible characters. But the 2016 presidential campaign has surely failed to turn up the sort of man (or woman) God speaks of here. The latest word on that comes from Rod Dreher, quoting prominent Christian Ben Carson to the effect that “Sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done.”

It is at least worth considering that the decline in numbers of professing religious people will pay off in more saltiness. I don’t mean to be naive. Certainly it will mean a lot of bad things. It means the possibility of Christian values being upheld by politics diminishes. But when was the last time politics upheld (genuine) Christian values anyway? It means that well-meaning “followers” — people who don’t think for themselves but for better or worse go along with prevailing attitudes — are less likely to find their way into church. It means that fewer and fewer people will understand Nobel Prize winning poet Bob Dylan, whose work is laced with Biblical allusion.

You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister
Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame,
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name

 

And, of course, it means that fewer and fewer people will believe with their heart and confess with their mouth and be saved by grace. But at least fewer hypocrites means less ill will be done in the name of religion, and there will be plenty of room on the bridge (or in the gap), for the remnant of people who find themselves standing there.