Friday, December 21, 2012

Adam Davidson on America's Independents

Another fantastic Ted Talk, this one focuses on how pragmatic most Americans are in the face of the fiscal cliff... despite the gridlock in Congress.  Did you realize that about 40% of Americans self identify as independents?  According to the talk, most Americans agree on what kind of revenue increases they would accept, and what kind of reforms to entitlements they would allow.  Very encouraging to see that our nation hasn't been completely swept up in dogmatic politics of both the right and the left.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Open Sourcing Legislation

  This is a fascinating talk about the power of new media to enable distributed legislation.  It takes a page out of the open source software community, which uses tools like Github to distribute development of a software product without coordination.  Many of the words great programs have come out of this, allowing a degree of complexity that would have previously been impossible.  It could be a completely new paradigm for transparency and interaction with lawmakers, as anyone could participate in writing pieces of legislation.  There have even been early attempts at seeing what such legislation might look like.  As a regular Github user, I think there is great potential to improve the way that legislation is written.  There is of course, one major problem illustrated in the Venn diagram below...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The People's Government

The people's government

  We have all been taught to celebrate the institution of democracy since our childhood, and for good reason.  It protects us against consolidation of power into a single individual.  It keeps the government focused on addressing the needs of its constituents, and helps to reduce corruption of its leaders.  Our particular form of democracy provides further protections by separating powers between the legislature, executive office, and the courts.  We have our basic principles enshrined in a constitution, insuring that the government's authority is limited only over issues where there is widespread agreement in the electorate that it should be granted.  But if you had to remake the government, how could it be improved?
The Supreme Court
  Lets start with what was done right.  First, the courts... positions appointed by the president for a lifetime.  Their sole job is to ensure laws passed by the legislature abide by the spirit of the constitution.  The lifetime appointment for court creates continuity across generations, and the lack of elections means that the court's members aren't subject to the pressures of elections to bend policy to what is temporarily popular.
The House of Representatives
  Next, there is the house of representatives, a body of elected officials each representing a contiguous region.  Its plainly obvious in the United States that politics have a strong spacial locality.  Large coastal cities naturally have different problems than small rural midwest communities.  It is crucial that the local interests are pressed by someone with a stake in the regional impact of law.  While I think a tiered government (with state governments, and then county and city officials below that) best represents local needs, I'm only focused on the institutions at national level.  The primary change I'd make to this process is requiring ranked ballot voting in selecting officials, thus reducing the impact of parties on elections.  Rather than selecting between extremes, a consensus candidate would represent a region.

Hugo Chavez
Vladimir Putin
  Now that we've discussed the good parts of our democratic institutions, I'd like to point out some places were maybe our government goes wrong.  First and foremost, the institution of the presidency is a problem simply because it is too much concentration of power in one position.  If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then we are taking a huge risk every time we trust someone with the responsibility not to abuse that power.  Time and time again, countries with a presidential democracy slip back into the clutches of a dictator for this very reason.  Even modern democracies like Russia and Venezuela have suffered from back slipping, as megalomaniacs leverage their power to further consolidate control.  Even the American presidency has concentrated powers today not originally granted it in the constitution, like open ended executive decree.  The need for a single representative to wield so much power has often baffled me.  What of its functions is the legislature incapable of achieving?   Maybe there is a need for an elected commander and chief of the military, but originally it was the legislatures duty to declare war and make treaties.  Having a single man appoint representatives of the court also surprises me, as a single person is always a poor reflection of the total population.  In my government, I'd do away with the position.

  This leads to a question of how to appoint new members of the court.  It would be an ineffective check on the legislature to have them directly vote in justices.  Having direct elections of justices also concerns me, as the voting public can be fickle and uninformed.  Perhaps an approach could be taken similar to the original intent of the electoral college.  People vote members of a committee who's job it is to carefully research which candidates for the Supreme Court would be best, and themselves vote for such candidates.  This committee would also utilize the ranked ballot system to select replacement justices.

  Next is the house of representative's mirror, the Senate.  Today, each state has two Senators representing it, reflecting the need to balance population majority views with state specific views.  This would be an important factor for maintaining state identity, for instance, if the European Union were to consolidate into one political body.  Here in the United States, this notion is an antiquated and less useful one, as state lines are much less meaningful than they once were.  We can re-purpose the Senate to address other drawbacks of modern democracy, perhaps to better address the voice of minorities.

  The problem with a single candidate representing regional interests is that there is no way to bring a voice to local minority views.  Local candidates always reflect majority option, and done on mass, this leads to a poor  reflection of the actual electorate.  While I despise political parties, I could see a use for them here via a proportional representative system.  Voters would cast ballots for national parties, which would receive a proportional number of seats to the percentage of the vote they got.  Minority views can better be voiced in this system, because while regional elections always produce candidates representing the majority view, proportional representation always results in some percentage of representatives speaking on behalf of minority groups.  I'd encourage party fragmentation by again utilizing ranked ballot voting.  All parties much achieve at least a minimum percentage of the vote to gain a seat.  If they fail to do this, that parties votes are redistributed to the electorates next most preferred parties, until all such parties have achieved the minimum percentage of the vote.

  So my new federal government looks something like this.  There is no presidency, helping safeguard our democratic institutions from absolute corruption.  The courts are still lifetime appointments, but instead of being appointed by a president, they are voted on by an elected committee with the sole duty of appointing members of the court.  The legislature would be broken into two houses, one of regional representatives elected by ranked ballot voting, one of national parties with seats filled proportionally to the vote they receive.  This system ensures that both regional interests and the interests of minorities get a voice, and distributes power to prevent corruption, while still providing checks and balances against a constitution upheld by the court.  Composing the legislature by ranked ballot voting would ensure that consensus candidates are chosen.  I think that this hypothetical government would offer many improvements over our current system, and that there is potential for pieces of this to be incrementally added to our own government.  The institutions of democracy require regular maintenance, lest they fall into a cycle of dysfunction.  We have almost reached that point today, and should be leery of ignoring these problems for much longer.  There is a government for the people to be had, if we are willing to consider ideas that would improve its reflection of the electorate while safeguarding the institutions against corruption.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ranked Ballot Voting

One of the constant themes of modern politics is the polarization of the political body. We have members of congress who no longer seem capable of thinking for themselves. When they are in the minority, it seems their sole goal is to obstruct the party in power. When they are in the majority, it is merely to maintain power.  Policy plays second fiddle, bipartisanship is a sin, and seeking compromise makes you a Judas. How did we get to this point?

The problem is that political parties have turned elections into sporting events by radically fragmenting the electorate into two camps.  Rather than serving to identify a candidate who is widely acceptable to the general public, we go through a primary process which serves to first sub-select candidates who represent extremes of their parties, and allow the full voting public to hold their nose while voting for the lesser of two evils in the general election.  Voting for a third party is tantamount to abstaining.  The result is predictable... a congress of representatives that is pre-seeded not to achieve policies in the best interest of the people.
Example of a ranked ballot
Enter "Ranked Ballot Voting".  This is an election process where individuals will rank their preference for all candidates they would be willing to vote for.  As candidates are eliminated, the first place votes for those candidates are redistributed to the voters next highest choice.  Typically, when no candidate has received more than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the least number of first place votes is eliminated, and the votes are re-tallied.  When any candidate has accumulated more than 50% of the votes, they are declared the winner.

So how does this help us with our political gridlock?  First of all, it allows us to vote for candidates who are less objectionable in the event that our favorite candidate gets eliminated.  I could still vote for all candidates in my party ahead of the opposition, but in the event my parties candidates were eliminated, I could still vote for the least objectionable candidate from the other party.  This serves to elect candidates that represent the middle ground within voting districts.  Second, ranked ballots allow us to fearlessly cast votes for candidates who best represent our principles, rather than simply voting for a candidate based on their ability to win.  This allows third parties to participate in a role that is not merely a spoiler.  If they are eliminated, our vote will still be counted towards one of the remaining candidates.  If a large enough percentage of the electorate can feel confident that they can vote outside of one party, it may help break the stranglehold that the two parties have on the political system.

Third Party Candidates

Imagine the outcome in the 2000 presidential election if Florida voters had been able to vote both for Ralph Nader, but also a backup candidate like Al Gore, who they trusted more than George W Bush.  Imagine if the 1992 election allowed candidates to vote their principles and cast a ballot for Ross Perot, without worrying that they would be taking a vote from George H.W. Bush in the process.  Imagine in 1972, if the extremes of McCarthy or Nixon weren't to your taste, you could still vote for a Humphrey or Rockefeller as a more centrist candidate?  There are a lot of examples where we can see how our current political system favors the extremes.

The thing is, there are already places where this system is in place.  In 2010, Jean Quan won the election for Mayor of Oakland by ranked ballot voting.  As it turned out, Don Perata was leading in the first nine rounds of the instant runoff, but could never achieve more than 50% of the vote.  In my opinion, this is a huge success... more than 50% of voters decided that any candidate was preferable to him.  Even though there was a fractured opposition, one candidate rose to the top.  It is through elections like this that we can see a leveling force in politics come into play.

I predict that parties will fight tooth and nail against reforms like Ranked Ballot Voting, but the will of the people will prevail.  Incremental steps are now in place in states like California, where there is an open primary.  This addresses only half of the problems ranked ballot voting would solve, but it is at least a good start.  I encourage you to go out and learn more about this unique voting system, and if you like me agree that this could in principle be a huge tool in ending the partisan gridlock in Congress, push with me to get this system in place.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Abolish the Debt Ceiling?

  Earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner got up on Bloomberg TV and argued that the debt ceiling should be abolished.  For those of you familiar with the debt ceiling, it is a mechanism that has been in place for nearly the entire existence of the United States, which puts a dollar figure on the amount of money we are willing to borrow.  Beyond that number, the Federal Government is not allowed to issue new treasury notes.  Congress has historically voted to raise the debt ceiling with little resistance, but following the victories of the Tea Party in 2010, new members of the house refused to raise the limits without compromising on cutting spending.  This lead to a showdown which shook the markets, but ultimately resulted in an agreement to cut defense and other discretionary spending by 10% across the board.

  While Secretary Geithner rightly points out that these kind of fiscal showdowns can have a negative impact on the economy, whats more important is empowering our legislature with the tools to take leadership on the real pending fiscal crisis.  Our growing debt obligations are like a car heading full speed towards a brick wall.  The further we kick the can down the road, the harder it is to slow that car down.  The reality is that our government will not act on long term problems unless the horizon for consequence is within the site of their next election cycle.  Given a choice between making tough unpopular decisions and inaction, elected officials will choose inaction every time.  The debt ceiling needs to continue to be the tool that forces the hand of elected officials, and even if its just to kick the can again, to force a vote of accountability.  Eliminating the debt ceiling to save a few dollars now will only ease the road to a heaping wreck of an economy later.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Greenspan Says Recession a Small Price to Pay

  Alan Greenspan is one of the few national leaders who is willing to be a straight shooter about our long term debt problem.  Yesterday, he appeared on Bloomberg Television noting that a short term recession is a small price to pay for long term entitlement reform.  I applaud his honesty, and willingness to compromise to achieve fiscal reform.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The lost soul of the Tea Party

  November 2, 2010 was a monumental day for a fledgling movement in America.  Voters marched into polling booths across the country and threw out a vast swath of incumbent politicians.  The 21 seats picked up by Democrats on Obama's coattails in 2008 were now seen as small potatoes compared to the 63 seat swing to the Republicans.  The people were upset and needed to be heard, and the Tea Party gave them a voice.  Then a mere two years later, the pendulum swung back again.  Amidst the greatest recession in a generation, against the backdrop of those sweeping Republican victories in 2010, President Obama emerged victorious with the blessing of the American people for another four years.  To many on the right, it was a shock.  How could things have changed so much?  What had happened to the soul of the Tea Party?

  The early days of this new movement coagulated around a handful of core values: fiscal responsibility, limited government, and American prosperity.  At that time, it was clear that both Republicans and Democrats were at fault for the financial mess our government has created.  Republicans had abandoned the Contract with America, instead opting for large tax cuts with little regard for the growing debt obligations, and Democrats had massively expanded the scope of government around healthcare, ignoring a doubling again of the deficit into the trillions.  There didn't seem to be a place for deficit hawks within the existing polarized party establishment.  In this vacuum of leadership, the Tea Party formed.

  The interesting thing about the Tea Party was how it looked.  It was a reflection of America in its demographics, albeit politically tilted to the right.  But its influence transcended race, age, occupation, and education.  Its power came from its reach across party lines, as over 50% Tea Party supporters self identified as something other than Republicans.  Its heart came from its supporter's genuine desires to set aside differences to fix the debt problem both for themselves and for future generations.  They were in a pragmatic mood, willing to carefully consider what was the right balance of taxes and spending cuts to secure that future.

  The Tea Party started as a genuine grass roots movement to fill a void in political will, but as soon as congressional Republicans recognized its power, they embraced the movement wholeheartedly.  Ultra conservative personalities like Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity helped shift the focus of the movement to meet their own political needs.  Soon, the Tea Party became synonymous with preventing Obamacare, throwing out the President, and again cutting taxes.  Americans were largely patient, waiting for an opportunity for the Tea Party to live up to its promise.  But that ended with a thud when there was no Grand Bargain in the fall of 2012.  It was just politics as usual.

  Now the polls are in again, and America today looks a lot like America of 2008.  So what happened to the soul of the Tea Party?  Ideologues co-opted its message, and left America's center again without a voice, again in a vacuum of leadership.  The good news is that the vacuum is still waiting to be filled.  Independents desperately want someone to show true leadership on the deficit, while there is still time.  If Washington steps back from the fiscal cliff, only to kick the can down the road again, these people will be waiting.  These are pragmatic people, and are willing to reach across lines to solve problems.  Next time, it may very well be fiscally responsible democrats who will sound the call, and the soul of the Tea Party will come again to help meet the challenge of our generation.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A New Tomorrow

  Its been barely a week since the last presidential election, and you can still feel the tremors of political change settling into the nation's consciousness.  The outcome of what was projected to be a fairly close election has both the left elated with the prospect of cementing the legacy equal to the Great Society, and the right shattered, in fear that they've lost America irrevocably to those who would trade in guns for new taxes.  I can't help but wonder if really the left is elated and the right shattered because of the outcome in and of itself.  Modern politics is like a game of football, and the electorate its fans.  The motto "Just win, baby" has taken such a strong foothold in party politic, that it has enabled a dangerous game of ends justifying the means.  How can we have reached a point of polarization where exactly half of the population is exactly opposite on all issues from the other half?  Why it is ok to validate our own ideas simply through demonizing our opponent's?  When was it that what America really wanted became style instead of substance?  Like a donkey led by the nose, we let the parties tell us what to believe.

  I confess I was one of these fanatics at one point in my life, but I found myself utterly unfulfilled with the false promises and fear mongering that parties use to mold their base.  In my disillusionment, I had an epiphany that genuine rational inspection of the facts was not guiding my values, but my emotional connection to my party.  It is strikingly difficult to be honest with yourself about re-approaching the issues you've lived with for years from an open perspective.  For me, it started with the simple question, what are the issues of the opposition that I can most agree with?  Its something I believe we should all be able to ask ourselves honestly, and we should all be able to identify something if we are being honest.  For me, my views were so tightly ingrained that it has taken years to break down the walls of bias.  But last week, for the first time in my life, I was registered independent instead of to a party.  Last week, I voted for a candidate from a party I used to not be able to trust, as well as a candidate from a party I used to embrace.

  This period of introspection has helped focus my mind on what values are most important to me.  These are problems that should transcend politics.  First, that the great task of our generation is to regain our nation's tenuous grasp on fiscal responsibility, so that future generations will enjoy the prosperity we have built for ourselves, rather than suffer the burden of debt we've left them behind.  Second, the very institutions of Democracy on which our nation is founded deserve a honest appraisal on how they can be improved and maintained to better represent the people of this nation.  It is primarily these ideas that will be the focus in this blog.  As naive as it may sound, I hope it helps to contribute to a responsible discussion of the substance, while avoiding the traps of partisanship.  I hope we can all find this new tomorrow we so often hear about.