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.