Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's a trap!

This morning on the bus, I picked up a copy of the Washington Examiner (a free conservative local paper) that had been left on my seat.

On page 2, there is an editorial saying that the "debt-ceiling debate" "misses the larger point", because it doesn't address the long-term debt.  The editorial praises the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, "a concrete plan for avoiding default, getting federal spending under control and putting the federal government on the road to a permanent spending, taxes and debt settlement," [serial commas missing in original!] and attacks President Obama and the Democrats for "keeping the federal spending spigot wide open."

On page 4, there is an article with the lede "A new study shows Maryland's unemployment rate would nearly double ... if federal spending is cut by 22 percent as recommended by President Obama's deficit commission."

This is a preview of what the 2012 election will look like.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


In a democracy, the people are sovereign.  Our elected representatives work for us.  This org chart for the New York City government has it right:  the various city departments are underneath the deputy mayors, who are under the mayor, and at the very top of the chart, above the mayor, are "the voters of the City of New York".

Voting in an election is different from voting in a legislature, because elections are by secret ballot.  This is necessary and unavoidable.  As corrupt as our elections have become, the billions of dollars spent on political campaigns ultimately have no power over voters beyond the power of persuasion (often combined with deception and fearmongering).  The same is not true for the money spent on buying legislators.  And if we were to eliminate the secret ballot, electoral voting would become as corrupt as legislative voting, and possibly much worse.  Many opportunities would arise to coerce voters with carrots and sticks.  (Do you want to keep your job at Wal-Mart?)

So I'm not suggesting that we eliminate the secret ballot.  However, we should recognize that it has real tradeoffs.

Legislative votes are public, so legislators can be held accountable for their votes.  This can happen in the next election.  And even legislators who aren't running for reelection might be concerned about their legacies.  But voters have all the power (albeit diffuse over a large population) with none of the individual accountability that would ordinarily come with being at the top of the org chart.  The costs of bad decisions at the polls are completely externalized.

This is part of why systems like California's (with more direct democracy) are flawed.  Direct democracy sounds good on paper, but the secret ballot means that it lacks the safeguards that representative democracy has.  California voters can pass irresponsible initiatives like Prop 13, and then leave it to someone else to clean up the mess.

We can see the negative consequences of the secret ballot in the present debt-limit crisis.  If the unthinkable happens and we hit the debt limit next week, then (in the absence of 14th-Amendment remedies or other emergency solutions) President Obama and the executive branch will have to start making decisions about which bills the government will stop paying.  The most just way to proceed (if the secret ballot didn't make it impossible) would be to cut off Social Security checks to people who voted Republican in 2010.  Why should the innocent suffer along with the guilty?

In the absence of the data needed to implement such a solution, we'll have to settle for blunter instruments such as cutting off all Social Security checks to House districts represented by Republicans until the debt ceiling is raised.  Anyone who has a problem with this could contact their congressman.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Wedding...: omnibus edition

If you got here via the "Kiddushin Meets 21st-Century Egalitarianism" course, welcome!  Here are the links to Mah Rabu's wedding series, all in one place:
For everyone else:  This series of blog posts has been assigned for Talya Weisbard Shalem's course on "Kiddushin Meets 21st-Century Egalitarianism", at this year's National Havurah Committee Summer Institute, to take place August 1-7, 2011, at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire (though it would be indisputably in Massachusetts if it weren't for George II).

If you're interested in taking this class, or one (or two!) of the 20+ other fantastic courses, it's not too late to register for Institute!  You shan't regret it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

One person one vote?

Like many jurisdictions across the country, the District of Columbia is redistricting this year, to make sure its 8 wards continue to have roughly equal populations following the 2010 Census.  This means Ward 2 (downtown) has to get smaller, Wards 7 and 8 (east of the river) have to get larger, and Ward 6 (located between Wards 2 and 7&8) has to shift over.

DC Councilmembers are elected to 4-year terms, with half of the Council elected every 2 years.  Thus, Council terms are staggered, much like the U.S. Senate (but with only 2 classes, not 3).

This combination of redistricting and staggering is unusual.  For example, the U.S. Senate is staggered, but is (unfortunately) not subject to redistricting.  Conversely, the U.S. House is redistricted every 10 years, but all representatives are elected at the same time.  (Any special House elections between now and November 2012 will be based on the old 2000 Census districts, even in states that have completed redistricting.)  Many state legislatures operate the same way.

This unusual combination leads to some strange consequences, which I haven't heard anyone else discuss.  Take, as an example, Wards 2 and 6, since they are mutually exchanging territory.  Ward 2 is currently represented by Jack Evans, who was last elected in 2008.  Ward 6 is represented by Tommy Wells, last elected in 2010.  This means that the people who live in the part of Ward 6 that is being transferred to Ward 2 got to vote for (or against) Wells in 2010, and then will vote again in the Ward 2 election in 2012.  Thus, for the 2013-14 term, they will be represented by two different ward-based councilmembers:  Wells (from Ward 6) and the councilmember from Ward 2.  The people who live in the part of Ward 2 that is being transferred to Ward 6 have the opposite situation:  they didn't vote in 2010, and they won't be able to vote in 2012 either.  Thus, from 2013-14, they will not have had the opportunity to vote for any current members of the Council (except the at-large councilmembers).

Does this violate the principle of "one person, one vote"?  Would the voters in these neighborhoods (Mt. Vernon Square and Shaw) have standing to bring a lawsuit?  Are there other jurisdictions outside DC with the same issue?