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getting wee Donny 2: tax stuff etc

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this goes back to 2016, but still no sign of justice

Canto: So there’s the more general matter of tax evasion, tax fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and so forth – we’re no tax or finance experts, but we’re prepared to learn, for the fun of finding out how bad things might be for wee Donny.

Jacinta: Or should be, given effective white-collar crime legislation, and limitations to these endless appeals processes. By the way, I heard there was more news on the attempt, or desire, to evict him from Mar-a-Largo. Can that be included as a legal problem?

Canto: Why not? And what is this ‘largo’ thing? I’ve seen Key Largo – some thing to to with the Florida Keys…

Jacinta: That’s an archipelago, nothing to do with the keys to Mar-a-Lago (spelt without the ‘r’). Largo’s a coastal town in Florida, so I don’t know if it’s worth connecting the dots. As to tax matters, I heard a while back that ‘forensic accounting experts’ have been hired re investigations into wee Donny’s taxes, which reporters say is a big deal.

Canto: Okay so we’re leaving Mar-a-Lago for now (unlike Donny). Yes The Washington Post reported on this in late December. It concerns the DA’s office for Manhattan, headed by Cyrus Vance. They’ve been investigating Donny since 2018, initially in regard to alleged hush money payments made in 2016. But the investigation has since expanded to include insurance fraud as well as bank and tax fraud.

Jacinta: Stuff that appears to have been overlooked for decades. In fact they admit as much, since ‘the probe is believed to encompass transactions spanning several years’, according to the paper. All of this comes ‘from sources close to the case’  – Vance and his hirelings are naturally keeping mum about it all.

Canto: It’s explosive stuff, but heartening. Anyway, the forensics company they’ve allegedly hired is FTC consulting, and it’s a bonafide ‘global business advisory firm’. The paper mentions an ‘ongoing grand jury investigation’, so that’s a thing. We don’t do grand juries in Australia, so we might have to learn about that. 

Jacinta: Vance’s office is battling to obtain years of tax returns and such from Mazars USA, the accounting firm Donny uses. It’s described as ‘an independent member firm of Mazars Group, an international audit, tax and advisory organization with operations in over 90 countries’. It sounds legit – but everything wee Donny touches dies, according to Rick Wilson – so I suspect Mazars USA is feeling the breath of death on its nape right now. The tax records are described as the final piece in an already well-advanced investigation. We shall see. 

Canto: So this is a big one. Donny’s lawyers, such as they are, have been fighting all this, and the Supreme Court has already rejected the idea that he was immune from state court proceedings as Prez, which he ain’t no more. But of course the litigation has continued, with Donny’s lawyers claiming the subpoena for this financial stuff was ‘overbroad’ and issued ‘in bad faith’, and now it’s before the Supreme Court again, though Donny is no longer able to hide behind the presidency – which of course he should never be able to do. But in a banana republic…

Jacinta: Apparently he’s been granted a stay by the Supreme Court, and the technicalities of this are unclear to me, and I’ve been finding it hard to get free info about the length of this stay, so it’s frustrating. 

Canto: It’s a ridiculous ongoing situation, hopefully an only in the USA situation – I pity any other country that allows such legal horrors. But with Donny now being unemployed, there should be an easier path to justice – it’s much easier to charge unemployed people there than anyone else. 

Jacinta: Hmmm. I found reporting from early October that a federal appeals court then ruled against Donny’s lawyers, who tried to block the handover of tax documents to the Manhattan DA. Presumably that’s when the lawyers took it to the Supreme Court, and they granted a stay, presumably in mid-October. 

Canto: Mein gott, so what exactly is a stay, for what reasons can it be given, and surely there’s a time limit on them?

Jacinta: Good questions, but I’ve found a very interesting article by Richard Lempert on the Brookings Institution website from October 19, when an appeal was on its way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Supreme Court should end things now – meaning then. In its first para, I learn that the New York Times already has Donny’s tax returns – the stuff Vance is filing for – and is sharing them with the public. Whether that’s the whole kit and caboodle, I don’t know. And of course Donny claims the docs are false. Anyway the article points out that Vance is asking for more than tax returns – supporting docs are needed to prove criminality. The article then goes into a lot of legal detail about subpoenas, Article 2 powers, precedent and how courts deliver their rulings, but Lempert’s essential view is that Donny’s legal arguments in the initial case were weak, and they’ve come up with nothing new in the interim. So the Supreme Court shouldn’t take up the case. 

Canto: But they have taken it up?

Jacinta: It does seem as if they have. Or maybe not. An article from Bloomberg, dated January 20, so quite recently, said the case was ‘now before the Supreme Court’, but that they hadn’t acted on it for three months, without providing reasons. The pay wall descended before I could work out whether that meant they’d deferred looking at the case or they’d deferred a decision to look at the case. But their decision may not matter, as apparently Vance may have sufficient material for his case already. I suppose only he and his legal team would know. 

Canto: Michael Cohen was on cable news recently, arguing for SDNY to swiftly move on the matter of campaign finance violations, for which he was jailed, and also expressing an expectation that the new head of the DOJ, Merrick Garland, once approved – which may ultimately take another month – would look into Donny’s financial affairs as president,  which will be interesting. Biden seems to want the DOJ to keep out of politics, but have Donny’s financial shenanigans ever really been political?

Jacinta: We can only await events. Meanwhile, there seems to be a real concern about the dangers of neo-fascism in the country. Those right-wingers who’ve gone against wee Donny recently seem to be running scared. Could the fear of reprisals be inhibiting legal action against wee Donny? That’s another thing to look into, as well as the situation in Georgia, where they have pretty strong evidence of serious attempts to overturn a fair election. Still a lot to get to…


Trump’s tax returns: Why the Supreme Court should end things now

Written by stewart henderson

February 15, 2021 at 2:08 pm

Americans need to stop blaming Trump, and take responsibility for their broken system

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So there was a Presidential debate the other day, and it went as expected, by all accounts. I didn’t watch it, and never had any intention to. I’ve taken a strong interest in US federal politics in the past 4-5 years or so, with the advent of Trump, but in watching cable news I’ve always had the remote handy so as not to have to hear anything coming out of Trump’s mouth, or the mouth of some of his acolytes. Trump’s presence and position makes me feel enraged, a feeling of actual violent loathing which has always come over me when I encounter bullies. This has nothing to do with politics, or at least political ideology. Of course bullying is a feature of politics. The term ‘authoritarian leader’ is generally a euphemism for a bully, and we all know who the current ones are. 

However, as a person who, if not philosophical, has read a fair amount on philosophy and psychology over the years, I try to use those insights to calm and divert. For example, there’s the issue of free will, which I won’t go into in detail here, but we’ve learned – from the Dunedin longitudinal study, for example – that early childhood shapes our character far more than most of us are willing to admit. This often goes unnoticed because most of us have had relatively normal childhoods within the broader social milieu, which also shapes us to a large degree. However, as a person who has been in fairly close contact with highly dysfunctional families and the children born of them, the long-term or permanent effects are clear enough. In the case of Trump I don’t want to speculate too much, but it’s clear from family members, long-term witnesses, and psychological and neurological professionals, that Trump’s seriously damaged persona was in place from a very early age. Many of those who’ve known him longest say things to the effect that you have to think of him as an eight-year-old, or ten-year-old, or pre-adolescent, and it would indeed be worthwhile if neurologists could gain access to his pre-frontal cortex, which of course will never happen now. Some argue that he has deteriorated in recent years, and of course I can’t respond to that in any professional way, but I’m certainly skeptical. The bluster, the attention-seeking, the endless repetitions, the perverse doubling down, and the complete inability to say anything insightful or thought-provoking, these all represent a pattern of speech and behaviour that hasn’t changed in the couple of decades since I first encountered him. Of course this behaviour is exacerbated when he’s under pressure, and it’s this pressure and scrutiny, rather than his age, that gives the impression of deterioration, IMHO. 

I’ve described Trump, only half-jokingly, as a pre-teen spoilt brat turned crime machine, but whatever descriptor you choose to use, it should be clear to any reasonably sane and insightful observer that he’s not normal – and that this abnormality has entirely negative features, such as extreme selfishness, vanity, incuriosity, vindictiveness, blame-shifting and solipsism, which tend to damage others far more than himself, and which explains the title of Republican strategist Rick Wilson’s book Everything Trump touches dies. But of course Trump himself bustles and blunders on, and on. Indeed in some business and political environments, these ‘qualities’ can be very beneficial to the individual endowed with them, as Trump’s business career, however ‘fake’, has shown. 

 It’s this environment that needs to be analysed with a view to cleaning it up, so that those people like Trump, and the greatest influence on his life, his father, are unable to thrive. Think of Vibrio cholerae in faecally contaminated water. Draining the swamp indeed. 

I have written before about the political reforms that are urgently required, though I recognise that many of them will never be instituted, until it’s too late. Business and judicial reform are also urgently required, and perhaps the silver lining to the Trump debacle will be some long overdue attention to these areas, when and if the nation survives this crisis. I’m reluctant to make suggestions in fields in which I have little or no expertise, but I’ll make some anyway. In doing so, I’ll claim the benefit of being an outsider, as I note that very few American pundits, in spite of their obvious intelligence and wealth of knowledge, make mention of them.

  1. Vetting

Americans love to boast that, in the land of opportunity, anyone can become the nation’s President. It’s great for inspiring schoolkids, but have they really thought this idea through? The USA, as many of its inhabitants love to tell us, is the most powerful country, militarily and economically, in the world. It surely follows that any candidate for the highest office in that exalted nation, that of actually leading it, in the manner of a CEO,  should be fully versed in its operations, alliances, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – as would be expected of any other potential CEO. Herein lies a major problem of democracy – populist demagoguery. Because of America’s direct election system, Trump could bring his circus cavalcade directly to the people, in the teeth of scorn from Republican stalwarts, most of whom fell in line with him over time. Trump had had no experience in any form of government, and the business cognoscenti knew very that Trump’s businesses were shambolic. So the warning signs were clear and obvious from the beginning of his candidacy.

Under variants of the Westminster system, used in every other English-speaking democracy, there’s an informal vetting system that, in a sense, flies below the radar. To become Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) you need to have already won a local election, and to have impressed your parliamentary colleagues as a worthy, articulate, responsible, collegial leader. It’s not a foolproof system of course, but by its nature it emphasises the team as much as its leader. As with a soccer team, the Prime Minister, the Captain, is just perhaps the most prominent member, and if she loses form, or ‘goes rogue’, she can be replaced without too much fuss. The team may be affected, but not massively disrupted. But consider the US situation, where the presidential candidate, or candidate for Captain of the soccer team, gets elected by the people because of all that she promises, in spite of never having played soccer in her life, knowing nothing of the rules, and after being elected, gets to choose her own team all of whom are just as clueless about soccer as she is. That isn’t far from the current American situation. The President, or Captain, needn’t worry about a revolt from within, no matter how poorly the team is performing, because they owe the captain their highly lucrative jobs, which they would never have gotten without her. 

After the failed impeachment process earlier this year, the American pundit Chuck Rosenberg said something that made my jaw drop. He said that removing a President from office is and should be very difficult. That the US is, fortunately, not like Britain, where the PM can be removed by a simple vote of no confidence by his party. I believe the exact opposite to be true. Of course, there’s a sense in which Rosenberg is right. Under the highly problematic US federal system, removing a President creates a crisis unlike anything created by the removal of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. Under the US system, this completely unvetted President gets to choose his own running mate, who is likely to be no more competent than the President, a very low bar in Trump’s case. Indeed the President gets to choose a whole team of sycophants to ‘run’ his administration, none of them elected by the people. So, yes, given this autocratic system, dumping the President is indeed a dangerous event. The  Vice-President, barring illness, must take over, in spite of never having been independently elected. Under the Westminster system, however, dumping the Captain allows other elected team members to put their candidacy forward, and the team, the whole membership of the right or left wing party that’s in power, gets to choose a new Prime Minister – again based on the qualities described above.

   2. Power 

Special executive powers, veto powers, power to shut down the government, power to select a team of unelected Secretaries (State, Defence, Treasury etc) – performing the role that previously elected Ministers perform under the Westminster system, as well as extraordinary power over the judiciary, including personally selecting an unelected Attorney-General with apparently unlimited power to over-ride judicial decisions as well as to personally determine the legal liability of the President while in office. These are the gifts bestowed upon the person of the incoming President by virtue of his winning a majority of Electoral College seats. Compare Prime Ministers, who must go to work within the parliament, leading the debates, under the constant scrutiny of his fellow ministers and colleagues, and within spitting distance of the opposing elected representatives. 

It seems obvious to me that an American President’s position, between elections, more closely resembles that of a monarch, only slightly hindered by a sometimes oppositional Congress/Parliament, than does the position of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. And now we see that the ‘monarch’ can even go a long way to manipulate the forthcoming election in his favour. As many American pundits are finally noticing, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Constitution is wholly inadequate for reining in a President who is not in any sense a gentleman, but will Americans ever be self-critical enough to enact clear-cut laws limiting Presidential power, forcing tax disclosure, setting clear and enforceable guidelines on emoluments, and ensuring a uniformly free and fair federal electoral system? Time will tell, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. 

3 Hero worship 

Sections 3 and 4 are less about the USA’s political system and more about its political culture, so will I suspect be much more difficult to change. 
Contrary to popular belief, Superman wasn’t born on the planet Krypton, but in Cleveland Ohio. Batman and his boyfriend Robin were born in New York, not Gotham City. Spider-Man, Wonder-woman as well as mere mortal heroes such as Rambo, Indiana Jones and John McClane were all typically American do-goodnicks and swamp-drainers, and no doubt classic presidential material. They seem to me to testify to a somewhat naive national tendency of Americans, a desire to place their trust in heroic individuals rather than teams, programs, policies and processes. Presidents are recalled by their numbers, worshipped by their admirers and reviled by their detractors, whereas in most other democracies, leaders evoke much milder emotions and are soon forgotten once replaced. Presidential elections are hyped to a mind-numbing degree, involving grotesque expenditures and apparently mandatory gladiatorial debates. All of this OTT razzle-dazzle seems almost designed for self-aggrandising con-artists like Trump, and it’s clear that he revels in the circus and the adulation. Much of his Presidency has been nothing more than a punctuated campaign rally. How to dial the nation down from all this hyperventilating claptrap? Possibly the Trump overdose might actually help. Once Trump’s dumped, a look around at how so much of the world is faring very well without American exceptionalism may lead to an extended period of good sense and sobriety – and a unity never before experienced, but which will be necessary to save the country’s reputation. 

4 Partisanship and Tribalism 

This, admittedly, is now a global problem. Social media, much of it headquartered in the USA, has led to huge increases in conspiracy theories, vaccine ‘hesitation’ groups, flat-earthers and other mind-numbing activities and belief systems. It’s becoming rare to find people reading old-fashioned newspapers with their diversity of takes on current affairs. The viciousness of Youtube political commentary is there for all to witness. People are throwing verbal bombs at people they’ll never meet, whose human lives of friendship, humiliation, suffering, struggle, anxiety and achievement they seem not even to know how to care about. We tend to see this trend as predominantly American, perhaps because we’re inundated by American media here in Australia and most other far-flung English-speaking countries. We constantly see videos of “ordinary Americans” apparently beset with certainty and contempt, however mask-like and brittle. It does seem like Trump has set this agenda, but many pundits also argue that the country has been polarised in this way for generations. The tragedy for Trump supporters is that they get so little in return for their adulation, and it seems the most disadvantaged and desperate are the most deluded. As I’ve argued from the beginning of this presidency, it’s highly unlikely to end with a whimper. The worst is surely yet to come. I’m certainly not wishing for it, but it may be the only outcome that can shake the country out of its ‘exceptionalism’, and towards a more realistic program of political (and media) reform and cultural healing. 


Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2020 at 11:27 pm

some thoughts on fascism and American exceptionalism

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Fascism isn’t compatible with democracy, that’s the common view. Yet we know that fascism can utilise democracy to get started, and then toss it aside, when it, fascism, gets itself sufficiently established. It happened in Germany, of course, and in modern Russia Putin has trampled upon the seeds of democracy that were just starting to take root after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now his brand of fascism has managed to prevail for the foreseeable.

Also, fascism, though somewhat limited, can occur between democratic elections, if the elected person or party is given too much power, or leeway to increase his power, by a particular political system.

Fascism is a particular type of popularism, generally based on the leadership rhetoric of particular, highly egotistical individuals, almost always male. Other current examples include Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Phillippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Kadyrov in Chechnya, Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and Orban in Hungary. There are certain features of this political brand. Ultra-nationalism, militarism, ‘law and order’, control of the media and persecution of opposition are all essential elements.

I note that historians would mostly disagree with the ‘fascist’ moniker being used today – they like to restrict it to the early-to-mid 20th century, generally being quashed as a ‘coherent’ political movement by the second world war. Even the term ‘neo-fascist’ is generally grumbled about. I think this is false and ridiculously so. The elements of fascism described above have been used by states not only in the 21st century but since the origins of the state thousands of years ago, though of course no two fascist states are identical, any more than their leaders have been.

Every state, even the most democratic, is susceptible to fascism. The USA’s susceptibility is worth noting. To me, its ‘soft underbelly’ is its obsession with the individual. Perhaps also an obsession with worship, saviours and superheroes. Of course, Americans like to describe themselves as the most democratic people on earth, and the world’s greatest democracy. In fact, having listened to more US cable news shows since 2016 than is good for my health, I find this declaration of America’s top-class status by news anchors, political pundits, lawyers and public intellectuals to be both nauseating and alarming. It betokens a lack of a self-critical attitude towards the USA’s political system, which lends itself to populist fascism more than most other democratic systems. Few other such nations directly elect their leaders, pitching one heroic individual against another in a kind of gladiatorial contest, two Don Quixotes accompanied by their Sancho Panzas. Their parliament, too – which they refuse to call a parliament – has become very much a two-sided partisan affair, unlike many European parliaments, which feature a variety of parties jostling for popularity, leading to coalitions and compromise – which to be fair also has its problems, such as centrist stagnation and half-arsed mediocrity. There are no perfect or even ‘best’ political systems, IMHO – they change with the personnel at the controls.

It’s unarguable that the current administration which supposedly governs the USA is extremely corrupt, venal and incompetent. It is headed by a pre-teen spoilt brat with an abysmal family history, who has managed to succeed in a 50-odd year life of white-collar crime, due to extraordinarily lax laws pertaining to such crime (the USA is far from being alone amongst first-world nations in that regard), and to be rewarded for that life, and for the mountain of lies he has told about it, by becoming the president of the world’s most economically and militarily powerful country. Unfortunately for him, the extremely high-profile status he now has, and which he revels in, being a lifelong, obsessional attention-seeker, has resulted in detailed scrutiny and exposure. Now, it may be that, even with the laying bare of all the criminality he has dealt in – and no doubt more will be laid bare in the future – the USA’s justice system will still fail the simple test of bringing this crime machine to book after he is thrown out of office. Then again, maybe it will be successful, albeit partially. And the crime machine is well aware of this. And time is running out.

The USA is in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and suffering terribly. On this day, July 24 2020, the country suffered over a thousand Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours. The USA has approximately 14 times the population of Australia, where I live, but has suffered more than 1000 times the number of Covid-19 deaths. It is a monumental tragedy, with hubris, indifference, blame-shifting and deceit at the highest government level, and heroism, frustration, exhaustion and determination at many state levels and especially at the level of critical and general healthcare. And there’s a presidential election in the offing, an election that the current incumbent is bound to lose. He hates losing and will never admit to losing, but there is more at stake for him now than for any other previous loss, and he knows this well.

Which brings us back to fascism. It has recently been tested, on a small scale, in Portland, and it’s being threatened elsewhere, but to be fair to the people of the USA, their civil disobedience, so disastrous for getting on top of Covid-19, is a very powerful weapon against fascism. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough. The next few months will certainly absorb my attention, happily from a far-away place. I’m sure it’s going to be very very messy, but I’m also interested in 2021 in that country. How will it ensure that this never happens again? Serious reform needs to occur. Greater restrictions on presidential candidature must be applied. Not financial restrictions – wealth being apparently the only vetting criterion Americans seem to recognise. How is it that a person is allowed to become the leader of such a powerful and dominant country on the world stage without any of the kind of vetting that would be the sine qua non for the position of any mid-level CEO? Without any knowledge of the country’s history, its alliances, its laws, its domestic infrastructure and so forth? To rely entirely on the popular mandate for the filling of such a position is disastrous. This sounds like an anti-democratic statement, and to some extent it is. We don’t decide on our science by popular mandate, nor our judiciary, nor our fourth estate. We have different ways of assessing the value of these essential elements of our society, and necessarily so. The USA now suffers, via this presidency, for many failures. It fails to vet candidates for the highest office. It fails to provide any system of accountability for criminality while in office. It fails to ensure that the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins office. It fails to ensure its electoral system is secure from foreign and/or criminal interference. It permits its elected leader to select a swathe of unelected cronies without relevant experience to positions of high domestic and international significance. It permits its leader to engage in extreme nepotism. It fails in dealing with presidential emoluments. The current incumbent in the ‘white palace’ may not be able to spell fascism, but his instincts are fascist, as shown by his absolutist language, not necessarily the language of an adult, but neither is the language of most fascist leaders, who share the same brattish love of insult, thin-skinned intolerance of opposition, and lack of common humanity. These are precisely the psychological types who need to be vetted out of all political systems. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight. Vast numbers of people, in the USA and around the world, saw Trump as the mentally deficient liar and con-man he’s always been. It’s up to the USA to ensure that such a type can never rise to anything like this position of power and influence again. It requires far more than soul-searching.

Written by stewart henderson

July 25, 2020 at 11:53 am

reading matters 3

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Will he go? Trump and the looming election meltdown, by Lawrence Douglas, Professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, Amherst College

Content hints

  • failure of impeachment, high crimes and misdemenours, rigged voting, media scum, sleepy Joe, election hoax, treason, fraud, shades of 2016, tweetstorms, dictator worship, Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán, the USA’s quaint constitution, pathological lying, Presidential authority to ban media, Trump as weak authoritarian, foreign interference, catastrophic scenarios 1,2,3, the unforeseeable, the electoral college and faithless electors, uniquely awful system, hacked elections, profoundly antidemocratic outcomes, gerrymandering, swing states, 12th amendment, enemies of the people, problems of peaceful succession, civil war, hang on, bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

Canto: What do the words ‘electoral college’ mean to you?

Jacinta: Let me see, ‘electoral’ has something to do with processes and methods relating to elections, and a college is an educational institution, and connected words like ‘collegial’ and ‘colleague’ bring to mind teams and teamwork, in an educated sort of way. I’ve also heard about the electoral college in relation to US federal politics, but I’m not sure what it means. At a guess, I think it just means the electorate, and the regions it’s made up of, though why that would be called a ‘college’ I’ve no idea.

Canto: Well there’s this American-only phenomenon called the Electoral College I’ve been hearing about since I’ve been tuning into what has become, hopefully briefly, Trumpistan, but the term has kind of washed over me, and I’ve not thought of it as anything more than a fancy term for the electorate and its divisions, as you say. But no, a little book called Will he go?, by Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, has taught me otherwise, though I’ve not completely got my head around it, so now’s the time.

Jacinta: Wikipedia tells me it goes back to that worshipped but problematic constitution of theirs. It also seeks to explain how it works, but it doesn’t really explain, at least not in its initial section, how it was thought needful.

Canto: Well, Douglas has a chapter in his book, ‘The Electoral College revisited, alas’, which opens thus:

The Electoral College is our constitutional appendix, a vestigial organ that has ceased to perform any valuable function and can only create problems for the body politic. It is a deservedly unloved part of our Constitution. Recently asked what part of the Constitution she would most like to alter, Justice Ruth Baider Ginsburg quickly answered, ‘the Electoral College – I’d like to see it abolished.’ Most Americans agree. No poll conducted over the past 70 years has found a majority of Americans supporting it. Only roughly one third of those polled in 2019 ‘would prefer to keep’ it.

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

Douglas goes on to argue that the USA is the only country in the world where the loser of a presidential election, based on popular vote, can actually win it by means of another system, namely the Electoral College in this case.

Jacinta: But in Australia we often have parties losing the popular vote but gaining more seats and so gaining ultimate victory, or in cases where neither party has an outright majority, it’s the party that can form a coalition with minor parties or independents that can form government.

Canto: Yes but here they’re talking about one-on-one presidential battles, no coalitions. Though such one-on-one races are just indicative of a bad political system, IMHO. And the reason parties win with a minority of votes is because the voters in some electorates are ‘worth more’ than the voters in other electorates. This imbalance was sort of deliberately created to provide more rural states with more power, so they wouldn’t be swamped at every election by the urbanites, but with the dramatic increase in urbanisation in recent decades, and the increase in productivity of those urban states, it’s become clear that the most urbanised states are effectively subsidising the rural states, while being dudded out of their share of the vote.

Jacinta: This isn’t a problem with the Electoral College, though, is it? The solution to what you’re talking about could surely be solved by a kind of independent commission on demographics, which could redraw the electorate every few years, say, on the basis of the movement of peoples….

Canto: Which would thus constantly be reducing the value of the rural vote, which would, if people considered the value of their vote to be a high priority in their lives, increase the rate of urbanisation. I’m wondering if that would ultimately be a good thing. But to return to the Electoral College..

Jacinta: Before you go on, this problem of losing the popular vote and winning the election, which has become much more of a factor in recent years in the US, is far more of a worry in these one-on-one contests, because you could have contests between, say, a centrist candidate and a far-right or far-left candidate, and if the extremist candidate manages to win the contest based on electoral boundaries rather than popular vote – which can be done more and more in the US, even with a substantial loss in the popular vote – that candidate and his personally appointed courtiers (another example of American exceptionalism) can do substantial damage to the public interest during his term, given the extraordinary powers given to one person by the system. That’s what’s happening now – though Trump is neither right nor left, nor up, he’s just down down down.

Canto: True, and if you regularly adjusted those boundaries so that they better captured one-vote-one-value, it’s probable that Trump would never have been elected. As Douglas writes, perhaps a little optimistically, ‘it seems fair to say that it is harder to convince 50% of the electorate to embrace a politics of division and intolerance than it is to convince 40%’.

Jacinta: Trump has never had 50% popular support at any time during his presidency, which provides support for that.

Canto: So the Electoral College system is little understood by even tertiary-educated Americans. Douglas suggests that its very opacity from the public perspective is a damning indictment, but it requires an amendment from the most impossible-to-amend constitution on the globe to change or dump it. In fact their constitution is hoist by its own petard in this case, as the system gives disproportionate power to less populous states, who would have to ratify its elimination. It’s a collection of electors, 538 in all, so requiring the magic number of 270 for a majority, who meet every four years to decide who’ll be the President.

Jacinta: I thought the federal election did that. So clearly the EC, if I can call it that…

Canto: Please do.

Jacinta: Clearly the EC is tightly bound to the election. I knew there were some 500-odd parts to the election, or the electorate, but I just thought that meant 500 electoral regions, a certain number in each US state, just as there are currently 47 electoral districts here in South Australia. Why would they need electors, and what are they?

Canto: To be honest, it’s confusing – when people, including Douglas, complain about the Electoral College, it seems to me they’re complaining about the electoral system, which again can be made to be highly unrepresentative of the popular vote, with safe electorates and swinging electorates, which can change as electoral boundaries change, and that can happen quite often, in Australia at least. But, the electors…. it all started with the very concept of the President, and the so-called separation of powers. In the USA they originally had the idea of a President being something like a monarch, only elected, and having to fight for re-election every so many years. But they also wanted a parliament, again like Britain, which they, presumably just to be different, called a congress, as a ‘coequal branch of government’. But in Britain, parliament has long since ceased to be a co-equal branch, it is the government. No need for a separation of powers, parliament is the power.

Jacinta: You’re right, the US congress is just another parliament, and the USA is still just a British colony – why can’t they face facts?

Canto: Anyway, back in the day, there was a huge amount of argy-bargy about this separation of powers, with constitutional conventions and various formulae and compromises, and finally they settled on this weird electoral college thing, with electors from each state ‘in the same numbers as their representatives in Congress’.

Jacinta: So a state with, say, seven electoral districts will have seven electors. For what possible reason? If one guy wins the district, he wins the seat. What more do you need?

Canto: That’s the billion-dollar question. I’m trying to get to the reasoning. In fact, your straightforward option was favoured by some constitutional convention delegates, such as James Madison, though he recognised that this might disadvantage the South, where there was a disproportionate number of slaves, and of course, they would never be allowed to vote, even if they were freed. Though I’m not sure how this situation could be resolved by an Electoral College. The whole idea of this EC seems as complicated and bizarre as quantum mechanics.

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

Canto: So, an elector for each electoral district, who was expected to be a proxy for the district, voting the way the district voted. But each state was able to choose its electors and to decide on how they chose them. You would think this wouldn’t matter, as they were required to vote the way their district voted. But get this, they weren’t legally obligated to do so – at least there was no clear law, and still isn’t any clear law, forcing them to do so, and there have occasionally been ‘faithless electors’ who’ve cast their vote for the loser.

Jacinta: Which is highly undemocratic. But I still don’t get…

Canto: Don’t bother, just thank the dogs you don’t live in America.

Jacinta: Oh well, I’m sure they do their best, the poor wee souls…

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.


David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 1: the apportionment issue

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Canto: So we’ve been talking about how politics have been interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and came to the tentative conclusion that strong centralised governments, collaborationist and respected by their citizens, were faring better at managing the situation than right-wing quasi-dictatorial anti-government governments like Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil…

Jacinta: And those three countries just happen to fill the top three places in Covid-19 cases, though to be fair, they have very large populations. Anyway, the Scandinavian countries we looked at all seemed to have coalition governments of some kind, and from our great distance we preferred to assume that they operated through some kind of more or less happy consensus – but maybe not.

Canto: So we’ve been reading David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, and there’s an interesting chapter, ‘Choices’, which looks at voting systems and what we want from government…

Jacinta: Or perhaps what we need, or should expect. What is objectively best, something which Deutsch, being a progressivist optimist, believes we’re converging upon – what he calls, in the political sphere, ‘advancing from misconception to even better [i.e. less damaging] misconception’. Deutsch considers first the ‘apportionment problem’ in the USA, a problem that many electoral polities have, as they attempt to represent particular electoral regions, with their different populations, fairly within a federal electoral system. The USA, like Australia and many other countries, has a House of Representatives, to indicate the aim of representative government. There are 435 US House seats, and the Constitution requires that these seats be apportioned to the states according to their populations. For example if state x has 5% of the nation’s population, it should get 21.75 House members. This is of course impossible, so the obvious thing to do is round up to 22, right?

Canto: Obvious, maybe, but brimming with controversy, because this rounding up, or down, will affect states’ representation, often rather more than was ever suspected. Deutsch imagines a more simplified House with 10 seats, and 4 states. One state holds a little under 85% of the population, the other three have just over 5% each. Rounding will mean that the large state gets rounded down to 8 seats, the three smaller states get rounded up to 1. This means that you have to add an extra seat, but it also means that the smaller states are over-represented, population-wise, and the large state is under-represented. And if you don’t add an extra seat, and the rule is that all states must be represented, then the larger state is reduced to a grossly unrepresentative 7 seats. You could of course add two seats and allocate them to the large state, giving it 9 out of 12 seats, but that still under-represents that state’s population, while enlarging the House to a questionable degree.

Jacinta: In fact a quick calculation shows that, to provide that large state with 85% representation, while giving the other three states a seat, you’d have to add 10 more seats, but then you’d have to add more seats to make the other states more representative – unless I’m missing something, which I probably am. And so on, the point being that even with a simple model you can’t, just from a mathematical perspective, attain very precise representation.

Canto: You could, on that simple model, take a seat way from the least populated state, and give it to the most populated one, thereby keeping the state to ten seats, but having no representation at all seems grossly unfair, and in fact the US Constitution explicitly states that ‘Each State shall have at least one Representative’. The aim, of course is to have, as near as can be, the right measure of representativeness. Having no representation at all, even in one small region, contravenes the ‘no taxation without representation’ call-to-arms of the revolutionary American colonists and the founding fathers.

Jacinta: Yet all the argy-bargy that went on in the USA in the 19th century over apportionment rules and quotas – and it was often fierce – overlooked the fact that black peoples, native Americans, the poor, oh and of course women, were not entitled to be represented. As Deutsch points out, the founding fathers often bandied about the concept of the ‘will of the people’ in their work on the Constitution, but the only ‘people’ they were really talking about were the voters, a small fraction of the adult population in the early days of the nation.

Canto: Nevertheless the apportionment issue proved the bane of election after election, eminent mathematicians and the National Academy of Sciences were consulted, and various complicated solutions were mooted but none proved to everyone’s satisfaction as the system kept chopping and changing.

Jacinta: Of course this raises the question of whether majority rule is fair in any case, or whether fairness is the right criterion. We don’t decide our science or our judiciary by majority rule – and good science, at least, has nothing to do with fairness. Arguably the most significant weakness of democracy is the faith we place in it. In any case, as Deutsch reports:

… there is a mathematical discovery that has changed forever the nature of the apportionment debate: we now know that the quest for an apportionment rule that is both proportional and free from paradoxes can never succeed. Balinski and Young [presented a theorem which] proved this in 1975.

Deutsch calls this a ‘no-go theorem’, one of the first of which was proved by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow more than twenty years before. Arrow set out five basic axioms that a rule defining ‘the will of the people’ should satisfy:

Axiom 1: the rule should define a group’s preferences only in terms of the preferences of that group’s members.

Axiom 2: (the ‘no dictator’ axiom) the rule cannot designate the views of one particular person regardless of what the others want.

Axiom 3: if the members of the group are unanimous in their preference for something, then the rule must deem the group to have that preference.

These 3 axioms are expressions of the principle of representative government.

Axiom 4: If, under a given definition of ‘the preferences of the group’, the rule deems that the group has a particular preference, this remains the group’s preference if some members who previously disagreed with that preference now agree with it.

Axiom 5: If the group has some preference, and then some members change their minds about another matter, then the rule must continue to assign the original preference to the group.

These all seem like unproblematic axioms, but Arrow was able to prove that they were inconsistent, and this turns out to be problematic for social-choice theory in general, not just the apportionment issue. According to Deutsch at least, it reveals the mythical nature of ‘the will of the people’.

Canto: Did we really need to be told that? There is no ‘people’ in that sense. And I’m not talking about the Thatcherite claim that there’s no society, only individuals. I’m talking more literally, that there’s no such thing as an indivisible national entity, ‘the people’, which has made its preference known at an election.

Jacinta: Agreed, but that rhetoric is so ingrained it’s hard for people to let it go. I recall one of our prime ministerial aspirants, after losing the federal election, saying ‘graciously’ that he would bow to the ‘will of the people’ and, what’s more, ‘the people always get it right’. It was essentially meaningless, but no doubt it won him some plaudits.

Canto: In fact, voting doesn’t even reveal the will of a single person, let alone the ‘people’. A person might register a vote for person x mistakenly, or with indifference, or with great passion, or under duress etc. Multiply that by the number of voters, and you’ll learn nothing about the soi-disant will of the people.

Jacinta: Okay, we’ve talked about the problems of apportionment under the US multi-state system. Next time we’ll look at the different electoral systems, such as proportional-representation systems and plurality or ‘first past the post’ voting. Is any system more fair than another, and what exactly does ‘fair’ mean? Good government is what we want, but can this be described objectively, and can this be delivered by democracies?

Canto: Well, here’s a clue to that good government question, I think. I walk into my class and I’m faced with twenty students. If I’m asked ‘who’s the tallest person in the class?’ I can come up with an answer soon enough, even if I have to make a measurement. But if I’m asked ‘who’s the best person in the class (not the best student), I’m very likely to be lost for an answer, even if I’ve taught the class all year….

Jacinta: Interesting point, but we’re not talking about the best government. There might be a variety of good governments, and you might be able to point out a variety of students/persons in the class who’ve positively impressed you, for a variety of reasons. Good government is not one.


David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

The Institutional Design of Congress

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm

Represent Us and ‘US democracy’ part 3

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So I previously looked at the model act, the American Ant-Corruption Act (AACA), which was first crafted by the chair of the Federal Election Commission, Trevor Potter, in 2011. How to get Congress to support an act which is contrary to the vested interests of its members? Silver, Lawrence and co argue that the best strategy is to bypass Congress and focus on state and city legislatures. By passing forms of anti-corruption laws state by state and city by city, a momentum for change will be caused, as has occurred in the past with other legislation. Apparently states have control over how any election, including federal elections, are run in each state, presumably including financial contributions to candidates. They cite a 2015 Bloomberg News study which shows that passing these kinds of local laws does lead to a victory in the federal sphere. This has apparently occurred with women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage. Once a certain number of states have come on board, federal passage becomes inevitable.

So that’s the argument. Now I want to look more closely at those examples. The Bloomberg News study ‘looked at six big issues—interracial marriage, prohibition, women’s suffrage, abortion, same-sex marriage, and recreational marijuana’. The legislation results are shown in the graph below.

The video looked at three of these.

In the case of women’s suffrage, Wyoming was the pioneer, granting full voting rights to women when it entered the union in 1890. The National Woman Suffrage Movement began to organise over the next couple of decades, and Wyoming’s neighbour, Colorado was the next to ‘fall’, followed by Utah and Idaho (also new states, presumably). After the Great War, the numbers increased rapidly, leading to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Interracial marriage had a longer and more troubled history due to the north-south civil war divide. Many states had no ban at all, but such marriages were generally frowned upon in the decades following Reconstruction (1865-77), especially in the south. California pioneered major change in 1948 when its Supreme Court, in a tight decision, ruled that its ban on interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Thirteen states followed in the next few years, and in 1967 the federal Supreme Court ruled against all state prohibitions.

The first change to US prohibition of same-sex marriage came in 2004 when the Massachusetts Supreme Court found the ban unconstitutional. Connecticut followed in 2008, and other progressive states followed. In 2013, ‘the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognise same-sex marriages performed in states where it is legal’. This led to number of state courts lifting bans. The federal Supreme Court made its final ruling in favour of same-sex marriage in mid-2015.

So, the strategy of focusing on state legislature seems a sound one, in the long-term. The question is, how long might this take, and have there been any, or is there likely to be any, initial successes? The strategy is to create grassroots, cross-party campaigns, and the video claims, but without any links to evidence, or any detail, that it has chalked up 85 ‘wins’, with the hope that there will be many more in the future.

Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) provides probably the most comprehensive overview of corruption issues and anti-corruption legislation on a state-by-state basis in the USA. A read-through of a couple of state analyses (Alabama and Florida) highlights, for me, the complexity of the problem. In spite of many reforms, statutes, codes of ethics and monitoring bodies, both these states are plagued with financial corruption problems. It would seem that, for federal success, a co-ordinated program of similar or near-identical anti-corruption and finance-limiting laws relating to elections and public office need to be enacted. Represent Us, with its American Anti-Corruption Act, appears to be aiming at just this. It would also make the federal Supreme Court’s job a lot easier if the appropriate laws are already written, requiring little adjustment to suit the federal level.

Finally, Represent Us has a comprehensive website advertising and providing details of its above-mentioned wins. Many of these seem to be at the city or council level, and I’m not familiar enough with the fine detail of US politics to measure their significance, but clearly it all adds up. This is undoubtedly a vital movement to get the USA out from under this overwhelming weight of money in politics. Another movement, I think, should be seeking to alleviate the poverty and disadvantage in large swathes of the country, to provide those currently suffering under this disadvantage a sense that their vote can make a difference, that they are welcomed contributors to an American community.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2020 at 2:55 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 2: effective law and distributed power

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I have established the republic. But today it is not clear whether the form of government is a republic, a dictatorship, or personal rule.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Australia’s House of Reps – politics as a team sport – mostly!

Australia has a Constitution, and so does Britain, but we don’t talk about them much – they don’t loom so large over the political system. The Westminster system doesn’t have an impeachment process, for the obvious reason that it is surplus to requirements. Due to its being a political process, impeachment is an unmitigated disaster.

So what happens, under the Westminster system, if a Prime Minister ‘goes rogue’ and either breaks the law or conducts herself in a manner contrary to the nation’s interest?

Well we need to step back a little to answer this question, because, under the US system, an elected President can be a rogue from the start. Trump is a clear case in point. Trump was, of course, far from being regarded as kosher by the Republican powers-that-be when he first suggested himself as a Presidential candidate, so he took his Barnum & Bailey campaign directly to the public, and in doing so highlighted the central problem of democracy, recognised two and a half thousand years ago, by Plato and Aristotle, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. The problem being, of course, demagoguery or populism – the notion that the public can be easily swayed by a candidate who promises everything and delivers nothing. The fact that this remains the most central problem of democracy surely says something about humanity in general – something that we may not be able to fix, but which we need to be on our guard against. Democracy is in fact a seriously flawed system – but far better than any other political system we’ve devised to regulate our seriously flawed human nature.

Under the Westminster system it’s far more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) for a ‘rogue from the beginning’ to reach the top of the political tree, because Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected. In fact the Westminster system has no correlate to the US presidential system, its general elections being much more correlated to the US mid-terms. This means, in effect, that under the Westminster system there is one set of general elections to two under the US system. Having two sets of general elections every four years seems a little over-indulgent. It means that you’re always preparing for or recovering from some election or other, and I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for your political health or your economy. And if you were ever to consider dispensing with one of those two sets of elections, clearly the Presidential elections should be the one to go.

Of course, this is sacrilege. Americans are obsessed with their Presidents – they even remember them as numbers – it’s bizarre. But it’s part-and-parcel, of course, with US individualism. It’s not surprising that the superhero is largely a US phenomenon. Many of your worst movies feature a Rambo or Indiana Jones-like character who single-handedly wins out over the baddies, often against a background of official incompetence or corruption. Think again of Trump’s OTT drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. And speaking of OTT, let’s not forget the carnivalesque razzamatazz of US Presidential elections, and the oodles of money that candidates are expected to raise, for no reasonable reason as far as I can see.

So, bearing all this in mind, let’s compare the situation and the job description of a Westminster-style Prime Minister with a US President.

Generally the Prime Minister is already an elected member of a party (either of the left or the right) and is chosen by parliamentary members of that party to be leader – much like a captain of a soccer team is already a player in the team and has proven herself to be experienced and knowledgable about playing the game and getting results. She has, in other words, earned the respect of her fellows. The Prime Minister works alongside her fellows, and under the scrutiny of her opponents, in the parliament. The President, on the other hand, is completely separate from parliament and surrounded by his own hand-picked team of very powerful courtiers, who need not have had any previous political experience.

The Prime Minister is able to choose her own cabinet, but only, of course, from elected members of parliament. All cabinet ministers, and indeed all MPs, are under continual scrutiny from other members of the House or the Senate. If the Prime Minister herself (or any other minister) is thought to be ‘going rogue’ or underperforming, she can be subjected to a no-confidence or censure motion in the House – requiring a simple majority. These have sometimes been successful, resulting in a change of Prime Minister between federal elections. While traumatic, such changes of leadership have nowhere near the impact that a change of President would have, since under the Westminster system the power is far more distributed, the team is far more important than its captain. The ‘great man’ Presidential system is such, however, that the only feasible way of dumping a President is by impeachment – an overly elaborate and highly political procedure that is almost designed to inflict trauma upon the populace.

There is, of course, no provision for impeachment in the Westminster system, and there has never been any need for such a process. A Prime Minister can, of course, be dumped for any number of reasons – most of which fall very far short of high crimes and misdemeanours. However, if a Prime Minister does go that far, she would be dealt with by law. There’s no suggestion under the Westminster system that a Prime Minister or any other minister or government official, would be immune from prosecution while in office. To me, the idea is totally absurd, for it seems far more reasonable that the precise opposite should be the case – that a country’s leader should be held to a higher legal standard than any other citizen. In other words, with great power comes greater legal responsibility, as a matter of course. Any political system that operates otherwise is simply rotten at its very core. It follows that the nation’s body of law, not the constitution, should govern the behaviour of those holding high office in government. For example, gaining a financial benefit from holding high office, other than the official salary and benefits that accrue to that office, should be illegal and cause for immediate dismissal in the most straightforward way. Contravening campaign finance laws should also be dealt with severely and immediately. If this causes a crisis in government, then clearly the system of government needs to be reformed, not the law. The constitution is at best a quasi-legal document, a laying out of the political system and the roles of its component parts. As an eighteenth century document, it can’t possibly be expected to cover the legal responsibilities of 21st century office-holders. That’s the vital role of a living, constantly adjusting body of law, to keep up with the legal responsibilities of a constantly modernising and complexifying political and business sector.

But let me return to the situation of Presidents, and candidates for the Presidency, since it’s unlikely that the US is going to give up on that institution.

You’ve learned the hard way that a rogue from the outset can bypass the traditional party system and win enough popular vote – with the help of a foreign nation – to become the leader of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on earth, despite having no political experience, no understanding of his nation’s history, no understanding of the geopolitical framework within which his nation operates, and no understanding of or interest in the global issues that all nations need to work together to solve. In other words, you’ve learned the hard way that anyone can indeed become your President, no matter how unsuited they are to the position. So how do you stop this from ever happening again?

Well if you insist on maintaining a system which ultimately pits one superhero against another, then you need I’m afraid, to admit to a serious but really rather obvious deficiency of democracy – the attraction of the demagogue (and I leave aside here the inherent problems of a state in which so many people can be hoodwinked). You need to vet all Presidential candidates with a set of questions and problems pertaining to both character and knowledge. Character questions wouldn’t be just of the type “What would you do if…” or ‘Do you think it is right to…’, questions that a sociopathic personality can always find the ‘successful’ answer to (though it’s doubtful that Trump could). They should be in the form of complex moral dilemmas that experimental psychologists have been adept at formulating over the years, requiring essay-type responses. The knowledge questions, by comparison, would be straightforward enough. Such tests should be assessed by professional diplomats and psychologists. This vetting, of course, cuts across the democratic process with a measure of ‘adults in the room’ intellectual, emotional and ethical elitism. Because of course you need a member of the intellectual and ethical elite to hold such a high office.

You might argue that Prime Ministers aren’t formally vetted, and that’s strictly true, but there’s at least an informal vetting system in that leaders have generally to climb from the ranks by impressing colleagues with their communication skills, their understanding of policy, their work ethic and so forth. It’s also the case that Prime Ministers have far less power than US Presidents – who have pardoning powers, special executive powers, power to shut down the government, veto powers, power to select unelected individuals to a range of high offices, power to appoint people to high judicial office and so forth. It’s hardly any wonder that characters like Trump are frustrated that they can’t take the next few steps towards total dictatorship. It’s interesting that I’ve recently heard a number of US pundits saying out loud ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’, as if they need to remind themselves of this fact!

Many will scoff at all this gratuitous advice. But you currently have a self-styled ‘very stable genius’ – a boorish, blustering, bullying, belly-aching buffoon in fact – in barricaded isolation in your White House and due to the multi-faceted failings of your politico-legal system, you can’t get rid of him as easily as you obviously should be able to, and I honestly feel that things will get much much worse before you do get rid of him. You can’t blame Trump for this – he has been exactly the same person for over 60 years. The fault lies with your system. If you don’t change it, you’ll never be able to regain the respect of the rest of the democratic world.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2019 at 1:21 pm

situation USA 2 – very likely, the worst is yet to come

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The USA, over the past two and a half years, has been the object of a global ridicule and opprobrium never experienced before in its history, and it’s largely deserved. And the reason lies in a flaw in democracy pointed out by Greek philosophers, unabashed anti-democratic elitists, some 2500 years ago. Their concern was that the people could be too easily swayed by populist demagogues, individuals who, either through self-delusion or basic deceit, promised everything and delivered nothing, or worse.

There’s a famous quote, attributed to Churchill, that democracy ‘is the worst system of government, apart from all the others’. That description should be taken seriously. There’s no perfect system of government, in fact far from it. And democracy, in its purest form, is never practised anywhere. I’ve heard it said that a free press and an independent judiciary are two of the ‘pillars of democracy’. This is false. They’re in fact bulwarks against democracy. Both of these institutions are elite meritocracies. Another essential bulwark against democracy is an independent science and technology sector. If we based our acceptance of science on popular vote, we’d almost certainly still be living in caves, subsisting on the most basic requirements for survival. So let’s not worship democracy, but nor should we throw it out with the bathwater.

Democracy’s biggest saving grace is that it is inclusive. Everybody gets to have a say. One possible vote for each adult – assuming there’s no corruption of the process. In this respect, if nothing else, everybody is equal. Yet we know that no two people reflect in an ‘equal’ way, whatever that means, before casting their vote. Some are massively invested in voting, others barely at all, and their investments go in innumerable directions. Some of those directions never change, others zig-zag all over the place. And history shows, as the Greek philosophers knew well, that a licence to vote doesn’t turn anyone into a discerning voter.

The USA, it seems to me, suffers from two problems – too much democracy on the one hand, and too great a concentration of power on the other. They say that in the USA, anyone can become President. This is something Americans like to brag about. It’s not true of course, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be a positive. There appears to be no screening for such candidature. Some Americans are calling for extreme vetting of immigrants, but nobody appears to be calling for the same for Presidential candidates. You might argue that the same goes under the Westminster system of democracy, but in fact there is such a system, albeit informal, for attaining the position of Prime Minister. She must first gain the approval of her party, her team (and she can be dumped by that team at any time). In the 2016 US election, the candidate Trump by-passed the party he claimed to be a member of, and appealed entirely to the people, with a wide range of vague promises and claims about his own brilliance and effectiveness. The business cognoscenti knew well enough that Trump was a buffoon, a blowhard and a flim-flam man, but they also knew that his presidency, in being good for his own business, would be good for other businesses too, especially in the field of taxation. The Republican Party as a whole – with a number of notable exceptions – fell in line. Those who believed in minimal government recognised that Trump’s noisy incompetence would actually bring about minimal government by default, and give the governmental process a bad name, which was all fine by them. The question of ethics rarely entered into it.

As a distant watcher of what I’ve called the slow-motion train wreck of the Trump presidency, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would know about the US presidential system, and more than I ever wanted to know about Trump himself.

For some time, Trump was nothing more than a funny name to me. My first full-on experience of him must have come from an early showing of ‘The Apprentice’, probably accidentally stumbled on through channel-hopping. I’ve never taken much interest in the business world, mea culpa. Within literally seconds, I was thinking ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was a black comedy. The host talks total gobshite, and the contestants, all actors, treat him like a deity. His very name is meant as a joke – he trumps everyone else in spite of being tasteless, boorish and pig-ignorant – and the contestants, who are put up in a monument to vulgarity called ‘Trump Tower’, swoon at all the gimcrack opulence. No better caricature of the Ugly American has ever been created’. Yet I knew that this was no caricature. Or rather, Trump was a caricature, but also a real human being.

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ve learned since his accession to the presidency, was the extent of Trump’s criminality. This has been fully revealed through a couple of New York Times stories, but I first learned about it through Sam Harris podcasts and other outlets, as well as through the words and behaviour of Trump himself, and his thuggish cronies. His use of standover men, fixers and the like has all the markings of organised crime – or somewhat disorganised crime in Trump’s case. The fact that he has gotten away with this behaviour for decades is a testament to the problems of the US justice system.

Trump became President with a minority of votes – this time revealing a problem with the federal electoral system. Claims by pundits such as Niall Ferguson that Putin’s interference in that election had a minimal effect were either naive or politically motivated. The Putin dictatorship’s actions were sophisticated and brilliantly targeted, and the subsequent response of Trump to the clear evidence of that interference should have been enough to have him thrown out of office. Another massive problem with the US federal system.

Sensible Americans are now faced with the problem of getting rid of Trump, and engaging in the root and branch reform of the disastrous system that allowed Trump’s rise to and maintenance of power. It seems, from other pundits I’ve read, that the US Presidency has experienced a kind of ‘dictatorship creep’ over the years, and this now needs to be confronted directly. The judiciary, for example needs to be fully independent, with the highest positions decided upon by judicial peers. Presidential emoluments need to be eliminated through clear, solid law. Presidential pardoning powers need to be sharply restricted, or preferably removed from the President altogether and placed in the hands of senior law officials. The presentation of all available taxation documents must be a sine qua non of presidential candidacy. If Presidents are to be directly elected – not a great idea IMHO – it should be through a first-past-the-post, one-vote-one-value system. Presidential immunity must be jettisoned, and if this interferes with the President’s role, this should scream to the American people that the President’s role is too burdensome, and that governmental power needs to be less concentrated and more distributed.

All of the preceding, and more, seems obvious to an outsider, but among Americans, brought up since infancy to believe they have the best government in the multiverse, self-criticism in this area is hard to come by. Possibly more abuse of the system by Trump and his enablers will wake Americans up to what’s needed, but I remain skeptical.

Which brings us back to the immediate situation. I have to admit, what has surprised me more than anything about this presidency is that Trump’s following hasn’t been reduced substantially since falling to around the 40% mark very early in his term. Clearly, his base, much-despised by Trump himself, has gained nothing from his incumbency, as opposed to the super-rich (small in number but gargantuan in power), who see through Trump but cynically support his lazy, neglectful attitude to government administration. The fact that this base is solid and easily aroused reveals a long-standing problem in America’s individualistic, mistrustful, and massively divided society. Trump is wily enough to try to take advantage of this discontent, especially as the law appears to be closing in on him. He may not have the numbers to win another election, but he is very likely to use those numbers to do as much damage to America’s much-vaunted but clearly very fragile separation of powers as he possibly can. I’m unfortunately quite convinced that the worst of the Trump presidency is yet to come.

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm