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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

Represent Us and ‘US democracy’, part 2

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Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.
― Mary Ellen Lease

So the next issue the Represent Us video raises is partisan gerrymandering, an issue here in Australia too. It’s extraordinary to think that gerrymandering has been a problem in the USA since 1788 (the term refers to a salamander-shaped redistricting map created by a governor Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812), with still no solid solution found. So, although this isn’t a new problem, the clearly political, anti-democratic motives involved should make it obvious that it needs to be dealt with apolitically, such as through the justice system or a thoroughly independent, regulated authority. The idea should be that boundaries, which may need to be redrawn from time to time, considering, for example, the general human movement from rural to urban neighbourhoods, should be drawn so as to best assure that all individual votes are of equal value in deciding representation. This would clearly mean taking redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians and making it a function of independent bodies armed, nowadays, with computer-based maps and up-to-date statistics on human movement. Or am I missing something? Apparently. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the US problem:

Through the 20th century and since then, the US Court system has deemed extreme cases of gerrymandering to be unconstitutional, but has struggled with how to define the types of gerrymandering and standards to be used to determine when redistricting maps are unconstitutional. 

… the Supreme Court has struggled as to when partisan gerrymandering occurs (Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004) and Gill v. Whitford (2018)), and in a landmark decision in 2019 in Rucho v. Common Cause, ultimately decided that questions of partisan gerrymandering represents a nonjusticiable political question that cannot be dealt with by the federal court system.

I’m not sure if this 2019 decision is due to the conservative stacking of the Supreme Court (Republicans have more financial clout but less popular support than Democrats), but it seems reasonable to my naive self that legislation can be created to ban incumbent governors etc from redrawing the boundaries of their own districts. They should be the last people allowed to do so.

So the video goes on to claim that, due to gerrymandering, ‘only 14% of House campaigns are actually competitive’. As a non-American, I’m not sure if that means just House of Reps campaigns or Congressional campaigns. In any case a USA Today article from late 2016, with the telling title ‘Fewer and fewer US House seats have any competition’. However, the author argues that it’s not just about gerrymandering. He quotes a political scientist who talks of ‘self-sorting of the population’, where citizens move around to be with the ideologically like-minded. The Washington Post has an article from mid 2017 on the trend, which, I have to say, favours my fantasy of having the USA split into two nations, on red and blue lines, and seeing how each one fares. But nothing is so simple. Interestingly, on the gerrymandering question the WaPo has this:

Some states have moved to take the redistricting process out of the hands of the legislature, turning the duty over to special commissions that in many cases are told to ignore political outcomes. Results have been mixed.

A bit vague, unfortunately. Are they talking about the results of the attempt to form special commissions, or the results of redistricting by the commissions? The point should be that redistricting by partisan actors should be banned as intrinsically a bad thing.

So let’s look at other claims in the video – 1) trillions of dollars spent annually ‘on fraud and abuse in government’ (does this mean on fighting it, or just by the fraudsters and abusers?) – 2) one in five children live in poverty – 3) the most expensive healthcare in the world – 4) more people in prison per capita than any other country. Other claims are perhaps less quantifiable – the US is losing jobs to the rest of the world, and isn’t doing enough re air and water pollution. I’ll look more closely at those first four.

On point one, the evidence is plentiful. This Medical Economics article cites a study showing nearly a trillion dollars annually in healthcare waste, most of it due to administrative complexity and over-pricing. Forbes reports here on massive waste and fraud by federal agencies, and – most egregious but least surprising – the Pentagon’s accounts are in such a mess that multiple firms of auditors have given up on auditing them. There’s no doubt that waste, fraud and abuse in this massively over-indulged sector dwarfs all others.

As to point two, poverty is of course defined differently in different parts of the world. The US website has a section titled How is poverty defined in America?, but what follows fails signally to answer the question. Nevertheless, according to their vague criteria 22% of Americans under 18 live in poverty. With its limited government-based safety net and its massively-paid business and banking sectors, there is surely no other ‘open society’ nation that has such a rich v poor disparity.

On the third point, according to Investopedia, the USA does indeed spend more per capita on healthcare than any other nation, but without the best outcomes. Also, unlike most European nations which also spend heavily on healthcare, the USA spends vastly more on expensive private health insurance rather than subsidised government healthcare.

Point four – Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have reliable figures on incarceration rates beyond 2013, but it does state that ‘in the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally’. It’s an outrageous and shameful statistic, but they might argue that it’s the price they’re willing to pay for their libertarianism (!). The rate of incarceration of women in recent decades has been double that of men. The price to pay for women’s liberation?

So there you go – the greatest country in the world, according to that country.

So the Represent Us argument is that this mess can be cleared up, or begin to be cleared up, if the nation is given back to the people, who are currently unrepresented, mostly. Fix the system, and you can fix everything else. According to Silver and Lawrence, and the constitutional scholars (again, that worshipped constitution) and other experts they consulted, a law (but presumably more than one) that would wrest power from the established economic elites and so move, via the people, to end gerrymandering (using independent redistricting commissions), to create ranked-choice voting (we have this in Australia, where it’s called preferential voting), which will give more scope for new parties and independents, and to automate voter registration.

As to the issue of bribery and financial corruption in the political system, here’s what’s hoped to happen once they, the people are in control. They’ll overhaul lobbying and ethics laws, so that politicians can’t be bribed, say, by promises of cushy sinecures after leaving office; they’ll mandate transparency of political spending, for obvious reasons; ‘give every voter a tax voucher so politicians spend time fundraising from their constituents rather than the [economic elites]’ (this is a strange one I’ll have to look into).

All of these reforms can be wrapped up in an American Anti-Corruption Act, which 87% of Americans already support, enthuses Josh Silver.

So the model American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA), co-authored by Silver and other luminaries, was first unveiled in 2012. I gather from the Wikipedia article on it that it does have a lot of electoral support, though 87% might be a bit exaggerated. I just don’t have that much faith in they, the people.

In any case, Silver himself has little faith in a Congress captured by the economic elites. Congress, he feels, will never turn such an act into law. So what’s the solution? I’ll look at that in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

April 1, 2020 at 6:44 pm

Represent US and ‘US democracy’, part 1

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If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be ‘Citizens United.’ I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Leaving the weird awfulness of Covid-19 aside for a while, I must thank a good friend for sending this video my way. Jennifer Lawrence is an American actor none of whose films I’ve ever seen, but in this video she and Josh Silver, fellow member of the activist group Represent Us (with presumably a play on the US – and they’ve been making videos for years now), effectively focus on a problem of US politics I’ve largely neglected in my own analyses of the subject since the advent of the most recent incumbent in the white palace.

I’ve referred to it obliquely, for example when writing about the election cycle in that country, and my view that there’s at least one election too many – i.e. the presidential election. It all seems too much of an expenditure of time and energy, but I neglected to focus enough on the most insuperable problem – money.

So in this post I want to look at what Lawrence and Silver claim about the influence of money and wealthy lobbyists on government, especially federal government, and the corresponding lack of influence the relatively disadvantaged generally have, in spite of their vast numbers. Are there claims accurate?

l’ll try to fact check much of this – and their first claim isn’t directly about money, it’s the claim that the last two presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump, were ‘the least popular candidates since they began keeping track of such things’. Australia’s journalistic website The Conversation certainly confirms this about Trump. At election time, he ‘had the highest unfavorability rating in history, with over 61% of Americans having an “unfavorable” or “disapproving” view’. His victory, with fewer votes, says much about the electoral college system and how it favours less populated ‘red’ states, but I won’t go into that here. Clinton, though, was a ‘historically unpopular opponent’, with an unfavourable rating of 52%, the worst rating ever recorded for a losing candidate. So that checks out.

The next claim is that ‘only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress now.’ I imagine that the word ‘great’ is key here, as everything depends on framing. For example the question might be – how much confidence do you have in Congress? (a) no confidence (b) very little confidence (c) a fair amount of confidence (d) a great deal of confidence – or something similar. And how many constituents, anywhere, would say they have a great deal of confidence in their politicians, where there’s space to express skepticism? A quick check shows that the figure comes from a Gallup poll reported in The Atlantic back in 2014, and indeed it was a multiple choice question, but the most interesting/disturbing finding was that the attitude to Congress has suffered a massive downturn in recent decades, as shown by the graph below. So, unless there’s been an uptick in the last few years – and surely there hasn’t – Represent Us is right on this too.

The video next focuses on a Princeton study on ‘how public opinion influences the laws that Congress passes’. Represent Us presents this as a ‘thirty percent rule’. Any law has a 30% chance of being passed by Congress, regardless of its public support (from no support to complete support). The Princeton study concluded, apparently, that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy.’

So, the 2014 study, by two professors of politics and decision-making, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, is self-described as ‘tentative and preliminary’, but they are clear about their findings:

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

I’ve just read the study, and, unsurprisingly it’s a lot more nuanced, complex and at times dauntingly technical than the 12-minute video. For example it points out that policies advocated by cashed-up lobby groups may well benefit most of the public in spite of their lack of popular support. However, the economic elites, who have the most influence on Congress through financial, quid pro quo support, favour policies which are generally non-beneficial to the poorer, and far more numerous, sectors of the population. In fact, a lot of the findings remind me of passages in a very different text, Robert Sapolsky’s monumental book Behave, where he examines class-based behaviour (he calls it socio-economic status rather than class, coz we all know that the USA is a classless society haha). Take this example:

… a culture highly unequal in material resources is almost always also unequal in the ability to pull the strings of power, to have efficacy, to be visible. For example, as income inequality grows, the percentage of people who bother voting generally declines.

R Sapolsky, Behave, p292

As Sapolsky also points out, the super-rich, and their children, tend to move in the limited circle of their peers and so reinforce each other in seeking to maintain and enhance their lifestyles. The super-poor, meanwhile, are more often in a battle with each other (and not with the super-rich who are invisible to them) for resources, and tend not to trust government, since it is run by ‘them’. So the more economically unequal the nation, the more political power falls into the hands of the wealthy.

Anyway, returning to the video, the next claim is an odd one: ‘politicians are spending up to 70% of their time raising funds for re-election’. The term ‘up to 70%’ could actually mean anything from zero to 70%, so let’s take that with a pinch of salt. Another Represent Us website quotes former Democrat senator Tom Daschle: ‘a typical US senator spends two-thirds of the last two years of their term raising money’. I’m not sure if this is meant literally, but of course time spent isn’t the issue, rather money raised is the issue. The video goes on to make this interesting claim: ‘in order to win a seat in some races, you would have to raise $45,000 every day for six years to raise enough money to win’. I’m not sure how to fact-check such a claim, though ‘in some races’ could be a warning sign of some exaggeration or over-simplification. Then again, the idea of those kinds of dollars being involved in any electoral race is a sure sign of shonkiness. In any case the claim has to be seen in tandem with the next factoid presented, that ‘only .05% of Americans give more than $10,000 to politics’, which suggests that this tiny sector – the super-rich and wealthy special interest groups – are the funders of election campaigns, generally with agendas that the pollies are politely commanded to comply with – with the inevitable result for the increasingly disengaged majority.

So, whether these facts are precisely correct or not, it’s clear enough that money is poisoning democracy in the USA. As the video goes on to say, Americans are leaving the major parties in droves, and some 42% are registered as independent, rather than members of the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. And since there are virtually no independent candidates, the quote from Sapolsky above becomes all the more relevant.

I’ve only looked at about a third of the video, but I’ll post this lot and present my take on the rest in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2020 at 2:43 pm