Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

03 February 2010

Dystopia


[Blogger’s Note: I first penned this post four months ago, but blind hope made me delay its publication. Now the election of Scott Brown in the bluest of blue states makes its warnings all the more timely.]

The United States of America is on its way to becoming a dystopia. Our dysfunctional Congress can’t seem to do anything decisive, important or even sensible. Our citizens are fearful and restless. Our future looks dim.

We’ve had some small successes, mostly thanks to the kindnesses of strangers. “We” saved the world’s economy from a disaster that we caused. But we did it with the aid of trillions in Chinese loans and trillions more in stimulus in China, Japan, Britain, and other sensible foreign governments. China and Brazil, followed by Japan and Germany (our World War II enemies) are leading the world out of recession. That’s all to the good, but congratulating ourselves for it is a bit much.

What have we done on our own? We’ve had three problems on our table for at least half a century: (1) the most wasteful and worst-performing health-care system in the developed world, (2) the world’s most wasteful and inflexible energy infrastructure, and (3) a primary system of education that was once the world’s envy but is now mediocre and falling further behind daily.

Despite decades of talk and debate, we are not much closer to solving these problems. Our health-care bill is now on life support, and it lacks the public option, Medicare buy-in or other cost-control measures that a majority of our people and the Congress wanted. It got held hostage to special and parochial interests, and now its greatest attraction is being better than nothing.

We thought we had finally closed the book on our 146-year-old Civil War by electing the best candidate for president regardless of race. We elected him because he promised change and solutions, not more rancor. But we won’t let him do anything, except within the Executive Branch.

The causes of this dysfunction are easy to find. Six small minds from small states stopped most forward progress on health-insurance reform, except the part that uses government mandates and taxpayers’ money to inflate insurance companies’ profits. Collectively, these six small minds represent 3% of us. Three of them, representing 1.4% of us and 1.1% of our GDP, killed the public option. States representing about 72% of our GDP voted for the President, half of that productivity by a margin of twenty percent or more. Yet he can’t get much of anything done in Congress.

Misuse of filibusters and other extra-constitutional Senate rules makes things worse, much worse. Joe Lieberman managed to give the public option and Medicare buy-in the coup de grace, although his state of Connecticut represents 1.15% of the U.S. population and 1.57% of GDP. Ben Nelson managed to hold up the Senate for anti-abortion language and perpetual funding of Medicare for his home state of Nebraska, which accounts for 0.58% of our national population and 0.59% of our GDP.

When you look more closely at the numbers, our situation looks even worse. As Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post put it,
“The 10 largest states are home to more than half the people in the country, yet have only a fifth of the votes in the Senate. The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California’s 36.7 million—which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And under Senate rules, of course, those 42 senators—representing barely more than a tenth of the country’s population—can mount a filibuster.”

To massage those numbers further, I went back to my post-election spreadsheet, which tallied the several states’ contributions to national GDP and their votes in last November’s presidential election. Those same twenty-one smallest states—which together have fewer people than California—collectively produce about 10.2% of national GDP.

In other words, twenty-one little states, whose representatives can block any national legislation, produce about one-tenth of national GDP, while California produces 13.2% all by itself. New York and Texas each produce about 8% of GDP, or four-fifths as much as the smallest twenty-one states put together. Yet they, like California, each get only two votes in the Senate, as compared to the small states’ collective 42 votes.

Does something about these small states (other than their small, mostly rural populations) set them apart? On Education Week’s 2009 report card for state education, their average scores are a full step (a minus) lower than the average scores for the ten largest states, 74.5 to 78.5. In fact six of the 21 states (Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada and South Dakota) have education scores lower than the lowest of the ten big states (Illinois, at 72.9). So there’s certainly nothing to distinguish the twenty-one midgets in education.

A dispassionate look at these figures shows how deep are our structural defects. The few control the many. The economically weak control the strong. The uneducated govern the educated. If those facts are not a recipe for dystopia, I don’t know what is.

These imbalances inhere in the very structure of our government. We can’t change them by amending our Constitution, because doing so requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and approval by three-fourths of the states. And anyway, our Constitution says that no state can “be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate” without its consent. The twenty-one midgets are not about to consent to give their disproportionate power up.

So we are stuck with a constitutional structure that permanently institutionalizes dystopia. Mostly empty states like Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska, Maine, Montana and Wyoming rule the economic and population powerhouses of California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio. (Texas is an anomaly; although big in population and economic impact, it often votes with empty land.)

This structural defect is the source of all our other intractable problems. It is our national Achilles Heel. A technologically advanced nation of 307 million people, with all its urban centers and great universities, remains in the thrall of a one-tenth minority in our outback, which our two-century-old Great Compromise gives the power to veto any national initiative, great or small.

No other great nation has that problem. China and Russia are authoritarian nations governed by a self-perpetuating educated elite. India, Brazil, Britain, the other nations of Europe and much of Latin America have parliamentary democracies, in which the majority rules. Even Australia and New Zealand do.

Is there any way to turn our dystopia around? The most obvious solution would be to get rid of filibusters, which appear nowhere in our Constitution. They’re a hallowed Senate tradition, nothing more. Originally intended to allow the minority to delay (not block) impulsive, radical change for more careful consideration, they have now effectively replaced the explicit constitutional command that the Senate, like the House, govern by majority, except in cases of a presidential veto.

The Senate could outlaw filibusters by changing its own rules, but doing so would take a two-thirds majority. That’s something neither party is likely to have in the foreseeable future.

A second Civil War doesn’t seem like a good idea. We tried that approach before, and it gave us our bloodiest four years ever. Anyway, some of the small states that now govern us and promote our decline are the very ones that lost the Civil War. With all its blood and turmoil, that war did nothing to cure our structural defect, although it eventually made us nearly whole racially (after 146 years).

There is only one other alternative: non-military coercion. What form might it take?

Economic pressure is an obvious answer. The big states could assert their economic power by boycotting employers and industries in the small states to bring them to heel. Given the enormous imbalance in economic power, it shouldn’t take much effort to make a difference.

The ancient Greeks had another answer. Ostracism is a powerful idea that too long has been ignored. It involves no death or violence, but it gives the majority’s displeasure social force.

Our Constitution won’t allow us to exile our obstructionists, or to bar them from entering our bigger, more productive (and more interesting) states. But what the rest of us do when they get there is another matter. Individuals and private businesses can deal with—or not deal with—whomever they choose. They don’t even have to speak with (or even to notice) people or businesses supporting a regime of political power that subjugates the majority and threatens our nation’s future.

“That’s a terrible idea,” you might say. “What would happen if our senators stopped talking to each other?” If you watch C-Span at all, you might reply that it wouldn’t make much difference. Our senators don’t talk with each other now. They talk at and past each other. Mostly they mouth ideological platitudes that any citizen with half a memory could recite verbatim by rote.

This is neither dialogue nor the representative democracy that our Founders envisaged. At least ostracizing the powerful minority might give the rest of us some peace and quiet and a chance to think.

Economic boycotts and social and commercial ostracism may sound like drastic measures. But the only alternatives are another civil war or continued national decline, with its depressing implications for the global climate and economic progress. How rapid our decline will grow as our paralysis continues and accelerates, only the next few years can tell.

We have the best President and executive team in half a century. But they don’t seem to be making much of a difference because the Senate won’t let them act. Apart from war, economic and social pressure may be the only way to restore a healthy balance of power in our nation and our economy.

Like democracy itself, boycotts and ostracism may be bad alternatives, but better than all the rest. The present alternative would have us living permanently with the goal of the French Revolution—a nation governed by peasants.

Footnote: There is an additional alternative. Massive migration from the big states to the small ones might eventually change demographics for the better, just as migration from North to South changed the 2008 electoral results in Virginia and North Carolina. But that’s a long-term solution at best. By the time demographic changes brought North Dakota, Alaska, Alabama and Arkansas (to name just a few) into the twenty-first century, the US might have become a third-world nation.

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3 Comments:

  • At Fri Feb 05, 12:11:00 AM EST, Blogger cjcalgirl said…

    Dear Jay, every day I log in waiting for your next post. Thank you for this one and I can see you have thought this out very thoroughly. Like you, I hold out little real hope especially since SCOTUS decision. I have actually been considering observing this mess from another country. We no longer seem to have the intellectual tools necessary for the decisions required in the public arena or in the legislative branch. Now even the Court has gone bonks. Reply?

     
  • At Fri Feb 05, 12:15:00 AM EST, Blogger cjcalgirl said…

    Dear Jay, P.S. I started a small blog myself PatienceisDenial@Blogspot.com. I'm not as calm as you and my arguments are not so well organized, but I try not to shoot from the hip. I had a teacher like you in Civics in high school, who questioned us all the time on our opinions and asked us to give evidence of our mental processes. Thank The World!

     
  • At Thu Feb 11, 12:04:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear cjcalgirl,

    Thanks so much for your support; I need it right now. Like you, I am discouraged.

    For every lie I and others carefully refute, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner come up with five more. They―or the folks who give them money and what passes for ideas―are clever and relentless propagandists. They are also totally unscrupulous. For a good summary of their latest batch of scare tactics, read this editorial in the New York Times.

    So I was tempted to write a quick reply and say simply that I agree with everything in your first comment except the word "even" in the last sentence. I never expected the Court to lead the push for change.

    And yet, and yet . . . I love this country and its much-abused values, and I don't think we're quite finished. Our President has told us that he is no quitter, and I don't think we should be either. We owe him at least that much.

    I can't see any viable challenger to Obama in 2012. For all but the lunatic right-wing fringe, Sarah Palin is a joke, and no one else is stepping up. So it seems that Obama will have a chance to make things right for a whole eight years, as difficult as doing so may be. He's already made a good start against mindless opposition.

    Amidst all the mediocrities in Congress and on our high court, one thing still gives me hope: women. Women put Obama in the White House. If it were up to men, we would have had McCain, and we would be deep in our second Great Depression. Can you imagine Carly Fiorina or Phil Gramm (McCain's economic advisors) saving the global economy?

    The President, Secdef Gates, AG Holder, a few other cabinet members, plus Artur Davis of Alabama (who impresses me more each time I see him speak) are male public servants whom I admire. But apart from them, most of the folks I see making a real difference in government are women. Unfortunately, they are all at lower levels in appointed positions. Yet despite immense pressure to knuckle under, they keep trying to speak the truth and do the right thing.

    I have in mind Sheila Bair (the FDIC chief), Christine Varney (the head of DOJ's Antitrust Division), and Elizabeth Warren (the head of a consumer financial advisory panel). Other women outside of politics are of the same mold: Mary Sciavo (former DOT Inspector General, whose advice, if followed, might have prevented the Buffalo plane crash), and (at a much lower level) Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistleblower.

    Two things I cannot understand. First, with so many honest, incorruptible and talented women in our country, why did females (and lots of men) place all their bets on Hillary, a deeply flawed person and candidate? Second, with women a majority of voters and so much talent, why don't we have more women in politics and on the Supreme Court?

    The only answer I can come up with―and it's not an especially good one―is this: since men hold nearly all the power, women politicians have generally tried to succeed by being "one of the boys." But Queen Elizabeth I, Golda Meir, Maggie Thatcher, and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson didn't gain power by being one of the boys. They got it by being leaders and showing they were better than any of the boys (at least those running against them). I keep hoping that someone like the women named above will do likewise and break through.

    Which brings me to your blog. You've never said how old you are, but your screen name suggests that you are female. If you have enough interest in politics to start a blog, why don't you run for something? Start local and see where it leads. I'm publishing your comment with the link to your blog in the hope of encouraging you as much as I can. The only thing I can add is a bit of advice that's easier to give than to take: emulate the President and don't give up!

    Jay

     

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