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

10 February 2013

Let Them Go! The Case for Secession

[For brief comment on how Marco Rubio’s speech confirmed this post, click here.]

Recent historical trends
The divorce analogy
Irreconcilable differences?
Should government be able to act?
Live and Let Live


Mere days after Barack Obama’s re-election, Governor Rick Perry of Texas began talking about secession.

Now Texans are a special breed. Their formative moment came at the Alamo, when a small but brave bunch of them died in a vain, but posthumously successful, attempt to avoid being governed by Spanish-speaking brown-skinned folk.

That was in 1836. Not much in the Mind of Texas seems to have changed since then.

To a non-Texan like me, Governor Perry seems one of the stupidest men ever to enter American politics. He makes Dubya look brilliant. But he seems to understand Texans; otherwise he wouldn’t be their governor. And even a broken clock is right twice a day. So it’s worth some ink to consider Perry’s unoriginal idea dispassionately.

Would it make us all better off? After analysis, I think so. The idea holds up from a whole bunch of perspectives. Before you click out, let me briefly name them: (1) recents trends in global history, (2) trends in divorce law and practice, (3) irreconcilable differences, (4) the quaint notion that government ought to be able to act, and (5) the most basic American value of all: live and let live.

Recent historical trends

The end of World War II coincided roughly with the end of our species’ imperial era. Since then, far more countries have broken up than have formed.

The most impressive example is the old Soviet Union, which spun off (or finally let go) fifteen different nations. But there were lots of other examples: (1) India, which split from the British Empire and spun off Pakistan, (2) Pakistan itself, which spun off Bangladesh, (3) Yugoslavia, which broke up into seven new Balkan nations, which are now (finally!) at peace, (4) Czechoslovakia, which became the Czech Republic and Slovakia, (5) Indonesia, which let East Timor go after a long struggle, and (6) Sudan, which just recently let South Sudan go.

Other examples may be in process. The central part of Africa, which used to be a Belgian colony, has undergone so much boundary change that it’s hard to keep the names of new nations straight. That process shows no signs of abating.

Iraq may be similar. A lot of people, including this writer, thought its three peoples (Sunni, Shiites and Kurds) might be happier apart, or in a loose federation, rather than in a single, centrally governed state. As Chuck Hagel implied in his confirmation hearings, that question still awaits the judgment of history.

I haven’t even mentioned (except for India) all the former colonies that have split from their colonizers. They are almost too numerous to count. (I’ve got a future post coming on them.)

But perhaps they don’t belong in this discussion. Although their colonial masters owned them for all practical purposes, they and their colonizers together did not have enough earmarks of a single state, either geographically or politically, let alone culturally. So we’ll have to count colonies gaining independence as another centrifugal postwar phenomenon, but not quite the same one.

Have there been countertrends? Not many. The chief counterexample is the European Union (1 and 2). It has several would-be copycats, including Mercosur in South America and Asean in East Asia.

But the EU and its follow-ons are not really marriages. They are more like civil unions. Their goals are wholly economic; they don’t affect nationhood or undermine national sovereignty. Even the EU’s members are resisting further integration, especially in immigration and foreign policy. And the Brits seem ready to stalk out, or at least to “renegotiate” the terms of the civil union in their favor.

If you discount these weak civil unions, it looks as if divorce has been far more prevalent among nations since World War II than marriage.

Late Addendum: I’ve been getting some hits from Germany, where readers must be wondering why I didn’t mention the recent reunification of east and west. The reason is that this was not a normal “marriage.” It was the restoration of a nation forcibly divided by war. As I’ve noted myself, the successful reunification was an extraordinary achievement, but it wasn’t the marriage of separate nations with separate cultures. If nothing else, the speed and success of the process showed that. Contrast the fact that North and South here are still fighting the Civil War after a century and a half. That’s a sign of differing cultures.

The Divorce Analogy

That being the case, it’s useful to look more closely at the analogy to divorce. When I was a kid, spouses had to prove infidelity or extreme cruelty to get a divorce. That rule led to lots of spying on bedrooms and lots of fake fights.

Eventually, the law and most of western culture settled on a more sensible rule: couples can divorce if they just can’t get along. As usual, the law expresses that simple rule in polysyllabic terms: “irreconcilable differences” or “incompatibility.”

This new standard has made divorce much easier and therefore much more common. Many bemoan the change and the rising divorce rate worldwide. But the main reason for their distress is children. Many people think, with some justification, that even a bad marriage is better for children than divorce.

There is, however, no close analogy to children in a divorce of whole peoples. They are more like adults who have no children, or whose children have grown up. Most neutral observers conclude that there is no reason for those spouses to maintain a mutually intolerable relationship. (The matter of real interethnic or intercultural children we can solve by giving them or their parents the right to choose a new home.)

Irreconcilable Differences?

Are Texas and our other so-called “red” states compatible with our “blue” ones? Or are there irreconcilable differences? Let’s take a look.

The following table lists a number ways in which red and blue views differ. Read through it and see whether: (1) these are important issues for the development and progress of any society or nation and durable sources of discord, and (2) my characterization of the degrees of separation is fair.

Leave aside for a moment who is right and who is wrong. (That’s why I provided no links, although this blog addresses many of these issues elsewhere.) The question before us is not who is right, but whether people so far apart on so many things ought to live together.

Table of Irreconcilable Differences

Issue or Subject“Red” View“Blue” View
Domestic Policy
A half-black presidentHate him and whole ideaDon’t mind, as long as he’s good
Labor unionsDon’t mess with marketsStill-important guarantor of social justice and economic equality
Social SecurityUnaffordable socialismSafety net for seniors, the economy and social justice
MedicareMore unaffordable socialismSame as above
MedicaidSame, plus burden on statesNeeded protection for poor in workforce
Undocumented ImmigrantsKeep and move them out, except maybe childrenCut the flow but let law-abiding workers stay
The Crash of 2008Government caused it, and Obama made it worseWall Street and lax regulation caused it, and Obama saved us
Federal debtAn existential threat right nowWe can cut it as our economy recovers
TaxesAlways down, never upOur postwar growth was fine when top rates ranged from 91% to 70%
GovernmentDrown it in a bathtubWe need it, especially when we’re old or sick, or bankers go rogue
Energy and the Environment
Global warmingA hoaxA grave long-term threat
Wind and solar powerUseless boondogglesNew industries and clean energy
CoalBurn, baby, burn! It’s cheapDirtiest fuel ever; phase out
Oil and gasolineDrill, baby, drill! They’ll always be thereThey’re getting scarcer and pricier; look for substitutes
Natural gasDrill, baby, drill!Good transitional fuel, but watch for air and water pollution
Nuclear powerFull speed aheadOther power sources are cleaner and safer
Foreign Policy
AfghanistanStay to defeat Taliban and secure Karzai’s governmentKill terrorists, but get out and shift to civilian aid
Arab SpringLock and load! Militant Islam is coming!Cautious hope for democracy and peace
ChinaSlave state, cheater, and dangerous rivalRising economic power and trade partner that bears watching
FranceSocialist wimpLeader in post-colonial engagement and nuclear power
GermanyOld enemy and commercial rivalHopeful example in manufacturing, energy, and economic equality
IranPrepare for air war and oil price spikesBoycott and bargain, but try to avoid war
IraqWe should still have combat troops thereWe should not have gone in, and it’s good we’re getting out
IsraelBulwark against militant Islam and (for some) Armageddon triggerClose friend which can do stupid things
RussiaSlave state like Soviet Union“Marketizing” European power; can be rival or partner
Military budgetSpend what we must to beat all foes in two world wars at onceWhere will those wars come from?
Mitigating global warmingOthers should go firstWe should lead
Political Personalities
Mahmoud AhmadinejadHitler reduxFailed subordinate on his way out; who’s next?
Rush LimbaughFreedom fighter and party leaderVile and dangerous blowhard
Sarah PalinStrong female leaderGold-digging airhead
Vladimir PutinLenin and Stalin reduxModern but authoritarian leader willing to bargain, not even close to Stalin
“Social” Issues and Attitudes
AbortionThe murder of childrenA woman’s personal and medical choice
ChirstianityAmerica’s religion and our highest lawOne religion among many
Church attendanceHigh and importantMuch lower and less important
Easily available gunsGuarantors of freedom from crime and governmentMakers of mayhem and slaughterers of children
EvolutionAnother hoaxThe foundation of modern biology
Faith and moneyJesus wants you to be richDidn’t Jesus say something about camels and needles?
FundamentalismOK if ChristianDangerous, whether Christian, Jewish or Taliban
Gay marriageOver our dead bodies!Yawn, why not? It’s a free country
Public pensionersFreeloadersFormer fire fighters, garbage collectors, police and teachers
Wall StreetLet ’er rip! Money’s good, isn’t it?Isn’t something rotten there?

If this list were about spouses, what would the prospects for an harmonious marriage be?

Should government be able to act?

Once in a while, should Congress be able to pass an important law? If you believe that government is best drowned in a bathtub so taxes can go lower, you might “just say no.”

But paradoxically, red voters are just as fed up with Congress as their blue counterparts. No one, red or blue, left or right, seems to like broken government. But all want government to do things their way.

We have broken government for four reasons. First, people with world views as dramatically different as those shown above can’t agree on anything. Their values and outlook are just too far apart.

Second, our voters have self-sorted into tribal camps. They read, watch and believe only news and commentary that supports their pre-existing views. So there’s not much switching between camps. Psychologists, social scientists and pollsters agree. They don’t see much prospect for future agreement or reconciliation.

Third, as red and blue voters become more entrenched in their views and more estranged from each other, “compromise” becomes a dirty word. It already is among the Tea Party. Gerrymandered single-party districts don’t help. Red-meat voters there don’t want compromise; they want champions.

Finally, our Constitution hog-ties us. Every state, even the smallest—has two votes in the Senate. Our Constitution won’t ever let those votes be taken away. So, for the foreseeable future, voters in a state like Wyoming will have about 50 times the voting power in the Senate as voters in California.

But that’s just the beginning. Filibusters give a minority of 41 senators a veto like much like the President’s. The Constitution allows each House to make its own rules, but the rate of filibuster blockage has gone far beyond anything the Founders might have contemplated, and far beyond anything in our golden age as a nation.

Next is the Senate “hold.” Any single Senator, individually (and often anonymously), can delay any piece of legislation or any presidential appointment that requires Senate confirmation, for any reason or for no reason. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, a red state, at one time had seventy holds on President Obama’s appointments. While the world “hold” implies only delay, in fact these holds kill legislation and appointments more often than not. (Procedures among 100 senators often can’t wait for one senator, or several, to change their minds.) So not only do we have the 41% “veto” of a minority; we also have an effective senatorial veto, which every single senator can exercise individually.

With these rules and such dramatic ideological splits, is gridlock any surprise?

With the mere act of secession, every one of these reasons for gridlock would disappear. Each spinoff’s people would have similar enough views—a similar culture, if you will—to haggle over details but get things done. The two separate tribes would not have sorted themselves out into different internal camps, at least at first. Their respective media would air different nuances of the two tribes’ views, but not irreconcilable opposites. There would be no jeering. So each spinoff would not have to contend with perpetually warring, jeering, entrenched camps.

Each side also could make considerable progress in avoiding the pitfalls of our Constitution. The seceding states would have carte blanche to design a new government, which they would be well advised to do without filibusters and Senate holds. Anyway, they would not have the incentives for gridlock that our Founders had. They would not be trying to meld two wildly different cultures: an industrial, Puritan, free and communitarian North, with an aristocratic, agrarian plantation South based on slavery.

With world views much closer together, and after a huge sigh of relief, the remaining states could change the Senate rules to eliminate or curb filibusters and avoid single-senator holds. They would be well advised to do so during the initial honeymoon period after secession, perhaps by constitutional amendment. The seceding states could do the same things in designing their government from scratch.

But if things stay as they are, there is no reasonable prospect for any foreseeable solution for either red or blue. The gap in world view and ideology is simply too broad. And as the Senate’s recent failed attempt to curb filibusters proved anew, no politician ever lets power drop out of his or her hands while alive. Hence the chance of abolishing filibusters and Senate holds in the midst of a severe ideological split and gridlock is minimal. The gap in world view, the warring camps, the hatred of compromise, and our Constitution are tying both red and blue states in a death embrace that allows no room for breathing, let alone action.

With secession, the logjam would break quickly for each side. With like-minded compatriots and rules more suited to action, each side could realize its ideological dreams in its own way. The seceding states could reject Roe v. Wade, allow anyone to carry an assault weapon with a huge magazine, make church attendance mandatory, outlaw unions, give tax break to Wall Street banks to lure them down South, use coal for 100% of their power, drill everywhere for oil and gas, and declare their new nation a Christian one.

The remaining states, by constitutional amendment, could overturn Citizens United, outlaw firearms in crowded cities, and bring back the fairness doctrine for public discourse in the Internet Age. They could also regulate the big banks or break them up into pieces small enough to fail, subsidize wind and solar energy, give labor unions more power, expand Medicare to all ages, and invest heavily in a smart grid, better roads and Internet, electric cars, and education. They could even raise taxes to fund these things.

Each side, of course, would predict the other’s failure. But maybe ideology isn’t so important after all. Maybe if citizens believe in what they are doing, think they are being fairly treated, work hard, and work together—rather than at cross purposes—that’s all that matters. Maybe today’s ideological struggles have no more import than Jonathan Swift’s metaphorical quarrel about which end of a boiled egg to flatten.

The rivalry and competition between the two resulting nations might spur both on to success. And if not, it might settle finally (and for history) whether a mixed economy with strong regulation and a strong safety net is better than a more muscular capitalism with few restraints on money, power and guns.

Isn’t competition the law of nature and our species? Why not settle the endless ideological debate with a real test, an experiment? If one side “won” decisively, the other could always rejoin it.

Live and let live

As I once wrote about gay marriage, the most succinct expression of American values is “live and let live.” That simple phrase states the essence of our common culture better than the lawyers’ language of our Bill of Rights.

But when two groups of people have such starkly different values and world views as our red and blue states, it’s hard to live and let live. With secession, each side would be free, finally, to live according to its ideology and world view. And each side would be obliged to let the other live, albeit in a different nation.

In our present gridlocked society, neither side gets its way, and nothing ever seems to change. That’s not “live and let live”; that’s stasis and ideological combat.


A peaceful and orderly secession would of course require some conditions. But they are not many. I think a mere six would do the job.

First, all states wishing to secede would have to declare their intentions within a specified period, maybe two years. Most would want to have a referendum, but the second condition might make that unnecessary.

Second, every citizen or legal resident of every state would have the right, until the very day of secession, to choose to live in any other state, red or blue. The “privileges and immunities” of US citizens and permanent residents, including freedom of travel and residence, would last until the very day of secession. That day should be at least five years after all seceding states have declared their intentions, so as to allow all the dust to settle and every individual to make up his or her mind.

Third, from day of declaration until the day of secession, all military personnel would have the right to be transferred from the remaining states to the seceding states, or vice versa. The military command of each new nation would have the power to choose the particular state, but not the nation. That way, no military person would be forced to serve a nation that he or she did not support. (You might call this the “Robert E. Lee rule.” He agonized over his decision but made the wrong choice. Our Civil War would have been a lot shorter had he chosen right, but you can’t change history.)

Fourth, the seceding states would have to relinquish all nuclear weapons and weapons-related nuclear materials and technology. They didn’t invent them, and they would have marginalized or ignored the people who did—mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants. And given their views on war, the whole rest of the world would sleep easier if they had no nukes. But the remaining US states would pre-sign a treaty guaranteeing a nuclear response to any nuclear attack on any seceding state.

Fifth, each seceding state would have to agree to pay the accumulated arrears of federal money received over federal taxes paid by the state itself, its people, and its private businesses. (The seceding states collectively, if red states now, would most likely have such a collective deficit. But a few, like Texas, might have a surplus.) Each state would be given a lengthy period, such as ten or fifteen years, to make the required payment.

Finally, as part of the declaration of secession, the seceding states would have to establish, before secession, binding rules for immigration, emigration, and international trade. They would also have to agree to abide by all treaties and international agreements binding on the United States, including the WTO, with such exceptions and changes as they could negotiate with foreign parties. (Russia undertook similar obligations as successor to the Soviet Union when it split up.)


Abraham Lincoln presided in a low-divorce era. Couples didn’t split up then, and neither did nations. Both do today.

At first Lincoln wanted only to preserve the Union, not abolish slavery. But he could foresee slavery remaining a source of conflict between the Union and the Confederacy as far as the eye could see.

In other words, Lincoln was prescient enough to understand that secession alone would not significantly reduce the risk of war. Neither the Abolitionists nor the slave owners were going to change. So once the Confederate states seceded, Lincoln had no choice but war. Preserving the Union was a goal that not only Abolitionists, but everyone in the North, could get behind.

Circumstances are quite different today. Slavery is gone forever. Not even Texas is likely to re-institute it. Our blue states and red states have enough of a common culture, and are sufficiently imbued with a common gospel of capitalism and trade, as to enjoy a vibrant and competitive, but not bellicose, relationship as separate countries.

Rather than war, a strong and friendly rivalry might develop after secession. With each able to go its own way, the two sides might eventually develop a certain mutual affection. Their relationship might mimic the affection we now feel for Britain, despite our long-ago Revolutionary War.

Each spinoff country would have the right and necessity to develop its own foreign policy and trade relationships, subject to pre-existing treaties. These tasks would no doubt be a preoccupation of the seceding states for several years after secession, perhaps a decade.

Except for the risk of war between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands, there is little risk of war between major powers today. Certainly no major power is threatening us. The red states tend to see threats and danger everywhere, not just from Iran and North Korea, but from Russia, China, and even tiny Venezuela. Whether it’s better to face those perceived threats as part of the United States or as a separate country would be something they would have to think about in deciding whether to secede.

Not every red state would necessarily follow Texas. Most would, maybe all. But some might not, particularly the northern ones. Their defection would help make secession easier: the bi-coastal United States remaining after secession would need some sort of ground transportation corridor over the phalanx of seceding states in our center. Maybe strong agreements on trade, transit of people and transportation of goods would suffice.

But the likelihood of any foreign power attacking either the United States or the seceding states solely due to the act of secession seems remote. After all, the Soviet Union dissolved with no such consequence. It had much less friendly neighbors, some of which were much more powerful than ours. Yet no one even thought of attacking it. So the negligible risk of foreign military action—or trade action for that matter—should not preclude secession.

Lincoln couldn’t allow it in his day because: (1) that sort of thing wasn’t done, and (2) war probably would have come anyway. Why postpone it and fight a stronger, better organized foe later?

Today there is no such risk, and there are plenty of precedents for division. We can divorce if we like, under a standard of irreconcilable differences. We certainly are incompatible by any measure of human culture.

As Churchill once said of us and Britain, we red and blue folk are two peoples divided by a common language. But worse yet, we inhabit a common governmental jail cell. Separate and free from each other at last, we might both soar.

Another Case of Immediate Confirmation

I love it when real events confirm my analysis quickly, as they did with my post on coal.

After writing the foregoing post, I had a bout of writer’s insecurity. Had I exaggerated the differences between “red” and “blue” states? Had I been fair to the red ones, whose views I don’t share? Do voters there really believe that government caused the Crash of 2008?

Well, I didn’t have long to wait for confirmation. Last night’s speeches provided plenty.

Marco Rubio, the GOP junior Senator from Florida, gave the “red” reply to the President’s State of the Union address. Very early on, he insisted that government caused the Crash, and that only private initiative could fix it. “A major cause of our recent downturn.” he said, “was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.”

Do red voters think global warming is a hoax? Well, Rubio didn’t say so exactly, but he did say this: “When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather, [the President] accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.”

Rubio, you may recall, is the GOP’s great white hope. He’s the son of Cuban immigrants, and he gave his reply speech in both Spanish and English. He personifies the GOP’s desire to “pivot” on immigration and save itself from Hispanic ostracism.

Rubio hails from Florida, a state once red but now purple. Insofar as his own personal constituency is concerned, he has every electoral incentive to be moderate and bipartisan. Yet as conservative pundit David Brooks noted afterward, he disagreed with almost everything the President had said, point by point, item by item. You don’t even have to know the President’s speech to know this; just read Rubio’s own.

Neither Rubio nor the President covered all the points in my table. But all that they both covered matched my take. Rubio even opened his speech with an oblique reference to life being precious “at every stage”—a hint that abortion is murder.

There were only three exceptions. First, Rubio claimed to agree with the President on lowering the corporate tax rate, but without stating conditions. Second, he agreed (without saying so) that the cost of college is too high, but he disagreed on how to lower it. “We must,” he said, “give students more information on the costs and benefits of the student loans they’re taking out.” In other words, no regulation, just disclosure.

Finally, as point man for the GOP’s “pivot” on immigration, he urged “a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first,” he said, “we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

No doubt David Brooks hopes the GOP survives. Without it, he might be out of a job. But he recognized that there was nothing new in Rubio’s speech. It was straight out of the GOP script of the last twenty years, or GOP scripture if you prefer.

Brooks attributed the speech’s lack of substance and luster to the necessity for Rubio (or any GOP pol) to secure the GOP nomination without being Tea Partied. But isn’t that precisely the point? The Tea Party mentality has captured the GOP and controls its mind.

So my table stands confirmed, and the question remains: can people so far apart in all they feel and think they know get along? And even if they can get along without literally killing each other (except in random gun violence), can they work together well enough to succeed in a very, very competitive world? Or does success require secession?

P.S. Another event today confirmed a different part of the post above. Lindsey Graham, a red-state senator, threatened to use a senate hold to delay or block the appointment of Chuck Hagel (also a Republican) as Secretary of Defense.

Leave aside Graham’s ostensible reason for the threat: to get more information about the tragedy in Benghazi. Certainly Graham doesn’t expect Hagel to have it. Hagel was nowhere near the event or in the chain of command—whether before, during or after the event. So Graham’s ploy is just another example of government by extortion.

Leave aside also the unmitigated gall of a guy whose military service was in a law office, and who never saw combat, challenging the right of a guy who did to serve as Secretary of Defense, based on nothing more than a difference in views, largely motivated by ideology. We’ve seen enough of that recently not to be shocked anymore.

But this farce illustrates precisely how our Senate rules have tied us in knots. In any proper parliamentary democracy, the prime minister would pat Graham on the head and tell him to sit in a corner.

Not here. Like every other individual senator, red or blue, Graham has the power to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of government any time he chooses. That kind of power approaches Lord Acton’s definition of absolute corruption.



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