Votes That Count…

Vox recently had a provocative article advocating “proportional voting,” and claiming that the institution of such a voting system would solve two of America’s thorniest political problems: partisan polarization and the number of “wasted” votes.

A bit of background: we currently have an electoral system in which–as the article says– your vote is far more likely to shape Congress if you live in Des Moines than if you live in San Francisco.(Rural votes also count more than urban ones for President, thanks to the Electoral College.) The system thus undermines accountability and vastly increases polarization.

Polarization is often described in terms of red states and blue states, but it is a significant problem at the Congressional-district level across all the states. It’s also a more complex story than is usually suggested: Gerrymandering, or the partisan redrawing of district lines — a frequent object of complaint on the left —- has undoubtedly helped make some districts more unshakably Republican. (Democrats play the gerrymandering game, too, but they have had less opportunity.)

This polarization could be addressed by moving more liberal city-dwellers to more rural areas of the country, or ridding ourselves of the Electoral College–remedies that will be instituted right after hell freezes and pigs fly.

On the other hand, we might be able to pass the Fair Representation Actintroduced by Democratic Representative Don Beyer of Virginia. If passed, that Act would change our current voting system to one of proportional representation.

Whatever the causes of polarization, there is a relatively straightforward solution to our current predicament that has been embraced by most advanced industrial democracies: proportional representation. There are many versions of this approach, but they all involve some way of electing multiple people, at once, to represent a region. In a proportional system, parties representing as little as 1 percent of the electorate can gain representation, though the most stable systems usually have a threshold percentage level to prevent truly marginal parties from gaining seats. The regions can be as large as an entire nation — but even when they are smaller they tend to be larger than the 435 tiny US congressional districts, each of which is run according to the “winner take all” principle.

Under a proportional system, if you want to live in a big, liberal city in a liberal state, you don’t give up the chance to make a difference with your vote. There is also very little possibility for consequential gerrymandering in proportional representation systems, since districts tend to be so big that there’s not much to gain from alternative line-drawings.

Proponents of this approach point out that it makes third parties more viable, which means that more parties are competing for voters. They also note that because voters feel that their votes actually matter, proportional representation systems tend to have higher voter turnout.

The problem this proposal aims to cure is very real: thanks to residential “sorting” and gerrymandering, in today’s America only about one in 20 of us lives in a place that is likely to have a competitive House election.

The reality of the problem is one thing; whether proportional voting–or multi-member districts–is the right solution is another. In my state, we moved away from multi-member districts in order to increase accountability; at the time, the argument was that larger districts and multiple representatives attenuated the relationship between representatives and those they served.

I’m not sure what changes are most likely to be effective, let alone able to be adopted. I do know that America is no longer either a democracy or a republic. We can’t go on much longer with a “system” this dysfunctional, and “band-aid” prescriptions are unlikely to be effective.

What to do?

 

Policy For Dummies

Permit me to channel–okay, parody– Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

How do I ridicule thee? Let me count the ways.
I sneer to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…

President Trump–in his obsessive effort to eradicate anything and everything that his predecessor did (he was black, you know)– has reversed Obama’s moratorium on new leases for coal mining on federal lands.

Although that moratorium was good for the environment, the impetus for it was actually financial. As Think Progress has reported,

Taxpayers are estimated to be losing $1 billion a year in revenues because coal companies are not paying royalties on the actual market price of coal extracted from federal lands. Royalty payments are split between the federal government and the state where the coal is mined, and coal lease sales in the in the past decade garnered close to $1 per ton in bids.

This is above and beyond the so-called “royalties loophole,” which allows coal companies to sell publicly owned coal to subsidiaries at artificially low prices. An Obama-era rule had closed that loophole, but the Trump administration has already stayed the legally binding rule, and has initiated court proceedings to throw it out entirely. Under the loophole, taxpayers lose millions of dollars annually.

So–let’s just “count the ways” that this latest impulsive eruption was both stupid and venal.

As noted, it will cost taxpayers. And it will cost us without doing anything at all for coal miners.

Even if new leasing goes forward, critics say Trump’s order to lift the moratorium will do more for coal industry executives than it will for coal communities. Coal jobs have been in decline for decades — and not just because coal production is falling. Automation and new mining processes have diminished the number of jobs per ton of coal.

“This order won’t bring the coal industry back, but it will ensure coal companies rip off American taxpayers for years to come,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities.

Trump has already loosened regulations that prohibited coal companies from polluting the nation’s drinking water, alarming public health officials, among others. But his love affair with coal also ignores market economics. Between coal companies’ massive amount of reserves (over 20 years worth) and the rapidly declining use of coal, the market has sent a strong signal about coal’s future.

Receiving such signals–or, let’s face it, comprehending reality–isn’t Trump’s strong suit.

Reporting on the move, Reuters made similar observations.

Since 2012, coal production has plunged more than 25 percent to the lowest levels since 1978 due to falling prices. The industry has been hit with massive layoffs and bankruptcies.

Even if the rollback of the moratorium helped coal miners– an outcome analysts uniformly dispute–the number of Americans employed as coal miners is far fewer than Trump evidently believes. According to the Washington Post, more people work at Arby’s than in coal mines.

Experts in the industry have already pointed out, repeatedly, that the coal jobs are extremely unlikely to come back. The plight of the coal industry is more a function of changing energy markets and increased demand for natural gas than anything else.

Another largely overlooked point about coal jobs is that there just aren’t that many of them relative to other industries. There are various estimates of coal-sector employment, but according to the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns program, which allows for detailed comparisons with many other industries, the coal industry employed 76,572 people in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.

That number includes not just miners but also office workers, sales staff and all of the other individuals who work at coal-mining companies.

Although 76,000 might seem like a large number, consider that similar numbers of people are employed by, say, the bowling (69,088) and skiing (75,036) industries. Other dwindling industries, such as travel agencies (99,888 people), employ considerably more. Used-car dealerships provide 138,000 jobs. Theme parks provide nearly 144,000. Carwash employment tops 150,000.

Maybe we can get Trump to turn his attention to carwashes. Used-car dealerships would be a natural fit…

Or maybe he can enlist a new ghostwriter and publish another book; it could be titled The Art of the Very Bad Deal or Policy for Dummies.

 

 

 

 

Speaking of Fake News….

Well, I see where Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law is hosting a “news” show on Facebook, to give supporters the “real” scoop on the administration’s greatness….Since Trump’s vast accomplishments appear to have escaped the notice of credible journalism outlets, the family evidently felt the need to give the base a more flattering version of events in Washington. And also, according to yesterday’s Washington Post,

This week, meanwhile, saw the debut of Trump TV: a Web-based broadcast of “real news” by Kayleigh McEnany, a pro-Trump pundit formerly of CNN. In the first installment, she announces, in front of a Trump-Pence campaign backdrop in Trump Tower: “President Trump has created more than 1 million jobs. . . . President Trump has clearly steered the economy back in the right direction. . . . President Trump is finally putting the American worker first. . . . President Trump is dedicated to honoring these men and women who fought valiantly for our country.”

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted: “Wow. Feels eerily like so many state-owned channels I’ve watched in other countries.”

Shades of Mike Pence…

Much more concerning, Jared Kushner recently revealed that before the election, the Trump campaign had made a deal with Sinclair Broadcasting (Fox News’ less-recognized Evil Twin):

Kushner said the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.

In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Kushner said. Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000.

“It’s math,” Kushner said according to multiple attendees.

Sinclair, a Maryland-based company, is a politically conservative network of local news outlets; it was the subject of a scathing take-down by John Oliver, on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight.

Local stations in the past have been directed to air “must run” stories produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau that were generally critical of Obama administration and offered perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks, The Washington Post reported in 2014.

I’m sure it is merely coincidental (cough, cough), but following the election, Politico reported 

Sinclair Broadcast Group is expanding its conservative-leaning television empire into nearly three-quarters of American households — but its aggressive takeover of the airwaves wouldn’t have been possible without help from President Donald Trump’s chief at the Federal Communications Commission.

Sinclair, already the nation’s largest TV broadcaster, plans to buy 42 stations from Tribune Media in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, on top of the more than 170 stations it already owns. It got a critical assist this spring from Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who revived a decades-old regulatory loophole that will keep Sinclair from vastly exceeding federal limits on media ownership.

The change will allow Sinclair — a company known for injecting “must run” conservative segments into its local programming — to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations. That’s nearly double the congressionally imposed nationwide audience cap of 39 percent.

That’s a nice quid pro quo: Sinclair delivers favorable publicity for the Trump campaign, and is rewarded by an FCC rule change benefitting its bottom line–a change that will allow the company to reach nearly three-quarters of American homes with “news” favorable to Trump.

When does actual news, which is protected by the First Amendment even when it is wrong or misleading, become propaganda or fraud? And what do we do about it?

When two deeply deranged heads of state are playing “mine’s bigger than yours” with nuclear weapons, there is some urgency in figuring this out.

Those Republican “Moderates”

I have frequently noted how far today’s GOP has traveled since my days as an active Republican. I’m not alone, of course, in describing the differences between the party of Eisenhower and even Reagan, and today’s radical Rightists–Facebook posts routinely include surprising quotes from former Republican presidents, and one recurring item contrasts the party’s 1955 platform with the party’s more recent–and far more “anti-government” iterations.

One result of this steady move rightward is a change in meaning of the term “Moderate.” Republican elected officials are now considered moderates if they refrain from explicitly racist and sexist rhetoric, occasionally smile, and exhibit social skills.

Before awarding a “moderate” label to today’s politicians, however, it is instructive to visit Nate Silver’s blog, where he tracks how often every member of the House and Senate votes with or against Donald Trump, who–whatever he is–is certainly no moderate.

Demonstrating how utterly meaningless the “moderate” label has become, the blog contains an excellent example from central Indiana’s Fifth District. Representative Susan Brooks is often favorably compared to some of our more outlandish and vocal elected troglodytes; she is certainly more pleasant in public. She is intelligent, and she discharged her prior government service (as a Deputy Mayor and U.S. Attorney) with competence.

Whether her voting record reflects her political philosophy or her desire to avoid being primaried is an open question. What isn’t in question is the utter lack of moderation in that voting record.

Here is the summary from Silver’s blog:

Trump score
How often Brooks votes in line with Trump’s position
Trump margin
Trump’s share of the vote in the 2016 election in Indiana’s 5th District minus Clinton’s
Predicted score
How often Brooks is expected to support Trump based on Trump’s 2016 margin
Trump plus-minus
Difference between Brooks’s actual and predicted Trump-support scores
97.6%
+11.8
88.6%
+9.0

As the scores indicate, her support for Trump exceeds what the demographics of her district would predict. (A list of the specific votes follows the reproduced chart on the  website.)

Lest I be accused of picking on Brooks, let me acknowledge that she is only one example of a supposed “moderate voice” whose actions fail to match their public demeanor. Jeff Flake is an example of someone who has gotten laudatory press for his recent book criticizing Trump, but when it came time to vote on the ACA’s “skinny repeal,” he obediently fell into line. John McCain regularly earns plaudits for being a “maverick,” but McCain has been only slightly more likely than the average senator to vote against his party.

As usual, Paul Krugman cuts to the chase:

When we look at the degeneration of American politics, it’s natural to blame the naked partisans — people like Mitch McConnell, with his principle-free will to power, or Ted Cruz, with his ideological rigidity. And Trump has, of course, done more to degrade his office than any previous occupant of the White House.

But none of what is happening right now would be possible without the acquiescence of politicians who pretend to be open-minded, decry partisanship, tut-tut about incivility and act as enablers for the extremists again and again….

Consider, for example, Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — whose state has benefited enormously from the Affordable Care Act. “I didn’t come here to hurt people,” she declared not long ago — then voted for a bill that would quadruple the number of uninsured in West Virginia.

Or consider Rob Portman of Ohio, who cultivates an image as a moderate, praises Medicaid and talked big about the defects of Republican health plans — but also voted for that bill. Hey, in Ohio the number of uninsured would only triple.

There are only two Republican Senators one can truly label moderate and principled–Collins and Murkowski. If there are any genuine GOP moderates in the House, they sure don’t come from Indiana.

Has Liberalism Failed?

For quite a while, I called myself an “18th Century liberal,” because I considered myself a genuine conservative, a term I defined as a fiscal conservative who believed in conserving the libertarian principle developed during the Enlightenment.

The meaning of “liberalism” (at least until Rush Limbaugh et al appropriated the term for use as an expletive) was–as Fareed Zakaria recently noted in a New York Times book review–

the tradition of liberty and democracy and, by extension, the open, rules-based international economic and political system that has characterized the Western world since 1945, and many more parts of the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A couple of weeks ago, in the Sunday New York Times, Zakaria reviewed a book by Edward Luce, titled “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” Luce was surveying the economic and political decay of the United States and European democracies, and he was less than sanguine about the future of Enlightenment liberalism, to put it mildly.  I haven’t read the book, but judging from Zakaria’s response, Luce places much blame for the current assault on liberty and democratic norms on the “elites” that it has become so fashionable to bash (and so rare to define).

Zakaria points out that recent European elections–with the exception of Brexit–have actually been cause for celebration by those who are rooting for the success of the European Union and the stability of liberal democratic regimes.

Instead of viewing the entire West as being overwhelmed by a tsunami of right-wing populism, we might step back and study countries separately. Those that have had strong safety nets as well as programs to help people move up the economic ladder, like Northern Europe, do not have as much of a problem as others. There, immigration rather than economics is the key driver, but that will wane in importance since immigration flows are dwindling. In my view, Germany seemed vulnerable to right-wing nationalism in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland only after Merkel’s extraordinary decision to take in a million refugees, but as that fades into the background, so has the AfD. In France, Macron is articulating a defense of Western democracy against Russian interference in much stronger terms than is the American president.

Zakaria began his review by focusing upon a recent speech by Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister. The speech was widely reported in the U.S., because Freeland essentially suggested that Canada–along with other democracies–needed to step up its defense of the liberal international order to compensate for the “situation” in the United States. (Although she never mentioned Trump, it was pretty clear what “situation” she was referring to.) Zakaria returned to Canada in his final observation.

In many ways, the one Western country that has seemed immune from any of this populism has been Chrystia Freeland’s Canada. That is not because Canadians are genetically immune to populism but rather because for the last 20 years, they have pursued good public policy. Canada’s economics, health care, banking and immigration policies have been inclusive and successful. One sign of the strength of Western liberalism would be if the United States could recognize that there are now other countries with a deep commitment to these ideas and values that might even be approaching them more successfully than is Washington. The West, in other words, we now live in is a post-American West.

Social science research confirms Zakaria’s reference to “good public policy.” Countries with strong social safety nets, like Canada’s, are more stable and less violence-prone; their populations exhibit fewer socially undesirable behaviors (everything from crime rates to out-of-wedlock births, divorce, drug abuse, etc.)

Paul Ryan and his cohort can insist that taking away access to health care and reducing other social supports is “pro freedom,” but people aren’t free when their waking hours are consumed by efforts to put food on the table, and their nightmares are of an accident or illness that plunges them into bankruptcy.

Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others. That’s a concept of liberty that is not only consistent with a social safety net–these days, as a practical matter, it requires one.