12 November 2018

What if the Senate is Obsolete?

As economic power and population shifted from rural farms to industrializing cities in decades around 1900, Britain and Germany changed how their parliaments were defined. US legislature hasn't made that shift in representation and probably should. This is going to be contentious.

As Britain pioneered the industrial revolution, Manchester's population exploded. A center for industrialization, Manchester grew to become the UK's third largest city (after London and Glasgow) by 1901. Between 1700 and 1800 it grew from fewer than 10,000 to about 90,000.  Manchester's population doubled between 1801 and 1820 and then doubled again by 1850.

Yet when it began its growth, Parliamentary representation was granted to districts. Manchester did not even elect its own Members of Parliament (MPs) in the early 19th century. It was just part of the Lancashire district.

Meanwhile, in "rotten boroughs," a paltry few could elect two MPs. How few? In one borough, 7 voters got to elect 2 MPs. Dunwich had literally fallen into the sea, leaving just 32 voters clinging to land; they, too, got to elect 2 MPs. In a sense, this was representation by acreage.

The economy changed how population and power was distributed. Industrialization brought workers into cities like Manchester and left behind smaller populations in the little rural communities that - in part thanks to industrialization - needed fewer people to raise crops and tend livestock. While the population and economies of cities grew, their political representation had not.

This changed in the UK (the disparity between Dunwich and Manchester began to be addressed with legislation in 1832) and, later, in Germany, Austria and France through a series of parliamentary reforms starting in the early 1800s and continuing through the first world war. As the economy shifted from agriculture to industrial, as the important factor shifted from land to capital, these communities shifted political power to give voice to the members of this new economy.

The need for such a shift in the US is less dramatic. At least in the House. Divided into 435 districts by population (obviously a number that grows every decade), the US is not going to have anything as egregious as 7 people electing two representatives.

Nonetheless, the Senate is still structured around the notion that acreage deserves representation. Like the early forms of British parliament that found themselves antiquated by urbanization and industrialization, the US Senate gives disproportionate representation to owners of land rather than capital or knowledge. Two states, Wyoming and Vermont, have populations smaller than Washington DC. Those states have four senators and DC has none. 21 states with a population of 36 million get 42 senators; California with a population of 39 million gets 2 senators. In one part of the country, you are just one of 850,000 voices your senator must represent; in another, you are one of 19.7 million voices

California has helped to pioneer the information and entrepreneurial economies and that has made it successful in industries like aerospace, communications, silicon, software, biotech, and the internet. Of the 100 most valuable companies in the world earlier this year, the market cap of companies in California represented $4.2 trillion of the US's $14.1 trillion (and of the world's $21.2 trillion). California represents 12.4% of the American population and 30% of the value of the country's biggest companies. Like Manchester in the early 19th century, California's lead in creating jobs and wealth has not yet translated into commensurate representation.

In 1790, when the US was founded, 90% of workers were in agriculture. Acreage was a pretty good proxy for good representation at that time. Agriculture now employs fewer than 2% of American workers. Acreage is now a terrible approximation of how representation should be calculated. (And yes, I know that technically the Senate is a way to represent states not acreage but it does effectively do that. State representation does not follow people around as they move; states "govern" over a constant and stable area, not a constant and stable population. What this effectively means is that Senators represent acreage.)

As it now stands, the politics in the US is going to be disproportionately defined by the least populous and least affluent areas of the country because of how the Senate is structured. It's hard to imagine us ignoring that for too much longer or imagine that addressing this issue will ever be easy.


11 November 2018

The Lesson of World War One (That is too costly to learn twice)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of "the Great War." This war killed 15 to 20 million people but within a generation we had a second world war that killed 60 million. In between, the Great Depression caused so much economic misery that it gave power to communists and fascists throughout the world.

The decades after the first world war were a time of misery. The decades after the second world war were a time of peace and prosperity.

Between 1350 and 1950, there was at least one major military confrontation between European powers in every decade. What changed after 1950 is that we created international institutions.

There is a quip that nations either exchange goods or gunfire. Economic development and trade have been a boon to peace. The West also has institutions that link it together: NATO, the UN the IMF and the EU. These didn't really exist until after WWII and they do a great deal to explain why the time after the second world war was so starkly different from the time after first world war.

Just as the institutions of families, city councils, federal governments, corporations, churches and banks all deserve continual criticism and drive to improve them so that they adapt to changing realities and new possibilities, so do these post WWII institutions. They need improving. Without institutions we are like the other primates, though. We can't afford to neglect or discard them. And the West without these post-WWII institutions would be more like the world of Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler than JFK and Reagan, Thatcher and Blair, Trudeau and Mulroney, de Gaulle and Chirac, and Kohl and Merkel.

The lesson of WWI is that without creating institutions that transcend nations we again slip into the the madness that goes by a variety of names (patriotism, nationalism, self-interest) and devolves into the worst kind of competition rather than raise us to the best kind of cooperation. It is a lesson too costly to learn twice.

06 November 2018

What is Certain in Today's Election

We live in a probabilistic, not deterministic world. The Democrats will probably win the House and the Republicans will probably hold the Senate but .... we don't know. Yet. Fivethirtyeight gives Republicans a 15% chance of keeping the House and the Democrats a 15% chance of winning the Senate.

Reality is choosing among possible paths as rapidly as it can but there are so many of them. We can simulate reality so much faster than reality can play out because reality does not simplify.

One of the things that we will learn is how unique is Trump. It is very normal for a Republican to win the presidency after two terms of a Democrat in the White House. In that sense, the 2016 election was boring and normal. But of course Trump is a bizarre character who seems to most of us to be hugely different than a typical Republican. If he really is, the backlash could be bigger than what is captured in current probabilities; if typical Republicans and swing voters think he is really no different than a normal Republican, there will likely be a swing towards Democrats but it won't be very dramatic; about enough to win the House but still be still be a minority in the Senate.

What is certain? 

Democrats could win by 6 points nationally (53 to 47) and still lose the House. Because of gerrymandering and the fact that individual voters in big cities have less influence even in House races, Republicans have about a 5 to 6 point starting advantage for Congress. That strikes me as the most remarkable thing about politics in this second decade in the 21st century.

Related, the counties that voted for Clinton represent two-thirds of GDP. It is the areas of the country that least understand how to create jobs and wealth that thought Trump's anti-trade, anti-immigrant, nationalist agenda sounded like a good idea.


As it now stands, our policy is being decided by minorities as counted by the number of voters and GDP. That's certain. And that is certainly weird.

What else is certain? The House will decide whether we learn what Mueller has learned about Trump. The House will decide whether Trump will - for the first time in his life - experience any negative consequences for any negative deeds. Voters today will decide whether we continue to have a Republican-led House that merely enables Trump or a Democratic-led House that checks his worst excesses. 

What is certain is that Trump will be more dangerous with a Republican-led House. I'm certain that I don't want two more years of a Congress that merely acquiesces to his every whim; I wish I could be certain we'll get that.

Finally, as I think about today's election, the words of Tiny Tim repeat in my head: God bless us everyone.