some votes are more equal than other votes

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Every election brings on the debate about the Electoral College, even as there is no real prospect of its abolition, nor is the debate taken seriously. It is merely a part of our system that we accept, an antiquated, uniquely American institution that endures like U.S. customary units. Some people even defend the Electoral College, either by hewing to the old apology as a means of combatting the idiocy of the voting majority (which I admit, is rare and you won’t see it any respectable media), or by arguing that it is simply a quirky way to measure the vote, but ultimately works. Some think that it protects the less populated states from tyranny by the big states, the rationale for the two senators each state gets. But what is failed to address is how undemocratic the Electoral College is, and the way that it skews the entire political system for the benefit of the two major parties at the expense of the American public.

The simplest way to gauge this is by examining the amount of electoral votes a state receives in contrast with its population. The other manner is to look at the existence of swing states. Let’s take two states as exemplars, California and Wyoming. With a population of 38,332,521 by a 2013 estimate, the state receives 55 electoral votes. That means that each electoral vote is worth 696,954.9 people. The national population (~317,677,000), divided by the total number of electoral votes (538), comes to 590,477.7. By that measure, California should have 64.9 electoral votes. You can round that up or down if you want to, but that means California is shorted at least 9 electoral votes, or in other words, the votes of 5.9 million Californians do not count.

Of course, not all Californians can or do vote, but the points and representation that a state receives is not based on its voting age population but its total population. In comparison with Wyoming, which receives three electoral votes with a population of 582,658, eight thousand under the average for just one point, California is underrepresented and Wyoming is overrepresented. A Wyomingite’s vote is worth more than three times the vote of a Californian. The fact that state populations rise and fall in contrast to each other over the ten years between censuses, as well as the variations in voter turnout among the states, means that your vote may be worth less or more in compared to other Americans in other states. Changes like in Maine and Nebraska, which apportion electoral votes based on districts, still do not fix the inherent inequality between the worth of some votes. The problem is not winner-take-all but the Electoral College itself; amending how electoral votes are given to candidates does not address that Californian votes will be less valued then Wyoming votes, though it would be a step in the right direction.

Swing states increase the disfranchisement of voters by allowing candidates to rely on their bases to carry party-dominated states. Thus you will see candidates campaigning not for the country but for Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the various “purple” states. This means that the needs of Wyomingites and Californians, and other blue and red states are under-addressed by the candidate. The argument that this moderates candidate ideology to fit these middle-of-the-road states does not hold water, nor is it worthwhile. A greater sin, in my opinion, is that the Electoral College almost completely precludes the viability of third-party candidates, who may not have any state as a base but pockets of support around the country. This can only serve the two major parties. From a capitalistic perspective, the Republican and Democratic parties maintain a duopoly on American politics, and without any competition, have no incentive to improve or do better. From a social democratic perspective, to borrow the term from Chomsky, the “capitalist party”, being both the Republicans and the Democrats, are able to maintain their hegemony and continue to be unaccountable to a voting public without any alternative.

By ridding ourselves of the Electoral College, candidates will be more beholden to the whole voting population, all of whose votes will matter equally, and it will mean that a candidate has to campaign all over the country. Republicans will be able to find votes in California, and a Democrat can stump in Texas for some actual gains. Independents and third party candidates will also be able to find support that is not geographical locked and overwhelmed by the local majorities. As it is now, only the two parties get any benefit from this system today.

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youth, artistry, and liberalism

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If there are any groups that one would immediately associate with liberal and progressive ideology, it would be the young and the artistic. I’ve heard many people say that you are liberal in your youth and conservative in your old age. A reductive axiom no doubt, but not entirely without merit. There is something to the young and the creative that brings out progressive ideas, and it is not because those groups are wide-eyed dreamers, unknowledgeable, or simply naïve, denigrating notions used to reject out of hand what they bring to the table. I would argue that it is the youthful and the artists who, having the least to lose because they are the least invested in the economic system, are therefore among the most unbiased observers to our current order. The reason why many begin as liberals and become conservative with age is because they find little recourse in engaging against the colossal system that is inherently resistant to change. They lose heart, and find a way to live the most comfortable life available, which comes by adhering to the economic system that brings with it judgments of who deserves what. Conservatism is a means of conformity necessary for the system to properly function, which rewards conservatives who don’t question the system in the same way that liberals do.

 

Of course I don’t mean to assert that liberals are not compensated by the capitalist economy. One only need to look at George Soros. What I do mean is that with conservatives comes an attitude of who deserves what, and that the wealthy deserve their all their wealth, that working to the top, ambition, all that is good not just for the individual but society. They are more accepting of the profit motive, with all the cynicism that it entails. I’ve met many conservatives that want a more compassionate society, but not with their hard earned money, and not for the lazy (i.e. the poor).

 

Artists and the young, on the other hand, often don’t have that hard earned money (at least, not yet anyway). Creative work does not always reward the artist monetarily, and more often than not it won’t. Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald died destitute, despite writing two of the most important novels in the American canon. Would you argue that the makers of Candy Crush had a better impact on American society? Likely you would not, yet they were far better compensated for an insipid mobile app. Perhaps a more illustrative example is art.

 

It is not uncommon for a painting of a long dead artist to sell for millions at auction. The principal of scarcity applies here, meaning that the exclusive nature and greater desire for an artwork makes it more valuable. But the artist who painted it is often never compensated for the aggregation of its financial worth. Instead, the owner of a van Gogh can purchase a painting and then sell it for more money. From this it is easy to see that making money comes from ownership of property more than it comes from the labor of the individual. Banksy, arguably the most famous artist of the day, could sell a work for a million, but the resale of the work will make more money, even though the seller did nothing to add value to it other than possess it while its value accumulated as the artist’s reputation rose. There is, unfortunately, no mechanism for the restitution of the artist for his cultural contribution other than the fickle, “free” market, which fails for artists as much, if not more than it rewards. And that is without taking into account piracy, whose cost publishers and record companies push onto the artist.

 

Most artists will labor for years in obscurity without any guarantee of success. Sure, there are the prodigies, but there are also those who need many years to develop their craft. Similarly, if one looks at the average age of entrepreneurs, they tend to be around forty or fifty. Imagine spending two decades on building your skills, with little compensation, and then not making it. It takes a lot of courage to persist in a creative endeavor, and it is far riskier than most realize. We only hear about the success stories because the success stories that make the most visible works. This pursuit places the artists outside of the conventional, which is why artists tend to be described as weird, and because artists don’t just question the economic system, they question societal norms, religious conventions, and all other beliefs and values that constitute “normal.”

 

Let’s look at Percy Bysshe Shelley. Writing toward the beginning of the 19th century, Shelley was a radical, atheist, vegetarian, advocate of nonviolence and free love. John Milton in the middle of the 17th century was putting forth his arguments for complete freedom of the press and the ability to divorce, and argued that marriage should be for love. Some of these ideas we take for granted now, and some are still radical. At the time, of course, they were mocked.

 

The young can be equally as radical, and especially among the student populations because, rather evidently, they are the group in best position to agitate politically. They have fewer responsibilities than working parents, are most often not engaged in the work force, and are involved in intellectual endeavors. What working stiff has the time between job, kids, and the myriad other obligations, to actually spend time philosophizing or questioning the world around them? The honest answer is not many, because work is tiring, and raising kids is tiring.  Most people don’t question the rise in hours they week each week because they welcome it, the extra pay keeps them from drowning in bills, or helps them get their car repaired, or allow for some money to actually be saved. But we should question it, because the more time we are working, the less time we have to think about what is actually happening to the world around us, and the less we have to enjoy the life we have left.

 

Again, it is worth saying that it is easiest for the youth to question our world, and practically a necessity for the artist. Those who have the most success in the economy have the least impetus for questioning it because they profited from the system. Those trying to succeed, in the midst of working up the ladder, are unlikely to question because they are focused on their own affairs, and the distribution of wealth, for instance, has seemingly little impact on the new opening in a higher up position. The young, at the beginning of their lives in the workforce, don’t automatically see within the system. They don’t think “that’s the way it is,” quite yet.

poor behavior and the failure of systems

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One of the defenses of our current capitalistic system is that it is criminals who betray the system, that otherwise it works. In some sense it borrows from Stoic thinking, that overall the cosmos is just and good, that catastrophes and wrongdoing are not intrinsic to the system, more like a brief illness or malfunction that eventually rights itself. But this is facile and reductive, like a turtle thinking it sees the world within its shell.

            If we look at the criminality in other systems, say feudalism and slavery, what we see is that the misbehavior of the powerful (i.e. slave owners, feudal lords, aristocrats) does not disrupt the system. Abuse by kings, dukes, and emperors, etc. often went without punishment, and was not the primary reason for their downfall because the feudal system existed for over a thousand years in Europe after the fall of Rome. Similarly, a slave owner can mistreat his slaves at his own discretion. These are inhumane systems, but that was how the functioned. To draw a parallel to our own times, a boss can demand of workers longer hours, can poorly pay his workers, and even treat them discourteously. None of this upsets the system. One could argue that just as a slave owner who cares for his slaves might get better quality work out of his slaves, a company that cares for its workers would get better work. And this is true, but it doesn’t affect the bottom line without the ability for workers to penalize mistreatment. Wal-Mart is one of the biggest corporations in the world and makes a lot of money while poorly paying its workers and generally not caring about them. But Wal-Mart is the not the only one guilty of this. The majority of service industry jobs do not pay well. And the reason why this happens is interesting, if only because of the myriad excuses for it.

            Many argue that businesses are designed to make money, and therefore have an imperative to pay as little as possible and sell as high as possible, which is called “good business.” And I agree with this. The system not only encourages this, it rewards such behavior. There is a reason why slave owners did not educate their slaves; if they had, they would be empowered, desire better conditions and a better life, and would revolt. Similarly, our system only works by having poorly educated workers. A person does not need a G.E.D. to work at Wal-Mart, and I would argue that many of the credentials we demand of workers are superfluous, which has resulted in degree inflation.

            Now, many people like to argue that no one sticks a gun to a person’s head and tells them not to get an education and work at Wal-Mart, and therefore it is their own fault for working a dead end job, and therefore they should not get paid much. This was the same type of argument justified for slavery, that Africans were racially inferior and therefore suited to working the hard labor of slavery. There is a reason that the poor end up working at Wal-Mart and rich people don’t (outside of the its corporate head). Unless you believe that the poor are inherently dumber, lazier, and therefore worse and less deserving, a conundrum is to be found.

            The argument that people will be paid the amount they produce (how much money they generate with their labor) is ridiculously idiotic, but it’s one that I’ve heard to justify our system. How much a person gets paid depends on their leverage with the company. Unskilled workers will always lose out against a company unless they can utilize one of their few advantages, which is numbers. Obviously I am talking about unions. It was not long ago that an unskilled worker could stand on the assembly line and bring enough money home to send his kids to college. Try that on the grocery line. So what is the difference? Why are automobile workers so much more deserving than people who flip burgers or ring up your shopping list?

            They aren’t. If we believe that some people do not deserve to make a decent living even if they work a full, forty-hour work week, then we need to ask why capitalism is seen as a better system than feudalism and slavery. Either people deserve this or they don’t; it is not about jobs being entry level or that only people who can fit in our education system and pick the correct field deserve to live comfortably.

            In American history books, when the topic of guilds come up, it is used as an example of worker’s organizations impeding progress, that of the mechanization of work. Well, something that doesn’t get talked about is how and why guilds, the antecedent to today’s unions, were busted. This can be seen is every country that is industrialized. The steps are the following:

  1. The privatization of communal farm land (see for example enclosure in the U.K. or the Dust Bowl in the U.S., which is a bit of a stretch) that forces agricultural workers into the cities for work.
  2. These workers undercut the guilds as scabs, being forced by necessity into low wage work for long hours and with poor conditions. The modern day sweatshops of the third world existed in the developed work too, which we are slowly falling into again.
  3. The ability of capitalists to produce goods quicker and at a cheaper rate is viewed as progress, but it comes at the cost of destroying the middle class, which were the skilled artisans of the guilds, and so dismantles them by absorbing their business.

Again we come to another question we really need to ask ourselves. Is it progress to be able to produce more goods for less money if it destroys the wages of other laborers, and ruins the health of the workers while demanding of them long hours? This only ended, if temporarily, in the developed world because of the reintroduction of labor unions, this time for the unskilled worker. During the industrial revolution, many workers died because of the horrible conditions. One need only look up the various lung diseases that people suffered in the mining and textile industry. It was also necessary for every member of a family work in order to survive. Today, after the anti-union policies of the Republican Party in the U.S., it is not atypical for both parents in a family (supposing that it is not a single parent household) to be required to achieve a level of economic comfort.

To return once again to understanding the criminality in systems, or the abuse of the weak by the powerful, what should become clear is that these abuses are inherent to the system. Abuse of the system does not break it. Slavery did not end because the slaves rose in revolt, it ended because the North, morally, objected to it (thanks to the efforts of former slaves and abolitionists), and the South revolted. In fact, it was the abuse of the slaves that kept them in their state of perpetual fear. Today, many workers do not protest or attempt to unionize because of the fear of reprisal. This is called hegemony, and it is does exist in our society. When we see Wall Street go awry and ruin the investments of average folk, or companies union bust, or endeavor to suppress wages and benefits, they are doing so because the system rewards them for it in the same way that drug dealers are rewarded by their efforts, regardless of the supposed criminality. It follows, then, that if we want a more egalitarian, democratic society, we need a new system. One solution is called Worker’s Self-Directed Enterprise, which I will talk about in another article.