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.

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.

left vs. right part 2

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The issue of states’ rights has long been tied to race in America. Cases like Plessy v. Fergusson and Dredd Scott v. Sandford illuminate this very clearly. States’ rights is not an ideological argument but one based on geography. Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrat party, and before that was the Democratic Governor of South Carolina. George Wallace was also elected on the Democrat ticket –  in Alabama – and like Thurmond, was noted for being progressive on the race issue in his own state. Wallace, as a judge, addressed black men in his court by their last name, instead of calling them by their first names as the rest of the judges did. This respectful formality and fairness he showed to blacks earned Wallace the endorsement of the NAACP when he first ran for governor, an election which he lost due to his opponent’s vehemence against segregation. Within hours of the loss, he was quoted as saying, “I was outniggered by George Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.” After that, Wallace became one of the staunchest supporters of segregation in the country, declaring at his inauguration four years later, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” This language earned him a rebuke, and after he learned to use the coded language of states’ rights, which Strom Thurmond started (though it wasn’t quite coded at the time) in his opposition to Truman’s efforts to end segregation. The most important take away from this is understanding that many issues are not ideological but geographical. This is why the Republican Party was able to so swiftly become the party of the American South, by playing up the most important issue in the area, which was integration. This is not to say that only the South was racist, as George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon received widespread, though varying levels of, support around the country. It was that the issue of race was far more immediate in the South than the rest of the country. Even though Southerners may have supported liberal economic policies, their stance on social issues were much deeper.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a conflation of race and economic policy in the United States that has served to undercut the poor, who often vote against their own interests unconsciously. Think about terms like “welfare queen,” which implicate the government safety nets and the supposed work ethic of blacks. Some would support this argument by stating the greater percentage of blacks on welfare than whites as proof that blacks are lazy, which the data, viewed decontextualized and very simplistically, would seem to make validate. This of course ignores that the problem of poverty is an issue of location. That those who live in locations are under-serviced, have poor schools, high crime, and  have other factors that limit the economic viability of its people is hardly a surprise, but in understanding the why we come to a chicken-egg problem that is explained differently depending on whether one believes entirely in individual responsibility or systemic issue creating systemic problems. The battle over how we conceive these issues is, again, geographical rather than ideological. Red states, which tend to rail against welfare, receive the greatest amounts of money from the federal government. Under the Reagan administration, welfare programs were cut while the national debt surged. As a contrast, federal aid programs grew even bigger under JFK and LBJ at the same time that we fought the war in Vietnam. The result? The national debt declined all through the sixties. Those who blame programs like Social Security don’t realize that the amount paid into Social Security is less than the amount paid out. The surplus is then used to fund other parts of the government’s budget.

So why this gap between what the Republican Party claims it wants and what it actually does? The reality is that the wealthy individuals who control the Republican party with their campaign funding are using race to play white voters against their own interests. A strong safety net helps everyone. If we compare welfare and trickle down economics, what we see is that by giving welfare to the poor, who must spend every dollar on surviving, the economy is able to continue functioning. Money is spent on food, clothing, rent, heating, water, gas, etc., all the basic essentials to living. Wealthy individuals, on the other hand, don’t need to buy as much of these necessities, being far fewer in number than the poor. Luxury products, though expensive, have high overheads, unlike cheaper consumer goods, which means more money goes to businesses and the wealthy individuals who own it, than to the workers. Therefore, tax cuts to the rich really do nothing for the economy, just in the same way that a strong stock market has no bearing on how well off workers are. Not that the Democrats will be our saviors. In order to remain a viable political party, they have had to make a sharp right since the Reagan years. The momentum of the Civil Rights movement has helped the party maintain its position on social issues, though one would hardly call them courageous for it. Similarly, their base is populated by union members, which requires they at least pay lip service to their constituents, even as they give them the shaft as they did with the Affordable Care Act.

To return again to the issue of states’ rights, what it remains is a way to speak about social issues in an underhanded manner. Controversial topics (today) like abortion, gay rights, and voter I.D. laws are wrapped up with states’ rights. We’ve even had North Carolina create a measure that declared the state did not recognize federal court rulings that have prevented states from declaring a state religion (which fortunately was struck down). The element of religion is a somewhat recent addition to modern American politics, which has proven to be very interesting for the GOP’s big tent.

left vs. right part 1

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As with so many other fields (sociology, psychology, to name a few), in order to make some sense of the differences between ‘groups’, we must create some boundaries in order to narrow the field enough to generalize adequately. To describe the difference in thinking between the left and the right is no doubt reductive, there being myriad variations within a group (part of the reason why stereotypes are so damaging), but it is still a useful bit of information to have. To boil it all down though, the constituents that remain suggest the greatest difference between left and right thinking is how we construct the world, that is, whether we assign more power to the individual or to the systems they exist within and are molded by.

The right in the United States identify as conservatives and are generally represented by the GOP at the political level, which also contains the Tea Party. This is common knowledge, but let’s talk about how we arrived here. The Republican Party began as an anti-slavery party in opposition to the Democratic party that dominated the South. Part of the reason for this political stance was that the Republicans supported capitalism. Capitalism, despite what many people are taught, is a system where workers sell their labor to employers who own the materials, the location, and the tools. It does not require a free market system in order to function. This distinction is important because this is what separates capitalism from feudalism or serfdom and slavery. Though the southern plantation owners could sell their goods into a free market, this did not make it capitalism, as people were commodified and not their labor. The Republican Party of the 19th century wanted a capitalist nation, not a slave nation (they were, in their time, very “liberal”). From this, the Grand Old Party morphed into a business party that represented the interests of capitalists and business owners. The Democratic Party, after the Civil War, represented white agricultural interests and opposed the efforts of the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction in the South. These differing interests help explain why, when one looks at electoral maps, we generally see and continue to see the North and the South voting for opposite parties. After Reconstruction ended the South continued to resent the Republican Party and rarely ever voted for Republican candidates, especially after the former slaves were disfranchised with restrictive voting laws. Literacy tests, with exemptions for those whose grandfathers could vote before 1963 (i.e. white men), as well as violence and the threat of violence, kept blacks from voting for the party of Lincoln. [As a side note, the reason why there is an explosion of violence against blacks in the South is because they were no longer goods, which meant damages to their bodies no longer carried an economic cost, nor did they have masters interested in their continued existence. Slavery though, for all intents and purposes, did not cease after the 14th Amendment. It continued into the 20th century. See John Pace’s Slave Farm for more on this.] After the turn of the century, neither party was viewed as the civil rights party or the labor party, which the Democratic party would come to be.

The Great Depression threw the Republican Party out of office, and in order to save American capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt helped make compromises, between the socialist and communist parties agitating for revolution or radical reform, and the capitalist business owners whose property would be at risk in such a revolution. Therefore, FDR helped ameliorate the plight of the laborer in America with thick safety nets, public spending, social welfare, and the legitimization of labor unions, all movements which had their roots in the Progressive Era . The Democratic Party dumped classic liberal economics in favor of Keynesian economics, which they continued to support until the Reagan Revolution. In the 50s and 60s the Democratic became the civil rights party with Lyndon B. Johnson pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the assassination of JFK. This is likely one of the most important transitions in modern American history, because prior to this the South was firmly Democrat territory. The South strongly supported the New Deal, and much of the Great Society was focused on Appalachia, with programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority designed to bring the South into the modern age with electricity, running water, and other infrastructure. This change is most observable in the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. Within one presidential term the South switched from the Democratic Party, which represented them since before the Civil War, and helped bring many out of poverty and into one of the most prosperous times in American history, to the Republican Party of which its right wing continued to fight the New Deal some thirty years later. Brown v. Board of Education, though its ruling was in the fifties, wasn’t really enforced until the 60s. The rise of politicians like Barry Goldwater and George Wallace help to explain why the Republican Party came to dominate the South, and eventually much of the American landscape.

In my next post I will continue to discuss how the Republican came to its modern form up to the current date.