I Thought He Came With You is Robert Ellison’s blog about software, marketing, politics, photography, time lapse and the occasional well deserved rant. Follow along with a monthly email, RSS or on Facebook. About 7,250,102,773 people have not visited yet so it might be your first time here. Suggested reading: Got It, or roll the dice.

End the Electoral College: Amendment, Compact, or Supreme Court?

Lawrence Lessig and Richard Painter write about the possibility of the Supreme Court taking on the Electoral College in USA Today:

"The Constitution is not going to be amended to remove the Electoral College. It’s possible that states will agree to a compact to allocate their votes to the winner of the national popular vote. But right now, the court should recognize that there is no principle in American law that could justify the unequal reckoning of the votes of citizens of the United States for president of the United States. Call it proportionality, or simple equality: it is an idea that needs urgent legal recognition, now."

It's an intriguing possibility, but they're short on specifics. Who needs to file suit to get this question in front of the court? Should I do this as I live in California and may as well not bother voting for President? If so, please get in touch guys.

I'm a big fan of the The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Until another option looks plausible please follow that link and take one the actions listed to support it.

Four Parties

The Washington Post fantasizes about a four party system:

"If we assign members of Congress to political parties based on the spending votes, we end up with four parties. The Liberals bucked the Democratic president to oppose the spending package. The Democrats voted for it. The Republicans followed Boehner and McConnell's lead. The Conservatives didn't."

It's time.

Party Limits

Party Limits

What if as well as Term Limits we had Party Limits - the same political party cannot win more than three or four times in a row?

Representative Alan Lowenthal has introduced the Let the People Draw the Lines Act which would seek to prevent gerrymandering by taking redistricting out of the hands of the politicians for the states that haven't done this already (California, Arizona, Washington and Idaho have independent commissions).

This is a good idea, but I'd go further. Let's introduce Term Limits where we don't already have them and then add Party Limits. The same politician can only hold on to their seat for two to three terms and additionally the same party can't hold the seat for more than three to four terms. We break up any kind of political monopoly and reduce the incentive to rig the system to keep the same incumbent in power.

We'd probably get more political diversity as well as fewer career politicians. It's a better solution to daisyworld.

Lottocracy vs Legislative Service

Corrupt Legislation

Alexander Guerrero in aeon:

"There are hard questions about how exactly to structure a political system with lottery-selection at its heart. Here’s one approach, which I am in the process of developing, that I call lottocracy. The basic components are straightforward. First, rather than having a single, generalist legislature such as the United States Congress, the legislative function would be fulfilled by many different single-issue legislatures (each one focusing on, for example, just agriculture or health care)."

It's the same concept as legislative service except randomly selected people serve a single issue for three years rather than just voting on a single bill. I think the advantage is clearly that you get to build up a greater depth of knowledge if you're spending three years learning about health care. The disadvantage is that the number of people willing to give three years of their life is going to be much lower than just asking for the few weeks or months that legislative service would require.

(previously, previously)

Bishops

Not this kind of Bishop...

I’d love to not care what the Church of England thinks about allowing women to become Bishops. But sadly it’s the established church of England and we allow Bishops to sit in the House of Lords (which needs a complete overhaul, that that’s a different blog post).

The Government’s position on the vote is to be “disappointed”:

A Downing Street spokesman said the prime minister thought there should be women bishops and was disappointed at the result of the vote, but that it was “a matter for the Church to decide”.

Nick Clegg is disappointing. Which Book of Prayer to use is a matter for the Church to decide. Excluding women from the upper management of the official state religion when those managers also play a role in Government is a travesty.

Unless we’re going to allow Jedi in the legislature it’s time to kick the Bishops out of the Lords. It’s also past time to disestablish the Church of England and have proper separation of Church and State in the UK.

House of Lords - time for Legislative Service?

House of Lords - time for Legislative Service?

I've mulled the idea of having an upper chamber randomly selected from the public like jury service for some time, often over a pint with a friend who prefers to remain nameless. This friend wrote an outstanding letter to Mark Harper which is included below by his kind permission. 

Mark Harper didn't manage more than a stock response, and neither did Matthew Offord and so it doesn't seem that the British Government is taking up the concept any time soon. We talked about the e-petition system but it turns out that it's limited to 1,000 characters and submissions are vetted for duplicates. There is an existing e-petition with this idea written by Simon Ferrigno which I've voted for, and if you support the legislative service idea please do the same.

Dear Mr Harper

We understand that you are working with the Deputy Prime Minister on the matter of an elected second chamber. We’re sure that many proposals and reports have crossed your desk on this topic. We’d like to share something we came up with when the issue was initially raised a few years ago. Having kept abreast of developments via media reports, we were both surprised not to hear anything similar mooted.

Our suggestion is that the second chamber be made up of ordinary members of the public drawn from across the country, randomly selected from the electoral roll, typically for up to 2 weeks of service. The system would be administered in a similar way to jury duty, albeit on a national basis. These people would be brought together, put up in decent accommodation, well fed, and otherwise made to feel as if their presence and contribution is both valued and important. They will be tutored, in an unbiased fashion, on the background of the Bill under their consideration. The syllabus could be defined by the civil servants who draw up the legislation under consideration. At this point, a multiple choice test on what they have been taught will be administered, but the results will not be revealed.

After the test, they will have the specifics of the Bill explained to them by two barristers (selected by parties for and against). The barristers will have the ability to bring in subject matter experts (perhaps drawing on the talent pool currently in place in the HOL). At the end of the evidentiary stage, the “constitutional jury” will have the opportunity to debate the issues and pose any further questions they may have to the barristers or witnesses.

Once completed, the constitutional jury will vote on the matter(s) at hand. The only votes that will actually count are those cast by people who passed the multiple choice test (as long as a quorum is reached). The results will only be reported as percentages. No one will ever be told if their vote counted, and all members of the constitutional jury are recorded as having served in deciding the matter.

Among the numerous advantages, as we see them, are:

  1. Politicians are often heard bemoaning the lack of public engagement with politics. This is an ideal way of re-engaging ordinary members of the public with the business of politics and what happens in Parliament.
  2. The primacy of the House of Commons will be ensured due to the transience of the members of the second chamber.
  3. There are no expensive elections to be paid for, nor will anyone’s voting record need to be skewed to ensure their re-election.
  4. As this chamber will be entirely made up of randomly selected members of the public, there can be no claims of cronyism.
  5. Voting along party political lines may be reduced; hence the decisions made are those that a random cross section of society deem to be right, rather than the whips.
  6. As the names of the constitutional jury are not disclosed until after the final voting, lobbying by vested interests will be reduced.
  7. The second chamber does not necessarily need to be based in London. In fact, there is no reason why it cannot become a travelling roadshow, convening on a rotating basis in major towns and cities around the UK. This may go some way towards quietening some of the accusations that Parliament is London-centric and lessening talk about the Westminster Village.
  8. Should Parliamentary time be short and the workload high, multiple constitutional juries can be assembled (perhaps in different locations), to work in parallel considering different Bills.

We realise that some members of the House of Lords serve on multiple select committees. We’ll admit to not having a plan for how these will be staffed in the future. One could assume that for now, they can be appointed by Parliament continuing to draw on the talent pool from the current HOL and augmenting any vacancies with new appointments proposed by a committee of civil servants.

We realise that all parties are currently wedded to the idea of an elected second chamber. Is there any way that this could work as a viable alternative?

Yours sincerely...

Photo credit: UK Parliament cc

Legislative Service

congress

Churchill said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” and since then we seem to have given up trying to find a better one. Twiddling with the mechanics of voting doesn’t count.

My idea: Legislative Service. This is modeled on Jury Service only instead of judging a person you’re asked to judge a proposed bill. In your typical bicameral system of government the Legislative Service would replace the upper house. The Senate in the US, The House of Lords in the UK.

In a US version 101 citizens would be randomly drafted for each bill. The pros and cons of the bill would be presented in an adversarial environment, much like a jury trial. The citizen legislators would then vote anonymously and either pass the bill or send it back to the House of Representatives. The President would retain the right to veto a bill.

Such a system would castrate the malign influence of money and lobbyists in the political system. It would also improve engagement as more citizens take part or talk to friends and family who have served.

You would still have professional legislators who would be responsible to their constituents. They’d just have a harder time adding pork and returning favors. Each bill would need to be palatable to a majority of average citizens.

Possible objections:

People dodge jury service all the time. Wouldn’t you end up with a similar problem? I don’t think so. Legislative Jury would be far more prestigious.

Isn’t the average voter too stupid to understand complex legislation? You are the average voter. In any case, the adversarial system would give both sides a chance to both argue and explain. Expert witnesses could be called. Ballot measures that are voted on by the entire electorate suffer from this problem as money is spent to over-simplify and obfuscate. In Legislative Service you’re taking a representative sample of the electorate and giving them the time and help needed to make a serious judgment.

It’s unconstitutional! This would require a constitutional amendment.

What about knee-jerk legislation? Tyranny of the Majority? Hopefully this system would help to put a brake on hasty and ill-thought through bills. The President would retain veto power and the Supreme Court would be able to annul unconstitutional decisions and so sufficient checks and balances would remain in the system.

Of course getting rid of The Senate isn’t going to happen overnight. I can think of a couple of ways to start moving in the right direction.

Firstly, this plan is just as applicable at the state level. My state, California, is a mess and this proposal could help. There are rumblings about holding a constitutional convention and if this happens I want us to ditch ballot initiatives and replace the State Senate with Legislative Service.

Secondly, and more plausibly, what about setting up Legislative Service as a non-profit to look at each bill and vote on it but without the actual power of preventing bad bills from being enacted? A sort of non-partisan citizen think tank. If any of my billionaire readers are interested get in touch.

I’ve been mulling the idea of Legislative Service for quite some time, but especially following the atrocious reform of the British House of Lords in 1999 resulting in an upper house composed of appointed peers, a handful of hereditary peers and a few bishops. This threw the independent oversight baby out with the unelected toffs bathwater. Since 1999 I’ve lived in California and my revulsion for the US political climate keeps growing. Serious change is needed. I think Legislative Service is it.

Intelligence Squared Two-Party Debate

On Tuesday Intelligence Squared US held a debate on the proposition that “The Two-Party System Is Making America Ungovernable”. David Brooks and Arianna Huffington argued for the motion, Zev Chafets and P.J. O’Rourke against. I’ve included the video of the debate at the end of this post.

I argued for the two-party system to be broken up last year - Republicans and Democrats: Too big to succeed.

Chafets and O’Rourke won the debate in terms of swing (scoring is based on a vote before and after the debate) but the final break down was 50% in favor, 40% against and 10% undecided.

Huffington started with a somewhat lame opening argument, claiming that we’re somehow at a unique junction in history where our problems really need fixing:

“so while the two-party system might have been okay during the ordinary times, we’re not living in ordinary times right now.”

Overall, she focused too much on current issues rather than the systematic functioning (or not) of government.

O’Rourke, as one might expect, was amusing in refuting the proposition but the thrust of his argument is that nobody could do a better job, the public isn’t that interested, the system is broken but why bother trying to fix it:

“I would simply concede the debate if I were able to imagine some other political party or independent candidate – left, right, or fanatically middle-of-the-road – who would do a better job.”

For a free market demagogue like O’Rourke this is incredible. This is like claiming in 2007 that AltaVista and Yahoo! while not perfect are as good as search is likely to get so why would we need Google?

Brooks really got to what I see as the nub of the issue. He argued that politics is full of good people who want to to the right thing being made into worse people by having to conform to brutal tribal party affiliations:

“But they’re in a tribal mentality in what – what they can achieve is severely limited by the tribal sort of Tutsi versus Hutu nature of our politics of the current two-party system.”

This brings Romney’s desperate distancing from the individual mandate to mind.

Also from Brooks:

“The University of Maryland had a very interesting study where they took Tea Party people, they took liberals, and they said, “Here’s our budget problem, you deal with it.” And the Tea Party people acknowledged that they had to raise taxes, and the people on the far left acknowledged some spending had to be cut. They could all do it. But the two-party system can’t do it.”

Finally Chafets cited the US being in the 90th percentile of the World Bank’s Index of Governability as some sort of argument in favor of the status quo. I guess it depends on your definition of governability – being able to reliably elect a government versus having that government actually represent the interests of the electorate once in office.

Here’s the video:

We can’t fix politics without fixing 24-hour news

Take a moment to watch Brian Kilmeade and Janet Jackson below.

Brian Kilmeade

Janet Jackson

The wardrobe ‘malfunction’ resulted in the FCC attempting to impose a $550,000 fine (eventually overturned on appeal). Kilmeade’s “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”, a genuine obscenity, resulted in a half hearted apology.

We’ve learned very painfully that throwing out Glass-Steagall was a horrible mistake. We need to learn a similar lesson about the Fairness Doctrine.

The current political climate is driven by unbalanced vitriol from both the left and the right. The Fairness Doctrine was eviscerated because of a belief that there was sufficient competition in broadcast media so that all sides of an issue could get fair time. But when you watch a news network that matches your political affiliation this just isn’t the case. If you’re in the news business then there should be some standards, including fairly presenting both sides of an issue and at the very least not repeating lies and insinuations with the authority of mass media.

24-hour news stations are especially bad because most days there just isn’t that much news. This leaves a choice between repeating the news that exists which is boring, or making stuff up which is a lot more fun. Unfortunately It’s also corrosive.

The FCC should be empowered and required to levy substantial fines where news outlets engage in factually incorrect reporting, where a reasonable amount of due diligence (or the slightest familiarity with terrorism) could have a prevented the error. This would reign in some of the worst, and also benefit from generating its own news coverage. We also need to consider brining back the Fairness Doctrine for any news outlet above a threshold audience size – print, television, radio or online.

Republicans and Democrats: Too big to succeed

The US political system is like daisyworld.

Flower Power Natural World

Daisyworld is a simplified model of the Gaia (Earth as organism) Hypothesis. A planet is populated by black daisies which absorb more solar radiation and white daisies which reflect it. Over time the temperature of the planet is regulated because the white daisies thrive when it’s warm. If it’s too hot the white population booms, increases the albedo of the planet and cools it down again. The black population then surges as the planet cools down and causes lower albedo and thus another round of warming.

This isn’t (directly) a post about global warming or race.

Replace the daisies with Democrats and Republicans. When Democrats are in power Republican voters are driven to the polls and vice versa. Homeostasis is guaranteed. Like daisyworld or the two-body problem it’s a toy system. It’s just never going to produce interesting results.

I think it’s time to break up the big parties (like the big parties should have broken up the big banks). Each party that achieves more than 20% of the popular vote is forced to split into two smaller parties. We have more than daisies. We have the three-body problem.

In addition to introducing some much needed chaos this could also turn the national political climate from us-vs-them to something more nuanced. Yes, there would still be left leaning and right leaning parties but they’d be forced to differentiate themselves through more than name calling and head stomping. We might have a political marketplace of ideas rather than affiliations.

Anything would be better than daisies.