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December 11, 2008


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Strongly agreed with respect to cigars (although given the opinions of the wife, any discussions I have about cigars these days is mostly theoretical).

Vehemently disagree on the Senate. The Senate works both to keep urban America from riding roughshod over rural America but more importantly to provide a moderating check on the actions of the House. It's no accident that Senators are often denounced by their parties as not being "true liberals/conservatives." That sort of moderation is a feature, not a bug, and we would do well to keep it.

Yeah, I hate the Senate. I hate it with the purity of snow on a nun's roof. I say this having worked there, but I think your model's a little off.

The Senate is a corrupted version of the House of Lords, pre-Reform. Which is a bad enough place to start, but with no age limits and seniority system, it's a bad idea. Then again, one could argue that that's an unforseen bug of the Founder's Version; if people still died at roughly the time they did when Jefferson and Friends wrote the Constitution, we'd be OK.

My hobby horse is either cutting the six year terms to four with a retirement age around 75 or so, or retaining the six year terms with the option of a recall after the third year by popular referendum or something.

Andrew: the way the Senate is run discourages helping cities and metropolitan areas--which is where most of the populace lives---and retards useful things like public transit, universal health care, and so on. It also means that every time the farm bill comes up, it's a first-rate train wreck--it's a corporate boondoggle and everyone knows. (though having Larry Craig talking about horses plowing the fertile earth almost makes up for it).

Seperate of those things, Senate rules and oversight should be written and enforced by not the Senate. Purges of the truly venal would follow like clockwork if they weren't members of the same club.


I have a quick nitpick first of all--most of the life expectancy improvements since the eighteenth century have come off of childhood mortality. The type of venerable person who would serve in the Senate was pretty much as likely to make it into his sixties and seventies as his twenty-first century counterpart.

More substantially, what's wrong with having a legislative body that's not always on the campaign trail and somewhat less subject to every blip in the whim of public opinion? Yes, sometimes it means that Senators make a vote on principle that results in 5 million lost jobs,* but other times it means that you can have the House of Lords reject certain draconian legislation about hate speech even though said legislation sailed through the House of Commons.


*I think that with last nights antics, the GOP has just lost my vote in perpetuity.

The main objection to the Senate is that it gives two senators to each state. A democratic case can be made for the supermajority rule (which isn't in the constitution) and the six-year terms. But what's the case for giving Vermont the same representation as California?

A 100-seat body will still produce large inequities (see above --- apologies for the lousy table --- my HTML skills leave much to be desired) but they will be greatly lessened.

Coming to this late, but couldn't it be possible to consider eliminating equal suffrage in the Senate while still preserving, if not strengthening, its constitutional intent as the "House of the States" by adopting something like the German model for the Bundesrat?

Penrose method of allocation, then the Senators from any one state are required to cast their votes as a bloc. Could be interesting.

Every goo-goo in America has wanted to change the Senate for decades, because it's always been a tool for blocking whatever people want to get done. (Of course, this is exactly how the Founders wanted it.)Especially when it was killing every civil rights bill...

...but maybe being obstructionist is a good thing, sometimes? Without the Senate roadblock, Bush would have had a much freer hand from 2005-06. That was when it was Republicans, not Democrats, who wanted to abolish the filibuster.

Good point, Tzin.

Of course, the question isn't whether Senate blocking rules are good or bad; it's whether one can justify giving every state equal representation.

One could have a Senate with all the obstructionist qualities of the current one, but representation much closer to population, where Vermonters have only one senator and Californians elect ten.

Is tradition the only rationale for having one-state two-votes?

I don't know, Noel. One could also be cute and ask if your stated American nationalism [1] is the only rationale for transforming the representation of the Senate to match the population of the states?

I'd say that sticking with tradition would at least _seem_ more fair. I suppose that when all those states entered the Union, they did it with the expectation that they'd get their two Senate seats and an equal representation with the other states. A simple annexation by California probably would not have been so enticing.

So sure, you could transform the Senate in the manner that you presented, but while at it, wouldn't it seem proper to throw in a constitutional package bestowing the states with a right to secede from the Union, assuming that they are not willing to accept the Senate reform? Fair play.


J. J.

[1] "We are no longer a federation of nations. The United States of America has become a single continental federal _nation_". - Noel Maurer, in the opening message of this thread.

Ah, Jussi, you have made a logical error. I am rather surprised.

Your second objection implicitly assumes that the U.S. is not a federal nation, but rather a rather a federation of nations. You implicitly assume that Senate reform would complete that transformation.

That is not, however, what I said. I said that the U.S. is indeed right now and has been for some time a united federal nation with some unfortunate constitutional holdovers left from a time when it was something quite different.

The deal you propose, therefore, makes no sense if you accept that the U.S. is a continental federal nation, in which the states have no inherent political legitimacy except as administrative units. In that case, state governments have no claim on "independence" and the citizen-residents of any given state have no claim on more representation than the citizens of any other given state.

In a modern democratic republic, federal or otherwise, citizens are what matter. To a lesser extent, when necessary for the functioning of the society, governments may recognize ascribed groups, but rarely in terms of representation. Countries with sub-nationalist issues may depart from this, but the U.S. currently has no serious subnationalist issues. (Thank the Lord.)

Therefore, the deal you propose would only be proper if the United States /were not/ a federal nation, but rather a federation of nations that aspired to convert itself into a federal nation.

That transformation, however, happened a long time ago. "Fairness" to the state of New Jersey is a meaningless concept; but fairness to the individual citizen-residents of New Jersey is not.

So the point is moot.

Historically, of course, the idea of "fairness" makes rather less sense in the American context. First, the signers are all dead. Second, California didn't exist ... and, in fact, has been populated entirely by the descendents of immigrants from other states or foreigners who moved their after 1848. You could say, and I would say, that it's the most American part of the Union, in all its glorious dysfunction. You can't annex yourself. Finally, many of the signers also believed that they were signing a document that would protect slavery. A much larger injustice than the Senate, true, but also a problem and one that the country is better for removing.

I'd still like to know why we should keep it, other than tradition, an argument I rarely find convincing on its own. That we will is a foregone conclusion, given the way the constitution is amended and the general lack of outrage over Senate representation. (Myself included. Blog posting? Feh. Weak weak gruel.) But that's just inertia, not a real reason.

Thoughtful post on NATO, btw. Gets me thinking.

Okay. So, if the individual citizen is really all that matters and if there are no sub-nationalist issues legitimizing the equal representation of the states in the Senate or even the existence of the states, why bother with the federal system and the bicameral legislature at all?

Assuming that the United States is now indeed a single nation where all parts of the country are equally American, and where this "fairness to the states" has become a "meaningless concept"...

... well, then, why stop with the Senate reform? Why not follow the example of, say, the Nordic countries, scratch the antiquated "states" and the whole quaint federal system completely and set up a unitary Republic (or whatever) of America, with a plain, simple unicameral legislature?

You could still guarantee regional representation in the legislature, and even better, you could still have a municipal self-government guaranteeing that local concerns are taken care of at a local level.

Unless, of course, you believe that federalism is necessary because it's an integral part of what makes America, well, _America_. Which would, once again, be a nationalist argument, but this time a bit different than the one mentioned previously.


J. J.

Ah, Jussi, these questions are too easy to answer. I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to pin a "nationalist" tag on me. The problem here is that the two questions you pose have rather obvious answers that have nothing to do with any essentialist American quality of America.

I have a feeling you know this already ...

There are numerous arguments in favor of federalism in large nations. They fall into three categories. (1) Administrative and legal flexibility. Since conditions and voter preferences will vary widely over space, it makes sense to allow policies to vary as well. (2) Competition. Subnational governments within the same economic space "compete" in the sense of trying to attract business and residents. Better policies may result from this competition. (3) Information constraints. A continent is a big place; government officials that are closer to ground have a better idea of what's going on. It therefore makes sense to give local officials both accountability and autonomy. Once you've done that, you've created a de facto federal system.

I'm not sure that I completely buy #2: competition can produce strange and counterproductive results. But the rest seem to hold. Most large nations are organized on some sort of federal basis, as you know. Canada has lots more provincial autonomy than the U.S., Australia somewhat less, Mexico much less. It's a practical question.

As for why not abolish states while leaving cities and counties, well, again, the answer is pretty obvious. Some government functions have economies of scale. Others require redistribution. Both of these imply that the county might not be the optimum unit for carrying out /all/ governmental functions not delegated to the federal authorities.

As you know, U.S. states vary dramatically in how much they devolve authority to their own subunits.

The above reasons are why I suspect that abolishing state governments would cause a continental nation like the U.S. to be more poorly governed. A case can be made for reorganizing them, of course. (Why isn't northern New Jersey part of New York? Why is western New York part of New York?) That said, the argument in favor of reorganization is based on contestable practical grounds rather than any sense that the current borders somehow violate democratic principles.

Nothing to do with somehow magically making America into America.

As for abolishing the second chamber, well, a case can be made for that. The counter-case, however, has been made by other posters above, notably Andrew and Tzin. I take their counter-arguments very seriously. (Don't you?) My objection to the Senate is that its means of apportionment violates democratic principles, not that a second more deliberative elected chamber is a bad idea.

That should answer both your questions. Someday you may be able to convince me that I'm an American nationalist, Jussi, but you'll need to think of questions that have less obvious alternative answers.

Hey, _I'm_ not the one pinning the label. As I said, you pinned it yourself, in that first post, where you already used the word "nation" six times. Also, I'd think that by now you'd know that I don't think there's anything wrong with that; it's perfectly all right to be a nationalist.

When you state that "the United States of America has become a single continental federal nation", you're making a nationalist statement. When you proceed to propose the reform of the Senate so that the political system would also match this accomplished ideal of the nation, you're making another nationalist statement par excellence.

It's not like those comments that you made do not have historical precedents. The Polish political reformers who produced the May 3rd Constitution in an attempt to reform the government of the old Commonwealth, in defiance of the partitioning powers; or, for that matter, the American political activists who started by arguing that "taxation without representation" was unfair, and then proceeded to declare independence. These people are considered as forerunners in the history and development of modern nationalism. You're statement on the nature of the United States as a single nation and the argument for the political reform belongs firmly in that same category.

Would that be enough to convince you that you're an American nationalist? Considering that you've declared yourself to be a rather patriotic fellow, I'd think that it should have already been pretty obvious. You're part of an old and venerable tradition; embrace it openly, and don't be averse to use the right words to describe it.

Back to the topic of federalism: personally, I don't quite completely buy #3. We're living the 21st century, and on this day and age, continents have become increasingly small places, at least as far as the flow of information is considered. Still, I would basically agree that people who are closer to ground usually would have a better idea of what's going on, although I've seen exceptions. And, of course, their closeness to the ground may sometimes render them unable to see the big picture.

Anyway. Since you're making a case on behalf of retaining federalism on the basis that government functions do have economies of scale - which is a good argument - this still leaves the question that you have already mentioned (and which I was also going to present next). That is, the occasional reorganization of state borders in order to match the realities of the local economy and other regional interests, which have, as you noted, definitely changed since the late 18th century.

Assuming that the question is solely about the economy of scale, an element of flexibility should be introduced in the state borders. How fixed are the state borders under the current political system, and how resistant would the various state governments be to this change? I'm still under the impression that the best decision, as the first step, would be to abolish the historic states completely; afterwards, you could just gradually allow the various independent municipalities to coalesce freely into new, larger regional units within new borders that match the new local interests better than the old state borders. This is something that is, incidentally, already taking place in several European countries.

This would, of course, result in an occasional shuffle of the Senate seats, and make the presidential elections even more interesting. But if the goal is to have a truly rational government in the United States, surely it's worth the trouble.

By the way, from an outsider's viewpoint, the Senate isn't the weird part of your system. That honour would belong to the Supreme Court.


J. J.

Fixed state boundaries offer two advantages. First, small-c conservatism. Bureaucracies adapt to them; people learn their meaning. Regardless of the constitutional barriers, it is usually hard to change local borders without local consent, and it is usually hard to get local consent, especially when (as in the U.S.) there is a long history of local control.

Second, and more importantly, people make decisions based on the boundaries and the different governing styles across them. In other words, the local economy is endogenous to the existence and placement of administrative borders. Changing those borders might nonetheless be a good idea (frex the New York area, or D.C.'s crazy-quilt) but I have no priors as to how difficult this should be or whether it should be possible without local consent.

Right now, the federal government has little control over state boundaries, save resolving territorial disputes. States can divide themselves, but Congress would have to vote to admit the new entity.


Administrative boundaries rarely change for both these reasons, even in the European and Latin American countries with which I am familiar.

Regarding the Supreme Court, it may be strange to Finns, but it had parallels in many other countries, including Germany. The big difference, as I understand it, is that most European constitutional courts are not also appellate courts.

Of course, now Finland has a U.S.-style supreme appellate court with powers of judicial review.

OK, this is an old thread, but in light of a discussion elsewhere, I want to state here that Jussi has convinced me that I am (a) a nationalist; and (b) state boundaries should be more flexible than they are.

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