Saturday, November 29, 2008

Consensus and the UN

Today, the United Nations is obsessed with consensus.  The ultimate goal of every debate on every issue is to reach a consensus.  Member nations have even gone so far as to include the word consensus in caucus names like "Uniting for Consensus" (which, admittedly, sounds quite a lot better than the caucus's former name "The Coffee Club").  Why do we lust after consensus, though?

Obviously, a solution that is agreeable to everyone is best, right?

Consider the following situation: nation A (let's call them Athens), nation B (Sparta), and nation C (Troy) all meet to try to come to an agreement on human rights.  Athens is a shining beacon of democracy in the world, they even like to spread the fantastic-ness of democracy to other countries.  Athens supports humanitarian intervention and human rights around the world.  Sparta, on the other hand, has a bit of a problem with a minority within their territory, a problem that the Spartans have decided to deal with by denying every human right to these citizens and initiating a campaign of ethnic cleansing.  The Trojans are the moderates: they support human rights, but not at the cost of national sovereignty.

Should Athens, Sparta, and Troy attempt to agree by consensus, anything they pass must meet only the lowest common denominator of the three doctrines on human rights and intervention.  Therefore, any resolution that the three pass will be completely ineffectual in practice, but will allow Sparta to continue killing their own citizens; Athens can proclaim a victory in the monumental passage of a resolution on human rights by consensus (every UN diplomat gets excited by that little buzzword); and Troy can claim to be the moderator, the calm and sage-like arbiter from whose fertile mind this consensus sprang.

Everyone wins!  (Well, except the Spartan minorities.)

This is the danger of consensus.  If everyone agrees, there is probably something very wrong, especially in an organization like the United Nations, which, by design, includes almost every possible viewpoint on almost every possible subject.

In fact, the UN Security Council veto power, an established power of the permanent five members of the Council that I am very much against, was established so that decisions could, and would, be made without consensus.  Unfortunately, the founders of the UN didn't foresee the P-5 being the very nations pushing for consensus and ignoring the plights of others.  Democracy is a great thing, but when it is in almost everyone's best interests to ignore a problem, or even worse, when they are encouraged to ignore a particular problem in order to reach the diplomatic Eden that is consensus, people suffer.

I've been trying to write a coherent post about the UN for a few days now, and I will probably write more on it in the future.  The UN would make great fiction - a struggle for international governance, rather than regional governance; the problems and conflicts that arise when governing a whole planet; even expansion to other planets.  I think the problem with people who like the UN (myself among them), is that we just can't comprehend why other people wouldn't want what we want - a more peaceful world(s) with better leaders and better living for all.  Maybe it's something about that whole having an omnipotent being/organization above you.  God doesn't seem to want to share, I suppose.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Musings on the World Wars

This past Saturday on KUNM, Radio Theatre played a PRX piece by Marjorie Van Halteren about the World Wars and the War in Iraq from the perspective of an American living in France.  In Europe, finding unexploded bombs from the pre-1945 era is commonplace, and there are special forces in both Germany and France that do nothing but round up and destroy these still-live explosives.  In fact, several years ago my paternal grandmother, who lived then in Leatherhead, England, called us up to tell us that an unexploded firebomb had been found under the floorboards of a shop in the town.

As Americans we never have to deal with the after effects of wars - especially those wars in which we were a combatant.  Since WWI, only one battle has been fought on US soil and none have been fought in the contiguous 48.  Finding a bomb in your back garden must really bring home the reality of a war that ended nearly 110 years ago.

Speaking of bringing things back to life, Kelsey has reposted a very interesting set of pictures from the First World War.  These photos are nothing special in terms of composition or subject matter - they depict soldiers in typical WWI uniform standing in trenches or sitting around - but they are in color, as almost no other photos of the Great War are.

I showed these pictures to my photo teacher, who asked if they had been hand-colored.  I don't think they have been, judging by the accuracy and the detail of the work, but I looked it up anyway.  As it turns out, a method of color photography was developed in 1907, just seven years before the outbreak of hostilities in Europe - autochrome.

The pictures, like the bombs and the radio piece, bring the World Wars slightly closer, subjectively, to modern times.  We can identify more easily with a color photograph than we can with a black and white one.  Perhaps things like these will help us avoid such a war in the future.  Maybe we will never have a war so horrible, so bloody, that it can be described by no other name than simply, "the Great War."  

Only if we remember these artifacts, these photos, these stories.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post-election politics, part II of several: Isn't this a bit premature?

I can't believe this.

Maybe I should have foreseen massive resistance to the election of the first black President in history, but I never thought people would be advocating impeachment before he's even taken office.

Two things about this bother me more than anything else: 
1) Impeachment is a serious thing.  It should not be thrown about or used to enforce "family values," lest it degenerate into something that the Congress is loathe to touch when it is actually needed.  I don't think we would be seeing this had McCain been elected.  Yes, we would see protest and anger, but not calls for legal impeachment.
2) This man is our President-Elect in a time that is perhaps the darkest in America's history since WWII or the Great Depression.  Obama hasn't even had a chance to do anything yet, and I think that when he is tested, he will show the world that he is the President that America needs.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Post-election politics, part I of several: Parties

This series of posts, "Re-examining the Election," will be my "super-post" about the election that I promised.  Tonight I will focus on the two party system that we have had for generations here in America.  George Washington warned against parties, but James Madison saw them as essential to a new type of democracy.  All democracies in the world (that I know of) have some sort of party system, but is there a better way?

Last night I was chatting with Kelsey of Plastick Manzikert and he brought up the religious right faction of the Republican Party and how he thought that this election would be the death knell of the religious right.

That would be great if it were true.

Overall, I don't think the Republican Party membership agrees with the religious right - at least, not the Ron Paul-esque factions of the party - but what ends up happening in elections is that religious right candidates and leaders get into positions of power within the party when they would not generally be accepted by a majority of party members.

This got me thinking - if party platforms were less catch-all and more specific, then we would have a more diverse set of parties to choose from and thus we would "weed out" the extremist factions from "mainstream" parties.  This is the kind of thing European governments do.

To which, of course, Kelsey replied "What about the FN in France [and the BNP and the UK]?  They still get 10% of the vote.  It means no power, but they are scary as heck."

Yes, diversifying and specifying does mean that we get some really scary parties out there, but it also means that they are isolated and can't worm their ways into mainstream, catch-all party leadership and run the country from there (think Karl Rove and Dick Cheney).  Not without a coalition, anyway.

OK, so smaller parties are better, but two major problems remain: 1) How do we change the election system to promote more parties?  After all, there is nothing in the Constitution that limits us to two parties (or mandates parties at all), so we must have arrived here somehow.  2) How do we deal with the election of an executive when no party receives an absolute majority of the vote (or something close to it)?

There is a principle in political science called Duverger's Law which states that an electoral system based on district plurality (like the electoral college, where the winner of a state gets all the electoral votes, no matter the margin of victory) or single-member district plurality (where specific districts individually elect their own representatives to a legislative body) will favor two parties or factions in the system.

Since I can't explain it any better, let me just give you the example from the Wikipedia page on Duverger's Law: 
Duverger suggested an election in which 100,000 moderate voters and 80,000 radical voters are voting for a single official. If two moderate candidates and one radical candidate were to run, the radical candidate would win unless one of the moderate candidates gathered fewer than 20,000 votes. Observing this, moderate voters would be more likely to vote for the candidate most likely to gain more votes, with the goal of defeating the radical candidate. Either the two parties must merge, or one moderate party must fail, as the voters gravitate to the two strong parties, a trend Duverger called polarization.

In addition to this effect of polarisation, Duverger also pointed out a purely statistical problem with single-member district plurality (SMDP): if a statistically significant third party is spread out over several districts, then no single district has enough support for that party to elect a representative from it.  This problem can be solved, but can also be created, with gerrymandering, the oft-criticized act of redistributing and redistricting to benefit or hinder on party or group of voters.

Now before you go around thinking that SMDP leads only to two parties, I have to point out that many successful multi-party democracies have SMDP systems; India, Canada, and the UK all have more than two statistically significant and politically significant parties.  The US, however, doesn't.

In every election since 1980, no third part candidate has received more than 3% of the popular vote, with the exception of Ross Perot, who received 18.9% of the vote in 1992 and 8.4% of the vote in 1996.  More significant in the American electoral system, no third party candidate has won a state, nor received an electoral vote (discounting faithless electors), since George Wallace won five states and 46 electoral votes in 1968.  No non-Republican/Democratic party candidate has won the Presidential election since Zachary Taylor, a Whig, in 1848 (at that time the Whigs were a main party).

So, how can we promote the growth of more (and not just more, but smaller and more specific) parties in the American electoral system?  Well, for a start we can get rid of the electoral college and the system of Congressional Districts.  Yes, they were a good idea when the fastest method of communication was a horse and rider, but today these are simply outmoded concepts.  

We should hold national elections for parties to see what percentage of the public actually identifies with a party's platform, not their candidate.  Assign seats in the Congress based on the national results of this election, not individual state results (i.e. 45% Democrat, 30% Republican, and 25% Whig would yield 196 Democrats, 130 Republicans, and 109 Whigs in the House of Representatives and 45 Democrats, 30 Republicans, and 25 Whigs in the Senate).  This is called proportional representation (PR).  Distribution of the Representatives would still be based on population, and the individuals could still be elected by their respective state parties or local district parties, but this ensures that no gerrymandering to disenfranchise third parties could occur.  This might work, though not as well, on a state-by-state level.

Also, a problem that has grown in recent years, but was not even imagined in colonial days, is that of campaign finance.  I realise that I'm reprimanding my own party here, but I don't think that one party or candidate should be allowed to massively outspend the other.  Much as I love the things the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party have been able to achieve with the millions upon millions of fundraising dollars that they received this election cycle, I don't think it was very fair.  I think that it is every citizen's responsibility to find out as much as they can on a particular candidate; no party should have to plaster posters and fliers around and buy up as much television airtime as possible to inform a voter or scare them into voting one way or another.  If ignorant voters vote for someone out of ignorance, well then the country will be run by ignorant people.  You only get out as much as you put in.  But I digress.  

All candidates, in all races, should be publicly funded.  Either no outside funding should be permitted or it should be severely limited and regulated, as it is in France.  If you want to volunteer for a candidate, that's great, go out and do it.  Just make sure that everyone is on equal footing.  Historically this has been one of the biggest hurdles for third parties; they just can't afford to run campaigns.

On the fiscal side of things, though, funding ~15 parties through a primary season all the way to the election could get expensive for the government.  In that case, maybe some tax should be instituted to pay for campaigns, or maybe campaigns should be funded 50/50 publicly/privately if they receive a required amount of the vote.  NO MORE HUGE, LONG PRIMARY SEASONS!  Campaigning should begin maybe in April, at the earliest.  Not only would this save a heck of a lot of money, it would save us all the headache of having to watch political careers go down in flames as well as preventing long, drawn-out party infighting.

OK.  Well then, on to question two.  How do we deal with the election of an executive when no party receives an absolute majority of the vote (or something close to it)?

This is a difficult question.  In other developed democracies, Prime Ministers are appointed by the ruling party or coalition (a subject for another post) or a President is elected via a system of run-off elections which progressively eliminate candidates until only one is left (wouldn't that be a fun reality show?  Run-Off Terror!).  I think that perhaps the latter would be more appropriate for the United States, but then again, we also have a provision in the Constitution that deals with the possibility of no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes that could be easily adapted to fit a system without the electoral college.

Article 2 of the United States Constitution on the election of the President and the breaking of ties:
if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse [sic] by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse [sic] the President. But in chusing [sic] the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two-thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice-President.

This method could work in a popular vote system, and I think, considering the existing infrastructure and tradition, it would be the most practical.

Parties might also form coalitions to achieve greater amounts of power.  Allowing large coalitions would be a mistake in a new elections system.  Coalitions are simply another name for "big, catch-all parties," just like "factions" were for "parties" in the 18th and 19th centuries.  If coalitions with large, moderate member bases and radical leadership get into power, they could do some nasty things.  I'm all for majority rule, but coalitions are a perversion of majority rule in that the few control the many, who in turn control the even many-er.  If that makes sense. 

As you may have noticed, quite a bit of my proposed electoral system comes courtesy of France.  France has a very good elections system, I think, especially with regard to campaign finance and advertising (there is no TV advertising, only government-regulated news coverage where everyone gets exactly the same amount of time, and no candidate can use the French colors of red, white, and blue in their campaign material).  Maybe we should learn something.  After all, our Constitution could stand an update, and the French have the most similar form of government (we did inspire their revolution, and they did make ours possible).

Well, that post was long enough, so I think I'll finish it here.  I have more post-election issues to discuss, but those can wait for another day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

McCain on SNL

As a general rule, you don't make fun of yourself on national television until after you've lost an election.  John McCain seems not to have recieved that memo.

I'll make this short, because I want sleep, but McCain appearing on SNL tonight was a new low for American politics.  Isn't it kind of pathetic that McCain had to go to "the liberal media" (especially the hated NBC) to get some free publicity for his campaign three days before the election?  

That last bit, I think, is the most important.  If McCain had been on SNL a month or two before the election, then it might be different.  However, his appearance tonight, less than 72 hours before the polls close in the East, screams "desperate" to me.  I don't want to get too confident, but if I were his campaign advisor right now, I'd be calling a preacher to excorcise the stupid out of him.

The US votes and the rest of the world watches

The World wants Barack Obama to win this Tuesday.  By "The World," of course, I mean the citizens of other countries who can't vote in the upcoming US elections.  Don't believe me?  US News and World Report says reported that
If the foreign diplomats in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly late last month could [vote], they'd go for Sen. Barack Obama.
BBC News's poll of 22,500 people in 22 countries confirmed that Obama is "favoured by a four-to-one margin."  The Guardian, in association with eight other newspapers, including Le Monde (France), Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan), La Presse (Canada), and Reforma (Mexico), corroborates these results.  Gallup polls conducted in 73 countries have shown a 3-1 margin of support for Obama.  I think the evidence speaks for itself, but at the risk of being redundant I shall say again that the World wants Barack Obama to win.  

Why do they want him to win?  What is so different about Americans that we are don't have these huge polling margins for Obama?  Perhaps we see something, a darker side to Obama, or a lighter side to McCain, that the rest of the world doesn't see.  Perhaps the polls were rigged by communists.  Plausible theories, all.  However, I think that these polls reflect a fundamental difference in values between American and the rest of the world.  We've seen this kind of split before - on climate change, on the International Crminal Court, on Iraq, on the United Nations, ad infinitum - but we have never seen it on a "domestic" issue.

We've never seen the world so interested in a domestic American issue before because the President of the United States has never been the position it is now - the election of a President is now an international issue because of the power weilded by the office-holder.  The President apparently has the authority to violate national sovereignty, dismiss members of international border councils, and break US soldiers out of international jails.  The title "the President of the United States" is barely adequate nowadays, as it implies both parity with the heads of state of other nations and a limitation of power to American soil - neither is true.

Yes, you can call the occupant of the office of the President "the Leader of the Free World," as they have been since the Cold War, and it's true that the President weilded an immense amount of international clout in the '50s through the '90s, but in the post-9/11, post-Bush world where "the US sneezes and the rest of the world catches cold," the rest of the world is just as invested, and perhaps more so, as America is in this election.

P.S.  Sometime I want to do a big post or a series of posts analyzing this campaign.  Maybe I'll get to it after Tuesday.

P.P.S. Tomorrow I'll be doing another post exchange with Kelsey over at Plastic Manzikert.  It's something different, but I think it's really quite interesting, so do tell me what you think, all three of you.

P.P.P.S.  This post was inspired by a very good article by Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer (UK) about Barack Obama and his rather surprising campaign.  I encourage you to read it, not just because it's damned good, but because it gives another perspective on the American race for the White House.  Speaking of new perspectives, if you haven't already, check out the Onion's coverage of "The War for the White House," it's very entertaining and truthy.