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Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.

FURTHER READING

2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

 

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?

Last session, Governor Tom Corbett and Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi unveiled a plan to change how Pennsylvania votes for president. Now that the 2012 election has actually been held, Pennsylvanians can see for themselves how that system would have impacted their votes.

But first, a bit of context. Americans do not vote for president directly. Instead, they vote through the Electoral College. In the Electoral College system, each state gets a number of electoral votes for president equal to their representation in Congress. Pennsylvania has 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the U.S. Senate, so therefore it gets 20 electoral votes.

States can choose to decide how they distribute those votes, but most states give all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the statewide election. And, for most of American history, that has worked. Four times in the past, however, president have lost the popular vote but won the presidency: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush.

The other key concept to keep in mind here is redistricting. Redistricting is the process by which legislators redraw political boundaries to account for population shifts. After all, people move, are born, and die every day. In order to make sure that elected officials represent about the same number of people, legislators redistrict their state and Congressional seats every 10 years using U.S. Census data. Without this, one official could end up representing several times as many people as another — even though they both only get one vote in Congress.

States redistrict differently. In Pennsylvania, Congressional redistricting is passed like any other bill. The General Assembly writes it and passes it, and the governor signs it. (There is a different system for General Assembly redistricting, but it is not relevant to this discussion.) There are also few prohibitions on how legislators can choose to redraw the political maps. Legislators cannot discriminate against voters based on race, but beyond that they generally have carte blanche.

This means that legislators can — and do — split up blocs of voters to help their party. If one area generally votes for Party X, legislators from Party Y can simply split up that area into numerous districts that each have a Party Y majority. Thus, Party Y maintains control by watering down Party X’s power — a process known as ‘gerrymandering.’

All of this means that whoever controls the General Assembly and the governorship essentially controls the political landscape of Pennsylvania. For the past few redistrictings, that has been the Republican Party. And so, they have drawn Congressional maps that benefit the Republican Party.

Here’s where Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan comes in. It would have split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by giving them to presidential candidates according to which Congressional districts they win. The candidate to win the entire state then gets an additional 2 electoral votes, to make up the difference between electoral votes and Congressional districts. Of course, the Republican Party is drawing those same Congressional districts that they want to use to distribute electoral votes.

So, how would Pennsylvania have fared if this plan was in place for the 2012 election? Well, President Obama won the Pennsylvania popular vote about 52% – 47%. Under the current system, this means Obama got 20 electoral votes. Under Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan, however, this means Obama would have gotten 7 votes, while Governor Romney would have gotten 13 votes.

To put it another way: under Governor Corbett’s plan, Obama would have won the popular vote in Pennsylvania, but lost the electoral vote. Fortunately for President Obama, this would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Other presidents would not have been so lucky. Had the Corbett system been in place in 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy would never have become President of the United States.

Elections will always be partisan affairs; what they should not be is undemocratic.

FURTHER READING

Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Gerrymandering undermines democracy in Pennsylvania,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Redistricting Texas 2012: A Primer,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Diniverse Major.

Pennsylvania 2012 Election Results, CBS News.

 

I Voted For President! Now What?

Americans just do not like to vote.

For all of the talk of American democracy and the importance of the ballot, a strikingly small number of eligible Americans show up at the polls each November. Presidential elections, of course, see the largest level of turnout as a percentage of the voting age population. But for many Americans, that is it. The only time they see the inside of a voting booth is in a year that is divisible by four.

Take Pennsylvania, for example. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, about 64 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians showed up at the polls. That was a couple points above the nationwide turnout of about 62 percent.

Just two years later, those numbers were down to 42 percent for Pennsylvania and 41 percent for the United States. That election, significantly, decided which party would control not only the House of Representatives, but numerous state legislatures and governor’s seats. Last year, turnout in Pennsylvania dropped even lower, to 32 percent.

The Keystone State is no outlier; most states see similarly dismal figures. Why, then, is voter turnout so much lower in midterm and off-year elections? To simplify: the president. Or, rather, the absence of a presidential candidate on the ballot. The president is the only official elected nationwide in the United States. Campaigns for the office are fought over high-stakes national and global issues. The media cover the proceedings extensively.

And the perception that there will be relatively high voter participation, possibly reinforced by friendly conversation and media coverage, could have the effect of turning out more voters simply due to social pressure. That is, people go to the polls because they do not want to be the person caught not voting.*

All of this can make presidential elections seem more relevant than off-year or midterm elections. But these latter elections — which generally feature many state and local positions — often have a direct impact on voters’ everyday lives. State and local governments are the ‘boots on the ground.’ They are responsible for keeping your neighborhood safe, paving your streets, picking up your trash, educating your children, providing for poor, zoning your community, and countless other services that affect your daily life. As Hurricane Sandy has recently reminded many Americans, state and local governments also prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

Not only that, but these elections also have far-reaching political ramifications. I wrote about just such a situation in a 2011 election op-ed:

[I]n 2009, only 21 percent of registered Pennsylvanians cast their ballots. The majority of those select few chose Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin as the next justice of the PA Supreme Court, solidifying a 4-3 Republican majority on the bench.

 

This year, as in the past, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose the tie-breaking member of the commission that redraws the legislative districts in the state every decade. The resulting map was a patchwork of gerrymandering and political protection submitted on a party-line vote in the Republicans’ favor. By carefully designating which group of voters elects which representative, this map will likely dictate the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections for years.

And it had the potential to dictate the 2012 presidential election, as well. That year, Pennsylvania Republicans (swept into office in a midterm election) introduced a bill that would have changed the way the Commonwealth distributes its electoral votes for president. Instead of following the “majority wins” system that nearly all other states use, this plan would have split its votes according to Congressional districts that the Republicans themselves drew. To put that into perspective, had this system been in place in 1960, Richard Nixon would have bested John F. Kennedy for the presidency.

Midterm and off-year elections can have huge ramifications. Keep that in mind for 2013, and beyond.

FOOTNOTES

*As an aside, Pennsylvania actually has a “Voter Hall of Fame,” where it recognizes those citizens who have cast their ballots every November for 50 consecutive years or more. If you have not gotten started on that yet, now might be a good time.

FURTHER READING

Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “‘Like’ the Vote,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again,” Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

United States Election Project: Voter Turnout,” George Mason University.

Voter Hall of Fame,” Pennsylvania Department of State.

‘Like’ the Vote

America had an electoral fraud problem. Voter intimidation was pervasive. Bribery, too, was common. Laws against both were regularly ignored. What Americans needed most was a secret ballot.

Today, many people may take for granted the fact that they are able to cast their ballots in secret, but Americans that lived up until the late 1800s had no such illusions.

“Confidence was shaken in a voting system which made known the contents of every man’s ballot,” declared an 1892 essay on a new Pennsylvania law that established, for the first time in the state’s history, a secret ballot.

The new system, known as the “Australian system” after the country in which it was first implemented in 1856, ensured secrecy and fairness in several key ways. It stipulated that all ballots must be the exact same. It ordered the names of all legally nominated candidates be printed on the ballots. And it required voters to mark their preferences in secret.

The laws combated intimidation and bribery by making it difficult to verify how a person had actually voted. But the laws, which had spread to nearly every state by 1892, had another, unintended side effect, as well.

Voter turnout in the mid to late 1800s had been fairly high, around 70 to 80 percent of the voting age population for presidential elections. In the years after the spread of the secret ballot, that percentage steadily tumbled, finally settling around about 50 to 60 percent.

What happened?

Well, the late 1800s were a period of rapid change in America. Industrialization was quickly changing the country. Immigration increased tremendously and the population exploded, with workers flocking to the nation’s cities. At the same time, reformers focused on “good government” laws, like civil service reform, and attacked political ‘bosses’ and their machines.

All of these societal changes likely had an effect on voter turnout. But so too did the secret ballot.

Voting has long confounded economists, as the act of voting seems to be inherently irrational. The gains — one lousy vote in an election decided by hundreds of thousands — seem small compared to the time and effort spent waiting in line at the polling place.

True, there is also the satisfaction of performing a civic duty, but there is also another important component to why people vote: social pressure. Simply put, people know they are “supposed to vote,” and do not want to be caught otherwise.

A 2008 study of Swiss voter turnout after the adoption of optional postal voting demonstrated this. Postal voting, in which citizens can mail in their ballots, is meant to reduce the costs of voting and increase turnout. Yet in small Swiss communities — the types of places where one might expect voters are more likely to know each other — turnout actually went down. Postal ballots, it seems, may have eliminated the social pressure to be seen at the polls because, well, maybe that person mailed in their ballot.

The opposite also appears to be true. In 2006, researchers sent out several kinds of mailers to Michigan citizens, one of which  promised to publish whether they and their neighbors voted in the next election. They found that those people who thought their voter turnout information would be publicized were more likely to vote.

Which brings us to Facebook. If social pressures impact voter turnout, then it would make sense that social media affect it as well. And, in fact, this is exactly what researchers studying the 2010 election reported. On Election Day, Facebook provided an “I Voted” button at the top of users’ news feeds for them to show they had cast their ballots. Some users were shown the pictures of friends who had voted; others were not. By comparing friend data with voter rolls, researchers determined that the first group were more likely to vote in that election.

So go ahead and tweet your followers or update your status this Election Day to let everyone know you voted. You never know who might be watching.

–FURTHER READING–

Charles Binney, “American Secret Ballot Decisions,” American Law Register and Review.

Charles Binney, “The Merits and Defects of the Pennsylvania Ballot Law of 1891.”

Robert Bond, et al, “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization,” Nature.

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, “Why Vote?New York Times.

Patricia Funk, “Social Incentives and Voter Turnout: Evidence from the Swiss Mail Ballot System.”

Michael J. Gaudini, “Election-time reflections on the irrational voter,” Main Line Times.

Alan Gerber, et al, “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment,” American Political Science Review.

John Markoff, “Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Says,” New York Times.

Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2008,” The American Presidency Project.

 

Changing a Law to Win an Election?

The Main Line Times’ “Notes from Narberth” columnist wrote a piece on August 7 (“Narberth zoning meeting; more on voter-ID need“) using Al Schmidt’s recent report on voting irregularities in Philadelphia as proof of need for a Voter ID law. You may read that here.

My response (“Changing a law to win an election?“) was published on the Main Line Times’ website on August 11. You may read that on the Main Line Times’ site here, or below.

 

One of the most interesting things about Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt’s report on “voting irregularities” is not what it says, but how it is being used. Proponents of Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID have praised the report as damning evidence of pervasive voter fraud – which is ironic, considering that a reading of the report gives no such impression.

First of all, Schmidt’s report is not a scientific study, and says nothing about how extensively voter fraud occurs – it only identifies seven types of voting irregularities. And of those seven kinds, the Voter ID law would stop only one. Whether the other six constitute legitimate problems or not is largely irrelevant to the Voter ID debate.

The problem Voter ID actually addresses can be boiled down to one question: is the person at the polling place who he says he is? Under current law, voters must prove who they are the first time they vote at a new polling place, and may use a variety of means to do so. Voters can face harsh punishments for not complying with election law ($10,000 in fines and 5 years in prison for voter impersonation) while they get little in return (one extra vote in an election decided by hundreds of thousands).

Faced with this information, you might conclude that voter impersonation rarely happens. All available evidence suggests you would be right. Numerous studies and investigations – including by the Bush Justice Department – have all reached this conclusion. The attorneys defending the Voter ID law in court recently agreed as well. So it is not surprising that Voter ID supporters have relied upon a single case: “the mysterious case of Joseph Cheeseboro” that the August 5 “Notes from Narberth” column referenced.

In any given election, Mr. Cheeseboro is little more than a rounding error. The same cannot be said of the more than 758,000 Pennsylvanians who may be disenfranchised by this law – a group disproportionately made up of elderly, minority, student and handicapped voters. That figure is larger than President Obama’s 2008 margin of victory, and to date new Voter IDs have been issued to less than 0.5 percent of that number.

Of course, even one illegal vote is one too many, but any voting system will leave room for error. The fundamental question at the Voter ID debate’s core is how to resolve the natural tension that arises from wanting to both keep elections accessible, while preventing any potential fraud.

Opponents of Voter ID do not, as the “Notes from Narberth” column contends, “think black people are too dumb to figure out how to get a photo ID.” Rather, we are concerned because the process of obtaining the underlying documentation and standing in line for several hours at a PennDOT center makes voting less accessible to legitimate voters, especially elderly and handicapped ones. It also opens the door to further chicanery, by providing another venue for vote challenging at the polls.

But perhaps most concerning of all is the nagging suspicion that the law was aimed to, as House Majority Leader Mike Turzai boasted, “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” When you have to resort to changing the law in order to win an election, there is something wrong.

 

On Conservatism

In a 1975 interview with the libertarian magazine Reason, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan said:

If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

As President Reagan notes, the meanings of the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have changed, depending on the time and place. Even as recent as the past few decades, the terms have generally evolved, with many Republicans who were formerly considered ‘conservatives’ now known as RINOS (or, ‘Republicans In Name Only’ — a term that questions their ‘conservative credentials.’).

So then, what actually defines what Americans would today call ‘conservatism’? And what does that definition tell us about current political events in the United States?

In this post, we’re going to define and describe contemporary conservatism by discussing economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek’s 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (taken from his book The Constitution of Liberty).* After that, we’re going to use this definition to look at both current events and the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism in America today.

In that particular essay, Hayek discusses his opposition to being labeled a conservative, preferring instead ‘liberal’ in the classical sense (today’s readers would call him a ‘libertarian,’ though he rejects that term as too “manufactured”). True, he notes, today’s classical liberals often find themselves voting for the conservative party (in this case, the Republicans) — but this is more of an alliance borne from common opposition to modern liberalism (the term commonly used today to describe left-of-center ideals, generally found in the Democratic Party).

Hayek goes on to define conservatism (through comparison with classical liberalism) as an ideology characterized by:

  1. Resistance to change (and thus opposition to modern liberalism),
  2. Fondness of authority, and similarly,
  3. Defense of established hierarchies,
    a. (Revealing itself through, among other things, imposition of moral/religious beliefs and norms)
  4. Obscurantism
  5. Nationalism (or, more specifically, anti-internationalism)
    a. Imperialism

I should stress that this summary does not do justice to Hayek’s piece, and while I will dig a bit deeper below, you really should read his original essay.

The most basic point Hayek makes about conservatism (and the one that underpins each of the five points listed above) is that it is an ideology opposed to change. This is reflected in the movement’s very title, which implies that its adherents wish to ‘conserve’ the familiar.

The underlying aversion to change plays out as a defense of established authority (which generally seeks to uphold the status quo and advocates for ‘law and order’ policies) and outright rejection of facts that may challenge that authority (be it religious or political). This later point is the ‘obscurantism’ mentioned above, and it is interesting to note the example Hayek uses to explain it:

I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all.

 

By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position… Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

Hayek’s essay, of course, was published in 1960 — but even today, conservatives remain quite skeptical of science. In 2012, four of the GOP’s eight contenders from the presidential nomination (Perry, Paul, Bachmann, and Santorum) rejected evolution in favor of creationist views, while a whopping 58 percent of registered Republicans believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.”

Republican voters and candidates are similarly skeptical of other positions that may challenge an established worldview but are nonetheless backed by scientific consensus, such as global warming.

The key point here is not that Republican voters (and here I am using ‘Republican’ in the implicit understanding that today’s Republican party is the conservative party) are ‘stupid’ or even anti-science. I do not think they are stupid, and I only think some of them are anti-science insofar as that science challenges their defense of the status quo. After all, Democrats in the 1800s (who were, at that time, the conservative party in the United States) were more than happy to justify the subjugation of African Americans through appeals to the ‘scientific theories‘ of the day.

The conservative resistance to change also shows itself through simultaneous anti-internationalism and imperialism.

On the prior, Hayek argues:

It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

Again, his words remain relevant today. Consider the nationalistic rhetoric GOP officials employ to excite their base. Or the foreign terms they use to criticize their opponents’ policies (the phrase “European-style” comes to mind). The implication, of course, is that such policies are inherently bad simply because they are ‘un-American.’ Hayek, on the other hand, urges addressing policy proposals on their merit, regardless of their country of origin. (As an interesting aside, the association of conservatism with nationalist sentiment seems to be so strong that simply exposing voters to the stars and stripes appears to make them more likely to vote Republican.)

Take this notion that conservatism is distrustful of that which is foreign and then consider Hayek’s contention that “the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes,” and we arrive at Hayek’s charge of imperialism. In other words, conservatism’s tension with foreign ideas causes it to attempt to forcibly impose its owns ideals on other nations.** Hayek argues strongly for the marketplace of ideas, maintaining that conservatism’s fear of the unfamiliar leads to the kinds of democracy promotion now associated with neoconservatism.

[T]he more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” others – not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the [classical] liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government.

I would argue that this passage provides a fairly apt description of modern Republican foreign policy, with the Bush Administration’s pursuit of democratization through military force being one obvious example. Additionally, opinion polls reveal that conservative voters tend to hold foreign policy views in sync with Hayek’s description. For instance, registered Republicans generally see Islam and democracy as incompatible and see conflict between Islamic countries and the West as inevitable.

This brings us to our next point regarding Hayek’s definition of conservatism: religious authority. Remember that Hayek roots conservative philosophy in resistance to change and, accordingly, fondness of established authorities; for many, there is no higher an established authority than their particular religious beliefs. Here, both classical and modern liberals favor the view that religion should not factor into policy decisions.

The conservative, in contrast, often defends governmental policies that publicly preserve (or even promote) society’s dominant religious beliefs. Liberal efforts to maintain a “wall of separation” between church and state are thus seen by conservatives as an attack on the established order, rather than an attempt to maintain equality before the state.

Consider gay marriage, to take one example:

  • The average conservative would likely oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it violates religion and tradition. Accordingly, they would generally view it as an attack on an established religious and moral code.
  • The average modern liberal would likely favor marriage equality on the basis of maintaining equality of opportunity before the state. They would reject the idea that religious codes should play a role in defining which group of people should be able to claim state-conferred benefits.
  • The average classical liberal would likely say that marriage should be a purely private matter altogether. The government should neither recognize marriages, nor provide benefits on a basis of marriage.

Those positions are, admittedly, grossly simplified; each ideology has a number of subgroups and individuals with differing opinions. Still, the basic point stands: in general, conservatism feels threatened by modern liberalism’s perceived attack on established social and cultural institutions.

This plays into the suspicion of science (discussed above) as well. First, as religious explanations of natural phenomena are (for many conservatives) the established authority, any scientific claims that challenge them are seen as threatening. Hayek also describes conservative distrust of science as a tension between the fear of the unknown and the allure of certainty offered by established authority.

What I have described as the [classical] liberal position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the [classical] liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the rights ones or even that we can find all the answers.

 

He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever non-rational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The [classical] liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him.

Despite these various differences between the classical liberal and the conservative, Hayek acknowledges their political alliance (think Ron Paul’s alliance with conservatives in the Republican Party, though he is a libertarian). This alliance, however, is viable only because “it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions.” In other words, the history of a policy or institution seems largely to define the conservative position, while it is largely irrelevant to the classical liberal. Rather, their alliance results from the fact that classical liberals are able to frame their preferred policies as a defense of traditional society, and their mutual dislike of modern liberalism.

Now, view all of this in light of the last four years.

Discontent with the status quo (The Afghanistan/Iraq Wars, the Great Recession, the post-9/11 security state apparatus, a dysfunctional health care system, etc…) swept Democrats into the executive and legislative branches of government in 2008. Rejected and fractured, the Republicans were able to regroup and form a unified front against the Obama Administration.

This is key: the Republicans’ organizing principle was not a platform of alternative policies but, rather, opposition to any policies that President Obama and congressional Democrats advocated — despite the fact that many of them (health care reform, cap and trade, the DREAM Act, etc…) were policies that Republicans either created or previously supported. By characterizing the president’s policies as a foreign attack on traditional America (and even decrying the president himself as foreign, through the ‘birther conspiracy’), the conservatives were able to reinvigorate themselves at a time when the modern liberals had greater political momentum.

But that is only part of the story. The other, crucial part recognizes role the ascendant Tea Party played as a hybrid libertarian-conservative movement that espoused libertarian ideals through appeals to conservatism. But let’s walk that back a little and approach it a bit slower.

First, we should recognize that Hayek essentially lays the groundwork for this in his essay. He discusses his problems with the traditional Political Spectrum Line (seen below) that places modern liberals on the left (he calls them ‘socialists,’ though I would disagree with this label), conservatives on the right, and classical liberals somewhere in between.

Hayek believes this line diagram misstates the three ideologies’ relationships by assuming that classical liberalism is caught between modern liberalism and conservatism. In its place, he offers a triangular diagram (seen below) in which all three ideologies occupy a distinct space.

In order to fully understand this, we must recall Hayek’s argument that conservatism is defined by its defense of the status quo. Thus, in Hayek’s diagram, conservatism does not move in any particular direction. Rather, it only offers resistance to the opposing directions of modern liberalism and classical liberalism. Whichever side pulls harder dominates the political scene, with conservatism merely slowing (rather than halting) the march in that direction. Hayek goes on to say that as modern liberalism has, to date, pulled harder than classical liberalism, it has set the agenda (that is why, in the diagram above, conservatism is being pulled in the direction of modern liberalism).

“[T]he main point about [classical] liberalism,” Hayek writes, “is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still.” Yet because the libertarian movement in America has generally existed (in politics) as a faction in the Republican coalition, it for years had to be largely content with helping them pull against modern liberalism.

Since Hayek’s essay was originally published, however, libertarians have increasingly employed a strategy of historical revisionism in order to exert a stronger pull on the conservatives. As implied by Hayek’s political spectrum diagram, after a certain amount of time, the policies of whichever ideology’s pull is stronger become established American institutions.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Social Security. When President Eisenhower took office, numerous Republicans wanted a wholesale repeal of the New Deal. But a sea change had occurred, and post-1930s conservatism was defending a different status quo than pre-1930s conservatism. As a result, Eisenhower took to defending the New Deal programs that had been broadly accepted, and was satisfied to reign in the excesses.

From a letter Eisenhower wrote to his brother in 1954:

Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it.

 

 

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

The first sentence of that second paragraph is noteworthy because eliminating those programs is precisely the aim of the libertarian movement. The obvious problem they faced was the same one Eisenhower mentions in his letter: should libertarians have tried to implement such an agenda, it would have been so unpopular (with both modern liberal and conservative voters), that “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

A mere 10 years later, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would be attacked by President Lyndon Johnson for suggesting an overhaul of Social Security that most feared would be a step toward dismantling the program (see video below). Goldwater, it should be said, held distinctly libertarian views on domestic and economic issues (such as repealing labor laws and civil rights legislation), though his foreign policy was more conservative.

This Time article from that election observed that Social Security, “so long accepted by so many, has become a red-hot issue in a presidential campaign for the first time in 28 years.” [emphasis mine] The article notes the broad consensus reached between modern liberals and conservatives about Social Security, and their common opposition to Goldwater’s libertarian views on the subject.

Just what are the merits of Goldwater’s notion of voluntary social security? Most authorities, whether liberal or conservative, or whether in or out of government, agree that it is totally impractical.

Even though, since New Hampshire, Goldwater has virtually purged the word “voluntary” from his vocabulary, it has not done much good… Like it or not, it seems that Barry is going to have a tough time convincing voters that he did not mean what he said before he was sorry he said it.

[emphasis mine]

In 1964, Goldwater was decisively defeated by Johnson, the latter garnering 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. Worries about Goldwater’s stance on established institutions like Social Security undoubtedly contributed to this landslide, along with anxieties about Goldwater’s aggressive foreign policy rhetoric.

The circumstances that resulted in the creation of the official Libertarian Party also emphasize its fervent opposition to Republicans’ defense of the post-New Deal status quo. The Libertarian Party was founded in America in 1971 — during the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon. In fact, it was Nixon’s own actions, imposing wage-price controls and ending the gold standard, that prompted the formation of the party.

So, if conservatives accepted (and even defended!) programs like Social Security along with modern liberals, how could the libertarian movement overcome that kind of broad consensus?

Well, the first step in overcoming a broad consensus is to chip away at it. And the easiest way for the libertarian movement to do that is to recruit as many conservatives to its cause as possible. Remember that one of the differences between classical liberals (or libertarians) and conservatives is that the prior feels no loyalty for traditional policies and institutions simply on the basis of tradition. They (as with modern liberals) have little qualms about overhauling or changing existing policies and structures, whereas conservatives feel an affinity for what has already been established.

A basic strategy, under these circumstances, would be to redefine what is traditional and established, in order to court conservative support. This is exactly what has happened. Take the Tea Party as a more recent case study of this type of tactic. The need to reclaim lost traditions and re-establish the Founders’ America is a unifying theme of the Tea Party. By contrasting an imagined ‘Golden Age’ with a today in which traditional American institutions have been defiled or destroyed, the more libertarian wing of the Republican Party is able to exert a greater pull toward its own direction (as per Hayek’s Political Spectrum diagram).

This strategy rests, to a large extent, on historical revisionism. The Founding Fathers were a diverse group of thinkers that ranged from those (like Thomas Jefferson) who argued for a weak central government to those (like Alexander Hamilton) who argued for a strong one. They could not agree with each other while they lived, but some people today nevertheless wish to bestow upon them a manufactured consensus. The Constitution was not drafted by gods convening to create a perfect government, but by a group of incredibly brilliant men who disagreed about almost everything.

It may surprise some people to learn that Alexander Hamilton argued for a Congress elected for life, that James Madison considered giving Congress the ability to veto state laws, or that George Washington had his doubts that the Constitution would last more than a few decades. Given the controversy Obamacare’s individual mandate has caused, few people probably realize that both George Washington and John Adams signed health care mandates during their presidencies.

Thus, the very idea of a “Golden Age” is fundamentally flawed. Someone was always disappointed. Each of the Founders had different ideas about the proper role and size of government — and we are still debating these same issues today.

This strategy of redefining established institutions as un-American and unwise impositions in order to build a stronger coalition between conservatives and libertarians is, of course, not new. But the past four years has seen its use expand rapidly, as the coalition unified against the Obama Administration. Energy from opposition to new and unfamiliar policies (like Obamacare) was harnessed to redefine and attack formerly established ones (like, say, unemployment compensation and Social Security).

This is a very rough indicator, but Google searches (top line) and news stories (bottom line) using the word ‘unconstitutional’ soared during the 2010 midterms, and have remained high since.

Unfortunately, the term ‘unconstitutional’ is often misused, because deploying it is seen as a quick and easy way to question whether something is American. After all, the Constitution defines the lawful role of government in America, so deeming something ‘unconstitutional’ is saying that it is contrary to America’s founding document.

Here are a list of established programs and institutions Rep. Ron Paul believes are unconstitutional:

And here are the corresponding Supreme Court cases declaring every single one of these to be constitutional:

This is just a sampling, too. There are numerous other programs, policies, and institutions that are decried as unconstitutional by various other representatives and public figures. To offer just one more example, the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska in 2010, Joe Miller, said that unemployment compensation was unconstitutional. (It’s not.) As an aside, Miller lost the race after the Republican incumbent he had unseated in the primary launched a successful write-in campaign.

Of course, a common refrain one hears when raising the fact that the Supreme Court has found all of these to be quite constitutional is that the court itself has been corrupted and its rulings are thus somehow invalid.

This ignores the fact that a body must exist to interpret the Constitution’s meaning when questions or disagreements arise. That body is the Supreme Court. To refer again to the Eisenhower letter quoted earlier:

I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is.

Eisenhower goes on to say that though some Supreme Court decisions “have been astonishing to me,” he cannot ignore or change them. A constitutional amendment is necessary to do that, in lieu of the court overturning its own ruling. Neither of these options are impossible, though they are difficult to achieve. A constitutional amendment provided for the income tax, for instance, after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional (Ron Paul still believes the income tax is unconstitutional, despite the fact it is now part of the Constitution). And the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, ending segregation in public schools, overturned the court’s earlier Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) ruling.

For those that employ this strategy (such as the Tea Party), though, accuracy seems secondary to achieving policy objectives — because achieving those objectives necessarily requires a broader coalition involving conservatives, which in turn requires recasting established institutions and policies as unconstitutional impositions. To do this, historical accuracy must be sacrificed.

One final observation. Although conservative economic views can be enlisted to the libertarian cause by redefining what is traditional and familiar, conservative social views are much more difficult to manage because they are generally rooted in religion. Because the conservative believes religious codes should be the basis of governance while the libertarian believes that what little government they find permissible should remain neutral, it is very difficult (if not impossible) for the latter to recruit the former to his social views. Conservatives may be content to join libertarians against the idea of even a minimal social safety net if they think it represents creeping socialism, but they are averse to the idea of accepting things like full repeal of drug laws, abortion as a personal choice, and equal rights for homosexuals.

This divide has the potential to poison the libertarian-conservative coalition. Hayek notes this, writing that the average conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.” Since the conservative bases his political beliefs in what he considers ‘the highest authority’ (polls show a significant number of Republicans cite religion as the most important factor influencing social views), he is unable to tolerate those that disagree with those political beliefs.

Accordingly, many libertarians downplay their social views, accepting that they must be sacrificed in order to achieve a broader coalition with the conservatives on important economic issues. Early on, the Tea Party purposefully eschewed social issues in favor of economic ones. And while the Tea Party eventually did begin to engage social issues, it always did so in a conservative fashion, maintaining the coalition.

Finally, let us return to President Reagan’s 1975 interview with Reason magazine. At the beginning of this post, I quoted Reagan as saying that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” One should keep in mind that as this was an interview with a libertarian magazine during a time in which Reagan was courting the Republican presidential nomination, his words were likely crafted carefully to appeal to the libertarian vote.

That said, even if Reagan was embellishing a little by calling libertarianism “the very heart and soul of conservatism,” his general point about the modern relationship of the two ideologies still stands. He follows up with this:

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.

Perhaps, but the destination has largely been determined by the libertarians.

FOOTNOTES

*As much as I may disagree with F.A. Hayek’s Austrian economic theories (and, accordingly, the governmental policies he advocates — though, it should be said, his views are more reconcilable with the mainstream than Mises’), I nonetheless appreciate his writings.

**To clarify, the contemporary Democratic Party’s foreign policy has similar goals of democratization, but does not focus as much on military intervention as on diplomatic efforts and ‘sticks and carrots’ (that is, punishments and rewards to push countries toward adopting preferred policies). To the extent that they support military intervention, it is usually in favor of limited humanitarian intervention. Hayek, of course, rejects both.

 

Why Any Debt Deal Will Need to Include Taxes

One of the major downsides to the otherwise enthralling roller-coaster ride that is the 2012 GOP primary is the way that the fight for the Republican ticket has dragged the rhetoric further and further to the right. After all, you cannot become president if you do not win the party nomination — and you cannot win your party’s nomination if you do not appeal to the base voters that turn out at the primary elections. The result is a competition to “out-conservative” each other, which may yield short-term electoral gain, but does so at the expense of cooperative politics and sound policy.

Consider this excerpt from an August 2012 GOP debate in Iowa. Fox News anchor Bret Baier asks the candidates if they would walk away from a deficit reduction deal that would cut $10 in federal spending for every $1 it raised in tax revenues. Every candidate agreed that they would.

This is, of course, absurd. There is no realistic way in which deficit reduction will ever occur solely through spending cuts alone. Think about the budget for a moment. Over 60 percent of the federal budget is mandatory spending, mainly on programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These are programs that, by law, provide certain benefits if you meet certain requirements, such as age or income level.

There is no wiggle room here. These payments must happen unless Congress amends the law to change benefits or eligibility requirements. It would be prudent now to recall that changes to Social Security have always been controversial among the electorate. President Roosevelt planned it that way. In 1941, he recalled:

“We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

Because employees pay into the Social Security system with every paycheck, they feel entitled to their own future benefits. This makes paring back benefits or raising the retirement age very unpopular politically. There is a reason why reforms to the Social Security system in 1983 were limited to an ever-so-gradual increase in the retirement age and an increase in payroll taxes. The math is simple: retirees like their Social Security benefits, and retirees reliably turn out to vote in larger numbers than younger citizens. Similar problems face the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Interest payments on the debt are likewise mandatory, though, they are listed as a separate category from mandatory spending.

But if cutting mandatory programs (again, over 60 percent of the budget) would involve highly risky political moves, doesn’t that still leave discretionary spending of about 40 percent to carve up? Surely, we can reduce the deficit by lopping out a chunk of discretionary spending?

Not so fast. As it turns out, a lot of discretionary spending is not so discretionary after all. More than half of all discretionary spending is defense spending — a spending area that is also fraught, as politicians strive to “support the troops” and avoid being called “soft on defense.” And the nondefense portion of discretionary spending? What does that encompass?

From the Congressional Budget Office (CBO):

Seven broad budget categories accounted for more than 75 percent of the spending for nondefense discretionary activities last year [2010]. The largest of those is the category covering education, training, employment, and social services; it is followed in size by the categories for transportation, income security programs (mostly housing), and health-related research and public health. Categories with smaller amounts of discretionary spending include administration of justice (mostly for law enforcement activities), veterans benefits and services (mostly for health care), and international affairs.

It also is worthwhile to note that President Obama’s proposed nondefense discretionary spending for 2012 is about $450 billion, or around 12 percent of the federal budget. The deficit for 2011 was over $1 trillion. So, if the entire nondefense discretionary budget evaporated, it would still not have covered last year’s deficit. Nor would it cover the projected 2012 deficit of around $828 billion. If you had the entire discretionary budget (which, when you add the $868 billion in the 2012 proposed Obama budget for defense to the total for nondefense spending comes to about $1.3 trillion), you would have just covered the deficit, at least in the short term.

In the long term, you’d still have an aging population that would stress mandatory spending programs. When the baby boomers were in their working primes, taxing their large numbers enabled the government to meet entitlement payments. There were enough workers to tax to support Social Security pensions and Medicare insurance coverage. Now that those same huge numbers are retiring, there will be a shrinking pool of people to pay and a growing pool of people that will be drawing benefits.

And then, in our hypothetical, there is the fact that we just abandoned all of the government’s defensive duties, diminishing our global power and destabilizing the world as a whole. Also, with more than $1 trillion dropping out of the economy, we’ve just descended into the depths of a long depression that will send federal revenues spiraling, creating a whole new deficit problem.

Now, this hypothetical is obviously utterly unrealistic. No one (who actually understands the federal budget) is calling for the government to abandon all discretionary spending. But it nevertheless serves a purpose. It shows that the size of the deficit is comparable to an entire section of the budget. Furthermore, it shows that, as much as people talk vaguely of “cutting waste,” there is almost no part of the budget that could be touched without sparking controversy.

This is important because cuts must occur if we are to get the deficit under control. Such cuts should be timed so as not to derail economic recovery from the Great Recession (that is to say, they should not be implemented immediately) and, importantly, entitlements like Social Security and Medicare must be reformed.

The real question is a political one: how do you pass a deficit reduction package that cuts popular programs?

The Republican candidates’ unanimous rejection of a hypothetical deficit reduction package with $10 in cuts for $1 in tax increases is one way to not accomplish this goal. The reason why is, like the question posed above, inherently political.

In order to pass such legislation, one needs the president and both houses of Congress to be onboard. A simple majority would suffice in the House of Representatives, but a supermajority (two-thirds) would be needed to overcome the inevitable filibuster in the Senate. That would be virtually impossible if one side of the aisle refused to compromise, which is essentially what the Republican candidates said when they indicated they would reject any and all tax increases.

But pretend for an instant that the impossible occurs, and the Republicans land both the presidency and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Also pretend that the few moderate Republicans left in the Congress (Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, etc…) don’t jump ship. They’ve got the numbers. Do they pass this all-cuts deficit reduction package?

No.

Any economist would tell you that the Republicans don’t pass the package, even though they have the numbers. Why? They do not pass the all-cuts package for the same reason the GOP candidates are demanding an all-cuts package: incentives.

Right now, the Republican presidential candidates have a very strong incentive to call for an all-cuts package because it will help them win the primary election. As mentioned earlier, the candidates have been pushing each other further and further to the right in a race to win the presidential ticket. Calling for an all-cuts package allows them to curry favor with primary voters and gives them cover from opponents that would otherwise attack them for not ruling out tax increases.

However, passing such a package is not in our hypothetical Republican Congress’ interests because it would be widely unpopular and would energize the opposition. Unlike the presidential candidates, such a package would actually hurt their electoral prospects.

Democrats, of course, would vote in lockstep against this package, making the issue a partisan one. Democrats across the country would campaign against the hard-hearted Republican deficit reduction that was weak on defense (cuts to defense spending), harsh on both the poor and the middle class (cuts to the social safety net and Medicare), a burden to the elderly (cuts to Social Security and Medicare), but also went easy on the rich (lack of tax increases).

Voters across the country, seeing their Social Security checks shrink, their insurance coverage dropped, their unemployment evaporate, would turn their Republican representatives out of office in record numbers at the next election. And if it is one thing that political parties loathe, it is losing power.

But how would including tax increases in deficit reduction legislation prevent any of this?

Well, first of all, it makes the legislation likelier to pass than an all-cuts package — the latter having absolutely no chance at becoming law. It has a better shot because it provides a platform for cooperation and compromise. The Democrats may have to swallow painful spending cuts, but at least they in turn get to temper some of them with tax increases. The Republicans may have to suffer tax increases, but they also get their desired spending cuts.

With members of both parties onboard, the legislation has a better chance of making it to the president’s desk. Additionally, it can be presented as bipartisan, robbing either party of the ability to use it against the other in future elections. Individuals and primary challengers may still use this narrative in specific elections, but the overall narrative will be very different with bipartisan cover. It is also much easier to take the dive when you are joined by both your allies and opponents.

There would still be much opposition in the electorate, but it would be more manageable. A compromise package could call for ‘shared sacrifice’ from every American.

History also provides a good guide. As the Economist notes:

Put simply, no fiscal consolidation that the IMF has judged to be successful relied on public spending cuts for more than 83% of its impact. In successful fiscal consolidations, tax rises accounted for between 17% and 33% of deficit-reduction measures.

So yes, deficit reduction legislation should probably rely more on spending cuts than tax increases — but both are essential parts of any successful package. This will probably not come as a surprise to the American people, as numerous polls have shown that they recognize the need for including tax increases in a deficit reduction package.

But, you might ask, why focus so much on how the GOP candidates responded at some primary debate in Iowa? Once they got into office, things would change. Everyone knows presidents never keep their promises anyway!

Not so.

Studies of the topic have shown that presidents generally try to keep their promises. And on the subject of taxes, any Republican president would likely be fearful of repeating George H.W. Bush’s mistake in choosing fiscal responsibility over ideology. The elder Bush infamously agreed to raise taxes in order to cut the deficit, despite promising he would do no such thing in the 1988 election. At the next election, Bush faced a primary challenger (Pat Buchanan) that emphasized Bush’s broken promise and went on to have a surprisingly strong showing early on in the primary season. Bush, of course, went on to face Bill Clinton who, like Buchanan, threw Bush’s 1988 promise back at him. “Read my lips: no new taxes,” Bush’s broken promise, went on to become a solemn warning to politicians of all stripes (and a Wikipedia page, too!).  Bill Clinton went on to take the presidency.

The irony here is that the very candidates who have staked their campaigns on fiscal responsibility are unlikely to successfully cut the deficit, should any of them take the White House.

Perhaps they should take a page from President Reagan’s book. Sure, Reagan passed the largest tax cuts in American history. But he also, when faced with gaping deficits and a Democratic Congress, reached across the aisle, compromised, and, yes, raised taxes.


Voter ID Bill Aims to Help Republicans

The following column was published in the Delco Times in November 2011, as the Voter ID bill was making its way through the PA General Assembly. You may read it on the Delco Times’ website here, or below.

 

Last summer, Gov. Corbett and General Assembly Republicans passed a budget with deep cuts to education, claiming their fiscal discipline would lead to future economic growth. Now, they have shifted their focus to a different form of stimulus: the political kind.

With control of both the executive and the Legislature, Republican politicians have been quick to pursue policies that would fix the system in their favor. Legislative districts are already being meticulously designed to preserve political power. An electoral “reform” bill has proposed distributing the state’s Electoral College votes by gerrymandered congressional district, guaranteeing that several are cast for the Republican presidential candidate.

And a voter identification bill is winding its way through the Legislature, promising to “safeguard” our elections by demanding voters show their government-issued ID at the polls.

This last proposal is particularly galling because it appears, on its face, to be reasonable. Closer inspection, however, reveals the bill’s true aim is to utilize the fear of voter fraud to depress turnout for poor and minority populations.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, says his plan addresses a serious threat to democracy. But such claims of widespread voter fraud are overblown, at best.

In fact, voter fraud is incredibly rare. A vigorous prosecution of voter fraud by the Bush administration found a scant 86 instances in the country over a five-year investigation.

This should not come as a surprise. Voter fraud is already quite hard to pull off, with little to no payoff. Penalties are stiff: up to $10,000 and five years in prison. Illegal immigrants would face deportation. The visibility of the voter fraud alone (after all, perpetrators would have to show up and interact with poll workers) deters the crime.

And even if an individual or group were crazy enough to attempt this, they would have to reproduce this fraud on an almost impossibly massive scale – the thousands of votes generally needed to swing an election.

This is not to make light of voter fraud. Undermining democracy is surely an egregious offense. But this bill provides an excessively harsh solution to an already-rare problem.

Under current law, voters must provide identification the first time they vote in a district. Photo identification is the norm, though accommodations are made for those without one (such as a showing a bill or paycheck instead).

Metcalfe’s bill would force all citizens to provide a government-issued photo ID at the polls every year, despite their inherent right to participate in representative government. Student and employee IDs, currently acceptable, would be disallowed.

For many, this may not seem too extreme. But consider for a moment that about 11 percent of all Americans would not be allowed to vote under this law, and that the majority of that 11 percent are poor and minority voters.

Then consider that implementing the bill will cost about $11 million (providing identification to those who need it, educating the public about the changes, etc.).

The costs of this bill – in both dollars and depressed voter participation – outweigh the extremely small benefits it might yield. Simply enforcing current law saves both time and money while also safeguarding our elections.

The great irony of Metcalfe’s bill is that it seeks to capitalize on the fear that shadowy forces are subverting our democracy – and then it goes ahead and proposes just such a subversion.

 

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA

Every 10 years, a small group of people gathers to redraw the political boundaries of Pennsylvania. This may sound like the stuff conspiracy theories are made of, but it is a very real political procedure. The process is known as redistricting, and it is in motion right now.

The idea for redistricting comes from a fairly simple premise that all Pennsylvanians should be represented equally in the General Assembly and all legislative districts should have about the same population. But populations are not static, and a lot can happen in a decades’ time – people move, have children, and die. Redistricting is supposed to account for these changes.

Historically, the process has been less than transparent. Before 1968, Pennsylvania let the General Assembly redraw district lines, allowing the majority party to split up entire groups of voters, neutralize opponents, and sustain incumbents – an act known as “gerrymandering.”

The term was named after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed off on a plan that manipulated voting districts in favor of his Democratic-Republican Party. That was in 1812, but politicians in the Keystone State have been dabbling in gerrymandering for much longer. More than a century before, three counties colluded to neutralize Philadelphia’s political power via gerrymandering, as documented in Elmer Cummings Griffith’s “The Rise and Development of the Gerrymander.”

Then, in 1968, Pennsylvania redrafted its state constitution, and completely revamped the way it redistricted General Assembly seats. Redistricting duties were given to a special, five-person commission made up of the four minority and majority leaders from the State Senate and State House, and a fifth person of their choosing.

This bipartisan commission was a major reform, but it did not end the gerrymandering debate.

In a 2010 study, software design firm Azavea, sought to measure potential gerrymandering by examining the districts’ shapes. The Pennsylvania constitution requires districts to be “compact and contiguous,” but the courts have found this vague and unenforceable because the law does not establish a clearly defined standard.

So Azavea created an ‘ideal’ standard against which to just the nation’s voting districts for its study. The resulting analysis identified Pennsylvania as “a particularly egregious offender in its State Senate districting” and ranked it fourth worst in the nation for State Senate districts. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives fared a little better, coming in at fifteenth.

Another measure of potential gerrymandering is longevity – how long elected officials end up serving without being voted out of office or retiring. By the next election, the median House representative will have served eight years in the General Assembly. Meanwhile, the median senator (many of whom have also served in the House) will have spent 16 years in the legislature.

Temple University Political Science professor Joseph McLaughlin notes that today’s Pennsylvania legislature is actually fairly young – the result of natural turnover from elections, retirement, and the 2006 bonus scandal.

Some groups think the turnover rates usually seen in General Assembly elections are unnaturally low, and do not want to wait around for the next scandal to turn out incumbents.

The League of Women Voters is one such group. Lora Lavin, its Vice President for Issues, says that lack of competition in gerrymandered districts “discourages public debate on the issues that are important and it can also discourage voter turnout.” After all, if you know who will win before the election is even held, why vote?

The League’s solution: a commission that is completely independent of the legislature. One that, as Lavin describes, “would be prohibited from using data such as party affiliation, voting histories, residences of incumbent legislators, potential challengers, or other persons in drawing the districts,” and that has to draw compact districts.

Still, there are obstacles. One of the largest challenges comes from the Pennsylvania Constitution itself. Because the state constitution lays out the redistricting process, a constitutional amendment is required to change the current system. And amendments must pass through the legislature two years in a row before they can become law.

State Sen. Daylin Leach knows this better than most. The Democratic senator from Montgomery County has introduced redistricting reform in past sessions, and intends to continue pushing to amend the state constitution.

“It’s the single biggest political reform that we need in Pennsylvania and around the country,” Leach says. He believes gerrymandering makes representatives unaccountable, and that it has a “polarizing effect” on politics.

“If you don’t have to worry about losing to the other party in November, there’s no incentive for you, politically, to reach across the aisle,” Leach says, suggesting that many representatives then fail to compromise in order to fend off any potential primary challengers.

Unlike the League of Women Voters, Leach does not want to completely overhaul how General Assembly districts are drawn. He wants to keep the commission in the hands of legislative leaders so that redistricters can be held accountable at the ballot box, but he would also like to foster greater consensus by expanding the commission to include the whips.

Leach thinks his bill’s strongest component is that it “actually creates a mathematical formula for a district to be compact and contiguous.” The formula itself is fairly simple – you draw a circle around a district, and that district must fill in at least 15 percent of the circle.

Still, not everyone believes that such redistricting reform can or should be passed.

Erik Arneson, the Communications and Policy Director for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, notes that “there are a lot of areas of this state where you just cannot draw competitive seats.” He also thinks redistricting is inherently political, and that it is impossible to divorce the two.

Professor McLaughlin echoes these sentiments, and adds that trying to make districts competitive could also have its downsides. He notes that in districts that re-elect incumbents by a large margin “there’s probably more satisfaction among voters with the way the representative votes.”

Either way, McLaughlin sees technology pushing both the commission and government as a whole towards greater transparency.

Arneson says that Sen. Pileggi hopes to use the internet to make this one of the most transparent redistrictings to date, with letters, videos from public hearings, and “everything that people need to be able to draw their own plans” posted online.

No official redistricting website has been launched as of yet.

New ideas aside, the commission has already fallen in line with one historical pattern. It failed to select a chairman in the allotted time, forcing the Supreme Court to choose the fifth member. Their choice: Stephen McEwen, a senior judge on the PA Superior Court. Whether the commission will break from other precedents over the roughly two months’ time it now has to file a preliminary plan has yet to be seen.


Band-Aid Plan To Fix Health Care Won’t Work

(Published in the Main Line Times and the Delco Times)

As the attempt to reform our health-care system crescendos, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the debate lost its way. Perhaps it never truly began in the right direction.

Between the fear-mongering and the screaming, it seems some of the most pressing issues – medical inflation and warped incentives – have been sidelined. And why? Perhaps because they are more complex. These issues require quite a bit of explanation and historical context, which doesn’t always fly too well in a sound-bite culture.

One of the main problems regarding our health-care industry is its lack of any organization. There was no grand design in its creation; it is a Frankenstein monster, cobbled and patched carelessly together since its birth in the wage controls of the World War II era, with little regard for consequences.

Yet, any grand design is practically doomed from the beginning, as the only two viable options – a single-payer system or a complete overhaul of incentives and the creation of a truly free market – are both met with opposition. Consequently, we receive a bill that is the worst of both worlds.

True, the House bill does work at creating a marketplace in the health insurance exchanges (an important, but underplayed, provision), but it also includes a public option. Supposedly, the public option is meant to control prices by adding a more virtuous competition into the marketplace, but when you look at the details – its limited eligibility, and the fact that prices will be set by negotiations with health care providers – it doesn’t seem as if it will control prices at all. After all, medical inflation has not left Medicare and Medicaid, two government plans, unscathed.

So, who is to blame? The Democrats or the Republicans? Both. To their credit, the Democrats have actually gotten the ball rolling on health-care reform and have put forth a bill, though their proposal remains flawed.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are too busy trying to give President Barack Obama his “Waterloo” (this can be seen in the misnomer “Obamacare,” which would be more accurately titled “Congresscare”) and preaching about fictional provisions such as nonexistent “death panels” to actually provide legitimate criticism and a legitimate alternative.

Both accept money from the big health insurance and pharmaceutical giants and allow them to actively craft the bill as well.

We, the citizens, are also to blame. We are too easily led by the talking heads to one particular conclusion. A single-payer system is not the devil, and it does not ration care any more than our current system does. Any system we adopt will require a give-and-take.

A single-payer system will cover everyone, unburden businesses that pay for employees’ health care (and thus help small businesses). It will purge the system of waste, but everyone will be required to pay through taxes and waiting lines — secondary, optional care will be a bit longer (though primary care may very well be shorter, as it is in Britain).

Remember, the government is already inextricably involved in our health-care system. A complete rebuilding of the health-care free market, hand in hand with other reforms (like tort reform), can control prices through innovative market forces and reshaped incentives. Both plans are bold and both have their strong and weak points. What we can’t afford is another plan that simply slaps a Band Aid on the issue and kicks it along to the next generation.