Three Perennial Issues

Here are  three perennial political issues. They keep turning up when pundits can’t think of a topic for a new column and so revive old controversies in the hope of getting some mileage out of them. So here we go again.

There is some talk lately of doing away with the Electoral College because of what is taken to be its inherent inferiority to a straight out popular vote plurality as the basis for choosing a President. And, indeed, the Electoral College does not serve the purpose it was originally designed for, which was to have the President chosen by a body of wise men rather than the population as a whole so that the fractious and unenlightened spirits of the mass of the population could be held in check. It hasn’t worked that way since the election of 1824 when the lack of a majority for any candidate in the Electoral College sent the election into the House of Representatives, where the establishment forces were able to prevail and so allow John Quincy Adams to become President in preference to Andrew Jackson, the uncouth Westerner, though Jackson took the Electoral College the next time around and became what had been expected: a racist who disrupted the banking system however much he was loyal to the idea of the nation remaining united despite the slavery issue. And there was the election of 1876, when the Electoral College settled the Hayes-Tilden election in favor of the Republican candidate, presumably as a trade for the removal of Union troops from the South, although historians disagree about whether there was a trade off or whether removing Union troops was by that time inevitable, the North having come to understand that the South would continue to rule itself as its white population saw fit, never mind the results of the Civil War.

Candidates nowadays say how useful will be the abolition of the Electoral College. Elizabeth Warren says, in Alabama, it means that candidates will campaign for the vote there, presumably because Democrats would try to bring out a large number of Black voters to be added into the national figures in spite of the fact that Alabama would remain a Red state in that the majority vote in the state would almost certainly be Republican. Other commentators say that, to the contrary, more and more attention would be paid to California and New York because that is where the votes are and so Democratic candidates would try to build up their majorities there, which is different from what happens now, when Presidential candidates barely bother to advertise in California and New York because they know that there will almost certainly be majorities for the Democratic candidate. Still other commentators say that the Electoral College is still useful because it means that attention will be paid to campaigning in the so-called battleground states in the Midwest because the change in a few thousand votes can give the election to one candidate or the other, as happened in 2016, and it is good for voters in swing states to count.  What these analyses signify is that no one much knows what will happen if we move from the Electoral College system to a pure popular plurality system. It might have good consequences or, then again, it might not.

What can be said with some certainty, however, is that a popular plurality system will make it harder to determine the outcome of the vote, which is a characteristic of the Electoral College that no one had anticipated when it was put in place. Everyone knew the morning after the 2016 election that Donald Trump had won even though he had three million less votes than Hillary Clinton. The Electoral College provides legitimacy because its results are certain. Consider what happened in 2000. That race was very close and the results depended on what happened in Florida, where there was a recount that the Supreme Court put an end to, which effectively awarded the election to George W. Bush. What if there had been a popular vote provision in the Constitution at the time? Every state would have had to have a recount, many of them inconclusive, and so the popular vote tally would have been uncertain and the election never legitimately decided. So a popular vote substitution for the Electoral College depends on a foolproof system for authenticating the vote, which is not likely to happen without the federal government taking over responsibility for supervising elections and remains especially problematic in a time when foreign powers try to influence our elections and so it is probably better for them to remain in local hands, that making it so much more difficult to interfere with them than if there were a single federal computer system in charge of the vote. Don’t mess with what does not need messing with even if, once in a while, it gives us a winner who does not win the popular vote. The voters can take care of that the next time around.

Another idea that keeps resurfacing is reparations for African-Americans (and, in the latest iteration, for Native Americans as well). The idea of reparations is not in itself a bad idea. Germany made cash payments to individual Jews who had survived the Holocaust and to Israel, which at that time in its history needed the money and was in no position to say that the money was tainted. Germany paid because doing so helped restore its standing in the international community and because, I think, it was a genuine attempt at atonement.

Present calls for reparations to the descendents of slaves do not call, however, for cash payments, if for no other reason that there would be no way to access who qualified and for how much. Is the child of a mixed marriage entitled to half of what a “full blooded” African American is entitled to? Rather, the idea is that there are programs to alleviate the long term effects of slavery and reparations would fund those. So the call for the “justice” of reparations begs the question of what are the programs that would alleviate the distress that does indeed continue in segments of the African American community. Ones that can generally be agreed on are universal pre-kindergarten education for both white and African American children because of the theory that poor Black children would profit from being mixed with more middle class children. Also, a large investment for health services in African American neighborhoods would be a good idea because African American maternal mortality rates are still high and because good prenatal and neonatal nutrition might account for deficits in cognitive abilities among poor African Americans. Also, affirmative action programs for college admissions-- but we already have that. Also, small loans to encourage black entrepreneurship-- but we already have that.

The key point is that all of these programs can float on their own merits without invoking the concept of reparations, which would be divisive and might, in fact, make it more difficult to fund them. And there is no need for the concept of reparations to justify them. The government, it seems to me, is obliged to help any of its sub-populations that are subject to distress as a matter of right, and that includes farmers and ex-coal miners as well as African Americans and Indians. So cut out the intervening variable and just provide programs to those who need them. As one Republican Administration after another has shown, there is no end of money available to help out the rich. So why not allocate money to help out the poor?

A third concept that has become a kind of background noise in political discourse is climate change. Now, it seems to me that very few people are actually deeply frightened by this looming catastrophe, and that others entertain it because it is pleasurable the way all apocalypse movies are: you imagine how you would fare in the world of the survivors. Most people, it seems to me, want to combat climate change simply because it puts you on the side of the good and righteous who are against such a universal evil, as they would be against an alien invasion, which makes up another category of apocalyptic cinema. Weathermen understand the frisson of the charge of global warming and so they say that the last forest fire or flood is the worst in eight or eighty years, not bothering to note that if global warming were really going on, what with all of its cascading bad consequences, then we would be seeing unprecedented forest fires and floods, which we have not. It is strange that twenty years after Al Gore’s “An Uncomfortable Truth”, nothing really devastating has happened. It is always just over the horizon.

Moreover, if people took the claims of a global weather disaster seriously, they would insist that the government make plans to permanently evacuate New Orleans, Galveston and Miami, whose existence would be insupportable, and build levees and swamp grass barriers around New York and other major cities so as to save them, but none of that, as far as I am aware, are part of the climate alarmists agenda, just carbon emission taxes which, good as they might be in encouraging solar power and avoiding polluting the atmosphere so that children have a lower incidence of asthma, will not deter the effects of global warming for very long. Nor, as far as I can tell, are climate alarmists calling for the building of giant cities in Canada and Siberia to absorb the populations which will be displaced north when climates further south become too hot to bear as well as to serve those working in the much better northern weather conditions when Canada and Siberia will become the breadbaskets of the planet. So, if you mean it, climate alarmists, don’t worry about energy efficient light bulbs, those just a consumer item that an individual family can manage without much inconvenience while appeasing their consciences. Go after the big stuff or else shift your concerns to real stuff, like protecting the vote and improving early childhood nutrition.