Monday, February 23, 2009


Thoughts about "Open Primaries"

I've been reading some of the objections to the proposed "open" primary for seats in the California Legislature. The proposed primary would be just like the primary election for a local "non-partisan" office. Candidates would enter the primary and could state their party affiliations if they wished. Voters would choose among the candidates. The top two would then compete in the general election.

One objection is that it is possible under such a scheme for both top vote-getters to belong to the same party. They could even belong to the party not favored by the majority of voters in the district. Thus, a sixty-percent Democratic district could be represented by a Republican and a sixty-percent Republican district could be represented by a Democrat.

How could this happen? Suppose, in a 60 or 70 percent Democratic district, six or seven Democrats entered the race and only two Republicans. It is possible that the Democrats would split the vote among them to the extent that the top two would be the Republicans.

If this does happen, it would not be long before someone would be circulating an initiative petition to cure the problem. Now, there are several known cures. The law could be written so that the top Democrat and the top Republican would face off against each other in the fall election. The law could be written to eliminate the primary election altogether and simply let all candidates participate in the general election. In that case, the voters would be asked to choose their favorite, second favorite, third favorite, etc., among all the candidates. The winner would be chosen by a process known as "instant run-off" voting. (I've explained elsewhere how this works.)

Even though these procedures are well-known and have been tried successfully in other democracies, I doubt very much that any Californian would think of them. Some other cure would be proposed. Most likely, the change would be to return to the present primary law.

Many years ago there was a commission to study and propose changes to the California Constitution. Erwin Chemerinsky was a member of the commission. One change that was not proposed was to have proportional representation, a plan used by most democratic countries outside of the US, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. I asked Erwin why the commission had not suggested such a change. He told me that it was too radical an idea.

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The Wisdom of Prof. Kimber

Democracy works only if all participants agree on fundamentals. Thus spoke Professor H. H. Kimber in a history class I took as an undergraduate at Michigan State College. It's now Michigan State University, of course. When I was a student there seventy years ago, it was sometimes called Michigan State Cow College.

Cow college aside, recent events in the legislatures of the State of California and our nation have borne out his wisdom. We've seen representative government, also known as democracy, almost fail because of irreconcilable differences among the elected members. An important difference is a disagreement on the proper functions of government.

A "progressive liberal" view is that government should provide all the services people need but can not provide them by themselves. This view was once expressed by President Abraham Lincoln. Most people can no longer provide or pay for their own health care. City dwellers can not by themselves extinguish fires that threaten to destroy their homes. I can not by myself protect myself from food products that contain harmful ingredients and are not so labeled. Etc., etc., etc.

A "conservative" view is that government should provide very few services for the people. Government should confine itself to protecting and guaranteeing the ownership and use of property, such as land, money, books, music, and art. Government should not provide assistance to people who are out of work; otherwise, they will not be encouraged to seek employment. Government should not provide free medical care; people should live healthy life styles and avoid doing things that make them sick. Government should be as small as possible.

In the California legislature, a minority of 1/3 + 1 was able to prevent the passage of the State budget for more than seven months. The minority was opposed to increased State spending on schools, hospitals, help for the elderly, help for the unemployed, etc., etc., etc. The impasse was broken when one Republican senator agreed to vote for the budget if certain electoral reforms were adopted, particularly creating an open primary election.

In the federal legislature, a minority of 2/5 + 1 in the Senate is able to stop legislation opposed by a minority. The Senate is not apportioned according to population and so the minority can represent less than 1/5 of the total population of our country.

One remedy in California would be to change the 2/3 voting requirement for budgets and taxes to a simple majority, like most States. Some of us advocate that change. Our Governor has a different idea. Rather than repeal the 2/3 requirement he wants to reform the two parties by arranging the boundaries of electoral districts and by changing the rules in primary elections to make it easier for "centrist" candidates of the two major parties to be elected to the legislature. Get rid of the stubborn die-hards and it will be easier to achieve the 2/3 majority for budgets and taxes.

The reform to change the way electoral districts are laid out has been enacted and will be used after the 2010 census to reapportion districts for the State Assembly and State Senate. The reform to change to an open primary will be submitted to the voters in 2010. The legislature will not approve a constitutional amendment to eliminate the 2/3 vote requirement because any proposed amendment to the State constitution must have a 2/3 vote in each house of the legislature. That proposal can be put to a vote only by a signature-gathering campaign for an initiative.

We will see how these changes work out, or whether they are adopted. I wonder if I will live long enough to see the results.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009


A Contrary Thought about Taxes

The other day I heard a report on the news about a state legislator who argued that since many large corporations are laying off employees the state should do the same. I suppose that if the legislator were a member of the federal legislature he would argue that the federal government should also lay people off during recessions, just like other enterprises.

What on earth was he thinking? Unemployment is increasing during a recession because large corporations are laying off workers by the thousands. Governments should follow the trend and make unemployment even worse? Where are all of these unemployed workers going to find employment and wages to support themselves and their families? I guess this legislator thought that the unemployed workers could simply hibernate or live with their relatives until times got better and the recession turned into a boom.

This legislator was speaking in the context of whether to raise taxes. Unemployment causes additional problems for states. There's unemployment insurance, of course. There's welfare for people unable to find work when the unemployment insurance runs out. There are increased medical costs as unemployed workers turn to emergency rooms for needed medical care. And so it goes.

I tend to view the problem of unemployment as a societal problem. We have constructed a society in which unemployment seems to be a natural consequence of the way the economic system operates. We all have a responsibility to care for those less fortunate than those of us who still have jobs and good incomes. How is this caring to be done?

It can be done in a haphazard way by letting various religious and other charitable groups provide food and shelter for those who are out of work and money. This method doesn't apply the obligation to care for the unfortunate evenly. Only those of us who contribute money and labor to these charities bear the load of caring for the unfortunate. In addition, there aren't enough charities to take care of all the unemployed.

It can be done in a fair way, with each person who has a good income contributing a fair share. That means that government provides the food and shelter and the money comes from taxes. Using this argument, I assert that taxes on those still employed should be raised during a recession to pay for supporting the unemployed.

I know this argument will drive the legislator in question crazy.

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Friday, February 20, 2009


Failed Experiments

Our DNA is a very complex molecule. It is said that about 30,000 segments of it are used in directing the development and growth of the human body. Most of it seems to be useless junk. The DNA of very simple organisms is also complex but not as much so as human DNA. We have to suppose that DNA first appeared at the time the first living organisms were present. Perhaps the DNA preceded the first cells. This primitive DNA had the ability to replicate itself and fed on the primordial soup that made up the atmosphere of the young planet.

As time went on, the ever present cosmic radiation caused radiation damange in some DNA molecules. New genes were formed. Most of them were useless. The replicating nature of the DNA molecule didn't provide any way of getting rid of the useless material, so it was kept. Special molecules were formed to activate or turn off the genes or sections of the DNA, as needed in the development of the simple organisms that then existed.

The process of mutation, trying new genes, and selecting organisms with the useful genes has proceeded up to the present day. Our DNA is now filled with genes that provide no useful function. We do not get rid of them. We simply evolve new ones with different functions.

This looks like a simplified explanation of the origin of species and characteristics in terms of genetics. My intent is to show that human experimentation with government and governance, especially as practiced here in California, is similar to the evolution of new species.

Here the public has the privilege of enacting laws by popular vote, otherwise known as the initiative. Using the initiative, the people of California have changed or mutated the character of the State's government. An initiative changed the voting procedure in the State legislature to require a 2/3 majority rather than a simple majority for passing a budget or raising taxes. That change has had the unfortunate consequence of allowing a minority of 1/3 + 1 members of either house of the legislature to hold up a budget or a needed tax increase. Generally speaking, the resulting impasse can be broken by making special deals with a few members of the minority. Both political parties like this feature. It gives a minority party bargaining power to achieve something that it couldn't get otherwise. A member may want a special appropriation to provide a new park for his district. In the recent case, one Senator was able to get grudging agreement to change the primary voting to a system in which a voter can vote for any candidate, regardless of party. The plan is set to be put on the ballot in 2010 and would affect elections in 2012 and subsequent years.

The people of California have also imposed term limits on members of the legislature. Six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate and you are then ineligible ever to serve in either house again. As a result, we have legislators who are inexperienced in the art of negotiating to resolve difficult problems.

The initiative process itself is an experiment that has not had the desired effect. It was instituted so that ordinary citizens could have legislation considered and passed by a vote of the people, especially when the legislature refused to consider such legislation. It has become a means for a wealthy person to put a deceptively worded proposition to the people for a vote. It is no longer a realistic option for a group of citizens with a cause but no money.

What is the cure for the problems of the 2/3 vote requirement and term limits? You'd think that the sensible thing would be to change them. Drop 2/3 to 3/5 or 11/20 or even a simple majority. Lengthen term limits to allow more years in each house, say, eight years in the Assembly and twelve in the Senate. But, no; that's not going to happen. We will keep the 2/3 vote and the term limits. Instead, we will change the method of electing members. The open primary is expected to produce a class of legislators who are less extreme and less beholden to certain of their supporters and are, therefore, more willing to compromise and less likely to threaten to bankrupt the State if they can't have everything their way. Another change is that legislators will no longer choose the sizes and shapes of their districts. More districts will be competitive when an impartial commission sets the boundaries rather than a legislature.

Like living organisms, we are unable to discard characteristics that don't have the desired effect. Instead, we introduce new experiments (commission to redistrict after the census, open primary, etc.) and cling to the old ones. Perhaps some day the Supreme Court will decide that term limits are unconstitutional, or that the 2/3 vote is unconstitutional. That would be the analog of cosmic radiation damaging a gene so that it no longer functions. Until then, our State Constitution will resemble human DNA not only in its length but in the provisions that are no longer effective.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009


Thoughts about Darwin

I watched a NOVA program on a PBS channel this evening. The program described the trial that occurred in Dover, Pennsylvania a few years ago about the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in biology classes as an alternative to Darwin's theory of the origin of species by evolution and natural selection. The plaintiffs sued the school board, claiming that the teaching of "Creationism" as science had been declared unconstitutional a few years earlier by the US Supreme Court. The plaintiffs finally won the case by showing that the motive for teaching ID or C as a substitute for Evolution was religious. There is a "WEDGE" institute that is working to convince the public that Creationism or Intelligent Design is an acceptable scientific theory and that there are features of living organisms that couldn't have developed simply by evolution and natural selection. The plaintiffs were able to mount a counter-example to a favorite cellular feature advanced by creationists that showed that the seemingly unevolvable structure had a feature was identical to a precurser structure that existed in other life forms.

The WEDGE people believe that the public acceptance of Darwin's theory has led to a degradation of morals. People no longer believe that God created all the different species that exist and in particular that God created Man in His own image. If Darwin's theory can be discredited or if people can be made to disbelieve it, then people will return to God and behave better to each other. Etc., etc., etc.

At this point I confess that there is nothing new in this little essay. You may stop reading here and go to another blog that may have some original content. I simply write what I believe. I express my opinion. I can't help it that millions of people may agree with me and thousands can express these ideas better than I. This blog costs me nothing but the time I spend writing it. Read on or leave. You won't offend me either way.

One thought is that long before Darwin, before Galileo, before Copernicus, there was an age in which people believed that everything that happened was a result of God's will. Rain, lightning, the seasons, plagues, comets, volcanic eruptions, and all the rest were results of God's will or of evil spirits trying to thwart God's will. However, the history of that era is full of ways in which humans treated each other with extreme cruelty. Belief in God didn't make them behave any better.

Another thought is that many Christians, especially Protestant Evangelicals, combine belief in God with faith that the Bible is God's Word. My cousin, who has a Doctorate in Chemistry from the University of Michigan, believes that the original text of the Bible was written by God. He is not the only worshiper of the Bible among American Christians. Their problem with Darwin's theory is that it conflicts with the account in the Bible of how the different species came to exist. I was brought up to be skeptical of some of the stories in the Bible. My opinion is that the Bible contains the oral history of the Jewish People. These stories were collected and written down several hundred years before the beginning of the Christian Era. Events that occurred at the time were recorded more or less accurately. Events that had occurred long before showed the distortions that appear in any oral account that is passed through many generations.

Those Christians who are not wedded to a belief in the holiness of the Bible have no problem with believing in God and in Darwin's theory simultaneously. Darwin's theory is about how things happened. Belief in God is about why.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009


Peace Prospects Dimming for Israel

Israel seems ready to elect a government somewhat or very much more conservative than the present one. This new Israeli government will make it virtually impossible for the Obama Administration to make any progress on negotiations for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The new government will be even less willing to trust the Palestinians than the present one. The new government will be more open about its real long-term objective: ridding the Biblical land of Israel of all non-Jews so that the Kingdom of King Solomon can be restored in all its glory. Less flamboyantly, the objective is to control and sanitize or cleanse enough territory to make room for any Jew anywhere in the world to return to the biblical home of the Jewish people.

What advice can one give to Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton? I think the best advice is to turn Israel loose. Stop the American subsidy. Israel doesn't need our protection any more; it has the strongest military force in the area and has shown already that no combination of Arab armies can defeat it. Let Israel and its neighbors duke it out. After war there can be peace. Let us stand back and refrain from taking sides.

By electing a conservative government, the Israeli people are showing that they are spoiling for a fight and are not interested in any compromises at present.


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