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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