Politics And Money Make Chaos

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison saw this coming. Both spoke eloquently in the Federalist Papers about the corrosive influence of money on the political process. But, sadly, they did not fully foresee the consequences and missed an early chance to propose a solution.

Thus, we are stuck with a fundamental problem, with no clear way to remedy it.

We have to start by going to a very high-level perspective to explain the problem and then simplify it enough to try to get at some possible points of entry to fix it.

Politics is fundamentally a complex process of citizen voters electing people to represent their collective interests in how to tax and spend their hard earned money. That tough and grinding process has been going on for more than 200 years.

It has now begun to collapse of its own weight because the country has become tribalized in such a way that ‘haves’ consistently out-gunned the ‘have nots’. If we stay on that course much longer, it could well lead to a very messy revolution. (The animosity toward the political class that animates many Trump supporters is a measure of deep and dangerous problems.)

To make matters even worse, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that use of money in politics by people and corporations is the equivalent of freedom of expression and speech and therefore cannot, for the most part, be limited or regulated. The consequence of that obviously important (and obviously wrong) ruling has been to amplify a lot the troublesome effects of money in politics — ushering in the age of the billion-dollar presidential campaign, among others — something most of the framers of the Constitution surely never intended, largely because they could not anticipate anything beyond newspapers. The writings of both Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers make that crystal clear.

Since about 1900, with the advent of the now massive federal regulatory process, a continuous grouping and regrouping of American voters into ‘special interest groups’ vying for more tax dollars to support their ‘special interests’ has been accelerating.

Now, many legislators have effectively stopped trying to rationally and intelligently accommodate competing interests in the overall national interest because doing so has often put their reelections in peril. Money and votes tend to flow toward the extremes of the political spectrum rather than the center.

Thus, we see today, a severe breakdown in the central function of representative government – serving the interests of all Americans, not just special interest groups.

Looked at this way, our politics and money problems have begun to collide in unforeseen ways, spurring on what may be a basic unraveling of our political organizations, particularly the two main political parties, which are on the brink of splitting in two. The extreme left and extreme right both want nothing to do with the center left and center right. And, none of those four groups seem able to work with any of the other three. Hence NOTHING is happening. That is a genuine recipe for chaos.

Given the Supreme Court’s view that money equals speech, we cannot readily stanch the flood of money into politics.  Instead, we’ll have to find ways to reform the political process to either reduce the influence of money or redirect it toward the center of the political spectrum.  Luckily, there are a host of things we can look at and study as possible ways to get at this problem:

  • Ranked Choice Voting has been used in several places — Maine and California for starters. Under this system, voters choose several candidates, in order of The candidate with the lowest first-choice votes is eliminated, and candidates who were the second choice of those voters get their votes. The process is repeated until someone secures a majority of votes cast.  Ranked choice voting has the possible advantage of requiring an outright majority to win, and thus gives a preference to candidates in the middle of the spectrum. The far-left or -right candidates might be the first choice of a plurality, but likely will be the second choice of far fewer. The method looks like it might elect more Centrist candidates more representative of the majority of voters.

    Because money is intended to cultivate influence, its first and foremost priority is backing a winner. If centrist candidates (from both parties) are more likely to emerge victorious, more money should flow to them naturally.

 

  • Address Gerrymandering. Many states have had their Congressional Districts so distorted that many of their citizens have effectively lost their rights to fair representation. Both parties are equally culpable.  “Safe” districts – defined as those unlikely to switch parties, regardless of the individual holding the seat – encourage extreme candidates because election outcomes in such districts are often decided in the primary, and primary voters said to be more extreme-oriented than their general election counterparts. Again, money goes where it’s likely to matter, and competitive, non-gerrymandered districts make it more likely the center of the political spectrum thus will become better represented.
  • Public Financing for Congressional Races. For many years, presidential candidates accepted limits on their own fundraising in exchange for money funded through an optional $3 “check-off” on tax returns (choosing it did not increase the tax owed). In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to reject public financing, confident (and rightly so) that he could raise far more money outside the system. Given the cost of modern presidential campaigns, it’s unlikely that system will return any time soon. But that model might be more effective at the Congressional level, where members of Congress (particularly Representatives who stand for re-election every two years) are forced to spend hours each day, year round, chasing dollars from interests large and small alike.  The average winning Congressional candidate spent $1.3 million in 2016. So, for less than $3 million per district, or $1.3 billion overall, we could dramatically reduce the influence of outside money, AND free up our elected officials to spend more time focused on their jobs, rather than on just keeping their jobs.  Similarly, the average winning Senate candidate spent just over $10.4 million in 2016; there are only 100 Senators, though, so the overall cost would be only $2.08 billion or so – and because only a third of Senate seats are contested in each election cycle, that $2.08 billion is incurred over six years! This is a tough road to hoe. How to allocate and award the money is not easy. But it should be doable if the goal is both important and proper.

Those three general ideas deliberately do not target any specific policy issues (because that probably would kill them before arrival). Individually, any of them could somewhat reduce the corrosive influence of money that Madison and Hamilton warned about; collectively, they could dramatically reshape American political campaigns to get representation for a majority of voters.

The one thing that we surely cannot do is nothing.  If we simply hope and wait, things will certainly get worse.

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How To Age Well

If we are lucky, we get a chance to age well. If we are very lucky, we’ll recognize it and plan for it.

How? And what does “age well” even mean?

Our goals for aging well are probably not so different from the wide variation of goals throughout our lives.

We want to stay involved with our families. We want to keep our mental faculties and physical health. We want to stay engaged with the world around us. If possible, we want to keep on making some difference.

We do not want to fret all the time. We do not want to be constantly worried about the future that we are handing off to our descendants.

Many of these goals require an adaptive frame of mind and a willingness to accept some of the inevitable creeping up of reduced energy—sometimes lethargy—and willingness to tackle aging head on.

Keeping in touch with growing grandchildren takes work. They no longer use email; they grew up with texting and social media. Ugh! And they cannot quite figure us out because what they hear about us from their parents describes a world they do not see or comprehend.

Grandchildren with children are easier to deal with than children with children. Your children hold you responsible for mistakes you made with them and do not want your advice about how they raise their own children. But your grandchildren hold you blameless and welcome advice! Trust me, it’s worth the wait!

And then there is sex. No children, or any of their children, can or want to think about how they came to be. The idea of parents having sex shocks them out of their wits. They also seem to think that once they were immaculately conceived, all sex between their elders stopped. Sex is only for the young.

What they do not grasp is that sex is an important part of most of most people’s lives – until it isn’t.

A nice way of explaining that is the story about Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous lawyer/jurist who went on the U.S. Supreme Court in his 60s, but never lost his eye for a pretty girl. One day, some 30 years later (at about 90), Holmes was lunching with a colleague at an outdoor café when a pretty girl walked by. Holmes exclaimed to his friend “Oh, to be 80 again!”

Oh, to be like Holmes, who died happily on the Court at 94.

He is my gold standard of aging well!!

Artificial Vs. Human Intelligence

The rapid advent of AI is scary to many people, promising to others, and a little of both to most.

It is scary partly because it is more unmanageable than the internet and social media, which in a world of ransomware, Russian manipulation and privacy invasions do not inspire a lot of confidence. It is promising in that it may, for example, help inarticulate Uber drivers better and more easily find their riders. And probably some other benefits as yet unimagined.

A first order question is what the real difference is between artificial and human versions of intelligence. One age-old definition of exceptionally good human intelligence is the ability to associate dissociated things/ideas. That, of course, involves pure intuitiveness. It is not yet clear to me whether AI can clear that hurdle.

AI’s self-learning algorithms and limitless memory notwithstanding, it is still basically built on the speed and capacity of computers to almost instantly scan and consider millions of possibilities looking for all relevant matches and possibilities relating to the issue/question at hand. However, if two things have never been associated, [which obviously can happen] presumably a ‘match’ is not there to be found. Hence, exceptional humans may always have an edge over machines. The fate of the rest of us is yet to be determined, presumably by our eventual robot overlords.

In the meantime, there is much to beware. Machines, for example, never forget a face once seen. Therefore, people may have to be more careful in where they go and show their face, because the evidence that they were there at a certain time will be available more or less forever. That might be an advantage in establishing an alibi. But, it also might put them at the scene of a crime. Those are not necessarily off-setting possibilities. Opportunities for abuse by law enforcement or despots abound. Freedom of assembly is a cornerstone of our democracy – one that cannot exist without freedom of movement.

AI therefore might just be on the verge of impinging [even unintentionally] on our basic freedoms?

A recent Secretary of Defense regards this as one of the least visible but biggest problems we face today.

I Know Not Where

A few days ago, I forecast that Trump would draw his target around wherever his arrow from Singapore landed and call it the best deal in history ever made by an American President.

Well, I am sorry to say, I was WRONG!

It is, of course, impossible to draw a target around nothing –particularly an arrow that has NOT landed.

Who could have imagined that nothing of any significance would emerge from such a highly touted meeting of such importance?  Of course, that reality hasn’t even slowed down our clueless leader, who proclaimed “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

In any event, I apologize for not having anticipated such an empty let down.

At least we are not at war with North Korea.

The result also makes the Iran deal Obama made, and on which Trump reneged, look like an even better deal than ever.

Where we –and Trump—are next headed in this saga remains yet to be imagined.

Best Free Meal In New York City

There are not many free things worthwhile in life today. I did discover yesterday one free thing worth reporting on.

The Harvard Club of New York in recent years has been holding an annual lunch celebrating/honoring all members of 50 plus years.

They like having a lot of members—currently more than 12,000—and the golden oldies are great business because they pay their dues but rarely use [cost] the club as they may have in their younger years.

I went this year and had an interesting experience.

The lady guarding the door tried to turn me away saying: “This is just for the older members.” I finally convinced her that my name was on the list.  She then relented, saying “If you insist.”

Then I found a classmate and enjoyed the gathering, feeling pretty cool that I was perhaps the youngest looking ‘oldie’ in the room.

But what was truly noticeable was the meal. The salad was exceptional, with a lovely dressing and elegant fruits; the main plate was perfectly cooked halibut, king of fish, steaks with ideal vegetables and popovers to add insult to the calories.

That was when I was struck by the wise generosity of the Club to dangle such an attractive reward for the long term loyalty of Club members.

It also provided me with an excellent excuse to tell you good things about the Club and its food AND about my apparent youthfulness!

Perhaps Trump Should Pardon Himself Now!

If Donald Trump really believes that he has absolute power to pardon himself, it would make excellent sense for him to do it now, and thus put an immediate end to ‘this whole pointless witch hunt search for collusion.’

He could say both that he believes that he never knowingly violated any law or obstructed justice in any way BUT, if he possibly did so, even inadvertently, he pardons himself and therefore the whole “Russia thing” would become immediately moot.

He would also immediately be freed from all the harassment dogging and distracting him and be able to get back to his full time job of President which he yearns to do.

What else would happen is, of course, quite unclear.

For certain, lawyers from the left and right would head immediately to court to question and/or support the constitutionality of his actions.

Based on earlier indications, it also seems likely that there would be movement in both chambers of Congress toward impeachment.

From the perspective of the country as a whole, despite an intense period of chaos and confusion, the Trump episode would either be legitimized or ended much more promptly than seems otherwise possible at the moment.

There is a lot to be said for getting back to a more normal life.

Even his own spokesman and lawyer on this matter said last weekend that at the end of the day it comes down to impeachment or no impeachment.

Let’s all get on with it. The slow grind is bad for everyone ­– here and abroad.

If he really believes that he has the power to pardon himself, he should take such a step to either really continue to fish longer or cut the bait now and be done with uncertainty!