The Only Scandal In Hillary Clinton’s E-mails

I read this very long Politico article about the Clinton e-mail scandal, so you don’t have to. It goes into insane detail about who did what when, but the scary truth behind it all is this: the grown-ups have no idea about the Internet.

The upshot of the article is that very little evidence suggests Hillary Clinton deliberately broke the law. In fact, she clearly did not know enough about the technology to see that she might be breaking the law. So the real scandal is how clueless she was about the Internet, given that she was Secretary of State.

To be clear: 100% I don’t think this means she should be arrested. If you do, you’d have to convince me that you both know what an ’email server’ is and could properly set one up yourself. I’m pretty sure I could do it, though I haven’t. I am also pretty sure that all of the people in Congress calling for Secretary Clinton’s imprisonment couldn’t pick an email server out of a CompUSA catalog, much less make it work.

Given the circumstances Clinton faced, it’s not at all surprising she chose to use a private email server. Clinton used an email server to get around the State Department’s sclerotic tech systems; this is an organization that only gave its employees proper Internet access in 2001, under Secy. Powell’s tenure.

And while Powell may have suggested Clinton use a private email address to avoid the State Department’s tech problems, the article makes clear that Clinton otherwise had no interest in solving or even looking at those problems. The portrait that emerges is of a person who simply does not understand or appreciate the technology crucial to our society and economy. Here’s a quote:

Hillary Clinton, for her part, proved remarkably uninterested and unfamiliar with new technology. By time she moved into Foggy Bottom, much of the world had jumped aboard the iPhone bandwagon, but Clinton would cling stubbornly to her BlackBerry…

Some version of that first sentence appears in the article several times: Clinton did not know the technology and did not care to know. It’s the indifference, more than anything, that is damning. She not only had zero curiosity about the technology, she surrounded herself with people who didn’t understand it, either:

Aides like Mills, Abedin and Sullivan all said that while they knew her email address, they didn’t understand the technology behind it and were “unaware of existence of private server until after Clinton’s tenure.” Mills said she “was not even sure she knew what a server was at the time” she was Clinton’s chief of staff. It’s not even clear Clinton herself understood her email was running off a homemade computer in her Chappaqua basement: Clinton told the FBI she “had no knowledge of the hardware, software, or security protocols used to construct and operate the servers.”

You might think basic Internet technology would be irrelevant to the State Department — but no. Not only is the Internet extremely useful for organizations with offices spread over nearly every country in the world, but it is also the most promising technology for human knowledge and freedom since this country was founded. The article makes clear that while Clinton said nice things to say about the Internet, she  had no real idea what she was talking about.

What’s more, the Internet and related tech pose an extraordinary challenge to international politics as it is presently organized. The politics we take as the foundation of the international system emerged from transformations brought about by the spread of the printing press in Europe; how we understand our world and interact with it is grounded very deeply in the norms and habits of literacy, with respect to the printed page. America’s political foundations — like the idea that a written document is more important than divine right — are a consequence of literacy.

But increasingly, the Internet — with its norms and habits still evolving — is taking precedence over print. We see the beginnings of that process in this country, where many people give as much weight to speculation on the Internet as to published science or official documents. And when billions of people for whom printed matter was a luxury come online and find a world of knowledge at their fingertips, they will probably have some edits for the lucky few in the developed world. Jim Rosenau and I co-authored a book chapter arguing that the developed world can only guess what those changes will look like. The fact that it’s in an actual printed book probably explains why our argument has gotten little traction, but here’s a taste:

…the diffusion and convergence of information technology portends a shift “along the lines of those that began to occur when people first settled into villages and formed nation-states”; indeed, as a result of this shift, “we are on the verge of a major series of social changes that are closely tied to emerging technologies.” Put in more political terms, as whole generations possess the new equipment and acquire the habit of using it reflexively, the tensions between governments and governance, between individuals and organizations, and between users and owners will become more conspicuous and acute and drive crises of authority throughout the world. It is, however, much too early to assert with any confidence the ultimate resolution of these changes because they are still underway; the Internet literate generation has yet to fully replace its predecessors, and even that may only be the first step. Nonetheless, it seems likely that when those in the present younger generations enter the ranks of elites, activists, and thoughtful citizens throughout the world, the nature of politics within and between countries will be, for better or worse, profoundly different than is the case today.

In plain language: we are at the very beginning of the Internet age, and we have no idea where it might go. Probably, it will involve very massive change in our political order, and there’s not much we can do to stop it at this point. To many — even most — governments, that change will seem a challenge, maybe a threat. The governments that least understand the technology, that least appreciate its potential for transformation, are most likely to see it as a threat and respond to these changes poorly.

So developed countries need leaders who can help adapt our global political order to the change, without being baffled or confused or afraid. In that respect, President Obama was a half-step in the right direction. The facts of the email scandal, laid out in painstaking detail, suggest that Hillary Clinton is a step backwards.*

Hillary Clinton is still the best candidate in the race. But she will not be effective as President if she does not understand — at least a little — the Internet. Our future requires that the President see the Internet as more than just a tool, but as a technology that is transforming our world. And the real scandal in the email story is that Hillary Clinton does not.

*In this respect, Donald Trump is cutting off our legs while shouting we’re the best at stepping and there has never been a greater stepper in the history of the planet.

Let’s All Stop Pretending There Are Third Parties

This November, voters averse to the two main candidates might notice lots of other parties on the ballot. Don’t believe it: there are no third parties, and we should stop pretending it’s so.

True — there are organizations that represent themselves as national parties, but they have no presence at that level. In a practical sense, they don’t exist. Having them on the ballot is a fantasy that hides real problems in our electoral system.

What makes a party real? At the national level, that means a presence in states — not just a state, but several. Consider this table, which breaks down control of state legislatures: in 37 states the legislature is composed solely of Democrats or Republicans, with no other party present.

Moreover, most of the ‘third-party’ legislators in the other thirteen states are independents. Maine has three or four, Louisiana has two, and New Hampshire has an independent in both the state House and Senate.

Alaska, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Texas each have a single independent legislator. Nebraska’s legislature is technically non-partisan, but even there only one member identifies as independent — the rest are Republicans and Democrats.

Keep in mind that independent means no party affiliation — so not a third party. But if independent were a party, 10 to 40% of Americans would be members, making it perhaps the biggest party in America. Yet only 22 out of 7383 seats — fewer than 3/10ths of a percent — in state legislatures are held by independents. That’s how strongly the system favors the two main parties.

For actual third parties, the picture is even bleaker: only Vermont has a significant third party presence, with 12 legislators outside the two parties: six are from the Vermont Progressive party, and 6 are independent. New York has one member each from the Independence and Conservative parties. In New Hampshire, a Republican state representative switched his party affiliation to Libertarian.

And that’s it — that’s all the third parties there are. Nine seats in three states (not counting territories). Only the Vermont Progressive party has won more than one seat. No other third party has been that successful. None have seats in more than one state, and none has a seat in Congress.

That means, in concrete terms, there are no third parties in national politics. This is not meant to dismiss the hard work of activists in those organizations. Instead, the problem is a system that prevents them from gaining any traction against the Republicans or Democrats.

The system that protects the two parties has existed for a long time, and might be getting worse. See this timeline of the House of Representatives: red is Republicans and blue is Democrats. vishistoryHORThe timeline shows that the last time there was significant third-party presence in the House was 1937, and even then it was small (you can’t see it in this low-rez screen cap, so it’s definitely worth clicking through and zooming around a bit). In fact, the two parties have dominated the House ever since 1858, when the Republican party came into play.

There are very few, brief periods where more than two parties have had significant presence in the House, and the system quickly collapses back to its two-party equilibrium. Often, third parties are absorbed into one or the other party, but sometimes they are shut out and left to die.

Our electoral system makes it very hard for other parties to compete against the Republicans and Democrats. But, oddly enough, it also makes it very easy for other parties to pretend to compete. This hides how strictly biased the system is, by giving us the illusion of choice.

So voters may think that a third-party candidate is the best way to protest, and demand reform. Yet that vote may might even make the two-party system worse, by distracting us from real options for change.

The good news is that there are real options for change, and real ways to break the two-party stranglehold, and make our system more competitive for third parties. Reforms like the alternative vote and multi-member districting can make government more accessible to outside parties. These might be difficult to pass, but nowhere near impossible.

Those changes, if they happen, will happen at the state level. No Presidential candidate — not even Congress — can fix our system, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.


Political Parties Should Be Rigged.

Just before the DNC email hack was exposed, I wrote a post titled ‘The American Electoral System Is Broken — Not Rigged’. Many people saw those emails as evidence the Democratic party really is ‘rigged’. In fact, the emails show the Democratic party working as a party should.

Key here is the fact that parties are not governments. The rules we have for government are not always apt for political parties. Parties are at best quasi-governmental — but really, they are more like corporations than government.

And, in fact, the Democratic party — specifically the DNC — really is a corporation, called the the DNC Services Corporation. That entity is a non-profit registered in the District of Columbia; as of July 28, its only ‘executing officer’ was Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

When Bernie Sanders’s campaign sued the DNC, the defendant was named as “DNC Services Corporation d/b/a Democratic National Committee“. The plaintiff in that case was “Bernie 2016, Inc.” — also a corporation. There is good reason this should be so.

We have parties for the same reason we have corporations: they are containers for information. In the case of corporations that sell a product, that information is all the steps and tools and techniques necessary to produce and sell that product.

Otherwise there is too much uncertainty in the process — which economists call ‘information costs’, or ‘transaction costs’. If there were no transaction costs, we would not need corporations. This idea won Ronald Coase the Nobel Prize in Economics.

If this seems unclear, it is actually a lot easier to explain with voting. Imagine a ballot with thirty candidates on it, and no information about their party affiliation: voters would have to research each candidate before making a decision. That research — the time and energy it takes — is the ‘information cost’ of voting.

Parties make voting easier by reducing those information costs. It’s still a very good idea to research candidates and their positions, but parties allow voters without the resources to meet those costs to still make semi-informed decisions. Parties are a short-cut, but a necessary one in an era of so much complex information.

So in the same way that Nike or Apple helps you make choices about shoes or phones, the Democrat and Republican brands help you make choices about votes. Now imagine Apple was the subject of a hostile takeover by a smaller company that wanted to stop making iPhones and instead sell deeply discounted Android phones. Would you expect Tim Cook and other Apple executives to be impartial in that fight?

It is no surprise that Ms. Wasseman-Schultz was against Bernie Sanders. Ms. Clinton is the DNC’s flagship product, and Wasserman-Schultz was defending the brand. True: the DNC’s own rules say staff must be impartial*, but that rule makes as much sense as a Apple promising to be impartial between iOS and Android. As best I can tell, the RNC has no such rule.

It makes sense that parties should be partial to candidates that best represent their party — their values and goals. Especially given the fact that the parties depend on a primary system run by state governments, they need some kind of gate-keeping power over candidates.

The DNC could choose candidates some other way, but it prefers that system a part of a symbiotic relationship the two parties have with government and each other. While that relationship keeps the major parties alive, it does blur the line between party and government.

Moreover, it hurts voters. First, it limits the number of choices we have by excluding third parties. There is good reason to think Americans’ political beliefs would support five or more parties. It is strange, at least, that a country whose cereal aisle has a million choices goes to the polls with only two.

Second, it dilutes the parties’ brands. The parties compete across a much broader idea space than they would if other parties were in the contest. A party that includes Ms. Clinton and Mr. Sanders does not have much ideological consistency. A party that includes both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump has even less. Voters do not really know what they are getting from these parties, and many of them are likely to be disappointed.

Third — and closely-related — it re-creates and magnifies the entire problem parties are supposed to solve, only now at the primary level. And because there are so many more candidates at the primary level, the information costs to votes are that much higher — sixteen times higher, for GOP primary voters.  Voters now have to decide if a candidate is the right kind of Republican or Democrat for their political views.

The fatal flaw in the two-party system is that it is now easier for people like Sanders and Trump to run within those parties, than as third-party or independent candidates. This year’s primaries should lead the parties to rethink that system, assuming they both survive the general election.

In any case, it would be better for voters if the two parties moved towards more internal consistency, which does mean being partial to candidates that best reflect their values and goals. The fact that the DNC said otherwise is just another way that particular party is dysfunctional.

The party should be rigged — at least a little. Instead, it’s just broken.


Seven-carbon sons of bitches

If you are reading Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and wonder what “seven-carbon sons of bitches” are, it probably means Mark Bragg is implying those people are diesel-powered.

This is in contrast to more modern-thinking men, like Admiral Rickover “pounding desks for his atomic sub.” Diesel fuel has more heptane — with 7 carbon atoms — and is thus lighter compared to other fuels like automotive gasoline and jet fuel. The full quote, on what it will take to transform the American defense establishment to deal with the Soviet threat:

“Bold men, audacious men, tenacious men. Impatient, odd-ball men like Rickover pounding desks for his atomic sub. Ruthless men who will fire the deadheads and ass-kissers. Rude men who will tell the unimaginative, business-as-usual, seven-carbon sons of bitches to go take a jump at a galloping goose.”*

Did we get those men? Are they still valuable in a post-Cold-War security environment? Discuss.

*Bantam Pathfinder edition, 1970 – p. 17

Open Ballots Are Secure Ballots.

Many people worry about the security of votes in this country. Whether electronic voting machines, voting rolls, or Internet voting, there is much hand-wringing — and now the Secretary of Homeland Security is asking whether voting systems are ‘critical infrastructure’ (and they are.)

But a simple change makes most of these problems easy to solve: the open ballot.

We take the secret ballot for granted, but it wasn’t always so. Before the 20th century, nearly all U.S. voters cast their ballots openly. Most states switched to the secret ballot amid concerns that votes were being sold or coerced. Other states, however, moved to the secret ballot (= paper, written ballot) as a way to marginalize illiterate black voters.

The secret ballot mostly prevents one kind of corruption but it permits other kinds of corruption, in that voters have no idea whether votes are counted correctly, or even if they are counted at all. With a secret ballot, all sorts of things can happen between a voter submitting their vote, and the elections official reporting the results.

Meanwhile, the secret ballot gives us a false sense of security. At a time when big data is used to predict whether teens are pregnant, it’s trivial to guess how most everyone votes. Unless you have no credit cards, never shop online, never use store loyalty cards, and avoid all the other data traps in modern society — someone somewhere can guess how you will vote.

And most people are okay with that. Most people in our electorate don’t need the secret ballot. In fact, overseas military members regularly waive their right to the secret ballot, in order to vote by fax or email. Most people who vote are glad to tell other people how they voted. Most voters would gladly choose open ballots if they knew it helped secure our electoral systems.

Look at the central problem of verifying electronic voting systems: some experts suggest we only need a random sample of 3% or so of ballots to make sure votes are counted correctly. But with a large enough number of open ballots, we can do the same math even with pretty strong non-random patterns — say if most Republicans choose secret ballots and most Democrats choose open ballots. My guess is if 10% of ballots are open — 1 in 10 voters — that is enough to validate all votes, including those by secret ballot voters.

Moreover, the kind of corruption the secret ballot protects against is easily prosecuted today — think wiretaps and hidden cameras. Most people are not coerced into their vote, and most candidates would never dream of buying a vote (though both still happen, even with the secret ballot). There may yet be legitimate reasons a person wants a secret ballot — and they should have that choice, but it does not have to be the only option for all voters.

While the most obvious form of open ballot is to never make votes secret, there are other ways that answer concerns about corruption. One is to keep ballots secret until some time after the election, then make open votes known to identify discrepancies before results are certified. Another way is to keep ballots secret until there is a recount or reason to suspect fraud, and then make open votes public. Either of these better balances the corruption concerns of the 21st century against those of the 19th centuries than an always-secret ballot.

Last week NPR’s Science Friday ran a segment called ‘How Secure Are U.S. Voting Systems?’, weighing the problems with voting systems. The guests had lots of helpful, technically complex, potentially expensive solutions for solving the problem — but the whole conversation assumed the secret ballot. This assumption is implicit in nearly every discussion of securing the vote, but it never gets examined. Yet as soon as we stop assuming a secret ballot, most — if not all — of the problems disappear.

The security of our electoral systems is important, and an ongoing problem. We should be discussing ways to secure our vote, but those discussions shouldn’t rely solely on technical solutions.

We should be asking whether the secret ballot still makes sense — and whether an open ballot is the best, easiest solution to those problems.


Brexit Will Not Lead To World War III. Teresa May Might.

Some people — including former Prime Minister David Cameron — have warned that Brexit is the first step on a path which could lead to World War III. Implicit in this is the notion that the EU plays a role in European peace. Yet that role is minimal, at most, and Brexit alone will not endanger that peace.

The Brexit vote means Britain may — not will, not yet — leave the European Union, but it’s important to see that the European Union is primarily an economic arrangement. The fact that the EU is most famous for printing money — the Euro — is key here. Also, if the EU was important to keeping the peace in Europe, why was there peace in Europe for nearly 50 years between the end of World War II and the formation of the EU in 1993?

Even outside the EU, Britain will still trade greatly with the rest of the EU. Brexit is about the terms of that trade. While some people think trade leads to peace, this is difficult to prove with actual data. A related theory posits not that trade protects from war, but that a decrease in relative trade may lead to war — but is hardly likely to hold for Britain after it leaves the EU, even with a sharp drop in its economy.

Britain meanwhile belongs to several organizations which do concern peace in Europe — none of which Brexit affects. Most obviously, there is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but Britain also participates in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (COE). It is worth asking whether these organizations have kept — and will keep — peace in Europe.

NATO was formed after World War II to maintain the Western alliance — ‘to keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out’. It is widely thought to have been an important check against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, persuading the Soviets against invading Western Europe. While NATO’s value was questioned after the fall of the Soviet Union, the member countries have continued to work closely on defense even as the alliance has grown.

This growth, however, has made NATO a source of anger in Russia, and less a check on Russian aggression than it was. The growth of NATO to include Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — all along Russia’s borders — is seen by many Russians as a threat. Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine are in part a raised middle finger to the alliance. Meanwhile, Turkey’s membership in NATO exposes the alliance to that country’s increasing repression, instability, and involvement in the Syrian civil war.

The OSCE, on the other hand, is also a late-comer to European peace. Serving as a way for member governments to consult each other, the OSCE was formed in the late 1970s and includes Russia and other former Soviet countries. OSCE cooperation includes military issues, but also economic and human rights concerns. Today the OSCE’s most visible activity is elections monitoring. The OSCE may not be effective at keeping the peace, but it is also unlikely to lead to war.

Of the organizations mentioned, the Council of Europe may be the least well-known to Americans, but it also might be the most important to peace in Europe. After his defeat at the polls in 1945, Winston Churchill became a leading advocate for European cooperation, organizing a conference in 1948 on the topic. In a speech to the conference, Churchill called for “a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”, which he saw as a necessary bulwark against “all forms of tyranny, ancient or modern, Nazi or Communist”.

The logic behind this argument is simple: if a government can be vicious to its own citizens, it can be vicious to its neighbors as well. Hitler’s aggression in Europe was preceded by oppression in Germany — the two were flip sides of the same coin, in Churchill’s view. The result of the 1948 conference was the Council of Europe, which had the stated goal of preserving European peace. Fun fact: the EU ‘borrowed’ both the flag and the European anthem (‘Ode to Joy’) from the COE, even though the two are distinct organizations. The Council now includes 47 nations, including Russia and other former Soviet countries.

The crucial way the Council protects European peace is by guaranteeing human rights. One of the first acts of the Council was a treaty stating “the aim of the Council of Europe is the achievement of greater unity between its members and that one of the methods by which that aim is to be pursued is the maintenance and further realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Several other organizations take up human rights as a concern — the OSCE, EU, the United Nations — but the COE did something more: it established the European Court of Human Rights to enforce that concern. Citizens of COE member countries can bring their own governments to the ECHR, and they often do. In the first half of this year, the ECHR accepted almost 25,000 cases.

The ECHR’s role in promoting human rights may be more important than the EU, OSCE, the UN, or even NATO in preserving European peace. In international relations it is widely accepted that democracy is a powerful factor for peace; the idea has a name, the Democratic Peace Theory. Even still, some democratic states — like India, Israel, the United States — fight more wars than average, and there are some cases of democracies fighting against each other.

My doctoral research (ever incomplete) suggests that once you include measures for human rights records in the equation, the effect of democracy is much less — maybe even zero. Countries with solid human rights records do not fight wars against each other, and are roughly half as likely to fight wars in general. Along those lines, the ECHR has served for more than fifty years to protect and promote human rights in Europe, with clear and measurable consequences for peace.*

That’s not to say the Court is perfect; in the 50 years after the founding of the COE, member states fought at least one war: Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974. More recently, Russia has invaded both Georgia and Ukraine, and Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought an ongoing border war. But Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan have terrible human rights records, with Russia and Turkey both seeing thousands of cases before the Court each year. Moreover, the Court is the only organization with any legal capacity to push for improvement. ECHR decisions meanwhile have led to dramatic improvements in human rights for hundreds of millions of people across Europe.

This includes Britain: the ECHR has decided hundreds of British cases [PDF], many against the British government. Some of those cases involve issues like freedom of the press, gay rights, torture, and child abuse. As with Brexit, there has been some talk on the British right wing about walking away from the ECHR. Teresa May argued for leaving in April, before the Brexit referendum made her Prime Minister. The difference is that where the freedom and peace of Europe are concerned, exit from the European Union likely makes no difference. Brexit from the ECHR would more plausibly lead to repression, then aggression.

Britain’s departure from the EU was primarily an economic decision, with no consequence for peace and stability in Europe — except to the extent it encourages people like Teresa May to pursue another Brexit from the European Court of Human Rights. And that would be a mistake, at least where the risk of World War III — or any war — is concerned.

*As I say, this research is incomplete. I have datasets, bibliographic materials, and other resources for anyone interested in pursuing the topic. The datasets that I have processed are in STATA, but the raw datasets are in CSV and other basic formats.



The System Is Not Rigged. It Is Broken.

Photo of the 'blue screen of death' titled BSOD Stop c218 by Flickr user jmarty used under Creative Commons license

This week many Bernie Sanders supporters will protest Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Democratic presidential candidate. Their main complaint is that the system is ‘rigged’, but it is not. The system is merely broken, and understanding how it is broken is key to fixing it.

By way of analogy: I once owned a Dell laptop that overheated and shut down when I ran certain programs. That made it hard to run those programs, and easier to run others. That laptop was not rigged in favor of some programs; it was just broken.

The same with our political system — not just the primaries, but the whole electoral machinery. It is broken — and broken in ways that make it easy for some people to exploit. Yes, that makes it look like it’s rigged — but it’s still just broken.

The computer analogy is not abstract: it is helpful, in fact, to think of elections as a form of information technology. I don’t mean the actual punch cards or e-voting machines (although those machines might well be rigged), but the rules that say which votes count for which office. The rules for our electoral process form a technology — a way of doing things.

Voting is a way of giving information to the government about our interests and preferences. Our electoral system is how that information gets processed, ideally to produce a result that best sums up the original input.

The technology we use for elections is basically top of the line for the 1780s, with a significant upgrade in 1865 — but it is otherwise largely unchanged. We don’t rely on medical or transportation technology from the 1800s. Why does it make sense for government?

One key problem is that our system was designed for limited inputs. When the Constitution was ratified, women, minorities, and the poor were not allowed to vote. Insofar as the system favored white male property-owners, we can say it was rigged back then.

But we have since given women, minorities, and poor people the vote. These changes added more inputs, more information — they didn’t change the basic technology. All that new information puts a huge strain on our outdated electoral system, and it is sometimes overwhelmed.

For example, single-member districts make a lot of sense if only white male landowners are allowed to vote. It’s a good bet that all white male landowners in a district have similar interests. But when the electorates in those districts include minorities, or poor people, or women — which they do, today — those districts make less sense, and inevitably leave many voters unhappy.

Another example is our first-past-the-post voting system. It made sense in the steam age, but now it excludes minority voices and third parties. The result is a representative democracy where most people are not actually represented.

Our electoral system is antiquated, outdated, and overwhelmed by the challenges of modern representative democracy. The same way that I couldn’t run a magic program to fix my laptop, it’s not possible to elect a candidate who will fix the system. The output of our system will always be a product of its brokenness — and never has this been as obvious as it is this election year.

The only thing that can change the system is more democracy: specifically, a citizen campaign to change the technology. That has to happen at the state level; the Federal government is almost powerless under the Constitution to fix electoral problems. That means Congress and the President can’t fix the system, but they also can’t prevent it from being fixed.

The good news is that most states — 27 — allow citizen-led referendums and initiatives. In many of those states it will be easy to run an upgrade campaign. Some states will be harder — but still possible. Some reforms will make sense in some states, and some in others. Heavily urban states might choose multi-member districts, while diverse states might use instant-run-off or affirmation voting. Most states will want to lower the barriers to third-parties and independent candidates.

That leaves 23 states in which the legislature alone has responsibility for electoral rules. In those states, it will be tougher — but not impossible — to make the change. Citizens will have to put immense pressure on their legislators, but that will be easier as other states change the rules and voters see the benefits of those rules.

You may think this an unlikely solution, but it is the same way the secret ballot spread 100 years ago. Or, for that matter, the way the National Popular Vote — a much-needed upgrade — is already the law in 11 states, with more than half the electoral votes it needs to work.

We have to bring our electoral system into the 21st century. Saying our system is rigged is like saying a computer is rigged because it still runs Windows 3.

The system is broken — and only that. We can’t elect our way to tech support. We have to fix it ourselves

What Makes America Great Again?

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again”. Ignore for a moment the scantily-clad racism and the fancy-dress exceptionalism, and let me ask this: what, exactly, made America great in the first place?

It’s baffling why nobody has asked Trump that question, and his speeches are short on answers. Military strength is clearly part of his vision — but “war not make one great”, to quote the sage. Economic strength is also part of Trump’s vision — but if money made for greatness, Microsoft would be a great company. One hopes – or maybe wishes – the convention might provide more detail.

And, of course, we can ask whether America was ever great. Certainly, there are people for whom America is not, nor ever was great. But stipulating as much, let’s take Trump seriously: for many people, America had its great moments. It would then help to identify what exactly made America great.

I think the top of that list has to be courage, typified for many people by America in World War II. Granted: we could have joined a bit earlier, and done some things differently. But once in it, America was in to win. Apart from wars, America has also often — maybe not often enough — had the courage to change, to try to undo its wrongs. The same generation that fought World War II so bravely also gave us the Civil Rights movement, with its breathtaking feats of courage.

I am also going to put magnanimity on the list; in fact, magnanimity comes from root words meaning “greatness of spirit”. Again, World War II: because we didn’t let our fear and anger overwhelm us, we were able to be magnanimous in victory and help rebuild Germany and Japan. But even during the war we were generally good to POWs; many of the POWs kept in the US returned home with gratitude to America, and they were an important reason why West Germany was such a staunch ally in the Cold War.

America in its ‘great’ era was also a land of broad prosperity — at least for most people. In the two decades after WWII, income grew upwards of 2% per year for nearly all Americans, and the top 5% had the least growth in income. After 1980, income grew most for the top 5%, and relatively slowly for everybody else; in the first decade of this century, income declined for all groups. See this chart: Pew_History_Middle_Class_Families_Income_History-thumb-615x447-96949

The consequence of the last thirty years has been staggering inequality. It’s not enough simply for America to be strong economically; that wealth has to be shared broadly, as it was in the postwar decades. And that prosperity, of course, was the result of very specific policies that can still work — if Trump will push them, and Congress will have them.

Mettle would also be on my list. America after the war still had some serious problems, chiefly a hostile nuclear superpower — a problem met with great mettle. It’s not even that America was especially brave — which, sure, you could say — but that America lived as best it could under that threat. There was the occasional bout of panic and several episodes of grave miscalculation, but in general America just got on with it. ISIS — while a real problem — is not even a distant echo of the Soviet menace; yet America today seems to lack the same mettle.

America also displayed great comity during the Cold War. America’s leadership in the world was marked not so much by military strength as a profound interest in the community of like-minded nations. America made clear that other nations mattered — especially the free and allied countries, and maybe some more than others — and helped create a host of international organizations: NATO, the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, OECD, OSCE, etc. If some of these have gone off the rails, that is at least in part because America has abandoned its sense of comity.

That’s just a short list of things that America was, when America was great. There are other things I could name, and it is fun thinking them up. I recommend it: go ahead and try to name some virtues or qualities that made – or make – America great. You might find it pleasant to reflect on the things that made America great, even if “Make America Great Again” makes your skin crawl.

But here is a not-fun exercise: try to find any hint of those qualities in Donald Trump’s speeches. Compared to what I see as greatness, Trump’s speeches seem to envision an America that is fearful, brutish, and selfish.

It shouldn’t be enough for Trump to say “Make America Great Again”. We should be asking him every chance we get: what made America great? We should press him to name the virtues that make for a great country. His answer has to be more than strength and wealth.

Personally, I would welcome America’s return to greatness; I would be happy to see it courageous for its people, magnanimous towards its adversaries, with shared prosperity and cast-iron mettle, and a sense of comity toward the rest of the world.

But I’m pretty sure that’s not what Trump has in mind. And it’s long past time that somebody asked him: what made America great in the first place?





A Concrete Proposal To Save Black Lives

The shooting deaths this past week of two black men, as well as five police officers, feel like a new low in the tensions between police and people of color.

In Alton Sterling’s death, the Justice Department has already opened a civil rights investigation.

In Philando Castile’s death, Governor Mark Dayton has asked the White House to order a Justice Department investigation.

While this is reassuring, it raises the question: why are such investigations not automatic? They should be, and making them so will save black lives.

Many people are pointing to endemic racism in this country as the cause of Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths, and the shootings in Dallas as a response to the same racism. They are of course right that racism is a problem, but the solution ends up being somewhat fuzzy: dialogue, understanding, tolerance, awareness (all of which I am in favor).

But here’s a thought experiment: assume every black person killed by police was killed by a racist police officer. Some 990 people were killed in 2015, of whom 258 were black; meanwhile there are 900,000 police officers in the United States. In our thought experiment, the police responsible for the 258 black persons’ deaths — even if we assume an average of two or so officers per shooting — account for less than 5 percent of 1 percent of all police officers in the country.

Let’s extend the 2015 fatalities back twenty years — for 5,160 black persons’ deaths by police. That’s still — by my back-of-the-envelope math — only half a percent of the 900,000 police in the Untied States. Do we really think there have been only 10,000 or so racist police in the last twenty years? That only half a percent of current police are racist?

Obviously, not every racist police officer is a killer. But every police officer — racist or not — has the potential to be a killer. And here is the adjacent problem to racism: violence. Police in the United States have extraordinary latitude in the use of lethal force, a symptom of our society’s much bigger problem with violence.

Estimates on police violence are hard to find — police departments tend to keep those numbers a secret. One of the best sources is the Christopher Commission report, issued after the beating of Rodney King in 1991. According to the report, the LAPD had a violence problem alongside its racism problem:

The commission highlighted the problem of “repeat offenders” on the force, finding that of approximately 1,800 officers against whom an allegation of excessive force or improper tactics was made from 1986 to 1990, more than 1,400 had only one or two allegations. But 183 officers had four or more allegations, forty-four had six or more, sixteen had eight or more, and one had sixteen such allegations.

At the time of the report, LAPD had 8,450 officers: 16% had one or two complaints of excessive force, but just over 2% had four or more complaints. What’s more, complaints were investigated by LAPD, which ‘sustained’ only 42 of 2,152 complaints. The report further says that punishments for excessive force were minor, and complaints rarely kept officers from promotion — even in the 83 cases where complaints led to civil settlement or judgment of more than $15,000 against the LAPD.

Many people remember that when the officers involved in the King beating were tried in state court, they were acquitted — which lead to riots in LA. However, when four of the officers were tried by Federal court, two were convicted. Federal courts and juries have typically been less tolerant of violent police than local courts.

The decision to bring officers to trial in Federal court comes from the Justice Department, which gets its authority from Title 18 U.S. Code, § 242, which allows the Department to prosecute anyone who “willfully subjects any person […] to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States”. This article points out that the statute is written in a way that makes prosecution difficult — indeed, the vast majority of cases are not prosecuted — but it also wrongly implies that the law is the only way violent police can be brought to heel.

There is another law — 42 USC § 14141 — that allows the Justice Department to investigate

whether the police department has engaged in a pattern or practice of stops, searches, or arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment; use of excessive force; discriminatory policing; violation of the constitutional rights of criminal suspects; or violation of First Amendment rights.

Under 42 USC § 14141, the Justice Department is only allowed to pursue civil cases against police departments suspected of violation. That means nobody goes to jail, but it also means that the Justice Department can impose wide-ranging reforms on violent police departments.

But since the law was passed in 1994, the Justice Department has only conducted 68 investigations. Not brought 68 court cases — 68 investigations, many of which never make it to court. In the last three years there have been only 6 — in Cleveland, Ferguson, two in Lousiana, Baltimore, and Chicago.

In cases where police have killed a person, the Justice Department should automatically invoke 18 USC § 242 and 42 USC § 14141 to investigate both the police officers and the police department. Granted that many of these investigations will not result in trial or settlement, but the Justice Department should not wait for public outrage or protests to make the decision. Police officers and their departments should take it as given that they will be investigated — fairly but scrupulously — when they take a life.

Clearly, the Justice Department could be more ambitious in taking § 242 and § 14141 investigations to trial, but even if they don’t, the threat of investigation should force departments to rethink how they train their officers in the use of force, and whether they will tolerate the most violent officers in their ranks.

The investigations will also bring to light abuses and violations that police departments wish to keep secret, making those departments more transparent and thus more tractable to public pressure to reduce violence. It is much easier to identify which police are violent, versus those who are racist, and thus much easier to debadge those officers prone to violence.

Automatic § 242 and § 14141 investigations will also signal a normative shift, that the Federal government will no longer turn a blind eye to lethal force. Police will be held to a higher standard in their use of force, and police fatal shootings will be intrinsically suspect — as they already are in the eyes of many Americans.

I have written before that America has a violence problem, one of the causes of which is the decentralized control of violence. Where in many developed countries a strong central government closely regulates the use of force, in the United States our system allows — among other things — thousands of police departments to make up their own rules about the use of force. Making § 242 and § 14141 investigations automatic is an immediate and concrete way that the Federal government can assert its monopoly on violence, absent a new law from Congress or a Constitutional Amendment.

By constraining police departments in their use of lethal force, § 242 and § 14141 can save lives — especially black lives. Although this policy also will save lives among other racial groups, I want to be clear that I affirm the goals of and need for the Black Lives Matter movement. This proposal also affirms the fact that most police officers are fair and judicious in their official duties. It is a policy targeted squarely at the bad police and the bad departments in this country.

I also want to be clear that the rules which allow police to regulate their own use of force are the product of the racism built into the United States’ form of government — rules which had as an original goal the preservation of slavery in various states. This racism is in large part — but not solely — responsible for the high levels of violence experienced in American society. It enables violence that even whites experience at the hands of public authorities.

I believe it is necessary to address racism, in order for our country to move forward peacefully. But I also know that — where the goal is saving black lives — violence is the more immediate problem. Taking a step back from the racism problem, and focusing on the violence problem, will have concrete and immediate benefit for Americans of all races, even while helping people of color most of all.

I wish, but dare not hope, that we might get rid of all the racist police officers in this country. But I believe, and rather insist, that we can get rid of the violent officers — those responsible for unjustified, unnecessary killings. Doing so requires a much firmer hand from the Federal government, and § 242 and § 14141 investigations are an easy first step.

You Can’t See Your Own A—hole: A Theory of American Electoral Politics

I was discussing with friends the bulletproof allure the Republican nominee holds for some people — no matter what he says, who he insults, or how vacuous his proposals.

There are media and economic and anti-establishment aspects to it, my friends argued in turn. I am sure they are correct to some degree, but I think it’s also a lot simpler:

You can’t see your own a–hole.

While this is literally true for nearly all of us, in a figurative sense it requires some explaining.

By the term ‘a–hole’, I have in mind a very specific kind of person, one who is largely indifferent to what other people think of them. Following Aaron James, an a–hole is a person whose “sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people”.

Contrary to what moms and elementary school teachers might tell us, what people think of us is very important to who we are. In fact, some sociologists go so far as to say that the ‘self’ as an individual is a myth, but rather only exists in how we relate to other people.

That we care what people think of us is part of something called — by sociologists, again — “entrainment”: an emotional connection we make with the people around us, almost by instinct.

Especially in conflict situations, entrainment can make it hard for us to act, and makes us anxious and agitated as we anticipate the fear and anger of the other person. However, entrainment can sometimes make it easier to act in conflict — say if friends are egging us on.

Like all human capacities, entrainment varies somewhat from person to person, whether due to nature or nurture. People excessively subject to entrainment tend to be doormats or sycophants.

People insufficiently subject to entrainment are a–holes. They don’t — and maybe can’t — care what other people think. The driver who cuts you off on the highway: a–hole. The lady chatting loudly on his cellphone in the restaurant: a–hole. The guy who manspreads on the subway: a–hole.

American electoral politics is natural selection for a–holes. The whole landscape of our electoral system — adversarial, partisan, relentlessly conflict-driven, and all this especially on TV — weeds out everyone else. Cable politics shows would not be possible without the drama a–holes bring to the table. Most every Congressor you can name is an a–hole — and odds are, you can only name them because they were on TV.

In any case, you don’t get to the top tier of American politics without being some kind of a–hole. So Trump is an a–hole, as were most of his rivals. Bernie Sanders is kind of an a–hole. Hillary Clinton is an a–hole — although arguably she was made into an a–hole by our political process, rather than being one from the start.

That leaves us — the voters — left to choose among a–holes. But here’s where entrainment bites us in the, well…a–: once we choose an a–hole, that a–hole is our a–hole.

And you can’t see your own a–hole.

That is to say: our instinct for entrainment gives us an emotional connection to our a–hole, which impairs our ability to see where we might disagree with them or be put off by their behavior.

It does not matter whether others’ criticisms of our a–hole are apt or not; we become blind, at least partially, to the a–hole we have made our own. And that is more true when our friends are also for the same a–hole, in effect egging us on.

This is why it is so difficult to convince other people — whichever side you are on — to vote for some other a–hole. They can see your a–hole just fine, thanks.

I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I think it’s important to understand it clearly. And for the record, I have no dog in this fight: I am not voting for any of the a–holes in the Presidential race.

The next time you wonder why some politician enjoys unflagging support, just remember: his supporters can’t see their own a–hole.

And then ask yourself: can you?