Sunday, July 26, 2009


As long as others are kibbitzing, I will offer 22 suggestions on how California's dysfunctional political system might be arighted.

1. Confederation: The Census Bureau maintains a definition of what it calls an "Urbanized Area", or the densely settled area of a metropolitan statistical area. California had, per the last census, 54 such; six exceeded one million in population, of which two were cheek-by-jowl with larger centers. California could be articulated into six units: these four urban globs with the remainder of the state divided in two along the biogeographic boundary between north and south. You would have one constitution with amendments proposed by a biennial convention of municipal councillors (subject to referenda) but six parallel governments and six law codes. U.S. Senators would be elected state-wide and there might be a statewide board of elections and a small secretariat for the biennial conventions, but otherwise no central government. 

2. Each of the megalopolitan centers would be cut into boroughs of a number to be determined initially by formula with new boroughs created as these cities expand. Each would have a mayor & council, or a council and city manager, or a commission according to its choice. These councillors meeting in common and proceeding according to weighted voting would form the ultimate legislative body for the whole.

3. Settlements outside the megalopolitan centers over 50,000 would be incorporated as cities; those between 2,500 and 50,000 as towns; and the interstitial rural territory would be divided into 160-odd districts (one for each town). The towns and districts would then be assembled into 50-odd counties (one for each city).

4. Legislative authority would be by default in municipal councils. The constitution would confer little  on superordinate bodies. Rather, the municipal councillors, meeting in convention, would enact and amend periodically statutes of government for the more superordinate bodies, specifying what powers they might exercise.

5. Legislative bodies would be unicameral, enact by majority vote with a valid quorum, and all have general jurisdiction, not specialized jurisdiction over things like schools or sewers; executives would have no veto, and all have general jurisdiction except in municipalities with a 'commission' form of government.

6. Revenues of superodinate governments might be expended on projects within the competence of those governments or distributed to subordinate governments according to a formula taking into account population and per capita income; there would be no conditions or mandates attached to these distributions.

7. Legislatures would be elected from multi-candidate districts according to a Hare-Clark system of ordinal balloting, and assigned to single-member 'service constituencies' afterword; executives would be elected by ordinal balloting as well.

8. Elections and referenda would be held according to a uniform calendar, the latter in June, the former in November; federal in year 1 and 3, municipal and county in year 2, 'state' in year 4. 

9. All elected officials would have to be citizens of the United States, would have to not be incarcerated, would have to have been a resident of the jurisdiction in which they are running for at least 18 months, would have paid taxes in said jurisdiction, and would be at least 40 years of age.

10. No one might serve in a particular elected position for more than eight years in any bloc of twelve years.

11. Multi-candidate slates for legislative bodies might have no more than one person who is a member of the bar, a public employee, or a consultant in the employ of any public authority. Anyone who has held such a position in the past would remain tainted for a period of three months for every twelve months he held such a position. A majority of the slate would have to consist of persons who have never been a member of the bar and who have spent no more than seven years of their life in the employ of the state.

12. Judges would be appointed by the most subordinate executive whose municipality & c. encompasses the whole of the jurisdiction of the court in question with the advise and consent of the corresponding legislature. Judges would serve a probationary term of (say) four years after which their continued tenure would be subject to referendum. They would be subject to further referenda every (say) fourteen years until mandatory retirement at (say) 76. There would be provisions for recall and explicit constitutional language restricting discretion for judicial review. Prosecutors would be chosen the same way, with a probationary term of a year or two and the option to stand for two four year terms.

13. Inspectorates (e.g. the comptroller-general, ombudsman, &c.) would be chosen by the legislature from the nominees of parastatal professional colleges (accountants, &c.) and subject to periodic referenda until retirement.

14. Municipalities, counties, and state components would issue bonds strictly on their own faith and credit. If they default, the local judiciary would be obligated to appoint a conservator who would have plenary authority over the municipal finances for twelve years.

15. Governments might institute fees to be collected with the filing of law suits, might lay tolls on public services (roads, water provision) which are analogues of services people buy on the open market, might issue excises on vice goods or on waste, and might lay and collect personal income taxes according to the following formula:

r x (all income) - (sum of credits for each dependent) [n.b. no deductions or exemptions]

(if the sum of credits were to exceed the rate x income, the government might set an upper limit on the amount returned to the taxpayer; it would also be imperative that the sum of credits assessed across all taxpayers exceed receivables attributable to excises);

and might lay and collect taxes on the income of incorporated commercial enterprises according to the following formula:
r x (all net profits);

and might lay and collect taxes on legacies according to the following formula:

r x (total assessed value - lifetime exemption).

16. Public employees at all levels would be terminable at will at the discretion of the supervisor's supervisor, subject to the review of hearing examiners to protect whistle-blowers.

17. Public employees would be permitted to form benevolent associations of about 5,000 or so for the purchase of legal services and insurance. Collective bargaining for public employees would be prohibited. Associations of public employees other than those named would be defined as mafia gangs, dissolved by court order, their members fined, and their executive boards jailed.

18. Public employee pensions would be actuarially sound defined contribution plans; 70% of the financing of same would have to come from the contributions of the employees themselves.

19. All positions in public employment would be considered part of the civil service unless they be defined by explicit statute as patronage positions. All civil service positions would be filled by examinations given within sixty days of a vacancy, with the position to be given to one of the top three candidates, regardless of race &c.

20. The board of regents of each component of the state would be chosen by the legislature from nominations submitted by parastatal professional colleges (engineers, accountants, physicians, retired military, &c) and would have the responsiblity to write civil service and school examinations.

21. Bar schools for incorrigibles run by local sheriffs, primary and secondary schools would be philanthropic corporations financed by state issued vouchers and donations; if they were to accept vouchers, they would not be permitted to charge tuition; if they were to perform poorly on league tables assembled by the board of regents, they would have to  be closed by the registrar of corporations (county clerk, secretary of state, &c). Their financial practices would be subject to regulation by state tax collectors, but not their disciplinary rules or curriculum. Persons wishing to home school could cash out their voucher and do so, but they would have to perform satisfactorily on league tables.

22. Institutes of tertiary education would be philanthropic corporations governed by boards elected by their alumni or by trustees appointed by bishops. They would receive no grants from the state, nor would tuition be subvened. The degrees they might confer would be limited to those given express authorization and definition in statutes.

Friday, July 03, 2009


1. One I had not heard of until recently. Evidently used as a national anthem before The Star Spangled Banner was adopted.

2. Per Anthony Esolen, song in popular culture is not the product of professional entertainers, but of what people themselves sing (or play).

3. Some of the lyrics are de trop, but the tune is exceptional.


Over at The American Catholic, a discussion is ongoing concerning whether or not the Revolutionary War did nor did not meet the criteria for a 'just war' as the Church teaches. I am far too indolent to review the commentary and am resistant to devoting too much thought to an academic question such as this. My country is; it was a palpable reality before, during, and after the Revolution. Civic obligations, such as they are, are derived from that, not from the justice or prudence of the Patriot cause. Retrospectively, I have long found the Loyalist cause the more appealing (though I enjoyed 1776 and Johnny Tremain as much as The American Catholics's principal, and found Oliver Wiswell wanting as literature), perhaps out of contrariness or perhaps having been perturbed by the Patriots habit of dunking their opponents in concoctions of tar and feathers or perhaps not thinking excise taxes worth the bother or perhaps having spent so many years of my life in the company of German Baptist Brethren whose ancestors thought the whole mess none of their business. However, the Mother Country conceded in 1783, and that is that.

Among all the others, the question posed in such a discussion is that of what is the appropriate locus of sovereignty; derived from that question is an observation about a vexed question in political theory. 'Ere you decide what are the rights of the people, you have to decide who are 'the people'. One ought be skeptical that anyone has ever derived satisfying normative criteria which answer this question. We can can have, with clarity of mind, a discussion of justice or its absence within extant political communities; we cannot, I think, about what justice indicates are the appropriate geographic boundaries of said community. Is this perhaps because that question is not best understood through discourse on 'justice'? (Search me).

The question of the justice of secessionist movements aside, it is not readily disputable that multi-ethnic states have their signature dysfunctions, and that the manufacture and maintenance of them is prudently avoided. (Can we please seal our southern border?)

If we contemplate the American Revolution, we cannot but be impressed at the neuralgic response of the colonists to some fairly banal measures (excises on paint and paper and tea) by the imperial government. The end game was an insurrection that continued for six-and-a-half years and resulted in a death toll that exceeded (proportionately) American losses in the First World War. Given the outrages perpetrated in our time by a domestic political class which our populace seems to regard with cud chewing indifference, one must be impressed as well by the gulf which separates the latter-day American from his colonial forebear. One also must notice that the colonists came, over a period of many decades, to understand themselves as a people apart from the country from which they came. Coming to an understanding of that colonial society and the men who comprised it would seem our first task, 'ere we evaluate the justice of their cause.

A society dominated by freemen and for which the most salient strata were classes (of affluent and poor, of master and journeyman and apprentice) rather than orders of clergy, nobility, burgesses, and peasants was atypical in Europe. (I will beg off on how to characterize the United Netherlands or the Hanseatic towns, but they may have been properly described as societies of classes and not orders). Government by elective and deliberative assemblies was hardly a novelty. It did, however, manage to prosper in the American colonies (and hold its own in Britain) during a period of occidental history in which it tended to fall into abeyance except in the governance of localities (and merchant republics that scarcely exceeded the boundaries of a locality). The erection of a territorial state composed of a federation of small republics may not have been a novelty (one thinks of the Swiss Confederation or the United Netherlands), but the erection of one at a discrete moment by a conscious act of the will (not the will of an ambitious monarch but the will of contrary burgesses and planters) certainly had scant precedent. Perhaps that is how best to understand the American Revolution: 1.) a commercial and agararian element conjoined to each other render themselves masters of their political destiny; and 2.) a populace comes rapidly to understand themselves as a particular community distinct from all other communities and so in a sort of fraternity rather than as subjects with a common fealty; and 3.) all is accomplished in a fairly orderly fashion (France has enacted eleven constitutions since 1789; Chile has enacted eight; we have the same one, dysfunctional though it is).

Donald McClarey, The American Catholic's ringmaster, allows as how he reads the Declaration of Independence to his family each year. That is all very well and good. The Fourth of July is in remembrance of that event; pace the Postal Workers' Union and the VFW and Coretta Scott King's brood, you only really need one National Day (and one can say our local communities only readily sustain celebrations of one nowadays). A crank like your's truly might wish we commemorated the actual founding of this country (on or about 14 May 1607) rather than its intervening secession from the British Empire, but that would be a contrivance. An element of our popular culture, of the celebrations people undertake on their own without being hectored by others with their hobby horses, is parades and cookouts and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

That was a specifically political event. However, I must offer some regret about how this may sustain a misconception promoted by some in our chattering classes, that we are as a people understood as bearers of political institutions and political ideas. No, we are not. The political culture and political institutions and political history are only an aspect of who a people are. Thomas Jefferson et al. were not the Founders of this country in the true sense; they were the artificers of its sovereignty and of political institutions they derived from extant forms. Pace Mr. Hertzberg, we are not going to disappear as a people if we replace our extant constitution with one modeled on that of Australia. Pace Dr. Rao, it is not peculiarly difficult to be thoughtful or spiritual or committed in this country (and certainly not made difficult due to fanciful constructs like an 'Ideology of America'), nor can H.L. Mencken's conceits substitute for a serious social psychology. Pace Mr. Wattenberg, we are not 'universal', but peculiarly ourselves.

Political and military history are important; learning the discrete events therein has an ancillary use in that it provides a chronology which functions as points of reference for the history of this country most properly understood. I have had a couple of good teachers in this. One was Stanley Engerman, whose metier is economic history and cliometrics. The other is Stuart Bolger, the founding director of the Genesee Country Village and Museum (Jack Wehle of the Genesee Brewing Company provided the funds and some part of the vision. Stuart Bolger provided the expertise and a good deal of the sweat equity). I have not heard Stuart Bolger discourse on the subject of historiography (he is rather taciturn); however, his vocational life has been dedicated to making history palpable, and to reminding people that their history can be understood through material culture. (He is actually a man good to know for reasons quite apart from that, about which more anon). We are a free people? Aye, we are a people of women who make cheese and men who trade in dry goods.

Good history is historical geography and sociology: when an area was settled; how, over time, its inhabitants have made their living; how, over time, have the polarities and conflicts among them played out. We are Americans because we live in the world they made and are making ourselves; we are Americans because we recognize an affinity for eachother we do not have for others. We also have a constitutional government, but, pace Mr. Derbyshire, that is not all that uncommon in today's world, was not unknown in Early Modern Europe, has been modal in continental Europe for 150 years, and has been a feature of some locales outside the Anglo-Saxon world for centuries.

So, we are who we are. Any community composed of human beings has a history of defects and failures in addition to all the other elements of its history. There are figures, both august and scruffy, who find this flattering to themselves. For gosh sakes, improve your surroundings as you profess to see them by planting your ass elsewhere; more barbecue for the rest of us.