Monday, June 27, 2011

Electoral College Must Be Abolished

Every four years, Americans go to the polls to decide who shall be the President of the United States, clearly the most important office in the land. But because we continue to rely on the 18th Century administrative machinery of the Electoral College, our presidential elections are beset with two fundamental problems. First, the candidate who receives the most votes does not necessarily win. Second, the votes of certain citizens are worth more than those of other citizens. For these reasons, and many others, the Electoral College needs to be scrapped.

In the Electoral College, each state receives a number of votes equal to the number of representatives they have in both houses of Congress. However, because all but two states cast their votes on a winner-take-all basis, the candidate who actually gets the most votes does not necessarily win the election, for he or she might win several states by large margins and narrowly lose certain critical states, all of whose electoral votes will go to the other candidate.

We saw this clearly in the 2000 election. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote handily, getting half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush. But because of an infinitesimal Bush victory in the state of Florida (itself only the result of a flawed intervention by the Supreme Court), Bush received that state's electoral votes, which was just enough to allow him to win the Electoral College and thus to become the President. The candidate who was the clear choice of the American people was not the one who actually ascended to the office.

On four occasions in American history (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000), the candidate who received the largest number of popular votes lost the Electoral College. In other words, in 1 out of 13.5 elections, the candidate who receives fewer votes actually wins. On five other occasions (1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004) a shift of a relatively tiny number of voters would have handed the victory to the candidate who lost the popular vote. Those who say that the Electoral College is not a problem because it usually reflects the popular will have not read their history books.

Beyond the fact that the Electoral College often allows candidates who lose the popular vote to still ascend to the Presidency, another major problem is that it gives an individual voter in a smaller state to have a disproportionately large influence on the outcome of the election than an individual voter in a large state. This violates the fundamental one-person-one-vote principle that should be at the heart of any representative republic.

For example, Wyoming has 563,626 and three electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 187,875 people. California, by contrast, has 37,253,956 people and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 677,344 people. Doing the basic math, we can see that a voter in Wyoming has nearly four times the influence on the outcome of the presidential election as does a voter in California. It's not fair, it's not democratic, and it shouldn't be tolerated.

These two problems would be sufficient by themselves to justify eliminating the Electoral College. But there are many other problems with it as well. One is that it causes presidential candidates to focus all their attention on a small number of "swing states", which are go conceivably go either way in the election, at the expense of those states which are considered reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, the powers-that-be pay attention to the things that matter to voters in states like Ohio or Florida, while voters in Texas and New York are out of luck.

Consider this. There are roughly the same number of Cuban-Americans in the United States as Vietnamese-Americans. However, the issues important to the Cuban-American community get huge amounts of political attention, while the issues important to Vietnamese-Americans are largely ignored. Why is this? Well, Cuban-Americans tend to live in Florida, a key swing state, whereas Vietnamese-Americans tend to live in California and Texas, which are not swing states. Neither community is inherently more important than the other, but the Electoral College creates an artificial importance for one over the other.

The Electoral College also effectively disenfranchises millions of voters in every presidential election. Because nearly all the states use a winner-take-all system to allocate their electoral votes, it means the losing side in any given state may as well have not cast a ballot for president. A Republican in New York or a Democrat in Texas effectively has no say in who is elected President, and this goes against the ideals of a representative republic.

The Electoral College is an outmoded and obsolete piece of constitutional machinery, and it must be done away with. This could be achieved by a constitutional amendment, which would be very difficult. But because the Constitution allows the individual states to decide for themselves how to allocate electoral votes, it can also be achieved more quickly and with greater ease by individual action by the various state legislatures.

The National Popular Vote movement provides a surprisingly easy way out of this morass. Legislation is being enacted by individual states, whereby their electoral votes shall go to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the individual state, with the legislation taking effect as soon as the number of states equivalent to the winning number of electoral votes have enacted identical legislation. A few states have already passed the necessary legislation, and bills are advancing through the legislative process in most of the other states.

The Electoral College should be cast into the dustbin of history. Let us hope that the success reformers have achieved in recent years continues to build until final success is achieved.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Decriminalizing Marijuana is Basic Common Sense

Sometimes, a public policy issue has an answer that is so ridiculously obvious that it astonishes a rational person that the question is even being debated. One of these issues is whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized. The arguments in favor of legalization are so overwhelming, and the arguments against legalization so weak, that soundness of the decriminalization is crystal clear. Policy-makers in Washington and the various states could immediately do the entire country a big favor by decriminalizing marijuana. This does not imply any particular endorsement of people using marijuana (for the record, I myself do not use marijuana), but is merely a concession to reality and common sense.

The growth, possession, and use of marijuana was gradually made illegal in the United States via several pieces of legislation over the course of the 20th Century, culminating in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then, innumerable political battles have been waged over the issue of making it legal once again, often focusing on its potential medical uses. All these disputes could be easily resolved if we took the simple step of legalizing marijuana altogether and just being done with the issue.

From a rational point of view, using marijuana is not much different than using alcohol. Although the potential for serious misuse obviously exists, most people who use marijuana or drink alcohol do so in a responsible manner that presents no threat to other citizens. Thomas Jefferson once memorably said that the powers of the government "extend only to such acts only as are injurious to others." If a person wants to drink himself to death, that's very unfortunate but is no business of the state; if a person drinks heavily and then get behind the wheel of a car, the act presents a threat to other citizens and the power of the state must then intervene. The use of marijuana should only be illegal when it presents a threat or causes damage to another citizen, and there are few cases where this is genuinely the case.

That's the constitutional and philosophical argument, and for many it is sufficient justification on its own for marijuana legalization. But even without it, we can clearly see that keeping marijuana illegal has so many negative consequences for our society that it's decriminalization should be made an urgent priority.

The so-called "War on Drugs" was declared by President Nixon in 1971. Forty years later, anyone can see that it has been a dismal and utter failure, for drug use in America has barely changed. Instead, we annually waste something like fifty billion dollars of both federal and state money and have effectively militarized many segments of our law enforcement. If these financial and manpower resources were devoted to other tasks, which the decriminalization of marijuana would go far in doing, society would be much better off.

Even worse, roughly three-quarters of a million people are arrested every year for the nonviolent crime of merely possessing marijuana, significantly more than the number of people arrested for violent crimes. Of those arrested, tens of thousands are thrown in jail. Think of it. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing that actually harms anyone, are languishing behind bars because they committed an act that is essentially no more serious than drinking a beer. It's something you might expect from Stalin's Russia, but not the United States of America. The moral conscience of every citizen should be outraged by this, and we must demand that the laws be overturned.

Beyond the moral argument is the fiscal one. It costs something like $60,000 annually to keep a single inmate in jail. We can easily do the math and discover that keeping incarcerated the nonviolent marijuana users that have already been arrested costs taxpayers something like $2.4 billion a year. Add onto that the savings marijuana decriminalization would generate from freeing up resources within our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and we are looking at tens of billions of dollars a year.

For that matter, if marijuana were decriminalized, it could be subject to an excise tax, just like those we already place on alcohol and tobacco products, and sellers of marijuana would have to pay income taxes on their earnings once the industry emerged from the black market. Billions of dollars in revenue could be raised every year through these means. All told, the revenue generated by a marijuana excise tax combined with easing the prison, law enforcement and criminal justice budgets would greatly ease the fiscal strain being placed on the federal government and all of the fifty state governments. The Cato Institute has recently published a study indicating that legalizing marijuana would result in savings totalling about $9 billion to both state and federal governments, and result in excise tax revenues of $9 billion more.

It's worth pointing out that, so long as marijuana remains illegal, the profits from its sale largely flow into the pockets of drug dealers and organized crime. Decriminalizing marijuana would not only be of great fiscal benefit to the public, but would strike a severe financial blow at such criminal elements.

To summarize, decriminalizing the use of marijuana would right the great moral wrong of having so many of our fellow citizens in prison from nonviolent, victimless crimes, as well as saving taxpayers massive amounts of money and generating additional revenue to ease the national fiscal crisis, while cutting off a vital source of revenue for organized crime. As far as public policy is concerned, decriminalizing marijuana is a slam dunk.

Congress should immediately pass legislation reclassifying marijuana as a non-scheduled controlled substance, putting it in the same category at alcohol and tobacco, while the various state governments pass companion legislation making it legal. The federal government and the state governments should then slap a hefty excise tax on it. At the same time, the President should pass a blanket pardon to all prison inmates who had been incarcerated for marijuana possession. All this could be done within a matter of months, and it would make our society a much better place.

Monday, June 13, 2011

American "Empire of Bases" Must Go

During World War II, the struggle against fascism forced us to create an immense American military capability and to establish an American military presence throughout the world. During the Cold War, our long ideological conflict with communism required that a system of alliances and military bases around the world be maintained in the event that our ideological arguments with the Soviet Union exploded into full-blown war. Both of these events were regrettable but necessary.

Fascism and communism have both been cast into the garbage bin of history, yet the United States continues to maintain a vast network of military bases throughout the world. We have an army of more than 50,000 men permanently deployed in Germany. We maintain nearly 10,000 men in Italy, another 10,000 in the United Kingdom, and yet another 10,000 scattered about the rest of Europe. We have 33,000 men in Japan and 28,000 men in South Korea. Thousands of other service personnel are based in scores of other countries, including many bases in Africa and Latin America. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Many lawmakers are calling for permanent American military bases to be constructed in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. According to the Pentagon, there are over seven hundred American military bases around the world.

What for?

To borrow a term from the late Dr. Chalmers Johnson, who wrote an outstanding series of books on the subject, we can quite properly call this military network the American "empires of bases". Dr. Johnson compared America's foreign policy with the 19th century imperialism of the British and the French, calling the military base "America's version of the colony". While we might not officially annex the territory in question, we certainly use our massive network of military bases to ensure American military dominance of it.

Maintaining the empire of bases requires a truly immense amount of money. A vast fleet of enormous transport aircraft provides the logistical blood of these bases. The cost of construction and maintaining these bases is immense, and all the more upsetting because the construction contracts usually go to politically well-connected corporations (such as the notoriously corrupt KBR). All told, the basic upkeep of these bases costs American taxpayers roughly $100 billion a year, about one-eighth of the entire military budget, and a significant chunk of the budget deficit the federal government runs every year.

Many of these overseas bases are small American worlds unto themselves, with multiple bus lines for transportation and the whole array of American fast food restaurants. Recreational facilities, including everything from movie theaters to golf courses to health spas, are part of many of these establishments. An argument can naturally be made that if we do send our sons and daughters to serve overseas, we have a moral duty to provide for their needs. But we also have a moral duty to spend the people’s money wisely and not to burden future generations with our debts. Besides, are the golf courses really necessary?

The rationale behind the existence of the empire of bases is that it somehow furthers American interests or protects American national security, but this contention is highly dubious. The very existence of these bases, in fact, contributes to the rise of anti-Americanism around the world. With so many servicemen deployed overseas, it's inevitable that some will commit crimes, which discredit the entire American military in the eyes of the locals. In the last fifteen years, for example, assaults and rapes by Americans stationed on Okinawa has generated enormous anger towards America on the part of the Japanese people. The fact that the Americans involved in such incidents are often not tried by the justice system of the host country, but by the system of American military justice, only fuels the controversies. The more America is disliked abroad, the less secure our country ultimately is.

Beyond the damage done to the good name of America by disreputable servicemen, however, is the larger question of how these bases contribute to American national security? Why, exactly, does the United States maintain more than 80,000 troops in Europe? There has been no conventional military threat to Europe since the end of the Cold War more than twenty years ago. The continued presence of an American army in Europe does little other than drain the pockets of American taxpayers. And even if there was a conventional military threat to Europe, should not the defense of Europe be the responsibility of the Europeans? Should it not be European men who defend the continent, and European taxpayers who pay for its defense?

One can just as easily question the permanent deployments of American armies in Japan and South Korea. Those two countries have powerful military forces of their own, and their populations and economies are strong enough that they could easily increase their military power even more if they so chose. While they face the clear threat of North Korea and the potential threat of China, they have sufficient resources to defend themselves without American assistance. The same question that is asked of Europe can be asked of Japan and South Korea: should not the defense of Japan and South Korea be the responsibility of the Japanese and South Koreans? Should not be Japanese and South Korean men who defend their nations, and Japanese and South Korean taxpayers who pay for their defense? Certainly, there is no reason for America to spend untold billions of dollars on unnecessary military bases in those countries.

The overseas American military presence also contributes to unnecessary tensions between our country and others. The present Chinese military buildup is spreading alarm among many armchair strategists in America, but few point out the obvious fact that it is taking place largely because of the powerful American military presence in East Asia. Russia is attempting to rebuild its former military power, but one wonders if it would be so determined to do so if the American military presence in Europe vanished.

The powers-that-be would like us to believe that the empire of bases is necessary to maintain American security, or that perhaps we are fulfilling an altruistic mission to promote global stability. In truth, by stoking tensions with other nations and contributing to anti-Americanism among foreign peoples, our overseas bases almost certainly put us at greater risk and generating instability rather than stability. Furthermore, by significantly contributing to the country's national debt, which is a far greater threat to America than any conceivable foreign enemy, this wide array of bases actually diminishes our country’s security rather than increasing it.

America is supposed to be a republic, not an empire. Our "empire of bases" not only degrades our security and contributes to our debt, but it represents a disgraceful betrayal to our ideals. We should begin an immediate reduction of our overseas military presence, with the long-term goal being its entire elimination.