Saturday, September 17, 2011

Time for a New Constitutional Convention?

It was today, 224 years ago, that the Constitutional Convention completed its work and set out the glorious document which created our system of government. The fact that 55 flawed men could craft such a brilliant intellectual achievement as the United States Constitution almost defies belief. The further fact that it has continued to function, almost unchanged, for more than two hundred years simply seems miraculous. Certainly it is the most successful written constitution in the history of the world.

But it's not a perfect document, by any means. The Electoral College is archaic and should be thrown away, the term "high crimes and misdemeanors" needs to be clarified, Supreme Court justices shouldn't serve for life, and there are other problems. And while many constitutional problems within our current system, such as the overwhelming superiority of the Executive Branch, are not the fault of the Constitution itself but rather our flawed interpretation of it, they could be solved were the wording of the document somewhat different.

Thomas Jefferson was not involved in the writing of the Constitution, as he was then serving as a diplomat in Europe. But he followed the process closely and, as it turned out, did not entirely approve of the final version of the document. More fundamentally, Jefferson also believed that a new constitutional convention should be held every twenty years, as he felt no generation should have to live under a constitution it had had no role in crafting. Jefferson would be very surprised and disappointed to learn that, over two centuries, the American people would only amend the Constitution twenty-seven times. Were he alive today, he would be calling for an immediate constitutional convention. Perhaps we should follow his lead.

Larry Sabato, one of the most respected political commentators in our time, has authored a wonderful book entitled
A More Perfect Constitution. The book lays out 23 proposed amendments to the Constitution that would essentially update it for the 21st Century. Among the proposals Sabato lays out which are certainly worthy of attention are:

- A Balanced Budget Amendment

- Nonpartisan redistricting of congressional districts

- Term limits for members of Congress

- Giving the President a line-item veto

- Limiting Presidential war powers

- Abolishing life tenure for Supreme Court Justices in favor a single, 15-year terms

There are many other interesting proposals and Sabato's book is highly-recommended for anyone who cares about these issues.

There are many aspects of our modern system of American government that are fundamentally anti-democratic and need to be corrected. Human nature being what it is, we cannot expect the members of Congress to pass the needed amendments, no matter how much political pressure may be brought to bear. It will likely be only slightly easier to make use of the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, which state that a constitutional convention will be assembled if two-thirds of the states (34 states, in other words) call for one. Either would take many long years of intense lobbying and campaigning, involving substantial grassroots organizing on the part of citizens of good will around the country. And there would be no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Still, the fact that it will be difficult is no excuse not to try. At the very least, it will be easier than the task the Founding Fathers faced in 1776.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Let's Create a Transatlantic Free Trade Area

Free trade should be one of the pillars of American economic and foreign policy. Reducing trade barriers between nations ultimately benefits everyone in many different ways. It increases employment, lowers prices, promotes innovation, and fosters friendly international relations. Short-sighted people are often frightened into calling for a return to protectionism in ill-guided attempts to protect favored industries, albeit only briefly and at the cost of hurting everyone else, but these voices must be ignored if we are to continue building a prosperous and dynamic nation.

The promotion of free trade, by creating jobs, also helps us tackle the fiscal crisis. Obviously, employed people pay more taxes than an unemployed person, and the additional economic activity generated by the increase in consumer spending also helps bring in revenue for the government. Even better, employed people do not require government assistance in the same way that unemployed people do.

The United States currently enjoys free trade agreements (FTAs) with more than a dozen countries, ranging from the immense NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico to the comparatively puny bilateral FTA with the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. Agreements with South Korea, Columbia, and Panama are hopefully going to be ratified soon. These FTAs have already been a boon to the American economy, creating jobs and lowering prices across the board. But we need to be doing more. In particular, the United States should pursue an agreement with the European Union to create a Transatlantic Free Trade Area.

The idea of a Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) has been floating around since the 1990s. The United States and the European Union are the world's two largest economies; indeed, together they comprise roughly half of global GDP. But their prosperity is currently threatened by the global fiscal crisis and by the economic rise of China and India. The former threatens to eliminate jobs dependent on government spending, while the latter has long been draining manufacturing jobs away from Europe and America to the cheaper labor markets of Asia. Europe and America need to work together to tackle the economic challenges of the 21st Century, and the creation of TAFTA would be the most important step.

The volume of trade already existing between the United States and the European Union is immense, totaling roughly a trillion dollars a year. This could grow even larger if existing trade barriers between the two sides were removed by a free trade agreement. Considering that wages and working conditions are roughly the same for both sides, the TAFTA could avoid disputes on such issues that have bedeviled FTAs in the past. The European Union has tougher environmental standards than does the United States, but hopefully that issue can be avoided in any FTA negotiations.

Right now, the average tariff each side imposes on imports from the other is less than 3%. This is not large by global standards, but it still represents a substantial drag on prosperity, especially considering the immense size of the US-EU trading relationship. The creation of a TAFTA could eliminate these bothersome tariffs, giving a shot in the arm to economic activity and thereby quickly creating jobs and lowering prices for people on both sides of the ocean.

Subsidies to favored industries has been the largest economic bone of contention between the two sides in recent years, especially when it comes to the rival aerospace firms Boeing and Airbus. These subsidies negatively interfere with the free market, make products ranging from agricultural produce to jetliners more expensive, and ultimately cost thousands of people their jobs. Negotiations to create a TAFTA would force the two sides to finally resolve these annoying issues and thereby would bandage up a wound that has been bleeding the economy for far too long.

Creating a TAFTA would eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers, as well as get rid of annoying and job-killing practices such as subsidies to favored industries. It would reduce prices on a wide variety of products for all consumers, which benefits everyone but especially benefits the poor. Already huge transatlantic investment between Europe and America would grow even larger, and the natural political alliance between the two would grow even stronger.

President Obama, pick up the phone and get the process started.