Democrats Have To Expand the Supreme Court

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

Keep this image in your mind: Justice Amy Coney Barrett, standing with President Txxxx on a balcony at the White House, smiling in satisfaction as the crowd below them whoops and hollers with joy after Barrett was sworn in to the Supreme Court.

Barrett no longer needs to pretend that she’s anything other than what she is: a far-right judge, installed on the Supreme Court by a president who got fewer votes than his opponent and confirmed by a Republican majority that represents fewer voters than their Democratic colleagues, whose job it will be to do everything in her power to maintain minority GOP rule while carrying out a conservative judicial revolution.

That picture of Barrett and Txxxx reveling in their mutual triumph was so vivid that the Txxxx campaign literally turned it into an ad for the president’s reelection. A different person [Note: he means someone more like a judge] might have said, “Mr. President, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to participate in such a nakedly political event.” But Barrett wasn’t concerned. She didn’t shout “MAGA 2020!” but she might as well have.

So now it is up to Democrats to recalibrate their understanding of just what is and isn’t appropriate — starting with expanding the Supreme Court as soon as they have the opportunity, which could come in January 2021.

This may be the single most important thing they have to remember: Their actions must not be determined by whether Republicans will complain.

Unfortunately, that’s how Democrats usually see things. If Republicans raise a stink — or even if they just assume Republicans might raise a stink — then Democrats shrink back in fear, lest the action they’re contemplating be considered inappropriate.

But by now they should understand that Republicans will say that everything they do, no matter how by-the-book it might be, is an egregious violation of propriety and good conduct. That’s how Republicans operate, precisely because they know Democrats are deeply concerned with whether processes are conducted in fair and reasonable ways.

But Democrats should listen to Sen. Mitch McConnell. Here’s part of what the Senate Majority Leader said Monday during the floor debate on Barrett’s nomination:

Our colleagues cannot point to a single Senate rule that’s been broken. They made one false claim about committee procedure which the parliamentarian dismissed.

The process comports entirely with the Constitution.

We don’t have any doubt, do we, that if the shoe was on the other foot, they would be confirming this nominee. And have no doubt if the shoe was on the other foot in 2016, they would have done the same thing. Why? Because they had the elections that made those decisions possible. The reason we were able to make the decision we did in 2016 is because we had become the majority in 2014.

The reason we were able to do what we did in 2016, 2018, and 2020 is because we had the majority. No rules were broken whatsoever.

To clarify, the dates McConnell refers to are when he and Republicans refused to hear President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland (2016), changing the size of the court from nine to eight justices and then back again; the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh (2018); and Barrett’s nomination (2020). [Note: There is no way Democrats would have refused a vote on a Republican nominee in 2016, but that’s the kind of bullshit McConnell says when he wants to sound reasonable.]

“The reason we were able to do what we did … is because we had the majority.” It’s the rule McConnell has lived by: Whatever Republicans can do, they will do, if it gives them an advantage.

And he’s right that neither the Constitution nor the rules of the Senate were violated in any of those cases. Nor would it violate the Constitution for Democrats to say that just as Republicans changed the size of the court in 2016 (and as happened many times in the country’s early years), Democrats will now change the size of the court again.

They should do this not only to restore balance after the extraordinary actions McConnell and Republicans undertook, but also as part of a desperately needed effort to stop America’s slide into minority rule and restore something resembling democratic responsiveness to the entire system.

That goes along with eliminating the filibuster so the majority of senators can pass the agenda voters elected them to enact; granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico so the millions of Americans who live in those places can have representation in Congress; and passing a new Voting Rights Act that prevents GOP efforts to disenfranchise voters.

Whenever Democrats waver in their willingness to do what needs to be done to safeguard democracy, they should remember that McConnell is almost daring them to do it, precisely because he thinks they don’t have the guts.

“A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone, sooner or later, by the next election,” he said Sunday about Barrett’s nomination. “But they won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”

But they can, and they should, no matter how much Republicans whine about it. If voters give them the White House and the Senate, they’ll have the legal right and the moral obligation to do so. Without it we won’t have a real democracy.

Unquote.

I still think adding three justices to balance the Court between Republicans and Democrats is a good idea. If President Biden creates a commission to study the matter, I’ll send them a postcard.

Five days.

When Our Votes Will Be Counted

With so many ballots being mailed or otherwise submitted before Election Day, people are wondering when we’ll know the results. The good news is that only four states wait until Election Day to begin processing ballots. I think this means Election Night will provide some blessed relief, especially if states let us know what percentage of the ballots have been counted (the percentage of “precincts reported” probably won’t be as meaningful this year). Even if the result isn’t clear that night, it should be clear by the next day.

I say that because I’m convinced this election won’t be very close. Millions of voters gave the maniac the benefit of the doubt four years ago. Now they know what they had to lose (jobs, health, peace of mind, not hearing about a dangerous fool every day, etc.).

This is from The New York Times, which has more information about the process.

Untitled

E Pluribus Unum, For Better Or Worse

Perhaps you’ve looked at a map and thought it might be a good idea if the United States came apart at the seams. I have. If only we could make those other people go away!

Abraham Lincoln didn’t agree, of course, but he never met our current president or Mitch McConnell. 

Akim Reinhardt, a history professor in Maryland, says we should seriously consider the idea:

Is there anything more clichéd than some spoiled, petulant celebrity publicly threatening to move to Canada if the candidate they most despise wins an election? These tantrums have at least four problems:

1. As if Canada wants you. Please.
2. Mexico has way better weather and food than Canada. Why didn’t you threaten to move there? Is it because of all the brown people? No, you insist. Is it the language? Well then if you do make it to Canada, here’s hoping they stick you in Quebec.
3. New Zealand seems to be the hip new Canada. I’ve recently heard several people threaten to move there. News flash, Americans: New Zealand wants you even less than Canada does.
4. [Note: #4 isn’t really a problem so I’m leaving it out.]

. . . I’ve got a much better alternative: Stay put and begin a serious, adult conversation about disuniting the states.

If, through the vagaries of the Electoral College, 45% of U.S. voters really do run this nation into an authoritarian kleptocratic, dystopian ditch, then instead of fleeing with your gilded tail between your legs, stay and help us reconfigure the nation. It might be the sanest alternative to living in Txxxx’s tyranny of the minority, in which racism and sexism are overtly embraced, the economy is in shambles, the pandemic rages unabated, and abortion may soon be illegal in most states as an ever more conservative Supreme Court genuflects to corporate interests and religious extremists.

And of course it cuts both ways. Should current polls hold and Joe Biden manage to win the election with just over half the popular vote, those on the losing side will be every bit as upset. So upset that they too would likely open to a conversation about remaking an America.

Indeed, no matter how this turns out, about half the nation will feel like they can no longer live with what America is becoming, even as they live in it. The losing side, whichever it may be, will want to wrest this country back from those who seem increasingly alien to them. So perhaps national salvation comes when the winning side remains open to a discussion the losers will launch about radically redesigning the United States. . . .

It is time for the rest of us to begin a serious discussion about national disincorporation. About disuniting the states. Because no matter who wins, about half the nation will not want to live with it. Tens of millions of Americans on the losing side will not trust the winner to govern fairly, competently, or with the nation’s best interests at heart.

It’s a recipe for disaster. We need to get ahead of this discussion. . . .

Let me be clear. I am not advocating a unilateral declaration of secession and military assault on federal installations like the treasonous, Confederate slave-owners did in 1861. Rather, I am advocating serious discussions about untangling this fractured nation. For finding a peaceful, constitutional solution that either dissolves or drastically reconfigures the United States.

I believe it may be the most sensible and mature approach to dealing with a deeply riven partisan divide that has done nothing but worsen these last forty years, and increasingly breeds mutual frustration and resentment among tens of millions of Americans. The U.S. constitutional system is predicated on compromise, and the Republican Party has spent the last quarter-century working against compromise with increasing fervency. That’s not a smear, it’s a statement of fact. It’s a central tenet of their politics. Republicans are openly dismiss compromise and try to get everything they want and accept nothing they don’t.

It has become dysfunctional. And it’s not going to change anytime soon. . . .

Though perhaps unfathomable at first glance, we may actually be nearing the point where a majority of Americans are ready to call it quits on our current national incarnation. . . .

After all, in the world of national governments, 231 years is a really long time. And it wouldn’t even be our first rodeo.

We have done this before. The Constitution, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789, peacefully replaced an earlier form of United States national government organized under the Articles of Confederation. Yes, drafting the Constitution and getting the nation to adopt it over the Articles were difficult processes, hardly perfect, and engendered a fair bit of acrimony at the time. But it came about, peacefully (for the most part), and led to something that’s lasted well over two centuries.

Is it so impossible then to imagine the United States reconfiguring itself once again?

Of course a new United States could take many shapes. . . .

But regardless of what shape it might take, perhaps the most important thing is to have the conversation. Like adults. To talk about what it means to share national governance; how it’s working to our satisfaction, and how it’s not; and what we might do to improve it. . . .

Or perhaps, irony wins the day. Maybe serious discussion about disunion actually help decrease partisan tensions. Simply broaching the topic in a serious manner may force many Americans to recognize how close we are to losing we’ve always known.

Or perhaps such discussions really do lead many Americans to decide that it’s time to replace We the People, with You and Us the People.

Unquote.

Prof. Reinhardt has a few ideas about how this dismemberment might be accomplished. We might become two or three nations; change the Constitution to give more power to individual states; combine states or divide them up, etc. To use two old phrases, thinking about dividing the U.S. is a parlor game and a pipe dream.

Here’s one reason. Although we think of blue states and red states, some of them are purple. In addition, if you drill down further, America is an even greater mixture of blue and red. This is a map with counties marked blue or red depending on how they voted in 2016, with each county assigned space on the map based on its population.

countycartrb512

Assigning either blue, red or purple to each county based on the percentage that voted one way or the other would make it even harder to separate us by our political leanings.

I think a better and more practical solution will be to reinstate majority rule in the United States by making the Electoral College obsolete, getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. That would allow the federal government to pursue more progressive policies, which would help the economy, allow more social ills to be addressed and reduce inequality.

We also need to remove some of the emotion surrounding three issues: abortion, gun control and the Supreme Court. Abortions are already becoming more rare; putting more emphasis on education and birth control would reduce them further. Private ownership of guns is here to stay; but somehow we need to do what the majority of Americans want, i.e.  institute sensible gun control. A revised, clarified Second Amendment might allow us to do that while protecting a citizen’s “right to bear arms”. The Supreme Court has become too political. I’d add three seats, so we’d have 12 justices evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. No more 5-4 decisions. If a ruling can’t get a majority, let the lower court decision stand. 

Maybe thinking about how we could make America a better country for people on the right and left and in the middle is also a parlor game and a pipe dream. It seems to me, however, that a more perfect union is within our grasp if we make the effort. It would be much harder to make those other people go away.

Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems by Charles E. Lindblom

I began reading this book sometime around 1978. I finished it today. I don’t remember why I stopped reading it the first time. Through the years, I thought about picking it up again but never did. Until a few weeks ago.

Charles Lindblom (1917-2018) was a Yale professor of politics and economics. In Politics and Markets, he categorizes and analyzes the different ways nations are organized, concentrating on the relative roles played by governments and markets in countries ranging from the United States and United Kingdom on one end of the continuum to China, the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other. Since the book was published in 1977, he pays a lot more attention to communism than he would do today.

Reading this book is strange at times. Lindblom is describing something in great detail that you might feel you already know. Don’t we all understand how governments and markets work? Well, not as well as Prof. Lindblom did. (Still, if you had to teach relatively advanced students from another planet about the way governments and businesses operate on Earth, starting from scratch, Politics and Markets would make a very good text.)

The book left me with two main thoughts. The first is hardly a revelation: all countries, even Cuba circa 1976, are hybrids. All countries have governments, of course. But all of them also employ so-called “free markets” as well. No society is totally planned by the government, for good reasons. Even the most pervasive governments use markets for various purposes, as when money is paid to acquire consumer goods or to attract employees to better-paying jobs.

This makes China’s transition from a communist country to a leading participant in world markets easier to understand. The Chinese have retained the one-party control of communism while doing a better job at capitalism than many of their capitalist competitors. The issue is always what mechanisms (laws, regulations, civic education) should be used to insure that businesses are successful while serving the health and welfare of society. Neither total government control of the economy nor total freedom for business would make sense. 

The other thought is more surprising. We often hear that democracy and capitalism work well together. They say it’s something to do with freedom. Yet there is a serious conflict between democracy and big business. Lindblom explains how the people who run businesses must be encouraged or induced to keep the economy functioning. If government officials interfere too much (from the business perspective), companies can stop producing sufficient amounts of the goods and services the rest of us need, at prices we can afford. They can also decide to pay us to little to live on or employ too few of us. If business people don’t produce enough or raise prices too much, there’s inflation; if they don’t pay us enough or hire enough of us, there’s deflation.. 

Because big corporations are so important to the economic life of a nation, the unelected owners and managers of these firms wield great power. From the book’s final paragraphs:

. . . It is possible that the rise of the corporation has offset or more than offset the decline of class as an instrument of indoctrination. That the corporation is a powerful instrument for indoctrination we have documented earlier. That it has risen to prominence in society as class lines have muted is clear enough. That it creates a new core of wealth and power for a newly constructed upper class, as well an an overpowering loud voice, is also reasonably clear. 

The executive of the large corporation, is on, on many counts, the contemporary counterpart to the landed gentry of an earlier era, his voice amplified by the technology of mass communication. A single corporate voice on television, it has been estimated, can reach more minds in one evening than were reached from all the platforms of all the world’s meetings in the course of several centuries preceding broadcasting. More than class, the major specific institutional barrier to fuller democracy may therefore be the autonomy of the private corporation.

It has been a curious feature of democratic thought that it has not faced up to the private corporation as a peculiar organization in an ostensible democracy. Enormously large, rich in resources, the big corporations, we have seen, command more resources than do most government units. They can also, over a broad range, insist that government meet their demands, even if these demands run counter to those of citizens expressed through their polyarchal [rule by the many] controls. Moreover, they do not disqualify themselves from playing the partisan role of a citizen — for the corporation is legally a person. And they exercise unusual veto powers. They are on all these counts disproportionately powerful, we have seen. The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit.

Lindblom doesn’t offer a solution, although he thinks more corporations might be treated like defense contractors or public utilities. The government would guarantee their profits while exerting significant control over their operations.

And with that, Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets can safely return to a bookcase to sit quietly for another 40 years. That’s if it escapes the recycling bin, or a natural disaster, since even excellent books don’t live forever.

As Different Kinds of Capitalism Take Over the World

The New York Review of Books comes in the mail every few weeks. I’ve never been tempted to switch to a digital subscription, partly out of habit, but also because the version on paper is good for reading and also good for looking at. For one thing, I’d miss the book advertisements, which don’t appear online. A yearly subscription to the paper edition is kind of expensive, but we still have libraries and you can still buy a single copy (although those are kind of expensive too). What I didn’t know until just now is that in addition to a regular digital subscription, you can get a Kindle subscription for the low, low price of $3.49 a month (which translates to $2.09 per issue). The world’s richest capitalist is a money grubber (even now!) who treats some of his employees very badly, but he’s made life easier at times.

I’d provide a link to an excellent article in the September 24th NYRB but, except for the latest edition, all of their articles are behind a paywall. The article is “Can We Fix Capitalism?” by Robert Kuttner. Here’s a bit of the article, which is worth reading all the way through:

For enthusiasts of capitalism, democracy and the market are said to be handmaidens. Both depend on the rule of law. Both express aspects of liberty, prizing opportunity and mobility. During the era of classical liberalism, which began in the late eighteenth century, free commerce and political freedom advanced in tandem. Monarchies gave way to republican rule; open markets replaced royal monopolies and inherited privileges. For about a century the franchise gradually expanded, and markets became the primary mode of commerce. The brand of democratic capitalism that emerged in the West after World War II included not just those earlier hallmarks but such liberal values as tolerance, compromise, and enlarged civic participation, as well as regulatory and social welfare policies to buffer the less savory tendencies of markets. Modern capitalism reflected a grand social bargain.

When communism collapsed in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was heralded as ushering in a golden age in which liberal capitalism would be triumphant. Needless to say, things haven’t worked out quite as expected. The social compromises of the postwar welfare state have given way to more primitive forms of capitalism that in turn invite angry reactions by the citizenry. Demagogues have channeled this anger. Today, some form of capitalism is ascendant nearly everywhere. But liberal democracy is in big trouble.

Instead of creating a new golden age, corrupted capitalism has produced alliances between autocrats and oligarchs, epitomized by the regimes of Putin and Txxxx, who both reinforce societies that were already becoming less liberal and more unequal. This is the pattern not just in countries with weak or nonexistent democratic traditions, notably Russia and China, but in the very heartland of liberal democracy, the United States of America. Contrary to standard assumptions about liberalism, autocratic capitalism also coexists and interacts with enlarged global trade, making it harder to defend living standards in democratic nations that once protected their workers and citizens by regulating markets.

In a cycle of reactivity, ordinary people turn not to social democracy—now at its weakest point since World War II—but to the vicarious and counterfeit satisfactions of extreme nationalism. That in turn permits autocrats to pose as populist champions of a mystical People, diverting attention from the economy’s concentrated wealth and rigged rules. This unexpected twist in the fraught relationship between democracy and capitalism is the signal event in the political economy of our age.

In Capitalism, Alone, the economist Branko Milanovic tries to make sense of what has occurred and what the future holds. . . . Milanovic chronicles the rise of authoritarian capitalism, both in nations that once epitomized liberal capitalism such as the US and in countries like China, which are partly capitalist but show no signs of turning liberal. Until recently, as the China scholar James Mann has observed, the widespread hope was that as China’s economy became more capitalistic, the country would become “more like us.” The reality is that we are becoming more like China. . . . 

Milanovic’s first section, on liberal capitalism, offers a smart assessment of how it once worked and why it is now under siege. In the heyday of managed, meritocratic capitalism, societies relied on several mechanisms to equalize income and opportunity. For Milanovic, “strong trade unions, mass education, high taxes, and large government transfers” were essential components. All of these have lost traction as capital has gained more power relative to labor, and globalization has spawned competition to cut taxes, slash wages, and reduce regulation. . . . 

Liberal capitalism, Milanovic concludes, is “reneging on some crucial aspects of [its] implicit value system” via “the creation of a self-perpetuating upper class.” That trend in turn threatens liberal capitalism’s own survival, and makes it less appealing as a model for the rest of the world. . . . 

While Chinese political capitalism is an economic triumph, Russia’s is not. Post-Soviet Russia is basically a petro-state. Its economy has largely failed to generate consumer export industries, the mainstay of China’s success. Vladimir Putin has an understanding with the oligarchs; they can pursue corrupt enterprises as long as they throw some graft his way and don’t make trouble for the regime. His net worth is said to be around $200 billion. In a taxonomy of capitalisms, it would have been interesting to have Milanovic’s insights on why the Russian brand of autocratic capitalism fails while China’s succeeds. . . . 

The most provocative part of the book is the section in which Milanovic addresses a dilemma with no intuitively correct answer: Should we look at the issue of economic inequality as a national or a global question? Most economists and concerned citizens assess it nationally. As Americans, we are troubled that our country has become one of economic extremes. Milanovic insists that the proper lens is global. Income inequality has increased within nearly every nation for the past three decades, substantially driven by globalization. Yet the rise of China, which lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, has rendered the world as a whole more equal.

This cheerful formulation, however, sidesteps the issue of how globalization promotes inequality within nations and thus undermines national democracy. The increased entry of low-wage goods renders high-wage manufacturing labor in wealthy countries uncompetitive. Meanwhile, the greater license for capital in a globalized world promotes deregulation, corruption, the hiding of assets, and exorbitant income for capitalists. The result: greater disparities of income and wealth at both the top and the bottom, and unequal power to make the rules—producing yet more inequality. The consequences for political democracy are grave. As Louis Brandeis was said to have remarked, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Milanovic tends to dismiss the effect of globalization on wealth concentration and democracy within countries in favor of celebrating the rise of China as a gain for global equality. China’s rising GDP, as he points out, has been responsible for about 95 percent of the global reduction in extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank. Milanovic quotes the egalitarian philosopher John Rawls, who argues that if we didn’t know in advance where we would stand in the income hierarchy, we’d favor an income distribution far more equal than the one we have. Why, Milanovic demands, should that principle be applied nationally and not globally? As Rawlsians, don’t we care about the world’s poor and not just the poor in our own land? It’s a good question.

One persuasive rejoinder has been offered by the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik. Nations, he points out, are where policies are made. If we are going to have a socially tolerable income distribution within the polity, that project must be pursued nationally, since there is no global government and no global citizenship. There is an inevitable tension, Rodrik writes, between the policy sovereignty of democratic nations and the logic of globalization. He is emphatic on what should take priority: “Democracies have the right to protect their social arrangements, and when this right clashes with the requirements of the global economy, it is the latter that should give way.”

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