China On the Rise

The Atlantic has a typically long article about China’s construction of an enormous radio telescope:


Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle [recently destroyed], the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

[It’s] the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter”. After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

If that isn’t enough, they’re planning to put a radio observatory on the dark side of the Moon, where there is even less interference from terrestrial radio waves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Chinese have a “rail-linked urban megastructure” that required the country to pour “more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century” The country “has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea”. The author of the article marvels at “smooth, spaceship-white” trains “whooshing by . . . at almost 200 miles an hour”.

China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, has spent heavily on medical research and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful. It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

China’s gross domestic product is still only about 2/3 of America’s, but they’ll probably spend more on research and development than we do in the coming decade.

When we saw the Soviet Union as our competition in the 50s and 60s, we got busy. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Today, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations over one million. China is making its presence known.


Small States and Minority Rule

Every four years we elect a president. Almost every four years, we discuss the Electoral College. From Jesse Wegman of The New York Times:

As the 538 members of the Electoral College gather on Monday to carry out their constitutional duty and officially elect Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as his vice president, we are confronted again with the jarring reminder that it could easily have gone the other way. We came within a hairbreadth of re-electing a man who finished more than seven million votes behind his opponent — and we nearly repeated the shock of 2016, when Dxxxx Txxxx took office after coming in a distant second in the balloting.

No other election in the country is run like this. But why not? That question has been nagging at me for the past few years, particularly in the weeks since Election Day, as I’ve watched with morbid fascination the ludicrous effort by Mr. Txxxx and his allies to use the Electoral College to subvert the will of the majority of American voters and overturn an election that he lost.

The obvious answer is that, for the most part, we abide by the principle of majority rule. . . . 

In the last 20 years, Republicans have been gifted the White House while losing the popular vote twice, and it came distressingly close to happening for a third time this year. 

Since 2000, we’ve had six presidential elections. The candidate who got the most votes only won four of them. This year, shifting 44,000 votes to the loser in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would have resulted in a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. That would have moved the election to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation gets one vote, regardless of population. Since most states have Republican-majority representation in the House — even though the House has more Democrats — DDT would have presumably been re-elected, hard as that is to imagine. 

Among the comments the Times article received, one person said the Electoral College is fine, since we’re a collection of states, the United States of America, not a collection of citizens. He said it’s only fair that we pick a president based on which states the candidates win, not how many votes they get. Besides, he added, votes in the Electoral College are “roughly” assigned by population.

I don’t agree that because we’re called the United States, we should ignore majority rule when it coms to picking a president. After all, the states we live in are supposed to be “united”. But his statement about the Electoral College being “roughly” based on population made me wonder.

How would the 2020 election have turned out if votes in the Electoral College were “precisely” assigned by population, instead of “roughly”? Today, the largest state, California, gets 55 electoral votes and the smallest state, Wyoming, gets 3. But California’s population is 68 times Wyoming’s. So if the Electoral College were precisely allocated by population, California would get 204 electoral votes, not 55. Quite a difference. The next largest state, Texas, would get 150 instead of 38.

Would that have made the result in the Electoral College much different? It was surprising to see that it wouldn’t. If you do the same precise arithmetic for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Joe Biden receives 974 electoral votes instead of 306 and DDT gets 730 instead of 232. That looks like a big difference, but the percentages are about the same. Biden would get 57.2% of the electoral votes with the precise arithmetic and 56.9% with the rough arithmetic. It works out that way because some big states, like California and New York, went for Biden and some, like Texas and Florida, went for DDT. When you average it all out, the Electoral College result would be about the same either way.

There would be a big difference, however. Big states would be much more important in the Electoral College than small states. If California got 204 electoral votes instead of 55, it would make even less difference who won a bunch of little states like Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska. In fact, assuming precise arithmetic, the 25 largest states would get 1,423 electoral votes vs. 288 for the 25 smallest. 

What this shows is that the current Electoral College is significantly skewed to benefit smaller states. Voters in those states play a bigger role than they should, based on how few of them there are. Being precise about population wouldn’t necessarily change the winner every time, but a more accurate Electoral College would reflect where people actually live in these “united” states. It would also reflect the cultural divisions in this country, since smaller states tend to be more rural.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the Electoral College that is skewed toward smaller states. According to the Constitution, each state gets as many votes in the Electoral College as it has members of Congress. Wyoming gets three electoral votes because it has two people in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. California gets 55 electoral votes because it has two senators and 53 representatives in the House. If seats in Congress were precisely allocated by population, California would still have two senators, but it would elect almost four times as many members of the House of Representatives as Wyoming. The ratio in the House would be California’s 202 to Wyoming’s one, not 53 to one.

If the makeup of the House of Representatives isn’t unfair enough, consider the US Senate. Each state, regardless of population, gets two senators. It was designed to give small states the same representation as big states, so each state, regardless of population, gets to elect two. Maybe that made sense when there were only 13 states and they were relatively close in population. Now we have 50 states with a very wide range of populations.

In 1790, for example, the largest state, Virginia, had 13 times as many people as the smallest, Delaware. Today, as noted above, California has 68 times more people than Wyoming. Furthermore, the 50 members of the Senate from the largest 25 states represent almost 275 million people. The 50 senators from the smallest 25 states represent 49 million.

The imbalance is made even worse by the fact that the Senate is responsible for approving nominations to the Executive Branch (including all the officials in the president’s cabinet) and the federal judiciary (including the Supreme Court), as well as approving treaties. Because of the way senators were to be chosen, the authors of the Constitution assumed that members of the Senate would be more responsible than the unruly members of the House of Representatives. That’s hardly the case today.

In addition, smaller states, which tend to more rural, tend to vote for Republicans. Of the 25 largest states, 15 voted for Biden and 10 for his opponent. Of the 25 smallest, 10 voted for Biden and 15 for the other guy. That’s why the Senate is where progressive legislation goes to die and liberal nominees fall into comas waiting to be approved.

Add this all up and it’s easy to see that a Constitution written in 1789 doesn’t work very well for a large, complicated country in 2020. The Senate is skewed to benefit smaller, more Republican states, while the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, which chooses the president, are skewed the same way, although less so. This unfairness explains why Hillary Clinton could beat her opponent by 3 million votes and lose, why Joe Biden could beat the same opponent by 7 million votes but not necessarily win, and why forward-looking legislation that would make the United States a much better place to live has so little chance of success. Maybe shifting demographics will eventually help, but in the short run, we have to assume the United States will be subject to minority rule from Washington in important ways and much too often. 

The American Project

You’ve probably heard of the “1619 Project”, even if you’ve never read it. I have a subscription to The New York Times but avoid the weekly magazine section. That’s where a series of articles was published last year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Black slaves being brought to Virginia in August 1619. The Project’s other purpose was to show the many ways slavery has affected this country up to the present day.

The 1619 Project has been celebrated and criticized and used by Republicans for their usual nefarious purposes. The Washington Post has an interesting article called “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020”. The title is an exaggeration but the article nicely summarizes how a series in the Times Sunday magazine became a big deal.

Americans, being citizens of a forward-looking country, are relatively ignorant of our history, so any significant effort to inform us about our nation’s proud but checkered past, like the 1619 Project, is a positive development. 

What went wrong in this case is that the Times writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who initiated the project and won a Pulitzer Price for her efforts, wrote this:

One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” [at a time when] “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.

A well-known Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz, strongly objected to this characterization. From the Washington Post article: 

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Professor Wilentz and three other historians wrote a letter to the Times and the controversy took off from there, exacerbated as usual by right-wingers, including, of course, our Controversialist-In-Chief. The controversy could probably have been short-circuited early on except for the actions of an egotistical Times editor, who overreacted to the historians’ letter, viewing it as an attack on the entire project instead of acknowledging the error. (Egotism and refusal to admit error are defining characteristics of Times editors.)

The Times has a statement saying “the 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine . . . [that] aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of those consequences and contributions. I remember reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice in college and being shocked when he said the relationship between Black and White Americans was central to this country’s history. The more I’ve learned about America, the more I’ve agreed with him. (I wish I could find his exact words. Is it predictable that there is no Kindle edition of Soul On Ice?). 

Yet the language that upset the historians, including the statement that “we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not . . . believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue” remains. That’s odd for what the Times says is “an ongoing initiative” (see “egotism and refusal to admit error”).  Meanwhile, Republicans claim Democrats all believe the United States began in 1619, not 1776.

Reading about the 1619 Project today got me thinking about America’s founding. That led me to a site run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, “an educational agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia”. Although Spanish explorers founded our longest lasting city, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, it’s generally agreed that the arrival of the English in Virginia’s Jamestown marked the beginning of what became the United States. Here’s some of the chronology from the Jamestown-Yorktown site:

1570-1  Spanish Jesuits set up a mission on the York River . . . Within six months, the Spaniards were killed by local Indians.

1585-7  Three separate voyages sent English explorers and settlers to the coast of what is now North Carolina, then known as Virginia. John White, who . . . had gone back to England for supplies, returned in 1590 and found no trace of the settlers.

1607  On May 13, nearly five months after departing from England, an expedition of 104 colonists arrived at a site on the James River selected for settlement. . . . The group named their settlement for King James I.

1608  Captain Christopher Newport, . . . who had sailed back to England, returned to Virginia in January with settlers and goods. It was the first of a series of regular arrivals in the colony.

1613  Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, powerful leader of 30-some Indian tribes in coastal Virginia, was kidnapped by the English.

1619  The first representative legislative assembly in British America met at Jamestown on July 30. The first documented people of African origin in Virginia arrived in late summer aboard an English ship flying Dutch colors.

Wow. Notice that last sentence? The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is missing something, or maybe these “people of African origin” arrived in Virginia because they’d heard about the so-called “New World” and wanted to check it out for themselves.

Putting aside the racists in charge of the Jamestown chronology, or rather taking note of their attempt to whitewash history, I wondered how we should remember America’s founding. Although we tend to think it was an event, it was actually a process. In fact, we might say the process continues.

1607  An English expedition settled in Jamestown.

1619  The first African slaves were brought to America.

1620  The Plymouth colony was established in Massachusetts.

1763  The French and Indian War ended.

1776  The Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia.

1781  The British surrendered at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War 

1788  The Constitution was ratified, taking effect in 1789.

1791  The Bill of Rights was ratified.

1803  The United States and France agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.

1830  The Indian Removal Act became law (leading to, among other things, the Trail of Tears)

1865  The Civil War ended.

1868  The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, was adopted.

1869  The transcontinental railroad was completed.

1920 The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, was adopted.

1924  The Indian Citizenship Act was passed (because the 14th Amendment wasn’t enough).

1933-1939  The New Deal was enacted.

1964 The Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, became law.

1965 The Voting Rights Act was passed (although Republicans on the Supreme Court improperly declared it unnecessary in 2013)

2016 A Black American was elected president.

Other milestones along our path to becoming the United States of America are yet to occur. (It’s 19 days until the first Tuesday in November.)

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.


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.


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.

A Really Big Pile Indeed

The (Roughly) Daily blog has a visual guide to wealth in America (thanks, Ted). The text, which takes a while to find, includes a few key facts:

We rarely see wealth inequality represented to scale. This is part of the reason Americans consistently under-estimate the relative wealth of the super rich.

Jeff (Bezos) is so wealthy, that it is quite literally unimaginable.

You can use your scroll bar to see why you can’t imagine it. But don’t stop until you get to the wealth of the 400 richest Americans, a sum that’s super-unimaginable.

Remember during the presidential campaign when Senators Warren and Sanders called for a wealth tax and at least one billionaire wept bitter tears?

warrenmugbillionairetears_111419warrencampaign (2)

It looks like they’re still selling the mugs, although, given current circumstances, nobody knows when they’ll be delivered.

Note: I can’t vouch for the visual guide’s accuracy, but according to other sources, Bezos’s pile is around 1,500,000 times more — that’s 1.5 million times more — than the median net worth of a U.S. household, and 12,600,000 times more than the median for households under 35. That’s a really big pile.