Sunday, January 27, 2008

I Believe in UFOs

Three hours ago if someone had asked me whether I believe in I would have said, “probably not.” Now I say, “probably.” Last night I had come into Larry King Live half-way through, and I wanted to see the whole thing, which involved several sequential panel discussions about , so I hunted for it on-line. Evidently there was a sighting a month or so ago that hundreds of people witnessed, and they discussed it and the other most famous cases.

It turns out that there are countless You-tube clips purporting to show UFOs. Many of them are more convincing than the still photos one gets from searching Google Images. However, I don’t think it was the clips themselves that made me change my mind. Some of the most impressive ones evidently were created by computer. For example, I saw two spectacular clips supposedly made in Haiti. This one was best:

It shows a couple of unusual flying saucers, each with lights underneath and propelled by five circular engines below the disk-shaped craft. (See photo above, which I think was taken from that clip.) If I had been present at such a sighting, I would most certainly have been convinced, but perhaps special effects computer people can create images that are that good today. I wish I knew. (The other day when I watched I wondered whether those scenes of Russian helicopters being shot out of the sky by Stinger missiles had been done by a computer graphics expert. If someone who reads this can answer that question, please enter a comment below.)

But there was another impressive produced by the same people who did the aforementioned one. At first I was astonished by it: a big box-shaped thing was falling toward the camera, but it swerved and showed a logo instead; something like “Wanco.” So that made me much more critical again.

There was one clip made in Florida by an older couple, to judge from the sound of their voice. It went on a very long time. The UFO looked more like a round lampshade covering a light than anything else, but its motions were jittery and it changed shape while we watched. The underneath light glowed red for a while. The couple talked about what they were seeing, and that part seemed extremely authentic. So it seems clear to me that there are many genuine sightings, but probably the majority of the accounts are faked or mistaken. Yet if you open your mind to the possibility that one or two percent of them are authentic, you face a huge challenge deciding what to believe and what to discount.

One Australian woman lost me after she had led me far into her story. She and three other cars had stopped by the side of the road to watch a craft that was on the ground. There were no photos, but the fact that there had been other witnesses bolstered her claim. Then she told us about a group of figures from the spacecraft who approached her and knocked her down with a powerful . At that point, I decided she wasn’t credible. I cannot rationally justify why I will suspend disbelief only up to a certain point, and no further. I don't believe in little bug-eyed aliens.

There was another interesting video about an archaeological discovery made in 1938 in a : unusual skeletons and some discs carved with symbols, which supposedly were left by the crash of a space ship some 12,000 years ago. Well, why not? I can buy that. If aliens are checking us out now, it seems plausible that some of them were doing the same thing 12,000 years ago. That just adds to the credibility of more recent stories for me. Surely we're not the most advanced civilization in the universe.

One of the discussions on and other more analytical video clips concerned the motivation of the US government for covering up such sightings. They did not mention what I think is the most credible explanation: the desire to prevent .

One of the most consistent findings that sociologists find when they study disasters is that the authorities do not want to issue warnings to the public. They suppose that if people are told that a disaster is impending, they will flee in a disorderly way that will cause more harm than the disaster itself.

In some cases there are panic situations, as for example when there is not adequate room for a crowd of people to exit a theatre when a fire starts. But the usual situation is quite different. In general, people will refuse to recognize the truth of a warning or to act on it. Even if the police drive through town, warning will bull-horns that a high dam is about to break and that the inhabitants must flee immediately, they will usually ignore the warning — at least until the see actual water in the streets. Three times I have been in situations where the went off accidentally, notifying us that a was imminent. On all these occasions, people seemed not to hear the sound. I did, but nobody around me seemed to notice. It’s amazing.

So the authorities wrongly believe that for the sake of the public’s well-being, they must hide the truth to prevent havoc. And if the public actually is informed, they do not react to the warning at all, so there is no panic at all. I wish people were more aware of these two findings; we would all be safer.

But there is another factor influencing the decision not to tell people, and it may be well-founded, so far as I know. Once when I was teaching, I asked my class what they would do if they were informed that a spaceship was coming to Earth. Almost all of them assumed that the and that we would have to shoot them immediately, out of self-defence.

I was astonished. I had not suggested at all that these visitors would be malign. Indeed, the possibility had not even occurred to me. But now I think we can assume that the average “Earthling“ would react very badly to news about contact with beings from outer space.

Personally, my attitude is more compatible with that of , the announcer for one of the video clips. He said that his show (of which we could only see a short teaser) would prove that we are being watched by beings from other civilizations who are deeply interested in supporting our well-being. Ackroyd and I are not expecting , as are many of our fellow Earthlings.


Friday, January 25, 2008

No Growth – or “Creative Capitalism”?

Yesterday gave the keynote address at the in , calling for a better kind of . And yesterday I got an e-mail from an economist friend who was urging the cessation of . Neither message was particularly new and they both represent authentic efforts to save the world from a terrible fate. But the two positions could hardly be further apart. One cannot coherently accept them both. And I know where I stand, though most of my friends would take the opposite side.

One of my friends said the other night that “we cannot solve global warming until we have changed our economic system.” I did not hear her complete message but I know she meant that capitalism should be abolished before addressing the other global economic problems. The occasion was not appropriate for a debate, so I did not take issue with her analysis, but I disagree completely.

And so does Gates. Having changed the world and reached middle age, he is quitting his full-time work at and will spent the rest of his life on his extraordinary philanthropic projects. From other interviews with him, I have learned that he has sought advice about effectiveness in disbursing development aid. Some of the leading scholars in these fields — notably — irritate him by claiming that most of the aid previously donated to poor countries has been wasted. Yet Gates himself knows that even Microsoft’s donations of two billion dollars have not panned out. He intends to spend his money on projects that will make a real difference.

So far, he has focused on ways of third of the human population — which means primarily spending on health issues. almost always pays off, whereas other contributions often do not. He has formed partnerships with numerous pharmaceutical companies, putting up the money to buy and other medications, but asking them to assign their most innovative staff the task of developing new treatments that can be sold in vast quantities and with varying prices to “tiered” populations. He sets out by determining how much, say, a poor African mother can afford to pay to vaccinate her child — say fifty cents — and then he offers incentives to the first innovator who can develop millions of doses of that drug at fifty cents apiece. Very smart. And entirely capitalistic. Governments can help most, he says, by creating incentives for social entrepreneurs to invent things that will actually pay off financially. There is no inevitable incompatibility between and doing good for the world.

In this matter he refers to , calling him “the father of capitalism.” The book of Smith’s that he quotes, however, is “,” which preceded the book that more famously justified self-interested behavior as socially beneficial. Smith insisted that is a genuine and important human motive: the desire to foster the well-being of others. And so Gates concludes that the competitive desire for financial gain is no more compelling than the desire for .” Accordingly, he claims that it is not hard for companies to expand their capitalistic endeavors to include production for the betterment of the poor. Even if the company reduces its profits somewhat, this new goal will bring satisfaction and attract motivated employees, especially if it becomes recognized for its good social orientation.

I believe this is realistic. Moreover, like Gates, I am optimistic that the world will generally continue improving as it has been doing for centuries (with, of course, some spectacular exceptions). Gates describes himself as “an impatient optimist,” for he wants to make beneficial capitalism help more of the world than it now reaches — specifically, the bottom third.

What he does not mention is the apprehension of those who believe that the world’s natural resources will inevitably be depleted if capitalism continues its present course. For it was food that would inevitably be depleted, but today’s Malthusians believe that all kinds of other will be exhausted shortly because of . This prediction has been made repeatedly since the eighteenth century, though the earth’s population has multiplied several times over, while the availability of food and raw materials has increased and their have declined. My friends expect this trend to stop any day now because “logically" it must do so because the earth is finite.

Gates’s own career partly explains why growth can continue without depleting “stuff.” He is one of the richest men on earth, but his money came from — codes that exist only as organized symbols and not as physical objects. If you buy one of his programs, you may not even get a package to open. You can download it electronically.

The huge wealth of today’s capitalism does not consist of smokestacks or gold bars or granaries, but of knowledgeable, creative human personnel. Accordingly, he advises companies not just to donate money to anti-poverty projects, but rather to put their most creative talent to work developing products that will help the poorest third of the human population. It’s talent that now is truly “.” Ours is the “information economy,” though my Malthusian friends have not grasped that reality yet.

And to benefit the poor, the upper four billion of the world’s six billion persons need not lower their standard of living, for there is enough for all of us if we use our heads creatively.

I love capitalism, just as I love democracy — yet there is room for immense improvement in them both. Pre-capitalist and undemocratic societies are dreadful places. People who have the prosperity and political freedom that we enjoy are, I think, obliged to share them with every other human being who aspires to them — as most people in the do. That’s my philosophy, and (thank God!) it is also the philosophy of Adam Smith and now Bill Gates.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Consistent Politicians

I am planning another trip to to re-interview a lot of people whom I had met many years ago, during the period. My preparation consists largely of preparing myself to find that the people known then as “new thinkers” have turned into supporters of . I am thinking about what to ask them, since it’s hard to suppose that this is a reasonable position for them to take.

But Russians turned against “” quite a long time ago, and many of their reasons are defensible. It was the West that let them down. For example, when was struggling to get the USSR on its feet, he asked for financial support from the West, but was turned down. That set the stage for Yeltsin to pull the rug out from under him. No wonder he is sore.

But he, Gorbachev, is now apparently a Putin supporter too. That’s what I find hard to imagine. Reportedly, he thinks that Russia needs a strong leader — which he can hardly claim to have been. Surely he knows that the evidence is pretty conclusive that Putin is an autocrat, supporting state-controlled capitalism but hardly any whatever. How could Gorbachev say good things about him?

But actually, that is not entirely out of character. During the last year of his presidency, he appointed people to the highest posts who were themselves opponents of new thinking, opponents of glasnost and perestroika. At the time, I thought that he had lost control of his government and that there had been a “silent coup.” When I asked his associate , about that he explained that politics requires flexibility. Gorbachev was trying to hold both ends of the political spectrum together, and sometimes that requires sharing power with his political enemies. Another Russian whom I asked said that Gorbachev always was a consummate . He was bobbing and weaving between two extreme and polarizing positions, and his method was always that of inclusiveness. He gave part of his regime away just to try to keep it.

But friends in Moscow today say that Gorbachev is no longer even taken seriously. He justifies Putin, and then he will say that he’s going to form a new social democratic party — which would be just the opposite of Putin’s politics. You can’t tell what Gorbachev stands for, if ever indeed you could when he was in power.

I think you could tell his politics early on, when he had sufficient power to implement his decisions. It was latter, when power was slipping through his fingers, that he became increasingly inconsistent, and remains that way today. I don’t exactly blame him, but nor can I respect him as much as I did in the eighties.

Now let’s compare that to the US politics of today. Some people are predicting that (see photo) may win the South Carolina primary, winning support from even the people who strongly oppose his position on the and other military policies. I saw interview , Dean of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania. Moyers asked her why McCain would get support from those who oppose his views. She said it was because he is consistent. People say, “I may not like his position, but at least I know where he stands, and that matters.” She says that's how got elected in 2004: people didn't like his position, but they knew he was consistent.

I want consistency from a politician too. That’s why I dislike . She is forever testing where the wind blows before she will take a stand. It’s not surprising that she voted for the Iraq invasion. Everyone else took that position at the time too, except one brave California Congresswoman, . And , who was not in the Senate yet. But I don’t find it as easy to forgive Hillary Clinton for her inconsistency as I do Gorbachev. Nevertheless, I think it has to diminish his position in Russia -— which was already so low it could hardly drop lower, exactly because (I think) he was so inconsistent as a president.


Friday, January 18, 2008

The Death of Universality?

’s book, , is a hefty thing. I borrowed it but probably will not plow all the way through, though I do admire it. She has done thorough research. Fortunately, I have seen two of her talks on television — one by a few weeks ago and one tonight on TVO, from a lecture she gave in Ottawa recently. She has an original thesis and adduces abundant proof.

According to Klein, there is an organized political movement that is replacing universality with a set of right-wing approaches that she calls “,” but which goes by other names elsewhere, such as “” in Latin America, in Britain. It’s based on the notion that individuals ought to take care of their own needs, buying the particular services that they want rather than offering equal public services to all citizens. These private needs are met by paying .

Among the examples that she mentions is the role of corporations in the aftermath of Katrina in . She and her partner, , had flown down there to interview people while much of the city was still flooded, and their rented car had collided with a police car. She had already seen the appalling care being provided in public medical facilities, but when she woke up after her concussion, she was in a sparkling new private hospital that looked like a spa, which was almost empty, and where there were three nurses to wheel her to an intern to have stitches put into her neck. She asked him whether he had volunteered to help during the emergency (over 800 persons had died) and he said it had not occurred to him.

This attitude she attributes to the philosophy of corporatism. This doctor, living in a corporate medical culture, was just not used to thinking of poor black people as patients. She knew, on the other hand, physicians in Montreal who had flown down to New Orleans to volunteer their services during the crisis. Canada still has a fairly strong sense of universality, though Klein notes that the American system of medical care is making inroads here too, as private clinics are opened outside the public system.

She gives many other examples of the progress of corporatism, including cases in the recent where certain houses were preserved without damage, while the houses around them burned to the ground. The explanation was that these houses were protected by a , which would arrive on the scene looking like ordinary fire trucks, but bearing the corporate logo. You can get this service by buying insurance worth $1600 per year.

Klein argues that the existence of these special private services undermines the public ones. So long as certain affluent citizens can get their needs covered, they will be less committed to maintaining the excellence of the services available to the rest of society.

This is unquestionably the case. However, a Canadian court applied the logic in the opposite way a couple of years ago, ruling that one province (I forget which one) could not forbid the founding of private clinics outside the public system. They said that the province was not offering services quickly enough, so it was therefore unjust to keep people from buying the medical care that they need and can afford. There may have been set a deadline for the public hospitals to offer prompt care before this ruling should take effect – again, I don’t remember. But a friend of mine has stage four cancer, which she could feel by palpating her own abdomen at least six months before the surgeon opened her up to check out the situation. Her daughter had urged her to go to the United States for prompt treatment, but she did not believe in “jumping the queue,” so she had waited. I would have gone to the States. I won’t try to justify my selfishness, but damn it, I’d want to survive so I would have spent my own money to get the care I needed. Klein is right, but I think my friend’s daughter was right too.

Klein’s title, The Shock Doctrine refers to her theory that the encroachment of corporatism occurs when a disaster has taken place. At that moment, just after a shocking event, people do not have any narrative ready by which to explain what is going on. It is during the interval between the shock and the emergence of a story that business interests see a great opportunity and seize it. We cannot prevent disasters from occurring, says Klein, but if we are aware that corporations will be ready with a new business plan, we can catch them before they can establish the institutional arrangements that will be so hard to undo later.

This is an interesting insight. Nobody had pointed out before the connection between disasters and the extension of “neo-liberalism.“ On the other hand, the notion is not new that there is a connection between crises and social change. A few years ago, published a book with the same thesis, though he wanted to encourage liberal innovations instead of corporatism.

According to self-help books and motivational speakers, the Chinese term wei ji refers to a crisis by linking the concepts of “danger” and “opportunity.” Experts do not translate the original terms in quite this way, but the insight is worth keeping, at the risk of distorting the philology.

The contemporary English equivalent is the advice, Again, the point is that when routines serve us well enough, we aren’t likely to change. But if something urgently needs to be fixed, that’s the time to introduce . In principle, this applies to any type of innovation, including reactionary changes. But according to Arnold Simoni, the time to plan is now, before there is a crisis, so we will have something new and more useful to introduce when there is an urgent need for it. Any kind of change will be deferred until its moment. The principle is not limited to the spread of corporatism.

I don’t know whether to take heart from this point or not.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

What To Do About Water

I’ve just read Blue Covenant by (see photo) and learned a lot from it. (For one thing, at the UN, “covenant,” “treaty,” and “convention” all mean the same thing.) Barlow wants a to be enacted defining access to adequate affordable — which would oblige every government to ensure it for their citizens. I heartily agree. And so does Mikhail Gorbachev, whose organization, , is promoting that very goal. (Surprisingly, the does not cover access to water. However, in a war it is illegal to deprive the adversary of water — a policy that the United States enforced illegally in the after the Persian Gulf War.)

I’d skipped Barlow’s books before because of her prominence as a Canadian nationalist. I don’t like of any kind. My impression had been that her concern is limited almost entirely to keeping Canadian water away from Americans — a manifestation of nationalistic selfishness, if you ask me. I don’t care who buys or sells water; I just care what it is used for. If Canada sells the US its water for wasteful purposes, that’s neither better nor worse than wasting it ourselves.

But fortunately, Barlow’s nationalistic argument was almost confined to the final chapter. The rest of the book was packed (indeed, overly packed) with detailed evidence supporting her argument — that a large fraction of the human population lacks access to sufficient safe water to maintain health; that the world is rapidly depleting the earth’s freshwater; and that much of the blame can be attributed to the privatization of water to corporate managers, who do a poor job and often charge more than poor people can afford.

Barlow easily convinced me that we are approaching a . I had heard that message before, but she hammers it hard. As things are going, the world will run short of fresh water. We are depleting Earth’s groundwater, aquifers, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and even poaching each other’s clouds for rain. She concurs with ’s prediction that by 2050, some 1.7 billion people will live in dire “water poverty” and be forced to relocate.

What I had not realized, however, is the extent of the consensus among global development organizations (especially the World Bank) requiring nations to privatize their water, by contracting with that manage water and sewerage systems on a profit-making basis. A country wanting World Bank loans may find that privatization is a precondition. And if one country enters a trading relationship with another country, they may not be free to cancel the deal.

Barlow emphasizes two big points: that water privatization is bad, and that we should not expect technology to save us; only conservation will do so. She is persuasive, especially by pointing out that privatized schemes have widely disappointed those who adopted them. However, I'm not utterly convinced of either point, and I will try to work through the arguments myself here.

Her objections to Green Cross International stem from Gorbachev’s willingness to work with the big water corporations. He does insist that access to affordable water for life should be defined as a human right, but he does not specify whether that water should be provided by public or private utility companies. He does distinguish between “water for life” (i.e. for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and subsistence agriculture) and “productive water” used in commercial enterprises. He says that only the former should be a guaranteed human right.

I can see some defensible logic in favor of . First, it is proper to put a so as to keep people from wasting it. Whatever is free, or almost free, will not be conserved. (The Soviet Union used to provide bread almost without charge, and one could sometimes see boys in the street kicking a loaf around as their football.) Second — and this is central to Gorbachev’s rationale — governments haven’t enough money to install proper water and sewerage facilities all around the world. Only corporations can generate sufficient capital to do that. So he accepts whatever will get the job done.

Because I have not looked at the complete evidence, I'll leave aside Barlow's adduced empirical proof that corporations generally do not invest in the poor sections of town but only help the rich. Limiting myself strictly to the logic, rather tham empirical facts, I can recognize merits in both of those arguments for privatization. I am especially conscious these days of the importance of in determining the use of various commodities; indeed, I am working for a carbon tax for that very reason. If fuel costs more, people will waste it less. Likewise, if water costs more, people will waste it less.

On the other hand, water must be almost free if it is a human right. So the answer, it seems to me, is to make it very cheap up to the amount necessary for basic human health, but charge higher prices for other uses. This should be possible if water meters are installed everywhere. Each about 1,000 cubic meters of water per year. A household, then, should be allotted, say, 175 cubic meters per month at a very low price — say, less than one cent per cubic meter. Any amount beyond that would be charged at high enough rate to enable the water company (whether publicly or privately owned) to recoup a small profit. Water used for industrial purposes and especially for luxury (e.g. on and ) should be charged at higher rates, to be established by the company with the participation of elected local citizens.

In this way, the and would work together to assure that basic human needs are met, while water is also conserved and sufficient money is collected to pay for clean water and sanitation services. Corporations might manage the system or, if the or some other aid agency would provide loans, a public utilities company could do the job equally well.

Still, Barlow mentions, in passing, another argument against corporations that makes sense to me. She points out that a profit-making business must try to expand its operations. Accordingly, then, a water corporation will try to increase the use of water, just for the sake of its financial growth. Insofar as we are aiming to conserve water, corporations are the wrong instrument to use.

That’s a telling point if we can be sure that public utilities are significantly less growth-oriented than corporations. I don’t know whether that’s true. Does your public water or electricity company simply meet the expressed demand for its service, or does it advertise and urge you to want more stuff than you would otherwise crave?

Barlow, along with most left-liberal friends of mine, object to the market mechanism — I suppose because it represents greed and materialistic acquisitiveness to them. I would never claim that unregulated markets will solve our problems. Nevertheless, markets can be immensely useful. They affect prices, and prices influence our decisions about what to consume. Logically, if water costs more, the demand for it should decrease, as people begin to use it mindfully and frugally.

But water is not subject to market pressures on the supply side, because it is a monopoly, not a competitive business. Probably that keeps the price of water higher than it might otherwise be, or it allows the company to get away with providing worse service, since consumers have no alternative supplier. There is presumably only room for one water company in a given area, so there cannot be among companies. (However, twenty years or so ago, the government broke Bell Telephone into several competing services, and that arrangement seems to be working well. Perhaps — though it seems improbable to me — a water monopoly could also be broken into competing firms.)

In any case, we cannot rely on market forces to get going on a scale appropriate to the dangerous shortages that must be anticipated within decades. Other collective plans must be developed to meet the crisis.

I myself would bet on technology. Barlow mentions a number of technological innovations, such as desalination, new techniques for sucking clean water out of the air, and nanotechnology. I am not in a position to evaluate any of these — nor, I suspect, is Barlow herself. However, she describes them all with considerable suspicion and claims that inevitably produces toxins (with what effects we are not told).

But technology is a lot more than super-modern hi-tech. It includes old fashioned things such as underground water pipes. Huge amounts of piped water escapes through leaky systems. Renovating the pipes would seem to be a promising technological starting point.

And the technology of can be exploited far better. Barlow herself mentions the research of , a Slovakian hydrologist who shows that the water cycle is a significant factor in global warming. He points out that civilization covers the earth with , so that our rainwater drains away to the ocean without infiltrating the soil. Wetter soil would cool us directly and would produce clouds, which in turn would reflect the sun’s rays back outward. A project is already underway to demonstrate that a better use of rainwater can overcome much of our impending global drought and at the same time reverse some of the effects of in heating the atmosphere. They believe that results will show up within just a few years.

So I learned a lot, for which I am grateful, but I am not ready to join Barlow’s team. There are other ways.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

How About that Electoral College!

Last night I met my friend Lynn at a restaurant for dinner and a movie. She started reflecting aloud on the failings of the — especially the undemocratic nature of the system. As a dual citizen, I should have been able to explain how the thing works but, whatever I once knew, I have forgotten. So I tried boning up on the subject today by reading Wikipedia. And now I’ve been on the phone sharing my new knowledge with Lynn, through my tongue seemed unable to pronounce one word correctly. I kept referring to the “electrical college.”

Lynn was convinced that the whole electoral college method had been introduced because of some concern about slavery or the Civil War, but that was evidently not the case. It was written into the Constitution from the outset, meant to ensure that states’ interests would be given considerable decision-making weight, and also that power would be balanced among the three branches of government. But the Constitution specifies that each state may decide how to choose its – the folks who get together in their state capitols to elect the President and Vice-President.

Each state has as many electors as it has and , and the District of Columbia has three Electors. Each state always has two Senators, but the number of Representatives varies according to its population, as determined by the most recent census. At present there are 538 Presidential Electors, mostly pre-selected by the political parties. Almost always, the ballots are designed to show only the names of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, not the name of the Electors who will eventually cast the vote for them later on. I have never even known the name of any Elector who was chosen to vote for my district in the subsequent Electoral College meeting.

Originally, the Electors voted for the President and Vice-President on the same ballot, with the presidency being won by the candidate with the largest number of votes and the vice-presidency being won by the candidate with the next-largest number. But this system was changed by a Constitutional amendment. Now the Electors vote for the President first, and then for the Vice-President on a separate ballot.

Also, originally the legislature of each state generally picked its presidential and vice-presidential Electors. but nowadays the usual method is to divide the state into electoral districts and have the voters choose the Elector for their respective districts. These districts are not necessarily the same as the congressional districts, since there are always two more Electors to be chosen than the number of congressional districts. In a few states, party conventions nominate the Electors; in other states, the campaign committees of each candidate names the persons who will become Presidential Elector. (I apologize for the awkwardness of my prose when describing these matters, but I can’t help it.)

Anyway, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the Electors gather in 51 separate places (always in their respective state capitol buildings or in the District of Columbia), give speeches, and then cast their electoral votes. On rare occasions a “faithless” Elector fails to vote as he or she had pledged. Moreover, once or twice a candidate has died after the popular election but before the Electoral College met, so that the Electors had to improvise a way to fill the vacant post. The outcome of the Electors’ vote is sent to Washington, where they are tallied at a joint session of Congress on the sixth day of the new calendar year. If no candidate for President receives an absolute electoral majority of 270 votes out of the 538 possible, then the new House of Representatives goes into session immediately to vote for President. Each state delegation has a single vote, and a simple majority wins.

If no candidate for Vice President receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the Senate goes into session to elect him or her.

Long before 2000, the nature of the electoral college system had been debated, but in that year Al Gore won the popular vote for the whole United States, but (allegedly) lost at the Electoral College level. (For present purposes, I’ll overlook the more likely explanation for his defeat — in Florida.) There are several ways in which such a discrepancy can arise between the outcomes of the electoral and the . A number of reforms have been proposed to keep any discrepancies from giving victory to different persons.

Not all of these reforms would require amending the US Constitution, since each state already has the right to determine how it shall select Electors. The simplest reform would be to adopt the “,” which was used first in the Maine elections of 1803, 1812, 1820, then again in 1972 and in every subsequent election there. It differs from the system in most other states, whereby after the January electoral college has voted, the “” of its state’s votes when Congress counts the votes of the whole country. The Maine approach does not aggregate the Electoral College votes but reports all the variations. For example, consider the situation of California in the 2000 election. won 19 Congressional districts and won 33. Under the present system, the Electoral College meeting in Sacramento assigned all 52 votes to Gore. However, if the Maine system had been used, California’s electoral votes would have gone 33-19 for Gore.

This is what was bothering my friend Lynn. “Democrats would never get elected again if California adopted such a system,” she said. Well, that’s true. But you can bet that no state as populous as California will ever adopt such a system unless other states also agree to introduce the same change simultaneously. In fact, I don’t expect this type of reform to be adopted at all. In the unlikely event that a vote-system change of any kind is accepted, I expect it will arise by a Constitutional Amendment abolishing the Electoral College altogether in favor of a direct popular vote. But I won’t hold my breath.

Reading the arguments about this complex matter has tempered my zeal somewhat. I had believed that the Electoral College was simply an undemocratic mistake made by the Founding Fathers. Today, however, I came to realize that there are tenable arguments on both sides of the question. It was a smart way to strengthen the power of states and even of specific regions of states. When the Constitution was written, local considerations must have seemed more important than they do to me today.

I worry about different matters, including the fact that the United States wields so much influence over the lives of individuals all around the world who are not its citizens — say, Peruvian farmers who cannot sell their crops because of American protectionism, or mothers who leave their own kids in the Philippines and come to the United States to work as nannies. Instead of bolstering the power of state interests by the Electoral College system, I wish there were some way for these foreigners to make their voices heard in American political deliberations.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any appropriate solution to this; the US can’t give voting rights to all foreigners. We have to go on acting as if made sense — as if the world consisted of separate, discrete nations, like a basket of self-contained eggs where all political decisions were made inside the shells. In fact, we are one big omelette.

The truly significant political reforms are those that recognize the multi-lateral, globalized nature of economic and social reality, and that give people everywhere more control over the conditions of their lives.

The were savvy, bless their hearts. They invented a wise Constitution. But democracy is never finished. It’s like the proverbial carrot dangling from a stick attached to the donkey’s head. We keep pursuing it but we never reach it. I’m glad someone else is concerned about the fairness of the Electoral College. But as for myself, I’d be happy just to ensure that the elections are not rigged — as I think they were both in 2000 and 2004.

But that’s another story.


Friday, January 04, 2008

The Stamp is on My Ballot Envelope

I just voted in the . Or rather, I will have voted as soon as I put the envelope into a mailbox in a couple of hours. I drew a blue ball-point line connecting the front half of an arrow to the back half. And that arrow was pointing at the name “.” I got to vote for him because I'm a of the US and Canada.

Last night I watched the Iowa caucuses on TV until ’s election central handed over to Larry King, who was going to keep the excitement going by interviewing Mike Huckabee and some of the others – but not Obama. I’d have stayed up all night, had more of Obama been promised.

This is the first time in ages that I’ve felt delighted about voting for a US . This guy is inspiring. I would have been satisfied to vote for , if Obama hadn’t been on the ballot. Or , if he had stood any chance of winning. (I hate to waste my vote on futile gestures.)

But ? No way! Even if she wins the nomination, I don’t think I can bring myself to vote for her — though I won’t promise not to until I know who the Republican nominee will be. It’s nothing personal, you understand. It’s just her I can’t stand. I can’t excuse her voting for the , and voting to continue funding it whenever the chance arose. She waits to see which way the wind is blowing before taking a stand. That’s politics for you, I guess — at least it’s the kind of in politics that she boasts of having. And that is exactly what I want changed.

Last night after the outcomes had been announced, each prominent candidate made a speech. Of them, only Obama mentioned nuclear weapons. As they campaigned, a few of the candidates have, when questioned, stated their intention of . Edwards did, for example. Obama has done so all along. But Hillary doesn’t promise any such thing. Maybe she'd make some reductions, but there’s no promise to eliminate them, since that would give others a chance to match the US arsenals. On another occasion, a peacenik woman asked whether she would and she said she would keep all options available.

Well, in that case, she won’t get my vote.

Obama’s speech was moving and convincing. He made several important promises, including this one, which impressed me. As president, instead of telling you what you want to hear, he will . Imagine that!