An American Parliament

As the U.S. once again finds itself between two widely unpopular choices, it is worth reflecting on this 2016 hypothetical from the Economist, a British newspaper: parties centered on narrower but more representative ideas.

Image may contain: 4 people, text that says 'WHAT IF THE UNITED STATES HAD A PARLIAMENT? PREDICTED PARLIAMENT* TOTAL SEATS 435 113 49 124 LEFT CENTRE-LEFT "Social "Liberal Democratic Party" Party" BERNIE SANDERS HILLARY CLINTON 26% of vote 28% 37 112 CENTRE-RIGHT RIGHT POPULIST "Conservative "Christian "People's Party" Coalition" Party" JOHN KASICH TED CRUZ DONALD 8% 11% TRUMP 26% Sources: YouGov; CPS; The Economist Pic credits: Getty Images; Reuters *based on April 22-26th 2016 polling; seats allocated Economist The proportionally by census region (North, Midwest, South, West)'

America’s presidential system, along with its winner-take-all elections and Electoral College, tends to lead to gridlock and polarization. These mechanisms and institutions were devised before political parties were a thing—or at least as rigid as they are now—and thus never seriously took them into account. Hence, we are stuck with two big parties that are far from representative of the complex spectrum of policies and ideologies.

Rather than the proportional representation you see above, members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes—i.e. not even the majority—wins the congressional seat. The losing party or parties, and by extension their voters, get no representation at all. This tends to produce a small number of major parties, in what’s known in political science as Duverger’s Law.

With the Electoral College, there is a similar dynamic at play: a presidential candidate needs no more than half the vote plus one to win the entire state and its electors. Some states are considering making it proportional, but only Maine and Nebraska have already done so.

This is why you see so many seemingly contradictory interests lumped into one or the other party. In other systems, you may have a party centered on labor rights, another on the environment, yet another for “conventional” left-wing or right-wing platforms, etc. The fragmentation might be messy, but it also forces parties to either appeal to a larger group of voters (so they can have a majority) or form coalitions with other parties to shore up their legislative votes (which gives a voice to smaller parties and their supporters).

Note that this is a huge oversimplification, as literally whole books have been written about all the reasons we are stuck with a two-party system most do not like. And of course, a parliament would not fix all our political problems, which go as deep as our culture and society.

But I personally think we may be better off with a parliamentary-style multiparty system—uncoincidentally the most common in the world, especially among established democracies—than what we have now.

What are your thoughts?

Compulsory Voting

As I see folks share that they voted, I’m reminded of the idea of mandatory voting, in which all eligible citizens are required to vote unless they have a valid excuse.

In ancient Athens, it was seen as the duty of every eligible citizen to participate in politics; while there was no explicit requirement, you could be subject to public criticism or even a fine.

Today, only a few countries require citizens to vote, most of them in Latin America; but of this already small number, only a handful actually enforce it with penalties.

Image may contain: text that says 'Nodata No data No compulsory voting No sanctions Source: -Dem Dataset Version 8 (2018) Minimal sanctions Costly sanctions'
Note: The light blue countries require voting but don’t enforce it. (Source: Wikimedia)

Moreover, just five of the world’s 35 established democracies have compulsory voting: Australia, Luxembourg, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Belgium (which has the oldest existing compulsory voting system, dating back to 1893.) In Belgium, registered voters must present themselves at their polling station, and while they don’t have to cast a vote, those who fail to at least show up without proper justification can face prosecution and a moderate fine. (To make it easier, elections are always held on Sundays.) If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years, and might face difficulties getting a job in government (though in practice fines are no longer issued).

The arguments for compulsory voting is that democratic elections are the responsibility of citizens—akin to jury duty or paying taxes—rather than a right. The idea is that making voting obligatory means all citizens have responsibility for the government they choose; in a sense, it makes the government more legitimate, since it represents the vast majority of people.

The counterargument is that no one should be forced to take part in a process they don’t believe in or otherwise don’t want to be a part of; basically, not voting is itself a form of expression. Unsurprisingly, this view is prevalent in the U.S., where many believe compulsory voting violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak. Similarly, many citizens will vote solely because they have to, with total ignorance about the issues or candidates. In many cases, they might deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process and disrupt the election, or vote for frivolous or jokey candidates. This is prevalent in Brazil, the largest democracy with mandatory voting, where people increasingly have become cynical about politics, elect joke candidates, and still choose not to vote despite the penalty.

Some have argued that compulsory elections help prevent polarization and extremism, since politicians have to appeal to a broader base (i.e. the entire electorate). It does not pay to energize your base to the exclusion of all other voters, since elections cannot be determined by turnout alone. This is allegedly one reason Australian politics are relatively more balanced, with strong social policies but also a strong conservative movement.

Finally, there is the claim that making people vote might also make them more interested in politics. It’s been shown that while lots of folks resent jury duty for example, once they’re in the jury, they typically take the process seriously. Similarly, they may hate mandatory voting in theory but in practice will find themselves trying to make the best of it.

International Day of Clear Blue Skies

Aside from Labor Day in the U.S., today is the first International Day of Clear Blue Skies, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly to bring awareness to the largest environmental risk to public health globally: air pollution.

Over 90% of our world is exposed to polluted air, which causes an estimated seven million premature deaths every year (more than cigarette smoking) and leaves millions more with chronic health problems like asthma and cognitive decline.

Fortunately, the world has a precedent for successful action: Over 30 years ago this month, the UN-sponsored Montreal Protocol saw literally every country commit to working together to eliminate CFCs, which were causing severe depletion of the ozone layer; it remains one of the few treaties with universal agreement. It took only 14 years between the discovery of the problem and the world committing to resolve it—and we’ve already seen the results.

No photo description available.

A few years ago, it was confirmed that the ozone layer is slowly recovering, and most projections show it fully healing within the next four decades. In an era of rising conflict and poor global leadership, this unlikely and little known success story of international cooperation is a glimmer of hope.

Fated for Conflict?

Nearly two centuries ago, a French traveler to America noted that the U.S. and Russia were destined to become great powers, fueled by their own conflicting but similar sense of manifest destiny and exceptionalism.

In many respects, the two countries are foils of each other, with their visions shaped by very different historical and geographic forces.

The U.S. benefited from inheriting a fairly liberal constitutional monarchy (by European standards) and an entire continent to itself, protected by two big oceans and lacking any rival powers in the entire hemisphere. It made experimenting with democracy far easier.

Russia was hemmed in by nomadic tribes and left open to raids and conquests by its flat steppes. Hence the eventual reliance on strongmen who could provide peace and security (such as the Rus Vikings) and the obsession with expanding as far out as possible to create buffers of security. Hence also a more cynical foreign policy, shaped by a history of foreign invasions.

Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in his 1835 treatise, Democracy in America:

There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived … Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

This also goes to show how much geography shapes destiny. It is difficult to imagine we would could have developed a representative political system if we were subject to the constant existential threats that prompted Russia’s embrace of authoritarian security. We already significantly constrain civil liberties over threats much further away or less drastic.

Patriotism v. Globalism?

Americans have created this false dichotomy between patriotism and “globalism”, as if caring about international law, global public opinion, and the ideas of other nations is somehow intrinsically “un-American”. This would have been absurd to the Founding Fathers, who by today’s standards would be labeled globalist elites.

None other than James Madison, the father of the constitution, insisted that “no nation was so enlightened that it could ignore the impartial judgments of other nations and still expect to govern itself wisely and effectively”. In Federalist 63, he stressed the importance of respecting the consensus views of other countries and even believed that global public opinion could help keep ourselves in check:

An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: The one is, that independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy: The second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion, or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world, may be the best guide that can be followed.

Madison even adds that America would flourish if it considered the judgments and views of the world:

What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiassed part of mankind?

Madison was far from alone in this view. Most of the founders, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson, shared this sentiment, which is reflected in the U.S. Constitution. The Supremacy Clause states that international treaties are the supreme law of the land, even superseding conflicting domestic laws. The little known Offences Clause commits Congress to safeguard the “law of nations”, which we now cause international law. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld America’s commitments to international law; in one of its first cases, Ware v. Hylton, it ruled that the U.S. was bound by the terms of its peace treaty with Britain—even if it meant striking down a patriotic but conflicting state law. Many other cases—Missouri v. Holland, U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright, and The Paquete Habana, among others—followed suit.

Back in Madison’s day, most nations were monarchies in some form. Yet even then Americans saw the merit in garnering their respect or learning from them. Now that we have a more diverse community of nations—including dozens of democracies and allies—we have even more reason to take seriously our commitments to the world and our openness to its ideas.

The Unsung Mediators

As with most things, it is easier to focus on the failures than the successes—especially when success is measured by the bad things that never happened. The absence of tragedy does not feel as salient as its occurrence, which makes it easy to take for granted.

This is especially the case with diplomacy and global conflict resolution, which usually happens behind closed doors to allow the parties to save face. Imagine how many wars never happened because cooler heads prevailed, often with the help of nameless and faceless diplomats.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of World War III, but few know, let alone appreciate, that it was the newly appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations—a soft-spoken career diplomat from Burma named U Thant—who persuaded both sides to walk back from the brink and provided a mutually acceptable resolution. American and Russian officials credited the UN, and Thant in particular, for helping deescalate the conflict; JFK remarked that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”

We see this again with UNIFIL, a multinational UN force that has been stationed at the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978 to keep the peace between the two nations. On its face, the mission has been an abject failure: skirmishes between Lebanese militias and Israeli forces continue to this day, even leading to outright war in 2006. Both sides, as well as the U.S., regard UNIFIL as worthless and often call for its mandate to end.

But an official in the Lebanese government noted that there were plenty of flare ups that had been diffused, or even prevented, through negotiations mediated by local UN forces. For all the conflicts it failed to avert—and that subsequently capture all the attention—there were just as many, if not more, that never happened because of UNIFIL intervention behind the scenes.

These are just two examples. Who knows how many more “almost-wars” and tragedies are being avoided every day, even as we speak, by thankless diplomats, negotiators, and mediators.

The Largest Scientific Endeavor Breaks Ground!

Somehow, amid all the geopolitical rivalries, tensions, and rising nationalism, nearly three dozen countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, the U.S., and all 27 members of the European Union—are joining forces to launch the largest scientific research facility in history.

Known as ITER, the roughly $24 billion megaproject is being built in southern France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element, usually uranium, is split to produce lighter ones, thereby generating energy—but also radioactivity.

Nuclear fusion works the opposite way, combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Since it can work with light and abundant elements like hydrogen, it has the potential to supply humanity with limitless energy for millions of years.

To put it in perspective, through nuclear fusion, a relative handful of hydrogen could produce enough energy to power 2,300 American homes annual (equivalent to about 10,000 tons of coal, the most common fuel in the world and highly polluting). A 2,000 megawatt fusion power plant would supply electricity for two million homes.

France's global nuclear fusion device a puzzle of huge parts

Despite 60 year of trying, there has been little progress in making nuclear fusion commercially viable—hopefully until now. By the time ITER is completed in 2025, we may finally come within reachable grasp of this promising energy source. In addition to being the largest research facility, it will also be the largest nuclear fusion experiment and will have the largest system of superconducting magnets.

At the heart of ITER will be Tokamak, a Russian invention that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine a hot plasma to generate fusion. While devised in the 1960s, to this day a Tokamak is the leading candidate for industrial-scale fusion—hence ITER will have one stretching 100 feet and comprised of one million parts.

Start of ITER assembly paves way for fusion energy era ...

In announcing the groundbreaking of the project today, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”

Good to see the world still managing to stick together for something this big and consequential. A heartening display of our species’ potential.

World Day Against Trafficking

Today is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, which like all international days, is intended to raise public awareness about global problems—few of which are as pervasive and universally revolting as human trafficking.

The graphic below from the United Nations does an excellent job of revealing the many forms and contexts of human trafficking, most of which is driven by sexual exploitation. The focus on Jeffery Epstein and his despicable ilk risks narrowing or sensationalizing a crime that is shockingly far more common, in all segments of society, often right in front of us.

Image may contain: text that says 'MEANS ACT Recruitment Transport Transfer bouring Receipt of persons PURPOSE Exploitation, Exploitat induding Prostitution of others Sexual exploitation Forced labour Threat or use offorce Coercion Abduction Fraud Deception Abuse of power or ulnerability Giving payments.or benefits TRAFFICKING Slavery.or similar practices Removalo organs Other types.of exploitation'

Traffickers and their clients come from every background and have been outed in virtually every industry, from pornography to sports. Many are outwardly normal or even likable; some are rich and powerful, but many are not. Plenty of them are sleazy or creepy, but many of them are popular and even respectable members of their community or society as a whole. Their victims could seem like willing friends, partners, or employees, and may even be manipulated into believing they are.

All these factors make this scourge of humanity harder to fight. We would all do well to be vigilant and look beyond the narrower and more sensationalist forms this crime can take; it’s a lot closer to us than we think.

America the Upstart

The United States is one of nearly 200 countries. Americans are less than five percent of the world’s population. Our nation just turned 244 and has been a superpower for only about 80-100 years—a drop in the bucket in humanity’s 250,000-year history. Iran alone is heir to several empires spanning over 2,000 years, including one of the first in history, the Achaemenid. One of them, the Sassanian Empire, was a global superpower for four centuries, rivaled only by the Roman-Byzantine Empire (which it continually fought for 400 years). Egypt was forming into one of the world’s first and most powerful civilizations back when woolly mammoths were still around.

For much of the last 2,000 years, about a third of all humans lived in what is now China, and perhaps another third in what is now India; until just two hundred years ago, they jointly made up half the world’s economy. The bulk of all humans who ever lived—and thus the bulk of human activity, art, invention, ideas, political intrigue—were in two places that are barely a blip to the minds of most Americans. Similarly, there was a time when Islamic civilization was the pinnacle of human progress and power, such that even non-Muslim rivals and combatants conceded its ascendancy.

My overall point is that history is a product of hindsight: Looking back on it—which most people can’t or don’t—makes it easy to forget that we are part of the same continuing processes and narratives. Americans, as in many powerful civilizations before, view ourselves as the center of the world. But that can and will inevitably change, and probably very quickly (at least by historical standards)—just as it did for our dozens of predecessors, many of which were longer lived and more powerful for their time. We would do best to learn not only from history—which is a predictable, if still unheeded lesson—but also from those nations that have a lot more to teach us by virtue of their age and experience.

China’s “Engineer Politicians”

In between bar exam prep, I just finished an interesting report on China’s leadership strategy that may explain the country’s massive and rapid economic and political rise (aside from sheer ruthlessness and all that).

Under Deng Xiaoping’s rule in the early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to recruit new members from different social and occupational backgrounds into leadership positions, hoping to adapt to the changing environment by recruiting fresh talent and thereby obtaining new legitimacy. During the past decade, China has in fact been ruled by technocrats—who are mainly engineers-turned-politicians. The three “big bosses” in the so-called third generation leadership—Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji—and three heavyweights in the fourth generation—President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong—are all engineers by training. Among the seven members of the 15th Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s supreme decision-making body, six were engineers and one was an architect.

This pattern continued throughout the State Council and the ministerial and provincial governments. Even more remarkably, all nine men on the current Politburo’s Standing Committee are engineers by training. The elite transformation that has taken place in China in the post-Mao era is part of a wider and more fundamental political change—a move from revolution to reform in Chinese society. Turning away from the emphasis on class struggle and ideological indoctrination that characterized the previous decades, Deng and his technocratic protégés have stressed fast-paced economic and technological development at home and increased economic integration with the outside world.”

The short version: China has made a deliberate effort to appoint scientists and engineers at all levels of government—especially at the subnational level—and to diversify the experience and expertise of government officials beyond the lawyers (and to a lesser degree businesspeople) that dominate in many other countries.

To be clear, this is not itself indicative of the government’s integrity or efficiency. Corruption and human rights abuses remain rife in China, with the latter especially worsening in recent years under Xi Jinping (who studied chemical engineering). The report notes a growing rift within both the political leadership and broader society between those who went to elite schools and everyone else. (Interesting how universal that issue is.)

While the report does not draw this conclusion outright, I do think it is worth pondering to what degree China’s rise is owed to its relatively high reliance on scientists, engineers, and other non-lawyers. Do they provide a certain degree of pragmatism and problem-solving skills different from the typical legal and business oriented political class? Do they help inform policy through their diverse and unique perspectives (assuming the repressive state system does not dampen them)?

Whatever the case may be, I for one think the U.S. (among other places) can use diversity of profession, background, experience, and the like when it comes to law- and policy-making. It’s especially more imperative in a democracy where politicians should ostensibly be representing their constituents—but in most cases could not be further removed from who they claim to represent experientially, socioeconomically, and even by age. (More on that whole other topic in a future post.)

What are your thoughts?