Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Plague on Both Our Houses

MERCUTIO  I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone and hath nothing?
BENVOLIO             What, art thou hurt?
MERCUTIO  Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ‘tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet,

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Nate Silver tells us there’s an eighty-odd percent chance that Mrs Clinton will be our next President, not that many of us really want her to be. What we don’t want even harder is for Mr Trump to be our next President. But at least nearly everyone is likely to be equally unhappy on 20th January 2017: Trump’s partisans will be unhappy because Clinton is being inaugurated, and those who voted for Clinton will be unhappy for the same reason.

I’ve said as much as I have to say about voting in this election before. This post is about why we’re fucked in a general way no matter who wins—although probably way more fucked if Trump were to take office, just because of his gross incompetence. Hillary may be a crook but she isn’t an idiot.

The problem is, The Issues on which this election, and most elections, officially take place have next to nothing to do with our actual power to function as a nation.1 What we’re threatened with are certain problems, many of which no one at all is talking about, and most of which aren’t treated as national problems even when they are. These include:

1. Eliminating surveillance of citizens.

This is what Snowden was protesting. It’s a fundamental breach of the Fourth Amendment, which addresses the right to privacy; ‘no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’2 It could be argued—and probably is, by the Department of Homeland Security—that this doesn’t address surveillance per se, but searching things manually was surveillance at that time. And in any case, the whole point is, quite obviously, that any intrusion on someone’s privacy must be justified by probable, not possible, cause (one backed up by a legally binding oath), and that such intrusions must have a defined object. So, for instance, searching for ‘a bomb’ or ‘an illegal handgun,’ not ‘weapons.’

Neither party is really interested in solving this problem—nor the problems with due process that our nation has entangled itself in over the course of the so-called War on Terror.3 Democrats like to pretend they are, because the Patriot Act was introduced under a Republican administration; but Obama signed the NDAA and nobody raised a stink,4 which shows that they’re just as cynically pragmatic as their opposite numbers in the GOP.

One of the necessary corollaries to this is that whistleblower protections have to be increased. (Snowden actually did attempt to go through official channels with his protest, and was shut down; and of course, since then, he has had his passport canceled while in Russia, rather a dickish move on the part of the government.) A society that punishes those who expose its faults can never be a free society. The mechanisms that sustain its freedom have already been destroyed.

2. Eliminating gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering—a.k.a., the practice of drawing congressional districts in totally asinine shapes so that whatever party is in charge during the time of drawing the districts can stay that way—is, in itself, totally hostile to any idea of real democracy. Either you have representative government, or you don’t, and gerrymandering interferes with representation, rendering it a don’t. Even the electoral college, as weird a system as it is, sort of tries to follow the actual population of the states. Neither party wants to confront this, because both of them want the option of using it to their advantage. (And sure, some of them likely feel there are more important things to do with their time, but honestly, I think they’re probably wrong—not because nothing’s more important than getting rid of gerrymandering, but because I find it highly unlikely that politicians care about those more important things, either.) Understand, I’m not saying that gerrymandering makes room for corruption; gerrymandering is corruption.

3. Deal with police corruption.

Corruption, excessive power, and lack of oversight plague our police force. These problems have been displayed most forcibly by the Black Lives Matter movement,5 but they’ve been exposed even in much smaller and stupider matters, like cyclists. I don’t know whether anything can be done on a federal level to confront police corruption, since police forces (if I’m rightly informed) are basically under the control of the fifty states. Nevertheless the scale of the problem is national—Florida, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Louisiana, and Minnesota have all seen high-profile cases, and high-profile cases are always a small selection of reality. If we accept the authority of a national government at all, it is that government which is responsible to deal with this problem—as it will certainly be this government’s own problem if and when its failure to deal with it erupts into revolt and bloodshed.

My own opinion is that the British model of ‘policing by consent’ is the preferable alternative to … well, policing by guns, which honestly is kinda what American police seem to do. I think it should be implemented as swiftly and smoothly as possible, especially in cities, where the lack of a local, personal connection to police officers is so much likelier to impede their work.

4. Criminalize the practice of passing legislation without reading it.

It’s embarrassing that a rule like this would have to be stated in so many words, but you shouldn’t pass a law if you don’t even know what it fucking says. The irresponsibility is astonishing and disgusting.6 The law that springs to mind is the Affordable Care Act: not that I disapprove of health care being available to everyone—I’m strongly in favor of health care being universal, because come on, people shouldn’t have to cook meth or run a Kickstarter so they can not die—but that those fuckers passed that bill without reading it. I can barely words, in my attempt to describe how not okay that is. If our legislators can’t even be assed to read the damn things, why should we be required to obey them? If you want to jail us for disobeying a law, but you can’t even tell us what the law is, maybe that consequence should be turned around on you.

It could be argued, and with some justice, that no one on earth could face reading the Newspeak monstrosity that is [any bill here]. However, this seems to me to be better grounds for instituting a ‘Cut the crap and write comprehensible bills’ rule than for instituting laws that neither the populace nor their lawmakers understand. It isn’t often one gets to use the word Kafkaesque accurately, but here we are.

5. For fuck’s sake. Balance the budget.

The national debt of the US currently stands at about $19.4 trillion,7 or, to desanitize it just a little, 19,400,000,000,000 of dollars. In other words, if everyone in the country worked eight hours a day at a minimum wage job, for which their entire paycheck went to paying off the national debt, and taking no sick days, weekends, or holidays whatsoever—it’d still take twenty-two years to get the country out of debt.

This isn’t just an economic obscenity, though it is certainly that. It’s a warning. Countries that get in this kind of mess are at risk of becoming dictatorships, because a dictator, somebody with untrammeled and unaccountable power, is almost the only person who can actually put things in order once they get bad enough. A statesman who has to worry about reëlection, or even about being examined and perhaps disciplined by the rest of the government, has to please the electorate or the cabinet as much or more as he has to solve the actual problems he’s presented with. An unbalanced budget is, therefore, a great long-term plan for turning a democracy into a dictatorship—especially because the mechanism for putting a charismatic person in power and keeping him there is so readily available.8

If we, as a nation and as an electorate, don’t make a point of electing politicians who will do what it takes to balance the budget—and don’t accept what it will take—then we’re condemning ourselves to the consequences: a weak currency, an uncertain future for ourselves and our children, and the increased likelihood that the only person who’ll be able to restore order to a fractured society is a bona fide tyrant.

There are steps that could be taken: for example, reïntroducing the backing of currency (whether with gold or some other concrete thing), to help curb inflation and keep an actual relationship between the goods that are available and the money that ostensibly measures their worth. No such steps are likely under Mrs Clinton, and I think we can predict with total confidence that they will not happen under Mr Trump. But a clear grasp of the real problems facing us is the first necessity.

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1Ordinarily I’d make an exception here with regard to abortion: I don’t believe any nation can survive for long with any semblance of order and peace, as long as it dismisses certain human lives as beneath its consideration. The reason I don’t think abortion makes any difference in this specific election is that neither candidate is pro-life. Trump claims that he will appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, but frankly, I wouldn’t trust him not to piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. I mean, this is the man who said during the second debate, word for word, ‘I mean, I know about Russia, but I know nothing about Russia.’ To say nothing of the blatant lies he has been repeatedly caught in, not infrequently on video, about every subject under the sun.
2From the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, emphasis mine.
3I say so-called because, even if we argue that every act that’s taken place under the ægis of the War on Terror was both just and necessary, it isn’t exactly a war; there’s no defined enemy and, therefore, no declaration of war—thus neatly circumventing both the provisions made concerning war in the Constitution, and also the guidelines carefully laid down by centuries of Just War Theory.
4If you have an innate impatience with reading linked articles (as I do), the short version of the NDAA is that any person suspected of involvement with, or substantial support for, Al Qaeda and Friends can be imprisoned indefinitely without so much as access to a lawyer. Yes, that includes American citizens, even on American soil; you’ll noticed they killed Anwar al-Awlaki (a citizen) with a drone strike, not in battle—still less did they arrest and try him. (Granted, al-Awlaki was apparently a monster, but the Bill of Rights contains no addendum reading ‘Unless they’re complete turdburglars, in which case you can just murder their asses.’)
5I don’t agree with everything the BLM movement’s proponents say. No one could, since many of them say different and incompatible things. But they have, in fact, spoken to the institutionalized racism that still influences much of our police force across the country, and for that, we owe them thanks.
6I would go as far as to say that passing (or repealing) a bill without reading it invalidates the law, ipso facto, because doing that violates literally the entire point of having laws: to govern the behavior of a community. If you don’t even know what behavior you’re prescribing or penalizing, then your pronouncements on the subject are worthless, and other people shouldn’t be bound by them.
7You’ll probably see lower estimates than this. These come from the (partly smoke-and-mirrors) technique of splitting up governmental debt into that which is officially held by the public, i.e. owed to non-government creditors (such as private individuals), and that which is intragovernmental, i.e. owed by one government department to another. Budget surpluses and deficits, meanwhile, have just about no reference to the national debt, only to the amount of money budgeted by Congress for the operations of government, which may or may not have anything to do with resolving our debt. Believe me when I say things only get stupider from here.
8Ironically, term limits may make this worse. The professed purpose of term limits was to keep anyone from tyrannically hanging on to power. The problem is, the shorter a term limit is, the less the person elected has any vested interest in actually doing the work they were elected to do, because they’re so beholden to popularity—a force that does little to preserve the healthy functioning of any state—that they can scarcely afford, politically, to think about anything else. A longer term limit allows the elected official breathing room in which they can (relatively) disregard the popularity of their policies; but of course, if they’re novices, that may not matter—especially when it comes to affairs as subtle as the budget—while if they’re experienced, limits on the number of terms they can have pose the same problem; and if limits on the number of terms an official can serve are abolished, then, for all practical purposes, so are term limits—as we’ve noticed in the case of congressional incumbents.


  1. Clinton's plan would, at least, add a good deal less to the national debt. (Not "not a penny," as she says, but really quite a small amount considering.) Of course I worry that Congress will be happy to pass the spending she wants, but without passing the extra taxes because no one wants that.

    She also has a plan to fund social security, which I appreciate because Trump doesn't seem to be aware that we can't just keep going as we are indefinitely.

    I agree with every one of the issues you've listed ... sadly neither party seems at all interested in solving any of them.

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    1. Oh, I don't propose to vote for Hillary Clinton. I was reflecting, rather, on the fact that she will very probably win the election.

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  3. I disagree with your idea that "If we accept the authority of a national government at all, it is that government which is responsible to deal with this problem." Our Constitution establishes a federal government with limited powers, which it enumerates. The 10th Amendment reserves all other powers to the states. This, as much as the limitations in the rest of the Bill of Rights, is a protection of liberty against tyranny. The fact that a given problem exists in all or most states does not automatically confer authority to deal with upon the federal government.

    We have massive federal spending and bureaucracies in areas such as education and welfare because people have looked to the federal government to deal with perceived problems which were not part of its responsibility. We've ended up with worse education and a failed "War on Poverty."

    An argument can be made under the Equal Protection Clause of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment and the enforcement power of Section 5 that Congress has authority to deal with the issue, but that is different from simply saying that the federal government can deal with it because it is of national scope.

  4. Know what I loved most about this post? The prolific use of the word "fuck." And I mean that sincerely. I'm a simple man, really.