America and Bicameralism

One of the assumptions behind the development of the legislative bodies of the American Congress is the idea that the division between the population-based lower house, House of Representatives, and the state-based upper house, the Senate is derived from the Connecticut Compromise of 1787 (also known as the “Great Compromise”) to give equal power to small and large states. While this may be true, as seen in later years, the clear power lies in the upper house, rather than the lower. For a country that claims to support democracy, there is a clear preference for the minority, the elite. Even the British House of Lords, an unelected body in Parliament, has far less power relative to its American counterpart. What the hell, USA?

The numbers clearly paint a dismal picture. Every American knows that bills (motions) need to pass through both houses and be signed by the President to be considered law. However, when one considers the makeup of the House (435 representatives) and the Senate (100 senators) and considers that they are put on equal footing, this clearly favors the minority in the Senate in legislation. Term lengths are longer in the Senate, at six years, over the two years in the House, enabling senators to set agendas over much longer periods of time. Also presidential appointments to the Cabinet are passed through the Senate over the lower house, in contrast to, for example, the French political system, where the appointment of the Prime Minister (American: Speaker of the House), who determines cabinet posts, is controlled by the lower house, the Assembly.

The Green Party has and continues to support the abolition of the Senate, but even its most radical candidate, Ralph Nader, refused to endorse that position. Even opponents of the measure recognize that to oppose the Electoral College but support the Senate is a logical contradiction. A true majoritarian approach, by conservative columnist George Will’s view, is to abolish both. While seemingly unconnected, this point is important to bring up because according to a Gallup poll, over sixty percent of Americans want to abolish the Electoral College, which would also call for a need to discuss abolition of the Senate.

There has never been an attempt to abolish the Senate at the federal level, but there is one example of a unicameral legislature at the state level: Nebraska. Named the Unicameral for its unique structure, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature came about as a result of a constitutional amendment heavily supported by a Republican senator, George Norris. Norris wrote several articles, even one in the New York Times, a feat for a small Middle state. What were the arguments for and against unicameralism in the 1930s? Arguments against the measure were that the system would challenge the original constitutional order, though it seems some of the Founders would approve. The arguments for unicameralism were that bicameral houses could easier conceal their own failure by blaming the other, bicameralism was historically based on an elitist system (House of Lords vs Commons). and that unicamerlism was more efficient and cheaper.

What happened? Since conversion to a single house, the Unicameral has been more efficient and less expensive. With fewer representatives, the cost of paying legislator’s salaries went down significantly. The removal of a house lowered the number of committees, increasing the efficiency of the legislature. With a single house, the legislative system is more visible in terms of legislation passing and failing. Responsibility is all in one body, making it difficult for people to shift blame. If Nebraska is any indication, unicameralism is a clear success.


America and Metrication

The US has been infamously slow at adopting the global standard for measurement: the SI, the International System of Units, also commonly known as the metric system. The US stands out with two other countries (Liberia and Burma/Myanmar) as the only countries that don’t officially use the metric system for all measurements. What the hell, USA?

For those wondering why the US uses the English system in the first place, it’s because of American colonial history. Even up to when the issue of metrication was first brought up in the mid-nineteenth century, the US was still a relatively new and underdeveloped country, and for the majority of its early life its largest trading partner was Great Britain, a country which also used the English system for measurements. For practical purposes, it wasn’t really necessary to deal with metrication. However, for those who argue, like the National Cowboy Hall of Fame director, Dean Krakel, that the “the West was won by the inch, foot, yard, and mile,” should be reminded of two things. First, Americans should really stop calling it the “customary system” and start calling it the “English system”, because despite the differences between the American and later British imperial systems, the so-called customary system is essentially an early British invention. If America’s colonial heritage is preferable to you, then the American flag should really look like this. Second, American xenophobes should look up what famous Americans such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander G. Bell had to say about the metric system’s benefits. And let’s not get started with the communist conspiracy to take over American values; the metric system was invented in France in 1799, way before Karl Marx was talking about communism.

How can a country still use the English system (or any other system, really) in the twenty first century and not be an utter mathematical disaster, a curious non-American might ask. It’s a good question, but the situation is more complicated than that. When Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, it mandated that international trade and any domestic commercial activity would be done in metric units. So one could argue that the US has been using the metric system officially since the 1970s. However, in non-commercial activity (pretty much everything else), the switch to the metric system was voluntary, which effectively stopped metrication elsewhere. The metric system has been adopted piecemeal, leading to bizarre contradictions like beer in liters but fuel in gallons (as an American, I get a laugh out of this all the time). For those who believe that metrication is just too much the for small American brain, there is already a “metric” (decimal-based) system that Americans use daily: money. In fact, the American Mint was the one of the first to use a decimal-based currency in 1792. Not only, this, but also all American students learn the metric system in school, and almost exclusively in natural science classes so most Americans already know and understand the units. However, this is clearly not good enough. During the administration of the late president, Ronald Reagan, the US Metric Board was disbanded, indicating the level of concern by the American government to switch: none. In the late 1990s, the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in space, as NASA scientists stated in a news release, because of measurements in both English and metric units, which led to confusion among the scientists. It’s clear that there is a long way to go in terms of metrication.

America and Federalism

Unlike most countries around the world, the US gives large powers to its federated regions (known as states for their historic sovereignty during the period under the Articles of Confederation, the first American constitution). However, unlike other federalisms, the American version has limited forms of state sovereignty. Even Canada’s federalism, the closest to the American version of federalism, does not have provincial constitutions, but instead merely the ability to administer programs and legislation established through the national parliament. One could argue that the US, rather than being a unified nation, is instead a collection of fiefdoms, over which state legislators and governors rule. What the hell, USA?

Just for comparison, the scale of national government control moves from confederacy, a collection of countries (similar to the current model of the European Union (EU)), a federation (Canada, UK (arguably), Germany, Russia, Mexico), a country divided regionally for efficiency of administration, and a unitary state (everyone else). For those in the US, the idea of a unitary state is unthinkable, yet for most of the world, the opposite is true. However, just to be clear, even a unitary state has municipal divisions (counties, prefectures, etc); it just lacks the middle category. The US, while claiming to be a federation, is in practice far more like a confederacy. The national government in the city of Washington is more akin to the European Parliament it broad and often vague legislation which leaves the real powers that be in state capitals to hash out the details.

The American model carries with it several problems. The most frustrating problem is the inconsistency of legal codes across the country. The US is in reality a biconstitutional system with state constitutions. This complicates things because there are often large loopholes key federal laws that are often arbitrarily determined by the American states. American state sovereignty also leads to the most bizarre laws in the US. While laws about fake mustaches and bouncing pickles are amusing, there are major problems with the state sovereignty.

The criminal codes are often determined at state level, so for example, smoking marijuana, a hot button issue in the US, is legal in some parts of the country and penalized with long term prison sentences in others. Even more problematic are the applications of justice, such as the legality of the death penalty, where the issue is literally life or death. What is more telling about this system is that despite the application of laws at the state level, the legal divisions are often more than not regional, often North vs South along the Mason-Dixon line, reminiscent of the nineteenth century American Civil War, hence the oft-used term “culture wars” (See American and Political Polarization). While Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis praised states as “laboratories of democracy”, one could argue from the modern tensions in the political system that they are also the drivers of polarization, regionalization, and corruption. Not only are the states divisive, they undermine key federal programs, because of the level of inconsistency in application by state governments.

The other half of the federalist divide is the way that state governments function in contrast to the national government. How one votes for state representatives is often determined by the state constitutional procedures, making a move from Arkansas to California, for example, a headache for even the most avid legal scholar.  Often this complex bureaucratic system results in voter’s general confusion, because there are so many representatives to vote for and so many laws to keep up with.

This being said, its not all bad, especially if one lives on the western coast or  northeastern regions of the country. Minimum wage and labor rights are better than average, voters often have the ability to directly create legislation through citizen’s initiatives, constitutions are more adaptable because many state constitutions, but especially those in more developed areas require amendments, and there is far less money involved in the electoral process due to stricter regulations of funding for candidates, though nowhere near those of the European and East Asian countries. However, this is largely at a cost, with higher property values, higher cost of living, and more competition for work. For a lower quality life than those in the EU or East Asia, Americans work much harder and are often saddled with large debts. America requires a solution, more likely than not national in nature, but based on the gains already made in the states.

America and Depictions of the Poor

In the film, Idiocracy, director Mike Judge attempts to satirize the stupidity of American politics, and this is a respectable thing to do. However, one of the problems of the movie is that it, like many other movies before it, reduces the everyday American to backwards, uncultured idiots. What the hell, USA?

The stereotypes propagated by media, mostly corporate, consistently repeat many well known truisms about poor White Americans. The rural southerners are xenophobic, ignorant, zealously religious, and loud. They all play country music, paint everything in the Confederate battle flag, and drive pickup trucks. What’s worse is that the endless attempts at educating these people by sane and compassionate others are largely ineffective, leading to the obvious conclusion that these people are incapable of doing anything other than terrorizing minorities and being nuisances to the rest of us. It’s inevitable that intelligent and competent people have to act as shepherds to these poor sods.

This leads to the point of this discussion: one of the most prevalent problems for the mainstream American Left’s current brand of liberalism is that it is often conflated with cultural elitism. It’s not hard to see why. An example that would illustrate the absurdity of the stereotypes in “liberal” media, such as Judge’s work, would be to look across the pond at media marginalization of the poor in the UK. In British media, contempt for the poor takes the form of the “chav”, not unlike the “redneck” or “trailer trash” stereotypes in the US. Especially in the early days of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), shows that glamorized nineteenth century upper-class life were all the rage; one in the present can imagine dozens of Downton Abbey copycats on every day as a comparison. Servants, maids, the poor, etc, were often viewed with contempt. In the US, while the conservatism isn’t as blatant and explicit (a silver lining for the British in a dark cloud of classist oppression), one could argue that America lacks in a positive vision of its poor; a version of Britain’s East Enders or Coronation Street, or films such as A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or Kes, all in the uniquely British tradition of what is known as kitchen sink realism, are few and far between in mainstream media in the US. That being said, there are examples from which to work from. Films such as numerous adaptations of The Death of a Salesman, and The Grapes of Wrath are quite powerful in contrast to the silly shows like One Tree Hill, Friday Night Lights, or Modern Family. These kinds of programs can give a more nuanced look at poverty in any country. Even British kitchen sink realism largely stems from Italian neorealism. Americans can do better than Larry the Cable Guy when it comes to addressing poverty outside of the metropolitan coasts.

America and Labor Unions

American labor has been maligned for generations in the US, whether from the private security forces of owners of capital, such as the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency (still in operation today), or the brutality of Ludlow, Homestead, and Pullman massacres,  as well as the Haymarket Affair, and on and on, all sentenced to damnatio memoriae (See American Liberalism). The American working class has suffered enormous setbacks time and time again by an entrenched elite and its cozy relationship with political institutions and policymakers from both parliamentary parties. What the hell, USA?

American worker’s participation in labor unions is at record lows. As of 2016, labor union participation was at around 10%. During the New Deal, labor union participation peaked to around 35%. When taken from an international view, the participation of the workforce in labor unions nearly at the bottom of all industrialized countries and far below the top country, Finland, at a whopping 74%. This, however, is not due to the inherently capitalist culture of American workers, but instead a series of policies designed to destroy the bargaining power of labor.

After the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) by then-president Franklin Roosevelt, a large group of elites mobilized to pass the Labor Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartley Act), able to overcome even then-president Harry Truman’s veto of the bill. Taft-Hartley banned closed shop agreements and allowed states to regulate union shop and agency shop agreements. As a result, nearly half of American states, mostly in the south and middle of the country, have so-called “right-to-work” laws, which, despite their name, restrict the ability of labor unions to bargain by allowing non-union workers to benefit from union bargaining, therefore incentivizing workers not to pay dues.

This explains the incredible lack of rights of American workers in contrast to their international counterparts, particularly in the European Union. American workers do not have employer guaranteed vacation daysprotection from constant contact from employer during vacation, or employer-mandated paid parental leave (both parents). Even worse, only Americans suffer from at-will employment, a form of employment that allows an employer to fire an employee without “just cause”, a concept unknown outside the US.

American labor has no reason to trust the Democrats, many of whom voted for legislation opposed to worker’s rights as well as supporting many corporatist measures such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is not good news, but this can be changed. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society were both favorable to workers and democratized American society. While it may not be a true parliamentary labor party in the global sense, the Democratic party is the most logical place for labor to find its place in politics. The most popular politician in American politics in 2017 was Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who claims to be a democratic socialist. There are ways to push labor party candidates on ballots, but only if there is large popular support.

America and Legacy Admissions

One of the much discussed and debated issues in education is admission through affirmative action, a policy which attempts to bring into consideration historical discrimination, often through preferential treatment of minority groups. This is highly controversial in the US, and has been derided as a form of reverse discrimination. Despite the intense storm of controversy around affirmative action, including numerous lawsuits against universities, there is little to no public debate over a more insidiously unequal policy: legacy-based admissions, a preferential admission policy that favors children of alumni, especially those who have donated to the school. In fact, only in the US is legacy-based admissions legal. Even the supposedly elite schools in the UK, such as Cambridge and Oxford, and the haute écoles of France do not have admissions solely based on ancestry, as European law forbids it. What the hell, USA?

The effect of legacy admissions, though arguably less than affirmative action is still significant. According to political scientists Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chun in a study from 2005, legacy status adds the equivalent of 160 points on a 1600 point total SAT scale. While this may seem like a small “tip” in the fashion of minority status or athletic recruitment, the admission rate for legacies is nearly triple that of the average applicant. Additionally, while legacies are often associated with elite schools, the effect is even more pronounced at public institutions. It’s not surprising when the average American has such bitter contempt for American higher education (See American and Higher Education).

The effect of this skewed access to education on society is deleterious: nearly half of CEOs and government officials come from only twelve schools, an old boy’s network of sorts. Despite the fact that legacy-based admissions is often not reported in mainstream news media, the practice of legacy-based admissions is opposed by a large majority of the American public at nearly 75%. Oddly enough, both the left, such as former senator, Ed Kennedy and right, such as late senator Bob Dole, agree on this. Even former president, George W. Bush, despite being a legacy admit himself, vocally opposed legacy admissions.

Despite the popular opinion and possible political support, what legal arguments are there against legacy admissions? One argument from Steve Shadowen and Suzi Tulante argues that legacy admissions violate the Civil Rights Act of 1886. Another argument from legal scholar, Carlton Larson, argues that legacy admissions violate the “Title of Nobility” clause (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8) of the American constitution.

However, is it really in question whether or not inherited privilege is against the American ideal of meritocratic egalitarianism and republicanism? As Benjamin Franklin said“A man who makes boast of his ancestors doth but advertise his own insignificance.”

America and Urbanization

There is a unique pattern of urbanization in the history of the US. Unlike in Europe, the inner part of the city, often referred to as the “inner city”, is associated with high levels of crime, poverty, and health problems. Often the term “inner city” is a pejorative one, with the connotation of urban decay, organized crime, and largely poor African-American populations. What the hell, USA?

The inner city comes by many nicknames, which are often telling about the attitudes about these regions. The “hood”, which is similar to barrio and favela, terms used to describe similar slums in Latin America, indicates the racialized features of the community. The “projects” is similar to the French term banlieue, given its association with the public housing (in the UK: council housing) of communities of color. However, while these both describe poor communities of color, both are outside of the city center, in contrast to the American example. In the French example, there is also an association with migrants, which does not exist for American African-Americans in the slums, a large majority of whom are descended former slaves, and who came during the Great Migration during the early twentieth century. There is also the inclusion of lighter-skinned North Africans, including refugees from war-torn countries, that is not often associated with American cities. This is also true in the Latin American example, the slums are not exclusive to Africans, as there are also mestizos (mixed European and indigenous race) who live in the area.

Despite the prevalence of inner cities, the concept of a slum is nothing new in America. The infamous tenements in New York for poor European migrants, and the later shantytowns during the Great Depression (“Hoovervilles”) are two examples. However, the slum in the American mind has evolved specific racial features, and often the “inner cities” are used to criticize African-American culture in general, despite the large number of African-Americans in the more rural Deep South. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, many of the modern inner cities were once integrated. Langston Hughes had dated a Polish girl and had a Polish best friend in his hometown of Cleveland. However, once the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) began moving people to suburbs, it restricted suburbanization to Whites only, leaving many Blacks to rot in the city. The process, known as redlining, was simple: grade neighborhoods by a letter (A-D), then use the grade to determine eligibility for mortgage lending, a critical part of buying a suburban home for the working class in the city. While the mortgage lending should have been equally distributed, it was instead used to discriminate against African Americans. White flight, while somewhat motivated by racism, was more a federal policy than individual choices by European Americans. This has continued to this day, since homes are critical economic assets that allowed European Americans to move up to the middle and upper class.

The million-dollar question of course is: how do we deal with this? A key suggestion from many sociologists and members of the inner-city African American community is to issue reparations for the damages done historically. This is not a new idea, as the US has already given reparations to slaveowners in the District of Columbia Emancipation Act. Every year, John Conyers Jr, a Democratic representative from Michigan, has proposed House Resolution 40, a resolution which would research a solution for slavery reparations. Though HR 40 has never been passed, it could if enough pressure is applied to the House and Senate.