Political philosophy

Replacing Gerrymandering with something better

Replacing Gerrymandering with something better

I believe one of the biggest threats to our national politics today is gerrymandering.  But yesterday (this was written on January 20, 2018), the Supreme Court refused to require North Carolina to redistrict because of excessive gerrymandering.  I think there is a solution, a better way to achieve redistricting, which I’ll get to. In the meantime, let’s understand the issue and the reason it is so important.

Gerrymandering, the practice of dividing up districts to favor one party or another, is as old as the republic itself.  The entry in Wikipedia on Gerrymandering tells us the term was coined by the Boston Gazette in 1812 because one of the districts that Governor Gerry created in that redistricting resembled a salamander (see the cartoon above).   The Constitution requires that congressional districts be re-drawn every ten years to ensure that population is equal among districts in a state.  The problem is that the political party in power gets to decide where to draw the district lines.

Since the beginning of our country whichever party is in power in the state has re-drawn the districts in their state to ensure that they can get the most seats in Congress.  The same thing is done in state legislatures as well.  Right now, ever more sophisticated gerrymandering (oh, the wonders of computers and the internet) has allowed whoever is in power to ensure that their party wins a majority of seats in future elections.  Gerrymandering begins at the state level, which determines which party controls the state legislature, and that party then controls the redistricting for the congressional districts in that state.  The graphic entitled, “How to Steal (or, I say simply, WIN) an Election” shows how this works.  What the graphic shows is that regardless of the electorate, either party can ensure the outcome they want by careful redistricting.

If this problem is so old, why is it something to worry about now?  I believe that gerrymandering is now a grave threat to our country because the political parties have finally sorted themselves out so fully that there is almost no overlap.  Nearly every elected Republican disagrees fundamentally with nearly every elected Democrat on a host of issues and there are almost no elected representatives who can reach across the divide, who are independent of these two extremes.  While the two parties are pulling in opposite directions (see my blog on the fundamental disagreements: https://drdawnofliberty.com/what-is-the-right-direction/) some middle way will need to be found for us to move ahead.

Compromise is possible between two diametrically opposed courses of action when someone honestly addresses the concerns of both sides and crafts a middle way. See my blog on that idea (https://drdawnofliberty.com/solutions-arent-found-by-tug-of-war/)  I can’t predict the details of the eventual solutions, but I know solutions won’t come about unless we elect representatives who are more than champions of one side or the other.  We need elected representatives who can both understand and speak to both sides on an issue.  In order to elect those kinds of representatives we need political districts that are not “safe” for either party.  We need elections in which victory is dependent upon the candidates ability to address the concerns of more than one side of the issues.  So we can no longer allow political parties to decide how to draw district boundary lines.

So what is the solution?  Districts have to be re-drawn every ten years, but how can we get districts that are fair and represent real people in them?  How do we get districts that require candidates to appeal to and listen to and care about more than just one side of our issues?  In 2004, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Supreme Court doesn’t have a “basis on which to define clear, manageable, and politically neutral standards” on when partisanship becomes unfair or unconstitutional.

But I believe that a computer program could be devised that operates on the basis of principles and data that make the districts sensible and do not put any political party’s “thumb on the scale.”  The code of the program would have to be public and both sides would have to agree to it–and I think judges should get the final say.  But once the program was put together it should be put into law as the only way that districts can be drawn.  The beauty of using computer code as “legal code” is that it can be made public, and if not changed will always return the same results.  What rules should be instituted in the code?

Of course, the first requirement would be that districts have to be equal (or close to equal) in population.  There cannot be a place in the code for data on party registration.   I would suggest that the second priority would be that districts have the lowest possible ratio between the area and the perimeter–so more like squares than long rectangles, or salamanders!  Maybe a third priority requirement would be to avoid, if possible, crossing county or city boundaries.  There may be other priorities to build into the program.  While this is complex, I’m sure it can be done.  Computer programs have the ability to balance complex, competing priorities far beyond anything people can manage.

The irony is that computer programs are now being used to do gerrymandering to favor whichever party wants to employ it. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/gerrymandering-technology-redmap-2020/543888/) So it is possible for computer programs to deal with this complexity.  I think we could really change our political future if we could replace party-driven gerrymandering with politically neutral computer redistricting.  It’s certainly worth a try.



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Solutions aren’t found by tug-of-war

Solutions aren’t found by tug-of-war

One of the fundamental problems with politics is that almost everyone subscribes to the idea that we can make things better by pulling harder for our side.  Activists try to get people to pull harder for their side in order to win and wrest power away from the evil people on the other side.  Trying to amass enough power to force your will on the other side of an issue never solves it.  Using power to override the other side only increases controversy and strife.  Marriage counselors and people who do arbitration know that both sides have to meet their needs in order to solve a conflict.  Real solutions come from finding a way to meet the deepest underlying needs and concerns of both sides, not just trying to roll over one side in favor of the other.   I was astounded to learn the power of this fact by an experience I had many years ago.

Bear with a brief backstory.  I’ve lived in over a dozen communities in my life and belonged to A.A. in several of them.  A.A. is an unique organization because it is totally decentralized and has no dues or fees.  Generally a basket is passed at each meeting.  The social convention is to put in a dollar bill, or two if you’re feeling generous, as the basket is passed by you.  Quite commonly, as this is done, a statement is read to the effect that “We are self-supporting through our own contributions.  There are no dues or fees for membership, We collect money to pay for coffee and rent.”

A.A. has a national office in New York and regional offices in cities and counties (known as “central offices” in A.A. parlance) around the country.  The function of “central offices” is to publish the schedule of meetings in the local area, man the A.A hot-line, and keep a supply of literature and other A.A. supplies for the groups.  These offices are normally funded through the tradition that when a meeting collects more money than it needs for coffee and rent and literature, the excess beyond a “prudent reserve” ought to be contributed to the local “central office” and to the national offices of A.A.  You may not know it, but A.A. doesn’t accept donations from outside the membership.  The national office of A.A. regularly returns all outside donations.  (Try it and see!) Grants are not sought.  Bequests are not accepted, even from former members.  A.A. has no business enterprises or money-making activities . [1] The only source of income is what’s put in the basket by people in the meetings.  Period. End of story.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to be.  The A.A. community in one town in which I lived had a long-standing controversy because they had been financing their “central office” by running a recovery-oriented bookstore which paid for the expenses.  The conservative side said this was against the official A.A. tradition (see the footnote below) and insisted the bookstore should go.  The liberal side, including me, saw no harm in a recovery-oriented bookstore and feared the central office would collapse without its income. At the monthly business meetings for the central office (individual groups each sent a representative) one side or the other would have a majority.

As each side gained a majority, it would begin trying to realize its vision, which would alarm the other side.   Then the other side would get more of its people to the next meeting, and beat the first group back. Horrendous angry confrontations would ensue with people saying awful things about each other.  (Sound familiar?)  After one of these power see-saws, I got roped by the liberal side into being chairman and was saddled with the problem.  I learned that the battle over the bookstore had been going on for well over a decade.  But one of the A.A. traditions was the idea that “all important decisions be reached by discussion, vote, and, whenever possible, by substantial unanimity.”  Well, that was a far cry from what had been happening.

Each side had been trying to rally its troops with dire predictions about the horrors of implementing the competing vision.  It seemed to me that we had to figure out what each side really wanted.  I started by talking with people on both sides.  I put together two honest proposals for the membership to consider–both of which were workable.  These proposals were embodied in a flyer and sent out with an invitation to a big meeting where the issue was supposed to be decided, hopefully once and for all.  At the meeting the two sides sat on opposite sides of the hall. I had determined that speakers would strictly alternate between sides of the issue and have as long a debate as needed.   These two groups had been angrily fighting each other for years. I brought coffee–it would be a long night.

The first to speak was a leader of the liberal, pro-bookstore side.  Instead of making a speech he turned to me and said, “Do you mean we could actually keep the central office open without the bookstore?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be easy,” I replied, “but yes, it looks like we could manage. We’ll need more volunteers. We’ll have to get a bit more money from the groups, but we know that many are withholding donations because the bookstore is paying the bills.”

“In that case,” he says, “I think we ought to get rid of the bookstore.  It’s been a source of trouble for years now.  That must be why the traditions say we should not own any businesses, you know, because of the problems they cause.”  Then he sat down.  No one else raised their hand to speak.  So we voted.  Selling off the bookstore passed with substantial unanimity.  A decades-long controversy was over in about ten minutes.

The entire A.A. community heaved a sigh of relief.  The meetings became tolerable.  Donations went up again.  The number of volunteers rose to meet the need.  The bookstore went on under private ownership.  Everyone was amazed at the outcome.

The thing that struck me most was the fact that the key to resolving the issue was having a goal of substantial unanimity rather than the political goal of cobbling together a voting majority.  The goal of consensus meant that we needed to listen to the concerns of both sides. We needed a solution that went beyond being good enough to win a majority of the votes for our side.  Instead we needed a solution that would meet the needs of the other side too.  One that would win their support as well.  Just because one side or the other temporarily gets the upper hand doesn’t make that side right. Just because one side or the other can’t win control of the political apparatus, doesn’t make that side wrong.  There can be no peace as long as each side tries to dominate the other politically in order to force its way.

This event proved to me that winning political battles can never be the key to winning the good life for me or my country.   What you win through force as a majority in the government, you can lose by the same route.  If we want solutions to the problems in our country we need to begin to listen to both sides, learn what is most important to them, and craft solutions with which both sides can be happy.


[1] A.A. Tradition 7: “The A.A. groups themselves ought to be fully supported by the voluntary contributions of their own members. We think that each group should soon achieve this ideal; that any public solicitation of funds using the name of Alcoholics Anonymous is highly dangerous, whether by groups, clubs, hospitals, or other outside agencies; that acceptance of large gifts from any source, or of contributions carrying any obligation whatever, is unwise. Then too, we view with much concern those A.A. treasuries which continue, beyond prudent reserves, to accumulate funds for no stated A.A. purpose. Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority.”

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The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

I fell in love with the left wing of the Democratic Party because they, alone, opposed the Vietnam War.  And of course, because they were the party of compassion for the poor.  Over the years, I fell out of love because they wanted credit for their good intentions rather than for what they actually accomplished.

Although the Democrats started the war in Vietnam and a Republican president ended it, I didn’t blame the Democrats or give credit to Nixon.  I didn’t begin to question my love for the left wing until someone I knew and cared for began to get the “help” and “compassion” that were a trademark of the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson began the “War on Poverty.”

What I discovered, to my shock, was that welfare assistance from the government was not a helping hand, or a hand up.  To the contrary, welfare assistance was a sentence to dependency and poverty without an exit.   The details of how the system ran meant that gradually working one’s way back to self-sufficiency was made harder, not easier, by the so-called “safety net.”  The first step out of dependence is part-time work and jobs that don’t last more than a couple of months.  But all the money you make in such jobs goes against your benefits.  Everything with the government is slow, and so the reckoning takes months.  This means that you have to pay back the benefits you received a couple of months ago, just about the time you’re out of work again. So when you need assistance desperately, you can’t get it, but only because you took a job and tried to better yourself.  If you hadn’t tried to take a job you would still be entitled.  So the lesson is—don’t take a job.

It turns out all of the forms of help and compassion run by government agencies have the same basic structure.  You “qualify” by virtue of having little or no income and you “lose” benefits as soon as you get some income or try to get some.  I have another friend who was unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits because he couldn’t find work in his profession in the local community.  When he went out of town to a trade conference (so he could network with people in his profession from all over the country and hopefully find work) his unemployment benefits were cut off.  He hadn’t stayed in the local community “available for work.” Go figure.

I had learned from personal experience that government assistance, as championed by the left, did not actually help to reduce poverty.  Governmental help does not have the right structure, knowledge, or flexibility needed to really help anyone. It is simply a trap. Not surprisingly, data now show (see the graph to the right) that the poverty rate has stopped falling since we began trapping more and more people in these dependency programs.  They have almost no way out.  That was one nail in the coffin of my love for the left-wing.

The next nail in the coffin came as a result of what I learned as a teacher.  At one point as a special education teacher I had a caseload of 28 third grade children with dyslexia—none of whom could read.  I found and used a curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI) that taught every one of them to read.  My school district was uninterested in my success.  DI used phonics and was labeled “harmful.”  DI was removed from the district, without regard to data.  When I realized that the public school system was unresponsive to important outcomes (like whether or not children learned to read!), I began to learn about school choice—in which parents, who do care about outcomes, get to choose a school.

Charter schools, which are public schools freed from the constraints of the administrative bureaucracy of districts and sometimes from the teacher’s union as well, have to attract all their clients.  I went to work for charter schools, and of course, the charter schools in which I was involved used DI. In our schools we taught every one of our students how to read, and we filled our schools, located in poor neighborhoods, with students.  Parents, especially poor parents, were finally able to choose a school that would teach their children to read.  But our schools were not allowed to grow because of deliberate political obstacles.

When I realized that left wing Democrats were the primary obstacle to increased school choice, I was done.  The left wing says it cares about children and the poor.  The left wants to be judged by its good intentions.  But the policies the left supports do not help, and actually hurt children and the poor.  I think results speak louder than words.  I do think the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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What is the right direction?

What is the right direction?

The right vs. the wrong direction on 9 topics

Why can’t we end the gridlock in Washington, make some sensible compromises and get the Congress to solving some of our most important problems?   The reason is that there is no way to “compromise” or “negotiate” with someone who is advocating going in the exact wrong direction.  Most of the major problems our country faces have been created by us going in the wrong direction for too long.  The problems will not be solved by continuing the failed policies that have caused the problems in the first place.  Instead, there must be a complete change in direction which cannot be achieved by compromise with the wrong direction.  Here are nine major ways we are going in the wrong direction.

  1. Stop making stuff “free” for people.  First, a basic economic fact we must understand.  In our well-intentioned efforts to spare people the indignity of not being able to afford things such as health care or college, we drive up prices by subsidizing them. We pay for the service for them or give them vouchers that can only be used for that purpose. Prices will never come down when we are doing this.  Prices only come down when customers say, “No.  I won’t buy that because it is too expensive.”  The more money that taxpayers (through the government) make available to pay for health care or college tuition, the less the high cost matters, and the higher the prices are able to go.  The only way to help people and keep prices down is to give them cash they can spend in other ways if they wish.  Then they won’t waste money on things that are too expensive and that they don’t value because they are “free.”
  2. Stop buying health coverage for people.  When it comes to medical care, our goal should be to empower customers to drive prices down through free market competition rather than to try to insulate everyone from having to pay anything for health care.  More subsidies and more coverage paid for by the employer or the government keep making the problem worse.  That is the wrong direction.  Instead we have to move towards paying for more of it ourselves so we all become more sensitive to the price of health care.  If we keep going in this wrong direction, the price of medical care will grow until we can no longer afford it as a nation, and instead will have to rely on the government to ration care so it isn’t so expensive.  Again, if we gave people the money that they could spend in other ways they would begin to economize.
  3. Stop buying college for people.  When it comes to college tuition, our goal should be twofold: 1) to increase competition and alternatives to traditional college education and 2) to reduce the various government subsidies that drive up the cost of college.  If people could gain entry to various professions through other means, the colleges would have to compete for customers.  College tuition costs would have to come down if they weren’t being subsidized.  So making college “free” for students is the exact opposite of the direction we need to go.  If instead of scholarships and grants, we gave money that the recipients could spend however they want, e.g., to start a business or on any type of vocational training they wanted, the price of college would go down.
  4. Stop providing in-kind benefits.  In our well-intentioned efforts to help poor people, we put in place more and more programs and benefits that are available only while they are dependent.  When the poor make an effort to become self-supporting by earning money with a job, they lose as much or more than they gain.  That makes dependency a trap.  Most of what is being lobbied for when it comes to the poor is in the wrong direction. Give them money they can spend any way they wish and they can keep as they start earning money.
  5. Re-instate the starting rungs on the career ladder.  When it comes to poor people, our goal should be to help them become self-supporting and to make sure there are more rungs at the bottom of the ladder and strong incentives for getting off the dole—rather than supporting programs that trap them in dependence.   More rungs at the bottom of the ladder include eliminating the minimum wage, eliminating licensing requirements in most occupations, and eliminate all barriers to starting your own business.  Strong incentives for self-sufficiency means more private charitable help that can be flexible, fewer programs and services for the poor and more direct payments that do not cut off abruptly when you get a job.
  6. Eliminate the government monopoly in education.  When it comes to K-12 education, our goal should be to unleash creativity and innovation through increasing school choice options rather than to give more money to the teacher’s unions or more power to educational bureaucrats.   Top-down mandates from even the most well-intentioned officials, while they attempt to ensure social justice, can only stifle needed innovation.  One-size-fits-all governance cannot possibly drive schools, teachers or pupils towards excellence—only the freedom to try new things can do that.  The right direction is to allow and encourage a variety of forms of school choice so that parents can decide what is best for their own children.  And Education Savings Accounts enable families to be frugal with their dollars to help drive down the costs of K-12 education.
  7. Eliminate regulations and barriers to new business formation.  When it comes to creating jobs, our goal should be to remove barriers that inhibit new business formation.  Our economy stagnates because of the innumerable obstacles to entrepreneurship that has depressed the development of new businesses to its lowest rate perhaps ever.  The free market has sufficient incentives to foster new business formation if government rules, regulations and taxes were gotten out of the way.  The more rules and regulations that are imposed on businesses by government agencies, the fewer businesses will be started.  The more rights and benefits that are mandated for every job that is created, the fewer jobs will be created.   More rules, regulations, rights and benefits mandated by those who mean well are the exact wrong direction.  Instead, we need to be dismantling those as rapidly as possible.
  8. Free trade unilaterally.  When it comes to trade we have to realize that trade is the driver of our prosperity.  Trading freely with whomever we wish is the key to getting the most out of life.  While some people do lose jobs and some businesses fail due to competition from abroad, it only impoverishes all of us to erect trade barriers that attempt to protect us from that competition.  Instead, we need to ensure that our economy is vibrant, active and growing so that there are ample opportunities for those whose jobs are lost in one industry or another.  Change is an inevitable component of growth, but a healthy economy can find plenty of places for people who are displaced by change.  See above for how to ensure that adequate numbers of jobs are created.  Erecting barriers to trade is the exact wrong direction to go.
  9. Balance the budget.  When it comes to our increasing government debt, we have to reduce spending below what we are taking in so we can reduce the debt.  Continuing to spend more that we take in is the wrong direction.  We need to reduce spending, reduce programs, go to zero-based budgeting and keep cutting until we are generating surpluses that can pay down the debt.

We need to turn our country around to go in the right direction.  We cannot achieve that by compromising with the wrong direction.  Gridlock is preferable to going in the wrong direction.


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