Maybe you think our current voting method is working just fine. Just take the time to read this FOX News story, “Massachusetts mayor recalled – and re-elected – amid federal indictments” from Fall River, MA. The short version is that faced with Federal indictments for tax fraud and stealing from investors, the city’s mayor, Mayor Correia refused to step down so the Council held an election with two questions on the ballot.
Q1: Should the mayor be recalled?
Q2 If recalled which of five candidates should replace him?
Oddly enough Correia was one of
the five names to replace him. On question
1, he was recalled with roughly 2/3rds of the voters voting to recall. On question 2, the 1/3 who voted not to recall
him of course voted for him as the new mayor.
Because the other 2/3rds who wanted him recalled split their votes among
the other 4 candidates the mayor was re-elected as his own replacement. Even though it was clear that 2/3rds of the voters
opposed him, our flawed plurality system put him back in the office against the
will of the majority.
This sort of thing happens quite often in regularly scheduled elections and voters just assume that a plurality winner would beat every one of his opponents with a majority in head-to-head matchups. In a normal election there’s no way to prove whether this perception is right or wrong. But in this case the ballot asked the right questions. We can clearly see how Correia would lose to every opponent in a head-to-head race. Ranked Choice ballots give the voting algorithm more information about voters’ wishes from which the collective will of the electorate may be determined. For instance one common method simply eliminates the weakest candidates one at a time until only two remain. Mayor Correia would never reach the majority needed to win that final round.
Gracie: I see in the paper where the TestIowa initiative is using a new test that will reduce the incidence of coronavirus.
George: A test surely can’t prevent it. You must mean a vaccine or treatment, right?
Gracie: No, they say the test itself will.
do they know the test is what’s reducing the incidence of the disease?
Gracie: It’s already been used in Utah and produced
just half as many positive tests as the other two tests they were using.
a minute! You say half as many positives
with the new test.
Gracie: That right it’s called “flattening the curve.” That’s why Iowa and Nebraska have decided to
switch to the new test.
George: OMG. Say
Gracie: Goodnight Gracie
Editorial note: Well she’s right it will lower the curve. So will the administration’s decision change the
way we count cases and deaths. It’s true
counting cases is mostly guesswork when such a small sample has been tested. But whether we undercount or over-count we’ve
got to stick with the plan otherwise we’ve got a mess. Imagine what your house would look like if the
carpenter who built your house switched from metric to feet half way through
Here’s a whimsical taIe I wrote
some time ago to teach my grandchildren that the real value in society comes not
from money but from people helping people.
They were a little young at the time so I set it aside for a while. Now they are teenagers wondering how the
coronavirus will impact their future.
This is a story of the resilience of people facing an economic
firestorm. By learning how to pull the
right economic levers, the people of Tangia recovered the power that lies
within each of us, the power of people helping people. By sharing this story with your children, my
hope is that it will inspire them to use that power and to believe we can make
the new normal better than before.
It was an impossible fantasy
because a financial loss hit every citizen at the same time. When I wrote this, I never dreamed these
conditions would ever be so closely replicated in the real world. But we now see it with Coronavirus.
The Wisdom of Sunch
Once on a planet far, far away and long, long ago, there was a civilization much like our own. A great nation emerged on planet’s lone continent. This all ended when a sudden cataclysmic event struck in the center of this giant land mass, causing it to sink beneath the sea. All that was left were two small islands, thousands of miles apart. Survivors on the larger Island known as Porgia, recovered to populate the island with some 5,000 inhabitants; but our story begins several thousands of years after the cataclysm on the smaller Tangia, home to a mere 2,000 souls.
Cranic is a shoemaker who is teaching his son Sunch his trade as his father had done for him. His wife and daughter prepare the meals and tend to household matters – much as it would come to be in the far distant future on a planet called Earth during its Dark Ages. There were no schools. There was nothing more to learn than how to live and get by the way their ancestors had always done or so they thought. There was no need to study history because as far as anyone could remember it had always been the same. They knew nothing of the great continent that once was – nothing of the island of Porgia and distant cousins living there. Only traces of the technology from the distant past remained.
Sunch’s ancestral line had preserved the skill of turning leather into footware just as the blacksmith across the way had learned how to form the nails Cranic used to bind the soles. The occasional plague kept the population in check. It never varied by more than 100. The significance of this is an economy that never changed. Every citizen carried a leather pouch filled with gold coins. No one knew where they came from or as Cranic explained it to Sunch, “They must have always been here.”
The coins had a faint silhouette of a human head on one side, but Sunch couldn’t have known the detail worn away with the years. It was a tradition among Tangians to make sure at the end of every day that each pouch contained a full quota of ten gold coins. There were always just enough to go around. It’s a good thing too because the arts of mining gold and minting coins had been lost for millennia.
Every day Sunch would go to the butcher to buy meat for the table and hides for the shop. He would stop by the market for fresh vegetables, the chemist for tanning oil and the blacksmith for tools and nails. He would return home with an empty pouch which Cranic would fill with the day’s receipts for shoes. Somehow it always came out even. With an unchanging economy, prices had long ago settled into a delicate balance that held steady ever since. Accounting was not an issue. There wasn’t even a word for it because everybody knew it would work out just right at the end of the day. There was no greed in Tangia. Why would there be?
They had no Congress because there were no big decisions to be made. They had no military because they had no enemies. They had no police because there had never been a theft. After all, having more than ten coins would be just extra weight to carry around. In Tangia, everyone had just what they needed with no extra to go to waste.
One day Sunch went down to the fish market on the beach to find everyone looking out to sea. They were watching what appeared to be a giant white bed sheet rising slowly out of the water. The crowd grew as a huge boat began to appear beneath the sheets. This boat was nothing like the hollowed log canoes or rafts used by the local fishermen. And as it neared, the immensity of the boat became clearer and it appeared to come from the “deep.” The deep was a zone beyond even the view from atop Mount Rumble. No Tangian dared to go there for fear of falling off the edge. Rumor has it that some fishermen had ventured into the deep never to return.
The boat stopped in the harbor, the sheets curled up and a man threw something into the sea with a splash. Soon a few of the strangers paddled ashore in a small dinghy where a brave few of the Tangians greeted them. They came bearing gifts, colored stones and objects such as no Tangian had ever seen before. They asked the crowd to go home and gather everyone together in the morning.
When they returned in the morning one of the strangers, the one in the three-cornered hat who appeared to be in charge began to speak. He announced they had come to collect taxes, one gold coin from every citizen. The crowd murmured while some vocally protested and declared they wouldn’t pay. The leader turned and spoke to one of his men. The man then raised the smooth stick he had been holding. Sunch recalled that a farmer had found a similar stick buried in his field, but it wasn’t shiny like this one. The leader raised his hand and the man then pointed the stick at a seagull flying overhear and there was a loud bang such as the Tangians had never before heard. The seagull plummeted to the ground. The leader explained that’s what’s in store for anyone who doesn’t pay taxes.
The Tangians complied and watched until the sheets disappeared into the deep. The next day Sunch started on his daily rounds, but his pouch was empty when he reached the blacksmith shop. When he told the blacksmith about the problem, the blacksmith suggested a revolutionary idea, “Raise your prices so you will have enough when you come back tomorrow.” But we need the nails so we may have shoes to sell.” The blacksmith said, “Everybody needs to meet in my shop tonight.”
So all the merchants gathered at the blacksmith shop that evening. With no schooling in math, they all thought the blacksmith had a good idea and unanimously agreed to raise their prices. Of course, the next day things didn’t go so well. Sunch’s pouch was empty before he got to the chemist’s shop. Despondent, he returned home with food, but no supplies for making shoes. Cranic consoled his son saying, “That’s okay because few of our regular customers showed up to buy shoes today.” That meant he had enough shoes left over for tomorrow. The whole family was supportive, but they all knew they were in trouble.
Sunch went into the woods to think. He thought and thought. He thought raising the prices only made things worse. Leaving prices where they were didn’t work either because no one had enough gold coins to buy what they needed every day. If raising prices made things worse, maybe lowering prices would make things better. So Sunch called for another meeting at the blacksmith shop.
“Everybody needs to agree,” Sunch explained. “Otherwise this plan will never work.” The blacksmith, the leather smith, the clothier and the chemist quickly agreed because they too had emptied their pouches. But the farmers, the fishermen and the butcher refused to go along. They never had it so good – their pouches were overflowing with gold coins. People still needed food so they were willing to pay the higher prices.
A dejected Sunch retreated again into the woods. How could he convince the farmers, the fishermen and the butcher to give up this windfall? What would become of the tradesmen who would soon be unable to buy even food? What good is it for some people to collect all that gold if there’s no place to spend it? “That’s it!” he thought, and called for another meeting.
This time he explained how the farmers, the fishermen and the butcher would soon have all the gold coins, while the tradesmen would have none to feed their families or to make the goods needed. No blacksmith to make the plows for the farmers, the hooks for the fishermen or the knives for the butcher. There would be no more saddles for the farmers, no more canoes or oars for the fishermen and no more clothing or shoes for growing children. Gold coins would be worthless when there was nothing to spend them on.
Sunch’s argument must have been a good one because everyone agreed to go with the lower prices. In fact, they went a step further and redistributed all the gold coins so that everyone had exactly nine coins in their pouches. With that their community returned to normal and every citizen realized that nothing of value had been taken from them after all. In fact, they were better off because they were all just a little bit smarter. And so they all lived happily ever after.
That seems a good place to end a story, but I have to tell you the rest because it didn’t work out so well for the island of Porgia. The Porgian pirates returned home with 2,000 gold coins. Of course, they were just fishermen when they started their journey, but they became pirates when they saw how easy it would be to take the gold from the Tangians. They divided the booty between the crew who all went on a spending spree the moment they returned home. The Porgians were a more advanced society, and their economy was more complex. The increased spending sent prices through the roof, sending their economy into a tailspin from which it never recovered. The Porgians never figured it out.
The moral of this story is all
value in any society comes from its people, like potential energy stored in
each one of us begging to be released. Economics
has no meaning without people or more aptly, without our labor. The point is when we come out on the other
side of this coronavirus crisis, we will still have the same value locked up
inside of every one of us begging to be released. Call it labor, call it GDP, or call it money
in motion, we have to find a way to get it moving again lest it grind to a
What Sunch taught us is that
money or gold is just a place marker, a universal IOU that keeps track of our
good deeds. It’s mobile in both time and
space; but perhaps from time to time, it needs to be recalibrated. When it gets recalibrated, all our metrics
The Tangians of course, had no
concept of metrics – like gross domestic product (GDP). To them, their economy seemed constant. With a little help, it was the same after the
pirate raid as before. Had they measured
GDP (in gold coins), they would have seen that it had gone down by 10% because
they were spending 10% fewer coins per day.
This decrease in GDP may have concerned and confused them. It may have lead them to make mistakes, in
turn causing a downward spiral in the economy as happened with the Porgians who
did rely on GDP metrics. We see they
were all buying the same amount of goods and services for less gold than
before. This upward revaluation of money
or gold is what saved their economy.
Now I don’t imagine that we’d
have much luck today getting everyone to agree to divvy up the money. Fortunately there are other ways in a complex
economy to redistribute wealth. Our
response to the coronavirus crisis is to put money in the hands of those who
are likely to spend it, increasing demand.
In accounting terms, we put money on one side of the ledger without putting
labor on the other side. This would mean
the ledger doesn’t balance. The rational
is that increased demand as we emerge from the crisis, will raise prices,
attracting investment and creating jobs.
In other words, we expect to balance the ledger as people fill these
jobs, go back to work, and spend the money.
But where did the money come
from? Didn’t the government just print
new money? In effect, yes they did, but
it didn’t come without a price tag. So
who paid the price? To answer this, you
have to think of money as shares of the economy – like pieces of a pie that add
up to the whole. When we come out of
this crisis, the wealthy “investor” class will still be holding most of the
shares while the much larger “consumer” class will have little or none left to
Giving everyone a fixed amount of
$2,000 wouldn’t change the size of the whole pie: it just cuts the pie into more pieces –
smaller pieces. Unlike the Tangian
solution inflating the value of gold coins, gifting money to everyone simply
devalues the dollar making prices got up.
So anyone holding a lot of dollars will see their share of the pie
shrink. Like the crisis in Tangia,
redistributing wealth to those who are likely to spend it is the crucial
factor. Whether we inflate or deflate
our currency doesn’t matter. This
massive redistribution of wealth to the consumer class is the right move. I know you will hear otherwise because it
won’t feel much like a boon to the average consumer.
During the Great Depression of
the 1930s the world was slow to find this solution. Bread lines and soup lines served a
humanitarian role, but did nothing to spur discretionary spending (moneyspent by consumers on things other than necessary things such as food,
clothes, and fuel). Eventually infrastructure projects like the
Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) followed by WWII were able
to accelerate spending producing a boom in the late forties and the
fifties. Interestingly neither the
projects nor the war resulted in any consumer products for us to spend money
on. It was full employment and fair
wages that created the demand for consumer goods.
Eisenhower’s interstate projects
in the fifties and sixties extended the boom.
Since then our economic profile has been dominated by lobbyists for big
business. The prevailing theory is that
only the sale of consumer products bringing profits to investors that
matters. At the same time businesses
invest in ways to replace labor forces through cheaper advance technology, as
they should. Greater efficiency benefits
us all. The problem is it starves the
consumer class through low employment or low wages. This reduces demand for the very products
they want to sell. This in turn demands
more low-cost technology to replace more of the labor force. The cycle continues.
Individually these companies are
doing everything right (microeconomics).
What they don’t do (and in fact they can’t do unless every business in
the country agrees) is finance the infrastructure needed to make all business
and the economy as a whole run more efficiently (macroeconomics).
“Everybody needs to agree” Sunch explained
“otherwise this plan will never work.”
Tangia had no central government
to make these types of decisions so everybody had to agree. We not only have a central government but we
have lessons from our own history to show us how. If we do this right this crisis could lead us
to the next infrastructure boom.
Since the early 1960s big
business has been cast in the role of the bad guys exploiting low-wage
workers. The poor are criticized for not
working hard enough and claiming benefits they don’t deserve. There is little justification for either
criticism because the system is rigged.
And it’s rigged against both the rich and the poor.
Imagine your company manufactures
a product for retail sales. When your
warehouse is full you lay off workers until there’s room again for more
product. The same thing is happening to other companies across the
country. Laid off workers stop buying
product because they don’t have the money or they have lost confidence in the
economy. Companies and workers would
both benefit if there were a way to put more money in the hands of workers
without overflowing the warehouses.
Giving out money to consumers
eventually just gets offset by higher prices.
Instead we want to give out jobs that do not produce immediate
consumable goods. That might include the
military which provides long term security.
We already have that so let’s look instead to infrastructure to
streamline transportation, communication and energy. Like the Hoover Dam, TVA and interstate
highways, these projects benefit everyone and we will reap the benefits for
decades to come. Let’s look to green
solutions to head off global warming, the next great crisis.
While we must morn the toll of
coronavirus, we must also find a way forward.
Why not solve this economic crisis by solving the next one? The extra income will raise the standard of
living for the consumer class and raise profits for the investor class.
As for the “happily ever after” part, that depends on you.
The scientists gave us the relevant numbers, but it somehow just didn’t compute with our politicians. It’s pretty well established that lawyers and politicians can’t do math that doesn’t start with a $. The “No Child Left Behind” Act that mandated every student rank above the 40th percentile is a case in point. Here’s a story I read in the late 90s that demonstrates how even professionals can overlook the math.
A young woman questioned her professor about a B+ she received on a paper in 1994. The professor agreed that it was well written and would have been an A had she not gotten her facts wrong. He showed her where she wrote “the number of children killed on the street by gunfire has doubled every year since 1954.” She asked what was wrong with that. He said I don’t know how many children were killed in 1954 but suppose it was just one. He said doubling every ever would make the total number this year 240 or 1,099,511,627,776. But she was able to show him this quote taken word for word from a reputable magazine. It turned out they took from another periodical who made an error in copying it from a child advocacy hand out where it read “the number of children killed on the street by gunfire every year has doubled since 1954” , about the same growth as the population.
I didn’t need a calculator the see the problem. Perhaps dealing with large numbers majoring in physics made it easier for me because we did a lot of rounding. I know that 210 = 1,024, approximately 1,000 and each multiplier of 1,000 adds three more zeros giving me one trillion as a low-side estimate.
If they had a category this would certainly make the Guinness world
record as the largest computational error.
The young woman’s B+ was a lenient penalty for such a humongous error. But in science the penalty is often
When faced with a small number of local cases of coronavirus, we tend to focus on that “small number” hoping it limits what any function applied to that small number, can do. In this case it doesn’t. The function tells us that it will double every three days. We know this won’t reach one trillion in four months (30 days = 10 doubles = 1,000 fold), but it can be in the millions. Of course “better late than never” mitigating factors can still make a huge difference.
I’m not an economist, but even I
can see it all boils down to one thing.
The only thing of true value is labor.
Without labor nothing happens.
The way out is to create jobs.
During the Great Depression under FDR it was jobs to build
infrastructure like the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority
(TVA). If you watched “Walton’s
Mountain” you saw how in West Virginia a system of localized labor exchange
emerged. Neither of these solutions were
a “quick fix”, so recovery drug on slowly.
Today we’re talking about immediate cash infusions, direct cash payments to individuals and cash to businesses to continue paying employees while they are laid off or idle. Corporations might use cash to buy back stock or pay dividends. Prudent individuals will hoard as much of this cash as they can, preparing for the worst. Neither of these solutions contributes to GDP. Without labor there is no output and only output and jobs will provide the traction needed to pull us out of recession.
It seems to me these are not the
right solutions, but they are close to the right solutions. Suppose instead of doling out cash (which
probably means cash cards anyway), we divided it into biweekly coupons. It’s still money, it’s still on a cash card
but it expires after the two weeks and is lost if you fail to spend it. You can’t hoard it, you have to spend
Spending it produces demand and demand inspires hiring and hiring produces legitimate income. Nothing gives us the confidence to spend more than a reliable and “continuing” flow of income we get from a job. Receiving a single cash payment does and should make us cautious; make it last as long as you can. With a job you only need to know it will last to the next payday. Consumers need to be forced to spend it. This becomes all the more important as business are coming back on line.
We can provide an option for
those who don’t need it and don’t want to spend it. Use it to buy government bonds that cannot be
cashed out for five years. You can’t
complain folks; it’s a gift. The
government could use this for badly needed infrastructure projects meaning more
Economics is not just about
money, it’s about money in motion.
Its forthright simplicity, directness and familiarity make it much more likely to gain voter acceptance by voters than other more complex forms of ranked choice voting. You can think of it as plurality voting on steroids. The ballot is no different than the one we are all used to and if you choose you can simply put an “X” or the numeral “1” in the box next to your top pick. But you may also rank your second and consecutive choices on the ballot, as few or as many as you like. This is a “ranked choice ballot.” Either way, if your top pick gets a majority of first place votes he or she is the winner.
But a simple plurality doesn’t cut it.
What’s wrong with selecting a plurality winner? Well I’m virtually in the process of writing a book on this topic called “Finding Our True Political Center”, but I will give you one example here. We’ve all seen polling on head-to-head matchups. If I were to win head-to-head matchups against every one of my opponents, it makes sense that I should win the plurality vote as well. So it may surprise you to learn that in a polarized race there is a good chance that I will lose to a polarizing opponent. But wait for it; that same polarizing opponent may actually be the plurality winner even if he loses head-to-head matchups against every one of his opponents. In voting theory this is known as a Condorcet loser.
When no one gets a majority of
first place votes with consensus voting we add the second place votes to the
total to see if some majority of voters rank any candidates in either first or
second place. If so the candidate with
the most votes wins (note as many as three candidates can meet this
requirement). If none do, we simply add
additional tiers until a winner is named.
As a moderate you have liked both Klobuchar and Buttigieg for the 2020 Democratic nominee. Splitting the moderate vote you hoped one would drop out soon so the other can pick up their supporters and gain more delegates in March. This conundrum called the “spoiler effect” is a common problem with plurality voting. Let’s see how consensus voting eliminates this spoiler effect.
For simplicity let’s make our hypothetical election a nation-wide consensus election for the Democratic nominee. Since we expect no single candidate to have a majority of first place votes we know a consensus winner cannot be named before the second place votes get added. By ranking one of our favorites first and the other second you effectively cast a full vote for each. The theory is you give them each the number of votes they would have received from you had the other not been in the race. This argument actually bears out pretty well in a diverse field of voters but I will leave the proof to the mathematicians.
The term “ranked choice voting” refers
to any of the many forms of voting that allow ranking of choices on a ranked
choice ballot. The most popular of
these, “Instant run-off voting” is often mistakenly called ranked choice voting,
seemingly to the exclusion of a host of other prime candidates. I submit it is the most popular because it’s the
first, not because it’s the best.
Many ranked choice forms reduce the field one candidate at a time then repeat the algorithm on the remaining field in “elimination rounds.” The “instant run-off” eliminates the candidate with the fewest first place votes. The “Coombs method” or the “bad apple sort” eliminates the candidate with the most last place votes. No matter how good these more complicated algorithms are, the fact that voters are confused by and skeptical of elimination rounds is problematic. Consensus voting takes a straight-forward approach to selecting one winner rather than eliminating a series of losers.
My personal mission has been to
find a more inclusive algorithm that doesn’t scare voters away.
Inclusivity is a measure of how well the voting method weighs the wishes of all factions (including such as racial, ethnic and religious groups in addition to party affiliation) in proportion to their numbers to find the right balance.
The instant run-off is neither
inclusive nor user friendly. The Coombs method is quite inclusive but perhaps
even more difficult for voters to follow.
Consensus voting is inclusive, intuitive and familiar. This leaves us a couple of questions, why do
we want an inclusive method and how does consensus voting accomplish this?
The “Why” takes us back to
polarized elections and divisive campaigns.
A polarizing candidate is one who attracts a
lot of first place votes and a lot of last place vote with few in the middle.
Of course this is by design
because the objective in a plurality race is to “be the first choice of a lot
of voters” so it really doesn’t matter what the rest of the voters think. His Amazon rating might be 3-stars, because
that’s what he gets with a lot of ones and a lot of fives. In other words we elect a lot of average
candidates who are also divisive politicians.
Getting all 4-star ratings gets you squat in a plurality race. A lone polarizing candidate is possible but
more often they come in (polar opposite) pairs. So we need an algorithm that
gives weight to those second and third choices.
The best way to understand the “How” is to see it in action especially in a polarized race. Consider a three-way race between a liberal, a conservative and a moderate. Both of the extremists have lots of firsts and lots of lasts and certainly one of these will win a plurality race. The moderate dominates the center but will have the fewest first place votes making him the first-man-out in an instant run-off race. One of the two more divisive candidates will win promising four more years of divisive and obstructionist government.
If no candidate receives a majority in a consensus race we add in the second place votes making the moderate a certain winner with nearly 100% of the (first or second place) votes. This introduces a new problem. What if the guy in middle is a doofus? He wouldn’t be the first doofus we’ve elected. But would we really elect a doofus in this situation? The answer is yes. In a polarized race defeating the opponent is as important, sometimes even more important than electing the preferred candidate so yes, we will always place him last even if it means electing a doofus.
But this is a problem that really isn’t a problem. Don’t get me wrong; because of this apparent problem it took me a while to find this very simple algorithm and no doubt this is the reason no one has endorsed or promoted it before. What we need to understand is plurality voting and the instant run-off open the outer lanes for divisive candidates while consensus voting closes these lanes an opens the center lanes for moderate candidates. With the center lanes wide open many qualified moderates would compete for these lanes and there are lots of qualified moderates.
We are not trying the change the behavior of voters because we can’t. But we can change the behavior and the incentives for qualified candidates to become unifiers rather than dividers.
Here’s what I told Senator
Grassley. I’m sure you’re looking to check the temperature for a cool-down following
the acquittal. Wrong! It’s just now coming
to a boil. President Trump has just
declared war on half the country, a war you could have prevented. His number
one objective for however long he remains in office will be revenge and he will
put this above everything else. I for
one have joined the resistance so you can put me on his enemies list and yours
as well if you like. This former
supporter is calling you out for the cowardice you have shown. Republicans are supposed to be guardians of
the Republic. We have no use for those
too old and too weak to take up the fight.
Don’t get me wrong; after 54 years as a Republican I continue to believe in a Republic, in rule of law, in pragmatism and in truth even as so many in the party have forgotten what we stand for. I call on informed Republicans everywhere to continue to fight for these same enduring principles, principles perhaps exemplified more by Pete Buttigieg than any of today’s Republican candidates. At a time when unifying the nation is paramount, we must cleanse our rolls of sycophants who lack the courage of their convictions.
Franklin asserted that the power of impeachment and removal was necessary for
those times when the Executive “rendered himself obnoxious.” Does that remind us of anyone we know? For
most of us, we see these words and think that some kind of crime must be
alleged before an impeachment trial can begin. Sure, we call it a trial,
but Congress is not a court of law. It is a trial in the sense that there
are facts and circumstances to be weighed, whether we are weighing criminality
The U.S. Constitution
described an impeachable offense this way;
The charge of high crimes and misdemeanors covers allegations of misconduct peculiar to officials, such as perjury of oath, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, unbecoming conduct, and refusal to obey a lawful order. Offenses by officials also include ordinary crimes, but perhaps with different standards of proof and punishment than for nonofficials, on the grounds that more is expected of officials by their oaths of office.
The U.S. Constitution
Alan Dershowitz will tell you in his defense of the President that we can ignore all this. Instead, he will cite arguments made and rejected by the founding fathers during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the works of pundits and hacks as well as politically motivated arguments made during past impeachments as if they were all precedent. Professor Dershowitz is an expert in criminal law. Criminal law relies on precedent. Constitutional law does not. The U.S. Constitution is to be interpreted by its original intent. In other words what the exact words meant to the founding fathers and not what subsequent pundits would like them to mean.
dictionary updates definitions every year based on cultural nuances that work
their way into the language. Our Constitution is however not updated to preserve
the original intent. For instance the original meaning of the word
“misdemeanor” was much closer to “misdeed” irrespective of whether such misdeed
was in violation of a law. Only since modern times do we jump to the
conclusion that it must mean a crime. According to Wikipedia, the phrase
“high crimes and misdemeanor” dates back much further. The impeachment of the King’s
Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, 1st Earl of Suffolk in 1386 was the first case to use this
charge. The 1450 impeachment of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, a descendant of Michael’s, was next to allege
charges under this title. He was charged with using his influence to obstruct
justice, cronyism, and wasting public money. After the Restoration (1660) the scope of the charge grew to include negligence, and abuse of power or trust while in
office. Charges in the
impeachment of Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford in 1701 included many violations of trust and his
position. In this case, he abused his position in the Privy
Council to make profits
for himself; as Treasurer
of the Navy he embezzled
funds; and as Admiral of the Fleet
he got a commission for the pirate William Kidd.
The point is many of these offenses were not crimes in the traditional sense of
the word, but focus instead on “allegations
of misconduct peculiar to officials.”
where the modern American interpretation gets a little screwy. Congress
waits for a report from the judiciary such as the Mueller report, which is
authorized to only put forth allegation of criminal
violations. By its very nature, a criminal investigation must prove the
element of “intent”, making it a long and arduous task. Obstruction only
makes it harder. Congress as a whole has
misinterpreted their solemn duty to impeach. It’s their job to fire
“obnoxious” officials, not to convict them and not to punish them. Once
fired the judiciary may then be called upon to convict and punish if the
misconduct is also criminal.
What is so
“peculiar to officials” is that legal misconduct is often the most damaging to the
public they serve. Think of it this way; if you were an employer would
you wait for an employee to commit a criminal act before considering his
firing? If you have a customer service representative who is insulting
your customers, that’s not a crime but you will fire him anyway. A
President who insults our closest allies can do a lot more damage than one who
solicits contributions or business favors in exchange for government posts or
contracts. Congress could impeach a President without having to prove he
intended to insult your closest allies, because it’s their job to stop the
bleeding not to assess the cause. Congress can also impeach for bribery
without showing intent for the same reason. In the latter case, a
criminal indictment might follow if the prosecutor can prove at least one of
the contribution was received in exchange for the awarding of a contract.
Congress, both Republicans and Democrats believed imposing stiff tariffs on our
trading partners will harm the American economy and threaten a world-wide
recession and few of them believe that Canadian trade poses a security threat
to the U.S. Of course the proof is in the pudding, we can’t prove this
until it happens. Nor can we prove the President’s motive for imposing
such tariffs. It’s not Congress’ job to prove anything; their job is to
exercise their best judgment as to whether the President’s actions will likely
cause great harm to the public or in Franklin’s words, if the President has
“rendered himself obnoxious.”
We should note that the Dershowitz defense stands in stark
contrast the Attorney General, William Barr’s defense of the President. Dershowitz contends we can only impeachment
for an actual crime. Barr has a much simpler and technically more accurate legal
theory on impeachment.
Criminal Justice is his domain,
Impeachment is the sole domain of Congress and ne’er the twain shall meet.
Essentially he is saying Congress can’t investigate criminal
matters because that’s his domain and Congress can’t ask the Court (a part of
the criminal justice system) to rule on impeachment matters. This is the legal theory he used to justify
obstruction such as advising White House officials not to testify or release
documents in potentially criminal matters.
Dershowitz on the other hand will claim that you can only impeach for a
crime. The President’s defenders can’t
have it both ways.
It’s a little remembered fact
that when President Trump decided to replace all his inspector generals with
campaign donors as a reward for their support, it was Senator Grassley who
convinced him he could not do this. I
suppose it seemed trivial at the time, but had President Trump done this we
most certainly would never have heard the whistle-blower’s complaint. There would have been no investigation of
Trump’s dealings in Ukraine and this ever-widening cloud over the Presidency
would have been averted.
Senator Grassley has the
staunchest defender of whistle-blowers, not because he likes snitches but
because he recognizes the crucial role they play in rooting out corruption and
incompetence. I think we can discount
Grassley’s statement that “he doesn’t care about his legacy” because he has
consistently shown that he cares about promoting transparency in government. This could certainly become his legacy.
I think one thing we can all
agree on is “we want to know the truth” even an uncomfortable truth. So regardless of your party affiliation please
call, write or email Senator Grassley to thank him for his past efforts and
encourage him to finish the job by voting to hear witnesses and subpoena
documents. His voice will undoubtedly influence
more junior Senators.