Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Europeans Don't Understand U.S. System

A curious survey was conducted in Europe by The Economist, using the size of Europe as a starting point for developing the questions.

First, remember that America is a system of "states" with independent central authorities. A common currency and common defense was developed, but each state oversees: education, most welfare, transportation, local security, medical care... et cetera. Even the death penalty is a state-by-state issue at present. In other words, The Economist began with the historical comparison of the US to the EU.

So, we have 50 States. How many were in the EU? I recall, at least at one point, 15 major members.

Anyway, the question then became how many could name the States in the USA, at least two governors, explain the Republican form versus European Parliamentary forms, et cetera.

It turned out most Europeans thought the USA had a single system, one set of standards for education, one national set of laws, et cetera. The results of the survery were quite stark. The Economist rightly pointed out that most Europeans had a very limited understanding of the USA.

(Less than 10% could explain "Balance of Powers" and the "Three Branches" of government under the US Constitution. An equally low number of Americans understood how a Prime Minister takes power. We seem at a loss to understand each other at that point.)

My point isn't that one is or isn't better -- my point is that people know their own little worlds a lot better than they understand the world at large. We tend to isolate ourselves with artificial notions that one system, one country, one religion (or none) is better than all others.

We (humanity) has a lousy track record with understanding each other. We don't learn history -- and what history we learn is always distorted by national pride and biases.

Where I think America is weakest is language. We teach one language, with a little exposure to "foreign" languages in secondary school. However, consider that we touch only two nations with other languages. Those two nations have a great influence on us.

Do Europeans realize out of 35 million Californians, 20 million are fluent in at least two languages and nother five have limited fluency in at least two. OK, so 10 million couldn't read a word of anything beyond English. I admit it... we're isolated.

Islolation is not unique to America. We happen to be more isolated by geography and even our political structure than other Western nations. I think Canada is a reasonable comparison geographically, but not politically -- it's a more "European" system of government.

People love isolation -- and don't even try to tell me Europe is a great example of ethnic and religious mixing. I have seen how France and Germany have radical "right" parties ranting against immigration. No, the world is a lot of people, all trying to maintain group identities for some reason. Separatists in Spain? Ireland's troubles?

Americans look bad because the world looks at us. If we study any Western nation, they are all highly flawed sets of isolated groups. I read Linus Torvald's biography and was struck how language and religion isolated him as a student. I never thought of Finland in that way. How "American" to segregate people!

How can philosophy combat human nature? I don't know. Can we have philosophers as leaders? Existentialism isn't really tied to ending racism or unifying mankind. Camus tried that in his way, Sartre in another. Maybe we are destined to distrust, misunderstand, and criticize each other?

Personally, I think any system developed by mankind is doomed to be a mess with too many flaws to fix. At best, we can try to minimize the mess that is government, religion, and social "order" so the individual can survive with a hint of freedom and free will.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

Referendum and Direct Democracy

I was asked: "What and when was the last federal referendum in the USA? How much of what kind of legislation is subject to referendum in the USA?" - Jerry

This goes to culture and responsibility:

Think of this in terms of philosophy, not mere politics. It is easy to call for a vote, but people are reluctant to do so. Is that because change would be "bad" or because they don't care?

Maybe this is a good thing? Maybe static systems are better than wildly fluctuating ones for philosophical reasons?

When things are very "easy" do the people take it for granted? What can we do to make people realize they can exercise power? It is extremely easy (compared to our population of 300 million) to get matters to Congress, and then to the States.

Does the ease of petition make it an empty act? I don't even know how many petitions I have signed or not signed since 1986, when I first registered to vote. I suppose I've signed a dozen or so, with three of them calling for national amendments. (One was a call for term limits on Congress.)

It's reach a point now that there are petition tables in front of most grocery stores and malls every spring. (A lot are paid to collect signatures!) People now ignore the petitions.

What does this mean? Have organizations made the individual feel powerless? Have failed votes and political divisions turned-off voters?

Prohibition passed quickly, and alcohol was banned. It was a time of social concern, and the public demanded action. The result: gangsters and rum runners. Almost as quickly, Prohibition was repealed. Those were the last "fast" national votes. Maybe Americans decided not to mess with things after that experience?

Anything, any matter no matter how silly or even if it contradicts the existing laws, may be brought to a vote. As long as one state, just one, calls for an Amendment, it must be debated and sumbitted to the Congress for "certification" -- and then it heads to every state.

Some Admendments (the 19th, 22nd) pass nationally very quickly. Others take a hundred years (literally!) because states can vote and revote until an Amendment is withdrawn. The last Amendment passed was submitted over 150 years ago and reconsidered every five years.

With as few as 50,000 signatures, no filing fee, any proposal can be brought to vote in California. If the vote calls for the proposal of a U.S. Constitutional Amendment, it must be submitted to Congress for approval by 2/3 vote. Once Congress acts, the proposal goes to the other states, where at least 3/4 must approve for a proposal to amend the constitution.

Recall, that unlike most nations, each state is incredibly autonomous. Our federal system is so weak as to be nearly meaningless at times. (Economy? The federal system doesn't even run the national bank. The U.S. is the only G7 nation with an independent banking system.) It's really hard to compare the U.S. to anything other than the European Union. (The Economist did that well.)

The last national vote was on congressional pay, of all things. 1992 was the last approved Amendment, though many have been submitted and failed. The Equal Rights Amendment was a big deal when I was in elementary school, and it went down in flames, mainly in the Southern states.

So, while we do not vote often, it is as much a matter of culture as it is of law. While it is amazingly easy (statistically) to call for a national amendment, it seems people just don't care to do so.

Example: Bush (who has no say in the matter) says he would support (which is all he could do) an Amendment defining marriage. Poll after poll shows the people will not accept such a vote and are unlikely to sign the petitions to force the matter.

I don't know if you watch the Tonight Show, but it is sadly humorous when people cannot name one Amendment. Most can't name their own Senator or Congressional Rep. And you think these people would sign a petition?

Hate to admit it, but Arnold can get 50,000 signatures in a day. (He needed only 35,000 to run for office.) Bush could not get that many in seven years (the normal time limit to call for a vote on an Amendment). People just won't amend our laws that easily.