Saturday, February 28, 2004

The U.S. Model vs. European Democracy

As I understand it, the "federal" system in most countries has a lot of power -- such as a national sales tax, national education system, national health care, national law enforcement, national regulations (versus national "minumums" in the United States), and so on.

For example, the GST or VAT is a national sales tax used for national programs. The United States could not have such a tax without a change to our Constitution, which requires approval of three-fourths of the states. (Switzerland has an "easier" two-thirds requirement for national referendums on Constitutional matters.) It was a long battle just to have a federal income tax in the United States. Even today,
people debate if the Amendment was passed properly.

I also believe a teaching certificate is good nation-wide in most countries. In the United States, my California credential was accepted by two states, as long as I took some additional courses. California accepts no other states' (at this time) without additional training because we had a "bilingual" or "language acquisition" requirement. (There is a move to have national credentials, but states would be
free to "add" to the minimums, meaning the "national" would still not be good enough for all states!)

The EPA is our "Environmental Protection Agency" at the federal level. California has another EPA (Cal-EPA) which has even stricter standards for air and water pollution, mainly to cope with our geography, which includes two highly-contained valleys, L.A. and the San Joaquin, where air pollution collects. The "national" standard would not help us enough -- so our standard is different.

(Cars sold in California are "different" than in other states: emission controls are like the Canadian models on steroids, as Susan can attest. Her "Canadian" car doesn't meet California standards, but surpasses U.S. minimums.)

California's laws are often more strict than the minimums of the United States. Our labor laws, for example, have an eight-hour workday and a 40-hour week. National law only protects the 40-hour week. (The eight-hour day is a problem in California, where some people wanted to work four ten-hour days a week and it turned out to be a violation of the law.)

The amendment to the U.S. Constitution must be approved by three-fourths of states. The amendment as passed may specify whether the bill must be passed by the state legislatures or by a state convention. Amendments are sent to the legislatures of the states by default.

It is interesting to note that at no point does the President have a role in the formal amendment process (though he would be free to make his opinion known). He cannot veto an amendment proposal, nor a ratification.

Any state my propose an Amendment, but it must be approved by both houses of Congress before being submitted to the States.

Amendments set minimum standards for all states, or establish the protected rights of the people.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Comparing Democracies: Switzerland

Regardless, calling something "direct democracy" does make it sound, to the public, as if they are in control. On this matter, I must admit Chomsky is correct (gasp!) -- you can tell people they have rights and powers, yet make them so difficult to exercise as to render those rights almost meaningless.

Sartre and Camus claimed words were both meaningless and all we have. We can manipulate them to control people, or to free ourselves.

If women could not vote until 1971, and men (the voters) made the decision to allow them power, it's almost laughable. That's like saying "All men are created equal" then making Africans count as only a portion of a man (which the United States did). French-speaking Catholics were restricted in Switzerland until 1978, when public protests (phrasing it nicely) resulting in full rights and even a Catholic state.

You can call yourself a democracy, but is it democracy when only certain people get to decide the rules and laws for everyone else? Was Greece democractic when only 30,000 of more than 400,000 men could vote? I don't know. Maybe democracy only applies to the people in power, as it did in South Africa. I'm not being sarcastic, I simply don't know if we can or should consider limited rights "democratic" by
"modern" standards.

From the Swiss Parliament, not a third-party or outside expert:

Switzerland presents, every allowance being made, a similar structure to that of the United States. It is an assemblage of cantons, like the Union is an assemblage of states. Therefore there are a Swiss State and 26 cantonal States. What distinguishes federalism from other systems is the juridical character of these cantonal states, principally the various details which make them different from mere
departments, like the French departments for example.

I think that first sentence is interesting, citing the United States as a model. Remember that the Swiss system, in its current form dates to only 1848. Did past unions influence it? Certainly.

Direct democracy involves the poeple voting on "most issues" which the Swiss do not do. They did, but after 1978 there was a major shift -- they let French-speaking Catholics have a "state" (canton), but then restructured their laws regulating parties.

(Tangent: As an American, I cannot quite grasp a "Catholic" political party, or a "Christian Social Democrat" party. Then again, some argue the Republican party in American has too many openly Christian politicians. Should religion be the basis for a political organization? Does that matter? How does that affect the freedoms of
others?)

Back to democracy. From the Swiss site, again:

As to the popular initiative, which can lead only to the revision of the Constitution and not of the bills, 159 have been submitted to a referendum of which 14 have been accepted and 144 rejected. Some 70 have been withdrawn, mostly because the authorities had more or less favourably answered the wishes of the initiators, and lastly some 15 are pending. By contrast, the legislature passes that many bills
(decrees) in a session. As the referendary campaigns are expensive, the dissatisfied persons cannot set themselves against all the decrees.

Back to my two-cents.

You see, direct democracy, which the Swiss and the individual United States once had (if you were a white, male, Protestant), has been lost to organized lobbies, the costs of campaigns, and voter apathy.

Professor Jean-François Aubert, University of Neuchâtel), Member of Parliament, explains that the direct democracy of Switzerland is a bit of a myth. By having the referendum out there, you can claim that people can change the decrees. By making it difficult to actually do so, you let the people think they have power when they actually have much less.

The Swiss are considering revising campaign laws to limit the influence of unions and organizations (especially corporations). The U.S. has struggled with this as well. I think every modern country has to deal with the influence of money.