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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Constitutional revision, voter fraud, hyrax vs. hedgehog

September-October 2012

Compromise Confounded

Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson write that legislative bargains are not negotiated with an ultimate threat of force in the background ("The Case for Compromise," July-August), but of course it was not always so. The Civil War teaches us that not only is governing a democracy without compromise impossible, but democracy itself cannot exist without it.

Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, asserted that loss of the war would mean that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, would perish from the earth. One might wonder why he thought the stakes were that high. If the South had won, there would have been an independent Confederate States of America that allowed slavery, but the North would have continued as the United States of America, with the same democratic government, institutions, values, and people as before.

But Lincoln's understanding was that if major, unbridgeable disagreements could be resolved through secession, even without war, the incentive for compromise would be vitiated, the potential for further splintering was limitless, and democracy itself could not survive. Our challenge today is to prevent the red and the blue from becoming the blue and the gray.

Andrew Satlin, M.D. '79
Short Hills, N.J.

 

Gutmann and Thompson talk about continuous campaigning and gridlocked governing due to an unwillingness to compromise. I think one reason for this is that the primary system of choosing candidates has been in use too long. Politicians have found that appealing to extremists among the voters is a good way to win nomination. Then when they win the election, they have to cater to the extremes. If they compromise, the extremists won't vote for them next time. The primary system was an improvement over the "smoke-filled room" nominating process. Some of the present problems began when politicians figured out how to (mis)use the system to their advantage. This can be prevented (or minimized) if we change the nominating process as soon as the politicians figure out how to misuse it: maybe every five years or so. Can anyone think of a new nominating process?

Ted Grinthal
Berkeley Heights, N.J.

 

More letters in response to "The Case for Compromise"

 

Constitutional Conundrums

The "narrow but profound flaw at the core of our Constitution…that has allowed our government to become captured by moneyed special interests" requires an even more radical constitutional change than Lawrence Lessig has proposed ("A Radical Fix for the Republic," July-August). Representatives, senators, and first-term presidents would not spend time raising money if they could serve only one term in each office. If we made each of those terms nine years, with elections held every three years (i.e., elect representatives, three years later elect senators, three years after that elect a president, then back to representatives), we would always have experienced people in office and we would still retain accountability to voters.

Yes, some representatives would spend too much time running for the Senate, and a few senators would have presidential ambitions…but the magnitude of the problem would be greatly reduced.

John Hartung, Ph.D. '81
Brooklyn

 

The main reason running for public office is so costly is the price of TV time. Candidates need to raise huge sums for this purpose and thus are beholden to the donors. But TV channels are not owned by the networks. They are owned by us, the people, and licensed to those who pay for them. The Federal Communications Commission lists "public service" as one of the conditions for license. The FCC, or Congress, should require TV channels to give an equal amount of time to all candidates for each office. If any candidate buys more time, the selling channel must be required to give an equal amount of time to all other candidates for that office. That will even the playing field. An alternative, as done in the United Kingdom, is to ban the use of TV in political campaigns altogether. Either process would remove the need for candidates to sell their souls to special interests, and allow them to represent the voters.

Abigail Beutler, Radcliffe '50
Nashua, N.H.

 

Lessig's idea of calling a constitutional convention to remedy the ills caused by our current campaign-financing laws (and perhaps the new definition of corporate personhood) is intriguing, but its efficacy depends on whom the several state legislatures choose to represent themselves at such an assembly. I could easily envisage the Convention instead becoming fertile ground for new amendments to our Constitution long sought by single-issue interest groups: defining life as beginning at conception, prohibiting the desecration of the flag, requiring a balanced budget, and permitting prayer in school, for some. I, for one, would be reluctant to roll the dice.

Wayne Forester '80
Atlanta

 

Lessig's constitutional overhaul proposal needs more concrete ideas from somebody. There's surely too much money sloshing around Congress—more than $25 million per legislator per year, by one reckoning—and far too much time is spent chasing campaign dollars, and far too little on researching and debating proposed legislation.

But eliminating the Citizens United error won't help much: that would just improve the campaigning problem. Once elected, our legislators have shown themselves to be good at passing and using procedural rules to block any bills they don't like. There are 1,500 pages of these "protect the minority" rules—the "nobody's-there-filibuster" process is just one of them, all too often used to cut off debate.

Before we consider starting the colossal effort needed for a constitutional convention, we need a well-thought list of changes in how the Congress does its work; a list of simple, specific, even-handed, immediately effective changes. Reversion to democracy (i.e., 50.0001 percent wins) by eliminating the supermajority rule is one. Fixed, short, term limits is another. The system is surely broken and the sooner we get out the hammer and fix it the better.

T. H. Stearns '53
Nashua, N.H.

 

Lessig addresses the serious problem of money buying improper political influence. This has been true for citizens of every nation in the world at any time in history. This will never be eliminated, but like every other injustice we must constantly work to minimize it. A constitutional convention will not solve the problem now any more than it did in 1789. Nor should we risk losing those constitutional rights that we have to the unpredictable results of a new convention. I propose the following:

No candidate shall accept a contribution, payment, gift, or article of value except from a natural person residing within the district he or she seeks to represent.

Those seeking office should publicly adopt the above rule. Those who reject it should explain to the electorate why they are accepting outside money, and what influence it will have on them in performing their official duties.

This would not change the power of corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent communications. It would go a long way toward ensuring that elected officials are truly representing their own constituents.

Tom Hillery, A.L.M. '97
Henderson, Nev.

 

For what it is worth, I agree with Lessig's view of the current American political landscape. However, I don't think the American people have the courage to act any more than do their legislators.

Robert Kaplan '81
Ventor City, N.J.

 

The current system of campaign finance is a major threat to our system of government, and Lessig's proposed constitutional overhaul deserves serious and immediate attention. Let me suggest two areas for discussion:

First, to reverse the thrust of Citizens United, a donation to a candidate should be limited in amount and permitted only if the giver is a registered voter within the district in which the election is being contested. Moreover, total contributions should be eligible for match (also up to a limit) by public funds drawn from the proceeds of a national lottery.

Second, to ease the financial burdens on the candidates, let's shorten the campaigns. No primary or caucus to select presidential or congressional nominees should take place before June 1 of the election year, and no expenditures should be permitted except for campaign activities that take place within six weeks of the date of the election or caucus.

If these measures were broadly acceptable, the system might recover.

Leo Fishman '59
Charleston, S.C.

 

This morning I read the Lessig article and also finished Michael J. Sandel's book What Money Can't Buy. The Lessig article ends: "What it will take to fix things, [Lessig] says, is for Americans to recognize that 'the corrupting influence of money is the first problem facing this nation. That unless we solve this problem, we won't solve anything else.'" Sandel ends: "And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?" Both these Harvard professors are right, and they both echo Saint Paul's advice to Timothy: "For the love of money is the root of all evil..." (1 Timothy 6:10).

Nick Carrera '60
Frederick, Md.

 

More letters in response to "A Radical Fix for the Republic"

 

Who Votes?

Alexander Keyssar is right to note the history of disenfranchisement in the United States, and I agree with his concern over the potential for denying any American access to the ballot box ("Forum: Voter Suppression Returns," July-August). His suggestions, however, that Republicans have fabricated reasons to enact voter identification laws and that their efforts to ensure voting integrity may have a racial component may be useful as political fodder but are factually unfounded. His assertion on behalf of critics "doubting both [such laws'] necessity and ability to keep elections honest" is muted by flagrant examples of voter fraud by both political parties throughout American history.

In 2008, the Supreme Court sided with the State of Indiana, declaring that the requirement to produce photo ID is not unconstitutional and that the state has a legitimate interest in deterring fraud. In the court's 6-3 majority opinion in Crawford v. Marion County, Justice Stevens stated that they failed to find "any concrete evidence of the burden imposed on voters who now lack photo identification" and that the "risk of voter fraud" was "real." In fact, the Indiana statute grants exceptions to this requirement and offers free photo ID in order to assist prospective voters. If, as Keyssar and others incorrectly suggest, voter fraud is exceedingly rare, so, too, are recent examples of legitimate voters being denied their right to vote.

My difficulty with his proposition is not just with his false assumptions about the impact of this "policy instrument" on inclusiveness, but also with his unconvincing attempt to conflate disenfranchisement with a right-wing conspiracy to discourage their opponents from voting. His thesis, while an interesting read, is as curious as Nancy Pelosi's charge that the contempt vote against Attorney General Holder is part of a carefully orchestrated scheme by those dastardly Republicans to thwart his challenge—as a civil-rights matter—to voter identification laws. No matter how insignificant Keyssar believes it to be, a requirement for photo identification, while not resolving the issue, will be a step in the right direction.

Christopher G. Hennen, M.L.A. '91
United States Military Academy
West Point, N.Y.

 

Perhaps because I grew up in, and live in, Illinois (where the saying "Vote early and often" originated), I have always thought that the threat of vote fraud is real. Of course, as Keyssar says, "the greatest threat to electoral integrity comes from absentee ballots." But fraud prevention is not the only legitimate purpose of a voter ID requirement.

First, the identification requirement should be seen as somewhat like the oath required before a witness can testify in court. It conveys to everyone the seriousness of the undertaking.

Second, it is not necessarily a good thing to make voting as easy as going to the bathroom. It is not an act of civic virtue to simply cast a vote. It is an act of civic virtue to cast an informed vote. I do not want a system where people can sit at home and vote on their computers, or where they can walk in and vote because they have nothing better to do at that moment, or because, as has happened (and still happens) in Illinois, someone paid them $20 to vote.

Keyssar says he would "welcome such laws if it were made clear that it was the responsibility of the state (rather than of private citizens) to insure that every eligible" person had the required documents. I agree the state should make identification freely and readily available to everyone so that poverty, disability, and the like do not stand in the way of eligible voters, but there is much to be said for making people show that they care enough about voting to make some effort, to the extent they are able, to obtain identification documents and to produce that identification when they vote.

William A. Schroeder, LL.M. '77
Professor of law, Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Ill.

 

Harvard Magazine's balance of news about Cambridge developments and thought-provoking discussions about current events is a joy to read. One-sided partisan views of political topics, like "Voter Suppression Returns" by Alexander Keyssar, however, should stay out. Lesser publications can include them.

Christopher S. Edwards, J.D. '98
New York City

 

More letters in response to "Who Votes?"


…And Democracy, Generally

Two articles in the July-August issue reminded me of the importance of incentives.

"When Having Babies Beats Marriage," on Kathryn Edin's research into marriage and childbirth among lower-income Americans, mentioned the lack of economic incentives to delay child-bearing. What about incentives to marriage per se? Working-class, middle-class, and affluent couples face similar incentives: taxes are lower on joint income, credit is easier to obtain with pooled assets and joint income, one household is more economical than two, etc. What incentives or disincentives do lower-income Americans face? And how would those incentives be evaluated from a public-policy perspective? I would have liked to see this addressed.

Second, Lawrence Lessig, in joining the century-old quest to rid U.S. politics of special-interest money, has come to believe that money feeding into politics is the problem behind many ills in our democracy. But is it not perhaps a symptom of a deeper problem? The federal government has claimed, more or less successfully, the power to do pretty much anything under the guise of tax and regulatory authority, subject only to voter backlash. Is it a surprise when affected and potentially affected parties do whatever they can to defend themselves? Is it a surprise that others will look to take advantage of the situation? Consider the incentives: livelihoods and fortunes are at stake. If you want money out of politics, get politicians out of the economy; work for a return to limited government.

John A. Major, A.M. '79
Burlington, Conn.

 

A most interesting issue, if we consider the articles just a bit out of order. First, we read Lessig's thesis that politicians are spending up to 70 percent of their efforts on raising campaign money, and slowly succumbing to the influences exerted by their wealthy and elite donors, serving those interests rather their constituents'. Then we have Keyssar's article documenting the erosion of constituents' access to the polls, for example to rectify whatever abuses they perceive. As a key next step, we have to appreciate and integrate the James Robinson/Daron Acemoglu study ("Why Nations Fail," July-August) describing how governing systems that act primarily to promote and serve the interests of "extractive elites" engender backward and uncompetitive societies. Finally, we are taught that politicians' refusal to compromise on matters of principle (driven by campaign positions, thus harking back to donor influences) may render inevitable any consequences that flow from the previously stated circumstances. The question that troubles me is not one of theory and principle as to whether our national cup is half empty or half full, but the more practical consideration of what the nature of its contents is and will be.

Keith Backman, Ph.D. '77
Bedford, Mass.

 

Ah, if only the peasants would listen to the experts of the professoriate, how much better governed our country would be! They have all the correct answers to the entire human condition, from radically rewriting the Constitution to curing "gridlock" to letting random people, citizens and noncitizens alike, who turn up on election day vote without a photo ID. Never mind that they seem incapable of simple and efficient self-governance of their own microcosm ("Faculty Finance Frustrations," July-August); they should immediately be placed in charge of our entire government.

Never mind that our Constitution, which works better than that of any other country, has served us well for over 200 years and can be amended but only very slowly and cautiously, which is as it should be. Never mind that it quite deliberately divides power among the three branches of the federal government (and between the House and the Senate in the legislative branch) and between the federal government and the states in order to prevent the concentration of power in few hands and to slow down the hasty enactment of disastrous laws in the heat of the moment ("gridlock" is an uncalled-for pejorative term for this sound and cautious mechanism). Never mind that YouTube shows a white male in his twenties obtaining a ballot for Attorney General Eric Holder, a 61-year-old African-American man, from a poll worker in Washington, D.C.; voter fraud is not a serious problem in our country. Minority voting has actually risen significantly in states which recently enacted voter ID laws.

These three articles collectively remind me why William F. Buckley Jr. spoke so wisely when he commented, "I would rather be governed by the first 1,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University."

David Clayton Carrad, J.D. '72
Augusta, Ga.

 

Associate editor Elizabeth Gudrais ’01, a former Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow who joined the staff in 2007, has left for the Midwest and marriage. She departs with our warmest thanks for her distinguished reporting and leadership in expanding the magazine’s online presence. Her final feature as a staff member, based on previous reporting in India, will appear in the November-December issue. -The Editors

On Students' Well-Being

So you give us in one issue Commencement celebrations, excellent tough reasoning on American democracy, Edward Lear, the usual fascinating and very nicely edited class notes and obituaries—and then the terrible last obituary of Wendy Hsi-wen Chang, and the beautifully written and very wise words of Isabel Ruane (The Undergraduate, "Effortless Perfection") on the perils of super-studenthood and her realization that "My duty to the world isn't to be perfect. It is to take care of myself as best I can so that I can give back to the world the love and care it has given me." I suggest that the obituary and Ruane's piece be in the arrival packet of the super-students of the Class of 2016.

John E. Wills Jr., Ph.D. '67
Pasadena

 

Getting Them Young, Part 1

"Thinking Outside the Pack" (Open Book, July-August) brought back memories of my part-time employment with the Student Marketing Institute. I have always had mixed emotions about being the campus representative for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Each month during my junior and senior years, I received dozens of cartons of "Lucky Fives," which I was hired to distribute to my fellow students. I was instructed to stop them in Harvard Square and/or Harvard Yard and offer them a five-pack of cigarettes, with a well-rehearsed spiel about the claim that "Luckies" are "round, firm, and full packed—a perfect cylinder of fine workmanship." I followed up with an offer to "tear and compare." I was given sheet music of the song popularized by Dorothy Collins of Hit Parade fame—"Be Happy, Go Lucky Strike"—and asked to provide it to whatever band might be playing at a campus dance. I was also asked to find an attractive coed who would attend the dance in cigarette-girl regalia and distribute Lucky Five packs.

Fortunately, I have never smoked. But I have a guilty conscience about the many packs I distributed to my fellow students.

Edward M. Krinsky '54, M.A.T. '57
Bethpage, N.Y.

Editor's note: Mr. Krinsky's cigarette-selling certificate appears online at http://harvardmag.com/lucky-fives.

 

Courtesy of Houghton Library, ©President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University

Hedgehog

Courtesy of Houghton Library, ©President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University

Hyrax

Lear's Hyrax

Since I've painted birds and animals for years, I was glad to see Edward Lear's work celebrated ("Owl, Pussycat," July-August). But one picture is misidentified as a hedgehog, when it is clearly recognizable as a very accurate representation of a hyrax. Hedgehogs are distinguished by their short sharp spines. This furry animal looks more like a rodent, but actually is in an order of its own, distantly related to elephants. Lear knew what he was doing: look closely at the picture and you can see that he scrawled "hyrax" at the bottom center of the work.

Most 200-year-old wildlife paintings look awkward to modern eyes, but this is still as fine a painting of a hyrax as we are likely to see. I suppose he painted hedgehogs, too, and wonder if you can give us a look at one.

Peter Salmon, M.A.T. '60
Henryville, Pa.

Editor's note: Mr. Salmon is correct; we apologize for the error, and to hyraxes and hedgehogs everywhere.

 

Getting Them Young, Part 2

I suppose entrepreneur John West's hot new company, which promotes spectator sports to young children, will, as he expects, attain profitability in 18 months, and will bring joy to "the next generation of sports fans" who are "already spending seven hours a day on screens" ("The Whistle," July-August). But I hope a healthy percentage of readers reacted to West's marketing plans and your fawning infomercialesque profile as my family did: with a shudder.

Jeff Balch '83
Evanston, Ill.

 

Downsizing?

The article describing the wrenching process of getting rid of 3,000 books to live a "downsized" life where a couple could "live lighter, suck up less energy; have less stuff to take care of, to clean, to repair and maintain" ("Omnia Mea Mecum Porto," New England Regional Section, July-August) notes the subjects eventually "took a few hundred up to their farmhouse in Maine." Quick, copyeditor, how do you spell clueless?

Debra Cash, M.Ds.S. '95
Belmont, Mass.

 

The President's Priorities

Ouch! It seems the president of our great University will be selling her time and talents to Staples, the purveyor of yellow pads and office doodads ("Faculty Finance Frustrations," July-August). Sadly not surprising. Haven't we long seen the shift of culture at Harvard? Only witness the backgrounds of the Overseers and alumni-association directors ("Overseer Oversights?" Letters, July-August).

John J. Adams '62
New York City

 

In the July-August issue, there is a striking juxtaposition of Lawrence Lessig's concern re the increasing ownership of our politics by the monied few and their corporations ("Corporations are people too, my friend"), the article on faculty conflicts of interest, and the notice of President Drew Faust's plan to join the corporate board of Staples, adding $300,000 of income to her salary and "other compensation" from Harvard, reported as $875,000. Does she have difficulty living on her income? Most Americans, and I daresay faculty members, would not. Does she have abundant free time to devote to the profit-making corporation? Does managing Harvard and its farflung enterprises, educational and otherwise, consume so little of her time? Does Harvard not buy office supplies, and is there not a conflict of interest?

Franklin Miller '67
Las Vegas

 

The Way to Travel

It was great seeing Steven Ujifusa's Vita on William Francis Gibbs and the SS United States (July-August). Instead of making a museum out of the ship, as nice as that would be, I would recommend putting her back into transatlantic service so that travelers can continue to enjoy what real travel is like: leaving relaxed, arriving relaxed, and, by having to adjust your watch only an hour a day, not having to suffer through jet lag.

I think this ship could make a major contribution to the world by getting people out of their jumbo jets and helping them understand the quieter graces of living just a bit more slowly.

Dan Adams '67
Fulton County, Pa.

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