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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Letters (expanded)

September-October 2012

Editor's note: The three articles on American governance in the July-August issue—"A Radical Fix for the Republic," by Jonathan Shaw, on law professor Lawrence Lessig's proposal for a constitutional convention; "The Case for Compromise," excerpted from a new book by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson; and Harvard Kennedy School professor Alexander Keyssar's Forum, "Voter Suppression Returns"—elicited wide and lively comment. Beyond the representative sample of letters printed in the September-October issue, we share these additional reader comments in the interest of stimulating conversation and debate.

 

Compromise Confounded

Thanks for the article on compromise (The Case for Compromise, July-August, page 24), but unfortunately the authors relied heavily on two examples, tax reform and healthcare, which involve so many competing principles and unresolved issues that they do not lend themselves to definitive analysis. The jury will be out on these issues for many years to come. 

I offer a few simpler examples, which illustrate cases where compromise is possible, but not necessarily desirable or constructive:

  1. The American Revolution: What was the appropriate compromise for the Americans, and was it appropriate for them to engage in "polarizing" behavior?
  2. Slavery: Our founders compromised many times on slavery, and almost destroyed the country, and did great damage from which we have not yet recovered.
  3. The Hunger Games analogy: How should Katniss Everdeen avoid "polarization" and seek compromise with the government?
  4. Gay marriage: How should we go about "compromising" on gay marriage? 

In order to approach compromise, one needs to examine the principles of the parties involved. If I am hospitalized with a national debt—correction—body temperature of 105 degrees and rising, and the doctors view that as normal, it is difficult to compromise and agree on a course of treatment. 

John W. N. Hickey, S.M. '74
Gaithersburg, Md.

Constitutional Conundrums

The "prisoner's dilemma" from game theory illustrates how two rational, informed individuals can reach an irrational outcome. Understanding this dynamic might lead to a partial solution to Lawrence Lessig's "economy of influence" ("A Radical Fix for the Republic," July-August, page 21).

Consider the farm bill that is winding its way through Congress with bipartisan support. This legislation is supported by well-entrenched special interests, and it would be surprising if both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney did not see the bill as wasteful. Will President Obama, however, dare veto the bill and incur the wrath of those who will benefit from its provisions? That might cost him the election. Will Romney object to the bill? Probably not, for the same reason. The result is that the public will pay for this trillion-dollar boondoggle.

What would happen, however, if Romney and Obama agreed that each of them would oppose the bill unless certain provisions were removed? Neither candidate would have to worry about the other one taking advantage of his "doing or saying the right thing." The same approach might also be taken on other issues where is there common ground, providing the executive branch with a counterweight to those who have so much power over Congress.

Howard Landis, M.B.A. '78
New Canaan, Conn.

 

 

Lessig is right in seeking a change in the Constitution to counteract the power of money in American politics. However, to get there, I believe that we need to start by focusing on another goal: discrediting the possession of money as a source of privilege. By analogy, we did not make racial discrimination illegal until after racial discrimination had first become socially unacceptable among a wide range of people. 

Today, most people believe that those who possess wealth are entitled to privileges not possessed by others. Certain forces in society have promoted this message, for example by characterizing the possessors of wealth as "job creators." This promotion has been so successful that, for example, in a recent poll, a majority of people with incomes under $50,000 per year expressed support for continuing tax cuts for individuals with incomes of $250,000 or more.

Among the privileges that go with wealth is political influence. However, there are other privileges. Taking Harvard as an example, the University was named in honor of a donor, and there are numerous buildings, scholarships, and chairs that bear the names of donors. While this recognition is not accorded to the mere possession of wealth, the possession of wealth is a prerequisite to the recognition. 

In short, most Americans now see the possession of wealth as being something that entitles its possessors to have things the non-wealthy cannot have. Political influence, applied through political contributions, is one of the perquisites of wealth. In order to change the role of money in politics, we will need to develop a new social consensus that money should not entitle its possessors to political influence.

Santiago Leon '66
Miami

 

In the case of the healthcare bill just adjudicated by the Supreme Court, I find the word "compromise" totally out of place. From the onset of discussion there has been a singular lack of interest in any compromise. The grand idea of affordable healthcare for all sank quickly into the dystopian mess we are now dealing with.

Ideas that all sides paid lip service to—such as "tort reform," allowing purchase of policies across state lines, and medical-savings accounts—were quickly dismissed as soon as Max Baucus and Nancy Pelosi went behind closed doors. No Democrat, and surely no Republican, had the slightest idea which elements were in or out of the proposed legislation. As Pelosi famously said, "We need to pass the bill to find out what is in it."

Senators were bribed by inclusion of special favors to vote for the bill no matter how distasteful they found it. With the loss [of a Democratic Senate seat] to Scott Brown, something called "reconciliation" was dredged up to get final passage in the Senate.

This bill is nothing we can be proud of and surely not as a case of "compromise." On November 6, the people will render their verdict. Oral arguments have just begun.

Gerard J. Cassedy Jr. '61
Saint Augustine, Fla.

 

Lessig suggests a constitutional convention to remedy a real political problem—the influence of money in politics. However, espousing any sort of convention at this time is a dangerous idea because it would not be viewed in a vacuum. The initiation of the procedure would likely encourage other attempts at amendment with respect to such currently debated subjects as religion, free speech, privacy, voting rights, immigration, etc. Let's leave the Constitution as infrequently amended as possible.

Richard Borgeson, J.D. '69
Katonah, N.Y. 

 

If I had been marking up the Gutmann-Thompson article as a term paper, the margins would have been filled with comments like "Really?" "Explain," "Example?" and the all-too-frequent "Repetitive." My doubts would have been raised at the end of the very first sentence: "…but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible." Of course, that is not always true of parliamentarian systems. It is our U.S. Constitution that makes it difficult, without broad agreement, to bring about "institutional change in the public interest." This is a loaded term in any case. Who's to say that not passing a piece of major legislation is not in the public interest? If the authors were being truly open, they could cite many instances where referendums, appointments, and legislation they viewed as undesirable had been blocked by uncompromising opposition.

Ben Dunham '66
Marion, Mass.

 

 

It is certainly true that many "Americans who don't have enough money to buy access to Congress believe their participation in their democracy doesn't count for much…[and]…will choose to do something else, such as make a rational choice to play with their children instead." There is, however, an even more serious reason for this often rational belief and possible choice: many Americans know that their vote will be swamped by the committed majority.

New Zealand has come up with a sensible and inexpensive solution to this problem (it makes a habit of doing so in many areas). When a Kiwi votes in an election for the House of Representatives, he or she casts two votes: one for the individual member and one for the party. About half of the seats are filled based on the first, constituency, votes. The remainder are then allocated to bring the total representation into line with the party preference reflected in the second votes. NZ allows an increase in the total number of representatives if necessary, but that would clearly not be possible here.

This would not entirely solve Lessig's problem, but at least it would dilute the influence of big money by reducing the incentive to concentrate campaign funds on a limited number of districts. It would solve other problems, too, such as the dilemma of a committed Labour voter in Churchill's constituency after the war who did not want to vote against Winston but believed in Labour's policies. Its main virtue, I suggest, is that it could be done on a state-by-state basis and might not, in most states, require constitutional change.

In presidential elections, the solution to avoiding concentration of money on the "swing states" is already in place in a couple of states: allocating delegates in proportion to the popular vote, instead of winner-take-all. Here, too, the influence of big money would not be eliminated but it would be diluted.

Brian A. Jones
Consulting actuary
Brooklyn 

 

 

Lessig is right that American democracy is increasingly dysfunctional—that "Congress has been 'corrupted' by its members' dependence on money from lobbyists to fund their reelection campaigns." 

The problem is circumstance and timeCircumstance is the vulnerability of elected officials because of the urgent desire to be reelected. They must raise increasingly large sums of money in order to beat moneyed rivals. And representatives must bring home the "pork" by way of federal money and projects to appease their constituents and be reelected every two years. This is not a recipe for fiscal wisdom and restraint; this is not a recipe for long-term perspective and statesmanship. Time has to do with the inevitable tendency of elected officials to become beholden over time to special-interest campaign contributors.

These problems could be mitigated by erecting constitutional parameters such as apply to the president, who may hold office for a maximum of two four-year terms. The president, during a second term, neither has to raise money nor campaign for reelection and is much more free to be statesmanlike and far-sighted in relationships, decisions, and actions. Similar parameters would apply to representatives, who would be limited to two four-year terms, and to senators, who would be limited to two six-year terms.

America would then no longer so much have reelection-driven career politicians on whom are imposed short-term perspectives and compromising relationships, but elected officials who would have more incentive and freedom to act with integrity—to do right things for right reasons. At any point, only half of the Congress would be running for reelection.

And all federally elected officials should be banned for seven years from lobbying jobs.

Campaign-finance laws, which are burdened with First Amendment free-speech implications, serve at best to suppress the problem, inevitably allowing it to mutate and reappear in other forms.

Marvin R. VanDam, M.B.A. '68
Salt Lake City

 

Who Votes?

Keyssar believes requiring a valid photo identification is voter suppression ("Voter Suppression Returns," July-August, page 28). We agree that laws designed to suppress voter participation are wrong. I disagree with him that requiring a valid photo ID is voter suppression. It is also wrong when our voting systems allow for a person not domiciled in a district to vote there. Requiring a voter to present a photo ID, i.e. driver's license, showing the domicile address does not seem unreasonable.

Photo ID for voting is particularly important here in New Hampshire, because election law permits same-day registration, a system vulnerable to voter fraud.

Let me share my personal experience with voter fraud. I won a seat in the New Hampshire legislature in 2002. In my first term I sponsored a school-voucher bill that was vigorously opposed by anti-voucher forces. We lost by a vote of 171 to 172. In my run for a second term, I was defeated by 30 votes. After the election, I discovered there were at least 150 votes cast by people who were not domiciled in Dover and who shouldn't have been provided a ballot. We discovered this by sending first-class letters to those who voted for the first time. Over 150 of those letters were returned to me from the post office stamped as undeliverable with notations: "No such person at this address," "No such street," "No such street number."

New Hampshire has a new voter ID law designed to combat this problem. The law requires a new voter to present a photo ID when registering. If that person has no photo ID, they are required to sign under perjury that he or she is domiciled in Dover.

It is hard to imagine on what grounds any person would object to these safeguards.  

David Scott '51, M.B.A. '53
Dover, N.H.

 

 

I work with immigrant populations in my day job, defending noncitizens against deportation before the Immigration Court. Many noncitizens are unable to marry for the same reason that many citizens face disenfranchisement: lack of valid government-issued identification (see "When Having Babies Beats Marriage," July-August, page 11). Most county clerks require presentation of a valid ID document, such as a driver's license or an unexpired passport, before they will issue a marriage license. While there may be legitimate reasons for asking those applying for a marriage license to prove their identity, the requirement ends up barring those lacking valid ID from marriage. I remember a Russian client whose passport had expired, frantically searching for a county clerk in the tri-state area who would give her and her U.S. citizen fiancé a marriage license. Allowing access to marriage for those lacking a valid ID document (perhaps a friend could vouch for the identity of the couple) would go a long way toward helping poor couples to marry. 

 Judy Resnick, J.D. '90
Far Rockaway, N.Y. 

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You Might Also Like:

At Harvard African Students Association’s Africa Night (from left): Tom Osborn ’20 of Kenya; Joshua Benjamin ’21, of Phoenix, Arizona (whose ancestors are Angolan but were first brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late seventeenth century); Tawanda Mulalu ’20 of Botswana; and Mfundo Radebe ’20 of South Africa

Photograph by Christabel Narh

Harvard through an African filter