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Scotland: Yes, No, and the House of Lords

September 18, 2014 2 comments

 

In addition to some Irish and German background, RT has a fair amount of Scottish blood in him, as witness his middle name, Chisholm. Such genealogical connections constitute the basis for his offering an opinion on Thursday’s looming vote concerning Scottish independence. He will admit upfront that he thinks that Scotland should remain a part of the United Kingdom, but a UK that is somewhat differently governed than at present.

RT will start by suggesting that the main source of political tension between the UK’s constituent counties is the preponderance of English population and resources. This is reflected in the House of Commons, where proportional representation results in 502 English members, 30 Welsh members, 52 Scottish members, and 17 members from Northern Ireland. For the record, here is the population differential behind Thursday’s vote: England has 53 million residents, Scotland, 5.3 million. Such disproportion might worry the most ardent of No voters.

The United States has famously dealt with this problem via its Senate, to which every state in our union elects two members. So what if Wyoming (pop. 580,000) has more cattle than people? This least populous state gets the same number of votes in the Senate that California, the most populous state in the country (at about 38 million residents), gets.

Which brings us to the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. As RT understands it, the House of Lords is a legislative body quite different from the U.S. Senate, though the Lords has been undergoing rapid change recently in its structure, functioning, and numbers. A quick check at Wikipedia reveals the following facts about the HoL: size–774 members; selection of members: members are peers, who have usually been selected for elevation by the Prime Minister (92 are hereditary peers); function: to debate and pass legislation, but with the proviso that any bill passed by the House of Commons can only be delayed from being presented for the Royal Assent for one calendar year, and if the bill concerns taxation or public funds, the Lords may only delay it for a month. The HoL also spends considerable time scrutinizing the government’s activities and expenses.

And for those, who like RT before this post, did not know what a peer might be, Wikipedia informs us that a peer is a member of the peerage, or British nobility.

Here is RT’s rough-and-ready proposal for reforming the British House of Lords. First of all, the
HoL will continue to embrace meritocracy, honoring and empowering those individuals and groups who have done much to serve society.

1) The HoL will comprise 480 members.

2) It will be divided into four quadrants, one for each constituent nation of the UK, giving us English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish quadrants. Each quadrant will consist of 120 members, all of them from the associated constituent nation.

3) Each quadrant will be divided into four segments, each segment consisting of 30 members and representing a particular area of human endeavor, namely a) government, business, and community activism; b) art, whether the fine arts or crafts; c) science and independent scholarship, and d) spiritual life and academia. Each member’s principal achievements must have taken place in their segment’s specialty.

4) The Prime Minister, in consultation with the monarch, will appoint HoL members for a term of 15 years. No member may be reappointed.

5) The HoL will continue its present duties, except for the following. Each quadrant may caucus separately when considering a bill. If at least 72 members of the quadrant (three-fifths) vote to reject the bill, then it will be returned to its originating house for reconsideration. If the bill is brought before the HoL again, and the quadrant once more rejects it, but the bill is passed by the house as a whole, then the bill’s previsions will not apply to the quadrant’s country.

6) An institution as steeped in history and tradition as the House of Lords is cannot be dismantled overnight without sending a shock-wave through society and sacrificing the (considerable) experience and wisdom of its current members. If the Scottish independence vote returns a “no,” however, it might be best to expedite at least the quadrant provisions. The three “junior” constituent countries need a more effective voice in the UK’s parliament.

Images: Upper: The Main Chamber of the Scottish Parliament; author, Martyn Gorman, geograph.org.uk. WikiCmns; CC BY-SA 2.0. Lower: Queen Victoria Seated on the Throne of the House of Lords, 1838. Author: George Hayter. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Bye, Bye, Gerrymander: Some Suggestions

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

1242px-113th_US_Congress_House_districts_color--WikiCC3.0

Mid-term elections are drawing near, and RT feels the need to talk about some of the election issues that are really important to the well-being of the United States and its election processes. Chief among these issues must be the redistricting process by which states draw congressional district boundaries. And actually, RT has some good news to report about this.

It turns out that a number of U.S. states (seven, to be precise) do not leave redistricting to their legislatures, but have turned them over to independent or bipartisan commissions. Who are these few and brave? Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington.  Three states, Florida, Iowa and Maine, give independent bodies authority to propose redistricting plans, but preserve the role of legislatures to approve them. Seven states, finally, have only a single representative for the entire state because of their low populations, and therefore do not need to redistrict; these are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Here’s the bad news: 34 U.S. states let their legislatures redraw the district maps that in no small part will determine who gets re-elected. Here are some of the results: in 2012, Democratic Party candidates received 1.2 million more votes than Republicans did in the federal election, but the Republicans won a 234 to 201 majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here’s another example of the effect of unfair redistricting. In California, a state which Democrats have long controlled, the redistricting system was so biased in favor of incumbents that out of 765 elections held in the state between 2001 and 2011, only 5 seats changed hands. (And please note, this appalling statistic helped inspire a reform of California’s redistricting process in 2008.)

Yes, the gerrymander is alive and well and living in the United States.

To be fair to redistricting commissions (and state legislatures trying to eliminate gerrymandering), it’s impossible to devise a system that will leave everyone feeling adequately represented. On the other hand, here are a few common-sense criteria that are often suggested for redistricting. Districts should:

1) contain approximately equal populations;

2) be contiguous and compact;

3) contain approximately equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans;

4) contain both urban and rural neighborhoods; and

5) ensure that the major cultural and racial communities in a district are equitably represented in municipal, state, and federal legislatures.

States should:

1) hand over responsibility for redistricting to an *independent* (i.e., no members from the state legislature) commission. In this regard, Iowa provides an excellent model of the process that should be adopted; and

2) monitor for and adjust the redistricting process in response to poor turnover rates between parties in electoral districts.

The goal here is to ensure elections that offer voters a real choice; this in turn should lead to competition of ideas, the equitable distribution of power, and the forging of compromises that resolve difficult disagreements.

Map: 113th U.S. House of Representatives Districts. WikiCmns; author: Mr. Matté; uploaded by Magog the Ogre. CC 3.0.

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Discoveries

September 6, 2014 Leave a comment

640px-Dust_bowl,_Texas_Panhandle,_TX_fsa.8b27276_edit--WikiPD-2

In his research for his mother’s memoirs and family history in general, RT has run across many amazing images. He offers one such discovery here, Dust Clouds and Car, by American photo-journalist Arthur Rothstein. It’s worth noting that RT’s mom was driven by her adoptive mother three times cross country from New York City to Lake Tahoe, starting in 1937. RT has yet to find an image that captures the dangers and mystery of the 1930s as effectively as this one does.

RT has also managed to watch Grand Hotel, a classic early Hollywood talkie. Another trick-up-his-sleeve: he has run across Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, one of the great surviving silent movies, and will be watching it in the next few days. Expect reviews of both films in these pages in the next week or so.

The 1930s and 40s are widely understood as an epochal period, and we’re very lucky to be able to experience these years through the best artistic efforts of the time.

Photo: Dust Clouds and Car, Texas Panhandle (1936). Arthur Rothstein, LOC. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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