Sunday, September 27, 2009

Heading home today

I've had a great trip, with Grandma and my other relatives very happy to see me (and vice versa - we don't see each other often). The weather for the first couple of days was abnormally cool for Texas at this time of year, although now we are back to a more seasonal high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This afternoon, though, I face the flight home. I don't mind flying itself, but I'm not a big fan of the hours spent scrunched up in a coach seat, or the security checks. Once again, I have failed to wear the ideal clothing for passing through US airport security - a t-shirt, sweatpants, and slippers. Instead, I insist on wearing pants with a belt, shoes with some kind of metal in them, a watch, and various stuff in my pockets, all of which need to be removed quickly and then put back on, hopefully without losing anything.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Off to Texas

I'm flying down to Texas today with my father to visit relatives. The main purpose of the trip is to visit my Grandmother (my father's mother), who turns 93 today. She is my last living grandparent, and also the one that I was closest to and knew the best while growing up. She lives in an assisted-living facility in a small town west of Waco, Texas, near where my aunt (my father's older sister) and uncle live. She is doing all right as far as I can tell, and she gets to see one of her children frequently, but I'm sure she will be thrilled to see my father and I, since she doesn't get to see anyone from our side of the family very often due to distance. When I was a kid growing up, she lived near Washington DC, in the same house that my father had grown up in, and we went down every summer for at least a week to visit her and my grandfather. I loved those family vacations - going to a bunch of different museums and tourist sites in Washington, digging through the huge volumes of old stuff in the basement (I especially remember my grandfather's stamp collection, the old 1950s stereo system with vacuum tubes, the big old TV that they bought the day that JFK was assassinated, and a 1950s vintage calculator or adding machine that must have weighed at least 15 pounds), and probably bugging Grandma half to death with all of my questions about the various junk and what life was like when my father was a kid and earlier. The only downsides were the intense heat and humidity of Washington, DC in the summer, and the 8-hour drive from Massachusetts to Maryland, which to a kid seemed as long as a major geological epoch.

In any case, I hope that Grandma will be happy to see us.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Computer quirk - unable to comment

I love it when I'm about to comment on someone else's blog and then I realize that due to some quirk in the computer or network, I can't comment on this person's blog on my home computer unless I fully signed out of blogger on my work computer, or vice versa. Well, I forgot to do that, and now I'm stuck not being able to comment because I am taking the next few days off from work for vacation. The weird thing is that there are only a couple of blogs that this happens on - it must have something to do with how they are set up, etc., etc. Computers for me are kind of like the weather was to everybody before modern science - mysterious, powerful forces that I can try to take advantage of, but that are ultimately beyond my control and can turn on me at any moment.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Head of state and head of government (2)

Finally getting around to part 2 here

So 2 posts back I explained how I think that the President of the United States being both the head of state and the head of government often makes it difficult to criticize a president too strongly without seeming like you are criticizing the country as a whole. Is this a serious flaw in the U.S. Constitution? Looking at it from a historical perspective, why did the a country with an almost paranoid fear of strong central government create an office that gave its holder such great power and prestige?

The historical background, Part 1 – The Chief Executive and the separation of powers

When the United States was first established, during and immediately after the War for Independence/Revolutionary war, the dominant political view was that no one elected official should have too much power or prestige. The way most revolutionaries saw it, their troubles were caused by a king in Britain who was trying to gain real political power as well as a ceremonial position, and a Prime Minister allied with the king, who could push through almost any law he wanted as long as he had the support of a majority in Parliament. They also remembered how in most colonies before the revolution, the governor had been appointed in London, and often worked to thwart the actions of the colonial assemblies, who were elected by the eligible voters among the colonists themselves. All of this was to be avoided like the plague, so the new state governments stripped their governors of much of their power, and made the state legislature the dominant branch of the government. Many states also had the governor reelected every year so that an unpopular governor could be voted out relatively quickly. The national government of the United States, under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, went further. This government had no executive branch at all - no president, no prime minister, no national governor, or any equivalent. There was a President of the Congress, but in practice he didn't really function as an executive, and he didn't have much more authority than other citizens. In a sense, the early U.S. government was one of the few in history that didn't really have any true head of state or head of government at all. That was fine with most Americans.

There were some problems with this system, however. The job of an executive branch is basically to enforce the laws that are passed by the legislative branch, and without any executive, the Congress that ran the US couldn't really enforce any laws that it passed. It pretty much had to rely on the goodwill of the state government to get anything done. Again, this was fine with most Americans - most people identified more with their state than with the country as a whole, and it was common to refer to neighboring states as if they were foreign countries. (The different states had very different local cultures, to a much greater degree than today.) As time went on, however, it became clear that this decentralized system had some drawbacks. Trade with and investment from other countries suffered because the nation had no stable national currency, and it was difficult to collect debts in states whose governments were favorable to debtors. Other states, by contrast, had governments dominated by the interests of wealthy creditors, which passed very tough laws demanding quick payment of debts using scarce coins, and which allowed quick foreclosure on farms and homes when the debts were not paid. This became bad enough to provoke an armed uprising in Massachusetts by farmers determined not to have their farms taken. Meanwhile, fighting with the natives on the frontiers depended on local and state militias of widely varying quality, because there was no national army to speak of once the Continental army was disbanded after peace with Britain. Different states had disputes about land boundaries and navigation rights along rivers, and the national government could only serve as a mediator if both sides were willing to allow it to play this role.

By 1787, enough influential people were concerned about these issues that they persuaded 12 out of the 13 state governments to send representatives to a meeting in Philadelphia to discuss ways to strengthen the central government. Instead of just modifying the existing government, however, the majority of these delegates decided to create an entirely new one. This meeting was the Constitutional Convention, and the document that it created was the Constitution that has been the foundation of the federal government of the United States for just about 220 years. It was this document that gave the United States a powerful president, who would be both the head of government and the head of state. The executive and the entire branch of the government serving under him* would be in charge of enforcing the laws passed by Congress, and defending the country from foreign threats in the capacity of Commander in Chief of the national government’s armed forces. In his capacity as head of state, he would also be in charge of negotiating with foreign nations.

Why the sudden reversal, from a weak or nonexistent executive branch to a strong one? First of all, most of the delegates who designed what became the Constitution of the United States had become convinced that the lack of a strong executive was one of the major problems with the national government and the state governments. Nobody wanted a king, but in their minds the new country had gone too far in the other direction. As they saw it, any national government that was going to be effective needed a fairly strong executive branch. If that meant having the same person be the head of government and head of state, then so be it.

The designers of the constitution were still concerned about having an overly powerful president, however. You didn’t need to be a brilliant political theorist to recognize that putting too much power in one person’s hands was a very bad idea if you wanted a republican government that wouldn’t intrude on the rights of its own citizens. So, they set strict limits on the President. The President had no power to pass any laws or raise any revenue – that was entirely in the hands of Congress. The President was commander in chief of the military, but only Congress could declare war, and Congress was in complete charge of funding the military, so they could presumably refuse to fund any conflict that the President got involved in without their permission. The President and his Secretary of State were in charge of foreign relations, but all of their agreements had to be approved by the Senate, and any funding for them had to be approved by the House of Representatives as well. Finally, a President who was really overstepping the limits could be impeached (indicted) by the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate, which would act as a jury and could remove him from office by a 2/3 vote if they believed that he was guilty.

Apart from the specific restrictions on the Presidency, however, there was a more fundamental innovation that would end up setting the United States government apart from that of Great Britain and Britain’s other colonies that eventually became independent nations. The legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the Presidency) were set up as completely separate branches of government, along with the Supreme Court, which formed a third judicial branch. Congress and the President would be chosen in two completely separate elections. (The President was, and is, chosen by an Electoral College, which would be elected by either the state legislatures or the people of the different states. The members of this Electoral College can NOT be members of Congress.) They would function independently of each other, performing different roles. It would be quite possible, even likely, for the President and the majority of members of Congress to disagree about important political issues. This was the basis for what became known as the “separation of powers” in the government of the United States.

This is completely different from how the British government, and still is, set up. In the British system, the executive branch of the government basically consists of the Prime Minister and a group of other ministers who are chosen by Parliament (more specifically, by the House of Commons, since the other part of Parliament, the House of Lords, is not elected and has had its power greatly reduced in the last 200 years). In practice, this means that the Prime Minister and other ministers usually come from the same political party and have similar political views to the majority of the Parliament. The Prime minister and other ministers are almost always members of Parliament (specifically the House of Commons) as well. The executive and legislative branches of the government in this system are very closely tied together. They function as two integrated parts of the same system, and when people vote for representatives in Parliament, they are effectively also voting for who they want as Prime Minister at the same time. There is no separation of powers between the two.

So, the Constitution that was proposed in 1787 combined the roles of head of state and head of government into a single chief executive, but at the same time it completely separated that executive from the national legislature, and surrounded the position with limitations. The men who signed the proposed Constitution apparently believed that these separations and restrictions were sufficient guarantee against the President becoming too powerful. Convincing the rest of the citizens of the United States was something else, however. Looking back, it seems inevitable that the Constitution of 1787 would be ratified, but in fact opposition to it was fierce. Each state saw its own battle between supporters and opponents of the new constitution, and one of the charges that the opponents brought against the document was that the office of President was much too powerful – as bad or worse as having a king. The supporters of the constitution gradually got the upper hand in most states, largely because they were simply better organized and more unified. The new Constitution was ratified by 1789, and the long history of the office of President of the United States began. Time would tell whether the theory of how the office was supposed to work matched the practice.

(To be continued later, again … this is taking much longer than I expected!)

*In the late 18th century it was taken for granted that like all elected officials and voters, the President would be a man. Fortunately, the original Constitution did not actually specify the male gender as part of the qualifications for President or any other federal office, so this did not need to be amended later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'll get to it

I'll eventually finish that long-winded post that I started about the President's role and head of state vs. head of government. I've been distracted by various other things, and I've blown what free time I had by participating in the ultimate in futile activities - arguing about politics on the internet.

I never learned to take my father's advice - be wary of arguments about religion and politics, because they are fundamentally emotional subjects rather than rational ones. Both religious believers and people with strong political views generally base their positions on articles of faith which they have accepted. It's not impossible to change somebody else's articles of faith, but it is usually a long and difficult process - not something likely to happen in a casual online argument!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Head of state and head of government (1)

It seems that a Republican representative interrupting Obama's speech last week with a shouted "You lie!" has pissed a lot of people off and sparked a lot of debate. Some of the debate is about the comment itself, but more of it revolves around the issue of whether a U.S. Representative or Senator should be able to argue with or heckle the president during an important address.

This debate involves issues of politics and public etiquette, but since I really like political history, there is one element of the debate that particularly interests me. I've seen a lot of people point out that in other countries (the United Kingdom/Britain and Canada being the most common examples), the Prime Minister will often face hostile questioning and heckling from their* political opponents, whereas in the U.S. the President almost never has to directly confront their political opponents face-to-face in public.

The basic reason for this is that the US government is set up in such a way that the President of the United States is both the head of state (the official "face" of a national government) and the head of government (the head of the executive branch of government and the single most powerful official in the government). This seems natural to people in the USA, but in quite a few governments, the head of state and head of government are two different people. In constitutional monarchies, like the United Kingdom and the several other nations who recognize the same sovereign, the Queen or King is the head of state, but has no political power. The head of government in constitutional monarchies is an elected official, usually a Prime Minister, who has more actual authority than any other official in the national government. Some nations that have no monarch still have a separate head of state and head of government. Germany, for example, has an elected President who is head of state but who has very limited real power. The head of government, on the other hand, is the chancellor. India has a similar arrangement, with an elected President who has much less real power than the Prime Minister, who is the head of government.

The position of head of state, whether it carries actual power or not, almost always has a special prestige that head of government does not have. The head of state is traditionally a symbol of their entire nation, the "public face" of not just the nation's government, but of the nation as a whole. To directly insult a head of state is often seen as insulting the entire nation.

The system of having a separate head of state and head of government has some advantages over a system like that in the United States where both positions are held by the same person. In a modern democratic society, the head of government is chosen by a specific political party or coalition of parties, and is often obliged to make controversial policy decisions that are certain to provoke intense criticism from their political opponents. In a country where the head of government is not also the head of state, the head of government has no special role as being the symbol or embodiment of the entire nation. The political opponents of the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom or Canada are free to criticize and condemn as much as they want, knowing that none of their criticism can be construed as an attack on the entire nation. The head of state, the person widely seen as the public face of the entire country, does not take any significant part in day-to-day political life, and rarely if ever expresses opinions on politically controversial issues.

In a system like that of the United States, on the other hand, where the head of state and head of government are the same person, the line between the two roles is very blurred. The President is both the symbol and public face of the nation as a whole, and an official elected with the support of a particular political party and allied interests, who is expected to work in support of a particular political agenda that by definition will be supported by some citizens and opposed, sometimes very strongly, by others. When a President's political opponents criticize or outright condemn the President's actions and political agenda as head of government, they may not intend to attack the President's symbolic role as head of state, but because the two roles are held by the same person, any attack or criticism will seem like an attack on both roles to many people. This is closely tied to partisan politics - people who are sympathetic to the President's political agenda or at least neutral are much more likely to see an attack on the President's politics as an attack on the President's role as symbol of the entire nation, while the President's opponents will draw a strong distinction between attacking the President's specific decisions and agenda and the "office of the Presidency", by which they usually mean the President's role as head of state. This applies to both sides of the political spectrum - nothing in U.S. politics is more predictable than that the President's political supporters will generally try to equate strong criticism with an unpatriotic attack on the basic institutions of the United States, while the President's political opponents will emphasize the importance of free and open political criticism, and that the roles will reverse when the Presidency is taken by a candidate from the opposing party.

Obviously, one can object that this is a clear double standard and that any reasonable person should be able to see right through partisan rhetoric and realize that criticism of a President's politics is completely different from a criticism of the United States itself. This is a valid objection, but in my humble opinion it badly overestimates most peoples' ability to completely ignore their own political beliefs. In my experience, what most people consider reasonable political criticism versus an attack on their country's basic institutions depends heavily on their political beliefs. Most people who have any political views whatsoever will tend to give people who share their views much greater leeway when it comes to criticism, while seeing criticism from the other side as being "disrespectful", "angry", "shrill", etc., unless it is expressed in a very mild form. In the case of a President of the United States, this means that most people will interpret anything but the most mild criticism of a President who shares their views as an attack on the President's position as head of state as well as head of government.

(Continued later)

*This isn't grammatically correct, of course, but I like to use "they", "them", and"their" as gender-neutral third person pronouns, because in my totally subjective judgment it just looks and sounds better than the clumsy "he or she", "his or hers", etc., and doesn't look as silly as terms like "hir".

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Organizational & Dusting Deficiency Syndrome

A quick glance around my living and working spaces seems to hint that I may not pay enough attention to organization. It also seems to imply that I do not dust often enough.

To check if you suffer from the same deficiencies as I do, answer the following questions truthfully:

1. Could your organizational system for mail and paperwork be accurately characterized as the "piles of paper on the floor" system?

2. Do certain corners of your bedroom and/or closets contain dust bunnies that are almost as large (though not as massive) as actual bunnies?

3. Does trying to find an old piece of mail resemble an archaeological dig ("Ah, here's level 2005 VII B, containing forgotten paperwork from the job I had at the time - but I'm looking for something from late 2007 or early 2008, so that would have been deposited in a higher layer')?

4. When you see someone's desk completely covered with piles of stuff, do you find this admirable and something to aspire to rather than appalling?

5. Do you occasionally experience paper landslides when a pile gets too tall and unstable?

6. Are you afraid to sneeze too close to your furniture and piled paper, because this would kick up a cloud of dust that would turn the one sneeze into an uncontrollable, convulsive series of at least 10 more sneezes?

If your answer to any of these questions is "Yes", then you may have an organizational and/or dusting deficiency. If your answer to ALL of the questions is "Yes", then you have pretty much the same problem that I do.