Sunday, September 20, 2009

Two Nations?

Two weeks ago I introduced the idea of splitting the United States into two distinct countries, and I provided data indicating that the southeastern states were, de facto, pretty much doing this already. These states generally score low on the Human Development Index, tax their residents at low rates compared to other states, and send conservative legislators to Congress, where they block progressive legislation backed by a majority of Americans (universal health care being just one current example).

So, the question arises, why not separate formally into two distinct countries, permitting both to treat their citizens in a manner consistent with their political philosophies? Then the people who want low (or zero) taxes could live in the south and dismantle their educational and social welfare systems, while those who have a better developed sense of social justice could live in the north and develop top quality schools, hospitals, and support networks, taxing themselves accordingly.

Yes, I know it's been tried before. But circumstances change. There is no danger now of a resurgence of overt slavery based on race. This time, the north would have no incentive to oppose succession; "good riddance" would be a more logical response.

Or would it? Aside from the obvious logistical and political problems, this country's massive dilemma is much too complicated for a geographical solution.

First, and probably least important, our states are not homogeneous. So-called red states contain pockets of blue voters, and vice-versa. Even if people wanted to move to their "country of choice," the process of leaving existing homes and jobs would be disruptive at best and completely impossible for many. You think it's tough being a liberal in Mississippi now? Wait until you're only 1% of the population and the Supreme Court rules that "free speech" no longer includes dissenting from popular views. (I can't help wondering: would the ACLU be permitted to exist in a "new south"?)

Secondly, this "solution" doesn't solve the long-range problems inherent in a world where isolation is neither desirable nor possible. Unless travel between the two countries was prohibited, contagious diseases could easily spill over the border. And atmospheric pollution knows no boundaries; if the planet warms up quickly due to complete deregulation of coal-fired utility plants in the south, fences along the Mason-Dixon line will not protect those who are willing to tax themselves to maintain a healthy planet.

Thirdly, how long would the north tolerate the extreme conditions that would probably develop in states controlled by reactionaries and the self-interested upper class unfettered by our current federal laws? Ethical standards occasionally result in international intervention (e.g. to prevent genocide and famine). Conditions might develop in the south that would eventually cause Civil War II -- and how unfortunate that would be!

Finally, I doubt that geographic separation provides the best model for the resolution of human differences. Regardless of political labels, liberals and conservatives don't agree even among themselves on everything. One imagines that substantive debates already do and would still occur in the cities of Berkely and Tuscaloosa. What are the residents going to do then -- move to the extreme eastern and western boundaries of the existing metropolis and declare that there are really two legally different cities? And the process of continuous fragmentation could continue indefinitely, as new issues would inevitably arise. Do we really want to see several million countries in the world?

No, let's not take that course of action. Let's move decisions to the lowest reasonable level of government, to allow individual enclaves to live in a manner of their choosing so long as the "externalities" (negative influences on surrounding people) are minimized. Let's facilitate better communication strategies among dissenting groups and encourage tolerance and compromise where possible. Oh, by the way, we probably also need to find a way to isolate politicians at ALL levels of government from the influence of wealthy self-interests. If decisions on health-care were made in 50 different political venues, drug company, insurance company, private sector hospital, and physician association lobbyists would be showing up in all of them, showering money on as many state legislators as necessary. (You say that already happens? Gee, we do have some intractable problems, don't we?)

I guess the National Football League won't have to change its name anytime soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Reading the New York Times

If you were expecting a continuation of last week's post -- well, that comes next week. I'm going to give my readers another opportunity to comment on my "Two Nation" solution to the political mess we find ourselves experiencing. (Surely such a radical notion conjures up a few thoughts -- even though I told you I didn't really believe it was the answer!)

So, today, you get to experience vicariously the enormous pleasure I got out of reading the New York Times a few Sundays ago. Herewith, the essay I wrote in early August, saving it just for this occasion:

Yes, it's expensive to subscribe to every day home delivery. But where else, in one edition of any publication, can you read about:

* the impact of economics professors on real-life American financial meltdowns;

* the arrest of a homeless man for being homeless while he sleeps in a shelter;

* the impact of special interests on what otherwise would be an effective cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions;

* the awakening of our defense department to the security threats posed by climate change;

* the questionable ethical behavior of former Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson during the economic turmoil of late 2008;

* the drug industry's plan to spend up to $150 million to run TV ads in support of health care change(wow, where did all that money come from? can you say "consumers"?);

* the demise of printed textbooks in favor of electronic delivery of sometimes-free content;

* the continuation of presidential signing statements;

* orthopedic problems associated with young baseball pitchers throwing too many fastballs; and

* President Obama's improvisational sense of humor?

Wait, there's more! Alberto Gonzales answers a question about his "ethical failings" by saying "All the inspector-general investigations, they're over now. They found that I had not engaged in any criminal wrongdoing." (Hmm, let me see -- is he equating unethical behavior with illegal behavior, or is he just evading the question? I report, you decide.) He follows up by saying, in response to a question about whether he has been offered a job with a law firm since le left government service, "I can understand why a company or a firm would want to make sure that the investigations are complete and there is no finding of wrongdoing before they make a hiring decision." And he's writing a book, publisher still to be identified. OK, I can relate to him on that last point.

Wait, there's STILL more! The word "fail" is becoming an adjective, as in "I'm so fail." (Is that somehow related to "Me bad"?) Human beings evolve, so does language. Who woulda thunk?

On Sunday, August 9, 2009, all this and more provided me with hours of enjoyment (not to mention the content for this blog post).

By the way, the New York Times actually has something in common with the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin -- neither is perfect. The photo of Sonia Sotomayor on page 1 of the Times, taking her oath of office as a Supreme Court Justice, says the accompanying article appears on page 12. It doesn't; it appears on page 10. (Does the Daily Bulletin make a few errors from time time? Don't get me started! Recently, a "reporter" kindly informed me that "entertaining entertainers" would be present at the Los Angeles County Fair.)

OK. I know you have 23 more blogs to read and 7 messages on your Facebook wall informing you what your friends had for dinner last night. So I'll end this here. But first, in the interest of full disclosure, I have no financial interest whatsoever in your subscribing to the New York Times! Do so only at peril of finding out what's really going on in the world.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Two-Nation Solution

Wait! Don't call the Department of Homeland Security just yet. I'm not really advocating the overthrow of the federal government, and certainly not by forceful means. However, I do think some of the following facts, figures, and analyses will trigger brain waves leading to an interesting and possibly even useful discussion.

Consider health care reform -- something most people in this country recognize as necessary in some form or another. In addition to the massive lobbying described in previous posts, the barrier to passage is simply this: too many "nays" in the U.S. Senate, where, for historical (not constitutional) reasons, a two-thirds vote seems to be required to pass almost anything of significance.

Also consider this: the following states are currently represented in the U.S. Senate by two Republicans: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Louisiana and North Carolina have one Republican and one Democratic Senator. (I exclude Florida in this entire analysis because, from a political standpoint, it's already two states; South Florida has the hallmarks of the northern states from which many of its residents migrated, and Northern Florida resembles its neighbors Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.)

Among the most southern states, only Arkansas is currently represented by two Democratic Senators. Since Republicans are generally more conservative and reluctant to support social programs (and to vote for the taxes that support them), it follows mathematically that if the states listed above were not part of the union, health care (and a lot more) would pass the Senate with great ease. Then the rest of us could have the kind of country we really want to live in. (OK, pardon the slight hyperbole, designed not to boil your blood but to stimulate your synapses.)

Arguably, we already have two countries -- we just don't call them that. According to "The Measure of America -- American Human Development Report 2008-2009," the south is by far the poorest performing region of the U.S. on ALL aspects of the Human Development Index (HDI) -- based on hard data measuring health, knowledge, and standard of living.

Here are the ten worst states, in order from the "bottom" -- Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Montana. Texas ranks 35th, and Georgia ranks 32nd -- higher than the others but still firmly ensconced in the bottom half.

Case in point: here are the worst fifteen states to be born in if you want a long life expectancy, from the "bottom" up: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, and Texas.

In homicides per 100,000 residents, in the year reported by this study, the U.S. average was 6. Here are the numbers for selected states: Louisiana, 13; Mississippi, 10; Alabama, 9; Georgia and South Carolina, 8; Texas and Arkansas, 7; Oklahoma, 6; Minnesota and Massachusetts, 3; and Maine, 1.

Is this state of affairs imposed by external factors on an unwilling population? Apparently not. According to the Tax Foundation, which uses data primarily from the U.S. Census Bureau, the states that tax their residents the least (taking into account sales, income, and property taxes) are, in order of increasing tax burden: Alaska (obviously a special case due to oil revenue); South Dakota, Mississippi; Tennessee, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Nevada (another special case due to the gaming industry), Montana, Alabama, South Carolina, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Putting Alaska aside, please note that 5 of the 12 remaining states listed also rank in the bottom ten of the HDI.

High tax states include New Jersey (rated 3rd from the top on the Human Development Index), New York (rated 7th), Connecticut (rated 1st), Maryland (rated 5th), Ohio (rated 31st), Vermont (rated 14th), Wisconsin (rated 19th), and Minnesota (rated 9th). (By the way, California taxes its residents at 26% above the national average and ranks 11th from the highest in terms of the HDI.)

Have I made my point? With some exceptions, the states that rank low on HDI tend to be low-taxing southern states, and apparently that's what the voters want, because they elect predominantly Republican U.S. Senators and governors. High-taxing states generally rank much higher on the Human Development Index.

So, let's just formalize what we already have and give those states that collectively want to spend money on health care, education, and general quality of life the opportunity to utilize their chosen federal government to enact such provisions legislatively. And the states that more or less don't care about such things and are unwilling to pay for them -- well, since they would probably not revert to slavery, let's send them on their merry way.

I will present some reasons next week, or the week after, why this is truly not only politically impossible but ineffective -- and possibly even counter-productive. However, in the meantime -- as always -- I welcome comments from my perspicacious and insightful readers. Why, or why do you not, feel that segmenting this already splintered and politically polarized country would be a good (or a bad) idea? And don't just say that it would become necessary to rename the National Football League.