December 2005
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Month December 2005

Book #59: Ken MacLeod, Learning the World

Ken MacLeod’s newest novel, “Learning the World : A Scientific Romance”, is an excellent novel of ideas, surpassing in my view his previous “Newton’s Wake” and approaching the stimulation offered by the Fall Revolution series. I won’t give away the plot because it’s relatively new, but the story delves into the surprises possible in contact situations between disparate intelligent species. The novel can also be read, I believe, on a deeper level as commenting on the possibilities inherent in the competition and cooperation between political and social systems, and in particular the role that our preconceptions and expectations play in creating the “reality” against which we react. MacLeod continues to be one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors, capable of painting a fairly detailed, realistic, and comprehensive picture of social and economic relations without resorting to explicit narrative exposition. His latest is well worth attention if you enjoyed his previous work, or the work of “related” authors like Charles Stross or (in a strange way) Cory Doctorow.

Book #58: Robert Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution?

Reading Robert Dahl on democracy and political science is always a pleasure. I first encountered him while taking an upper-division course at the University of Washington in the spring of 1985 called “American Democracy.” We encountered his description of the American political system as “polyarchal democracy” and it stuck with me. At intervals over the last 20 years, I’ve gone back and read many of Dahl’s books, including his fairly recent “How Democratic is the American Constitution? Second Edition”. The latter seems to be aimed at a more popular audience than many of his other books, although there is still much of interest to serious students of the American constitutional system.

Dahl answers the title question by surveying the various departures from “fair” representation present in our constitutional system, by analysis of the pragmatic tradeoffs made by the Framers and Federalists, and through comparison with more recent democratic constitutional systems worldwide. The list of problems should come as no surprise to anyone: amending the Constitution through Article V requires a super-human effort today, with a tiny portion of the population able to exercise effective veto over the amendment process, the Senate provides drastically unequal representation on a effective-votes-per-person basis to small states, and the electoral college gives similar weight to small state voters in electing the Presidency.

In focusing on these issues as the yardstick of whether our Constitution is “democratic,” Dahl centers his analysis of the “quality” of democracy around adherence to the one-person-one-vote principle. In using this principle, Dahl is (somewhat explicitly) dismissing any claims that states (as holistic entities) may have for representation of state-level interests in the federal system. To be clear, Dahl is not denigrating the structural principle of federalism, insofar as it serves the role of providing local self-government, separation of powers, and division of responsibilities, but he is saying that “state’s aren’t people, and don’t deserve representation – only people do.” Whether this is a controversial working definition of democracy or not, Dahl does use this principle to point out the quantitative effects of unequal representation in the Senate and electoral college, and one is left fairly convinced that regardless of one’s stance regarding “liberal” versus “conservative” policies, democratic self-government in this country would be better served if it were possible to reform the Senate and Electoral College.

The latter part of the book is given over to an evaluation of the reform possibilities for these shortcomings. Dahl is not at all optimistic about reforming unequal representation in the Senate; doing so via the Article V process requires the highest bar of all — unanimity among all 50 states, since Article V guarantees that no state’s representation in the Senate shall be altered without the permission of that state. And the prospects of amendment to improve the democratic character of our government flow from there — unequal Senate representation will make it exceedingly difficult to reform the Electoral College and institute direct popular election of the Presidency, or to ensure that one-person-one-vote is more than a formal principle, but is the way our electoral system works in practice. Thus, Dahl recommends focusing on simpler electoral reforms, achievable without Senate super-majorities. States have the power to choose Presidential electors via their own internal rules, as well as set rules for Congressional elections. This means that state-level, or national (but not Congressional) campaigns to reform winner-takes-all voting in favor of instant runoff elections and the splitting of electoral votes according to the strict popular vote count (e.g., Maine) could be effective ways to begin serious democratic reform.

Dahl’s book is refreshing after reading immense amounts of constitutional law, focusing as it does on what citizens can do to reform elected officials, rather than reform-through-litigation strategies that center on the Supreme Court. Dahl is sobering but inspiring, and well worth reading regardless of your level of previous exposure to the issues or arguments.

Movin’ on…

Well, I’m going back to work on Monday, after 10 weeks of break between jobs. The new job is at Microsoft, where I’ll be something called a “Group Program Manager” working on data center management products. I’ll talk more about this when it’s clear what is public knowledge and what isn’t, so for now there isn’t much to say — other than the fact that I’m excited about the opportunity and technologies I’ll be working with.

Time off has been good, but of course it’s always better when you get to plan when and how to be off work, and not have events simply thrust it upon you. I have used the time to get plenty of exercise (it’s been a fairly nice fall), work in the kitchen quite a bit, and read a great deal. The latter isn’t yet reflected here in postings, but I’d finished book #48 when we shut down Network Clarity, and I’m just finishing up book #62 this weekend. This means I have yet to post on books #57-62, but I have a whole slew of drafts pending in Ecto and some notes will appear shortly.

Things have been quiet in November and December on Progressive Commons — we apologize for that but everyone has been busy with work and personal issues. I’m sure our writing will pick up again fairly soon.

Book #57: James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State

James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St)” was a book I’d been meaning to read ever since first encountering the reference in Jacob T. Levy’s paper, Liberalism’s Divide After Socialism, And Before. Scott’s mission is to examine the processes by which “certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed,” from large-scale interventions in forestry and agriculture to forced population resettlement in Africa and the early Soviet Union. His point, broadly speaking, is that large-scale plans to “remake” societies, of the type associated with authoritarian applications of “high modernist” thinking, tend to oversimplify ecological, economic, and social relationships and thus frequently lead to disaster. In fact, disaster becomes nearly certain when authoritarianism and/or previous erosion of civil society give governments the ability to treat social structures almost as “blank slates.”

Scott is careful not to restrict his argument only to centralized, bureaucratic, or authoritarian schemes for societal “improvement.” Clearly, the same oversimplifications can exist — and in fact, are rampant — within market economies. As the “scale and scope” (to use Chandler’s apt phrase) of corporate activity grows, oversimplification of local conditions, needs, and idiosyncrasies are inevitable and essential for manageability (what Scott refers to as making complexity “legible”). When this occurs, centralized planning can lead to social, economic, and ecological failures, of the kind we see around us.

His solution is to recover “metis” — a Greek term referring to local knowledge and learned skill, and balance our globalizing, centralizing, rationalizing impulse with a recognition of the importance of local adaptation, diversity, and fluidity. In this, Scott reveals himself a follower of Jane Jacobs’s style of urban planning, rather than Corbusier, and if asked I’m sure he would resonate strongly with Wendell Berry on agriculture. Naturally, I’m not doing Scott’s argument justice, but the balance between the “rationalizing” impulse of Enlightenment thought and sympathy with diversity, local knowledge, local decisionmaking is a balance we have yet to properly work out — in our economics, in our ecology, in our politics. As Levy notes in the aforementioned paper, this balance is the tension at the core of early versions of liberalism, not our current arguments over welfare versus market versions of liberal political economy. Such a balance is also at the core of the endless tension in American constitutional history between nationalism and meaningful federalism, local control versus national uniformity. And in evolutionary theory, diversity and local adaptation are frequent and natural outcomes of selective processes. Scott’s book stimulated much thinking on the interconnections between all of these areas for me, and a book which can stimulate so many diverse connections deserves high praise.

Books #55 and #56: Akhil Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography and Gerald Durrell, A Zoo In My Luggage

I don’t have much to say about Durrell’s “A Zoo in My Luggage”, other than to note that it was good fun and relaxing Thanksgiving weekend reading. Basically, a “snack book”: readable in an afternoon while it’s raining out.

Much of my reading time lately has been devoted to Akhil Reed Amar’s “America’s Constitution : A Biography”, an amazing work which analyzes the Constitution and amendments section-by-section, discussing the historical origins, political arguments surrounding, and subsequent change in each provision and rule. Unlike most treatises on American constitutional law, Amar’s book focuses little attention on Supreme Court decisions or the arguments of legal theorists, instead focusing on the text and events surrounding it. To some extent, this makes the outlook “textualist,” but this does not equate necessarily to “originalist” or other modern argumentative stance.

Amar’s conclusions are perhaps a bit unorthodox but are well supported by his historical analysis. Amar portrays the Founder’s constitution (i.e., the Philadelphia text plus the first twelve amendments) as more democratic and populist than usually described, but also more intentionally accomodating of slavery than we’d like to admit in retrospect. Some of Amar’s foci in the book are fairly unique: the first chapter spends 50+ pages on the Preamble, which is rarely remarked upon today in either court cases or by scholars. Amar notes that while we tend to view the Preamble today in much the same was as a book’s introduction, or worse, a publisher’s jacket blurb, the Founding generation tended to treat the Preamble as a substantive part of the document. The Marshall Court draws upon the Preamble in Marbury, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, and McCullough, all cornerstone cases in American constitutional law. Amar’s reading of the Preamble (and Article VII) is that the “Philadelphia” Constitution begins and ends with expressions of democracy and popular sovereignty, centering sovereign power in the “people” rather than the government itself and creating the rules for “ordaining and establishing” self-government. This is, in many ways, the most stirring contribution Amar makes in the book, but it’s certainly not the only one.

His non-economic reading of the Commerce Clause deserves discussion among scholars, providing as it does an antidote to the current narrow discussions which seem to revolve around specific conceptions of economic activity. And his discussion of the Article III courts and their relative roles through time definitely points to a more complex picture surrounding the question of judicial review than many would like to admit.

In summary, Amar’s book stimulates a great deal of rethinking and is well worth reading for anyone interested in getting beyond the current stereotypical arguments between “liberal” and “conservative” views of constitutional law. Our development as a people and nation is far richer than those categories and our current disputes are capable of encompassing, and it’s important to remember that.