Sarah Palin: Bring Back the Bucket of Warm Piss


Although he was a Democrat, John Nance Garner has become the patron saint of Republican Vice-Presidents.  Garner, who served as Vice-President from 1933 to 1941, referred to the exalted office to which he was elected as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”  Republicans have made that phrase their mantra, nominating such gems as William Miller, Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and now the eminently qualified Ms. Palin.

They haven’t done it consistently.  In between were people who were actually qualified for the office — Richard Nixon, George Bush, and Jack Kemp. And of course Dick Cheney, the stealth Veep, who is in a class by himself, having installed himself as Caudillo of a shadow government, all under the constitutional radar.

The selection of Sarah Palin by the Republicans is only the latest bit of evidence that the office of Vice-President in modern times has been useful only as a political device and as proof that our electoral mechanism has descended to a level somewhere between a soap opera and a joke.

The modern Vice-Presidency originated in 1800 with the passage of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, requiring candidates to run separately for each office.  Its purpose was to correct the results of the 1800 election, in which two eminently qualified candidates, Jefferson and Burr, ran for President and received equal numbers of electoral votes despite their political antagonism; only a vote of Congress made Jefferson President and Burr Vice-President.

In our time, we would be lucky to have a Vice-President truly considered by the public to be qualified to step into the Presidency.  Instead, we are forced to vote for two people, one of whom is a comparative unknown and may turn out to be either a nonentity or an uncrowned monarch.

Yes, we ought to abolish the Electoral College and bring government “by the people” to the highest offices in the land. And we ought to restore the role of Congress in the constitutional system — not just by electing strong personalities, but by institutionalizing Congress as the body that initiates legislation, declares war, and ratifies treaties (and by reminding the President that his job is to execute the laws Congress has enacted).

But we ought to go beyond that and reconsider why we have a Vice-President at all, and to what purpose. The job description is simple:  come to the office every day, go to the Senate to break tie votes, and take office as President when the President dies or resigns.  None of these are critical to the welfare of the nation.  And the Cheney example is clear:  we don’t need an unvetted loose cannon running policy inside the Pentagon, planning wars and domestic detention camps.

It no longer takes months for news of the President’s death to spread to remote regions of the Republic.  The line of succession can be filled by appointed officials (as happened when Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller were nominated by the President and confirmed by Congress). And the Senate doesn’t need a presiding officer who also has an office in the White House — if we really need a tiebreaker in the Senate, let’s give the District of Columbia one Senator and have a full-time tiebreaker working on the floor of the Senate.

If we must have a Vice-President, we ought to consider repealing the Twelfth Amendment and awarding the runner-up the second prize.  Contrary to Jefferson’s fears, the potential conflict between the two offices could work to the nation’s advantage, and the effect it would have on third party candidates would make our elections truly interesting.  After all, there really would be something to gain by coming in second.

Want to make things even more interesting?  Instead of awarding the Vice-Presidency to the runner-up, stagger elections so that the Vice-President is elected two years after the President.  The Vice-Presidential elections would be a referendum on the Presidency and the lame-duck period would be reduced from four years to two.

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Open letter to Ben Stein on Subprime Lenders


Dear Mr. Stein,

I find your articles and TV appearances enlightening, but I felt impelled to write in response to your Sunday article on subprime loans.  I’m not an economist (although I majored in it) or a particularly successful investor, but I am a real estate lawyer and know something about these transactions at the micro level.

You are right that some borrowers lie or come close to it in their mortgage applications, and you are right to look at the micro side of these loans (which few commentators do).  I believe, however, that the source of the problem is elsewhere.

I have seen plenty of transactions in which immigrants with low-wage jobs and virtually no English language skills went to shady mortgage brokers who tried to put them into zero-down loans, often with success.  These folks enjoyed the American dream of homeownership only until housing prices took a dive.  Since my old-fashioned view is that “ownership” includes the ability to sell the property, I think they ceased to be property owners at that point; instead they became prisoners unable to move or refinance without going bankrupt. They would have been better off renting.

It should be pointed out that most home buyers see a lawyer, if at all, only after they have applied for a loan and committed to that lender.  By the time they have signed a purchase agreement, the only way to get out of the loan is to give up the purchase, and psychologically that is unlikely to occur.  No one wants to hear bad news in legalese when they have already picked out the new wallpaper.

I don’t think any of these transactions would have occurred under the ancien regime you and I remember, when mortgage applications were taken by neighborhood bankers who knew the local market and usually held the loans in their portfolio.  Those banks still exist and are generally doing quite well.  The bank typically lent no more than 80% of appraised value, so the security was practically airtight.  The bank regulators looked at their loan portfolios and cash reserves, and were happy.

With the advent of national lenders funneling money through unregulated mortgage brokers (who have practically no capitalization of their own), the lying began.  Although the lenders require documentation, it’s harder to verify every piece of paper that comes in.  In a rising housing market, the default rate is low even when the loan shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

This is exacerbated by zero-down loans, by variable interest rates and by negative-amortization balloon notes, which make no economic sense unless the borrower is still employed after 5 years and sells or refinances — otherwise the loan balance may exceed the value of the home.

Then we saw the advent of mortgage-backed securities.  This meant that the lender packaged a large number of loans, vouched for the documentation, and sold them in shares to big investors — first domestic, then foreign.  Whatever expertise Countrywide or Wells Fargo has in evaluating mortgages is entirely lacking at the investment desk of Goldman Sachs or Deutsche Bank.  These mortgages have turned into securities and are evaluated by securities standards.  Technically, the investors have recourse against the original lender if the underwriting was bad, but I doubt that happens often; proving it would cost more than it is worth.

I think we’ve made a big mistake in allowing the risk of mortgage lending to be displaced so far from the source.  Home mortgages issued by tiny brokers are being traded as though they were bonds issued by SEC-regulated corporations.  Essentially, Joe Homeowner is issuing a bond to Deutsche Bank without providing the audited financials that Moody’s would require of any other issuer.

We’ve also made a mistake in letting dubious loan products into the marketplace.  This turns the home from a place of security into collateral exchanged for casino chips.  The homeowner bets the house, literally, on rising home prices.

It’s true that homeowners go along with this in the sense that most of them consciously understand most of the essential terms.  But in practice they are relying on the lender and on the real estate brokers to validate the transaction by telling them the house is worth what they are paying and is a good investment.  The off-the-record assurances they often get from these sources would not be tolerated in an SEC-regulated investment broker.  Some of the big real estate firms now have affiliated mortgage operations which have an incentive not to upset the sale by declining a mortgage.  To me, this looks awfully similar to a stockbroker encouraging his clients to borrow on margin, and we know how that turned out in 1929.

The other mistake we have made is in writing the ideal of homeownership into the tax code.  Allowing an unlimited deduction for mortgage interest makes homeowners seem like winners and renters seem like losers.  Historically, this has been a good social policy — if you like social policy in the tax code — but it is becoming less so. People move more often because the job market moves, because they have children, and because they retire.  The transaction cost of each move is substantial — more so for homeowners because they pay sales commissions, attorney’s fees, settlement costs and sometimes prepayment penalties.

The tax code also encourages frequent turnover by limiting the capital gain exclusion to $250,000 or $500,000.  Once the home has appreciated by more than that amount, the homeowner must sell and move somewhere else or lose the tax break.

I can’t prove it, but I’d guess that these frequent sales contributed to the enormous rise in home prices over the past few decades.  In the 1930s, despite increases in personal net worth, home prices stayed about the same and many small homes were bought for cash. Eventually, prices reach a level that working people with decent jobs can’t afford — perhaps that time has come, perhaps not, but it will. At that point the tax code serves to reward the older generation and punish the younger.

My long-term solution, which will not be embraced by anyone in Washington, is to limit the mortgage interest deduction to approximately the amount needed to service a loan of, say, $300,000. I’d say the capital gain exclusion should be replaced by a provision allowing the fortunate homeowner to report the gain over the same period in which the gain was accrued, or by adjusting the cost basis of the home for inflation before taxing the gain.

Sad to say, I cannot help thinking that the risk to homeowners of bad loan products should be mitigated by government regulation forbidding their use.  Borrowers just aren’t savvy enough to know what they are getting into, any more than the small investors of 1928 knew what margin calls could do to them.  Our social policy should go from homeownership for all to homeownership for those who have saved enough for a decent down payment.

For low-income subprime borrowers who are caught between declining home prices and the increasingly strict rules of the Bankruptcy Code, I think the government should become the lender of last resort — on carefully defined terms.  There are now small subsidy programs in existence whereby first-time buyers can qualify for lower-interest loans on a shared-equity basis — if they sell the home within 5 or 10 years, 20% of the appreciation goes back to the local agency that provided the loan.  The same principle can be applied to subprime borrowers caught in a squeeze; in exchange for refinancing, they can be asked to make the government-funded lender a 20% partner in the property.

I’m sure these proposals appeal more to me as a social liberal than to you, but for me the bottom line is that foreign investors can absorb the risks inherent in the products they bought and sold, but people with no assets other than their homes cannot.  And as a nation we cannot afford an epidemic of mortgage defaults with millions of people banging on the door of the Bankruptcy Court — even if they were a little overoptimistic in buying their homes.  We need to start getting serious about the savings rate, and doing so in a way that does not shock the system by changing the rules all at once.

Romney’s “Faith in America”


It surprises me that commentators have not focused on an astounding passage in Mitt Romney’s speech on religion: “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” On the contrary, freedom requires nothing more nor less than freedom — the freedom to believe as one chooses, or not to believe as one chooses.

Freedom does not require religion. The Founders, many of whom were secularists by today’s standards, were publicly indifferent to religion, referring only to the vague comforts of a “divine Providence” and scrupulously avoiding parading their religious beliefs in public discourse. In fact the Founders were urban, cosmopolitan and rational, entirely opposed to the rural fundamentalists of that time who called their movement the “Great Awakening.”

When Mr. Romney says that no one should be elected President because of his faith, or rejected because of it, he is simply being hypocritical. Mr. Romney seems to want to have it both ways — to get credit for his religious faith but to keep the specifics of his creed out of bounds. His real point seems to be not that there should be no religious test for public office, but rather that the bar should be set so that he can pass it.

Public morality — a basic respect for others, for the environment, for truth, and for the law — can arise from many sources, not just from religion. A candidate’s commitment to this public morality should be ascertained by reference to his deeds, not the particular pieties to which he adheres. Indeed, religion has often served to divert attention from the candidate’s lack of public morality. Campaigning on the basis of faith opens the door to voting on the basis of the popularity of the candidate’s religion and the height of the stack of Bibles on which he swears the oath of office.

If a candidate wants his faith or that of his opponents not to be a factor in the election, he should not discuss it. The Constitution, and the interests of the religious and irreligious alike, would be best served if we elected a president without ever knowing his or her religion.

The Top Ten Issues That Won’t Be Covered in 2008


It is good that the bald eagle, the symbol of American democracy, has made it off the Endangered Species list. It frees up needed space on that list for American democracy itself. The time is short within which to put democracy on life support and begin emergency treatment.

Democracy has been under attack for years. Perhaps it originated with the “selling of the president” in the Nixon years, perhaps in the Reagan-era penchant to make heroes out of brigands who aided our enemy, Iran, in order to finance their off-the-books effort to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua. It manifested itself in well-planned and well-financed campaigns to reduce the image of dedicated public servants like Edmund Muskie, Mike Dukakis and Howard Dean to schoolyard taunts. The apotheosis of this trend is the vile spew that emerges from Ann Coulter more regularly than Old Faithful, but it is by no means certain that the limit has been reached.

Whatever the source, it has come to this: the Washington press corps has been bullied to the point that the main issues covered by reporters and pundits alike are the financial condition of the campaigns and the hair styles of the candidates. Every issue of actual importance to the American people, save perhaps (if we are lucky) the Iraq war and health care, is marginalized as the exclusive province of extreme leftists, crackpots, and Beltway insiders. And the range of potential solutions is consistently narrowed to allow only those acceptable to the corporate heavy hitters that finance the campaigns.

It has been a long while since Franklin Roosevelt, in accepting the Democratic nomination in 1932, said, “This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”

In 1936 Roosevelt went further: “For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. … They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

It cannot be too late to have that spirit again. Certainly we are at a crossroads in our national history every bit as vital to democracy itself as we faced in 1932, or for that matter in 1776.

It cannot do to protest that certain issues are either too controversial or too boring to command public attention. We, the people, need to free ourselves from the tyranny that smirks at us daily. We need to identify the simple, real issues – the consistent abrogation of democracy, personal liberty and the promise of a better life that have been planned and executed with the billions in profits that were generated just for the purpose of cementing this plutocratic control over our nation.

I have identified a “top ten” list of issues that all form a part of this juggernaut. All of them involve the use of law – tax law, election law, and the Constitution itself – to guarantee that dollars, not votes, will determine national policies. None of these issues will be covered by the press in 2008. It would be foolish to imagine that any presidential candidate will take up all of them, but even one or two would change the center of debate and put a real agenda on the table.

Without further ado, and in Letterman order, they are:

10. Corporate “Free Speech”

Corporations are fictitious persons in the eyes of the law, and as such are entitled to do what people do in business – own property, make contracts and so forth. But corporations live forever and their wealth and influence can grow exponentially, while people die and to some extent their interests and concerns die with them. When corporations first came upon the scene, they were viewed as creations of the sovereign (the state or, before the Revolution, the King) that chartered them, and could be subjected to whatever restrictions that sovereign chose to impose. Corporate existence and powers were a privilege, not a right. Their existence was viewed as intertwined with the public good, since the combination of the capital of individual investors made possible such public necessities as canals, bridges and railroads.

One of the great ironies of American history is that the majestic Fourteenth Amendment, adopted after the Civil War to ensure the right of all persons to due process of law and equal protection, was first applied by the Supreme Court to give corporations the right to be free of state regulation in the public interest. While that principle was eroded during the New Deal, corporate entitlement to constitutional rights remained unchecked. Another irony is that this view to some extent was piggy-backed upon the move for recognition of labor unions, which are associations of individuals, and the growing sense that unions were entitled to use their group power to advocate for their members.

The culmination of this folly was in the doctrine that corporations, which are organized to engage in business, can spend as much of their wealth as they wish on advocacy of causes of their choice. All they need is the agreement of management – since shareholders have virtually no power to control the spending of corporate funds. This power far exceeds what unions enjoy – union members have the right to stop the use of their dues money for advocacy of which they disapprove, as do lawyers and university students, but no such right exists for shareholders whose capital fuels the corporation. Corporations are no longer bound by the idea that their operations are limited to those activities which further a public purpose and that they may be confined to that purpose by regulation.

9. Copyright

Patents and copyrights were originally viewed as necessary to promote cultural and scientific progress by giving authors and inventors the right to exclusive use of their creations for a limited time. Copyright protection now lasts for 70 years or more, and patent protection has been abused by trivial modifications that extend patent life, as well as by filing patent claims on obvious ideas, genetically modified bacteria and plants. Intellectual property is now a “squatting” device to prevent competitors from producing cheap generic drugs or improvements on existing technology. We need to reform this system to give creative works back to the people – the “public domain” – after a more reasonable period of protection.

8. Wealth Taxation and Capital Gains

The decrease in estate taxation – the only form of wealth taxation we currently have –together with favorable capital gains rates has concentrated 99% of all wealth gains in the hands of the top 1% of Americans. Extreme wealth has become the way to avoid having to earn income by producing goods or services. Even Switzerland, no enemy of wealth, has a wealth tax on the living as well as on inheritances.

When top estate tax rates were at their highest from 1940 to 1976, American businesses were the engine of productivity for the entire world. Apparently the notion of losing a significant part of their wealth upon death did not deter those hardy entrepreneurs. Now their descendants find it easier to build portfolios than factories.

The same people who now assail the estate tax as a “death tax” also claim that people ought to be able to keep the wealth that represents the fruits of their efforts. The fly in that ointment is that upon death, their wealth passes to people who didn’t lift a finger to earn it. Let’s call that bluff – it’s not the supposedly hard-working decedent who pays the estate tax, but the ne’er-do-well heirs who are very much alive. Whatever part of that pinata the government takes in taxation they can make up by working for a bit.

Every economic argument that is made for lowering the tax rate on capital gains could also be made for lowering the tax rate on wages. Yet tax rates on wages are the highest of all, and workers have to pay an additional, regressive tax on wages (but not on unearned income) in order to support the Social Security system. Capital gains advocates have a point — that those gains were realized over a period of years, during which the cost of living also rose. The equitable solution is to index the basis (purchase price) of the capital asset for the cost of living during the time it was owned, which will reduce the taxable gain somewhat, but then apply the same tax rate that everyone else pays.

7. Executive Compensation

Most people are offended by the idea of a CEO making as much as 300 skilled workers do, but corporate boards routinely approve it and say it is needed to attract highly qualified executives, who presumably are the only people motivated not by a desire to make a contribution to the world but only by money. Corporations should be able to spend their money as they choose, but there is no reason for the government to encourage it. We now permit corporations to deduct from their taxable income everything they spend on salaries and stock options, but there is no reason why this has to continue. The simple solution is to say that everything up to 40 times a worker’s pay is deductible, and the rest is not.

6. Repeal the Presidential Dollar Coin Act of 2005

Under legislation actually enacted in 2005, four one-dollar coins are being issued each year with the intent of honoring every deceased president regardless of merit or length of service. William Henry Harrison, who served for only a month, will get his coin in 2009; Rutherford Hayes, who squeaked into office thanks to election fraud, will get his in 2011. Grover Cleveland, who was lucky enough to be elected in nonconsecutive terms, will get two coins – both in 2012 – making him the first president after Washington to get two coins.. Warren Harding will get his turn in 2014, and Richard Nixon in 2016. (The series will not include ex-presidents who are now alive unless they hurry up and die before 2014. Long life to you, George.)

There is also a parallel gold coin series honoring all the First Ladies – er, make that Spouses – which may give us the chance to decide whether having an Eleanor Roosevelt dollar is a fair trade for Pat Nixon. As of now, Warren Harding’s extramarital paramours do not count as spouses, nor does Sally Hemings.

Democracy requires a respect for ideas and institutions, not of people unless they contribute to our institutions and earn our respect. In an inspired 2004 New Yorker cover, Eric Palma proposed Ray Charles for the ten-dollar bill. This coin program is the opposite – a mindless, though perhaps premeditated, affirmative action program for the banal, the corrupt and the incompetent who have managed to grasp high office.

5. Election Reform

Voter participation levels have long been scandalously low. The media constantly reinforce the idea that the most important factor in elections is the level of contributions, not the level of popular support. Apart from spending limits, we need to give the electoral process back to the people. The easiest and cheapest way to increase voter participation is to schedule Election Day on a Sunday when fewer people are at work.

Primaries have turned into a media circus in which the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire control which candidate becomes a front-runner. The campaign season should be shortened by having all primaries in May or June.

We currently allow taxpayers to allocate $3 of their taxes to the public campaign fund. In a presidential election year, let’s let them allocate their $3 to a declared candidate or party, regardless of whether that candidate or party has accepted spending limits.

4. The Vice-Presidency

The office of Vice President, formerly a harmless joke, has become an expensive joke. Every President in recent times has pledged to make his Vice President a sort of “co-President” with important but unspecified responsibilities. The consequence of this is Dick Cheney, whose responsibilities, in addition to being unspecified, are carried out in total secrecy and entirely without accountability. The idea of the Vice-President serving as a tie-breaker in the Senate is an anachronism left over from the days when there were only 30 Senators. A better way to break ties would be to allow the District of Columbia to elect one Senator.

We ought to get rid of the Vice-Presidency as an elected office, instead permitting the President, following the election, to nominate a Vice-President (as the 25th Amendment now provides in cases of vacancy), whose sole duty would be to take over in case the President dies or is incapacitated. The Senate should elect its presiding officer, just as the House elects its own Speaker.

3. Pardon Power

Now it turns out that the President of the United States thinks a sentence for perjury before a Federal grand jury should not exceed the time served by Paris Hilton. Only partisans, of course, would think it unseemly for a President to commute the sentence of someone whose silence might keep his bosses out of jail. The constitutional pardon power should be limited so that it cannot be exercised on behalf of the President or Vice President or anyone who has worked for either of them or contributed to them or to their campaigns.

2. Oath

There is little more disheartening than the claim that the President has the right to lie repeatedly to the American people and to Congress. Impeachment is an illusory remedy, since it requires a majority of each house of Congress to be in the hands of the opposing party. Clearly, the oath the President takes – to support and defend the Constitution – has become inadequate to the task of reining in this epidemic of duplicity. Let’s add another oath for the President to take on Inauguration Day – to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

And finally we come to …

1. Electoral College

It all boils down to this. We claim to be the greatest democracy in the world, but the Electoral College is the mote in the eye of that claim. Frustration of the will of the majority appears to be the main goal of electoral strategists, and obviously it has already occurred, with disastrous consequences. The cause of this is the nonsensical requirement that the President be elected by shadowy Electors, not by the people. Since electoral votes are counted by state, campaigning is directed entirely to those states with a chance of tipping to one party or the other, discouraging voting by anyone else. And the weighting of those votes is distorted to an enormous degree by adding two votes to each state’s count of representatives, thus tripling the influence of small states that get only one vote in the House. The election of a President should be a national affair, not an occasion for sectionalism or parochialism. Our goal should be to have the President elected by the people, period.

It is a paradox that we expect a president to have the strength of leadership to stand up to America’s adversaries while at the same kowtowing to the punditocracy that trivializes the concerns of ordinary people. Restoring the balance of American democracy should be the single most important theme of the next election. If it isn’t, we can expect the outrages of the present to surface in the years and decades to come.

Repeal the Twelfth!


A new group called is proposing to create a moderate force to run candidates for President and Vice-President from different parties in order to break the stalemate and posturing that characterize the two-party system.

Back in 1796, that’s how the system worked. The candidate who finished second became Vice-President. The winners were John Adams (Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican). They happened to be the two best qualified, even though they were from opposing parties and significant disputes occured during Adams’ term.

The system broke down in 1800 when both Democratic candidates (Jefferson and Aaron Burr) received equal numbers of votes (the Federalist, John Adams, finished third). The solution was the Twelfth Amendment — requiring members of the Electoral College to cast two votes. That cleared up the problem of who would be President and who would be Vice-President. But it forced the nation into a system where the President and Vice-President were nearly always from the same party (Lincoln’s second Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, succeeded to the presidency on Lincoln’s death and survived impeachment by only one vote).

The vast aggrandizement of presidential power in the 20th and 21st centuries should lead to a reexamination of this system. The Vice-President’s primary constitutional role is to preside over the Senate, a position which fits nicely with the idea of the Vice-President as the leader of the electoral minority. Wouldn’t we be better off today if George Bush’s Vice-President were … Al Gore? A LOT better off?

We need to get rid of the Electoral College and provide for direct popular election of the President on a nationwide basis. And we ought to think about ditching the Twelfth Amendment while we’re at it. Instead of “may the best person win,” why not “may the best two candidates win?” (Political scientists have been pushing variants on this for some time.)

A system of this kind would get every voter, in every state, passionately interested in the election. And it would get people thinking about not just who their first choice for President would be. They would have to think: of the remaining candidates, who my favorite considers to be bozos, which one would I want leading the opposition and potentially becoming President? That would add a great deal of civility and wisdom to the electoral debate without a great deal of effort. It might help centrist candidates win office. And all it takes is a constitutional amendment.

(We’d also need to modify the 22nd Amendment to give anyone a maximum of eight years as President and a maximum of, say, twelve years combined as President and Vice-President.)

Another free-market solution to immigration


We are used to corporations complaining about restrictions on the movement of capital. “We can’t enact a minimum wage because that would skew the market.” “We can’t force corporations to keep the manufacturing in the US because the market will be flooded with cheap imports anyway.”

Immigrants are capital moving on its own initiative. That form of capital needs to move as freely as any other. If American jobs are taken, well, call Customer Service and complain to whoever in the Third World answers the phone.

Pat Buchanan is right in one respect — every nation, including the US, needs to be able to protect its borders against unrestricted entry. But someday it will dawn on the politicians that you can keep a thousand people out, but not a million. The question is, how to handle those million people in a way that maintains border security?

We have made a big mistake in entrusting border control and naturalization to the same agency. They are entirely different functions. Immigration is the process of evaluating people who are already here, most of whom are good, honest people, to decide upon what conditions they may remain here or become citizens.

Here’s the simple plan: Anyone who wants to enter the US and is not on a terrorist watch list may enter the US if they follow the rules. The rules: Present yourself at a consulate or a border entry station, show the identity papers you have from your home country to prove who you are, and consent to have your photograph taken and submit a DNA sample, fingerprints and a retinal scan. Then prove you have a few thousand bucks to support yourself for the next few months — the same money you would have given to the “mules” to get you over the Rio Grande. If you do that, you get a Social Security number and a six-month visa entitling you to work. The employer must notify Immigration Control when you are hired and when you leave employment.

After six months, you must report back. If you have not gotten in trouble and have worked for at least half of that time, you get a five-year visa on the same terms. If you fail to report, or if you don’t meet the test, you go back across the border and can’t come back. If you get through the five-year visa successfully, you get a Green Card. Period.

Most of the people who try to get across the border want only one thing: to work and to be good, honest, productive members of society. They will jump at the chance to live here without fear and to work “on the books.” Those who don’t will be traceable and can be deported. The number who sneak across the border illegally will decline to a trickle. Problem solved.

We Counted Most of Your Votes — Happy Now?


I posted the following in response to the Radio Open Source blog’s question to the effect of “Are you happy with the 2006 election results?”

These days, I’m happy when Democrats win, relatively speaking. But I’m not overjoyed.

First, Democrats in office don’t guarantee much of anything. With the “unitary executive” still in the White House, there is virtually no chance they will affect foreign or military policy. They would have to precipitate a constitutional crisis to do that, and they just won’t — the Democratic Party of Watergate is long gone. Moreover, Democrats cannot maintain party unity the way the Republicans have under DeLay and Frist. They would have to risk being tarred with the “liberal tax-and-spend soft-on-crime tree-hugger” label in order to reverse the massive transfer of wealth that has funded both Republican supporters and Republican campaign chests. And not many Democrats are willing to be called names in order to do the right thing.

Second, even if Democrats win now and in 2008, democracy is still in intensive care. The bogus voting machines and corrupt state election officials are still there. In the campaign arena, money trumps all other means of communicating with voters. The “pundits” who cover politics most intensively can no longer tell the difference between a bald-faced lie and a ham sandwich, or else are willing to let the conglomerate network owners silence them. Most voters have no appreciation of history or civics and stay away from the polls even as soldiers are fighting for their — or someone’s — right to vote.

Third, millions of votes nationwide simply do not count for much. I live in Massachusetts, where all the races were decided by significant margins. We get to vote for unimportant offices like Clerk of Courts, while we are unable to vote for members of agencies that affect our lives every day, like the Turnpike Authority and MBTA. Nationally, because of the Electoral College system, voters in most states are ignored. This system is a relic of the 18th century, when states as such had a much greater importance in our national life. Today, with voters moving several times in their lives, it is beyond ridiculous.

The Democrats will have a significant agenda in the House, and in the Senate too if they win it. And no doubt, the prosecutors will be busy putting Republicans in jail. But there has to be a greater agenda for our national democracy in the next two, four and six years. Here are my three priorities, which no national political figure has addressed:

1. Abolish the Electoral College and have a direct popular vote for President.
2. Overturn the Supreme Court decision striking down campaign finance reform on the basis of “free speech.”
3. Convince centrist Democrats and Republicans to form a centrist third party that would immediately have a sizeable caucus in Congress. Fringe groups can never gain traction, but a centrist third party will be able to abolish the two-party lock on the political process and form alliances with core Democrats and core Republicans on an issue-by-issue basis.

Let’s get some major political figures to even start speaking of these issues, and I’ll be happy indeed.

A Free Market Solution to the Immigration Dilemma


With all the talk among Kerry supporters about leaving the country, it occurred to me that there might be a market-based win-win solution here. After all, illegal immigrants cross our borders each day, often paying thousands of dollars to criminal gangs to smuggle them in under horrendous conditions.

Why not let people sell their American citizenship to the highest bidder? After all, we let corporations buy tax credits and pollution rights. Letting individuals sell what they own is just plain old-fashioned free enterprise.

Immigrants taking advantage of this approach would (a) avoid risking their lives to enter the country, (b) avoid the constant fear of being deported, and (c) not take any net jobs or other benefits from Americans, because the economy would lose one existing worker for every new one. And the people selling their citizenship could use the money to establish financial independence, which usually improves the chances of achieving citizenship in one’s new home country.

Naturally, known terrorists would be ineligible to participate in this scheme. But for the rest of the world — what’s wrong with trying it?

Since I’m a natural born citizen over the age of 35, if this goes through I’m going to wait for my call from Arnold Schwartzenegger. Arnold baby, you want something; I’ve got it; let’s talk.

Just one more pessimistic take on current events …


In the last century, there has been an arc of political movement that brought us from a country of Babbitts and nativists to a symbol of progress and civility, and now back again. You can measure it in three elections: In 1928, with evolution one of the hot issues, the nation rejected an urban Catholic Northeasterner, largely with the votes of rural evangelical Protestants bolstered by the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, who felt that no Protestant should ever vote for a liberal Catholic. In 1960, with civil rights one of the hot issues, the nation elected an urban Catholic Northeasterner who pledged that his faith would never guide his decisions. And in 2004, with evolution once again a hot issue, the nation rejected an urban Catholic Northeasterner, largely with the votes of rural evangelical Protestants, bolstered this time by leaders of the Catholic Church, who felt that no Catholic should ever vote for a liberal Catholic, especially one who pledged that his faith would never guide his decisions.

The only thing worse than no progress at all is the reversal of progress. In terms of the moral state of our civilization, are we better off now than we were in 1928?

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