how much constitution could a constituent constituate if a constitutional convention could be constituted by constituents?

22 February 2009

If you’ve been following the California budget crisis in any detail, there’s a good chance you’ve come across talk of reforming the state constitution. Now it looks like that talk might lead somewhere. Robert in Monterey has the details at Calitics:

That’s why the Courage Campaign, where I work as Public Policy Director, is joining the Bay Area Council and a diverse coalition of organizations to sponsor a Constitutional Convention Summit on Tuesday in Sacramento (you can register at Repair California).

It’s my own personal belief, and one shared by the Courage Campaign, that a Constitutional Convention can successfully fix California’s broken government. In a poll of our members last September over 90% said they supported a convention. And in December we launched CPR for California – a Citizens Plan to Reform California that included some major structural fixes for the state, including fixing the budget process and producing long-overdue initiative reform as well as empowerment solutions such as public financing of elections and universal voter registration.

But the key to success is that a convention must truly be “of the people.” A convention will fail – and may not even be approved by voters – if it is seen as a top-down effort. Remember of course that a Constitution is a social compact, the product of a sovereign people, a recognition that we must have government to survive but that it must also be accountable to the people. For a Constitutional Convention to have legitimacy it must include the people of California at every step of the journey – especially in setting the Convention’s priorities. Additionally, the delegates who attend the Convention must be representative of the state’s population, and not be selected from a small group.

It’s also worth noting some of the limits of a Constitutional Convention. The Courage Campaign believes that all social issues should be off-limits at a convention, such as marriage equality (that is best dealt with by the California Supreme Court, or by the voters if the Court upholds Prop 8). The Convention alone won’t solve our state’s financial woes.

Robert also makes a point I’ve tried to make with friends and family when this has come up: if you look back historically, state constitutions (and our federal one) have always been subject to revisions. Actual conventions rather than amendments have been less frequent, but a number of states have had more than one. California has had two, along with some substantial changes during the Progressive era that I don’t think went through a full convention.

Now, I will freely admit that the results haven’t always been good: see, uh, California’s constitution and its hundreds of amendments, or see the 19th century constitutions revised, in part, to take away voting rights. Other times they’ve been revised to widen the franchise or set up more direct elections or do many other things we’d consider improvements. Like most political processes, a constitutional convention can be put to all sorts of uses, but that’s not reason enough to put it aside entirely. The convention is a process deeply rooted in our system of government, difficult to call because it should not be taken lightly, but there to be called when other processes have failed.

by others’ works

22 February 2009

I visited the FDR memorial not too long ago and came away thinking it would have been much cooler had it been designed in the 1930s – except for the problem of monumentalizing a sitting president; I don’t think that would have gone over well.

I understand that it’s difficult to bring together all of the distinguishing features of FDR’s presidency into one theme – had he been in office just for the Depression or just for the war, maybe it would be different – but I found the memorial too spread out. Each of his four terms is given a separate section, each partially enclosed by granite walls. There are plantings on the walls; maybe they look good in the spring or summer, but to me the combination of vegetation and rock creates the impression of a modern ruin. Maybe I’m just conditioned to think of monuments as clean white marble, smooth, cold, classical, stately.

It’s still a nice setting for a walk, and I do appreciate being able to appreciate a monument on a (nearly) human scale, rather than being expected to stand in awe and reverence before some towering figure. (Not that the Lincoln Memorial isn’t awesome anyway.)  But it’s a bit unsettling, especially in these economic times, to watch visitor after visitor line up in the bread line to have their picture taken, smiling.

big sky, country

19 February 2009

Who would have thought that in a democracy based on geographic representation, elected officials would have the effrontery to announce that their policies would help their constituents? But it’s happening. Despite all the talk about not having earmarks in the stimulus, despite all the talk of a new tone in Washington, people who voted for the stimulus bill are now announcing that it’s a good bill that will help people in their home districts.

Take the example of Max Baucus from this recent report (links in the original):

Other remarks describe projects that really don’t count as earmarks, but in a new, bacon-barded tone. “Senate Passes Jobs Bill that Will Pump Money into Montana,” reads the title of a statement from the office of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. (Compare that to “Senator’s Plan to Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances,” only a couple weeks earlier.) But the Montana money he mentions is distributed by formula through programs that will be available to all states.

These remarks contrast with the earlier tone most Democrats adopted to build support and stanch a political bleed that accelerated in proportion to the bill’s rising price tag. Stock press releases like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) described a bill with “unprecedented levels of accountability” that “will create American jobs now” but declined to go into local details.

Yes, let’s compare those two Baucus press releases. (Hoyer will have to wait.)

The most recent is dated February 10, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:


Baucus, Tester Praise Bill That Will Create Good-paying Jobs, Cut Taxes, Boost Economy

The earlier press release is dated January 27, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:


Senator’s Plan To Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances

Notice anything odd about this? For one thing, the reporter has compared the headline of the first release with the subheadline of the second. I don’t see why he couldn’t make the same comparison headline to headline.

But that’s a minor problem compared with the dates. The premise of the whole article is that:

And as the [stimulus] bill cleared its final legislative hurdles Friday, so did some congressional Democrats who tallied their handiwork in dispatches to constituents. [Note: what’s going on with the parallel structure here?] Members switched from guarded rhetoric about a pork-free package to messages plugged with lardoons to highlight local projects, industry boons and in some cases, specific programs squeezed into the bill by individual lawmakers.

Ok, but that Friday was the 13th. The most recent Baucus press release is dated on the 10th, after the Senate passed its version of the bill but before the conference report was agreed to. If Baucus changed his tone between one release and the other, it didn’t come as a result of that Friday’s events. I suppose this could be waved off as another minor problem with the article: once the bill got through the Senate, there wasn’t much doubt that a conference report would be approved eventually and that the bill would be signed into law. Still, the 10th is not the 13th.

But, leaving the date discrepancy aside, did Baucus change his tone from one release to another? Did he start promoting provisions in the stimulus that would benefit Montana which he had refrained from mentioning before? Did Baucus adopt a “new bacon-barded tone”?

Read the rest of this entry »

lactose prejudice

18 February 2009

I used to have dairy products all the time as a kid: milk with cereal, milk with cream of wheat, ice cream, milk with cookies, and less often, milk on its own. Then I noticed that drinking milk by itself was making me sick, but it was still ok with cereal. Then even milk with cereal made me sick. Then I started avoiding dairy. I’ve since found lactose-free milk and lactase pills and various other things that let me have dairy products without too much trouble.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m less lactose-intolerant than I think. When I’ve had gelato in Europe, it hasn’t been a problem even without lactase supllements, but I always take a supplement in the US with ice cream. But this might be the result of different processing methods; I can handle some yogurts – active culture – but not others. Same with cheeses. But when I’ve decided not to take any precautions with dairy I’ve usualy ended up paying a price for it. (It’s not really that bad; certainly not worse than stomach flus I’ve had.)

So I’m a bit surprised to see Ezra Klein quote the following about Nestle in China:

In Asia, ice cream is proving surprisingly popular among a people that aren’t supposed to tolerate dairy products; in fact, Nestle’s researchers now contend that Asians aren’t any more lactose intolerant than any other ethnic group. The problem, Brimlow [director of Nestle’s Chinese research center] told me, is that cow’s milk, has historically been so scarce and expensive in China, that most Chinese never developed the enzyme needed to digest dairy foods. If Chinese children are introduced to milk early on, says Brimlow, they have no trouble tolerating lactose — a finding that has spurred Nestle’s China operation to launch a wide range if dairy products aimed at the youth market. “Even as adults, it takes only three months to develop the enzyme,” Brimlow says. “They may feel a little sick for a while, but they get used to it. Yogurt is a great way to reintroduce dairy.”

I’d love to be reintroduced to dairy (without supplements), but I don’t see that happening based on my experience growing up. It’s not like I never had the enzyme. However, when I went to Taiwan, I noticed people having a fair amount of milk products and my relatives didn’t seem to have heard of lactose intolerance – we had to explain that it’s not an allergy. (A commenter over at Ezra’s place notes the same thing about Taiwan.) Among the American side of the family, I’m about the only one with a problem, though my sister has a milder reaction. So who knows what’s going on with me.

Maybe I’ve already had and lost my chance by having milk as a kid. Or maybe I’m just one of those people caught between worlds, not European enough to handle dairy – but my paternal grandmother is Swiss! – not Chinese enough to adjust as if it were new. If I ever have a MooLatte, the results no doubt will be tragic.

outside the lines

16 February 2009

This biography of Clarence King, geologist, geographer and more, sounds fascinating. I don’t know why it takes the New York Times review (via) so long to reveal that:

What they did not know was that when King was not living in various clubs and hotels, he was married and the father of five children. He was deeply devoted to his wife, Ada, a black woman 19 years his junior. This blue-eyed man, descended from signers of the Magna Carta, had successfully cultivated the impression that he was black too.

The existence of Ada and their children became publicly known only in 1933, at a trial in which Ada tried to recover the trust fund she had been promised by Clarence. He had been dead for more than 30 years, so the shock waves generated by the trial were considerable. Most dramatic, in Ms. Sandweiss’s account, is the way that revisionists demoted Clarence from hero to “tragic hero,” not to mention “the most lavishly overpraised man of his time,” upon discovering the he had been married to a former slave. This was typical of the sickening headlines surrounding the trial: “Mammy Bares Life as Wife of Scientist.”

All of this has long been a matter of record. It took Ms. Sandweiss to pinpoint and explore the fact that Clarence went further than merely marrying Ada and concealing her existence from his friends. He also adopted the name Clarence* Todd, under which he married Ada, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job held exclusively by black workers. Employment on a train helped explain to Ada why he was so well traveled and so frequently absent from home. (Later he would claim to be a clerk and a steelworker too.)

Or why you have to read to the end to learn this (which, incidentally, points to one of the ways in which the census has always been important):

But if race had clear, stereotypical meaning for this one odd man, it worked in entirely different ways for his wife and children. At the heart of “Passing Strange” is the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that the existence of one black great-grandparent defined an American as black. Not only did this ruling entitle Clarence to his claim as a black man; it also left the racial classification of Ada and her children to the whims of census takers who freely made assumptions about the people they questioned. Over time Todd family members were variously designated “white,” “negro” or “mulatto,” based not on evidence but on context. Ada and Clarence’s sons were deemed black when seen with their dark-skinned mother. But their two daughters married white men and effectively turned themselves into white women.


*This might be an error. An Amherst press release about the book says he took the name James Todd, not Clarence Todd.

in the long run, we are all relieved of our tax burdens

6 February 2009

…but, apparently, not of our credit card obligations. Or so Bank of America would have you believe.