Our system of government is not a democracy. Don’t believe what they tell you. In its purest form Democracy involves a system in which everyone votes on every issue. But that is unworkable in any setting where there are large numbers of people involved, so the idea of representation was born wherein one person represents the wishes and desires of a great many more. This is what we have. When the founders discussed the concept as they were drawing up the Constitution they were fully aware of the inherent absurdity of representative government. One person cannot exactly represent any other person or two people or three. Even identical twins will disagree from time to time. By the time we have one person who is supposed to represent a thousand the absurdity will have become apparent to all but the most dim-witted.

But the large question the founders wrestled with was: given that we want representative government how should the representative vote on a particular question — as the majority of those he represents would have him vote (if he took a poll, for example), or as he thinks the majority should vote? The two cases might be quite dissimilar and this is because the concept of representation is absurd on its face. Clearly, there are problems with the concept of representation.

Above all else, the founders did not want what the British had. By the end of the Civil Wars in 1651 Great Britain had become a Commonwealth; Parliament came into power and the House of Commons was supposed to be a representative body — not pure representation (whatever that might be) but “virtual representation.” The English bought into the idea even though twenty-nine out of thirty Englishmen did not enjoy the privilege of voting. And representation was a bit of a joke: voting was restricted to men (!) of property. In some Burroughs there were no voters at all. Cornwall and Devon sent seventy representatives to Parliament; Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield had none. London, Westminster, and Southwark elected only six members.*

The founders of our nation knew they didn’t want what England had, so they settled on numerical representation, which makes a bit more sense. But it does not get around the absurdity of representation itself. Aware, perhaps, of this inherent absurdity, the founders decided to restrict the House of Representatives to two-year terms. With voting restricted to male property owners (though the notion of “property” was more generous than it was in England) there were relatively few voters and as we can see from the Federalist Papers the founders were certain that incompetent members would be voted out after a term. Term limits were not part of the deal: they seemed unnecessary. In addition, representatives didn’t stand to make much money while in Washington. On the contrary.

Much has changed, of course, as incompetent members of the House and Senate now serve for years (and years), make piles of money, and are seldom voted out of office. Further, they are elected in the first place because of special interests whose will has become the political will that drives the machine of government. The Representatives vote pretty much the way their wealthy supporters tell them to. So we have evolved from the absurd idea of representation to the even more absurd idea of  a government driven by special interest. The candidate goes to the highest bidder, and the sky is now the limit.

There are a couple of steps that could be taken to remedy the situation and make the notion of representation closer to the idea the founders had — despite its theoretical flaws. There could be term limits on members of the House and Senate, and there might be prohibitions against lobbyists and PACs in Washington. This would make it more likely that our representatives might actually represent the will of most of the people. But these steps will likely not be taken because those who would have to initiate such action are the ones who benefit from the status quo. So we seem to be stuck with a dysfunctional government separated into warring camps, unable to get along, in whom the people have little or no confidence. The founders must be wondering what on earth went wrong.


[*The information about “virtual representation” in England was culled from John Miller’s excellent book “Origins of the American Revolution.]

Bad News, Good News

As one who tries to keep up with what’s going on in the world, especially the world of humans as they interact with the environment, I check out the Sierra Club’s monthly magazine column “Up To Speed” from time to time. In that column they list some of the more notable things going on around the world that affect us all. Let’s start with the bad news in the latest edition of the magazine.

Transcanada has bypassed a review by the State Department and announced that it will go ahead with the southern leg of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline. This project has the  qualified approval of President Obama which Republican opponents think is a stall until he is reelected. Let’s hope so. Candidate Romney has pledged to build the pipeline if he has to do it himself. Now there’s a thought!

Mexico’s most severe drought in history has left 2 million people in the north-central part of that country without water or the hope of it until the next rainy season — if it comes.

Satellite measurements indicate that from 2003 to 2010 earth lost 1,000 cubic miles of ice, enough to cover the United States in a foot and a half of water. In a related issue, the United States winter of 2011-2012 was the fourth warmest in recorded history while Europe experienced bitter cold that killed 650 people. Both phenomena can be directly linked to the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, though there are still those who deny global warming.

Warmer sea temperatures are extending the oxygen-less “dead zones” in the world’s oceans, causing sea life to squeeze together in narrower corridors to avoid suffocation. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is acidifying the world’s oceans faster than at any time in the past 300 million years. And, again, there are still those who deny global warming. But there is also some good news, and I will turn to that.

The EPA has forbidden cruise ships and other large ocean-going vessels from dumping sewage within three miles of the California coast. And the Interior Department has banned uranium mining for 20 years on more than a million acres of public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. Also, the United States has become the first nation in the world to establish catch limits for every variety of fish it manages (46 varieties) in hopes of rebuilding depleted stocks.

The world’s largest offshore wind farm with more than 100 turbines producing 367 megawatts opened recently off the coast of Cumbria, England. It will eventually be eclipsed by the mammoth London Array with 175 turbines producing 1,000 megawatts. Meanwhile, pushed by Big Oil, the Congress in the United States debates ways to expand off-shore drilling for oil and gas. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted permits to the Southern Company to add two new nuclear reactors to its facility near Waynesboro, Georgia. If built, they would make these plant the largest nuclear facility in the country. This reminds me:  A 1987 Congressional report entitled “NRC Coziness with Industry” concluded that the NRC “has not maintained an arm’s length regulatory posture with the commercial nuclear power industry… [and] has, in some critical areas, abdicated its role as a regulator altogether.” The fox is watching the chicken coop, and apparently, the fox thinks accidents never happen. Not on our watch!

This last bit, of course, is not good news. So I lied: I ended up with more bad news. But there is hope as long as there is any good news to report amidst the reams of bad news — at least as it is perceived by those who worry about the planet we are supposed to care for.