The state of democratic institutions
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
I skipped watching the State of the Union last night. That was the first time in, well, a couple of decades. There was really no reason to watch. I figured President Donald J. Trump would set out to be presidential in tone, but his words would largely be the more of the same.
It wasn’t a boycott on my part. I just didn’t care to listen. It’s so much less stressful to read the text later.
The State of the Union is a joint session of Congress. The House of Representatives is jammed with its members, the Senate, members of the Supreme Court, the cabinet, and invited guests. A fitting place for these eleven words said by the president: “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill …”
The topic was infrastructure. But the problem of Congress producing a bill should be the greater question.
Instead of watching the State of the Union I was reading about the Ancien Régime, the end of the monarchy in France, the time just before the revolution.
I am especially interested in the mechanics of the Estates General. This was a legislative body with no official power (the king held that). The First Estate was the clergy, the wealthiest community in France at the time, owning about ten percent of all the land and exempt from all taxes. The Second Estate was the nobility. Still rich. Just not as rich as the priests. At least on a per capita basis. (And did own about a third of all the country’s property.) The Third Estate was supposed to be everyone else, but in practice it was really the bourgeoisie, the merchants, the lawyers, the folks who had some money and some property.
At first each “estate” had an equal vote. But there were only about 10,000 members of the clergy, about 400,000 nobles, and 25 million people. So representatives that accounted for about 3 percent of the population could out vote the 97 percent.
The Estates General had one essential mission: Approve a budget. But for more than a decade that body could not find the votes.
The opening of the Estates General would have been a familiar scene to those watching the pomp of a State of the Union. “Louis XVI … as a peaceful king, he declared himself ‘the people’s greatest friend.’” Make France Great Again, right?
There are two things from that era that ought to be a concern in the United States. The absolute imbalance between representation in the legislature and the population. And the inability to come together and agree on a spending plan.
Two of the three bodies in the Estate General wanted to tax everybody else. The Third Estate, the people, knew that meant them.
The Republican plan at least pretends to cut taxes for everybody (all the while growing the deficit beyond reason). But rich corporations (our version of the Second Estate) get permanent tax breaks while the majority does not. If you look at the data since the 1950s the Corporate Estate taxes have been shrinking dramatically. (The United States has mostly paid for these tax cuts by increasing the payroll tax, the money that comes out of our paychecks.)
Just before the Revolution, the French government was facing all sorts of fiscal problems. As French economists Thomas Sargent and François Velde wrote in the Journal of Political Economy that after wars (including the cost of the American Revolution) there was a call to cut government spending across the board. And tax revenues “grew too slowly, causing debt service to increase. By 1788, as in 1770 and during the Regency, the inexorable compounding of interest brought France to a fiscal crisis. France in the grips of some ‘unpleasant arithmetic.’”
There is unpleasant arithmetic in our future. Especially when Congress cannot reach a reasonable conclusion about spending. The richest country on the planet is budgeting over the course of a few weeks.
The other issue that ought to be a concern is the destruction of basic democracy. The Estates General was completely illogical (one-third, one-third, one third) and it eventually reformed so that the people had at least as twice as much representation as the church and nobles. But that system was still way out of whack.
That, too, is America. It’s not quite as bad. Yet.
“Americans are dreamers, too,” President Trump said when he talked about his ideas on immigration. That’s odd. Which Americans have access, politically at least, to those dreams?
There are 3.5 million citizens in Puerto Rico who cannot vote for Congress, the Senate, or president. There are less than 3.5 million citizens living in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota. Those citizens are represented by ten United States Senators and five members of the House of Representatives. And don’t get me started about California’s place in this mess. (It’s not democratic and it’s not fair.)
It’s not the electoral college. And it’s mostly not gerrymandering. The imbalance in the U.S. system of democracy is old and structural. It’s about geography and who gets counted as voters. (A problem that is sure to grow in the next census.) And on top of that state legislatures are working to make it harder to vote, even further limiting democratic representation.
The Economist this week published its index of democracies. “America sits in 21st place in the ranking, level with Italy. It remains a “flawed democracy” for the second year in a row,” the magazine said. The index uses index 60 indicators across five broad categories—electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties—and “concludes that less than 5 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy.”
Seems to me that would be a good goal for any State of the Union. “So tonight I am calling on the Estates General * cough* I mean Congress to produce a bill …”
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