Would You Like Some Electoral Reform With That?

Enacting meaningful electoral reforms would be a catalyst for a myriad of other issues. And I am not using the word “catalyst” as it is commonly used, synonymous with a spark. I mean catalyst as it is used in chemistry: something that lowers the energy needed for a reaction to happen. Electoral reforms can reduce the amount of time and money needed to push through popular policy measures. If done correctly, they can make politicians less beholden to special interests for political survival. They ought to be the fries to everyone’s pet issues. Say young Berkeley liberal, what do you care about? Gun control AND electoral reform so that the NRA can’t squeeze your representatives’ grapes. What about you under-the-table conservative barber? Less market entrance regulations AND electoral reform so that Big Haircut can’t make beholden politicians treat the operation of a pair of clippers as if you’re wielding a loaded gun. Makes sense.

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American Corporations First

The cry of “America first!” plays off some large misconceptions on America’s international relations. Mainly, that we are a paragon of goodwill and an adherent to high moral values in our dealings with other countries – so much so, that we have permitted other countries to eat our lunch in trade relations. That is far from the truth. We have helped depose democratically-elected leaders and have supported interest-friendly autocrats and puppet regimes the world over. That is not to say that the U.S. is not altruistic in any way. On many occasions we have put pressure on regimes that violate human rights, especially when those regimes have very little of value to buy our silence or they have proven hostile to the US and its interests. We also consistently rank in the middle of the pack among industrialized countries in terms of development assistance. Nowhere near the most generous but far from the least generous as well. What this helps illustrate is that there is very little historical evidence that we are the sort of country that has its “good nature” exploited. Then, who is winning in our trade agreements?

Let’s look at NAFTA for instance. Since no one seemed to be harping on about the US-Canada free trade agreement on which it was based, let’s look specifically at the US-Mexico side. As you may have heard in stump speeches, many manufacturing jobs have gone down south to Mexico, with car manufacturing jobs making up a good chunk. Does that mean that Mexicans have come out on top? Well, not really. Although I am sure manufacturing jobs are welcome over there, there is also an incredible amount of competition for them. Compounding the matter is that NAFTA also had the unfair effect of putting Mexican agricultural products up against American subsidized agriculture, with corn being the big one. This caused a slew of Mexican farmers to give up farming, thereby increasing the competition for manufacturing jobs in Mexico and migration to the US. As it stands, the average manufacturing wage in Mexico is $2.40/hr (https://tradingeconomics.com/mexico/wages-in-manufacturing). And in case you were wondering, at that wage you are still struggling and far from middle-class in Mexico. Overall, the average annual real GDP per capita growth rate of Mexico from ’94 to ’13 was 0.9% (http://cepr.net/documents/nafta-20-years-2014-02.pdf). That ranks 18th out of 20 Latin American countries in the same time period.

So, who has benefited from NAFTA? Well, just like in our most nefarious foreign affairs, American corporations have largely been the benefactors. They obviously benefit from moving operations to Mexico and exploiting the cheap labor. They also benefit in the domestic labor market from the leverage that the threat of a move to Mexico provides. In addition, NAFTA allowed some American companies to firmly establish themselves as the top dogs in Mexico into the foreseeable future. This is especially true for industries that are capital-intensive and therefore bear large entry costs. By removing the market barriers to the gorilla next door, Mexico has basically ensured that no company in its private sector will be able to rise as a competitor in the production of high-value goods. Consider that both South Korea and Taiwan ascended into the ranks of modern industrialized countries in the latter part of the 20th century after decades of existence as managed economies with protectionist policies. If they had opened their borders to the US and denied local companies the domestic space to stumble, learn, and then thrive, we would have never heard of Samsung, Hyundai, or Asus.

That is not to say that some Mexicans companies, like Cemex, didn’t profit from NAFTA. It is just that NAFTA benefited large corporations most, and the US has a disproportionate amount of large corporations when compared to Mexico. It also came about an opportune time as many Asian countries were becoming competitive in markets once dominated by the West. The shift of manufacturing operations to Mexico for the auto industry and others may have allowed them to remain competitive with foreign manufacturers.

To sum up, our trade agreements over the last several decades have put Americans first: it is just that they were constructed with the wealthy corporate class of Americans in mind. A slogan more in line with what people want is “American poor, working class, and middle class first”.

Metrification & Language Changes

Metrification would make learning math and science easier in the US.  Of course, in the short term there would be an awkward period of adjustment for people and some costly retrofitting and phasing out of machinery.  There was a failed attempt to move to the metric system in 1975.  It was abandoned due to a problematic acclimation process.  However, I believe that the arguments for the transition overemphasized creating an international commonality, not the best tactic in the US.  Please forgive the crude analogy, but this situation is a little like asking a group of men who have worn briefs their entire lives to switch to boxers because they save time when using the restroom.  If you have worn briefs your entire life, then spending a few more seconds in the loo seems like an insignificant inconvenience.  However, if the argument for wearing boxers is backed by evidence that they improve sperm count, then the payoff for wearing boxers may motivate more men to fight through the initial awkwardness.  Much in the same way, the argument for metrification will gain further support if solid evidence is provided that the math and science performances of American students are being adversely affected by the use of the English System.  Take into consideration the calculation of area.  1 m2=10000 cm2=.000001 km2 in the metric system while 1ft2=144in2=(1/5280) 2 mi2.  Just by glancing at this one can see that it is easier to convert and multiply by factors to scale up or down in the metric system.  It is also easier to recognize patterns in the metric system.  That makes doing many conversions and other everyday math simple enough to do in one’s head.  The English System is much more cumbersome for students to grasp and work with.

Now, let us consider how linguistic patterns may affect the performance of American students on math exams.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he makes the case for why language factors into why Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students outperform American students in math.  For one, they learn to count faster.  There is evidence that this may be due to their number-naming system.  They say ten-one for eleven.  Fifty-four is five-ten-four.  Our naming system gets messy in the teens where we introduce new words like “twelve” before we start using the single digit terms again.  Then we switch from preceding the new term with the single digit terms to tagging them on to the end, e.g. nineteen and twenty-nine.  Some of the incremental base 10 terms sound similar to the digits they are related to, but are not intuitive the way they are in some Asian languages.  Asian number words also tend to be brief.  According to Stanislas Dehaene’s The Number Sense, whom Gladwell quotes, there is a correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a language and memory.  Mainly, that it is easier for people to remember numbers in languages that have brief words for them.  As further proof of the advantages that Asian languages have when working with numbers, Gladwell asks us to imagine asking a young English-speaking child to add 37 and 22.  The Asian number nomenclature greatly simplifies this problem by keeping the tens and single digits separate: three-tens-seven and two-tens-two.

If we look into the benefits of metrification and changing our number words, we may be able to take a course of action that may uncomfortable in the short term but pay dividends in terms of learning.

Gun Control Measures Can Coexist with Self-Defense Right

In the wake of the particularly grotesque mass shooting in Connecticut, we are bound to have heated debates on the correct course of legislative action to address the high number of gun deaths in this country.  Before I give my opinion on the matter – for whatever it is worth – I would like to talk about some of the unavoidable arguments over the 2nd Amendment that are to ensue shortly.  Those who are against more stringent gun controls will usually take an unnuanced individual rights and/or common defense interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  The exact wording of the 2nd Amendment is as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

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