Chris Christie and the Case Against Term Limits

Social science has proven that Congress is even less popular than Nickelback, so it’s easy to see why term limits for senators and representatives consistently poll well among Americans of all backgrounds and ideological persuasions. Would-be reformers of various stripes have touted term limits as an important good government initiative, and even many who have not championed the cause of formally enshrining them in law have offered up pledges to voluntarily leave office themselves after a fixed number of years.

Notwithstanding the legal setbacks that have been dealt past attempts to enact term limits at the federal level, the idea has always struck me as an overrated and potentially counterproductive “solution” to the problems it purports to solve, like legislative gridlock, political careerism, or corruption. To see why, one need look no further than RM’s very own Garden State, whose chief executive looks to me like a poster boy for the case against term limits.

In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally canceled a joint federal-state public works project known as “Access to the Region’s Core” (ARC) that would have involved construction of the first new rail tunnel under the Hudson River in over 100 years, citing the possibility of unforeseen cost overruns. As Rachel M. Cohen explains in an essay for the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect,

Many had expected New Jersey to raise its gas tax to meet its obligations for the ARC tunnel and other transportation investments. But Christie was emphatically opposed… [K]illing the ARC project had an additional advantage besides avoiding a gas tax increase. It also enabled him to redirect more than $3 billion that had already been put aside for the tunnel.

Christie’s Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, had set off a political firestorm in 2008 when he tried to pass a plan that would have used dramatic increases in highway tolls over a 12-year period to cut the state’s $32 billion debt in half and pay for transportation improvements. Although the plan was defeated, Corzine did succeed in doubling tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. While the revenue wasn’t enough to resolve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, it included $1.25 billion earmarked for the future ARC tunnel… Christie took that money as well as $1.8 billion from the Port Authority’s ARC capital fund and used the more than $3 billion in total to pay for road and bridge projects in the state.

The existing Hudson rail tunnels suffered significant damage during Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. According to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, each tunnel will need to be closed for repairs for at least a year sometime within the next two decades. He has stressed that twenty years is an upper bound on the tunnels’ remaining life, and that they might need to be shuttered in as little as seven.

The closure of even one of the tunnels would be devastating, with New Jersey Transit estimating that the number of commuter trains able to traverse the Hudson every hour would be cut by up to 75%. The result would be utter chaos. Now-unthinkable measures like banning automobiles from using the Lincoln Tunnel would have to be implemented to deal with the loss of capacity. Put simply, the probability that New York and New Jersey could suffer Transitpocalypse within the next ten years is meaningfully greater than zero.

Chris Christie is constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as governor and will leave office in January 2018. But if he were able to run for and win a third term, he could conceivably serve until 2022. Boardman’s statement was issued last year. Assuming, arguendo, that his most pessimistic prediction were to be the correct one, then the tunnels could be wheeled into surgery as early as 2021 – during the second half of a hypothetical third Christie term.

Of course, Hurricane Sandy had not yet taken place when Christie pulled the plug on ARC, and an accurate assessment of how much damage it had inflicted was not available until some time afterward. But a third-term-eligible Christie might have been galvanized by Boardman’s prognosis to prioritize the development of a funding mechanism for an alternative project like Amtrak’s Gateway proposal that would increase trans-Hudson capacity, knowing that the worst could very well happen on his watch. As it is, Christie was probably correct to gamble that the tunnels will manage to avoid flatlining for the remainder of his time in office.

This is one reason why I see him as an ideal poster boy for the case against term limits: Christie’s decision to raid the funds that had been appropriated for ARC in order to forestall a gas tax increase and have the state still be able to pay for an urgently-needed renovation of the Pulaski Skyway bridge between Newark and Jersey City is emblematic of an important way in which term limits affect political incentives. By guaranteeing that a politician who inaugurates an ultra-long-term public works project will no longer be in office when his constituents begin to reap its benefits, these limits nudge elected officials in the direction of advancing initiatives with more immediate payoffs or those whose costs can be postponed indefinitely.

As Benjamin Kabak of the transit blog Second Avenue Sagas put it in a post on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal for a new subway line down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, “[o]ne of the reasons why politicians are so hesitant to embrace these ambitious plans concerns timing. If it’s going to take a decade or more from start to finish, those who appear at the ribbon cutting won’t be those who did the heavy lifting and secured the dollars.”

And if you know that you won’t be around for the ribbon cutting, it might start to seem like a better use of your time to focus on something else – like how to position yourself for your next job. Even politicians find unemployment stressful, so it’s only rational than term-limited officials would take steps to plan for the future when they know they’ll be sent home after four or eight years.

Which brings us to the second way in which Christie illustrates the unintended consequences of term limits: knowing that he will not have to face the voters again in his own state, he has devoted more and more energy to burnishing his national image in advance of a run for the White House. In his role as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association for 2014, Christie frequently traveled out-of-state – and sometimes out-of-country – to campaign for GOP candidates and to promote key planks in the party’s platform. According to, the peripatetic governor spent all or part of 137 days last year outside of the state.

The voting public seems to be growing irritated with these absences: a Monmouth University poll released in February found that about two-thirds of voters in the Garden State believed that a trip Christie took to the United Kingdom that was advertised as a “trade mission” was “mainly designed to boost his presidential prospects” (17 percent believed that the primary intent was in fact to strengthen economic ties). Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that someone who believes Christie’s globetrotting is designed to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign is unhappy about that fact, but the same poll also found that a nearly identical percentage of voters “say he is more concerned about his own political future than he is about the state,” which suggests that his motives are viewed with a certain amount of cynicism.

In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein express skepticism about the transformative potential of term limits for precisely this reason. They cite other scholars who argue that, in the twenty-one states that instituted term limits for state representatives between 1990 and 2000,

[i]f anything, the limits amplified the corrosive effects of ambition on the legislators, who focused from day one on how best to use their limited time as a springboard to their next post. That produced incentives to go for a big, short-term splash and leave the long-term mess to the next wave of their successors.

One possible counterargument could be that term limits might not actually “bind.” That is to say, ambitious politicians like Christie who believe they can be elected to higher office in the middle of their second term might still believe they could be elected to higher office at the same point in their service even if they were offered the possibility of a third or a fourth term. Perhaps they might feel they had already accomplished whatever they set out to accomplish, or at the very least that whatever accomplishments they had already racked up would make their resumé sufficiently attractive to the voters that they would be better off quitting while ahead (or quitting before their lackeys went rogue and closed down a bridge out of puerile spite, the time for which has, alas, already passed for Christie).

That’s certainly possible, but running for reelection as an incumbent is almost always easier than putting together a winning campaign for a completely new position. I would be surprised if term limits didn’t incentivize at least some politicians to take a leap they otherwise would not have or that they otherwise might have postponed, and in fact there is some research, in addition to the work referenced by Mann and Ornstein, suggesting this could be the case.

If the polling is to be trusted, a large chunk of the New Jersey electorate finds Chris Christie’s pre-campaign antics distasteful, and many of his detractors take pleasure in the fact that he’s guaranteed to leave office less than three years from today. But what those detractors may be neglecting is the possibility that his antics are in part the result of that very guarantee, and that, paradoxically, allowing him to hang around New Jersey a while longer would make him more dedicated to the people of the state and more attentive to their needs.

Pope Francis’ Cardinal Objective

Round Two

When Pope Francis announced his first slate of appointments to the College of Cardinals early last year, much of the commentary in both the Catholic press and mainstream media focused on his apparent intent to “de-Italianize” or “de-Europeanize” the upper echelons of the Church’s hierarchy. Bishops from prestigious Italian dioceses and traditional “cardinal sees” were passed over in favor of prelates from countries like Haiti that had never before had a cardinal of their own.

The recipients of Francis’ second round of red hats, which were officially handed out last Saturday in a ceremony at the Vatican known as a consistory, seem to offer further confirmation of the pope’s desire to boost the number of cardinals hailing from “the peripheries,” places like Africa, Asia, and South America where Catholicism is growing but which are still dramatically underrepresented in the highest ranks of Church government. Archbishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi, the first cardinal to hail from the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga, claimed in an interview that his only previous conversation with the pope consisted of him explaining where Tonga is located.

It is undeniable that the College of Cardinals is becoming more geographically diverse. But is it necessarily the case that the so-called peripheries are becoming less underrepresented? After the consistory last February, I raised the possibility that the Catholic population of the “global South” was growing more quickly than the number of cardinals from these regions, meaning that the disproportionate influence of European prelates within the Vatican bureaucracy – and over the process of electing the next pope – was in fact growing stronger.

Around the time of the 2013 conclave, the Pew Research Center produced a helpful graphic that showed the share of cardinal electors coming from each continent, as well as each continent’s share of the worldwide Catholic population. Though Europe accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics in 2013, over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave that elected Francis were European; only 17% of the electors came from Latin America, which is home to nearly 40% of Catholics.

The Church is not a democracy, so saying that certain areas are “underrepresented” should not be interpreted in a narrow political sense or taken to mean that the current arrangement is necessarily unjust. But there are nevertheless good reasons why a geographic imbalance in the College of Cardinals ought to be corrected. The Church is a global institution whose leadership should not allow itself to become consumed with provincial concerns. To his credit, Pope Francis seems well aware of the need to steer clear of such pitfalls, and his pronouncements on issues like climate change reflect a global perspective that stands in clear contrast to that of his many Western critics.

Anyway, I was interested to see whether this latest move will have an appreciable impact on the representativeness of the cardinalate, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 (alas, I can’t afford Stata 13) and got to work.

Data and Methodology 

For those of you who weren’t yet loyal RM readers a year ago, here’s a quick recap of the approach I laid out last February (much of this description is lifted verbatim from that earlier post).

For data on the nationalities of cardinals and the dates of their births, deaths, and appointments, I turned to “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,” a wonderfully comprehensive website curated by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda. Since the majority of Catholics lived in Europe for most of the Church’s history, and since the cardinals were almost all of Italian descent until relatively recently, I decided it would be sufficient to begin my analysis around 1900 (this was also the earliest date for which I could find estimates of the global Catholic population, as I explain below). I pulled information from Miranda’s website going far enough back in time to be sure that I had included all men who were cardinals at the start of the twentieth century.

Counting cardinals at any given point in time is in fact a bit trickier than it might seem. Cardinals can exit the College either by dying, by being elected pope, or (in a couple rare instances) by resigning their position. The pope can also create “secret cardinals” or cardinals in pectore, whose names are kept “in his breast” until such time as he decides to announce them. Although the date of promotion of such cardinals is technically the date the pope promoted other cardinals he chose at the same time, I figured it would make more sense to count only cardinals whose names were known publicly on the date in question.

Moreover, assigning cardinals to a particular continent can also get complicated. Many have held positions in the Vatican at the time of their elevation despite having been born and raised elsewhere. I decided to assign cardinals to regions based on where they worked when they were promoted, not on their nationality at birth. For example, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura Dominique Mamberti (the “Chief Justice” of the Vatican’s Supreme Court) is counted as an Italian/European because he works in the Roman Curia, despite his having been born in Morocco. (That said, I also redid my analysis with nationality at birth, and the results are very similar. These, along with all of my computations, are available on request.)

For population data, I turned to the World Christian Database (WCD), sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. From the website of the WCD I was able to obtain estimates of the global Catholic population by continent in 1900, 1950, 1970, 2000, and 2010, as well as projections for 2020.

Following some work in the political science literature, I employ the Gini coefficient – most commonly used in economics as a measure of income or wealth disparities – to get a sense of inequality in the geographic distribution of cardinals. Gini readings close to zero represent more equal distributions (e.g. every region of the world having a number of cardinals proportional to its share of the global Catholic population) and readings close to one represent unequal distributions (e.g. one region having all the cardinals while the others have none). In other words, the lower the Gini coefficient, the better.*

Although the Gini coefficient is constantly in flux as older cardinals pass away and/or as the world population of Catholics changes, I obviously had to limit myself to calculating it at a finite number of points in time. I chose to do so at the times of the consistories when new cardinals are inducted, and at the times of the conclaves when new popes are elected. Because I only have population data at select dates, I used simple linear interpolations to estimate population at the times of the consistories and conclaves (i.e. if population data were available at time and time t+1, I assumed that population growth between t and t+1 could be modeled with a straight line).

Following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo in 1975, only cardinals under the age of 80 are permitted to cast votes for pope. Since their right to vote is the primary (but by no means only) reason we are interested in their nationalities, I do my analysis in the post-1975 period on both the entire set of cardinals and on a restricted sample of the sub-octogenarians.


Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2015


Fig. 1 illustrates how the size of the College has increased dramatically since 1900, even as the number of eligible electors has remained relatively constant in recent years (owing to a decree of Pope John Paul II that no more than 120 cardinals may cast ballots in conclave). In fact, the rate of growth of the number of cardinals seems to have accelerated since the early 2000’s, perhaps reflecting increased life expectancies.

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2015


Fig. 2 shows how the percentage of cardinals hailing from each continent has evolved over time. While Europeans have lost a lot of ground compared to the early twentieth century, the absolute share of European cardinals has remained roughly constant for the last thirty years or so (though it appears to be ticking downward once again).

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2015


Fig. 3 plots the population series I constructed from the WCD data, and gives a rough idea of how the Catholic populations of different parts of the world have changed in the last hundred-odd years. A comparison of Figs. 2 and 3 makes it abundantly clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not tracked their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

Fig. 4: Estimated Gini Coefficients for all Cardinals and Cardinal Electors, 1900 – 2020


Finally, Fig. 4 presents the estimated Gini coefficients for the College of Cardinals from 1900 to the present. The solid lines denote computations using historical data, while the dashed lines indicate projections for 2020 based on the estimated future Catholic populations of each continent in the WCD data and the assumption that shares of cardinals from each continent will remain at their current levels going forward.

The pattern remains quite similar to what I found last February, and runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom. The lines drop off sharply at the very end of the series, indicating that Francis’ recent set of picks is indeed moving the College toward geographic equity (the coefficient for all cardinals decreased from 0.278 on Feb. 22nd, 2014 to 0.262 today, and the coefficient for all electors decreased from 0.216 to 0.157).

But the projections for 2020 should give pause to anyone claiming that European overrepresentation is coming to an end. If each continent’s current share of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient will actually rise modestly over the next few years – to 0.281 for all cardinals and 0.174 for the electors. Yet this is an improvement from last year’s projections for 2020, when I forecast that the Gini coefficient would rise to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors. Looked at another way, the predicted 2020 Gini for the electors is 25% lower than it was a year ago. Good work, Francis!

Some reports have claimed that Francis is considering lifting the cap on the number of eligible electors from 120 to 140, presumably out of a recognition that meaningful improvements in the geographic representativeness of the College will not be brought about through attrition alone. In fact, there are already more than 120 cardinals who would be eligible to vote for pope were a conclave to be held today, so perhaps Francis can just continue to flout the official rule without explicitly changing it (he is the pope after all!). The above analysis suggests that such aggressive measures will likely be needed if the College is to become more representative in the face of continued growth in the Catholic population of the global South.


*Especially geeky readers interested in the technical details of how the Gini coefficient is computed can check out page 9 of a working paper entitled “How Has the Literature on Gini’s Index Evolved in the Past 80 Years?” by Kuan Xu of the Dalhousie University Department of Economics in Nova Scotia for a lucid, step-by-step derivation.

A Reply to Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez

Reasonably Moderate is notoriously poor at responding quickly to feedback from readers (and its two halves are even poorer at responding to each other), so I was both surprised and a little bit awed when Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez published a reply to my recent Ethika Politika article only about twelve hours after it first appeared. I very much appreciate his taking the time to read through it and offer his thoughts on my contention that a “Catholic Party” would be bad for the Church, but I’m afraid that he has misinterpreted several key pieces of my argument.

Sanchez levels two main criticisms at the piece. The first is that my concerns about “the politicization of religion” are at best vague and at worst grounded in a vision of the relationship between (the Catholic) Church and State that is out of sync with Catholic teaching:

Does Mazewski deny that the Church’s hierarchy has the right – indeed the duty – to direct the faithful in socio-political affairs?… If there is anything which is today ‘bad for the Church’ with respect to political and social movements it is its unwillingness to clearly define which matters lay Catholics can support and those they cannot. Today, neither of America’s two major political parties represent the full balance of Catholic principles; both, lamentably, stand in direct opposition to many of them.

In fact, I do not at all deny that the Church has such a right/duty. When I refer to the “politicization of religion,” I don’t mean “the involvement of religious people or institutions in the political process,” or even “political argument that draws on religious values or employs religious rhetoric.” In my original piece, in the paragraph following the one from which Sanchez quotes, I explain what I do mean:

[T]he silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

I welcome the fact that members of the hierarchy offer commentary on political questions, but I find it troubling when they do so in a way that implies institutional support for a particular party or its candidates (and not just because they could be imperiling the Church’s tax-exempt status). Catholicism should not be apolitical, but it is and ought to remain nonpartisan.

That’s why I’m disturbed whenever someone like Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin brandishes a letter in public confirming that he’s a registered Republican, as Tobin did during a speech to a group of young Republicans in 2013, even if he also insists that his partisan affiliation “doesn’t mean a whole lot”: not because a bishop is talking about politics, but because these kind of actions seem to insinuate that the Catholic Church finds fault with the Democratic Party’s platform but considers the Republican platform to be perfectly kosher (er, so to speak).

Sanchez writes that “the vision [Mazewski] operates with is a liberal one.” One could interpret this statement in a variety of ways, but if he means to say that I believe in cordoning off religion from the public square or in attempting to enforce a “neutral” secular political discourse that itself relies on certain contestable assumptions, then the characterization is inapt. (If he means to say that I believe in the value of pluralistic democracy, well, then guilty as charged.)

His second criticism is that the hypothetical political realignment that I describe in my piece, through which the parties of Left and Right come to be replaced by parties of “Subsidiarity” and “Solidarity,” would not really represent a meaningful development at all from the perspective of Catholic social thought:

According to Mazewski’s other main thesis, namely that we are witnessing ideological realignment within the Democratic and Republican parties, it is not clear what, if anything, this could mean for American Catholics. Any party which, inter alia, supports so-called abortion rights, the redefinition of marriage, and legal protection for immoral, incendiary, and blasphemous forms of speech is beyond the pale. Similarly, any [party] which upholds the tenets of economic liberalism… places itself out of the reach of Catholic support. Even if Democrats and Republicans begin to embrace full-throated solidarity and subsidiarity, that hardly means either will abandon their dubious policy positions. Error can always be repackaged.

I don’t believe that we’re on the threshold of an era when all politicians will “abandon their dubious policy positions,” but as I argue in the original piece,

[a] party that brought together liberals like [Zephyr] Teachout and conservatives like [Rand] Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

My thesis is that the issues that would divide a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party would necessarily be different from those that divide conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats today (“liberal” in the colloquial sense, not in the sense in which Sanchez uses the term here). Certain viewpoints that are now sidelined within one party or the other could come to be tolerated or even embraced in a way that they currently are not. Under the existing two-party system, for example, opinions on the legal status of abortion tend to correlate almost perfectly with party affiliation, whereas thoughts on whether the government should break up large financial institutions do not.

Yet if being pro- or anti-breaking-up-large-financial-institutions were to become the key determinant of which party you ought to belong to, then the association between the abortion question and partisan identity would be greatly weakened. The issue itself would not necessarily lose its valence, just as the cause of breaking up the banks is very much alive despite lacking the institutional backing of one party or the other. But the chances of being marginalized within either party because of one’s beliefs on the matter would be dramatically reduced. (Of course, this would in many ways be a reversion to the status quo ante rather than a novel development.)

I don’t agree with Sanchez when he says that a party’s support for positions at odds with those of the Magisterium necessarily “places itself out of the reach of Catholic support” – a topic for another post perhaps! – but I do think it’s accurate to say, as Michael Sean Winters puts it, that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” My point is not that political ideas the Church disagrees with would disappear from the scene following the hypothetical realignment I outline, but rather that the resulting political environment would be one in which the “consistent Catholics” of the world would be less likely to be looked at askance by both parties.

Would a “Catholic Party” Be Bad for the Church?

This article first appeared at Ethika Politika.

Last September, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout dealt Gov. Andrew Cuomo a major embarrassment in New York state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary when she finished with just over a third of the vote and carried 30 of the state’s 62 counties. That may not seem like much of a victory, but few believed that a race between an incumbent governor and someone who had never sought elected office would be at all competitive. The conventional wisdom in the run-up to Primary Day held that Teachout, who ran no TV ads and spent only about $300,000 on her campaign to Cuomo’s $20 million, would be lucky to crack 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s candidacy was portrayed by the media as a challenge to Cuomo “from the left,” but her views are not so easily shoehorned into the usual political categories. In fact, her appeal may be a sign that those categories are breaking down and that a realignment of the coalitions of American politics is in the offing. Such a shift is not likely to produce a party with a platform that lines up perfectly with the social doctrine of the Church, but it could potentially bring about a political milieu in which Catholics who are committed to seeing that social doctrine put into practice as consistently as possible find it more straightforward to reconcile their religious commitments with their partisan loyalties. And as an added bonus, it could even make it easier for the institutional Church to avoid unseemly political entanglements.

Central to Teachout’s message was her claim that concentrated power, whether economic or political, is antithetical to a democratic society. Styling herself an “old-fashioned trustbuster,” she and running mate Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the term “net neutrality,” called for blocking a controversial cable merger between Time Warner and Comcast and even joined with conservatives like Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino in opposing “Common Core” educational standards and in pressing Albany to devolve more power to local governments.

Teachout frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson while on the stump. At a campaign stop in Oneonta, she described how he had wanted an explicit anti-monopoly clause to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Yet Jefferson, who believed that the powers of the federal government should be sharply limited and that the American economy should be powered by a strong agricultural sector, clung to a vision of society that would seem to be at odds with that of many contemporary progressives.

Indeed, Jefferson’s vision is at odds with that of many progressives, which is precisely why the Teachout phenomenon may portend a struggle on the Left akin to that between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans on the Right. In a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, New York University’s Christian Parenti argues that the thinking of Jefferson’s foe Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, provides the better template for contemporary liberals. Parenti writes that “Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites,” whereas “[Hamilton’s] mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change.” If progressives like Parenti have any say, Teachout-style insurgents will not be able to take over the Democratic Party without a fight.

The Left generally worries about concentrated economic power but is less concerned about concentrated political power; the opposite is true of the Right. But what if this pattern is changing? We seem to be witnessing the recapitulation of a debate from the earliest days of the Republic: Jeffersonian advocates of the diffusion of power versus Hamiltonian enthusiasts of centralized power put to work for the public good.

It is not inconceivable that the combatants in these intra-party struggles could decide that it is easier to win elections by forming wholly new coalitions than by engaging in an endless war of attrition against their own co-partisans. One reason to think such a development likely can be seen in the early reactions to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup in the 2016 presidential election. Both Republicans like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat and Democrats like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have bemoaned the idea of a race between two candidates who both have close ties to the existing power structures in Washington and on Wall Street.

On the other hand, there are some who are eagerly looking forward to just such a contest. Politico reporters Ben White and Maggie Haberman last year quoted an unnamed lawyer from the financial services industry as saying that

If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine … we could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.

Given the almost insurmountable obstacles to building a successful third party, anti-establishmentarians like Douthat and Schweitzer will only be able to challenge the status quo in a fundamental way to the extent that they can transform one of the two major parties into an effective vehicle for their ideas. And should such a transformation be successful, there would be strong incentives for those on both the Right and Left who oppose Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren-style populism to join forces in the other party.

To borrow from the vocabulary of Catholic social thought, voters could one day find themselves choosing not between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, but between a party of solidarity and a party of subsidiarity.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines subsidiarity as the principle that “all societies of a superior order [e.g. national governments] must adopt attitudes of help … with respect to lower-order societies [e.g. local governments, families, etc.]” (186), and solidarity (quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis) as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (193). In other words, we are obliged to work toward eliminating social ills even if they do not affect us directly, but our solutions to those ills ought not to be imposed from on high and should be formulated and implemented by the lowest-level governmental or civic institutions possible.

This would not be quite the realignment for which some Catholics have been hoping. In the wake of Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he laments the fact that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” He concludes with a cautious prediction about the future of the two-party system:

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party.

Winters’s forecast may turn out to be correct, but the Church should prefer the realignment that I’ve outlined to the one for which he yearns. From the standpoint of the American hierarchy, the existence of a “Catholic Party” would be bad news for the same reason it would be good news: The bishops would be free to support a single party and its candidates without reservation. For anyone concerned about the politicization of religion, this would be a worrisome state of affairs.

Catholics like Winters may complain about never being able to vote for a politician who has not taken morally objectionable stances on at least some issues, but the silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

In a world inhabited by a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party, though, the hierarchy could still maintain this distance by emphasizing not only the ways in which Catholic social thought is compatible with each party’s outlook, but also how its principles can be served by healthy competition between the two. The Church has already made clear that solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It even holds that pursuing one at the expense of the other can lead to social dysfunction:

The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favorable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 351).

Another upside for communitarians like Winters is that the alliances that would hold these two parties together would militate against their taking uncompromising stances on hot-button culture war issues in their official platforms. A party that brought together liberals like Teachout and conservatives like Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

A “Catholic Party” may seem like an appealing idea to Catholics frustrated by some of the more difficult trade-offs associated with electoral politics, but the cure could easily be worse than the disease. Better, it seems, to hope for a political culture in which both parties eagerly welcome the contributions of those working to advance a Catholic vision of the common good.

Abolish the Senate, but Amend the Amendment Process First

“Abolish the Senate,” declares author Daniel Lazare in the title of his latest essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, in which he lays out a case for why the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress “needs to go.” Lazare vividly illustrates the ways in which the Senate is “by now the most unrepresentative major legislature in the ‘democratic world’” and draws attention to the fact that the same trends exacerbating that unrepresentativeness are simultaneously pushing reform farther out of reach. Yet his apparent belief that the Senate is the main obstacle to a new era of progressive dominance in Washington is misguided, since the features of the modern-day political scene that he lays at its feet would almost certainly persist in a post-Senate world.

Most of us are aware that the income distribution in the United States skews heavily toward the wealthy, and yet surveys have shown that we tend to grossly underestimate the extent of that skew. Likewise, it’s intuitively clear that sparsely populated states benefit from the fact that every state is constitutionally guaranteed the same number of U.S. senators, but it can be hard to appreciate just how much they benefit without taking a good look at the numbers. Lazare’s piece opens with a list of arresting statistics that make plain the magnitude of the disparity:

  • Although California has the same number of votes as Wyoming, its population, currently at 38.3 million, is now some 65 times larger. One Californian thus has 1.5 percent of the voting clout in Senate elections as someone living just a few hundred miles to the east.
  • Since a majority of Americans now live in just nine states, they wind up with just eighteen votes while the minority holds eighty-two, a ratio of better than four to one.
  • Thanks to the Senate’s bizarre filibuster rules, forty-one senators representing less than 11 percent of the population can prevent any bill from even coming to a vote.
  • Thanks to the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be approved by at least two-thirds of each house, thirty-four senators from states representing just 5 percent of the population can veto any constitutional change, no matter how minor.
  • The same goes for treaties, which also require two-thirds approval.
  • The Senate “hold” system is even more unjust since it allows a single senator representing as little as one citizen in a thousand to stall a bill or executive appointment almost indefinitely.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, the imbalance was much less stark: Lazare himself notes that the largest state in 1790 (Virginia) had “only” twelve times the population of the smallest (Delaware).

Constitutional safeguards of minority rights are important, but representatives of five percent of the population ought not to be able to block a constitutional amendment. There is a broad consensus on this point, as there should be. Even Antonin Scalia, who I assume agrees with Daniel Lazare about approximately nothing else, is on the record as saying that the Constitution is too hard to change.

Lazare’s framing focuses on the advantages afforded to certain geographic groups by the structure of the Senate, but geography ultimately concerns him only insofar as it is a proxy for political beliefs:

Not unexpectedly, equal state representation also turns out to be racially unrepresentative. While Hispanics and racial minorities make up 44 percent of the population in the ten largest states, all of which are heavily urbanized, they account for just 18 percent of the ten smallest states (in which individual voting power happens to be some eighteen times greater)…

Other groups are also penalized…. [T]he LGBT community, whose most vocal activist base is typically in urban areas, does suffer from the Senate’s reign… The same goes for socialists, labor unions, health-care activists, conservationists, and others. All suffer under an exclusionary system that deprives progressive city dwellers of their rightful representation. Yet all are strangely acquiescent.

It is only because geography and political ideology are today so strongly correlated that Lazare is exasperated by this arrangement; he would presumably be perfectly content to live under a system in which socialists had 65 times the voting clout of everyone else! But if the tight link between geography and ideology is what makes the Senate such a problematic institution, then it is also the reason why excising it from the constitutional order will not be enough to bring about the progressive dominance Lazare seeks. Absent any other changes, abolition of the Senate will leave the Congress consisting solely of the House of Representatives, which at the moment is not exactly a bastion of leftism.

In the 2012 elections, Democratic House candidates won a combined 59,214,910 votes, or 48.4% of the total cast. Republican House candidates won 57,622,827 votes, or 47.1%, yet ended up with a 234-201 majority. The conventional wisdom holds that this GOP edge is primarily the result of partisan gerrymandering in the wake of the 2010 census. According to this line of argument, by packing Democratic voters into as few districts as possible and allowing them to win congressional races there by huge margins, GOP-dominated legislatures had essentially caused their opponents to “waste” votes that could have made contests elsewhere more competitive.

But Democratic voters, who Lazare correctly identifies as more likely to be “city dwellers,” also pack themselves into districts in a way that would tend to diminish their influence no matter how the boundaries were drawn. Washington University postdoc Nicholas Goedert wrote in a post at The Monkey Cage after the 2012 elections that “the Democrats’ loss in the House was caused largely not by gerrymandering, but [by] districting itself [emphasis added],” and that

there appears to be evidence at a state-by-state level that the disparity between the popular vote in the House and the distribution of seats is not just due to Republican gerrymanders, but due to a skewed geographic distribution of population putting the Democrats at an inherent disadvantage…

Other research points to the same conclusion: while partisan redistricting has certainly helped Republicans to cement an advantage in the House, the aggregation of Democratic-leaning voters in densely populated urban areas has simultaneously resulted in a kind of natural gerrymander.

It sounds like what Lazare would really prefer is a system of proportional representation, where seats are handed out to each party in direct proportion to their share of the popular vote. I wrote last year after the statewide elections in New Jersey that the Republicans were justified in their grousing about not having taken over either chamber of the legislature despite having garnered more votes, so I’m sympathetic to electoral reforms along these lines. (Proportional representation has some problems of its own, but there are alternative setups like the mixed-member system that can work to mitigate these.)

As I mentioned at the outset, one of the most insightful pieces of Lazare’s analysis is his observation that the ever more pronounced concentration of the population in large metropolitan areas will tend to make the Senate more unequal even as it makes it harder to reform, because of the requirement that two-thirds of the Senate itself approve any prospective constitutional change (unless a constitutional convention is called by two-thirds of the states, something that has never been pulled off in U.S. history). Amending the Constitution requires a degree of consensus and political will that is almost impossible to imagine us achieving in this day and age. Why pour such unbelievable amounts of energy into a campaign to enact a change that will not even solve the problem it was formulated to address?

In my opinion, the only constitutional amendment worth pursuing at this point is one that makes it easier to amend the Constitution. Altering the structure of our government, even in apparently minor ways, is not something to be taken lightly and should be very difficult. But it should not be impossible. Many states make use of amendment mechanisms that are demanding without being unusable. Common features of these mechanisms include requirements that the legislature sign off on an amendment multiple times in different sessions or that it be approved in a popular referendum, sometimes even by a supermajority of voters.

Once we’ve amended the amendment process and adopted a more streamlined procedure, we can then debate further changes with a reasonable amount of confidence that those debates will have some chance of producing actual results. This approach could even improve the odds of making Lazare’s vision of a Senate-free world a reality. Reformers are much more likely to win an argument about whether to make it easier to tweak the Constitution, something from which any constituency could conceivably benefit somewhere down the road, than they are to prevail when explicitly demanding that small states voluntarily relinquish their perks under the current arrangement.

I share Daniel Lazare’s aim of making the American political system more responsive to the needs and preferences of the voters, though I happen to see that objective as an end in itself and not just as a strategically useful tactic for facilitating a socialist victory at the polls. But even granting that this is a worthwhile goal, his plan for achieving it is inadequate to the task.

Were the effort to bulldoze the Senate somehow to succeed, the subsequent realization that the problems highlighted by the abolitionists still remained would only engender even more cynicism about the ability of any popular movement to ever deliver meaningful constitutional reform. And if Lazare is puzzled by how “strangely acquiescent” people are to the status quo now, then I can only imagine how bewildered he would be then.

Predicting 2014’s “Fauxbel” Laureate(s)

The announcement of the 2014 Nobel laureates in economics – or rather, “Fauxbel” laureates, given that the economics prize is technically not a “Nobel Prize” – is due tomorrow morning. I offered some predictions last year as to who would win, and I actually got one! (Got one correct, that is; I myself was not among those honored with an early morning call from Swedish-accented strangers.)

Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen predicts that the Nobel committee will select William J. Baumol, perhaps in conjunction with William G. Bowen, for his work on the cost disease. The Guardian floats Baumol as well, along with a host of others. So does Thomson Reuters, which also places its bets on Philippe Aghion, Peter Howitt, Israel Kirzner, and Mark Granovetter (a sociologist). Econ Job Market Rumors, one of the internet’s great econ-themed cesspools, has a thread on Nobel predictions where one poster wonders whether, instead of giving a prize this year, the committee shouldn’t opt for taking some back.

The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics lists a number of contenders, including my own official guess: Harvard University’s Robert Barro. As noted by RTE, Barro currently ranks as the #2 most-cited economist on IDEAS, a database of research papers in economics maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and he is mentioned almost every year as a leading contender for the highest honor in the discipline.

An additional reason why I’m wagering that it’ll be Barro is because of the rough alternation of the prize between recognition of empirical and theoretical work. Last year’s award highlighted empirical research in asset pricing, 2012’s honored two theorists, and 2011’s celebrated the development of econometric techniques used to untangle cause and effect in macroeconomics. Barro is best known for his contributions to growth theory, so his selection would certainly fit with this pattern. It’s also been over 25 years since a Nobel was explicitly awarded for work in this area, so the field is arguably due. Plus, a Barro win would undoubtedly mean some entertaining tweets from his son, a factor the committee presumably weighs heavily.

Here’s hoping my one-year streak remains unbroken!

Kesler and Mac Donald on Natural Law and Moral Progress

The latest installment of the Claremont Review of Books’ interview series “The American Mind” features a wide-ranging conversation between Review editor Charles Kesler and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald that covers everything from literary deconstructionism to Rudy Giuliani. The interview is posted as six segments of about fifteen minutes each, so there’s quite a lot to digest. (The kitschy opening sequence, a montage of America’s founding documents and a bust of Thomas Jefferson set to classical music, may be better left undigested.)

The part that most interested me was an exchange between Kesler and Mac Donald about the concept of “natural law,” and the relationship between religion and conservative moral precepts. Mac Donald, co-founder of the blog Secular Right, is an unusual political creature. Known for her ardent support of New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy and her restrictionist stance on immigration, she is also an avowed atheist whose writing has appeared at and who has sparred with Ross Douthat about the problem of evil.

In the penultimate segment of the Claremont interview, Kesler observes that Mac Donald, who is often sharply critical of American academia, rarely launches any William Buckley-esque attacks on the secularism of the ivory tower. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange that follows (starting at around 3:46 in the video below):

Kesler: I wonder whether you don’t agree that there is a kind of rational morality that is not strictly dependent on God, which is, I think, the position of natural law thinkers of many schools.

Mac Donald: Yes, absolutely. Parents understand this instinctively, that you inculcate in your child a sense of “you don’t beat up your little sister,” a) because it is going to lead to household chaos and there’s an innate need for order, but b) because your little sister has feelings like you do, and you want to have reciprocal moral behavior. And what moral education is about is widening that sphere of understanding and empathy to greater and greater distance in human interaction…

K: Right. No, well I bring up the question the way that I do because it’s you who say [quoting from an essay by Mac Donald]: “Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order… valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or natural law.” End quote.

But I mean, mystical precepts and natural law are two very different things, as you say just a few sentences later: “They do not need – skeptical conservatives do not need – God or the Christian Bible to discover the Golden Rule and see themselves in others.” I think that’s absolutely true, but I think many religious conservatives would concede that, that the natural law or rational morality is a source of the Golden Rule…

M: I just, I’m not persuaded that very different tribal cultures that have not achieved our civilizational advance… they may differ on things in significant ways.

K: They do, and I’m not sure that admission has anything to do with the notion of natural law as a rational morality, though. I mean, just because tribes don’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t mean that it’s not true, right? I guess all I’m saying, gently, is that you may be committing natural law without realizing it, insofar as you do think that the Golden Rule, for example, is something true or something that appeals to – seeing ourselves in others is not a merely cultural thing.

M: Yeah, I just see… slavery was justified by the Christian Bible and by natural law, it’s just a fact. There were also people who argued against slavery based on Christianity and natural law.

K: It was justified on secular grounds and rational grounds too, of course.

M: Completely. Absolutely. But I’ve yet to see universal agreement on what natural law is. If I could see that, then I would know that it is truly something innate to all human beings. And what I see is, rather, evolution…

I am not offended that the Founders did not think of having females vote. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Nevertheless, that is a pretty radical difference. Nobody today, if they were to create the American Constitution from scratch, would think of limiting suffrage to males. That would be assumed as almost a part of natural law, that males and females should be voting. So I see something that we like to invoke – transcendent universal ideals – but I [also] see culture evolving.

[End of clip]

On the one hand, Mac Donald agrees with Kesler that there is a “rational morality,” and that “moral education” is something possible and worthwhile. Yet she also speaks of cultural evolution and uses the example of the framers of the Constitution limiting suffrage to males to show how ethical judgments can change over time, and how we shouldn’t fault our forebears for having held what we might now consider to be grossly unenlightened views.

But Mac Donald is confusing ethical judgments with ethical realities. Kesler’s reference to the Pythagorean Theorem is apt: to say that moral truths can be arrived at by rational inquiry is not necessarily to say that our current understanding of morality is adequate or complete, just as to say that science deals in objective facts about the universe is not necessarily to say that we have reached the pinnacle of scientific knowledge. Ignorance of the Pythagorean Theorem does not render the Pythagorean Theorem untrue, and ignorance of the moral obligation of a democracy to extend the franchise to both men and women does not nullify that obligation.

Mac Donald is worried that holding to the existence of an objective morality would lead us to have to dismiss the Founding Fathers as bigots, when really the cultural patrimony available to them at the time was not such that they could have understood sexism as we do today. This is not so. After all, believing in the validity of mathematical reasoning need not lead us to condemn as stupid “tribal cultures” that have not yet groped their way to certain insights about triangles. People can engage in behavior that we later recognize to be wrong without necessarily having been guilty of deliberate wrongdoing at that particular moment in history.

Mac Donald seems not to have fully considered the fact that a theory of moral evolution or moral progress is not the same thing as the idea that morality can change. One can believe that morality is in fact not a reality independent of human beings’ preferences, and that all of our talk about right and wrong is culturally contingent, etc. But one can also believe that morality is an independent reality, and that we discover moral truths over time by thinking hard about how to properly “widen our sphere of understanding and empathy.”

Kesler is quite right to draw a distinction between “natural law” and “mystical precepts,” which Mac Donald appears to treat as one and the same. Her misunderstanding, it seems to me, stems from the fact that “natural law” is a term inextricably bound up with religious philosophy, and in particular with Catholicism and certain branches of Protestant Christianity. It is not so much the method offered by natural law that she rejects, but specific conclusions that have historically been associated with it (e.g. support of slavery, disenfranchisement of women, etc.).

Incidentally, self-identified proponents of natural law thinking sometimes fall into a similar trap. In preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family in Rome – about which Chris and I hope to have more to say relatively soon – the Vatican released an instrumentum laboris or working paper synthesizing the results of a worldwide process of consultation with bishops, priests, and laity about challenges to families in the modern world. One section deals with the question of how contemporary Catholics understand (or don’t understand) the concept of a natural law:

In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all…

The responses and observations also show that the adjective ‘natural’ often is understood by people as meaning ‘spontaneous’ or ‘what comes naturally’… The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things [emphasis added], and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. (21-22)

The document goes on to lament evidence of widespread nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on a host of controversial questions, mostly related to marriage and bioethics. But nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on particular issues does not imply nonacceptance of the idea that there is “an objective [moral] order in the nature of things.” Clearly, denial of such an objective order is a sufficient condition for rejecting many of the Church’s positions, but it is not a necessary one. You can believe in right and wrong and yet still maintain that the hierarchy is mistaken about what is right and wrong in certain situations. The authors of the instrumentum laboris, like Mac Donald, are mixing up method and results.

To their credit, they do concede later on that “[t]he language traditionally used in explaining the term ‘natural law’ should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner.” The term “natural law” obviously has the potential to frustrate rather than facilitate conversations about ethics, and to cause confusion about what exactly is being talked about. Its enthusiasts should consider finding different ways of expressing their view that morality, like science, is something that can be discussed objectively. The folks at might not be pleased, but Heather Mac Donald and the pope may be able to agree on something yet.