Smashwords Edition, License Notes




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Americans Love Cheap Gasoline, Coffee and Sugar

I think the American public, for the most part, is profoundly ambivalent about the concept of empire. In public opinion polls, Americans consistently oppose foreign wars, except where “US interests” are at stake. However policy makers and the mainstream media are deliberately vague in defining “US interests.” Prior to 1980, a threat to American interests meant a clear threat to our democratic system of government or the lives of individual Americans. With the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, “US interests” have expanded to include the billions of gallons of cheap foreign oil required for the health of the American economy.

Americans love their cheap gasoline, coffee, sugar and chocolate. And most aren’t consciously aware that they owe these bargain-priced luxuries to US military conquests in the third world. If pollsters posed the question “Would you give up cheap imports to end foreign military aggression?” - I believe the percentage supporting war would rise significantly.

What Americans Sacrifice for Military Empire

At the same time, Americans make immense sacrifices for their cheap gasoline and consumer goods. Again, this was something I never fully realized until moving to a country that doesn’t feel compelled to invade and occupy other nations. The most obvious sacrifice involves a range of domestic programs that other developed countries take for granted. These include publicly financed universal health care (in all industrialized countries except the US) and a range of education, jobs and social programs enacted under Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, which were systematically eliminated by both Bushes and Clinton to expand military spending. With the current War on Terror on eight fronts (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Africa and Columbia), more and more tax revenue is being diverted from local to military spending. In state after state there is no money to repair decrepit roads and bridges or provide adequate street lighting and policing. While dozens of clinics, libraries and homeless shelters shut their doors and teachers, cops and other state and local employees get laid off.

Sacrificing Democratic Rights and Civil Liberties

Americans also make enormous non-financial sacrifices – especially around democratic rights and civil liberties – as citizens of the world’s greatest military power. Genuine democracy – in which citizens are allowed genuine input into the decision to spend more than half their tax dollars on weapons and war – is totally incompatible with military empire. This was the main reason Roman leaders abandoned their democratic form of government when they set out to invade and conquer Europe.

Civilized society is innately repelled by the wholesale carnage of war, especially where there is a high risk of losing friends or loved ones. The US has a long history of popular protest in response to foreign wars. The majority of women, who comprise more than fifty percent of the US population, consistently oppose any military intervention that kills large numbers of enemy civilians. There is also an increasing number of men who expect their tax dollars to be spent on public programs that directly benefit them, rather than Wall Street banks and corporate war profiteers.


The 2001 Patriot Act, which severely curtails Constitutional freedoms enacted to protect US citizens against abusive government, was clearly a preemptive move to suppress organized opposition to what has become a permanent war in the Middle East. 

Our Constitution: Deliberately Conducive to Empire

Although the post-World War II military-industrial complex and its current iron grip on so-called representative government are a fairly recent development, there are also clear structural flaws in the US system of government that make it less responsive to voters than governments of other industrialized countries. These “flaws” mostly relate to what the Constitutional framers referred to as “separation of powers.”

American students learn in school that these “checks and balances” were intended to make the federal government more democratic. However it’s clear from the writings of Hamilton, Madison and other members of the colonial aristocracy who wrote the Constitution that their real intent was to minimize the risk of a democratic vote harming the interests of wealthy landowners and merchants or interfering with their plans for military expansion. In fact the founding fathers made no secret of their imperialistic ambitions (their intention to go to war against the Native Americans and Mexicans who possessed the lands west of the thirteen original colonies), which were extremely unpopular among a mainly farming population who experienced enormous personal and economic privation during the Revolutionary War. Military expansion didn’t end when the Southwest and Pacific coast became US possessions. In 1895, the

US declared war on Spain to expand our empire to include Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines, and other Pacific islands.

Parliamentary Democracy Equals One Man One Vote

Unlike the majority of industrialized countries, the US doesn’t employ a “one-man-one-vote” system of representational democracy. The only hope our Constitutional framers had of enacting their pro-business, pro-military agenda was to establish two branches of government that would be appointed by “electors” rather than direct popular vote (the Senate – though this changed in 1917 - and the Presidency). The intent was for the two non-elected branches to block populist legislation that might be enacted by the democratically elected House of Representatives

I now have 8½ years experience with New Zealand’s system of parliamentary democracy, which is clearly more “democratic” than the US system. Under a parliamentary system, the head of the party controlling the majority of legislative seats automatically becomes chief of state. This places their government under constant pressure to continuously pass reform legislation benefiting the voters who put them into office. The moment the prime minister loses the majority he/she needs to pass legislation, the government collapses and a new election is called. This is in marked contrast to the US Congress, which has been struggling for thirty years to reform education and health care – while American schools and the US health care system virtually disintegrate in front of our eyes.

Another important advantage of a parliamentary democracy is the establishment of an official opposition party, whose role is to attack and embarrass the party in power. The result is vigorous and often raucous parliamentary debate, characterized by booing, cheering and outright heckling (called barracking) by members of the opposing party. Even though both New Zealand’s major parties are increasingly pro-business, bipartisan consensus on a specific issue is extremely rare. Open “bipartisan consensus,” which is so heavily promoted by the US media, Obama, the Clintons, and Wall Street, would be extremely unpopular in New Zealand. The majority of Kiwi voters retain a strong working class consciousness and are extremely dismissive of politicians with open ties to the corporate and business lobby.

Life in a Second World Country

(March 15, 2011)


O bviously there is both an upside and a downside to living in New Zealand. All developed and developing countries are forced to operate under the same global capitalist system, which is under near absolute control of multinational corporations, via the WTO, the Global Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) and other free trade treaties and the draconian financial policies enforced by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. New Zealand is no exception and suffers from many of the same economic and social problems as other developed countries. In a few areas, New Zealand has adopted some of the worst aspects of global capitalism, which results in uniquely negative consequences for the New Zealand public. However, for the most part, Kiwis retain their commitment to the “democratic socialism” they brought here from Europe. This, in my view, results in a society and culture that tends to be far more humane than is found in the US.

Nevertheless, as a capitalist industrialized nation, New Zealand shares a number of pernicious social problems found in all modern capitalist countries:

  • Worsening income inequality – only 9% of Kiwis have incomes above $70,000 ($53,000 in US dollars), whereas nearly one third earn less than $14,000 ($10,5000 US).

  • Irrational and blind adherence to a continuous economic growth paradigm. In a small country like New Zealand, this has much graver impact, in the form of toxic soil and water contamination and habitat destruction from mining and aggressive dairy expansion. Over the past two decades, the majority of New Zealand’s picturesque waterways have become unsuitable for swimming owing to farm effluent and fertilizer run-off.

  • Slow uptake of renewable energy production (owing to nonexistent finance capital or government subsidies)

Slow uptake of growth management (sprawl prevention strategies) essential to the development of cost effective public transportation and food and water security.

Slow uptake of the food miles concept, owing to an economy that is totally reliant on tourism and agricultural exports.

  • Heavy mainstream media emphasis on stereotypical female roles, resulting in massive pressure on New Zealand women to look young, thin and sexually attractive. Fortunately cosmetic surgery is still much less common here than in the US – there simply aren’t enough Kiwis who can afford it.

  • Massive household debt (150% of disposable income – owing to chronic low wages).

Factory shut-downs and movement of well-paid union and manufacturing jobs to overseas sweat shops.

Diets which are excessively dependent on foreign food imports, as opposed to more sustainable reliance on locally and regionally produced food in season.

Factory farming of pigs and chickens, which have to be fed antibiotics daily, as the cramped quarters cause a large number of animals to be diseased.

Owing to heavy, sustained Green Party lobbying, sow stalls have been banned as of 2015. Nevertheless, thanks to the high prevalence of battery hen operations in New Zealand (and constant exposure of chickens to feces), a high proportion of fresh chicken sold in our supermarkets is contaminated with salmonella and/or campylobacter (which, contrary to popular misconception isn’t destroyed by cooking). Both organisms cause food poisoning in humans. New Zealand currently enjoys the highest per capita incidence of campylobacter infection in the world.

An Early Laboratory for Neoliberal Reforms

Overall I have enjoyed numerous lifestyle advantages living in New Zealand. There are a few notable exceptions, of course, beyond the emotional isolation of being separated from my family and American friends. Most relate, either directly or indirectly, to the role New Zealand played in the 1980s as the “Chile of the South Pacific” – as a “laboratory” for the neoliberal reforms subsequently implemented by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Theoretically neoliberalism is a “market-driven” approach to economic and social policy that stresses the efficiency of private enterprise by opposing any government regulation of corporate abuses or any government role in providing public services other than defense and law enforcement. In practice, neoliberal policies have been universally pro-corporate and anti-free market, promoting a significant amount of legislation (tax law, government contracts, and direct corporate bail-outs) that favor large corporations at the expense of both small business and ordinary citizens.

The University of Chicago is usually credited as the birthplace (in the 1960s) for neoliberalism and Milton Friedman as its father. A frequently overlooked aspect of the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup in Chile was the direct role University of Chicago economists played in advising Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on the draconian neoliberal economic and social policies enacted by his brutal regime. New Zealand played a similar role in the early eighties, by (voluntarily?) trying out neoliberal reforms that were later adopted by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

New Zealand: a Second World Country

A relatively poor, second world country, New Zealand presently ranks 22nd in GDP among OECD countries. Americans are always struck by the high cost of living here relative to wages and salaries. Professionals earn far less – a sacrifice most American and British doctors, teachers and managers are happy to make for New Zealand’s “lifestyle” advantages. Although average income is much lower in New Zealand than in most of the developed world, the cost of basic necessities is just as high – much higher, in the case of gasoline, home energy costs, “export” fish and meats, and fresh vegetables. Central heating is virtually non-existent – in part because so few people can afford it. Just so no one has any illusions about our climate, the New Zealand winter is relatively short. However except for the far north, it gets just as cold here as in London, Washington D.C. or New York City.

In New Zealand They Call It Rogernomics

In part, New Zealand’s relative loss of wealth (in 1975 it was 10th in per capita GDP) relates largely to a 1980s policy decision in Britain, which was always the main importer of New Zealand lamb and dairy products, to favor European Union over British Commonwealth trading partners. However many New Zealand economists also blame draconian reforms implemented by Minister of Finance Roger Douglas in the mid-eighties. “Rogernomics,” as it’s known, was directly responsible for the institutionalization of a large and steady wealth transfer (as profits and dividends) to overseas corporations. This in turn has led to a large, chronic accounts deficit (negative balance of trade) that is directly or indirectly responsible for other major economic problems.

It’s only with the 2008 economic collapse and the non-existent US recovery that American analysts are beginning to appreciate the devastating impact that “Reaganomics” (the Reagan-Bush neoliberal agenda continued by Bill Clinton and Bush Jr.) had on US manufacturing and thus the overall economy. In a country 1/60th the size of the US, the damage was much more immediate and harder to conceal.

In brief, the policies introduced by Minister of Finance Sir Roger Douglas in the 1980s included the elimination of import tariffs protecting New Zealand agricultural producers and manufacturers; rapid privatization of state owned industries, which for the most part ended up under foreign ownership; anti-union changes to the Employment Relations Act; and substantial cuts in the public service and social welfare benefits.

With the abolition of import controls, New Zealand companies struggled to compete against lower cost imported goods, resulting in multiple plant closures – mainly meat and dairy processing plants and clothing, footwear and textiles factories. This resulted in massive layoffs and a decade of unrelenting hardship for communities that relied on these industries, as well as a loss of the skilled labor force that staffed them. The 1984 reforms also heralded in seven years of continuous economic stagnation, during which the New Zealand economy shrank by 1% in contrast with an average 20% growth in other OECD countries.

The Mass Exodus of Generations X and Y

The most enduring harm from the 1984 reforms is the staggering loss of human capital that continues to this day. At present approximately one million native New Zealanders – representing one quarter New Zealand’s current population of four million – reside overseas.

As described above, the massive sell-off of both state owned and private Kiwi companies to foreign owners has translated into a chronic accounts deficit (negative balance of trade), as foreign companies collect their profits and dividends. To compensate for this steady loss of wealth, New Zealand, under pressure to increase exports, eagerly entered into “free trade” agreements with larger countries. Under these agreements, they agreed to reduce tariffs and quotas even more and to reduce “value added” exports in favor of unprocessed raw materials. This, in turn, led to the shut down of even more “value added” industries (for example, those involved in converting logs into timber and furniture, milk into cheese and wool into clothing and carpets), which had no hope of competing with overseas companies that paid sweat shop wages to third world workers.

These “free trade” agreements, which opened New Zealand markets to cheap imported consumer goods, continued the downward spiral. More manufacturers shut down, owing to their inability to compete with overseas companies, leading to more lay-offs and more young Kiwis departing New Zealand in search of well-paying jobs.

The Student Loan Debacle

In my view, the most damaging neoliberal reform of the 1980s was the decision to replace government subsidized tertiary education (which until recently was standard in most European countries, including Britain) with a student loan scheme. While lumbering young people with student loan debt can pose major problems for large, broad based economies like US and Britain, the policy has proved absolutely disastrous for New Zealand – both in terms of wealth creation and the long term health of our hospitals, schools and other major institutions. I believe this continual hemorrhage of human capital is the number one reason New Zealand remains near the bottom of OECD countries for both economic growth and wages and salaries.

According to the New Zealand Medical Association, approximately one-third of medical students leave New Zealand following graduation – mainly to Australia and the UK – where than can command a salary 20-30% higher than what they earn here. Many really have no choice, strapped with large student loan repayments, just as they are trying to buy a home and start a family.

A recent study by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research estimated 37% of new Kiwi teachers left teaching within the first three years. In addition to doctors and teachers, New Zealand also loses a large proportion of the nurses, physiotherapists, social workers, audiologists and other health professionals they train – as well as engineers, urban planners and veterinarians, who are also on New Zealand Immigration’s critical skills shortage list.

New Zealands Neoliberal Transportation Policy

New Zealand’s other really destructive neoliberal policies relate to public transportation: 1) the privatization of New Zealand railways (which led to the immediate shut down of all but four routes, owing to their failure to turn a profit) and 2) the dismantling of local public transportation systems. Both have resulted in extreme reliance on private automobiles and foreign oil, the second biggest culprit in our accounts deficit. New Zealand, which still has a predominantly rural population (only 1/3 of Kiwis live in major cities) holds the embarrassing distinction of the highest rate of car ownership in the world.

Activism in New Zealand

(March 17, 2011)


As a thirty year plus grassroots organizer committed to global political change, the positives of living in New Zealand far outweigh the negatives. Overall, I find Kiwis less apathetic than their American cousins, less likely to be taken in by the corporate hype they see on TV, and more confident about their ability to bring about change through collective action. I sense this relates, in large part, to a well-organized, militant indigenous (Maori) movement. The highly visible activism of the Maori community models the importance of collective struggle for other New Zealanders, in much the same way the American civil rights struggle provided a role model for the US antiwar movement, and the women’s, gay and disability rights movement.

New Zealand society possesses a number of political and social features that make it much easier to bring about change:

Political features:

  • A parliamentary democracy coupled with elections conducted via proportional representation (which Kiwis won by hard, sustained grassroots organizing).

  • The absence of any aspirations towards military empire. As I write in “My New Expatriate Identity,” Americans only fully realize how US militarism overshadows their everyday life once they spend extended time overseas.

  • New Zealand 100% anti-nuclear (both nuclear power and weapons), and US naval ships are banned in our ports because the US government refuses to specific whether naval vessels are nuclear powered or carry nuclear arms. This, too, was won by sustained grassroots organizing.

There is no death penalty in New Zealand.

  • At present, genetically engineered crops and farm animals are banned in New Zealand (except in the laboratory). This is despite a local business elite that lobbies continuously for free trade deals that would allow multinational biotech companies like Monsanto to release their genetically modified organisms here. Thus keeping New Zealand GE-free requires constant vigilance and sustained organizing.

Social Features:

  • New Zealand’s unique migration patterns (which I write about in “Working Class Culture”) give it a predominantly working class culture. My own working class background made it really easy to fit in here, though middle class Americans seem to have more difficulty.

  • The cattle supplying New Zealand’s world famous dairy and beef export industry are grass fed (except during drought years), and no Kiwi farmer would dream of injecting them with hormones or feeding them antibiotics to stimulate growth.

While much of the Kiwi media is foreign-owned and blatantly pro-corporate, there remain vestiges of a vocal independent media that prides itself on its investigative journalism and regularly challenges and embarrasses the government in power. I sense this relates mainly to innate working class mistrust of authority.

Kiwis are much more likely to have a civic life than their American counterparts. Here in New Plymouth (population 55,000), most of my friends belong to the Green Party or the sustainability movement. However I also have friends who belong to Lions, Rotary or one of the many sports clubs (lawn bowling, cricket, soccer, rugby) or hobby groups (stamp club, little theater, orchid society, tramping club, canoe club and four cycling groups).

  • New Zealand has a much stronger sustainability movement, though government uptake of sustainability-related policy has been much slower than in Europe (though we’re still years ahead of the US). The late arrival of both TV and cheap imports in New Zealand means Kiwis are only one generation away from growing all their own vegetables, keeping chickens and “making do” with jerry-rigged plumbing and home repairs and homemade cleaning and beauty products. Most households still hang out their washing (high energy costs make running a clothes dryer a luxury). Local currencies introduced in many rural communities during the last international recession (1990-93) still survive in several areas and have been incorporated into the sustainability movement.

Working Class Culture

November 28, 2010

 

One of the features I like best about New Zealand society is the strong working class consciousness. Despite the best efforts of politicians and the media to convince us that class differences have been abolished, any American who has entered professional or academic life from a blue collar home will assure you that there is a distinct working class culture in the US. And that no much how much wealth or social status you acquire, you will never “pass” as middle class. That something in the way you dress or express yourself will always betray your working class origins.

Readers from working class homes will immediately understand what I’m talking about. It’s a topic several journalists and sociologists have written about: Lillian Breslow Rubin in Worlds of Pain, Richard Sennett in Hidden Injuries of Class, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey in Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, and more recently Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubrano in Limbo: Blue Collar Roots and White Collar Dreams.

However, even in progressive and leftist circles, the subject is rarely openly discussed. Ironically I was well into my thirties before I recognized the distinctly working class “culture” of the home and family I was raised in. I was always aware of being very different – of essentially speaking a different language – than my high school, college and medical school classmates.

My Desperate Search for People Like Me

I remember the thrill of finally meeting someone at nineteen – a gay composer – who amazingly understood the very different way I looked at the world and other people. I was naively apolitical and attributed our ability to understand one another to “artistic temperament” – the fact we were both into music, art and literature. Around the same time, I seriously considered relocating to an artists’ colony near Santa Fe, in the hoping of meeting more people like me.

Instead I went to England and married the son of a Glaswegian foundry worker. Who – despite his Scottish accent and dialect – was only the second person in the world who spoke the same language I did. I found this very puzzling at the time. Roy, a forklift driver didn’t have an artistic bone in his body.

It was only in 1983 that an Appalachian friend clued me into the real reason I felt so profoundly alienated from my physician colleagues – and from most of my fellow leftists, who for the most part came from academic and professional homes. The moment of enlightenment occurred during a conversation about a fellow member of International Socialists Organization – who refused to speak to me about an upcoming because her oatmeal was getting cold.

“That’s class privilege,” my friend explained. “A working class person would never say that.” Suddenly a light bulb came about why I felt so extremely different from both my medical colleagues and most of my fellow leftists.

Characteristic Blue Collar Traits

At the top of the list of characteristic blue collar traits, is a tendency to be blunt and forthright, without self-censorship or hidden agendas. It drives us crazy when our middle class bosses, co-workers and fellow activists monopolize conversations with their constant equivocation, rationalization, and intellectualization. Owing to an innate fear of expressing feelings directly, they constantly criticize us for being too open and direct.

We also have profoundly different attitudes towards childrearing. We believe in setting firm limits, unlike white collar families, who are inclined to be permissive and use guilt as punishment. We believe kids learn social skills best by playing in the streets, where there are no adults to supervise or intercede for them. In fact, we have strong reservations about kids spending too much leisure time in structured activities (such as piano, violin and dancing lessons – or too many organized sports) because this provides so little opportunity for spontaneous interaction with other children.

We are intensely loyal, as opposed to upper middle class colleagues, who are raised from an early age to be fiercely competitive and look out for number one. Finally we have an inherent distrust of ideology, abstract theories, and people with too many letters after their name. In our view, the main outcome of a “liberal arts” education, as opposed to hands-on experience, is a distinct lack of common sense and street smarts.

Kiwi Slang

Another plus about living in New Zealand is that I suddenly have access to a whole new vocabulary to describe everyday experiences. For the most part culture – science, technology, art, law and pseudo-sciences, such psychology, sociology and anthropology – originates with the upper classes and either filters downward or is imposed on the rest of us. With language the opposite is true – new language is created by the lower classes and filters upward.

New Zealand slang, which is mainly based on working class British slang, is rich and colorful, like American ghetto slang. In part owing to loss of working class consciousness in the US, Americans don’t have a good way to express many of the following concepts. I’m especially fond of all the disparaging terms Kiwis have to describe the upper classes:

  • Airy-fairy – an adjective used to describe concerns or views (or a person who expresses them) that are purely intellectual or theoretical notions and have no practical basis in reality.

Argy-bargy – a useless argument over nothing

Bollocks – (literally meaning testicles) nonsense

Bugger – a very useful term, which means to sodomize or someone who engages in sodomy (somehow I don’t see it gaining wide acceptance in the US). Can be used as an expletive like the F word, or combined, as the F word is, to form other useful expressions such as buggered (tired), bugger-all (nothing) and bugger-off.

Dodgy – not sound, good, or reliable

Fiddle – verb and adjective meaning to steal, usually from an employer. “Working a fiddle” means getting back at your boss (by stealing paperclips, fudging your timesheet or “throwing a sickie” – see below) for underpaying you.

Flash – an adjective describing a rich person who exhibits poor taste.

Flog – to aggressively sell something useless

Gaffer – boss

Git – a contemptible, mean-spirited, incompetent, stupid, annoying, or childish person

Kip – a short sleep

Legless – extremely drunk

Moggy – a mongrel cat

Nick – a versatile word that can be used as a verb meaning to steal or be arrested. Or as a noun referring to jail or prison.

Panel beater – someone who repairs auto bodies

Piss-up – an organized session of binge drinking (where you set out to get “pissed” or drunk)

  • Ponce – literal meaning is a pimp or effeminate person. “To ponce about” is to put on airs.

  • Posh – a pejorative describing rich people who show off

Scive – throw a sickie” (to take a day off when you’re not really sick)

Twit – a foolishly annoying person (an expression popularized by Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch)

Wop-wops – rural areas or hinterlands

The Case for Proportional Representation

January 13, 2011


Activists across the political spectrum were universally dismayed with the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which essentially overturns the extremely tame McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms that took nearly a decade to enact. A national grassroots coalition called Move to Amend believes the only way to reverse a century of similar pro-corporate Supreme Court decisions is via a constitutional amendment that specifically bans “corporate personhood” and other so-called Bill of Right protections that allow powerful corporate lobbies to corrupt the democratic process. I agree. I strongly encourage everyone to sign their petition at http://www.movetoamend.org, which presently has over 99,000 signatures.

Because amending the Constitution will take at least a decade, it’s also important to look for less sweeping electoral reforms we can fight for. Many on the left pooh-pooh all electoral reform short of publicly financed elections. They argue that both Republicans and Democrats are too enmeshed with their corporate backers to respond to any grassroots reform effort, no matter how large or how vocal.

I disagree. At present the biggest problem for the left is the refusal of the majority of Americans to engage in any way with the political process. In view of the grave impending economic/resource/ecological crises we confront, we must be willing to explore all possible options for engaging America’s passive majority. After thirty plus years as a grassroots activist, I find it sometimes makes strategic sense to nibble around the edges of reform. For two reasons. First, the best way to build a movement is to inspire people that they can win small victories. Secondly, the experience in other western democracies is that any reform that improves participation by the disenfranchised reduces corporate interference in the political process.

The New Zealand MMP Voting System

After eight years living under a government elected via proportional representation, trying to enact similar electoral reform in the US strikes me as an excellent place to start – especially as the issue already enjoys strong support at the state and local level. As an American, I had no prior experience with proportional representation when I emigrated to New Zealand in 2002. New Zealand has a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), adopted in 1993 by popular referendum. This followed a series of elections in which the “winner-take-all” system put governments in power that were opposed by a majority of voters. In 1978 and 1981 the National Party won Parliament and the Prime Minister slot, despite winning fewer votes than the Labour Party. Then in 1993, National formed a minority government, despite winning a plurality of only 0.5% – even though a sizable minor party vote meant a majority of New Zealanders actually voted against National.

Under the New Zealand’s MMP electoral system, each party that receives more than 5% of the vote is allocated a proportional number of Parliamentary seats

The Link Between “Winner-Takes-All” and Low Turnout

At present the US, Canada and the UK are the only western democracies that still conduct their national elections via an archaic “winner-takes-all” voting. Under this system, voters only have the option of voting for one of two major party, corporate-sponsored candidates, as minor party votes are never reflected in the final outcome. Meanwhile voters, increasingly aware that they have no voice in a political system funded and controlled by powerful corporations, turn out in smaller and smaller numbers.

The US currently has the worst turnout for elections in the industrial world. In November 2010, average voter turn-out was 37.8%. The lowest turn-out was in Washington D.C., where it was 28.9%. This means was that in many localities, candidates were chosen by under 10% of eligible voters – given that only 50% of eligible adults even register to vote. While turn-out is better in presidential elections, our current “winner-takes-all” system has created a scenario in which the major parties only seriously campaign in fifteen “swing” states, another reason for residents to stay home in the other thirty-five states.

Low Turnout and Government Stalemate

The May 2010 elections in the UK – which significantly boosted British support for proportional representation – also provide a dramatic example of the extreme unfairness of the winner- take-all system. In Britain, candidates can only win a seat a Parliamentary seat by winning a local electorate. The Conservatives, with a total of 36.1% of the vote, won 306 seats (because they won thirty electorates); Labour, with 29% of the vote, won 258 seats and the Liberal Democrats, with 23%, of the vote only got fifty-seven.

In the US the “winner takes all” system has been responsible for two and half decades of legislative stalemate in Congress, leaving the federal government virtually powerless to address the serious economic, social, and ecological crises facing the American nation. It’s rare for American analysts to address the link between low voter turn-out - and the appointment of a de facto minority government (one that doesn’t enjoy the support of the majority of the population) - and this legislative impasse. However foreign commentators talk about it in reporting on American elections, especially as most industrialized countries faced the same dilemma New Zealand did (low turn-out and successive minority governments) in the 1990s. 

Despite his strong popular mandate in 2008, Obama has been totally unsuccessful in keeping campaign promises to close Guantanamo, end the wars in the Middle East, or pass meaningful banking reform, economic stimulus or climate change legislation. Even more alarming is the federal government’s inability to address the virtual meltdown of the American health care and educational system or serious infrastructure decay in our cities – the inability to maintain adequate law enforcement, street repair and lighting or even keep schools running at full capacity.

Historically, the stalemate in Congress dates back to the Republican takeover of the House and Senate under Clinton in 1996. Clinton himself was unsuccessful in passing meaningful health or education reform.  Programs passed by subsequent presidents – Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obamacare (an insurance company bailout bill that makes health care more expensive and thus harder to access) have been little more than window dressing. Congress even faces increasing difficulty performing basic governance functions, such as passing timely budget appropriations. 

The Myth of Our “Deeply Divided” Nation

Most American pundits blame this legislative paralysis on the “cultural wars” myth promoted by the mainstream media – which portrays the US as a “deeply divided nation.” In this simplistic analysis, all Americans fall into one of two more or less equal diametrically opposed camps – Republicans who favor lower taxes and less government and Democrats who favor higher taxes and more social programs.

The argument makes absolutely no sense. Specific Republican domestic and foreign policies poll well below 40% over time, which means a hefty majority of Americans oppose them. Moreover it seems logical to expect the American electorate, like that of most industrialized nations, to reflect a broad range of views on different political issues.

I’m more inclined to agree with foreign analysts from countries who confronted the problem of low voter turn-out head-on in the 1990s. It’s their view that the stalemate in US government stems from the election of officials representing the interests of an educated, well-to-do minority – who owing to low turnout – easily give them a majority of votes.

While most western democracies face major corporate interferences in their own governments, they still have functioning parliaments that manage to pass meaningful reforms. In my view this relates directly to electoral reforms most enacted (with the US, the UK and Canada being notable exceptions) in the mid-nineties to allow the active participation of third parties in government. The replacement of “winner-takes-all” voting systems with some form of “proportional representation” is the single most important reform enabling this transformation – largely because it substantially improved voter turnout.

Taking on the Winner-Takes-All Voting System

There are several different types of proportional representation.  The two features they all share in common are 1) instead of electing one representative in each small district or ward, multi-member districts (or wards) are established in which several candidates are elected at once and 2) the candidates who win seats in these multi-member districts are determined by the total proportion of votes their party receives. For example if Democrats win fifty percent of the vote, they get fifty percent of the seats; if Republicans win thirty percent and a third party ten percent, they get thirty and ten percent of the seats respectively. Though strictly speaking thirty percent is a minority, it is a sizable minority to end up with no voice at all in how a community (or state or country) will be governed.

Based on the experience of other western democracies, proportional representation substantially alters the composition of legislative bodies (as progressive, low and moderate income candidates become far more likely to win seats). Thus it could be an important first step in extricating multinational corporations from the US political process. Obviously any electoral reform at the national level faces massive opposition from major political parties and their corporate backers. However, outrage generated when the Supreme Court decided the 2000 presidential election has led local activists to enact variations of proportional representation in a number of American cities.

The method adopted by most jurisdictions is Instant Run-off Voting (IRV), enacted by several cash-strapped cities to eliminate the expense of a primary election. In IRV, a voter is asked to rank all the candidates on the ballot in his/her order of preference. If his/her first choice fails to meet a certain threshold, his/her vote is automatically transferred to his second choice and so on. The state to watch in 2011 is Minnesota. The Minneapolis mayor is elected by IRV, and in November 2010, all major candidates for governor endorsed state IRV legislation.

Interestingly there is nothing in the US Constitution that would prevent states from choosing their Congressional delegation as a bloc by proportional representation or their senators by IRV or Single Transferable Voting (under STV, voters rank order their choices for two or more candidates). The Constitution merely stipulates that each state shall have two senators and that “representatives shall be apportioned among the several states by their apportioned numbers.” In fact until the passage of the Twelfth amendment in 1803, both the President and Vice-President were chosen (in the electoral college) by STV.

Other Efforts Underway to Improve Voter Turnout

  • Enacting postal voting: the Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act (HR1604). HR1604 would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to allow all US citizens the prerogative of voting my mail if they so choose.

Declaring election day a civic holiday: as it already is in most industrialized countries and in Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

  • Lowering voting age to sixteen: citizens currently vote at sixteen in nine countries, and at seventeen in five others. At present there is a bill in the European Union Parliament to lower the voting age to sixteen in all EU countries.

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