Monthly Archives: January 2015

Pay to Play

Pay to Play

Pay to Play

What would you call an organization that conspires with member businesses to avoid having to pay a fair market-based wage? That’s easy–an illegal monopoly in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. What about an organization that completely prohibits the payment of ANY wages? I guess that would be fine for a non-profit, or maybe even for an internship, but not for a business raking in tons of money and abusing those same people. Anyway, no could possibly get away with such a policy, right?

So, how is it that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has managed to ban college athletes from receiving any compensation aside from a tightly controlled amount of scholarship money? How have they managed to do this even while they cheat athletes out of the education they promised by dumbing down their courses or even making up fake courses just to keep them in school? How have they held onto a valuable tax dodge that exempts them from federal taxes on sports-related revenue?

As non-profit organizations, NCAA colleges and universities are mostly tax exempt. That includes the huge profits that are generated by many big football and basketball programs. These profits go to support enormous salaries for coaches, bowl game officials, top NCAA executives, athletic department staff, impressive facilities, and so on. Sure, at some schools, some of it goes to support non-revenue sports, but that can’t excuse the massive corruption that pervades revenue sports.

From 1973 to 2012, the NCAA even banned schools from offering 4-year scholarships. In 2012, they lifted the ban even though a majority of the schools still wanted to keep it. Schools are now allowed to offer 4-year scholarships, but they are still able to withdraw scholarships after the first year. It is a myth that most athletes can even get a full ride scholarship.

College Sports Profits vs. Scholarships

College Sports Profits vs. Scholarships

College Sports Expenses

College Sports Expenses

Something about this smells bad, and it isn’t the athletes after a hard practice. The big NCAA schools just don’t want to share their enormous income on the athletes themselves and justify this by saying it will kill amateur sports, or favor some schools over others. Hmmm, if they are implying that the NCAA somehow ensures that all schools are equal, they are feeding us a load of BS. There will always be inequality in college sports because alumni and other donors can give as much money to their school as they want in order to make their school more attractive to students and athletes. Some schools already have an enormous advantage and sports revenue follows the winning teams.

After pretending for years that the Olympics was limited to amateurs, the rules were finally changed to allow paid professional athletes to participate. We always knew that Russia, China, and plenty of other countries effectively paid their athletes to pursue an “amateur” sport. It just took a while to finally admit it and stop the ban on money for athletes. The Olympics didn’t come crashing down. As for NCAA athletes, the lucky ones effectively get paid too–by those parents who are willing and able to support them all the way to the pros.

College Athletes

College Athletes

Nobody stops individuals or businesses from paying other college students. You can get a scholarship or grant for just about anything today. If you are smart, you can even raise money on your own or sell your virginity for tuition, but not if you are an athlete at an NCAA school. It makes no sense. Actually, it does. The pretense of amateurism allows schools to get out of paying taxes on billions of dollars of income. Some say that athletes will never be paid because, if they were paid by the schools, they would have to be considered employees, which would cause the schools to be subject to all kinds of tax headaches.

Athletic departments would lose its tax exemption under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). Currently, athletic departments (which are generally a separate legal entity from the university), athletic foundations/booster clubs, and bowl games all enjoy tax exempt status because they “promote amateur athletics,” which is an exempt purpose under the Code. If college athletes were compensated and found to be employees, this tax exempt status would most likely be revoked. Moreover, they would likely lose 25-50% of donations since donors would no longer being able to make tax-deductible contributions. No only that, but large donors would then have to pay a gift tax on donations over $13,000.

Even if they didn’t lose their tax-exempt status, they might still have to pay tax on income from athletics if they are ruled to be unrelated to the primary activity of the school. Congress created the Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) so that income from regularly carried on business activities that do not further the organization’s exempt purposes would be taxed as though earned by a for profit corporation. Colleges and universities, which were established to provide an education, are getting a free ride on the UBIT right now, but this could change. Maybe this whole issue is nothing more than another unintended byproduct of our broken system of taxation that could be easily fixed by tax reform. Another reason to simplify the tax code.

The Most Expensive Game in Town

The Most Expensive Game in Town

We often think of sports as a way for poor kids to make it. But preventing them from getting paid at all actually undermines this opportunity. The fact is, families who are serious about sports probably end up paying more out of pocket than they could ever hope to get back in a sports scholarship. That’s right. It’s expensive to play amateur sports. Many school districts don’t even have public sports programs at the elementary or middle school level, so kids have to pay to join club sports teams to even have a chance. If they are good, their families have to pay for uniforms, equipment, field time, tournament fees, and all the other stuff that comes along with being on a youth sports team.

A supportive community may help to raise the funds for poor kids, but such opportunities are not guaranteed. It can cost $1,500 to $5,000 dollars per year, depending on the sport, just to get the chance to play at a competitive youth level. Some say it is even higher–like $9,000 to $12,000. The youth sports industry is estimated to be worth $5 billion. These teams are mostly where college athletes are now recruited. The limited availability of scholarships and limits on payments to athletes probably benefits wealthy families who can afford private teams and coaching that can help them get to the 10,000 hours of practice that some say is vital to the development of an elite athlete. But it doesn’t provide a level playing field for everyone. Now, if colleges would help to fund the costs of promising amateur high school athletes, instead of offering empty promises, that would help to level the playing field.

Some lawsuits have challenged NCAA compensation rules. As the result of lawsuits that ruled the NCAA has violated anti-trust law, athletes are now allowed to receive a small share of profits from their school’s use of their likenesses, but it is capped at $2,000 to $5,000, depending on the school. It’s a small step, but still a pittance that does nothing to change the face of college athletics.

I think the time has come to stop the NCAA from banning monetary incentives for athletes (e.g. full scholarships, stipends, bonuses, or whatever). If not, there is certainly justification in the tax code for using the UBIT against them, as noted in a recent study of tax law:

“ there are precedents in tax law for (1) attaching conditions on the use of proceeds from an exempt activity (e.g., a requirement that big-time athletic revenues be used to subsidize other charitable outputs, such as increased athletic opportunities in non-revenue sports or for women); (2) expenditure limits such as caps on coaching salaries, and (3) expanded disclosure via a schedule to Form 990, similar to the new Schedule H for hospitals, that would require both the NCAA and universities with athletic programs to provide more information regarding their programs and the academic progress of student-athletes.”

As parents, we already know we have to pay to have our kids play, but it is a burden we would gladly share with others who are more than willing to help. Our kids are already willing to play their hearts out for nothing but the opportunity to have fun and maybe, if they are the best of the best, to make it to the pros. But doesn’t mean we have to let the big colleges take advantage of them and make their journey even harder. It’s time to get back to this country’s free market roots. Pay to play is the way to go, baby!

Pay for Play

Pay for Play

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Pay to Go Away

Renouncing US Citizenship

Renouncing US Citizenship

Americans have always enjoyed the freedom to travel without restrictions within the country and, for the most part, abroad. No, we still can’t travel to Cuba on vacation, only for business. How this makes any sense, I don’t know. The embargo against Cuba, enacted in 1960, was the result of a federal temper tantrum resulting from our humiliating inability to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime sitting just miles from the US coast. I would think we’d be over it by now, considering how Americans can travel to just about any other crappy dictatorship on the planet. But that’s another story. This one is the flip side to my Pay to Stay idea for dealing with illegal immigrants.

Our freedom to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness usually comes without a price tag. Well, that is, aside from the cost of national defense and the loss of life required to defend it. We are even free to vote, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, without having to pay any kind of poll tax or anything else that smacks of a tax–even an ID card.

You would think, therefore, that we would also be free to leave the country without having to pay a tax. After all, taxes are financial barriers that can stop people dead in their tracks. If you can’t afford to pay a tax, your rights are effectively limited. This is one reason why it is so important that our founding fathers prohibited taxes on interstate commerce, thus ensuring free trade throughout the country. But are we really free leave the country? As long as you plan to come back, sure, but if you renounce your citizenship and try to leave for good, sorry but no, you can’t.

Americans Renouncing Citizenship

Americans Renouncing Citizenship

American citizens who give up their citizenship may have to pay an exit tax, depending on the amount of their assets. Green card holders (lawful resident non-citizens) also have to pay an expatriation tax. If you are a U.S. citizen or long-term resident who expatriated on or after June 17, 2008, the tax law treats you as having sold all of your worldwide property for its fair market value the day before you leave. Even if you don’t sell your assets, the IRS will tax you on what you would have gotten if you had sold everything. This, of course, is based on a complicated process that requires appraisals and additional out of pocket costs. If the theoretical gains add up to more than $651,000, it is subject to U.S. tax at the capital gains rate.

I guess we could call this the “kick in the pants on your way out” tax. I guess the idea is that we have to allow you to leave, but you can’t take everything with you. That doesn’t sound quite right to me. For wealthy Americans with dual citizenship, however, it is a small price to pay to avoid the estate tax that will drastically impact their heirs.

Obviously these taxes are not very well known since not many Americans give up their citizenship and move out of the country. But the first quarter of 2013 saw 670 Americans to date doing just that. This is the largest number since the IRS began publishing figures in 1998. Isabel Getty, daughter and heir to the Getty oil fortune, and Eduardo Saverin, Facebook co-founder, are some of the latest ex-Americans.

What does the IRS have to do with citizenship? They are the ones to tax you on the way out, of course. It seems that the leading reasons for giving up US citizenship are US tax laws, including the estate tax and the taxation of worldwide income instead of just income that is earned within the US.

The US is the only industrialized country in the world that imposes taxes based on citizenship, meaning worldwide income and assets. Of course, they don’t get double taxed by countries that have a tax treaty with us, so it isn’t as bad as it might seem. The IRS has been on a witch hunt to find Americans who earn money overseas and do not declare it, so some wealthy individuals who have dual citizenship or spend a lot of time overseas are just deciding that it isn’t worth the cost to continue to be an American. I know what you are thinking, good riddance, right? Why shouldn’t they pay their fair share just like the rest of us in order to enjoy the benefits of citizenship?

Taxation of Foreign Income

Taxation of Foreign Income

Good point. But wealthy citizens already pay far more than the average American and, when you already live overseas or are faced with the prospect of paying millions of dollars you otherwise don’t have to, the benefits of citizenship can start to fade. Do we really want to be the country that penalizes its’ most successful and wealthy citizens or do we want them to move to other countries that will not impose onerous taxes? I do believe that the wealthy can afford to pay more and that our country benefits from the use of progressive taxation, but there has got to be a reasonable limit. Some countries, like Canada, will not even let you in unless you have a million dollars in the bank or highly employable skills. The United States will let just about anybody in but will tax the wealthy on the way out.

Atlas Shrugged movie

Atlas Shrugged movie

Obviously, this is of no relevance to 99.9% of the country, because most of us don’t plan to leave and even if we did, there wouldn’t be much to tax. Why Congress has bothered to even impose excessive personal taxes on foreign earned income, but continues to exempt multinational business income that is not brought back into the US, I don’t know. We’d be much better off focusing on the non-paying people right here in the country who are currently getting a free ride. So, let’s propose a new tax plan to Congress called Pay to Stay, Not to Go Away!

In case this doesn’t work, I have a plan to establish a new nation on a rising volcanic island or a sea platform. It keeps looking better all the time. With a few wealthy sponsors, I should easily be able to fund its development and settlement. Anyone who is willing to pay a tax to leave the country probably has enough to invest in a better alternative. I’ll call my new nation Atlas and the national salute will be a shoulder shrug. When Elon Musk gets his rockets working a little more reliably, we’ll move it to a platform in orbit and then to Mars.

Atlas Stage 1: Sea Platform

Seasteading Platform

Seasteading Platform

Atlas Stage 2: Space Platform

Elysium Space Station

Elysium Space Station

Atlas Stage 3: Mars Colony

Mars Colony

Mars Colony

Pay to Stay

Save the Children?

Save the Children?

US Illegal Immigration Countries of Origin

US Illegal Immigration Countries of Origin

Across the nation, the children of undocumented (i.e. illegal) immigrants are reportedly upset that they are being denied benefits that most citizens enjoy, such as student loans and scholarships, clean air and water, relatively good health care (even if it is just the emergency room), just because they can’t get a social security number (or benefits, for that matter). So sad that they have to suffer when it wasn’t even their choice to come here. Boo hoo! Their parents were responsible for ripping them from their homeland only to suffer here as fugitives from the law, unable even to pay taxes to pay for the services they are able to enjoy, like their entire primary and secondary education! They didn’t ask to live here and would have been just fine where they were born, but now that they have grown and made friends here, it wouldn’t be fair to send them home–so sad. OK, I am being sarcastic, but it also really is sad. Poor things.

But what are we to do? Send them all home? Give them all amnesty, thus encouraging millions of other potential immigrants to cross the border illegally? Ignore the problem as long as we can while doing nothing (Congress’ preferred solution)?

Wait, I have an idea! Actually, it was my wife’s idea and I’ve got to give her credit. It isn’t exactly the same as amnesty. Well, OK it sort of is a kind of amnesty, but it’s much better than the regular “bend over and let the taxpayers take it” kind of amnesty we are used to. Also, we could really use the money–especially in California. We can call it the “Pay to Stay” program. The idea is to calculate all the benefits these children and their parents enjoyed for free the entire time they lived here, including all taxes and fees they would have had to pay, compounded interest, and a little “processing” fee (call it a penalty if you want) for not doing things the legal way. That number, whatever it is, will be the price they have to pay to stay in the country. Being the good capitalists we are, we’d have the parents and children all co-sign the note and would be happy to roll it into a 30-year payment plan at a relatively low rate of interest. It might sound like indentured servitude, but it’s really just a payment plan for back taxes. For the rest of us, there is no getting out of taxes, even after bankruptcy. So, why should it be any different for illegals?

Top Counties of Origin for Canadian International Students

Top Counties of Origin for Canadian International Students

Chinese Student Immigration to Canada

Chinese Student Immigration to Canada

Think anyone would pay to stay? Just ask the Canadians how much they charge international students to live temporarily in Canada and study in their schools (secondary schools too, not just colleges). They charge big bucks and the foreigners just keep coming. And, by the way, most foreign students are from China and most of them stay in Canada after graduation. So, Canada’s immigration problem consists mainly of paying, educated foreigners who are legally accepted into the country, not freeloading, unskilled workers illegally crossing the border, as is the case in the USA.

I have nothing against immigration in general or specifically against poor immigrants from Mexico or Central America. This country was built by hard-working immigrants from all over the world and has been sustained by a constant stream of ambitious, innovative, workers coming here to build lives for their families that they are unlikely to be able to achieve in their native lands. However, if our own illegal immigrants don’t want to pay to stay, then we probably don’t want them. I’m sure someone else would be happy to come to the US and pay their way instead of living off of the growing welfare state. Is it really too much to ask that someone pay their fair share of the tax burden? What if they just don’t make or save enough money to pay their taxes? Another reason not to let them stay. We have enough lazy Americans living off welfare and other public services, so we don’t need more non-productive foreigners.

However, I’m optimistic. This country was built by hard-working, innovative immigrants. I’m sure that we will continue to thrive if we just expect the same of future generations of immigrants. Come, work hard, learn the language, contribute to your community, and you may still achieve the American dream, even if many Americans have already given up on it.

The American Dream

The American Dream

Alien Rejects

Alien Tourist

Alien Tourist

Let’s say that you are the member of an advanced alien civilization. Does that automatically make you intelligent and responsible and capable of nothing but goodwill? Does it mean you will faithfully uphold the Prime Directive proposed in Star Trek, which requires you to avoid contact with other civilizations until they have progressed enough to be ready for space travel?

Let’s use a rich, young, beer-drinking jackass in a hot sports car as an analogy. He certainly doesn’t know how the car works, since it was built by many other intelligent and industrious engineers, workers, and automotive robots with the benefit of years of scientific and engineering advances and business competition. He probably doesn’t know how to build the kind of business that generated the money that paid for his car, house, slick clothes, or anything else he possesses. He didn’t build or regulate the roads or do anything else but shell out some cash and hop in, with little regard for other people who are on the road busily going to and from work or doing otherwise mundane chores. He just cranks it up to 100 mph when racing his buddies, tosses beer cans out the window, and generally makes a nuisance of himself. So, do I believe that all aliens are necessarily intelligent or good-natured? Not at all.

In fact, I suspect that there are probably some driving social forces that may even make it more likely than not that any aliens we are likely to encounter will not be model citizens of the universe. Consider Einstein’s theory of relativity, which says that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and that travel close to this speed, or through space, where there is little mass, slows the relative passage of time. This means that anyone on an interstellar journey will experience the passage of time far more slowly than the others he left behind on his home planet. Since the journey to Earth most likely requires one to abandon any friends or family forever, since they will be long dead before the traveler returned, I suspect that space travel isn’t for everyone. On Earth, it would probably be attractive only to die-hard scientists, social rejects or felons who have nothing else to look forward to anyway. Even if they could take their families with them, what kind of family would actually consent to living in space forever just so they could explore the universe?

Alien Surfer Dude

Alien Surfer Dude

Are you starting to get the picture? In other words, it would be perfectly understandable if any groups of aliens who show up at Earth include a large proportion of social rejects that are looking for a little fun and excitement after their long journey. The aliens who arrive might not even be the ones who originally left their home planet, but instead could be descendants who are really pissed off that they got the raw deal of having to live in an interstellar tin can. Since they probably possess technologies indistinguishable from magic to primitive humans, why wouldn’t they take advantage of it and have a little fun? Certainly, acting like gods would be one of the easiest feats to pull off. A little flying around, levitation, and laser light shows ought to have been enough for our primitive human ancestors. If not, a little mind to mind communication would have been enough to turn any doubter into a frightened, pathetic, little worshiper. When necessary, I’m sure it would have been possible to destroy an entire village or vaporize a particularly annoying ape-man.

However, this is mostly speculation based on the theory that, within any group of creatures, there are likely to be a few smart ones, a lot of average ones, and some very, very dumb ones. I think this theory works well on Earth for most species, but it might not apply to alien civilizations that have had the benefit of genetic enhancement. It is always possible that another million years of evolution or genetic manipulation could change things for us as well. We might all get genetically-modified genes that favor intelligence. Yet, if I had to bet on it, I would probably predict that people will choose artificially-enhanced beauty over brains. Furthermore, at some point, we will have stupendous artificial intelligence algorithms and robots capable of doing all the brain-intensive work for us. It will not be necessary to upgrade the intelligence level of people with average IQs. Even if we tried to transform the entire population into braniacs, how long do you think it would take us to devolve back into morons after we stop using them? So, maybe aliens also aren’t necessarily all that smart.

Wormholes

Wormholes

Einstein and I could also be wrong about the actual laws of the universe. Maybe it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light. Maybe there are worm holes that act as short cuts that allow travel between unimaginably distant planets in a relatively short time span. In this case, the quality of alien likely to show up would be different, but not necessarily any better. Consider the possibility that travel to Earth is actually relatively easy and that any alien can simply buy a ticket for a tour of Earth, hop on a wormhole shuttle, spend some time at a mother ship with a great view of our solar system and a selection of local cuisine (do cattle mutilations ring a bell?), and venture down to the planet on a small tour saucer. In this case, many of them wouldn’t be too concerned at all with the Prime Directive. A couple thousand universal credits slipped into his pocket would probably make any saucer driver willing to go in a little closer than normal or even to land, take a look around, scare some locals, and pick up a few souvenirs.

Many UFO critics say that it just doesn’t make sense that aliens would want to avoid contact, yet be so unconcerned with being seen, photographed, or videotaped by tens of thousands of witnesses all over the planet. I say it sounds perfectly reasonable assuming they are just visiting and just want to take a quick look around. Who’s to say that they have the technical capability to produce a device that can cloak themselves in the spectrum of visible light? They might not have much choice about being seen, so while they may prefer to avoid direct contact, it isn’t that big a deal and it certainly isn’t a reason to mess up their vacation!

Phoenix Lights Size Analysis

Phoenix Lights Size Analysis

Even if the big ships only fly around at night to avoid attracting too much attention from the military, I’m sure they have a good enough night vision capability to make the tour worthwhile. Remember the stir over the Phoenix Lights in 1997 when a huge black triangular ship flew low and slow over the city? The same kind of incident occurred over Moscow and Brussels in 1990. They were most likely a large Earth tour liner. The nighttime view of a lit-up Earth city probably makes quite a site, especially a place with a lot of night life. Maybe we should do a study correlating UFO sightings with highly-commercialized urban nightlife spots. I’m sure that scenic landscapes are probably also popular, but chances are there aren’t too many witnesses in those spots and the people who do see them are easily dismissed as drunks or stupid hicks.

How many people visit the zoo only to discover that the lions are sleeping in a cave or in the bushes and can barely be seen? What if you paid a lot of money to travel there to see them and had to put up with some really disappointed, whining kids? If you had the capability to paralyze the lion, pick it up, and look at it up close, wouldn’t you do it? Maybe some aliens just aren’t satisfied with an overhead tour and want to smell and poke something! Given the number of people who say they have been abducted, maybe there is something to it other than just some sinister plot to steal our sperm and eggs in an attempt to create hybrid human-alien creatures. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that some perfectly normal genetic experimentation or breeding isn’t going on. I’m just saying that a lot of it could be nothing more than good fun initiated by visitors who want to see some real, live ape-men (and women) up close.

Crop Circles

Crop Circles

Speaking of good fun, crop circles are most likely no more than that. Why would someone who intended to pass on an important message do so by implanting it in inscrutable geometric shapes carved into fields of grain? I suspect it really was started by some alien tourists who were just looking to create a little excitement by stirring up the locals. Then, a bunch of copycat humans got involved and pushed the fun to a whole new level, with characteristic human innovation and precision. Hard-core crop circle analysts can still usually tell the difference between alien creations and human ones by analyzing the grain for radiation that causes the grain to burst. This characteristic is extremely difficult to reproduce, not to mention unnecessary if all you want to do is get your creation into the newspaper or attract tourists.

I’m just wondering if all that human crop circle activity has amused or annoyed the alien inventors of the sport. After all, some of those allegedly human-created shapes are pretty amazing. I would hate to be the alien who gets teased by his buddies for making a lame, boring crop circle that gets little attention and is bested by a couple of humans with sticks and ropes. It might make them mad enough to sneak up in the middle of the night and scare the hell out of someone!

Alien Tourism

Alien Tourism

Legislative Duty

Classical Democracy

Classical Democracy

As we get ready to swear in the new 114th Congress, let’s take a few minutes to think about the system of government we have established and how well it has been working. Some of you are probably happy about the change in control of the House of Representatives, but all things considered, not much has really changed in terms of who runs the US government.

The American Revolution was a watermark in human history as our founding fathers effectively began a great human experiment with a new form of democracy. The implementation of separation of powers and checks and balances in the form of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, were not the only innovations. The establishment of the trial by jury system was not only a symbol of democracy, but a superb solution to the problem of crime and punishment. It had been evolving over time as a part of English common law as well as jury systems in other parts Europe and elsewhere. They jury system was widely believed to work much better than the old systems of relying on a cadre of professional judges or a king and his ministers, to make decisions on civil or criminal matters.

Approval Rate of Congress

Approval Rate of Congress

The creation of our elective system of representation was innovative, but not necessarily as democratic as we think or as effective as our founding fathers might have hoped. It turns out that we have seen our elective system turn into one where the vast majority of incumbent politicians are re-elected year after year, even though the public opinion of their performance is extremely low. Our politicians are widely believed to be beholden to special interests and focused mainly on getting re-elected by avoiding hard decisions because the necessary solutions may be unpopular. Most legislators are millionaires and/or attorneys who are simply not a representative cross-section of the country. Congress has developed a culture of corruption.

Many have considered ways to make the system better, to no avail. Campaign finance reform has proven to be an ineffective joke, since the 1st Amendment, which guarantees our freedom of speech, effectively prevents any limit on campaign activities. Even our founding fathers debated the usefulness of term limits, but declined to write them into the Constitution. Many states and local governments have implemented term limits, but it does not seem to have helped to change the nature of politics. I wasn’t sure there really could be any solution that would result in a body of leaders more committed to serving the country than to their own personal self interests.

Trial by Jury System

Trial by Jury System

Then, a thought hit me. I wondered if we could just replace our current system for one that might even be considered more democratic and effective—one based on the jury system. Just think about what would happen if ordinary citizens were given the chance to serve in the state legislatures and Congress for a limited period of time. No professional politicians, just a cross-section of citizens from all over the country. Could they really do worse than the current elected officials we pay to do the job and to stay in office virtually for life?

I know what you are thinking. What fool would put his life and the future of his country in the hands of a bunch of ordinary idiots? To that, I respond, what fool would put his life and the future of his country in the hands of a bunch of highly-paid, power-hungry, idiots?

Are juries elected? No. Do they possess any special knowledge or expertise that ordinary citizens do not? No. Are they easily corrupted? No. Are they easily fooled? Maybe, but I’d rather take a chance with a well-meaning jury than a corrupt one. Besides, if the pool of people making the decisions is diverse and large enough, it is likely that the collective decisions will be even better than those made by an elite pool of professional politicians. I think that 100 senators and 435 representatives are enough to provide the required diversity and knowledge.

Wisdom of Crowds

Wisdom of Crowds

In the book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki discusses many cases in which groups of ordinary people with limited knowledge can, collectively, make better decisions than experts. And those studies were comparing experts who were honestly trying to make the best decision they could, not corrupt ones trying to serve their own self interest, so I would expect the comparative results to be even better.

After coming up with what I thought would be a great new idea, I discovered that I was, in fact, several thousand years behind the first democratic thinkers. Yes, the citizens of the first known democracy, the ancient Greek city state of Athens, had a system that worked in just this way.

In the cities of Ancient Greece, the Boule was a council of citizens appointed to run the daily affairs of the city. It’s origin was from the council of nobles that advised a king, but boules evolved differently according to the constitution of the city. In a democracy such as Athens, members were typically chosen by lot and served for only one year. Little is known about the workings of many boulai (plural of boule), except in the case of Athens, for which extensive material has survived.

Athenian Assembly

Athenian Assembly

An Athenian Boule was a randomly-selected 500-citizen council similar to a grand jury or citizens’ assembly. Any citizen had the right to propose initiatives and the Boule decided which issues were important enough to be on the agenda. This was followed by a majority vote of the entire electorate. This is the origin of the Athenian initiatives system, which they considered the incorruptible cornerstone of their democracy. In ancient Athens, the Council of Five Hundred operated for 180 years. Archeologists did not discover critical Greek texts describing this until 100 years after the Founding Fathers wrote the US Constitution.

Today, we live in a society a tad larger than an ancient Greek city state, so one would expect some slight modifications to their system. Interestingly, however, our Congress consists of 535 members, which is already almost the same size to an Athenian Boule. So, here is a blueprint for how it could work, although I’m certainly open to suggestions. If and when I manage to buy an island and start a new country, or maybe sign up to establish the first Mars Colony with Elon Musk, I’ll be sure to try out a Boule system.

Any citizen at least 25 years old, without a criminal felony record, would be able to submit his name into a pool for legislative duty, which would last for only two years with no chance for a second term. Legislators would be paid a very good, but not exorbitant, salary of about $150,000 and would be provided free temporary housing near the state or national capital where they will be working. No pension, no special gold-plated benefits, and no chance of ever becoming a lobbyist. Legislators would have to sign a contract agreeing not to accept any contributions or gifts from anyone or to accept any post-employment job offers or other benefits.

Chicago Election by Lottery

Chicago Election by Lottery

Two weeks before the election, five people for each available legislative spot would be chosen via a lottery. This is the essence of the jury system, but without the vetting process available to prosecution and defense attorneys. I had considered allowing the political parties to approve or disapprove of some candidates until they had an agreed-upon group, but figured that would just invite corruption and mediocrity into the system. So, to ensure there are sufficient checks and balances to the system, the lottery winners would simply undergo a criminal background check and be put up for public election. Each person would be encouraged to publicly declare his or her political party affiliation, if any, to state their position on any issues of interest, and participate in any debates.

Since our current single-vote system does not work well for elections with more than two popular candidates, we should probably use a rank-ordering voting system. Instead of just voting for one candidate, voters would list all the candidates in their order of preference. The candidates with the fewest number of #1 position votes would get eliminated, and the votes cast for them would be replaced with the voter’s #2 choice. This would continue until one candidate had a majority of the votes.

The role of political parties would be limited, during the elections, to something more like a lobby trying to promote their preferred candidates. After the election, the legislators would be free to join any party of their choice, or to create their own new party from other like-minded legislators.

The selection and election system would be simple, quick, and mostly random, but the resulting legislature as a whole should consist of a more representative body with a more diverse group of backgrounds, knowledge and experience than we have today. In other words, it would be a more democratic, and hopefully less corrupt, group of representatives.

American Idol SMS Voting

American Idol SMS Voting

X-Factor Voting

X-Factor Voting

Furthermore, we should establish a national electronic voting and polling system to enable these representatives to put important questions up for national vote, or to take local polls to get a sense of their local area’s public opinion. Maybe this would help to turn around the low and falling voting participation rate in this country. I suspect that more people now vote in TV talent shows like American Idol or the X-Factor than vote in US national elections.

Some groups have already been trying to propose the establishment of a boule system. Is it likely to be implemented, considering that constitutional amendments must be approved by Congress or three fourths of state legislatures? Of course not! But it may be just crazy enough to work as well as our jury system. In fact, with some minor tweaks to the process, we don’t even have to amend the Constitution to make it happen. We just need some new political parties that agree to select candidates via a lottery system, instead of via a primary election or caucus (fat chance). Unfortunately, the current electoral system will probably ensure these candidates have little chance of victory against the traditional Republican or Democratic candidates in the general election. However, if a miracle occurred and all existing political parties agreed to select their own candidates by lottery, we would have a new electoral system that could transform our government.

Until such time as the people become so fed up they are willing to take action, we are going to have to find other less-effective ways to deal with a corrupt, unpopular, Congress. Maybe a revolutionary group in some small country will overthrow their government and experiment with democracy using the boule system instead of establishing a new dictatorship. If not us, who will create the first new form of democracy for the 21st century? We may have to wait for the establishment of a constitution for the first Mars colony to start over again. I can dream, can’t I?

Extra-Terrestrial Colony

Extra-Terrestrial Colony