Parliament: At Least Debate

One of the more esoteric debates in academia for those studying politics is the contrast between the American form of government, with a strong executive and an elected legislature wielding equal power, with the democratic parliamentary system in which the elected legislature is the ultimate power, the head of state subservient to it and the executive chosen by it. In other words, America v. England.

I frequently got into this debate with my father, a true Anglophile, and we never resolved the issue. The compare and contrast form of discussion was, in many way, ironic because of the historical circumstances. England had a strong executive at the time of the American revolution. King George III reigned at that time, had considerable real power compared with today’s Queen Elizabeth II, and was for Americans the perfect example of a leader to be avoided.

And they did at first avoid entirely the idea of an executive. There was a president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation which preceded the Constitution of 1787. But the president, like the Congress itself, lacked real power. Every decision required a consensus, the agreement of all 13 independent sovereign states.

What is ironic is that while England has evolved into a system where the popularly elected legislature is most powerful. America has evolved into a system where a powerful executive, elected not by the people but by an electoral college chosen according to practices set by state legislatures, often dominates the political debate.

Moreover, America has evolved into a two party system, something the framers of the Constitution generally opposed, while England has evolved into a multi-party system where coalitions between parties with different legislative agendas are often needed to dictate policy.

I don’t have an answer for the obvious question, which is better? But I do have an opinion on one aspect of the differences between the systems. One that is apparent to anyone following the British parliament debate over Brexit, the plan to leave the European Union. The difference is, in Britain, there is a very public, acrimonious and, in my opinion, healthy, debate.

Watching the British members of parliament go at it is something I find curiously refreshing. When was the last time we saw a major issue of the day being robustly debated in the American Congress? In both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the party with a majority of the votes controls the floor proceedings. That has meant of late that issues not supported by the leaders of the majority party simply never come up for discussion and often never even come up for a vote.

The President, unlike England’s Prime Minister, never appears in Congress except by invitation generally for the once-a-year State of the Union address. He is constitutionally required to sign legislation, but there are times when his position is not publicly known.

Watching the Parliament debate I was both entertained and informed. Congress could learn something from its ancestor. In 1776, one of my favorite musicals, Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins casts a deciding vote in favor of having the Continental Congress debate Virginia’s motion that the 13 colonies declare their independence from England. Hopkins says he’s never heard of an issue so dangerous it cannot even be discussed.

A lot of the dialogue in the play comes from the historical writings and speeches of the characters. And it is remarkable how prescient many of them were. However, I’ve never been able to locate proof that Hopkins actually cast such a vote or spoke those words. Or if they were the invention of the late Peter Stone, who wrote the book. Still, I agree with the sentiment. And I wish Congress would debate the issues of the day in public and not, if at all, behind closed doors.


Again With the Guns

I have now learned that a great way to increase the amount of public participation on your blog is to talk about guns. The feedback on my last post set a record.

I have also learned that having a reasonable debate on this subject is pretty much impossible. There is so much disinformation out there that people involved in the discussion seem to be speaking different languages.

Part of the problem is that there really is, as I noted in the last post, not a lot of good data on the effects of gun ownership and gun regulation. I know that sounds crazy and I have to tell you, as one who believes in making informed data driven judgments it is very frustrating. But it is true mostly because the government, which funds much of the academic research in the United States, has for years forbidden the organizations responsible for public health and safety to fund studies into the causes of death by gunfire. That leaves us arguing, for example, on the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004.

There is an excellent and new study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in The American Journal of Medicine which finds, “The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 25 times higher than in other high-income countries, and the firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.” That is fine as far as it goes. But it does not try to connect the high rates of death to the differences in gun regulation between the United States and those other countries. In addition it was funded by The Joyce Foundation, which advocates for regulation.

That funding source leaves the study open to criticism from the pro-gun people, who spend vast sums of money debunking even the most straight forward studies of the gun death epidemic, my words, in the United States. The so-called “Just Facts” site looks to make a well argued and graphically supported point that the news media in America exaggerates the gun related death rate. I direct you to the link and will not copy their charts here. How many people will read carefully? I fear not many as I laugh at charts comparing a less than 10 in 100,000 murder rate in the United States with a 10 per 1,000,000 homicide rate reported by police in England and Wales. That indicates the rate in the U.S. is ten times greater, although the charts look the same.

We know that the killing rate in the United States is off the charts. And we know that the only significant difference between America and the other countries is the number of high powered, large capacity, rapid fire weapons of war that are available to the public in America. These are not the weapons the authors of the Second Amendment knew when they wrote. There is no reason why we must be bound, in the Twenty-First Century, by an Eighteenth Century law.

Moreover, we never were. Common sense applied until the gun manufacturing lobby and its National Rifle Association began its campaign in the 1970s to change the way our political leaders and courts read the Second Amendment since it was enacted. See the Brennan Center’s, How the NRA Rewrote the Second Amendment.

Perhaps the late Chief Justice of the United States, Warren Burger, a conservative and a Republican, put it best:

The Gun Lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies — the militia — would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.

Warren Berger,
Chief Justice of the United States,
MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, 1991

We can’t look to anyone else to fix this problem. It is up to us. The next time you hear about a mass killing skip the thoughts and prayers. Register and vote.






On September 13, 1994, a ten-year ban on assault weapons was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It had been supported by three former presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reason. The law had a built-in “sunset” provision and was allowed to expire on September 13, 2004, when President George W. Bush was in office.

The so-called Federal Assault Weapons Ban, part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, was limited. It included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms that were defined as assault weapons as well as certain ammunition magazines that were defined as “large capacity”.

Limited or not, it was too much for the Republicans and the National Rifle Association. Democratic attempts to renew it have failed repeatedly over the years. California Senator Diane Feinstein has led the effort in the Senate. Her bill is pending before the Judiciary Committees in both houses. There have been no hearings.

To be fair, yes, some opinion writers try to be, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the law, at least during the first few years after it was enacted. And the legal environment for gun control legislation has become more complicated in recent years, in great part due to the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

This 2008 opinion, decided 5-4 with  Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito in the majority, held for the first time that the Second Amendment gives private citizens the right to possess an ordinary type of weapon and use it for lawful, historically established purposes such as self-defense even when there is no relationship to a local militia.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution

I can go on for hours, and have bored many a person doing so, about how ridiculous and hypocritical the Heller opinion, written by Justice Scalia, is. But I’ll spare you. For now. Suffice it to note the opinion, dangerous though it is, still allows for the possibility that some type of weapons could be banned. One hopes, for example, the Court would allow the prohibition of nuclear bombs in a home arsenal. Still untested however, is a new ban on assault weapons.

But before a new ban can be tested, Congress has to act.

Congress is taking August off.

The Shooters Don’t Wait

On Saturday it appears a single shooter killed 20 people and wounded 26 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Police say he carried an assault rifle of the type banned by the expired law. He was captured alive by police within minutes.

Dayton Shooting MagazineThirteen hours later another apparently lone gunman opened fire on people in downtown Dayton, Ohio. The gunman wore body armor and also used an “AK” type assault rifle. Police say he carried the “high capacity magazine” pictured on the left. It holds 100 rounds, is designed for rapid fire and would have been banned under the expired law. The gunman was killed by police in less than a minute after he started shooting. In that minute he killed 9 people and wounded at least 27 others.

If only Scalia, who frequently argued that the Constitution has to be understood in terms of what its actual words meant at the time they were written, had limited his individual right to bear arms to those highly inaccurate and slow firing weapons in use at that time. You can’t do much damage with a musket or flintlock.

Even Background Checks Can’t Be Enacted

The House of Representatives passed H.R.8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 on February 27, 2019. The vote was 240 – 190. It is far from perfect. But it does establish new background check requirements for firearm transfers between private parties (i.e., unlicensed individuals). Specifically, it prohibits a firearm transfer between private parties unless a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer, or importer first takes possession of the firearm to conduct a background check.

On March 4, it was “Read the second time. Placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 29.” Its fate now rests solely in the hands of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. It hasn’t been heard from since.

Congress is taking August off.

Most polls show a significant majority of Americans favor limits on high capacity, high speed weapons designed for military use. Most polls show a significant majority of Americans favor background checks.

Congress is taking August off.

Perhaps the solution is for voters to give members of Congress who block these measures a permanent vacation.


Apollo 11 – Those Were the Days

Of all the thoughts that came to mind as we marked the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, the one that struck me most was the realization that more than half the people alive on the planet today hadn’t been born yet when Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap.”

That’s Armstrong’s footprint above on the left. And that’s Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in the middle saluting the American flag. Here’s a bit of trivia for you. Almost all the pictures on the first men on the moon feature Aldrin. That’s because only Armstrong had a camera and infrequently handed it off to Aldrin. On future flights both crewmen were given a camera.

Over on the right is a picture of the lunar module’s assent stage rising up from the moon carrying Armstrong and Aldrin back to link up with the command and service module where Michael Collins had been waiting for their return. Earth can be seen in the distance beyond the lunar module, small, blue and beautiful, rising over the lunar horizon.

There has been an awful lot of remembering these past few days. And an awful lot of hand-wringing over the fact that after six successful lunar landing missions ending in 1972, humans never returned to the moon. Or ventured out any further than the near earth orbit of the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.

I grew up following the space program and listening to Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, Jules Bergman and Jay Barbree. Only Barbree is still with us. These were men, yes they were all men as were the astronauts of the day, who would enlighten us with the facts, feel free to express their emotions but otherwise leave us to form our own reactions.

Generally, we were as amazed and delighted as they were and we shared the experience as a nation and as a world. That left a major impression on my young mind, the first landing coming during my summer between high school and college. The three Americans toured the world in the year that followed. And they quickly discovered that their achievement was seen as more than the achievement of American technology. It was seen as an achievement for all people. A shared experience in the history of humanity.

Today too many of our reporters have turned into pundits even though most lack the gravitas to qualify them to voice their opinion. I have heard a lot of nonsense explaining that we haven’t returned to the moon because we are now living in such troubled times, with the nation divided, unable to afford such an undertaking for no discernible return.

In fact 1969 came as the nation was torn in active protest over the war in Vietnam and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We were divided by civil disobedience over racial inequality and the rights of women. The year before had seen assassinations, riots, and the decision of an unpopular president to not stand for reelection. The costs of the space program as well as the wars and a wide range of social programs were born by a more progressive tax structure than what we have today where those who were achieving great wealth paid more to society.

And as far as discernible return, there have been countless numbers of studies showing the real economic returns from produced by an active national space program:

So why haven’t we gone out there again, into the unknown to the moon or to mars? It’s a simple lack of vision. We are paralyzed by fear, unwilling to make any kind of long term decision, unable to set a goal that cannot be realized by the end of the next financial quarter or completed before the next election. Or to take a chance and set a goal we may not reach.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously set the goal for Apollo:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

We could use a little more of that spirit right about now.






5G and Wi-Fi 6—Evolution and revolution

As you can tell by all the marketing hype, 5G is upon us. The mobile telephone carriers are touting their plans to roll out 5G, the Fifth Generation of wireless service, although specifics about the timetable, fees and applications are difficult to come by.

Wi-Fi 6 is somewhat more obscure. That’s because the branding has never really caught on with the equipment makers who instead opted to describe their gear with the string of numbers and letters referencing the IEEE standard which defines the technology. Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax. And that is a mouthful for consumers to remember.

This story continues on The Network by Cisco….






Muller to Barr RE: “Public Confusion”

I didn’t. I really did not want to write about this again. I’ve got several much more interesting things half written that I’d like to finish. But I keep coming back to what is alleged by many to be the most popular quotation in the English language, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill? For a discussion on the source see quoteinvestigator.

The night before Attorney General William Barr was to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Washington Post first reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had, on March 27th, 2019, sent a letter to Barr characterizing Barr’s four page memo to Congress, dated March 24,

The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions. We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations

Read more

Bill Barr’s Balderdash

I know. In my last post I wrote that Attorney General William Barr is a political hack. But I hoped I was wrong. I really did hope the Mueller Report would reveal that Barr’s four page letter to Congress had been a fair representation, that the Mueller Report would put to rest accusations against Donald Trump and that the nation would get on with its business.

But those hopes were dashed even before Barr released a redacted version of the 448-page report on the Department of Justice web site.  A few hours ahead of the release Barr called a “news conference” to put his own spin, for the third time, on what reporters, members of the public and the Congress had yet to read. Barr’s repetition of the “no collusion,” “no obstruction” company line must have been music to Trump’s ears.

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