Monday, October 20, 2014

Ballot Initiatives and the Federal Government

"We the People"

Today, at early voting, I was privileged to vote on a number of issues which will directly affect my quality of life in my home state. This got me to thinking about the role of such ballot initiatives in other states and the possibility of having such a mechanism at the federal level.

For those of you that come from states where this is not a significant feature, let me explain. A ballot initiative (or referendum) is a process where ordinary citizens can collect signatures to propose a law, and then the law can be enacted by a majority vote at the following election. Some states also provide for this process to be initiated by the legislature or by various municipal organizations (my home state does both), while others introduce various quirks into the system by requiring approval at multiple ballots. While one version of this process or another exists in most state governments, to varying degrees (with the exception of Delaware, which apparently doesn't trust its people very much...), there is currently no provision for direct democracy at any level in the federal government.

In my home state, ballot measures serve an important function for a state in which party affiliation is often at odds with the prevailing ideology. Democratic and Republican legislators or city governments may be hesitant to propose laws which do not correspond to the national party platform, even if they are measures which they personally support. Ballot initiatives allow the people, often times with the help and encouragement of their legislators, to break the gridlock in the state Capitol and enact laws that pretty much everyone, or at least most people, agree on but can't obtain the right political conditions to enact.

Ballot initiatives, particularly when those initiatives correspond to important legislative goals, also seem to benefit democratic participation in general. When people know that their vote is going to really change the direction of the country in a direct and unambiguous way, they will tend to make more of an effort to participate in elections, increasing voter turnout and knowledge of the essential issue. Scotland experienced this, for example, when a proposal on independence when the people voted directly on the question of independence: a turnout of nearly 80% was recorded. In my own constituency, this last election is bringing people out to cast their ballots on issues ranging from the sale of alcohol to city limits. And in the meanwhile, those people are also voting in the national midterm elections which usually draw a very small crowd.

In a country where gridlock between the various houses of Congress and/or between Congress and the President seem to be the order of the day, and disenchantment with our highest level of governance is at an all-time high, I think it is important that we consider direct democracy as an alternative. Since our government is unable to reach consensus on a variety of issues, and the two political parties are dominated by pluralities that are radically opposed to one another, why not look into allowing the people to weigh in on legislative proposals?

There would be several ways of approaching such a measure, and all of them, unfortunately, require the arduous process of Constitutional amendment. However, we have passed amendments before and, I think, might be able to manage it again if things keep going the way that they are going.

Such a process should tend towards a balance between direct majoritarian democracy and the consensus of states implied by our federal system. Here is what I would propose:
  •  First, the bill would need to be proposed by a small group (I would suggest one-tenth of the overall number of states) of state legislatures, which would include the possibility of those states with ballot initiatives proposing such measures directly from the people. The proposal could then be challenged by interested parties on Constitutional grounds before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who would make a determination on the legality of the measure. 
  •  Then, the measure would be put directly to the people in all of the fifty states and in all the territories of the United States. In order to pass, the bill would need to be approved both by a majority of the overall number of voters and by majorities in more than half the states. 
  • The bill would then be protected from Congressional amendment or repeal for either a minimum period of time (two years, for example) or until another ballot initiative authorized it. 

The effect of such an amendment would be that a greater number of issues close to the heart of the American people would fall under their deliberation. More citizens would participate in elections, particularly midterm elections, because the issues that affect them would really be on the ballot, rather than just the public personas of individual politicians. Politically divisive issues such as immigration and entitlement reform which have little chance of action at the federal level could be decided on by the people, using their own judgment apart from party politics. Unpopular laws could be repealed without the fear of Presidential veto. In essence, such a measure would guarantee that the people, considered both as a single body and as a number of states, would actually exercise sovereignty over the national government, and it is precisely on this basis that the Constitution exercises any binding authority in the first place.

"We the People of the United States, in order to form a perfect union......"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Movie Reviews from the Sideline: Gone Girl (2014)

Should you take your significant other with you to see Gone Girl (2014)?

No. No. No. Never. Don't do it. Also, don't take your parents with you to watch this movie. Or your kids. In fact, if this type of movie appeals to you, you may want to go by yourself and not tell anyone else that you went.

Gone Girl (2014) is a murder mystery with a twist. (I couldn't possibly give it away.) Basically, it follows the fairy-tale romance of two magazine writers Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). As romance turns into marriage, their relationship slowly seems to disintegrate until, one day, the wife disappears. The husband quickly becomes the primary suspect and the audience is left to wonder, at least until the third act, if the mild-mannered-but-romantic main character is really as likeable as he first appears.

The thing about this movie that surprised me (and yes, that is because I didn't read the rating as carefully as I should have) is how overtly and intensely sensual (read sexual) this movie is.  While the main thrust of the plot is to show an intricate interplay of power and revenge, both the story and the visual imagery play on the delicate balance that exists between the erotic and the manipulative. Of course, this being Hollywood, the artistry of expressing that theme through subtle suggestion and character development is quickly discarded in favor of explicit sex scenes and gory bodies (albeit beautiful bodies) in serene locations. Coming right after a Fifty Shades trailer, this reviewer couldn't help but think that the filmmakers' primary goal was to capitalize on an aesthetic clearly in vogue with certain demographics.

The main cinematic weakness of this movie is its length. Director David Flincher has a story to tell, and he seems willing to let the movie go on and on to get it told. Every angle of the main character's life is unraveled, all the consequences of his decisions are teased out, every side character given their time to shine. While this might be some audiences' cup of tea, the result is a movie that feels like it should have been a miniseries, if any of the actors could have been paid enough money for such a thing. As we move into the third act, where, finally, the plot starts moving to its (somewhat anticlimactic) conclusion, the denouement becomes so lengthy and intricate that it is bound to make many moviegoers feel like they have just finished studying for an exam or reading a novel. This film is exhausting.

The good thing about this movie is the acting, well, except for Neil Patrick Harris whose attempt to take on a serious dramatic role falls flat on its face. The actors really pull out all the stops to convince us that their characters really are as crazy as the plot makes them out to be.  The result is mesmerizing, even if the lines they are reading are way too hipster and artsy.  We can almost forgive the movie for its slightly anachronistic props.

In essence, imagine what would happen if you found a really good writer and a really good director, made them read soft-core porn and Sherlock Holmes novels for a week and then doused them in craft beer. That is pretty much what we have here.

My rating: C-

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Movie Reviews from the Sideline: Dracula Untold (2014)

When you make a movie about vampires, there are basically two paths that you can go. The first is the dark fantasy path, where you are going to focus on the world of blood-suckers, their exclusion from normal society, and, of course, their excellent night-life . The second is the horror route, where vampires are the embodiment of gory, chaotic evil: fear of the dark in human form.

If you judge Dracula Untold (2014) as a horror flick, as some other reviewers have done, then, of course, it falls flat on its face. Don't go and see this movie if you are looking for a few cheap scares and lots of fake blood. Instead, it manages to be something slightly more: a dark fantasy work of art that marries the historical character of Vlad the Impaler, defeater of the Turks and Machiavellian mastermind, with the fictional creation of Bram Stoker.

The movie starts out by explaining that Vlad (Luke Evans--the thinking man's Orlando Bloom) was drafted as a child soldier by the conquering Turks. As a warrior, Vlad is ruthless, earning himself the name "Impaler" by his masters. He returns to rule his country, still paying tribute to the sultan, until the unthinkable happens: they demand that he put his son (Art Parkinson) through the same trauma that he underwent. Unwilling to pay this price, Vlad discovers a way that he can gain the power to protect his country, becoming a monster that will terrify and destroy the advancing Turkish hordes.

In weaving this origins story, director Gary Shore seems determined to make it clear that he is taking the fantasy, rather than the horror, path. He is also drawing a contrast with other fantasy costume productions (cough, cough, Game of Thrones) which try to humanize their characters by having them belch, screw, and defecate as often as possible. What is at work in Dracula Untold, however, is the tension that exists between dark and light, ends  and means, sacrifice and survival. Its focus on moral themes and plot-over-character seems to have more in common with Tolkien's Middle Earth than with the Stoker's Transylvania.

It seems like the movie takes other cues from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well. The costumes, swords, and props on this movie are exquisite, going rather above most medieval costume dramas. The visual effects fit seamlessly with the world of the film and entertain more than impress. What is even more shocking is that the script lives up to the film's beautiful aesthetic, rather than detracting from it (cough, cough The Hobbit).

The film occasionally feels like it skips a few steps between plot points, which makes this reviewer wonder if a longer film was in the works at some stage.  For moviegoers who can't reach logical conclusions, this might pose a problem. For myself, I thought that risking a longer running time might have paid dividends in critical acceptance, but wouldn't have added much in the way of entertainment value.

In fact, the weakest point in this movie is its gimmicky conclusion, which I refuse to give away. The thing is, though, that the movie is such a good time, and the actors involved are so excellent, that audiences will probably forgive the filmmakers for obsessively trying to turn this movie into an origins story.

My rating: B++ (and I'm pretty stingy with A's)--Go see it.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How I Would Reform the United States Senate

The following is an idea I have been mulling around for a few days. The House of Representatives, because it follows districts determined by the state legislature, already, in the experience of two centuries, adequately represents the interests of the states. The Senate should then, in my mind, represent the interests of the nation as a whole. I propose that, instead of electing Senators per state, they be elected to represent federal Senate districts of roughly equal population which would be drawn by the House of Representatives every ten years. . Considering that many Senators serve repeated terms for decades with almost no opposition, and the shifting boundaries that would come with different House of Representative compositions and census records, this would be a major democratization of the house and result in more new faces in the Senate. I also propose that the House of Representatives have the power to set deadlines for the passage of legislation that they send to the Senate. If the Senate fails to amend or reject the bill they are sent within that period of time, then it is considered to have their implicit approval and is transmitted to the President as if they had passed it. This would greatly limit the overuse of filibuster in the Senate. Finally, the Vice President would have the power to appoint whomever he wants as President pro temp. and appoint the members of committees, making the Vice President's role as President of the Senate more important. This would allow him to guide legislation through the Senate with less delay.

Article I
The Senate shall be composed of members elected one per federal Senate district every 8 years, but no Senator may serve more than two consecutive terms.

Article II
Every tenth year, after the conclusion of the federal census, the House of Representatives shall divide the territory of the United States, including lands belonging to the United States but not part of any particular state, into a number of districts equal to twice the number of states. These districts shall each contain as equal a number of persons as may be possible, but all island chains shall be considered as contiguous with the ocean coasts of the nearest state for the purposes of apportionment. This division into districts must then be approved by the Supreme Court of the United States as being fair and in accordance with the provisions of law and this Constitution.

Article III
On the day appointed for federal elections, the registered voters in each district, who must be duly qualified in the states in which they are resident, shall each cast one vote for Senator. If any candidate receives more than half of the votes cast, he shall be elected Senator, but if he does not, then a second election shall be held within three weeks between the candidates having the two highest numbers of votes or the two candidates having the highest number of votes, whichever number is lower, with the person receiving the greatest number of votes declared the winner. If, however, even this is tied, then the House of Representatives shall, upon meeting for the first time in consequence of the election, determine which of the candidates in eh second election are to be seated in the Senate.

Article IV
The states shall be responsible for collecting the votes for Senator and reporting them to the federal election authorities created by law.

Article V
The President of the Senate shall be the Vice President; however, he may appoint as President-pro-tempore any member of the Senate to preside in his absence. The President of the Senate shall appoint the members and chairmen of all committees.

Article VI
Upon transmission of any bill to the Senate, the House of Representatives may, upon the agreement of a majority of its members, designate any period of time greater than ten days for the Senate to consider the bill, after which, if the Senate shall not have voted against the bill or passed an amended version of it, it shall be immediately presented to the President of the United States by the Speaker of the House as having obtained the approval of the House and the implicit approval of the Senate, who shall sign or reject the bill in the same manner as if it had been passed by both houses.

Article VII
Congress shall have authority to enforce this amendment by necessary legislation.

How I Would Reform the Electoral College

The following is the text of an amendment (in very rough outline) which I would support to reform the Electoral College. Basically, it makes it so that, if a candidate receives 60% of the vote from a state, he receives 60% of the Electoral Vote from that state. It also creates an "alternative vote" system, so that the Electors indicate their second preference for President. If one of the candidates wins, then the person who received the most second preference votes from that candidate's electors becomes Vice President. (As an example, if most Democratic electors voted for Nader as a second choice and Gore won the Presidency, then Nader would become Vice President.)

Amendment to the Constitution – The Electoral College

Article I

Each state shall appoint a number of electors for the President of the United States equal to the number of Representatives to which that state shall be entitled in Congress plus two; the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and such other organized territories as law may recognize shall each be entitled to choose three electors.

Article II

Every candidate for the office of President shall, within each state in which he intends to run for office, nominate a number of candidates for electors equal to the whole number of electors to which that state is entitled.

No elector shall hold an office of trust or profit under the United States or be compensated in any way for his services by any person or government.

On the day appointed for the election of President, the registered voters of each state shall each cast one vote for one of the candidate’s slate of candidates as electors. The state constitutional officer responsible for elections in that state shall then appoint from each slate a number of electors proportional to the number of votes which the person received from the people, with any remaining electors being distributed in order to those slates having the highest remainder until the whole number of electors for that state have been appointed.

 Article III

On the day predetermined by law, the electors shall gather in the capitals of their respective states and cast two distinct votes, one indicating their first preference for President and the second indicating their second preference from among those candidates who submitted a slate of electors in that state or any other state. The ballots shall then be transmitted under seal to the President of the Senate and opened in the presence of Congress on a date determined by law.

When the ballots are opened, if any person receives a majority of first-preference votes, he shall be elected President, and the person receiving the most second-preference votes from those electors casting ballots for the person elected President shall become the Vice President.

If, however, no person receives a majority, then the second preference votes of the person receiving the fewest votes shall be distributed to the remaining candidates. This process shall continue until either all the second preference votes are exhausted or one of the candidates receives a majority. After this, the person with the most votes is elected preference, and the person receiving the most second-preference votes of those who cast their first-preference votes for the winning candidate shall be named Vice President.

Article IV

If, at the conclusion of the voting, there is a tie in the number of votes, then the members of Congress shall immediately vote between the candidates who have the highest number of votes to determine the President, with each member having one vote. The person receiving the most Congressional votes shall be President, and the person receiving the second highest number of votes shall be Vice President.
Article V
Congress shall have authority to enforce this amendment by necessary legislation.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Movie Reviews from the Sideline: Left Behind (2014)

So, here's the premise: all the Christians (and cute children) disappear suddenly. What will you do with that? Why, of course, let's focus on a single plane trying, despite the fact that they still have a pilot, not to crash. Christian filmmaking FTW.

Left Behind (2014) is the latest attempt to re-boot a film series based on the popular book series of the same name. The previous manifestation featured a bland script, poor acting, and, of course, a "film star" whose career was just slightly past its prime. In the current manifestation, not much has changed, except that we get Nicolas Cage, of National Treasure infamy, instead of Kirk Cameron, of fundamentalist infamy.

It would probably earn me a few brownie points to spend some time explaining what was wrong with premillennialism and the rapture thesis that goes along with it. I'll leave that aside. I don't always write just to please my audience, unlike some filmmakers....What we have in front of us is a movie in which all of us pretty much knew what was going to happen--well all of us who read the original series, unlike you godless heathen, Muslims, Catholics, atheists, animists, postmillennialists, amillennialists, (heaving for breath), Lutherans, Democrats, etc. etc. Throughout the whole world, everything is going terribly, especially for a family in which one member has become a Christian; then all the Christians disappear, and everything gets worse.

Yep. That's pretty much it. There are no cool visuals of a world gone mad, except in the always-sane (sarcasm) world of hospital triage and shopping malls. The rise of the Antichrist, which would have at least given someone the chance to have a little fun with the movie, is completely absent. There is a little bit of praying, in case someone stumbled into the theater thinking that this was a secular movie, and, to top it all off, a verse from the King James Version of the Holy Bible.  Even the (mildly) interesting theological quandaries posed by such an event are passed over with a few moments of college-student outrage from the female lead (Cassi Thompson).

And that is just what is missing. Everything else in the movie is awful as well. The extras act very much like nice Church people who were told to act bada** (asterisks included) for a few seconds and/or confused and frightened. The script makes the usual Christian-movie mistake of trying to cram as many explanations as it can into every sentence. Nicolas Cage is the best actor on screen--and that should tell you all you need to know about the rest of the actors. The human interest angle of this movie is broken up by cheap scares from an old-fashioned telephone and, of all things, dwarf jokes. Yes, in 2014, Christians are entertaining themselves with jokes about little people. 'Cause 'Merica.

I can't help but think of what a missed opportunity this was. What could be a great movie based on a ridiculous theory turns out to be as big of a flop as 2012--and that movie was at least as faithful to the Mayan religion as this one is to Christianity. I mean, seriously, you have a sci-fi/fantasy premise that all the children in the world disappear, a premise that a huge number of people actually think is going to happen someday, and THIS is all you do with it? Even the books did a better job, and that is saying a lot.

Oh, you thought I was going to say that this was a missed opportunity for evangelism? Nope. It wasn't. I think the movie showcased the ideology behind it perfectly.