Sunday, October 30, 2016

Constitution 2.0

“The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the affair of a City, a County, a Province, or a Kingdom; but of a Continent — of at least one-eighth part of the habitable Globe. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of Continental union, faith and honour. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read in it full grown characters."
            Thomas Paine. Common Reason.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
James Madison. The Federalist Papers No. 51. February 6, 1788.

"Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment,  jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?"
            Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist Papers No. 6. November 14, 1787.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Winston Churchill. 1874-1965.

The Republican Party, and not just Donald Trump, have lost a lot of credibility in the recent past but the Democratic Party is not far behind in blame either. It's not until you take a step back and take a broader look that you realize both sides are just playing the game by the rules. Our government is broken and massively inefficient because two hundred and forty years worth of incremental patches and compromises have turned its magnificent rule book into a swiss cheese of self-serving addendums, tax loopholes, unethical lobbying, and dark money.

I contend that the patchwork of incremental changes to our laws have made them generally better over time as we have grappled with new situations and innovations, just like bug fixes to a program make it more robust over time. But, the same process over time results in complex and unmaintainable code as you also try to incorporate entirely new functionality. Similarly, in the case of our government, every time we have tried to add laws to govern a new situation, we have also introduced compromises and loopholes to appease “the other side”. That is how you end up with a Billionaire not paying taxes for eighteen years. He's just playing by the rules of the game that we put in place.

Any good systems engineer will also tell you that, every once in awhile, you have to start with a clean sheet of paper design. The operating environment, the assumptions, and the capabilities of the underlying system have changed so dramatically after a few years of industry evolution that it costs more to maintain the old code base than to start anew. The term "clean sheet of paper" is a misnomer, though. You are starting with all the learnings from your experience with the previous generation of the system. You know which mistakes and pitfalls to avoid. Of course, you will make new mistakes but at least you won’t be spending massive amounts of time and energy maintaining the mistakes of the past.

By the same analogy, I claim, it would better to start with a clean sheet of paper and write a new constitution - one suffused with all the learnings of the past two hundred odd years. I hope this isn’t interpreted as treasonous or unpatriotic. I have the utmost respect for the American constitution and its hard fought amendments but I also hate how hundreds of years of political bartering have twisted it into a battleground for illogical and petty aims.

The American constitution was written by some of the smartest and most courageous men that have ever lived. But even an average educated person living today knows far more about the world around them than any of the founding fathers ever did. The document was written at a time when cars didn't exist, planes didn't exist, the Internet didn't exist, modern medicine didn't exist. Hell, even electricity didn’t exist. Continuing to use the same general principles and patching them for the modern world is akin to a programmer trying to patch an MS-DOS program to run on a modern multiprocessor system in the cloud. Sure, it’s possible but is it the best path forward?

I am proud to be an American citizen and hope to continue to enjoy all the great things we have accomplished together as a nation but I think it is also perfectly reasonable to want to be the citizen of a better, more logical, more scientific, more rational, more reasonable, more humane country that is not polarized by a two party system drifting further and further apart from each other, gridlocked and with little hope of reform.

Try explaining the electoral process to anyone and you will soon find out what I mean. The fact that we count delegates and superdelegates, the fact that we fight over blue states and red states, the fact that we engage in gerrymandering for political gain (try explaining that to a newcomer to the country), the fact that we have elected four presidents who did not win the popular vote - these are all indications that the system is unnecessarily complex and fragile and that it is buckling under the weight of its own compromises. This, in an age where we could instantaneously collect and process everyone's vote online. Are you going to argue that our current electoral system is better than one in which we use an automated system to truly offer one vote to each citizen? And please don’t tell me about the potential for online voter fraud. We sent men to the moon when we set our minds to it. Are you telling me we can’t build a system that is more robust and efficient than the current one? And as for the potential for hacking by foreign governments, well - we already have that problem.

But the politicians are so busy fighting, playing the game by the current set of rules we ourselves put in place, that they are incapable of reforming the system holistically from within. It's much easier to add yet another patch and avoid the large cost of a redesign - even if the overhaul is the right thing to do for everyone involved.

As we prepare to pick from among two unpopular candidates a week from now, as we look back to years of ugly infighting and bureaucracy, as we look agape at the corruption, deceit, and partisan behavior crippling our country, as we scratch our heads at bizarre tax laws and their loopholes, as we grapple with second amendment issues and their consequent tragedies based on laws written for an agrarian society and muskets, and finally - as we look forward to many more years of infighting and paralysis, I think we have to stop and think: Can't we do any better?

Interestingly, many other western nations are finding themselves in the grip of familiar existential dilemmas. Brexit is just the most recent example. The reasons, I think, are similar. Democracies were a vast improvement over all earlier forms of government but they have failed to modernize themselves and their rules of conduct. The result is a system in which the participants continue to manipulate the rules for their own political advantage.

The politicians have a vested interest in keeping the current system intact. Their jobs depend on it. And, as many pundits have pointed out, we can expect many more years of discord and obstructionism ahead of us regardless of who wins the election. In other words, no opportunity for fundamental reform.

So, if the current government is incapable of reforming the rules of the game, what choice do we have?

The founding fathers of this country were businessmen, politicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, philosophers, and scientists. So were those who brought us the French revolution and the Enlightenment. They wrote documents that have largely withstood the test of time for hundreds of years and have simultaneously modernized the Western world, ushering in an era of unprecedented prosperity and liberty. Yet, even these texts were written for pre-industrial and pre-digital eras and have had to be amended repeatedly as we discover new truths and learn more about the world we live in.

The time has come for a new group of thinkers to come together and modernize our constitution, brush aside the cobwebs of history, streamline the special interests, and remove the loopholes - for the next two hundred odd years, for our children if not for ourselves. Will it be easy? I dare say not. Nothing worthwhile has ever been easy.

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