The Daily Parker

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Two Constitutional amendments I'd like to see

Hyper-partisanship is not only bad in itself, but it's causing a long-term erosion of our civic institutions. When people suspect that judges are partisans, it reduces respect for the judicial system in general, which causes people to lose faith in the rule of law itself.

Lifetime appointments to the Federal judiciary were supposed to solve this problem. By holding their offices "during good behaviour", Federal judges are supposed to keep above the political fray, and let their consciences guide them.

Well, organizations like the Heritage Foundation have long been recommending people for the Federal bench strictly based on ideology, rather than jurisprudence. This problem isn't going away. And neither are the judges, some of whom could wind up serving for 50 years.

So the first Article of Amendment I would propose is this:

Section 1. Judges of the Supreme Court shall hold their offices for a term of 19 years. Judges of the inferior courts shall hold their offices for a term of 15 years.

Section 2. This Article shall apply to all persons appointed after its ratification, and to all other persons five years after its ratification.

This still means someone could serve as a Federal judge for life, because they could get appointed to different courts at 15-year intervals. But every 15 years, they'd need to be reappointed, and re-confirmed by the Senate. Yes, it would be a political process, but we wouldn't be stuck with incompetent or rabidly ideological judges forever.

If this Amendment were ratified today, Justices Bryer, Ginsburg, Thomas, and Kennedy would be forced out in 2022, leaving Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Chief Justice Roberts—who would be the next to go, in 2024. (Alito would be out in 2025.)

Appointing four Justices to 19-year terms could fall to Trump in that case, but unlikely as the amendment would not be ratified soon.

Even less likely to be ratified, but I think no less helpful in these partisan times, would be to get some turnover in the legislature. Now, I'd hate to lose my most senior legislators, Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Jan Schakowsky. But I'd really like to be done with Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, and even Nancy Pelosi, believe it or not.

So here's my second proposed Article of Amendment:

Section 1. No person shall be elected to the House of Representatives more than eight times, nor serve in the House more than 17 years.

Section 2. No person shall be elected to the Senate more than three times, nor serve in the Senate more than 19 years.

Section 3. No person elected to either House and later to the other House shall serve in Congress for more than 24 years in his or her lifetime.

Section 4. This article shall not apply to any person serving in either House when this article was proposed by the Congress, until the next election of Representatives shall have intervened.

That would clean out the House and most of the Senate. It would be disruptive. But we would no longer have as many cranky old white men making policy for a younger, more colorful generation.

I'd like to hear from readers about this. What do you think?

Minor bit of Schadenfreude

It turns out, Carter Page PhD—who worked for the Trump campaign and is now suspected of being a Russian asset—failed his PhD thesis defense twice:

Page first submitted his thesis on central Asia’s transition from communism to capitalism in 2008. Two respected academics, Professor Gregory Andrusz, and Dr Peter Duncan, were asked to read his thesis and to examine him in a face-to-face interview known as a viva.

Andrusz said he had expected it would be “easy” to pass Page, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). He said it actually took “days and days” to wade through Page’s work. Page “knew next to nothing” about social science and seemed “unfamiliar with basic concepts like Marxism or state capitalism,” the professor said.

The viva, held at University College, London, went badly. “Page seemed to think that if he talked enough, people would think he was well-informed. In fact it was the reverse,” Andrusz said. He added that Page was “dumbfounded” when the examiners told him he had failed.

Their subsequent report was withering. It said Page’s thesis was “characterised by considerable repetition, verbosity and vagueness of expression”, failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD, and needed “substantial revision”. He was given 18 months to produce another draft.

Page resubmitted in November 2010. Although this essay was a “substantial improvement” it still didn’t merit a PhD and wasn’t publishable in a “learned journal of international repute”, Andrusz noted. When after a four-hour interview, the examiners informed him he had failed again, Page grew “extremely agitated”.

I almost want to read the final, final, final draft. And I want to see him convicted of secretly meeting with foreign agents. Neither is likely.

The sad history of the Uptown Theater

Chicago's largest auditorium north of the Loop needs saving soon, or it might be lost forever:

At the intersection of Lawrence, Racine and Broadway in Uptown, the massive, once-grand Uptown Theatre, a shuttered movie palace that has awaited restoration for nearly 40 years, is slowly deteriorating. Its reopening—an expensive proposition that would require public and private funds—is key to the neighborhood's vitality and could make it a premier destination for live entertainment.

Preservationists say that because of its decrepitude, something needs to happen fast to save the theater from permanent ruin. "If this isn't resolved soon, this building will continue to deteriorate," says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

A reopened Uptown would, at 4,500 seats, have the largest theater capacity north of downtown (the Auditorium in the Loop has nearly 4,000). Mark Kelly, commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, shares Emanuel's vision that the Uptown would solidify the intersection of Lawrence, Racine and Broadway as a destination for live entertainment. "What would be most desirable is we get a mix of these awesome performance venues at a very high level to accommodate a lot of people," Kelly says. "Then it's a real entertainment district."

The neglect dates to the 1970s, when the Uptown was used primarily for closed-circuit boxing matches and rock concerts by acts including the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. Accelerating its demise was co-owner Lou Wolf, a notorious Chicago slumlord and felon who purchased the theater in 1980 and shuttered it the following year. Unoccupied and uncared for for more than three decades, the building suffered water damage after the heat was turned off. In 2014, 6 inches of ice covered the grand stairway and 4 feet of water rose in the basement. Broken windows, animal infestation, vandalism and plaster-killing summer humidity followed, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid property taxes.

Fortunately, the city designated a landmark district in 2016 that includes the Uptown, but that only means it can't be demolished. But it still needs maintenance, desperately. I hope someone steps up. I'm looking at you, Rahmbo.

The threats to our democracy

New Republic has excerpted How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, to be published this January. Salient points:

If constitutional rules alone do not secure democracy, then what does? Much of the answer lies in the development of strong democratic norms. Two norms stand out: mutual toleration, or accepting one’s partisan rivals as legitimate (not treating them as dangerous enemies or traitors); and forbearance, or deploying one’s institutional prerogatives with restraint—in other words, not using the letter of the Constitution to undermine its spirit (what legal scholar Mark Tushnet calls “constitutional hardball”).

Donald Trump is widely and correctly criticized for assaulting democratic norms. But Trump didn’t cause the problem. The erosion of democratic norms began decades ago.

In 1979, newly elected Congressman Newt Gingrich came to Washington with a blunter, more cutthroat vision of politics than Republicans were accustomed to. Backed by a small but growing group of loyalists, Gingrich launched an insurgency aimed at instilling a more “combative” approach in the party.

Though few realized it at the time, Gingrich and his allies were on the cusp of a new wave of polarization rooted in growing public discontent, particularly among the Republican base. Gingrich didn’t create this polarization, but he was one of the first Republicans to sense—and exploit—the shift in popular sentiment. And his leadership helped to establish “politics as warfare” as the GOP’s dominant strategy.

If, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country where candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of election fraud, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. It wouldn’t have been the United States of America.

The rest is history. Let's just hope that it's the history of a successful republic, not a Weimar one.

Stuff to review

I've been in frenetic housecleaning mode today, since it's the first work-from-home Wednesday I've had in...let me see...10 weeks. And apparently I last had my housekeeping service here 16 weeks ago. (It wasn't that bad; I do clean up occasionally.)

The activity and actually having to do my job has led me to miss a couple of news stories, which I will now queue up to read:

  • Former President Obama spoke at the Economic Club of Chicago last night, and said, at one point, "American democracy is fragile, and unless care is taken it could follow the path of Nazi Germany in the 1930s."
  • Citylab outlines how the tax bill now working its way through reconciliation between the House and Senate will be really, really bad for cities. As if we didn't know. As if that wasn't a feature, rather than a bug.
  • And it doesn't take a Nobel-winning economist to understand the chutzpah behind the Republican Party's bait-and-switch on taxes and deficits. "Now, to be fair, there are some people in America who get lots of money they didn’t lift a finger to earn — namely, inheritors of large estates." How true.
  • In more neutral news, the Atlantic has the the year in photos (part 1), with more on the way later this week. I especially like the Turkish seagull (#22).
  • Finally The Daily WTF has an example of life imitating satire, and it's sad and funny all at the same time.

I'm now going to throw out all the empty boxes in my office closet, though it pains me to do so. After all, someday I might need to return this pair of wired headphones from 1998...

The Red Atlas

A new book by an English retiree compiles still classified Soviet maps of British and American cities:

On a business trip to Riga, Latvia’s capital, in the early 2000s, [John Davies] hit the mother lode. Davies happened upon a shop that held bundles of Cold War-era maps of British cities, created by the Soviet military. The maps were so detailed that they included such elements as the products factories made and bridges’ load-bearing capacity. “I was just amazed,” Davies said.  

Each time Davies went to Riga, he would bring back another armload of the maps. And it turned out the Soviet military hadn’t just made maps of British cities: Davies discovered similarly intricate maps of U.S. cities, as well as areas across the globe. He and Alexander Kent, a professor of cartography at Canterbury Christ Church University, worked together to figure out how the maps were made. Their research can be found in a new book, The Red Atlas.

It's published in the US on my home-town imprint, the University of Chicago Press—and is at this writing out of stock on Amazon. (And of course I just ordered it.)

The MAVNI program

My current project involves military enrollment, so I am following the story of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, recently suspended by the Pentagon:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that he supports reactivating a program designed to attract foreign military recruits who agree to serve in exchange for fast-tracked U.S. citizenship.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, was suspended a year ago and additional security measures were put in place to guard against “espionage potential” among U.S. military recruits born in other countries. Those new regulations left the program paralyzed, ending a reliable stream of high-quality troops.

“We are taking the steps obviously to save the program, if it can be saved,” Mattis said. “And I believe it can.”

The MAVNI program has produced more than 10,400 troops since 2009 — personnel who possess language and medical skills deemed vital to military operations and in short supply among U.S.-born troops. The military continues to process those who enlisted before the program was suspended.

It may seem odd that people who enlisted over a year ago still require processing, but this is pretty normal. The Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) affects nearly all applicants as military needs and space in Basic Military Training (BMT) and advanced schools are both limited. People who enlist can take up to 545 days to ship.

Also, an interesting bit I just learned, if an alien enlists in the DEP and then drops out before shipping to BMT, that person is forever ineligible for US citizenship (8 USC 1426). Also see 8 USC 1429 for how to become a naturalized citizen through military service.

Starship Chicago

Via CityLab, a new short video argues that the Thompson Center needs to be preserved:

Says CityLab:

Few of the film’s interviewees seem to find the Thompson Center beautiful—noted Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman calls it “a piece of shit.” But he, like the rest of the talking heads in the film, believes the building should be preserved for its architectural significance. It was a boundary-breaking structure when it was completed in 1985, becoming one of the first curved buildings in downtown Chicago’s hard, rectilinear cityscape, and catapulting its architect, Helmut Jahn, to stardom.

The Thompson Center captured Chicago’s imagination, if not its heart. The building’s rounded, all-glass exterior, as well as its cylindrical interior atrium, made it look like an alien visitor, earning it the “starship” moniker. The design was actually a riff on the classic American statehouse, with glass walls representing government transparency and the large skylight capping the atrium meant to evoke a dome. The busy interior of the atrium is painted in red (or salmon), white, and blue, perhaps the structure’s most jarring design element. 

Here's a view of it from just after it opened in 1986: