Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Designed for Stasis

It struck me this morning brewing coffee (one of those cases of being thunderstruck by the obvious) that the minimum number of judges needed to decide lower-court cases is three—and that they always decide cases unanimously or by a two-thirds majority. Having recovered from discovering that two-thirds of three is two, I went on musing about majorities and their meanings.

We need three-fifth majorities to pass any law in Congress—the proportion required in the Senate to limit debate, thus to overcome the filibuster. That’s 60 votes to reach cloture, lower than the 67 needed to over-ride a presidential veto. But neither party currently has sufficient votes for either—cloture or an override. This increases negative power in government. The president can certainly say No and get his way, but that’s a negative, isn’t it? The minority party can deny the majority the opportunity to vote by filibuster. The distribution of power in the senate is technically 53 to 47 in favor of the Democrats—but with the caution that of the 53 one is an independent (Bernie Sanders) who’s always willing to vote way, way, way to the left, so make that 52 for sure; and the other is Joe Lieberman, who is not reliably a Democrat, so make that 52-and-a-half. In any case—51, 52, 53—those numbers are far from 60 or 67 votes—unless the issue is uncontested. Stasis.

To this we add the requirement that two-thirds majorities are required for proposing constitutional amendments by both houses, and two-thirds of states must ratify these amendments no doubt by two-thirds votes in their own legislatures.

In a recent post I suggested that economies behave like bio-phenomena. In a very similar way, government decision-making is almost as if by design very conservative, powerfully biased towards equilibrium, thus toward doing nothing unless we absolutely have to. Arguably parliamentary systems are more responsive in that governments live or die by maintaining simple majorities when votes of confidence are moved. But one could counter by saying that the U.S. form—in which the executive cannot simply be removed by a failed vote of confidence—is more stable by preserving the executive function no matter what—until it’s Time.

In this sort of brown study—set off by brewing my brown coffee—I’m inclined to look for parallels. Thus I went back to refresh my memories about neurons. How do they reach decisions? Well, if you think that Congress is a complicated mess, our neurons’ decision-making process is something even more wondrous. More actors are involved. But I had to smile when I saw that, under stimulus to act, the neuron activates a pump. This pump then causes three sodium ions to leave the cell while replacing them by two potassium ions. There we have it again, I cried silently, the two and the three, and the three-fifth rule, all present and accounted for. In this process the negative voltage of the neuron diminishes, for a millisecond, from minus 70 millivolts to maximally plus 30 millivolts, and when that happens the neuron votes Yes. Otherwise it votes No by doing the right honorable…nothing. Stasis also rules the cells—unless, of course, real danger threatens.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Defense is not only the largest expense of government but also the function with unfailing political support, from either party. As in the body, so in the body politic. We starve slowly but we’re quick to flee or fight.

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