Thursday, March 29, 2012

Scrap "natural born citizenship" requirement for presidents

Americans often assume the Constitution is perfect. Our founders, however, made no such assumption and therefore made provisions for amending it.

One of the most mischievous clauses in the Constitution is section 1 of article 2:

“No person except a natural born citizen . . . shall be eligible to the office of president . . . .”

Several presidents and major presidential contenders have been accused of violating this requirement: President Chester Arthur, Charles Evans Hughes (later appointed Chief Justice) , Barry Goldwater, George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father) , and most recently John McCain and President Barack Obama.

Though it disqualified various prominent individuals (including Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger), in earlier decades few people took this clause seriously. Kissinger, asked if he was unhappy to be ineligible to become president, joked that there was nothing in the Constitution that would prevent him from becoming emperor. His ineligibility may have made him a more effective secretary of state, since people interested in becoming president themselves did not have to undermine him in order to enhance their own chances.

Some wits wondered if people delivered by Caesarian section were eligible.

Today, however, “birthers” and conspiracy theory devotees have made this requirement a major distraction from serious issues of public policy and from the actual strengths and weaknesses of presidential candidates. The requirement also conflicts with the widely shared value of equality before the law by establishing two classes of citizens, those eligible to be president and those not eligible.

Of course there are other constitutional requirements to be president, most notably the age requirement. But this requirement has minimal practical impact since few people younger than 35 are likely to be serious contenders.

Foreign-born individuals who are naturalized citizens might even be more qualified than the average natural born citizen. After all, they have been certified by the naturalization process to have actual knowledge about the American political system. Some recent candidates for president and vice president seemed to have some gaps in this regard.

There is an interesting contrast in the Constitution between the eligibility rules for the presidency and the total absence of any rules for Supreme Court members. For Supreme Court justices there is no age requirement, no requirement that they be lawyers, and no citizenship requirement. Mikhael Gorbachev would be a perfectly constitutional justice, as would a 14 year old like Malia Obama.

Our founders apparently trusted presidents and the senators who confirm judicial appointments to do the right thing. Is there any reason to think we cannot equally trust American voters when they select a president?

It is high time to get going on the necessary amendment. If we start soon, it could be ratified before Barack Obama, if re-elected, completes a second term. Eric Sevareid once compared being president with treading water while swatting bees. This amendment will remove a few bees from the bonnets of conspiracy theorists and reduce the number of bees distracting future presidents from getting their job done.


This article has appeared in the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram and in the (Portland) Oregonian.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined

This is an outstanding book, so much so that I’ll probably buy a copy as soon as the paperback version comes out. Since I am a Certified Public Cheapskate, and already having trouble finding bookshelf space, this is high praise! I cannot remember ever buying a book after reading a library copy, except when our book discussion group later decided to use it.

Pinker correctly says that this analysis is “unsentimental history” based on “statistical literacy.”

A great strength of this work is Pinker’s extensive and persuasive documentation of how violent and nasty life in previous centuries was. The massive torture of people and animals in the past, which Pinker does not shrink from describing in gory detail, is sobering and depressing, but very educational.

Pinker admits that we are far from having arrived at utopia. But a number of graphs illustrate how the chances of being murdered or raped over the long haul have been greatly reduced from one century to another, and even the likelihood (expressed as a percentage of the current populations) of being killed in wars has gone way down.

The author capably explores a number of possible explanations for the improvements, accepting some and rejecting others.

Although Pinker’s thesis is very upbeat, he pointedly refrains from arguing that the trends toward improvement he documents will inevitably continue. He says our appropriate attitude should be “gratitude” rather than “optimism.”

This book would make a wonderful basis for reading and discussion in college political science classes, and its 700 pages (before footnotes kick in) would probably mean it would have to be the main text for a one-semester undergraduate class.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Phony Prices Give Corporations a Bad Name

The scandal about outrageous prices ($51 for two minutes!) paid by soldiers phoning the U.S. from a German airport is merely one more example of a more general problem: the proliferation of misleading prices advertised by businesses, or, as in this case, the absence of any announced price at all.

Years ago I was faculty advisor to a fraternity some of whose members cut down and stole a valuable blue spruce to use as a Christmas tree. They got caught. The tree’s owner said it was worth $600 and the guilty brethren coughed up this money to avoid being prosecuted . Buying a tree would have been cheaper.

Afterwards, I pointed out that one advantage of buying things is that you learn the value placed on them by their owners and, if you find that price excessive, you don’t buy. But this advice is worthless if the seller states a false price, or no price.

It is easy to find examples of false prices or no prices. At restaurants, for example, the waiter may announce specials of the day without informing diners of the prices, hoping that some diners will order without asking the price in order to avoid looking like cheapskates to others in their party.

On a grander scale, we find adjustable rate mortgages with low initial interest charges which always seem to go up, sometimes way up, after a year or two. Some of the recent housing meltdown was aggravated by interest increases that homeowners could not afford to pay.

Then there are hotels and car rental agencies which advertise rates without bothering to state the taxes which will be collected on top of these rates, taxes which are often substantial percentages of the advertised prices. Of course the customers are often from out of state and in no position to know what the state and local taxes are in the city in question. This is on top of the unannounced “fees” some even more unscrupulous hotels have been adding to their bills lately.

And how about TV cable or internet service providers offering bargain prices “for 6 months?” Or phone companies whose prices don’t include “taxes and fees?” Or TV commercials offering things for so many dollars “plus postage and handling.” Customers might be able to estimate postage costs, but “handling” is another matter, and sometimes exceeds the advertised price of the goods.

I won’t even comment on advertised airline fares or credit card interest rates!

Most of these practices are currently legal, but that does not make them right. One wonders if business executives are so obsessed with maximizing profits that they don’t care if they are giving their organizations a bad name. They obviously are not living by the Golden Rule.

It would be interesting to see if these problems could be ended by simple legislation without a lot of complications and loopholes requiring prices to be stated before any business transaction can occur, and requiring that all such prices be honest, “bottom-line” prices.


This article has appeared in the (Portland, Oregon) Oregonian, and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.