Bad Senate ideas: provincial appointment

(This may or may not turn out to be a regular series, depending on how long the current infatuation with Senate ponderings lasts.)

So Canadians are talking about reforming or even (gasp!) abolishing the Senate. Abolishing the Senate is constitutionally difficult, but analytically pretty simple: we wouldn’t have a Senate anymore, and the House of Commons and Crown would constitute the Canadian Parliament[1].

With either abolition or reform, we have to ask what the effects would be, and whether the means would serve the intended ends.

So in that spirit (and because I just read an interesting paper about it) let’s all agree that as bad as having the Prime Minister appoint Senators is, having the provinces appoint them would be worse.

“What the eff?” you say. “Who’s even advocating that?” Well, nobody important that I can see at the moment. (Though parts of this Tom Flanagan piece could be read that way.) But this was a common argument by provinces in the 1970s, and god knows bad ideas never really go away.

And it’s a bad idea not because I don’t like it, but because it fails to achieve its stated goal: increasing sub-national control over the national government. In fact, history shows it does the opposite.

Before 1913, the US Senate was appointed by state legislatures. This was explicitly intended to give the states control over the President, and not incidentally the Supreme Court. Then, after decades of campaigning, in just 11 months the Congress and two-thirds of the states passed the 17th amendment to require directly elected Senators.

A new paper from David Schleicher of George Mason University explains why states voted to disempower themselves. Schleicher argues that the role of national political parties in the US made the Framers’ conception of federalism unworkable, and in fact put state politics at the mercy of national politics–the exact opposite of what the founders intended.

Why? It’s pretty simple: state elections became “nationalized”, with voters expected to elect state representatives based on which party’s senators they would send to Washington. This had already begun before the Civil War, but by the 1870s through the 1900s it became more and more intense. Schleicher cites an 1894 editorial in the Chicago Tribune which explicitly argued that it was wrong for the state’s voters to make their decision based on state issues–national politics was what mattered:

Do these Democratic State Senators think the voters can be called off from the national issues involved in the direct election of Representatives and the indirect election of a Senator to consider only local questions. That they will drop the Wilson bill and devote their attention to the establishment of a Police Board in Chicago? That they will lose their interest in the currency — in the silver question and the taxation of State bank notes–and become wrapped up in the question whether the Chicago park boards shall be elective or appointed?

The 13th amendment, then, was a way of restoring the spirit of the federalist constitution by abandoning the letter.

The same issue faces other appointed upper houses. The German Bundesrat is an extreme example of this, where the German states (Lands) send delegates who have to strictly follow their government’s instructions. The intention was to decentralize the German government after World War II. The result has been to “nationalize” Land elections, as it was in the US senate. From Bruce Ackerman, 2001 (PDF):

The voters do not independently elect members of the Bundesrat. Its members are representatives of each Land government and strictly follow its instructions. This means that voters in Land elections cannot concern themselves only with the competing parties’ performance at the Land level. They must also bear in mind that their votes in Land elections can shift the balance of national power by changing the party balance in the Bundesrat…

The result has been the nationalization of state politics. National politicians and parties cannot look upon the fate of state elections with relative indifference. They make them part of the national political game, seeking to transform state elections into votes of confidence on the Chancellor and his initiatives. Voters in state elections do not focus only on the promises and performance of their state governments. They tend to use their votes to send a message to Berlin about their satisfaction with the ruling coali-tion on the national level.

There’s some important broader lessons about reform here. The biggest would be that the law of unintended consequences still applies: structures that are nominally intended to preserve local political importance can, in fact, diminish it.

But I want to rest on one point from Schleicher that I think is broadly relevant: the need to understand how we structure institutions with an understanding of how actors will work within them. The lessons of both the US Senate and Bundesrat suggest, for example, that an effort to de-politicize the Canadian Senate by appointing “non-partisan” technocrats will be short-lived at best. It’s a legislature: it’s politics all the way down. National political parties are here to stay, and thinking that they’ll somehow stay out of the Senate if we tinker with some rules is just juvenile.

[1] Fixed from an earlier version where I erroneously wrote that the Commons would be the Parliament alone.

A brief, belated response to Christopher Hume

(I know council just made a royal mess of things this week, but I have nothing left to say on that conspiracy of dunces. I just canx. So instead, I offer this.)

A few weeks ago, the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume wrote:

In Texas, where anything goes, planning has apparently become a dirty word. Houston, for instance, is proud of its zoning-free approach to growth. Civic officials argue that housing costs are lower in Houston than in most American cities because it has eliminated planning. But as these same planning libertarians might also point out, the market has assigned Houston a value — and it’s not much.

Now, he wrote this in the context of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The fact that Toronto (a thoroughly-planned city) had a propane explosion not that long ago and that natural gas explosions are semi-common throughout North America might suggest to some people that regulatory enforcement, not land-use zoning per se, is the factor that’s doing the work (or not) here. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

Hume, in the passage cited above, doesn’t even try to dispute the argument that Houston’s lack of zoning lowers the cost of housing. There are, in fact, some good reasons to suspect that un-planning doesn’t explain all of Houston’s affordability[1] but since Hume decided not to spend his column inches naming them I’m not going to help him out[2]. If he concedes that Houston’s unplanning makes thing more affordable, this has to mean that planning systems like Toronto’s make housing more expensive. But Hume does something weird–or at least, something that should be weird. He makes the same mistake the left is always accusing economists of. He confuses cost with value.

Homes in Houston, Hume concedes, cost less. But there’s no evidence that the people in Houston value their homes less than I do mine–they just get theirs at a discount, and have more disposable income (which they also value, presumably.)

Computing power spent most of relevant history (since the words “computing power” had an english meaning) getting cheaper every year, and there’s no evidence we’re any less fond of megahertz. To say that something is cheap, therefore something is less valuable, is an elementary mistake.

But of course, it’s the kind of mistake that too many people in Toronto, including too many elected officials, are eager to make. To urbanists like Hume (note: not all urbanists), Toronto’s high cost of living is a feature, not a bug, and comparisons to a city like Houston are worthy of nothing more than “if you like Houston so much why don’t you marry it?” But affordability is an honest-to-God problem in this city, and Houston has an answer (based on the agreed facts) that no other large city in North America seems to have.

I don’t particularly want my city to be Houston, but if urbanists can’t come up with a better answer than Hume’s glib back-patting, then we need to acknowledge that urbanism as an ideology isn’t affordable. Instead, it’s a philosophy whose goal is to create ethnic enclaves for rich people.

Disagree? Fine, then take the challenge of cities like Houston seriously.

[1] Houston has a massive network of city- and state-funded freeways that induce sprawl, it’s a “right-to-work state”, and Texas of course sits beside the massive cheap labour pool called Mexico.

[2] Okay, fine, I helped.