Elections and majorities

Ross Douthat offers a contrarian defense of the Electoral College:

Debates about the Electoral College, like the one that Democrats have lately instigated, often get bogged down in disputes about the intentions of the founding generation — whether they were trying to check mob rule, prop up Southern power, preserve the power of small states, or simply come to a necessarily arbitrary constitutional compromise.

These disputes are historically interesting but somewhat practically irrelevant…

Is there a case for a system that sometimes produces undemocratic outcomes? I think so, on two grounds. First, it creates incentives for political parties and candidates to seek supermajorities rather than just playing for 50.1 percent, because the latter play is a losing one more often than in a popular-vote presidential system.

Second, it creates incentives for political parties to try to break regional blocs controlled by the opposition, rather than just maximizing turnout in their own areas, because you win the presidency consistently only as a party of multiple regions and you can crack a rival party’s narrow majority by flipping a few states.

According to this — admittedly contrarian — theory, the fact that the Electoral College produces chaotic or undemocratic outcomes in moments of ideological or regional polarization is actually a helpful thing, insofar as it drives politicians and political hacks (by nature not the most creative types) to think bigger than regional blocs and 51 percent majorities.

The principle of federalism is almost never raised when I see the Electoral College’s merits brought up. Transitioning to a national popular vote would only make worse the present state of affairs, where governors and states act as little more than regional territorial managers for a central federal apparatus. A national popular vote would also lead to enormous disengagement from constituencies whose interests would be more or less permanently shut out, and that alone is a recipe for weakening the body politic.

But whatever present debate really exists over the Electoral College can be answered more simply by point out that Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency thanks so much to a flawed or outdated electoral system, as he did thanks to the failure of Hillary Clinton’s get-out-the-vote efforts: “Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states…

If those 80,000 people had voted differently, would there be hand-wringing about a supposedly outmoded system? No.

Novak Symposium

I’m at Catholic University this morning for the 2019 Novak Symposium at the Busch School of Business:

This event is an annual conference promoting discussion of issues that theologian Michael Novak opened up for further study, particularly his work on democratic capitalism and Catholic social teaching. This year’s symposium will address the theme of socialism and the future of political and economic liberty. When the Iron Curtain fell at the end of the 20th century, by all accounts capitalism and democracy had won out over socialism and totalitarianism. But where do we stand now? Is socialism making a viable comeback with figures like Bernie Saunders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? What about the situation in Venezuela?

8:00 a.m. Mass 
8:30 a.m. Registration and breakfast 
9:15 a.m. Welcome
9:30 a.m. Mary Eberstadt, author and senior research fellow, Faith & Reason Institute
10:30 a.m. Peter Boettke, professor of economics and philosophy, George Mason University
11:30 a.m. George Gilder, founder, Discovery Institute
12:30 p.m. Lunch
1:30 p.m. Faculty panel
2:00 – 4:30 p.m. Free time/Social Justice Lab Hackathon
5:15 p.m. Reception

I was here last February for “A Legacy of Faith and Reason: Honoring Michael Novak,” and this year am especially looking forward to George Gilder. They’re streaming the symposium:

St. Patrick’s Day in Georgetown

Ben Novak arrived today from Ave Maria and is staying with me this week, visiting Washington for Catholic University’s 2019 Novak Symposium that’s happening on Tuesday. We spent this afternoon enjoying Georgetown in beautiful, nearly spring weather with a walk along M Street, a stop in Le Pain Quotidien, a visit to Amazon Books, and a St. Patrick’s Day dinner at Clyde’s.

After we toasted over an Old Fashioned and a Guinness, we prayed the first stanza of the Belloc-inspired “Benedicamus Domino”:

Where’er the Catholic sun doth shine
There’s laughter and there’s good red wine
at least I’ve always found it so
Benedicamus Domino

Visiting the White House

Visited the White House earlier this week with Catherine Glenn Foster, President & CEO of Americans United for Life, and Steve Aden, Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel, to talk strategy on life-affirming law and policy.

It was beautiful out, and the experience reminds me that I’ll have to do an official White House tour at some point. What those walls have seen…

Washington Marathon 2019

I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Washington DC Marathon this morning. I woke around 5:30am, showered, put myself together, and hailed an Uber from my apartment in Georgetown to 14th and Constitution Avenue. It was overcast and chilly, but much better than yesterday’s intermittent snow and rain. As we were set to start, with a view from the corrals of the Washington Monument, we sang the national anthem, then started at 7am.

It was a much different marathon compared to Philadelphia, in terms of fellow runners. There were three Irishmen who ran near me for a while; I think diplomatic corps in some way. A younger guy with a “Run Tokyo” shirt. A woman with a Palantir baseball cap. There was what seemed like a high percentage of military runners. The variety evident amongst the runners was a reminder of the character of the place I now live.

I left my phone at my apartment like I did last time, because I don’t like to run with it on longer courses. I did have my Apple Watch, which proved to be great in terms of battery life. After finishing (with cellular/WiFi/heart rate monitor off), I checked my watch and it still had 56 percent battery life.

Overall, the run went alright. I registered for this on February 4th, and until yesterday wasn’t sure I would actually run it. I’m glad I did, because in the process I set two personal records: First, for my personal worst marathon time at 4 hours, 47 minutes. And second, for my personal best half marathon time of 1 hour, 57 minutes. It was a great way to see Washington on foot, and like any of these runs it’s simple enough encouragement to remind yourself, “What else would you be spending a Saturday morning doing, typically?”

While the first half went well, I could feel myself starting to flag at mile 15 or so, once we crossed east into Anacostia, across the bridge over Kingman Lake and the Anacostia River. You can see that reflected in the map below from my Apple Watch:

I think this morning was my first time in Anacostia, and it was good to see that on foot too. I kept along alright until near mile 18/19, when I had to start coaching myself mile by mile. I kept at least a jog up until mile 22, and then the fatigue really hit and I slowed to an old-man shuffle or sped-walked until the final mile when I was able to start picking up. I had also expected it to be a bit warmer than it was as morning got on; as we ran along the Anacostia River toward the end, I felt near-frigid (in shorts and long-sleeve shirt) for a long stretch.

It was surprising to me that the onlookers/family/friends cheering along the sides pretty much disappeared by about mile 16, and so from then until about the final half mile leading to the finish large stretches of those final miles were just empty—as empty on a sleepy, overcast Saturday morning as those miles were when I ran the Mount Nittany Marathon a few years ago.

We finished at the D.C. Armony/RFK Stadium, and I took Metro back to Foggy Bottom. I hailed a D.C. cab outside the Foggy Bottom station to get home, and the driver asked how the race went, shared that he ran marathons in the 1980s, and we talked for a while. As we neared my place, I had probably one of the rarest experiences: Henry, the driver, said casually, “Well look, you’ve got a free ride. From one runner to another: just keep running.”

Visiting the D.C. Armory

It’s not visible, but it was snowing throughout the day in Washington today. I visited the D.C. Armory during lunchtime and captured this scene:

It was in the 30s today, and is apparently going to reach 70 this weekend. Spring is on its way. I had never been in the D.C. Armory before today, and it was my first time in this part of Washington in something like a decade, since last visiting RFK Stadium in 2008 or so.

Shrove Tuesday in Alexandria

We visited Old Town, Alexandria last night for a few hours with the Catholic University Chamber Choir, performing at the Basilica of Saint Mary. Timothy McDonnell, whom I met a few years ago when he was at Ave Maria University, is now the conductor.

It was my first time to the Basilica of Saint Mary, and an appropriate way to prepare for the start of Lent. The choir performed:

  • Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro in B minor, RV 169 (Antonio Vivaldi)
  • Stabat Mater, Op. 138 (Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger)
  • “Hospodi, vozzvah” from Vespers (Roman Hurko)
  • “Credo” from Berliner Messe (1992) (Arvo Pärt)
  • The Eyes of All (Jean Berger)
  • Peità Signore (Anonymous)
  • Ave Maria (Harold Boatrite)
  • Qui seminant (Herold Boatrite)
  • Die mit Tränen saēn, SWV 378 (Heinrich Schūtz)
  • Miserere in C Minor, ZWV 57 (Jan Dismas Zelenka)
  • Vesperae solennes de confessore, K. 339 (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

We called the day before Ash Wednesday Fat Tuesday at home when I was growing up, the English for Mardi Gras, a day for indulgence before the self-denial of Lent. I also remember hearing Fastnacht Day at some point. But I think the older Shrove Tuesday speaks more to the point of the day as a time for preparation for the season of Lent to come, rather than as one more opportunity for the sort of indulgence that already characterizes almost any other time on the calendar.

‘All human problems become ones of neurochemistry’

Theodore Dalrymple reviews Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel:

Not reading many contemporary French novels, I am not entitled to say that Michel Houellebecq is the most interesting French novelist writing today, but he is certainly very brilliant… [he identifies] the vacuity of modern life in the West, its lack of transcendence, lived as it is increasingly without religious or political belief, without a worthwhile creative culture, often without deep personal attachments, and without even a struggle for survival. …

Houellebecq’s underlying nihilism implies that it is not there to be found. The result of this lack of transcendent purpose is self-destruction not merely on a personal, but on a population, scale. Technical sophistication has been accompanied, or so it often seems, by mass incompetence in the art of living. Houellebecq is the prophet, the chronicler, of this incompetence. 

Even the ironic title of his latest novel, Sérotonine, is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilizational malaise which is his unique subject. Serotonin, as by now every self-obsessed member of the middle classes must know, is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter to which is ascribed powers formerly ascribed to the Holy Ghost. All forms of undesired conduct or feeling are caused a deficit or surplus or malalignment of this chemical, so that in essence all human problems become ones of neurochemistry.  

On this view, unhappiness is a technical problem for the doctor to solve rather than a cause for reflection and perhaps even for adjustment to the way one lives. I don’t know whether in France the word malheureux has been almost completely replaced by the word déprimée, but in English unhappy has almost been replaced by depressed. In my last years of medical practice, I must have encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of depressed people, or those who called themselves such, but the only unhappy person I met was a prisoner who wanted to be moved to another prison, no doubt for reasons of safety.

Houellebecq’s one-word title captures this phenomenon (a semantic shift as a handmaiden to medicalisation) with a concision rarely equalled. And indeed, he has remarkably sensitive antennae to the zeitgeist in general, though it must be admitted that he is most sensitive to those aspects of it that are absurd, unpleasant, or dispiriting rather than to any that are positive.

Houellebecq satirises what might be called the neurochemical view of life which is little better than superstition or urban myth.

“His work, not least Sérotonine, is filled with disgust, as was [Jonathan] Swift’s: but it is the kind of disgust that can only emerge from deep disappointment, and one is not disappointed by what one does not care about. There is gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation.”

Along New Hampshire Avenue

In leaving Arlington yesterday, I took the 38B Metrobus to Farragut Square and then walked north toward Dupont Circle and ultimately toward the Fund for American Studies on New Hampshire Avenue. It still feels very much like winter, but as dusk approached it was a beautiful time for a walk.

Look at some of those incredible trees. I doubt we’d plant trees today that would grow in that way.