Thursday, August 22, 2013

Small states: a modest proposal

Dylan Matthews tweets, possibly facetiously:
The gist of the article is that maybe we should split Washington and/or Colorado into two states, and it goes on to analyze what the political consequences would be for the Senate and for the presidential electoral college.

A major objection to very small states (and other political subdivisions of countries, and countries themselves) is that they are too small for effective governance and provision of public services. The problem is particularly acute in France, which is divided into 36,681 communes.

Another major objection is that adding more small states would give them even more influence in the Senate and further distort American politics. I don’t really care so much about that: the overrepresentation of small states is a big problem, but adding a few more isn’t such a big deal if there are compelling reasons to do so. (No, you don’t want me supervising your diet.)

So here’s an alternative proposal: amend the Constitution you can split up a state into entities that are separate for the purposes of federal elections. Washington could be split up into Western Washington and Eastern Washington, and each would get two senators and the correct number of representatives and presidential electors. Internally, Washington would stay as a single state with one governor, legislature, laws, etc. Congressional districts would be drawn by an independent commission.

This would let Congress do whatever it wants to representation without all the practical problems associated with breaking up states. Politics!

21 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:41 AM

    Wouldn't people just... see through this as a transparent attempt to break up states??

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  2. I don't think your proposal solves the problem.

    The driving forces behind moves to divide states are mostly changes at the state, not federal, level. Gay marriage, for one. Marijuana legalization, for another. There are huge differences in attitudes on these issues within many states. If the states stay together at the level of state legislatures and referendums they still face this problem.

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    1. The original article focused on presidential politics, but you are right. Some states could use federal separation as a trial run. It’s a lot cheaper than a full split. States could separate for a couple of election cycles to see if they like it, and then decide to separate for state law purposes later, or perhaps merge again.

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  3. Why would we want to do this? To given even greater disproportionate power already substantially over-represented empty land?

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    1. The New Republic article gives some examples. In Colorado, it would give the Republicans 3 extra electoral votes, but would make 3 Democratic electoral votes more secure.

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  4. In some respects, smaller states are more efficient in the provision of public goods (although, I assume there is an optimal size). Assuming freedom of movement, there's more competition for tax revenue. It's also cheaper to collect information on what public goods need to be supplied and in what amount. Given a set of institutions, it's also cheaper to achieve closer-to-unanimous decision-making.

    My guess is that governments of different size can optimally provide for different public goods. For example, it may be more efficient for one, large government to provide public defense, while smaller governments provide things like roads (which is what most advanced democracies do).

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    1. Sorry for the double-comment, but someone may find this interesting: "Informational Limits to the Size of States."

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    2. #federalism

      Also, the Tiebout Model (has nothing to do with Tim Tebow).

      But the political ramifications for allowing more Republican makes the proposal distasteful.

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    3. *Republican Senators

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  5. Yes, and in fact most countries have more than 2 levels of government that provide different services.

    Another aspect of the tradeoff in democracies is informational at the level of the citizen: if you have to vote for representatives for 4 or 5 different levels of government, it’s a lot more costly to acquire information about the relative merits of the candidates and decide whom to vote for.

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  6. The problem is the proposed divisions are always wrong. Divisions should be effected to produce similar sized populations rather than urban and rural. Dividing the largest city in two is rarely desired though. A better approach might be to combine several small states into one for federal election proposes

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  7. Wonks Anonymous2:27 PM

    War seems much less prevalent now, and the U.S mostly seems involved in "wars of choice" rather than national defense. Would that suggest that states (by which I mean polities, rather than the subdivisions of government in the U.S) should get smaller now, as they were centuries ago?

    On a vaguely related note, here's David Friedman endogenizing the size/shape of "nations" (really, areas sharing the same tax policy for some particular tax) as a result of technological/economic changes:
    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Size_of_Nations/Size_of_Nations.html

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  8. Politics ??? Amending the constitution to eliminate the over representation of smaller than average states would work fine so long as there are 12 or fewer smaller than average states. It can't be done. The constitution was carefully written so that small states would be over represented in the Senate unless the Constitution was eliminated by a violent revolution or coup.

    Your proposals shows you know this, but for readers, the Constitution can not be amended to give states different numbers of Senators (the one provision which still can't be changed by amendment).

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  9. I think it would probably be cleaner if you just split the states altogether, rather than trying to keep them together for one purpose but not another. Guan mentions that a state might be less efficient if it is too small, but both the U.S. and international experience suggest that you can get pretty small and still have things work well.

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    1. Trolling aside, it’s not hard to imagine that different tasks have different optimal political entity tasks. The small states of Europe work quite well, but part of that is that they cooperate in the European Union. Maybe it’s optimal that things like trade policy, defense and standards are continent-wide, while other matters (both decisions and public services) are handled in smaller units.

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  10. There's no need for a change to the federal constitution for this kind of reform. States can already make changes to their systems of electoral college allocation.

    Take Nebraska: they allocate their electors by congressional district rather than statewide, meaning Obama was able to win one of its electoral college voters in 2008. Naturally, they redistricted after that to stop it happening again in 2012.

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  11. There is nothing to stop 2 states from combining their executive functions through a congressionally approved treaty. Also, congress could split a state if it desired as long as the state legislature approves.

    There is a pretty good argument that Texas already has congressional approval based on the treaty that admitted it and they could conceivably only need the legislature to split the state into multiple entities.

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  12. Anonymous12:46 AM

    Analogy bewteen US State and France communes is most likely flawed : France is not a federation. Communes and Départements are mainly administrative entities with identical powers and abilities. There are no difference between say Isère and Eure as both provide exactly the same public service in exactly the same form. In France, law is unique and left to Parliament (Assemblée Nationale plus Sénat) only. In USA law is multiple, result of 'federal' Congress activities plus State Congress legislative work.

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  13. Anonymous12:26 AM

    The discussion of splitting Washington state ignores a real but generally unacknowledged force that drives the state's politics - King county (Seattle) and to a lesser extent Pierce (Tacoma) and Snohomish (Everett) counties have such a disproportionate share of the economy that the rural remainder (other than the tax-avoiders in Clark (Vancouver) county who pay WA income tax (0%) and OR sales tax (0%) ), that they can't let the western, urban part of the state go, lest they have to pay their own way... this is a general phenomenon, just check out the close correlation between net inflow of federal dollars and Republican electoral leanings over the last 20 years among the states.

    For a discussion of WA political reality, see:
    http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/04/plebiscitary-democracy-and-sub-state-federalism

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    1. The sensible option in Washington State would be to take the Eastern part of the state and attach it to Idaho, rather than making it independent.

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  14. France's communes haven't been the primary unit of sub-national government there since reforms that were in place by the 1980s at the latest.

    Historically, the big issue in French subnational government is that important decisions (and more notably, not so important ones) were handled by central government appointed prefects, rather than locally elected officials. Hence, you needed to talk to your local MP to get a street light fixed. This is less true now than it once was, but few European countries have the same level of local government autonomy as the U.S. For example, in the U.K., the local cops generally do not report to the local government council or mayor in a mandatory way, while 90%+ of American cops do report exclusively to local elected officials.

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