Money has changed – that’s the issue

Markets and moral limits.

Peter Selby responds to Nelson Jones's article Money and Morality.

When the St Paul’s Institute, working with JustShare, Penguin Books and the LSE, brought nearly 2000 people into St Paul’s for a public debate on the theme of Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits to Markets (see Nelson Jones, NS 25 May) it was because we knew the theme touched a nerve, not because we have an answer to peddle. The Institute has been engaged for some years, as an agency of the Cathedral, in seeking to get into debate with the financial institutions which are its ‘parish’; as such we could hardly think Sandel’s book unimportant, and we were delighted so many others thought the same.

That’s not the same as signing up to his thesis about the moral corrosion brought about by the intrusion of the market into all sorts of spheres to which it is not appropriate. Certainly we are signed up to the desire to get people thinking hard about which are the things that should be for sale and which should not be and, as Rowan Williams says in his review of What Money Can’t Buy, to do so on the basis of rational reflection rather than relying in feelings of revulsion when we see certain things getting a price.

Nelson Jones in his NS piece wonders whether things have deteriorated from some golden age when money didn’t play the part it now does, and points to many areas where things were much more monetised in the past than they are now. Tellingly, if slightly optimistically, he says we no longer sell people, and however bad the euro crisis gets we still won’t be doing that. There are examples he cites in the ancient world that are at least as unpleasant to think about as some of the examples Sandel gives of the intrusion of market thinking.

In my comments in the debate I voiced my own reservations about Sandel’s thinking, so much of which seems to me to address symptoms without digging deeper into causes. When he gives the example of prisoners being able to buy a cell upgrade, and when Nelson Jones points out that that has historical precedent, the deeper issue is not being faced by either of them: the selling off of incarceration as a business is common policy in the USA as it is increasingly in Britain. In the process of creating that market a financial interest is being created in locking people up. That can’t be unconnected with the fact that we in Britain lock up more people than other European countries and that a quarter of the rising number of prisoners in the world – and a third of all incarcerated women in the world, whose number has increased by a sixth in five years – are in the USA.

The figures that became a matter of public scandal during the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the relief of unrepayable third world debt showed all too clearly that the escalating power fo financial debt was depriving children worldwide of education, healthcare and life itself. The situation is infinitely worse than either Sandel or Jones portrays: the issue is not the buying and selling of things that should, or should not, be free, or whether people value things they pay for more than things they receive for nothing; in the end it is not about getting people to think more clearly than they do about whether markets should have moral limits though all these questions are important. What really matters is that in everything from the depletion of the planet’s resources to the requirement on Greek citizens to sell their democratic birthright to have their debts rescheduled money is deciding matters of life and death, and doing so more and more.

That’s why as a Christian and a theologian I am convinced money has acquired all the characteristics of an idol, aggrandising its power and claiming more and more of people’s lives. And that’s why, because of faith’s commitment to raise fundamental questions about anything that has the potential to be an idol, the St Paul’s Institute will go on engaging that debate at an ever more fundamental level. When it recently commissioned a report on the attitudes of those working in the financial sector (see Value and Values) we learned that most did not think the City should listen more to the Church’s guidance. But we now know, since the Sandel debate came to St Paul’s, that many people do want to know whether pressing economic questions have something to say about the meaning of life and whether those who profess faith are prepared to get involved in relating that faith to those questions.

Because, make no mistake, money did not acquire this power by accident. The last four decades, roughly since the massive oil price rises of the early 1970s, have seen vast increases in the amount of money in circulation, and technological advance has multiplied its speed of circulation. In the absence of means of regulating that the dominant policy has been one of deregulation, allowing the power of money to grow with its quantity. The results are not just the life and death issues I have described, but a situation in which all of us, rich or poor, are compelled to worry more and more about money and think more and more about it.

The issues of monetary reform, dismissed even by the independent commission on banking and widely ignored, are ones we need to press: just as ‘home ownership’ is a euphemism for housing debt, so ‘fractional reserve’ is now a synonym for debt multiplication: is one of the questions we need to ask about the post-2008 crisis whether the system on which we have relied for money creation for nearly a century fraught with inherent instability? I ask the question not because the Institute has a recipe or a policy to commend, but because it is our passion as a community of faith to ensure that these questions are honestly faced. The Sandel debate, and the Jones response are just a start.

Peter Selby is one of the interim directors of the St Paul’s Institute, and author of Grace and Mortgage: the Language of Faith and the Debt of the World. He was until retirement Bishop of Worcester, and Bishop to HM Prisons.

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Selby is one of the interim directors of the St Paul’s Institute, and author of Grace and Mortgage: the Language of Faith and the Debt of the World. He was until retirement Bishop of Worcester, and Bishop to HM Prisons.

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.