Our Founding Fathers Never Imagined Congress Would Behave This Badly

James Madison’s analysis of the American republic is often praised for its brilliance, but the 4th president could not have envisioned the chutzpah and anti-government zeal of the 2013 House Republicans.

"One faction of one party in one house of Congress," President Obama said on Monday, "doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election...You don't get to extract a ransom for doing your job, for doing what you're supposed to be doing anyway, or just because there's a law there that you don't like."

James Madison, an author of the Federalist Papers and theorist of how factions develop and can be prevented in democratic republics, would certainly agree. 

More on that theme in a minute. First we have to clear up one thing about repeated Republican claims that they have the American people on their side in forcing a government shutdown. The Affordable Care Act, while hardly wildly popular, is not hugely unpopular either. Now I’m not sure how valuable it is to divine American public opinion on a law that hasn’t yet fully come into effect, but never mind that. The decisive matter is not whether 43% of 47% or 51% of Americans have some objections to Obamacare in the weeks before its central provisions are launched: clearly many are wary of it. The question is whether a solid majority of the public would prefer to sabotage Obamacare than keep the federal government running. On this question, the data is clear: 72% of American voters oppose last night’s shutdown of the government to undermine the Affordable Care Act, while only 22% support it.

So it is disingenuous to claim, as does John Culberson, a Republican legislator from Texas, that “constitutional conservatives in the House are keeping their word to our constituents and our nation to...protect them from the most unpopular law ever passed in the history of the country." This is grandstanding, pure and simple. Even if shutting down the government were a legitimate political tactic (more on that in a moment), there is no mandate from the American people to shutter the government in order to prevent the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

President Obama is right. John Boehner and company are a faction in the sinister sense of the term as it was understood by the Founding Fathers. Here is James Madison with the definition, from Federalist #10:

[A] number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

It’s relatively easy to avert disaster when the faction is in the minority, Madison wrote: “relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.” The real challenge comes when more than half of the country shares a view inimical to the interests of a part or the whole. Majority factions, wielding the “tyranny of the majority” are a tougher nut to crack. But the structure of the American government, Madison argued, will help prevent majority factions from ever arising. With the “the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country” in a large republic, it is less likely that bad seeds will find each other to rally around a dangerous idea. And with “the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest,” we will send judicious souls to the national legislature to make enlightened decisions for the rest of us:

[Members of Congress], whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

Madison’s analysis of the American republic is often praised for its brilliance, but the 4th president could not have envisioned the chutzpah and anti-government zeal of the 2013 House Republicans. By now it should be apparent that everything in the previous paragraph is backwards as it applies to the shutdown battle. The road to the shutdown was not a result of a majority faction oppressing the rest of us. It was a minority faction of Tea Party and Tea-Party-beholden members of the GOP refusing to recognize a duly passed, signed, enacted and Supreme-Court sanctioned law expanding health benefits for millions of Americans.

Unfortunately,  as long as the Speaker of the House refuses to let his colleagues vote on a clean spending bill free of sabotage provisions (a vote that would pass with the support of Democrats and moderate Republicans) there is no way to simply vote down the Obamacare objectors and enact a budget the way Madison suggests. And it is Madison's very solution to the problem of majority factionstempering the people's turbulent passions by turning decisions over to elected representatives in a calm, reflective deliberative bodythat is actually the cause of the trouble. Wise, patriotic, reasonable, justice-loving members of Congress are in short enough supply in Washington, D.C. that they have thwarted the operation of the very institutions they took an oath to uphold.  

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

How humans evolved to live in the cold

Humans evolved to live in the cold through a number of environmental and genetic factors.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Surprising Science
  • According to some relatively new research, many of our early human cousins preceded Homo sapien migrations north by hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.
  • Cross-breeding with other ancient hominids gave some subsets of human population the genes to contend and thrive in colder and harsher climates.
  • Behavioral and dietary changes also helped humans adapt to cold climates.
Keep reading Show less

Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
Keep reading Show less