Wednesday, May 26, 2010

States of Confusion

When it came to media coverage of the US Presidential election, back in the country of my birth, it actually received as much attention as one of our own national elections. Though we had no control over the outcome, we knew it would affect all our lives. Indeed in all but name we were witnessing the election of a World President, because as the sole remaining Superpower, what America says ultimately goes. Whilst it is true individual countries, or groups of countries, can stand up against America briefly, if the United States decides that something is opposed to its national interest, and utilizes its full economic and military weight, then successful resistance is simply not feasible.

Little surprise that the US President is frequently referred to as "the most powerful man on earth". However there is a problem with this perception. When it comes to international diplomacy, such as treaty negotiations, the US President is probably the weakest person around the table. Whilst most other leaders of countries come with a clear mandate from their electorate and the authority to negotiate, this is not true of the US President. He has no authority to agree to anything. Everything he says must be confirmed by Congress and therefore he cannot make any binding commitments. Whilst some other countries, eg Eire, have similar requirements that their parliament must ratify treaties, their electoral process is less likely to produce a parliament actively opposed to their leader than the US one. Perhaps because the President does not require approval for opposition to a treaty, or to refuse to sign one, American leaders are sometimes perceived as being more confrontational, than conciliatory, when it comes to negotiations.

Though the rest of the world believes that there is a single cohesive coherent country here, the reality is startlingly different. It was founded as a coalition of independent states, and whilst, in some ways, the power of the federal government has grown over the years, the states retain considerable power. Most foreigners are surprised over many aspects of life which remain under the control of states.

For example there has been considerable controversy lately about Arizona's immigration legislation and Texas's rewriting of its educational curriculum. To take the second of these, as the first I have discussed previously, whilst there is a US Education Department their role is limited to research and enforcing specific federal policies, as their website says:

Please note that in the U.S., the federal role in education is limited. Because of the Tenth Amendment, most education policy is decided at the state and local levels. So, if you have a question about a policy or issue, you may want to check with the relevant organization in your state or school district.

It certainly surprised me that there was no central curriculum but that individual states devised their own applying their own focus and biases. It was also unexpected to find that some states, such as Texas, also required classes in their state history. I am not sure why this unnerved me. I was an active local historian back in my original country and I do certainly believe people should learn about historical events in their area of residence. However it just appeared too inward-looking at a time when most Americans are woefully under-informed about world history and geography.

The reality is that while most of the world expects coherence from the United States, this is limited to international policy and that in reality it is highly disparate and there are substantial differences in laws between states. For example, if we look at a single issue, age of consent (for sexual intercourse), there is no consistency. Depending on individual circumstances, any age between 12 and 18 (inclusive) is potentially legal for sex in the USA somewhere. Members of the US military may normally have sex from 16 onwards but there are some situations where they could be liable for prosecution. Now, and I am not a lawyer, so this is an interpretation, not absolute fact - Two 16 year olds could legally have sex on a military base even in a state which had a higher age of consent, because on military property military rather than state laws apply. However if one of the 16 year olds, engaging in intercourse, is a civilian resident of that state and the sex takes place in a hotel, where the military does not have jurisdiction then there is the potential for the soldier to face a statutory rape charge where the state age of consent is greater than 16. Some states, for instance Florida, allow a modified age of consent where the two participants are of similar age (normally within 4 years) and under these circumstances it would be legal. However two 16 year old civilians could legally engage in sex, even in a state with a higher age of consent, such as Idaho, if they had been legally married in a state which permitted marriage at 16, such as Georgia. Under these circumstances the "full faith and credit" clause of the US Constitution would kick in, requiring that states recognize and honor legally-binding contracts made in other states. It looks to me like a confusing mess and even while most consensual sexual acts are unlikely to attract the attention of the authorities the potential danger remains. Indeed it seems that most US teen road movies should probably include a scene where birth certificates and local legislation is checked before they passionately fall into each other's arms.

To an outsider, this complexity seems unnecessary and counter-productive. Whilst its difficult to imagine states ever being willing to give up their rights to determine most matters, the consequence is a superfluous level of complexity, which benefits only lawyers, when it comes to most matters of regulation in the US. What real sense does it make for Hawaii and Arizona to be the only US states which do not practice Daylight Saving Time (DST)? Whilst I accept the benefit for them is limited, couldn't they make the sacrifice for the sake of uniformity? In some situations where public safety is involved diversity can be dangerous.

For example in the area of seat belt legislation. Whilst there are rare situations where a seat-belt can cause increased difficulty or injury, in the vast majority of cases, it saves lives and so would seem to be desirable. Yet again we find a difference in practice in the states. In 30 states the wearing of a seat-belt is mandatory for the driver and not doing so can lead to prosecution, in 19 further states it is an offense but will only be prosecuted if some other traffic offense is also committed and one state has no law about seat belts at all. Though even the 30 states do not all have the same rules when it comes to back seat passengers also wearing a seat belt.

States rights are important and having access to different options is a benefit for inhabitants in America. It is desirable that people be able to choose a taxation level and a legislative touch, whether lighter or more prescriptive, which suits their personal tastes. Freedom always has an attached price tag though and when the cost is measured in lives it is too high. Seat belt legislation is a good illustration of this. Whether to wear a seat belt or not might be seen as a matter of personal choice, particularly if one is in the back seat. However when that choice impacts, quite literally, others it should not be for a single person to decide. An unrestrained back-seat passenger during a collision will often strike the seat in front of them with such momentum that they dramatically increase the damage to the person in that seat, in many cases severely reducing their survival chances and in some situations causing their death. Whilst many Americans have a fear about federal intrusion, I have seen no evidence that states are any less bureaucratic or inefficient than the federal government. Sometimes we need to be willing to recognize that we are part of a wider society and give up individual rights for the greater good. States need to be willing to do this as much as citizens.

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