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Quartz #51—>Italy Should Look to Ancient Rome to Reform Its Ineffective Senate


Link to the Column on Quartz

Here is the full text of my 51st Quartz column, ”Italy should look to ancient Rome to reform its ineffective Senate,” now brought home to It was first published on August 8, 2014. Links to all my other columns can be found here.

The idea for this column emerged during my trip to Rome, when I talked to Luigi Guiso about the economic and political situation in Italy. I wanted to thank him for all of his insights. Don’t construe that as his endorsement of my proposal, though!   


Luigi Guiso

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© August 8, 2014: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2017. All rights reserved.


The prime minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, wants to miniaturize the Italian Senate—both in number of senators and in power. Under Renzi’s reform plan, senators would be appointed by regional councils and haveno power to approve budgetspass most national laws, or hold a no confidence vote on the government.

One of the touted motivations is to save money: the equivalent of about$58 million in salaries, plus pension benefits. But even if it all added up to $100 million a year total, that would be only .005% of Italy’s $2 trillion a year economy. Any pluses or minuses for governance have to vastly outweigh the direct cost savings, so the issue should be thought of primarily as a constitutional issue, not a budgetary issue.

Italian senators are resisting. They have introduced almost 8000 amendments to Renzi’s reform bill to put the brakes on this constitutional change. This trench warfare was predictable. Back in March, James Mackenzie explained in Reuters that Renzi’s plan “to transform the Senate into a non-elected chamber stripped of the power to approve budgets or hold votes of no-confidence in a government” would meet stiff opposition:

[Renzi’s] bill would scrap the current fragmented system, which grants equal powers to the Senate and the lower house Chamber of Deputies but elects them by different rules which make it hard for any group to win a stable overall majority in parliament. …

But despite loud public calls for change from all sides of the political spectrum, the reform is expected to encounter strong opposition from many in the 320-strong upper house who will have to vote to scrap their own jobs.

Italian blogger Roberta Damiani gives an excellent primer on Renzi’s reform plan for the Italian Senate. She explains:

Currently, Italy has a system known as “perfect bicameralism”: both chambers are directly elected during the same general election, and have exactly the same authority on every matter, including monetary ones. This is really rare, especially in parliamentary systems; Italy and Romania are indeed the only two countries in the EU with such a system.

Such a system makes it hard to pass legislation. Right after Italy’s Fascist era under Mussolini, it made sense to make it hard for the government to do anything big. But now, when Italy faces a host of economic problems, that need imaginative solutions, it is a problem.

Ancient Rome provides the inspiration for a very different reform of the Italian Senate—a reform that doesn’t save any money on senators’ salaries, because it would let the senators keep their jobs, but would:

  1. End the gridlock caused by the current system;
  2. Elevate the Italian Senate as a deliberative body;
  3. Maintain the equality of the Senate with the other house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies.

The highest officials in the Roman Republic were two consuls. The consuls took turns running the show, with one consul in charge one month and the other in charge the next month. The consul who was in charge was said to hold imperium. One consul could veto the actions of the other when the other was in charge, but used that power sparingly in order to avoid being checked in turn when it was his month.

For the modern Italian Parliament, here is what I am proposing: just as consuls in Ancient Rome took turns being in charge in alternate months, let the modern Italian Senate and the other house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, be in charge in alternate years. Require an active vote by 55 percent of the house of Parliament that is not in charge to veto an action by the one that is. (To minimize opposition to this reform plan, leave the number of senators the same as it is now.)

Besides an occasional veto vote, what would a house of Parliament do during its off year? Although they might shirk in their duties, members of parliament in an off year would be expected to turn their house of Parliament into a kind of think tank, preparing and thinking through the actions they planned to take in the following year when they would again collectively be in charge. Having to watch the other house of Parliament be in charge during an off year would do a lot to stimulate creativity in putting together a program for the year when their house held imperium.

Under this system, the members of parliament could all keep their jobs, as long as the voters kept reelecting them. The fact that the house of Parliament in charge could pass legislation with a simple majority vote but the other house could veto only with an active vote of 55 percent would do a lot to reduce gridlock. The years each house of Parliament would go through having to sit on the sidelines would do a lot to foster deeper deliberation.

Italy has not been an easy country to govern. I think prime minister Renzi is trying to make things better, but he chose the wrong model for constitutional reform in Italy. For a better model—one that wouldn’t face the uphill battle of persuading senators to vote their own jobs out of existence—he can turn to the ancient Roman Republic, the source of so many of the world’s key democratic principles and traditions.

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Italy Should Look to Ancient Rome to Reform Its Ineffective Senate


Here is a link to my 51st column on Quartz, “Italy should look to ancient Rome to reform its ineffective Senate.”

The idea for this column emerged during my trip to Rome, when I talked to Luigi Guiso about the economic and political situation in Italy. I wanted to thank him for all of his insights. Don’t construe that as his endorsement of my proposal, though!   


Luigi Guiso

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Safe, Legal, Rare and Early

image source

Even in a year when the abortion issue has been relatively quiet, the struggle over abortion policy continues to make news. On June 26, the Supreme Court decided that a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics was too great an imposition on the free-speech rights of anti-abortion activists. On June 3, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down restrictions on pills that induce abortion early in pregnancies.

And Wendy Davis’s uphill campaign to become governor of Texas was jumpstarted by her filibuster against restrictions on late-term abortions

The American politics of abortion generates a lot of heat because of the passion of those with extreme views. Yet most Americans have moderate views on abortion. The debate over abortion restrictions involves a tragic conflict between a human life—however small and undeveloped—and the freedom of a potential mother to determine the course of her life.   

Bill Clinton famously said during the 1996 presidential campaign:  “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.” In saying this, he missed another important proviso. According to most Americans, abortion should be not only safe, legal and rare—when there is an abortion, it should be done early in pregnancy. Gallup polls from 2012 indicate that only 31% of adults think abortion should be illegal in the first trimester, but 64% think abortion should be illegal during the second trimester, and 80% think abortion should be prohibited in the third trimester. And these attitudes have been remarkably stable over time.

I agree with the majority of Americans. It makes sense to me that someone ought to have the right not to be killed the day before they would otherwise have been born. And it makes sense to me that, despite its potential, the interests of a single human cell from a recently fertilized egg cannot weigh as much in the balance as the interests of a woman in choosing one of the most basic aspects of what her future will look like. In between, I see the ethical weight of nascent human life as increasing gradually over time. There are milestones along the way: fertilization, implantation, getting a heartbeat, becoming able to feel pain, being born. But even those transitions, seen up close, are gradual ones.  For example, birth is not one moment of transition, but many: the breaking of the water, the emergence of the baby’s head, the first breath, the cutting of the umbilical cord, and many key moments along the way.

Even after birth, loving parents feel a baby becoming more and more precious with every passing day. And with passing time, the child gains a greater and greater consciousness of its own existence, and (in all but pathological cases) its own strong desire to live. At the other end, even before conception, I like to think that even the unconceived have at least some small ethical interest in getting a chance to become an actual human being.

So to me, there are no sudden ethical jumps, but instead, a gradually increasing ethical weight to a developing human life, at least from shortly before conception to shortly after birth. What this ethical view means for policy is that when an abortion does happen it is better to have it occur early. Laws against partial-birth abortion seem ethically appropriate to me just as laws against killing the baby one day later are, but attempts to discourage women from using morning-after pills such as “Plan B” do not. It takes many, many fertilized eggs to equal the ethical weight of a single one-month-along fetus aborted because a woman was kept from using a morning-after pill. And while it might be reasonable to consider short waiting periods to encourage people to think things through, restrictions on abortion (or harrassments to drive out abortion clinics) that force women to go to another state at the cost of weeks of delay magnify the horror of the abortion that ultimately does take place.   

Unfortunately, the extreme viewpoints that have driven much of the policy debate have left little room for us to focus on trying to insure that the abortions that do occur are early ones. The politically most active parts of the pro-life movement claim that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of a baby, while the politically most active parts of the pro-choice movement are loath to give any rights to a human being the day before birth. So it is the duty of the rest of us—who have both pro-choice and pro-life leanings jostling in our hearts at the same time—to work toward policies that will insure that abortions are not only safe, legal and rare, but also early.



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Michael Bloomberg: A University Cannot Be Great If Its Faculty Is Politically Homogenous

I was delighted to see that Michael Bloomberg gave a Commencement Address at Harvard articulating the same sentiments I expressed in my post "Colleges Should Stand Up For Freedom of Speech!" The text is available in full on his website, and I plugged in the embed code above for the video of his talk. 

Here are some key passages. I am in full agreement:

1. Great universities are places where people of all backgrounds, holding all beliefs, pursuing all questions, can come to study and debate their ideas – freely and openly.

Today, I’d like to talk with you about how important it is for that freedom to exist for everyone, no matter how strongly we may disagree with another’s viewpoint.

Tolerance for other people’s ideas, and the freedom to express your own, are inseparable values at great universities. Joined together, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society.

2. Repressing free expression is a natural human weakness, and it is up to us to fight it at every turn. Intolerance of ideas – whether liberal or conservative – is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship.

There is an idea floating around college campuses – including here at Harvard – that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.

Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League.

3. In the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data, 96 percent of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama.

Ninety-six percent. There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors.

That statistic should give us pause – and I say that as someone who endorsed President Obama for reelection – because let me tell you, neither party has a monopoly on truth or God on its side.

When 96 percent of Ivy League donors prefer one candidate to another, you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a great university should offer.

Diversity of gender, ethnicity, and orientation is important. But a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous. In fact, the whole purpose of granting tenure to professors is to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms.

When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms.

Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms. Otherwise, university research – and the professors who conduct it – will lose credibility.

Great universities must not become predictably partisan. And a liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.

The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues – without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.

4. … a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.

5. if students graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society.

And if you want to know where that leads, look no further than Washington, D.C.

Down in Washington, every major question facing our country – involving our security, our economy, our environment, and our health – is decided.

Yet the two parties decide these questions not by engaging with one another, but by trying to shout each other down, and by trying to repress and undermine research that runs counter to their ideology. The more our universities emulate that model, the worse off we will be as a society.

And let me give you an example: For decades, Congress has barred the Centers for Disease Control from conducting studies of gun violence, and recently Congress also placed that prohibition on the National Institute of Health. You have to ask yourself: What are they afraid of?

6. We must not become a country that turns our back on science, or on each other. And you graduates must help lead the way.

On every issue, we must follow the evidence where it leads and listen to people where they are. If we do that, there is no problem we cannot solve. No gridlock we cannot break. No compromise we cannot broker.

The more we embrace a free exchange of ideas, and the more we accept that political diversity is healthy, the stronger our society will be.

7. Standing up for the rights of others is in some ways even more important than standing up for your own rights. Because when people seek to repress freedom for some, and you remain silent, you are complicit in that repression and you may well become its victim.

Do not be complicit, and do not follow the crowd. Speak up, and fight back.

You will take your lumps, I can assure you of that. You will lose some friends and make some enemies. But the arc of history will be on your side, and our nation will be stronger for it.

It is worth comparing the arguments Michael gives to those you can see in the links in "John Stuart Mill’s Brief for Freedom of Speech." Michael quotes John Stuart Mill in one place, but articulates the fundamental logic of John’s argument in many other places in new words. 

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The Man in the Tank: It’s Time to Honor the Unsung Hero of Tiananmen Square


Here is a link to my 48th column on Quartz “The Man in the Tank: It’s Time to Honor the Unsung Hero of Tiananmen Square.” In addition to my editor, Mitra Kalita, I want to thank my father, Edward Kimball, for excellent editorial suggestions in putting together this column.  

The Tiananmen Square Massacre is an event well-deserving in its infamy of a two-day memorial. Tomorrow’s post will also remember. 

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Sliding Doors: Hillary vs. Barack


"Sliding Doors" Wikipedia article. Please imagine in your mind’s eye a version of this poster with Barack Obama on top and Hillary Clinton on the Bottom to represent the two alternate histories: actual history and “Hillary wins in 2008.”

"Sliding Doors" is one of my wife Gail’s and my favorite movies. It explores the perennially fascinating theme of alternate histories—"what if" or "counterfactual" histories.  

Although it is too early for me to attempt any serious discussion of the race to be elected president in 2016, it is not too early to rerun the what-ifs raised by the 2008 Democratic primary that came down to a hard-fought battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Most political observers believe that Hillary would also have defeated John McCain in the general election, as Barack did, so the Democratic primary in 2008 comes closer than the general election to providing a “sliding-doors” moment when history could easily have gone either way. If I had the technical skill, I would photoshop the “Sliding Doors” poster above to have Barack on top and Hillary on the bottom, instead of blond and brunette Gwyneth Paltrow.   

I would be interested in your opinion about how the world would be different if Hillary had won instead of Barack. I have two thoughts on that subject, that I am happy to have you dispute.

First, I think the 2008 Financial Crisis was baked in the cake by the time of the 2008 primaries, so whoever became president would have had to deal with the same type of economic problems, and the differences between Hillary and Barack could have been crucial. I think Hillary, having been burned on the health care reform front before, would have pursued health care reform, but would have put it as a lower priority relative to economic recovery than Barack did. As I wrote in "What Should the Historical Pattern of Slow Recoveries after Financial Crises Mean for Our Judgment of Barack Obama’s Economic Stewardship?" I think it was a mistake for Barack not to devote every ounce of his political capital to getting a bigger stimulus package for economic recovery; so at that juncture, it was a mistake to let the goal of health care reform distract from the goal of economic recovery.

In my book, to the extent a health care reform steamroller would then have been impossible, that also might have been a good thing, Given how little we know about what works in health care reform at a systemic level (see my column "Don’t Believe Anyone Who Claims to Understand the Economics of Obamacare"), I believe that Medical Reform Federalism would have been the best course, and this might have been exactly the kind of compromise eventually reached had Barack not been in the presidency to push through Obamacare. As I wrote in my post "Evan Soltas on Medical Reform Federalism—in Canada" here is what I mean by Medical Reform Federalism:

Let’s abolish the tax exemption for employer-provided health insurance, with all of the money that would have been spent on this tax exemption going instead to block grants for each state to use for its own plan to provide universal access to medical care for its residents.

Second, I think that Hillary would have helped the Syrian rebels more as President than she could as Secretary of State, which in turn would have projected enough more toughness that Vladimir Putin would not have dared to seize Crimea for Russia and Ukraine would not be facing that loss of the Crimea and possible further loss of territory right now. Supposing that is true, even greater differences between the two alternate histories I am considering (actual history and Hillary winning in 2008) are likely to open up as time goes on.  

I was stimulated to think again about Hillary vs. Barack by a Washington Post article this morning by  Philip Rucker and Zachary A. Goldfarb that can be found online here:

"The Clintons fight back, signaling a new phase in 2016 preparations"

Here are some memorable passages from that article:

1. Bill Clinton reveled in mocking Karl Rove for his suggestion that Hillary Clinton may have suffered brain damage from a fall in late 2012 … 

Referring to Rove’s remarks, [Bill] Clinton chuckled and fired back with humor.

“First they said she faked her concussion, and now they say she’s auditioning for a part on ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” he said, referring to a television series about zombies. “If she does [have brain damage], then I must be in really tough shape because she’s still quicker than I am.”

2. Asked whether [Hillary] Clinton is still a stateswoman operating above the political fray, Republican presidential strategist Mark McKinnon wrote in an e-mail, “There is no ‘above the fray’ in politics anymore. There is only ‘the fray.’ ”

3.  [Bill] Clinton, who has faced criticism that income inequality worsened on his watch in the 1990s, defended income growth during his term but acknowledged that the gap between the rich and the poor represents a significant problem.

“You can say, ‘Well, inequality has still increased,’ because the top 1 percent did better, but I don’t think there’s much you could do about that unless you want to start jailing people,” he said.

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On Freedom of Political Speech


Link to Wall Street Journal article Political Speech Wins in Wisconsin”

My experiences with the Mormon Church’s attempts to suppress freedom of speech within the Church, using ecclesiastical power, make me very leery of allowing the heavier power of the government to fine people or throw them in jail for speech. So it seems very short-sighted to me when many commentators put concerns about money in politics ahead of concerns about maintaining the freedom of speech that fosters desperately needed information processing at the social level.

As a result, I give props to federal judge Rudolph Randa who in issuing a preliminary injunction on Tuesday ending the John Doe investigation of allies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, wrote: 

… the larger danger is giving government an expanded role in uprooting all forms of perceived corruption which may result in corruption of the First Amendment itself.

He also wrote:

O’Keefe and the Club obviously agree with Governor Walker’s policies … but coordinated ads in favor of those policies carry no risk of corruption because the Club’s interests are already aligned with Walker and other conservative politicians.

Concerns about corruption must never be a stalking horse for criminalizing speech that is objectionable primarily because it deeply offends one’s political sensibilities.  

Is freedom of speech really important enough that we should risk an excessive role of money in politics? This is a genuine tradeoff, but our answer should be yes. It is worth sacrificing a lot for freedom of speech. To me, freedom of speech is sacred because it is necessary for seeking truth. So for over a year, every other week, I have built my Sunday religion post around a passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I hope you will read On Liberty closely along with me to see if you don’t weigh the importance of freedom of speech more highly—even relative to other very important values—after pondering John’s argument.  


1. You can see all the posts based on On Liberty in my Religion, Sciences and Humanities sub-blog:

2. On truth as a sacred value, see the discussion on this Facebook post:

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North Carolina Clergy Bring Religious Freedom Lawsuit against State’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban

I don’t mean to claim I had any effect, but I am interested to see that the argument I made in my column “The Case for Gay Marriage is Made in the Freedom of Religion” is being pursued in North Carolina. My thanks to John Davidson for pointing me to the news report by Lorelei Laird linked above. Here are key passages:

A federal lawsuit filed yesterday in the Western District of North Carolina puts a new spin on same-sex marriage litigation: religious freedom. In it, several individual clergy members and the General Synod of the United Church of Christ argue that state laws banning same-sex marriage unconstitutionally penalize them for practicing their faith. …

North Carolina has both a constitutional amendment and a statute making same-sex marriages invalid. Furthermore, North Carolina General Statute §51-6 makes it a crime for members of the clergy to perform marriages for couples who do not have a license.

As a result, the complaint says, state law forbids the plaintiffs from practicing their religions, in violation of the free exercise and free association clauses of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs also make the due process and equal protection arguments more common in same-sex marriage lawsuits after last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor.

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