Saturday, November 12, 2016

What was the purpose of the electoral college? One idea.

I've been seeing many comments about the purpose behind the electoral college. These include "The point of the electoral college is to ensure the entire country has a voice not just highly populated area," and, "The purpose of the electoral collage is to ensure that we don't elect dictators," and others. It seems to be a bit of a puzzle, since there is not any reason cited by the electoral college creators as to why that system was to be implemented.

While I don't know that any of these are the point of the electoral college, it is easy to think it might be, an outcome of it. However, I think part of the answer lies in how the electoral college apportions the number of electors: one elector for each legislator (with modifications due to the cap on the total number of Representatives). It's with this latter cap on the total number of Representatives (and thus on the number of electors) that the electoral college sets up an additional relative preference for small population states over large population states. And it's based on this rationale that it makes sense that the electoral college could have been set up to ensure that less-populated areas have their voice heard.
But there's one other, historical, point:

A direct vote would have been opposed by Southern states, because slaves couldn't vote. However, creating a separate body of electors, whose numbers would be equivalent to the size of the state's Congressional delegation would be bolstered by the 3/5th compromise. Why? Let's work backwards from how the apportionment of electors is decided. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides no rationale for the creation of an electoral college, but does explain how to apportion the number of electors:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.
We know that the number of senators is defined at two senators per state (Article I, Section 3), regardless of population. And we know that the number of Representatives is defined based on the number of people in the state (and potentially limited, based on an overall cap of Representatives at 435). However, things were originally a bit different, as explained in Article I, Section 2:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Now, this determination of "all other Persons" is a nice way of saying "slaves," since indentured servants were still considered to be free for purposes of counting the population. This means that the size of the House of Representatives delegation is determined by this basic formula:

# Representatives = # free persons - # untaxed Indians + (3/5 x #slaves)

And the number of electors is determined by the following basic formula:

# Electors = 2 Senators + #Representatives
Or - through substitution:

# Electors = 2 Senators + # free persons - #untaxed Indians + (3/5 x #slaves)

And - like many things in the history of a nation -the system continued through to this day, since it wasn't deemed to be explicitly connected to slavery, nor was it seen to be in need of repair, and it could easily be rationalized to fit a variety of purposes (as seen in the two posted above). However, when one encounters a variety of explanations about the origins or purposes of a thing (such as the purpose behind the 2nd Amendment), such explanations are more than likely to amount to just-so stories, and so a little bit of additional digging ought to happen, especially when the variety of popular explanations either make no sense in combination, conflict with each other, or are in conflict with other parts of the system. Therefore, it appears (at least to me) that the electoral college was set up to ensure that the states with lower populations of freemen would maintain a greater level of control in the early republic.

Note, though, that this is my own hypothesis. I'm not an historian, and I don't have any proof, but we do know that the 3/5th compromise was introduced to ensure that the South had a "sufficient" number in their Congressional delegation. And the electoral college is apportioned, based heavily on the size of the Congressional delegation.

This doesn't mean to say that the electoral college is "pro-slavery" or "racist" or anything like that. It is, though, a relic of a past time in our nation's history, when the calculus of federal representation rested on counting each slave as 3/5 of a person.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Linguistic differences and organizing plurals with the word "type"

I was proofreading a paper written in English by a native Spanish speaker, and came across the following phrase:

... that include this type of tools ...

And that really had me scratching my head for a couple reasons. First off, the writing of this particular author was generally quite good, and often what he wrote is exactly what he meant. Second, he had just described the evaluation tool to be one example of several that are used in the discipline, so it is obvious that he is writing about the particular tool of the study in the context of various others that exist.

This had me scratching my head for a bit, with me thinking about the phrase that definitely worked:

... that include this group of tools ...

After all, it's clear that the word "group" means a plurality of the things that constitute it. Yes, one can have a philosophical argument as to whether it is possible to be a "group of one" (even mathematics equivocates on this), if you need to make a philosophical argument about the case, then it implies that the case is so unobvious that - at best - it serves as an special-case exception to the general rule or pattern. So, given this recognition, a "group of tools" automatically means that there are at least two tools that define the group in question, and in that way, it operates as a collective noun in much the same way as "family" and "team" do.

But what about "type"? Is "type" a collective noun in the same way that "group" is? It didn't seem so to my ear, but that could just have been due to the conditioning of my upbringing. Indeed, the first definition given online is:
a number of things or persons sharing a particular characteristic, or set of characteristics, that causes them to be regarded as a group, more or less precisely defined or designated; class; category:
But the example provided is, "a criminal of the most viscious type," which applies the definite article to the word, indicating singularity, and not plurality. So maybe it could be technically correct to write "type of tools," but it still seemed not-normal. So I went to my constant back-up position of objective assessment of language usage: Google n-grams. For both the various permutations of pluarlity of the original phrase, "type of tools," and the more general phrase, "type of things," I had the same result, namely that "type of tool" (and "type of thing" - red line) was far-and-away more prevalent than "type of tools" (or "type of things" - blue line). Even "types of tools" ("types of things" - green line) was more prevalent.



Is the pattern different in Spanish? I tried the same permutations, but in Spanish, and found that "type of things" (tipo de cosas - red line) was WAY more prevalent than any other permutation, with insufficient numbers of exemplars of "types of thing" (tipos de cosa).



So, yeah, it seems that the inherent logic of what is and isn't a collective noun between English and Spanish is different, and this particular writer was likely working from his instincts of whether "type" worked as a collective noun in the same way as in does in Spanish. The simple fact that it doesn't is also likely a lesson that was never covered in his English language lessons, or likely wasn't reinforced. Regardless, what started as a bit of a mental puzzle was resolved in one of the more neatly packaged means that I have encountered.