Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

A New Bill of Rights Would Extend Our Useful Life

A “More Perfect” Union

In the television show The Big Bang Theory, there is a funny exchange between Sheldon Cooper, the genius theoretical physicist, and Stuart Bloom, the owner of the local comic book store. After Sheldon presents to Stuart a hypothesis about a particular comic book character, the conversation goes as follows:

Stuart: Ooh, Sheldon, I’m afraid you couldn’t be more wrong.

Sheldon: (indignantly) More wrong? Wrong is an absolute state and not subject to gradation.

Stuart: Of course it is. It’s a little wrong to say that a tomato is a vegetable…it’s very wrong to say it’s a suspension bridge.

Sheldon is of course literally correct, but Stuart is conceptually correct. Wrong is wrong, but it feels like some wrong answers are close, and some are not (of course, one can be “partially wrong” too). I was reminded of this exchange when thinking about the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which famously says:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union

“More perfect” is as equally poor syntax as “more wrong.” Perfect is not subject to gradation. But like our comic book store owner, our Founding Fathers were clearly making a conceptual point. We will never achieve perfection, but we should always strive to be better – even knowing the likely asymptotic relationship that allows us to only approach anything close to perfection.

No one in good faith would argue that the United States of America is anywhere close to perfect (or that any country is). But that shouldn’t negate the goal to always change and strive to be better. In many ways, that’s what The Boiling Frog podcast has been all about – understanding what true progressivism means and highlighting all of the innumerable blockers in our politics that have not only prevented us from getting “more perfect,” but have in fact made us regress.

Making Progress

These 26 podcasts were our attempt to frame these problems as an outcome of our social psychology and our economic incentives. Using this framing, we believe we can better understand everything from gun violence to religion…from cancel culture to corruption…from labor unions to tax policy…from elections and voting to really understanding capitalism and so much more!  We saw a pattern in those 26 episodes – some potential solutions kept coming up over and over again. We understood that many of our proposed solutions were frankly wishful thinking due to our current political environment, the influence of money, certain media outlets, and social media in general. However, the value of out-of-the-box thinking is that, sometimes, it allows us to step back and frame the big issues and highlight ideas that maybe one day could be possibilities. In that spirit, we asked ourselves what if we could change the U.S. Constitution to better reflect the promise of democracy, capitalism, and individual freedom?

Perhaps this exercise is fruitless. The United States of America, in its current form of government and organization, will end someday. It’s the height of hubris to believe that we’ve built the first civilization in history not to go through a normal cycle of birth, development, decline, and death. But that someday doesn’t have to be soon – it very well could be if Donald Trump is elected President again. But even if he isn’t, that doesn’t mean the American experiment will continue to thrive. We will still have to seriously address problems in our politics, economy, and social structure – then maybe we have a century or more left in us. (After that, who knows? We could be taken over by artificial intelligence or maybe we’ll make the planet uninhabitable regardless). But in any case, our goal is to continue to seek forming a “more perfect” union for as long as we can.

Therefore, it’s worth going through the intellectual exercise of imagining a world where the U.S. Constitution enshrines structural and long-term changes that would both create better (although not perfect) government and better protect our rights and liberties. Since we live in a base 10 world, it’s easy to think of a solution as ten additional amendments to the U.S. Constitution – a new Bill of Rights, as it were. Despite the seemingly unrealistic nature of many of these amendments in today’s political environment, the framing of the solution as Constitutional amendments outlines the gravity and scope of the problems we face and the boldness of solutions we need. It also serves to remind us that one of the key points of our constitutional framework was that it was supposed to evolve over time. The founders constructed the Constitution with the ability to amend it, and in many writings encouraged future generations to do just that.

What Would The Founders Not Recognize?

In the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the protagonists ace their history final – with the assistance of a time traveling phone booth and guide – by bringing figures from history (including Socrates, Napolean, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, and others) to the modern day to get their take on what the current world was like. Suffice is to say, there was much they didn’t recognize.

Our Founding Fathers, if transported to the 21st Century, would recognize very little either. Fortunately, they knew that there was a lot they couldn’t know, hence the provisions to update the U.S. Constitution. So, using the Bill & Ted time machine, let’s imagine some major things the Founders wouldn’t recognize today based on our societal evolution over the last 200+ years. In this story, it’s a little easier to dissect what works or doesn’t work today in our Constitution.

I would argue that most of the big changes fall into at least one of three buckets: (1) the growth and power of capitalism, (2) our definition of what constitutes a community, (3) and general social/population evolution. And it’s probably important to note that scientific advances and greater scientific knowledge underpins each of those three areas.

Our first podcast episode outlined how capitalism has been a great engine for overall wealth, but it has a number of side effects and doesn’t distribute that wealth based on what’s necessarily good long-term for society. For example, we’ve grown to understand the power of universal education to promote more equal opportunity (another Sheldon favorite!) and to fuel innovation and economic growth, but we’ve also seen the burden of health care, particularly as people live longer, take a toll on the ability of community members to take reasonable risks.

Also, the Founders would have had a hard time envisioning a capitalistic machine that creates factories which pollute the air and warm the planet, and they clearly didn’t see future innovations in more powerful and deadly weapons. And lastly, we can’t forget that the Founders could not have foreseen how a tremendous increase in wealth would come to dominate almost all levels of political discourse.

As for the definition of community, that has clearly changed dramatically over the centuries. Just transportation and communication technology alone have redefined the circle of people with whom we interact daily and changed the depth of those interactions – both in the U.S. as well as around the world. A simple illustration of this change is our anachronistic election day of Tuesday, which once allowed farmers enough time to get to poll sites.

The third bucket of big changes contain social and population evolution across the board. Although one could write an entire paper on this topic, let’s just highlight a few specifics. One of the most important factors in our social and population evolution has been technology – medical advances have made all of us live longer, which then brings its own sociological and policy challenges. Also, due to both economic factors and just changing norms and realizations over time, more subsets of the population have demanded equal rights and representation, whether that was women, black people, the LGBTQ community, etc. Compared to the late 18th century, we also have a much overall greater diversity of population in general – some of that homegrown, some fueled by immigration, all of this accompanied by a greater recognition and even celebration of our differences. 

So, despite the American cultural reverence we give to our Founders, we have to remind ourselves that the U.S. in the 21st Century is not something that a handful of white men – many of whom were slave owners – could have foreseen. Or perhaps didn’t want to foresee!

Framing the Solutions

In a way, it’s interesting (and perhaps disappointing) that the U.S. Constitution has only been amended 27 times given how much has changed since 1789. But as this intellectual exercise can’t address every imaginable change to the Constitution, it’s helpful to focus in on the big questions: how do we strengthen democracy, and how to be better promote both individual and community rights? And we must recognize that the Constitution can’t solve every problem, so this exercise should focus on ideas which really are constitutional in nature.

Strengthening democracy requires promoting greater government effectiveness, transparency, and trust. And that must include minimizing the gaming of the system and the use of success within the system – wealth or power – to bias the system in favor of specific individuals or select groups.

With respect to promoting rights, we have to recognize there is always a balance between protecting self-interest and protecting the community. Ironically, sometimes the best way to promote our collective rights is to restrict certain individual rights (e.g. we restrict the speed in which you can drive your car because a lack of restrictions endangers others’ rights).  

And both principles – strengthening democracy and honoring individual and community rights – should lead to promoting greater equity, fairness, and opportunity for the most people. And as we’ve discussed on our podcasts many times, this is not in conflict with capitalism – these principles would actually better promote capitalism and greater long-term economic growth

So, with that as our historical and conceptual background, our proposed new Bill of Rights will have 10 amendments – four in the category of strengthening democracy and six in the category of strengthening individual and community rights. Note that the below is not an attempt to write the amendments themselves – that would require constitutional scholars – these are merely descriptions of what each amendment would do and its purpose. We can quibble another time over the specific words and how each would be implemented and actualized.

Amendment #28 – The Fair Representation Amendment

If we really are to be a government of the people, by the people ,and for the people, then giving everyone a voice in choosing our community leaders is absolutely essential. We need to be truer to the “one person, one vote” principle. Therefore, this amendment would include fairly basic reforms that restore principles of democracy, including:

    • Eliminating the electoral college
    • Eliminating gerrymandering (in practice, minimizing the role of politics in drawing districts – which could be done by non-partisan bodies or even mathematical models)
    • Obligating states to do whatever is reasonably necessary to make voting as simple as possible for every voter, such as: (a) longer voting periods, (b) ability to vote in person, by mail (and maybe in the future electronically), and (c) a minimum # of polling places within a certain maximum distance of every voter
    • Making voter ID documents easily and cheaply available
    • Curtailing or forbidding supermajority voting, except perhaps for state and federal constitutional amendments
    • Making voting mandatory

    The last one is one of those  “ironic” rights – meaning one where creating a restriction on one person’s freedom actually gives both that person more representation and power and also better restores the rights of the whole community by more accurate representation.

    Amendment #29 – The Congressional Effectiveness Amendment

    Fundamentally, we need constitutional provisions that force our representatives to actually represent us. That can be done with new constitutional provisions such as:

        • Provision that the Federal government cannot shut down, irrespective of budget agreements and any potential debt ceilings
        • Forbidding excessive delays on debates, including for Supreme Court nominees, which would also include: (a) outlawing filibustering and (b) preventing any elected official (or group of officials) from stopping the voting process once something has been calendared

      Amendment #30 – The Equal Chance to be Heard Amendment

      We also need to minimize the use of economic power in politics, because we can’t have a system that even approximates fair representation if there is money influencing it. And the very success of market capitalism at generating wealth – particularly its acceptance of extreme concentrations of wealth – guarantees that, without a counterbalancing limit, representative democracy will always follow the money. To that end, this amendment would:

          • State that money does not equal speech as defined in the First Amendment
          • Mandate publicly funded elections and outlaw private spending on campaigns

        Amendment #31 – The Make Government Ethical Again Amendment

        There is one president, 535 members of congress, and 9 members of the Supreme Court – together they equal less than 0.0002% of the population, so it is not unreasonable to ask them and their families to sacrifice any other financial, income-earning activities. This amendment would include:

            • Full disclosure of all economic interests and disclosure and/or recusal in matters related to their own interest
            • Requirement that all assets be placed in a blind trust
            • Prohibition from activities unrelated to their public service, including running a business or serving on boards
            • Prohibition from accepting gifts from anyone or any organization
            • Prohibition for a period of 10 years after serving in their position from working in any organization that has business with the Federal government or lobbying the U.S. government

          Amendment #32 – The Only Individuals Have Constitutional Rights Amendment

          This Amendment essentially just reaffirms what was clearly the Founder’s intent and closes a loophole they couldn’t foresee – specifically that there is no such thing as corporate personhood, or religion personhood. Note that this doesn’t mean entities don’t have rights (they do as enshrined in law, such as property rights – but they shouldn’t have Constitutional rights). But it does mean that a business can’t have a religion or free speech – clearly those are meant for us living, breathing humans. So, this amendment would state:

              • Any rights outlined in this Constitution are rights reserved solely for living human individuals and are not meant to confer rights on any organization, private or public
              • No government shall use or rely upon a religious principle as a justification for creating any law or regulation

            Amendment #33 – The Right to Health Amendment

            No other industrialized county in the world has a health care system like ours, and although some may point to a benefit from competition and capitalism, it’s ironically less efficient both in direct and indirect ways (particularly the tie between health insurance and employment). This is one of the more difficult problems to solve in practice, as the federal government would be required to design a system that is both efficient and have minimum standards regardless of exactly how both care and insurance are structured. But for the purpose of the amendment, it must be based on a larger principle:

                • Healthcare is a fundamental right and that is the obligation of the U.S. government to create a system to provide quality universal healthcare at a reasonable cost for all U.S. residents

              Amendment #34 – Your Body is Your Own Amendment

              Let’s settle this issue once and for all and not play fast and loose with women’s health care to score political points. This amendment is about maintaining control over one’s own body, specifically:

                  • Prohibiting government institutions from restricting any person’s access to reproductive medical care, including abortion services up until the time of independent viability of the fetus
                  • Prohibiting any restrictions on obtaining birth control

                Amendment #35 – The Maintaining Individual Freedom Amendment

                Differences in viewpoints have weaponized sensibilities into rights. The Constitution needs to reaffirm that everyone gets to live their life as long they are not hurting anyone else, and that one’s dislike of something, or a religious objection to it, does not justify discrimination. So this amendment would state something like the following:

                    • Constraints based solely on religious or philosophical teachings may not be used to define a reasonable level of public health and safety
                    • Any law or judgment against someone else’s liberties must demonstrate an actual harm to others’ liberties, not just an offense to sensibilities or beliefs
                    • No government or private entity may discriminate based on gender, gender identity, gender expression, gender preference, or sexual orientation

                  Amendment #36 – The Free and Appropriate Education Amendment

                      • The government is required provide free, high quality PreK-14 education and universal child care
                      • Institutions of higher learning may give preferences to underserved populations in order to build an appropriately diverse student body
                      • No school governing authority may restrict access to books, other literature, educational materials, or art solely based on a religious objection or an offense to sensibilities or beliefs

                    Amendment #37 – The Right to Live Amendment

                        • The 2nd Amendment of the Constitution is hereby repealed
                        • Governments have the right to enforce restrictions on weapon ownership

                      This is of course another one of these “ironic” rights, as repealing the second amendment would actually broaden the right of life and happiness for the most people. And in this podcast, we demonstrated the irony that individual gun ownership doesn’t actually convey the value that many people think it does, so it was sort of a false right to begin with.


                      OK, political fan fiction is over. But it was fun to think about. And despite the non-starter nature of this in our current political environment, I don’t think these proposals are particularly radical – they are consistent with the principles of strengthening democracy and expanding liberty, taking into account our modern world and our understanding of economics and social psychology. And I would posit that their passage would tremendously help the very people who would most object to them.

                      As mentioned, the Constitution lays out principles – it doesn’t actually implement solutions. Laws at every level – federal, state, and local – still must actualize those principles, but I look forward to the challenge of how best to implement a new health care system or how to best create a system that prevents gerrymandering!

                      But even in this fantasy world with this new Bill of Rights, we’d hardly solve all of our problems. These changes won’t fix income and wealth disparity; they won’t eliminate social injustices; they won’t reverse climate change, and of course we can’t outlaw stupidity. But changes to the Constitution can go a long way in fixing the underlying structures that we use to govern ourselves, make decisions, and live our lives. Then perhaps we will have given ourselves the tools to communicate and debate issues, to promote positive cultural changes, and to pass laws and take actions that would indeed better address all of those other problems as well.