“Size matters, apparently.” – Anonymous
Haven’t had time to post for two months, but I certainly haven’t been inactive.
These two months have seen the period leading up to April 18th, Tax Day, which most will still remember. No, I did not spend all that time trying to figure out what I had to render unto Caesar. I was working with a CPA in trying to figure out what Caesar was deciding others needed to render unto Caesar Himself. For a very large number of others.
I learned a LOT during this exercise.
One thing in particular is that there is not A W-2 form (the one you get from your employer). There are Many W-2s. At least 10 different ones by my last count. All with the important information somehow randomly distributed across the form, which for someone’s convenience may be formatted either as one per page, or two per page, or three per page, or four per page either 2 across and 2 down or 1 across and 4 down or, creatively, 1 above 3 below (??). Finding the right information (if a required box is actually there) resembles an Easter egg hunt wearing someone else’s glasses. But at least one thing is consistent: the little number in the corner that indicates the “form” is IRS approved is always the same: OMB No. 1545 0008.
And I concluded that it is no longer simply sufficient to render unto Caesar; it is time to render Caesar, or at least the IRS tax code. And by ‘render’ I mean the primary definition of the verb to render:
To render: To extract by melting, as in rendering lard. That is, to subject to heat so as to cause excess fat to be eliminated.
And then chucking the fat.
Another was more a reinforcement, a confirmation. Nations do indeed have cultures. And it is a strong element in US culture to complain about taxes, and/or try various ways to minimize or avoid them. This is in spite of the fact that the US is one of the lowest taxed developed nations in the world (here). It’s a game. Complaining about taxes is part and parcel of our culture.
There are other, subtle expressions of national culture, especially when comparing other nations. One very interesting expression appeared in the Washington Post on March 4th (at a time during which I could not post as I was very preoccupied in trying to fit various people’s “stuff” into a form(s?) that Caesar would be proud of or at least gloss over quickly).
The article was entitled, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world – and tell you how each governs,” and is a review of the architect authors’ book, Parliament.
By studying each of the United Nations’ 193 member states legislatures and plenary halls for meetings, the authors hoped to understand how each political (i.e., national) culture is both shaped by and expressed through their chosen architecture.
Interesting. And thank heavens it was only 5 designs.
These 5 building designs have hardly changed since the 19th century, which could also say a lot about the resiliency of national political structures. And since there are only 5, we can have a quick overview here.
1) The Semicircle
This is the most common shape and dates back to classical antiquity (presumably with the Greeks). It made a comeback with the French Revolution, and became particularly common thereafter in Europe when nation-states were being formed.
The idea of the semicircle is to fuse the members into a single entity. While Greek semicircle assemblies were accessible to all in a direct democracy, in modern nation-states the semicircle is used to foster consensus among an elected group of representatives.
Both chambers of the US Congress, the House and Senate, convene in a semicircular setting.
2) Opposing Benches
A second form for representative governance is the combative British model of opposing benches that encourages two parties to see themselves in distinct opposition to one another and generally provokes a more heated debate. (Watching current news or historical British BBC dramas conveys this very well). The format dates back to the 13th century.
Because of historical ties, this format is common in many Commonwealth countries.
3) The Horseshoe
This is a hybrid of the Semicircle and Opposing Benches in which the opposing benches bend toward each other on one side of the room to form a horseshoe (Note: this is perhaps so that those members who lean more towards compromise and wish to avoid being hit by thrown objects and ridicule can sit safely in the middle bend).
This is found in many other Commonwealth countries.
4) The Circle
This is much more rare, with only 9 parliaments meeting in this setting. It was inspired by the 8th century Icelandic Althing.
It was introduced in the 1980s for the West German parliament in Bonn with the intention of representing democratic equality, but was hardly used after German reunification when the parliament moved to Berlin and returned to the semicircle.
It is, however, still used in some regional German parliaments.
5) The Classroom
“The fifth and final type is the classroom, where members of parliament sit in regimented rows focused on a single speaker in the hall. This typology is particularly common in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index. For instance, the parliaments of Russia, China and North Korea all meet in a classroom setting, where they can be lectured by the leader.”
That’s a direct and very informative quote. Note the prevalence of key words often used to describe their national cultures.
Other bonus material from the article further illuminates the concept of a national culture:
“A comparison of the size of assembly halls also reveals that – ironically – the scale of the assembly halls seems to be inversely proportional to the country’s rank on the Democracy Index. Parliaments in the least democratic countries convene in the largest halls.”
(Apparently, size matters. Is it the leader’s need to intimidate, or the national psyche’s need to feel “great”?)
The article’s closing remarks are also perceptive:
“Once built, parliaments are locked in time. But political systems can and should adapt to what is changing in the world. Since architecture gives shape to ideas, it can be a powerful tool to rethink our models for collective decision-making. It can be one way to reshape our deliberative bodies and experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges we are facing today.”
After reading the article (whilst still being steeped in forms), I realized there are some ‘oddities’ we somehow miss even today:
Congress, which meets in a “deliberative semicircle,” creates our laws (those high level things that define what we want to accomplish); the rules and regulations (such as the IRS Code) that we have to live by are actually created later in a “non-deliberative, lecture classroom.” Or possibly a cubicle farm. Where they create W-2 forms.
And, lest we forget, Town Hall meetings – those icons of democracy that are intended to be fully democratic with everyone invited to voice their opinions and debate – are typically held in lecture classroom format because they are meant to be informative, not deliberative. And that is because we also forget that we are a representative republic, not a direct democracy. For the latter we would need one heck of a huge assembly hall.
Probably with seating in a circle.