The scenario is all but impossible, but it raises fascinating questions about where we might draw our borders
Thirty-five percent of Texas Republicans want to secede from the United States. After November’s election, eight red states filed petitions on the White House’s YouGov Web site calling for a split, and judging from the popularity of Chuck Thompson’s Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession (which calls for an “amicable divorce” from the former states of the Confederacy) a fair number of progressives would be happy to let them go.
Talk of secession is, of course, pretty silly. But national boundaries have historically been impermanent, and it does lead to an interesting thought experiment: just how would one approach the task of dividing up the world’s leading superpower? It’s easy to write a screed about how out of touch with Real America those socialist coastal elites are, or how backward the South’s cousin-marrying bumpkins can be, but I’m not sure either side of that squabble has paused to consider the details.
Making it a truly amicable divorce would have to be the primary goal. A scenario in which two powerful new states with a shared border and a degree of mutual animosity might end up at war would be the last thing anyone would want. This also isn’t the 19th century – like it or not, we live in an interconnected world, and we’d still share 200-plus years of common history.
An amicable separation would require creating something like a North American Union, with each country maintaining sovereignty over domestic policy while establishing some cooperation through binding treaties. Let’s consider some of the sticky points.
Where Do You Draw the Borders?
Texas could just secede, or the United States could disaggregate into regional blocs with similar political cultures. You might have the Pacific States of America, the Southwestern States of America, the Northeastern States, etc. But most Americans like living in a large, powerful state, and size – market size and military might – matters on the international stage.
If one were to divide the country in two, a quick glance at a map reveals that there’s no clean way to sever the “red” and “blue” states into two contiguous territories. North Dakota went for Romney by 20 points, but it would have to be part of the “Northern States of America.” New Mexico, which Obama won by 10 points, would end up being one of the more liberal states in the “Southern States of America.”
It gets trickier when you consider the political and cultural differences within states. A farmer in Southern Illinois once told me, “We consider this area to be Northern Kentucky.” You could hold a county-by-county referendum to determine exactly where to draw the line, which would be great for the folks in Northern New Mexico, as this county-by-county electoral map suggests.
Something to think about.
This gets sticky. How do you split up the most powerful military on the planet? Ideally, you wouldn’t; you’d create a NATO-style common defense force, with a central chain of command, and it would be dedicated to protecting the territory formerly known as the United States. This would avoid a situation in which the world’s leading military powers shared a common border – a scenario that could lead to all sorts of ugliness.
But here’s the problem: the two new countries would want the ability to set their own foreign policies and determine their own levels of military spending. Presumably, the “blue” states would want to spend a little less on guns and a little more on butter (or a lot less on guns and a lot more on butter).
One possible solution would be to separate true “defense” from military spending. We could agree to a treaty that sets common defense spending at, say, half of current levels (or a third — whatever) for a dedicated North American Defense Force, and then allow the two new countries to maintain their own “expeditionary forces,” based overseas, that would be barred from operating in North America. If one of the new countries wants to play World Police, it can do so and bear those costs.
What to do with our 700-plus foreign bases? I guess you’d divide them up like common assets in any other divorce.
Trade and Borders
If the idea is to pursue different ideas about the role of government in society, why would we want to give up the advantages that come with being the world’s second largest economy? The best scenario would be to retain one big economic zone along the lines of the EU – two countries establishing their own domestic affairs, in a union with some common policy that facilitates the free exchange of goods, services and people. This would give citizens the opportunity to vote with their feet if they don’t like living with their new model of governance.
But there are two problems here. First, we’d have to avoid having the red states become a maquiladora zone, with cheap labor and lax environmental regulations that blue state firms could take advantage of to manufacture products for sale in their domestic market. The second problem would be contraband goods flowing back and forth – what’s the point of stricter gun laws in the North if a constant stream of AR-15s flows up from the South? (The opposite would be true if the blue states legalized marijuana and the red states maintained its prohibition.)
The first problem might be answered with some sort of tariffs that equalize labor costs and regulatory burdens, creating an even playing field for firms to compete without engaging in a race to the bottom.
The second problem is stickier. Would we want a high-tech, heavily guarded border with limited crossing points like we now have with Mexico? In the EU, nationals move freely across borders. Perhaps checkpoints could be established on the most heavily trafficked routes. Random vehicle searches – with penalties for trafficking in contraband goods – might be enough to manage the problem, at least to a significant degree, without having formal border crossings.
Taxes and Benefits
Here’s another sticky issue. It’s safe to assume that the blue states would tax their citizens a bit more and offer better benefits in return. How would we deal with these differences if we maintain an open-border policy, and people spend time living and working in both of the new countries?
The European Union might again provide an answer: a bilateral tax treaty. In the EU, people who spend more than half of a year working outside their home country are considered tax residents of that country. Those who spend less than half a year working in another country only end up paying taxes on their income in that country.
As far as retirement and health benefits go, as in the EU, you’d accrue benefits in the country where you worked, or, if you’ve worked in both countries, then you would be eligible for retirement benefits in both countries according to what you’ve paid into the system during your career.
Ideally, we’d maintain a common currency and avoid a lot of the hassles the EU has had by having a single central bank overseeing monetary policy (most of the EU has a single currency but no common fiscal policy, which has caused a lot of problems).
But gold-buggery is now a mainstream proposition in the GOP. Just last week, Virginia legislators approved a plan to study the feasability of the state minting its own coins in order to survive the inevitable collapse of the federal government. And distrust of the Federal Reserve would probably make a common fiscal policy all but impossible.
Liberals would no doubt worry about minority voting rights in Alabama and conservatives would be equally worried about the right of Montanans to own firearms. One way to adress these concerns would be to have both new countries adopt our existing Constitution. If they want to amend it, they can do so through a constitutional convention, or by passing an amendment with a super-majority in both chambers of Congress and then having it affirmed by three-quarters of their states.
This is a high bar, which means that only constitutional changes with very broad support would be possible. It may not be ideal, but it would go a long way toward protecting minority rights in both new countries.
They would also have independent Supreme Courts, and over the years those courts would no doubt come to very different interpretations of the Constitution. That’s probably a good balance; significant change would eventually be apparent, but absent new amendments, its core principles would remain intact.
The “blue” states currently subsidize the “red” – eight of the 10 states that took in the most net federal dollars are solidly Republican, and all 10 of the states that pay the most net dollars into the federal system are solidly Democratic. Also, in any rational division of the country, the Blue States of America would end up with the lion’s share of economic capacity – we’d have California, New York and Chicago, just for starters.
If we want to make this a friendly divorce, we’d have to consider paying the national equivalent of alimony to the new Red States of America, at least for a certain period of adjustment. This would be in our own interests – when a marriage ends amicably, and one spouse is the primary breadwinner, he or she pays alimony to help the other spouse land on his or her feet.
Those are a few things one should consider before calling for secession – or for other states to secede. I’m sure there’s much more to consider, so feel free to hash it out.
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