Let’s Run It Up the Flagpole and See if Anyone Salutes

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I’ve seen this advice to new and recent college graduates: don’t worry too much about your lack of experience, because what you have to offer is your ideas.

I’d suggest that’s actually true regardless of how long you’ve been in the workforce. I’d also suggest that you do your best to make sure those ideas are good ideas.

While it’s (pretty much) true that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming–because my bad idea might trigger you to have a better one, and vice versa–that doesn’t mean that all ideas are good ones, and it doesn’t mean that all of your “interesting” ideas have a sound foundation. It’s particularly important to make sure that you keep this in mind when you’re presenting those ideas in a highly public forum–say, on the Web.

Case Study #1: Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein posited that the votes of the young should count more, because they will feel the effects of that vote longer (because they’re younger–get it?). Klein writes:

If your response to this is that it’s crazy and offensive, that all American adults are equal and so is their vote, you might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Senate, where a Wyoming resident’s vote is worth almost 70 times as much as a Californian’s, or the electoral college, where the presidency could be won by a candidate who loses the popular vote 4:1.

All of which is to say, we already reweight voting in this country. But we do it to give residents from small states more power.

So before the reader has had time to get past the suggestion that we vote like we’re living in the world of Logan’s Run, Klein seems to overlook both the concept of a bicameral legislature and the Great Compromise. He did add an update in which he alludes to the latter, but he doesn’t actually suggest an alternative–he’s mostly concerned with justifying his original idea, which still doesn’t seem to be very well thought-out.

Case Study #2: In the same blog, Brad Plumer speculates on the constitutionality of the debt ceiling. He seems to be suggesting that President Obama choose which law to enforce, effectively ignoring conflicting law. That is a legal conundrum, regardless of topic, and worthy of scholarly analysis and public debate. But what Plumer says is “If Obama decided to treat the debt ceiling as unconstitutional and start floating new debt anyway, it’s not clear anyone could stop him.”

I’m not sure how one would “treat” something as unconstitutional. But the error that originally caught my attention comes in the post title: “Why won’t Obama just declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional?”

Was this title written by Plumer or by an editor? Regardless, someone this closely involved in content creation for the Post ought to know that the answer is “Because he’s the President, not the Supreme Court.” After all, in Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that established the concept of judicial review, Chief Justice John Marshall declared:

It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each.

Now, if one needed to be a constitutional law specialist to understand these issues, the errors would be easy to excuse. But each of these topics–bicameral legislature, the Great Compromise, and judicial review–is covered in every high school government textbook in the U.S. Marbury v. Madison is one of only a handful of cases identified by name in those textbooks. These are not obscure references, but subjects vital to an understanding of how federal government works in the United States. I didn’t know Katharine Graham and I’ve never met Ben Bradlee, but I have trouble imagining that either of them would have put up with this.

So when you have what you think is a great idea, don’t just ask your friends–run it by people who may know more than you. They might be able to help you find the holes before you put them on display for the whole world to see.

Photo by zetson, via Flickr.

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Posted on July 29, 2011, in Communication, Work and Life and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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