Saturday, 5 April 2014

Clegg v Farage

MoneyWeek (4 April 2014) commented on the Clegg v Farage debate:
'Debates like this could usefully be held on subjects from immigration to foreign policy. How depressing then that the "mood music suggests" there will be no repeat of the TV debates of the 2010 election in 2015. They are just what Britain needs to "exorcise the spirit of apathy".' (Quoting The Times, I think.)
A useful report on this EU debate can be found here, including some fact checking and reports on the media's take on it.
While I applaud the debate I find the personal attacks and dubious facts annoying. A written debate on the proposed Interactive Democracy web site would list positive, negative and interesting points for each proposal, steering politics away from personalities and character assassinations. I also propose sanctions against lying in public life, administered along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority. Nonetheless, public debates such as this one on Europe could enhance Interactive Democracy.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Culture - The Ultimate Group Think

In "Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind" Professor Geert Hofstede published his research into the differences and similarities between more than 70 countries. The research has been updated since the original publication in 1990 and you can compare countries using Hofstede's website, click here.
Using the site you can compare countries. For example Russia is significantly different to Britain in its acceptance of Power differences between people, suggesting tall hierarchies; and uncertainty avoidance, suggesting a need for politicians to do what they say they are going to do. This may provide some perspective on the Crimean situation. While our own parliament does its own groupthinking in terms of policy, as I described in my last post, it may also be automatically blind to cultural differences (as we all tend to be).
As Switzerland is probably the preeminent example of direct democracy it is also interesting to compare their culture with our own. Click here for Switzerland's cultural fingerprint. You will see that the UK culture values individualism much more than the Swiss who have a noticeably stronger preference for uncertainty avoidance. Otherwise they are similar. Perhaps it is the Power Distance measure that has the most impact on the acceptability of direct democracy (click here for the PD definition). On this measure Switzerland and the UK are almost identical (1% difference).

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Groupthink / Groupspeak

It was an hour into the House of Commons debate on Ukraine when a conservative backbencher noted that a majority of Crimeans probably want to be a part of Russia, whether the recent referendum was a shoddy affair or not. Otherwise the Members of parliament spoke with a common voice, vilifying Russian "aggression". It wasn't so much a debate as a signal to the Russian authorities who may have been watching and a statement of British will. Groupspeak, for want of a better word.
Or was it an example of groupthink, "when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.
Perhaps the government has taken a more analytical approach behind closed doors, carefully considering all arguments and developing a strategy to play this international game of geopolitical power. Then spinning a line in public discourse in order to influence Russian behaviour.
Interactive Democracy may undermine these games of brinkmanship, because the debate would be more open. For example, using the ID system someone may point out that European money supported opposition in Ukraine leading to revolution; that Crimea has its own Parliament that voted to have the referendum; that Ukraine does not yet have a government approved via a general election; that the Ukrainian interim government planned to outlaw the Russian language, precipitating fears among Russian speakers; that the international community haven't advocated the right for self determination of Crimeans despite using this argument in other situations, such as the Falkland Islands; that troops on Crimean streets has not had a violent effect and may have actually calmed the situation; that there is no evidence of voter intimidation by troops; or that Crimea is geographically distinct from mainland Ukraine. (All stated as counterpoints to the much publicised arguments on the other side; facts not checked.) Others may state a desired objective, such as to promote democratic self determination and political transparency; or to reinforce democracy in other "threatened" states. And some may make predictions - that Russia won't relinquish its grip on Crimea in any event, for fear of looking weak.
Personally, I'd rather have an open, honest, probing and democratic debate than let politicians play geopolitical games. And I'd advocate the same for other countries, too.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tablets Drive Deeper News Consumption

According to this report by Starcom MediaVest and the BBC, tablet users "consume" more news across more topics. This means that mobile internet is helping educate people about current affairs, supporting the adoption of Interactive Democracy in a number of ways:-
  • Issues can be researched with ease. They can check the facts of others' arguments.
  • Voters can choose to access a variety of news and information sites which aren't monopolised by large media organisations.
  • Votes can be cast from a personal mobile device in a convenient and secure way, probably boosting "turnout".
  • The device can be carried to a private and secure location providing better secrecy of votes cast.
  • Voters can be prompted to vote, boosting "turnout".

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Key Question

Referenda in Crimea and Scotland have one key yes/no question, but is that question the right one. Shouldn't the Crimeans have been asked if they wanted to be independent, part of Ukraine or part of Russia? The same complexity exists over Scotland's independence referendum as Merryn Somerset Webb explains in her article here. She points out that Quebec did things differently in the 1980s, offering a second referendum once details had been negotiated.
The problem with most referenda is that they are expensive to administer and costly to replicate. Not so with Interactive Democracy (ID): doing it online has tiny marginal costs. With ID, referenda can be frequent and thus much more accurate and refined.
And I suggest that if you don't vote then your Member of Parliament should vote on your behalf, so that frequent plebiscites don't become onerous yet you are always represented.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Fragile by Design

Fragile by Design is written by two academics, Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber, who set out to discover why some banking systems are unstable. MoneyWeek reported that
"They looked at five national case studies: the UK and the US (both democracies, yet prone to crisis); Canada (virtually crisis-free); Mexico (a crisis-prone autocracy); and Brazil (a bit of both).
"What they found was fascinating. Starting from the elegantly simple premise that a crisis occurs when banks hold too little capital and/or too many risky assets, the problem, logically, must be inadequate regulation. So their thesis is that regulatory standards and credit provision are "captured" by political special interests. While democracies generally fare better than autocracies, often this is just a matter of degree. Unfortunately it seems that boom/bust cycles are woven into the very fabric of US democracy."
Would Interactive Democracy change this?
Who knows, but it would change the game: power wouldn't be concentrated in a few hands; whistle blowers would be empowered; education about the banking system would be encouraged and transparency enhanced.
Because regulators would be more accountable to the electorate (who could call for their dismissal); anyone could create an initiative proposing changes; and the ensuing public debate, supported by probing journalism, professional bankers and academics, would shine a light on the system. This last point, that Interactive Democracy educates through debate, is my favourite advantage of direct democracy. It may also be more adaptable and less prone to opaque influence.
MoneyWeek's verdict on the book: "This is a great history of political interference in banking regulation - but a definitive analysis of the recent crisis it is not."
Inspired by MoneyWeek, 14 March 2014.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Skin in the Game

I once posted that if you pay you should have your say - i.e. if you pay tax you should be able to vote (frequently). The counter argument to that is that many people are net takers of benefits, not net payers of tax, and that any increase in their voting power will lead to an increase in socialism and a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. Yet Swiss direct democracy has resulted in the opposite. Why?
It could be a cultural thing. It could be caused by a quirk of history and the timing of events. Or it could be that voters want the best for their country because that is best for them. Because they have skin in the game. And they understand that taxing the rich excessively is likely to cause them to flee to more welcoming jurisdictions which will be a loss to all. Because the rich are more mobile and typically, as a proportion of their wealth, have less money tied up in fixed assets - they have less skin in the game. On the other hand, the average voter has more of their wealth tied up in their house, is less mobile and has more skin in the game. Thus they are often more committed to their country.
Yet in a representative system the wealthy can influence politics through their ability to fund political parties. The average voter has little say. Perhaps this imbalance leads to more income inequality.
This post was inspired by "Antifragile" by Nassim Taleb.

Thursday, 20 February 2014


There is no provision for a Recall Bill within this Parliament. "In the wake of the expenses scandal, all three mainstream parties pledged to include Recall." According to Zac Goldsmith MP's site. More broken promises! He continues to campaign for it and notes "Recall exists in many countries. Most often it involves allowing voters to run petitions, and where a threshold is reached, that triggers a Recall vote, or referendum on whether the MP should continue in his or her job. If a majority votes to recall their MP, then there is a by-election."
When interviewed on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 Show (20/02/14) he said that arguments against direct democracy tend to be arguments against democracy its self. Something I tend to agree with: if the electorate can't be trusted to decide on issues then how can they be trusted to choose leaders? In many ways deciding on issues is easier. But there's still a role for politicians. I want both.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

London Sucks Wealth Out Of Britain

Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in The Guardian

"At the end of 2011, the IPPR North think tank totted up the government's transport projects until 2015. Londoners enjoyed public investment of £2731 per head; the northeast recieved just £5..... Of the 657 UK firms involved in public/private partnership deals, 75% operated out of London and the southeast between 2004 and 2012."
Reported in MoneyWeek 14/02/14.

It is no coincidence that London is the center of British politics and receives the benefits noted above. If political power was implemented through Interactive Democracy we could see a far more equitable distribution of investment, given that the majority live away from London.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Swiss Referendum v European Union

A recent Swiss referendum voted (by a slim 0.6%) to restrict immigration, which forces politicians to renegotiate their relationship with the European Union within three years. This is an interesting example of Direct Democracy impacting the EU's "democratic deficit".
For a list of Swiss referendums visit Wikipedia, by clicking here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Compensate for Fallibility

I think that wide use of voting can compensate for fallibility. How? Here's a thought experiment.
No one is perfect. Just imagine the best leaders you can, they still make mistakes. Perhaps less than the average person, but probably 5% of the time. So, if they are in a position to make the decisions, 5% of them are wrong.
Now, imagine instead putting the decision to a vote. If, on average all the voters are right only 60% of the time (greater than 50% will do), then the majority carries the day and, in theory, every decision is right!
OK, maybe this sounds too good to be true, but this analysis suggests that direct democracy will lead to more good choices than experts/leaders make on their own. It is likely to be more right than a vote in parliament, partly because it uses a bigger population but mostly because the electorate are more independent, not pressured by party whips or lobbyists.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Ignorant of History and Other Countries

In the following TED talk James Flynn explains how we have improved our cognitive abilities over time - I have previously argued that this supports my assertion that, as a population, we can do Interactive Democracy. But he also claims that we are becoming "ignorant of history and of other countries" and, therefore, we "can't do politics". This runs counter to my argument. But I'd suggest that by debating each issue and by ensuring the quality of that debate through presenting it in a logical manner and ensuring it is factually correct, then we can educate ourselves about history and geopolitics and thus are capable of "do[ing] politics".
(Switzerland has being doing direct democracy for more than 150 years. Back then hardly anyone was as educated as the average person today!)

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Price of Inequality

In his book "The Price of Inequality" Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains how increasing inequality can damage a society and an economy. He writes that "The 1% has worked hard to convince the rest that an alternative world is not possible; that doing anything that the 1% doesn't want will inevitably harm the 99%." His book argues against this and for a "more dynamic and more efficient economy and a fairer society." He points out that "politics and economics are inseparable, and that if we are to preserve a system of one person one vote - rather than one dollar one vote - reforms in our [US] political system will be required..."
I suggest that Interactive Democracy, where each voter can vote on each issue, is the sort of reform that would check how money talks and what it says. Much of the money may be spent by the few, but most of the votes are spent by the many. Not just once every few years but many times a year. It creates a free market of ideas and innovation and empowers each voter to reach Stiglitz' goal: a better economy and fairer society.
For arguments on why this won't lead to the plundering of the rich by the many, or a bloated state sector, please see my previous post, below. But I'd like to add that one reason that the rich can't be taxed 'til the pips squeak is because they will have up and left long before then. In a fair minded culture and society the majority of people understand this and respect the rich for what they contribute.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

More Democracy, More Socialism?

Douglas Carswell MP argues against the notion that more democracy means more socialism in his book "The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy". He looks at the history of emancipation in a number of countries and examines the effect on government spending:
"Look at America. Almost every white adult male American had the vote since the era of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s and 1840s. Yet throughout the whole of the nineteenth century, federal spending as a percentage of GDP never once rose above 3% of GDP during peacetime."
Carswell argues that this is because taxes were relatively flat and, as the many paid them, they voted to keep government small and/or cost effective. Yet in a full direct democracy the electorate can also vote on taxes, introducing the concern for some that they will plunder the wealthy. Switzerland, renown for its long history of direct democracy, has had referenda on taxes and may well do so again. But it turns out that they have a relatively small government, further disproving that more democracy leads to bloated government. Swiss government spending as a percentage of GDP is less than most western countries. For comparison here are the 2011 figures:

UK 47.3%
USA 38.9%
Switzerland 32%

(2011 Index of Economic Freedom[9] by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, reported here.)

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The End of Politics and The Birth of iDemocracy

In his interesting book "The End of Politics and The Birth of iDemocracy" Douglas Carswell MP lists the most popular initiatives on the British ePetition site as a way of illustrating that the British public aren't the dangerously ignorant mob that opponents of direct democracy would sometimes have us believe:
  1. "Convicted rioters to lose their benefits - 217921
  2. Disclosure of all government documents relating to 1989 Hillsborough disaster - 109482
  3. Cheaper petrol and diesel - 60045
  4. Make financial education a compulsory part of the school curriculum - 40069
  5. Retain the ban on capital punishment - 24822
  6. Keep Formula 1 free to air in the UK - 21301
  7. Referendum on EU membership - 21252
  8. Restore capital punishment - 16996
  9. Public and private pension increases - change from RPI to CPI - 16756
  10. Increase policing - 9366
(Source: Cabinet Office ePetitions site 2011)"

Those of you who would like to see small government and low taxes will warm to Carswell's book. He predicts that new technology will make it inevitable. He also argues against the view that direct democracy will lead to the many ramping up taxes for the wealthy few.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Direct Democracy Ireland

Direct Democracy Ireland includes some interesting stuff including this report on calls by UN adviser Alfred de Zaya for more Direct Democracy:

“I am dismayed that notwithstanding lip service to democracy, too many governments seem to forget that in a democracy, it is the people who are sovereign,” he said, adding that many governments appear to be more responsive to special interests such as the military-industrial complex, financial banking and transnational corporations, than to the wishes of their own populations, which creates massive social and economic inequalities. The disconnect between power and the people must be remedied”

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Spain's Direct Democrat

Spanish parliamentarian Joan Baldovi is doing direct democracy his own way. He has asked his electorate to use an online platform to tell him how to vote on upcoming legislation and has promised to cast his vote accordingly. You can read about it in The Guardian, here.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

In this BBC4 programme, Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth, Dr Michael Scott shows how theatre evolved along with democracy. It's well worth a look.
This also hints at how the performing arts and the media may benefit from Interactive Democracy: when people are engaged and empowered their appetite for these arts may also swell.
Some may balk at the power this gives to playwrights. I don't. It is merely one of many possible inputs into your decision on how to vote.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

GitHub: A New Form of Arguing

In the following TED Talk Clay Shirky points out that the organisational technologies used to develop open-source code could be used to enhance democracy. In particular he introduces distributed version control software, GitHub: "Build software better, together." This allows uncoordinated and widely distributed programmers to develop code together, without central control or hierarchy. He suggests GitHub could be used to write laws in an open source way.
This is different from my concept of Interactive Democracy, which I see as a way of deciding what the law should be without the exact wording of it, but the two could work together. First ID, then GitHub.
But, one question is, does it take trained lawyers to write laws, or should everyone be able to have a go? Whatever the answer, GitHub could be scaled to provide a solution. It may have access restricted to MPs, allow contributions by qualified lawyers, or by everyone. And even if access were restricted, laws under development could be viewed by all, providing a safeguard and an educational opportunity.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Papandreou Wants More International and Direct Democracy

In this TED Talk George Papandreou argues that global markets are too powerful for national democracies to control. He argues for more European democracy, including more referendums and citizens' juries:
"Where our common identity is democracy, where our education is through participation, and where participation builds trust and solidarity rather than exclusion and xenophobia. Europe of and by the people, a Europe, an experiment in deepening and widening democracy beyond borders."
Interactive Democracy could be scaled to the European level. And exactly the same infrastructure would work in your local village. It facilitates more participation than a randomly selected citizens' jury, but could also work alongside it if that were preferred.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Chinese Competency

This TED talk by Eric X. Li describes the Chinese system of government and outlines why he thinks it is meritocratic, adaptable and legitimate. In short it is because the Party develops competency by promoting those that have done well managing at the local level. In addition it uses surveys to gauge public opinion. It provides fascinating insight.
While it's hard to argue with the enormous progress that China has made, I'm not sure it can be attributed to competent political management. It seems to me that it is more likely that a reduction in political management, liberating, empowering and motivating everyone, has lead to success. That's a free market argument. I suspect that economics trumps culture and culture trumps democracy (how else do you avoid a tyranny of the majority if not by a liberal culture?). But a single party may have a singularity of purpose that rarely exists in a democracy or free market. The Party may have a national strategy in support of their goal, whatever it may be. The goal could be egalitarian and transparent, such as raising the quality of life of everyone in China, or combative and opaque, such as taking control of world resources. Democracy wouldn't work for the latter as target countries would take umbrage, but Interactive Democracy could work in a single party state if the Party goal was transparent.

Yet Eric's focus on competency seems virtuous. The problem is, who or how do we decide who is competent? I doubt if the electorate can easily judge: surely you have to be competent yourself to judge if someone else is competent. Liking someone is different. Maybe one answer is to measure key performance indicators - a type of technocratic government that I also have sympathy with. Accurate data is important for good debates, suggestions and innovations and crucial for Interactive Democracy, too; inaccurate data and outright lies degrade democracy.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Funding Bias

Ed Milliband is seeking to disentangle the Labour Party's financial links with the unions. He proposes that the automatic contributions from union members should become an option. Perhaps he hopes that this will allow the Labour Party to engage more directly with union members, circumventing the union leaders and diluting their power. It highlights the funding bias of political parties in Britain.

In her article on the subject, Polly Toynbee writes
"... democracy can't function with only 1.1% of the population participating. Parties need members and the clean money they bring."

But the Conservative Party may have just as much funding bias:
"Wilks-Heeg and Crone found that 15 of these families or "donor groups" account for almost a third of all Tory funding."

I suspect that Interactive Democracy would boost political participation in many ways, including recruiting more party members. But it also encourages wealthy political donors to spend their money on persuading the electorate of the benefits of their views and is therefore far more transparent than today's shadowy world of political puppet masters.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The K Street Index

"... the 'K Street Index', after the street that American lobbying firms tend to call home. In the period measured, they spent $1.2trn on lobbying (including campaign contributions).
"Readers will note that lobbying is not productive behaviour, at least not in the ordinary sense. It does not lead to higher output. It does not fund innovation or new inventions. It does not pay workers, nor stimulate additional sales."

Contrary to what Bill says, perhaps lobbyists would argue that their activities open up new markets, rid markets of oppressive and dysfunctional legislation or promote political innovation. I don't know. Neither do I know over what period the $1.2trn was spent. But it's a vast sum that shows the power of money in the US politics. Power that subverts the egalitarian ethos of democracy.
Interactive Democracy redresses the balance, facilitating everyone to vote on almost every motion or bill. If you don't vote, your vote is devolved to your Member of Parliament. And you can propose and debate issues, too. All at minimal cost when run on the Internet.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Character Assassination

UKIP candidate Alex Wood claims character assassination by hackers of his FaceBook page. He was subsequently suspended from the party. He has reported the incident to the police and still intends to stand in the imminent council elections. (More here from the BBC.)
Worshipping or vilifying people has long been part of British politics and democracy but it does little to illuminate the issues and policies. Perhaps it's built into our base instincts but Interactive Democracy provides an opportunity to limit its corrosive effects by concentrating on issues, offering people the opportunity to write counter arguments and counter proposals and deploying sanctions against those that abuse others or present lies as evidence supporting their view. This can be achieved on the ID web site because individual voters are identified through the electoral roll yet can remain anonymous to other users. ID would also employ more stringent defences than FaceBook, based on those developed for Internet banking.
It is my view that sanctions against lies in public life would be a clarifying system for any form of democracy and I propose a format similar to the Advertising Standards Authority, where complaints trigger an investigation.