Wednesday, 29 February 2012


Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse advocates that science should be at the centre of the economy, government and culture in his 2012 Richard Dimbleby Lecture. It has crystalised thoughts I've had for a while. At first I considered Interactive Democracy to be about individual empowerment; then I thought that the best democracies should have the best quality of debate; now, I wonder if objective facts are the essential ingredients.
That's not to say that empowerment, creativity and debates about values aren't important aspects of ID. They are. And it's not to dismiss the problems of feedback loops in social sciences, where participants adjust there behaviour to make the most of the rules and otherwise game the system; or of predicting the future; problems that confound a strictly scientific approach to some issues (admittedly, not what Sir Paul was alluding to). But it does lead to the conclusion that the pursuit of objective truth, not mass opinion, is essential.
In his wide ranging lecture, in which he entertainingly compares the turmoil of enlightenment Italy with the concurrent unproductive peace of democratic Switzerland, Sir Paul highlights the problem of scientists becoming ensconced in their own narrow subjects, unable to integrate creatively with the wider community, or even other scientists. Here, Interactive Democracy can help. It sets them free to profoundly influence government and culture by directly initiating or contributing to debates. Here's to a new enlightenment!

Inequality and Direct Democracy

One may assume that if we were all able to vote on every issue the vast majority, with low incomes, would claim the wealth held by the rich for themselves. They would vote for a vast redistribution.
Switzerland is the pre-eminent example of a direct democracy and this graph (data from the UN) shows that the top 20% of wealthy Swiss have 5.7 times more assets than the poorest 20%. They are in the middle of the range of countries with far more inequality than Japan (3.4) and far less than Singapore (9.7).
For more on inequality I'd recommend this TED talk by Richard Wilkinson. He highlights the multiplicity of social benefits, for the poor and rich, evident in more equal societies.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Eroding Democracy

In "The Right Side Newsletter" Bengt Saelensminde wrote:

'Much of the Greek public see this [EU policy] as economic enslavement. They’re out on the streets fighting for their freedom.

Meanwhile the Greek police union released a statement saying its members refused to “stand against our parents, our brothers, our children or any citizen who protests”. The police union knows that more and more austerity is self-defeating. They agree with the protesters, not the politicians!

The union threatened to arrest members of the [EU reform] troika - for “blackmail, covertly abolishing or eroding democracy and national sovereignty”.'

Serious stuff, indeed! Perhaps all will change after the elections in April.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Development, Freedom and Rising Happiness

"Development, Freedom and Rising Happiness" is an academic paper by Inglehart, Foa, Peterson and Welzel, which identifies economic development, democratization and social liberalisation as three factors that produce an increase in sense of freedom, which is strongly correlated with a rise in subjective well-being, otherwise known as happiness. Previous reports about happiness in Switzerland also identified their system of direct democracy as contributing to well being. But what if an enhanced democracy lead to a tyranny of the majority, thereby reducing social liberalisation to the detriment of happiness?
I consider that social liberalisation is a predominantly cultural factor, the opposite of traditional conservatism (with a small 'c'). The previous post identifies Britain as being more traditional than Switzerland, causing me to worry that if direct democracy is applied here, we run the risk of the majority forcing their mores on minority groups. A number of factors may counter this:-
  1. Interactive Democracy presents the debating points prior to the voting part of the web site, boosting awareness of the issues and reducing dogmatic thinking.
  2. The media increases awareness of the complexity of issues, encouraging people to doubt and change their intuitive views, enhancing liberalism.
  3. When celebrities have diverse backgrounds and views, the population is likely to become more tolerant.
  4. Education, multi-culturalism and foreign travel could help.
  5. Enhanced awareness of human rights, already entrenched in law, and therefore becoming accepted as traditional, provide a stop-loss.
  6. When traditional conservative leaders argue for the protection of minority interests that they don't themselves believe in, then it is unlikely that a tyranny of the majority will emerge.
  7. Wide advocacy of equal opportunities and freedom of speech provide good foundations for direct democracy.

Friday, 24 February 2012

World Values Survey

According to the World Values Survey, 70% of values correlate with just the two dimensions shown in this chart, Traditional/Secular and Survival/Self Expression. (You can read the details here.)
The WVS may provide some insight into the cultural differences between nations with differing democratic or political systems. In particular, Switzerland, with its direct democracy, is shown to be more secular and more self expressive than Britain, but not massively so.
(According to Lars Tragardh, writing in The Guardian, Cameron has an interest in Sweden, which appears at the top right of this graph, high on self expression and secularism.)

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Culture and Economics

Deirdre McCloskey argues that a revolution in living standards ultimately stemmed from a change in attitude towards commerce and the pursuit of wealth. “By the new pro-bourgeois talk, the positive-sum game was freed partly from zero-sum politics.”
Cultural barriers had kept innovation hemmed in. When these dissolved, ideas were finally free to proliferate. So the new culture made all the difference between ideas forming slowly and in isolation; or quickly, and together. In return, the merchants made Britain stunningly rich. The newly respectable middle class bought and sold and invented a new type of economy. They built machines and cities and they made Britain the centre of the world.
LinkI advocate that, in a similar way, a change from representative to Interactive Democracy would free-up innovation in the political sphere.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Trip Advisor

There is obviously a cost to managing any operation and perhaps one of the arts of senior management is to put in place sufficient control systems without the costs becoming exorbitant. This concept applies to government as well as business. As Merryn Somerset Webb writes in this blog post (commenting on Tim Morgan's "Reform Trilogy"), undoing layers of administration from the NHS could save billions.
Over the last 50 or so years there have been serious improvements in quality management, from Deming's Total Quality Management to 6 Sigma, and the notion that improvements in quality can reduce costs by reducing defects is well founded. So care must be taken not to destroy essential management systems. But there is a concurrent idea, that customer experience is important and customers are the best people to judge it. In business, marketing departments have a host of techniques to measure customer experience. Each with their cost.
Trip Advisor offers a different way of doing this. It gets the customer to do the work of contributing to improving the system by offering an easy way for them to express their opinion. This could be applied to government services at relatively little cost.
Such a system may benefit from integration with Interactive Democracy because ID links your identification with your right to vote in an online system. It may be extended to identify you as a patient at an NHS facility at a certain time, indicating that your online opinion isn't mendacious, and giving you the right to express your opinion on-line.
Though the results of such a system may inform patient choice the more important benefit is that it will likely motivate staff to improve in all sorts of subtle ways.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012


David Bolchover, in his book "Pay Check: Are Top Earners Really Worth It?", advocates the idea that the head's of organisations often benefit from the position of their firm and the economic environment much more than anything they contribute themselves. (According to Merryn Somerset Webb, from MoneyWeek, its worth a read.)
A political comparison would be PM Brown claiming to have beaten boom and bust only to be rudely awakened from his dream into an economic nightmare.
A sporting analogy also seems appropriate here. Isn't it obvious that some football players are more talented than others? Of course. But their earnings are also proportionate to the popularity of the game and the associated TV rights (enabling them to entertain many more people than any stadium can hold). There is also a far clearer idea of what constitutes soccer talent. Not so with business. An expert in one business may lack the technical understanding of another.
So, what's this got to do with democracy?
While I don't doubt that some people have a political talent, I doubt that that talent warrants their power over every aspect of society, and I doubt that we, the electorate, are easily able to spot it. Therefore, society should have mechanisms for talented individuals to come to the fore, as and when their expertise is needed. Interactive Democracy provides one way of doing this. For example, it encourages policemen to contribute to legislation on crime and doctors to campaign for healthcare. Yet it allows politicians to do politics.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Crony Capitalism

"Crony capitalism abounds when government leaders, usually in exchange for political support, routinely bestow favours on private individuals or business. This is not capitalism. It is called corruption."
Alan Greenspan, the Financial Times, quoted in MoneyWeek.

It could also be called crony democracy!
Interactive, or Direct Democracy is far less biased than Representative Democracy. Why? Because when the rich pay money to influence all votes, instead of a few representatives, it is automatically transparent.

Defining "In The Public Interest"

Journalists are an essential and powerful part of democracy. Do they use their power for good or ill? How free should they be? Should politicians be holding the press to account or should journalists be holding politicians to account? Hopefully the Leveson Inquiry will help to answer those questions.
To my mind it is valid that journalists sometimes bend the laws if the outcome is good for democracy. For example, the MP's expenses information were acquired illegally. Yet allowing press barons to use their powers to blackmail politicians is wrong. As is breaking the law in pursuit of tittle tattle, bribing the police or stalking celebrities.
Perhaps a legal definition of what is in the public interest would help clarify legal proceedings. If there were such a thing, in the future, when journalists are prosecuted for breaking the law they may pull out this as a "get out of jail for free" card and demonstrate that their actions were in the public interest. It would reinforce their freedoms yet define the limits of their remit.
So how would we define "in the public interest"?
Rooting out hypocrisy and lying by politicians should be part of it. Identifying those that abuse public office fits too. And, of course, crime. However, it does not include outing the private lives of celebrities.
To prevent the press from fishing for "dirt" using dubious means, there should also be a legal requirement that they have some evidence, however circumstantial, before they initiate an investigation. Without this a court may rule that their "get out of jail" card is invalid.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Shareholder Unions

It seems to me that individual shareholders will rarely exercise their voting powers because of the difficulties in attending AGMs. As proposed in the previous post, voting via the web, utilising Interactive Democracy, could be a solution. Another idea is to allow the creation of Shareholder Unions. Such a Union may have the perennial objective of limiting super-salaries with voting power commensurate with the number of shares held by all their members.
The practical problem with such an idea is How do you register voting rights when shareholders frequently trade their shares?
One solution is to make it mandatory that pension and Individual Savings Accounts providers integrate their share accounting with a central system able to apportion votes. This sounds much more complex, and expensive, than the one-person-one-vote Interactive Democracy system proposed here.
Another solution would be for pension and ISA providers to offer their commitment against super-salaries, perhaps utilising it as a unique selling proposition in order to stand above their competitors.