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. Transparent democracy wouldn't work for the latter as target countries would take umbrage, but Interactive Democracy could still work in a single party state.

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.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Finland's Internet Democracy

"The Open Ministry [Avoin Ministerio] is an official partner and has been involved in planning and preparing the initiative and campaign for the Equal Marriage Law initiative (in English read
The initiative rewrote the history of internet democracy as almost 3% of the whole voting population signed the initiative electronically on the very first day. The threshold of 50 000 supporters needed to pass the initiative to Parliament was met within 9 hours of launching the campaign and by midnight some 120 000 people had signed the initiative with their online bank codes or mobile phone."

You can read more about Finland's system here:

Thanks to Stephen for highlighting this:

Monday, 18 March 2013

Electorate Votes Itself Endless Privileges

"Perhaps we have reached the limit of what is economically possible within a democracy. Now that the electorate has twigged that it can vote itself endless privileges, our leaders seem determined to feed the beast, even when the larder is bare. The younger generation is going to hate us."
This quote from Tim Price in MoneyWeek (15/03/13) neatly sums up a concern voiced by others. And, so the thought goes, giving more power to the economically illiterate electorate via direct democracy will result in financial armegedon.
Swiss direct democracy succinctly proves that is not necessarily so. In fact their economy is in far better shape than those of most western representative democracies. While the reasons for this may be multifactorial, perhaps one cause of Switzerland's success is that direct democracy educates the masses through debate, resulting in more mature politics and better decisions.
But another perspective is that politicians in a representative democracy actively persuade us that the "bribes" they offer in return for our support are affordable, against the better judgement of the majority of voters who successfully manage the complexities of their household budget and carefully consider the inheritence they would like to bequeath to their offspring. From this perspective politicans are dangerous stewards of the economy, driven to error by the competitive nature of representative democracy.
Or perhaps political ideologies are to blame: those notions counted self evident and held firmly by the party faithful. On the contrary, voters less immersed in political doctrine and informed by wide debate, may take a more realistic and less idealistic view.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Domination of Minorities

Dan Snow's "A History of Syria" (available here on iPlayer) provides some perspective on the domination of minorities and their reactions. According to this programme the Alawites were persecuted for many years by the majority Sunni Muslims until Hafez al-Assad seized government in 1970. His son is fighting to stay in power today. The fears of the Alawite minority in allowing democracy to empower a democratic Sunni majority, who may want to take revenge, may be a significant factor in the ongoing conflict.
So, can democracy protect the freedoms and rights of minorities?
I suspect that a countries culture is the most important factor in protecting minority rights, which may also be enshrined in law through acts or constitution.
But empathy surely has a role to play: if we can relate to the emotions of the abused there is a greater chance that we will want to protect them. Thus, hearing their stories is important. And Interactive Democracy can facilitate this through its web site.
Leadership is also important, as it is today in representative democracy. The type of leadership shown by Nelson Mandela, who fought for fairness across races, not domination by a democratic majority.
On the other hand, intolerant religions or ideologies may use democracy to crush small dissenting groups, as was seen in Hitler's rise to power.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Quantitavely Easing Elections

John Stepek in MoneyWeek wrote this about QE3:
"this move by the Fed raises some interesting questions about democracy and central banking in general. Bernanke insists the move isn’t political. That’s probably true.

"At the same time, it was quite stupid of the Republicans to tell the one man who has more short-term power over US consumer confidence than anyone else in the country, that they were going to fire him if they won the election. If Barack Obama was ever looking for a poll boost from the Fed, this is the best he could have hoped for."

And so we see another example of the rise in power of the unelected technocrats of the central banks. What of democracy?


"In his book Prolokratie [Democratically into Bankruptcy], Christian Ortner proposes a politically incorrect thesis: a large proportion of the [typical western] population are borderline cretins. They have particular trouble understanding... that one cannot just go on spending more money than one takes in. So they are incapable of making sensible decisions at elections. I fear that the result of the latest Italian election provides support for this idea."
Peter Michael Lingens in Austrian news magazine Profil

This principle flies in the face of democracy. According to this summary the electorate aren't qualified to elect representatives, much less do direct democracy. Yet the Swiss have run direct democracy quite successfully for 150plus years. Maybe there is something about the intelligence of the Swiss or the quality of their culture that allows this? But I doubt it. I suspect that involving people in democracy is a process of educating each other through debate, utilising the leadership and expertise of those with more knowledge. However, representative democracy doesn't do this to the same extent as the debate is delegated to the professional politicians, leaving the majority of the electorate none the wiser. Furthermore, the politicians must pander to the whims of the uneducated to retain their position, compounding errors.

(Taking the economic arguments in the above quote: it is clear that personal debt should be repaid but is the same true for countries? There is an argument that national debt can be continuously rolled over into new debt for the simple reason that countries don't die but people do: it's hard to be repaid what you lend if your debtor is dead. Not so if they keep on living.)

Friday, 22 February 2013

Swiss Referendum on Executive Pay

"Switzerland is to hold a referendum on executive pay in early March, with measures to be voted on including a ban on golden hellos and a binding shareholder vote on pay", reports MoneyWeek. Emma Thompson on regards it a "stunning turn of events for the land of secret bank accounts."
The uproar that precipitated the vote has also created sufficient social and political pressure to persuade Novartis to ditch a proposed $78m payoff to departing chairman Daniel Vasella.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Lesson's from China?

In "Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century" Nicholas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels suggest that both the American system of democracy and the Chinese system of governance are unstable and could learn from each other. In particular the authors recommend more direct democracy with a technocratic elite taking a long term view, beyond the electoral cycle. You can read an article about their book here, at The FT.
I find it difficult to imagine how elites sit comfortably with direct democracy. Perhaps we could learn more from Switzerland which sports a high standard of living but has seldom sought strategic advantage over "rival" nations. However, I think there is a strong need for institutions that seek and protect the evidential truth which is a necessary foundation for constructive debate and Interactive Democracy.