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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is”*…

 

Government

 

In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.

In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen ⁠— and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.

While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.

Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?…

More (including explanations of the methodology and categories used) at “Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government.” (For perspectives on the caution at the end of the quoted passage above, see here and here.)

* Thomas Jefferson’s harsh verdict, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson

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As we organize our thoughts about social organization, we might recall that it was on this date that President Millard Fillmore signed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One of the most controversial elements of the Compromise of 1850, it heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy” by required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law”, for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership.  In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave.  Since a suspected slave had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery. (The film 12 Years a Slave was based on one such abduction– the kidnapping and bondage of Solomon Northrup.)

170px-Slave_kidnap_post_1851_boston

An 1851 poster warned the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers

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Written by LW

September 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all”*…

 

Voting2

 

In a simple democratic election with two candidates, every voter has the same probability of affecting the result of the election. In the United States, the electoral college ensures that this is not the case. Instead, the chance that your vote matters is dependent on which state you live in, and the political composition of voters who happen to live within that state’s borders.

Although Republican presidential candidates have benefited from the electoral college in recent years—2 of their last 3 election winners lost the popular vote—there is nothing about the electoral college that specifically favors Republicans. Its effects are largely random, and can be expected to change over time. One illustration of how arbitrary these effects are is that a state’s status as a swing state can often be eliminated by moving a few counties into a bordering state, instantly devaluing the value of its residents’ votes. It would only take a couple of these changes to shift the advantage of the electoral college to the Democratic party…

David Waldron’s eye-opening analysis: “Who benefits from the electoral college?

* John F. Kennedy

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As we exercise our franchise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1882 that nearly 10,000 workers gathered for a parade in New York City to celebrate the first Labor Day in the U.S.

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Written by LW

September 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Central planning didn’t work for Stalin or Mao, and it won’t work for an entrepreneur either”*…

 

Amazon central planning

 

Applying science to social problems has brought huge dividends in the past. Long before the invention of the silicon chip, medical and technological innovations had already made our lives far more comfortable – and longer. But history is also replete with disasters caused by the power of science and the zeal to improve the human condition.

For example, efforts to boost agricultural yields through scientific or technological augmentation in the context of collectivization in the Soviet Union or Tanzania backfired spectacularly. Sometimes, plans to remake cities through modern urban planning all but destroyed them. The political scientist James Scott has dubbed such efforts to transform others’ lives through science instances of “high modernism.”An ideology as dangerous as it is dogmatically overconfident, high modernism refuses to recognize that many human practices and behaviors have an inherent logic that is adapted to the complex environment in which they have evolved. When high modernists dismiss such practices in order to institute a more scientific and rational approach, they almost always fail.

Historically, high-modernist schemes have been most damaging in the hands of an authoritarian state seeking to transform a prostrate, weak society. In the case of Soviet collectivization, state authoritarianism originated from the self-proclaimed “leading role” of the Communist Party, and pursued its schemes in the absence of any organizations that could effectively resist them or provide protection to peasants crushed by them.

Yet authoritarianism is not solely the preserve of states. It can also originate from any claim to unbridled superior knowledge or ability. Consider contemporary efforts by corporations, entrepreneurs, and others who want to improve our world through digital technologies. Recent innovations have vastly increased productivity in manufacturing, improved communication, and enriched the lives of billions of people. But they could easily devolve into a high-modernist fiasco…

But this characteristically high-modernist path is not preordained. Instead of ignoring social context, those developing new technologies could actually learn something from the experiences and concerns of real people. The technologies themselves could be adaptive rather than hubristic, designed to empower society rather than silence it.Two forces are likely to push new technologies in this direction. The first is the market, which may act as a barrier against misguided top-down schemes. Once Soviet planners decided to collectivize agriculture, Ukrainian villagers could do little to stop them. Mass starvation ensued. Not so with today’s digital technologies, the success of which will depend on decisions made by billions of consumers and millions of businesses around the world (with the possible exception of those in China)…

That said, the power of the market constraint should not be exaggerated. There is no guarantee that the market will select the right technologies for widespread adoption, nor will it internalize the negative effects of some new applications. The fact that Facebook exists and collects information about its 2.5 billion active users in a market environment does not mean we can trust how it will use that data. The market certainly doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be unforeseen consequences from Facebook’s business model and underlying technologies.

For the market constraint to work, it must be bolstered by a second, more powerful check: democratic politics. Every state has a proper role to play in regulating economic activity and the use and spread of new technologies. Democratic politics often drives the demand for such regulation. It is also the best defense against the capture of state policies by rent-seeking businesses attempting to raise their market shares or profits.

Democracy also provides the best mechanism for airing diverse viewpoints and organizing resistance to costly or dangerous high-modernist schemes. By speaking out, we can slow down or even prevent the most pernicious applications of surveillance, monitoring, and digital manipulation. A democratic voice is precisely what was denied to Ukrainian and Tanzanian villagers confronted with collectivization schemes.But regular elections are not sufficient to prevent Big Tech from creating a high-modernist nightmare. Insofar as new technologies can thwart free speech and political compromise and deepen concentrations of power in government or the private sector, they can frustrate the workings of democratic politics itself, creating a vicious circle. If the tech world chooses the high-modernist path, it may ultimately damage our only reliable defense against its hubris: democratic oversight of how new technologies are developed and deployed. We as consumers, workers, and citizens should all be more cognizant of the threat, for we are the only ones who can stop it.

At the same time that science and technology have vastly improved human lives, they have also given certain visionaries the means to transform entire societies from above. Ominously, what was true of Soviet central planners is true of Big Tech today: namely, the assumption that society can be improved through pure “rationality.”  Daron Acemoglu— Professor of Economics at MIT,  and co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (forthcoming from Penguin Press in September 2019)– explains: “Big Tech’s Harvest of Sorrow?

[Illustration above from “The Singular Pursuit of Comrade Bezos,” also worth a read.]

* Michael Bloomberg

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As we rethink “reason,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 (one year before Marconi’s first demo) that distinguished physicist Oliver Lodge achieved the first successful radio transmission of information via Morse Code in a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at a meeting in Oxford.  He sent a message about 50 meters from the old Clarendon Laboratory to the lecture theater of the University Museum.

Lodge continued to develop his approach, and patented several elements of it… running into intellectual property disputes with Marconi.  Finally, in 1912, Lodge, at heart an academic, sold his patents to the more determinedly-commercial Marconi.

220px-Oliver_Joseph_Lodge3 source

 

Written by LW

August 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“One of the things I did not understand, was that these systems can be used to manipulate public opinion in ways that are quite inconsistent with what we think of as democracy”*…

 

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Nineteen years ago, in his third annual call for answers to an Annual Question, John Brockman asked members of the Edge community what they believed to be “today’s [2000’s] most important unreported story.” The remarkable Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) answered in a way that has turned out to be painfully prophetic…

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice…

Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?…

The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?…

The Scylla and Charybdis of which Howard warned– centralization-by-capital/political power and atomization-into-cacophony (whether via the pollution of manipulation/”fake news” or simple tribalism)– is now all too apparent… even if it’s not at all clear how we sail safely between them.  It’s almost 20 years later– but not too late to heed Howard’s call, which you can read in full at “How Will The Internet Influence Democracy?

* Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google [as Howard’s 2000 insight dawns on him in 2017, source]

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As we try harder, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that financier and “Father of Trusts” Charles R. Flint incorporated The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company as a holding company into which he rolled up manufacturers of record-keeping and measuring systems: Bundy Manufacturing Company, International Time Recording Company, The Tabulating Machine Company, and the Computing Scale Company of America.

Four years later Flint hired Thomas J. Watson, Sr. to run the company; nine years after that, in 1924, Watson organized the formerly disparate units into a single operating company, which he named “International Business Machines,” or as we now know it, IBM.

150px-CTR_Company_Logo source

 

 

“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America”*…

 

history-of-capital-ai

The evolution of capitalism (“the capital AI machine”) as a series of levels that were unlocked by new “learning” APIs to humans

 

Consider capitalism as a highly efficient objective function (or “AI”) with its parameters optimized for the satisfaction of our short term desires rather than our long term interests.

Paranoia about runaway feedback loops – in consumer capitalism, artificial intelligence, mass media, ‘Wrestlemania politics,’ etc – ultimately stems from the inscrutability of the emergent behavior of these complex systems to the individual actors and observers operating within them.

Rather than responding with Luddite / anarchist nihilism, we should remember that technological and social systems like these have dramatically reduced our exposure to the unpredictability of the natural world and greatly improved living conditions on a number of dimensions over the past few centuries.

At the same time, we should not ignore warning signs of a dystopian future, nor should we hope that a ‘personnel change’ of institutional leaders will solve our problems.

Because the problems at hand are complex systems problems – where the root causes are not the actors themselves, but the ill-designed structures and incentives that dictate their actions – we should think about redesigning the rules and incentives of social, political, and economic systems as the path forward…

Andrew Kortina explains modern capitalism as a system– one that, for all of its all-too-manifest faults, should be saved; then he starts the conversation about how to do that salvaging: “History of the Capital AI & Market Failures in the Attention Economy.”  Mildly geeky, but richly provocative– which is to say, useful, whether one buys his suggested solutions or not– it’s eminently worthy of a read.

* “Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.  – Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

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As we wonder about the water in which we swim, we might recall that it  was on this date in 1933 that the Agricultural Adjustment Act came into force.  A central piece of New Deal legislation, the AAA aimed to aid farmers devastated by reduced demand for their crops by creating price supports via a series of government purchases (of crops and livestock) and subsidies (essentially payments not to plant/grow).

The program was controversial in its time– it made previously independent farmers dependent on the government– but it worked; average farm income rose 50% from 1932 to 1935.  It’s elements– government purchase and subsidy– survive to this day, evolved into (many of) the provisions of the Farm Bill, passed by Congress every five years or so… even though the constituency of small farmers the Act was intended to serve has largely given way to an agricultural landscape dominated by a handful of gigantic corporate players.

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A Roosevelt County New Mexico farmer and a County Agricultural Conservation Committee representative review the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) farm program to determine how it can best be applied on that particular acreage

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“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship”*…

 

democracy

 

Democracy stopped declining in 2018, according to the latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The index rates 167 countries by 60 indicators across five broad categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. It is stricter than most similar indices: it concludes that just 4.5% of the world’s people live in a “full democracy”. However, the overall global score remained stable in 2018 for the first time in three years. Just 42 countries experienced a decline, compared with 89 in 2017. Encouragingly, 48 improved.

In recent years, threats to democracy around the world have become increasingly obvious. The Arab spring fizzled. China’s leader is poised to rule for life. Populists with autocratic tendencies have won elections in the Philippines, Brazil and Mexico and subverted democratic institutions in Hungary, Turkey and Poland. Perhaps because the trend is so glaring—strongmen in different countries often copy each other’s tactics, soundbites and scapegoats—voters are not taking it lying down. Political participation improved more than any other measure on the EIU’s index. This is true even in advanced democracies such as the United States, where voters are highly disgruntled. Polarisation in America has led to anger, gridlock and [a government shutdown]. According to Gallup polls from January to mid-November 2018, the share of Americans who approve of the way that Congress is handling its job had fallen to an average of 18%, down from 40% in 2000. Perhaps because they are so cross, they are more likely to vote. Turnout at the 2018 mid-term elections was the highest for over 100 years.

Parts of Europe are suffering from a democratic malaise. Italy fell from 21st to 33rd in the rankings after voters elected a populist coalition that seeks to bypass democratic institutions and curtail the civil liberties of immigrants and Roma. Turkey’s score declined for the sixth year in a row as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swept aside most constraints on his power. Russia deteriorated for the tenth year in a row, after the main opposition candidate was barred from running in a presidential election and Vladimir Putin continued to crush civil liberties. Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia saw slight improvements in 2018, mostly reflecting higher scores for political participation.

The report warns that all this may be a pause, rather than the end of democracy’s retreat. The global rise in engagement, combined with a continued crackdown on civil liberties such as freedom of expression, is a potentially volatile mix. It could be a recipe for instability in 2019.

See the report in full– and explore the interactive version of the map, above– at “The retreat of global democracy stopped in 2018.”

* Ralph Nader

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As we commit ourselves to citizenship, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that President Dwight D, Eisenhower made his farewell address on a national television broadcast.  Perhaps most famously, Eisenhower, the only general to be elected president in the 20th century, used the speech to warn the nation against the corrupting influence of what he described as the “military-industrial complex.”

But he also used the occasion to urge a long view of our America and its citizen’s responsibilities:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

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“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard”*…

 

democracy 2

It probably goes without saying at this point, but democratic institutions are experiencing something of a crisis. The last decade has seen an increasing trend toward right-wing populism around the world, from Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the rise of autocratic regimes in Poland and Hungary. These developments are particularly troubling considering they are occurring in countries ruled by nominally democratic governments, even though democracy is meant to be a bulwark against exactly this kind of political extremism.

Although political theorists have long considered democratic governments to be among the most stable forms of governance, new research by an international team of complex systems theorists that analyzes how democracies become destabilized suggests that the stability of democratic governments has been taken for granted. As detailed in a paper published this week in the European Journal of Physics, Wiesner and an international team of mathematicians, psychologists, political theorists, and philosophers focused on two features of complex social systems—feedback loops and stability—to better understand why democracies around the world are backsliding…

A team of systems experts argue that the decline of democracies is poorly understood, but that concepts from complex systems theory may offer a solution: “Complex Systems Theorists Explain Why Democracy Is Dying.”

[image above: source]

* H. L. Mencken, who also (prophetically?) observed: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

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As we get down with governance, we might send carefully-researched and elegantly-written birthday greetings to Thomas Carlyle; he was born on this date in1795.  A Victorian polymath, he was an accomplished philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian, mathematician, and teacher.  While he was an enormously popular lecturer in his time, and his contributions to mathematics earned him eponymous fame (the Carlyle circle), he may be best remembered as a historian (and champion of the “Great Man” theory of history)… and as the coiner of phrases like “the dismal science” (to describe economics)

Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, a three volume work that assured his fame as a historian, was finished in 1836 but not published until 1837 because John Stuart Mill’s maid mistook the manuscript of Volume One for kindling.  The setback prompted Carlyle to compare himself to a man who has nearly killed himself accomplishing zero.”   But he re-wrote the first volume from scratch.

“A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.”   – Thomas Carlyle

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