Doing good: One door at a time

You will no doubt be familiar with a fund-raising technique involving people coming to your door and asking for money for one cause or another. No matter how good the cause or how respected and established the cause,

the technique seems always the same. They’re trying to set things up on their terms. They’ve knocked on your door and want to engage you in a conversation until they get money off you. If you say you’re busy, they say ‘when would you like us to return?’

The one thing they don’t have is pamphlets for you to check out at your leisure. They’re obviously all following the same playbook or getting fund-raising advice from consultants who are. In any event, at the beginning of their shtick I always interrupt as politely as I can and say that I’d be very happy to take some material from them, but beyond that, I’m not available for a discussion.

This has just happened to me, and I’ve just hightailed it up the stairs to my office to get it off my chest and have a counselling session with you, dear reader whether you are of the commenting or lurking kind. I do try to be as polite as possible, but the process is almost invariably irksome. Confronted by an extremely well-meaning volunteer, I try to deprogram the careful sales programming that’s gone into the construction of the whole interaction by the professional marketers and fund-raisers on the other side.

After telling them that I’ll deal with them, but only via some material they give me, some say “well you can go to our website”, but they don’t even have a card to give me with the address on it. I say something like “I’m hoping you’ll convey to your managers that some of us won’t donate without being given material that we can consider in our own time.”

At this point, I trigger item #43 in their training. On this occasion the guy said to me “if you don’t want to donate, that’s fine”. I responded “I do want to contribute (it was the Alannah and Madeline foundation which as I understand it does great work), but I’m not doing anything without considering it in my own time”. Anyway, this triggers the next item in their training. I’m trying to go meta and these guys, nice as they are, don’t go there. Instead they default to the next part of the manual. So it’s all very frustrating.

Right now I have two resolutions. Firstly I must focus even more on being nice to these people. I’m not very good at it because I’m trying to get them to understand something which they seem carefully trained not to. And secondly, I’m not giving to organisations that try to pressure me that way – at least for a time. Perhaps if others do, the pressure techniques of door-to-door sales and doing good will become slightly less comfortable bedfellows.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Ethics | 2 Comments

Detoxing democracy 3: Bringing citizen deliberation into government administration

Cross posted at the Mandarin

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order ofthings. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old order of things, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

Niccolò Machiavelli

Two forms of representation

One can distinguish between two ways of representing the people. The first, with which we are very familiar, are mechanisms where we select representatives with some specific quality to recommend them. They might be selected by election (this is the foundation of our politics), by the judgement of those senior to them – as is common within organisations, or by self-selection as might occur in a local social club or amongst some grassroots activist organisation. In each case we could tell a story that legitimised the choice as meritocratic. But as we are discovering, there’s many a slip between cup and lip. The formal structures of meritocracy can often provide a fertile environment for dysfunction to brew. This is coming increasingly to mind as we bemoan the worlds of inauthenticity and careerist self-interest we’ve built together – in politics, in bureaucracy, in business indeed even in philanthropy and the non-profit world – and we tune into spoofs and exposes from Yes Minister and the Hollow Men to Utopia, Silicon Valley and The Big Short.

The principal alternative means of representation which is often called ‘deliberative democracy’ is the process that peppered the polity of ancient Athens. It involves communities and/or their constituent parts being represented by groups of people who are broadly reflective of the makeup of those communities. In the modern world this approach is only starting to gain some traction in the political sphere 1 The most common method for constituting such groups is random selection, but, providing the method is transparent and seen as fit for purpose, it can be legitimate for selection to be made by some statistical process of selection. We will see some examples of this below.

Deliberative democracy mechanisms in administration

Continue reading

  1. Citizens’ juries with purely advisory roles are now quite common in Western democracies, but some actual power is beginning to be imparted to bodies chosen by sortition. Two examples of many are the requirement for citizens’ juries to advise on citizens initiated referendums in Oregon, and the random selection of some redistricting commissioners from a prequalified class of people in California’s redistricting law.
Posted in Democracy, Economics and public policy | 2 Comments

Can we attract good political leaders? Hint – yes

Can a democracy attract competent leaders, while attaining broad representation? Economic models suggest that free-riding incentives and lower opportunity costs give the less competent a comparative advantage at entering political life. Moreover, if elites have more human capital, selecting on competence may lead to uneven representation. This paper examines patterns of political selection among the universe of municipal politicians and national legislators in Sweden, using extraordinarily rich data on competence traits and social background for the entire population. We document four new facts that together characterize an “inclusive meritocracy.” First, politicians are on average significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. Second, this positive selection is present even when conditioning on family (and hence social) background, suggesting that individual competence is key for selection. Third, the representation of social background, whether measured by parental earnings or occupational social class, is remarkably even. Fourth, there is at best a weak tradeoff in selection between competence and social representation, mainly due to strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status. A broad implication of these facts is that it is possible for democracy to generate competent and socially-representative leadership.

By: Ernesto Dal Bó ; Frederico Finan ; Olle Folke ; Torsten Persson ; Johanna Rickne. URL:

Posted in Political theory, Politics - international, Politics - national | 4 Comments

Falling water

Posted in Art and Architecture | Leave a comment

Detoxing democracy 2: A mixed model of democracy for Australia

Crossposted from The Mandarin today where they almost never make comments :(

[T]here is an Australia of the spirit, submerged and not very articulate … [b]orn of the lean loins of the country itself, of the dreams of men who came here to form a new society …. Sardonic, idealist, tongue-tied perhaps, … it has something to contribute to the world. Not emphatically in the arts as yet, but in arenas of action, and in ideas for the creation of that egalitarian democracy that will have to be the basis of all civilised societies in the future.

Vance Palmer, 1942

The period from the late eighteenth to the first decades of the twentieth century saw the establishment of democratic institutions or the democratisation of existing institutions with debate focusing checks and balances between popular sovereignty – represented by lower houses such as the British House of Commons, the American House of Representatives and Legislative Assemblies in the Australian colonies – and upper houses representing aristocracy and/or the propertied classes – as in the case of the British House of Lords, the American Senate and Australian Legislative Councils.

I both propose and predict that in 21st century we’ll rework this canvass, but where the checks and balances were between popular elections and ‘elites’ of some sort, the new checks and balances will be between the people as represented by election and the people as they were much more commonly represented in ancient Athens by sortition or selection by lot. In the American context the legal scholar Ethan Leib has proposed a “Popular Branch” to join the other three branches in the US constitution.1  Continue reading

Posted in Democracy | 20 Comments

Battle: an article by Vance Palmer, Meanjin, 1942

I happened upon this yesterday and thought it might be of interest to readers here.

THE next few months may decide not only whether we are to survive as a nation, but whether we deserve to survive. As yet none of our achievements prove it, at anyrate in the sight of the outer world. We have no monuments to speak of, no dreams in stone, no Guernicas, no sacred places. We could vanish and leave singularly few signs that, for some generations, there had lived a people who had made a homeland of this Australian Earth. A homeland? To how many people was it primarily that? How many penetrated the soil with their love and imagination? We have had no peasant population to cling passionately to their few acres, throw down tenacious roots, and weave a natural poetry into their lives by invoking the little gods of creek and mountain. The land has been something to exploit, to tear out a living from and then sell at a profit. Our settlements have always had a fugitive look, with their tin roofs and rubbish-heaps. Even our towns . . . the main street cluttered with shops, the miliion-dollar town hall, the droves of men and women intent on nothing but buying or selling, the suburban retreats of rich drapers! Very little to show the presence of a people with a common purpose or a rich sense of life.

If Australia had no more character than could be seen on its surface, it would be annihilated as surely and swiftly as those colonial outposts white men built for their commercial profit in the East pretentious facades of stucco that looked imposing as long as the wind kept from blowing. But there is an Australia of the spirit, submerged and not very articulate, that is quite different from these bubbles of old-world imperialism. Born of the lean loins of the country itself, of the dreams of men who came here to form a new society, of hard conflicts in many fields, it has developed a toughness all its own. Sardonic, idealist, tongue-tied perhaps, it is the Australia of all who truly belong here. When you are away, it takes on a human image, an image that emerges, brown and steady-eyed from the background of dun cliffs, treed bushlands, and tawny plains. More than a generation ago, it found voice in the writings of Lawson, O’Dowd, Bedford, and Tom Collins: it has become even more aware of itself since. And it has something to contribute to the world. Not emphatically in the arts as yet, but in arenas of action’, and in ideas for the creation of that egalitarian democracy that will have to be the basis of all civilised societies in the future.

This is the Australia we are called upon to save. Not merely the mills and mines, and the higgledy-piggledy towns that have grown up along the coast: not the assets we hold or the debts we owe. For even if we were conquered by the Japanese, some sort of normal life would still go on. You cannot wipe out a nation of seven million people, or turn them all into wood-and-water joeys. Sheep would continue to be bred, wheat raised; there would be work for the shopkeeper, the clerk, the baker, the ‘butcher. Not everyone could be employed pulling Japanese gentlemen about in rickshaws. Some sort of comfort might even be achieved by the average man ‘under Japanese dominance; but if anyone believes life would be worth living under the terms offered, he is not worth saving. There is no hope ‘for him unless a breath of the heroic will around him stirs him to comp. out of the body of this death. Undoubtedly we have a share of the decadent that have proved a deadly weakness in other countries whisperers, fainthearts, near-fascists, people who have grown rotten through easy living; and these are often people who have had power in the past and now feel it falling away from them. We will survive according to our swiftness in pushing them into the background and liberating the people of will, purpose, and intensity; those who are at one with Australia’s spirit and are capable of moulding the future.

I believe we will survive; that what is significant in us will survive; that we will come out of this struggle battered, stripped to the bone, but spiritually sounder than we went in, surer of our essential character, adults in a wider world than the one we lived in hitherto. These are great, tragic days. Let us accept them stoically, and make every yard of Australian earth a battle-station.

Posted in History, Literature | 5 Comments

On the Origins and Consequences of Racism

Image result for racism quotesWe use a novel method to measure racism at both the individual and the country level. We show that our measure of racism has a strong negative and significant impact on economic development, quality of institutions and education. We then test different hypotheses concerning the origin of racism and its channels of impact in order to establish causality. We find that racism is not correlated with any possible measure of coexistence of different racial or ethnic groups, like ethno-linguistic fragmentation, share of migrants, or ethnically-motivated conflicts among others. Racism has a negative effect on social capital measured as generalized trust and voice and accountability. More importantly, we show that for former colonies, racism is strongly correlated with the presence of extractive institutions during the colonial time, even when we control for current institutions, current GDP per capita or current education. We argue that extractive colonial institutions not only had a negative impact on the political and economic institutions of the colonized countries, but also shaped the cultural values of the population. We claim that colonial powers instilled racism among the population of their colonies in order to weaken their ability for collective action, justify their own role as extractive elite in the eyes of the ruled and facilitate the internal cohesion of the elite. We also show that, at the individual level and using country fixed effects, racism is negatively correlated with those cultural values that one would expect if an extractive elite would be able to decide the cultural values of the society they control: lower trust, higher obedience, lower respect for others, lower feeling of control of one’s live, lower preference for democracy, higher support for military intervention of the government, lower preference for political participation, lower valuation of civil rights, higher preference for state intervention in the economy, lower support for economic competition, and higher acceptance of dishonest behavior. We finally show that racism still has a significant impact on our outcome variables even when we control for these potential cultural correlates.

By: Farfan-Vallespin, Antonio ; Bonick, Matthew

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Political theory, Politics - international | 3 Comments