Tiptoeing through the taboos of vox pop democracy

Schumpeter’s two chapters on democracy in his great book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy provide the best framework I know of articulating the things that trouble me about the current state of democracy.

The chapters assert the following propositions:

  1. Rousseau’s idea of the will of the people is an illusion for the simple reason that that will is distilled from a chaos of conflicting interests.
  2. Democracy arrives at decisions by way of a process by which factions of the political class vye for the consent of the governed.
  3. When considering politics, people are in a highly abstract world that’s usually far from their own concrete experience. They also know that their own singular vote amongst millions gives them an infinitesimal chance of influencing political outcomes. So their practical knowledge and their incentive to exercise care are both gravely diminished compared to situations where they are making decisions about their own welfare. This invites voting which is at least as much expressive as it is deliberative. In Schumpeter’s words, “In politics the typical citizen . . . argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective”. Schumpeter draws attention to the similarities between this and the process by which advertising is addressed to manipulating the unconscious.
  4. In all things organisational, whether from the Federal Government to the local tennis club, a division of labour is necessary for the organisation to function effectively. Schumpeter puts it this way. ”Collectives act almost exclusively by accepting leadership — this is the dominant mechanism of practically any collective action which is more than a reflex.”. Schumpeter thus grafts the idea of leadership onto this division of labour and perhaps he is right that one needs leadership, but one doesn’t even need anything as strong as that to make the point.  We need a division of labour. And that calls for delegation. Right now I am reliably informed that the polity is in the lengthy process of investigating how to deal with Food Derived from Reduced Lignin Lucerne Line. I’m thinking we need delegation here. Getting us all to come up with an opinion on Alan Jones show just won’t cut the mustard. Thus we have any number of agencies in our society that do this kind of stuff, or advise governments and all the rest of it. But the people remaining sovereign have the power to overrule their delegates.  That’s as it should be. But if the thing is going to function tolerably the people need to give due regard to the fact that they don’t know the details – the people we delegated the issues to know the details.

Alas as time has passed since Joseph Schumpeter shared his dyspeptic but insightful thoughts with us, two things have been exacerbating the tensions in this system. Continue reading

Kludge and how think tanks and policy wonks make it worse

Think tank scholars and policy wonks strive to be both practical and clever. Being practical means proposing policies that have a good chance of getting taken up by government in the short term. And being clever means policies that generate big benefits at little or no cost. But according to American political scientist Steven Teles, the short term benefits of practicality and cleverness have long term costs.

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Appeal to General Dempsey | Consortiumnews

MEMORANDUM FOR: General Martin Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity [1]

SUBJECT: Syria and Our Oath to Defend the Constitution

Dear Gen. Dempsey:

Summary:  We refer to your acknowledgment, in your letter of July 19 to Sen. Carl Levin on Syria, that a “decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war.” It appears that the President may order such an act of war without proper Congressional authorization.

As seasoned intelligence and military professionals solemnly sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, we have long been aware that – from private to general – it is one’s duty not to obey an illegal order. If such were given, the honorable thing would be to resign, rather than be complicit.

Who knows if this appeal (h/t SST) will strike a spark. The trend these retired intelligence professionals are trying to bring to an end is long-standing and backed by powerful interests. Nevertheless, its issuance alone is a critical marker of how deep the disaffection runs.

It’s true too that for once, a touch of optimism may be in order. Public opinion is strongly against any further military actions in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s unseemly rush to judgement and action also leaves them very exposed. The question of why there’s no time for proper evaluation of the evidence and open discussion of the potential consequences isn’t an easy one to avoid. And then there’s the UK Parliament which on Thursday took the radical step of voting against any British participation in punitive actions in Syria.

The imperial presidency that’s become the regrettable norm in recent decades may at last have tactically overreached. Continue reading

Punishing the innocent: Syria and the politics of symbolism

Simply bombing Damascus or Aleppo to assuage the conscience of the West that they ‘did something’ seems like the worst form of symbolic politics.

It’s not the only sensible thing Matthew Fitzpatrick had to say in an article at The Drum today.

He also argued the appropriate forum for judging (and, should the verdict be guilty, punishing) a war crime such as gassing one’s own people is the International Criminal Court.

It seems to me he’s blindingly right. Any other approach is not only wrong (and dangerous) in terms of process and precedent, but punishes the wrong people. However carefully planned and executed, military strikes would inevitably add to the woes of Syria’s long-suffering population. The argument “but how can we not respond to this terrible crime” therefore falls over at the first hurdle. First do no harm is sometimes a decent rule of thumb in international affairs as well.

In any case, punitive strikes would be action in a vacuum. Continue reading

Exiting the maze

That power must reside elsewhere, with the best and brightest, with those who have surveyed the perils of the world and know what it takes to meet them. Those deep within the security apparatus, within the charmed circle, must therefore make the decision, on America’s behalf, about how much democracy – about how much discussion about the limits of democracy, even – it is safe for Americans to have. (America against democracy – The Economist)

Until Snowden flew to Hong Kong, that’s how things were. Small wonder the reaction to his revelations often seemed so disproportionate to those of us on the outside. No provision had ever been made for well founded, fact based cross-examination of their surveillance activities. It was never meant to happen. They were to operate quietly in the shadows, always the watchers, never the watched.

The American public weren’t alone on the outside. Despite repeated efforts by NSA supporters and the White House to suggest otherwise, Congress didn’t fare much better. With the exception of those on the House and Senate Select Committees of Intelligence, they’ve been consistently stonewalled.

And, just to close the circle, any members of those committees who might want to share concerns with the public are prevented by law from doing so.

Two Democratic Committee members in the Senate, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, spent years warning Americans that they would be “stunned to learn” of the radical interpretations of secret law the Obama administration had adopted in the secret FISA court to vest themselves with extremist surveillance powers.

Yet the two Senators, prohibited by law from talking about it, concealed what they had discovered. It took Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing for Americans to learn what those two Intelligence Committee members were so dramatically warning them about.

One needn’t conjure up a conspiracy to account for this somewhat grotesque outcome. Continue reading

George H W Bush & The Broccoli Wars

George H W Bush (father of George W, who had one less initial and a lot fewer functioning cortical neurons) divided US public opinion with this famous declaration in March 1990:

I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli. Now look, this is the last statement I’m going to have on broccoli. There are truckloads of broccoli at this very minute descending on Washington. My family is divided. For the broccoli vote out there: Barbara loves broccoli. She has tried to make me eat it. She eats it all the time herself. So she can go out and meet the caravan of broccoli that’s coming in.

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A neoconservative welfare state?

Nearly "every problem with the Republican Party today could be cured by a neocon revival", says David Brooks. Brooks isn’t talking about the hawkish approach to foriegn policy that urged US military involvement in the middle east, he’s talking about the domestic policy ideas of people like Irving Kristol.

According to Kristol, neoconservatism’s mission is: "to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy."

In a 1976 essay titled ‘The Republican Future’, Kristol argued that Republican conservatives lacked any coherent set of ideals or a strategy for achieving them. So instead of setting out an alternative vision for the country, Republicans spent most of their time criticising Democrats. In office, they were obsessed with budget balancing. "Republican leaders tend to think like businessmen rather than like statesmen," he said , "and therefore bumble their way through their terms in office."

Because they tended to think like accountants instead of political leaders, Republicans saw their job as rescuing the nation from bankruptcy. As a result they ended up administering a policy and program framework constructed by Democrats. As Kristol explained:

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Hatred and Profits: Under the hood of the KKK

Pretty interesting stuff:

In this article, we analyze the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, those who joined it, and its social and political impact by combining a wide range of archival data sources with data from the 1920 and 1930 U.S censuses. We find that individuals who joined the Klan in some cities were more educated and more likely to hold professional jobs than the typical American. Surprisingly, we find little evidence that the Klan had an effect on black or foreign-born residential mobility or vote totals. Rather than a terrorist organization, the 1920s Klan is best described as social organization with a very successful multilevel marketing structure fueled by an army of highly incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand.

Bowling for Adolf: or why social capital isn’t all good

File:Nazi-bowling.pngBowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi
Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33
by Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender, Hans-Joachim Voth – #19201 (DAE POL)


Social capital – a dense network of associations facilitating cooperation within a community – typically leads to positive political and economic outcomes, as demonstrated by a large literature following Putnam. A growing literature emphasizes the potentially “dark side” of social capital. This paper examines the role of social capital in the downfall of democracy in interwar Germany by analyzing Nazi party entry rates in a cross-section of towns and cities. Before the Nazi Party’s triumphs at the ballot box, it built an extensive organizational structure, becoming a mass movement with nearly a million members by early 1933. We show that dense networks of civic associations such as bowling clubs, animal breeder associations, or choirs facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party. The effects are large: Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster growth in the strength of the Nazi Party. IV results based on 19th century measures of social capital reinforce our conclusions. In addition, all types of associations – veteran associations and non-military
clubs, “bridging” and “bonding” associations – positively predict NS party entry. These results suggest that social capital in Weimar Germany aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.