Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some ambivalent thoughts about democracy

I've been listening to the 538 election podcast talking about the Brexit vote while I wait for my son's band concert to start. Having some weirdly ambivalent thoughts about democracy.

I think one of the most pressing problems in any society is making sure that minorities don't get stripped of their rights. This is a non trivial issue to solve. Appointed rulers (i.e. kings) tend to care about disempowered people very little. Entrenched ruling groups, like an established board of directors for a company, tend to empower people that they like personally, and in practice bring in more people who look and think like them.

But then again, mobs of people don't necessarily make informed decisions, and then they can STILL be indifferent to minority rights when voting. So for example, we have the 1964 civil rights act, which prevents anyone in the entire country from discriminating in various arenas. If it was put to a state by state vote, many states might explicitly give preferential treatment to straight white males. But we prevent them from doing that on purpose, because you shouldn't be able to vote away some people's rights.

I'm not British, so I don't have the most thorough understanding of Brexit. But the sense I get is that those who voted "Leave" are most generally the UK equivalent of Trump supporters -- i.e., cranky xenophobic nationalists. This is probably an oversimplification of both countries, but it's the rule of thumb I'm going with for now. I'm hearing that many Brits are experiencing buyer's remorse, having made a "protest vote" without really understanding the impact of the decision, and having ridiculed and dismissed "experts" such as economists, who universally said this vote would be bad news. In the US it seems like a popular stance to oppose "career politicians" and vote for outsiders who haven't held office before. Donald Trump is like the end game of this strategy.

In politics, as in other areas like science and medicine, I think there is definitely something to be said for weighting the input of experts differently than other people. Sure, power corrupts. But also, it would be great if judgement on a law was made more by people who have had time to study the law and understand the issue better.

But on the other hand, we go back to appointed rulers having likely biases against "commoners." So it's a tough thing to figure out a fair system.


  1. Well, I don't think you just can dismiss 52% of a population as cranky xenophobes. Some of them are, but most are victims of a confidence trick. I'm hopping mad about what's happened, but it's not productive to be mad at half the population! I'm mad at the con-men and the fraudsters.

    I'm also a little bid mad at the dimwits who voted Leave as a protest and are now saying they wish they hadn't. Too fucking late!

    There are real problems in British society, just as in America. Brexit campaigners identified this, gave people a scapegoat, and offered a simple (or simplistic) solution. In that way it is indeed comparable to the Trump phenomenon, but I'm optimistic that far more Americans can see straight through Trump.

  2. Donald Trump send like the end game if this strategy.

    I can't parse this sentence.

  3. You should watch Brexit - the movie. This could give you some perspective on why so many voted leave.

    Also this is an interesting article written by Joseph Stiglitz.

    I know many economists have stated Brexit would be abysmal for the UK, but they are just stating the obvious. We all know that walking away from a trade union with the largest market in the world will be costly. You don't need a degree in economics to understand that.

    So if the people understood it would be so costly, why do it?

    Now I live in a little country called Norway, and we are not part of the EU. I voted to join in our last bid to enter the union in 1994, but now I'm not so sure we should. The EU has moved from a trade union to a political union, which to me seems to be a bit undemocratic (if not anti-democratic).

    Why? Because the political leadership is not elected by the people of Europe. At least not directly. Simplified they are elected by, and among, the politicians elected by the people in the member states. Many Europeans don't even know who their representatives are in the EU parliament or who has the real power among the different EU institutions.

    This means that the EU politicians are by and large free from real accountability. They are elected by their "own", and the myriad of institutions and organisations within the EU, makes it hard for the common citizen to really understand how the EU is run and who holds the real power.

    Furthermore the politicians in the EU are often the ones that have played out their role in their own countries, and can't hold an office there anymore for different reasons. As an EU politician they receive enormous wages, huge tax exemptions and live in grand old castles.

    This is why, in my mind, the working class voted leave. They see no benefits for them to stay in the EU. They can't, like the highly educated, move to another EU country and find better paid jobs. They have to accept lower and lower wages in competition with other low educated EU citizens, who come from countries with far lower cost of living than in the UK.

    This applies to Norway as well, as we are part of the "Schengen"-agreement (free movement of people). In Norway a Polish national can get child support benefit from the Norwegian state, as long as he/she works in Norway. This benefit is so high compared to Polish cost of living, that it's about 90% of a average Polish yearly income. The Polish worker can therefore offer his skills at a very low price compared to a Norwegian in the same line of business. The Norwegian is subsequently pushed into unemployment, we have no other country that offer higher wages.

    Since the cost of living is so different inside the union it benefits the poorer countries workers, and the richer countries companies. The big losers are the richer countries low educated workers.

    Brexit is the "forgotten ones" saying "We've had enough!".

  4. James, that should have read "Donald Trump is like the end game of this strategy." I've updated the post. I must have scrawled some of this on a phone and gotten a weird autocorrect effect.