Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Measuring Democracy

There are a number of new books out which try to show that more democratic countries have a higher level of economic equality and also a higher level sustained economic growth. There is some question as to whether equality leads to growth or vice versa, but the issue I'd like to discuss is how to measure democracy.

There are many studies and organizations which aim to rate states on an authoritarian - democracy scale, but many also add in civil liberties as well. I have something slightly different in mind.

A dictionary definition.

Democracy: government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

The problem is that such textbook definitions don't take into account the many ways democracy can be imperfect. I'm aiming at a more realistic measure.


A democracy must allow all "citizens" to vote. In addition it must not restrict the definition of citizenship is such a way as to exclude various disfavored groups. For example some countries exclude permanent resident populations who are not members of the dominant ethnic group. There should also be a straightforward way for new residents to obtain citizenship within a reasonable period of time.

Democracies should also not remove the right to vote from citizens, except in very limited cases. Mental incapacity seems appropriate, imprisonment or former imprisonment not as much. Societies regard removing the right to vote as part of the "punishment" of law breakers, but as these people are still affected by the actions of the government they should still have some say in how their lives are regulated.

Other qualifications such as literacy, land holdings, income, or relocation within a country should also not be used to restrict the right to vote. A change of domicile should only restrict voting rights for the time it takes to process the change of address. With modern computer systems this should be at most one month. Fears about people changing location just to vote are unfounded.


Having established who can vote, the next criterion is as to how the votes are counted. For example, having unequal district sizes for the selection of representatives means that some votes are worth more than others. Winner-take-all, rather than proportional assignment of officials, also acts to effectively disenfranchise people. Various forms of Gerrymandering can be used so that minority votes are diluted in such a way that the group never gets any representation. Conversely they may all be grouped together so that the group have little influence outside of a limited number of districts.

In addition to "legal" policies which dilute votes there are many corrupt practices which exist. Such steps as vote rigging, intimidation of voters, restricting the candidates who can stand for office on various trumped up charges, and control of the media are also common. NGO's which monitor elections to see if they are fair issue reports, but even the most damning report doesn't prevent the corrupt officials from taking power anyway. The increase in the cost of running a campaign in the era of corporate media has disfavored candidates without access to financial resources. This relationship taints the legislative process which I discuss next.


Every democracy has some sort of separation between an executive and a legislative function. A government where the people elect a chief executive who then rules by decree is not a democratic government. There is no feedback mechanism to influence the policies that are enacted. This means that there are various bodies dedicated to creating legislation. Once these representatives are chosen one needs to consider how their agenda is chosen and what the basis is for their support of pending legislation. In many countries the parties control their members. The party leadership determines the party's position and the members just follow instructions. This is not very democratic as the voters have no input.

Another common occurrence is to have legislators beholding to those who funded their campaigns. Even in the US we have had individuals tagged as "the senator from Boeing" or "Wall Street". This goes beyond looking after the interests of big firms in one's district, since the firms did not vote and their interests may not coincide with those of the majority of the citizens in the district. In states where voting tends to follow along ethnic lines a legislator of one group rarely looks after the interests of other groups even when there are such citizens within the district.

Many nations have more than one legislative body; the US has the Senate and the UK the House of Lords. These are usually very undemocratic. The US senate gives much more weight to states with small populations. In fact 18% of the population controls 50% of the votes. The House of Lords (until recently) had no pretensions to being democratic at all. There may be a benefit to having a more deliberative body, but it still needs to reflect the makeup of the population.


Once laws are passed they need to be interpreted. In addition, violations of them need to be enforced. A functional democracy needs an impartial, independent, yet responsive judiciary. There have been many attempts to make the selection of judges more democratic, but most have produced ambiguous results. Appointing judges for life is supposed to ensure that they are not beholding to special interests, but being free of outside influence once on the bench doesn't mean that one doesn't bring one's prejudices and loyalties along. This is so well known that most lawyers try to do judge shopping if they have an opportunity. The number of cases that are reversed on appeal shows that the decision-making process remains flawed. Clear laws would not be open to such widely varying interpretation.


In general the executive branch is meant to carry out the laws which have been enacted. In some societies the executive proposes new legislation, while in others it is the legislature which does this. Whatever the formal mechanism, in practice the executive usually sets the agenda. The various agencies and departments of the executive branch are not chosen democratically, but are some combination of political patronage and formal civil service selection rules. In some countries (France is often quoted in this respect) civil servants are seen as a quasi-independent branch which continues on its way as executives come and go. This may help prevent chaos when control passes from one majority to another with sharply opposing political philosophies. The history of nationalization in the UK is a case in point. Stability comes at a price, however. There is no mechanism for the people to alter the function of the permanent civil service.

In the US the courts have ruled that the winning party has an explicit right to fill patronage jobs in executive agencies. Sometimes these are just paybacks to supporters - ambassadorial posts are a favorite, but increasingly the posts have been filled by ideological hacks with no expertise in the area under their supervision. There has also been a proliferation of new titles meant to avoid the limits on the number of such patronage jobs available. This has made agencies more political and less impartial. Other steps have been taken to prevent legislation on the books from being enforced. This includes leaving key seats open so that agencies don't have a quorum, refusing to prosecute or investigate possible violations of laws and tinkering with the funding of agencies whose purpose is at odds with the prevailing political philosophy.

In many countries it is necessary to bribe agency workers if one is to get action on routine matters that come before them. This can range from the petty, like getting a visa, to the awarding of million dollar contracts. Even legislators are frequent recipients of bribes in some nations. Money destroys representative democracy.

Other Organizations

These days the primary non-governmental organization is the for-profit enterprise. Even nominally "communist" states like China are increasingly replacing state-owned firms with private ones. In the classic model a public firm sells shares to investors who then have a voting interest in how the firm is managed. Over the past 100 years this link has become increasingly tenuous as ownership becomes more diffuse and as firms are increasingly run by a professional managerial class which has little connection with the founding or long-term survival of the firm. Managing is seen as a skill and, apparently, the same person can sell sugar water or computers equally well. Compensation packages for the managerial class are designed in such a way that they are mostly insulated from the results of their actions. Terms like "golden parachute" show that even the worst manager can expect to leave richer than when he arrived. The selection of the top management and the board of directors is far removed from the control of the shareholders. In the US one sees fewer than a dozen attempts by shareholders each year to change control of large firms. Even with this small number, many fail.

Firms have a non-democratic, self perpetuating management structure, where investors, employees, customers and suppliers have no meaningful influence on policies. Even when one of these interest groups has some success in promoting its interests the mechanism used is not a democratic one, but raw economic power.

In addition to public firms there are a variety of quasi-public organizations. Charities, NGO's, educational intuitions, religious organizations and the like are never organized along democratic lines. Most are run by self selected boards, and when there are nominal elections for the board seats, it is extremely rare to see more than one candidate for each seat. Nomination processes are arcane or non-existent. As most of these quasi-public organizations get tax breaks or other public benefits, the citizens end up funding them in part while having no say on what the mandates of these groups are.


True democracies perform better for the bulk of the population. That this needs to even be stated, shows how far simple truisms can be distorted by the powerful. When the people have control they are not going to support policies that are harmful to themselves. This doesn't mean that everything will always turn out for the best. People can make mistakes. They can be uninformed, overly cautious, or unable to predict the future properly, but at least the mistakes are their own. Democracies can also suffer from the "tyranny of the majority", but then I would rate them as imperfect, just another defect to add to the lists above.

So, those who want to prove this correlation need to take all the imperfections into account when measuring the real status of democracy in a country and look beyond the nominal measures. By these criteria some of the world's "best" democracies fall far short. If the populations in these states fail to realize this then, perhaps, they deserve the fates awaiting them. Remember no state can exist without the acquiescence of the governed. It is allowing oneself to be dominated by institutions that makes democracy fail. The Philippines was a good example of how a dictatorship could be ended (Markos) when the population just stopped participating in society. Others can do the same, but it requires a willingness to take a risk and sacrifice some temporary security. It doesn't require violent revolution.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Protecting Citizens - the Bush Failures

The Basic role of government is to protect its citizens. What this means has changed over time, originally it was not more than protection from foreign marauders. Let's see how the administration brought in by the Gingrich "revolution" has done.

Failed to prevent 9/11 attacks even though it had explicit warnings and was tracking several of the key conspirators. Of course, no one can catch all such attacks, as the ones in Spain and London also showed, but it is one thing to be unaware of a plot and quite another to dismiss existing intelligence information.

It is now seven years later and Osama is still on the loose. The Al Qaeda network has not been smashed either. Isn't the one priority of the Bushies the war on "terror"? Isn't that what has been used to justify all sorts of draconian steps (see below)?

The anthrax attacks are still unsolved and since they aren't, it is always possible that the same person could strike again. Is the kind of protection our crack, internal, secret police forces provide?

There has been an increase in the number of cases of tainted foods, ranging from fresh vegetables to ground meat. There are an estimated 1.4 million cases of Salmonella food poisoning in the US each year; E. Coli affects about 25,000 people annually. Lax enforcement has led to a rise of cases and huge recalls. Several meat packing companies have been forced out of business after they had to recall millions of pounds of meat. Food inspection is no longer working. The staffs of the agencies have been gutted and much of the work of inspectors has been left to self enforcement by the firms.

The number of dangerous products has risen. Those getting the most publicity have been toys, but there have also been recalls in other areas such as fire retardant clothing and lead tainted serving dishes. The Product Safety Commission is down to half strength (and budget).

The number of dangerous drugs allowed onto the market by the FDA has grown significantly. The approval process is now funded by the drug companies themselves, which has led to conflicts of interest and hasty approval. Many widely prescribed drugs have had to be recalled after large number of users suffered ill effects. The living ones may get to sue, the dead ones don't have this option.

A notable number of mentally unstable people have gotten access to guns and gone on rampages. There have been more people killed in such incidents than from "terrorists" since 9/11. There have been no steps taken to keep guns out of the hands of such individuals. Even modest record keeping ideas have been thwarted. Just who is being protected, innocent bystanders or crazed gunmen?

Almost 4000 soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands have been injured in the ongoing wars. Putting over a million soldiers in harms way is not protecting citizens, after all soldiers are people too. Starting unnecessary wars is not protecting the population. In fact the US now has fewer friends in the world than before. This puts all American travelers at increased risk. Even those who are fighting the wars are put at unnecessary risk since they are under armed and lacking protective equipment.

Unpreparedness of the levees in New Orleans led to the destruction of the city. After the storms, the government has failed to provide for the victims, and still fails to help restore the region. The collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi is only the most dramatic example of lax care of important civil engineering infrastructure. Road and rail accidents caused by improper maintenance are not connected in people's minds with this failure, but are directly related. We cannot stop mother nature, but we can take steps to minimize risk, especially when the dangers are well-known.

The gutting of the National Guard. When a national disaster such as Katrina does happen it is usually the National Guard that is among the first responders. This capability has been compromised since many of the units are now fighting overseas, and have shipped vital equipment abroad to support their mission. Perhaps the National Guard was created to defend against foreign invaders, but for a long time they have performed a key humanitarian function. No more.

Illegal use of harmful drugs and misuse of prescription pain killers has led to an explosion of the prison population, without having any noticeable impact on the size of the problem. Locking up 1% of the population is not protecting people, it is just creating a new, almost unemployable, permanent underclass which will continue to be a problem when they are released.

Lax regulation of the business sector has led to a succession of frauds which have cost billions in losses. Starting with Enron and Worldcom and extending up to the present banking and housing crises the foxes have been left in charge of the chicken coop. Not only have investors been duped, but as many as a million people may lose their homes. The SEC, Federal Reserve and Treasury department have abdicated their responsibilities. After the follies of the 1929 were revealed there were regulations put in place to prevent a repetition. Many have been ignored, and some specific legislation like the Glass-Steagall act (which prevents banks from owning investment firms) have been repealed. Oops.

Civil liberties have been abrogated which has led to thousands of people being arrested, imprisoned and/or deported without due process. Not one real "terrorist" case has resulted from this assault on our rights. Protecting civil rights was the basis for the creation of America. Abuse by the English led many to emigrate to the new world to begin with and continuing abuse of the colonies led to the establishment of these "United States". The argument that "I'm not doing anything wrong, so I don't need to worry" has proven to be false as the number of innocent people who have been arrested, rendered, or tortured continues to rise.

The right of workers to organize so as to be able to negotiate their working conditions has been gutted. The NLRB no longer supports the rights of workers to organize. The consequences are as would be expected - falling wages and the elimination of fringe benefits, for those still lucky enough to be employed.

The elimination of usury laws and the requirement that disputes with lenders be handled by mandatory arbitration means that borrowers are subject to excessive interest and fees and have little recourse even when fraud is involved. Arbitrators side with the creditors almost all the time, if they settled in favor of the borrowers too often they wouldn't be rehired for further cases. It may be mandatory, but it's not impartial. Bankruptcy laws have also been rewritten to favor the lenders. People who can no longer clear their debts are becoming indentured servants to the banks. The only difference between now and Dickens' time is that we don't toss debtors in to prison - we make them work to pay off the banks.

The weakening of the social safety net has meant that an increasing number of people are without health insurance, have lost welfare benefits (such as food stamps) or are unable to pay for housing. Rising fuel costs are also starting to reduce more people to poverty.

The rise of corruption as demonstrated by the links between government and business has led to compromised elections, government by lobbyist and the trashing of environmental policies. Not only are vast natural resources being turned over to private firms, but efforts to find new energy sources and improve efficiency have been blocked. If projections play out as believed we will be living in cold, dark homes further inland as rising sea levels destroy the coastline. Protection of our lives seems like it should be a fairly important responsibility.

The "war on terror" has refocused all activity away from the real risks that face society to a set of highly unlikely circumstances. Suppose we had a real insurgency in the US, such as happened in Northern Island "Troubles". During the peak year of 1972 there were an estimated 250 civilian deaths. In the US we have over 42,000 deaths and about three million injuries from automobiles each year. Which is more likely getting killed by a "terrorist" or in a car? Where is the enforcement money and effort going? Why?

To summarize:
Failure to protect against harmful foods, drugs, and consumer products.
Failure to protect against deranged people with guns
Failure to protect against unreasonable search and seizure
Failure to protect armed forces
Failure to protect against natural disasters and provide aid afterward
Failure to protect against failing infrastructure
Failure to protect the weakest against poverty and disease
Failure to protect against financial fraud and abuse
Failure to protect against crime funded by drug money
Failure to protect the rights of citizens to think and say what they wish
Failure to protect the democratic process
Failure to protect disaster caused by energy shortages and climate change

What have we gotten instead:
An all out effort to protect against a vague, highly unlikely threat caused by "terrorists".

The platform for the Democratic Party almost writes itself...

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?