Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Appearance and reality in public life

So what kind of democracy do we have?  Do our institutions do a great job of establishing the public interest over the medium term, or have our institutions been captured by private interests, leaving essentially no real power in the hands of citizens?

The way it is supposed to work, according to Civics 101:
  • Elected officials faithfully consider proposed legislation, based on their expressed political values, the interests of their constituents, and their perception of the best longterm interest of the polity.
  • Decisions are made in public view.
  • Legislative debates turn on the public presentation of reasons in favor of or against proposed legislation, invoking only rational assessment of likely consequences, fitness of proposed legislation to the longterm best interests of the polity, and consistency with existing law and constitution.
  • Agencies use experts to faithfully create regulations that implement legislation in ways that are consistent with legislative intent, grounded in rational study of relevant scientific findings, and impartially applied without regard to persons or specific private interests.
  • Lobbyists are able to influence legislation and regulation only through compelling rational arguments based on cost-benefit analysis, legitimate expression of a given set of affected interests, and public knowledge of their advocacy.
This sounds pretty much like the way that Rousseau would have expected the legislative process to have worked within the ideal polity; legislation enacts the "general will".

The not-so-ideal case:
  • Elected officials give excessive importance to the impact their positions will have on the voters back home -- thereby paying less attention to the facts and consequences for the public good of various legislative initiatives.
  • Elected officials sometimes permit themselves to be influenced by campaign contributions and other personal advantages from industries and other private interests, thereby supporting or opposing initiatives for reasons other than the overall goodness or badness of the legislation for the public good.
  • Regulative agencies are influenced by industry "experts" in writing regulations, with the result that regulatory regimes are tilted towards the private interests of the regulated industries rather than neutrally establishing public health and safety.
  • Lobbyists have substantial access to legislators and regulators, with the result that they are able to move the dial in their favored direction.
We might describe this scenario as the pluralism scenario, along the lines of Robert Dahl's theories of democracy.  Various interests contend through the use of various legal tools of influence, and the resulting set of laws, policies, and regulations represent a rough-and-ready balance of the many interested parties in a complex society.  Private interests have weight on this scenario, but they don't determine the outcomes.

The nightmare scenario for democracy:
  • Elected officials have no sincere adherence to the public good; they pursue their own private and political interests through all the powers available to them. (Senator Jim Bunning's unembarrassed willingness to block extension of unemployment legislation for narrow personal and political reasons falls in this category.)
  • Elected officials are sometimes overtly corruptible, accepting significant gifts in exchange for official performance. 
  • Elected officials are intimidated by the power of private interests (corporations) to fund electoral opposition to their re-election.  (The Supreme Court decision on corporate free speech makes this much more likely.)
  • Regulatory agencies are dominated by the industries they regulate; independent commissioners are forced out of office; and regulations are toothless when it comes to environmental protection, wilderness protection, health and safety in the workplace, and food safety.
  • Lobbyists for special interests and corporations have almost unrestricted access to legislators and regulators, and are generally able to achieve their goals.
This is the nightmare scenario if one cares about democracy, because it implies that the apparatus of government is essentially controlled by private interests rather than the common good and the broad interests of society as a whole.  It isn't "pluralism", because there are many important social interests not represented in this system in any meaningful way: poor people, non-unionized workers, people without health insurance, inner-city youth, the environment, people exposed to toxic waste, ...

The fact that healthcare reform, regulation of CO2 emissions, and significant reform of the financial system have all been essentially blocked in the current legislative process seems to point to one of these scenarios; and it isn't the first or the second.

I'll quote an idea used in the previous posting to suggest one possible way forward for our democracy: a movement towards substantially greater participatory democracy in this country.  Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright address the future of our democracy in Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance.  Here is how they set the stage for their analysis:
As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century -- representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration -- seem increasingly ill suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century.  "Democracy" as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices.  Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions fo the democratic idea, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation's wealth. (3)
It is an interesting question to consider whether a participatory process surrounding the issue of healthcare reform would have led to a more satisfactory outcome.  Given the results of the raucous, aggressive, and incivil disruption of town-hall meetings that occurred last summer around this issue, it is hard to be too optimistic about this approach either.


Denis Drew said...

The explanation is so simple: the disappearance of the middle class ALONG WITH middle class outrage that normally controls government going too far off into whatever field -- like control rods in a nuclear reactor -- WHICH IN TURN IS EXPLAINED by the disappearance of effective bargaining power in our de-unionized labor market CAUSED SIMPLY BY NOBODY BETWEEN THE OCEANS AND BELOW OUR BORDER THINKING BARGAINING EFFECTIVELY IN THE LABOR MARKET PARTICULARLY NECESSARY.

A portion of an email to a San Francisco Chronicle columnist (Nevius) fills out my point I hope:
There is a reason the Republican party keeps coming back like Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear". While the Republican financial elite ironically try to keep wrecking the economy and make 90% even poorer the Democratic academic elite keep themselves busy trying to rescue the macro economy while totally ignoring the crazy-desperate (!) state of our labor market: ignoring and thereby undermining the middle class (how can you help the poor if you cannot even help the middle class?).

I think that all it would take to be a giant American political hero would be to support balanced middle class (neither financial or academic elite) concerns: being more worried about protecting the country from outside -- which the Repubs do a great job of: read "The Terrorist Watch" -- than whether the FBI reads a few emails it should not and push for world-wide tested sector-wide labor agreements by law here: would rebuild labor overnight. Of course Mr. Anybody would have to alert people to things like 30%* of American families are plausibly living below the poverty line even in good times if you don't count government helps like food stamps -- 40 years and double the average income (!) after LBJ declared war on poverty.

What happens when the majority economic middle class disappears is most dramatically illustrated in the neighborhood I grew up in the South Bronx:

New York's billionaire mayor for whatever unbalanced rationale decided -- after crime was reduced more than half -- that what the Bronx needed was a new $400 million courthouse to replace the two existing courts: the oldest on the corner of Grand Concourse and 161 St. is a classic building, arguably the most beautiful building in the Bronx (don't laugh -- it is that building you see in the background looking towards the outfield from the old stadium) and the other, a block east, was brand spanking new when I spent many hours there with some neighborhood kids in just the late 1970s.

The mayor also closed down an entire park block a few blocks west of the courthouses on which a track and field used by 39 Bronx schools resided along with a softball and a baseball field to make room for a new Yankee Stadium equipped with a couple of thousand fewer seats but with 43 more skyboxes for millionaires. And like the slum landlord who replaced our old refrigerator when we moved into our 1966 East Village apartment so he could raise the rent but did not bother to remove the old refrigerator our billionaire mayor left behind (at my last look) the old stadium to rot.

The mayor's legacy in the Bronx may be adding 3 (more) giant derelict structures in what you may have gathered is sort of the geographic center of gravity of the Bronx (the missing park was part of a three large block park stretch -- sort of our Central Park) -- which could never have happened when middle class outrage still controlled. But our (I say because of our race to the bottom labor market) poor folks don't have any idea of their power to control -- which I see as the story of America (but I am just an over the hill, former cab driver not a Berkeley supposed progressive).


Cindy Luk said...

"Senator Jim Bunning's unembarrassed willingness to block extension of unemployment legislation for narrow personal and political reasons falls in this category."

Why is this defined as not adhering to public good? I don't know anything about Bunning, but it seems perfectly reasonable to me. You can't afford things you can't afford, no matter how desirable they are.

I thought the whole point of having elected officials is to represent the INTERESTS of their respective constituents. It's a given that these interests do not align and the reps of each group will slug it out in an assembly. If the reps give in to the "greater good" at the detriment of their constituents without so much as a fight, what's the difference between a democracy and an enlightened authoritarian rule?

The problem of democracy, or rather the cost of democracy, lies in its inefficiency. When population is small and homogeneous, the cost is manageable while the benefits are obviously huge. However as population and complexity of a society increases, sooner or later the system will become paralyzed. It's quite laughable that many people take the success of democracy as a given and fail to realize that there are many prerequisites. The way I see it, going forward, the US will either become more centralized and authoritarian, or it will fracture into smaller republics that are better able to adhere to its founding principles. In the meantime, expect more gridlock and indecision.

Alex said...


There is ample evidence that Jim Bunning was not acting for the public good. 1) He had happily voted for similar bills as recently as last fall, 2) He voted against a debt commission and against pay-go, the very bill that would have required expenditures like this to be paid for, 3) There are many better ways to cut costs than cutting unemployment benefits, cutting Medicare payments to doctors, and furloughing federal workers at the last minute during the worst recession in 80 years. 4) Bunning voted for the $1.8 trillion dollar unfunded Bush tax cuts, the $1 trillion plus unfunded war in Iraq, and the unfunded $7.2 trillion dollar medicare prescription drug plan (which Comptroller General David Walker called "probably the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960's".

The real problem is not that Jim Bunning is a grandstanding hypocrite, as the post above states the real problem is we have a fundamentally broken democracy. We have socialism for the rich and free-market economics for the rest of us (privatized profits and socialized risk). There is a reason Jim Bunning decided to draw his line in the sand through the unemployed, they don't have lobbyists.

When it comes to tax-cuts for the rich, bailouts for the banks, buying unneeded weapons systems from defense contractors, giveaways to insurance and pharmaceutical companies, subsidies to agribusiness, or tax cuts for multinational companies to offshore our jobs, no amount of money is too big to fork over. When it comes to bailing out the working families that have been devastated by the disastrous policies of the last 30 years, no amount of money is too small to cut further.

Denis Drew said...


Paine; all you are saying is that the Dems are even more useless than I say -- I disagree.

The core pathology is not in Wall Street or with the corporations getting away with murder -- it is what opened the way for them to do so -- the same marketeers exist in Europe without impoverishing everyone. The real problem starts at the bottom of our uniquely broken American labor market where the minimum wage is now 75 cents below what it was in 1956, inflation adjusted -- 250% the average income later. The real problem is with only 12% of labor unionized in the private market -- compared to L-E-G-S-L-A-T-E-D S-E-C-T-O-R W-I-D-E labor agreements in operation everywhere else in the first world (only other notable exception: labor screwed Japan where half the workers are about as well off as our illegals and the other half work 60 hours and pay 50% too high prices) and in lots of places in the second (Argentina) and the third (Indonesia!) world.

Most of Wall Street's gamblers are not even getting the 15% of labor income that has slipped away from the bottom 90% to the top 3% -- mostly the top 1/10 of 1% of earners -- not most of them anyway since 1973. In 2007, 180,000 Wall Street gamblers averaged "only" $180,000 bonuses on top of their average "only" $120,000 salaries.

Top 1 percentile household income, 2006: $1.2 million! That sounds to my untrained economic self (but my family has starred in competitions in eighth grade math) as if top 1/10 of 1 percentile households must be doing something in the range of $10 million a year -- one out of every thousand people!

What people? People who by and large are not smart enough to exploit the rest of us: linebackers (the stars of my day are tending bar now), new anchors and CEOs earning 25X what they did decades ago for the same work input.

The only way this can happen to my actual victim of labor market rape mind -- not some too distant to see what should too obvious academic mind: simplest of economic/PHYSICS -- squeeze a toothpaste tube on the bottom, the pressure equalizes in the middle, it all comes out the top. Where else?

Said process is totally enabled by total lack of awareness in the American labor market -- otherwise we would not be having this conversation. :-)