Democratism Blog

This is the archive of posts prior to the November 2016 election. While that debacle has shifted our focus for now, it only confirmed the importance of the issues that had been the themes here–democratic resource allocation and democracy beyond government. We'll be returning to them.


Candidates for Office

Candidates for Office

Terribly early in the morning yesterday I was out for a bike ride on the Hudson River Greenway with my friend and fellow Democratism supporter Paul Greenberg (who says he’s off social media for the summer, so he probably won’t even see this). You have to lug your sleeping body out the door at daybreak to catch a ride with Paul, and often I do. When we hit the end of the trail in Inwood, Paul suggested we stop for breakfast before turning around. I said great, as long as we don’t have to talk about Donald Trump. “Sure,” he said, so we locked up outside Albert’s Mofongo House on Dyckman Street, and then, as soon as we’d strung our helmets over the corner of a chair and ordered a cafe con leche, it was, “I know you said you didn’t want to talk about Donald Trump, but ….”

If he hadn’t started it, probably I would have. Who can think about anything else?

I haven’t written much here about elections, because elections aren’t particularly what Democratism is about. That may seem a funny thing to say about a democracy project, but only because our own “democracy” doesn’t have much democracy in it other than elections. Our democratic experience isn’t about deciding what we want for our society; it’s about deciding who will decide for us. Even when we fight for an issue we care about—when we protest, rally, write letters—we aim to do it by affecting elections or influencing people who who’ve been elected or might be. That’s the context—the anemic democracy we know—that constrains our vision. Democratism, on the other hand, is about extending democracy beyond elections, to solve problems that politicians can’t solve for us. In the first instance, we’ll have to extend our imagination.

None of this makes elections unimportant. They may be a thin slice of democracy, but the one we’ve got coming up in November could affect all of humanity for generations or longer. I plan to play my own minuscule part in it by knocking on doors or driving people to the polls in a swing state, or making phone calls, or something else they tell me will help. It’s not one to sit out.

Even so, let’s not fool ourselves about where we are, how we got here, and how we’re going to get somewhere better. “In general,” Gallup asks Americans, more or less monthly, “are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” Satisfied hasn’t taken it since January 2004. This month it was Dissatisfied 82% to 17%. Eighty-two percent! Apparently we’re not as divided we thought. (NBC/WSJ gets similar results on whether we think the country is “on the right track”: 73-18.)

An uninformed observer might look at those numbers and assume we’re facing a national catastrophe—famine, flood, or subjugation by a foreign power. Of course, the opposite is the case. Havoc may be around the corner, but now? These should be the best of times. We’re richer than we’ve ever been, better educated, unrivaled in military might. We have more than plenty to work with. If it isn’t being used right, it’s in our power to redirect it. If it isn’t divided up right, we can redistibute it.

We can do it, but our leaders can’t. If choosing the right people to be in charge of us were enough, Satisfied wouldn’t be losing 82-17. It isn’t enough, because our system of elections and government action isn’t capable of identifying and implementing our priorities with anything like the precision, dynamism, and force that our world demands. We need to pick the right people, yes—if you don’t live in Florida, Ohio, or Pennsylvania, by all means get yourself there as soon as possible; there’s plenty of room for things to get worse than they are. But whoever wins, we need to decide our future for ourselves.


Art & Democracy

E.L. Kirchner, Acrobatic Dance. NGA, open access

E.L. Kirchner, Acrobatic Dance. NGA, open access

Over the past three weeks, WNYC has been running a series called Making It in NYC. It’s about how artists manage to cobble together a living while creating art in New York City, and how the rest of us who live here manage to pay what it costs to experience the art they create. Or don’t manage to, in either case. It’s an age-old problem, not unique to New York, but particularly acute here and now. “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling, …. the poor and creative” says Patti Smith at a 2010 event exerpted in in the series. Her advice: “find a new city.”

Does anyone think it’s good for New York, or even reasonably tolerable, that artists can’t afford to live and work here, and residents can’t afford tickets to a concert or a play? The first piece in the WNYC series is an interview with Ford Foundation President, Darren Walker, whose role in the piece, in large part, is to explain why having art and artists around really matters. It’s a fine question to open the series, and Walker answers it capably. In particular, I appreciated his point (beginning around 12:00) that the social value of art can’t be reduced to its measurable economic impact. My feeling, though, is that, in some basic way, most of us already understand that we would be lost without our artists. It’s not as if we planned to run them all out of town.

All we did was get richer and richer as a society, without deciding what all our riches are for. Instead of deciding, we’ve inadvertently used our wealth to maim our culture. In this case we’ve done it through competition that has driven prices—for housing and studio space, for tickets and entrance fees—impossibly high. It’s not too late, though, to decide what’s important and act accordingly.

Specific, feasible remedies abound. We could give artists a tax break on real estate rentals up to a certain level. (I happen to be on the board of an arts organization housed at Artspace’s PS109, which is discussed in another piece in the WNYC series. Artspace provides subsidized housing for artists. When it was preparing to open PS109, it received 53,000 applications for 89 apartments.) We could give tax breaks on income earned as an artist up to a certain income level. We could make the price of tickets to performances or exhibitions tax deductible. Just to name a few. Off the top of my head. None of these tax breaks would require us to increase taxes in general or borrow money, because we could compensate by raising taxes on things that are harmful. Peruse the blog for ideas on that, or think up some of your own.

What we don’t know yet is which remedies we should apply, and how aggressively. Darren Walker is right that econometrics can’t tell us the value of the arts. But in that case, what can? How do we know what the arts are worth compared to everything else? In a democracy, the only answer is that they’re worth what we decide they’re worth, when we decide together. We’re working to make that decision possible at Democratism.


Tony Schwartz on Electronic Communication and Democracy

Tony Schwartz. Photo by Dan Wynn. Permission of Anton Schwartz.

Tony Schwartz.
Photo by Dan Wynn. Permission of Anton Schwartz.

Democratism supporter Anton Schwartz, super excellent Seattle and Oakland based tenor saxophonist and an old friend of mine, has been preparing a new edition of The Responsive Chord, by his father, the great media pioneer Tony Schwartz (fb). Tony Schwartz created what I believe is still the most talked about political ad of all time, LBJ’s 1964 Daisy Ad. In addition to making advertisements, Tony Schwartz was an audio documentarian and an all-around deep thinker about media.

And prescient, it turns out. Anton just sent me these paragraphs he came across from the book he’s editing. This is 1973:

Nonpaid media, such as news, and paid political media are disseminated to a vast audience, at great speed, with extraordinary efficiency. However, the flow of information is essentially in one direction. The public cannot easily feed back their opinions, suggestions, and objections. The President can at any moment reach the entire nation via television. But a member of the public cannot reach him, except through an inefficient letter or a vote once every four years. This is not a healthy situation in a participatory democracy.

Rather than condemn electronic media as corrupting forces in politics (a futile, as well as an incorrect position), I suggest that we have not yet even begun to explore the potential of electronic media in creating two-way political communication. The two-way potential of cable networks, and the current availability of telephone as a feedback line to radio or TV, establish a realistic basis for town meetings that include an entire city, state, or even the nation. Similarly, we can use two-way cable or the telephone to instantly poll vast segments of the population on important problems.

Electronic communication does not signal the end of democracy. Rather, it offers the potential of genuine democracy in a nation of over two hundred million people.

Very true, and yet it’s a potential that forty-three years later still hasn’t been realized. That’s what we’re working on here at Democratism: an approach to democratic decision making subtle and dynamic enough to expand our power beyond the range of government, to reshape society with our values.


Buying Ourselves a World We Can’t Stand to Live In

gdpsuicidewpLast week brought a grim new report about our psychological well-being. From 1999 to 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate rose by 24% in the United States. It rose among girls and boys, men and women, in every age group under 75, and in almost every racial and ethnic category and subcategory.  (It fell 8% among black men but rose 24% among black women; it held close to steady for non-Hispanic Asians and Pacific Islanders.) 42,773 lives ended in suicide in 2014 in the U.S., about a third more than in motor vehicle crashes on our roadways.

We’re a society in anguish, and suicide is just the tip of it. For every suicide there are dozens of attempts and hundreds of people who think think about it. Increasing numbers of us eventually do kill ourselves but in ways that don’t quite qualify as suicide. The rate of death from alcohol, excluding homicides, driving, and other accidents, is rising at a rate similar to that of literal suicide, while the rate of death from drug overdose grew by 137% between 2000 and 2014. And while death keeps the best records, the signs of a broader suffering are all around us, too: economic insecurity, social isolation, fear for the future of our children and the planet.

Meanwhile, we haven’t stopped getting richer and richer. The rising GDP on that chart above is one measure of the growing value of all the work we all do each year, along with everything else we make money from. It’s a lot. But what’s the purpose of all that work, and all the wealth we generate, if we’re just increasing both our own present misery and our insecurity about the future? If we set our priorities together, democratically, we would create a society in which human beings would thrive. We shouldn’t wait.


(data sources for chart: suicide growth based on CDC age-adjusted rates, links above; GDP growth based on BEA measure of GDP, chained dollars (2009) and USCB annual population estimates)

We’re Not As Stupid As This Election Season Makes Us Look, and a Democratist Energy Policy

source & rights: (modified), (modified)

source & rights: (modified), (modified)

This hideous U.S. election season could lead a person to doubt our capacity for self-government. A new poll on energy policy is thus a welcome reminder that we’re often better on policy preferences than on electing officials. Seventy-three percent of Americans, Gallup says, favor emphasizing alternatives to oil and gas production in addressing our energy problems. That number includes majorities of both major parties—89% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans.

Unfortunately, while we favor emphasizing alternative energy, we often elect politicians who don’t. There’s no getting around this kind of discrepancy in electoral politics. We have views on issues, but we choose politicians more for their imagined personality traits. And when we do choose someone based on issues, it’s never more than a few issues that control the outcome of an election. Politicians don’t tend to care about our views on the others issues, or at least not as much as they care about the views of the moneyed interests that donate to their campaigns.

The democratist solution is to take resource allocation questions like this—questions that, as Gallup framed it, are about emphasis—out of electoral politics. Here’s a democratist proposal for this one: Let Congress set up an online voting system, open all the time to everyone with the right to vote, that would modify tax rates on various types of energy production. That is, you could vote to increase or decrease taxes on oil, gas, coal, solar, wind, etc., and then every three months, the rate would shift up or down a small amount, based on how we voted during the quarter.

A tax increase on gas or oil production or a tax decrease on alternative energy would shift investment from the former to the latter, reducing carbon gas emissions in the same way that cap-and-trade or a static carbon tax would. The difference is that a system like this would allow the people to decide how much to emphasize what, and keep adjusting it until it hit the desired level.

You might object that ordinary people aren’t experts in this, but that objection dissolves when you consider how the decision is made now and compare it to the polls. And it’s also a safe bet that the self-selecting group that would actually participate would be better informed than average.

Admittedly, there’s a big electoral-politics hurdle to getting a system like this through Congress. I have plenty to say about that, but it’s another post.


Private Government

source, rights: (modified)

source, rights: (modified)

What makes a public project public? Government often funds private projects with taxpayer money. What about the opposite–when private donations fund a government project? I just learned about Citizinvestor,  (ht govtech), “a crowdfunding and civic engagement platform for local government projects.” Think Kickstarter for municipal projects. Contributions are tax-deductible but subject to an 8% fee. Recently posted projects include restoring trees to the city parks of Middletown OH, which lost 200 trees to the emerald ash borer ($5400 sought) and pavement markers and street signs for a proposed pedestrian and bicycle pathway in Angels Camp, CA (also $5400).

In principle this is a lot like my kid’s public school, which relies on money the PTA raises from parents. Kinda makes you wonder: If the public money isn’t enough to fund the cost of a good school, shouldn’t we increase the public funding so that kids whose parents can’t make up the difference get a good school, too? A “crowdfunding” site for government projects just generalizes the issue. What’s wrong with taxation—government’s own ancient and compulsory crowdfunding system?

One answer is that we don’t have a good, democratic system for deciding what’s socially valuable, except at very high levels of generality, mainly as to the few issues that matter in elections. Solving that problem is the goal of Democratism, but in the meantime, by voting with our pocketbooks we can steer social resources to specific projects that we know and care about as individuals.

The danger is that the people with money to give may not have the same priorities as everyone else. Of course, this same risk applies to all kinds of philanthropy, and indeed to essentially all money-spending by the very rich. Where it’s a government project, at least a public entity has implicitly judged that the project would be a net social benefit. You can’t say that about private projects, even though they may be tax-deductible.

A crowdfunding site might also lower administrative costs and so open the system up to more lower-level contributors. (The numbers I see on the site don’t give me the impression that there’s a tidal wave of interest in privately funding government projects like this, but you never know. Maybe it’s the fee.) Anyway, you can’t easily oppose more trees in parks and pavement markers on bike paths.


Varoufakis on Capitalism Against Democracy


As Yanis Varoufakis says in this TED talk, the modern democracies artificially separate the economic from the political spheres and pay a terrible price for it. (See also Karl Polanyi on that.) If Varoufakis’s name sounds familiar but you can’t remember why, he was the Greek Minister of Finance for seven months last year, for Syriza, when Greece was negotiating the terms of its debt with the so-called troika. He resigned right before his boss, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, acquiesced. The title of the talk is “Capitalism will eat democracy — unless we speak up.” True.

I often describe Democratism as an effort to extend the reach of democracy beyond the competencies of government, to address the full range of social resource allocation. Democratism isn’t anti-capitalist; it simply puts markets to work for the people.

Varoufakis’s solution, which he calls “simultaneously libertarian, Marxist and Keynesian,” is something different. It’s conventionally Marxist, in that it would end wage labor and any distinction between owners and workers. Its Keynesian aspect is the most interesting, involving the creation of a global digital currency (“cosmos,” he suggests calling them), coexisting with free-floating national currencies, as well as an international taxation system of nations, whose revenue could be used to address global challenges, such as climate change. That isn’t what you normally think of as Keynesian, although he attributes the idea to Keynes and one of its goals is to address aggregate demand shortfalls. (Keynes proposed an international currency he would have called the bancor in 1944 at Bretton Woods.) What’s libertarian about Varoufakis’s proposal I really don’t get. He says “it prioritizes empowered individuals,” but I’m not sure how, unless it’s simply by making them richer. I’m not clear how else it increases democracy, either, unless it’s by the global taxation system (which he doesn’t say is to be operated democratically).

So I’m not endorsing (or opposing) his proposal, but it’s a thoughtful attempt to grapple with roughly the same problem we’re working on over here. And it’s no less utopian, so thumbs up on that, too.


Curing Cancer Democratically


Over the last five years, eight new drugs have been approved to treat lung cancer, the leading cause of US cancer deaths. All eight drugs targeted patients with the most advanced form of lung cancer, and were approved on the basis of evidence that the drugs generated incremental improvements in survival. A well-known example is Genentech’s drug Avastin, which was estimated to extend the life of late-stage lung cancer patients from 10.3 months to 12.3 months. In contrast, no drug has ever been approved to prevent lung cancer, and only six drugs have ever been approved to prevent any type of cancer.

That disturbing oddity opens Eric Budish, Benjamin N. Roin, and Heidi Williams’s American Economic Review piece, Do Firms Underinvest in Long-Term Research? Evidence from Cancer Clinical Trials, which Austin Frakt wrote about in the NY Times yesterday.

The authors’ explanation for it is a particular species of corporate short-termism, in interaction with the drug-approval process and patent law. The Food and Drug Administration typically will not approve a new cancer drug without clinical trials showing that the drug improves survival. It’s much quicker and cheaper to show that a late-stage cancer drug can extend a patient’s life by a few months than to show that a cancer-prevention drug can save the lives of people who don’t have cancer in the first place. Corporate managers tend to overvalue short-term profit over long-term profit, so they tend to underinvest in prevention. Making matters worse, the patent that the drug company may win has a fixed term that usually begins well before the drug is commercialized. The longer the trials take, the less time remains on the patent. “Corporate short-termism and fixed patent terms reinforce each other in distorting private research dollars away from long-term investment.”

Before getting to solutions, I want to point out the enormity of this issue. Cancer prevention is big enough on its own, of course, but this isn’t just about cancer, or even just about drugs. There’s every reason to believe that essentially the same problem affects virtually every area of product development. Not every product is subject to a government approval process, and not every product is patentable. Every new product takes time to develop, though, and for every product there’s some period during which the original maker has a likely advantage over competitors. Regardless of the FDA and the PTO, firms prefer to develop products with a short time to market and a long period of market advantage. Neither of those factors correlates with social value.

The authors offer three possible solutions, of which the Times piece mentions only two. The first is to approve drugs that haven’t been shown to improve survival, so long as they produce some other outcome that has been tied to survival. Such “surrogate endpoints” are already considered sufficient in some circumstances—blood cell counts as surrogates for leukemias, for example. Relying on them is controversial, though, because it increases the risk of approving drugs that don’t end up doing anything that really matters.

The second is changing the patent law to guarantee protection for a minimum fixed term that begins when a drug is commercialized. A provision of Obamacare has already done this for biological drugs. This solution, though, addresses only the patent issue, not managers’ tendency to overvalue short-term profits, and the study doesn’t reveal the relative importance of the two factors. There’s also “remarkably little evidence that stronger patent protection induces more R&D investments.” As a result, the authors say their “analysis of patent reforms as a policy lever should be considered suggestive rather than conclusive.”

The third solution, not mentioned by the Times, is the most direct and the most relevant to Democratism: subsidize R&D for cancer prevention drugs. While either of the other two solutions might help, subsidies is the only one that goes directly to the immediate cause of the problem—underinvestment—without skipping the proof that the drugs actually improve survival.

“Subsidize” probably sounds like a choice between a tax hike and more government debt, but it doesn’t have to be. It only has to be a shift in resources, from the overvalued short-term to the undervalued long-term—or the overvalued anything to the undervalued anything else. We can decide together what’s over- and undervalued and by how much. If we decide to subsidize research in cancer prevention, for example, we can take the investment from research in late-stage cancer treatment. On the other hand, we don’t have to. Personally, I’d prefer to take it from, say, activities that emit greenhouse gases, or maybe from high-speed financial transactions. In any case, while my exact preferences might not win the day, I’m sure we can find something or another worth giving up for the sake of curing cancer.


Zuckerberg, Philanthrocapitalism, Orthocapitalism & Democratism


I’d like to broaden the discussion.

That $45 billion that Zuckerberg shifted from his personal account to his new limited liability company is a store of pure political power. It was his power before the shift; it’s still his afterwards. The same would be true if he’d created instead a private foundation a la Bill Gates. Yes, there are different tax implications and different limitations on how the money could be used, but the differences are more important to him than to us. I’d compare them to the differences in the kinds of weapons the military could buy. In 2015, the budget of the U.S. military includes $66 billion for new airplanes and ships and the systems that support them. For the people making the decisions, it’s important how much of that money goes to planes and how much to ships. Long after the planes and the ships are delivered, President Clinton or Rubio or Trump or Sanders will decide whether to bomb somewhere or invade, and she or he may ask, “How many planes do we have, and how many ships?” It’s a decision that makes a difference, but it’s not about morality or the ethical use of power. It’s a limited, practical kind of decision. That’s the kind of decision Zuckerberg made here.

We often lose track of this, I think, because we have an intuitive sense of what money is that doesn’t have much to do with money for a billionaire. For rich and poor alike, money—and technically I mean wealth, not just money—is a store of social power. You use it to get people to do things you want them to do—to give you a pizza, for example, or an iPhone, or root canal. The $450 million that Zuckerberg isn’t pledging, though (the 1% remainder from the 99% he pledged), is far more than he and his family could ever use to get people to do things that actually benefit the Zuckerberg family. The rest of all that power can only be for the Zuckerbergs to get people to do things that have nothing particularly to do with the Zuckerbergs. It doesn’t matter whether they keep it in their personal stock portfolio, move it to an LLC they own, or put it into a private foundation they control. In all these cases the Zuckerbergs will use it, if and when they do use it, to take control of other people’s lives, to further ends that they think are good, in satisfaction of their own ideals, or, perhaps, their whims. We can hope that they’ll exercise their enormous power with benevolence and wisdom. Maybe they will.

Of course, they could relinquish power by giving up control over the money. They could hand it over to the government. They could hand it over to organizations that they don’t control. The best choice would be to hand it over to a democratist organization that would put the money directly under the control of the people. Please have them shoot me an email if they want to knock that idea around.

People don’t usually give up power willingly, though, and we don’t have to wait for our billionaires to do it. Although we’ve taken to calling them oligarchs, that term exaggerates their authority and conceals our own responsibility. Our billionaires are more like renegade satraps. The power is in the people; we’ve just assigned too much of it to the few, and failed to supervise. We can demote them, we can reclaim our power, and we can decide together what kind of a society to be.


Democratist Menus

Calorie counts on menus don’t seem to have much effect on public health, or even on how many calories we consume at restaurants that display them, according to Aaron E. Carrol, who reviews studies in today’s NYT Upshot. He cites two interventions that have worked better: “training servers to ask if customers might like to downsize three starchy sides induced up to a third of customers to order and eat 200 fewer calories per meal,” and “changing the ‘prevalence, prominence and default nature of healthy options’ on children’s menus led to sustained changes in what people ordered.” He implies that these might be models for the sorts of policy prescriptions we should be trying.

He doesn’t say exactly what policy prescriptions he would support, but these sorts of nudges are hard to implement in the private sector, because businesses don’t like them, and often consumers don’t, either. Maybe we should try regardless. I just want to note that Democratism would offer alternative, more targeted, less intrusive solutions, putting market forces at the service of identified public health goals—less sugar in food at restaurants, for example, or fewer calories per serving. And because we the people would calibrate them directly, they wouldn’t be open to the usual criticisms of paternalism.