First, an overview of the issues we face, as I see them:
- It’s possible for wealthy individuals, or people that represent them, to spend enough money to convince people to vote against their own best interests.
- Or, a large percentage of people have been convinced that it’s not worth voting, either by making the benefits seem smaller or by just making it more difficult.
- Lower taxes, whether it’s just for the wealthy or for everyone
- Allow those in the position to take large risks the option to privatize gains while also making losses a public responsibility.
The impact of biases and luck and how this affects our decisions:
Our constitution was created to try and keep any one individual or small group from wielding too much power. There was trust that large groups, with checks and balances, could make small incremental progress towards the common good. While avoiding concentrated power and sweeping changes which carry with them the chances of large and irreparable mistakes. But some of the widespread biases that are common can undermine this goal, even the founding fathers who believed that “all men are created equal” ended up only ensuring that white men were given equal rights. Fortunately this bias was slowly, but surely, corrected over many generations.
What biases gave rise to our current economic problems, and what can we do to counteract their influence?
We trust our intuition, but it has limits that can cause problems when faced with problems that are larger and more complicated than it can handle. We’re not very good at intuitive understanding statistics, or uncertainty. We see causation where only correlation exists, and will make up stories and causes for random events. This leads us to systematically underestimate the role of random chance and luck in our lives. We want to find the causes of success and failure in our lives, and often times this leads us to conclude that wealth is the result of talent and hard work, or possibly of corruption, but very rarely to we recognize the true impact of random chance. If nothing else we should know that where and when you’re born, and who your parents are will have a huge impact on your life. This isn’t to say that hard work, talent and intelligence (or their lack thereof) don’t play a big role. We all know stories of people who started out with nothing and became successful, or the children of rich parents who squandered their fortune and ended up broke, but perhaps we’re overestimating the chances of these rare events.
If we recognize the role of random chance in our lives then we can conclude that success is a combination of factors under our control, or that we feel we should be rewarded for (talent, innovation, hard work, ect) and factors that are out of our control (good/bad luck). Therefore those who are most successful are most likely those with some of both, the people who are hardworking and are the beneficiaries of good luck as well. But if we don’t recognize the role of luck in our lives we will tend to learn the wrong lessons from these examples, if we think it’s just hard work that leads to success we will tend to believe those that are successful are more deserving of great wealth, and that those that are less successful are less deserving. This bias will affect the laws we pass and the politicians we support. Not only will good luck allow some people to have more influence in terms of connections and political donations, but many people will come to the false belief that the policies that lead to some people to become wealthy are the same policies that could work for everyone. Any random set of laws will lead to someone being the lucky recipient of a disproportionate amount of resources, we shouldn’t take that example as proof that this particular set of laws is good at generating wealth.
What would be the fairest and most successful way to create a government, and what changes can we make to get closer to that goal:
If we were to try and create the fairest possible system of government, and the one that would have the best chance of creating the most success for the most people what would it look like? A good guide is to think of creating the laws before you were born, if everyone had to decide what they wanted their government to be like – before they knew who they would be in that country, then that would be the best possible outcome for the most people. That’s obviously impossible, but it gets at the point that we learn a lot of false lessons in our lives, and develop a lot of biases. It’s these biases that lead people to vote against their best interests, whether they’re in the wealthy minority or not.
What changes can we make to our democracy now to account for these biases? Since the founding of this country we’ve worked to slowly fix past mistakes and correct past biases. The Occupy protests are a sign that we have a bias in the way we view wealth and success in this country, and that this bias has caused a huge increase in income inequality which is detrimental for everyone. We can’t ignore all of our experience, we can’t create the perfect government we would all want to live in regardless of how lucky we are when we’re born, or in life, but what can we do to get closer to that goal? There are three different types of possibilities I see:
- A big change to campaign finance. This idea seems to be at the heart of the issues of inequality, and it may require large changes. A constitutional convention or something equally drastic, since it seems unlikely that if we truly have a broken system that we can make small incremental changes in the system to fix itself.
- A big change in the tax code. This could be a move to a flat tax, or a reversion to historical tax rates on upper income brackets, or possibly even an increase on taxes for just about everyone to try and chip away at the budget deficit.
- A grassroots movement to make slow, but steady changes. This may be something like the Occupy protests, or it could be the rise of a legitimate third part, even though both seem unlikely (protests seem more likely to have large, but limited impacts, and third parties have never historically gained much long term momentum). But I think there may be a lot of good ideas that would fall in to this category. I’m thinking about something like a change to our voting laws, or nomination process, something to encourage more people to get involved in elections and government.
For example, would it be possible to elect a candidate for president (or senate, or state senate, or any major office) without relying on fundraising at all? Is it possible to rely on supporters to spread the word organically, raise awareness of the important issues, and rely on media (old and new) to report on the candidates? Or is advertising too important to most of the electorate? What would a campaign that was structured around this idea look like?