Our Democratic Deficit

The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democra...

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index map: lighter colours represent more democracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you live in a democracy?  That depends as much on your definition of the word as your place of residence.  Plenty of countries are designated democracies: Freedom House counted 118 electoral democracies (out of 195 countries) in 2012, so unless you’re Chinese there’s a good chance you live in one of them.  The citizens of many of those electoral democracies enjoy wide-ranging freedoms, and that is something to celebrate.  But freedom is not democracy.

In its purest form, democracy is government by the people, as practised in ancient Athens (other than by slaves and women, of course).  Such direct democracy is impractical for large populations, so we settle instead for representative democracy, electing MPs, congressmen, deputies and senators to make policy decisions on our behalf.  In theory if we don’t like those decisions we have the option of replacing them at the next election.  A handful of  political systems even allow disgruntled voters to recall and replace their representatives before their term is complete.

But do you have any practical opportunity to contribute to the formation of national public policy?  That’s what real democracy should entail.

For most British voters, the reality of our political power is this: we can cast a vote every few years, but it makes no difference because the incumbent in our constituency has a substantial majority; in any case the choice of candidates is limited, and none is likely to reflect closely our particular combination of views on different issues; our elected government has limited freedom to act on our behalf, given international market forces and the growing power of the EU; we have no power of recall; we can make representations or protest, but only within a highly managed system, and even when we get thousands onto the street we are unlikely to change policy; very occasionally we may be given a vote on a specific issue in a referendum.  Can we really claim we live in a democracy?

Which is not to say that a truly democratic society would be better.  Rule by the majority can be a frightening thing: ill-informed, self-interested, prejudiced, unfair.  As Benjamin Franklin may have said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”  Even with rights of veto to protect ethical principles and minorities, as Occupy’s recent attempts at consensus-based decision-making showed, it can be chaotic, inefficient and ineffective.

Does it matter that the truth of our electoral democracy must be balanced against the competing truth of our political powerlessness?  In our daily lives it is probably not politicians’ decisions that most concern us.  Far more important on a day-to-day basis for the billions of employees around the world are the decisions made by their employers.  And very few employing organisations, whether large or small, public or private, commercial or non-profit, are democracies.  Typically a Chief Executive is in charge; his or her decisions may be guided to some extent by a small board or a few powerful shareholders, but they will certainly not be beholden to the wishes of the employees.  And at every level of the organisation an appointed individual gets to command the next rung down; they may be benevolent, they may even show an interest in the views of their direct reports, but they hold the power.  Your boss can potentially dictate what you say, what you wear, what you eat, even when you go to the toilet.  That’s totalitarianism, not democracy.

This is a very real truth for many millions of employees in numerous electoral democracies: they have little freedom and even less say in the forces that shape their lives.  But although employees rarely get to set the political agenda of the organisation in which they spend most of their waking hours, they are not entirely powerless.  They have the option to resign, a last resort not available to citizens of a truly totalitarian regime.  In most countries they have employment rights that must be respected, and often unions to fight their corner.  And in many jobs they have the more subtle weapon of discretionary effort: as an employee, you have the power to do your job well or merely adequately, to make an effort or to coast, to care about the customer/patient/passenger or to tick boxes, to devote yourself wholeheartedly to the corporate mission or to spend your time updating Facebook.  Collectively, employees have the power to determine whether an organisation succeeds or fails — particularly in competitive markets — and employers are increasingly waking up to the need to engage their staff through consultation and increased involvement in decision-making.  It’s still not democracy, but it’s getting there.  Add to that labour market forces that might one day favour the employee and a much more democratic mood could eventually develop in the workplace.

Would that be a good thing?  Corporations and other employing organisations are entities designed to deliver something, be it shareholder value or public services or a ballet.  Democracy may not be the most effective way of achieving that goal.  Armies don’t seek consensus amongst the ranks.  On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show that employees are more effective in their work if they enjoy a degree of autonomy.  Like freedom, autonomy is not democracy, but it may sow a few seeds.  And every management consultant will tell you that employees often have a better understanding than their leaders of the failings of an organisation as well as the opportunities for growth and improvement.  More freedom and more democracy in the workplace may be good for everyone.  Just ask John Lewis.

This is an interesting list of democratic workplaces.

There is another way to view the extent of our democratic power with respect to such mighty organisations.  As consumers, we have increasing influence over the behaviour and values of the corporations and non-profit organisations with which we interact.  Where you spend your money, or indeed bank it, is a form of voting.  Which charities you back, which hospital you trust, which websites you visit, which TV shows you watch — all votes.  And unlike in politics there are no safe seats when it comes to consumer choices.  Every vote counts.  In fact given the ratio of profit to turnover in industries with large fixed costs, your vote can be highly leveraged: losing a few thousand customers may mean the difference between black and red ink for even the biggest of companies.  Best of all, in this age of social media, we can let those organisations (and other potential consumers) know exactly why we are dissatisfied with their products, service or behaviour.

So it’s true that many of us live in a democracy, and it’s true that we don’t really live in a democracy.  It’s true that many of us are subject to highly undemocratic forces at work, but it’s also true that employees may be able to make a very democratic contribution to their organisations.  And while it’s arguably true that powerful organisations severely limit democracy in most societies, it’s certainly true that they themselves are subject to a consumer democracy that offers us all at least some say in how things are.


The porous NHS ring-fence

English: NHS logo


A neat if cynical example of competing truths from Chancellor George Osborne today in his 2015-16 Spending Review.  The UK government is determined to bring down the deficit by cutting public spending, but its freedom to act is limited by the “ring-fence” it has erected, for good political reasons, around the gargantuan Health budget.  Consequently, heavier cuts have to be made in other budgets such as Work & Pensions, Justice and Local Government.

But Osborne has found a sly way round his own ring-fence.  He has announced a £3 billion “joint commissioning plan” between the NHS and local councils for social care.  What this seems to mean in practice is that the NHS will start paying for social care services previously funded by cash-strapped councils.

He can still assert the truth of the Tories’ election pledge that NHS spending is to be protected.  And at the same time he can engineer a competing truth, effectively cutting the Health budget for existing services by up to £3 billion.

Rich Reich

Deutsch: 10 Euro Gedenkmünze 2007 - 50 Jahre D...

Deutsch: 10 Euro Gedenkmünze 2007 – 50 Jahre Deutsche Bundesbank, Wertseite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Proposition: The Germans should bail out the rest of the Eurozone.

Rationale: The Germans are richer than everyone else in the Eurozone.


Truth 1: Germany’s total GDP is €2.6 trillion, comfortably ahead of France (€2.0 trillion) and Italy (€1.6 trillion). (source: countryeconomy.com/gdp)

Truth 2: Germany has the most millionaires in Europe (one million people with investable assets of over $1 million) (source: Capgemini World Wealth Report)

Truth 3: German GDP per capita is €32,399, just ahead of France (€31,100) but behind Belgium (€34,100), Ireland (€35,600), the Netherlands (€35,900), Finland (€35,900), Austria (€36,600) and Luxembourg (€83,600). (source: countryeconomy.com/gdp)

Truth 4: Germany’s median net wealth per household is just €51,400, much lower than Greece (€101,900), Italy (€173,500), Spain (€182,700) and Cyprus (€266,900) (source: ECB)

Truth 4 is startling, and is best explained by the very low rate of home ownership in Germany compared to other countries, as well as the legacy of East German integration and the smaller average household size found in Germany.

Conclusion: The German economy is the biggest in the Eurozone (Truth 1), but aside from a bunch of very wealthy individuals (Truth 2) Germany’s people are not the richest.  Looking at Truth 3 and Truth 4 it is easy to see why many ordinary Germans feel thoroughly aggrieved at the idea of having to bankroll the rest of the Eurozone.

The least untruthful answer

Official portrait of Director of National Inte...

Official portrait of Director of National Intelligence . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, was asked in March, whilst under oath in Congress, “Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”.  He answered, “No, sir.”

The recent revelations of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggest this was a straightforward lie.  But was it?  Clapper has since said that he “responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least untruthful manner”.  The phrase has been much mocked, but was he in fact offering a form of the truth?  As senior intelligence officers aren’t supposed to lie to Congress, it’s a very important question.

This is how the congressional transcript goes:

Senator Wyden: “Last summer the NSA director was at a conference and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, ‘… the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.’
“The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Clapper: “No, sir.”

Wyden: “It does not.”

Clapper: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

Clapper’s defence is that he was referring to the putative “dossiers” that Senator Wyden mentioned in the first part of the question.  It is true (we are told) that the NSA does not hold detailed dossiers on millions of Americans.  It does (we now know) record at least the communications metadata (numbers called, call duration etc) for millions of Americans, but it doesn’t listen in on their calls or read their emails.  Clapper offered a metaphor of a vast library of data on Americans, for which the NSA only kept a record of book numbers, not their contents: “What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library.  To me, collection of a U.S. person’s data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it.”

So the issue becomes one of definitions.  What do we mean by “collect”, “dossiers” and “data”?  Whether or not you think the DNI was lying to Congress depends on how flexible you believe the meanings of these words can be.

What’s interesting about this case is that the truthfulness of the response (“No, sir”) is determined by how the question that came before might reasonably be interpreted.  As long as people disagree about the question, Director Clapper can maintain he was offering a form of truth in his brief answer.

Chemical red line

Syria-Homs- KArmAlzyton 23-2-2012

Syria-Homs- KArmAlzyton 23-2-2012 (Photo credit: FreedomHouse)

“The Syrian government has crossed President Obama’s red line.”

It’s a curious kind of truth, isn’t it?  Artificial, in a sense, like an agreed rule in a game: if a player rolls a double six then he/she gets an extra turn.  In this case it’s taken a great deal of work to prove the double six was indeed rolled, and the conclusion has been rather muddied by the suggestion that the other player may also have rolled a double six, but nevertheless the umpire who set the rule has now ruled: an action has occurred and therefore a reaction should follow.

There are good legal reasons for the red line.  International law permits the use of measured force by governments against their own rebellious citizens, whereas 189 states have signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances.  But in practical terms, it’s an irrelevance.  93,000 people have now been killed in the Syrian civil war, almost all of them by conventional gunfire, artillery and bombing.  The few who might have died of sarin poisoning (approx. 150 people) are, in the grand scheme of things, beside the point.

The most obvious truth is, surely, that the US, Britain and France are sick of watching the Assad-sponsored slaughter, are worried that the opposition are on the verge of collapse, and want an excuse to intervene more forcefully.

But after Iraq that’s not a truth that any western government can voice.  So instead, the President of the United States has to fall back on a different, arbitrary truth — about Weapons of Mass Destruction (again).

Coping with record employment

Job Centre Plus

Job Centre Plus (Photo credit: HelenCobain)

There are now 29.76 million people in work in the UK (ONS figures for Feb-April 2013).  That is apparently the highest level of employment since records began in 1971.  Doesn’t it feel great? (I don’t know what these young people are complaining about…)

Jobs, or the lack of jobs, is pretty much the biggest political issue in the US right now, and it is likely to play a significant role in our next general election, not to mention the Scottish independence referendum next year.  How the facts are presented, therefore, is of paramount importance.

Here are some very different truths about the UK jobs market currently in circulation:

  1. There are now more people employed in the UK than ever before.
  2. There are more job vacancies available than at any time since 2008.
  3. The unemployment rate of the economically active population is stubbornly unchanging.
  4. The number of unemployed people and the number of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants are both dropping.
  5. The rate of long-term youth unemployment is at a record high, with more than 50% of 16-24 year olds not employed.
  6. The rate of over-65 employment is at a record high, with over one million employed for the first time.
  7. Jobs are increasingly insecure, with more part-time and temporary contracts and fewer permanent positions.
  8. The workforce is increasingly flexible, allowing greater efficiency in meeting demand and raising the productivity of the economy.
  9. Worker productivity is declining, making it less attractive for employers to take on staff.
  10. Average wages are decreasing in real terms, making it more attractive for employers to take on staff.
  11. Immigrants are taking “our” jobs.
  12. Eurozone unemployment is at a record high, making it more likely that EU nationals will migrate to the UK in search of jobs.
  13. The number of EU nationals coming to the UK for work is falling, and the number of EU nationals returning home is rising.
  14. Globalisation means more and more work is being outsourced to developing nations, driving an inevitable long-term decline in UK jobs.
  15. Technological advance means more and more work can be automated, driving an inevitable long-term decline in global jobs.
  16. Lower corporation tax rates will attract more employers to Britain, leading to job creation.
  17. Declining tax revenues, partly as a consequence of corporate tax avoidance, will force further public sector job cuts.

None of these statements are as mutually contradictory as they may seem.  Yet together they represent a handy mix of positive and negative messages, all of them probably more or less true, from which politicians and headline writers can take their pick. Voters and readers, be on your guard.