Emmer column: Democracy – A quick and easy reconditioning | PostIndependent.com

Emmer column: Democracy – A quick and easy reconditioning

Vince Emmer

Perhaps our most deeply held political belief is that citizens control government.

It’s no secret that democracies vary in quality. On a sliding scale from despotism to anarchy with democracy occupying a stretch in between, Switzerland probably has the highest quality democracy. It has a powerful citizenry with several national referendums put before the people every year.

We like to think ours is a high quality democracy, too, but we’ve known for a generation that it’s on course for bankruptcy and is too short-sighted to change.

We also know only about 1 percent of federal spending has been tested for effectiveness. We know politics attracts big money because it reaps big rewards. We know our democracy could be much better.

It’s time for a complete rethink. The linchpin issue is, “How well does our democracy capture the will of the people?” Ideally, democracy would express the will of all citizens as if they were well informed. It fails on both counts.

Citizens are charged high prices in time for low odds of having any influence on decision-making. Instead we vote for representatives. They are sponsored by political parties. Citizen voice is double dampened — both party and representative are dubbed over it.

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that humans evolved as tribal beings because belonging to a group was critical to survival. Partisan politics squeal with the self-righteousness and demonization of tribalism. If we chase the thought further, we know that candidates earn party support by trumpeting tribal loyalty. Almost by definition, federal, state and some elected representatives are fundamentally unbalanced.

Next, elections are floods of half-truths, outright fibs and frauds, and showmanship. They are hardly attempts to collect the voters’ objective, solidly informed evaluations.

Is this a failing of the people, or of the system? We cannot trade the citizenry for another. I, for one, would vote against that. Instead, we are left to experiment with the system.

Where is government worst, and how can more democracy help?

Government is good at basic science research. It is effective at providing or supervising basic infrastructure like highways and airways, electricity, water, police and courts. It is competent at basic regulation over food safety, pollution, securities markets, and consumer fraud.

It is, however, hardly concerned with getting value for money. For example, it is poor at social services. A review highly sympathetic to Great Society programs shows that although we now have had 50 years of expense and experience, their success is much in doubt, and we have gained only minor skill in the field.

If government wanted results, it would be experimenting and learning rather than spending and forgetting.

The money-people at the Federal Reserve and Treasury are top notch. They know big warning lights have been flashing red over Social Security, Medicare and public pensions like Colorado’s PERA for decades.

These antique systems are widely recognized as inevitable train wrecks unless we change tracks. The money involved is big enough to threaten a global depression. Yet inertia rules.

Government does not know which programs advance human flourishing, and which do not. Some programs are inherently speculative, like research, defense and space exploration. But most lend themselves to the systematic thinking that environmental impact statements are designed to dig out.

Very few public policies have stated goals in measurable terms. All public spending should have publicly stated, quantifiable objectives. Without goals, spending is pointless. Full stop.

So much public spending is speculative, discretionary or suboptimal that there is room for much more direct citizen control with little danger of making a bigger mess.

Here’s a proposal in super-condensed form. Citizens would specify where the tax money they pay goes and public officials would honor their request. In total, the public sector is burning a hefty $53,000 per household with no attempt to measure the good it does.

Citizens who do not specify their preference would see their money default to programs in proportion to other people’s choices, or where the money has historically gone.

Simple guardrails can prevent the possibility of 50 percent of tax money going to stray cats or none going to police. Nonetheless, the guardrails would have to be loose. It would also be easy to protect a blitzkrieg advertising campaign from swaying opinion, too.

It would take a short introductory period to build decent supporting information for citizen decision-making and for the system to steady itself.

People could spend their tax money on town parties or substance abuse rehab; animal shelters or new roundabouts; bus systems or public pension shortfalls; open space or suicide prevention; national debt paydown or hotel subsidies; golf courses or health care cost cuts.

Pie in the sky? So was electricity once. Your towns and counties and schools could have this in the mail to you four weeks from next Thursday if they wished.

Of the Big Three revolutions, France’s and Russia’s are both on the compost pile. Ours is curdling under our noses. This oh-so-natural little tweak can make our democracy sparkle again.

Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. He runs Citizens Due Diligence after hours. Reach him at vince.emmer@cdudil.com.


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