Sunday, March 22, 2009

Obama's Bowling Score Aside


President Obama has been traveling a lot lately. Even though he has a lot of important projects to attend to in Washington, he is spending the precious coin of presidential time on propping up his favorability numbers. I mean, who cares? Do we really think that the most powerful person in the world should waste time on Peoria? As we all know, the answer is sadly, yes.

If you read economists and business types on the web, you will eventually come to the conclusion that there are more important things than recouping the AIG bonus money. There is no doubt that it is the biggest political sore point, but it is a storm in a teacup. In fact, it may even be counter-productive to pursue a claw-back. It may actually be bad for everybody involved, the nation included. The conservative point of view is that it may also be unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the President has to act as if he's pursuing every last dollar.

The problem here is legitimacy. The President can be elected by a landslide. Every public figure can tell us that they're behind him. He can be praised from the pulpit and the street corner until youtube is overflowing with his praises. And he still won't have the authority to do his job.

We are a very suspicious people, and rightly so. The understanding of the insidious nature of power has been with us since long before George III tried to recapture the divine rights of monarchs. We always think that someone is stabbing us in the back, and then we force them to do it. Obama doesn't want to fool us, but he has to. We won't have it otherwise.

Unfortunately the problems facing him are so challenging that he can't solve them without our complete cooperation, and there are very few tendencies in American life that foster that sort of cooperation. It is for these reasons that we absolutely require an improved version of government. The trust network I have outlined would be able to provide people with the kind of assurances that we require. We would not have to go to the streets for satisfaction. We could go to our designated neighborhood liaison who has already spoken to others. We could ask and understand why things were being done as they are. And we could get suggestions for how to help.

Here is an interesting article, somewhat tangentially related, on the propagation of trust through networks. Do you think we could set up a sort of eBay grading system for politicians and platform planks?

Here's a youtube video that shows how easy it is to fool us. It's also a very good explanation for the housing bubble.

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Monday, March 09, 2009


I have talked about 1) the problem of political distance, 2) the customary and inevitable failures of government as structured today, 3) the nature and nourishment of altruism, and 4) the need for re-engineering our human networks. I have also proposed a plan for improving our system of governance, which I'll elaborate on here.

Here are the basics of my argument:

1) Democracy is a great system but it has some failings. It does not always, or even often, generate the best decisions that the people are capable of. It's certainly better than the various forms of tyranny, but it encourages dishonesty and deception in the political class. It tends to represent dollars rather than people. The political distance between our leaders and our citizens is vast and the channels of communication are too narrow, as well as being entirely too public, too impersonal. Progress on important social goals is constantly impeded by political insurgents of numerous types. Distraction and corruption in high places are common. Concentrated power is a constant danger.

What's good about it? Well, it's competitive like capitalism. The best product generally succeeds. The electoral process tends to filter for self-confident, realistic, sociable, energetic, articulate deal-makers, people who can get things done. If you want to be President, you have to fight your way through a grueling, discouraging, seemingly interminable gauntlet. You have to know how to get people to do what you want. You have to be conversant with the practical world and the possibilities of power. There are, of course, other personal characteristics that allow politicians to succeed, but, in general, we end up with the people who have the ambition and skills to do the job. We get good people, but then the system tries to corrupt them, and certainly corrupts the results of their efforts.

2) Modern society is extremely interconnected, but not all connections are equal. There are strong antidemocratic, anti-egalitarian forces endemic to the Matrix. There are enough ideologues, fanatics, control freaks, selfish people, parasites, con artists, crooks, thugs and liars to keep us all busy dealing with unnecessary suffering, inefficiency and unhappiness. Such disfunctional people degrade the network. They are empowered by our credulity, our ignorance, our isolation and our weakness. Our democratic system addresses the problems, but not adequately. Personal development and maturation reduce the impact for an individual and close associates, but the effects are not widely shared. Police discourage murder, but don't prevent it. Food poisoning and embezzlement still occur. Absurd political decisions persist for decades. Networks ameliorate the impact, but they could do better.

3) The major problems that we face are gridlocked by controversy, but are of such severity and complexity that we cannot continue with the ineffective governance that we have engineered to date. No progress can be made in the current social environment. In particular, I would cite Global Warming and population control. Every direction of approach to these problems is suffused with contentious disputation and hostility. If you don't see this issues as problematic, then I could provide many others, and I imagine you could provide many of your own. How about coordination of responses to the global business environment, or to the spread of religious fanaticism? How about the inability of third world countries to shake off endemic corruption and make economic progress? From my own perspective I would include the repressive and irrational approach to Prohibition, the inadequate control of contagious diseases, the ineffective programs of education for the poor (and everyone else for that matter), the unbalanced distribution of wealth and evolutionary indecision.

4) It is possible to design theoretical improvements to our current methods of governance. Whether such improvements can be implemented, I'm not certain, but I do believe that it is our only hope in the face of otherwise unsolvable existential threats to our civilization. The design improvement that I am espousing is this: Institute a fourth branch of government which is essentially a network of voters' unions, linked together as a bi-directional pyramid structure.

Here are the principle characteristics of the proposed structure:

1)Organization is bottom-up. That is, it evolves from the grassroots as a self-assembled entity. Recruitment creates peers, not subordinates.

2)The units are, with certain specified exceptions, intended to be of equivalent size.

3)The goal of each unit is to achieve consensus, shared understanding and a penchant for unified action. The hope is that multiple units will be able to join through representatives, and achieve a similarly high degree of consensus and mutual understanding.

4)Each unit will have multiple representatives, a specified number, selected by a shared decision of the unit. Every member should be comfortable with every representative. For that matter, every member should be comfortable with every other member.

5)It is the assignment of each representative to adhere to another unit, a group of similar representatives at the next hierarchical level. The goal is to share information, ideas, opinions, plans and decisions among the other representatives and all their associated units, and to coordinate such with the representative's own unit.

6)Each unit should send its representatives to different, ideally dispersed, higher order units, if such are available. And each hierarchical unit should elect representatives to perform in the same manner creating still higher level units until the candidate population is exhausted. By this method, any member of the society could, in theory, have exactly the same upward pyramid of representation. Obviously, at the highest levels, the pyramid closes in on itself, but there will be multiple paths of representation from the top to the bottom.

7)In theory, a representative could be a member at every level in the hierarchy – as a result of being elected to each successive level. I'm not sure how to deal with that problem pragmatically.

8)In practice there will be levels at which members of a unit have irreconcilable disputes, Republicans vs. Democrats, Sunni vs. Shia, Blues vs. Greens. I have several suggestions for addressing that problem. First, encourage members to integrate their ranks at the lowest feasible level. Second, provide more encouragement in the form of bonus representation. If a balanced unit can subsume their differences enough to agree on a slate, then we can assume they are contributing something of particular value. Award them with more influence, an extra representative, whatever it takes. The idea is to promote peacemakers and moderates while focusing on disputes at the retail level. Third, develop methods of trading members, particularly more contentious members, with more appropriate home units.

9)In practice, it may be difficult to attain a quorum. In order to encourage units to form as soon as they are ready, smaller groups should be allowed to form with reduced representation, but per capita representation for substandard group sizes should be lower than for complete units.

10)In practice, it will be a challenge to prevent groups and individuals from misrepresenting themselves. Therefore, a supervising organization should be created to provide passcodes and certifications that allow representatives to prove that they are following the rules. This information should be kept as anonymous and untraceable as encryption technology will allow. Management of the supervising organization is clearly an important and sensitive role, particularly in environments that discourage the freedoms of speech and representation.

11)Initially there will be some difficulty in identifying peers in order to form new units at the higher levels. The supervising organization could be helpful in this regard as well, providing suggested contacts. After a substantial network has been established, such intervention may be less important, as connections can be maintained by inter-personal communication, hopefully improving the level of anonymity.

The purpose of this new branch of government would not be to accumulate or exercise power. As I see it there would be multiple purposes: among them the propagation of 1) information, 2) transparency, 3) trust, 4) and wisdom. Furthermore it would provide omnipresent citizen oversight and the ability to exercise unified power when necessary.. The government would still be the government, but the government would be operating in a new environment. We would understand its actions, and good politicians would be able to reliably explain themselves to the people without undue risk of political sabotage.


Is this just another form of Utopianism? I really don't think so. It is actually just the opposite. It starts with the idea that humans are fallible, one of the cornerstone tenets of our democracy, but also that most of us are capable of contributing some small vector of wisdom to the collective thrust of our society. The leadership of these network units would be quintessentially democratic. Their duty would involve only the responsibility to pursue truth and represent it to their best judgment. It doesn't sound very dramatic or romantic, but I believe it would gradually lead to profound and beneficial changes.

The spirit of constructive criticism is not always happy. When they met to discuss The Comfort of Strangers, Raine told McEwan: "Listen, love. It's complete crap, and you should put it in a drawer and forget it." McEwan refused to speak to him for almost two years.

The author relates to Zalewski how he came to settle on climate change as the background to his novel in progress. He'd gone walking on a frozen fjord in the Arctic, purely, he insists, for the hiking. He was initially sceptical that global warming was the stuff of novels. Then he saw well-meaning people in his group squabbling over their possessions in the confined space of the boat.

"People were losing stuff, stealing things. Meanwhile, we'd be ... talking about how we were going to save the world. I thought, Ah. The interesting thing here is human nature. Global warming suddenly wasn't an abstract issue, because humans had to solve it - untrustworthy, venal, sweet, lovely humans."

from the Guardian

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Binary Decomposition of Political Distance

Political Networking Proposals

In the old days, everything was done by means of introductions. If you wanted to talk with a particular person, you needed to play a game of six degrees of separation. Obviously things aren’t so formal these days and the system had its faults. The process of conferring trust from one person to the next left many people out of the social loop and also failed to fulfill its primary objective, which was to promote social interaction and filter out the salespeople and con artists.

A process that evolved among the lower classes for similar purposes grew up in the urban America political machines. You trusted your committeeman and did what he told you to do. If you had a problem, he would deal with it through his network connections. There were obviously numerous problems with that process as well, notably massive corruption at the retail level. That’s what we remember, the elitism of the one and the corruption of the other. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a need for something similar.

What we have today is the converse of those rough political systems. The social networks joining us to our political leaders have become very sparse and unreliable. The unreliability has been induced by competing powers trying to usurp the networks with their partisan messages. The sparseness is a side effect of the success of American culture. Most of us don’t need to interface with political parties any more. We are too busy making our fortunes and dealing directly with our own problems. The economic system protects us from the worst of the political system. The nuclear family is paramount, the political world an afterthought, the concerned citizen a rarity, but we know that neglecting the political system can be risky.

Many people don’t participate in the political process because they don’t understand it. They don’t vote because they don’t know anything about the candidates. A lot of voters take the list of recommendations from the local paper, or the union, or the party regulars. Personally, aside from Bush vs. Kerry, I never have had any problem deciding. Unless I have strong opinions, I always vote against the incumbent or the expected winner, just to make it a little closer. My theory is that there is somebody out there who knows the score. If there is a closer balance, then those knowledgeable people will have more of a chance to make a difference.

But wouldn’t it be better if I could find those people who know the score, and just ask them how to vote. There are two ways I can do this, top down or bottom up. The top down method might involve reading columnists or blogs to find someone I tend to agree with. If I find someone I like, I’ll just take their recommendations. Well it turns out that some of these people might be getting paid to present a certain viewpoint, or they might be disguising their true position for personal or strategic reasons, or they might not know the particulars of my region.

Here’s my proposal for cultivating appropriate political recon specialists. Set it up like a dating service. Let some non-partisan group, like the League of Women Voters, solicit a corps of volunteer political mavens from, say, every congressional district in the USA (they could be bloggers even). Screen them for sanity, and the usual issues, then let them fill out a questionnaire concerning their goals, interests, political aspirations, worldview, etc. (Note that questionnaires can be designed to evaluate responses for honesty.) Members of the public can then respond to a matchmaker questionnaire online in order to decide which of these mavens would be best for them to emulate. The mavens could keep in touch with their fans by means of newsletters or email. The LWV might take it upon themselves to provide additional resources to facilitate interaction and communication.

I’ll talk about more top down ideas and some bottom up approaches in a later post.

6/5/2005 11:51 PM

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