26 April 2014

Democracy in danger

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (pdf), Martin Gilens and Benjamin I Page, 9 April

The authors came to this conclusion after reviewing answers to 1779 survey questions asked between 1981 and 2002 on public policy issues. They broke the responses down by income level, and then determined how often certain income levels and organised interest groups saw their policy preferences enacted.

There's little prospect of this changing so long as policymaking is conducted in terms of things that alienate ordinary people. Sometimes our politicians speak eloquently of lofty, high-minded goals whose time lines stretch so far into the future that they can be sure they will not be held accountable for their failure to realize them or that are otherwise unverifiable because they are just too vague. More often, though the stated goals of policy have to do with dollars spent, institutional structures and composition, legalisms, regulations or outputs - all of which are too arcane, complex and obscure for anyone other than lawyers, lobbyists and ideologues to follow closely. The only people who understand policymaking today are those who are paid to do so, and the only people  who influence it are those who have the millions of dollars necessary to pay them. These are Gilens' and Page's 'economic elites and ... business interests'. They continue:
When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.
Yes, our societies are complex and highly aggregated. But people's goals are far more easily articulated than the alleged means of reaching them. One solution to the problem described by Gilens and Page, and felt by almost everyone, could be to express policy goals in terms of outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. Things like pollution levels, crime rates, poverty rates, literacy standards. There wouldn't be universal agreement about target levels and priorities, but there would be engagement by the public in the policymaking process. With such engagement, there would be influence and buy-in.

A Social Policy Bond regime would start by expressing our social and environmental goals in terms that people can understand and influence. Government, instead of trying to guess how best to achieve our goals (which it is not good at doing) would instead concentrate on articulating society's goals and raising the revenue for their achievement (both of which democratic governments can actually do quite well). The other essential element of a Social Policy Bond regime is to inject the market's incentives and efficiencies into the achievement of our social goals - something that rarely happens nowadays. (For more, see my SocialGoals.com website.)

The alternative? Gilens and Page conclude:
Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

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