Not Designing Democracy

The recent Brexit vote, where a margin of less 2% of those who voted caused: economic dislocation, increased open hostility towards immigrants, a trainwreck of diplomatic efforts since the end of WWII, etc., etc., has evidenced so much hand wringing and blame gaming, but something is being missed in all this noise.

Each democratic act is designed.

It may not be consciously designed but rules under which it is carried out are either designed, or designed by continuing with whatever the default setting are, and these default settings are not changed. That’s design by ignorance. It seems straight forward: One person, one vote. But that isn’t at all there is to the default settings.

Some default settings that were not interrogated as part of the #Brexit Process:

1. Only a majority is required. Really? What if the vote is to make an irreversible change that carries a significant risk? Is there ever a reason to require a super majority of some kind? Taxation issues in the United States, for example, frequently require a super majority of 66% or 60% or even 4/5 in some jurisdictions. This rule is not anti-Democratic as long as it can be changed by a clear and transparent process–that is, it could be changed but then there would be a need to vote on the principle, separate from the facts of a specific issue.

2. What are the boundaries of each voting area? this is not always obvious, especailly in my home town of Saint Louis where the City is divided from the County and the County is divided into many small pieces. Since there is no forum (boundary set) for regional issues, they don’t get decided very well in Saint Louis. When a boundary set is designed the decided and great things happen, like the Saint Louis Zoo/Museum District. For Brexit, shouldn’t more of those impacted have had a say? And should each defined political unit have been required to clear a majority? Taking this design step in the Brexit referendum would have ensured against unintended consequences, for example Scotland leaving UK, and the vote breaking up two unions rather than just maybe one.

3. Is the Vote a One Step Process? Having two steps ensures that an unintended consequence does not occur, e.g. in votes where many options are on the table, a series of votes ensures that the will of a plurality isn’t given the imprimatur of decisiveness. So if you three of four candidates, if none receive a majority than a run off makes sense. How could this have applied to Brexit? Perhaps not applicable, but just what if the vote was to set up different rule sets for the future vote? For example, to require a supermajority to leave, to to establish the requirement that all political subunits vote a majority to leave? Many organizations rightly have an inherent bias toward the status quo, and it is a open question whether that bias should be reflected in the rules for voting. The US Constitution, for example sets out elaborate multi-step processes for requiring certain fundamental changes. Those processes were designed. 

These are just outlines of some big picture design thought that could have–but obviously did not–occur to David Cameron et al who set this process in motion, in a flippant, non-reflective gesture, but one with consequences. The misfeasance in setting such an important consequential for many generations decision into such a simplistic, winner-take-all process is an object lesson: Do not design democracy by default.

Not Designing Democracy

TED Censored

Here’s a TED talk that was censored.  It seems the idea that everyone does not owe their jobs to a few rich people struck quite a nerve and couldn’t be published:

The above TED talk, by Richard Wilkinson, is from October 2011, and it’s all about economic inequality. There’s quite a lot of buzz today about another talk on economic inequality which was recorded, then quashed by TED officials. You can check out the full transcript here, from National Journal.

At first glance, this is quite a strange discrepancy. Both talks are on economic inequality, and they do differ a bit, but if anything the Wilkinson talk is more radical. The gist of his is that once a country has reached “developed” status, wealth doesn’t much matter for the health of that society, broadly speaking (including things like longevity, mental illness, crime, prison population, poverty, etc). Instead equality is what matters. More equal societies are better.

The censored talk, given by venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, makes a fairly banal point that starting a successful business depends entirely on having a population of people with the ability to buy your product:

I have started or helped start, dozens of businesses and initially hired lots of people. But if no one could have afforded to buy what we had to sell, my businesses would all have failed and all those jobs would have evaporated.

That’s why I can say with confidence that rich people don’t create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more employment is a “circle of life” like feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion this virtuous cycle of increasing demand and hiring. In this sense, an ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than a capitalist like me.

See the rest of the story at the above link.  Note after the web storm of protest they did eventually decide to release the talk.  But why should it take a protest?

TED Censored

New Puzzling Doctrine of the Two Classes of the Unborn

The new doctrine implied by recent public statements of Catholics criticizing President Obama are indeed curious, though they are regrettably not unprecedented. Under this doctrine there seem to be two categories of  the unborn, and they deserve completely different accounting in the moral sphere.

One class of the unborn deserves very little recognition, and therefore their suffering is of very small concern.  Into this first class fall, for example, the unborn victims of the several wars we are now fighting, those unborn killed by pollution, or directly by hunger, or those unborn poor who need quality healthcare, among other groups too numerous to mention here. Lest we forget, there are many of the born in similar groups who are perishing each and every day.  These very real deaths now also include the first deaths caused by global warming, whose toll shall, with near certainty, dramatically increase every year.

The other class of unborn is so especially deserving of our protection, however, that even though the President has no direct legal authority to protect them, the mere announcement of a candidate of his opposition to a legal precedent enjoins us to put all of our concerns for the first class of the unborn out of our minds, and cast our votes, as unthinking automatons, to continue the wholesale slaughter of those unborn in the first class, while making very slight progress helping those unborn in the second class.

Therefore I, being uneducated by only 2 degrees from Jesuit Universities, must ask those who promulgate this new doctrine of the two unequal classes of the unborn to clarify, with some precision, what are those characteristics of the first class of the unborn that make them so undeserving of our protection and conversely makes those in the second class so especially deserving of our protection?

This question deeply vexes me.

New Puzzling Doctrine of the Two Classes of the Unborn

Demand Zero

Occupy Wall Street could actually use a demand that is straight-forward and would have broad support. Accomplishing this would give the OWS movement credibility and moral connectivity. The demand should be one that is concrete and would advance the OWS agenda while morally isolating its opponents. The best demand for this purpose would be:

A constitutional amendment that would eliminate any of the benefits of the Bill of Rights from accruing to corporations, and simply state that the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights only accrue to natural born persons is exactly the kind of demand that OWS needs to make.  It is a simple demand, and one that, if acted upon would dramatically change the political landscape by allowing all kinds of limits on corporations.  Such an action is a precondition for dismantling incipient corporate fascism before it takes root.

Any one who opposed that would so clearly isolated themselves that they would be committing political suicide. Also, such an amendment would have concrete results, for example, overturning Citizens United.

I like the catchy name Demand Zero, too.

Demand Zero

Censorship, USA (Google stands up edition)

As described in the Guardian (and Hat tip to RMS)

Google faced down demands from a US law enforcement agency to take down YouTube videos allegedly showing police brutality earlier this year, figures released for the first time show.

The technology giant’s biannual transparency report shows that Google refused the demands from the unnamed authority in the first half of this year.

According to the report, Google separately declined orders by other police authorities to remove videos that allegedly defamed law enforcement officials.

The demands formed part of a 70% rise in takedown requests from the US government or police, and were revealed as part of an effort to highlight online censorship around the world.

Figures revealed for the first time show that the US demanded private information about more than 11,000 Google users between January and June this year, almost equal to the number of requests made by 25 other developed countries, including the UK and Russia.

Censorship, USA (Google stands up edition)

Without Syndromic Surveillance Systems, some things can get really hard to see

So the slow reaction of Germany and other European countries has been bad, in the case of a known but unusual infection. How bad would it be in case of an unknown novel pathogen? A lot worse, I would guess.  It is a shame that this article, in Nature, blames everything EXCEPT the lack of a syndromic surveillance system:

Microbe Outbreak Panics Europe
Spread of rare strain raises questions over surveillance of infectious diseases.

By Marian Turner of Nature magazine


Confronted with what has become one of the world’s most severe outbreaks of Escherichia coli, physicians and scientists in Germany say that the country’s fractured health-management system has failed to handle the crisis properly. They are calling for major reforms so that outbreaks are reported sooner and more modern technology is used to help identify their source, in order to bring health emergencies under control more quickly.


Hospitals recorded the first cases on 1 May, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German federal agency for disease surveillance in Berlin. Yet it was not until 22 May that the first report of an unusual number of EHEC infections in Germany arrived at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm. This was unusually long–it typically takes 14 days to detect an outbreak, says Angelika Fruth from the RKI.

Several factors conspired to cause the delay. EHEC infections are not common in adults–so physicians might have initially diagnosed a Salmonella or viral infection. The microbe also behaves differently to typical EHEC strains when cultured for diagnosis, which hampered scientists trying to identify it. And under the German health system, local authorities only report such infections weekly to state governments–which then have another week to tell the RKI. It was not until 25 May that the rare E. coli strain O104:H4 was named as the culprit.

Continue reading “Without Syndromic Surveillance Systems, some things can get really hard to see”

Without Syndromic Surveillance Systems, some things can get really hard to see

The National Academies Press Makes All PDF Books Free to Download

Interesting development, more and more and more free culture:

The National Academies Press Makes All PDF Books Free to Download
11-06-07 01:56

* As of today all PDF versions of books published by the National Academies Press will be downloadable to anyone free of charge. This includes a current catalog of more than 4,000 books plus future reports produced by the Press. The mission of the National Academies Press (NAP) — publisher for the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council — is to disseminate the institutions’ content as widely as possible while maintaining financial sustainability. To that end, NAP began offering free content online in 1994. Before today’s announcement, all PDFs were free to download in developing countries, and 65 percent of them were available for free to any user.

“Our business model has evolved so that it is now financially viable to put this content out to the entire world for free,” said Barbara Kline Pope, executive director for the National Academies Press. “This is a wonderful opportunity to make a positive impact by more effectively sharing our knowledge and analyses.”…

Printed books will continue to be available for purchase through the NAP website and traditional channels. The free PDFs are available exclusively from the NAP’s website,, and remain subject to copyright laws. – NAP

The National Academies Press Makes All PDF Books Free to Download