Democracy Works When…

In the context of the debate Can democracy work in Iraq/Arab states/Islamic countries?, Atanu Dey offers some insights from India:

It is instructive to examine explore the two ideas of democracy and markets in the Indian context.

First, markets. One of the most important lessons mankind has learnt is that markets work. There are, however, very important pre-conditions for markets to work. When those pre-conditions are not met, markets fail. That means, the workings of markets in the presense of failures leads to socially sub-optimal, and even harmful, outcomes. Indeed, if the necessary conditions required for markets to function are not met, market fundamentalism can lead to positively disastrous results.

The important point is that markets work but only if certain necessary conditions are met. Consequently, imposing markets on a system which does not meet those often stringent conditions could result in unintended consequences.

Just as the market is a great organizing principle in the economic sphere, so also democracy is a great and noble organizing principle in the political sphere. Democracy works, provided its pre-conditions are met. The necessary conditions include at a minimum: full information, accountability, economic freedom, institutional memory, and so on. Democracy cannot work when the electorate is nearly totally uninformed, where there are strong vested interests, where the notion of accountability is non-existent, where voters can be intimidated and bribed, where the culture is steeped in feudalism, and where illiteracy, superstition and corruption is the norm.

Democracy does not work in India. That is not to say that the fault lies with the idea of democracy. As a system of governance, there are few alternatives, just as markets are the best way to organize economic activities. But markets are prone to failures if its pre-conditions are not met. So also, democracy does not work in India because its necessary conditions are not met.

It is a long and hard road to the place where democracy has any meaning. The first step along that road is undoubtedly universal primary education. Universal primary education is a prerequisite for universal adult franchise. Without primary education, you cannot have a literate and informed adult. Without an informed electorate, you cannot have a meaningful democracy. Perhaps that is the reason for the neglect of universal primary education — for that would down the road mean that the feudal lords of the ruling families will no longer be able to rule based simply on loyalty and may even have to work for a living.

Thomas Jefferson emphasized the role of an educated citizenry in a democracy more than two centuries ago:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 89)

Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 87)

“. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 88)

Scientists Challenge Government’s Scientific Integrity in Policymaking

Is this just business as usual for our government or is it an egregious violation of public trust?

From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

The United States has an impressive history of investing in the capabilities and respecting the independence of scientists. This legacy has brought us sustained economic progress, science-based public health policy, and unequaled scientific leadership within the global community. However, actions by the Bush administration threaten to undermine this legacy, and as a result, policy decisions are being made that have serious consequences for our health, safety, and environment.

Across a broad range of issues—from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons—the administration is distorting and censoring scientific findings that contradict its policies; manipulating the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions; and undermining the independence of science advisory panels by subjecting panel nominees to political litmus tests that have little or no bearing on their expertise; nominating non-experts or underqualified individuals from outside the scientific mainstream or with industry ties; as well as disbanding science advisory committees altogether.

These activities are of grave concern to members of the scientific community as well as to those who rely on government information to inform policy decisions. But they should also concern the American public, which places its trust in the government as an honest broker of scientific information and one that will protect our health and safety.

Reports: Scientific Integrity in Policymaking
Executive Summary (PDF)
Full Report (PDF)

Ties between Bushes, Saudi royal family

I don’t have time to read all the books that I want. So I read book reviews when I can’t read the books.

If this book is based on fact, I’m very concerned.

House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties. By Craig Unger. Scribner. $26. 356 pages.

On Sept. 13, 2001, the United States grounded all commercial aviation, yet more than 140 individuals were permitted to leave the country. Nearly all of them were Saudi, and roughly two dozen were kin to Osama bin Laden. What kind of intelligence failure allowed that to happen? Were those individuals seriously questioned? Who allowed them to leave? Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, what was the rush in squandering what may have been a potential intelligence mother lode?

Craig Unger first reported this story in Vanity Fair magazine. In “House of Bush, House of Saud,” he places this incredible scenario in the context of a decades-old relationship between the ruling clan of Saudi Arabia and America’s pre-eminent political dynasty, the Bush family.

To begin, Unger takes us back to the 1960s, when George H.W. Bush was an oilman in Texas whose success included drilling the first offshore well for a tiny Middle Eastern country called Kuwait. Bush got out of oil in 1966 to get into politics and wound up as head of the CIA just as Saudi businessmen close to the royal family began investing in Bush’s home state. They bought up real estate and purchased planes. They bought a bank in Houston with former Texas Gov. John Connally. They developed a skyscraper known as Texas Commerce Tower, which housed Texas Commerce Bancshares, the bank started by the grandfather of James A. Baker, Bush’s right-hand man.

But this is just the beginning of the relationship. continued…

Broadband and Politics

Do politicians currently in office really want broadband internet to become widespread in the U.S.?

Mitch Kapor notes:

Last week, an extraordinary election was held in Korea. The Uri, or Our party, barely two years old, decisively took over the National Assembly. It was done using the Net. It is no accident that the political coming-of-age of the Net came about in Korea where almost 70% of its households are broadband connected. Starting as a social movement organized through the Net, the new Uri party became a political phenomena.

In December 2002, the Uri party used the Net to go around Korea’s traditional political structures and elect Roh Moo-hyun President. Korea’s national politics have traditionally been regionally based. However, using the Net, the Uri put together a new political coalition based not on geography, but age, bringing together those under 30. Paradoxically, the Uri also used the Net to involve citizens at local face to face meetings.

The Net was used to begin to break the overwhelming political influence of Korea’s giant corporate conglomerates, the chaebols, who funded (both legally and illegitimately) much of Korea’s politics. The Uri use the Net to help fund their campaign with tens of thousands of small contributions.

Just as importantly, the Net allowed the Uri to go around Korea’s established status quo political media. One Net news organization, Ohmynews, is helping redefine journalism. Founded only four years ago, the online news service can gets as many as 20 million hits a day in a country of 40 million. While Ohmynews has 40 full time employees, it uses over 23,000 “citizen reporters,” and editorial policy is voted on by their readership.

Thursday’s election showed the new politics of the Net are no fluke. A month ago Korea’s old political establishment still controlled the national legislature and impeached President Roh. Advancing the new Net politics, the Uri party tripled their seats in the legislature, giving the Uri a 150 to 50 seat advantage, which will most likely lead to the overturn of Roh’s impeachment.

Tit-For-Tat Strategy

Never be the first to attack.

Retaliate only after the other party has attack.

Be prepared to forgive after carrying out an act of retaliation.

Tit for Tat is not a spiritual path but may in fact be the best strategy available for those who wish to survive in our imperfect world.

Benefits of Tit for Tat

Niceness. It never pursues the aggressive or negative strategy first.

Clarity. It is uncomplicated, and so the other player can figure out what the tit-for-tat player is doing easily.

Provocability. It can be provoked into retaliating, and so cannot be taken advantage of cheaply.

Forgivingness. If the other player goes back to being cooperative, so will the tit-for-tat player.

The House of Saud

Excerpt from The fall of the House of Saud, By Robert Baer, The Atlantic Monthly, May 2003

Robert Baer served for twenty-one years with the CIA, primarily as a field officer in the Middle East. He resigned from the agency in 1997 and was awarded its Career Intelligence Medal in 1998. This article is adapted from his book Sleeping With the Devil (June, 2003, Crown Publishers), Saudi Arabia today is a mess, and it is our mess. We made it the private storage tank for our oil reserves. We reaped the benefits of a steady petroleum supply at a discounted price, and we grabbed at every available Saudi petrodollar. We taught the Saudis exactly what was expected of them. We cannot walk away morally from the consequences of this behavior–and we really can’t walk away economically. So we crow about democracy and talk about someday weaning ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil, despite the fact that as long as America has been dependent on foreign oil there has never been an honest, sustained effort at the senior governmental level to reduce long-term U.S. petroleum consumption. Not all the wishing in the world will change the basic reality of the situation.

Saudi Arabia controls the largest share of the world’s oil and serves as the market regulator for the global petroleum industry. No country consumes more oil, and is more dependent on Saudi oil, than the United States. The United States and the rest of the industrialized world are therefore absolutely dependent on Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves, and will be for decades to come. If the Saudi oil spigot is shut off, by terrorism or by political revolution, the effect on the global economy, and particularly on the economy of the United States, will be devastating.

Link The fall of the House of Saud, By Robert Baer, The Atlantic Monthly

Thomas Friedman Shoots Straight … Again

Excerpt from “Hummers Here, Hummers There“, NY Times, May 25, 2003

We never talk straight to Saudi Arabia, because we are addicted to its oil. Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.

If we were telling the Saudis the truth, we would tell them that their antimodern and antipluralist brand of Islam — known as Wahhabism — combined with their oil wealth has become a destabilizing force in the world. By financing mosques and schools that foster the least tolerant version of Islam, they are breeding the very extremists who are trying to burn down their house and ours.

But we also need to tell ourselves the truth. We constantly complain about the blank checks the Saudis write to buy off their extremists. But who writes the blank checks to the Saudis? We do — with our gluttonous energy habits, renewed addiction to big cars, and our president who has made “conservation” a dirty word.

In the wake of the Iraq war, the E.P.A. announced that the average fuel economy of America’s cars and trucks fell to its lowest level in 22 years, with the 2002 model year. That is a travesty. No wonder foreigners think we sent our U.S. Army Humvees to control Iraq, just so we could drive more G.M. Hummers over here. When our president insists that we can have it all ? big cars, big oil, lower taxes, with no sacrifices or conservation ? why shouldn’t the world believe that all we are about is protecting our right to binge?

And so the circle is complete: President Bush won’t tell Americans the truth, so we won’t tell Saudis the truth, so they won’t tell their extremists the truth, so they can go on pumping intolerance and we can go on guzzling gas. Someday, our kids will condemn us for all of this.