Open Future NZ  

"Some of the enemies we need to face are inside us. We ourselves are part of the problem. We feed the monster we are fighting."
Van Jones

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Building a Democracy of Ideas by John S Veitch

Improving Democratic Participation
Sadly, the quality of democracy in most countries is poor. The legislation and processes that make a democratic election possible are seldom discussed or considered important. Countries tend to be controlled by those people who have the most stake in the community, those who own property and have money. That's not the problem, except that they set up structures to keep political control of the community in their own hands. They usually say they are in favour of "strong democratic government" but in fact, they work hard to stop wide participation in the democratic process.

Failure of democratic process in the USA, has allowed policy to become completely dominated by the business community. The result has been disastrous for the USA and for the world. If you look to Europe (excluding the UK), to Australia or to NZ, there are many examples of countries that, while not making all the right decisions, have got a much more balanced political process.

Limiting the amount of funding an election demands is important. It shouldn't be possible to buy the election result. Total expenses should not make politicians or political parties captive to the funders. The sources of funding should be visible, and not hidden behind blind trusts or other devices intended to obscure the truth. Making clean electoral roles is important, it shouldn't be the focus of the political parties to misrepresent the roles. It would be so much better if every voter was given a meaningful vote. Proportional representation makes that possible, but ruling elites oppose that sort of democratic pressure. In the UK in 1995 the Labour Party promised electoral reform, but they have done nothing to make that happen. Major political parties are always against proportional representation. Political life is easier with fewer participants and less competition. Politicians call a two party system "the source of strong government" but what they mean, is the sort of government they can easily control and dominate.

The Knowledge Myth
There is a story that wealth, free markets and free people go together. In fact those with financial power have always used that power to buy political power and privilege for themselves, so the wealth of individuals and democratic values are inconsistent with each other. You can see this when you look at the recent history of the USA. The excessive power of the financial world purchased the obedience of BOTH main political parties and the news media. There was for 30 or more years one story, that deregulation, free markets and low taxes would make America RICH. I don't need to repeat the history here. It's the lack of balance that led to regulatory failure, criminal neglect of duty, willful misstatement of value, excessive debt, and eventually to financial collapse.

Constructing Knowledge
Your own ideas don't come prepackaged, you choose what you know. As your experience grows, and as you add even more ideas to your understanding the quality of your thinking should improve. For this process to work well, you need the opportunity to talk to other people about what you are thinking.

If your community is politically open to new ideas and if there is strong debate about culture and science and technology and about economic and political policy, the community will be rich with ideas about how to build a sustainable future. Both political and business innovation depends on the ability to assemble the right mix of ideas to make the new projects work. A rich culture of ideas is the bedrock of successful communities.

If sources of information that should be trustworthy prove to contain contaminated data, spin, or disinformation it becomes very hard to know what to believe. Political truth or religious truth, which is a denial of the best available knowledge in the culture, is a destructive force. When people choose to be "blind" to scientific knowledge, or deny the dignity of other people and their views, discussion becomes impossible.

Propaganda as Knowledge
Free markets for instance have been beyond criticism for most of the last 30 years. Was that just the power of propaganda in our lives? We see now that free markets do not regulate themselves. Free markets do not allocate resources and rewards to the most productive uses. Free markets do not efficiently predict the future. The invisible hand does not influence events to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. As this depression begins we can NOW see that each of these basic tenants of economic theory are invalid.

I discovered some 30 years ago that MANY of the basic ideals on which our communities are based are of similar doubtful utility. As Waldo Salt also discovered, we are incapable of even beginning to examine beliefs of this sort until we've experienced their untruth. Waldo Salt wrote in his journal, "To search for TRUTH you must first have lost it." So now the truth about free markets has been lost, maybe we and begin to understand how free markets really work.

Knowledge Denied
We, as individuals, as nations, and as a global community have huge problems to solve. Satisfactory solutions will require a high degree of understanding, cooperation and trust. We've read a lot recently about how private firms have "cooked the books" to mislead either investors or the authorities. Governments are doing the same thing. The measurement of GDP, inflation rates, and unemployment rates for instance are often deliberately "measured" in ways that obscure what's really happening. This allows politicians to use delusional numbers to back up their claims that the "economy is strong" or that the outlook for jobs is "positive'. In 2008 and 2009 we've witnessed in the USA and New Zealand (I'm sure in every country) considerable efforts to misrepresent the real situation and to construct a "political truth" to support some ideological fairytale.

I'd like to report that we've solved this problem in NZ. Sadly the electorate is being deliberately misinformed to prepare it for changes that would otherwise be opposed. I had hoped those days were in the past. That game is being played over superannuation, accident compensation, the prison service and health care. There are serious problems made worst by the current depression, but the "solutions" being offered are the same "solutions" the same people were offering 20 years ago. Doesn't that tell you something?

I said in the first essay of this series "Depression 2009?" that for more than 30 years politicians in NZ, the USA and many other countries have pursued a "growth" policy based on "competitive markets, free trade, unrestricted movement of capital, and the right to transfer profits, deregulation in markets and the privatization of the business activities of government organizations." Where those ideas were opposed by alternatives, the implementation was moderated and the result has been better. Australia and Canada might be suitable examples. New Zealand and the USA both suffered because those ideas were given too much influence. Because of our MMP political system, political brakes were applied in NZ. The USA was not so lucky.

Understanding Who We Are
When a government and it's supporters strongly support a "story" about "who we are" and what our policy should be, that tends to become the background for all public discussions. The debate becomes especially difficult if as with the war in Iraq, the official policy is based on "political truth" rather than facts. Once the quality of the debate is destroyed by disinformation the flow of all ideas is impeded. The USA deserves better debate than was possible in the GW Bush years.

Here is an excellent example of "political truth" being used to justify action.  Al Jazeera English - Americas - Video interview: Richard Goldstone on his report about Israeli actions in Gaza. (5:26 min)

I'm also disappointed to see how willing people are to take sides - to form tribal groups - based on some perception of the need to be loyal to "my group" rather than to seek understanding and knowledge of the truth. We do live in a global world. Of necessity we carry with us the ideals of family, district, religion, politics and other cultural baggage of our upbringing into our global debates. Often the ideas we've grown up with, that have proven reliable and useful in the local context prove to be narrow and self serving and inappropriate in the larger international context. We owe it to ourselves to become engaged.

Building Connections
Since online person to person contact is so easy today, we have an opportunity to learn to be a person with a broader understanding of who we are and of what the world is really like. To play our proper role in the world we need a concept map that is reasonably matched to the situation we are in.

Since you construct your own mind, you have to develop your own knowledge of the world. If you wish to develop a sound understanding and if you want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, you need to personally engage with other people. That requires that you at least try to understand how they view the world. Email lists and Ryze forums are good ways to do that. In the beginning you may struggle to feel equal in the conversation. The topics and the terminology may be strange to you. Try to persist. There is a great deal of work to do on ourselves before we can speak to each other as equals.

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