Thursday, 10 April 2014

And yet too many people shrug or sleep when they should seethe

copied in full from M

If you grow up in the U.S., you hear from every direction — from the press, in school, from your neighbors and friends— that the U.S. is a model of democracy. It’s the world’s No. 1 democracy, furthering freedom around the world. It’s a nation where politics come down to one person, one vote, where there’s one rule of law for black and white, for rich and poor alike. Democracy and government held in check by public opinion is what sets the U.S. apart. Right?

Sadly, this is more illusion than it is truth. And recent evidence suggests that we’re moving further away from true democracy, not closer. And quickly. Listen, for example, to political scientist Larry Bartels describe research examining who actually has a voice in democracy in the U.S. Do the views of the rich and poor get heard more or less equally? Or, do the views of the rich instead find their way into actual policies much more easily? The evidence points very much to the latter:

Everyone thinks they know that money is important in American politics. But how important? The Supreme Court’s Gilded Age reasoning inMcCutcheon v. FEC has inspired a flurry of commentary regarding the potential corrosive influence of campaign contributions; but that commentary largely ignores the broader question of how economic power shapes American politics and policy. For decades, most political scientists have sidestepped that question, because it has not seemed amenable to rigorous (meaning quantitative) scientific investigation. Qualitative studies of the political role of economic elites have mostly been relegated to the margins of the field. But now, political scientists are belatedly turning more systematic attention to the political impact of wealth, and their findings should reshape how we think about American democracy.

A forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by (my former colleague) Martin Gilens and (my sometime collaborator) Benjamin Page marks a notable step in that process. Drawing on the same extensive evidence employed by Gilens in his landmark book “Affluence and Influence,” Gilens and Page analyze 1,779 policy outcomes over a period of more than 20 years. They conclude that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Average citizens have “little or no independent influence” on the policy-making process? This must be an overstatement of Gilens’s and Page’s findings, no?

Alas, no. In their primary statistical analysis, the collective preferences of ordinary citizens had only a negligible estimated effect on policy outcomes, while the collective preferences of “economic elites” (roughly proxied by citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were 15 times as important. “Mass-based interest groups” mattered, too, but only about half as much as business interest groups — and the preferences of those public interest groups were only weakly correlated (.12) with the preferences of the public as measured in opinion surveys.

This really shouldn't come as a surprise, if one just looks at the amount of money and efforts spent on lobbying public officials by corporations and wealthy individuals. These are business investments pure and simple. Money talks. But the political science profession has, Bartel’s notes, been very loathe to absorb this fairly obvious, if depressing conclusion: effectively, the U.S. is a democracy in name only.
The training of most graduate students in political science and public policy, Bartel’s points out, has historically been couched mostly in a theory of American politics which can be referred to as “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy,” emphasizing the broad importance of public opinion, elections and representation as the drivers of policy. Gilens’s and Page’s work makes this look like a naive perspective based mostly on wishful thinking. Our democracy would more correctly be called “Economic Elite Domination.”

Of course, this dynamic is strongly furthered by the vast increase in economic inequality seen over the past few decades. I strongly recommend Paul Krugman’s brilliant new review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which documents these changes in great detail and sets them in a historical context. We’re so accustomed to the idea of equality and democracy, and a wide range of sources feed us these ideas in such a steady rhythm, that most of us fail to see just how radically our society has changed. The most important conclusion of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, as Krugman notes, that rising economic inequality is leading us back to “patrimonial capitalism,” where the talent and intelligence of individuals counts for little compared to the power of family dynasties. This is happening before our eyes.

Yet where is the protest? Where is the public organization among the increasingly powerless to take back democracy? Sadly, this too is lacking, and in part because of the ability of the wealthy to control the public discussion and to frame debate in their own preferred terms. Writing in the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow has it just about right:

The greatest trick up the sleeves of the moneyed and powerful is their diabolical ability to render themselves invisible and undetectable, to recede and operate behind a front, one relatable and common. Our politics are overrun with characters acting at the behest of shadows.

These are the politicians to whom we have become accustomed — too much polish, and too much beam — which is precisely the reason they should warrant our suspicion and not our trust, the way one cannot trust a cook with pots too pretty and not burned black on the bottoms.

And yet too many people shrug or sleep when they should seethe.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Why I moved to Thailand

One of my sons asked (in a way) why i have moved to Thailand

I'm almost 61, i've been working my whole life and much of that was really hard and stressful work in IT. That's really long hours and, though the money is good, if you don't have a pretty much mortgage free home in the right location it's not so easy to save. That and a bunch of let-downs along the way means i'm not rich.

So my son, first reason, I'm not rich. I can't afford to live in any of the western cities i've lived in.

I've a little money saved. It was enough for my wife and i to buy a little town house in Nakhon Si Thammarat and to buy a low priced car.

We get by being careful with money - eating cheap, like the poorest Thais, making the most of the farm that my wife's mother owns and buying from farms and people we know. Anything else we need we get from any of the many markets here. We do occasionally shop at a supermarket but only for things like flour so that we can make our own bread.

My teeth have never been very good. I need a lot of dental work. Here I can have a complete root-canal treatment and filling for about $100. The last time i had that done in Sydney it was about $2000. One time previously it was a hack job costing me almost $5000 and then the tooth broke. Here it's actually affordable for me to get my teeth done.

Petrol (gasoline) is cheaper than in Sydney, electricity is a small fraction of the cost in Sydney. Water costs almost nothing.

We have many friends here and my wife has many relatives. We spend a lot of time visiting and traveling around Thailand - because we can afford to do it. When we lived in Sydney and we earned a high income we could hardly afford our annual holiday to Thailand. We seldom traveled far from Sydney because everything in Australia is so far away and unless you travel by plane and stay in incredibly expensive hotels it's not worth the effort.

I love traveling and here i can actually afford to do a little.

The next reason is because of my step daughters. They were doing well in Sydney but there were two problems. The first is that because i can not get Permanent Residence in Australia they can only get 5 year visas. If anything happened to me they would not be able to stay in Australia. We had the choice of moving to NZ or moving for a while to Thailand.

I love NZ but, because of the cold, i get terrible arthritis there and i really can't see me getting a job there very easily. I've been applying for jobs in NZ for more than 5 years and have had no luck.

The girls were very quickly losing their Thai - their English was coming along really well and they had adjusted very well to being relocated into a new language, culture and climate. Moving them back to Thailand for some high-school has allowed them to quickly gain what they had missed during 5 years in Australia. The younger one had not been able to read when she left Thailand in 2008. Just recently she sat the O-NET exams and won a place in one of the best schools here. That's pretty amazing.

At some stage we will have to return to NZ. I need to ensure that they have every chance to get NZ citizenship. We're timing that to be when they will go to uni though it might be earlier. My wife and i will tolerate the cold for long enough for them to be safely settled and then we will come back here.

Lastly, the reason i am in Thailand is because i love the place. I have loved it even before i first came. I love the country and i love the people even though lots of them are scoundrels and they are the most horrid drivers in all the world. I love being right in the middle of Asia in the early decades of the Asian Century. ASEAN starts in a little over a year and things will just sky-rocket when it does. Already the growth rate here is flabbergasting. Being surrounded by it all is just awesome.

I hope that helps you understand.