Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Democracy in the Information Age

Democracy, especially the kind we have in the US, requires an informed voter base. Otherwise, corporate interests end up making all the policy decisions. While it's good to foster a healthy private sector, no matter how you look at it, the bottom line for a corporation is not always aligned with the goals of a government, which I think are to make lives better for all citizens.

It seems like today's technology like the internet should enable voters to make much better informed decisions. However, most people don't have the time to really go through all the information, and people tend to cherry-pick the information that is aligned with what they already believe. In recent years the news has become increasingly partisan such that there is no news source which reaches everyone. I think now it's becoming clear that decision-making is more about belief than really making informed decisions, especially because of the complexity of issues today.

Liberals such as Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, and Frank Rich are frustrated at the rise of anti-government and anti-regulation conservatism in the aftermath of a financial meltdown and oil spill. He writes about how the extreme right has gained legitimacy in his latest op-ed. In other recent op-eds, he's been talking about the anti-regulatory mood of the public. Sex, Drugs, and the Spill and Berating the Raters.

At the same time, all of them realize that people are right to be upset about things. It makes sense that people are upset about the bank bailouts and the subsequent bonuses. All in all, the white collar workers have hardly been affected in this crisis. People are right to be upset about the price of health care, and it makes sense that they're concerned about the extra paperwork and possible inefficiencies from a government mandate for everyone to have health care. People have a feeling that corporate interests are colluding with the government. However, they are not right about what policies they think should be adopted.

I wonder if a better way to run the government is for people to vote on what problems they would like solved rather than on policies. I'm not sure how different it would be from how things are done now. I suppose people mostly vote for politicians they think will be able to solve their problems. Politicians have platforms where they talk about what they think are the biggest problems and their plans. I would hope that if we were more focused on identifying the problems and then giving a mandate to more knowledgeable and qualified people to solve them, that we'd have better policies, but actually, what we might end up with is just more of the same where corporate interests dictate policy.

My main concern is whether people are really be able to vote on policy because while we live in an information age, our lifestyles and jobs are pretty specialized at this point. While people had their specialized professions when the US was founded, at least they still had to do many things for themselves since they could just not hire services or buy things off the shelf the way we do today. Within one company, people in the marketing department don't know anything about engineering and vice versa. Those in the car manufacturing industry don't know anything about the energy industry or construction or agriculture or the health care industry, and the financial sector is a big mystery to everyone, of course. The system we have now is interest and advocacy driven so your piece of the pie is only as big as you can fight for. How can people really make informed policy decisions for the long term well-being of a nation as a whole?

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