A first article is published by BIRDS

Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition (BIRDS) was recently founded by Jonas Kunz and Hans Kern.

Kunz and Kern have now published a lengthy article in which they offer sortition as a tool for taking action on climate change:

Sortition: The Key to Globally Coordinated Climate Change Action?

Climate change by human industry (anthropogenic warming) has been known to scientists at the highest levels within the U.S. government, at least since 1979. That year, the ‘Charney Report’ — Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment — presented the research of nine atmospheric, meteorological and oceanographic scientists convened at Woods Hole Institute, to the National Research Council. The introduction to this report by Werner E. Suomi pronounces: “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible. The conclusions of prior studies have been generally reaffirmed. …[“]

[Natheniel Rich writes in a New York Times article:] “in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions.” To arrive at a clear understanding of what went wrong, we must first do away with the common misconception that big industry is and always has been the main culprit. In fact, as the article reveals, the oil industry was the first, to take due diligence measures, on the dangers of climate change and was preparing to adapt to policy changes. The policy changes, however, never came. Resistance did not come from the outside, it came from within the political structures themselves.

In Rich’s article, John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff under George Bush, explains the failure of administrations to embrace and act on climate responsibilities: “It couldn’t have happened, because, frankly, the leaders in the world at that time were at a stage where they were all looking how to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources. Frankly, that’s about where we are today.” This streak of duplicity running through politics, of saying one thing and doing another, is nothing new to spectators of the political circus. It is, furthermore, a direct result of the zero-sum fallacy that electoral democracy commits. Representatives get caught up in partisan posturing around issues that, because of party policies or party voting history, are polarised or otherwise caught in adversarial manoeuvering. Even if a possible compromise were in sight, the need of either party to appear as the sole “winner” on the topic — as the party that is and was always right in their proposals — makes such compromise strategically undesirable. Consider this: the caprices of politicians begin to make more sense, when we view them not as acting out of self-interest, but as trying to balance too many conflicting interests at once.

In addition to the contradictions posed by party politics, there is a demographic factor to consider, when seeking to explain climate inaction. Within any country affected by climate change, career politicians with ample economic buffers and securities, won’t be the first to notice its ravages. Elected representatives are likely a statistical group with lesser first-hand experience of climate change. Thus, they are, on a personal level, neither spurred on nor qualified to deal with this problem. The complication of political representation by non-representative samples of the population, here becomes palpable. It is not only non-democratic, it is dangerous.

Having offered an analysis of the problem, the authors move on to a short history of the electoral system:

The handicaps of our present-day politicians are intimately entwined with the particular brand of democracy we have come to accept as its definitive form. Its present ailments did not emerge in association with electoral representation by pure chance. They co-evolved with it. To seek, therefore, to remedy them, without addressing the root-cause, is a short-sighted undertaking. In time, the same corruptions would invariably take hold again. The inability of the U.S. government to embrace and act on its climate responsibilities, sheds light on deep-seated flaws in the political system, that go to its very theoretical foundations. It is the authors’ considered opinion, that what is revealed is a failure of electoral democracy itself, which repeats itself in the ostensible democracies of the world. The very tenuous connection between represented and representatives maintains a disjunction that disenfranchises and alienates the citizens, while giving representatives impunity. Attempts to bridge this gap by means of the system that created it, have proven futile. If votes, the main tool of engagement in present democracies, can’t remedy its crisis, then what possibly could? It is clear, that the only way to resolve the impasse is by means of a more legitimate, more authentically democratic decision-making process.

The stage is set and the standard sortition presentation follows: Athens and the Renaissance, diversity, modern applications, Kofi Annan and Montesquieu.

20 Responses

  1. Given that the authors exonerate the usual whipping boy (Big Oil), and claim that politicians only avoid “hard commitments” because they would “cost their nations serious resources”, why do they feel that decision making by intra-national bodies elected by sortition would make any difference? According to the dire prophecies of the climate change lobby the last thing we should be looking for is compromise.

    Tony Blair claimed that the only reason he avoided taxing aviation fuel was because the masses would rise up in protest at the increased cost of package holidays. Is there any evidence that the demos in 4th century Athens put the welfare of future generations above their own comforts? I seem to remember one of the criticisms at the time was that they were more interested in subsidised theatre tickets than the defence of the realm.

    It strikes me that if we want to argue the case for sortition (within the nation state) we should look to anything else than anthropogenic global warming.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. P.S. There’s a fundamental anthropological/philosophical error behind the idea that sortition is the answer to this sort of problem. The error takes the following form:

    1. I’m personally convinced by the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, and (as a concerned citizen) prepared to put the future of the planet ahead of my own comfort and convenience.

    2. I am an ordinary person (i.e. one of the 99, not 1%).

    3. Therefore decision-making in the hands of the 99%, freed of the effects of sinister interests, will save the planet from global warming.

    The mistake, of course, is to believe that own’s own (virtuous) views and priorities are shared by the majority of your peers** — one would have hoped that the opinions of Trump supporters on global warming would be enough to correct this mistake. It would be interesting to see how an intra-national citizen assembly with real decision power, quasi-mandatory participation and balanced advocacy would vote. I have a hunch that the verdict would be very different in America and St. Kitts and Nevis.

    **This is also the error underlying populism and it can be traced back to Machiavelli’s identification of virtue with the popolo and venality with the grandi.

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  3. Dear Mr. Sutherland,
    thank you for your response and critique. However, we feel that the characterisation of the idea of sortition (citizens’ assemblies) you argue against, does not quite do it justice. We believe that the trick to understanding how a citizen’s assembly really works and what it can accomplish, is to stop thinking through the zero-sum lens of “us vs. them.”

    Zero-sum is how electoral party politics necessarily functions: where there is a winner, there must be a loser. Hence, compromise and prioritization of common good over aggregated interests is rarely feasible. Also, as the failure of governments to adequately acknowledge the severity of our climate destabilization shows: however important a topic may be, if it’s too big or there’s no easy answer there’s no surefire way to win votes. Hence, most politicians don’t touch it.

    I don’t know about 4th century Athenians, but a wealth of evidence coming back from citizens’ assemblies that have been convened all over the world from Canada (Reference Panels, Mass LBP) to Ireland, shows that citizens placed in a room for several weekends with access to balanced information, will make social, forward-looking decisions.

    The outlying and isolated viewpoints of disenfranchised individuals go through a moderating process. A palpable sense of collective responsibility emerges in a room of such citizen co-rulers. The result is a new ability and willingness to look at issues from the perspective of the whole and not the individual. This is no longer the realm of theory, the proof is in the pudding.

    We are not saying we know or would necessarily agree with the hard decisions citizen’s assemblies would make. But we would know that the widest range of viewpoints, backgrounds and social needs was represented in making these decisions. This would include those from communities most vulnerable to the consequences of ecological breakdown. Hence, whatever the decisions, they would likely be better informed and imbued with a more appropriate measure of urgency than those of politicians.

    Global warming is a topic which governents of individual nations will have to address and resolve, by mobilizing CO2 reduction and drawdown techniques in order to meet global treaties like Paris and hopefully better ones to come. These are highly complex questions that will obviously need to be broken down into component parts. These include agriculture, food, transport, war, energy infrastructure etc. etc. To each of the harmful practices there are regenerative alternatives ready to be scaled. What stands in the way? The interests of those stakeholders who would stand to lose out on a profit, and those politicans representing these interests. This is not a conspiracy, it is fact.

    Carbon is a good place to start: “this is how much carbon each industry or sector of society produces, this is how much it must reduce it by and this is how much it must offset to become carbon negative.” To transition without conflict, we would need citizen’s assemblies or reference panels, with a sufficient measure of legitimacy that their decisions or recommendations could be trusted and obeyed by the wide sectors of society and industry that would invariably be affected by these changes. As far as we can see, its that or dicey geoengineering schemes sold to governments sold to governments without our consultation and possibly even more widely damaging consequences. Market mechanisms won’t fix the mess we’re in, ‘commons sense’ might.

    We encourage you to believe in the power of citizen’s assemblies to turn most disenfranchised angry people running off their mouths into thoughtful listeners with a sense of civic responsibility.

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  4. Hi bardsortition,

    Welcome! Thank you for your work. It is wonderful news that Bard college now has a pioneering institute for sortition. Could you tell us more about this institute and about your plans?

    Regarding your article:

    It may be true that on climate change the industrial elite did not act against the popular interest (although the fact that we have some statements to this effect is far from convincing evidence for this claim). However, it is an established scientific fact that in general the policy outcomes of elected government represents the interests of the rich. Thus whenever we see in an electoral regime a policy that seems destructive to the public good, we should be asking ourselves if this policy in fact serves the rich.

    Imagining that sortition can usher in politics that would be without contention, where we all share the same interests, strive for the same goals and everybody wins, is engaging in dangerous wishful thinking. Yes – politics can be a non-zero sum game in the sense that we can have policies that serve the large majority much better than current policies do. But inevitably, if that happens, some people – the tiny ruling elite – will see their power diminish, which they see an end to be avoided at all costs (to rest of us).

    Best,

    Yoram

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  5. Bardsortition:> To transition without conflict, we would need citizen’s assemblies or reference panels, with a sufficient measure of legitimacy that their decisions or recommendations could be trusted and obeyed by the wide sectors of society and industry that would invariably be affected by these changes.

    That’s a tough call — I’m glad that you acknowledge the importance of legitimacy and obedience (democratic authority in Estlund’s terminology). Most deliberative democrats (Helene Landemore is a prime example) are simply not interested in this sort of consideration (or for that matter in the representativeness of the sortition body). I agree with Fishkin that the goal is to find out what everybody would think under good conditions, and that (IMO) requires invariance between the decision outcome of each citizen assembly (not true with DP experiments so far), so that it would make no difference which empirical individuals were included in the sample.

    >We encourage you to believe in the power of citizen’s assemblies to turn most disenfranchised angry people running off their mouths into thoughtful listeners with a sense of civic responsibility.

    A noble idea, but the most important consideration is that the vast majority of citizens who don’t get to participate (the disenfranchised angry ones) should feel that they have ownership of the decision outcome. Rousseau argued that this would mean that all citizens would have to participate, and the relevant consideration for us sortinistas is how to do that with a minipublic. That’s a serious problem, irrespective of how well-managed the deliberative procedure is.

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  6. Yoram:> it is an established scientific fact that in general the policy outcomes of elected government represents the interests of the rich.

    For a detailed refutation of this “established scientific fact” see: https://equalitybylot.com/2014/04/17/commentary-on-gilens-and-page-average-citizens-have-no-political-influence/

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  7. *** Keith Sutherland says (March 9) : « Tony Blair claimed that the only reason he avoided taxing aviation fuel was because the masses would rise up in protest at the increased cost of package holidays. »
    *** Which percent of British people uses much the airplane ? More than 1%, sure. But maybe less than 99%. Which were the social classes Blair was afraid of ?
    *** In France at least taxation of car fuel is much higher that for airplane fuel. Many low-income workers use car (the Gilets Jaunes first demand was about it), few the airplane. Maybe some connection ?

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  8. *** Keith Sutherland says (March 9) « Is there any evidence that the demos in 4th century Athens put the welfare of future generations above their own comforts? I seem to remember one of the criticisms at the time was that they were more interested in subsidised theatre tickets than the defence of the realm ».
    *** The debate about the theôrikon in Demosthenes’ Athens had nothing to do with « welfare of future generations vs one’s comfort ». *** Military defeat against Macedon could bring bad prospects for future generations, but likewise for the voters’ comfort. Bad policy could mean death, destruction of the city, enslavement of the survivors and the families – see the fate of Olynthus in the hands of Philip and of Thebes in the hand of Alexander.
    *** The theôrikon was actually a kind of « civic income », part of a kind of welfare state (as the political income for the assembly men and the jurors). From better managing of public revenues (as the Laurion mines) and from taxes by the wealthy classes, the poorer parts of the civic body got an extra income. The political effects were stabilizing : the poorer classes were turned away from the imperialist temptation (already weakened by earlier failures), and from class war. Demades did not say something stupid when he claimed that the theôrikon was « the glue of democracy ». It was a part of the Athenian « second democracy » model.
    *** The political dilemma of Demosthenes’ Athens is something different from « welfare of future generations vs one’s comfort ». The latter dilemma is typical of 21st century modern world, not from ancient worlds.

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  9. Andre,

    > *** In France at least taxation of car fuel is much higher that for airplane fuel. Many low-income workers use car (the Gilets Jaunes first demand was about it), few the airplane. Maybe some connection ?

    At least as late as 2012, jet fuel was not taxed at all in the UK:

    At present, although road fuel is charged excise duty, which represents a substantial proportion of the pump price paid by motorists, aviation kerosene (AVTUR) which is used in jet engines is exempt from this tax.

    It seems that, astonishingly, Tony Blair may not have been strictly and completely truthful in his dealings with the British people.

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  10. Andre:> Which percent of British people uses much the airplane ?

    A remarkably high percentage. An illustrative anecdote from my own experience: we sent our children to private school (which qualifies me for villainy as one of the 1%), and as a consequence all we could ever afford for a holiday was a week in a miserable caravan park a few miles from home. When we finally saved enough for a mediterranean package holiday, our fellow passengers appeared to be primarily C1, C2 and DE socioeconomic class. One lady — a bank clerk — who was staying in our villa with her children told us this was her second overseas holiday of the year. Easyjet and Ryanair have completely transformed the demographic of airline package holidays, and politicians meddle with that at their peril.

    Yoram,

    That illustrates my point — Blair (despite his genuine concerns over climate change) was too frightened of the demos to tax aviation fuel. He chose instead the easy path of subsidising diesel car ownership, even though the (unforseen) consequence has been a massive increase in highly toxic particulate and NO2 pollution. The problem is not the sinister interests of the political class, it’s the wish of voters to protect their own lifestyle.

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  11. Sutherland,

    As usual, you are either clueless or making a good imitation of being clueless.

    The point is that most of Blair’s voters pay much more in petrol taxes than they would pay in jet fuel taxes. And yet, petrol taxes are kept at their high level and jet fuel taxes are kept at zero. It is only those who fly frequently and to far-away destinations that benefit from the current tax structure. Those are business travelers and the rich. Surely, just another coincidence.

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  12. Yoram,

    Whilst it would, indeed, be more rational for voters to be concerned about the price of petrol than aviation fuel, it never pays to underestimate the power of emotion (“tax on foreign holidays”). If Andre is right and French citizens are more likely to drive than fly, then this explains the discrepancy between the two countries. And businesses are more worried about the cost of domestic transportation than executive air travel (otherwise they would fly economy).

    What is at issue is two competing theories of electoral democracy — whether politicians pander to the electorate or whether they are in hock to sinister interests. I’m more disposed to the former, and you to the latter, so please respect this difference and refrain from personal insults and sarcasm.

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  13. Clearly politicians do both. Both dynamics are bad, and both are rampant… we neither get to have our cake, nor get to eat cake either. ;-)

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  14. Sure, it’s a bit of both. But how to fix it is a nontrivial problem, and sortition is not a magic bullet.

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  15. Terry,

    No – just like in the case of Blair and the airport, and as Gilens’s data shows, politicians do not pander to the voters. They serve narrow interests and when convenient they use “pandering” as an excuse. Blair, like our friend Sutherland here, thinks that people are stupid enough (“emotional”) not to notice. They are not, and they have certainly noticed.

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  16. Yoram,

    As you know (because you participated in the lengthy exchange on this forum), Gilens’ dataset is open to a variety of interpretations. And no amount of bluster, sarcasm and ad hominem attacks can conceal the fact that your denial of rational ignorance and pandering puts you in a minority of one amongst both political scientists and sortinistas.

    There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader. (Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin)

    PS How do you reconcile the genuine variety of perspectives both within and between the “political class” and “the masses” over Brexit with your binary sociology of class interests? And who could possibly envy Theresa May for her job?

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  17. Sutherland,

    As you have admitted many times, you are a liar.

    The fact that you offer a couple of cliches and your ignorant, incoherent comments as a refutation of scientific evidence is either just another one of your lies or an indication that you are also a self-important fool.

    What you call “ad hominems” are simply facts. If you are unhappy with those facts, it is up to you to change them.

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  18. I’m sure other members of EbL will make up their own minds as to whether this is a case of “facts” and “scientific evidence” or just plain old trolling. But it’s alarming when this behaviour is adopted by the moderator of a forum devoted to deliberative democracy, and will only serve to give sortition a bad name.

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  19. Yoram,
    All sorts of pandering to constituents is rampant in politics. One example in the U.S. military manufacturing companies distribute their subcontracts widely so that there will be some military procurement work in nearly every congressional district specifically to assure that every member of Congress will have some constituents whose jobs are dependent on continued military spending. These large corporations do not MERELY bribe representatives with campaign contributions… they assure that elected members’ drive to pander to constituents will help keep them in line as well. If these wealthy elite interests could rely on members of congress to do their bidding without laying the groundwork to utilize representatives’ drive to pander, they wouldn’t bother with this wasteful and inefficient distribution of subcontracts.

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  20. Terry,

    I don’t doubt that politicians aim to please the electorate, as long as none of their substantive goals, shaped by narrow interests, are jeopardized. This mostly takes the form of rhetoric, but some policy crumbs may also be involved.

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