Marginal Revolutions on Democracy: The Game Show

I asked Tyler Cowen what he thought of the public policy game show idea. He posted my request for comments, and there has been some helpful stuff from his readers:

As president, I would solve all the world’s problems by creating a reality TV show where think tanks compete for the best solutions to everything from health care to energy policy to immigration. The judges would be experts who help viewers sort the squirrel shit from the caviar, but the final decisions would be made by viewers, just like on American Idol. […]

Seriously, I’d love to watch a reality show where two think tanks argue over whether we should go balls-to-the-wall growing sugar cane and turning it into fuel. Is corn for losers? Does Brazil have it right? It’s all slightly too boring for me to research on my own, and it wouldn’t help because I don’t believe anything I read. But I’d watch a reality show about it if the losers were insulted by someone witty. That’s the kind of leader I am.

  • Yang described something similar in China:

You’ll be amazed by how socially engaged many Chinese citizens are, given the political censorship. There are discussions on everything from one-child policy to the possibility of Korea unification; the only censored topic is really the Communist Party and the political process. Perhaps there’s a trade-off – when people don’t have a specific party or politician to attack or vote against, they actually think more about the policies.

  • Several people commented on the difficulty in accurately judging the outcomes of proposed policy soluations. For instance, b_a wrote:

Like SteveX above, I too think that the main problem would be the selection of the policy-judges. How to select unbiased, non-ideological experts with knowledge? And how to convince the viewers in a politicized democracy of that unbiasedness of a good selection? Analysis from one judge which went against the beliefs or preferred policies of large or important social groups would always face the criticism of ideology. I fear that in view of this problem, there would be a pressure to select judges proportionally from all political parties as well as from important interest groups. Such a selection would predict a lot of political posturing and not a lot of thoughtful analysis from the judges. The incentives the judges face from outside of the game show might dominate.

I tend to think this is a feature, not a bug, but that’s because I’m more interested in controversy and “buzz” as a way of generating the knock-on effects of off-screen deliberation. If the projections are in dispute, that’s part and parcel of the goal, which is to draw attention to the issues that matter, even if this also draws our attention to the uncertainties or factual disagreements that matter

  • Several people quipped that politics is already a game show or that this would be boring. I tend to think these two claims cancel each other out. On the other hand, Geraldo wrote:

Previous comments are not nearly effusive enough. This is a GENIUS idea! Genius!

Every day, myself and four of my closest friends* are engaged in endless email discussions. A good many of them center around policy reform, so I say yes, this game show could at least run one season. Although if there’s going to be spider eating, I’m out.

*We’re all women, so if any screenwriters/novelists would like to show realistic depictions of women talking to other women, there you go.

So I’ve got that going for me! If we could get half of the Daily Show’s audience (which tops out at about 3.6 million) would that be enough to sustain another reality tv show?

Post-Communist Russia: “a Walpurgis Night in which all cats are gray”

I don’t know nearly as much about the years following the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union as I would like to. I know the basics: that Yeltsin won against Gorbachev and instituted free market reforms, and I know that most state industries came under the control of former Communist Party members, and it’s quite obvious that some sort of alliance between the secret police and organized crime formed. But in the most recent issue of Dissent, Schlomo Avineri lays out the three stages of post-communism in the kind of neat formulation that’s either stolen from academics or is bound to be stolen by academics (like me!) The article is here. Some choice quotes from the first few pages:

The Soviet Union had no Lech Walesas or Vaclav Havels. No former dissidents or prisoners became ministers or presidents in Moscow, in contrast to Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague. Instead, there was an internal bureaucratic shift in the Kremlin. “Reformers” defeated “hard-liners.” The Baltic countries and also—up to a point—Georgia were different, however, because in them dissidents did take office. In Moscow, it was a new cadre of bureaucrats that oversaw reforms. […]

[….] Being anticommunist did not automatically mean being a democrat. The victorious anticommunist camps of 1989 were made up of democrats and liberals, social democrats and conservatives, nationalists and religious fundamentalists, anti-Russian chauvinists and—yes, frankly—semi-fascists and anti-Semites who sought to expiate (somewhat) their sordid pasts by posing as freedom lovers. […]

[…]Enthusiasm for rapid marketization obscured the impact of reforms on social strata that would suffer from the abolition of some of the safety nets provided by communism: retirees, workers in rust-belt, Soviet-style industries, provincial residents. Not everyone was a winner in the postcommunist paradise.

Finally, there are no shortcuts to democracy. It does not emerge overnight, automatically, and it is not enough to have an elite committed to democracy and markets. After all, democracy in countries such as Britain and France took centuries, and the United States needed a civil war to abolish slavery and another century to enfranchise fully its black population. The political histories of Germany, Italy, and Spain show how complex, tortuous, and sometimes murderous the transformation toward democracy can be.

Saul Alinsky in 2008: Radicalism Revisited

To some conservatives, the fact that both Clinton and Obama have connections to Saul Alinsky (of Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals fame) is the dirty Communist Party affiliation of this election. In truth, Clinton’s thesis (pdf) on Alinsky provoked more comment as a secret than it has as a public document, while Obama’s participation in the Gamaliel Foundation has supplied little more than a rhetoric and practice of civic participation. Now that more sympathetic audiences are trying to suss out the consequences of the Alinsky connection, it has become clear that Clinton and Obama actually take two different approaches to the Alinsky method: Clinton mobilizes, while Obama organizes. *Cue Scary Music* Continue reading Saul Alinsky in 2008: Radicalism Revisited