Thursday, January 21, 2010

Democratic Decisions.... and Others

What are the odds that a large number of people who have been re-electing Ted Kennedy their entire life, will turn around and vote for his opposite? Pretty slim, don't you think? If it happens nonetheless, what does it mean?

I'm in favor of everybody, everywhere, having reliable lifelong health insurance. So may we set aside that issue?

I realize - and a number of readers made this palpable earlier this week when I blogged on an adjacent subject - that it must be extraordinarily frustrating to win a large majority in democratic elections, and still not be able to legislate your agenda.

The question remains: what does it mean? Too many people think it proves their political adversaries are fundamentally evil, or insane, or at least petrified by some irrational fear. This rather undermines the entire democratic system, where the starting point is that as a general rule a majority of the electorate will most of the time either make reasonable decisions or quickly correct its mistakes. If you don't accept that premise, in what way exactly are you a democrat? We've got such people here in Israel, small groups at both ends of the political spectrum, and I recognize the thought pattern. It's not an admirable position to be in.

Might it be the rules? Each functioning democracy has its quirks that snarl up smooth legislation, but also protect this or that minority from the majority, which is why they're there in the first place. The rules have generally been there for a long time, so they can't plausibly be "against" this particular government, or that one. Clever leaders know how to get their agendas through the system they have, at least sometimes, precisely because they know the rules and know how to operate them. This ability is ultimately one measure of politicians' true leadership.

Sometimes, however, a democratic society really can't decide. A majority of Israelis hasn't managed to get the Haredis to serve in the army or pull their weight in the economy (though there are inching improvements); a majority of Israelis would like to end most of the occupation, but that isn't working, either. In none of those cases are the minorities evil or irrational. They've got a different agenda, and they've figured out how the system can be manipulated to serve them.

It's a price a society pays for enjoying democracy.

The economist has a sobering article telling how ever more countries are abandoning democracy or whittling it down. That's far worse than not being able to enact a law, be it ever so important.


Steven said...

Actually Congress is more representative of the public than the president.

Also polls indicate that the vast majority of the public oppose ObamaCare.

Trying to force it truth against the wishes of the people is antidemocratic, even if it is Obama's goal.

Steven said...

Trying to force it *through*, against the...

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Congress and the interviewee here talks about US-Regierung so I assume he means all of them. He is said to be knowledgeable about the social backgrounds of the governing - if you jump to "reagan" in the text you get my quote below - if this change leads to other changes he doesn't say except that homogeneous groups tend to think and talk uniform stuff but my everyday experience is that the academic classes have become less and less keen over the decades on listening to the "ramblings of untrained minds" i.e. they react to all objections to their ideas rather impatiently especially if their ideas are McKinsey etc sanctified. So maybe the scheme that the "worthy" get two votes each is already well on its way.

" bis 1980 kleinbürgerliche Mehrheiten in den Regierungen mit für die USA relativ ausgeglichener Einkommensverteilung, mit einem Anteil von 30 Prozent für die oberen zehn Prozent, danach die Zusammensetzung der Kabinette erheblich bürgerlicher, großbürgerlicher, also unter Reagan unter Bush bis zu 90 Prozent upper und upper middle class.

Und die Einkommensverteilung ist danach drastisch auseinandergegangen. Die oberen zehn Prozent haben inzwischen 50 Prozent. Und das ist ein Zusammenhang, der erklärt sich über Steuergesetzgebung, Sozialgesetzgebung und Ähnliches."

Avigdor said...

Hitler Finds Out Scott Brown Won Massachusetts Senate Seat

Off topic, but you won't regret it! ;)

Anonymous said...


That was really stupid, tasteless, and not at all funny. Super insensitive. And woefully, out of place on the blog of a an expert on Nazis.


kai said...

Applause to Yaacov. That's what democracy is about. And no one understands nor even listens.

May be you have to have real hardcore experience in a world without democracy (I do have), or you are an originate thinker (as Yaacov is).

Empress Trudy said...

Since the political dialog has been dominated by the fringe at both ends both of which openly espouse fascist totalitarianism in sweet sounding words it should shock no one that the world is heading this way.

Anonymous said...

Actually Kenneth Arrow showed under relatively wide assumptions that you can't design a system under which the minority can not at some point impose their will.


Anonymous said...

no American President through all of your history deserves begin compared to Hitler
- whoever does that has no idea what it was all about

(and btw every snippet of the film I see convinces me that it was a bad film - the man had the ability to make people swoon and without showing that it turns into a nothing)


Avigdor said...

No one is comparing anyone to Hitler. It's a hilarious parody precisely because the object is somber but the subject is contemporary, and it would be just as hilarious had the target been Republicans. Anyone so sensitive on the issue of Hitler as to take offense to this parody needs medication.

We're not naming a teddy bear after Mohammed here, or drawing cartoons of prophets. This is Hitler, for crying out loud - he is not sacred subject matter!

I haven't seen the movie yet; loaned a brand new DVD out to a friend 2 years ago and haven't gotten it back! I do want to see it; the actor playing Hitler is fantastic in the previews.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the advice but were the writings on your "fabulous" video not meant to have been said by the president? If yes then it is a comparison
besides that I took the medication - Silke

a pity that it doesn't seem to be available with subtitles

zionist juice said...


looking at israel and the issue of the settlements, you can find an even ironic situation:
before 1967 and in the war the left supported to get the territories (israel only got the golan on the last day, and nobody expected that).
the right (including the religious zionists) opposed to get the territories.
now those who then supported to get the territories want to give them back and those who did not want are doubting that step.

i think it is not appropriate to compare the haredi parties to the issue in the US. in the end the haredi parties are not democratic. they are a minority and take part in the democratic process. but do not accept the rules of the game.

you cannot compare the struggle between the democrats and the republicans in the US with a small party that is quite smart in using its role as a kingmaker but would abolish several basic democratic rules if they could.

i do not mean shas' populism, hatred or xenophobia (saying foreigners bring deceases, or that the reason why kathrina hit new orleans is because there are not enough people living there that study torah, argueing that there are a lot african americans living there and they do not study torah; since you live in jerusalem, you can maybe visit one of rabbi yosef's service and listen to his political messages; that is the politization of judaism (juxtaposed of what being did, what i would call the the judaization of politics), and it is bad for judaizm in the long run).
but as far as i am informed it is yosef who decides who runs for shas and there is no inner-democratic decision by the shas members.
yosef's role as a spiritual leader of shas reminds me of the ayatulla system in iran....

but in the end the haredi issue is more a part of the problem of civil society; and it is an issue if one part of civil society does not accept another. (i do not think it is an issue of tolerance but of "respecting/accepting the other", a question of freedom; shas does not want more freedom, they want social justice).

in the US you have players who accept the agreed rules of the game and hence are totally democratic when they achieve their goals.
in israel you have minorities who received what they wanted because somebody needed them.
but: they do not accept the rules of the game.
will the settlers accept if the kneset will make bill that makes living in the west bank illegal for israelis? did the settlers in gaza accept that the law forces them to leave? will shas protect or support the protection of minorities if they are nor pious jews but russians, arabs or refugees from africa or if they are haredi women who want to leave haredi society who want to leave this social environment?

Anonymous said...


Two problems:

>>This is Hitler, for crying out loud - he is not sacred subject matter!<<

You're right. Hitler is evil. And any equating to Hitler - other than say, to Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. - trivializes 's the evil that Nazism was. This, of itself, is a bad thing for democracies.

But the 2nd problem is that pieces like this degrade the dialogue. The process of democracy is dialogue. It is the listening of 2 adversarial sides and coming to a consensus that tries to take into account everyone's concerns, as much as is possible, and creating the most beneficial state for the demos. At least that is the ideal.

But when one side refuses to listen, when one side resorts to slogans or epithets, instead of logical argumentation, the dialogue ends and the gridlock begins.

The subtitling does equate Obama with Hitler. It trivializes Hitler's evil. It degrades the dialogue about health insurance reform.


Anonymous said...

Nothing to say, Yaakov, other than to point out hat I read your blog every day. Since some posts don't get comments I thought you might want to know that they are still being read.


signed an appreciative reader.

BTW, if I knew how to email you, I would have sent you a direct note, which seems the more appropriate way to say thank you.

AKUS said...

This unexpected victory was a bit like Churchill's overthrow in the election in Britain after WW II.

Lee Ratner said...

Steven: You are completely misrepresenting the facts to make your point. A significant plurality of Americans oppose the Senate Healthcare Bill. However, the vast majority of Americans want healthcare reformed in this country. What they want is actually healthcare reform that is further to the left than the Senate Healthcare Bill. America has the freaking worst healthcare system in the Developed World by any objective measure and people like you constantly prevent necessary reform to save your precious free market capitalism.

Zionist Juice: The Republicans are not playing by the rules of Democracy. They are going beyond the role of loyal opposition to disloyal obstructionists. They are using every legislative trick in the book to make it practically impossible for Democrats to pass anything. They are doing this for naked political reasons. The GOP believes that by being obstructionist they can come back to power. They do not care about the good of the country but pure power.

Yaacov: If a minority can frequently stop the desires of the majority than there is no democracy. Minority rights are important but not to the extent that any democracy suffers from the same fate as the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth where one person could prevent the desires of everybody else.

Lee Ratner said...

Yaacov, this has been bugging me all day but healthcare is an important issue to me so I need to put this down even though this thread is old.

The healthcare situation in America is dire. 45 million Americans lack health insurance. 45,000 Americans die every year because of lack of health insurance. Hundreds of thousands of Americans declare bankruptcy every year because of medical problems. This numbers are only going to increase if there is not serious healthcare reform in the United States. The United States ranks around 38 in most health statistic lists but spends more person on healthcare than countries with socialist
medicine. The results are much poorer though.

Medicare for All would be the best possible solution because single-payer healthcare has been a proven success everywhere it was implemented. However, we have many people completely ideologically opposed to even the suggestion that something might be wrong with the American healthcare system and are using every dirty trick possible to prevent even the smallest amount of reform. That people would oppose necessary reform when countless tens of millions are suffering and that this number is increasing fast is evil. Sometimes you are dealing with evil and insane people. The opponents of healthcare reform are evil and should be treated as such.

Yaacov said...


We're not arguing about the need for everyone to have health insurance, which is indeed a reasonable proposition, though apparently some Americans feel that young healthy people who don't want it, shouldn't be forced to acquire it. (I leaned heavily on my health insurance when I was in my mid-20s, so I'm not convinced by the calculus, but that's another matter).

My point is about how the decision is made. Since the US moved towards widespread (not universal) health insurance earlier than most countries, but did so through the employers, my understanding is that a move to an all-pervasive national system such as most places have will be disruptive and complicated. It's also a larger place than most, is the US, with many levels of government which are crucially important to how you run your democracy. (Most democracies get along fine without states rights, for example, but that doesn't detract from the centrality of the matter in the US.)

It seems to me - take it from an external observer - that the way to fix things is in a truly bi-partisan national discussion. Of course such a thing would be complicated - but I don't see that the alternative is less so.

So far as I can see - and I may be wrong, it's not my main preoccupation - the Obama administration didn't try very hard to be bipartisan. What certainly didn't happen was that the president himself kick off the bi-partisan effort and keep track of it stage by stage. Had he done so, had he made visible efforts to hug the opposition to him so that together everyone reach a compromise, it might have shamed the opposition into cooperating.

He didn't try.

Anonymous said...

though I am deeply deeply weary of Obama's management style, as health insurance goes I would bet on him being innocent

- I live in the country with the oldest system in the world which has since its inception been patched up and patched over again and again and for decades now due to a changing world is in need of basic re-adjustment.

All kinds of people have tried, no way, no matter how savvy or all-encompassing you are you run against something like a tribal system of deeply entrenched feelings of entitlement who start behaving like war-lords or robber barons as soon as they sniff some movement at their border. Thus probably only brutal force could get at the basics and that even though our system is a lot more centralized than the American system seems to be inevitable - patching up again is the utmost attainable.

The one point that baffles me most though is that the Americans are priding themselves so very much at their mobility, moving elsewhere and starting over again (compared to us slow to get going Europeans), and do that with non-portable insurances. Even more amazing if compared to the old German auntie that wheezes along but still it has managed to extend coverage to the colonies of retirees in Turkey for example thus FACILITATING the mobility of working people also.

Anonymous said...

I see Lee Ratner is back with his propagandized version of the facts. Let me ask you then Lee: What proportion of those "45 million" are illegal aliens?

Anonymous said...

Yaacov -

FWIW, I think the major problem with our (US) health care debates, as well as every other political question, is that our discussion never gets beyond the first level. If I turn on the TV or radio or read I might hear/see, for example, "single-payer is the only solution." But we never go further than to say why it is a good idea, or why it isn't, or how we know one way or the other. Our discussions provide no depth. We don't ask the follow-up questions.

As for Obama's being bi-partisan, most people on the left here (US)pontificate that he tried too hard to be bi-partisan, and that he ended up being slapped in the face. He abandoned the "public-option," which most people on the left (and center) felt what was the heart of health-care reform. So, saying he made no bi-partisan effort does not hold with me.

I am only writing about this because of your larger discussion on the nature of democracy. Again, I think intelligent discussion is the key. When the discussion goes down, the interests become short term and close range, rather long term and for the general good.


PS. As an example, anon writes to Lee, "how many are illegal aliens?" Ok, but why is that relevant? What if none are? What would happen if illegals can buy health insurance? How do you know? etc.

Lee Ratner said...

Anonymous: I've never seen any statistic discussing what percentage of the 45 million without insurance are illegal immigrants. Generally, I believe that the statistics do not even address the coverage of illegal immigrants. Its a red hearing anyway. Illegal immigrants get sick to and providing healthcare for them makes sense on public health grounds alone. Most countries with socialized medicine provide coverage for their illegal immigrants on this matter in one way or another.
Your accusation of propaganda is very childish. Especially since I'm the one revealing who I am in the commentary section while you are not.

Yaacov: I really don't think you are paying close enough attention to the issue of healthcare in American politics closely enough. Until very recently large chunks of the American right could not even admit there was a problem with the American healthcare system for ideological reasons despite all the statistics to the contrary. The American right has embraced free market capitalism with the ardent belief of a religious fanatic. To them the solution to any problem must be a free market one and they really do not prosper well when the free market is a problem,
I think history demonstrates that providing healthcare is one area where pure socialism really works wonders. It might suck in the steel industry or most other industries but with healthcare, it works. Why do you think that so many different varieties of countries abandon free market healthcare when they can? A lot of people on the American left recognize this and want a single-payer solution to the problem. People on the American right want no government solution at all. You really can't have a bipartisan solution because both sides are polar opposites.
I could explain this better if I had more room but a commentary section of a blog is bad place to discuss at least hundred years of ideological divisions in American politics.

Anonymous said...

Lee Ratner
While being all for having a health insurance system that keeps me/us worry-free financially I remember well the times when we had "pure socialism" in health care. Ever since the cost started to spiral out of control they have tried to introduce some kind of competition. That has achieved at a minimum that the administrative costs are now less high than they would be otherwise.

Oh and btw it wasn't only the progress that drove the costs upward during the purely socialistic period everybody considered the benefits a free for all. Patients, Doctors, Politicians, Insurance Personnel, Industry, Hospitals, you name it. We patients for one were quite shameless about it trading tips and tricks on what else one might off-load to the insurance.

And as to illegal immigrants needing medical help I understand that they are in danger of getting expelled plus deeply in debt. How that works technically given that doctors have to keep mum about their patients I do not know, but illegals are frightened of it and trade adresses of doctors with whom they share nationality and who are "known" to keep them under the radar.
Silke (German)