In Response to Brexit: We’ve got to Unify, not Divide

Brexit is such an awful mess it’s hard to know where to begin.

It may mark the beginning of the end of the EU, which until recently has stood as our strongest example of humanity’s potential to transcend the intrinsic pettiness of national borders.

Compounding the tragedy is the multifaceted irony that “Leave” voters were motivated by factors that will now be magnified, not reduced, by their vote.   As many have already observed, the Brexit massively undermines the average English person’s economic self-interest.  

Yet the tragic ironies go so much deeper.  

Economic inequality was one of the main driving factors: Leave voters tended to be lower-income than Remain-ers.  Yet economic inequality is intractable in large part because the super-rich and corporations stash money in low-tax countries, beyond the reach of redistributive policies in their home countries, as the Panama Papers dramatically revealed.  The only solution is a global tax system, as German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, economist Thomas Piketty, and the Vatican have called for.  This requires unification, not hiding behind tribal borders.

A jingoistic desire to deter immigration, too, as reprehensible as this motive is, might also be better served by the expansion of the EU model than by its dissolution.  Desperate people will always do everything they can to relieve their desperation, including moving, even as refugees, as many of our own families have done.  This puts pressure on the periphery of desirable destinations like the EU and the US.  The only real way to relieve this pressure is to expand the “inside” to include everyone.  Yes, everyone.  Then both the social safety net (to whatever extent we maintain one), and human rights, backed fully by the rule of law, cover people where they already are, reducing the pressure to move.

But perhaps the most tragic ironies are historic.  England rose to power by colonizing the world, yet now retreats from immigration.  England / Great Britain might well have been crushed by Hitler were it not for the world community coming to its rescue.  A few of the Brexit voters, who skewed older than EU supporters, might have remembered that.  

Most important is the history still ahead of us.  The world is growing more interconnected, not less, and our biggest challenges, such as climate change, are global and respect no borders.  

The right response to today’s challenges is the courage to unify, not the tribal instinct to divide.

In the face of growing tribal / separatist pressure, we urgently need a new, progressive story that stakes out a clear, uplifting goal that will concretely make everyone’s lives better.  

What could be more inclusive, fair, and inspiring than One Global Democracy?


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How the Logic of Keystone Applies to One Global Democracy

Everyone concerned about climate change won a huge victory on Friday when President Obama rejected the Keysone XL pipeline. Stopping Keystone has been a top priority on the climate front for the past few years.

Noted environmental writer David Roberts explains why activists chose Keystone as our line in the sand, in a widely circulated Vox piece. Among several important points, Roberts writes:

One part of transitioning to a new world is actually building parts of it. That’s happening now: with renewable energy, electric cars, and smarter grids starting to come together, it’s at least possible to see ahead, however dimly, to a world that’s not dependent on fossil fuels. There are new and better alternatives now, which is a key political and messaging asset.

But the other part of transitioning to a new world is contesting the legitimacy of the old one. That means taking assumptions, institutions, and technologies that have a presumptive social warrant — that are assumed necessary, legitimate, and worthwhile by default — and, God help me for using this word, problematizing them.

The same logic applies to building a movement for One Global Democracy. Half the answer is building new systems, such as blockchain-based voting, that will make our current systems obsolete, as Buckminster Fuller famously prescribed.

But, as Roberts points out, the other half of the strategy is to build a cultural challenge to institutions and practices that have long been presumed inevitable, yet no longer serve us.

Less than six months ago, we put to rest the entrenched but false idea that marriage should be only between a man and a woman.

Now, with the Keystone victory, we’re challenging the presumption that we must always burn any available fossil fuels.

Next, let’s ask whether we should still rely on our centuries-old system of separate nation-states to handle global problems — like climate change — or whether the time has come for a better model.


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A Better Approach to China — and the World

(Versions of this piece have also been published at The Huffington Post and Medium.)  

Escalating tensions between the US and China, while ominous, offer a useful reminder that the artificial division of our world into separate nation-states may no longer serve us, and present a compelling reason to consider a better model.

To briefly review some of the alarming recent news: China has been artificially building islands that previously were little more than reefs, placing artillery there, talking about expanding its air-defense zone to cover them, and warning US military planes to leave the area.  It’s also been building up its navy and reconfiguring its missiles so each one can hold multiple nuclear warheads.

Chinese construction of an island in the South China Sea

In response, the US has called on China to stop building islands, and our military has proposed a show of strength.  Our ally Japan regularly confronts China with fighter planes.

On the economic front, China is investing heavily in the creation of a modernized trade route through Pakistan, buying up African natural resources, and building its presence in Antarctica.

Economically, President Obama has responded by framing his push on Capitol Hill for “fast track” authority to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement whose contents we are not allowed to see, as a strategic counter to China’s growing power, saying “if we don’t write the rules for trade around the world — guess what — China will.”

We must remember that the US-China relationship is complex.  China continues to invest billions here.  The two countries reached a breakthrough agreement on climate change last winter, and since then China has already dramatically reduced its carbon emissions.

Still, there’s every reason to take a perceived threat from China seriously.  It’s the world’s most populous country, and as its economy has surged to global prominence over the past decade, its industrial capacity, implicitly including war-making capability, has grown as well.

In some respects, this is the first time the US has faced such a situation since the end of World War II.  To be sure, we faced off against the Soviet Union throughout the cold war, and our relations with post-Soviet Russia under Putin have been frosty.  Yet, while the nuclear threat has darkened this picture for decades, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia has been a top economic or industrial power, despite the recent oil-and-gas wealth of its oligarchs.

So now is an opportune time to ask whether we want to continue the usual geopolitical power game, in which separate countries vie against each other for resources and dominance, threatening everyone’s survival, safety, and rights, or whether a new, globally inclusive, democratic governance structure would serve us better.

We in the US may rightly condemn China’s recent actions.  Yet we should also bear in mind that China’s recent muscle-flexing follows inevitably from its economic rise, given the perverse incentives of our fragmented global political structure.  With the world divided into separate nation-states, national governments can often keep order within their borders, but they face a constant power struggle beyond, with no legitimate entity truly in charge at the global level.  (The UN is simply too weak.)  Leaders whose only accountability comes from within their borders can build their power at home by elbowing their neighbors, so they do.  This is especially true in countries with ascendant economies, such as China today, or the US at many points over the past 100-plus years.

The structural inevitability of confrontations like the one now developing with China should compel us to consider an alternative that has never been possible until now: a single, global democracy, including everyone (holding dictators, terrorists, and other criminals accountable to the rule of law).

With blockchain technology (the secure, distributed ledger underlying bitcoin) it’s now becoming feasible to securely record the votes of potentially limitless numbers of people, online.  Although related challenges remain (the secret ballot, unique voting accounts, the digital divide) all of these appear solvable over the next decade or two, and possibly sooner.

Of course, it’s important to consider what kinds of policies a single, global democracy might lead to.  Although the actions of major foreign governments, such as China’s, are troubling in many respects, the point of a global democracy is to take national governments, with their warped incentives, out of the picture, and instead put global governance in the hands of everyone.

In part, this is a matter of faith in people’s essential reasonableness, the wisdom of crowds, the better angels of our nature, and the historical record, which has shown again and again that democracies, while fallible, generally produce fairer, more stable, and more peaceful outcomes than any other system of governance.

Yet it’s also supported by international polling data.  The Pew Research Center  has compiled a rich trove of such data, including these highlights:

  • A slim plurality of Chinese people say “our country should have UN approval before it uses military force to deal with an international threat.”
  • A plurality of Chinese people, along with a clear majority in India and majorities in many Muslim countries (which together comprise another major population group), prefer “a democratic form of government” rather than “a leader with a strong hand”.
  • Overwhelming majorities in China, India, and Muslim countries see climate change as a “serious problem”, and say “people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to address” it.

There are limits to the depth of this data, but what we can see is encouraging.

Obviously, beyond the top-line appeal of a call for a global democracy lie many key structural questions.  For example: what constitutional rights should be guaranteed to everyone? And how should inclusive deliberation and voting should be structured?  These are beyond the scope of this article, but they’re an exciting area for discussion; a forum for that conversation is here.

The archaic division of our world into separate nation-states leads inevitably to dangerous geopolitical rivalries.  It also prevents adequate global action on climate change (notwithstanding the recent US-China agreement), cripples our response to disease outbreaks, makes it impossible to rein in economic inequality, and traps people worldwide in poverty.  In all of these ways, the present system is failing us.

Until recently, one could argue that we couldn’t do much better: national borders have crudely reflected humanity’s technological and administrative limits for centuries.  But today, for the first time in history, a better solution is within our grasp: one global democracy.

Obviously, nation-states won’t go away on their own.  Those who benefit from today’s structures (e.g., heads of state, CEOs of unaccountable multinational corporations) will defend them.

It will take time to build a movement in support of a global democracy, potentially decades.  Or, with the accelerating rate of change, things could move more quickly.

But with so much at stake, and new technology making it feasible, the time to begin the conversation has come.


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The Kenya Massacre: Why We Need One Global Democracy

(This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.)

147 students were massacred in Kenya two days ago.  The Times says:

The attack on Thursday exposed just how powerless this industrialized, westernized country is in the face of a ruthless terrorist organization.

Here’s an abbreviated description of the killings on Thursday, from Agence France-Presse:

Piles of bodies and pools of blood running down the corridors: survivors of the Kenya university massacre described how laughing gunmen taunted their victims amid scenes of total carnage…

“I have seen many things, but nothing like that,” said [an aid worker].

“There were bodies everywhere in execution lines, we saw people whose heads had been blown off, bullet wounds everywhere, it was a grisly mess.”

These students died horrible deaths, in part because their national government could not protect them.

A similar point, about the incapacity of governments in the developing world to protect their people, was made by David Brooks about a year ago, in a column titled “The Republic of Fear,” highlighting a book called The Locust Effect.  Brooks wrote:

People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order. The District of Columbia spends about $850 per person per year on police. In Bangladesh, the government spends less than $1.50 per person per year on police. The cops are just not there…

[Authors] Haugen and Boutros tell the story of an 8-year-old Peruvian girl named Yuri whose body was found in the street one morning, her skull crushed in, her legs wrapped in cables and her underwear at her ankles. The evidence pointed to a member of one of the richer families in the town, so the police and prosecutors destroyed the evidence. Her clothing went missing. A sperm sample that could have identified the perpetrator was thrown out. A bloody mattress was sliced down by a third, so that the blood stained spot could be discarded.

Yuri’s family wanted to find the killer, but they couldn’t afford to pay the prosecutor, so nothing was done. The family sold all their livestock to hire lawyers, who took the money but abandoned the case. These sorts of events are utterly typical — the products of legal systems that range from the arbitrary to the Kafkaesque.

We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold… But people without our inherited institutions live on the other side of the threshold and have a different reality… Their world is governed… more by raw fear…

The primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order.

Agree or disagree about “law and order” here in the United States; it certainly has its dark side.

But people everywhere, worldwide, deserve a basic level of security that only the rule of law can provide.

The old, discredited answer to this problem is colonialism.  Almost always, colonial powers justified their exploitive rule from afar by pointing to indigenous incapacity to secure order.  Of course, colonialism failed, bankrupting the colonizers and typically leaving Hobbesian chaos in its wake.  Today, violence across the Middle East and in Africa is its legacy.

What we need instead is rule of law in which everyone has a voice and a stake.  Yes, everyone, worldwide.

We need One Global Democracy.


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Today’s Trade Agreements are Backwards, but We Can Do Better

(This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.)

Today’s Times has an exposé on the draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the latest international trade agreement under negotiation, based on a disclosure from Wikileaks.

It highlights one of the scariest things about this and previous trade agreements: it

“would allow foreign corporations to sue the United States government for actions that undermine their investment “expectations” and hurt their business.”

Senator Sherrod Brown sums up the problem, saying:

“This continues the great American tradition of corporations writing trade agreements, sharing them with almost nobody, so often at the expense of consumers, public health and workers.”

This is both ugly and sad.

Sad because, fundamentally, trade agreements could do a lot of good.  Trade is a much better way of allocating resources and distributing goods than warfare, and it helps link the world together on peaceful terms, which is why Steven Pinker cites it as one key reason for the historic decline of war, in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Trade agreements, and the pressure for them, are also among the strongest present-day expressions of humanity’s need to move beyond the restrictions of nation-states, militarized borders, and a fragmented patchwork of rules and rights.  This is, potentially, a good thing.

The legitimate force that drives trade agreements is companies’ need for predictability and stability in order to invest beyond the borders of their home country.  Everyone can support that.

But where trade agreements go wrong is in secret negotiations, with virtually zero democratic input or accountability, leading to scary stuff like the potential for corporations to demand and win hundreds of millions in tax dollars simply for obeying our laws.

Small wonder that congressional leaders including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and more than 20 House Republicans oppose fast-track approval for these agreements, that American citizens took to the streets to shut down the World Trade Organization talks in 1999, or that the people of Chiapas, Mexico responded to NAFTA violating their rights with the armed Zapatista rebellion.

There has to be a better way.  Stability and predictability are undermined, not enhanced, with agreements like this Trans-Pacific Partnership draft, wildly skewed in favor of corporations, at the expense of people’s health and safety, the environment, and democracy.

Imagine, instead, an alternative that’s within reach: people participating, democratically, in sorting out what trans-national trade agreements should say.  (Emerging technology will soon make this possible.)  We’d get a leveling-up of environmental, health, and safety protections, reversing the race-to-the-bottom that otherwise prevails as companies seek to evade regulation and countries compete for their business.

The outcome would be much more transparent, stable, and predictable for the companies too.  They could invest on a level playing field.

If we play fair, everyone can win.


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Why One Global Democracy (video)

I recently gave this talk at an event sponsored by the tech blog Pando.

The overall event was called “Don’t Be Awful: Ideas for a Better Silicon Valley”, and featured a variety of speakers. The video runs about 28 minutes.

 


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NYT on the Blockchain’s Many Uses

Today’s New York Times features a report on the many uses of blockchain technology, which underlies Bitcoin, that go beyond financial transactions.

This brings new public visibility to a point we’ve highlighted for some time.

Though not mentioned by the Times, one exciting non-financial application of the blockchain could be secure online voting, which is not possible through conventional Internet technology.

Secure online voting could be a key factor making a global democracy technologically and logistically feasible.

Here’s the Times:

The blockchain, [entrepreneurs] say, could ultimately upend not only the traditional financial system but also the way people transfer and record financial assets like stocks, contracts, property titles, patents and marriage licenses — essentially anything that requires a trusted middleman for verification.

The Times story also includes a pretty good basic description of the blockchain and what it can do.

Once again, the blockchain by itself isn’t the whole answer to enabling online voting, but it could get us over a couple of big security hurdles that have been insurmountable until now.


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Roger Cohen: Islam and the West at War

Roger Cohen argues today that the rise of ISIS and the threat it poses to the West stem from the failure of the Arab Spring to provide a more civil path to frustrated Arabs:

“The rise of the Islamic State, and Obama’s new war, are a direct result of the failure of the Arab Spring, which had seemed to offer a path out of the deadlocked, jihadi-spawning societies of the Arab world.”

He also writes:

“Only Arabs can find the answer to this crisis. But history, I suspect, will not judge Obama kindly for having failed to foster the great liberation movement that rose up in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Inaction is also a policy: Nonintervention produced Syria today.”

But the buck doesn’t stop at Obama. It’s up to all of us to create an inclusive society that offers real participation and opportunity to people everywhere.

The escalating conflict between Islamic fundamentalists and the West underscores how important it is that we begin to build this better world now.


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