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.

Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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.

Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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.

Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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.

Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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.


Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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.

Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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.

Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.

25 Years After Berlin, Do We Still Need Walls?

(A version of this article was published at The Huffington Post / The World Post  on November 8th, 2014)

The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago this winter.  People on both sides filled the streets in celebration, cheered on by virtually everyone around the world.  For all of us who were alive then, it remains one of the most hopeful historical moments we’ve ever experienced.

For the previous two generations, people everywhere had lived in fear.  In the East, repressive surveillance states turned neighbor against neighbor.  In the West, we lived under the specter of nuclear war and spent a huge share of our wealth on our military, at a terrible social cost.  The overarching conflict between the US and the Soviet Union drove proxy wars worldwide.

And suddenly, the cause of all this evaporated.  Surely, a bright, new world was at hand.

Now that 25 years have passed, it’s an appropriate time to take stock.  Have we seized our historic opportunity to create, at last, a more peaceful world?

Sadly, we have not:

  • By Wikipedia’s count, the US has engaged in 10 wars since then, and we now live in a surveillance state the East German secret police would have envied.
  • Russia has reasserted regional military dominance, annexing Crimea, threatening other parts of Ukraine, and re-conquering Chechnya.
  • The Middle East is a boiling cauldron of warfare, much of it touched off by the American invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

How can it be that we’ve made so little progress, following such a breakthrough?

As citizens, we largely left the job of converting the end of the Cold War into a lasting peace in the hands of our national governments.  We had little alternative at first: in 1989, the Internet had not yet been widely adopted, so people worldwide had no way to band together at scale.

But now we do.  The arrival of the Internet has upended virtually every major system on earth, revolutionizing our economy and breathing new life into grassroots politics.

Yet our governance structures remain stubbornly anachronistic. And they’re failing us, not only on the great question of war or peace, but also on many other front-burner issues today, including global warming, economic inequality, disease response, immigration, human trafficking, and financial crimes.

Although we seldom consider it, one key factor that ties all these failures together is our fragmented system of nation-states, separated by militarized borders.

As the challenges we face grow more urgent, and our national governments’ failure to address them more glaring, the time has come to question this model: whether separate nation-states are still serving us, or whether we can now do better.

Obviously, this is a very big question, and it can quickly conjure images of starry-eyed idealism and John Lennon songs.  But there are practical reasons why it merits serious consideration.

War and peace are just the most obvious of these.  Over the course of history, wars have typically occurred between separate nations.  Borders are conceived as safety perimeters, yet they often contribute to the instability that drives armed conflict.  For example, the borders in the Middle East today, drawn largely by colonial powers almost 100 years ago, have been cited as a grievance by ISIS.  On the other hand, the European Union offers a better model: France and Germany, antagonists in World Wars I and II, are unlikely to fight again as long as the EU survives.  For all its structural challenges, the EU’s more inclusive perimeter benefits everyone.

Global warming, an increasingly dire threat to human survival, has been internationally acknowledged for more than 25 years.  Yet greenhouse gas pollution has risen unabated.  Excitement over the recent US-China climate deal and the Lima Accord highlights the critical importance of worldwide cooperation to solve this problem, yet the news on both advances was so big because of national governments’ longstanding pattern of failure to take joint action adequate to handle this emergency.  Also, both agreements are non-binding.

Or look at economic inequality, which, like global warming, grows steadily worse with time.  In the most talked-about book of 2014, Capital, author Thomas Piketty says solving inequality will require a global tax on wealth; otherwise the rich will continue to park their assets in low-tax countries.  Piketty is not a lone voice on this: the Vatican also has called for “a ‘world political authority’ with broad powers to regulate financial markets and rein in the ‘inequalities and distortions of capitalist development.’”

And the list goes on.

The delayed response to the current Ebola outbreak, attributed to poor international cooperation, is expected to cost at least tens of thousands of lives, possibly a million.  The call for immigration reform is driven by human and economic needs that transcend borders.  Human trafficking depends in part on criminals whisking their victims across borders to evade the rule of law.  Many financial crimes are similarly enabled by borders.

On issue after issue, when we look at the big picture, it’s hard to avoid noticing that the division of our world into countries is preventing us from solving our biggest problems.

Is there an alternative?  Not yet, but the time has come to begin seriously envisioning one.

The European Union demonstrates a way forward: eliminating militarized borders, and expanding the safety perimeter to include everyone.  Yes, everyone — holding criminals, including dictators and terrorists, accountable to the law.

Expanding on the best features of the EU model, we could create a single, global democracy.

This idea is consistent with American history.  The United States was founded as 13 separate, sovereign states, linked only loosely under the Articles of Confederation.  When our country’s founders saw that this separateness prevented them from handling their major challenges, they created today’s Constitution, achieving greater unity, which has served us well.

Emerging technology can make a global democracy feasible.  The Internet alone can’t do it — there’s too much risk that votes and tallies could be hacked.  But the technology behind Bitcoin — an open-source “block chain” that compiles an indelible public record of every transaction — could be repurposed to record votes.  Big challenges remain, notably anonymity, unique voting accounts, and the digital divide, but all of these can be solved with time and commitment.  Meanwhile, we can begin the conversation about a global democracy.

What policies would a global democracy produce?  There’s a lot of reassuring international poll data showing that, while not all mainstream American values are shared worldwide, most are.  It appears that people around the world are more likely to agree on the big questions than the actions of certain leaders would suggest.

What about the trend toward secession, including the recent, close vote in Scotland, and the similar aspirations of people across Europe, the Middle East, and even the U.S.?  Although this may seem to run counter to global unification, in fact it shows how arbitrary today’s borders are, and how little attachment people feel to them.  It’s also an expression of the widespread view that today’s national governments aren’t working.

We are entering a time of upheaval, driven largely by climate change.  Fortunately, we can choose our path forward.  The main options so far boil down to either denial or defense.  Defense is key, of course, but the frame is depressing, and it has yet to engage the level of popular support required.

What if we also had an exciting, positive vision for our future?  A big, hairy, audacious goal.

How about this one: a single, global democracy, within our lifetimes.  Let’s begin the conversation.

Please consider donating to support One Global Democracy here. You can also make a tax deductible gift, in dollars or in bitcoin.

Sign up to “Get Updates via Email”, at the top right of this page, and “Like” us on Facebook.