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[flagged] US is an oligarchy, not a democracy (2014) (bbc.com)
89 points by kushti on Jan 10, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

> The US, in other words, is basically similar to Russia or most other dubious 'electoral' 'democratic' countries. We weren't formerly, but we clearly are now.

These people never went to Russia.

I'm a Russian citizen. I can tell you firsthand that the US is as bad as Russia, with one exception: Russia is honest about what it is, while the US plays democracy games and pretends to be a "free" country.

Edit: The downvotes are a sign that I've stepped on your sore toe. Go ahead, I have karma to spare, but remember my words next time you vote in an imaginary election.

Dude, I mean... come on. After DJT was elected, you can call US elections whatever you want, but not imaginary. This shit is 100% real.

"real" is an interesting notion. when you're presented with two thoroughly awful options, and when the ability to select between the two said options is contingent on dodgy information, murky details and unanswered questions, is it really a proper choice? i almost feel like it's making important life decisions while one beer away from a blackout.

Wasn't some of the "dodgy" information allegedly supplied by Russian backed accounts on Facebook and other platforms.

Maybe instead of making the decisions one beer away from a blackout we should do what the Persians did.

“If an important decision is to be made, they [the Persians] discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.” ― Herodotus

> when you're presented with two thoroughly awful options, and when the ability to select between the two said options is contingent on dodgy information, murky details and unanswered questions, is it really a proper choice?

It's a more "proper choice" than pretty much all of the alternatives.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

100% real including the election irregularities and voter suppression?

I agree. If Trump's shocking upset from the right isn't evidence enough, then consider the equally shocking defeat of a 10-term (10 term!) incumbent by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left.

Few predicted either of those. I know of nobody who claims to have predicted both.

Care to back up such a bold assertion?

"Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened."

If you want a real working democracy, look at Switzerland. Or maybe at very local, neighborhood level in the US here and there, at the scale where people actually care and know.

To note: the entire Switzerland's population is 8.5M, about the size of 5 boroughs of New York City. They have twenty six cantons, all with severely different policies, and 2222 municipalities. Of course most voting occurs at municipal level, then cantonal level.

To my mind, nowhere in the world any larger state managed to get to the "level of democracy" which is possible and has been demonstrably achieved at smaller scales.

What additionally exacerbates the situation in the US is the two-party system that effectively polarizes people instead of nudging them to look for compromises.

The electoral college made sense in 1770s, with a much smaller population, and very slow communication. By now, it results in interesting side effects that probably could be avoided using different mechanisms. Still I think that no large nation has deployed any such mechanisms to successfully achieve "real democracy" and not some form of oligarchy. Mass media is a major factor in that; national scale being hard to comprehend and relate to for a voter is another.

I think this outlines the core issues more than most of the responses thus far.

Our system of governance hasn't scaled as effectively in distributing democratic decision making as many may wish, and the interconnectivity we're developing is making it more pronounced.

Your concision is inspirational.

> Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

I bet most people's token solution to this will be to expand the size of the administrative state with new the levels "oversight", or new laws, new agencies, etc... which will proceed to be shaped and molded by these very same forces and only solidify these "elites" & special interest group's market positions and political influence over the regular person.

No one ever wants to reduce these group's power to influence their own position in the economy and policy by limiting government. Nor does anyone ever correlate the explosion in size of the administrative state in every western country since WW2 with the growth in power of the top end of the market and in general inequality (in both wealth/power). If this growth in scale has done little to help the average "little guy", who is it helping?

>I bet most people's token solution to this will be to expand the size of government [...] which will [...] only solidify these "elites" & special interest group's market positions...


>No one ever wants to [...] limit government...


Um... but, um, won't limiting government "only solidify these 'elites' & special interest group's market positions"?

Right now they have to negotiate with the government to determine what they can take. Under your proposal, they would negotiate with no one to determine what they can take.

There is no outcome where the élites don't win. Only a spectrum along which we have varying degrees of control over them. Under the current regime, we have relatively little control over them. Under your proposal, we have even less.

One road leads to disease and despair, but the other leads to death and destruction.

You obviously have an agenda in your comment. Do you have any evidence that suggests the expansion of government correlates strongly to income inequality? Scandinavian countries are a great example of countries with large government and low inequality.

People always pretend the US government size is small and tiny countries in Scandinavia have giant ones. Yet few countries have the massive number of agencies and law the US does. The size of population certainly plays a role in this but ultimately it affects the average person operating in such a society.

I'm not talking about taxation. I'm talking about the size of the administrative state, ie. the amount of intervention the government engages in in the economy and socially.

The size of the administrative state may not be a relevant metric in evaluating the extent of actions taken to equalize voice in decision making/policy based on economic power, or to limit economic inequality more generally. (In fact, one view of the large administrative state is that it's a moat designed precisely to the advantage of established actors.)

Does it still have a "massive number of agencies" compared to the EU and all its member states? I don't think so.

The US is 30 times larger than the largest Scandinavian country. It stands to reason that the US would have a government proportionally as large unless they somehow found a way to be more efficient. I can guarantee you they have not.

I think it has much more to do with population. Sweden, Norway, Denmark all have populations less than 10M. Size of government, including tax rates, I would argue, factor more into a country's overall cultural profile which taken as a whole likely correlates with inequality.

Compared with Sweden's left to right political spectrum the US has two firmly right-wing parties to choose from. I think that matters a lot more than a population number.

How are you measuring the size of governments?

relative to their tax base and populations

If you measure their tax base as percentage of their total GDP, you'll be surprised at how small government in those countries are. For instance, by that measure, France has the biggest government of the OECD: https://data.oecd.org/tax/tax-revenue.htm

Your link indicates that in 2016 (most recent year with full data, although seems fairly constant since 2000) the tax revenue of Denmark (45.51% of GDP), Sweden (42.57%), Finland (42.68%) and Norway (41.46%) were almost double that of the US (24.07%).

(Although I don't like including Norway in such comparisons, as it's tiny population and huge oil wealth makes it a big outlier.)

> I bet most people's token solution...

That wasn't an assertion tied to an agenda. It was an assumption about the typical US citizen, as a preamble.

I read the comment in whole, and it sets this up as a clear strawman. I bet on lots of things that end up being wrong. Why is the commenter so against big government when not a single soul proposed making the American government any bigger either in the comments or the article?

It's called a thought exercise, as HN is considered a good faith exchange. If you ask an American how to control a situation, the most common solution is an appeal to a government authority. That's not really a strawman, when it's demonstrably true. Relying on the economy, is typically the choice when there's propaganda money to convince them so (see most of the US West Coast states). I really don't understand why you would take this in bad faith, when there's a commercialization of mocking it (via youtube, merchandising) and the documented history of the USA litigiousness. shrug

I argue it's not demonstrably true, and as a matter of a fact, given how right leaning the entirety of the US is (even within the left leaning circles), and the prevalence of two dominant political parties that would be consider center of right and far right in any other country, it's clear Americans seem to favor less government. I'd be happy to find evidence presenting another view. The issue with the comment is it doesn't actually setup a thought exercise as it does a poor job of establishing the reality of that exercise and then negatively attacks a view point no one presented.

You could easily filter the media of your choice and find multiple stories similar to this:

>Americans Want To Regulate AI

>AT&T says it’ll stop selling your location data, amid calls for a federal investigation

Both right and left, in the USA, want regulation. Each one challenge that the other's regulation is unnecessary. That doesn't change the agenda over time.

> it's clear Americans seem to favor less government

And the sky is plaid? Some Americans pay lip service (it's easy to trust when you've never been a victim), but the media entertains with court room drama and mockery precisely because citizens, when harmed, expect regulation to prevail.

The history shows the exact opposite and the legal field is orchestrated to be layered (compare the housing code in any city from the 1800s to now, not to mention how land rights are judged). The federal government has dwarfed the local governments. It legally (and in practice) overrides it every day.

> It was an assumption about the typical US citizen, as a preamble.

Is it an assumption based in any way in reality, or based on the author's constructed strawman perception?

Who is this “most people”?

The staring solutions are (1) get some of the money out of politics by ending SuperPACs and imposing real campaign finance reform with transparency down to the local level and possibly additional public funding for campaigns, (2) curtail the revolving door between industry and government and provide competitive salaries for civil service careers, (3) end partisan gerrymandering and ensure that voting rights are respected in every state and consider even more dramatic changes such as multi-member districts with proportional representation and STV voting, (4) increase taxes on capital gains and inheritances, add additional income tax brackets with higher top marginal rates, and consider wealth taxes or more dramatic tax changes like local land-value taxes instead of property taxes, work to eliminate tax loopholes such as the use of political campaigns or charities for tax evasion, (5) put more personal financial/criminal liability on corporate officers (e.g. at financial services firms) when their companies are involved in frauds, (6) provide the IRS and federal law enforcement agencies sufficient resources for more widespread enforcement of existing laws against fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, bribery, ...

Maybe first start with laws to make lobbying illegal (corporate donations/favors), and axe corporate person-hood.

Lobbying happens everywhere. Having it legalized makes it more transparent and helps you voting next elections. In my country it's illegal yet they do it behind the curtains

Same with campaign funding laws. I'd rather there be almost no laws but full transparency. How do you measure the funding impact of constant press coverage?

Things are transparent now, and it's not working well enough. People don't have time to care or worry about who is funding whom.

I think it would make more difference if we got rid of political action committees (PACs), it is this pattern that allows corporations and the rich to donate oversize amounts of money to their chosen corporate candidates. Without PACs each citizen can only donate a couple thousand dollars.

I had written this in response to a child comment but I guess I'll reply to this parent and collectively offer my supportive stance.

I'm not the parent poster, but I would wager his view is that governments should exist to enforce free competition. That is the source of disruption to the elites. The current regime does not ensure free competition. It's crony capitalism, and the entrenched "elite" (NB: this is a ridiculously outdated term) has the government at their disposal to ensure that they remain in power. Exhibit A: Ajit Pai.

Reducing government is a reasonable proposal because it reduces the "attack surface" for corruption and crony capitalism. Surely that's got to be an analogy that resonates well with this audience...

EDIT: and let's leave the discussion over whether Healthcare and Education should be universal and free (as in fully subsidized), otherwise we'll never get anywhere. I'm personally in favor of both, but you need not agree / disagree on that to discuss the broader point.

Ajit Pai's is not an example that institutions exist to further the interests of a small few, but rather that it is possible to ignore the duties of one's public office* to the benefit of a few.

*to be more precise, it is ignoring one's office. The office is not the position, it is the authority AND duties and responsibilities that come with a position. This brings into question if authority is legitimate in the event that it is granted with responsibilities which are ignored, but that's a separate question than whether or not the office itself exists to ignore it's own duties or whether the duties themselves are designed to favor the few.

Less Government -> Wealthy have more power.

Reagan/Thatcher reduced the government. How did that turn out?

You could argue the opposite:

Since WWII, western countries have seen an incredible growth of wealth. This growth of wealth translated to a huge improvement of leaving condition for the masses, which means that said wealth was reasonably well distributed and government knowingly or unknowingly made this happen.

By contrast, the XIXth century, despite growth, the average life conditions worsened significantly for worker leading, This lead to ideologies like Anarchism and Communism.

Why did this wealth was somewhat correctly distributed? Basically the two World Wars and the Great Depression, In Europe, the cost of the 2 wars and the inflation after them basically destroyed a huge chunk of the wealthier classes living of their accumulated money (rentier). In the US, the Great Depression and WWII lead to decisions like a tax rate of more than 90% for the wealthier, which lead to keep in check inequalities during the 40ies, 50ies and 60ies.

All this happen because of strong government basically stating: the interest of the whole is not the sum of individual interests.

It also happened because at the same time, an incredible amount of "new wealth" was being created in such a short span, this kind of growth rate was unprecedented in human history, it was easy and even somewhat natural to distribute more in this situation. These two factors combined to reduce inequality and improve living condition significantly.

The issue is that inequalities in revenue were still occurring. Slowly capital was becoming concentrated again. Which lead to the slow reconstitution of a strong wealthy class concentrating capital. This strengthening happened progressively by buying media channels, donating to politicians or even becoming one and lobbying strongly for favorable laws. This lead to policies/laws in the interest of this smaller group reinforcing this concentration. Basically, it's stating the obvious: there is a correlation between wealth and political power.

Also, since the 70ies, there was a strong slowdown in radical technical improvements and deployments, leading to less "new" wealth being available.

Now we are basically returning to a repartition of wealth as seen the XIXth century (albeit with far more wealth available).

It's a slow process, almost organic, the wealthier classes are not an homogeneous core, they have different and conflicting interests, but as a whole it's able to push in a given direction. The general population is far bigger, and also have conflicting interests, is even less homogeneous and doesn't have wealth, so it's not able to push as efficiently for the common interest.

It has nothing to do directly with governments. Strong governments actually helped a lot in reducing inequalities. But there is a limit to their action.

Maybe, now, what we need is a more radical way to redistribute wealth by for example an exceptional and significant tax on capital, and do it from time to time to re-balance our societies. Otherwise, long term, it will happen in this form or another: Revolution (a common occurrence in revolutions is the burning of debt files and archives), but I'm not convinced it's the good way forward given all the Chaos it will entail.

I continue to believe that proportional representation could really improve things. The two basic architectures of PR are multi-winner districts (incl. STV) and mixed-member systems, either of which could be implemented easily in the US. One major advantage is that the House hasn't been expanded in a long time and the citizen:legislator ratio in the US is much worse than in most European countries. That means PR could be implemented by only adding seats, so that nobody loses their Congressman.

The reason I support PR is that political parties are living entities that don't exist in a vacuum. It's basically impossible for small parties to grow on a national scale in the current environment. Previously when new parties formed and grew, they did so regionally, because US politics was much more local. But after the 17th Amendment and Medicaid, the states have much less power, and state politics is no longer an avenue to power on a national scale. It's like local stores competing with Wal-mart at this point: HQ will allocate extra resources to crush competition and then pull back afterwards. PR breaks that dynamic by giving small parties a voice in the national legislature. It forces the big guys to compete.

The way I think about it is: political parties exist in a jungle, and we just need to make sure some light reaches the forest floor.

US never had a democracy. Two parties assembly rather the bad cop / good cop scenario than a true democracy where people have control, built bottom up.

However this illusion worked well up until now when oligarchies started to rise by simply putting a mirror on the front of that so called democracy.

These new regimes have an easy job since the old system bleeds from all parts.

I’m a big fan of democracy and oligarchies are the way back, not the way forward.

However I’m skeptic if humanity is capable to invent a forward looking new system in the next years.

See also: 'The Quiet Coup' [0], Simon Johnson, 2009.

[0] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/05/the-qui...

EDIT: Fixed link per comment

Corrected link (save you a google search): https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/05/the-qui...

What I also find interesting, is that this research has been picked up by a couple major UK outlets, some other foreign outlets, but got very little coverage in US, despite it being an US issue.

Because it's not true

Bush, Obama, Trump. These are not religious figures. Past POTUS were public servants and they necessarily, do not represent America and arguably couldn't when they are elected. I'm sure glad the members of the political oligarchy of the last 50 years all came out to see Bush's body, but he served 1 term and did the job and he got older and died. No need for the Pharaoh worship week. Either POTUS is an elected position open to any qualified candidate or it's a big money elitist club G Carlin described where they like to engage in pomp and circumstance. While the truth may be fuzzy, I have my own opinion.

==I'm sure glad the members of the political oligarchy of the last 50 years all came out to see Bush's body, but he served 1 term and did the job and he got older and died.==

To be fair, Bush I also served the country as Vice President, UN Ambassador, Director of the CIA, US Representative, and Navy Lieutenant.

Not exactly news. It's pretty to see the influence of various lobby groups on all levels of government. Most politicians, and especially those who have actual sway within the government, all come from a certain socio-economic background and have ultra-rich backers. Not to mention various entrenched political families (Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes, etc...), as well as close ties between politicians, rich political donors and the media.

Did a research study need to be done to show this? The US Constitution sets up a federated oligarchic republic with slaves to boot. What's shocking is that it's shocking that the US has something like the government it was designed to have. . . .

Technically the US is a Rebuplic. Which, in a sense, means it is largely a Democracy of Aristocrats. Who, it should be noted, have done a stellar job in the last 200 some-odd years of convincing the masses that the Aristocracy no longer (truly) exists. And so the People feel they have the power. When in reality it's all Smoke and Mirrors. Political Theater is nothing more than Circuses that the People can take part in. But the fact remains that Panem et Circenses still exists.

Or to put that in technical terms. "Democracy" (as understood in the common vernacular) is a honeypot that the People got caught in, at which time they got sandboxed.

I wonder why US politics has not been positively hacked yet. Not talking about the Russians using FB but something revolutionary but not violent.

See mormons in the IC and Scientologists in the IRS/Treasury, and Verizon in the FCC....

I'd say it's been hacked pretty well - but only for cerrtain specific interests.

I think Trump and Bernie Sanders foreshadow the beginning of a new era of more revolutionary politics.

Dated [2014]

We just have really good political theatre that gives the illusion of a lively democracy,:)


It has a constitution, it's just not on a single document because unlike the US the country was not formed in 1776. The UK is one of the oldest political systems in the world, and already had enormous political and legal complexity at the time the United States declared independence, because of long legal history and the fact that it was running a global empire at the time.

It is completely non-sensical to expect such a nation to have a single document where the constitution is written. It's fucking easy to just write a constitution on a single piece of paper when it's done upon forming the country. It is extremely hard when you have laws going back to the 13th century and you ran a global empire up until the 1950s. It absolutely does have a constitution, and it's a constitutional monarchy, but it simply doesn't have it written on a single piece of paper.

What I'm far more interested in criticising about your idiotic comment is instead that it's just logically flawed. The critique itself originates from Princeton University, which is not a British institution, and the BBC is simply writing an opinion piece on it. Furthermore, what exactly does the BBC have to do with the politics and history of why the UK doesn't have a single piece of paper outlining its constitution? Your comment is practically just an ad-hominem.

Not sure why you are so angry and defensive. But why can't it all be recorded in a single place?

It's made up of different laws and so on. There's nothing stopping anyone writing it all down on a single piece of paper, if you just want to record it all like that (although you'll probably need some legal scholarship to decide what is and is not "constitution"), on a single piece of paper. But it wouldn't hold any particular force.

I suppose if you wanted to make one new legally binding document making up the constitution, the UK could cancel all those laws, recreate the bits of them that make up the constitution in one single place, and then make new laws to fill in all the gaps from all the cancelled bits that weren't part of the constitution. Some of the UK constitution is procedure and books of commentary and theory, so those are going to be awkward to rewrite and put on a single piece of paper, but it could be done.

But why?

The BBC is merely a news agency, publishing articles for you to read. In an article like this they can't be considered hypocritical, which is what your comment seems to suggest. It's not an editorial, nor an accusation.

Quote from the article:

> Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

The study that the article talks about was published by Princeton University (in NJ). But even if it were published by Tsinghua University it would be no less valid. [Economic] science is science.

The UK does have a constitution, but it is not neatly written on a single piece of paper with "The Constitution" written at the top.

This is an interesting aside, but tell me, what's the relevance of your question to the subject at hand? It feels like veiled "whataboutism", but that would be a mean-spirited assumption to make.


> Eschew flamebait. Don't introduce flamewar topics unless you have something genuinely new to say. Avoid unrelated controversies and generic tangents.


Who decides from where, to whom, and how much, "redistribution" will take place? When does the marginalized group get enough support that the balance shifts and they are no longer marginalized?

Supposing you're asking the question in good faith, the answer is: the people, democratically. For example: unoccupied/unused properties become commonly owned by the people, and their management and decisions about their use are done democratically by all, therefore serving the interests of the public, rather than that being decided by the owner class, therefore serving the interests of that select few.

Just because a property is unoccupied or unused doesn't mean it isn't owned by someone. You are still suggesting theft of private property. Just because a majority of people vote for something doesn't mean it is morally good. I think taxes are theft and immoral but I accept them because of what I believe about human nature.

It's simple, you start at the top, by imposing a 70% tax on the higher brackets as Cortez wants. If the marginalized group would get too wealthy (straw-man argument), the 70% tax would still do it's job.


I'm not saying higher taxes aren't something I want, but it's impossible to get by the heavily lobbied government

So remove the incentive to earn above a certain threshold?

If taking home 300 mil on a 1 bil income is not incentive to you...

Who earns $1B as income? I seriously don't think that is a thing. The big earning usually happens when companies or stock gets sold. And yes, it would hurt incentive and takes away funding from capital investment.

I suggest that you pay a visit to Venezuela at your free time, to see such policies applied at a national scale.

Ponder this: the very same economic policies attempted in Venezuela are almost equivalent to those attempted in Norway. The difference is one country had well-functioning democratic institutions and pre-existing prosperity, the other had widespread corruption and limited freedoms. The results are in plain view, and so are the lessons to be taken: democratic social ownership of common riches (in this case, oil) is a good idea, but stress on the democratic part.

Is there any country in the past or present, that has implemented communism with any degree of comparable prosperity and individual freedom as democracies?

No country in history has implemented communism in the strict sense of the word.

As for the success of socialist principles of economic management (i.e. common ownership of property/means of production), it varies (there's Norway, and there's Venezuela), much like the success of capitalist economies varies.

Of course not. Oppression is baked into the system. It's by design. Marx explicitly describes it as necessary for abolishing the capitalist state and suppressing those who would undermine by attempting to engage in individual market activities.

21 on Jan 10, 2019 [flagged]

No country has had proper communism. So there is no compassion to be made.

No country has had true scotsmen, either.

Every country has had communism that I say has had communism.

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