My near philosophical musings about the world in general its problems and possible ways out.

2018-08-02

A case for Meta-Politics

When you want to engage in politics you first need to make decisions, where to position yourself. Are you more inclined to the libertarian side or the authoritarian? Do your principles and preferences better fit to the left or to the right, or even far left or far right? Do you consider any change as inevitable anyway or are you more of a conservative or even a retro-enthusiast? Do you envision religious belief as a driving political force? Or would you better like to keep religion and politics apart? If change, do you envision modest evolutionary adjustments to a societal system, otherwise working fine? Or would you rather advocate radical change even if it requires taking recourse to a violent overthrow of the existing order - in short a revolution?

You have to decide. You have to position yourself.

But will this really be sufficient?

What if you are not just seeking to defend and maximise your personal comfort, your peer group's advantage or just some convenient status quo?

What if you are inclined to pursue your goal in a larger picture, if your time horizon is more secular than quarterly of spanning a legislative period, if you have survival of mankind in mind for example?

Well, yes, I know in times were money talks and great 'unrealistic' visions give way to real-politics and to doing sound business, even voicing such ideas has become unfashionable. Those who don't comply with the imperative of short-term economic 'reason' will soon be branded daydreamers, fantasists or even evil communists. They'll be considered useless for serious business and will be kept out of it. Friends will turn their backs on them, leaving them as bitter lone wolfs. So this is obviously not a viable way and is in no way recommended.

And yet for those who interrupt their rush for a moment, take a deep breath and look around, there are compelling reasons to take exactly this broader perspective.

And if this view still appears a bit fuzzy and unfounded to you, let me entice you phantasy by giving you some insight into the concerns of those whom in the above drafted logic you should admire most, the likes of Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel or Marc Zuckerberg of this world.

The report given by Douglas Rushkoff in "Survival of the Richest", making the point that "the wealthy are plotting to leave us behind" as they are firmly convinced that either of the expectable catastrophes is inevitably looming, is not even the first evidence, that we will eventually hit the wall, if continuing the way as we pursue it now.

Earlier this year already The Guardian's Mark O'Connell wrote "Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand", hinting at an extreme libertarian tract, which inspired the likes of Peter Thiel to buy up property across the Pacific. This disturbing prophecy, written by Jacob Rees-Mogg's father, is predicting the collapse of liberal democracies.

Obviously, then, there is something going on that worries even those, who are otherwise in charge of leading medium to large economic empires and thus decisively controlling the development whose results they seem to fear.

And they are not alone. Besides those prominent danger signals from the corporate top, there are occasionally some experts voicing unease with the imperative of exponential economic growth while at the same time facing the prospect shrinking resources. I have compiled some thoughts on this topic earlier this year.

Without the need of invoking doomsday scenarios it can easily be demonstrated that political positions, as firm as they may appear at a given point in time and as ultimate the stance with which they may be defended, turn out to be rather fluid when viewed over a longer term.

The influence of the respective zeitgeist on the prevailing political views can be nicely illustrated by the example of a particularly broad political trend, Liberalism.

Initially it was about the struggle for civil liberties and against the traditional authorities, who derived their legitimacy from some of God-given, mythical primeval states. But later the orientation took on different characteristics.

Inseparably linked to the ideas of the Enlightenment, the Liberals initially took it for granted that the moral foundations of human coexistence should also be rationally derived from the requirements to a functioning community. They thus stood in stark contrast to the conservative traditionalists. As for those this morality could only be religiously motivated and brought directly from their respective God to us earthworms.

This contrast was later blurred. Whether only religious conservatives became receptive to liberal ideas or liberals without spirituality felt an inner emptiness, in the end Christian conservatives, such as the long-standing German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, were declared liberals (see "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea", by Edmund Fawcett).

Many flavours of this movements later popped up like national liberal, leftist liberals, neo-liberals and several more. Driven by the perceived necessities of a particular period they skewed more to the right or to the left, adopted alien ideas, narrowed the focus of their reflections to the salvatory promise of uninhibited market forces or widened it beyond recognition.

In particular, the attitude of liberals to the eternal dispute over whether more community or more individual freedom was appropriate was subject to constant adaptation to the needs of the times. As the above mentioned Douglas Rushkoff concludes his contemplations with the wise words: "Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It's a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together."¹

The politics to pursue in this sense will always result from an attempt of optimising conflicting interests, counteracting forces and strained resources in ever changing force fields. So how can they ever be as static as the current political practices may appear to the naive observer?

Maybe our political goals are just too fine-grained and / or too short-termed. So, do we need goals at all? Or will some well-crafted algorithms suffice?

Although I envy personalities like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is quoted with "With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now", in politics it is all about goals. Even the conservative approach of preserving a current situation can be perceived as a goal. So the "The best goal is no goal"-Approach will not be applicable here.

But maybe for the start one goal should suffice as the saying goes "More than one goal is no goal". So let's choose the most eminent one: Survival of Mankind.

This certainly is an inherently genuine goal for all of us and it can be safely assumed that survival on individual level as well as on community level is one of the deeply inscribed purposes of (not only) human life - if not the main one.

One may object that it is so obvious and intuitively accepted by everyone, except maybe some ill-advised suicide bombers, that it is not a well suited goal for a political discourse and pursuit.

That's the point where opinion sets in: I don't believe that. Mankind rather looks like being on the brink of collective suicide as contemplated about elsewhere before. We thus better set this goal explicitly.

Since secondary objectives should be allowed as long as they are subordinate, I would add: while respecting the civil liberties for which our ancestors fought so fiercely.

On the basis of this starting point, we should then perhaps actually formulate carefully selected principles - in other words algorithms - which can lead to further secondary objectives. More on this in my above mentioned contribution: "Let algorithms rule - not politicians!".

In detail and at the lowest level, these secondary objectives will certainly feed into day-to-day political business, where they will be able to provide tangible answers to current pressing questions.

However, these answers can then vary depending on the environmental conditions. Not really a new idea - I agree. What is new about this idea however, is rather the transparency, traceability and derivability from unchanged basic principles - without these being influenced by human predilections and propensities:

Meta-politics, in other words.


re-published on: ----------------------------------------------
¹Author of the upcoming book Team Human (W.W. Norton, January 2019) and host of the TeamHuman.fm podcast.

The coming bright dark ages


But you Tiresias, blind old man, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest
¹.


McKinsey, well established Consultancy for those for those who don't shy away from high prices for at times good value, did it again:  Capturing the Zeitgeist in one of their recent surveys about automation. 

1    Lights out on the factory floor

Hello darkness, my old friend - the lights will get out - for good?

Business as usual, better known by those routine-blinded by its acronym BAU, often is characterized by its very purpose to "keep the lights on" - the daily operational business. When the lights go out usually the time of the end has come.

"Are your factories and warehouses operating in the dark? They might be soon." The top-consultants ask their audience rhetorically. You already suspect it: This is about automation, or the upcoming digital transformation, to use the more fashionable term. And of course, in this context, the key and buzz word "disruption" must not be missing, as if it were associated with a positive connotation.

But let's put aside the trenchant irony. Let us close our eyes and imagine how developments may continue and what there will be in for us in the near future.

Will ordinary factory workers soon at their assembly lines be replaced by soulless robots?

2    The robot revolution

An insurgency of subdued robots? No, it's not that kind of fiction - not yet at least. Nevertheless it may be considered as a revolution, taking the first of Webster's definitions, as a sudden, radical, or complete change.

So why, what will likely happen and what exactly is a robot?

Robot - the nearly 100 year old term by the way was coined in K. Capek's play R.U.R 'Rossum's Universal Robots' (1920) and is derived from Czech, robota 'forced labour'.

During the following epoch of belief in progress, the idea of autonomously acting intelligent machines inspired people's imagination. In fiction robots have been capable of independent thought, emotions, even a little cooking and sewing. In practice however the results were initially sobering as scientists found that endowing a mechanical being with even the most basic human functions was and still is a monstrous task.

Although theoretically not impossible, such robotic properties are not required for the more mundane tasks left behind by the segmentation and fragmentation of the work initiated by the 100-year-old scientific management. That movement in the wake of the works of Frederik Winslow Taylor has prepared the factory floor processes well to be performed by still rather dump machines.

In fact, as Gary Hamel states in his landmark book "The Future of Management" that during the century of industrialization we created a work environment in which expected humans to act like machines.

To the extent that machines will be able to take on these simple one-step tasks that we had previously expected people to do, these people could turn to more humane tasks again.

Apparently there is an urgent necessity for that as corporations are desperately striving for innovation requiring the ingredients initiative, creativity and passion, which (still) only humans are capable of.

Therefore, if robots can now solve tricky tasks that even intelligent people often despair of, for example assembling IKEA furniture, then humans will be no longer necessary on the assembly line. At the same time some more human traits are required from us, which some of us might have to re-learn again.

That's true in principle. However the idea, to find its incarnation, needs to undergo some evolutionary steps: The technology must have matured enough to withstand the harsh conditions of a factory floor - as humans can. Then there needs to be a market with some competition, and the robot prices must be such of nature to be able to outcompete us humans on those less inspiring operational tasks.

Well, this is exactly, what the McKinsey survey suggests.

So does this development spell the end of off-shoring? And isn't - for different reasons - globalization on the brink of collapse anyway? Will outplaced manufacturing jobs finally return to their origins?

3    The return of blue-collar jobs - a futile hope

The whole picture, you may have suspected it already, is quite a bit more complex. The job exodus was driven by several factors. One very prominent is the China effect. Bloomberg writes: "Thanks to China's extremely low costs for labour, capital, land and energy, its undervalued exchange rate, and the lure of China's vast domestic market, production shifted to the country en masse in the 2000s; everyone else just couldn't compete."
 

This China effect kept wages low and considerably put otherwise appropriate automation attempts on hold across entire industry sectors. Estimations go that some 5 million US jobs in manufacturing and related activities this way voluntarily migrated across the Pacific towards China since year 2000.

Now, many of China's cost advantages have disappeared. Also access to those billion Chinese consumers, as Joe Studwells excellent research suggests, looks like a fading dream. Other effects being deferred and superseded for the past 30 to 40 years by the massive impact of a major player re-entering the world stage come into view again.

In his 2015 book Rise of the Robots², Martin Ford cites "Seven Deadly Trends" that began in the 1970s-1980s and by the mid 2010s appeared set to continue:

  1. Stagnation in real wages
  2. Decline in labour's share of national income in many countries (breakdown of Bowley's law), while corporate profits increased
  3. Declining labour force participation
  4. Diminishing job creation, lengthening jobless recoveries, and soaring long-term unemployment
  5. Rising inequality
  6. Declining incomes, and underemployment for recent college graduates
  7. Polarization and part-time jobs (middle-class jobs are disappearing, to be replaced by a small number of high-paying jobs and large number of low-paying jobs)
He sees automation and information technology as the major drivers. He in particular expects new technologies including narrow AI threaten to destroy jobs faster than displaced workers can be retrained for new jobs, before automation takes the new jobs as well. This includes many jobs categories, such as in transportation, which were never threatened by automation before. According to a 2013 study, about 47% of US jobs are susceptible to automation.


There are contradicting analyses around, trying to explain the obvious and making attempts to predict, what is still hidden deep in the fog of uncertainty. But we can safely assume that the wages will stay low, robot prices will continue falling lower, automation will enjoy a major boost.

4 Meanwhile, the rust belt quietly continues to rust.

Will manufacturing jobs suffer the same fate like agricultural jobs?

Yes, but even more than we have seen so far, as agricultural jobs had been just reduced to that core where sensors, autonomy and some reasoning were still essential. Now however we will have the potential to eradicate the remaining jobs there as well - and so we will do in manufacturing.

With no compelling reason to outsource manufacturing to off-shore locations any longer, manufacturing may return nearer to the markets. The manufacturing jobs however will remain vaporized. While the value creation may return to some extent, it is however not quite clear for whom. Maybe it will be the lucky few, who will benefit in a "the winner takes it all" fashion, not being dependent on blue collar workers like in the past.

Then there will be no more exploited and oppressed working class to stand up and fight for its legitimate interests. Then there may only be left the insiders and the excluded. However, the latter then have the disadvantage that they no longer represent a market with purchasing power. That would be a pretty stupid story then, wouldn't it?

Maybe we may join Franz Kafka, who is (a bit abbreviated) quoted with "There is hope, but not for us".

"Hello darkness, my old friend - I've come to talk with you again". Again? Yes, it's not the first time in history that things for some parts of the society look bleak. Not keeping the lights on on the factory floor needs not to spell disaster for those currently working there. However the solution may not just be left to technology, to market forces or short-sighted economical reason.

Sorry for taking the McKinsey article one step further out of their traditional domain. But solutions may again come from a changed societal paradigm, a new consciousness, which expresses itself - well - in a radically changed perception of the necessary political steps to be undertaken.

Anyway we may conclude already now: The future is not for the faint-hearted.



-----------

¹modified quote taken from "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot

²Ford, Martin (May 5, 2015). Rise of the Robots. Basic Books. pp. 29-30. ISBN 0465059996.

2018-07-31

TTIP 2.0 - Beware of the undead

Is there a resurrection of TTIP looming? 


On July 26, 2018, the press reported that Trump and Juncker struck a deal. Not sure if it would qualify as an artful one in the sense of the white house matador. Nevertheless hereby the European Union appeared to have won a big trade-war ceasefire with the U.S. for a small price - at least in the short term. 

Bloomberg went on to report that, in return for a pledge by U.S. President Donald Trump to suspend the threat of an extra tariff on European cars, the EU reheated proposals to bolster transatlantic economic ties and threw in a vow to buy more American soybeans. Well, a deal which leaves much to further interpretation and which may only last until Trump's next Twitter rant. 

Unsustainable as this agreement may be, some other, less prominent press release may give us more reason to be concerned: Little more than a year after Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), he reportedly had ordered to rejoin the 12-nation trade deal. Should we consider his new effort just as the latest swing of his volatile trade policy? Or is there reason to expect a Deja vue? 

And will this deal possibly breathe ghostly life back into its Atlantic counterpart TTIP, which currently is considered dead as a doornail? And if an arrangement with the Europeans appears to be necessary, are the US considering "TTIP 2.0"? 

The experts were surprised anyway when Trump announced that he no longer wanted to negotiate this "wonderful" instrument of American trade hegemony. Just because it was initiated by his best hated predecessor? 

In the end these treaties, euphemistically declared as agreements to ensure a free and fair world trade, in fact essentially serve US interests. Being instruments to secure American domination, beyond that they are of little use. And certainly they're not fair. Moreover, they are diametrically opposed to values, European have fought for throughout the last 300 years. 

For Europeans these treaties should be considered more of a Danaean gift. Trade agreements of this kind with the USA are merely instruments for the enforcement of US hegemony. The TTIP negotiations have shown that such agreement would have been deeply adverse effects on the sovereignty of European states and would turn out to be detrimental for democracy itself. It would have been so for several reasons. 

The three most prominent are discussed a little further: 

  1. The possibility of being able to sue states for real or perceived damages caused by their sovereign decisions (e.g. nuclear phase-out, shift towards renewable energies, bans on driving on combustion engine vehicle in city centres, etc.) would mean that the people can no longer be the sovereign. The sovereignty of the states would be lost, ground-breaking political decisions, which can well be painful but in times of human footprint outsizing the earths capacity by several times appear more necessary than ever, could no longer be taken. According to Steven Hill they represent a leftover concept from the free trade agreements of the 1990s, such as the now discredited North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which ever since has created one uproar after another.

  2. Backroom courts, the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which are staffed with lobbyists, are clearly a step backwards in time. Why did our forefathers fight so fiercely for separation of powers and legal codification, if we now rather discard them in favour of engaging in a power struggle with the mighty and the powerful? Even the Prussian Civil Code, promulgated before 1800 seems to be more progressive. With TTIP coming into effect, we would have easily abandoned all legal certainty in favour of the right of the strongest.

  3. And finally, secret negotiations are unworthy of democracy. To give a concise example of secretiveness: only parliamentarians and few other selected persons were allowed to view the TTIP text which was subject to the lengthy negotiations, in a specially secluded reading room under supervision and for a maximum of two hours. In addition there was also the obligation of confidentiality - a one sided one. While the EU published its proposals, the US insisted on keeping its positions secret. This might be common bad practise. However to my opinion it violates fundamental principles of even an outspoken representative democracy. It undermines its credibility and gives room to suspicion that lobbyists dictate the rules.

    My radical demand in the sense of the Hamburg Transparency Act and beyond is: everything what politicians do professionally, must be totally transparent to the public. It should be permanently streamed on the Internet. However, their private life needs special protection.

    Today it is rather the other way around. Political egocentrics make themselves look ridiculous by publishing home stories, paparazzi hunt ministers in bathing shorts in their backyards and family members must serve to raise the reputation of politicians. But most of their work takes place behind closed doors: This is the wrong approach and must be corrected. 

So what is the recommendation? Is there a fix? First let's agree on the fundamental paradigm that a global free and fair trade is desirable and would be a major achievement, once implemented. Attempts had been made, e.g. with the latest round of trade negotiations among the WTO membership, also known as the Doha Round. Although hardly free and never fair, the Doha Round marked a step into the right direction. Exclusive bilateral trade agreements are in no way a match to an inclusive global trade framework.

However there are dark clouds at the horizon. While global growth is approaching 4% this year, it's most robust in eight years, few countries are finding the budgets and political will to make use of this recovery to implement reforms. Reforms however were necessary to improve infrastructure and welfare policies in response to fears about sluggish productivity and wage growth and the impact of automation.

Rather time may be running out, as forces shift to an adverse scenario: Geopolitical risks have helped commodity prices recover, assisting some countries but at the expense of others. Global monetary conditions are tightening, catching several countries wrong footed. Rising tensions reduce the trajectory of world trade as new US tariffs and retaliatory actions take effect. There is a substantial risk that disputes could escalate into trade war.

While these effects may have an eroding effect on the authority of the WTO, there might be no other long-term beneficial choice. I would like to close my contemplations by citing an unsuspicious expert and free trade advocate. Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor of Economics, Columbia University who jokingly suggested cloning Angela Merkel, to become a German export item to at least 10 other countries, opposes TTIP in favour of rejuvenated WTO.

With regard to his first proposal, I would prefer not to comment. However, I can only agree with his position on the second point.

2018-05-21

Europe, which Europe?

The European Union has yet to be created.


See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/20/the-rise-and-fall-of-europe-in-maps


Why Trump Can Safely Ignore Europe, Its Leaders readily condemn but never act” Jeremy Shapiro, Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes, on May 15, 2018 in Foreign Affairs. Does Shapiro just convey the usual Trumpish anti-European propaganda? Or does he rather pinpoint a symptom of European helplessness, its inability to find a common voice, its unwillingness to strike bold actions.

The image that lingers at the end is one of European powerlessness.“ the same author summarizes his opinion in the Financial Times.

America is no longer a reliable partner", German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted earlier and “Europe must plot its own course”.

You may ask if it ever was. I mean, whether it was ever a partnership or just the rule of a far superior hegemon: the gorilla as an equal partner of the rhesus macaque, but this is the less important part of the message. It'll soon be a thing of the past anyway.

So where is Europe now in the moment of need? Does it exist at all? Or is it just a phantom of wishful thinking? These three discouraging random quotes seem to reveal some deeper truth: There is no Europe – at least not in the sense of a player on the global stage. 

Despite all European treaties Europe is unable to act a single political entity: “The European Union is based on the rule of law. This means that every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU member countries.” 

The keyword here is “countries”. The EU is just a web of treaties, a loose association of stubbornly independent nation states that jealously and at all costs want to maintain their specific foreign policy profile and serve the vanities of their - in global comparison - local chiefs.

So it is not democratically legitimated by the “European people” in one direct step but rather so by the insertion of one more level of indirection. And exactly this one additional level causes nearly all the trouble. 

The underlying principle became known as the subsidiarity principle. It could well have been understood as an opening clause for the EU to become a more state like actor. In that sense however it has rather created adverse effects.  

It rather gives the impression, and everyone emphasizing the subsidiarity principle is confirming it, that acting as a single political entity is neither intended for the EU, nor would it be tolerated.

Is there no one opposing to this obviously dysfunctional set-up, or even taking steps? Well there are several movements – from grassroots to semi-official. Interestingly the majority of movements advocating more direct ways of democracy are inherently anti-European. 

To prove that European peoples are different and must never be lumped together in one legal Unit, they are capitalising on old & plain stereotypes like, France dines, Italy sings, Greece dances, Germany works and the British maintain their strange sense of humour. 

Survival obviously is not an option for them - besides that the argument is flawed in itself as it does not take the intra-state diversity into account with even peoples, nations or tribes not exactly being voluntarily part of the states. 

There is anyway there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We should better recall that far from timeless, the nation state is a recent phenomenon.

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states, says John Breuilly of the London School of Economics. If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in.

So, the nation state being a comparatively young concept, is its time is over anyway? Not to say it took its rise by sheer luck. The nation state can surely be understood as the inescapable consequence of some underlying developments, first and foremost to mention the enhanced means of communication via print, audio & video broadcasting, like newspapers, telegraph, radio, TV and more. Another driving force was the need to cope with the rising complexities introduced by the rapid industrialisation during the 19th century. 

On one hand several local issues can better be dealt with on – yes – local level hinting toward a more medieval model of interacting sovereign city states. On the other hand the mounting problems, we are facing, if it will not be too late already, can only be dealt with on a far higher level. Worldwide would be required. European level is to be considered as the minimum.

There are indications that it will be again a combination of emerging new technologies and mounting outside pressure that will pave the way to overcome that obviously temporarily helpful construct of a nation state. 

Digital transformation being more than a buzzword has the potential to transform not only the business sector but entire societies and finally the way we will rule our “countries”, or how ever these supra national entities will be called by then. (“Let algorithms rule – not politicians!” is in the making).

On the other hand a new era of renewed great power politics is emerging, with a far right America going wild following the script of an obscure Californian think tank, based in Claremont. Its members are dedicated followers of the German philosopher Leo Strauss and deserve a closer look. 

But already now we should have sufficient insight to expect that the “unleashed giant” US will relentlessly use their power and cause much trouble around the world – world war scale conflicts included. The sovereignty of no single European state will remain unaffected in this imminent struggle of the global powers. 

There are several conceivable scenarios of becoming marginalised and vassals of either of the great powers, either receiving our directions from across the Atlantic, becoming Finlandized at best or even being crushed between the fighting giants. Not a single pleasant scenario among them. 

All this said and with no pleasant alternatives at hand, I like to state that I got the strong impression that time has come to finally build the European state. There will be not much time left to act. 

Let algorithms rule - not politicians!

It’s time to digitally transform the political governance of entire nations.

There are many complaints to be heard about the behavior of politicians, the low quality of their decisions, their selfishness and their lack of vision. Some elected leaders of world powers are even accused to be morally unfit for their job.

According to a recent cover story of the time magazine, the “strongmen” are on the rise worldwide, their unpredictable, largely incoherent emissions meanwhile are widely feared – once they are elected into their respective offices. Populist ad hoc decisions lead to discrimination of minorities up to outright genocides, regional wars or the implementation of "voodoo economics", or they are simply ruining the national budget entrusted to them in an helpless attempt to fulfil their insane campaign pledges. In short they usually do more harm than good.

Although these complaints seem to be as old as our civilisation, let us assume for a moment that the allegations are somewhat well-founded.


1. Shifting beliefs and forces


There are disturbing indications to be observed, which have the potential of shattering widespread deeply entrenched beliefs like those that (1st) human beings have the capacity to govern themselves and that (2nd) we hold the inherent dignity to deserve self-government.

They find their strong contradiction in the undeniable fact that around the world strongmen are seeking unchecked power and find mounting success in gaining it. Polling in the United States and other developed nations suggests increasing openness to the idea of authoritarian government, especially among younger people. (According to the World Values Survey, almost one-fourth of U.S. citizens ages 16 to 24 said that a democratic system was a „bad” way to run the country in 2011, about twice the percentage as among those over 65.)

The last straw that breaks the camel's back may be seen in a the condensed view of Nathan Schneider, a reporter and professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder voice in a preview of his new book “Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy”:

The assumption that liberal democracy is the eventual destination of historical progress can no longer be taken for granted.”

Besides that he sublimely conveys a questioning of the whole notion of an ongoing and unidirectional human progress (which is a topic for later elaborations) he makes a clear point on the necessity of leaders:

We the people are more connected than ever before, more capable of managing our own economies and collaborating across the globe, and yet we stand at the mercy of petty men with nuclear weapons, flinging insults across oceans. We are better than this. Perhaps we are finally ready for a politics in which the president matters less.”

This remark makes an initial dent to our mainstream beliefs that nations have to be led by leaders hereby paving the way for more radical views to follow. But first let’s take a look at the players in the field and the game itself: The leaders and their followers, and the process of decision making.


2. Career politicians - The human factor


What do politicians do? Politics would be the obvious and simple answer. But is that really the case? Or are they just plainly looking for a seat at the table of the mighty and the powerful? Pursuing political goals or simply making career?

There are two main career paths which are typically followed by politicians seeking careers in modern democracies.

First come the “career-politicians”. They are politicians who work in the political sector until retirement. Doing politics is a job for them. Being very ambitious they intend to excel in their job and trump all the others – quite often regardless of the message, the political content they are to bring forward.

"The biggest threat to politicians is when everything turns out to work fine without us being involved. Don't let that get around." Sigmar Gabriel, then Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated in his speech at the 2018 New Year's Reception.

Even if he explicitly wanted it to be understood as ironic, it stuck to my memory. It perfectly sums up the plight of a career politician: if his name cannot be permanently associated with effective and positive actions in his area of responsibility, his image will fade in a population saturated with information.

He is not allowed to relax on seeing his political goals achieved and being bored then contentedly retreat to his estate. Just as Otto von Bismarck, who is quoted as "I am bored. The great things are done. The German Reich is made."

He has to prove his raison d'ĂȘtre every day. Because that's his job, for some of them, the only job they have ever acquired skills in.

Second are the "political careerists". These are politicians who gain reputation for expertise in controlling certain bureaucracies or even more prominent functions, then leave politics for a well-paid career in the private sector making use of their political contacts.

One of the more spectacular examples to date of a Western politician selling out to an even authoritarian government may be seen in the nomination of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to the board of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company.

In both cases and for obvious reasons “career” is used as a derogatory term. The implication is that the person is only interested in obtaining positions of political power. They spend all of their efforts in appealing to the masses and will do/say/promise anything to win support and always try to be part of the winning party.


3. Charismatic leaders – two edged swords


Are there no true charismatic transformative leaders? Oh yes there have been quite a few throughout history. Archie Brown discusses some of them in his landmark book “The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age”.

Although politicians in the sense of men or women obsessed by a certain political goal, they regard as mandatory to pursue by whatever means it might take, are more often found at the right or left edge of the political spectrum, there are some illustrative examples to be found in the political mainstream as well.

Among those choosing the means, perhaps Winston Churchill took it to the extreme by switching political parties (“ratting” in Parliamentary terms), which he did not once but twice. He left the Conservatives (Tories) for the Liberals in 1904, only to re-join the Conservatives in 1925 which he has long been criticized for.

Churchill defended his actions: “The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.” So his argument was that only by switching alliances he was able to achieve his goals.

These arguments point less towards career making purposes but rather to pursuing political goals. One is tempted to cite Otto von Bismarck to his defense, defining politics as the the art of the possible[1]. Only on this winded course his political goal was achievable, was possible.

But nevertheless unease might arise as we could recognise too much dependence of the political business on individual personal decisions in this case – as in many others.

This uneasy feeling is not limited to myself and it is not completely new. Already back in 2012 Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in the Harvard Business Review on “The dark side of Charisma”.

  • Charisma fosters collective narcissism

  • Charisma is addictive

  • Charisma disguises psychopaths

  • Charisma fosters collective narcissism

So not only that we may be unlucky enough to let our political system churn out career politicians, who are unwilling and unable to cope with upcoming challenges. We may on the other hand fall victim to strong, charismatic transformative leaders.

Why do we become victims so easily? Well, good question and to be discussed next.


4. The followers – those who are led


There are those who lead - the leaders - and those who obediently allow them to be led - the followers. Although in liberal societies by definition the people ought to be the true sovereign and the politicians their agents, there seems to be an underlying archaic trait deeply rooted in mankind’s soul: the longing for a strong leader.

This observation, the well-known the myth of a strong leader, seems to hold not only in young democracies where one can assume an authoritarian leadership style being deeply imbued into the fabric of the society out of mere tradition.

We need a strong leader to lead us out of the political morass.“ During my years in Ukraine I heard this sentence quite often. “If you want a strong leader, you will get a strong leader – along with all the ugly calamities, he will cause,” was my usual response. Strong leaders usually become such by relentlessly pushing their very personal agenda forward, leaving behind a trail of devastation and scorched earth.

Still not really thinking in terms of an egalitarian democracy and rather used to a culture of a high ‘power distance’ and authoritarian leadership style, my dialog partners revealed that they in fact were longing for some kind of benevolent dictator. This has rarely worked as expected.

But even western democracies are not immune to this fatal longing. We should better be watchful not to slide down that slippery slope towards the road to serfdom again and again.


5. Time for more direct democracy?


So, let’s risk more democracy? The electronic communication channels of this hyper-connected world provide new means for opinion creation and political decision making – so the theory goes. Remember that Estonia, that small nation at the shores of the Baltic Sea offers participation in national elections via an e-voting channel.

Switzerland on the other hand is known for its semi-direct implementation of democracy – imagined halfway between a representative and a direct democracy. Next to the election of the Federal Assembly it offers mandatory referendums, optional referendums and federal popular initiatives.

Why not combine both worlds and provide a way of direct participation of every citizen in the daily political business – very much of what is done in today’s parliaments in the more representative style? We the people are the ruling sovereign? Wouldn’t this represent the perfect form of democracy?

Sounds good - is dangerous however.

Unfortunately, due to the very nature of mankind it is not as simple as it may appear. The easiest way is the original way of voting, the vote in a hall, under a baobab tree or in the Thing.

Here, every participant, originally every free and honest man of full age and good standing, had a vote with which he (or occasionally she) voted for or against a specific proposal at a given time.

Things can go wrong here too. An inciting, inflammatory speech, given immediately before voting may have achieved its demagogic purpose and led the voter to make a hasty decision, which he might have preferred not to make after some reflection.

On the other hand however, one can safely state that democracy in this original form may work reasonably well: Opinions are expressed, all participants have equal access to information during the time, are present in the same way, have equal chances, will abstain from voting only for good reason. And the votes can be counted in front of everyone’s eyes if necessary. In case of secret ballots, we can even assume free and independent decisions.

As the group grows, the choice becomes more difficult to organize. Also the governmental work that may be performed becomes more complex and difficult to understand. That is why the various forms of representative democracy have developed. Here we delegate trustworthy people from among us to whom we entrust this complex work. They represent us and decide on behalf of us. This representative democracy has obvious advantages and appeared to be the only option for larger communities, at least until now.

However, this form of governance also has its likewise obvious, serious disadvantages – as discussed above. In addition its actors may become more or less easy prey to lobbyists of a particular interest.

Isn't there a better way? Don’t we today have the technical means to hold (electronic) elections in larger groups? So it's time for more democracy?

That's a nice idea. Unfortunately, it rarely works.

Referendums, whether held traditionally by electronic means, can completely get out of hand and run counter to the original idea of more direct democracy. After repeated votes quickly, a certain electoral fatigue sets in. The voters called to vote stay away from the ballot boxes. All too easily, non-representative but resolutely acting groups can take advantage of this circumstance for their purposes.

So, direct democracy is a sharp weapon. It requires a high sense of responsibility and a high degree of social maturity. Doubts are justifies that many peoples already have arrived at that level of this maturity.

Disillusionment has not only arisen with regard to direct democracy. The electronic communication channel in its current form has also fallen into discredit and has even lost the support of its early prophets.

To emphasize this point, e.g. the well-known VR pioneer Jaron Lanier mentioned in a conversation on Silicon Valley’s politics and what went wrong with the internet: “One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong” and “That it’s ruining politics, it’s empowering the most obnoxious people to be most influential, and that’s destroying the world.”

It looks like we are caught between a rock and a hard place here – truly a dilemma.


6. The odds of decision making


Not only are decision-makers not as reliable and trustworthy as necessary, whether due to hidden agendas or one of the multiple biases, or as in the case of decisions made by the "crowd" because they are distracted, emotional, lack information or simply bored. Decision making in itself seems to take us humans to our mental limits.

MIT’s McAfee Andrew stated in an interview with McKinsey & Company in March this year: “A lot of executives who I talk to think that a big part of their job is making the tough calls; relying on the experience, industry knowledge, and judgment that they’ve built up; and having a clearer crystal ball of things that are going to happen in the industry or in the future than other competitors have.

While I value those things, I value them a lot less than I used to, because … over and over again we’re seeing that technology is better at human-judgment tasks than humans.”

Next quote is taken from the Farnam Street Blog on Decision Making: Do Algorithms Beat Us at Complex Decision Making? where the author states “In the battle of man vs algorithm, unfortunately, man often loses. The promise of Artificial Intelligence is just that. So if we're going to be smart humans, we must learn to be humble in situations where our intuitive judgment simply is not as good as a set of simple rules.”

The author in turn makes extensive use of the groundbreaking works of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann, who indeed is the central expert whose work to draw from when it comes to decision making – might it be human or algorithm based. In is landmark publication “Thinking Fast and Slow” he elaborates on the various biases humans fall victim to when trying to make decisions in a complex problem space. I too made use of his insights before – applied to the realm of corporate decision making, where much research has been done.

Human irrationality is Kahneman’s great theme. A leitmotif of this book besides all the cognitive biases, fallacies and illusions that he and Tversky have discovered in the last few decades, is overconfidence, nurturing the impression that humans are fundamentally irrational.

This impression is not naturally true, like Kahnemann himself makes clear. We just have to take into account our built-in constraints we face when confronted with decision needs of a complex nature.

Under such conditions, human decisions, even if they are unbiased and well-intentioned, suffer from considerable random errors, which Kahnemann aptly calls noise. And noise was exactly what he found while consulting large corporations: “I’ve been observing more folly than I expected,” he says. “People often say that the private sector is better than government, and if government is worse than what I’ve seen, then we’re really in trouble.”

Yes, probably we are.


7. So better let algorithms decide?


Okay then, let’s make it less human-bound, less susceptible to human peculiarities, weaknesses, and noise. No longer dependent on the political genius, the super negotiator, the strong and charismatic leader.

As we have learned, we are easily deceived. We are often biased, hereby bending toward a more personal benefit in terms of personal honors and even outright financial benefits for ourselves or our buddies. And to make matters even worse, we quickly reach our limits. We make noisy decisions - simply because we can't do better.

Well, for now, people (still) have to be responsible for building the rule set, formulating the algorithms, defining the driving policies and determining the underlying values. But drawing the right conclusions should be the domain of clever machines. Will it improve our current situation? Or will it prove dangerous?

So what are the perils we have to face?

Not drawing the right conclusions from our rule set? No, I have no doubt, and so haven’t others, that a good decision engine will be able to evaluate a given set of rules / algorithms of whatever complexity as long as they are not contradictory and are fed with sufficient information of an appropriate quality.

The two minor and innocently looking side conditions, consistency and completeness, pose tough challenges already. However they do so for human decision makers as well. Humans will have to rely more on their intuition, the decision making system #2, how Daniel Kahnemann would call it. As he had delivered proof, humans are not better at this than machines.

Not having the right rules at hand? Well this is much more of a problem. Finding general rules means abstraction, generalization, induction or deduction, tasks which proved to be difficult for us.

So, we have to face new challenges, right?


8. Rule based decision making - a new idea at all?


So is this a groundbreaking, revolutionary new idea? Not at all – to start with the conclusion right at the beginning. It is so evident that there can be no doubt. It probably all started with the codification of law. The Code of Hammurabi for example dates back to 1790 BC and it might even not be the earliest attempt to replace arbitrary court decisions by the rule of law – just among the best documented and most comprehensive ones. It is pre-faced by the poetic words “Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; …”. 

Quite a bit later Aristotle is quoted with "It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens". The “modern” version of a civil code, the Corpus Iuris Civilis ("Body of Civil Law"), emerged already 529 to 534 under Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. The concept of codification took a further boost during the 17th and 18th centuries AD, as an expression of both natural law and the ideas of the  Enlightenment. It was the common belief at this time that all spheres of life could be dealt with in a conclusive system based on human rationality, following from the experience of the early codifications of Roman law during the Roman Empire. The so called “common law countries” of the United Kingdom and Ireland and Scandinavia however remained untouched by the codification movement.


So – to a varying degree – there is a tradition to follow rules. While both – rule creation and rule application – were performed by humans, hereby allowing for a large margin of discretion – they nevertheless represent the common ground on which the community agreed as a framework for future decisions.


9. Transparency – an unwanted side effect?


It also turns out that we tend not to be honest about what really drives our decision-making. And that's not just an option, it's a fact. In his book "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics", published in 2001, the American scientist John Mearsheimer convincingly shows that double standards were regularly applied during the Cold War and probably beyond. While the US often rightly pointed to human rights violations while simply pursuing power politics, the Soviets were reluctant to be blunt in their actions as well and called their actions a promotion of communism. However, both sides could easily have been caught at the forefront of human rights violations or violations of their communist principles.

If algorithm based decision making will be able to earn any trust, it needs to be radically transparent. Maybe future practice will teach us otherwise. However my current expectation is that such translucent process will make decision making brutally honest. May be this will cause some collective learning effects. So double standards will either have to become publicly visible and hereby accepted parts of the rule set or cannot be part of the political tool set any longer. While I obviously hope for the latter, I am not so sure if public opinion could not even come to terms with the former.

As I put hope over fear, I want to express the expectation that an algorithmic decision making will lead to more transparency and thus to the avoidance of double standards.


10       Risks & Fixes


The vanguard IT-security pioneer and inconvenient warner Bruce Schneier already in 2016 addressed the topic of “The risks - and benefits - of letting algorithms judge us”. He pointed at the then still early attempts of social profiling by the Chinese state, resulting in a universal well-behaving score. That’s the Chinese way of doing things – they have a long tradition in these attempts - and now even the appropriate technology at hand.

The free liberal American way of doing things however isn’t less daunting. Although here the scoring activities - as it is common custom – are left to privately held corporations. Opt-in mechanisms and the freedom of contracting nourish the illusion of a voluntary participation. However in practice the choice would be to drop out of the society - or to comply with the opaque rules. And of course there can be no doubt that stately actors will gleefully welcome the opportunity to grab the profiling info for their own, not substantially more, transparent purposes.

His conclusion was “The first step is to make these algorithms public.” Of course transparency is such an obvious requirement and precondition for a just governance of a liberal democracy that we hesitate to name it in the first place. We tend to take it for granted for all activities performed on behalf of the true sovereign – the people itself. However this is far from being reality and not even in the genuine interest of those who switched sides from those being ruled towards the ruling ‘class’.

Bruce Schneier rightly adds a second advice “The second step is for these systems to be subject to oversight and accountability.” Innocently embedded in this claim is another very useful link to “Algorithmic Accountability: On the Investigation of Black Boxes”. In short, next to being public these rules need to be approved, scrutinized and re-examined regularly. As they express how we intend to rule ourselves, the governing of these algorithms central to the democratic decision-making process


11. Acceptance


Resistance is to be expected, in particular by those who are going to be replaced by those smarter machines, as Michael Schrage observes: “In theory, the organizational challenges of algorithmic autonomy map perfectly to which processes or systems are being made autonomous. In reality, transitions prove to be significant operational problems … creates interpersonal and inter-process frictions. At one American retailer, an autonomous ensemble of algorithms replaced the entire merchandising department. Top management told store managers and staff to honor requests and obey directives from their new ‘colleagues’; the resentment and resistance were palpable. Audit software and human monitors were soon installed to assure compliance.”

If not personally affected negatively however even among the Germans, the well-known laggards in terms of leading edge technology adoption, some acceptance for algorithmic decision making seems to be growing. At least the result of a survey among 1,006 German citizens aged 14+ conducted by the digital association Bitkom supports this view.

According to that survey a majority of the German citizens would even let an ‘AI’ decide on their behalf in certain situations. Not sure if all participants had a good understanding of what’s AI and how it differs from traditional rule evaluation engines.

Regardless of these subtleties, about 15 percent say they would rather prefer an AI's decision over that of a human while applying for a loan at the bank. 10 percent would accept a non-human judge in court, e.g. after a traffic accident. Another 9 percent would rather negotiate their next salary increase with an AI than his / her boss. This said, in total 6 out of 10 German citizens (58 percent) would prefer an AI decision at least in certain situations.

I therefore expect the greater resistance from the governing side, which would have to stop using double standards, backroom negotiations, secret agreements and other usual dark practices.


12. Conclusion


In contrast to the omnipresent politician approach as satirized by the Sigmar Gabriel quote above, the algorithmic approach aims exactly at the opposite: doing the political business as automated, silent and in the background as possible. It ought to be fully transparent and logically traceable. Abstaining from exciting spectacular show effects, it should rather appear as a dull routine. In all cases when there are no crises to overcome, governance should be boring. That would even be a quality criterion.

The real work of a politician would then consist of reviewing these decisions, refining or streamlining the rules, or at least adapting them if necessary - but not participating personally in the decisions. That would be considered as archaic by then. And certainly not should he personally appear as leader of the nation, along with first Lady, first Daughter and first Dog.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, China’s e-commerce giant mentioned on World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2018 in Davos that “People will never be able to compete with machines”. So it is just natural that AI will take over our jobs. Certainly this prophecy applies to the more mundane tasks of a politician’s daily life too.

However, this may only be a transitional state until an Artificial Intelligence (AI) completely takes over all government works. By then all politicians may safely retire completely. Because in this vision everyone will be a politician then again.

This would be or – to be precise: will be - truly a digitally transformed governance. It’s not just some far-off dream / fear anymore. It is not about indulging black magic and alchemy but rather quite the opposite: forcing those in charge of governing us on behalf of us to follow a predefined rigorous logic. The rules need to be set by us humans like it as a long tradition since the times of Hammurabi. The conclusions however should better be drawn by a digital processor rather than a human one.

Although I personally consider it a little premature to elect a robot as a city mayor, who already exposes a modest degree of artificial intelligence (ai), which however can safely still be described as artificial stupidity (as).

Nevertheless I can follow another Nobel laureate Richard Thaler, who is quotedWe’re just scratching the surface on what technology can do.” in the context of “Making better decisions through technology”.

Digital transformation of governance seems to be on its way already.




[1] „Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable - the art of the next best“, - Otto von Bismarck

Republished by the Diplomatic Council