Published on February 27th, 2017 | by Zachary Shahan0
Our Real Problem With “Democracy”
February 27th, 2017 by Zachary Shahan
It doesn’t require complicated calculus to choose renewable energy over fossil fuels and electric transport over oil-propelled vehicles. It’s just simple addition these days.
For electricity generation, you look at the market cost of electricity from different sources (renewables are typically now cheapest), you add in any “external” societal costs, and you come up with the total cost. For fossil fuels, you do the same. Adding in the health costs of fossil fuels long ago made renewables the cheapest option. If you also wanted to take into account the potential societal collapse that comes from global warming, the equation’s even more dramatic.
Nonetheless, we continue to use and even build fossil fuel power plants.
It’s a similar story with electric transport versus oil-based transport.
And, frankly, it’s a similar story in many other realms of our society.
As has been stated many times, a “free market” requires that full information be widely available. A “democracy” has the same theoretical requirement. It also requires that the population be engaged and make decisions based on that “full & free” information.
Clearly, we don’t have full and free information and we never will. We each have huge information gaps, and then we also have people actively working to disinform/misinform others. This means that we have fundamental flaws in any implementation of a “free market” or “democracy.”
Of course, the further we stray from “full & free” information — as well as consumer & civic action based on that information — the further we stray from a theoretical democratic ideal.
This point has become painfully obvious in the US over the past year. (I won’t go into the details of how this has been so painfully obvious — you either get it at this point or you are living in the kind of information-deficient and information-warped world that stimulated this article.) We are getting a taste of how extremely far we are from a free market and a democratic society. And while we taste this sour, bitter, out-of-date, rotten alternative, the debate many of us are having internally and externally is, “Can we recover a half-decent democracy or are we headed for fatal collapse?”
Again, I think looking at this matter through the lens of energy is useful and interesting. But before we do that, it’s also worth noting that we are in an odd situation in the US for various reasons.
- Mental health professionals have broken from their own industry’s gag order to try to make it clear to the public that we are dealing with a dangerous situation as a democracy, because Trump has long exhibited classic signs of mental illness, including “malignant narcissism,” which is not a light matter considering the position he is in. It is why we’re seeing a deep and broad attack on two out of the four fundamental pillars of our democracy — the press and the judicial system. As that article linked above summarizes it, “We have a President who only believes something is true if it praises him. Everything else is fake news to him. Psychologists know what that is: It’s a dangerous, pathological detachment from reality.”
- A former Trump executive has responded that she (and others) have known Trump was mentally ill for 35 years. “Now, 35 years later, professionals are saying what we knew back then. Only now he is so much worse.”
- If this wasn’t obvious at the initial stages of his campaign and presidency, and if it hasn’t been obvious to you for 35 years, Trump’s solo press conference should have made it so, as a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign has tried to make clear.
- Now that he is the 45th president of the United States, Congresspeople have to deal with this craziness. “He says some crazy shit sometimes. We are getting used to handling it,” said a senior GOP aide in a recent interview with Politico, one of the esteemed major media outlets that Don the Con has been labelling as “fake news” and excluding from certain press events.
- Unfortunately, as the most powerful politician in America turns his attacks to the free press, much of the population has come to trust him more than reporters. That is stunning. Disturbing. And brings us back to the main focus of the article.
Even in cases where information is abundantly available and clear, even with the modern ease of Google, people don’t want to be bothered to learn. They don’t want to be bothered to look up the facts, dig into the details, and get a fairly objective, “deep” lay person’s understanding of many topics that are relevant to their lives.
People prefer entertainment and convenience.
People think it’s fine to remain ignorant.
That’s how we got Trump as president. He was probably the least qualified person to ever run for president under a major party, let alone win the presidency. But he’s an entertainer and a brander. He knows how to persuade people — even how to persuade people to throw $20,000 away on a phony “get rich quick” scheme disguised as a fake university — and he watches TV news obsessively enough to have a decent sense of what the “average American” might feel is important to them politically. No, that didn’t at all prepare him to be president, but people couldn’t be bothered to figure that out and it was enough for him to win the presidency.
Back when Hillary clinched the Democratic Party nomination, I wrote an article of advice for her. I recommended that she get more progressive on the issues (yes, she has been progressive on several things, but she is a proud centrist and that needed to change — big league), and I recommended that she have fun. The point of having fun was to entertain, to show people her humanity, to show people she was one of them. She seemed to try both of them a little bit, but she was much less effective than the NYC billionaire living in a gold-plated penthouse at entertaining and pulling people into her fold in that way. It was one of ~51 things that led to the black swan presidency we now have (other factors, of course, included Hillary being too “establishment,” a 25-year smear campaign focused on her, Russian interference, FBI screwups, etc., etc.).
The overall point is that, whether with the “free market” or “democracy,” we have a problem — people don’t dig into the facts, don’t seem to care about the facts, and mostly want to be entertained and provided with “easy answers” that fit into their cultural or individual worldview.
What does this mean?
As much as I like and sometimes subscribe to the idea that “the better tech,” the better solution, the truth, etc., etc., breaks through and wins the day eventually, that is sometimes a fallacy itself, especially when you consider the tight race we are in.
If we want important and useful information to reach more people, we need to entertain, we need to persuade, we need to realize that our “democracy”isn’t close to pure and never will be, just as our “free market” isn’t close to pure and never will be.
I’m certainly not recommending “playing dirty” or using “alternative facts,” as some people do, but persuasion is critical, and it is not simply about presenting the facts. Democracy is in essence a battle of persuasion. Unfortunately, many of the people with “non-alternative facts” are losing right now — let’s do more than blame the idiots. The idiots have always been there.
When it comes to energy, we can be sure that the extremely rich and powerful fossil/pollution energy industry will use any methods it can to persuade people and limit cleantech growth. We can’t approach the challenge lightly or limply. We need “people power” to overcome $$$ power.
Additionally, as we transition to a cleaner energy world, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on where we are shifting the power. If we continue to shift it to megacorporations, they will continue to use their money to their advantage over ours. If we shift power to communities, local businesses, rooftops, schools, etc., we can have a more “democratic” energy system, and thus a much more democratic society and world. The opportunity is at our fingertips. Use your time and resources wisely.
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