Greece: School flag-bearers will be chosen by lot, rather than achievement reports:

The government has scrapped a long tradition of honoring top pupils by selecting them to carry the national flag in school parades. From now on flag-bearers will be chosen by lot. Opposition parties criticized this as part of the SYRIZA party’s assault on excellence.

A presidential decree published in the Government Gazette on Tuesday sets out the new procedure for selecting flag-bearers, and those flanking them, in primary school parades. Two pupils in sixth grade (the final year of primary school) will be chosen by lot each year, with one serving from the start of the academic year until January 31 and the other from February 1 to the end of the school year.

This means different pupils will carry the flag in parades to mark Independence Day on March 25 and Oxi Day on October 28, which commemorates Greece’s response to an Italian ultimatum in 1940 and the country’s entry into World War II.
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Marcela Iacub: To reform political life, long live the lottery!

The French original is here.

The prevalent disgust with the political class will not be resolved as long as the powerful enjoy unwarranted privileges and as long as the president lives in the Elysée palace

It seems that attempting to reform political life brings bad luck. Once the government appointed François Bayrou to draft a law for reforming political life he was quickly paralyzed. Ever since the announcement of this effort, scandals are surrounding the allies and the close associates of the president’s party. Faced with this curse, two explanations suggest themselves.

The first is sociological. The privileges associated with power are shared by practically the entire political class. How then may one find the person capable of putting an end to those privileges? And if by happenstance such a person is found, even the most straight-laced would be surrounded by others who may not be…

The demands of honesty keep increasing year-by-year. That which was common practice suddenly becomes ethically unacceptable, and that which was unethical becomes illegal. Things are moving so quickly that the political class will soon face a crisis. And it is normal. In a democracy, isn’t the gratitude of the people the only privilege allowed? But maybe under those conditions, no one would wish to govern…

For a regime to be really deprived of unwarranted privileges, it must be based on sortition: the rulers are to be appointed in the same way juries are. Everything would then be very different: the political class would simply be a mechanical intermediary and the public in involvement in politics would be strong. Populism would disappear because the citizens would be educated about every question being collectively discussed.

The second reason is psychological. In the current context, the one who is charged with reforming political life is necessarily hated. Not only because he is suspected of hypocrisy – must he not be hiding his own scandals or those of his associates? – but also because the mere idea of “reform” provokes a desire to punish. The entire political class is transformed into a scapegoat for all the collective frustrations. The disgust with the political class is but a mild version of the desire to eliminate it. If it recently benefited the present government, it will soon to turn against it. Can this be doubted?

This is why it is hopeless that the attempt to reform political life will restore the public’s confidence in those who rule over it. It will only further this hate. No sanction will appease the public’s wish to make the power elites pay, to make them fall, to see them suffer. For that to dissipate, the entire system of privileges accorded to the rulers has to be abolished. And above all a profound remaking of institutions has to conceived. Representative democracy has to be reconsidered. It creates the political elites that extract from the people the power to shape their destiny. It is necessary to abolish the material privileges attached to the exercise of power. Today, the most symbolic and the most jarring among those is the fact that the president lives and works at the Elysée palace. Doesn’t this hall signify the unfathomable abyss which separates the rules and the ruled? Aren’t the former nothing but the servants of the sovereign will of the latter? These transformations will make the people, woken from the aggressive apathy toward the ruling elite, re-become a real actor in political life, their hate transformed into delight.

Sortition in Current Affairs

A June 26 Current Affairs article must be the most pro-sortition editorial to appear in mainstream media in recent history. More importantly, it oozes with wit that justifiably pillories America’s “intolerable” Congress. The arguments here are familiar but are combined in an unforgettably entertaining way.

It begins with the sad shape of Congress.

The data confirm that Congresspeople have a lower approval rating than marketing executives and bubonic plague.

Second, it points out that Congress is not “representative” in the demographic sense.

Take our current Congress, which is 80% male, 95% college-educated, and 50.8% millionaires. The population it “represents” is 50% male, 30% college-educated, and 5% millionaires. That’s not even close

It then moves on to the evidence that “representation of interests” is a fantasy, citing Gilens and Page.

If your Congressman (or Congresswoman, but probably Congressman) puts forward the kinds of policies that you yourself would wish to see advanced, why does it matter whether you and he happen to have wildly different backgrounds? That would be an excellent argument, if Congress usually put forward policies that Americans agree with. Alas, it does not. One Princeton study estimates that, statistically speaking, the preferences of 90% of the American electorate have a “near-zero” impact on policymaking. And a number of highly-publicized legal reforms with a broad popular mandate, such as closing the gun show loophole, have never made it anywhere near the President’s desk. How is that possible in a “representative” Congress?

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Sortition versus manipulation?

I have been studying the claims that the Trump election was the product of clandestine manipulation of voters by sending them false information so targeted to their personal characteristics as to have a decisive influence on their voting behaviour.

The data firm Cambridge Analytica claims to have profiles of nearly everybody in the USA, based on information about them collected from the internet. These profiles enable predictions of a very high accuracy of what sort of information will be accepted by particular people and what influence it will have on their voting. It is not very likely that such manipulation would induce many Democrats to change their vote, bit it might leave them less likely to turn out for Hillary. It could easily account for bringing fringe Republicans to vote. The Trump campaign spent relatively little on conventional media. They got so much free! But they are said to have spent heavily on covert manipulation.

A first reaction is that we have another argument against voting and all that goes with it in current practice. But further reflection reveals a danger even to sortition. The members of a body chosen by sortition can be identified and their prejudices cultivated to pervert their view of the facts they are considering. It need not be very expensive, since they are relatively few in numbers, and well worth the cost to a body with big interests at stake. It would be more attractive than lobbying in many circumstances.

The only remedy I can see is insistence that all the proceedings of public decision-making must not only be available to all, but open to comment at every stage so that untruths are challenged and patterns of deceit uncovered.

Sortition-related proposals in Belgium and Switzerland

In Belgium, Christie Morreale, a senator, proposes a Peonidisesque scheme where blank votes would be translated into allotted MPs.

In Switzerland “Génération nomination” is starting to collect signatures for putting its sortition-related proposal on the ballot. According to the proposal, 50 out of the 200 members of the Swiss national council would be selected by lot.

A Dutchman offers sortition to the Scots

Dr Jasper Kenter, an ecological ­economist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh, writes in The Scotsman:

Being Dutch, Westminster politics and ­elections horrify me. […] In Holland, […] [c]oalition agreements mean ­ministers can get on with their jobs without being threatened by reshuffles. They are even expected to have expertise relevant to their post.

Yet, proportional representation faces the same issues as first past the post: policies in the long-term interest of society are hard to sell because of short-term impacts. This is exacerbated by the commercial and political interests of media, with power to sway opinion by triggering fear, anger and envy, deluding people into thinking the extraordinary is more ­common.

For example, air pollution leads to 40,000 deaths a year, far more than terrorism and homicide. Addressing this would require policy overhauls and investment opposed by ­powerful lobbies, so we stick our heads in the sand.

Another example: preserving healthy ecosystems is the most important thing we can do for future generations – but the UK’s environment department has had more severe cuts than any other, with barely anyone noticing.

There is a solution: replace MPs with randomly selected citizens called up for parliamentary duty, a ­system called sortition. Imagine ­parliament being a true reflection of the public, with mothers and teachers thinking through education and childcare, health workers influencing how to run and fund the NHS. MPs would be ­independent of wealthy donors and no need to be popular, so would be better at making difficult decisions.

They would be supported by an office providing independent expertise, like the current Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. By changing a third of MPs at a time, experience could be passed on.

In Scotland, there is an ideal opportunity to try sortition: Holyrood does not have a ­second chamber and, regardless of Indyref2, will receive more powers after Brexit, so arguably needs one.

New Scientist letter

I was lucky enough to get the following letter on sortition published in New Scientist, (not quite as I penned it). I’m hoping there will be an exchange of letters, so if anyone wants to comment, there is an opportunity.

Letters should be sent to:


Letters to the Editor, New Scientist,
110 High Holborn, London WC1V6EU

They like them to be short (250-300 words maximum). Be sure to include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. In this case you should include “Campbell Wallace (Letters, 20 May, p53)…” if you comment on my letter; or, if you comment on another letter, the name of the writer and the date of publishing.

As published:

Dave Levitan (22 April, p 24), and Alice Klein (p 25) rightly deplore politicians such as Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, who disregard scientific evidence in favour of policies chosen for short-term electoral advantage or to further special interests. But the problem is a consequence of the electoral system itself, which repeatedly brings to power people unfit to use it.

Since the 18th century we have assumed that elections are both necessary and sufficient for democracy, and that without them tyranny results. Yet the Greeks of Aristotle’s day knew that elections could lead to oligarchy, not democracy, and that a democratic alternative existed. Athenian democracy selected decision-makers by lot to get a statistically representative sample of the whole community: this is called “sortition“. It is perfectly feasible to design a system with the means to ensure that those chosen are well-informed on each issue that comes before them. Sortition would end the reign of big money, greatly reduce corruption, and would make intelligent decisions, taking into account the interests of all.

It’s high time we abandoned the myth that elections equal democracy.