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@newscientist.com

or:

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.

The allotted Irish Citizens’ Assembly sends its recommendations to the Oireachtas

Wikipedia:

The Citizens’ Assembly (Irish: An Tionól Saoránach) is a citizens’ assembly established in Ireland in 2016 to consider several political questions: abortion, fixed term parliaments, referendums, population ageing, and climate change. It will produce reports to be considered by the Oireachtas (parliament).

[…]

On 26 July 2016, Mary Laffoy, a judge of the Supreme Court of Ireland, was chosen by the government as chairperson of the assembly.

The 99 other members are “citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society”. As with the 66 citizen members of the Constitutional Convention, these 99 plus 99 substitutes were selected by an opinion polling company; Red C won the tender and began selection at the start of September. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2016 was passed to enable the electoral register to be used in this process. Media were asked not to photograph the citizen members before the inaugural Assembly meeting. By the 27 November 2016 meeting, 11 of the 99 had been replaced by substitutes.

The Irish Post:

THE Irish Citizen’s Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in favour of abortion in a landslide vote.

[…]

The citizens involved in the vote had attended five two-day meetings since November 2016 and had heard from a series of legal and medical professionals.
Continue reading

Ganesh Sitaraman’s sortition version of the Roman tribunes

Ganesh Sitaraman proposes a sortition version of the tribunes of the Roman Republic in his new book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.

Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist, describes the proposal in his review of the book in the New York Times (March 20, 2017):

Perhaps the least familiar and most intriguing policy proposal that Sitaraman discusses is the idea of reviving the Roman tribunate: 51 citizens would be selected by lot from the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. They would be able to veto one statute, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision each year; they would be able to call a referendum, and impeach federal officials.

Such a proposal seems fanciful today, but so is campaign finance reform, or greater redistribution. Yet we do well to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum that it takes a crisis to bring real change, so that our job in the meantime is to develop alternatives to existing policies that are ready for when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Sitaraman is an associate law professor at Vanderbilt Law School.

“Anyone have any better ideas?”

Terry Bouricius pointed out the following story in The Onion, “America’s finest news source”:

Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative To Letting Power-Hungry [Depraved People] Decide Everything

NEW YORK—Noting that it has had thousands of years to develop a more agreeable option, humankind expressed bewilderment this week that it has yet to devise a better alternative to governing itself than always letting power-hungry assholes run everything, sources worldwide reported.

Individuals in every country on earth voiced their frustration that, in spite of generations of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse they have suffered at the hands of those in positions of authority, they continue to allow control over the world’s governments, businesses, and virtually every other type of organization and social group to fall to the most megalomaniacal pricks among them.
Continue reading

Science funding is a gamble so let’s give out money by lottery

Perhaps your life, like that of many of my friends and relatives, has been improved by propranolol – a beta-blocker that reduces the effects of stress hormones, and that’s used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, chest pain, an uneven heartbeat and migraines. It’s considered one of the most important pharmaceutical breakthroughs of the 20th century.

Thank goodness, then, that the United States in the 1940s didn’t have the same attitude to science funding that it does today. If it had, you could expect to see seven experts sitting around a table, trying to assign a score to an unorthodox grant proposal to study the function of adrenaline in the body. ‘If I have properly understood the author’s intent, then this mechanism has already been settled, surely,’ a senior physician might say. A lone physiologist mounts a defence, but the pharmacologists in the room are dismissive, with one who remarks that the mathematics ‘look cumbrous and inconvenient’. So the pathbreaking research of the late Raymond Ahlquist, a professor at the Medical College of Georgia who laid the foundations for the discovery of propranolol, could easily end up with low marks, and his theories would never see the light of day.

Science is expensive, and since we can’t fund every scientist, we need some way of deciding whose research deserves a chance. So, how do we pick? At the moment, expert reviewers spend a lot of time allocating grant money by trying to identify the best work. But the truth is that they’re not very good at it, and that the process is a huge waste of time. It would be better to do away with the search for excellence, and to fund science by lottery.
Continue reading