In the aftermath of the election, the problem in the current political climate has become increasingly evident: the dividedness of the government. This past congress has been named the least productive congress on the record. The lawmakers can’t agree on anything from gay-rights to budgets. One is still awed by the madness of the fiscal cliff fiasco. How can each congressman, who seem perfectly intelligent individually, in a group fail to make the simplest decision in the world?
I can go out of my way and say, and I bet many will agree, that the government policies in the United States is even less inept to deal with the economy than the government of China. When it becomes obvious that education and scientific research are the corner stone of a sustainable economy, China’s increase on these investments is responsive and swift. In contrast, the US education system has been talked about for decades, and yet no one is doing anything about it. It seems China is really catching up, not just in absolute terms like total GDP. Even in per capita GDP, China is growing much faster than the US.
One might even say that US is going to benefit more from a dictator than a congress. Sometimes, that seem really true. But monarchy is far from productive. That’s why the western world abandoned that system in favor of the current one. Even China is moving towards democracy, however slowly. So what’s a perfect political system, a hybrid?
For democratic systems, the heart of the problem is the difference of opinions. What impact will it have to raise the taxes on the rich? Will it destroy jobs or stimulate the economy? Will abortion destroy humanity or will it lead to better lives? Are illegal immigrants stealing resources or are they helping the economy? No one really knows the answer to any of these questions, and that’s why we have endless debates. The effects of these policies are so uncertain that we had to resort to a poll of opinions, which are essentially religious beliefs that has little grounding in truth, and often enacting policies with unintended consequences. If we know exactly what happens with these policies, there will be no debate. The decisions are self-evident. However, since political opinions are so elusive, lobbyists spend money solely to change public beliefs, often using fear tactics.
This sounds fundamentally broken. We should do something about, and I think one way is to redefine the democratic process.
The modern democratic process started in the 18th and 19th century, when the monarchies see the trembling of their powers. The democratic process was created to stabilize the society, and it was iterative. France had multiple revolutions to reach its modern democratic state. In the process, different laws were passed and different thrones were overturned. After France, many countries followed, but some didn’t. However, most of the countries that attempted to maintain their monarchy failed. It was an experiment in the grandest scale: you flip a coin to decide which countries go to democracy. One hundred years later, you compare the control group and the experimentation group.
Fast forward to today. We are also experimenting with the policies that we enact, but different than that time, most of our policies are micro policies. That means the effects of these policies are so little that it can be overshadowed by other factors. For example, one can argue that cutting taxes stimulates the economy and creates jobs. However, in the past, cutting taxes have been correlated to both economic growth and slowdown. Can cutting taxes help economy? Maybe. One party will say the growth was caused by tax cuts, while slowdowns are caused by other economic and political factors. The other party will say the opposite. It won’t be until decades after the policies are enacted when we could compare the results across different countries. By this time, any debates on the policies have long been irrelevant.
What we really should do, is to accelerate political experimentation by taking objective measures. Rather than waiting years for the policies to take effect, one should randomly assign a small population to be subjective to the policies and then measure the results, and this is known as A/B testing. Because this is a controlled experiment, the results can have high statistical significance and come back in a matter of months if not weeks. Will tax cuts help creating jobs? Let’s randomly choose counties across the nation and cut their taxes. And then we measure the numbers in these counties relative to the rest o the country. Will the economy improve? Will they have better unemployment? One year of data is enough to give a clear answer.
We can do other similar experiments. How will education reform impact the teachers and the students? Randomly pick a set of school districts and change their policies, and compare the results on year later. Are gay marriages beneficial to the society? Randomly pick a set of counties and allow gay marriages.
As I describe these ways of doing things, there are undoubtedly two issues one need to address:
- What if people move from one region to another just to take advantage or avoid the effects of the policy?
- Many experiments, such as cutting taxes, cannot be run without congressional approval, which defeats the purpose of these experiments.
These are the real roadblocks to political experimentation. Here is why we need to redefine our democratic process to address these issues. For example:
- Make sure that the experiments have a very short duration to remove the incentives of frequent movers. For example, if tax cuts are in effect for only 1 year, people won’t move just for that one year.
- For those wide ranging social policies (such as gay marriage), the policy needs to exclude people who are not originally from a different group.
- The constitution needs to be changed, not only to permit experimentation of policies, but also to require them, before any sweeping policies to take effect.
Here are my thoughts. Everything above reads like science friction (changing the constitution?), but as social and economy changes have become increasingly accelerated, we cannot afford endless debates without hard evidence supporting either side. The idea of democracy is really really old. Isn’t it time to have a better and more productive government?