The Corporate College and Other Election 3.0 Ideas

I rarely react to the news on ribbonfarm, since I prefer to focus on relatively long-term stuff. But tomorrow’s election is historic in too many ways to not comment on.  This is definitely an Election 2.0; everything from the public user-generated (and Tina Fey generated) construction of Sarah Palin’s persona, to Obama’s use of mobile phones, says that something fundamental is changing in the age-old social technology of the election. So much so, that the structural revolutions are almost overshadowing the cultural ones (a black candidate and two prominent women in the race). But 2008 is the beginning of a long-term period of evolution in the infrastructure of participatory governance, not an end point. In search of some new thoughts on elections, I came up with the following set of (possibly hare-brained) ideas on how elections can, and should, change, from the Election 2.0 model of today, to the Election 3.0 model of the future.

Idea 1: Give corporations the vote

In all local races, as well as the national presidential race, candidates on both sides have accused each other of pandering to special interests and looking after corporate interests above the interests of people. I just heard on CNN that Goldman Sachs, at $5 million, stands as the single biggest contributor. Chuck Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity (and now a faculty member at American University), has published a long and successful series of books about presidential campaign finance called The Buying of the President.

My reaction to this is two-fold. First, why are we demonizing the entirely legitimate influence of the corporations? Can individuals really factor in the crucial importance of (say) the concerns of the oil or solar energy industries adequately? Shouldn’t they represent themselves?

Second, why don’t we attempt to codify it, rather than attempting to eliminate it? That way, corporations will have influence instead of having to buy it.

Corporations are legal entities with many rights similar to those of individuals (such as the right to declare bankruptcy, own assets, and so forth). To a significant extent, the interests of individuals are aligned with the interests of specific corporations. Well-run and properly protected corporations help make 50% of our waking lives (the 40 hours/week bit) a lot better. Corporations, not individuals, create the jobs and wealth that everybody wants to share.  So corporations should have influence that represents their significance, and this influence should be above and beyond the implicit influence of their employees-as-voters.

What’s more, this isn’t actually a new idea. Some organizations — states — have long had structural voting influence through the mechanism of the electoral college in the US, to combat the effects of geographic population asymmetries.

My proposal: create a “corporate college” type voting scheme, whereby each corporation incorporated in a state would have votes proportionate to its contribution to the nation’s GDP, as measured by its previous year’s revenue. Tax corporations to fund a communal campaign finance fund at a level matching what they spend today anyway supporting candidates.

Idea 2: Figure out who votes

And I don’t mean by race, gender or any of the other usual suspect segmentation variables. The purpose of asking the question is not to ask whether there are inequities in access to the right to vote.

The question is simpler. Given equal opportunity to vote, who votes and who doesn’t? What personality traits make people conscientiously stand in line?

Are creative people less likely to vote than boring people? Or vice-versa? Are officious, super-ego heavy people more likely to vote or childish id-heavy people? Or do ego-heavy adult personalities beat them both? Is the fact of political cynics not voting creating a bias towards rosy-eyedness in government?

The point is to figure out in what way voting is not representative of the fraction (~40% even in a high-turnout election) that chooses not to vote, and how that affects governance. To make up a hypothesis at random, if creative people vote less, does governance as a civic enterprise become overall less creative than things (say production of entertainment) that attract creative people disproportionately?

My proposal: use large scale and systematic “exit personality testing” to figure out the personality of the average voter and (by implication) the “personality” of the mandated kind of governance.

Idea 3: Give animals and plants the vote

We’ll eventually get to giving rocks and all of Gaia the vote (ok, KIDDING here! I do believe rocks should vote, in a Zen sense, but I don’t believe in Gaia), but let’s start with animals. Beings we know, beyond a reasonable metaphysical doubt, can feel pain. On the California ballot is the first serious democratic effort to limit cruelty to animals. Proposition 2 aims to outlaw certain forms of factory farming, and seems to be leading in the polls.

Good start, but we need to creatively come up with more systematically represent the rights of animals. There are of course tricky philosophical issues. If both lions and gazelles get the vote, what is the legislative status of the right of lions to kill gazelles? I accept this right, even though I am a vegetarian myself. I have no real idea how to deal with these outlier metaphysical problems, so here is a thought-starter on a more practical eco-friendly, anti-cruelty front.

My proposal: appoint human proxies to vote according to the best interests of each major collection of significant animal species with nervous systems, in proportion to their bio-mass.

Why think in these ways?

Too many people view democracy as some sort of doctrinal absolute; something that is a value unto itself. But really, democracy is a means to operationalize even more fundamental values.

I tend to get at this “most fundamental” value underlying democracy in a technical way.  Democracy is really just a feedback mechanism that makes systems self-correct before they crash. So the technocrats’ vision of an ideal democracy is one that gently stabilizes the global socio-economic-cultural system against catastrophic shocks. It is when destabilizing forces are not adequately represented in feedback that catastrophic self-correction happens — think coups and revolts. Our universe is governed by forces that are fundamentally catastrophic in nature, so you can’t stop it all, but you can make the ride less bumpy by feedback-stabilizing whatever you can measure and control.

But this technocrat mental model of elections is limited and limiting. It doesn’t help us decide that giving animals the vote is philosophically a meaningful goal, while giving the earth’s crust a vote to prevent earthquakes is a silly goal. There is something even deeper than feedback models.

The best “deep” reason I have been able to come up with for democracy is “to avoid causing pain to entities that can feel it, to the extent possible.” And I have doubts even about this.

And while on elections, don’t forget to vote for ‘cloudworker’ in the election to replace ‘telecommuter. Remember, you can vote once a day till Nov 7.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter