No, the “veil between the world thinning” is a 20th century invention.
Month: October 2020
A while ago a friend re-tweeted this article on the decline and fall of Rome
I liked the descriptions of how it would have looked to a “Roman” as one of the most powerful empires in history collapsed around them during the course of their lives. For many it was a barely noticeable process of change:
The fall of an empire—the end of a polity, a socioeconomic order, a dominant culture, or the intertwined whole—looks more like a cascading series of minor, individually unimportant failures than a dramatic ending that appears out of the blue.Patrick Wyman
“Is our end nigh?” is a common topic for people in powerful states. Reading Charles Emmerson’s “1913-The World Before the Great War“ he often mentions how subjects of the British Empire, arguably at its height just before the first world war, were debating whether its greatest days were ahead, or it it had already begun its decline.
Right here and now such and article is of course about the USA. It has had a good century or so. And it faces a formidable rival in China. But the immediate drive has to be the troubled state the country finds itself in today. It has been shocking looking at the presidential election coverage this year. No one doubts that Biden will get more votes than Trump. People are asking wether that will matter. Or will it be let matter. The outcome of the election will depend on how brazenly one group can “fix” the result. We have reached a point where the media run stories about senior military figures discussing what to do if they are asked to prop up a president in a disputed election. What the fuck happened to America?
The Mother Jones article touches on some suspects for a potential decline: an inept President, plutocracy, the endless fruitless wars. Sitting in my comfortable chair over here in Europe I think the author missed one of the big issues – that the political system itself in the US is disfunctional and does not properly represent the people. We have reached the point where you can ask is the US is actually a functioning democracy? America’s preeminant position in the world has been built upon its economic and political might. But the latter is in serious trouble. And the problems are getting worse. The lessons of the rest of the world are that the decline of democracy will lead to an economic decline as well.
Take the weirdness of the electoral college as an example of the problems. It gave Bush the younger the presidency in 2000 despite getting less votes than his opponent. That should have been a flashing yellow light that there is a problem – but there was no significant movement to fix it. And so it happened again in 2016, but worse. It may happen again this year. Or Trump may get turfed out. But there is no question that people in the US are living with a system where the majority are forced to accept a (divisive, despised, unquestionably incompetent) candidate that a minority voted for.
By my nature I am a process engineer. I see a problem and I try to understand the system that produced it. What I see looking at the US is a broken system. One that no longer lets the people be represented properly. And the problems are getting worse. It was stressed under Bush, and now has been pushed to a critical limit with Trump. It may survive this time, but each test seems to encourage factions to push harder the next time, and a breaking point will eventually be reached.
The electoral college is just one of a range of problems with US politics and democracy. (Dis)honourable mention has to go to the two party system, gerrymandering, the vast quantities of money in US politics, voter suppression, the not particularly democratic upper house (other countries have this in their upper houses, but they limit the power the body holds), the fact that so many of the controlling positions throughout the system are held by political partisans (either directly elected or like the supreme court – appointed).
There are toxic levels of political polarisation amongst the public too. We seem to have reached a point where regardless of whoever wins the US presidential election in a two weeks, large sections of the public will regard the outcome as illegitimate. They will believe that the fundamentals of the sytem have been corrputed and overthrown by others, and will shout for revolutionary change to reclaim what they feel they have lost. Democracy depends on the vast majority accepting the legitimacy of the system, even when it does not deliver their side to power. That is under threat.
A source of a lot of these problems is the US constitution. A powerful document which has inspired many other countries. It was ahead of its time. But that was at the end of the 18th century almost 250 years ago now. It is in many ways a fossil, full of political stuructures and compromises that suited an late 1700, post colonial, rural, slavery allowing state. Dick Cheney once talked dismissively about “Old Europe”. But this is a continent of countries that freely tweak and renew their systems of government. Germany’s dates to 1949, and was renewed with unification in 1990. France’s is from 1958. Ireland’s constitution is 82 years old, which makes it one of the older ones. And it has had 32 ammendments since it was adopted (most recently in 2019). That is an average of one very 2.5 years. The US has had 27 in 231 years. But 10 of them were from 1791. So the current rate of change is once every 21 years (and none since 1992 which was just a tweak about politicians pay). It can hardly be regarded as a dynamic modern text, adapting to changes in circumstances, or the needs of the modern world.
The US is not alone in having a disfunctional representative system. Take a look at the UK. First past the post (FPTP) is profoundly unrepresentative, and can barely be described as democratic. It also delivers extreme outcomes that solidify a two party hold on government. Despite all their (many many) sins, UKIP polled more votes (26.6%) in the 2014 European election than the other two mainstream parties. The EU, which they loathed, insists on proportional allocation of seats. So UKIP had more MEPs than any other UK political party. But UKIP under FPTP tey never managed to secure a single seat in the Westminster parliament. It is easy to argue that a quarter of the UK population were not having their voice heard in their national parliament. That is not right*.
To a European the two party system is one of the stranger aspects of US (and UK) politics. The two parties can be broad churches, but there are just two of them. They cannot represent the shades of political opinion that will exist in a population. And they realistically represent your only choices. Third party/independent candidates are rare. Compare that with the more pluralistic setup seen in most of the rest of the world where you can usually find a party that matches pretty well with your position.
Plenty of people who have looked at the US feel that it could sustain 5 or even 6 political parties. Then citizens would have a real choice when they vote. And parties unable to assume they can deliver outright majorities would have to seek common ground with political opponents. The wishes and needs of most voters would be taken into account rather than the winner takes all approach today.
The need to form coalitions initially looks like weakness. But coalition governments are more representative of public opinion. The compromises they make to govern mean more people get (at least some of) their policies enacted, and the government is seen as more legitimate. That provides resilience to the system in the long term. Compare that with the posturing, and winner takes all approach in the US that delivers government shut downs, or fuck-you appointments to the supreme court even though the public is strongly against both.
So the system(s) are broken. What is to be done? There are signs that the democrats could get a clean sweep of Presidency, Congress, and Senate. If they did they would probably decide things are actually working, and only make cosmetic changes. Being a winner from a system, always dampens enthusiasm for change. And it is not like Biden is running on a platform of constitutional/government renewal. The Democrats proposing dismantling the 2 party system would be turkeys voting for Christmas. So I am not hopeful for change.
It will be a long time before there is proportional voting, voting standards and districts set by impartial independent bodies, and of course an end to the electoral college. Maybe an independent movement will appear demaning these changes, via a form of constitutional convention and citizens assembly. Or maybe a few centuries from people will speculate about the reasons how and why America lost its place and became another fallen empire for the history books.
* I would argue that this was one of the reasons for the success of the Brexit referendum. The was Yes or No. Every vote counted. For a very large number of the people (especially those that live in “safe seat” constituencies) this was the first time that their vote had as much weight as any one elses. So they were determined to use it, and to use it to give two fingers to the system.
When I first moved to Sweden one of the things that surprised me was how this enviromentally aware, socially concious country is very very car centric. Out in the ‘burbs most people get around by car. The cities are ringed with retail parks accessible only by car. The average car size here is a lot larger than in Ireland. And the brands are fancier. You hardly notice the big Volvo XCs, or their VW, BMW, Audi equivalents. But then this is a country that makes cars. The rule of thumb is – “Countries that make cars, make them cheap (e.g. UK, Germany, USA). Countries that don’t make cars, make them expensive (e.g. Ireland, Denmark)”.
On arrival in 2015 I bought a second hand Audi A6 2L turbo. Not because I was a petrol head that wanted a big luxury car. But because it was being sold at work, and was very good value. An Irish reader will go – “but what about the insurance?!?!?” And with good reason. If you contacted an insurance company in Ireland, newly arrived in the country, with no driving history for them to assess, and looked for a quote on a “luxury performance” car they would either:
a) laugh hysterically, before refusing outright to give you a quote. Or
b) give you one that would be a multiple of the car’s value, and involve handing over 1-2 of your children, as well as selling a few surplus organs.
Car insurance in Ireland is expensive*. It’s totally different in Sweden. Here the car is insured, not the driver. So my policy (fully comprehensive, and where anyone could drive the car) was about €900/year. Which I felt was pretty reasonable.
As an aside the A6 was a joy to drive on motorways. Not so practical in Swedish suburbs, and very thirsty when you did! It is no more though, and I am a bit more enviromentally sound today.
Back when I started this post in January (I discovered it sitting in my drafts folder) I was not driving. There was one big health related reason for that. And it was May before I got behind the wheel again. That was quite a pain in the arse. The suburbs of Stockholm are a place where things are easier with a car. But this being Sweden, while a car may make things easier it is not essential.
The local bus services are good. And the kids and I were able to adapt, even if we had to get up about 30 minutes earlier each day. Flexitime at work, an understanding boss, and remote working meant I could keep my employer happy. In this internet age it is possible to handle many things online. For the few we couldn’t – local friends, and sometimes family helped.
The biggest routine thing that needed to be taken care of was grocery shopping. But of course you can do that online. My usual supermarket is ICA, the largest chain here in Sweden. It works pretty much how you would expect. Order online, specify a delivery time and day, and pay the 99SEK delivery fee (about €9 – how does that compare to other countries)? As I have a loyalty card for them they can see my past purchases and their online site is quick to pre-populate the shopping cart with my usual stuff.
It’s convenient, really helped with my situation, and generally works well. Except when it doesn’t.
On the second order there was a couple of things I thought I had ordered, but figured I must have left them out. It was on the third order, when I checked, that I was sure I had problems. I found I was missing two loaves of bread, and about 1kg of mince (my plan was to make a load of lasagnes for the freezer). It was a little odd they were missed. These are big, and not exactly rare or unusual items. But hey, mistakes happen. I understand that. The real question is how are they handled by the company…
There wasn’t an online way of reporting a problem so I called ICA. They didn’t quibble about the report. They immediately put through a refund. But if I wanted the missing items I had to place another online order, and then call them to look for a refund of the delivery charges.
Excuse me? They made the mistake. But I was expected to take three steps to get if fixed (as well as making sure I was at home when the replacement delivery turned up). That is not exactly outstanding customer service**. I pointed this out to them and while the CSR was sympathetic there was nothing she could do. This seems like a clear signal to check out their competitors.
MatHem is probably the best known one in the Swedish market. They are a pure play online delivery outfit – only around since about 2010. The expectation would be that an internet only company will have a different and more supportive attitude to their customers? I shall have to see***.
In the Spring when I could not drive my slightly less enviromentally nasty automobile, I was on the bus all the time. And there is a high chance that is where I picked up (my probable case of) Covid. So I found myself at home, unable to go to the shops. And also unable to use any internet grocery service, as their lead times shot up to 2 weeks once everyone else was at home. What was an infectious person to do?
Fortunately I have good friends. They were able to pick up stuff for me, and drop it to the door. So if the virus would not get me, starvation wouldn’t either. One friend asked his girlfriend to do the drop as she would be working in the area. She left the bags at the door with some treats from her work as well. But you see she works for Fonus, one of the large Swedish funeral chains.
Which meant that later when people asked me how I was doing I could also tell them that the undertaker has been and left her card and brochure! 🤣
* People are quick to blame the insurance companies for this. They may be making big profits (I don’t know), but I would place the blame at the liability law that allows the claims and the payouts. A different legal framework in Austria and Sweden means the Irish experience is not repeated – and *shock* the roads feel safer! But the Irish legal profession are doing very nicely out of the local system. And they have managed to avoid most of the public anger over “compo culture”.
** In general customer service in Sweden is good. Once you reach a human that is. There are horrible queues to talk to real people on phone support lines. But it is a world away from Austria. There the idea that a customer could make a complaint is met with puzzled confusion. And you can forget any chance of them actually taking some sort of action.
*** Word has it that MatHem is burning through their investors money while they try and make a profit in the online grocery business. I don’t have a problem with getting some VC/TechBros pay to deliver my groceries to me!