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February 20, 2009

Representative Democracy

By: Bernard Chazelle

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., said banks were acting stupid and making it harder for lawmakers to defend them.

You may wonder if it's a congressman's job to be defending banks. Shouldn't the Congress be defending "We the people," instead?

If you're wondering, it's because you don't understand the modern incarnation of representative democracy. Yes, you know your Electoral College; sure, you've mastered your chads, pregnant, dimpled, hanging or otherwise, but still, perhaps just perhaps, you're missing the point. Indirect representation works like this:

A empowers B to elect C to serve A.

With a little diagram to highlight the subtleties:

A---------> B --------> C

Now one common mistake is to think that you're A. Nope, you're B. Who's A then? Corporate America is A. Goldman Sachs, GE, WalMart, etc; they're A. You're B. They empower you (B) to elect a government (C) whose sole purpose is to serve them (A). This leads us to the fundamental equation of indirect representation:

Corporate America empowers you to elect a government to serve Corporate America.

How does Corporate America empower you? They outsource the job to an entity called "the media." The media's mission is to brainwash you so you believe you are A. But you are B. You are the empowered delegate ("empowered" in the sense of "authorized," not "made powerful.") Why are you even needed in that equation? What's wrong with

A empowers C to serve A ?

Somewhere in that loop, someone's pocket needs to be picked and that someone is you. That's why A needs you. There's a second reason for your presence, which distinguishes representative democracy from oligarchy. It's called "legitimacy," which is just a fancy way of saying "anything that keeps the people away from their pitchforks." But let's not get too technical and, mostly it's just that: a technicality.

A few days later, the liberal Barney Frank uttered stern, harsh words. I paraphrase:

The bankers won't get extra resources unless there's a radical change in their behavior.

Notice the conditionality. Let's follow Frank's logic. Suppose the bankers don't change their behavior (which behavior is left unspecified but you can be sure that does not include "being A.") Then what? If Frank denies them the money, then who is he punishing? If he is punishing the American people, then my point is proven. The guy works for the bankers. If he is punishing the bankers but not the American people, then the money was obviously not needed in the first place, except to please the bankers. In other words, if Americans don't notice the difference whether the money is given out to the banks or not, then why give it? And if they suffer from the money being withheld, then why is Frank making their happiness conditional on the bankers' behavior? He could have the bankers fired. He could have reversed the conditionality and said: "The bankers won't get a penny until a million demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue demanding "More Bonuses to Bankers!"

But he did not. Why? Because Frank (hardly the worst of the bunch) was elected by you to work for them! (Go back to earlier diagram if this point hasn't sunken in yet.) Why isn't Frank working for you the people? Because you the people are the delegates, and who in the world works for delegates?

Why do we need the media? Because my observations are trivial. That's why. You need communications experts, backed by deep scientists called "economists," to convince you that 2+2=5. That's hard work. That's why those people are paid lots of money and only the brightest succeed. Take "trickle down economics" for example. That's not even 2+2=5. It's more like 2+2=36376472828363828. But they pulled it off! And this very minute they're convincing you that the only way to deal with a thief who steals your money is to reward him with more of your money.

Barney Frank had more to say:

“People really hate you,” he said, imploring banks to do everything possible to avoid offending people.

When is the last time you "implored" someone to stop being offensive by stealing money from the very people they're offending and giving it to the offenders?

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at February 20, 2009 03:50 PM


Posted by: Persona non grata at February 20, 2009 04:43 PM

IF YOU WANT REPRESENTATION ON YOUR TAXATION, THEN YOU MUST REPRESENT YOURSELF. Its the political realities of the new century. Call Pelosi @1-202-225-0100 SAY NO TO BANK BAILOUTS.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 20, 2009 05:26 PM

Nah, your angle is too radical, Class War rears its ugly head, and we don't want that.

Rather, let me try: the bankers are gods. You elect priests to please the gods, because if the gods get angry we are all fucked. Thus, by serving the gods, the priests, albeit indirectly, serve all of us too. And the media are here to remind us of that. What's wrong with this, liberal interpretation?

Posted by: abb1 at February 20, 2009 05:31 PM

Although I wholeheartedly agree with the diagram and the tone of your post, I think there is an omission in your dilemma. I think there is, at least theoretically speaking, a valid third possibility:

If the proposal were aiding the bankers conditionally on some change in their behaviour or the rules they have to abide by (such that the outcome were supposedly better for the people), then it would be possible to claim that withdrawing the aid due to their refusal to do so is not a punishment to the people nor the initial offer was against the interests of the people.

As I said, this is at least (and very probably not much more than) a logical possibility which breaks your dilemma.

Posted by: Federico Stafforini at February 20, 2009 06:51 PM

Tortured simile, or sommat:
pick your cartoonist and his/her style
Rupert Murdoch tossing a shoe at Obama with quote:
This is for threatening to nationalize banks!

Your work is inspirational (the intelligent designer didn't give us egalite in thinking, whose error was this?)

Posted by: woodyeofalb at February 20, 2009 08:55 PM

Bernard, why are none of the gallant representatives proposing any new regulations, instead of virtuously scolding the bankers? Because scolding works!

It's good to have you back, even if you seemingly fail to see the wisdom of scolding the powerful and refusing to regulate them.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at February 20, 2009 10:29 PM

A most excellent and cogent analysis. And it does make irrelevant the labels of "liberal" and "conservative" for politicians. Their mock fights are staged to entertain us while our pockets are being picked.

Posted by: Fritz at February 21, 2009 05:49 PM