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Societal Dialog


We idealize democracy as government that does what the people want. But what DO the people want? How do people decide what they want? Do people in the US even have a way to participate in informed, rational dialog to work toward a consensus of what the people want? Though normally optimistic, my pessimism here screams its pathos at me. Do we have anything more than ideological echo chambers?

I'm seldom content to bemoan a sad state of affairs. I prefer to explore possible solutions to this problem. Let's see what some intelligent people have to offer. We've had our fun. Let's get to work.

This applies to many current issues. I facilitated the 2016 ggg999 session on the US social contract. We currently face an administration bent on reversing decades of work toward conservation, environmental protection, social justice, medical care, and many other issues. Is this our only choice? Place power into the hands of a polarized political party? Should it take herculean efforts like this to create a dialog on immigration? Is there any way for us to, for example, promote governmental emphasis on a wise balance between unbridled development and abuse of regulatory power (eminent domain, for example) coupled with environmentalist extremism and extortion? How can we collectively decide how much we choose to invest to build and maintain public infrastructure (roads, water) and how we want to pay for it? This article shows California trying to address this imbalance at a state level.

Most intelligent people are dissatisfied with how well our society has done in this department. The issue is hardly unique to the US, but that's the domain of my greatest familiarity. I hope and wish that an assembly of intelligent people can come up with actionable items and practical philosophies for improvement.

A Background Story

Poker is a zero-sum game. In order for me to win, you must lose an equal amount. Civilization begins in any species when its members figure out that life need not be a zero-sum game. We are all better off if we agree to not wantonly murder one another. We can cooperate. We can develop division of labor. You grow the food. You're good at that. I build tools. We trade.

But how much food should you pay me for my tools? We can use free-market principles to determine relative value. Or I can use (abuse) my power to make you pay me more. Pay me more or I'll poison your crops or I'll just kill you and sell my tools to someone else. That's why we need balance of power.

Even cooperation toward mutually beneficial goals can be challenging. We all agree that damming the creek to form an artificial lake will benefit us all. My faction says it should be a wood structure with some dirt for stability and to fill in the cracks. Your faction says it should be a purely earthenwork dam. By the way, I run the forestry industry.

Charlie's house and farm would be covered by the lake. We offer Charlie the unproductive land higher up. We'll bring him water from the lake which can make that land productive. We'll all help him build his new house. Everyone wins. Unless Charlie uses his power of extortion to refuse to sell his land unless we pay him 20x what it's worth. How do we resolve things like this? As we know, even eminent domain can be abused.


No one has tried a pure democracy since Athens. It's suitable only for a tiny community. Anything larger or more complex requires division of labor. We choose representatives who can dedicate a portion of their lives to governance. We have removed barriers to voting based on race, gender, wealth, and land ownership. But we have never imposed any requirement that a voter understand what he's voting on. Wealth can't directly buy votes. But it can buy politicians, thanks largely to Citizens United. Wealth can buy advertising, which today is very close to buying votes. So perhaps we could limit the amount any person or organization can donate to a candidate or PAC in a year.

The power of our political parties has exacerbated ideological polarization. Politicians obey the party that owns them rather than dialog with other politicians to choose policy for the benefit of the country.

What systemic changes can we make to improve the situation? Is there any effective action that intelligent concerned citizens can take? How about independent (even algorithmic) redistricting, or ending earmarks?


Why can't we have productive national and regional dialog about infrastructure? Would we still need to play tricks to do the Interstate Highway System today? Can we recognize the value of rail enough to invest in its infrastructure? There are still several major bottlenecks. Can we choose whether to build high speed rail in California without it being a boondoggle? Can we design major urban projects like the Google Diridon complex with wise attention to future transportation? Especially building vertical separation into the roads now, when it's most feasible. Can we balance NIMBY with making Stelling Road a useful transportation corridor? Can we design North 40 in Los Gatos with balance rather than ideological posturing? Can we balance growth with preservation?