Category Archives: Politics

Democracy and how we govern

Beating the banks

Zopa is a new approach to lending and borrowing money:

Here’s the way the world works (and it must be right because it’s been like this for hundreds of years…)

People who have spare money give it to a bank. Banks then do whatever they like with it. Some of it they lend to people who need to borrow. Some of it they give to their shareholders. Some of it they gamble on the price of tin, or the dollar going down, or whether there’ll be floods in Asia. Banks make lots of money from all this, a fraction of which they give back to their customers.

Zopa though lets people who have spare money to lend it directly to people, like them, who want to borrow it. No bank in the middle, no huge overheads, no unethical investments.

To minimise any risk, the money each lender puts in is spread amongst at least 50 borrowers (and likewise each borrower gets their money from a number of different lenders).

I saw this mentioned on Businesspundit, and I have to agree with him that this is a seriously disruptive technology. The site just exudes happiness, energy, drive, disruption and fun. Check it out.

UPDATE: I tried to register at the site, and the process failed. I got this very nice email from the site:

Thanks for your email and your interest in Zopa. I’m sorry but in order to comply with UK Money Laundering Regulations all Zopa Members need to be UK residents and appear on the voters roll.

We know this sounds incredibly inflexible, but at this stage in Zopa’s young life we have to be belt and braces with identification, money laundering and fraud.

Clearly this is a big turn off for you so please accept our apologies. Once we’re better established we’ll be looking to increase the number of ways that we can admit Zopa joiners online.

As Zopa grows we are planning to move into other countries by the end of the year and we hope very much that you’ll consider trying to join us again then.

I’ll be back when they take it outside the UK.

The economics of crack-related violence

Violence related to the sale of crack cocaine in the US is way down. Steven Levitt, the author of the excellent book Freakonomics, looks at why, in an article in the NY times:

…as of 2000 — the most recent year for which the index data are available — Americans were still smoking about 70 percent as much crack as they smoked when consumption was at its peak.

If so much crack is still being sold and bought, why aren’t we hearing about it? Because crack-associated violence has largely disappeared. And it was the violence that made crack most relevant to the middle class. What made the violence go away? Simple economics. Urban street gangs were the main distributors of crack cocaine. In the beginning, demand for their product was phenomenal, and so were the potential profits. Most crack killings, it turns out, were not a result of some crackhead sticking up a grandmother for drug money but rather one crack dealer shooting another — and perhaps a few bystanders — in order to gain turf.

But the market changed fast. The destructive effects of the drug became apparent; young people saw the damage that crack inflicted on older users and began to stay away from it. (One recent survey showed that crack use is now three times as common among people in their late 30’s as it is among those in their late teens and early 20’s.) As demand fell, price wars broke out, driving down profits. And as the amount of money at stake grew smaller and smaller, the violence also dissipated. Young gang members are still selling crack on street corners, but when a corner becomes less valuable, there is less incentive to kill, or be killed, for it.

So one of the most pressing problems for big cities in the US went away more or less on its own. Not through increased police presence, tougher laws or anti-drug programs. But through economics. This tells me, that we could use a similar approach to solve similar problems. Rather than fight it (by declaring war on poverty, terrorism, hunger or poverty) but by changing the economics involved. Interesting thought, huh?

Real debate

When I saw that Rick Santorum (one of the more conservative conservatives) was going to be the guest on The Daily Show plugging his new book my first reaction was a heartfelt Whaaaaaa..?

What did play out was a rarity on TV: A real debate between two people who obviously disagree, but who are interested in understanding each others views – and can even laugh about their disagreements. For once we saw a debate that wasn’t about beating the other person into admitting that he’s wrong (like that ever happens) but about true civilised discourse. Santorums views became clear for everyone to see, and we’re each free to decide if we agree. I disagree totally with Santorum, but that doesn’t mean that I want to see the guy attacked on TV.

See the interview here.

Real security

As usual, Bruce Schneier is a voice of sanity and reason in matters of security. Read his take on random bag searches on the NY subway and racial profiling in security checks. He basically believes that neither will increase security noticeably. This quote had me nodding agreement:

If we are going to increase security against terrorism, the young Arab males living in our country are precisely the people we want on our side. Discriminating against them in the name of security is not going to make them more likely to help.

I’ve been thinking, that security is not about making terrorist attacks impossible – it’s about creating a world where people are less likely to want to commit them. Imagine a society where security is so tight that it is impossible to detonate a bomb on public transportation, no matter how clever or determined you are. How good would security have to be? How Orwellian? How much freedom could be allowed in this society?

There’s a trade-off between security and freedom and Bruce Schneier’s is the clearest and most reasonable voice pointing this out.

Gross Happiness Product

Mike pointed me to an article in Wired on how GDP is failing as a national success indicator.

Since the time of Adam Smith, we’ve used the wealth of nations as a proxy for the well-being of nations. We measure whether life is getting better by checking whether the good numbers (GDP, personal incomes, and so on) are going up and the bad numbers (unemployment, inflation, and so on) are going down. However, over the past half century, something strange has happened. The US’s per capita GDP – the value of all the goods and services a nation produces divided by its population – has nearly tripled, but American well-being hasn’t budged. We’ve grown almost three times richer but not one jot happier. There’s ample evidence that in all postindustrial societies, material wealth and broader happiness are no longer closely in sync.


I’d actually take it one step further: GDP growth probably causes a decline in happiness, since GDP growth means people are focused on increasing production. And increased production makes noone happier. That takes something else entirely.

Shared space – in traffic and at work

Danish media have been kicking up a storm lately about all the anarchistic bicycle riders (primarily in Copenhagen) who ignore traffic rules. The debate has been founded on an interesting but unstated premise that traffic safety comes from always following the rules. As long as you go by the book, nothin bad can happen to you.

Well, according to this NYTimes article, dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman has a rather different approach: Throw away the book. He designed:

a busy intersection in the center of town… Not only was it virtually naked, stripped of all lights, signs and road markings, but there was no division between road and sidewalk. It was, basically, a bare brick square.

But in spite of the apparently anarchical layout, the traffic, a steady stream of trucks, cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, moved along fluidly and easily, as if directed by an invisible conductor. When Mr. Monderman, a traffic engineer and the intersection’s proud designer, deliberately failed to check for oncoming traffic before crossing the street, the drivers slowed for him. No one honked or shouted rude words out of the window.

Continue reading Shared space – in traffic and at work

Attacking the staus quo

Clay Shirky talks about folksonomies (community generated taxonomies) and then comes up with this BRILLIANT quote, which can be applied to just about any area:

We need a word for the class of comparisons that assumes that the status quo is cost-free, so that all new work, when it can be shown to have disadvantages to the status quo, is also assumed to be inferior to the status quo.

Yes, yes, YES! The status quo ain’t free!

The rise of open-source politics

Politics today is mostly top-down. The parties/candidates and their advisors define the politics and the message, often not by talking to people but through polls.

…top-down politics is all about maintaining control. “Think of an established brand with a lot invested in control of its image,” … “The idea of opening that up is scary.”

But maybe we’re seeing a shift away from that towards open source politics. In an excellent article on the nation, Micah Sifry looks at the rise of open source politics:

Using open-source coding as a model, it’s not a stretch to believe the same process could make politics more representative and fair. Imagine, for example, how a grassroots network could take over some of the duties normally performed by high-priced consultants who try to shape a campaign message that’s appealing. If the people receiving the message create it, chances are it’s much more likely to stir up passions.

Here’s my favourite quote from the article:

In the same way that TV took politics away from the grassroots, the Internet will give it back.

I’m really fired up by this vision, which melds perfectly with my dream of an open space-based political party. I think the internet can be an excellent medium, especially combined with regular meetings in physical space also. Something happens when people get together in the same room at the same time with a purpose that doesn’t as readily happen on-line.

What if..?

Here’s an idea for future elections – in America or anywhere else:

What if you as a candidate went out and fully acknowledged the voters’ right to vote for the other guy? If you could campaign in a way that was fully appreciative of the results achieved by your opponent(s)? What if you refrained completely from spin and stuck to the facts? What if your intention was not to make people vote for you, but rather to supply people with the information needed to make their decision?

One day, when I’m prime minister of Denmark, this is how I’ll have run my campaign :o)