Good (?) governance and bad (!) journalism

Spiegel recently ran an article series on “Good Governance”. The lede read like this:

Western democracies consider themselves to be efficient, farsighted and just — in other words, prime examples of “good governance.” But in recent years, the euro and debt crises, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have shattered faith in the reliability of Western institutions. Disconcerted Europeans are casting a worried eye at newly industrialized nations like China and Brazil. Can the West learn something from countries that for so long sought its advice?

There are four articles, on Brazil, the U.S., Denmark, and China – all of them interesting reads but unfortunately also one more example of how Spiegel nowadays consider journalism to be bare bones facts reporting (and of course opinion pieces). There are no attempts at linking the reporting to the situation in Germany, the EU, or other “western” countries, and connecting the dots.

And there would have been ample opportunity. Take the article on Brazil, the first in the series:

Lula succeeded in easing the desperate situation of the underprivileged in his country with welfare programs such as Fome Zero (“Zero Hunger”), which he implemented against the express advice of his own advisers, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He was accused of “assistencialism,” a form of poverty relief that’s limited to handouts with little potential to make long-term change. Yet Lula was successful. More than 20 million people made the leap from lower to middle class under his watch, and the proportion of Brazilians living in absolute poverty decreased by 50 percent.

I know that organizations cannot experience cognitive dissonance but reading this statement of fact at the same time that Spiegel uses every opportunity to support the application of the IMF doctrine in the EU is startling. Lula rejected IMF “advice” and managed to reduce poverty significantly while the implementation of IMF policies leads to increasing poverty not only in Greece and Spain but also in Germany, supposed model nation of that those policies work.

Tentative lesson 1: reject neo-liberalism and IMF advice.

And this didn’t end with Lula:

What the current president learned from her experiences during the Lula years, during which she was energy minister and chief of staff, stands in stark contrast to the lessons others have taken away from globalization. Unlike the Republicans in the US or many European neoliberals, Rousseff believes in government involvement, active industrial policies and taxes that are applied intelligently and increased if necessary. Financial transactions are now subject to hefty fees, and a special tax assessed at 1.5 percent of each person’s salary goes to support the country’s arts scene. While arts budgets elsewhere are being cut, Brazil’s unique model has yielded an annual increase of 10 percent in funding for theater, music and the visual arts.

What this paragraph doesn’t point out is that the “many European neoliberals” are strongly represented in most major parties nowadays, with the exception of the far left and far right. Hell, the US Democrats are not much less neo-liberal than the Republicans.

…which might just be a salient fact for explaining why the U.S. show up in this article series as the sole example of bad governance. Spiegel claims that there is a problem because:

It enacted only 80 laws in 2011, fewer than any Congress has done since 1947, despite the great need for reform and the ongoing budget crisis. The US Congress has failed to achieve a united position on the war in Libya, climate change, immigration, tax policy, reforming the country’s social welfare systems and other important issues of the day. The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed.

The “budget crisis” and needs for deficit reduction and “social welfare reform”, i.e. reducing welfare for the poor and unemployment, are all neo-liberal fetishes, pushed by the IMF. So not even in a single series of articles on a supposed common topic are the connections made.

Most of the article is about how the influence of lobbying, and more generally money, distorts the political process in the US and drowns out facts. This is definitely an important observation. It also calls into question the compatibility of capitalism and democracy but I don’t expect Spiegel do make this issue explicit. What I would have expected from good journalism is the drawing of parallels to Europe. Lobbying is not a problem exclusive to the US and between the German government supporting the construction of nuclear power plants abroad (and only reluctantly and after Fukushima rolling back their gift to the nuclear industry at home), energy-intensive industries not having to pay subsidies for renewable energies, the German car lobby undermining CO2 emission reductions, EU commissioners sabotaging attempts to make the European CO2 emissions trade system slightly less broken, and the ridiculous forced introduction of “energy savings lamps” there are warning signs aplenty in Europe.

Tentative lesson 2: keep money out of politics as much as possible and base policy on facts.

Which seem to be the lessons the Denmark has to teach as well. This part of the series is focused on how transparent political processes are, how little corruption there is, and how citizens are included in decision making. In Germany, as the link above shows, renewable energies are being “encouraged” by subsidizing them, yet then the industries using most electricity are exempted from having to pay those subsidies, leaving citizens to pay the bill. At the same time, the government is dragging their feet at forcing the electricity companies into enhancing grid capabilities. And of course Germany’s parliamentarians are notoriously unwilling to come clean about how much influence money has in German politics.

(little fact that the Spiegel doesn’t mention: Denmark, like Sweden, is not a member of the eurozone and therefore not subject to the Maastricht criteria and enforcement procedures)

Tentative lesson 3: involve the citizenry in transparent decision making processes.

Finally, there is the article on China and how an autocratic government can experiment without having to seek the approval of its citizenry or worrying too much about cost. Something China seems to have in common with the “good governance” examples is that it implements policies based on expert opinion (although this picture might be a bit too rosy). There’s also a bit of criticism regarding silencing of critics mixed in and the article closes with:

But some in the West also forget that voting rights, an independent judiciary and a democratic constitutional state are never only a means to an end, and never exist only to furnish results. Instead, they are values in their own right. Most Chinese are still satisfied with results, but they have to be good. A minority in China, however, wants more. Those are the people who are locked up for their opinions.

No government that does this can call itself a good government — even if it delivers good results.

My first reaction was to agree with that.

On the other hand, the purpose of government, its only purpose, is to improve the life of its citizens. If citizens are not better off living under a government than without it, how could this government be justified? Therefore, if a democratic government had its citizens worse off than a non-democratic one, could one really justify this by pointing towards democratic values are their own end?

So I lobbed this at my girlfriend, first asking her whether she felt that democratic values are an end in themselves which she denied. In her opinion, democratic values are a means to the end of improving people’s lives. So we were in agreement.

Bolstered by this, I declared that this meant that an autocratic state that delivered better standards of living for its citizens therefore had to be superior to a democratic one whose citizens had the inferior standard of living and that therefore Spiegel’s assertion was wrong. Luckily for me, my girlfriend doesn’t let me get away with poorly thought-out statements like this and pointed out that education, critical thinking, and influence on the political process can be considered improvements to one’s life and a focus on purely material standards of living might not be what I had in mind.

In trying to refine my argument, I started out with: “But if citizens of the democratic state starve…” and she agreed that there is a minimum material standard of living that is pretty much an absolute criterion. We first kind of settled on enough to eat, affordable housing, affordable health care but this didn’t seem satisfying.
There is research and there are arguments that this minimum standard of living is in fact not enough to enable people to participate in the democratic process: if one lacks the education to understand the issues at stake, or maybe even to understand how to register as a voter, if one is too drained to make the effort of going to the voting station, if one needs a higher material standard of living to even get there…then one is prevented from participating in the democratic process even if they don’t starve. It’s therefore not enough to have the right to vote, and a democratic constitution – the government also has provide for its citizens a high enough standard of living that they can make use of these institutions. Otherwise, the outcome is the same, whether the state is openly autocratic or nominally democratic, and then the government that delivers the superior material standard of living for its citizens is the better government.

And here’s the problem: many European countries, as well as the US, don’t deliver this minimum standard needed to participate in the democratic process:

  1. Due to underfunded public education, getting the required education in the first place is nowadays often tied to socio-economic status.
  2. Falling economic support for unemployed and falling wages mean that the only easily accessible means of information are different forms of mass media. Those are either profit-oriented, in which case a) the information that is being communicated, and its interpretation, is heavily filtered and b) a focus on the bottom line leads to cost cutting and the “quality” of journalism Spiegel exhibits every day (and Spiegel is far from the worst). Or they are non-profits which will often mean that they don’t have a lot of reach. An alternative are publicly financed media, e.g. radio or television channels, but those have mostly given up on their task as educators and/or underfunded as well – yet another political decision.
  3. If the system is then set up in such a way that the voter cannot vote for his policy choices because none of the big enough parties support them (see Greece, the UK, Germany, the US, the a certain degree France), not even education and information make a difference.
  4. And if finally democratic decisions can be overridden by unelected bodies, as is currently being proposed for the EU, there is no difference anymore to “democracies” in which the ruling party obtains 95% of the vote.

Tentative lesson 4: government is for the people and should improve their lives. Democratic values are not ends in themselves but means to that end. A nominally “democratic” state that keeps parts of its citizenry from participating in democratic processes cannot lay any claim to good government.

Spiegel asked whether “western” governments can learn something from other governments and then proceeded to only report the facts without connecting them to the situation in the EU, for instance, which they could have done simply by contrasting them to their own reporting from within the review. If they would have connected the dots, the picture would have shown that “the West” violates several criteria for good governance and that there are clearly lessons to be learned. But maybe being part of the problem means that one can’t see the solution.

This entry was posted in democracy, developed countries, economic policy, media, neo-liberalism, oligarchy, science-based policy, standards of living, wealth distribution. Bookmark the permalink.

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