Shaking the Jar

One of my favorite quotes from my favorite book…

On the day they dropped the bomb Frank had a tablespoon and a Mason jar. What he was doing was spooning different kinds of bugs into the jar and making them fight….I can remember other bug fights we staged later on…They won’t fight unless you keep shaking the jar.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

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Outside the jar they are fireflies. As any child who succeeded in catching some knows, they’re still just small little bugs. But they also seem to be doing ok, living their firefly lives, making little fireflies, and generally having a good time.

Voters are the fireflies and we generally do pretty well living our lives. But then for an excruciating 18 months every four years we are put into a jar and told that next November, roughly 49.x% of us are going to lose to the other 50.x% – so start fighting! And by the way, you all have to buy the jar and hire the people to shake.

And fight we do! – the “debates”, media, Facebook… But we also have virtue, so we do better than that. We don’t all fight. Many work hard to educate. To compel others to see the wisdom of their point of view. To watch the debates and try to learn how they should vote.

But mostly we fight. The candidates fight, the voters fight, the politicians spend a huge chunk of the day fighting rather than doing actual work. Both sides attribute anything  good in the world with their side, and everything bad with the other. Every group thinks their own people are plenty smart. It’s just all the others that are dumb. If only we could educate them so they wouldn’t be so dumb!

But one thing we do seem to agree on is that it’s getting worse. The country is generally getting dumber. Surely no country with intelligence could elect the past leaders (if you lost last time), or the new roster of candidates (if you won last time).

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
[disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” – Hesiod, 8th century BC

Every generation in history has thought that they were brilliant and the new kids were going to screw it up. And yet, all evidence points to just the opposite. One of the really annoying thing about the new kids is that they appear to be able to make billions of dollars before they’re thirty.

But instead, we’re barraged with media telling us that it’s getting worse in general, and also, while we’re in the jar, that the other side is dumb. So at best only 50% of us are not idiots.

A simple question to ask is “why?”. Why might those with money and power be inclined to promote such ideas? How does it meet their needs? And as far as defining needs, lets assume for now that in a broad sense, people with power and money generally want the control to keep it and to prevent others from having the power to take it. In that case, it’s pretty obvious why it’s a brilliant plan:

  • The blame falls on the people. We the citizens are too dumb and getting dumber. At the very least the other 50% are. The reason we don’t get the government we want is because other citizens voted the wrong way.
  • Yet there is new hope every 4 years! If only this time we could get the candidates we need. The president, senate, house, and justices. And also state and local. If only my side could win then it would all be great! Democracy is fantastic, we just need the citizens to vote better.
  • It never ends. The process is the same with each election.

If we’re all being told to care passionately and vote. And we’re all told by both sides that the other side must be stopped. Is it at least a possibility that someone is shaking our jar?

We’re being played.

The intelligence and sophistication of the voters has not changed. In some ways it’s increased. In some it’s probably lower. But I don’t believe it’s significantly lower than before.

I’ll also argue that the wealthy and powerful are no more nefarious than before. Just about anyone, rich or poor, that has some money or power wants to keep it. Nothing dramatically wrong in that. If anything we’re seeing a fascinating trend towards giving it all away and doing some good.

What has changed dramatically is the sophistication of the game, and the people running the game. And not incrementally, but by many orders of magnitude.

Amazon used technology to reach in and grabbed the heart out of traditional retail. That created issues and it’s far from perfect, but it was also empowering for consumers. I love my online shopping experience.

What I see is that those in charge of our electoral process have ripped the heart out of the system and replaced it with something immensely more sophisticated. But they’ve done it in a way that makes it appear to us as if nothing has changed. Our elections are almost exactly as they were in the 70’s. And we voters do the same things – we read, watch debates, talk to others, and then vote. We are no more empowered, but those playing the game are.

Expecting a loose federation of voters with day jobs to collectively make a set of informed and meaningful choices in the wake of such efforts is like taking on the US Army with pitchforks.

Even if voters are able to fight through the deception and make individual choices that make sense, the game can be manipulated so that the end result doesn’t matter. The incredible growth of complex gerrymandering is basically a way of doing that. Ever wonder why the popular vote and the electoral vote are diverging more often? Even if voters in one district manage to coordinate and align to have a coherent and meaningful vote, that district can then be rearranged to reduce their power to the margin and restore power to those running the game.

The wealthy have always manipulated government and the voters. Not because they’re evil, but because it makes sense for them. The challenge for the rest of us is that with the technology and tools available today they’re able to be incredibly more effective in doing so.

The not-so-wealthy have also always tried to manipulate government and voters. But all we have are pitchforks votes.

What to do about it? Could we actually use voting to elect a government that is no longer as self-interested in preserving their power? Skeptical… Is there a way to use technology to dramatically increase the sophistication of voters?

I’d love to hear any ideas!