Independence: The Key to Good Decisions

Democracy Examined

No Longer Going Like a Boeing
Democracy is fundamentally about protecting the individual while simultaneously respecting the needs of the community. The importance of that give-and-take is, like many things, most obvious when things go wrong – as they most assuredly have in the institutional relationship between Boeing and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). The Boeing 737 revolutionized global air travel. Easy to fly, resource efficient, and compact, the 737 was until recently the best-selling airliner in history, with nearly 11,000 flying in every corner of the world. The basic design was considered so sound and stable that it remained largely the same for 50 years, fulfilling the old aviation adage “if it looks right, it’ll fly right.” But modernity does not always bring miracles. The latest version, the 737 MAX, fatally crashed twice in quick succession, killing 346 people. A new automated artificial flight control system, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), played a central role in both crashes. The crashes have resulted in a worldwide grounding for the 737 MAX. At its heart, the whole debacle has its roots in gross violations of some of the most important principles of a liberal democracy.

  1. Why were the dangerous aspects of the MCAS not revealed in testing? Because the FAA did not test the system as thoroughly as they should have. For 50 years, the FAA has set the global gold standard in aviation regulations that govern aircraft and systems safety. However, since 2001 Boeing – and other aerospace manufacturers – lobbied hard to gain the authority to conduct their own safety tests, rather than have the independent FAA conduct those safety tests. That lobbying had a gradual but noticeable effect: for years, government has been handing over more responsibility for safety to manufacturers as a way to reduce bureaucracy and to save time and money for aerospace manufacturers. This did not go unnoticed. Internal government watchdog reports had, for some time, identified Boeing – the world’s largest airplane manufacturer – as having too great a say in FAA oversight programs, resulting in a lack of accountability. The relationship between Boeing and the FAA has become so close that the FAA stands accused of having been ‘captured’ by Boeing.
  2. What is regulatory capture? Regulatory authorities exist to protect the public by setting safety and reliability standards for industry. In a liberal democracy, regulatory authorities are a vital part of a state’s independent institutions, following and applying the rule of law regardless of political interests. Regulators are a major bulwark against corruption and self-dealing. Regulatory capture occurs when a regulator comes to be controlled, effectively, by the industry that it is charged with overseeing. The result is that the regulator begins to act in the interests of the industry, rather than the public interest for which it was created. It is the proverbial case of the fox guarding the henhouse. That is precisely what happened here. The regulatory capture of the FAA cemented Boeing’s industry power, allowing aerospace manufacturers to challenge regulators over safety disputes thereby allowing companies to effectively usurp the authority of the public.
  3. But Boeing and the FAA will change course now, right? That will take a lot of hard work. Institutional culture, once it takes hold, is hard to change. The release of  hundreds of pages of internal correspondence to congressional investigators revealed a company-wide culture of disdain for the FAA and an intimate awareness of the safety flaws of the 737 MAX. A Boeing employee was not alone among peers in mockingly referring to the FAA as “dogs watching TV” to describe their now-bystander role in aviation safety. It seemed a humorous way to describe regulatory capture – until 346 people died. Presciently, prior to the crashes, one employee asked another “Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.” “No,” the colleague responded.
  4. But someone is still being held accountable, surely? Dennis Muilenberg, Boeing’s CEO, was hauled over the coals while testifying before both the Senate and the House in October. In the aftermath of the crashes he attempted to achieve two competing goals: one, returning the 737 MAX to service as soon as possible, relieving the pressure on Boeing, airlines and suppliers, and, two, fixing – with the oversight and input of regulators – the MCAS. He failed at both, and so was fired. He left with $62 million in stock and pension benefits. Now that’s a golden parachute, albeit one that won’t help much if he needs to jump from a falling airplane.
Pension protestors pack Paris
Pension protestors pack Paris. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure, Agence France-Presse-Getty Images

In a Game of Chicken, Macron Yields.
On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron backed down on his controversial proposal to raise the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62. Over the last two months, France has been disrupted by massive nationwide strikes over proposed pension reforms. First, a transport strike against pension reform began on Dec. 5. Then other groups such as teachers, a major ballet company, and hospital workers joined.  For a while, Macron stood his ground, trying to find moderate unions he could work with such as the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT). CFDT seemed agreeable to some of the reforms, such as replacing the 42 separate public retirement systems with a universal, streamlined version based on points earned over time. However, facing enormous pressure from its members to not raise the retirement age, CFDT bowed out. At that point, Macron ran out of options. He had already given up on working with the more radical Confédération Générale duTravail (CGT) union. And now even the moderates turned against him. In theory, Macron could have continued to apply pressure to the CFDT to come to the bargaining table and drag out the process even longer. But this would almost certainly come at a great cost to his political career.

  1. Does Macron have a legitimate interest in reforming pension plans? Yes. This is not just a political stunt. According to the official pensions advisory council, the current system could accumulate between a €8bn and €17bn deficit by 2025.
  2. Are the protestors working within, or outside of, institutional systems? The protests raise important questions about the institutions that make up a democracy. Macron and his party were voted into office partly on the basis of their clear calls for pension reform – but are failing to do so in a manner and by a means that is acceptable to a large portion of the electorate. Fresh elections are not scheduled to be held until 2022, however, and so there is no early opportunity to replace Macron at the ballot box. Instead, the public is making its voice heard in an extra-electoral fashion, but in a manner entirely consistent with the right to strike guaranteed by the French constitution. Democracy involves not only working through traditional representatives and institutions in government, but also accepting and responding to (even mass) dissent from the public. 
  3. How does this debate play into the idea of a social contract in a democracy? A social contract is formed when people give up one of their self-serving instincts or desires in exchange for public good. In this sense, a social contract acts as a kind of check on unrestrained democracy. We made a social contract with our forebears and offspring and successors to only take as much as we are able to put back into the system. If we drain system of everything, we violate the social contract. Here, it might be argued that citizens have an implicit (or perhaps even explicit) social contract with future generations to preserve the financial solvency of the French state – by working longer and relying on government pensions less. This may be necessary for the sustainability and stability of democracy over generations. On this view, the French public has a duty to protect younger generations from an insurmountable financial burden – and so have a social contract to work longer. 


Democracy at Work


celebrating Taiwanese national pride
Taiwan’s recent elections were a striking rebuke against China and its attempts to bring the island state further under its influence. Photo: Tyrone Siu, Reuters. 

Taiwan Hangs On

Democracy got a boost at the ballot box. Taiwan has been a multiparty democracy since 1996, albeit under the ever-present threat of losing its independence to China, its vast neighbor across the narrow waters of the Taiwan Strait. This past week, Taiwanese voters were presented with a stark choice: do you wish to preserve the democratic sovereignty of the nation, or do you wish for closer ties with authoritarian China? Despite Chinese-backed fake news and disinformation swirling in Taiwan’s social media sphere, the electorate made a clear decision, re-electing President Tsai Ing-Wen on a pro-democracy platform. In the aftermath of her victory she declared “With each presidential election, Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our democratic way of life.”

  1. Were the losing electoral opponents actually authoritarian? No, but they became “guilty by association.” The losing Kuomintang Party sought closer ties to Beijing because the hostility between the nations has separated Taiwan from global political and economic enrichment. Most nations no longer maintain official ties with Taiwan, having been compelled by China’s economic power to choose one side or the other. Most choose China. However, under President Tsai’s stewardship, Taiwan has in fact improved its economy, cut its unemployment rate, seen wage growth and witnessed the return of a number of manufacturers. Moreover, in the light of China’s aggressive attempts to control its indigenous Uighur population and its heavy-handed crackdowns in Hong Kong, Kuomintang found itself identified with that aggression. Perception, it seems, is reality.
  2. So the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong had an effect on this election? Yes. Taiwanese citizens were quick to point out that their votes were partly grounded on having seen how poorly China is treating another island that bears a politically delicate relationship to it: Hong Kong. “Having seen what’s happening in Hong Kong, I get it: the so called ‘one country, two systems’ is a Communist lie,” said Allen Hsu, a Taiwanese student in Hong Kong. “I hope Taiwan doesn’t end up sharing the same fate, with my children having to take to the streets 20 years from now to oppose the Communist Party.” The question now, is how China reacts to this rebuke.
    1. Will the election in Taiwan influence China’s actions against Hong Kong? Yes, and probably for the worse. For more than six months, Hong Kong has been the scene of anti-government protests, some of which have turned violent. The protestors seek to prevent further encroachment of Chinese power into their semi-autonomous island. Hong Kong enjoys independent courts, a free press, and the protection of civil liberties – freedoms denied in China, and now under threat in Hong Kong. Having suffered a rebuke from Taiwan, and ever anxious to preserve face and internal stability, watch for China to take a heavier hand against protestors in Hong Kong.  
    2. In the longer term, how will China react against Taiwan? China has two choices: either accept that reunification with Taiwan – its long-held wish – must be delayed yet again and so try to establish better relations with President Tsai, or turn to more aggressive actions, including military force. Against Hong Kong China will probably opt for a more aggressive response – but Hong Kong has no battle-capable defense force, unlike Taiwan. And Taiwan has the most powerful ally of them all: the United States of America. China might have to climb down – as it has in the past – this time. 
  3. What are America’s obligations to Taiwan? Modest, but nevertheless present. The United States has a treaty obligation to sell to Taiwan defensive materials that allow Taiwan to maintain the ability to defend itself. The President of the United States is also required to inform Congress of any threat to the security of Taiwan. Although this treaty is often misunderstood as an obligation to defend Taiwan against invasion by China, the United States actually has no such responsibility. Instead, if China launched a military assault, the President is only legally required to ‘determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action’. Yet, there is something more to the U.S. – Taiwan bond: democracy. The Taiwan Strait is a front line in the standoff between democracy and authoritarianism. And so, if conflict between China and Taiwan were to break out, the United States may well be drawn in.


Airplane wing
Winging across America! Photo: Deborah Fallows

Our Towns: The Heart of America 
Local is lovely. Over the past six years, writers James and Deborah Fallows have crisscrossed America – prairie and seaport, slum and wilderness – in their light airplane to see communities at work and play. They argue that the best and most industrious developments in our nation are happening at the local and regional level, but that most of us remain ignorant of this small-stage vitality. Each successful town they visit has its own formula, but there are common threads: engaged citizens, places to meet, a commitment to education, and making big plans for their small towns. Each place has a civic story to tell, giving “citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope tomorrow will bring.” The Fallowses also provide a well-argued assertion of why having a craft brewery is a sign of civic success – but you’ll have to read Our Townsthe book about their cross-country flights-and-writes, to learn about that reassuring fact! Our Towns continues its stories with an ongoing website in partnership with The Atlantic. As James writes:

“For many of the cities we visited, the civic story turned on the importance of strong local institutions: libraries, schools, philanthropies, public arts projects, annual events… As with guiding national myths, the question is not whether these assessments seem precisely accurate to outsiders. Their value is in giving citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope tomorrow will bring.”