Trust but Verify: A ground/bottom-up approach to evidence-based politics
Over the past few weeks, I have been following closely the political discussions on the airwaves and on the internet, and I have been trying to ascertain for myself the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments on both sides of the political divide. What has intrigued me the most are the responses to an article posted on the SKNList entitled “Playing the Moral Card” and especially the defence given by one of the supporters to the fiscal policies of our government, without any reference whatsoever to any analysis of the present data, any forecasting into the future, and any comparisons with alternatives. Is this a case of defending the indefensible due to lack of verifiable data?
There have also been a groundswell of support for a Government of National Unity, but as of late there has been a lull in visceral support and a subtle sense of despondency. Why is this happening? Are we also dealing with cries of concerned citizens who are trying to rally the “unrallyable” (if there is such a word). If this is the case, why is it difficult to make a compelling case in our political environment, given our political histories and trajectories, of why in principle it is the way to go and why such a construct is very much tenable in practice?
At the core of both of these issues is the trustworthiness of our leaders on both sides of the divide, and whether or not they can provide verifiable policies to support their visions for the nation. Is this dearth of information the reason why we are scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel of our political discourse, with allegations of corruption, barrages of character assassinations, and spells of fear mongering? Since we do not have Integrity in Public Life and Freedom of Information Legislation, can we confidently champion the defence that absence of evidence of wrongdoings is the same as evidence of absence of wrongdoing?
What is also surprising and also of concern in listening to and reading the discussions, are two fundamental/core issues that have not been addressed thus far, and I hope to use this article to bring them to the fore for further consideration. I hope to show that they are all intimately related to the question of how we can trust our politicians without being able to verify for ourselves the policy pronouncements which they claim would serve the best interests of the people they serve.
Firstly, although I sincerely believe a Government of National Unity is necessary to catalyse the much needed constitutional and social transformation in our Federation, I have to ask myself if such a construct in and of itself is sufficient to achieve this goal? If it is not sufficient, then there must be other ingredients for such a construct to gain traction and credibility in the hearts, minds, souls and spirits of our people. Those ingredients may exist and be well known to the participants of the different parties, but I am not privy to that information and I am sure the discerning public would like to know that when elections are called, they can put their faith and hope in such a construct that is stewarded by politicians who can put into place credible policies guiding our people forward. We have reasons to be sceptical and we have ample precedents of strategic proclamations by incumbents before elections, which were diametrically different to the policies enacted after winning. Without the raw data to support or oppose policy decisions, and even worse, the ability to provide credible alternatives, how can any politician in opposition make defendable statements? This lack of access of reliable information cuts to the authenticity of our democratic system of governance where informed politicians are able to debate with each other different policy proposals to the benefit of an informed educated citizenry.
Secondly, having written the blog article, Constitutional boundary changes – only the tip of the gerrymandering iceberg, which deals with the different forms of internal gerrymandering, I am left with this unsettling feeling that I have missed the big elephant in the room, which deals with a form of external gerrymandering of glacial proportions as it pertains to the rules of engagement by external socioeconomic and geopolitical forces. To continue the analogy of the iceberg, what I failed to realise is that all icebergs were once part of a bigger entity called a glacier, and maybe what we are seeing internally is a reflection of true happenings of what is going on externally, a chip of the old block, if I may say so. This then begs the question – Do the motives and vested interests of these external forces have more of an influence on our local politics than the dreams and aspirations of our people? To be more specific, is the present political quagmire a symptom of the stealth collusions between external and internal forces, which brings into sharp focus not only the credibility, integrity and sovereignty of our nation, but also the same credibility, integrity and espoused non-interference proclamations of these same socioeconomic and geopolitical entities? It is very important for us to be cognizant of these issues, as any new political construct would have to decide early on how they will deal with these external forces, as the appetites and wants from without may override any policy decisions to deal with the needs from within.
Given the reality of the situation, and the global interconnectedness of nations with strong vested interest from without acting within a veil of secrecy that are only understood by the elites in politics, finance and business, how is the common man on the street able to appreciate that the rules of engagement were created by the elites and for the elites, despite the claim to the contrary that they serve the best interest of the majority in their country? How can we, the majority trust our leaders to pass laws that serve our national interest, if we cannot verify for ourselves and we are not privy to the secret discussions that go on between the socioeconomic and geopolitical entities in our midst. WikiLeaks have provided ample evidence that things are not always as they seem, and that most of the time the citizenry are misinformed and are called to vote for their leaders based on sincerely misguided debates and discussions.
If the musings of the foregoing are worthy of serious considerations, as it pertains to the feasibility and credibility of a Government of National Unity on the one hand, and the ability to act in the best interest of the nation on the other hand without being handicapped by external socioeconomic and geopolitical forces, the next question that has to be asked is how do we even begin to address these core issues? How do we convince ourselves and each other that we are dealing with issues of national security such as food security, energy independence, public health, fiscal freedoms and travel privileges? And moreso, that if these issues are not seriously addressed, there is a real and present danger to our livelihood that would have reverberations in our Federation for decades and generations to come. We have to understand that if we do not work together to deal with these common threats, we will as a nation bear much unnecessary hardships.
The inescapable conclusion is that we cannot deny or delude ourselves any longer of this monumental fact. We live in an environment that can be described as being an information desert, where there is a dearth of verifiable information that can guide policy, that would assist in forecasting and giving real credence to any policy decisions espoused by the incumbents and their potential challengers. I am not sure if this is by accident or by design, but one thing I am sure of, this is a structural deficiency in our system of governance and leadership that needs to be urgently addressed. In this day and age of the internet, where information can be provided online for one and all to see, the publication of such timely data for analysis should be a given. This would be most welcome, as now the fear mongering, character assassinations and allegations of wrong doing would be relegated to the dustbins of the past, as we now engage in serious discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of different policy decisions undergirded by timely and credible projections and forecasts on the way forward. We can train our people in information and communication technology, statistics, economics, and help our populace become more financially, economically and politically literate and lift the bar of the political discourse to higher heights.
I am very delighted that there are calls in some quarters to have debates among the political candidates to discuss the pressing issues of our time on behalf of, for, and with the people. Although we know very well the subject matters that should be debated, how do we go about presenting the evidence for or against a policy decision, if the data that would guide such decisions by the opposition parties are not readily available and scrutinizable by the electorate who want very much to be part of a well informed responsible citizenry? To reiterate, we don’t have Integrity in Public Life and Freedom of Information legislature to keep our public officials accountable; key statistics like unemployment rates, poverty level, inequality (GINI) level, and census results are not readily available, and when available, the accuracy and timeliness of the data is at the least questionable and at the most objectionable? And this begs the question – is the informational opacity that exists remediable, and if so, how do we go about fixing this. If the incumbents use this deficiency as a political tool “to dazzle with glitter and bamboozle with half truths,” how can any incumbent be incentivised to change the status quo that have kept them in power for so long? These are the hard questions the incumbents do not want us to entertain, but must be entertained by any Government of National Unity if they are to be seen as a credible alternative to the status quo. They have to convince the electorate that it is our best interest they have at heart, and not that of their own livelihood or their families or friends? Would they be committed to helping us transition from a top-down authority-based politics to a ground/bottom-up evidence-based politics? Can we get the best minds working together to defend the defensible and rally the rallyible? Can we get the chief propagandist for the people in power who are in love with power, to become the chief information and communication officer supporting the power of the people through the power of love?
We have two precendents in American history to guide us. The first has to do with the the Cold War, where we had in our midst weapons of mass destructions (WMDs) in the form of nuclear weapons, and President Ronald Reagon often quoted to President Michael Gobarchav, Доверяй, но проверяй (Doveryai, No Proveryai) – TRUST BUT VERIFY. That to proceed, in disarmament, you have to trust the other to do what is right, but you must also verify for yourself the steps taken by the other. In our midst, we have another form of WMDs in the form of weapons of mass deception. We need to also dismantle our propaganda machinery, and again we are called upon to trust our leaders, but this time to be able to verify their forecasts and visions, so that we have a true sense of who have the better ideas for the continued growth and development of the nation. This would engender grass-root discussions at the family table, in the community, and among the parliamentary candidates who put themselves forward to serve the best interest of their consistuents. And this time, we would have census data, health data, crime data, poverty data, unemployment data, and inequality data that are timely and accurate to support one vision over the other, and where potential alternatives can be debated and discussed to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens of our nation, and not just for the elites at the top.
What we need to put in place is the infrastructure to make all of this possible. The second precedent is the New Deal by President Roosevelt in which he engaged in the construction of the physical roads, highways and bridges that laid the foundation for the physical growth and economic development of the United States of America after World War Two. We can do the same in our Federation, as by ending our tribalistic political warfare, we as a nation can engage in our version a New Deal, in which we continue to construct and build our informational infrastructure, our information networks, and build information bridges between the government and the governed of a new society, so we can help create the new dispension our hearts already know is possible in our United Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.