DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Dambisa Moyo. She is author of a new book called Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth—and How to Fix It.
Dambisa, thank you so much for coming back to the Carnegie Council.
DAMBISA MOYO: Thank you, Devin. Very happy to be here.
DEVIN STEWART: Good to see you.
Edge of chaos. Democracy is failing. Can you set the scene for us? In what way do you think that democracy is on the edge of chaos? In what ways is it failing to address economic turmoil?
DAMBISA MOYO: There are two key areas I think we want to focus on. First of all, why do people say increasingly that democracy is under siege, and there is a whole host of reasons for that, which I will walk you through in a moment.
The other thing which is critical for us to think about is the embedded myopia in the political process in liberal democracies, the fact that we have elections every couple of years and that politicians are very rationally focused on courting and catering to—seducing—today's voter at the expense of the future.
DEVIN STEWART: By myopia you mean shortsightedness.
DAMBISA MOYO: Exactly. Short-termism in the political process.
Just in terms of some of the concerns that people who are interested in this topic have today about democracy, for one thing voter-participation rates have plummeted. In the 1960s in the United States, the average voter-participation rate was closer to the mid-60 percent, sometimes higher. Today it's around 50 percent nationwide, and it's around 30 percent for low-income households, so clearly, far away from the one-man-one-vote mantra of democracy.
DEVIN STEWART: For poorer people it has gone down to 30 percent. What did it used to be?
DAMBISA MOYO: We only have data for the averages at that time because it was pre-civil rights, so obviously the numbers are a bit skewed. The 1960s was before 1968 and Martin Luther King's death, etc. These are the numbers that we have—
DEVIN STEWART: But you feel a 10-percentage point drop from 60 to 50 is notable.
DAMBISA MOYO: Absolutely. It's notable, and it has actually been sequentially declining over the last several decades, but obviously the 20-percent differential between rich and poor in this country I think is also—I should say the average and the low income—quite meaningful in a world where the middle class is potentially under threat and people are moving away from being middle class into poorer incomes, and we can talk a little bit about that.
Obviously, we are having this chat just after non-farm payrolls have improved. The jobs report came out last Friday and was quite strong. But there is a broader concern about income inequality, about joblessness on the back of technology, and so there is a real issue about whether the middle class is actually eroding. If that is true, I think we can also have some significant political implications in terms of lack of participation and democracy.
But beyond voter participation, some of the other concerns are around the fact that money has seeped into the political process. According to a New York Times report, about 158 families are responsible for 50 percent of the political contributions that were made for the presidency.
DEVIN STEWART: How is that different from corruption?
DAMBISA MOYO: That's a great question.
DEVIN STEWART: Or is it the same thing?
DAMBISA MOYO: In fact, I'm just about to add on another piece of the puzzle, which is lobbying. The amount of money that is going into lobbying in this country has doubled over the last few years. In the 2000s it was approximately $1.5 billion going to lobbying political representatives. Today it is over $3 billion, so it is quite a considerable jump, over 50 percent.
To the question about how does this differ from what we try to target—let's think about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)—these types of efforts to curb corruption. I think many people have asked that question, and I think it is open for debate as to what the differences are.
Obviously, in the political system through Citizens United, a decision by the Supreme Court, they have legitimized it, this idea that individuals and companies, including foreign corporations, are able to make donations. I'm not a lawyer, but the fundamental point of the Supreme Court judgment around Citizens United is that there is no delineation between a corporation as an entity versus an individual where making contributions is concerned. I'm using shorthand, but essentially in that respect it is different from what we would call bribery or corruption.
You could argue that there is a tacit corruption of the political system, and I think that is essentially the point I'm making, that if you have a system where money is so influential politicians would very naturally gravitate to supporting or catering to the people who are giving that money.
DEVIN STEWART: Why are lowering of voter participation and money in politics intrinsically of concern to you?
DAMBISA MOYO: I think they should be a deep concern for anybody who wants to see a political system in which the representatives are addressing the needs of the broader population. In a world where fewer people vote, it is a corollary that those people who are voting happen to be the most wealthy in society. You then end up with public policy that is naturally designed for the narrow as opposed to the broad. That is a deep concern. This is not a public policy that is ultimately designed to cater to a broad society. At a very extreme sense, you could argue that it is a plutocracy, that a handful of people are essentially determining the fate of society.
DEVIN STEWART: What do you think is causing the lower voter turnout? If you were to be a little facetious, you could say, "Oh, maybe they just think things are just going okay, things are going well enough to just leave things alone." It sounds like the data suggests that there is a causation that is more sinister.
DAMBISA MOYO: There are a lot of arguments of why people are not voting. As a consequence, there are a lot of proposals as to how we might remedy it. For instance, one of the points is some level of apathy or disaffection that you're intimating. So people either think, Gosh, things are trundling along pretty fine. It doesn't really matter; my vote doesn't count, but there is also the sense of disaffection: I just don't trust this government. It seems corrupt to me. It seems ineffective. It doesn't impact my life. That's an element of disaffection.
But of course, there is the income problem, this idea of people taking off [from work] eight hours to have to travel to a voting booth to stand in line to go through the whole process of voting. That whole process eats into a lot of their potential minimum-wage or hourly wage work, so that is another element that is potentially driving these low participation rates.
There is a lot of research on this. There are arguments which cover these elements of the problem as I just described them to you, but suffice it to say whether it is apathy because people are euphoric, because of disaffection, or because of income, something needs to be done. Otherwise, we will end up in essentially a plutocracy.
DEVIN STEWART: Your subtitle is Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth, but it sounds like in your book you're also talking about causality going both ways. You're saying that economic growth and prosperity are necessary for a healthy democracy, right?
DAMBISA MOYO: Absolutely.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you talk a little bit about—the streets go both ways.
DAMBISA MOYO: Yes. In fact, I dropped the other point around myopia and shortsightedness, and they are linked into this point.
One of the problems that the global economy is facing right now—and I should say my Ph.D. is in economics. I'm a frustrated economist. This is why I have written this book because we as economists are trying desperately to solve a whole lot of economic headwinds from technology and the risk of a jobless underclass, worries about income inequality widening, concerns about demographic shifts both in quality and quantity of the workforce, and concerns about the amount of debt that the global economy is carrying, and the United States specifically. These are all long-term, deeply entrenched structural problems that are intergenerational.
But at the same time we have very deep myopia, short-termism, embedded in the political process, and that schism or mismatch between the long-term problems of economics and the short-termism embedded in politics is creating a very big problem with respect to trying to solve what I argue in the book could upend the global economy, create a lot of economic conflict, populism, and worries about geopolitical risks, but also bad policies, including protectionism, which I think is very short-term appealing but long-term problematic.
To your point about this causality, there is great research by Adam Przeworski, who is a professor at NYU, on the point that you need to have a minimum level of middle class, some critical mass of middle class, in place in a country in order for democracy to be effective, to be sacrosanct, to basically as he called it survive "come hell or high water." His argument at that time—these numbers are unadjusted for inflation—at $6,000 per capita that is the minimum threshold that you have to clear. Anything below $6,000 per capita and you end up having a lot of upheaval, political instability, and democracies that don't really function well.
If you look around the world, that resonates, whether it is in South America, Africa, or Asia, these nascent democracies where the economy is suffering or where they don't have a middle class I think is problematic. I actually subscribe to this view. If you want to have democracy in place, you need a middle class that is able to hold the government accountable, and until you have that you essentially have a situation where democracy is not thriving.
DEVIN STEWART: I think that's extremely timely. Are there cases that you can point to where you're seeing this movement away from that $6,000 threshold and as a result there's a danger or a risk to the future of democracy?
DAMBISA MOYO: I would say look across Italy. I would argue I think somewhat convincingly that Italy is a great recent example of how a government can collapse under economic woe. Hungary and Poland are not far off.
You could argue very convincingly that the Brexit vote was really a manifestation of a backlash of people whose living standards have deteriorated, or they feel quite frustrated. You could actually make a case I'm sure very convincingly here in the United States that the election of a rank outsider in President Trump was really because of a large disaffected population of people who have seen their living standards and their prospects for improvements of their lives most critically deteriorated.
DEVIN STEWART: It really boils down to prosperity.
DAMBISA MOYO: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: I think in one of your videos you said 7 percent, which seems a little bit—
DAMBISA MOYO: Seven percent is the number—
DEVIN STEWART: It seems ambitious.
DAMBISA MOYO: It's mathematics really. In order to double per capita incomes in one generation—a generation is about 25 years—you need to grow at 7 percent.
DEVIN STEWART: Seven percent growth, even for a rich country?
DAMBISA MOYO: Seven percent per year. Of course, you could argue that you don't need to double per capita incomes in that period because per capita incomes in these countries are higher. You could piece the countries into little bits and say, "Well, actually poorer neighborhoods in the United States need to be growing at seven percent in order to double their per capita incomes," but you could make a very good case that actually rich countries don't need to be growing at quite that clip.
However, 90 percent of the world's population lives in the emerging markets, and we do need to see faster growth rates than we're seeing. Many of the large BRICS countries, the sort of traditional Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, are not growing anywhere near that number. China and India are debatable, but places like South Africa, Russia, and Brazil are really just coming out of recessions and growing at one to two percent at best, and that is just not enough to really put a meaningful dent in poverty.
DEVIN STEWART: You also mention in the book that this myopia, this short-termism, sort of shortsightedness is making its way into companies, global corporations as well. Can you explain what you mean by that?
DAMBISA MOYO: Sure. There are whole hosts of data points that suggest that actually this short-termism has actually seeped into the political mindset. The shorthand is that basically investors such as hedge funds and other asset managers are much more focused on returns today, certainly, and the quarterly returns than they are in terms of what the longer-term returns might be for an investment.
As a consequence, we've actually seen the tenures of CEOs and CFOs, basically the people at the top of the company, shorten quite considerably. In the 1970s the average tenure for a CEO of a company was around 10 years. It is now down to around four years and in some cases three years. This really impacts on the strategy of the company. If they're constantly changing the strategy or they're not able to really embed a long-term strategy, this is problematic.
But we've also seen things like the holding period of stocks in these portfolio managers. It used to be that they would hold a stock for at least seven years, sometimes as long as 11 years. Now it has come crashing down to around, by some standards, 11 weeks. People use high-frequency trading. For businesses that rely on the capital markets and those investments to make long-term decisions, that is a problem.
Just in the last year we've seen the ratio of dividends to retained earnings for companies go above 100 percent, which is basically saying that companies are paying more dividends to their shareholders rather than retaining their earnings for investment. I think there is a sort of tacit or latent view there that there is an increasing lack of belief that there are opportunities for them to invest for the long term, so they are very much about short-term gains and returning money to the shareholders.
DEVIN STEWART: Is there a benign interpretation of this short-termism, that maybe just the world's going faster these days?
DAMBISA MOYO: But it's not.
DEVIN STEWART: It seems like it is.
DAMBISA MOYO: We know it's not. Look around at the emerging markets as I suggested. I don't think it's going faster at all.
DEVIN STEWART: What I mean is in an almost a metaphysical sense that time seems to be going faster. Everyone is talking about the pace of change and technological change is so rapid, and people say that even the pace of globalized life is beyond even the comprehension of an average person.
DAMBISA MOYO: I spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley, and there are a lot of skeptics to that view. I think that maybe at the surface it looks like it is going faster, but fundamentally there are a lot of things that people would point to to suggest that actually we're not going faster. We may be getting faster in certain things, but in terms of productivity and in terms of efficiency we're not that faster.
A classic example of this that I've always found quite interesting is that 50 years ago it took six to seven hours to fly from New York to London, and guess what? It is still six to seven hours to fly from New York to London.
DEVIN STEWART: And there's no Concorde anymore.
DAMBISA MOYO: Of course. Concorde has been long gone. But the point just being that we're not making leaps and bounds in a lot of very basic things.
Of course, you could argue we now have mobile telephony, but really people would argue that the real innovation was actually being able to connect in the first place, and this is maybe on balance more on the margin. I don't know enough about technology, but these are the arguments that I hear a lot about on this.
DEVIN STEWART: The disposition of the average American consumer to want instant gratification all the time, 24/7 access to Amazon.com or whatever, is that part of a cultural zeitgeist that is creating this ethic of short-termism? I guess what I'm getting at is how do you explain the value of short-termism and how it's ubiquitous. You said it's in business, in democracy, and in economic policy planning.
DAMBISA MOYO: It's interesting. I attended a dinner not too long ago with Jeff Bezos. He was the keynote speaker. He made a very basic point which has been rattling around in my mind because I think it's so interesting. He said Amazon is basically built on three principles that he knows are true today and will be true a hundred years from today, which is that basically people want things as cheaply as possible, they want things as high quality as possible, and they want things as quickly as possible. That is just basic human nature.
In that respect, you could argue that short-termism is actually instant gratification as you put it, but the truth is that people who have children will know that very often giving a child or giving somebody who perhaps doesn't know better something as a quick fix today usually has significant consequences for tomorrow.
I think that my concern is that we can look at the numbers and say, "Gosh, you know the unemployment rate is at 3.8 and things are looking really great," but we tend not to think about the longer-term consequences of some of the growth that we are enjoying today such as the debt levels.
I am really trying to offer a more balanced view for essentially these economic challenges and trade-offs, but also importantly about the political trade-offs because I ultimately believe that if we do nothing about democracy we'll end up in one of two states. We'll either end up in a plutocracy, which is where the United States feels like it is ending up right now, a very small handful of people really controlling government and public policy through finance and money; or you could end up in a very populist, disordered, disorganized sort of system which is mirrored right now in places like Spain, in Italy, in Hungary, and in Poland, where you end up with elected officials who are essentially caught in the middle of polarized, essentially left-wing and right-wing populist parties, not able to deliver public policy, a lot of general dysfunction at the government level.
This is what we're trying to address here, and I think myopia is at the heart of this problem.
DEVIN STEWART: You have 10 proposals to fix democracy, but let's talk about—is it really worth it? I'm a liberal democrat. Let's put it out there. I assume that democracy is worth saving.
But before we get to talking about saving it, why save democracy?
DAMBISA MOYO: Because I think that ultimately a world of free markets and free people has shown itself with its functioning to deliver innovation that we need, not just for economic growth and living standards but also for innovation, so being able to offer people or afford the opportunity for people to think and to question and challenge the status quo and to question ideology as an artifact of the democratic system, and I think that's a good thing.
Then, of course, finally I think that it also behooves a society to have an environment where it's not wed to a particular set of policies. I think inasmuch as democracy allows for changes in government and changes of political frame, I think that's also very helpful.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you think that capitalism and democracy can live together in harmony?
DAMBISA MOYO: I think that there are some sacrifices that need to be made. I think that a democracy ultimately that functions well is one that has as many people as possible voting, but those people have to be as knowledgeable as possible, and we are definitely far away from that. I think if you can get to that utopia of democracy, then it's more likely that you end up with a capitalist system that also works.
DEVIN STEWART: We like education, that's for sure. At Carnegie Council we believe in ethics and education.
DAMBISA MOYO: Amen.
DEVIN STEWART: Getting to your 10 proposals, you started to allude to some of your advice and your policy recommendations. My understanding is you have proposals for managing the politician as well as managing the voter.
DAMBISA MOYO: That's right.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you tell us a little bit about these proposals?
DAMBISA MOYO: Yes, and I think it's critical for me to just say a couple of things. First of all, these proposals are exactly that. They're proposals. They're not supposed to be wholesale consumption. Democracies are at different levels of growth. Some of them are quite nascent. Some things might immediately appeal, others might not. So it's important that we understand that this is for debate. This is for improving our political system because we spend a lot of time critiquing countries that are blatantly non-democratic, like China, North Korea, or Cuba, but there was no menu to say: "Well, what about us? How can we improve on our political system?" That was the impetus for that.
The other point that is worth really stressing is that all the proposals, all 10 proposals have some precedent somewhere in the world. This is not me cooking up some idea in my kitchen. This is really saying, "Hm, actually did you know that mandatory voting exists in Countries X, Y, and Z? Should we think about maybe mandatory voting to try to increase or boost our participation numbers?"
DEVIN STEWART: It makes it much more credible as a proposal.
DAMBISA MOYO: I would hope so, because I think some people will roll their eyes and say, "This is absolutely not going to fly here."
But it's worth it to say: "Well, actually this is under experimentation. This is actually under debate in other countries."
The very last point I would just make is that you alluded to the fact that around six of them are targeting the politician and around three of them are targeting the voter, but I think it's also worth stressing that it is this sort of pick-and-choose. It's a pick mix of what you actually think could work in your country.
There are some proposals that many Americans have told me it'll be a rainy day in hell if that's ever adopted here, but other ones say: "Hm, actually I hadn't thought about that. That could possibly work." So I hope people adopt or are interested in these proposals in that respect, with that lens.
DEVIN STEWART: Great. I don't know if you want to talk about all 10 of them but—
DAMBISA MOYO: No, absolutely not.
DEVIN STEWART: —maybe you want to pick out a couple that do that. I know that the weighted voting is the most controversial. That might be the hell's gate scenario one, but before we get to that, is there something that you think you want to—
DAMBISA MOYO: Why don't we start with the politicians because maybe that's a little bit less controversial. With respect to politicians, one of the proposals is that we pay them more. "Pay them more and shut the door" is the rule-of-thumb idea, which is essentially this idea that we need to pay politicians more money but force them to justify what exactly they're doing.
DEVIN STEWART: I think of Singapore immediately.
DAMBISA MOYO: That's exactly the example in the book. In Singapore the head of state gets about $1.7 million—I've seen it as $1.4 million elsewhere.
DEVIN STEWART: U.S. dollars.
DAMBISA MOYO: Around $1.4 million U.S. dollars per year as a salary. But to me what is even more interesting is that the ministers who are charged with the different departments—education, healthcare, infrastructure—get 30-40 percent bonuses every year based on certain metrics: How did gross domestic product (GDP) perform? Has life expectancy increased? Has inflation stayed down? But also there are callbacks. So in a few years' time if they find actually they were fudging the number, the money can be taken away from them in their pension.
This to me is quite an appealing proposal in the U.S. context because it is built on money and capitalist ideas, and people understand this idea of pay for performance. Many people working in the private sector or certainly outside of government understand that their compensation is very highly tied to that.
DEVIN STEWART: But as you know Americans hate government officials, they hate the government, they don't trust the government. They kind of despise them as people. How reluctant do you think they might be to pay them more money?
DAMBISA MOYO: I think if they are forced to justify it I have a feeling it might turn it around because I think part of this sort of negative view around politicians emanates when people think they are not doing anything and somehow that they are sort of feeding off society and having a bit of fun over there and not really doing any work.
It is something I found quite baffling. I lived in Paris for a little bit, and in France they absolutely adore the government. They stage demonstrations, but they have a deep belief that the government will perform and will deliver.
If you think about public goods and the importance of public goods such as education and infrastructure and national security, this government does deliver those things, sometimes you could argue, badly. The American Civil Engineering Society will say a D-plus is what they graded the U.S. infrastructure, but there are some things worth saying: "Hey! Actually the government was involved in the Internet. The government was involved in the building of the interstate infrastructure." I think there is a debate to be had there.
DEVIN STEWART: How about any other proposals that you think are important?
DAMBISA MOYO: Another proposal that I talk about politicians is having minimum standards for politicians, and by this I mean having this idea that as politicians you have to show that you've had an experience that is beyond just being a professional politician. In this context, I give the example of Britain in the 1960s.
In the 1950s and 1960s in Britain the parliamentarians were farmers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. They had different experiences. By the time they came to government, where the average age at that time was around 62 years old, they actually came with some really interesting contexts and views about actually how the economy works.
Today according to a number of studies that I cite in the book, the average age has gone down to around 40 years old, and many people are professional politicians, and we see similar problems in the U.S. political infrastructure as well. There is a real question about that.
DEVIN STEWART: Where is that coming from? Voters will vote for whomever they want to vote for, right?
DAMBISA MOYO: I think it's got a lot to do with people not putting their hands up. We've seen even in this country if you go back far enough, you did have engineers, and the statesmen did have a lot of education and broad experience, but that has changed.
DEVIN STEWART: Doesn't that reflect American culture, though? We had Tom Nichols here in this booth in the seat that you're sitting in right now talking about how Americans just don't trust experts anymore, so anyone with any kind of expertise is seen as being suspicious. Instead, I think that the people that we're electing to office these days are essentially celebrities.
DAMBISA MOYO: I see why people have that view. I'm a bit more optimistic. I don't think we've had enough of a trend line to say actually people are anti-expert. I know that's a big mantra, especially on the back of Trump and Brexit, but I'm pretty confident that people value expertise, and I think that at some point that narrative will come back into the sort of general discourse.
DEVIN STEWART: Sort of a pendulum.
DAMBISA MOYO: Yes. I think obviously it would be foolhardy for me to say that celebrity status hasn't helped in some of the recent elections. I think even the election of President Trump, it should not be lost on anybody the fact that he had built up such a great support group over many years being on The Apprentice. I think that is sort of emblematic, and of course the rumors that at one point Oprah might run for president. There is a sense that that is acceptable.
But the United States has always, I think, had a sort of skewed view about what is valuable. In this country if you're rich, you can basically do anything. I see many wealthy people opine on topics that they haven't studied and they haven't really experienced—girls' education in Africa, for example—but because they are rich people automatically assume that they must have the answers.
DAMBISA MOYO: I didn't say it. You said it.
DEVIN STEWART: That's a great book.
DAMBISA MOYO: Thank you. But I think there is something there. I think that people in the past have been a little bit maybe cavalier around what the value of knowledge and expertise is, and we'll come back to that because of one of the proposals for voters is around that.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's get to that. Do you want to get right into this wild idea of weighted voting?
DAMBISA MOYO: Before I do that, can I just mention another proposal for voters, which is mandatory voting. I alluded to it earlier.
There are 27 countries that have mandatory voting, including Australia, Belgium, Greece, and many countries in South America. This is the idea that if you don't vote, you essentially end up facing some kind of a fine, or you can be blocked from working in government.
DEVIN STEWART: What about the accusation that that favors the rich, that they are basically allowed to pass, to just buy themselves out of voting?
DAMBISA MOYO: You're not allowed to do that. These programs are quite virulent. You have to show up with identification. You can't just send somebody in there to go and vote for you. The ones that I have read about—
DEVIN STEWART: Oh, no. What I mean is if you're wealthy, you can just refuse to vote and just pay the fine. You could afford it.
DAMBISA MOYO: The penalties can be quite harsh.
DEVIN STEWART: Like how high?
DAMBISA MOYO: I've seen in one country, I think it was in South America, where you wouldn't have access to anything that relates to government. You might not even be allowed to drive on the roads because obviously governments in many countries actually underwrite government infrastructure.
DEVIN STEWART: They'll take rights away from you.
DAMBISA MOYO: Yes. Which people would have a problem with. You may not be able to fly your plane, and since, Devin, I know you have your own private plane you might not be allowed to take off kind of thing.
DEVIN STEWART: Cessna? Yes. Okay.
DAMBISA MOYO: So the penalties can be high. I don't know if that specific one exists, but I'm just saying that it's not just about a small fine of like 80 bucks, I'm not going to show up. I think there's an element that you could—
DEVIN STEWART: That restricts your activities.
DAMBISA MOYO: Exactly.
DEVIN STEWART: That seems like it could be seen as authoritarian perhaps.
DAMBISA MOYO: This is an example of an area where I think on the surface it looks quite appealing because you do want to have many people vote, but I can see how this is completely antithetical to America's First Amendment where people are going to defend to the death their right to choose. The reason I put it down as a proposal for us to discuss and debate is that I think when you have a situation where the participation rates are so low as we talked about earlier for a whole host of reasons, this should be one of the things we should consider about trying to remedy that weakness.
In the Netherlands they used to have mandatory voting. They got rid of it, and what they found was that the percentage of young people who voted plummeted and became very low. So it does have a real impact in terms of voter participation.
DEVIN STEWART: Are they going to bring it back?
DAMBISA MOYO: They're talking about it.
DEVIN STEWART: Okay. So weighted voting.
DAMBISA MOYO: Coming to weighted voting. This is a more virulent form of this idea that you want people to participate. Unfortunately, in a lot of the reviews that I've received for my book people have talked about it as being a way to basically allocate or ascribe additional voting to people who are educated; some people have said rich or white or landowners. This is not about that. This is not about those adjectives. In fact, I've been so strident and clear to say that we do not want a situation where people are given certain favors to vote because of their economic background or their race.
DEVIN STEWART: You can use this time to defend yourself against some of those critics, which would be great.
DAMBISA MOYO: Oh, thank you.
DEVIN STEWART: But before we do that, maybe some of the listeners who have never met you before would be curious about your background and your origins and so forth. That might be important to this.
DAMBISA MOYO: Sure, yes. I happen to be black. I am a woman. I am from Africa. I'm an immigrant, so I have almost a full hand. The point just being that I'd like to believe that if not for my own self-interest but just for logic, we don't want to be in a situation where people are voting based on race or gender or any of this stuff.
Nevertheless, there are real arguments I would argue for us to consider this proposal on weighted voting. What I define weighted voting as is ascribing or allocating a higher vote for people who participate more in the political process, remembering that our ultimate goal is to have as many as people as possible voting and at the same time as knowledgeable as possible, and by knowledge I don't mean IQ or education. I'm talking about people who are participating and engaged in the political process.
Just to give you a very flippant example: During the Brexit vote there was a discussion about whether or not age should be one of the factors that we should weight votes on, the idea being that younger people were going to face the consequences of Brexit for a longer period of time, so their vote should count more than older people, who would not be around necessarily to see the consequences of that. The flip side of the argument was that actually older people have more understanding of how the economy works and how politics and economics interrelate, and so maybe their vote should count for higher. But it was a debate nevertheless.
I think the salient point is that as an immigrant coming to this country I have to face a test. It doesn't matter my race, my background, my economic status. Every immigrant coming to this country who wants to become an American citizen must take a test. In that respect, I think this idea of a civic responsibility to encourage engagement, encourage participation by the citizenry, I think this is one of the potential ways that we could do that.
The extreme version that people are talking about is this idea that I do talk about in the book, which is that you ascribe weights to people based on their knowledge of a particular sector. Again, this is not about education in the traditional sense. You don't have to have gone to Harvard and gotten a Master's, it's about whether or not people can show some knowledge of the question on the ballot. I say "the question on the ballot" because the reason I think this weighted voting question is interesting in this respect is that you can see in places where there are referenda that maybe it could work.
A classic example of this is if you're in California, where they have a lot of referendums, and they have a question around obesity or let's say the sugar tax, which they have had. There is an argument that you could say: "Well, the people who really know where the best use of that marginal dollar are the people who work in health care. Should we spend that money on x-rays or medicine or beds?" Frankly, I don't know. I don't work in the health care sector. But maybe people who not only work in that sector but who have taken the time to show that they understand what the salient issues are should get a higher vote.
I pick on Brexit one more time just to make this one quick point, which is that there was a report that came out the day after the Brexit vote that the most Googled term in Britain the day after the vote was, "What is the EU?" It is that kind of a situation that we don't want to see replicated, where we have voters essentially determining very critical votes, determining the outcome and the fate of a country but actually based on a lack of information or a lack of understanding.
My very last point—because I know you wanted to tell me something—is that already we have weighted voting in this country: In the Democratic Party, superdelegates get a higher vote than regular delegates. And of course, if you are incarcerated or even if you have been charged and released, you do not have a vote at all.
DEVIN STEWART: Sure. This country also has a very fraught history of disenfranchising certain groups. I'm sure it might be controversial to some people.
DAMBISA MOYO: It sure does.
DEVIN STEWART: I'm sure it might be controversial to some people.
DAMBISA MOYO: But this country also has a history of innovation and improvement. That's what we sometimes fail to celebrate.
A hundred years ago somebody had the crazy idea that women should vote. Just think for a moment. At that time it would have exactly been a crazy idea, or that blacks should vote. But somebody said that, and it was probably in a group of people who were probably very much of the political class—white, wealthy, etc.—but guess what? We're here today. Women are voting. The civil rights movement has happened, and so I'm pretty optimistic that we may not get there tomorrow, but I feel like we need to have these types of discussions to improve the democratic process.
DEVIN STEWART: I want to just make sure we're clear on you addressing your critics about this point. You said, for example, the Brexit case as an example. People didn't even know what the European Union was the day after they made the referendum. You're saying that this is an example of a case that could be improved if they read your book and thought about your proposals. So far so good, right?
DAMBISA MOYO: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you explain how that would work? Do you fill out a questionnaire before you go in to vote? How does that work?
DAMBISA MOYO: There is a whole section in my book about implementation issues. These are just ideas that I've thrown out. For sure these proposals if we were to implement them would be fraught with issues. Even something as seemingly innocuous as mandatory voting I can imagine would go to the Supreme Court as flying in the face of the First Amendment.
I think it's not of good use for me to say that I think it would be specifically a question that people would have to go and vote. All I'm suggesting is that there are already systems in place where people are tested before they are allowed to vote. Immigrants even in Britain—because I had to take that test—are required to take a test. So it's not so antithetical to our hopes and dreams as active citizens to see some kind of an improvement.
What the exact question would be or how it would be administered or could it be verbal, would it be in different languages, those are all implementation challenges that we have to address. But I think nevertheless the idea of ensuring that we have engaged citizens who actually understand what they're talking about or what they are going to vote for I think is a salient point.
DEVIN STEWART: Were these critics being disingenuous, do you think?
DAMBISA MOYO: I think they were being far too simplistic. I think it's far too tempting to say: "Oh my god. Look, there's a black woman from Africa, an immigrant, who has benefited from all these changes in the political process, and now she's basically claiming that not everybody should vote." That's completely wrong.
DEVIN STEWART: That's kind of what they're saying.
DAMBISA MOYO: First of all, it's completely wrong. I can tell you right now, thank god I'm alive and able to defend myself, but it's completely wrong, and that shows a lack of understanding of what it is I'm proposing and what it is I think is the utopia of this sort of heart surgery for the democratic process, because ultimately we want as many people to vote, but we want those people to be knowledgeable. I think having people vote because of somebody's pantsuit is not the democracy we should aspire to.
DEVIN STEWART: It was so good to have you here, Dambisa, to explain your proposals and also to defend yourself against some critiques.
Before we go, you talked about there are two forks that are possible for a failed democracy. What's at stake here is my question. If we don't get it right with democracy, are we in danger of being in a sort of post-democracy world?
DAMBISA MOYO: The answer is absolutely yes. I think if you look around—as I said, you don't have to look to extreme authoritarianism; you can just look at the way democracies are functioning in Europe.
You have Orbán in Hungary, who is an elected official, who is standing up and saying: "You know what? I don't think liberal democracy works today. I think what we want is some kind of an illiberal democratic state which actually mirrors authoritarian states."
The Freedom House data is showing that even though we have many countries that are now democratic—I think over a hundred countries are democratic—70 percent of those democracies are illiberal democracies. I don't think that's the world we want to live in either, and by illiberal democracy, I mean indistinguishable from authoritarian states.
We can do better. My view is we can put a man on the moon, why can't we fix the democratic process so that actual politicians are more responsive to the broader political base, but also they are very focused on long-term issues and not seduced by short-termism?
DEVIN STEWART: A little dose of optimism from Dambisa Moyo, who is author of the new book, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth—and How to Fix It. Dambisa, great to see you again.
DAMBISA MOYO: Thank you. Delighted to be here.