Democracy and Rules are Like Peas in a Pod

Check out the Breakthrough Journal, an exciting new venue for progressive politics. In the first issue, Dalton Conley has an essay that argues progressive social policy should focus more on the relative, rather than the absolute, dimensions of poverty.

He points out that economic segregation in several domains – including where we live and pay taxes – has created a deep political problem, where it becomes increasingly difficult to rally support for investments in economic security of low- and middle-income individuals. His unusual suggestion for how to address this problem is to create “pods.”

Here’s how Conley describes a pod:

“Randomly assign every child to a pool of 10,000 people across the United States at birth that she would stay in until her death. Each “pod” of 10,000 people would levy taxes to be distributed among the members to cover things that welfare and education policies typically cover (e.g., K-12 schooling, health care, disability payments, food stamps). Because the pods are relatively small in number, members could direct spending to try to maximize benefit through online budget negotiations and voting.”

In his words, the pod “could re-create the social fabric of the 18th century small town in 21st century cyber-network fashion, thereby reducing segregation and halting widespread withdrawal from the public sphere.” Like the small town of yester-year, the pod gives people an incentive to invest in the wellbeing of others, because the costs and benefits of those investments will be experienced by everyone. People living in a pod might reasonably conclude that it would be more cost-effective to invest in better preventative medicine in order to avert large medical costs in the future. Unlike the small town, a pod would be much more socioeconomically and racially diverse meaning that an upper income white person from Newton, Massachusetts would need to look beyond the needs of other affluent Newtonians to consider the needs of a single mother from New Orleans. The option of flight would be absent from the pod scheme.

One assumes that Conley picked the number 10,000 because it’s large enough to be representative of the general population and to diversify the risks that any given individuals might encounter, but small enough that the opinions and actions of individuals would have an impact. But there’s the rub. One question I have about pods (granting their political feasibility), is whether they would be democratic in any recognizable sense. To make a pod governable, some constitution must be established, but even establishing a constitutional framework is likely to be difficult – especially when the members of the pod enter with different levels of expertise and natural endowments. It is entirely possible that elites will develop within pods undercutting the broad, representative character of pods.

Even more worrisome, is the problem of future generations. Because individuals of society would enter pods at different points, some individuals in Generation One may opt to borrow heavily to subsidize their greater consumption, creating greater burdens for Generation Two, Three, and Four. Therefore some thought has to be given to the regulation of pods – on the one hand, one would want to insure pods against the misfortunes of living through a difficult era (such as the 1930s or 2010s), but on the other hand, some device has to be put into place to prevent the abuse of collective resources or the underinvestment in the education and health of future generations.

In addition to having a reasonable concern for future generations, the individuals governing pods must be rational in their decision-making. We know from the behavioral economics literature that individuals systematically and predictably make decisions that run counter to their own expressed desires and preferences. For example, individuals are myopic about the costs and benefits of present behavior on future wellbeing (smoking and eating poor diets). For Conley’s scheme to work some feature of the design of the pods, or the government of the pods, must be able to overcome this myopia. Perhaps because members of a pod are required to think about their interests, plus the interests of 9,999 other people, in a fairly public and deliberate fashion they may be moved to more carefully weigh the consequences, but just as worrying is the possibility that some version of group-think will set in, making members of pods all converge on the same flawed decisions based on the same poor reasoning.

In sum, I like the idea of pods, but I think the rules of pods have to be fairly well-established in advance of the scheme, a suggestion that admittedly takes us a bit farther from the democratic ideal where members of a pod could vote about rules for investing, procedures for governing, and constraints on present behavior.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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