Boaty McBoatface

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Boaty McBoatface. Really?

I guess this is the democracy that the Internet was designed to bring us. An on-line poll to name a new arctic research vessel has proposed the above name. It is leading the polls, well ahead of a bunch of other stupid names. I guess it has the advantage in that it saves people the effort of googling who Shackleton was.

I like democracy as well as the next person but it does have its limits. That it can be railroaded by idiots is only a minor criticism. After all, the people who own the boat (a branch of the British government) have the final say as to what the boat is actually called. I expect a committee of toffs is sitting around right now, snorting over their tea, and saying: That’s why we went to Oxford and they didn’t.

So, having a bit of fun is alright when nothing much is at stake. It’s like when the people of the Northwest Territories were asked to come up with a new name for the territory after Nunavut split off. In a similar on-line poll  “Bob” was the second favorite choice. Now that might seem like innocent fun except it was a campaign designed specifically to reject the preferences of indigenous people for a name that reflected their heritage.

And, sadly, that is what populist and plebiscitary democracy often gets you. Illogical or contradictory policies (like when California required smaller class sizes in schools but no increase in school budgets) or an opportunity for the worst among us to hijack the process for their own narrow and often repulsive objectives. It might work okay if voting were compulsory but even then I have my doubts. When voting on these types of measures only draw ten or twenty percent of the electorate – special interest groups will always win. And by that I don’t mean what most people mean when they say ‘special interest group.’ I mean people with money. No one has more special interests than rich people.

As they say, it’s all about the Benjamins.

I’ve seen lots of arguments that say money doesn’t affect politics. Usually, the argument points to the fact that this politician who spent $25M failed to defeat that one who only spent $12M. See – money has no impact. Except, of course, the both spent bucket loads of money and, in order to get it, they both had to moderate their policies to please their funders – whoever their funders might be. And some of the funders are progressives – up to a point. Even the most liberal billionaire has an agenda, generally directly connected to how they got their billions.

And the real measure of whether money counts is not taken by comparing the well-funded campaigns of career politicians (and these days, everyone seems to either be one or be on their way to becoming one) but in the results of plebiscites (in those places that have them) where money clearly makes a difference. And the exceptions you might point out are exactly that.

And while it may not matter when you are giving a joke name to a boat – it has massive effects when you are shaping public policy.

And that’s ten minutes.

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