Platters

A few days ago I wrote an interpretation of a notion using an analogy to juggling plates. On the cover of Raghuran Rajan’s book, The Third Pillar, a disc is supported by three pillars. Think of these platters as holding political/economic ecosystems. The people on the plates are there voluntarily. But the more layers of plates, the easier it is to jump between them. If there is one plate up in the clouds and a bunch of plates jiggling away down by the parkay flooring, then people can only jump sideways, not upward.

On the cover of Raghuran Rajan’s book, The Third Pillar, a disc is supported by three pillars. Think of these platters as holding a political/economic ecosystem. The people on the plates are there voluntarily. But the more layers of plates, the easier it is to jump between them.

With this structure in mind, it is easier to see how societal systems require competent political figures at all levels, in turn providing greater freedom of movement between the platters. (And if you should imply from this mental drawing that those closer to the ground are somehow simpletons, you are not in my portrait, yet. Many people choose a simple rural life, for instance, regardless of their intellectual makeup)

There is, however, a natural nesting of authority, as all the plates are spinning in the same environment. So when decisions are made of an overarching nature, they come from the upper platters. A neighborhood does fine sorting out it’s dog park and garbage collection, but needs a city to set up sewers and water service. Then the county takes over with the county roads and the state with the freeways. What if there were no levels of government between caring for your own driveway and the interstate?

Here’s an example given by Raghuram Rajan in The Third Pillar.

Therefore, for example, they want him to procure a birth certificate for their child, who was delivered in their shack in a village far away from any medical clinic. The birth certificate is essential for the child to be admitted to the free government school, and no government officer will provide it with out suitable gratification, because he has no official document to rely on. The poor do not have the money to bribe so they plead for a call from the MP’s office, which will set the wheels of bureaucracy rolling. Once the child is in the local school, the child becomes the MP’s responsibility. When she gradu ates from high school, the MP has to find a college that will admit the student if her grades are modest, and when she gets a degree, he has to persuade some government office to give her a respectable secure job. And when she gets married, he will be invited to the wedding and be expected to give a suit able gift.

In a society where the typical government civil servant is neither civil nor a servant to the poor, the MP is the intermediary who will help the poor navigate the treacherous world. While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does what he can to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents-a land right enforced here, subsidized medical services honored there. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote. Tied to their MP via patronage, they do not really care about how the MP will vote on the bigger issues of the day, whether he supports tax-evading liquor barons, illegal miners, or industrial polluters, so long as these do not intrude directly in their already-hard lives.

The missing plates between the poor in this story and the MP causes a couple of errors in the system. Those who should be receiving support through a combination of reciprocal work and engagement have nothing to offer the person in authority but an unconditional vote. The vote contains no value in evaluating the higher level issues which do not effect their lives.

If the vote was going to an intermediary plate authority, one who could actually trade in meaningful services for the poor, social exchanges would be tested and evaluated and remediated through the system. A successful local politician, say at the city council level could become a candidate for state or county level responsibility. The omission of mid-tier ecosystems eliminates that possibility, allowing for private actors to step in and capture the needs at those levels, in fraudulent manners.

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