The Democracy Solution

A few years ago, I played golf with a fellow who ran a home for troubled young men in Baltimore. His story inspired me, and I told him that if there is such a thing as “God’s work,” then he was doing it. When I asked him what he was doing to get these kids into college, he looked at me like I was from Mars. “I’m just trying to keep these kids alive,” he replied, and he wasn’t kidding.

I think about this story every time a new solution is proposed on how to fix the social ills of Baltimore—everything from more cops and more security cameras to more money for higher education and public works projects. While every little bit helps, there isn’t a serious person alive who believes that these are any more than short-term Band-Aids that do nothing to solve the underlying social problems.

While the manifestations of these social issues are well-publicized, the underlying reasons for them are not. From my perspective, they all spring from a lack of hope, economic opportunity and a meaningful stake in the future. To truly solve these problems, we need to think outside the box and enact institutional improvements that will put the people on the right path. Democracy may be one of those solutions.

I came to this idea after reading Jonathan Ober’s new book Demopolis, in which he argues that more democracy rather than less may be part of the solution to our social ills. Ober’s basic premise is that a good democracy serves three collective purposes: security, prosperity (as in the ample opportunity to pursue) and “non-tyranny” (having a stake in the game by having the ability to vote). In short, those who are intentionally disenfranchised see the system from which they are excluded as tyranny, which entrenches many of the problems we are trying to root out. “Every time a civic majority disenfranchises citizens, it becomes, in that moment, a collective tyrant,” Ober writes.

So here is my solution: Let the people vote. People need to have a stake in the future and democracy provides it. Here are my “radical” ideas in this regard:

  1. Lower the voting age to 16. Scotland lowered its voting age to 16 a few years ago in the runup to its referendum on secession from the U.K. The Scottish government wanted young people to tangibly know that they had a stake in the country’s future. Give as many people as possible a stake in the game to let them know their voices matter.
  2. Remove all restrictions on convicted felons to vote, except for those currently incarcerated. Crime isn’t a moral issue; it is a social one that disproportionately impacts the poor and minorities. If you do your time, you should be welcomed back as a fully enfranchised member of our society.
  3. Open primaries for all voters, regardless of political affiliation. Preventing Independents or members of an opposing political party from voting in primary elections is a ploy to perpetuate the power of the parties, not the people.
  4. Stop gerrymandering. Redrawing voting districts to favor one political party over another is the surest way to disenfranchise voters.
  5. Schedule elections on Saturdays. Having an election on a weekday limits voter turnout, particularly by hourly workers and workers with young children.
  6. Make voting mandatory and fine those who don’t vote. This is the law in Australia and forces people to get involved. If you don’t like any of the candidates and want to protest by not voting, you can write in Mickey Mouse on your election ballot.

Will we need more Civics education in our schools if we make these changes?  Probably, and that’s a good thing. Is there risk in these proposals? You bet, but it is a risk I believe is worth taking. Believe me, while more police, security cameras, federal and state money aren’t going to hurt, they are not solutions. They are Band-Aids. Baltimore needs vision and guts and collective purpose. Our goal can’t simply be to keep Baltimore alive; our goal must be to have Baltimore thrive. Democracy can help lead us there.

As this is my last blog post for 2017, I want to thank my loyal readers. I am very fortunate to have you, and I hope all of you have a Happy, Healthy New Year.

By Spencer Levy, Americas Head of @CBREResearch | Senior Economic Advisor