Twofish's Blog

February 1, 2008

So what is this democracy thing anyway….

Filed under: china, iraq, politics — twofish @ 12:47 pm

I dislike using the word “democracy” in arguments because it’s an emotional term that people have different definitions about, and those rarely are useful in discussions.  One thing that is clear is that my definition of what a “good democracy” is is quite different from an lot of other people’s.

My definition of a democracy is a constitutional system in which people in a political community manage to resolve differences in opinion in a way that no one ends up dead or in jail,  The United States is much closer to that ideal than China is, and a lot of what I try to do is to promote institutional building in China so that you can incorporate some of the good aspects of the American system.

One important thing about China is that it really doesn’t have a “model”.  The economic and political systems in China have been put together by trial and error, and Chinese officials really understand the difficulties in translating one system from one area to another.

One major problem is that the political system in the United States works so well, that Americans don’t realize how difficult it is to implement it.  It took the United States two hundred years and a Revolution and a Civil War to get to where it is.  It’s unfortunate that most Americans don’t have a good grasp of their own history, because reading the writing of the American historical figures, one is struck by how difficult it was to get things working as well as the do now.

The thing that I find encouraging about Chinese officials is that there is really not that much resistance to adopting parts of the “American system.”  There’s far less resistance for Chinese to copy something that was invented in the United Statest, than vice-versa.  Chinese banking and securities law is copied wholesale from the United States, and it seems pretty obvious that the China Investment Corporation is a direct copy of Calpers.

What irks people is the tendency of Americans to be moralistic preachers and to be unwilling to listen to other people, and to realize that some parts of the United States simply can’t or shouldn’t be copied in the rest of the world.  The United States has a wonderful judicial and higher education system, but that doesn’t mean that the world should copy the US’s health care system.  One of the few good things about Iraq is that it has taught the United States some humility.

The United States had total control of a nation, had a chance to turn it into a total democratic paradise, and now realizes how hard it is to create a political system in which people can work with each other in a community without anyone ending up in jail or dead.



  1. Joseph,
    I really liked this post. You have a way of writing that is very accessible. Thanks!
    I miss our discussions in my office at Pointserve. Hope all is well with you.

    Comment by Brian — February 5, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  2. A speaker at a conference I recently attended mentioned that the ideas of protecting intellectual property are slowly starting to develop in China. While nascent at best, and quite behind Hong Kong specifically, the demand for attorneys and the development of a judicial system aimed at protecting IP is at the cusp of real materialization. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that China should adopt the US’s system wholesale in this regard, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on what is happening there in terms of protecting IP. Anything you’ve been exposed to?

    While not quite related to democracy, it seems to me that this would provide a way for China to really maintain rapid growth rates longer term. It is often said that technological design and media sectors are where the US still maintains real advantage, even though the labor pool, technology, and possibly capital are all in place for China to stampede into this sector.

    Comment by foquant — February 8, 2008 @ 2:19 am

  3. Doc,

    You hit it dead on. Found your site through a quant discussion board. You really tore that one poster a new one with this response, I laughed out loud as you called him on his bad assumptions:


    Originally posted by: INFIDEL

    Be honest. You don’t care about making a big impact in pure science and leaving a legacy because you’re not good enough.

    I’m good. Better than most of the people in academia that make decisions about what is “good” or not. Most of what happens in most physics departments is just political non-sense, but the serfs are too powerless to challenge the lords on it. I will not be a serf.

    Part of being “good” involves believing in yourself and your own judgment. I am going to end up leaving much more of a legacy doing what I’m doing in finance than slaving away at some academic department for starvation wages.


    There’s a good reason for your not caring about your legacy: you couldn’t even if you tried, so it’s not an option.

    Don’t assume that I have your insecurities. I can be an arrogant SOB when it is useful. The reason I ended up in finance is not because I don’t have ability. It’s because the people in academia who make judgements about ability are idiots. I’m good. Too good for academia. Too good to be a peasant or a slave. I deserve better. Am I arrogant? Sometimes. Egotistical and self-centered? You betcha. That’s what makes me good.


    Like great art, fundamental discoveries open up the landscape of opportunities: they are strategic rather than local.

    Great artists need rich patrons. I’ve found mine.


    But it would open up an entire landscape of opportunities with less worldly rewards: the publicity surrounding success might inspire orphaned kiddies to pay more attention to maths and to dream of a better world.

    The reason I think that most academics are basically idiots is that there is so much talk about making the world a better place, but talk is cheap. What matters is results, and when you have academics build a social system what consistently happens is that these are hellish caste systems consisting of lords and serfs. There is something about the academic mindset that is basically stupid.

    Comment by Art — February 18, 2008 @ 12:47 am

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