the design of democracy (2)
the positive feedback gain

I've written about this before though we were basically dealing more with rate of replacement of the buffer stock (i.e.-getting new blood into the old congress) in that post.

Today, I will deal directly with the positive feedback gain and how it is impossible decouple this from the accumulation of power.

A few guideposts before we proceed.

  1. I use "positive" in a systemic sense, so I use the term in an amoral dimension. The feedback is "positive" only in that it encourages or amplifies the effect. (If were talking about sound then "positive feedback" would mean feedback that intensifies the volume.) I do not mean that imparts positive values.
  2. I will use the term "cost of each vote" (or "cost per unit" of votes) also without judgement. Cost can mean the actual price of buying a vote (corruption) or the cost of acquiring a voter, or the per capita cost of an electoral campaign (legitimate campaign costs) .
  3. Likewise, I use "resources" (which I will interchange with "power") in an amoral sense -it could mean money, or means, or social connections, or political networks or electoral machinery.

On the POSITIVE FEEDBACK GAIN of power and elections.

The feedback gain (which is also a "loop") works this way: getting elected allows a politician to accumulate power and "resources" (and by that I mean either political power, or wealth, or access to or control of actual physical resources, or access to or control of social networks or political organizations). These resources gives him/her or his/her scions a comparative advantage in the next elections.

The feedback is "positive" in that accumulating more resources gives the politician an even stronger comparative advantage. It is also a "loop" because, successive terms also amplify both the resources and the comparative advantage of the politician.

Attempts to decouple

We intrinsically understand that this accumulation of power, this positive feedback gain, is a threat to our democratic ideals. Democracy assumes a level playing field and we'd like to imagine that every candidate should stand for election (or re-election) on the merits of their worth as leaders. They should not gain undue advantage because their current position gave them access to resources and power that they can leverage in the next electoral contest.

(NOTE: I am personally ambivalent about re-electing incumbents. I think good leaders should get re-elected if they are to continue the good programs they have started.)

We have tried to decouple the positive feedback gain from the power of an elected official mostly by regulations or legislation. We have tried:
  • Imposing term limits -because we understand that the longer a politician stays in power, the more resources he accumulates.
  • Monitoring their wealth by requiring the yearly submission of Statements of Assets and Liabilities (SALs) -because it allows us to guard against the suspicious rapid accumulation of wealth. We regard wealth as a placeholder for an elected official's accumulated power.
  • Outlawing nepotism -to prevent incumbents from strengthening their hold on power via close-in connections in key positions. This is our way of trying to severe the inter-generational "loop" portion of the feedback gain. So, too, our next approach which is:
  • Proposing an anti-dynasty bill -to prevent incumbents from extending their hold on power by using their scions as their patsies and by leveraging their existing power to get their patsies elected. (NOTE: I think the congress will never pass this law as it is patently against their own self-interests.)
By and large, these attempts have failed because political power begets power and by default gives the elected official access to government and extra-government resources.

It is almost impossible to draw the line between the exercise of legitimate political power and the destructive leveraging of influence. Being in office alone gives the incumbent an advantage over any pretenders as the office gives the incumbent more visibility. (More visibility = higher name recall. Being elected gives you an advantage because it raises your public profile and makes you more familiar to the voters.)

We also have to admit that the power we bestow on elected officials is inherent in the job. That's why we elect them in the first place, to give them the political power to produce results for the electorate. They need the power to get things done. The last thing we want is an impotent office and yet it is very difficult to draw a strict line (although we have hundreds of lines in our legal books that attempt to do this) between the execution of office and the leveraging resources to get re-elected.
Example: When an incumbent senator visits a province to consult with the citizens in aid of legislation -does this opportunity for glad handing not give him a comparative advantage the next time those citizens come to the ballot?
The best we have come up with is a rule that prevents the use of public resources 90 days before an election. But, like the example above, campaigning to get re-elected can come in many subtle (read: totally legitimate) forms, even before the campaign period actually starts.

(In its most basic form, this is what the pork barrel is all about. The CDF and special insertions in the budget, allow the incumbents to "invest in their brand" and sell themselves to the electorate ahead of the elections. Hence the preponderance of large billboards attributing credit to the proponents of CDF funded projects. --Building political networks are also part of this early investment of resources.)

Clearly, our attempts to legislate a decoupling of the elected office from power as an advantage, have been largely ineffectual. The positive feedback gain is so inherent in the power of an elected office that incumbents are more likely to get re-elected, no matter how terrible their legislative (or executive) record. Their children are also more likely to be elected to their position -or to other political position. (Past electoral counts will bear this out and this is true not only in the Philippines but in almost all representative democracies.)

Apart from giving incumbents an undue advantage, the positive feedback gain has also raised the barriers to entry to elected positions. New entrants to the political game (no matter how able their leadership track record) must either bring in comparative resources vs their opponents or invest ahead in name recall so as to gain a comparable competitive position to the incumbent. (Which is why celebrities are such good fodder for candidates -they come built in with popularity -i.e., they are already a "brand" that the voters recognize and can stand their ground in the battle for name recall.)

We have also tried to regulate away this increasing costly barrier to entry (a side effect of the positive feedback gain) as another attempt to level the political playing field.

NEXT UP: Barriers to Entry

Image credit to ulibrskr's flickr photostream.


Sidney said...


follow link:

Urbano dela Cruz said...


and then there's the predicted bush-clinton-bush-clinton two step in the oval office.

seriously though, even mature democracies like the US struggle with this.

the US does NOT have term limits. its been proposed but never been passed.

and you can trace political power in the federal (and in many state governments) over the years to a few highly connected families.

vic said...

all attempst have failed, why? because the guilty are not punished severe enough, not to do it again or not pinished at all.

on terms limit, we do not have any in Canada, from mayor to members of federal parliament. we, voters limit their terms. take a look at mayor Hazel Mccallion of Mississisauga, Ontario. No worthy opponent for the last 30 plus years but the voters go out every election and vote for her just in case. premier klien of alberta, admitted drunk, but albertans just love him. credit it all to our chief electoral officer jp kingsley, who beleives that voters' education is the best tool of practicing democracy as we envisioned it.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


you point to the enforcement issue, which, I agree, is a factor. but I fear it treats the symptom, not the disease. (it's similar to the question of how much a of crime deterent the death penalty is.)

I agree we should have stronger enforcement -but like the parliament vs. presidential debate, i think it is beside the point.

good design is completely intuitive. it should not rely on external threats as an shaper of behavior.

Re: re-election. It's interesting that you mentioned local officials. It is easier to measure accomplisments at the local level. - It has something to do with scale, but I'll discuss that at a later post.

How do you feel about your MPs?

Canada's also a tough comparison. It's the 9th largest economy, but the 36th in terms of population (32M). The Philippines ranks 50th in the scale of economies but is 12th in population (72M).

You can also look at the ratio of representatives vs. size of the population they represent. -300 some MPs represent 32M. RP= 250 congressmen vs. 72M citizens.

The dynamics (and the driving forces) will scale very differently between the two.

(btw. I hear Harper and the Tories are proposing term limits for the Senate. -I know senators are appointed -but the term limits they are proposing are also meant to reign in power accumulation.)

Sidney said...

Congratulation for your new blog design! Much better than the previous one! Great looking!

Urbano dela Cruz said...

thanks, sidney.
i'm still tweaking it.
I hope the new format is much more readable.

Fred Gohlke said...

Good Evening, Urbano

I genuinely enjoyed your cogent description of the positive feedback loop elected officials enjoy and the reasons attempts to decouple the officials from the benefits must necessarily fail.

I'm curious to know whether you feel the problems you describe are inherent in campaign-based political systems. Obviously, I'll get more insight into your view on this as I read further.


Urbano dela Cruz said...


thanks. it's nice to know that I make sense, sometimes.

i think what I am describing is peculiar to campaign based elections. and specific to candidate vs. party based elections (i.e. -where the voters select the person vs. the party.)

like I told vic, the dynamics do scale differently from country to country -depending on population size and elected vs. electorate ratios.

Fred Gohlke said...

Hi, Urbano

Whoops! I've run into an understanding shortfall:

"i think what I am describing is peculiar to campaign based elections. and specific to candidate vs. party based elections (i.e. -where the voters select the person vs. the party.)"

I'm not sure how a voter selects a person vs. a party. Is it like in Uganda where party affiliation does not appear on the ballot?


Urbano dela Cruz said...


i'm not familiar with Uganda's system.

I was referring to european parliamentary elections -where the general electorate sees, and votes, only for a party. (i.e. -greens vs. christian democrats vs. social democrats vs. liberal democrats vs. socialists, etc.) against the Philippines where the name of the candidate (with party affiliation) appears on the ballot.

this is exacerbated by a weak party system in the Philippines -where would be candidates regularly shift party affiliations.

the european parties run on idealogy+program for government. the philippine candidates run on personality.

Fred Gohlke said...

Hi, Urbano

I didn't know Europeans only voted for a party which goes to show the limits on my knowledge. It's no wonder a Belgian friend and I miscommunicated on the topic of party. Each of us was seeing the matter through our own filter.

I don't know anything about Uganda's system, either. I just happened to read that they do not allow a party affiliation on the ballot. I can't vouch for the validity of the assertion, but I've no reason to doubt it, either.


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