Virtual conference tackles global issues from COVID-19 to the backsliding of democracy – The Times of Israel
An online workshop co-hosted by the Tel Aviv University’s Boris Mints Institute and the University of Vienna took on a range of global challenges, just as the COP26 climate talks wrapped up in Scotland and European democracies from Austria to Britain reel from political scandals.
The Nov. 9-10 webinar, titled “The Future of Democratic, Economic and Political Institutions,” featured appearances by 20 economists, bank officials, political scientists and former heads of state, including Prof. Armen Darbinian of Armenia and Dr, Igor Lukšić of Montenegro.
Dr. Boris Mints, founder and president of the institute that bears his name, called the conference “a first step at addressing challenges that pose a substantial threat to global stability.” He hopes to follow it up with an in-person conference, most likely in Vienna, to take place in the second half of 2022.
“As a result of the events of the past two years—the COVID-19 pandemic, populism and polarization among them—we can see that human rights are being eroded in all countries, even those where until recently there had been strong hopes for democracy,” said Mints, drawing a direct parallel to the crimes of Nazi Germany. “We have forgotten very quickly the fundamental conclusion of the Nuremberg trials in October 1946, which is that the vital interests of the individual are above the interests of the state.”
He added: “Populism is always accompanied by a sharp decline in the level of professionalism in politics. Populists are consumed with one thing only: winning the next election.”
University of Vienna government professor Wolfgang C. Müller said liberal democracy means ruling under constraints, while illiberal democracies—such as the kind practiced by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—rely on “persuasion through leadership, distraction, redefining the problem, scapegoating and building sweetheart media relationship.
“The old form of governing in coalitions were built on tangential preferences, meaning the teaming up of political parties which have different priorities and which agree that they can get something out of a deal,” he said. “But this old formula has kind of exhausted itself,” he said, noting “widespread discomfort with ‘politics as we know it’—even in rich democracies.
Meanwhile, Sylvia Kritzinger, a professor with the University of Vienna’s department of government, said that beginning in March 2020—with lockdowns in the wake of the first wave of COVID—“dissatisfaction with democracy began increasing substantially.” In fact, except for the health system and the police, “trust in political institutions and the media has decreased quickly over the last 18 months.”
Those concerns are certainly not limited to Europe.
John Carey, a professor of government at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, argued that “the critical issue in American politics is that partisanship divides us more deeply than policy preferences. We tend to believe the worst of the opposing party, and often act accordingly.”
This past February and then again in June, Carey and his research team conducted an online experiment analogous to a Republican primary, based on the premise that for American voters—regardless of their party affiliation—the race, ethnicity or gender of a particular candidate has almost no impact on whether they choose that candidate.
Rather, the deciding factor seems to be what position that candidate takes on specific issues.
“Earlier this year, the critical policies were whether or not candidates supported COVID relief and the big spending bill on new infrastructure projects. But they polarize sharply on affirmation of the 2020 election, and on Trump’s role in the January 6 riots at the Capitol. This is by far the biggest factor,” Carey said. “There was almost no movement on these issues between February and June. It is rock solid and not really changing much.”
One small bright spot, said Carey, was an experiment his team conducted in Maricopa County, Arizona, following the 2020 presidential election. Participants were told about the official audits certifying Joe Biden as the winner of that election, and then asked about their confidence in the vote count.
“Among Democrats and independents, learning about these audits had almost no effect. But among Republicans, who had only a 20% rate of confidence, those who received official information more than doubled their confidence to over 50%,” he explained. “Our conclusion is that when people are presented with basic factual information about the democratic process, their mutual confidence in democracy increases.”
Even so, efforts by Republicans in Georgia, Texas and other states have made it more difficult to vote in general than in the past.
“The groups most affected by these restrictions tend to lean Democratic. And on the Democratic side, a number of electoral reforms are being proposed, but the likelihood of electoral reform at the national level is pretty small,” Carey said. “It doesn’t look very good for the Democrats. I’d bet on a Republican majority in Congress after 2022.”
Turning to economics on Day 2 of the conference, Nobel Prize laureate Paul Romer—an economics professor at New York University—warned that the signs of deterioration of global financial systems are clear.
“They go back at least 30 years, probably 50 years, but it’s hard to know what’s driving this,” he said. “The end of the Cold War has removed the external threat, which acted to keep us more unified as a nation and make policy decisions. But Israel still perceives an important threat, and yet, some of the signs we see are present in both countries.”
Some experts put the blame on the rise to prominence of economics itself, said Romer, who called it a “shocking assertion” that nevertheless cannot easily be dismissed. And finally, he said, “technology in the background is making changes, and it may be that our systems still respond, but respond slowly. Changes are coming more quickly now, and we’re not keeping up.”
Listeners also heard from Boris Mints Prize Laureate and Nobel Prize laureate Michael Kremer, director of the Development Innovation Lab at the University of Chicago’s Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics.
“Innovation just doesn’t mean new gadgets, but also new ideas and practices that allow us to do more with the resources we have,” he said. “Our current system creates strong incentives for the private sector to invest in certain types of innovations, but not in other areas where social needs are huge, but the commercial incentives are much weaker.”
For example, said Kremer, “on one hand, we’ve developed COVID vaccines and delivered them to high-income countries very quickly. On the other hand, less than half the world’s population, and only 8% of Africans, have received a COVID vaccine. Arguably, companies didn’t have strong enough incentives to find ways to deliver vaccines faster to lower-income countries.”
Even worse, research suggesting that half-doses or even quarter-doses of existing vaccines was “horribly neglected,” said Kremer.
“If we had used quarter-doses, we could have had 1.5 billion extra doses per month, and possibly reduced side effects,” he said. “But the incentive systems we had set up didn’t encourage that work, and in fact actively discouraged it.”
Anat Admati, a professor at California’s Stanford Graduate School of Business, focused on the idea that democracies have given corporations way too much freedom.
“They are very influential in society, yet they lack accountability and have undermined democracies,” she complained, using Facebook as the ultimate example of what happens when governments let large multinationals decide what’s best for society.
“In the US, we depend on Mark Zuckerberg alone to decide what speech is allowed or not, or who can post stuff on Facebook, because the truth has become a luxury,” Admanti said. “In some other countries, Facebook barges in, gives everybody a phone with only Facebook on it, and starts enabling weaponized speech that has led to many deaths. The potential harm is enormous, and yet the legal system doesn’t know how to handle this.”
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