A conflict of generations in Frankfurt, Germany on Sept. 20th

How “life tables” could bring more fairness and equality to democracy

pascal.brokmeier
Oct 6 · 7 min read

Democracy is failing us. Nothing makes this more obvious than the speed at which China is racing past the west. An interview with a former BMW manager really resonated with me. He made the following statement:

In the European democratic structures, we discuss ideas for 10 years and at the end, all that is left is 10% of the original idea

Don’t get me wrong! Democracy is a heavenly societal agreement that gave us some of the most peaceful decades in history. I cherish that we have it. But over the last few centuries, the world has changed dramatically, yet the concept has largely stayed the same. There were not many decisions that had to be made in the 19th century that impacted the next 10 or even 100 generations. Well, not completely true. The decisions existed, yet they were rarely considered to have such long-lasting impact. Fast-forward to today and we are facing a global change of our environment that impacts every single individual from today and many generations forward. My choice to drive or not drive an SUV doesn’t only impact me or the people that I piss off with it, it also impacts everybody else. Not noticeably but measurably. Following comes my core criticism and how I think we should change our way to look at democracy to improve our collective decision making.

The skin in the game hypothesis

To have “skin in the game” is a common expression which is popular with risk takers such as poker players or investment bankers. Annie Duke, a former professional poker player has nicely described this as a core component of how people make decisions in a recent interview. The gist of it: People make more aligned decisions if they have skin in the game. A person making a decision will decide also strongly to benefit him or herself. If the result of a decision has no impact on a person, that decision will be less rational. How does this translate to democracy though? Simple! A 70 year old white male will, even with the best of intentions, be far less likely to make a rational decision that only impacts young African immigrants. He has no skin in the game, it will not impact him. Similarly, a retired former manager will choose the gas-gobbling SUV over an environmentally friendly vehicle. Of course this is not an absolute rule. In social sciences, everything is stochastic, everything is a probability.

This means that on average, old people are not deciding what is best for humanity as a whole! They simply have no skin in the game. This is a very direct and often socially frowned upon way to put it but it’s also a fact. Old people have less to worry about the future because they will not be part of it. Yet they have a disproportionally larger right to vote about it. In most countries, people below the age of 18 are not allowed to vote on topics that will impact them more than anyone else in the world. This is a huge part of society which is excluded from casting their vote. Of course, everybody understands the argument that young children and toddlers cannot vote and young minds need a certain level of maturity to understand the complexity of the choice they are making. I won’t get into a discussion of how 12 year olds often explain their grandparents how technology works or how 14 year olds are sometimes more resilient to social manipulation than “mature adults”. Let’s just assume we keep the 18 year cut-off. We should still let those who are more impacted by a decision than others have more say in the actions we take. This translates directly into a weighted democratic system

The life table weighted democratic system proposal

If only there was a way to fairly distribute votes among people! Well, here is one proposal: Each individual gets a vote weighted by their expected remaining time remaining alife among all of us. Life tables are a tool used by insurances around the world to evaluate the expected remaining lifetime of an individual, not based on the individual lifestyle but purely on a societal average. This means that every individual is treated equal based solely on 2 (or 3) factors:

  1. the individuals current age
  2. the current year
  3. (the individuals gender)
US population life table 2003, age range 0–17

When making decisions that will have an impact on the entirety of our foreseeable future we should therefore let those that will have to suffer or enjoy the consequences of the decision have a bigger say in it than those that are not affected by the decision.

… and age range 41–67

These tables also exist in a genderized form. While I don’t want to discuss if this is fair or not, it would be an interesting way of giving women a more weighted vote, arguably an acceptable inequality to compensate for millennia of discrimination. Women live longer then men, hence they have “skin in the game for longer”.

German life table, distinguishing between genders

Impact on voting outcomes

Lets look at a simple example: Brexit. Based on a small experiment I ran, Brexit would have looked quite different.

Relative impact on vote based on age accordig to YouGov data and UK population age statistics

In the two graphs above, the left shows the stay/leave voters broken up by age group if everyone gets a single vote, i.e. along the lines of the actual referendum. The right plot on the other hand shows a distribution if each person is given a weight on their vote, based on the number of remaining years they are expected to stay alive. I have to note that this experiment has a number of shortcomings: It is based on poll data, meaning the exact numbers aren’t equal to those of the actual referendum. It also assumes everyone has a life expectancy of 100 years which is a strong overestimation (and therefore benefiting the old in that they are weighted stronger than they should). Finally, the simulation only let those above 20 yrs of age vote (as the age statistics data had a cutoff at 15–19 and 20–24, hence I dismissed the 15–19 group).

Despite all of the shortcuts I took in the simulation, the weight changes still shifted the results by 4.4% in each direction, therefore turning a close to 50:50 split to a 8.8% gap.

Conclusion

The proposed solution doesn’t change the fact that democratic decisions are slow and tedious processes. It is however peculiar that the oldest members of our society are voted as decision makers to make decisions about topics that more often than not don’t impact them. Politicians of today make choices about topics such as climate change and nuclear / fusion energy research that will never impact them.

I believe it is time that we redesign many of our democratic systems in a way that ensures that those that makes decisions are also those that are impacted by those decisions. The model above is only one of many conclusions from this attitude. It could also mean that non-homosexuals don’t decide how homosexual people should live their life's or that men don’t decide about what women may or may not do with their bodies. First and foremost however, it means that white haired, old men don’t make choices about policies in 2030 and beyond when we will most likely say goodbye to them way before then. Young people took to the streets by the tens of millions last month. The fact that in Germany alone, over 1.4 Million people took to the streets to voice their concerns about climate change in a single day is massive. The fact that this is a number almost three times as large as the demonstrations that led to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 is even more impressive. But what is most astonishing is that 1.7% of the entire population went to the streets and therefore spent an entire day away from work/school/family and politicians do … nothing.

Hamburg on Sep. 20th 2019
pascal.brokmeier

Written by

Software Developer, Tech enthusiast, student, board sports and food lover

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade