Category Archives: democratic reform overseas

inequality in India and the UK, 1930 and today

(Baton Rouge, LA) In 1930, Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy of India–one of innumerable such letters. His thesis: British rule in India was a “curse.” Among his complaints: the Viceroy was paid five thousand times as much as the average Indian, whereas the British Prime Minister was paid only 90 times as much as the average Briton. Gandhi didn’t quite spell it out, but I think he implied that a government that depends on the consent of the governed will not overpay its leaders, but an empire may.

Today, India has a Prime Minister of its own. His official governmental salary is about US $26,400 per year, which is about 414 times the median income of his countrymen ($616/year).* That ratio is less than a tenth of the ratio in 1930. As Gandhi would have predicted, democratic India pays its leader much less than imperial Britain did, at least in comparison to ordinary incomes.

PM Modi declares assets of about US $350,000, but I have no idea whether such disclosures are credible. Of course, his office comes with many perks–not only the usual ones (official residences, travel, etc.), but also things like free tolls on all national highways.

Gandhi didn’t calculate the ratio between the UK Prime Minister’s salary and the average Indian salary in his time, but based on his numbers, I think it was 640-t0-one. Today, the UK Prime Minister is paid just under US $200,000 per year. That is about five times the mean individual salary in the UK, 100 times the mean income in India, and 7.5 times the salary of his Indian counterpart. The first two ratios represent a considerable improvement in equity compared to 1930. Still, the PM’s salary (by itself) would put him in the top 1% in Britain. Boris Johnson is reported to hold assets of about $2 million. And he has a nice free house in Downing Street.

If someone today were paid 5,000 times as much as a median Indian, as the Viceroy was in 1930, that would translate to about US $3 million in annual income. That would be much higher than any government salary but far lower than the highest salaries in India’s private sector. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar earned US $65 million last year. That is 105,000 times the median income. Mukesh Ambani, who leads Reliance Industries, has an estimated net worth of $58.4 billion.

What do these changes suggest? First, democratic and independent nations do put downward pressure on the salaries of their leaders. In fact, US $200,000 is a modest salary for the leader of the whole British Government, if one compares it to CEOs’ salaries in the private sector. However, democracies still tolerate large gaps between the pay of their political leaders and average people–perhaps wisely, to attract talent to the government. And they offer sometimes surprising perks that are not only valuable in market terms but also symbolically distance leaders from citizens. (Every Indian toll booth announces that the top officers of the national government can drive through for free.)

Meanwhile, independent democratic nations are currently tolerating enormous gaps between the average income and the highest salaries in their private sectors.

*The mean income in India is $2,016. I find that number less meaningful, but Gandhi may have been using the mean in 1930.

See also defining equity and equality; the remarkable persistence of social advantage; why some forms of advantage are more stubborn than others; and notes from India

participatory action research in the City of God

Equipe Construindo Juntos (The Building Together Research Center) is based in Rio de Janeiro’s City of God neighborhood, made world-famous by the 2002 film. One of the key team members is my Tufts colleague Anjuli Fahlberg, a sociologist. She works as a close colleague with Ricardo Fernandes, Mirian Andrade, Jacob Portela, and about 20 Research Assistants, all from the neighborhood.

Among their projects is an elaborate survey of residents from 989 City of God households. Characteristically, the study began with open-ended discussion groups that chose the questions. The data was collected by fifteen trained and paid residents. To summarize the findings for neighbors, the research team produced “3,000 colorful pamphlets,” made presentations at local nonprofits, and earned press coverage in the major Rio newspapers.

This is an exemplary case of Participatory Action Research. Tisch College is proud to support it.

See also Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies; and nonviolent civic work under conditions of extreme violence (also on Anjuli Fahlberg’s research).

reclaiming our kids’ walk to school

(Madrid) In June, I was with an international group, and we were lamenting that no one from any of our respective countries seems very comfortable allowing their children to walk alone to school. We all walked to school when we were kids, even though the crime rate–at least in the US–was much higher then. It seems as if parents raised in the mid-1900s let their late-1900s children walk around dangerous cities, but we are too nervous to let our early-2000s offspring do the same.

Now I am in the very dynamic and impressive MediaLab Prado, a “citizen laboratory that functions as a meeting place for the production of open cultural projects.” And I have just encountered Camino Escola Seguro, A Safe Path to School. In part, it involves knitted safety notices that assure families that local shopkeepers and residents are keeping their eyes on the streets and making them safe for children to walk to school.

I’m not saying this would work everywhere. Maybe it won’t work at all. But I love the spirit of people reclaiming the common resource of a safe walk to school.

what does the European Green surge mean?

The Greens did very well in the EU elections. One interpretation is that a substantial minority of Europeans are now seriously focused on climate issues and voted Green to promote EU-wide climate policies.

But the Greens also stand for pan-Europeanism, multiculturalism, civil liberties, and the rule of law; and they have a specific demographic base. They are challenging or even replacing social democrats as a pillar of the center-left, without expanding the total center-left vote by much (if at all). It is not clear that they have a stronger policy platform on climate issues than the socialist parties in countries like Germany.

Therefore, a different interpretation is plausible. Perhaps the social democrats have fractured along class lines, and the Greens have taken away their college-educated vote, not because of climate but because of a whole basket of issues and values.

To explore that second hypothesis, I’ll focus on Germany–the birthplace of social democracy (in 1875) and the EU’s most important economy. There, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) came in third with less than 16%, surpassed by the Greens at 20.5%.

The SPD was traditionally a coalition of unionized industrial workers plus college-educated employees who were close to the welfare state (teachers, civil servants, and the like). These were the groups that stood to benefit most from an active state, and they were effectively organized in unions, professional associations, and the SDP itself. In other words, they didn’t just have votes but also organizational muscle. They played a major role in building the welfare state.

However, at least some of the party’s white-collar base has migrated to the Greens, who have become less environmentalist and more of a socially-liberal, cosmopolitan, center-left party. And some of the industrial workers have left the SPD for the right. The net result is a weakening of the organized center-left. Yes, the Greens are flourishing, but that is mostly at the expense of the SDP and reflects a fracturing of the social democratic coalition that helped to build the Federal Republic.

An EU election can be misleading if you want to understand the deeper state of a country’s politics. Only about 60% of eligible Germans voted this week, and they presumably focused more than usual on European issues. They certainly opted more than usual for small parties. Therefore, as second graph, I show how the whole German adult population responded when asked which party they felt closest to in 2016:

These data are now two years out of date but probably reflect the underlying conditions. The order is still the familiar one–Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Greens, and then others–but the once-mighty SDP is already down to 26.2% in this survey. Left parties claim 58.7% of the total electorate but stand very far apart on issues. The traditional establishment parties (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Liberal Democrats or FDP) claim just 64.2% of the vote in total. Both the left and the center are larger than the right, but the center-left is far from dominant.

This third graph shows how this pattern had evolved since 2002:

The change in the position of the Christian Democrats has not actually been huge. They have certainly seen some erosion since the immigration crisis, but they are only six points less popular than they were in 2002. The Greens stand not far from where they were in 2002, but they temporarily improved their position while the Social Democrats were sustaining their largest decline (2006-10). The right also rose, but mostly after the SDP had seen its major losses (2012-16).

That graph is consistent with the theory of a fragmenting SDP. However, trends in party support do not tell you how individuals shifted. Maybe the Greens grew by attracting former SDP members, but maybe those two lines converged for other reasons. The Greens declined and the right-wing grew after 2010, but we don’t assume that Green Party members defected all the way to the right.

As an imperfect test of the thesis that the SDP has indeed lost members to the Greens and the right, I graphed party support by income band for three selected years. I am assuming that if the SDP falls and the Greens or the right-wing rises within a specific income stratum, then people are actually changing their party affiliations in that way.

In 2002, the SDP performed best at three levels: the poor (who might benefit most from welfare), the fourth and fifth deciles (which may reflect unionized industrial workers), and the 8th and 9th deciles (where people with a lot of education may land). The Christian Democrats dominated among the rich but drew votes from across the spectrum. The Greens could not yet be described as an affluent party. Also (not shown here) they performed worse than the SPD among students. The right drew strongest from the lower-middle class.

By 2010, the Greens were more affluent and the SPD had lost a substantial amount of support in the upper deciles. The Greens were now also running even with the SPD among current students. The far right was weaker than it was in 2002, but I think that reflected a temporary change in the array of parties. The left drew support almost entirely from the lower income bands.

And by 2016, the right was much stronger–in third place in some of the lower income bands, behind only the SDP and Christian Democrats. Meanwhile, the Greens had become distinctly affluent and (again not shown here) they dominated the current student vote. They lost support only in the top income range, where the Christian Democrats were still ahead (although less so than in 2002).

These patterns are not sharp and dramatic; there is actually a fair amount of stability despite tumultuous times. But it does look as if the SDP has lost members to the Greens over lifestyle issues, and to the right because of nationalism.

The SDP and the Greens can certainly come together again in parliamentary coalitions, but at the grassroots, the coalition that sustained the German welfare state looks weaker than it was for decades. Also, I am not sure the Greens have the organizational muscle that the SPD had in its heyday, which means that their capacity to implement policy may be weaker.

If you care about environmental policy and social justice, you have to welcome the Greens. But the question is whether the center-left as a whole has sufficient capacity to govern.

Volodymyr Zelensky, servant of the people?

I’m very curious what my politically diverse but well-informed Ukrainian friends think about their presidential election. It’s mostly framed in the West as: “comedian with no political experience is elected president.” That is a little misleading: it suggests a stand-up comic winning on the basis of one-liners. Volodymyr Zelensky is actually the founder and creative leader of a company that produces successful movies and TV series in which he stars.

His most recent show is Servant of the People, which is available on Netflix with English subtitles, and which my wife and I have been watching. Zelensky plays a high school teacher who goes on a profane rant against corrupt politicians that his students film and post on YouTube. They also crowd-source his campaign funds and get him on the ballot, and he’s elected president.

Ukrainians have now voted to make the writer/actor of this role their actual president. It is roughly as if Americans chose Amy Poehler for president because of her role as Leslie Knope on Parks & Rec–either selecting Leslie to lead our real country (a naive reaction) or choosing the creator of Parks and Rec because of the show’s values and its portrayal of America. Or it might be a little like electing Ronald Reagan as governor of California because of his fictional personas plus his political speeches (which made a seamless whole in the 1960s).

Servant of the People is well-made, well-acted, funny. I can totally understand why people would be interested in voting for its creator, who is utterly appealing on screen.

Of course, the show is also a powerful device for persuasion. In the controlled environment of a fictional world, Zelensky can construct events to make his character the good guy and to sideline difficult questions. Plato’s warnings about the power of theater come to mind. Instead of describing Zelensky as a “comedian,” I would call this entrepreneur/actor with a law degree a highly skillful rhetorician. On screen, he is without guile. But to create that persona took artistry.


What is the political thesis of the show? The targets are corruption, hypocrisy, arrogant elites, and social unfairness. Those are very real problems in Ukraine and many other countries. It can, however, be misguided to treat integrity as the only goal while neglecting contested policy questions. Zelensky’s fictional character dodges policy questions from the press because they are ridiculously wonky and because he’s a a draftee into politics who doesn’t know the answers. The real Zelensky has avoided interviews and press conferences even though he seriously ran for president. This strikes me as problematic.

What does Zelensky stand for? Reading scattered quotes available in English, I would guess he’s basically a Europhile liberal, in the Ukrainian context: in favor of civil liberties, some market reforms, and tilting West. But not a hardcore nationalist–for example, Servant of the People is performed in Russian rather than Ukrainian. He’s ethnically Jewish, which should give no one a free pass but which rarely accompanies xenophobia in that part of the world. On the other hand, it’s not great to have to guess the president’s positions from scattered quotes.

Is he qualified? I don’t believe that political leaders must be, or even should be, policy wonks. They should learn from experts (and from others) while setting the tone and direction. Zelensky is a very capable person–again, not just a stand-up comic but the author of complex (if problematic) political fiction and the founder and leader of an enterprise. He did study law. I would think his resume is fine if he demonstrates an ability to share power, delegate, and learn.

Ukrainians have rolled the dice. Given the alternative, I fully understand why they took this risk. It’s not the textbook version of how a democracy should work, but the status quo has been intolerable, and at least the explicit values of Servant of the People are benign. Nor does the textbook account ever fully apply. My fingers are crossed.