Weak Institutions

It’s not a fair fight.

A bank fault. In front of the vault is a guardhouse. it is guarded by a crying baby in an impressive, oversized uniform
Kyle Flood, CC BY-SA 2.0, modified

I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.

— Boss Tweed.

Around 2010, I had a problem. My kid was just turning two, and finally starting to sleep through the night, which was a blessing, but then a mysterious company bought the building next door to our east London flat.

The building next door had been sitting empty for years, ever since a safety inspection determined that a) it was full of asbestos and b) it lacked a fire-exit. Either one of these made the building unfit for commercial or residential use, and the long-term tenants had moved into other office buildings in the neighborhood.

So it was a surprise when a new company moved in and put up signs advertising the building as the coming site of a hotel. The surprise turned to dismay as the new owners set to renovating their new digs, working exclusively between 10 p.m. and four a.m., drilling, jackhammering and sawing on the party-wall that ran along both our bedroom and our two-year-old’s bedroom.

Hackney — our local council — was worse than useless. They had two noise-control officers, and if you had someone e.g. jackhammering on the wall next to your bed, all night, every night, for weeks on end, all you could do was leave a message on what I swear was a literal answering machine, complete with tape-hiss, and if they got the message and showed up to the site and determined that things were too noisy, they would “caution” the noisemaker.

If that didn’t end the noise-torture, you could start leaving messages again, and if they caught the miscreants jackhammering next to your bed at three a.m. again, they could take away the jackhammer.

It never came to that because the noise officers never caught these guys in the act. I’d call them every night at 10 p.m., leave a message, and then they would just not show up. A couple times, they arrived at 5 or 6 in the morning, after the jackhammering had finally stopped, and they’d shrug and explain that they were very busy, but keep leaving messages and they’d get around to it…eventually.

I did some digging. The company who were opening the “hotel” weren’t licensed or permitted to do their construction (let alone doing it all night). I figured out who the company was registered to, and did a background check, which is how I discovered that the illegal hotel next door was owned by a couple of Spanish cocaine smugglers who’d been released from prison just a few months prior.

I already knew they were Spanish, because the vans that were illegally parked in every reserved space on our street had Spanish license plates. I’d spoken to the parking wardens about it and they were spitting-feathers furious about these vans, explaining that all they could do was write tickets, but there was no way to enforce the tickets against a vehicle licensed in Spain.

That was when I contacted my local councillor. This is what local government is for: resolving these petty, quality-of-life problems (though at this point, “petty” was stretching it — I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months).

My councillor didn’t return my calls or emails. But he did have a twice-monthly “surgery” (what American might call “office hours” — a time when he’d be present at a local community center to meet with constituents). I showed up at one of these, pushing my kid there in her stroller, both of us bundled up against the bitter cold. I waited for an hour, but he didn’t show.

I went back two weeks later. Same deal.

Finally, on my third visit, he showed. I explained what I was going through, told him that there was an asbestos-filled illegal hotel owned by Spanish cocaine-runners going up on my street, and they were doing illegal, all-night renovations, and they didn’t even have a fire-exit.

He made a convincing show of concern and told me to leave it with him, and then…


So I complained on Twitter. That’s what you do, right? I complained about the neighbors, the parking, the noise, the cocaine trafficking, the asbestos, and of course, my bloody useless councillor.

A couple days later, I was standing in line to buy a coffee from a cart in a park on the way back from dropping the kid at day-care when a guy approached me. He’d seen my tweets and had some useful intel.

“You know that Hackney is a Labour stronghold, right? So whomever is selected to be the candidate automatically wins the election. The real election is the party selection meeting — ” (that is, the nomination process) “ — and the meeting where your councillor was selected had twelve people in attendance. I was one of them. He was elected by seven people. He doesn’t care about you because he doesn’t have to. He just needs to make sure that a handful of party activists who are likely to show up to the next selection meeting think he’s doing a good job.”

Suddenly, it made sense. This guy wasn’t my elected representative: he was a seat-warmer selected by a party apparatus, and solving my problems wasn’t his job. It wasn’t that he liked the Spanish cocaine runners or the illegal parking or the death-trap hotel, but they weren’t his problem, and he had more important things to do.

Political parties are weak institutions. In contested elections, parties whose nomination process is corrupt or inadequate lose to parties with better nominations, and are spurred to clean up their act.

But when a seat is safe, the real election takes place in a smoke-filled room with little scrutiny or due process, and it doesn’t matter, because the candidate wins anyway.

Remember the 2016 Democratic primary, when the Sanders campaign sued the Democratic National Committee over last-minute rule-changes that cinched the nomination for Hillary Clinton? The DNC’s defense was that the Democratic Party was a private entity and it rules were a strictly internal matter.

They told the judge that they were within their rights to “go into a back room like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.” They disclaimed any obligation to choose their nominee on the basis of an “impartial” or “evenhanded” basis.

This is what a weak institution looks like: opaque and inscrutable, with zero obligation to deliver a fair outcome.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with weak institutions. When you and your friends decide what restaurant to eat at or what board-game to play, you don’t need a secret ballot overseen by the League of Women Voters. The stakes are low, and if the process gets captured — because Bob insists that Tuesday night is KFC night and fights to the death for it every week— you can just stop inviting Bob.

Strong institutions come at a cost: they move slowly, they are expensive to operate, and they require constant vigilance to maintain their strength. It’s one thing to keep your life insurance policy in a safe-deposit box inside a bank-vault that only two people are allowed to open; but it doesn’t make any sense to keep the buy-five-get-one-free card from your local froyo place in that box next to your insurance papers.

The problem is that as large, powerful, strong institutions fail, the battleground shifts to the weak institutions that sit beneath them. When a elections are rigged through voter suppression or gerrymandering, the real election moves to the in-party nomination process, which was never designed to be the locus of the kind of contestation that we see in a general election.

That’s how California ended up with so many terrible, corporate Democrats in state office: in many of California’s races, the winner is whomever gets the Democratic nomination, and those nomination processes lack the kinds of limitations on outside spending, dark money, or voter suppression that attends our general elections.

At the extreme end of this, you get hereditary political offices. Take Dan Lipinski. He’s an anti-Choice, anti-union, anti-LGBTQ “Democrat” from Illinois who stepped into his father’s Congressional seat without even winning the nomination, his father stepped down after winning the nomination, handing it over to his son.

Lipinski wass arguably the worst Democrat in the Congressional caucus, but he held his seat from 2004–2021, while he was showered with money by the railroad industry, and while voting consistently to dismantle the already inadequate rail safety regs.

Lipinski’s congressional district was such a Democrat safe-seat that the Republicans don’t even bother to mount a serious candidate to run against him — the GOP nomination process for the district is so poorly attended that Lipinski’s opponent in the 2020 race was an avowed Holocaust-denier.

Without the prospect of a general election loss to discipline the Illinois Democratic Party, the candidates who are able to raise the most money or curry the most favor with power brokers end up winning the nominations and hence their offices. That’s how you get state governors going to prison for selling senate seats.

The world is full of weak institutions that have become the locus of contests that used to be waged on real fields, overseen by skilled referees who were accountable to real laws and courts.

Minor offices — school, library and election commissions — that were once filled by community-spirited wonks (of admittedly varying degrees of competence) are now being bitterly fought over, with deranged conspiratorialists using them as a way of seizing real power, from the power to decide what books are in our libraries (or whether we have libraries at all) to the power to decide who can vote in the general election.

It’s not just elections. Until the Reagan years, the exercise of corporate power was checked by antitrust law, enforced by the DoJ and the FTC. But for the past forty years, antitrust enforcers have steadily decreased their oversight and enforcement, allowing companies to buy out their major competitors until just a few firms dominate most sectors, who are able to act as a cartel with little fear of sanction.

The failure of the strong institution of federal antitrust enforcement had a profound effect on many weaker institutions, such as standards bodies, where the standards for public safety and technical operation are set. These standards affect our lives in a million ways, but they are often set behind closed doors, by organizations whose key roles are filled by volunteers, and whose payrolled staff relies on membership dues to cover their salaries.

When a sector has hundreds of small- and medium-sized companies, a standards body is far less likely to be the site of high-stakes battles. The companies keep each other in check, and attempts to distort or pervert standards to confer a commercial advantage are held in check by the rivalry between all those equal-sized firms.

But the transformation of the internet into “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of text from the other four” has made turned technical standards-setting into a game of moneyball, overseen by conflicted refs who have few checks on their calls.

Take the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a standards body that is justly famed for its long history of making high-quality, fair web standards in a transparent and open way. As web companies gobbled each other up and browsers became the purview of two giant companies, one charitable foundation, and a handful of very small companies with nearly no market share, the W3C’s role has increasing shifted from keeping browser companies honest to servicing their most important, powerful members.

The big tech companies can pay full-time wages for “volunteers” to staff key roles in every important standards committee, and when that fails, the W3C’s process allows the director to simply override the members’ objections. That’s a great power to have when the consortium’s members need the W3C more than the W3C needs their dues — but as the sector dwindled to a handful of large companies, the ability of one person to unilaterally override the members’ popular will became a serious — catastrophic — liability.

It’s not that the W3C isn’t a good institution. When the W3C sets out to standardize a technology that the big tech companies don’t care to capture, it does an outstanding job. Look at ActivityPub, the standard behind Mastodon, which is technically brilliant.

But the tech firms didn’t care about ActivityPub, so they didn’t bother to bigfoot it at the W3C. The W3C isn’t a bad institution, but it is a comparatively weak institution.

It’s no substitute for federal antitrust enforcement, and when antitrust fails and the companies that participate in technical standards setting get boiled down to a handful of giant, cozy global multinationals, the W3C is no match for them.

There are surely ways that we can improve the W3C’s process, as well as the nomination process for Hackney Labour councillors, Democratic Congressional candidates, and local commissioners. But no matter how much energy we pour into these projects, it will never be enough.

All of the problems with these weak institutions are downstream of the hollowing out of major institutions like elections and federal regulators.

That’s why the current antitrust revival is so important, co-equal with the movement to fix campaign finance, redistricting and voter suppression. We can’t patch the cracks in our most important institutions by throwing our weaker institutions at them.