Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Swiss notes

On direct democracy

Libertarians call Switzerland a political heaven: unlike most Western countries that have a representative democracy, Switzerland has a direct democracy (at least partially). Meaning that most political issues are decided through mass referendums. There’re usually four rounds of referendums organized annually, and citizens typically vote on around 10 matters per year: anything from the social welfare to… foreign trade with Indonesia.

On the first sight, direct democracy seems to be a perfectly fair and just system, where everyone’s vote has an equal degree of importance. However, as it always happens with democracy, the reality is more dismal than any theories and expectations. In 2005, Swiss citizens unanimously voted against the import of GMO products, while in 2017 they voted to phase out all nuclear power plants on the territory of Switzerland in the next years (that account for a third of all electricity generated in the country). Sounds pretty upsetting.

In the Ancient Greek polises, being a citizen was considered a full-time job: before making a vote, all citizens had to listen to long speeches of multiple orators, have a lengthy discussion of each topic afterwards (that often went on for many days), and only then make a final decision, as long as everyone agrees on it unanimously. On each political matter! I doubt if Swiss citizens do the same research before exercising their vote: it’s likely that their knowledge on many issues is limited to a superfluous information read on the Internet or heard on TV. How the hell are you supposed to become an expert on the foreign trade with Indonesia in a matter of days?

Political decisions made out of ignorance are a problem, but is it only a flaw of direct democracy though? Nope, unfortunately, equally bad political decisions are often observed in countries with representative democracies, where decisions are made by elected politicians instead. For instance, Germany managed to ban the nuclear power plants on its territory even before Switzerland.

Is there a solution here? If technocratic models of development (like in Singapore) seem too totalitarian, I’m at least inclined to believe that limiting suffrage to the most informed groups of voters can help to improve the quality of political decisions to a certain extent. For instance: before voting on the topics of GMO or nuclear power, a voter would be obliged to read a short book or a brochure with a scientific overview of the topic, a summary of its main pros and cons, and then pass a short test. Only citizens who pass the test would be allowed to participate in referendums. This would at least ensure that all the voters are more or less educated and informed.

The main criticism of such an approach is that this way election results might be skewed towards the interests of the group of citizens who have most time and incentive to take the test (who are also likely to be relatively wealthy and educated people). In order to make the situation more just, the less advantageous citizens, who have less time and incentive to do their research, could be incentivized by being offered with a small financial compensation, or participation in a lottery among the electorate. Read the books of Jason Brennan for a good overview of how such a system could potentially work.

Even though democratic systems with a limited suffrage haven’t been implemented anywhere yet, we’re not losing anything to try it. The benefits to direct democracy might be tremendous. Especially in Switzerland, a country that has always been keen on trying unconventional political practices.

On tourism and migration

Switzerland is well-known for its high-end tourism industry. Luxury resorts in the Swiss Alps, expensive infrastructure, exclusive experiences (‘get to the highest mountain top in Europe with no need to hike: just pay a couple hundred Swiss francs!’). Switzerland clearly has a lot to offer to people who have a stash of extra money to spend. As expected, this group mainly includes wealthy retired people from the Western Europe (who apparently worked too much to actually have time to spend the money earned), and younger people – predominantly from the rich oil-exporting countries of the Middle East.

In general, the crowds of people you see on a typical Swiss mountain resort are very diverse: groups of Middle Eastern people dressed entirely in Gucci and Louis Vuitton, snapping pics on iPhones with massive 6.7-inch screens, Indian couples working in tech, British families fully covered in expensive biking attire, groups of basic American girls with messy hair buns and Ray-Bans, upper-class Chinese families. When you ride a train through Swiss Alps, you get an impression that Switzerland doesn’t have many local people left in.

At the same time, Switzerland is also well-known for its attitude towards migration – that appears to be quite the opposite from the one in neighboring Germany. Looking at the results of the past few years of Swiss referendums, Swiss people don’t seem particularly eager to embrace the mass-scale migration and accept diversity of cultures. For instance, in the past years Switzerland introduced a limit on the number of migrants accepted per year, ban on the construction of new mosques, as well as prohibition of wearing burqas in public. And needless to say that it’s generally hard to obtain Swiss citizenship: before the application is accepted, you need to obtain approval of the residents of your municipality done via anonymous vote (often not in the applicant’s favor).

So, when it comes to tourism and migration, the strategy of Switzerland is smart. Swiss people tolerate the international crowd absolutely fine: as they know that these people rarely leave the borders of high-end resort villages, their paths are limited to a dozen of most popular hiking trails, cabins of expensive cable cars and tourist trains with panoramic windows and scenic views. But take a few steps off the beaten trail, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by the the most rural scenes imaginable: farms with goats, tractors and grandpas raking hay on their fields.

Healthy selfishness, putting financial priority first and taking advantage of people willing to spend their savings in an exquisite way, but not allowing them anything extra, is a smart attitude for a country to have.

On targeted marketing

Nowhere else in the world I’ve seen as many ads of luxury brands, such as Tissot, Omega and Cartier, as in Swiss Alps. You take a funicular and see a hiking path sponsored by Tissot with its shop at the end of the trail. You take a cable car to a snowy mountain top: and what you see is a store of Omega watches. That’s even more absurd than the airline onboard sales – who the hell wants to climb 4,158 meters to… buy a luxury watch? On the first sight, it seems bizarre. On the second sight though, it starts making total sense.

Take into account the price of using the Swiss Alps infrastructure: trains, cable cars, funiculars, cog rail. In the area of Jungfrau (one of the highest mountain summits in Bernese Alps), the transportation pass for 3 days costs CHF 239. For this sum of money you can rent a 2-room apartment at my home town in Russia for a month. Naturally, people who can afford spending such a sum of money on such an unnecessary thing as funiculars are likely to make comparable consumer choices in other areas too – such as purchasing expensive watches.

If you ever had experience with setting up targeted ads on Instagram, you know how hard it is to define the target audience group – you have to think of the age, gender, interests, etc. The mistakes in defining the target audience are costly. You don’t want to spend your advertising budget on people who have no interest in your product whatsoever, and who would skip the ad within a few seconds. And if you want to filter for only those people who fall into a certain economic group, you have to think even harder. Obviously, no one discloses their real income on social media, therefore you need to find certain correlates – things that increase the likelihood that a person might be wealthy. Which is not so easy: for instance, luxury brands that purchase advertising in the Forbes magazine (relying on the fact that it’s read by billionaires) don’t take into account that a substantial part of its readers are wannabe-entrepreneurs and ambitious losers obsessed with achieving success for the sake of appearing successful. Needless to say, they don’t have the same purchasing patterns as billionaires. Anyway.

The situation in Swiss Alps solves the marketing problem pretty well. The person who had enough money to get to the mountain top for CHF 239 obviously has an extra budget to spend. So the target group gets defined on its own. Advertising luxury goods in Swiss Alps is ingenious.

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