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Sorting It Out: A Case For Democratic Lotteries
Can democratic lotteries improve the way we buy coffee?
Hi friends! This week, paid subscribers received an audio extra with last week’s podcast guest, author and academic Ted Fischer. In that bonus audio, we talked about the idea of randomness in coffee. Specifically: Could coffee-buying lotteries help improve equity and market access for farmers?
I admit, this idea is still only half-fleshed-out—but I think the idea of using lotteries as a tool for equity is a powerful one. The folks at Standart Magazine gave me space to discuss that idea in the summer 2021 issue, so to follow up on these recent conversations, please enjoy an excerpt from that piece, lightly edited for length.
Modern representative democracies base their legitimacy on the idea that people have the right to choose those who represent them. The method that has evolved to ensure this is the democratic election, which is vaunted as the way to bring about fair governance and equality for all. Everyone’s vote is supposed to carry equal weight, and barring specific requirements like citizenship, anyone can run for any position. In theory.
Elections in practice are, unfortunately, often very different to the theory, marred by fraud, swayed by money, and devalued by corruption—but some grassroots activists are working on alternatives that sound worse in theory, but function better in practice. “From a young age, I’ve always hated politics. At home, at school, and at church, we were taught to be honest and kind, and yet most of the politicians I’d see on TV would have neither of those traits,” Adam Cronkright, the co-founder of Democracy in Practice—a nonprofit that seeks to reform student council elections in schools in Bolivia—told me by email.
As Cronkright started to question the ethics of politics and elections, it became clear to him that the problem wasn’t the politicians; it was the system itself. “Not long after, feeling quite hopeless about things, I stumbled upon the system of democratic lotteries and it just made so much sense to me. I knew right away that this was what I would dedicate my life to,” he says. “I started to see that nobody—no matter how righteous and youthfully overconfident they may be—could get very far in politics without having to leave most of their principles behind.”
Cronkright decided that rather than just complain, he would try to do something, and asked himself: “What would have to change about this system to select decent people, and make it so they wouldn’t have to play politics and could actually do right by those they’re supposed to represent?” He started getting involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, where he met a Bolivian water activist whose passion led him to get involved in the social movements working to bring about change in Bolivia. “I began to volunteer for school water projects, when someone asked me what I was into and I told him about democratic lotteries. He was floored—having spent his entire life watching electoral politics corrupt so much around him—and suggested we start by introducing it to some of the schools they were working in.”
The Egalitarian Promise
Democratic lotteries might seem like a new-fangled idea, but they can actually be traced at least as far back as Ancient Greece, and maybe even further than that. In the fifth century B.C., when democracy began to emerge in Athens, people quickly saw the potential for corruption in elections, and the Athenians decided to use the sortition process to pick their leaders, administrators, and bureaucrats. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in “Politics” that his compatriots believe that a society is “democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.” Even at the dawn of democracy, it was evident that elections could simply lead to the replication of prior power structures, and those with the means to do so could use their money and influence to steer an election in their favor. For some political bodies in Ancient Greece, the lottery was taken even further, simply assigning political duties to a random citizen, thereby avoiding the possibility that those who put themselves forward for lottery shortlists may already be unsuitable.
Cronkright agrees with the Ancient Greeks. “A democratic lottery is the way that representatives are supposed to be selected in a democracy. It’s the original way, and the way we should be selecting representatives in legislatures and in any other body that claims to democratically represent the values and interests of others,” he says. Democratic lotteries have been used to select public officials in various societies throughout history, but tend not to be mentioned in contemporary academic courses that purport to cover civics and government. I myself was first introduced to the idea when listening to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History called “The Powerball Revolution.” On this podcast, Gladwell examines historical ideas that have been overlooked or are poorly understood in contemporary society, and featured Cronkright on this episode to talk about the work he does with school elections in Bolivia.
According to Cronkright, who is now promoting the use of democratic lotteries in the U.S. with the organization of by for*, the implementation of this system in Bolivian schools resulted in more diversity on student boards. Eschewed elections meant that students who might not previously have been thought of as leaders by their peers were more likely to seek an open council seat, and such diverse councils tackled more significant issues that affected a wider range of students.
It might seem flippant to dismiss elections as little more than popularity contests or bread-and-circus theater, but we’ve all wondered why it’s worth going out to vote when you know that not a single candidate represents you. When Vava Angwenyi ran for the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) board in 2020, she was told that many members wouldn’t vote for her simply because they didn’t know who she was, regardless of her policies, and besides, there was already a local candidate who they recognized. “If voters don’t judge candidates based on their individual merits, and instead vote based on proximity, then how can the SCA board enact real change, and actually represent its constituents?” Angwenyi told me.
The answer may be to apply the principles of democratic lotteries. Mansi Chokshi was the person who introduced me to the Gladwell podcast episode. She also introduced and helped support the democratic lottery system to appoint the leaders of the SCA’s U.S. Chapter—a small group of volunteers who work to address SCA issues in the US—and to distribute event scholarships. For the former, Chokshi helped design a weighted system based on interests and background, with the goal of making the chapter reflect the community it serves. “If someone expressed interest in a position, we verified that they met the minimum standards, and then put their name in a lottery,” she told Standart. In 2021—the first year the SCA U.S. Chapter has employed the lottery system—90 people threw in their names for the 12 open seats on the 23-member SCA United States team, up from 44 in 2019, and the SCA U.S. Chapter plans to continue using this system in the future.
How Do We Make Decisions?
Chokshi is grateful that she was introduced to the Revisionist History episode at just the right time, and that it made sense to use a lottery system for the scholarships that she manages. “Traditional methods [of selecting people for scholarships tend to] involve selection committees and merit-based approaches, but if you need to consider factors such as barriers to entry/opportunity, biases, and privileges, I’d argue that there is no fool-proof way to select from a large pool of candidates, try as we might.”
In “The Powerball Revolution,” Gladwell also spoke to Michael Lauer, the deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of whose roles is to oversee NIH grant funding. Every year, he and a selection committee pore over grant applications and choose about 20% of those grants that they deem to merit funding, but according to Lauer, he and his team have been unable to find a strong correlation between the applicants they picked and their overall future success. In other words, the scientific and statistical methods of selection employed by Lauer and his team were no better than a lottery.
Most scholarships and awards are decided on the basis of merit, regardless of what individual committees consider “merit” to involve, but upon listening to “The Powerball Revolution,” Chokshi immediately re-evaluated how her team made decisions. “We didn’t want to arbitrate on someone’s deservedness,” she told me. “And we can never know the extent to which someone has been afforded or held back from particular opportunities. If someone tells us they need the scholarship, we want to believe them.”
Chokshi then decided to employ the democratic lottery system to choose the recipients of a scholarship to Sensory Summit, a yearly event at which experts from around the world share ideas about sensorial experiences. This decision allowed Chokshi to steer her energy towards promoting awareness of the scholarship program, rather than reviewing applications. She also simplified the application process, a barrier that could be intimidating and fail to reflect an applicant’s need: “Applications can tell us a lot about a person, but they can also leave out a lot. We didn’t want to unfairly penalize people whose personalities couldn’t be captured on paper.”
Tools For Success
Simon Pek, an assistant professor of sustainability and organization theory at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, has recognized the need for fresh ideas, which has led him to think “about sustainability pretty broadly—not only looking at the environmental side, but also at the social side.” He co-founded Democracy in Practice with Cronkright in 2013, following on from his long-standing desire to identify structural changes that could help societies to operate more efficiently.
Pek considers it imperative to think outside the box when deciding on the tools we use to structure both public and private organizations. “If we think that the presence of democratic and inclusive organizations is important in and of itself, then I think decisions [as to how we set up these organizations] have a direct effect on their nature. Then the questions arise: How does the tool shape what goes on in the organization? How does it shape what can be done by the organization?”
Pleasingly, Pek’s advocacy of the democratic lottery model has not been met by universal skepticism; in fact, he says, most people he talks to are quite skeptical about current models of government. If you live in a country that doesn’t hold elections, you’ll know that there aren’t many mechanisms for bringing about change, and if you live in a country that does, you probably know a fairly similar feeling all too well. “Most people who aren’t political leaders are apathetic about what’s actually going on, and feel like nothing’s being done and they’re not being consulted,” Pek explains. “They might say, ‘I don’t really care,’ but often they really do care; it’s just that they see no real entry point. The only people that I think have a lot of skin in the game are those who are the elected leaders.”
Perhaps the best argument against democratic lotteries is the idea of inherent leadership capabilities. Democratic lotteries, according to this perspective, will lead to inadequate governance because some people are simply better-suited to become representatives, perhaps because they are more intelligent or honest. Cronkright, however, anticipates this objection in “The Powerball Revolution,” reminding listeners that running for office is very different to holding an elected position, and that the skillsets do not necessarily match. Likewise, not only do we frequently elect officials who are incompetent, corrupt, or otherwise unworthy, but the mechanism we employ to select such officials—elections—fails to incentivize candidates to display the qualities we might expect of elected officials.
The possibilities opened by democratic lotteries extend far beyond coffee. For example, they can free up resources in even the humblest of organizations by making low-stakes choices random. A study by Linda Babcock, Maria Recalde, and Lise Vesterlund in the Harvard Business Review suggests that women are more likely to end up doing “non-promotable” tasks in the workplace, which prevents them from building their careers and often gets in the way of their actual work. Democratic lotteries can also function as accountability tools, Pek states. “If you’re doing a check-in at the beginning of the workday, instead of going through every single person, you could do random checks via a lottery,” which would motivate everyone to be ready without needing to check up on everybody.
Lotteries are a tool that can build equity, remove biases, and flush out misconstrued ideas of merit and deservedness, according to Pek. “Too many of the goods of society are distributed through ‘assumed’ merit, which wastes a lot of resources and time, and leads to a lot of inequity. And that’s a huge problem.”
This is not to say that democratic lotteries can solve every problem, and Pek is pragmatic about what they can do. Vaccines are a topical example of a good that, Pek claims, should not be distributed by lottery but rather allocated by targeting the neediest groups first—“The values question should always come first, and the tool second”—but even so, he imagines a world in which more and more decisions are made via lotteries. One of Pek’s favorite books is “Justice by Lottery” by Barbara Goodwin, who “starts off the book by describing her version of a utopia. You enter this country called Aleatoria, and pretty much everything there is decided and distributed by lottery. In her model, jobs are allocated by lottery, but income is decoupled from jobs.”
Winning The Coffee Lottery
As I have been writing this article, I have been speculating wildly about how democratic lotteries could revolutionize organizational structures of the coffee industry. Could we randomize how coffee is sold, and thereby guarantee higher prices for farmers? What if the Cup of Excellence, a coffee competition that usually ends with an auction, switched to a lottery format? Could making things random help to make the industry we love more just?
“So much of how we buy and sell coffee is based on relationships,” Lennart Clerkx, the founder of This Side Up—a coffee importer that strives to build meaningful ties between roasters and farmers—told Standart. “When people repeat-buy a particular farmer’s coffee, they’re buying not just their coffee but their way of doing things; they are investing in their production. Some fear that if we were to implement the democratic lottery system, a dynamic of arbitrary selection based on quality alone instead of personal relationships, we risk breaking these intimate, annually returning trade ties.”
Clerkx points out that coffee purchasing already takes place “in the shadows,” and ideas like direct trade, where farmers and importers work directly with one another, have already been advanced to combat the lack of transparency within the industry. It’s important not to undermine the still-fragile direct-trade model that puts farmer and roaster firmly in charge of their trade choices, and to realize that the addition of an “arbiter” to such a trade risks introducing a power dynamic that has the potential to be abused.
The story of This Side Up is similar to Cronkright’s epiphany about power structures and inequity. “I saw the potential of direct trade a long time ago. It seems so liberating when you don’t have to participate in a corrupt system,” Clerkx says. “I’ve tried to do this in my work as a coffee importer, but mostly, we just try to keep the farmer and roaster happy, and to put them in charge.”
One problem with the implementation of a lottery system for coffee purchases assumes that the infrastructure for buying coffee is well-established and uniform, which it’s not, and that all roasters are looking for the same things, which they’re not. Vera Espíndola Rafael, the director of strategic initiatives at Azahar Coffee Company—a coffee-exporting company founded in Colombia—informed Standart in an email: “Based on my experience with Azahar and starting operations in Mexico, [purchasing] is not necessarily [about] chasing that one single producer. It very much is the work and vision the company shares with a roaster and the variety of profiles they can cup from. This definitely also includes profiles that work much better for one roaster versus another roaster in another country.” Another issue is that because coffee is an agricultural product that can differ markedly year on year, it’s impossible to anticipate exactly what a farm will produce; there are too many unknowns and variables.
But what if roasters lean into the unknowns? “I think there’s potential for lotteries [in the relationship] between importer and roaster,” says Brian Gaffney, a management consultant and board member of the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity. “Maybe 85% of the coffee you get is what you contracted to purchase, and the other 15% a lottery. That could help producers sell more of their coffee, but all at the same price.”
Gaffney went on to say: “Let’s say you’re buying a coffee that scores an 88 [on the 100-point quality scale], but the 20% you receive based on the lottery is at least an 82. The benefit is that it gives that producer a much more predictable income, right?” If roasters take that risk with a small percentage of their coffees, Gaffney believes, not only will benefits trickle back to the farmer, but the entire industry at large will receive a much-needed boost. “In such a system, the farmer would be able to sell more coffee and reinvest the additional earnings into other aspects of the operation. The big hope here is that over time, the quality and cup scores of the producer’s entire yield will improve, pushing all coffee closer to the 88-point score that originally drew the roaster’s attention. It’s a scalable win.”
By their very nature, lotteries entail surprise and uncertainty, and depend on people being willing to let go and accept a range of different outcomes—and perhaps even embrace the element of surprise. “We need to embrace the idea of discovery,” Gaffney says. “Consumers are used to ordering 12 ounces of a particular coffee, but what if we were to receive 10 ounces of the coffee we purchased, with the balance determined by a lottery? We can choose to treat the surprise as part of our curated coffee journey. We don’t need to react with disappointment; we could choose to accept lottery ‘winnings’ with curiosity and delight.”
The implementation of democratic lotteries might not be sufficient to fix the biggest problems that afflict the coffee industry, but we should nevertheless bear in mind Pek’s statement that lotteries are simply a tool. When we think of organizational structures as tools, we can re-examine how they’re utilized, what our goals are, and how we can engineer structures to meet our needs. Just because we’ve done something one way for centuries, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to do it that way forever, and by recognizing the power of the lottery as a tool, we can begin to identify the larger goals of the coffee industry, and put tools in place to make coffee more equitable and fair.
Photo by Annie Spratt