Monday, January 27, 2014

The Power of Small Nations

One of the worst parts about trying to have a logical discourse with people on how our government can and should do things is when the other side says, "But in Denmark they do ...." (NB: the following applies to any small European country, I will just use Denmark as an example as it is often the one used.)

I usually take a deep breath and ask them at this point, "Have you ever been to Denmark? Do you know who big it is in size and population?"

At that point, I usually just get hubidahubiduh and a few blinks. No, most of the time they haven't, and if they have, they still have no idea how small it is or that fact it has a population of only 5.5 million. I don't think you have to actually been to a nation to discuss what goes on there, but you at least have to know the basic demographic, historical, and geographical fundamentals.

The think is, not everything a nation does is scalable. You can do things in a small country that simply cannot be replicated in a nation as large as ours at ~315 million.

As a matter of fact, more and more evidence piles up that if you discount the military advantages of being large, that their are huge advantages to being a citizen of a smaller nation (as long as it is "free") that you simply cannot gain in a larger one. There is greater accountability up, and better service going now.

A case in point, an absolutely outstanding boutique people and nation - Estonia (population 1.3 million).

You need to read the whole thing - but if we would move away from the huge central government toward more power to the States (as a Federal Republic we were designed) we could take advantage of some of the plusses of being part of a smaller nation. More Estonia, less Russia - so to speak.
The first building block of e-government is telling citizens apart. This sounds blatantly obvious, but alternating between referring to a person by his social security number, taxpayer number, and other identifiers doesn’t cut it. Estonia uses a simple, unique ID methodology across all systems, from paper passports to bank records to government offices and hospitals. A citizen with the personal ID code 37501011234 is a male born in the 20th century (3) in year ’75 on January 1 as the 123rd baby of that day. The number ends with a computational checksum to easily detect typos.

For these identified citizens to transact with each other, Estonia passed the Digital Signatures Act in 2000. The state standardized a national Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), which binds citizen identities to their cryptographic keys, and now doesn’t care if any Tiit and Toivo (to use common Estonian names) sign a contract in electronic form with certificates or plain ink on paper. A signature is a signature in the eyes of the law.
A prime example is the income-tax declarations Estonians “fill” out. Quote marks are appropriate here, because when an average Estonian opens the submission form once a year, it usually looks more like a review wizard: “next -> next -> next -> submit.” This is because data has been moving throughout the year. When employers report employment taxes every month, their data entries are linked to people’s tax records too. Charitable donations reported by non-profits are recorded as deductions for the giver in the same fashion. Tax deductions on mortgages are registered from data interchange with commercial banks. And so forth. Not only is the income-tax rate in the country a flat 21 percent, but Estonians get tax overpayments put back on their bank accounts (digitally transferred, of course) within two days of submitting their forms.

This liquid movement of data between systems relies on a fundamental principle to protect people’s privacy: Without question, it is always the citizen who owns his or her data and retains the right to control access to that data. For example, in the case of fully digital health records and prescriptions, people can granularly assign access rights to the general practitioners and specialized doctors of their choosing. And in scenarios where they can’t legally block the state from seeing their information, as with Estonian e-policemen using real-time terminals, they at least get a record of who accessed their data and when. If an honest citizen learns that an official has been snooping on them without a valid reason, the person can file an inquiry and get the official fired.
That is what you can do in a small nation that simply is not executable in a larger one ... at least that efficiently. 

A final note - can DOD get rid of the SSN and use the Estonian number process? Just an idea. All the problems using the SSN when a "service number" would be better for everyone ... but a different topic for another day, perhaps.

If you ever get a chance to go to Estonia ... go. If noting else, just to marvel at their exceptionally cool burial habits, well - cool if you like woods and a lingering pagan ethos. 

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