Polifit 1.2

Polifit had its second meeting February 22, 2107. In attendance were Rene Kane, Tony Canata and Katie Byrne.

The meeting began with a question about what direction to take the meetings, since there may be different people attending each week, or inconsistent attendance. Tony compared this to a CrossFit regimen, saying that he’d like to dedicate at least one hour a week to this work, which would make him feel good – like after a CrossFit WOD!

Tony discussed the Pioneer Valley Workers Center meeting he attended. He’s interested in being a ‘rapid responder’ and thought the group was well organized, but this particular format may not be the way he’d like to spend his time, aside from responding to ICE raids or targeted deportations that happen locally.

Renee shared that Bill Dwight, Northampton city councilor, could speak to the group about the political process. She also could ask Bill Newman, from MA ACLU, and Josh Silver from Represent Us, to speak to our group.

We discussed a bit about how we got to this point, as a country, and if there are any lessons to be learned to prevent this from happening at the state level. Even though our state is blue, and historically has been, are there decisions being made, or is there groundwork being laid, for a ‘republican takeover’? Since many people may be taking our blueness for granted, are we missing important resistance that is needed at the state level to keep Massachusetts blue?

The purpose and structure of the group was discussed for most of the meeting. Three main pieces of work or ideas for the group came out of this dialogue. The idea of this being a “Think Tank” was briefly discussed.

  1. Creating an ‘influence map’ for different issues and policies. The idea is that an influence map would layout the players for each issue, and what decision making power they have, and how to contact them. Our senators and reps, who are Democrats, certainly do have influence, but they are not the only players. This map can be created to represent a local, state and federal level picture of influence. Creating this would require people to take on research, writing or technology roles. There was also an expressed desire to see real time decision making happening, so someone could look at what legislation is filed, or voted on and can see how respective legislators voted or if they co-sponsored the legislation. Could there be real time email or text alerts about votes?
  2. The group recognized that different participants could have certain areas of interest. Renee shared that her passion is preventing gerrymandering and preserving 1st amendment rights. This group could serve as a platform to share what actions people have taken personally, and could possibly inform the influence map.
  1. General discussion at each meeting. How should we develop an agenda for the group? For example, is our overall agenda to rethink and try to reshape the distribution of wealth in this country? Is it worth dedicating time to theoretical thinking, or is time better spent in operationalizing reform efforts, or both? Do we chart out an agenda?

Tony tried offloading his secretarial duties to Katie. Katie fell for it. It was decided that the minutes could be a collective effort; we’ll see how that goes 😉

Though we agreed to meet again next week, we did not set a time for a next meeting.

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Polifit 1.1

Polifit had its first meeting February 16, 2017. In attendance were Rene Kane, Jason Katoch, Eric Wilson and Tony Canata.

We discussed why we were gathering. Tony’s view was that he wanted a structured way to influence the polity at the local, state and federal levels; that he wanted to crowd-source the tracking and reporting on what our local, state and federal leaders are doing, as well as what our courts are deciding and what our administrative agencies are doing. Eric added that there is an educational aspect to this, in that most people (including us) do not know how follow or to directly influence what our government does.

We talked about the relative strengths and weaknesses of groups formed around particular issues or in response to particular government actions and whether we would want to focus on a particular issue, as opposed to or in addition to monitoring and directly influencing our leaders and government policies.

We also discussed some groups that are currently politically active and whether or to what extent we want to partner with and/or join them.

Rene talked about a group that is fighting back against the local ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Jason has been working with the Pioneer Workers Coalition, which is meeting Monday evening at 6 pm that has gotten an ordinance passed in Northampton to assist undocumented workers and is implementing a rapid response program to fight ICE tactics that they are calling ‘sanctuary in the streets.’

We also discussed Indivisible, a national organization with 4000 member groups focused on thwarting the Trump agenda using lessons learned by former Congressional staffers, who saw the effectiveness of the Tea Party tactics first hand and have largely coopted them for the left.

We discussed the first ‘fork in the road’ for a group like this, namely, should we keep it a close knit group of hand picked people, or should we make it an open group welcome to all.

We discussed the basics of what we would do at meetings, including possibly having reports from individuals on what is happening in the various local, state and federal domains; taking time to draft letters as a group; planning to attend a protest; making calls to representatives’ offices and other direct influence activities. We discussed that the first order of business would likely be identifying our actual representatives and gathering intel on the best ways to keep track of their positions and their actions, whether it be votes made, orders issued, decisions handed down, etc.

We agreed to meet again on Wednesday, February 22, 2017 at Low and Canata’s law offices at 4 Market Street, Northampton. We agreed to keep the invite list identical to the one for the first meeting.

We agreed that we will revisit the issues we discussed at the first meeting and hopefully get the additional insights of the people who could not join us at the first meeting. Specifically, we will discuss whether we will join Indivisible and whether we will actively support the Pioneer Workers’ Coalition. We will discuss how we will structure future meetings and what kinds of projects we will do during meetings. We will begin to share our understanding of local, state and federal civics, including identifying our executives and representatives at each level.

Subsequent to the meeting, Rene spoke with Northampton City Council member Bill Dwight, who agreed to come to a future meeting and talk to us about the basics of local politics and how to exert our influence.

Rene suggested that Tony should be the Secretary of Polifit on the flimsy basis that he brought a pen and paper to the meeting and took notes. He was actually writing the words to Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road,’ a habit he started in high school to pass the time during boring classes. Nevertheless, Jason wrote out an ‘executive order’ naming Tony as Secretary. It was about as well drafted as the ones signed by Trump. It also cannot possibly be binding since there is no executive to issue such an order. Tony is therefore ‘Acting Secretary’ under protest.

Onward.

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Colleges Call Bullshit on Making the World A Better Place

             Breaking from a centuries old tradition of challenging students to create a better world, the nation’s Ivy League colleges have announced that they will deemphasize civic virtues and foster a culture of personal success on their campuses. The nation’s other top colleges and universities are scrambling to keep pace with the change.

Officials at a number of the institutions announced the new policy for the Ivy League, flooding social media with news about what they are calling a new, “core aligned” curriculum. “Liberal arts colleges have traditionally inculcated their students with a sense of duty and a responsibility to society at large,” said President Bryant Chelmsford of Harvard. “But when they leave our campuses, our students enter a capitalist system that rewards self-interest and for-profit enterprising. It is this disconnect that we aim to remediate with our new curriculum.”

The University of Pennsylvania’s Dean of the famed Wharton Business School took to social media as well, posting an article on Facebook, “Capital First,” in which he introduced Wharton’s new version of the program. “The liberal arts foster a search for truth while preparing students for the world in which we live.  Our capitalist system amasses great fortunes at the top and creates a socioeconomic underclass at the bottom.   This is a truth that is central to our world and should therefore be central to our curriculum.”

The colleges acknowledged that this new curriculum is likely to meet with resistance. “Look, not everyone is going to agree that we should abandon our emphasis on social progress,” said Dartmouth President H. Rogers Devonshire. “But the transition from college to the real world is hard enough for our students without them carrying a false belief that the corporations and institutions they will lead are interested in the common good or will reward socially conscience decisions that negatively impact the the wealth and standing of those in power.”

Student reaction to the news was mixed. One student at Yale was disappointed. “This is our time to believe that we can actually make the world a better place. Now they are taking that away from us. It really isn’t fair.” But a Princeton undergrad was relieved. “I don’t think many of us believed in all of that ‘make the world a better place’ stuff anyway. We grew up with the Internet. We already know that we need to be celebrities or super rich or we don’t count as much.”

(Yes, this piece is satirical.  The Ivies haven’t actually called bullshit on making the world a better place.  But I hope this piece highlights the disconnect between the ideals we preach to the young and the system that we are actually preparing them to enter.)

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The Big Short End of the Stick

I went to see The Big Short the other day. The circumstances were well aligned for something special. I snuck out of the office for a matinee with my friend Kristen, who was also playing hooky from the small business that she owns. It was a rainy, dreary day, perfect for seeing a movie that is funny, surreal, sobering and maddening on a large scale. It did not disappoint.

The Big Short tells the story of the Wall Street crash of 2008 from the perspective of a few groups of outsiders of the investment world who saw that the crash was coming when nobody around them either would or could see it. Basically, for the 30 years leading up to the crash the economy was built on the bundling together of ordinary, run of the mill housing mortgages and selling shares in the resulting pool of mortgages as securities. Wall Street was at first principally selling securities made up of prime housing mortgages backed by the federal government. All the big institutional investors – pension plans, colleges, 401ks, and the like – that were looking for safe securities bought them.

But the Wall Street banks were making so much money selling these mortgage backed securities that when there were no more prime mortgages to use, they started taking more and more risky mortgages, bundling them together and selling securities backed by these junk mortgages as if they were just as safe as the ones that they had been selling for years. All of the players that were in a position to call bullshit on this fraud – the SEC, the companies that put out investor ratings on securities, the press, the big banks themselves, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Congress with its investigatory powers, even the bit players – did nothing to stop it. The outsiders depicted in The Big Short did what any investors with their knowledge would do: they bought a form of insurance, called a credit default swap, against the failure of these junked up mortgage backed securities. So when the crash came, their right to a payout against the catastrophic losses made them millions.

The Big Short makes the drama of the crash of 2008 real to the audience. Before I saw the Big Short, I understood the basics of what had happened. I lived through it, like everyone else. I had read the book upon which the movie was based before I saw the movie. I had read about what happened in the papers and online, discussed it with friends. But The Big Short made it real to me. It forced me to internalize this giant fraud and process what was done to me – to all of us – on an emotional level. In a way, I can only now say that I have felt the impact of the crash of 2008.

And now I am really, really pissed off. I am pissed off at the greedy people who perpetrated this trillion-dollar fraud. I am pissed off at the government that bailed them out and failed to prosecute a single person on Wall Street. I am pissed off that seven years later these greedy bastards are engaged in the same kind of schemes with the same callous disregard for the rest of us who stand to suffer when they cause another crash. But most of all I am pissed off because the overriding feeling I had coming out of the movie theater was a feeling of being powerless. Yes, I know, I could do something about it, one person can make a difference, no matter how difficult the challenge. But at that moment I had no immediate recourse to seek justice or change. And like the rest of us, I know that my ability to influence policy has been co-opted by the moneyed interests buying our politicians.

I do not think that I will be alone in these feelings. Millions of people will see this movie. They too will become enraged beyond words at the way that these people blew up the economy in their quest for profits, then ran to Washington the way that entitled teenagers run to their parents the minute that their do-as-we-wish antics land them in real trouble. And they will be enraged that their leaders bailed out these reckless teenagers by passing their debts on to the rest of us. But most of all, they will be enraged that they cannot do a damn thing about it. It happened. They took and took and took and then they got bailed out and now they are taking and taking some more.

By the time that Kristen and I left the theater, it had become dark and very, very foggy. The day had turned into night and the rain had become fog while we sat riveted by this tale of misfit characters who had called bullshit on the American economy and walked away with millions, an insane move played out against the backdrop of the great theft of our time. We had had the kind of quintessential movie experience that I have not had since I saw Good Will Hunting in a Boston theater in 1997. I did not see this movie; I experienced it. A midday adventure, complete with popcorn, skittles and a movie that should have the analysts on Wall Street calculating just how much more they can take before the people overcome their present powerlessness.

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On Gun Violence

“In Sudan they carry firearms the way Americans carry cell phones. No one shoots anyone. If they even try they are shot dead.” – A gun owner defending the right to bear arms

            The onslaught of gun violence is reaching a tipping point in America. At some point, Americans will simply decide that the death of innocents is too much, and the arguments and maneuverings of the pro-gun community will lose all power. It is worth recognizing that the touchstone of pro-gun apologists – the second Amendment – has already lost all meaning. The “debate” about gun control will soon follow.

The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The first part of the Amendment asserts the conditions that make it necessary for the people to have the right to bear arms. But those conditions do not exist in America today, which makes any discussion of the merits of the Second Amendment nonsensical.

First, we do not need a well regulated militia of private citizens with guns to keep us secure from foreign invasion. It is beyond reason to suggest that we must accept daily mass murders to ensure that our “well regulated militia” is ready to defend us, lest the most awesome military ever assembled lets us down. Second, though the State may be secure, its citizens are not, because people with guns keep committing mass murders. That which is asserted in the Second Amendment to be necessary for our security is the very thing that threatens our security every day in our schools, at our jobs and on our streets. Finally, for all of the millions of guns now in the country, we do not have a free state. We are more subject to state surveillance than any nation ever. The right of habeas corpus has been essentially suspended. Our government puts more people in prison than any nation on earth. Our votes no longer influence our laws, which reflect the desires of the billionaires and the corporations. For all of their talk of needing guns to defend freedom, our pro gun community has done nothing to stop the quiet dismantling of the conditions that we once thought of as making us free.

It is nonsensical to debate the Second Amendment in light of our current circumstances. It is explicitly premised on a world reality that no longer exists. Logically, the amendment may as well read, “Because the sky is green, in order to keep gravity working in reverse, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.” But even if the second amendment had not included the conditions placed upon it in the text, our gun culture would still be set to collapse. Gun violence exists now in our collective psyche at a stratum deeper than law, deeper even than our sacred rights. It has reached that primal place where resides the instinct to protect our children from violence, that place where the intolerable will no longer be brooked, because too much that we love is at stake. When we finally decide to remove the gun culture from our troubled society, no physical force, no legislative tactic and no purist lament will prevent the power of our collective will to stop the madness.

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Democracy 2.0, Part II

Democracy 2.0 is coming. It is only a matter of time before we have an online system for participating in the political process that is comprehensive, organized and interactive. We will learn about, debate and track government policies in real time. We will know the positions of our officials on every issue, and their reasons for them, and register our own positions with them. Every time an official acts, she will do so knowing whether her constituents – and the public at large – support or oppose her actions. More importantly, constituents will know whether and why an official has voted against them in every instance. A more direct democracy is coming, and we should try to understand its implications as we watch it unfold. Here are some thoughts on what we may see:

Money in Politics. There is an inherent tension between wealth inequality and democracy. Simply put, a majority will not consistently vote for a system that funnels money into the hands of a few people. As long as a democracy is sufficiently indirect, however, the wealthy and powerful can buy politicians and control the media in order to perpetuate an economy tilted decidedly in their favor.

Democracy 2.0 will sharply curtail this corruption. When an official endorses a policy that tilts the economy unfairly, it will be simple to track the meetings and political contributions of that official for evidence of corruption. Corruption thrives in the shadows, where it is possible to employ indirect and secretive methods to circumvent the democratic process. Democracy 2.0 holds the promise of bringing the political process fully into the light of public discourse, where corruption has nowhere to hide. When we can all see corruption clearly, there will likely be much, much less of it to see.

Media. The media today is a quagmire of information, little of which is news in any real sense. Those in power in America have understood, since at least the run up to World War I, that it takes propaganda, as opposed to violence, to control a population that sees itself as democratic. (See Noam Chomsky’s many writings and lectures on this point). The advertising, marketing, entertainment and media industries in America today are masters at playing on our emotions and manipulating us at an unconscious level. It would be naïve to think that the people who own our news sources would refrain from using these techniques to control the political agenda.

But this kind of propaganda will lose much of its effectiveness when Democracy 2.0 comes online. In order to actively participate in governing it is necessary to read, to think, to discern and to judge. Governing activates the reasoning part of the brain, so the more time we spend in the online forum the less likely we are to fall prey to those who would manipulate our emotions. In “Manifesto of Real Democracy,” written under the pen name of Democrates, the author explains how the act of governing hones our reasoning skills, a virtue of the system with vast implications for our development as a species. A more direct democracy will allow people to circumvent the manipulation of the media in favor of the orderly, reasoned discourse of the online forum.

Education. Education stands to gain the most in the move to Democracy 2.0. The biggest obstacle to more direct control of the government by the people comes from the people themselves, who are leery of giving more power to other citizens they feel are too ignorant to participate responsibly. But this kind of thinking actually gets the causation backwards: people are irresponsible – or seem to be – because they have never been asked to participate in the day to day decisions that affect us all. How differently would we teach our children – all of our children – if we knew that when they grew up they would be actively shaping our public discourse and public policy? Would we not teach them the tools they will need to become responsible citizens? When everyone has an equal right to participate in the online forum, we will radically change our educational system to produce the kind of citizens worthy of a more true democracy.

Economics. Democracy 2.0 holds the promise of a reversal of our present economic policies, which protect corporate interests at the expense of ordinary Americans. After the crash in 2008 our government bailed out Wall Street while leaving ordinary Americans to fend for themselves, even though it was Wall Street that caused the crisis. Since then corporate profits have soared while we are subject to “austerity” measures to pay back the government that bailed out the banks. Simply put, our political economy protects profits, not people.

The move to Democracy 2.0 will prevent this kind of top down use of our government by powerful interests. The economic policies of 2.0 will flow in the direction of helping ordinary Americans because ordinary Americans will be more directly involved in creating the policies. It does not take the financial savvy of a Wall Street insider to create a cooperative economy that protects people; it only takes that kind of savvy to fleece people with policies that “are necessary to keep America competitive in the global economy.” When we enact economic policies ourselves, they will increasingly protect the interests of the people and not the corporations.

Security and Privacy. Perhaps the most immediate and profound reversal will take place in the area of government spying. Governments spy on their citizens when the interests of the government and the people diverge. Spying is a means of control used by one group against another. When the government for all intents and purposes is the people, its political alter ego so to speak, there will be no need for the current surveillance state.

On the other hand, corrupt officials may find the move to Democracy 2.0 an uncomfortable development. Officials will be subject to scrutiny in all aspects of their public lives. We will need to know about their schedules, their finances, their patterns of accepting donations, their phone calls, their social connections and more, to assure ourselves that they are not corrupt. The life of an official is an inherently public life; in the future much of it will be lived out in the online forum.

As with any impending significant change, some will say that it will not happen, or that it will not work, or that it will be prevented by someone or something, or that it will not change things very much. But every so often life presents us with a game changer, something that allows us to challenge our current paradigm. The Internet presents such a game changer for our democratic system, one that could reverse the flow of political power in a way that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago.

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Democracy 2.0, Part I

The basic principle of democracy is self-governance. Everyone in a democracy has an equal right to participate in the decisions that affect us all. Though it is customary to think of this principle as applying to our own representative democracy, when we cut through the complex web of media coverage, party affiliation, ideologies of the left and the right and the thousand other dimensions of the political cacophony, we see the truth: we as a people do not satisfy this most basic criterion of democratic self-governance. But for the first time in history we have the means to close the great gap between our democratic principles and our lived democracy, with profound consequences that we can only begin to imagine.

Political rule falls along a spectrum that runs from a single person having all political power, an absolute monarchy, to a direct democracy with all persons participating in every political decision, something that only ancient Greece has ever remotely approximated. Along the spectrum between the two are versions of oligarchy, rule of the few, and representative democracy, rule by elected officials. Although representative democracy would seem to provide for equal participation, in fact the movement from direct democracy to representative democracy creates a great gap, a disconnect between those who vote and those who rule, that is filled all too often by people with money, power and influence.

Think about the amount of time that so many of us spend keeping up with news, talking about issues and expressing opinions in small groups. Now ask yourself: does it matter? Yes, it is important, vitally important. But moving from what we read to what we discuss to how we vote, we lose almost all of our personal, relative influence in the day-to-day governing decisions. We simply follow and discuss politics way out of proportion to our ability to directly influence decision-making, while those with money, power and influence enjoy a grossly disproportionate ability to shape policy. Moreover, what the media reports is necessarily limited and distorted, leaving officials to make decisions and enforce policies largely outside of the public view or understanding.

The implications of this observation, though vast, have all but vanished from our political discourse. My thinking about this subject only began when I found a little book called “Manifesto of Real Democracy,” written by someone under the pen name of Democrates. For Democrates, monarchism, oligarchy and representative democracy are but three names for the same political system – rule by the few – under different guises. For that writer, the few who wield power in today’s representative democracies have deliberately blurred the line between our representative system and a direct democracy, in order to retain power for themselves while leaving us to believe that we share power equally through our representatives. Though Democrates’ powerful little book changed forever the way I view our political system, for me it is not so important why the line has blurred, nor is it so vital to achieve that writer’s ideal of real democracy.

The reason for this is that the great gap between direct democracy and representative democracy is no longer beyond our power to bridge. Though we may never have direct democracy, we can and will develop what I would call virtual democracy, a form of shared power not so radical as real or direct democracy but with the promise of a government exponentially more direct than the representative democracies dotting the globe today. We live at the dawn of the information age: we can now follow events in real time, via Twitter, Facebook, online news sources, government and education-sponsored websites and countless other technologies we have at our disposal. What is missing, and what we need, is a clean, orderly, interactive way of linking our online news coverage to the policies that are the subject of the news and the officials who are responsible for those policies. When we have created an online virtual forum in the spirit and manner of the direct democracies of Ancient Greece, our politics, though still representative, will be driven much more directly by the people.

This is democracy 2.0. It is the practice of ordinary people actively engaging in the political system, using online resources to learn about, comment about and make judgments about the laws and policies currently before their local, state and federal officials. For any given issue of public life, democracy 2.0 requires a set of direct online links, from media sources to proposed legislative bills, to the committee meetings about the bills and the compromises to finalize them, to their presentation to the executive for signing or veto, to the administration and execution of the laws and to court decisions interpreting them. It requires direct online communication between the people and their elected officials, in real time – a dynamic process whereby officials work with their constituencies as they propose, negotiate, pass, enforce and interpret the laws. It also requires links to publicly available data bearing on our laws and public policies as they are formulated and after they are implemented. In short, democracy 2.0 will leverage information technology to collapse the gap between the people, the media and our public officials, so that all may directly and actively participate in our collective self-governance.

A move to democracy 2.0 will require an online infrastructure that does not now exist, but which we can build with the technologies now at our disposal. But it will require – and usher in – new ways of perceiving and experiencing our democracy and our society. Though it is impossible to see where democracy 2.0 can take us, we can anticipate some of the profound and inevitable changes it would bring, which will be the subject of Part Two.

 

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