William A. Jacobson comments about the success of Upworthy in channeling support for various issues at his decidedly conservative/Republican blog, Legal Insurrection.  He is unapologetic about his worldview, and subtly praises Upworthy for capitalizing on the desire of “low-information liberals” or “The Daily Show generation” to conduct slacktivism by passing around and viral-izing 3 minute videos.

Although I doubt Mr. Jacobson and I agree on much, we see eye-to-eye on the damage that this sort of “slacktivism” is doing to the activist impulse.

First, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out several years ago, the revolution will not be Tweeted.  In a nutshell, activism is hard and if an action is trivially easy, like “Liking” something or watching a video clip, it probably does little beyond raise awareness, if even that. Stated differently, significant change within entrenched systems with competing, usually powerful interests is highly unlikely to be affected without sacrifice on the part of the weaker party.  That sacrifice is what the minority or weaker group has to compete with: their time, their energy, their presence, their livelihood.  While raising awareness is certainly an important first step, clicking on things or watching things is no sacrifice at all.  I would go so far as to imagine that the bulk of the folks watching these videos don’t need to be convinced of whatever the takeaway might be; there’s a lot of preaching to the choir happening.

Even more problematic than its ineffectualness, however, is the overall dumbing down of the complexity of these ideas.  Closely associated is the related idea that many have that two-minute video clips playing in the background are an adequate substitution for taking 15 minutes to read 1000 words about a subject.

Contrast the following Upworthy post about the use of the n-word by an obviously racist public official with this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the NYT about the same.  The video illustrates nothing beyond what is well known, which is that there are racist people who don’t realize they are racist.  If I had to summarize the purpose of the video, it’s to make people laugh and possibly angry.  In contrast, the Coates article is an exploration of embedded racism and context.  It covers the scenario portrayed and then some, and discusses in depth various situations where the use of slurs can vary in appropriateness depending on community and historical context.  The video will be forgotten immediately; the article might change a mind.

I know comparing these two side by side isn’t completely fair because there’s not an implicit choice that needs to be made between the two.  But there are only so many free minutes in the day and an awful lot of stuff to read, watch, and listen to on the internet.  I think that videos are preferable for some because they can be “listened to” while something else is in progress.  I am not going to defend it here but I think the idea that deep thinking about complex subjects can happen in the background while you type emails or scan Facebook is patent nonsense.  The passing around of these videos rather than substantive discussions gives legitimacy to the idea that they are an adequate substitute for real thinking and engagement.

It could be argued that the videos are more useful for changing the minds of segments of society that are only likely to watch videos. While this might be true, it is on-balance not a good thing if minds are changed with over-simplified memes that rely on overly emotional responses to make the needed connection.  What needs to be encouraged is the recognition that social and cultural conflicts are complex and multi-faceted, that we are all blinded by our emotions, that there is no right way to think or feel about certain things, that there are many perspectives on these issues, that there is endless background to be learned about any given situation, and so on.  This recognition is what has been destroyed by the fast-food nature of modern conveyors of information.

It can be argued that they both have some value, or maybe there are some Upworthy videos that rival the article in depth and meaning.  This I agree with.  I would go a step further and say that there are some ideas that are best expressed in this medium. What I am criticizing is the wholesale substitution of, or rather, the filling of our available minutes with easy-to-digest videos rather than substance.  It’s the same old criticism that I’m sure was leveled about TV when it began to become popular.

I don’t want to be overly critical of what Upworthy has accomplished. It is better than no engagement with the issues at all, which is probably the state of affairs they hoped to address:

That’s what you can expect here: no empty calories. No pageview-juking slideshows. No right-column sleaze. Just a steady stream of the most irresistibly shareable stuff you can click on without feeling bad about yourself afterwards.

But I maintain that oversimplification of complex is very dangerous no matter which side of the aisle it’s occurring on.  If I had to briefly sum up what the biggest problem with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News is, it would be first and foremost, oversimplification (followed by glaring omission and distortion). The strength of many progressive viewpoints is that (a) they don’t rely on magic beings for their moral foundation and (b) they at least attempt to engage with all the facts. That is why I always find myself on the left side of things, not because of how I personally feel about gay-marriage or poverty or government.  There is something to be said for those kind of arguments, but I believe the internet (and the Daily Show) have elevated the to a certain kind of primacy and that needs to be squashed by the left because it can just as easily squashed by the right.

And by the way, thanks to Mr . Jacobson, I now know of at least one right-leaning answer to Upworthy, Twitchy. The right does toxic messaging much, much better than the right is able to counter it. Twitchy, if it finds the sweet spot in UX and context that Upworthy has done for the right, will do an order of magnitude more damage.

 

An exciting, but extremely verbose piece about the decline of the role of the university in promoting healthy democracy and progressive social change appeared at Philosophers for Change by Henry A. Giroux last week.

The first two-thirds is nothing you haven’t heard or thought many times.  Towards the end, Giroux encourages us to think like the late, great Edward Said at some length.  For example:

I believe that Said was right in insisting that intellectuals have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus and challenge common sense.  The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to, nor a violation of, what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition.  According to Said, academics have a duty to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view, and reminding “the audience of the moral questions that may be hidden in the clamor and din of the public debate.”

Later, Giroux makes his meandering suggestions for activist faculty moving forward:

Academics as public intellectuals can write for multiple audiences, expand those public spheres, especially the many sites opening up online, to address a range of important social issues…Relatedly…there is a need for public intellectuals to become part of a broader social movement aimed at dismantling the prison-industrial complex and the punishing state.

and:

Second, academics, artists, journalists and other cultural workers need to connect the rise of subaltern, part-time labor in both the university and the larger society with the massive inequality in wealth and income that now corrupts every aspect of American politics and society.

and:

Third, academics need to fight for the rights of students to get a free education, be given a formidable and critical education not dominated by corporate values, and to have a say in the shaping of their education and what it means to expand and deepen the practice of freedom and democracy.

and finally:

there is a need to oppose the ongoing shift in power relations between faculty and the managerial class. 

Conspicuously absent is a topic that seems inescapable to me, which is sacrifice.  

I will be the last to criticize the lifestyle of the university professor. Relative to their intellectual peers the professor has made a decision to eschew great wealth to pursue a life of thought in many cases. Nevertheless, the standard of living of a tenured professor is generally decent and it should be of little surprise that it’s under attack by those on the right who plainly can’t perceive the value of such work. Compare this with the inexplicable subject of “tenure” for secondary educators and ask yourself how many people who attack education from the right really understand the different between high school and college “teachers”.

Along these same lines, Giroux addresses the scourge of the subaltern class, as above, comprised of lecturers and adjuncts that do the bulk of the mechanical instruction these days.  The implication is that the erosion of a living wage for this class will make it impossible for them to conduct the activities university faculty should be conducting.  I agree with that this state of affairs is a disgrace, but it seems to follow from his own argument that much of this instruction is probably expendable.  I’m certainly no fan of market-driven educational values, but in programs and universities that are based around these principles, we should expect employment practices to follow suit. It can hardly be taken for granted that if these vast armies of subalterns were paid more or given more intellectual freedom, universities would be vastly improved.  In other words, it seems likely that the intellectual strength of faculty probably has dropped right alongside the critical, intellectual prowess of the students.

The common thread between these two is sacrifice. What Giroux is ultimately talking about is leadership. And leaders cannot lead but by example. In the intellectual, political, and economic climate that he writes about, if university faculty are to accomplish any of these goals he sets forth, then they need to somehow exemplify that students can get by without the comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle they hope to achieve.

If market-driven educational values are leading to legions of programming robots and hedge-fund managers, it’s because these are seen as an easy, guaranteed avenue to a life of comfort and leisure that is understandably desired.  I suspect most university professors value much of the same ease and luxury (travel, relaxation, good food, fun) that these hedge-fund managers do but they have admirably made the decision to pursue a life of intellectual pursuits rather than finance. Professors engaging students and the world on questions of social justice must understand that they are seen not as the grungy intellectuals they see themselves as, but as denizens of the ivory tower, living a life of ease.  It matters not if it’s true or not. It is folly to imagine the minds of these future financiers being changed by powerful argument alone.

If the universities are to lead the way forward — and I agree with Giroux that this might be the last place where this is possible — then those that are leading the charge need to begin by publicly demonstrating an austere life, devoid of consumerism.  If this isn’t possible then I argue that his entire program is compromised.  We cannot have iPhones, cheap plane tickets, and free internet without unfettered, globalized capitalism. If university professors cannot first publicly demonstrate that they can live an austere, modest life, perhaps demonstrating a shift to modern amenities in a communal access mode, if available at all, as we all must (perhaps temporarily) if there is to be real equality, then their claims and arguments won’t be taken seriously outside of academia. Once again, I recognize that tenured university professors are not wealthy in any sense of the world. But I also recognize that they do just fine. Giroux wants faculty to lead. There will be more to leadership in this context then lesson plans and activism.

To the second point, concerning the subaltern class, it is time for the universities to consider training less graduate students. Far too many degrees are being awarded for the purposes of propagating this system at the result of massive dilution of the scholarly literature and spectacular hyper-specialization. This problem is probably not one that faculty can decide to fix, unfortunately; it is a part of the machine Giroux describes.

In short, it is not enough to simply change the worldview of professors.  The professors must try to change their relationship to society. I do not argue that professors make too much, or even much at all.  I do not argue that the academic life is easy.  But I am aware that the university it is a very comfortable place to be in relation to many working-class jobs. If faculty are to change this relationship, they must first start by conceding that they have to sacrifice much as leaders of the new paradigm or no one will take them seriously. The working poor, the disenfranchised, the angry know full well that professors like to buy exotic fruits at the farmer’s market, fly around the world on vacation and to conferences, have expensive data plans and computers, and buy nice clothes. They largely want the same things, and that is what needs to be attacked.

PS. If you are thirsty for more reading about the decline and fall of the Holy American Empire, this review contains a nice survey of the literature, and the book sounds excellent.

Yesterday I posted a sketch of an idea for self-organizing campaign hierarchies built from the bottom up, enabled by an open-source web/mobile platform of some sort.

Today I’ll discuss one background assumption, that of efficacy the “self-organizing hierarchy.” The idea of bottom-up campaigns assumes that a hierarchy can and will emerge from an affiliation or pledging process, which will be robust enough to comprise a voting bloc that might actually lead to an electoral success.

This post will examine the feasibility of this scenario through the lens of management science. The Dutch management scientists Romme & van Olffen provide an overview of the subject of self-organizing hierarchies in the business world, as well as some starting points for more reading.  I find that the writing comes across as vague and pseudo-scientific, but I’ll take it as a starting point.

In the collection of essays in The Biology of Business, edited by John Henry Clippinger III, one of the authors, Philip Anderson, defines self-organization in the sense used by Romme and van Olffen:

Self-organization does not mean that workers instead of managers engineer an organization design. It does not mean letting people do whatever they want to do. It means that management commits to guiding the evolution of behaviors that emerge from the interaction of independent agents instead of specifying in advance what effective behavior is.

The paper defines three broad classes of self-organization that can emerge in this sense.  Conservative self-organization results when there is a strong restoring force that lead to maintenance of some sort of equilibrium, or “homeostasis”. This type leads to rigid, many-level traditional hierarchies, although I didn’t read enough citations to really see why.  Dissipative self-organization results from frequent, unpredictable “disturbances” that result in mini-equilibria with no global equilibrium. This supposedly lends itself to “heterarchy” or the opposite of hierarchy. Heterarchy is something that the Occupy folks must be quite enamored with.

Finally, in “human systems” characterized by both of these types we see instead hierarchy characterized by “a vertical sequence of layers of accountability, based on different degrees of abstraction.” The authors call this autonomous self-organization. Isn’t self-organization always autonomous? As far as I can tell, all of the language about self-organizing systems comes from an omnibus book written by a physicist.

None of these paradigms fit the structure I see emerging to ultimately comprise a voting bloc, although of the three, “dissipative” makes the most sense. By definition, there can be no pre-ordained equilibrium state. On the other hand, it might be argued that the “central” equilibrium state is the one where a candidate or position is endorsed and the peripheral equilibria are the steady-states encountered on the way there.

Other than the encouraging fact that such self-organizations can function in the business world, I’m not sure that it matters. The biggest takeaway for me is some of the reading, and the knowledge that what I’m interested in is not self-organizing hierarchy, but rather, self-organizing heterarchy.

Excerpting from the Wikipedia article on the subject:

Anthropologist Dmitri Bondarenko follows Carole Crumley in her definition of heterarchy as “the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways” and argues that it is therefore not strictly the opposite of hierarchy, but is rather the opposite of homoarchy, which is itself defined as “the relation of elements to one another when they possess the potential for being ranked in one way only”.

Socially, a heterarchy distributes privilege and decision-making among participants, while a hierarchy assigns more power and privilege to the members high in the structure…Domination and subordination links can be reversed and privileges can be redistributed in each situation, following the needs of the system.

In my next post on the subject, I’ll see what examples I can find of self-organizing heterarchies and perhaps survey what has been written on heterarchies generally.

Artist Steve Lambert recently found his way into feed readers everywhere with his unsubtle critique of capitalism in the form of a sculpture apparently inspired by the Price is Right entitled “Capitalism works for me! True/False”.  Viewers vote their binary opinion on the question raised by the interactive piece, and the results are displayed on enormous LED displays for onlookers, sometimes at places selected for their obvious symbolic value, like Times Square in New York City.  Lambert writes, “For 50 years it has been unacceptable, politically, in the United States to ask what is basically a straightforward question. We have a particular economic system, it’s called capitalism. We have every right as a society to ask of that system, is it working? Is it working for us? Do the benefits and the costs balance themselves out in a way that says, do we want to keep this system? Or that says, we want to change this system? Or that says, we ought to look at an alternative system. We’ve been afraid to ask that question. We’ve been afraid to have public debates—that’s the legacy of the cold war. We can’t afford anymore to not do that. We have to raise the question.”

The device is crowd-funded at about $17,000, with itemized expenses including the cost of touring it around the country found on the detailed Kickstarter post.  Roughly $9,000 of this is for electronics, electrical components, and matérial.  It isn’t controversial to imagine that Mr. Lambert typed his blurb on an Apple product with a second powerful, wirelessly networked computer in his pocket.  One wonders:  how many components or sub-components of any of these things were made in Southeast Asia, shipped 15,000 km or so to the United States, and then driven another 4,000 km across the country?

It is by now old news to hear criticisms of what Dinesh D’Souza was once unafraid to call America’s “safety-net capitalism” dismissed by observations that capitalism is what is making the criticism possible in the first place.  These criticisms might be addressed head-on, by suggesting that cheap electronics are feasible in some other pseudo-capitalist context, but the ugly subtext of such rebuttals is that the author of them has no intention, much less desire, to live a life without smartphones.  While a happy, fulfilled life without a smartphone is surely plausible, in the year 2013, it is not a serious concession anyone under the age of 50 is interested in making.  It is time to begin to say things like that out loud.

Taking another tack, some critics of capitalism might talk of living more simply or doing more with less.  Shopping locally.  Biking more.  Building co-ops.  These suggestions are rarely specific, and never address questions about what simpler option will replace our ubiquitous microelectronics and the associated, massive infrastructure.  It is a straightforward exercise in freshman economics to demonstrate how things like global supply chains, manufacturing at massive scale, and cheap, well-protected energy and material reserves allow for the sale of these devices at what can only be called trivially low prices, in essentially every city in America.  It is ludicrous to suggest that a locally-owned co-op or plucky, employee-owned organization could ever accomplish this, even in theory.

In other words, criticisms of capitalism are rarely honest about sacrifice.  In fact, it is reasonable to assume that very little in the way of sacrifice is desired even across class lines.  As the inane criticisms oozing from the Heritage Foundation by such luminaries as Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield make clear, modern amenities and technologies are ubiquitous even at the lowest strata of society.  Precious few critiques of capitalism, coming from anywhere on the socioeconomic spectrum, eclipse individual desires to fly across the country for a weekend trip or to buy new console games.  Such appeals, then, altogether miss the deeper problem, which is consumerism.

No serious, unforced abatement of the capitalist zeitgeist in America will ever occur until the feverish but irrational striving for better material conditions abates first.  As gross class inequality is still a fixture in Postbellum United States, the upending of our capitalism will undoubtedly eventually occur due to unrest that the government can’t paper over, especially if the unprecedented American postwar economic growth remains stalled, as Northwestern economist Robert Gordon suggests is likely in popular media.  In the meantime, for those who are interested in replacing some or all of capitalism with a minimum of tumult, a very frank examination of our inbred consumerism must happen first.

In his 1957 book Hidden Persuaders, journalist and author Vance Packard is perhaps an early progenitor of Naomi Klein.  He saw eight “hidden human needs” shrewd “depth merchandisers” regularly exploit to convince a hapless consumer to do or buy, needs which he always prefixes with the world “selling.”  Though it was never intended to be an exhaustive philosophical or psychological perspective, briefly considering these eight categories gives insight into two different sides of consumerism.  There is ambiguity and overlap, but we need not worry about the grey areas to see the distinction which pervades.

One the one hand is consumerism targeted to achieving Aristotle’s eudiamonia (flourishing), what we might call the benign Good Life.  For Aristotle, this state is the highest end achievable for a human, a sort of hard-wired, enlightened state of happiness.  It includes all other consumeristic goals encountered enroute like wealth and recognition, but only as a means to this ultimate end.  In Packard’s marketing paradigm, we see elements of this ideal reflected in terms like emotional security, reassurance of worth, “love objects”, roots, and immortality.  It is a consumer’s desire for peace of mind, comfort, quiet, health, growth, and solitude — now and in 50 years.

On the other hand, we see everywhere a flavor of consumerism directed to the accumulation of things that do not matter in any universal, lasting sense:  banal, luxury goods and services.  This side of consumerism might be described by Packard’s ego-gratification, sense of power, or creative outlet.  A more fun descriptor is by now a well-known term, conspicuous consumption (Packard called it “conspicuous reserve”), exemplified by expensive cars and drinking five dollar coffee drinks while vigorously reading the classics in public.  In the introduction to an unforgettably-named contribution to the economics canon, Tibor Scitovsky’s Joyless Economy argues that the accumulation of this pointless stuff is due to the “eccentric” members of society of all classes.  In this context, “eccentric” refers to the desire to buy things that the “mob” doesn’t want, which is what makes them so expensive in the first place.

To be fair, there are compelling arguments detailing the real, effective value of such meaningless entities; however vapid an expensive gem might be in some cosmic sense, it nevertheless brings a great many people spectacular feelings of real joy.  After all, the human need found at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization, can and should include almost anything that works.  But obsessively craving a larger paycheck so that one can afford the “gold” healthcare plan or take more time off from work seems to be distinctly different from wanting the same money for an expensive car or jewelry.   Moreover, wanting lots more money for things that ultimately lead to peace of mind and comfort in a universal sense can hardly be labeled as “eccentric”.

Assuming it is sensible, if not critically important, to embrace the first form of consumerism, the latter form must be at least addressed before any serious critique of capitalism can proceed.  This form provides abundant, energetic, powerful fuel to the capitalistic desire of millions across all classes that don’t care to read much Marx before bed.  The implicit irrationality of this eccentricity makes it unlikely that simple appeals to consume less diamonds will find purchase at any socioeconomic stratum.  Attacking what can only be fairly labeled as a value will do little except raise ire among those who hold it most dearly, which surely includes almost all Americans.

Distressingly, the power to effect positive change in this area looks to rest in the hands of the de facto thought leaders who assign symbolic value to things and actions through their own example.  Appealing to other well-educated, middle-class fair-weather critics of capitalism to buy their tomatoes at the farmer’s market is laudable but seems dwarfed by that same person’s irrational desire to drive there in a Lexus rather than a Toyota.  In any case, the farmer’s market enthusiasts are not the visible leaders of the type an entire society needs nor are they ones eating $250 truffles.  Members of the “one percent” are not easily classifiable, however tempting it might be to suppose that they are all bankers and executives.  Appealing to them as a group is too vague.  For better or for worse, the de facto leaders are those near the apex of the wealth pyramid who are most visible.  They are the people who are a constant presence on television and the news: ultra-successful celebrities and athletes, media personalities, heads of public-facing businesses, financiers, and members of the burgeoning political class.

These groups, who are among the largest direct beneficiaries of unfettered capitalism also have the most to lose given a radical shift in the distribution of wealth.  It is unlikely to imagine a bootstrapped movement towards anti-consumerism from within them.  Whatever charitable things can be said about the holders of the most wealth in the United States, it is also clear that this group does not comprise many serious moral leaders — at least not ones interested in sacrificing their material comfort.  And yet the power to deal with this disgusting side-effect of rampant capitalism rests solely in their hands.  Americans aren’t a population that is well-primed for a proletariat revolution.  It is a population that is complacent and numb, from the bottom up.  Artists and activists looking to make a statement about capitalism should focus their efforts not on people walking around in Times Square, but instead on the wealthy, famous people who attend TED talks, the Aspen Ideas Festival, the White House Correspondents Dinner, or the Academy Awards.  These people must be brought to understand that they are thought leaders at the vanguard of the worst kind of consumerism, and that if healthy reform of American capitalism is to occur before an uncomfortable correction forces the situation, they must be the first to make bold, public sacrifices of luxuries that we all want, but don’t matter at all.

Capitalism works quite well for Mr. Lambert, because it has allowed for the development and marketing of his activist art at miraculously low costs.  Critiques of capitalism typed on Macbook Pros that go no further than blanket condemnation of capitalism, subtle or otherwise, are avoiding an important, inescapable obstacle.  We will make no progress on mending the state of affairs that is so toxic to so many unfortunate millions without civil unrest until we first publicly, loudly identify this barrier.  The obstacle is a powerful, latent consumerist ethos and the tacit unwillingness of even the most devoted, moral activists to give up luxuries well in excess of what constitutes our modern American eudiamonia.  However morally bankrupt, dysfunctional, and unsustainable capitalism appears to be, for most, life is good in the United States — very good relative to the whole world’s population and even in the doldrums of the Great Recession.

This era’s revolutionary leaders will get nowhere standing in front of a crowd with the rectangular imprint of an iPhone visible in their pocket, while blandly criticizing “the system.”  They must first admit the embarrassing truth about the various things in our modern lives, and plainly admit that giving them up voluntarily is not on the table.  They must then aggressively eschew meaningless luxuries at every opportunity while embracing the modern amenities which, now that we have tasted, are no longer interested in living without.  This means an admission that we want — need — some form of capitalism while simultaneously committing to having no more stuff than is absolutely necessary.  Only when we are routinely appalled by even minor excess might we begin to chip away at what is left of the capitalism we are stuck with.  Thus the manifesto of the movement that salvages American capitalism might not even contain the word “capitalism.

Following a rewarding conversation yesterday evening, I’ll pen the first of a series of posts about a proposal for electoral reform that can be implemented by the voters themselves, rather than through legislative action.

I’ll eventually survey the literature on the theory and implementation of elections to see if similar proposals exist already, how they compare, and what data there is on their implementation. For now, the purpose of this post is to sketch out some ideas and justifications, and list some of the parameters I imagine such a system would have.

The working title for this system is “bottom-up, non-hierarchical campaigning.”

I distinguish first between campaign finance reform, election/voting reform, and campaign reform. The former deals with limits on contributions and spending and the second with the way in which the election itself is conducted. These rules are both determined at all levels of government by a complex patchwork of regulation, sometimes determined by legislative bodies, constitutions, committees, and councils. They are, in any case, a highly politicized set of constraints. Changing these rules, much less overhauling them, is a difficult proposition, especially at high levels of government. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s impossible, but at the federal level, I do substantial reform in either of these two areas is highly unlikely.

The latter, campaign reform, refers to a rethinking of how political campaigns are conducted, leaving campaign finance rules and voting systems in tact. In fact, the consequences of the existing campaign finance laws and plurality voting paradigms are precisely the problems I am setting out to solve.  In other words, I am speculating about a way to get a candidate elected that requires very little money  to campaign, leads to a better outcome for voters within the confines of a plurality voting system that we are stuck with, and requires no action from legislative bodies.

The first major problem to tackle concerns the large amounts of money needed to win elections. This is because elections are won through expensive propaganda campaigns whereby voters are convinced by various means to vote for one candidate or another. (Why this is might be a subject for another speculative post. In every election I’ve ever voted in, everything I needed to know about the candidates could easily fit on a the single side of a sheet of paper. What in the world are all these “undecideds” or “independents” wavering about?) Therefore, people interested in running for political office have to spend a significant amount of time fundraising. Time is at a premium and it makes sense that a disproportionate amount of time will be spent with potential donors with the most money to lend. With the contribution of significant money and resources quite obviously comes expectations of repayment. Voters with significant resources therefore command significantly more influence over the outcome of elections or subsequent legislative actions. If the interests of the majority or society are not aligned with the interests of large donors, then this is not a democracy, it’s a plutocracy. This seems to be the state of affairs at the national level, and perhaps at some lower levels of government, too.  I will take all of this as given.

Next is the problem of gradients. Plurality voting gives us bad results because there is such a strong disincentive to vote for a third party. Because of the enormous amounts of money needed to campaign, two parties naturally become entrenched and ever-similar (beholden to money).

At the same time, all voters are different.  For example, everyone behaves differently in the political arena. Some people don’t vote, some might vote, others will vote if persuaded, and some will vote no matter what. Some people are very well-informed, some think that they are well-informed but are not, some think they know little but actually know more than most, and some know nothing and try to keep it that way. Some people have a lot of time to spend thinking about politics and some want to spend none. I take it for granted that the bulk of people are fairly ill-informed, don’t have much time to spend on politics, and are unlikely to take much action beyond voting, if that.

Before I begin to sketch the system, I want to disclose that I have never been a member of a political campaign other than at the far margins. It is entirely possible, if not likely that my perceptions about how things work is erroneous.  Perhaps some of my assumptions are grossly incorrect.  Please educate me if this is the case!

Campaigns originate from a moneyed interest or interests. Either the candidate herself or perhaps a coterie selects a candidate. In either case, the important features are the existence of enough money to conduct the campaign or a belief that enough money can be gathered through fundraising.  In this sense, the possession of a dense network of wealthy potential donors is a highly-prized attribute.

Descending from this small cadre is a hierarchy. A senior campaign staff reports directly to the candidate and presumably some board of directors. Regional or functional sub-staffs emanate from them. At some level, volunteers begin to get involved. Some of these people are paid, full or part time. Some of them will expect jobs in the resulting administration. Some of these people run campaigns for a living. The salient details are that the hierarchy originates at the top and requires significant amounts of fundraising (or extant cash) to survive.

The response to the claim that campaigns have always been run this way is to observe that the existence of a national, cheaply-available communications network (the internet) is unprecedented. So long as this tool is available and network neutrality more-or-less remains, it can be used, in principle, to do an end-run around all existing means of campaigning. Campaigns have been run a particular way because delivering a message en masse has been expensive.  Now anyone can get a message out to the world in principle for free.

To leverage the power of this network, we would construct an open-source, freeware campaign platform using public development methods (like the RFC process) which would be operated and maintained with public funds or publicly declared private donations. This platform would exist to serve two purposes: to group people together into a self-organizing hierarchy and to allow a forum for discussion.

We might suggest that voters inclined to participate voluntarily oust conventional campaigning from their lives. Not to reject the possibility of voting for a mainstream candidate, but rather, to get all of their information through the platform. This is both to optimize the time spent dealing with political matters for all voters and to liberate ourselves as much as is practicable from the toxic nature of contemporary political discourse that is poisoning our communities.

Self-organizing hierarchy

This is the cornerstone of this idea and is something that I haven’t really researched formally.

The idea is something like this: Alice, Bob, Charlie, and Dan are having a beer one night.  Alice, Bob, and Charlie don’t really care for politics but they think much as Dan, and know full well that Dan is infinitely more well-informed than them.

Through the platform, they “align” with Dan. They are OK with Dan speaking for them, and are willing to take cues and recommendations from Dan.  They are free to abandon the relationship anytime and aren’t committed to anything.  But for the moment, Dan now has a mini-constituency of 3.

This action of alignment is nothing more than a pledged affiliation. It is retractable, it is not linked to a commitment, and it is anonymous, if desired.

Next, through the platform, Dan can meet others like him with similar mini-constituencies:  Don, Deidre, and Dorothy.  Over sandwiches, Deidre convinces them to “align” with her for now.  Deidre now has a fluid, mini-constituency of about 15.

Deidre, who is a small business owner, speaks with Eden and Ethel at the next Rotary Club meeting. They both have constituencies of 15 and 17, respectively, but don’t want to spend any more time dealing with this. Deidre suggests that they invite their constituencies (possible through the platform) over for an informal town-hall are her house this weekend.  Deidre, addresses the group, tells them about herself and what she stands for. Later, members of those independent hierarchies discuss amongst themselves and perhaps hold a vote. Eden’s hierarchy agrees to “align” with Deidre but not Ethel’s. Deidre is now a community leader, literally possessing of a constituency of her own.

And onwards and upwards it goes, with people with lots of friends, argumentative ability, and inclination for involvement bubbling to the top.  For anonymity, all such relationships can be kept public or private. Communications flow up and down, participation is always optional, but the hierarchies are linked through social relationships in the real world.  Arguments and discussions about the issues take place publicly, on the platform, with lower levels asking questions upwards and higher levels answering downwards.  The level of detail and complexity in the arguments conforms more or less naturally to the levels of the hierarchy.  One can imagine all sorts of interesting rules, obligations, and commitments that could be tried.

At some point, a candidate is either produced (bubbles up) or endorsed, almost certainly not a Republican or Democrat — but possibly so.  The hierarchy is informed and the information bubbles down.

Dan, who is an armchair politico, somewhat well-informed, reads emails from Deidre and others, who he knows and trusts, and is convinced about who to vote for.  Once again over beers, he tells Alice, Bob, and Charlie what he thinks.  He persuades Alice and Bob to vote, Charlie just can’t be bothered. Votes can’t be verified of course, but the personal relationships involved seem to make lying about voting more unlikely.

This is a brief, narrative sketch of the self-organizing hierarchy at the heart of “bottom-up campaigning.” It costs little, allows for participation that brackets the gradients inherent in the constituency, and allows for the possibility of third-parties because it ignores mainstream campaigning altogether.

I’ll begin and maintain a list of features that this system must (or should) have:

  • free, except for the costs of operating and maintaining the site
  • voluntary, complete abandonment of all other avenues for learning about issues and candidates
  • 100% transparency (especially financial) via the web/mobile platform
  • 100% auditability by anyone, anytime
  • campaign hierarchies are built from the bottom-up according to putative voters’ level of interest
  • the building of trust and mini-constuencies is accomplished through small, existing social relationships
  • anonymity is allowed, if desired

More to follow on existing proposals along these lines, thoughts on the practicality of self-organization, and more details about how I imagine it could be implemented.

I’ve recently read a valuable contribution from Don Fitz at Alternet (reposted from Synthesis/Regeneration) on the psychology of the 1%.

Fitz considers first the psychopathology of the wealthiest, introducing the “dimensional” paradigm to describe a limited degree of psychopathy that might be inherent in the rich. He suggests that the psychopathic traits that have been correlated with business executives and managers exist in contrast to complementary psychopathic traits found in the more visible kind of psychopaths — the kind we see in movies, the news, and in jail. He concedes that while there is some evidence for a correlation here, it is not particularly strong.

Next the author examines compassion and produces several studies of the Malcolm Gladwell variety that you’ve likely heard before that suggest that the wealthy are less likely to show compassion or emotional stress when confronted with various gut-wrenching situations. He concludes that members of lower classes tend have tighter identifications with groups or communities, where the wealthy tend towards “rugged individualism.”

Finally, he looks at happiness and provides evidence for the diminishing returns of happiness as a function of money. In other words, the largest increase in happiness comes from transitioning out of poverty. He also advances the conclusion from another study that over time, as the standard of living of a society grows, happiness remains constant or declines (according to increased rates of depression).

Portions of his conclusion seem weak to me. He first asserts that past a certain point, the wealthy can only become happier by accumulating more and more wealth, which can only be obtained at the expense of the poor. But It is not self-evident that the gains of the wealthy are at the expense of the poor. The Federal Reserve is currently loaning new money to banks at a rate of about $85 billion a month. It is far from clear that this boon for everyone lucky enough to be in the stock market (and the banks themselves, of course), is at the expense of anyone. It could be argued that the next recession/collapse that some are predicting is at the expense of the poor. My point is that it isn’t as simple as the notion that a dollar that does not go to the 1% goes to the poor.  It might go to the 2%. Or the 10%. Or it might go overseas. I am guessing that the thumb rule is more along the lines of: a dollar at that does not go to the 1% is distributed among the 99%, starting at the top.

There is also a blanket condemnation of fuel harvesting practices:

Finding that the pollution of small communities generates insufficient funds, they blow off the tops of mountain ranges for coal, raze boreal forests for tar sands, attack aquatic ecosystems with deep sea drilling, and contaminate massive natural water systems by mining gold or fracking for gas.

I am in favor of regulating all this heavily, for both environmental and safety reasons, but I can’t take this sort of thing too seriously unless it is accompanied by a call to return to the pre-industrial era living. I doubt Fitz is ready to give up cheap gas, flying around for frivolous vacations and conferences, and using cheap electricity to power his electronics.

The remainder of the conclusion is what prompted me to write this post.  He concludes that three things that are needed to stabilize and equalize our capitalism, beyond simple wealth redistribution. One, the erosion of materialism (consumerism).  Two, an overall increase in the amount of empathy and communitarianism.  And three, a call for those working at the top to engage in the work done by those at the bottom from time to time — literally.

I think often about what is needed to erode our consumerist tendencies without affecting our standard of living.  Fitz just says that “this requires vastly reducing the emphasis on material possessions. Relationships of people to people can never flourish as long as relationships of people to objects reign supreme.” So there are no details about how to actually accomplish this.  Here, as always, the devil is in the details. I am pessimistic about the existence of such a way forward.

To the second point, I have high hopes that this can be achieved through the construction of new types of institutions that churches and unions no longer provide. Fitz sees the difference in compassion between the top and bottom as stemming from a master/worker dichotomy:

By definition, the rich and powerful have more material resources and spend more of their time telling others what to do. Those with fewer material resources get told what to do. As a result, the rich value independence and autonomy while those with less money think of themselves as more interdependent with others.

If he’s right, it would be much more difficult for members of the same community to think of others as so many pawns to be played. Unfortunately, there is evidence that the rich are withdrawing from society as much as possible. Building communities that they will want to be a part of will become harder as they become more and more isolated.

The last point is wishful thinking. The time of those who are wealthy is valuable, literally, and they know that. It is not likely that they will spend time washing dishes or typing dictations if there is money to be made, certainly not without significant progress on the first two points.

Studying the psychology of the rich and connecting to the goals of eroding consumerism and building institutions is a valuable undertaking. Personally, it makes me smile to think of the the rich with contempt and to imagine studying them like lab animals, if only metaphorically. I know that however tempting it is, though, it is counterproductive, especially to the goal of building communities. I’ll cover in future posts my visions on these two goals, which are central to my answer to capitalism.

The November/December issue of Adbusters opens with this short piece from Darren Fleet:
A-e-r-o-s-o-l s-u-l-p-h-a-t-e s-p-r-a-y-i-n-g

Each time I repeat it, the phrase sends a chill into the depths of my spine. My generation was indoctrinated with focusing on the positive. Creative alternatives. Thinking outside the box. Market-based solutions. Light triumphing over darkness. Good over evil. All that stuff. If we survived Hitler and the atom bomb, Jihad and the Crusades, Rwanda and Auschwitz, the bubonic plague and HIV, communism and capitalism, surely we can beat anything.

But we’ve never seen a thing like this before. This thing, this name, this solution to our warming Earth, it stabs through you like blunt trauma to the head. Only it doesn’t kill you, it just pins your eyes open and makes you watch … and you’re unable to cry because of the humiliating shame.

The human spirit has hit a wall. These three words are what life on Earth has come to. This is the best that our collective minds can offer. This, the fictitious and simplistic plan of a kid in a sand box as if it were a dream we could wake up from, is the reality upon us. For the first time in history we face our collective demise. And we have no solution other than this.

A-e-r-o-s-o-l s-u-l-p-h-a-t-e s-p-r-a-y-i-n-g …

It means blacken the sky.

Even as I start to criticize this blanket condemnation of one of several possibilities for geoengineering, I do find myself moved by the language used here and the unintended consequences of this policy that are so easy to imagine, whether based in fact or not.

But the state of affairs is that the prevention of ecological and social disaster due to increasing temperatures in the medium- and long-term might require human technological intervention (geoengineering).  Being happy about this state of affairs is wholly different from endorsing it as a necessary evil, and so I think that on balance, such emotionally charged description is probably not helping the problem.

A review of Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters. The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering is in the Berline Review of Books this week. The reviewer, Dr. Rose Cairns, portrays it as a fair examination of the technologies and moral questions at hand, rather than advocating or opposing geoengineering generally. Cairns criticizes Hamilton’s introduction of a new binary to replace the standard left/right dichotomy and his assertion that the ethical questions raised by sulphate aerosols characterize the ethical questions raised by geoengineering as a whole. In spite of these shortcomings, if I reach for a book on geoengineering, this will be the one I look for, because this sort of examination is the only one I really trust. (By that I guess I mean someone I believe to have a worldview similar to mine, who is attempting to write a fair book, regardless of the conclusions reached. I noticed that Hamilton had written for Adbusters before, so he must be one of us, right? I suspect that many people, on all points of the ideological spectra imagine they are using this sort of thinking to pick their books.)

In any case, Hamilton rejects the idea of sulphate aerosols, principally because of the massive amount of uncertainty associated with its worst-case outcomes, made worse because there is evidence to suggest that starting and then stopping would actually compound the warming problem even further. It might be considered an all-or-nothing, irrevocable gamble.

One of the most interesting criticisms raised by Cairns is made when considering Hamilton’s point of view on climate scientists’ policy demands and the retarding effects of skepticism:

His view of the central role of science in ‘demanding action’ on climate change has led him to a natural focus on climate change denial as one of the central causes of the intractability of the climate change problem, however this seems to be somewhat misplaced. With or without the influence of climate scepticism, climate change has never been a simple problem, requiring as it does, radical social, economic and political changes (arguably the re-structuring of global societies and economies). Thus science did not, and cannot ‘demand actions’ because fundamentally these actions are about social choices and values, a point that seems to get lost in Hamilton’s analysis.

This neatly captures why such strong, reflexive reactions to global warming policy exist in the first place, at least among people who can understand the science (I am assuming that the overall claims of climate science are no longer contestable). I disagree with Cairns concerning skepticism, though. The language of skeptical writing has always spoken to me, especially when I was younger and less engaged with the larger picture. Moreover, the skeptics never talk about social choices and values. It’s only ever an attack on the science, which, however bankrupt it might be, can always be made to sound correct to an uninitiated, uncritical audience. In this sense, I think Hamilton is right, climate change skepticism is incredibly powerful, as is science writing generally, when there is a political point to be made.

Once the science is agreed upon (if ever), the issue is reduced to an economic one, a tiresome question of whether to allow unfettered capitalism or not. Once again there is a reflexive protection of capitalism, which I believe stems from unease, unease which ironically, alternatives to capitalism aim to quench. So long as there is unease with one’s future in a capitalist society, there will never be any interest in systematic corrections that might upset one’s financial security even more than it already is. Thus as far as global warming is concerned, widespread enthusiasm for policy change seems extremely unlikely until it is forced by a crisis.