Category Archives: policy

Vibrant Localism

photoThe first time I noticed was in San Antonio. I was there for a wine festival, and as I made my way from my hotel downtown to a venue in the outer rings, I saw a Chili’s, and a Home Depot, and a Target. Freeway signs, and lots of cars. I forgot where I was.

Maybe I was tired, but I couldn’t see anything that made San Antonio any different than parts of Los Angeles, where I grew up, or northern California where I was living at the time. It all looked the same. I lost my place – not just what exit I needed to take to get to the tasting but what city was I in? Where did I go?

I’m a child of the 80s and 90s – I grew up in the boom of the big box stores and mega-chains and the appreciation of consistency. “If I go to this Chili’s in San Antonio, it will be the same as any other Chili’s anywhere else!” And that, for the moment, seemed like a good thing.

But when there’s nothing left that’s different – nothing left that’s unique – where do you belong? What’s there to remember? What do you call yourself when someone asks where you’re from? You get lost on freeways.

This country didn’t used to be so uniform. As a little kid, I visited Boonviille – a small town in northern California, where I had the best ice cream ever. Boonville has its own language:

Boontling is a folk language spoken only in Boonville in Northern California. Although based on English, Boontling’s unusual words are unique to Boonville, California. Scottish Gaelic and Irish, and some Pomoan and Spanish, also influenced the vocabulary of the language.[1] Boontling was invented in the late 19th century and had quite a following at the turn of the 20th century. It is now mostly spoken only by aging counter-culturists and native Anderson Valley residents. Because the town of Boonville only has a little over 700 residents, Boontling is an extremely esoteric dialect, and is quickly becoming archaic. It has over a thousand unique words and phrases.
Boontling, Wikipedia

Boontling arose from its place. With trails of languages from Native American and immigrant groups, it reflected the unique people, place and time special to Boonville. How do we keep Boontling alive? How do we tell these singular stories?

Hoping for the Vibrantly Local

I think Portlandia is the indicator that a tide is turning. People are turning on their TVs to watch quirky skits about a city that has an identity. We’re making choices that reject the bland, the repetitive, the big box in order to invest in the things that set us apart.

“Local” is trendy, but if local means gentrification of spaces where affordable housing is needed, or inflating prices for fresh food, or reliance on transportation to access specific services, then we are building a localism based on class. We’re invading others’ spaces to reinforce a new localism that further excludes already marginalized groups.

If we care about fairness and inclusivity, the solution is a localism that makes towns, places, communities more stable, that keeps people supported and loved where they already are (if that’s where they wish to be). This is a call to reflect – on bringing your time, attention and money to your community. To speaking out if you can or wish to, to inviting others to do so, and to listening when they do. Invest in your community by listening to the folks who are already there. Majora Carter says it best in her Twitter bio: You don’t have to leave your neighborhood to live better!

This is an ode to vibrant localism, to lively communities, to neighbors who know one another and to what makes us unique, different and separate. This is a beginning.


What Happened to Electability?

Where did “electability” go as a top criterion for primary voters?

Last night, Rick Santorum won three primaries (although one was a beauty contest, apparently). This is a fascinating shift from primary voters – some from just a few weeks ago – who viewed electability as a compelling concern.

Perhaps this is because Romney supporters thought he had it in the bag? Or because only the far-to-one-side voters show up when the election appears to be in the bag?

At this stage, Republican candidates are focused on appealing to the base, and that base is fractured. With Santorum appealing to evangelical voters, Ron Paul bringing libertarian and Tea Party supporters to the table and Gingrich appealing to … someone, the most centrist (and most electable) candidate – Romney –  is appealing to voters who aren’t listening.

Recent skirmishes about abortion, birth control and foreign policy issues (like Iran) are airing Republicans’ dirty laundry to a gawking public. The evangelical and Tea Party voters turning up for the primaries don’t represent most of American voters’ views – and for both the GOP and for civil society at large, that’s a pity.

This race to the base – a battle of extremes – is destructive to either party’s ability to lead real change. It sets unrealistic expectations, hampers representatives’ ability to negotiate compromise and belies a rich American history of the politics of the middle. Where do we go from here?  More broken politics and dying discourse.

Andrew Cuomo: Next, walk on water in The Economist

Really interesting article about someone who is actually getting stuff done. A model for the future of the Presidency? Andrew Cuomo: Next, walk on water | The Economist.

NDAA: Indefinite Detention in America

In the (justified) kerfuffle about SOPA, the New Year’s Eve signing of the National Defense Authorization Act has gotten lost. Which is a crime.The United States has entered the new year with a government that can indefinitely detain American citizens. This is not an arrest, it’s a detention – in the name of terrorism and national defense, the U.S. government can nebulously hold its citizens, without trial, without due process. This is one of the reasons the colonies rebelled against King George.The Obama administration signed this bill on a holiday to minimize the attention paid to its more objectionable provisions – but the disregard for basic American founding principles deserves attention, and objection.

The Obama administration used a signing statement to announce they will not use those powers widely. How reassuring! But signing the bill makes these powers legal for any subsequent president to use. And from rendition to waterboarding, the government’s recent history on civil liberties is less than impressive.

While the indefinite detention of citizens has occurred for years, at least when it’s not legal, it’s easier to contest the detention of American citizens. The increased transparency of legality is not reassuring. The central problem is not the bill itself – it’s a system where neither Congress nor the executive branch can be trusted.

Healthy, loud and even angry dissent is the cornerstone of functioning democracy – and this law makes dissent a whole lot scarier.

Image credit: Awkward.Turtle on Flickr

Rupert Murdoch & Other Great Thinkers on SOPA

For opponents of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) front, yesterday was a big day. The Obama administration released a statement opposing the proposed regulations and bill sponsor Lamar Smith weakened the bill, removing the provision regarding Domain Name System (DNS) blocking.

Both developments are excellent news for bill opponents, demonstrating that pressure from technology companies, civil rights activists and consumers is chipping away at the bill’s support and at some of the most extreme provisions. DNS blocking, in particular, would have allowed the U.S. to block foreign websites with illegal content.

The Obama administration outlined concerns about the broad provisions of the bill and the potential for exploitation by both private companies and regulatory bodies. This is cheering after the bill’s so-far bipartisan political support and broad corporate patronage.

By opposing SOPA the administration is not only making a stand in favor of free expression but is protecting the open regulatory space in which the technology sector thrives.  – ensuring that marketplace and the bill is a strong statement in favor of the growing technology sector and for online expression.

SOPA’s intended purpose –  protecting copyrighted content through stringent regulations targeting web communications companies – has begotten a proposed regulatory regime enabling copyright holders to attack the sites, companies and services that connect people, like Google, Craig’s List and YouTube. New tweeter Rupert Murdoch shares his insight into SOPA:

This is sort of like saying, “Hey, people in China sure do pirate a lot of Hollywood movies. Let’s shut China down!” SOPA would force Google to be responsible for filtering every single site it linked to – making web search onerously complicated and reducing space for new innovation in digital commerce.

More importantly, creating the processes for filtering and shutting down digital intermediaries (like Google) to block some bad actors is ripe for exploitation by much more serious bad actors. Who’s the benevolent oversight body here? The federal government? This is big government, at its most appalling.

London Isn’t Full of Criminals: The Enraged & Disenfranchised

This afternoon, when asked about the cause of the London riots, the Deputy Mayor of London said:

“[There has been] an awful lot of rationalization of criminal activity. I think that’s fundamentally what it is. It is criminal activity, pure and simple. It’s driven by greed, avarice and a desire to just grab other people’s property,” he said.
“I think you can try and confect some kind of complicated sociological argument about people’s motivations for that criminality, but I think that’s getting them off the hook. There is no excuse for it, absolutely none whatsoever.”

That’s a little bit like saying that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda planned and executed 9/11  because they are evil. To be clear, evil was definitely a prerequisite for the 9/11 attacks, but it certainly wasn’t the only necessary condition.

To perpetrate mass atrocity, you need a group of people who are dissatisfied enough with their lives to endorse and take part in evil behavior on a broad scale. Thousands of young British people didn’t get up one morning last week and decide to void the social contract with their neighbors because they became spontaneously criminal.

Drain the Swamp

Just as terrorism has broader social causes – a swamp of unhappy, unemployed, disaffected angry young men living in undemocratic societies – the riots in London have social causes, including poverty, unemployment (and underemployment) and disaffection with government.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone argues that “We are in danger of losing a generation of young people. [This is] the first time in our history when children have less prospects than their parents did. That’s what’s fueling this anger.”

The numbers support his analyis. London suffers from unemployment as high as 30%, concentrated in youth ages 16-24. In addition to the completely unemployed, the “inactive” population (young people who are not employed or actively seeking a job), is at 3 million. Analysis from the UK Office of National Statistics indicates that 2 of those 3 million are pursuing higher education because they can’t find a job.

No Hope or Change Either

And these young people will not find hope for the future in a booming economy: The United Kingdom’s economy is stagnating, with very slow job growth since 2008. This, combined with inflation and a corresponding rise in the cost of living, means that poor British people are being forced out of neighborhoods they can no longer afford.

Meanwhile, the Cameron-Clegg administration recently raised tuition fees in response to the UK’s own economic challenges, leading to significant protests in December 2010, some of which became violent. I’m not done yet. The UK government has also recently decreased welfare payments.

Wealth in the London area in particular is becoming more and more concentrated, ensuring that the poor are living with the constant juxtaposition of what they live without.

To summarize: the British poor are experiencing unemployment – without hope of new jobs on the horizon – while education is less accessible and their decreasing incomes represent ever-decreasing purchasing power. So what do they have to be excited about?

This feeling of disconnection from their communities, coupled with an apparently poor view of the government, means there’s little incentive not to riot when the situation is set alight with a violent incident like the Marc Duggan shooting.

Certainly I do not advocate violence, in any form. And the reckless destruction of their own communities is pointless, criminal and terrible. But those who would keep the peace should remember that resentment simmers, runs deep, and is rarely mollified by police action.

Ending these riots is not the same thing as preventing them from happening again. The former can be accomplished with guns, truncheons and tear gas – the latter will require building community, adding jobs and creating a growing economy.

Image credit: Some of this post is taken from answers I wrote on Quora.

A Deficit “Deal” Is Too Late

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The debt talks are the last hurrah of a dysfunctional Congress. (It’s difficult, incidentally, to write a blog that commits to talking civilly about difficult issues when the primary actors themselves are so uncivil.)

As we fritter away the last few minutes before the debt ceiling deadline, it looks like a last minute McConnell-Boehner-Obama deal will fall into place. Frankly, it’s too late. We have spent a month playing at brinkmanship with the full faith and credit of the American people.

Whether or not we come up with some absurd deal today, we have already said our word is no good. The federal debt – already authorized by Congress and incurred under a different president – represents the American people’s implicit endorsement of the government’s right to govern. A default is a default on our implied contract. If we cannot keep our word, we should not bother giving it.

Room for Solutions: Americans Love Social Security, Don’t Love Paying for It

As of this morning it looks like a “compromise”  is emerging with no increase in revenues and $2 trillion in cuts. But it’s pretty much too late.

Here’s the biggest laugh of it all: This is an argument between a moderate president and a very conservative House of Representatives. President Obama showed himself willing to make billions of dollars in cuts to entitlement programs – that’s a compromise. Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans are unwilling to accept any revenue increases. That’s not a compromise. This is not to question the validity of their positions – merely to characterize their willingness (or perhaps ability) to compromise.

Our system of governance is based on an oppositional model, with the assumption that differing sides will broker deals that are in the best interests of the American people. Checks and balances between different branches and different groups are the lifeblood of real democracy that represents a diverse population.

Our representatives are stuck to their parties and their campaign promises – with no ability to exercise good judgement, broker deals or recognize the validity of others’ views.

The American people are reaping the consequences of dysfunctional leadership and go-go-go spending in both our individual lives and our country’s lives. We take out mortgages on homes we can’t afford and we want social security, medicare and military dominance. If you want services, you will have to pay for them. I expect the American people will not like the consequences of $2 trillion in spending cuts, even if they say they want them.

Image Credit: Aidan Jones on Flickr