Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Can the fate of a nation be decided by a powerful minority?

Our planet is warming at the fastest rate ever observed. Fracking for oil and gas is destroying the land upon which it is practiced. Too big to fail bankers run away with the money without fear of prosecution. As we pollute the world, health care costs rise, yet an extremely conservative right-wing faction of the US government insists on cutting health care and retirement benefits for programs that are already paid for with payroll taxes. 1 in 5 children live in poverty. 95% of the economic growth created in the last few years has gone to the top 1%.

Yet only the top 1% have any influence on the government. As Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have both noted, the system is rigged in favor of those who have money. Can any of the most influential people in American government say that they are truly proud of the current situation? Unfortunately, yes.

Yet, when we observe the mainstream press, the megaphone for the wealthy, we are told that everything will be alright. That interest rates are still at historic lows, that energy costs are under control, and that the broth of pesticides sprayed upon our produce is safe to eat, that trade agreements in progress today will eventually help to create jobs when trade barriers are already very low.

Today's post has one main point: the number of people who benefit from a public policy decision is proportionate to the number of people who provide input for that decision. Numerous academic studies have been done to show that in America, the number of people who have input on public policy has declined precipitously since the 1980s. It has been shown that this country is evolving into an oligarchy, like the society in the movie, The Hunger Games.

Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard University has done an amazing job of getting the word out about this trend. He has shown that the "relevant funders" of our elections are the only people who shape public policy. Everyone else is essentially ignored. Money in politics has become the theme in alternative news sources while the mainstream press would rather talk about other things. You know, like the murder in the neighborhood, the robbery at a local bank, or the latest recipe for chicken soup. At least they carry news that is of interest to everyone: the weather.

Perhaps we could learn from the animal kingdom what success looks like. Ants are some of the most successful insects on the planet. The colony depends on input from every member of the colony to survive. Yet, everyone in the colony gets what they need and more. Everyone in the colony cooperates in support of the queen ant. There is actually a single ant colony that extends around the world. When we're gone, they will still be there, doing their thing.

Turning to software, one of the most successful software projects in computer history is the Linux kernel, a project started by Linus Torvalds in 1991. Linux is very similar to Unix, the venerable operating system created by Dennis Richie and Ken Thompson in 1969 and released in 1971 as a general purpose operating system. Web servers, DVD players and supercomputers all run some form of Linux. If you use the internet, chances are, you're accessing a server running Linux. If you have a smart phone, it's probably running Linux. Even if you have an iPhone, it's running BSD, a free operating system that is based on Unix.

Linux is open source software. In open source software, the people decide what goes into the software. The leader is only a guide, nothing more. He does not dictate terms to the people contributing to the software. The software is created from the ground up, not from the top down. This allows more people to have input into the direction of the software, and because the source code is freely available, anyone who knows programming can make changes and run the resulting changes on his own systems. But as soon as he distributes that software, he must make the source code available so that others can use, service it and support it. As a result of this programming philosophy, Linux is the most popular operating system in the world.

The last example I want to offer here is community broadband. As we have seen in the last two decades, the incumbent carriers we know and love, Comcast, Time-Warner, ATT and Verizon, have worked tirelessly to entrench their monopolies and limit competition to the detriment of the communities they claim to serve. They have even worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to fashion model legislation to protect their interests. 21 states have passed similar legislation designed to hinder or block competing business models for internet access.

In response to this behavior, more than 450 communities across the nation have taken broadband into their own hands. They have built their own networks with their own funding and have provided superior service at higher speeds for less money than the incumbents have provided previously. These communities prevailed despite numerous political and legal campaigns by the incumbents to hinder or block community broadband efforts. In some communities in Colorado, resolutions to assert local control over telecommunications were passed by more than 90%. That model legislation from ALEC? It is designed to prevent community broadband from popping up around the country.

Community broadband is designed to serve everyone in the community, not just some CEO in a corner office in New York.

In all three cases, the work being done is to benefit everyone, not just the leaders. In contrast, what we have seen in the last 30 years is exactly the opposite as a result of the Reagan Revolution.  As the one percent accumulated greater power, they became more concerned with protecting what they have rather than protecting the concerns of the people they must serve in order to keep generating wealth.

In the bailouts of 2008 and 2009, the bankers were bailed out instead of being allowed to fail. Their investors were bailed out instead of being allowed to lose their money. Homeowners on the other hand, were allowed to live with stagnating wages, higher taxes and the loss of their homes and savings. The public policy actions before and after the bubble years clearly show that the current government is not intended to help everyone.

We can change this. No matter what anyone says, ordinary people can exercise that power, but they must organize and work together. TV, radio and advertising are all designed to disrupt our thinking process so that we do not organize and work together. The internet can be a unifying force among us. President Obama was elected largely in part because he understood how to use the internet to raise funds for his campaigns.

I offer to you, two websites devoted to the cause of getting money out of politics, thereby forcing our "leaders" to listen to the rest of us:

The Friends of Democracy

Money in politics is the biggest reform issue of our time. In the previous century, women's suffrage, civil rights and social welfare were issues decided with a far greater participation of the American public. Removing money from politics will allow ideas to be implemented and tested based upon their merits, not upon the narrow thinking of a tiny, wealthy minority. But until we force that tiny minority to share their power by removing the power of their money in politics, true reform of our government will remain out of reach.
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