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January 12, 2007

Bloggers Are Special Interests Too?

by at 8:36 am.

In my short early morning stint on WUML’s Sunrise this morning (*yawn* - too early for me to be talking politics) the comment came up that bloggers are their own form of special interest. Of course, being more a writer and less light on my feet as a talker, as I mulled that afterwards on my way to work, I came up with all sorts of responses I would have liked to have said. And being a writer on a blog, I can actually make my points after the fact.

Wikipedia defines “interest group” thusly:

An interest group (also called an advocacy group, lobbying group, pressure group (UK), or special interest) is a group, however loosely or tightly organized, doing advocacy: those determined to encourage or prevent changes in public policy without trying to be elected.

All right, that sort of describes the unruly blogosphere…though, it’s a whole lot more organic than an organized group, because different issues resonate with different bloggers and what rises to the top as important to the general ’sphere is in no organized control. But then Wikipedia says this about the term “special interest” and its variants:

Interest groups are political organizations established to influence governmental action in a specific area of policy. This could be done by persuading legislators, working through a regulatory bureaucracy, engaging in legal proceedings, or other means.

I think many seasoned activists who are not readers of blogs really completely misunderstand the culture of blogging. In my observation, Faye was right about one thing - blogs are not 100% representative of the population as a whole. That’s because the people who write, read, and comment on blogs are generally people who are at least interested enough to actually do so. However, to call them all activists is pushing it - lots of readers and even bloggers are not, though bloggers often encourage activism. Of course, there’s also a lot of people who don’t vote…is the voting portion of the public also a “special interest”? If so, it’s one that many people could choose to be part of but don’t. There’s no exclusivity in blogs, either. It’s whoever shows up to participate.

Instead, the “blogosphere” is like a group of opinionated editorial writers mixed in with a debate club. There’s very few times where we are a monolithic bunch. On the issue of gay marriage, for example, you’d think we’d all be on the same side, and we are - on the priciple of equal rights for gays, the progressive bloggers and a majority of their readers stand firm. However, anyone who watched the internal debate and struggle, often passionate and personal, over the anti-gay-marriage amendment at the ConCon could see that there was no consensus on which way to “encourage…changes in public policy,” never mind how to do so.

Liberal bloggers are like a room full of cats. We all have lots of things in common. We like catnip, we all cough up hairballs, and give us a good scratching post and we’re pretty content. However, try herding us all in one direction, and pretty soon you’ll notice that Fluffy and Tiger are hissing at each other, and Muffin’s asleep in the corner. Whiskers is looking out the window at the mailman, licking his lips. And Patches is busy ignoring the scratching post and shredding the sofa to pieces.

When I picture special interest groups, I imagine a teacher’s union which is interested in teacher’s issues, or a corporate association lobbying for their industry. Bloggers are not usually single-issue, single-voiced, or cohesive even on that which they agree. Decisions, when they do happen, are really grassroots consensus. When lots of bloggers agree on something uniformly, you know that’s something different. That’s why the Patrick campaign was so remarkable.

The one thing that liberal bloggers do agree on is that more people, not less, need to be involved in their democracy, and they should be empowered to do so through a more transparent government and good information backed up by strong data. This is likely why Deval appealed to so many of us. If that’s being a special interest single-issue advocate, that’s a damn good one to be. Because that’s what will groom the furry, tangled coat of democracy into a shiny coat of equal opportunity.

At our best, we bloggers strive to be a bristle in the anti-shedding brush of political involvement. That’s advocacy all right, but not for any single special interest.

[Disclosure…the cat metaphor was a work of fiction. Names, cats, locations, and events are used snarkily and are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual bloggers (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.]

December 29, 2006

Breaking the Myth That Greed Is Good

by at 1:55 pm.

Anyone who is on one side of the political “aisle,” arguing with the “other side,” knows that underlying the conversation is a fundimental difference in philosophical premise which is exceptionally hard to breach. You either end up thinking that we are all in this together and it is best for us all to contribute to our well-being (liberal) or that systems of self-interest work best - that greed is good (conservative). Unless you’re in the sticky middle, which conservatives argue are on their side, and liberals argue the opposite. (It actually appears to turn out, liberals are more correct.)

The greed philosphy was never so prevalent in the last century than in the “trickle down” economics that the not-actually-popular Reagan espoused in the 80s. It remains part of the conservative lexicon, albeit in new forms, since trickle-down fell out of fashion when it didn’t, you know, actually work. Those people will argue that people generally agree with them - taxpayers always want their taxes cut and their money back in their pocket. Well, that’s a testable theory, and this diary on dKos takes a look at such an experiment:

Ernst Fehr of the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics conducted a game. The game was called “The Public Goods Game.” It went like this: teams were formed, with each team having 4 individuals. Each individual got $10 house money. The game had 10 rounds of play. In each and every round each individual could anonymously contribute any part, $0-$10, to a kitty for a proposed “group project.” At the conclusion of each and every round the house doubled the total contributions to the kitty of each group and then divided that sum equally among the 4 players in their respective groups.

What Fehr and his colleagues found was that individuals generally contributed $5 in the first round. This was a safe bet, halfway between full cooperation and full defection. As the game progressed through the 9 remaining rounds, cooperation among the 4 members on each team disintegrated until no one threw any money into the kitty. Why did cooperation dwindle?

The diarist goes on to describe the findings of the game when played over and over again as showing three kinds of people - the knaves, who, if given any opportunity, will pull out of group contributions. They constitute about 20-30%. Next are the saints, who are also 20-30%, who always contribute even in the face of disintigrating cooperation from others. The middle group, about 40-60%, are “moralists.” They conditionally coorperate to the greater good - they are happy to put money into the pot, but when things break down and some people are getting away with donating nothing, they start to pull out of the system as well.

This middle majority doesn’t believe that they shouldn’t contribute; quite the contrary. As long as there’s a system in place to punish those who don’t pull their weight, they willingly do. If you play this game without anonymity and with penalties, where everyone in the group has to say what they put into the pot, as soon as there is a system in place for them to protest the knaves, the moralists will even restore group cooperation (even if it costs them a little extra to do so) using that system. The diarist puts it this way (bold mine):

What’s the point of all this? The notion of cooperation among non-related individuals has fallen into disrepute. Economists like Milton Friedman and the so-called Chicago School tout “the rational agent” as the sine qua non of economic behavior. The rational agent thinks only of self-interest. Greed is good, according to the Chicago School. The Invisible Hand of the marketplace may inadvertently steer the self-interested actor in the general direction of the common good, though not through any conscious effort by the agent. Any efforts to coerce the rational agent into altruistic action will be fought off and rejected.

What Fehr and his group, along with the Neuro-economists, are showing through empirical study is that people are hard-wired to cooperate. Self-interest is not a determined impulse in human beings. What people really have hard wired into their brains is a sense of justice and fair play, a capacity for nuturance of others –even non-kin others, a keen eye for in-group norms, and, surprisingly, a self-organizing tendency to make hierarchies.

Fehr’s work, as well as that of many others in many other disciplines, gives the lie to the entire Conservative Agenda which takes self-righteous self-interest as its core value.

To me, this study and its conclusions are empirical evidence of that which I have long felt to be true. That the majority of Americans (hell, people) are not selfish bastard conservatives, but actually, given a fair system that punishes people who do not cooperate, eager to have a system of distribution of resources that helps everyone, not just themselves.

The problem that we have in this country is that our tax system is rather skewed and fails to punish knavish people in the upper income bracket, or knavish big business. The problem is not the concept of taxation itself.

June 15, 2006

Missing the Point

by at 9:42 am.

Surrounded by media hype, the YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas last weekend has left reporters and pundits scrambling for an explanation as to why a bunch of “far-left” bloggers were able to attract such Democratic party luminaries as Harry Reid, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi. Sort of like the same micro-debate on how this blog gets anyone to listen to it (answer: no one would if we weren’t hitting home on the issues we raise). And once again, the mainstream media totally misses the point, by focusing on the so-called “stars” of the blogger set, such as Markos Moulitsas, who once again hands the media the story on a silver platter. Once again they will fail to see the light.

It appears no matter how many times we bloggers write about it, the media will continue to try and place us in their traditional, conventional storylines of leadership - and eventual downfall (the media love that one). Whether that’s at the local level (George Anthes’ ridiculous attacks or the Sun painting me as some sort of anti-Cox leader) or attacks on Markos by the likes of Maureen Dowd and Byron York. It doesn’t matter to them that it’s not about us.

I certainly am not the person who loves the limelight, thanks. I even hated that part at childhood birthday parties when everyone sings at you (of course I didn’t mind the gifts though!). Focusing on the writers of blogs as leaders and gatekeepers is a simpler picture to paint, and if there’s anything the media crave, it’s simple explanations that fit into the narrative easily, and at low cost to their corporate owners.

The so-called blogging phenomenon is merely this: ordinary people coming together in massive numbers to reject the status quo, to protect those being left out, to fight against injustices increasingly committed by our leaders. It’s not about me, it’s about everyone who reads this blog and nods their head, and then calls their representative in Congress to make their voices heard. It’s not about Kos, it’s about the DailyKos diarists, the commenters, the lurkers, brought together via a new online tool for a common goal…these are who make the movement a movement. If it was just about star status or leadership, we wouldn’t be a threat to the establishment - whether that’s a local GOB network or the national Democratic party.

It’s strange to me…the populist movement story is also one that is as old as the hills, but the media still doesn’t want to talk about that. Maybe it’s been so long since we’ve had a genuine people’s movement in the US, we’ve forgotten how to recognize it. Fine by me. Crashing the gate is easier if the guards on the walls have blinders.

[Hat tip to reader Paul@01852 for the Kos post.]

June 4, 2006

Why a Ballot With Gabrieli Threatens a Democratic Victory

by at 12:44 pm.

The convention was a squeaker for late entrant Chris Gabrieli, where he got just 15.36% of delegates to vote for him to be on the September primary ballot for governor. I’m sure he’s at home with his family celebrating, but should he be? Here’s why I think he has done more damage to the party’s chances in November then he will ever admit.

First, let me be clear. I am wholeheartedly supporting Deval Patrick, am a volunteer for his campaign, and know a lot of his staffers by first name. However, I am first and foremost intent on getting a Democrat in the corner office. I joined the Deval team because I saw that he was inspiring armies of new people to reengage as Democrats. I believe the progressive/government-accountability movement is reaching critical mass, and Deval’s the sort of leader who is our best shot at not only turning out the base in November, but reaching the masses of voters who have tuned out of the process all together in disgust. Voters who have been leaving the party in record numbers for Unenrolled status but coming back to the fold. Voters that the Democrats keep thinking are voting for Republican governors because our nominees aren’t in the “center” enough, but who really vote that way because they see bad leadership from the Democratic party and its candidates and are tired of machine-driven, unaccountable pols. People who like to punish the Democratic party for its arrogant assumption that they should always vote for our guy, no matter how unaccountable or inaccessible to the people, no matter how closed off they are.

Gabrieli entered the race when several party activists and insiders convinced him he’d be the savior of the Democrats after the presumed front-runner and party machine choice Tom Reilly showed us he “wasn’t good at politics.” These people were desperately looking for a candidate because Deval Patrick, after doing his homework for over a year, swept the caucuses and looked to be gaining in the polls against Reilly. It looked like Patrick might - gasp - win! Gabrieli himself has, of course, bought the hype about his mythical savior status. I heard him say as much in his April appearance at a GLAD meeting.

But here’s my beef. It’s not with Gabrieli as a candidate. I think he’s a decent speaker, a person who shares my values, and someone who should be commended for his service to the public good. My problem is with the fact that his campaign has the most damage to make to the race, the party, and to our bid for governor. (Reilly’s unfair, misleading attacks on his opponents aside.)

It’s all about one simple fact: Gabrieli jumped into the race at the last minute.

Why does this jeopardize our chances in the fall? It’s because Gabrieli has lots of idle money to spend, but nowhere near enough time to get actual, solid field support by true believers willing to volunteer hours a week of their time to help him win.

With all that money, Gabrieli can inundate the airwaves, attack his opponents, hire consultants and even a large campaign staff, and do all the things needed to be done to win the primary. But come the general, when his money advantage is negated by Kerry Healey’s husband’s money, the support will be shallow. Voters will be easily tricked or convinced to vote for another Republican. And the Democratic machine, while it holds an iron grip on party leadership, is tired, old, worn out. It hasn’t won a gubernatorial election in 16 years. It isn’t capable. It’s also reluctant to change the consultant-driven tactics which have failed us on a state and national level for so many decades. When the money starts flying, the only answer with Gabrieli at the helm is to answer Republican tactics in kind. Given a choice between a Republican, and a Republican-lite, voters will go with the real Republican. Never mind how far the gap in political philosophy between the parties, it is often tactics that make or break a candidate, not what he says but how believable he is when he says it, with all the baggage from opponent attacks clutching at from his ankles like so many “Just Married” tin cans on strings. Without physical, neighbor to neighbor, one-street-at-a-time support, Gabrieli will appear like a guy with so much money he can be whatever he thinks the voters want. Voters hate that. With two of those types of candidates in the race, it’s just as likely they’ll go with Healey as not.

If Gabrieli had been in the race since before the caucuses, gathering steam and a field team on his own merits, or even unable to gather them, I would say he deserves a place on the ballot and any damage he inflicts on other Democrats, win or lose, is part of the game. In fact, if he were backed by the same sorts of people who are with Deval, I’d say his incentive is to do the least damage to his primary opponents, lest he anger his own base of support. People love Deval not just because he’s strong on issues and offers commonsense, pragmatic solutions, but because his tactics endear him to those of us tired of business as usual. Deval got his support one neighbor at a time on the merits of his candidacy, and could easily lose that support as well…and he knows it.

Some of this argument against a Gabrieli victory could apply to Reilly as well. Reilly has constantly rested on his laurels in the last year as the heir presumptive, only scrambling at the last minute when it looked like there would be a strong challenger. (Actually, I’d argue he was far behind the eight ball. To me, it was evident for months that Patrick was gaining a lot of support.) Of course, Gabrieli could have jumped in back then, but I suspect was discouraged by insiders if he even contemplated it at all.

Reilly also has a lot of money in the bank, despite being the least wealthy candidate in the whole race. He seemed to assume that having the inner workings of the Democratic party on his side will win him a general election, which given the track record of the party leaves me wondering about his capacity for strategy. But at least he’s been in this race for long enough to start to gather the sort of momentum needed to win against Healey in the fall.

This was all made very apparent this weekend at the convention, where even Reilly’s support could be called deafening compared to Gabrieli’s. For Gabrieli’s speech, a crew of non-delegate activists came forward to wave signs, and there were a few out in the delegate sections, but by and large fell far short of the Reilly crowd, and of course paled next to Patrick’s. While most Conventional Wisdom media types would insist this only reflects “insider” support, that is belied in the makeup of the Patrick delegates. I don’t have hard numbers, but I would guess anywhere between 50-75% of his delegates had never been to a convention. I can’t even tell you the number of times someone said to me, “This is my first time doing this!”

If that sort of new, enthusiastic support doesn’t bode well for a Patrick nomination for the general election, I don’t know what does.

May 25, 2006

What Turns a Big Umbrella Into a Disaster?

by at 9:50 am.

Crashing the Gate. Whatever reviews its gotten (I’m only halfway through the first chapter myself), it has a lot of bloggers and activists thinking about the meaning of the phrase. What are we looking for, and what are we trying to change?

One of the main points Kos has made for a long time is that special interests in the Democratic party can’t seem to work as a cohesive whole. The book lists four distinct movements within the Republican party, all of which subvert themselves for the sake of their party. While we Democrats have groups who share our values often working against the greater goal, such as NARAL’s endorsement of people like RI’s Sen. Chaffee, who is pro-choice but of the party which, if kept in majority status, will only undermine the very right NARAL works so hard to preserve.

We also are looking to take the Democratic party back to its core values, which have been undermined by a ever-pandering internal movement to the right in an effort to…what? Get elected? Get the money? I think there’s many reasons. But we don’t need two conservative parties. At some point the “big umbrella” becomes a lead weight around our ankles, holding us back from accomplishing anything useful. More after the click… (more…)

April 23, 2006

In Which I Defend My Democrat Credentials, Wrongly Maligned

by at 12:13 pm.

It’s official! I am now a member of the Lowell Democratic City Committee, Ward 8. (Along with Jim Leary, a Lowell School Committee Member and resident of the same ward. Hi Jim!) It was a fairly short, efficient meeting (there wasn’t a disputed election for the top jobs or, I suspect, for most or any Ward Chairs - there just isn’t enough people).

I’ve decided to address some of the attacks (I’d say “concerns” but really, they were attacks) made at that meeting and at previous meetings by others about bloggers, myself, and this Lt. Governors Forum being held in Lowell. Follow me though the click… (more…)

December 25, 2005

Why Charities and Not Taxes?

by at 10:44 pm.

Today is Christmas day, and I’m guessing if you looked at American rates of charitable giving throughout the year, you’d see us as most generous in the month of December.

So puzzle me this: why is it we have warm, fuzzy feelings for giving donations to charity but not when our tax dollars are used to help the less fortunate?

With the former, people believe they have done their part in alleviating poverty or helping feed a child and they are lauded. With the latter, I hear the same tired litany about why should their hard-earned money be taken from them and given to some lazy single mother who can’t pull herself up by her own bootstraps?

I spent part of my (secular) celebration of Christmas with my loving but conservative family. With the exception of one uncle, my generally working-class relatives look at taxes in the same way that you might regard a pile of vomit on the floor: something to be avoided at all costs; or if approached, with one’s nose pinched. And one would prefer it to be removed altogether. But ask them how they feel about giving to Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army or any other charity, and they would sing a different tune.

Some may claim that the difference between taxes and charity is that you volunteer to give to charity. Taxes are mandatory, and as such, a burden, with no option not to pay them. This would be a good argument, except for this: depending on charities to deliver services to the poor is only punishing the good guy. Good behavior should be rewarded, not penalized. The selfish guy can get away with benefiting from the positive effects of helping the less fortunate without having donated to its upkeep. What positive effects, you ask? Well, money spent on the poor generally causes ever-increasing upward mobility, so there are more people to buy Mr. Scrooge’s widgets and he makes more money; a lowered rate of crimes of desperation keep his person and his estate safe; and in a million other ways, everyone’s lives are improved.

If we decide that investing in our society is a worthy goal (and you decide that every time you give to a charity) then we must make that investment across the spectrum of people who profit. Only that will yield the sort of stable civilization that fosters a strong economy. It’s no accident that the stock market does better under Democratic presidents - sure, they tax a little more and spend a little more and regulate a little more: but remember, it was a less regulated market in 1929 that crashed. And everyone who benefits - meaning everyone! - ought to participate in donating especially if they are very fortunate. And the more fortunate, the more they should be expected to contribute; because the rich gain the most from a stable, safe economy.

And the next argument you’ll hear against taxes is the waste. $100,000 hammers and all that anecdotal evidence. Well, a good for-instance in the other direction is Medicare (with the exception of the draconian new drug benefit); it is the tightest-run health insurance ship in America right now, with its administrative overhead taking up far less of its expenditure than private insurance. In fact, in dollars spent per person, our private system is the least efficient in the developed world, despite the lies told by conservatives about the universal health care systems in other countries.

Government, just like private enterprise or non-profit charities, is only as efficient as it is administered to be.

I’m sure if we all think about it, we can detect in our lives the imprint of being on the receiving end of taxation. I was able to go to college because the government redistributed someone else’s income my way. With that B.A. under my belt (never mind the economic uselessness of writing poetry) I could improve my lot in life. And every year, the government makes sure thousand of kids get fed and sheltered, families are kept out of the cold despite a low income (an income that’s stagnated over the last few years) and seniors get a check every month so they can pay their heating bill. How is this different from a charity “hand-out”?

What we need is an attitude shift. Obviously, you do want to know what’s being done with your dollars (and this attitude, by the way, should translate to responsible buying in retail, market investments, and even in choosing your charities). But we need to acknowledge that when we send our tax money to Washington or Beacon Hill, it’s not going to waste. In large part, the government is a charity we all participate in to secure the sort of society we want - for all of us, from the most destitute family, to the very richest Wall Street mogul.

[Crossposted at BOPnews.com]

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