The Day We Fight Back, Perspective, and The Long Game

Tuesday this week was The Day We Fight Back.  Thursday this week there was a massive snowstorm up and down the East Coast.  The two may have more in common than you might think.

The Day We Fight Back was a day-of-action protesting government snooping.  Evoking memories of the SOPA “blackout” day of action, a coalition of 6,000 websites added a banner (see below) urging visitors to take action against NSA surveillance.  The single day of action generated half a million emails to legislators, 89,000 phone calls, and over 300,000 petition signatures.  …Not bad for a day’s work.

boingboing DWFB

 

The snowstorm, meanwhile, was the “biggest storm since Snowmaggedon in DC.”  We got about 8″ of snow in my neighborhood.  Classes were cancelled. The government closed down. My dog loved it (see below).  But it didn’t live up to the multiple feet of snow that fell on DC back in 2010.  It was just a really big snowstorm. Nothing to see here, move along.

photo (41)

Both the protest and the snowstorm were treated as “the largest [rare event] since [EPIC event].”  That’s true, but the framing also detracts from thinking about their overall impact.

The online reaction to the protest has been pretty muted.  The New York Times Bits Blog labeled it “The Day the Internet Didn’t Fight Back.” The Verge posted a story titled “Not many of us actually fought on The Day We Fight Back.” TechCrunch offered a (pretty cool) side-by-side comparison, “SOPA vs NSA Protests, In Pictures.”

All of these articles return to a common refrain: this just wasn’t as EPIC as the SOPA Blackout.  Where was Google? Where was Wikipedia? The New York Times piece even concludes with some Reddit-snark: “Online petitions. The very least you can do, without doing nothing.”*

It’s true, The Day We Fight Back was no SOPA blackout.  But should we have expected it to be?  As event co-organizer David Segal from Demand Progress put it, “To mark all organizing a success or failure by measuring it against the single biggest online activist moment ever is ridiculous.”

There were (at least) three important differences between the SOPA moment and The Day We Fight Back.

(1) SOPA was defense, The Day We Fight Back was offense. When the SOPA blackout happened, some awful legislation was imminent.  The Day We Fight Back calls on Congress to support The USA Freedom Act and oppose the FISA Improvements Act.  Neither of these bills are facing a vote right now.  It is a lot harder to galvanize a public to stop something bad than it is to support something good.

(2) SOPA was a direct threat to major Internet companies.  NSA surveillance is an indirect threat. The Stop Online Piracy Act was a threat to Google and Wikipedia themselves.  It was a power-play by Hollywood to turn the Internet into a giant copyright-enforcement engine.  Organizing against SOPA didn’t happen overnight either.  But one reason why TechCrunch’s side-by-side photos showed more participation from big websites during the SOPA blackout was because those websites had more directly at stake.

(3) SOPA was first, and that yields an innovation edge. The sheer scale of the SOPA blackout makes everything else look smaller by comparison.  I wrote about this in my chapter of Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up To Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet.  Part of the blackout’s effectiveness came from it never having been done before.  Once “we’ve fought back” one time, targets begin to adapt and the power of the tactic slowly dulls.

The point here is that, like judging every big snowstorm against Snowpocalypse (or every hurricane against Katrina), judging a massive day of action against the SOPA blackout will obscure the impact of the action itself.

The Day We Fight Back wasn’t supposed to be as large as the SOPA Blackout.  And even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had the same direct impact, because getting Congress to pass a proposed law doesn’t happen as fast as getting Congress to abandon a proposed law.  The Day We Fight Back was part of a longer campaign.  It yielded mass attention, and increased cohesion within a gigantic, cross-partisan coalition, and it built a list of committed supporters who can be contacted for future actions.

And that’s the real point about online petitions.  Sure, they can be “the very least you can do without doing nothing.”  But they can also be a damn good initial entry point into the broader campaign.  555,000 people took action through their system on Tuesday.  That’s 555,000 people who have signaled their interest and can be re-engaged for later actions.

Active issue publics don’t appear overnight.  They don’t rove the digital terrain, waiting to ride in and save the day.  They are built through time, action, and effort.

The real question to ask about The Day We Fight Back isn’t “how does it compare to the SOPA blackout.”  The real question to ask is “so, what’s next?”

 

 

*Okay I’ll admit it, that’s a pretty good line.

The Real Threat to the US Economy

In the majority of media coverage about the shutdown and debt ceiling, the press has bent over backward to imply that there is plenty of blame to go around. This is false equivalency of the highest order, and I’m here to correct the record.

The number one threat to the US and world economy is congressional Republicans and, by implication, the reactionary extremist voters who put them in power. They’re about to blow up the financial system in vengeance because they lost the presidential election — and this largely over a policy first implemented by their own presidential candidate.

Today, we learn that House Republicans are still clinging to proposals to scale back the ACA. For the umpteenth time: That was decided in November. Grow up and move on.

And don’t say, “What about the debt?” If they were serious about that, they’d try to keep interest rates low and GDP high. (They’d also take seriously the idea of more revenue…) If we default, though, interest rates will skyrocket and GDP will crater. (That’s not just my opinion, btw; follow the link to see the stark terms used by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics.) Think “rates on my credit card” (instead of the near-zero rates we enjoy now) and “next Great Depression”. That’s a helluva debt trap (expenses way up, income way down) to try to claw our way back out of.

Even the credible threat to default has short term rates rising and people nervous to make long term investments. Would you buy US Treasury bonds right now? Would you open or expand a business right now (or even during the negotiations, assuming a bill passes)? (Zandi estimates the current standoff has already cut $20 billion off GDP.) If I had money to move, it’d be leaving the US economy post haste.

This isn’t “Let’s compromise because everyone has some valuable ideas” time. This is “Either you jerks come to your senses, or you’ll drive our government and economy off a cliff.” And I don’t have a lot of faith in the former.

I really hope Obama is willing to declare unilateral executive power to continue borrowing if it comes to that. The alternative starts to look like an even more extreme, self-inflicted version of the Greek collapse. But with way more guns. What could go wrong?

Crime, News Coverage, and Institutional Racism

If there’s anything that pretty much everyone should agree on in light of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story, it’s that the story shows how deeply divided we remain as a country.

At least as reflected by posts on Facebook, 100% of my liberal intelligentsia friends are outraged that Martin is dead and Zimmerman is free, and the debates between us (to the extent that there have been any) have been about which people in the criminal justice system get which share of the blame.

Along with outrage, ethnic minorities and African Americans in particular also express a collective hurt and fear that I will never truly understand.

Yet others (here is where I’m grateful that not all of my friends and family are in the liberal intelligentsia) are miffed at the race-focused attention by the media and the political push to make the case into a symbol of broader issues. While I needn’t say it, let’s be explicit about the fact that nearly 100% of these folks are white. (I’m not Facebook friends with Clarence Thomas, and even if I were, I wonder if he posts more than once every seven years.)

While not all of these white, “Why the fuss?” crowd would admit it if probed, I think a good bit of this discomfort with the attention paid to the Zimmerman/Martin case comes from the implicit finger being pointed at them. If blacks are held down in schools, the job market, and the criminal justice system, surely somebody’s doing the holding. If minorities have unfair disadvantages, then the surplus unfair advantage is going to white people. If the system is racist, and you believe in the system, doesn’t that make you racist?

The good news is that the failure to be outraged over Trayvon’s death doesn’t make one a bigot, but the bad news is that this is because the answer is way more complicated than that. I hope to reassure my white, politically centrist or right-of-center friends that I’m not calling them racist or bigoted. Yet there are little things that we all do — you and me, blacks and whites, powerful and disempowered — that play into an incredibly intricate system of racial inequality.

I give you institutional racism.

The bigotry need not be in (y)our hearts; it can be in the mortgage you grant or don’t, the education policies you adopt, or the policing tactics you support. Mayor Bloomberg is obviously comfortable around racial minorities and would surely never dream of not hiring somebody due to their race, but he remains tone deaf to the incredibly not-race-neutral (and, frankly, not constitutional) nature of his policing strategies.

Which brings us back to Martin and Zimmerman. The justice system, as a whole, is heavily biased against minorities. Blacks are very over-represented in the criminal justice system; less than 1% of white men are imprisoned, while for black men, it’s 1 in 15, or almost 7%.

This happens at every step of the criminal justice system, from police investigation through trial. As the Times notes:

A 2005 study by the Justice Department found that while Hispanic, black and white drivers were stopped by the police about as often, Hispanic drivers or their vehicles were searched 11.4 percent of the time and blacks 10.2 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent for white drivers. Data collected from state courts by the Justice Department also shows that a higher percentage of black felons than white felons receive prison sentences for nearly all offenses, and also that blacks receive longer maximum sentences for most offenses.

Even in murder trials where defendants claim self defense, race is a major factor. See this graphic.

Versus the baseline of white-on-white violence, black defendants are far less likely to be found to have acted in self-defense, and it’s many times again less likely when the victim is white. In contrast, white defendants are many times more likely to be found to have acted in self-defense when the victim is black.

That’s institutional racism.

Yet it goes farther. Many of the white “Why the fuss?” crowd might even acknowledge the racial bias in the courts (though too few are familiar with the staggering specifics), but they object to all the political outrage over Trayvon and wonder where the sympathy and coverage are for white crime victims, especially when the accused perpetrators are black.

It turns out, though, that the news media are also afflicted with institutional racism. This goes well beyond the genuine hacks like Bill O’Reilly. Rather, it’s the whole system — the one largely staffed by left-of-center reporters and editors.

An analysis of scholarly studies of the representation of race in crime coverage is telling. As summarized here, “75 percent of the studies found that minorities were overrepresented as perpertrators, [and] over 80 percent of the studies found that more attention was paid to white victims than to minority victims.”

A somewhat newer study, which includes a representative national sample of television newscasts, finds similarly striking results, cutting in the same direction.

Even the portrayal of black female victims is far too rare — this even though female victims are more likely to be seen on the news than male victims overall.

In the aftermath of a major story about a black victim, killed by a white shooter, we’re hearing a good bit of “Why the fuss?” and “Where’s the attention to white victims and/or black perpetrators?” With no disrespect to any victim, whites have nothing to worry about when it comes to folks who look like them being shown on the news as victims of serious crimes. No news outlet can cover every story, but over time, white victims and black perpetrators have been and certainly will continue to be overrepresented.

On this count, Martin and Zimmerman are symbols for the broader problem of institutional racism in this country. Nobody needs to be energetically or even consciously racist for the major racial disparities we see to continue. Continuing racial inequity doesn’t need the next George Wallace; Michael Bloomberg will do just fine.

If you’re on the happy side of these inequalities, I think you should at least be honest with yourself and the world about the thousands of little ways in which your life is that much easier because of it. This isn’t to diminish the countless things you’ve undoubtedly done right, the hard work you’ve done, the substantial degree to which you’ve earned your place.

As white Americans, though, let’s at least all agree to be honest with ourselves and each other that we get at least a small leg up in pretty much every institution in society with which we deal.

That every right decision is likely to get us just a bit farther along than it would for an African American.

That we have at least a bit more room to make mistakes before being fired, evicted, jailed — or killed. 

That the few places where we don’t have every advantage clearly pointed in our direction (college admissions and scholarships come to mind) are the exception and, regardless of what one thinks of them as policies, will never outweigh the much larger forces that cut the other direction.

That, yes, there are a few rich blacks and many poor whites, and class inequality is also a major issue that needs to be addressed — but that this doesn’t disprove any of the above.

Then, please join me in a quest to fight those disparities, one institution at a time. Not by making life harder for whites, of course, but by extending the same understanding, opportunities, and benefit of the doubt to all.

The Analytics Floor

There was an interesting article in Politico yesterday, titled [gulp] “Honey, I shrunk the Obama data machine.”*  The article discusses next steps for the Democratic data machine in the leadup to the 2013 and 2014 elections.  The big question: can the Obama analytics tools translate to the state and congressional levels?

The answer (to paraphrase): “yes, but only some of them.”

When people talk about the #Demdata advantage in campaigns, they’re really talking about (at least) three distinct phenomena.  Two translate well to smaller campaigns, the third doesn’t.  The dividing line is something that I call the analytics floor.

(1) One of the biggest advantages Democrats hold over Republicans is the rich voter file that Democrats have developed.  Republicans are working to build their own national database, to sometimes-comedic ends.  That voter file can be exported to congressional campaigns, special elections, governor’s races, etc.  OFA alumni like Dan Wagner of Civis Analytics specialize in just this sort of data modeling.  Obama invested millions in developing the voter file and built a network of hundreds of experts in combining the voter file with polling data to produce much clearer maps of the electorate.  As those experts turn to consulting and expand their reach outward, the price of these services will become more affordable over time.

 

(2) A second advantage comes in the form of lessons learned through persuasion and turnout experiments.  The Analyst Institute was very busy during the 2012 election cycle, running tests to determine what sort of techniques and appeals can best sway undecided voters and motivate disinterested supporters.  These lessons in political behavior are transportable from one election to another — if they’ve determined that voter “report cards” drive people to the polls, that’s a lesson that can improve off-year elections as well.  Democrats have invested in cutting-edge social science, and are in no rush to share their findings with Republican competitors.  This advantage will echo into 2014 and beyond.

(3) The third facet of #DemData is what Daniel Kreiss calls “computational management.”  Computational management refers to the day-to-day role that analytics can play in campaign management, and the “culture of testing” it promotes.  The Obama campaign tested everything.  It tested e-mail subject lines.  It tested font sizes.  It tested niche television spots.  Data settled arguments and maximized investments.  Here’s where things get dicey.

Day-to-day inputs aren’t going to be available and/or useful to smaller campaigns the way they were to the Obama campaign.  If you’re running a mayoral race in Hartford, there will be one or two polls conducted *at most*, and they’ll probably come from a relatively unknown firm.  That’s exponentially less data than the Obama “cave” was working with.  If you’re running a Rockville City Council race, there may be no polling available.  And the number of people visiting your website/receiving your emails/reading your tweets is so small that you can’t run tests to find out which messages/frames/asks are most effective.  You need scale for computational management.  The analytics floor is the dividing line between large-scale and small-scale.

Computational management is a solution to large-scale problems, though.  Honestly, running for city council just isn’t that complicated.  Talk to your neighbors, earn the endorsements of community leaders, place a table at community events.  The districts are small enough that you will mostly be relying upon personalized political communication anyway.  The Hartford mayoral race is a bit more complicated, so data and modeling play a modest role.   Think of that as a rule: as we increase the size of the electorate, the power of the office, and the (resultant) money being spent on the election, the size and complexity of the campaign apparatus increases as well.

The Obama campaign’s biggest managerial innovation was using multiple forms of data to improve decision-making in this complex environment.  Analytics is a solution to the problems introduced at massive scale.  Below the analytics floor, the tools are less useful, but they’re also less necessary.

 

*C’mon Politico, a 24 year-old Rick Moranis reference?  You’re better than that.

Dear Government Snoops: Just Come Get Me Now

For a number of (really good) reasons, I’ve not been able to spend much time following the endless, ever-forthcoming details about the US government’s decision to vacuum up as much of our communication data as possible.

Even from such a less-than-ideal base of knowledge, and even though it will take months or years for everything to come out (if ever), I already believe the following:

What Edward Snowden did is one of the most heroic, medal-worthy acts by an American so far this century. I say this even though I’m also horrified that somebody with his scant qualifications was in such a position.

No mountain of prestigious journalistic prizes can repay the debt owed to the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald by the citizens of this country.

President Obama should immediately grant Snowden a full presidential pardon — and, further, give Snowden his own (prematurely given and, as is now clear, unearned) Nobel Peace Prize as a token of his gratitude.

Concerns about the steady erosion of civil liberties and all-too-quick slide into a surveillance state are finally starting to get a sliver of the traction they should have gotten since roughly the end of 2001.

The erosion of civil liberties via state surveillance has been accompanied by an ever-shrinking capacity for citizens to monitor the state. This ranges from the mundane (e.g., police officers routinely harassing, arresting, injuring, and/or falsely charging people for photographing or recording them in public) to the profound (e.g., charging journalists as “co-conspirators” for soliciting restricted information).

There is perhaps no better test of whether technology activists will be able to mobilize the public en masse on behalf of a desired change — rather than, as in the SOPA blackout, against an unpopular proposed change.

Whether or not an anti-surveillance movement can effect major changes in policy is not a fair measure of whether and how well such a movement performs as a movement; better measures include people mobilized to action, mainstream coverage, and policymakers and allies recruited.

Regardless of whether it is fair to measure an anti-surveillance movement based on policy outcomes, such policy outcomes may be a fair way to measure the viability of our democracy. If we can’t get people on the left, right, and center to join together to take back the Fourth Amendment, the promises of our Constitution are pretty hollow indeed. (Satire or not, this hits close to home.)

If I were in the position of Snowden, Greenwald, or the Guardian, I hope and believe that I would make pretty much the same decisions.

I say all of this publicly, even though I no longer have faith that I can do so without fear of retribution (yes, I use that term deliberately) by the state.

So, to the snoops that are undoubtedly listening — even though it’s unlikely that any human will ever actually read this tiny speck in an ocean of data — come and get me.

If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If leaking state secrets in the public interest puts one in danger of torture, indefinite detention, exile, or being disappeared, we’re all in danger — and for most people, this will be because too few will be brave enough to take such a risk to protect the citizenry from the state.

So consider me part of the conspiracy, Mr./Ms. Snoop. Tell your supervisors that we have a dissident who needs closer scrutiny and maybe a visit from an agent.

I’d rather go to prison, right now, for the rest of my life than to live in complicity as we slide ever-closer toward becoming a bona fide police state.

And just to increase the odds that a real human does see this: bombs Al Qaeda assassinate infidels fertilizer kill death murder planes airports President Obama Capitol White House 9/11 TNT flying with liquids in containers larger than 100 ml (3 oz. for you SAE holdouts) and not taking off my accursed shoes. So there.

P.S. If there’s one consequence I do fear as a result of this post specifically, it’s being put on the no-fly list — itself a particularly apt illustration of the intersection of terrorism paranoia, unchecked executive branch power, and rank bureaucratic incompetence.

On PRISM: Orwell’s or Huxley’s America

It’s been a whirlwind news cycle over the past 48 hours.  Welcome to the 21st century surveillance state.  We’ve been living here for some time, but no one bothered to say so until now.  In grappling with it all, I keep returning to a few literary classics.

Neil Postman begins his magnum opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by ruminating on two distinct visions of our dystopic future, portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophecy the same thing.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.  But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo the capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…  In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

(emphasis added)

On a Thursday afternoon panel at Personal Democracy Forum, Zeynep Tufecki argued that big data in campaigns is paving the way for a future that is equal parts Orwell and Huxley.  The threat comes less from electoral campaigns themselves than from well-financed economic players who will replicate and enhance the new market techniques in other arenas.  Our powers of monitoring and distraction are growing at an outlandish pace.

Through cosmic coincidence, the first news about PRISM broke just after her panel.  Along with monitoring all of our phone calls through Verizon, it seems the NSA is also capable of accessing all communications via Google/Gmail/YouTube, Microsoft/Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Aol, and Paltalk. According to the career intelligence officer who leaked the information, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

PRISM is Orwell’s America. Really, what else can you call it? If, two weeks ago, Someone told me that the government was soaking up all our online data, capable of reading things while we type them, I would have backed away slowly, wondering where they left their tin foil hat. Then the Washington Post told me instead.  The depth and breadth of this domestic spying program is just astonishing.

But Huxley’s vision is the reason this Orwellian architecture can be constructed.  Consider:

RT @AdamKilgoreWP Friday on A1 of WaPo: The govt is reading yr email. Saturday: The Nats’ season has been a real drag http://wapo.st/15JSxGU 

And it’s not just the front page of the Washington Post.  Tune in to your Twitter stream tomorrow, around 9:30PM EST.  I guarantee you that no one will be discussing PRISM.  They’ll be talking about Daenerys Stormborn and Arya Stark.  They’ll be talking about Lebron James and Tony Parker.  They’ll be trading jokes about Don Draper and Joan Holloway.  It’s like Kurt Cobain said, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us.”

I see room for just a bit of anti-Huxley hope.  Also at Personal Democracy Forum, Sara Critchfield talked about Upworthy.com.  Upworthy has only been around for a year and a half, and it already reaches 2/3rds of all Americans.  Their business model is surprisingly simple: find “socially positive” stories, repackage them with more engaging headlines, and help them go viral.  Eli Pariser founded Upworthy after he wrote The Filter Bubble (see my review here).  It was founded on the premise that people actually want more than cat videos and celebrity gossip.  Provide engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, or enraging content and people will read it, share it, and discuss it.  We just have to get better at marketing the quality content as well as we market the junk content.

Upworthy’s success gives reason for hope.  Sunday night, I’ll be watching the NBA Finals and Game of Thrones.  But Monday, I’ll probably see some PRISM-related content from Upworthy in my media stream, and I’ll share it and participate further in the public conversation.  How much hope we should have is directly proportional to how large of a niche companies like Upworthy will eventually occupy.  How widely are those diverse preferences for substantive and entertaining comments spread?  Can we sustain national attention around issues like PRISM for long enough to demand answers and action from public officials, or will we quickly flip to the next story?

I don’t know.  But, as we marvel at this newly unveiled Orwellian surveillance state, it’s these Huxley-esque questions that will concern me most.

We don’t arrive at this surveillance regime through a perpetual state of fear.  We get there through perpetual distraction.

Neglect and Uncle Sam, not the Internet, Killed the Middle Class

In an interview with Salon and his newest book, “digital visionary” (Salon’s words) Jaron Lanier claims that the internet has destroyed the middle class. Kodak employed 140,000 people, while at the point of its sale to Facebook, Instagram employed just 13, and (without much exaggeration) thus, the internet killed the middle class. QED.

What a crock.

Lanier is apparently incapable of stepping back from technological determinism and looking at the actual causes of our ballooning economic inequality — which, to cut to the chase, is primarily a result of our policy choices. Yet the role of government in determining the overall shape of the economy is too often understated or outright ignored by those who wring their hands about growing economic inequality.

With some noted exceptions, those who criticize Lanier still mostly point at the old standby twin bogeymen of automation and outsourcing. The HuffPost chat in which all of the guests are willing to challenge Lanier’s conclusions is typical on this count but hardly alone. To his credit, Buffalo State College economist Bruce Fisher starts heading in the right direction with his concerns about fostering and preserving the political and social engagement of those who are being left out, but he fails to take it the next step and discuss the major policy changes and political neglect that have brought us to this point.

The best explanation that I’ve seen of America’s growing wealth inequality is Winner-Take-All Politics, in which Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson start with a simple look at other industrialized countries to show that inequality isn’t an inexorable outcome trade and automation. The Germans and Swedes certainly have similar chances to outsource their manufacturing and use technology to reduce labor forces.

Not only does the rest of the industrial world have the internet, too, better telecom policy means they generally have faster connections and cheaper prices. Yet as measured by the Gini Coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, their economies have far more equal distributions of income in take-home pay and wealth.

The wealth distribution in particular is just shocking — the US has a wealth Gini of .801 (where 1.000 is “one person owns everything”), the fifth highest among all included countries and almost exactly the same as the distribution of wealth across the entire planet (.803). Think about that for a second; we have the same radically unequal distribution of capital within the US as among the entire population of the world across all countries — from Hong Kong and Switzerland to Nigeria and Haiti.

With our paper-thin social safety net and highly unequal distribution of income and wealth, we’re left with an economy where tens of millions struggle to get by while wealthy Manhattanites are hiring handicapped “relatives” for $1,000 per day to be able to skip the lines at Disney World.

Across countless major policy areas —health care, education, financial regulation, taxation, support for the unemployed, and many more — the rest of the industrialized world generally does far more to make their societies fairer for all. Our shrinking protections for workers may be the greatest single cause of the shrinking middle class. Of course, this can be done badly — I would certainly not want to swing as far as Italy and Spain, where it’s nearly impossible to fire somebody once they’re a regular, fulltime employee. Yet we should not allow employers to fire union organizers with near impunity. We should not force organizers to wait for months between card check and votes to unionize so that employers can “educate” their captive audience workforce with the most pernicious disinformation and intimidation. We should not sit idly while nearly half of states fail to meet even “minimum workplace-safety inspection goals, due to state budget cuts and reduced staffing.”

It’s true that the middle class is being gutted in the US, but this is primarily due to how our political system turns the act of surviving and thriving into a high-wire act for an ever-larger slice of the population. Laid-off baby boomers, even those with desirable skills, are having a devil of a time finding work in a country where age discrimination is only nominally illegal. Meanwhile, our children attend public schools with an unconscionably unequal distribution of funding, so moving or being born into a more affordable neighborhood may cost kids their futures, too.

Teens and laid off workers alike are told that college is the route to a better future, but the cost of education is skyrocketing as states and the feds slash public investment in higher education. Many families — even many families with health insurance — are one major medical problem away from unemployment and bankruptcy. Since it’s totally legal to use credit reports and current employment status in making hiring decisions, being laid off or losing one’s job after a medical problem can quickly become a death spiral. None of this is due to outsourcing or automation, but is instead the result of a noxious combination of deliberate policy changes (the privileged seeking to strengthen their own hand) and policy drift (the rest of us sitting idly by or being ignored when we do speak up).

Frankly, I’m glad that Lanier has released this book, sloppy though it may be. (The people raving about this book as a carefully wrought masterpiece are deluding themselves — and not, as Lanier accuses others of doing, “diluting themselves”.) This is not primarily because he has some insights here and there, but because we need to talk about the gutting of the middle class as loudly and as frequently as possible. We must do so, however, in a way that examines how our collective decisions have gotten us to this point. That includes making international comparisons with other “laboratories of democracy” to see how we can do better.

After even a cursory glance abroad, we will see that we should stop returning to the too-easy explanations based on globalization and technology. These forces are at play across the world, and the other wealthy industrialized countries have generally not had the same dismal results. The more likely culprit is in the halls of government.

Click Your Heels, Become A Movement

I’ve just gotten around to reading Nicholas Lehmann’s New Yorker piece, “When the Earth Moved.”  Lehmann compares today’s environmental movement to the 1970 Earth Day-era environmental movement and, of course, finds it wanting.  It’s an easy critical piece to write, and the prose is well-constructed.  But I found the whole thing pretty underwhelming.

Lehmann is trafficking in a pretty standard critique of modern-day political organizing.  ”They’ve traded outsider movement-building for insider access.”  Theda Skocpol offers approximately the same critique in her Scholar Strategy Network paper, “Naming the Problem.”  It’s a tempting critique, but it’s also wrong.  The environmental movement has attempted to engage in movement-building.  If the outcomes haven’t been what we’d hope for, it isn’t for lack of trying.  Building a large-scale social movement, it turns out, is not so simple.

Here’s Lehmann, talking about the failure of the 2010 climate bill:

The environmental movement had certainly believed that it was playing the big game [in 2010]. Bartosiewicz and Miley estimate that the groups behind the climate-action partnership spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to pass their bill. The organizers of Earth Day never would have been able to get a substantial group of corporate chief executives to sit down with them and negotiate, even if they had wanted to. Today’s big environmental groups recruit through direct mail and the media, filling their rosters with millions of people who are happy to click “Like” on clean air. What the groups lack, however, is the Earth Day organizers’ ability to generate thousands of events that people actually attend—the kind of activity that creates pressure on legislators. (emphasis added)

In October 2006, 6 recent Middlebury college graduates and 1 Middlebury college professor launched the Step It Up climate day-of-action.  On April 15, 2007, six months of organizing — most of it facilitated through the Internet — produced the “Step It Up” day of action, which featured 1,410 events across the country.  Step It Up later became 350.org, which regularly plans massive global days-of-action that feature 4,000-5,000 simultaneous events.

350 is not one of the old environmental lobbying groups that Lehmann and Skocpol criticize.  But organizations like the Sierra Club helped Step It Up succeed.  Sierra sent email blasts to those supporters who “click ‘Like’.”  Sierra devoted field staff to help organize events on the ground.  And the Sierra Student Coalition has been a key actor in the Energy Action Coalition, which regularly brings tens of thousands of college students together for the annual PowerShift conference.  That all sounds an awful lot like the movement-building Lehmann is asking for.

The real problem with the Lehmann piece is the ceteris paribus* assumption that he sneaks in.  (1) Earth Day felt like a movement and created pressure on legislators.  (2) The 2010 climate movement failed to create pressure on legislators.  Therefore (3) The 2010 climate movement wasn’t enough of a movement.  The trick is, American government in 2010 is exponentially more broken  than American government in 1970.

Here’s another key passage from Lehmann:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, blasted the environmentalists’ political ineptitude at a private meeting. (Bartosiewicz and Miley obtained a tape recording.) The big environmental groups had promised the White House that they could deliver a few key Republican votes in the Senate. Instead, Emanuel said, “They didn’t have shit. And folks, they were dicking around for two years. And I had those meetings in my office so it was not that I wasn’t listening to them. This is a real big game, and you’ve got to wear your big-boy pants.”

Rahm Emanuel insulting the “professional left” ain’t news.  So let’s step back for a second and think about the actual threshold environmentalists were being asked to pass:

we had to deliver “a few” Republican Senate votes.

In 2009-2010.

If we had the Senate of 1970, I think the modern environmental movement would have proved “movement” enough to get it done.  And if the environmental movement of 1970 had faced the Senate of 2009-2010, I don’t think a single one of our bedrock environmental laws would have passed.  When all is said and done, Earth Day 1970 was a bunch of campus teach-ins.  If you think campus teach-ins, even big ones, would have broken the lockstep unity of our present-day Senate Republicans, then you haven’t been paying very close attention to the news.

I was on the Sierra Club Board in 2009-2010.  We thought we could pass a climate bill because we thought the Senate was less broken than it actually was.  We also thought health care reform would eat up less of the Senate’s clock (in a reasonable universe, it would have).  And we thought we’d get more leadership help from Obama than we did.

Should the environmental community have invested more in organizing?  I think so.  But I would think that regardless.  I think organizing is how you build power.

Should some members of USCAP have been less obnoxiously compromising and insider-focused?  I think so.  But I’ve had the same critiques of those organizations for 17 years.

Can the environmental movement pass a climate bill if it starts acting more like a movement?  …Probably not.  Should it try anyway?  Well yeah.  If something is vitally important but pretty damn unlikely, you take your best shot regardless of the long odds.

But let’s be clear: “building a movement” is not as simple as investing in movement-building.  Scholars and activists alike are too quick to assume that we have direct agency over our own political power.  Ask yourself this: what force would cause 60 Senators — including coal-state Democrats and moderate Republicans — to override a filibuster and pass major climate legislation?  What force would make the cause of climate change more popular than the cause of closing background check loopholes so that criminals find it harder to purchase guns?  Climate change is divisive and complicated. Background checks are unifying and simple.

I say all this because I badly want to agree with Lehmann and Skocpol.  I agree with their aims, and I know they’re trying to help.  And it is not as though either of them imagine the Senate to be a warm, friendly, or functional place — part of Skocpol’s aim is explicitly to make clear that environmentalists were not close in 2009, so they don’t trot out the same strategy next time.  She’s right about that.  But by harkening back to the movements of the 1970s, both authors are also wishing away the intervening buildup of dysfunction.

We have a broken government that cannot pass the easy, popular stuff.  We have a slow-building cataclysm in global warming.  It is in everyone’s long-term interest to address the crisis, but that runs counter to the short-term interests of assorted powerful actors.  Passing climate legislation requires fixing the broken Senate while simultaneously building a broader social movement.  Both of those tasks will take a lot of time, and we have precious little time left.

Casting blame at advocates for not trying hard enough to build a movement is the easy way out.  We were trying to build a movement in 2007, 08, 09, 10, and onward through today.  The movement is, in fact, building.  I’d like it to build faster, and I’d like to see major organizations devote more resources to those goals.  But, to be perfectly honest, more organizers in 2010 wouldn’t have made a difference.  The dysfunction that scuttled the climate bill is far beyond the environmental movement.

 

 

*for those who didn’t take a ton of constitutional law classes in college, “ceteris paribus” = “all else being equal”

How Many Technologists Does the Republican Party Need?

Over at DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas offers a spirited defense of what I term the theory of “ideological congruence” in partisan technology adoption.

There’s a reason that conservatives have fallen so far behind liberals on the technology front, and it truly is cultural. Go read Wired or Ars Technica or The Verge or any gadget blog and note how overwhelmingly liberal the publications are—pro-science, pro-progress and pro-net neutrality. They don’t believe that AT&T would provide better service without government regulations or interference. They loathe our current intellectual property regime (both copyright and trademark). They want something done about global climate change (that science stuff) and stem cell research (more of that science stuff).

Markos is making an important point here.  Silicon Valley votes Democratic.  Google and Apple employees donate Democratic.  When technologists volunteer for campaigns, they tend to volunteer for the Dems.  That makes it a lot easier for Dems to hire talented analysts, engineers, and digital campaigners.  It’s a built-in advantage that has nothing to do with the outparty status.  I don’t expect it will go away any time soon — big databases aren’t inherently progressive, but the people who build them often are.

That said, I often worry that we make too much of these ideological bridges.  The Republican Party doesn’t need a majority of Silicon Valley residents or Wired readers to come work for, donate to, or volunteer with them.  They just need a few dozen good ones.  Plenty of wealthy technologists have a right/libertarian bent.  Plenty of others believe that campaign technologies should be evenly distributed, and are happy to work for Republicans.  In the early years of the World Wide Web, conservatives carved out a lead with sites like the DrudgeReport and FreeRepublic.  Until after the 2004 election, they also had better campaign data practices than their Democratic opponents.  The ideological affinity of Silicon Valley didn’t change in the intervening years; Democrats just came to their senses and started investing in technology, testing, and training.

The real challenge facing Republican campaigns today isn’t their hostility to scientific analysis or scientists themselves*.  The real challenge is a series of intra-party fights among networks of candidates, donors, campaigners and consultants.  When Republican digital strategists like Patrick Ruffini talk about launching new organizations to replicate the Democratic successes like the New Organizing Institute, Analyst Group, and New Media Ventures, he surely knows that he’ll face some stiff internal competition. Romney’s digital director Zac Moffatt made a ton of money on the 2012 election.  I imagine his company, Targeted Victory, will try to resist the new competition from Ruffini and company.

The hidden story of the current Democratic tech advantage is that losing in consecutive cycles (2000, 2002, 2004) led for major internal calls to “fire the consultants.”  This created a market opportunity for new consultants and campaigners, many of whom came out of the old Dean campaign.  Firms like BlueStateDigital probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if Al Gore or John Kerry had been president in the last decade.  Dems would’ve kept hiring Bob Shrum and company, and they would’ve kept demanding that campaign investments and databases remain exactly as they were.  In American elections, to the winner goes the spoils, and to the loser goes the incentive to try something different next time.

I don’t think Republicans are going to fix the sorry state of their campaign technology overnight.  And one reason is certainly the ideological disconnect between (most) Republican elites and (most) technological elites.  But the much bigger factor is that they aren’t quite ready to fire the old and invest in the new just yet.  Party elites are quick to point out the 2010 victory.  2012 was just “bad luck,” or “lack of message discipline,” or “the hurricane,” even.  Republicans haven’t experienced the same series of depressing losses that Democrats experienced from 2000-2004 (and it isn’t like 1994 or 1998 provided any comfort to Democrats either).  We’re now seeing the start of those conservative intra-party fights, but I don’t expect them to finish any time soon.

Make no mistake, though.  If Republicans work out those internal fights and make a concerted effort to invest in infrastructure and hire new people, they’ll be able to find plenty of candidates.  Silicon Valley may be a blue region, but there’s still enough red to go around.

 

*It sure doesn’t help, though.

Dear Free Beacon: Please Stop Hurting America

Free Beacon is the worst.  Take a minute to read Jonathan Chait’s latest column at New York Magazine, “Hitler Alive and Well, Owning Liberal Magazine.”  While  relaunching The New Republic, Chris Hughes removed 12 contributing editors from the masthead.  Five of them were jewish.  None of them had written anything at TNR in years.  Free Beacon decided that this merited an article titled  ”Hughes Drops Jews” and called it “a move that may signal the publication’s continued drift away from a staunchly pro-Israel standpoint.”

Chait appropriately demolishes the article, so I don’t have a lot more to add on this particular incident of drive-by hackery.  It isn’t the first from the Free Beacon, and it surely won’t be the last.  But I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider just how awful the Beacon’s self-described devotion to “combat journalism” is for American politics.  Editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti describes this “new approach” thusly:

Andrew Breitbart pioneered the new approach. His websites were dedicated, impassioned, and broke news. Glenn Beck exposed White House czar Van Jones’s radical, 9/11-Truth past. Guerilla journalist James O’Keefe performed sting operations that led to ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and NPR having very bad days. Tucker Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, published excerpts from the Journolist, which showed liberal writers coordinating their party line.

Breitbart, O’Keefe, and Carlson… Man, in the hallowed annals of awfulness, Free Beacon isn’t just terrible, it’s downright derivative.

The inclusion of Carlson is particularly instructive, because he’s been called to task for “hurting America” before.  Tucker and his bowtie were the centerpiece of Crossfire, CNN’s arguing-talking-heads program that represented the final reductio ad absurdum of kneejerk “objective” news.  He has since lost the bowtie and launched a more opinionated online outlet, but he’s no less of an embarrassment.

To Continetti and his staff, Carlson is revered instead of ridiculed.  ”Combat journalism” combines the worst features of Gotcha journalism  with the worst features of the partisan echo chamber.  O’Keefe’s selective misrepresentation of ACORN is a feature of this “new approach,” rather than a bug.  Every opportunity to frame liberals or the mainstream media as threatening enemies should be exploited, regardless of whether the sentence-level blame holds up at the scale of a paragraph.

Bravo to Chait for ridiculing these dangerous jokers.  They deserve our scorn.  Their readers deserve our admonishment.  Their advertisers deserve our angry e-mails.  The health of our media system can be judged as inversely proportional to the health of media organizations like this one.  The Free Beacon only succeeds in a dangerously polarized, informationally unhealthy America.

We can do better than this.  And self-respecting conservatives ought to be demanding better as well.