Allow Yourselves The Politics of No Course But The Good One

statue-of-liberty-Daniel-Schwen
I know things look really bleak and hopeless right now. But give me a few minutes – forgive me if you’ve heard the spiel already, but many of you are newer to me – to paint a different picture about the road ahead if we fight for it and keep our hope burning as we surge forward.

This alternative picture is about building a movement to articulate a bold, collective vision for our society. This is a vision where government is a force for good at every level. Where government represents all of us, not just some of us. Where government works to achieve three simple words: “Justice for all.”

That’s not just a slogan. That’s not a meaningless phrase. It’s the most profound notion in the lexicon of American politics.

Justice is a fascinating word, if you think about it, in the way it carries positives and negatives in a single word. It means fair treatment and restitution for mistreatment, but it also means appropriate and proportionate punishment where deserved.

But the whole phrase taken together is a statement of principles, of values, and of society’s highest aspiration: Justice for all.

But I’m asking all of us in this campaign to dare to dream a little bit bigger about the meaning of justice. I’m asking all of us to lay out big ideas that can reform and transform our small corner of American governance on a fundamental level.

We are committing to the proposition that every branch or level of government affects every other branch or level of government, and touches the lives of all our people. Our elections – and our action between elections in the streets and in the halls of power – are the way we choose how this impact on people’s lives plays out.

Despite the devastating last gasp unfolding at the presidency and Congress and state governments right now, there is a sea change occurring in this country all the same.

There are movements for climate justice, for racial justice, for economic justice. There is a movement for clean and responsive government – a government that is neither our enemy, nor beholden to powerful individuals.

These new movements are led predominantly by young people, but they are supported by people from all ages and walks of life.

These movements are why still have a fighting chance today. It’s why we’re going to win in the end and in our lifetime. We are a new generation for justice.

Nothing, I should stress, is automatic or guaranteed. This is not “the secret,” where visualization alone will deliver us our bright future. But it does help focus the mind and it does help dig in our last line behind which we shall not voluntarily retreat.

We can see justice in our lifetimes, only if we fight for it every day. And we know that, although it may be the hardest work we ever undertake, we have no other choice but to do just that.

Often, when I’m talking about the action required to stop climate change, I point out that it doesn’t matter if you think that action is too ambitious. The reality of the level of carbon emissions already in the atmosphere dictates that we have no other choice. You can’t compromise with 410 parts per million. You just have to do what has to be done. There is no course of action but the course that will actually fix this.

That attitude frames my approach to society and politics on the whole. Once you understand the stakes and the urgency and once you understand the body count associated with inaction or insufficient action, there is no alternative. So let me be plain:

Everyone deserves the right to a clean and healthy environment. Everyone deserves the right to healthcare. Everyone deserves the right to affordable quality food. Everyone deserves the right to housing. Everyone deserves the right to public pre-school, public K-12 education, and public higher education. Everyone deserves the right not to be condemned to a life of poverty. Everyone deserves the right not to be discriminated against because of their identity or their ability. Everyone deserves a democracy that cannot be bought by the wealthy. Everyone deserves the right to a living wage. Everyone deserves the right to organize for collective bargaining. Everyone deserves the right to break the cycle of incarceration. Everyone deserves the right to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions.

These things are universal human rights, and we can achieve them in my lifetime.

That’s not naive idealism but rather, they are morally required. We can and will make this a reality, because I know our society cannot afford not to make this a reality. Just as we cannot afford to compromise with the atmospheric carbon.

Every single level of government and every person in our government must fight for these principles every single day until we as a society are lifting up every person equally. Because our government is not “We The People,” until not one person is left behind by the promise of “justice for all.”

But we have to light this fire now. We have to send a signal that a new era is dawning, and that we are proud of and uncompromising in our bedrock, collective principles that can transcend and repair in solidarity the past errors and abuses and horrors.

This is a struggle once again, in the words of the Mayflower Compact, “to covenant and combine ourselves together – into a civil body politic – for our better ordering and preservation.”

Revisiting the Mayflower Compact, 395 years later

Cape Cod and Plymouth (NASA Satellite image, April 1997)

Cape Cod and Plymouth (NASA Satellite image, April 1997)

In November 1620, the Mayflower was bound for Virginia but found itself diverted by storms to what is now Massachusetts. The leadership on board made a decision to establish a colony there instead of attempting to continue to the Mid-Atlantic. They also made a hasty decision to draw up their own emergency charter for a new, separate colony. While this may have been a bid to retain control over a ship full of passengers who weren’t all part of the religious mission or colonial vision of the elites leading the mission, the result was the Mayflower Compact. The lost original document likely occupied a single page in large handwriting. Yet in that limited space, it explained the premise and goal for any future governmental structures or laws in the colony: a just and equal self-governance dedicated to the common good.

We also know approximately what it said. Here is an excerpt from the core of The Mayflower Compact:

“Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

 

While that’s pretty easy to read for an early 17th century charter, it also certainly is still a bit confusingly written and “old-timey.” Here is my attempt at a somewhat cleaned up and streamlined paraphrasing of the key objectives that could also be applied in a more general context:

Those present — solemnly and mutually, in the presence of one another — covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation. [For this purpose, we pledge to] enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices as shall be thought most convenient for the general good, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

 
This, in essence, means that government is a mutual compact between a collective of people. They promise each other that this government will be dedicated to establishing order in and ensuring the survival of society. To achieve this, the government must be based on laws, ordinances, acts, and structures which apply equally and justly to everyone in the society and which promote the “general good.” And to make it all work, everyone promises to submit to this rule of law and follow the order established by this collective government, as far as was reasonable to expect. (The words “all due” before “submission and obedience” — in my opinion — qualify that it is not requiring unlimited obedience without challenge to unjust authority.)

At the time, of course, they meant this self-government really to apply to wealthy and free men aboard the ship. But as you can see, they never actually specified that in the text. Thus, these become universalizable principles for participatory collective self-governance in a free, fair, and just society for the promotion of the common good and common self-preservation.

The Compact is so simple, brief, and non-specific that its core elements — with very few points removed — can apply to any society that wishes to adopt its principles.

It is a bold and noble compact with one another that we the people would do well to renew, as we approach its 400th anniversary in 2020.

“Patient sufferance”

A few highlights I pulled out from the Declaration of Independence because they jumped out at me on this July 4th:

[…] certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

and

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. […] We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.

 
Makes you think.

declaration-top

After Ferguson: In defense of non-peaceful resistance

The regular suspension of due process and the repeated failure to restrain or reasonably manage the use of lethal force by the state against its citizens violates the American social contract on a fundamental level.

The social contract is an “agreement” that the state will have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force, instead of all individual people having the use of force all over the place with no rules, in exchange for meeting those basic conditions and maintaining the safety of all people and protecting their property.

Although it’s never possible to preserve that balance 100% of the time — and the United States has an unusually extensive set of loopholes for normal civilian use of force — it is reasonably considered in effect if it is upheld the vast majority of the time and with consistent, non-discriminatory application. Significant and repeated failure of the balance or failure to apply the principles consistently across the population would constitute a breach of the contract.

With a widespread and ongoing breach in the social contract by the state, the use of force is legitimately de-monopolized and reverts to the people to use on an individual or collective level, against threats and oppressors, including but not limited to — racial supremacists, exploitative businesses, and the state. The data has been clear for some time that a breach of the social contract exists between the state (federal, local, and everything in between) and the Black citizens of the United States.

Therefore: Violent resistance to police and destruction of select private property in the aftermath of a particularly egregious violation such as witnessed in Ferguson last week (suspension of the rule of law and restricted rights to peaceful assembly) is quite easily morally justifiable — though obviously optional — until the restoration of a legitimate social contract between the people and their government, which re-monopolizes the use of force.

To be clear: I’m not calling for violence and destruction; I’m just saying it’s not inherently unacceptable right now, and that decision is a matter of basic self-determination by those for whom the social contract has been broken (a sub-population which does not include me). For the majority of Americans, the social contract remains intact and normal rules of conduct apply. For a regularly legally and forcibly repressed sub-population without redress of grievances, the contract is currently void.
Read more

Should government programs be funded Moneyball-style?

congress-slider

In the Big Data age, everyone wants to measure things — and see if they can be made to work better. It’s a good impulse in most cases, but is it being applied appropriately to government?

In a new NYT post, David Leonhardt examines trends in testing government programs for quantifiable effectiveness. He notes initially that despite a widespread public suspicion of central government (or any) in this country, the Federal government actually does have a pretty impressive track record in a lot of areas. But it also has come under increasing fire in the past twenty years for being slow to adopt popular private-sector tools for measuring effectiveness of dollars for outcomes.

Of the 11 large programs for low- and moderate-income people that have been subject to rigorous, randomized evaluation, only one or two show strong evidence of improving most beneficiaries’ lives. “Less than 1 percent of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness,” writes Peter Schuck, a Yale law professor, in his new book, “Why Government Fails So Often,” a sweeping history of policy disappointments.

As Mr. Schuck puts it, “the government has largely ignored the ‘moneyball’ revolution in which private-sector decisions are increasingly based on hard data.”

And yet there is some good news in this area, too. The explosion of available data has made evaluating success – in the government and the private sector – easier and less expensive than it used to be. At the same time, a generation of data-savvy policy makers and researchers has entered government and begun pushing it to do better. They have built on earlier efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations.

The result is a flowering of experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

 
Now, I support measuring government programs to try to make them better. But there are immediate red flags for me surrounding the “how” part of measuring and the “what happens next” after the measuring.

I have four major areas of concern about this trend:

1) Who gets to determine the definitions of “cost-effective” or efficient? Who sets the cutoff points for when a program is simply too ineffective or not getting enough bang-for-the-buck to continue? Do these people consider realities on the ground and the lives affected or just look at spreadsheets?

Are the people creating measurement systems representatives of the people at large and the communities being served by the programs? Are they comprehensively trained in the relevant area backgrounds? Are they just more Wall Street-turned-public-servant-turned-future-lobbyist folks? Are they trying to measure things just to prove government “doesn’t work”?

2) Are we currently under-funding many of these programs so severely and chronically that we can’t effectively demonstrate success they might otherwise have if consistently funded at appropriate levels? Are we going to cut off money to these “under-performing” programs that we’ve already starved of money?

In education, in particular, we’ve seen the paired trend of measuring performance standards (which I agree is very important) and then tying Federal funding to districts and local funding to teachers to these results without first making the changes (including funding increases!) necessary to improve the results. Are we also going to start taking away money from programs that aren’t “improving” enough each year because they’re already doing well? (This was the famous backfiring of No Child Left Behind in high-performing education states like Massachusetts and New Jersey.)

To return to the Leonhardt article for a moment (my bolding added):

New York City, Salt Lake City, New York State and Massachusetts have all begun programs to link funding for programs to their success: The more effective they are, the more money they and their backers receive. The programs span child care, job training and juvenile recidivism.

The approach is known as “pay for success,” and it’s likely to spread to Cleveland, Denver and California soon. David Cameron’s conservative government in Britain is also using it. The Obama administration likes the idea, and two House members – Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, and John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat – have introduced a modest bill to pay for a version known as “social impact bonds.”

 
Republicans have moved the goalposts so far since the start of the Reagan Administration with their view that “government is the problem, not the solution” that everything seems to be catered toward “proving” this claim by decades of intentionally “starving the beast” — under-funding/de-funding programs across the board by slashing revenues to pay for them — and then measuring outcomes afterward.

Back to my areas of concern…

3) While it’s important to get as much out of each dollar invested as possible (so you can use as much of the money as possible for as many people as possible), many public functions are public because they are not effective money-makers and need to be funded regardless of balance sheet results. Sometimes things just aren’t all that “cost-effective,” yet are necessary for the promotion or execution of certain social and economic goals.

In fact, the push for “cost-effectiveness” as a measurement skips over the fact that the goal of some programs is to provide an emergency economic floor, below which citizens should not be able to fall, rather than being designed to lift them up. A floor is not an elevator, and you wouldn’t measure a floor’s elevation over time to find out if it’s getting you closer to the top of the building. Many of the War on Poverty programs, in particular, don’t get nearly enough credit for being a major force in keeping total destitution in check even during long recessions and stagnant recoveries, because critics are too busy asking why they haven’t outright ended poverty.

4) Is this just another way to insert private sector profiteering in the middle of public functions that don’t need them? For example, we’ve already seen Goldman Sachs forcing its way in on the revenue stream of the Massachusetts prison system to do something the state could do and, in doing so, taking away money the state could be re-investing to help more ex-convicts stay out of prison.
Read more

Alt-history novelists have got nothing on Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy, anti-government rancher and political theorist extraordinaire, has been releasing videos with even more information on his extremely “unique” view of American — and indeed Western — history and the American social contract. Buzzfeed collected some of the “best of” made-up facts from Bundy’s video.

My favorite is:

They [the Pilgrims] had a central government, which was Europe. Was the strongest army in the world. And they ruled with unlimited power. And there was a point that they decided they wasn’t going to live that way any more. And so they had a revolution.

 
This and others are so amazingly off-base I’m not sure I could have intentionally made up alternative history this great as a joke. (Long-time readers may recall my extensive alt-history-based satire, before this site or SBBS existed.)

To recap: This man — who is trying to argue based on an arcane and incorrect legal theory that the Federal government can’t make him pay to graze cattle on Federally-managed public lands — literally believes the 1620 Pilgrims had a revolution (in 1776? — unclear) and flat-earth-sailed to America, because they needed to escape a totalitarian government that ruled over all of Europe with a massive army. And somehow, despite a total lack of knowledge on the country’s actual history to the point of not knowing facts the rest of us learned in elementary school, he is a “patriot.”

Somewhere in the afterlife, Oliver Cromwell (England’s real-life dictator from 1653-1658, long after the Pilgrims had left and long before King George III reigned) is silently weeping at the thought of how much phenomenal power he would have had in the 17th century Bundiverse.

1651 Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" on the English Civil War and the proper form of government.

1651 Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” on the English Civil War and the proper form of government.