Tag Archives: New York Times

Who Needs Washington?????

14, January 2014

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting series of graphics. While the focus of the article was on how fast campaign finance money was changing the face of state and local elections, the article made me think of two themes that have been on my mind for awhile that stem from my view that paralysis at the Federal Government level is here to stay and that this paralysis will lead to a slow but steady delegitimization of this government.

The article discusses how state governments in 36 states are wholly in the control of one party of the other. In the majority of the cases it is the Republican party which did a much better job of using out of state money to offset Democratic demographic advantages.

What is IMHO much more interesting is the fact that in these “one party” states, governments have been much more able to take action on a host of issues than at the federal level. Thirteen states (Ironic) including Republican strong holds of Arizona, Florida, and Montana have passed legislation setting the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 floor. With eleven more states looking to do the same in 2014, the federal minimum wage may soon be irrelevant.

We are seeing similar activity on a host of issues, some of which have been highly divisive. These issues include abortion and same sex marriage which are the two social issues that engender the most passion on the right. Even immigration which has always fallen within the purview of Federal law is now the subject of state laws in places such as California and Arizona. As you could imagine, states with Democratic rule are liberalizing laws that govern these issues while Republican dominated states have passed laws increasing restrictions. Not surprisingly, states with divided government have seen much less legislation passed on hot button issues.

Rather than do a detailed list of issues in which state governments have moved to the forefront of action, I’d rather discuss the whys and what it means. These are some of my not fully formed thoughts and I’d love to now what others think.

So It has become clear that ANY action of significance is unlikely to occur as long as one party sees itself as the opposition and the rules round making law allow this MINORITY to just say no without proposing any alternatives. This process has been building for some time. What we see happening in the states is a natural reaction to the inaction. I believe that there are good and bad elements to this.

It is clearly a good thing that people/states are moved to action. While I may not personally support some of the decisions made in various states, at least there is some resolution on important issues, and heck you could always move to the state that best reflects your views. Also, I would expect that over time the Federal government would move toward some of the ideas, especially those that gain a large consensus across the states. I also hope that contrary to the NY Times article that both sides will become better at targeting their campaign money to the races they can win. Assuming that then maybe we could just have a good old voter registration drive to get participation up. I still don’t understand why ANYONE who loves this country has a desire to make voting more difficult for any citizen.

There is a downside. The continued delegitimization of the government will lead other actors to fill the void. While these could be state and local governments, non profits, or even multilateral organizations, the most likely actor to step into the void are large corporates. As it is now, I believe that the only two governments that can act to counterbalance the power of corporations such as GE or EXXON are China and the United States. This is largely due to the size of their markets. If the relative power of the US Government declines, it is unlikely that smaller entities will be able to act as a counterbalance to corporate power. A return to the pre-Progressive Era where corporates operated unfettered would not be a good thing for most Americans.

My other thought is this. For most of my life I thought that the US style of democracy (representative) was superior to the type of democracy practiced in places like Canada and Europe (parliamentary). I no longer believe this to be the case. Our kind of democracy, in which we strongly seek to protect minority rights depends on a certain element of civility in legislation and debate. Unfortunately, with each successive term of congress, we move further away from the ideal. Additionally, our legislators have found ways to arbitrage the process to ensure that no agenda gets enacted, ensuring that the status quo will prevail. The fact that legislation does get enacted in state legislatures where the majority is not constrained by supra or extra majority rules I believe bears this out.

I know that these arguments are not particularly fleshed out. I welcome any comments, debates, etc to help think about this.

 

Advertisements

New Media Didn’t Kill the Press, Corporates Did!!

I can clearly recall sitting in a lecture center at the University at Albany. It was the fall of 1989, my 11th and final year as an undergraduate (for those of you who are interested in that story, I’m available for a drink at any time). We had a guest lecturer in our Political Science class and while most students wanted to talk about the revolutionary events that were unfolding in Europe, Lee Mirngoff was trying to tell the 200 students in the room that there was something else happening that deserved their attention.

What Professor Miringoff was trying to tell us was that the ongoing and acceleration of media mergers and takeovers especially of newspapers and television networks would have far reaching implications about how we got our information. More importantly he cautioned that the incentives of non-media companies owning news outlets would create not only a focus on profit over quality of reporting but that these large corporations just might have incentives for suppressing or ignoring certain stories.

This was the era when Westinghouse was buying CBS, General Electric was buying NBC, and Disney was buying ABC. It was almost 10 years before Internet access was common. Heck, cable cost about $15 per month! The rational behind these mergers and the consolidation of the print news industry was that there were limited ways to distribute information and the means of production were expensive. No one saw any anti-trust issues as it appeared that options for citizens to receive news were increasing rather than decreasing.

Of course some 25 years later, here we are. We live in a nation that lurches from crisis to crisis and many Americans seem to wonder why we have more information on Lindsay Lohan than on Lindsay Graham. While many argue that Web 2.0 and the new methods of publishing have destroyed the business model for news, I argue that the traditional news media sewed the seeds of their own destruction well in advance.

Certainly new technology went a long way to destroying existing business models. But lets not forget that the reaction to the Internet of many news companies was a combination of disbelief and/or lets just charge for our service on the web. Of course, most corporate entities did what they typically do best. Lets try to do more with more. The Wall Street Journal, owned by the great journalist, Rupert Murdoch, in a ten year period doubled the amount of stories published while reducing staff.

What suffered? The very thing that made news special in the first place, investigative reporting. In a free society, the Fourth Estate (the press to those of you under 40) has an essential duty to keep government and other institutions honest. Doing this well takes time and effort. As reporters were required to write more and more stories, the time they had to investigate diminished. Whether they were reporting on a drug bust, a cat in a tree, or the 2008 financial crisis, reporters became more dependent on official sources and less dependent on sources that may have shed light on why the official sources were not exactly forthcoming. If you don’t believe me, open up any news paper not named the New York Times and tell me what percentage of stories are filed by that newspapers own reporters and how much says “from wire services”. As for television news, try to watch 30 minutes and then tell me how much time is not devoted to commercials and human interest stories.

While I am sure that this is somewhat reflective of filling audience wants, I can not help but wonder how much real investigative reporting goes undone because of resource issues or because the story would not fit the owners corporatist agenda.

So while it is clear that new media has disrupted the old models of journalism, it is also clear that the seeds of destruction were sewn well in advance.

What is the Future of News? First, do Americans care about the crusading reporter? I know that I do and I believe that many of my friends do as well.

Perhaps those of us who care need to take a multi pronged approach, much like Jay Rosen discusses in the Columbia Journalism Review article, Confidence Game.  Anyone and everyone can be a reporter. All you need to do is the work. Publishing is free. So if you get the story, it will be heard. Also, we need to find a way to secure the sites that do produce quality reporting. So whether it’s the New York Times, the Guardian, or the local guy who reports on your town’s mayor, pay for the service. Heck, pay someone that you don’t agree with for his or her service too.

Lastly, read and listen to as much news as you can and remember, always be aware of the dreaded Filter Bubble!!!

How do I Coopt my Enemies and Stay out of Trouble?

My decision to attend the Kennedy School was part of a long transition that is focused on doing SOMETHING that would enrich someone other than myself. I hoped (and still hope that) I would learn the necessary skills, to motivate, organize, and drive groups of people to action. This is actually something that I was highly effective at during my career in finance. Of course, the tools and motivations were much different in that realm than in my new chosen world of advocacy and action for the public good.

Presently, I am in the process of taking classes that will help my transition including Strategic Management of NGO’s, Science of Behavioral Change, and of course Power and Politics in the Digital Age. While I am learning a lot about what I need to do, I am also learning quite a bit about the challenges that I face.

These challenges primarily are in 2 areas. First, how can I express my true views and still get interest and buy in from people who don’t exactly share my view. While I like to think that I am reasonable and principled, I am aware that I can be aggressive and impatient.  I also know that I read the New York Times and live in Brookline, Ma, two facts that put me in a very distinct category!! Interestingly, I force myself to read the WSJ and watch Fox News just to see what the other side thinks. The point is, that I have always lived inside a “Filter Bubble”. Of course, I never had any idea how airtight that bubble was until now.

What is a Filter Bubble? Its when online providers, everyone from Google to Amazon, to Facebook give you information based on your previous activity on the net. Its big businesses attempt to target information to you in order to maximize sales. While it has the benefit of making the sheer volume of information on the web manageable, it has the effect of making YOUR decisions for YOU. Most of you don’t know this but you should and it should scare you. Basically every click you make is noted, stored, categorized, and given back to you on future searches.

I know that this scares me because it is yet one more way in which my privacy is invaded. This is the second challenge that I (we) face. Everything I do and say on the internet I assume will be monitored and more importantly, RETAINED for an unknown period of time by not only my government which I don’t always trust, but by many corporations who not only sell information to each other for commercial purposes, but to our governments. For those of us who remember the day when we said, wrote about or took photos of things that we wouldn’t want our mothers to see, those days are over. Anything that you or someone else posts about you is in the public domain forever.

For some one like me that has views that are somewhat anti-institution, the risks could be significant. How difficult would it be to alter my credit score or to alter the balances in my bank accounts? How difficult would it be for some one to create stories about me in order to discredit me and my ideas? The answer is, not very!!  Although we don’t have material evidence of this behavior in the United States, governments around the world use the Internet to propagate their views and discredit those of their perceived opposition. This is especially true in places like China and the Middle East. While I actually would like to believe that the Internet and social media are the great equalizers to corporate and government power, this is not the case.

I perceive that in order to be a successful agent for change, I will need to be a bridger. That is someone who can both create a message that is neither left nor right and someone who can use social media tools to reach out to people who aren’t just like me demographically. I will need to break out of the over educated, East Coast, affluent world to find people who while looking different share the same concerns about our great nation and where WE want it to go.

If I am successful at this, there is no doubt that I will incur risk from the institutions that I seek to weaken or alter. I’m not sure that there’s much I can do to protect myself from this as much of my life is already out there.  This is not something that I am concerned about. You can be certain that I am concerned about the digital world that my children are growing up in. You can also be certain that this is a topic of conversation at the dinner table EVERY night. Hopefully my daughters will use these tools to THEIR advantage while retaining as much of their privacy as possible.