Friday, September 28, 2012

Effective Political Action

Warning: This is a rant.

The one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement recently passed.  I think about Occupy quite a bit because it was really a discussion and demonstration about the factors of political efficacy. There are still, remarkably, a lot of people who claim that they don't know what the Occupy protests were about - if anything. These folks, disingenuously I presume, ask "What was their message anyway?"

For me, the message of the Occupy protests was loud and clear:

The wealthiest 1% of our society use their wealth to buy political power then use that power to perpetuate and expand their wealth and to pursue their narrow self-interests.

How did anyone fail to hear that message? I suppose it is possible that the message didn't get out very clearly because the 1% control the media and suppressed the message. I suppose it didn't reach anyone who has no access to media that is not under corporate control. But in an age of blogs and other social media, who is that? It's not you; you're reading this.

I was also surprised by the number of people who got the message and were non-plussed by it. They reckon that's the deal - get rich and you can buy politicians, laws, and favorable tax rules. These cynical folks welcomed me to America and suggested that I grow up. There is no culture of noblesse oblige. No one is working in service for the betterment of society. This is the land of "I got mine, to heck with you." I was confounded by the number of people who shrugged off the fact that our political system was for sale and that rich people could simply buy whatever laws they wanted and that bought laws that make them even richer. They bought tax breaks, subsidies, government guarantees, and the privatization of our public assets. They used their political influence to privatize the gain and socialize costs and losses. That's just the way it is, the way it has always been, and there's just no changing it they told me. Grow up.

The kindest of them wanted to put me on display as a sort of living, walking Frank Capra movie for the entertainment of children and the irrecoverably naive.

I am reminded, time and time again, that the best return on investment that most corporations can make is not in their machinery, their technology, or their human capital, but in political influence. For just a few thousand dollars donated to a campaign they can get a tax exemption worth millions. Never has this process been so naked as we see it locally on our own ballots. Paul Allen's purchase of a stadium election, Costco's purchase of the private liquor sales initiative, and the purchase of a charter school initiative by a dozen multi-millionaires. The initiative process, intended as a tool for the grassroots, has become a tool for oligarchs.

Here's the point: grassroots movements, however noble, however broadbased their support, are ineffective, while the political efforts of the 1%, no matter how ignoble or narrow their support, are extremely effective. Yet the myth of our democracy persists.

The difference between effective political action and ineffective political action is clear to me. For the effort to be successful, it requires only two things: adequate cash behind it and inadequate cash in opposition. All of this works - the oligarch's or corporate takeover of our political system - because these are the deep pockets with both the financial resources and the narrow interest necessary to effect political change and, just as critically, because there is no one paid to oppose them. I'll give you an example:

Egg producers pay for and get a tax exemption on chicken bedding. Sure they had the money to do it, but, just as important, there was no organized opposition. There's no one out there who cares deeply about maintaining the tax on chicken bedding. There's certainly no one who has an economic interest in keeping taxes on chicken bedding at its historic level. That's our lesson for today, boys and girls, in this country few things happen if no one is paid to make them happen and no one was getting paid to maintain high taxes on chicken bedding.

There was no well-financed group of people with an economic interest in blocking private liquor sales, but there were people with a direct economic interest in promoting them. There's no one with a direct economic interest in preventing a publicly financed football stadium, but there was one really rich guy who would save a lot of money if the state built it. There aren't many people with a direct economic interest in preserving our public schools, but there sure are people who will make money off charters. Yet somehow, no one holds this self-interest against them. If there's any opposition, however, those folks are pilloried as pursuing their own interests over the greater good. It's a funny thing that people will suggest that the WEA's position on charter schools is self-serving but never wonder if charter supporters are not just as self-serving in their position.

Under the corruptive influence of money on politics our marketplace of ideas has devolved into just a marketplace.

We can see this dynamic at work every day on the front page of our newspaper. It happens at every level. Where is the push for the downtown school coming from? Not from any grassroots group of concerned citizens. It's coming from the Downtown Seattle Association. It's coming from people who want to enhance the value of their private assets with a publicly funded resource. And they can put money behind it. They are spending this money to forment support in Queen Anne, to promote the effort by organizing a letter-writing campaign to the board, by promoting the idea with the mayor, by promoting the idea with the City Council, promoting the idea through the Alliance for Education, and through all of their other channels. And they have channels. They own the channels.

Here is a textbook case of a situation in which well-financed and well-connected interests want a public resource to enhance the value of their private assets. They have the money to put behind the idea and, just as important, there is no one with an economic interest in opposing it. You'll note that the quality of the idea is not a factor. It could be a good idea or a bad idea - that doesn't matter. All that matters is how much money is lined up on either side of it. The opposition only comes from some good government types like us. In the end, how many of us would really vote against the levy based solely on the fact that less than 1% of it might get thrown at the downtown elementary? Really? Does that really outweigh the need for an Arbor Heights renovation, for additional capacity in West Seattle and the Northeast, and a permanent, suitable home for the Seattle World School? Really? Are you that willing to cut off your nose to spite your face? I doubt it.

So what is the lesson for us, boys and girls? What, if anything, can we do about this?

I suppose we could work to elect representatives who are resistant to undue influence by the moneyed elite. Except that most voters are easily influenced by the purchased media and are hard to influence by face-to-face conversation and the moneyed elite use purchased media to elect representatives who are under the thrall of the moneyed elite. It would be frontal assault and it would be futile.

I suppose that we could work to create laws that strike out against the influence of money in our political system, but, if you think that can happen then you must have skipped down to this paragraph and not read anything that came before it.

I suppose that we could work like dogs for free to organize and mobilize a grassroots majority to overthrow the oligarchs, but that's not a very practical solution, is it? Working people don't have the leisure time for that sort of volunteer effort. And even if we had the leisure time for it, we don't really have the skills. It's difficult to maintain the passion necessary to whip up a mob and keep them whipped up. The oligarchs can do it because they can pay skilled professionals to be full-time organizers of astroturf organizations. And, since they own the channels of power, they can get media and official attention paid to their groups while authentic grassroots efforts are ignored.

I suppose that we're kinda screwed. Maybe, when things get really, really bad, the people will rise up and attempt to regain control of their democratic process. We sometimes still see real democracy at work at the lowest levels - school board races - where the big money forces don't always bother to get involved. Here in Seattle, however, they still maintain a majority, which is all they need.

There's another challenge: I don't think that Director Sherry Carr, just to choose one example, sees herself as a bought-and-paid-for representative of the 1%. But that's because she doesn't seek or heed authentic grassroots voices. She hears primarily "official" voices. She gives them more credence than the voices of her constituents and she never questions their true interests. She doesn't do these things for the same reason that most people don't. In our culture, money equals credibility and authority. I can't blame her for being an ordinary person who doesn't question the culture in which she lives. With all of the expert work done to hide the dysfunctional biases engineered into the system, there's no surprise that she doesn't see them.

I know that Director Carr and her defenders will claim that she does seek constituent voices. She has that community meeting every month. But when has anything from those community meetings ever had any effect on Board action? Bagley was dropped from BEX IV. Where was Sherry? The JSIS needs to be an option school. Where is Sherry? Hamilton has grave problems. Where is Sherry? I've been to her community meetings. I have heard the people. I have seen Sherry make her "I share your concern" face. I have never seen any of those shared concerns in a motion before the Board. She deeply discounts everything she hears at those meetings. But when the Alliance for Education wants something, Director Carr is their obedient soldier and she takes prompt action. She delivers the vote. Director Carr has managed, like a lot of people, to convince herself that - somehow - the Alliance for Education is the legitimate voice of the people when there are no actual people behind it (unless you believe that corporations are people, my friend) while the actual voice of the actual people has no legitimacy. Amazing.

This is the power of the 1% in its full flower. Not only have they established their own undeserved legitimacy, but they have actually managed to de-legitimize the authentic. Lynne Varner has credibility and influence on education matters because she is annointed by Frank Blethen. Melissa and I, on the other hand, are ranting lunatics and self-appointed hotheads because we have not been delegated by the official powers.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Three things, Charlie.

- do I feel this in my current work to defeat 1240? In spades.

That's one of the number one questions I get from the media (of all people): how can you possibly win against that kind of money? I guess what I would say is that I naively/stupidly/hopefully believe in grassroots activism, the power of the Internet and, on this particular topic of charter schools, that Washington State voters WILL consider this carefully.

-Frank Blethren may have anointed Lynne Varner with some power but her own writing has shown her lack of credibility. I honestly see very few comments that ever support her convoluted and ill-considered and non-fact based stands.

- Hot-headed? One man's hot-head is another man's passion. I have virtually never been openly angry in public over education issues. I have never yelled, called names or sworn in public over education issues. But when people want to marginalize you and your work, yes, they reach for easy words.

mirmac1 said...

Of course the ST talks outa both ends of its * with "fully fund education" and

The Seattle Times editorial board defends the two-thirds-for-taxes law, under attack at the Washington Supreme Court

mirmac1 said...

Down with Oligarchs! Up with HotHeads!

Anonymous said...

A confession: I'm a member of the 1%. "Moneyed" I am. "Elite" I am not. At one point in my life, my huge family was homeless and we were "farmed out" to different homes; some, like me, were farmed out for over a year. Even when we weren't homeless, we often had no electricity, no transportation and very little food.

I have no problem with people scorning the 1%. Go ahead and scorn me. I've had far worse problems in life.

But people may want to keep in mind that there are some wealthy people who are out for the little guy, who give away a third of their income to charity, who get involved with grass-roots efforts, who help the homeless, the mentally ill and the otherwise disenfranchised because they see it as their duty. Do we give money to politicians? Yes. But it is getting to be more and more difficult when the corporate interests keep upping the ante. And part of my brain says giving the money to charity would be a better use.

Do I think grass-roots efforts will always fail against money? No. I just think the money makes it harder to turn down the volume on the opponents' message.

Charlie, you, with your "beautifully unique sparkle pony" way of speaking may, indeed, be a raging lunatic. But I think Melissa is not.

Either way, "Keep it up," and "Go team."

A Concerned One Percenter

Unknown said...

Capra is not naive; he just refuses to be cynical. Watch "Mr. Deeds", "Meet John Doe", and even "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." He has no illusions about the bad guys and the amount of power they have. He just refuses to accept that they must necessarily have the last word.

Watch these movies again if you haven't seen them in a while. People who think Capra naive are either people who never had an ounce of idealism in their souls to begin with, or they are former idealistic naifs who were shocked to learn that the world refused to cooperate with their fantasy of what it should be, and then gave up.

I believe that most people choose the higher over the lower, quality over trash--in the long run. It's just very hard for most people to see it these days. In the short run the people who see it, even if they are the tiniest minority, must do what they can to keep the quality fire from dying out. For the day will come when it will blaze. It has in the past and it will in the future.

Unknown said...

@concerned one per center--

I think the biggest challenge for wealthy people is that they tend to hang out with one another and reinforce a bubble mentality that they sincerely believe to be an accurate reflection of the world. There is a kind of Aspen Institute liberalism that I find facetious in this respect. And it's the kind of thing that results in this kind of broad acceptance of a lot of the really stupid, doomed-to-fail ideas that are embraced by corporate education reformers.

This might not be true of the people you do hang out with, but if you have any influence with people who fit my description of Aspen Institute types, the best thing you can do IMO is get them to talk to people outside that bubble.

I believe in their good intentions; I just think that so many of them just don't have a clear picture of what is really needed and where their resources could be used most effectively. We need you.

Anonymous said...

@Jack Whelan,
The No on 1240 effort is up against the world's and the United States' wealthiest individual--Bill Gates with a networth of $61 BILLION, the United States 8th wealthiest individual-- Alice Walton with a networth of $26 billion, and the family of Jeff Bezos, the United States' 11th wealthiest individual at $23 billion. Nick Hanauer, with a networth of $1 billion is just a poor country bumpkin compared to them. My wealth doesn't even begin to stack up against Nick's wealth--I'm a one percenter, not a one-thousandth of a one percenter.

Having said that, it bothers me greatly that these people who have no educational training and no kids in public schools are influencing a vote in such a way. Personally, I don't have a lot of sway with billionaires. Heck, I don't even have a lot of sway with Seattle Public Schools. In true democratic fashion, my SpEd kid got pretty lousy treatment, and my head is just as sore from headbanging as is any SpED kid's parent. Given that, it does matter who I talk to, just as it matters who you talk to, because everyone gets to vote.

A Concerned One Percenter

Unknown said...

@ one per center--

It's not about persuading Gates and Hanauer; it's about persuading people who have resources to support the common sense efforts of people who have a grounded sense of what's happening. As you point out, money isn't the most important thing, but it matters, and there are good people and good causes who are getting outspent by enormous margins.

I'm assuming you've already written a check for No on I-1240. But just to take another example--the Creative Approach MOU court case last June. We won, but none of us can handle the $10K+ in legal bills. So we have these fund raisers and 15 or 20 people show up with their $25 or $50, and we raise a couple of hundred here a couple of hundred there. But it's going to be 2020 before that bill gets paid off.

And if the district pulls another illegal stunt that needs to be challenged, where's the money going to come from to do it? It should probably be challenged on the way its handling SpEd funding. Maybe that's a place for you to get involved. Not you alone, but with other knowledgeable, common sense SpEd parents and teachers.

The district does all kinds of things with impunity because it knows it's unlikely to be challenged. I'm not advocating tying up the district in law suits; it's important to be strategic and selective, but it's the one tool we have on significant issues to keep them honest. And it takes money. Money most of us don't have.

Scrawny Kayaker said...

"I can't blame her for being an ordinary person who doesn't question the culture in which she lives. With all of the expert work done to hide the dysfunctional biases engineered into the system, there's no surprise that she doesn't see them."

I dissagree. An "ordinary person" in this context is the classic low-information voter, or else someone who makes some effort to find a real basis to vote one way or another, but isn't a political junkie or otherwise deeply involved in the process.

Anyone who is directly involved in politics (and certainly the school board quailfies) who does not see the corrosion big donors, decline in unions as the only large anti-corporate interest, thirty years of right-wing domination of media memes and corporate media consolidation has had on politics (both the actions of politicians and the general marketplace of ideas) is either willfully ignorant or irretrievably stupid.

If you're in the room when the sausage is being made, you don't get to claim you don't know what's in the sausage.

Jamie said...

I think this rant is brilliant. Thank you Charlie and keep 'em coming please.

Anonymous said...

I know I've asked this before but why can tax-payer subsidized government tv programs air pro-charter panels but never anti-charter panels? I haven't seen any and I watch these channels pretty regularly. Did I miss one?


Anonymous said...

BTW, Melissa, have you been contacted to participate in City Inside/Out or another public program?


Anonymous said...

I'm catching up on Democracy Now and am watching a preview of United States of ALEC airing on Thursday's program. Moyers apparently aired it Friday night on his program. It is revealing and there's a segment on legislation having to do with education coming out of ALEC.

Try Moyers

or Democracy Now

Also, check out this site for for WA legislators who are or have been members of ALEC

Some democrats as well. Let's get schooled.


Anonymous said...

Charlie - the 'leaders' of the opposition to the 1% are too often Accidental Allies of the 1%. Here are a few ways the Accidental Allies do their work.
1. The Noblerer, Smarterer, Gooderer pursuit of The Tome Of Truth over effectively organizing at the community level. We non 1 per centers are cursed with uber educated, uber credentialed, uber connected 'leaders' who are focused on writing that letter from Birmingham, or crafting that Making of The President 19xx political analysis, or pounding out that latest greatest David Halberstam Brockaw piece on Some Great Movement. Due to this above the fray, above the plebes, above the peee-ons focus, the nitty gritty of organizing is always last minute and always half assed. Mapping Who does What to What gets done When to When gets done Where to What gets done How isn't rewarded, so, just about every year, every campaign, every election - it all starts from scratch. Would the 1% dare mess with us if 60 or 85% of us knew our neighborhoods, and we each knew the people we could work with to defend our pocketbooks against the thieving of the 1%?
2. Due to the Tome of Truth focus of our 'leaders', the economic realities of getting ripped off aren't hammered home.
Lets step back for a moment. Regions of the northern hemisphere have hundreds of millions of people in loose communities with parks and with safe water and with reliable sewage and with reliable roads and with electricity which doesn't kill you when you buy an electric device and with food which doesn't poison them - oh yeah, and aren't there more millionaires and billionaires from these regions than from the hell holes of Somalia or Nigeria or ... most 3rd world slums?
Someday we'll be able to say definitely - "YOUR greed THREATENS the community and its parks, its schools, its roads, its libraries ... because the cost of lining YOUR pocket is coming out of everyone's ability to support the community - and YOU are going to jail until your rolodex has rotted away."
Until that nirvana, we need to learn how to figure out how much selfish ideas cost the community.
Remember John McCain & 2 other U.S. Senators going to a market in Baghdad with 100 combat troops and 5 attack helicopters? If you're really 1 of the 1%, is that the world you want? Every time you or your daughter step out the door for a bok choy or some flip flips, Hermes or not, you need 100 combat troops protecting you? If you're 1 of the 1% and you think that is cool - what happens when 1 of the other 1 per centers has 200 combat troops ... and wants that monopoly on selling salt, or I-pods, or tires, or ... all of it?
How much does it cost the community when 40 or 60,000,000 people are working crazy schedules for barely survival wages - and NOT spending time at the park with friends and family, NOT spending money in the community on vegetables and charcoal and burgers and chips and buns for their friends and family of the community?
There are real economic costs for millions of us getting ripped off by Gate$ and Paul Allen and Cheney's buddies at Haliburton and Exxon, and our 'leaders' are writing Tomes of Truth, and actually being Accidental Allies of Gate$ and Cheney.
3. Finally, the Accidental Allies enforce dilettante speech codes and the politically incompetent politics of the salon. When someone wants to tell me that these Accidental Allies are in fact intentional sell outs to the 1% - it is hard for me to argue!

WHAT can we working stiffs do? The FIRST thing is make sure you keep your skills up and keep your bills paid - living out of a shopping cart makes it hard to participate in much more than survival. To me, the next important thing to do with your itty bitty bit of free time is GET RID OF CRAP LEADERS, or, DO NOTHING TO ENABLE CRAP LEADERS. Finally, you could do what millions do do - participate in the community to make a dent, or at least put another finger in the dyke.

Once More Into The Breach.