12 May, 2006

One verbose thought on what is to be done

For the past eight months, since spending time in Washington DC, I have become increasingly aware that the $2-trillion U.S. government is an empty shell. For all the machinery and manpower its money buys, few of the machines work and few of the workers support its mission -- if they can even identify it. There's a reason why do-it-yourself culture routinely outperforms bureaucratic culture, from Firefox vs. Explorer to blogs vs. NY Times to terrorists vs. armies.

So I say it's time for more DIY government. What do we need from a government? Physical protection (writ large to include everything from firehouses to clean water and child welfare), a conflict resolution system and a system of democratically selecting decisionmakers. I'm sure I'm forgetting something here but those are, to me, the crux of it. They can all be done better by grassroots than by our current tottering, incompetent systems up top.

Some of the most desperate needs are in child care, emergency preparedness, schooling and policing. All of these tasks could be better performed by democratically controlled grassroots groups than they are by the state. Just to take schooling as an example, a lot of rebellious types pull kids out of public school and either send them to private school or home school. If all these people got together and pitched in the same amount of money they currently throw at the problem, there might be a whole range of much more effective schools that would have room for even more kids.

For disaster preparedness, what if instead of disaster insurance, people all pitched in to prevent disasters?

For policing, many people are loath to call cops, either out of a "stop snitching" mentality or out of direct experience with the useless idiocy that passes for a criminal justice system. If there were an alternative number to call, one that would bring out conflict-resolvers who could overpower a violent person but wouldn't end up destroying that person's life out of spite, that number might get dialed fairly often. I think it would be particularly attractive for domestic violence street fights where the criminal prosecution system is particularly ill-suited to helping the various victims involved.

I think with the central government in the U.S. so widely hated (Bush's approval in the 20s as of this week, Congress' in the teens), it would seem a good time to start such systems locally. If they worked out, they could team up into confederations, federations, alliances, whatever, and take on ever-more-ambitious projects.

The ostensible reasons for a central government -- national defense and management of international trade -- are being so effectively mangled by our current government that it would be hard to have a less functional system, at least for regular schmucks who don't happen to own a maquiladora or some United Technologies shares on the side. Plus, in the modern world, defense is better accomplished through a combination of cooperation (in normal times) and non-cooperation (in war) than through any resort to violence. And trade? Again, a motivated and well organized citizenry will be a more formidable trading partner than any rank of bayonets.



The major question is, why wouldn't alternative institutions merely replicate the problems of existing institutions? I grant you that the federal government is a tremendous waste. But your alternative institutions won't replace it (at least not right away) - they'll merely augment its function. So waste won't disappear. We should really only favor such a plan if we think we can gain from having alternatives.

And why should we suspect that DIY systems should be better? The fact is that the organization of most DIY work is pretty unaccountable - not democratic at all. As bad as most public institutions are, there are mechanisms of accountability built into them. They don't work very well, but they work better than nothing at all, which is what I'm afraid you'd get. Even if they DO perform better - which I don't necessarily believe, I think they merely perform much better than one would expect for their level of resources. Food Not Bombs does not make good food. They make food that is surprisingly good considering it uses two spices and all the ingredients came from dumpsters - their good performance relies mostly on the goodwill of the parties directing them. We can't, and shouldn't, rely on that. So before I accept that we should begin creating alternative institutions to replace government, I'd like to hear more about how they're going to be accountable to those they serve. 

Posted by saurabh

Whether you like consensus or Roberts' Rules and whether you like general assemblies or meetings of representatives, smaller groups with conscious dedication from members are more democratic than large groups into which most of the members were born. All I have for evidence is my own experience.

Yes, some of the problems with today's systems will inevitably be replicated as long as people are thinking the same way. The fundamental building-block of this ugly crystal is an ugly atom, one that finds it mentally easier to self-organize into faceless hierarchy than into decentralize, universally responsible autonomy.

That's why I think disaster prep is one of the places where people are ready to take it on for themselves. They've seen how useless central authority can be and they know it's a life-and-death issue, especially in places like my burrow (between two major active faults) and the Gulf Coast. When it's clear that "if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself," an amazing resourcefulness seems to overcome people who are normally dependent, just as selflessness overcomes those who spend their life pursuing individual gain. On this, the examples are too many to count -- I'm not bothering with hyperlinks, just search for "katrina hero" and you'll find more than the heart can bear. 

Posted by hedgedog

They might very well be internally  democratic, and I agree that this is usually the case, but that's different than making themselves accountable to the rest of the world, which, if my own experience is any guide, is definitely not the case. Heck, we can refer back to just this previous Mayday, where Boston groups stepped all over each other's toes, none of them consulting each other (or, more pointedly, student and socialist anti-war groups not consulting immigrant groups organizing around Mayday) before organizing their own separate, conflicting events. That's bad, and that's just the very smallest bit.

I don't dispute that in some situations - like disaster prep - people will step up and do the right thing, just because doing the right thing is so simple and obvious that no one will really dispute it. But in other situations - policing, for example - things could quickly get out of hand, and I for one wouldn't want a DIY police force that didn't have STRONG controls on it via some mechanisms. What are those? 

Posted by saurabh

how to approach this. i like many parts of it. saurabh raised the questions of whose babies, how many, what's bath water, and such, so:

a) it seems natural to discuss shifting to a distributed model when one is watching inertia carry the corporate model over the cliff. also it seems natural to investigate the actual height of the cliff and then to scream like a dying bunny.

2) the north american economy is all about waste. resource conservation generally encourages actual innovation and development. this is bad! the preferred method of making a living here  is to cause people to buy a good or service two or three times without realizing it. then you throw away what extra they bought, calling it "trash." my point is, i think whether or not the government/legal structure is effective in a particular activity (foreign affairs, retirement, fighting pollution, schools, whatever), the trust that's placed in its shared-cost capacity gives it semantic leadership. with that you can limit the rhetorical definitions of both waste (to "time"/"money"/"honesty") and trash (to "foreign"/"unuseful"/"gone") - making central gummint an irreplaceable component of this lying-ass economy.

because of all that i don't know if there's really a lot of room for an honest, distributed model of meeting social needs. do people really want to have the bluff called? it needs to happen, it will happen, but the game keeps on going. maybe it's just the inertia maybe not. maybe a poker game that nobody ever loses is really fun! we're the best poker players in the world, forever and ever.

*) "disaster prep" is actually a giant category and to me also, the most compelling argument. logistics seem to be heading for "tough" and i think energy-is-free has encouraged us to make the "faceless hierarchy" compromise between monarchy and communitarianism, and also not to think about this too much, so we're not ready for destiny to flatten it all out. 

Posted by hibiscus

any useful longterm networks in california would prolly end up churchy and spanish-speaking. analysis of the effectiveness of networks beforehand might start with looking at california's informal economy for energy dependence, resource sharing, food networks, etc. is it a good way to live? does it scale up without feeling like a politicized reinvention of the wheel (lefty or righty)? 

Posted by hibiscus

also this is really good timing. both the major non-white groups in the country are antsy after katrina-rita and The Case of the Felonious Fence (a kiko and maricella adventure) . just this morning the newspaper talked about "the covenant with black america" and i thought of verbose spiny insect-eating mammals.

quoting the covenant from the paper...

I: Securing the right to health care and well-being

II: Establishing a system of public education in which all children achieve at high levels and reach their full potential.

III: Correcting the system of unequal justice

IV: Fostering accountable community-centered policing

V: Ensuring broad access to affordable neighborhoods that connect to opportunity

VI: Claiming our democracy

VII: Strengthening our rural roots

VIII: Accessing good jobs, wealth and economic prosperity

IX: Assuring environmental justice for all

X: Closing the racial digital divide

this is essentially a magic trick that if all goes well will turn hurricanes into votes. my question about this moment is will it, the moment i mean, will the moment have the good sense to look at the actual clouds on the horizon instead of the metaphorical ones when considering how best to steamroll the opposition. worse than the perception that global warming is rhetorical hot air is the ongoing perception that it will only cause trouble for a few - like kryptonite - for the college-educated.

Posted by hibiscus

aha!! spot on buddy - just think .. voluntary methods of social governance instead of this 'forced upon us social contract' that somehow somewhere acquired some legitimacy..Boy that goes way over most nice conformists..after all, it is the hallmark of anarcho-syndicalism after all..

in answer to Saurabh's question over there - its the voluntary nature of governance - hence open democratic instituions rather than top down 'enforced' hierarchical institutions...

just think! maybe getting a step closer to democracy this way...

Posted by sonia

as you point out Saurabh, accountability is key. and the only way to achieve that is to reform the kind of organizations we come up with, to more open democratic, distributed forms

"open democratic instituions rather than top down 'enforced' hierarchical institutions..."

I think, unfortunately, nominally open and democratic structures in many, many instances are ripe for takeover and become de facto the other kind. That's not meant to be defense of formal hierarchical institutions, but just a cautionary tale from my observations (and ESS theory ).

Another thing I find interesting is the question of what what you need to make taking over a space difficult without resorting to authoritarianism or violence to stop it. For example, is it a shared culture of reciprocal respect, is it that bolstered by shared ideas, or other things (like a liberal notion of "civility")? It's a bit like that corollary of Godwin's law that the more substantive a discussion thread is, the more difficult it is to dislodge.

Also, you guys might find this group intersting

Posted by saurav

hmm you know - the prisoner's dilemma actually describes what i think is the real shortcoming in the generic american approach to system design - and why the home team automotive industry is having trouble. which i don't regret. however the auto industry offers a really big way to look at system strategies.

american mass production worked really great - producing tons of stuff for cheap - but it had a quality problem. i think it was basically the toyota people who diagnosed it: competitive bidding and adversarial relations along the supply chain of the industry created an incentive to produce parts that were "good enough" and "cheap enough" to meet a price goal at the end of the line. stick with me this has a redeeming social payoff.

anyway a stream of "good enough" building on top of itself often resulted in "crappy" at the end of the line, leaving the sales teams needing to use a little extra song-and-dance to convince the buyers. crappy enough even that there were a significant number of DOA products, cutting into the economic benefits of the aforementioned cutthroat bidding process.

the toyota answer to this was to leap around the P's D - never ever assume that there is only one round of the game, or even that it ends. make a long term relationship with your supplier. share information. if there's a quality problem, diagnose it together, solve it together. without necessarily owning it all, integrate the construction chain to the point that the end-product designers can assume that very far upstream parts design is fully within their control. (this is why, as i saw recently, it takes toyota 28 hours to make a car compared to GM's average 34. better communication = better design = easier assembly.)

the EU has also widely adopted this strategy because of its energy efficiency and flexibility. american companies are still tied up in P's D thinking - this round could  be the last one so don't get too chummy, and have lawyers and insurance agents at the ready.

the question of how to build a horizontal group, outside of a church (probably the closest american match to the japanese social ethic(s)), without everyone involved constantly on the lookout for the right time to sell out or hostilely overtake - it's a tough one.

maybe it would be more accurate to say that in a wild generalization, japanese folk defeat PD by being making very sure of their partners' intentions upon capture before entering into the clearly mutually beneficial criminal enterprise. by having that level of relationship, it becomes that much harder to catch them at all.

for an american participant in meetings of that nature, there is almost no near-term penalty for lying. even an expensive contractual shackle can be cut away with a sharply-worded lawsuit.

i don't know - i'm sort of of the mind that if the thing really needs doing, such worries are inconsequential. 

Posted by hibiscus

so if one were looking for a bumper-sticker explanation for my conclusion and that theoretical state of affairs, and if one were me, then one might be tempted to say that it's the adversarial aspect that makes this inability to commit acceptable and attractive despite its poor environmental and social payoffs. however i think the real event is mythological.

the storyline goes that social mobility in the USA compared with european countries is overhyped. i think that's the current social sciences outlook - that people stay pretty much where their parents were. the hype is giant though. so how to stay sane while getting stuck in a way that the myth says only losers do... if i were a country filled with people going nowhere (as the summit rises) but afraid to admit it, i might find walking away from "loser" commitments in search of "winner" status very attractive.

if the distributed architecture is designated "political" it will attract peacocks, as do labor-agnostic may day celebrations. if it is thought of as a potluck effort, ordinary people may go for it. the problem is the fairness. what if there only appears to be slack enough for this? what if this is really just another way to say "ownership society"? 

Posted by hibiscus

hedgehog -- pls compare and contrast your proposal with credit unions  -- 

Posted by hibiscus

Sorry I'm so late to the party amigos. Can't catch up but here are some extra-mainated thouughts that just need a little baking.

There's a reason why do-it-yourself culture routinely outperforms bureaucratic culture, from Firefox vs. Explorer to blogs vs. NY Times to terrorists vs. armies. 

w/o actually disagreeing I think a little more analysis of your two examples leads to refinement.

F vs. IE---F is the hands down winner. But I think characterizing it as DIY vs burueacratic is misleading. Mozilla is an organization and does have structure and rules of order. Flexible leadership, focused interest, and transparent procedure are neither necessarily synonymous with DIY nor contradictory to competent bureaucracy's undersung values like due process and consistent documentation/record keeping. Finally singlemindedness of effort--the firefox team works to further firefox. IE was tied to gallons of crap. A proprietary company as singleminded as the ff team might have done better. Purity of motive in the metallurgical sense, notthe moral sense.

NYTvsblarghs:firstly: sick of NYT being the stand-in for print journalism. Frankly it kind of blows, and is a dependent on NYC's economic status.With that in mind is there any blog or set of blogs that has displaced or even truly competes w/ a non-singular (i.e. Non nyc or dc) paper? I don't think so. I stopped reading the punditry long before I started reading blogs, and think they would have teetered regardless. How many blogs actually systematically notify us of what's going on in our communities, even if only at the most cursory level yet even when they know we don't care? Hierarchies and lines of command are useful for keeping unwanted but necessary tasks done. Software needs it less b/c unfinished work = broken project, but a newspaper w/o the boring schoolboard crap wouldn't be obviously broken.
What blogs are triumphing at is building community, and producing speedy analysis, opinion, and a very particular kind of document-intensive jounalism. In blogs the archives are free and good, and sourcing more transparent, and commenting refines things much faster. Finally, since most blogs are labors of love, their internal and external motivationsare more likely to be aligned: focused interest.But newspapers have more naturally diverse (subject-wise) teams that don't need to get along, and their getting out of the news is much less whimsically timed than either software or blogs.

So from these two examples I draw some important lessons w/o strengthening the dichotomy: transparency, documentation, archiving, low-or-no-barrier communication, focused interest/purity of motive, bitchily mandated boring/complete attention to detail, and deadline pressure are all good organizational values.

So then the question is, how much is government missing these and what is the best remedy?

w/ that in mind, reading your proposal makes me immediately ask----which govt are you talking about? We have not 1, but 3-5 depending on how your school districts and counties work. And the things you're talking about are first addressed at the local level. Now I'm very, very confident in your awareness & diagnosis of your local govt--much more so than in most anyone's. So if *you* say that the average citizen of San Francisco is better off essentially starting from scratch and tackling these problems in the framework of an alternative, open-source organization, I'll probably be easy to convince.
On the other hand! If you say the same thing of El Cerrito, Concord, Danville, Contra Costa, San Leandro, or even Berkeley or Oakland I'd be highly dubious. You know about Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disaster, I write about them a lot. They were formed from a community protest to previous bureaucratic failures. The City of San Leandro works with them a lot,supports them, and generally makes preparation a nice high priority. My best guess is that a citizen of San Leandro would probably be better off supporting their city govt, and volunteering w/ or donating to card. Similarly, I'm not all that displeased w/ my local law and order. My local recycling is excellent. The parks are well maintained. My main problem is w/ planning.My likeminded neighbors claim getting involved works. I kinda feel I should try first. I suspect a similar passivity applies to most citizens and blogreaders, if not yours, whom I suspect are a tad unusual.

Just to take schooling as an example, a lot of rebellious types pull kids out of public school and either send them to private school or home school. If all these people got together and pitched in the same amount of money they currently throw at the problem, there might be a whole range of much more effective schools that would have room for even more kids.

As a kid thus pulled out, I think you misunderstand the motives.People don't want to get together. They want schools customed for their child.The best generic education in the bay area is probably Lowell High, inasmuch as a selective school can be generic. It does not, however, require backpacking or reading Zinn. DIY? How do you think private schools start? Nobody is going to pour that much blood into an optional project w/o control over who gets to go. Nonoptional DIY? How do you think public school districts start? Read Little Town on the Prairie. No, seriously. Melissa Gilbert and misbranding as girlylit have robbed young readers.

Bureaucracy is merely old-DIY where the founders overengineered perpetuation and underengineered the input of newblood/qualities mentioned above.

So if SF and the like are too ossified to splice in some new marrow, I believe you and wish you the best of luck. But I'm willing to bet that most people are better off participating in and rehauling their local existing machinery. The lesson from Katrina, for example, is that locals need to participate in local government and make it as self-sufficient as possible, and that a a nation wishing to extend a saving hand to any subpart had better either build a private network or not choose leaders who are explicitly contemptuous of the very public network they seek to run.

With all of that said I think there are a few federal tasks that are very much not getting done and could benefit from open source style diy:
1) Congressional oversight & budget analysis.
2) National resource management.
3) The funding, promotion and doing of several key but unprofitable&unglamarous areas of science--alt. energy, treatments for the diseases of poverty, preventative health science, ecology & organic agricultural science, environmental chemistry & atmospheric science. These are all nominally in the purview of DOE but it gets sidetracked by bombs.
4) reparational dealings w/ first nations peoples
5) oversight of the actions of americans, and particularly american corps abroad. Well, no one's thought of doing this before, but I basically think we should turn the current model on its head.


Posted by Saheli

Saurabh & Saurav:  Mayday celebrations are not analagous to national defense. Of course Mayday will attract a bunch of rigid ideologues who don't want to deal with one another. But compare that to the organic movement. There are all sorts of different organic standards, different belief systems (local better than organic, slow better than local, raw better than slow, pesticide-treated raw better than manure-covered organic raw, and organic better than pesticide-treated...) but in the end, the organic standards movement has effected a slow revolution in the food sector that has given all of us more and better choices. They are accountable to the world because they want to be, rather like Wikipedia. The worry that open structures will be taken over by barbarians is rarely true. Structures can be designed to avoid conquest by single interest groups (the way Dean Foods wants to take over organic standards) and other than that, the threat is small: barbarians have beer to drink, football games to watch, and girls to harass. They aren't motivated to fuck with Wikipedia or other open-source projects nearly as much as creators are motivated to improve those systems.

Hibiscus: Credit unions can be great. It's a shame that the small local ones seem to be disappearing. I once researched all the credit unions in San Francisco and found that quite a few were ostensibly chartered but had like 40 members and no regular hours, no ATM cards -- they seemed like shell companies waiting for corrupt actors to take over. A shame. The banking world seems to be in a phase of more-or-less "natural" monopolies. I suspect this will change with the collapse of the mortgage bubble, which will likely make banks even worse. Meanwhile I'm about to switch back to a credit union, as my bank charges insane fees for everything.

Saheli: Locally, San Francisco has a more transparent and democratically accessible government than most big cities. So I am not saying the whole thing needs to go. But schools, cops and emergency preparedness here are a mess.

The school system is frought with partisan bickering that is enhanced by the nature of the school board. Everyone who can afford it has pulled kids out, leaving behind a mess. Yes, Lowell High is great. It's also one of 7 high schools; students forced to go to other schools (sometimes because they had the bad luck to be born Chinese-American) protest each August. The superintendent walked off with hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance while denying teachers a new contract. You distill what some people are seeking in a private school but don't forget, many parents can't afford what they want and others choose to home-school regardless. Put these groups together and there might be some energy there; I'm curious why it hasn't been done.

Cops: like I said above, we need a nonviolent alternative phone number to call for things like domestic violence, vandalism, and other petty crimes. The sexism is sick but otherwise I understand why an 18-year-old would wear a T-shirt that says, "Stop snitching bitch." (I saw one on 6th St last night.)

Disaster prep: All I can say is Annmarie Conroy . That and the lack of attentioni paid to Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams, which are exactly what I'm talking about -- grassroots, motivated, effective organizations that are ignored in favor of giving every stupid little task to the gold-plated fire and police departments.

And anyway, forget the local stuff. Everything starts locally but how do we replace the horrible national machinery we use for defense, environmental enforcement, drug regulation, promotion of commerce, agricultural promotion, energy research, welfare, bankruptcy, right down the list of almost every federal responsibility there is.

My point in writing all this is that I am trying to decide how to spend more of my time. Because while NERT or the organic standards movement might be susceptible to bad guys, I am sure that they do more to keep our planet habitable and democratic than sitting on my bed with my laptop warming my thighs.

I'm going to go talk to real humans! Outdoors! Bye. 

Posted by hedgedog

yes i realized that banks were an awful example. but they are also a good example because they represent resources excarnate, an inversion of wikipedia - the quest to make things more profitable versus effective, efficient, available, repeatable. in this backlash of industrial revolution public systems thinking (sitting atop private systems methodology that is almost marxist in its concerns for solidarity and abilities-to-needs), the most central development question is how to encourage gambling in the general population.

the trouble for me looking at it that way is that i dislike gambling, but figuring and adjusting for probability is the strength of people networks, something we can't help doing. it's one of the things that distinguishes our branch of the tree of life. playing the odds more correctly by applying common knowledge, and incorporating new data in common knowledge through incredibly rich channels of language, music and dance.

the question is, does one want to encourage good practice, or to control systems. encouraging good practice might be as simple as developing open-ended think tanks with sustainable goals to shorten the path to good policy for community and regional people networks. even teaching by example requires a lot of good real-world applicable concepts for it to stick.

these things are being created like crazy on the net but they are all price driven because money is about as useful a token for meeting administrative goals as we have come up with. however to be most effective what we seem to need is a pan-dimensional framework for methods that allows for a variety of goals to be established and met with perpetually as-yet-undetermined actions, where money is only one of the possible goals. we could call this framework "people." with enough "people," it wouldn't be necessary to concentrate on any one abstract goal (money, happiness, tyrannical authority) that one might care to believe to be a root of individual or general prosperity.

probably what we need to get rid of is the concept of "best." that's probably what causes bureaucracy in the first place. 

Posted by hibiscus

"causes" because to seek best (high risk, high romance) rewards and fail leads many to seek best safety, not to seek rewards-in-finding.

My point in writing all this is that I am trying to decide how to spend more of my time.

Oh, I didn't see this part. Go do stuff! (though one can form a kind of "stuff" online (I hope)).

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