Pushing Back Against Idiocracy

We are mentally lazy. Of course it is easier to be entertained, but more stimulating thought is just like exercise. Once you know both the rewards of the work and make it a pattern in your life, you can feel that critical thinking muscle atrophy. Once you have it, you see others and culture differently. It feels like weaker people getting taken advantage by manipulation. Bullies. And then at a selfish level, you know that democracy means if enough people can be controlled, the social structure can be changed for the benefit of the manipulators, and that will then impact you negatively.

It is not an ideological issue as to who is right or wrong, but it is ideology at fault. The problem is fully embracing any ideology or thought, even your own. It is a failure to recognize your own failure. And that’s one reason why we mush engage with others at a deep level, to challenge ourselves. To hear the wisdom of the crowd. It is the scientific method of consciousness, to listen to others’ arguments as evidence and to let that change our understanding. To know that while it will only lead to more questions, we are also less ignorant than before. You can’t do it alone, or surrounded by people who agree with you. Do the work to figure out your opinion, but leave room for doubt and invite visitors.

Fighting the Attention-Persuasion Complex

How do you learn about the world outside your personal experience? Where did your worldview come from?

Beyond school and friends/family, the answer is some form of media. At least now, thanks to the internet, we have many more options of who to trust to learn facts and get honest perspectives. But that makes these decisions much harder, with so many alternatives to consider as we look for an understanding of reality but also try to avoid getting stuck in comfortably biased echo chambers.

But working against us in many ways is the media’s self-interest. They have a natural bias, as everyone does, but they also need to pay for their work, and perhaps even make a profit. This results in what I call the attention-persuasion complex. It is unavoidable. They want our attention, and at some level, want to persuade us of something, now or in the future.

Usually, the problem is not with the creator. They want to express themselves or educate us. Their bias is usually obvious and easily dealt with. The issue is with the network and/or advertisers. They pay the creator based on the attention/persuasion achieved, and so exert pressure on the creator or us as consumers to make this happen. Every overt or sneaky psychological method to succeed is considered. That’s the battle we’re up against, and most people don’t even know it.

So while many people point out this problem, I haven’t seen anybody propose a solution. Here is mine:

1. Create a better social media infrastructure.
– Decentralized/federated
– Use it to replace video/audio channels & algorithms

2. Make it easier to broadly fund open access media.
– Monthly targeted donation programs
– Automated donation distribution programs
– Advocate end of all media monopolies & advertising models

3. Educate the public about the problems.
– Civics classes at an early age
– Continually point out examples of how it fails us

#indyocracy

If we truly believe in the ability of a people to rule themselves, we need to have a somewhat shared understanding of our world. I think the story of our cultural and political moment is that this seems to have slipped away. Therefore, any true political reform must have a larger vision. It must address the public access to information and how our opinions are expertly manipulated. While bias is inherent, letting the power of a few shape the understanding of the many is a choice. What we are missing and need desperately is both to hear more independent voices from all perspectives, but then also to engage in the constructive criticism of all ideas. It is only this process that can let us understand how to best live and thrive together.

To get there, I argue there are four necessary pieces to this new kind of politics…

Support Independent Media

There will always be more to gain individually from creating bias than trying to advance public understanding. It is this natural state of things that when combined with any real concern for the common good, necessitates a pooling of public resources to try to overcome. We have to collectively provide the financial support for media to avoid the commercial influence of networks and advertisers. This will help to limit the culture’s general exposure to bullshit and make facts and reason more prevalent in the public discourse. There are people willing to do this work in art and journalism, but we have to make it part of our civic duty to fund it. Free from control by government and other special interests, with content available to all.

Regular Local Meetings to Discuss Politics

We have all had different life experiences, and exposure to information, that shape our understanding. Better government at all levels requires that all of these different perspectives be heard and that we embrace compromise. As much as we can learn from all the forms of media now available, overcoming our most stubborn differences will probably always require the empathy that only comes from ongoing public conversations in a shared space. Expanding public understanding, and the immunity to political propaganda that comes with it, is the only real way to take back our government.

Make Political Parties Irrelevant

In a low-information environment, political parties were very useful. Voters could use them as branding to get a general understanding of the policy positions of politicians. But the parties also always had their problems, problems that now outweigh whatever usefulness the parties still provide. In general, they act like just another special interest. They restrict candidates from following their conscience on how best to serve their constituents’ interests. They also create a divide in the electorate that is corrosive to the body politic. They allow the media to focus more on politics than policy. We must make it easier, starting at nearly impossible in some districts, to run and win as an independent candidate.

Distributed Social Media

Without a gatekeeper, social media is word-of-mouth on steroids. It allows us to democratically control what we pay attention to and how we are influenced, thus giving us more freedom in how we live our lives. Information has never been so available as it is on the internet, or easy to consume quickly as it is with social media. While we actually don’t need anyone or their algorithm modifying that content feed for us, it is unavoidable in our current model because of the financial pressure that comes from the advertising opportunity. The only way out is to collectively move to an independent, distributed but also interconnected platform we control, giving us real choice.

Dishonesty and the Attention Economy

The election of Trump is serving as a tipping point, causing many Americans to finally wonder if something has fundamentally changed in our civic life. How is this possible? My contention is that Trump took advantage of some changing conditions, but his win is actually firmly rooted in the thesis of Jon Stewart’s final monologue on The Daily Show, “Bullshit is everywhere”. This situation is a multi-generational phenomenon, a simple function of the incentives behind the attention economy and persuasion techniques. While we all have a public interest in a well-informed and compassionate society, there is an overwhelming profit available to creators in capturing our attention and selling it to others, in order to bias us towards some opinion or product. That is why commercial media continually expands, and has come to dominate how we understand our world.

What has now changed is widespread access to the internet, and we are starting to see its full effects on culture and society. In regards to how it affects our understanding of reality, it has both vastly simplified the process of researching facts, but also expanded and accelerated the reach of commercial media into our lives. We can debunk the lies like never before, if we have the time and do the work and know where to look. But the way that the internet has broken down distribution barriers for media, has also led to a competitive race to the bottom, with more desperate attempts to get our attention by new and old companies alike. So while it’s the same old game of attention and persuasion, we’re forced to spend more of our precious time weeding out bad information than ever before. It leaves us all with a deeper sense of unease.

What Trump did was to take advantage of both sides, our disillusionment with the news media and their desperate search for profits. He accelerated the rising distrust of the media by repeatedly attacking them, leading many to largely dismiss their criticism of him. But at the same time, his inflammatory commentary created such attention-grabbing content that media covered him endlessly for the advertising money. They did so by leaving him free to speak to the vast majority of the public for hours, making huge promises but also directing them how to exactly fact-check his opponent. He distracted from his own lies while showing the dishonest interplay between the media and politics, tainting his opponent. He left a lot of Americans feeling unsure of what to believe, while berating them with an avalanche of what they wanted to believe, without any policy or facts to consider.

But it is too easy to dismiss the campaign as an anomaly, and miss an important opportunity for change. The media has failed the public interest for years, and that’s at the core of our broken public sphere. Every kind of paid media campaign now exists, taking up your attention and working to persuade you, crowding out word-of-mouth movements that would more fairly represent the will of the people. As we live more of our lives within the attention economy, money is spent to buy up ever more of our time. In the long term, the public good cannot be served by this culturally overwhelming business model that exists primarily to mislead us.

The only real solution is to push back against commercial media culture by unselfishly supporting public media. We must have an aggressive and relentless pursuit of facts and the wide-ranging truth of human experience, in the best traditions of journalism and artistic endeavor, even when it challenges our interests or assumptions. Funded by everyone at the level their means allows, with content available to everyone for free, would make this model viable for every creator. A society-wide refusal to accept the current path we are on, along with the potential of new technology, now makes this alternative possible. It must be embraced by creators and citizens alike, and seen at some level, as a civic responsibility. That’s what we really need.

Fixing Illinois

  1. Independent Representation
  2. Independence for All
  3. Structural Budget Reforms

Illinois is broken because we have had decades of placing politics above policy. The focus has been short-term, on the next election, instead of long-term, and what is best for our state. Personal interests and wealth over the public good. A complete unwillingness to make hard choices and use their time with the people to inform and educate about the problems and what is necessary. Instead, it is all lies and attacking the other side in ads and mailings. Wasted money on unnecessary and unqualified patronage to serve as campaign staff. While it is a bipartisan problem, it might be most clearly seen in 30 years of Madigan being both speaker and leader of the Democratic party. He controls what gets voted on to ensure he can attack or defend those votes on the campaign side. He also allocates money and campaign staff, making candidates almost an accessory. While Rauner is outright buying out the Republican party to push his personal priorities over everything else, he is using loopholes selfishly maintained by Madigan to do so.

We have to do three things if we hope to fix this. First, we have to elect independents.

What I mean by independents are people who will look into our problems, work hard to educate the electorate about the system and explain what they think should be done to fix them, have open dialogue and be willing to change based on new ideas, and then propose good bills and vote independent of politics or party. For this to work, candidates have to reject typical politics. Don’t run attack ads or mailings. Otherwise, your opponent will be scared to speak publicly or make that difficult vote, for fear of an out-of-context attack. And the public gets deprived of further understanding, from multiple perspectives. It is only an engaged and informed electorate that can save any democracy, but candidates can inspire us toward our better selves.

The next two steps build off of independent candidates, and they are what those candidates should support: making it easier for more independents to get elected and responsible, structural budget reforms.

We should make it a lot easier for anybody without political connections for run for office in Illinois. More competition would make for better representation, just as it improves life in every other part of our society:

  • Getting on the ballot requires gathering a lot of signatures. That is called ballot access. Usually that means you need other people to help you do that. Let’s lower the number of signatures required but also require candidates to gather the signatures by themselves. That would both make it easier for anyone to do and make candidates more accessible to the public.
  • Move primary elections into late spring or early summer, and vote on the weekend. This would make it easier for the average candidate to meet voters and make it easier for everyone to vote.
  • Within the bounds of free speech, limit the power of big money or big organizations to affect elections. Other states do this, and we should follow their lead. We can write stricter laws and force more transparency on how money is moved around to fund campaigns or even directly influence candidates.
  • Implement what is called Ranked Choice or Instant Runoff Voting. This could also eliminate primaries completely. It is already done in many elections and involves ranking candidates based on your own personal preference for each office instead of just voting for one. When ballots are tallied, this process allows us to avoid the phenomenon of having to vote for the lesser evil.
  • We should have legislative leadership term limits, but term limits on legislators only make sense as a last ditch effort at political reform. When it seems that the system is rigged to make incumbency too powerful, this is an option. I think that is where we are. But once we can fix the other problems, they should be removed as they are undemocratic at their core. If someone wants to serve and their constituents want them to, they should be able to. This does not apply to legislative leadership term limits where the only limit is on the legislators, not the voters.

Underlying all the other issues in Illinois and of most immediate concern is the budget. We must make responsible, structural reforms to move the state forward. These will be huge and difficult compromises that require real sacrifice. Failure by the electorate to understand these issues has led to bad politics and where we are today.

  • The fact is we need more revenue in Illinois. There is a lot of waste, fraud and abuse in state government that we need to eliminate as soon as possible, but not enough to avoid the huge increase in revenue we need. That is depressing, but more money will provide for a better state in the future, less debt financing and lower taxes in other areas. We must switch to a graduated income tax in order the raise this revenue in an affordable way, and that requires a constitutional amendment.
  • Next is reform of all of our pension systems, including the one for Chicago teachers. The best example of how this should work is the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. State law requires that local governments make the payments and a unified system eliminates overhead. This state-local split eliminates the ability for the responsible party to skip payments. The party responsible for payments is also the entity determining future demand with hiring and salary decisions. Of course, the state will continue to play a large part in funding the systems but will now do so through a reformed structure with proper incentives in place.
  • And last is education reform such that schools are both better and more equally funded throughout the state, and property taxes can be alleviated. Once we begin to treat the Chicago teacher pensions like all other teacher pensions, we must also treat their school district like all other school districts regarding funding. One formula, reformed to better account for more expensive exceptions as they arise, with more state funding for all. As it says in the state constitution. With enough money but also with every local area paying its fair share, this will also lower property taxes. Retain local control with limited testing to ensure a proper base of education for all. It will be costly but all spent appropriately on our most important resource, our children but also our future workforce and citizens to guide our democracy.

We need a vision. I wrote this as a framework for my understanding of what’s needed in state government going forward and as a way to explain to others my position on candidates. Going beyond political parties is hard, and we need firm ideas to guide us in this new territory. How to balance a compassionate worldview with the best ideas to get the world we want in a sea of corruption. This is the best I could come up with.

Real Music

“Fuck this town. I’m moving.”

This is not just about country music. Rock had the same problem in the 1980’s until SoundScan came along and forced the industry to reconsider what people really wanted to hear. It is the problem with the radio and popular music now. It is much easier to sign a few acts and use promotion to make some of them huge and cash in. It is easier to sell ads by creating stations with music or talk that appeals to a certain demographic.

But these actions are not good for society or our culture. They divide and keep us poorly informed. Commercial media is our biggest problem.