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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Solving Democracies Oldest Problem

The age old problem of democracy is that it isn't.

Honestly, when was the last time you had a face-to-face talk with your City Councilmember, much less State Assemblyperson? God forbid you actually ask for face-time with your federal Representative or Senator. The President? Now you're just dreaming.

That is a problem because there are millions of us and only a handful of them. Even here in Jersey City, a single City Ward has several hundred thousand residents. It's simply impossible for any one person to keep their finger on the pulse of a population that size. The best they can do, if they are inclined, is to have someone listen for festering issues that can be addressed with quick reassurance and maybe a rabbit-trick or two. After all, most politicians have substantially less power than most people think.

Democracy really works only when all voices can be heard. Greek city-states used this effectively, but were very limited in who could speak and how big the city would grow. New England has a history of this type of direct democracy with its townhall meetings where everyone can come and have their say. Even there, however, a growing population with limited time is finding it difficult to maintain their democratic heritage and still get the kids to ballet and little league and do the shopping, fix dinner, wash the dog, get the car serviced, and somehow set aside some "us" time with their mate.

Hey, democracy is hard work!

But as surely as the personal computer revolutionized the business industry in the 1980s, it holds the potential for doing the same with government. Of course, it always has - the problem has been there is a significant lack of inovative ideas in our political elite. After all, they got where they are by using the system as it is, so why change something that works so well?

For starters, because it really doesn't work at all.

See the above example of face-time for elaboration.

Fortunately, in New York City they have a position that is specifically dedicated to being the voice of the public in government dealings - the Public Advocate. But how can the Public Advocate, well, advocate for the public when they don't even hear them?

This has been the problem with Betsy Gotbaum, the current office resident ("holder" would indicate that she takes some sort of action). How public can you be when you don't even publicize where you are going to be? In the middle of your campaign?

Andrew Raseij is trying to pull all of these threads together in a single campaign. His plan is to utilize municipal wi-fi to allow citizens to truly tie-in to the city government. But it isn't just a new faster way to bitch about taxes. It would also allow police and fire personel to find building blueprints while on the way to the site of an emergency (could a few hundred deaths been prevented on 9/11 with such a tool?). It would allow inner-city schools to access learning sites on the internet and bring down the cost of providing textbooks so that equality of education could actually become a reality instead of a cruel dream for the eternal next generation. It would allow your neighborhood grocer to take your order and have it waiting for you when you stop by on the way to work. It would allow politicians to speak directly to their constituents and to have their constituents speak back. It would allow tennants of absentee landlords to report persistent code violations to building inspectors.

It would restore democracy in the modern age.

Messy, noisy, nothing-else-in-the-world-beats-it democracy.

Best of all, the cost would be negligible to taxpayers. Companies have already lined up to submit bids to provide the links for the populace to connect. Rather than costing the city money, it could actually pay for itself and potentially be a source of income for the city. How about "Wi-Fi for Lower Taxes"?

And, if it can work in NYC, then it can work in Peoria and Hudson County and Kansas City and Austin and Tuscaloosa and (please insert where you live here). This is a project that literally no one who supports democracy should oppose and everyone should support. If we take NYC this year, then maybe next year we can go to your town.

Because it's about more than just the internet. It's about true democracy - turning the political establishment and its thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners on end. See, Andrew has built a competitive campaign on the pledge to take no more than $100 per person. Why? Because that is an amount people understand. That is an amount that requires him to build broad support among the real working people of the city. That is an amount that is scoffed at by politicos because it represents "little money" - money to small to be important (which means it comes from people to small to be important). Yet Andrew has taken on the machine of the last century and built a thriving co-operative effort with the people he wants to represent.

Who listens to you more? The candidate needs your ten, fifty, or hundred dollar donation - or the one who doesn't even know who gives less than a thousand?

Of course, most of the people who read this blog are not in NYC. This does not mean you are powerless, though. If you don't think I've given you enough info, then visit Andrew's website and learn more. Then call whoever you know in New York City. There is no Republican running for this office, so whoever wins the Democratic Primary in September is the one who will take the office. If you don't know anyone in NYC, then consider making a small donation. Just like at church - if you have a dollar, you give a dollar. If you have ten dollars, you give ten dollars. If you have a thousand dollars, I need a job.

Help change politics in your area by showing the Democratic Party that inovators like Andrew should be embraced and supported - not marginalized and feared. You want to change the world - go look in the mirror, the only tool you have to do that will be looking back at you.

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