Tuesday, April 22, 2008

CNN and Snow on a fine line

CNN may not have learned much from yesterday's NYTimes
about media independence.

The New York Times reported that the Pentagon and the Administration have been promoting their message about the Iraq war through the supposedly independent analysts that all of the major news outlets have been employing.

There is nothing wrong with the government trying to get its message out to the public. The problem is this: The news media and the government cultivated an illusion that these individuals were in fact independent voices. They wore the skin of unimpeachable and objective observers of world events. But they were in fact carefully cultivated by the administration to articulate a specific position on Iraq and the conflict there.

And now CNN has hired Tony Snow, former White House Press Secretary, as a political contributor. Perhaps they hired him explicitly to bring a conservative voice to the network. But I hope that CNN is very careful about the kind of commentary they ask from him.

Larry King asked him who would win in November. Tony Snow replied, "I think [Sen. John] McCain's going to win, actually, because I think security and the economy both break his way."

Statements like this are fine if Mr. Snow is clearly portrayed as an advocate and not an objective analyst of political affairs. But it seems like it would be quite easy for him to take on the air of an analyst. At that point, statements of advocacy masked as analysis become at least a little pernicious.

Monday, April 21, 2008

McCain's Borrow and Spend Bill

S. 2890 a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain.

OpenCongress describes this bill as intended "to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide for a highway fuel tax holiday." The bill will eliminate the gas tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day of 2008.

Even McCain acknowledges that the money of the gas tax goes to something useful. So to make up the difference, his bill will replace the funds lost from the tax with money from the General Treasury. In essence, Sen. McCain is borrowing money from an already cash strapped federal government that is paying for two wars, huge tax cuts for the wealthy, and out-of-control defense spending.

Once again, a leader of the Republican Party is borrowing money from the government and tax-paying citizens to fund a project with only short term benefits and long term negative economic and environmental consequences.

Some complain that the Democratic party likes to "tax and spend". As this bill demonstrates, the Republican party is just as fond of spending (if not more so), but it gets shy when it comes to asking for the funds to pay for its adventures in foreign countries.

Proposing taxes sufficient to their spending would force the GOP to be accountable to an American public that is reluctant to have its money spent on frivolous projects. Instead, the GOP has developed a penchant for cutting taxes and hiding its spending by borrowing.

It borrows from social programs like education and social security. It borrows from the health of the environment. It borrows from workers' livelihoods. It borrows from the resources and the people that the United States needs to rely on in the future.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Collaborative law-making, Law professors debate and a web 2.0 project creates

Penn Law Professors debate collaborative environmental law-making

Here are their arguments, as I understand them:

Coglianese argues that the purpose of environmental law-making should be the greatest public good, and that collaborative law-making processes become dedicated not to the public good, but to making a deal among competing interests. The results of such processes then often reflect the lowest common denominator to which parties could agree.

Orts argues that command-and-control statutory processes for environmental law-making are just as dominated by deal-making as collaborative processes, but at least the latter invites deal-making into the open. The principle weakness of command-and-control law-making is that (1) law-makers do not have all the information that they would need to make a good decision and a collaborative process would find more information and that (2) policy decisions are value judgments and collaborative processes can enable those who hold opposing values to negotiate a settlement, rather than allowing the decision to be made by third-party policy-makers.

As a partisan of Wiki-wisdom and participatory civil society, I lean towards Orts at first. But Coglianese's criticisms strike several serious blows. For example, I can accept that many policy decisions are values judgments that can't be decided by "experts". When the law-makers are not elected by and accountable to the public, then I would agree that these individuals should not adjudicate the values of a community they do not legitimately represent. But if they are elected officials, they are not alien "experts", but rather individuals chosen precisely to make these value judgments on behalf of the community. In the end I am torn between their two arguments.

So to cut the gordion knot, I'll just point to a different model of collaborative law-making. (Whew. Two paths diverged and I left the forest) At PublicMarkup.org the Sunlight Foundation has written a piece of proposed legislation entitled, "Transparency in Government Act". The bill's text is written like blog entries - un-editable to users. But there is endless space for comments next to the text. And the bill's authors are free to incorporate or not incorporate comments into their text.

This model escapes the deal-making, lowest-common-denominator-finding problem that Coglianese associates with collaborative law-making. How? It says, "Forget you. This is my bill, and it will say exactly what I want it to say". But it is collaborative in two senses. First, it is collaborative in the sense that the software and mission of the site invite participation from internet users. Second, the bill takes shape in public and outside of the traditional avenues of bill creation such as closed Congressional legislative shops.

In this way, PublicMarkup.org does not dilute its strength through collaboration, while at the same time earning the benefits of public participation, debate, fact-gathering and perspective-enlarging.

A caveat: the PublicMarkup.org process is an iterative one. It supplements rather than replaces traditional legislative processes, because its bill must still be introduced, accepted and legitimized by a representatives of the entire community.

I'm so excited about PublicMarkup.org and the prospect of open-source, publicly created legislation that it seems likely there will be more about it on this blog....


Too much division of labor causes a dearth of democracy?

John Dunn in his book Democracy. A History quotes the French revolutionary theorist, the Abbe Sieyes,

The more a society advances in the arts of trade and production, the moore we see the work connected to public functions should, like private employments, be carried out less expensively and more effectively by men who make it their exclusive occupation.

For one thing, the quote illustrates that Marx was not the first theorist of capitalism to influence and inspire revolutionary thought. Dunn points out that Sieyes' determination that public offices should be held by career public officials in an advanced society comes directly from Adam Smith and his theories of the division of labor.

And today, public functions are often carried out by men and women who exclusively occupy them. Our vision of modern democracy is deeply intertwined with this vision of divided labor throughout society. This vision contrasts sharply with democracy's first fans. In ancient Athens, each citizen (of course, those citizens were only upper class wealthy males) had a responsibility to participate in public life. Today many people shy away from participating in public roles that reach outside of their job description.

What does it mean for a state with democratic aspirations to nurture a culture which tells people to butt out of public affairs unless they are professionals? Do we have a duty to play a role in governing our community?