Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Money as Speech

This coming fall, the Supreme Court is going to attempt to determine the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act. At the core of the case is the question of whether unlimited campaign donations are speech protected by the 1st Amendment of our Constitution. In other words, is money speech.

If money is speech, then one's ability to exercise free speech is contingent upon one's wealth. The richer you are, the more speech you have. If we determine that everyone should be able to donate unlimited sums, then we are saying that, while everyone is equal in the right to donate, some of us are more "equal" than others by virtue of our incomes alone. I believe that the right of someone to speak (and/or be heard) no matter of circumstances is what is protected, not the right of some to have more, freer speech than others by virtue of income.

The following equation then: If: Money=Speech, Then: More Money=More Speech. Therefore: Less Money=Less Speech=Unequal Access to Freedom of Speech.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Injustice, Planning, and the Lack of a Voice

In my preparation to enter the Urban Planning program this fall, I have been reading books about planning, past practices, and related subjects. I am struck beyond all else by two phenomena: first, the role of democracy and money-powered groups in determining the direction of a city, and second, that few people participate in planning, and that number is dropping because we are working toward an ideal of ultimate individual control that, rather then making us more diverse, will make our societies extremely homogeneous.

It is always the poor (or those perceived as poor) that cannot get credit to improve their houses, always the weak (often minorities) whose houses are bulldozed for an expressway that serves the wealthy on the outskirts of the city. The history of planning and especially now democratic planning is one where the participants are primarily in the majority ethnic group (white, usually), well off, and prejudiced against the poor. The highways go through poor neighborhoods, transportation projects are chosen based on what helps the wealthy, and people who often have no role in a service (such as with the people who think taking my Park & Ride away is a good idea because they "like the idea" of a park). Our so-called democratic process of referendums and ballot initiatives (I wish these would be ruled unconstitutional) is so undemocratic and dominated by the wealthier elites (there is that word again) that it must be abolished in favor of outreach methods of decision making that bring all people to the table. It is vital if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past 50 some-odd years.

I have already talked about most of these things, but I am increasingly bothered (but sometimes heartened) since I usually win the arguments I have on buses or in church, etc. My enemy in this is the increased ability for people to customize their social environments. I am unable to reach many people simply because they have ear buds in (just like in Fahrenheit 451) but cannot lip-read (unlike in that book). People who are checked out of society and into their self-designed, specially controlled clique do not care. They are our ultimate challenge since they are the ones who by not caring will doom any hope we have of increasing justice, improving domestic tranquility, and securing for ourselves and our posterity the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Today in a bookstore, I found books on the Liberal Elite, the Wall Street Elite, the Mental Health Elite, the Intelligence Elite, the Tax Elite, the list (actually) goes on. It struck me that we have a serious issue with people we see as "Elite" in this country, while simultaneously we would like nothing better than to become one of those elites....either that or it helps to sell books by referring to a us (David) versus them (Goliath) battle. It is, to me, just more entertainment without the real substance that we could theoretically obtain from our reading.

Political books are as much fluff as any Forgotten Realms fantasy novel (these are the D&D books without much originality when it comes to fantasy). They pander, play with facts, and attempt to read like a drama. The problem is that they are incorporated into the current events section of most bookstores. The ability to separate Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken (entertainers) from actual current events reporters and authors is sorely lacking.

I too used to read political books as current events, I was foolish, and for that I am sorry.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Revolution Exaggerated

Iran is in turmoil, I get it. I am listening to the BBC World Have Your Say right now and hearing people come in an demonstrate exactly why I distrust the value of Social Media as a means of mobilizing. I would also like to call attention to the comment made by a friend of mine on the post before this one (go look at it!).

There are relatively few Twitter users in Iran, as a guest on the BBC mentioned. Also, Western Media is using Twitter and other Social Media as a primary source, defying the rule of social media which is to never trust anything unverifiable because contributers are not accountable. This Social Media revolution has caused the most radical events to float to the top. While we would likely have a clearer view of what is happening if the government would let our media report, we cannot use Twitter as a primary source. Also, Janaiha (from the previous post comments) is absolutely right that the value of online support is limited because, if for no other reason, than it is easy to bluster but hard and dangerous to walk with the protestors.

Also, check out the Basiji militia article in the NY Times. They scare the heck out of me since they represent young radicals that we see on occassion here, such as with the "Islamo-Facism Awareness Week" at my campus at George Washington University.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twittering to Another Iranian Revolution (or not)

I sincerely dislike Twitter because I believe that breaking everything down int 140 character or less sound-bites is a terrible idea for an already maladjusted and attention span-less society. Still, I have found the arguments that Twitter is spurring on the Iranian Revolution of 2009 to be intriguing. And also wrong.

I will not disagree that Twitter, Facebook, and related social ::shudder:: media play a large role in organizing the protests. This is obvious since they are used widely, they are our generations connection pools. Twitter especially has been receiving undo, in my opinion, praise as the linking site helping to give rise to the Iranian social movements. To this, I reply, does anyone remember how Iran got like this? It was a revolution. How about China's Tienanmen Square? How about the social movements in Europe in the 1960s? All these arose suddenly and changed the world or died trying. They also did it without Twitter. In the first breath, commentators say that Twitter is bring out a revolution not seen since 1979. We did not have Twitter then, I wonder how they were able to organize and overthrow a government remarkably similar to the one they have today (not ideologically, but practically)?

Revolutions have always happened and masses of people have somehow managed to get everyone together in one place to yell and throw stones for decades if not for longer. The internet is the current method of maintaining connections, and has some very important purposes, like being able to show videos from cell phones. The truth is, though, these protests would have happened with or without the internet and Twitter. People would have just done things differently, just like they used to. We in the west tend to over estimate the role of internet communications in many countries, and Iran is no different. If anything, the internet is distorting the facts by providing so many and from unverifiable sources. Honestly, if BBC reporters were not secretly saying that this is a big deal while inside the country, then I would not even necessarily believe that this movement was more than a Tehran thing.

In sum, internet does not equal protests. Twitter did not bring about the Iranian protests.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Planning for Social Exclusion

Having just finished another book on planning and development, I am beginning to get worried. On top of all this, when I say the things I will discuss here, more and more people are agreeing with me. This topic started out as a side-note to my interest on development in the age of globalization, and instead has become a central challenge to planning and community development theory in my life.

I begin the discussion of social exclusion with technologies of social exclusion. Since then, I have come to realize that I was taking the wrong path, focusing on the enabling factor (technology) instead of on the users (people). This is kind of like blaming drugs for the addict. Our entire society has a goal of more individual social freedom. Liberal intellectuals discuss a new world of freedom. These people are those who most value "saving the world," people like Daniel Quinn, for example (I have not read his books, but I am familiar moderately with his thesis). In a used bookstore yesterday, I finally could not take it anymore. The liberal intellectual society of which I am part decries the destruction of our communities, the end of community-based projects, and champions the creation of new projects like community gardens or the building of community centers/facilities. Simultaneously, however, we are working against the "communalization" process by advocating a world where the individual is so absolutely free and powerful that every aspect of their lives is customizable. I am seeing finally the beginnings of fear in the voices and words of some people who are discussing the decline of the aquaintence and the focus of society on ways to avoid leaving the comfort zones of its members.

Liberals primary failure is that they DO NOT REALIZE that people are community animals who desire to create a very specific environment, surrounded by that which comforts them. We have always done this, creating communities segregated by race, income, origin, sexual orientation, political belief, and worse. We will, if given the power, never interact with anyone with whom we do not wish. The age of true and absolute individual liberty is created by technologies and is the culmination of decades of policies. Everything we have done it seems is designed to allow more spatial auto-segregation. This includes many urban planning policies that encourage people to create barriers between themselves and their neighborhood. We destroy community links through policies that cut up communities and remove the features such as businesses, schools, or parks that tie them together. We eliminate the "sidewalk culture" by forcing houses to be set far back from the sidewalk. We create communities of individual, selfish, wasteful people living in massive, sprawling, inefficient, cold, and boring suburbs. What is more, we have decided that creating situations where people are forced to interact, such as through school integration programs, are bad. This not only further relagates the unfortunate individuals stuck in failing areas to more poverty, but it also prevents any type of mutual understanding that can begin to bridge the divides in our increasingly unequal and segregated society.

My point is that people want to customize their social and physical spaces and our entire history of planning policy and technology development assist them in this. We will never be able to build communities by merely creating the spaces that so many new development claim as selling points (just look how small they often are to know how much use they expect them to get). The liberal intellectual ideal of a more aware human is foolish since, although we are all happy to donate massive sums to disasters in Asia, we cannot fathom helping the desperately poor who are near us, in our cities and countrysides. Our world may be one of integrated information networks, but it is also one of customized contacts with the world outside of the four walls and yard of your suburban house. We want this, we work for it, and it will be the cause of more polarization and less ability to get things done. In truth, this is the real cause of our loss of moderation as a society in politics and everything else. We must recognize this. As a planner I am concerned because I see it as a threat to my goal of expanded participation in real democratic planning (i.e. where most people actually participate). People, as I have said before, will not care about their first life if they are concentrating on their "Second Life."

I am almost panicked now because I am seeing the rise of customizable social spaces as a GOAL, a REAL goal of intellectuals. I am all for freedom, I am all for increased equality through increased access to opportunity that many of these technologies can, in theory, provide. I am not for the loss of our community. I do not want to see us split apart into ever smaller factions as has happened all over the world in movements for change in society.

I hope to design an empirical study of this once I start grad school in planning this fall. I am trying at this point to get a clearer idea on the history of a process that I only recently pinpointed as a problem of "technologies of social exclusion." I failed to realize that this has historical precedence and that there are visible problems today arising from humanity's natural goal of divided communities.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Segregation of the Poor

Lately I have listened to many commentators discuss how racism is dead and how young people today are no longer inhibited by the bounds of discrimination. While I disagree with this and can pile up mountains of evidence to prove it, I feel that there is a point to be made here on the overall importance of racism in deciding people's fate. I think that, in many ways, we have moved beyond discriminating against the job applicant in our office who is well-spoken, well-dressed, but also African-American and to general dislike and distrust of elements of other cultures' dress, speaking styles, etc, which, although it presents huge challenges to people lumped into those groups and expected to behave in those ways, is in my mind less terrible that dislike of someone based on skin-color alone. I see this as a general trend to more acceptance of difference overall even as we practice intense, personal social segregation.

I believe that we have moved to a point where racism is less about race and more about where racism left your group in society. It is structural now rather than explicit. Because of past racism, people were left in ghettos and given poor schools and education. Because of our rapidly expanding belief in our supposed (though nonexistant as I have explained in previous discussions) meritocracy, those who are in the underclass today are thought of as simply lazy without reason and without the excuse of segregation.

Today, many of the policies overlooked were those that were not, at least explicitly, designed to enforce segregation. Most serious among these were the building of projects which were filled with poor people, families who would then be evicted if their income levels increased beyond a certain point. The legacy of these as well as policies such as redlining, official segregation, etc, is a highly unequal and divided society. We have created a system where success, failure, and overall access of opportunity is based on in what geographical area you were born. That is to say, a wealthy person of African descent can, in my mind, succeed in overcoming the obstacles of still-existant segregation and implicit racism and bias, even though it is more difficult. The person facing the most challenge, however, is that person born into a district already mired in poverty, crime, and bad schools/overall lack of opportunity. My view on community integration today is based on a view that communities should not exist as no-goes. A concerted effort to improve communities by improving the opportunities of their residents is key to achieving equality of all kinds, including ethnic. The past policies that led to income and racial segregation, as I mentioned above, are tough, though no insurmountable. To me, a more damaging problem is that of gentrification--the apparent improvement of a community without real change. Community redevelopment and improvement is often designed to generate higher land values as a major indicator of community redevelopment success. The problem with using this barometer, however, is that it measures location, absent from its residents. The process of gentrification that displaces poor with middle-class, pushing the poor into suburbs or other areas of the city. Often this means pushing them out of their already-weak communities, further lessening the impact of programs targeting them. They are often left in the care of new cities and counties that may lack the city-based infrastructure to deal with challenges that arise. It is for this reason, maintence of an area's original residents should be the goal. Build up, not out. Through a process designed to increase neighborhood vitality (encourage business development, assist social/religious institutions in instituting neighborhood programs, improve the schools, focus, overall, on generating opportunity for the current residents without destroying their community. Strengthen the locality rather than weaken it. Income segregation is a major cause of inequality and areas that have pursued it, such as in Santiago, Chile, have become among the most unequal on earth. On the flip side is the school district in North Carolina (one of the large cities, I do not remember which) which instituted bussing by income, a practice that vastly improved test scores and overall achievement.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Republican Playing the Race Card???

This whole new exciting world of Supreme Court confirmation hearings that are not yet even begun has once again demonstrated that the Court is a product of political ideology, not judicial vision or qualifications. Things have gone so far this time that we are seeing Sonia Sotomayor being called a racist, bigot, and lots of other things for suggesting that race/ethnicity and gender play a role in the decisions made by quarts. I love the way politics works in this country where everyone decides to dance around the truth and where the truth becomes "politically incorrect." In reality, race and gender play a role in how people see the world. Racial bias has existed and still exists, people are not judged based on the content of their character. We have 7 white male members of the Supreme Court and Republicans have the gall to say that there is significant discrimination against white men. The reality is that as long as a society is structurally biased toward someone based upon his race and gender, then policies designed to encourage the consideration of qualified minorities are necessary. The claim the Mrs. Sotomayor is an affirmative action pick is probably at least partially true. That said, I think it demonstrates the value of such a program. She was examined because she was a women and Obama wanted another women on the court. She potentially was picked in part because she is Latina. That said, she is also extremely qualified. The current smear campaign is similar to the Swift Boat ads against Kerry, people making stuff up to scare people into voting against her.

I am extremely frustrated with everything right now as I watch a biased court push for a more unequal and segregated society. The sooner it is realized that we have inherent biases, the sooner we will work them out. The idea that someone can grow up in the projects, attend Princeton, graduate Summa cum Laude, become a Judge, and be nominated for the Supreme Court is the ultimate American Dream story and I am sick and tired of hearing conservatives whine about how no white male was considered. They are still living in a time when diversity was thought to not matter, where segregation was considered good and desirable, and where all that was socially acceptable. People like Jeff Sessions were racist before and are racist now (he was not allowed to become a judge for this reason). Hearing the absurdity of the claim that white men need affirmative action when so much already goes our way: we get paid more, we get better mortgage rates, we go to prison less frequently per capita, the list goes on. Inequality of opportunity exists but we are too deaf, dumb, and opposed to recognizing fundamental contradictions in American society that are being brought out by this confirmation.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Who Owns Stolen Treasure


In the above article forces me to raise the question: who owns stolen treasure? Is it the people who own the ship that carried (Spain), the carriers themselves-or their descendents (the merchants who were aboard the ship), the finders (the Odyessey Company), or the people it was originally stolen from (the Latin-Americans)? I laugh because the constant and very selective interpretation of history involved in this case really bothers me.

The Spanish like to pretend it is theirs, even though they stole it during centuries of bloody and brutal occupation of Latin America. They have never paid reparations, and if we really want to get down to it, all this stuff should go back to Latin America. Right now, there are cases all over the world of newly influential countries such as China requesting a return of the cultural artifacts looted by soldiers of imperialist powers. Instead, though, a judge just said that Spain gets to keep it, saying that the thieves keep the loot that they lost fair and square and did not even look for. Nice.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More Comments on Planning and Capitalism

This is an extension of previous posts on this topic. If I repeat things, I apologize, I am pretty frustrated by some of the trends and tendencies I see in the way we act as a society toward some of the most important and/or vulnerable elements.

First I want to talk about capitalism. I have long decried the share-holder and consumer based capitalism that I view as having sprung up in our country as a result of basic greed and the natural progression of capitalism. We have now the equivalent of what Ayn Rand wrote about in relation to Socialism/Communism, but in its capitalist form. A land where people's success is largely dependent upon the circumstances of their birth, where the owners of company do so only for their profit regardless of company longevity, and where our politicians aid and abet this process. For my arguments on this, see previous posts relating to capitalism and economics. To this, I want to add another problem, the lack of truly innovative social businesses that serve important areas, such as a local bank that gives loans to a local community with whom they are intimately connected, and the tendency to build and innovate only to sell to the highest bidder.

The first problem relates to the problems that hinder many communities blacklisted or red-lined against lenders or at least reasonable rates of mortage. This stuff really frustrates me since we refuse to supply the tools for success to areas of this country and then complain and call their inhabitants lazy when they fail to thrive. What is worse, we actively discourage their success both through programs that only give to those who truly fail (such as welfare or housing subsidies that disappear right when you get on your feet). The problem of areas that cannot get basic services leads to grocery gaps, banking gaps, and any other large number of gaps in things that are necessary for a community to become strong and unslum itself. Our policy in the past has been to demolish the community and in its place build a huge project. While this is no longer smiled upon, its effects are still imminently visible in the huge inequalities and lack of mobility that appear in poor areas of our country. We do not encourage the creation of local business infrastructure that can reverse these trends. What gets me about this is that our corporate policy effectively favors big companies by subsidizing them the most through tax write-offs and investments of which only they are able to take advantage. I believe that a healthy taxation system would have higher rates on large companies that provide a mere 30% of the GDP relative to small businesses which provide 70%. But no. We focus instead on big companies and as a society have come to believe in them and them alone. We have steadily edged out our local stores in favor of bigger, slightly cheaper (often only in the short-term--I do not remember the reference for this, but it exists) stores. We watch our local banks get bought up by companies that are now "too big to fail" and now we wonder why our economy has lost vitality. The modern "innovator" seems to me to be someone who creates a technology or service and then sells it to some very large firm that then standardizes it. This in turn destroys the important community links with that business that are necessary for responding to local needs.

While the above point is not well organized, the conclusion is this: through a mixture of government policy and societal change, we now use innovation as a "get rich quicker" scheme that is based upon selling an idea or company to a bigger one. We have created policies that benefit larger businesses at the expense of small, and we often fail to recognize the vast, systemic problems that prevent people from succeeding and keep them down either by red-lining policies or through programs that encourage failure. What causes me frustration is that smaller banks and businesses would not have let the housing crisis happen. Also, our failure to recognize that there still exists huge levels of systemic discrimination against people based upon where they live and who we stereotype them to be has prevented us as a country from accepting the need for policies meant to encourage people to build themselves out of their problems. We have in a sense planned for failure.

Lastly, and as a footnote to this, it is important to note that our tendency toward big projects, big companies, and less community-based activism has been created by policies that destroyed community interconnectedness. In order to achieve any success, we cannot bring in the success, we have to build it from what we already have. Bringing it in is gentrification, building it is the only path to real change. I will write on more of this later.