Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)

Books for Autistic People

So like I said in the last Articles of Interest post, in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is I’ve spent the last few months reading books on autism, social skills, and coping mechanisms for living with neurotypicals.

So I read around a dozen books in total. I intended to write a short and sweet review paragraph for each, but some of them said some really useful things so I took notes, and then that became a whole thing. In order to not clog up my blog, I’m going to turn this post into more of a directory – click through to read an excerpt, my review, and a summary of useful concepts for my more extensive reviews.

In order of reading:

A Field Guide to Earthlings – Ian Ford

Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Sarah Hendrickx

Nonviolent Communication, 2nd ed. – Marshall B. Rosenberg

Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate – Cynthia Kim

Other books I’ve read but weren’t interesting enough to merit a full review

Miscellaneous thoughts

Because I’m insufferable, here is a quote from my boi michel foucault that aptly summarizes the underlying sentiment of the books that I liked the best:

The definition of disease and of the insane, and the classification of the insane has been made in such a way as to exclude from our society a certain number of people… Nobody is more conservative than those people who tell you that the modern world is afflicted by nervous anxiety or schizophrenia. It is in fact a cunning way of excluding certain people or certain patterns of behaviour.

In other words, having trouble coping with the rhythms and patterns specific to our society doesn’t mean that you’re defective as a human being. It means that society has not cared to make in itself a place in itself for you, because sometimes society flat sucks.

This is disability activism in a nutshell, and a good lens for self compassion. If you take nothing else away from this post, take that.

Major kudos to the r/aspergirls wiki, where I sourced many of these books. And once again a huge thanks to @mykola for writing the twitter thread that started it all.

It has also occurred to me during this binge that there are probably decent guidebooks for people who are neurodiverse in other ways as well, and I should probably hunt them down and give them a read. With decent curation, that doesn’t seem like the worst way to discover universal human experiences that I don’t have (perma). Further reviews possibly to come.

Review: Time Will Run Back


Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Capitalism

[epistemic status: I haven’t actually stopped worrying, but I am ever so slightly more receptive to the idea of capitalism]

I’ve been reading some stuff from the 50s lately, and I think it’s the first time that I’ve seriously engaged with works from the era. And the first thing that I want to say about them is that I’m frankly flummoxed by the lack of hypervisible left- or right-coded ideology in these texts. Take Barthes as an example: Barthes uses Marxist language very liberally in his text (terms like bourgeois, proletarian, etc), but does not write like how you would expect a Marxist to write. He doesn’t bash capitalism every second sentence, and how much he buys into Marxist ideology is actually left very ambiguous in the text. He simply saw some terms from Marxist theory that were useful, and used them.

To be honest, I’m kind of jealous that he can get away with that. There’s a subtle but profound difference between “rich” and “bourgeoisie” (for example, famous actors and athletes are rich, but they are not members of the bourgeoisie), and similarly between “working class” and “proletariat”, and sometimes I feel like I have to basically write around these Marxist terms lest people disregard my writing as Marxist propaganda.

But I guess this lack of political ideology makes sense, because postmodern theory (bringing with it things like intersectional feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, respect for indigenous knowledge, and all the rest of the foundations of Good Discourse) was still in gestation and everyone still thought that you can find “the universal truth” using these things called “facts” and “logic”. Speaking from the post-truth (ugh) world of 2018, this is adorably/horrifically naive, but I have to admit that the resulting straightforwardness of the arguments render them much more digestible. It’s so digestible, I finally understand capitalism. And I know that that’s a pretty bold claim, so let me explain where I’m coming from. 

Some Ramblings to Establish Context

All the modern-ish books that I’ve read about economic systems can be sorted roughly into one of two categories.

Category 1: “It’s bad that society focuses so much on productivity, when we produce more than enough already and unfair distribution (e.g. along ethnic, class, gendered, or border lines) is the actual problem. Everyone who says anything different is an evil selfish capitalist who is exploiting other people, or an unenlightened drone who needs to awaken from false consciousness.”

Category 2: “Under communism we all share one toothbrush, and no one is incentivized to become a doctor because you can get the same amount of rich by being a janitor. These are bad things. Capitalism is the opposite of communism. QED capitalism is a good thing. Something about reducing market inefficiencies by getting rid of minimum wage and going back on the gold standard. Something about why it’s good when there’s no environmental regulation and we plunder the global south.”

Okay, so admittedly I’ve not engaged with too many things in that second category. But what I want to point out is this: these categories confront each other on an abstract, ideological playing field, with absolutely nothing said on the topic of implementation. And I didn’t realize that anything was wrong with that, until I read Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back. In it, Hazlitt posits a theory that is very applied: If capitalism did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. 

So let’s talk about Time Will Run Back: a fictional account of how capitalism was invented piecemeal in a nation called Wonworld (think Oceania in 1984). Hazlitt does a really good job of making the mechanism of capitalism sound intrinsically good, and convincing you that the usage of it is inevitable if the state wants to know anything about its economy. 

(If you’re intrigued but don’t have the time/energy/interest needed to read the whole thing, I highly suggest that you read Chapter 25, which is when things really start ramping up. It starts on page 203 in this PDF version online. It’s relatively self-contained, and very, very delightful.)

A selective summary

So consider even a rudimentary thing, like “how many chairs is this chair factory producing per month?” States in general don’t have enough manpower to actually check every factory every month forever, and especially when you’re a corrupt totalitarian state, factories have incentives to overstate their productivity.

 As a state, if you want to actually have your finger on the pulse of your economy, you must use a system that incentivizes truth-telling and punishes lying – and preferably in a way that doesn’t require too much of your own manpower.

Now consider, “how many chairs does a family need per year, taking into account things like wear and tear?” This turns out to be very hard to figure out when there’s no market in place to indicate demand for any given product, making the state blind to if they’re producing too little or too much of any commodity.

Or, “how can we get this factory to make their chairs better quality, so they’re not breaking every 6 months?” All factories will of course pay lip service to quality, but how can a state actually make their factories turn out good quality chairs, given the lack of unlimited manpower and the corruption of basically all your civil servants?

The answer to all these questions, according to Hazlitt, is a system with markets. And once you have a market, other things will inevitably follow: the need for competition, brokers who take care of arbitrage and bring prices down to parity, currency inflation, speculation, and so on and so forth. But it’s distinct from modern-day capitalism in a very important way: the system described optimizes for human quality of life, not profit. Under Wonworld’s new economic policy, people work the same amount, it’s just that things are allocated much better. I was tempted at first to say that this is a lobotomized form of capitalism, but upon further consideration, I don’t think that’s true.

Also included in the book, but honestly just distracting from the fun: some murder plots, a sexy spy, treason, and some angst about Disappointing Your Father. Honestly when those things start to happen I recommend skipping forward to when people start talking about markets again. [author’s note: please read that last sentence in a wry enough tone that I come off sounding cool and self aware instead of like the utter dweeb I am, thanks]

Past, Present, Future

Time Will Run Back is a product of its time – a time when capitalism was kinder, and profit optimization had not yet overtaken things like family wages (to clarify, this is not the same thing as a living wage – living wages support solely the earner, family wages enables earners to support a family), rewarding employee loyalty, and strong unions enforcing 8-hour days for their members. (Obligatory all of these were really only in place for privileged white/male folk etc etc.)

But the capitalism of the 50s wasn’t lobotomized, it was just in its infancy. As it matured over the decades, it stripped away worker’s rights, environmental protections, and trade barriers, until we got to where we are now. And there’s nothing guaranteeing that the capitalism of Wonworld wouldn’t eventually do the same.

Another thing of note is that the book only really deals with the “demand” side of the marketplace, and not the “supply”, and all the ugly things that happens on the supply side. Work hours were not extended and wages were not cut in Wonworld, and Wonworld’s poorer neighbours remain unplundered. Instead, Hazlitt assumes that the increased effectiveness in gauging demand and the increased efficiency of distribution just makes everything substantially better, full stop no further questions.

Still, I think this book is a great read, and asks a question that is sorely neglected on the modern political left: how exactly would central planning work efficiently without markets?

My joking answer has always been “benevolent AI overlord,” but Hazlitt has got me thinking that that might not actually be enough, or that there might be an even better, more efficient way that would not require every citizen to hand over oodles of personal information to the state (or the megacorp running it). And that’s a pretty important thing to think about, especially considering that I’m, uh, studying to be a central planner.

Final score: 9/10, the content is mostly just okay, but it’s content that you can engage with without getting your hackles up no matter what your ideological background is, and that’s worth quite a lot in my books. Also, it’s less hamfisted than 1984, which isn’t saying much in my opinion, but everyone seems to think that Orwell was a brilliant novelist, so.