How voting helps

Plaque commemorating a lecture by Susan B. AnthonyI’ve long been peeved by how little credit people give to the power of their vote.

So many people seem to think that a vote isn’t effective unless it holds the balance of power, as if their vote only counted when the other voters were equally split, so that their vote would sway the election one way or the other.

This isn’t true for individuals, and it most especially is not true for groups.

Back in the run-up to the 2008 election, I heard a  story on NPR that provided a good counterexample. An Indian tribe in (I think) New Mexico was getting attention from state and national candidates of both parties, because they had started voting. Pretty much all of a sudden, after their voting turnout had shot up, their issues became important to politicians at all levels. And their issues weren’t just important when there was a close election and their votes might make the difference: Because they voted in every election, every politician needed to pay attention to their issues all the time.

If you’re a member of a group that votes, your group’s issues will be taken seriously. You don’t need to be a majority. You don’t even need to vote as a block. (In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t: You want politicians thinking that each individual vote is up for grabs, if they institute the right policies.)

The image at the top of this post is of a plaque in downtown Champaign, commemorating a lecture on “Work, Wages, and the Ballot,” that Susan B. Anthony gave here back in 1870. I’ve seen the plaque many times, but couple of days ago, I thought to take a picture of the plaque, and that prompted me to do a proper search, which yielded some results.

This Project Gutenberg Book Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian, by Alma Lutz is pretty good:

She had at hand a perfect example in the unsuccessful strike of Kate Mullaney’s strong, well-organized union of 500 collar laundry workers in Troy, New York. Aware that Kate blamed their defeat on the ruthless newspaper campaign, inspired and paid for by employers, Susan asked her, “If you had been 500 carpenters or 500 masons, do you not think you would have succeeded?”

“Certainly,” Kate Mullaney replied, adding that the striking bricklayers had won everything they demanded. Susan then reminded her that because the bricklayers were voters, newspapers respected them and would hesitate to arouse their displeasure, realizing that in the next election they would need the votes of all union men for their candidates. “If you collar women had been voters,” she told them, “you too would have held the balance of political power in that little city of Troy.”

I turned 18 shortly after the voting age in the US had been lowered to 18. The drinking age had been lowered along with it, so it was legal for me to drink. But a big jump in drunk driving accidents prompted many states to raise their drinking age.

In Michigan it turned out to be an oddly complex process. A state law was passed, raising the drinking age to 19, but grandfathering in people who were already old enough to have started drinking before the law went into effect. After that law was passed, but before it went into effect, a state constitutional amendment was put on the ballot, that would raise the drinking age to 21, without any grandfathering. That would create a whole cohort of people who’d been able to buy alcohol for a year or more, who would lose that right. And all of them could vote.

I voted against it, of course. But nobody else I knew who was going to be in the affected group bothered to vote. They didn’t much care about the issue—it was as easy for under-age drinkers to buy booze then as now—and they didn’t think their vote would count for much. And, as it turned out, they were right. But only because their peers didn’t vote. Not only could a solid voting block of 18-to-20 year olds have affected the outcome, I rather doubt if the issue would have even gone on the ballot, if 18-to-20 year olds voted at the rates that senior citizens do.

The way voting helps is not by winning individual elections (although that does happen and it’s nice when it does). The way voting helps is that if you’re a voter, politicians take your interests into account all the time.

Funding the capital costs of household solar power

I was reminded yesterday that I wanted to mention Property Assessed Clean Energy, which came up in the course I’m taking on electric power. (What reminded me was Tobias Buckell’s post about how the real issue for photovoltaics is the capital cost of installing the capacity, which he mentioned in reference to a rather interesting article on issues with solar feed-in tariffs.)

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a clever idea for funding homeowner investment in solar power. The way it works is this: The municipality raises money with a bond issue, then lends it to homeowners to invest in solar (or potentially wind) power generating capacity. That investment is then paid back to the municipality over 15 or 20 years via an assessment on the property tax bill. The money is easy for the homeowner to pay back, because the debt repayment is funded by savings on the power bill.

The property tax assessment stays with the house if it is sold, which is reasonable because the photovoltaic system or wind turbine stays with the house as well. This means that the capital is available quite cheaply, because the money is very likely to be paid back.

The really big win of PACE is that it greatly reduces the biggest financial risk that a homeowner takes when making an investment in solar power—the risk that he or she will end up having to move before the rather long payback period, and end up being on the hook to pay the loan back, without enjoying the benefits of the lower power bills.

The problem is, even though about half the states have laws authorizing some form of PACE, the whole scheme has been blocked by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac not to underwrite mortgages on properties with a PACE assessment.

As I understand it, the issue is that the property tax assessment (like property taxes in general) are senior to the mortgage in the event of a default. But if this regulation is legitimate, the federal mortgage authorities can regulate all municipal activity. They could ban mortgages on houses where the municipality is funding public art through a property tax assessment (or on houses where the municipality isn’t funding public art). If this principle stands, municipal governments will have to do whatever the mortgage authorities demand, or else only people rich enough to pay cash would be able to buy a house in town.

There’s a group called PACENow that’s working various paths to get the prohibition reversed.

The politics of providing services

In many places with repressive governments, nascent political parties (unable to achieve political power via the ballot box, because elections are rigged or the group is banned from participating) provide public services as an organizing tactic. They provide food for children, health care, mediation services, neighborhood watch, financial aid to victims of government actions, and so on.

This tactic has proven to be effective, so I’ve always been a little surprised that we don’t see more of it in the US. So, I was interested to see a post about the Black Panther’s free breakfast program, and the FBI’s concerns about it.

Upon reflection, I figure that the main reason we see little of this in the US is that in the US we really do have public services. There are government programs to feed hungry children, provide medical care to the sick and injured, police the streets, adjudicate conflicts, and so on. They’re flawed and limited, but they do exist. They’re good enough, that it would take a lot of money to compete—and if you have that much money, there are better ways to seek power, especially since our political system is reasonably open.

But this is becoming less true. With constant pressure on public services, holes are opening up that can be—and are being—filled by private organizations. So far, those organizations are mostly charitable non-profits, but there’s no reason that a political party couldn’t join in.

I think we’ll see it pretty soon, especially at the local level. People who have felt disenfranchised will be very willing to support political parties that directly provide what the government won’t and ask nothing in return except that you consider voting for their candidates.

The Unconstitional Enemy Expatriation Act

There’s a bill, the Enemy Expatriation Act, that aims to strip US citizens of their citizenship if they are accused of “engaging in, or purposefully and materially supporting, hostilities against the United States.” (The term “hostilities” is defined to mean any conflict subject to the laws of war.)

This is almost certainly unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court held some years ago that it was impossible for a US citizen to unintentionally give up his citizenship. In particular, formally renouncing your citizenship in front of a foreign official was not enough to actually lose your citizenship, because maybe you intended to retain your citizenship (and were just going through the motions of renouncing it as part of obtaining citizenship of some other country).

Now, the Supreme Court has become pretty unreliable on this sort of thing of late, but it seems to me that if formally renouncing your citizenship is ineffective, just in case you didn’t really mean it, then a whole lot of things that fall under the general heading of “supporting” (such as donating money to a charity that is later found to have been diverting some of that money to groups that are in some way connected with other groups that are accused of) hostility certainly don’t qualify as intentional renunciation.

Clarion at home: Summation

This is part 6—the final post—of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion. I’ve talked about my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on my big misconception of Clarion, on some of the things that you can’t get from blog posts, and on applying these lessons.

What about getting critiques?

Before I went to Clarion, I assumed that the most important thing would be the critiques of my stories. I was wrong.

It’s actually a good thing that I was wrong. After all, the goal of Clarion isn’t to send you home with six critiqued stories that you can polish up and get published. The goal is to make you a better writer. You can only get so much better in six weeks, but six weeks is enough time to give you the tools you need to continue improving your own writing through practice.

A critique (better, several critiques) can help you improve a story. A good critique can help you find the good stuff in your story (so you don’t accidentally lose it when revising). A good critique can tell you that a story has problems.

It’s pretty rare for even a great critique to tell you how to fix a story that’s broken. But when several critiques all have complaints, there’s probably a problem somewhere, and the details of the complaints will often provide a clue as to where that is.

More important—and probably the biggest thing you’re missing out on by doing Clarion at home (aside from some of the fun) is that getting critiques can help you develop your skills in critiquing your own work.

Critiquing your own work is much harder than critiquing other people’s. If there’s some trick to doing it well, I haven’t learned it yet. In particular, getting critiques helps you learn about your blind spots. When critiquers point out flaws in your own work that you should have seen—and especially when they point out the same kinds of flaws in the next story, and the one after that—it can begin to sink in. That may be a quicker way to learn not to make the same mistakes, but the important part is to learn to see the mistakes. Then you can fix them, even if you can’t avoid making them.

Other stuff

Of course, there was a lot of other stuff at Clarion:

  1. A little dorm room with a little bed and a little desk.
  2. A weekly BBQ with that week’s departing teacher.
  3. A session with an editor on the difference between a perfectly good story and a story that sells.
  4. Several different perspectives on the career arc of a speculative fiction writer.
  5. Learning to play Mafia—and being there when John Gonzales invented his varient The Thing.
  6. Practice for doing public readings of our work in front of a small, friendly audience. (I’m still grateful to Rick Polney for organizing these.)
  7. Late evenings on the Owen balcony drinking beer and doing impersonations of the teachers. (You should have been there. It was hilarious.)
  8. Some very specific advice on what to do after Clarion. (That page also has a look at the life cycle of a story.)

All those things (and many others) were great fun; some have been really helpful in various ways. But what helped my writing was the stuff I’ve talked about here.

Once you develop enough skill at critiquing that you can evaluate your own work, you’re in a position to improve it through practice. Then it’s just a matter of putting in the time writing—and monitoring, evaluating, and trying to do it better.

Clarion is great fun, but you can improve your writing even if you can’t go.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

Would we lose internet service if there were riots?

All the smart folks on twitter have been asking questions along this line. If we had civil unrest, would the government try to cut off our internet access? (I have no doubt that if they tried, they’d succeed. Internet and cell phone providers are regulated companies; they’d roll over in two seconds.)

I think that would be bad.

First of all, it would be unconstitutional. At a minimum, such an action would infringe several first amendment freedoms: speech, press, assembly, and to petition the government.

More important, in a stable democracy like the US, I think internet and cellular service would be at least as much a stabilizing force as it would be a destabilizing force. In the event of civil unrest there would be many powerful voices calling for calm and for non-violence. Shutting off the internet would silence those voices along with the voices of those trying to organize protests.

So, I just sent this note to my congressman, urging him to take steps to protect citizens’ access to telecommunications services:

Prompted by the recent news that the Egyptian government cut off internet and cell phone connectivity for its citizens, it occurred to me that this tool of repression should not be available in the United States.

At a minimum, I urge you to oppose any legislation along the lines of last year’s “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act,” but I think you should go further.

I’d very much like to see legislation that would specifically bar the government from shutting down internet or cellular connectivity for US citizens, and that would bar telecommunication providers from “voluntarily” complying with “requests” from the government that they stop providing connectivity to persons in the US.

Of course, legal solutions only go so far. They would be much strengthened by technological solutions. Cell phones and internet access points can be designed to mesh with other nearby devices. That would make it vastly more difficult for a top-down order to shut down connectivity—hopefully, difficult enough that governments wouldn’t even try.

[Updated 30 January 2011: Here’s a list of ad-hoc meshing protocols that might serve as a basis for making a top-down shutdown impossible.]

Missing the point on immigration

I live in a nicely cosmopolitan little apartment complex. It’s one of the cheaper places to live in town, so we get a nice mix: single people, young couples, seniors, working-class folks, grad students. Those last two categories in particular add a good bit of racial diversity—African Americans, South Asians, East Asians. It makes for a nice place to live.

Because I like living in places like this, I find myself conflicted on the topic of  immigration.

The largest motivation for opposing immigration (setting aside the wrong-headed opposition that springs from racism) is economic—but most of the people trying to make the economic argument get it wrong. Or maybe they just state it poorly.

Population density

The most important reason that the United States is an attractive place to live is the low population density. This was true from the beginning of European settlement. There was enough land that anyone could be a landowner. The low population meant fewer workers, which kept wages high and working conditions good. Natural resources were abundant, meaning everyone could have and use more timber, more water, more grain, and (especially over the past couple of generations) more coal, oil, and natural gas.

There is high population density in cities, and that’s the best way to arrange things: If most people live in an urban environment, it preserves the maximum amount of land for crops, timber, pasture, natural areas, and so on. Sprawling the people out in subdivisions and exurbs wastes a lot of land. But however you arrange the living and working spaces: the more people you have, the smaller the average person’s share is going to be.

Economists dismiss this argument, on the grounds that people are productive: Each new person produces more than enough to be self-supporting, so each new person can potentially raise everyone’s standard of living. That’s not wrong exactly, but it’s largely a self-serving argument. The monied interests benefit from an influx of new workers, because a larger labor force holds down wages. At the same time, the monied interests don’t suffer as their pro-rata share of nature’s bounty declines, because they don’t settle for a pro-rata share; they buy as much as they want, leaving that much less for the rest of us.

Many people understand this at some level, but view it in pieces rather than as a whole. If they’re workers, they object to other workers willing to work for lower pay. If they’re business owners, they claim that there are “certain jobs” that Americans just won’t do. (A falsehood: it would be easy to find Americans to do any job, if it were a full-time salaried position with health insurance, a pension, and education benefits—just like every job I ever had as an adult.) Others point to the increased demand on social structures when “different” people arrive—people with bigger families (more children to be educated) or people who speak a different language (public safety information needs to be translated). At this level, the pro-business argument is correct: immigrants are productive and the taxes they pay easily cover the costs of the services that they use. But they still increase the population density—and that means dividing all the resources of the country among more people.

It’s an economic issue, a quality-of-life issue, and particularly an environmental issue: there are many things that are only environmentally harmful if the demand for inputs exceed the local environment’s capability to provide them, or if the outputs produced exceed the local environment’s capability to handle them.

So: I’m not against immigration; I’m against population growth. In the context of a stable population, I’d like as much immigration as possible, because I enjoy a cosmopolitan community.

Where the anti-immigrant argument turns really wrong, is when it comes to strategies and tactics of handling a population that includes some immigrants.

Police state

If you’re going to allow people to visit, whether for tourism, cultural exchange, as guest workers, or whatever, some number of those people are going to stay here. They’ll stay for all kinds of reasons—for economic opportunity, for freedom, because they fall in love with someone who lives here, or just because they like the place they’re visiting.

If the number who stay are the number you want to stay, then everything’s fine. But if it’s more than you want, there’s no way to reduce the excess without turning the country into a police state.

I don’t want to live in a police state. I don’t want police to ask me for my papers. It’s annoying. It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. (Well, it’s constitutional for the police to ask, but it’s unconstitutional for them to do anything if I don’t present my papers. Note that the Supreme Court seems inclined to disagree with me on this point.)

For one thing, there’s no obligation for a citizen to even have papers. Almost everyone does, because a drivers license counts and it’s so handy to be able to drive, but it’s not required. It’d be pretty tough to get along without a social security number, but you can have a number without having an identity document. (Early social security cards—I still have mine—had no security features at all: just a name and number printed on card stock.)

Since the mid-1980s, employers have been insisting on seeing identity documents, because otherwise they can face penalties if they hire illegal immigrants—an early example of exactly what I’m unhappy about.

Even if you have papers, even if you keep them sufficiently in order that you can present them to an employer when you start a new job or a bank when you want to open a new account, there’s still no obligation to keep them on hand to show to the police.

Still, objecting to being asked to show papers is really just a personal quirk. The real harm comes from having people here who can’t safely use ordinary public institutions. Communities where people are afraid of being arrested or deported are inevitably bad communities.

  • Crimes will go unreported, which will result in more crime—and more violence, as people who lack access to the courts have to resort to self-help to settle their disputes.
  • Sick people won’t seek medical care, producing pockets of disease.
  • Pernicious institutions like check-cashing stores and pay-day lenders thrive where people can’t open bank accounts.

I don’t want to live in a town where there are people who don’t feel safe talking to the police when they get robbed or the department of labor when they get cheated by an employer or the bureau of weights and measures when they get cheated by a merchant. I don’t want to live in a town where lots of drivers don’t have insurance because they don’t have a license because they don’t have the right kind of visa. I don’t want to live in a town where some people have to work for cash because there’s no legal way for them to pay taxes.

As I say, I’m of two minds. I want to keep the low population density we enjoy in the US—it’s a key factor in our high standard of living. At the same time, I enjoy living in a diverse community. But it’s impossible to have it both ways: If you allow foreigners into the country, some of them will stay, and any effort to remove them produces problems that are much worse than the small hit that any one immigrant produces to our standard of living. And yet, in the aggregate, the hit on our standard of living is significant.

In the end I come down squarely against measures like the recently passed law in Arizona—it will do a lot more harm than good. I’m generally in favor of efforts to control the border, to make it tougher for people to sneak into the country, but that’s no panacea—not unless you use control of the border to hold the number of temporary visitors below the number of permanent residents that you’d be willing to accept. I’m not sure there is a solution, except for the rest of the world to become as nice a place to live as the US, and thereby produce a balance between immigration and emigration.