Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hap . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . py New Year!

This blog is the beginning of something. So are the four other civic media sites listed on the sidebar (I maintain the first two). Civic media, as I see it, is a dialogic and problem-solving use of media, not a kind of media. Its ongoing, problem-solving dialogs make citizens and government responsive and accountable to each other in defining and solving the problems (and maximizing the opportunities) confronting a community of any size: local, state, national and international.

Today a single problem confronts us all: the global financial crisis. Over at the sidebar you will find a library of 40 finance writers who throw light on it. Taken together, they show very clearly how the wizards of Wall Street made the world of finance go round and round for twenty years until last summer, when the entire system finally spun out of control, corrupted by Wall Street or overstressed by investor demand for higher yields.

Most of these 40 writers saw the spinout coming AT LEAST TWO YEARS before any of the Wall Street wizards - or most anyone in the central banks that manage (and manufacture) the world's money supply.

Not surprisingly, these writers have useful insights as to how the global financial crisis can best be resolved. Among the problem solvers are Jack Bogle (article and book), Charles R. Morris (articles and book) and the amazing Steve Waldman. (Additions to the library are welcome. Kevin Phillips? Joe Stiglitz? David Korten? Doug Henwood?)

I sell residential real estate for a living. The Realtors at my office are bright and honorable. In May of 2006 I showed them Mike Hudson's "The New Road to Serfdom: an Illustrated Guide to the Coming Real Estate Collapse" from Harper's Magazine (at Hudson's site, scroll down to find the title).

My fellow agents. I love 'em. But they just laughed.

How things have changed. Today the National Association of Realtors is talking about the bursting of the housing bubble and how real estate will get back on track. And not doing a very good a job of it, either. But let's not digress.

America's recovery from its deflating housing market and its deepening financial crisis calls for an unprecedented partnership of citizens and government (arms-length will do just fine.) And also (dare I say?) a similar partnership between people with money and people without.

A civic media can mediate these partnerships. Its problem-solving dialogs can convey ideas like those advanced in this library to all Americans, including the least educated. Its ongoing dialogs can give Americans the chance to talk back, for weeks and months on end, until the nation, newly informed, gives Presidential Obama the informed citizen input he needs in order to make decisions that serve the best interests of America and its people.

Does all this - a media that brings out the best in our democracy instead of the worst - sound odd or impossible? It should not. Didn't Barack Obama win the 2008 election by promising BOTH of these partnerships, or something very close to them? Doesn't America already have in place the interactive communications technologies needed to mediate these partnerships? And isn't the need for these partnerships entirely obvious? Had they been in place ten years ago, would an informed America have allowed Wall Street or uncreditworthy borrowers to put the nation and the world at risk as they have?

So these partnerships, then, are possible. Still, questions remain. Will President Obama keep his promise? Will America's print and electronic media do their part to keep citizens and government productively in touch with each other? And finally, will all Americans, rich and poor, do their part to advance these new partnerships as well?

2009 will likely give us the answers. It will be a very interesting year. Even more interesting than 2008. Think about it. For the first time in history, 300 million people are poised to think and act intelligently, as a people and as a nation, about a single problem that threatens its future and that of the rest of the world as well. Wow. The psychologist Jung talked about the collective unconscious. Here we are talking about a collective conscious, an informed and active public mind. Thomas Jefferson, Marshall McLuhan and W. Edwards Deming would be glad to be alive. Not to mention Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And Plato, who wrote dialogs. And Socrates, who never wrote, out of a mistrust of writing's ability to make foolish men appear to be wise. But perhaps not Aristotle, who wrote monologs, as if (like the quants of Wall Street) he possessed or owned the truth, which the Platonic Socrates spoke of entirely differently: as an ongoing search for something that lies ever beyond us all.

How will all this happen? Hey, it's already happening. And let us resolve here to do what we can to advance the civic dialogs that will help us weather the storm. With that,

Hap . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . py New Year!

PS - I almost forgot: what should we talk about next here?


yosephus said...

How about we ask the question, "Does the 'think tank' model of influencing government policy qualify as civic media?" If not, is there some way it can be made to work as civic media?

That's my suggestion for the next topic, Steve. What brings it to mind is the work of Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot over at the Center for Economic Policy Research. They started the center to add a progressive voice to the din of think-tank media, and they have really established themselves admirably. During the last eight years they've managed to cut through the neo-con Fox News-powered language barrier to bring some really good insights to the attention of policy makers.

Has this helped? Do we need more of it? In what ways is the think tank model limited? Can we establish local community think tanks? What would that mean?

All I've got is questions, at this point. But I'd like to know what people think about the think tank as a connection between the public and policy.

Steve Sewall said...

Yosephus, I too admire Dean Baker and the Center for Public Policy, which advances the public interest by contrast with the narrower interests advanced by other think tanks. So the Center's work has civic value.

Yet to my mind the 'think tank' model of influencing public policy does NOT, in and of itself, qualify as civic media.

For my money, civic media happens only when the PUBLIC is DIRECTLY involved in a decision-making (problem-solving) process. I like to think of this process as a game of contestants searching for the best solution to a problem, with the game decided by a series of PUBLIC votes held over a period of weeks and months. As I keep saying, voter-driven, politically-themed reality TV is one sexy, high profile model for this great game of democracy.

That said, Dean Baker can play any number of roles in a civic media. He can be a source quoted by others, an expert interviewed by others, or a contestant himself, advancing his own best solution, say, to the financial crisis.

As for your "local community think tank": I like it. It got me thinking. Your think tanks could have any number of members. Members might all local or drawn from all over the world.

Here's my latest, hottest idea, hotter than the NCAA sweet sixteen. I give you this little taste of it right now, for free, right here on the Internet.

Imagine a website that invites the public to interact (via email, text messages, online comments and of course votes) with 16 competing teams or "local community think tanks" from all over the country (or from 16 high schools or 16 political science departments or 16 cities or 16 political parties) who are competing to find the BEST SOLUTION to any problem you can think of: the financial crisis, gangs and drugs, immigration, health care, the best way to beat a traffic ticket - you name it.

Now let's take this idea up a notch.

Imagine a contest of 16 of your local community think tanks competing to find the best solution to the Israel/Palestine situation, with four teams coming from Israel, four from Palestine, two from elsewhere in the Middle East, two from the United States and the last four from other parts of the world.

In any of these civic media contests, each team would have equal space on a single website that would allow teams to use other sites - social networking (My Space, Facebook) and streaming video (YouTube)- to present their research and to make the case for their solutions.

I have a treatment for this idea and am looking for investors and a producer.

Yosephus, what saist thou? Have your questions been answered to one tiny iota of your satisfaction? What remains to be discussed?