Thursday, October 16, 2008

Spreading the wealth around

That some issues don't receive the attention they deserve at the executive level within institutions owes mainly to the fact that institutions are designed in the interests of their designers -- not so much anybody else. If you cannot count yourself part of the former group, you will have to think creatively about how your concerns can "coincide" with the concerns of executive power.

For example, "poverty" was not mentioned in last night's presidential debate for several reasons. The first is that the United States government was not designed by poor people to address their needs. It was designed by European aristocrats to protect their property claims against 90% of the population, who weren't allowed a role in government based on criteria including race, gender and whether they owned any property in the first place. While the demographic scope of the electorate has since expanded, economic power has narrowed correspondingly, leaving huge parts of policy deliberation outside the public arena altogether (e.g., why we haven't adopted anything more efficient than the internal combustion engine in over 100 years of technological innovation.)

Secondly, poor people abstain from electoral politics in disproportionate numbers -- and they are further discouraged from voting in the event they should become curious. In Philadelphia, this takes the form of papering neighborhoods with "notices" that any outstanding parking tickets, fines, utility payments, or criminal history will be subject to official scrutiny, which in turn presupposes the possession of a government-issued photo ID -- something which poor people are more likely to live without.

But perhaps even more fundamentally, poor people, like most Americans, only "vote" every several years, whereas large economic actors like corporations -- the "owners" of our day -- exist in perpetual dialogue with government: they vote every minute of the day with dollars and influence.

So it is not surprising that public concerns regularly lose out, including morally urgent problems like poverty. People who spend most of their time chasing paychecks in order to survive tend not to have the time or the money to petition their representatives. This is how the system is designed, and we can each ask ourselves whether it is for our benefit.

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