Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A modest proposal to link private lives to public policy

How dependent we have all become on an implicit separation between the private “issues of our lives” and the public discourse of the body politic. This enmeshment, of course, blurs at best, and blinds at worst, our collective attempts to influence public policy.

Talking about recycling, even putting out those green and blue boxes, without investigating if and how their contents are being injected into processes that protect the planet and contribute to the over-all reduction in toxic emissions, is, like so many instances of the interface between private individuals and public policy. We all pay provincial and federal taxes, on goods and services, as well as on earned income and investment income, without really having a real/effective voice in how those monies are distributed, except through our five-minute marking of a ballot at election time.

Not only is there a significant time gap between our regular and conscientious discharge of our responsibility and our expression of how the municipality/province/nation should operate. There is also little effort or opportunity, except perhaps at water cooler confabs, to shape public policy. No, this is not an argument for peppering our emails with referenda! However, it seems that with the infusion of social media, and the millions (billions?) of dollars spent by aspiring politicians on advertising on Facebook, for example, and the increasing personalization of political discourse, we risk a prevalent and increasing perspective of reductionism of issues to their personality advocates. Twitter, unfortunately, is not readily amenable to the nuances of policy agendas, thought and ideology foundations, and the uber-complexity of schemes both honourable and less so to take political action by the elected representatives. With the news that some 30% of our news in garnered from Facebook and other social media, the established media and the reputable start-ups like Politico, Axios, Rabble, Huffpost, Buzzfeed, Yahoo are struggling to sustain audience concentration, and the advertising revenue that underpins them.

A division, emblematic of the divide in income inequality, seems to be giving energy to a thought/idea/policy/class divide, based on the chosen menu of the individual, in western countries.

Our appetite for complexity, and for responsible and legitimate links between our individual lives and public policy decisions, seems fenced in by the multiple demands on our time, energy, concentration and attention. Glimpsing headlines, or catching a key phrase or word about a news story, or glancing at a photo of a political actor on a screen, or even reading a tweet….these hardly qualify as insight into any complex file. Plus, the sheer number of stimuli and their constant firing into our eyes/ears/minds tend to render many people either numb or detached.

And then, some trumpet blasts a crisis, or an injustice like a murder of an innocent, or the imprisoning of helpless children seeking refuge/asylum on the U.S.-Mexican border, or a new tax is applied to a gallon of gas….and again, our attention is arrested, and we silently repeat one of our personally preferred epithets, slogans, beliefs, attitudes about the person/incident/implications in our face. Most of us are proven to be accessing information sources that confirm and comply with our personal preferences, our leaning attitudes, our earliest beliefs, and our world views. Few of us, demonstrably, shift our views of either persons on the public stage or policy options that agree/disagree with our preconceptions.

It was former Leader of the Opposition and later Prime Minister (however briefly), The Honourable John Napier Turner who coined this phrase for the work and words of the Official Opposition: “BULLSHIT THEATRE!”

Were his words tragically prophetic about the democratic process, both on the part of the opposition, and the party in power, the governing party? Are we, in fact, increasingly witnessing a kind of shouting match of the propagandists, whether in support of or in opposition to any single stimulus (tweet, speech, bill, testimony, court judgement, pandemic, headline etc.)? AND, more importantly, are we serving as complicit choirs, on one side or another, demographically, digitally, analogically, clinically, and financially parsed by those with the largest income/investment accounts/partisan sycophant list, before, during and after specific points in time like elections, deaths, new bills, public hearings, announcements of war, public tragedies like plane crashes, or food or product recalls?

Is this “bullshit theatre” a mere “entertainment” (like the Roman bread and circuses) that keeps people minimally, peripherally, superficially and ineffectually, yet obsessively “engaged” in the public process? Are we unconsciously attuned to the public torrents of words, attitudes, pleas, petitions, and cash-magnets in a mis-taken belief that our email objections to a proposed bill to privatize health care in Ontario will make an iota of difference? Sending those emails feels good; it evokes a flurry of government-member responses, creating the impression that someone is reading them and taking them into consideration. And yet we all know that before any piece of government action to privatize health care is taken, focus groups, private surveys, and personal lobbying efforts have already demonstrated how far the government in question can go to achieve the goal of privatizing health care.

Sending an email opposing a proposed government decision, albeit, is more than NOT sending that email. Yet, the cynic would have to question how that email will be used. Would it be used to draft legislation that goes even further than originally proposed, given that the main source of opposition is coming from a “demographic” that will never support the government anyway? How far does the pawn metaphor extend?
How is one to bring one’s voice into the public discourse? How is one to impel the political class to take action on global warming and climate change?

The nine-year-old Swedish girl who has defied her parents by taking successive Friday’s off from school to incarnate a human body-and-placard protest against the inaction by various national governments on global warming has found one way. The 95-year-old WWII veteran who is walking from east to west coasts in the U.S. to bring attention to a retired warship has found another way.

The thousands of young people who have erected foundations to bring philanthropic funds to various worthy causes in the developing world have found another.
And yesterday’s blog noted Steve Chase’s bus to bring venture capital to previously unnoticed entrepreneurial ventures in middle America has found another.

What if, in a dream-world utopia, not only would all democratic elections be funded through the public purse, there by levelling the playing field, and hopefully offering authentic opportunities to access the levers of power to those previously denied access because of lack of funds…

WHAT IF public funds were to be set aside, and then allotted to public foundations that seek to implement a social awareness, a public education, and a social movement to achieve worthy public policy for which we all are so desperate.

Private money, while useful, cannot not continue to be the primary resource for social policy institutes. In that world, that private money will naturally seek initiatives that comport with their ideological, ideational, and ethical preferences. That is why some think tanks struggle for funds because they refuse to accept money from governments, corporations or labour unions.

Surely, if we are able to separate national “order” awards from the purview of the government of the moment, we could also establish a separate, yet public, philanthropic account, with a supervising body of impartial jurors, like the Canada Council has done for the arts for decades, to judge the various applications from proposed social policy institutes, think tanks, dedicated to the pursuit of worthy and notable public policy awareness and education, without regard to a political party or its ideology.

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