Tips for Beating Automation: Organizing is the Future!

Puerto Aventuras   I have trouble getting my closest living relatives to take the issue of resolutions seriously as we enter a new year. My son tried to stump me by arguing that, “resolutions are reminders of how many things you fail to do repeatedly.” Well of course there’s that, so I had to concede the point even as I rejoined that, “resolutions are a small attempt at organizing the future within the structure of your life.” At best it was a draw, so I found myself reading The New Yorker at dawn on New Years’ Day on the small balcony hanging over the suddenly quiet street in this small Mexican town.

Elizabeth Kolbert of course rehashes the Oxford research piece that within ten to twenty years half of the jobs in the United States might be automated, which is pretty mind boggling. She notes other work by MIT scientists that sort all work into “four boxes: manual routine, manual nonroutine, cognitive routine, and cognitive nonroutine.” The lowest pay will be found in the manual routine jobs, particularly on assembly lines, while the highest paid will be cognitive nonrouotine, she argues with examples being “managing a hedge fund, litigating a bankruptcy, and producing a TV show….” Taken to the farthest extreme we have a dystopian society of the super-rich who own the technology and the robots, some folks scratching a living in the middle, and a vast army of the unemployed.

So, where is the middle ground where we can create work that is meaningful, compensated, and long lasting? It must be found in skills and occupations that are people-facing. Even Kolbert’s example of managing a hedge fund is questionable. A recent article in the Times had one hedger trying to duplicate all of his decision making into a computer list of requirements for his employees to mimic. On the other hand, the more that is run by machines, the more we are going to need people to be the bridge between the machines and other people. I’m not just talking about people to fix the machines, though there will hundreds of thousands of jobs created to do just that, but I’m talking about people who can work with people. There’s still no “app for that” or machine that can substitute adequately for person-to-person contact. The trick will be finding the seams where tens of thousands of jobs can be created to provide that service, and to successfully compete with corporations that automate without understanding service as something more than a sunk cost that they can avoid.

Take Amazon for example. The people-facing experience is all automated and very difficult to operate when there is a problem, but they get around that with a very liberal return-and-replacement system which mitigates customer unhappiness. Walmart on the other hand after devaluing service for years has been surprised to find that giving workers higher wages has improved same store sales because morale, cleanliness, and service has improved. AirBnb beats VRBO because it allows you to get out of mistakes the public chose on misleading information, while VRBO let’s sellers use its platform and takes no responsibility, thereby eliminating service and accountability and putting customers at risk.

Things may be changing, but the way many who own the changes think about shortcuts and profit margins will create opportunities for people who like people to be organizers, navigators, advocates, and interpreters. Forty years ago, a young ACORN organizer named Charlie Best wrote a song at ACORN’s annual year end/ year begin meeting which — to some outcry — was always held on this very weekend when one year ended and another began. The original song written by Ed and Patsy Bruce and recorded by the great Willie Nelson was “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” but Charlie creatively composed different lyrics and changed the title to “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Organizers.”

Mamas and papas. I’m here to tell you, Charlie was wrong, though of course he knew it then, just as we all did, you all need to let all your babies grow up to be organizers, so they have a chance in the brave new world, and because the people will demand them.


Healthcare Pricing is More Proof that Transparency Isn’t Enough

New Orleans   It is amazing that big companies and governments continually believe, despite the outrageous costs involved, that simply creating apps and information packed websites will change the public’s ability to make choices and decisions. Criminals and scammers fully know the tricks of the predatory trade are such that information is unable to immunize the public, and for some companies this is a business model as well. Payday lenders and tax preparers in negotiations with ACORN were always more than willing to be totally transparent about excessive interest rates and charges, because they knew full well the customer sitting across the desk from them is desperate for the money, and is more than willing to pay whatever it takes to get it. Healthcare is usually the same.

Healthcare policy makers, providers, and insurers in this critical, multi-zillion dollar industry are now expressing surprise as they find out that all of assumptions about the value of their apps, website data dumps, and comparisons of pricing on drugs and quality of healthcare services are not lowering costs or modifying consumer behavior. Once again, similar to payday lending and other predatory schemes, the providers and the industry are trying to ignore the desperation and powerlessness of the consumer by pretending she is a free agent of some sort, rather than a victim. They are also ignoring increasingly well settled economic understanding that people are not rational economic agents, especially when it comes to change and their reliance on trusted intermediaries, like their usual doctors and hospitals. Looking at this mess, we almost want to say, if you are so rich, why aren’t you smarter?

The New York Times reported on the failure of many of these tools. Of course the rule continues to be, despite the actions of many states, that hospitals and healthcare professionals are hiding information about the comparative value of their services and the pricing in the market. But, even where efforts by some companies and insurers to offer price and value comparisons, people aren’t using them. Researchers compared the decisions of 300,000 workers who didn’t have access to a website cost calculator with 150,000 that did and found that only 10% used the site the first year and 20% the second year, and that it didn’t reduce outpatient spending. Aetna offers a price transparency tool but only 3.5% of its commercial market participants use it. A similar price tool in New Hampshire is used by only 1% of residents. Robert Wood Johnson did a 10-year study and found that doctor quality comparisons had only a “modest effect on the awareness and use of the information.” Duh.

Let’s skip the digital divide and the millions of lower income families without access to any of this information, and get right to the point of how difficult it is to either find this information most places or understand it. Why isn’t there a recognition that we need ubiquitous healthcare advocates, navigators, sherpas, assistants, or whatever we might want to call them? During the Affordable Care enrollment in Texas for example families who had never had insurance were asked to choose between more than 35 plans, each with multiple permutations, without our navigators, who were forbidden to offer any advice to these novice healthcare customers. Who would be surprised if decisions defaulted to nothing or self-interested agents and professionals?

Of course some of the industry believes that education can only be administered by the blunt instrument of punitively making people pay the cost of decisions they were unable to make well without assistance by adding consumer pain to their delusion. Others advocate outreach, and, eureka, finally someone gets it. People need help with all of this to offset the predation, whether it’s door-to-door or through ubiquitous health care centers and advisory facilities so that they can get the information in a user-friendly way with full explanations from someone committed to their best interests. Furthermore, the cost for funding such outreach and facilitation would be minuscule compared to the daily explosion of health related costs that are based simply on the principle of the buyer beware and keeping suckers born and nurtured by the system every minute.

If we really want to make change and lower costs, people need to help people, not websites, applications, and fancy tools.


Visiting with Buffalo Community and Housing Organizations

Buffalo   No small part of the Buffalo comeback has to be because of the work of community organizations in the city, and ACORN Canada’s staff was fortunate to get some time with both Voice Buffalo, a Gamaliel affiliate in Western New York, and the community-based housing organization, PUSH Buffalo.

Michael Okinczyc, the executive director of both Voice Buffalo and NOAH, the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, a 25 minutes of drive away, but as he pointed out later their transportation campaign has been trying to improve the fact that it takes more than two hours on public transit for lower income, car-less families to make it from Buffalo to Niagara. Overall their organization involves over 80 different organizations, largely churches in the area. Besides transit they have also been deeply involved in campaigns focused on criminal justice and the lopsided levels of incarceration for minorities. Education has also been a focus in working to block charter schools with the American Federation of Teachers and deal with the diverse needs of Buffalo’s vibrant immigrant community due to what was described as rust belt resettlement programs.

Michael Okinczyc from Voice

There were interesting exchanges about the differing methodologies between faith-based work and ACORN’s membership-based community organizing model. Michael described the way they organized a church with twenty of more one-on-one’s until, quoting the words of Gamaliel founder, Greg Galluzzo, “they could smell the church,” meaning they could understand the parishoner’s issues and concerns. He was asked how a charitable organization, as a 501c3, was able to effectively pressure and lobby office holders, and Michael told how Voice used its larger accountability meetings and tried to walk a line of bipartisan pressure.

We visited the West Side-based People United for Sustainable Housing, better known as PUSH-Buffalo, which has deeply rooted itself in the area since 2005. PUSH Buffalo defines itself on the axis of community organizing as an affiliate of the newly formed Peoples’ Action and formerly National Peoples’ Action, and co-founder Aaron Bartley, also described the organization to us as ACORN-like in the sense of having a dues-paying membership of several hundred paying about $30 per year, while mentioning that he had organized with ACORN in Brooklyn years ago. The deeper mission of the organization is forging a new rust belt city model combining a community membership base with a development program for sustainable, green homes, rental units, and community-determined utilization of formerly vacant space or deteriorating properties as parks, community centers, and social enterprises. The community base has given them not only legitimacy outside the West Side and accountability inside, but a strike force for the half-dozen direct actions they desire in advocating and winning support, services, and investment in the community.

Julia White of PUSH Buffalo meets and shows ACORN organizers their community park on their tour

In the fresh snow, we trudged along with PUSH Buffalo’s Julia White on their Green Zone tour where they had constructed top of the line demonstration projects including green roofs, solar powered heating systems, green houses, and the like. PUSH Buffalo has also rehabbed several building with rental units for lower income families. The organization has acquired some fifty vacant lots on the West Side. We visited a park they had rebuilt with community input and the City of Buffalo Park System that included a huge, state of the art soccer field, pavilion, and play equipment. None of this is gentrification on the West Side, but even in the snow, we could tell the difference their development projects had made.

Community groups have definitely been moving Buffalo forward both with their voice and their push.


Labor and Community Collaborations Digging in to Fight Forward in Buffalo

Graphic from Open Buffalo

Buffalo    Richard Lipsitz, the head of the Western New York Area Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO, sits at an interesting cross section. With the call to revive manufacturing he notes that his area may have less manufacturing jobs than it did, but, interestingly, he argues that the overall economy in metropolitan Buffalo has about the same percentage of manufacturing jobs as it ever did, between 15 and 20%. A headline in the morning paper bolstered his case as General Motors announced a several hundred million dollar investment into improving and expanding its plants, once feared on the list for mothballing. Visiting with the staff of ACORN Canada at our Year End/ Year Begin meeting, he made the case that there would be resistance to turning back the clock and that labor was deeply debating the issues.

At the same time, Lipsitz was balancing on a slender beam. He argued for patience. He argued for finding a way to pull all of the pieces together. He admitted that some unions would salute revival of pipelines and all would support more infrastructure investment, but it couldn’t divide labor. He was clear that Governor Cuomo’s investments in the Buffalo area were also a key reason for low employment and a rising population, fueled partially by immigrants, in a rare rust-belt comeback. The expansion of the medical corridor and its 26,000 jobs made a huge difference. On his tightrope wire, he wanted to commit labor to the fight, but didn’t want any high winds blowing with dissident movements or factional fights. He had no patience for the Working Families Party in New York, but was open to Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution being part of efforts to move the Democratic Party left. He was categorical in advocating that the only way forward for the Democratic Party was a headlong commitment to being more progressive.

We also met Franchelle Hart, the executive director of an interesting formation called Open Buffalo, the product of a funding competition run by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations that had been won by Puerto Rico, San Diego, and Buffalo. Open Buffalo describes itself as “…a Community Movement for Social and Economic Justice” and “… a civic initiative to make major, long-term improvements in justice and equity in the City of Buffalo.” They are committed to building civic capacity in the areas of restorative justice, leadership development, arts, and innovation. That was the top-line of her remarks, but what clearly moved her most personally were efforts to force the police to be more sensitive to the community, especially African-Americans, “without a Ferguson,” as she argued, although she seemed skeptical from the work thus far that that might be possible.

Open Buffalo had also supported a campaign to win inclusionary zoning in the city opening a dialogue with the ACORN Canada organizers, who are involved in a number of campaigns in different communities on this issue. Hart reported without satisfaction that they had at least gotten a commitment for a study. Some of the Vancouver organizers comforted her that that was farther than some of their campaigns had gotten.

The Trump Era, as she called it already, was much on everyone’s minds. Lipsitz was clear in the commitment to resist, and Open Buffalo was still digging in to fight forward, so both offered the beginnings of a consensus for the future.


Many Calls for ACORN Resurgence

ACORN Living Wage Campaign in New Orleans 2002

Atlanta   Here’s an argument from a Democratic consultant working campaigns around the world who did some media work for us around 2006 and 2008.

Copy of Article

Democrats need return to ACORN-style organizing


Fighting Fake News, One Source at a Time

New Orleans    On a soul-killing wait at an airport recently, I found myself mindlessly scrolling Facebook, and I happened to notice that one of my real friends, Christine Allemano, who is also a Facebook friend, had posted an interesting query on her update. She wanted to combat “fake news,” and wondered what her friends read in order to try and puzzle out the facts of the world and combat the flood of false information, which is often no more than a lie in the skin of an opinion. Last weekend, I also found myself in a discussion with friends who read newspapers, but did so on-line, about whether they could really get the whole story that way, and, frankly, I was skeptical.

These questions struck me as not only interesting, but important somehow, prompting me to stand back and take account of how I personally puzzle out our wide world both physically at hand and at the keyboard, even though I’m not sure anyone but me and the rat in my pocket really cares, at least listeners and readers can know when they disagree with me, that for their sake and my own, I at least made an effort.

I guess the first disclosure is that, sure, when I’m on the road, I read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on-line, but I also have to admit that I don’t trust the process. First, it takes more time to scroll, click, close the popups, and then read. Secondly, the headlines are the guideposts, and they often point wrong directions or at least don’t disclose some of the hidden treasures. I regularly find key stories that I had missed on this physical, second go-round. Therefore, when I’m at home I go back through both papers as well as read my daily paper, The New Orleans Advocate, and what has become my occasional hometown paper, The Times-Picayune. I don’t read them on-line. Both rely heavily for national and world news on wire services, so I think I’ve got that covered, and anything really breathtakingly important locally will find its way to my in-box from my family. I’m not sure I know how to get the news from Facebook or Twitter to tell the truth, and although I think there are probably good internet news sources of various kinds, but I only go there if it’s a link driven by my Google Alerts for various sources like community organizations and ACORN. I guess I should also admit that I do read the editorials and op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, so I know what the right is thinking or at least arguing about. I don’t read most of editorials in the New York Times. I figure I already know the Times’ opinion, though I do religiously read their conservative columnists and guest op-eds, I try to keep away from the echo chamber and don’t trust Tom Friedman’s globalization program or Kristof’s bleeding heart. I check on The Guardian on-line every couple of weeks, and scroll through their protest section, whenever I want something to finish one of my radio and web, Daily Peoples’ News reports.

I get magazines and read them, not necessarily when they hit the door, but when I can. The list includes The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, The Economist, Wired, Scientific American, Science, and of course the journal Social Policy word by word. I read High Country News to keep up with the West. Recently I started reading the New York Review of Books, because another friend and one of my board members kept recommending that I read articles she had found there. It usually only takes me a minute to get through In These Times, but I think it’s important to support. I used to get The Nation on-line, but something happened to it, and now I look at their emails instead. I make sure I look through Shelterforce regularly on housing policy. I support The Lens, the online news source in New Orleans, but only look at the site during elections to tell the truth. For years I’ve subscribed to Granta, but am many issues behind, and not sure why I still hang in.

On line I go more for specialized list services that come right to my box. I started getting “Medium Daily Digest” in several subject areas when the head organizer for ACORN in Britain began forwarding links. I get “Truthout,” but probably only read something every month or so. I look at the almost daily bulletins from the Economic Policy Institute. Local 100’s Texas State Director turned me onto Politico’s Morning Shift on labor news, which I religiously read, but don’t follow the links. I regularly go through the headlines on the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) daily Latin American News Report and scan their regular economic bulletins. For years I got LACLA’s quarterly on Latin America, but when they went on-line, I didn’t go with them. I’ve tried to figure out something better for India, Asian, Africa, and Europe, but don’t feel like I’ve solved the puzzle though both The Economist, despite its conservative, business bias, and The Guardian help.

Maybe there’s more, but who can keep up? I mean really? The print business model allows me to skip the ads at the flip of a page, while the online model is noxious and time consuming. To get around it is an investment of both time, and, frankly, money. I think that’s at the heart of the fake news problem. It’s just so much easier to pretend to be up to date by letting Facebook and the let them curate your news via your friends or their algorithms. The problem is that you won’t know much, and finding the facts is a dialectical and contentious process of allowing various voices and opinions to confront and challenge your own, as well as bolstering and refining your own views.


For one of our loyal readers, Ry Cooder’s John Lee Hooker for President