Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.

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Tech Monopolies are Getting Like Airlines in Disregard for Consumers

New Orleans   The current global ransomware hack impacting 74 countries could gross the bad guys up to $3 billion, experts say. A couple of intrepid computer guys, one in Britain and another in the US, thwarted the hacking temporarily in a couple of lucky moves, reportedly. Many believe its impact will continue to be felt as more computers fire up this week.

Digging deeper it turns out once the finger pointing starts that computers are susceptible when they are not updated. A kneejerk reaction is to say, whoops, someone got lazy here or there, but it’s more complicated. Much of it has to do with the business model of Microsoft and the rest of the tech monopolies. They discontinued “supporting,” which really means fixing, Microsoft XP, so if you were a huge outfit that had paid them millions for XP, like FedEx or the British National Health Service, if you didn’t move all of your thousands of computers over to whatever their latest product was, then you were a sitting duck.

Anyone who has a computer operating on Microsoft Windows has mixed feelings about the way they do these updates. On Windows 7, the number of times I might wake up and find that overnight my computer had been updated without so much as a nevermind, and I had lost whatever websites were on my browser for study or had to recover Word and Excel files endlessly, there was time lost and cursing involved. Then in an update recently my computer was caught in an endless update cycle until Windows 10 was installed, their latest shot at the world, forcing me to start all over on everything. Suddenly, 10 doesn’t recognize my camera, and it won’t let me send emails from a right-click from my Passport or tape recorder. They do kind of let you schedule updates, but it’s all brute force. Bottom line, it’s easy to imagine tech departments in a lot of big shops, deciding to pick and choose and turn off updates until they are good and ready, but the notion that Microsoft can sell a product and then stop supporting it is absurd. When my car breaks, GM and Ford will still have the parts and fix it, regardless of how old my vehicle or how many miles I have on it.

Apple is certainly no better, and possibly worse. I’m still trying to figure out how to recover all my iTunes that are supposedly on their cloud, but now they are claiming they don’t recognize any of my passwords, and don’t email me a the protocol for a new one. A friend lost all of what they had on their iPod when they got a different computer. I have the same old, beat-up computer, but I’m in a new world. Google…hmm… maybe better but trying to get on their Project Fi phone program for international calls, they didn’t ever say exactly that the version of the phone it accepted has an X on it, and won’t take any responsibility. Wonder why so many people buy stuff from Amazon, they actually refund on mistakes and have some customer service.

So, hey, we’re all on computers, and we’re all vulnerable, and a lot of us are techno-peasants, and I’ll admit it, so we’re going to mess up, but these huge tech monopolies are treating us like cattle, rather than customers, and that’s going to mean more worldwide computer meltdowns. Don’t blame the victims, and be careful even on the criminals, because the tech monopolies are creating and enabling these disasters.

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Citizen Wealth in Home Ownership is Becoming Citizen Inequity

New Orleans   A couple of years ago I wrote a book called, Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families. It was commonly known that for low-and-moderate income families the largest index of any wealth they possessed was based on whether or not they had managed somehow to become a homeowner. At ACORN we had fought that battle for years in order to get banks to fairly offer mortgages to lower income families so that they could acquire single-family homes or coops, and in those fights had won billions allowing millions to own their own homes. It was certainly not enough to achieve any semblance of equity, but it was a good step forward, particularly increasing the home ownership percentages of African-American and Latino families to record levels, although almost all of those gains were wiped out by the 2008 Great Recession.

In doing the research for the book, I was shocked that the largest so-called social program in the nation’s budget, dwarfing direct welfare, food stamps, and all other housing benefits, both singly and collectively, was the mortgage interest deduction, which now totals more than $70 billion annually. As disturbing was the degree to which the mortgage interest deduction was largely not a social program which benefited the citizen wealth of lower income families but was disproportionately benefiting middle class and wealthy families. After all, at the threshold where such an income tax deduction had real financial weight and meaning, a family had to be in an income bracket high enough to justify itemizing their deductions.

As the Home Savers Campaign this year has visited with families in a number of cities in the Midwest and South, it has also struck all of us that as blatantly predatory as many of these contract for deed and rent-to-own scams have been to the families victimized by them, many of these families have accepted the risks even accepting the dangers and the deceit, simply because they were desperate for housing they could afford, no matter its condition. For the same reason, the reaction of many victims when they realize they have been swindled has often been as much anger as it has been resignation, and a feeling they should walk away, rather than fighting for justice for their investment, all of which speaks to the crisis in affordability.

Reading “House Rules” by Matthew Desmond in the New York Times there were more facts and figures that underlined the affordable housing crisis which is driving income and racial inequality throughout the country. Some facts:

  • The average homeowner boasts a net worth ($195,400) that is 36 times that of the average renter at $5400.
  • With rising housing costs the housing standard where 30% or less of a family’s income equals affordability, half of all poor renting families spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs and 25% spent more than 70%.
  • In 2011, the median white household had a net worth of $111,146, compared with $7113 for the median black household and $8348 for the media Hispanic household. If black and Hispanic families owned homes at the same rate as whites, the racial wealth gap would be reduced by almost a third.

There was much more, but you get the point. Worse, the consensus is that there is no political constituency for reform of the mortgage interest deduction, nor in the absence of reform an equivalent program or benefit that would help renters or bring balance to this wealth and racial inequality.

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Bungled Comey Firing Ignites Firestorm and Fear

New Orleans  Make a note: running a television reality show where you get to fire people abruptly is NOT good training for how to fire big-time government officials! Make a couple of notes that when your administration is being investigated by the top cop in the government, it’s going to look bad, very, very bad if you fire him abruptly in the middle of his investigation, with or without cause.

I don’t want to write anything about this. I don’t even want to think about it. In fact I can’t believe it’s really happening.

How is it even possible that the White House was so inept and tone deaf. Reports, though possibly self-serving indicate that Vice-President Pence, son-in-law and confident Jared Kushner, and press czar Sean Spicer, all green-lit this calamitous move, although Spicer to small credit did so after raising some cautions. Stephen Bannon, chief strategist and resident flamethrower, seems to have been the only one consulted in his small circle who advised waiting before firing. How could that not have been a clue? If it’s too hot for former Breitbart Bannon, it’s a scalding firestorm coming.

What do we really know in average Joe Citizen land, but James Comey as head of the FBI seems to have been moving from one bad judgment to another. The fact that he indicated in recent Congressional testimony that thinking he may have thrown the election to Trump through his various inexplicable actions about emails and investigations had made him “slightly nauseous,” pales in comparison to the life-support level of illness much of the country still feels over the election.

There is just so much smoke flying around all of this, especially with these latest shenanigans, that, it is becoming harder and harder not to believe there’s a smoldering fire that could burst out at any time. The cover story is one that would embarrass young children caught with their hands in the cookie jar, especially given that the letter seems undoubtedly written by the President himself to claim that he had been assured on three occasions by his former employee that he was not personally under investigation. Who in their right mind would write that? Who would see the draft and not raise a flag that this was the trigger to a bomb that would blow up in the White House’s face.

This to will pass. There will be peace in the valley some day. There will be happy days again in the future.

In the meantime it’s clear Trump and his hapless crew have now guaranteed that there will have to be an even more serious investigation of the Russian ties to the campaign and his staff, whether through a special prosecutor or some other mechanism. Sadly, that’s little comfort. Even as we might disagree, we desperately need to believe that competent, sober souls have their hands on the wheel of the US government, and sadly the lack of any continuing evidence that that exists has all of us walking with the dread of total panic ever present.

***

Please enjoy Santiago by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Thanks to KABF.

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Bringing the Fight for Climate Change Home, Minnesota Style

Shreveport   There’s no real debate about whether climate change is huge threat. You don’t have to believe the science, but you can’t deny what Richard Pryor famously called the evidence available to your “lying eyes.” We see it everywhere around us from the diminishing coastline to earlier Springs and more violent storms. The problem for many people is figuring out what they can do to be effective besides turning down the thermometer, putting out their recycling, sending the occasional donation, and answering the call to march when it’s made. So much of the problem seems global past our reach, so how do we have impact on such a huge crisis locally?

One answer to this question was provided by Kevin Whelan when I was talking to him recently on Wade’s World. Kevin after years as a community organizer and communications specialist with ACORN and others, is now executive director of Minnesota 350, and in our conversation it became clear that he and his associates there are trying to develop an organization and action model that translates the horror of global climate change into local action.

350.org is a well-known campaign and advocacy formation focusing on climate change, started as Whelan described it, by a professor, in this case Bill McKibben, and “seven students.” 350 refers to the level at which carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere passes the critical point at 350 parts per million. It is now over 400.

As Kevin described it, Minnesota 350 is a rarity though. It is not an affiliate of 350.org nor was it organized by 350.org. Rather, there were some activists in Minnesota who saw climate change as a critical issue and wanted to figure out a way to respond to the crisis, and decided to organize and reached out to 350.org and essentially asked if they would mind if they used 350 as part of the name of the organization they wanted to build. So, yes, the website says Minnesota350.org, but that’s more of a website thing than anything else. They are certainly federated and allied with 350.org, but an independent and autonomous operation in Minnesota.

This has translated in recent years to a lot of involvement and organizational action in pipeline fights. They played a key role in opposing a pipeline from the controversial and dangerous Tar Sands area of Alberta, Canada that would have run to Lake Superior, that is stopped for now. They were also heavily involved in supporting the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which galvanized a movement, though thus far has a less happy ending. Kevin movingly described four visits to Standing Rock and how much it meant.

Minnesota 350 has learned many lessons in how to bring this global catastrophe to the level of local action but in talking to Kevin, they believe they need to bring-the-fight-home by figuring out a way to inject the issue into local and state politics, which would also mean holding representatives elected to represent Minnesota in Congress accountable on this issue. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion, and it is worth keeping an eye on Minnesota 350, because we might all need to follow their lead.

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FCC Fork Tongues on Net Neutrality

Little Rock   It wasn’t so long ago that we don’t remember, but in a fierce fight that logged more citizen comments that ever before recorded on a Federal Communications Commission matter, the FCC essentially declared the internet equivalent to a public utility assuring net neutrality, meaning that all providers have equal access to users. Everyone from consumers and citizens to Silicon Valley were happy to have won this one. The telecommunications monopolies sued and are still in court, but in a disappointment to them and the politicians they fund with their huge contributions, they have most recently lost their efforts to overturn the Obama FCC order, and are appealing to the Supreme Court.

In the wave of the Trump Administration rollbacks of Obama era regulations and initiatives, the new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has immediately sought to unravel the internet’s classification as a utility, assure net neutrality, and pretty much have the FCC play any role in regulating any of this. Chairman Pai is a slick one. He claims he is totally committed to what he calls an “open” internet. He swears he is a big “streamer” himself and that he’s a bannerman for “Game of Thrones” as a binge watcher.

Listening to an interview with him on the radio was a very scary thing, because not only is he a fast and smooth talker, but he’s duplicitous and evasive on the issues. He had two key talking points in trying to muddy the waters.

First, he harps on the fact that the regulation defining public utilities goes back to 1934 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He made that points several times in different ways in order to try and embed the notion that this is antiquated and out of date and the internet is modern, so how could one possibly be adequate for the other. He slightly slips up by mentioning that the 1934 regulations were dealing with monopolistic tendencies of AT&T, forgetting for a minute that it might be worth still looking at what’s up with AT&T and its buddies now, since it’s a longway from small potatoes.

Secondly, he tried a curve ball, trying to argue that he was trying to take the FCC back to what he called the Clinton era regulatory philosophy which prevailed from what he claimed was 1990 to 2015, meaning until the Obama FCC majority put the internet under protective custody, so to speak. No question, President Clinton was a deregulator supreme, but what Pai was trying to plant here in unsuspecting minds was the idea that he is mainstream and that Obama and his FCC majority were outliers.

The game was up when the interviewer pressed him for how he thought under his proposal that telecoms speeding up their own content and slowing up their competitors would be handled. This was a forked-tongue masterpiece. He answered quickly saying that if they did that and it hurt consumers then the Federal Trade Commission could investigate and so could the Justice Department, along with state agencies around the country. Huh? Yes, he was careful to push any and all responsibility for telecom miscreants to everyone and anyone other than the FCC. Under his watch, they are clearly planning to wash their hands of any supervision or regulation. Essentially, he was saying, hey, if you have a problem, catch them if you can, and good luck with that.

In these days this passive, reactive approach to anything involving the internet and consumers just doesn’t work, and he knows it though he doesn’t want to upset his patrons and paymaster. Case in point, we have Uber creating software in order to deliberately trick states and cities where it was committed to avoiding and breaking regulations barring or limiting its participation. Another case in point, we also have is the huge scandal where Volkswagen created software to trick regulators on how many miles per gallon its diesel engines were getting.

The internet and software both giveth and taketh away. It’s not easy finding the tricksters, because this is wildly sophisticated lawbreaking. The FCC wants to go back to 1934 and snooze their way through the Trump-era, but citizens and consumers depend on the internet, and the FCC needs to do their jobs of protecting us and it, and not just spin their way around their duty.

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